KR OnlineFiction

Old Bones

When I was nine years old and still living in Ipoh, my grandfather came home one afternoon to find me struck down by a sudden grief.

“What’s the matter, child?” I was laid up on the living room floor, crumpled into myself. “And why did you leave the front door wide open like that? Anyone could have walked right in here!”

“So? Let them.”

“Heavens!” my grandfather said. “This child fears nothing.”

His voice stirred something inside me. I could smell the food he had brought home and desperately wished to eat it, but even my hunger was not strong enough to pull me out of my fog.

“Want your lunch?” he asked.

I burst into tears before I could say anything.

“What on earth is the matter, dear?”

“Go away,” I said, closing my eyes in defiance.

“And where would you like your grandfather to go away to?”

“I don’t care. Anywhere.”

I could hear him thinking, saying nothing, as he walked toward the dining table. Our small house fell to a hush. My grandfather had a way of deflecting my emotions like that. Without words.

I always cracked. “I found this photo of you,” I finally said. At the confession, I was no longer burdened. The tight feeling of menace fell away. I sprang to my feet, light as air. My grandfather was already waiting for me. He had carefully transferred my favorite lunch—white poached chicken and oily rice—onto a plate and sat down to watch me eat.

“What photo?” he asked.

“I’ll get it for you!” I was suddenly energized. “You look mad. Like you killed someone.”

 

The yellowed photograph was stained black in many spots. My young grandfather stared out with a straight mouth. A rifle crested on the inside of his left elbow, and his face was still smooth, free of the oversized scar he now wore on his left cheek.

 

Shortly after I was born, my parents moved to the city three hours away to find work. I was left in Ipoh with my grandfather until I was nine years old. My grandfather made shoes for a living. Life during that time was predictable. He’d walk me to school in the morning, then head to his shoe shop at the edge of town.

His shop had vintage cobalt-blue walls, and the paint was so old it peeled off in large chunks. Still, the color remained bright despite its age, and I loved picking at the flecks on the walls, hearing the crik crik of the blue paint chip off in my fingers. The shop delighted me as a child. It resembled a junkyard, cluttered with rolls and swatches of fabric, scattered tools, and light machinery. The mess was different from our house, which my grandfather kept quite neat. I helped out with some small chores at home, but he was the one who diligently tidied our house. In contrast, the shop was unkempt and wild. It was so small, more of a cubbyhole, that by the time we moved away, I was tall enough to touch both ends of the walls when I stretched my arms out to my side.

Every day, at lunch time, we met at home. Sometimes, when he didn’t have too many customers, he closed his shop early, and I would find him waiting for me by the school gate. Most of the time, I walked home by myself. The small town knew us well, and it was not an unusual thing for a child to do. My grandfather usually returned within the hour, carrying my lunch. After we ate, my grandfather would take a nap, while I took the opportunity to watch cartoons. I loved watching the same old VCR recordings. After that, I would struggle to stay awake through the drowsy, late afternoon heat, as I slogged through my homework, while my grandfather continued making shoes. He kept a small workroom at the back of our house. Surprises were rare. I grew to share my grandfather’s reticence, becoming a miniature version of the old man himself in speech and mannerism, though once in a while, I was still prone to inexplicable bouts of childish melancholia that came and went with the swiftness of an afternoon rain.

Once—and only once—I overheard him roaring at my parents over the phone.

“No matter how much I do…a child needs real parents! Come back more often!”

I felt briefly important to have inspired his alarm. He had never raised his voice against me. Almost immediately, my importance turned to panic. Was he getting tired of me? I was quite obedient for the most part, but still—imagine the kind of trouble a child could make. Even though my grandfather was never unkind toward me, he didn’t have too many words for me either. He was definitely not the kind to express himself. That evening, I couldn’t eat at dinnertime. My grandfather didn’t scold me, which somehow made me feel even worse, but when I found myself back in the kitchen in the dark of night, I saw that he had left my dinner plate out on the pantry, covered by a muslin cloth. I wolfed down the leftovers and longed for my parents.

