I realise now, looking back, just how unusual it had been for my family to have entrusted three children with the overnight watch of a corpse.
It was the third night of the wake, held on the open-air void deck beneath the Jurong housing block where Ah Gong had lived and where Ah Ma would continue to live by herself. Six round tables, each covered with a white plastic sheet and accompanied by flimsy red chairs, were arranged around the slabs of bleached concrete that supported fifteen more storeys of concrete above us. During the day people who had known our grandfather sat at these tables to play mahjong and eat shelled peanuts. Off to the side was a rectangular table with gas burners on it. Every evening a catering man simmered vats of soup and curry on them.
At the opposite end of the void deck stood a white tent that housed Ah Gong’s shiny wooden coffin. In front of it was a portrait, tinted reddish like many colour photos of that time, from when he’d been young and skinny. People went into this tent to stare and gasp and weep and nod and declare how peaceful Ah Gong looked. These visiting people bored us children, always saying they knew us when we were this small, and we had to be good to our Ah Ma now that our Ah Gong was gone. To escape this we spent much of the daytime upstairs sleeping, and so we didn’t get over our jet lag.
Things were different at night, however. The deserted, fluorescently lit void deck became electric with menacing possibility. The two previous nights we’d performed this vigil with our parents, but we had proven ourselves trustworthy and they didn’t find the job quite as glamorous as we did, so now it was just us—stalwart defenders of order and tranquility, aged ten, nine, and six.
Being the eldest, I was technically the boss, but my sister was a militaristic, commanding child, which made me mostly a figurehead. This was in the days before she fully accepted a female identity, when she wore her hair short and insisted on being called Jo. Little Roland was our lackey: at that age he was still loyal, stupid, and affectionate, more of a cute durian-headed pet or work beast to us than an actual person.
To pass the time we made up games and feasted on the endless supply of snacks. One was called Taste Your Testbuds. It had originally been called Test Your Tastebuds but Roland had said it wrong once and the name stuck. You closed your eyes and someone fed you a fruit Mento and you had to say what colour it was. We stopped playing when our tongues stung from the acid and we got too good, even Roland guessing correctly more than half the time.
In our next game the goal was to get a ball of rolled-up Ferrero Rocher foil into an overturned cup in the fewest hits possible. It was aptly named Golf. As clubs we used the bendy straws from boxes of Vitasoy and Yeo’s Lemon Barley Drink. I went first, and at each hole my score was considered par against which my siblings’ points were calculated. On the scoresheet we all sported the surname Woods. The courses became more and more inventive as the night went on. In one we went into the stairwell and chipped the ball down two flights of stairs; in another we teed off from the top of Ah Gong’s coffin.
This game kept us entertained well past three o’clock. We’d been told that one of the adults would be down around six.
Our father was Ah Gong’s firstborn, so the funeral’s logistical burdens fell to him, and he and my mother had quickly overcome their jet lag from sheer exhaustion. This was the first time we got some inkling of what had made him and my mother leave Singapore. It wasn’t the search for economic opportunity, as with previous generations. Like many in the modern wave, they’d both had stable corporate jobs when they moved five years before. They threw their careers away to live in the wastelands of Canada, where my father was unemployed for a whole year. A reckless thing to do at the best of times but unspeakably irresponsible when you had young mouths to feed. At least, that is what our grandfather thought. To my father, the austerity was worth it in return for emancipation from rigid Singapore society, and it was clear, watching him organise Ah Gong’s funeral, that he never possessed the filial piety demanded of a Straits Chinese son.
We’d left the very night we learned of Ah Gong’s stroke, and had arrived in time to see him alive but unconscious in the hospital. Our uncle hadn’t been so fortunate. He had also left Singapore as soon as he could. At that time he was working in Japan and had only been able to take off work a day after the stroke. Ah Gong had died in the hospital unattended, while our parents were fetching him from the airport. My father’s aunts, whose proper names to us were Big Gu Por, 2 Gu Por, and 3 Gu Por, were convinced that the hospital had unplugged Ah Gong while our parents were away.
Even if that were true, so what? was my father’s defence. He would have been a vegetable the rest of his life. Anyone should be glad to die in such a merciful way. In the Gu Pors’ eyes this was an unforgivable thing to express. The Gu Pors terrified us—with their fierce scowls and incisive cackles, they were like three malevolent witches, always appearing together, conducting loud séances in unintelligible Hokkien, and ratting us out to our parents and grandparents. They were eternally judgemental of the generation below them, and their proclamations were treated as gospel by all the extended family except our father. Because we so feared the Gu Pors we always saw him in a heroic light for standing up to them, but with age we came to realise that many of the skirmishes were a result of unbridled insolence on his part. One episode was because he’d omitted the Gu Pors’ names from the newspaper obituary; another had been triggered by his saying he hoped all three of them died together in a freak accident, because he couldn’t afford to keep flying home for funerals.
