Thursday, 6 May 2010

Growing Quiet

My mother was always more surprised than exasperated by the things I brought home. I once found an old glass aquarium by the rubbish bins. I brought it home, staggering to set it down gently, promptly filled it with grass and crickets; and over the next few years followed guppies, frogs, worms, tadpoles, ants, and lizards, the last of which I captured after a mad dash through the bushes. Calotes versicolor. Changeable lizard. Soft to the touch, their bodies warm and thin in my hands, scales textured in mottled colors, round markings. Their pointed heads, red with anger, studied me with bulbous eyes, their white-lipped mouths agape, pale and pink-tongued. Their tiny hearts beat like clockwork in my hands, chests trembling with quick-drawn breaths.

There were, of course, other reptiles. Cosymbotus platyurus and Gehyra mutilate. Flat-tailed and four-clawed geckos that chirped at ungodly hours and left little black contributions on the windowsill. Geckos my mother insisted I chase and throw outside—any place would have sufficed, as long as they weren’t in the house. And so I obliged. I always wondered what they thought when they went flying through the air, their wallflower life replaced by one of sudden flight.

We once made the most fantastic gecko trap. It was all a chance occurrence. No one had thought of it until it happened by accident. Someone left the bottle of Ribena open on the shelf, only a thumb’s-depth of red, sluggish cordial left in the bottom. I came down to make toast the next morning and found a gecko floating on this tiny Red Sea, held aloft by surface tension. My mother, delighted with the contraption, left the bottle open for another night. Its comrade came to meet the same sticky end. They did not die right away. They waited as death-row inmates, held immobile in Ribena, for Death to come. I saw them blink at me. My mother only stopped the game when ants began to congregate around the bodies, tiny looters that filled mouths and dull, yellow eyes.

Apart from the occasional killing, I spent my days peacefully, preoccupied with animals. My sister and I not only cared for cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, and birds, but also the slow and graceful turtle. We bought two thumbnail specimens at the pet store and kept them in a shallow bucket filled with water and a resting stone. One never surfaced. He, the water creature, drowned. We found him wedged between a rock and a hard place, and we buried him unceremoniously in the garden. The one who lived soon grew too big, and we released him in the pond at the Botanic Gardens. We buried a great many pets in the backyard. I was sorry to see them go.

In this manner I found my place in the world, firmly rooted within the porcelain pleasures of childhood. I knew that my backyard—that great, green wherein I lived and breathed and had my being—would not last the hour. It was a minute in life, regrettably short, and so I grew roots into the earth and loved my home. It was not much to look at, but it had grass and skies and trees to sustain my feverish imagination. Dilapidated white stone houses lined the roads. Our house, too, needed a fresh coat of paint, and the clay roof shingles had slipped in several places. I never noticed its condition back then—I was loathe to notice anything but fairies—unless it rained. The roof leaked.

It was little wonder. Tropical rain is not to be trifled with. It has a distinct character, a short temper, a quick burnout but I loved its fury. The storms would roll in from the jungle behind the houses on the hill; and I would watch its advent from my window. The clouds would swell fat, rising in purple towers, gathering the world into a final breath--waiting, waiting for the end. The birds stifled their song. The horizon trembled as the beast turned, his arched back breaking into streaks of light. The sky was gray—green—then sickly yellow.

I wanted to be closer to the storm, darting down the stairs to throw open the veranda door. Mamma had shut the windows, Pappa had pulled the laundry down from the line—I arrived in time to smell the rain. The storm broke above me with a deafening crash. The sky seemed to fly to pieces, shattering in a fit of rage. Thunder rumbled, the wind whipping the trees into a frenzy. Rain stood like rods to the ground, each drop indistinguishable from the next. The world was water, dripping, running, seeping. It poured into the earth, began to fill the drains.

Cold, I went indoors and watched from behind the safety of a sheet of glass. I followed the forming streams and rivulets. The rain fell on my account. Its power spent, the storm soon abated, its anger stilled to a whisper. The leaves glistened green in the late sunshine, gently dripping with an amusing self-esteem. They had survived. I went outside to feel the mud squelch between my toes, only to discover a strange sight. The rains had filled an air pocket between the grassroots and the soil, raising a welt in the grass. I let out a yell. "Come see!"
Mamma and my sister came to the veranda door and watched as I toed the bump, this green carpet undulating like a water bed. Sofia was equally excited—she tread the bulge--but our footsteps were beginning to disturb the delicate balance. Mamma (in a rare moment of silliness) wanted her turn too. She stepped up, triumphant, and laughed at the strange feel of it. Unfortunately, it did not last--the water-welt deflated like a manhandled sea cucumber.

Mamma went inside. Sofia followed. I looked up to see that dusk had stolen into view. Distracted, I had not seen the night fall, as I always did. The crickets tuned their bows. I thought I glimpsed lights in the trees. Fairies, I wanted to tell myself. But I couldn’t. A shame too, I knew. I wanted to believe, but my imaginationhad grown quiet with the years, shushed by other thoughts, each elbowing for their rightful place. I could feel it as I stood and listened to the night. I was growing deaf. My fantasies, too large and cumbersome to bring to school, too silly to take out and show to company, were put aside, forced into that dreadful corner, among lost socks and forgotten lyrics. One day I would have to put such childish ways behind me and learn to sit up straight. To listen, to know the law, to make friends. To keep them. And my efforts to stem this tide were hopeless.


Natalie said...

This seems vaguely familiar, a snippet of an earlier work you sent me?

Jana Tan said...

love it!!!