“Ma, did you come into my room last night?” asked Bubin. Sulitah was busy preparing breakfast. The question went unanswered. She was stirring rice noodles swiftly in the wok. Bubin groaned inwardly and let out a small sigh. He couldn’t sleep all night. His thoughts were in a complete tangle. He was frightened that the creature would come and mess with him. He didn’t dare step out of his room. He spent the night in a cold sweat. At the crack of dawn, he finally dozed off, but only for a short spell. Since Bubin’s room faced the kitchen, any activity there early in the morning would wake him up. Today, it was the sound of sizzling hot oil that interrupted his slumber.
“No, I didn’t. Why do you ask?” Sulitah finally answered. His initial suspicion proved to be right. He was getting goosebumps all over his whole body, and it was not just because of the morning chill. Bubin felt nauseated. But he decided not to say a word about it. He didn’t wish to burden his mother with a problem that could be completely imaginary, for all he knew.
“Can you fix the window?” It was Sulitah’s turn to ask a question.
Her hands moved nimbly to shift several items on the table to make space for the large bowl of fried rice noodles she had cooked. Bubin nodded.
“But I need to buy two hinges and figure out the lock,” he said quietly.
In his mind, two red eyes stared back from behind the window screen.
“I’ll go to Ah Voon’s later at noon. Maybe they have them in stock.”
“Mom, let’s buy a TV. We could ask Dad for the money.”
And he remembered the long outstretched hand reaching for his neck last night. He tried to suppress the fear and anxiety that began to form a knot in his chest. He scooped his noodles into his mouth slowly. He knew that his request to buy a television was inconsiderate since moving here had been expensive.
But a television was what he needed to distract his mind from thinking too much about what he had gone through the past two nights.
“I will try. I cannot promise when, but I’ll find a way. You must be feeling lonely without a TV. Poor you.”
Bubin nodded. Sulitah went back to work. Tidying up and arranging this and that. There were so many plates and bowls to organize but proper storage was limited.
After breakfast, Bubin scoured underneath their stilt house to look for plywood and planks that could be used to fix the window. The morning sky appeared dark and heavy. The ground was still wet from the pouring rain the previous night which only stopped at dawn. Thankfully, the communal cleaning work that he joined the other day produced helpful results. Rainwater no longer flooded the lawn in front of their house. Bubin had to keep diverting his mind from thinking too much about the pair of eyes and long arms that he saw last night. Even though the terrors he experienced before were only nightmares, he was very certain that what he saw in Rubi’s bedroom was real.
The red eyes behind the window.
Long outstretched arms reaching for his neck.
If he were to tell Sulitah about that incident, she would surely be worried sick about her four children. The last thing he wanted to do was to move back to Matan to an old nightmare. He would rather be visited by the red-eyed ghost every night.
It was almost noon when Bubin finally decided to confide in his sister. He spoke to Rubi about the previous night’s events in a low voice to avoid being overheard by Ozet. Sulitah had since left to buy food and necessities at Ah Voon Mini Market. The sundry shop was only one kilometer from their home. She took Robert with her.
Yet Rubi said that she hadn’t noticed anything at all, not even when Sulitah woke her up asking her to sleep in the living room. Maybe it’s because she was too tired looking after Robert all day long, on top of helping out at the food stall and keeping an eye on Ozet.
“Don’t tell Mama,” Bubin cautioned.
“It’s probably nothing, Bubin. Maybe it’s just you getting used to this place,” Rubi said, trying to set her brother’s mind at ease.
“I hope so,” he said. He was a little disappointed with Rubi’s response. She did not seem to believe him. Deep inside, he knew the terror was not over. That was only the beginning. There would be more to come. After Rubi had left, Bubin let out a weary sigh.
* * *
Sulitah reached home carrying not just the goods Bubin had asked her to buy, but also two bits of good news. She bumped into an old friend who had just opened a restaurant in town. Her friend knew about Sulitah’s cooking skills and had offered her a job as the head chef at his restaurant.
“He’s offering me three hundred and eighty per month. But I’ve already told him I can only work during school holidays. Once confirmed, he’ll give four hundred to begin with, then after three months he will raise it to four hundred and fifty. I can start in two or three days.”
“That’s great, Mama. Wonderful news! The thing at the market will only begin next year, right?” said Rubi, referring to another planned venture of Sulitah’s, as a partner in a food stall.
Her school friend Latipah, who’d been running the business for ten years, asked Sulitah recently if she would like to be her partner. She’d replace Latipah’s sister who would be moving to Kota Marudu. However, according to the deal they had agreed upon, the partnership would only become effective early the following year. In the meantime, while it was still school holidays, Latipah occasionally asked Sulitah to come over to help as and when needed, when her sister was busy with moving arrangements. Rubi was also promised an allowance of twenty ringgit a month, since she was the only one who could be relied on to babysit Ozet and Robert while Sulitah was at work.
“If you’re interested, Bubin, Ah Voon is also looking for a part-time worker,” Sulitah said. More good news.
“How much per month?” Bubin asked as he hammered nails into four planks to make a window frame.
“It depends on how much work you do, he said. At least eighty, at most one hundred and fifty.”
“Oh. That’s not much. The place where Engtai is working, they give him one hundred and sixty.”
“You can work whichever you want. But Ah Voon’s is nearer to our home. You can just walk there.”
Bubin did not answer. He needed to keep his focus on his work because the raindrops were beginning to fall from the sky. Drops fell on his arm and shattered like transparent beads. He quietly agreed to work at Ah Voon Mini Market during the school holiday. It’ll help us buy the TV sooner, he thought.
