I wonder what happened In the years between Then- and Now. Did it not tug on your heart- When I stopped telling you about my day? There was a time it silenced my treacherous thoughts it quelled my darkest demons You were my confidant my … Continue reading Language Barrier
Her bare feet weren’t allowed to touch the ground.
Even in Ilyas’s earliest memories, the dark haired baby was always in someone’s arms or atop their shoulders. He saw the way they cradled her in their embrace. Precious. Treasured.
“Why don’t they put her down?” he asked his mother one day, eyes still drawn to the girl, “They can’t carry her around forever.” She was dressed in yellow from head to toe today. A golden yellow that seemed to swallow her whole. Yellow, the colour of Malay kings and queens. His brow furrowed.
His mother hummed in agreement. “That’s why we’re holding the ceremony now, since more than thirteen months have passed after her birth.” Ilyas counted the difference and found that she was only a few years younger than him.
“What ceremony?” He was curious.
“It’s called berjejak,” she said. To tread. “Once they do this, she’ll be able to walk amongst us. Look.”
A wizened man bent over the ground, spreading a large yellow cloth over it. He threw a handful of red flower petals over its expanse; all the while his mouth moving quickly in some sort of chant. Ilyas strained to hear what he said, but he was too far away and the man’s voice was too soft.
Then he saw her. The girl, in her mother’s embrace as they settled on one end of the cloth, her face pinched and eyes glassy. Ilyas felt the urge to comfort her. It baffled him, and he moved forward but his own mother pulled him back firmly to her side.
A tray was brought towards the old man, filled items Ilyas could not give names to other than the short keris. The chanting grew louder. The girl was passed to the man and he gently coaxed her to walk, Ilyas realised. She had to walk across the length of the yellow cloth.
It was simple.
Ilyas couldn’t comprehend why such a big fuss had to be made.
And then, suddenly, she burst into tears. The old man still held her body up, urging her towards the end of the path but she struggled viciously, twisting and pulling in his grasp as she cried and screamed. She refused to step forward, shoulders stiff in terror of something. The world held still. She was frightened, Ilyas knew. He was, too. His hands trembled, eyes wide in fear. But against what?
The instant her foot touched the edge of the cloth, the girl seized her tears. Another step, her first contact with the cold dirt, and the world moved again. A heaviness was lifted off his chest and Ilyas could breathe freely again. He watched her take a few tentative steps, marvelling at how the ground felt beneath her small feet.
It still didn’t make sense to him.
But ten years later, it would.
The girl would be the one to tell him, as they sat together on the raised pavilion near her residence.
He knew her name now. Maya smiled, “A long time ago, a royal family made a contract with their people and the djinn of the land. Their descendants are to be respected and celebrated, to always be above the common man and so, forbidden to tread the same ground as them. In times of old, they would be carried in palanquins or litters borne by their servants.”
“When war ravaged their lands, some of their descendants with royal heritage fled to other countries. They gave up their titles and privileges, but while that caused the contract with their people to be broken, the contract with their guardian djinns still held. Anyone who violated the contract would suffer consequences. Prolonged high fevers. Some became deaf, others, mute. It became their curse-”
“So it was a djinn that made you cry that time?”
She blinked at him. “Was it? I can’t recall something that happened so long ago.”
“Then, what was the ceremony for?”
“I was told it’s to break an age old contract between my family and the djinns. But the world is different now,” Maya said, wringing her hands together. “To be realistic, if I can’t walk on the ground, I wouldn’t be able to go to school, would I? It’s more of a formality, I think.”
Ilyas shrugged his shoulders, feeling the cool evening breeze kiss his skin. That day ten years ago, when everyone else might have just seen it as another traditional ritual to be done, in his eyes-he sneaked a glance at Maya- he saw a child’s first real step into the world.
The berjejak ritual is usually done by people in Perak, Malaysia with Rawa and royal heritage that has its origins in Pagar Ruyung, Indonesia. This story is purely fictional (although the gist and history behind the ritual is as true as oral stories passed down from old to young), and is based on a friend’s personal experience with it. It is also part of my effort to narrate more of old Malay customs and traditions that are rarely known by my generation in a more modern way of story-telling.
