Afterglow by Glen Donaldson

It was an after-dinner announcement no one had seen coming. After a great many years spent toying with the idea from the comfort of her upholstered recliner lounge chair with the polished wooden lever at the side, great-grandmother  Bertha Babcock had decided the time was finally right to get her very first spray tan.

It was now or never for the heavyset 88 year old, who, in her youth, had cut a svelte figure working at the local frog canning factory but via the passage of time, the birth of six children and one too many whoopee pies and Portuguese pastries had come these days to resemble more like one half of the popular bingo call for her age – “two fat ladies”.

Bertha Babcock had devoted some time on the internet to checking out tanning salons before deciding on one called AFTERGLOW, about ten minutes drive from her house. In amongst her fact-finding research, which included reading numerous horror stories of spray tans gone wrong (‘a radioactive orange colour which left the wearer smelling like vegetable oil for days’ seemed to be a reoccurring complaint) she’d also managed somehow to take in the episode of the American sitcom FRIENDS where Ross is shown going into an automated tanning booth (like a carwash for humans) and due to a failure to pivot fast enough emerges with a half bronzed body.

But with the occasion of attending her granddaughter’s upcoming wedding spurring her on to want to look her glowing best, Bertha was determined to ignore the stories of other’s misadventures and forge ahead anyway. The person she’d spoken to on the phone at the salon had assured her she would be incapable and experienced hands.

The next morning her son Phillip arrived at the house in his silver-grey Ford Bronco utility to pick her up and drive her to the salon. After the short journey during which Bertha again reminded Philip of her wish to have her ashes scattered at sea upon her death and her desire to visit the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas sometime prior to that happening, they pulled up in the car park of the salon and began the task of extracting Bertha from the front seat of the car. This took some minutes but eventually, Bertha Babcock was on her way in, supported by her own cane walking stick and her dutiful, ever-patient son guiding and encouraging her with each step.

Inside, Bertha was at once hit with the sterile, over-air-conditioned feel of a big box store and the slightly ‘yeasty’ aroma common to many tanning salons. She eased herself down onto the black leather waiting couch next to a laminated sign emblazoned in gold lettering with the words “We promise to do our best to make you look your best”. Next, the twenty-year-old ‘spray artist’ girl walked through (Bertha thought she heard her introduce herself as ‘Tiffany’ but knew it might just as easily have been ‘Tilly’, ‘Tina’ or even ‘Tigerlilly’). 

Even with her pasted on smile Bertha found her friendly and professional, but couldn’t help wishing for a brief moment she was now facing someone more like Maude from her favourite retro show The Golden Girls. Bertha knew she wasn’t going to enjoy having to get near naked in front of someone as young and bubbly as Tiffany, or whatever her name was.

After receiving her instructions on the poses to adopt while the ‘fake bake’ dark coffee chemical was applied, Bertha was handed a set of attractive nose plugs, a shower cap and a pair of too-tight green goggles and directed to walk down a tiled corridor into the 2nd room on the left that housed the stand up spray booth. The first thing she noticed once inside the room was how unbearably hot it was compared to the outside reception area. She looked up and noticed the sole ceiling fan wasn’t moving. A moment later she realised why. A dead rodent was lodged in it, its legs dangling down toward Bertha. ‘Tiffany’ entered the room and explained in her best cheery tone that Bertha should change into the disposable underwear that lay on a corner benchtop and she would return in a few minutes when it would be time for the hoping-to-be- glamorous great granny to ‘get her bronze on’.

After a ‘respectful’ time, the young salon worker knocked on the door and asked would it be all right to come in. “All ready my dear” was Bertha’s buoyant reply. When ‘Tiffany’pushed back the door she was greeted with a most unusual site. There was the great-grandmother wearing the spray technician’s surgical mask as underwear. She had somehow mistaken it for the g-string spanty that lay next to it. More incredibly she’d somehow managed to manoeuvre ‘into’ it. Spotting the girl’s surprise but not knowing exactly what had warranted it, Bertha quickly switched to comedy mode and asked, “Could you paint some tight ab muscles on me while you’re at it?” The quip seemed to relax the young AFTERGLOW employee and she was able to complete the procedure in under ten minutes with Bertha emerging like a luminous Oompa Loompa ready to go to the wedding the next day.

