The House on a Hill

Bing stared wistfully at his rod. It was lying aslant on the packed earth begging to be picked up. It was Bing’s first fishing rod and he had spent days searching for the perfect pole with the right size and length to make it. The bobber tied to the line of the rod was his pride – a testament to his artistic abilities. From a used flip-flop, he had cut it into the shape of a small man. It had dipped and risen plenty of times announcing a hooked fish.

His mangy mongrel – Betty stepped on it, wagging her tail furiously.

“But why?” He groaned and gazed up a rail-free stairs to a rustic board house. The opened door showed his mother bustling in and out of view.

“We have extra and we don’t want to waste it. Go wash your hands,” she said.

Bing stared at his mucky hands palm up, flecked with dirt and mud from the earthworm hunting his mother had inconsiderately interrupted. He pouted. “Did she ask for it?” His mother gave no answer. “How do you know she wants it?” He asked again, shoving Betty out of the way with his leg.

“Wash you hands.” The edge in his mother’s voice forced him to look up. Framed by the door, she stood with arms akimbo, her eyes bore into his.

Scowling, he stomped up the stairs one by one. “She didn’t ask for it.” Betty barked in agreement. “Why must we give it to her. It’s so far.”

“You didn’t have a problem when you passed there to fish yesterday. Or the day before. Or the day before that,” said his mother.

By the time Bing crossed the threshold, his mother was ladling beef stew into a steel container. He stretched his lips at the burden, leftover meal from a relative’s wedding the day before.

Bing managed to wheedle his way from attending the wedding that day, a time spent well spent on a delightful trout hunt. But not this time. This time he was dragooned into being the errand boy. At the sink, he wound the tap and allowed gravity-fed water onto his hands. It was cold, reminding him of the river even more.

Why wouldn’t Mother do it herself?

A bubbly humming drifted into the kitchen. “What are you doing Ma’?” This sing song voice was grating. It was his sister.

“I’m giving some of these to our neighbor, Aunty Jeenah,” his mother said. In the kampong, they would call anyone elderly aunty or uncle.

“Bing is going up the hill?” Rudy said.

Bing’s chest clenched. He turned off the tap, waiting for the question.

“Can I come?” Rudy said, which was the question.

“Sure…” his mother said. “You can help your brother.”

Bing faced them. “Why not let her do it? She has nothing to do.” Bing regretted his words immediately.

“Don’t push the job to your sister!” His mother strode up and thrust the stainless steel containers to him. “You know the danger of letting your sister walk alone.”

“What danger? She walked the kampong road plenty of times.”

“I will not let her go up that far, especially up the road hill – alone. You don’t want her to get kidnapped by the toyol, do you?”

“What toyol? I’ve walked through the jungle many times and I’ve never seen one.”

“The jungle imps only like innocent humans.” His mother wiped her oily hands on her pants.

Bing pressed his lips at a dewy eyed Rudy. They wouldn’t want her. She was already a toyol.

“Rudy go help your brother and then come home. Make sure he sends you back.”

“Okay,” said Rudy.

Bing’s lips formed a rebellious O which his mother responded with an unflinching and piercing look.

Defeated, Bing, with the container in his hand, clomped loudly down the stairs. He passed a delighted Betty, wagging her tail faithfully for their next adventure.

****************

“I wonder what’s Aunty Jeenah is doing now? She must still be sleeping, or planting that white mushroom. Maybe she’s not at home,” blabbered Rudy. Bing halted and Rudy bumped into his back. “Grab the rod,” he ordered.

“Why?” asked Rudy.

“Because I need it”.

Rudy scrunched her brow at him. She grabbed the pole.

“And the bucket.”

Scowling, Rudy snagged the handle. “It’s heavy. Can’t you get worms at the river bank?” she groaned as she straightened up.

“You wanted to come along so hurry. I would swap you for this…” Bing gestured the container in his hand, “but your hands are dirty now.” Bing smiled. His sister turned out to be very handy. They marched past the bamboo gates onto a gravelly path, crossing an open field, remnants of logging area.

“I think Aunty Jeenah would be very happy when she gets the food. I don’t think she eats a lot of meat. Mummy says she is very skinny. I think so too. She works all the time. Planting. Like mummy. Why do you think she is doing now?”

Bing imagined the trout he would be getting that day. If he caught any he wouldn’t be giving to his mother. He would go to old man Ricky and they’ll cook the thing for themselves, and if his mother asked if he had a catch that day, he would say no.

“Why are you smiling?” Rudy was walking alongside him.

Bing rearranged his face. “We need to get there quick! I want to go fishing afterwards. And you cannot come!” He added, seeing the excited look on Rudy’s face.

“But mummy said you have to send me back.”

“You can walk home with Betty.” Betty was trotting proudly at their side.

Fields gave way to bushes, and finally to trees. They trudged along the gravelly path flanked by lush jungle. From the depths insects screeched, chirped, squealed and wheezed in the art of mating calls. Rutting season for insects continued all year round. The road brought the siblings to a bend hemmed in by tall trees. Here the jungle chorus was encompassing. They progressed further, and as the trees receded, the road inclined. To the right the ground dropped into shadowy depth, issuing gurgles of water. It became louder as the forested gorge below revealed a winding brook in its midst.

