The Man in Shades by Tiffany S L

The man in shades walked into our car porch as my aunt Lily was on her way out to catch the bus to school. He sauntered in, head erect and entered the front door, left ajar for Ahmed, our driver, to come in to tell Papa when the car was ready.

I was three years old, playing in my room when the man in shades strolled in. He tousled my hair and asked me to play police and thieves with him. I didn’t answer. Then he took off his shades and pulled a balaclava over his face, leaving his eyes exposed.

“Ready to play?” he asked menacingly.

I stared mutely back. His eyes were the sort that you didn’t want to look long into; they bored into mine. The corner of his lips curled in a smirk, the glint from his gold tooth mesmerised me. Time hung in the air for a few seconds before he put his shades back on over his face cloth. I felt much better.

“Where is Papa?” he asked, pointing a revolver that he’d retrieved from his overalls at my temple.

The cold steel of his gun made an impression on the side of my head.

I leaned against the door jamb and stared up at him, half wondering if he really meant to play with me or was just being polite like the many adults who came often to see Papa. The steel revolver was still pointed at my head when another man in a balaclava appeared.

“Bang!” the man in shades said and winked at me. He pulled the gun away and blew into the mouth of the pistol as if blowing out a flame. Years later, I would remember this image when watching cowboy movies.

“Take me to your Papa,” he coaxed, smiling, putting his gun back into the front pocket of his overalls. That golden tooth again.

I ran to my parents’ room with both men following.

In the room, I saw Mummy seated at the edge of her bed. When she saw me, she went berserk, shouting to the man in shades to leave me be.

He laughed a kind of bemused laugh, winked and nudged me towards Mummy. She held me tight and told me to be quiet.

Loud banging was followed by lots of shouting.

“What are you doing?” she screamed at the man in shades, pounding his chest with clenched fists. “How can you? We trusted you!”

He laughed again, amused, took hold of her right wrist and led her back to the edge of the bed. She didn’t put up a fight.

“Sit,” he commanded and she did.

“Come out, Ah Lee!”

“No!!!” screamed Mummy. “Stay inside.”

Diam, you damned woman!” the man in shades retorted, taking out his gun.

She shrank into the bed.

More loud banging before Papa shouted, “NO!!! What do you want, Ah Fook?”

Papa had locked himself in the bathroom when he heard Mummy shouting hysterically. He is a man who always thinks on his feet. Both my parents would giggle in glee like two school children in cahoots when retelling this part of the story, Papa proud of his wits, Mummy proud that she stood up to the man in shades. I would feel the coldness of steel against my temple.

Bent double in a quaking heap, right in the corner between the built-in wardrobe and the bedside table, was Ahmed the driver. His knees were propped up, his bare feet in a puddle of water.

“I’ve got a gun, Ah Lee,” the man in shades spoke loudly into the bathroom door while tapping it with the butt of his gun.

Papa finally emerged, with a towel around his waist. He still had his pyjama top on.

The next thing I remember was being lifted over the fence and placed in the arms of the neighbour’s helper. My nanny said something I didn’t understand and scurried away quickly.

I was too young to remember the entire tale of how we were robbed in daylight. Many years later when a pair of sunglasses on my boyfriend’s face triggered a memory of that day, I asked Mummy about the robbery. She rummaged through some papers in an untidy drawer and found a newspaper cutting which made headlines in the early 70s – “Family Robbed at Gunpoint by Trusted Contractor”.

*

We moved to another part of Singapore soon after the burglary. The experience had traumatised everyone. Father hired security guards to stand vigil at the new house. This house had a long drive way which the Feng Shui Master had advised against because it meant that Wealth would have a long way to travel before He could enter the front door. Unfortunately, Papa did not heed this piece of precious advice. Seven years later, he declared bankruptcy. This changed our lives, my live, profoundly because for the years until I turned sixteen, we became homeless: we had to live with one relative after another, with whoever would take us in. It was the year I turned 10 and I learnt quickly what goodwill meant.

*

My maternal grandfather was the first to give us a home. He lived with two of my unmarried aunts in a terraced house. In that house, also lived my uncle, his son, and his young wife. Another daughter, Aunty Su, lived about a ten minute cycle away in one of the many streets off the main road that led to the Catholic church at the top of the hill.

My most favourite thing to do every evening before dinner was to take the Chopper – my pride and joy – out for a cycle around the neighbourhood. I loved my white Adidas shorts which made my legs longer; it was the only pair I would wear. I am twelve and growing breasts. But I could still wear a T-shirt over my bare pre-pubescent chest without attracting untoward attention.

I cycled along the roads to the park at the top of the hill next to the Catholic church. I’d stop outside the park where I waited with baited breath. There, I’d hope to catch a glimpse of him – my first crush – leaving the church to go home after choir practice on Thursday evenings. What joy it was to be young and in love. How wonderful it was to feel the wind in my hair, to feel my body in action. My periods had started two years ago, making me feel more a woman than a child. Mummy was awkward in accepting my bodily changes. I felt uncomfortable in myself too. Years later I learned  that ancient communities celebrated this female rite of passage with a ceremony. I lit a candle when I turned 45; menopause was on its way, this needed celebration too.

*

I was relatively happy although we had no permanent home. I grew up with plenty of freedom but lots of responsibilities.  Every Thursday evening I had to cycle form Grandfather’s to my Aunty Su’s to pick up my cousin, Meredith, and take her over for dinner. Of course, I would make sure to cycle past the church. Meredith would sit pillion and I would ride the Chopper, hovering off the seat because really there was only space for one person on this bike. It felt good to feel the strength of my limbs as I cycled us home.

One Thursday, a man in shades walked out of the front door when he heard the metal gate rattling. Aunty Su had said I could wait in the car porch for Meredith’s school bus to drop her off, then take her to Grandfather’s. Both Aunty Su and Uncle Bill were usually at work when I collected Meredith. I hadn’t expected anyone to be home.

“Hi, I’m Paul,” the man in shades said, extending his right arm for a handshake.

I blushed at this intrusion.

“Hello,” I replied, remembering my manners, shaking his hand.

It turned out that Paul was Uncle Bill’s younger brother who had just returned from Australia. He was staying at the house now but nobody thought to tell me this.

I was smitten by Paul’s youth and good looks.

I waited in anticipation for Thursday to come round again. From waiting in the car porch, I graduated to waiting for Meredith in Aunty Su’s living room. Uncle Paul would always let me in but never before a hug or a soft caress of my cheek. His touch fanned the embers of many teenage fantasies that had been ignited by the myriad 50-cent Mills and Boons novels borrowed from the second hand book store near the local cinema. His shades would hang on his head like a hairband girls wear to keep their fringes up. They were Ray-Ban, I discovered. He looked divine. Uncle Paul always asked me something about myself. He wanted to know if I liked school, what books I was reading, about my friends. His attention to my waffling meant the world to me. Father never asked about my day.

During this period, my parents were preoccupied with many things. Papa with bankruptcy and Mummy with looking for part-time work. Papa was at work somewhere, a place he seldom mentioned because this period were dark times for both of them and all of us. He’d leave work in the morning with a brooding face and return home in a cloud of thunder. I was left on my own daily while Mummy spent whatever energy she had left on my youngest sibling who was still a child of seven. I learnt to parent myself. As for my second sister, she tacked along with me when she could or was left to her own devices too. I learnt to parent her. We seldom speak of the days when we used to live with Grandfather.

