The dreadful red eruptions had appeared overnight, covering both
her shoulders and zigzagging down her otherwise unblemished arms. They look
raw, like friction burns, the kind novice labourers experience when burdened
beneath bent, overladen, carrying poles. Anxious and fearful, Xuyin turns away
from the wall mirror in the outdoor bathroom. She bales several scoops of
well-water into a basin from the concrete reservoir.
Sleep falls away from her face with each cool splash. The
painted goldfish baked into the bottom of the white enamel basin shimmy beneath
the ripples. The softness of her cheeks feels akin to the velvet petals of the
fragrant frangipani. Why is this simple white flower, in its prime of
perfection, purity and strength, invariably chosen to be woven into wreaths to
console the living at funerals? Does its lingering scent serve to ease the
spirit through the final phase of life they call death, into which her English
father slipped a year ago?
As the teeth of the curve-backed, boxwood comb sweep through her
pillow-tangled hair she recalls the satin feel of the feathers of the two
cockatoos her father had given her, and of the mynah bird that flew out to meet
her coming off the school bus every afternoon. Perching on her head or a
shoulder, it accompanied her all the way home. She was inconsolable when they
had each met their deaths two years ago.
She looks up and smiles wanly into the mirror, an old habit. “You'll feel better,” her Chinese mother once suggested. Xuyin has
her father's smile, everyone tells her; his crooked grin and lopsided dimples.
She sighs. Her father will never know the woman she will become. Since her
father’s death her mother works and stays in the city during the week,
returning only at weekends to Xuyin’s grandparents’ extended family seaside
home in the village of Telok Mata Ikan. Her father had told her he always hoped
she would be as beautiful as her mother, his exotic princess from the land of
“Xuyin! Are you still in the bath house? Hurry up out of there!”
Her Chaozhou grandmother's impatient voice ruptures the
tranquility of her reveries. It comes from the vicinity of the well outside.
“What's taking you so long?”
Xuyin tips the basin over her wooden clogs and feels the cool
water race over her feet. It speeds down the drain into the banana and papaya
grove outside. Not a drop must be wasted. She replaces the basin on its shelf,
then slips the bra straps carefully over her tender shoulders and dons the
white blouse and navy skirt of her school uniform. She resolves to attend the
government clinic after school this afternoon. Perhaps the doctor or nurse
may have a simple cure for this awful, ugly rash. She hastily unlatches the
corrugated zinc door. It swings open against its squealing hinges.
“I’m out, Grandmother,” she calls as she clatters back to the house, her wet clogs sticking to her heels and flicking sand up behind her every step.
Grandmother appears from the banana and papaya grove. She has
completed her daily inspection of ripening fruit and has wrapped each in brown paper bags to protect them from the birds.
“What’s wrong with your arms, child?” she asks as Xuyin
scratches the rash peering from beneath her sleeves. She holds them out before her grandmother.
“Is it anywhere else?”
“Both shoulders,” she replies. “I'll go to the government clinic
Grandmother has no faith in modern medicine. She has even less
regard for the weekly Singapore Government Health Department staff’s excursions
into the villages in their clinical white vans with starched attendants dressed
to match. White is the colour of death and mourning as far as she is concerned.
White drains your blood away. They should paint the vans scarlet. Red stands for robust health. Good, energetic blood. Prosperity. Celebration. Red is
sacred, uplifting. People invariably feel better just seeing the colour red.
“I don't think government medicine will do you any good, child,”
she concludes after scrutinizing Xuyin's arms with squinted eyes and furrowed
brow. She shakes her head and looks at Xuyin with the heavy-lidded, forlorn
expression of an elderly bloodhound.
“That's Serpent rash,” she declares, looking up at her
granddaughter. “That's its trail. Your blood is too heated, too agitated. You
need a nice, cooling Yin diet immediately. You've had too much junky Yang
food lately so no more nuts or fried anything for you! I'll make you some
herbal tea. Drink nothing else till it goes away.”
‘Serpent rash! Who has heard of such a disease? Xuyin
“But I’ve not been anywhere near snakes, Ma-Ma. Oh, except for
those visits to the military Jungle Survival School down the road where we take
the rats we’ve caught raiding our hen-house.”
The sergeant there has a variety of snakes in vivaria and cages
for training purposes. He appeals constantly to the villagers for live rats to
feed the pythons. Xuyin enjoys teasing the infant cobras, watching them spit
thick, purple-black venom all over the glass walls of the vivaria, giggling
when the sergeant storms in complaining: “You ain’t got no idea how hard it is
cleanin’ up all that muck! As if I ain’t already got enough to do!”
