The children’s fight punctured the cordial atmosphere of the old woman’s funeral. Two small boys, opposite sides of the family, had gotten into a full-blown quarrel. And because they had not yet learned to keep their mouths shut, that meant it became a spiderfight.
The old woman had not been that old, but that was the way people saw her. She had a crone’s mean temperament and a grandmother’s failing health, although she was neither. While alive she had made it clear to Sook Yee, her sole daughter-in-law, that the latter was entirely her fault. Hypertension and diabetes had played tug-of-war over the old woman’s body, but it was cancer that had finally gotten her. The house was filled with her brothers and sisters and their families, and her widower’s brothers and sisters and their families. People tripped over each other in the bungalow’s cluttered confines and spilled into the weedy garden, fighting for asylum from conversations gone on for too long. The covered tentage where the body lay got a wide berth.
By the time Sook Yee got to the garden the fight was over, even if the screams were not. The winner was a round-faced boy from the widower’s side, his chest braced in defiance. The loser, a gangly-limbed scion of the deceased’s family, squealed an incoherent string of sounds. A ring of adults demarcated the two combatants in the garden, and one middle-aged auntie held the screaming child still, ring-encrusted fingers scrabbling at his jaw, trying hold his mouth open. “Let me see!”
Between the two children lay the fight arena, an old sweets-tin on an IKEA table. On its surface were two spiders the size of thumbnails, striped black and white. One still paraded back and forth, puffed up like its owner, but the other had been torn apart. Its remaining legs twitched in a mockery of life.
“What happened?” Sook Yee asked them. What she lacked in authority from blood relation she had to make up in loudness of voice.
The victor picked up his spider carefully. The creature ran up his hand, up his arm, and onto his face, little legs tapping at his lips. The boy opened his mouth wide and triumphant, lifting his tongue, and the spider scuttled home.
His voice returned, the victor turned to Sook Yee. “He called me fatty bom-bom.”
The loser made a series of angry, wordless noises, a slurred concoction of mouth-formed vowels. His mother seized the chance and stuck her fingers in. The child squawked, but she managed to prise his jaw open. The boy’s tongue flopped around in his mouth like a dead fish. His mother bent it back to reveal the empty space underneath, between the salivary glands, where the limp muscle anchored to bone. Around the vacated spider’s nest tiny eggs swelled round and pearlescent under membrane. She prodded one with a finger and declared, “Nevermind! Another one will hatch soon.”
The boy struggled free and pointed at the victor, yowling, but his spider was dead and his tongue useless. Drool trickled from the corner of his mouth.
That was the whole problem. Lose an argument, lose your voice. You learned quick enough to keep your opinions muted, your anger in a bottle. In school Sook Yee and the other debate kids had turned spider-fighting into a bloodless sport, staying back and squabbling over small things like peace in the Middle East and the benefits of minimum wage. It was simple: Make a stand, argue in increasingly illogical statements until the mouth spiders emerged, ready to do battle. But small ones. You didn’t want the fight to become real. Sook Yee liked debating evolutionary theory. Abortion rights were a popular topic amongst the boys. The dusty steps of her school stairwells had borne witness to an endless number of sixteen-legged quarrels. Sook Yee’s memories of childhood were still infused with the phantom taste of chalk-covered arachnid in her mouth.
That schoolgirl spider was long gone, of course. Sixteen-year-old Sook Yee had lost it in an argument with her mother. Never argue with an adult. Particularly not your mother. Particularly not about grades. These were valuable lessons all children learned.
“It’s your own fault,” Sook Yee told the squalling loser. What was his name? Ah Guan? “Who asked you to fight?”
The boy’s mother pulled the child closer, looking at Sook Yee like she was a small dog yapping at a pedestrian crossing. “What did you say to my son?”
Sook Yee’s stomach sank, a liquid feeling. She recalled this relative’s name and place: Cecilia, the youngest of the her mother-in-law’s siblings, coming at the tail end of three brothers and three sisters where the old woman had been the head. Like all of them, she had a temper.
