The Shadow Box was the second prize winner of the Golden Point Award 2021 organised by Arts House Limited.
With permission from Arts House Limited, the story is shared here for a limited time by the author. Please do not print, publish or redistribute without the author’s permission.
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The day I broke my sister, it was raining.
We were making our way out of the cemetery, soaked in warm pools of our own sweat mixed with earth-scented rain. With the haunting smell of jasmines still lingering, even as they were no longer wilting in the backseat of her car, I told her I was leaving that night, and I wasn’t coming back.
I waited for her response, watching the mud in our coal-dyed hair hardening; the moisture on our caramel skin evaporating in the icy draught of the air-conditioning. When she did speak, the unremitting rap of raindrops enveloping the car muffled her words.
“Why now? Why not, next week? Next month? When we can have a proper—I don’t know—a proper anything.”
“If I wait for a time when we can have a proper something, I will never leave,” I said, deliberately. Unbowed, she retorted, “You do know that you’ll never escape whatever it is that you’re trying to leave behind, don’t you, Min?”
Since my sister—this ever-wise, ever-patient, weather-worn rock of a woman—had punctuated her reply with a deep, yawning silence, the kind that could last years, I chose to shrug off her bitter prophecy. After all, at that time, less than a day after Ibu had taken her last breath, I felt invulnerable. Inviolable.
Everything that had happened after Ibu’s death had gone by in a whirlwind—of calls being made to Ibu’s few remaining relatives and friends from her mosque; of salaams that were expressed and reciprocated; of screenshots of documents that were signed and forwarded, including invoices and receipts for every step of the burial process: the booking of the imam, the request for buses to and from Lim Chu Kang, the reservation of the kind but faceless old lady from the casket services who would help us to wash, and cleanse, and shroud our mother’s body in preparation for her interment. I hadn’t even spoken once to my male cousins in the decade before Ibu’s demise, but there they were: taking over from us, following in the instructions and prayers led by the imam like the mechanical hands of a clock, and carrying our mother’s body from her house, to the hearse, to her grave.
Sister didn’t let so much as a single teardrop slip when we bathed our mother’s cold, defenceless body with our bare hands in the kitchen.
To protect her dignity, the lady had firmly wrapped Ibu in the rust-brown, bark-red batik that she had kept under her bed since Ayah left. She was then doused in so much soap, for so long, opalescent foam hung from the carved lip of the portable, stainless steel bath that she was laid in. In my hands, her shockingly short, raven hair were as wiry bristles on my skin—in her final years, it had mostly been confined within her tudung even with us. The careworn cups of her palms, the coarse bottoms of her feet were small, uneven and unfamiliar as a stranger’s, as was the recessed topography of her sunken cheeks and stiff, parted mouth. Bakhoor incense smouldered incessantly inside a charcoal-stained mabkhara pot. Tenebrous swirls of its smoky, woody essence and musky ambergris percolated the coiled calm of the kitchen. Momentarily, it delivered me to some sacred, hilltop forest in Kalimantan, where some strange, numinous cradle of ancient agarwood stood; just not here, just not now.
Only on our way back to the apartment where Ibu had lived alone and died on her own did my sister become inconsolable.
Her reticence towards me was only interrupted by the long, cavernous breaths she took as if she were drowning and gasping for air, while I fixed my gaze stubbornly on the slippery, misshapen roads. Even without looking, I could see the edgeless slate-grey skies turning over pages of rain, causing my sister to grip the steering wheel, deathly afraid of what would happen to us if she were to let go. Her spindly fingers coated with wrinkled, overworked skin, her bony shoulders shaking violently under her glossy, long-sleeved jubah dress should have worried me. They should have made me out to be the convict that my sister thought I was for daring to tunnel into the ground beneath us, only to end up in a dark abyss leading nowhere. For now, the two of us were trapped in this wretched silence as we traversed half the island; a silence that felt like too much of a well-rehearsed routine for us to expect anything more from each other. It was this same routine that helped us pull through the rest of the day, sorting through our mother’s threadbare belongings and tying up loose ends.
Around midnight, leaving without saying a word, I caught the scent of flowers and incense following me as I boarded my plane, prickling my nostrils and stinging the back of my eyes.
It was when I was seven and my sister, fourteen, that she first started to use silences to replace her full stops.
