Ridden — Jason Marc Harris
“Memory is another name for ghosts and their awful
hunger.” — from “Apple” by Eugene Gloria
It was Hmong New Year. Phang was thirteen-years-old, and Grandfather Zaj told his stories to the young men while the girls and women danced on that beautiful day in Discovery Park where the American River flowed into the Sacramento River. When Zaj spoke, Phang and the other boys did not watch the women twirling like colorful ribbons by the river. Instead, they crouched in the kopok treehouse on a mountain in the heart of the Laos jungle where the moon shone like midday sun through mists that hung above the thick canopy of green bamboo leaves and curling bronze branches, clutching like hungry claws of the dead.
“Many spirits in the jungle, but it is Dab Tsog, the choking spirit, which hungers for souls of men. It enters your body with the bloodthirst of the mosquito. No nets keep it out.”
“How did you avoid it?” Lis Yag asked. He was always practical, Phang’s older first-cousin. He liked to know how things worked, how to take apart and solve problems of life. No surprise that he became a doctor.
Zaj took a long drink of coconut water from the blue-tinted glass he held in his thin calloused fingers. He looked at Lis and smiled.
“I didn’t. Dab Tsog came as I sat fishing at a pond, too close to the banana tree. I did not fear the tree, for I had seen my grandmother weave cloth from the bark of such trees. One leaf gets so big a person can hide behind it. That’s what the tsog must have done, lying in wait, though I do not know whether the tsog made its home in the pond or the tree. When I fell asleep as I waited for the fish to bite, it attacked me.”
The boys and men grew quiet. Some mocked with smiles, sneers, and rolled eyes, but inwardly they worried. Phang did too, though he knew from biology class in junior high that no spirit showed up in leaves or a drop of water from a puddle. Germs? Yes. Spirits? No.
“I awoke. My face burned but the rest of my body was numb. I couldn’t move. I saw what I thought was a woman. She had her back to me. Her skin glistened like tree slime. Her face was a shadow. She was not a woman at all. Neither woman nor man, a thing with blank face and creases for eyes. A thing that folded into shadows and wrapped around my head.”
“What did it do to you?” Lis Yag asked.
“It did not steal my breath as many will do. It made me insane for three days straight. I ate bark and drank muddy water. My uncle found me with a search party. They tied me up because I would not go willingly. The shaman told my uncle that I had come under dab tsog.”
“Did he cure you?”
“He sacrificed a pig and called my guardian soul back from where it had fled from the tsog. Then he lured the dab tsog into a shell, covered the shell in cloth, and weighted it down with a stone. It sank to the bottom of the pond.”
“So, it did come from the pond,” Lis said. Phang shivered to think what lurked in ponds.
“Perhaps. The shaman said it had used the banana leaf to hide, but he wasn’t sure if it were hunting by itself or if it had been sent.”
“Sent by whom?” Lis asked. Phang wondered if that inquiry irritated Grandfather Zaj.
“A sorcerer,” Grandfather Zaj said. “But that is not for us to talk about today. Bad luck.”
Grandfather Zaj became convinced that three years later, when Phang’s father, Cai, died, he too had been cursed by a Hmong sorcerer, and that dark curse had sent dab tsog from some dark pool to claim Cai’s soul. Grandfather Zaj himself died two years after Phang’s father.
Twenty years after his father’s death, Phang lounged in his patio chair overlooking Isla Vista’s cliffs on the California coast. He sipped coffee while waves broke and gulls wailed. Their querolous cries echoed like someone or something left far behind, lost forever. Silhouettes of oil rigs also blighted this Sunday morning of sunny summer sky and blue-gray Pacific Ocean. Tar-streaked beach spread to his left and right. Sometimes Phang ran as far as legs, lungs, and heart could carry him. On that endless beach he truly was one of the “Free People”—fishing and wading in massaging waves, the name “Hmong” for once was no lie. His people weren’t really “free people.” They’d had little choice throughout their history.
Hmong had been driven out of China milennia ago, struggled to find a new homeland in Laos, Thailand, and Burma, but inveigled by the manipulations of the CIA and Vietnamese and Laotian communists ended up in concentration camps, killed, or scattered over the globe. Phang’s mother made it as far as Minnesota before she died. If Phang weren’t an atheist, he might have feared his mother’s soul refrozen each year in that icy state. Before his death, Phang’s father had traveled west, to California, raising Phang to chase American hopes. When Phang stared at the ocean, American dreams hovered in fog, dissolving and reforming each day.
Today Phang’s attention fixed neither on ocean, beach, nor sky. Today Jodie sunbathed.
As he drank, Phang stared above to his right at the overhanging balcony of his neighbors’ cliff-hugging three-story house. Jodie Stiles lay on her back next to the oval turquoise-tiled swimming pool. A skull-headed cobra tattoo curled around her spine, gleaming sun-tanned coils. The serpent’s hood stirred as Jodie lifted her head, blond hair glinting golden.
Jodie grabbed the cigarette that lay in the bowl of cherry pits and stems next to her. A white toy poodle panted in the sun near Jodie’s feet.
Jodie sucked a couple puffs then a long drag. The sea breeze blew smoke to Phang.
Phang hated the stench but eagerly inhaled the smoke. Dizzied by too-bright and too-hot sun, he barely dared to stir beyond sipping his coffee. If he moved or made a noise, Jodie might either scowl or fake a smile. Worst of all, she might get up and leave or Dan, her boyfriend, would lumber onto the deck, eclipsing the view of Jodie with his broad-shoulders.
In his paralysis, Phang longed for things he doubted he could fulfill. He could no more grasp Jodie than he could own a three-story-beach house. Even working two jobs he didn’t have that proverbial “ghost of a chance.” Not without a real career or a badass promotion. He’d fucked up by not finishing college, but he still worked damn hard. “Work hard,” his father always said. “And then work even harder.” Besides his janitorial job at Walmart, Phang worked for Jodie’s father, Mr. Stiles, one of the local real estate magnates. He had once hired Phang’s hard-working father to do custodial tasks at the Riptide Theater. After Mr. Thao’s death, Mr. Stiles trusted Phang to work just as hard and loyally at local properties, including where his daughter now lived at 1200 Del Playa–”DP” as the students called the road of outdoor weekend keggers that rocked out with local bands above cliffs. Phang rented his one-bedroom unit–more shed than house–next door to wealth and beauty. Sometimes Jodie had him fix the toilet or the dishwasher.
