Little Star : Winning short story by Carol Pang

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Little Star : Winning short story by Carol Pang

Winner at the Short Story Contest organised by Bengaluru Review.

Yuan Ru paused to catch her breath after walking up the steep incline, stopping approximately ten steps from the entrance to the Permai Ria flats in Cheras. She set down her schoolbag and peered through the gap in between Blocks C and D. From this vantage point, if she squinted, she could crop out the flats in the foreground and see the Petronas twin towers, hazy grey from this distance, as part of a watercolour painting with the purplish-pink sunset skies forming a dreamy background. Like a compass needle that points north, Yuan Ru’s gaze was drawn to the towers that lay only ten kilometres to the north of Permai Ria but might as well be another world. After a few moments, Yuan Ru reluctantly zoomed out to the unvarnished reality of her surroundings. She picked up her schoolbag and trudged through the entrance of the Permai Ria flats. At that time of the evening, just before dinner, there were a few children playing in the playground inside the compound. Two boys were swinging on the monkey bars, taking care to avoid the rusty patches on the metal bars. Yuan Ru recognised the girl playing with a skipping rope – Auntie Mei’s bossy eight-year-old. The girl was directing two of her friends on how to swing the rope, gesturing for them to step away from the line of broken paving stones.

“Yuan Ru! How was school, girl?” Pak Musa called out from the side of the playground. He was sweeping up the fallen leaves from the mango trees that he had planted in the compound.

“Fine, Pak Musa,” Yuan Ru mumbled.

“Monsoon is coming soon. You can tell from the wind. Earlier than usual but that’s been the case the last few years. Here, take this, it’s Sing Sing’s favourite,” Pak Musa handed Yuan Ru a mango. “It’s a bit bruised because it’s just dropped off the tree, but it’s good. Can eat in a day or two.”

“Thank you, Pak Musa,” Yuan Ru said. “Sing Sing will love it, I’m sure.”

Clutching the mango, Yuan Ru picked her way up the stairs. The stairwell was unlit because the light tubes had died out ages ago and had not been replaced. However, there was still enough natural light for her to make her way. She started when she heard the scurrying of rat’s feet, but she steadfastly refused to look down. She sprinted up the steps and was out of breath by the time she reached the third floor. She turned right into the corridor and opened the door to their flat.

“Jie-jie!” A squeal of delight greeted Yuan Ru. It was her little brother. Everyone called him Sing Sing, Little Star, because his name was Yuan Sing and because he was a cheerful kid. Yuan Ru didn’t know what he had to be so cheerful about, wearing second-hand clothes that were almost never the right size for him and playing with hand-me-down toys as he did. Yuan Ru used to think that their stay at Permai Ria would be short. That was what Mummy said. That it was temporary. Until Baba came back with money he would have made from working abroad. Yuan Ru knew Baba has been gone six years because that was how old Sing Sing was now. He was growing up and he needed more things – food, clothes, books – and more money from Mummy. Which meant less for everyone else, less for her. Less chances of them leaving Permai Ria.

“Jie-jie, Uncle Lee’s grandson is visiting. I’m going to play with him. Mummy says I can bring my book,” Sing Sing announced excitedly to Yuan Ru. “I’m going to go and get my book.” He hurried into the bedroom he shared with Mummy.

“Mummy, mango from Pak Musa,” Yuan Ru went into the kitchenette – a cramped space that held a two-ring stove, a couple of wooden shelves, a small table and a small fridge – and looked for a space to put the mango. In the end, she settled for balancing it on top of the rice cooker. “For Sing Sing.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of him. I must thank him later,” Mummy said, wiping her hands on her worn jeans shorts. “Girl, can you take Sing Sing down to Uncle Lee? And look after Sing Sing and Uncle Lee’s grandson for a while? Uncle Lee needs to go open his bak kut teh stall at the market.”

Yuan Ru groaned. “Why me? I have homework.”

“Aunty Mei from the laksa stall needs a helper tonight, and I told her I can help,” Mummy pointed at a dish of fried noodles on the table. “I’ve made dinner for the three of you.”

“Fine, whatever,” Yuan Ru mumbled and rustled around in her schoolbag. She handed a form to Mummy. “Nah.”

“What’s this?”

“Puan Mary says Hua Chong Secondary School is recruiting students for next year. She thinks I should apply. Many of their students go to college, even university. If the students do well, they might even get scholarships from universities in Taiwan, or China.”

“But you’ve already missed one year of Chinese school.”

“Puan Mary has spoken to the Hua Chong Chinese teacher, and she thinks I can catch up, if I study hard.”

“Hua Chong is, well, it’s an independent school. It costs more than the national school. That was-was why we couldn’t, why you couldn’t go there after Standard Six.”

“But I miss my friends. Everyone at my school hates me. They think I’m too … whatever, that I’m not like them.”

