My father was a white man from England, a rubber salesman. When I think about him, his blood in my veins, it feels like insects crawling and I start scratching as hard as I can. He chose my mother from the town unwillingly. When my grandfather finally found his daughter, bruised, huddled, bleeding, my father had already fled. But he is still here in me; I am half as British as all of the furniture they left in this house and the cigar breaths they exhaled and the stiff white undergarments they took back to England, bras and briefs too hot for the Malay sun. |
Every day the house crumbles in new places: split furniture, ripped screens, fading paint on the portraits. Only the ants are thriving. Their hard bodies glint under the fluorescent kitchen light, slash diagonals of black each night across my peeling bedroom walls.
Under the British, Bukit Larut was called Maxwell Hill, and they built vacation homes here to escape the heat down in Taiping. After independence our government seized their properties and converted them into guest houses. Now they pay me to run the place, renting bug-ridden rooms for ten dollars to foreigners, three dollars to locals.
There’s a boy here who helps me out. No one knows where he came from; he simply showed up in the middle of the monsoon five years ago and never left. It’s not our house, but we keep each other company, and he distracts me. Whenever I feel something painful surfacing from before, I call for the boy, and tell him stories about Taiping. If I can’t find him I walk outside, over to the lookout, and watch the town itself. From Bukit Larut you can see all of Taiping, and the roads leading to it.
Sometimes the boy catches me staring at the town. He sneaks up from behind and makes a noise to frighten me, laughs loudly when I jump. He says I jump like a girl. But then he sticks around; he stares too. He watches the town with a fierce look. I know I am looking at where I used to live, wondering if the motorbikes leaving Taiping still carry people I know. But what is he watching? I laugh at him for staring at the town for no reason. Then I go inside and leave him there, looking.
Today I awake late, heavy and sweated with nightmares. Damp sheets lie tangled at the foot of the bed and the sun makes hot, burning squares on the carpet. Stinking and ravenous, I haul myself out of bed and call for the boy, fumbling with the doorknob, tripping on backpackers’ sandals in the hallway.
I step into the kitchen, blinking in the natural light that floods the room midday. I call again for the boy. No answer. I glance out the window to a hot empty yard, fuchsia bougainvillea dangling limp in the heat. I boil water for tea. As the kettle starts to shrill I hear the distant creak of the front door opening.
I hurry there to scold him, my sarong catching on a pine dresser in the front hallway. Cursing in Malay, I collide in the dark with a backpacker, a woman, who has just come in. Not the boy. Disappointed, I slink to one side. After the blinding kitchen, the hallway is like night, and I strain my eyes to find her face.
Her shadowy figure stops next to me. As my eyes adjust I see it is the middle-aged American woman who arrived last night with her husband. Her dyed-blond hair is swept back in a sweaty ponytail. She lays her backpack down by the front door and walks past me to the kitchen. “These are some wonderful pieces you have,” she says, her hands drifting along the top of a rattan lounge crammed in the hallway last week.
“They are not really my pieces,” I reply, my voice dying as she leaves the hallway. I steal a quick glance out the front door she left open. The boy is not in the yard. Fighting a growing panic, I decide to leave the house to look for him. In the doorway, however, her muffled voice from the kitchen draws me back.
“Excuse me?” I call.
Her reply is unintelligible. Reluctantly, I shut the door and return to the kitchen, where I find her fingering oven dials, lifting up lids and sniffing pots. She smiles expansively as I enter. “I was just wondering who taught you how to cook,” she says.
“My mother,” I reply stiffly, turning to go.
She continues, not taking the hint. “I think it’s wonderful when men, like you, know how to cook. You should teach my husband a few things while we’re here. I don’t think John even knows how to turn on the oven in our kitchen back home. Those noodles you made last night were delicious.” As her stream of chatter continues, she walks to the cabinet above the sink, casually removing the jade teapot I brought with me from Taiping. “Extraordinary color,” she murmurs. I force a smile. She replaces the teapot and moves to the spice rack, unscrewing each jar, making “mmm” “hmmm” and “delicious” noises after sniffing each one. I ignore the performance and sneak a look at the clock. It is one p.m. Where could he be? Finished with the spices, the American woman strides to the refrigerator and removes a bottle of water.
“How long have you lived here?” she asks.
