Read time: 3 mins

Knowing Time

by Yee Heng Yeh
20 February 2020

My grandmother’s house in Johor was the place of my childhood

as much as it was my mother’s.

Once a year we would go.


When we woke up, the green morning scent might be sliding

through the teeth gaps of the jalousie window, the panes

rough and translucent like half-buried memories. Or the sun

might be pounding its heavy airless fists on the roof made of –


what? Ask us now and we only know that, through some marvel

of architecture, the ceiling must have been insulated,

though this did not prevent the emergence of dull bronze water

stains, shaped like mountainous terrain marked

on ancient maps.


Meals were an adult worry, and in preparation, the backyard

(shielded from the sky by zinc sheets)

would come alive as a kitchen –

woks skilfully and carelessly scraped, the steady

thuds of blades measuring out the moments,

questions of how long to soak this or simmer that.

Meanwhile we only had to run around,


discover corners to hide in, sneezing dust,

or be the swooping eagle, or stupid helpless cheeping chicks,

or argue if someone was touched and thus frozen,

or leap to crush another foot under our own, be careful

of cracks in the cement, those smiles of the ground

that would trap you.

How we invented and bestowed permissions and power.

How, by silent agreement, doing your homework was frowned upon.


The evening light dripped away so lazily

we had time for journeys to the playground:

steep wooden slide, swings kissing trees,

stacked cement tunnels only the brave

and capable could conquer,

the thin gaudy paint flaking but never flaked away.

Either the playground, or a long stroll to the dam.


We could walk for hours then and still had enough daydreams

to keep the world exciting, to stay curious about the whispering

prickling grass, the delicious brittleness of dried seed husks.

We would tear fresh leaves

along their subtle rivers of veins, imagine

non-venomous snakes, observe the silly noise

stones made when they pulled a dent in the water’s silk,

how reflections of sticks fell up to clutch the real thing,

how ripples folded themselves out and out

until untroubled

perfection was recovered.


We cleaned our hands before meals with the same pebble of soap,

worn smooth and hard by slippery fingers,

but before it could grow small enough

to escape down the drain,

a fresh hearty bar of soap was brought out, unwrapped,

then the pebble pressed into it

like a seed into soil.

In this way, we wasted nothing

and the cycle continued. One year,


the oldest among us realised that there were things

that could be seen as childish, and we lost her to the grown-up world

of fast cards and hard luck,

the chattering of mahjong tiles,

a world of serious stakes and duties

and currency.


The blissful haze of our wild freedom

still clung to us, it did not yet

evaporate, except that as I stretched out on the mattress,

and the lights and lively sounds of the TV

and talk drifted in, and the industrious fan pulled in the air

with so many spins a minute, with so much time passing,

I was fighting sleep, I was pressing the moment into my mind,

like a key into putty, hard as I can,

I was beginning to understand how

the future casts as much of a twisting shadow as the past does,

and the present

is only a little candle flame


between these two cliffs of darkness.




Image adapted from photograph by Vihgnesh Subramaniam

About the Author

Yee Heng Yeh

Born and based in Malaysia, Yee Heng Yeh currently works as a translator and proofreader while writing in his spare time. ‘Knowing Time’ is his first poem in an international publication. Unsurprisingly, he thinks a lot about the passage of time.