Kwan Ann Tan
Ba died on the 27th of November. Just that morning, Ma had reminded me to check the expiry date on the carton of banana milk while we were having breakfast, and to bring it to the hospital with us for Ba.
Of course, between fighting off Didi, my younger brother, for the last slice of processed cheese, discovering that my period had arrived—a whole 5 days late, like a dark, portentous thundercloud—and stuffing myself into the car so we wouldn’t miss hospital visiting hours, I had forgotten about the banana milk.
Ma was still scolding me when we went up in the elevator with things like how could you forget and how unlucky your father is to have a child that doesn’t care about him when Ba’s doctor, a nice Malay lady who always seemed so positive about his recovery, rushed towards us. Of course, by then, Ba was gone.
A month after, Ba had been put to rest, and we were left to rise and fall by ourselves on the wheel of life again.
There was a new carton of banana milk in the fridge. It was bright yellow, and the only words I could read on it were BANANA—everything else was in a rounded Korean script.
Ma saw me caught off-guard by this specter’s reappearance, and she shrugged. The lady at the Korean store reminded me at the last minute. Don’t forget the milk for your husband, she said.
She didn’t need to continue. I could imagine that she was too tired to explain, and go through the awkward cycle of grief again on what was just a casual shopping trip. Maybe buying it helped her feel like Ba was waiting at home again, in the same way that Didi refused to ever take Ba’s spot on the sofa—leaving spaces for us to remember him.
No one else in the house ever drank Ba’s banana milk. When he was intermittently admitted to the hospital, more often than not it would expire, and we would have to pour it slowly down the drain, clumpy greyish-yellow sludge moving through the strainer.
I still couldn’t look at it without crying, so I gently closed the fridge door.
That night, when I was sure both Ma and Didi were asleep, I went back downstairs to glower at the contents of the fridge. I caught sight of my reflection darkly glimmering against a bottle of olives, looking more ghost than girl.
The fridge light was pale, and it seemed to wane, the longer I stared into the cavern. If Ba had seen me, he would have told me to close it! You kids only know how to waste electricity huh, money just pouring out of your backside! It was Ba’s way of speaking, but he never raised his voice. In fact, his voice never betrayed any emotion. He would have sounded the same scolding us as he would while telling us that he loved us. I pushed down the instinct to close it, and let the cool air roll languidly over my feet.
Including the banana milk in the top right corner of the fridge, it was still filled with traces of Ba.
In another month, we would have finished the jar of olives, and the chocolate. Ma had a pot of leftover pork rib soup in there, taking up most of the space for now. The salty Spanish anchovies that only Ba would eat, stuffed in the ice-cream box at the Indian corner store. Ba loved his strange flavors. Ma would often say that while she was pregnant, people would always nod understandingly at the weird mix of food in her shopping cart—but more often than not, it would be food that Ba had requested. Eh, which one of us is pregnant? She mimed the memory of a conversation between them, to heaving gasps of laughter from me and Didi. Ba would sit serenely over his latest horrific concoction of food, and tell us that we were all missing out.
Slowly, every trace of him would be taken from the fridge, and put into our bodies. I thought about Ba’s favorite foods getting cycled out, until there would be no evidence left of his existence on this earth.
As we slowly learnt how to ignore the Ba-shaped silence, Ma stopped putting food on the altar.
She was angry, I knew. Angry at Ba for being so stubborn and leaving the hospital visit until it was too late, when he knew that something was wrong. Maybe she had been praying all along to the single, elevated statue on the altar—Guan Yin’s serene porcelain face—only to be given death for her devotion. The carefully constructed pyramids of mandarins shriveled and turned black. Even Ma’s signature gula melaka huat kueh, a fluffy, soft sponge of sweetness, became nothing more than a rotting canteen for ants.
When she made porridge for dinner, Ma would push the last few pieces of suan cai, thick pickled cabbage slices onto my plate. I hid two in each cheek and one beneath my tongue, and then pretended I was bursting for the toilet when in reality, I snuck outside to the stone I now called Ba.
Ba’s real ashes were hidden behind a perfectly rectangular marble slab, one amongst a wide sea of others in the columbarium. There was enough space for two urns, so the right side was left blank, waiting for Ma to rejoin him in the future. Ba had neighbors, a sour looking lady and her placid husband to his right, with Hunan, their ancestral home, carved into the marble. Ba’s and the old couple’s plaques were the only ones on the wall so far, although there were red notes stuck to some of the other squares, indicating that this would change very soon.
On the surface of Ba’s slab, there was a black and white picture on him that had been taken years ago, before Didi and I were even born. He looked nearly unrecognizable to me now, as if he was not truly the father I had known all my life. Even this faceless stone, given life exactly the day after his funeral, had more of Ba in it than that memorial, having been planted solidly in Ba’s precious garden by his own hands.
At the funeral, Ma wouldn’t allow us to see his body turned into a column of flame. Only after the burning had been taken care of did we take turns to use a pair of chopsticks to place each chunk of his ashes into the urn where they would live. When both Ma and Didi weren’t looking, I pinched a few fragments of bone, clasping them tightly in my hand until the sweat turned it into an ashy paste. I refused to let them go, terrified that I would forget to take them out of the left pocket of my jeans, and then Ba would live forever in the washing machine. Those fragments were now buried under the stone called Ba.
In the swiftly descending dark, Ba’s stone seemed like a very small person crouching. I scrabbled in the dirt, and spat out each piece of cabbage like dropping a precious pearl into the center of an oyster. The dirt clung to my fingernails as I buried the pieces, and my restless movements disturbed the twitching sleep of earthworms.
