Met Him Pike Hoses
By Natasya Ismail
The second she breathed her last, Nea found herself curled up on soft Balmain sheets as she blinked crusts from her eyes.
It was as if her mind was unremittingly persistent in blocking her from extracting her own thoughts, memories that led her to wherever she was at that precise moment. She knew without a doubt that she was dead although she wasn't even sure how. Propping herself up on her elbows, Nea felt a sudden ache shot up her skull that diminished as quickly as it had struck her. She drew in a sharp inhalation of breath and realised amusedly that her lungs didn't need that sort of sustenance any longer. Nea wasn't certain if her nose had died too in the process of her death because it seemed like she had lost the sense of smell – the place ought to have an acrid scent of antiseptic at least with its pristine white kompacplus walls and filament bulbs so bright it could blind. There was a pair of sheepskin slippers at the foot of the bed; it was probably two sizes too big for her. Regardless, she slipped them on and felt like she had just stepped on fur carpet. How did she know how fur carpets felt like? Perhaps she had touched them before when she was alive, one of those days when she was circling Camden Market on a school trip, twirling inedible strips of liquorice around her fingers.
She was perhaps the last person to know what Death entails – Nea believed that she had her whole life ahead of her. That sounded clichéd because it was; all of her life was motivated by education scholarships, remittances from an estranged father that bulked her savings exceptionally up to her college years and then months before her death, a hefty salary for a copyediting job that she had attained with an impressive resume of 88 bylines (of which 50 were eminent front covers) interning for The International Herald on her gap year and an active involvement plus two consecutive victories for the school debate team. All of her frugal, prodigious existence had a solitary goal: to get money, as much as she could possibly achieve before she turned thirty. She didn't really need that much piling in her bank account; there was no impending wedding to speak off since Nea couldn't even spare a pocket of time to date the Mechanical Engineering student who determinedly slipped White Rabbit candies and Post-it notes asking when she was free under her door fortnightly on her final year. She tracked her finances, down to the last dollar for a packet of Kleenex sold by an aged man along the MRT whose limbs rotted of gangrene, with a ratty exercise book meant for Chinese penmanship that she found on one of the drawers in her office. It had all been too measured, too perfect – everything had totaled up in her balances at the end of the month.
The last thing she could remember before ending up there was an odd dream she had of being pursued by gargantuan trailer wheels. Running, she was running for the annual Standard Chartered marathon she had never failed to miss because that was the only thing that her father did with her wholeheartedly before the divorce. Only she was alone, sprinting on a desolated strip of land covered in red-hot sand with shoes that weighed bricks and slowing her every incrementally onerous step. Feeling like her lungs were being squeezed out by thick bars of metal, Nea peered over her shoulder and noticed wheels thrice her size chasing her with a velocity that mirrored the obstreperous drumming against her heaving chest. She tried to scream but it was as if a particular force had strained her voice box to its limits, emitting empty noise from her gaping mouth. Perhaps that was what near death felt like, only she couldn't remember what her last moments were now that she had entered into the realm of unlivingness. The next morning, Nea had woken up in a deluge of perspiration soaking her NUS Debate Team T-shirt; mouth wide opened as though she had really shouted in her sleep. It felt all to real that she muttered a prayer to express gratitude to God for it was only a nightmare, completely unaware that it was her subconscious auguring her end.
The place reminded her vaguely of somewhere she had been before but again, the limbic system of her brain had stalled even as Nea closed her eyes and attempted to thrust out the figment of lost memory. There were no doors; just rectangular windows that were boarded up from the outside with what seemed like pieces of cardboard that used to contain diapers. An abrupt feeling of sorrow caught her throat as she mulled over the fact that she could never experience being a mother now that she was dead. It never crossed her mind how much it would affect her, being unable to conceive a child of her own, carry it in her own womb and feeling the affectionate kicks and nudges she had felt against her own hands on stretch-marked tummies of old-time friends that had contentedly settled down just as she was finishing her Masters degree. Most of them had conveyed their envy of her freedom as they gobbled down cream cakes without having to consider the calories that would go down their thighs and remain clogged up there for years to come. But their glowing skins, flabby arms and glinting eyes revealed something of the complete antithesis – they had reached a level of comfort and happiness that Nea would never have the chance to experience herself. It felt so wrong to be a woman, liberated of both her emotional and intellectual capabilities, and not yearning to be mollycoddled and impregnated by a man.
