Featured March 13, 2019 Fantasy Historical steampunk historical fantasy Malay whodunnit

The Tin Spirit

By Jaymee Goh
Mar 9, 2019 · 4,982 words · 19 minutes

From the editor:

Tok Kadir and his apprentice Saifan travel to a remote factory to investigate a series of mysterious deaths. Rumors swirl about the coincidental arrival of a beautiful young woman named Maria just before the deaths began, but Tok Kadir suspects all is not as it seems. Author Jaymee Goh writes alternative histories and analyzes postcolonialism through the lens of steampunk. Her work has appeared on Tor.com, and she's a graduate of both UC Riverside‘s Comparative Literature PhD program and the Clarion Writers‘ Workshop. A Malaysian citizen living in Berkeley, Jaymee is now an editor at Tachyon Publications.

From the author: Aging bomoh Tok Kadir and his apprentice Saifan have been called in to deal with grisly deaths at a tin mining factory. The workers say it's an Orang Minyak, the fault of pretty foreigner Maria, but Orang Minyak are supernatural rapists, not murderers.

The wagon trundled behind the buffalo, sedately wending its way along the bumpy road; the monsoon rains had turned the ground to mud, which then dried in the afternoon sun unevenly.

        A brown-skinned adolescent sat at the front of the wagon, occasionally getting off to lead the buffalo along. In the back of the wagon, snoozing, was an old man, with a short white beard, and a songkok over his eyes. His shirt was smudged with mud and foodstains, his sarong even moreso.

“Tok, we’ve arrived.”

Tok Kadir sat up, yawning. In the distance was a tall building, its sides open with wide windows and white smoke belching out over the raintrees. “Doesn’t look like much.” He sniffed the air deeply. “Hrm.”

        “What do you think?”

        “Smells like businessmen.”

        But not the kind of business Tok Kadir normally dealt with. The message had been strongly worded past the formal request, but nothing about the place looked untoward. Tin-refining factories were not normal, but this one didn’t feel abnormal.

        A young man ran out of the building. “Tok, Tok,” he called.

        “That must be Ariffin.”

        Ariffin was in his mid-twenties, a fresh-faced kampong boy who seemed to have adopted town savvy. His moustache was neatly trimmed, his hair well-kept, despite the smudges on his face. He bowed to Tok Kadir effusively. “Tok, welcome.”

        Tok Kadir nodded. He gestured to his apprentice. “This is Saifan.”

        Ariffin looked slightly confused.

        “‘Small rice’ in Chinese,” Tok Kadir said, pleased with the pun.

        Saifan grinned when Ariffin laughed. That joke always went over well.

        “This place looks like any other factory,” Tok Kadir said as Ariffin led him to the workers’ quarters around the back. “Are you sure you’re not having more accidents than usual? Maybe your fellow workers were just careless?”

        Ariffin shook his head. “If actually careless workers were dying, that would make sense,” he said. “Tok, why don’t you rest? When we finish working and after we eat, we can talk some more.”

        Tok Kadir allowed himself to be led to a small cot. As he settled in, he waved at Saifan, who promptly went back outside. “I’ll be fine. Let my helper work and we’ll talk more in a bit.”

        “Yes, Tok. I’ll go back to work now then.”

        Tok Kadir closed his eyes to nap. Saifan would examine the perimeter of the factory and the forest surrounding it. There would be a flora and fauna report forthcoming on any unusual growth, animal droppings, or human activity. Then Tok Kadir himself would go out to investigate the area, and perhaps interview the local spirits to figure out what was possibly wrong.

        The factory sat on a deforested property whose spirits had been moved to appropriate replacement homes long ago. There was a deep empty hole where tin had been mined from, the edge of which the factory perched. Tok Kadir thought through this as he sat down for dinner with the workers in their makeshift canteen, apprehensive of their current trouble, but grateful he was here to fix it.

        “It started after Maria came here,” one of them said, his nostrils flaring.

        “It’s not Maria’s fault,” Ariffin replied, trying to placate the other man.

