The Fox and the Snake’, Timothy Yeo

On Sundays, the shrine entrance choked up with humans hailing from different countries. Their skin colour didn’t matter to me, so long as their yen shone purple. I put on my mask—red and white patterned plastic with two ears sprouting at the top—and morphed my face into a gormless young girl’s. Standing below the orange gates next to the fox statues, I held up my basket stacked with worthless knots of paper. When the tourists came streaming in, I would be ready to present them with valuable charms forged by the monks of Mt Takao, a thousand yen apiece.

My phone rang. I saw the caller ID and lowered my basket. How did she get my number? After I had bled her and her mother dry for all they were worth, she should know better than to get entangled with me again.

“Hello?” I answered, retreating behind a statue.

“I have a job for you, Kevin.”

Rachel sounded deeper, more level. It must have been four years by now.

“Who’s Kevin? I think you have the wrong number.”

“I don’t care what name you have now.”

Some tourists were staring at this weirdo standing off the path. My mask twisted into a lunatic’s scowl, and they quickly walked away. “Look, miss, I’m hanging up now.”

“I want you to deceive a god.”

That perked my ears up. Like Tokyo, Rachel’s home was a developed city that traded in coin instead of altars, and to my knowledge I had been the only true divinity to grace the island.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Let’s meet at Changi Airport. The toast café on the third floor.”

Where we had our second date. “What time?”

“Seven pm.”

“Not sure if there’s still flights.”

“See you there,” she said and hung up.

There was absolutely no reason for me to entertain her. Although—it did sting that another deity had apparently moved into my territory. I threw away the basket and found a deserted spot behind the food stalls. With no one to see me, I sat down, took off my mask, and began to trace new patterns.

I was impressed. Now the bangs had cleared from her face, the baggy clothes were gone, and a top and slacks combination completed the working professional look. She didn’t recognise me because I had the mask on, so to her I seemed like another clueless Chinese tourist wandering in from the Arrivals. I had wanted to see what she looked like when she thought she wasn’t being watched. I thought she would be awkward, glancing around nervously. But an unfamiliar steel gaze was stamped on her face.

I crept up behind her and removed my mask. She looked at me. I studied her hard for any signs of surprise.

“Let’s go inside,” she said without a trace of emotion.

I followed her in. “Not going to ask me how my flight went?”

We sat down. “Do you know anyone named Bai She?” she asked.

“I’m hungry. Wanna grab a bite?”

“Not at all.”

“I’ll order for both of us.” Before she could protest, I hailed the waitress for two servings of honey toast. Our usual combination: avocado for me, strawberry jam for her. From the corner of my eye I continued searching her for any cracks in the armour.

“Stop being childish,” she said. “We didn’t meet here to joke. I need you to deceive Bai She.”


“A naga spirit.”

I had dealt with a few vicious naga in the golden days. Although these snake entities usually resided higher up the map in East Asia. “A naga incident here is a rare occurrence.”

“It’s staying at Sherry’s house.”

Calling her mother by given name now? Rachel really had cleaned herself up.

“How’s she doing?”

“Still worshipping anyone who smiles at her.”

“Worshipping the naga?”

“Bai She’s doing what you did. Sinking her teeth in while disguising it as a smile.”

“Don’t be so cynical.”

“I mean literally. She’s feeding on Sherry every night. Like a vampire.”

This wasn’t unheard of. Snakes were ravenous creatures. Sometimes naga kept pets, walking food sources to be snacked on every now and then.

“Why not just leave the house?”

“Sherry won’t leave her. You know how she is. She’s thinks Bai She’s her long-lost daughter.”

“What, her real one not good enough?”

There. A slight tense in her knuckles, her chest inhaling in one sharp breath. I made a show of looking away. The waiter came and placed our two orders on the table, along with the sharing plates. Rachel reached for the spoon, but I beat her to it.

“Here you go,” I said, cutting out a piece for her. Triangle shaped, dashed with a stroke of strawberry, just how she liked it. She accepted it stiffly and took a bite.

