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 in its partial form 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, 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.
© Sofia Mariah Ma
Images courtesy of Pexel artists: Marilena Anastasiadou, Arminas Raudys, David Gan, Eva Elijas & Frank Platt.