He came to like a submarine creature breaking the tension of the water. It was morning. He couldn’t remember going to bed. Not because he had been drunk or exhausted the night before – he had been neither. But the edge of his memory had snagged on something, stopped abruptly around 10 pm.
Vision and colour crowded in. She was awake too; he could feel her wakefulness through the mattress.
She rolled over and said, “Thank you for not destroying my body while I was out.”
He wasn’t sure how to respond. “You’re welcome?”
It was 7 am and already the room was too warm. He could see that she’d bitten her lip, and the blood had dried in the shape of a bird.
The year before they’d allowed the garden to grow wild, both agreeing that it was better for the bees and the local wildlife if they didn’t pull up the weeds and mow the lawn. By May the garden was overrun with henbit and dandelions. Foxes used it as a toilet. The seed bomb they’d tossed at the ground from the kitchen door had produced two poppies and a wilting patch of borage that was quickly felled by the foxes. Bees, on the whole, did not visit. They decided to get very in to gardening.
She had explained that she was an ahp at the beginning of the summer. He had been kneeling in front of the tomato plants, which he’d grown from seeds, and gently tying them to bamboo canes. They occupied the sunniest corner of the garden, next to a trough where he had planted sweet peas.
He had paused in the tying. “Could you say that again?”
“An ahp.” She must have seen him tense up. He’d never gotten over this habit – panic-freezing whenever he misheard her, or when conversation veered off into ambiguous roads.
“In Thailand they call us krasue. I think in Malaysia it’s a penanggalan.” She’d paused. “I looked up the other names on Wikipedia.”
He’d run a nail down a tomato leaf. The earthy-treacle smell filled his nose. “What does an ahp do?”
“We’re women, but our heads come off at night. We detach from our bodies and fly around the neighbourhood sucking the blood of cattle. All our guts and things stay attached to the head, so we’re basically a floating digestive system.”
He’d twisted one of the leaves right off the stalk. “Not many cattle around here,” he’d murmured.
“We can eat carrion too.”
“Oh. Does it hurt?”
“The detachment? No. But the hunger does. And if you crush the body I leave behind, I’ll die in terrible agony.”
He could never imagine the ahp without the smell of tomato plants, and he mixed up the smell of tomato plants with the smell of blood.
When he was a child, he had been praised for his imagination. He wrote and illustrated stories about a superhero fish called Starmix. He played games with his siblings, where they pretended to visit an ultra-safe version of Jurassic Park. An imaginative child. It was even better than being a clever or well-behaved one.
In one of their earliest fights, she had accused him of having no imagination, and his mind had skipped back to the school reports stuck to the fridge, the craft materials his mother had lovingly provided them. These domestic images glitched. They seemed to chase one another in a circle, losing focus but increasing in saturation and colour with every repetition. Later he learned to recognise this as a symptom of a panic attack.
“You think you’re so fucking clever,” she’d shouted, “but you can’t even begin to imagine. You just guess. You fucking copy-paste from the world. You have no fucking idea what trauma is.”
After he learned that she was an ahp, he made an effort to imagine what it was like. He tried to imagine the flying: the ground dropping away, the trees sliding past, the air biting down as he left the muggy heat of the street and reached the cold, cold night above. Then he realised he was fantasizing about leaving the punishing summer weather, and had to start again.
There was a time when he’d tried to imagine trauma, the actual localised existence of trauma. He did this because he wanted to stop visualising the incidents that caused trauma, which he had started to do compulsively. So he thought about trauma as a passenger, hitched to the medulla; trauma rode the body with its fingers curled inside the skull, ready to squeeze the brain through its fingers if there was the slightest hitch in the journey. He thought about trauma as an itch, a wound, a door in the attic. He thought about her face, the way it changed mid-argument, like something living in her throat had reached up and wrenched her tongue back.
His therapist, who he’d been seeing for about six months, at her insistence, suggested that the ahp was a metaphor.
“She leaves her body behind in the bed,” said his therapist, “while her mind and her guts, as she puts it, sail out the window. It’s interesting to me that ‘guts’ can mean ‘bravery’. So she deserts herself, gutless. And her body stays in bed.”
His therapist was looking at him with an expression he translated as expectant (although, as said therapist pointed out, he often read silences as expectant).
“In bed with me?” he volunteered.
“Yes, she is, isn’t she?”
They looked at one another across the small room, inexplicably upholstered in white and indigo paisley.
“Where are you now?” asked his therapist.
“We’re- I’m in bed with her, I suppose.”
“What’s that like, being in bed with her?”
He had been waiting for the moment that his sex life would come up in his sessions. They’d already exhausted his relationship with his mother.
“Good,” he said. “She’s very confident.”
“How does that feel, her confidence?”
He wanted to say: when I first met her she’d hold my throat if she wanted to kiss me deeply. I understood the concept of surrender after she did that: it’s not just submission but desire. You have to want to give in, really badly.
“It’s…nice. It’s nice to be with someone who knows what they want.”
“Do you know what you want?”
He wanted to use the bathroom; he wanted to go home and play video games. He didn’t really know what this question was supposed to mean. Who still had their childhood dreams tied to their backpacks? Who wanted anything out of the day except a little kindness?
Sexually she was curatorial. Quite early on she’d been interested in measuring the length and width of his penis. She’d hidden her interest among breathy exclamations of oh-my-such-a-big-cock, but the erotic interest for her was in cataloguing him.
