Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

A Ribbon of Smoke

  

“Everything is false, everything is possible, everything is doubtful.”  ---

Guy de Maupassant

 

 

 It was the same old accusation, unvarying in its intensity; eliciting the same old obstinate reply "I don't know...." The girl was clearly demented, an imbecile. She would never learn. Silence and denial. It never stopped.

"How do you imagine I slaved?" scolded Susily, her face gleaming with perspiration. The anger which had exploded was causing her hands to tremble, her words sounding repetitive even to her own ears. But she did not know how to goad a response from this younger woman towering above her, hardened by a lifetime of yelling. Fierce countenance met taciturn impassivity

"Don't you understand how I secure jobs for us? You think it's easy?!" She used the plural 'us' although Susily had long since stopped 'amah' type menial work --   housemaid, chambermaid, handmaid, lady's maid, domestic maid, nursemaid, cook, seamstress and parlor maid, in the Fu Thong township. She dreamed of higher things.

Rosie gaped sanctimoniously at her older sister, large coal-black eyes unreadable. None knew what went on inside that head with its vacant stare. "I don't know how it happened Akka ...." she vacuously repeated, clamping her mouth in a stubborn line.

"You don't know? You don't know?" she frothed, spittle flying, like a steam turbine shaft having a breakdown. "You nearly lost us our job!" She gave her a vicious pinch on the cheek. "Look around you. How do you think we have all this?" And she swept an obese arm across the room, rolls of flab jouncing like a cloud of jellyfish, almost knocking Rosie over.

"My work. My dream. Look!" This time it was the long braid. A vicious tug brought the younger woman's head jerking around to encompass the conspicuous objects in the room - black and white TV as large as a cabinet, with double polished doors that shut, record player, a monstrous velvet settee eight people could comfortably sit on.

"Even May Leng does not have it, though her daughter is a nurse. They only have three wooden chairs. Or this!" she concluded, short of breath, pointing to the faded but handsome oriental rug on the tiled floor.

For a femme de chambre Susily was immensely proud of her attap-thatch and zinc-roofed bamboo home. Born into the working classes, life for her was a constant struggle with no fast track out. Behind her stretched a long line of laborers from generations ago, who had arrived on the island  to work the gambier plantations. The only question, would she fall into place in that line, or by her efforts, rise?

Rosie started to weep, her face contorting, the keening growing louder.

"Stop that! You fool!" Susily dealt her a stinging slap. "Missy won't lie!" she shouted vehemently, recalling the elderly graceful lady in the cheongsam in whose grand house Rosie worked. The children called her Suzie Wong after the movie. "Missy said you deliberately broke the marble vase because you were angry.  Angry? I can't believe this. That's the third time you've broken something in Missy's home. She actually told us to quit. Do you know? I had to beg. BEG! Till she agreed to one last chance," Susily put her hand to her head, bewildered, a helpless gesture of weariness.

Rosie stared emptily, unfazed. Susily felt a loathing, an uncontrollable anger settle in. It would grow, like a carbuncle. Her hand rose of its own volition as if to soundly box Rosie’s ears, and with it some sense into that empty head.

But then she stopped. She had learnt a bitter lesson once. Rosie had been caught stealing a pair of gold earrings from one of the households. Those were the early days, when she had first arrived, upon the death of their mother from tuberculosis. Susily had been ecstatic at the extra pair of hands this opportunity presented. A scatterbrain, a simpleton actually fit well into her scheme of things.

"Out of my sight! NOW!" she ordered breathlessly, stifling her revulsion. 

Rosie fled nimbly. She instinctively knew when to vanish. She mounted her bicycle and raced down the gravel road through the back lanes, long hair flying in the wind, her sobs leaving harsh echoes down the glade.

Susily felt unusually sticky in the hot afternoon, the synthetic material of her clammy blouse hanging wet and limp on her large frame. She switched on the table-fan, another recent acquisition, and was about to seat herself when a knock sounded.

