Zen Cho

Odette’s time for hope was short.

Early that morning, the first morning of the rest of her life, she’d gone out of her house to the end of the garden. The air was as pure as the breath that first animated the clay of Adam’s flesh. She looked out over the island and saw no limitations.

But then she saw him – Uncle Andrew, in his polo shirt and khaki shorts, coming out for his daily morning walk. He pretended not to see her as he opened the gate and passed her by, but he knew she was there.

Odette realised her life had not changed after all. She would have to live with Uncle Andrew for the rest of her life.

He had only died the day before.

Uncle Andrew had insisted on being discharged from hospital.

“If it is my time, I will die with dignity,” he said. He spoke slowly, pausing between words to struggle for breath. “A Christian shouldn’t be scared of death.”

It wasn’t Odette’s place to disagree. Uncle Andrew’s friends from church stepped in for her.

“Andrew, God helps those who help themselves,” said Auntie Gladys. “You are still so young. Don’t you think it’s too soon? Let the doctors treat you.”

“God can wait for a while,” said Auntie Poh Eng. “He knows how much we all need you!”

All this was no less than what Uncle Andrew expected, but he was inflexible. “The doctors have had their chance. They poke me here, there, everywhere also, they still don’t know how to cure me. God is calling me back to Him. I’m not so foolish as to put my faith in humans over God.”

Auntie Poh Eng took Uncle Andrew’s hand. Her eyes were full of tears.

“God has been good to let us have you for so long,” she said.

Auntie Poh Eng was Odette’s favourite of their church friends. Her only flaw was an unfailing affection for Uncle Andrew. But this was a flaw shared by all Uncle Andrew’s friends. It was not Odette’s place to complain.

Her place was by Uncle Andrew’s side, except when she was in the laundry room, or the kitchen, or in the dining room polishing the heirloom silver. Just because Uncle Andrew was about to die didn’t mean he was about to let standards slip. They had a cleaner who came in every day to go over the house, but the clothes Uncle Andrew wore and the food he ate had to come fresh from Odette’s hands. As for the various antiques and other treasures Uncle Andrew had accumulated over the years, they could not of course be entrusted to a cleaner who only earned RM600 a month.

Uncle Andrew had collected enough that looking to the upkeep of his possessions, cooking for him, keeping him in clean clothes and nursing him was too much for one person. Odette suggested that perhaps the cleaner could cook and do the laundry:

“Then I can put hundred percent into looking after you and the house, Uncle.”

“You should already be putting in hundred percent,” said Uncle Andrew. “Who is paying for you to live? Not like you have so much to do. When Beatrice was alive she did all this and more. She didn’t even have a degree, not like you. She never complained. You young people are spoilt. Given too much.”

“Auntie Letchumi is a better cook than me. Maybe you’ll feel like eating more, Uncle. It’ll be good for your health.”

“Instead of learning to cook better, you want to pay someone else to do,” said Uncle Andrew. “You’re useless! If not for my money I don’t know what you’d do — end up lying in the street like a tramp. I don’t eat all this Indian food.”

“If you don’t want her to cook for you, what if we ask her to do the laundry? It will give me more time.”

“What else are you doing with your life? Do you have a job? Do you have a husband? All you have to do is take care of your uncle who has done so much for you. Even that you don’t want to do. I sacrifice for you and still you are so selfish.”

Odette was of the unfortunate mould which does not grow less sensitive with time and use. She fell silent. Crying irritated Uncle Andrew to a fury. He took it as an unjustifiable assertion of self.

“After I die your life will be very easy,” said Uncle Andrew. “My time left here is short. But you can’t even wait until God takes me.” He coughed.

“I’m sorry, Uncle,” said Odette.

“There’s no use saying sorry,” said Uncle Andrew. “You shouldn’t be so selfish in the first place. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

He banged the bedside table, but though Odette jumped she wasn’t really scared. Five years ago the force of the blow would have rocked the table back and forth on its legs. Now Uncle Andrew was so weak it barely rattled the glass of water Odette had brought him. She watched the surface of the water tremble and go still, and hid a smile.