Glossary: keris – Malay traditional weapon that resembles a sword with a wavy blade
“Welcome aboard, my lady.”
Ellie smiled politely back at the attendant who held his hand out to her. With a confident stride, she crossed over the makeshift pathway connecting the ground to the ship, totally ignoring the hand the attendant had offered her.
He didn’t seem offended; rather, he shook his head in mock defeat, “I see. My lady doesn’t require my assistance anymore.”
Ellie rolled her eyes and walked up to the deck. Her eyes surveyed the area. There are more people than usual, she noted. Most of them were tourists who were too distracted to notice the dark haired young lady as she steadily climbed the staircase to the uppermost deck.
It was her most favourite place on the whole ship. The uppermost deck was small, and thus could fit only a few tables. Ellie sauntered over to an empty spot under the shade and settled down on the cushioned chair with a contented sigh. She closed her eyes, enjoying the summer breeze that swept through. It was warm. And windy. And perfect.
The ship’s engine roared to life and the cruise ship lazily began to move, much to the happy cheers of the tourists on the deck below that Ellie could hear.
Her gaze latched onto the wondrous view of the city as the boat took its passengers down the scenic Moscow River. She has been here countless of times. But every single time, she was always overwhelmed by the amazing, tranquil feeling that calmed her soul. It was addictive. And Ellie kept coming back.
It was a welcoming change to her troubled soul after a hectic week.
And more often than not, Ellie paid the 400 rubles for the cruise to get away from the pressure of her job. Her team is now on the brink of a medical breakthrough after painstaking years of research and failed attempts. It had already received considerable amount of attention from the media, with reporters constantly publishing on how her findings would surely change the world and improve human lives. Ellie was well aware she could win a Nobel Prize for her research if it is a success. But what if something goes wrong?
“Gloomy as always, huh?”
Ellie didn’t bother to even open her eyes. By the low, amused voice, she could already tell it was Ethan, the cruise attendant that she had rejected help from earlier.
He placed a bowl of ice cream on her table and Ellie heard the chairlegs on her opposite side scrape against the wooden floor as the seat was pulled out. She opened her eyes to see the grinning guy with blond hair sitting across from her, helping himself to a spoonful of her ice cream.
“Hey!” she protested, snatching the spoon away from his hands.
Ethan laughed. “So what’s bothering you this time?” he asked, leaning back on his chair. Ellie glared at him before proceeding to scoop a spoonful of cold chocolate ice cream. It instantly melted her anger and she continued to indulge herself until she felt another spoon clang with her own.
“Will you please stop eating my ice cream?” she asked, taking another spoonful. When the man didn’t stop, Ellie scowled and slapped Ethan’s hand away before cradling the ice-cream bowl in her hands.
“Don’t you have work to do?” Ellie gestured to some of the tourists that were going over the menu, pondering on what they would later order.
“It’s hot,” Ethan replied simply, shrugging. “And they’re probably going to get ice-creams too. And it isn’t fair, because the crew doesn’t get free ice-cream when the weather’s this sunny.”
“So you come and steal a customer’s ice-cream instead?”
He waved his spoon in front of her face. “Technically, it’s mine. Since you didn’t get one for yourself,” he replied with a playful smile on his face.
Before Ellie could even protest, Ethan stood up and straightened out his outfit. He flashed her a charming grin and said, “Like you said, I have work to do. Enjoy the rest of the cruise!”
Instrumental music began to play from the loudspeakers as the ship took them down the river. Ellie couldn’t help but giggle. It made her feel like she was in some kind of music video.
When the cruise ended, nearly two hours later, Ellie decided to break routine. Usually, she would take a taxi back to the airport for her next flight. But today, the girl wanted to experience the city she had fallen in love with years ago during her childhood.
So here she was. Ellie stared up in awe. She kept a steady pace, heels clicking against the pavement; her mind was everywhere but the road in front of her. This city amazed her. The buildings were old, and ancient and beautiful and it took Ellie’s breath away. Each building block has its own unique design with its own intricately carved sculptures decorating its walls. She loved it.
She walked past tall, brooding windows of cheerful, pastel coloured buildings. They were her favourite since the buildings were slice shaped and reminded her of the icing on fancy wedding cakes. She loved the numerous bridges that were of different widths and lengths. She loved the winding rivers that went around the city. But most of all, Ellie thought, I love the parks.
