It was that time of the evening when the birds, ducks, geese and chickens had quietened down after their raucous chirping, quaking, squawking and cackling as they busied themselves to roost for the night. The sun had just dipped behind Bukit Bendara*, and twilight had long set in.
* Penang Hill
The smoke from burning sampah (rubbish) in the compound of a house rose slowly straight up, indicating the atmosphere was heavy and without a twitch of breeze. Apart from the smoke, everything in the kampong (village) appeared to be frozen still at that moment when day gave way to night but night hadn’t yet claimed her hold. It was then neither yang nor ying, a moment that Malays termed as senjakala (dusk).
The more superstitious kampong folks, especially the Chinese, believe that during this brief transition of time, a mysterious portal opens momentarily, allowing egress and ingress with the netherworld.
But a young lad of, hmmm, around 15 was seen walking up the dirt track of the hillside where his kampong was located. He had a travelling bag slung over his right shoulder. After two weeks outstation (in another State) during the school holidays he had returned home, to prepare for the new school term.
Tired after the long trip back by bus, ferry and then bus again, he trudged up wearily, with another two hundred metres to go before he reached his house. He was just about to pass the girls’ home. The girls? Just his kampong neighbours and closest friends. There were three sisters in that family of parents, granny and a 23-year old aunt, the younger sister of the mum.
Invariably, he looked at the house as he walked past it, and saw the aunt alone by the gates. She was dressed in that typical kampong evening wear, pajamas and face smeared earlier with liquid bedak but now hardened on her oval face. Bedak is a Malaysian powder that’s very popular in kampongs. When dissolved in water into liquid form, it would be applied on the face and body, possessing almost the properties of calamine lotion. Bedak has a pleasant cooling and soothing effect and perhaps served also as an anti-mosquito repellent.
The aunt smiled at him in that mysterious way that was sweet yet seemed sad. Naturally he smiled back at ‘Auntie’ as he had always respectfully addressed her. He liked ‘Auntie’ because though an adult she was very understanding to the teenagers. He called out: "Auntie, chea pah ar buoi?” in that timeless Chinese Malaysian kampong greeting of “Auntie, have you eaten well?” (or, "taken your dinner?").
All she did was continued smiling in that mysterious way without a word. He wasn’t surprised that she didn’t reply nor acknowledge his salutation, and accepted it as one of those given’s, where adults enjoyed that privilege of not being obligated to respond to teenagers or kids.
In another short five minutes he was home, greeted his family, provided a quick summary of his two weeks away, had a good kampong bath of well water in his sarong-ed bottom half, dined on mum’s great fried rice (leftovers from yesterday), and typically of kampong kids, scooted out of the house before he was asked to perform chores. It was by then tropical dark.
Being a wee fatigued he decided not to see his friends who would undoubtedly be at the marketplace but instead went to the house of the 3 sisters to regale them with his holiday adventures. They were delighted to see him though they appeared rather subdued, a vast change from their normal exuberant nature.
After the normal salutations with the parents and granny who were in the back of the house, he went back to the hall and asked Swee Lan, the eldest sister where was ‘Auntie’, as he couldn’t spot her anywhere. Three pair of young eyes stared at him angrily. He waited for Swee Lan’s response but the 3 girls continued to stare him down.
Somewhat intimidated he finally asked: “Ai, har mee soo?” (What’s the matter?)
Swee Lan was the first to speak up, and rather sternly too: “It’s not funny, you know.”
“Funny? What's funny?”
Suddenly the penny dropped for Swee Lan when she realised that the boy had been away for 2 weeks. Tears started to well in her eyes (same for the other two girls) as she said sadly: “Auntie was killed 7 days ago with her boyfriend. They were on his bike when a lorry smashed into them.”
Stunned! But … but … no, it just cannot be!
The boy’s mind raced back to just less than an hour ago when he saw ‘Auntie’ standing silently by the house gate, smiling so mysteriously at him.
Died seven days ago? Yet he did see her! Absolutely, affirmatively and undeniably he saw her!
This is a true story.
I was that boy.