When meeting death, there is first a moment of confusion—a space in-between where ghosts wander—wonder—until they do not. Guilt is a fickle thing—forgetting is even trickier.
There are four of us.
We split into pairs: two on one motorcycle, two on the other. We settle behind the mysterious riders with scarred helmets that Ingri waved down.
On foreign land, it is difficult to tell where one might arrive even when you offer a concrete destination or point on a map: “There. That is where I want to go.” Often, where you want to go is never where you end up. Often, what you want to let go of never leaves you. Will the guilt ever leave me?
“Last group there has to treat us all!” Jiken’s voice rings like bell chimes, hanging in the air even as their driver kicks the engine into gear. Ingri’s laughter fades with the echo of Jiken’s words. The three shadows disappear in the rising fog mixed with the roaring bike’s smoke, leaving the rest of us basking under the streetlamp, like an invisible dome keeping us from the unknown. I want to reach out, hold onto the back of their bike, but they are already gone. The last thing I see before they disappear into the fog is Ingri’s tears, catching in the bike’s exhaust fumes.
Lotia digs her nails into the thick fabric of the rider’s jacket in front of me. They hardly make a dent. I wrap my hands around her waist. She’s shaking even though I am the one sitting on the back edge, almost falling. I cannot help but imagine a sinister smile, a humanized Cheshire cat, on the rider’s obscured face. Would it be scarred, too, like their helmet?
I hold onto Lotia tight, but it is as if she is not there. Her vanilla scent wafts around me, a comfort though I do not feel her warmth. Always with a small, intimate smile on her face, like she is keeping a secret. But today, she does not turn in front of me. Is she still smiling?
“Hurry! We must arrive first,” Lotia says.
What is the hurry when there is no time remaining?
My arms loosen, her presence only an echo—the rider, too, a shadow.
Why is there such loneliness in togetherness? Such ethereal melancholy with loss?
Such eerie idealism in sentimentality?
The rider swerves dramatically, veering at such sharp angles when rounding each street bend I think I might just fall off, my friend’s figure wedged between us like a ragdoll. I avoid her flopping head. Her skull seems to rattle in place, lifeless. Only imagination, I suppose.
“When will we get there?” I ask.
“We are already here,” says the rider.
I swear there is a razor-tooth smile glinting under the helmet, taking up the entire face, fractured by its scars. The longer I stare, the more clearly my face reflects on the black plastic surface, as if I am the driver, shuttling us all towards uncertainty.
As we move through the fog, Lotia’s figure becomes translucent, the rider, too. The only one still solid is me. I let go of Lotia, leaning back, but I do not fall.
At the night market, we are all ageless.
I call for a bottle, and then another. I never drank before. But there is something about this place that makes nothing matter.
The vendor stares at me for a second, skeptical. But business is all the same; there does not seem to be such a thing as responsibility here. The bottle cap pops open, tumbling onto the rotting wood before he swipes it off the surface.
“I will open the other one when you are finished the first.” The words make him sound good-natured, but really, it seems the man questions my tolerance. If I can withstand his stench of rotten fruit, sickly sweet and sour, I can withstand two bottles. If I can withstand the ominousness of my friends’ retreating figures disappearing in the fog, the burn of alcohol is nothing in comparison. If I can withstand my friends being only echoes… In the night market, it all feels like nothing anyhow.
I raise the bottle to my mouth in a slow, deliberate motion. I drink with my head turned to the side, my eyes drawn to the corner where the vendor stands, staring with arms across a deflated chest, almost concave like his cheeks. Looks like my father, probably an alcoholic, too.
“Now, the second,” I say.
A sigh escapes my lips. I belch. My father hated when I did that. Laughter bubbles up my throat. My elbow drops onto the decaying wood, a bill held out loose between my fingers. His fingers brush my knuckles as he grabs the money. I do not feel him. The vendor’s eyes widen.
“You should not be here.”
Flies huddle around the warmth of a lightbulb. Their buzz bounces off the inside of my ears. The air is suddenly frigid. With goosebumps rising, my skin pulls taut against the bone.
The man’s face ripples and continues to ripple until I can no longer tell whether he is fifty or five; someone I missed—someone I am still missing. Father, father, father.
The crowd roaming the rest of the night market moves like a sea with disjoined waves. Jiken and Lotia’s figures break through, beckoning me with their hands.
“Let us go to the river!” Their voices blend and merge, until I can no longer tell which sound belongs to who.
My mouth drops open, but I have no voice. The river is dangerous. None of us can swim. A silent warning hangs lost in the air. My friends disappear into the crowd of shadows. They are residents here; I am but a visitor. Jiken used to sling his arm around the rest of us whenever we hung out, now he only holds Lotia’s hand.
