By Muhammad Firdaus Bin Suraidi
The normalcy of the place irritated him. Rahman always thought death, or news of its impending arrival, should be greeted with something dramatic. Like a flash of thunder, or a chorus of gasps, or perhaps even a simultaneous raising of hands to mouths.
But there was none of that here. His cousin, who had been at Grandma's bedside since she was admitted close to a month ago, nodded, and shrugged. She knew it was coming. They all knew it was coming. Grandma was pushing 90, and one by one her organs had just given up. She was being kept alive by a concoction of needles and drugs and tubes, supplemented with a tank of gas.
Knowing didn't make it any easier for him though. He hadn't been close to her, which probably explained why the accompanying sense of loss seemed greater. He turned to look at her. Had she always looked this old? Oddly, he couldn't seem to remember a time when she had looked young.
She had been ancient when he was born. Time only seemed to emphasise it. Her skin stretched tight over her bones, so much so it doesn't even look like skin anymore. More like ancient parchment paper. The kind you see in the museums, with fading ink written by scribes long dead.
The nurse was briefing them now, about something called the 'end-of-life care', but the words might as well be wind for all the attention he paid it. Would he go like this, at the end? His consciousness locked in a feverish half-reality while tubes ensured that his body could still half-function?
It was a depressing thought.
There was some paperwork for him to sign, and he signed them in a daze. It was something about the hospital handing over responsibilities to the next of kin, or something like that. As the nurse drone on, he was distracted by a lone woman, resplendent in a traditional kebaya, looking into the ward at his grandmother. She was standing next to his uncle and cousins, but somehow apart from them. There seemed to be an invisible barrier between them and her, and if they had acknowledged her presence before, they weren't doing so now. A simple white headscarf covered her hair and neck, and she looked oddly familiar.
A friend of Grandma?
Maybe. Or perhaps even a relative. Some distant cousin he hadn't had the chance to meet. Grandma knew a lot of people. Most of them were now dead. She was also the matriarch of a family that produced 10 offspring, all married now with children of their own. The woman was smiling gently at Grandma, and when he followed her gaze, it surprised him to see that Grandma was awake. Her eyes met the woman's and became sharp suddenly, widening wildly before she let out a loud groan and clenched them shut.
That groan startled the lot of them, and they rushed in to be at her bedside.
"Ma? I'm here, are you feeling any pain?" his uncle asked, trying to hold back tears. Grandma ignored him – or probably did not hear him – and settled back into her drug-induced sleep, her breath slowing until it reached the same stuttered rhythm as before.
"The ambulance will be here in 30 minutes," the nurse interrupted, unfazed by the sudden burst of consciousness from Grandma.
"What?" he replied, irritated, his head snapping back towards her. That bland look on her face annoyed him, and it took all of his willpower to not shout at her. Show a bit of care, dammit.
"Ambulance. Thirty minutes." She repeated herself, looking at him as though he was daft. He nodded in reply, listless. He suppressed the dull heat rising within him. No use getting angry here. Woman's only doing her job. "You can call the number on the form if you need any help. Also, the oxygen vendor will supply an additional tank if you need them, so don't call the hospital. Everything else is as discussed." She paused. "I'm sorry." Her face softened, but she turned abruptly and left.
If not for the constant beeping of the machine, he could have been in the room with a corpse. Grandma's chest hardly moved as she breathed, the intervals between its rises and falls long. Rahman often had to get up from his makeshift bed on the floor to check on her, calling himself all kinds of fools as he did so. He should have been able to trust the machine. It would give out a warning beep if the oxygen level dropped too low or her heart rate behaved erratically.
Yet, some primal human need drove him to keep getting up to check, to trust his own eyes instead of a machine, and he would oblige and go to her side, position his hand over her mouth to feel the air as she breathed and so convince himself that she was still alive.
Each time, the machine was right.
