My eyelids could barely open and every time I opened them, the figures of the three round women crowding around me did not become any clearer. If it weren’t for their distinct voices, I wouldn’t have wished I was unconscious again.
“Allahu Akbar! Meera! It’s me, Meera! Your mama!” I almost felt guilty that I pretended to slip into a coma. Her voice broke into a high-pitched wail.
“Ssssh! Don’t worry, Jah, don’t worry. She is a strong girl, our Meera. Ha, you never see the doctor just now smiling tell us got no problem. Our Meera is a fighter.” The corners of my mouth were about to pull into a smile. Was my aunt comforting my mother? Well, that was pretty new.
“Leela is right, Jah. Remember when Meera was six years old, that accident happened…” Nenek’s croaky whisper brought a still silence to the room. Even mother stopped sniffling. The silence stretched longer than a few seconds. I wondered what was going on, so I peeked. They were still standing around but this time, they were staring at me in apprehension, their hands clasped in front of their chest. Mother’s torn expression turned angry in a split second.
“Where am I?” I asked and wore a frail look. They couldn’t have possibly known that I was pretending to be unconscious for a while. But nenek saw right through me. She let out a raspy laughter. “What did I tell you … just like when she was six”, she shuffled away on her cane. Nenek knew I had pulled the same stunt again, when I burnt with fever and took advantage of the attention to pretend to pass out so that my parents would, in their state of concern, buy me whatever toys I asked for after “regaining consciousness”.
“Meera, they found you so far away from the kampong! Sayang, please tell mak what happened” Mother’s voice quivered again. I sighed because I knew she deserved to know the truth about how I ended up here, in Hospital Puteri Seni on Hari Raya day. Let’s just say, it wasn’t very “selamat”.
That morning right after the Hari Raya prayers, we left Singapore for Kampung Damai. Damai, as in peace, or ‘piss’ as I would rather call it. I went through the ordeal of a gruelling three-hour drive with my two younger brothers who were reading Dr Pluto, their favourite science comic series. I resorted to counting motorcycles on the road. Four hundred and seventy-something motorcycles later, we arrived on the bumpy, sandy path outside my nenek’s home. She stood by the window framed by soft pink curtains she had sewn herself. She stood by the window, expressionless for a while until she finally could make out who was sitting in the backseat of the car, then her face broke into a smile. I walked over to her and held her leathery hands. She clasped my hands, her eyes brimming with tears. I brought her hand to my lips and kissed it while she softly smoothened my hair.
“Meera!” Aunty Leela screamed from afar and waddled over in excitement. Oh, how I dreaded the asphyxiating embrace and the rows of gold bangles digging into my back. “So skinny la! Every year I see you becoming thinner and thinner. Even my ayam got more flesh than you!” She threw her head back cackling at the joke she made. She clicked her tongue in disapproval, “Your mother work too hard she forgot to feed her children lah”.
Auntie Leela was a spitting image of my mother, but was sunburnt from the years she spent working in her fields rearing the animals she served on the table for us.
“Eat some more, Meera! Now you how old? – What you study? – Eh last year you wear this baju also right? – Eh growing older ah, pimple all coming out – Meera you like my kari ayam?” She interrogated at the table. The buzzing of the uninvited guest made it difficult to enjoy my food. Every time I brought a spoonful to my lips, I was attacked by a swarm of questions. Surprisingly, you would think that because of the size of these Malaysian species, as compared to ordinary mosquitoes, would slow them down, but they buzzed around your ears every time you did not want them there. The longer I sat with Auntie Leela, the more impatient I got with her buzzing.
Mother had probably seen my agonised face because she sat down next to me at the dinner table. “Sayang, go sit with the other children in the room. They are all in there.” I looked her in the eye and never felt more grateful. She nodded at my unspoken gratitude.
“Eh! City Meera is here. Why you play masak-masak with all the oldies outside. We are too boring for you, eh?” Aqilah smiled mischievously. She was always one with a smart mouth. Her comment made all the other twelve cousins in the room look up from their mobile phones and computer screens. She patted the cushion, motioning me to sit next to her. Aqilah was a month younger but mature in looks and her adult-like disposition. The kampong life toughens people and they were always smug about it. They wouldn’t miss the chance to mock us city folk for being ‘weak’.
