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Featured Story • January 2018

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When the Bough Breaks

 

Jaymee Goh

 
 

Hillview Heights was a luxury condominium. Fresh air, great view, built against the hillside. Between the hill and the condo was the recreation area: a tennis court, a swimming pool, and a playground. We could play there without our parents and we wouldn’t accidentally run off the cliffside. The floors beneath the condominium, among the foundational pillars, were car parks, and their ceilings were tall, twice as tall as our dads, allowing air to circulate through, so it didn’t get stuffy. Visitors had to park on the lower levels, then take the elevator up five floors before reaching the lobby. It looked very Wawasan 2020, with blue tinted windows and gray frames. The floors in the lobby and the corridors were all marble.

My family moved there when it opened, when I was Standard Four. The school was far away, a forty-minute bus ride, but that didn’t seem important. I was so excited to move—my mother took me shopping in the newly opened IKEA and let me help her choose the new furniture. I got to choose what colour my bedroom could be. Not that I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, because I spent a lot of time out in the playground. The adults jokingly called the recreation area “the cradle,” because of the way the side of the hill was cut into for the condominium building to rest on, so condo and hill enclosed us kids when we played.

From a distance, Hillview looked like a blue bubble sitting on skinny legs, and I could see the parked cars even from far. A foreigner, one of Dad’s friends, from Russia I think, once commented that it looked like a modern Baba Yaga chicken hut, brooding over its eggs.

* * *

We all moved in from various parts of the country. Some straight from the kampong, and some from the city, and others from normal houses, families trickling in over a year or two. When we first met each other, at a condo-wide housewarming event, those of us who had lived there longer already had the first stories to tell the newcomers.

At night, when the wind blows, sometimes it will sound like something is scratching at your window, like a tree branch knocking, except there’s nothing there.

Sometimes it sounds like there’s somebody walking in the hallway but there’s actually nobody.

You can feel that weird feeling on every floor.

The adults caught us telling each other the stories and spent the rest of the evening telling ghost stories. Normal, what! Haiya, every place sure got ghost story one! So we thought, okay lor.

* * *

Jasvinder we found in the corner of the car park, crumpled in a puddle. It had been raining hard, and the car park had had a small flood. The water flowed down the floors of the car park like a waterfall, coming up to our ankles, providing us with hours of entertainment, until it snatched Jasvinder from us. Those who saw had run home screaming, and the adults had scoured the parking lot searching for the source of the hysteria. They had found him long after the rains had stopped, leaving large puddles everywhere.
I pushed past the legs of the adults to see, even though they pushed me back. He was still twitching, even in death, and exposed wires lay across the floor, submerged. The puddle hummed.

“We need to make sure that children do not play alone,” the head of the residents’ association announced. “The car park is not a place for children to play! This tragic accident could have been avoided.”

Jasvinder’s parents were shamed for not keeping an eye on their son. Never mind that they couldn’t afford an extra set of eyes, and their waking hours were spent either caring for Mr. Singh’s aging mother or working with a two-hour commute. Old Mrs. Singh’s rheumy eyes, understanding even in the helpless post-stroke paralysis, teared up when my mother dragged me to visit her.

It wasn’t the car park. It was them. Mukesh, whose family moved in at the same time as mine, huddled up against me when we next played hide-and-seek. It was harder to play the game with him on my team; he wasn’t a good hider. But he was one of those who had seen Jasvinder snatched up into the shadows and snapped into half, and he was terrified of being alone afterwards.

* * *

The bus uncle knew. He didn’t help. He would yell at us to stop shouting at the back, because we often had to yell at each other to talk over the sound of the engine. When the bus wound the cliffside road from our block to the school, the trees by the edge of the cliff shook with the shadows. They followed us to and from school. During recess, we played under the watchful supervision of the teachers. We never dared go beyond the playground, unlike the other kids.

There was a difference between the kids who lived in Hillview, and those who didn’t. The kids who didn’t live in Hillview called us “sombong,” “manja,” or, in whispers, “gila.” We couldn’t blame them: we did mostly stick to ourselves, and we were the kids of rich people. We were also the ones with all the ghost stories, so many that they couldn’t be real.

* * *

Lai Min fell sick one weekend. I went to visit him. While our mothers sat in the living room, sharing recipes for dealing with fevers, I sat by his bedside, reading for him what he had missed in school. Lai Min was very kiasu about school, and read on the bus ride often. He would sit up front, by the bus uncle, and ignore us when we asked him anything.

“It’s the hantu, you know,” he said suddenly while I was reading.

“Hah?”

“It’s them. They make me like this.”

“How you know?” I asked.

“You can see them in the bus uncle’s mirror. That’s why he’s always shouting. It’s not because of you. It’s because of them. I got angry at them because they spoil my book.”