"You shouldn't be thinking too much of your past life and what it seems to lack now that you're dead. Another life awaits you."
Her eyes swivelled up to the man that stood before her in a regal way that was to be expected of someone she would encounter in the afterlife. Nea never thought God would have trimmed his moustache in the style of Chaplin.
"Are you God?" she stuttered, fidgeting with the hem of her dress that exposed much of her calves.
He hiccoughed, brandishing a pen in between stubby fingers. "I wish. No, no, I'm just here to aid with your metempsychosis process. Don't be afraid, it will only take a short while, Miss Nea as you are called here in my records."
"Met him what?"
"Met Him Pike Hoses. Get it? Calypso episode, Ulysses. As Molly reads a book on metempsychosis on her bed and asks Leopold Bloom what it means. I'm pretty sure you're well-read yourself, Miss Nea," he said, shuffling with some manila envelopes from a stack of drawers that had materialized behind him. "Yes. James Joyce. My thesis was on—"
"The feminised reading of Circe, yes yes. I was told to read up about it and I would have to say, extensive use of the thesaurus. I myself would have repeated the word 'juxtapose' more than 50 times if not for the brilliance of thesaurus.com," he continued, smiling up at Nea as he seemed to have finally retrieved what he had been looking for.
Skeptical as to what would happen next, Nea eyed him critically and tried to ascertain who this man was and what he was about to execute on her. Wearing a crisp, white shirt with sterling, stallion-shaped cufflinks and starched trousers that flowed over his leather shoes, he could probably be deemed quite the version of handsome in his youth. His hair was coiffed in a formidable wave with not a strand out of place, peppered by grey and copper in rather awkward patches. There was a certain charm in this stranger evoked by the fissures on his face that deepened whenever he spoke or frowned at something on the stack of papers he was intently studying. If he had asked her out for a drink in Starbucks in the living world, she would have considered it in 10 minutes flat. Metempsychosis… It seemed like she had encountered the term but couldn't seem to recall what it meant at that precise moment. She had thought that life after death would be less perplexing than mugging over her dissertation.
"Perhaps you have realised by now that your memory is slowly fading no matter how hard you try to resist it. It is a normal, necessary process to cleanse out the physical body from any imprints of the individual's previous life to make way for a new soul. Only the memory of this current event will stay with you until the transmigration process is complete," he explained matter-of-factly, still perusing over the papers unhurriedly.
"So my body will be used for another soul? The exact same copy?" she questioned, a slight determination entering her tone.
He diverted his gaze from the papers momentarily, a beguiling look glazing the jet-black pools of his eyes as though appalled by Nea's quizzical tendency. "Yes, your soul will be disposed from your corporeality of which will be, in a more literal term, 'recycled' for the inhabitation of another soul. Of course, there will be certain changes in the features of the body and genetic make-up according to the parents who will be conceiving your new forms. You are rather inquisitive, aren't you? Most people just nod their heads and wait for the process without an utter of a word."
"I guess it is in my nature to be inquisitive," she remarked silently, tucking a lock of hair back into the ponytail it had strayed from.
"And it is one of these defining elements that will stick to your soul like that stubborn stain on your Givenchy dress during the night of prom. You shouldn't worry so much. I'm sure you will enjoy the choices I have picked for you," he replied reassuringly, browsing the last few crumbling pages thoughtlessly and swiftly slotted them back into the envelope.
"I will get to choose what I can be in my next life?"
That same enchanting look fell over his face as he strode towards Nea, brushing off non-existent lint from his pinstriped pants. His nails, Nea had noticed with sudden interest, glistened under the glaring strobe as though they had been coated with multiple layers of varnish. They were clipped with meticulous straightness like he had used the aid of a ruler just to make sure they were aligned. Staring down at her own gnawed, uneven nails, Nea hid them behind tightly bunched fists just so he wouldn't judge the awful, obstinate habit of hers. She wondered if this one of those 'defining elements' that would be carried on in her next life.
"Oh yes, Miss Nea. Here, we do practice a slight autonomy although of course, like in our living world, with its due compromises and limitations. Any other questions before we proceed?"
