THE STORY BELOW WAS MY FEEBLE ATTEMPT AT FICTION WRITING.
“No matter what you think, please believe in our love”
I keep hearing him say this over and over again in my head. He says nothing else but these words. Words uttered so soft and kind, like a special gift, wrapped in the warm melody of his voice. I shut my eyes and I picture his face. Smiling. Happy. Contented. I hold this image for as long as I can, not wanting it to slip off, just as a child would tightly grip her special blanket for comfort in bed. So very fearful that if it gets lost, frightful things would appear from the shadows and consume me with their darkness. It is enchanting how the human mind grips hold of certain memory and plays it back like the reels of film I used to watch with Mama at the cinema. Maybe there is a God after all and He places all these pictures and sounds in our head so that we can draw them out at that precise moment, to help bear the torment of reality happening around us. Around me. Just like still shots of people and places taken with that flashy black and white box pa-pa owns. I hated it when Mama would make my twin sister and I dress up and pose for the box. It always hurt my eyes when awful bright lights suddenly explode before me. I would then have to spend much of the day seeing white splotches everywhere I looked and hearing giggles from the servants every time I tripped over myself. The saving grace to enduring this short-lived blindness was when Papa walked through the door the next day with a brown envelope in his hands and the whole family; ma-ma, grandma, twin sister, and even the irritating servants, would gather around admiring the photographs he snapped. I can never seem to be pleased with the way I looked in any photographs. Ma-ma and grandma always said that as twins, we look extra special because we are so doubly pretty. I just think that my smile always comes through forced that gives my face a troubled look. Just how I imagine my face to look having eaten too much rock candy and afterwards needing to squat across the dug-out hole in the out-house loo, balancing myself, trying not to slip into the maggot infested pit underneath me.
It feels like I am falling. Like I am sinking lower with every breath I take and then something heavy presses onto my chest and I feel sick. I want to vomit. I open my eyes, taken aback by my surroundings and unable to make sense of where I am. I hear a voice screaming my name. “Su Eng! Su Eng! Wake up! The storm is getting worse and we are getting tossed about at sea. We must secure ourselves! Grab my hand! Now!” All around me I see chaos with men, women, children, the young, the old, all shouting out for help. I need to focus on the person calling me. I try standing up and realize that the rocking of the ship has made a heavy sack fall of a shelf and onto my body. Someone reaches over and heaves it off and pulls me to my feet. I catch her face in the murkiness of all that is happening around me. I sense something familiar about her. It is as though my life had caressed hers before but was too fleeting to take hold. I grab her hand and together, we struggle towards finding the exit out of what must be the belly of the ship. “It is useless! The door is locked and we can’t get out! We are going to die, all of us are going to drown!!” I hear this desperate voice call out amidst the pandemonium but nobody seems to hear or care. Perhaps our human spirit abnegates misery amidst catastrophe by blocking out the pouring of more misfortune. I remember a bedtime story told by ma-ma about a dung beetle named ‘Chou-Chou’. Every morning, this beetle would make her way out from her nest in the sand to look for fresh dung left behind by other animals to feed her babies. Once she finds fresh droppings, she would gather these up and make a big ball twice larger than her own size. She would then begin the arduous task of rolling it back to her nest. One day, a sand storm hit during her journey and the force of the wind carried her and the ball further away from the path of home. To make matters worse, the sand carried by the wind covered up the ball, making any of Chou-Chou’s effort of retrieving or creating new ones impossible. As the sand storm died down, Chou-Chou had to make a decision to either find her way home to her starving babies, or venture further in search of food. Mama said that if I were to find myself out at a sandy shore, I am to keep an eye out for Chou-Chou who would still be out wandering in search for her dung ball.
The predicament I am in now reminds me of this story and I decide that many Chou-Chou surround me. They are all on this ship for a reason, looking for a better life, or trying to make their way to someone or somewhere. That this is all that mattered and life is worth fighting for. So they shut their hearts to life’s sandstorm, perhaps praying that the light at the end of the tunnel does not turn out to be just a mirage.