It was Andy with the lop-sided grin, part-time barber, part-time usurer. His net was extensive, incorporating greater Jurong, his reputation as loan shark grim. The Lam Wah Kee Barber shop had a large and satisfied clientele. Born literally crooked by some quirk of fate, his shoulders were as asymmetrical as his grin, having not aligned at birth. A twisted man who thrived well.

"You're a day early -" Susily ingratiatingly remonstrated in that special treacly- touchy-feely voice of indebtedness and borrowing she reserved for him. He laughed raucously, settling his vast gelatinous weight expansively onto her marsala velvet settee, making a depression in the soft cushions.

"Very nice, very nice," he smiled, letting his fingers sensuously caress the velvet. "See what money can buy? Your house looks better and better every time I see it - hmm - Even got shining new locks!"

Gimlet eyes flitted from one wall to the next. "I didn't notice that the last time I was here," he noted conversationally, pointing to the new purple and green damask window curtains matching the upholstery. It garishly set her white-washed walls in relief. "Is that why payment is late?" he inquired, licking his lips, sly, gopher-like. She was in default. Treacherous old man. Susily stared guiltily at his blackened finger-nails for want of somewhere else to look.

"No, no, - I collected those curtains from Aunty's place," she vehemently replied, referring to the wealthy Ah Hock household Rosie serviced.

Six households! Herculean task! The girl was an indefatigable work horse.

Susily felt a glowing sense of satisfaction. They had been barely surviving before, struggling with just three client houses. With the miraculous arrival of Rosie their social status had taken a mighty frog-leap.

"The motor-bike appears in fine condition," Andy was doing his damnedest to stimulate conversation with this grim-faced woman, squatting like a bilious toad in a hole. He wanted to startle her with a pitchfork.

"Yes it is - just some small adjustments - Devas is happy with it - " Susily replied distractedly. Why was he prattling pointlessly? Of course Devas was happy with it. Why wouldn't he be? But more than Devas it was she who gloried, delirious, ever since her son had enrolled in trade school, and could ride a new full sized Scrambler with black and silver nickel-plated shining trim, in style. Most of the lads had one. To Devas it had made no difference. But to Susily it did. Yet she could ill afford a bike. The God-send had been Rosie. Sturdy, robust Rosie, who could work like a horse! Sun up to sun down! Rosie with her strange childlike simplicity. She was a magnificent atavism, in that way, pure, primitive.. 

Where was the silly fool? She should be preparing the night meal. Susily peered intently out of the window.

"....tomorrow, don't forget!" Andy's voice sounded silky in her ears. He was standing within an inch of her; she had barely noticed. She could feel his hot breath on her face.

"I will give you one more day, for old times’ sake. You know what to expect if you fail....", he carried on deliberately with a small smile, smacking his thick lips, like a vigilant barracuda. He was, enjoying the trepidation he was causing.  

She knew what to expect. "I'll have the money tomorrow evening...." she managed quickly, a lump in her throat.

* * *

Rosie had not returned. Susily felt agitated beyond belief, tugging at her hair vigorously and re-arranging it in clumps. "Where's that foolish girl?" she repeated, fear growing. Twilight was descending fast, and the spreading baobab and rambutan trees along the street were casting lengthening shadows.

"Maybe she's run away again," replied Amutha, her thirteen-year-old daughter, sitting down hungrily to dinner, a simple affair of char koay teow rice noodles with egg, bean sprouts and chives, in soya sauce and belacan paste, scrounged up hurriedly by Susily.  

Amutha wrinkled her nose in distaste. She preferred chicken to egg, and was about to complain, then looking at her mother's taut face, thought better of it, and started eating.

"Why don't we eat too?" Devas suggested sensibly, looking expectantly at his mother.

"You know her. Last time she ran away she didn't turn up for two whole days. We nearly went to the police. She's probably down by the longkang. She goes there often."

"Or swallowed some poison." Susily said worriedly, tormented with self-doubt, a frown accentuating the elongated ridge on her forehead. "...like the last time when I boxed her ears for stealing those earrings? Everything I do for her. Give her a decent roof over her head....I must have the money tomorrow! What if she disappears for two days?! What will I do?" Her cries bounced, hollow-sounding in the little room, as she peered anxiously through the glass slats of the windows, opened to the widest.

