“Shhhshh! not too loud,” you say, kneading the various parts of my foot.
Certain reflexology points hurt like crazy, others are pee-generating ticklish.
Endorphins! That’s what you say you are trying to release. The body’s natural pain reliever.
“Feel better?” you ask.
I nod sheepishly.
I had earlier pooh-poohed your foot reflexology idea.
I look at you. You are studying my feet. “Your feet are really small. What shoe size are you? Kid’s size?” I throw the cushion at you and dive to rub it against your face. “No! I am a UK size 4-half,” I protest.
“Yup! definitely kid’s size,” you wink.
Then you start rubbing the sides of my foot. Your touch is unusually warm. You squeeze the sides of my big toe, rolling it between your fingers. A fuzzy, woozy, tingling sensation shoot up my leg. All the way up my thighs.
I blush. A nervous giggle escape my lips.
You look up, startle.
Our eyes meet. I lower mine and quickly look to my side. You put my foot down slowly and run your hand across your shaven chin.
You stand up and stretch. “Want some tea?” you ask, walking briskly to the kitchen before I could answer.
My stomach tightened at her long mournful cries. Dark pools of desperation laced the hollow of her haunting yellow eyes. I looked away, afraid of what I saw. Fearful of what I was feeling. She crouched, pleading me to look for her kittens. Her breasts swollen with milk.
The cat, white with ginger and black rings on her tail, had been in my backyard for almost a fortnight. I saw it one morning as I feverishly multi-tasked: heating the milk from cold, struggling with a recalcitrant coffee machine whilst trying hard to concentrate on the conference call that was coming in from our US partner.
I followed the direction of constant meowing. The cat huddled in the middle of my husband’s prized Fangesia Robusta Campbell, a clumping bamboo with dark green foliage and checkerboard culms. It didn’t look injured. But it made low guttural sounds. I scribbled a note to the housekeeper to take a look at the cat, before rushing off to work.
I forgot all about the cat in the following days. I was out of the house before the housekeeper arrived and back after she was gone. Nobody reminded me about the cat.
Last Saturday, I heard the meowing again. It was different this time. A whirling melody of contentment and sunshine. I rushed to the back and spied through the metal door grille. Bibi, my housekeeper, had put a piece of old blanket at the far side of the covered porch. Three tiny kittens – all white with big black patches – were lolling around, their mouths firmly latched to their mother’s belly. I giggled.
“When did the kittens arrive?”’
“Two days ago. Sir said to give them away as soon as they are weaned.”
I turned to Bibi and made a face. My husband is terrified of cats. A stray bit him when he was a boy.
”Don’t name the cat,” she warned, ”or the kittens,” and walked away.
That was how I spent last weekend: seated on a low stool behind the door grille, reading a book, sipping cold ocha and looking up to watch the tiny kittens rolling around on the big blue blanket. I had read somewhere that we should not try to carry the kittens or go anywhere near a new nest lest the mama cat would run off and abandon her kittens.
Last night, I came home from work and rushed excitedly to the back porch. The nest was empty. I opened the door grille and walked out to take a closer look. Empty. I looked around. Nothing. I called out for the mama cat. No answer. Thinking that perhaps she had brought her kittens to someplace else, I went back into the house to have my dinner.
I was walking up the stairs when I heard a sharp primal cry. I rushed to the back porch and saw the mama cat. She hissed at me angrily. I backed away and called Nigel who had retired to his living quarters at the other wing of the main house.
“The kittens are dead, ma’am,” he said kindly. “We found them under the bamboo clumps this morning, all drenched from the storm last night.”
”Where are they now? The mama cat is outside, crying.”
“I wrapped them up in a thick bin bag and threw them in the garbage truck.”
”Why didn’t you bury them?”
He sighed heavily over the phone and said exasperatedly, “They are not our pets.”
I stabbed the intercom shut. Without another glance to the direction of the cat, I shut the door and stomped upstairs.
This morning, Bibi was in the kitchen when I came down for breakfast. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t late. She was super early.
