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       Amber, p.1

           Joyce Chng
 
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Amber
Amber

  She strode on the warm sand, damp with sea water and indenting with her footprints. Above her the tropical sun shone on her bare back. In the sunlight, her hair shone tawny-gold and the hairs on her arms glowed.

  Children’s laughter broke her reverie. Her nieces and nephew ran across the sand, clad in their swimsuits and nothing else. They were happily barefoot.

  “Sit down before you turn into a baked kueh,” her grandmother yelled from her sheltered spot under the coconut trees.

  Oh, the whole family was there. What was the word that described them? Pride? But that was an English word, from colonial masters long dead.

  Do Asiatic lions have prides just like their African cousins?

  No. But we have families.

  “Drink,” her naani passed her a plastic cup filled with cold water. “Our human bodies are surprisingly fragile.”

  Oh, she knew the difference. Asiatic lions were smaller than their African cousins. But they too had become rare, isolated. Existing in small groups, outnumbered by the harimau. The tigers were proud of their heritage and birth-right, comfortable and secure in their own land. The lions kept to themselves. But it didn’t mean that they were less proud of their bloodline.

  Soon, she would lead her family.

  Lioness.

  It had a nice ring to her tongue.

  ~*~

  Geetha met her after her family picnic. In truth, the entire clan was still here, singing up a storm and barbequing fish and lamb over the charcoal fire. The kids played with sparklers, the gunpowder smell peppering the air. The breeze smelled of sea breeze and was cool against her skin. Somewhere in the distance, a ship hooted a lonely song.

  Geetha was what she saw as her “pride-sister”, unrelated by blood but linked by strong ties of friendship and trust. She used the word “pride” to describe her experience and her family. Nothing else. Clunky words did not matter. Deep down inside, it was still “family”. Does family need a word to describe it

  “You took a long time,” her friend said grumpily. Geetha had skin she envied, curls of black hair and a swagger that was all …. well… Geetha. Despite of their different religious backgrounds, they were firm friends, ignoring the complexities between Hinduism and Islam. They had been together since they were in kindergarten.

  “Family,” she said and Geetha grinned, flashing white teeth. Her upper canine teeth looked sharper than the rest.

  “Where your aunts talk as if they own the land, where your nieces and nephews run like temple monkeys.”

  “Like that.”

  “In a way, we did own the land.”

  She meant Gir Forest, way back in India.

  “We did,” her heart beat faster at the mention of Gir Forest. It always excited her, made her remember the past deep inside her bones. The lioness yearned to go back. It was a deep hunger that refused to go away.

  Geetha shook her head, tossing her curls. “Now we are stuck in a concrete jungle.”

  She glared. “You are so pessimistic, Miss Geetha.”

  Another flash of white teeth, a glimpse of the sharp canines, a lioness standing her ground before her intimate peer and sister. Geetha gestured at the condominiums that had sprouted up recently, almost blotting out the sky and the sun.

  “We can’t bring back the past. The present is what it matters.”

  They began walking along the path. It was fast approaching evening. Sunset was always quick in Singapore, as if the sun had chosen not to linger in the heavens. The clouds were awash with orange and a hint of mauve and dark blue.

  “Even we cannot hunt here,” Geetha said suddenly, apropos of none. “Mar, we have lost what we had. No more forest. No more … hunting.”

  Marfisa smiled. In her mind, she saw Geetha and herself walking together, large paws silent on the concrete, their fur golden-tawny, like spun sunlight. Two young lionesses on the hunt, ready to take on the world.

  “We can find it, don’t worry,” she said. “We will find it.”

  “You sound awfully sure,” Geetha shook her head again.

  “Of course. We can’t let the bagha lord over us.”

  “Harimau. They are the harimau here.”

  “Harimau. Bagha. Still the same.”

  It was like what her grandfather had said before: the sher have to stick together. The grand old man of the family, his beard thick and luxuriant, his pride and a sign of his strength. Unlike grandmother, he sat on his rattan rocker most of the time now, his girth slowly gone to fat and the ravages of age. It was family gossip that her cousin Imran would take over eventually.