Ayah had just returned from one of his business trips to Indonesia and brought back for us a miniature shadow box theatre. I remembered it distinctly because it was rare for him to pay us any attention, much less buy us a gift—we were, after all, Ibu’s responsibility. So sister and I were perpetually arguing over who should get to play with it.
At first, we took turns to fold and unfold the flaps of the leathery, teak-framed box like a life-sized origami. We took great pains to assemble and fasten together the precisely carved and perforated stringed puppets to the various attachments that came with the box, pulling, shoving, stretching and manipulating shadow and light to create illusions of not just the gilded crowns of the seaborne kings of the Majapahit Empire, but also the armoured ear, arm and ankle cuffs of the warrior-queens shedding Portuguese blood for the Demak Sultanate. Weapons ran the gamut from the serrated sickle blade wielded by the founder of the Singhasari Kingdom, the peasant-king, Ken Arok, to the legendary, ripple-edged keris blade of Mpu Gandring that eventually killed him. Monstrously sophisticated masks depicting the shape-shifting rakshasa in the Mahabharata joined our legion of props when Ayah became involved. Yet, when he tried to sanitise our shadow plays that included the fire-forged jinns of the Hikayat Seri Rama, when it should have been the Ramayana, sister and I triumphantly ignored him. Costumes mapped out a childishly surreal cavalcade of characters in which the puppets were cosseted in kebaya stealthily cut out of Ibu’s precious gauze curtains that looked to us like patterned gossamer weaved of starlight. Or swathed in sarong that we wilfully patched together using leftover fragments of Ayah’s old silk songkets and cotton ikats.
In fact, the puppets we handcrafted were inhibited only by our imagination and were prevented from performing only when the warm-hued lamp on the back flap of the box burned out.
The more our lives became intertwined with the shadow box, the more frenzied we became as we rifled through the house looking for batteries, and taking them from Ibu’s radio and Ayah’s shaver and the torchlights that we needed whenever there was a blackout. When batteries became a scarce resource in our home, we each concocted ways to cut down on the time the other got to play with the box.
Just before bedtime, my sister would tell me stories about the so-called cursed nature of the box. According to her, some of its flaps were so pale, rigid and rough to the touch that they proved how the box was sewn out of human kulit or skin. Where it was loose and slack around the slit at its top through which the puppets were inserted and cast on stage, it resembled the flabby skin around a human belly. After that, I couldn’t help but start to imagine human sacrifices being tortured and skinned alive just to construct such boxes. A few sleepless nights later, I confessed to my sister that I had witnessed a dreadful scene in the wee hours. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the puppets becoming possessed by spirits and coming to life, I swear. With the stirring of a thousand gongs and bells flowing sensuously with the scent of intoxicating jasmines, the leaden, redolent calls of the gamelan emanated from the miniature set Ayah had used to decorate our room, and gave sentience to the puppets as they danced on my sister’s chest to an evocative tapestry of shadow and sound. Then, just before dawn, just as she was about to rise, they mischievously pinched down her eyelids and paralysed her in her sleep, refusing to let her wake up from her dreams—or was it, her nightmares?
Eventually, we frightened each other so badly that we forced Ibu to lose sleep over us.
Ibu, who worked two jobs just to take care of us. Ibu, who cared less about the shadow box that Ayah gave us, and more about the woman he bought it from—as well as the gamelan and the children’s books about the Singhasari, the Majapahit, the Demak, that we would not have known about otherwise. Until one day, I came upon the broken, scattered remains of the box on the ground floor of our house. I fell kneeling before its open wound, and looked up searchingly for its destroyer, its executioner, only to see Ibu staring wordlessly down at me with feverish savagery in her red-vined eyes.
When I heard her stalking down the stairs, I blazed towards her.
I pounced on her with my clawing hands, my gnashing teeth, pounding on her chest and beating at mine, raging at her through my veil of fiercely hot tears, my caustic grievances about her selfishness and foolishness for getting so worked out over a trifle of a thing, when she should be tearing into the other woman. After a while, I hazily remembered convincing myself that though the detached limbs of the puppets were in disarray, and the top slit of the box was ripped right through the middle, cutting it in two, it still looked like it could be put back together again; yet, by that time, only I had any stake in it.
To everyone else, the box was gone, and so were its illusions.