The visitors came, a trickle at first, and then a flood. Some he knew. Most were strangers. They would leave after a while, and almost always in tears. They thanked him and left him money as they left, as though his vigil over Grandma was an act of sacrifice. Days went by without him ever leaving the room except to shower and smoke, and then he was at Grandma's side again, administering the fentanyl, monitoring her vitals, and calling for his female cousin to change the catheter bag when it was full and sponge Grandma clean once a day.
He did not know what drove him to stay. Perhaps he was trying to make up for all those times he did not spend with her. Or maybe it was because his own fear of dying alone drove him to be at the side of someone whose death was but a few days away.
Grandma transitioned between states of delirium, sleep, and fleeting lucidity. There was no set pattern at all – Rahman found himself in a constant state of near sleep as he forced himself to anticipate and attend to her every need.
Sometimes she would cry out, asking for everyone to leave the small bedroom she was confined to. Each time he would try to soothe her, the hairs on his body standing on end, telling her that there was no one in the room except for the both of them. She would let out a sigh, and mutter, "There're too many people here. Ask them to leave, please."
He awoke one night to her screaming in fear, asking a fat man to stay away, that her debts were paid, and if the man didn't leave she was going to call the police.
"There's no one here," Rahman told her desperately, his hands on her shoulders as she squirmed weakly underneath him.
She looked at him in fear, "He's here. The fat man. Next to the window. Tell him it's paid. Please. It's been paid. Tell him to leave me alone."
He turned slowly towards the window, the blood in his veins turning to ice and his heartbeat loud in his ears.
There was no one there.
She came on Thursday, just as the sun set and the call for prayer sounded on the radio.
Rahman was alone with his Grandma in the house. The others had gone out to buy dinner and supplies from the hospital.
Resplendent in her intricately woven kebaya, she came alone, and walked right pass Rahman to kneel next to the bed. He did not hear her greeting nor the moment she entered the house, and immediately felt uneasy. Shouldn't have left the front door open. Anyone can come in.
"She's asleep," Rahman began, just as Grandma stirred and opened her eyes.
"No…" she said weakly as her eyes fell on the visitor. This time, her reaction wasn't as dramatic as it was back in the hospital. She eyed the visitor warily, her eyes darting to Rahman as if to ask for help. He started towards her, but she shook her head at him.
The visitor ignored him.
He hesitated before settling back to the floor, leaning against the far wall opposite her bed. Usually when someone came to pay their respects to Grandma, he gave them their space. He would want that too, if he was the one dying. A bit of privacy. Funny that. Death is such a lonely experience, and yet one usually loses all privacy at the end.
He thought of leaving to pour himself a glass of water, and then changed his mind. Grandma was obviously uncomfortable with the woman. She had turned her head away from the lady, who was speaking in a soft and soothing voice. He debated against interrupting them, but the visitor stood up suddenly and left, brushing past him as though he did not exist. He felt a chill as she walked past. She smelled of frangipani and camphor – a decidedly odd combination that made his hair stand.
He jumped. He looked sharply at Grandma, who still had her back to him. He was about to dismiss it as just another fevered dream when she spoke again. "Rahman. Come here. Sit." He walked to her slowly. She did not move nor turn her body to look at him. Yet her voice was strong. Sure.
He sat on the floor beside her bed. "Grandma?"
There was a long pause. "I'm dying, am I not?"
He hesitated, before deciding to tell the truth. "Yes."
"How much longer?"
"A few more days. A week, at most." The words were ripped out of him.
She sighed, her body shaking. "I know. She came for me."
He shivered. He did not know how to reply. Perhaps this was one of her delusional episodes.
"Just like how she came for him." She continued, almost as if talking to herself.
Again, he shivered. "Who came, Grandma? And Grandpa died more than 50 years ago."
She was incoherent after that, descending into a series of groans and mumbles as she tossed around in bed. Rahman looked helplessly on. He did not move from her side. Who came for her? How did Grandma know that she was dying?
The rational part of him deduced that she must have heard the doctor speak about it at the ward. The pneumonia had hit her lungs hard, and the doctors had admitted her after she complained of breathing difficulties. Her health quickly deteriorated after, and she had lapsed into a state of semi-consciousness and amnesia.
That was well over a month ago.