        “You don’t know that she didn’t bring it here.”

        “Maria?” Saifan asked. “Is she the pretty foreigner in the office?”

        “Before her, we never had any problems. No ghost, nothing!”

        There was a cough from the door. Everyone in the room turned, to see a young woman at the door, an offended frown on her brow. Behind her were similarly offended women of varying ages. Dinner dishes balanced on their hips and shoulders and heads, and they looked about ready to dump the food on the first offensive lap.

        Ariffin jumped up to rush to Maria’s side, eager to introduce her to Tok Kadir. “Maria is Encik Hutchins’ assistant.” He glared at the others, as if daring them to speak. “She can speak Bahasa, English, Spanish, Tagalog, and is now learning the languages of the Peranakan Cina.”

        Tok Kadir looked sufficiently impressed. Saifan’s gaze was one of awe, possibly because Maria was also incredibly pretty. Tok Kadir noticed this, and discreetly tapped Saifan on the temple. Saifan blushed.

        The women served the food, then sat in their own circle. Maria sat down with them, but carefully placed herself close to Ariffin, so that they were practically next to each other.

        “Don’t be offended, Maria,” another worker said. “You know it’s true.”

        Tok Kadir gave Maria a long, penetrating look. “Hrm. And nothing has tried to attack you?”

        She shook her head.

        “What do you think it is?”

        “Orang Minyak!” several voices said in a sudden babble. “It has to be!”

        “Izzat had black oil stains on his shirt, all over his hands when he fought the thing-”

        “Ali on his neck! Strangled to death-”

        “It’s from the grease from the machine-”

        “Because the Orang Minyak lives in the machines!”

        This made Tok Kadir a little cross. “Orang Minyak don’t kill people,” he complained to Saifan after the workers had retired to their homes. He and Saifan were wandering the grounds, trying to get a sense of the evening walkers from the surrounding forest. “The Orang Minyak should be trying to attack Maria, not the other workers.”

        “Maybe it’s not Orang Minyak,” Saifan suggested.

        “Maybe. Maybe it’s a different kind.”

        But it was, otherwise, just like any other Orang Minyak they had heard of: slick skin that made it impossible to grab a hold of it, disappearing into the darkness easily as a shadow, a naked menace, according to the workers who claimed to have seen it. It didn’t appear at any particular time, but apparently had some favourite platforms.

        Saifan pointed out the approaching figure first. “Look, Tok, Orang Bedak.”

        “What powder man? Oh. Don’t be rude,” Tok Kadir murmured, pinching Saifan’s ear. “This man pays our people.”

        Encik Hutchins was dressed all in white, seeming to glow in the torchlight, his peppery moustache curled up at the ends, and his face red, either from the monsoon heat, or from apoplexy that a bomoh was on his premises. “You must be Datuk Kadir,” he began formally, though he spoke in English, “what brings you here?” At least he was trying to be polite.

        Saifan replied, having been prepared beforehand by Tok Kadir, “We come to investigate the accidents, tuan.”

        Hutchins opened his mouth, then closed it. He sighed deeply, apparently deciding that he might as well go along with the superstitious locals. “How can I be of assistance? This is very bad for worker morale. If this continues, I might have to shut down the factory.”

        Tok Kadir was busy looking mildly curious and pretending not to understand a single word. “Tell him we need permission to go everywhere.”

        Saifan pretended to translate again.

        The man’s square jaw seemed to become impossibly squarer. “Of course,” he said, looking unhappy but not willing to argue. “I will give word to all the workers and guards. Do you need anything else?”

        Saifan turned to Tok Kadir. “You didn’t ask me to practice anything else, so that’s it, right?”

        Tok Kadir shook his head. “You’re doing just fine. Wish the nice man a good evening and we’ll be on our way.”

