BLACK AND YELLOW pit vipers lazed in durian trees, sleepy and fat under the Penang sun. Visitors to Mr Henderson’s plantation in Balik Pulau did not notice them at first, busy defending the split- open durians from the flies swarming their tables. Mr Henderson watched the tourists as they jabbered like magpies. Their eyes shone in lust for the creamy insides of the fruit, snakes the last things on their greedy little minds.
Into the open cartons under their tables they tossed the hollowed- out, spiky durian corpses and the plastic glasses from which they had just downed nutmeg juice. Over the years, Mr Henderson’s nose had so grown used to the cloying durian and the spice of nutmeg that he didn’t notice when they mingled with the plantation smell of damp, rain and joss sticks. But today the air seemed drugged by the smells rising from the courtyard. Mr Henderson took in a deep breath and decided to rest his legs. The chair on the balcony creaked under his weight, and he stretched his long legs far out across the wooden balustrade.
Inside, the old pendulum clock struck eleven. Its gong rang through the corridors of the wood-and-brick Kampong house, rose up against the shaded eaves, shivered against the doors of the rooms upstairs, then fell down towards the open kitchen. It mingled with the smoke that rose from large covered pots heating over a wood fire and came back to haunt Mr Henderson again. He hated that clock, a wedding gift from his father-in-law. But his wife liked it and he’d let it stay.
His head drooped in the wake of the ringing and the sunlight melted into an orange haze behind his shut eyelids. No matter that he’d now lived longer in Penang than in Ottawa – the daily tropical sun still felt like a personal blessing. He soaked it up and felt sleep crawl up over him. He needed to lie down, get an hour or so of uninterrupted shut-eye. But he wouldn’t give in to it, not just yet.
‘You’ll fall sick like this, you know,’ Dr Chong had warned him when he’d gone to collect the results of the last scan. ‘Let the others take care of her once in a while. Your body needs its rest.’
That was last week. He had thought about it – Lord knows he’d pictured taking a night off. He would let his body sink into the mattress in the guest room, forget about his bedroom with its tubes, oxygen mask and cylinders, the bird-like body of his wife caught between them as she lay on their four-poster marital bed.
The bed looked stark minus its pale blue curtains. His wife had bought the fabric on an eventful trip visiting his folks in Canada and wanted the curtains back, but Dr Chong would have none of it. ‘At this stage, all we can give her is palliative care. Infections will only make matters worse, trust me,’ he said.
Every once in a while, like now, Mr Henderson would close his eyes and make believe that his wife did not lie in that bed. She walked about instead, saw to the filling of the water troughs, made sure that stakes stood in place to support the branches bent with the weight of durian, supervised the serving of tea to the workers, asked the maids to wring the laundry dry before hanging it out on the lines. Or perhaps she paced the wooden floors in her printed cloth slippers, flitting from room to room, re-lighting the joss-sticks that burned in a steady funnel of smoke in honour of Chor Soo Kong, so the snakes would stay content and not strike the householders.
Not that the yellow-and-black temple vipers had enough venom to kill. He’d done his research before he decided to settle down on a plantation thick with them. Through the years of their marriage, his wife had tried to keep the snakes out of places where they might alarm him. She had put nets on the windows, got all the nooks and crannies of the house swept out each day without fail. Getting rid of the snakes would bring bad luck and a deluge of pests, so she’d tried to make a home where her husband and the snakes could co-exist. During the last year though, she had begun to slip up. She fell asleep at odd hours, didn’t remember to chase the maid about the sweeping, forgot to call Connie.
CONNIE, THEIR DAUGHTER had taken on more and more to stop the place falling apart. She spent all her weekends at home. Even now, as he opened his eyes to a series of sudden half-shrieks, she stood down below, smiling, reassuring the tourists. She informed the group of soft-spoken but greedy-eyed Thais, and the Singaporeans stiff with their money, that the vipers didn’t care to come down from the trees. She had grown up on the plantation, she declared, pointing to her own muscled Chinese–Canadian sun-browned arms. Look how hale she was.
The middle-aged men in the group smirked and nodded at the sixteen-year-old. Connie had inherited her mother’s doll-like beauty and the height and vigour of her father. He would have to tell her to play it down. A few months ago, her mother would have told her. He waved to Connie when she looked up, and she waved back. The tourists stepped back from her. There, that had done it, for now. If he didn’t need their money for his wife’s treatment, Mr Henderson wouldn’t have suffered the tourists on his plantation, not for an instant.
The foodie gang stood about waiting in what shade they could find – they must have read the glowing reports of this year’s durian crop. The babies wailed in the heat while their mothers tried to shush them. The older women ogled the spread of lipan and kulit hijau durians at the table and glared their impatience at folks already gorging on the creamy flesh. He’d never figured out its appeal. Jackfruit had better flavour and smelled so much better.
