‘Eternal Smile’ by Caecilia Xie (Indonesia)

Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

It was raining that night. A screaming ambulance came to an immediate stop with a screech. The door opened and two paramedics got out. Their white canvas shoes splashed water on the wet street as they rushed to the back of the car and pulled out a stretcher with a plastic sheet covering over it. It soon went sleek in the rain, lightning reflected on it. Together they wheeled the cart towards a throng of people standing about despite the rain; just murmuring.

“…a hit and run, it seems…”

“…so young…”

“…died on impact…”

“…still wearing school uniform…”

“…the police.. notify the family…”

The stretcher came to a stop near a parked police car. Its hood lamp was on, blinking streaks of light that turned everybody’s complexion blue. A young policeman in a green raincoat sat in the car, talking over the radio. He got out to meet the chief, a sturdy man with a long overcoat and dripping hat, who was striding towards the car.

“…called the family and asked them to meet us at the hospital. She was totaled, Sir. I’ve never seen anything like this.” The paramedics were zipping the body-bag when they walked over.

The chief raised a hand and the cart stopped beside him. He pulled the zipper down and parted the cover slightly. Lightning burst once more, and this time it reflected a perfect smile upon the corpse’s lips. A drop of rain fell on the chief’s wristwatch and jumped onto the lips, moistening them. The chief closed the bag and shook his head.

***

It was a bright day, the sun rays bounced over the roofs of nearby buildings. The topmost of the school was deserted; no one usually went upstairs. But a girl had gone up there on purpose, waited, and a boy had answered her summons. He had just emerged from the door when the girl turned and smiled at him.

“Thank you for coming,” she started, and bowed. He just gave an awkward shrug. They were classmates, that’s all he knew, but he was curious at why he had been called up here.

“I like you,” she said shyly, but loud enough for him to hear. A hue of pink ran across her cheeks. Wisps of hair escaped from her ponytail and flowed with the wind. She bit her lower lip. The boy gaped at her and started scratching his non-itchy head.

“Err…err….” he stuttered.

She could see him fidgeting from her bent position. Suddenly she wanted to giggle. Instead, she stood straight, tilted her head to one side, and smiled.

“Don’t think about it,” she assured him, “I just want to be your friend.” It wasn’t her actual intention, but she was willing to compromise. She offered a hand for him to shake. “So, are we?” He relaxed and took it. “Sure.” They grinned, then he left, waving.

She let out a deep breath and laughed. There were butterflies in her tummy, but she had let them go. She walked over to the railing, pulling her ponytail as she did. The sun felt comforting, she closed her eyes.

The door burst open to reveal four panting girls. They were loaded with lunch boxes filled with milk cartons, soda and sandwiches. “Hina-chan!” they shouted. One of them gave Hina her lunchbox, covered in a red and white polka-dot handkerchief. They picked a spot in the shade and sat down.

“How was it?” they asked. She laughed at the question. “Yeah, I told him,” she said simply, and struggled with the linen knot of her bento handkerchief. Her friends held their breath. “We’re friends now,” she finished, and a choir of utter frustration rose among them.

“You are so pathetic! You’ve liked him so much since last year and now you’re just good friends?” They scowled, but Hina just laughed.

“I only wanted to tell him how I feel,” she told them. She took an egg roll. “And I’m glad I did,” she said, and chewed, smiling triumphantly.

***

The same smile was pictured perfectly on the chief’s mind now. “Goodness,” he said, “how could she smile that peacefully?” The ambulance drove away. “Where are her things?” he asked his aide. “In my car, Sir.” When he opened the back door, the first thing he laid his eyes on was the polka-dot handkerchief, bloody now and wrapped in a clear evidence plastic bag.

***

“You woke up early.”

Hina turned and smiled. She was arranging egg rolls in her lunchbox. In it were already two nori-wrapped nigiris and vegetables tempura. In the corner of the simple kitchen there was a stove and a buzzing coffee-maker.

“I thought of helping you make breakfast,” said Hina, while her Mom poured herself some coffee. Mom took a swig and set the mug down, reaching for an apron. She put it on and started preparing rice congee. Hina rinsed her chopsticks, then dried them.