“That’s because they don’t know you yet.”

“It’s been a year! No one speaks to me.”

“Oh, girl. We just don’t have the mo –”

“Money, I know. We never have any mo-ney,” Yuan Ru spat out each syllable of the last word. “Especially not now, not with everything your precious Sing Sing needs.” Yuan Ru felt her cheeks burn because she knew she had said something appalling.

Mummy raised her hand as if to slap Yuan Ru but lowered it and walked out of the flat without looking at her.

***

After Mummy left the flat, Sing Sing came out of the bedroom holding a dog-eared children’s book and a pair of socks.

“Jie-jie, do you think Uncle Lee’s grandson likes to read? We can read my book together. Or we can feed Uncle Lee’s tortoise. It likes to eat ve-gey-tables.” Sing Sing has been struggling with his socks while he was chattering away. He finally asked, “Jie-jie, can you put on my sock for me?”

Yuan Ru was still feeling aggrieved from her argument with Mummy. The comical sight of Sing Sing – he was sitting on the floor with one leg lifted up and two hands stretching open a white sock – did nothing to lessen her resentment, a feeling that ballooned in her stomach until she felt the only way to release it was to scare Sing Sing with one of her stories.

Yuan Ru used to tell Sing Sing stories to stop him from annoying her. It was easy enough. He was a full seven years younger than her. He was skinny and shorter than average for his age, which meant he was approximately as tall and slightly wider than one of her legs. Yuan Ru knew this because occasionally, when she was bored, she would let him stand on her foot and she would walk around the flat with him clinging on to her leg and giggling in delight.

Yuan Ru knelt down next to Sing Sing and helped him with his left sock.

“Well, Sing Sing, you’re going to be seven soon, right?” Yuan Ru asked.

“Yes, I am six and a half.”

“Do you know what happens when you can’t put on your own socks when you turn seven?”

“No.”

“Well, when you turn seven, it means that you are big enough for Crocodile Yeh-Yeh to see you. Have you heard of Crocodile Yeh-Yeh?”

“No.” Sing Sing sounded worried.

“Well, Crocodile Yeh-Yeh has the head and long jaws of a crocodile and the body of an old man, a grandfather. That is why people call him Crocodile Yeh-Yeh, Grandpa Crocodile. Legend has it that he was once fully human, a very greedy human. He was turned into a half-crocodile, half-human creature by the goddess Ai-Zha because of his greed. The goddess Ai-Zha was famous for her green fingers.” Yuan Ru wiggled her fingers at Sing Sing as she got into the telling of the story. “With a snap of her fingers, fruit trees would grow and flourish, and you could find the most delicious fruits in her garden. One day, the still-human Crocodile Yeh-Yeh wandered into the goddess Ai-Zha’s garden. He saw the roundest, sweetest-smelling, ripest peaches he had ever seen in his life. Guess what he did?”

“He plucked the peaches and ate them.”

“That’s right. Do you think he stopped eating them even when he was full?”

“No, I bet he ate and ate and ate, until all the peaches were gone.”

“Yup. What he didn’t know was that the goddess Ai-Zha was planning to serve the peaches at a banquet for all the other gods that evening. What do you think happened when the goddess Ai-Zha saw that there wasn’t a single peach left on the trees?”

“I know, I know! She got angry with the greedy man, and turned him into Crocodile Yeh-Yeh.”

“Right again. So now, Crocodile Yeh-Yeh wants to turn back into a human man, and he can only do so by – jeng, jeng, jeng … finding and eating little boys.”

Sing Sing gasped in fear.

“Do you want to know how you can stop Crocodile Yeh-Yeh from finding you?”

“Yes, Jie-jie, tell me, please!”

“Well, you need to make sure you can wear your own socks, by yourself, so that you can cover up your feet when you go out. Crocodile Yeh-Yeh can’t really see properly, but the one thing that he can see, even from far away, are the bare feet of seven-year-old boys.”

Yuan Ru grabbed Sing Sing’s bare right foot and caused Sing Sing to squeal in mock horror.

When they stopped to catch their breath, Yuan Ru asked, “So, Sing Sing, do you think Crocodile Yeh-Yeh is like a normal, nice grandfather? Or, do you think you should avoid him because he’s mean to little children?”

“I don’t know. Is our Yeh-Yeh normal? He’s not nice, not to you.”

Yuan Ru, stunned into silence, couldn’t think of what to say.

Mummy used to take Yuan Ru and Sing Sing to visit their Yeh-Yeh, Baba’s father, in Seremban, once a month. Those visits had become less frequent in the last six months or so, Yuan Ru had noticed. She didn’t ask Mummy about it because although she always enjoyed the lunch that Yi-Po – Yeh-Yeh’s second wife and Baba’s stepmother – prepared for them, she never had much to say to Yeh-Yeh or Yi-Po. On their last visit, after lunch, Mummy told the children to play outside. Yuan Ru sat in the cool, shaded backyard and watched Sing Sing play with some stones and leaves.

