Fiction by Rowan W. [part one]
“Manis” [part one]
The incessant honking is getting on my nerves. Motorbikes swarm the streets in this city, a lot more than where I come from, though this is not really a cause for concern. At the moment, I have other more pressing issues to worry about. Living in fear day by day, for one.
How did I end up here? I don’t know.
Like everyone else, I never thought this could happen to me; that I would be one of the unlucky ones. Since young, I had lived my life unobtrusively, did my own thing and always avoided the bad guys. And look where it got me now. Maybe my uneventful life caused me to throw caution to the wind.
I should have fought harder to escape before it was too late. Instead, I watched helplessly as my prince charming let me down to save his own hide. His final act of betrayal tore my heart into pieces. Didn’t he care for me at all? I asked myself the same question over and over again. He made a mockery out of our so-called love.
Being shy by nature, I took longer than others to warm up to and befriend. Those growing up years were difficult. I was unpopular simply because I was not, and would never be, as cute or funny or sexy as the other girls. I would not have minded so much had I been one of those brainy ones who commanded respect and awe from everyone. I just didn’t fit in anywhere. If I were to go to a party, the first thing I would do was to locate the exit doors. I would pretend to mingle around by hopping from one group to another. As the night progressed, I would slowly make my way towards the exit. Sometimes, I bumbled on my way out due to my poor eyesight. The next day, I could only hope that nobody mentioned my early departure, or worse still, gossip about my asocial personality.
Having a name like Manis did not help. Parents should never ever give their offspring names that could turn them into a laughingstock. Imagine introducing yourself at a party saying, “Hi, my name is Manis” while batting your eyes when you clearly do not possess an iota of sweetness in you. Only sweet girls could carry it off, and I was no sweet young thing. Quietly, I endured the fake smiles, sniggers, and the occasional glances of pity. I kept to myself and feigned indifference where possible. Until the day I caught a whiff of his unique perfume. Call it hormones or pheromones, whatever. Yes, that earth-shattering, time-stopping moment when my heart started palpitating like crazy and I fell for him hook, line and sinker.
He was the only one who did not laugh at my name. I could not detect a shred of pity in his beady eyes. The way he leaned in close, as if I smelled like heaven. Like he wanted to devour me. For once in my life, I felt wanted. Needed. Desired.
His name? Asmara.
How cool, I thought. Our names Manis and Asmara literally translated to ‘sweet love’. Stupidly, I blabbered to this handsome bloke everything about myself. He had a faint Indonesian accent. I wondered how and why he came to Malaysia. We spoke the same lingo, but words were not necessary when one was love-struck.
The intense attraction between us had an air of desperation to it. I must confess that his powerful and masculine body was a turn-on, especially his scaly skin and the faint dust of hair on his stomach. How could I resist his advances as his warm flesh heated mine? In that one night, from strangers, we became lovers. I was convinced that we were made for each other. For that reason, I allowed him far more liberties than had been wise. Naturally, being nocturnal creatures, both of us did not sleep that night. I had no excuse for flirting wantonly with him, except that I was naive. And he, curse him, took advantage of my naivety. My worries of that awkward feeling on the morning after were unfounded; he slipped off without a word.
I wished I had never met him. At least, I wouldn’t have hurt so much. Those who believed that it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, were merely deluding themselves. One would not miss what one never had.
As a result of our sordid love affair, I found myself pregnant. Initially, I was terrified of the changes affecting my body. Then, thrilled as I wondered whether the baby would be a girl or a boy. Like any mother-to-be, I had mixed feelings and turned moody occasionally. Nevertheless, I knew I had to tell Asmara. Summoning what courage I had in me, I sought him out that fateful night.
All was silent, except for the rustling of leaves in the gentle breeze. When I spotted his familiar figure, uncontrollable joy filled my heart. I let my guard down, which proved to be the biggest mistake in my life. The quiet before the storm and all that, I should have known better. By the time I heard the crunch of gravel behind me, danger was already staring into my face. Asmara scuttled out of sight, leaving me to fend for my own. And our unborn child. My self-protective instincts took over, automatically bolting the door and locking myself in my own world. As I retreated into my shell, I hoped against hope that my plates of armour would somehow protect us. There I would remain until it was safe for me to come out. It was my only weapon.
