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Words by Huang Yanchao

 

It was Teng Ye’s Aunt’s first death anniversary. 

As Covid-19 was still rampant in their part of the world, the temple required visitors to enter in pairs. Teng Ye and his unlikely best friend Wei Wen were there already. The former was a straight A’s goody-two-shoes perfectionist, while the latter was a class clown. They approached their table where their food offerings had already been neatly set up by Teng Ye’s parents earlier. 

At the side of the table nearest to the statue of a deity was an urn with joss sticks. Then there was, without a doubt, canned green tea. There were three: one for each of Teng Ye’s late paternal grandparents and the last one for his late aunt. They reminded him of the pop-hiss he would hear every time he saw his aunt open one; it was her caffeine fix, often downing three or more cans a day. Three very Chinese-looking red cups filled with brewed tea were placed behind the cans. Roast meats, fried Bee Hoon (rice vermicelli) and other family favourites followed. 

Death Anniversaries were important dates, especially for the “newly departed”. Families were expected to visit on the exact day. Wei Wen took the table beside Teng Ye’s and brought out two packets of food. He was here to support Teng Ye emotionally, but since his grandparents’ ashes were also placed there, he might as well not come empty-handed. He started to set up the offerings for his late grandparents, which was a much-simplified version of the Teng Ye’s. 

“Hey bro, there aren’t many people in the columbarium.” Wei Wen suggested as he poured tea into similar Chinese-looking cups. “You want to go in now while I set things up? I’ll watch the stuff.” 

That broke Teng Ye’s daze. “Yeah… Okay.”

“Take a deep breath and tell her.” Wei Wen comforted and patted him on his shoulders, “Technically she can’t scold you because she has err… passed on.”

They both forced a laugh, but Wei Wen knew Teng Ye was still anxious. He dropped his tone into a serious one. “Teng Ye, just drive it in, the same way you did with your dad about the business. Just drive it in.”

Teng Ye gave a weak smile and nodded. He was dreading this “chat” with his aunt, but he had to do it today. Clasping the joss sticks, Teng Ye walked up towards the deity. He knelt on a large, overused kneeling cushion in front of the large urn. He started to bai ( pray), lowering his head and moving his hands up and down slightly. Bits of ash from the burnt end of the joss sticks dropped to join other bits already on the floor. He prayed in a soft voice, one that was only audible to himself, “Grandpa, Grandma, Auntie, please watch over our family and bless us with good health and prosperity.” 

He continued to move his joss sticks up and down even though he ran out of things to say. He then let out a large breath and placed the joss sticks into the urn at an empty spot. Nervously, he entered the columbarium. There were columns of walls, each holding rows and columns of niches, each niche was roughly  A4 size. He found his family member’s niches completely from muscle memory, without using any reference from the column block numbers. Having been here so many times, he was sure he would have found them blindfolded. 

“Grandpa, Grandma, Auntie, I’m here to see you.” He took out a piece of tissue and cleaned their photos carefully. He knew his parents had done it earlier, but he felt the need to clean it again. He took especially long to clean his Aunt’s photo – over a minute – not because it was large, but because he chose to wipe more circles than necessary. As if he was avoiding something. 

Something that he wanted to tell her. 

Finally, he lowered the tissue, accepting that there was nothing left to clean. He let out a deep sigh. He put his palms together as if in prayer and muttered in a low voice. Although he began to address all three of his deceased relatives, he knew what he was about to say was reserved mainly for his Aunt. 

He told her that with the reopening of borders, he would finally be leaving for Melbourne in a few days to  complete his studies. Then he paused and took another deep breath. He wanted to delay it until the last possible moment, but he knew he had to tell her today. 

He closed his eyes and mentioned that he wouldn’t be taking over their family business. The one that Teng Ye’s parents and Aunt had spent almost their entire life working on. The one that they had made many sacrifices for. 

Looking down, he paused and waited. Teng Ye felt like a young child confessing his mistake and waiting for an adult to deal punishment. Of course, punishment never came. He then took another deep breath and apologised to his Aunt specifically. He  told her that his parents had already given them their blessing.

He paused again, this time visibly uncomfortable. His eyes were wet. He then muttered, “Thanks Auntie for taking care of me when I was younger. I’m sorry I didn’t get full marks on tests due to my careless mistakes. I know you meant well, but I wish you had understood that I was trying my best as a child, and not to punish me for it. I used to feel really lousy about myself. And I still do. 

He paused once more. Summoning the last burst of courage, he continued, “ I’m going to try and forgive you for what you did .”

He had finally said what he needed. A tear had rolled down each of his cheeks. He breathed easier as most of the pressure was lifted from his heart. But not all. 

Teng Ye walked out of the columbarium. 

“So, you told your aunt?” Wei Wen asked. 

Teng Ye nodded. Yet he seemed aloof. 

“Hey bro, you alright?” 

“Yeah, I’m just… Feeling a little… weird.” Teng Ye let out a sigh. “Like, I’m never going to know if she is angry at me. I think  she isn’t, but I feel that she is. I wish I knew.”

“I get you.” Wei Wen’s eyes narrowed. They both know she always scolded Teng Ye when he did something she didn’t like. So, they concluded that Teng Ye has been figuring out what she liked by successfully avoiding punishment. Wei Wen resolved a similar issue with his dad, but because he was still around, he had a much easier time. If only Teng Ye could ask his aunt…

Wei Wen smiled slightly. He grabbed a pair of the gaau bui from an unused table and entrusted them into Teng Ye’s surprised hands. Gaau bui were a pair of identically carved wooden blocks shaped like the crescent moon. One side was curved, and the other was flat. 

“Oh, what will you do without me.” he boasted triumphantly and disappeared into the columbarium.

It took a while for Teng Ye to catch on. The gaau bui was used as a form of divination, to ask deities or the deceased yes or no questions. He stared at them as he phrased his question. Then he pressed the flat sides of the blocks together as he asked his question in his heart towards the spiritual realm. And when he was done, his hand parted and released the blocks.

Puck.

The moon blocks hit the floor at almost the same time. One had the curved side facing up, while the other had the flat side up. Teng Ye  knew that this meant yes. Teng Ye’s lips parted as he exhaled. Slowly, they formed a smile of relief. 

He picked up the blocks gingerly. As if he didn’t believe the reply and needed  some time to accept it. He stood up, placing the blocks back on his table while preserving the reply. Tears started to form again. 

It took a while for Wei Wen to come back to a very relieved Teng Ye. Wei Wen glanced at the blocks. “So what exactly did your aunt say yes to?”

“I asked my Aunt if she was okay for me to do what I want from now on.”

“Not just about taking over the business, right?”

Determination appeared in Teng Ye’s eyes. “Yes. From now on, I am going to stop seeking her approval on how to live my life.”

Huang Yanchao

The author Huang Yanchao

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