Somehow, Nea remained unconvinced as she began pacing back and forth the minuscule space they shared under the insouciant eye of the nameless man. Before anything happened, she wanted to know what had happened to her, what had caused this tragic (for her at least), unforeseen death and if she had left this world in vain. Without leaving any significant mark of her 24 years of existence, simply her name repeated 88 times on printed carbon and her face among 20 others in a shaky photograph nailed to the fluffy green velvet of the information board in the Debate Team Room, Nea needed to know how terrible her end could possibly be before moving on to her next life. The only close-to-humiliating death she had ever known was her own cousin who died in an accident just as she was changing her Facebook status (according to one rather reliable source aka an aunty eyewitness who happened to be hailing for a cab) to "It's Complicated" while jaywalking across the road. A Kawasaki had manoeuvred into the lane unawares, knocking her and her iPhone a good 500m and if that hadn't been bad enough, she wore a nude G-string that day and it had flung to the branch of an overhanging tree. The same source relayed that her bush was showing all the way until the paramedics came but it had been too late for she had bled to death from the head.
To think back, Nea wasn't even sure why she had felt like laughing when news of her cousin's death reached her through a phone call with her sobbing mother at the time. She had felt bad at her own reaction but she wasn't all that close with the dead cousin so it didn't seem all that immoral to chuckle for a good five seconds to herself. Now that she was dead herself, a certain self-consciousness had crept in about how others would respond to how she had died. Was she stark naked, sprawled over the frigid bathroom tiles from sleeping pill overdose (insomnia had hit a new high the past month) when they found her lifeless and frothing from chapped lips? Or perhaps she was in the midst of masturbating when her heart had decided to malfunction and felt like it just couldn't go another second pumping life into her body. Even at death, the judgment of others takes a tangible stranglehold on us. She paused in her tracks, tenacious in her pursuit for answers.
"Before I proceed, I just would like to know how I died. That is my last request."
Raising a carefully manicured brow, he pressed his lips together morosely. "I think your request is out of line, Miss Nea. We are not allowed to relay the events of your death at any point during the metempsychosis process. It's in our protocol that forbids us from disclosing the information to our clients. Perhaps you have forgotten. Nothing of your previous life matters anymore after this. What is of imperative urgency is the new life that awaits you. A hopefully better one."
Swallowing a bolus of vexation that hitched her throat, Nea determinedly strung her argument together. "Let's strike a deal then. If you tell me how I died, then you'll get to choose what I'll be in my next life. The choice is all yours, only with the exception that you present me the answer to my question."
A ringing, falsetto laugh pervaded the room, bouncing off the walls with discordant clarity as he doubled over at the effort. Nea stood motionless on her ground, unperturbed by his response just like how she had poised herself during those grueling debate matches that, if not out of sheer self-control, would have seen her throwing tables at the opponent with a parade of blasphemies pouring out like confetti from her mouth. Self-control was fundamental in the portrayal of your inner strength and morality, her lesbian debate coach, whose name had diminished as rapidly as this memory would be, had drilled them. At the time, Nea had found her rather attractive for a woman with her naturally chiselled jawline that made her more masculine than any undercut shaves or oversized clothes from the men's department could. The coach, probably sharing the same thought, had asked her out for a movie – Blue Valentine to be precise – of which Nea had politely turned down with the excuse that she was as straight as a pole. She wondered now if it all had been done out of fear instead, fear that a friendly day-out would deem her queer when in reality, Nea wasn't really sure of her own feelings.
Noticing that Nea hadn't moved a muscle for the past ten seconds, the man recovered himself and perceived the solemnity of her otherworldly request. A look of sympathy clouded his face as he crossed his arms weakly. "I'm afraid this has never been done before and it will not be condoned. We have every right to reject you request no matter how serious it is. It's not my call, I'm just following the set of instructions given to me."
"You sound exactly like those government people when help is being asked! It's like you guys are robots at doing your job, unable to make your own decisions based on compassion and humanity!" she yelled with an uncalled-for vigour, trembling from head to toe as her temples throbbed with indignation.
Seemingly dismayed at her outburst, the man fidgeted with the collar of his shirt and tucked the documents he had been holding under an arm. "Why is it so important to you? Our lives mean nothing anymore after death, nothing matters anymore. Just take it that you had a fruitful life and move on with it."
"How old were you when you died? What were you in your previous life?" she asked back resolutely, gaze hardening on his.
Biting his lips, it seemed like he was lingering on the threshold of holding back or spilling out. He retrieved a box of unlabelled cigarettes from this pocket and lit one, offering the pack to Nea. Without much dithering, she pulled one out as he struck a match for her with habitual ease. Who knew her addiction would protract even after death?
"It's tax-free in the afterworld so you wouldn't feel much of a burn in your wallet to get these babies. I was 74 when I died, stage three breast cancer, can you believe it?"