Uncle Andrew only spoke this way when they were alone. His friends did not see this side of him.

The friends watched Odette bring in meals, give Uncle Andrew his medicine, serve him hot drinks, fluff his pillow. They didn’t see her change his bedsheets every day, bathe and dress him, do the laundry, eat only in the brief intervals granted her between chores – standing at the kitchen counter, stuffing the food into her mouth, dry-eyed.

Auntie Poh Eng told her:

“You are taking Jesus’ life as your model. Life is hard now, but God will reward you in the end.”

Odette only shook her head. “I don’t need His reward, Auntie.”

After all, Uncle Andrew had always been so kind to her. He was known for this kindness. A pillar of the church, counsellor to his friends, benign dispenser of advice to their children.

It was all the more impressive in one who had done so well for himself. Look at that beautiful house he lives in, said his friends. In the foothills overlooking the sea. The only tragedy in Uncle Andrew’s life was that he had no children of his own. But then, he had Odette.

To Odette his kindness had been wearyingly comprehensive. It had covered sending her to university, and insisting that she stay in his home for the duration of her course. He never asked for rent – she wouldn’t have been able to pay it. In return for accommodation she did the household chores.

She hadn’t minded staying at home for university. It had meant living with Uncle Andrew, but she was used to that. The house was almost enough to make up for it.

It was the mansion of a nineteenth century Peranakan merchant. Uncle Andrew liked to give out, and seemed to half-believe, that it had been in the family for generations, but he had bought it when he was in his forties from the businessman’s great-grandson.

“Fella said he’s an artist.” Uncle Andrew snorted. “Cannot even hold on to the house his father gave him.”

Whatever he had been, the great-grandson had had an eye for beauty. Upon Uncle Andrew’s arrival the house was exquisitely preserved. No incongruity had been permitted in it, no disruption to its elegant lines.

Uncle Andrew had improved the plumbing and installed air conditioners in every room. He filled the house with big ugly imitations of Western masterpieces, ludicrous photos of himself and Auntie Beatrice, and imposing jade sculptures he bought on trips to China (“I haggled them down to RM500 from RM3,000. These Chinamen will skin you if you don’t watch out”). He replaced the Victorian tile flooring with marble, and brought in white leather sofas and glass coffee tables.

But the bones of the house shone through these embellishments. Odette loved the graceful shuttered windows, the intricate latticed vents, the pillars topped with carvings of cranes and fruit. The very gutters were wonderful because they fit so well with the building; they had that perfection that comes from being impeccably appropriate. The beauty and intricacy of the house was such that it could sustain even the incongruity of Uncle Andrew’s additions and turn them into something marvellous.

The house was the only thing Odette loved. It was worth staying for.

She’d made the mistake of trying to leave once. Right after she graduated from university Auntie Beatrice died. It was sudden – cardiac arrest, the doctors said.

Odette understood that her aunt had finally given up.

She had not known Auntie Beatrice well, though they had lived under the same roof for many years. Auntie Beatrice had compacted herself so efficiently she seemed to take up no space in the world. Two days after her death Odette found herself struggling to remember what her aunt’s face looked like.

Odette had started applying for jobs with a sense of foreboding.

When she was offered a teaching job, she was nonplussed. She had not really expected to get a job. But here it was, her ticket to another life. She would be teaching at a tuition centre in Singapore – would be able to pay rent, feed herself, and live without reference to Uncle Andrew.

But there was the house. If Odette took the job, she would have to leave it. She would not see it again. Uncle Andrew had made it clear when she started university that she was not getting a degree so that she could enter the workforce.

“God has been generous,” he said. “As long as I live, nobody else in the family will need to work.”

Odette struggled with her decision for days. A week after she’d received the offer, she woke up suddenly in the middle of the night.