There is a certain loneliness—and invisibility—to the most crowded of places. There is nothing to the warmth of the collected bodies of strangers, not really.
“What would you like to buy?”
Tendrils of shadows writhing on skewers lie on the table next to cups and bowls of white powder. Raw blotched flesh sits out on ice, not for consumption, but to show how deep bruises penetrate, how deep we remember. Melting sweetness drips onto hard, tar ground, sizzling on contact; the sweetness always evaporates before the tar softens. Does it ever soften?
My father was like tar, my mother like melting sweetness… until she, too, became tar, and I the blotched flesh they never seemed to remember. Their bodies laid in odd angles in the bedroom, bottles broken, still clutched between dirty claws. I watched, hidden behind the door sitting ajar, then I fled. The image never leaves me.
The vendor smiles—no teeth, an elastic chasm. The flesh and sweetness they are selling is their own. The powder made from their teeth, filed to nothing—lost from protecting oneself or lost to obedience? Tar always wins. You get stuck in the liquid, like my parents. The vendor looks like my mother.
“Why are you still here?”
I step back. There is nothing I want here. This is a place for remembering, but I wish only to forget.
Along the bridge by the water, two shadows run—sometimes separate, sometimes intersecting: Jiken and Lotia. Where is Ingri?
I run to join them, but by the time I reach the bridge, they are gone. My heart quickens as my eyes search around me. Shadows move in both directions on the bridge. None look like Jiken or Lotia. I look down. I can still see my hands.
Laughter drifts in the wind and guides my eyes towards the dark waters below me. Blood pounds in my ears. Something burns in my throat. The way the water laps against the grass sounds like a somber song, like sloshing through mud, like stepping into and out of wet tar.
Three figures stand together by the water, daring one another to dive in, but knowing if they do, they will never resurface. Suddenly, I am with them, watching as one tips over the edge. Was it Jiken? By accident? On purpose? And then, another—Lotia. To be a savior? Or to end together? My arms remain glued to my sides as I watch the two thrash. Ingri reaches her hand towards them—too late.
With a shaking hand, I grab Ingri and pull her from the river, knowing if I did not, she too would disappear into the tar.
“Dia!” says Ingri. She tries to pull free. My fingers cut into her skin.
“You cannot. You cannot. You cannot.” My voice echoes in my head.
Ingri looks back to the river. The water now still, but her tears disturb its surface. Together, we flee, diving back into the crowded night market where no one can hear us breathe.
In a place where the dead do not remain dead, and the living cannot tell otherwise, nor can the dead, until someone breaks the spell—always by accident.
I return to the drink vendor, my father.
“How did you die?” asks my father, his figure a translucent shadow.
He clutches a broken bottle in his hand, re-enacting almost the same posture he died in. I shudder when he raises it. The fine hairs on my skin stand as he points the sharp edges towards me. I try to take a step back, but my feet remain planted as he moves closer.
The shadows at the night market move behind me. I feel the light, cold wind that brushes my back when they walk past. Jiken and Lotia are somewhere in these waves, no longer lost in the water. But Ingri and I cannot join them yet. “I did not”
My father laughs. “Is it not great to be alive?” he says—the same words he said before he passed. Though in this context, the meaning seems so different. “Is it not great… to remember?”
I raise my hand and place it over his, a stark beige against his grey, lowering the bottle.
“No, but I will not forget.”
And they all disappear—my father, the shadows, the stilling of rippling waves after the unexpected fall, the splash as Lotia dives in after Jiken with her small smile, Ingri’s defeated expression, the silence when neither came back up.
We cannot help but return to the places that stay with us, for one reason or another. Ingri and I cannot help but return to the night market, looking to forget something we will never be able to, hold on to people we abandoned.
I sit by the water, my feet hovering by the edge, held above the singing wavelets. I see bubbles drifting upwards from the dark surface, but it never breaks through.
Behind me, the night market comes back alive. The vendor has a different face when Ingri approaches, but her heart is harboring the same guilt as mine. Who will she meet there other than Jiken and Lotia? Her parents? A lover? Another stranger she has kept from us?
My legs withdraw back onto land, toes curling, nails digging into the soil, gripping onto the edge. I reach my hand in the water, hoping to pull out something I cannot find among the crowd, vendors, and sold goods I leave behind. But I feel nothing but echoes. At least this time, I am not fleeing.
The color of my hand disappears when it enters the water, becoming half a shadow. Something takes hold, but I do not flinch or pull back. My body tilts forward. It does not fall but stays suspended in the air. I see Lotia’s face staring back at mine, the same small, intimate smile on her lips. Jiken hovers behind her, laughter tinkling like bells, their fingers interlaced.
Soon, Ingri will take my spot, but I will no longer be here by then.