Jodie never could look at him as an equal, but at least Phang had this deck. That was the wonder of Isla Vista as a community—college students, Mexican-Americans, and even a few Hmong immigrants could rent a beach-side view for $650 while the landlords could own those million-dollar homes. As Jodie took another drag and exhaled, Phang deeply inhaled.
Sometimes Phang felt he did live together with Jodie. He carried such fantasies to the bedroom where he’d masturbate fiercely, rubbing himself raw in a flurry of frustrated desire.
Within Jodie’s smoke spun dollar signs, cars, vacations—freedom, succcess, mobility.
Dan called Jodie inside. When she got up, Phang almost dropped his coffee-mug. Her glistening form glided inside the house.
Her departure broke the spell. Phang finished his coffee and went to his bed. He opened the window, got under the sheets and tried to take a nap as he breathed the fresh air that caressed his face. After lying motionless for minutes, dampness chilled his shoulders as the breeze blew harder through his window. He shivered, but he could not move his hands to draw up the covers.
His legs were frozen. He couldn’t move his arms. Anything. A shadow flickered on the wall just on the edge of his peripheral vision, but he couldn’t turn his head to get a closer look.
Was a small ragged cloud passing in front of the sun?
He thought he discerned the outline of a figure standing on top of the flat metal grate of the heating vent on the floor by the window behind his bed. A knock, then a metallic ping hit the ceiling. Sometimes the plumbing made odd noises, but no water was running for cooking or for his bath. The pipes seemed to shriek out at him.
But the noise came from next to the wall not the pipes, from the shadow he had glimpsed.
“I’ve been waiting a long time until you were weak.”
The sound scraped at his ears. It was as if metal mimicked a human voice. He tried to turn his head to look, to raise his arm to protect himself, to kick his legs to wake. Phang’s breaths came heavy and slow.
He struggled to inhale more deeply, to fill his burning lungs. Foulness filled his nostrils, like a carcass rotting in an algae-gilded pond.
He thought of quicksand in Laos, where he had still never been. He felt the grip. Something was pulling him deeper into himself. He fought against the gravity of its pull.
Darkness drifted over Phang’s chest, floating like mist but heavy as stone. He tried again to move through the quicksand around him. He couldn’t even blink.
Shaggy clumps of matted gray hair like threads of a mop swayed above him. He couldn’t shift his eyes to meet the gaze of the thing that hovered over him. Sharp pricks stabbed the skin stretched over his ribs.
He tried to cry out, to yell. The moan caught in his throat.
Something had hold of him and didn’t want to let go. He could see more of it now.
A shriveled pointy face amid clumps of hair drifting in a black cloud. The dry flap of a toothless mouth puckered over Phang’s larynx, fastened on the tip of his voice box where his voice rattled helplessly. Each breath came faster and shallower. Though surrounded by air, he was suffocating. If he could just move . . . .
He willed one stiff toe to curl. His left big toe throbbed. Then, it twitched.
In that instant, the thing that sagged above him evaporated into semi-transparency and zipped into the heating vent on the floor next to his bed. Or so it seemed.
Phang’s breathing opened up in long gasps, deep inhalations of sea-cooled air.
His sheets soaked with sweat, Phang knew what Grandfather Zaj’s word had been for this thing. His father’s too.
Dab Tsog. The choking spirit. The terror that came in the night.
How had the malady that afflicted his father and grandfather come to strike him when he didn’t believe? What business had dab tsog coming for him when he was an atheist?
Life was mysterious and frustrating enough in America without the shadows of his past.
Phang’s parents came to America in 1976 when the aftermath of the Vietnam war drove Hmong like them out of Laos. It was either leave the country or be stuck in a reeducation camp by the oppressive People’s Democratic Republic. His mother had worked at the embroidering factory in Minneapolis until she gave birth to Phang, and then she promptly died of pneumonia. Phang’s father, Cai Thao, moved first to Sacramento, then Stockton, and finally Isla Vista. He told Phang that California was where the American magic really lived.
His father complained that he never “got the trick” of living in America. In Laos, his father had been successful, but after immigrating, without English, he couldn’t get a job he liked. Sometimes Phang saw his father struggle with a dictionary, sounding out words. Usually Mr. Thao just sat on the couch and drank when he wasn’t working.
Phang never thanked his father for enrolling him in the bilingual school in Sacramento, even though the education could give him the future that his father never had. All Cai Thao found to do without English was janitorial work, and he hated it. And it was never enough, even when he worked in two towns: Isla Vista and Lompoc. He hated being on public assistance, hated relying too on the charity of the Church. After Cai was fired from Pacific Bell due to maintenance budget cuts, he worked for Jodie’s father, Mr. Stiles, who owned the Riptide theater in Isla Vista, and Cai also cleaned the Church in Lompoc, which he commuted to from Isla Vista because many other Hmong attended the congregation.
Cai scoffed at Christian beliefs, but he didn’t give up the old ways. Cai told Phang to respect the dead and feed the ancestral ghosts. Neither the church nor food stamps were going to take care of them. Cai had no yard to raise pigs or cows. Cai couldn’t afford animals to sacrifice.
Then the dark spells came, when his father couldn’t move or breathe. He’d awaken and mumble about a curse, about a sorcerer from Laos who had wanted Cai’s wife for himself.
Phang didn’t believe his father’s ravings. They embarrased him. It was obvious to everyone he was a drunk. If he hadn’t spent so much on Southern Comfort and Jack Daniels, Phang wouldn’t have been stuck wearing Salvation Army jeans too wide for his skinny hips.
One day Phang came home and saw the red wet fur of a dead puppy lying by the family altar. His father had killed a stray for the benefit of the ancestors and for his own protection.
