Chemical Lane, Staten Island. Photo by Nathan Kensinger.

All the children were gone—she always checked.

The happiest moment of Cookie’s day was when she rolled down the shutters. She loved the decisive click of the lock she squeezed into place, as satisfying to her hand as to her ears.

But this evening, she did not bother to feel the joy of finishing and closing up. Instead, she pushed out the glass door stenciled with the offer of language tutoring, to watch milky water lapping at the curb. Ten centimeters or so higher, and the water would wash over. With storm systems lingering over much of the country, it had been raining hard for the past few weeks.

Egg told her not to worry so much. He said he would set an alarm for midnight and come out to check on the flooding, but Cookie suspected he’d just shut it off and go back to sleep, after re-proclaiming confidence in his masonry work. The day before, they’d paid much more than they should for bags of cement to put up a flood wall. The wall stood across the entry to the shop-house, a little higher than their knees. The few children who’d come to recent tutoring sessions had had to straddle it to get through.

“You think the water’s going to get higher?” a woman asked.

Cookie knew the raspy voice, and even in the darkness of the storm she could discern the woman’s gaunt silhouette under the awning, the bags of scavenged cans and plastic bottles at her feet as always. Cookie clasped her hands to her forehead to greet the woman with a wai.

“We’ve been lucky so far, Auntie Bow,” she said. “But who can know for sure? I told Egg this wall won’t do much if it actually floods, but he insists that it can hold back a river.”

She and Egg had never before bothered with a flood wall. When heavy rain turned streets watery—more and more often those days, it seemed—they’d put up a few sandbags, but the water had never crept more than halfway across the sidewalk before retreating.

“The rats know what’s going to happen,” Auntie Bow said. “They’re everywhere, trying to get to higher ground. Haven’t you noticed?”

Cookie hadn’t seen any more rats than the usual too many. At night, she heard them rifle through the garbage bins outside the kitchen. After she saw one trying to chew through a mesh screen, she made sure to keep her windows shut.

“I don’t want to even think about rats, much less see them, Auntie. They should know by now to keep out of our sight.”

“They want to survive. Who can blame them?”

Cookie tried not to look at Auntie Bow’s face, with its stone-like eyes and the scowl she’d worn for as long as Cookie could remember. When she was a girl, Cookie would spy on the older woman, who lived alone and seemed to have no visitors. Her parents had told her that Auntie Bow had once been like any other woman, before things had happened to her that Cookie wouldn’t understand. Leave her be, they’d said.

Still, Cookie kept watch, as Auntie Bow left tin trays of scraps on the wall behind the shop-house for stray cats or whatever other animal could reach them. Sometimes the food lingered uneaten for too long, and the stench drifted into Cookie’s room. How could any person bear to live like that, unless she was more than a person? Her parents laughed when Cookie suggested that Auntie Bow was a phi krasue, like the ones seen in horror-comedy films on TV. At night, the woman’s head would detach from the rest of her body to float around—glowing entrails undulating underneath—in search of rotting flesh or other refuse to eat.

Then, sometime during those mixed-up years—before entrance exam scores and T-Pop groups and tedium-killing game apps took over the whole of her mind—Cookie began to have a recurring nightmare. In it, she would see Auntie Bow floating above her, with that familiar disheveled head of silvery hair and downward blossom of guts. Just when the old woman was about to spit into her mouth, so as to turn Cookie into a phi krasue too, Cookie would wake.

Now her parents were gone, and Auntie Bow remained. These days, she seemed to come out only at night, to collect plastics and metal from the area’s garbage bins. “By now, everything I hear about the floods feels like a ghost story,” Cookie said. “Something to scare children.”

“Why would ghosts want to scare children? Why should children be scared of ghosts?” Auntie Bow asked. It seemed to Cookie that Auntie Bow might say something more. The same language didn’t always carry between generations, she’d observed. She followed Auntie Bow’s gaze. All the shops in the soi had closed except the chicken-fat rice place down the street, its cold white light alternating with the shadows made by the slow rotation of its ceiling fan blades.

“Well, take care of yourselves,” Auntie Bow said.

“The same,” Cookie said, half-clasping her hand to the darkness where Auntie Bow had receded.

*

The next afternoon, only five wet kids showed up. Cookie went on with the session and made no mention of the unfilled seats.

The man wears a blue suit.

The woman wore a purple dress.

She enunciated each word, then made the children repeat the sentences.