My sister, the all-seeing, always sensible one between us came out from our second-floor bedroom just to say my name once: “Min,” before she retreated behind her glacial silence, and I walked up obediently to her. The next day when Ayah left, Ibu’s wildness too departed. I didn’t understand it then, the shame, the shame, the shame, and what the box had set off in her, or sealed within my sister, but later, I did, and I too learned never to disrupt their silence.
This year, though it was Ibu’s tenth death anniversary, I really didn’t expect to be back.
Between bearing the costs of the Covid-19 quarantine processes and being forced to stay cooped up in a room all day, all by myself with only my work to distract me, I was contented to stay away just like I had promised my sister—except, Ayah died.
I didn’t even expect to pick up my sister’s call two weeks ago since most of the calls I had been getting were damn robocalls; but somehow, amidst that, we connected. “By the way, Min, Ayah’s dead,” she had said as an addendum to our clumsy conversation about my job, then, hers, her children, my cats, her latest hospital stay that lasted longer than the previous one did, and which sounded more serious each time.
In my mind, I was matching up the images flashing before my eyes like a slot machine and trying to recall the right combination of images for our father—the slyness of a fox, the seething potency of a tiger; I seemed to recall that Ayah was almost exclusively wearing batik and had the most perfectly coiffured hair that glistened with an argent light. A dappled grey cloud of smoke with hints of cinnamon and clove burning with a sharp, crackling sound like leaves crunching under his feet usually hid him from us. But since he left, I hadn’t seen, heard or smelled him. I hadn’t thought about him either since Ibu died. And most of all, I hadn’t known that my sister had done more than just have him at the back of her mind. She had included him in her life and counted him among her obligations. “Oh,” I started to say in reply, biting my lower lip. “After Ibu, I didn’t expect that you’d be in contact.”
“I wasn’t, at first,” my sister said quickly. With the ruckus my nieces and nephews were making behind her, I could hardly hear what she was saying, not to mention make out exactly what she meant. “But then, you outgrew the life, Min. I didn’t.”
“Besides, you’ll be back, what, next month?”
“Will I?” I asked, frowning into the floor that seemed to be melting before my eyes. “Why do you say that?”
“I saw on Facebook that you’re visiting,” she explained, and I chose not to tell her that ninety percent of the time, nobody online was truly prepared to do the things they said they would do. I also didn’t tell her I had forgotten my own sister was my ‘friend’ on Facebook. Pivoting on my delayed response, she went on: “The thing is we need to see to Ayah’s house soon.”
“What house?” I queried, breathing deeply. “Wasn’t he in Batam?”
“His family is—well, his current family—his wife and two sons.” Sister said this with such flawless stoicism I didn’t dare venture to find out more. I wanted to know—when had he returned, who had informed her of his death, had she been there when he died, and were our two half-brothers with her… Then, I thought, did I? So all I did was listen to her as she strained her voice over the noise of her young children yearning for her attention. “Well, I straightened out most things—and there’s nothing much ya since most of his life he was in debt. Not much difference in his death, really. But this house… you know… just the usual, just like with Ibu…”
“You’re going with me, Min?”
The moment her children’s cries reached a crescendo, the line died.
Assuming my sister was making more of a statement, I didn’t call back and neither did she. It wasn’t as if she was going to give me a chance to say no, was she? Yet from the few details that I could gather, I guessed that Ayah hadn’t died so recently. That she had been the one to deal with his burial, his estate and his family in Batam, I couldn’t help but wonder why she might now want my help.
If I knew anything about my sister, she could have attributed her actions to some elusive but deep-rooted sense of piety or charity. As long as someone, somewhere, had tugged on some vein distantly connected to her labyrinthine notion of family and duty, she would simply follow through—it was second nature to her.
This time, however, she had decided to rope me in—but why?
Some weeks later, in the middle of combing through and sorting out the hoards of Ayah’s mislaid memories and vain regrets into mounting heaps in our old house, I realised it was necessity that made my sister include me. Keep. Give away. Post on Carousell. Toss out. When we were left with just the master bedroom, stacked to the ceiling with things and boxes of things, the lights gave out. In an instant, we stood submerged in the crepuscular rays of the diminishing twilight, in brooding brushstrokes of atramentous violet and livid, cochineal red. To make things worse, the air-conditioning had stopped working, as did the plugged-in radio we found and was listening to, but my sister’s voice sliced easily across the room as she called out: “Min? Where are you, Min?”
