What They Tell Me

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ann Ang


dead sparrow
Photo Credit: magnetisch/Thomas

It was a Sunday morning when I opened the front door and noticed a slip of yellow paper on our copy of the news. “Make me a channel of your peace,” I read. I hid it quickly.

From the teak cabinet by the door, the phone rang: a mundane sound shrilling over the tinkle of the neighbors’ piano. I picked up the phone and they told me that my daughter is dead.

“Be prepared,” the police said. “Stay at home, Mrs. Tang. Make sure your husband does too.”

I handed the receiver to him.

My husband said that we must be prepared; the police will be over in half an hour.

I replied, “This is rubbish. How can we know that Kelly is dead?” So much of what we hear today is unreliable, made up of accidents and half-truths: Daisy milk lighter and sweeter than a yoga pose, Dettol shower foam that protects your family against 99% more bacteria than regular soap, a world made of Cadbury chocolate. The headline from The Straits Times squawked, “Obama risks losing chance to build ties.”

Half a year ago, before our daughter left for university, we hired a new Filipino maid. Six months after, she began burning the rice and leaving the kitchen floor wet and slippery, I took one of his cigarette stubs and branded her arm, twice. “Now you’ll remember. It’s very simple,” I said. “Two parts water to one part rice. Measure it with your finger. Dry the floor.”

My husband paced the hall. “My girl, my little girl,” he said. “Lying out there beside the road next to the park.” He picked up the phone twice and each time he put it down as if he were placing a dead sparrow in his pocket. He covered his face and breathed through his fingers. “Those church meetings. Those cell groups. Coming back late.”

I said nothing, folding the bright yellow slip into a small square.

“I knew there would be trouble when she said that mega-church wanted ten percent of her salary. I knew she wouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not dead,” I said calmly.

My husband came over and put his hand on my shoulder. “We need to find out what happened.”

“Why do you have so much faith in the police? In what they tell you?”

He stood up. “Is this more of that God-rubbish you said you left behind?”

“No, but I am prepared.”

I have always prepared her as I have prepared myself. When Kelly was six months old we sent her for the necessary vaccines, but when Father Wong called I did not answer the phone. I’ve learnt how not to respond when you are angry, like when Sister Anna came to look for me. God was there, but you lived on, focused on what was important: money for food, a secure job, paying off the house.

A year later Kelly had her boosters. I started her on books at a year-and-a-half and phonics classes when she was three. She topped her class in nursery. When she entered primary school, I told her to say nothing during prayer time. I wanted her to have a carefree childhood—I knew what it was like to stand before stained glass and have one’s soul exposed and stolen. The light lifted your limbs; you felt the urge to weep; time passed. Why subject a child to all this? In our country, decent people try not to talk about such things. They remind us that we are different: Malay, Indian, Chinese.

So I have prepared her for a prestigious scholarship. She has gone for piano lessons, for brain fitness lessons with Adam Khoo. Now she is in medical school: a concerned and careful citizen. I have prepared her for life by hiding the crucifix and the statue of our Lady. I wouldn’t burn them: I let God go his way and I say nothing. I have absolute faith in Kelly. She did not join that church.

My husband now knelt before me. “You must understand: Kelly is dead. She is dead.”

“You are jumping to conclusions. Have you seen her body?”

He stood up and took me by the shoulders. “Why can’t you understand this simple thing?” he yelled. “Why can’t you believe?”

I held him by the waist and rested my head against his shirt. Pity must smell like this, I thought, like slept-in cotton. My husband was not a religious man, though he was raised in a house with a Taoist altar and ancestral tablets which he offered joss sticks to. Still he believed in ghosts and curses—he needed something to believe in.

“Look here.” I handed over the square of yellow paper and shrugged him off. I headed over to the old newspaper pile to retrieve various other slips that had been left at our doorstep over the course of two weeks.

When I returned he had smoothed out the yellow slip. Wordlessly, he took the others from me and spread them slowly on the dining table.

Make me a channel of your Peace.

Where there hatred, let me bring you Love.

Where there is injury, Pardon.

Where there is death, Everlasting Life.

He looked tired at first, as if this was what he had expected. Then he touched each slip briefly and tentatively. “She brought them back.”

“She didn’t bring them back.”

“Then how did you get these? I thought you would have tossed these away.”

“Someone has been leaving them at our door.”

“When? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to bother you.”

