By Chan Ziqian
Without a cloud or a plane, it was all blue, like the world viewed from the bottom of a swimming pool, blue and empty and endless. When flecks of dust floated into sight, she shook her head, blinking, but they did not go away. From dust they turned into small black seeds or perhaps tadpoles that wriggled their way through the air and as they came closer, grew into what seemed like dark clouds of jellyfish. She was not frightened then, not even when she saw what they really were. Parachutes, hundreds of them, crowded the sky and attached to each was a bomb. One of them, an absurd squid-like object, was headed for their house or perhaps the garden. The exact target did not matter since the force of the explosion would destroy the entire neighbourhood anyway. She stretched out her arms, plunging them elbow-deep into the blue and waited, ready to catch it and contain the blast as she held it close to her body.
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004
When she awoke she reached for the bedside clock even though the alarm had not gone off. She did not look at the time, only touched the smooth plastic face of the clock before getting up.
She went down the wooden stairs, careful not to make any noise that would set the bomb off. She was trying to save the world, not end it. In the kitchen, water was running from the tap into the sink, the sound like rain drumming down on a zinc roof. Chin padded into the kitchen, feeling the ceramic tiles cold against her bare feet. She imagined herself walking over hot coals or metal blades. Reaching over her mother's shoulder, she turned off the water. The metal tap was cool against her palm and perhaps she shivered or perhaps it shuddered in her hand with the knowledge of what was to come.
"Did you just wake up? Your fever's almost gone now," her mother said, one hand against Chin's forehead and the other feeling her neck. She smiled and nodded. She hoped her mother would understand her silence and stop talking.
"I'm making you some fish porridge. Only the sick get porridge."
She watched her mother walk across the kitchen to the stove in red plastic slippers that struck the floor with loud hard claps. It seemed to her that her mother was doing everything she could to accelerate the falling bomb, bustling around the kitchen in her baggy T-shirt that flapped and billowed, creating small gales wherever she went. Chin pressed her toes hard against the floor, trying to still the trembling tiles and air. Chin's mother did not seem to notice her silence. She had always been quiet, even as a child, and she was still recovering from a spell of illness. They had panicked at first when they thought it was the virus that had made headlines in several countries. No cure had been found yet and it killed dozens everyday. But she was getting better now, though not well enough for work, and she stayed in bed all day, emerging only for meals.
Outside, an alarm went off and birds sprang from their branches, not startled by the noise but physically propelled into motion by the vibrations in the air. Chin's mother rolled her eyes and muttered. The alarm was always going off and no one knew where it came from. Perhaps a house was being broken into or perhaps a cat had leapt onto the hood of a car. It was the great mystery of the neighbourhood, one that they lived with and ignored. No heads appeared at windows and doors remained shut, rows of houses oblivious to the alarm that like a frightened child ran wailing through the streets. Nobody claimed it and perhaps it belonged to no one, a sound dropped from the clouds into their midst. Chin knew she had to stop the noise immediately. The bomb was falling faster and faster now.
"Are you hungry? I got the fish fresh from the market today. It should be sweet," her mother said, stirring the sticky white contents of the pot, then started as if the steam had burnt her hand. Candy and cake were sweet, maybe puppies too, but not fish. Especially not fish that one ate, she thought as she watched her right arm continue stirring, first moving in steady circles, then picking up speed until she saw it spinning out of control and away from her, like a prosthetic arm with a life of its own. Perhaps it would soon grow a body of its own with a complete set of limbs and organs. Perhaps it already had. Siok Yin ladled some porridge into a bowl for her daughter, trying not to imagine the quiet invasion going on beneath her skin and in her bones.
"Aren't you eating too?"
"I've eaten already." She gestured to the clock that said it was already past four and carried the bowl into the dining room. In three hours she would have to be at her sister's place for dinner where the conversation would turn inevitably to children, relatives, and illnesses. There would be talk of cancer, surely. Everyone knew someone who knew of someone else with cancer these days. It was like that game of six degrees. They were all connected to death in some way. No part of the body seemed safe from cancer except perhaps the hair and nails but they were made up of cells that had already died. She watched her daughter calmly spoon the porridge into her mouth and was suddenly annoyed. Chin did not look ill at all. She sat there eating as if she had a lifetime to dwell on a bowl of porridge.
