From the archives (March 19, 2017):
HERE COMES THE SUN
Mientras un pájaro detiene el silencio
[as one bird halts the silence]
– Jorge Luis Borges
The mynah hopped on to the bridge. Mdm Goh Lai Peng took in the blue twinkling lights that lined the sides, the curves of the structure, the dark water underneath, the opposite bank shrouded in mist. After years of waiting, the time had finally arrived – she could see it now, the last path she would tread in this life. She threw a glance at her legs. The mynah flew up to the railing where it perched. “Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo,” it sang. “Here comes the sun, I say, it’s alright.”
Two weeks ago the mynah flew into the room Mdm Goh shared with two other women. It was a hot August day and an acrid smell of ashes wafted in the air as if a giant smokeless fire was lit somewhere. At midday the sky was an expanse of greyish white light strangling a sheath of pale blue. Clouds were suspended here and there in a few barely visible puffs.
It did not surprise Mdm Goh to see the mynah. On the plot of land next to the home there used to be an abandoned plantation of rubber trees. A month ago all the trees were chopped down and their logged remains stacked everywhere on the cleared land. There was talk that a new extension was going to be built for the home. There were names that had been on the waiting list for as long as three years.
Before the mynah, other birds, insects and small animals visited the room. Butterflies, moths, dragonflies – they flitted in and out, resting on the bright pink curtains or on the rim of the enamel washbasin with its gaily painted flowers. A squirrel scampered in once, and although it was never sighted again, Mdm Goh was certain it came back. Wafer biscuits, haw flakes, sunflower seeds – she strewn these on the windowsill as she wheeled herself around the room. After she woke up from naps and inspected the sill, everything would be gone, not a seed left.
“Have you eaten, Mdm Goh?”
“Wah, you finished everything. Go-o-o-d girl. Still hungry? Want some more?”
The porridge did not taste of anything, but perhaps the mynah would not mind. Some animals are not choosy. Her dog QQ would never touch leftovers, even when he was just a mongrel puppy rescued from a drain near the market. A ten-year-old senior, he wore a patient and expectant expression on his face as he waited for Mdm Goh to finish her dinner. The moment she put her chopsticks down, got up from the table and walked to the kitchen, he would trot after her, his eyes shining, mouth open, tongue hanging out.
QQ, are you hungry? Lai, Mama give you dinner.
It was in the middle of the night when QQ suddenly barked. Was someone at the door? Mdm Goh was making her way in the dark to the living room when she stepped on something, lost her balance, slipped on to the cold hard floor and broke her hip. When she opened her eyes, QQ’s furry face brushed against hers and the dog licked her face, her hands, her feet. His whining and then frenzied barking over several hours prompted the neighbours to call the police who had to break the lock on the door to get in.
Good boy, QQ. Good boy.
The mynah was the only creature that drew attention to its repeat visits. Mdm Goh recognised it partly because of a song it sang. An English song with English words. She recognised some words, “here”, “sun”, “long”.
On the mynah’s second visit it was just after lunchtime and the other two women were in the room. The woman on the bed on Mdm Goh’s right was sitting up and staring into space. The woman on the bed on Mdm Goh’s left was lying on her side, facing the wall. The night before she had kept them all awake with her incessant coughing. She was quiet that afternoon but when the helper came to clear the trays, her food was untouched.
The mynah flew out of the window when it heard the helper’s footsteps. Before that, it was standing on the bedside table, right next to the tray of food, and it threw its head back and squawked. Mdm Goh looked at it and wagged her index finger sternly. The bird cocked its head to one side. There were some bits of fish in Mdm Goh’s porridge. She scooped them out and gave them to the bird.
Animals know when they are welcome – that was why they came to Mdm Goh’s room. Mdm Goh could read the faces of animals better than the faces of people. Cats with their haughty or sluggish too-much-sun expressions, dogs with their ears perked up and their tails relaxed and wagging, and even hamsters, with their silent sign language of twitching noses.
After they moved to a fifth-storey HDB flat, Mdm Goh’s mother reared chickens in one of the bathrooms and let Mdm Goh keep two white rabbits in a hutch in the living room. After school Mdm Goh would let all the animals out into the corridor for their daily exercise. She kept a close eye over all of them, using two baskets as barricades to keep the creatures away from the stairwell.
When they left the village they had to leave the dogs and cats behind. This Mdm Goh found out only after the day of the move. Looking out of the windows of the flat, wandering from room to room, peering down at the grounds of the estate with intense concentration, she waited to catch the very first glimpse of their dogs galloping home. She could picture their excited faces, a scuffle of wagging tails, prancing paws, lolling tongues and bright happy eyes, she could already hear their deafening high-pitched barks – Happy happy dogs! Happy to be home! Didn’t everyone say that dogs had powerful noses and could always find their way home by following the scent of their owners?
On the first day the mynah came, Mdm Goh was alone in the ward. She heard a sound and saw that there was a mynah on the floor, waiting. She had always felt that there was something cartoonish about these birds. Unlike the sunbird with its fierce beating wings as it studiously reaped its harvest, or the merbok with its polka-dotted neck and shy pretty face, or the black-naped oriole, gallant and confident with its sharp yellow plumage.
