Water bodies | First place, VU Short Story Prize

The victim’s stomach is filled with water.
A hose is placed
in the throat.
A plank is then placed
across the distended stomach.
And the kempeitai soldiers,
one on each end,
forcing out the water from the stomach.1

Sydney 1999:
The soft throb and murmur of the water, the water by her window, does not lull her to sleep. Skin rubs against skin and the grease and sweat from her wet palms gleam on her stomach, now flat, now pale as ever; pale as powder. Come midnight and nothing can lull her to sleep.
Scenes of the harbour at 4AM: The sky and sea are shimmering mercury. There’s a half-flattened cigarette on the gravel smouldering with its butt end blowing embers, glowing amber as the hazard lights of nearby truck. Smoke rises and rises. It floats above fishermen’s cussing tongues and watering eyes, wafts along till it’s lost in the mist. Eyes opening, pupils dilating, she sees a yellow star burning on the horizon. The star transfigures into a lit boat that bobs buoy-like and toy-like towards the sky. Then slowly, the boat disappears, leaving behind a thin body of grey radiating water. Long streaks of gold cast by kerosene lamps flit and flicker as the city soundlessly floods with light.
The sweet stale smell of smoke and fish: Remnants and testaments of the dawn. She finds them in bits of mist and mildew. Still watching the window, she notices dew drops clinging, glass cocoons on glass –
orbs of cool water
dotting morning windows form
ovular clear shells.
Ovular, ovum. The shape defies its own name and nature where it bears no genus. There is no genesis. She thinks back to a few days ago, about a fuzzy ultrasound scan lying in her kitchen. It’d been the hottest day of February. She’d coiled her fingers around the phone line and peered out into the harbour. She’d pictured Listerine-blue waves of light zigzagging on the fibreglass underbellies of boats, felt flies skimming the film of oil on her skin. She’d waved the flies away from the frying pan, plucked shards of shell off warm yolk and heard piercing static clouding her grandfather’s laugh.
‘The foetus is essentially made up of water. An abortion is just water dying.’
‘But Ye-ye, water doesn’t die.’
‘Ah,’ a grin in his voice (she’d pictured his great, glimmering teeth). ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head! Panai!’
He’d been trying to make her feel better but she’d started to cry and stared into the unfurling tendrils of scorching egg-white. Snotty-nosed and sticky-fingered, she’d watched it froth and congeal.
Now in the dawn the mynahs chatter and lorikeets scatter, and down the windowpane a droplet runs, drips and slips, liquid shell bursting and arching through the air in needle-thin slivers and –
Nothing happens.
Hand on her stomach, she rises from the bed.

(中文) SHUI                     MIZU (日本語)2

Question them pleasantly,
until they give
no further information.
Question them pleasantly,
One or two hours of this
and most of them will talk.3

She was born on the nineteenth of February. Haunted by history from her birth: February, the month of the fall of Singapore. Date and month, one-nine-oh-two: When the bombs had fallen over Darwin and god had they sunk down like comets from afar.
Mama and baba had always spoken and sang to her in third person: Mama is tired today, baba is coming home soon, and mama and baba will come home (and one day, that day, they never did). So at five years old she ceased to speak in public, ceased to exist in first person. To pronounce is to become a noun, a name in history, a pronoun in time. Yet her silent childhood mantra remained –
sticks and stones can
break my bones, but words
can always hurt me.

Use when all else fails: Torture (Gomon).
Afterwards, change interrogation officer, and
it is beneficial if a new officer questions
in a sympathetic fashion.4

She’d started seeing a therapist age six. Mama and baba had been alive. He’d referred her to classes where they made you read rhymes and poems out loud. She’d never spoke much, but boy she read plenty. She’d never stopped going into offices to talk to people. They are different people and different places that don’t seem very different at all. They all try to make you talk. And always, you talk back in words that never feel like yours.
Whenever she enters, the receptionist, who always is either elderly or young, exchanges formalities and asks, ‘appointment?’
She will always say, ‘yes’ before the wait begins.

