There is a house that is buried deep within me like a seed; even though I am grown, I can feel it still germinating, its branches piercing the lining of my arteries, my heart. One day, it will pierce my flesh and I will become an extension of it, fated to sing its song for eternity.
I reach back. The memory’s dingy, a dark mushed creature in the back of my mind. I can feel its contours, shaped like an octopus; wet against my fingers, its tendrils winding around my hand, around my neck. Gently, I caress it; it is moist, damp with the weight of all the mornings of my life; dew-like, encrusted with sand from the corners of my eyes. I pry it gently away to examine its contents, peeling each crusted skin away from the center where its heart lies pulsing like the gentle soul-beat of a tiny starfish.
Back, back-- Where did it all begin? Perhaps, it was with the weight of secrets that, coalescing, formed a dark and brooding shroud, a shroud that saturated the deepest cellared corners of my childhood house. I remember clearly those corners, now a shadow of a shadow, layered by time; each minute, each year and decade piled on top of the next so this dank bedroom is dingy in my mind with the memory of all its accumulated ghosts. I am evacuating now, evacuating because all I have are the tools of my mind. Because memory is a dried capsized creature conjured on the self’s shores like an unexpected surprise. Because there is that need to evacuate, to come to terms. And so I breathe in, and gently pry--
Yes, the house. That house. My childhood home of darkened corners, damp with the smell of stale shadows in my memory. Shadow, because shadow is form rendered in grey, ill-seeming and imprinted gently on the plate of the mind. I remember myself at that time, wide-eyed, absorbing everything. My skin was a membrane that sucked feelings and emotions out of the air like an amphibian breathes water. I was utterly one with this marshland of a room, roaming its entrails as though in my element. Yet I was also sun-dazed, starstruck by the marvel of existence. That I was here, a kernel of a self within a body sitting upon this bed with fabric of blue so startling it imprinted its insides into the template of my being. I remember clearly how I did not see or feel so much as absorb the textures, shapes and colors of everything around me. People walked in as beings of light and dark, faint and ill-defined or bright and scorching. In this embryonic stage, my world swirled consistently between waking and dreaming, between darkness and light, so that when I closed my eyes I feared that the deep of dreams would drown me and I would never awake.
The obsession with words, with prayers, spells and invocations. To say is magical. Words had power. I had to measure each syllable, cut it close to my skin so I could feel it as part of myself. I became frugal with words, for to say was to be, was to conjure up a world of significance. I remember clearly now: enclosed in my silence, I wore it like a protective shroud. A faint belief arose, heavy with the imperative of life and death: words were finite vehicles. I only had a finite amount of them to use within my lifetime. They could not be wasted. And thus, I closed the door to speech and watched, absorbed, was.
There were, however, the silent prayers whispered before bed. Sentences rendered clearly like strung out spells. I whispered my stuffed dog’s name accumulated as I discovered more names to add on like accessories. And then there was a series of phrases uttered with precision in a concise order before bed. These words were prayers against the darkness, against the web of shadows that sprawled and cascaded on my ceiling as I lay down under the sheets of my parent’s room, stunned and paralyzed by fear. My father would say them with me in order to pacify me, to appease me. So he would share those few strung out moments of verbal communion: between me, the darkness of sleep, and that room of shadows.
If a room were a vehicle, then that room has the resonance of the entire soul of my childhood self returning back from the ashes of the past. But to zoom out now: to the house, that house, with its enclaves and its perches. It was a playground, my playground. I could hide within its closets, in the furthest corner behind the computer of my father’s study in the basement. I could be safe, within myself, snuck close in a fetal cluster.
Often, adults had to pry me away and I would, passively, allow myself to be pulled away. However, I remember all spaces were routes that led to the center, which was that house, the house of my childhood.
Back to speech: I did speak, but it was through compromise. I spoke through stuffed animals. They were my ventriloquists, my mouths. To speak through these beings was to speak through another’s soul, so it became the vehicle for what I wanted to communicate. Each animal had a specific nuanced sound, which I would utter in accordance to its unique self. And I had an orchestra of selves of all shapes and sizes. A dog, Duchess. A seal (my brother’s). A polar bear. They ranged from animal beings attached to circular key rings to larger furry stuffed creatures whose body I held secure under the crook of my arm. I could feel its soul within those furry surfaces pulsate, heavy at times when I communed with it, but strangely light when I neglected to invest my thought into it. In a way, to speak and to touch, to hold and to carry and to imagine were actions that breathed life into these creatures. They were dependent on my being to give them voices. For them, I could speak.