When they got to know one another better, she stopped hiding behind porno coyness. That summer, one of her interests was calculating his median heart rate at the point of orgasm. He had to lie still and not exert himself or he’d ruin the data; he would be tidily fastened to the bedposts, or a chair, or the radiator.
“I’d like to record breathing too,” she said one afternoon. “I need to work out a way to suspend a microphone.”
He stretched against the wrist ties, cracked his shoulders with a satisfied grunt. “Okay. Cuddle me?”
She crawled over him and tucked him under her. He felt her front teeth pressed lightly against his neck. They were both sweating in the heat and it changed the way they touched each other, or rather how she touched him – careful, fastidious, not wanting to discomfit him too much. No one really talked about the heat anymore. It was too sad to keep hearing the same thing. New temperature records were being set every week. On walks up to the shops he’d noticed several birds flitting from railing to pavement with their beaks parted and she’d told him they did it for the same reason any animal dropped its mouth open and looked desperate: they were thirsty. He started leaving flat dishes of water out in the garden after that.
“Do I wake you when I go out flying?” she asked him.
“No,” he said.
“Sometimes I take bites out of foxes,” she said. “But never cats. Cats and I have an understanding.”
He had an itch by his hip, asked her to scratch it. “Would you ever eat any of me?”
“No, baby. We have an understanding too.” Then: “And I love you. I don’t want to harm you. Anyway, ahps are always married, or at least with a man. Part of what makes an ahp an ahp is the return to the whole woman form. If no one wanted her to come back to her body, why would she bother?”
“Do you feel that there is inequality in your relationship?” asked his therapist.
He thought about her thunderous rages, which used to leave him frozen, not like ice but like a broken computer programme, stuck in the last working frame, brain spinning in place. He thought about packed lunches she would make him if she was working from home and he had to go in, her furious indignation whenever someone was rude to or dismissive of him. He thought about how often she called him beautiful, and wrapped his long hair around her fist so that her knuckles showed white through the strands when she squeezed.
“Um, I suppose so. I’m not very brave.”
“Tell me more about that.”
“I don’t really like confrontation. I don’t like arguing, I get exhausted and I just give in anyway so it’s a waste of energy.”
His therapist nodded, as if he had confirmed something they’d already discussed and signed off on. “So it’s less effort for you if you let someone else have their way.”
“Mm, I suppose so.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Sort of ashamed, which is also exhausting.”
“Do you find these sessions exhausting?”
He couldn’t stop himself from bursting out, “Honestly?”
Later, his therapist suggested a new metaphor for the ahp: her non-white body was a burden to her, but also a fundamental part of her identity that she experienced most strongly in the presence of a white man. Perhaps their sex life was a microcosm of reclamation and annexation; perhaps the ahp was both coloniser and colonised.
He didn’t think therapy was helping him much. He worried that he was doing it wrong.
On the way home from work one Wednesday, he found a group of his neighbours gathered in the street. Most of them were barefoot, and several of the men were topless. Everything seemed stained a greenish yellow, as if he’d been rubbing buttercups on his eyes. The air shimmered. Summer was here.
“That’s the third one in a month,” one of the neighbours was saying, in a modulated bleat that carried like a siren. “I think we should get the police to write a report up. I’m serious. Whatever does that to a fox is a danger to humans too.”
The neighbours were straggled around the remains of a fox. Something had torn it open and almost entirely severed its head. Rotten-looking tubing and the occasional moon-white lump shone on the pavement. There was, he realised, less viscera than one might reasonably expect from a dead animal. Some of the crimson liquid pool it lay in appeared to be bubbling.
“Jesus,” another neighbour exclaimed. “Is it, is that, like, cooking? Is the blood cooking?”
“It is ridiculously hot,” someone else said.
“This needs to be cleaned up,” said the bleating neighbour, to a murmur of assent. No one volunteered. No one called the police, either.
“My mother says back home, ahps sit in the trees on lonely roads and sing. They all have long black hair and it hangs down the trees like moss.”
“Do you do that?”
“No, someone would throw a shoe at me. I just fly and eat. Ahps have to be a secret. You can’t be a public ahp, because then you’re not an ahp, you’re just a freak.”
They were lying in one another’s arms, or rather he was lying in hers, with his own arms tucked between them like a dropped parcel.
Every window in the bedroom was open but there was no difference in temperature between the room and the street. It gave their domestic life a bizarrely communal feel. Barriers between public and private were melting, merging. The evening before he had seen the neighbour from across the road, a woman in her early forties who lived with her sister and her wife, leaning against the wall of her front garden. She was wearing nothing but a tank top and Care Bear patterned knickers, and was smoking a roll-up while tears streamed down her face.
When he’d come closer to ask her if he could help, she had sheepishly explained that she was not weeping but having an allergic reaction. What are you allergic to? he asked. I don’t know, she replied, it only started happening this year. Her feet had been bare on the pavement and nothing about her outfit had seemed odd until he relayed this story later.
In bed, starting to slip into a mud-like calm, he asked, “Will you fly tonight?”
“I fly every night, baby. I get hungry and I have to.”
He pressed his mouth against her forehead. He wondered what it was like, that driving hunger that charged moments, changed landscapes. He dreamed of it sometimes, from the point of view of the prey: peaceful under a pair of jaws, falling effortlessly into a cosy eternal void.