        Tok Kadir wandered the factory at the break of dawn, before the workers were in full swing. It was bare of life besides the whirring sounds of machines and pounding of metal upon rock. He had Saifan to clamber up pillars in search of suspicious nooks and crannies where charms might be placed, but nothing turned up. They examined all the places they had been told the accidents occurred, and found no whiff of curses. The nightwalkers had retired a while before, claiming they had no idea what was wrong within the factory walls. Tok Kadir was inclined to believe them, since their forests were a distance from the building.

        Encik Hutchins hovered nearby, making sure Tok Kadir and Saifan were not disturbed by the morning’s operations. From his lookout, he called to workers to alert them to the bomoh’s position and movements.

        “He looks so clean,” Saifan said to Tok Kadir after clambering down, having spotted Encik Hutchins from a distance.

        “He is a man who certainly tries to live a clean life.”

        “Do you think maybe the Orang Minyak is his fault?”

        Tok Kadir blinked at Saifan. “Orang Minyak is always white men’s fault. Without their factories, we would never even have had them in the first place.” He laid a hand on the steel pillar. “They bring their machines of iron and steel, change our homes, create new beings.”

        Saifan followed Tok Kadir’s gaze out a nearby window, where the large hole from the mining operation gaped, a hungry, voiceless mouth. Forest spirits were malevolent in defense of their homes, but industry brought an unprecedented violence that Tok Kadir and his colleagues still had few methods of dealing with. Soon, Tok Kadir mused, Saifan would have to develop ways of dealing with such new creatures without his guidance, because his knowledge was of a different generation’s.

        At dinner, Tok Kadir asked, “what do you think of your Encik Hutchins?”

        The men looked around at each other. Several of them pointedly looked at Ariffin.

        “If you don’t know very much, you would say he is a fair man,” Ariffin said, moody.


        “Encik Hutchins is the one who bought all our farmlands from the sultan, to start this factory.” Ariffin chewed viciously at his rendang chicken. “If not for him, we wouldn’t be dying for no reason.”

        “But Encik Hutchins pays us well, and now we can buy things in order to make our lives better,” another man argued.

        “Alaa, money, money, we never needed it before this factory was here! All the ground we needed for a whole year’s worth of food all dug out for tin! For what! It’s not even for us!”

        “He doesn’t even pay that much,” chimed another worker.

        There was a sudden cacophony of voices, as even the women joined in, loudly taking sides for or against.

        “Where’s Maria?” Saifan asked.

        Ariffin glowered. “Sometimes Encik Hutchins asks her to eat with him. Maria says he never acts inappropriately around her, because they are both Christian, but I wonder…”

        “Jealous?” Saifan suggested.

        Another moody silence.

Saifan decided not to push the issue. Everybody knew the Christians had their special brand of sorcery, inexplicable and thus untrustworthy.

        “Ariffin is part of the Putaran movement, you know,” Tok Kadir told Saifan as they made another round.

        Saifan’s understanding of politics was still in the vague stage of keeping names and factions straight. Still, the ripple of dissent was hard to miss, even for youths Saifan’s age. Anyone could sense that there were sympathizers for sultans, who believed in the divine right of majesty, and there was the Putaran Putra faction, which believed there were cycles of dynasties. However long a cycle was supposed to last, Saifan never got the long or short of it, but a revolution was nigh, by the sounds they made. “Oh, I didn’t know. Is that why he hates Encik Hutchins so much? Because Encik Hutchins is a Sultanate sympathizer?”

        “Could be, or could be something else. Ask Maria.”

        “Why me,” Saifan complained, although full knowing why.

        After another fruitless morning of searching the factory, and having left Tok Kadir so the old man could take his requisite afternoon nap, Saifan wandered into the office wing of the factory, looking for records, only half-intending to examine the details of the accidents. Sniffing around the offices wasn’t necessary, but Saifan wanted to see what the office of a factory owner looked like. Unfortunately, Maria called from her desk. “Saifan, is that you?”

        “Yes, Cik Maria.” Saifan coughed at being caught.

        “What are you looking for? Can I help you?”

        “Er… the accident reports.”

