A sequel to Prudence and the Dragon, published in Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 in February 2011 and reprinted by The World SF Blog in March 2012. You can download an epub of this story here: click here to download ebook.
The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life
by Zen Cho
Angela was stalking herself.
She was packing for Japan and she had better things to worry about than doppelgangers, so she was trying to pretend her self wasn’t there.
She thought she would probably need one pair of formal shoes, but she couldn’t decide whether she should pack the new fancy shoes—which were beautiful and appropriate, but untried—or the old stalwart black peeptoes. They were a little manky, but they had seen her through May Balls and medsoc dinners alike.
“Bring both,” said her old self.
Her old self could not enter the room without Angela’s permission. She hovered at the window, peering in.
Angela was not going to invite her in. It was a cold night, but the dead don’t feel the cold.
“I’m travelling light,” said Angela. She set the new shoes down and picked up the old pair. What did it matter if they were scuffed? They had never let her down before. “I’m not bringing you also. All the more I shouldn’t be bringing extra shoes.”
“What lah, not bringing me,” said her old self. “I’m part of you what.”
The thaumaturge had confirmed this.
The problem was that Angela’s best friend was dating a dragon. Initially Angela hadn’t noticed any side-effects. Just the usual sort of thing. Outrage that her best friend was no longer as available as she used to be, that Angela was no longer the first person she called when she wanted to watch a musical or go to the park.
But these were ordinary incidents of the readjustment of a best friendship. Angela had got over it in time.
She was having difficulty getting over being split into two people, though.
“Considering you’re in constant contact with a dragon, it’s no surprise that your blood magic levels are so high,” the thaumaturge had said. “But they’re not at a level where I would usually be concerned about the impact on your health. You’d be surprised at the human body’s tolerance for atmospheric magic. You hear of people living on the border of Fairyland all their lives and never coming to any harm of it. Their children are all engineers and accountants.”
Angela cast a sideways glance at the girl who had followed her to the clinic.
“What about her, then?” she said.
“Eh, I have a name, OK,” said the girl. “Pik Mun.”
“That’s my name,” said Angela to the thaumaturge. “That’s my self, actually. She’s me. That’s not normal, is it?”
“Yes, well,” said the thaumaturge. “As I said, your blood magic levels are in the normal range, but I’m afraid you seem abnormally susceptible to thaumaturgical influence. Have you noticed any other symptoms of disproportionate magic uptake?”
“Besides suddenly having an evil twin, you mean?”
“I’m not evil,” said Pik Mun belligerently. “I’m just you.”
The thaumaturge politely ignored their bickering.
“Waking up several feet above your bed, for example,” she said. “Sleep flying is a very common symptom. Or transmutations of ordinary household objects into magical creatures, or vice versa.”
“I had a patient with a similar complaint, whose main symptom was the ability to see pixies in her garden,” said the thaumaturge. “Unfortunately her other symptom was the ability to turn pixies into spoons. She found it very distressing. She had to sell up and move when the pixies declared war. You could hardly blame them, of course.”
“No,” said Angela. “This is the only symptom I’ve noticed. How come my best friend isn’t showing any signs of magic absorption? She’s the one who’s going out with the magical dragon.”
“From what you’ve told me, it sounds like she’s immune to magic,” said the thaumaturge. “That’s probably why you were drawn to each other. Magic often likes to work that way.”
She pulled a sympathetic face. She was really a very pretty woman, with pale brown skin, short hair in lots of springy curls and a charming sprinkle of freckles on her nose.
She’d offered no remedies, however, save for suggesting that Angela remove herself from the source of exposure.
Angela wasn’t going to stop hanging out with her best friend just because doing so literally split her in two. But a language camp in Japan had sounded like the ideal opportunity to reduce her blood magic levels and try to get some thinking space, away from her pestersome other self.
She had to leave for Heathrow early the next morning. Angela finished packing, ignoring the heckling from the window, and got to bed by eleven. But it took her a long time to fall asleep.
She shouldn’t have looked up her thaumaturge on Facebook. She’d done it because she was wondering about her name. Misola: such a pretty name. If she hadn’t looked her up she wouldn’t have found out that Misola was dating a woman.
Particularly susceptible, indeed.
“You’re so scared for what?” said the voice at the window.
“Can you please go away or not?” said Angela. She rolled over and buried her face under a pillow.
