In my sooty memories of schoolyards and trimmed skirts, clattering classrooms and the smell of wet socks, a girl shook me off. She said she wouldn’t call me Kat anymore but Kathleen because it was less intimate, and stalked off. I stood there for what seemed an eternity, alone as if in a dream, before remembering with a strange surprise that Kathleen was indeed my name. A smoke-filled night on a sickly humid island off Thailand, somewhere apart from the large bonfire, drunk sweaty friends, the new year burning high, lighting up the sky and paper lanterns rising into the endless night, sequestered away he held me in his arms and called me Kat in a way that I had never heard before. And Kat he still cries, in the throes of dreams and waking moments, flesh and image, in my arms and mouth and body and mind. Crying and desolate in Austria, I looked into clear, alien eyes and wrote my name in Chinese, the characters crude from disuse. She laughed and wrote hers in her alien graphemes, large and childish, tried to pronounce my name, failed, laughed again, and I left her alone in the snow, calling my name in a language I refused to learn. Alone, young and uninhibited in Berlin, I told my name to a pair of arrogant eyes, a rough chin and warm flesh which I grazed and then ran away from. Names think and dream and even now his name ignites sly reveries, while mine exists for him faded, only in my tired mind. New York; surrounded by fresh colleagues and faces and ideals, a professor, warm and maternal and newly-important looked at us and asked us to write about our names. I wrote about purity, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, “she is the summit”, and hated myself as I read it aloud to the listening crowd, for those were the names of women I didn’t know, who were not I and who I was not. I curl up at the edge of a dream, peering out into the world and wondering where I could lie in the vast sunflower field of man and nothingness. Mere dreamer of books, whoring with the names of the Greats, I shiver and hesitate to step out into the cold sleet, the terrible indifference of the snowstorm world. Sleepless from the swift geographical dislocation, heart eaten, womb aching, I sit in front of the computer screen at home in Singapore, surrounded by everyone I knew, and typed Kathleen Ong XinWei into what would soon be an obituary, an announcement of a name and its disappearance into a crack in the wall. Beneath the nauseating fluorescent lights, before my mother’s dead body, I looked at a sea of expectant, wounded faces and said in a voice straining with ache and longing and tiredness and rage, “I am Kathleen, the oldest daughter. I have many things to tell all of you”.
The tree is really rooted in the sky. –Simone Weil
I’m afraid of things breaking because ashes. There are pleasures of the text yes and the sky and life and people in living flesh and worlds in my head and I can breathe and curve my finger. But I breathe also ashes, the obliterated remains of precious things, even the feel of paper reminds me of cinders, or something that had burnt up, a tree.
Words seem to be the only things that endure, and I detest that immortality. To last, one has to be printed or stamped upon a surface, forever branded onto the universe. We seem to have been expelled from somewhere, or dropped from above; we can be swept off and away, lifted off, dropped. When they opened the urn I had wanted to say stop because no one had noticed the fan was still running and what if she was swept off and away? What if we lost her because the fan was on and because someone forgot to imprint us into the earth? But nothing moved, ashes and people, and if they did I wouldn’t have known because ashes (so much and so little) and fragments of skull, curved.
It infuriates me; ashes. Acceptance, or resignation: what the world has deduced about it all. The gravity of entirety summed up in three words, in miniature. It makes me angry that people seem ready, or actually want to go quietly into the night, while I am here, seething, afraid and hoarding whatever I can and failing.
I take that back. Separation is an illusion and everyone fears ashes too.
How can one hold onto something, actually be able to really, truly grasp something without having to hand it over?—to who?—The things we wish to hold onto often have a way of being fatally indifferent to us. Who are we to assume that they would pay us the least bit of attention? Or that we can possess any bit of them at all? They get snatched away in the end—by who?—, disappear into the air, ashes trickling through our fingers, refusing to conform to any of our totalizing desires. At the Monterey Aquarium, I followed the sunfish with my eyes as it swam straight toward me. Its deformity—whose mistake?—and mine made contact. We saw each other face to face, first revelation of the other, it headed for me, saw me, wanted me… and devastatingly, with a flick of its stumpy tail, wafted away into the depths. The betrayal one feels in finding oneself suddenly quite alone.
Death is like that, I suppose. She had, perhaps, done her best to wait for me. I had, I know, expected her to.
