The Demon and the City


The Chinese inhabitants of Singapore Three say that August is an unlucky month. They say that it is called the month of the dead, for it is always during the endless burning days that the dead return, looking for the living, drawn by blood and breath. They tell their children: You do not know how it was when we lived in the suburbs of Beijing and Guangzhou, or the willow villages of Szechuan, in the ancient cities where people understand how to keep the dead at bay. But in this great new city of Singapore Three, where the entrances to the Hell are closer and the veils between them are fractured, we no longer live in a place when a story is only a story, told to frighten a child in the darkness. Nor do you remember when the demons and the hungry ghosts were only dreaming shadows in an ordinary life, until we left the old cities and came to the new, and found that during certain months and certain times, when the eternal Wheel of Life and Death grates on its spokes, the world changes.

At such times, one can only prepare for the possibility of death as best one can.

Deveth Sardai, stepping from a downtown tram, was not thinking of death. She was, instead, wondering how to extricate herself from the latest disastrous relationship. The policy of ignoring the girl was clearly not working: Sardai had not phoned her since the previous Monday, but a litany of messages, of increasing desperation, had been left on her answerphone.

Sardai smiled thinly as she walked down to the retailers' market, to wander, anonymous, beneath the girdered roofs of the warehouse shelter. The market was crowded with people on their way home from the production lines of Haitan. In fruitsellers' quarter Sardai nearly tripped on the vegetables that spilled out over the floor, squashed into mush across the dank concrete. She kicked aside a burst cucumber, turned the corner and found herself out of the fruitsellers' street and into the meat market. The butcherei, mostly women, glanced at her incuriously as she passed. The mild-eyed heads of the black cattle, swinging on their racks, held more expression. Sardai stepped queasily between the remnants which littered the floor; the concrete was washed with a faint pink gloss. Nothing was wasted, Sardai knew. The cattle were reared in the derelict lots between the apartment buildings of Bharulay and Saro Town; genes acquired on the black market and manipulated to produce Indian cows, of a sort. The butcherei slaughtered them illegally, bleeding them dry in hidden locations among the back streets in a literal moveable feast. The traders brought the bodies here before sunrise. The horns and hooves would be the first to go, sold off to the herbalists to be ground into powder and marketed as fraudulent aphrodisiacs.

At the end of butchers' street, a shrunken, cheerful woman was washing out a cloth in a bloodstained bucket. She beamed up at Sardai, who had paused.

"What you want?"

"I'm looking for the remedy market," Sardai said. It seemed to have moved since her last visit; they rearranged the market frequently, to baffle the inspectors. No one was fooled, except the hapless customers.

"Oh, sure." The woman wrung out the cloth a last time and heaved herself to her feet. "I'll show you."

She walked with Sardai to the end of the meat market. Beyond, in front of the pilings that raised the market from the water, the butchered cattle lay in heaps of unidentifiable flesh. From the corner of her eye, Sardai saw a lean, dark shape slink behind the