  “At least the volpha here are united,” Marfisa’s sigh was straight from her heart. She meant the wolves. She had a wolf acquaintance, a Chinese Lang. She met Shu Yin during one of the modular courses. The wolves were solid people, honest and in tune with themselves. She envied them. They too were migrants who sank down roots and became part of Singapore.

  Geetha placed a hand on her arm. “Don’t martyr yourself for something you know is beyond your control. Be proud of who you are. That matters most.

  ~*~

  She was in the same dream again. She was a lioness, in her true form, and at home in this muscular body. She was hunting, as she always was in the dream. The forest sounds formed a reassuring pattern. The forest scents filled her nose: there was promise of food, of game, and rich red flesh from deer.

  In the distance, she heard the calls of her family. Hou, hou, hou, the soft cough-roars from her aunt reverberated and the forest ceased its cacophony, quelled and hypnotized by the powerful sound.

  She smiled. Her family’s power was steeped in the forest’s earth and the forest’s trees. The rest of the animals knew and acknowledged it. They were the masters of the forest.

  The human smiles, the voice in her head said. The lioness hunts.

  She was hunting. The deer was nearby. She could smell them. Sweet, filled with doe ready to mate. There had been a birth the night before: the rich coppery scent of blood and afterbirth reached into her nostrils and her mouth watered. Immediately, she lowered her body and began to crawl, very slowly, towards her prey. The bushes hid her. She was at once the earth and moving muscle.

  The hunt was over very quickly: a burst of power from her limbs, a brief chase, and the instinctive fastening of her teeth into the neck of the quivering fawn. The kill was not enough to feed the family, but it was a kill nevertheless. She was already grasping the skills needed to be an accomplished hunter. She was the daughter of the lead lioness in the family.

  She was about to tear into the flesh when an irritating buzzing broke the dream and left her sprawling back onto her bed. The glory faded. No more forest, no more hunting. Just back in her human body. At least the dream had left its mark: her arms were covered with short tawny fur. As she sat up, bleary-eyed and groggy, they were already fading away, seeping back into her body.

  “Bloody hell,” she muttered and flung the alarm clock away.

  ~*~

  The lecture was boring as usual and she found herself doodling on her foolscap paper. Her nose caught familiar smells. There were a couple of Japanese foxes in the lecture theatre and a bagha who glanced over at her and grinned challengingly, the bloody bitch. She enjoyed the brief burst of rage. It was so seldom she felt that alive. Allah would forgive her.

  Thankfully, the lecture didn’t drag as long as she thought. Dr Chan was succinct and didn’t dawdle on personal anecdotes. She left her seat and made her way out of the exit. She wanted to beat the evening crowd. The trains were often packed of late. Singapore had gotten too crowded for her liking. She hated the claustrophobic press of bodies and craved the salty air of the sea… or the earthy scent of the forest.

  When she stepped into the house, muttering an automatic “Assala
malaikum”, the heavy stillness of the house startled her. Her words hung in the air. Grandfather was not in his rattan rocker.

  Then, grandmother opened the bedroom door, her eyes tearing and red. She shook her head slowly. The family had lost their head of the household.

  ~*~

  How she hated Imran.

  Oh how she hated his supercilious smirk, as if he knew he had everything under his claws and was lording over everyone. Granted that he was the head of the family now.

  She wished she was male, so that she could challenge him and take back the control of the family. But this was based on family rules and she couldn’t rock the boat. Not now, not when naanaa’s death was still fresh and wounds still open. The lioness would wait.

  He grinned at her, white teeth and all. “Sister, I hope I make a good leader and make naanaa proud of me.”

  She had to smile back, her smile stretching her lips and nothing else. Inside her, the lioness lowered ears and bared fangs, not backing down from a male who strutted into family territory. “Of course, Imran, he would be proud of you.” Snarl. “I will go to naani now. She needs our love and support at the moment.” Snarl. Go away.

