The Keeper II: Visitation
By Phan Ming Yen
As Kamila waits for her parents, she finds herself thinking about how it all began after the first night.
That day she was staying up later than usual, struggling to finish an essay on folklore, superstition and local literature. Her room was at the front of their house and it looked out across a small garden to the road. Sleepiness was setting in when she suddenly heard a car approaching.
She was living with her parents in a suburb just outside the city centre. The road in front of her house led past the vegetable farms to the cemetery and beyond that, the river. The only public transport access to the area was a bus stop at the other end of the road where it turned out to the highway. The road was lit by street lamps in front of the houses.
Most people in the neighbourhood commuted by public transport; others by motorcycle or a scooter. Her father was head of housekeeping for a major local property developer and he was among the few who had a car. He had to make frequent day trips out of the city for work. The only thing to be heard until daybreak was the chirping of cicadas and crickets, and the call of night birds.
The pandemic broke out just before her first-term exams. The final lessons were conducted online and in-person exams replaced by written assignments. That was the last time she saw her teachers and college friends. A district wide curfew was imposed not long after.
And then the visits began.
That night, as the sound of the car neared, Kamila looked up from her laptop just in time to see, on the dimly lit road, a van heading towards the direction of the farms and the cemetery.
An hour later, she heard the same sound again, this time, coming from the opposite direction. Kamila turned off the table lamp so that it was dark in her room. She wanted a better look at the vehicle.
But the van sped past faster than when it had come by earlier.
Then in the silence that followed and in between the shadows and the dim light of the street lamp, Kamila saw her.
She had shoulder-length hair and wore a long-sleeved blouse and pants. Her face was in the shadows. She stood there for some time. Then she raised her right hand to touch the gate before walking away slowly. Just before she disappeared into the shadows, Kamila saw her turn back to take one more look at the house.
She saw her outside the gate every night since. It was always the same: She would stand at the same spot. She would look at their house for a while before leaving. And she would turn back to look at the house before walking into the shadows.
Kamila also noticed that the van trips had become more frequent. The vehicle came and went several times more into the night. There was a recent call by an opposition party member for more burial ground amidst the mounting deaths from the pandemic.
The symptoms appeared after dinner one day: aches, chills and breathlessness.
"Ila, is there something wrong?" her father said when she pushed away her unfinished dinner, which was rice with vegetable stew in coconut milk. Kamila rose and tried to steady herself but the floor tiles slipped away from beneath her.
Kamila thought it was just fatigue from staying up late in the past month. She had been rushing school assignments. As she hit the floor, darkness enveloped her and the last words she heard were her father crying out her name and calling out to her mother for help.
When Kamila opened her eyes, she saw her sitting next to her on the bed.
Even though it was dusk, Kamila recognised the shoulder-length hair, the blouse, and the pants. Now that they were up close, she thought she had never seen anyone so beautiful ever.
Kamila sat up and tried to say something, but the woman put her right index finger on her lips. She shuddered at the chill of her touch.
Kamila tried to say something again but each time she did, she felt a weight had been dropped on her. Where were her parents? Who was this woman? Why did she keep visiting? Kamila felt herself choking on her own breath as she tried to say all this.
The woman touched Kamila's forehead and her cheeks as she took her into her arms. Kamila felt her lips against hers. She parted her own in response. She felt the woman's breath course its way slowly through her body. As her eyes closed, she thought she saw her father at the door.
When Kamila woke, it was still evening. Two people, masked and dressed in white medical gowns, were standing beside her bed. Then tiredness overcame her.
Kamila's family was relocated a few months after.
By then, the local government could no longer cope with the rate of infections. Hospitals in the city centre were overcrowded. Many people were resettled at the countryside or in other provinces.
The family moved into the staff quarters of a resort in a hill station not far from the city. Kamila's father was redeployed as head of housekeeping of a resort owned by his employer. Her mother helped out in the kitchen to keep herself busy.
Her father dreamt often about a former colleague who was also a good friend, but who did not survive the pandemic. He had seen her by Kamila's bedside her during illness.
He woke up regretting not having made offerings to his former colleague. He told his wife that they should go back to the old house to make offerings, so that Kamila would be protected.
After her parents make the offerings, Kamila remains in the room for a while.
The vegetable farms have been replaced by new burial grounds. A field of cogon grass is all that separates their old house from the cemetery.
In the house, weeds, moss and mimosas are growing out from between the cracks on the floors and walls.
There is the sound of a car engine starting.
Kamila hears her name being called. She turns and smiles, a spiral of smoke from the offerings catching the evening sunlight that has come in.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021