Bing and Rudy took a lane going up a hill to their left, a track off the main road. Up they hiked, all the while Bing was ignoring Rudy and her attempts at conversation. At the shoulder of the hill, the path opened up to a clearing. Bing stopped. What he knew to be Aunt Jeenah’s quiet property revealed four parked vehicles over which stood a house perched mightily on stilts. And the compound was teeming. Children were chasing each other, adults talking, chickens excitedly picking on leftovers, and dogs romping. Betty took off as soon as she saw her kind. In the kampong, every dog was family. Beside a long table, two men held a couple of Durians by the stalk. They smelled the fruit with relish. A woman came up to them with a long machete. The man shook his head, and a boy ran over and handed them a cleaver. The man laid the spiky fruit on the table and began cutting it open. Bing saw more people in the house upstairs through the gaping front door, and windows.

“A party!” Rudy chirped. Rudy’s eyes were gleaming with excitement. She started towards the house but Bing held his arm out.

“You wait here,” he said.

“Why?” Rudy frowned.

“I want to send this and you go back home.” Ignoring Rudy’s frown, Bing walked off. At the foot of the stairs, he slipped off his sandals, keeping a mental note of where he placed them among the myriad of footwear and ascended up the stairs to the balcony of the house. The din was equally louder in the house. Consciously, he emerged at the threshold. The living room was packed with women and children. A slight woman, tending a baby on the cushioned couch noticed him. “Hello. Come in,” she said.

Bing shook his head, almost forgetting why he was there. “Where’s Aunty Jeenah? I need to give this to her.” Bing held the container aloft. “Oh. Wait here,” said a stout woman. She looked like a younger version of Aunt Jeenah. She got up and headed round the back. A bawling baby was quickly cooed. A three year old boy and two younger girls was playing with a plastic wrapper spread across the floor.

“Come in.” The woman with the baby beckoned. “Sit.” Compelled by the stares and smiles in the room, Bing headed inside. A teenager riveted to her cellphone was told to scoot. Bing nervously edged past knees and toddlers and sat quietly. He was hoping to leave the container and leave immediately but this was taking longer than expected.

“Who’s son is this?” A woman across him had leaned over behind large spectacles and was staring at him expectingly. The chemical smell of her perfume was strong enough that it stung his nose. The lady with the baby shifted her weight and looked at him kindly. “What’s your parents’ name?” She asked.

“Rimi,” Bing said.

“Do you live nearby?” Perfume woman continued.

“Yes.” Bing wanted to ask where they had come from why they were here, but caught himself. He didn’t want start a conversation that might prolong his stay.

The wait felt like hours. Bing averted attention by minimizing eye contact, glancing at the tempting variety of cookies in the plastic jars on the table, and scuffing his foot on the rubber carpeting. To every question raised, he answered briefly. That always dissuade further questioning. Soon the women were preoccupied with their chats and he was allowed to wait in peace. The minutes dragged on. Bing wondered if they had forgotten about him with all those frenetic activity going on downstairs.

Bing was studying the dirt stuck to the sides of his toenails when he heard Aunt Jeenah in front of him, “What brings you here?” Bing stood up to his beaming neighbour. Her face was sagging, coated with sweat and there were more folds to her skin than he could count, but she lifted them with an unfamiliar radiance.

“Ma’ wanted me to give you this.” Bing grabbed the container and handed it to her.

“Oh.”

“It was from Lupin’s wedding.”

“Oh she didn’t have to.”

“Okay, goodbye Aunty.” Bing felt he couldn’t said it fast enough. He wanted to be out of there pronto.

“Wait Ma. We brought a lot of those cookies from the city. We should give them to his mother,” said the woman with the baby.

Cookies! Bing’s heart sank as quickly as it had lifted. He remembered he had to go back home to deliver them. Then his heart lifted again when he remembered he had brought his sister along. He didn’t realize that Aunt Jeenah had gone into the kitchen to get the cookies. She returned with an armful of cookies in packets. She put them in a large plastic.

“Tell your mother thank you for being so kind. And ask her to come over. My family is here celebrating my birthday. Also it’s my grand daughter’s one year birthday as well.” Aunt Jeenah said, handing over the plastic.

“Okay.” Bing couldn’t keep his eyes away from the tasty cookies. He was overcame with the desire to rush out the door and hurry home to devour them. Just before the door, he turned and blurted, “Thank you Aunty. Happy birthday,” before dashing down the stairs.

“Take care now,” he briefly heard in his hurried departure. Downstairs, he was grinning from ear to ear seeing the multicolored creams on top of the cookies. He noticed a familiar stick leaning against one of the house stilts by the foot of the stairs. Stopping, he remembered his sister.

Where did she go? He could feel the rage rising within him because his sister had left his favourite rod alone. He picked up the rod, and scanned for his pail. It had toppled over on the packed ground beneath the house, spilling the earth and the now missing earthworms. He frowned, slid into his slippers, snatched the bucket and set off to find his sister.

