Why I Say We’re Cousins by Shih-Li Kow


When Nain and I reached the Mersing Jetty, a storm was rolling in. The ticketing clerk shrugged when I asked about the stalled ferry service to the islands. “Don’t know. Wait and see,” he said. We waited. There wasn’t much else we could do after driving five hours to see a meteor shower on Tioman Island that night.

At the ferry terminal, people stared at Nain as they always did. Men looked at the inch of belly showing between her shorts and her top; the contours of her chest and her hips; her bare arms and shoulders. A Malay woman’s gaze flicked between Nain and the men. Sometimes, she aimed her disapproval at me despite the headscarf and shapeless baju kurung that I wore. I knew the look, censorious and inquiring at the same time. Nain and I made an odd pair; she bold, I demure. I held the woman’s gaze for a few blinks, enough to make her look away, but not long enough to be a challenge. I hoped nobody would start a conversation. If they did, I’d say that Nain was my cousin who had just returned from abroad, as if that explained everything.

I had considered removing my head scarf as an act of solidarity with Nain. A gesture of love. But I’d worn the hijab since I was twelve. Taking it off was like stripping skin. Anyway, hair and clothes had nothing to do with love, I told myself. Love was private. Love was subterranean roots, not showy flowers. That was why I did not hold Nain’s hand in public.

A man came over and offered to take us across in his longtail boat for a hundred ringgit. We can outrun the storm, he said. He was cross-eyed and his irises slid this way and that in a disconcerting way, but I let him take our bags and our hands as we stepped onto his swaying boat.

The boat lurched forward, wind and sea spray hit our faces. Nain laughed, happy to be on our way. She chatted with the boatman about the best spots to see the annual meteor showers. They shouted to each other over the noise of the engine like old friends. Seasick, I retched over the side. Nain rubbed my back. The boatman grinned, one eye on each of us. I looked away, my stomach queasy and puke souring on my tongue. We made it across in two hours.

Our accommodation on the beach was a narrow, wooden hut with two mattresses on the floor. I checked the locks on the door and closed the gaps in the curtains while Nain pulled the mattresses together. I sometimes worried that we would be found out by enforcement officers from the religious authority. Maybe some nosy, heaven-bound cleaner would snitch on us and men in turbans would barge in when I was curled naked against Nain. I imagined them pouring shame on us like fuel for hell fire. “Repent! Repent!” they would shout and recite Quranic verses that would whip our sinful bodies.

But it had never happened. We were not an unmarried man-woman couple who could be arrested for close proximity. Two women like us could make up a dozen excuses for being in the same room. We just needed to be cautious. Two cousins on a holiday, that’s all.

That night, we sat above the waterline and waited for meteors. Our hut was far from the tourist hotels, and the generator had stopped humming at midnight. The beach was pitch dark, the sky crisp and cloudless after the afternoon thunderstorm.

I lay with my head on Nain’s lap and read from my phone, “The nucleus of the Swift-Tuttle comet is twenty-six kilometres across which is twice the size of the object thought to have killed the dinosaurs. The debris left in the comet’s trail shows up as meteors in our sky. See anything, Nain?”

“Nothing yet, but look at the stars. I’ve never seen so many.”

I continued reading, “A comet in orbit is falling all the time. Disrupt the balance and it will shoot off into space at a tangent. Or crash.”

“That sounds like me, falling all the time. Come on, look at the sky with me.”

Before I could reply, a light was trained on us. Startled, my first instinct was to scramble to my feet and jump away from Nain.

“Hoi, what are you up to?” said a male voice. The tone was threatening.

Nain said, “Nothing. Just waiting for the meteor shower.”

The light beam moved, a yellow wedge that swept over Nain from her head to her feet and back up again to her face. Another man said, “Ish, tak senonoh.” An admonishment for indecency. One of them tapped the back of Nain’s sandy thigh with a stick. I tensed my hands into fists and realised that I had never hit anyone before, not even in jest.

Nain raised her phone, flashlight on. I saw that there were three men, all in baseball caps. She said, “Is that you, pakcik, from the boat?”

“Leave them be. Let’s look for others,” said the first man. “Go, you two. Don’t ask for trouble here.”

We ran back to our hut by the light of our phones. I locked the door and fell on the mattress in relief, heart pounding.

Nain said, “It was him, the bastard. The boatman. I saw his eyes.”

She gripped my hands, hard enough to hurt. I felt the motions of our earlier boat journey return to me, a sensation of pitching on the swells. I closed my eyes to a night sky pricked with light, gave in to our bodies in orbit, falling and falling. The comet passed us by outside, brightening the night for men with sticks and hostile eyes. We were safe for a while. In the last lucid second before I fell asleep, I reminded myself to pull the mattresses apart in the morning.

SHIH-LI KOW — Shih-Li lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her writing has been published most recently in Mekong Review, Short Fiction Journal, and Mud Season Review. She is the author of a short story collection Ripples and Other Stories. Her second book The Sum of Our Follies (tr. Frederic Grellier) won the 2018 Prix du Premier Roman Etranger.

Art by ROB KANIUK — Rob is a union carpenter in the city of Philadelphia.