“They were important enough to keep,” he said. So he touched the papers again, this time with just his forefinger, as if they were talismans. At the bottom of each slip was a small motto printed in font size eight. “Filipino Christian Association 2010,” he murmured. He turned slowly to me. “And you hid these?”

I made no reply.

“Are you mad or what? You abused two Filipino maids.”

“I did not abuse them. They asked for it.”

He went on, “Then all these suspicious messages show up on our doorstep. And you hide them.”

“It’s bad luck to throw them away.”

“You’re crazy, I tell you.”

“Shut up,” I gulped. “Shut up! Shut up!” This was why I had to give it to those maids. They were senseless like my husband now. They refused to focus on the facts, on what was necessary: that the bed needed making, the blankets folding, the water boiling. They paid no attention to their work. They ironed pants flat, without a crisp crease running up the middle, and spent endless hours on the phone to their friends. They ate tin after tin of Khong Guan biscuits. They daydreamed. Once Maria made some fish soup that left us retching for days. Kelly was so weak she couldn’t stand.

My husband sat at the table with his fists clenched together. He looked as though he might be praying. “They were watching us,” he murmured. “These women, these dirty foreigners. I’ve seen a group of them on Saturday night at the park. That’s their day off.”

He went to the window where large Angsana trees screened us from a distant view of the park. He laughed suddenly. “You killed her, that’s what you did. Now do you believe it?” He strode savagely up to me. He placed one palm on a chair for support. It toppled to the ground. “If you had the sense to put two and two together, Kelly would still be alive.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong to those maids.”

“You fed Maria on dog food for three days! You beat her all over! They found bruises on her breasts!”

Then she ran away to the police, because she had tried to poison us. Charges were raised and dropped.

The doorbell chimed: a four-note descending chord. The police. My husband put his hands over his face again, but he composed himself and went to the door.

“Good morning, brother,” said a bright Filipino voice. “Have you received the Word?”

“You get the hell out of here.”

“Your house,” the voice persisted, “has been specially selected to receive messages from our outreach group. You may have noticed several flyers at your door in recent days.”

I heard my husband hurl himself against the locked gate. “You killed my daughter!”

I walked quickly to the door where I heard quiet voices conferring outside.

“May we say a short prayer for you?”

“You scram before I call the police, you hear?”

The first voice persisted.

“O Master grant that I may never seek

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand—”

“Do you want me to kill you now? Do you want me to go and get a knife?”

“—to be loved as to love with all my soul.”

I held onto my husband’s arm. I told the young men to go. They went quickly. They wore T-shirts tucked into their high-waisted jeans.

“I will tell you what happened,” I said. “I went out last night when you were already asleep. At around ten. You know, that’s the time when she walks back from the train station after cell group, through the park.”

“Oh God,” he moaned. “Oh God.”

It seemed as if someone else was speaking through me. “I saw her. She was walking quickly and when she saw me, she came up. She asked what I was doing here. ‘Nothing in particular,’ I told her. ‘Why don’t we sit for a while at that pavilion?’ I think you know it, the cream one beside the main road.”

“Stop.” I heard my husband sob. “Stop. I don’t want to tell them I heard this.”

“I told her she needed to break herself away from that church. That an independent person is a healthy person. We are simply who we are, we make of ourselves who we are. That she was my daughter. She was stubborn. She said she was no daughter of mine. All her friends were in that church. I slapped her and she ran away, towards the road. I came home. I heard and saw nothing.”

“I do not believe you,” he said.

There were sounds from the corridor outside. Two policemen came, belted and capped in dark blue. We must have looked ridiculous: a man in a singlet and a woman in a cotton shift, behind the bars of their own gate.

“I’m sorry we took so long, Mr. and Mrs. Tang,” the older one said, “but we must ask you to come to the station now. We confirm that your daughter has been involved in a hit-and-run accident.”

“I do not believe you,” I said.

*

They tell me there was a funeral. But I was not brought to any. There were white wreaths and singing and many friends. My mother-in-law, all of seventy-seven, made ginseng tea: that I do remember. As for Kelly—there is no proof. I have not seen her, but I have faith in her. I’m sure she’ll come walking up someday, smiling or perhaps she will walk by, indifferently.

I am prepared.

pencil

Ann Ang was educated at the National University of Singapore and the University of Pennsylvania. Her ambition is to write a travel novel about the holiday trials and tribulations of a Singapore family abroad. She has been published in Eclectica and Love Gathers All: The Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poetry. Email: annang[at]sas.upenn.edu

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