There were also books. Marvelous books whose insides I explored under the erected tent in the corner of my room in daylight. There was one particular one I remember: it told the story of a creature who journeyed into foreign lands. The story was rendered in tiny font that carried it along all its twists and random embarkations. The illustrations swirled around the erratic words (far too small for a child’s eyes). I hardly remember the content, only that I drifted upon them, swallowing each sentence and syllable as if they contained a life beneath their inked shapes.
There were also diaries, many and scattered. I wrote (and sometimes drew) my dreams into brown-colored recycled exercise booklets. My handwriting, I remember clearly, was large, spaced. There was never enough space for me to write things out in entirety. These exercise books extended into becoming catalogues of all the creatures, beings and gadgets I made up in order to populate my world when my brother left suddenly, abruptly, without warning. And I, stunned, had to make sense of it in the wake of my brother’s departure.
Sometimes these locked diaries were records of what actually happened. There was one particular one with a cushioned cover which I remember clearly from the ‘summer’ of my 7th year. It contained conspiracies of my current maid who my brother told me held a knife with a sharp point that she pierced her boyfriend, a hotel manager who she visited on her days off, or the account of the time we visited the island with the witch doctors. There were also scribbled plans to brave the rooftop before we converted it into a rooftop garden. On the top of my house, there was a long horizontal slope of 45 degrees of smooth concrete I remember trying to clamor up as a 6 year-old. To climb to its top was my sole ambition. I had drawn out plans in a green illustrated note paper with arrows, lines and wording for tools, clothing that I had to bring. If I were to reach its top, I was convinced I would attain some form of enlightened stasis.
Along those same lines, I remember the sense of endings. Of the possibility of the apocalypse, of absolute annihilation. Even in the daytime when the ghosts dissipated I remember concocting escape plans- to leave on a highway and journey for hours. The search for a promise land. The possibility of bombs falling from the rooftop and destroying all that mattered to me: that house, that gentle house, the house that housed me when I did not, could not understand human beings or the inevitability of their presence.
Adults, where were they? They were but faint outlines, slumbering giants that circled the periphery of my world. They did not exist but to form the support of that house. To feed it and to provide for it. But beyond that, they were shadows to me, and to me they did not truly exist, even if I valued them for their subsistence, for their gentle presences that I clung onto in the shadow of the endless night that brought the possibility of annihilation within its heart.
There was, however, my brother, who was very much disentangled from the shadows. He was, in all aspects, himself, whole and eternal. He was a second god to my world defining and marking boundaries and borders through the power of his speech. His speech had the ability to not only conjure up worlds but to also bring into existence states of being unimaginable. If he were to tell me that a certain word would make me disappear, I believed it. And I would exercise that power and cluster my small (for I was very aware of the smallness of my presence in this house full of ghosts) self in a corner by the wall, invisible to all but myself. If he were to say that ‘over and out’, a phrase I later learned he took from a TV show but that was of no consequence in light of his power, meant he was communicating with aliens, I also believed it. His power to speak with such lucidity overshadowed any words that I could ever utter and under his prowess, I was gladly silent.
This was not to say that our world was entirely enclosed within the two of us. I remember clearly when our cousins would visit and he would call the radio in order to perform all manners of pranks, using words to twist and deform the reality of even his presence. He was like a shapeshifter cloaked in his verbal dexterity. He could call up the radio line and pretend to be a million different personalities in order to startle and to put into fright the poor broadcaster who had no idea what to do in front of such a mischievous entity. In many senses, he was like a poltergeist whose mind would not stop working, and so he extended his mental prowess to contort reality to fit his ways, in order to make fun of it and shape it into amusing forms.
We conjured a world together, the two of us, out of the stuffed animals we both owned. It was through them that I was imbued with the strong belief of purpose, morality and life. I believed in them strongly. I was their guardians, and they needed me. Each of them had to be counted, carefully, in order for their beings to be filed and placed within their own unique order. If my brother presided over my world, then it was my responsibility to preside over these stuffed beings. They may have been animal-shaped, furred, tiny or large, but they were each unique individuals whose existence in the universe confirmed the presence of a soul sparkling within them. Spirit conferred onto spirit, I breathed life into them through speech, through communion, through carrying on their voices. As they were mine, so I was the house’s. From them to me, I envisioned a whole tradition of stories told with intricate precision to the present.