Perhaps I want to help resurrect Bachmann. I can’t believe she was consumed by fire, that the cause was unknown and ashes. All over Todesarten, Ways of Dying, unfinished because of ashes. I need to know. Did she lazily watch her lit cigarette fall to the hotel room floor? Or was she as surprised as all of us will be when facing the terribly ordinary accident of living?
A car crash? Who decides these things? Sebald’s awareness, his voice, Hausfreund, so focused, so disciplined, so quietly devastating, sadly accompany us wandering the empty space in Pompeii between nostalgia and the march to the end of time. But Bachmann, in her gasping and frenzied anger and guilt, still on fire, runs after the figure of Gravida, chasing the hem of her skirt, losing her way in her ambitious undertaking, frustrated in the abyss between time and space.
I think about mourning, and existing and miracles and dying and worlds and outer space and ashes and it’s so acute I sometimes have to lie down. I am in history but wish to be out of it, to see everything in miniature so I can understand or be able to work out a way of holding onto things. If Gravida could walk on ash or cinders perhaps I could too. I could become ghostly, I want to become ghostly and perhaps some archaeologist would come find me, and another archaeologist, and another and another and I’d be the one thing they wish they had but would never get. But the impulse in me right now (here, in time) is to dig for the ghosts I’m already chasing. I will never be able to find them, or mine. Only a glimpse of the end of their skirts disappearing behind the door. But digging through ashes is living and searching for their delicate remains and remembering and perhaps if I were lucky I could uproot a tree and sweep it off and upside down, lift it off and imprint it in the sky. When that happens I may finally grasp the trimmings of that dress and I will cry and never let go ever and time may finally stop.
I touched the curve of my clavicle today, felt the bone and ashes.
However, to the Storyteller in Mourning’s profound disappointment, he found it increasingly harder to comfort her in the ways he expected because of a growing awareness of the hollowness in his soul and the deadness of language and the inability to give anything to anyone anymore. Faced with the face—and eyes and ears and heart and soul and tears and desolation, he cried, overwhelmed—of the Person in Mourning Too, the Storyteller in Mourning found himself fatigued from speechlessness, depleted of life, and wanting more than anything to return home to sleep, to not have to think of the whys of someone else when he himself had not even begun to tackle his own. He miserably resigned the both of them to the dusty silence of shared misery, and gradually drew away from her, taking pains to avoid having to meet and talk to her. How, in that state, could he have even, he shook his head sadly, thought himself in a place to understand? To stand alongside her? Thinking of her he felt, he said blankly, like that image of the Angel of History, staring aghast at the wreckage of history piling up before his eyes. Incredulous and tired, the Angel would like to stay, awaken the deceased, and make everything—everything—whole. But the storm that blew from Paradise was propelling him inexorably into the future, the debris before him grew sickeningly skywards, and the body of the deceased slowly got buried under another dead person, and yet another dead person, and anotherand another and another and another. But no, the Storyteller in Mourning confessed regretfully, it wasn’t just this undesirable predicament that made him draw away from the Person in Mourning Too. He had, he said shamefully, developed a gradual and secret (how could he have?) contemptuousness—he blanched guiltily—for the way she announced her injured identity loudly, implicating thousands, for gracelessly flinging her identity as a person in mourning around instead of tryingto carry it around quietly in an magnanimous endeavor to be sublime, like himself.
I am lately full of white lies. I spew out playful melodies. I vomit cheerful laughter. I spit them out like acid mouthwash. Why are lies white anyway— you ask me to tell you a white lie— I cannot. There are within me so many. I grow and nourish them like foetuses in the womb, I expel them bloodless and quiet. I cannot write or tell of white lies— I believe them myself; they are what I subsist on, they close my eyes to rest, they help me up to wake.
I was always the saviour. You depended on me. I told myself it’d be okay. You never seemed to let yourself feel. I suffered by sitting still. You never let me win. I took photos of your back. You never did turn back. You were always the saviour. I depended on you. You told me it’d be okay. I like to feel too much. You always seemed to claw your way out. I never understood how. You never look at the photos of your back. I always try to show them to you.
