The Weight of Our Sky(5)

On days like today, when I’m surrounded by people of every shape and size and color, I often stare at passersby and wonder if they’re all being tormented by their own djinns. Maybe that mother in the orange sari tugging impatiently on her little girl’s hand as they exit the sundry shop is irritable because she can’t stop thinking about how dirty and dusty everything is, can’t stay the aching need to scrub every inch of both her child’s body and her own. Maybe that young man so desperate to speak to the pretty young woman next to him at the bus stop is really doing it because he’s trying to save her from an unspeakable fate dictated by the monster inside him. I can’t tell just by looking, but maybe they’ve learned to hide their demons too.

Or maybe they really are happy and contented, with minds that tick along from one thought to another, without taking any meandering detours, or getting lost on highways with no exits, or going round and round in unending loops.

Must be nice.

We’ve barely walked ten steps before our flimsy school blouses are soaked through with sweat. “I need a drink,” Saf moans, rolling her eyes and clutching my arm as she pretends to swoon. “I’m not going to make it, Melati, I’m just not. Don’t forget me, okay?” She whirls around, looking me square in the eyes. “Speak my name. Tell my story!” Around us, people are looking over and grinning at her antics, and I can feel my face growing hot with embarrassment.

“Was that really necessary?” I mutter through gritted teeth.

“Absolutely,” she says airily, tossing her ponytail and making a beeline for the air mata kucing stall a few feet ahead of us. “Should’ve seen the look on your face.”

While we wait in line, I find myself mesmerized by the fortune-teller across the street. An old Indian man clad in a striped green shirt and loose gray trousers, he sits at a folding card table, a bright green parrot in a bamboo cage by his side. With each customer who sits before him, he taps on the cage and out pops the little bird, as though eager to pick one of the cards spread across the table and determine your destiny. Once it chooses your fate, the old man regards the card solemnly to tell you what it means. Sometimes, that isn’t enough; then he has you extend your palm toward him, sprinkles baby powder on it—the better to see the lines—and lets you know what your future holds. We’ve seen grown men shed tears, young girls blush, and elegant old ladies stalk away in anger from the fortune-teller’s table; such is his power.

I wonder sometimes what he would see in my palm. I wonder if I even want to know.

“Such a wise old bird,” Saf whispers, interrupting my thoughts. An elderly gentleman in a sarong and songkok takes his seat in front of the fortune-teller’s table, his back ramrod straight. He nods, and the fortune-teller taps the cage. On cue, the parrot hops out and makes its way to the cards spread across the table, its head tilted to one side inquiringly. “The parrot or the uncle?” I quip, and we giggle as we eagerly accept small steel bowls of the sweet, chilled liquid, generously filled with juicy longan, dried winter melon, and monk fruit.

“Did you see the parade last night?” Refreshed, palms tingling from the ice-cold bowls, we saunter on down the street, past a row of trishaw drivers snoozing in the shade while waiting for passengers.

“Heard them, more like.” Mama chokes on a bite of her tiffin lunch and falls to the ground writhing and gasping for breath, her face a mottled purple blue, and I reach up, ostensibly to smooth back a hair that’s escaped from the braid that hangs down my back, but really to tap quickly three times on each side of my head. That’s better, the Djinn coos. “Mama wouldn’t let me go outside to take a look. Said they were just being hooligans, overexcited after winning some election seats.” I care little about politics—it seems to me like it’s mostly a bunch of old men competing to see who has the loudest voice—but just days before, the government’s Alliance Party had won less than half of the popular vote for the first time ever, and the two new Chinese parties had won victories nobody had expected. The aftershocks from this had shaken our neighborhood to its core, and everyone was still talking about it.

“What did you hear?” Saf is wide-eyed with excitement. “Was it really bad? Norma said they were waving red flags and posters with Mao Zedong’s face on them! She said they were throwing pig flesh at people’s houses and spitting on the doors all the way through Kampung Baru!” She shudders at the thrill and taboo of it all. Our neighborhood is the largest Malay enclave in the city, and pig flesh is the ultimate insult for devout Muslim Malays, who view pigs not just as meat we’re forbidden from eating, but as the dirtiest of animals, unholy, unclean.

I roll my eyes. “Norma is such a drama queen. I don’t think they were doing any of that. At least, I didn’t see any pig bits at our door this morning. . . .”

“My father says they should be shot. He says all it took was their party winning a few parliamentary seats for them to forget how to be grateful, that they need to remember this is Tanah Melayu, the land of the Malays. He says they’re nothing but troublemakers and Communists.”

I shrug. “Your father thinks everyone’s a troublemaker or Communist.”

“That’s true.” Saf’s father is a teacher at one of the boys’ schools in town, where he is notorious for being stingy with his praise and generous with his cane. Whenever Saf leaves the house, he forces her to stand perfectly straight, hands at her sides, for the fingertip test: Unless the hem of the skirt comes well past the tips of her fingers, she isn’t allowed to take a single step out the door. Not without reason; Saf’s dimpled sweetness—and as we got older, the way her uniform skimmed over her gentle curves—have always called to the boys like sugar to an anthill. Though she professes innocence, Saf is a notorious flirt. “You girls behave yourselves,” he tells us sternly whenever we go out. “No gadding about, and mind you get home before the azan.” The mosque’s call to prayer that echoes through the village each sunset has been our cue to head home for as long as I can remember.

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