”Nigel said that you had some trouble with the mama cat last night,” she said nonchalantly, pouring me a vege mix from the slow juicer.
”She was crying. I can’t believe Nigel threw the kittens like they were garbage.”
Bibi shot me a strange look. She put down my glass of fresh juice and opened a drawer. She took out a packet of wet cat food and walked briskly to the back porch.
I followed her.
She opened the back door grille and pushed the container of wet cat food with the wooden end of the broom to the middle of the porch.
“The kittens were killed. I think it’s the male cat, ma’am. Male cats like to kill kittens.”
“The father? or other male cats?”
”Sometimes the father. Sometimes other male cats.”
“But why? They are killing their own.”
”Male cats kill the kittens so that the mama cat will stop looking after kittens and go back in ‘heat’ again.” She sighed impatiently.
The cat ran to the corner and meowed loudly.
I slammed my hands against my ears to shut out her tortured cries. Her helplessness were mine. Her anguished cries were mine. The many mornings I cried uncontrollably at the rusty red stain on my panties. That punch in my gut when I see couples with babies. She will no doubt go on to have more kittens sired by the male cat who will probably kill her next litter so that she will be in ‘heat’ again fast; while I waited and marked my ovulation calendar desperately, day by day, month by month, in vain.
As she stared at me through the dark pools of grief, I nodded. Deep down, she and I — we are both hostages to our mercurial womb.
“Don’t you worry about me,” I reply, “I am sure I’ll find something to keep myself busy.”
“Alright then. Our numbers are on the fridge door. Call if you need anything. Remember don’t go outside if anyone rings the gate bell. There have been cases of ro…..hey! stop fighting in the car…” Helen yells, waving wildly as she runs to her big grey car.
A frayed pillow lopes out of the car window. It sails towards me. I catch it in mid-flight. It limps in my hands, the bulky kapok stuffing languishing on both ends, its cotton cover smelling faintly of stale urine.
I stretch upwards, close my eyes and take a deep breath. Fresh morning air. I miss this. I twist my body from side to side, gingerly ironing the kinks of sleep.
Her head is bobbing above the concrete wall. Her bandanna a streaky deep pink with sweat. She pushes herself up on tip-toes, her chubby fingers with their glittering nail polish grab precariously to the brickwork.
“You must be Helen’s aunty. I recognize that thing on your face from the photo.”
I give a tight smile. That thing… is a huge birthmark which covered my left cheek.
“I am Kitty, your next door. You like nyonya kuih? I make ondeh-ondeh today. Very sedap one. I give you try.”
Before I could protest, Kitty is in front of the house and commanding me to open the gate.
“We have tea together,” she says, toddling right in and making herself at home.
I walk into the kitchen to switch the kettle on.
“My tea no milk no sugar ok. Kosong. I on diet”
I roll my eyes.
“I dunno why but I always thought you died long ago.”
Her voice sounds suspiciously faint. I rush out of the kitchen. The door to my bedroom is ajar. Kitty is peering into my wardrobe. I clear my throat loudly. “Oh, sorry..I thought the washroom is in here. Wow! what an old big jar!”
I glare at her and point to the direction of the toilet. She waves dismissively and goes back to the dining room instead.
I watch her pick up a coconut-coated ondeh-ondeh dumpling, tear it apart before slurping the thick palm sugar syrup tickling out.
“So it is true..the stories about Helen inheriting a large antique jar. Yunno, I heard that these kind of old jars have to be careful because sometimes roaming spirits like to hide inside.” She narrows her eyes and taps her finger against the side of her nose. “And you know what else I heard? That kind of spirit will appear like a real person, like you and me.”
My left eye twitches.
“You shouldn’t listen to stories like that,” I chuckle.
She pushes the plate of ondeh-ondeh towards me. I stab my fork into one, take a small bite and syrupy palm sugar gushes into my mouth. I purse my lips and run my tongue lightly across my hidden fangs, carefully avoiding Kitty’s snooping eyes.