She sighed in relief as she stepped into the shade of the large trees, glad to be away from the burning summer sun. She swept her gaze across the span of the park. Several Russians were already sprawled on the grassy lawn, no doubt enjoying the sun’s warmth after having suffered the piercing cold days of winter. Couples occupied most of the benches and Ellie hurriedly sat in one of the remaining available benches. More people were arriving at the park but Ellie didn’t mind.
She kept her attention upwards, gazing at the green canopy that blocked the searing heat from touching her. A slight breeze swept through and the girl smiled, eyes closed. It’s a wonderful life, definitely. It was refreshing—to Ellie—that not a single soul turned their heads to look at her a second time when she passed them.
She was not Dr. Ellie Reed, the famed scientist known for her countless contribution to mankind, here. She was just plan, old Ellie.
There were no reporters after her, no paparazzi begging for autographs and pictures.
Just Ellie and Moscow.
And she was grateful.
“I like Moscow,” she decided, kicking her heels off. She had walked across the whole city with them and the heels were killing her poor, sore feet.
“I wouldn’t say that too soon.”
That voice. She raised a curious eyebrow as he came up to her.
“You again,” she accused.
Ethan ignored her and continued, “You haven’t met the batty old grandmas yet. Some of them have a real mean right hook.”
“I don’t believe you one bit,” Ellie replied with a huff. “So far, the grandmas I’ve met have been nothing but nice.”
The guy laughed and Ellie found herself smiling along with him.
She leaned back against the bench and asked, “So, why are you stalking me?”
“Yes, you are.”
“Okay, so maybe I’m following you—“
“That counts as stalking.”
The guy ran a hand through his blond hair, “Hey, you’re not familiar with this city right? I mean, you only fly halfway across the world just to take an hour and a half long cruise down the Moscow river before catching the next plane back.” He grinned sheepishly at her. “But I didn’t see you catch the next cab to the airport today, so I got worried. Can’t let a distinguished lady explore this city alone.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “So you thought I needed an escort?”
“Nope.” Ethan extended a hand for her to take. “Thought you needed a tour guide. No amount charged and I promise I’ll bring you to the best places in the city.”
When he saw her skeptical look, he continued, “Cause we’re friends, aren’t we?”
She stared at his offered hand.
There it is. Her ticket to a few more hours of happiness in this wonderful city. Ellie glanced at her watch. She would have to board her next flight home soon. If she accepted his offer, she wouldn’t be able to get back to her team and continue where they left off on time. God knows how Ellie hated not being on schedule.
She bit her lip nervously. His offer was so very tempting. The young scientist had devoted most of her life to science and mankind. She was on the verge of her biggest discovery yet. But she desperately wanted to explore, experience and travel.
“Okay. Take me away.” Ellie smiled brightly at him. “I want to see Kremlin, the Winter Palace, Saint Basil’s, the Red Square and all those other places.”
She took his hand and Ethan pulled the girl to her feet. He tugged her away from the park. “You’re so silly Ellie. Kremlin and the Red Square are kind of the same thing,” he told her with a chuckle, “Welcome to Moscow.”
Mankind can wait for a few more hours.
28 January 2013
A piece I wrote for an essay competition back in high school. Just for future comparisons with my ever-changing writing style. The story was partly written during a family trip to Russia for my sister’s graduation.
Discover Challenge – Splinters – The Story Behind a Door
Would you want to… walk through my thoughts with me?
I promise there’s nothing scary in here. Look, sit under the shade right there, that’s it. I know it’s hot; I live in a tropical country, after all. But I’ll show you how to eat these fruits-no, don’t bite through it, silly! It’s a Rambutan. Red ones are ripe and I know the hairs make you feel weird, but you just have to peel it-here you go.
Sweet, isn’t it?
When you’re done, you can toss the seed in that meadow you see over there.
It’s crazy. I never thought this dirt beneath our feet could ever make anything grow. But that Rambutan seed you just threw? It’ll grow into a big, strong Rambutan tree soon. Whether it lives or dies, depends on the both of us. But the fact that you threw it in the first place, I already consider you a friend.