“Well, she’s not a boy, is she?” Yeh-Yeh’s voice, raised from its usual low rumble, carried out from the living room.

Mummy’s reply was muffled.

Sing Sing looked at Yuan Ru for a moment and then continued with his game.

“At least, if she was a boy,” Yeh-Yeh said, “it would make up for the-the shameful fact that she was born out of wedlock. Shameful! And a girl at that!”

After a moment, Mummy came out of the house and asked the children to say goodbye to Yeh-Yeh and Yi-Po. Mummy held them each by the hand as they walked to the bus stop. Yuan Ru did not protest even though she wanted to say she was too old to be led by the hand. She curled her fingers tighter around Mummy’s hand then.

Back in their flat, after hearing Sing Sing declare that their Yeh-Yeh was not nice to her, Yuan Ru gazed at Sing Sing, who looked back at her solemnly. She felt as if she was seeing Sing Sing for the first time, or rather, the boy that Sing Sing could grow up to be. Her brother, her ally, her friend, even. The tight, full feeling of resentment in her stomach began to deflate. Yuan Ru tickled Sing Sing’s foot, and helped him put on his remaining sock while he tried to squirm away.

***

In the following weeks, monsoon rains started to pour down in earnest. Yuan Ru frequently walked home from school in the rain. Mummy had said she could take the bus if the rain was particularly heavy, but Yuan Ru knew the bus fare was another expense they could not really afford. The flash floods that plagued the city during the monsoon period meant that Yuan Ru almost always came home drenched, with her feet squelching in waterlogged shoes, even though her teacher Puan Mary had lent her an umbrella.

One day after school, Yuan Ru arrived back at Permai Ria just as the rain was letting up. Aunty Mei’s daughter was running around the compound, yelling at her friends to come out and play.

“Yuan Ru,” Pak Musa emerged from his flat carrying his ubiquitous broom. “It’s nice and cool after the rain, isn’t it, girl?”

“Yeah, it’s nice the rain has stopped,” Yuan Ru favoured Pak Musa with a small smile.

Yuan Ru walked upstairs to their flat, thinking that she could take Sing Sing to the playground and play with him before dinner. They have been cooped up indoors for days due to the rain.

“I’m home,” Yuan Ru called out as she entered their flat.

“Girl, here,” Mummy came out from the bedroom and gave Yuan Ru a towel.

“Where’s Sing Sing?” Yuan Ru asked.

“Oh, he’s with Aunty Mei at the moment.”

“Why?” Yuan Ru asked as she dried her face with the towel. She looked up in surprise at Mummy’s silence.

“Girl, sit down,” Mummy gestured at the sofa in the living room. “We need to talk.”

“Okay, what’s up?”

“So, I took the bus to Seremban this morning. I went to see your Yeh-Yeh.”

“Why?” Yuan Ru’s stomach started to clench from an unidentifiable feeling.

“Ah, we need, I mean, you-I asked if he could lend us some money. For your education.”

“For my education. You mean, to go to Hua Chong?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Mummy!” Yuan Ru felt a stirring of hope. “What did he say? Is it enough? Can I go to Hua Chong?”

“He-ah-he said he couldn’t give you the money.”

“Because I’m a girl,” Yuan Ru said bitterly.

“He couldn’t give you the money, not directly, he said.”

“What does that mean?”

“He offered to take in Sing Sing, to raise him, to pay for his education, to buy him the things he needs. So then, I can manage to pay for you, to go to Hua Chong, to live in a better place.” The words came out of Mummy in a rush.

“What?”

“Sing Sing, he’ll take on the family name. So, your Yeh-Yeh will pay for him. That’s what he said.”

“And, what did you say?”

“I-I … ”

As Yuan Ru watched Mummy struggle with her dilemma, their impossible dilemma, Yuan Ru wondered, Who’s the real Crocodile Yeh-Yeh? Is it Baba’s father? Or could the Crocodile Yeh-Yeh, actually, be me? Could I let Sing Sing be swallowed up, could I give up being a Jie-jie, for a chance at my sweet shiny peachy dreams?

***

Carol Pang holds a MA in English Literature from Uppsala University, Sweden. She also holds a BA in English Literature (first-class hons) from The Open University, United Kingdom. She won third prize in the 2019 short story contest by Ergo, the Uppsala Student Union newspaper and second prize in the 2016 New Asian Writing Short Story competition. She was also awarded the competitive editorial mentorship by online literary journal “Gordon Square Review”. She has worked for 12 years in the corporate and financial sectors and she has 3 years of teaching experience. She can be found online here .

***

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