On the way home from the salon with Philip driving, however, there was one more sun-kissed moment of unintended pantomime. The Bronco utility was pulled over for a police random breath test. Phillip blew into the plastic nozzle offered to him by the officer wearing over-large mirror sunglasses. Though he was a non-drinker, the plastic metal device registered a reading for alcohol, though not enough to put him over the legal driving limit. He found out some time later it was the nearby powerful fumes from his mother’s freshly spray tanned skin that had set off the machine and given a false reading for alcohol.

When the two arrived home, they sat down with the rest of the extended family in the living room. Everyone was eager to hear how Operation Tangerine Dream, as someone had dubbed it, had gone. Laughter and voices babbled happily like a flowing mountain stream for the next hour or so as Bertha Babcock held the floor like a fluff news reporter continually fed by the smiles and gentle gaze of those gathered. When Aunt Ophelia asked “Did they put it on with a paint roller?” the laughter echoed down the hallway and into each and every room of the house.

Soon it was time for the youngest children of the gathered clan to have their bath and as it was not her time to leave, great-grandmother Bertha Babcock insisted on helping. The old bathtub was fashioned from tin and beaten into shape with a flat hammer. It was just big enough for a child to sit in and the water was never more than tepid. Before anyone could protest there was big bronzed Bertha, glowing radioactive orange by this time, arms deep in suds and bubbles scrubbing with a flat brush the grime from her grandchild Leroy’s puppy fat bolstered five-year-old body.

When it was over, the entire house was treated to the genuinely horrible screams of bathetic Bertha reacting with all the grace of a wrecking ball to the sight of herself winding up with no tan at all halfway up her arms, making her look for all the world like she was wearing white gloves. And from a distance, at her granddaughter’s garden wedding held in the city’s Botanical Gardens the next day, that is exactly how it appeared. Unfortunately the super soak mishap also gave rise to a somewhat inebriated Uncle Spida, who was already slurring his words by the time the best man got up to give his speech, remarking on more than one occasion to anyone who would listen, how big Bertha’s newly tanned look ‘fit her like a glove’. 

About the Author:

Glen Donaldson is an Australian flash fiction author with a nutty aftertaste. Glen admits to being fascinated why a group of squids is not called a squad and lists his all-time favourite movie as CAPRICORNE ONE (1977). He blogs at SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK.

Eva’s Comments:

‘After Glow’ by Glen Donaldson cracked us up so much at CarpeArte Journal that we decided to publish his flash piece in celebration of Short Story Month.

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
― Neil Gaiman

Glen’s piece opened a window to how humour injected adeptly into a short story can fill the reader with mirth and delight. Bertha Babcock’s story made me glow with pure pleasure, chuckle with glee and choke on the surprising imageries so wittily conjured up by Glen’s magical writing.

The Portrait of Dona Rosita Morillo, completed in 1944 by Frida Kahlo, depicted the mother of Eduardo Morillo who was a Mexican diplomat. Eduardo purchased more than 30 paintings from Frida over the years and commisioned her to paint several portraits of his family members. Apparently, this portrait is said to be one of Frida Kahlo’s favourite paintings.

Frida Kahlo needs no introduction. She was born in 1907 and named Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. This famous Mexican artist is well-known for her self-portraits which she painted many of after a bus accident that left her in debilitating pain. Her paintings have deep autobiographical layers, mixed with fantasy and surrealism reflecting the agony she lived through on a daily basis, her dreams of escapism, and the fantasies that she engaged in to rid her psyche of pain.

Kahlo employs a type of folk-art style in her work which examines questions of identity, class, race and gender in Mexican society. Kahlo is loved by feminists who see her art as representations of the female experience and form.

Glen Donaldson does not remember how he became intrigued by this Mexican artist.  However, what struck him was the relatively short life she led. Kahlo died at the age of 47 after decades of ill health and chronic pain, pain that she had suffered from since the age of eighteen. What intrigued us at CarpeArte was how Glen saw past the sadness of Dona Rosita, indicated by her down-turned lips and found inspiration in the orange glow of her skin to produce ‘Afterglow’, “the story of great-grandmother Bertha Babcock and her ‘now or never’ moment on the eve of her granddaughter’s garden wedding.” (Glen Donaldson) Out of the ashes of pain, flew the phoenix of mirth. There’s hope in laughter.

Image Credit: Hand-painted reproduction of ‘Portrait Of Dona Rosita Morillo’ (1944) [artist unknown]. Originally painted by Frida Kahlo (1944).

