The first thing you learn as you climb out of the chasm is that there are fingers to pull you down. They are icy, taloned, the poltergeists of lives past and regrets buried. Your skin sloughed off long ago and your bones grind together, wearing down, but that’s fine because once you reach the light you’re promised new ones. Skin smooth with the prime of youth, bones gorgeous white and precious as fresh ivory.
When you’re not climbing out of that pit, you work at a temp agency. Each day you review client specs and send out resumes and send out people. It pleases you to make a successful placement: there is order to it, symmetry. Something is fulfilled and entropy is held back. You are the first to clock in, the last to clock out. This year you’ll be offered another raise—your bosses think you’re an addict for work, though really it is that the office gives you refuge from the long climb, the endless hum of ghosts. It is not as though you have friends or family with whom to socialize. Your salary allows you to eat out with middling luxury and you could move into a bigger apartment. Only you’ve tried that before. The chasm follows you.
Sometimes you believe the deep void is the reality and this—the temp agency, the skyscrapers and molasse traffic that make up Krungthep—is the dream. You have not witnessed evidence to the contrary. What you would like to think is that the chasm is one single nightmare, continuous, recurring. The problem is that you have no memory of anything else: you don’t recall waking up, brushing your teeth, showering. Once you step out your door, you’re the office worker, eyes lined and face powdered and lips modestly painted neutral pink. Prim outfit, as if someone else has chosen it for you, cream blouse and jacket and pencil skirt. The colors change, on occasion, but the form rarely varies.
What you fantasize is that you are a gecko or a spider, creatures that nature has made capable of scaling any surface, no matter how sheer or vertical.
Friday morning. You eat breakfast in the office—everyone does, as long as it’s something relatively tidy, panini or ice cream mochi, or fried fishcakes drizzled in sweet chili sauce—and begin the day’s workload. Most of it is routine: clients want maids, specialist consultants, live-in nurses. Your agency does all kinds, from the mundane to the esoteric.
So it is without surprise when you come to the listing that asks not for domestic help or seasonal baristas, but for a woman suffering from a curse. Of course there are believers, there are people who have sent in requests for supernatural assistance—a shaman to conjure curses, a monk to exorcise houses of unkind spirits, a fortune-teller to advise a clear path. You’ve even facilitated those matches, though you don’t believe; they are just another assignment, more hours to log and justify your pay. This person must have submitted their information through the wrong channel, the wrong form. You look at her contact information. She prefers phone.
It is not your favorite way to communicate. Nevertheless it is a duty. You check the time: it is not too early, and she listed herself as reachable from eight to five. Businesslike.
Dial tone. One ring. The other end picks up. “Yes?” Her voice is like oodh and frangipani.
“Khun Suvanan.” A name made famous by a celebrity, some time ago. “I’m contacting you regarding your listing with . . . ”
“Very good. Have you found me a match?”
“No, I’m reaching out to you to let you know that—”
“I’m glad you did.” Her breathing is even; a clink of glass in the background—speakerphone. “Now that I hear you, I can be sure. You are a woman suffering from a curse, quite an abstract one. Would you mind meeting me at a restaurant?” She names a place far out of your budget, fine dining, Cantonese. Imported abalones, shark fins like gold leaves.
Your supervisor, listening in, pulls something up on her screen and turns the monitor toward you. Suvanan Ruengsiri has an existing account here, an enormous one, tied to scores of bulk placements over the years. Jewelry shops, expensive bistros, designer cosmetic counters. You understand the meaning; you agree to Suvanan’s request. The job should not matter, if all of this is not real in any case, but you enjoy it. It offers stability, a place to commute to in the morning.
In record time, you arrive at the restaurant, an old house of teak and glass and new steel. Half-hidden by trees, a place of green shadow and dappled light. Suvanan Ruengsiri has a window seat, isolated. You exchange greetings, hers perfunctory, yours with the utmost courtesy. An important account, after all.
“You’re the woman with the curse,” she says, and it is as though she’s been looking for just such a person all her life—her eyes are a little wide, ravenous, and she leans a little too far forward. “But first let’s get you fed. What will you have? The menu’s excellent. The abalones are to die for and there’s this dish with the wagyu beef.”
Opulence surrounds you. Gold, red, nacre. Suvanan wears jewelry with the harshness of sun-glare and her dress is silk, falling in shades of topaz, umber, citrine. She has it all, though it’s not the wealth you envy, it’s the way she speaks. It is as if the world is a slab of meat, juicy and flavored, that she’s poised to gobble down whole. To this woman, the world is not an obstacle or a trial to endure.
You make small talk. She nods, half-interested, her eyes following the line of your jaw and throat. Intent, as if she sees in that line a marvelous geometry, a sight of rare beauty: a delicious thing that she can taste. Then she says, “I’m a tiger. But it’s not human flesh that I eat, it’s curses.”
You are prepared to stare at her, to disbelieve, to try to find a way to disengage from this conversation—this appointment—without offending her. But the light shifts and now you are sitting not in an expensive restaurant but at a table, alone and out of place, beneath the canopies of a hundred trees. The sky is far away, unfiltered by glass or roof. The woman before you has eyes gone to a deep, limpid amber. She lifts her glass of water, takes a sip.
