When she could take no more
by Kenneth Chu Hin-keung
Two hundred hopeful writers tried their luck in the RTHK/South China Morning Post short story competition this year. This is the winner in the senior section. The junior winner is printed below With difficulty, Siu Ming's painful, trembling fingers slid the small bolt home. Safe inside the cubicle, she sat down on the familiar toilet seat and let the tears come, but silently, so that she would not be heard.
Her thin arms ached where their nails had pinched her skin and now she massaged her fingers as she sat. They had bent them back until they cracked, and black pools of blood were now forming under the knuckles of her hands.
She sobbed hard now, her mouth stretched wide, as she knew how to do in silence. At times she thought she must be the champion of the world at silent crying.
She knew she would have to sit there for a good hour before she could come out. A-lan and her gang would be long gone by then, never suspecting where she was, and she could make her way home free from fear. 'Tell and you're dead,' they reminded her every day, as if she needed reminding.
And she would not tell. She knew her teachers would do nothing. They only liked the students whose marks were good; she was an object of derision for her poor work. Only this morning she had been shouted at, again, in front of a tittering class. No, she would never tell.
She sat on, her face hot and swollen from the tears. Her cheap plastic glasses kept slipping down her nose and she took them off, gripping them with difficulty in her slim hand and wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
Gradually, the sounds of the finished school day settled, like sediment in a jar, and she knew she could come out. Yet that day, unlike all the other days she had sat there, releasing her pain and misery through tears, always in this very cubicle, there was a difference.
For today they had cracked not only her hands, but her spirit. Whatever little will had been in her to endure another day lay broken. For she knew she could not face one more day of them. Not of home, not of her teachers, not of A-lan and her gang. And, as she left the schoolyard, a pale, thin, solitary figure, she knew it would be the last time she ever walked through these gates.
Her bus fare stolen, she had to make the four miles home on foot. Dusk was falling as she approached the estate where she lived, and with it came the familiar quickening of her heart. They were coming home to eat tonight and she should have long since collected her stepbrothers from their school and prepared dinner.
She well knew the consequences. But this time, despite her thudding heart, she felt a sudden, exhilarating, insane joy at the finality of it. She kept her head down as she walked, wishing to meet no one. A group of small boys threw a steaming dog turd, skewered on a stick, at her, narrowly missing her leg.
The old lift creaked to the 25th floor. With great difficulty, her now swollen fingers managed to open the iron grille across the door to her flat. Strangely, there was silence on the inside, and for a moment, delirious with hope, she wondered if her stepmother and her children were eating out.
Then suddenly the door flew open and the woman dragged her in. A hard slap stung her cheek and knocked her back against the wall; her glasses fell to the floor. Amid her stepmother's angry screams, Siu Ming was aware of the two small boys watching, still as statues, from behind the sofa. The door had been left open and a few curious neighbours were gathering outside.
'Good-for-nothing little bitch!' the woman shrieked at them. 'I slave away at work 12 hours a day! Is it too much to ask that this burden be here to help when I ask her? Is it? Is it?' Several more blows followed. Siu Ming knew better than to try to resist. The neighbours drifted away, unimpressed at the scene they had witnessed countless times before. And afterwards Siu Ming stood against the wall, for the first time unflinching: bizarrely, quietly exuberant in the knowledge that the very last beating of her life was over.
Mechanically, she did her chores that night, as usual in silence. They would rarely address her, except the boys in torment or her stepmother in anger. Her fingers ached yet she tried to work them normally. As usual she did not share their dinner table and for once she was glad, as they would not notice her hands.
And that evening there was a strange calm about her, noticed even by the woman, who silently remarked upon it. And, when she took her sons into the only bedroom where they slept, just the three of them now since her father's sentence, Siu Ming worked on, cleaning and tidying, wincing often from the pain in her fingers, giving herself something to do, waiting.
At last, she pulled her plastic, fold-up bed into the corridor where she slept and opened it out. It took much time, as the hinges were rusty and stiff, and she paused often, shutting her fingers into her armpits. Finally, she lay down, alone at last with what lay before her.
It would not take long, and she did not need much. Step by step, she played out the rehearsal in her mind, again and again, until it was perfect. She lay there, hardly daring to believe that, with the new sunrise, there would be an end to her misery. She lay on, waiting for the woman's customary snores, incredulous at the calmness she felt, a calm so alien to her it made her wonder if she had already done it.