"You're alright here? I think I'll go weed the garden for a bit. Tell me if your father calls."
Chin watched her mother step through the sliding doors and into the garden, a strange thrill running through her body. Now that it was inevitable, the bomb took its time. It made its way from the blue depths of the sky, falling like a drowned man sinking slowly into his final resting place. At that moment she longed for that dark metal squid to appear and submerge the entire neighbourhood in darkness. They would all drown in its inky wake: her mother, herself, the neat rectangular garden with its rows of potted plants.
As she opened her mouth to admit another spoonful of porridge – the fish was sweet – Chin watched her mother put on a pair of plastic gloves, then another layer of thick gardening gloves. She drew them tight against her fingers, high up beyond her wrists, defences that would be futile against the falling bomb.
Already Siok Yin's palms were damp against the plastic but she would do as the doctor had instructed. He had not given any specific reasons or names of possible diseases when she had thrust before him her receding fingernails, only some antiseptic cream and plastic gloves. The whites of her fingernails had moved slowly inwards, each nail gradually detaching itself from the flesh. She dug her fingers into the ground, trying not to think about the hundreds of tiny creatures in the soil that were now gnawing through the layers of cotton and plastic. She had wanted to ask if her nails would have fallen off completely but the doctor was young, fresh out of medical school, and he would have laughed. She turned her mind back to the weeds before her and started yanking them out with renewed vigour. With each tug, the weeds emerged cleanly from the ground and the sight of the uprooted plants made her happy. Soon the garden would be the way it was when the carpet grass from the nursery had been first unrolled onto the soil, perfect and new.
When Siok Yin left the house it was seven and the alarm had stopped wailing by then. Perhaps the owner of the house or car had accosted the burglar and turned the alarm off or perhaps the battery had simply run down. Nobody knew. Chin had not noticed when it had stopped. Perhaps it had gone away along with her headache, just as the bomb had disappeared into the dusk when her mother returned safely from the garden, stripping off her gloves and disposing of the plastic ones.
"Your father's still not back yet? Did you try calling him?"
"He's turned off his phone."
There was a pause when they looked at each other with their faces blank, masking the different scenarios and newspaper headlines that had appeared in their minds.
"Well, when he gets back, remind him to come pick me up. I told him this morning but just in case," said Siok Yin, picking up her bag and heading for the door.
"What time are you coming back?" Chin asked in the same imperious tone that she had demanded to know when they would return, back when she was seven and her parents were leaving in the morning for work. Siok Yin was surprised by the question, and a little touched.
"Not too late. What are you doing tonight? Why don't you call up some friends? Joan or Vicky or that boy who used to call all the time."
"Jean, not Joan. I'll probably just read a book."
After she watched her mother get into a taxi, she wandered around the empty house, walking into the rooms that were empty even when she stood in the middle of them. She was a ghost drifting in the air although the floorboards creaked under her weight. She was a ghost and the only indication of her movement were the lights that went on and off in the rooms as she entered and left them.
When she grew tired of the game, Chin sat down in the living room and turned on the television. She remembered the porridge in the kitchen and got herself a bowl. She ate it cold, swallowing each mouthful without chewing or tasting it. She felt only the sticky porridge sliding slowly down her throat. She did not think she was hungry but she finished a second and a third bowl, then scraped at the porridge that had dried at the bottom of the pot.
There was nothing to watch on television so she went upstairs to her room and put on a skirt that she hardly ever wore. The blue cotton fell softly around her ankles when she stood still and when she jumped it flared out into a large circle. When she looked up she saw her reflection in the mirror laughing and suddenly she hated the skirt, her healthy appetite, her hair that remained shiny and smooth even though it had not been washed in days. Chin moved closer to the mirror, fingering her cheeks, trying to look for some sign of hollowness in them, any indication that she had not been well. She had not been well and she still was not well, but if she smiled and put on some shoes, she could easily appear at the office for work now.
She lay down on her bed and kept very still. Perhaps if she remained like that for long enough, her muscles would waste away. But she had lain like that for hours each day for the past week and still nothing had happened. It must be all the food she had eaten. The four bowls of porridge from today alone could probably sustain her body for days. Perhaps if she stopped eating for good, her body would turn on itself and consume it until there was nothing left. She would die in protest of her body, she thought. It seemed unfair that that she should seem so well, so strong. Fit as a fiddle, healthy as a horse.