The kempeitai asked my brother-in-law:
Get women –
Four or five.
If he didn’t bring them,
They would chop off his head.
My brother-in-law left
but never returned.5
‘Humankind, mankind, womankind.’
She’d read her weathered, leather-bound journal out loud.
‘My irrational, unjustifiable justification to be ‘kind’ is that the very word is engrained in the taxonomy of our species. Human-kind. A plea to ‘be human’ is often a plea to be kind.’
What would Ye-ye Lee say? Romantic rhetoric! Romantic frippery! The unequivocal use of ‘kind’! But must we in the first place reason to justify being kind?
My sister was raped –
And only a week later,
she returned home
looking dazed.6

( –like the Rape of Nanking.
But here the figurative had turned literal; the human figure had been raped. And that figure hadn’t been her sister. She didn’t have one. The therapist nods, prods her on.)
My sister had been screaming for me –
I’d been too afraid
to go to her aid;
I feared I also would be caught when
they turned towards my sister and
they took her away.
(–she’d had no time to scream then.
But god, she’d screamed plenty afterwards; full-throated, wordless sounds. Primitive, no poetry to it. He’d knocked her down then knocked and fucked her up on the lino floor with the only discernible words being Shit and DON’T-YA-MOVE-DOLL and then she’d opened her eyes. Weeks later she’d opened her eyes in hospital and a nurse, almost-pretty and very toothy, told her that the fetus had been removed.)
Q: How did you feel about the incident?
She tortured me.
My sister was
always crying at night
but I was not really affected;
I was already on bad terms with her.
She tortured me.
(She is quiet in the daytime. But at night in bed when
purple fingers of the night funnel through the spores of her linen curtains, they poke into the wide black shrieking plughole of her mouth. There’d been one time when Ye-ye Lee thought she’d been misbehaving. He’d slapped her cheek by impulse, the way you do to someone who’s drowning.
Come morning and she will sit still. She will be porcelain, straight-faced and straight-laced. The therapist arches her spine, watches the girl’s blue-tinged lips, cocks an over-plucked eyebrow and muses –
the girl’s poise is her poison.)


After leaving the office, she wanders. Time is not of the essence. She paces, feeling time drumming in her veins. It is dilated, annihilated even: The feel of a second or minute begins to blur. Moments like this are where the world gasps for air and frame by frame you can drink it all in, as though you were a figure outside of it. Infinite, more potent anyhow.
So she wanders in the evening while cars roll along by her side, the soft throb of their throttles releasing the gases of long-dead creatures, fossilised star stuff and dust which eddy through the ether, ghosting down the lungs of the living. She wanders as the train and taxi doors snap open-shut open-shut and pink gum falls from the pink mouths of pedestrians through the air still glimmering with hot spit, all while the airplanes accelerating above-head fly far, far away so that they are lost amidst the pale gulls shitting and winding about in figure-of-eights. She strides, counting shadows, shadows and more shadows – all shapeless and traceless, darkening the concrete like piss or spilled beer from day-old bottles of VB. She comes to a standstill at the edge of the harbour where she can see clouds flush burning ochre. She does not know how long she stands there, smitten amidst jostling passers-by who bump unceremoniously into her, watching the moon emerge. It is a round pale pill.
Oh, her pills. The doctor told her she had to down two of them each night with a glass of water. So up, up towards her apartment, towards the glass of water she goes.
Images of her delirium – a great aquarium, great invisible walls girting the universe painted on her glass window. This prism, her prison. Hot air on glass, the hazy hills and skeletal, bird-like construction cranes at the edges of the horizon: the markers of the end of the world.
Scenes of the harbour city at 11PM. The neighbours say they’d seen her standing on the edges of her balcony with arms held up by her sides. Arms spread wide, a mage, hierophant. Triumphant –
Skin under the lamplight, fluorescent, she is pearlescent. Squid-ink sky and midnight sea; the tide pulling and pushing, pulsating to the pattern of the moon and radiating under the bodies of slow, slow, late ferries. The constellations of bright lights above and below the horizon are streaming, bleeding towards each other through the black; long, long gold-enamelled flags wavering in water and wind, billowing, blowing. Flowing elixir. The stuff of mirages, the stuff of alchemists. Lords and Ladies of Byzantium. Thin, paperskinned, papercut fingers outstretched, try as she might she can’t feel the burn of the lights but they sure as hell burn bright. Ghostcandles, she mouths.
Fingertips cold and tinged with gold, she steps towards the door, draws her gauzy curtains, falls out of the world’s sight.