If Ma wouldn’t make the effort to keep Ba’s spirit fed, I could at least feed him with the food taken from my own mouth. It was a joke Ba had often made with us when Didi and I were younger–he would pretend to stand over us like a mother bird and threaten to spit food in our mouths. His tone never changed, which made it difficult for us to know if he was being serious or joking, and Didi cried on more than a few occasions when the trick was brought out.
In a way it would have amused Ba hugely–a dad joke turned soundly on its head.
We should throw this out, Ma said one afternoon. She was holding the banana milk and peering at the date stamped on top. She wavered towards the dustbin, but then hesitated, looking at me. We also shouldn’t waste food… Jie, Didi, bring it to school and finish it off.
That night, I crept downstairs and stuffed the whole carton right at the back of the freezer, behind the expired tang yuan packets from three years ago and between the frozen siu mai dumplings Ma always said she was saving for a special occasion.
I’m not sure what I was saving it for, but I knew I wasn’t ready to let it go just yet.
When I got home from school the week after the banana milk had been hidden, it was to Didi in the backyard, eating mandarins and spitting their slimy pips into the fast-overgrowing garden. Juice dripped everywhere, from his fingers into the soil.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.
“Planting mandarins,” he replied implacably, spitting out one last pip before turning to face me. “What the hell are you doing?” he repeated back at me.
I didn’t know where to start with that. This humid tropical country wasn’t the right climate for mandarins, and besides, the garden was in a pretty bad state. Nothing would grow now except weeds, their insidious roots choking the life out of anything good. If Ba was still around, it would have remained well-loved–but any hope of that had long disappeared when he had been hospitalized.
Only a lopsided circle around Ba’s stone was left bare, since I was constantly burying things around it. From a distance, it looked like a group of drunken fairies had been making their fairy rings, and I plucked up any weeds that dared to rear their heads.
After dinner that night, I improved upon Didi’s idea, like all older siblings do when they think they know best. I slit a passion fruit in half and watched the slimy seeds pour out into the hollowed dirt. Passion fruit plants were climbers, so the wall behind Ba’s stone would be the perfect place for them to flourish, if they took root.
As I dug around in the earth, I saw a single, bone-white mandarin seed lying next to my sandal. It was surprising that Didi had managed to spit it this far. Impulsively, I nudged it into the center of my pile of watery passion fruit seeds, then left them to grow by moonlight.
Something in the earth took, because within a week, sproutlings appeared from the ground like a wreath around Ba’s stone. It was probably due to the mulch I had turned the soil into, with all my errant food offerings. Life would have sprung up eventually, and I was glad it was a plant and not an ant-hill.
My offerings began to lean more towards water and fertilizer, instead of actual food. My reasoning was that the gift of life seemed much better than rotting food. However, it was Didi who spotted their strange nature first.
The fresh, young vines seemed to be hardening to wood as they crept up the wall, and were thickening–at least more than I imagined a vine would. Didi broke off a small part of the dangling vine to show me that it was indeed mostly wood. We wondered what kind of fruit it would produce. Consulting the internet revealed very little–it was clear that this was something that could never happen in nature.
I knew that it must be Ba’s spirit, somehow. It seemed exactly like the kind of trick he would play on his children, although I didn’t reveal the secret of Ba’s stone to Didi.
We were busy Googling how to make up scientific names for our new plant that night, and couldn’t agree on how Ba’s name (for it certainly would be his) should fit into the general nomenclature. Didi had the wild idea that we could train the vines to grow in the shape of Ba’s face, which I thought was impossible.
“Jie, Didi,” Ma called to us. “Come downstairs.”
Neither of us heard Ma at first, until she called both of us again, this time more loudly. “Jie, Didi, come downstairs now! Are your ears stuffed with wax?” Her strict tone made us bolt downstairs two steps at a time. I nearly missed a step when I saw she was sitting at the table with a steaming plate of siu mai dumplings, and the carton of banana milk dripping condensation all over our wooden table.
“I—” I began, but stopped abruptly, not really knowing what to say. Was this the precursor to a scolding?
“Oh damn,” Didi said, clearly oblivious to what I had done. “This milk expired like, a month ago, should we really drink it?”
“It’s frozen,” Ma said. “And expiry dates are mostly a lie.”
She instructed us to slice open the carton, cutting cardboard from the contents. The milk slid out in a solid chunk, and thankfully, didn’t smell sour.
As we stood around the kitchen eating siu mai dumplings, Ma put the banana milk in a pot on the stove. I slowly stirred it back into liquid, the thick scent of banana essence hitting me smack in my face. It dissolved into my eyes, and set my tear ducts loose.
Soon I had cried so hard that I think there was at least a third more milk than there had been previously, frothed into foamy submission. Didi ladled it into four bowls, putting one on the altar for Ba. We stood around his picture, and I made a mental note to save some to pour on our little plants outside later.
Didi sputtered first, and Ma scolded him for drinking too quickly before taking a sip of hers. She choked too, like a mirror image. I tasted it–the milk was salty because I had been crying so hard and maybe I had ruined everything again.
We looked at each other, then laughed as if it was the funniest thing we had ever done, milk spilling over the brim of our cups and splattering the floor in front of the altar.
Kwan Ann Tan is a writer from Malaysia and a graduate student studying medieval literature at the University of Oxford. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Joyland Magazine, The Mays Anthology, and Sine Theta Magazine, amongst others. You can find her at kwananntan.carrd.co or on Twitter: @KwanAnnTan