Uncle Andrew’s bedroom was air-conditioned, but Odette wasn’t allowed to turn on the air conditioner in hers – the expense of it. The windows were open and outside the cicadas were shrieking insistently. The mosquito coil burning under her bed scented the air. Moonlight shone through the air vents high in the walls. Seeing the inky tracery of the shadows cast on the floor, Odette felt a shock of love.

In Singapore it would be an ugly little flat she lived in – bare of flourishes, with grilles on the windows and white fluorescent lighting. She would sit on a cheap sofa from IKEA and watch TV. She would have surrendered the glories of carved ivory and old rosewood armoires in favour of that cold idol, freedom.

Odette went back to sleep with her mind made up.

The next morning Uncle Andrew was waiting for Odette when she came back from the wet market with the groceries. A letter was on the table in front of him.

“All the money I spent on you, and you go and do this?” said Uncle Andrew. “I treat you like my own daughter. Fed you since you were small. Paid for you to go to uni. Someone like you, you think you would have this kind of lifestyle if I didn’t pay for you?”

Odette’s voice came out strangely calm. “I thought if I get a job, I can be less of a burden on you, Uncle.”

“So clever to make excuses now, hah?” said Uncle Andrew. His face had gone dark red. He slammed the table. The letter fluttered. “Don’t try to lie to me. You want to run off! Sick of listening to your uncle, is it?”

A prickling sensation spread up Odette’s nose and behind her eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I forgot.”

“You think I’m stupid?” roared Uncle Andrew. “Useless! Idiot! If you’re so rushed to get out of this house, get out! Go pack your things and get out! If you don’t even know how to be grateful, why should I spend any more money on you?  Go lah! Go!”

Odette was sobbing. “Uncle, I just wanted to contribute. I’m ashamed to keep taking your money. I’m an adult already.”

“You think I’m the kind of person who won’t support their own niece?” said Uncle Andrew. “My friends will be very surprised to hear that. You ask the church people, my staff. Everybody will say Andrew Teoh isn’t afraid to spend money on his family. You know better than all these people, is it?”

Odette shook her head. “I was going to reject the offer, Uncle.”

“Nice story,” said Uncle Andrew. “What for you go and apply then?”

The house gave her the right thing to say.

“I wanted to try,” said Odette. “But when they offered, I knew I couldn’t accept. I don’t want to leave this house.”

Uncle Andrew stared at her. The colour in his face faded to pink.

“Hmph,” he said. He crumpled the letter and threw it at her. It hit Odette on the shoulder and fell to the floor.

“I don’t want to see that again,” said Uncle Andrew. “Go put the food in the fridge.”

After this, a merciful blankness descended on Odette. She felt nothing, and could even laugh at a couple of Uncle Andrew’s jokes at dinner.

The next morning at church, Uncle Andrew sent Odette to the car a couple of times – first for a packet of tissues, then for a copy of a magazine he’d promised Auntie Gladys. When Odette came back with the Reader’s Digest, Auntie Gladys said:

“So guai your niece, Andrew. If my daughter was so helpful I’ll be very happy.”

“Beatrice and I did our best to bring her up,” Uncle Andrew said. “But what’s the most we can do, a childless couple like us?”

“You’ve done better than so many parents. Odette is lucky to have you all to look after her.”

Uncle Andrew inclined his head. “As long as I’m alive, she’ll always have a home.”

They turned their eyes on Odette – Auntie Gladys’s face distant and tender with thoughts of her daughter in America, Uncle Andrew looking just past Odette’s ear. She smiled as expected.

When she got home she shut the door to her room and crawled into bed. Her body was sour with hatred. Her eyes burnt with tears.

The house absorbed them – weathered her storm – until she lay boneless on her bed and saw love shine through the vents, as it had done the night she decided to stay.

Odette had been young when her parents died. She didn’t miss them as people – more as symbols of a warmth locked in the past, rendered forever inaccessible by their deaths.