I ignore the question and point to the sweating bottle. “The water is eight RM.”
“Eight?” An edge creeps into her tone, the panic of a foreigner who suspects they are being cheated. I shrug, smile consolingly, tell her what I tell the rest of them: “Yes, eight. It costs me more money to order it up from the town.”
She returns to the refrigerator in a huff, jostling soft drink cans around angrily before removing a Sprite. I look out the window. Perhaps the boy has gotten lost on the jungle path, I think. Perhaps he thought an old riverbed was the path back and followed that instead. Shadows from gathering black clouds spot the yard. It will rain hard this afternoon.
An approaching storm always reminds me of the day the boy arrived. For two weeks before he came the rain fell in curtains. Guests stayed away. After so many days alone in the house, I started leaving it to stand naked in the storm. From the yard, Taiping was nothing but white clouds. I pictured the town’s streets and houses cloaked in water. I was standing in the rain when the boy walked into the yard, though the storm around us was so loud I couldn’t hear his approach. When I finally noticed him all I saw was a dark shape beside me, as though through a waterfall. I assumed the shadow was my imagination until it spoke.
“How old is your son?” At the sound of the American woman’s voice I swivel around guiltily. I had forgotten she was here.
“He helped us with our bags last night. He was very polite. How old is he?”
“Not my son,” I say. In the awkward silence that follows, I put the water bottle she left on the counter back in the refrigerator. I point at her Sprite. “Five RM please.”
She removes a wad of bills from her pocket, thumbs through them. “I don’t even know what all these are. Here, can you help?”
I pick out a five note and hand back the rest.
“So the boy just works for you?”
I nod, taking a rag from the sink to wipe the counter, my back to her.
“He has a beautiful face,” she says. “Such wonderful skin.”
I am silent, concentrating on a fried noodle stuck to the surface of the counter. When the rag fails, I try using my long fingernail, careful not to break the nail.
“I would give anything for skin like that. His girlfriends at school must be jealous.”
I laugh out loud at the idea of the boy at school, the idea of the boy having a girlfriend.
She looks at me shrewdly. “Do his parents live near by?”
“Yes,” I lie, and go to the sink to rinse my hands.
As she begins to ask another question, I interrupt. “What time you want to eat dinner?”
“Dinner?” She is confused by the sudden change in topic. “Dinner. Well, I don’t know. Let me speak to John. We’ll let you know later this afternoon. Does that sound all right?”
“Of course,” I say. To my horror, the words come out in my high voice. My face burning, I walk quickly out of the kitchen, nodding brusquely as I pass her. I cross the living room in three quick strides, open the sliding door to the front yard. I head to the Japanese guests eating sunflower seeds and laughing on the old iron swing, then make a swift right turn instead. I take the path into the jungle, a shortcut to the main road leading to Taiping, and start running.
I shout for the boy from the safety of the trail. I know its roots, broad leaves, and vines better than I know the furniture of the house. “Boy!” I echo into the woods, but only hear late afternoon responses: birds, the electric hum of crickets. The smell of jungle, rotten and metallic. The sky is covered by the tops of the trees, and my body streams with sweat.
Even now, mid-frenzy, I take a little comfort in the way the sun falls once I have left the clearing. Bright beams hit spots on the jungle floor and illuminate whole leaves; ants pass through the lit circles and then dip back into shade again. A faint breeze rustles through the green. I slow a little, cowed by the heat, branches slapping my face.
In one ragged inhalation, I long for the boy. I think of how he looks when he sleeps and am embarrassed by the thought of my own body at night: aged, flabby, sweating. I understand all too well why he left. His lithe feet gratefully slapping old jungle paths to escape my stench.
Another breeze fumbles with the trees. Then a fiercer one. Here it comes, I think. Just as the thought falls, the shower starts. A few calm, wet plops that barely make it through the knit cover of treetops. I hear the rain before I feel it, crashing onto wide waxy leaves. The downpour makes the search feel even more hopeless. I head back for the house, muttering to myself, muttering to the boy: “Leave all day, think you can still come home, have dinner just like that? What about your work? What about all the rooms you’re supposed to clean? Monkeying around all the time. So I go search for you like your mother.”
