Hantu Air, by Nana Shaa
Imagine being a kid and reading folklore tales about Sungai Sembilang for the first time. How a woman named Suri was doomed to be an ugly form of mutant fish called Sembilang and how her skin transformed into slime and mud-like texture. How her mouth stretched and birthed tentacles. She was cursed because she ate the forbidden fish in the magical river in Jeram area, Selangor. How did the tales begin and what started it? Nobody knows. The story was already around when I was rather young. It started this distorted perspective of mine towards the said Sembilang. Weird enough, I always loved eating it but the more I see it, the more it resembles a humanoid figure: its bulging eyes, its pronounced mouth and tentacle-like moustache. It indeed started this horror narrative inside my young mind.
Now, imagine being a kid and your dad warned you to not get stung by it. You went fishing with your dad and he decided to play you around with the thought of your own fear. “Your mouth will grow tentacles if you get bitten!” , he teases. It was Sembilang season and I became really wary of it. We were in the boat, waiting for our bait to be eaten and all of a sudden, I got this pit inside my stomach, my first experience of anxiety. And my fear only grew bigger from there.
Then, imagine being a kid and watching a local movie back in the 90s, where a fisherman got stung in the middle of the river. His mouth turned to gaping holes and tentacles grew out of it. Blood dripped down his face as he lost oxygen to breathe and slowly his face carved itself to create fins and horns. Slowly, his face morphed into this organic unknown fish and he was flapping around helplessly inside the boat, breathless. I remember my parents yelled at me for even watching it.
Imagine being in your 20’s and still traumatized by it. “It’s just folklore! Don’t be so serious about it!” They said, laugh in your own demeanor. Indeed the story exists to warn kids not to be immoral, but legends are legends and with enough time, you will believe it into existence. After all, fear comes from within. I myself did not understand as well how once you are scared of something. it became all you think about. Eventually, that is all you’ll be seeing in the real world.