He laid his head back. If he could put a price on a day like this, how much would it cost him? He longed to buy a single day, lay it out, pat its soft underbelly under his fingers, do nothing more than idle about, take a walk or two, and never, never see a doctor or injection or bedpan. How many days like that had he let slip, days of hugging his wife when she least expected it or driving Connie and the dogs to the beach for a day under the sun? He had let such days fall through his fingers and disappear, not giving them the weight of memories so they could stand, each separate from the other. Instead, they had ended up in the same, sandy twilight.
‘Your wife is asking for you.’
The night nurse stepped out into the sun of the balcony, her hair glinting red. Last night that hair had felt rough between his fingers. The first time he had betrayed his marriage in two decades, he had to do it with this woman, whose henna-dyed hair made him cringe.
THE DAY HE had touched his wife for the first time, her hair shone like spun silk. He’d reached out to caress a lock, making her shiver against the wall of the abandoned temple where they’d met. She, a Chinese plantation owner’s daughter, had let a man touch her before marriage, a white man at that – had risked life and limb, all for him. It felt like some other man had lived that life. He had only ever received a summons like this one, today. His wife’s hair these days felt like autumn grass, mowed by a boy in a rush.
He could hear her from the corridor. She had reduced his name to a one-word prayer; she said Rick, then paused, then Rick and Rick and Rick, till he stood by her side. Richard, he wanted to tell her, Ree... chard, say it like you used to say it in those days when I met you at that temple, when no one knew about us. Not even us.
He followed the nurse’s tight-skirted butt into the bedroom. He hadn’t seen her in daylight before. He wanted to send the woman off on an errand, any excuse not to see her dark, pockmarked face with its why-won’t-she-die-and-be-done-with-it-already smile. He couldn’t think of a job though, and the elderly Chinese nurse who worked the day shift hadn’t shown up yet. Strange, because that one came on time, and had dirty looks to spare for her Indian colleague.
‘Where you go, Rick?’
This, between gulps from the oxygen mask, a sentence so slurred he wouldn’t have got it had he not known exactly what his wife wanted to say. He held his breath and stood still whenever she talked, because she got upset if he didn’t obey her straightaway and her breath grew laboured. The last time he’d rushed her to the hospital, unconscious and un-breathing, she suffered brain damage. The stutter came with her when she returned.
‘Another trip like this one,’ Dr Chong had tried to look him straight in the eye, ‘we cannot bring her back one.’
Mr Henderson didn’t want to think of Dr Chong and his look, but faced with his wife’s hollowed-out cheek and sunken eyes, he thought of the cancer in her blood, emptying her inside out, like a gleeful tourist working on a durian.
‘I was here all the time.’
Mr Henderson walked over and, moving his wife’s scarf aside, blew air on her bare head, feeling the curves and dents of her scalp under his fingers. She liked this, begged him to keep going, for hours. Once he stopped, she forgot he’d done it and accused him of neglect. That’s how they found out, because of her forgetting. At first they thought it was Alzheimer’s. But that was only at first.
‘The brain not getting enough blood lah,’ Dr Chong had explained to Mr Henderson, ‘she lucky to be fit as she is till now. Surprising. Soon, she’ll forget what she had for lunch. Sure will happen soon, cannot help one.’
Good thing, in a way. Maybe his wife had heard the nurse gasp in the anteroom last night and the sound he’d made towards the end, the sob-groan that escaped him no matter how hard he’d clamped down his teeth. But if his wife had heard, she’d forgotten about it. The nurse stood folding a few sheets beside the cupboard, all her hair and pins and clothes in place now.
‘Want to...sit up.’
His wife raised her arm, wrinkled like a dried tree branch, covered with roundish dark patches. Her palm felt like worn, distressed leather. He raised her up while the nurse fluffed the pillows. A thousand, a hundred thousand times a day she wanted to sit up, move, lie down, turn to one side, then the other.
‘There’s fluid in her lungs, so she cannot rest, but draining it will pain more.’ Dr Chong had taken Mr Henderson aside a few weeks ago at the hospital. ‘You want to admit her?’
Later, his wife had shaken her head. ‘No need. Waste money for what?’
To make it easier, he wanted to tell her. For you and for us. How long do you think I can keep this up? That’s when he’d asked Dr Chong for nurses. His wife had pursed up her lips and closed her eyes the minute she saw the tall night nurse whose white uniform did nothing to hide her curves. After that, his wife had asked to be shifted and moved more often. She would groan loud enough to bring the kitchen maids upstairs if the Indian nurse tried to touch her, so he had to be around.
