Sunday, January 13, 2013


GHOST by Karen Tay (Winner) The ghost of Thanh’s sister came to stay on the second day of Tet. She took up residence again in the little-girl bedroom that had been locked up since last spring, and could be seen floating down the hallway past the witching hour, small naked feet dripping ghost water on the pristine beige carpet. Thanh had not seen his sister since the day her spirit succumbed to the waves at Piha. He slipped into a feverish twilight world on the evening a fisherman hooked out her body, swollen with salt water, the folds of flesh white and gelatinous from her long soak. The corners of her eyelids, her fingertips and toes were nibbled raw. She had been in the ocean for three sleeps. By the time Thanh recovered enough to sit up and eat some plain hot congee, spooned into his reluctant mouth by one of Ma’s church friends, Phuong was already dressed and buried, with her new next-world name of Sophia. The dead Phuong-Sophia spoke much less now that she was a ghost than she had in life. In fact, she said nothing at all in the first few days, content to just hover in doorways and thresholds. While the adults peeled open banana leaf parcels and dug into square sticky banh chu’ng stuffed with fatty pork and lotus seeds, Thanh and his friends played with sparklers in the backyard. Phuong-Sophia would peek over shoulders or sit cross-legged in silence. In the second week of her stay, Thanh screwed up enough courage to take the rusty iron key from his mother’s dresser drawer and unlock the door to her bedroom. He found her sleeping sideways on the narrow single bed with its lucky red sheets, thumb in mouth. “Phuong,” he hissed at her. Then when she didn’t move: “Sophia”. His sister didn’t blink or yawn. She took her thumb out of her mouth and sat up. “Em trai – little brother” she said in her soft voice. “What time is it? I’m hungry.” Thanh’s Ma slapped him when he tried to tell her about Phuong-Sophia. She thought he was being disrespectful. “Don’t tell me your stupid stories. If you have so much time to waste, you should be opening your books more. Her round arms went up into the air, whapping down on a lump of white dough. A little bowl of sultanas sat nearby, for the scones. Ma was perpetually tired. She was at the bakery from sunup to sundown, causing some of her customers to joke that they must be open 24 hours. The shop closed at around 5pm, but she would surreptitiously sell steamed pork buns and greasy fried ban xeo through the back door to late night drunkards. Thanh’s Ba, who left the raising of children and other household matters to Hung, referred to his wife as ‘the boss’. Besides, he was perenially exhausted himself – working six-day, 12-hour shifts at the plastics factory. All he wanted when he arrived home was a cup of strong, dark Vietnamese coffee, sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied by a few Tim Tams, before washing his feet and hopping into bed. “Mind your mother, son,” he said tiredly to Thanh whenever he tried to complain about her strictness. “She’s a little hard on you, but it’s for your own good.” So Sophia stayed Thanh’s secret. He found that it was easy enough to feed her. Hung would cook dinner the night before and leave instructions on what to heat up to her husband and son in the morning. Thanh’s father usually worked late and would bring his share of dinner to the factory in old cookie tins. Thanh would take his own meal – something simple like fried egg vermicelli (his favourite), or more typically, stir-fried greens and garlic, caramelised pork stew (his least favourite), a small fried fish and always some kind of soup, up to his sister’s room. He’d set the plate down before Sophia and she would put her face next to the food and sniff like a cat, ingesting aroma. When she was done, Thanh would pick up his chopsticks and dig into the meat or fish, drowning his rice in a sea of soup and leaving the leafy yucky greens till last. They played together too. Most of the time it was Monopoly – Sophia had been obsessed with the game before the accident. She always chose the little scottie dog, and Thanh would be the top hat. Or they would pretend to be camping, something Ma never let them do because of the dirt and disease. They would make a fort out of sheets, pitching them up like a tent, hollow and white in the glow of the torch. “What was it like? When you died?” Sophia was in her second year of intermediate when she died. Ma gathered the flowers and teddy bears left by her friends and teacher, secretly burning them so she could scatter the ashes at sea. In the spot where she guessed her daughter might have drowned. Popular. It was a word that applied to pretty, sassy Sophia, who had been her school’s best goalkeep