A short story by DANIEL LEE.
She is the lady from my dream, and she is sitting before me sipping at a cup of tea. I know it is her because of the way she wears her hair: a centre parting between black curtains. I know it is her because of the way her face is framed, her slim cheeks petering to a sharp chin. I know it is her because of the way she laughs. It is like the wind chimes we used to hang over the front door, tinkling in the morning breeze.
I am trying to make sense of her face. If you have seen the way a drop of ink spreads in water, then you, too, have seen the lady in my dream. Her face is the stuff of clouds and constellations. I try to reach out to her, to make sense of curls and webs, but each time you touch a glass of water, the ink within morphs into a different shape. If you plunge your fingers in, the cloud will part and swirl around them. So it is with her. The lady in my dream is liquid.
As for the lady in front of me now, chewing on a mouthful of chocolate cake, I face a different problem. I am trying to piece her together: the twinkle of her eyes, the calligraphy stroke of her brows. That small mole next to her long nose. Her thin lips flecked with chocolate sponge. That is not how you should look at a person, I know. But dolly out the camera, try to look at her whole, and I will be lost. Her sharp chin, her heavy hair, her peals of laughter; these are all I can hang on to.
She is talking and talking. Now she is describing the way her mother used to push her on a toy car, one of those bright red and yellow plastic vehicles which you sit on like you are saddling a horse, and you use your small feet to paddle yourself forward. Now she is talking about work, how she must sit on a swivel chair and tap furiously at a keyboard. If she is trying to tell me a story, she is a terrible storyteller. I touch my fork and stare at the piece of toast on my plate, set among a scattering of crumbs.
I look up at her.
“Do you want some toast?” I ask.
She shakes her head and smiles. The woman in my mind stills, but her face is still a haze of glitter.
“Are you feeling alright?” she asks.
“Yes.” I look down at myself. My belly bulges above my shorts. These days, it seems that my stomach is the only one growing, while the rest of me withers. Has she noticed it as well? “Why?” I ask.
“You look a bit tired.”
“I must look terrible all the time, then,” I chuckle.
She smiles again. A shadow passes over her: it is the old lady I usually eat with in the dining hall, tottering by with a piece of crumpled paper in her hands. It is splotched with paint, bursts of red and green and dark blue, almost black. Only she will know what it means. She is looking about, peering over her gold-rimmed glasses, trying to find something or someone.
“You know what that reminds me of,” I say to the lady from my dream. I shift my buttocks in my seat, gripping the cushioned armrests. She leans forward, perhaps to help me; but seeing that I am already comfortable, she touches my wrist. Another smile. “What does it remind you of?”
I fetch my daughter to school every day, and sometimes back when she has school in the afternoon. It depends. Sometimes her mother does it, sometimes it is me. We are both working. So we have to split the duties, you know? But I really enjoy it, I love the car ride back. I don’t allow her in the front seat because it’s dangerous, so I put her in the back and made her wear her seatbelt. I ask her how school was that day, and she will tell me all about it, things like… Things like how the teacher scolded her for forgetting her homework, or how some boys tried to pull her hair. Or that time when she got herself covered in pen ink, because the ink bottle for her fountain pen spilt onto her, and her pinafore was all a mess. She tried to make me promise not to tell her mum, but despite my best intentions, she found out, because I was scrubbing the pinafore so hard in the kitchen and she walked in on me with a bucket full of murky water.
Do you know how hard it is to clean ink? It was just stuck there, a stubborn stain spreading across the blue pinafore. Some of it got onto her shirt as well, so I was trying to scrub both. The water was frothing white but the mark was still there, like a little island painted on her uniform. All I could think of was how stubborn the stain was, and how permanent ink is. How do artists paint things and not have to erase them? When I wrote reports for the company, I kept cancelling words and tearing up pieces of paper. When artists paint, then, there is a sureness to their purpose. Before the birth of their art, they have seen it in their minds already, clear as day. It must be.
The lady from my dream is laughing. Tinkle, tinkle. She dabs her mouth with a napkin; she has finished what was on her plate before. A rim of chocolate fudge on the edge of her spoon. I furrow my brows.
“Is it that funny?”
“I’m not laughing at you,” she replies. “I just… Those were the days.”
Those were the days. And these are the days as well, the rays of light which slip from my fingers and sequester themselves in golden halos outside the window. The rooms darken and the yard outside turns orange, like a leaf in autumn; soon it falls away and leaves the night like a wanting stump. The lights in the rooms are flickering fluorescent, blinking like long, bright eyes. When they close, I close my eyes as well. Then the next day comes, gifting me another quiver of rays.
How long ago were those days? I can feel the rough cotton of the pinafore, the cold water lapping at my fingers. The blue-green cloud that spread in the bucket of water when I first soaked the shirt in. I shift the bucket closer to myself, sliding it across the ceramic tiles. And when I look at the water again, the cloud has spread into a blackish haze. It swallows my fingers when I dip them in.
I look at my plate. A rectangular piece of toast, amid a scattering of crumbs like grains of sand. The lady smiles at me.
“Do you want some of my toast?” I ask.
She shakes her head, still smiling.
I know why this lady seems so familiar. It is because of her laugh, like the wind chimes we used to hang over the front door, tinkling in the morning breeze. My daughter is there, too. There she is, wailing in the pram; there she is, crawling on the tiles just in front of the front door. Sitting at the table in the living room and scribbling at her homework. Throwing a tantrum and kicking at her toy car. She watches us, my wife and I, as we take turns to stand on a wobbly wooden stool and hook the wind chimes onto the hooks above the doorframe. Two of them, clusters of hollow bronze scrolls swinging from a string. Good feng shui, something that my own parents told me when they pressed them into my hands. Now they are hanging above the door, the hot afternoon breeze tickling them, so they laugh. We laugh too, my wife and I, as I turn to her, but her face is faded like a smudged signature. I turn away and hang my head in shame. The lady is her, I know. The way she wears her hair: a centre parting between black curtains. Her slim cheeks petering to a sharp chin. But what wife wants to hear her husband say: I know your silhouette, but I have forgotten your face?
End of Part 1, Part 2 coming soon.
READ Curator’s note: This post is the first instalment of a 2-part short story. The second instalment will be posted later, so do check back for more!
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