“Here,” I said, dropping the document I was reading, and reaching for my phone in my back pocket. “Just use the flashlight on your phone.”
As if we were back to being children, we looked at each other through the luminous halo of our phones and giggled at our familiar predicament. We walked gingerly out of the room, made our way down the stairs to the living room, and treaded tentatively past the false monument we had erected out of Ayah’s rotten furniture, moth-eaten cushions and sun-faded magazines he had kept over the years without any discernible rhyme or reason. Toss out. In the kitchen, we skirted around another mountain of unboxed appliances and tableware, twenty sets of unused cutlery and another twenty sets of utensils in mint condition. Give away. Then, when we finally reached the circuit breaker found inside a kitchen cabinet with no doors and flipping all the switches, we understood that the electricity had indeed been cut. “Just like old times, huh,” I said, sweat streaming down my forehead.
“You can joke about it now,” mumbled my sister, perspiring even more than I was in her shimmery tudung spun from the rain-touched feathers of crows roosting at dusk. Pointing out to her that there were only the two of us in the house, she said: “You know, I’m so used to wearing it.”
After that, I didn’t pursue it further.
With the scorching April heat turning the dirt-encrusted, water-stained walls into liquid, I was even able to ignore the thought that my own sister had felt our old house was a stranger’s house. Or worse, that I was the stranger. While I was ready to call it a night, it was she who reminded me that I only had a few days left till my flight back. So we got to work looking for the candles we had found earlier in the week, lit them and returned to our separate corners.
Under the citrine, dust-laden candlelight, we ploughed through piles of insect-ridden clothes from bell-bottom denims to old-fashioned military jackets and steel-toed work boots which were too small for Ayah. Binned. We excavated vintage pulp comics that Ayah never told us about, of Badang, the legendary strongman who threw a massive sandstone rock into the Singapore River, and Radin Mas, the runaway princess from Java who ended up sacrificing herself to save her father. Sell. When the room was nearly empty, I unearthed a cherry-red Gibson acoustic guitar with corroded strings, which fell with such a jarring, solid clang when it slipped out of my grasp that it made my sister wince. Give away.
“None of these belonged to Ayah,” declared my sister as an after-thought as we brought down the last two boxes from the top of a cupboard. They were unexpectedly light, and when I opened one of them, I found letters written in Ayah’s hand. No sooner had I started to read than I heard my sister ask, “What are you looking at?”
“I think… these are… to Ibu?”
“Are they?” my sister asked, squinting her eyes at the intricate penmanship of the time-worn letters in my hand. For a few seconds, she appeared torn between putting them behind her once and for all, and taking them from me to read them, risking uncovering a life that neither of us had ever truly given a chance. Hearing the creasing sounds of the black trash bag that my sister had been grudgingly dragging around as she cleaned the room, I knew she had decided to discard them. “These must be from a lifetime ago,” she said, mostly to herself.
“Wait, aren’t those… important?”
“They’re kind of… a memento, no?”
“Memento?” In the dim, flickering light of the candles burning unsteadily in the stifling night air, my sister’s eyes of molten ebony gleamed with incredulity. For the first time since we met again, I noticed the deep, weighted wrinkles she bore under her eyes and around her mouth, which made the rest of her features appear incredibly pale. I never expected that she would look so gaunt, so withered in just these few years—no, this last decade. With a shaky, almost embarrassed smile, my sister whispered, “Sorry. I didn’t know you wanted them.”
“Look, it’s not like I want them,” I objected hastily.
“No, Min. You can keep them—I just didn’t know you wanted to read them.”
“I don’t want to read them,” I insisted, taking the letters from my sister’s outstretched hand and dropping them inside her trash bag. If this sinkhole of a room had just been that tad bit more illuminated, I would have seen the relief spreading across her face when I did that. “It’s not like I want to read them… It’s just that… It’s just that I’ve started wondering if I should’ve visited him or talked to him one last time…”
“Talked to who?”
To that, my sister’s response was silence. It flowed in thick, viscous waves of unspoken intentions between us like a fog in a storm, the foam out at sea.