I need to cry; I feel tears well up in my eyes as I now remember the reason I am on this ship. I relive the scene at the docks. I see ma-ma, pa-pa, and grandma. They look so sad that my heart breaks into a million pieces. I want to run to them but I am too anxious to move. The sampan taking us out to the ship ferries many people. Everyone looks tired and despondent with a faraway stare. They are all looking at each other but not seeing each other. I want to say to them that even though we know nothing of one another, we share similar narratives because we have all seen too much death, experienced too much suffering, our lives thorn apart by mankind’s desire to command and conquer. Papa explained that bloodshed started when our Chinese army was taunted into firing at the Japanese troops in Beijing. Because of the actions of a few, Japan is now at war with China. Papa also said that the war would be over soon and as long as we stay together as a family, we would all be fine. Then one morning, I woke up and knew that we are never going to be fine. One of our household servant received news that the Japanese army had attacked her family living near Beijing. The group came at sundown and ransacked her family home. They then stabbed her little 5-year-old nephew with their bayonet and finished the carnage by beheading the entire family. Their headless bodies now lay discarded in a shallow grave, piled together with families from the village who had suffered the same fate. Others were doused with gasoline and set on fire. Some of the women in the same town had their breasts slashed and were nailed alive onto the town-hall building. The frantic voices of the servants carried into my bedroom and when I heard the terrible atrocities inflicted upon the women, I recall instinctively reaching for my own chest and wondering to what vile extent are humans willing to go just for the reward of witnessing the other suffer. I heard grandma trying to reassure and calm them. I realized then that it was just a matter of time before this evil reached us in Shanghai. I was terrified that my family’s fate will turn out like those poor people in that village. I cannot decide which is worse, seeing my loved ones killed or my experiencing the painful agony of torture. I remember getting out of bed and running to my twin sister’s room. I knew that once I am with her, she would know how to help.
Swee Mei and I were born three minutes apart, 16 years ago, on a cold February morning in 1921 Shanghai. According to Mama, there was an accident involving a bullock-cart and a trishaw that day and unfortunately for Mama, the midwife was on that trishaw when my twin’s head started to crown. Mama had to hand deliver her own babies because grandma was at the market haggling over piglets, Papa was away doing business with the Kwai Lous’ (whites) and our servants were all too useless to help. Despite our dramatic entrance into this world, Swee Mei and I grew up amidst a stable and conventional Chinese household. Boring actually. We went to an all girls’ school where we studied music, dancing, art, and language. My favorite subject in school was English, more so when Swee Mei and I realized that we could communicate incognito since no one else at home understood us. This skill was indeed handy when we discovered the male gender and blatantly arranged dates under our parent’s noses. Grandma used to always shake her head and mumble under her breath, “It’s double the laughter and double the grins, and double the trouble when you’re having twins”. We were just carefree teens and life was good. Life was good up till that morning when everything changed. Forever.
“Young lady are you alone?” asked a middle aged auntie seated next to me on the sampan. I cannot recall answering. I must have been jostled out of my reflective state because I recall panicking and shouting out for Mei. I cannot part from Mei. She is my lookalike, my mirror. Doubly pretty, forever intertwined.
“Ma-Ma! Where is Swee Mei?” I remember asking but by then, I was too far off shore for them to have heard. The sound of my own voice calling out for my mother cracked my conviction to be strong and unafraid. I broke down and mourned. I remember mourning for the loss of my family whom I may never see again. I remember sobbing for the life I was forced to leave behind. I remember crying for the loss of my innocence and grieving for that part of me laid buried at the cemetery. “You must be brave Swee Eng. It is for your own sake that we have to put you on the boat bound for Singapore. Papa and I will arrive shortly after but until then, we will send someone to watch over you and make sure you are safe. The Japanese army will be here anytime soon and if you stay, they will take you away to work at the brothels. Keep your head up my precious pearl and mama loves you very, very much. Always remember”. These were the last words I heard from Mama before she let me go.