“Which book?”

“Neh, the one I was reading last week, remember? My papa got for me one.”

Lai Min had dropped the book when the bus had gone over a bad bump. It fell onto a puddle on the floor, and Lai Min screamed and yelled in response. We had watched in silence, because although we agreed that he was overreacting and being childish, we also knew he cared about books very much. Later we would laugh about him shouting at the air, even though we secretly knew what he was shouting at.

“This is because I scolded them,” he explained, then started coughing violently.

I jumped back, because he was coughing up blood. His mother came to investigate, exclaimed over the sight, and my mother grabbed me away and out of the apartment in case it was contagious.

“He’s sick because of the hantu, Auntie,” I said to his mother. “We need to get the bomoh!” Then my mother jerked me out of the room.

“Don’t frighten Auntie Doreen like that,” my mother scolded me, her grip tight as we walked down the corridor to our condo. “You know she’s a Christian! They don’t believe such things.”

Lai Min died the next day. We all had stories about our parents feeding us vile soups, taking us for painful vaccinations, or putting up charms around the house, the whole fortnight after.

* * *

Bus uncle got a nicer bus, so we didn’t have to shout anymore. The nicer seats also forestalled the worst of the roughhousing. But we sat together tightly. No one ever by themselves, with space in between. Because each of us has taken turns, sitting up where Lai Min used to sit, and seen them in bus uncle’s mirror.

There were moments when I thought bus uncle would talk to our parents, and take our side. But our parents never spoke to him for him to have that chance. They gave us our monthly bus money to pay him. He would accept it, check off the bus card to mark the payment, and say nothing. Even with a nicer bus, the bus driver is still a bus driver, and not enough for our parents to take seriously.

I sometimes watched him in the rearview mirror, and wondered what he was thinking when his eyes darted across the mirror, as if to check on us, counting us to make sure we were all still there. I wondered what he himself saw. I never asked. Some things cannot be asked.

* * *

Eugene was my best friend, for a time. By the playground, there was a rock face that we climbed often, our fingers and toes finding purchase in crevices. We would climb as far up as we dared, then jump back down and do it again. It became a game for us, and perhaps we spent hours at it, continually practising our pathway upwards, or trying out something different.

“Careful, Ah Gene!” his mother would call from their condo window, where her kitchen overlooked the playground. Eugene’s family lived on the first floor, so she could come down faster than anyone else.

We would then jump down, giggle, and climb up again.

“Dorothy,” my mother called to me from our window one day. “Come and help me with Baby.”

I jumped down. Eugene looked down at me from his perch, and smiled. “My mum is watching. Don’t worry!”

His funeral was two days after. The back of his skull had chipped, and he’d bled into his brain.

Later, when we had our own subdued playtime hour mourning for Eugene, Mukesh talked about how he had seen them pry Eugene’s fingers off the rocks. “I hide at the slide! I saw! They push him off!”

“You idiot!” I shrieked, suddenly angry. “Why didn’t you do anything!” I launched myself at him, to beat his stupid scaredy face in.

Mukesh yelled back and we fought for at least ten minutes until adults came running to stop us.

“He saw, Daddy!” I screamed as my dad carried me under his arm away from the playground. “He saw them kill Eugene and didn’t stop them! It’s his fault!”

“You think I also want to die is it!” Mukesh shouted back at me from over his dad’s shoulder. Both men had to carry us to the same elevator, so we continued our shouting match. “They belasah the back of his head before they make him fall! You think, what, you so brave!”

“I never leave him alone before! They don’t hurt us when we’re not alone!”

“He wasn’t alone! They were never alone! We are always there!” Mukesh sobbed. “You think they care?”

I said sorry later when Hui Ling came to visit me, to tell me she and her elder sister had been watching from their window. “You didn’t have to beat him up, Dorothy,” she said. “It’s not like he could have done anything.” It’s not like anybody could have done anything, at all.

* * *

“What is it, about our children? Why do you think they talk like that?” I heard my father say on the phone once. “They’re so superstitious, like they can explain simple accidents away with a ghost story or two. Do you think they’ll ever grow out of it?”

We switched bus drivers a couple of times. Our parents collectively decided they didn’t like our bus uncle, didn’t like the way we smelled after coming off his bus, because he took to hanging jampi in the windows and burning incense in the bus to cleanse it. Most of us kids didn’t think the jampi actually worked in keeping the spirits off the bus, but he was a careful driver, and at least he didn’t die for his efforts.

* * *

Looking back, Mukesh was right. Someone was somehow always there. If not Mukesh, then someone else. I myself saw one or two bad “falls,” that became infections, that led to death, because the hospital was so far away. I also saw the shadows responsible for them, flitting away as the screams began, or sitting where the falls had happened afterward. We began to hang out in threes, fours, fives. Mukesh was especially sensitive to what he saw.