…A few years ago, this place was nothing. It wasn’t even this open field of trees and flowers. I don’t remember much anymore, but I know it was dark. A dark room in an dark mind. It didn’t start out that way, that much I’m sure, but there was a period of transition… That moment when your life went from autopilot to manual, and suddenly you held the reins of your body; made your own decisions and faced its consequences.
I made one life-changing decision. I entered a boarding school.
Oh, and I might as well have walked into a den of wolves. For all their talk of raising outspoken speakers, they silenced me every time I called out their injustices. ‘It’s a tradition,’ they said. ‘Shut up and take it like we had.’ ‘We had it worse.’ ‘You better listen to us because this is a hierarchy, and you’re at the bottom of the ladder.’
Consent was non-existent then. It didn’t matter that I consented to doing anything; what the seniors wanted, they got. Through verbal abuse and social punishments. The whole school turned a blind eye because it was acceptable.
My parents had raised me to say right is right, even if no one is doing it and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it. Even if your friends turn against you because they were afraid.
Even if they denied you again, and again, a chance to spread your infant wings. Denied your opportunity to grow. Drove you into a corner so tight, that you spluttered on unsaid words, choked on blood because you bit your tongue. My self-confidence laid in tatters. The bottom of the abyss felt like desperation and anger and too many tears.
I was desperate for happiness.
The little girl back then, she scrawled ‘happy’ in every piece of paper. She tried to smile in front of a mirror, and for once, liked what she saw. She only wanted to smile. She only wanted to laugh again.
I had turned to writing, because that was my comfort, my reprieve. They took my voice, so all I had were my hands… And I created, in my mind, in this place, a small room. Dark and empty, I spent so many hours in there in times when physically living brought me too much pain. The door was open. It was wide open and yet, I stayed there.
Until the moment when that little girl decided she would tolerate no more. In the middle of the room, in a sunken pit, a fire sparked to life.
My parents held my hand on my way out. As my body gathered my belongings, my mind gathered my memories. They were broken shards of something that had shattered but I no longer remembered what. Those pieces, I placed them in a chest and shoved it into the pit to burn. To melt. To no longer plague me as I turned my back and sealed the door.
Are you still listening? …Thank you.
I found this field when I walked out of that room. And it has grown. I have grown. But if you look behind that hill over there, you’d find a large, heavy oak door. And behind it, a fire still burning.
Sometimes I read the poems and stories that I wrote as a thirteen year old, and my heart clenches in pain at her sorrow. The room, the fire, the chest, they were all my real coping mechanisms. I truly did burn a chest full of painful memories in that room. I chose to keep a few happy ones, but the rest I figuratively burned. I’ve only come to realise, after a few conversations with friends, that I can barely remember those memories now. It comes slowly, after much prodding and not without being prompted.
I’ve decided it’s not a loss.
I made the right decision.
“It’s been awhile, since you’ve last been here.”
The Wordsmith looked away, towards the rolling clouds, at the shadow it cast over the hills. The scenery hadn’t changed at all while she had been away. She still felt it. The invitation in its presence. The call to lose herself in its endless fields, feel its tickle beneath her feet. “I’ve been busy,” she said. Exploring new worlds. Stretching her wings. Flying.
It had felt almost sinful, at first.
But she had learned that it wasn’t. That it only felt that way because she had been trapped for so long. In the cruel depths that lay underneath those beautiful, wonderful, treacherous fields.
She felt it come close, dirt crunching beneath its weight. “When you left, you never turned back,” it said. The wind carried its voice, neither male nor female. It was wind and shadow and imagined and real. “I did not expect you to come now.”
“I had to come.” The Wordsmith turned to fully face it now. She stared into its infinite darkness, she had been so afraid of it once. “I had to tell you that I’m never returning. That there are worlds beyond this, all within my reach. I’ve met people full of love and light and I relearned what I had unlearned.”
It remained still.
“My world has changed. I’ve trudged through its abyss, I clawed my way out. I found my wings and my wind and my sky.”
Its lips lifted into a hideous snarl, teeth bared, enraged, realising. It realised that my wrists wore jewels instead of chains. That I chased the Sun, no longer wisps of shadows.
One last futile lunge as it realised, finally realised-
“I am free.”
I’ve had this blog for awhile now but I think, now’s the time to start something new!