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a secret i’ve never told January 9, 2007

Posted by eatnorthamerica in things that are not quite things we know.

Here’s a story I’ve never told anyone. I hate the concept of ghosts, the paranormal, of anything that can’t be coldly dissected.

I lived in the house of a colonial merchant (by no small coincidence, my grandfather). In the heart of Singapore, buried amongst the verdant fronds of palm and the fumes of dreaming machines. The house stood tall, stood beautiful; hieroglyphs rambled over carved wooden doors I could not read.

My grandfather made his fortune trading antiques, beautiful old ebony chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl, chairs made by a dwindling supply of old men (all men, and old), the masterworkers of a craft that once dead will never live again. We are losing them, the wickerworker with his raffia baskets, the ting-ting candy man with his cart of hammered white candy, tailor’s chalk shards of sugar. I only ever heard the dulcet chimes of hammers less than the sum of half my fingers; the flavour prickles still, on my tongue.

These ornate chairs, these inlaid chests and boxes with their dragon scrolls and phoenix coils; they sat in our basement, shadowed and dark and squeaking with rats. I was seven hells terrified of that damned basement. My parents knew it; they liked to wield it as a threat. Drink your cod liver oil, damn that stuff, eat your carrots, do your sums, practise your violin. Or sleep in the basement tonight.

No! I don’t believe in ghosts. I deny them as purely illogical. Pray the hungry ghosts do not believe in you.

I did my sums. I ate my carrots.

We had this shipment in, one monsoon season. The lovely thing about these gorgeous storied objets d’art is that many of them arrive from the estates of people who have recently, well, died. My folks were quite taken with one lacquer music-box, unusual, with a Western mechanism, a hybrid. They wanted to keep it upstairs, in the family rooms. I didn’t like looking at it. Something about it made my skin crawl. My father put it back in the basement.

One night I did something particularly annoying, and possibly bad, although I don’t remember what — maybe I was just being hyperactive, the product of a precocious high fructose corn syrup addiction, I’ve forgotten; it matters not.

Either way, I got myself locked out of our upper floors that night, and so I stood shivering in the oppressive darkness before I had the presence of mind to reach for the light. I waited for teeth to come out of the dark and slash my fingertips, or the chill distals of a grasping hand to claw my wrist — none of which happened. The light snapped on, that stark fluorescent flicker that either reminds you of a mental ward, or puts you there.

Squeezing my arms over my ribs, dead centre in that big basement, under the light, I turned, stretching the basement into a seamless panoramic view. The rats hid, silent.

Rotating quietly, sweating, that’s when I heard it; the faint tinkle of a music box, chiming through the night, echoing around the dull walls. I didn’t go around making shit up as a child, I’ll tell you that for free.

I don’t mind telling you this for free, too; I was up the stairs and knocking on the living room door and screaming my lungs out so loud I’m not surprised my parents let me in right away. In the warmth and light, I never told the whole story; it seemed ridiculous, and when they asked what I was yelling about, I said — maybe a rat. I told you, I didn’t go around making shit up as a child — maybe it was a rat, who knows, one that just managed to lift that heavy  lacquer lid — hell yeah, let’s call it a rat. Why not.

But the one thing I don’t like talking about is that my last glimpse of the box, as I ripped up the stairs three-by-three, was the lid. It lay shut.

I don’t like thinking about that night; it’s like holding up the hagiographic pages of Time, and realising that the paper is so porous that you can see little halos limned by stabs of light.

When the shipment sold, I stood watching the furniture get packed up, and drawn by some dumb compulsion, I told my brother to look inside the music box. The date on the box — I don’t know what date it was, or who put it here, but it was there — it was the same date I was born, and decades later as I hunch over my keyboard typing this, that small section of  skin at my nape begins to prickle.

The whole story I just told you, it’s all bullshit. There were no ghosts, there was no music box, and I never snap straight up in the void darkness, sweat slaking down my spine.


The tale of the ting-ting candy man is resonant of this the kamishibai man. They are gone, and soon they will be dead.



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