The Library of Great Things by Choo Yi Feng

Sometimes in the night, after the constellations pulled their grassy-eyed blankets over the unchanging mountains, mama would stand by herself in the kitchen, looking out of the window that overlooked the terraced paddies, silver and ethereal under the moon. She’d talk aloud that they were coming for her, that she could only sit and wait, and she could never have hoped to escape it forever. Our kharma is written always into the palms of our hands and the wrinkles of our souls, a ledger of lives passed and yet unlived.

They’d long learned to dismiss her words as ones of a paranoid woman, but who knew that after all these years there would come a day when her words came to fruition. She, haunted by empty cahiers dripping with a ragged and bloodshot past, who spoke of nothing in particular but everything at the same time. The granddaughter watched from the fields as the battered old vehicle rolled up along the narrow curves against the precarious vistas, stopping at the narrow path leading straight into the hut for two men in khaki uniforms to alight. They pronounced her name and the accusations that were levelled against her, and she stayed silent, standing at the doorway to the bedrooms, gaunt and wiry like an earthen spectre, a clouded spirit lying somewhere beyond those harsh, narrow eyes.

The granddaughter Dara ran after them as they were ready to leave on the van. “What are you going to do to her? She’s already seventy-six.”

“The investigating committee will decide what needs to be done. We are just here to retrieve her for questioning. If all goes well, she will be sent back home.”

“And if not?”

The younger officer blinked and seemed to almost flinch under her glare. “Then she will be punished for her crimes,” offered the senior one.

The van left amidst her angry, desperate calls, berating their cruelty for ripping the elder out of the household, warning them that no semblance of coherent truth could be extracted from her brittle, senile grandmother, cursing them for all the ills and destitution that they’d come to represent.

Her father returned from the river-bed three days later and they sat at the small dining table of faux-marble, drinking sour, distilled rice liquor. She was gone, and they were under no obligation to return her. In the ensuing weeks, they performed the daily rituals stumbling and tripping over the cankered vacuity she had left behind, minds filled with words that ascended and struck blindly against the roofs of their mouths before being swallowed. 

Even the village centre spoke out to her from the fettered and festered ruins of mama’s monumental deeds. Dara found herself considering what the years between were like for those prosecuted under her name. Fully attuned now under the absence of mama, she walked from hut to hut and finally felt, in all its overhanging finality, the scratchingly piercing howl that stretched out over the stolen, ephemeral silence of empty decades.

Peace without justice.

Boiling like bubbles in the thick tar of Dara’s earliest memories, mama had been an object of the young child’s great fixation. The knowledgeable, enigmatic woman came to represent a beacon amidst the sullen mudscape of overgrowth and monoliths that had little to impart to an excitable girl. In her room was a low shelf filled with tomes of languages far gone-by, hidden behind a false wall and crammed with writing lurid in its illegible abstraction. She would tell stories of the world around, and Dara would listen with rapt attention: champions riding swift upon the balmy seas with fortunes of pearl, of steel raptors that swelled the sky with their battle cries, of foreign atria of marble plastered in telling insignias and the strange and unworkable forces that shifted lives around upon the dipoles of the globe.

Dara, reflecting upon her childhood, was reminded always of mama’s smile – a brief light, in the span of small years, awakened by the hope of her young granddaughter and harshly enfolded by the perchloric annals of a mired history. For soon after Dara reached adolescence, mama began to forget. To the villagers, it was the greatest irony that she, a woman whose name came to represent the aberrant, bleached scars of an amnesiac past, would start to let time itself slip through her now that it was all over. There were cruel things said about her, whisperings about an appropriate comeuppance, and when Dara heard them, she knew she could say nothing about it and merely listened with her bravest attempt at neutrality. 

She could feel the weight upon her, of a duty to sift through the layered personhoods left behind, and the story that she pieced together, once an abstract augury of historical violence, began to unfurl its visceral horror. Yet despite all this, she could never bear to blame mama, the old woman that now moved somnambulant through the tactility of her day, afraid to be seen, shut up and exiled upon her lonesome hill.

So it was that day after day, the distended topography of mama’s memory stretched further and further, impossibly long and needle-thin as the throat of the phantasmal preta, connected at its back-end to a bloated abdomen of backwater history. She’d rise from her bed claiming not to be a day over thirty, recounting with crisp clarity the horrifying events that had come to pass “just over seven years ago”, but forgetting that her daughter had married and left behind the baby. If kharma was a ledger, mama’s had overflowed with so much at the beginning that it left only one page at the end for the remainder of her days, a solitary shred that was inked on over and over until all was occluded into obeisant formlessness. 

