Veins of Venus
A memoir for my Mum, a truly incredible and spirited woman. This piece was written in favour of her magically retold childhood.
The early years of my life were of sheer opulence. Growing up, I did not have a wealthy family, nor a particularly lavish lifestyle, but rather the abundance of earthly riches encompassed all around me. Perhaps I was blindsided by my own naivety, or youthful languor – nonetheless, I was free to discover the intricacies of the world at my own pace.
We resided in the Pontian District, famous for its lucrative fishing villages south west of Johor. I am the eldest of four, and constantly reminded to be the only daughter of the family. Though my mother often received the joyous remark – ‘Oh! Another boy you’ve birthed! – to which she would correct kindly, and issue the softest smile.
Despite scarcely being able to fit in my cotton gown, I was mousy in appearance and as thin as a twig. Reunited relatives would rush to me, prodding at every inch of my virgin skin, asking me if I had touched a meal in the last five years.
“I am well fed, Auntie,” I would always reply.
It wasn’t a lie. We lived next to my grandmother’s farm in the village. Our diet relied heavily on reared ducks, chickens, pigeons, and even fish from the river. Every two days, we would trek to a well within range and carry buckets of water back home. The process was arduous, but we undertook it with great care. Any drop wasted and we would be held accountable. Being our young selves, we were prone to distraction. Tropical fruits, alluring to both our eyes and tongues, flourished in the form of jackfruits, durians and rambutans. That, and the act of scaling the veins of trees, was too alluring to resist. Admittedly, it may have been the cause of my brothers and I acquiring countless scratches every time we returned home – but we always returned triumphant, juice-stained.
In the late evenings bathtime ensued. We had to take turns; there was no other choice. We would ration scoops of water, derived from rainwater pipes; goldfish were housed in the tub to diminish the growing algae. We only had two towels that were in a constant state of dampness. As much as long hair was preferred on girls like me, I found it took a ludicrous amount of time to dry. I kept my hair short for this purpose, much to my grandmother’s dismay.
My mother would let me lie on her bosom, inhaling the faint sprig of mint having been dabbed across her chest that morning. My father would always appear miraculously before dinner, sometimes smelling of cheap perfume. He was the sole breadwinner, and in the meantime we withheld our gluttony as a sign of respect. When asking why my mother could not go to work, too, she would proclaim, “It is not a woman’s duty to feed her family, but a man’s.” This left me perplexed, and I would come to ponder this over every meal – even the ones spent away from home, years later, as I endured the exhaustions of work 35,000 feet above ground. I had a singular driving force: to ameliorate the financial burdens of supporting our family. At the age of eight, that was understandably the least of my worries. Thereon our family would gather to play a series of games, starting with checkers. On special occasions we would congregate in the house of our next-door neighbour, relishing the wonders of colour television. My brothers would think it as the greatest invention next to the rotary dial telephone. I preferred those tangible pictures I knew as landscapes.
I spent little time in the garden, where we grew our own chilli and limes. The expansive greenery across the creek near our house was my backyard – years before the land was cleared for foreign architecture. Whenever tension was brewing, I would slip away into the rainforest, disappearing amongst delicate finger-like ferns, into my own private oasis. A secluded spot unbounded by the confinements of time, harbouring spirits and bestowing insurmountable views; it was there that I caved in to my imagination, as seconds transformed into minutes.
Speckled with foliage, the trees would call out to me. It was here that our ancestry could be traced, with each tree ring representing another year following the scattering of our late relatives’ ashes. I often heard them conversing, but never wanted to interrupt. In the heart of the forest was a sacred glade, illuminated by fractured light peaking through the canopy, where I would take to whenever I was seeking out a calm silence – a resource uncommon in the town. The critters were familiar with me, despite not having encountered another human. The glade was beset by a dense coat of undergrowth, yet I ceased to be deterred. I floated here, dangling my limbs between the edges of time and space, only to have a dizzy spell of euphoria cast upon me. Sometimes I stayed here till a rainbow of pastel hues overcame the sky, and other times, just to devour the night better. Constellations were my favourite pastime. After tropical storms petrichor would linger, and every leaf would glisten for hours. Moss grew verdantly, to my fascination. The birds would sing to mark each passing zephyr. The forest gifted me with such energy I would dream of never leaving. This earthy haven was mine to call, but not mine to claim – as my grandmother once said, “Mother Nature, we must let her be.”
