The Engine Room
by Kristine Ong Muslim
The Engine Room
In the engine room, the boiler chugs its steam. You can hear the pounding, the terrible groaning from six floors up. Someday, this whole building will explode. And the contents of the boiler will scald everyone you know. And the contents of the boiler will taint everything you own. Here in summers, when the engine room is locked from the outside, the maw of the boiler is temporarily silenced. The seasonal calm and the lack of distraction lead you to finally notice that all this time, your floor has been attracting grisly blackbirds with bloody beaks. They have been making their nests from the candy bar wrappers you have licked and discarded. They have been making their nests from the fallen hair strands and nail clippings they gathered from your bedroom floor. That’s how badly they want a part of you. You bend down to inspect their feathers and realize that what you are looking at are actually scales. You lock eyes with one of them, and you sense that it can smell your fear.
A whirring metal stirrer agitates us as we percolate at the bottom of Dr. Fuseli’s temperature-regulated vat. There’s no clambering onto the smooth walls, no way of escaping this container. But if you should someday decant this vat, what do you think would pour out of the vessel’s mouth? Where would its new center of gravity lie?
Schooled in phototropism, we talk of summers as if we were afforded the possibility of getting out. We talk about orienting our malformed bodies toward the sun, of raising our nonexistent arms to shield our missing eyes from the sun’s harsh glare. Nightly we dream of walking the streets of your world, of the early-morning fog hiding our swarthy forms. All the while outside this vat, the listeners taunt us, daring us to spill our bright noise.
We hear their humming, their incessant wailing come out of Dr. Fuseli’s temperature-regulated vat—a vat that’s loosely lidded, just enough to shutter against the cold weather months. Some of us tread lightly to keep them at ease. Some, of course, stomp around, inciting fear, danger, a will to contain what will someday grow restless, will someday become robust and turn against us. Steeped in growth medium at the bottom of the vat, the malformed ones sometimes weep. Sometimes they don’t say anything at all.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012), Grim Series (Popcorn Press, 2012), and A Roomful of Machines (ELJ Publications, 2015). Her forthcoming books include the illustrated short story collection Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016) and poetry collections Lifeboat ( University of Santo Tomas Publishing House , 2016) and Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2016). Her poems and short stories have appeared in Confrontation Magazine, Contrary Magazine, New Welsh Review, and elsewhere. She lives in southern Philippines and serves as poetry editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, the literary journal published by Epigram Books in Singapore.