Slick mud shines on the path. I slip several times, my heel sticking and my sandal stubborn in one sucking patch. A mosquito tugs on the back of my neck. My sarong is soaked. Though I know the house is near, I scold myself for leaving it to look for the boy. To look for nothing.
I emerge from the path onto the sick grass of the front yard. There he is, naked, standing with his arms out, head back, in the center. Too beautiful to scold. He sees me and runs back inside, grabbing his clothes. It is only when he is fully dressed, washed, sullen, sitting on a dank armchair in the night of the living room, that I sit beside him and try to hug him, as the backpackers chat loudly to each other on the porch. Bony, all sharp angles, he breaks away, but only to the front porch, to join the guests.
For supper that night, I make his favorite: kway teow. He appears in the kitchen once the smell of garlic explodes from the frying oil. While I cook I speak anxiously with him. Or, I am anxious, but I try to cover it up with quick, easy questions. “Where did you go today? Did you find a new path?” I do not ask “Why did you leave? Did you plan to run away?” because I am afraid of the answer.
He responds to my questions reluctantly at first, but when I do not scold he grows more animated, describing how far he went, what the plants looked like. A hiss of oil cuts him off as I fry the noodles with bean sprouts, kai lan, beef. We sigh happily in the smell. My smile dies when I look at him through the steam. It is like looking at another man’s face through fog. I divide the noodles onto six plates and ask him to deliver four of them to the front porch. We will eat alone inside together tonight. As he leaves the kitchen I squeeze his shoulders. He shivers. I am right, I think. He meant today to leave for good.
Waiting for the boy to return, my stomach growls at the glistening noodles below me. The clock ticks emptily in the kitchen and soon the kway teow grows cold. I hear the boy’s high laughter in the distance, the American woman’s low chuckle. I serve myself and begin eating alone, barely tasting the noodles. Twenty minutes later, the boy returns to the kitchen and scarfs down the noodles like a dog. I glare at him, awaiting an apology. In the silence that follows, broken only by the boy’s slurping sounds and the crash of his silverware against the plate, I remember what the boy was like before—the boy when he first arrived.
The first thing he ever said to me, in the rain on the day he came here, was a question shouted over the storm: “Where are your clothes?”
“What are you doing here?” I asked him, instead of answering his question.
“I don’t know.” The storm nearly swallowed it.
“Do your parents know you are here?”
He didn’t answer. I squinted at his shadowy form. He looked thin and small and dirty, even in the rain.
I put out a hand experimentally, to touch him on the shoulder. He jerked. I had not touched anyone in years, except for a handshake, except for an accidental brush against a guest’s arm in the hallway.
“Can I work here?” the boy asked, when my hand had gone away.
“Work here?” I laughed and my open mouth filled with water. “How old are you?”
He was ten, or maybe eight.
“Yes, you can work here.” I said. “Come inside.”
He came in and stood in the worst part of the house, the empty entranceway with moldy paintings and tapestries, flying ants covering the floor. The ants had arrived just before the rain and moved quickly over the carpet now, like trucks leaving Taiping.
I picked an ant off the wall and squished it in between two long nails. The boy watched me. The sound of our dripping echoed in the passage.
“Are you afraid of them?” I asked
“No.” His voice rose in scorn at the idea.
“Are you afraid of snakes?”
“Are you afraid of foreigners?”
“Are you afraid of ghosts?”
“Are there ghosts here?”
He looked around. He was so small. I ignored his question and said, “You should get warm,” even through the rain had been warm, and now, inside the house, I was already sweating.
I gave him an old shirt and started to run the water in the old clawfoot tub. He ran out after I had closed the door to the bathroom, and into the bedroom where I was putting on a sarong.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
I went to the bathroom to see what had frightened him and he followed timidly behind, pointing to centipedes crawling across the floor.
“I thought you weren’t scared,” I said. “Come here.”
I lifted him over the centipedes and placed him gently in the tub, in my T-shirt.
I left and he took a bath. He shouted when he was finished and I lifted him out again, shirt dripping.
That night I made him kway teow and he ate twice as many noodles as I did.
“That’s all right,” I told him. “I have lots of food. I keep guests here most of the time. Tomorrow you can start to work.”
“Have you always lived here?” he asked me
“No,” I told him. “I am from Taiping. That’s the town at the bottom of the hill.”