He set up a single bed beside the four-poster, so he could lie down between the times his wife needed him. Instead of her, he could have been the one on the four-poster, lungs bursting with fluid, while she employed a stud of a male nurse to take care of him.
His wife had made the plantation business thrive, not him. She had had new varietals planted, bought more land. He saw to the accounts, applied for loans and arranged for the plantation to feature on local durian tours. But to this day, he didn’t organise the selling, the harvesting or the loading of trucks. He left the splitting open of durians, one of the simpler plantation tasks, to those who knew better. Everyone in the house knew better, even Connie, whose laughter he could hear rising in the late morning air. He’d better have that chat with her before she got herself into trouble.
His wife whimpered, like she did every day about this time. The nurse connected a pack and a tube to the cannula on his wife’s arm. As the clear liquid dripped through the tube, his wife’s eyes closed and he removed the oxygen mask. She could breathe without it most of the time, but it calmed her, so Dr Chong said she could wear one while awake. She would sleep through the rest of the day, her chin digging into her collarbone. He or the day nurse would shake her awake for the little chicken porridge or vegetable soup that passed her lips for lunch or dinner.
She woke up, again on cue, past midnight, when the night nurse had fallen asleep in the anteroom and he on his bed. She cried Rickrickrick and when he reached her, she said she had to go. Some days he woke the nurse and then his wife would say she was fine, no need. At other times he fetched the bedpan and positioned her on it. Once she’d finished, he wiped clean her bony little butt and flushed what little she deposited in the bedpan. The night nurse never insisted on cleaning up.
AFTER WAITING ANOTHER half hour on her chair this morning, eyes closed, the night nurse asked permission to leave. The day nurse still hadn’t shown up, which meant he couldn’t relax on the balcony with his usual lunch of a sandwich and cold beer. He let the nurse leave and walked out to the balcony. He watched as Connie continued to serve durians to busloads of tourists thronging the large plantation gates.
He wanted to set a nest of vipers on them, the lazy, vacationing devils, with nothing better to do than chase after durians on a weekday morning. No consideration for a girl’s lunch hour. He waved at her again from the balcony and she smiled at him. What would he do once the summer vacations wound up and she headed back to Georgetown? He would deal with it best he could, no point worrying about it. His wife had served durians to tourists all her life and look where that got her. Connie would find a man in the city, far away from durians, plantations, vipers.
Dazzled by the sun, his eyes couldn’t make out his wife for a second when he stepped back into the bedroom. Then her body swam into focus, pale head lolling on the white pillows. Drool trailed her lips. He wiped it up and stood watching her, leaning on the bedpost near her head. He felt his eyelids close, but he couldn’t afford to nod off. What if she woke up and needed the oxygen mask or some water? She might call him, grow hoarse and angry, push at the tubes, try and reach for the bedside table to overturn a glass to wake him up. Unable to reach the table, she might stretch up for the oxygen mask hanging over her head. What if she didn’t make it? He would wake up to see her face sagging on her breast, not breathing.
He walked back to his bed, switched on the lamp and grabbed the newspaper. Having scanned the headlines, he furled open the paper and stopped cold, because across his feet now hidden from view, he felt an unhurried slithering. He wanted to jump up, but controlled himself. Years of living around snakes had taught him that sudden movements around these reptiles didn’t end well. He waited for it to cross over to the floor, but the dry, sinewy, lightly-ribbed pressure didn’t stop. His stomach clenched. He tried to guess the size and species he had to deal with. A cobra perhaps, but not the way it kept crawling across his feet, metre after metre, with no end, fat and heavy. A python?
He folded his newspaper slow and easy, inched it up so he could see his feet, then wished he hadn’t.
The floor had turned into a roiling pattern of black and yellow. Vipers big and small crawled towards the bed where his wife lay, covering everything in their path in a rustling carpet of muscles and scales. He squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, not a whisper, no pointed head, no chequered pattern, just the shiny wooden floor.
So simple. Just one of them in bed with her. A random flick of her scrawny hand, a flailing of the tubes, and it would strike. Dr Chong would say, ‘She didn’t have a chance you know, already so weak. Did you see it? I used to tell her be careful. But this bugger reduced her suffering lah. What to do? Sometimes is better this way.’
Outside, the clamour of the tourists had died down, along with the light from the windows. The maids had forgotten his lunch. The one who used to remind them lay in bed before him, breathing deep, her pigeon chest rising and falling under the fumes of sedation.
He stood up, rumpling his hand on his balding head. His stomach growled its protest. Casting one last glance at the bed, he ambled downstairs to fix himself a sandwich. Behind him in the semi-dark, a black and yellow speckled band rose up on the tube that fed her oxygen mask. Mrs Henderson stayed asleep.
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