White Lady

by Tina Isaacs

“What made you choose this life? It’s so…” he raised his eyes to the ceiling as he fumbled for a word, which wouldn’t come across as too condescending, “…macabre.” Despite efforts, he hardly held back the shudders that slithered down his spine.

Timothy suspended a pen over his note pad. He glanced at the fine-boned lady as she silently went about her task. She had the weathered face of someone who’d experienced her share of sorrow. Her skin was as sallow as how he imagined mortal remains to be, that of the body lying under a white shroud before her. She slowly laid out an array of equipment and materials on the three-tiered trolley beside her. On the metal tray the lady had placed in the center of the trolley surface, he eyed a row of brown-glass bottles, silver canisters and various steel tools that she’d lined with painstaking care.

“I supposed you could say the profession chose me, rather than the other way around…” Her almond-shaped eyes crinkled at the corners as she paused in her task and looked up at Timothy. “The womenfolk in my family have always been White Ladies, you see. My mother, my grandmother, and her mother before her.”

He smiled and nodded to encourage the undertaker’s narration, his pen rushing furiously in an attempt to get it all, verbatim, despite the digital recorder he’d placed on the gurney in front of her.

“Techniques on how to prepare bodies after death were passed down the generations… Of course, the way we’ve handled things has changed over the years, but the premise is the same…” she said, her smile soft. “You see, many believe the way we prepare the body for the afterlife stems from the manifestation of society’s desire for some kind of continuity after death. It’s like a show of respect to those passing into the next realm, on the belief that we’ll be shown the same respect when we die. And this is especially true for the Chinese.”

Timothy lifted a hand to interrupt her. “Dr. Chong—“

“Mr. Yen,” she returned.

Timothy laughed. When they’d begun their interview, he’d explained how he disliked people calling him by his surname, because it made him think they were addressing his father, Mr. Yen Sr.

“Hui Yee, please.” She wriggled an index finger at him, reprimanding him like he was a five-year-old caught with his hands in the cookie jar. “A leng chai like you calls me that, makes me feel positively old. As if I were a decrepit and bearded professor, about ready to keel over and die myself!”

He barked a surprised laugh, amazed how the miniature 65 year old could speak about her own death with an ease when it made so many people, himself included, uncomfortable.

“Hui Yee…” he conceded with a smile which she readily returned. “Tell me… how do you tailor your services to suit the modern Chinese here?”

She smiled an indulgent smile as she moved around the gurney, unspooling lengths of wire and piping. “You see, most of the Singaporean Chinese have become very modern. So most customers do prefer the Western method of embalming and holding a wake with an open casket, whenever that is possible. But, the older folks, their elders, still believe in the traditional concepts, and they hold true to the belief that each generation is a biological continuation of their ancestors. They place  great emphasis on the mutual obligations between the living and the dead as was the custom in Old China.” She nodded to herself. “These elders expect funeral rites to be handled in a way which remains consistent with traditional Chinese beliefs. So, I’ve adopted a combined approach in the preparation of our burials, to cater for both mindsets within the same clientele pool.” She waved a wrinkled hand to indicate the body lying atop the long gurney-bed.

Timothy turned away as Hui Yee lifted the white cotton shroud halfway from the body. He had always been squeamish and it wasn’t a secret to those in his close circle of acquaintances. He wondered why his editor had decided to assign him, of all the journalists in their pool, to undertake this interview piece. He raised himself up to sit on the concrete slab ledge at the end of the hall. The location allowed his view of the body to be partially obscured by a concrete beam, while maintaining an unhindered line of sight on the undertaker. She was close enough that he could still hear the soft movements she made as she went about her task. He watched as she turned to the trolley to pump a cream emulsion into her palm, then, rubbing it between both hands, turned back to the body to apply it into the deceased’s hands.

He glanced elsewhere, towards the numerous people who walked a path a mere hairsbreadth away; the children who played in the playground; an elderly couple walking their dog; everyone oblivious or uncaring of the morbid ceremony being performed at the lower open level of their HDB flats.

Timothy peeked down at his list of prepared questions. “I understand it’s not an easy profession… Can you comment on being a mortician in this day and age?” Timothy prompted, turning back to face her once he was in better control of his sense of discomfort. He watched how her small hands massaging the pale hands of the deceased, almost imagining her as a nurse attending to an invalid in a nursing home.

She bit her lips together and nodded. “The work is pretty straightforward, of course. And my background in Anatomy helps with that. Then, there are the ceremonial customs to observe, which become quite standard after a while. Financially… well, I am living a relatively comfortable life compared to some. Still,” she sighed, “it’s not something I’d want for my own children, if I had any.”

He sat forward, wanting to hear it in her own words. “How so?”