That first night was four years ago. Now he helps me with the guests and in return I show him the love that he can’t get from parents, from friends. Most nights before I sleep, I pause outside of his door, ask if he is awake. If he is silent I walk in.
His little cot is in the corner of the room. He sleeps curled like a snake. I move to his bed and watch him breathe, softer than the insects and the geckoes. A more human rhythm. I kneel by the bed and stroke his hair. He moans lightly but does not wake. I move my fingers along his arms, lightly down the nearly hairless limbs. He lies sheetless and naked. I trace the shadows the window pane makes on his stomach. I massage his legs, his thighs; I kiss his toes, the soles of his feet.
Last night his breathing quickened, caught. I looked up to his face and saw two eyes in little slits, barely open, still pretending to sleep. Full of hate. I acted as if I had not noticed and continued rubbing his feet. Then I stood up, left the boy to himself, as I have since the night he came here. But last night I lingered a little at the door, watching. I was waiting, I think, for him to come to me. Embrace me, cry out, whisper one thing. Instead he rolled over in bed, his back to the door.
I love the boy like a mother, father, girlfriend, boyfriend. I feel sorry for him. He must be lonely without anyone his own age around. I was thirteen in Taiping when I first fell in love, fourteen when I had my first kiss, eighteen when Masjid was killed in a motorcycle accident. Nobody in Taiping understood why I didn’t leave my room after his funeral. When I finally left my room, two weeks later, I caught a ride in a soldier’s jeep to Bukit Larut.
I have never told the boy that story. I tell him funny stories about the Muslim coffee shop owners in Taiping, and the old Chinese shopkeeper’s monkey. The boy laughs at the right parts and never complains if I tell the same story twice. Recently, though, his gaze has begun to wander. Tonight as I gather our plates from the table I see he is staring out to the porch, at the American woman sitting alone.
“You are exhausted,” I say. “Go to bed.”
His eyes dart back to me. “I’ll clean up now, take care of things,” I say. “See you in the morning.”
I bring the dishes into the dark kitchen, flipping on the fluorescent light. In the day, the kitchen is my favorite part of the house. Light swells inside of it and I cook for hours. The heavy ghosts of the furniture do not sit in here as they do throughout the rest of the place. I keep bougainvillea near the window to look at as I chop, fry, stir the dishes my mother taught me to make.
But now, at night, the world outside is black and the windows only reflect the kitchen. Large bugs flying around the fluorescent lights make the room look conquered. The smells are no longer fresh; leftover odors mingle to create a heady overripe scent, like afternoon jungle, but without a path through it. I hurry now through the dishes, cringing at the dead bugs that crunch underfoot.
I go into each room turning off the lights, bumping into furniture on my way out. Geckoes click on the walls and dead portraits stare at me through the new dark. I am terrified of which Western eyes might resemble my father’s, which portraits’ faces resemble my own.
I open the sliding door to the front porch and step outside where things are gentler. Crickets creak on either side, in concert. A soft breeze blows across my bare chest.
I watch Taiping. The cars travel in and out of town with bright headlights. It feels good to see the town flashing down there. Sometimes there is too much to stare at during the day, old friends from my childhood growing older. I get a feeling when watching Taiping in the morning and early afternoon, like watching an ant carry an insect five times its size. I am stagnating in this moldy British house, keeping my eyes down so I won’t look into the eyes of the backpackers, eyes of the portraits. Or unconsciously close my eyes and find Masjid’s face.
I never liked the gravel that crept into my words when I turned thirteen. I tried hard to keep my high voice with me, speaking in high tones to myself at night. I never used the high voice at school, since the other boys’ voices were changing too, and they growled around me like new animals. I spoke like them to speak with them. Sometimes my other voice would slip out by accident and it was terrible, as though my face had fallen off and there were only bulging eye sockets, blood vessels gleaming like in our science book.