at netball and was so brainy she didn’t need to brown nose anybody. Thanh wished popularity could be inherited, then maybe his sister could pass on hers, like jewellery or toys or something. “I don’t really remember.” Her face scrunched up. “It was real cold in the water and I swam for a long time, but my legs got tired and then heavier and heavier.” Thanh waited, but Sophia didn’t finish her story. Instead, she rattled the dice in the palm of her hand and released. “Sixes. I get to roll again.” A new girl started at Thanh’s school. She was half-Samoan, half-Chinese, with long, dark curly hair, eyes that tipped up at the corners and thin, strong brown legs. Jeanna Ting was a little beauty, but she was also more than that. Within the first week, she had also stood up to the class bully when she was cornered in the girls’ toilet. The bully, a little shit with a stomach as wide as she was tall had demanded that Jeanna hand over her schoolbag for a sticky-fingered inspection. She refused. When the bully howled with rage and reached for her, Jeanna reacted fast. She ducked low, pinched the bully’s knees together with one wiry arm, reached up under her skirt and dug her fingers into the girl’s pubic bone “Touch me again and I’ll break your pelvis,” she said fiercely. Nobody quite knew what a pelvis was, but the bully ran away howling and Jeanna’s star soared. Girls fought to sit next to her. Boys left fake tattoos, chocolate bars and cheap $2 shop trinkets outside her locker. Thanh worshipped Jeanna, whose father was a solicitor and mother owned an art gallery on K’Rd. She always kept a piece of grape Hubba Bubba inside her cheek to chew on when the teacher’s back was turned. Her wild curls, smooth and oiled and kept in a perfectly brushed ponytail with rainbow coloured elastics, smelled like spring rain. And though she had any number of grazed knees, cuts, small bumps and bruises like anyone else, she also had the coolest plasters of superheroes like Wonder Woman, Batman and Iron Man. Her cousins sent them to her all the way from America. “You got a new friend at school, eh?” Thanh was picking at his meal. Fried chicken pieces, julienned green beans fried in egg and rice. Chicken and ginger soup today, thick yellow slices floating on top with the fat and skin. He looked up from his food. Sophia was toying with a hunk of hair, sliding it between her small white teeth like floss. The wet, pointed tip looked like a watercolour brush. “Yeah, I guess. Her name’s Jeanna.” “Oooo Thanh’s got a g-i-r-l-f-r-i-e-n-d!” “Shut up!” He could feel his cheeks grow hot, redden like Ba’s face after he’d had a glass of wine. “Ooooo you l-i-k-e her!” “Not even.” Sophia’s cat-like eyes narrowed, she pursed her lips as if about to blow a bubble. “Well, you better not forget me, em trai.” Thanh looked at her then, really looked at her. He realised something that had been bothering him lately: Sophia was growing more diaphanous. He could see the cream coloured curtains with their little blue flowers straight through her hips. Her face and neck looked normal, solid, but she was definitely dissipating from the feet up. “I won’t,” he mumbled, prodding the top hat forward on the board. “Cause you know what Ma would say, if she found out you were friends with someone like that.” “Who’s gonna tell her then? You’re dead.” Sophia wasn’t upset though. She just stuck her tongue out at him. He could see through the pink to the back of her throat. The students of Room 5 were having a Cultural Exchange Evening. They were paired up – with each couple instructed to write a song, a poem or a story about their culture. “We would love to hear more about Vietnam, Thanh,” said Mrs Harrison. She always pronounced his name as ‘tan-h’, as if she had run out of breath at the end. Most of the kids in class said his name the same way, and he had never bothered correcting them. Ma always said there was no point making a fuss if it wasn’t going to change anything. Mrs Harrison was always careful around Thanh. There were no other Asian children in Room 5 apart from Jeanna, who was only half and Mohammad, but he was Muslim and his parents were from Malaysia. Thanh was polite to her, mainly because he knew he’d have his ears twisted and his legs smacked with a ruler when he got home if he was rude. But he hated her. Once, when he’d been sent to the staff rooom to deliver a note during interval, he overheard her talking to some other teachers. Mrs Harrison was wearing a purple velvet top and matching skirt, looking like a large stuffed grape. “…the boy’s name was Dick Shih! I just about killed myself keeping a straight face. Bloody hell! Of course, he was picked on from day one by the other kids. Poor thing. But I can’t say I blame the children. His