She led the conversation, like always, filling me in on the in-betweens which were the family updates, from last year’s Raya to this year’s. Our banter went on for some time before being disrupted by a smash of a rock, the size of a fist, which flew into the room through the window, whizzed past us and rolled on the wooden floors, missing one of the children’s head by a centimetre. “Oi! Come down!” I heard a familiar bellow from downstairs. The voice was rougher, and deeper than when I had last heard it. I went over to the window and recognised the same-yet-different guy I grew up playing with. His bronze skin gleamed under the blazing sunlight. His white shirt was creased, and his sleeves were rolled up. Perspiration down his back made his shirt cling, revealing his strong back. I couldn’t help but notice how his jaw had squared and his shoulders looked broader and more athletic. He was even taller than the other men around him.
Aqilah’s frown eased when she looked out the window. “Damn you, Adam.” Her usually offensive stare softened into a gaze. There was a dreamy look in her rebellious eyes. I felt a stab in my chest. Aqilah turned around and lifted her satin purple baju kurung slightly above her ankles and jogged out of the room.
“Meera?” Aqilah motioned me to join the gang. The gang was made up of Aqilah, Suren who was Aqilah’s next-door neighbour, Ryan who was her classmate, and finally, Adam, the Kampong Chief’s son. “Yah, Meera join us. We only see you once a year”, Adam smiled genuinely, his eyes on me. I nodded shyly, trying to avoid eye contact.
Adam leaned against the lamp post and got all our attention. “Okay, guys, listen. Do you want money? More than any Hari Raya packet can give you?” Adam proposed to the group.
“Adam cut the crap and tell us what’s the deal?” Ryan jokingly punched Adam’s arm. “We are going …inside the hutan.” Adam’s proposal was met by murmurs of disapproval from the rest of the gang. “Adam, are you gila? That’s a crazy thing to do.” Aqilah looked at him quizzically.
Suren took a gentler approach. “Brudder, what for go into the jungle, dey? How can we find money in there? Selamat tak? Nobody has stepped in the hutan, NOBODY. We don’t know we can come out alive or not.”
Adam’s expression stiffened. He stared at each of them without saying a word. “There are people talking. Talking about a house in the hutan. And recently it was raided by police because of some criminal activities going on in there for some time. And I heard the rubber tappers actually saw the house during their rounds. Come on, you all know people have been talking about this, right?”
Suren laughed excitedly. “You mean you are talking about that house in the hutan?” Suren guffawed and clapped his hands maniacally. “Dude, you are gila. But I love it. That old man who used to live there – he’s dead, right? Man, we are going to be rich today.”
Aqilah rolled her eyes. She did not believe there would be money in that abandoned house. I was still dumbstruck that they were planning to break into a home. In the middle of the JUNGLE! And Aqilah did not seem to find a problem with that, except the possibility that we wouldn’t find any loot.
Adam, being a smooth-talker, reassured them that there was money and the dead owner’s valuables were still lying around the house because he had overheard his father on the phone with the Kampong police. “Then why the police didn’t confiscate his valuables and money for their investigation?” I finally joined in the conversation. Nobody spoke. I wondered if I had asked a stupid question and I instantly regretted it. Adam smirked, “Now, Meera…nobody in the right mind would mess with a bomoh’s things right?”
I was conflicted. The answer was clear. I knew I should not be part of this crime, trespassing a witch doctor’s property. But my family would be driving back to Singapore that night and I would only return to this kampong a year later. “You are coming, right?” Adam looked me in the eye expectantly. If I said no, I would only see Adam next year. Besides, what was the worst thing that could happen? The sound of the adventure started to agree with everyone else. Being a party-pooper would destroy my chances with Adam.
I knew little about the jungle that the kampong folk were too afraid to explore. I only knew that we were entering a dark abyss. The deeper we ventured, the denser the jungle got. Its canopies seemed to close in, letting little sunlight through. When I looked over my shoulder, the path we had been treading on narrowed until only a sliver of light from the outside world remained. I imagined what the house would look like. A desolate, decrepit hut, with an unmown, knee-high lawn protecting it from trespassers, like us. Its windows would probably be shattered and an abandoned rocking chair rocking on its own on the front porch. I imagined voodoo dolls decorating the inside of the house, hung on walls like hunting trophies. My anxiety dipped and my adrenaline started to spike. Finally, a Hari Raya story to tell my friends back at home, and make them wish they were as lucky as me.
As though the sky had been dipped in ink, its crystal blue had quickly turned into a deep indigo. When the occasional breeze swept across the jungle, the wispy clouds covered the full moon, halting us in our journey. We huddled together. Sometimes the only thing we could hear were our staggering breaths, until the moonlight glowed again.