Even before puberty, I never fit in well with the other kids. They made fun of my ang mo looks and called my mother a pelacur. Masjid moved to Taiping from Kuala Lumpur when I was ten, but I didn’t fall in love with him until I was thirteen. He had a funny limp and I teased him with the other kids. The day we became friends we had both been beaten up at recess. He had fallen down trying to chase a ball and they kicked him; when they heard me laughing, they turned on me. “What are you laughing at, you son of a whore?” They didn’t stop kicking until I begged them to stop, in my high-low voice, and by then I was bleeding all over. They left us both lying there when the bell rang for class. When he came over to see if I was all right I tackled him. Despite his limp, his upper body was strong and he pinned me to the ground easily. I was too tired to keep struggling and lay there hating him. Then he lifted one of my arms and blew on the cuts, just as my mother did later that day when I got home.
When Masjid died, he was sixteen and I was eighteen. I stayed in the room we had shared in secret some afternoons and did not leave it. In the days that followed, I spoke in the high voice more and more. The walls closed in and I could not differentiate between the voices, I spoke half a sentence high and the rest of the sentence low, or maybe the other way around, it felt like singing and crying to have those two pitches. I roamed around my tiny room humming and weeping, my mother leaving uneaten plates of chicken rice by the door, refusing to speak to me.
I remember visiting the smoking temple after Masjid died. I could not breathe; I ran out choking, my eyes streaming. Sometimes I think of going down to Taiping, returning to the streets we walked together. The afternoon after he died, when I did not come down for lunch, my mother came in my room with a bowl of steaming laksa. She set it down on my bed and sat down on a chair in the corner of the room. The shutters were drawn and the light was gray. I poured the curry onto my white sheets, watching the stain grow. “You always hated him,” I said, as she slammed the door. I wouldn’t be welcome back there now. I don’t like to think of it.
I dream of tying the boy to his bed. I awake just before sunrise, soaked in sweat, ashamed. Sleep has fled, and I leave the dim room with a mind to make roti pratha for breakfast. The boy’s second favorite, after kway teow.
Walking outside with the dawn reassures me. Chilly air and fresh dew on my bare feet make my skin rise pleasantly. The mist over Taiping is melting away and the town resurfaces slowly, surrounded by pale green jungle. My guilty dreams fade as I enter the kitchen. The sun is just starting to gleam off the metal pots.
Before the boy came I did not cook on the days without guests but now I enjoy making food for just the two of us. As I remove the rotis and pour oil into the pan I think, it is the smell of my food that keeps him here. The kitchen is one of the only places that we talk; I am in a good mood and he sits on the counter, watching me, asking me questions about Taiping.
When the boy eats he chews thoughtfully and distantly. I watch him closely then, and it is different than watching him at night, when everything is silver and black. He is not a half-caste like me, he is Malay, with smooth brown skin, hair that curls black and wiry. He is not old like me, or heavy, or tired, but he is lonely like me. I know by the way he used to look around when he was younger, playing alone in the yard, as if he was looking for someone else to run down the jungle path to him. I still look for Masjid that way. I look for him every day from the kitchen window.
The boy does not play alone in the yard anymore; he is too old for that. His body is changing, though I only notice that in the moonlight, in the silver blackness of the bedroom. New brittle hairs poking up. And his voice. His voice is deepening.
The boy has never shown surprise at my voice that comes out high-low. I wonder what he thinks now that he has the high-low voice, too. If he thinks it is the way men talk. Though I doubt I seem to him like a man.
When the rotis are ready I go to find the boy, surprised that the smells of cooking have not brought him to the kitchen already. I find him again with the American backpacker woman on the patio, laughing. He is pointing to the town below and telling her about it in broken English. Bastard, I think. Showoff. I leave the two of them to their jokes and go back to the kitchen. I stuff a roti into my mouth and throw the rest away.
I begin chores. Hanging laundry outside, raking the yard. Once I found a cobra under the rose bush, dead. It terrified me to nudge its limp body with my rake. Now I leave that bush alone. I put the rake back in the house and retrieve a bucket of wet clothes.
Sometimes I wonder what the guests think about the boy and me. He always distances himself from me when foreigners are around. Like with this American woman. When I walked by just now and saw them talking he didn’t even turn his head. I know he knew I was there.
I finish hanging the first bucket of clothes and walk back to retrieve the second. I think of how clumsy the boy was with chores when he first came here. Too small to reach the highest kichen cabinets, too frail to wield heavy gardening tools. Mostly he just sat in the dirt. I remember once he stuck a stick down a red ant hole and came up howling, covered in bites. I took care of him like he was my baby. He was easier with my touch at night after that.