One Thursday, Uncle Paul let me in as usual. After a warm hug and his usual caress, he invited me into his room. He stroked my bare legs lovingly and told me how pretty I was as I sat on his single bed. Then he moved closer and kissed me gently on my forehead, then proceeded to kiss my left cheek, the top of my nose and then my right cheek. I sat there, frozen from the weight of his body against mine. I was also pinned against the wall by his bed. I didn’t know whether to push him away, to stop him, because he was my uncle. At the same time, I was enjoying his amorous touches and full attention. I started to feel the prickle of his growing moustache when he got to my lips. His breath tasted of coffee and cigarettes. Soft kisses were followed by the probing of his wet tongue prying my tightly closed lips open. At this point, I could feel panic and bile rising from my stomach to the base of my throat. The metal gate made a noise as Meredith unlatched it to let herself in. Uncle Paul moved away from me and led me out of his bedroom. It was time to take Meredith back to Grandfather’s. I hurried away as Uncle Paul scurried back into his room.

The same thing happened again the following Thursday but this time, the bile came up from the base of my throat and I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. I locked myself in there which made him panic. I only let myself out again when Meredith arrived; he knocked on the door to let me know this. I walked out of the bathroom without looking at him, took Meredith’s hand and headed for the Chopper.

Thursday rolled around once more. I unlatched the metal gate with trepidation. His bedroom was both a foreboding and attractive place. I wanted to know where the kissing would take us: Mills and Boons never specified and the movies weren’t very telling either. At this point, I knew something was not right yet I couldn’t get away from him. He didn’t stop me either, beckoning me to come inside, flirting with me throughout. “I won’t hurt you” he promised and I was ensnared. He played me along for months. The petting and caresses had started to make both of us lose control. His kisses were accompanied by heavy breathing and grunting as his hands moved greedily over my body. Physically, I was like a feline on heat, yielding to his every touch. That day, while kissing me and fumbling at his zip with one hand, with his other groping me, his hand settled on the padding of my sanitary towel. He pushed me away gruffly, “Why didn’t you tell me?” he growled before walking away, leaving me bewildered on his bed, wondering if I had done something wrong. For years, I would blame myself. How I hated the M-word.

The next time I saw him again, I was fourteen. It was at the golf club. Mummy was with me.

“How are you?” he asked and smiled at me after saying hello to Mummy. He reached out his hand automatically. I moved away.

“You’re practically a woman,” The awkwardness was unbearable.

Charm is his middle name, I thought bitterly. By now, I’ve heard all about his girlfriends as the relatives speculated about his choices. Each speculation drove the knife deeper into my aching, confused heart.

Years later, at my psychoanalyst’s practice, I learned what ‘grooming’ meant. I learned also to move on. I had kept this shameful secret for over 30 years, sweeping the shame, hurt and betrayal under the carpet of my unconscious. Teetering on ‘my fault/his fault’, I spent my adult years blaming myself, then blaming him, but mostly blaming myself. I’ve finally come to accept that in cases like mine, the fault always lies with the adult, never the child. It has taken me decades to reach forgiveness: I’ve learnt to finally forgive myself. The #MeToo movement of 2017 finally gave me courage and a voice: no more victim blaming.

Yet, when I see a man with a pair of shades on his head, I would remember that icy sensation of a gun to my temple, like the sensation of opening Aunty Su’s metal gate that allowed me into her car porch—a sensation mixed with trepidation and curiosity. Remembering both events, a knot would tighten just below my stomach where my uterus starts. When my skin touches metal every so often, my muscle memory would remember this sensation of cold steel against warm skin. I would remember a particular man in shades, someone I called Uncle Paul. I no longer call him uncle.

Eva’s Comments:

This story touched my heart. It is longer than the word count stipulated for this journal but I’m publishing it because the story resonated with me on many levels. (Flash Fiction can be between 100 – 3,000 words, in some cases. CarpeArte Journal has chosen to stop at 1,000 and to accept 1,500 maximum in exceptional cases.)

I love this story for its balanced portrayal of loss—the loss of innocence and the loss of trust in an adult who did more wrong than right. The narrator has not conveyed bitterness nor hatred for the person responsible for her loss but has told the story with all the elements that entail story telling: beginning, middle, end, with conflict and then resolution, although ‘yet’ provides for an open-ended conclusion and not so much a resolution. The resolution can be found in the narrator’s capacity to forgive herself, in my view. This is also a story of trauma and remembrance, of nostalgia and yearning. The pull and tug of the subconscious forces at work to repel and recall traumatic experiences are the marvel of the human psyche.

I’m publishing this story in support of #MeToo because the #MeToo Movement has given many women a voice and platform to courageously come forward to name and shame their perpetrators. It has certainly given this writer an opportunity to come out and write her story down. Now, it must be noted that I don’t know if this is fiction or memoir. Many times, memory can be both.

**Disclaimer**

The illustration, a wall mural, by an anonymous artist, was the image that accompanied this story. I have asked Tiffany SL where she found this piece of artwork and who the artist is. She was unable to give me more details, other than she took a photo of it in a restaurant. She told me that when she saw this mural, she was immediately taken back to a forgotten past in Singapore where children cycled freely on the streets and when Singapore was still filled with innocence. She was inspired to write her story down after seeing this piece of street art.

Indeed, the children on the mural is a picture of happiness. Their faces resplendent with joy; childhood ought to be like this. The mural also reminded me of my own childhood in Singapore where I did cycle freely and where life was much simpler and happier.

For legal reasons, I am inserting a disclaimer here to say that in publishing this piece of artwork, the journal’s intent is to share art, in this case, public art, so that art enthusiasts can learn more about different genres.

On murals

Murals are artworks that have been painted  or applied directly on walls, ceilings or any permanent surfaces. Art historians say that the earliest murals date back to Upper Palaeolithic times which make mural paintings one of the oldest art forms in human history.

Murals are found in many places from caves to tombs to temples to churches, and in people’s homes. During the Middle Ages, murals were painted on dry (secco) plaster. It was not until the 14th century, circa 1300 CE that artists started to work on fresh plaster, leading to what we know today as frescos. Painting on wet plaster meant  a higher quality of mural painting could be achieved. A famous example of a fresco that has lasted since the 13th century is Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ (1490s) at the Convento di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

In the 1920s, an art movement called Mexican Muralism, where murals were used to send social, nationalistic and political messages of reunification under the post Mexican Revolution government, saw to the huge production of murals with overtly political messages. This lasted up until the 1970s and was headed by Mexican artists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. The Mexican Muralism Movement impacted many artists in Mexico where the tradition of painting murals calling for activism in the political and national arenas has become part of the art scene in the country.

There are many murals found on the walls of heritage buildings in Singapore where this image is from. Street Art has become a commodity in this nation-state where muralists are commissioned by the authorities to paint images of a Singapore that no longer exist

On my travels to North Vietnam, I saw murals along a stretch of busy road. This indicates that mural paintings are found everywhere from North America to Europe to Asia.

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Eat Me ‘Til I’m Gone by Miles White

He looked fine, dressed in colorful silk robes and scented with exotic oils, sitting upright in the place where he liked to meditate. He looked even now in a state of deep meditation and inner peace. Incense was lit and the people in the tiny village gathered around him drinking warm bowls of butter tea and eating roasted tsampa. Their way of life was fading away, which made it all the more important for them to remember the old ways because they were the last who would know such things as they knew, and he knew more than any of them.

They had read from the Bardo for three days now, chanting loudly enough so he could hear them and be guided, and they believed he had made the journey safely. He already knew the way from previous journeys, he had assured them, and had prepared himself well in the last days and months. Still they had read, chanted and prayed. Now there was a final journey to make.