It was summer and the air was as close and sticky as it would have been back home in Malaysia. The nearest convenience store was 45 minutes’ walk away, along a path winding past houses and rows of vending machines down the hill.
The hostel was sonorously empty: Angela and the other English teachers were the only ones staying there. In the mornings they taught English lessons; in the afternoons they learnt Japanese. The day finished at four and after that Angela was free.
There was something magical about that hill, but it was a magic that had nothing to do with dragons or pixies or doppelgangers. It breathed from the trees and the silence and the early-morning mist.
Up here, Angela thought, she would escape herself.
“Sometimes past selves come back to seek closure,” the thaumaturge had explained. “They’re not unlike real ghosts. They hang around because of unfinished business. Was there any trauma—any unanswered questions—associated with that time of your life?”
Angela hadn’t been sure what to say.
Like everyone else, she had improved beyond recognition after secondary school. She’d benefited from the usual remedies for unattractiveness: self-confidence, freedom from school uniforms, and a decent hair-cut. She’d discovered that she was sociable, competent, and interested in other people. Her twenties had been a dream of pleasantness, and that was even though she’d spent most of it at clinical school.
But her adolescence hadn’t been unhappy either. It had just been normal. Being 25 was a lot better than being 15, but wasn’t that true for everyone?
The name change had been a purely pragmatic decision. She’d started going by Angela in her first year at uni, to make it easier on British tutors who stumbled over her real name. It had stuck. There was no denying “Angela” was more euphonious than “Pik Mun”.
She wasn’t running away from anything in her past. She’d lived through her past, hadn’t she? She’d been Pik Mun already. What was wrong with being Angela now?
If you walked around with food at night the wild boars came out. Despite their wildness they were not aggressive—one of the other teachers had managed to take a picture of one before it fled.
Angela took to striding around the park with fragrant boxes of takeaway in plastic bags banging against her knee. She did it out of competitiveness as much as anything else. She was the only one of the teachers not to have seen a wild boar.
She was eating chicken kara age in the park when it happened. She speared a piece of fried chicken with a chopstick and looked up. The boar was right in front of her.
It was smaller than she’d expected, about the size of a collie, with longish dark fur and amber eyes.
Moving slowly, Angela fumbled around in her bag until she felt her camera. She took a photo of the boar one-handed, the chicken wobbling on her chopstick.
She’d forgotten to turn off the flash. It went off like a bolt of lightning. Angela started and dropped her chicken. The boar scooped it up neatly.
“Wah, flash some more,” it said in a muffled voice. It swallowed. “You not scared meh? The zoo always say don’t use flash when you take photo.”
“You—you—you can talk?” stammered Angela, until she realised that it was her own voice that had spoken.
“Yah, it’s me,” said the boar. “Pig Mun.” It snorted with pleasure.
“You’re a wild boar now?” said Angela. “How come you’re a wild boar? I thought you’re suppose to be me!”
Angela had never seen a boar shrug before, but the image was not as jarring as she would’ve thought. All those anthropomorphised Disney animals she’d watched in childhood had obviously left their mark.
“I don’t like planes,” said Pig Mun.
“I got over that already,” said Angela.
“No, we didn’t,” said Pig Mun. “You still don’t like planes. You just put up with it. Since I can do magic, I might as well use another route what, right?”
“You keep following me for what?” said Angela. “Can’t you go back to where you belong?”
“That’s nice,” said Pig Mun. “You sound like BNP like that. I have a valid three-month visa, OK. You should know what. You applied for it.”
“You know what I mean,” snapped Angela. “Back to the past.”
“I don’t belong in the past,” said Pig Mun.
Angela recoiled, but not far enough. Pig Mun’s bristly snout brushed her chest.
“There,” said Pig Mun. “Inside you.”
“No,” said Angela. “No, no, no. I’ve been you already. What’s your problem? I’m grown up now! Not even our parents want me to be a kid anymore!”
“I don’t want you to go back to being me,” said Pig Mun. She didn’t say what she did want, but she didn’t need to. After all, they were the same person—even if one of them was a wild boar.
“Isn’t everybody embarrassed about their teenage selves?” said Angela. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Everything is wrong,” said Pig Mun. “If you’re the teenage self.”
Angela smashed the plastic cover down on her bento and shoved it into the plastic bag. She got up. “Well, who ask you to come back anyway?”
“You lah!” Pig Mun shouted behind her. “You asked. You’re me, remember?”
