Chempaka by Nur Diyanah Bte Jonah

I cracked an eyelid open and stared at the rusty patches on the roof. My heart sank as the smell of frying chincalok pierced my nostrils and roughly hauled me back to reality.  

I am still here.

I twisted my neck gently and stifled a groan into the musty-smelling pillow. I blinked and sighed.

The sky was a depressing purple, a bruised beginning to a much loathed existence in this god-forsaken place. From the cracks between the planks, I could see the padi stalks waving a gentle morning greeting to me as the cold morning air nestled itself between my toes. I propped myself up on one of my elbows and sighed resignedly. Without realising, my lips had pulled itself into a pout.

“I guess I’d be here for some time.” I mumbled angrily to the crude wooden rectangle framing the picturesque scene. I pushed myself up on my knees and buried my face into the pillow, wishing with all my might that my parents were not so traditional. It is just like them to threaten me with this punishment when I was caught doing something they deemed immoral. It was not even a cigarette for God’s sake. Just sheesha. That was all.


I snorted insolently into the pillow and swung my legs over the bed, causing it to creak obstinately at the abuse from bearing my body weight after years of abandoned use. My aunt would not be thrilled if I broke her best bed. Of course this was her best bed. It was the only bed there in this rickety house. Pfft. Everyone else was sprawled on thin mattresses or carpets when the night beckons. It feels like I might end up on the floor if I turned in my sleep. It did not help that the bus my parents packed me onto seemed to take on every hole it possibly could on the road. My body ached badly, a by-product of the arduous bus ride to the middle of green wilderness.


I pushed air forcefully through my nose as footsteps echoed through the wooden floors, indicating the arrival of the unwelcomed one.

“Chempaka, are you up? Sudah fajar.” my aunt called out, knuckles thwacking hard against the wooden leaf separating her unwanted presence and the room. The room suddenly seemed gloomy. It must be the effect of her presence.

Resentment coiled itself into a tight knot beneath my ribs. “Sudah wak” I answered.

I scrutinised the gaps between the planks separating me from the oh-so-cheery padi plants. I never wanted to come back here. I never wanted to come back here. I never wanted to be reminded of you. I never wanted to allow memories to anchor me or my feelings for anything. Least of all, you.

I glared indignantly at the happy stalks mollycoddling each other when a breeze caresses them.  

“My dear aunt, you’d send me home once you realise I am not changing just because I’m exiled.” I whispered.


~~

The sky was ablaze in a bright blue and fluffy clouds cheerfully tittered on a downy pedestal watching me frown in discomfort. Everything was annoyingly cheerful. Sweat beaded at my temples and a drop of saline liquid ran cheerfully down the length of my neck into my cleavage. I pulled the damp sarong from between my legs as I stared dreadfully at the tall guava tree.


“Seriously, you want me to climb this? In a sarong? What’s so wrong about wearing pants?”


I pushed up the sleeves on my baju and gripped my waist, my arms akimbo. With a sudden rush of blood, I kicked off my slippers against the tree. It barely shivered from my assault. The guava tree was just a sapling when I was last here. Wak Ani once said that it was considered proper for a lady here to wear sarong in a kampong and because I am under her roof, I had to wear one. An unmarried woman wearing pants is considered shameless as pants defined our legs and men would stare. By 11, the age I first had my womanly cycles, I had to don one of these confining wraps around me. I snorted.

I turned and allowed my gaze to follow the length of the garden. Unruly weeds were sprouting alongside the edges of the flimsy chicken wire planted to prevent runaway poultry from the barn. No one has tended this place in ages. I turned to the impending task at hand and approached the tree with a frown. Gamely, I planted one foot against the trunk and wrapped my fingers tightly on one of the branches. With a massive burst of energy, I hauled myself above into the tree, swinging my legs over and gripped the branch with my lean thighs.

I gasped at the rough bark cuffing against the soft skin of my inner thigh. My skin was used to soft cashmere wraps and silky fabrics, not rough irritating barks. My days of sitting astride coarse branches were long over. I grabbed a few guavas, aiming at the basket accurately. The first fruit bounced at the rim of the basket but the rest that followed landed with a satisfying thud into the rattan container. I felt a tell-tale tug at the corners of my lips. I must have missed being a kid to enjoy this so much despite the redness I would experience in between my thighs.


My eyes swept across the yard. From the aerial view, the place and the hurtful memories seemed so far away. My eyes traced the perimeter and rested on the rusty swing parked at the edge of the veranda. I closed my eyes and I could see your shiny black hair braided with pink ribbons, your white baju kurung and the clean smell of soap from your skin. I could see your dimples and the long eyelashes that framed brown round eyes so full of hope and kindness. I could hear your laughter and the high-pitched squeal each time I pushed you. I could feel you, sense you. I was sure that if I reached out, I would touch you, feel your soft milky skin.


Suddenly, I felt a strange sensation creeping up my by now abused thigh. I looked down and yelped.

Kerengga!”

The battery of fire ants marching in an organised fuss on my thighs flexed their incisors like practised surgeons and plunged their blades into my skin.


I swatted frantically with my fingers, heart racing upon realising that there was not much effect. In my flurry of panic, I did not realise that my thighs had loosened their grip on the branch. Fear squeezed my heart painfully as gravity wrenched me to the ground. My fingers desperately clutched at the rush of green and brown but alas, it they failed as I ungracefully answered the call of gravity, landing in a heap of damp sarong, leaves in my braid and profanities that would have earned solid clouts to the head from my mother.


Frantic and in blinding pain, I ran to the yard, wrenched the sarong up and desperately hosed down my wounds from the fire ants. I cursed angrily and sat down heaving against the water tank. My creamy white skin was dotted with angry bites and I could feel the hot flood of salty water coursing down my face, mixing with my perspiration. Something inside me pushed against my ribs. The composed façade I had been holding up so well flaked and cracked.



Why did you have to leave me with your mother? You were the only one sibling I had; even if we did not come from the same parents, you were the only sibling I had. You were my only elder sister who would have bothered to help me out when I muddled up my life and got into tight spots too difficult to wriggle out from. You were the only one I trusted and told secrets to, the only one who would listen and not treat me as a failure my parents constantly reminded me I am to them. You had been my rock, my pillar of strength when I feel like I cannot go on. Why did you have to leave me here alone to fight through life by myself? We had dreams and ambitions. We were going to be each other’s bridesmaids. Why did you have to go and hurt yourself with those pills? Surely, we would have crossed that bridge together?


I shut my eyes and recalled the day I came home to find you sleeping on the couch. I teased you while I put away groceries, thinking you would respond with something about trying to stifle your nerves two days before the engagement.


How could I have known that he had left you the week before and nothing you did would have brought him back? How would I have known? Why did I not notice how sad you were and how you shunned any talk about him and seemed overly focused on the trays of goods you would have exchanged with him? How could I have not sense your hurt, Mawar? Would you ever know how much I regretted being so focused on my career and not sensing your pain? Would you ever know?


The flimsy sheen of silver blurred my vision acutely and I sobbed into the edge of my shirt.

Warm hands grasped my shoulder and then, circle my middle. I could hear Wak Ani’s raspy tone whispering “shhh, it’s okay, shhh.”

“I’m sorry, I should have taken care of her better.”

“Chempaka, it was her choice. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

I hugged my aunt tightly and allowed my tears to soak her baju kurung. Today might be the beginning of healing.