Unfortunately, this trick worked only on predators like lions and tigers. Not for my biggest enemy of them all. I knew that I had sealed my fate when unfamiliar hands lifted me. Mama had warned me of this long before I moved out. My efforts to sink my front claws into his flesh were to no avail. I was just too small for this huge monster. I tried farting as well, but my stink bomb was of no use. I heard only a snort of disgust, followed by a guffaw of laughter from his accomplice. Their dog was hovering around and barking at me. I was overcome by a sense of desolation at the thought of Asmara doing this to me. Better her than me, he must have thought. That celaka bastard.
Obviously, I did not stand a chance. It was not a level playing field, me against men. My captor bundled me into a net, thereby restricting my movements. Fool that I was, to have fallen into this trap. I felt the noose tightening around me, sounding my death knell. For a second, I hoped for a quick death. Alas, it was not meant to be. I was dumped into a wooden crate with small holes. No food or water was given to me. Furthermore, I had not eaten that day because I was too nervous about meeting Asmara. On the brink of starvation, I told myself to hold on for the sake of the little one in me. There was nothing much I could do except to snatch fitful naps in the dark and confined space.
To my surprise, I soon had the company of my kind. A few others joined me in what I called our shared prison. Although we were all strangers, it was reassuring to know that I was not all alone. I had often wondered what happened to my other acquaintances in the wild. Did they suffer the same fate? Or had they cleverly gone into hiding?
For days, we travelled in a van or truck. All of us felt weak. No one spoke. To make matters worse, I had motion sickness. Or maybe it was morning sickness. I couldn’t tell the difference.
That was only the beginning of what was to come.
After a long interminable period, our prison was finally prised open. The air smelled different. My hands shivered as an icy blast hit me. Being in a new place was frightening, to say the least. Slowly, I started to uncurl. My legs were a bit wobbly. I couldn’t stand on my own feet and kept losing my balance. Instinctively, I rubbed my belly.
They should at least have some decency to feed us, considering the long journey. Soon afterwards, my wish almost came true. I felt a trickle of water in between my flesh and welcomed the cool respite. Minutes later, the rivulets of water turned into a gushing waterfall, as if they were trying to drown me! Someone kept pumping vile stuff into my body. Although many of my kind died of indigestion problems, I had never felt so sick in my entire life.
Stop, stop, stop! Please? I just want my usual diet—ants, termites, flies, worms—you get the drift? Nothing fancy or expensive, thank you very much.
Needless to say, my cries went unheeded. They were trying to stuff me and make my stomach bloated for some inexplicable reason. Miraculously, I was still alive after much squirming around. Why would all these people go to so much trouble? Who were they? What did they want from us?
The answer to my questions came sooner than expected. I was separated from the rest and found myself in a new prison that housed another occupant. Somewhat relieved to have a companion and noticing her reticence, I initiated our first conversation.
Her name was Yen.
What Yen subsequently shared with me was beyond my wildest imagination. Contrary to my expectations, we were not expected to perform for these people. Cooped up in the prison, I had imagined that to be the worst-case scenario. I had no talents whatsoever. The only two things I could do were to sleep all day long and catch insects. Apparently, they were not interested to see us do so. Not even to perform acrobatic stunts like in a circus.
We were to end up on their dinner table.
There, I said it. I had no idea that we were in high demand. My lifelong dream of becoming a professional pest killer was shattered in an instant. My previous year record was an impressive seventy million insects, thanks to my only asset—my very long and sticky tongue. Extremely proud of my contribution to the ecosystem, I had aspired to improve on my personal best next year. In return for keeping their plantations insect-free and pesticide-free as well, all I wanted was to be left alone.
I wept for my unborn baby. I wept for myself and for my unfulfilled dreams.
If only I had not set out to meet Asmara. If only I had stayed in my comfort zone and avoided falling in love with that scum.
For a while, I pondered whether Yen was just making up stories. Perhaps she was feeling depressed. Like me, she was expecting a baby, possibly twins looking at the size of her body. Maybe, just maybe, I had misunderstood what she was trying to convey to me.
The moment of truth came when both she and I were carried out from our prison. Escape was impossible as I was held in a firm grip. Yen and I were on the opposite ends of a round table, as if paraded for an inspection. There were five men looking at us. I focused on the man with kind eyes, imploring him with a silent plea.
Please, I beg you. Just leave me alone. That’s all I ask.
He wasted no time in pointing towards Yen. Not knowing what to expect, I turned to her for guidance. A frightened whimper echoed throughout the room as her throat was slit open right in front of me.
Her eyes opened wide and beseeched mine, seeking solace in her final moments. I tried very hard to maintain my composure, willing her to go in peace. She struggled briefly before her body went limp. When her limpid eyes looked past me, I knew that my new-found friend was no more. Because I could no longer peer into the window of her soul.