“This is so juicy,” I muse, eyeing Kitty’s soft chubby neck. I clench my teeth to keep myself from drooling shamelessly.
“You don’t exercise?” she asks suddenly.
“Huh? Oh yes. I mean No. I supposed I’d start soon.”
“Me also first day keeping fit. You see this? My hubby whatsapp this picture to me yesterday. Although he said joke joke only, I feel that he is trying to hint something at me. What do you think?”
I jerk backwards as she thrusts her phone in my face.
“You think I am fat?”
“No, not at all.” I lie.
She pops another ondeh-ondeh into her mouth and chews noisily. “I want to teach my hubby a lesson. I want to exercise so that one day, I will surprise him with my slimness.”
She reaches out and clasps my hand urgently, “Aiyoh, yunno, this morning I wake up early to go jogging. That time when I start to run, it is already bright. Then ahhh.. I saw got three pariah dogs. So I pretend to bend down and pretend to pick up a stone to throw at them. Usually dogs when they see people do that, they will run away one. But dunno why lah, this time the dogs start to bark at me pulak. So celaka!”
She looks at me as if to check if I am listening. “So I say “shoosh! shoosh!” and look for stick. But they still bark. Then I decide to walk and don’t care about them. But I could feel they are following me. Then, I saw Mrs Narasamy opening gate to throw her rubbish. So I wave at her and faster faster run to her house. Then ahh.. the dogs also start running. Alamak! mati me!”
I giggle. Kitty nods her head knowingly and continues, “I turn my head to see how near they are. Next thing I know, I crash into Mrs Narasamy’s laundry rack. Aiyoh, my whole body fell on the rack and altogether all fall on the grass. Damn shy because whole family quickly rush out of house to help me.”
I struggle to stifle a laugh at her Manglish rant.
She looks at the clock and stands to leave. She leans towards me and says in a low voice, “Please don’t tell Helen that I was here. It is our secret ok.”
“Yes, it would be our little secret,” I smiled inwardly; relishing the day I will wrap myself around her chubby body and carry her with me into the old jar.
“Faster! Faster!” she yells, as I struggle to keep pace. Gasping for air in a burst of effort, I lean forward to leverage my stride.
“We shouldn’t go to the house. Mother will be furious.” I blurt.
My legs wobble as I bend doubled to catch my breath. I buckle under and sit unceremoniously on my butt. “Stories. About the house. Sightings,” I huff.
“C’mon. Stop being stupid. It’s these crazy people,” she sniggers, kicking at the rain-soaked gambling chits embedded in mud. Burnt-out joss sticks stand alongside maggots-infested cakes offered to wandering spirits for “lucky numbers” to bet on.
I stare at the house. The roof caved in where rotting trusses gave way. Windows gaped; their frames ripped out. Creepers which had taken over the front yard now threaten to overwhelm part of the house.
“You can go ahead. I am going home now.”
“Cluck! cluck! cluck!” Beth flaps her arms nosily. “I’m going to tell everybody that you are a wuss.”
“Whatever,” I yell back, turning to walk away.
“I’m going to tell your parents that….”, she smiles coyly, “you killed your grandfather.”
“NO, I DID NOT!”
“He fell down in the toilet under your watch.”
“It was an accident!”
“He had hypoglycemia. You were furious you had to babysit him that weekend. You left him alone downstairs to fend for himself.”
I march angrily behind her towards the house.The steps creak loudly under our weight. The afternoon sunlight beams through cracks in the roof. A broken chair here. Half a table there. A piece of mirror lying on the floor. Thick cobwebs hang down the corners.
I sigh with relief. Perhaps there is really nothing after all. I wander into the bedroom. It smells musty and dank, like stale powdered sweat on a shirt. A doorless wardrobe stands solemnly beside the window, partially blocking out the light.
They said that her chopped-up body was buried under the cement floor.
I peer between the wooden slates in the kitchen, wondering if there were empty bottles which used to hold the oils.
