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“I could have been a clever girl. When the first of the Japanese bombs fell on Penang, my father stopped us from going to school. And when the war was over, there was no question of going back. So I married your father.” Three generations of a family struggle to maintain their way of life in a country changed irrevocably by war.
Editor’s Note: Yeoh Jo-Ann’s “Dog Tiger Horse” was the 2020 winner of the Aura Estrada Short Story Contest and appeared in our arts anthology Ancestors. About the story, contest judge Ivelisse Rodriguez wrote:
Yeoh Jo-Ann sweeps us into the things that we will remember on sleepless nights, the what ifs of our lives, the way that humans break each other, those things left unsaid, and the secrets we carry. This is the kind of story that clutches at your throat and makes your heart race because you know a human collision is afoot. Yeoh targets the heart and never wavers.
Listen to Yeoh Jo-Ann read the first chapter from our Ancestors launch event:
The window is open.
You are under the bed, screaming. Outside, the wind whips through the trees and the rain smashes down on the roof. Lightning. Thunder. I close the window, but you cry on.
The next morning, you apologize. You are fifteen and you are embarrassed.
I don’t understand, Mama. What’s wrong with me?
I have watched you grow up with a fear of thunderstorms. I keep silent, but I buy us a cake to share after dinner. A small one with coconut, the kind you like.
What’s the occasion? Your sister is always suspicious when she sees cake at the table. She likes cake, but she knows it is your favorite and not hers. What are you making up for, Mama?
Your sister is a clever girl, far cleverer than you will ever be. But she smiles to show me that she’s joking, and I allow it.
For marrying you to Ah Tu, I tell her. Ah Tu is the boy who comes in twice a week to scrub the floors and clean the garden. Your sister shrieks and laughs, and I feel a flutter of guilt. But she has forgotten her question, and everyone must look down on someone. It gives us hope.
I know why you are afraid of thunderstorms, but I will not explain. I would rather take coins from my box and buy you cake.
When the engineer asks your father if he can marry your sister, even your grandmother is proud. She pats your sister on the cheek, saying how good it is to have a clever girl in the house, forgetting that two years ago she refused to continue paying the clever girl’s school fees and that the clever girl gave up her place at the teaching college to work at a bookstore. Your sister has not forgotten. But she smiles and says thank you, so pleased with her engagement that for a moment she forgets her vow to spit into your grandmother’s face on the day she leaves the house.
It is a good thing that your sister kept her temper. Even the cleverest girls cannot spin spit into money, and we cannot pay for the wedding without your grandmother’s help.
It is your fault for having a daughter.
In her sitting room in the front of the house, your grandmother does not offer me tea, or even water. She knows I am here to beg.
You tiger women. So stubborn. She has said this to me more times than I can count, but she knows I have to listen. Should have given the child away, like I told you to. What use is a girl?
In the end, I give her what she wants. I kneel down in front of her and bow, lower and lower, until my forehead touches the cold marble floor. I weep. I beg.
Your father is waiting for me when I return to our room. Too much of a coward to ask his mother himself. Did she say yes?
I tell him there is enough for a small wedding. The next day, I sell my mother’s jewelry. Except a small ring: I am saving that for your wife.
But first I must buy happiness for my clever girl.
I could have been a clever girl myself. When the first of the Japanese bombs fell on Penang, my father stopped us from going to school. And when the war was over, there was no question of going back. So I married your father and came to live in this house.
The house was tired long before I arrived. Peeling paint, all the best furniture sold. No servants left. Your grandfather’s stores were closed during the war; the Japanese took everything except the stores themselves. In more prosperous times, your grandparents would have picked a better bride for your father. But they wanted a girl whose family they could sneer at, a girl your father would not feel inferior to, someone who would do the housework.
When the matchmaker first spoke to my parents, they decided it would be my eldest sister, your First Aunt, who married your father. But she was born in the year of the rat and your father in the year of the horse. Your grandmother put her foot down. Everyone knows rats and horses make terrible matches.
I am a tiger. A tiger and a horse—a strong match. Tigers, horses, and dogs are allies bound by the stars and the elements. They understand each other; they are stronger together. That is what the fortune-tellers say. If you ask me, it is all nonsense.
But you are not asking me. You are a child but you must already know from watching us that good marriages have nothing to do with astrology.
But good weddings start with a good dress, and that is what your sister must have. While she is at work, we will go to the fabric store in town to buy the best silk I can afford with the money from selling the jewelry. Your grandmother and aunts give us the usual incurious arched looks on our way out as we walk through the dark central corridor of the house and past your grandmother’s sitting room. They sit around her marble mahjong table, drinking tea and munching on dried lotus seeds.