"You were a woman before this?"
"I was a pruned-out male retiree from the Navy, smoked Camels all my life and treated my living wife with substantial verbal abuse for the past 45 years of marriage. Retribution came in the form of a lump on my left breast just as my CPF savings were cashed in, genetic disease they say. The funny part is seeing the faces of people when I told them I had breast cancer. Thought I was joking, old fools," he recounted, dropping ash all over the floor that somehow resembled mouse droppings.
"I've never known any man suffering from breast cancer, never supposed it was possible. I've always thought it to be a 'female illness' like everything else is."
Finishing the last dregs of his cigarette, the man stared emptily into the air as though the act of smoking had brought himself into a trance. Nea couldn't imagine him being the man he had described. It upset her a little that all this beauty that encompassed him was just an interchangeable capsule, that it was not the real him. It then brought Nea to think of her 'self' beyond the body – who was she apart from this physicality she had occupied after all these years? A lofty idea of a liberated, outspoken woman who has made no mark on the lives of others but her own?
"I used to put a gender to almost everything. Taking care of children was a 'woman' thing so I stayed as far as possible from my two girls and blamed my wife if anything went wrong with them. Hanging out in the coffee shop, guzzling beers as we watched EPL up to the wee hours was a 'man' thing so I did it like a ritual. Being slow was a 'woman' thing so whenever my wife took her time to serve me dinner; I would punish her with my words. And then, guess who got breast fucking cancer? I deserved it really."
"Well then you must have made a reasonable pact with someone to be able to know how you died. Very much like the one I proposed to you," Nea muttered, flattening the stub with the heel of her slippers.
Very much aware that she had tricked him into a corner, the man began cracking his knuckles audibly to fill the silence that hovered like steel nails over their heads. At this juncture, the spool of her childhood memories was beginning to unfold in Nea's mind. Impetuous flashes of her 12-year -old self awkwardly posing in front of the corpulent Bengali photographer for a family portrait that would later be tossed at the very back of the storage room gathering dust bunnies on its once polished, gilded frame. Baby-fat cheeks that would later melt from hours spent in the gym the moment she hit puberty were being pinched by cooing adults at the age of 10 as she tailed behind her mother during their weekly market trips. The day her bedraggled mother had burst into the glass double doors of the domestic court, seven year-old Nea's arm in her slippery grasp, to file for an immediate separation from her adulteress father seemed to linger persistently longer as though refusing to dissolve to make way for recollections Nea didn't even knew existed. Alas, the trauma and despondency of a damaged childhood she had survived was all for nothing.
"You are undeniably an intelligent, cunning woman, Miss Nea. Somehow you have gained my esteem. But a deal remains a deal. You cannot turn back on your words and live with the choice I have made for you," he cautioned grimly.
Nodding her head in agreement, Nea followed the beckoning man in subjugated reticence further into the depths of the whitewashed, elongated room. She wasn't certain how long the journey was or where they were even headed but the man exuded an equanimity that calmed the anxiety nibbling at her dead heart. They had arrived in a more spacious room, again with no doors but there were windows, clean looking ones like they had just been wiped down moments ago, drawn up by blinds. Just across from them was a bed, a woman curled up on messy sheets, her cadaverous arms hooked up by gnarled wires connected by an IV drip and a machine on a wheeled table beside her. She was barely breathing, most of her face concealed by a yellow-tinted oxygen mask. Nea edged closer to the bed, afraid that she would cause the woman to stir from her sleep. With protuberant eyes, she stared at her wilted dying self with trembling hands.
"You won't be able to see yourself so don't worry. The night of December 12, 2016, you returned home from work with plans of warming up last night's leftover lasagna with a re-run of some famous sitcom from the 90s in the background. Just as you were opening the fridge, an excruciating ache travelled up your left shoulder and you were impaled by a stroke derived from premature heart disease. A string of heart diseases was recorded in your family history, but you never declared it," he explained, moving over to the side of the bed and stroking a dying Nea's forehead with a tenderness that made her miss her own father.
"I died of heart disease? At 24? How could it possible? I was so young."
"The deaths of young people like you are the hardest to watch. What more to experience. Come, follow me," he gestured towards a door that had engraved itself on the wall nearest to them, his slender fingers curled around the burnished rose-gold knob.
"I never asked you for your name," she mumbled, as they entered an algid room whose temperature was alike those of walk-in freezers meant for storing hunks of meat.
