Artwork by Karin Taylor. Please support the artist here.

Please, I beg you. Just leave me alone. That’s all I ask.

The streets in this bustling city are crowded with motorbikes, a lot more than where I come from, though this is not really a cause for concern. At the moment, I have other more pressing issues to worry about. Living in fear day by day, for one. As daunting as it may seem, I try to prepare myself for the inevitable. Perhaps talking about it will somehow lessen this gnawing fear.

How did I end up here?

I don’t know. Like everyone else, I never thought this could happen to me; that I would be one of the unlucky ones. Since young, I had lived my life unobtrusively, did my own thing and avoided the bad guys at all times. And look where it got me now. Maybe my uneventful life caused me to throw caution to the wind.

I should have fought harder to escape before it was too late. Instead, I was stunned into inaction. I could only watch helplessly as my prince charming let me down to save his own hide. His final act of betrayal tore my heart into pieces. Why didn’t he do anything to protect me? I asked myself the same question over and over again. He made a mockery out of our so-called love.

Being shy by nature, I took longer than others to warm up to and befriend. Those growing up years were difficult. I was unpopular simply because I was not, and would never be, as cute or sexy or interesting as the other girls. I would not have minded so much had I been one of those brainy ones. I just didn’t belong anywhere. If we were to go to a party, I would be the wallflower that nobody wanted to be seen with. The first thing I would do at the party was to strain my eyes to locate the exit doors. I would put in an appearance just to show my face and pretend to mingle around by hopping from one group to another. As the night progressed, I would slowly make my way towards the exit. Sometimes, I bumbled on my way out due to my poor eyesight. The next day, I could only hope that nobody mentioned my early departure, or worse still, start gossiping about my horrible outfit or asocial personality.

Having a name like Manis did not do me any good. Parents should never ever give their offspring names that could turn them into a laughing stock. Imagine introducing yourself at a party and going, “Hi, my name is Manis” when you clearly do not possess an iota of sweetness in you. Only sweet girls could carry it off, and I was no sweet young thing. Quietly, I endured the fake smiles and sniggers from everyone else, and the occasional glances of pity. I kept a low profile and feigned indifference where possible. Until the day I caught a whiff of his unique perfume. Call it hormones or pheromones, whatever. Yes, that special him. That earth-shattering, time-stopping moment when my heart started palpitating like crazy and I fell for him; hook, line and sinker.

He was the only one who did not laugh at my name. I could not detect a shred of pity in his beady eyes. Oh, the way he had leaned in close, as if I smelled like heaven. Like he wanted to devour me. For once in my life, I felt wanted. Needed. Desired.

His name? Asmara.

The equivalent of Romeo. How cool, I thought. Stupidly, I blabbered to this handsome bloke everything about myself. He was an attentive listener. I guessed from his accent that he was from Indonesia, but I did not ask how he came to be in Malaysia. We spoke the same lingo, but words were not really necessary when one was love-struck.

The intense attraction between us had an air of desperation to it. I must confess that his powerful, masculine body was a turn on, including his scaly skin and the faint dust of hair on his stomach. How could I resist his advances as his warm flesh heated mine? In that one night, from strangers, we became lovers. I was convinced that we were made for each other. For that reason, I allowed him far more liberties than had been wise. Naturally, being nocturnal creatures, both of us did not sleep at all that night. I had no excuse for flirting wantonly with him, except that I was naïve. And he, curse him, took advantage of my naivety. My worries of that awkward feeling on the morning after were unfounded – he slipped off quietly without a word. On looking back, I realized that he was a selfish oaf who cared only for himself.

I wished I had remained single. At least, I wouldn’t have hurt that much. Those who believed that it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, were merely deluding themselves. One wouldn’t miss what one never had.