When the men said it was time they should think about going as it was becoming light, the man’s wife gave them some hot broth and strips of fresh raw yak to eat and wrapped pieces of dried yak meat in burlap for them to take for later. The men packed the things they would need and then gingerly lowered the man down into a lying position, undressed him and wrapped him again in simple white cloth.

The lama made another prayer and gave the instruction. With great precision, Jamyang delivered a powerful hammer blow to the man’s back that broke his spine. They folded him over double and wrapped him into a bundle, tying it tightly. They strapped him to the back of the most able-bodied among them and headed off into the mountains just as the sun broke in an explosion of golden light at the farthest horizon.

The men breathed heavily as they trudged the narrow trail to the upper plateau. Their fur-lined caps were tied tight on their heads and their robes pulled around them against the morning air. They climbed in silence, carrying their load. This would be easier with a yak, but tradition held that afterwards, the yak must be released, an obligation they could not afford, and so they did the work themselves. They arrived at the plateau to a pristine blue sky and hard ground flickered with icy drops of dew. The sun glistened as it illuminated the brittle air. The men began their solemn task by burning sticks of juniper to attract the birds making circles high overhead, inviting them to come down.

The rogyapa now worked quickly and deliberately but not without levity, talking of their wives and children, of newborn calves and their fond memories of the man they now took to with sharp blades. They turned him face down and separated his hair from his scalp and cut the limbs from his body. They then flayed him to the bone and threw the meat into the flock of birds now surrounding them in a thick black circle. They came alive in a frenzied flurry as they fought over morsels of food and ate ravenously. One of the men took an axe and hacked open the head, prying apart the bone. He scooped out the brain with his hands, mixed it with tsampa and set it aside until they had pulverized the skeleton. That done, they mixed the bone and brain with more tsampa and some ghee and tossed it to the feeding vultures while hawks and smaller birds waited to collect what was left over.

The sun was high in the sky and the air still chill with cold, but the men worked themselves into a sweat and finally sat to take water and a bit of yak meat. It is a bad omen when there is anything left over, and so they sat patiently, watching to make sure all was eaten. Birds circled in and out again as some took their fill and left while others arrived late and scrambled for loose pieces of meat and bits of the sweet ghee mixture. Jamyang felt a whoosh pass his head and looked up into the glittering golden orb sitting in the center of the noon sky. He laughed, knowing his old friend was playing a game with him, showing him how fast he could fly.

About the Author:

Miles White holds a PhD from the University of Washington, where he studied ethnomusicology and Tibetan Buddhist monastic music. He has published a book on hip-hop music and culture in the United States and four volumes of flash fiction. His writing has appeared in Medium, Tahoma Literary Review, Bookends Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Central Europe.

Eva’s Comments:

Imaged credit: The Spiritual Master Padmasambhava, Copper Alloy, H 60.3 cm x W 47.6cm x D 33 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)

This 14th century sculpture in copper alloy is of the spiritual master, Guru Padmasambhava. His name means ‘lotus born’; you can see him seated on a lotus throne, signified by the tongue-shaped petals of the lotus flower. In Buddhist tradition, the lotus symbolises purity. Below the lotus seat, is a faceted plinth depicting several images, probably related to Tibetan Buddhism.

The man who became Guru Padmasambhava originated in India, the birthplace of Buddhism. It is said that he was invited to Tibet in the 8th century (747 C.E.) by King Trisong Detsen where he founded the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism – Nying-ma. He is also known as Guru Rinpoche, greatly revered in Tibet for his mysticism and magical powers.

Tibetan Buddhism has other names: Esoteric Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism being the two most common. It is a strand of Buddhism, much like Presbyterianism or Methodism are in Christianity. Suffice it to say, not all Buddhists are Tibetan Buddhists and not all Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although it is the predominant Buddhist strand in Tibet. This strand of Buddhism is also practised in Nepal.

In Buddhist art, it is always enlightening to find the emblems that are associated with the various forms of existing Buddhas that help identify them. (Guru Rinpoche is a Buddha in the Tibetan tradition.) Padmasambhava has eight spiritual forms which devotees pray to depending on where they are in their spiritual meditation or life journey. You may see other depictions of Padmasambhava in his wrathful state/s, making him look very fearsome.

Here, we see the Guru holding a double-vajra in his right hand, signifying universal wisdom. His right hand is also depicted in the abhaya mudra, a hand gesture symbolising ‘fear not’. His left palm is opened in which he holds a kapala (skull-bowl). In the kapala, one will mostly find the Water of Immortality, an elixir symbolising the wisdom gained from rebirth, the wisdom gained from the conscious knowledge and experience of death. In Buddhism, one believes in the ‘Greater Life’ that comes with each cycle of death, finally bringing Nirvana, which ends all cycles of rebirth. Typically, Padmasambhava would be holding a khatvanga, a staff which is missing in this sculpture, that rests on the left side of his body, reaching towards his left shoulder and extending beyond it. The staff is similar to a totem in form: the khatvanga consists (at its base) of a vessel containing the Water of Immortality, two human heads and a skull which symbolises greed, hatred and ignorance that would have been overcome by the knowledge of the Three Worlds and the Three Times which is symbolised by the trident (trisula) at the end of the totem khatvanga.

These emblems and in this case the seated figure are visualising tools for meditation used by Tibetan Buddhists practicing all over the world.

Miles’ story made me think of the statue of Padmasambhava which I saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some time back.

I love Miles’s story for its eloquence; the story remained in my dream-space for some time. The story is replete with elements from ethnology, anthropology, history and magic-realism and also a sense of realism for a certain branch of Buddhists. He told me that during his doctorate in ethnomusicology, he studied Tibetan Buddhist monastic music which would have brought him knowledge of The Book of the Dead and the various guiding rituals of celebrating death and the afterlife which consists of the rebirthing of souls.

The Book of The Dead (Bardo Thodol) is a guidebook, guiding the deceased’s unconscious through the in-between space, the interval, between death and the next cycle of life/rebirth. The book contains chapters telling readers of the signs of death and the rituals that need to be followed when death is nearing or has occured.

Ancient Tibetans have been practising a funerary ritual known as Sky Burials for centuries. This ritual which is so accurately and succinctly described in Miles’s fiction may sound brutal and cruel but it is important to note that the person being buried is not alive but dead at the point when his spine is being broken. Sky Burials are still being practised today because it is a spiritual way of life for a population of people who still live steeped in tradition.

Rice

Recently, some people are saying that rice contains arsenic, so be careful when eating rice, especially white rice. At least, this was what an article that was shared on Facebook had advised. Then, there are other people who say that brown rice becomes poisonous when not washed properly before being cooked and that one should avoid consuming brown rice in large quantities. Dang! I thought when I read this. I had just managed to convince the family that brown rice, being of a higher glycemic index is better than polished white rice, staving off hunger pangs more efficiently and is better for losing weight with. Diabetics are better off eating brown rice than white, so the author writes. Since my mother’s mother was a diabetic and died from blood sugar poisoning, I thought it wise to heed this latest advice on brown rice. My younger daughter shed some genuine tears when I told her that we are no longer eating white rice at home.

The very first time I saw my mother crying was the day that Grandmother died. Mother never cries. She shouts and curses, hits and smacks, but cries, never! It was a hot night, I remember; the air was stifling and my bedroom still warm from facing the afternoon sun made sleep difficult; the electric fan did not bring much respite, only the desperation to fall asleep. I got up to take a pee and that was when I spied a crack of light escaping from my parents’ room. I pushed the door open and saw Mother, dressed in preparation to go out; she was wiping away tears while putting on some green eyeshadow.

