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When the Night Blooms, an Artist Transmutes: A Three-Act Play

ACT ONE

The half-crumbled watchtower still stands as it has stood for many a year in this unholy space that abuts the present and the past. Moss, lichen and vines my unscientific mind cannot name flourishes on its damp, aged stone. It is an old building constructed from crude blocks of stone, joined to a crumbling wall built of the same material, with spikes of iron adorning the top; a rusty black iron gate leads to the space on the top of the cliff, a perfect circle of grass. Just outside, at the bottom of the slope that leads up here there are a profusion of blooms representing someone’s improbable vision of paradise flourished. It is not an idyllic setting. It is one borne of blood and of the memories of a million wrongs.

WILLIAM: (Gazing out of the window.) The girl has returned. It has been some years and she has grown up. How much she looks like my Flora!

KASMAWATI: This old building calls me back, again and again, but how does it exist? When I drive up to the old house, it is nowhere in sight. When I walk up this hill, this watch-tower stands here, and I can see the Straits of Malacca. But in reality, I’m so far inland on Penang Island that the sea shouldn’t be this close. Especially in this day and age when so many acres have been claimed by the sea. It doesn’t make sense.

Every time I come here, it’s as though I’ve slipped into another world. Another place.

(Her eyes range around fearfully, as a thought that’s never occurred to her has taken root.)

Is this real? Am I still in Tanjung?

(She looks upwards towards the tower and speaks in a shaky voice.)

Alamak! There’s a face in the window! I . . . don’t know if I should proceed.

WILLIAM: She halts! Will she not come here? Oh, young woman, how I hunger for your flesh and your life-force, pressed against the smooth brown of your skin. How like Flora you are.

(He inhales in obvious longing, and a kind of self-loathing.)

KASMAWATI: I . . . I should get back to the car. I don’t have to paint the tower again. I’ve done it so many times. I could drive to Beach Street and paint a street scene. I could go to Fort Cornwallis.

(Pauses, unaware that a silent spectral figure is standing directly behind her, her arms moving up and down Kasmawati’s forearms, pebbling the skin as she whispers into her left ear.)

Yes, yes. I could go to yet another tourist trap filled with tourists snapping pictures on their smartphones and their selfie sticks.

(The spectral woman whispers into her ear again, as she strokes her shoulder. Kasmawati’s eyes dull momentarily before she shakes herself.)

Oh Kasmawati, who are you kidding. You’re going right into that haunted tower with that creepy face pressed against the window, aren’t you? Of course you are. Let’s do this.

WILLIAM: (Moves back from the window although he still watches with hungry eyes.)

She moves through the garden that contains the lifeblood of the one I love the best and yet hate the most. The garden mocks me even as I mock it in return. I keep my earth freshly mowed even as I nourish her with every kill. And if we were both as we used to be, mortals—what would I do? Hold her or kill her, as I have, and as I would do again and yet again in my dreams, if shades do dream, and in every waking second of my day. I should have never built the tower, but I did, hoping to recreate something of my homeland, a stay against the humid, overripe chaos of this ungodly land. It is now both shrine and prison for me and what we had.

KASMAWATI: (Kasmawati runs her fingers against the petals of huge otherworldly flowers before she plucks a night-bloom in an impulsive gesture. She inhales its fragrance. The spectral figure walks with her, half-embracing her from behind.)

These blooms are almost the fantasy foliage of a tropical world! Hibiscuses, yellow bells, dahlias, rugosa roses, frangipani, hydrangeas, hibiscuses, the leaves of the pandanus, elephant’s ears, tiger lilies—extravagance hit the eye everywhere in red, maroon, yellow, violet, indigo, and deep, deep blue which seemed to bleed red at its heart! The litany unfurls in my inner ear even as my eyes caress the tender petals.

(She pauses to look up again at the tower. Fearfully, speculatively, and with a deep curiosity.)

The history books claim this tower was built by Sir William Burns who came along with the first British emissaries of the East India Company. He was escaping some scandal, and he wanted a watch-tower so that he could look at the Straits of Malacca. But no one could explain how the tower disappeared, speculating that developers had flattened it because it had never been gazetted as a heritage building. But I have always known it was here. Here. Where the world seems different somehow. Why have I not guessed this is not the same world I inhabit?

It is so beautiful here. So beautiful, and yet so wrong.

(The spectral figure blows into her ear and engulfs her in a huge, swooping embrace.)

ACT TWO

KASMAWATI: (It is mid-afternoon as she stands outside the door, and the fine hairs on her arms are standing up. The spectral figure is no longer standing behind her, having entered her body through her ear. Electricity pulls at every nerve as she pushes at the door, feeling a resistance from within. It opens. The room is round and wide, wider than it seems from outside, and there are remains of old furniture everywhere, decomposing with time and age. Opposite from where Kasmawati stands is a spiral staircase.)

The air is sweet and cool inside, not musty, as I would have expected! It is fertile with the mixture of rich, damp earth and the salt air of the sea. What a romantic tower this is! With crumbling flagstones straight out of a storybook. How can a place look so lovely, and yet so dilapidated, and so . . . frightening?

