Friday, June 14, 2019

The Woman on the Bus by Karen Toralba

An American tourist in Penang is baffled when her child receives a mysterious injury; by Karen Toralba.

Penang, Malaysia

"The doctor at the hospital said I should report this," she showed the stoic officer at the counter her young daughter's infliction - a mark similar to an elongated X that seemed to be transforming from a red scratch to an almost rotting appearance. The woman continued. "He said to show you this. I'm sorry, but I'm on vacation, and we leave in two days, so I'd like to handle this quickly, if that's possible." She produced an envelope with a message on the front which sent the officer quickly scurrying away through closed doors, who then reappeared with a slender, aging man. The police chief ushered her personally into his office and shut the door.

"I don't understand what's going on," she said as she seated herself with her child. "The doctor said it was an unusual scratch but sent me here. I'm not sure why." The woman, American, sat stiffly in a crisp white sleeveless shirt which tucked neatly into light jean shorts that stood guard over her knee caps. Her dirty blond hair, usually more styled when not on vacation, was twisted messily and clipped to the back of her head.

"Ms..." the police chief began.

"Stephens, Mrs. Stephens."

"Mrs. Stephens, I read the note from the doctor. Please tell me what happened, exactly, even a small detail, tell me everything." The chief sat in the chair beside her. He took no written notes but sat forward, intent on listening to every word.

"It's just so strange. Emily and I went out by ourselves - this was yesterday - my husband wasn't feeling well from something he ate, so he stayed in our room - and we caught the free shuttle bus to the jetty. That's the end of the line for the bus - I'm sure you know that - so everyone got off. There was a woman in the back corner of the bus; I noticed her when I got on. I didn't stare at her, and I tried not to really look at her. She looked, I don't know, kind of, weird, creepy? I don't think it's polite to stare at people, so we just sat down near the door in some available seats. When we were getting off, we let some older ladies go first - we weren't in a hurry - and they hobbled off the bus. I didn't see the strange woman because I was watching the old ladies get off the bus; they worried me a little bit; I thought they would fall. Then I saw something move near my daughter - she was standing in the seat - my daughter was standing. I looked to see the strange woman's finger make an X on my daughter's shoulder. I didn't exactly know it was an X at the time; I just saw her fingers move, but now that I see the mark, that seems right. I didn't like her touching my child, but I'm in a foreign country, and I didn't want to be rude, so I smiled and put my arm around my daughter. She didn't cry or act hurt at all. It was only when we got back to the hotel, and I changed her shirt to go swimming that I noticed the mark. It was red, kind of blistering. I didn't make the connection at first, but when I tried to think of what could have done that - I really thought it was a strange insect bite or that she scraped herself on something - well, I honestly couldn't think of anything. My daughter didn't know, and she's so young, she couldn't say anyway. She said it didn't hurt, but it looked painful. We didn't swim because of the sore, and I just cleaned it and kept an eye on it. Like I said, it didn't hurt her, so I wasn't too worried. Today when I checked it, it was turning black. Black! So I took her to the hospital. In the taxi, I remembered the creepy woman touching her but never thought that could be the cause. I mentioned it to the doctor because, who knows, maybe she had some nail fungus or something, and he got a frightened look on his face. He told me to describe her, and when I did, he wrote a note and sent me over here to tell you about it - and her. So there. That's it." She sat back in her chair and waited for an explanation.

The chief had been rubbing his hands together in sort of a massage while listening. He replied, with, "Can you describe her to me? The woman on the bus?"

She sighed and coaxed the wiggling child to be quiet and still with her phone. "Well, like I said, I didn't stare, so I didn't get a good look, but from a glance, I noticed that she sat, like I said, in the back of the bus in the corner. As the seats are gradually elevated, I could have gotten a clear view, if I had stared, but I didn't. Her face seemed kind of, maybe squished - that's not a good word. Her face seemed small, pale with a painful expression, or maybe like she's straining - I don't know. She had a hat like a beanie on, a small cap, light green maybe or pale yellow, I think. Her hair is what caught my eye though. It was long and stringy, hanging down from her cap and jet black with some streaks of white. It was hanging in front on both sides. That's what caught my eye. It was all so brief. When I saw her finger near my daughter, I looked up but she already had her head turned and was walking to the exit. Like I said, I smiled, but it was all so fast. I don't think she saw me. When we got off the bus, I didn't see her anywhere. I didn't really look for her, but I also kind of, well, wanted to make sure she wasn't following us. Oh, she was wearing a black jacket, too, which I thought was strange in this weather."

"Ok, ok. Ok, I think I am understanding this. All this. Mrs. Stephens, where is your husband?"

"Still sick, why?"

He looked at his phone. "Just a moment. I will look up on my phone."

"Mrs. Stephens. I think the woman is a wi - here, look." He showed her the translation on his phone.

"WITCH?" She burst. "That's ridiculous! Is that what you really think?" Her body had changed to a taut expression of outrage and disbelief.

The police chief, ever calm, said, "Maybe the translation isn't the right word. My brother - my wife's brother - is a man who can help. I think that's why the doctor sent you here. I will call him, and he can help."

Though he felt very satisfied with his answer, the mother did not. "Your brother-in-law? What? If she's to blame, I want to file charges. I want that woman arrested!"

