by O Thiam Chin
The old man arrived at the kampong much earlier than expected. He had walked for an hour to reach where we stayed, and by the time he stepped foot into the house, he was perspiring all over. My grandfather and uncles were told that he was the most revered medium in the district, one who could summon and talk to any spirit he wanted to, to ask a request or favour, or to seek blessings or placation; his services available for a small token amount of ‘coffee money.’ To me, he was just like any old man — severe, toughened, wrinkled.
My mother told me to serve him a cup of coffee, and when I brought it to him, he gave me a White-Rabbit sweet in return. Then he turned back to my grandfather, his countenance serious, and continued with their discussion. I only caught a few snatches of words, before running out of the house, to join my other cousins at play, the sweet already melting in the heat of my palm.
That night, the old man stayed for dinner and ate at the table with the men of the family. Their heads remained lowered in deep talk, and the old man closed his eyes while he listened.
The wooden sedan-chair was brought in from the storage hut and placed before the altar that was ladled with food offerings and urns burning with smoky, eye-burning incense. The painted faces of the warrior gods and benevolent goddesses flickered with numerous changes of expression as the flames from the candles shuddered with each rotation of the overhead fans. We, the children, were told not to go into the living room for the night, or linger outside the corridor. We had to keep away from the procession.
But we watched nonetheless, peeking from behind tiny slits in the paneled doors, taking turns to observe the goings-on in the room. The old man had put on loose silky red pants, bare-torso, and was sitting in the sedan chair, his face turned down. Then his arms began to move, as if pulled by invisible strings, and he let out a terrible scream that silenced all residual noises from us, who were watching him with a curious intensity. He shook his head violently from side to side, and a voice, deep and alien and angry, fell out of his mouth. It was not a voice I recognized, but I noticed the wide-eyed surprise and subsequent relief evident in my grandfather’s and uncles’ faces. They were fully aware who was speaking to them through this medium-man, a voice they knew, way before my time.
My grandfather started asking questions of the medium, and before we could hear his replies, my mother and aunties came up from behind and swatted us away. As we ran off, our laughter charting down the dark corridor, we imagined a new exciting world where the dead are never actually dead, and the living are always reaching out to them.
O Thiam Chin’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body. His debut collection of short stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006 and his new collection of stories, Never Been Better, was released last month.