As far as we knew he didn’t cry over Ah Gong’s death, but our mother certainly did. She’d lived with my father’s family in the months around when I was born, while she and my father saved up for their own place, and she told us how great a man Ah Gong had been. Ah Gong had grown up poor, and had had terrible luck in business, so he worked in his last years as a taxi driver. He got up at five every morning and never left for work before boiling eggs and making kaya toast for everyone, setting each individual place at the table and covering it all with a plastic dome to keep the flies at bay. It was the little things, my mother said, that were most telling of a man’s character.
Was this all it took to be considered a great man: providing for one’s relatives, adhering to a routine? More or less, according to the ancient creed that governed our family. I suppose that Ah Gong was at least noble in the sense of an inert gas: predictable, steadfast, incorruptible. In a colonial twist, these Confucian traits were seen as symptoms of Ah Gong’s unwavering duty to God—the Christian one, that is. A friend had converted him as a young man, and he gradually converted his siblings and cousins. Even his mother, who for many years had held firm against Christianisation, pledged herself to Jesus on her deathbed. So in the Gu Pors eyes, Ah Gong had saved our whole clan from hellfire, and this fact made it all the more outrageous that his own son, my father, had lost touch with God, married a heathen, and was now making a fiasco of his father’s memorial ceremonies.
I can only imagine the Gu Pors’ reaction if they knew that we unwashed children were the sole protectors of their baby brother’s dead body that night. By four o’clock a strong breeze had picked up, which made our foil ball zip around uncontrollably. We’d grown tired of Golf anyway and decided to take our job as guards more seriously. Roland and I filled our pockets with snacks and dragged chairs into Ah Gong’s tent to get out of the wind. Jocelyn went into the shrubbery by a nearby playground and returned with small fallen tree branches.
“Why do we need sticks?” asked Roland.
“To protect Ah Gong,” I said.
“Dunno, animals. Stray cats.”
Jocelyn stood at the opening of the tent and kept watch. “Cats eat people, you know,” she said matter-of-factly. “They’re too small to attack us alive but they wait for us to die so they can eat our eyeballs. Can you imagine that, Rolo? A cat munching Ah Gong’s eyeballs.”
Roland was getting spooked. Another favourite game of Jocelyn’s and mine was making Roland cry. We had well-defined roles: I was bigger so if it became necessary I dealt physical punishment; meanwhile Jocelyn was something of a verbal enforcer, an expert at emotional manipulation. If we made him cry in the next hour and then spent the hour after that cheering him up, that would keep all of us entertained until six o’clock.
“And you know why they have the wake for five whole days?” continued my sister. “It’s to make sure Ah Gong doesn’t get buried alive.” Her eyes widened with manic vigour to emphasise this point to Roland. “So we might need the sticks for that also. If Ah Gong wakes up, Rolo, you run upstairs to get Mummy and Daddy. Me and Oliver will keep him in his box.”
Roland nodded. Then he asked, “Can I see Ah Gong again?” and stood on his chair. We slid the panel to peer though the glass at our grandfather’s face. He’d died overweight, but he didn’t look so fat in death. He wasn’t skinny like in the portrait at his feet, but he had lost some pudge nonetheless.
“His eyeballs haven’t been ripped out,” said Jocelyn and walked back to her post.
Roland and I sat back down. “I’m scared,” he said.
“Scared of what?” I snapped.
“Ah Gong waking up.”
“If Ah Gong wakes up it’s a good thing. It means he’s alive.”
“You shouldn’t be scared of Ah Gong waking up,” said Jocelyn. “You should be scared of animals coming to eat Ah Gong. Or hungry ghosts.”
“Ghosts? I don’t want to hear about ghosts!” Roland covered his ears.
“No, we have to be ready,” she said. “Mummy says there are ghosts everywhere in Singapore.”
Unlike my father, my mother was raised under the deeply superstitious Singaporean brand of Buddhism. She never so much as cut across a lawn in Singapore without muttering apology to any ghost she might have trampled. At night, she said, ghosts were more daring, and you were liable to see or hear them anywhere, not just on unpaved territory. When we asked her if she’d personally seen any, she said no, but that was only because she was a Tiger. Ghosts were afraid of Tigers but the rest of us had to be vigilant. She also believed in reincarnation and other mystical things, so any unnatural goings-on could be messages from our dead ancestors.
A flash of light illuminated the void deck, followed by a deafening peal of thunder. Roland jerked upright and clutched his stick until his knuckles turned white. He clambered onto his chair to make sure the thunder hadn’t woken Ah Gong, then walked over to join Jocelyn at the entrance of the tent and scan the surroundings. It began to rain.