My head hurts from all the flashbacks. It is as though my brain has decided to rehash and replay my life’s chronicles at one go. I am struggling to take hold of my present state. I know that I am on a sea vessel and it’s belly keeps rocking back and fourth, left and right, up and down. Everyone seems to have given up scrimmaging for the way out and we all stay quiet while being tossed about like rag dolls by the sea outside. Water seeps through the metal joints of the ship and collects under the wooden slats that make up the ship’s flooring. Each time the ship sways, we all get soaked. A little boy holds on, perhaps to his mother or sister, and I can see that he is frigid from the wet and the lack of food. The thought of a meal only makes me nauseous but it is the howling sound of the wind and the crashing of the ocean against the hull that gets to me. I am petrified, dubious, despondent, and also cross; I feel so distraught that I want to let out a deafening scream. But instead, I let the urge perch at the brim of my throat and I ball my fists tightly. My familiar guide stays next to me and together we balance ourselves from the raise and fall of the waves. I have lost the sense of time and I try hard to count the days since I got off the sampan and onto this merchant ship but this proves difficult since I have witnessed so little of day-light while being on the vessel. The circular porthole windows around our shared space have been greyed out, allowing very little sun to penetrate through. “Four days. It has been four days since we left China”. Just like that, my familiar guide tells me, reading my thoughts. “We would have arrived sooner into Singapore but the hurricane threw the ship off course. This means that we should be docking at the country’s port two days later and that day is today”. I stay quiet and hope that my familiar guide continues. “My name is Zhang Yi. If you recognize that name it is because I am Zhang Ti’s sister”. The mention of Zhang Ti’s name snags my insides and I feel myself get weak at the knees. I loose my footing and I tumble over but Zhang Yi grabs me at the waist, catching me before I fall. How is it possible that I am caught in this wretchedness with the sister of the boy I love? How much worse can my journey become? I feel my face flush and I am embarrassed at this whole awkward situation of our meeting. I had always believed that when a girl meets a boy and they would fall in love, get married, have a baby and then live happily ever after. Never in a thousand years would I expect my story to end in my falling deeply in love and being told the relationship was a mistake, conceiving his baby only to have my child spirited away at birth and later told that my little girl had died, being castaway at sea all alone, and now shackled into a situation with someone from my past that I want to forget. I hastily look around for a spare space to retreat and get away from her. The ship is no longer lurching and the howling outside seems to have ceased. Just as I summon the courage to step away, the door to our confinement quarters suddenly opens and we all are told to prepare for docking. All around me, everyone stays muted. There were no cries of joy, there were no salutary shouts, and even the young children on board seem voiceless and struck dumb. Then gradually, one or two people start moving around collecting their valuables struck astray by the storm. Soon enough, the ship’s belly comes to life with everyone preparing to leave. Still, the atmosphere is muted as no one speaks to each other. I am still rooted to my spot, uncertain of what to do. I do not know if I carried any belongings with me. I turn to Zhang Yi and I watch her animatedly pack items into what must be her luggage. I feel like I should be doing the same as everyone. Instead, I just stand and watch. Soon, we will all be disembarking off the vessel and walking into a society we know nothing of. Where should I go? Who will be there for me?