“Well, there’s the stigma that comes with being a mortician, especially in our community. I think a janitor or domestic maid is treated with more respect. When I began assisting my mother’s business as a teen, and then during university, I had to put up with a lot of teasing and ridicule. And when I became a full-fledged mortician, my so-called remaining friends distanced themselves from me, one by one. I think I can count the number of those who stay in touch on one hand.” She raised an open palm towards him, before returning to her task of massaging the limbs of the deceased. “Why do you think I’m an old maid? Certainly, not for the lack of trying. Once people find out I’m an undertaker, they jump away from me, as if I’m a leper. They shun me because they’re so afraid I will bring them death or some bad fortune just by association.”

“All nonsense, obviously?” Timothy supplied. Hui Yee was a slender lady with a pleasant countenance. She had a pert nose and bright eyes, who carried herself with a poise of someone comfortable in her own skin. Timothy could tell she would have been very attractive in her youth.

“Oh, I don’t know. The Chinese are a particularly superstitious lot,” Hui Yee said, a bemused expression on her face as she moved to the head of the deceased, her small hands stroking a lock of dark brown hair into place. Then, her face fell. “Ten years after I finished Uni, I attended a wedding of one of my college girlfriends. On the next day, I received a phone call from her brother, screaming at me. The bride and groom had been involved in an accident on route to their honeymoon, and apparently, the entire wedding party blamed me.” Hui Yee shook her head. “The bride had to have her left leg amputated and her husband lay in a coma for five years before they had to pull the plug.”

She briskly set about with a buzzing instrument which looked like an electric razor, passing it over the deceased’s face, which was now clear to Timothy to be that of a young man.

Hui Yee glanced up at Timothy with weary eyes. “Another time, I had tea with an old lady I’d met after a mahjong game, and the next day, she’d keeled over from a heart attack. No one even knew she’d died until her neighbors alerted the police over the smell coming from her flat four days later. Who was to say it wasn’t me who brought that bad fortune into their midst?”

He frowned, considering her words. “Then, why stay in the business? With your doctorate in Biological Anthropology and papers gracing pages of BioMedico journals, you could have had a choice of heading numerous private R&D initiatives…”

She was faced down, intent on her task, her fingers moving gently over the deceased’s facia. “I suppose I’m a loner at heart. I like the quiet and solitude that comes with the task. The satisfaction of getting a job, unsavory as it is, done and done well.” She released a soft laugh. “You could say I’m conceitedly recluse that way.”

Timothy jotted that down, smiling to himself, and turned back to the extraordinary lady, his keen eyes observing her precise and purposeful movements. If it wasn’t for the clear plastic coveralls the undertaker wore over her plain white shirt and wool grey pants, one could easily mistake her for one of those industrious executives milling in any of the SGX-listed corporations in central Singapore.

“Which is why I pretty much stay away from all public functions. Call me antisocial if you want, but who would want to be subjected to such scorn and why should one even bother? Nowadays, I just come out when they tell me they need my services; like today.”

Timothy watched as Hui Yee snapped on a pair of rubber gloves. Then she squeezed a small tube between the eyelids of the deceased and used her gloved fingers to hold the eyelids together. At his furrowed brows, she gave him a bright smile and lifted the small white tube for his viewing. “Eye glue.”

She released a dainty laugh at the disgusted expression on his face.

“Oh, yes, we’ll need to sew the lips closed too. We wouldn’t want to cause a heart attack at the wake when the dead pops his eyes open while resting in his coffin, now, do we? They’d think their dead-one had turned into an egui intent on wreaking mischief in their lives!”

She proceeded to do just that next; threading an almost invisible thread by needle through the inside of the deceased’s mouth. As soon as she began, Timothy kept his eyes firmly on his notebook. By the time he looked up again, Hui Yee had come around the gurney and was removing various equipment from a large square carton. She busied herself, moving about connecting numerous tubes to a large rectangular machine. She unravelled a black cable, turning to plug it into the wall socket, powering the machine on. Then, he observed her lift two gallon-sized plastic canisters; one totally empty and the other filled to the brim with a reddish-yellow liquid. For a moment, he considered coming forward, worried she might collapse under the weight of the latter, but she handled it competently. She’d unscrewed the plastic top off each and upended the containers so that both vessels sat, upside down, attached to either side of the machine. Then she turned to guide a metal probe attached to a line of clear rubber tubing—the probe as long and narrow as a chopstick—into the neck of the deceased.

Timothy furiously scrawled his observations into his notepad, impressed by the efficient way Hui Yee moved about her task.

