Courts of Hell

by Daniel Emlyn-Jones

For Dr. Jock Wong

King Yama glared from the dark recesses of the temple shrine through a fog of rising incense, and an old woman knelt at his feet, a bundle of smoking joss sticks trembling in her hands. The god held a large black fan in his right hand; the left was flexed like a talon, inch-long finger-nails gleaming in the darkness. Though the old woman bowed repeatedly, her forehead brushing the cold stone floor, she knew in her heart that no amount of supplication could appease the chief official of the courts of hell. Her sins had been written in the book of life, and the price had to be paid.

She struggled to her feet, bowed once more to the statue – not daring to meet the eyes – , and then hobbled slowly back through the temple complex, barely flinching at a caged temple dog whose growl erupted into ferocious barking as she passed. It was usually the job of the family’s Indonesian maid Rose to accompany Grandma Tan to the temple, but she had gone down with a heavy cold. The job had therefore been delegated to her granddaughter Angela, who waited for her grandmother at the temple entrance, propped somewhat unceremoniously against a pillar and thumbing her mobile.

Darkness had fallen and the bustling pavement glowed in the pus-yellow of street lamps as they slowly made their way to the nearby bus stop. An unseasonal drought had reduced the grass verge on the roadside to a patchy carpet of trampled straw, and the hot motionless air was heavy as treacle. With one arm Angela supported her grandmother as they walked, with the other she chatted to a friend on her mobile. The conversation was about the best place to get Prada shoes in Singapore, and was as incomprehensible to the old woman as the vast skyscrapers which towered interminably above them. Out of habit Grandma Tan searched the faces of all the middle-aged women they passed by. She couldn’t forsake the hope that one day the heavenly gods would take pity on her, and let her see her daughter Ah Huay, her little flower, once more. The last time she’d looked into her daughter’s eyes, over half a century before and thousands of miles away across the sea in Fujian province of China, they were full of fear as she was dragged away. Grandma Tan hadn’t trusted the middleman who’d arranged the sale. There was something artificial about his smile; something hidden behind the cold glint of his eye; something contrived about his assurances. But her husband had decided, and she was in no position to oppose him. She knew of course the real reason he wanted to sell her. It wasn’t for the money. They weren’t rich, but they were by no means starving as some people were. The real reason was that Ah Huay bore his shame. He had ruined her little flower, and he wanted the broken petals out of his sight. A week after Ah Huay had been taken, Grandma Tan grated aconite root into his rice, bolted the doors of the house, and hid. It didn’t take long for the clattering of furniture, and the bellows of rage and pain to fall into silence.

She was never suspected of murder. To those around her in the village, she had been a good and dutiful wife. The death instead was put down to divine retribution on the family, as her husband’s father had been infamous in the neighbourhood for cheating his tenants. After the funeral, she had tried to trace Ah Huay, but her trail disappeared into the giant metropolis of Chiang Chew, and she despaired.    

Eventually she managed to gain passage to Singapore with her infant son Ah Beng, looking for a better life, or maybe trying to forget the last one. Ah Beng had done well there, excelling in school, landing a good white-collar job, and eventually marrying a good and loving woman. In time they had healthy and happy children, and Grandma Tan thanked the gods for their prosperity. But she could never share their joy. While they looked forward to the future, she could only look back to the cold smile of the man who had taken her daughter. She created a litany of all the possible fates Ah Huay could have met with, a list which over the years grew as long and as varied as her imagination. To this litany was added another list of all the things she could have done to prevent it from happening. Then she would remember her husband’s dead body, the eyes still wide in fury, froth still bubbling from the still white lips. Rather than dull with time, these memories seemed to grow more intense as the years passed, as if the gods didn’t want her to forget the crimes she would shortly be paying for in full. She longed to tell someone, but how could she confess to her friends and family that the sweet old woman they knew and loved was a murderess? How could she tell her son that he had a sister he was too young to remember, a sister his mother had abandoned to who knows what fate?

