by Elaine P. Chiew
The house is remote, situated on a bluff. A lone pine tree stands sentry over it. People used to traipse through and out, craning and cricking their necks, complaining. Even though they paid for admission. Now no longer. The place is a crime scene. At night, the gales storm in from the sea, and with that bit of tug, the furniture looks like it might not withstand gravity. One can almost hear cracking.
A track leads down to a tumbledown pagoda. The paint has long blistered. The pagoda creaks when the wind blows through. Sa-ra names the pagoda pung, the winds pung, pung as in three identical tiles in mahjong. The pung, when it blows, can drive you stir crazy. It is the sound of the world, violent and rupturing.
Unclear whether the pagoda is part of the house or not. We string up the empty plastic ramen bowls and they make a thudding wind-chime — dak dak dak ; the knock of little fists against bare walls. We sleep there until we could bear it no more.
Sa-ra has built a makeshift shrine in the pagoda, but the pung keeps knocking it down, so we move into the house. It’s warmer certainly, even comfortable. We eat ramen staring at the ceiling. The smoke from Sa-ra’s portable stove curls upwards and mists the dining room set above us. There’s a square oak table and four square oak chairs, perfect for a family of four. In the living room, a television hangs down. It’s even plugged in; all we need is crawling and suction capacity. A way to defy logic and we can watch TV.
But it’s worse for Sa-ra in the house. She looks for telltale signs in the kitchen corners and examines rat turds and scarab shells for omens. We don’t look at the chalk outline. Tiny person chalk outline. Even here, we hear the pung, marauding, hungry. Here, Sa-ra cries without tears. Maybe not crying, I’m not sure, maybe just shrieking, to compensate for the wind stealing away her voice.
I look at the upside down bed, its upside down eiderdown, the upside down bedside tables, the upside down lampshade on an upside down celadon base. I look at the half-open upside down closet where clothes hang upside down, and wonder at the engineering of it all. We are not floating in space, but it looks like we could be. I begin to realise this upside down house idea is a marvellous thing. Ingenious. Who would’ve thought man capable of this.
I try to tell Sa-ra this. It might help her focus, she’s all over the place, sniffing, scratching, scrabbling. She says yes, man is capable of everything, but her eyes are menacing and bitter, and full of pain. Was it even a good idea to come here, I’m not so sure anymore. Who would’ve thought man capable of this, she says, and suddenly, I understand what she’s looking for. It’s a moment only she can endure, the telltale signs of fear a little person might’ve left behind.
Our neighbour comes to visit. He sits and accepts a cup of tea. He looks around, shakes his head. He too avoids the chalk outline. He doesn’t speak for a long time, then he says when are we going home, the detectives are at our house with news. Sa-ra cooks the ramen on the portable stove. The mists curl upwards. She does not answer our neighbour. But really, we already have all the news we need.
In the evenings, we sit and look up at objects in space. The kitchen kettle, the pan with fake stew in it, the steel pot with fake ramen in it. Everything frozen in time.
Sa-ra asks, what will happen to us.
I shake my head. We grow old, I say.
And then what?
I shake my head again. Who can bear to talk about heaven? We are looking at the upside downness of these things in their spaces, the perverse inverted logic of them. How these things can happen.
Then Sa-ra says, watch me. She puts on her clogs and she stamps one foot on the wall, then another. Her left foot grips the wall, then her right foot grips the wall. Whoa, like Spiderman, she walks up sideways.
Remarkable. Sa-ra is truly remarkable. It’s happened; we are finally outside ordinary time. The distant boom of the pung, vibrating in our ears, and Sa-ra hanging suspended from the ceiling. We wait for the crack, and hope it never comes.
Elaine P. Chiew is the editor/compiler/contributor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short stories have won prizes, including the Elbow Prize (2015) and Bridport International Short Story Prize (2008). She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and shortlisted/longlisted in several competitions, including most recently, Short Fiction (2016), BBC Opening Lines (2015), Mslexia (2014) and Fish Short Story Contest (2012). Her stories are published in numerous places, including most recently, Smokelong Quarterly, Unthology 7 (Unthank Books, 2015) and One World (New Internationalist, 2009). She blogs about food and fiction atwww.redemptioninthekitchen.blogspot.com