“What makes you think I can help?” I said.

“You’re a conman, aren’t you?”

“More accurately, a mischievous fox spirit.”

“So do your conning. Deceive the naga. Make her think Sherry’s got a rare disease, or something.”

“You know I’m more elegant than that.”

“There’s three conditions. You update me every day. Don’t break Sherry’s heart. And you never contact me or Sherry again once the job’s done.”

“You haven’t even mentioned what you’re paying me.”

“The knowledge that you’ve righted your wrongs to your former lover.”

Obviously a twisted joke, but neither of us laughed. She looked down and cut me a piece. Square shaped, avocado on each corner, just how I liked it.

“I already have redeemed myself,” I said.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Back then, you would never talk back to me like that. Now look at you.”

“I’ve learnt how to deal with lying bastards.”

“Exactly. I’ve already taught you enough—”

She hurled her entire meal at my face. The plate spun out of her hands halfway, smashing into the pillar behind me. A shard shot out and grazed my neck, dripping warm blood down my skin. The waiter dashed over to help.

I put on my mask. “Everything’s okay,” I told the waiter. “Her hand slipped.”

The waiter left and I turned to look at her.

“I’m sorry for that,” she said. “Let’s continue.”

“It’s okay,” I said. I wanted to take off the mask, but if I did everyone around would see the blood.

The payment was everything left in her family’s savings account, which in my currency totalled to six hundred thousand yen. I could make that amount easily any week of the year. There was no need to stay in this foreign country and entertain an unprofessional client who scarred me with cutlery. Although—I had already forked out a large fee flying here on such short notice. Might as well make this trip yield a net gain.

“Bai She needs a babysitter,” Rachel had said over dessert. “Since she gets angsty cooped up alone in the house.”

“What? How young is she?”

“Looks and acts ten years old. She’d love a kindly old man like you.”

My real face was spotted, wrinkled, and sporting stubble. The older you looked, the less you were trusted. Therefore, the babysitter’s visage would be that of a young college student, still barely two steps out of the nest. I hung an ad on the lamppost with my newly improved face beaming in the foreground. Within that day Sherry called me over.

She was even more of a mess than I remembered. Her makeup spilled all over herself, barely hiding her smile lines. She had periodic shivers that only calmed when her hand wrapped around a pack of cigarettes. She moved and talked slowly, like an Alzheimer’s patient twice her age. The naga had only accelerated her degradation. After a routine where she forgot her house keys and had to dig through her bag several times, she finally led me towards Bai She’s room.

A thin white snake greeted me at the entrance, coiling up my shoe. I regarded its open fangs, wondering whether its reach was far enough to strike my skin.

“Hope you don’t mind,” Sherry said. “Bai She loves her pets.”

I counted at least four snakes lounging around: two more hanging off the desk, one perched atop its master’s shoulder. Bai She was smaller than I had pictured. She wore a summer white dress and sported two very squishable round cheeks. Upon seeing me her entire being lit up and she threw herself forward, wrapping herself around me in a tight hug.

“Mr. Lye!” She shrieked out my false name in pure joy. Then she disengaged and bounced over to her ‘mother’. From just a few seconds of observing their interaction, I could tell how deeply the naga’s fangs went. Bai She would be any hungry mother’s dream. She begged Sherry not to go to work today, nodded furiously when told to be a good girl, and screamed in laughter when her cheeks were inevitably pinched. It was a performance so grand, even I had the urge to tug on my own mask.

Sherry went to work, leaving us alone with a stack of board games. Now it was only me, Bai She, and her four snakes. We played the two-player version of President using a deck of cards, and although I tried to play badly, she really did have the mind of a ten-year-old. After forgetting the formula for a full house, her lovely features screwed up and she began sniffling. Quickly I discarded my ace of spades down my sleeve and made her win. Like clockwork she was all perky again, kicking away the cards in her celebratory dance. Eventually she got restless and zipped out of the room, singing a nursery rhyme about the forest. I fought my way through all the junk in the house to chase after her, catching her legs when she was halfway out the second-floor window, screeching laughter ringing in my ears.