 

Separation was in my family’s blood. My grandfather himself was only nine years old when his father brought him to our country. The journey from China to Malaya took fifty days, an ordeal that almost killed my young grandfather, but his father went straight to work on the fifty-first day. Everyone in the region knew Chinese hands were hardy—unaffected by starvation and long journeys—and my grandfather’s father was not about to prove this mythology wrong.

Malaya was occupied by the British then and faced a dire shortage of laborers as they expanded their mining activity. This was how my grandfather’s father came to the decision to sell the last round of his livestock, nothing but a few emaciated chickens and a small pig, and bought passage to Malaya for himself and his only boy. He was sure he would earn enough to send for the rest of his family in no time, so what was but a few years of toil and separation? Little did everyone know, fifteen years would pass before he’d see his wife and six daughters again, and three of his daughters would have died by then. Meanwhile, the earth rumbled up and down the Malayan peninsula, and every morning, my grandfather’s father rolled up his pants to wade in the mineral-rich streams that coursed through the veins of Kinta Valley, a dormant little mining town that would grow into the beating heart of Ipoh.

The water at the mining site was dammed, so it was reduced to a meek trickle and rarely went farther than my grandfather’s father’s thighs. Compared to the thunderous current up in the mountain gorges, this shallow river was a pool of calm, if a little bit dirty. To mine for tin, my grandfather’s father first scooped up river mud with a round-bottom pan. As he swirled the pan just beneath the surface of the water, the lighter dirt and sediment floated away with the flow of the stream, leaving behind only the heavier flecks of tin.

The weight of the river rested at the bottom of his pan. My grandfather’s father squinted his eyes into slits so small that he could see only the white glint of the sun’s glare, refracted by the metal winking from inside his pan. In a trance he moved, day in, day out, arms in swirling sync, eyes all but shut, knees deep in the water. My young grandfather earned his keep alongside his father for exactly ten days (not counting twenty days of convalescing from the sea voyage) before the British abruptly declared that no child under the age of twelve could earn a wage, and the boy was corralled like a chicken into the slaughterhouse of an English school.

My grandfather found himself dumb as a tree.

He was usually so nimble he could capture the quickest lightning bug with his bare little fingers, but inside the walls of his classroom, his tongue was a heavy root. The foreign language skidded from him. He grew silent, unable to find his voice that had fallen to the bottom of his gut. Learning to read or write was unendurable. Before long, my young grandfather snuck back out to the mines to pan for tin in the shadow of his father, adding what little he found to his father’s bounty whenever he could.

Mostly, he took long breaks out in the woods. He was soon joined by the sons of other miners, equally useless in the mines and in the classroom. The homesick boys found solace in the thick canopies of the woods, where they found wild creeks that still ran clear as a mirror, unlike the dirty mine water. Dusk, when it came each day, was not a blink but a long, enduring yawn, a whole season onto itself, and under this quietly retreating sky, the boys caught everything they could wrap their hands around: minnows, lizards, butterflies, grasshoppers, tadpoles. Sometimes, they caught even small snakes. There was nothing premeditated about this game of catch and release—the boys had time to kill;   the little creatures wanted to come out to play and to feed.

My young grandfather was best at catching dragonflies.

You needed light feet and even lighter fingers, and he moved like a shadow. A slight pinch of the transparent wings, invisible against the world, as if he were catching thin air. After a while, my grandfather started catching dragonflies, not just for himself, but also for Ayu, a round-faced local girl from the village who came into the boys’ lives because of her mother’s single-handed ability to make the most irresistible sweets and cakes.