“What happened?” I asked, concerned. It’s strange to see her crying. She wasn’t sobbing nor were her shoulders heaving in grief like how someone cries in the movies. There was no sound to her crying, only tears forming in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks as she went through the motions of putting on her face. I could hear the shower running as Father was getting washed. It is very late at night. I know this because the curtains were drawn and the street outside was quiet.

“My mother died tonight,” she answered softly without looking at me, her voice strained but not giving away much emotions. She was wiping away tears with the back of her left hand and trying to apply make up with her right at the same time, one eye was shut voluntarily as if winking so that she can smear the green powder on its lid.

It’s funny how she didn’t say ‘your grandmother died tonight’. After all, this is how she always refers to Grandmother. The possessive ‘my’ next to ‘mother’ added a new layer of meaning to grandmother: she is my mother’s mother and belongs to her. But she is my grandmother and belongs to me but she is not my mother, yet somehow, we are all joined in unity: ‘My mother’ connects me, Mother and Grandmother in one unbreakable blood chain that goes backwards beyond life and forwards beyond death.

Grandmother was a stranger to me for most of my life. As far as I can remember, she was ill throughout my childhood and then she died. When I was eight years old, she became paralysed from a stroke caused by ingesting a glass of glucose which someone in the family had made her drink in the belief that glucose water would cure diabetes. Cure like with like was the advice that Grandfather’s third wife proffered, the advice that he heeded. Mother seldom spoke of her mother but this was the only story she would tell. Without saying much, Mother did the dutiful thing of visiting her ailing mother once a week to check that everything was as it should be: her mother was being fed, washed and kept comfortable by the rest of the family and that nobody was giving her any more glucose water. Grandfather’s third wife never visited again. My mother is the eldest of sixteen children by Grandmother, wife number one, and it was her duty to see that things ran smoothly in the house, even though she had stopped belonging to her mother’s household as soon as she got married, as dictated by Chinese customs. Still, duty-bound, she went on looking after her mother until the day she passed on. The Chinese call this duty filial piety. Not even death can terminate this obligation. Filial piety ensures that the dead continue to exist amongst the living and that life carries on into eternity. Ancestor worship is a traditional Taoist custom combining a sense of magic realism keeping the dead alive through veneration by the living: every human soul can become divine but only in death.

Grandmother was fond of rice. She loved the watery rice porridge that was eaten with pickled mustard greens and salted duck’s egg; this was a typical Teochew diet. The salted egg was a luxury in poverty stricken Malaya during the Japanese Occupation and continued to be so many decades after liberation. When eggs were scarce and money insufficient, Grandmother would fry pieces of pork lard until they became brown and crispy. She would drain the oil from the crispy pieces and use it for stir frying vegetables later. These morsels-of-heart-attack would accompany her daily gruel of rice porridge; there would always be enough to feed her children and husband when he felt like coming home for a meal. Sometimes, she would drizzle some oil from the lard onto her gruel to take away the blandness. My fourth aunt never tires of telling me this story for she loved the crispy pork crackling that Grandmother made often.

The priest whom the family consulted had advised a ritual of feeding the deceased during the funeral. The extended family was a mix of Buddhists, Taoists, Christians and Atheists but all were willing to go through the ritual for none knew what to do for the better.

Some people came to set up a marquee in Grandmother’s front porch a day before her coffin arrived home. A wooden table, covered with a piece of cloth that had the Eight Immortals embroidered on it, held a ceramic incense jar filled with sand and was placed in front of the opened coffin which lay in wake under the marquee right outside the front door. On the same table, someone had put a fruit bowl, dishes filled with food, and a bowl of rice; there was a dish filled with crispy pork crackling next to the bowl of rice. As soon as Grandmother came home, Mother and her siblings had to light a joss-stick each while calling their mother. The priest explained that her spirit needs to know where to come home to and the joss-sticks and her children calling for her would show it the way. I asked Grandmother if she minded sleeping outside. She never answered which was normal because even when she was alive, she never spoke to me. She had given up speech the day she discovered that Grandfather’s third wife wanted her dead.

I watched from the living room window as my aunts and uncles busied themselves over where things should be set and what they should be doing during the funeral. There were many people on Grandmother’s front porch in constant motion. The day’s events seemed very chaotic to my child’s eyes. It seemed that the adults didn’t know quite what to do and we were left to our own devices since the adults were too busy to supervise us. I sat under the dining table covered by a white table cloth too big for it. The overhanging material made for a good hiding place where I could read and sketch; I had my own little marquee.

The scent of cooked rice filled the air. Mother was calling for me. I popped my head out from under the round dining table with a marble top and heavy rosewood legs. Mother took my hand and led me towards the coffin. I resisted, afraid of the body lying within, afraid that her spirit would wake her up. Mother pinched me hard on my right thigh and dragged me where she wanted me to go. The priest was chanting a prayer in a language I didn’t understand and my uncle Philip, the eldest son, was at the head of a line that had formed at the top of the coffin where Grandmother’s head was placed. The adults had formed a line and the grandchildren, ten in all, had to form another, behind my youngest aunt. I was at the head of the line for the grandchildren because I was the first grandchild.

The priest handed my uncle Philip a blue and white ceramic bowl filled to the brim with rice rounded at the top to resemble a mound. A pair of chopsticks was subsequently handed to him too. On the priest’s instructions, starting with uncle Philip, all of Grandmother’s children and grandchildren had to feed her a chopstick full of rice and say this: “In life, you fed me, in death I am now feeding you” as they stuffed her mouth with some rice.

Grandmother’s eyes were pressed shut with a silver coin on each lid, a Taoist ritual. By the time it came to my turn to feed her her chopstick of rice, grains of white rice had already spilled from her stuffed mouth, sticking to her chin and collar. She was dressed in her favourite samfoo, a blouse and trouser suit worn by many Chinese women in Malaya. Although this was not the traditional way to bury the dead in Taoist customs, it was all the family could do as Grandmother did not have a funeral outfit made during her lifetime. If she had one, it was lost during the war when many homes and villages were looted by Japanese soldiers.

I looked in wonder at Grandmother’s ashen face and her mouth that was filled with rice. There’s nothing as macabre and fascinating as the death mask of a loved one, especially from the point of view of a child. Some people would say that this was a gruesome ritual to put a child through. Others would defend the ritual’s tradition and heritage.

Rice is an important staple to billions of people in the world. Rice is a measurement of wealth, of success and of life because in life we are fed as in death with this grain that some other people have said contains arsenic.

Eva’s comments:

This artwork entitled Clockwork Moons (time waits for no migrant man), 2017, (48 cm x 48 cm) is part of a series of eight kinetic artwork by British contemporary artist, Nicola Anthony, who is based in Singapore. It is made with light, ink, incense, embroidery loops and Korean paper. Anthony has a unique method of working with paper, using an incense stick to perforate the paper stretched out in a frame made of embroidery loops. In this piece, she has written a Chinese character symbolising the word ‘grain’. The image is then illuminated from behind by a light source, lifting the character from the parchment, stimulating the viewer’s visual senses. This work was commissioned by the Singapore Art Museum in 2017. You can read more about Nicola Anthony and her projects here:

https://nicolaanthony.co.uk/gallery#/clockwork-moons/

Anthony was inspired by a migrant worker, Mr Wang Jixing, from China, who had been laid off due to a stroke that paralysed him and rendered him unable to work. He was earning S$500 a month as a cleaner at one of Singapore’s many outdoor food courts. The meagre amount of money he was earning ensured that he could ‘put rice on the table’ for his family in China. Being disabled meant that his job was no longer tenable and because of Singapore’s strict immigration and working regulations, he was repatriated to China, paralysed and unable to work. The burden of his care is borne by his children, the youngest of which is 12 years old. You can follow Mr Wang’s story and help him on:

https://simplygiving.com/appeal/cleaner

The Chinese character burnt onto the paper is the symbol for ‘Grain’ and when cooked becomes ‘Rice’ which is written with another character and pronounced as ‘fan4’ (fourth intonation of the sound ‘fun’). The Chinese differentiate cooked rice from uncooked grains with a different character and sound because both are different entities and each represents different energy values.