Sherry came back soon after and showered me with thanks. I had passed her two-hour test. She now wanted me to come over every single day of the week.

I said goodbye to the two of them and left—making sure I peeled the snake off my shirt first. But as soon as I turned the corner, I jogged back round to the back of the house. Sherry’s room was on the second floor. I scaled the wall to reach the balcony, hid behind the wall, and waited.

After about an hour I heard thumps. Sounds of a body slamming against the floor, travelling right up to where Sherry’s bed must be. I peeked through the curtains and saw Sherry, eyes glazed and lips trembling, nearly half off the bed. Bai She’s body coiled around hers in a vice. I saw the naga’s fangs cleanly, biting into its victim’s neck.

A hiss. I looked down to see a snake nudging my foot. I gently brushed it aside and climbed down.

“See?” Rachel said. “I wasn’t lying.”

For dinnertime, we were having steak at a restaurant I remembered well. Our fifth and sixth dates, to be exact.

“You left out the part where she keeps four snakes.”

“Is it a problem?”

“Naga aren’t normally so powerful to have familiars.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Means that this naga’s dangerous. You could double my fee and it still wouldn’t cover hazard pay.”

Rachel went quiet. She cut out a cube of meat from her steak and placed it gingerly on my plate.

“The money’s all I have,” she said. “Check my bank statement.”

I placed her offering in my mouth. It was delicious—every single meal I had eaten since landing in this country hadn’t disappointed. “From what I saw, Sherry doesn’t have much time left.”

“So can you do it?”

“Well, she’s a monster, but she’s also far too young.”

“And that’s your speciality, isn’t it?”

I bit back a smart retort, considerately remembering Rachel’s earlier outburst. Instead, I tossed her a triangle-shaped piece of steak and declared I would take this job.

And it was going to be a relatively easy one, which I suppose justified its cheap price. When Bai She had fed, her movements were that of a child with no restraint, splashing blood onto her dress. This was no calculative predator who chose their victims carefully. Bai She had latched onto Sherry for the same reason Sherry had latched onto her—on a whim. Such connections were child’s play to break. I could simply rub the thread between my fingers, applying pressure until it snapped.

Having a developing mind, Bai She craved intellectual stimulation, something her ‘mother’ could never provide her. During these babysitter sessions I introduced to her a variety of children’s games. Blackjack, Solitaire, Crazy Eights. When she graduated from playing cards, we moved on to the board games. I made all the appropriate moves—praising her when she got something right, encouraging her when she was on the verge of tears. Soon her snakes crowded at the door whenever I arrived.

With phase one complete, I started slipping in extra hints. That Sherry was too stingy to buy the more expensive game sets. That it was lucky I was here because Sherry never wanted to play games with her. On the side, I lifted small trinkets from Sherry’s bag. Her lipstick, mirror, things I knew she valued and hated losing. A few whispers here and there, and Sherry found these items turning up in Bai She’s room, next to the snakes. On the next bloodsucking session I eavesdropped in, Sherry wasn’t the passive victim anymore. She was sitting up, repeating the same questions over and over. Bai She responded, her mouth half-full, that she didn’t know what Sherry was talking about. There was no anger in their conversation, not yet. That would come later.

I gave my report to Rachel in the park while she enjoyed a cone of ice cream. As I updated her on my progress, she stopped licking, and threw her treat into the dustbin.

“Put on your mask,” she said.

My mask was unsheathed, over my head—Rachel was the only person in the city who I allowed to see my real face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You’re disgusting to look at.”

“That’s an ungrateful thing to say.”

She didn’t back down this time. “Could you stop getting so close?”

I pulled down the mask to imitate a famous male movie star. She shifted to the other side of the bench, looking away.

“This needs to be done,” I said. “You hired me for this.”

“Sure, because you know what’s best.”

At least I had freed her from her mother. That woman lived in her own world, bumbling through life with her heart swinging from her sleeve, poisoning her daughter with her sickly love. After I had emptied her safe, my one wish for her family was that leaving wounds would teach them how to properly heal.