Then slowly, like uninvited guests, thoughts of her mother stole into her mind: her real mother, whom she had not seen since the age of six. It had been seven years ago. Siu Ming squeezed her eyes tightly shut, allowing in her only treasures, broken fragments of the whole that once had been. It seemed to have gone on since she was very small. Her father shouting. Her mother crying. And Siu Ming, a frightened little girl, watching it all unfold in this same, miserable flat. And then, her mother leaving.
These images she had. But she never knew why her mother had gone, and a myriad of unanswered questions had assailed her these long, childhood years. Once she had asked her father. He had told her mother no longer wanted to care for her and that she had just better forget her. But always, deep in some untouched part of herself, Siu Ming felt the lie.
Her mother had given her two things when she left, the only possessions that Siu Ming felt were truly hers. One was a framed photograph of herself, her mother, and so her face would come easily before Siu Ming's eyes, as it did now, a gentle, kind, smiling face, stirring the lie. Siu Ming's heart ached when she thought of her mother now. For tonight, unknown to her, she would lose her child.
And she had given her the geese. A picture of geese flying into a rising sun, set in a golden frame. It was a brightly coloured picture, fashioned from some glittery stuff, and it shimmered and sparkled as you tilted it this way and that. Siu Ming loved it, and she kept it with her mother's photograph, wrapped in newspaper and hidden very carefully in the kitchen in the half-inch space between the cupboard and the floor. She would get them out sometimes when she was alone, and look at them for a long time, her tears falling on to the glass.
She was taking them with her. She rose silently, and pushed them out with a chopstick, kneeling on the kitchen floor. It was past two in the morning. The three in the bedroom would not wake now. All she had to do was get out. The door opened quietly; the grille was more difficult. Siu Ming worked noiselessly with it for what seemed an eternity with her clumsy, aching fingers, pushing it back, millimetre by millimetre, until she could just slip through. She took the stairs to the roof and stepped out.
A warm, humid breeze hit her face and lifted her hair. Calmly, she walked to the wall, almost shoulder-height to her, and craned her neck to look over. The darkness belied the distance, and she welcomed the void. A single jump, a few seconds of free fall, was nothing at all compared to the long misery of a single day. And at the end - release.
A solitary electric bulb dimly lit the rooftop. Siu Ming knelt down under it and carefully unwrapped the pictures. Her mother's smiling face stared back at her, and suddenly tears flooded to her eyes. She pressed the glassy face to her chest, and sobbed.
That was where she wanted it when she did it. Her mother's face against her skin, next to her heart.
She turned the picture over and fumbled with the small rusty clasps through a blur of pain and tears. One by one she prised them free and removed the backing. Lying there, on top of the back of the photograph, was a neatly folded piece of yellowed paper. Siu Ming lifted it out, puzzled. Sniffing, wiping her nose on her sleeve, she carefully opened it. A $100 note, also neatly folded, fell on to her lap. The paper was a page of writing, penned in thin, hesitant characters.
'Daughter, My heart is breaking as I write this, more so as I know you may never read it. But I cannot think of another way to leave these words for you, for your father has forbidden me all contact with you. I want so very much to take you with me, but he is the provider, and I could never support you as well as he. I am praying that you will be so much better off with him and this new woman he has found to replace me. You have an auntie in Canada, and if ever you read this letter I beg you please contact her: here is her number there. She will tell you where I am.
'I pray that you will be happy, and that they will treat you well, but somewhere in my heart I fear for you with them . . . and so I grieve, for, although your father despised me for bearing a female child, I will always dearly love my little girl. Never will a day go by when I do not think of you, my daughter. Your Mother.' Siu Ming crouched there on the roof, stunned. She stayed like that for a long, long time, reading and re-reading the words written by her mother's very hand, her numbed mind comprehending a fraction more each time she read. But that deep place in her, that secret, knowing place which had held her father's lie all these years, was exploding now in triumph, and with it went his words in smithereens.
Hardly managing to breathe, Siu Ming turned over the picture of the geese, and opened it likewise, checking each layer carefully. But this time there was nothing. She picked out with her nail this picture she knew so well. Eight geese, flying in V-formation. Then suddenly, for the first time, she saw the arrow head into the sunrise. In tiny print on the border, which had been hidden by the frame, were the words: Canada Geese Flying Home.
Siu Ming was very still. Then slowly, stiffly, she stood up. A hairline sliver of dawn had appeared in the eastern sky over Hong Kong, reflected in her own shining eyes as she stared. Far east of where she stood lay Canada. She slipped the photograph of her mother inside her blouse where it stuck to the hot skin over her jubilant heart, and made her way down to the street, to make her phone call.