Every evening, in the town’s market, next to her husband’s bunches of watercress, spinach, and lemongrass, you could find a display of the sweetmaker’s finest handmade desserts. Bright pink, fourteen-layer rice cakes, pandan green coconut balls, sticky moon-yellow tapioca cakes, and a dozen other varieties. Usually, the farmer sold his vegetables and his wife’s desserts alone. After several incidents of theft, Ayu appeared. She was to stand guard at the stall so that her father could chase down the thieves, who turned out not to be so easily caught. They devised a plan to divide and conquer. One day, after the young boys—howling and laughing—led the farmer away from his station, my young grandfather casually marched up from the other direction. He was tasked to pack away as many sweet treats as he could muster.

The sight of Ayu stopped him dead in his tracks.

At first, he thought he’d seen a ghost. Ayu stared directly into his eyes. Suddenly, he was ashamed. My grandfather’s skinny, laborer frame already had a young hunch, and his skin was burned to a coal by the sun.

“Go, quick!” The girl snapped him out of his reverie with a sharp push, and my grandfather took off in a sprint. When he finally stopped to catch his breath, far away from the throngs of the market, he saw that he was carrying two large bundles of sweet cakes, placed in his arms there by the girl who had fallen out of the sky.

 

My grandfather and Ayu began frequenting the creek together, after the moon was high in the blue, night sky. Both adept at feeling their way through the dark, they loved each other across the rough terrains of the thick woods. They kept one ear to the ground to listen out for snakes and another to the winds, which carried the pungent smell of burned leaves they’d lit to ward off the mosquitoes that came out in swarms. Theirs was a love that spilled into the earth. To legitimize her wanderings into the woods with the boys, Ayu created a part-time side business next to her father’s (and her mother’s sweets) at the market, selling dragonflies held captive by a long thread knotted around their abdomens. The children snapped them up in a frenzy. They tied the other end of the thread to their wrists and carried the buzzing dragonflies around the market like a prized pet, delighted by the way they fluttered in the air, persistent in their failures to set themselves free.

 

Around this time, the earth, already rupturing from the mining activity in her belly, started reverberating with another fury. The Japanese washed in from the northeast like a tidal wave and flushed out the British in an overnight flood. In a moment that Churchill would come to declare “one of the worst disasters of British history,” Malaya was seized by the Japanese, who fought and killed civilians indiscriminately. Neighbors turned on each other. Families lost their blood ties. Death by execution was considered merciful, compared to prolonged torture or mysterious disappearances. World War II ignited around the world. This period of Japanese colonization was so ruthless that my grandfather died without ever speaking of it, not even to me, as if time had all but vanished during that window.

 

Four years later, when the British returned to wrench Malaya back from the Japanese, ostensibly bringing peace, everything had changed. The peninsula had awakened to the scent of blood and did not want to sleep through another colonization. My grandfather agitated for freedom with a new generation of hardened youths. Their buried pain finally ignited. The world’s first nuclear bomb had been dropped. What else was possible?

 

Shortly after the discovery of his photograph, I got “promoted” to an important job in my grandfather’s home workshop. The task was as simple as applying glue, but with it, I became a vital part of my grandfather’s adult world. I loved sticking the shoes together so much that I would race to finish my homework early so that I would be allowed to help out, and then, meticulous as a mouse, I would lay out all the materials in neat rows on the ground—each unfinished shoe with its bare bottom up, next to its matching sole—as if I were a market seller laying out his wares to a crowd. I’d seen my grandfather do the same thing a hundred times: lay out the shoes and soles, dip a hardened brush into a fresh tin of glue, and spread an even coat—quickly!—onto every shoe and sole surface. The brush was sometimes so hardened from dried- out glue that it rubbed on more like a wooden stick, but I was not a worker who blamed the tools. I gave each glue application such careful attention (especially the corners) that my grandfather often had to—in the earlier stages of my promotion, anyway—knock me out of my reverie: let the glue dry! The next one is waiting!

After I finished coating the shoes and the soles with glue, working alongside my grandfather sometimes on as many as a hundred of them laid out, not just on the floor, but on the work benches, the tables, the chairs, the kitchen floor, and any other conceivable flat surface, my grandfather would shoo me out into the living room, away from the intoxicatingly sweet fumes, until the next day when we’d return to match every rubber sole with its rightful owner, sandwiching them together with the crushing weight of an industrial compressor.