But the daughter hadn’t learnt completely after all. She brooded on the bench, still struggling to contain her emotions. While waiting, I took a glance around the park. I recognised the rose shrubs, the morning-glories, that alcove surrounded by a pair of sunflowers. When we had first kissed, it had been on the path leading down to the Lily Pond, where silent pink bulbs bloomed and skaters darted across the still water. There she had whispered in my ear things she had never told anyone else, like her deepest darkest fears, or the password to her bank account.

“Want to take a walk?” I asked. She needed to cool off. “They revamped the Lily Pond, I heard.”

She remembered as well as I did. “You’ve got some nerve.”

“Rachel.” Once again, it pained me I couldn’t deliver this with my real mouth. “Back then, we were in different roles. I was desperate for scraps. You were young and naive. Now the roles are different. You’re my client, and I’m doing a job. That’s all there is. That’s the way people work. This time, you have to trust me.”

We ended up taking that walk. I hung a respectful distance behind her, but I couldn’t help but notice that when I inched closer, she didn’t protest.

A week into the job, I finished removing all of Sherry’s failsafes: her cigarettes, her pills, her lemon scented mints. Even her ‘daughter’ was taken away from her. Bai She had a new present, a ball of yarn to practice Cat’s Cradle with. After every babysitting session, I would assign her a different problem, so that she spent her nights on the string and not on her victim—a victim who was now no longer willing.

The nights of feasting grew shorter. Neither party was enjoying it anymore. Outside their bedroom, I could hear Sherry asking where the hell Bai She hid her bottles, even pushing the girl’s teeth off her prematurely. To a young mind like Bai She, this once docile mother turning feral must have come as a shock.

When the world around you stops making sense, you latch on to the handhold that feels the most familiar. By week two I was certain I had mired my little snake girl into complete confusion.

When I next opened Bai She’s door, I was nearly knocked over. The snake that normally greeted me was now twice its previous size. Another snake slammed into my leg, trapping me in the corner. The last two flanked Bai She on either side. She had the string in her hands, frayed from constant practice. Yesterday’s pattern had been a difficult one, too. This girl learned fast.

She lifted her head and flashed a bright smile. “Mr. Lye!”

The snake released me. Catching my breath, I made a show of admiring her Cat’s Cradle handiwork, remarking (somewhat truthfully, this time) that she was nothing short of a genius.

I decided on Love Letter today, because she was so skilled with games now, she could graduate to the kind with social deduction. I dealt the cards and we took turns trying to guess which members of the king’s court were in our hands. I bluffed that I had the Guard, but eventually revealed my King, who had the power to knock her out of the round. As she waited for me to reshuffle, I noticed her smile dissolving into a frown. At our feet, the snakes skittled round restlessly, their red pupils tracking my every movement.

“I saw your mother earlier,” I mentioned innocently. “She seemed angry at something.”

That was the signal for Bai She to let it all out. “I don’t understand her!” she exploded. Four different snake jaws opened to hiss. “She says I’m a bad girl, but I didn’t even do anything!”

“She said that? But you’ve been very polite to me.”

“Right?! It doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “she’s saying something that’s not true.”

“What?!” her eyes widened. “Why?!”

“That’s how people work. Sometimes, people lie.”

“Not her,” her cheeks puffed, on the verge of bursting from this sudden revelation. “She’s the best mother in the world.”

The chair behind me cracked. A snake wrapped around it, muscles bulging, splintering wood near my lap. She didn’t seem to notice. I decided to leave it at that for now. The seed I had implanted was stirring wildly in her mind. I could already see her taking the lesson to heart, as her eyes turned dark and her mouth curled down, and as she shot out a finger to reveal my card as the treacherous Spy.

The movie theatre, date number twenty. It was easy to spot Rachel among the younglings. Her head was a few meters taller, her sharp blazer putting all college jackets to shame.

“Nice snakeskin.” I nudged her branded bag. “Trying to impress someone?”

“I came from work.”