WILLIAM: She is much older when she first came to stare at me and my beloved, as a precocious ten-year-old, all of those years ago. There is still a sketchbook under her arm. She is of this land, although she has none of the femininity and grace of my beloved, my foe.

They seem joyless, and graceless, these children of the present age of my eternal present. They carry big, ugly bags on their back in very much the same way as the coolies of old, noisy, troublesome. There have been some who tried to use my tower as a meeting-ground, smoking stuff as heady as opium, but even more dangerous. They were kills I enjoyed tremendously. The flowers bloomed beautifully then. This child seems different, this graceless girl with the dark brown skin of old langsats. She stares at my prison with such big, dark and solemn eyes, almost as if she were asking me why. It is almost as though she knows. She stands at the bottom step leading to the tower, and as I watch she climbs up, one step at a time. Will I have to kill her too?

Before now I have killed smugglers, rapists, stalkers, convicts on the run, all manner of people who have tried to misuse my tower. I tell myself I am atoning, but I am not so sure. I have kept my door shut against the innocent. I am lonely today and she is approaching the door. Perhaps this will be my last kill. Perhaps it is innocence that I need—the blood that will set my lady free.

KASMAWATI: I will take these steps one at a time. Something is waiting for me upstairs, I know, just as I know I should run out that door that let me in. But would it open to let me go now that it has swallowed me whole? I am drawn upstairs even as my hairs stand on end, even as my heart threatens to crawl out of my throat. It is too late to turn back.

WILLIAM: (He moves closer towards Kasmawati, who is as yet insensible to his presence.)

Flora, your presence haunts me more than the tinkling of money or the rush of blood ever did. I can feel you within this child. Enemies or siblings or lovers who clawed at each other, we were meant to be something more to each other than any of the milder shades of mortal relationship.

The flowers goad me, and yet, they comfort me. If that is the only way I can keep her, it will suffice. She is as trapped in that garden as I am within these stones. I built this tower myself, in the full flush of my infatuation. How she laughed at me then, as I commanded an unceasing line of sweating coolies up that cliff, bearing huge stones on their back.

She refused to learn my speech, and I would not stoop so low as to learn hers. Flora was the name I gave her, but her name in her language was Mawar. She accepted her re-naming, she accepted my refusal to speak her tongue. That never seemed to be a problem. Not at night, nor in the daylight as the winds blow at her long ebony hair and curve her sarong close to her lush form.

And that is all I seem to remember, my time with her in flashes, and this painful, painful present—and eternity of nothing but the trap of these stones, this lust.

But wait, I think she can see me now! Oh ho! It is almost time to act.

KASMAWATI: Is it a ghost? Is it a man? I can see the outline of the wall through his form and yet he seems solid. This must be the mad colonial in the local history archives. Sir William Burns. He is European, yes, and not young, and seems to have bathed in the earth. There are leaves in his hair, leaves affixed to his tan trousers and his bare torso. His eyes are mad and dark, and he looks ready to murder me with his bare hands. Why is fear leaving me now? Why do I stand still? Those curved sharp claws, with grime and earth crusting the cuticles and underneath, should be enough to start me running—but I can only stare.

WILLIAM: I feel madness. I feel it seep through my toes from the earth and straight up to my head. I am struggling for reason but my senses are screaming for me to draw blood, and to convert it into the earth beneath my feet. She has reached my prison and now she stares at me, in fear, in expectation, but with no surprise. Do I kill her? Do I scare her off? Or do I tell my tale? Shall I ask for help?

KASMAWATI: (hesitantly) Hello? Can you hear me?

(She moves towards William who stares in disbelief at her heedless bravery.)

WILLIAM: Should you not be afraid of me, child? Why do you come closer?

KASMAWATI: Hello! Are you in need of help? Do you need my assistance?

WILLIAM: (laughs helplessly) Help? Are you in need of help, my dear?

(He flexes in preparation as he moves closer to her)

MAWAR: They are face to face now, my descendant and my killer. What will he do? Will he, does he recognize my blood in her? Will he recognize his blood in her? Will he kill her? She has climbed the stairs, unknowing of her fate. He has never realized that I am not human, have never been—although blood, red and hot does flow through my veins.

It will be the Full Moon tonight and I will bloom for the final time, if the killer allows it; if the Killer conquers his nature.

KASMAWATI: (Looks steadily and fearlessly at the approaching specter.)

WILLIAM: Something is different here, as it has never been different since the night I ended her life. Why does the child stare at me so fearlessly? Why am I warded from coming any nearer? Why have I not noticed that bloom in her hand? The deepest blue with red bleeding from its heart. Her eyes are glowing now, glowing yellow and now red. These are not human eyes, and yet, they seem so familiar. Now she opens her mouth, and I am sure I will hear, a long silent voice speaking a tongue I never deigned to speak. That primitive tongue of my lover.

