Fiction Issue #58

Golden Boys

Two years ago, when Wei Seng told me that he was getting married in Melbourne, I had shrunk to the size of a mouse. He said, “We’re signing the marriage papers at the registry office and I’m back in the office the next day. There’s no reason for you to fly eight hours just for that and our apartment is too small for both of you.” I could have slept in the pocket of his shirt if he let me.

After he hung up, I had repeated to my husband: A wedding banquet in Melbourne costs one year’s salary. Hotels are expensive. Air tickets too.

My husband said, “Lousy excuses. He don’t want us at his wedding. He din’t want us at his graduation and now he don’t want two old chicken sellers to spoil his party.” He hawked up the words like phlegm. “We got only one son and not even a tea ceremony? The boy make me lose face.”

I said, “The boy knows what he’s doing. He got his own plans.”

“You always defend the boy. Teew Melbourne. We can arrange a wedding dinner here in the school hall. Twenty tables already enough for everybody. Tell him come home. Bring a suit. Bring the girl. What’s so difficult?”

“You yourself talk to him. If you want this, want that, you yourself call him and tell him.”

My husband—people call him Kentucky Chan—did not. Father and son could not talk without quarrelling. Wei Seng hated being called Kentucky Chan’s son. Once, when he was seven or so, he had come home from school crying. Someone had said that he was birthed in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant with a mascot cockerel for a father. But my husband liked the name that started as a joke in the wet market. He said nobody else had a name like it.

Although it pained me that there was to be no tea ceremony, to forego the wedding banquet was a relief. I imagined my husband in Kentucky Chan mode, drinking too much and laughing too loudly; yamseng toasts like a shouting contest between old men who top up their VSOPs before the third course is served; the karaoke gang singing Teresa Teng and Jackie Cheung oldies until they are dragged off the stage. It would have been a long wait for the alcohol to run out and the night to end.

Wei Seng is coming home today, this fourth day of the Chinese New Year. My golden boy. He is himself the father of a boy now. I have not seen him in person for four years. I worry about accidents on the highway. The new roads might confuse him in the dark. I worry about how much he has changed and what his wife will think of me. I worry. At the same time, anticipation floats me almost off the floor.

I wipe down sauce bottles and condiment jars in the kitchen. In the living room, my husband watches an action movie. He turns up the sound over the noise of the rain; his hearing is not what it used to be. Every now and then, gunshot bangs and loud music fill the house. On the table, dinner is cold. I have laid out steamed white chicken, yams and pork belly, braised mushrooms on broccoli. Soup is on the stove; rice is keeping warm. We wait.

I put down the tea towel and look at my hands. I have big knuckles and bumpy veins that go up to my forearms. They are not womanly hands. When my niece married, I went to a salon to get my hair styled. In the photographs, my hair swept elegantly across my forehead but my face was like a man’s. When my husband saw me in my mail order cheongsam, he said, “You look like a jackfruit in a paper bag.”

Beauty creams, collagen drinks, detox teas, YouTube make-up tutorials, hair dyes, dresses, tai chi, four-day three-night holidays once a year. They cannot undo the coarseness sunk into the body from forty years of graceless toil: getting up every day before cockcrow, packing sleepy chickens into wire cages, shouting above the market din, slitting so many scrawny throats, and tearing out so many handfuls of hot, wet feathers and innards. Day after day until the day my husband put down his knife and declared that it was enough. Maybe my husband was right. Maybe Wei Seng does not want a jackfruit of a mother and a father named after fried chicken in his shiny, new life. I worry and wipe the cutlery.

When Wei Seng walks through our door, at last, it is as if all the lights have come on in our house. I hug him. I laugh. I start to cry. The vacuum of past years sucks in his presence. All the should-haves rush in. I should have hugged him more as a child, should have celebrated and not sulked when he came in third in class in Form Five, should have quietly closed the door when I caught him masturbating, should never, never have let my husband beat him into working at the chicken stall. He was too good for the wet market. Maybe he is even too good for me.

Wei Seng kisses me on the cheek and removes my arms from around him. “Later, Ma, later. Didn’t you hear me honk?” He wipes the rain from his face with his hand. “Quick. Get me an umbrella and a torch light. Black like hell outside and raining waterfalls.”

I fetch the new umbrella that was a present from Mrs. Sim next door. Her son has a job in Kuala Lumpur printing logos and he brings her things like umbrellas and shopping bags when he comes home. Wei Seng only gives us money. Money is always better than umbrellas, Melbourne is better than KL. One faraway son is better than none at all.

