Where did the umbrellas come from? She didn’t remember getting any, but there they were, sitting in the metal container as though they had been there for a long time, biding their utility. She picked one up, and it opened with a rusty yawn, revealing an optimistic ad for health insurance. It hasn’t rained in four days, but the skies were heavy with grey clouds and a gusty wind that teased branches and ruffled leaves. So she thought she should be prepared, just in case. It wasn’t a long walk, but distance will stretch with unexpected weather.
Ten minutes later, the air stilled into a thick blanket of bright yellow heat. The clouds have dissipated. She was still glad for the umbrella, even if now useful for an entirely different purpose. Her shadow fattened her into a cheerful form that she didn’t really feel, and the bag of pretend burgers she clutched with her umbrella-free hand looked for a moment, like a bag of shrunken heads. She walked towards the corner kopitiam with the lunch time crowd, and adjusted her face into an expression of dignified distress. She eyed a table with three women, and walked towards them. Women are generally more reliably compassionate.
“Cik. Boleh tolong?”
This was her usual opening. And then she rambled into a slightly incoherent, overly complicated story, of the momentum of honest labour foiled by misfortune and need, and the disconcerting necessity of seeking help from strangers.
Of the three, one avoided her eyes. One looked at her directly, but impassively. And the third looked at her with a soft face full of questions. She directed her story to the third person. Who handed her five ringgit, which was all she could spare. Not too bad, but not great. She walked away. Towards the next location, in the opposite side of the square. Can’t be too careful with the same script in too much proximity of either space or time.
Four and a half hours later, she had eighty three ringgit, which was better than the day before. She counted seventy off the pile, and tied them together with a rubber band. Deposited her bag of shrunken head burgers together with the change inside the abandoned brown Subaru parked next to the drying river, and caught bus 221 towards Pinggiran Dato’ Keramat.
She got off at the stop and walked towards the row of shops that were sleepily announcing personal loans and honey massages in a collage of stickers and stencils across shadowed shutters. Climbed up the familiar stairway, and entered into the room that was already half full. She nudged past the blind man with the shouting con who owned Jalan Telawi 5, and the old lady with the spectacular minang head dress who worked SS2 with her bags of kerepek. She returned the nods from the cluster of mute-deaf-with-muffins workers who networked across PJ State and Seapark, and settled herself in her usual corner amongst the Filipinas with their guitars and donation cards to save the unnamed children of terra-charitabilia. The heat was hugging everyone’s tongues into an uncharacteristic silence. She counted five new faces.
Metal chairs scraped a song on the cement floor when Kakak entered the room, her presence swirling everyone’s bodies into a slight lean forward.
“Ok. Macam mana hari ni?” Kakak asked as she took centre spot.
One by one, they recounted their stories of the day. Spots visited, people encountered, the recording of disarming kindness against the currency of numbers. The people who opened, the ones who listened, their gender, what they were eating or drinking, the company they were keeping, their clothes, the questions they asked, the moral philosophy offered, or religious quotes. Dato’ Fuschia typed down their descriptions meticulously in one corner, her nails a magnificent dance of glittering dragonflies on the keyboard. Kakak gave each person her fullest attention, and asked no questions.
At the end of the final story by the last person, everyone took a deep breath, and exhaled together in a ritual as familiar as breathing. And from the sound of collective exhalation (which coincidentally, is much like how a kemboja tree would sigh), a shape began to take form. First an arm, then five delicate fingers, a belly, hips, legs, another arm, a torso, a shy neck, and finally, a face and head that unfurled.
Today, who emerged was a masculine-leaning person, Milo-brown, with a smile like a five-day-old moon. They flexed their hands, and tested their toes, and grinned into the circle of people who breathed them into life.
“Selamat datang awak. Nama siapa?” Kakak asked.
“Nama saya, Raket,” they answered.
“Selamat datang Raket. Dari pohon mana ya?” Dato’ Fuschia asked.
“Dari pohon manggis,” they answered.
“Manis masam ya?” the blind man with the shouting con asked.
“Masam manis, ya,” they answered.
“Kulit tebal ya?” the old lady with the spectacular minang headdress asked.
“Lembut bila dibilai ilmu, ya,” they answered.
“Ilmunya apa ya?” she asked.
“Kuasa akal-hati lembut, ya,” they answered.
“Kalis apa ya?” the mute-deaf-muffin workers asked.
“Kalis kesat kesesatan, ya,” they answered.
“Penjaga siapa ya?” the musical Filipina guardians of nameless children asked.
“Penjaga penaggih, saya,” they answered.
With that final answer, they each gave Raket their collection of money for the day, and a fragment of experience. And Raket walked down the stairs, crossed the road, and took the next bus to their destination.