QUANTUM SHORTS 2015: SHORTLISTED, OPEN CATEGORY
Then she was sixteen, sobbing and smiling and giving birth to a child whose father was a classmate and a basketball boy and a few months younger. She was supposed to repeat a year but skipped two, returning only after her ex-classmates left.
Then she was five and raising her hand, the only one who wanted to be a teacher. She turned twenty and tried to explain to her eldest daughter why she was a cleaner. Then she was ten, thirty-four, twelve and fifty three, grasping for someone to hold her hand.
For her, time is a clump of tangled knots. There is no definite beginning and no traceable end. No narrative arc of past-present-future. All she can remember are intersections.
She was thirteen with eight siblings from three other stepfathers. Her mother was in the hospital, this time with a bruise on her forehead, a split lower lip and a possible concussion. Her stepfathers were gone, the way stains dissolve in soap. Of course she left her mother alone in the hospital. If not, Halesya would battle with Hamid over the bolster and Halim would sleep along the corridor. Little Hariz needed a milk bottle, a shower in the sink and someone to cuddle him to sleep. It was the first time she had to leave her there.
At another time-knot, she was fifty years old, shrivelled but her fingers were smooth. Worn away from the rhythmic rubbing of soapy cloth against plates at a hawker centre. No palm print, no finger print, no thumb print. Somehow, she knew she would lose all these that made her who she was.
Then, she was eighteen and attempting her O levels. Crumpled her essay only to realise that she did not have time to write another. A year later which is to say a flicker-knot away, she retook her papers as a private candidate. This time, her grades were lower compared to her first attempt.
On her way home, she observed the family sitting across her. Tuuuuut tuuuuuuuuuut, the father hummed to a burrito-like baby in his arms. But it isn't steam powered, sighed the lady next to him, so it goes thrum-thrum-thrum.
Her ex-husband was pleading for another chance. She opened the door to give her children the family she never had. The wind chime stuck to the back of the door tinkled and her eldest daughter cowered behind her.
Three time-knots away, her son called her a whore who deserved every slap she ever received before leaving the flat forever. She imagined herself surrounded by siblings whom she raised and her children whom she didn't have the time to raise. They were having a seaside picnic and someone picked up a fish, which had been slammed by the tides against the rocky shore, and filleted it. The waves crept forward and retreated, as if curious yet fearful.
Time behaves differently, the way a cat rubs against its owners and scratches strangers. For most, time is linear thus boring with clear cause-and-effect. For some, time is a pivot which they revolve around like stars drawn to its gravity. For people like her, time is a mess of unpredictable experiences.
At another point, she was a baby, standing in her cot, one hand grabbing the railing, another reaching for the overcast clouds outside the adjacent window. That night, she stretched for the balloon of a moon.
The beauty and problem with her timeline was its chaos. She did not remember the in-betweens fraught with hurt and fears. She did not remember those journeys between time-knots where lessons that could be learnt were not learnt. So she let her ex-husband back into the flat where he proceeded to touch her eldest daughter again.
Then she wept while reading a letter her daughter wrote because it was Mothers' Day and everyone in class had to write one. Mum, the letter began, I remember how you worked from six in the morning to ten at night but still refused to buy me an Elsa doll. Everyone has one, even Jessie. I guess you don't really like me the way you like the rest. But it is okay, I still love you because you're my mum.
Twenty one years before receiving this letter, her mother spanked her for failing her primary school leaving exams. Once or twice each week, she would call her a failure to remind her not to give up so easily.
She was thirty and her daughter was applying an ointment on her wounds. The sizzling oil from the wok had splashed on her forearm. There were pink blisters of various sizes. Some were small but the largest was the size of a ten cent coin.
Several knots away, she told her teacher that true love knew no boundaries and recognised no age limit. She wanted to marry that basketball boy and raise a family of chubby children with him.
When she was younger, she believed in fairy tales, in knights with shining armour who rescued damsels trapped in castles, in Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, in magic and myths and mystics. Folklores have it that seers exist. They can scry the past and future, careening from event to event. These people exist but what they do is not magic.
She will continue to see her selves, such as that time when she scrapped her knees after falling off her bicycle. Or that kiss in the boy's bathroom or that baby cradled in her arms. Or when a teacher called to inform that her son was drawing skulls on every worksheet and that palm-shaped mark she left on his swollen cheek.