Or maybe she just knew. A sort of buried instinct, perhaps. Like how one would take an umbrella out right before a thunderstorm, even though the sky had been clear and the sun was shining brightly. Perhaps they have not fully evolved past their natural instinct. The kind that had helped their nomadic ancestors survived way back in the ancient past. Modern technology had played a part in dulling most of their senses and made them less reliant on gut feelings, but somehow, deep inside, that ancient instinct remain.
"She was there, you know."
All thoughts rushed out of his head when Grandma spoke. He could see she was coherent now. Rational. She looked at him, her eyes sharp. "When Salim died, she was there. Always in that kebaya. Always with those sad eyes."
Rahman felt as though fingers made of ice had gripped his spine. The same woman? It can't be.
"At first I thought he was cheating on me." She smiled weakly. "More fool me."
"Who… is she?"
Grandma smiled sadly. "Death."
She fell asleep afterwards, her eyes closing slowly. Rahman knew that he wouldn't be getting any answers that night. He stepped outside for a moment, to gather his thoughts. He searched his pockets for a cigarette and found none. Only his lighter. He cursed. It had been a while since he left the house. Not since they transferred Grandma back home. He thought of asking his cousin to buy a pack for him before they came home, but his phone battery was dead too. He had left his damned charger at home.
Instead, he made himself a cup of coffee and went to the living room, settling down onto the couch. He kept looking over his shoulder, though he was unsure of what he was looking for. That business with Grandma had left him feeling as though there was someone else in the house with them. Someone not of this world. The air felt heavier and the soft breeze coming through the windows chilly but stifling.
He needed something to distract him. His eyes gravitated towards the photo album on the coffee table in front of the television. He opened it absently. They were old pictures, most of them faded into sepia, of Grandma, and of people he did not recognise. His fear was momentarily forgotten, and he smiled, looking at a photo of a group standing in front of a kampung house. Grandma looked exactly like his mum when she was younger. Prettier, in fact. And the tall, strapping man standing next to her with his arm around her shoulder must be Salim, his grandfather.
He did not know him personally – Salim died long before he was even born. His grandfather was looking slightly to the left, distracted, his face as though frozen in mid-smile. Rahman followed his gaze puzzled. There. Behind the kampung house. His skin broke into goose pimples. It was unmistakable. That kebaya. That hair gathered into a tall bun. That ageless face.
Those sad eyes.
Rahman slammed the album shut.
The television was off when he awoke. He had dozed off. The living room was dark, but there was a dim light coming from Grandma's bedroom. He looked at his watch. It was two hours past midnight. Visitors at this time?
His head was throbbing and heavy. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes again. The album! He jumped, his skin crawling. He was drenched in sweat. Someone had draped a blanket over him as he slept – it felt as though he was wrapped in layers of wool.
He looked at the album, fear gripping him like a vice. He had to see. Maybe it was a dream after all. He had heard that hallucinations could happen to those who did not get enough sleep. Maybe it was that.
He turned the page gingerly, to the first photo of the album, and recoiled. She was there, next to the kampung house, standing in the shade of a banana tree. A little faded, but it was unmistakably her. His grandfather head was turned slightly in her direction, as though he could feel her behind him. She was looking directly into the camera – her face unreadable but her eyes a well of sadness.
Rahman stood slowly, unable to tear his eyes away from the album. He had to ask someone, anyone, about the picture. His uncle, perhaps. He was the eldest of Grandma's children.
A sudden rustling sound snapped him from his thoughts and he jumped. I'm jumping at everything, now. His heart pounded furiously against his chest. It was coming from the bedroom. He should check on Grandma. He kicked the album underneath the couch and began towards the room.
Rahman could hear the whispers from outside the door, and paused. He hesitated. He didn't want to interrupt Grandma if she was having visitors. He leaned against the wall outside instead. He couldn't wait until it's morning, when his uncle would come home from his job as a security officer at Tuas. Perhaps then he would get answers. About that woman.
He heard them exchanging farewell greetings, and straightened. A good few minutes passed. There was no movement. The room was quiet. Fearing the worst, he strode inside, intent on checking on Grandma.