She was skinned. The fatty bits under her skin were fried to extract the oil for black magic.
The nape of my neck tingles. Something icy touches my shoulder blade. I scream and break into a run. Past the disused guard post. Down the hill. Until I reach the junction to my parents’ house. I slump against the tree to catch my breath. I gag. My throat parch. My head buzzing. I swallow a gulp of air loudly.
A man appears. He glares at me; the corners of his lips curl slowly into a sinister grin. His bloodshot eyeballs lurk behind hooded lids. There are two black marks on his forehead, like someone had dipped their thumb in ashes and rubbed it on his forehead. A blow fly appears and lands on his hand. He scratches his leathery skin and bloody pus oozes at his elbow. He licks his lips lecherously as he walks past me, the damp smell of mildew hanging in the air.
“You killed grandpa,” he laughs accusingly.
“Noooo!” I shriek.
I steady my knees to stop them from trembling. I lean against the tree and gingerly sit on its buttress roots. I squint towards the direction of the house, expecting to see my best friend run down any minute now. Up on the tree, two squirrels chatter as they scramble from branch to branch, their tails wagging busily. A stray cat stops and stares at me. It sits and starts licking its fur.
The afternoon heat is making me sleepy. I look at the direction of the house anxiously. Where the hell is this girl? I shake my head to dismiss the image of her lying on the floor of the house. Injured. Dead. Dying. I’ll give it a few more minutes before I sound the alarm and get someone to accompany me to the house.
A piercing scream. I freeze. My mind goes blank.
“Booo!” Beth jumps from behind me, laughing. I shouted and clutch my chest, gasping. I take off my shoe, run after her and flung it in her direction in fury. It misses by a yard.
“It’s all up here”, she gloats, pointing to her head.“Mind over matter,” she flaps her arms like a rooster as she swaggers past me.
I turn to walk away angrily when something catches my eye.“Were you there alone?” I stare at her face. A chill runs down my spine.
“Yaar… unlike someone who ran as if she saw a ghost”, she replies, smugly.
“Marks,” I quivered, staring at her and rubbing my forefinger against my forehead.
Sometimes one’s subconscious does funny things, like:
first, you innocently pick up to read Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, before finding yourself propelled to Anne Tyler’s A Beginner’s Goodbye. By then, you would have decided, what the heck! let’s make it 3 out of 3; and you finish off with Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.
What’s the common thread that binds all three? you might ask.
Grief, I would reply. Grief and mourning and moving on without really moving out.
From a tree nearby, a bird squawks “owh what! owh what!” I grab the edges of my pillow and press them hard against my ears.
The last time I heard similar cries, a man from one of the houses down the street slipped, knocked his head against the edge of the kerb and died. Was the man old and unsteady on his feet? Who knows?
But then there was this other instance. A young mother from the house adjacent to the bus-stop, bundled her child into the back of the car, reversed out of her driveway, stopped her car, and got out to close the gate.
As I boarded the bus, I saw the car rolling down the slight incline, before pinning the young mother against the black steel gates. I pressed the bell in the bus repeatedly, causing everyone to lurch forward as the bus driver braked violently.
Bloody imprints from the grooved edges of the vertical bars branded cruelly against her face and chest. In the uncomfortable silence as paramedics worked feverishly to save her, the bird squawked.
Later when I told Mother this, she said, matter-of-factly, “Burung Hantu” – Ghost bird. A Messenger of Death. “Stay away when you hear or see that bird,” she warned, ominously.
From then on, my ears were always pricked for such cries. I would go about my day religiously watching my steps and surroundings, muttering my prayers to ward off any bad omen or evil spirits lurking if I happened to hear anything that resembled the cries of the Ghost bird.
Here in the City devoid of trees, I hadn’t heard the cries of the “ghost bird” for decades…until today, that is.
Something taps my shoulder. Softly at first, before it turns into a sharp nudge. I open my eyes and turn. It is Lena. I sit up immediately. “What? What?” I ask, almost shouting. She scrunches up her face in fear, stammering inaudibly.