With the umbrella in one hand and a torch light in the other, Wei Seng steps out into the rain, cursing.

My husband says, “Cry what, woman. Who died?”

“Alright, alright.” I wipe away my tears. “He’s tired and wet. Not yet one foot in our house and he’s already grumpy.”

“Why you din’t hear his car? You always say you can hear better than me.”

“Alright, my fault. The rain is also my fault. Please shut up now.”

Wei Seng comes back with his wife and child under his umbrella. My own mother used to say: a pair of new testicles and a little mushroom stem in the family is the best form of good fortune. My husband is smiling. I see all the sparse pegs of teeth in his doughy gums. He should close his mouth before a cockroach flies in.

Wei Seng says, “Ti Yen, my parents.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Chan, Mrs. Chan. Noah, say hello to Grandma and Grandpa.” She does not call us Ma and Pa like Wei Seng. We have not had a wedding tea ceremony.

The child slides off his mother’s lap, toddles to the television and picks up the toy my husband bought last week.

“Noah, say ‘Thank you’.”

“Uh you,” says the child to the plastic rocket. “Oom oom.”

My husband says, “Oom oom. Clever boy, Noah Chan.”

For the next two hours, I scurry back and forth between the kitchen, dining table, and bedroom. I fetch slippers and towels. I serve bowls of hot rice and soup while Wei Seng and his family fuss and arrange themselves until all are showered, fed, and installed in our room with the double bed. When the house is finally quiet and there is nothing else to fetch or find or wash, I retire to Wei Seng’s old room. My husband is on the single bed. I roll out a mattress on the floor.

“No-ah Chan,” he whispers, “sounds like a no luck name.”

“Shut up. I am tired to death.”

“The boy don’t talk. Something’s not right. Did you look at him properly? He’s not normal.”

I switch off the lights and say, “Shut up. Shut up.”

The thought that I have tried to evade the whole evening catches up. I try not to multiply the number of years, the days in a year, and the number of chickens slaughtered and eviscerated in a day. How many chicken lives have passed through the hands of Kentucky Chan and me? Tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands. I fall asleep dreaming of Noah doing sums and eating feathers with his slack mouth.

In the morning, I find Wei Seng unloading things from the car. The morning is cool and clean, rinsed with yesterday’s rain.

“You rented this car from the airport?” I squeeze his shoulders with both hands and thump his back. He feels solid and strong.

“No, it belongs to Ti Yen’s family.”

“You had reunion dinner with her family first?”

“Yes, Ma. With her two sisters in KL. They picked us up from the airport and we rested for a few days before driving here. Don’t complain, please, we’re here now.”

“I’m not complaining. I wish you had more time. We haven’t seen you for so many years. Now, there’s your wife and the boy to talk to. The boy….”

“He has Down Syndrome, Ma. You should have noticed it already.”

My guilt solidifies into something barbed and real. The third generation pays the price for the previous two, either the price of wrongdoings or of lives lived too frivolously. It’s true. There is always a price. The chicken business was inherited from my husband’s father and during the months that I was pregnant, I had taken all the precautions. I turned my face away from my husband killing the chickens at the market. I freed birds and fish as atonement. I put money into collection boxes for orphanages as insurance against bad luck. When Wei Seng arrived, perfect and unmarked by even a mole, I had rejoiced. I thought that karma had skipped him, but it has not. It has given him this child as a debt to bear instead.

I say, “Poor boy. Poor, poor boy.”

“Don’t say that, Ma, especially to my wife. It is not uncommon, and we go for classes to learn how to manage. We’re OK but I would like you to help with Noah.”

“Yes, sure. I can babysit the boy. You take your wife and drive her around town. Show her all the old places.” I mean his old school, the market where our chicken stall used to be, the lakes, his childhood fishing spots, the river, and the food stalls under the yellow flame tree. Those places are full of memories for him.

“No, Ma. I mean full time. Come to Melbourne and live with us.”

“Melbourne? But you said your flat is too small.”

“You can share Noah’s room until we get a bigger place. We need your help. I was promoted last month, and if I do well, I’ll make partner in the firm. It’s a big thing for me. Ti Yen travels a lot for her business and we don’t want a stranger for a live-in nanny when she’s travelling and I’m working late. We want someone we can trust with Noah. Pa can take care of himself for a few years.”