He stopped dead. Grandma was alone. She was awake and looking at him as he walked in. "Were you watching something, Grandma?" he stammered. He scanned her bed and bedside table quickly for a phone, or a tablet. There was nothing.
She looked at him questioningly. "Watching? What are you talking about?"
"I heard voices. I swear I did."
"Of course. I had visitors. They've already left, a few minutes ago. Hadn't seen them in years."
I'm going crazy. I really am. He said nothing in return. His throat was suddenly dry. He walked over to Grandma and sat beside her bed, holding her hand. She looked at him, puzzled, but said nothing.
"I know her."
His uncle was sitting at the balcony, a cigarette in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. The album was opened in front them. The elder man nodded as he looked at the photo of the woman. His fingers were trembling.
"Who is she?"
"A victim of the great fire of Kampung Mawar, near Sembawang Road, about 50 years ago."
"There was a fire?" He shuddered when his uncle said victim.
"Yeah. Hundreds dead. Most of them children. Didn't came out in the news though."
Rahman looked at him strangely. "Why not?"
"Because of what caused it. Singapore's a small country. Hell, we're smaller than some cities out there in the world. Back then, you know all your neighbours by name. You know their jobs, the schools they went to, and even their medical history. Word would get around pretty quick."
"What has that got to do with the fire?" He pointed to the woman in the photo. "And her?"
"Everything, boy." His uncle took a long drag on his cigarette, before blowing out the smoke through his nose. "We wanted to hide what happened because we were ashamed. Ashamed of what we've done to those children. Those poor children." The elder man was looking at his trembling fingers, his eyes shadowed.
Rahman was transfixed. He waited for his uncle to continue.
"This was right after the war. The government was a shamble. Hell, we don't even have a government. The Japanese had just surrendered, the British were returning, but those guys were in no bloody hurry. There was hardly any law and order. Some folks started killing for some perceived slight they felt was directed at them during the war. There were looting, raping, and all sorts of shit that happened when society breaks down. We had to fend for ourselves. And when people started falling ill, we couldn't go to the hospitals. We had to take matters into our hands."
"Daud was the first boy to fall sick. He's our neighbour. Upbeat kid. Friendly, but with energy that would drive even an Ustaz insane. His dad used to beat him daily. Tied him to a tree and poured honey on him sometimes when the boy didn't behave. Poor Daud would scream in agony as ants crawl up his body. That didn't stop him though. He had a habit of going into the forest and spending the whole night there. At first the boy did it to run away from his dad. Eventually though, the forest became his playground. He would come back the next day with things he'd found. One time he even brought back the skin of a snake the size of a tree trunk. Sold it to a Chinese trader who paid him five dollars for it." He tapped the ashes into the ashtray. "Your Grandma warned us against going into that forest. Wouldn't say why, but we listened." His uncle was quiet for a moment. "Daud should have listened too."
"He went exploring on Thursday, talking of Japanese swords and treasures being hidden deep within the forest," his uncle continued. "He came to me before he left, asking me if I wanted to join him. He had found an old statue. I was excited, but I couldn't follow him. Knowing your Grandma, I'd be skinned alive if I had agreed."
"Was there?" Rahman asked.
"Was there what?"
His uncle laughed mirthlessly. "No one knows. Daud came back the next morning. The boy was all pale, and running a very high fever." He paused, his eyes far away. "He was dead come evening."
Rahman said nothing. His uncle wasn't finished.
"We all thought he'd died of poisoning. Maybe he ate the wrong plant. A poisonous mushroom. Won't be the first time someone had fallen sick because of that. Or maybe an insect or a snake got him. The one whose skin he found the other day. There were even whispers that his own father had poisoned him. Everyone knew the man was furious when Daud didn't come home the night before. And then other kids started falling sick too. Our worst nightmare was realised. Whatever that boy had, it was catching. We had to act fast. The village head made the decision to quarantine the sick children in the school."
"And everyone went along with it?"