The circle of onlookers shifted and Sook Yee’s sister-in-law entered the fray. She had a slight figure and lightly freckled skin that made people privately, and wrongly, guess that she was still in her early forties. The white she wore, head to toe, gave her the appearance of a ruling politician, or a holy person. The peanut-gallery chatter that had sprung up between the onlookers quietened at the sight of her. Kathy’s viciousness, surpassing that of her mother’s, was legendary.
Kathy’s eyes scanned the scene, taking in the gladiatorial setting, the mute drooling child, the sweets tin. Her mouth shrank in displeasure. “Who was fighting? This is my mother’s funeral. You want to fight?”
Cecilia gestured to the other boy, arms tight around her child’s shoulders. “You ask that one lah!”
The defiance in the round-faced boy’s expression quickly fled. Kathy sniffed at him. Her voice could cut ice. “How did your parents raise you? No manners. No decency. You’re no better than a pig.”
The boy looked at his feet and said nothing. Never argue with an adult.
“Come, Ah Guan,” said Cecilia, pulling her unprotesting child by the shoulders. “We go inside. Not so noisy.” The other adults, the uncles and half-cousins and nephews, began to slink away too, the excitement of the fight dissipating, loosing them back into the wash of funereal half-talk.
Kathy turned to Sook Yee, face a mask of disdain. “Did you teach them to do this?”
The question struck Sook Yee in the chest, like an unexpected cyclist around the bend. All she managed to get out of her mouth was a “Me?”
“That’s the only thing you’re good at, right? Arguing and quarreling.”
“Excuse me?” Sook Yee felt the spider in her mouth uncurling eagerly, and had to force herself to stop. Now was not the time.
When she had been alive, the old woman’s iron fist had kept Kathy’s temper in check. Now that she was dead, it was emerging in all its full and acid glory. “Debate girl, right? You used to do this for fun. You think I don’t know. Who do you think you are? This is my mother’s funeral, are you looking for trouble?”
Sook Yee just smiled, her tongue leaden in her mouth from staying still. Her hands trembled, the skin on them brittle and hot, but she let her sister-in-law go back into the house unchallenged. She could not do the big fight with Kathy yet. She was not ready.
“My sister’s always been like that,” John said, eyes fixed on the laptop screen. “Anyway, it’s good that the children’s fight ended that way. Ah Guan is such troublemaker—that’ll teach him a lesson.”
Sook Yee’s husband was hiding in their room, pretending to check his email while the mahjong and chatter continued downstairs, late into the night. Sook Yee was hiding too, because her feet hurt from standing around and her face hurt from holding a neutral smile and she was not going to try mingling while the dead woman’s son, her direct descendant, was here. She’d washed her face and wiped herself down and was feeling slightly more human now.
Sook Yee peered in the dressing table mirror, her tongue lifted, looking at the restless spider twitching its pedipalps in there. She made a dissatisfied noise. “You know, I nearly started a fight with her.”
“But I held back. I didn’t.”
John continued to look at his work. Sook Yee pressed on. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to challenge your sister.”
This got John’s attention. The laptop clicked shut. “Why not? I thought we talked about this.”
“Do you really think we should pressure your father to sell the house now?” She sank onto the yielding surface of the bed. “Your mother just died. Can’t we let him grieve a little first?”
A sigh escaped John. His face looked like a Peking duck, yellow and greasy and hollowed-out. “That would be nice. But you know my sister. She’s going to be pressuring him throughout the funeral. Put my name on the house. Put my name on the house. You know her. Then you know what will happen.”
What would happen was that Sister-in-law would take the reins and the house would never be sold, remaining forever a mausoleum full of the mouldering things accumulated by the old woman. She had been a serial hoarder. The corridors of the house overflowed with knick-knacks, enamel pans with painted bottoms and tiffin sets and disused guitars with rotting strings. A door on the third floor opened to shelves and shelves of yellowing newsprint and the acrid smell of mould and silverfish. Even the garden was overflowing with ugly lawn ornaments and spine-destroying rattan furniture. Nobody could do anything about it. It had been her house. When John had first brought Sook Yee home years ago his sweet-talk had been peppered, every other minute, with profuse apologies and the words “rubbish dump.”
