The Weight of Our Sky(7)

“Absolutely not.” Mama was firm. “Those quacks will just send her to the asylum, or worse. I hear they cut up people’s brains, trying to fix them. Nobody’s doing that to Melati.”

A pause. Then Mak Su’s reedy voice piped up. “We’ve seen this happen before—you know, in the village,” she said in hushed tones, and I strained to hear her. “They say it’s the work of djinns.”

“Are you serious?” Mama was high-pitched, disbelieving. She’s never been one for superstition; when Saf and I came home bearing tales of fortune-tellers, lucky charms, witch doctors, and love potions, she would scoff, telling us that only fools put their faith in magic instead of themselves. “We make our own luck in this world, girls,” she’d say.

In the kitchen, Mak Su was defensive. “No, it’s true! They possess her, force her to act strangely. Maybe someone’s cursed your family. . . . Do you know if anyone holds a grudge against you?”

Curses? Djinns? It was the sort of thing that appeared in swashbuckling adventure stories; Sinbad, perhaps, or the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. In a life so devoid of either swash or buckle, how could I, of all people, have ended up with a djinn?

The thoughts swirling around my head were making me dizzy. I reached out a hand to steady myself and accidentally pushed over a little pile of books neatly arranged on my desk, largest at the bottom, smallest at the top, and spines perfectly aligned. They toppled over with a crash that seemed even louder in the predawn hush. “Shhh,” I heard my mother hiss, then loudly, “Melati? Is that you?”

I’d come out of my room then, rubbing my eyes and pretending I’d heard nothing. We drank hot tea and Mak Su made lempeng pisang, the banana pancakes sweet and sticky and burning our fingers as we ate them fresh off the pan, and we talked as if nothing had happened and the world hadn’t just shifted.

But it had, because now I knew.

The Djinn lives inside me, and he feeds on my rituals. As long as I meet his demands, he’ll keep my mother safe. When I try to resist, frustrated at being in constant thrall to the numbers, he sets off another chain of deaths in my head, then laughs at my horrified reaction. The beast must be fed, and for a year now, I’ve alternated between feeding him and wrestling him into silence.

I’m so tired.

? ? ?

The shop on the corner seems to have been there since the dawn of time, though I know for a fact that it’s been there for more than ten years now. Records occupy almost every available inch of space; what doesn’t fit in the rows of shelves ends up piled high on tables, stools, and various other surfaces, all arranged in a haphazard system that only the aged proprietor seems to know. Music spills out from its tiny confines onto the streets, anything from traditional Chinese operettas to the latest Pop Yeh Yeh numbers; Uncle has eclectic tastes. Today, the Beatles wail encouragement to passersby, assuring them that their girl still loves them. “She knows you’re not the hurting kind,” they say. I take this as a good omen.

“You girls again,” he grumbles when he sees us.

“Hello Uncle!” we chorus. “Aren’t you happy to see us?” Saf smiles at him winningly.

“Ya, ya, you two. Play the records only, chatter, chatter, chatter, block the aisles, then never buy.” He sniffs disapprovingly.

“We don’t have that much money lah Uncle,” says Saf.

“You got the new Shadows EP, Uncle?” I ask, flipping through the sleeves and sneezing at the dust I dislodge in the process.

He grunts. “Of course lah I got.” Before long, we’re immersed in records new and old, swaying and dancing, mouthing along to the plaintive yeah-yeah-yeahs and nodding our heads as we browse the aisles. But just when I feel myself start to relax, the Djinn catches me off guard with a particularly gruesome image of Mama’s limp, lifeless body, one that feels like a punch to the stomach.

Count for me, Melati, he whispers softly in my ear. Count.

No, I tell him fiercely. Stop it. I stride purposefully over to the corner where the Uncle’s record player sits on its own special table and wrench at the volume knob until the music is blaring so loudly that I can feel the floorboards shake. Saf shrieks with laughter at this uncharacteristic act of rebellion, and Uncle yells, “Aiya, aiya, you will deafen me lah girl!” And the Beatles tell me that I should be glad, and I am, because at last, I don’t hear the Djinn at all.

? ? ?

Before the movie, we make one more stop at the vendors lined up across the street. I get us kuaci and boiled nuts to share, each twisted neatly into a white paper cone. Saf uses the time I spend purchasing them to flirt shamelessly with Jason, who blushes and dips his head shyly in response as he mans his father’s sugarcane stall. Then, giggling, we head for the Rex, its walls plastered with hand-painted posters emblazoned with the impossibly beautiful faces of the stars du jour. PAUL NEWMAN IN A HELL-OF-ARACING-STORY! they scream in black on lurid red. PAUL NEWMAN IN A HELL-OF-AROMANCE!

Clutching our second-class tickets, we head into the hall and look for our seats, casting envious glances at those making their way up the stairs to the highly coveted first-class section. With each step, I can feel my feet peel slowly off the floor, sticky with layers of spilled drinks and spit, and littered with dozens of white kuaci shells that crunch beneath our feet.

“Don’t sit there,” Saf whispers, pointing to a lone seat covered in bright red cloth and surrounded by empty chairs. “They say that one’s haunted.” I roll my eyes—sure it is—but when we pass I find myself giving it a wide berth anyway; one vengeful spirit at a time is enough for me.

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