You wouldn’t be surprised if I told you that Lee was and is the most common name in the world. Lee. Surname, first name, the name of some men and some women. When pronouncing any syllable in Mandarin, you have four ways: four Lees, four tones. But in this tongue we’ve got one.
In English, there’s hers, his and they but in Mandarin there’s ta, ta, and ta. Plural or singular, men, women and even animals sound the same. But what about the ‘I’? Need we use ‘I’? There is always an ego who writes, who welds, bends lives with their words. I’ve tried to piece things together, tried to fill in the gaps of that day. But the last two entries in her diary, I leave unabridged.
L Lee, 2000
27th February 19999
I spoke to the stars today, and they say I’ll be fine. I shall be fine. Fine as leaves of grass and paper. I feel it in my bones that I shall write about yesterday tomorrow. I shall rest today. I am –
drowsy-eyed and heavy-handed.
Black ink smears and weeps across a page,
seeping, sinking.
The reluctant pen is
dragged upon paper, and
bleeds to the thought’s satisfaction.
Friction is required to create good fiction,
so tell your pen to prick its scarred and scabbed skin,
tell it goddammit, bleed, bleed, and bleed.
Yes, tomorrow I shall bleed words and write. I shall write of what is past, or passing, or to come. I shall date the page for tomorrow today and feel it in my bones that I shall write –
I shall become an ‘I’ on paper
and I shall continue to be, yes I feel it
in my bones that I shall write about yesterday tomorrow so
28th February 1999
today I shall rest and I will write
yes I shall write about yesterday tomorrow I wi 10

1. Extracted and edited from ‘Japanese Methods of Prisoner of War Interrogation’, 1946, p4. Singapore 1943: Lee, in his adolescence, joined the men in the kempeitai’s boatyard. They were sun-spotted hewers of wood, bare-backed assemblers of watercrafts; with ears lined by island sea, hammers thumping, they daydreamt by the water. His father had worked closely with the British officials before they fled in ‘42, and so Lee had attended Raffles Institution, spent his days playing the piano or lazing in his friend’s kopitiam where he’d order tea or mugs of steaming teh tarik with kaya on toast or dahl on roti. He’d never touched a rowboat beforehand, and the Japanese Army were none the wiser. He’d gotten lucky. Uncle Dongyuan (who was not really his uncle) had been working at the boatyard, and monsoon season had arrived earlier that year, demolishing rowboats and veiling layers of soft, pungent fungi over wet wood. But one day Uncle Dongyuan disappeared. When she’d heard the news, Lee’s Aunty Meemoy spat out her tobacco, put on her round, wire-rimmed glasses. Her brown tongue rose like a worm out of a hole to lick her fingers. She’d flicked through her lunar calendar book. Water, she’d told him. Shui – that man has died through water.

