Dawn creeps up on the greasy water like a heron stalks on unsuspecting fish. By early morning, the meandering dark river would reveal blobs of junk that drifted past coolies darting in and out of the rows of warehouses, carrying cargo on their heads and on push carts. Empty bottles, sacks, cardboard boxes, slippers, a signboard… these would float along as the tide went out, even a ladder that Uncle Choo had used when he went about painting black and white bungalows for the British Governors. After an inconsequential funeral outside his wooden house in Soopoo village, Uncle Choo’s belongings including his tradesman tools and leftover paint were dumped into a place where it was most convenient at that time in Singapore—the Kallang River.
In the first half of her childhood, Leela had only fond memories of the waterways in central south Singapore. At low tide, she and Viji would wade into the knee-high foul water to retrieve floating coconuts that had drifted alongside the swampy banks. These nuts were useful as ammunition. There were too many stray cats, creating a din and mess. Like cannon balls, the nuts were hurled at the cats, sending them scampering loudly. They deserved to be chased away, thought Leela, but her brother had meaner intentions. Once Viji had maimed a cat so bad, it bled from its ears and nose. Next day, it lay dangling from the spreading roots of a mangrove tree, no longer creating a ruckus. She knew she should tell their parents, but she kept his secret.
Still. So quiet. The water took away its pain, and Leela, for the first time, realised the power, the brutality, and the finality of death. It seems too sudden though, thought the nine- year-old. Death changes things. Some years later, upon looking at her father as he lay on the rattan mat cold and motionless with his shirt collar turned up high, she thought death to be rather cruel. Lying still, he seemed asleep. After all, he had said repeatedly that he would never leave them especially in times of trouble. Holding her and her brother close, he said he loved them dearly. And they believed him.
By evening, the river would run wide and deep, in harmony with the tidal flow. Soft ripples formed where the wind exhaled. Brown and thick, it flowed downwards towards the sea, taking everything with it. If the water surface appeared spotless, don’t be fooled. There’d be putrefying matter submerged under. Fish were poisoned by toxic waste as factories dumped their waste into the river in those early years. Slaughterhouses emptied the bony carcasses of their butchered goats, pigs, ducks and chickens, along with their entrails. All of these were swept out to sea by cunning currents. During the hard years of the Japanese Occupation later, heads of decapitated men floated by too.
To ward off such ill luck years later and to pray for good fortune, a Chinese temple was built on stilts fringing the river embankment. But the memories of appa couldn’t be washed away though, even as Leela looked hard for signs of consolation in the Stygian river. She heard the heron call out in flight while retreating towards its nest in the thick woods of Kampong Bugis.
What happened next? Read the rest of this short story when She Never Looks Quite Back by Mallika Naguran is out.