Phang was ashamed. How could he yell confidently that the kids at school were liars when they accused his family of being dog-eaters? Phang fought when he had to, with his fists, elbows, and feet. Most of the kids decided Phang wasn’t worth it. They left him alone.
At home, Phang was alone too, alone with his tired father, who stared more and more frequently at the bottom of a bottle or out the window at the blank and pale sky.
When Phang was sixteen, the pastor found Cai dead among his pews on Sunday morning in the Lompoc church. The pastor performed an exorcism against Satan, whom Hmong call “Ntxwgnyoog.” But gray heads among the Hmong community did not speak of the devil or unclean spirits from hell the way the pastor did. No, they said, “dab tsog.” Choking spirit. The elders grew scared, for they believed Cai would not be the last to die that way.
Phang remembered how the eyes of his father’s corpse had rolled up in the corners. The curling back of the lips in a frozen snarl of fear.
Some said this evil spirit of Laos punished Cai Thao for neglecting the old ways too long.
Phang Tao distanced himself further from the old ways than his father. Except for cooking, he embraced what was new, what was American, Western and hip. He watched Friday Night Videos, kept up with heavy metal, soul, and New Wave; he wore Levi’s jeans; he wet his lips with American beer; he played baseball and football; he learned to break dance, to skateboard, to cuss like he didn’t give a shit and was bored by every fucking thing in the world.
He did not keep an altar for his ancestors. Why be held hostage by the past?
Despite his efforts, Phang became more alone after his father’s death. But he did have two good friends. Karen Xion, who went to college for psychology, and eventually joined a local practice in Santa Barbara counseling teenagers and drug-addicts, and Lis Yag, Phang’s first-cousin, whom he’d grown up with in Sacramento, and worked now in Stockton as a doctor, a general practitioner whose patients were not just poor Hmong but all sorts of people.
Unlike his high-achieving friends, Phang never graduated college—despite a local scholarship for bilingual students. Somehow when he stared at those textbooks, he felt buried beneath them, reams of paper plugging his throat and covering his eyes. He could not see past all those credit hours, those tests. He quit. And now, at thirty-three, after a decade of waiting tables, mowing lawns, and replacing roofs, he craved change. His hateful jobs, cleaning floors and toilets, reminded him of the work his father despised. But he still believed if he stayed industrious, he’d get promoted, maybe go back to school, find something he liked and bust out.
But with the choking spirit come to roost upon his chest, he had a new problem.
His friend Karen Xion, conscientious psychologist that she was, did her research after Phang’s father died and told Phang that his family ailment was a problem for first-generation Hmong, not someone like him. He was not an alcoholic. No heart trouble. No hallucinogens. So why should this form of sleep paralysis—when the body lay stiff while the mind was awake—torture Phang with hallucinations after thirty years of living free and enlightened?
Phang disbelieved in the demons of Christianity as well as the spirits of the Hmong. His grandfather would have called him an arrogant fool, but pig sacrifices wouldn’t help fight the malady that found Phang.
He needed to get out his rut. Spirits weren’t real. He just had to fight his way out of a job he hated. He might save enough to buy his place if he got promoted to management. He’d finish school. Go back for an MBA. One step at a time. He deserved it. If he couldn’t afford to own his place in Isla Vista, he should at least be able to move somewhere of his choosing. In the meantime, he had the daily misery of living with neighbors who barely acknowledged him. He had tried to be friendly, and they’d been courteous, but their politeness was still a rejection. Especially Jodie.
He remembered the sting of her attitude from the first day she moved in next door and stomped out in her leopard-print high heels to answer his knock at the front door.
“Hi, I’m Phang. Welcome to the neighborhood.” He held out his hand.
“Oh, cool,” Jodie said, the light of her blue eyes dulling, but she gave him the ends of her limp fingers to hold as white teeth gleamed in a tight curve of plum-glossed lips. “My Dad told me about you. The garbage disposal has been making some weird sounds, so I think maybe you should come back tomorrow and check it out. I’m still busy unpacking right now.”
She whirled from him in a twist of peach-round hips. Desire leapt in Phang but a chill crept into his chest. Maybe she just had a bad day?
Even when Jodie’s boyfriend, Dan Poltren, had moved in a couple weeks later, Phang remained friendly. These were rich white people. They might take time to become accustomed to a Laotian neighbor who often commuted on bike. No doubt he was strange to them.
He brought over peace-offerings such as shrimp spring rolls (Dan gobbled up all of them while Phang stood by smiling), lemongrass-marinated pork (this disappeared behind the front door that closed in Phang’s face), and coconut sticky rice flavored with mango sauce, which Phang had spent two days sweetening and chilling to perfection. “Not really my thing,” Jodie explained and Phang saw the tasty rice for which he’d labored lying in the trash the next day.
Since food had failed, Phang tried compliments. He congratulated Jodie on the acquisition of her white convertible Porsche—a gift from her father’s bank account; her experiments with imitating whatever hairstyles seemed most expensive and trendy in Vogue; her impressive wardrobe of stylish clothes; her bold personality.
“You should be on a reality show,” Phang told Jodie one day at the mailbox right before Dan pulled up in his Escalade. “You’ve got the perfect life. Perfect body. Perfect hair.”
Jodie laughed while Dan looked at Phang like he was from Saturn or yet further away.
“You’re sweet,” Jodie said, “but I don’t want to be on TV. I kinda like my privacy, you know? But hey, tell you what, how about coming over tomorrow?”
“No, we’re having a party. Don’t worry we’ll have some food you can eat too.”
At the party, Dan engaged Phang in an embarrassing political discussion about the degree to which the Hmong had helped or hindered the United States’ war efforts in Vietnam. Apparently Dan had been talking to his father, who was Santa Barbara’s prosecuting attorney, and he had friends who had been involved in those legal proceedings some years ago where Hmong were accused of buying arms to overthrow Laos. Dan had picked up some strange theories about how some Hmong weren’t just arms dealers but double-agents for the North Vietnamese, and Phang patiently explained that the Hmong were pressured by the CIA to take the American side of things when all they really wanted was to live in peace on their hill farms.