“In order to perform arterial embalming,” she continued, “the blood needs to be drained from the body, and replaced with embalming fluid.” She waved a hand indicating the upside-down container containing the colored liquid while Timothy watched on. “It’s water mixed with a chemical concoction of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, ethanol, phenol, and methanol. And, as you can see, it also contains a dye. Just enough to simulate life-like skin-tone beneath the skin.”

Hui Yee proceeded to pull aside the white shroud that remained over the body, leaving it to bunch in the middle, covering the privates of the dead young man. He watched in fascination as the undertaker pulled another tube from the machine and inserted the needle end into the groin on one side of the body. Then, she began massaging the thigh area, presumably to ease the flow of blood from the body into the tube’s suction. Sure enough, Timothy could see some reddish fluid begin to flow through the tubes, from the body towards the machine.

Urgh. He turned away, swallowing to ease the impending onslaught of nausea. It would be embarrassing—not to mention damn unprofessional—to upchuck his lunch amidst the careful and sterile arrangement of the mortician’s equipment.

Timothy spied movement on his left. He lifted his eyebrows towards the five youths that were standing at the end of the corridor, observing the mortician at work. Perhaps at his regard or merely because they’d decided they’d seen enough, the tallest of the youths—a gangly six foot teen dressed in black sweatpants and a T-shirt bearing a large print of a hand with its index finger pointing to the right, proclaiming ‘I’m with Stoopid’—nudged his friends on either side. The youths shuffled away towards a pile of bicycles which Timothy realized they’d left lying on the ground behind them.  

“Don’t mind them. They’re just curious. It’s only natural. Death is a part of Life.”

Timothy turned to see Hui Yee with her head inclined, continuing her ministrations of the deceased’s limbs. He glanced towards the electronic audio recorder he’d placed on the gurney surface beside the corpse and hoped it was functioning.

“Tell me, Hui Yee, do you believe in the afterlife?”

She scowled. “Of course! Don’t you?”

“Well, I can’t say I do. I can’t help but think we just have to make the best of our lives for as long as we have them. Then, we simply die. Frankly, I don’t believe there is a heaven or any kind of salvation awaiting us, or hell for that matter. That’s just a scary tale parents tell their children to get them to behave. I don’t believe there’s any real empirical evidence to indicate there is anything to await us after we all die.”

The White Lady chuckled. “My, my. Someone’s quite the sceptic, isn’t he?” Hui Yee teased.

She had begun to make an insertion in the belly button of the deceased, and as soon as she prodded inside the cavity, a burst of air rattled through the hole followed by a faint hiss. Timothy felt his stomach turn, and moved his regard elsewhere, leaving Hui Yee to her task.

He decided to take a breather by strolling to the end of the walkway. Finding a stone bench facing a small fish pond, he sat and cleared his mind by puffing his way through a cigarette. He allowed minutes to pass this way, collecting his thoughts.

By the time he’d returned to where the undertaker was hard at work, she’d inserted more catheters at the corpse’s elbows as well as the other side of the groin. The earlier empty canister was now three-quarters filled, while the vessel containing the embalming fluid was almost entirely drained. Faint sucking sounds were audible over the din of residents going about their weekend in the multi-level HDB flat area; the laughter and gleeful screams of children playing at the nearby playground a jarring contrast to the solemnity of the undertaker’s task.

“What if I told you… I know for sure that the afterlife exists?” she nudged him from his reverie, in a motherly voice. He looked at her, and she stared pointedly back, the somberness of her expression taking him aback.

“What do you mean? Have you’ve undergone a near-death experience or something?”

“Well, no, not that.” She smiled, turning back to the machine to flip a few switches. When she was done, she placed her hands on either side of the gurney and leaned forward, capturing Timothy’s gaze with sharp attention. “I’m frequently visited by spirits, you know.”

He gasped, eyes wide. “You mean ghosts?”

‘Spirits, ghosts, apparitions, restless souls, what have you,” she said, waving one gloved hand before her while one gripped the catheter which had been inserted into the deceased’s abdomen.

“Really?” Timothy said, disbelieving.

She laughed, a gentle musical sound. “Yes,” Hui Yee smiled, nodding. “Really.”

Timothy stepped down from his perch on the concrete slab, leaving his notebook behind. He didn’t realize he’d walked the distance until his body bumped against the gurney on which the corpse laid. It occurred to him that his time spent observing Hui Yee at work had dispelled his initial distaste towards the goriness of the undertaking. Oh, he’d probably never get over his repugnance over the sight of blood, but Hui Yee handled the job with such a crisp no-nonsense professionalism, Timothy was instantly put at ease. He realized it was a vocation like any other, an unpleasant obligation that someone had to do.

Additionally, having been raised as a staunch agnostic, Timothy was enraptured by her elucidation into a world he’d rarely entertained.