Tigers are picky eaters, she explains, contrary to popular belief, and select from a small pool of humans. It is unsustainable. Many among her kind have taken to other sources of sustenance. For her it is curses, the haunting of grudges, the inherited malice. She tries to describe why those are to her the most sumptuous of meals, the most pleasing to her palate, but her explanation does not make any sense. You nod, you smile—she is a valued client, even if she is delusional, even if she has somehow infected you with this vast forest and you smell the greenness of it, the mulch.
She wants to know about your curse. You oblige, describing like you would describe the symptoms of a chronic illness you’ve had since childhood, not that you remember your childhood or much else—the pit has swallowed it all. When you are done, she hums in the back of her throat. “You’ve heard that in hell sinners are made to climb a tree of thorns? It doesn’t have to be a literal tree.”
When she leaves, the restaurant returns to normal: no trees, no birdcalls. Just tablecloths and the chime of chopsticks on ceramic.
Suvanan is silent for a week. When she calls again, it is to ask if she can take a look.
Once, you brought a woman back with you. You no longer remember how you persuaded her, how advances were made or who made them, or what kind of flirtations occurred. You recall only the pounding of your pulse, the chemistry, her pushing you against the wall just outside your door.
Beyond that there was nothing, and the woman was never seen again, as though coming into contact with the void inside your home had unmade her—erased her forward and backward, so that it was as though she never existed. In every way she disappeared, even from the one blurry photo you took together.
But Suvanan must be different, you tell yourself. She has shown you the forest, she is more.
When she arrives at your apartment complex, her clothes are more austere, more antique gold than citrine, and she says that she’s been eating lean. For a curse the magnitude of yours, she will need a great deal of stomach; her appetite must be its equal.
In the lift, you say nothing. She continues to stare at your neck, at the jugular perhaps. You expect a glimpse of claws or incisors too sharp to be human, but for now she looks like any other woman, though more famished than most.
The lift dings. Your floor.
The corridor stretches, though not for long: it is not an immense complex, the building tall and narrow, and the floors are well-lit. Warm paints, warm bulbs, potted ferns in clusters. It is pleasant, unaffected by what dwells within your room. On a bright day, the sun streams bold and unimpeded through the windows, washing the floor in brilliant heat. If you were someone else and you were told this is a haunted place, you would never credit the thought.
As for what the interior of your room looks like, you haven’t seen that for years. You must have, at one point. It must have existed, once.
She asks for your key. You hand it over with the swiftness of a coward. It’ll be over soon, she promises. Get something to eat, she urges, you don’t have to stay here and wait.
You wait, all the same.
Less than an hour ticks past before she comes out, emerging from a door through which you can see something: a sliver of window, sunlight, furniture. You’ve never seen anything there before save the dark, fathomless and colorless. “It’s done,” Suvanan tells you.
You want to hope. You spend your half-day at work going through the motions. Suvanan’s listing has disappeared, as has her client profile, account, every trace that she’s ever utilized your agency. Her contact information has vanished from your phone. But you think this is due to her nature, that tiger brilliance she warmed you with, just for a little while.
The half-day passes. You rush home, forfeiting dinner.
When you open the door you can see what your room holds, the couch in unremarkable gray, the floor in maroon carpet. So ordinary. So endlessly fascinating. You are going to step in and you’ll touch everything, you will recline on a bed or a sofa and savor the simple comfort of it, you will turn the lights on and off; you’ll test every lamp and faucet, you will take hours in the bath or the shower. You’ve never even seen the fixtures of your bathroom and the idea excites you inordinately. Linoleum or marble, brass or stainless steel, you can’t wait to meet them all.
When you step through, you’re back in the dark. There’s that sense, not of quite falling, but of never having moved elsewhere. You’re clinging to a ridged wall and there is nothing to be seen, nothing at all. Even your hand disappears into this lightless place and the ghosts scrabble, as they ever have, at your ankles and the backs of your knees. This time their wrenching is fierce, their strength greater. It’s all you can do to cling to where you are, to stop yourselves from backsliding.
Within the pit, you never cry. The ascent requires all of your energy, demands all of your thought.
But you never stop climbing. You never allow yourself to plummet.
It’s hard to tell when the darkness changes, when the shadows recede, piecemeal. But there is the most minute shift. Something becomes visible. It is the glint of your own fingernails, much cracked, eaten through. For the first time in ages uncounted you quicken your pace, as much as you can, as much as your remaining body allows.
You climb up and the light is there all along, the glint of gold reflecting off tiger irises: beautiful. You push up and ever up, the last of your strength; you fall into the tiger’s eager mouth, and that is just as well. When you rise again, you’re enclosed within a pelt the color of suns and candlelight and you’re teeth, teeth. Your maw holds the strength with which to snap down on the world entire. The glistening muscles of your legs pull taut as you stretch and you’ve never known so much freedom, it is as though you’ve broken a fever at last, a lifelong disease that folded you in darkness and now finally you understand what it is to come through, what it is to see.
There are two tigers. She nudges you gently with her head and in the language of tigers she speaks to you, releases onto your tongue a river of secrets that can only be conveyed to those of the claw: the secrets taste sanguine and suculent, like the flesh of a new fawn.
Together you trot off. The space is limitless, the forest eternal. Your feet, all four, pound the soil. You’re master of what you survey, lord of this domain. What crosses your path flees, or it becomes food.
You run, and run.