Eventually, ahba had to remove the mirrors and reflective surfaces in the house, for fear of startling mama with the cursed realisation of her age every single day. Was there a dim awareness, at the very least, of the pulse of time streaming past, in dimensions unexperienced and incomprehensible? Surely, thought Dara, there had to be. Ahba seemed uncomfortable when she broached the subject, but if the knowledge of mama’s decaying mind ever disturbed him, he seemed not to show it. He spent his days away at the river-bed, sifting the cracked and bone-white pebbles for the merest hint of jade, minerals to sell to the hankering merchants that visited on Saturdays.

One night, at least two moons after mama had been arrested, they took a short walk in the ensuing evening through the hedge mist of abandoned fields. She sighed and at last, unable to bear the weight of her spinning mind, spoke: 

“Do you know what they will do to her?”

“I really don’t know.”

It was a tepid and sorbent night, a brigadier of an evening detached from the monsoon months still some whiles away. At this time of the year the strange cicadas sang out to one another with a phantasmagoria of symphonic screeches, a hissing scream that seemed to emanate forth from the gods of the sky themselves.

“Maybe I can speak to the older villagers. They may know what it was like based on their past memories.”

“Dara, if they found out that mama was arrested by the authorities, and if she is ever allowed to come back – I don’t know what that would spell for her.”

“My friends are fine, they seem curious to hear about mama. She’s the eldest in the whole village, after all.”

“That’s because you’re young, you all have no experience of what it was like living through that period. There are whole houses empty in this village and every other, and it’s because your mama reported them.” 

“I know, ahba, I know.”

“Do you know what happened, when you were branded as a counterrevolutionary by the village head? They sent troops to take you away. Sometimes they didn’t even bother. They executed the whole family in the village centre. Even the babies.” 

Dara was familiar with the houses ahba was making reference to. She and her friends regularly visited the decrepit, overgrown huts that occupied the far-flung eastern corner, excised and adrift along the peripheries like some phantom limb. This was the most that ahba had ever spoken about that time.

“There are children’s bones lying still under the ground, Dara. And it’s because of – ”

Dara was quiet, feeling the eerie white noise of the howling cicadas, waiting patiently. It was normal for people to cut themselves off. Though nobody was so forthright as to mention it, she gathered as much: her mama was a war criminal. She was a mass murderer. If the rumours of the other village elders, passed along one teenager to another during their regular evening gatherings, were to be believed, she was more than that. It was said that she had been appointed as the village head after the previous one had been executed in the first wave, hoping that with her capabilities she would protect the villagers from the hordes of soldiers and radicals. She did nothing of that sort, and instead sent them off, one innocent after another, just so she could protect her place under the eye of the bloodthirsty central regime. She was a traitor and a tyrant who’d betrayed the trust of the very people who raised her.

“What happened to ahmeay?”

Ahba grasped a hefty stick as they entered the wilder overgrowth at the edge of the lower forest, thwacking the blades aside and sending the awns of wild grasses quivering. A viper, black under the night, darted past their bare feet. 

“She ran away. The night after your mama ordered the deaths of her closest friends, ahmeay lost herself. She was never found again. It was only then that your mama seemed to awaken, seemed to feel something. But what was there left to do? She’d already thrown everything into the fire. After a week’s mourning, she carried on.”

Dara finally understood that there existed within ahba’s heart not a shred of compassion for mama. Everything he did now, he did for the sake of his daughter and the memory of his wife. And she was only now beginning to understand his deep pain. They turned around and began to make their way home. Ahba had retracted into a recalcitrant silence, perhaps because he regretted letting himself be carried back there. Perhaps because these were the very things he wanted to protect his own daughter from, and now he’d been the one to let the floodgates loose.

Dara followed closely behind ahba, unsure of what to say. She wondered if the traumas and fractures of one generation could be bequeathed to the next, and onwards and onwards. Or did the bleeding pages of history come unstuck and fade off eventually? What of all things that roll down our many beaded incarnations, is carried and reborn? She had never had memories of her past lives, though everybody around her seemed to take for granted that they existed. What thread passing through the ornaments of one mortal life after another, did after all carry within it the singularity of a placeable soul, a somethingness that could be pointed to as that mark upon a ledger? They were reaching home soon. Out of forlorn habit, she made a silent prayer. 