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Chère Madame… by Susan Cornford

Gabrielle could feel the letter almost slipping from her cold fingers. It was the one that every soldier’s wife most feared; her beautiful, wonderful Guillaume was dead. And it had been so far away, in that horrible Mexican wilderness! The battle had been last April at somewhere unpronounceable. At least he would have been buried in a proper Catholic country. She must change into mourning as soon as she could bear to let go of the letter. But, just now, it seemed the last link with the man she’d loved since …when?

At supper in the Café Riche on the Boulevard des Italiens, after seeing Rigoletto at the Théâtre Italien, she’d been introduced, by her married sister, Suzanne, to this handsome, young officer who looked so glorious in his uniform. Suzanne whispered that he was unmarried and of very good family. Gabrielle decided, then and there, that he would not remain the former for long.

It had been a wonderful courtship: balls and theatre and suppers. But there had also been quiet walks and talks, carefully chaperoned by her Aunt Matilde, in the lovely Tuileries Garden by Catherine de’ Medici’s Palace on the Right Bank. They had been married just before Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon III, had decided to send French troops to Mexico in 1861. It was all about somebody’s unpaid debts, but soldiers must go where and when they are sent. They had hoped he might leave her with a child coming, but that had not happened. Now she was left with nothing of him at all.

Never one for tears, Gabrielle fought her own battle against them and won. Guillaume would want her to live a full and happy life; he’d said so before he’d gone. At least he’d left his affairs in order and his property would come to her without the interference of trustees. She could comfortably do as she pleased.

Gabrielle now recalled another letter that she’d had last week. It was the first from Harriet, her American friend, since the end of their Civil War in May. The two families had met when Harriet and her parents had come to Paris before that war. They were from Boston and were raising funds for what they called the “underground railway” that was helping Negro slaves to escape from Southern plantations. It had sounded quite thrilling and noble to Gabrielle, something she could now throw herself into to get over her grief at losing Guillaume.  

Slowly Gabrielle rose from her chair and carefully she returned the military missive to its envelope and put it into the drawer of her desk. Taking a fresh sheet of writing paper and her pen and ink, she started another letter. “Dearest Harriet …” 

 

About the Author:

Susan Cornford is a retired public servant, living in Perth, Western Australia, with pieces published or forthcoming in 50-Word Stories, Akashic Books, Antipodean Science Fiction, Ghost Parachute, Medusa’s Laugh, Speculative 66, Subtle Fiction, Switchblade, The Fable Online, The Gambler and The Vignette Review. She considers herself an emerging Flash writer. 

 

Eva’s Comments

Susan submitted her story with this note: “I looked through Met Art website till I found “The Letter” by Camille Corot (c. 1865). This was a story just waiting to be told! So, I dug around in the history of the period & this is what I came up with. The names are a tribute to the new Olympic ice dancers.”

Camille Corot is also known as Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875). He was born in Paris at 125 Rue du Bac, and was the middle child of a wealthy family. The family was in the fashion business, his Swiss-born mother a milliner and his father a wig-maker before becoming a businessman, running the millinery shop where Corot’s mother had worked which the Corot family had bought. He started painting late in life, at the age of 26, after a failed apprenticeship as a draper. Luckily for Corot, his parents had invested well and had more than enough money to support his artistic endeavours. Corot started painting under Achille-Etna Michallon who studied landscape painting under Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. Corot made historical and realistic landscapes his focus. The former contains mythological animals, signs and symbols, the latter are depictions and renditions of Northern European sceneries fused with flora and fauna recognisable in the northern hemisphere. According to the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture,  historical (landscape) paintings were considered better than pure landscape paintings i.e. depictions of flora and fauna as nothing could be learnt from studying painted plants.  Corot liked to mix both historical and realistic landscapes together, forming a unique way of painting landscapes. However, he was not the only painter to do so. Claude Lorrain, a French painter before Corot was famous for his hybrid style too. Lorrain had settled in Rome in the seventeenth century and his artworks consisted of a balanced depiction of pure landscape infused with narratives from the Bible and the Classical past (think Greek and Roman myths). 

Corot belonged to the Barbizon School of painting where an idealised portrayal of nature was preferred. Barbizon painters took their influence from Italian painters and many travelled to Italy for inspiration and Corot was no exception. In Italy, he was able to capture and depict the light favoured by Italian Renaissance artists. Barbizon is a village near the Fontainebleau Forest where the first generation of French painters worked in favour of idealising their native landscape rather than that of Italianate scenes. 

Barbizon painters painted directly from their observation of nature and always in the open-air—en plein air. This way of painting would come to be emulated by the Impressionists.