Izzati quizzed Mukesh on what he had seen a lot. He ignored her a lot, but she insisted.

“Leave him alone lah, can’t you see he don’t want to talk?” one of us would say, because we were afraid that if she pushed too hard, he would respond badly.

“I’m just asking,” she would reply huffily. “Maybe we do something wrong?”

Izzati came from a very moderate family. They didn’t fast during Ramadan, and read a lot of Western books. She had several books of fairy tales, and would show them to us sometimes.

“Maybe it’s because we tak minta izin,” she suggested once. It made a lot of sense; spirits got angry if they weren’t asked permission for anything.

“So?” Mukesh asked, an angry look in his eye. We all noticed it and just didn’t want to say anything.

“So we should minta maaf lor,” she replied, as if that was the simplest solution. She never elaborated on who “we” were, and what forgiveness meant.

She came up with an elaborate ritual. It involved all the sticks we could find in the playground, some chicken bones she had scraped from kitchen garbage, a banana leaf, and some incense. We continued to play around her while she gabbled her magic.

Her little sister, Izrina, was more terlalu. Izrina was convinced that they were fairies, and they could be friendly. She had a favourite Western rhyme she would recite, and come up with melodies for. She taught it to some of the younger kids.

“Come away, O human child! To the woods, and the wild!”

It would be okay until she started dancing. She moved her body like she was pretending to be a snake, and waved her hands over her head. As she picked up the pace, the other younger children would join her and they would shriek in unison.

The first time Hui Ling and I saw this strange dance, her eyes widened, and she stared at me meaningfully.

“They’re just kids,” I told her. “They’ll be okay.” The cradle was still the safest place for us to be.

But Izrina was not okay. She began packing a backpack with stones she claimed were magical. She also snuck extra packets of nasi lemak from school. Wearing the backpack, she would practise climbing the rock face.

“What are you doing, Izrina?” I asked her. “Don’t you remember that Eugene died like that?”

“Up there, you see, there’s a lubang babi,” she replied, pointing up. There was an arch, an opening between shrubs right where the rock face ended. They were called pig holes when they were on the roadsides because it was where pigs, and other animals, passed through often enough that it became a worn path.

“So . . . ?”

She gave me an innocent smile. “I just think we can find them if we went through there.” Then she began climbing again.

“Don’t lah, Izrina. What if you also die?”

“I’m not going to die.”

Poor Izrina! She was so sure that the rhyme was real. We older kids kept an eye on her as she kept climbing. But we also had our own business, and one day, we heard the sound of the younger kids’ shouting change.

We ran to the rock face, where Izrina had climbed past the safe height where it was still okay to jump down from. If she slipped, she would get hurt, and die like Eugene.

“Rina! Jangan! Jangan!”

“Come back, Izrina!” Izzati cried. She began climbing the rock face after her sister.

“No!” I ran to grab Izzati. “Call Uncle Sham! Auntie Kalsom! Hurry!”

By the time an adult had heard us and came down, it was too late. Izrina had disappeared into the forest.

Fathers and policemen hunted all night. Izrina’s name echoed from across the hillside for three days. A rare helicopter came roaring past our condominium. Luckily it was dry season, and the other side of the hill was being cleared for a new hiking park. There was still a lot of forest to look through, though.

While the search went on, Izzati and her mother began praying more than five times a day. They both wore the tudung, and Izzati stopped playing with us. We tried to visit to console her, but she ignored us, even though the wooden door was open and we called from the steel security door. Instead, she knelt in the living room, bent over the family Quran.

I was doing homework with Hui Ling and Mukesh when we spotted the helicopter pass, with a black bag on the end of a rope.

“What’s that?” Hui Ling asked first.

The three of us watched as the helicopter flew down the hillside, away towards the town.

* * *

We never grew out of it. We just learned how to never talk about it to the adults. I wish I learned how to make them see.

Maybe we got used to it: the scratching at the window, the echoing footsteps down the corridors, the twitches of darkness in the corner of our eyes just as we turned. Even the cradle wasn’t safe anymore; we could feel the edges leering at us, waiting for one of us to step out of line. Sometimes a window would shatter and a worker would come fix it. Sometimes a worker would fall out a shattered window. Sometimes it would be one of us.

On occasion we would hear adults arguing with each other about the reasons for the various deaths. Bad feng shui, carelessness, stress, the Indonesian workers who built the condos, the corrupt contractors who cut corners while finishing the building—anything and everything they could think of, except what we tried to tell them.

* * *

The day after we finished our PMR, Mukesh refused to come home from school. I had taken to holding hands with friends, to make sure none of us got left behind anywhere. He pulled his hand away from mine as we headed for the bus.