That sort of thing was all right on other people. But if you’d managed to grow out of that awkward stage and shed the accent and even worked off the fat, then fate shoving all of that back onto you just seemed petty.
Angela refused to go back to that. What she liked about being an adult was being able to control her life.
This was why she she agreed to go to the Obon festival celebrations with the other English teachers when the Japanese students invited them. Anyone would think that Angela would avoid something as magical as the celebration of a festival, in a season as heavy with humid, thunderous magic as the tropical summer.
But it was the sort of thing she would have gone in for with enthusiasm if she was not being pursued by her dead teenage self. She wouldn’t let herself be constrained by the shadow of Pik Mun.
The Obon festival turned out to be like a carnival. Angela drank half a pint of beer and the world lit up. She floated along in her borrowed yukata, feeling beautiful and attachless, smiling beatifically upon the crowd.
It was all reassuringly human. There were alleys of stalls selling delightful-smelling food. The stream of humanity was not offensive and sour-tempered, as humanity taken in the mass tends to be, but beautiful and individual—exquisite girls and boys in yukata; parents with toddlers on their shoulders; old people strolling along, arm-in-arm with their children.
There was a high wooden platform reared up in the middle of the field, on top of which there was a band and a very enthusiastic emcee. When Angela got close enough she realised the people encircling the platform were dancing.
“Come and dance,” said her students.
“Oh no,” said Angela, hanging back. She’d bought some takoyaki to offset the half-pint of beer and her hands were sticky with grease and mayonnaise.
It was a simple routine, a bit like line dancing—repeated movements of the head and hands and feet, nothing fancy with the hips. The dance was led by a group of older women wearing blue-and-white yukata: they danced with the focus of surgeons carrying out a delicate operation, with the superhuman intensity of a star ballerina.
Angela was so charmed she let herself be bullied into joining, despite her sticky hands and bonito-flaked mouth. She was craning her head to try to see what the nearest Japanese auntie was doing when Pik Mun’s face hove into view.
“Argh!” said Angela.
“I didn’t know you’re into this kind of thing,” said Pik Mun. “I thought we hated dancing.”
“I told you, I’ve grown out of all that,” said Angela. “Dancing is fun. Especially if you’re a bit drunk.”
“Become like a Mat Salleh already, huh,” said Pik Mun.
She was wearing the unflattering turquoise pinafore and white shirt of the Malaysian secondary school uniform. It didn’t suit her. It looked especially incongruous because she was dancing as well, with mechanical perfection, never putting a step wrong.
“How come you know how to do that?” said Angela, trying to watch Pik Mun’s feet while clapping her hands and bobbing her head in the prescribed pattern.
“Don’t you know what this festival is?” said Pik Mun. “You didn’t even ask what it’s all about before you happy-happy put on your Japanese baju and join in? Angela, what happened to your curiosity? You think you know everything, is it? Grown ups are so dungu!”
It was the first time Pik Mun had ever addressed her as Angela. It was the first time she’d really scolded her, though Angela had told her off plenty of times.
They fell quiet. The music went on. People’s voices bounced off their bubble of awkwardness.
“Soran, soran!” roared the crowd, following the lead of the singer on the platform.
Angela and Pik Mun kept dancing, moving in their circle with clockwork regularity.
“Sorry,” said Pik Mun.
“They told me there’ll be dancing and fireworks,” said Angela. “I thought it was just for fun.”
“It’s the Hungry Ghost Festival,” said Pik Mun, not unkindly. “Japanese is a bit different, they have it at a different time because they don’t follow the lunar calendar so much. What lah you.”
“Oh,” said Angela. She looked around. “This is nicer than our celebrations.”
Traditionally, of course, the Hungry Ghost Festival had been celebrated with Cantonese opera performances to entertain the returning dead. Nowadays people put miniskirted girls on open-air stages to belt out raucous Cantopop. It was like any other concert, except the first line of chairs was left empty for the ghosts.
“Here everybody gets to join,” said Angela.
“Back home everybody gets to join,” said Pik Mun. “If they don’t want to listen also, they can’t get away from it. Hah! Remember when Dad called the police and tried to get them to ask the temple people to turn down the volume, and the police told him he should pray to the gods and say sorry for offending the dead?”
Angela laughed at the memory.
“Dad was so angry,” she said. “He went around talking bad about the festival to everybody at church.”