Camille Corot died in Paris in 1875, a single man, having never married because he swore to devote his life to painting landscapes: “All I really want to do in life … is to paint landscapes. This firm resolve will stop me forming any serious attachments. That is to say, I shall not get married.”—Camille Corot

With this resolve, Corot left behind over 3,000 pieces of artwork but not all were of landscapes. He was also a philanthropist who donated a large part of his wealth (which he made from selling his paintings) to the poor of Paris. He helped support a couple of his artist friends and their families who were not as lucky as he was. Camille Corot is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery. 

Susan’s choice by Corot is entitled ‘The Letter’, depicting a seated woman with a letter on her lap. The colour scheme overall is dull, sombre and drab, a result of the overuse of browns and blacks. (In general, Corot’s paintings are generally rendered in such tones; some are almost like sepia photographs.) The red hair accessory gives this painting a hint of cheerfulness, only to be reduced by the expression on the woman’s face: her eyes are downcast and she is pensive. On closer look, the viewer’s eye notices signs of despondency on the sitter’s face enhanced by the linearity of her lips and the shadows around her eyes. Baudelaire defends Corot’s use of pale colours calling him a “harmonist” more than a “colourist”. I find this reading of Corot’s artworks accurate. There is a quality to his paintings which never fails to emote me. ‘The Letter’ is a good example; I really feel the sitter’s sadness and sense that the letter mustn’t have brought good news. 

CarpeArte Journal loves Susan’s story, considering it a great example of how art has prompted a response in the writer. Her story ends with the start of a letter, indicating the open-ended reading of Corot’s ‘The Letter’. 

Susan’s story pays homage to the new Olympian ice skaters, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Jean-Baptist Camille Corot (1796-1875), The Letter (circa 1865), Oil on wood, 21 1/2 x 14 1/4 in. (54.6 x 36.2 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

I Can’t Forget by Townsend Walker

I thought I’d found the peace that I’d come for.  Here in Munich, where I spent a year in college.  A felicitous town with musicians on every corner: Mozart concertos, Bach sonatas, a Billie Holiday tune here and there.  Choirs singing hosannas to the highest lighten even the heavyset Cathedral of Our Lady.

On Wednesday, I strolled into the gardens of the Stadtische Galerie.  The museum was housed in a gold-colored Tuscan villa, once the home of the painter Franz von Lenbach.  The first gallery held Klee’s colorful and cheerful work: Southern Gardens: vivid orange, red, blue and aqua patches and Rose Garden: carnelian, cerise and scarlet geometric figures and a cluster of smiling people.

The next gallery was deserted.  Klee’s Ravaged Place hung on the far wall: a bruise-purple building with a dabbled white roof is askew in the background.  The building once had four walls, but like a stage set only the façade remains.  Its gaping window holes were shaded violet black, wraiths curling behind them.  Two smaller structures tilted in from outside the frame.  Their windows were vacant eyes to the sky.  In the foreground, headstones.

Not different from my last patrol.  A long day.  My unit had beaten off two insurgent attacks and we were a couple miles from base.  We saw the village beyond the ridge.  Smoke, still curling.  Crumbled dun-colored mud houses.  Wooden framing sticking out at unnatural angles.  Fragments of cloth fluttering from splintered windows.  Blackened shards.  Littering the sand, blood-streaked arms and legs and a doll.

The memory emptied me and I slumped on a museum bench, head in my hands, heart pounding.  I was nauseous, like the time in the back of an old bus bumping down a mountain road in Morocco, sucking diesel fumes and greasy mutton.  Hot and I couldn’t get up, trapped between two guys who were asleep.  I squeezed my head tighter and tighter to quiet the clattering explosions in my skull.

My Dad, a Nam vet, never told me about the flashbacks.  But he was career; maybe it’s different for them.  My twin brother Will followed Dad’s lead, until it all ended at Shahi Khot.  I’d stayed away from everything Army until what happened to Will.  But I had to finish what he started.  That’s the way it was with us.  So it was Special Forces and language school.

Someone hit me.  I jumped; nearly knocked the old man down.  Slowly, I saw him, the attendant, a thin wispy-haired man carved by age.

Bitte, are you well?”

Probably, he only tapped me on the shoulder.

“I’ll be fine, danke.

“I never come in this room,” he said.  “Too many thoughts, too many memories I don’t want to have.”

Looking down at him, I asked, “Der Zweite Weltkrieg?”

“Stalingrad,” he said.  “I can’t forget.”

