Chicken Feathers

Author’s Note: This was my prose submission to the 2020 George Town Literary Festival under the theme of ‘life under lockdown in the time of COVID-19’. Unfortunately it didn’t win but I’m pretty proud of it and so decided to share it here on my blog.

‘Kuih Muih! Enak dan Murah!’ the sign said, written in a bold red permanent marker on a sheet of A4. Pasted roughly to the lid of a styrofoam box with corn starch glue, it was propped up by a plastic table. Underneath in smaller, black letters, it read ‘Mari Berselera Bersama Rakan dan Keluarga’ followed by a hastily drawn smiley face surrounded by stars.

The kitchen was a furnace, a place several degrees warmer than the rest of Kak Farah’s home. At a young age, Ibu had dominated this space and a younger Farah knew to stay far from it, partly due to heat and partly due to the likelihood of receiving more chores to help with. Now approaching her fifties, there were no more orders to receive from Ibu and she found herself in the kitchen more often than anywhere else in her family’s terrace house. It was rectangular in shape, with a divided wet and dry kitchen and features that had slowly been remodelled over time. Yet remnants of history held on like the cabinet varnish, once shiny but now a dull, pale yellow. Across from it, rusty nails jutted out awkwardly from the walls. These hooks had once been the holding spots for photos, pictorial leftovers of hers and Adik’s childhood spent digging for seashells by the beach in Port Dickson or posing with The Porta de Santiago in Malacca. She remembers exactly when she had taken them away and why, remembers the sadness coursing through her as she had hastily torn them all down after “the incident”. When she closes her eyes, Farah sees the photos exactly as if they were in her hands. She pauses for several moments, knowing that as soon as her eyelids flutter open, the photos will go back to their original places, inside a dust-covered storeroom she no longer ventures into.

The table, the foundation of her stall, had its original pale blue colour now marbled with stains and scratches, and two corners broken off. Warm and thick hands that wore fading jewellery picked up trays upon metal trays, each housing a single variety of kuih. Some had been cut into squares, others into diamond shapes yet all gleamed like semi-precious stones under the sun. A small cloth pouch placed thoughtfully next to the trays carried loose change in coins while a pile of scrap paper held together by a clip served as the calculator.

While the Malaysian heat burned from the outside, a soft breeze would sometimes wrestle its way into Farah’s home, through the metal grill that had been installed for other kinds of intruders. Her corner, the spot where her mother once crouched over and where she does now, is strategically located so that such a breath of wind could reach the cook, a moment’s reprieve during the back-breaking work. Here Kak Farah often stood with her sleeves rolled up, stirring a mixture of eggs, coconut milk and pandan leaves endlessly until it became a velvety, smooth kaya. Other times she would be kneading glutinous rice flour with pandan juice, the base of her jade- coloured mounds of ondeh-ondeh. Every piece of kuih she makes is as much a part of her as her fingers and toes are. And every piece she sells, is a part of her that she gives away.

The truth of her plainness, of her lack of brilliance was something the family had accepted just as much as they had embraced Adik’s natural intelligence. No one knew this more than Ibu, who had taken it upon herself to bestow her own secrets of the world onto Farah. Kak Farah would not need to aim for A’s in her SPM so long as she could grate her own tapioca for a springy kuih bingka. She did not have to worry about going to university at all, because she had mastered the best way to allow kuih bahulu to rise. The same day Adik received a letter of offer to work at Maybank’s investment arm, was the day Kak Farah served kuih seri muka as pencuci mulut for the first time, with perfectly even layers of rice and custard. Recipes, Ibu had promised, would be Farah’s inheritance, one which no one could ever take away from her. As a result, she often recited ingredients and instructions while preparing her wares, afraid that she might otherwise one day forget.

She could feel sweat beads running down her back and pooling under her arms. She was grateful for the thick layer of deodorant and her white undershirt which prevented it from showing through her clothes. Kak Farah sat in her usual spot just beyond the boom gates of Pasar Taman Mesra’s parking lot. Coming here, rain or shine has been her weekday ritual since she reached adulthood. Throughout the years she had seen Mesra grow from a humble Chinese medicinal practice into a supermarket that rivalled the national chains. Its regular customers became hers too, from construction workers to neighbourhood families to employees who worked in the surrounding office blocks. Yet her favourite had always been cheeky Prakash, a slim boy who had been coming to Kak Farah’s stall since he attended the local primary school. Now a robust 15 year old, he still made it a point to saunter by the stall every Friday after school, with the same smile that guaranteed him a piece of kuih lapis. He coveted it, eating it layer by layer, a method which Kak Farah would chide but secretly loved.