When I updated her, she frowned. “She broke a chair?”

“Destroyed it, yeah.”

“You said she was dangerous?”

“Children throw the most violent tantrums. If she finds out I’m lying, she’ll tear me limb from limb.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Don’t worry. I can take care of myself.”

“Couldn’t care less. I’m talking about my mother. They way you’ve put it, you’ve turned her into a villain. What if Bai She—”

“Don’t worry about that.”

I explained to her the full plan. She squirmed on her feet, trying to hide how impressed she was. A couple drifted past us, chatting about how the latest caped crusader punched the bad guy into space. I ran my eye over the movie schedule: there was another showing starting in ten minutes.

In the darkened theatre, she continued giving me orders. “Just in case, I want you to get Sherry out of the house.”

“If you’re really that worried, just move back in.”

“We aren’t on speaking terms. I know a few friends she has in Japan. I’ll arrange a trip.”

“You can do that?”

In the darkness, she didn’t notice me slip off my mask.

“I’ll just say Sherry’s dying of cancer. The sort they are, they’ll happily drag her on an extended bucket list vacation.”

“Proud of you,” I said. It felt great saying it, without the mask to muffle my voice. And now I could study every shadowy contour of her face, without her stopping to interrogate me.

“Sure. I’ll leave it to you to convince her.”

The opening credits started, and the audience hushed. After seventy minutes, the heart-pounding climax arrived where the monster had the hero in its grasp. It was a very well-crafted scene, calculated to put the audience on the edge of their seats. Rachel gripped her right armrest, the one closer to me, such that her fingers were inches from my own.

When the world falls out from under you, you latch on to what feels the most familiar.

Bai She grew really good at bluffing. Of course, I bluffed that her bluffing bluffed me, but nevertheless there were a few rounds where she genuinely surprised me. On those occasions, where her Guard card was revealed to be the magnanimous Princess, she unleashed a joyful laugh as her snakes whacked the cards out of my hand.

Her familiars were used to me by now. At any given time at least two would be slithering under my shirt, rubbing their fangs against my pulsing veins. Bai She and Sherry never met at night anymore. I was Bai She’s new target now. The next step had to begin quickly.

First came the favour to my client. Rachel’s extra orders were unnecessary and only created further risk. Although—I supposed if Sherry was out of the picture, it would make my job easier. When the call from Japan came, she dithered predictably, but I was on hand to convince her that during her absence, Bai She would come to love her again.

Bai She handled the departure well. With Sherry gone, the entire house became her territory. Snakes chewed up the tablecloth or sunbathed over the sink. When I went to loot Sherry’s room, I walked into a cloud of cotton. Where Sherry’s bed had been now lay a pile of broken wood and stuffing.

On the start of the third week, nestled amongst a bodyguard now thick as her elbow, Bai She threw me an angelic smile. “I got you, Mr. Lye! Gooot you!”

Her voice was lost over the constant hissing in my ears. “Good one,” I replied, gathering up the cards again.

“If my mom plays, I’d thrash the shit out of her, right? Right?”

“No question,” I declared. “You’re a genius.”

A prick on my neck. As gently as I could, I pried the snake off and laid it on the floor.

“Mr. Lye,” the snake demon said. “Would you like to stay over tomorrow night?”

Finally. I had reached the point where I had Bai She’s complete trust. The plan now approached its final phase. For this, I would pile the thread with one final burst of weight. I would take her out, treat her like an adult. The arcade, a delicious meal, maybe even a little wine. Make sure our last day together was something she’d never forget. Then, when approaching the climax, where she was already lying on her bed in eager anticipation, I would pop off to the store for some drinks first.

She would never see me again. Later, when emerging confused from her room, she would find our board games ripped to shreds. The entire house ransacked, silverware from the cabinet gone. Her snakes having vanished, assumedly to be sold in the black market (in actuality I would break their necks and throw their corpses into the river). She would also realise her distrust of Sherry was misplaced, but the thread had long since snapped. Bai She would never be able to form another connection again. She could suck on prey all she wanted from then on, but the blood would come out dry.