John and Sook Yee were moving out, finally. They had been balloting for government flats since their engagement years ago. Five times they had tried, five times they had failed. But lucky try number six secured them a queue number, and they’d managed to pick a five-room flat being built in Bedok New Town. A nice location. They’d get the keys next year. With them gone the house would be empty, except for the widower and the spinster. And thousands upon thousands of a dead woman’s things that no-one would throw out.
The house was John’s inheritance too, but Kathy would not see it that way. Kathy saw John as an interloper on what was supposed to be her inheritance. Kathy saw John as an interloper on her life in general, a unplanned surprise popping up in her mother’s belly seventeen years after she did, bursting into her regulated home life at a time she was trying to lay down her tracks for college.
“We need to act ASAP,” John said, as if he were still in a board meeting. “Shut her up, get him to agree to sell the house, done deal.”
Sook Yee pressed her fingers into the ugly paisley pattern of the bedsheets, over and over. Like everything else, it was a throwback to the 1970s, inherited from the old woman. “I don’t think my spider’s strong enough.”
“You?” John actually laughed. “Come on, Kathy is scary, but she can’t be worse than you, right?” That was her husband, king of the backhanded compliments. “You’re a debate girl. I started dating you because you liked arguing.”
“Why can’t you fight with her? She’s your sister.”
John fell back on the pillows hard enough that Sook Yee bounced. “You know I can’t win. She’s my sister.” Sister-in-law had practically raised him. Never argue with an adult. Old habits die hard.
“She’s been snapping at people all day. Spider’s getting fat on all that venom.”
“Okay. Come.” John made a lazy, sweeping gesture with his arm. “You feed yours on me.” When Sook Yee gave him a pinch-faced look he said, “Insult me!”
That’s the way it worked. Sharp tongues bred sharp fangs. The more aggressive your words were, the more aggressive your spider became. Insult me, her husband said. Do to me what my sister did to you.
Sook Yee got to her feet. Old debate girl habit—arguments had to be had standing up. “You snore at night,” she started. “You eat with your mouth open after I’ve told you again and again.”
John rolled his eyes. “Come on, no strength, you’re not even trying.”
Frustrated breath escaped her. What made him think it was so easy to insult someone you loved? “You never reply to my texts on time. You zone out when I talk to you.”
But those weren’t insults. Sook Yee could feel the unimpressed, unruffled weight of the spider in her mouth. She needed to dig deeper. What would humiliate John the most?
She thought back to their school days, when they had first met. “You never had to fight for anything,” she said. “Everything was given to you on a platter. You were a pampered little boy.” He had annoyed her, a pompous snot with arguments she could shred like wet tissue.
John’s eyes narrowed. “Getting hotter,” he said. He had a look in his eyes like he was beginning to regret this.
“You’re weak,” Sook Yee said slowly. “The slowest runner in your class. Unfit. Everybody laughed at you.” Now his face changed, some tectonic shift of emotions far below, and Sook Yee sped up, encouraged. “You were the runt of the litter. Born to a woman in her forties, everyone said there was something wrong with you.”
He bit his lower lip and said nothing.
“You have no backbone,” she said. There was a truth to her words, fire in her veins and under her cheeks. She wasn’t even listening to herself. “Nothing is ever your fault. You’re a weasel who just wants to coast through life. You have no self-respect. I only went out with you because you were easy to bully.”
John stared at her, his jaw working. Too much. The fire had spread to her mouth, the spider scratching her tongue trying to get out. She bit down on that impulse, kept her mouth closed even though it felt like her skin would rupture unless she let the creature out.
“Okay,” said John very slowly. “Okay.” His eyes were like black holes now. It wasn’t true that he had no backbone, because he was showing it now, fighting back the hurt in his eyes, keeping his own spider in his mouth.
“I think that spider’s more than ready to go,” he finally said. He put the laptop away and turned on his side. Sook Yee crept onto the bed next to him as he turned the lights out. Neither of them said anything more until they both fell asleep.
Sook Yee woke to a landscape of cold and empty sheets beside her. Clock numerals on the wall glowed 6:00. Two hours late. She tumbled out of bed, angrily combing through a hive of reasons why John hadn’t woken her.