"That's not the best... that's not a good idea," he responded. Remembering that the woman was a foreigner, a tourist, with a damaged child, he softened his words as he moved closer and held her eyes: "Please. Believe me. I have a child too. I understand you, so believe me that I will work to do the best for you." This assuaged her for the time being. She then wept, not being able to pinpoint which emotions poured her tears.

The hotel entrance stood quietly on a street corner, and the seven boutique-style rooms huddled above the other businesses on the building block. The man who ran the hotel cared deeply about his customers' well-being and satisfaction regarding their stay in George Town as well as the hotel - until 4:30pm when he locked the front door and went home and left guests with card access to the side door. The day after Mrs. Stephens' visit to the police, he pried carefully into the goings-on of the distraught family. Though he had helped her to the hospital the day before, he knew very little about the situation, but on this day, Mrs. Stephens' explanations fell freely from her lips. He had heard of the George Town witch and stories of people who had crossed her path; he believed many of the stories to be too exaggerated to be completely true. Yet, here sat Mrs. Stephens with her marked child whose X displayed new and frightening colors for the day. He was worried her arm may fall off or worse, though he kept this musing to himself.

The phone interrupted their discussion, and after tersely answering questions from the caller and making affirmative nods to her, he comfortingly said, "Let's go. She is at the police station. I'll take you."

With her husband slightly better but still unable to travel far from his room's toilet, Mrs. Stephens gently kissed her child's head as she ducked into the car. At the station, the police chief guided her into his familiar office. "I still can't believe I'm here. This is actually unbelievable. How can this even be an event that is happening in my life?" She prattled mostly to herself as she settled into the seat from yesterday and inspected her child while moving a piece of hair from her face. When she looked up, she gasped and her body jolted. In the chair across from her sat the witch. Mrs. Stephens felt this the proper time to stare, more with a sense of curiosity and fascination. Some features she had described to the doctor and police were incorrect, she found, but overall, the description had served its purpose. The face seemed almost inhuman with deep crevices, an almost grayish color and eyes that lodged themselves so deeply that they almost disappeared. The witch said nothing and stared just to the right of the child's head. Mrs. Stephens perused the room; the police chief sat close to her, and his brother-in-law sat next to the witch. In the corner stood a ghostly figure - apparently as support for the accused - who was dressed in black and white. Two other police officers occupied the room as well as a friend of the chief's brother-in-law. The atmosphere carried a forced politeness; the chief had to try to ensure that Mrs. Stephens would be satisfied and the witch not confronted aggressively, which he guaranteed by leading the meeting.

"Mrs. Stephens, this is Miss Ling," he began softly. Mrs. Stephens continued to stare at the peculiar woman who continued to stare to the right of the child. "Mrs. Stephens?" The mother's trance broken, the chief continued.

"Mrs. Stephens. Miss Ling and my brother talked. She said yes, she touched your daughter but has graciously given us a remedy. Add a little water with it and put on the shoulder. It will heal soon," and he handed her a small sachet with a stout earthy smell. Mrs. Stephens mindlessly took the sachet, and with her head compacted with so many emotions and happenings to process, she stayed silent. Yet, one string separated itself from the tangled mess, and she whispered, "Why?"

The brother-in-law, whose relationship with the witch was never revealed, spoke on her behalf as she stared intently in the distance. "She told me that you looked at her when you got on the bus; she didn't like the way you looked at her. She thinks you judged her because you are rich and fancy." If one had looked carefully, one may have noticed a miniscule cringe on his face in anticipation of Mrs. Stephens' reply. He expected an outburst, as anyone may have, yet she calmly addressed the witch:

"Isn't that what you did to me?"

At this, the witch moved her gaze to Mrs. Stephens. The witch stood slowly, still staring, which caused a burdening concern across the room. The witch turned, and with her ghostly aid, exited the room without a word. No one followed. The child had climbed down and broke the eggshell silence of the room by pointing at the wall: "Mama! Ek! Ek!" A black X lay etched on the wall where the witch had been staring.

The Stephens' departure the following day found a bright room with the husband scurrying around to pack, fresh and well without any inkling of illness. The daughter's mark on her shoulder, now a faint scratch, was all but healed. Mrs. Stephens moved slowly, robotically, still processing the strange reality of her trip, perhaps deciding what to believe or not.

6 comments:

  1. the role superstition plays in some societies against those who decry it. good characters and a convincing but simple mix up leading to a clash between the two. Nicely done
    Mike McC

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  2. Mrs. Stephens is far from home ... in more ways than one. Being somewhere very different from what a person is used to can cause them to question beliefs they’ve taken for granted. This story portrays that nicely.

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  3. Enigmatic and odd witch story. Definitely the old lady was the wicked witch of the east.

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  4. Interesting that the reason the witch made the X was that she felt she was being judged by the rich woman. By that standard, there wold be a lot of X-marked people in the world.

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  5. How creepy! Impressive depth of character for the witch without needing many words to get there - overly sensitive and grumpy, but ultimately reasonable and willing to make amends. Very enjoyable.

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  6. I love how you are able to keep the attention of the reader without spoiling anything. Although we know the woman is a witch, we are left to wonder how much more damage she may or may not do. Well done.

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