As she walked towards me, still with the black trash bag trailing behind her, I instinctively held my breath. Yet all she did was to touch the top of my hand and headed for the other box. So frosty were her fingers in this sultry heat, I thought to stop her. I thought to demand that she take a break, at least, but I was suddenly distracted. Watching my sister finally releasing the trash bag and using both her hands to purge the box of its contents, I saw her pulling out the flattened remnants of our once-cherished plaything—our shadow box. Only a few of its flaps were intact and none of its puppets survived, but I recognised it by the wrinkled skin of its screen covered in thick, powdery patches of mildew. “Wait, isn’t that…?”
“Don’t you remember what that is?”
“What is it?”
“It’s our old shadow box,” I said, my soul blistering with the memory of what it once was. I didn’t know why but I started laughing when my sister brought the box close to the candlelight and played around with the silly, bizarre shapes like Rorschach inkblots being projected on the walls around us. With a smile, I said, “We used to play with it all the time when we were kids, do you remember? When Ayah left, Ibu broke it. I didn’t think he’d actually keep it.”
“Hm?” I heard my sister hum softly in response, folding the shadow box in a meditative manner and turning to me. After a while, I realised that she was laughing under her breath too as she said, “What are you saying, Min? It was you who broke it—not Ibu.”
“What did you say?”
A chill pervaded the room.
My heart pulsing in my brain, the air in my lungs being sapped of its oxygen, I caught sight of the tiny hairs on the back of my arms standing upright in the numbing cold. I wanted to snap at my sister. I wanted to believe it was my right to rail against her for making such a careless accusation that I had been the one to destroy the shadow box when it was clearly Ibu, but again, my attention was diverted. I imagined that my sister and I had become tangled in the waxy filaments of a gigantic spider’s web, but instead of escaping, we were spellbound by its comforting cocoon of warmth and light emitting from the searing hot flames of the candles. The longer we looked at the unnaturally still flames, the more they appeared as fossilised carnelians offering us the secret to stretching seconds into minutes, and transmuting night into light. I couldn’t help it that my voice came out of me in a near whimper when I asked my sister again: “Could you repeat what you said?”
“Don’t you remember, Min? It was you who smashed the box at Ibu’s feet.”
“But I…” I murmured unwillingly. “But why would I do that?”
“I can’t remember exactly, but I don’t think you meant to hurt her.”
“Did I? Hurt Ibu?”
When I was finally able to tear my gaze away from the candles and look at my sister, the afterburn effect of the teardrop-shaped flames on my retinas hid her features from me. I couldn’t tell if she had nodded or shaken her head, but outside of her amber-singed silhouette, I thought I had seen my sister edging closer to the door. “Then, what was I…? Why was I…?” I tried to ask my sister, but she seemed to know precisely what was on my mind.
“Look, don’t think too much on it,” she said in her kindliest tone. “I think you just wanted to stop her, or maybe, stop them.”
“Ibu and Ayah.”
“I didn’t know… I couldn’t remember that Ayah was there at all…”
“Well, by that time, they were constantly arguing. Things were being thrown about. They were hurling all kinds insults at each other,” explained my sister, sounding like she hadn’t even heard me as she told herself the story. “But you should know, that if you hadn’t done it—if you hadn’t stopped them—I would have. So—”
“Kak,” I cut her off, suffocated, a sharp intake of breath in my throat. “But this means that I was the one who took the box away from us—not Ibu.”
“Min, I don’t care about who did what to the box—”
“—I know, but Ibu—”
“—I can’t care less about who said what first, or who did what next—you know, I… I…”
My sister hesitated, and in that split second of uncertainty, of restraint, her purpose scattered. The swell of silence that she had been nurturing and feeding with time and memory, and I had allowed to fester, stayed; a waning echo in our woods.
Before I could stop her, my sister started for the door again.
She passed under the doorway, holding on to the last of the shadow box with its crumbling teak and disintegrating leather, and turned to me fleetingly. By now, the ruddy red candle flames were back to being writhing kingsnakes stuck in a den, casting both of us in its theatrical show of smoke and light, and making us dance across the floor, against the walls, on the ceiling above us.
© Sofia Mariah Ma
Images courtesy of Pexel artists: Marilena Anastasiadou, Arminas Raudys, David Gan, Eva Elijas & Frank Platt.