The Thing You Feed’, Joyce Chng

Illustrations © 2018 Martin Hanford



 [ Jasmine, © 2018 Martin Hanford ] It started to go all weird after Mooncake Festival.

Perhaps I ate too many mooncakes or drank too much jasmine tea (bought from the local Asian grocery shop). Perhaps I stayed up too late staring at the full moon. Where I lived, in the dingy little dormitory I shared with two other people, the moon loomed large and pearly-white, its surface marked by impacts. It rose in the sky and we cheered, missing home and missing our parents. The moon was always bigger elsewhere.

I thought I had acclimatized. Uni was big and beautiful, the landscape lush with trees and shrubs. I was so in love with the oaks. The air was crisp, laced with the smell of eucalyptus and other aromatic plants. I was fortunate to have a group of supportive international student friends, minus the first few days when I was heckled on the streets. Someone deliberately stepped on my slippers so that I tripped, falling onto the concrete. I had skinned knees and a bruised ego. The workload for a two-year MA was bearable with my module tutors and thesis supervisor were being immensely helpful and compassionate. I was happy. I should be grateful.

I should be grateful.

Except I wasn’t. Something ate away at me, hollowing me out. After Mooncake Festival, I started to feel like a stranger in my own body, as if I had projected my real self out and a foreigner was living inside my skin. I had moments where I watched myself from the outside. Who is this individual? Who are they? My Psych friends said I was dissociating and I should talk to a counsellor as soon as possible. I brushed their concerns off. I had my thesis to complete. I had things to write. Besides, my appetite was still good and I was eating.

Ravenously.

Something stirred within me, spinning inside my bones, coiling up my spine. The sensations grew more intense when the nights were lonely. I curled under my blanket, trying not to cry myself to a numb sleep.


It started appearing at the corner of my eye.

At first, it was a dark shadow slipping in and out of my awareness. I was being watched. Then, the dark shadow coalesced into something bigger. I grew hungry, feasting on the toffee apples and the chocolate muffins I bought from the deli. I ate and ate.

When I was drafting the first chapter of my thesis one night, it stood fully-formed. It was a canine-shaped shadow with pointed ears and long lanky limbs. Its eyes were not the amber eyes of normal dogs. They were the color of dark blood tinged with gold flecks. Twin twilight skies.

The dorm didn’t allow pets. I thought one of my dorm mates had secretly sneaked in a dog and it had somehow gotten through the fly gate. I lived on the ground floor. I got up from my chair, thinking I could just grab the dog because it wasn’t a big dog. Medium-sized. Lean like a whippet. The shadow dog lowered its head, snarled and disappeared like smoke slowly dissipating in the wind.

There was no wind.

There was no shadow.

There was no dog.

Dog.

I stared at the empty space where the shadow dog once stood. For some strange reason, I lifted my hands up, looking at them as if they were odd things growing out from my body. I stared at my skin, at the green veins running beneath the paleness, at the fine hair follicles standing up. Something padded around in circles inside my chest before settling down to sleep. My ribs expanded and contracted with its breathing.


It started to turn up often.

By then, I was already enjoying my life at uni. Before Mooncake Festival, I met a guy in the computer lab while I was chatting in a science-fiction RPG channel and realized that he was also on the same server. After a couple of weeks of bantering to and fro, he finally mustered up the courage to approach me. Our first date was on a windy Sunday with vineyards and an afternoon movie. We talked about why I used chopsticks. Lunch was a platter of cheese and fresh fruits.

Sunday nights were also Skype nights with my parents. Mom thought I looked well. She was afraid I wasn’t getting enough food. I reassured I was eating well (maybe, too well). She told me about my younger sister getting a job promotion. I laughed along, humoring my mother. I secretly nicknamed my sister Ms Perfect. Behind her, I could see Dad rolling his eyes exasperatedly. He hated our not-so-subtle competition. Mom was always on the side of Ms Perfect. The perfect kindergarten performance. The perfect grades she got in school. The perfect awards she won year after year. Even the perfect boyfriend she found at her uni. Scholar and well-to-do family. Local university, she liked to remind me. I hated myself. The moment I turned off Skype, I wolfed down a cup of Tom Yum flavored instant noodles. After one particular Skype session with Mom, I ran straight to the bathroom to peer frantically at the mirror. The reflection was still me. Mom had remarked I looked more haggard than usual. I told her it was stress. My supervisor had rejected my second chapter about Amazons. I had to totally rewrite the whole thing. I cried for a long time after I left her office.

