The Weight of Our Sky(6)

“So it was just a parade? Nothing serious?”

“I guess not. But . . .”

“But what?”

“I mean . . . I didn’t understand all of it. There was a lot of singing, a lot of chanting. They were yelling things in Chinese, saying we should go back to the jungle, that we should leave now that the country is theirs. I know someone was shouting that Malays should . . . should go and die.” I close my eyes briefly, remembering the roar of the lorry engines, the banging of the drums, the shouting, the accompanying wave of nausea and fear. We’re no strangers to violence in Kampung Baru; once every few weeks, Mama locks the doors and windows as the sounds of neighborhood gangs battling full tilt filter through our home’s wooden slats. But those are run-of-the-mill turf wars, arrogant Malay boys duking it out for control of the neighborhood. This felt bigger, somehow, and dangerous.

As if on cue, the Djinn clicks another movie reel into place: Mama, beaten with iron pipes and run through with sharpened sticks, her head nothing more than a mass of bloody pulp. I shake my head and resist the urge to count all the rambutans piled in woven baskets at a nearby stall. Go away, I tell him. Go away.

“Are you okay?” My eyes fly open. Saf is staring at me, brows furrowed with concern.

I feel a sudden urge to tell her, to blurt out everything, all at once. No, Saf, I’m not okay. I haven’t been okay for a long time now. I’m constantly imagining my own mother’s death. I spend all my time and energy wrestling with a demon in my head that only I can see or hear, and anytime I’m not doing that, I’m busy counting and tapping everything in sight just to shut him up. I’m really, really not okay. I’m so far from okay I don’t even remember what okay feels like anymore.

Yeah right.

“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “Just daydreaming. So, um, what records shall we look at today?”

? ? ?

We tried to pretend at first that what was wrong with me could easily be fixed. Mama took me to a doctor, where I skated lightly over my visions and concentrated heavily on my inability to fall asleep at night and the way thoughts raced through my head, impossible to capture and examine one by one; he tapped his pen against his chin thoughtfully and prescribed iron pills, a more balanced diet, and exercise.

“You need to stay active,” he told me sternly. “Some strenuous activity will tire you out, help you sleep better at night, help you not think so much about things.” He clicked his tongue as he wrote on his notepad in loopy, illegible handwriting. “You young people, life is so easy for you. No job yet, no families to raise, no responsibilities. I don’t know what you think you have to worry about.” On the way home we stopped at the shops, where my mother bought more fruits and vegetables than the two of us could possibly eat, badminton rackets, and a can of shuttlecocks. “This will be fun!” she says gaily, and I nod glumly. Sure. Fun.

And so we went for a while, our meals greener than ever, our evenings spent gamely sending the shuttlecock flying over the gate, which acted as a makeshift net. Sometimes Saf would come over for a game. I even had fun, most of the time, except that through the chatter and the laughter, I was obsessively counting each thwack as racket hit shuttlecock, back and forth, over and over again. Everyone thought I was extraordinarily competitive; they didn’t realize that I was desperate to get to twenty-one, a nice, safe number that just so happened to mean that I also won. Badminton made the Djinn inordinately happy.

It didn’t take long to realize that it wasn’t working. The badminton stopped the day I lost a game to Mama, fourteen to twenty-one, and spent the next twenty minutes tapping my racket on the ground on my left, then right, three times each, over and over again, because fourteen can’t be divided by three and nothing in the world felt right anymore. That was the day I smashed my racket on the ground and dissolved into a red-faced mass of frustration and tears, and Mama locked the remaining racket and the can of shuttlecocks away in a cupboard somewhere.

Sure, I was eating better and exercising more, but all that meant was that I was a marginally healthier bundle of teeming, frayed nerves than I was before. The visions didn’t stop, the voice that intruded in my thoughts didn’t stop, and the urgent need to count things certainly didn’t stop.

In the wee hours of a Sunday morning, when I should have been asleep but was really tangled in a complicated ritual that involved pacing my room in specific patterns, tapping certain objects three times as I passed, all to make sure that my mother would wake up in the morning, I heard a strangled sob through the thin walls and froze.


I pressed my right ear against the wall that divides my room from the kitchen, trying to ignore the instant, indignant buzzing that demanded I finish pacing. Why was Mama crying?

“I don’t know what to do,” she was saying through her sobs, presumably to my Mak Su, my youngest aunt, who had slept over the night before. “She’s changed so completely. It’s like her body’s been taken over by a complete stranger. It looks like her, but acts nothing like her.”

My heart hammered so loud I was almost sure she could hear me.

I could hear Mak Su’s voice, low and soothing. I imagined her holding Mama close, rubbing her back in little circles.

“What about the specialist?” she asked. “You know, the one at the hospital. The mental doctor.” She lingered over the last three words, and fresh panic bloomed in my chest.

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