We created a whole mythology between us. Sometimes we conversed in a strange other language of jumbled syllables concocted from a huge syllable pool which we drew from. They were often senseless garble put forth as a front when a parent’s kid was present to confound them into asking if we were speaking Japanese. But in a way that was the power of our words, that we could speak and thus shut out the cacophony of the outside world.
That was not to say it wasn’t, however, terrifying. My brother often used his words to petrify me, to stun me into meek obedience. I remember once in the daytime when he shut off all the lights and descended upon me like a shroud with blanket and lamplight to scare me into some stunned scenario I would imbibe with the faith of blind belief. He knew of my fear of the dark and of the night. Perhaps, he knew of the endless journey I daily made from my bed upstairs down the lit stairwell to knock on my parent’s black-painted door.
Fear. Immortal fear. Fear that would not diffuse, but descended onto me like a shroud with the setting sun and did not dissipate until it turned light. I knew for a fact that house was the source of that impenetrable well of fear. It housed it. It fed it. Within those pasty, white-washed walls I could feel the demon that lurked within that came out at night to paralyze my mind into absolute pacification. There was, without any doubt, a specter that the house kept within its kernel, like the minotaur in the heart of the maze. At night, frozen with fear, I would pry away my covers and make that epic descent down to the salvation of my parent’s bedroom, but even safe beside my father I knew he couldn’t protect me against the demon that lurked always an inch away from my sleeping self.
Yes, the house housed my deepest fear, yet for some reason I still possessed a blind love for it. It was at the same time the source of my paralysis and silence, yet also the body which housed and fed me, which nurtured and carried me. In the seeming absence of all parental figures, it was stood in all its imposing majesty as, beyond doubt, the house of my childhood self. I came to think of that house is the center, the knotty root connecting my soul to the beating heart of the universe, giving me the feeling at a young age of absolutely oneness, even when deep in the pit of fear.
That house grew on me, taking on the resonance of a landscape: it was a marsh, a swamp, a deep secure interior that I hid myself within. When my tutors would try to find me, my brother would whisper to me a warning and I would hide in the darkest corners of the closets, underneath my parent’s clothing, underneath the bed, or as far as I could clamor on top of the rooftop. I came to think of this weekly search as a game of hide-and-seek with the outside world in which I edged around its periphery ghost-like, invisible.
My parents were there, and they zealously kept watch over me. My mother, specifically, had a renewed faith in all that I was, and could be. I was taught to memorize all geometrical shapes, all the numbers in the times table. However, this faith was somehow displaced on my brother who, at an early age, was labelled a boy prodigy and issued, subsequently into an international ‘genius club’ of sorts. My parents had, in the wake of his destructive powers not only with words, but with teachers, classrooms and tutors, sent him to a child psychologist, only to be told that his destructive tendencies were the result of his exceptional intelligence. What was formerly an impediment turned into a rare superpower my parents had to keep under guard, which only served to confirm his position as a lord over reality. This newly formed attention, however, mattered little to me, only I wanted to have a share in those activities, so my mother signed me for three kindergardens- morning, early afternoon and late afternoon. I wandered through these schools in a daze, happy to be present, not knowing how else I could be but wandering through these social situations slightly disassociated but absorbing, as always, all that surrounded me.
I remember those schools in a blur. My mother’s car, parked outside a forest where I went to a school in a blue uniform with white crosses at my skirt to attend a school hidden in the woods where we travelled from caravan to caravan in order to partake of different classes taught by a litany of nuns. Fetching my brother from his uptight, Confucianist school (a school I would later attend), which loomed large and white, a massive monolith of a building, surrounded at length by the gates of houses decked along roads named after the British royalty. Dogs, whose names I later memorized with such precision so I could whisper their names as my maid walked me home from school (later, these dogs would be so accustomed to my calling them even the fiercest of them would come running to meet me). And later: my brother’s former school where he got into a fight with the President’s youngest son and came home with all his buttons torn astray. Later, that school would transform into becoming another of my playgrounds, imbued with the stories that he told me of it and thus, carrying with it my brother’s spirit and ghost even as I roamed it alone trying to communicate with its birds.