The bucket is not in the hallway where I remember leaving it. Sweat pours down my back. It is too hot here, I think, even in the morning, even on top of this bloody hill. I walk through the living room to look for the bucket on the patio. As I open the sliding door I see the American woman stroking the boy’s face. I forget the bucket and stalk over to them. The woman looks startled, but does not remove her hand. “I was trying to tell him what wonderful skin he has, but I don’t think he understands my English. Can you translate for me?” The boy hasn’t looked at me since I came over. He is staring at the woman’s low cut blouse, at her breasts, at the expanse of white thigh revealed by her tiny hiking shorts.
“Boy,” I say.
He does not turn around.
“Hey, kayu.” When he does not respond to the insult, I jerk him to his feet. He curses at me in Malay and heads toward the house.
“Boy,” I call after him. He keeps walking. I follow him and grab the back of his shirt. I hear the woman cry out as I take the boy’s right wrist and spin him around. I slap the boy’s face. When he looks up again his face is so full of hate that my arm, ready to strike again, stays frozen. The boy shakes his right hand free of my grasp. We stand there staring at each other, breathing shallowly. Dimly, I hear the woman running over. Her approach unfreezes the boy and he spits in my left eye with such force that I cry out in pain. The woman wants to take him in her arms, comfort him, but he is already running.
I do not make dinner for the guests that night. I ignore their knocks at my door. I watch the long line of ants that stretches from the ceiling above my bed to the floor. The next morning all of the guests check out. The American woman glares at me as I settle their bill. “In America people like you get sent to jail,” she hisses, before following her husband out the door.
When the house is silent again, I go to the boy’s room and watch an enormous black ant crawl across the carpet before I step on it. I rearrange a few things on the table. Rocks, trash, pens and paper the boy got from foreigners. I arrange them neatly and patiently. I should go look for him, I think, and a wave of grief courses through me. Then the pain passes and I am numb. It is hotter than yesterday, I realize, as I walk to the kitchen. I look out the window at a cloudless sky. No rain today.
Later that day, I walk to the front of the garden, to look at Taiping. The shadows grow. For some reason, the cars look smaller than usual today. Still no clouds.
The afternoon the boy came I said to myself I will be like his father. But my own father is a foreign ghost and I never knew how to be the boy’s father. From the first night I desired the boy and despised him. Somedays I would approach him in the house, jerk him roughly to his feet, send him to a task. On the worst days, days I slept in past noon, unwilling to face the furniture outside my bedroom, exhausted with guilty dreams’ pleasures, I would shake the boy for looking cheeky, chide him for being lazy.
The nights that followed those bad days overflowed with my apologies. I always waited until the moonlight leaked in before entering his bedroom, stroking him in his sleep, kissing his feet.
“Why are you crying?” I asked the boy once, in the garden. It was shortly after he had arrived.
“I’m not crying,” he had said, wiping his face.
A week or so ago, I remember him entering the kitchen, surprising me. “Why are you crying?” he had asked.
“Because I love you,” I said, and tried to kiss him.
He ran away from me. I watched him from the kitchen window as he stumbled onto the jungle path. I was still standing there when he returned, a half an hour later.
The next day, when I saw him crying, I scolded him.
“Stop crying,” I had said, and shook him.
It is a painful thing to remember now.
The garden is black. Taiping blinks uselessly below. I am suddenly starving, and return to the kitchen to cook myself dinner. The curry I make is delicious and the smells are my own. The sight of the orange gravy pooling over rice on my plate reminds me of Masjid, whose mouth always tasted like curry.
I eat in heaping spoonfuls, until my stomach aches and my throat burns. I make my way to the bedroom and fall asleep in my clothes. I awaken early the next morning to heavy rain and cannot fall back asleep. I slept dreamless and sweatless but as I shift under the sheets now I feel the memories of the past days resurfacing. I get out of bed overburdened.
When I open the front door, I hear rain pounding, crashing, drowning out the usual morning noises. I remove my sarong and step into the storm. It pelts my brown white, white brown skin. I wonder, as I walk to the lookout, if my father ever turned around to look as he left my mother, if it was raining the night that he fled from Taiping. I wonder if the boy has reached the town yet. I know he did not look back yesterday after he began running.