"Devas! Amutha! Come! Quick! Let's go search for her!" Susily said, suddenly revitalized, her round face peculiarly expressive, "I can't bear this, sitting and waiting. I must know where she is! If she's down by the river - maybe I can make her see sense. Beg her to return at once..." Her children eyed her strangely, as her words jumbled unintelligibly. They could not imagine their mother 'begging' Rosie. 

"Let's eat first, Mother," said Devas, his mouth full. A young man, he had a healthy appetite.

"Yes, yes, eat first - I'll go along. You come later - " and she disappeared in a flurry of activity to the bicycle shed behind the bamboo house. "Bring Amutha with you!" she called aloud, as she went whizzing by. 

Susily bicycled hard, as fast as her stumpy legs could pedal, her breath sounding sharp and harsh even to her own ears. Darkness had fallen, the loud chirping of cicadas in the rows of bottle trees the only other sound accompanying her. She knew the way to the monsoon drain with her eyes closed. It emptied into the brackish Sungai Api Api at the Prince Charles Rise. Once she set eyes on that girl, she would show her! Her mind oscillated between vengeance and guilt.

"Rosie!" she called sharply from time to time. Then she began to tire, and pedaling became slower. The river was a good three miles from the house. It was not really a river but a large canal with embankments on both sides, where children caught fish and tadpoles on rainy days, and took a plunge in, when it turned hot and humid. If Rosie had come this way, she should be coming upon the girl’s bicycle soon enough. The trees had begun to thin. Susily could hear the faint lapping of the water along the banks. No bicycle. None as far as the eye could see. But the eye could not see too well. It was a cloudy night, with patches of moonlight breaking the inky darkness only in spasms.

Susily stopped bicycling and began to trudge, breathing heavily.

"Rosie!" she called again hoarsely, "I know you're hiding here. Come on home. It's late! - Don't do anything stupid! You know how you suffered with the weed-killer...I won't....AAARRGGHH..."

A whiskered vesper bat, inconspicuously outlined, swam suddenly into focus straight at her, as she let out a piercing scream, dropping the bicycle. "ROSIE!" she yelled at the top of her lungs, anger gaining ascendance. "If you don't come out now... I'll.... I'll.... this time you'll sleep five nights in a row in the bicycle shed. Do you hear?"

The steady drone of a motor-bike grew louder, drowning Susily's attempts to negotiate with the invisible Rosie.

"Shhhh! Mother! We can hear you all the way till the playing field!" exclaimed Amutha, jumping off the bike and running to her mother.

"I don't know why we waste time like this whenever she plays hide and seek," grumbled Devas, strolling casually over, "she'll return, she always returns..."

"We must find her! We must...Hurry!" Susily was besides herself, "You don't understand....we need - "

"I know. The money! You said it hundred times already. Why don't we just sell the bike? I don't really need one right now."

Devas' practical matter-of-factness was unendurable.

"Sell the bike? Sell the bike?!" Susily began hyperventilating in apoplectic fury, "What a stupid thing to say? Have you all gone mad? Don't give me a headache...I have one already. If it were not for the bike you think people would notice us? I have built a life for us...out of nothing....you think it’s easy? Even Amutha's teacher nods to me nowadays...think of that? Me!...unschooled. And you know why? She's seen the bike, that’s why!...as for our neighbors..."

"Mother! Annai! Quick!....look what I've found!" exclaimed Amutha excitedly. She had wandered some distance close to the water's edge, where the embankment dipped steeply.

"What is it? What?!" Susily gasped.

"There!" Amutha pointed, "it looks to me like her slipper, that geta Japanese sandal she wears. "

"Only one?! What is only one doing in the water? Where is the other? And where is she? ROSIE! " Susily shouted, her voice skimming over the swirling waters like a flung pebble, losing itself in the distance.

"You don't suppose - " and her eyes widened in horror as a nightmarish thought occurred. Then the flowing waters with a mighty heave claimed the single pink slipper.