“Never mind,” Grandmother interrupts her thoughts. “Just be
grateful it's not anything worse.”
How can anything be worse than this? Xuyin frowns.
She can hardly wait till after school to bike to the mobile
clinic parked at the entrance of the village, close to the coffee-shop. Both
side panels of the van roll down to present a consultation counter on one side
and a pharmacy counter on the other. Additionally each year, the Singapore
Anti-Tuberculosis Association van arrives with an X-ray unit to test everyone
for tuberculosis. It also comes to vaccinate each villager against the disease.
The regular clinic comes with a community health nurse-practitioner and a
paramedic who doubles as the pharmacist. Occasionally a doctor comes. On those
days the nurse dispenses the medication.
“You have weeping eczema,” says the nurse after examining
Xuyin's rash. Curious villagers crane their necks for a look at Xuyin's bare
shoulders and arms.
“Ugh!” they chorus, contorting their faces in disgust.
Xuyin scowls at them.
Forget about privacy. Everyone here knows what everyone else
has: a communicable disease; a pregnancy out of wedlock; parasites and of which
type; worse, who has to go to hospital. Hospital is bad news. It spreads like
grass fires fanned by the monsoon winds. It means certain death. There they’re
likely to cut you open to find out why you're half dead and when you're dead
they’ll cut you up a whole lot more to find out why you died. The remedy is
simple: stay away from hospitals.
“Try this calamine lotion and zinc ointment. Come back next week
if it isn't better,” the nurse instructs Xuyin.
Three weeks later, after diligently applying the prescribed
remedies, Grandmother's diet of bitter gourds and greens washed down with tea
from the purple aloe vera plants she grows, the rash continues heedlessly down
to her wrists and hands, without any sign of retreat. Xuyin mopes around with
arms folded across her chest to hide the blight. Washing them only makes them
bleed or drip a yellow fluid. Grandmother shakes her head.
“Misery of miseries, child,” she laments. Xuyin promptly bursts into
tears. “Nothing’s working. I believe you’re possessed by an evil spirit. You
must stop going to that place you call church on Sundays. It’s in conflict with
our household Taoist Immortals. There’s a war of deities going on, ours and
those foreign-devil ones that trail home with you every Sunday.” Grandmother
grows more emphatic.
“It has to be one or the other. You must never challenge
our gods, do you hear? You're courting their displeasure. That's why
your skin's erupting. I'm absolutely certain of this. I'm taking you to the
temple. See if the old Taoist Elder there will tell you that I am not right!”
Grandmother passionately hates anything foreign, anything she
cannot or will not understand, for no other reason than its being foreign.
Shortly after Xuyin's dad’s death, the priest had come to suggest it was time
for her to attend Confirmation classes. Grandmother was outraged. “Xuyin will do no such thing!” she had scornfully retorted. To have been baptized was
already a sign of possession. Now he wanted that possession confirmed! Never!
Grandmother had spoken. As for that priest, fancy coming to visit her wearing
those black robes! Worse than white, black represents absolute
certainty of death. His visit, therefore, augured ill. After he left, she repeatedly
smudged the room with lumps of incense burning furiously in the censer to rid
it of his influence and the alien spirits he had undoubtedly brought with him.
She even smudged beneath and around the seat on which he had sat.
Since then, each time the price of coconuts falls or when other
adverse events beyond human control interfere with business or family affairs,
the priest's visit and Xuyin's continuing practice of Christianity is blamed. Only
the Holy Ghost can positively influence Grandmother now, Xuyin wonders. But
I shall be confirmed, she resolves. She adores, and is impressed by, the idea
of the Holy Ghost, the spirit she understands to be energetic and all-powerful,
the principal mover and shaker in that triad of the Trinity. After all, she
reasons, God’s in His heaven, Christ rose from the dead and now reigns with
Him; yet all’s not well with the world. It’s still, as always, engaged
in constant chaos. There’s only the Holy Ghost left to carry out the
interminable task of fixing things. His most difficult, most exacting, most
exasperating task is that of renewing a right spirit within the human heart.
Surely the Holy Ghost could influence Grandmother’s?
Not so, it appears. As Xuyin emerges in her new white dress on
the morning of her Confirmation Grandmother almost convulses with rage.
“Get that deathly drapery off immediately! How dare you defy me!”
Xuyin tries to explain her appointment with the Holy Ghost.
Grandmother waves her aside.