It wasn’t a terrible living, she’d told herself, to help children speak in a language other than Thai. Basic Mandarin at four and intermediate English at six. If she had space larger than the first floor of a shop-house, she’d have put in two classrooms. But the way it was, she didn’t have to pay any rent. She’d returned from her job down south after her parents closed the noodle shop, and tended to them during their illnesses. After they’d died—within a year of each other, her mother first, then her father—she’d taken over the unit. She often thought of returning to her old job at the resort where she’d met Egg. In an office steps away from the beach, she’d written English-language emails and social posts, and then in the evening helped at the restaurant or, on her nights off, ridden a scooter to the market or the movies. But Egg considered the international hotel where he now managed guest services to be a huge step up from his previous workplaces, and she knew that if she were to bring up moving away, they’d probably get into a fight. Still, she had already imagined the click of the lock in her hands on that final day, and before she could banish the unwanted thoughts, they crept back.

She felt herself no better than a stray animal that couldn’t forget a morsel of satisfaction it had once tasted. Sometimes, former customers would reappear out front, returning after years away to find their beloved meatball noodles gone, replaced by a room full of children shouting “Have a good day!” or “What time do you have?” in whatever language was in session.

Did they recognize her as the girl who took their orders and brought steamy bowls to their tables? If she had decided things differently—if she had had Egg’s certainty about happiness that was yet theirs—her son or daughter might have inherited those tasks.

Last night, the TV showed clips of floodwater overwhelming homes—somewhere far away, she hoped. A family of four ate their dinners watching a musical competition show on a laptop perched high on a bookcase, the image of the kids’ white and blue uniforms inverted in the sheen of water under their chairs. If she’d only seen their chewing faces, she’d have guessed it was an ordinary school night.

She and Egg had been watching the same show, and Cookie had screamed at the TV when the gutsy contestant she liked didn’t make the cut. She wondered whether the family on TV had felt as disgusted as she had, or had they been cheering for the singer with the overwrought vibrato who eventually got voted through the round? “They and their mother have no idea what’s from the heart and what’s for show!” Cookie muttered. She wanted to tell the defeated contestant that it was best to escape the endless rounds of this ridiculous, rigged TV competition. Be confident in your own voice, she wanted to say. You could someday become a great singer without having to please all these people.

She stayed up half the night, replaying the injustice behind half-closed eyes while Egg snored—again—beside her. They slept on the second floor, in her childhood bedroom, leaving the third, where her parents had once slept, largely unused except for storage. She felt uneasy up there by herself; she needed Egg with her. Sometimes, lying next to Egg and trying to sleep, she heard what sounded like footsteps upstairs. One step, two steps, three, and no more. “Old buildings creak,” Egg said whenever she mentioned what she’d heard, and she’d say no more.

She didn’t like to think that she scared easily. She’d come far since childhood fears kept her sleepless, her back to the window for fear of seeing marbly eyes looking at her from the gap where the scent of rotted food wafted through. At the resort, she’d been able to hear the waves even back in the staff quarters,  and she’d learned to sleep through all the heavenly silent hours until the alarm clock screamed.

Someone was rapping at the shutter. Outside, a shadow lurked.

“Teacher, I forgot something,” a girl cried out.

It didn’t take long for Cookie to retrieve the cell phone from the chair where the girl had sat. She rolled up the shutter to return it.

“Oh no, it’s almost out of power,” the girl said.

“If you want to recharge here, you can.”

“Thank you, teacher, but I have to get back. My family is packing up and leaving tonight for higher ground.”

“Okay, stay dry. I’m sure I’ll see you next week.”

As she watched the girl run off, Cookie noticed a small wave washing over the sidewalk. Egg would be sure to tell her all about the rising water when he got home, a hint of glee in his alarm betraying his eagerness to test the integrity of his concrete barrier.

His confidence mystified her; he wasn’t an engineer, and often had trouble assembling even the most basic ready-made furniture. That boyish optimism that had once been attractive in him was now something she’d learned to live with, just as she’d learned to live with the shelves in their living room, and the rewiring of the second floor—both less-than-perfect, but functional. His fix for the bedroom A/C had perhaps worked too well, leaving him sleeping comfortably in the frigid air while, even under two blankets, she curled up in a shivering ball. She didn’t complain, because she didn’t want to interfere with his small joys. When he bought some new gadget, she accepted that it would join the litters of devices suckled by their wall outlets. Their monthly electric bills usually amounted to as much as their food.

To his credit, Egg worked hard at the hotel, taking late shifts and covering when people went on holiday or got fired. He seemed happy enough doing anything that kept him on his feet, traveling up and down floors, walkie-talkie in hand. He liked to point out to her the each architecturally exuberant hotel that opened, which he saw as a portent of his future prospects. “The sky’s the limit,” he liked to say in English, borrowing a phrase he’d probably used with guests.

The sky is the limit, she could hear him saying, pointing with both hands to the rickety shelves, the black wires dangling over the spot where they slept, the little wall meant to hold back any water that dared to encroach.

Cookie locked the shutters and felt no joy on hearing the click.