parents should have checked first before they named him, but they were you know, fresh off the boat. Oh, hello Thanh.” She had taken the note and read it while waving one hand dismissively at him. It did not come as a surprise to Thanh that when it came to pairing up the students, she put him with Jeanna. There was a slightly nervous moment when it seemed that she would choose Mohammad instead. In the end though, Mohammad went with Cindy Ropati and Thanh got Jeanna all to himself. The night before the cultural performance – they were going to sing a mash-up of the Chinese and Vietnamese national anthems, Thanh came down with the flu. It was the real thing, complete with aching body parts, a high temperature, blocked nose, headache and swollen lymph nodes. If he had been even slightly better, Thanh would have insisted on going to school. But he felt so sick that he didn’t even fuss when Ma dosed him with the strong bitter tea that relatives had brought in especially from Vietnam. He just quietly sipped the scalding brew, brought to him in Ba’s special green Milo mug (free with purchase), grateful that the flu had tamped down his taste buds, then lay back in bed and slept. He dreamed. Oh how he dreamed. He was a baby again, in his mother’s womb. Floating in a warm soothing ocean of amniotic fluid. Then he was a goldfish, his fishy mouth opening and closing in gasps as he swam down the birth canal, gushing out into the world in a flood of red salt. Ba tiptoed into the room at one point. He must have come home early from the factory to check on Thanh. Ba touched his forehead and his hand felt like an icy imprint. There was Ma’s voice, less shrill than usual. She was speaking in Vietnamese, but so fast that Thanh couldn’t follow except for the occasional phrase. All he knew was that he wanted water. Big long gulps of it, so cold that the glass frosted over. He was so thirsty. He was a thirsty bear. Yogi Bear in the desert. How he loved Yogi Bear, with his pert green tie and jaunty little hat. An auntie had dropped off a bundle of her daughter’s old things a couple of years ago. Among the well-worn possessions was a video player and tapes of the hungry bear. Thanh was addicted for a time, watching and rewinding the tapes over and over again. A voice dropped out of the blue sky and boomed at him. “I’m smarter than the average bear!” His tongue darted out again, tasting moisture from an ice cube someone was slowly rubbing between his lips. “My children’s mother.” Ba gently touched Ma’s shoulder. She had been sitting on the hospital bed for far too long. Days. Her body gave off an unwashed smell. He did not like hospitals. Their scent of futility reminded him too much of the crowded Cho Ray Hospital in Saigon, where his mother had been taken after she was run over by a train while crossing the tracks on her motorbike. The train was carrying a load of white tourists to Nha Trang, where they would ride a river boat down the Song Cai and clap their hands as they watched amusing water puppet shows put on by illiterate children who had dropped out of school to earn American dollars. Ba’s mother had died in that place that stunk of disease long before you entered the doorway. They had amputated both her legs, first below the knees, then higher and higher as gangrene set in until the doctors finally admitted defeat. There was too much poison to excise. Her body was nothing but blackness. His wife did not respond. She was too busy telling beads on the rosary. Hail Mary. Our Father. Glory Be. Ba did not know if he believed in the western god – he had been raised Buddhist by his grandmother, who was a practising vegetarian, so devout she would step over an ant on the ground rather than crush it. He knew something about women though. So Ba stayed by his wife’s side, without touching her again, as they both stared at their son’s inert body. As if they could raise him up by the power of love alone. “Em trai.” What a sorrowful little voice! All the cheer leached out of it. “Chi gai – big sister.” He was calling out into a yawning dark cave. Thanh’s eyes were unseeing as a bat’s. His hands and his body curved into a fetal position. He was hanging upside down from the roof. “Where are you, chi gai? I can’t see.” It was a physical impossibility to move his limbs. They were rock-heavy. He had been dreaming of running through the desert again with his friend, Yogi Bear. The bear had called out: “Hey there, Boo Boo!” They leaped over sand dunes, feeling the scorching grains give beneath bare brown feet. But then Yogi had disappeared and a dark and frightening fog spread over the land, blackening everything. “I’m here, over here.” A sliver of light floating through the nightscape like a wedge of silver cake, then