She was wrong about the mynah not being a picky eater. It rejected the mushy rice grains from Mdm Goh’s porridge. The furtive squirrel cleared the floor of anything edible left on it, and it was never sighted again after that one chance encounter but the mynah was a different story. It seemed to crave Mdm Goh’s attention. Especially while it ate.
It would not touch the food she put on the floor until Mdm Goh signalled that she had finished her meal by putting down her spoon noisily and wiping her mouth. As she ate, she allowed bits of food to drop from her fingers, and she did this in an absentminded manner even though she knew that nothing escaped the bird’s watchful gaze. If it was fish she would crumble it just in case there were bones.
“G-o-o-o-d girl, Mdm Goh. Your appetite nowadays very good ah?”
“Want some more?”
When she was eight, Mdm Goh and a few of her classmates found a dead sparrow somewhere in the field next to their school. They gathered all the flowers they could find – bougainvillea flowers, frangipani flowers, pong pong tree flowers – and they put the dead bird inside a plastic bag. Someone said they should not put the bird in the bag, the soul of the bird will be trapped and it will not be able to reincarnate. One of the girls made a paper boat, tearing a sheet of paper from her jotter book, and two of the braver ones gingerly tipped the dead bird from the bag into the boat.
They dug a hole in the bamboo grove beside the tuck shop and they placed the paper boat with the bird inside. They covered the hole with earth, stones and smooth grey pebbles from the grove, and they arranged the flowers they had collected on the small mound. They stood with bowed heads in a silent semi-circle around the fresh grave, their hands and fingernails streaked with brown soil. Some of the girls wiped their hands on their pinafores. Later that day their mothers would ask them, how did the uniform get so dirty, but they were sworn to secrecy and nobody said a word about the sparrow’s funeral. Mdm Goh could not stop wondering about the sparrow’s soul, when will it abandon the limp and lifeless body soon to be devoured by worms and bugs, when will it find a new home.
When the mynah showed up in the room on the fourth day, the fifth day and the sixth, each time standing for a good while on the floor by Mdm Goh’s bed, it occurred to Mdm Goh that the bird might know her from its previous life or from her life before the home. If it was not on the floor, standing quite still, the mynah liked to perch on the windowsill. Sometimes it stood on one leg, looking out of the window at the deforested land.
August was the lunar seventh month of hungry ghosts. One Saturday morning, ashes of burnt offerings flew in with the wind like the shed skin of crows. On weekends the smell of fire and haze lingered in the air. A mynah was a very different thing from a moth, and Mdm Goh had never heard of spirits coming back in the form of mynahs, only moths. There was something curious in the way the bird seemed to have attached itself to her. When she spoke to it, it cocked its head to one side and looked at her as if it understood her every word. On the mornings when the others were sent to the physiotherapist and she was alone with the bird, she hummed Teresa Teng songs.
QQ, is it you? Come here, boy, come to Mama. Good boy. Guai.
The mynah sang the English song on its third visit. On that day Mdm Goh had saved it a large piece of beancurd and some minced pork. After it had pecked away at all the food, it squawked and flapped its wings as if to do a little dance and then it flew up to the windowsill and started to sing.
“Little darlin’, it’s been a long cold lonely winter,” it trilled, “Little darlin’, it feels like years since it’s been here.”
Certain foods brought out the songster in it, Mdm Goh soon deduced. It loved fruit – papaya, red apples cut into cubes, watermelon. Once Mdm Goh offered it a green grape but it spat it out. The others in the room got used to seeing the bird and if they were awake they sometimes clapped along as the mynah sang. A helper came in once to see what all the commotion was about and the mynah quickly hid under Mdm Goh’s bed. The pink curtains fluttered in the breeze, letting in rays of afternoon sun into the room.
Can you sing something else? How about Teresa Teng songs? Yue liang dai biao wo de xin? Tian mi mi? Xiao cheng gu shi?
They were songs Mdm Goh used to listen to in the kitchen as she prepared dumplings for her stall at Ellenborough Market. QQ lay on the floor, and sometimes Mdm Goh turned to him and sang a line or two as if to serenade him. Sometimes she squatted by his side, held his paws in her floury hands, and sang, swaying her head from side to side whilst QQ thumped his tail excitedly.
Mdm Goh discovered that she could sell more dumplings if she played Teresa Teng on the little stereo at her stall. Several years had passed since the singer’s sudden death, but people still remembered her – her honeydew voice, heart-shaped face, wide cherry eyes, the saccharine love songs that everyone grew up listening over the radio in the seventies and eighties.
Watching her customers eat, Mdm Goh could see the sweet notes from Teresa Teng’s songs emerging like invisible scudding clouds over their heads, and she smiled to think of the same notes soundlessly popping in their mouths as the peanut or sesame paste inside her dumplings erupted from the soft chewy dough, mingling with the sweetness of the rock sugar syrup, the fragrance of pandan leaves.
