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Sharlene Teo




In 2003, by the time I re-emerged from the drowsy, corpulent roots of the Banyan tree, everyone was much better at hiding their loneliness.

I had difficulty seeing straight, blinking back the world after a thirty-five year sleep. All thirty-two teeth in my mouth tasted a sour, plaque-ridden thirty-five. My sluggish tongue confirmed this. My arms and legs quivered and ached. I suppose it was the drugs they had started injecting in the soil that made me feel sprightly, chatty, yet irrevocably resigned. I knew it was going to be a hard slog- this being, this being-awake. Difficult, bleeding into impossible. I knew that things were not the same as I’d left them in July 1968- that this was no longer that fraught but familiar world that I had abandoned for sleep, purring complacently as I folded my fingers over my face and my long hair cleaved limp and loving into my forehead.


The lasting image I have of the afternoon before I retreated into Banyan tree #16 was of the sun beating down a orange-and-cream-coloured bus stop. A fat, irritable macik folded and unfolded her arms, occasionally readjusting her spectacles. The bus was late. The bus was always late. It was an asthmatic bastard of a bus, which resented its very existence, and blithely disavowed all timetables. The macik wore a pink tudung with a garish, depressing print of purple blossoms. I would like to tell you we made eye contact, that myopic macik and me, she who looked no younger than a crumpled fifty-seven and is probably now dead. But that’s untrue- I was hidden too high in the dense mottled leaves of the Banyan tree, both arms twisted threefold around a branch, with my head almost fully buried in a bird’s nest fern.

Meaty as she was, it was too early in the day to seriously consider descending the tree and eating the macik, and my stomach was still full of the dawdling teenager from the other night. So I lay my head down on the fern and listened to the ants arguing and agreeing in their singsong colony dialect, and shifting grains of dirt with their mandibles.

I reopened my eyes to see that it had gotten dark and I still felt tired. The nerves in my left arm had gone to sleep and would not reawaken. Ignore any preconceptions that a wrong thing like me is immune to pain or discomfort. I am old and broken. All my organs have failed; they sit in my ribs acrid and temperamental, wet charm stones turning and churning. I feel uncomfortable almost all of the time. I sighed because even the ants had left for dinner and it was a static, nothing sort of evening. No breeze, and a slight drop in temperature. I looked out at the road again, at that perennial bus stop yawning vacant in the moonlight. At some point the bus had come and gone, dredging patterns in the dry mud.

20somethingth July 1968, a quiet time on the only island. A good time to sneak off, to get some rest, some real rest – pock-marked moon, slow-spinning world and my nearest, almost definitely cantankerous compatriot some twenty or thirty kilometers away (a safe, uncomplicated distance) probably sharpening her teeth or already baring her sad, bony breasts at some unlucky alcoholic, some timid father brandishing a briefcase, some intrepid backpacker who would never be missed.


I uncurled myself and sat up on the branch of Banyan tree #16. My pale legs dangled and I swung them about, stretching them a little as I looked down at my hands. I studied the two palms ajar with ten dirty nails, my long, dirty nails, overgrown crescents of dried blood and skin cells. I wanted to wash my hands with soap, to wash my hands off with soap; I wanted to smell less like wet, trampled frangipani petals and more like the amber light and vague floral drool of someone’s bathroom sink when they weren’t looking, when they didn’t know I had entered their home. Far too many streetlights speckled the nearest neighborhood. So I just sat there. From a distance I would have looked like any girl- a youngish, barefooted girl with black hair, who happened to be perched high up on a tree, wearing a soiled summer dress.

I launched myself off the branch, and landed on my knees. It was a noiseless but terrible landing. I crunched and scowled. I could fly, but only at low levels, like a hen, and I had never developed the knack for it. I consigned myself to a crumple on the ill, balding grass, the right side of my face squished against the ground. There were millipedes about; I could sense them, red and writhing, all coils and inquiries; I always hated millipedes. I propped myself up on my elbows, my reaching tongue thin and determined, and wriggled back toward Banyan tree #16.

Look, I said to Banyan tree #16. I know you’ve been watching me for the last few weeks, and I come off as not the finest. I know how it seems. I know I can be messy. I can’t help it sometimes. I do what I’ve got to do. I know you understand. I just want to sleep. Please, let me in you. I know you’re a good host. I promise I won’t snore, or rattle, or force any fetuses, corneas, freak testicles or pig hearts down your throat, and there won’t be anyone hammering nails into your bark. No harm will come to you. It’s different now. There are almost no more of us. I’m tired. I don’t want to bother you. Just let me sleep.