We mostly supplied simple canvas shoes, fitted with rubber soles, but occasionally we’d get an order for leather tops that required handsewn trimmings, and the house would acquire a distinct weight that lasted as long as it took my grandfather to complete the order. These occasions were so rare I never got the chance to try my hand at it, even as his trusted assistant, but I never forgot the purposeful glint in his eyes as he hunched over his work table, gently nodding to the rhythm of his own quiet stitching.

 

It was only much later that I realized why I loved working with my grandfather. He never spoke quite as freely with me outside of the workshop. For some reason, with our hands busy over this and that, the distance between us narrowed. I was not just a grandchild he had a duty to raise, and he was not just a grandfather I had to listen to in the absence of my parents. I came to believe he’d passed along secrets he’d told no one else, and I could not help but feel like I carried some kind of important knowledge about the world, which, in turn, set me free of my longing for my own parents. Whether or not his stories were enough to make me feel loved, I had no way of measuring. But they did make me feel less lonely at home and gave me deep anticipation from one day to the next.

 

“So…you fought the English people?” I asked. “After the Japanese left?”

“No,” he said, “not in the end anyway.”

“So…you think they were the good guys?”

“No one is pure good, or pure bad, in this world,” he said. “Things are never so black and white.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. At the time my grandfather’s stories often confused me, and I only wanted to know whom I was supposed to root for, and whom to hate. It was quite a simple matter, really. The bad guys always lost in the end.

 

Was this the same kind of black-and-white thinking that moved my young grandfather and his friends to fight against the British? When the British returned to rule Malaya, they immediately targeted the Chinese migrants as communist sympathizers by association, because of the communist activities on mainland China, and abruptly sacked my grandfather’s father and all his friends’ fathers from the mines. They were ordered to return to mainland China. Faced with this impossible decision, my young grandfather joined the guerrilla insurgency for Malaya’s independence from all foreign powers. His father returned to China, but my young grandfather, who’d only known Malaya as his home, could not be persuaded otherwise.

With his insurgent comrades, he retreated into the jungle and began a new life, stateless and homeless, and pledged to the cause of independence to their deaths.

At first, the guerilla insurgents had all the upper hand. The organized British troops could not find their bearings in the thick, hot jungle. The terrain alone was enough to disorient their men. The insurgent ambushes always took them by surprise. After suffering heavy losses for two years, the British decided they would stay out of the jungle altogether.

Instead, they would seal the jungle and starve the insurgents out.

They imposed a national curfew that started earlier and earlier in the day, until it became no longer possible to move around freely. Curfews commenced as early as noon. The dense rain forest grew alive with peril, and my young grandfather and his comrades learned to shape-shift, fusing with the jungle like it was an extra limb they had finally learned to use. Every branch, vine, and leaf swelled with threat and possibility. They grew into ghosts, invisible to the outside world, emerging only rarely and poorly disguised as civilians, then drawing back into the woods when their errand in town—usually to acquire food—was completed.

It took them awhile, but eventually, the British managed to cordon off the perimeters of nearly every village, cutting off the insurgents from civilization. Their final tactic would be to create a program to arm local villagers against the insurgents. The townspeople were, by then, desperate. They were ready to do whatever it took to end the stalemate, and the British spared no measures in turning them against the guerrillas. Within four intense months of anti-guerilla propaganda, the British assembled large squads of local armies they named Home Guards, indoctrinated to protect their own home turfs against the insurgents.

The jungle, sectioned off to die, nevertheless stood majestic and hungry, even as it roared the hungry growls of a thousand empty stomachs. Food grew scarcer as mobility became impossible. Undercover agents sent into town were almost always captured. Their scorching, downcast eyes could not hide the hunger that burned them up from the inside.

One morning, my young grandfather woke up to a boot nudging his empty stomach. “Get up,” a comrade said, without meeting his eyes. “Food.”