Several children his age were playing chase in the backyard, which was bordered by a steep cliff. Bing tried to pick out his sister among the fleeing faces. But the children were scattered. Worse, he couldn’t remember the shirt his sister was wearing. He crept up to a anthill and looked around, his impatience growing. Part of him wanted to taste the cookies, another part wanted to head over to his fishing spot and be done with this. Finally he cried, “Rudy!” His voice was drowned by the din from the house and the squeals of running children. Nobody paid attention to him.

After a few more times calling out Rudy’s name, which were responded with fleeting glances, Bing went to the front yard. He looked around the parked cars thinking Rudy might be hiding. He thought of going upstairs, but decided against it. He didn’t want to attract attention from the ladies, and besides, only mothers and toddlers had been upstairs. He was growing rather frustrated. He noticed a young girl standing beside men who were sitting at a wooden table, rapt in conversation and drinking what seemed to be coconut wine. Gingerly, Bing went up to the young girl who was munching a piece of mango. “Have you seen Bing?” He asked.

The girl with juices smudged around her lips gazed at him unblinkingly. Then she shrugged. Bing wondered if she even knew who his sister was.

“Bing.” Bing jumped. Aunt Jeenah was carrying a jug full of coconut wine to the gentlemen’s table. “Why are you still here?”

“I err…” Bing hesitated. He didn’t feel like telling her that he’d lost his sister in their midst but what else could he tell her?

“I’m looking for Rudy.” Bing fidgeted as the men around the table stared at him. He was feeling rather awkward with the bag of cookies and pail on one hand and the rod on the other.

“Who is Rudy?” A man with a thick mustache asked.

“His sister,” Aunt Jeenah said. “She came here with you?”

“Yes.”

“And who is her mother?” One of the largest among the men spoke.

“My neighbour.”

“Hmm…” The mustache man considered for a while and said, “My kid had asked me if they could go over to a neighbour’s house because their friend wanted to invite her parents over. I asked Bobby to go with them. Is your sister wearing a blue shirt?”

“Yes.” Bing lied.

“Then it might be her then,” said Aunt Jeenah. “You go on home just to make sure. I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

Bing’s grumbled as he trekked down the hill. His sister was such a bane. She could have waited for him and carry the bag of cookies home and saved him the trouble of going back. And all that trouble collecting his bait, gone. All because of that absent minded sister of his. Rudy was such a nuisance. She always meddled in his games, tell tales on him to his parents, and get the most share of everything. It wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t come home anyway. She might be lost with the Toyol and that will teach her to come with him. He will have so much fun without her around. His mother just have to deal with her absence because she wasn’t coming home, he relished.

But what if she actually didn’t come home? Bing thought. What if he was the last person to see her alive? What if she was taken by someone or worse – kidnapped by the spirits of the jungle, the Toyols, and became their child forever? His mother had told him that kind of stories when he was younger. A neighbour living isolated in the interior went out to take a dump in the jungle but never came back, only to be captured months later, having lived in the woods like a wild woman. And now it was happening to Rudy! She would be reared by the spirits, fed with worms and grubs, and living with nothing but soil, dead leaves and grass beneath her feet and trees above her head. His mother would die in grief.

Bing quickened his pace. He hustled as fear mounted in his chest, and at the thought of losing his sister to spirits of the forest, he dropped his rod and bucket, and dashed off, the bag of cookies tugging at his elbow.

He rounded the bend on the road hidden by trees and smacked face first into something lumpy. Catching his breath, he looked up and saw the bosoms of his mother.

“Bing! Where are you going in a hurry?

“Ma’…” Bing wavered. He felt diminished at what he was about to tell her.

“I like your dog.” An unfamiliar girl voice said. A teenage boy walked up to Bing’s mother, and gave Bing a once-over.

“You go on ahead.” Bing’s mother said to him. He left with an air of nonchalance.

“I thought you were going fishing?” Bing’s mother aid. Bing couldn’t even stare at his mother. “What’s this?”

“Aunt Jeenah gave these biscuits to you.”

“Well, you better deliver them home.”

“But…”

“Nobody is home. Your father is still at work at the orchard. He might want them.”

“But Rudy,” Bing had hung his head in shame.

“If you’re going fishing, make sure you come home before dark.” Bing’s mother said, leaving him to stare despairingly. “Otherwise the Toyols might get you.”

“Betty will accompany him Ma’.” said Rudy.

Bing glanced up. Betty was eyeing him curiously. A young girl with a pony tail hair and banana dress idly passed him by, and linked to her arm was Rudy’s. Rudy was happily chatting away. Bing was torn between hurting her or hugging her. Eventually, he decided that it’s not worth the trouble. He would give himself a cookie treat that day. And he wasn’t sharing.

* I left this story undeveloped in my computer for almost half a year. Because this is a first draft, mistakes are all over the place. I’m done with this. It’s a writing prompt I had promised to finish, and now I have. Oh, by the way, the picture is the house my late grand dad used to live in. It’s vacant now. 

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2 responses to “The House on a Hill

  1. Thanks Olee. My version is still in progress 🙂 Btw, I think poor Betty should be given a gender instead of being referred to as “it”. :p

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