My grandmother said that every time monsoon season came around. If, by her logic, Mother Nature had been exerting her temperament, she was certainly excused. Her tears tasted grey, and I would try to think of ways to console her. On the other hand, I always wondered why my fits of tantrums weren’t so kindly pardoned. But, as it is reinforced, a girl must never ask questions. It was always instilled in me to be a little more demure, to keep clean, to sit with my legs crossed, to never question societal chasms, and to always do as I was told. And later, to keep within domestic limits, to be home before dark, to not ask why boys bothered me because in their terms it meant they fancied me.
I never quite understood the weight of her words, or why my brothers did not receive the same advice. Nevertheless I resumed the rest of my adolescence with my boyish mannerisms.
If we were lucky, and if the merciless rain had conceded defeat that day, our uncle would come around to our place on his motorcycle. He would take us kids to the market to browse seasonal produce. I would change into my only pair of modest shorts, as a condition to be chosen. It was usually three people on the bike at a time; whenever I was one of them, I loved every minute of it. It was exhilarating. It was as if we were taking flight – and as I sighed heavenly thinking about the swollen fruits awaiting me, I was simultaneously soaring through the air, past the whirlwind of troubles fathomable.
At Odds With The Peace
Scenes from war-torn Syria from two disparate perspectives: a pilot involved in a US military airstrike, and a child residing in Aleppo.
Terrorised by the sounds of the explosion and the wails of grovelling children, he began to shield his ears. The screech of the bomb descending into the already ruined infrastructure ricocheted and clung to his ears. Night after night he grew more pensive, more shaken and less accustomed to the abjection haunting him. There was no salvation.
For the months he had been in the air force he had existed purely for warfare. He could never repress the feeling of his gut dropping every time he fired an attack, or when the dreaded whistle of assailing missiles subsequently followed. Each time he would witness the cold murder in its happening, with the headlong dispersion of crowds visible from bird’s eye view. It was an inerasable sight – yet quickly dismissed by the rising smoke in the atmosphere. He sought solace in apathy, so the waves of guilt would no longer plague him. This was temporary. For the civilians below, it was a reality prescribed to them without will.
All that was left was a city in ruins – crumbled and reduced to a mixture of rubble and dust, with a trail of blood stains evincing the endless death.
In mere seconds they had been discarded like pawns in a game of chess.
* * *
“How long till we reach the hospital?” the little boy asked for the umpteenth time.
His father was fatigued, but willing to accommodate his curiosity. “Soon, my boy,” he said, with a faint smile.
Shielding his youngest child in a tattered baby blue blanket, he navigated through the dilapidated buildings with the little boy swiftly in tow. They had been walking along a desolate stretch of the city, in hopes of finding supplies.
He took a moment to glance up at his father in admiration, as a fraction of sunlight peeked through the cracks of the wall and illuminated his face. He had endured many lacerations, which showed on his cheeks and limbs – but he had always been the optimist.
* * *
Heat, infused with trepidation, had ruptured everything in sight. The onset of the air strike had propelled throngs of civilians to flee the heart of Aleppo, and flood once barren streets. The stench of scorched human flesh percolated like an infectious disease – and chaos ensued where buildings, now evaporated, had once resided.
The boy was but a single pallid, lifeless face hovering amongst the crowd. His entire frame froze, as flocks of people collided against one another and trampled over recumbent victims. Innumerable bodies were piled onto one another and smeared with blood, distinct from the disorder of men and women shrieking, scrambling, and hurtling for cover. With such vigorous force he had almost been carried away by the tide of the crowd, into the miserable oblivion, towards any bleak chance of survival.
Yet, he remained in a complete stupor. Shock had pervaded his entire system, as noxious gases invaded and occupied his lungs.
Where had Father gone?
His eyes were burning, darting from face to face in helpless attempts to relocate the faces of his kin. He frantically searched the carnage – of groaning children and grotesque corpses – until he spotted the familiar blue. His heart sank. The blanket had come undone, and did little to conceal the delicate ribs poking out beneath his brother’s russet-tainted skin.
“Ahmad?” he murmured. “Wake up, wake up.”