As a result of our sordid love affair, I found myself pregnant. Initially, I was terrified because I did not know what to expect. Then, overjoyed as I wondered whether the baby would be a girl or a boy. Like any mother-to-be, I had mixed feelings and turned moody occasionally. Nevertheless, I knew I had to tell Asmara. Summoning what courage I had in me, I sought him out that fateful night.

It was very quiet. Upon sensing his presence, I let my guard down. That proved to be the biggest mistake in my life. The quiet before the storm and all that, I should have known better. By the time my ears picked up the crunch of gravel behind me, danger was already staring into my face. Immediately, Asmara scuttled out of sight, leaving me to fend for my own. And our unborn child. My self-protective instincts took over, automatically bolting the door and locking myself in my own world as I retreated into my shell. Or rather, curled myself into a tight ball, hoping that my plates of armour would somehow protect us. There I would remain until it was safe for me to come out. It was my only weapon.

Unfortunately, this trick worked only on predators like tigers and leopards. Not for my biggest enemy of them all. I knew that I had sealed my fate when I felt myself being lifted by unfamiliar hands, those of a man. Mama had warned me of this long before I moved out. My efforts to sink my front claws into his flesh were to no avail. I was just too small for this huge monster. I tried farting as well, but my stink bomb was of no use. I heard only a snort of disgust from him, followed by a guffaw of laughter from his accomplice. The dog that accompanied them was hovering around me, staring and barking at me with much interest. I was overcome by a sense of desolation at the thought of Asmara doing this to me. Better her than me, he must have thought. That celaka bastard.

Obviously, I did not stand a chance. It was not a level playing field, me against men. My captor bundled me into a net, thereby restricting my movements. Fool that I was, to have fallen into this trap. I felt the noose tightening around me, sounding my death knell. For a second, I hoped for a quick death. Alas, it was not to be. I was dumped into a wooden crate that had small holes on it. I could breathe, but no food or water was given to me. What’s more, I had not eaten that day because I was too nervous about meeting Asmara. On the brink of starvation, I told myself to hold on for the sake of the little one in me. There was nothing much I could do except to snatch fitful naps in the dark, confined space.

In between my spates of consciousness, I noted that my captor had surrendered me to another person. Let’s call him Mr. B for simplicity. To my amazement, I soon had the company of my kind. A few others joined me in what I called our shared prison. Although we were all strangers, it was reassuring to know that I was not all alone. I had often wondered what happened to my other acquaintances in the wild. Did they suffer the same fate? Or had they cleverly gone into hiding?

For days, we travelled in a moving vehicle that I suspected was a van or a truck. All of us felt weak, thus nobody initiated any conversation. To make matters worse, I had motion sickness. Or maybe it was morning sickness. I couldn’t tell the difference.

That was only the beginning of what was to come.

After a long interminable period, our prison was finally prised open. I knew then that we were no longer in Malaysia. The air smelled different. Being in a new place was frightening, to say the least. Slowly, I started to uncurl. My legs were a bit wobbly. I couldn’t stand on my own feet and kept losing my balance. They should at least have some decency to feed us first, considering the long journey. Soon afterwards, my wish almost came true. I felt a trickle of water in between my flesh and welcomed the cool respite. But after a while, it seemed as if they were trying to drown me in it! Someone kept pumping some vile stuff into my stomach. Many of my kind died of indigestion problems, but I had never felt so sick in my entire life.

Stop, stop, stop! Please? I just want my usual diet – ants, termites, flies, worms – you get the drift? Nothing fancy or expensive, thank you very much.

Needless to say, my cries went unheeded. I had the impression that they were trying to stuff me and make me so bloated for some inexplicable reason. Miraculously, I was still alive after much squirming around. Thereafter, I was transferred to another man, whom we shall address as Mr. C.

Why would all these people go to so much trouble to move us around? Who wanted to see us? What was required from us?

The answer to my questions came sooner than expected. I was separated from the rest and found myself in a new prison that housed one other occupant. Somewhat relieved to have a companion and noticing her reticence, I initiated our first conversation.