“A few years! This is too sudden, Seng. Are you going to talk to your Pa?”

“I can’t talk to him. You know I’ll end up leaving the house if I do. Decide for yourself, Ma. For once, decide for yourself.”  He takes out a highchair and a plastic potty from the car. “I’m going to drive out with my wife to see if we can get a hotel room in town. Last night was uncomfortable. All those mosquitoes. You really should get someone to clean up the backyard. Maybe I’ll look for a grasscutter. We won’t be long. The boy’s milk is on the table in case he wakes up.”

I put a kettle to boil. At the Heaven God altar outside the main door, I top up the red oil in the shot glass, float a fresh wick on the oil, and strike a match to light the wick. I light a coil of incense with the flame. I change the tea in the three red plastic teacups. I do the same at the Goddess of Mercy altar in the living room and the Earth God altar on the floor. Each time, I use exactly three matches. If it’s the first or fifteenth of every lunar month, I also light a pair of red candles at every altar. Then I load the laundry into the washing machine, sweep the floor, and mop the kitchen and living room. This is what I do every morning.

When he wakes, my husband will check on our rabbits; feed the few chickens we still have; search for eggs in the grass; and inspect our guava, papaya, mango, and jackfruit trees. If there are new fruits, he will make newspaper bags to tie around the fruits to save them from squirrels. Then he will get on his motorcycle and ride to the coffee shop next to the market for morning tea with his friends. If it is the first or fifteenth of the lunar month, I will ask him to buy three stalks of chrysanthemum from the flower seller for the altars. This is what he does every morning.

Since we stopped selling chickens, this is what we do every morning.

While the washing machine churns, I make a thermos of kopi-o and sit down to a breakfast of cream crackers. I think of Australia. In Melbourne, I will not have altars and gods. Our chicken business, our house, the altars, and the gods were handed down by my father-in-law. Although I upkeep the altars, they are not really mine. They are Chan family gods who became my responsibility when I married. I don’t know if the gods recognise me as anything but the caretaker maid who cleans their altars. I sip my kopi-o which is a little bitter.

The child wails in the bedroom, startling me. I grab the bottle of milk warming in a bowl of hot water.

“Hello, Noah boy.” He takes the bottle and plops back onto the pillow, sucking and staring at me. I tuck a bolster under his little arms and he lets me rub his head. Sweet child. Any other child waking up in a strange house with a stranger would have screamed the roof down.

I think of Melbourne, Seng, and this child. What, then, will happen to Kentucky Chan if I were to leave? We have little to say to each other these days. We are not like the Sims next door who go for walks holding hands. I don’t know what they talk about on their walks; their lives are as dull as ours, but Mrs. Sim would not leave her husband on his own. Maybe she still has a girl’s love for her husband. I can’t say the same for myself.

I hold the child’s feet. “I’m sorry it had to be you.” He smiles and kicks playfully. Sweet child. Innocent love is easy to reciprocate.

When Wei Seng returns, he says, “We went to have a look at the rest house by the river. I thought we could get a room with air-conditioning. The place is filthy, even the lobby stinks of cockroach and damp carpet.”

My husband says, “Next year, we book you a room in the bungalow guest house on the hill. Got four-star rating on TripAdvisor.”

Wei Seng looks at me and I press my lips together.

His wife says, “Next year, we’ll be in Australia for the new year. My family will join us there.” She is sharp-eyed and quick, like a small, quiet predator. She does not seem like a woman who would agree to a one-hour marriage in an office. Maybe Wei Seng had lied about his wedding celebrations.

I busy myself with lunch. I blanch noodles, boil shrimp wontons in yesterday’s chicken soup, slice leftover braised mushroom and pork, drizzle sesame oil and soya sauce, sprinkle spring onions and pepper, and serve up four plates.

Wei Seng’s wife says, “Yummy, yummy, Noah. Grandma made us some really yummy noodles.” I suspect I am being flattered into becoming an unpaid live-in nanny and cook. If she were my daughter, I would not feel manipulated. If I had a daughter, I would have been with her from the time her labour pains started.

Wei Seng eats with such a good appetite I fill up just watching him eat.

After lunch, we play blackjack and gin rummy. The child and his mother amuse themselves with the rabbits outside. They chase our chickens around the house. I hear her repeating words: papaya, bird, flower, chicken, rabbit, tree, leaf. They sound happy. I wait for Wei Seng to bring up the matter of Melbourne. He does not and I lose all my chips.