 * * *

"Now this is what we'll do," said Susily conspiratorially. They were home. She could not let Rosie dictate. Not even in death. Susily was drenched in sweat with the effort of the feverish trip back.

"You are not to speak a word of this to anyone," she outlined, "now go to bed - let's pretend nothing has happened."

She shut her eyes tight, blotting out their shocked faces. "It will be many days before the body is found. Maybe it will never be found. There are plenty of big fish in that river - stupid girl. should have guessed - "

"Mother!" Devas was frightfully pale, "What are you saying? We should call the neighbors. We should get help and search - "

"NO!" Susily's voice rose brusquely , "No," she whispered, now pleading, "Just one more day - tomorrow, then we'll all go searching for her. Don't you see? First I must collect from six houses. It’s payday - I have to. I have to!" She shook him hard.

"You can't, Mother - Six houses?!" Amutha wailed tearfully. "You haven't worked in months. It will kill you. Even Rosie can barely manage."

"And the bicycling! How will you do it? You get chest pains just to bicycle to the night market down our lorong nearby!" remonstrated Devas angry and appalled. 

"I'll be careful. Besides, there's no other way," Susily replied stubbornly, her mind made up, "Now get to bed, and stop worrying. What's that?" she stiffened, jerking around towards the window as her ears picked up a whimper, "sounded like Rosie crying."

"I didn't hear anything," said Devas in a toneless voice.

Susily swung open the front door, squinting hard, as she peered into the silvery moonlight. Nothing. She shook her head. 

* * *

Next day's disagreeable mission started poorly. Susily got a late start. Sending the children off was the hurdle, as none had slept well, and both were reluctant to go. Then the argument with Devas followed. He refused to ride the motorbike to work, opting for the town bus instead. Then she had the lunch to prepare, her home to put in order, the bike to secure. But she had set out valiantly, clear in her purpose.

Now five houses later her mind was seething like a cauldron. She could not comprehend. It felt unreal. She felt suffocated. Pain shot and stabbed up her sides, spreading in her chest. She could scarce believe what she had been hearing. She was bursting with the news, and had no one to tell. The afternoon sun beat remorselessly down on her aching back. She felt light-headed. Her legs and hands seemed to be working of their own volition. She could no longer think.

The gall of that girl! She would whip her black and blue! Anger mounted and surged inside. Her head started to throb.

One more house - Missy's - the last to authenticate. If it matched what she had just heard?! - Her mind boggled at the thought.

It was the same! It matched! The very same story, and she had heard it repeated five times too often. Work for the day? Just done. Rosie? Of course. Who else? Say anything? No nothing, she doesn't speak much anyway. Work well? A well as could be expected. Salary? Collected, all.

Rosie was alive! Not only was she alive, she had collected all the money! Clever Rosie! Think!

Susily felt an unholy emotion seize her. Think! The motor-bike was safe. Safe after all! An uncontrollable joy seized her. She was like a woman possessed, dangling impetuously on the daunting edge of a bottomless chasm, swinging incredulously between excruciating joy and savage vexation. She should have started out earlier. Think! The wretched girl! Punishing her. She had the money. Nothing else mattered. Not even the bitter lesson she wanted to teach her. Not now! Think!

She could feel the blood pounding in her ears. She nearly blacked out with the excitement. What if Rosie lost the money? What if she did not return home today?

Nonsense! Ridiculous! Rosie had never lost any money before.

Susily pedaled slowly in a daze, her thoughts distorted. Her legs felt heavy. Home! Yes, that is where she must go. Home! That is where Rosie was. Home! Pedal!

Pedal! So lightheaded was she that when she actually fainted, she thought she had floated away home, through a void. From far away she could hear distant voices. Was it thunder?

It was raining! How refreshing! The rumblings grew louder. She felt something cool on her face. It felt so good that she kept her eyes closed a few moments longer.