After the sudden feast, their stomachs, deprived too long of the gentler textures of boiled grains and cooked animal flesh, twisted into painful knots. Their provisional diet of hard roots and dried tree barks had hardened their insides. No one complained of the pain. It was their first real meal in months. There must have been chicken. And more chicken.

When he ate until he couldn’t eat anymore, my grandfather made his way down to the creek for a wash. The dragonflies remained unbothered by war or insurgency. They were preoccupied most of all with the business of touching tails to water, fluttering through a short lifetime of dance and flight. My grandfather stood listening to their buzzing wings when a different sound came at him, so soft it could only have come from inside his head. But the cries were real and pitiful enough to move him to go in search of it.

What he found was a small clearing heavily guarded from all sides. In the center, the farmer and his sweetmaker wife were bound to a tree. Their heads hung weakly to their sides. When my grandfather tried to get closer, his comrades pressed their palms against his chest: no. The prisoners were barely conscious, if not for the occasional wail from Ayu’s mom. Ayu’s parents became the guerrillas’ meal ticket, though they wouldn’t last nearly as long as everyone involved could have hoped for.

 

Every night, Ayu, helped by her friends, delivered food into the jungle, continuing her ill fate of feeding the men she once delightfully supplied with sweets as a child.

 

 

There was not a cloud in the sky on the day I walked out of my last class period to find my grandfather waiting at the school gate. This was unusual. Why had he come for me, instead of meeting me back at home like we always did? He was shuffling back and forth, in small steps, as if he could not shake something that was on his mind. The space between us trembled from the heat. As soon as he saw me, he marched up to take my hand and began walking in the other direction toward town.

I had a hunch we were heading back to his shop.

“I am rushing a big order,” my grandfather said. Drowsy from the sun, I wasn’t sure what to say in return. This was the first time I’d heard him talk about his orders. He needed to deliver five hundred pairs of shoes in two days.

“Think you can help your grandpa out in the shop today?” my grandfather asked.

“Yes!” I almost jumped with excitement. We picked up our pace, and my grandfather explained the scope of my duties. I would do the same task of applying glue. Nothing I hadn’t done before.

The only thing different about today seemed minor: we would work at his shop instead of at home, since the home workshop was not equipped for such a large order.

I rarely worked at the shop. My grandfather preferred I stay farther from the heavier equipment. Whenever I visited, I was strictly to stay at the front of the shop. The only seat at the front was a rectangular wooden stool, tucked behind a makeshift counter built from a stack of wooden pear crates. On the counter, he kept a cash box and a pile of handwritten receipts stabbed through by a metal spike. An occasional customer entered. As they waited for him, they spoke to me from the same script. What was my favorite subject in school? Math? So clever! When was my next school break? Will I see my parents then? Such a clever child, but poor thing.

I wasn’t thinking about any of that today.

There would be no customers since his shop was already closed. And I was finally old enough to work with him in the back! My belly swelled with proud fire.

 

When the British caught on to Ayu’s food deliveries, they took her away. It was a crime to assist the guerrillas. Disappearances were common. The guerrillas’ retaliation was also common. My grandfather’s comrades disposed of Ayu’s parents’ bodies in the town square. It would be a cruel warning to anyone who dared refuse to assist them.

My young grandfather emerged from the jungle and surrendered.

The British granted him a pardon on the condition that he defect to their side. He would enlist as a Home Guard in the war against his former comrades.

He agreed, on one condition: Ayu’s freedom.

 

The revelation of Ayu’s parents’ murders must have shocked me. I said very little. The task at hand had taken over, and I went through the motions of applying glue, as I moved from shoe to shoe. My grandfather continued to speak, though his voice sounded very far away.