One of Dan’s friends asked if Hmong knew martial arts. Phang said that there were legends of a secret Hmong style that never made it out of China because Hmong leaders got poisoned.
Dan then brought up local rumors about how Hmong in the 1960s hunted stray dogs in Isla Vista. Phang saw Jodie glance back and forth between him and her dog. Phang wanted to snap at them, but remembering what his father did to that dog long ago, he buried his rage.
“There’s a lot of weird stories out there,” Phang said. “Don’t be too gullible.”
Then Jodie made a big show of pointing out the bowl of chicken-fried rice and the package of chop-sticks she’d kept on hand for Phang. He cringed as she thrust them in his face.
“See?” Jodie said, “I told you, we had you covered.”
“Actually,” Phang explained, “eating with chopsticks isn’t something Hmong do.”
Dan stepped forward when he saw Jodie’s face crumple in confusion.
“Hey man, we’re just trying to be good neighbors. And c’mon, if the United States hadn’t gotten y’all a free pass out of Asia, you wouldn’t even be here by this kickass beach, would ya?”
Halloween night when Del Playa was a river of costumed bodies gyrating beneath the streetlights, Jodie stalked out of the street in a cat-woman costume with Dan the spray-painted-green Incredible Hulk, and when she opened the door, “Snapples,” ran out of the house.
Phang heard Jodie crying and Dan cursing, and he ran after the dog before it was lost in the crowd. He grabbed it, and despite the canine living up to its name by trying to take a pound–or rather a pint–of flesh, Phang brought the wriggling terror to Jodie.
She thanked Phang, but he stiffened when he heard her say to Dan once they thought they were safely inside their luxurious lair, “glad he didn’t decide to eat it.” Dan’s reply wasn’t quite audible except for the last words about “should have left those damn gooks alone in Vietnam.”
Phang’s anger boiled over as he marched up and knocked on their door.
Dan towered behind Jodie as Phang explained that Hmong didn’t eat dogs, didn’t fight against American soldiers, but were exploited by the CIA to undermine the communists, and had generally been screwed by America for decades. Dan told Phang not to “fucking bother them.”
Maybe it was just the alcohol talking? No, Phang knew better. He was done trying to live in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He hoped his decision to give up on them would prove liberating.
Yet, a month after he’d stopped talking to Jodie and Dan, Phang still was troubled with visitations of dab tsog and still couldn’t quit thinking about Jodie. Somehow the knowledge that he wouldn’t ever approach her again had imbued her with a new aura of perfection. She was some fairy princess of secret desire. An elusive temptress, cruel but compelling. No other woman could so enflame his lust. Cursed by desire, he tried to move on, but he couldn’t convince his body and mind to be reasonable. He had to do something physical or he’d go crazy from tension.
He didn’t know exactly why, but the impulse seized him one day to steal a glossy white bikini swimsuit top that had blown on the beach down from Jodie’s patio. At first he considered returning it. No, they would have acted like he were some kind of creep if he showed up on the doorstep with Jodie’s intimate apparel. He kept it in a dresser drawer instead. Never even touched it much, though the delicate satin fabric was something Phang never would see in Walmart. Just kept it as a trophy.
Jodie must have assumed it blew away in the wind because no one ever said a word.
Despite their rejection of him, Phang still thought about his neighbors. Their money, their clothes, their cars, their confidence—even their rudeness seemed a privilege that working hard in America might earn if you kept at it enough. He might get there. He never missed a day’s work.
And no matter how many times he saw Jodie, he couldn’t help staring. She was gorgeous, sparkling from golden vanilla braids to ruby-red toe nails.
Her belly was growing. Had she gotten pregnant? Retreating from the windy patio to his bedroom, Phang lay down on his back to rest, but the yelling back-and-forth from Jodie and Dan—“Bitch” and “asshole”—kept Phang awake. The patio door opened and slammed shut, and the dog yipped twice in the dark. Something smashed inside their kitchen. Would Dan hit Jodie?
Should he go knock on their door? Call the police? Maybe it wasn’t quite that serious. No other sounds called from the dark. Perhaps he should call Karen Xion, his psychologist friend. She was always happy to give more advice. He needed help.
At the Goleta Pier, flecks of sea foam sprayed through the wind-whipped air and Phang inhaled the scent of moist salt. Beside him walked Karen Xion, slim and neat in her business skirt. After hearing Phang catalogue his troubles, Karen checked her rose gold watch then tapped Phang gently on his left elbow.
“You’re just stressed, Phang. Your neighbors and work would stress anyone.”
“I’ve been stressed before and not had demons sitting on my chest with mop-hair.”
“The mop-hair shows you were dreaming. It symbolizes you hate your work.”
“I know I hate my work. Why do I need a symbol for it? And how do I stop having symbolic dreams that make me almost die?”
“Come with me to Church. The Holy Spirit will help free you from negative thoughts.”
“Is the Holy Spirit going to give me a raise?”
“God helps bravery. Take care of your work situation first. That will give you confidence in dealing with your neighbors. The sleep paralysis will disappear once you’re back in control of your life. See your boss tomorrow to get that raise. We’ll do Church Sunday.”
His next day at work, Phang found himself short of breath. Despite his discomfort, he approached his supervisor, Alfie Myer, a tall man with a habit of joking at Phang’s expense.
“Hey Phang, new haircut? New stylist?”
Phang smiled, coughed, and looked down at his work boots.
“No, wait,” Alfie continued, “same boring style as ever. Try a mohawk next time.”
“Very funny, Alfie.”
“You know what’s funny, Phang? You’ve been here over five years, and you’re still pushing around that cart.”
Phang fidgeted with the handles of the janitor’s cart. He tried to think of what to say.
“So, why don’t you get to it? How about cleaning up the pickle spill on aisle seven?”
Phang headed to the mess on aisle seven. He passed the make-up display.
Jodie was examining lipstick. Phang had never seen her in Walmart before.
She took a glinting silver-and-black tube of L’Oreal and slid it down her cleavage.
Phang froze. What the hell? Did she have some Winona Ryder-shoplifting-complex?
Jodie turned around, smirked when she saw Phang, and stalked past him, Versace platform heels clinking towards the exit.