She had fallen on the roadside. She felt disheveled, covered in dirt and grime, the plastic cup of water held to her lips running down her throat, in miniature rivulets. There was a small crowd of people around her. Someone helped her to her feet. She was fine she said, though slightly groggy. Her sarong was torn, muddied in patches and her hair felt a mess. No cuts, no broken bones she reassured the helpful bystanders, just a small graze on her elbow which had taken the brunt of her fall.

She was lucky, she heard someone say. She had missed getting run over by a car. She took a tentative step, wobbling unsteadily. She could manage. She was fine. Just the heat. The onlookers drew back, nodding kindly, understanding. Concerned.

Susily mounted her bicycle and resumed her journey home. The late afternoon sun beat mercilessly. Unrelenting. Her skin burned. Her body felt weighted, her head still dizzy from the fainting episode. She must stop thinking, she admonished herself. She must just return home. All would be well. Rosie was there. Dependable Rosie. Dreams did not vanish in a day. Dreams matured with time.

Pedal! Pedal! She was unbearably tired.

Eventually Susily left the main roads, reaching her neighborhood, which would wind past the Grammar school, petrol kiosk, shop houses, Chun Sing provision shop, tea stalls, Andy's barber shop, the playing fields. Circling the last bend, with its rows of  kampong bamboo houses and trees, bringing her own home directly into view.

The thick acrid smoke was the first sensation, hanging pungent in the air, silent and unpleasant. Not to be disturbed.

Something was amiss. A hubbub reached her ears, in waves, confused voices, plaintive wails, excited. The retreating fire-engine sounded a dying note, as it roared away, telling its own story. Was her mind playing tricks? She could discern nothing through the grey surrounding shroud.

And then the babel of voices was upon her, unleashed in their vaporous intensity.

"Nothing we could do - such a big blaze..."

"Amutha! Your mother is here - Amutha is with Meenatchi..."

"Where were you? Always you're home mornings -"

"Lathika salvaged her almirah and chairs..."

"We tried our best to break down your door - "

"Kalaveni was lucky - her oldest son was home - children are all fine..."

"Why you fitted new lock? We couldn't break open..."

"Selvanayaki lost all - her clothes and mattresses all gone..."

"Ronnie saved his potted plants - the chickens and pigs all ran away...."

"Fire gutted full kampong they are saying - "

"- the steel chain we couldn't break. So hard Pritam Singh and Venugopal so trying to save your motor-bike - 

"We have to move to school hall for tonight...." 

"I can lend you some clothes -"

It was later estimated that the fire which destroyed their settlement that day had been a larger conflagration than the Bukit Ho Swee fire in the history books. 

" - all gone - only your bicycle shed is standing - "

"Susily say something - "

"Here, sit on my chair - I managed to save two - "

"Give her room - poor woman's in shock - she looks ill."

"Sister!" Susily felt a nudge. Floating into view were a pair of vacuous coal-black eyes, its customary gaze unfathomable as always - "The money Akka," the taciturn girl said briefly, before vanishing as suddenly as she had materialized, into the screeching tumult of voices.

The older woman grew rock still, staring helplessly at the girl, at the crowd, at the burnt bike, at the cheerless disorder, at the charred debris of her once-home. Her tongue felt like marbles in her mouth. Not a word could she utter. She turned her gaze confusedly to her limp hands, growing ice cold on her lap.

Feebly clutched in them, was a scorched residue, patchwork paper, which fluttered in whiffs. Unrecognizable. The wad of bills was folded over, covered in brown incrustations, tightly bound still, by the familiar yellow getah band. 

Solid ash leftovers, which drifted lazily in grey vapors, forming a ribbon of smoke.

 

 

 

Rekha Valliappan has placed short stories or creative nonfiction in Eastern Iowa Review, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Intellectual Refuge, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and many others. A former university lecturer, she holds a Master of Arts in English Literature from Madras University and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) from the University of London. Her works were featured in such magazines as Scarlet Leaf Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Third Flatiron Anthology, Friday Flash Fiction, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her short fiction was chosen for Across The Margin's Best of Fiction 2017, won 2nd Place in Boston Accent Lit's Prize, and is shortlisted in the Ouen Press Competition. She reads her own poem in Liquid Imagination.