However, this also hinged off suddenly when my mother’s death arrived, taking with her my brother who stopped playing with me, abruptly descending into his own internal world. The exterior boundaries of his powerful presence collapsed within himself, so he sunk into himself so deeply that he disappeared into his corner of our room, as I did into mine. He subsequently ceased to exist for me, and I too fell into my books, knee-deep, consumed absolutely. I developed an ardent passion for encyclopedias of dogs, memorizing each species with their names, characteristics, fur-types. I devoured books. I took with my pencil the duty of tracing their souls onto paper in order to remember them as closely as possible, to wrap them close to my soul with the grain of paper and the line of my pen. I got obsessed with sourcing images of dogs (then birds, wolves, foxes) in order to draw them. My passion developed the aptitude of a connoisseur's. I sought specific breeds, with specific markings and shapes and out of these remembered facts and figures, I conjured a new world, a world of my own.
This world was, in many way, made out of the blueprint the previous world I knew with my brother, only fitted to my interests with animals and species of all types. I applied my desire to commune with the natural world through facts and figures to creating imaginary dogs of my own. I kept one initially, but then he brought in another, and another. So my world bred, and I carried on to invest my belief in it. I remember shut in the confines of my parent’s car, I would watch the streets dissolve in a blur, each lamplight linking to the next. I would, thus, imagine, my pet dog running along the family car, clamoring upon those steely barricades, running with me, in our forested urban wilderness, a ghost only known to me.
Regarding ghosts: those still persisted. The nightly fear grew into a debilitating illness. As I moved into my own room and our house was reconstructed (the roof turned into a rooftop terrace; a secret chamber carved into the white stone of our lowest flower that we turned into an antechamber for books) to suit my brother and my newfound solitude, the fear also followed, taking on new incarnations.
I remember a night in my cousin’s newly built house- the newness of white marble, the wide-open spaces that expanded so widely that I had to run to get from one end of the hallway to the other. This mansion was, in many aspects, the opposite of my dark musty house of shadows, and another place where I would spend weeks after the demise of my mother. It was new, smooth, cold to my touch, imbued with a life that, in its youth, did not communicate with me so I always felt while I was in it as though I were drifting upon a white, marble sea with no land in sight. That night, we were snuck in the projection room to watch Independence Day, and I was to carry out of that room a fear of aliens that followed me thereafter for two subsequent years. The following night, months and years after, the word ‘alien’ was to be a forbidden word I could not shape with my mouth because it was, in my mind, a death knell. My brother, of course, would take advantage of this new superstition to speak it, thus leaving me with each of these utterances in a state of paralyzed shock, as though he had struck me with a spell.
That night, we were snuck in the projection room to watch Independence Day, and I was to carry out of that room a fear of aliens that followed me thereafter for two subsequent years. The following night, months and years after, the word ‘alien’ was to be a forbidden word I could not shape with my mouth because it was, in my mind, a death knell. My brother, of course, would take advantage of this new superstition to speak it, thus leaving me with each of these utterances in a state of paralyzed shock, as though he had struck me with a spell.</span>
And then, there was that Buddhist funeral--
--How to explain it? How to put into words the event which ignited a form of Catholic-like pathological obsessive compulsion to purify and cleanse?
That day, aged six, I clutched my Winnie-the-Pooh book of soft beige with its reddish-brown spine, the cover secure and concrete against my grip. Along it, there was etched in fake gold a line of tiny bees ascending from one corner to a third of its cover. The book’s physical form was, for me, a guard against reality; memorizing those whorls of etched print and feeling its sandy spine against my skin enclosed me within the boundaries of its faint world.
I remember the futility of using it as a talisman. The futile presence of its meek world of beige-outlined shapes against the smoky tendrils of that twilight world. I held it- my book- with feverish precision against the hollow of my chest as I wandered through that haze of a space, now faint in my memory.
And the red, the livid red that saturated that void deck where the funeral proceedings took place stunned itself upon my eyes like the blood of the dead. Impenetrably lodged within its center, presided the solemn, brooding god or gods that this entire community had come to worship and celebrate. And I, a part of it, connected by a strand of blood and the patch of red fabric upon my shoulder. I developed a sense, that day, for the demon-gods of Buddhist temples, for their demon guards and their grisly red-decked insides. I carried with me out of that space a fear and reverence that wrapped itself around me like a curse, a miasma I would try to dissipate during the subsequent years.