The dark dog shadow wagged its tail slowly, its tongue hanging from its open mouth.

I screamed. Really screamed.

Someone knocked on the door. Shaking, I opened it. It was Sarah, my course-mate. Her research was about feminist magazines from the 1960s to the present. She was clad in a plain white tee and brown shorts. She looked as if she had just woken up. She also looked hot.

“You ok?” she asked.

“Just a spider,” I lied. The dog had disappeared.

Sarah didn’t look convinced. “Just knock on my door if you want to chat, ’k?”

I closed the door, relieved that Sarah didn’t probe further. Maybe I should go and talk to the counsellors at Student Services. Maybe I was just working too hard.

Maybe I was really homesick and I had internalized it, turning it into something worse, like depression.

Depression.

Eat.

The very next day I got a new haircut and dyed my hair with caramel-blonde streaks. At dinner time, Sarah rolled her eyes at me. She said I looked butch. I rolled my eyes back at her.


It started talking to me.

I was struggling with my third chapter. Words weren’t coming out. I was dry. Worse, I had broken up with Steve because we weren’t talking honestly about our true feelings. I was an emotional wreck, missing meals and tutorials, sleeping in late. Mom informed me about Ms Perfect getting yet another pay raise and taking her (and Dad) to Hong Kong for a week. She then proceeded to send me pictures of roast geese, crispy skin gleaming under the restaurant’s lights, and freshly baked bo lo bao. And Ms Perfect’s smug face in every picture. That pleased gleam in her eyes. She had won. She had always won. She would always keep on winning. I couldn’t take my parents out for a simple meal. For that long week, I wanted to quit and go home.

To what? Misery? Disappointment? Shame?

Mostly shame, because Mom and Dad paid half for my MA.

Mostly disappointment, because I might go home without a MA.

Mostly misery.

Misery.

I could

hear

my sister’s

oh-so-kind laughter.

And that expression, so smug, so self-satisfied.

I wanted to eat her up and then spit her out.

Eat.

I didn’t need her pity. No more “You can do it, sis!” nonsense. No more “You can still look for a job. A MA doesn’t mean you can’t find one!” bullshit.

I didn’t need her at all.

Eat her, eat her, eat her.

The dark dog shadow stirred, like a dry whisper, padding out from some hidden space. This time it sat where I would glance nervously at, in the corner of my eye-a bigger and leaner dog. Wolf, I thought. It was more wolf-like now. More muscular, with a thick ruffed neck. Except there weren’t supposed to be wolves where I was.

“What… what are you?” I asked.

“You. Not you. Either. Neither. Your past.”

Its voice sounded like mine, only lower, as if I was growling at the end of the corridor of my dorm.

I fell out of my chair, definitely afraid, definitely panicking. Thoughts were not supposed to talk back. If this was all in my head, then what the hell was happening to me?

 [ Pinned down, © 2018 Martin Hanford ] I reached out to grab my phone, only to fall back onto the carpeted floor. I was pinned down firmly by its large solid paw. Since when did it appear right next to me?

“I am all your dark thoughts, all your past thoughts, all your past deeds. What you did. What you didn’t do. What you felt. What you didn’t feel. What you chose to hide.”

“I didn’t hide anything!”

The lips seemed to curve into a vague human-like smile.

“Oh yes, you did. Your feelings about home. Your feelings about being an outsider. Your feelings about anger. Your feelings about your grades. Your feelings about not feeling worthy. Your feelings about rage that your sister is better, so much better than you…”

“Shut up!” I sobbed. Tears rolled down my face. I was talking to an imaginary… dog.