She would learn an important lesson that day. And be all the better for it.

The karaoke booth was tiny. We squeezed together on a single ottoman until our thighs were touching. There was a musky smell here, the scent of untended plaster. Coloured lights flashed around us at puzzling intervals, and a song from twelve years ago belted out of the box television. Two cans of cheap beer sat on our laps.

I delivered my report. This perfect outcome was imminent. Bai She would stop being a naïve child, and Sherry would lose her poisonous crutch. Would Rachel prefer to make payment by wire or cash?

Her shoulders relaxed. Using the alcohol as an excuse, she even let out a satisfied sigh. “Give me your account number,” she said.

She waited for me to negotiate. Suddenly demand an extra cut, or wrangle for more jobs. I said nothing and buried my mask in beer.

“Why did you help me?” she asked.

“What kind of a question is that?”

“The money’s cheap change to you. I know that.”

“Then why did you offer me in the first place?”

“Because you were my only hope. And I’m still amazed you agreed.”

“Alright. I’ll be honest. It’s because you’re such an easy mark I couldn’t resist coming back.”

“Seriously!?” She flashed me a smile for the first time—a blatantly artificial one. “You really thought I would fall in love with you again?”

I threw my hands up. “Guess that didn’t work. Damn it.”

The lights dimmed as the singer launched into a crooning ballad. I got up and yelled for the receptionist to bring us a second round.

“So,” Rachel said, tracing her finger idly on the seat. “This is our last meeting, then.”

“What a sad occasion.”

“Since it is, let me thank you formally as an adult.”


“You did a good job.” She stood up. “I guess your soul can rest easy now, having redeemed yourself.”

“No more sleepless nights for me.”

She nodded to me and walked towards the door.

“Wait,” I said.


“Not going to sing?”

She paused with her hand on the doorknob.

I was only half paying attention to the game. I couldn’t help thinking how I was going to miss this country. The weather was needlessly hot, and no one spoke Japanese, but three weeks here and it felt like a return to home.

“Mr. Lye,” Bai She said. Her innocent eyes peeked out from her cards. “Why do people lie?”

“Bai She, I’ve told you before. People are people.”

I would come back soon, I decided. Probably in December, during Rachel’s leave, where we would take a cruise around the island and take turns stealing each other’s food.

“But isn’t it better for people to understand each other?”

I looked up at Bai She, genuinely proud of how far she had come, how much she questioned.

“Listen well, Bai She. You should never want to be understood. Use your words carefully. Hide your wishes with a mask. If someone guesses who you really are, then you’ve lost the game.”

All four snakes circled round me, thirsty for blood. I knew she wouldn’t make a move yet. She was entirely dependent on my command.

“Mr. Lye,” Bai She asked, “is that why you lied to me?”

I did a perfect job. I was confident of that. Laying down the foundation for weeks, ensuring no mistakes slipped through the cracks. That was why, as the snakes tore off my mask and burrowed into my cheeks, I realised the fault didn’t lie with me.

“Goooot you.” Tears were streaming down Bai She’s face, and she was smiling. “You liar.”

I tried to reform the mask, to construct a plea for my life, but angry fangs darted out to split the plastic into pieces. I collapsed, choking on my own skin and blood.

“That woman,” Bai She said. “Who was she? She showed me proof, though. She’s not a liar.”

But she was. A soulless, ungrateful, beautiful liar. When had Rachel decided to betray me? Back in the karaoke room, where she learned the plan was already complete and it didn’t matter whether I was alive or dead by the end of it? Or had she already visualized my mangled corpse at the lily pond? When her hand rested on mine in the theatre? When she thanked me with those earnest eyes? When was it?

The scar on my neck, on our very first meeting in the airport. It hadn’t healed, because Rachel hadn’t forgotten.

It was growing cold. The demon brought her foot down, again and again. I started to give in. There was no point getting angry any longer. My little girl had grown up to be a fine young woman. The only regret was that I would never get another chance to play the game with her again.

© 2022 Timothy Yeo

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