“Even our relatives started avoiding him,” said Pik Mun. “I remember Ji Ee Poh pulled me into the kitchen and said, ‘Hai, your father, making life very difficult for we all. Ever since he convert to Christianity he become so intolerant. Don’t believe in ghosts is one thing, but why talk bad about them some more? That is just asking for trouble.’”
“It’s not the Christianity,” said Angela. “I think Dad was always a bit like that. From young also.”
“Dad is too extreme,” said Pik Mun. “He should be more flexible.”
“Me also,” said Angela.
“Yah,” said Pik Mun. “Us also.”
Dinner was extravagant, with the severe delicacy of Japanese food: fish, tofu and vegetables sitting in their separate compartments. There was also nabe in bubbling hot pots distributed along the table.
The other students drank beer. Angela stuck to tea.
Angela ate half her fish and stopped to look out at the river. If you ate slowly your stomach got used to the food and you felt full earlier. It was a good way to avoid overeating.
The river was worth looking at. It had still been light when they’d got on the barge, but night had fallen with tropical swiftness. They weren’t the only barge on the river; there were several others, similarly outfitted, and the orange light from the lanterns trembling on the black waters was beautiful. In the distance the mountains were a dark forested mystery.
Were there tengu brooding in those trees? Before she’d been split into two, Angela had known magic was real, but she hadn’t thought about it as something that applied to herself. Some people courted that kind of thing—went to bomoh for charms and love potions, studied spells, prayed to the spirits of the earth and air and water.
Angela had never even watched Charmed. Being a doctor seemed a much more concrete way of working miracles.
But now she was only half a person, anything seemed possible. Tengu might come flying out of their mountain fastnesses, the wind from their wings snuffing out the lanterns. River dragons might raise gleaming horse-like heads out of the waters around them. She might discover something new about herself at the august age of 25.
A sigh rose from the other diners. “Ah!”
“What is it?” said Angela to her neighbour.
“The birds are fishing—look!” The neighbour pointed with her chopsticks.
Angela could only see flashes of light in the darkness. The flame of a torch lit the face of an old man, labouring in the bow of a boat on the other side of the river. She couldn’t see any birds.
She turned, wanting to ask her neighbour where the birds were and what they were doing, but as she did so she saw Pik Mun out of the corner of her eye.
Pik Mun was in the water, dog-paddling calmly along the side of the boat.
“How long have you been there?” said Angela.
“Long enough,” said Pik Mun. “You finish your dinner yet or not? You took half an hour to eat that fish.”
There was quite a lot of food left in Angela’s lacquer box.
“Yeah, done already,” she said. “Nowadays I only eat till 70% full.”
Pik Mun was so outraged she missed a stroke. She went down and came up with a mouthful of water, spluttering. “What’s this 70%? If you sit for exam and get 70%, that’s not even a 1A!”
“70% is a First,” said Angela.
“OK. OK. I see how it is,” said Pik Mun coldly. “Your standards have gone down. This is called life experience, is it?”
“My standards haven’t gone down,” said Angela. “They’re just different.”
“If it was me I would have eaten all,” said Pik Mun. “Except the enoki mushrooms—”
“—because they taste funny,” Angela agreed.
“At least you remember that,” said Pik Mun. “Tired lah.”
“I’m not surprised, you’ve been swimming so long.”
“Tired of you lah!” said Pik Mun. “You forgot what it’s like to be me, is it? Don’t you miss me at all?”
She looked wistful.
“I don’t know if I miss you,” Angela said. “You’re a lot wiser than I actually was at 15. I was pretty stupid as a teenager.”
“That’s what you think now,” said Pik Mun. “You didn’t think so then. You should be kinder to yourself.”
“I didn’t finish yet,” Angela chided her. “I said, you’re a lot wiser than I was when I was an annoying teenager. So I guess I should listen to you. You want a hand up?”
Pik Mun stopped paddling. For a moment she floated in the water, suspended.
“You sure?” said Pik Mun.
“Yes,” said Angela.
“If you take my hand it’ll change you,” said Pik Mun. “You made me go away for a reason, you know. If I come back you might remember stuff you want to forget.”
Angela held out her hand. Pik Mun took it.
As Pik Mun climbed in their hands became one. Her elbows locked into Angela’s elbows, her knees into Angela’s knees. Angela’s hips widened. Her face got rounder. The flesh under her chin pouched out. Her vision blurred.