According to my grandfather’s retelling of the ensuing incident, the sky outside was beginning to turn dark when I moved toward the industrial shoe press with a possessed confidence. Neither he nor I knew what possessed me. I was aware he had warned me a dozen times about the unforgiving dangers of the machine, though at the time, his words, like his stories, often felt like half-truths. I had only seen him handle the machine with ease, bordering on carelessness. How difficult could it be? All he did was repeatedly pull on a long, lever arm that dropped and lifted the heavy metal plates. Just like that, one shoe after another came together, pressed tight. I had no memory of walking toward the machine. Possibly I was dazed from all the stories of war. All I remembered was suddenly realizing how heavy the lever arm was and how there was no way I could stop it from releasing the top metal plate, which crashed onto my fingers. The next day, all five fingernails on my left hand turned black, and by the following week, every one of them had fallen off. I had not broken any bones, because my grandfather managed to rush forward to grab what he could of the lever and prevented the full weight of the press from crushing my bones.

 

My young grandfather would lead the squad of his village into victory, and even later, the British would grant Malaya a reluctant independence, but before all that could come to be, there had to be atonement for the recklessness of fate and its cruel façade of choices that were never truly choices to be had. On his very first week patrolling as a reformed Home Guard, my grandfather came face-to-face with Ayu. He could not determine her thoughts. The sky was very nearly blue and black with darkness, so she was clearly breaking curfew, though she showed no signs of deference. My grandfather thought he’d seen a ghost, in an eerily similar way the very first day he’d set eyes on Ayu. Struck dumb, he lowered his assigned rifle, and the butt thudded against the cool, red dirt. How could words come up against a stomach full of sorrow? Ayu stared at him without recognition. In silence, in penance, in grief, and in heartache, my grandfather allowed his former lover to sink a wordless dagger into the flesh of his cheek, before watching her turn around and dissolve into the dark. When the rest of the patrol team caught up with him, his Home Guard badge, a flimsy armor pinned to his uniform, had already turned bright red with blood. It was the same week that my grandfather led his patrol squad into the forbidden jungle and initiated a weeks-long raid that captured many of his old friends. Ayu was never to be seen again.

 

After my parents finally brought me and my grandfather to live with them in the city, the shoemaking stopped, and then the stories stopped. Perhaps, too, the presence of other adults made him realize how much of a child I still was. Or more likely, other adults made the present day more stark, and it was futile to keep speaking of a past that left no trace in the present.

 

I wondered if my parents knew of Ayu. It was not the kind of conversation I could ever have with them. And after my grandfather’s death, that part of history became completely sealed away.

 

My grandfather carried his steadfast assurance about the banality of life and death until the very end of his life. Even in the final weeks leading to his own death, he did not change a thing about his daily routine: a two-hour walk in the morning, right at dawn, followed by three hours of breakfast at the local café, during which he read the daily papers from cover to cover (which he meticulously folded into neat squares that could fit into one hand) before he returned home to pick up his traveling shoe case, only to set out again for the strip of shops that bordered our suburbanizing neighborhood.

His traveling tool case was the only thing he brought with him from Ipoh when we moved to the city. There was no room for more in my parents’ small house in the city, and they preferred that he stopped working anyway. No more shoe orders or gluing. All there was left for my grandfather to do was to lay out his remaining tools and work as a traveling cobbler for the occasional floating customers. I suspected it embarrassed my parents, who tried to dissuade him from this sort of labor—bending over other people’s shoes to mend or shine them—though I never heard them directly argue about it.

“We give you enough money, right, Dad?”

“Money doesn’t stop my old bones from folding over, Son. Work keeps me young,” was all my grandfather said about the matter.

Shortly before his death, he added an extra midday bath to his routine. “I want to be clean when I go, that’s all.”

On the day he died—sitting upright in his old rattan chair, his travel case packed and ready to go out the door with him—he had only begun his extra midday bath for a week. He’d woken at five in the morning as usual, washed himself, taken his morning walk with his walking stick, and arrived at his usual breakfast café for milky coffee, custard on toast, and soft-boiled eggs dashed with white pepper. On the walk home, the only change he made to his route was a brief detour, stopping at the corner shop, where he bought a new bar of soap, to prepare for his next bath.