I cook dinner: pork curry with potatoes, pomfret steamed with salted spinach and sour plum, sweet potato leaves with sambal belacan, lotus root soup with pork bones. Some days, all I think about is what I have in the refrigerator and what to cook. The child is fed rice in soup, just like Seng was at that age. Sweet child. If I go to Melbourne, I will cook for them. I am sure there are no slaughterhouses in their supermarkets. The meat there would lifeless and clean of guilt.

My husband eats with his eyes on the television screen. The hosts of a Hong Kong variety show keep up a stream of talk; auspicious words gush out of their mouths like gibberish. My husband says, “Day after tomorrow is the seventh day of new year.”

After a while, Wei Seng says, “Seventh day? Are you thinking of yee sang? I’ll go get some tomorrow.”

My husband grunts “Yes.” Even now, he does not know how to talk to his son. I wish he would switch off the television. Television chatter in the house is the sound of people who have nothing left to say to each other.

He is not a bad man, my husband. He has worked hard. When his father became bedridden, he paid a small fortune for a day nurse to clean and feed the old man. Every Qing Ming, he trims the overgrown grass around his parents’ grave, repaints the faded names on the tombstones with gold paint, lays out offerings of the old man’s favourite food, and burns a big heap of paper money. Wei Seng saw all this growing up. A son’s filial piety does not have to be earned. The loyalty of son to father is an obligation. Wei Seng should have learnt that growing up. His father is not a bad man. Long ago, Kentucky Chan too was his father’s golden boy.

The gilt falls off soon enough. I recall the time he and that chickenfeed salesgirl carried on behind my back. Everyone in the market had known about it. I was made a fool, but I should not dredge it up now. The matter was buried long ago. When I think about that pale, thin girl who did not fight—she only wanted her sales targets, not the man—I must also remember the lover that I had. My husband and I are even. In fact, more than even; it is in my favour that Kentucky never found out about my cheating. He never will.

I toss an imaginary coin: heads grandchild or tails husband, mother or wife, wife or grandmother, cook or nanny, stay here or go there. The coin hovers in the air like a dragonfly, deciding where to land.

The next morning, I see my husband and the child by the rabbit hut under the guava trees. He hauls up a rabbit by the ears. The child holds the rabbit’s forepaw and my husband moves the paw up and down in a handshake. He says, “Hello, Noah, how are you? My name is Tootoo.”

The child squeals in delight, “Tootoo, Tootoo.”

“Wah, see this fat-fat one. We tell Grandma to cook it in ginger and garlic, OK?”

Our rabbits grow fast as long as the dogs stay away. Sometimes, if a pack of dogs spooks them, one or two will die with their red eyes open. Caged for too long, their heart shrinks until a loud bark is as dangerous as a knife. They cannot be eaten when they die like that, their flesh poisoned by fear.

Wei Seng comes up to me with a big, red lantern. “A bit late for the new year but better late than never.” His wife holds up another.

Wei Seng goes up on a stool. I hand him hooks, string, and tassels. He says, “Ma, do you have your passport ready?”

“I have a passport. I went to Koh Samui last year. But I haven’t spoken to your Pa yet.”

“Please do it. We can fly back together.”

“Better that I speak to him when you’re not here. He will catch fire, you know him. He’s been grumbling for years about a wedding banquet. He keeps talking about shark’s fin soup and tea ceremonies.”

“Tell you what, Ma,” Wei Seng grins and for a split second, he looks thirteen or fourteen, like a boy wrangling for permission to go fishing after his examinations. “You agree to Melbourne, I’ll agree to a big dinner before we leave. You can invite anyone you like. Invite all the aunties and uncles from the market. My wife and I will do the tea ceremony, right Ti Yen?”

His wife says, smiling, “No shark’s fin soup, though. If we keep eating them, there’ll be none left.”

I say, “Yes, all the shark’s fin in the soup is gelatine nowadays. No more sharks in the sea.” Maybe they all grew legs and walk on land now, their words sweet and their mouths full of teeth. I look at the lanterns. A dinner invitation will make up for the pitying looks I have to endure when people see the child.

A shrill scream comes from the backyard. The child must have fallen, slipped down the slope hidden by the undergrowth. I follow Wei Seng and his wife to the backyard as fast as my body will let me. When I get there, I see him crying in his mother’s arms, muttering and swinging his head between his fists.

