There is a red eye dawning, speeding towards the steady wet patches of meshed indigo. Morning light breaks the line between the slow to smoky sky and squashed settlements. Dots of light shafted into the rooftops of mismatched attap shacks grouped in silent majority. The noise of the buzzing crickets became all the more apparent in this partial rainforest fever.
The incoming guttural gunshots rang shrill above the dim of black and white fuzz lifting pictures of the box television set, the antenna sagging as high as it could over moving sweaty bodies roaming around the coffee shop. Airy fantasies broadcasting news too foreign to ever feel familiar to its occupants who were only interested in the swirling marbled glasses housing hot tea and swelling plastic bags of bandung.
A good tale always starts from the inner soul. When you rub the pair of introspective orbs, it peers pondering at the unseen world. Looking beyond the circular black iron window spoke of eternal life for temporary work-worn human lives. It cages me. Every person within the community and beyond came to the compound to offer their lovesick prayers to the carved statues sitting detached, stoned. Maybe their sighing and musings will be heard fifty years later when all the accumulated dust will be washed away into the closed gutters. Washing away their worries. It is always better to be on the inside looking out, these hallowed mirrors are all your hardly hardy protection. Heart of glass, drink the spite.
Lalang stand in the hazy afternoon, veiling the edible secrets of the ground. Spilling faded yellow dandelions fall unto the burnt grass below the scorching sun. There will not be a bountiful harvest this season. Tough weeds survive under shrunken frail beauty. Maybe she is the dark curse. Maybe she is everything, or above all, nothing.
She was eyeless in the outside and burning holes in the classroom. Much information was to be processed. She took all in, functioned what was needed and left to wash the rest of her ramrod back. High ponytail swinging viciously with each movement of her head, studious with the unpolished fountain pen flicking meticulously over flourished sentences. Never seeping extravagant flowery language, ink to the point. Endeavouring. Far too poised to hide her rough and tumble manner. She had to have a low class character, she was in want of connections where her own were non-existent. Probably better left to toil in the opium dens of stinky teahouses.
No one wanted to destroy the collective fiction that they were better than her, above her swarthy complexion. The truth is, no one knew what to think of the alienated. Left alone then left behind, tailing your every move, waiting for a stealth opening before swooping in with a sniper, far too advanced for the simple working class congregation.
A slender arm, long and lean, places a workbook unto the teacher’s table. Red shining apple beaming at her, someone has definitely done her homework. A hundred lines of Chinese Tang poetry, meant to be sung in sibilant simpers than relegated to hours of mahogany citation by candlelight. Her fingers held the scars of homework, bumps with tiny spots of smudged ink refusing to be cleansed away. I wonder if this is all she does in her spare time, trying not to be conspicuous while sticking out like a tan thumb.
No one comes to see the living here, people are interested only in the inanimate dressed in human myth. I look out from the dragon’s moon eye, moving mine to mimic the watercolour scales intricately clayed onto the roving beast. Its tail would flick, sting like an impertinent scorpion at the few children brave enough to spy on the detached smiling stones. Blind amusement painted on their inflated oval heads. The little children that happen to witness this strange occurrence not before letting out identical screams and dashing from the area and running helter-skelter, skipping across the muddy field. Plebeians. What would they know about the deeper inner workings of mystic asceticism. I have spent years in this templed tower, there is no solution if you do not believe with all your heart in the colourful nature of the gods and goddesses.
She was headstrong as an ox as she had when she came into the school, gates open and clutching her schoolbook, aware of the heightened whispers surrounding her like an ominous cave to a sinking paradise pool.
Watching the threadbare orange trails from the flowering joss sticks and papyrus ornaments, I cleared the remains of the day. Snatches of thin scraps with written wailings were slotted in between useful paperweights. Just another lot to be left for a ceremonial week before discarded. Sweeping away prayers, they are not listening. I see something dull amidst the bright chaos. Out of the ordinary, not vying for the gods’ attention.
Someone has left a bouquet of yellow flowers. I carelessly tore off a petal. Not ostentatious enough. There is an old legend that says whoever receives flowers will have to do whatever the person says. Luckily for me, I don’t believe in such inane notions. People often want to be ruled by others so that they don’t have to be left to make their own decisions.
She wasn’t supposed to even be here, they said. She got a benefactor, they said. She possessed an unnatural calibre for someone of her ilk, they said. I wondered on off days for whom she had to dance for to obtain that pretty little red bow tie.
There is a reason I don’t think I believe in folklore tradition. Old tales outmoded by their human counterparts cannot be limited to the tides of modernisation. We live in a very different society consumed by ubiquitous material trappings. People say we are all the same if you take away all these fancy tools. Stripped bare, draw our blood from the same rusty blade. When will such a situation ever arise?
So argumentative about the world, yet controlling her belligerent anger in a righteous spitfire. Maybe she will lash out when least unexpected, at the nearest metal bus rails, old from disuse. Scratching juvenile engraved messages of hellos and love yous, later replaced by marker pen statements boldly advertising numbers and fuck yous.
But it was her eyes, the burning stark furnace that struck the most, so cold, so assuming. She had no right, absolutely no right to judge, when she was so obviously far beneath with her white clean shoes with almost worn soles and her starched uniform pressing against her protruding collar bone.
I plant a thumbtack on the wooden seat a few minutes before the bell rang. After morning prayers, we proceed to the classroom. Upon entering, I stand by my desk at the back, waiting for an unavoidable shriek, bursting into uncontrollable sobs, anything that would indicate a change in her unemotional portrayal. At the least, wait for eyes to burn tiger bright with fury.
She sat down on the chair without a moment’s care for the piercing spindle needle. After class, she came to my table. A single crimson sphere dangled from her index finger as she gingerly placed the offending object on my desk. She turned her unrelenting back to me and walked out of the room.
Mud, they trickled between the pristine politeness of pretence. Child of the mud.
Milk and oil never mix well, if only because the oil threatens to loom over and beyond the milky silkiness of all that is pure. Cannibalise it into its bottled love, it was too excited to be extinguished and chained for its good measure. Can’t she see that she needs to be tamed to produce her finest work? Not a girl that you want to take home to your parents, unless you want to be spanked. She could be free, arguing against the freshly incoming tide of authority.
She was an adversary to everyone.
I didn’t want to think much about it, just go back to the temple, sheltered from the poverty that lay festering in the longkang. Twin lions roar in silent memoriam, promising guaranteed death upon trespassing in the old world. The old world, where I must stay.
I see her in the classroom after school with one foot straight up in a semi-perpendicular, toes moving the heel of the shoe circular as she took up a washcloth. She was on cleaning duty. I went back to borrow verse books when I already had a musty forgotten collection at home.
Maybe I wanted her to see me.
A piece of coloured lime yellow chalk, so bright against the dark. Scribbles swim and drown from her rehearsed performance, trying to peddle at the surface of the green board. Drawings of big dangerous looking objects stared back at me. I think I saw a gun from an old Western film, pictures I had managed to steal from the measly school library, lifting in ominous bronze. Attached to huge tanks, frightening beings that would one day be our modern monsters. How could I not have seen.
I ran before she could see me, even if she did.
Briskly along the longkang, always follow the drain that led back to the big swamp. I stumbled upon a few slippery mud steps before I felt something sharp, the air whooshing between my ears.
Smiling, full of glee, she held out a single silver ornament.
A thumb tack.
Lush green to invading sick yellow weeds fell out, tumbling from the cracks between her nimble fingers, raw from hard earned work.
“Now, you have to dance to whatever I say.”