The pyramid rose above her and engulfed the small party she suddenly found herself with. She wondered where she had fallen from, and if the sky hadn’t vomited her out. And why the desert when she had wished to drown? The sun seared. The travellers trudged forward. She eyed them placidly. Weathered, battered earth people who smelt like sweat and man and decay. It was remarkable how she somehow looked like them. They soldiered on noiselessly, footprints melting in the sand. She noted hazily that she wasn’t wearing the correct shoes. The dunes shifted rapidly and she tripped and sank, toes clenching and unclenching. Trying to remember what she had done before the sky had spat her out, she— A sandstorm. They fought onward. She couldn’t see what was before her, only the outline of the massive effigies of eternity, looming nearer and promising something sweet and poisonous. The winds forced her to her knees and someone she dimly thought she should know dragged her forward. Why should she have known him? Perhaps before the sky had— His eyes. She suddenly recalled language. The depths of such subterranean things were so hard to fathom. There were within her thousands of words she had used on this man’s eyes alone. The unthought words submerged her, shape-shifting things she had used to make love and trample him with. Language made her feel faint. She decided, in his grip, that he should be a stranger for now. The travellers battled the storm. Dimly she wondered at the unnatural focus in their eyes. Where were they going? The pyramid rose like a mirage before her. She smiled a vacant smile, the stranger silently dragging her along.
It was only at the cavernous entrance that she stood still, enchanted by the darkness inside and wishing her mother were there to whisper to her the way newborns whisper to the earth before their entrance into the world. She held her breath as they walked along faded hieroglyphics, her mind on those effaced beneath them. The only language she could permit herself, those gone forever, those that could not be read anymore, those that— A vast room. Fallen obelisks. She heard someone throwing up, someone praying—
The sarcophagus. All of a sudden she felt like dying. She didn’t know how dying felt like but life just suddenly felt so intolerable and she needed to die. The stranger let go of her. He was staring at the sarcophagus, lips moving silently. Vaguely she noticed the travellers hovering around, hands clasped, some prostrate, some crying. The paint on the sarcophagus smiled gently at them, that gloss, that face! The travellers fell into each others’ arms, thinking about death. Someone pushed her violently toward it and she screamed but—
She knew once she touched it. She looked at its coloured face. The sarcophagus could never be opened, and why should anyone open it? It beamed at her and she wept without knowing why. It didn’t occur to her to think of the person inside, all that mattered was the painted face with its bright smiling eyes. She studied it, entranced, eating tears. It smiled at her and all she could do was clutch childishly at it. It seemed to her a kind of lost hieroglyphic, and she imagined stars and babies dying with no one to hear them. She wished to dissolve into the sand, to ossify into history, to be part of the strange new earth she was now on. Perhaps then she could merge with the painted face, become part of it, understand it, know it. Though she grasped at it, the distance she felt was more than she could bear. It was sanctified, royal and she irrationally ripped her veil in the hopes of— The travellers filed past her slowly and began to worship it, spilling reverent tears. Painfully, she smiled brilliantly back at the paint. That beautiful face, petrified forever. Its smile crooked in a severity that made the travellers tremble in both terror and awe and which made her want to crawl back into her mother’s womb. That face— It was like someone she had known and lost before the sky had aborted and spat her out onto the sand. Eyes wide open, she began to whisper to it, singing songs from an age long past, songs from— that she had learnt from— who had taught her that— who had held her and had whispered that she— her, she— her, she— her.
I sit in New York and imagine myself tense, on edge, driving through the neatness of Singapore. The trees grow so densely along expressways that I don’t get the sun. My heart pounds. I see the ERP gantry looming before me; that familiar sense of catastrophic failure when I realize I forgot to put in the Cashcard to pay. I panic, my face goes cold. I hate myself. I pass the gantry. Beep. I imagine the fine that will arrive at my doorstep. Impassioned self-abasement. The feeling of mortal inadequacy. My knuckles go dead white on the wheel. I hurtle on, not breathing.
What’s the big deal you ask. It’s a moral failing, you say. Just leave the house a little earlier, you advise.
I see your impatient face. Are you as exasperated as I am?
I don’t imagine those I make wait as I anxiously speed across my congested little island. I have no sympathy for them. The thing about having an anxiety disorder is—I know you don’t like me talking about it—that I—; this is awkward really, let me try again.
I don’t think about what would happen because of my lateness.—That’s better.—I just focus desperately on the sheer stupidity of the present failure instead.
I focus on the lack of oxygen in my lungs, the fear of a heart attack. I meditate on them. I curl around them in rest.
Finding a lot in a darkened underground carpark, I finally draw breath—to run to my destination, armed with servile and profuse apologies. Apologies I don’t mean.
I once wrote up a list: Self-Improvement for Excellent Living. The first thing? “Be not just on time, but early”. It succeeded once. Being the procrastinating perfectionist my neuronal systems destined me, I bury myself in the ground in shame, again and again.