“It’s getting cold Adam, we should turn around”, Aqilah’s voice trembled. “I, I feel like, like got something following us,” Ryan supported Aqilah’s decision, stammering while he spoke. His proud persona had obviously been shaken by the cold. I found Aqilah’s hand and our fingers interlaced.
“Adam, let’s turn around. We are too deep in the jungle already. Jom balik lah!” Suren became tensed as the night filled with howling winds, rustling and animal sounds nearby and faraway. It dawned upon us that we were in a territory where we were the only humans. It started to shake everyone to their senses. We were not in a selamat zone. “We are already almost there, don’t worry. We will be coming out of here loaded.” His voice became small. The confident, suave guy I had trusted before was losing trust in himself. “Okay, fine, let’s rest for a while.” He grew impatient as the idea that the house was just an old folk’s myth to scare children became more believable.
I wondered if my family knew where to find me. My insides caved as guilt overwhelmed me at the thought of my family searching for me at that hour. I would be counting my Hari Raya money in the car ride home if I hadn’t been so stupid, following my heart instead of my brain. I didn’t even know what time it was and how long we had been walking. It could have been 8 pm or midnight, I couldn’t tell. Even if we had been walking around in circles, none of us would have known.
We finally stopped to rest. My baju kurung was drenched with sweat and soiled with mud at the hem. The insides of my calves itched terribly, and my fingernails were caked with dried blood from constantly scratching the sore bumps the mosquitoes had left on my skin. Suren and Ryan partnered up to relieve themselves at the bushes. And while we three were alone together, at that inopportune moment, Adam’s outpour of concern turned Aqilah into my enemy.
“Are you okay, Meera?” Adam squatted next to me, concerned about my legs riddled with scores of itchy bumps. His hand grazed my ankle. I could almost feel Aqilah’s burning glare in the dark. Her silence while she observed Adam and I was not a good thing.
Before I could respond, we were interrupted by echoing screams. The trill of Suren and Ryan’s shrieking punctured the still night. They charged past us, their faces chalky-white as if they had seen a ghost. From the bushes, pairs of piercing red eyes came into view and low rumbling snarls grew louder and louder as the creatures paced towards us. Their razor-sharp fangs gleamed in the faint moonlight and their tongues slithered out. In a fleeting moment, no one said a word. We fled.
We ran blindly, not knowing if we were all running in the same direction. My muscles were charged with adrenaline. Fear and courage possessed my body but the only thing pushing me to run faster than I had ever run were the loud growls right on my tail, which were becoming more and more threatening. I came to an abrupt stop when a powerful blow to my gut sent me flying and tumbling through the dirt, landing face first in the mud.
The sound of footsteps crunching gravel came closer to where I was lying on the ground, and then it paused as though making sure I had been knocked off my feet. The angry growling of the pack of creatures was getting closer to us. That was when he fled. The footsteps quickened and disappeared into the darkness. That was it. I knew at that moment that it was just a matter of seconds before I met my end. I was going to be devoured by a pack of ravenous creatures.
The sound of grovelling on the dirt and hungry growling soon surrounded me. But suddenly, instead of going in for the prey, the creatures yelped and they retreated into the jungle. I wondered what had scared the creatures so I lifted my head from the ground. Shadows of people moving towards me with flashes of light were shouting my name. My head spun wildly, and my vision blurred. That was the last thing I remembered.
“Sayang…sayang, it’s time to go.” I was feasting my eyes on the cyan-blue skies and watching the emerald trees outside shimmer in the luminescent sunlight. I turned around to my mother’s call. Everything was packed. All the bouquets and ‘Get Well Soon’ balloons that were all over the room had been cleared. Mother stood by the door. She smiled but her eyes were tired, her cheeks gaunt. She looked so different from just a week ago. I was finally getting discharged and no longer confined within the four walls, getting the same meals daily and being supervised in case I performed any ‘physical activity’.
We drove by the kampong one last time, to bid goodbye to my nenek and my Aunt Leela. They came to the car, exchanged salams and kissed me and my brothers goodbye. A figure standing by the window in the house caught my attention. Aqilah was staring at me relentlessly. Her expression was hard to read. She never once visited me in the hospital. I wondered if the mysterious person who had hurt me in the jungle was her. As the car left the driveway, Aqilah continued to stand and watch us from the window. I hoped to see some guilt flash across her face as I kept my eyes on the sideview mirrors, observing her, until the house was out of view. I never told anyone about how I ended up lying on the dirt in the hutan. The only thing my family knew was that I had ventured into the wild with a couple of friends. The only thing I knew was that I was cudgelled by one of them.