Her mouth ached dully with the weight of spider. She could feel it buzzing with yesterday’s bitter energy, just waiting to spring out at someone.
In the kitchen Sook Yee found Cecilia, Ah Guan’s mother, struggling with the expresso machine. This house had belonged to the old woman’s father before her, and it was the the house they had all grown up in. Sook Yee saw a kind of pathos in Cecilia’s face as she pushed unresponsive buttons over and over, fighting the instruments of a home she no longer recognized.
She made breakfast for her father-in-law, scraping kaya and sugar over toast. Old-fashioned drip coffee. Two hardboiled eggs. Simple fare. She arranged everything on a gaudily-painted enamel tray and went upstairs.
Sook Yee liked her father-in-law. She had called him Pa almost from the moment John and she had gotten engaged. A quiet man by nature, he was a jazz enthusiast, and had his own study in the house, filled wall-to-ceiling with carefully-curated records arranged by publishing house, year, and alphabetical order. By day he had been an engineer in a small construction firm, by night a lover of the arts. He would take tone-deaf, grade 1 piano Sook Yee through his collection with profound enthusiasm. And she would listen.
Since his wife had died Pa had spent most of his time in his study, emerging on the first day to greet relatives and mourners, and subsequently only showing his face in periodic breachings now and then. The reins were with his daughter now, an arrangement that seemed to suit both. Over the past few days he’d been feeding Sook Yee stories of his childhood, in exchange for the breakfasts she brought for him.
But when Sook Yee pushed open the door to his study this time she found Kathy already there, in the middle of serious conversation with her father. Kathy’s narrow eyes fixed on her. “I’ve already brought his breakfast.” The coffee in the tin mug on the desk was no longer steaming.
Pa smiled at her, sheepish and small.
Sook Yee brought the enamel tray back downstairs. Her irritation made her mouth spider more restless; she could feel it straining against her beleaguered tongue. In the narrow, cluttered stairwell she ran into John, who was coming up. “Where have you been?” he hissed. “Do you know she’s upstairs already?”
“Why didn’t you wake me?” she hissed back through her teeth, refusing to part her jaws.
“Why didn’t you set an alarm clock?”
“You were supposed to be my alarm clock.”
Sook Yee stomped back to the kitchen to eat the unloved breakfast perched on a stool. Cecilia, having tamed the expresso machine, tried to make small talk. “Bernard doesn’t want the breakfast you made for him? Why?”
“My sis already made him something.”
“No, I’m eating it, so it’s not wasted.”
Cecilia laughed, a jackhammer sound. “I wasn’t referring to the food.”
Sook Yee stopped eating to jam her teeth together. Cecilia looked at her and recognized the face of a person trying very hard not to start a spiderfight. “Sorry,” she said, and left the kitchen.
Sook Yee decided that she would spend the rest of the day avoiding people. Her mouth already hurt enough. Instead, was going to clean. One of the stories Pa had told her was the story of his own mother-in-law’s funeral. She passed away less than a month after he’d married John’s mother, in full view of the family’s disapproval of this working-class graft, a factory hand’s boy who had plugged his way into a university scholarship by kerosene oil light. Alone in a house full of tutting relatives, and afraid of the offense that might spill from his mouth, he had turned to cleaning. He picked up after people. He took out the trash. He tidied things that did not need to be tidied. In so doing he kept his mouth shut and kept himself out of trouble. And people saw that he was useful—a conscientious boy. Hardworking. Not lazy. It hadn’t won him instant acceptance, but it had been a start.
So, before the house began to fill up with fresh and returning guests, Sook Yee picked up a broom and swept. And when she was done with that she filled a pail with soapy water and got a mop and mopped every floor surface she could find, darting around the stacks of old magazines and board games. And when she was done with that she got a feather duster and a damp cloth and started in the rooms at the top of the house. These were places she would not have dared to touch under the old woman’s absolute dictatorship. By lunchtime her shirt was soaked with sweat and her arms ached. But at least her mouth no longer felt like it was full of hot coals.
John came to talk to her at lunchtime. “That’s a good strategy,” he told her. “Pa will like it.”