Her mother’s family were numerous, but lived in Indonesia. Though only a cousin of her father, Uncle Andrew staked his claim before any of her other relatives arrived on the scene. God had been good to them, he said, and he and Beatrice had never intended to waste their good fortune on themselves. Beatrice would enjoy having someone to fuss over. She regretted the fact that they had no children. Uncle Andrew made out that his wife had been the prime mover behind their offer to adopt Odette.

Even then Odette had found this hard to believe. Auntie Beatrice was the quietest woman she had ever met. She never looked up. She spoke in a whisper. It was hard to imagine her daring to want anything.

Uncle Andrew, on the other hand, impressed Odette with unfavourable force. She was still at an age where she only understood snatches of what grown-ups said to her. She watched his face instead of listening to his words, and what she saw worried her.

Two weeks after her parents’ death, she was dozing in the back seat of his car as it wound up the hill towards his home.

She always remembered her first sight of the house. Auntie Beatrice had bored her and Uncle Andrew frightened her, but she knew the house to be a friend the moment she laid eyes on it.

How blue it had looked against the green velvet backdrop of the forest – the intense blue of the sea in paintings of summer days. The red tiles on its roof reflected the last of the setting sun; the lanterns hung under the eaves cast a golden glow over the deepening twilight. As she passed through its double doors her skin prickled with the shivery, delightful excitement of being on holiday.

She was given a teak bed with white linen sheets and a headboard carved with peacocks. She slept soundly for the first time since her parents had died.

The house had been made to be loved, but what lived in it was not a real family.

Odette was the only person who knew what the house wanted. Uncle Andrew brooded over his possessions, indulged in tantrums, and tended his public persona as though it was a bonsai. Auntie Beatrice floated through the rooms, never denting a cushion or ruffling a rug.

But Odette divined the house’s secrets. Nooks under staircases and crannies between sofas and walls, the perfect size for an eight-year-old to daydream in. Columns of light that moved around the house, picking whatever room suited their fancy. Wistful silences lying in wait in the concrete-floored courtyard, open to the sky.

She watched birds build their nests in the eaves and spiders construct webs in forgotten corners. She knew the moods of the house as well as she knew Uncle Andrew’s.

This made her life easier, as Uncle Andrew’s moods made her life harder. The house comforted her when Uncle Andrew tore up her homework, upbraided her for her stupidity and ugliness, told her she should have died when her parents did, that he never should have taken her in.

It was not so bad living with Uncle Andrew. Other children got beaten. Other children had nothing to eat. Uncle Andrew usually aimed to miss. He gave her food and clothing and even gifts at birthdays and Christmases. She didn’t know how to articulate what was wrong until she heard a stranger’s offhand remark.

“I always forget how beautiful your house is, Andrew,” said one of his friends. “It’s made for peace.”

Odette looked past the friend at Uncle Andrew’s smiling face. Uncle Andrew did not know or want peace, in a house made for peace. He desecrated it by living there. She had not hated him before that moment.

She didn’t cry whenUncle Andrew told her she would have to find somewhere else to live.

“I looked after you long enough already,” he said. “People your age are married, have their own house, children! I’ve done my part. If by now you haven’t found a husband, you can only blame yourself.”

Uncle Andrew was moving to Singapore.

“I have a lot of friends there, and I know the pastor of my new church,” he told Auntie Poh Eng and the rest. “As a Christian in Malaysia, you never know… In Singapore the lifestyle is more convenient. An old man like me, I cannot be driving myself around forever. This Odette never learnt, she’s too scared to go on the roads. In Singapore at least you can rely on public transport, not like here.”

Odette had not been allowed to learn to drive. She was 31 and she had never had a job.

“Odette will like it,” said Auntie Poh Eng, smiling at her. “Singapore is nice for young people. More fun, yes?”

“Ah, Odette won’t be coming with me,” said Uncle Andrew. “So boring for her to live with an old man. She’s going to find her own place. These young people want to be independent. You give them your sweat and blood and at the end of the day, they go off and do what they want.”