* * *
It was nearly dusk when the windowpane was fully installed in Rubi’s bedroom. Even that took some nagging from Sulitah before Bubin got the job done. He was distracted all day, his mind occupied by the dark figure with red eyes. Each time the image appeared in his mind, he lay down until his mind cleared and he felt calmer.
“Don’t be lazy, Bubin. How are you going to finish the job if you’re resting so much? At this rate, the window’s going to remain broken for yet another night,” Sulitah nagged her son.
Bubin had been procrastinating since noon, and she had had enough. As a parent, it wasn’t her intention to bark orders at her children to work around the house. But she wanted them to grow up to be self-reliant adults. Without the need to depend on others for help.
She was always grateful to be blessed with children who listened to her and didn’t make a fuss, as she was practically a single mother. Struggling to raise four children with only a single pair of hands. Her eldest daughter, Rubi, would be taking her SPM examination next year. Her plan was to nudge Rubi to further her education in the sixth form. She could also apply to a nursing program or teaching institute. Sulitah wasn’t very worried because she knew as well as others had for some time that Rubi was a bright student, with great potential for success.
There was only one thing Sulitah was hoping for. That her husband, Simon, who worked in Sandakan would support Rubi’s education financially. That was why she refrained from making other requests. Although the money he sent her at the end of each month could only cover half of their monthly expenses, she didn’t want to complain. She was patiently waiting to see the fruits that her endurance would bear.
Bubin would be in form three, and also taking an important examination. Sulitah didn’t expect Bubin to pass his exams with flying colors, it would be enough for her to see him put in the effort to get a reasonable result. Bubin’s academic achievement bordered on moderate, but he was very talented when it came to working with wood. He had built so many things all by himself. He was too young to take over his father’s roles, but had shown his mature side.
Her third child, Rolbina Rozette, was entering standard three. She was still young and could not grasp the complexity of life yet. Sulitah’s life had changed ever since she was pregnant with her fourth child, Ozet. Her dreams for the perfect family and the perfect career had faded away slowly due to lost time and marital problems. She never blamed Ozet. It never crossed her mind that Ozet could have brought bad luck to the family. On the contrary, it was her that she loved the most. Ozet’s cheerful disposition brought a ray of sunshine to their family.
Her last child, Rolbine Robert, was born almost two years ago, and she hoped he could salvage her worsening marital situation. Perhaps Simon’s heart would soften because of the baby, she had thought. Maybe he would change and treat her and their children more fairly. But she was wrong. That was why she wanted Rubi to succeed in life. So that her daughter would not have to make so many sacrifices just to pine for her love to be returned by someone who would never appreciate all the sacrifices she made. So that she would be happy in the future. Don’t be like Mama, she thought quietly. Tears fell. She did not know what she had done wrong, to be condemned to a life filled with false hopes.
* * *
“Mama’s been crying,” whispered Rubi. Bubin nodded and continued with his hammering. As a boy who did not fully comprehend women’s emotions, he wasn’t sure how to respond. He knew why Sulitah cried, but he loathed talking about it. Why couldn’t Mama just leave Father? We’ve been living on our own anyway, he thought. He shook his head and tightened his grip on the hammer.
“So, I’m saying, it would be good if you just accept Mama’s suggestion. Go and work at Ah Voon’s. Let’s make things better for her. Poor Mama,” Rubi said.
Bubin chose to remain silent. He purposely directed his energy toward his woodworking. So much so that the veins on his arms bulged. Tung–tang–tung–tang. The sound of the hammer hitting the nail filled the space. Rubi stood next to him, refusing to budge. Once Bubin installed the window shutter, he immediately tested it to make sure that it fit, and that the latch he had screwed on worked.
“There you go. Your window is all fixed,” he said.
“Why don’t you sleep here for two nights? If you confirm there’s no ghost, then I’ll sleep here.”
“Chicken!” Bubin retorted.
Rubi wanted to make a sarcastic comeback, but she had to dash out. Robert’s cries were far more urgent than responding to Bubin’s teasing. Little did she know that Bubin had already made up his mind not to accept her offer. He wanted to try sleeping in the living room that night. He couldn’t bear the weight of his fear in the dark of night. Even so, he had planned to put Sulitah’s Bible under his pillow. The Bible was the only spiritual item in the house. He hoped this action could put a stop to the strange incidents that had been terrorizing him.
* * *
Bubin woke up with a start and realized that the lights that he had purposely left on had been switched off. In the dark, his hands groped for the Bible underneath his pillow. It was still there. Slowly, he rose from the bed and headed toward the door. He switched the light back on and was overcome with relief when he observed nothing amiss in the room. Everything was in its place, just as it had been before he went to sleep. Bubin sat on the bed facing the window with its new shutters. Then he turned toward the wall facing Sulitah’s bedroom.
What was that sound? Who was that? His heart raced. He could not move. He sat still. The scratching sound on the wall followed by a few knocks made the hairs on his arms and neck stand on end. Determined to fight back, he worked up his courage to knock on the wall. As he expected, whoever or whatever was on the other side knocked back! Bubin then heard soft laughter and whispers. The sounds persisted until he lost his patience. Bubin stood up abruptly and strode out of the room. That darned Rubi! He exploded with anger. It must be Rubi who was mocking him from the next room! He pushed Sulitah’s door but it was locked. So he knocked on the door repeatedly until it opened a crack. He could see a figure moving inside the room.
Suddenly, buckets of rain started to fall on the house. It was as though a hail of rice grains was being poured onto the zinc roof. Then the roof gave way and the water flooded over him. He was drenched! Bubin jerked awake. The light in the room was still on. He raised both his hands. They were dry. What a crazy nightmare.
© Alis Padasian. Translation © 2021 by Siti Malini Mat. All rights reserved.