Batu 17

It is in the way she speaks— in a dialect so thick that I have to struggle to understand her. She calls for me— her voice like splinters and shattered glass. I run downstairs— my footsteps, echoing loudly on the old wooden floor boards. I find my grandmother, sitting outside in the blazing sun on an old, rickety plank jetty.

My grandmother lives in a provincial part of town called Batu 17, Guar Chempedak in Yan district, along the northern coast of the Malacca Strait. A small stream runs by the house. Across it is a vast expanse of paddy field, which paints a glistening jewel green against the pale sky, heavy with monsoon clouds. There is a dilapidated building at the top end of the stream, where the neighbourhood kids gather to play football in the cool evenings. This is the place where I’d spend most of my school holidays growing up— part of my parents’ many failed attempts at reconciling their children with their culture of origin.

Tucked under my grandmother’s arm is a small cage. I lean over to get a closer look and scream when I discover a pair of red eyes staring back at me. It is a rat— grey and rotund, with a short, curly tail. My grandmother has spent the whole month of December trying to catch the ever-elusive vermin. She asks me to help tie a rope to the cage. Her worsening hand tremors make tasks related to fine motor skills difficult. I tie the other end of the rope on a rotten wooden post.

She lowers the cage carefully into the water. The rat squeals indignantly and thrashes around in the cage, before suddenly going quiet. My grandmother’s grin reaches from ear to ear. I do not share her enthusiasm, still I obliged her requests. My satisfied grandmother shuffles back to the house, accompanied by her bamboo cane. I leave too, but not without one last look over my shoulder at the still water below.

That night, as I deliver folded laundry to my grandmother’s bedroom, she remarks on the silence, from under her mosquito net. Our usual nights would be punctuated by the scratching sound of rat paws above our heads, as it scurries around on the zinc roof.

Yes it’s quiet, I tell her. Almost too quiet.

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