His eyes seemed kinder, or maybe he was just too tired to keep their quarrel up. Sook Yee rubbed his arm, saying nothing. “You should get some rest,” he told her. “The Taoist priest is coming later today. There’s going to be rituals all the way past midnight.”
But rest didn’t exist in Sook Yee’s vocabulary. After lunch she took to the second floor rooms. As she cleaned she found thoughts about death and inheritances and the flattery of fathers-in-law falling away from her. Her world shrank into a tiny, tidy thing where the only things which mattered were wiping the black dirt from the next object or arranging the next unrestrained pile of barang-barang into pleasing architecture.
She would have stayed in that little bubble of joy forever, but it was not to be. The tranquility was shattered as the shadows lengthened and the crickets began to sing. On the top floor of the house, Kathy was shouting.
Sook Yee crept upstairs to the upper study, the room that the old woman had used as an occasional home office and for filing storage. Cabinets full of paper lined the walls, and their tops were cluttered with kitsch and knick-knacks picked up from travels around the world: Crystal vases and laser-etched glass blocks and vaguely erotic wooden objets d’art. Sook Yee had rearranged them thematically after wiping them all. A small pail of water had turned grey with the dust.
Kathy turned to Sook Yee the moment she stepped through the door, brandishing one of the balsa wood statues in her fist. “Who rearranged all this? Was it you?”
“I was cleaning,” Sook Yee said, meekly.
“Who asked you? Did I say you could rearrange everything?”
It was the schoolteacher tone she couldn’t stand. Kathy had used that voice on her from the day John had brought her home. And the way she wagged that wooden block at her, as though she was a misbehaving dog. All thoughts of peace had fled. “Do I need your permission? You’re not my mother. This isn’t your house.”
Kathy chucked the wooden object at Sook Yee. It struck her squarely on the collarbone and clattered to the floor with an empty sound. “This isn’t my house? I grew up here. Who are you? You think you can come in here and move my mother’s things when her body is still lying in the coffin? You think you can marry my brother and try to steal everything? Who do you think you are?”
Humiliation blossomed from Sook Yee’s bruised collarbone. Her heart beat harder, in time with the pulses of pain. A line had been crossed. She was vaguely aware of the crowd of rubbernecking relatives that had collected behind her. Wondering if blood would be shed between daughter and daughter-in-law.
Good. Let them watch. Sook Yee smiled sweetly at Kathy. “I’m the one who’s married and doing something with my life. I’m the one who isn’t rotting away. I’m the one who’s going to give Pa grandchildren. How about you?”
That did it. That hit a nerve. “How dare you. I raised that boy you call your husband!”
“And you did a shit job. He hates you. He’s never said a single good thing about you.”
“Go to hell,” Kathy said, and as she said that the spider crawled out of her mouth, onto her cheek. Her hand shook as she put it down one of the crystal blocks Sook Yee had cleaned, a tacky thing with the Beijing Imperial Palace laser-etched into its centre.
“I’ll see you there.” Sook Yee opened her mouth and let her own spider out.
The tongue softening and going limp was a sensation Sook Yee hadn’t felt in far too long. John and Pa had joined the crowd of onlookers. She heard Pa whispering, “What’s happening?” and John hushing him.
Sook Yee locked eyes with Kathy as their spiders danced.
There was an alien vulnerability in Kathy’s eyes. The stress of her mother’s death and the funeral had weakened her. Sook Yee’s words had hit their mark; she was haemorrhaging inside. Now was not the time for mercy. Sook Yee thought of every little slight she’d endured in her two years living in this house. The snide remarks about her upbringing, the schools she had gone to, the amount of make-up she put on. Her choice to be a lawyer was a lazy and dirty one, driven by money, not like Kathy, who was a teacher, whipping the next generation into shape. Sook Yee had kept quiet for Pa’s sake, but she had kept track of all it, stacking them inside herself like a nest of insect eggs. Now they were hatching into a single-minded plague of resentment.
Sook Yee’s spider had driven Kathy’s to the edge of the block. Reasonable adults would call the spiders back, force the struggling creatures back into their mouths. Kathy’s eyes had a pleading look to them, as if she was expecting to be spared.
Sook Yee pulled her lips into a grim smile.