"Yes." His uncle paused, lighting another cigarette. His eyes were haunted. "We were too used to having our lives run by others, I guess. First the British, then the Japanese. You don't question their decision."
"We never grew out of that," Rahman mused.
His uncle laughed. "You don't know the half of it. Back then, when the white man and the Japanese tells you they're better than you, you better believe it. That's because they were." He smirked. "I remember us cheering the British when they returned. Hell, some of us cheered the Japanese when they first came too."
Rahman shrugged. It was hard for him to relate. It was a different time, so far removed from their lives today. He felt the urge to ask his uncle to get to the point. He wanted to know about the woman. The one with those sad eyes. His uncle though, was not a man you rushed.
"What happened to the children? The sick ones?"
"They were taken care of by Cik Ros, that woman in the photo. She volunteered to see to the kids."
"But why? Isn't the sickness catching?" Rahman shivered, looking at the photo and remembering the visitor. Could they be the same person? It felt so surreal now, with the morning sun shining through the open windows of the balcony, and his uncle and himself sitting there having their morning cup of coffee and cigarettes.
There was an uneasy silence as his uncle lighted another cigarette. "Only among the children."
"Like chicken pox?"
His uncle laughed. "Not like that, no." A shadow of a smile crossed his face. "Though it could well be something like that. You can imagine the panic among the villagers when their children started falling sick and dying. Your grandma forbade me from even leaving the house."
"Were there any doctors?"
His uncle looked thoughtful. "There was one, in a village nearer to the coast. English educated. A close friend of Mr Lim, the Pineapple King."
"Lim Nee Soon?"
"The very one."
"How come no one went to get him?"
"No one thought to," his uncle replied. "You see, everyone concluded that it was some kind of black bomoh magic that has afflicted the village. They blamed Daud. Said he went out there and messed with some ancient artefact or some such." Uncle's face was grim. "It didn't bode well for his parents and family."
"When the children in the school started dying, a decision had to be made," his uncle continued. "The village head consulted the local bomoh, an old man from Sumatra who lived next to the mosque. The old man spent the night sacrificing animals and burning incense. When he came out the next day, he spoke to the village head. The evil spirit could only be expelled by fire."
"How do you cure the children by fire?"
"You don't cure the children. You cure the village."
Rahman was stunned. "Burn the dead?"
"And the infected."
Rahman paled. "And no one spoke out against him?"
"He was the bomoh. The village healer. A man of God. No one thought to question someone who has mastery over the Djinns."
"But you can't just burn children!" The thought horrified him.
"You did what you had to do to survive." Uncle's eyes were haunted. "Your grandfather led a group of men to Daud's house first, and burnt the house and everyone in it."
"Grandpa did that?" Rahman could not believe it. His grandfather, a murderer?
His uncle nodded. His voice wavered. "To protect us, you understand? They went to the school next, where Cik Ros was waiting for them behind the locked gates."
His uncle was looking at the photo as he spoke, his fingers tracing the outline of Cik Ros. "She was the only one with an ounce of humanity in her. It must have been very difficult for your grandfather. He loved her very much."
A cough interrupted them, and Rahman stood slowly. He was recoiling from the story, and feeling more than a little sick.
"Go check on her," his uncle said, his eyes still far away.
Rahman nodded and hurried to the bedroom. Grandma was grimacing, her face contorted in pain. He rushed back out and went to the fridge, and took from it a vial of fentanyl and a glass of water. He quickly injected the fentanyl into her, took some cotton wool, drenched it in water, and squeezed it over Grandma's lips. She pursed her lips greedily before relaxing, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
Her eyes sharpened suddenly at the sight of him. "Tell the fat man to leave."
"There's no fat man, Grandma," Rahman assured her.
"Do you take me for an old fool?" she snapped. "Tell him that Salim is dead. Ros is dead. Tell him to leave. Now!" She fell back against her pillow and sobbed, shaking. Rahman tried to soothe her by placing his hands on her shoulders, but she flinched from his touch. He sighed. Delusions and hallucinations are common this close to death, but the subject of Ros and the fat man made him uneasy. He stroked Grandma's hair and stood. He didn't know what else he could do. His relatives may sit at her bedside reading the Quran, but he wasn't much of a religious man.