For Roland’s benefit Jocelyn recited a lecture she’d gotten from our mother: “If you hear a noise behind you at night, don’t just turn your head. They want to trick you, eat your third eye.” She placed her index finger on the centre of his forehead and he crossed his eyes to look up at it. “But they can’t do it if you turn your whole body around. Your shoulders are like your headlamps. It scares them away. Understand?”
He swallowed and nodded.
Satisfied, she turned back to look outside the tent and gave a shriek, startling both me and my brother. Roland yelled and swivelled his head around wildly, and I jumped to my feet.
“You okay? What is it?” I asked.
“Sorry, sorry,” said Jocelyn. “It was just a rat.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved. “Still, if he comes into the tent, we have to get him.”
We paced around, newly aware of the fragility of our grandfather’s safety. The rain was coming down loud outside.
A moth flapped into the tent and circled a few times around the lightbulb. It was the biggest moth I’d ever seen, light reddish-grey with black splotches on its wings. We stared at it, mesmerised. It spiralled downwards and landed on the corner of the coffin.
Roland leapt into action. He bashed his stick against the coffin with fervid brutality, missing the moth several times before finally landing a hit. The moth fell to the ground writhing and my brother struck it until it was still. We squatted around the mangled corpse of the moth. What an obese moth.
“Wait, Jo, what if—” I said.
She’d had the same idea. “What if this was Ah Gong reincarnated?” she said.
“What’s that mean?” asked Roland.
“Reincarnation is when you die and in your next life you become an animal.”
Roland was horrified. He started to wail.
“Ah Gong came to visit us and you killed him, Rolo, how can you be so bad!” said Jocelyn.
“I didn’t mean to! I didn’t know!” Roland dropped his stick and looked at us for some kind of forgiveness. He sobbed, tears and snot running down his face.
We let Roland cry for a while then felt bad. A part of me really did believe that Ah Gong could come back as a moth. I sat and pondered the violent misunderstanding that had occurred. My sister went into consolation mode. She hugged Roland tight and shushed him over and over and said it was okay.
“Ah Gong is a Christian,” I said. “He doesn’t believe in reincarnation, so maybe the moth wasn’t him.”
Once my brother calmed down we surveyed the damage to the coffin. There were gashes in the wood where he had hit it. We would think of some excuse later. We decided that whether or not it was Ah Gong incarnate, the moth deserved a funeral.
Jocelyn wanted it to be a Viking funeral. She cut a corner off a plastic tablecloth, placed it over our Golf scoresheet, and folded them together into a paper boat that was waterproof on one side. We secured loose ends with some tape we found, then tore strips of newspaper and stuffed them into the boat. Still breathing erratically Roland picked up the moth and placed it on the pile and for extra fuel we broke some woodchips off the murder weapon, stacked even more ruffled paper on top of the moth, and added some Mentos wrappers to boot.
We grabbed a lighter from beside the gas burners and walked out towards the open gutter that ran along the side of the housing block. We draped plastic sheeting over the boat to keep it dry. The gutter was a foot wide and about eighteen inches deep. A decent river had formed at the bottom. Big monsoon rain poured down and we were getting soaked. No doubt we’d get a scolding later.
I set the boat down beside the gutter. Roland diligently held the plastic sheet over her hands while Jocelyn clicked the lighter a few times. Nothing happened.
“You have to hold that switch down while you squeeze the trigger,” I said.
“Okay, I got it,” she said. “I figured it out.” A little flame emerged from the end of the barrel. She pressed it into the tangle of paper and the flame growled into life, hissing whenever it met a raindrop on the boat’s hull. She and I lowered it into the gutter, where miraculously it stayed upright. The mass of glowing orange floated down the stream of rainwater.
The three of us stood silent. I don’t know what my siblings thought of but I thought of Ah Gong. With juvenile agnosticism I imagined him up there with Jesus or in that formless limbo between incarnations. I wondered if he could see us from wherever he was. We’d left Singapore so early in life that I never really got to know him. In my memory he was jolly, his laughter loud and booming, and I wasn’t allowed to sit on his armchair by the television unless he was also sitting in it and I was on his lap and he was telling me in his choppy English, “Don’t forget, Oliver, you are Hokkien boy. Like your father, like me.” But I don’t actually remember his deep voice or his thunderous laughter, only that they were that way, and now and then when I contemplate what Ah Gong could have meant by telling me I was a Hokkien boy, I think of the impact he had had on all his relatives except his own sons, of his failure to pass down his ideal of how one should care for and honour one’s own.
We stood in the rain and blinked water from our eyes, watching the moth’s funeral longship get smaller until it rounded a corner, into a culvert under the main road and out of sight.
Marcel Goh was born in Singapore and grew up in Leduc, Alberta. as a graduate student in mathematics, he has published papers in probability and combinatorics. His short fiction has appeared in the Prairie Journal. He divides his time between Edmonton and Montreal.