They reached the bus stop and Grandma Tan lowered herself carefully onto a seat. Angela, still arguing about Prada shoes with her friend on the phone, leant on the bus shelter next to her. Some distance from the stop, an incinerator burned with offerings to spirits of the dead, the bloating billows of smoke filling the still and sultry air of the roadside with an acrid suffocating stench. Sitting next to Grandma Tan, a mother was trying to coax her child into eating a piece of fruit. The little girl shook her head petulantly, and then started to cry. At that moment Grandma Tan felt a sensation growing in the pit of her stomach. She had felt it before, but in the past had always managed to suppress it. On this occasion, though she struggled to, she couldn’t, and involuntarily she began to wail. She lurched forward in her seat, and Angela dropped her mobile and embraced her grandmother just fast enough to prevent her from falling to the ground. In Angela’s arms the wail turned into sobs.

‘Ah mah!? Ah mah!? What’s the matter Ah mah?’ Angela had never seen her grandmother in such a state.

‘Ah Huay! Ah Huay!’ she sobbed ‘I’m sorry!’

‘It’s OK Ah Mah. It’s OK.’ Angela embraced her grandmother more tightly. She didn’t know who Ah Huay was, and at that moment she didn’t care.

Grandma Tan eventually regained control over herself, and with her granddaughter’s help, sat back on the bench. A small group of people had gathered around to see what the commotion was about. Their expressions ranged from shock, to curiosity, to amusement. In some there was pity.  

As soon as Grandma Tan had started weeping, the little girl sitting next to her had stopped, and instead watched the old woman’s sobs in fascination. She now smiled up at Grandma Tan and offered her a piece of the durian her mother had been trying to coax her into eating. Without thinking, Grandma Tan took the piece of fruit and popped it into her mouth. The spiky fruits used to fall on her father’s farm when she was a child growing up in rural Fujian. Her father would collect them, machete them open, and the whole family would sit in a circle and devour the rich flesh together. She closed her eyes and was there, crouching next to her brothers and sisters, the sounds of chewing interspersed with chatter about little everyday things. Her love of feeding the farm animals often made her late for school, and she remembered running across the fields to class, the breeze light and cool on her face, the morning sun still tinted with the light of dawn. Then she remembered her only daughter when she was a baby, and opened her eyes. She looked down through tears at the little girl next to her.

A gentle rumble sounded overhead. Grandma Tan looked up from the glare of the cityscape to a dark mantle of clouds above. Black spots began to appear on the dry dust of the kerb. In a matter of seconds the spots multiplied until the pavement was awash with water, the soft patter of raindrops turning into a deafening roar as torrents of rain pounded on the roof of the bus shelter. The nearby votive fire was extinguished in a few seconds, the stench replaced by an earthy breeze.    

Their bus coasted into the stop in front of them. Angela, like almost everyone else waiting, had no umbrella, so she and Grandma Tan had no choice but to leave the bus shelter unprotected. As they joined the triangle of humanity pushing its way to the bus entrance, people hunching under everything from newspapers to plastic bags, Grandma Tan raised her face to the downpour, letting the warm cascades of water wash over her. Then, slowly, she smiled.

The bus passed the temple on their journey home. Grandma Tan peered at the golden roof through the streams of rippling water that gushed down the window; the ornate structure warping and flickering in this changing lens like an old film. At the temple entrance, she could just make out the small matchstick figure of Mr. Lim, the old temple keeper, slowly heaving the heavy wrought iron gates shut for the night. In reflex, Grandma Tan’s mind travelled down the dark musty corridors to the shrine of King Yama. She pictured the eyes, for decades present in every dream. Now, somehow, it seemed to her that his expression was changed. There was an edge of pity in the dark countenance, and the claw-like hand poised ready to condemn, was lowered.

Note: Courts of Hell was first published in Anak Sastra

Editor’s Note on Courts of Hell:

Courts of Hell is not the first piece by Daniel Emlyn-Jones published by Eastlit. Eastlit has previously published:

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