I tapped my nails on the mud, one finger after another- pinkie nail to ring nail to middle nail to pointer nail. I sometimes did this to scare stupid schoolgirls walking home alone, amplifying the rhythm just behind their tucked-strand ears, and found it very effective. Now I just did it out of habit. I dragged my face across the soil- the paprika-hued 1968 soil that would gain weight and acquire a lusty, hacking cough gradually or at some point during the next thirty-five years, although if you asked me to name the crucial difference between 1926 soil, my birthday year, and 1968 soil I would not be able honestly to tell you. As I nuzzled my cheek against the bark of Banyan tree #16, and noticed how we both felt like paper, the ground began to crumble gently around me and I felt myself getting folded into the hollow of the tree, being ferried in a slow suffocation into its ink-dark, musty interior. Thank you, yes, thank you, I said, with the glad, tidy tone of someone aware of having earned a small but crucial victory. I put my hands over my face to stop any further specks of dirt from getting in my eyes and curled up, knees to my forehead. I let out a long, luscious sigh that made a dog four hundred meters away back off and whimper.

An old insomnia fluttered behind my eyelids. I told my bones to settle down, told my muscles to settle down, told my fingers to stop their tapping, and tried to quell the formidable hunger already voicing angry curlicues in the pit of my stomach by thinking about something sweet, something comforting- but even childhood seemed too indistinct and hackneyed a notion to be genuinely comforting. It took maybe one or two years to really get to sleep; that is, one or two years of feeling irate and a moment away from giving up on the whole thing- bursting out from my Banyan cove in a ravenous flurry, smacking furiously and rapidly beheading whoever or whatever was making so much noise in the immediate vicinity.

When I finally slept, my sleep was dreamless, opaque, anaesthetized. I slept through rocket launches and bell-bottoms, I slept through earthquakes and fancy restaurants, I slept through cat lives and economic crises. I slept through charming and less charming popular radio hits, I slept through books closing and cars careening off highways, I slept through riots and newly-minted skin allergies. I slept through the extinction of several hundred thousand indigenous dialects and species of plants and animals; I slept through yo-yos and dictatorships. I slept through miracles and porn videos; I slept through the invocation of the internet and the brief, fruitless bloom of the mini-disc.

Around me stirred the mangrove swamp and the flood-drain, the rusty neighborhood and the love-letter biscuit factory that was older than my grandfather, although maybe that was a worthless measure, as he had long been murdered and piled into a ditch, along with so many others. It made me angry. Thinking about it exhausted me with anger. If you gave me a choice I would have stayed in the base of the tree forever, under those swollen and benign roots- my eyes glued shut, trying not to think but for a few grainy conversations percolating somewhere between the whorls of my ears and my black-and-blue, clammy forehead. I mashed and mangled the words and stale voices until all that remained was one long, plaintive hum. I could have dwelled in that dumb bath of slumber until the world finally ended. That is how I would really, really have liked it, had some implacable signal or impulse not reached out and gestured unmistakably within me. Like a small hand in the dark, shaking my shoulder gently but firmly. Like a mother’s whispering mouth. You, yes you, it said. Time to get up.


When I finally staggered out from the roots of the Banyan tree, dusting myself off and shivering despite the humidity, I found the dirt road had been replaced by tarmac. There were only ten Banyan trees rather than the original fifty or so. If some ignorant interlopers had taken a chainsaw to my particular tree I would have seeped out through the grass and poisoned them through their sandals- inflicting a moist and virulent foot fungus that would inexorably require amputation. I had never done this before, but years of rest had imbued me with fresh vitriol. Alongside this, I felt bleary and defensive. The air was too syrupy, sly and quiet. Insects scurried through the undergrowth, unafraid, minding their own business entirely. I felt a resistance and unease that only increased the more I skirted each pool of light emanating from gray iron streetlamps. I had expected the area to look starkly different, in ways I could not imagine, but aside from the streetlamps not much had changed in the immediate surroundings. I padded along the road turning my translucent, finely veined arms in front of me. I was heading for the nearest houses, wherever they were, somewhere straight ahead. I felt so hungry I did not even feel hungry. Very soon, I would have to feed.


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