Sin Yee recently discovered a pressed flower and a crinkled note within the vellum-bound Chinese bible Nai Nai read every morning. Despite the daily traffic, the flower though faded was intact, its petals paper-thin, the veins in stark relief. What flower was this? Did it exist in Singapore? The note too was in Japanese, indecipherable.
Nai Nai was a young girl during the Japanese Occupation. This house in which they lived was garrisoned by the Japanese invading army. The soldiers had cycled across the Johore Bahru causeway; Singapore surrendered in two short weeks. These were facts Sin Yee knew, had learned in school, been told by her mother. Her great grandfather had had to hide in the Malaysian jungle for many months.
Sin Yee was chasing a butterfly in the afternoon sunshine when she came face to face with the gardener’s son — an adopted Malay boy who sometimes accompanied his father. He was also nine, dark as burled wood, thin and wiry. While his father sheared away, he kicked leaves into hillocks. His eyes were pebbly dark in a cupid face. He held out to her a caterpillar, its legs trembling in the tickle of his palm. Sin Yee gasped. The boy jabbered at her in Malay.
In the evenings, her father was home. Sin Yee heard her mother’s whispered words: ‘useless war stories’, ‘mumbling to herself’, ’old folks’ home’. Sin Yee went into Nai Nai’s bedroom. It was dark inside but Nai Nai wasn’t asleep. She snuggled in; Nai Nai’s smell was comforting, a mix of tiger balm and hibiscus talcum.
“You found a new friend?” Sin Yee could hear the smile in her voice.
She shook her head. “I don’t understand a word he says.”
“Sometimes friendship can be without words.”
“He’s a boy. I can’t be friends with a boy.”
“Oh, is that so?” Nai Nai stroked her hair. “I had a friend once who came to stay in our house. He stayed a long time. I didn’t understand a word he said either.”
“Was he the one who wrote you that letter?”
Nai Nai chuckled. “You’ve been reading my Bible again?”
The Malay boy brought her all manner of strange things: a kidney-shaped stone, a storm-drenched banana leaf, a red ant, a half-rotted mango, a green-backed beetle. A torrent of words inside him, which he rained upon her. Sin Yee shrugged at the offerings. Then, one day, the boy came and held out both palms. Both upturned, empty. He chattered at her. His father, nearby, overhearing, translated, “Only a smile today.”
Sin Yee’s brow furrowed. “Why?”
“Your turn, he says.”
“My turn to what?”
“To give something.”
Sin Yee looked at the boy. He wore his megawatt grin, flashing white in a sunburned face. She turned tail and ran.
Sin Yee’s mother sat her down at the breakfast table. Nai Nai would have to be moved to a different home, where they cared for people like her twenty-four hours a day.
“Why?” Sin Yee asked.
“She’s not well.”
“She’s going senile, Daughter. She’ll be taken care of very well at the home. Nurses will massage her feet every day, give her medicines.”
“I can do that!”
Sin Yee’s mother smiled slightly. “I’m to go back to work. How will you do that when I can’t?”
She jumped up. “She’s not going senile! She’s perfectly fine.”
Nai Nai said, “Why don’t you make him a card?”
“I don’t want him to overthink it,” Sin Yee declared. Nai Nai burst into peals of laughter. “How about something that expresses who you are?”
That was the rub. What would that be?
She thought about giving the boy a frog and saying, “I don’t want you to think this is you, or that there would be a kiss coming.”
She thought about singing a song or playing the piano for him, but that would be vanity, not a gift of self.
She thought about giving him a note, but then she remembered her conversation with Nai Nai:
“Why’d you keep the letter for so long?”
“He was an important friend.”
“What does that mean?”
“He saved me. During an important time in my life, in our lives.”
“So what does the letter say?”
“I don’t know, dear. I can’t read Japanese. But one day I hope to read it for myself.”
Was that what she hoped the boy would do? Like Nai Nai, who waited and waited to understand the contents of a letter, its fulsome heart?
The day Nai Nai left for her new home, Sin Yee had a flashbulb moment. The gardener and the boy were planting chillies in the back garden. Sin Yee tapped the boy on the shoulder. Beckoned him to follow her. All the way to her bedroom, she listened to the thud of his flip flops behind her, the rhythm and sprightliness of it. The thud in tandem with the beat of her heart.
She presented the pressed flower her grandmother had given her. “I hope you know how rare this flower is.” He didn’t take it right away, he stared a good long while, held its stalk and twirled it round once, slowly. Bowed his head and said thank you in Malay. The first two words she finally understood. There will come a day when she’ll understand everything he says, everything that’s happened, and that moment will feel like this.
Elaine Chiew is a London-based writer. She is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around The World (New Internationalist, 2015). She won the Bridport Prize in 2008, and most recently the Elbow Room Prize (2015). She’s been shortlisted in numerous competitions including Mslexia, BBC Opening Lines, Fish International Short Stories Competition and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her stories can be found most recently in Smokelong Quarterly and Unthology 7 (Unthank Books, 2015). She’s currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Asian Art History in Singapore and will be travelling back and forth for the year 2016.