Elsewhere people were dying from the virus outbreak, and others placed in quarantine. Those who had not been exposed to the virus went straight home after work to the surgical masks they had bought but never worn outdoors. Everyday on television and in the newspaper there were reports on new cases, safety measures, repeating the symptoms of the illness that she already knew by heart. Sometimes she felt herself shiver and her body ache but her temperature never went up high enough.
She wanted very much to be weak and tired and to fall asleep but she lay there with her eyes wide open, trying to remember what the parachutes had looked like. Like blackened snow they had drifted down from the sky, bearing bombs like gifts. The parachute strings held them out towards her but she was in a place they could never reach. What a long time it had been since she had woken up from that dream. To say it had been centuries would be stretching it. Decades then. Tens of years had passed since the last time she was asleep and it was only eight in the evening now. And ahead of her lay more years, tens and tens of them, of university and of work with the newspaper that was printed every single day except on Christmas and New Year's Day.
She ran a hand down her side, feeling the hard bone of the ribcage alternate with soft flesh. The years promised more people that she would have to meet and more living that she would have to do as long as her body held out, and it seemed to her that her body would never give way. It was built like a chair with a sturdy hardwood frame, padded with foam and sealed tight in a protective skin. Her body had all its defences in place, prepared even against her. The skin was soft and would yield in any direction but getting past it took extraordinary effort.
He was waiting at the carpark downstairs after all. Siok Yin had left her sister's at ten-thirty, half an hour after the agreed time. He had not called and she did not want to leave the flat, unsure of what she would do if he were not there. All evening, she had remained in her seat, hardly moving except to get more food. If she had gotten up her body would have flown apart and smashed the countless porcelain figurines that lined her sister's shelves.
"Lee Siok Yin."
She got into the car and shut the door. She let it catch her skirt so she would not have to look at him as she tugged it free. "Sorry. They wouldn't stop talking. You should've come up."
He smiled as he started the car. "I'd rather wait here. How was the food?"
"Where were you today? Chin tried calling you."
"I thought I told you. Foo's mother died. The wake was tonight."
"Oh. I forgot. Did you have dinner? I brought two popiahs back. One for you and one for Chin," she said, waving the plastic bag at him. She sank back into the seat, then realised she had not fastened her seatbelt. Her fingers shook as they fumbled with it and tried to strap down her pounding chest. It seemed so silly now.
"I bought some food as well. I got here early so I went to the shop nearby." He nodded towards the bags in the backseat.
She smiled at him and hugged her bag of vegetable rolls, feeling their warmth against her stomach. The night was turning out fine after all. He was here and the dinner had been alright, even if her sisters had talked too much, especially about the one who had not been present tonight. They said she was – not mad – mentally unstable. She saw things, they said, in newspapers and magazines, imagining that the articles were all addressed to her. Siok Yin looked out of the car window at a construction site they were passing. It was late at night but some workers were getting out of the back of a lorry, preparing for another shift of work. Only the piling had been completed so far and the grey concrete stems rose from the ground like tombstones.
Her second sister, the one who had not been at the dinner, had lived through the Second World War with her head shaved and dressed in boys' clothes so that the soldiers would not know that she was a girl. She had lived through that, and in the years that followed, the numerous riots, and at the end of it all, after she had married, had children and retired, she was afraid to leave the house because everywhere, in lifts and on walls, graffiti attacked her. "Eat books, bitch," someone had told her in thick black ink.
"Cold?" He was turning down the air-conditioner.
Siok Yin shook her head.
"Actually I'm a little cold myself," he said.
"Maybe it's going to rain."
"Maybe. You know, I've shrunk. Honey." He gave a strange laugh.
"Me. There was a free health check-up at the office today. Took my height and weight, checked my blood pressure. I've shrunk a whole centimetre. Not enough calcium. Not enough milk. It's not anything terrible, not like cancer. I mean, with luck I'll die before I turn into a midget."
"You're not going to be a midget."
"I know. I know." He looked straight ahead at the road, his hands gripping the steering wheel. They were thinner than she remembered. She looked at the soft thick veins nestled under his brown skin.
"Oh well," he said and laughed, a sound hollow like his bones.