        Maria nodded. “That’s easy,” she replied dryly, rising from her seat, “they’re so new, the ink hasn’t dried.” She went to a cabinet and pulled out the folders. “Nah.”

        Saifan took them and began flipping through them.

        “So, you can read English?”

        A distracted nod; Saifan’s English wasn’t that good, but enough to get the gist of the reports, albeit with great difficulty and a lot of time. The accidents were all terrible: workers falling into the jigging machine, or caught in the ore washers. One trapped somehow and processed through the open crushers. The reports blamed the unwashed floors which were slippery from the mud that the factory, or railings fragile from rust.

        Maria had clearly been peering closely at Saifan, for she exclaimed, “you’re a girl!”

        “Am not,” Saifan mumbled. “Just born one.”

        “Oh, I see. I had a greataunt like that. She could see spirits too.”

        Saifan didn’t bother correcting her. Not all people born between worlds could also see between worlds. Saifan’s skill was from hard work studying under Tok Kadir, not natural intuition. But Saifan was not as practiced as Tok Kadir in asking questions, so pretending to be what other people saw helped, whether as a Chinese girl or Malay boy. Either impression created trust—as a girl, Saifan elicited confidences; as a boy, assumptions of harmlessness meant access to all sorts of things.

        After several minutes of silence punctuated by the rustling of papers, the expected confessions started. “Everyone who has died was trying to court me. That’s why they think the Orang Minyak is my fault.”

        Out the corner of an eye, Saifan caught the white face peering in from the doorway.

        “I would leave if I could, but you know…” Maria sighed. “I am so tired of traveling. I had to leave one home already, and I want to stay here. Help people here.”

        “Get married here?”

        Maria blushed.

        “To Encik Hutchins?”

        She shook her head. “He’s very kind to me, but—”

        Encik Hutchins cleared his throat. “Maria!”

        Saifan stepped back from Maria as Encik Hutchins entered. For a moment, it appeared as if a black cloud had passed over the white man’s face, then he smiled genially. “Ah. You are Tok Kadir’s apprentice? How is your investigation?”

        Saifan waved the papers of the accident reports, gesticulating to make up for halting English. “Okaylah. I go look at the factory now, can? And Maria come with me can, tuan?”

        Encik Hutchins raised an eyebrow at Maria. “He’s a bit young for you, isn’t he?” he asked, then chuckled as Maria flushed.

        “Does he do this a lot?” Saifan asked Maria in Malay.

        “All the time,” Maria muttered.  

        Just then, a young man’s screams and an old man’s shouts cracked through the afternoon air. Saifan bolted past Encik Hutchins, Maria close behind, their feet flying down the staircases and onto the factory floor.

        Tok Kadir was holding a still-screaming Ariffin in his arms. Blood spurted from the young man’s shoulder; what oozed across his shirt was stopped in its tracks by dark oil splotches. The smell of sulphur hung in the air around them.

        “Ariffin!” Maria shrieked.

        “Get back!” Tok Kadir shouted.

        Saifan grabbed hold of Maria’s shoulders to hold her back. Encik Hutchins was close behind, and he reached for Maria. Maria batted his hands away in unthinking distress, and buried her face in Saifan’s shoulder.

“Hurry! Get the doctor!” Encik Hutchins snapped at nearby gawkers. He strode forward to kneel by his worker’s side. “What happened here?” he demanded.

        Tok Kadir stared a long moment into Encik Hutchin’s face, and the white man swore as he remembered that the old Malay man in front of him couldn’t understand him. Encik Hutchins turned to Saifan. “Ask him what happened!”

        Saifan said to Tok Kadir, in Malay, “Tok, was it really an Orang Minyak?”

        Tok Kadir nodded, still giving Encik Hutchins a hard stare. “Where was he just now?”

        “In the office. He’s been there all day.”

        Tok Kadir gave Maria a speculative look.

        “It’s definitely not her fault,” Saifan shot back. “She was in the office with me too.”

        “I didn’t say it was,” Tok Kadir replied as he relinquished his grip on Ariffin to other workers who came to take him away. Ariffin had finally fainted from the pain.