“That’s the way of life,” said Auntie Gladys. “But what are you going to do with the house, Andrew? Are you keeping it? It’s been in your family for so long.”

Uncle Andrew shook his head. “Selling. My grandfather would be upset, but things have changed since his day. A big old house, you must spend so much for upkeep. I’m not earning anymore. I don’t want to worry about it in my old age. There’s a developer who’s very interested. Not many heritage buildings around that are so well-preserved. He wants to turn it into a hotel. The Mat Salleh like all this kind of thing.”

Most of the friends nodded, but Auntie Poh Eng looked at Uncle Andrew as if for the first time her belief in him had wavered.

“You’re selling to a developer?” she said. “To make it into a hotel?” But she remembered herself almost at once. “Of course most people cannot afford such a beautiful house. Maybe it’s nice for them to have the chance to stay here also, even if it’s for one or two nights only.”

“I haven’t answered the developer yet. I’m hoping to find someone who wants to live here,” said Uncle Andrew smoothly. “It’s very sad to have a home turned into something commercialised. Next best thing would be if the government buys it. Make it into a museum for everybody to visit.”

Auntie Poh Eng beamed, her belief in Uncle Andrew restored.

“That would be perfect,” she said.

It wasn’t Odette’s idea. She was standing in the kitchen wiping her hands when she saw a strand of hair on the countertop.

Hair in his food was the greatest sin anyone could commit against Uncle Andrew. Odette picked up the strand of hair and put it in the bin.

The idea was given to her.

Odette already knew Uncle Andrew’s birth date. It was easy to find out the time. He kept his birth certificate in the second drawer of the desk in his study, along with his passport and IC.

It was easy, too, to get strands of his hair. She peeled them off his pillows and dug them out of the drain in the shower. She was unflinching in her preparations. She gathered fingernail clippings and even saved a scab he’d picked at absently and discarded on one of the ugly coffee tables.

She’d never done magic before, but she knew how it was done. You went into all that was too close, too sticky, the things human beings didn’t share with one another – that was what the hair and fingernails were for. You did it with strong love or strong hatred.

She poured malice into Uncle Andrew, a patient poison that impregnated the food he ate and released fumes into the air he breathed. And it worked. He sickened. His breath grew short and he could no longer enjoy his meals. He became thin and weak and his body was racked with pain.

The doctors said it was cancer, but Odette knew what was killing him. Sometimes she was even a little afraid of the house.

The manner in which Uncle Andrew chose to depart this life was appropriately Victorian. It was a still hot afternoon and Odette was refilling his glass of water when he opened his eyes and said:

“Jesus is calling me.”

Odette paused with the glass in her hand, unsure of how to respond.

“Do you want a drink, Uncle?” she ventured.

“Sit down, girl,” snapped Uncle Andrew. “People are dying and you still want to do housework. Remember, Mary, not Martha, was praised by the Lord.”

Odette sat down. Uncle Andrew was still speaking, more to himself than to her.

“I’m still young. If not for this cancer, I could have been useful to my fellow men for many years. But His will be done. In Heaven,” he added contemplatively, “I will see Beatrice again.”

It wasn’t clear whether the prospect gave him any pleasure.

Odette felt called upon to fill the gap left by the absence of his friends.

“Don’t talk like that, Uncle,” she said. “There’s still hope. The doctor said –”

“Doctors! What do doctors know?” said Uncle Andrew. “Of course there’s still hope. What is better than the hope of the Kingdom of Heaven? I have nothing to reproach myself with.”

His wandering eyes settled on her with some of their former keenness.

“Nothing,” he repeated. “Will you be able to give the account of yourself to Him that I will be able to give? Look into your conscience. Ask yourself.”

Odette stayed silent, but she could not help a quick intake of breath then. She was so close.