In order to understand the importance of rice as a staple in Asia, one must understand the significance of its symbol which is made up of the characters eight and ten. It takes 88 days to grow rice from start to harvest and much respect has to be given to this number and to the farmers whose back bending work puts rice on the table for more than a billion people throughout Asia.

‘To Put Rice on The Table’ is a phrase used frequently in many parts of Asia as one would use ‘to put bread on the table’ in Europe and the English speaking world. ‘To Break One’s Rice Bowl’ is synonymous to stealing someone’s job or to cause someone to lose their job. ‘To Stack up Rice Bowls’ means to increase one’s worries because the sound for ‘rice’ is homophonous to the sound for ‘worry’ in the Cantonese language. Hence, it is bad form to stack one rice bowl on top of another when clearing the table. Because rice is such a necessary food crop in Asia, proverbs using the character has become part of its people’s linguistic references for communication.

Rice was inspired by Anthony’s artwork which triggered a childhood memory of loss and enlightenment.

 

 

Yellow Fever

Amy’s new friend Geraldine is a peroxide blonde.  It allows her to be ditzy, she says.  Geraldine is never shy although she calls herself an introvert.  “I’m a social introvert”, she says.  One day, as they were finishing off their second bottle of Chardonnay, Geraldine started talking about yellow fever.  At first, Amy thought it was something that Geraldine had caught because when she was little, the Tamil mid-wife had told her mother that Amy had yellow fever.  You see, to Amy, yellow fever is a malady.  Amy’s yellow fever lasted a few months, her mother would remember.  Eventually, it was discovered that Amy had jaundice and because she also had an infection, the jaundice was accompanied by a low grade fever.  When Amy had her little girl, her daughter had yellow fever too; the paediatrician said that it was breast milk induced jaundice, a condition that some ethnic types are prone to.

Geraldine’s husband had recently developed a penchant for black hair and slanted eyes, she said to Amy over coffee one morning.  In a drunken stupor, he had brought a lap dancer home; she was Indonesian, it turned out.  The Indonesian was a college student who was dancing part time to pay off college fees.  Geraldine took to the Indonesian immediately.  There was a particular neediness in the girl that Geraldine felt needed to be attended to.  Gilbert, Geraldine’s husband, thought he’d died and gone to heaven.  He loved his wife dearly then.

Geraldine says she has many Asian friends.  When she was at boarding school in England, her BFF was a girl from Hong Kong, called Gwendoline Chong: “a very lovely girl with such small hands”; then there was Emilie Taguchi from Tokyo whom she met while working in New York: “so cute, when she laughs, her eyes turn into slits”.  She’s very privileged to feel their love and their hospitality, Geraldine told Amy.  When Geraldine was little, her mother told her that Asian girls have w-shaped vaginas.  Geraldine draws a W in the air when she tells Amy this; squiggly, you know, she affirms.  Amy laughs because that is all she can do; Geraldine laughs too because she now knows it’s not true: the Indonesian has a normal shaped vagina, she tells Amy swearing her to secrecy.

Geraldine knows Gilbert has a bad relationship with alcohol and women.  They’ve been married 10 years and she’s seen Gilbert change from drunk and horny to drunker and hornier.  “What can I do?” she asks.  Amy knows it’s a rhetorical question.  But she’s so tempted to say “leave, you’re in a toxic marriage!”  But she bites her tongue and allows herself to get hooked into Geraldine’s story, her pain and her confusion.  Why do I do this, Amy asks herself constantly.  She lives in a rhetorical nightmare too.

Last Tuesday, Amy found Geraldine busy cleaning.  She’d invited Amy over for coffee and when she’d arrived, Geraldine was in the middle of cleaning out the kitchen.

“My OCD kicked in this morning.  I have to clean.  I just can’t sit around either, I feel fidgety, must be my ADHD,’ Geraldine says over the din of cupboard doors banging and bottles crashing down the rubbish chute, without looking over at Amy’s way once.  There was a raw vulnerability in Geraldine’s voice that morning.

The condominium has rules about not throwing glass bottles down the chute.  Amy worries about the cleaners getting cut by broken glass.

“Who cares! I don’t give a damn if people get cut!” Geraldine shouts out as if reading Amy’s thoughts.  “I pay these people enough to make sure that the place is cleaned out.”

Amy thinks about a girl in primary school who was always fidgeting and couldn’t sit still.  When she was growing up, kids like these were labeled “naughty”, “insolent” and “mentally retarded”.  ADHD hadn’t floated to Asia’s shores yet; after all, it was the early 70s in Malaysia.  Amy starts to wonder if ADHD is a condition that Geraldine really has or one that she hides behind — another rhetorical question.

Amy remembers that the girl’s parents — Mr and Mrs Chen — were health educators who came into school to talk about sex.  “Pre-marital sex spreads disease.  Babies are meant to be born healthily within a marriage blessed by God,” they told the students during assembly when Amy was 14 years old.  Meanwhile, the Chen’s daughter was spinning on her bottom in the corner where she usually sits when the whole school gathered in the hall.  “God keeps the family together, so extra-marital sex is WRONG!” their voices boomed through the microphone as husband and wife took turns to repeat the same phrase, as if emphasising the sentiment through a male and then female voice made what was said gender equal.  Mr and Mrs Chen lived rhetorically too.

Geraldine says that she is against divorce.  Her religion doesn’t allow for the family unit to be separated.  The Indonesian will have to be part of her family make up now because she loves Jesus and will obey his Word.  Geraldine tells Amy that Jesus is all about love and that people complicate things too much; life is meant to be simple — LOVE, she shouts out.

Amy was pondering on what it meant to love Jesus when the dog walks by and lays down by Geraldine’s feet.  She was emptying out the spice cabinet then.  The dog yelps as Geraldine kicks him in its groin, “get out of my way, you stupid dog!”  Amy remembers the fidgety girl kicking her in the shins when she tried to help her with tidying up her desk before the school inspector arrived.  The class teacher had paired Amy up with the fidgety girl because Amy was the loyal and helpful sort.

The Image:

Image credit: The Journey of the Yellow Man No.11: Multiculturalism — Lee Wen.  National Gallery Singapore.

Lee Wen is performance artist who is remembered for his performance of The Journey of the Yellow Man.  This image — an inkjet print on archival paper — is a documentation of his performance and can be found in the National Gallery of Singapore.  Through performance, Lee Wen interrogates the meaning of what it means to be an overseas Chinese from Singapore.  He lived in London for some years and it was while living there that he started to feel anxious about his identity.  He was particularly anxious for being mistaken to be a Chinese from mainland China.  Lee Wen says in an essay: “[…] there is a greater sensitivity of prevalent racism when living in a predominantly “white” society. To the West, “the other” is often seen not only as exotic, erotic or primitive but also inferior and subject to colonization.”  Inspired by Edward Said’s notion of ‘the Other’ and his own realisation of his position as a post-colonial person living in the West, Lee embarked on a personal research on stereotypical images of the Asian from a western perspective.  He discovered a Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who had categorised people into four types with “The Asiatic (Homo sapiens asiaticus)” being described as “yellow, melancholy, and greedy” juxtaposed against the “(Homo Sapiens europeaeus)” as “white, serious and strong”  It seems that western notions of the Oriental as “yellow” have deep roots.