*

I’ll tell you, few today appreciate how hard it is to be a phi krasue.

Before, you might have to only watch for the occasional rosebush or thorny vine, but these days, many more things can snag the innards you’re dragging underneath your disembodied head. With all the cell phones around, you’d think there’d be fewer wires and cables to watch out for, but instead they seem to have multiplied, criss-crossing intersections, jumbling and twisting in slack braids between poles, and sprouting extensions that can catch you by surprise. They’re pretty much impossible to spot in the dark, and you don’t know what’s electrified before an arcing spark jolts a stray intestine. We lost a few good ones that way—Nahng Joom, Nahng Paew, and Mae Wink. You can’t fault us for also feeling lucky that each were vaporized beyond recognition. We have no desire to become the curious topic of some cryptozoological bulletin board.

Some of the younger among us feel we need to counter the negative perception of our kind. The movies have been especially defamatory, depicting us as having such a feverish taste for afterbirth that we stake out the homes of pregnant women. The villagers put up razor wire or monk-blessed twine and watch for blood stains on hung laundry, because we krasues will be wiping our lips—as if we’re entirely without etiquette and would stoop to troubling others with our sloppy eating! Maybe fifty or a hundred years ago this might have been the case in country villages, but now nearly everyone everywhere gives birth at hospitals and umbilical cords are carefully frozen and whisked away for stem cell harvesting. It’s doubtful that any of the newer krasues even know what afterbirth looks like. In my opinion, there are much tastier, more easily acquired varieties of rotting flesh. What can beat week-old fatty chicken hearts threaded together on an arm’s length of putrefying intestines?

We realize we’re easy targets for ridicule. A society that cares only about compulsory participation in its charade of normalcy will of course reduce us to mere orbs floating in the night. “Check out this security camera footage,” they’ll say. “Look at the krasue whizzing by.” Really? Aside from being so lame, is floating about like we’re in an LED drone show the best way to keep our identities inconspicuous?

Not that we’re ashamed of our appearance. We’re pretty much what everyone looks like on the inside. People are afraid of the truth of themselves, but it’s we who have to bear the burden of hiding. You’ve seen our portrayal in full human form: a crazy old hag who lives alone in some isolated corner of the community. She doesn’t talk much or look people in the eye; she looks thin, even bony. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that the natural outcome of all your fad diets?

We live in seclusion and don’t have much to do with others, because we’d rather minimize our participation in the obscene machinery that keeps most people busy and unhappy. When you become a krasue, you say no to all that. It might surprise some of you that we rarely have to coerce anyone into joining us; there is always someone willing, even though they have to get spat in the mouth to continue the line. Eventually, they get over it.

Yet, every year, there are fewer of us. You’d think it’d be easy for us to find rotting things to survive on, but there’s not much that’s uncontaminated by your bizarre chemical treatments, to which we’re super-sensitive. A mere whiff causes us to gasp and choke. And for all that, the germs in the things you throw out or leave to rot—that we eat to survive—grow faster as well as stronger, so that we can no longer metabolize them as easily as before. We’ve managed to find sources for safer provisions, but they’re not cheap. Some of us, who are lucky to have the means, leave out clean rotted things for others who don’t. We can only do so much, but we keep doing what we need to keep on.

What about you, Nahng Cookie? What are you going to do?

*

Cookie felt hands gripping both her shoulders. The fluorescent lights above stung her eyes. When she propped herself up on her elbow, she found that she was lying across one of the classroom tables as if it were a bed. Egg’s panicked face hovered over her.

“Up, up. We have to get up.”

Cookie noticed something else in the room: the sound of water sloshing. Through cracks in Egg’s omnipotent wall, the floor had already risen to his knees.

She joined Egg in the tea-colored water, which felt warmer than she’d thought it would be. A tingle ran up her legs near the cluster of class computers.

“Do you remember how to shut down the circuits?” she asked Egg.

“Yeah, of course, I think.”

“I’ll do it,” she said and waded towards the back of the shop-house to pull down the main breaker switch. When she returned to find Egg carrying whatever he could hug—books, headphones, pamphlets—she told him to leave everything.

“Are you sure?”

“Let’s go,” Cookie said, pulling his arm up the stairs.

From the second floor, they could survey the soi. The family directly across from them was busy rescuing their inundated motor scooters. An uncle stood over a DIY flood wall, bailing out his barbershop with the bucket they’d seen him use to catch and drown rats. Their phones worked, so they scrolled through the news, finding only a brief update that the floodwater in their area was on the rise.

At night, they checked how much food and water they had on hand: not much, it turned out. While Egg spent the next hour at the propane stove, cooking the couple of packs of frozen beef from their now-warming refrigerator, Cookie filled whatever bottles she could find with faucet water she hoped was still potable.