  Her grandmother was in the bedroom, folding clothes. She always folded clothes when she felt upset. She was in a simple white churidaar kurta, her head covered with a black shawl. Dark rings circled her eyes. She had not slept for two days.“Come, sit,” she gestured to Marfisa when she padded in quietly. The funeral rites were done within a day, her grandfather’s body washed and wrapped in white cloth and buried in the family cemetery. Now the house felt empty without the familiar sounds of the rattan rocker moving back and forth. Everything sounded too loud, too awkward. Grandmother was now a widow; she had to observe Iddah with its four months and ten days of mourning.

  “I saw the way Imran spoke to you,” naani said without hesitation. “Be patient. Men come and go. We women are the glue of the family. At least be thankful you are not betrothed to Imran.”

  “Betrothed?!” Marfisa couldn’t control the instant bristling of her skin and hackles. The thought of an arranged marriage with the arrogant idiot triggered a rush of hot bile in her throat.

  Grandmother smiled and shrugged. “I told them off. Said ‘no’ and shooed them away. The old ways got us killed.”

  Her naani a pioneer of women’s rights. Marfisa wanted to laugh.

  “The old ways got us killed. We had to leave, because staying the way we were couldn’t and didn’t work. Our numbers were dying. We travelled elsewhere, so that at least our daughters and their daughters could continue living. Our family settled in Singapore.”

  “Oh, naani.”

  “You and your friend, Geetha. You are the hope for our future. Our daughter’s daughters who would continue to hunt and keep our families strong. Nevermind she’s Hindu. She’s also sher, like me, like you.”

  “Oh, naani!” She hugged her grandmother impulsively, tightly.

  “Your daughters will rule the earth one day. Our forest is now this hard earth and metal world. We will survive this. Lion City. Make that dream possible.”

  Grandmother rummaged through the heap of clothes and picked a lacquered black box out from nowhere. “Here, this is rightfully yours.”

  She received it cautiously. The box felt cool to the touch, easily cupped in her palm. She opened it and her jaw dropped.

  “Naani?” She was back to being a cub again. A little girl sitting at grandmother’s feet, listening to stories of monkey warriors and lion kings.

  “You should keep it. It’s yours.”

  Marfisa lifted the silver chain up. Sunlight happened to angle in at the right moment and the amber fang shone like liquid gold. She held the tooth in her hand wonderingly. It felt like a small knife, a dagger. It felt… female. A lioness.

  “A tooth from our forest cousin. A link to our real selves.”

  Marfisa slipped the necklace gingerly, the chain cold against her neck. The crescent-shaped amber fang nestled between her breasts and grew warm.

  Inside her, the lioness rumbled and nodded. She would be patient.

  All hunters are.

  Mehendi

  She headed straight home after meeting her bestie. The sky decided to open out just when she stepped down from the bus. The smell of rain on warm earth filled her nose. She felt her stirring, like the shake of a heavy head and the flexing of muscles. The sensations were pleasurable in a primal sort – she loved it. She often found her senses heightened after spending time with Marfisa.

  The fragrance of curry was a delicate trail down the corridor. The rain continued hissing down. Somewhere she heard and felt the rumble of thunder like some angry elephant trumpeting her rage.

  “Geetha,” her mother greeted her at the door, drying her hands with a dish cloth. “You are late.” Her Tamil was beautiful, flowing and often sent a pang of guilt in Geetha’s heart. “I left some fish curry for you.”

  “Thank you, ma.”

  Her mother was the matriarch of the house. Her father was often out… hunting, as her mother would say. He would come back reeking of beer and other things. In his youth, he was a champion boxer. The Lion Man, as they called him in the ring.

  Geetha knew that she should be more sanguine like Marfisa. But her father was repulsive. Even now she found herself baring her teeth. Like Durga’s lion. Snarlingwith rage like the sun boxed into a lion’s body.

  Of course he was not at home. Geetha was grateful for that. She took a quick shower, changed into more comfortable clothing, and tucked into the leftovers with chapatti reheated in the micro-wave oven.

  She was mixing the mehendi powder in the kitchen when the front door slammed open and the stench of vomit slunk in like a dying animal. She froze, her fingers deep in the mix. The mehendi was for the fun fair at her school; she was one of the mehendi artists.