We wore white shirts with no adornments. White shirts that were oversized and bought specially for the occasion that came in clear plastic bags, the only new clothes I had in years. Upon my shoulder, I had a square of bright red fastened to my white shirt by a safety pin. For that day and subsequent days we were to wear white- being the relatives of the dead- and I came to associate those squares of red fabric with contamination- the contamination of the fiery gods that resided within the darkest recesses of that space. Red patches also hung on lamp posts around the neighborhood of the deceased, scattered around to announce the grand pronouncement: that this great unnamed stranger (whose name I never knew) had died, and we were to, in solemn procession, carry ourselves with it to the world.
After we left the funeral, I grew an obsession with cleansing, purification, rinsing. I felt a grey substance had latched itself onto me, a shroud that clung onto my spirit like a rot-laden ghost. That night, I slept under my covers petrified that I had stained my father’s bedroom with the touch of my corpse-glazed skin.
Stain. Stain of white, red that rubbed against my flesh, my belongings, my bed. I grew an obsession with that stain that I felt had followed me from the funeral. First, it stuck onto that book and onto its beige cover, then to my bolster, to my metals taps, to my clothes. To rid myself of it, I concocted a ritual of cleansing. Water over hands, turn tap off, water over metal tap. Every time I turned on the tap, I would have to wash my hands, and then the tap, so the stain would not contaminate my bathroom. I grew a fear of that miasma which remained for weeks before, through persistent effort, I managed to get rid of its shadow through my daily purifications.
The legacy of that stain, however, lingered for years to come, merging with other somnambulist-like events which presided over my house as I grew older: my brother’s sleepwalking and my self-initiated experiments in my father's absence.
I developed a deep-seated fear of Buddhist temples with their livid interiors, their demon gods and lion-eyed guardians. I would dream of roaming underground shopping malls lined with hell-fire corridors, the air heavy with the same smokey grey miasma that followed me from that space. I would feel reverberations of this haunting in the streets and shophouses of Thailand, or within the uncanny manifestations those landscapes would take in my dreams. All this originated from that threshold that opened up that day between not so much life and death, but the hell I could feel pulsating beyond that cobwebbed entrance which hovered like a specter in my internal eye, and the earth that I could feel beneath my fingers.
Later, I would experience different permutations of this space in the eyes of my enemy or universal 'other' who I labelled my dragon, or in the foggy memory of a tuition teacher (name and personality now smudged by time) who disappeared mysteriously after she appeared at the threshold of my house after one final time, umbrella in hand, to say farewell. It penetrated the smudgy area between fiction and story, so areas of my memory blend from one region to another, boundaries flooded by this encroaching marshland that only grew larger with the passing of time. I would, later, come to compartmentalize these varying areas of grey contamination and their various incarnations as though they were scientific categories with a clear order in the constructed history of my past.
There is another faint memory, loosely linked to this: of the carnival park depicting the nine circles of Buddhist hell, and New-Year celebrations filled with garish, yellow, blue and red. Chinese New Year would always bring with it not only visits to relatives, but brief excursions into this liminal realm. Lion dances, dragon dances were variations of the same, in which human figures would put on garish costumes of monsters in order to celebrate the coming of the new year, chase out ghosts, and bring in good fortune. I remember this in a flurry of faces, impressions, and clamoring noises, now shadowed in my memory by layers of time. They come back, occasionally, like a clashing gong, bringing back a dimension of ritual full of moving figures, hovering in the line of my internal sight like a shadow-stunned image of the past frozen in time.
Rewind back to another space: hospitals. Corridors upon corridors of hospitals. Mislabeled a sickly child because of my propensity to bruise and hurt myself, I drifted through them in a kind of detached wonder. They fascinated me, with their white instruments, artificial limbs and walking aids that peered at me through glassy windows. I stole gloves from a tissue box on the day of my mother’s death, slipping them upon my fingers and feeling their latex stretch taut as if I had grown a new ghastly limb. Their smell felt pure, white, new, and I imbibed it with a seasoned delight. I remember, at the corner of my gaze that day, the nurse remarking sadly, “at such a young age. What will become of the little girl?”, a permutation of a phrase that I would have to deal with in subsequent years, for adults feared death and tip-toed it around it as though it were poison, whereas to me it was a mundane reality. (I would later tell other kids, “Well, at least I don’t have to eat my vegetables,” with a kind of detached factuality, if the topic was broached.) Once, I took a plastic pouch full of bandages, band-aids, instruments from a hospital bed in order to obsess over its contents. There was the shape and form of water bottles, of instruments used for asthma, of a rubbery gel that you put on wounds. I memorized each of this clearly within a catalogue at the back of my head.