That night, lying on his back, in bed, Phang wondered what to do. Tell Jodie he’d have to report her if she stole again? It wasn’t his job to physically stop her, but he was supposed to report shoplifting to his manager. Maybe Alfie would thank Phang for his vigilance. Finally give him the raise? But how to live next to Jodie if she found out? How awkward would that be?
Phang tried to swallow the dryness in his throat.
He dreamt of Jodie applying her lipstick in front of him while her toy poodle barked and barked in his face. The fur of the dog got in his nose, and he could barely breathe.
His eyelids flicked open. A dark figure standing by the bed with a dirty gray face stretched out in the dim light of dawn. The figure held a mop and thrust it into Phang’s mouth. Thick dirty fibers choked him. Made him gasp and retch.
He coughed from deep within his chest. His right leg kicked up in the air. He fully awoke and could move again. And nothing else moved in his room but motes of dust dancing in the sunlight.
Phang met Karen again that afternoon for burritos on a bench in Del Playa park where she played with her iphone. During their meal, Phang explained that dab tsog continued to torture him. She dismissed this as a hallucination.
“You just need to relieve your stress. Did you ask for the raise?”
“I tried, but the timing wasn’t right.”
“Be bolder. Don’t just ask for a raise. Ask for a promotion. You’re choking yourself.”
“I think it’s going to kill me. Why do only some Hmong get this? Why me this time?”
Phang mulled over everything Karen said at lunch, how dab tsog was a medical condition that especially afflicted Hmong male immigrants unable to become economically independent within two years of emigrating.
But then what had happened to his father? He had lived in America over a decade.
Karen explained that those poor Hmong men who thought spirits were after them and had no recourse to the rituals of protection from their ancestors were the ones where paralysis might on rare occasions trigger heart failure. Like Phang’s father.
“All the theorizing doesn’t do much good when I’m lying stuck, and I can’t breathe.”
“That’s when you should pray,” Karen said. “It will relax you, atheist or not.”
Phang prayed first to the Christian God, then to the Hmong Father and Mother—the incestual twins of all creation.
“What the hell did I go to community college for? What good did logic class do?” Phang muttered, staring out his kitchen window at cottony fields of fog, that suffocating ocean’s breath.
Rising dread rose in his chest. He was afraid to lie down, though his neck ached from tension and fatigue. So prayer had not really helped either. How demeaning to have tried.
At work, Phang marched up to Alfie, who watched football in the electronics section.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday.”
“Not now, Phang. Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“I’ve worked heating, air-conditioning, done electrical, not just janitorial work.”
“Yeah? A regular Renaissance man, huh?”
“Maybe I could be assistant manager for maintenance?”
“You?” Alfie laughed.
“Why not me?”
“You’re not a people person, Phang! You don’t inspire people. You’re not a leader.”
“What about a raise?”
“You talk to me next month, and we’ll see about it. Now, go take care of the restrooms. I heard there’s some nastiness in the Lady’s room.”
After mopping and buffing the bathroom, the silhouette of his face stared back at him,outlined in the chemical sheen over the bathroom floor tiles. This blurry ghost of himself leaned on the mop. He thought of his father and sighed.
Phang went home with a headache. He’d listened to Karen, tried to speak up at work, but gotten nowhere. What good was playing by the rules when the rules weren’t made for him?
He lay on his side on the living room couch, but it wasn’t many minutes after dozing off in the fetal position until Phang heard laughter behind him. The sound resembled flipping pages or crinkling tinfoil—not normal human laughter. And then a thing crawled up his back, digging in with pointed claws.
He couldn’t breathe, and his heart pounded so hard, Phang feared it would burst in an explosion of red pulp. Phang clenched his fists as tightly as he could. Pain from the pinch of nail against palm roused him from the paralytic state.
Phang sprang from bed, and ran to the bathroom mirror, ensuring that nothing crawled on his back. All the positive-thinking in the world from Karen wasn’t helping him.
His heart thumped as though he’d just sprinted down the block. Phang called Lis Yag, his childhood friend and first-cousin—always the calm problem-solver, now doctor.
Lis Yang listened carefully to Phang’s complaints. He declared Phang was cursed and scolded him for never having made offerings to Phang’s father or their Grandfather Zaj.
“Why would I make offerings to dead people? What the fuck can they do?”
“Don’t you remember the old ways? Ancestors protect us from tsog. If you lose your soul to this one, you’ll have no one to blame but your own disrespect.”
“Thanks for the compassion. You’re as bad as Karen. No help.”
“Kooj Neg is the sorcerer who cursed your father with dab tsog. He died soon after your father did. He’s probably the one who cursed you too.”
“Never heard his name, but my father sometimes ranted about some sorcerer.”
“My mother told me all about it. Kooj wanted your mother. Before she caught pneumonia, he cursed her with no children.”
“But I was born. Why did that even happen if Koog cursed her to be barren?”
“Sorcerers are not true masters of the spirits. They can only bargain with spirits. The spirits listen but choose their own ways. You were born, but born cursed and have no siblings. Dab Tsog makes women barren, but it steals the souls of men and brings them madness.”
“Even if I don’t believe in souls?”
“You don’t believe in the three souls, even now after what’s happened to you?”
“Three? I remember just two. One for dreaming that wanders and one that stays with the body for health.”
“And one for defense against evil spirits. Let’s hope we can call that one back to you if it’s hiding somewhere. Let’s hope the tsog hasn’t already claimed it.”
Phang sighed and licked his dry lips.
“I don’t know any shamans.”
“Seriously? I didn’t know you’d gotten into that.”
“I get more Hmong clients this way. When they understand I know our culture as a shaman, they trust me as a doctor. Besides, I still respect our family’s traditions. And let me tell you, Phang, not everything has an answer in the pill bottle or with the scalpel.”
Phang agreed to make an altar to his ancestors. He gathered photographs, food, and candles. Lis promised to bring iron, silver, and copper to help defend against dab tsog.