“Hah,” said Uncle Andrew triumphantly. “You see! Look to yourself! Look to yourself before it’s too late!”

He didn’t die then – only later, after his shouting had sent him into a coughing fit and Odette had given him water and been snarled at for spilling some on him. Finding fault with her put him in such a good mood that he went to sleep with little trouble after that. The next morning Odette found him cold in his bed.

When Uncle Andrew had realised he was dying he’d willed the house to the church. Odette would get a legacy – an annuity of RM8,000 a year.

“More than a lot of people earn by their own hard work,” said Uncle Andrew. “You are lucky.”

Odette agreed with Uncle Andrew that this was generous. She resented him no more for this than for anything else, though the bulk of his wealth would go to a successful nephew in Canada who hadn’t visited in years.

“Jit Beng has children,” said Uncle Andrew.

Jit Beng had an Ivy League degree and a big job in a multinational company. Uncle Andrew yearned over Jit Beng with a stifled affection he had never shown his wife or Odette.

Odette didn’t care about the money. It was the house she wanted, and it was easy enough to alter the will. She was the one who had filled out the blanks while Uncle Andrew dictated. She’d bought the will-making kit for him from a bookshop. Uncle Andrew didn’t believe in lawyers.

Nobody questioned the result. Everyone except Uncle Andrew had thought Odette should get the house. The church got the RM8,000 a year, a generous donation from a faithful servant of the Lord.

Even Jit Beng got something. Odette willed him a kamcheng, part of a nyonyaware set that had mostly been destroyed when Uncle Andrew had thrown the pieces at her for going to a friend’s house after school. She swathed the kamcheng in layers of bubble wrap and posted it to Jit Beng herself.

After the funeral she came home and lay on the chaise longue in the front hall, gazing up at the gorgeous wooden screens that blocked the heat of the sun.

She would have the coffee tables removed. The gigantic TV, that would go. Maybe she could sell it. She’d already put most of the sculptures and paintings away when Uncle Andrew got too ill to come downstairs to see them, but there were a couple she liked and that she would keep.

She would clear away the clutter, give the house space. Let it breathe.

Her eyes were shut, but if she opened them she would see the light shining through her skin, like moonlight through the filigreed vents. For the first time in her life she gave herself up to happiness.

Uncle Andrew walked his usual route. Down the driveway, up the slope to the top of the hill, then back down again to the back gate, where he let himself in.

Odette had been standing by the pillars at the entrance, waiting for him. Her hand curled around a pillar, drawing strength from the house. Perhaps she hadn’t really seen him, she told herself. He wouldn’t come back. She had just imagined it.

She knew this was a lie. It was not a surprise to see him return. When he lifted the latch on the gate, the sunlight shone through his arm.

If he had been alive she would have felt the movement of air on her skin as he walked past her. He didn’t so much as glance at her, though he knew she was there. Temper held him, its weight crumpling his forehead, pulling his mouth taut.

He would be silent for days, pointedly ignoring her in his pique. His anger would fill the house like dark oily smoke. The stench would get into everything.

Life would be the same as it had always been.

Odette saw that the house needed Uncle Andrew more than it loved her. It needed him as much, perhaps, as she did. It would never let either of them go.

The harsh glare of the sun hurt her eyes. It was too hot to be outside. She let go of the pillar and saw that a splinter had driven itself into her palm.

She turned and went into the house. The shade enveloped her, cool as the air in a crypt. The doors swung shut, closing her in.

Zen Cho was born and raised in Malaysia, and lives in the UK. She is the author of the Sorcerer to the Crown novels and a novella, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, as well as the short story collection Spirits Abroad. 

Editor’s note

We loved Alice Cao’s artwork for Zen’s story, capturing the atmosphere with just a handful of colours. The perfect partnership, art and story, to open the issue.

This story is published in Shoreline of Infinity 18. If you enjoyed this story please consider buying a copy for yourself or your friends. Available in paperback and digital formats.

—Noel Chidwick

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