The child’s mother says to my husband, “How could you do this? What jungle are we in? Savages!” She carries the sobbing child into the house.

Kentucky Chan is squatting by the water tap next to the drain. His knees are folded up by his shoulders and his hands move in a basin between his feet. He is washing a thing that looks like a foetus. Tootoo the rabbit is lunch.

“What? A rabbit only, what,” he says.

“Pa! They’re not used to this. All this blood. The boy thinks the rabbits are your pets.”

“Old fool,” I say.

My husband tosses a handful of entrails into a bin. “One call me a savage. One call me a fool. Damn women. Boys must start young. Like you when you were small, Seng. He won’t cry after I show him a few more. Just wait and see. When I slaughter another one tomorrow, he won’t cry.”

Wei Seng says, “God! It’s like our chicken days all over again. Haven’t you stopped?”

“Our chicken days? Our chicken days sent you overseas. Our chicken days gave you master’s degree. You forget where your good life came from.”

I add one rabbit to the tally of lives to account for. Wei Seng rushes into the house after his wife.

“Don’t upset them,” I say. “Don’t quarrel, and don’t touch any other rabbit.”

My rabbit is delicious—tender pieces cooked in a thick garlic and ginger sauce with a garnish of chives and black beans on the top. Wei Seng eats with relish. My cooking has ties that bind him still, but no compliments are passed at the table this time. The child’s mother picks at some vegetables. The child eats a boiled egg and brown slop from a jar.

That night, we sit outdoors cracking sunflower seeds and peeling mandarin oranges. The matter of the rabbit is not brought up again. A breeze rolls around our front yard and keeps the mosquitoes away. The oranges give off a tang that smells like a new year. The child is asleep. His mother nibbles daintily. With every movement of her fingers, her diamond ring reflects light in silver needles.

Wei Seng tilts his face to the sky. It is a clear night and the stars are out. He is almost a stranger to me; the boy I raised feels like someone else of the same name. We are held together only by names on his birth certificate and the accumulated memory of his childhood years. I wonder whether he feels the loss of those years. I do not think so. He is still young. Time is not yet precious to him.

The next two days pass quickly and then it is time for Wei Seng to leave. There is a man with a noisy motor cutting the grass in our backyard. In the kitchen, there is a pile of groceries: rice, oil, noodles, sugar, salt, bottles of all the condiments that we use in the kitchen, cream crackers, kopi powder, toilet paper, soap powder, toiletries, prayer oil, incense coils, matches, mosquito coils, vitamins. Yesterday, Wei Seng went around the house making a shopping list of all our consumables and drove to the supermarket to get them. He says someone will come next week to install an air-conditioning unit in the room.

“You take care of yourselves. Pa, Ma,” Wei Seng says. “Call if you need anything. Ma, think about what I said. I’ll call you again. We leave for Melbourne in twelve days.”

He leaves two red packets and an envelope on the dining table. There is a lingering smell of their shampoos, soaps, and lotions around the house. Our bed that they slept in is rumpled. I can already feel the emptiness expanding, pressing on me.

“Money?” says my husband.

I look in the envelope. “Yes, a lot. And an ATM card with the PIN number.”

“Enough for our funerals.”

“You first or me?”

He said, “Of course me first. No need to even ask.” No need to ask. The good wife should know that she must outlive the husband. She must nurse the husband in sickness or old age till the end. The lucky spouse gets to die first, the dutiful one must do the work before she follows. It goes without saying.

The toy rocket is under the table. I pick it up and roll it in my big-knuckled hands: wife or grandmother, mother or wife, wife or lover, nanny or nurse, woman or jackfruit. The tossed coin in my head becomes a six-sided rolling dice.

I say, “Do you remember all the bottles of brandy that we were saving for Seng’s wedding? What if I could get Seng to agree to a wedding dinner before he flies back to Melbourne?”

The lanterns outside swing on their strings. The wind whips the tassels around in every which way. Toss the dice in the wind and it becomes a ball with my name. My own name and not the names I have answered to and collected like stones in my shoes.



By Shih-Li Kow

Shih-Li Kow lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her writing has been published most recently in Mekong Review, The Arkansas International, Short Fiction Journal, and Her short story collection Ripples and Other Stories was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. In 2018, the French translation of her second book The Sum of Our Follies (tr. Frederic Grellier) won the 2018 Prix du Premier Roman Etranger. Twitter: @shihlikow