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
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
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.
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