“How’s that Maths exam?” Mom asked, yawning. Her daughter hated Maths. “I could do well this time, Mom,” said Hina confidently. Mom frowned. “Really?” That was a first. “If the results come out as well as you say, then I’ll buy you that hair band you like so much.” Hina turned and gaped at her mom. “Just that?” Mom rolled her eyes, and flicked water at her daughter from the wet vegetables. “Okay, okay. Also a new jacket too!” Hina grinned.

***

She wrapped the chopsticks with tissue, slipped them in her lunch bundle, then carried it over to her rabbit schoolbag. Lovingly she stroked the drooping ear of the bunny.

***

The bunny was in another plastic bag, blood staining the tip of its ear. Its neck was torn. The chief ran his fingers along the tear, then pulled out a book. It was a mathematics textbook and a piece of paper stuck out from one corner. Eighty-seven was the mark on it.

***

“Great work, Hina,” said the teacher, and put the paper on Hina’s desk. Blushing, Hina folded the paper and slipped it carefully into her Maths book.

***

From another plastic bag, the chief pulled out a girl’s wallet and a crushed candy-on-a-stem with a pink bow. The bow had been curled, but crinkled now, and spotted with dark red marks. The stem was bent. He pulled the curl and let it go, then opened the wallet. A picture with four faces smiled up towards him: Dad, Mom, Hina and a little boy. The boy had one tooth.

***

The baby sat in his chair, almost too big for it now, and was knocking his table with a spoon. He yawned widely, exposing four teeth. Then he put the spoon in his mouth and sucked. Accidently, the spoon fell down to the floor with a click. He stared at it over the side of his chair and reached. When he realized he couldn’t get it, he hiccupped and frowned. His eyes watered.

Hina tweaked the tip of Tatsu’s nose. “Halt,” she said. Pulling Tatsu into her arms, she pointed at their Mom flipping fried egg by the stove. “Look, Tat-chan. Isn’t Mom clever? Do it again, Mom, show Tat-chan how clever you are!”

“Ooo-kay,” said Mom. “Tat-chan, don’t close your eyes!” Hina flipped him over. The baby laughed, spoon forgotten. “You like it, huh, Tat-chan? Hurry and grow up quickly so you can do it yourself! Show Neechan how to do it for once.” Hina raised Tatsu high above her head, making the boy giggle even more. Morning sunlight found a twinkle in his eyes.

Dad was in the other room. His hair was still dripping with water from the shower. On the desk there were heaps of papers, an old suitcase and a clay pencil case. It was shaped by young hands, bearing the title ‘My Dad’s my Hero.’ Dad shoved a handful of papers into his bag. He grabbed his tie and hurried into the kitchen.

When he entered, the atmosphere suddenly changed. Laughter ceased. Mom turned to the stove to resume cooking. Hina put Tatsu back in his chair and gave him his spoon. Total silence.

Dad put his suitcase next to his chair and went to pour some coffee. Mom put the eggs on the table, then began ladling congee for everybody but herself. Hina shared her congee with Tatsu, who gurgled and kept knocking on the table. Dad took one of the eggs into his bowl and ate in silence.

Mom sat across from Tatsu and stared into her mug. The baby reached out for her with his spoon, while Hina finished her breakfast and stood up to do the dishes. But she didn’t wash them straight away. She simply stared at the window. There, she could see the reflection of the entire kitchen scene; she had seen it far too often by now. She could also feel the hurt in her eyes.

Tatsu accidentally knocked Dad’s coffee mug with his spoon and the spoon flew off towards Mom. Without thinking, Mom caught it in midair. Dad froze. Tatsu clapped his pudgy hands. Then he blew a raspberry at Dad. Silently, Hina smiled and shook her head as she began soaping the dishes.

Hina rinsed, and dried her hands. Then she shouldered her bunny-bag and her bento. She walked towards Tatsu, hugging him so tight that he screamed. She then kissed him, deliberately leaving him all wet on his cheek.

