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Old Stone

The way she speaks will make you certain that she is the only one still alive.

Fiction | Flash Fiction
May 12, 2023

In the city, in the Malay quarter, off the expressway, past the wet market, off the main road, by the pastry shop, by the tattoo parlor, in the alley, with the touch-me-nots, and the bicycle racks, and the skinny cats, and the mossy walls, and the karaoke bar, and the kopitiam, and the people-watching uncles, and the hanging laundry, there is a house, Peranakan style, Baba Nonya style, blue mansion-like, antiquated, with peeling paint, with bougainvilleas, with an indoor courtyard, with wood panelling, in which you’ll find a shrinking aunty and her many treasures including very little shoes, metal chopsticks, windup toys, tortoiseshell combs, Indian gold trinkets, a jack-in-the-box, a dusty picture frame, a purple-and-gold batik, a pair of clogs, porcelain teapots, lacquered jewelry boxes, gray-and-blue soup spoons, magnifying glasses, a wooden frog, a clay piggy bank, a torn calendar, silk fans, waxed umbrellas, jade beads, a smiling Buddha, and what she’ll want to show you the most: her two koi fish, swimming in the courtyard that has been converted into a little pool, circling like lovers, who have lived for so long that when you ask when she got them she will laugh and show her gums, tell you she cannot remember, tell you she is getting old, invite you for tea, sit you down at the table, bring out pineapple tarts, bring out old mooncakes with twin yolks for good luck, which she had bought but had no one to share them with, and then tell you all about her family, reviving her grandson and his wife, her mother and her father, her cousins who live in China, her brother who gambled away his inheritance, the family business that went awry, the suitors that came, the servants that left, the babies who died, the shops that sprung, and the way she speaks will make you certain that she is the only one still alive, because her vitality seems more solid than the shadow of any of these things, and the story seems more real than any of its characters—but this is not true, as you will realize when she pulls out the albums and shows you photos that go from sepia to color, from horse-and-cart to Porsche, from Emerald Hill to Bukit Timah, to CBD and HDB, to riches of a different kind, to a tragedy that sounds familiar, and that will lead your young and errant mind to wonder about who it was that serviced this fairytale, and made the lunch while the family sat to take their no-teeth, two-row photograph, and who today even wants all this lady’s junk and why so much of it remains when all you hear about these days is how much people care to miss and frame and cherish it—this thing called heritage—which she is serving you now on a silver platter, and, in so doing, also asking you what you think, what you recognize, whether or not you have seen this road before, if you can even recognize what it used to look like before all the development, if there is anything left in your family that you can also hold like this, like a curse, or a talisman, or an offering, or if you, perhaps, have any other aunties in the country that would also love for you to visit, if you know their family name, if you know where they would have lived, if you know when they arrived in the country, if you know whether they spoke English, if you would like more tea, which may feel like an overwhelming amount of information to provide but you should not feel afraid, even if you are stilted, even if you feel uncomfortable, as if you aren’t enough, or as if you can’t provide enough of your own history to satiate this lady’s curiosity, or as if perhaps she is disappointed in all you are and was in fact waiting for someone else, someone less like a tourist, or someone more like a tourist; you should not feel bad, because you are providing the service of listening, nodding, drinking tea that would otherwise go bad, and continuing the lineage of her old-time song, by being present, trying to remember, trying to fit things into your mind like a museum, trying to photograph each photograph, to memorize her life, to give something back to her, to return in your mind a spring to her step, to make her youthful because that is what life seems like to you, even if this isn’t quite what life is, even if this isn’t quite what history is, even if she isn’t quite who she says she is, even if we can’t quite manage in keeping all the corners clean, and the families close, even if the fish will outlive us, even if in twenty years, or a hundred years, or a thousand years this house turns to dust, even if your own memory goes dark, and you find no one to listen to this, and you are the last person to ever know this story.