MAWAR/KASMAWATI: I fit into this form better than I thought! He is staring at me now—this man with the Killer in his blood. He fled his country to flee the price he had to pay for killing. The money he used to build this tower is blood money from the coffers of the young woman he had killed in England. He loved her too. Just as he claimed he loved me. I ready myself to speak now, after over a hundred human years. I must offer the choice.

(She turns towards William, and speaks, to his astonishment, in impeccable English.)

How will you choose, Killer? Another hundred years have passed. Shall we play for another hundred or will you yield?

WILLIAM: The voice that comes out stuns me. It is hers, but never in all our years together have I heard her speak my tongue. Killer. Yes, that is what I am. She has named me as I have named her. It seems like I have always been a killer, always allowed the red film of anger and passion cover my eyes. Even now I feel rage build up in me like angry lava. My hands flex and her claws grow longer but she will not release the ward until I see so. What do I say? How do I choose? I have seen a lifetime and beyond of killings.

If I release her from her curse, she will release me from mine, and what will happen then? Will I die? As torturous as this prison is, I would gladly live a hundred years in this reality that I know, instead of giving it up for one I have no faith in. I have killed too many for that, from the men I fought with in taverns, to the wife I found cheating on me with her one true love—a stable boy!

My memory is back. Yes, it is a flood, bearing the faces of the people I have killed—my wife, her maid, the countless coolies and locals who had angered me. Flora, my exotic love. Flora, who was beautiful and warm when she was not heartless and cold. How can I go on for another hundred years? Should I allow myself to kill again although the taste of blood blooms in my palate like the lilies that grow below.

KASMAWATI: If I could I would scream! My brain has come alive, but my body is no longer my own. Another spirit inhabits it now, with foreign thoughts, alien sensations of gardens, and sunrays and blood. My own opens and this glorious voice comes out—womanly, husky, throaty and full of menace. I crave to be the woman this voice seems to hint at.

If I survive this moment. If there are moments after this. Oh help, she’s taking over. She’s taking over again. She’s taking over. She’s taking over!

(Kasmawati sobs before her form is overtaken again by Mawar’s spirit. Her entire mien changes as does her voice.)

MAWAR/ KASMAWATI: Do you need my assistance, murderer? Will you join my soil, life-taker? Give of it, and merge with me?

WILLIAM: Flora, my love. Why would you have of me this difficult choice. I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry. I am and have always been a monster. I cannot atone for it. Do not ask that of me.

MAWAR/ KASMAWATI: Despite everything; despite what you are. Killer, Human. You are me, and I am you. One. You could not kill me, but your curse has bound us together—and it is now time for you to end it. One choice, and the killing ends.

WILLIAM: Her arms are stretched out, but I see no love there, only a knowing glance, and something deeper, something that speaks to me of my night fears of my childhood dreams I am moving closer towards the source of darkness or is it light?

Choice is but a human option. I am not human. What do earth spirits do in the bloom of the dark?

(pauses in a sudden thought)

I will never get atonement. I will never see the resolution for this. But oblivion. Oh, perhaps oblivion is what I need. Perhaps that is a resolution of sorts.

Mawar, I am ready to come to you. I am ready for your retribution. Maafkan aku, kekasihku.

(He walks towards her and is contained within her embrace which is more a spectral, unholy retribution than it is affection.)

ACT THREE

KASMAWATI: (Rubs her hands up and down her arms before rubbing her face. She speaks to herself as though to convince herself she is awake and alive.)

I feel no presence now. My mouth is dry. I feel exhausted as though I have been a rope in a tug of war. I don’t know what exactly went on just now, but the moon is full, and what was inside the tower—I am sure—is now outside.

(Slowly, Kasmawati makes her way out of the tower, walking towards the garden of night-blooms.)

Goodness! The bloom I admired earlier is now as large as a human head. It’s growing! Larger! And yet larger.

(The petals unfurl. A woman’s head pops out like a houdini, followed by a limb and then another. Then, a long, slim torso slides out. Now she stands, nude in the moonlight except for a necklace of night blooms. She crouches by a mound of earth and pulls something out. Kasmawati continues speaking as though she is narrating the event to herself as it occurs.)

And as I stare, a sapling emerges from the earth. It will grow I know, like something from a fairy tale, a gigantic tree at the base of this cliff. Perhaps I will live long enough to see the garden at the base of a cliff swallow up the tower of butter.

The pontianak looks at me and she smiles in the moonlight. Her eyes are as yellow as the moon and her fangs gleam. I feel no fear. I stumble home to sink into a dreamless sleep. But I know that I shall paint on the morrow. A pontianak, climbing swiftly up an improbable tree who used to be a deranged serial killer.

I am sure she will sleep peacefully through the night.

I am not sure I will.

(The lights go out on the stage.)

About the Author

Nin Harris is an author, poet, and tenured postcolonial Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include: Clarkesworld, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed. Nin is currently querying Watermyth, the first novel of the Cantata of the Fourfold Realms mythic clockpunk fantasy sequence while working on Rosemirror, the second novel of the sequence.