Brittle bones, she thought. The words would chip her teeth if she said them aloud. She wanted to touch his arm but was afraid to. His bones were porous like dead coral, fragile like lumps of sugar that would at any moment fall apart. She had only been frightened like that on one other occasion, during their first year studying in England. On the first day of summer when it was finally warm enough to go without coats or sweaters, he had stood waiting at her door in only his T-shirt and jeans and she had been frightened by how thin he appeared without his coat. Perhaps that was what she had fallen in love with, not his smile or his kindness, but the way he was solid and strong in his long black coat. That day, he had taken her hand in his and it had been large and warm as it led her to a patch of grass where they lay for hours in the sun. When it was nine in the evening, the sky was still a very bright white and she remembered how the sunlight had seemed to pass right through them. If a giant tidal wave had come crashing along that day, it would not have been out of place, nor would she have been more frightened than she already was.
The house was dark when their car pulled up.
"Maybe she's gone to bed," he said, unloading the bags of food from the car. Siok Yin reached over to take one of them and realised that it was crammed with different cheeses and yoghurt. One of the bags he carried appeared to contain five cartons of milk.
"Maybe," she replied. "She seemed better today though. But I wish she'd stop working and take a break before term starts."
"Sometimes I wish we could go back. To have all that ahead of us again." When they went in and turned on the lights, they saw Chin sitting at the top of the stairs in her pyjamas.
"Not asleep yet? We've got some food here."
"Have some milk before you sleep."
Chin did not reply but went down and sat at the table. There was something odd about the way she walked, with one arm behind her as if to conceal a surprise in her hand.
"I'm not hungry," she said, but picked up the popiah anyway. The sweet sauce and the liquid from the vegetables had soaked through the rice skin and they trickled down her right wrist. She ate quickly, trying to finish the roll before it fell apart in her hand.
"You are hungry," her father laughed. "Have some fruit as well."
Still licking her fingers, Chin picked an orange from the fridge and started peeling it. She dug her fingernails into the leathery skin, making small moons in it.
"Oh, don't. It'll get stuck under your nails. Just get a knife," said her mother.
"I don't like knives."
"You have to start learning. What's going to happen in the future?" her father said, reaching for the orange in her hands. Her left arm, he realised, had small red scratches running across it, not deep enough to draw blood but enough to hurt and scab. He did not say anything, only got a knife from the kitchen and sliced the orange into quarters. Chin looked away. She knew that if she did not, she would take it and swing it down on her arm.
They ate the orange in silence, Chin trying to manage with only her right hand, and her father thinking how sour it was, how acidic. When they had each finished their slice, they looked at the last piece. No one wanted it so Siok Yin threw it away.
"I'm tired. Long day."
Chin thought her father looked thinner tonight, smaller. "I'm going to bed too," she said. When she got up, her father reached over and held her left arm, something he had not done in years, touching the inside of her arm where the skin was raised and rough.
That night Siok Yin awoke, thinking that she was either going deaf or mad. A long loud cry sounded in the dark and even when she brought her pillow around her ears it did not go away. It seemed to come from within her head. Perhaps someone in the neighbourhood had installed a new burglar alarm because it was not the familiar two-tone wail but a shrill insistence on a single note. Still, no one ran to turn it off or call the police.
Somewhere else in the neighbourhood a five-year-old was in bed with his eyes shut far too tightly to be fast asleep and his teeth and fists clenched as if to fight off the piercing scream, far worse than his sister's when she leapt out of bed at night, raving about falling shelves and crushing weights. In another house an old man was hearing again after sixty years the sirens singing out of tune when the first bombs fell and took both his legs so he could not fight the invading army or later the men who came to take his brother for an unnamed indefinite crime. Elsewhere a woman was turning on and off taps, trying to silence the ringing noise which she would hear again years later for the rest of her life, a note bright and hard and impossible for the human vocal chords to sound (and if anyone should try, he will find lodged in his throat a small lump of gold so that all future words spoken or sung or whispered will emerge empty like an underwater scream) and like a bird, like a plane, the sound travels, like electricity in the wires, it enters every room in every house, until that moment when like a light that will not be turned off, it has every person sitting up, waving white pillowcases in the air, saying, "We give up, we surrender, now leave us in peace."