Cousin Lis arrived with two live chickens, beaks and claws taped together, in a bag to sacrifice to the ancestors, as well as shiny bracelets and necklaces of copper, silver, and gold for Phang to wear. Lis also had boat-shaped offerings made from yellow, white, and red paper.
“What are those for?” Phang asked.
“Joss paper gifts for the spirit. In the spirit world these become silver coins. I’m sure the dab tsog will be greedy for payment. Now, let’s begin.”
Lis unfolded a wooden bench, called it his “horse.” He straddled it and said he’d ride the bench searching the underworlds for Phang’s missing soul. Lis covered his clean-shaven face with a red cloth. He saw out of it well enough to grab the two chickens, whose throats he cut with a steel knife. Phang gasped.
As the blood collected in a pan, Lis chanted while Phang sat on the floor beside him.
Lis grew quiet. He stayed silent for fifteen minutes except for his deep breaths.
Phang squirmed, not so much uneasy at the death of the chickens as impatient for results.
Lis removed his cloth-mask. Sweat wet his forehead. His face sagged from fatigue.
“Well?” Phang asked.
Lis shook his head and sighed, “Not easy, little Phang. Not easy. I saw the spirit world. I saw a place of crystal-clear water, but your guardian soul has wandered into dark waters, and your father and grandfather are far away. I think they travelled too far from our world to smell the chicken, but the dab tsog caught the scent, sure enough. I saw it. A dark mass in the water.”
“What did it do?”
“A rumbling voice said, ‘you are not wanted here.’ Then the waves grew big, and I felt a chill like ice in my chest. But the Joss paper boats drifted close to the darkness, the paper became silver coins that sunk into the deep waters. The waves became ripples.”
“What does that mean?”
Lis smiled, “The spirit has accepted the payment. You should sleep easy now.”
After cousin Lis’s departure, Phang lay comfortably, looking forward to unbroken sleep.
A woman’s scream came from next door. Phang jumped from his bed and rushed outside to the street. He pounded on his neighbors’ front door.
Dan shouted from within, “Go the fuck away!”
Phang heard Jodie crying and the dog barking.
He opened the door and saw Dan push Jodie against the living room wall.
“Hey,” Phang yelled, “let her alone.”
Dan pushed Jodie away and charged at Phang.
“I told you to go the fuck away!” Dan punched Phang hard in the jaw.
Phang’s teeth crunched together, and his head snapped back.
Phang swung at Dan and clipped him on the temple. Dan came forward, and Phang kicked him in the stomach. Doubling over, Dan gasped. Phang watched, not knowing what to do.
Jodie wiped her nose with her pink shirt. She didn’t look at Phang.
“You idiot, you idiot,” she said. Phang didn’t know if she meant him, Dan, or herself.
Dan recovered and rushed at Phang, knocking him out the front door and down on the sidewalk. He sat on Phang’s chest and hit him twice in the face. Phang saw sparks. He forgot for a moment where he was. Dan raised his fist to strike again.
“Dan,” Jodie shouted. “I called the cops! Let them handle it! Don’t be a fucking idiot!”
Dan reddened, got up, and without looking back at Phang, he went inside the house.
Other neighbors emerged from their homes to see what was wrong.
Phang stood, bleeding from his nose, squinting from swollen eyes.
A Sheriff’s vehicle rolled up on Del Playa and parked in front of Jodie’s apartment.
Jodie answered the door, and her black eye squinted like a closed clamshell under the bright yellow light of the outside lamp by the front door.
One Sheriff’s deputy took a statement from her while the other stood by.
Phang saw Jodie point at Phang as he stood out at the edge of the street.
“He broke in and tried to steal my purse!” Jodie yelled and pointed at Phang.
Dan hulked behind her, glaring at Phang. The toy poodle, pink ribbon fluttering in the breeze, ran on the lawn and yipped at Phang. It was a full conspiracy.
The deputy approached Phang and spoke about the seriousness of the charges.
“But, it’s not true,” Phang said. “Dan must have hit her. I heard them yelling. I walked in, she was hurt, he had her against the wall. He attacked me when I came in!”
“They’ve got another story,” the deputy said.
Phang watched the strange smiles on Jodie’s and Dan’s faces, their gleaming white teeth almost fluorescent in the darkness. Despite Phang’s protests that he might get fired if he missed work at Walmart, the deputies marched Phang into the street, ushered him inside the police car.
After a brief glance at Phang’s face, his Hispanic cellmate turned away and said nothing.
Phang lay down on the sagging mattress in the cell. He stared at the yellow stucco ceiling and sighed. He would at least try to sleep. The flickering lights out in the hall waved strange shadows on the wall. And then, just as he thought he were going to fall asleep, the tsog came.
He could not breathe clearly, and a shadow from the wall swept towards him.
It buzzed as it flew to land on the foot of his bed. Stared at him with compound eyes like a giant fly, flapped at him with six plump baby-arms. It clambered up to his chest. It struck at his chest with the dark solid beak of a crow. If the tsog pecked much deeper, it could take his soul.
He groaned. He heard a sputtering in his throat. But he couldn’t move even a toe, no matter how hard he tried. And then his head wobbled from a blow.
“Wake up, cabrón!”
A hand cuffed his head again. A human hand. The tsog had departed. His Hispanic cellmate glared at him in the darkness.
“Nightmare, sorry,” Phang said, lifting his head from the limp pillow.
Phang paused, almost thanking his cellmate for awakening him. The other man snorted and returned to his own bed. Phang stayed awake the rest of the night.
Phang called Karen that next day. He promised to pay her back soon for the bail bond.
They ate lunch at the Harbor Restaurant.
“I’m cursed. I’m really cursed with this damn dab tsog. I told you it would kill me.”
“Don’t say that,” she said. “This just happens in your family in response to stress. It’s like stomach ulcers. You’re suffering, I know, but you must have faith in God, Phang.”
“Bullshit. I read that Christian Hmong died too. Hell, my Dad died cleaning the Church.”
“He wasn’t Christian in his heart, Phang. You’ve got to fully believe. Your father never really assimilated. Just come with me to Church this Sunday, promise. Please, Phang.”
“I can’t promise anything right now. Just take me home, Karen.”
