by Paula Tan
The marble rolled across the cracked tile floor, its clink barely audible beneath the raised voices in the dingy kitchen, lit only by the skylight above. Cinched tight at the waist, Lau Bu’s full skirt swung as she lunged forward to hit her daughter. At the resounding slap, 13-year old Tara fell, her long dark braid escaping its binding, the remaining marbles spilling out of her pocket.
You dare come to us with this kind of story… So daring ah, you! Why you hate Ah San Koo? How come he’s such a problem for you? YOU TELL ME!
Struggling to rise, the girl winced as her aunt, Jii Kim, gave her hair a sharp tug, then slunk back to her corner, fidgeting with the customary cigarette drooping from her mouth.
This was not the first time a scene like this had taken place in the colonial Chinese terrace shophouse belonging to her bedak sejuk-smeared aunt, Jii Kim and uncle, Ah San Koo. In the wake of Tara’s father’s departure, the terrified girl seemed incapable of making her mother and aunt acknowledge the torture she was facing. Every attempt was met with increasing verbal physical abuse, almost as if her words had found a chink in their fragile armour. Tara flinched as Jii Kim, a fidgety, chain-smoking spinster, gave her braid another swift yank.
You don’t go and tell your lies to anyone else, you ungrateful girl, bo-kaa-si! You want to shame our good family name? 13-years old and still so stupid… Still playing with marbles! When are you going to grow up?
Sobbing, Tara attempted to defend herself yet again. But it’s true! I’m NOT lying… he comes at night. Lau Bu, I swear, please believe me. Please make him stop.
Her face contorted in its fury, Lau Bu lashed out at Tara viciously with a feather duster.
Your uncle is the man of this house…. because of him we got place to stay. You just shut up and respect your elders! Stay in people’s house, don’t know how to behave yourself!
Dragging Tara to the kitchen table, she grabbed a handful of dried chillies and forcefully shoved them against Tara’s lips.
You think twice before you open that dirty mouth again… I’m going to burn some sense into you! Sii-gi-na!
Turning on her heel and striding out of the kitchen, Lau Bu slammed the kitchen door in Tara’s face, Lau Bu, with Ji Ee slinking behind her. In agony, Tara crumbled into a dejected heap. When she had no tears left, the girl slowly crawled over to a small shrine in the corner of the room, the only place where she glimpsed hope. Clutching a joss stick, she petitioned once more to the deity whom she fervently believed might intervene, if she prayed hard enough.
Please, Chao Hoon Kong, please save me from hell… I am so dirty… please make me clean again. Save me from Ah San Koo, I beg you. I am so scared…
Outside, Tara could hear Jii Kim’s voice calling to her husband, Ah San Koo, as he polished his bicycle.
Ah San ah… come and eat lah. I made kiam chye today, with plenty of pork. You sure like one!
On the kitchen floor, she huddled with arms around her knees and continued to pray.
It was past midnight. Tara lay half asleep on a husk mattress on the floor, separated only by a hanging sheet that separated her from her two younger brothers. In the wavering light of the dim, overhead bulb, the shadowy figure of her uncle, Ah San Koo, lingered, a scrawny, greying man in a singlet and shorts. Nervously fingering the small yellow amulet pinned under his clothes, he furtively slipped into the room, locking the door behind him. Abruptly, a slant of light alerted him that Tara’s mother had come out of her quarters. He froze, sliding into the shadows. After a lengthy silence, he began to move towards Tara, not once taking his eyes off her, but this time, a loud crash outside stopped him midway.
Hissing, he spat, Hamiik kui lai? Tara, you go and see what that is…
Still muttering her prayer mantra, Tara hesitantly pulled herself up and opened the door with trembling hands as her uncle slipped back behind the curtain. The landing lay in darkness as she gingerly advanced towards the banister. At the bottom of the staircase, she could make out her mother lying sprawled, a dark red pool fanning out around her head. Simultaneously, Jii Kim emerged from her room, and on spotting her inert sister-in-law, she began to scream. As Tara tried to calm her hysterical aunt, her eyes were drawn to a distant corner where a few small marbles lay. In a haze, Tara thought she saw a glowing figure – the embodiment of her deity, Chao Hoon Kong, standing at the end of the hall. Outside, she could hear neighbours’ voices, calling out to see if they were all right.
In the grey light of the following morning, Tara made her way downstairs in her school uniform. Passing the hallway, she saw Ji Ee on the phone. Smoking, shaky and in tears, the older woman whimpered.
Are you sure you can’t do anything else? How are we going to take care of her? We don’t know anything about unconscious people!