You don’t understand, it’s impossible to plan my time just right. I can never be early. I can’t. I’m trying to explain. I see the catastrophe if I’m early, and don’t see the one that happens if I’m late. You don’t understand. I plan. I try. Honest! I always think I can make it. I always think I’ll be on time. I always believe myself.
It never works. You were right. You’re still right. I’m sorry, I know you don’t like me talking about this.
I’ll always be late. This one did it. I can never be early again. I’ll always be at the arrival hall, screaming. I’ll always be holding my breath the twenty four hours it takes to reach the other end of the world. From now on, I’ll only ever draw breath—to scream. I’ll always scream, profuse and servile; I’ll scream something I don’t mean. I’m screaming now. I’m there, finally.
This is awkward really, let me try again.
The person in mourning was in a terrible and confusing quagmire, and the difficulty that he had in articulating this to both himself as well as other people was not only an essential component of this dilemma, but also contributed to the blind terror of living that he suddenly found himself in.
Mourning then, or describing the process of mourning, the person in mourning thought, would at least help set the stage and context for understanding the aetiology of this quagmire. Mourning consisted, for example, in the person in mourning waking up each day; a seemingly unremarkable thing unless one considers the deceased, who would never wake up again, and one feels the guilt and wonder and sacrilege that accompanies the simple act of waking up. Sacrilege, — the person in mourning would politely insert, is a word that he liked to use because of his religious background— a word usually used for those who doubt the existence of a non-being, but which the person in mourning liked to —cleverly and sophisticatedly— use for the indignation expressed that one should be instead, given the disbelief that accompanied living at all, since the deceased was now no more. The person in mourning also found himself sleeping a lot, an awful lot, which worried the people around him also in mourning because it isn’t right they say, to be sleeping so much. To which the person in mourning decided to see someone to appease the other people in mourning, much to—he was sad to observe— their chagrin and consternation, for to see someone implied something wrong with the person in mourning, when effort should be placed on remembering the struggle that the deceased had gone through instead. It was unhealthy, the person in mourning felt, to be sleeping so much, when he wanted to be awake to mourn, he told his psychiatrist tiredly, and all he wanted, was —very simply, straightforwardly— some drugs that would make him better. His psychiatrist—who had earned both degrees in psychiatry and psychotherapy and had a subspecialty in suicidology— listened patiently to the person in mourning with a face well practiced in patience and understanding, making little uh sounds when the person in mourning lost his train of thought and felt language leave him. It was normal, the psychiatrist with the subspecialty in suicidology said, after the person in mourning had finally finished his plea, to feel this way, perfectly normal, that the person in mourning had given him such a shock, just turning up at his office like that, but it was normal to be sleeping so much, it was just a natural way of coping, nothing to worry about at all. Furthermore, the psychiatrist with the subspecialty in suicidology said, the person in mourning should be glad and thankful that he had had a good relationship with the deceased, that at least the deceased hadn’t died suddenly and unexpectedly—for that was the worst you know—, and to take comfort in the fact that the shattering and living terror that the person in mourning was feeling was all very perfectly normal so no! there was no need for medicine to make things better, for the person in mourning would be back up and about in no time!
I lagged behind and dimly saw
your receding back
and the nearing glacier
Springing over crevasses,
you flew with the invisible wings earned by
praying so hard for your existence to be mythical
I stared into its depths and
dissolved and became
streaming down sliding
passing glacial caverns
until I saw the volcano beneath
and wished to die or to be
vomited out to sea
reacted with the elements
and ossified instead;
for the rest of history
while you still stand there,
terrible and sublime.
It was her who saw me off at the airport, but it wasn’t her any more when I returned and screamed tormented at the arrival hall. Just off the plane, I struggled against my new and terrible world like a newborn calf half-out of its mother’s womb; my feet still kicking listlessly in Manhattan, my body still in the air above oceans and monsters but my vision locked on the scene illuminated by the glare of the nightmarish sun that hung above Singapore. I laughed, cried and fought to free myself from the folds of the disconcerting moist darkness that carried me. When the strangers started pulling the coffin out of the van I screamed and had to be cradled. When they gestured for me to look at her I shook my head, held my ground, and had to be gently led. When I saw that petrified, waxed face, I stood enchanted. At night, I crept down to talk to her; the way children whisper earnestly to their soft toys in the dead of night, believing that they can hear and understand them.