He looked at me, eyes filling with tears.  His lips moved, but no words came out.  Then he placed a thin arthritic hand on my arm and held tight.

I walked slowly out of the Galerie and back through the Plaza of Our Lady.  Leave was over.  That evening I took the train up to Frankfurt for my flight.  I’d be in Kabul in twenty-four hours, and sign up for another tour.  I’m not haunted by memories there.

 

A Note on the Author

Townsend Walker lives in San Francisco. His novella La Ronde was published in 2015 and his short stories have appeared in over seventy-five literary journals. “A Little Love, A Little Shove” and “Holding Tight” were nominated for PEN/O.Henry Awards. The two stories are included in his new collection, 3 Women 4 Towns 5 Bodies. Townsend wrote A Guide for Using the Foreign Exchange Market, Managing Risk with Derivatives, and Managing Lease Portfolios, during his career in finance. In addition to writing stories, Townsend conducts a creative writing workshop at San Quentin Prison.

Townsend submitted I Can’t Forget along with an image of Paul Klee’s painting, ‘Destroyed Place’, which Klee completed in 1920. However, in the story, Klee’s ‘Ravaged Place’ is referred to. On further reading of Walker’s ekphrasis of the painting, he seems to be referring more to ‘Destroyed Place’: “The building once had four walls, but like a stage set only the façade remains.  Its gaping window holes were shaded violet black, wraiths curling behind them.  Two smaller structures tilted in from outside the frame.  Their windows were vacant eyes to the sky.  In the foreground, headstones.” [‘Ravaged Place’ is actually entitled ‘Ravaged Land’.]

This artwork points to Klee’s skills as a draughtsman, indicated by the buildings. The two-dimensional surface and shapes indicate the influence of Cubism, which Klee discovered during his travels to Paris where he met Robert Delaunay and discovered Picasso and Braque’s works in galleries. The sense of the surreal is highlighted by the hands sweeping from the headstones towards the vacant buildings, rendering the landscape a ghostlike presence. Death permeates the piece, signified by the dark sombre tones of black against purple.

Walker’s story is a great example of how art can emote and bring forth stories buried in our unconscious. It is also a great example of how a writer can combine Ekphrasis in a work of fiction. Visual Art as prompts to writing is not a new concept because art triggers memories, sensations and emotions in each of us; I Can’t Forget indicates this.

 Eva’s Comments

Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) was born in Münchenbuchsee, Switzerland, to a German father and a Swiss mother. His parents were both musicians; his father was a music teacher in Bern where the family settled in 1897, after moving around in Switzerland for some time.

Music and art filled Klee’s life since childhood. Encouraged by his parents, he studied the violin. Although he was very good at the instrument, he chose to focus on visual art during his teenage years. However, his parents were not that supportive of his forays into art, preferring that he continued with music.

Against his parents’ wishes, Klee left for Munich in 1898 for art studies at the Academy of Fine Arts and briefly attended Franz von Stuck’s class there. He chose to settle in Munich in 1906 after spending some years travelling to Italy, France and living some years back in Bern.

In Munich, Klee focused on graphic art for the most part. A chance meeting with the abstract artist, Kandinsky, in 1911 would change the course of his life. Kandinsky recognised talent in Klee’s work and was very supportive of him.

In 1912, Klee exhibited in Munich’s Galerie Goltz in the second exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group formed by Russian emigre painters (Kandinsky included) in response to the rejection of Wassily Kandinsky’s work, ‘Last Judgement’, from an exhibition. Der Blaue Reiter is also an art movement important in the development of Expressionism; this art movement lasted only 3 years from 1911 to 1914 but has left the art world with a vast collection of artworks which can be viewed at Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Paul Klee was very interested in colours and was an avid researcher in colour theory. He wrote extensively on the effects of colour on art. His lectures at the Bauhaus School of Art, where he taught for 10 years starting in 1921, have been published under the name, Paul Klee Notebooks, a two-volume work, considered as important to modern art theory as Leonardo Da Vinci’ s Treatise on Paintings is for the Renaissance.

A trip to Tunis, Morocco, in 1914 impressed Klee so much that he would later write, saying, “colour and I are one” proclaiming himself a “painter.” From this period on, Klee started to experiment with abstraction. Already a skilled draughtsman, he combined his abilities in draftsmanship—straight lines forming shapes like rectangles and triangles—with colours to form a unique style—visual art, combining Expressionism, Cubism, Abstraction and Surrealism, all associated with music—that some scholars have recognised to be influenced by his earlier schooling in music. Perhaps, Klee could be a synesthete like his friend, Kandinsky.