“ Swee Eng!” I hear my name being called out again. “You will stay with me when we get off the ship. I will take you somewhere safe where you can stay until your parents come get you. Do you understand?” I nod my head. A part of me feels relieved that I will not be on my own in a foreign land but a larger part of me becomes anxious. I do not want to be lured away by a person I do not know let alone trust. Her whole family abandoned me at a time when I needed them most. I now recall when I first saw her. That was the day I grudgingly made my way to meet Zhang Ti’s parents, told by Papa and Mama that the right thing to do was to meet my future-in-laws. I have never seen two people more resolute and determined to see me pay for my actions of betraying and bringing humiliation to the family name. I was made to walk the journey of shame alone to face this household of strangers simply because the father to my child was too afraid to face his own parents. As fated, I was made to stand in front of their lavish courtyard, not allowed entry into their palatial home, so that I could face degradation in front of everyone summoned to be present that day; servants, gardeners, family members including Zhang Ti, the boy I gave my heart to, the boy who promised me heaven and earth, who just stood there frozen not daring to look me in the face. Instead of receiving their unborn grandchild, his parents accused me of deceiving their son to make way into their wealthy household. I was told to leave and never make contact again. Then word spread in the village about my indiscretion and for many months afterwards, grandma avoided the marketplace like the plague. But despite their disappointment, Mama and Papa carried in them enough compassion to see me through the next eight months of pregnancy. The most difficult part for me throughout my ongoing weight gain, morning sickness and mood swings however, was seeing my identical self in my twin and feeling convicted each time about what I had done. As supportive as Swee Mei was to my predicament, I could tell from her cool demeanor towards me that I had hurt her with my actions. I had kept my relationship and pregnancy a secret from the one person I was most close to. In betraying her, I ultimately betrayed myself. Then came the day of delivery. I am convinced that women are gifted by God with a unique ability to rise to the occasion when circumstance dictates it. Birthing a baby, I feel, can be such a harrowing experience because of the insurmountable pain and the agony of being laid bare, but when the moment arrives and a mother meets her baby for the first time, the whole world stands still. All pain forgotten and in it’s place, love comes flowing through. My baby girl was the most beautiful object I have ever laid eyes on. So tiny and so perfect, I could only stare at her with admiration. I began to believe, in my head, that everything would be fine after all. For a split second, I believed that things could only get better. Then the lady came and took my baby away. I begged to have her back but no one would listen. Then grandma tells be that my little girl had died and I felt my soul get ripped out of my chest. I had though that my life could not become any worse, until now that is. Here I am with nothing and no one to depend on but this dubious person I know nothing about. Is she the one Mama said would take care of me? If so, why her? Why entrust me with someone from this awful family? I am so confused. I am a 16-year-old child with a damaged soul with nothing to look forward to. I am honestly so tired that I wish I could lay-down somewhere dry and sleep a thousand sleep. Zhang Yi places her cold hands on my back and I slap it off instinctively. I catch a hurt look in her eyes and I am instantly sorry for what I did. “I know that you do not trust me. I do not blame you for hating me because of what my family, my brother, has done to you and your family. I cannot atone for their sins but I can ask for your forgiveness. None of us are here by choice but I can assure you that I mean you no harm. I told your parents that I would take care of you and I mean to do exactly that. So please Swee Eng. Let me help you”. I start to tear up hearing her words and I fight to hold back from crying. I have to make a decision and I wonder what Mama would do. I decide that Mama would forgive and have faith in others no matter how dire the situation seems. I try to find my voice. “I do not hate you. If anything, I hate myself for being irresponsible and selfish. We will get off this boat together and help each other. You are my sister now as I am yours”. I reach out to hug her and together, we fall apart. It feels good to be held and comforted at a time when everything else around you seems to collapse. “Swee Eng, I have something else to tell you”. I break away from her and look at her tear stained face. “Swee Eng, your baby, my niece is alive” For a moment, I thought that perhaps I have misheard her say that my baby girl is not dead. “It is true. On the day of the delivery, my mother sent our servant to secretly collect the child from the midwife and threatened anyone who got in her way. Your parents tried to buy the baby back but my mother always got her way in the end. I suppose it was easier for you to learn of the baby’s death than hope to see your child again. But because of the war, the baby was sent away with my brother on another ship that departed three days before us. They should already be here in Singapore and must be waiting for us. Please understand that my brother had no choice than to do what he did. If he had tried defending you, my parents would have disinherited and kicked him out to the streets. Then they would have had you arrested for defrauding the family. Zhang Ti did what he had to in order to save you and the baby.”
I cannot believe what I am hearing. How is this possible? Only a minute ago I thought that my life was over and now, I am learning that my baby is somewhere out there and the man I love actually loves me too. Now, all of a sudden, I cannot wait to get off this ship. I am now eager to see what awaits me. Just in the blink of an eye, our circumstance can change so suddenly. There is an old proverb that says, “When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.” Perhaps, this is a lesson for me to learn. That no matter what my circumstance may seem, I must keep the faith that things will work out in the end. That no matter how strong the wind of change blows, I should look to the positive and make windmills.