She tilted her head to one side and said, “See you tonight, Mom.” Mom was still holding the spoon with one hand, but managed to nod and gave a lopsided smile. Shyly, Hina wrapped her arms around Dad’s neck and whispered, “Have a great day at work, Dad. I love you.” Then she ran towards the door and put on her shoes.

The front door was beside her Dad’s study. Hina caught a glimpse of the paper-strewn room and her eyes filled with tears. With clumsy fingers in a hazy view, she tried to tie her shoelaces, but to no avail. Back in the kitchen, Mom and Dad’s eyes locked. When Hina was sure she couldn’t hold her tears any longer, she heard her Dad clear his throat.

“Wanna walk together to the station?” Dad asked, eyes still on his wife. Hearing this, a lone tear slipped across Hina’s cheek. “Ssh-sure,” her Mom croaked. Dad replied: “I’ll wait outside.” Hina gripped the edge of her skirt tightly, casted one last glimpse at her father’s study, gritted her teeth, and slipped outside. She let the door open slightly ajar and listened intently to her parents.

Dad stood up and put on his tie. Hesitantly, Mom stood too, and helped him. He stroked her with one finger but she caught the whole hand and pressed it against her cheek. “I’m so sorry that I have been so busy of late,” he whispered, but loud enough for Hina to hear. “Let’s go to the beach this weekend.” Mom nodded. “The children will be delighted.” Then he kissed her softly. Outside, another tear rolled down Hina’s cheek. She knew now that her father had come to his senses. When he came out from the house, she threw herself towards him and gave a tight, fierce, hug with a wide smile across her face. He was her very own life-long hero after all.

***

A torn paper bag was also there, wet from the rain. As the chief pulled out its content, it gave in. Inside were bits of leaves and stem from a large water cress.

***

At Grandpa Sei’s vegetable field, the water cress was a beauty. In the afternoon sun, Grandpa Sei sat in his wheelchair holding a sprinkler.

“Hina-chan, come play chess with Granny!”

“But you beat me all the time!”

“What about rubbing Grandpa’s back?”

“I’ll ask Grandpa Sei to make you some ointment!”

Grandpa Sei rolled his eyes, but his smile widened nevertheless. He watched Hina run across the field to him. “Watering the field?” asked Hina. “I thought today it’s gonna rain,” as she sniffed the air. “Bah,” said Grandpa. “You spend too much time with that crazy fortuneteller at D block. You talk just like her.” He wheeled and put the canister on the ground. “And why did you promise old Hiro another bottle of my ointment? You think I make them for free?”

Hina stifled a laugh. She linked her arms with Grandpa’s and asked: “So, am I fired now Grandpa?”  as she winked at him. “Oh, you silly girl,” he grunted. “Think about it. Before I fire you, I would have to pay you!”

It’s been a few months now that Hina had worked in the field. Grandpa Sei acted as her superintendent, telling her what to do and how to do it. He grew herbs and vegetables to share with his fellow friends in the nursing home. He made ointment too, because he didn’t trust modern balm and lotions.

When the sun was setting low on the horizon, they stopped working. A nurse arrived bringing them some chilled lemonade and they sat sipping it; Grandpa in his chair and Hina on the ground. One of the grannies was biding farewells to her son and grandchildren. Watching this, Grandpa Sei clutched his glass rather tightly.

“Grandpa,” she chided. The old man blinked his wet eyes. “We promised, no more sentimental scenes.” She kneeled by his chair and took his hand in hers. “I know,” he said hoarsely, “but I miss my grandson. It’s been four years since my daughter brought him here.” He took his hand out and clenched his fist. “I know that when I was put in here, I was actually thrown out.”

Grand-pa!” again she chided. “Why should we ruin a day with such sadness?” She held both his hands now, gently rubbing them. “It’s a wonderful thing that we were given another day to live. Another day to feel the longing. We should be truly thankful. You taught me that motto yourself, remember?”

She took her glass of lemonade and clanked it with his. There was no need for words, no need for hugs. Especially no need for tears. The tilted head of the girl and the crinkled corners of the man’s eyes both sparked the same smile; they understood.