His frail baby brother was stiff in his arms, and his complexion had turned an irrevocable, sickly yellow. He shook the infant, trying to bring him to consciousness amidst the pandemonium encompassed around him.
It was too late. He was gone.
Pangs of agony pierced through his body. He doubled over, defeated. His hearing had gone cold – and his vision, dulled by the thick blanket of smoke that consumed the city. A searing pain in his neck left him debilitated and drew blood, which trickled down the side of his face into the crevices of his lips. The metallic taste was enough to make him choke. With glazed eyes he could only look on.
The bomb had ravaged everything in its wake.
The apprehension that had accumulated in civilians for weeks had crystallised now, into a concrete state of entropy. Their world was already disintegrating towards the end they had fought so tirelessly to evade. But the little boy, like many others, could no longer protest. His flesh and bones had caved in to the ground, with bloody hands supine and surrendered to the sky.
There the forlorn figures lay, with only the harsh glow of the sunset to alleviate their wounds.
A migraine poem.
With fingers erect
and knees compressed
I’ll face the scathing light.
As the daggers
sink through my chest
I’ll let your hands take flight
For when your husky voice
fills the room, it echoes
and transcends the night
As an awaited reprise
It’ll fill the hollows of my head.
In this dark room
I’ll breathe in
Harder as the knots tighten;
the sharp, cold peppermint
grinds, and stays infused
Leaving my whites blinded
Oh what will I do,
To quell these pangs
What should I do?
Do I fight it?
What happens to the grand plan now?
Finding a donor changed everything.
It meant the will no longer had to be written, and goodbyes no longer had to be planned. The weeks leading up to the farewell were meticulous, with speeches prepared and meals made, so my family could grieve without going famished.
The night before we all found out, I had been to my daughter’s room to rearrange her wardrobe. It was a sleepless night amongst the many. Lying completely parallel to my partner, it became too sickly and suffocating to pretend to have fallen asleep. You’d think that ten years of doing so would have warded off any reluctance.
But this was no ordinary night.
I’d begun to feel weaker than I’d ever felt before. Darren was no light sleeper, that was certain, but even in his unconscious state I was sure he could sense my parting. Emotionally, I was no longer there. Yet the thought of leaving him on his own was terrifying, and the moment had begun to feel like an irreversible foreshadowing.
I’d felt a similarly confronting pang of guilt, hovering at her bedside table. Fast asleep, she’d cried herself into a slumber. You could see the mascara stained all over her pillow, disturbing the idyllic violet and green. While she dreamed, I’d tidied up and colour coded all her clothes.
“Orange,” was what I declared to be the dress code for my funeral.
“Don’t you think that’s a bit too much? Like you’re trying too hard?” Beth asked. It was almost a question to take offence to.
“No one would suspect as much from a dead person,” I remarked quietly.
“You’re right,” Beth nodded. She paused, and I expected some form of apology. Instead, she merely continued.
“You’d think that dying would help you to try and enjoy things for a bit. Like go out and smell the flowers or some shit like that. But it’s shocking; you really think these things through. I don’t think anyone’s more prepared for your death than you.”
“Someone needs to bite the bullet and be the strong one,” I’d fired back, almost a little too defensively.
“Yeah, not the one dying though. Who are we to expect anything from a person in the grave?”
But she’d been so wrong. Everything had to be in order before my passing. It was something I'd almost obsessed over; it was a repose of sorts. Amidst the chaos of my body, I almost looked forward to death as being the only aspect in my life I could anticipate and organise on own my terms.
Yet with survival now in the equation, I felt nothing but lost.
Somewhere that feels like home.
No matter the force of the
Currents, coercing you slowly,
I’ll be there to make sure
You won’t drift astray
And when your mind is consumed
By flooding thoughts
And when the gaping ocean comes to get us,
I’ll tide you over and together,
we’ll let the words float in between
For no matter the weather, or
How deep the wreck shall be
We’ll overcome the shallows
Uncover that depth,
And swim past all your fears
Simply reach out with both hands
Should you choose to lead me to the midnight zone
Where darkness knows no bounds
Where the ocean is most quiet
And where your secrets come to rest
For I’ll gladly share your burdens,
I’ll be your rock, your crest, your home
* * *