It came in a snail mail, news that you were gone – ‘去了’, literally.
I had only been on the small island in the north less than two years, still excited at finally having the freedom I had longed for. I had left no room in my luggage for the house three hundred miles away, and all those associated with it – the memories and the people, including you.
That afternoon, after receiving the rare letter from the south, I rode my 70cc Honda up the slope to the quiet university gallery on the hilltop. Dead and buried, words from the thin sheet of paper hissed in my head as I walked in the empty aisles of the air-conditioned room, among paintings glancing down at me, pleading for attention. Last week, it said. There was no mention of the exact when, and where, how and why.
Your death was as insignificant as the life you had lived.
I sat on a bench and, for the first time, tried to think of you, of who you really were, of what you meant to me, to the family, and vice versa. In front of me, in Dzulkifli Buyong’s Mosquito Net, three young girls are playing in a bedroom over a night-gauze that is being set up by their mother; next to them an elderly woman, on all fours, blows the flame off an insect repellent coil on the floor. I stared at it, the scene of family fun and love. I would have identified the elderly woman with you, but I could not, because that role, presumably of yours, had never truly existed in our household.
You were a grandmother I never actually had.
I had been afraid of you.
They called you That Old Thing, attaching the name to you when a mention was inevitable – Is it That Old Thing’s doing – spilling water all over the corridor? Must be That Old Thing again, spending ages in the bathroom!
That Old Thing, That Old thing, That Old Thing. Because I grew up in it, because I heard it day and night, it became a matter-of-fact, unquestionable. There were other names – Witch, Mad Woman, and a couple more, among others, in a language deemed unsuitable to be disclosed here; but That Old Thing was what I knew you by. That Old Thing, to a child, was some ancient being lurking in the six-bedroom wooden house I grew up in, like the archaic artefacts – untouched, covered in cobwebs – hidden in the forbidden mezzanine above the living quarters. Erected by the river, the house, laden with humidity, sighed and groaned at every sweep of the wind. And with every sweep of the wind, old secrets and suppressed angst, sadness and grief were stirred up from nooks and corners, and swirled in the halls and corridors in sibilant whispers. Everything brought fear and excitement in equal measure to a child. Everything, including you.
And everything about you was peculiar: The way you walked the short trips from your room to the toilet and bathroom: a pail in hand, torso and bottom swaying on tiny feet, one excruciatingly slow step after another, as though a hidden force was pushing against you, restricting you from moving forward; and those words from your mouth, devilish curses of death targeted not only the entire family but also the ancestors of eighteen generations, as you sat in front of your room, day after day.
And you were a permanent fixture outside your room.
In that big house by the river, all bedrooms were protected from underground dampness with foot-high wooden floors, presumably an accessible height for all. A curtain, embroidered with flowers and birds, was pulled across each door for a little privacy during the day when all chambers were open. As children, as soon as the crawling and staggering stages were over, we ran from room to room, jumping on and off the platforms, pushing away the curtains and – Ta-la! – appearing and disappearing behind the thin shields. There was one room though, only one, we would not enter. It was the only room with an extra step outside of it. That was your room.
It was to the right of the hallway that led from the living room to the kitchen, that gloomy chamber of yours. It was gloomy because despite the white curtains, the only window, which opened to the kitchen, was screened from the inside with a thick, green cloth by none other than yourself.
There, in front of it, you sat, every day, on the platform in loose, dark blue Manchurian top and black trousers: your hair, grey and sparse, tied back into a knot; legs splayed; deformed feet on show out on the step. As you sat there, short and plump, it appeared as though an invisible weight had pressed heavily down on you, on your head and shoulders, rendered you dwarf-liked, a contorted lump of a figure slumped on the threshold.
In a corner of the corridor empty of daylight, your presence, half hidden in the penumbra shadow of the partially raised curtain, resembled beings from stories of dark nights of East and West: creatures reminiscent of nian, the mythical audacious beast, which would reign on New Year’s Eve to feast on defenceless villagers; or hunchback witches with hooked nose, even though you did not have one; and many others we had learned from the adults and the limited translated foreign books of a neighbour.
To us children, going through the passage between the living room and the kitchen was an adventure similar to those in the dark tales. We would at first walk on tiptoe and, upon approaching you, run quickly past and giggle loudly for another triumphant crossing on a perilous journey. It was a game we played tirelessly. At times, though, we were not careful – when our stomachs were empty and food was steaming in the kitchen, when orders from adults for errands were pressing – as we headed absentmindedly to answer the calls, midway, a pair of hands would reach out and grab at us, pulling us towards her – that’s you, That Old Thing. Because I was a careless sort, because I was small and skinny, or perhaps you were simply fond of me, I became your favourite target.
Memories rose, turning vivid, the vibrant colours of Buyong’s seemingly comical, passionate figures of the tropics. I am the unfortunate child who has fallen into the evil claws. Come here, Ah Moi, you say, calling my nickname. Let Amma hold you. I struggle, grappling with you. Let Amma love you. I feel your tightening grip, but unable to move, to prise myself from your clutches. Your body has an odour that even overwhelms the layers of my youthful perspiration. It was the smell of old urine, sticky, thick. I grasp for air. I tuck my head out from under your armpit, only to peep into the dark cave that is your room. Even stronger now, the stench, coming from the deep blackness.
I sat in silence, in a gallery devoid of people. It was my haven, that little space forsaken by many, too busy with lectures, assignments, examinations. Every day I would wander between paintings hungry for admiration: a glance, a nod, a raised eyebrow, and initiate mental conversations with their creators, of the colours and lines, textures and forms, and the meanings behind them. I would feel content, brimming with pride for the newly acquired knowledge and insight. That afternoon, though, as I sat there thinking of you, of your presence and non-presence even prior to your demise, and the fragile line between them, the space around me suddenly expanded, wide and vast. I felt small and insignificant. I wanted to talk to someone, to tell someone about it, about you, but there was no one in sight. I wanted to grasp at something, to feel something tangible in my hands, but between me and the artworks, there was only cold air, and nothing else.
Was that how you had felt, the emptiness – so immense, so intense – a bottomless abyss? Was it the same emptiness that had prompted you to reach out, to grab at the children, at me, who laughed and played and lived the life you never had? Sitting there I imagined a teenage girl, innocent and afraid, as she stepped into a new household that would be her home for the rest of her life, only to find a husband who, resenting the arrangement, would never share a bed with her, never lay his eyes on her, never give her a rightful status in the family. Even the decision to adopt the three children you would bring up, including Father, was not yours.
You were driven to insanity by those to whom you were entrusted.
Sitting there, in a gallery of a university far away from the home I had determined to leave from a tender age, I looked around me, at the beauty and the aesthetic of it, of the life I had led thus far, of my chance of making choices. I shivered in the chilled air. You had never had an option, never had a means to escape.
Ah Moi, my dear, your voice rose in the vacant hall, a ripple of echoes against the pale walls, among the colours and canvas and frames. Come here, come to me. And call me, will you? Call me Amma. For once, just for once.
Yes, I will, Amma. I will, I said quietly. Two decades too late.