Klee was conscripted as a soldier of the German Reich in March of 1916. Fortunately, for him, he spent most of the war in an office which spared him from the horrors on the war front. Klee’s diaries and letters indicated his detachment from the war. But the war would leave profound impressions on him. The death of his friends August Macke and Franz Marc devastated him. He responded by creating pen and ink lithographs dealing with war themes. Perhaps it was during this time that Klee would come to say “I paint in order not to cry”, a phrase that has come to represent his works made during and after WWI. Critics have said that Klee’s pieces during and after the war indicated his detachment: Klee commented on the devastation brought by war by abstracting it, representing the horror by symbols and leitmotifs.

“The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now.” — Paul Klee (diary, 1915).

Paul Klee passed away in 1940, in Switzerland, from a wasting disease that engulfed him towards the end of his life. The pain caused by Scleroderma would enter his later work. I think apart from expressing his physical pain on canvas, Klee also drew from the trauma incurred during the war and allowed this to find expression in his work. Paul Klee left behind an oeuvre consisting of just under 10,000 pieces of artworks. Although born in Switzerland, he never obtained Swiss citizenship because the Swiss authorities felt that his artwork was too revolutionary for the period.

Paul Klee’s work can be viewed worldwide as well as at the Paul Klee Centre in Bern.

 

 

Image Credit: ‘Destroyed Place’, 1920, Oil on paper, 8 3/4 x 7 5/8 in. (22.3 x 19.5 cm), Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Of life – by A P Shells

 

(i)

I have told you too many times

Have told you too many times I cannot

Told you too many times I cannot take it anymore

Too many times I cannot take it anymore I have told you:

the lacerations
red tattoos, curves into a
smile: savoring a covenant
I can’t seem to remember:

(ii)

Of life, I am no placid man – there is screaming

in the house, yet, a severed ear is a deafening one:

– – – – –

my body, a portrait of
sanguine insanity —
where are these brushes,
and whose favorite color is

red.

(iii)

Of catharsis, I understood none –

yet there is brevity in a severed ear,

or the portrait of.

(iv)

him

(v)

it shouldn’t have been

me.

 

Author’s Comments:

The poem is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. It has raised questions on identity, confrontation with situations in life, and catharsis. The poem reflects that.

I am drawn to this picture for its honesty. There is something about this picture that prompts us to think about pain and resolution – why did he mutilate his ear? And why did he create this self-portrait? What did he hope to achieve? Was he hoping to achieve anything at all? I’m not too sure about the answers to those questions. There may not be answers too. As with life, we are very capable. We may live amidst the quandaries, amidst the questions we have no answers to. We do not strictly calculate everything we do. That is fine. Yet to that end, the picture draws me in to ponder.

Eva’s Comments:

When I received this poem, I’d just finished watching the animated film, Loving Vincent. It’s the first film in the world that’s made entirely of oil paintings. Amazing! Written & directed by Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman, this animated film has gone on the win many awards.

Vincent Van Gogh needs no introduction. He is the most mythologised artist of the 19th century. Many interpretations of his oeuvre have largely been focused on his mental condition. Art Historians know that Van Gogh was institutionalised, of his own accord, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It was during this period that he painted his most famous and popular piece, The Starry Night. This artwork inspired the song, (Vincent) Starry Starry Night by Don Mclean. This song never fails to bring tears. “They would not listen, they did not know how perhaps they’ll listen now.”

Vincent Van Gogh touched everyone he came into contact with; this was portrayed clearly in Loving Vincent. Van Gogh continues to touch our lives today as indicated by A P Shell’s On Life.

Van Gogh is categorised as an Expressionist painter because of his style of painting. Expressionism originated in the early 20th-century in Germany.  It is characterised by subjective perspectives depicted in images or text (poetry). These perspectives are highly emotive due to their distortion of reality. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of their felt experience rather than the physical reality surrounding them. For Vincent, it was Nature that he related to and found catharsis in. Vincent Van Gogh was ahead of his time as an Expressionist painter. A more accurate label to categorise him would be ‘post-Impressionist’, according to British twentieth-century art critic Roger Fry.

It’s good to note that Vincent Van Gogh did not paint for long. His painting career lasted between five to eight years. By the time of his death, in 1890, he had created over 800 paintings, all inspired by the people he’d met, loved and known, and by the natural beauty he saw around him.

 

Image credit:

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890). Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 50 cm© The Courtauld Gallery, London.

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.

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.