"Rest, Grandma," he said. "The fat man is gone."
Grandma did not reply. She stared at the wall blankly, mumbling and muttering to herself. Rahman backed away and left the room quietly to join his uncle.
"They spoke," his uncle said. "For how long, different people would tell you different things. Some said for only a short while, others said all through the night. But they spoke." His uncle took a sip from the now cold coffee. "It all ended the same way though. She pointed to her stomach, and your grandfather screamed. That was when he took out a parang and broke the lock on the gates."
"What did she do?"
"She let him. Stood back and did nothing."
"What did she say to him?" Rahman wanted to know. "What made him scream?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. He was never the same afterwards. He led the men to the classrooms, locking the doors with the children inside. They poured gasoline on the doors and the walls, and set fire to the school."
His uncle drew a troubled breath. "Some of those men he led… their own children were in those classrooms. It was as if the mob was possessed. The whole village could hear the children screaming. I was in my room with your parents when it happened. We couldn't go to sleep afterwards. We couldn't go to sleep for months afterwards."
"Father never spoke about this," Rahman said.
"As well he shouldn't," his uncle replied. "Many chose to forget. I only did because you asked. Damned thing had been a weight on my chest." He turned to look at Rahman. "Why did you ask about Ros, anyway?"
Rahman's brain raced to find an answer. He finally decided to simply tell the truth, absurd as it may be. "I saw her. At the hospital, and yesterday. She… looked the same."
His uncle looked at him levelly, his eyes unreadable. "Impossible," he finally said. "She's been dead for years now."
"But I did see her," Rahman insisted. "I wouldn't ask you about her if I didn't."
His uncle looked unsure. "Boy, she died in the fire, along with all the other children. Everyone saw her breaking into one of the burning classrooms trying to save the kids in there."
"Does she have any relatives?" Rahman insisted. "A sister, maybe? Daughter?"
The older man shook his head. "None." He was silent for a moment. "We don't even know where she's from. Only your grandfather knew."
"Grandma saw her too," Rahman continued stubbornly, and then wished he hadn't said that. His uncle forced a laugh. "She's dying, boy. They see things. People from their past. Dead relatives. It's part of the process."
Rahman was beginning to doubt his own eyes. Maybe I was mistaken. Perhaps the fatigue is getting to me. "Uncle? How did Grandpa die?"
The old man sighed. "He went crazy the day after. Kept saying Ros was still alive, that she's gone into the forest. Said he needed to find her. To apologise. Your Grandma was furious. Couldn't talk him out of it though. He went into the forest that night. Took nothing with him. No food, no water. Not even a lamp." His uncle finally tapped out the cigarette. "Never came back out."
His uncle excused himself afterwards, leaving Rahman with the very unsettling possibility that whatever madness inflicted his grandfather back then was probably afflicting him too. Maybe it's genetics. The story troubled him, but it had happened so long ago that he could not quite convince himself that it truly happened.
But Ros is real. I saw her. Grandma saw her.
When his uncle left for work that night, he readied himself for another visit from the woman. This time, he would ask her who she was. This time, he would seek an explanation. Perhaps the woman was a relative of Cik Ros. Someone even his uncle knew nothing about.
He jumped when the doorbell rang. Taking a deep breath, he peered through the peephole. There was no one there. His heart pounded furiously against his chest. He yanked open the door.
She stood there, immaculate in her golden kebaya, her sad eyes looking through him. She looked exactly the same as the woman in the photo. The hairs on his skin stood on end, and he felt cold all over. The sweet smell of frangipani and the sour smell of camphor flooded his nostril, and he stumbled backwards, his mouth dry as dust. The woman stepped into the house and walked past him, towards the bedroom.
He broke out of his stupor and rushed to the room. She had closed the door behind her, and he yanked it open forcefully. There was no one inside except for Grandma. He rushed to her side, and she turned to look at him.
"Thank you," she whispered, and let out one final breath.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019