“Get it off! Burn it!” she screams. “That holy whatever devil
you call it shall not compete with our gods!”
Xuyin takes her dress with her and changes at the church, still
worrying that her grandmother may feel or even smell the presence of the Holy
Ghost about her when they light the daily joss together at the household altar.
But the gods keep her secret. Business suddenly takes a turn for the better,
possibly aided and abetted by the Holy Ghost. Xuyin offers her whispered
They arrive at the temple, Grandmother hobbling ahead of Xuyin
on her tiny, bound feet. Shedding their footwear they enter the cool, dark
hall. An oil lamp flickers on the altar where joss smoulders in three brass
urns. The temple Elder emerges, barefoot, in boxer shorts, toweling his wet
hair, chest, back and ears. He has just bathed, he explains.
“My maternal granddaughter,” Grandmother introduces. Xuyin bows
and greets him with the appropriate terms of deference. Grandmother tells him
the reason for their visit.
“Show me your arms.”
Xuyin unbuttons her blouse and slips it off her shoulders. He
examines the rash closely, nods and leads her to the altar. He lights several
joss sticks and places them in the urns.
“Hold your arms out in front of you,” he instructs.
He spreads his rough, scarred, fisherman’s hands over her arms.
His long, curved, tobacco-stained fingernails deftly wave a flurry of Chinese
characters over her arms and shoulders three times. She feels only the movement
of the air over the affected areas. He turns to the altar, takes a slip of
yellow prayer paper, brushes a few Chinese characters on it in red ink from a
writing palette, waves it dry in the air, and hands it to Xuyin.
“Take this home, burn it over a bowl of fresh tea and drink
every drop. Understand?”
“Come back and let me see the rash next week - if it's
Xuyin regards him incredulously. All he has done is write in the
air over the rash, her inner voice tells her
mind. Does he really expect
them to disappear? If so, he must be a faith healer! Her brow furrows
momentarily. But then, Jesus too, was a faith-healer, many times. Perhaps Jesus
is working through him, she muses. Perhaps that's how it's done. 'Oh
ye of little faith,' she recalls His words.
“I know what you're thinking,” the voice of the Elder interjects
her thoughts. She blushes. “Don't be afraid. Your Grandmother is so worried
about you that she has brought you here to be healed. She has infinite
faith, enough for you too. All will be well, believe me.”
As her grandmother had instructed, she offers the Elder a
donation in a small red envelope, a hongbao, with both hands.
“To supplement your altar oil and incense,” she tells him. “Thank
Xuyin fulfills his instructions to the letter. She lights the
slip and holds it over the steaming tea until the last crisp, curling black fronds of burnt
paper descend to the bottom of the bowl. She sips every drop of the ash and
smoke-flavoured tea with the essence of the Elder’s words written on it.
Stillness diffuses throughout her being.
The next morning the spots have almost gone. Astounded, she
dashes off to look for her grandmother, breathless with delight. Grandmother
“Good!” Grandmother declares triumphantly. “Now get on with your
work and don't think about them.”
Two days later she returns to the temple. The Elder nods in
“I'll give you another session, this time to force them out of
your mind. These afflictions can be stubborn. They must be removed completely
and leave no trace. We'll strip the old serpent-skin away.”
“So my Grandmother’s right,” Xuyin nods. “But how does this
serpent get there in the first place?” Xuyin asks.
“You see,” the Elder explains, “We all carry a serpent-god
within us that grows as we grow. It sheds its old skin as it grows with us. If
you hinder the changes taking place in your young life, perhaps by longing for
a return of the past; refusing to accept the present as it is with all its ups
and downs, your skin will get too tight. It no longer fits you. It's like
squeezing into a favourite dress three sizes too small for you, but you love it
so much you still cling to it although you no longer feel comfortable in it.
Your wise little serpent-god within you lets you know. So let the past go now.
Don't cling to it. Everything will be fine and your pet serpent won't have to
burst out of you ever again. As you grow up adjust your heart and mind to fit
comfortably into your own skin and you'll never have this problem again.
Understand?” She nods thoughtfully.
He etches the characters over her arms once more and gives her another
prescription. Xuyin, again, conscientiously fulfills his directions.
The rash disappears without a trace. Xuyin is overjoyed by this
miracle performed through the medium of this unassuming fisherman-Elder. Or, is
what he does the work of the Holy Ghost? She feels restored, whole again.
Grandmother says it is the natural order of things and that any matter beyond
human help simply requires the intervention of the immortal deities.
“All you have to do is ask. With your whole heart.”
* *** *