Eva’s notes:

This story is the result of Eva’s processing of conversations that she had with other women who are intrigued by the white man’s penchant for Asian women.  “Yellow Fever” is a term used by many non-Asian women to refer to non-Asian men living in Asia who are married to or dating Asian girls.  It is an unfortunate phrase replete with undertones of racism reflecting a sense of anxiety and alienation first established by Linnaeus in the 18th century.  This story is Eva’s way of expressing her utter disappointment with the insidious and unconscious forms of racism that still exist within societies in the 21st century and especially amongst many Europeans who have chosen to make Asia their home.  She asks a couple of rhetorical questions: Is “white fever” an appropriate term to describe Asian men married to or dating “white” women?; on the flip side, when a “white” woman is married to or dating an Asian man, does she have a type of malady, like her “white” male counterpart, referred to as “yellow fever” too?

When Eva discovered Lee Wen’s The Journey of the Yellow Man, she became interested in understanding the perception of the Asian through a western lens as “exotic, erotic or primitive”.  Much like Lee Wen who seeks to break the bonds of categorisation through his performance, Eva would like her writing to challenge and break the bonds of intrigue caused by a great deal of misunderstanding amongst certain people about the condition of human attraction.  Love is colourblind.

To read more about Lee Wen, go to:

http://leewen.republicofdaydreams.com

The Reviewer by Niles Reddick

Exasperated from cleaning up after her teens and her husband Ron, Jennie settled in the den in a used mocha leather chair from Pottery Barn a writer had offered her after she’d written a glowing review for his fantastic sports melodrama published by one of the medium houses in the northeast. A plot-driven narrative, the novel had lots of potential in sales, and while there had been lots of alcohol and sex swaps, it was the use of steroids that had driven the story to a happy ending with a positive finding from a review board. For many, the story might have even been classified as a fantasy because of the positive finding and because the media had sided with the football player.

Jennie sipped her wine and glanced at her bookcase, full of free novels and story collections from big houses to self-published authors, and she had long since quit counting the reviews she’d churned out. She’d actually written enough reviews that she could have written a novel herself, but that wasn’t going to happen.  She wouldn’t know where to start and didn’t have a creative bone in her body. If it weren’t for the dictionary and thesaurus, she couldn’t have even written a review.  She’d circle names and underline parts she thought were particularly good. Jennie had the formula, the same format she used for all her reviews, down pat, and she mostly plugged in basic info about the narrative, characters, and if she really liked the author, she’d throw in a comparison to a historical figure or maybe a big name. She had to run google searches, so no one would know she hadn’t read the historical writers, especially if it was a literary writer she couldn’t understand if she tried.

“What’re you doing?” Ron asked.

“Sipping some wine and getting in the mood for another read,” Jennie said.

“What’s next?”

“Chick lit novel by a writer named Marianne I met at a festival in the mountains.”

“She a lesbian?”

“I don’t know,” Jennie said. “What does that matter?”

“There was something on the news about some lesbian writer whose book was going to be a movie.”

“What book? Who was the author?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t pay attention.”

“If they replay, let me know. I doubt it’s Marianne. That doesn’t sound like her or her writing.”

“How many people read those reviews you write?”

“I don’t know, but the writers like them. I like to think it helps them with their sales, too.”

“But can’t anyone write a review for those book sites? You don’t have to be a reviewer, right?”

“Well, that’s true. You could post one on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook or even Twitter. Probably other places, too.”

“Couldn’t I post something even if I hadn’t read the book? Just make it up?”

“Well, I guess you could.”

“What do you get out of it? You don’t get paid.”

“Well, I guess I enjoy the friendships I make.”

“Friends? The only time you see or hear from these people is when you’re writing a review, except for that woman who gave you the chair, or you meet up with them at one of those festivals you’re always going to and what do they do? Sit around and talk about what they’ve done to a group of people who either want to be like them or rub elbows with them? They don’t even pay your way there.”

“Why are you being negative? Are you jealous, Ron?”

“I’m not being negative. I’m being realistic. I’m certainly not jealous of pretend, but I would like to understand it better. It’s like kids I knew who had imaginary friends. I thought that was crazy even as a kid. Maybe I’ll go with you to the next one.”

“Okay, that would be awkward, but yeah, you can go, if you want to hang with the women writers.”

“Would I have to read those books?”

“It might be helpful, unless you want to just sit at a gathering or dinner like a bump on a log.”

“How do you think they would react to me? Think they’d pal up to me, hoping I might influence you to do more. I’ll bet they wouldn’t be mean to me even if I was ugly to them for fear you might write a bad review.”

“Oh for goodness sakes, Ron. That’s nuts.”

“Is it? You’ve got a power that you buy. It takes you out of our house, away from me and the kids, and it makes you feel more special than you do in your job as a customer service agent in your cube for the auto parts company, and have you ever written a negative review?”

Ron walked away and under her breath, Jennie mumbled, “That son of a bitch.”  She knocked the wine back, emptying the glass, and got up to go to the kitchen for another. She looked around–the scarred Formica counter tops she wanted to replace with granite when they had the money, the grinding refrigerator with rust around the bottom, the popcorn ceiling sporting a wagon wheel light with orange glass. Jennie poured another glass full, walked back to the chair, plopped, and picked up the preview copy of Marianne’s newest. She sipped the wine and found herself at the beach next to a life guard sporting red shorts. She imagined she might attempt a drowning, so she could be saved.

Author Bio:

Niles Reddick is author of a novel Drifting too far from the Shore, a collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in many literary magazines including The Arkansas Review: a Journal of Delta StudiesSouthern ReaderLike the DewThe Dead Mule School of Southern LiteratureThe Pomanok Review,Corner Club PressSlice of LifeFaircloth Review, among others. His website is www.nilesreddick.com

Eva’s Notes: 

This image by Edward Collier, painted in 1696, is an example of a category of still life artworks known as Vanitas Paintings. The word ‘vanitas’ comes from the Latin adjective vanus which means empty.  In Collier’s painting, we see an open book with a poem emphasising mortality.  In the Old Testament of the Bible, in The Book of Ecclesiastes, is a verse: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ which has come to give meaning to the this type of image.  The underlying message of Vanitas Paintings is its reminder to humankind of our mortality, for all is naught, all is in vanity, because the only fact in life is Death.  Death is symbolised by the skull in the darkened left hand corner. Can you find other symbols of death?

Edward Collier was born in the Netherlands and came to England in 1693 to paint still life.  He died in London in 1708.

Image: Edward Collier, Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’, 1696, oil on canvas, 838 x 1079 mm.  Collection of Tate Britain, purchased in 1949.

 

Freckles

January 20, 1978, Melanie smells of soap and talcum.  The freckles on the round of her right shoulder spread from her face, like wild grass, to the top of her arm just above the bit where her bicep curls.  Her skin is golden brown, the colour of gula melaka on sago pudding.  She likes doing cartwheels in the grass and running barefoot on the roads.  Melanie is a wild child.

February 17, 1978, Melanie tastes of coconut cream.  The coconut oil she spreads on herself promises full protection from the tropical rays, Ibu Minah says.  I lick a patch of freckles near her clavicle and she shivers.  Then she giggles, softly at first, then her giggles turn into raucous hiccups and we both collapse in glee, unable to stop laughing.  Our stomachs ache, tears pour down our faces, our joy is immense and wild.  Melanie is my wild child.