        “So what did he say?” Encik Hutchins asked.

        “Well, uh,” Saifan glanced around. “His arm got caught in there,” Saifan guessed, pointing at the wall of giant corkscrews that turned together, and now flecked with bone chips.

        Mr. Hutchins turned to look, and blanched. “It’s never a clean accident here, is it,” he murmured. “At least he didn’t die like the others.”

        As Ariffin was ushered away in a stretcher, Tok Kadir rolled his gaze over to Maria, still sobbing into Saifan’s shoulder. “Get her away from here,” he instructed his apprentice.

        Saifan obeyed, leading Maria back towards the offices. Tok Kadir followed them, and tugged Encik Hutchins to come with him. Maria broke away from Saifan halfway up the staircase, and sniffled as she opened the door into her office. She crumpled into a chair.

        “So what happened?” Saifan asked as Tok Kadir and Encik Hutchins entered the small room.

        Tok Kadir huffed. “It’s sort of an Orang Minyak.”

        “What’s he saying?” Encik Hutchins asked, hovering by Maria.

        “He say a bad spirit attack Ariffin.”

        “That can’t be. I had this place blessed and cleared of all possible supernatural forces before starting the operation!” Encik Hutchins cut himself off and took a few deep breaths. “What kind of spirit? Is it something your Tok can exorcise?”

Saifan turned to Tok Kadir. “Can you? If it’s not actually an Orang Minyak, then what is it?”

        Tok Kadir squinted at Encik Hutchins. “Tell him about the Orang Minyak, Saifan.”

        With squared shoulders, Saifan explained, as authoritatively as possible without proper English, “Tuan, you know what is Orang Minyak?” At the factory owner’s shake of the head, Saifan continued, “Orang Minyak means Oily Man. Covered in oil, so, hard to catch. He, um, he try to—hurt women? Down there?”

        “Absolutely not!” Encik Hutchins blanched again. “This is a respectable little village, and the locals don’t hold with that kind of behavior. They are good people.”

        Beside him, Tok Kadir rolled his eyes.

        “But the accidents haven’t involved women,” Hutchins said. “What’s going on?”

        Tok Kadir raised an eyebrow at Saifan. “Tell him that the Orang Minyak is probably looking for Maria.”

“But I don’t know how,” Saifan argued.

Both eyebrows went up now. “You want Maria to explain it?”

        Saifan sighed, then said to Encik Hutchins, haltingly. “Tok Kadir say, Oily Man want Maria.”

        “That was terrible,” Tok Kadir admonished Saifan.

        “You don’t teach me English well,” Saifan retorted.

        “Don’t be rude.”

        “That is absurd,” Mr. Hutchins almost shouted. “Can your Tok Kadir figure out which fellow is doing this?”

        “Tell him Maria should get married,” Tok Kadir said.

        “Tok!” Maria exclaimed, shaken out of her shock. “What are you saying?”

        “I’m joking, Maria. I want to see the omputeh’s face.”

        With an eyeroll, Saifan said, “Tok Kadir say Maria should marry.”

        Encik Hutchins seemed struck by this suggestion; his eyes widened, and suddenly his face relaxed. “Oh?” He turned to Maria. “I don’t suppose…”

        “Mister Hutchins!” Maria gasped.

        “That’s what I thought,” Tok Kadir muttered.

        Encik Hutchins had the grace to blush at the sudden reveal of his feelings, yet his face lit up, eyes shining with earnest sincerity. It was embarrassing to see. “I had been waiting for a more appropriate moment. But Maria, if you marry me, then this spirit won’t come after you. Right, Datuk? And if the datuk is right, then it means the accidents will stop. Isn’t that the case? Ask him, boy.”

        Nobody else failed to notice the actual problem with his logic. With pursed lips and narrowed eyes, Saifan considered Encik Hutchins for a moment before turning to Tok Kadir. “Is it?” Saifan asked.

        Tok Kadir scowled. “Sort of.”