Her spider tore Kathy’s apart. Leg by leg, and then the head, vindictive in its orderliness. Adults could be so much more vicious than children. The gathered relatives let out an collective exhalation: Whether of shock or relief or pleasure, it was hard to tell.
Kathy lowered her head. Her shoulders shook, but she said nothing. She could not say anything. Sook Yee looked at John, who gave her a small thumbs up. “Harsh but true,” he mouthed. The little bastard.
It was Pa who caught her attention. The old man was shaking his head, looking unusually haggard and ancient. Instinctively, Sook Yee headed towards him, but he walked away, a stooped and solitary figure pushing through the crowd of his relatives without a word.
The next day Sook Yee brought Pa his breakfast, as usual. It was the last day of the funeral, when the body would be brought to the crematorium. Pa’s study felt dim, airless. He hadn’t spoken much or shown himself since the fight yesterday, and he didn’t turn around when Sook Yee put the tray on the table. “Pa,” she said softly, “time to eat.”
Pa continued to stare out of the window. His voice was like corrugated cardboard, rough and hollow. “You don’t have to do this anymore. You’ve won.”
“It wasn’t really about that.”
Pa’s eyes were red-rimmed when he turned to look at her. “Why are you fighting John’s battles for him?”
“He’s my husband. His battles are my battles, too.”
He let out a gusty sigh. “Just because you’re married, doesn’t mean that you lose yourself as a person. What happens when one of you dies?”
Pa had spent his life quiet, biting down on his arguments and carving out a space for himself where he could calm his anxious spiders. Now he sat in the dark, alone, hemmed in by the collected shelves of his individuality. The sadness in his eyes could drown armies.
“I’m sorry,” Sook Yee said.
“I would never have kept John’s inheritance from him. Despite what he thinks.” He looked down at the tray. “Can you take this to Kathy? I don’t think she’s eaten since yesterday.”
Never argue with an adult. Sook Yee’s feet were as leaden as her chest as she made her way down to the basement, where Kathy’s room was. She wanted to feel like Neil Armstrong or Jacques Piccard, but she felt more like a passenger on the deck of the Titanic. In her two years living in this house she had almost never come down here, never trodden in her sister-in-law’s private domain. She had no idea what to expect.
She reminded herself that Kathy’s spider was dead and she could not hurt Sook Yee now. She had been forced into silence for the next few weeks.
Silent during the last days of her mother’s funeral. Now that it had become reality the wrongness of it all was beginning to sink in. The look on Pa’s face. The fact that John was unruffled by all this. What had she done?
Sook Yee found the door to her room unlocked. “Sis,” she said softly as she pushed the door in, “I’ve brought breakfast.”
Kathy lay on her bed in her darkened room. It was as cramped as the rest of the house, thickly lined wall-to-wall with cupboards and cabinets. Sook Yee put the breakfast tray down on the desk and drew back the shades. Grey dawn sun streamed into the room, casting its weak light over glass-protected shelves of trophies and certificates, tacky ceramic figurines, and framed pictures. A decorative plate said “Happy Birthday To A Beloved Daughter.” Sook Yee scanned the shelves. There had to be dozens of pictures, a hundred even. A entire childhood was contained in the musty confines of Kathy’s cabinets.
Some of them caught Sook Yee’s eye. A picture of young Pa and his wife, in wedding dress, perched on the old sofa in the house’s living room, stiff-backed for posterity. Bubble-cheeked little Kathy and her mother posed sternly in front of the old piano in one of the study rooms. Kathy grew bigger in successive birthday cake pictures, while the house’s tiled kitchen remained unchanged around her. Out in the garden, on one of the ugly chairs, a toddler John sat astride his older sister’s rigid knees. Each picture that followed was a picture of Kathy and John as the latter grew taller and the former grew thinner. And then one of Sook Yee and John in their own wedding finery, in the living room, holding the tea ceremony.
Kathy remained on her bed, unmoving. “Sis,” Sook Yee said again, but she was met by a silence larger than houses. She was too afraid to go over and touch her sister-in-law, to shake her out of her stupor, to make that connection. Instead she just stood, waiting, while around her the sealed, curved lips of a life past smiled silently down at her, like rictuses.