Hidden In the Leaves

Jamie tombstoneYesterday was the six-year anniversary of the Virgina Tech shooting and the day that Jamie Bishop was killed. I was mostly occupied with breaking news about the bombing in Boston, and making sure that my family and friends who live in the area were okay. Today, after some slight temporal distance, I’m saddened even further that the 16th of April will now be remembered for two separate tragedies.

Stephanie Bishop Loftin, Jamie’s sister, posted the photo at right (taken by Janet Frick) on Facebook sometime yesterday, and it hit me with all the severity of a punch to the chest. Up to now, I hadn’t seen Jamie’s tombstone*, and it staggered me to realize that the sight of it could still affect me so much emotionally. There have been times over the past six years when I thought I might have finally come to terms with his untimely death, but it’s clear to me that it’s not something I’ll soon get over.

And so, apropos of this day, I’ve decided to post here a short-short story that was published in The Ayam Curtain, included in my ebook collection The Alchemy of Happiness, and found as a postscript to my print chapbook Embracing the Strange that will be released next month. It’s one of my more autobiographical pieces, but I hope that doesn’t distract from any enjoyment to be gotten. Cheers.

* After posting this entry, Stephanie informed me that the image is not of Jamie’s tombstone, but of one of the many memorial stones erected to honor the 32 victims of the 2007 campus shooting. You can see an image of the entire memorial site here at NPR.


“Hidden In the Leaves”

The day before Chinese New Year break, Sophia walked home alone from school with heavy steps. All of her primary school friends were full of excitement for the holidays, for the reunion dinners, for the many ang pow they expected to receive. There was no more Chinese an event in Singapore all year long, but Sophia always felt left out of the festivities. Her father was American, and her mother didn’t get along with her extended family, so Tara never got to see her cousins, or learn Teochew, or eat the Peranakan dishes that her great aunt was famed for cooking. She might receive a red packet from her grandparents, but that was about it. Sometimes, she felt as if she was the only one among her classmates who didn’t get to do all of the fun cultural things surrounding the celebration.

These troubled lonely thoughts took her away from her shuffling steps and the sweltering afternoon heat, and it wasn’t until her shoes scraped red clay tile rather than rough concrete sidewalk that she stopped, looked up, and realized she was standing in front of the haunted tree.

The ancient banyan occupied the dark center of the small park adjacent to her housing block, and the area around the tree always felt occluded and gloomy. She had previously obeyed the warnings of her friends at school not to stare at the tree, for (according to them) it was the home of malevolent spirits; but in a fit of pique at the jealous thought of them having such happy times with their families for CNY, she ignored the superstition and peered into the banyan’s depths, eager to prove them wrong. Just a tree, she thought, nothing wicked whatsoever.

The darkness where all the branches sprouted outward from the trunk wavered a bit, and then, to Sophia’s surprise, a patch of shadow shifted position, detached itself like an intelligent oil slick, flowed down the aerial prop roots surrounding the trunk, slithered toward her on the clay tiles, stopped several feet away, bubbled upward, and then settled itself into the featureless form of a tall thin person, its edges hazy. The sounds of nearby traffic and birdsong receded into silence, and Sophia’s fingertips tingled. She held her breath.

“Hello, Sophia.” Its soft male voice came from a vague area in the middle of its chest, its accent surprisingly similar to her father’s. Though the spirit knew her by name, she sensed no negativity or ill intent.

“Hullo,” she said.

“I have been watching over you for some time.”

“Who are you?”

“In life, I was a good friend of your father’s. My name was Christopher.”

“You knew my daddy?”

“Yes, dear. Many years ago.”

“Would you like to see him now?” she asked. “He’s home sick today with a sour tummy. Too many pineapple tarts. And I can make you some elderberry juice. I know how, you know.”

“I am sure you do.”

And so the spirit of her father’s friend followed her the rest of the way home. Sophia looked over her shoulder several times, and though the spirit was more translucent in the harsh sunlight, his form remained. No one else around her, apparently, could see him.

Just before they reached her housing block, Sophia stopped and turned. “You’ve been in the tree a long time?” she asked.

“Yes. Almost ten years.”

“Why?”

“Your father is still upset over my sudden death. He hasn’t yet let go.”

“So why did you come down today?”

“Because you summoned me,” he said.

Satisfied with the simple explanation, Sophia led him through the block’s empty void deck, past the mama shop’s displays of convenience store junk food, and over to the lift lobby. A swift silent ride up the lift, and then the doors opened onto the eighth storey. Down the corridor to her flat, the painted metal gate unlocked, the front door wide open. After Sophia entered and then closed the gate behind the spirit, a voice from the third bedroom called: “Soph, is that you?”

“Hi, Daddy!”

“Be right out, sweetie. I just need to finish marking this test.”

Sophia dropped her book bag to the smooth white tiled floor, pulled off her shoes with two loud scritches of velcro, then headed into the kitchen with the spirit following behind. She extracted the pitcher of elderberry juice from the refrigerator and poured it into two glasses, which she then placed on the wooden kitchen table. She sat down in one of the chairs; Christopher’s spirit occupied the other, the opacity of his form pulsing, as though he were breathing hard.

Her father stepped out of his home office and into the kitchen, unshaven, hair mussed, still wearing the clothes he’d slept in the night before. He picked up Christopher’s glass and said, “Hey, thanks for pouring juice for me, sweetie.”

“It’s not for you,” Sophia said, then reached up, gently took the glass from her father, and placed it back on the tabletop in front of the pulsating spirit. “It’s for Christopher.”

A strange look came to her father’s face then, as if he had just eaten something particularly sour. “I’m sorry, honey, could you repeat that?”

“It’s Christopher’s juice,” she said, motioning to the chair in which the spirit patiently sat. “He’s visiting.”

And before her father could say another word, the surface of the spirit’s form rippled in polychromatic waves along its surface, faster and faster until the darkness and shadow faded and lightened and the form he had taken in life—a kindly Caucasian with shoulder-length brown hair, circular spectacles, prominent nose, spindly frame—resolved into clarity.

Sophia’s father gasped.

Sophia rose from her chair, maneuvered her father on wobbly legs into it, poured another glass of elderberry juice for herself, then slipped into the living room and turned on Animal Planet at low volume. Her father and his good friend had a lot to discuss, and she wanted to make sure not to disturb them.

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