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Saturday, Mar. 27, 2010 - 1:30 a.m.

The surgeon dismantles the old lady's body carefully. He dabs away the blood that cutting open the skin had caused. The blood that had already run out from her body pools along a crease on the green sterile drapes, and drips onto his theatre shoes.

He follows the Latin path of names down to the broken, jagged bone of the hip, past tensor fasciae latae, traversing gluteus medius, under gluteus minimus, deeper still, to piriformis. His hands work quickly, his scalpel dances.

He does not know her name, but only the intimacy of her muscles, the fibres, the tendons, the ligaments of her being. She is to him, a damaged hip peeking through the square window of green cotton. A broken person who needs to be repaired. No more, and no less. With a gloved finger, he strokes the exposed yellow-white bone. It is smooth and slippery to touch, a map of minute cracks and crooked lines too small to be seen.

At the operation's end, when she stirs from the green gas of anaesthesia, two tears flow from her eyes. One on each side. No one notices this, and they evaporate into the mechanically-filtered air of the operating theatre as she is pushed out.

She will not remember what she remembered.

It had rained non-stop for 2 weeks. Chinatown was flooded, all the way up to North Bridge road. Umbrellas were useless. Drains became choked and overflowed. The water rose up to her knees and everyone had to wade through the rainwater. The bulls refused to pull their bullock carts in the rain and lightning. Every house smelt like damp clothing. At night, she watched her adopted son sleep next to her on the wooden bed. The only sound was of rain falling, and wisps of an unknown female voice singing a Cantonese opera. Lightning lit up the her small room with transient shadows, a second-hand dresser, a broken but mended rattan chair.

Every day of those two weeks, she carried her adopted son on her back to and from his school. From South Bridge road, to North Bridge road, past the row of shops on Beach road that made caskets. She averted her eyes when she passed the wooden coffins, in various states of incompleteness. She walked slowly through the water. It was not easy with an umbrella in one hand, and a 6 year-old on her back, and she had to guess where to plant her next foot-step in the murky water. She did this for fourteen days, just so he would not arrive at school with wet shoes. Her bones hold the memory of a six-year old weight, pressing small fingerprints into her clavicles.

Forty years later, she wakes up with an ink-blackened thumb and her savings cleaned out. Her son has disappeared. The bank cannot help, neither can her MP.

The surgery had taken two hours, including the time it took to replace the layers of muscle and to close the skin with suture. Deep inside, the bone has been brought back into alignment with metal plates and screws. After six weeks, the bone itself will grow over the defect, again altering the pattern of microscopic crevices, which grow and retreat like the roots of a raintree. Each crevice contains the full account of a day in her life (though it may be more accurate to say that the mechanical forces she experienced each day in her life shaped its corresponding crevice). Her bones are an accumulation of each weight she has carried in her life -- one can say that carrying her adopted son shaped one of the many crevices that has led to the recent breaking of bone.

She can walk to the market again, and carry white plastic bags of ang ku kueh (literal translation: red turtle cake) that she makes at home to sell. She waddles slowly from her door to the lift, one plastic bag in each hand. The pink dough carries her fingerprints from the hours of being kneaded and pressed by hand. Then the fingerprints disappear (but only visually), when the pink lumps are transformed by a small plastic mould into rows of sticky pink turtles, resting on squares of pandan leaves. Ninety cents buys you an ang ku kueh containing a sweet red bean paste filling, and the secret palimpsest of her hands.

Perhaps she moves too slowly now, or the world moves too fast for her. She enters the lift, a giant wheel turns and steel cables lower the mechanized box. The lift drops down a black shaft, which exists at the heart of each HDB block. The country may be described, not as a place covered with blocks of public housing, but a topography where black vertical shafts, some forty stories tall, rise out of the ground like trees. They contain amongst other traces -- wafts of urine, the re-enactment of a robbery, the bored impatience of slow arrival. The light jumps from one black lift button to the next, one lit number becomes another. Time and memory threaten to disappear as one descends the shaft, only to return when the lift doors re-open at the ground floor.

As the lift falls, her slippered feet detach from its floor just slightly. She feels a momentary sense of weightlessness, even though the weight of history, the memory of mass and heaviness, will always be carried in the fractured stories of her bones.

The surgeon, in his green cotton scrubs, drinks his coffee in the operating theatre pantry. The old lady thinks of one thing, but that is lost to the blackness of the lift shaft. Neither individual consciously contemplates the incompleteness of healing.


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