Going out? Nothing better to do? Your Sar Kor, your father’s youngest sister, is my least favorite member of this nest of vipers. You’ve ironed my dress for tomorrow?
Have you cleaned my room? I dropped my powder case yesterday. Your Tua Kor, your eldest aunt, would not recognize a broom or dustpan if we showed these to her.
For dinner, I am thinking of fish. Ah Tu will fetch one. What your grandmother means is that I’d better be home in time to cook it.
I assure everyone that their rooms have been cleaned, their clothes ironed, that I will be back at five to begin cooking dinner. Two hours is not much time to get to town and back and buy everything we need, but we must try. And if we are a little late, your grandmother’s fish can wait. It has nowhere else to be.
Men are like that. You are a woman—adapt.
My mother refuses to hear any more stories. You are a newly married woman. In time, you will understand. You will learn. This is not reassurance. She is only telling me the end of my story.
Maybe things will be better when there are children.
When your sister is born, I wait for your father to become the kind of man who wants to be at home, who works hard. To stop the drinking, the gambling, the late nights.
When you are born, I wait for him to realize we are our own family now, that we need to move out of this house and into a home of our own. I wait for him to want to be a better man, a good example for his son.
That you are born in the year of the dog delights your grandmother. She leans over your cradle when you are a month old, when she is convinced you will live. Dog—you complete the trinity, you will bring your father the horse and your mother the tiger closer, and you will be stronger together.
But you and your sister are only children. And, as my mother keeps telling me, he is only a man.
The sewing machine is the only thing I own when I first arrive at this house, along with the ten bolts of cloth that are my brother’s wedding gift to me, some of my mother’s jewelry, and the clothes on my back.
The women of the house take the cloth. You won’t have anywhere to wear silks to.
They let me keep the sewing machine. Let her make her own clothes. As it is, she’s already an extra mouth to feed.
And the jewelry. Quite poor quality.
On my trips to the market, I stop by the old tailor’s and collect cut-up fabric that I put together into dresses in the evenings after dinner. In time, I make more complicated clothes, in cuts I will never wear myself. I learn to make leg-of-mutton sleeves, a sheath dress; I master the three-inch cheongsam collar.
I put all the money the tailor pays me in a small wooden box. Most months, I take most of it out again. Your father’s allowance will not stretch to cover his evening entertainments and all the things a growing family needs—books, shoes, socks, underwear, bus fare. Your grandmother pays the school fees and complains about it every month.
I ask the tailor for more work.
When my eldest sister, your First Aunt, first tells me about your father’s other entertainments, I realize how little holds my world together. You are only seven, your sister has just turned fourteen, and your father is hopeless.
Do you know where your husband was last night?
That mahjong place. As always.
Wrong. My friend saw him go into a hotel.
I shake my head. He works at a hotel.
My sister takes my hand and sighs. Not that one. Another one. On Love Lane.
Your father is exactly the kind of man careless enough and foolish enough to conduct an affair on Love Lane, where all the rich businessmen keep their mistresses. He probably thinks this somehow makes it acceptable, being in the territory of other philanderers.
Swee was with him.
Swee. Your father’s best friend since boyhood. Of course. Another rich, honey-tongued boy. Of course they decided together that taking mistresses was a thing that all men did.
When I leave your First Aunt’s house, before I head home to cook the family dinner, I go to the tailor and ask him for more work.
It takes years, but living in this house has taught me patience. The waiting is easy. While I squat in the back garden, sweating, scrubbing the family’s laundry under the trickle of the tap no one wants to repair, I think of the places I will go. While I pluck chickens clean in the dark, damp kitchen, I dream of windows in a room of my own. While you and your sister sleep, I sew and sew and sew.
When there is enough money in my box, I leave. I decide that the gods and my children will forgive me. I take my sewing machine and my mother’s jewelry and the clothes on my back.
I cannot sleep. Outside, the rain is crashing down on the roof.
Your husband is here.
I go to my sister’s front door and look out. Your father is at the gate, holding an umbrella. You are with him. Lightning lights up the street and your faces. Now thunder follows, like a monster released into the sky. You are frightened. You cling to the bars of the gate and shake them, you cry out again and again. I cannot hear you but I cannot bear not to.
I see the end of my story now. I go to my sister and tell her I am going home.
The next day, she sends my sewing machine back to the old house.
I am using it now to finish your sister’s wedding dress. She will look like a queen, and I hope he will treat her like one.
Everyone knows my uncle gave me the job at the hotel because my father didn’t want me in his stores, and my mother didn’t want me at home. The elder son cannot stay home. Makes the family look bad.
Every day I go to the hotel and pretend to be important. I sit in my office. I walk around and check on the staff. I count the cash in the safe. I do as much work in the garden as I can without making the gardener uncomfortable. I try to be useful. Last week, I changed a light bulb in the third-floor corridor.