"I don't have a name. Nobody calls me by anything. There is no identity to speak of, no labels in the afterlife," he said, grinning as they stopped before a wan, thin corpse laid out on a stretcher.
Vomit would have rose up her oesophagus if there were any contents in her stomach – the very organ that rested just above the bloody, tangled ropes of her small intestines and the pair of slimy kidneys, which resembled those of a goat's that her mother used to cut up and fry in a wok of spitting-hot oil, on the bed of her exposed, cut-open torso – an exhibition of physiological mementos of a rather punctilious anatomist. Her lips were slightly agape, a purplish hue bruising the dried, flaking skin. The man poked at one of the kidneys with a forefinger, examining it with a critical eye of a surgeon. He had probably transmigrated to a body of one, Nea surmised as she placed a hand on her own cold, still arm with a slight but palpable shudder. A jolt of electricity pricked the tips of her fingers upon contact, causing her to jerk away from the shock.
"That's just static. It happens when you come into direct contact with your physical form within the astral plane."
"What are they doing with my body?" she asked, rooted to the spot as the man began negotiating through the various instruments laid out on a metal countertop with gloved hands.
Picking up a scalpel and scrutinising the sharp, gleaming blade under the harsh glow of the lights overhead like any other pretend doctor on those touchy, medical dramas, the man looked about ready to mutilate her body further. "They are extracting your organs, except for your heart of course, for donation. You signed the agreement papers a day before you died. Noble thing to do, really. I would have done it myself but I suppose at the age I died, everything would have just turned into rusty, useless spare parts worth close to nothing."
There was nothing left for Nea to see as the man scrupulously held a slithery liver oozing with blood soaking the nylon of his gloves, a perpetual crimson stain. He raised it for her to see as though it was one of his prized tokens with a disturbingly triumphant beam. She cringed, feeling that he was unnecessarily meddling in the matters of her body. But could she really call it hers now that her soul had left it? She no longer possessed it, even to the extent of giving away the components that make up her body in the name of goodwill. There was nothing left of her – just an empty vessel. Nea began walking away from herself, a chilly sensation that had nothing to do with the temperature passing through her.
"We can go now," she said quietly, refusing to take another look at herself.
"Are you sure? We have more to see here if you want."
Realising that Nea had no intention of responding, he made no sign that he was perturbed and settled the liver back in its place before removing the bloodied gloves. The metallic odour of blood clung to his shirt distastefully even as they left the room in measured, synchronized steps. There was no regret in gaining the knowledge of how she had left the world, no remorse in the fact that everything she had cultivated, experienced and worked for was all lost in a split second. Yes, the contents of her body and mind were being dug out and obliterated but perhaps parts of her still remained in the living world for the others who needed them more than her. At least they didn't rot with her in the grave, gradually crumbling to nothingness and dissolving into the damp soil continuously fertilised by human waste. Perhaps finally, she was being recognised for her achievements now that she was dead – most people only acknowledged those of the dead even if they were hardly virtuous individuals in the living world. They paused at the exact room Nea had woken up in.
"Before we proceed, would you like me to reveal what I have chosen for you to be in your next life?" he queried, patting her warmly on the shoulder.
Though she had made her mind securely with her decision, Nea didn't speak for a moment. Like he said, it didn't matter much. Nothing matters much prior to this stage.
"No. It doesn't matter anymore. I'm ready," she said eventually, eyes fixed with a look of assurance.
"Very well then. I wish you good luck to your next life. It has been nice meeting you, Miss Nea. I will see you again soon, very soon. Continue walking down the room and you will find your way."
He withdrew from her slightly but didn't leave her side, watching her with an amicable smile that Nea noticed had a tinge of sadness concealed within it. Looking back at his rapidly diminishing form as she marched her way forwards, Nea felt like they could have exchanged an embrace before parting ways but thought otherwise as the intimacy would make both of them feel out of sorts. Walking into a cavern-like place illuminated by a dull pool of light cast by the a single flickering lamp at the other end, Nea didn't feel the anxiety or fear that presented itself in this solitary situations. Step by step, it felt like she was slowly shedding the threadbare dress that hung over her shoulders, and then her slippers, all of her hair, the skin of her limbs and the adipose of her breasts, the internal organs she had gruesomely witnessed herself on the stretcher, stripped down to the very last nerve that constituted her as a person, a living human. She was completely naked now, more naked than she could have ever been. So naked that she was no longer herself.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 1 Jan 2017