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Grandfather's House

To talk about some of the stories I've been writing lately, I need to talk about a set piece I've been using across very different stories of late. My maternal grandfather's house is about 30 years old. My earliest memory of it as a child was picking flowering weeds from the large garden to stick in glasses. I had no idea what I was picking up. My grandmother grew wild herbs to sell to Chinese medical practitioners. If I happened to pick up anything important, no one ever told me about it. I wished they did -- it seems like we lost a lot of herbology with the loss of my great grandmother and my grandmother. I try to pick up the things my mother tells me about the stuff, but I'm really bad at remembering the shapes and uses of things, so the knowledge is being passed on very slowly.

The garden fascinated me though. It used to have twenty mango trees that would just cover themselves in giant red ants over the dry months. Red ants are the normal fertilizers of mango trees in Malaysia. They're painful biters, and they stick to clothes. My grandfather used to burn the leaf fall from these trees, along with all the other garden rubble. The smoke chased away mosquitoes and smelled terrible. Little images like that are the things I remember, and the things that go into my stories.

The house and the grounds form the setting for the entire Finches series. The chicken coop was at the back of the house, behind the kitchen and next to my grandfather's massive water tank. We used to buy chicks and ducklings at the Kota Kinabalu market and my grandmother would raise them to heart-attack proportions. She really used to feed them. When there was a special occasion, like New Year's, she'd kneel beside the drain that led from the back of the kitchen, down the side of the garage and into the monsoon drain outside and slit a few throats. I was about three or five when I first squatted down beside her and watched the blood run. There was always a bit of leaf fall and motor oil in that ditch. They'd colour the bottom black, and if water ran through, these rivulets of oil would float up, chicken fat and motor oil. They were pretty rivulets, that I recall. The chicken coop and the ditch appear again in another story I'm currently working on. The images were too nice to pass up.

There really was a swing next to the garage under the mango trees. I think my grandfather made it himself. It had these heavy chains that were already rusted maroon by the time I got to them. It was a heavy, sturdy swing. I think it's been there since my mother was a child. Over the years, I watched it go from a muddy chocolate to orange to a sort of teal. They would paint it with what was left over from painting the wooden sliding doors at the front of the house. The monsoon drain itself had tiny rainbow fish living in them, and water convulvulus (Malay: kangkung). My grandfather collected the rainbow fish to feed to my Second Uncle's huge fish. I used to get some in a fish bowl. I still remember the way those tiny fish tickled when they nibbled my fingertips. Water convulvulus is a common Malaysian vegetable. For completely crazy reasons, it costs about RM8 in a restaurant in KL stir fried.

I also remember Sugar, my first dog. He was sandy gold, like the colour of a golden retriever. I first met him when he was chained to the water pipe next to the swing. We took him home. I really love my pets. I currently don't have my pets, and this does make me sad. No one to really talk to around the house and all. Sugar is a subject in my latest story, the same one the chicken coop and the ditch above appear in. I wonder sometimes if writing about these places in my past is dwelling on a missed feeling. The place I'm in now, this house, pretty much this entire country, still feels surreal. So writing about a country I know I no longer feel comfortable in, a place I love but also fear, and a place I don't even know how to describe as home anymore, is comforting.

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