Her name was Yen.

She revealed to me the name of the city we were in – Hanoi. Being a timid creature, I was certainly no avid traveller. I was actually quite embarrassed to admit that I had not heard much of this city. All this exchange of pleasantries was not important though. What Yen subsequently shared with me was beyond my wildest imagination. Contrary to my expectations, we were not expected to perform for these people. Cooped up in the prison, I had imagined that to be the worst case scenario. I had no talents whatsoever. The only two things I could do well were to sleep all day long and catch insects. Apparently, they were not interested to see us do so. Not even to perform any acrobatic stunts like in a circus.

We were to end up on their dinner table.

There, I said it. I had no idea that we were in high demand. My lifelong dream of being a professional pest killer was shattered in an instant. My previous year record was an impressive 70 million insects, thanks to my only asset – my very long and sticky tongue. Extremely proud of my contribution to the ecosystem, I had aspired to improve on my personal best next year.

In return for keeping their plantations insect free and pesticide free as well, all I want is to be left alone. Is that too much to ask?

I wept for my unborn baby. I wept for myself and for my unfulfilled dreams.

If only I had not set out to meet Asmara. If only I had stayed in my comfort zone and avoided falling in love with that scum.

If only …

For a while, I did wonder whether Yen was just making up stories. Perhaps she was feeling depressed as a result of our captivity. She looked languid. Like me, she was expecting a baby, possibly twins looking at the size of her body. Maybe, just maybe, I had misunderstood what she was trying to convey to me.

In any case, the moment of truth came when both she and I were carried out from our prison. Escape was impossible as I was held in a deadly firm grip. We were held up on the opposite ends of a round table, as if paraded for inspection.

There were five men looking at us. I turned my attention on the man with kind eyes, imploring him with a silent plea.

Please, I beg you. Just leave me alone. That’s all I ask.

He wasted no time in pointing towards Yen. Not knowing what to expect, I turned to her for guidance. All I heard was a frightened whimper before somebody slit her throat right in front of me.

Nooooo!!!

Her eyes opened wide and beseeched mine, as if seeking solace in her final moments. I did my best to maintain a calm expression, willing her to go in peace so that she would not suffer much. She struggled for a while before her body went limp. When her limpid eyes looked past me, I knew that my new-found friend was no more. Because I could no longer peer into the window of her soul.

Only the dull nothingness of death stared back at me.

Yen … I’m sorry … so very sorry …

If the man had chosen me, her life would have been spared. In a way, she had died because of me. Guilt-stricken, I looked away in agony as her blood trickled on to the table cloth. What about her babies? I swallowed hard. I felt keenly the sharp pain in my heart as though the knife had gone through me.

The sight of the restaurant worker licking Yen’s fresh blood from the very knife that had taken her away, almost made me go berserk. A whole gamut of emotions ran through me as I thrashed around in vain.

You murderer, may you rot in hell!

If I could cry or scream bloody murder, I would have done so. But I did not make a single sound. I was petrified. I was returned to my prison after the traumatizing incident that scarred me for life. What life is there left for me anyway? My time on Earth is running out. Currently, I am the sole occupant of this prison. Next is my turn for sure.

I hate all of them: from my captor to Mr. B, Mr. C, the restaurant owner and the restaurant workers. Most of all, I hate the people who actually eat us. All of them had sold their souls to the devil, for they have no heart. I hate you too, yes you, because you are one of them.

You and I share a common trait in that we are both mammals. But that’s the only thing we have in common. If you think I am ugly, I think you humans are the ugliest mammals ever. My ancestors have been around for millions of years, much longer than humans. How dare you slaughter us? I get the part about survival, but it isn’t as if you have nothing else to eat. If anyone asks me to give up on ants because they will soon be extinct, I will gladly do my part. Why can’t you do the same? And you call yourselves the most intelligent creatures on Earth?