On the rare occasions where Kak Farah does ‘go out’, her look always featured butterfly-blue eyeshadow, fiercely drawn dark brown eyebrows and two pink blush circles that stood out on the apples of her cheeks. It was a face she had worn for as long as she could remember, despite the protestations of Alia and Anis, with the teenage advice of less is more. It pains her more than she would ever admit, but today she thought particularly of her twin nieces that she had lost contact with over the years, over a stupid fight. With tissue paper, she dabbed first, her eyelids and then again over the sweat-clung faint hairs on her upper lip.

A headache had been with her since the morning and she knows it will be with her when she goes to bed. The walk to Mesra this morning was particularly difficult, as though her mind and legs couldn’t agree on how she should move. Kak Farah has barely seen a shadow today and in about half an hour when the sun begins to set, she will bring each and every tray of untouched and unsold kuih back home. She will try to eat some for dinner, despite the eyes her doctor recently made towards her paunchy waistline. She simply cannot bring herself to throw them in the bin as she has been forced to more and more as the weeks become harder.

The girls had grown up with too much Disney Channel, she had surmised over the years after hearing distinctly American accents tinge their Bahasa Malaysia. She didn’t understand their penchant for hotdogs and burgers, their refusal to eat with their hands and why Adik prepared beef rendang for adults but defrosted fish fingers for the girls. It was this very fact that escaped her the most, that while Farah would attempt to beg, cajole and bribe her nieces into eating the food of their heritage, Adik’s aloofness of it all, bordering on complete disinterest. The day her heart broke for the two girls that she had loved since birth, was the day Farah had promised Anis pancakes and arrived with one of her signature creations, kuih dadar. Feeling tricked, Anis had howled in anger before throwing the entire plate of coconut crepes against the wall.

The following weekend, Kak Farah lies in bed until the sun is high in the sky. A chill runs through her body and her headache from the day before is present and blinding. She wonders if the kind Ms Lim, who she always gives an extra piece of pulut tai tai in her order, will worry when she doesn’t turn up for line dancing at the community hall. It’s then that she remembers that lessons have been cancelled indefinitely.

The pancake event was merely the simmer before the soup boiled over. It was at the start of the year that she had ventured to a different market to try her luck in a new neighbourhood. There was Adam, looking as handsome as he did the night he had married Adik, brazenly holding hands with a girl that Farah didn’t recognise. Her hands shook as she packed up her stall immediately, going straight to Adik’s home to tell her what she had seen. She hadn’t expected to be screamed at by her younger sister and kicked out after being accused of lying and damaging her family’s reputation. Later that night in her own home, Farah blamed herself for having ever decided to leave her normal post at all.

She’s not quite sure what day it is. Her body is completely depleted of energy but instinctively she knows she needs to prepare ingredients for the kuih she plans to make throughout the week. Mustering all of her strength, she manages to sit up and to put on clean clothes. Shuffling into the kitchen, her safe space is not the hearth she remembers, the air is unfamiliarly cold. She sets about to work mechanically, making use of steadily expiring ingredients despite knowing she can no longer peddle what little she has to give. She would be chased away from her stall by the police or worse, fined an exorbitant amount that she does not have the means to pay. Looking out through the grill, she thinks she sees Prakash on a bicycle zipping down her street, part of the new army of youths that deliver food on behalf of businesses. She realises it cannot be him because this boy wore a disposable mask, one which Prakash has no access to. She thinks about the last time she had seen him, donning a black rag, which he jokes makes him look like Batman.

In these moments where Kak Farah is more isolated than ever, she dwells on the past and of all the moments that have truly mattered to her. Playing together with Adik in the garden surrounded by their toys – leaves, caterpillars and twigs. Lying on the linoleum floor of the living room to cool down. The day Adik married Adam and told Farah that the entire inheritance of their family home, was hers to keep. The cruel words uttered many years later that had pierced right through her. How as a childless spinster she could never understand what it was like to raise her own. To teach the girls to embrace who they are and not what a screen tells them to be. To want them to have the best of the world with out straying away from their faith. The shame that fell on her, not from Adam’s infidelity but from Farah’s knowledge of it. Tears roll down Farah’s face. Like one of Ibu’s chores, repairing her relationship with Adik was something she had always put off for another day. Weary and dizzy from a mere hour’s work, she sits down and closes her eyes. Each breath she inhales feels shorter than the last, but she tells herself this break will only be for a moment.

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