‘Folk Remedies’ by Lay-Leng Ang (Singapore)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Heaven forbade that we ever fell sick. To endure Mother’s grumbles the whole day when we were stuck at home, made us more ill. Always, it was about Father’s pitiable earnings, the paltry household allowance she got and her Herculean task to make it stretch through the week. The last thing she needed was us adding to her troubles.

Father’s zodiac sign was Tiger.  Like everyone else, he believed that the birthright gave him the powers to heal mumps sufferers. His was a simple cure. With a Chinese paint brush, he wrote the Chinese character, Tiger, in iodine, on the victim’s cheek. Called it coincidence or otherwise, somehow, the remedy always worked after he painted on them on one or two occasions. News travelled and neighbours, even those who would not normally speak to him because he was too poor, came knocking, to seek treatment for themselves and their families.

We knew by heart all of Father’s remedies for fevers and colds. His brand of herbal tea came in a tiny paper-wrapped cube which belied its potency. This drink was followed up by barley tea boiled with winter melon strips. And mysteriously, cups of Glucolin. This last ‘medicine’ was one we needed no coaxing to take. With half-baked knowledge, Father himself never understood what glucose was for, and we did not question him either.

Between June to September, a dry spell often followed in the days after the monsoons. Rain waters turned to breeding pools for mosquitoes which swarmed us when night fell. Father was relentless in his search for ways to lessen our misery. We had no mosquito nets, only blankets. Mine was mottled with holes, which gave little defence. Like everyone else, he tried burning green coils repellant, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to light another when the coil burned down. Piles of ashes that I found on the disused tin cover the next morning told me that he had been kept busy. The repellants worked for a day or two before the pests, soon accustomed to the scent, overwhelmed us again.

At this point, Father gave us his other trick.  From under the bed, he pulled out a clay stove. It fitted perfectly on his palm when upright. He dusted off the cobwebs, took some smoldering charcoals from the kitchen and placed them inside the stove. Squatted close beside him, youngest brother and I watched him throw incense powder over the coals, and then readied ourselves to get out of the smoke swirl that shot up. With a discarded tin lid as holder and his nose pinched with his free hand, he carried the stove into the house, leaving a smoke trail in his tracks. If we felt faint inhaling the smoke he called Kam Loh Yen, our nemesis with their tiny bodies would drop off. Father’s incense gave us a longer relief, perhaps three days before the pests intensified with a new vengeance.

Once, I saw Mother sitting on the veranda outside the kitchen looking wretched. The granite mortar bowl and a few garlic cloves were on the floor next to her. She took a mound of crushed garlic and pushed it into her mouth. Toothache, she said distractedly.  She read the question on my mind. “Whole night awake.”

Mother’s self-prescriptions were bizarre. A pineapple and beer concoction, which I found out in later years, was for abortion. More than once, sisters and I stumbled on her preparing this lethal mix in the kitchen, but seeing her red-eyed and troubled, no one dared probe. Not content with treating herself, she sacrificed me for her ringworm remedy: a sulphur-kerosene rub with a slice of lime. It left me scarred for a week. I had to lie to those who dared ask me in school about the burn on my cheek. She dismissed my concern, saying that my condition was temporary, but the cure would be permanent.

Mother apparently had uses for kerosene in more ways than one. Third Sister was fond of wearing long hair, which was a dead attraction for hair lice and for that, she had to suffer painful sessions of home treatment. Mother would push her next to the drain, amid her screams and protests that could be heard houses away, while she poured kerosene over her head.

Bent over our books, in the languid afternoon heat we fought hard to stay awake, and I grew deaf to Third Sister’s cries. My mind wandered. School fees due next week. Got to buy that mug and toothbrush for the hygiene campaign. And a compass set for geometry class. Costs, costs, costs. Damned. Father at this time was probably making his rounds in the neighbourhood, and I pictured him heaving and sweating on his tricycle. At home, he sometimes spoke about hard luck days when he circled 5-Milestone compound, then 4-Milestone and back at 5-Milestone without meeting, a single customer. Having run out of options, he might park next to the row of shops at South Buona junction, or linger under the angsana tree further up the road, only returning when it grew dark. How he loathed facing Mother’s wrath for returning back empty-handed.