Sophia’s face looked oval and shinypale. “Oh. Thanh.” She gummed a hand to her face and sobbed. Tears leaked out noiselessly from between her fingers like small gems and sploshed to the cave floor, leaving a trail of light. “Help me get down.” He was hollering, he realised, but his ears were buzzing so it was hard to tell how loud he was being. Why was she just standing there? Sophia took one step toward him, stopped and shook her head. “I’m so sorry, em trai, I can’t.” “Why not? Don’t be a dick!” If Ma was here, she would have pinched his mouth for that, but Thanh felt he was justified, under the circumstances. “You’re too far gone, my brother,” she said. Her still-liquid eyes were caressing beacons in the black. “I can’t follow you now.” Thanh drew his last breath as the clock stopped at quarter past midnight. His parents and Sophia were there by the bedside when the doctor turned off his life support. Ba and Ma were grey, faded. They had aged 20 years in the three seconds it took for their son to exhale his last breath. He was dead, but not gone. Thanh floated on the ceiling of the hospital, looking down at his body. So small and skinny. Bushy black hair spilling onto the antiseptic pillow. Ba had gone to get cheap filter coffee from the cafeteria. Ma was on the phone outside to her prayer group, informing them that their daily supplications hadn’t worked and Jesus wouldn’t save her son after all. Only Sophia was in the room. She sat silently by his body, holding his steadily cooling hand tenderly in her own. “Thanh.” He wanted to go down to her, but wasn’t sure how to navigate his new body. It was like a cloud, with his head stuck in the middle. “Thanh.” He concentrated hard, again. Then just like that, he figured it out. By squeezing his thoughts into one, he could pull himself together, sparkle down to his sister in her slightly too-big pink sneakers. The toes stuffed with newspaper. Ma always bought shoes a size too big. She said they’d grow into them. “Am I really dead?” Sophia answered by sniffing and wiping her nose on her sleeve, leaving a sticky snot residue. “Cooooool.” He let out a long whistle. It was pretty neat, if you thought about it. There was a twinge of regret about Jeanna Ting. He would have liked to see her grow up, pictured the dark exotic beauty she would become. Thanh thought, no, was sure that he would have liked to go on a date with Jeanna. Steal a kiss at the end of the night. “You think it’s cool, right?” Sophia didn’t seem to be as excited as he was. Perhaps she was jealous. It would be just like his sister to think that she had some kind of first dibs on being dead. Like how she always thought she was smarter because she was older. She took a deep breath, bent her head down and kissed him with trembling lips. On the forehead. Ba walked in at that moment, carrying a half-empty cup. He regarded the scene in the room, and fumbled with the zip of his blue and white polyester parka. “Phuong.” The name sounded crabby in his mouth, washed-out. Phuong looked up just as Thanh realised he’d lost his train of thought and was weightless, back on the ceiling. His father and sister looked like miniature dolls. “Let’s go home, daughter. We have a funeral to prepare.” My little brother Thanh died just after Tet. The doctors said it was bacterial meningitis, the worst kind, or so I heaard. My parents don’t talk about it much. I guess it’s not the Asian thing to do, to share your feelings nonstop. I know Ma blamed herself for thinking it was the flu at first, and making Thanh drink that stupid herbal mix. Death by bitter tea. The night before he slipped away from us, I had the craziest dream. I was swimming in the ocean at Piha, where we had gone for our last family holiday together the previous spring. My arms cut through the water in long, even strokes. When I looked down at my body, I saw that I was wearing a long white ao dai. The colour of mourning. Little fish were swimming around me in a circle, in all shades of the rainbow. There was light shining on the water. I felt safe and protected, as if nothing could hurt me. I stayed in the sea a long time, my feet treading water, the skin of my fingers and toes pruning like the sour lips of an old woman. In our culture, we choose a new name for those entering the next world. Ma might have converted to Catholicism, but she was traditional at heart. She wouldn’t send her son to the afterlife without a way to go on. Come what may. We thought about it a long time, debating over whether to give him a Vietnamese or western death-name. In the end, I was the one who spoke up. The name itself was crystal clear in my head, as if Thanh himself had whispered it in my ear. “Yogi,” I said.

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