Of Durians and Vipers

by Damyanti Biswas

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.