Only the dull nothingness of death stared back at me.
Yen, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.
If the man had chosen me, her life would have been spared. In a way, Yen died because of me. Guilt-stricken, I looked away in agony as her blood trickled on to the floor. What about her babies? I swallowed hard. I felt a sharp pain as though the knife had pierced through my heart. The sight of the restaurant worker licking Yen’s fresh blood from the very knife that had taken her away, almost made me go berserk. If I could cry or scream bloody murder, I would have done so. I did not make a single sound. I was petrified after this traumatizing incident that scarred me for life.
What life is there left for me anyway? My time on Earth is running out. Currently, I am the sole occupant in this prison. Next is my turn for sure. I hate all of them: my captor, the restaurant workers and the people who eat us. All of them had sold their souls to the devil, for they have no heart.
I hate you too because you are one of them. You and I share a common trait in that we are both mammals, but that is where the similarity ends. My species have been around for millions of years, much longer than Homo sapiens. How dare you slaughter us? I get the part about survival, but it isn’t as if you have nothing else to eat. If anyone asks me to give up on ants because they will soon be extinct, I will gladly do my part. Why can’t you do the same? And you call yourselves the most intelligent creatures on Earth?
Most of you won’t be missing me because you don’t even know me. Back where I come from, people call me pengguling, meaning something that rolls up. People from other parts of the world call me a pangolin.
Shall I haunt the people who eat my flesh? Appear in their dreams every night until they swear never to eat us anymore? I wish I can let them experience a day in the life of a pangolin. I miss the trees and burrows that I call home. When my time comes, don’t cry for me or my unborn baby who shall remain nameless.
Remember, your time will come too.
Duc was starting to regret offering his services as an undercover investigator to cripple the international syndicate trafficking wildlife animals, specifically pangolins. Being trilingual—he could speak Vietnamese, Mandarin and English—he was undeniably the best candidate for this top-secret Project Manis. It was codenamed such because the Malayan pangolin belonging to the Manis genus was currently in the red zone, classified as a critically endangered species facing extinction.
Winning the trust of the poachers was relatively easy. The difficult part was joining the ranks of the traffickers and the kingpins. If anyone of them here suspected his true identity, he would likely face the same fate as the pangolin slaughtered before him. As pangolins in Vietnam and China were being hunted close to extinction, Malaysia and Indonesia were fast becoming the main suppliers in Southeast Asia. Lack of effective enforcement was a huge problem as he had encountered cases whereby officers who caught the traffickers ended up selling the seized pangolins in the black market. The heavier the pangolin, the more valuable it would be, as they were sold by their weight.
As long as there is a demand for it, pangolins remain in peril.
What should I do?
Caught in a moral dilemma, he had masked his horror when the restaurant worker cold-bloodedly slashed the poor pangolin’s throat. He knew this practice was to prove to the restaurant’s patrons that they would be eating the real thing, not some substitute flesh. However, the brutal act was so sudden that he had no time to react.
One of the four men with him was a kingpin, two others his bodyguards, and the last one, a trafficker. After dinner, they were supposed to adjourn to the kingpin’s house to discuss business. It was an excellent opportunity for him to infiltrate the enemy camp and gather solid evidence. Being a guest, he had been given the ‘honour’ to choose the pangolin. The reason he pointed towards that particular pangolin was because it looked terminally ill. The years he had spent in a pangolin rehabilitation sanctuary had taught him that much. He had come to love these reptile-looking mammals covered with scales. Some people called them baby dragons, dinosaurs and even crocodiles. Despite their tough exterior, they were fragile and harmless.
The other pangolin looked much healthier and stood a higher chance of being rescued, provided he could get himself out of this tricky situation. Without divine intervention, the other pangolin was as good as dead. There was pretty much nothing he could do without blowing his cover.
His companions had ordered grilled pangolin flesh and stir-fried pangolin skin. Pangolin flesh was an exotic dish due to its limited availability and steep price, and therefore a much-coveted status symbol. To top it off, one of the waiters was preparing the restaurant’s unique concoction—pangolin blood with wine, an unproven aphrodisiac. Even though he felt queasy, he played along and joined the men’s raucous laughter.
It was a test, and one that he must pass with flying colours.
One of the waiters apologised to him after spilling some pangolin foetus soup on his pants. Not only did Duc have the pangolin’s blood on his hands, the image of her pink-colored foetuses floating in the murky soup would forever remain etched in his mind.
Calmly, he excused himself and headed to the washroom on the pretext of removing the unsightly stain.
[Go to part two]