The last time Mdm Goh made dumplings, she made them for QQ. She dribbled water slowly into a hole in a mound of flour and mixed the water with the flour thoroughly, kneading the mixture with the seasoned movements of her bare hands into a smooth white ball of dough. She rolled the dough and then she halved it, quartered it, and rolled these smaller balls into long narrow sticks. From each soft white stick, she tore off a small piece about the size of her thumb and rolled it into a ball, flattening it with a rolling pin into a circle. In the centre of each circle she placed a dollop of peanut paste, QQ’s favourite, and sprinkled the ten Panadol tablets she had ground into a fine white powder. She gathered the sides of each circle, joining them so that the parcel was sealed and she rolled it between her palms until it became a perfect little sphere.
She told the social worker that she would like to make some dumplings before the staff from the home came for her and the SPCA came for the dog. The social worker prepared all the ingredients for her, laying them out on the kitchen table so that Mdm Goh could easily reach everything even as she sat in her wheelchair. She was her usual calm quiet self, there was no sign, no hint, of what was to happen, nothing to suggest she had planned anything untoward. She had asked to take a final meal in the flat where she had lived all these years and the social worker thought it was a harmless request, why not, it might even help the old lady move on to the next chapter of her life.
By the time Mdm Goh was pushed out of the flat in her wheelchair and loaded into the mini van, someone had already come and taken the body of the dead dog away. The social worker tried to speak to her but Mdm Goh looked steadily away from her, fixing her dry eyes on a distant object far away. Her lips were a thin line, dry and cracked, and her tongue slid over them from time to time, expecting to taste blood. Her hands did not stop shaking even when she reached the home. One of the helpers gave her an orange and she clutched it, brushing her fingers over the dimpled spherical surface of the fruit, a lump in her throat.
“This is your home now, auntie. Over here is your bed.”
On its final visit the mynah flew into the room at four o’clock in the morning with something that made a tinkling sound in its beak. It swooped over Mdm Goh’s head and dropped a silver tag gently on to the pillow. Mdm Goh recognised it at once and looked around for the mynah but it had flown out of the room. She could hear it singing.
“Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo – here comes the sun, and I say – it’s alright,” sang the mynah. “Little darlin’, the smiles returnin’to the faces. Little darlin’, it seems like years since it’s been here.”
The door was not locked. She wheeled herself out into the corridor and saw that the mynah was flying towards the lift lobby. She trundled after it, QQ’s tag giving off a dull metallic shine in her lap under the fluorescent tube lighting of the corridor. The bird was not singing but she could make out the dark cool shape of its flapping wings as it made its way ahead of her.
When the lift doors opened, the mynah hopped inside and Mdm Goh followed it, panting and gasping for air. On the ground floor, the bird flew out and she followed it, steeling herself, peering at the shadowy shapes of the half-waking world. The mynah alternated between hopping and flying, but Mdm Goh wheeled on and on, sensing and not sensing the grooves of the thin tyres, the coarse grains of grit and sand they rubbed into her palms. She pushed her forehead down against the air, forcing her way through column after column of heat and dust, her eyes taking in the ground as her chair sped over it.
As the wheelchair entered the former rubber plantation, the ghosts of old chopped trees made a rustling sound. Absent leaves shivered and the earth sighed mournfully. Blue fairy lights came on and off, the only hint of life in the void. They were cerulean flickers in the inky pool of night from afar, but as Mdm Goh drew closer, she saw that they could be joined like the dots on a child’s activity worksheet to form the outlines of a bridge.
She squinted, trying to see where the mynah had gone. When she located it, it was levitating like a magician’s handkerchief between the arches of the bridge. Acknowledging Mdm Goh’s presence, it began to descend, singing the English song as if it were a trumpeter, not faltering or missing a note even as it landed clumsily on one leg. Finished with the song, the mynah stood and looked at Mdm Goh with its bright unblinking eyes. The silence fell like a drape on to Mdm Goh, covering her head, shoulders, her feet.
Gingerly Mdm Goh placed her grimy and sweaty palms on the armrests. Just before she swung her feet on to the ground and hoisted herself up from the wheelchair, she heard a familiar barking in the distance on the other side of the bridge. Without further thought or care, she swallowed the fear that was beating its wings violently in her heart and pushed herself off the chair, causing the dog tag lying in her lap to slide down her nightdress on to the ground where it would lie undiscovered, a buried relic under the cement of the ground floor of the home’s new wing for months and years to come.
Reprinted with the author’s permission, the short story is collected in Yeo Wei Wei’s These Foolish Things And Other Stories (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015). SP Blog readers get a special 15% discount. Use discount code FOOLISH15 on the publisher’s website. Offer valid until 30 November, 2018.
Yeo Wei Wei is a writer and translator. She read English at the University of York before she completed her PhD at University of Cambridge in 2000. Her short story collection These Foolish Things, which includes the featured short story, will be published by Ethos Books in October 2015. Apart from fiction, her other publications include essays on art and literature, a children’s picture book, and translations of Chinese poetry. She is currently working on a novel.