You catch a faint whiff of blood while selecting durians for the buffet.
You smell it, despite the fusion of sweat, lubricant and the sandal-bottom aroma of durian fresh from the tree. You eye the guests Ah Jie guides to the tables, seeking the source of the iron-heavy scent. The ox-like man with a nose ring? The white girl wearing shades and a hoodie? Or the child chewing the plastic wrapper of a sweet–
Ah Jie scolds you for staring. So you take a deep breath, start carving with your knife and call out to the tourists:
“Lai lai D24! Verrrry nice! Verrrry creamy!”
Every weekend the tourists arrive by the busloads from Penang, KL and Singapore. They love the farm-cheap prices and supposedly organic fruit Ah Jie’s family grows. They descend on the all-you-can-makan durian buffet like a monsoon flood.
You’re used to their exciting pawing at every bit of fruit, their gruff demands for more. You do your best to meet their constant demands and sheer amount of durian they consume.
“Eh uncle, more D24 can?”
“You got Black Pearl or not?”
“Why your Mao Shan Wang so sweet one?”
You patrol the shaky wooden tables surrounded by aunties and uncles as they dig into the spread-eagled offerings. You dole out servings of every type of durian the farm grows (and more!) on Styrofoam plates dangling from your hands. The tourists eat, joke, and chase everything down with ABC or Tiger. Nothing remains in their wake save the wreckage of broken husks and balled-up yellow tissue paper.
As you pass Ah Jie, she gives you this exaggerated half-nod in the direction of the farthest table. It’s her sign that she wants you to do something that’s either too troublesome or complicated for her.
Sure enough, at the last table, you see the white girl seated alone, uncertainly looking at a plate of D24.
“Ok, Ah Jie. I handle.”
You step up to the challenge. You ask if you can help. She looks at the durian and shrugs.
The classic beginner’s reluctance, you think. So you set out to find a less creamy or sweeter variant.
“Here, Miss, you should try this Mao Shan Wang—”
Then, the smell again, cloying, close. This time you’re certain it’s coming from this girl with her hoodie, sweating in the afternoon sun. You set the durian in front of her, and as she moves, you almost reel from the images this scent brings: rotting flesh, bones picked clean and deoxygenated blood. When she looks up, you see yourself reflected in her shades, a black island surrounded by unnaturally pale freckles.
Impossible, you think. Especially out here. So you distract yourself by commencing the how-to-appreciate-durian-for-non-Asians talk.
“So, Miss, first time right? I teach you ah. First thing you do, is enjoy the smell.”
You take a bladder-sized helping of durian and inhale. You let the flavour inundate your senses, prepare your palate.
She follows your every move.
“You try,” you say. “This one is Mao Shan Wang, or in English they say, ‘Cat Mountain King’. Very good and high quality!”
She sniffs at the sunshine-yellow lump. It lacks the intensity of a D24, and but it smells of a swampy, isolated hill in Kelantan (probably where Ah Jie got it from).
You hand her a new serving with an exaggerated flourish. “Okay, so now best part. You just take, and taste, like this.”
Hand firmly pressing the flesh, hand to mouth, durian to tongue, senses erupt and taste buds ignite. You bite. You roll the flesh in your tongue. You let it wash over you. With your own hyper-consciousness, you can almost see which plantation, which hill, which tree, which branch this durian came from.
Your pupil imitates your every move, and when she smiles at the end of the entire ritual, you think have converted another white person to the wisdom of durian appreciation.
“See. Good right?”
But she asks, “But the smell?”
“You tahan. Then soon all smell like perfume.”
“This tastes really good.”
She lowers her unfinished piece. Instead of taking a chunk out of the milky flesh, you see just two holes, pinpricks as if made by fangs.
“This is as supple as human flesh,” she says.
Now you understand where the smell’s coming from. You have the barest of glimpses of her smile, bordered by blood-encrusted teeth.
All you can say is: “You compare siao is it?”
When it is time for the tourists to leave, you make sure this one gets on the bus. Her smell–sweet durian mixed with the odour of scabbed over wounds left to rot–follows her all the way out.
“I should come back,” she says.
“Your kind not welcome here.”
“Oh. I mean…you are kindly welcome here. But please book with tour agents so you don’t come during off season.”
Later, Ah Jie asks you to clear the tables. She allows you and the others to help yourselves to the leftovers, before she gathers them to make ice-cream. At the table where you entertained the white girl, you pick up the fruit with two punctured holes in it, and reconsider what she said.
As supple as human flesh. You can’t really compare. You haven’t had soft, blood-pulsing, warm human skin under your tongue for ages.
At the thought, you almost feel an old urge in you rising to fruition. Why not just a bite? Just a bite of flushed, raw meat? Just to sustain you for the next few months working in the middle of nowhere? Why not—
Ah Jie shouts at you to hurry up. So, to suppress the craving, you sink your teeth into a remaining piece. Its flavour washes the chamber of your throat, sweetening it until there’s nothing left to sate your wild appetite but chewed-down paste and shreds of durian flesh.