        Encik Hutchins looked from master to apprentice anxiously. “What does he mean?”

        “Tell him I need more time to figure this out,” Tok Kadir prompted Saifan.

        Saifan sighed, but turned to Encik Hutchins. “Tok Kadir said no. Got another answer.”

        “I don’t want to marry you, Mister Hutchins,” Maria blurted.

        Encik Hutchins was startled. “Oh.” The excitement in his eyes died. “I see.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “Well, I shall go look in on Ariffin and make sure he’s all right, then.”

        Before she could say anything else, however, Encik Hutchins had left the room.

        “What just happened?” she demanded, regaining her senses enough to flush in anger.

        “Something important.” Tok Kadir handed Saifan a packet of sulphur. “Saifan, I am going to get my things. You will go to the factory and wait for me where Ariffin was attacked.”

        “Why?” Saifan asked without thinking.

        Tok Kadir glared.

        “Yes, Tok. I’m going, Tok.”

        Tok Kadir pointed at Maria. “You will go with Saifan. I think I know how to draw it out if you are there.”

        “Yes, Tok.” Maria rose. “Tok… I won’t have to marry Encik Hutchins, will I? He’s a good man but…”

        “Don’t worry, Maria.” Tok Kadir patted her shoulder. “Let’s take care of this first.”

        The evening cool was barely starting to set in the factory when Saifan and Maria found the spot where the Orang Minyak had attacked Ariffin. The sun casting long shadows made the factory dark, and Maria brought along a candle. The large twisting metal rods, meant to crush the blocks to get the ore within didn’t look any less menacing when still as when they were moving, Saifan thought.

        Maria wrapped a shawl around herself, staring out at nothing in particular. Saifan felt a little sorry for her, so far away from home, with an employer offering a marriage she didn’t want, and a perfectly good suitor attacked even!

        “You know, Ariffin and I had been planning to get married?” Maria said at last.

        “I didn’t know.” Ignorance, Saifan thought, seemed to be the running theme on this caper.

        “Ariffin is so good. He’s the only one who understood why I ran away from home. We were going to the new forest town after we got married, and join his family there. Start a farm, start a family.” Maria started crying. “But now Ariffin might die and it’s because of me.”

        “It’s not your fault,” Saifan said, putting an arm around Maria. “You couldn’t have—urk!” A dark hand wrapped around Saifan’s neck whipped the small body away from Maria.

        Maria screamed.

        Saifan looked up at the Orang Minyak: tall, covered in the black grease that made the machines run smoothly. Flecks of tin sparkled in the setting sunlight, like tiny constellations. With a twist of the foot and a ducking motion, Saifan wriggled free of the Orang Minyak’s grip and crashed to the floor.

        “Saifan!” Maria called. She launched herself at the Orang Minyak and pushed it off the platform. It tumbled backwards with a muffled scream, down to the jigging machine below.

        Saifan sat up, reached into a pocket for a pinch of sulphur. “Watch it, Maria! It’s coming back up.”

        Maria looked over the platform railing. Saifan was right; a dark shape creeped up the pillar beneath them. When it saw Maria, it emitted a gurgling sound, and oily arms reached for her.

        “Maria!” Saifan shouted as the young woman was engulfed in the black liquid. Saifan squinted, and threw the pinch of sulphur at it.

        It recoiled a little, enough to take on a human-like shape, a shape that looked familiar.

        “Encik Hutchins?”

        “Saifan, grab Maria!” Tok Kadir’s voice cracked across the factory floor.

        Saifan wrapped arms around a struggling Maria, and took advantage of the creature’s oiliness to maneuver her out of its grip, slipping hands under hands to pry it off. Maria kicked it back.

        Tok Kadir stood between them and the Orang Minyak, a string of verses running out from his mouth. He brandished a Quran before it, and it quailed backwards, melting into the wall of ore crushers.

        “Hurry, surround it,” Tok Kadir said, holding out a packet of black powder to Saifan.

        “Tok, this is gunpowder!”