“By the way, Grandpa,” she said all of a sudden. “Thank you for teaching me Mathematics. I got a very good mark,” she made a V sign for ‘victory’ with her fingers. “Darn. I lost the bet” he declared, as he put down his glass and turned away from the field. “Go on. Take all you want from my precious vegetables.” She laughed so hard, but she picked her prize anyway.

“That one, Grandpa,” she pointed. “I don’t care, take them all,” moaned Grandpa, “I’ll just plant some more.” He then winked as he added: “Better ones!” Hina put her arms around his shoulders. “I’ll help you, Grandpa. Always by your side.”

***

The chief closed the door. “We’d better go to the hospital now. Her parents are probably waiting.” His aide opened the passenger seat door for him and placed himself behind the wheel, while raindrops continued to make large puddles of water on the road.

***

Hina left the nursing home clutching the paper bag. After a while, she heard thunder, so she took out her jacket from her bunny-bag. The jacket was yellow, and torn by the elbow. When she picked up her belongings from the ground, she looked up and saw a white bird, flying home before the rain. One by one, raindrops started to fall; first on her bunny’s nose then on her forehead. She wore her hood and kept walking. Once she stopped in front of a children’s clothes fashion store to look at a cute hooded jacket. A woman and her child walked out from the store; the mother opened an umbrella while the child held onto a goodie-bag. Then, they left holding hands. Hina also walked on.

***

The chief took Hina’s Dad’s hand in a tight grip. Her Dad had an arm around his wife who was sobbing while holding Tatsu who was also crying. The younger policeman arrived with Hina’s belongings but hesitated by the door. Mom took one look at the bunny-bag and screamed, then dropped to the floor, bringing down wailing Tatsu with her. Hina’s Dad couldn’t control his tears either.

***

Hina stopped at the intersection and waited for the lights. It was raining quite heavily, it was hard to see most things. When the light turned to ‘walking green man,’ she started to cross. She was right in the middle of the road when a speeding car shot like a rocket heading directly towards her. There was a smiling-sun décor hanging from the rear-view mirror at the windscreen, and it jingled wildly in such chaotic speed. Seconds later it was only the sound of screeching tyres and screaming people. The bunny-bag forcefully landed facedown on the road, its contents scattered in every direction.

***

On one of the tables in a dark room, she laid. Covered with a rough blanket, the tip of her skirt hung from the table, dripping water to the floor. A nurse came in and turned on the lights. She took the blanket off and hung an identity label from the girl’s big toe on her right foot. It read “Hinata Shiratori.” The nurse turned off the lights and closed the door behind her. Even in the dark, Hina’s smile was still there, ethereal and eternal. Saigo no egao.

Glossary:

bento: lunchbox.
chan
: an endearment to call children in Japan.
Nee-chan
: elder sister.
nigiri
: rice wrapped with nori.
nori
: paper-shaped seaweed.
tempura
: a style of Japanese cooking, where you coat food with flour and deep-fry it.
saigo no egao: eternal smile.

Illustration by Katherine Jones

About the Author:

Caecilia Xie is a 32 year old writer born in the city of Bandung, Indonesia, but is of Chinese descent. She used to work as a journalist and was the editor for Union of Catholic Asia News (UCA News) but she is currently working as a chef at her very own café, Eledandore. When she gets home from work, every night before bed she sits in front of her computer and writes.

Usually only her friends read her work, but she has previously published a short story in a local magazine. Together with her friends, she is trying her luck in the comic book industry, where she writes the script and the cartoonist draws matching pictures. Originally, Eternal Smile was one of her comic script stories, but when she contemplated on whether to transform it into a genuine short story, all her friends persuaded her with the advice of “go for it!”

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3 comments for “‘Eternal Smile’ by Caecilia Xie (Indonesia)

  1. henny
    03/01/2011 at 3:47 am

    love it. congratulations – keep me posted on your latest story (^_^)v

  2. Zahl
    01/02/2011 at 6:26 am

    Congratulations on your 1st published story Master Mulan.. m(_ _)m
    We finally have a real writer in our midst..

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