“And how do they appear to you? At night, in your bed?”

“Oh, everywhere! And at all hours of the day. They walk around, chatting with me like ordinary people, with the same mannerisms and personalities I imagine they must have had when they were still alive.” 

Who are they?” he asked. Timothy stood by the gurney, parallel to the corpse, close enough to observe her manipulating the abdomen. At least his stomach no longer revolted.

“Just your ordinary Chongs, Janes and Muthus. People who’ve died. Spirits stuck between here and the afterworld.”

“And they talk to you?”

The undertaker curled the corners of her lips in a manner of one on the inside of a private joke. “Indeed they do.” She leaned towards him, lowering her voice, her expression almost childlike in her eagerness. “Sometimes, I prefer conversations with the dead more than ones with the living.”

Timothy was silent, contemplating Hui Yee’s words. He had always been a busy bee, more heavily entangled in the rat-race than most Singaporean yuppies—which was saying something, in light of their overall kiasu culture of one-upping each other in the accumulation of material possessions—and hadn’t put any thought into his spiritual well-being.

He watched her pivot to flip some switches, shutting down the machine, then she proceeded to remove the tubes from the points she’d inserted them, holding a paper towel over the incisions to stem any outflow. Once she’d set aside the tubing, she proceeded to use a needle and thread to sew tiny stitches to seal the small cuts she’d made in the skin. The thread was colored a shade very close to that of the deceased’s skin and, after she was done, Timothy was amazed that the finished result appeared like mere folds in the skin, hardly longer than the width of his small thumbnail. If he hadn’t been observing her at work, seen the huge needles she’d prodded into the cadaver, he probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference.

The interview session with this White Lady certainly put many things into perspective.

They both turned their heads at a commotion at the other end of the hall. A black hearse-van had been reversed into the end of the open space which the undertaker was occupying. A heavyset gentleman alighted from the drivers seat, slammed the door shut, and shuffled on heavy steps towards them, a rectangular metal bag clasped in his hands. Timothy surmised this to be Hui Yee’s assistant.

Hui Yee nodded to the man, waving towards the equipment. “Embalming’s done.”

The assistant ignored both of them, turned to face the trolley, setting about cleaning and packing the portable machine and tubes the undertaker had set aside. Hui Yee didn’t introduce them to each other either, but Timothy realized she was probably one of those employers that rarely breached a strict boss-assistant facade. It was no skin off his nose; his task was to interview the undertaker and no other.

“Your make-up.” The assistant spoke to Hui Yee with his back still to her, his hand swinging to indicate the metal rectangular bag he’d placed on the trolley surface to replace the embalming machine he’d stored away. His pudgy fingers unlocked a clasp at the top of the bag, and opened it to reveal a concertina of three levels with trays stretched out on either side. Each level contained neatly arranged make up pallets, vials and brushes, and stored within the lower compartment pocket, were small bottles of skin-colored liquid.

Hui Yee acknowledged her assistant with a nod as she finished sewing together the final incision, a serious set to her lips.

The assistant approached the side of the metal gurney-bed, standing so close to Timothy, they almost touched. Looking down at the dead body, the assistant shook his head. “It always gets to me when we deal with the young ones. Such a pity… I heard he was an accomplished journalist. There was an article in this morning’s newspaper. He was driving back from a media awards ceremony of some sort when he lost control of his vehicle.”

A moment of clarity hit Timothy at those words, making him immediately look to the face of the deceased, a sight he’d been avoiding all the while he’d been standing alongside the corpse.

A chill swept over Timothy as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water over his veins.

The face he was staring at on the undertaker’s gurney was his own.

There was a large purplish-blue bruise above the right brow nearest to Hui Yee. He remembered how he’d gotten that. And for a moment, the memory of the impact rushed at him. How he’d attempted to apply the brakes when a car swerved in front of his, and then, the heavy glass trophy he’d just won that evening—placed unrestrained on the front passenger seat—flew up and banged him across the temple. Then the crushing force on his body after the car flipped over and over. That excruciating pain, before darkness had enveloped everything.

“Don’t worry, son.” Hui Yee spoke, a tender smile on her lips-. She placed a hand, now degloved, over the dead body before her.

Except that it was also Timothy’s body.

It was Timothy who now laid atop the gurney bed, looking up at Hui Yee and her assistant as they stared down at him.

“It’s only the temporary vessel that you’re leaving behind. Your spirit lives on.” Her hands clasped his, but he couldn’t feel her warmth. “Go on… leave us. Go, head into the afterlife,” she urged, her fingers gently patting his. “You will be remembered and loved,” she added with a whisper.

The assistant turned away, shaking his head again. “And I’ll never get used to the way you talk to your corpses.”

 

White Lady

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