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A Surprise return to the house of dreaming swiftlets: a short story attempt

Lutong River
Surprise
Surprise. Surprise. She never expects to go back after an interval of nearly fifty years. She never expects to see and walk on the same street and lane that leads to her old house. Today is her birthday.
The phone call from her eldest sister Liz sounded desperate. She was in fear. So being sisterly Kate decided to buy the ticket and fly with Liz-six years her senior. Liz has lived alone since her husband passed away a year and half ago. Kate has been away from her family since thirteen. The place they have landed which lies between an ocean and a river is her birth place. Her parents and siblings have all moved away but Liz and her late husband had decided to settle in this quiet and sleepy town with a handful of old families whose shops line the main street faithfully. Kate left at thirteen. She returned once in a while to see her parents before they moved. After they moved to another adjoining town in her university days she has stayed away completely.
But today Kate walks on this street and this lane again. And today is her 69th birthday.
She has forgotten the river but the river has not forgotten her, as it shows itself as she strolls to the back of the row of shops. The scene is spectacular. She has remembered a river of black water in which lurked crocodiles, as some folks warned her. She was a little girl then and was forbidden to go near it. But this beauty that reveals herself today is different. She is a class of her own: calm, serene, and breathtaking like a painting created by an unknown sublime painter of an imaginary place.
She does not mean to walk far but the same country lane entices and beckons her to walk on. So she walks and tries to remember the little house she used to live. There are big modern houses interspersed with smaller older wooden houses. She stops at a wooden house which is far inside with a driveway leading to its front. The green lawns on both sides are well trimmed. Someone has planted lovely red and yellow flowers in front of the stairs. The little house is on low stilts. She has dreamed of this place many times and remembers its details. The verandah, the stairs, shape of the house and the large garden. It is all there in this real life picture! She remembers her dad built it and they moved in when she was eight. How can this house still stand at the spot with the same look after sixty-one years? The ocean, the wind and rain storm, the river flood…the ages, do they not corrode and wear out even human looks? Has time bypassed this place? She asks.
The only change is the coat of white wash that someone has clothed the naked wood. She takes some photos with the permission of the owner. The perspective from the side makes it look bigger. Indeed, she remembers its rooms, three bedrooms and a sitting room. The dining area, kitchen and bathroom are on the ground floor in an annexed building. They moved in before it was painted. And her dad said they would paint it before the next new year. Yearly he told them, yes, it will be painted this year-end, before the next new year. It was never painted. Once she even wrote a short story about a house that was never painted. It was published by a local press. And it is now painted white.
Who are the new residents? Edible-nest swiftlet. Someone is using it as a house for the birds to build their nest, nurse their young and rest when the sun sets. The swiftlets are the new tenants. It is daytime and she cannot see them. The swiftlet nest farmers have boarded up the windows. There used to be one through which she looked at a blue, green and red bird who perched daily on a branch which stretched its arm toward her as she sat for hours after school daydreaming of the plot of her new story. She has always wanted to become a story writer. There was no TV, no radio, no mobile phone, no PC in those days. Story books were rare and costly. All she could do was dream and daydream her own stories. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter, plot by plot she dreamed them and seized the ears of any willing heart to listen to the stories that seemed episodes of an unfinished saga. The house was surrounded by lots of green trees then, tall and handsome. Her bird friend sometimes danced from branch to branch, tree to tree.
And now she is standing here looking at a forlorn habitat without the trees. Where are they? Not one tree is left behind. They too have migrated. She wonders where the bird has flown. Has he found his new home and settled down? Do birds settle down? Are they too, like humans, creatures of habits? Looking at this sun washed white house no one can imagine what habitat the birds have behind these walls, simulation of dark caves…? She likes to imagine the swiftlet parents soaring high and far to hunt food and bring home to feed their young. A man once told her the swiftlets have flight path. He even brought her to a place where the swiftlets gather because of the richness of insect supplies. He said that they would always fly through a pathway to the food source and later return the same way to their habitat. They never missed the flight path home.
Here she is, today, looking at the place she once called home. It dawns on her that she too, has a flight path home. How else can she explain this homecoming after nearly five decades? Has the flight path followed her all these years of traveling further and further from home? Like a string tied to her heart without a visible sign and yet in the unseen realm it pulls the other way, so she suddenly finds herself there without any warning? During the years when she was away she remembered the place as dusty and rather primitive, to which she was ashamed to bring her teachers or classmates. She remembers being taken by surprise when her high school Australian geography teacher suddenly turned up during school term holiday in the little town looking for her! Apparently he flew in to visit the adjoining town and asked someone to take him to her house. Her house did not have a formal address. But the folks knew each other and she was the only kid who took a plane to the capital city to study. So it was effortless to find her.
