I can never quite tell if Ma J is asleep or just pretending
The old lady in the bed next to Ma J's is in hospital because of a second stroke. When we were visiting Ma J this afternoon, the old lady's middle-aged son was also there. He was in his usual round-neck tee tucked into a pair of blue jeans with a belt made of buffalo hide. His limbs are slim, but his belly is round. His bald head, too, is round and abnormally large for his small frame.
Let's call him Ah Biao, or if you prefer an English name, you can think of him as Bill (after his buffalo hide belt).
When J and I walked out of the ward, Ah Biao or Bill followed us. Three of us stood around the counter by the nurses' work area. J and I were quiet, enjoying the break. Then Ah Biao wanted to show us something special.
"Eh, I show you something."
Ah Biao unzipped his black waist pouch and took out a small yellow cloth pouch. He untied the colourful string that secured the opening of the pouch. He weighed the pouch on his palm, gently bounced it - once, twice, three times - and peered into it. Nope, no genie.
"Inside there's a pearl." He began. "Centipede pearl."
We were puzzled and only half-catching what he was saying.
"Centipede pearl. From giant centipede." He extended his other arm to illustrate and continued, "at least one metre long. This kind of pearl only from very big centipede, the centipede so big it is almost immortal already, it wants to be god already. [ed: i think he means that it has almost reached some stage of transfiguration and spiritual transcendance?] From a jungle in Sarawak."
He offered us a look and J and I took turns to look into the small yello pouch. Indeed there was a tiny pearl, the cheap irregularly-shaped sort of pearl you might buy from touristy Bangkok or Manila in the 80s and tinted gaudily. It was about 3mm large, maroon in colour, and was sitting in a bed of rice grains.
"Oh, how is it that the centipede will make a pearl?" We asked politely.
"The centipede spit it out. Very rare lah. Only this type of centipede, very big. It spit it out. In Sarawak, only the holy man can find. Very rare."
"Oh. What is it for? Why do you keep it?"
Ah Biao took one more look at his centipede
"For business one. Usually businessman keep. Give you peace, good things."
We did not know what else to say. "Oh."
"This pearl got energy. It will eat the rice. A few days I check, some of the rice ah, they become hollow."
There was silence again. But Ah Biao needed an audience. From his jean pocket he removed a red brocade pouch, the kind that the traditional gold jewellers used.
"Wild boar tooth. From Sarawak."
He unzipped the pouch and removed an ivory-coloured hooked tusk, stained at the tip.
"What is this for?" We asked as he wished, falling into a routine.
"Peace. Safety. This one for travelling. Sometimes I go overseas. You keep it close to your body, safety."
"I also have this snake stone."
Yes, of course, a snake stone, everyone has one of those, I wanted to say.
"What's a snake stone? How does it look like?" J asked.
"You know from the snake, the gall inside ah. About this big. Black colour one, I sometimes wear here," he showed us his ring finger, "when I go overseas I wear."
"This snake stone, I take a stand of hair, tie around it and then use the lighter... but the hair won't burn."
We nodded, tired. It must be for the lack of coffee or it was the stifling atmosphere in the hospital ward beside a quiet defeated Ma J.
"You know right? Usually you take hair ah, then you use a lighter to burn, it will curl up, then it will start to burn, right? But I put the hair, like this ah, around the stone then I burn, it never burn. Haha. In Malaysia ah, very common, they want to sell me the snake stone. I say to the man, I ask him if I can test, put the human hair on it and burn. But he won't let me. Fake one! A lot of people, the sell the fake snake stones."
When J and I left the hospital that evening after Ma J had her dinner, we saw Ah Biao again at the counter outside the ward. On the counter was the yellow cloth pouch and an opened bottle of mineral water. Ah Biao was staring into his palm. When we walked by, he looked up and nodded a goodbye. In his cupped palm was the centipede pearl sitting in water - taking both a bath and a drink.
A bath and a drink. The centipede pearl could do neither on its own. It was not unlike Ah Biao's mother. A tube runs into Ah Biao's mother's nose, and to have a drink,the nurse would connect the tube to a syringe-like funnel and slowly pour in some water. And while Ma J is not completely paralysed like Ma Ah Biao, she too cannot or will not reach for her own drink. Even if the cup is placed before her and her right arm can freely move, Ma J prefers someone to lift the cup to her lips.
In the hospital both misplaced hope and hopelessness are common.