Aiyo… I don’t know lah, I don’t know what to do. Never mind, thank you for telling me. I’ll see you at the hospital.
On spotting Tara on the staircase, Jii Kim snapped at her.
Kui kia..! Looking at what? Your mother is going to be a vegetable! Is that what you want to hear? Are you happy now?
Tara turned away in silent frustration and quickly left the room as her aunt continued to rant. The news about her mother was undoubtedly a shock, but had it been any different, her situation would nevertheless have remained the same. Saying a quick prayer, she placed a joss stick at the kitchen shrine on her way out. However, barely was she out on the street when the sound of glass breaking inside sent her rushing back.
On the living room floor, her aunt jerked in the spasms of a stroke. As she fell, Ji Ee had broken a vase which now lay shattered on the floor, next to a small clock whose batteries had fallen out. All Tara could do was to try to scream for help and this is what she did, staying resolutely beside her aunt with two neighbours until the wail of the ambulance could be heard at the end of the road.
It was mid-afternoon by the time Tara came home from school. On rounding the corner, she saw a small crowd outside her aunt and uncle’s shophouse. Conversation traded by the gossipmongers was buzzing as she pushed her way through. Snatches of it filtered between the sweaty bodies.
He was a regular at the cockfights.”
Owed a lot of money, I heard…
Eh, you know ah…the sister-in-law fell down last night. She’s in a coma now. Worse still, his wife had a stroke this morning, paralyzed on one side! So jinxed ah, their family…
…Got his throat slit in the alley around 7.30 this morning.”
At the front of the house, Tara stumbled, sickened by the sight of her uncle’s bloody shrouded corpse, left on their verandah by mortuary attendants. Dodging past it, she ran back to the sanctuary of her bedroom and bolted the door.
Late in the evening, as the neighbours walked their dogs and did their tai chi exercises, Tara finally emerged, slipping through the dim living room into the kitchen. Her uncle’s body had been sent to a nearby funeral home and the house was silent. Kneeling in front of the shrine, she lit another joss stick and placed a small sweetmeat there to give thanks to the deity, her only source of comfort. As she stood up after finishing her prayer, her attention was abruptly drawn to a small item beside the dusty joss stick bowl.
It was Ah San Koo’s triangular yellow amulet – and it was spattered with blood.
For what seemed an eternity, Tara could only stare at it blankly before she began to back away in disbelief. Her weary mind was inundated by fleeting images. Of marbles dropping from her hand onto the landing, of her mother tumbling down the stairs, the glowing figure – her deity, at the end of the hallway. Watching her aunt collapse, knocking down a porcelain vase that shattered across the floor at her feet. Her uncle’s expression, mouth gaping in agony as the blade sunk into the withered flesh, yellow amulet falling from his unbuttoned shirt.
As she stood cemented to the spot in the quiet kitchen, thoughts screamed in her head.
NO..! But it was you who saved me, Chao Hoon Kong! I saw you…
Wait… was that you? It was… it MUST have been… it must.
Realization began to seep through the gap in her mind, her face mirroring a shocking new possibility.
I prayed for your help and you helped me……
Closing her eyes, she felt both consumed by guilt, yet simultaneously, her heart lift.
Slumped on the kitchen floor, she contemplated her fate, while in the nearby hall, the little clock remained still and lifeless on the floor, having stopped at precisely 7.38 a.m.
Mending the Sky: Glossary
bedak sejuk (malay ~ cold powder)
Face powder made from rice flour. It is hand-rolled into a bead-like form that needs to be mixed with water prior to use.
lau bu (hokkien)
Literally translates to “old lady”, but a common way for Hokkien country folk to address their mothers in the earlier part of the 20th century.
An uncle from one’s mother’s side / one’s mother’s brother.
jii kim (hokkien)
An aunt married to one’s mother’s second brother: jii = second, kim = aunt.
Ill-bred or poorly raised.
chao hoon kong (hokkien)
A Buddhist deity commonly known as the kitchen god. It is believed to be the family guardian that keeps peace in the home and food on the table.
Literally translates to “dead child”, but means dreadful child.
kiam chye (hokkien)
Pickled vegetable, a popular Chinese dish stirfried with meat.
Literally translates to “what ghost is that”, but loosely means “what the hell.”
kui kia (hokkien)
Buddhists and Taoists believe that amulets blessed by monks can protect them from bad luck, charms and evil spirits. These triangular items are usually made of yellow fabric and pinned inside one’s clothes.
Editor’s Note on Mending the Sky:
Mending the Sky is not Paula Tan’s first work to appear in Eastlit. Her previous published pieces are:
- The Fifth Daughter of Tung appeared in Eastlit January 2015.