  Her father stalked in, eyes reddened with drunken rage. Oh man, he stank.

  “Where’s my curry, woman?!” He bellowed. The windows rattled at the force of his voice.

  Geetha’s mother emerged from the bedroom, unhurried, calm. A dignified lioness. The grand matriarch of the family. “Yes. I left it in the fridge.”

  “Warm it up, woman. Are you stupid?” He spat at her. The glob of saliva splattered on the clean marble floor.

  Geetha bristled instantly. Her fingers twitched, stained crimson by the henna.

  Her mother nodded and stepped into the kitchen on light feet. Even in her fifties, she looked young. Ageless. Her black hair was brushed and combed into a neat ponytail. Even at home, she wore a simple light blue sari. A light hint of jasmine oil, a bit of her favorite talc powder.

  Her father took a drunken swipe at her.

  In an instance, Geetha was out of her chair, her fists flying into the man who fathered her. The lioness took over, a pleasant rippling of fur from skin and the lengthening of muscles. Her vision reddened, the taste of blood in her mouth. She tore in…

  When she came to, she was sprawled on the floor. She was dimly aware of a man sobbing like a baby. A blurry vision of something bunched before her. She shook her head, suddenly aware of the weakness in her limbs, in her entire body. Her vision cleared.

  Her father was curled up before her, his arms flung up as if to defend himself. There were gashes across his chest and the smell of blood was ripe in the air.

  “Get her away from me!” Her father screamed. A grown man screaming. He was supposed to be the leader of the pride, the man of the household. The lion. What a fool. What a coward…

  And what about her? She stared at the tips of her fingers, now steeped in blood. Something dry encrusted the edges of her lips. She knew what it was. She could taste it in her mouth.

  “Paruva maḻai! Monster!”

  He scrambled onto his feet, his drunkenness obviously gone. His eyes were so wide that she would see the white. His breathing reminded her of a dying creature with that desperate burst of energy. Geetha felt her lips peel back in a g
rin that did not mean humor.

  “Do not hurt my mother,” Geetha heard herself growling, a deep rumbling in her chest. “You have hurt her in the past. No more. Now, go, before I change my mind.”

  He dashed out of the door, howling like an infant.

  Geetha let out a growl before crumbling. Her knees felt rubbery. Suddenly, the lioness seemed so distant, like a muffled echo separated by glass, like …

  The darkness claimed her.

  ~*~

  “Geetha Subramanian, you are quite the hero!”

  Marfisa’s voice gently drew her out of the dark murky waters and she clung onto the voice like a drowning victim. She found her friend leaning over her, looking worried and awed and anxious all at the same time.

  “Never knew you had that in you,” Marfisa murmured, gently easing Geetha to a sitting position, fluffing the pillow before placing it behind her.

  You never knew, Geetha thought, but she was mighty glad to see Marfisa. Her pride sister was a source of courage, both physical and moral.

  She saw her mother standing discreetly next to the door, still clad in the blue sari. Her mother nodded, smiling slightly.

  “He won’t hurt my mother again,” Geetha said, hearing the low rumbling in her mind. The rumbling of a hunting lioness. “He will die if he dares touch her.”

  Marfisa hugged her. “You made the right choice.”

  Did I? Geetha stared at her fingers, now cleaned of any hint of blood. Did I, Marfisa? Or did I just tap into that wild part of me and didn’t really care? The lioness enjoys killing.

  ~*~

  She still took part in the fun fair. Her father had refused to return home. She didn’t care. She had pretty much written him off her life. The lion had been ousted from his pride.

  A line of women and a couple of men thronged the mehendi stall, eager to have their palms and arms tattooed. Geetha and her friends were kept busy by the steady demand of patterns of swirls and flowers. A bunch of giggly schoolgirls from a nearby secondary school compared their henna-ed palms with one another. The colors of dark brown and red rippled on their skins. The magic of mehendi was that the colors were different for different skin tones and temperatures. Geetha loved mehendi. She adored the fragrance and the texture. Stored within a make-shift icing tube, the henna became art on someone’s hand or palm. She loved that. She loved that kind of artistry.

 
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