Most of you won’t be missing me because you don’t even know me. It’s quite sad to be eaten to extinction. Back where I come from, people call me tenggiling. I am also known as pangolin, the Englishfied version of the Malay word pengguling, meaning something that rolls up.

Shall I haunt the people who eat my flesh? Appear in their dreams every single night till they swear never to eat us anymore? I wish I can let them experience a day in the life of a pangolin. I miss the trees and burrows that I call home. When my time comes, don’t cry for me or my little unborn baby who shall remain nameless.

Remember, your time will come too.

***

Duc very much regretted offering his services as an undercover investigator to cripple the international syndicate trafficking wildlife animals, specifically pangolins. He was undeniably the best candidate for this top-secret Project Manis assigned to him by a non-governmental organization. It was codenamed such because the Malayan pangolin belonging to the Manis genus was currently in the red zone, classified as a critically endangered species facing extinction.

Winning the trust of the poachers was relatively easy. The difficult part was getting into the ranks of the traffickers and the kingpins. If anyone of them here suspected his true identity, he would likely face the same fate as the pangolin slaughtered before him. The illegal trade of pangolins was an exceptionally lucrative business resulting in them being the most trafficked mammal in the world.

To his knowledge, the pangolins in Vietnam had been hunted close to extinction. A strong demand for them had resulted in Malaysia and Indonesia now supplying the market in Southeast Asia. Lack of effective enforcement was a huge problem as he had encountered cases whereby officers who caught the traffickers ended up selling the seized pangolins in the black market. The heavier the pangolin, the more valuable it would be, as they were sold by their weight.

As long as there is a demand for it, pangolins remain in peril.

What do I do now?

He had masked his horror when the restaurant worker cold-bloodedly slashed the poor pangolin’s throat. He knew that this practice was to prove to the restaurant’s patrons that they would be eating the real thing, not some substitute flesh. However, the brutal act was so sudden that he had no time to react.

One of the four men with him was a kingpin, two others his bodyguards, and the last one, a trafficker. After dinner, they were supposed to adjourn to the kingpin’s house to discuss business. It was an excellent opportunity for him to infiltrate the enemy camp and gather solid evidence. Being a guest, he had been given the ‘honour’ to choose the pangolin. The reason he pointed towards that particular pangolin was because it looked like it did not have long to live. The years he had spent in a pangolin rehabilitation sanctuary had taught him that much. He had come to love these strange reptile-looking mammals covered with scales. Some people called them baby dragons, dinosaurs and even crocodiles. Despite their rather tough exterior, they were actually quite fragile. Rather harmless creatures, like a cat or dog pet.

The other pangolin looked much healthier and stood a higher chance of being rescued, provided he could get himself out of this tricky situation. However, things took a turn for the worse as the minutes ticked by. Without divine intervention, the other pangolin was as good as dead. Duc’s brain was working overtime, but there was pretty much nothing he could do without blowing his cover.

His companions had ordered grilled pangolin flesh and stir-fried pangolin skin. Pangolin flesh was an exotic dish due to its limited availability and steep price, and therefore a much coveted status symbol. To top it off, one of the waiters was preparing the restaurant’s unique concoction for them – pangolin blood with wine. The men around him boasted about their manly prowess after drinking it, claiming that it helped to boost their virility. Despite feeling queasy deep inside, he played along and joined their raucous laughter.

He knew it was a test, and one that he must pass with flying colours.

One of the waiters apologised to him after spilling some of the pangolin fetus soup on his pants. Not only did Duc have the pangolin’s blood on his hands, the image of her pink-colored fetus floating in the murky soup would forever remain etched in his mind.

Calmly, he excused himself and headed to the washroom on the pretext of removing the unsightly stain.

Rowan W. was born and raised in Melaka. An accounting graduate from University of Malaya, she works in Singapore during weekdays and spends her weekends lepaking in her hometown. Procrastination is her middle name, but she hopes to change it to Persistence and continue writing on a more regular basis.

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