Mama knew what had happened to ahmeay. She knew what had happened to her daughter. She’d known too, that she was slowly losing her mind, but such knowledge itself gained no special protection from the ravaging entropy of her condition, and was destroyed one night amidst her discography of anterograde dreams. The next day she awoke and the whirling percolate of time had been stoppered shut. Her understanding of her deteriorating condition was the last meaningful chart she had of her life. Now the obdurate wall of her past was uprooted, marching forward and brimmingly close.

The most despicable acts of sin were never committed out of wonton cruelty, of some indulgent hatred toward humanity. Such appetites were too rare to be perpetrated systematically. The horror that she had caused was entirely one of smallness, unphilosophical. She was an incompetent, selfish woman put in a position of undeserved power, and her banal mediocrity spun and splintered and crashed through untold lives. The weight of her actions, the upturned and perturbed moral order of her faculties, never threatened to overwhelm her back then.

So why now? She could smell freshly spilt blood in the soil. See the colour of the sunrise on the day ahmeay vanished. Taste the flavour of the luxuriant rations handed out to her alone. Mama’s unique curse was to have these intricate details come back to her, meaningless and prosaic, unremarkable blisters in the picturescape of her historiography, long ago sanded out by yawning decades and now sieved out from the froth of her amnesia. She watched her life spinning backward, the walking apparitions, the sinking basin of her failures, the livid visions conjured from unfamiliar places, and from the deep recesses of her mind, the energy of subnuclear fissions boring holes through celestial clockwork. The illiterate divine. 

There had been lessons and basement trainings, chugging commutes through unnamed countries where snow swept swift and white, debates upon politics, economics, the philosophical greats. Hadn’t we all once known of a world that existed far outside this one postcode village in the tropical mountains? She was shadowed by such retroactive profundities that seemed to dawdle out of the margins of reality altogether, spilling into the atavistic ornamentations of her ancestry. Grasshoppers and wheat fields and pumice stones from volcanic eruptions: whole episodic moments at once familiar and foreign, telescoped across the canyons of preter-human comprehension.

She stood by the window in the kitchen late into the nights, holding her cup of water, watching its meniscus tremble, feeling her tears as they dried. Inexplicable sobs, shed for inchmeal pasts whose human valuation was long obliterated by the churning waste factory of time. There was no remorse, no fear or guilt, but merely tears. Lackadaisical, laconic, who knew what else, magical wisdom clouded into paltry rubbish, a gift seemingly lost. 

She would never be able to explain the disproportionate torture she’d afflicted with smallness, with such plain incompetence. As the rest of her life fell away this among other truths seemed to glow within her. Though mama could never thread it into words, Dara seemed to somehow understand this. She’d inherited a connection, a gift, the ability to understand at some primal level the unique purgatory laid out for mama.

It was this sentiment that Dara carried as she sat by herself in the kitchen at night, when ahba was once again out scouring the mountains for jade. Mama would not return. The universe had determined it, and the vanishing of her physical person was the appropriate finality, the adjournment to the vanishing of her mind, of her history, of the history of an entire village and its country. Now she only wished to record all the odd and whimsical stories that mama had told her as a child, the tales of bloated bureaucrats and wicked business-owners, the creation myths and river spirits, the pagan rituals of childhood.

But up here in the highlands, she’d never been to school, and never been taught how to write. At home she rifled through the ancient books that sat on mama’s shelf, still as obscure as ever, and finally began to pack them into the boxes, for there would be no eyes in this household to understand them. She traced their calligraphic curvatures with her fingers, tried to imagine the psychic trace that leapt out from between the words, of a woman gifted in learning, a woman who’d seen the world, a woman who had been young still, and hopeful about the future, and had ruined it all.

If only Dara could read! If only she could communicate a shred of the meaning and beauty that mama had tucked somewhere in her mind, if only then, this would not be some musty and insignificant shelf, but a treasured artefact, unravelling under her eyes like some great hall of amber crystals, golden lanterns casting lights in every direction, antique wood and row upon row extending upwards into the high and opulent ceilings, revolving stairwells and tall shimmering windows and marble balustrades spiralling along the magnificent walls.

There were things here, great comet-tails of meaning, of heartache, of heritage transmitted that she needed not for the world, but for mama, a place that she would retreat to in the rains, a library of great things so vast and buoyant and filled with all the things she could never hope to know, things to be savoured and adorned and extinguished as she breathed and passed through the sand-grained manyness of her ounceless lives unlived. 

Choo Yi Feng is currently an undergraduate majoring in life sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS). His short stories have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Alluvium, the journal of Literary Shanghai, and Curios, the annual student journal of Tembusu College in NUS. He aspires to become a marine biologist to further the research and conservation of complex and diverse coral reefs in the waters of Southeast Asia.

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