The hotel is not what it was. That’s what my father says, but it’s hard to imagine it being any different. At the best of times, half the rooms are occupied. This week, we have only five guests. But I like it better here than at any of the stores, where everyone talks loudly and at the same time and no one ever listens.
No one ever listens to me. Not my mother. Not the children. Not you. But I don’t mind. I sit in the garden and I smoke. I tend to my plants. I know I’m not a clever man. And I know talking doesn’t make me any cleverer.
As I watch you work on our daughter’s wedding dress every evening, I am reminded that I married a clever woman. How skillful you are! The engineer too will be marrying a clever woman: Is he ready for this? I wanted to ask him three weeks ago when he came to see me at my office, bowing respectfully, waiting to be asked to sit down, choosing the old, straight-backed, uncomfortable chair instead of the newer, softer one. But we talked of other things—his job at the new chemical plant in Bayan Lepas, the house he is planning to buy.
I will take care of her. He didn’t smile. To be perfectly honest, I think the fellow is a bit too serious.
Marriage is a complicated thing. I tried to sound wise; I now have the grey hair for it.
I will work very hard. I will work like a horse.
It was the thing about the horse that got me. It made me want to reach out and take his hand. It made me want to tell him everything about us, the difficulty of us. But I didn’t. I nodded and said nothing and gave the man permission to marry our daughter, if she would have him.
Horses are unimaginative, the fortune-teller told my father when I was a boy. Horses can be stubborn. Impulsive. But they are loyal and hard-working. You see your boy’s ears, the way they stick out a little at the top? He will be vain and bad with money. My father was not pleased, and the fortune-teller didn’t leave the house with quite as many gifts as she could have gotten. After she left, he stared at me, at my ears. I think he started to see the business he’d built turning to dust in my hands, his fortune passing through my incapable fingers like sand. He tried but he couldn’t unsee it.
Just as well, just as well. I’m not a clever man. I know that. It’s fine.
In Madam Lim’s mahjong parlor, I don’t have to be clever. I play a few games, drink a bit of brandy, smoke a few French cigarettes. I don’t have to be anyone. You don’t like it when I go out in the evenings—long ago, you dismissed it as rich-boy recklessness. Is it? I don’t feel very reckless.
The dress looks nice.
You look up from the sewing machine and smile, pleased at the compliment. But then you frown from habit. What do you know about dresses?
This could have come out playfully, but it doesn’t. I think perhaps you want it to, but then the words sharpen themselves as they push through your head and heart and throat, and they come out pointed.
I turn away. Nothing. Nice dress. She’ll love it.
I go out into the garden and light a cigarette. The sun has almost set but the sky is still light enough for me to enjoy the irises. And the bougainvillea—thanks to the recent hot spell, the bushes are now more flower than foliage, all startling pink and orange.
A letter came from Amsterdam today. Swee is doing well. New job, textile design. Enjoying himself, parties and everything else. Doesn’t say what exactly everything else is, but I don’t need to know. At dinner, I tell everyone that he sends his regards. You give me a look. You’ve always disliked Swee. Too smooth-talking, you say.
Are you going out later? You take my plate and put another helping of rice on it.
Yes. For a while.
Again? Maybe you should think of moving to Amsterdam.
Tiger women, my mother tells me later, are like that. Domineering. Difficult. Go out if you like. She’ll be fine.
I nod. I decide to stay home. Maybe I will write Swee a letter.
Our son is under the bed, crying. This happens every time there is thunder and lightning, and no amount of anything will get him to come out from under it. In the end, we crawl under the bed with him. We put our arms around him and each other and wait for the storm to pass while his sister sleeps, undisturbed by the thunder, the rain, the weeping.
A tiger, a horse, our dog.
A dog child is fiercely loyal. I saw your secret smile when my mother said that. You’ve never been superstitious, but you loved the thought of an ally, at last.
He is a good boy. Good-natured, easy to please, easy to teach, easy to love. Swee is very fond of him too. My goodness, he is so much like you. But better looking.
He is more like you, though. So quick in his movements and in his changes of mood. His laugh is so much like yours. And it was your laugh that made me think, I can marry this girl and live with her. And maybe we’ll be friends.
Before the marriage negotiations are final, my eldest sister warns me that you will be too strong for me. She even reads, because her father let her go to school. A girl like that will think she’s too good for us, no matter how poor her family is.
I don’t mind. I want to think that a strong, clever woman will make it easier to do my duty. Every eldest son knows his duties.
I don’t know what I would have done differently, or if I would have done anything differently. Swee says it is my greatest weakness—my indecisiveness.
But I did decide. I chose you. I chose you and your laugh and your cleverness and our children. You deserve more, but this choice has taken up all I have.
