Ghost bird

     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 foot.”

     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.

Pestle and mortar

A day after my 12th birthday, my grandmother taught me two skills: how to cook rice on a gas stove and how to pound sambal tumis 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)