March 14, 1978, The wind is in our hair as the boat glides over waves in the Indian Ocean.  Uncle Robert, Melanie’s father, owns a small sailing boat.  They sail away from the city every weekend and I tag along eagerly.  After a swim, we have sweet mangoes to take the salt away from our lips.  We feast on grilled shrimps and squid tasting of the sea and wash our lunch down with lukewarm ginger ale, then we laze about in the cabin below deck to escape the hot afternoon sun.  Our stomachs are round with food and drink; we hug and we cuddle, we read and we chat and sometimes we fall asleep spooning each other.  Melanie is my sailor girl.

When twilight approaches, we sit on the upper deck, legs dangling off the edge of the boat and wait for the night to come.  The sea is silent and still; a light breeze blows.  We lie back, heads resting on folded hands waiting for the stars to appear one by one.  They are like the freckles on Melanie’s right shoulder.  We count the twinkling stars; I count Melanie’s freckles.  One, two, three, lick, giggles.  Four, five, six, lick, giggles.  The stars twinkle and her freckles dance in the moonlight.  Melanie is my best friend.

March 30, 1980, Melanie says she misses her mother; sweat is beading on her upper lip.  She wishes that it wasn’t so humid, so her mother would stay.  I push the button of the electric fan to stop if from rotating so that it blows only at Melanie.  “Why did she leave?”  There’s more going on in New York.  “Have you seen her since?”  She never writes nor calls.  “It’s better to forget her then.”  Melanie nods but I know that it’s hard for her to forget this woman, her mother.  Melanie loves her nanny, Ibu Minah; she’s a native woman from the island.  Ibu Minah plaits Melanie’s hair and sings her a song in a foreign language.  “Sayang, sayang, sayang” Ibu Minah’s voice sashays as she massages Melanie’s scalp and separates her long auburn hair into two parts before turning each part into a neat plait.  Ibu Minah’s velvety song sends Melanie into another world where she is cocooned in her mother’s love, where she is smothered by her mother’s kisses.

April 23, 1980, Melanie is mewling like a new born kitten; she is forbidden to see Ibu Minah ever again.  Ibu Minah left in a flurry of shouting; Melanie’s father is punching the wall as he tells her that Ibu Minah is a bad woman.  The days are filled with despair and the nights desperation.  Melanie hugs me sobbing, she doesn’t know what to do without her Ibu Minah.  Who will plait her hair?  Who will hug her to sleep at night?  Who will sing her a song she doesn’t understand and can only sense?  Melanie’s anguish interrupts my dreams; the depth of her pain and the intensity of her loneliness disrupt my sleep.

*

April 30, 1980, Melanie stands naked in the bathroom; the floor is a pattern of different coloured mosaics.  She hasn’t eaten properly or bathed in a week.  I pour water over her head and spread some shampoo into her wet hair.  I rub and massage her scalp until the yellow shampoo lathers, then I wash it all away with buckets of water; her head smells of the metallic shampoo.  The tap is running, filling the Shanghai jar until it runs over.  Water splashes everywhere.  It’s time to soap her body.  I pass the bar of soap over Melanie’s chest; it glides smoothly over her budding left breast first, then her right.  I bring the soap over the round of her tummy.  The triangle between her legs is a feathery bush.  Melanie shudders a little when I soap the top of her thighs; the bruises are from Ibu Minah’s pinches to stop her from missing her mother.  Melanie is covered in white foam; greenish-yellow patches peep from beneath the foam.  I pour buckets of water over her until all the soap is washed away and her freckles are shiny like newly polished buttons.  But the blue-black, yellow-green patches won’t wash off.

*

May 14, 1984, It’s Melanie’s birthday.  Her wispy bangs are swept slightly away from her face.  She is wearing her hair high to one side in a bushy ponytail.  She is sweet sixteen.  Her eyeshadow is turquoise and green and her eyes are lined heavily; her lips are ripened cherries.  Her date is Andrew Martins.  I watch Melanie climbing into Andrew’s car.  I am full of rage; bile sits at the base of my throat.  She turns around, looks into my eyes, waves and mouths “don’t worry, I love you” though her feline eyes say something else: they are dancing with pleasure and fear.  Something’s not right, I sense; it’s too late, the car disappears round the bend; I missed out on saying “I love you too”.

*

January 29, 2004, The sun has set over the horizon.  I am on a boat with Mark; we are in the Philippines.  We relish the tropical warmth as anthracite skies spread over London.  I lick the freckles on Mark’s right shoulder; he tastes of the sea.  He laughs and kisses me hard on the lips.  The wind is in my hair as the boat sails back to the resort.  It’s our honeymoon and I am five months pregnant.

February 5, Our flight will leave in the afternoon.  The outrigger will take us to the airport on another island.  Mabuhay, El Nido, we will miss you, I whisper as the resort staff sings us good bye in a foreign language I don’t understand but can only sense.  I feel the sadness in the words as they croon and wave us goodbye, their voices floating out to sea as our little boat takes us further and further away.

The baby kicks as I open the overhead locker to stow away my bag.  I rub my tummy and whisper “don’t worry, I love you.”

May 14, 2004, I am pushed into the theatre for an emergency caesarean.  The pain makes me delirious; I feel the baby pushing against my pelvic floors unable to get out.  Everyone is talking in loud gibberish and Mark is running alongside the bed on wheels holding my left hand, my right is tethered to a catheter.  He whispers “don’t worry, I love you”.  The car turns round the corner and I sense something’s not right.  A loud explosion punctures the quiet of dusk; the sirens of the ambulance makes a ruckus.  “Road accident, No survivors, Victims both sixteen”.  I tear at my scalp screaming.  I feel a searing sensation below as the doctor makes an incision; the local anaesthetic isn’t working.  I howl like a wounded animal.  They place the baby on my chest as someone sews up the cut.  The baby is wet and slimy with freckles all over her shoulders.  I weep.  “I love you, Melanie, I love you.  I love you, my wild child.”

 

Eva’s Notes: 

Brock Elbank is a London based photographer who celebrates the beauty of imperfection.  In 2015, he started to document people with freckles. Elbank says:

“I’ve always loved freckles, and what I find interesting about individual characters that I meet and have been fortunate to photograph is that, generally, they’ve struggled having them in their infancy and either hated them, or grown to live with them or even like them in adulthood. Many of the subjects shot so far are such incredible-looking humans that are simply freckled … It’s really why I shoot what I love to shoot. Just amazing-looking individuals from all walks of life.” (Maria Yagoda for Peoplehttp://people.com/bodies/brock-elbank-freckles-photo-series-see-the-inspiring-pictures/)

Beauty is skin deep, as they say, and the standards and criteria of beauty are as arbitrary as the freckles on a person’s face and body.  I love how Brock Elbank celebrates beauty by taking portraits of people with freckles.  He also has another project, documenting men with beards.

Undulations

Nora looked down at her feet; she can’t see them past the folds of her post-pregnancy tummy.  Her beautifully manicured toes are hidden from sight.  Three babies and what is left of her svelte figure is a terrain of undulations, flaps and scars.

When Tom brushes against her accidentally, a thousand ants bite.  She recoils into herself when he suggests intimacy.  She’s happy with the odd night out but can’t wait to come home to her babies; there’s always the excuse that the babysitter is a high school student and has a curfew.  The reality is that her post-natal body has become an excuse for going to bed with the kids.

*

Martin shuts his eyes as he comes inside her, his right hand cupping her left boob.  The sensation is so intense that he collapses on top of her seconds later.  Sharon is relieved that it’s all over.  She pushes Martin off gently; he snorts in his post-coital slumber and mumbles something incoherent.  Sharon gets up and takes a pee, her post-coital routine.  She habitually tiptoes into the twins’ room to listen to their breathing as they sleep.  A euphoric sense of satisfaction fills her to the core; there is peace in her world.