“Your rage cannot and should not be caged in. Your sorrow is a chained animal. Your pain is delicious. You have to taste your pain, devour your sorrow. Eat it.”

“I am going nuts!” I pushed myself up with my hands. My arms shook with the effort. I was inexplicably weak. Suddenly I was face to face with the dog… wolf… thing. Sarah lived next door to me. I was desperately wishing that she might hear all this.

“You pushed me aside. Suppressed me, pushed me out. Without me, you are nothing. Just flesh and bone. You eat and I grow big.”

“What do you think I should do?” I tried to inch away from the wedge-like head, from the upper canines I saw emerging from the mouth.

“Accept me back.”

“Why?” I glanced at my lap top. The thesis had to be written. I needed to get my MA. I needed… I needed…

I.

Needed.

To.

Eat.

I. Needed. Approval.

I.

Craved.

Approval.

Like.

Food.

Eat.

The dog blinked and smiled even wider, its teeth looking more wicked in the light.

“Yesss…”

“Yes.”

I opened my arms like I was about to embrace the dog shadow. The animal padded closer, closer, until it pressed against my chest. It smelled of gunpowder and other kinds of burnt things. Like grandma’s paper money when it caught fire. Like candle smoke. Like unrequited love. Like millions of years of loss and regret. It was warm, like my body’s blood, like a gentled sun. It had no fur, only a flowing shadowy surface. It melted into me, shadow into flesh. I felt it sigh, a soft sound that coursed through my body. Home, home, home, it said. Home, home, home.

The gentled sun became a roaring fire. An internal inferno. My skin flamed up. My hair burned. My voice crawled up my throat and found strength in a howl.

Suddenly I wanted to hunt.

Suddenly we wanted to hunt.

We eat.


We started to hunt in the dark.

We ran past the doors, down the corridor, glad for the silence. Nobody stepped out. Everyone kept to their own business. Even Sarah who professed concern a while back. We ran barefoot, the ground laced with moisture, down the cold alleyway, in the darkness where sounds chittered and smaller shapes lurked. It was approaching midnight, the stars gleaming in the sky in a huge swathe. The smells of the night called to us. Cooking oil, someone’s log fire, hints of concrete and tar, the fragrances of the trees sharp in our nostrils.

We hunted a cat who had been let out by her owners and was forgotten. The meat was crunchy with small bones and the marrow dripped down my throat.

We hunted a toy dog left on the porch. Its yips drowned when we snapped its neck with a bite.

We hunted and we ran. There was freedom when we ran. There was freedom when we hunted. The sky spun above us. The stars were flecks of gold.

We hunted, fed and were sated.

I woke up under an eucalyptus tree right outside my dorm. It was still dawn. My arms were covered in drying brown-red smears, my fingers crusty with dried blood. I was damp with wet soil and wood chips clung to my skin. I was still wearing my shorts. Quietly, I slipped back into my dorm. I stood under the hot shower for an hour.

The dog thing was satisfied.

I was satisfied.

Let’s eat.


We started hunting more.

My thesis soon expanded. My supervisor was pleased and commented I looked very well. I licked my lips, tasting the faint hint of blood from last night’s hunt. Mom was pleased and said I looked more confident than usual. She didn’t mention my sister. I growled with pleasure. She didn’t know my feet were stained with grass and earth. My teeth tingled with participation.

Of course.

I felt stronger. Blood coursed through my veins like liquid fire.

I was a new person. Whole.

I asked Sarah out for a date, but it didn’t work out. We both giggled about it and left it at that.

I also got back with Steve after a long and thoughtful talk on the phone. We were going to explore Mandurah on a weekend. This time he might just pop the question.

When the full moon rose in the sky, I laughed and ran in the dark. I hunted those who heckled me. I drank in their blood. I ate.

The dog thing laughed inside me.

I am coming for you, Ms Perfect.

You will never win.

I smiled the dog-smile.

Hunting would be most delicious.

We eat.


© 2018, Joyce Chng

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