“I’m not going,” he said.

We turned, almost in unison.

“They hate us there. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go back.”

“But your papa will get angry!”

“I don’t care.” Mukesh firmly sat down on a canteen bench. “Tell bus uncle that I’m not going home today.”

Bus uncle was perturbed, but when he looked over the parking lot, to the canteen where Mukesh sat in full view, staring back, he nodded.

At dinner, I asked my father if he heard that Mukesh didn’t come home, and what Mukesh’s father did.

“Ha? Why not?”

“Mukesh think this place got ghost mah. That’s why so many people die.”

“These keling-yan,” my mother said, shaking her head. “So superstitious.”

“Do you think this place got ghost?” my father asked.

I shrugged.

“Don’t need to give the girls such bad ideas, can or not?” my mother told him later that night. I heard them through my bedroom wall. It was late at night so they probably thought I was asleep. It was the only way I got any kind of information from them. “Dorothy already got such an active imagination. I don’t want Mandy to be the same.”

“If she’s not happy here, then we should move before the price gets lower,” my dad replied. “Sham sold for half the price he paid, and I think Raj is going to sell at a loss too. His son threatened to kill himself, you know.”

“So bad! So how?”

“So cannot lah, they have to stay with Raj’s sister in Bandar Kantan.”

“That boy . . . so much trouble.”

“I thought Mukesh was a good boy,” my father said, surprised. “He always comes to our place to study.”

“Haiya, he looks kwai lah, but everytime got accident, he’s the first one to say he saw a ghost.”

* * *

Mukesh got to move away. The rest of us didn’t. We do our best to ignore the darkness at the edges of our vision. We do our homework. Hillview kids are now known for being hardworking straight-A students, even though we’re clearly weird. We never go anywhere without our parents. That’s fine, we tell each other. We’ll wait until SPM, then we can go to college, get out of here, just like the older kids have. And their families moved away too, to be close to them.

“You think, maybe Mukesh was going to be next?” Hui Ling asks me out of the blue while we are studying for SPM.

I look up from my Physics mock exam.

“You think he knew? That’s why he didn’t come home.”

I sip at my Yeo’s box drink. “Why you suddenly ask?”

Hui Ling shrugs. “It’s been years since someone died. Like they only stopped after Mukesh.”

For a time, Mukesh wrote letters to us, urging us to move away. We haven’t heard from him in a while, come to think of it. I miss him. He was so brave.

We have new neighbours. Their children are still very small. One family works for Parliament, another is a tai-khor’s second wife. It feels like all of a sudden, there’re so many kids. My mother doesn’t like that there is a gangster family living in our building, but their kids seem okay, and she says that she missed hearing children play.

They don’t play in the cradle, though. It’s always covered in mud from the hillside these days, and no matter how often the sweepers clean it away, the next rainstorm washes more mud down.

The rainstorms won’t let up, and I don’t like how slippery the floor has become. At least, my mother said, we’re not getting flooded, because we live on a hill. It makes me think of a happy time when I went playing in the car park with my friends, kicking water at each other and splashing it around. I remember how it felt, between my toes.

Something is groaning under our feet, and it frightens me.

I am doing homework at the dining table, with my mother sitting in front of me, reading a recipe book. Our ceiling light flickers all of a sudden, then explodes. I raise my arms to shield my face from the falling lightbulb shards, and I hear the sounds of a television newscast, interviewing experts who are talking about how the hillside gave way under the strain of supporting the condominium. Out the corner of my eye, I see a shadow flitting after a skittering shard. I feel it grin.

I can’t wonder about what’s happening, because under my bare soles, I feel the floor cracking, and under the building, I feel the earth running off for years and years, unnoticed by us. I shriek and flail my arms, as I’m jerked out of my chair, tumbling down the tilted slippery floor to slam against the glass door of our balcony. In the distance I see the other condominium blocks, someone at their balcony, mouth open wide. I can’t hear what they’re screaming because I’m also screaming and my mother is also screaming and the walls are screaming as they crack. I get another flash: rescuers trying to salvage our buried bodies.

One hand reaching out for my mother, I try to force the glass door open, anything, anything to avoid being inside. The glass door is stuck; the frame is broken. I bang my hand on the glass to shatter it even as the ground rises up to meet us. A bookcase totters out of its corner and slams against my mother’s back. Textbooks fall around my ears as she slams into me, pages whispering about how the nation will speak of the landslide for weeks.

They never wanted us here. They finally have their wish.

 
 

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Jaymee Goh is a Malaysian science-fiction writer, poet, editor, and academic. She recently finished a PhD dissertation on steampunk and whiteness.

She tells us that “When the Bough Breaks” is loosely based on the Highland Towers collapse in her home state at the end of 1993, combined with local myths of forest spirits.

 

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