In the morning, they woke to find that the water had risen higher. They sat by an open window and asked for updates from passersby. There were few. A man they didn’t know tottered toward the main road, one shoulder ferrying a toddler whose legs swung in the water. Half an hour later, a pack of stray dogs paddled by.

Their phones died. Egg proposed swimming out for help, but Cookie wouldn’t let him, for fear of the things that he might step on or kick at in the murky water. Also, how far would he have to go? For all they knew, their entire district might be underwater, maybe even the rest of the city too. They yelled to neighbors, who sometimes returned their call.

Hang in there! This is nothing, I’ve seen worse! Anyone have a solar charger?

An unseen neighbor, probably the mechanic’s grown daughter, sang Thongchai oldies for part of the afternoon, ending on a song about eternal love on a sandy beach. Another neighbor across the way shouted that she’d heard that the sea was still too high; the flood wouldn’t drain out anytime soon. They chased away pigeons from the dead A/C unit outside their window, watching as the birds landed on the ledge, beyond reach.

They slept that night, but not the next, or at least Cookie didn’t. She lay wide-eyed in her pajamas, hugging a body pillow and listening to water rippling softly outside her window. She thought of her parents, which made her sad, but also thankful that they weren’t around to witness their noodle shop being flooded. If, years ago, she’d decided to stick it out in Bangkok, the noodle shop—and the worry and despair of losing it—would’ve been passed down to her. She would never have met Egg or opened the language center. When her parents’ old customers returned after having gone away for long, they would have tasted the broth they’d longed for. That life would have been far different from the one that was now hers, and yet everything about it felt familiar.

A smell. That, too, was familiar. She hadn’t smelled it for a long time, what with their bedroom windows always shut and the A/C at fullest icy power. It was the smell of life being broken down and apart, of clothes left damp for too long, of melted ice dripping pink down the stall of the market fishmonger, of cracked leather handbags and a dead woman’s perfume, of forgotten bananas left to blacken in a cupboard, and of a resort housekeeper’s mop bucket. She turned away so that she wouldn’t smell it, but her nose made her turn her right back. She sniffed and then inhaled, opening her mouth wide.

A song found its way to her from somewhere outside. She didn’t recognize the woman’s voice this time. It sang in a language Cookie couldn’t understand, but she knew what it was saying to her. She closed her eyes and listened for what seemed like years.

*

That night, by the time she fell asleep, Cookie would understand that these were her last hours in the place she’d long called home. In the morning, Egg would flag down a long-tailed motor-canoe helping to evacuate the stranded. The boat would be nearly full; there would be no room for them to take anything. But there was also nothing she wanted to take.

Egg banged on Auntie Bow’s door and shouted up to the windows that she should come with them on the boat. They heard no response. Cookie convinced Egg that they shouldn’t keep the others waiting. Auntie Bow would be fine.

At the evacuee camp, they slept in a school gym with hundreds of others and helped out with the rescue efforts. She worked at the intake desk, registering new arrivals and assisting the nurses with clinical records. She thought she might one day look up to find Auntie Bow in one of the lines, even though she knew she wouldn’t.

They stayed there for a month, before leaving for an upcountry province where Egg had relatives. She didn’t want to return to Bangkok, and Egg gave up on the job. They had a realtor cousin help sell her parents’ shop-house unit, muddied contents and all. They resettled in a small city, where Egg spent most of his days earning a cut of the sales at an uncle’s mobile phone shop. She didn’t go back to teaching languages, but instead found work translating documents, which she could do from home on her own. They lived in a small concrete block house down a red dirt road surrounded by fields of cassava.

A few years later, she and Egg were no longer together, and he ended up moving many provinces away with someone from the shop whom he’d knocked up. She stayed at the same house and let her mobile phone service run out. She stopped paying attention to the news, full of storms and floods and endless droughts. Where she lived, winds swept, dust scrubbed. In mud-cracked ponds and ditches, carcasses of buffalos lovingly stared at the sky from where their knees had buckled. Days kept getting hotter, and the crops around her gained exquisite white spots and wilted, rotten. The air grew sweeter and sweeter.

Cookie sometimes felt lonely. She thought of her old life and remembered everyone, from her family to co-workers to all her language students, but because there wasn’t anyone who would remember their names, she no longer brought them up, even to herself. At night, she wandered without care, following the fresh bloom of scents across dead fields and denuded mountains. When she sang, the songs rose from the whole of her gut, allowing her to discern the heft and shape of her anatomy. She released them into the eternal chorus of songs, far older than she, to outlast her and to be faintly heard by creatures scampering to their own brief dominion of this earth.

She stayed at the house and left it only when she needed to eat. She would never hunger.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the author of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK).

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