2. Mandarin pronunciation: Shui. Japanese pronuncation: Mizu.

3. ‘Japanese Methods of Prisoner of War Interrogation’ 1946 p3. Singapore 1943: Even droughts are damp / sweat sticks, bodies labour for / many-fingered cassava. Lee and the ruffian child collected rations of rice in recycled envelopes. Perhaps Mother Lee would steam glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves, serve them with the kaya and brown mangos Aunty Meemoy found through the black market (through swapping opium pipes). On his way home, Lee had not bowed low enough to a passing soldier. The soldier boxed Lee in the ear. Grains of rice from Lee’s envelope flowed towards the earth where his blood began to gather; like sesame seeds scattered on dark wine. He’d never been able to hear from his right ear since that day. Jap sons of bitches! Jipun gui! The ruffian child shouted. The soldiers had responded and when they’d left the ruffian child lay spread-eagled on the earth. Lee spoke to him but he never spoke back.
4. Extract from ‘Instructions on How to Interrogate’ in ‘Japanese Methods of Prisoner of War Interrogation’.

1946 p3. Singapore 1944: In the December of ‘44, Lee thought they’d gotten his other ear. One of the ships had a hole in it. They’d asked if he knew anything about it, if he’d made the hole or could point to someone who had. He’d answered no, no, and no and they’d beaten and bagged his head. Lee’s flesh gleamed raw pink. Father and Mother had been playing mah jong when he’d limped back into the house. Father’s arms had brushed the tiles and they’d flown off the table, jade-pale smooth bodies scattering and chattering, white wild birds in flight. Lee’s ear stopped bleeding after many days, but he couldn’t hear the pitch of the piano so well anymore.
5. Oral History interview with Lim Ah Hua done in 2002 by Saminathan Moghan, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University cited in K Blackburn, ‘Society Reminiscence and War Trauma: Recalling the Japanese Occupation of Singapore’. 1942–1945’. Oral History, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 91–98. Singapore 1947: Even after the kempeitai retreated, Lee’s favourite kotipiam never re-opened. He’d stopped playing the piano, forgotten proper Mandarin and English. Aunty Meemoy, who by now had missing teeth, gave him battered copies of Enid Blyton and Li Bai. He’d graduated from Raffles later, second in his class. When she’d heard, his mother bought home the plumpest slabs of durian in the market. Year of the boar, King of jungle fruits: soft, sweet custard flesh split in their mouths and slime dribbled down their fingers. His mother scolded him – Chu! Pig! The remnants were cooked into kuay and scented rice.

6. Ibid. Oral History interview with Lim Ah Hua done in 2002. Singapore 1950: Ji pun gui! Classmates had jeered at a girl, Mai, in a collared blue shirt. The pale muscles rolling from the low knot of her hair to shoulder stiffened, the hollow of her neck darkened. Lee shooed them away. Letter of Rejection (1951, from Shanghai): ‘We regret to inform you that your application to teach English at XXXX XXXX School has been unsuccessful.’ They don’t hire yellow men. Singapore 1953: Lee married Mai. They’d had a baby boy who died side by side with his wife decades later. Australia 1974: Mai diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Six months later, the girl in the collared blue shirt was no more.

7. Singapore 1944: The soft red earth seeps, / weeping monsoonal water. / Hillsides shift and bleed. People would disappear. No one was to die in front of anybody they knew. When Lee’s father disappeared, Mother and Aunty Meemoy told him to be good. Be good and he could return. They kowtowed in front of a slanted altar where a mahogany Buddha beamed at them. Aunty Meemoy told them to stroke its wood-grained belly and offer part of their rice portions to the Kitchen God.

8. 24th February 1962 (Headlines in The Straits Times p4.): Mass war graves found in Siglap’s ‘valley of death’. Singapore 1945: The shallows of Changi beach: A dead sea, a red sea. During the week my father disappeared, the kempeitai gathered men by truckloads and told them to dig trenches and before shooting them by the water. Some fell into the trenches they’d been digging. Some were shot in the shallows.

9. Her diary entries (1994).





Joyce Chew

Joyce Chew is obsessed with creating messages across multiple mediums as a writer, illustrator and digital strategist. She enjoys researching and reading about subaltern voices and world literature. Her writing has been shortlisted for the Emerging Writer’s Festival’s Monash Prize.

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