Back at his apartment, Phang contemplated what he should do next. A note in his mailbox indicated that Mr. Stiles had fired him from further work in the Isla Vista properties.
Phang feared he’d also lose his job at Walmart.
He didn’t have the money to pay for a good attorney, and everyone knew only the expensive attorneys were the good ones. And with Dan’s father being an attorney, what chance did Phang have with the legal system?
If Phang could only get his head around how to free himself from the dab tsog and punish Jodie at the same time. She had tried to ruin his life.
He checked his cell phone, found the message from Walmart. He was suspended pending the outcome of his trial. Fuck that condescending son-of-a-bitch Alfie.
Phang called cousin Lis again to see if his shamanistic insights might be of use.
Phang told Lis of the accusations against him by his neighbors, his job troubles, and how dab tsog still persecuted him. Lis didn’t seem too surprised to hear about Phang’s problems.
“I’ve been having some bad dreams, Phang. Your tsog is still hungry, so still cursing you. If we take care of the tsog, everything else should clear up. The tsog may be feeding evil thoughts to your neighbors. Speaking of feeding, tell me, got any goats nearby?”
They drove up above the Ojai valley after midnight, and parked Lis’s Subaru behind the old water tank at the junction of the unmarked dirt lane and Creek Road. Phang carried a golf club in one hand and dragged a heavy cloth bag behind him. Lis walked on ahead. He had wire cutters, a sheathed knife, and a holstered tazer hooked to his belt. They cut the barbed wire and approached the two brown young floppy-eared Nubian goats that lay under the black oak tree. One rose to its feet, bleated once, and headed for the white barn, glowing dully in the moonlight.
They quickly converged on the remaining plump goat. Lis shot it with his tazer, flashes of blue light arced around its chest where the electrified dart shot into the flesh. Phang’s stomach lurched, but he dropped the bag and knocked in the goat’s head with golf club strikes to its face.
“Hold the legs,” Lis ordered.
Phang did his best to hold the legs steady that convulsed in a flutter of hooves.
Lis held the bag open for Phang to shove the legs in.
A hoof pounded Phang’s leg. He cursed. The bruise on his thigh would be an ugly one.
Lis seized the wounded goat by the ears and shoved the rest of it into the bag.
“We’ve got him,” Lis whispered. “Give me the duct tape.”
Phang fumbled for the roll of tape in his sweatshirt pocket, handed it to Lis.
Lis completed the job by duct-taping up the goat’s snout, then tied the bag tightly.
They hoisted the bagged goat between them and set it down in the trunk on top of the beach towels and tarp. Then, they repaired the fence and drove to Phang’s place.
In Phang’s living room in front of the impromptu altar to his father and grandfather, hastily-assembled photographs crowded with fruits, cheeses, and candles—Lis and Phang laid down the injured goat on towels and plastic sheets, untaped its snout.
Blood oozed from the goat’s mouth. Phang stared at its thick tongue. The smell of mud, goat hair, and incense filled the room.
Lis slashed the goat’s throat three times with the bowie knife he drew from the sheath at his side. The blood poured thickly, slicking up the rough reddish-brown hairs.
The goat’s sputtering cry ended in a few seconds. It sounded like a dying baby.
Phang’s hands shook as he sat on the floor on a towel next to the goat.
This time, instead of a red one, Lis put on a black cloth mask that draped over his head. He closed his eyes and chanted.
The droning of Lis’s voice became a buzz of white noise that entranced Phang, but then his throat clenched. He felt again the familiar heaviness of his limbs. His hands stopped moving.
When he tried to move his arms or hands or legs, he could not.
Suddenly, the eyes of the goat widened, the mouth opened, and the tongue wagged.
Phang was paralyzed, and the goat’s neck lurched forward.
“I crave sweeter meat.” The words crackled in the air, rang in Phang’s head.
The goat head dipped down, and that wide blood-blurred pink tongue flopped over Phang’s mouth and nose. A wet rag of pulpy torn flesh smothered him.
He could not breathe. He would die. He would die oppressed and unavenged. Impotent.
He would do anything to breathe. Anything at all. If he could just take a breath. Please.
And yet, now somehow he was talking to the dab tsog. He was promising the tsog the unborn child of Jodie. He would feed the tsog raw goat flesh from his own stomach. He would rub goat blood upon the white bikini he had taken from the neighbors’ patio that one day.
“Do it so,” the voice of scraping metal said. The tongue lifted, the head lolled back.
And then Phang could breathe again. He sat up. He took a deep freeing breath. Exhaled.
The goat’s head lay motionless with the rest of its body on the bloody towels.
Lis’s humming trance ended.
“I think it worked,” Phang said.
Lis nodded. “I saw a silver blob, your lost soul, hovering in a field of diamond flowers. I called to it. I said you needed it back, for protection. It followed me back to you.”
The dab tsog, Lis explained, would be in the goat. And then the garbage dump.
“So, if some blood dripped on my neighbor’s lawn or deck, the tsog might go there?”
“It might, but I cannot counsel you in vengeance, Phang. I would lose our ancestors’ blessings. Peace should reenter your life with the dab tsog gone. Just be free now.”
Phang thought of freedom. Peace. He could not have it without revenge. The dab tsog had shown him the way of truth.
Patting Phang on the back, Lis told him about a good lawyer, Mr. O’Brien, who had been sympathetic to Hmong cases in the past.
“So how did he do it anyway, that sorcerer?”
“Kooj Neg?” Lis frowned, withdrawing his arm from Phang’s shoulders.
“Yeah, the son-of-a-bitch who cursed me and my father.”
“Let it go, Phang. He is long dead. What he set in motion is now over.”
But Phang persisted in his questions. Lis told then how Kooj Neg must have stolen some of Phang’s father’s clothes so that dab tsog could know the victim’s scent.
Phang looked at the sticky clots of goat blood on the towels.
“Choking ghosts don’t have GPS, huh? They need something really personal?”
“C’mon, Phang,” Lis shook his head and smiled, “Let it go now. You’ll be fine.”
While Lis used the bathroom, Phang cut a large section of goat flesh and put it in the fridge. Then he wrapped up the towels tightly around what was left of the goat.