She blinked, and then she could see clearly again. She was solid, weighted to the deck by her new substantiality.
Pik Mun was more pugnacious than her, not as well-groomed, rougher-edged. Angela before she’d had all the unevenness sanded off. But she needed to have a surface that could catch on things; she needed to be capable of friction.
She looked down at the river. The orange light showed Angela her reflection, hazy and dark. Pik Mun smiled back at her from the water.
Somebody touched their arm.
“Are you OK?” said Angela’s neighbour. “You almost fell in!”
“I’m OK,” said Angela. She smiled at the girl.
The girl blushed.
Angela’s stomach growled. She turned back to the table. “Good food, eh?”
“Yeah, really good,” said the girl. She looked away, then back, then away again. She was smiling despite her discomfiture, smiling helplessly, almost against her will.
Now that’s called charisma, said Pik Mun approvingly inside Angela’s head.
Angela ate all of the fish. It was delicious.
It was silly to have kicked up so much of a fuss over it. Nobody cared nowadays, did they? OK, so Angela’s family would probably care, but that hadn’t been the reason why she’d tried to ignore it for ten years.
The reason had been embarrassment.
Picture Pik Mun, 15 years old, not yet Angela, not yet beautiful. She’s in love with her best friend and it’s leading her down perilous paths. For example, the one that ends in her kissing the best friend, on a hot afternoon after school.
Pik Mun had known immediately that it had been the wrong thing to do.
“Never mind,” she said, but Prudence was already talking.
“What’s wrong with you?” said Prudence.
“Nothing,” said Pik Mun. “It was just a—I don’t know. Never mind! Forget about it.”
“Do you like me?” said Prudence, in dawning horror. “Do you, like, have a crush on me?”
“No, no, no,” said Pik Mun. Each “no” sounded less convinced than the last. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have did that.”
“It’s like kissing my sister,” said Prudence. She had never been a tactful girl.
“You don’t even have a sister!”
“Why did you do that?” said Prudence. “Are you … ” she lowered her voice. “Are you a gay?”
Pik Mun’s eyes prickled.
“But you were dating that guy,” said Prudence. “The prefect. Were you using him to hide the fact you’re gay?”
“I’m not gay!” said Pik Mun.
“Then?” said Prudence.
“I liked Kenrick,” said Pik Mun. But she’d stopped liking him. She’d started liking Prudence instead. That had been unexpected. “I wasn’t faking it. I stopped liking him because he started talking about football all the time. Doesn’t mean I never liked him.”
“So do you like girl or boy?” said Prudence.
“I don’t know,” said Pik Mun. She hesitated. “Both?”
“Where got people like both one?” said Prudence. At that point, her parents’ green Kancil had driven into the school car park. Prudence got up.
“Pik Mun, you must figure yourself out,” she said. “Think about it and let me know when you decide. Call my home phone if you want to talk. But don’t like me, OK?”
“Not like I choose to like you also,” said Pik Mun.
“Choose to stop,” said Prudence firmly. “I like you very much as friend, but this whole crush thing is a bit weird.”
Pik Mun’s crush had been smothered by the embarrassment. It went out without a whimper. And she hadn’t liked another girl for ten years.
It was a long time to be hiding from yourself, and a stupid reason for doing it. But youth was for doing stupid things in anyway.
And Angela was still young.
She called Prudence instead.
“I’m Facebooking my thaumaturge,” she said.
“Why?” said Prudence.
Angela hesitated. But ten years was a long time to pretend something wasn’t there.
“She’s super my type,” said Angela. “Got girlfriend already, but girlfriend doesn’t mean married, right?”
The line crackled. Angela’s chest seized up.
Prudence said, horrified, “Angela! That’s so bad! Don’t go stealing people’s woman!”
“Joking only lah,” said Angela.
“If you want, I can introduce people to you,” said Prudence. “Girl or boy also can. You specify. But don’t go and chase other people’s girlfriend. Hmph. After you stay in Japan you become so immoral.”
Angela was smiling. “I put on weight also,” she said.
“Is it?” said Prudence. “Don’t eat so much takoyaki. Eat more seaweed. That one not fattening.”
“I think it suits me,” said Angela.
“Oh? Then forget about the seaweed lah,” said Prudence. “So long as you’re OK with yourself. Are you OK with yourself, Pik Mun?”
“Yah, think so,” said Angela.
“Good,” said Prudence. That pretty much seemed to cover it.