One evening, I found Mother in the backyard, sitting on the low drain block. Our landlord, when not attending to his many food businesses, took time to entertain punters who wanted to place bets on his 12-stick lottery. It was our misfortune to be living next door, actually sharing a wall, and every day the hopefuls made their way through our front veranda to his house. Our backyard, far from the stream of people and constant chatter, was Mother’s sanctuary. Fanned by the breeze from the bamboo thicket which grew next to the drain, she sat hidden in the shadows of the hedge and watched passers-by without getting noticed.  To be sure, this was no idyllic hideaway, as being next to a duck’s pen ensured a stench hanged in the air, which got more unbearable when the wind carried it in our direction.

While we whiled away the time staring down the road at nothing, all of a sudden, Mother slapped her thigh, seemed to remember something and exclaimed she had the solution for me. I turned to her. Not till a moment later did I realize what she was referring to.

For many years, I suffered from scaly skin, which would tear and bleed at times.  Mother suggested cooking oil since this was cheap and available in the house. Lotions and moisturizers were unheard of, maybe they were sold at Robinson’s but stepping into that high-class store stayed only in our dreams.

Hock Tee, a towkay who found fortune in sawmills, portable gas supplies, electrical appliances and whatnot, had died. His funeral hearse would be travelling through Zehnder Road, next to our house the day after, she said.  A death was a topical subject for days on end – cause of death, age of the departed, religion, food served at the wake, visitors, rituals – virtually everything connected to the grieving family. I was not surprised that Mother knew about it.

The funeral itself was a showcase of the deceased’s wealth. A chance for neighbours to search for faces, especially womenfolk, often talked about but rarely seen out of their house. These members were probably second or third wives, kept indoors throughout their lives, or who were often too sickly to venture out.

At the sight of the lorry hearse festooned with giant pompoms, tassels and drapes, villagers standing at the roadside gasped. Silently, they wished the hearse would move even more slowly as they needed time to feast their eyes on the exhibits out there. The canopy atop the lorry; a garish dome bordered by turrets and swathed with blankets edged in gold and with gold Chinese letterings. Their eyes quickly moved to the black-and-white portrait affixed above the windscreen.  Then, the brass band troupes at the head of the hearse, wreaths, blanket offerings paraded by helpers, bereaved family members, their garments, relatives and friends who turned up; they took mental notes all the while, as these would become items to comment on afterwards. As the lorry inched, and jerked its way down the slope to South Buona Vista Road, the coffin peeked through the curtain that shielded it both from the sun and onlookers.  How people waited to catch that glimpse.

It was a taboo for children to see the hearse, so we hid in the house and peeped through the cracks in the plank wall. Watching mourners passing by sobbing with heads bent, adults loved to whisper to one another. “Look, how she cries.”

Barely had the procession left, Mother shoved me down the footbridge and on to the road. In the distance, strains of the brass band music, Not Returning Home Today, an evergreen at funerals, was still in the air.

“Hurry. Now’s the best time.” She tugged at me and saying to herself, “clean and fresh.”

Hell money lay scattered on the road, grass patch, drains, and as far as the slopes on the sides, paving the path an inch high. Here and there, joss sticks and half-spent candles with their stick holders stuck to the ground in their melted red wax. Yet, others flattened by human feet that thronged through, lay smeared. With this thick litter, the deceased was no ordinary family, that’s for sure.

Mother walked ahead of me, looking unsure, and with a smile at the corner of her mouth. At a quiet stretch of Zehnder Road, she stooped down.  Two sheets of hell money turned up at the sides in the breeze, caught her attention. She picked them up, and swiped them down my legs. Once, twice, thrice. Before I could react, she threw the pieces behind me. Impulse made me turn around, in time to catch sight of the two sacred sheets fluttering in mid air before Mother pulled me back, and onwards to Grandma’s house. I was obsessed with locating the papers. I had no idea what I hoped to find. Would they sparkle like magic or burn away slowly, and so walking the same way back after some time passed at Grandma’s, I searched the ground, only to discover that now all the papers looked exactly the same.

Days after, I kept checking myself; if there were any signs of a cure, they never showed up. I was grateful that quack-doctor Mother never subjected me to the treatment again.

Glossary:

angsana: a large tropical tree with sweet-smelling yellow flowers
Kam Loh Yen
: incense smoke
towkay
: wealthy businessman

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Lay-Leng Ang lives and works in Singapore in the media industry and writes for leisure. Her feature contributions have been published on AsiaWrites.org and CNNGo.com. Folk Remedies is set in 1960s -1970s post-colonial Singapore in a backwater community and is a chapter of an essay which she is working on.

Initially published on AsiaWrites in October 2010.

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