At high school biology, Mrs Carter said that pregnancy occurs when a sperm meets an egg; gestation takes 40 weeks; human mammals have one of the shortest gestation periods, and the most helpless offsprings at birth.  An elephant’s gestation is 22 months and baby elephants are expected to stand upright almost immediately after birth.

When Sharon and Martin got married, she’d wanted children immediately.  Who would’ve thought that it would take 6 miscarriages, 3 failed IVF attempts before Jenny and Heather finally arrived.  Mrs Carter was wrong: pregnancy doesn’t come so easily; biology lessons don’t tell you the whole truth.

*

Nora breastfeeds Lilly as Sharon buys the coffee.  The two women met at a ‘mother-and-me’ dance class a year ago.  The twins are strapped into their double stroller waiting for their babycinos.  Sharon is the more organised of the two.  Fifteen years in corporate finance means schedules and datelines are met even on the home front.  Sharon stopped breastfeeding when the twins turned 12 months exactly.  She is also strict on the exercise: pilates on Mondays and Fridays. boxing on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Yoga on Wednesday mornings.  When the twins were 6 months old, she decided to take another 6 months leave and subsequently decided not to go back to work at all.  She figured that the corporate finance world didn’t need her and she didn’t need them either.  Martin makes enough to support them all and with more embryos frozen at the IVF centre, they could even have a couple more children.  Nora has always gone with the flow; Kylie, her oldest was unplanned which took her and Tom by surprise; she was on the Pill too.  Nora had a good position in a marketing company and was looking forward to a promotion when the doctor told her that her food poisoning was really morning sickness.  She remembers floating out of the GP’s office dazed but very excited.  Julie came fourteen months later and finally Lilly when Kylie was five.

*

Sharon says that she has no body issues and that Nora should love her body for what it is.  Easy for Sharon to say this, she’s as thin as a rake.  Nora chuckles as she pondered on the phrase; for the first time, she finally understood this saying which she’d learnt as a child in ESL classes.  Sharon really had the dimensions of a rake if Nora had to be honest.  She shakes her head in mock disbelief as it dawned on her just how much a picture really speaks a thousand words.  Yet, she knows that Sharon’s size didn’t come easily to her; years of dieting and obsessing about calorie intake and food consumption kept her the size of a gardening tool.

For Nora, obsessing about weight is a privilege that only other folks had.  She lived with her parents in a one bedder above a takeaway in Chinatown when the family first arrived in Sydney; she was nine years old.  There were no rakes in her cockroach infested room.  Her parents had shared the apartment with Mrs Chen, also from Hong Kong.  Mrs Chen, the landlady, would sometimes babysit her while Ma and Pa were at work; Mrs Chen had all her possessions under the sofa which doubled up as her bed.  Ma was a cleaner by day and waitress by night and Pa washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant nearby.  When there was food, everyone ate their fill.  Nobody talked about big bottoms and flabby arms or six packs and toned biceps when she was a child.

When Nora started high school, some of her female classmates were always talking about the latest dieting fads.  Christine was on a low carb diet.  She refrained from eating potatoes and rice; Nora couldn’t understand Christine’s reluctance to eat rice since it was a Chinese staple.  In Nora’s home, rice was a precious commodity; her parents couldn’t always afford to buy rice; sometimes they had congee because it took less rice grains to make a pot of rice porridge.  Christine must come from a rich Chinese family and therefore privileged enough to push away a bowl of rice.  Nora was impressed but she kept her circumstances quiet; nobody asked and she didn’t offer answers either.  Then there was Cheryl who kept going on about thigh gaps; Nora had wondered what that meant.  She learnt about thighs gaps later when she met Tom who couldn’t stop talking about his ex and how thin her legs were and how much space she had between her thighs and crotch.  Nora thought that she had a normal body until that day.  Yet, she listened to Tom; Asian bodies are so different from Australian ones, he had said.  Nora didn’t have a thigh gap; her hips are too small; her stumpy legs too short to leave a space between them.  But Aunty May Ling had said the opposite.  Aunty May Ling, her mother’s boss, had said she had hips wide enough to give birth; Aunty May Ling was Chinatown’s matchmaker, she owned the speakeasy which doubled up as a brothel at night.

*

By the time Nora started working in advertising sales, she learnt that talking about diets and detoxing were popular topics amongst the girls; they came up in conversation naturally.  To fit in, she indulged in eating less carbs; she allowed herself to order a soya latte and talked about being lactose intolerant.  Every once in a while, she would remember how hard it was for Ma to get Min the milk powder she needed.  Min was two years old when she died; Pa had lost his job at the restaurant when the owners invested in industrial dish washers.  Ma’s salary wasn’t enough to pay rent, buy food and the special milk powder that Min needed; she was severely lactose intolerant.  The doctor had said that death from lactose intolerance is rare.  The social services came calling and took Ma away for questioning.  She told her interpreter that she couldn’t breastfeed Min because she was working two jobs since her husband had lost his.  Min’s case is a tragic one, the judge had said.  There were no further prosecutions because both parents had tried their best within their circumstances.

*

When Nora had her first child, breast milk was the only option; Kylie was breastfed until she was four.  No child of hers would ever die of lactose intolerance, if she had her way; Lilly, her youngest, is still on the boob at three.  All three children were breastfed until they could eat solids and then were given soya milk as an alternative.

Tom feels that Nora complicates things far too much.  Co-sleeping with each child meant that sex was a rare occurrence.  He excepted the reality of their marriage and found that he actually enjoyed sleeping in a big bed by himself.

Nora’s nightmares continue even whilst hugging one of her babies during the night.  She slept with the three girls in the guest room on a queen size bed.  In her dreams, Nora finds herself alone, running away from being caught by the spectre behind her; she is knee deep in sludge and instead of running, she is wading, arms flailing to keep from falling facedown.  She is breathless, her chest is squeezed, she is enveloped in fear.  She cannot be caught.  One of the girls stirs and Nora wakes up with a start and is relieved that her world is safe and her babies are snoring softly.

*

“You have to remember that men are simple compared to women,” Tom announced during a dinner party one night.  “The man I am now, at forty, is the same boy I was at fourteen.  Women are complicated in comparison.”  Everyone laughed for this is true.  Nora took a long sip of her wine.

“I wish that I could have the same privilege as you Tom,” she said slowly whilst looking at her husband.  “I wish I could be the same girl I was at fourteen now at forty.  Life just took over, I guess.”

 

Eva’s Notes: 

This oil painting is called Waves on the Hudson River by Yayoi Kusama, [©YAYOI KUSAMA]. She painted this in 1988.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is an influential Japanese abstract artist who was influenced by Surrealism.  Her artworks are reflections of her mental state and many speak about her psychosis: she is obsessed by ‘self obliteration’ and she expresses this by using dot motifs in many of her works.  She says that the dots obliterate the subject, the subject is often herself.  Yayoi Kusama has been living in a psychiatric hospital since 1977, the year she voluntarily checked herself in. She set up a studio nearby where she works daily, creating art that manifests her internal angst and suffering.

To interrogate her work, is to enter into her psyche.

I like this oil painting because the undulations are mesmerising. There is a calming effect upon prolonged viewing of the canvas.  This painting is abstract because the wavy tubular lines are meant to represent the waves that Kusama saw on the Hudson. But it could represent anything for the viewer who hasn’t read the title.  Dots never leave Kusama’s work; you can see them in orange on this piece.  The dots mirror those that Kusama sees in her hallucinations which she’s had since childhood.  Dots have become her emblem and signature.