PLACE FOR FIRE
Monsoon season hit early this year, and the mosquitoes are out for blood. Swollen white bumps freckle your skin like islands surrounded by pink sea. The second you walk through the door, before you even get a chance to remove your sodden sneakers, A-Pa snaps at you from where he’s lying on the couch.
“Yii waa, yii hun,” he says. The more you scratch, the itchier it will get.
As you kick off your shoes and slip on the house clogs, you claw at your ankle, where the fattest bite has swelled.
“Do you want to end up with ugly scars, like your mother?”
Fire burns through your veins. Who is he, to speak about A-Ma like that? He’s been out of prison for less than a year, and he acts like he’s a king in this house.
You scratch so hard you break skin, a bead of blood welling up.
Your siblings aren’t home yet, and for once, you’re relieved. Yesterday afternoon, when you cooked dinner, there was only half of ball of bau coi left. When your brothers see tonight’s dinner is cabbage soup and rice again, they will complain.
When they return from playing hooky, you will have to bathe them, wash their blackened feet and beg them to please go to school tomorrow, so they can go on to get jobs, grow up to be people with money, who can afford more than one mango a year, skinned to share between a household of nine.
While cooking at the back of the house, you see Peng Siu and Kim Je pass by the alley, each with their own umbrellas. They live two doors down, in a house with a sit-down toilet and a television set. In their living room, their father has arranged their sofas and armchairs in a horseshoe shape around the box, so the whole family can watch the black and grey stories play out like in the movies.
In this house, there is no television set, or sofas, or armchairs. Only a single wooden sofa Po-Po picked up on the street and dragged home with your brothers. It seats three, though this house sleeps your grandmother, father, mother, five brothers, one sister, and you. Instead of facing a television set, across from it is a large hole in the wall that Po-Po calls bi lu — a place for fo lou.
You read about them in Jane Austen books, when the family gathers in a circle and talks and reads, warmed from the fire. In this country, where spit is colder than air, there’s no reason why any house should have a place for fire, unless it is for cooking meat. Po-Po says this house must have been built by colonisers, tai chun to realise that winter will never come.
A-Ma says the house isn’t that old — that the builders must have been inspired by houses in the west.
Once the cabbage softens, and the dried shrimp floats to the surface, you turn off the gas, and the stove flickers out.
In twenty-six days, you will turn sixteen, and A-Ma will let you look for a job. Once you have enough money, you will ask if you can apply for a passport, then travel to America or England to study university, make enough money to send home.
A-Pa has no idea.
Sometimes, you think about the night he finally came home, after years away, stumbling into the bedroom you share with your sister. The silhouette of a stranger, taking your piggybank from the shelf and smashing it open in the doorway, waking your sister and making her cry.
He pocketed the coins you’d been saving from birthdays and trips to the market with Po-Po, leaving without a word — without cleaning the glass from the floor.
Before soothing your sister, you crawled off the mattress to sweep up the mess.
The next morning, you told A-Ma what happened, angry when she said nothing. How could she marry this man? Have children with him? Allow him back into this house after everything he’s done?
That night, you could hear them fighting through the walls, followed by the soft sound of weeping.
You regretted saying anything at all.
When dinner is cooked, you go back to the living room. You lie on the tiles by the fireplace, where it’s dusty but cool, letting the warm wind from the only working ceiling fan hit your damp skin.
Pulling your knees up to your chest, you close your eyes, and scratch idly at your ankle while thinking of your birthday. A-Ma will wake you early to give you an egg and a drumstick. Instead of savouring it, you will have to eat it quickly in the kitchen before everyone else wakes.
At the smell of smoke, you open your eyes, to A-Pa crouched over you.
Then, the bites on your skin don’t itch anymore.
When A-Ma gets home, she must see you curled up on the floor by the fireplace and know. Instead of putting her things away and changing into dry clothes, she applies tiger balm to your bites, and aloe vera to your burn, slathers insect repellant over your arms and legs.
The whole time, she says nothing.
The air is thick from the heat, the rain drumming down outside. Your brothers and sister aren’t home yet. By now, the roads will be too flooded for them to bike through.
When the rain stops, you’ll go out and look for them, tell them A-Ma is home, and it’s time for dinner.
A-Ma presses a hand to your calf, just above the place A-Pa pressed his cigarette, and for a moment, your skin feels cool.