Looking at the beautiful lawn, flowers and solid white wash wooden house she realizes it looks rather nice. Why was she so ashamed of it when she was a teen? The land owner’s house has been demolished and rebuilt. Yet he has kept this house designed and built by her brilliant dad sixty-one years ago. The present owner is the eldest son of the former land owner. He is pleasantly surprise when she introduces herself even though he cannot remember her. He remembers Liz and all her other siblings except Kate.
I was the little girl who left at thirteen. She explains. He smiles and nods his head. What is your name? He asks kindly. Kate. He seems confused. There is no Kate in his recall. She asks him how old he is. 77, he says. You? He asks. 69. She replies. I have never seen you, he says. She too has never seen him. I know your younger brothers. She mentions some names. Then he tells her one of them had died. What do you do? He asks. She tells him she is a writer. From his silent response she knows the answer is beyond him. However, he is too polite to ask her how she really makes her living. You have a family? She shakes her head. Then he says that it’s better as she can be free to travel where she likes. Have you traveled away from here? He shakes his head. No, I am always here.
She waves goodbye and walks back toward the row of shops that line the main street. She notices that they bear the same old names just as they have been known for decades. There are few new names. The old signboards. The same layout of their wares. The old wooden shelves. The glass display cupboards. The goods. The trade. The faces of the shopkeepers, the children of those who passed away. Nothing much has changed. When she reaches a cafe named “United Profit” she decides to have a cup of coffee. As expected, her old primary school classmate “Beautiful Flower” greets her. She cannot recognize Kate. Kate remembers her. She asks, are you Beautiful Flower or Gentle Flower? They are two sisters. The lady answers, Beautiful Flower. Who are you? I am Blue Flower. Kate answers, removing her sunglasses.
Kate’s real name is Blue Flower, a name she hated and changed the minute she left home. The lady’s wrinkled face cracks as she smiles. I cannot believe it. I just cannot. Blue Flower. O Blue Flower. Is it really you? You look so different now! Kate has dyed her hair medium brown but it turned light gold in the process. She doesn’t know why. Perhaps her real hair color has turned white. What a nice surprise! Beautiful Flower exclaimed. Kate doesn’t remember much about her. But Beautiful Flower says, I was your classmate until form five (equivalent to Grade 12). Kate pretends she remembers as the lady enthusiastically talks about the past. At thirteen the children left this little town and went to a bigger town to continue their secondary school education (Grade 7-12). So Beautiful Flower was one of them. But she returned after Grade 12 and took over her dad’s business since then. Have you ever left this place? No. Travel? No. Joined any clubs? No, unless you count joining our clan association too. Clan association membership is hereditary. Being the eldest child, Beautiful Flower was automatically awarded membership at the demise of her dad. Beautiful Flower seems genuinely elated to see her. Why? Kate wonders.
She decides to ask whether Beautiful Flower ever thinks about the meaning and purpose of her life? She has never married. No suitors? No interest or hobby. Daily she sits in the coffee shop and manages the business. Her younger siblings work for her. They seem contented and easy with lives. No stress. They live above the shop. The married ones move out. Four sisters remain unmarried and one had died young. Kate shares her own testimony of how she encountered God at the peak of her professional career with ample material comfort. She felt empty and meaningless to continue with life as she watched some of her close friends suffered incurable pains, illness and death. One day she went with a couple to a worship meeting and God poured his love on her. That was the beginning of her journey with God. she challenges Beautiful Flower to ponder over this life and death matter. They briefly talk about three women, all their former classmates, one died of childbirth, two of cancer.
Beautiful Flower, we just cannot live life without a purpose. What is yours? Find yours. Kate challenges her.
Yes, Blue Flower, I will ponder over this. I am so so happy to see you. She says. Kate wonders why.
They have black coffee and take a picture together. they exchange phone numbers.
Please come back to see us again. As Kate leaves Beautiful Flower urges her.
Why such an encounter? Kate asks. Then she remembers Beautiful Flower. A student who failed her primary six exams and had to repeat one year and thus became Kate’s classmate. In the secondary school she had the same struggles to pass exams and Kate offered to help her, took pain to explain the lessons and helped her with homework. Was Kate exceptionally good to her alone? No. Kate has lived her 69 years (minus the toddler’s time) trying to help others, the weak and the sick. She just felt it was her duty. She did not particularly love them but she looked out for those in needs and tried to meet their needs.
A boy failed his exam and had to repeat and became Kate’s classmate too, like Beautiful Flower. His name was something like Glory. But he was just the opposite. In those days, teachers beat up kids who could not perform in class. Beating became this boy’s daily routine by default. Kate felt it her duty to help him out of his dire straits. She really tried. She made him learn lessons during recess time. She taught him shortcuts to memorize important facts. But he soon fell asleep and snored loudly. It was impossible. He received his daily beating for six years. And he quit school after that.
Beautiful Flower managed to pass exams. It was like a little miracle.
Yes, we all have miracles, big and small. Kate smiles to herself. Today is her birthday and she has two presents. Miraculous presents. Who would have thought she could find her way, her flight path, home after all these years? Or rather, who could have imagined that the flight path has found her after nearly six decades? Blue Flower has returned home after all.

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writer for others, and other things.

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