Hospitals, to me, were magical places. Transitory spaces where, seemingly alone, I wandered about in a dazed wonder. Apart from my house, I remember these spaces as spaces of light, where healing took place, where secrets were opened to daylight, where things were clean, pure, absolute.
I roamed these territories imbued with variations of dark and light so often partly because my mother was convinced there was something wrong with me. Doctors presided over my illness, interviewing me, asking me questions, trying to find the root of what was wrong with me, not knowing I was perfectly healthy except perhaps for a tendency to imbibe too much world. When I entered a new school, I fell into debilitating pain on bad food for months at an end. My nose bred profusely on a weekly basis. Phantom bruises appeared on my body that my mother speculated were the result of some immune deficiency disorder. She shepherded me from one test to another, to no avail. I remember, however, the trails of those visits, the croissants she let me eat at the entrance to the hospital, and the bookstore whose musty, yet clean interiors I fell in love with.
I did develop one real illness, however, apart from my frequent bruising. There was something deeply wrong with my sight. The doctor said that I had a squint which meant that my eyes were not wired right. They peered towards each other so close as to risk rolling upon their insides. What I needed, thus, was an operation, or two. I was, as such, shepherded through operation rooms where a doctor lay a metal tray with a knife, and asked me to breathe in gas he told me was the smell of strawberries. I had not tasted strawberries before, but I do remember that the gas descended upon me like a pink cloud drowning me in a dreamless sleep. When I woke, I had a bandage on my eye I would wear for months following my operation, which would be replaced by a shield, and then an eye patch. After that, I wore glasses brimmed in red and rainbows, child-glasses which turned to actual metal frames that I would wear for the rest of my life, so I was to always see the world as through a glass darkly.
During those episodes, I remember only mother and me. Our relationship circles around those central routes stretching from our house to hospital, an arterial bond buried in black tar and concrete. She would travel with me in her decrepit silver car, a downgraded version of the conventional beetle, from one destination to the other, buying me things to eat: fishcakes, red bean buns, sugared doughnut balls. I remember discrete moments centered around my hands, my feet, my mouth; and with that, touch, taste, sensation. In those memories, people are strangely absent, and I can feel our silent bond unspoken and wordless, a soft-focussed aureole hovering over the cacophony of my brother’s melodrama.
My brother. With my mother’s death, I came to fear him even more as he retreated into his shadow adobe, his enclave of silence. I did not understand him, but he had always been beyond understanding. For me, he was both my brother tied to me by some magical bond forged by blood, and also Gabriel, angel of death aloof and suspended within a cosmic scheme beyond my understanding. I recognized him as in many ways as an inverted version of myself, a doppelganger self showing me everything I was not and would never be. I grew protective over him. I was unable to string out in a concrete statement anything bad about him, despite the fact he reeked of that same grey miasma I had tasted during the Buddhist funeral incident.
However, his shade of grey was familiar, a fume exuded from a seed that was not too far away from mine. There was the sense of a tragic hero about him in his ardent belief in absolutes, in a Platonic realm where abstract shapes had an underlying place within a transcendental scheme. It was this belief in an underlying superstructure that would cause what I later learned was such an absolute loss of faith he would fall, net-less, into the abyss of a Godless universe.
As for me, I did strongly believe in a God, which I recognized as an imbued cosmic sense of oneness and a deep belief in a magical world. I saw the world and I as nouns intertwined, for it and me lay within the same arterial bond that gave to me my birthright. The universe held my hand and encircled his arms around my fledgling soul. And the house, in my mind, was its gift bestowed to me in a world devoid of adult figures. It contained within its body the roots to the world beneath, and it held upon its rooftops a trapdoor leading to a God above. Within that house, I felt like I was within a womb, snug in the kernel of the world’s seed.