        Saifan and Tok Kadir quickly laid down gunpowder around the large rods, Saifan squeezing between them and the wall to close the circle and praying that the creature would stay in its hiding place. It did, and when that was done, Tok Kadir threw down a spark.

        The sparks jumped across the black powder, burning quickly and dancing their way around the ore crushers. The Orang Minyak seemed drawn to the sparks, and all of a sudden, burst into flames.

        “But it’s Encik Hutchins!” Maria shouted, as the Orang Minyak flailed back into its hiding place, setting it on fire too.

        “Let’s get out of here!” Saifan yelled, grabbing both Maria and Tok Kadir to hustle them out of the building as the fire spread around the machinery, the crushers and the washers, the filters and the engines that drove them.

        A crowd had gathered outside the factory, although only half of them were focused on the burning. The other half encircled a prone form on the ground.

        As Tok Kadir approached, they moved aside. Encik Hutchins clutched at his heart, gasping for air. His eyes frantically blinked, moving around, looking for someone. When his gaze settled on Maria, he reached out to her. Maria ran to his side. “Sir! Do you need medicine? What happened?”

        The last of the sunlight illuminated the tears in his eyes, and his trembling hand touched her face. Then he fell back and closed his eyes.

        Saifan and Tok Kadir stood off to the side, watching the bridal couple feed each other. They had been importuned to stay for the wedding feast, as thanks for not only stopping the attacks, but also for convincing the police officers who came to investigate the fire that it was not the villagers’ fault.

When Encik Hutchins recovered from the ordeal of the factory explosion, he sold the land, opting to return to England. The tropics, he decided, gave him a chronic heartburn. The new owner was a Peranakan Chinese man who had grown up in the area, and though he would be continuing the tin mining operation, would at least revert the mined lands back into farms. Plans were underway to terrace the land for paddy, altars set up to invite the spirits back.

        “So let me see if I got it right,” Saifan said to Tok Kadir as they ate their nasi kandar, “the Orang Minyak was Encik Hutchins all along.”

        “Wrong. It was Hutchins’ desire for Maria, come to life. He loved her, so he wouldn’t hurt her.”

        Saifan mulled it over. “Let me try that again. The Orang Minyak was created by Encik Hutchin’s jealousy. So, instead, it went after everyone else who might take her away from him.”

        “More like Hutchin’s jealousy found a way to become separate from him, so he could continue to remain innocent, at least to himself,” Tok Kadir said patiently, certain that at some point he would be allowed to stop repeating himself.

        “And you had been there when Ariffin had been attacked, so could stop it.”

        “It was a guess of mine, but I suspected Ariffin would have been next.”

        “How did you know?”

        Tok Kadir shrugged. “When you grow old, you know things.”

        A collective howl went up in the crowd as Ariffin and Maria kissed each other for longer than was perhaps appropriate.

        “And that, too. They were not very discreet.” Tok Kadir waggled his eyebrows.

        It was, as all things involving the white British were concerned, very tidy. Ariffin fully expected further investigation into the factory explosion from the local officials, but he was placated enough by the new owner.

        “Abang Wu believes in Putaran too, you know,” he had told Tok Kadir excitedly. “He is buying back the lands that the British bought from the sultan, and he even has contacts in the Philippines! So we might be able to bring Maria’s family here.”

        “What’s going to happen to Encik Hutchins?” Saifan wanted to know. “When we destroyed his feelings for Maria, did we destroy anything else?”

        Tok Kadir sighed. “Hutchins meant well, but whatever we accidentally destroyed, I don’t think he will ever notice.” Then he said no more on the subject.

        When they were next back on the road, Saifan whistled a cheerful tune. Tok Kadir seemed to drift off to sleep, then started up. “Saifan,” he said suddenly, “we must buy you some new clothes. Now that we’re away from that place, I can smell all that grease on you. Did you even wash behind your ears?”

Jaymee Goh

Jaymee Goh writes alternate histories and different worlds filled with social justice cotton candy.