I jump out of the sofa and rush into the house. There, sprawled face-down on the floor with one hand still clenching the phone, is Maria. I gingerly remove the phone from her grasp and put it to my ear. I hear loud voices arguing on the other end.
“Hello? hello?” I shout.
The loud voices on the other end continued arguing.
I pass the phone to Lena. She speaks quickly to someone in her native dialect before putting the phone down. It is Maria’s daughter, she explains. She has just given birth to a son but the father says it is not his. The baby is different colour.
I laugh, hugely relieved. “It’s all gibberish. A messenger of death, my arse.”
I bend down to gleefully shake Maria out of her fainting stupor.
Her body rolls over, pupils dilated. A black bird buried deep in her gaping mouth.
A day after my 12th birthday, my grandmother taught me two skills: how to cook rice on a gas stove and how to pound sambaltumis using a pestle and mortar.
There is a technique to pounding well, she asserted, wagging her finger at me. I snorted. Now, I realized that a well pounded sambal tumis is a sensory experience for the palate. You get that burst of spicy flavour in your mouth as your molars grind on the coarse bits of garlic, onions, chillies and shrimp paste.
Every good sambal starts with a dull knocking sound of pestle pounding in a mortar filled with freshly sliced chillies, red onions and garlic. As the ingredients get progressively beaten into a pulp, a sharper tok-tok-tek-tek rhythm emerges with the occasional quashy sound as the pestle moves from sides to centre and sides again.
My grandmother would run her finger over the pounded mash. Depending on how fussy she was that day, I would probably need to pound for another ten minutes or so. Once satisfied, she would add the shrimp paste – belacan – and I would use the pestle to push and prod the mix until it formed a coarsely textured mass which would then be fried into a mouthwatering aromatic swell and used as a base stock ingredient for all that was scrumptious.
However, as a teenager, I regarded her “fetish” for using the pestle and mortar as a waste of time and pointless. I would grumbled loudly whenever I was tasked with this chore.
* * *
When I was 22 and fresh out of university, my grandmother rushed up to my bedroom one Saturday morning. She insisted that I dropped whatever I was doing and shooed me to the kitchen to pound sambal ingredients. “Don’t stop until I say so,” she hissed and left the kitchen hurriedly.
Through the open kitchen door, I winced as I caught snatches of the conversation outside. The visitors – grandmother’s coterie of nyonya foodies – were in the living room. They wanted to know if the “beautiful flower in the garden” had been spoken for. Unfortunately, their interest plunged the moment they realized that I was born in the year of the Tiger. A Tiger wife. Who wants a Tiger wife? Gua takut lor. Dia sen jit harimau. Nanti dia makan laki.**
My disappointed grandmother looked at me and shook her head woefully. I hugged her although inwardly, I was so relieved. I can’t bear the thought of arranged marriages. She perked up when I told her that the sambal was ready. She chuckled and crowed defiantly, “Everyone said you must be a good cook; from the song of your pestle and mortar.”
* * *
When I visited mother today, she was slicing chillies for sambal belacan. A clump of belacan handpressed to both sides of a steel knife burned slowly over the flames of a gas stove. Its briny smell giving way to smoky pungency as the edges charred.
“I want to pound that,” I said, eyeing the waiting pestle and mortar. It has been years since I last held a pestle and it took me a few false starts to get into the rhythm. After pushing the toasted pieces of belacan into the pounded chillies, I squeezed two limes, added a pinch of sugar and spooned the fiery tangy dip into a serving plate.
In a pique of nostalgia, I spooned several spoonfuls of steaming hot rice into the mortar, pushing the rice around into the dregs of leftover sambal until it formed a pinkish sticky compress with bits of chilli sticking out. This was a treat grandmother and I used to share in the kitchen. Today, I shared it with mother. It was as scrumptious.
**translation: I am terrified. She was born in the year of the Tiger. I fear that her husband will die young after marrying her (literally, she will “eat” her husband)