He helped Lis in the final disposal of the carcass and the towels.
But after Lis had left town, and again Phang heard the shouts of Jodie and Dan squalling from behind the walls, Phang opened his dresser, got Jodie’s white bikini, dipped it in blood, and gulped down his secret stash of bloody goat flesh.
He attached the bikini to the hook on his fishing pole. Then he went to his patio and peered to his left.
The poodle lay on the porch. Phang dangled the blood-soaked bikini in the air near the recumbent dog. The dog’s nose twitched, opened its eyes, but didn’t get up. Just sniffed.
Phang rested the fishing pole against the side of the deck. Then he vomited into his shaking hands, and flung the bits directly at the lethargic dog. The poodle sprang to its feet and gobbled up the yellowish bile-coated bloody bits of goat meat as though it had discovered some cache of canine ambrosia which might disappear any second if it were not speedily wolfed down.
Phang’s stomach heaved, and his eyes watered, but he watched in fascination. Some of the goat blood dripped from the dog’s mouth upon its pink ribbon. Finishing its feast, the poodle began to nibble on the blood-stained bikini.
After the dog had its fill, Phang reeled in the bikini. The little beast engaged in a brief tug-of-war with the levitating garment. Alarmed, Phang tugged hard, which startled the poodle when it too become airborne. It let go, giving up with a whimper and single bark.
Phang retreated inside in case his neighbors came out and caught him balcony-fishing with the gory bikini. He wrapped the bikini up in a plastic bag, dumped it in the kitchen trash. After washing his hands, he returned to his balcony.
Phang’s throat felt clear, his lungs fresh. He inhaled deeply the damp sea air.
The dog had settled down to nap. How did the meal taste to the spirit inside the dog? When Jodie stooped to pat her dog, would the choking spirit of jungle and swamp enter her womb? Is that how it would dry out her genitals, blow cold air into the cringing fetus? Would its fearful hunger strangle a generation of sullen blonde girls with poodles dressed up in pink ribbons? Would she collapse, stone-stiff at the court hearing?
“Where is Miss Sanders?” The bald-headed stern-faced judge’s sweaty brow shined under the bright fluorescent lights of the courtroom.
The prosecutor, a tall red-haired woman in a green pantsuit, stood up.
“My client is ill,” she said. “She’s at the hospital. She’s been unresponsive for two days. The trauma of Mr. Thao’s repeated stalking of my client, and the shock of the home assault has severely injured her health.” The prosecutor’s voice rose in righteous outrage.
“Is that the official medical assessment of a physician? Do you have a document to that effect?” the judge asked.
“No, your honor,” the prosecutor said in a lower voice as she held the gaze of the judge.
The judge frowned again, and he turned to Phang’s lawyer, Mr. O’Brien.
Mr. O’Brien had told Phang all they needed to do together was tell Phang’s story. Phang had barely believed that they could win in court without tricks, but Mr. O’Brien had a way of making sense. He inspired confidence. The Stiles family had money, but Phang had truth.
Mr. O’Brien stroked his beard and explained to the judge the lack of substantive evidence in either medical reports or police reports that validated the charges against Phang Thao. Before this accusation, there were no complaints from anyone else and only positive evaluations from Phang’s co-workers, friends, and family. Mr. O’Brien emphasized the community values and respectful traditions that characterized the Hmong people.
Phang twirled with his right hand the spirals of copper, silver, and iron dangling from his neck. How thin the charges were against him. And how persuasive Mr. O’Brien was.
The evidentiary hearing wore on, and now Mr. O’Brien had brought to the judge’s attention the record of Dan Poltren. The taped 911-call of a previous girlfriend, the restraining order applied for, then dropped after a generous payment by Dan’s father, accused of racism by some of his outraged customers. The Poltren household was a crucible of entitlement, xenophobia, and misogyny. Dan had verbally harassed and physically threatened Phang on more than one occasion before brutally assaulting him. If anyone should go on trial, it was Dan Poltren. There was no compelling evidence that Phang had done anything wrong at all.
And then Mr. O’Brien referred to Jodie and her kleptomania. The substance abuse shared with her boyfriend. The codependency of anger and addiction. Phang had the misfortune of neighbors, who had betrayed his hospitality and exploited his naieveté. Neither Jodie nor Dan was a reliable witness. Phang was not a stalker. On the contrary, he had tried to be a Good Samaritan and had been punished for it by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The judge called recess for lunch.
Phang glanced at the angry red face of Dan Poltren and knew he’d already won.
A shame that Jodie was not there to see his triumph.
Although Mr. O’Brien explained to Phang at recess that he thought Jodie’s attorney had advised her not to testify—deeming her absence more sympathetic than her likely unimpressive performance during cross-examination—Phang believed the choking spirit had found her at last. A wonderful calm settled over Phang’s body as he considered the fear that must be rending Jodie as confused doctors poked at her body with their impotent instruments. The sleeping beauty who would not waken easily from the clutch of her new demon lover.
He would no longer see her haunting the beach balcony, frowning disapprovingly at Phang, when she deigned to look at all. She would awaken in time, no doubt, and know fear. The terror that came in the night, that lurked at her elbow if she dared to nap, that would stifle her cries. And neither her clothes, her car, her beauty, her bank account, nor her boyfriend could keep away the spirit huddled over her chest, sucking breath from cigarette-wilted lungs.
Tomorrow Phang would return to his despised job at Walmart, but today, amid buzzing voices that finished the courtroom deliberations in his favor—the certainty that the case would be tossed out for lack of substantial evidence—Phang imagined the luxuriant feel of the cool pillow case beneath his neck tonight, the good sleep he would have. Peaceful dreams of triumph awaited his tired head.
Jason Marc Harris recently graduated with an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and was Fiction Editor of Mid-American Review. Publications include Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (2008) and (with Birke Duncan) Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Jokebook (2007), and stories in CC&D: The Unreligious, Non-Family-Oriented Literary and Art Magazine, EveryDay Fiction, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Cheap Pop, Riding Light Review, and Midwestern Gothic.