I went to church weekly, but none of the things said there made any sense to me. The pastor’s words entered my head in gibberish, his countenance possessed- in my perception- a certain grotesque deformity that I would come to associate with a sense of moral failing. And so I ended up spending my time at the pews imagining gremlins crawling over the central church window that let the light in, so that by the end of a sermon, I had memorized the church’s entire architecture. God and the devil seemed like quite horrible characters to have rule over the world, and I grew into a habit of shutting things out because I could not deal with the amount of non sense I heard that did not sync with my understanding of the world as I imbibed it. It was in church, ironically, that I grew my bubble of solitude. I did not identify with these people. They were aliens to me. And so, I retreated further inside myself
Circle back to another space: my old church. Another musty place of haunting. Church camp, age eight, reborn to a new world and suddenly enveloped with a newfound sense of profound isolation. I remember that space as a haze of shadowed corridors, white concrete, hidden rooms that led to sordid (at least, they acquired the quality of sordidness to my young self) interiors. These memories are filled with soiling, but of another type from the Buddhist kind. They were ideological smudges blurred and blending with substance of my brother’s words. My brother, then, would tell me ill-conceived stories that shadowed spaces with the ghosts of phantom fears. This place is a jail, he whispered to me as he grabbed a moment with me in-between the rigorously planned schedule of church activities. They want to enslave you. I did not believe him fact-for-fact, but somehow his words held the power of an ominous prophecy, so those few days away from home would feel like a whirling hole of despair.
Away from my house, I felt orphaned, lost. Each brief encounter with my brother would be met by his telling of these commentaries that would convert the gaping expansive grounds of my church into a dim-lit playground where each shadow hid the kernel of some darkened history. I would sit in one of the common rooms upon the wooden pews by myself, shut within myself, overwhelmed by my brother’s stories, for the first time feeling deep within my soul a gaping void with a single red thread that led back to that house. I did not feel fear in the sublime sense within those moments, but fear in the shade of despair. A despair that came from the sense of feeling out of sync with the spirit of each environment I visited.
Perhaps despair is the wrong word. It was more like a sense of lostness that created a void, that created an area of potentiality so that space would be filled in by the stories of my brother which gave it meaning, a meaning that was altogether too impalpable to be digested.
In a way, all roads led back to the center.
Other spaces: the sports club my father would bring me to, where I would play badminton with my cousins. I remember the sense of glee I felt running through these premises. A sense of the ephemeral, of the dissolving of day into evening under forested lamplight. I remember the forests that hid the starkly white colonial complexes which housed tennis courts, basketball fields and the deteriorating concrete of basketball courts fenced in by gargantuan trees. The largeness, the grandiosity, the sense of mutability as we often changed locations, shedding off clothes with each layer of sweat. My father’s colleagues (a magical word that acquired the magic ring only foreignness could bring) were there, and they would try to befriend me but I was weary of adults, then. They were clingy, demanding, too defined. I sought, rather, ambiguities, shades, degrees of difference within my surroundings.
Details: metal railings. The feeling of twisting my legs into the narrow spaces, of balancing precariously on the edge over the deep drain. Perching on the concrete front of my house after leaping onto the ledge, then dangling my feet two stories down to the neighbor’s garden. The feel of the green metal scaffold pillars of my old school as I twirled around them with one hand. I remember the imprint my body had on these spaces as I fit myself around each architectural feature, contorting my body so it wrapped itself around these spaces in contemplative or playful postures. And the silent message, the invisible relation; fit of a lover’s hand, fingers web-like and curled around the other’s shape. A lover’s knot; inextricable clasp.
These spaces lie faint in my memory as a series of muted impressions. I can still smell the forested scent of those spaces, envision their bare concrete shapes ghostly against the lamplight, the spilling foliage wrapped around decrepit flaking metal rails. I remember my nimble body which longed for communion through these bodily distortions. Running, dancing, rolling, touching: all were gestures towards connection. To reach, touch, recombine.
And always returning to the space of my house by night. A point of return, to which all journeys end.
My mind still carries the imprint of its body, rendered in shadows by shadow: the distorted face that was cast across the white walls down the stairway; the dining room in darkness, the piano dressed in shadow; the single movement of clamouring up from piano to dining room when my family was asleep in order to think.
The act of memory brings me back into the musky kernel of my old house. Even though it is no longer mine, the deepest seed of my selfhood remains buried within those wooden floorboards and the wooden-eyed ceiling panes above. Even though those dark-wooden plaster walls are now probably rolled over in white, I can still think upon it and it remains unchanged. For within my mind it is within me, deeply sunk, a space within time folded in with the corpse of my childhood self, enclosed by the benediction of a kiss.
And in that space, I am safe.