Suchen Christine Lim


an excerpt from A Bit of Earth

THE village square was deserted. Only the temple was aglow with oil lamps and candles. Inside the thatched hut, some women were laying out bowls of food on the altar. He caught a whiff of boiled sweet potatoes. Heaven would be eating a piece now!

“What’re you doing here?”

The sharpness of the woman’s voice startled him. But he stood his ground, shoulders braced and eyes alert. The gaunt woman had a face like a bittergourd left to dry in the sun. Her coarse brown skin and deep furrows spoke of long hours in the harsh tropical sunlight. Looking at her, he was suddenly reminded of China. Peasant women, similarly dressed in shapeless garb, had given him food and shelter when he was on the run.

“Auntie,” he murmured.

“Never seen you before. Who are you?” Her voice was hard as nails.

“I’m Wong Tuck Heng.”

“Who brought you here?”

Another woman came towards him.

“Are you a Hakka dog sent to spy on us?”

The stout woman advanced, a meat cleaver in her hand.

He backed away.

“Aunties, I’m Cantonese, not Hakka! I’m from the village of Sum Hor!”

His eyes darted from one woman to the other. Six or seven of them. One was clutching a meat cleaver. Two had poles in their hands. Swiftly he assessed the danger. No chance of escaping unhurt if there was a fight. He had to convince them that he was not an enemy. Beg them to believe him if he had to. Pride and arrogance counted for little if he were to die before his time. That was the one thing he had learned during his two years on the run.

“Aunties, I beg you, please listen to me! Uncle Chan Ah Fook brought me here. Ask him. If you kill me before finding out the truth, you’ll regret it for the rest of your lives!”

The women laughed till tears rolled down their cheeks. They shook their heads and wagged their fingers at him.

“What a talker! A dead man listening to him will come back to life!” the stout woman with the meat cleaver exclaimed.

“Stupid boy! Once you opened your big mouth, we knew you’re our clansman from Sum Hor!”

“It’s your accent. You can’t run away from that. And your thick black brows and those eyes. Just like your father’s. But ha!” the gaunt woman scoffed. “He was fair as a scholar. You? Brown as a coolie.”

The twinkle in her eyes and the smile on her face made him feel welcome. He gave a broad sheepish grin. The mob and the drowning had put everyone on edge, he thought.

© Marshall Cavendish

by Suchen Christine Lim
from A Bit of Earth (2009)
published by Marshall Cavendish Singapore