In the end, you chose me too. You stood at your sister’s door and you chose me and our son, standing in the storm, and our daughter, sleeping on her thin mattress on the floor in our room. I didn’t see him follow me out of the house, but when I felt his hand grab mine in the rain under the umbrella, I was thankful. I knew it would make it easier for you to come home. But I knew you would always come home, and so I chose you.
They say a boy needs a father. First—please, someone tell me who they are. Also, do they really mean a boy needs a father everyone else approves of?
Don’t be like your father.
I see you pretending you don’t hear it and I’m embarrassed for you. For us. But you ignore it and take me on long walks, you point out the fruit trees and the flowers, you tell me that bougainvillea is native to South America, that in Brazil there are plants exactly like these.
Grandmother says that plants are a waste of time. I must do my homework well, especially mathematics, so that one day I can help in Grandfather’s stores.
Don’t be like your father.
We are on one of our walks, and you stop to examine a vine of bright, blue-purple flowers curling around and over a bush. Uncle Swee, who is not really my uncle, kneels down beside you for a closer look.
You smile at him. Yes.
Aren’t they normally a lighter purple?
That’s the common variety. These are Japanese.
I come in for a closer look and you point out the petals to me. They are wavy and wonderful, each petal blue with a smear of purple. The flowers are larger than my eight-year-old hand. I pluck a flower to examine it.
Beside me, you and Uncle Swee talk in hushed tones. He seems angry, he waves his arms around. You frown at him and look in my direction.
Uncle Swee turns to me and smiles reassuringly. It’s a pretty flower, isn’t it?
I nod. Uncle Swee turns back to you and the both of you continue to talk, your voices low. He raises his voice a little, and I hear him say: You need to make up your mind.
You reply quietly, but he becomes angrier. He walks off without looking back at us.
You get on one knee next to me and you take my hand. The flower falls to the ground. Growing up will be difficult, you know. Things are easy when you’re a child.
When we get home, Mama gives us an unfriendly look. Where have you been?
The park. You’re still holding my hand.
Just the park?
Just the two of you?
Yes. You squeeze my hand. I smile and nod at Mama.
She stares at me for a moment, then turns to go back into the kitchen. After dinner, you better finish your homework.
I have so many stories I would have told you if you had asked, but you didn’t and I didn’t. But perfect strangers—they will ask anything; they think nothing of the weight of:
How did you two meet?
It’s such a natural question to ask a couple. His new colleague smiles encouragingly as she takes another sip of wine.
He reaches for my hand under the table and I let him tell the story. It was years ago. I was posted to Penang for a short while, and we met at someone’s barbecue?
I nod. I stab at a lettuce leaf.
We went out a few times, but nothing really serious. Then my stint in Penang ended and I came home.
She frowns. Okayyyyyy. And?
He smiles. And then he calls me. Seven years later.
Seven? She’s in her twenties. Seven years is a long time when it’s a third of your age.
He’s still always late for everything. She laughs. He looks at me and I roll my eyes. So we talk for hours, and he comes to visit. I thought, this is it. And then I proposed and here we are.
Oh my God, after seven years? How romantic.
Later, I overhear him tell her: He didn’t come out until his mother died.
In the kitchen, reaching into the cupboard for more wine glasses, I imagine her eyes widening, her mind working out an explanation for this.
I imagine Ma and her tired eyes and tired face. Don’t be like your father.
I come into the house too quietly. No one hears me. Grandmother and the aunts are in the front room. Mama is out. The door to our room is almost closed—there’s a sliver of space between door and doorframe. You’re inside and you’re not alone.
Uncle Swee is with you, his arms around your shoulders. He’s taller and this makes you look small. No one speaks, but your clothes make soft noises like sighs as they fall to the floor.
Later, he gets dressed and combs his hair. Come with me.
You shake your head. Uncle Swee leaves. We never see him again.
As I turn off the lights, I’m thinking about the night we went to First Aunt’s house. I don’t remember that much. I remember being scared and wet, I remember you holding my hand.
I remember Mama’s cold, angry face at the door. I remember feeling this monstrous wave of guilt, thinking maybe I should have told her what I saw the week before, and this made me cry. I know I called out for her; I know I held your hand and you held mine.
I knew then what we were asking from her; I know now what we asked from you.
He’s already in bed. I start to climb in, but something stops me. The window is open and there’s a storm coming. I can smell it. I move to close the window, but then I remember you telling me once that it’s only water and wind and light and sound, and temporary.
So I leave the window open. I think you would have wanted me to.
Yeoh Jo-Ann’s first novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, one of Singapore’s top fiction prizes, and her short stories have been included in anthologies such as Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Three. She is currently working on her second novel and a collection of short stories exploring the themes of modernity, food, and family in Southeast Asia.
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