eight breaths

jee chan

breath. on monday, I went to the sea. I left this studio, walked out of this building,

turned left, crossed the overhead bridge, had 叉 燒 飯

for lunch, walked down

mountbatten road, meandered off onto fort road, walked straight on and arrived at

katong park to my left. the day before, my father told me that he remembered the

shoreline to have once been right here by this park. I looked around for clues. it

was hot and damp. to my left was a construction site for the new mrt line. to my

right was the ecp highway. straight ahead of me was a sign put up by nparks and

the national heritage board. the title read “katong - the early years”. I put my bag

down on a nearby bench and read it. I wondered how many people had stopped

to read this sign. I spotted three more of these signs and read them - “fort tanjong

katong”, “the war years” and “katong park in its heyday”. a construction worker was

lounging on a bench. we exchange looks. I peered into an exposed archaeological

site (I don’t think I had ever seen this before), stopped to look at a tree, its strange

bark colourful and peeling, and then eventually slid down the underpass —

underwater — and emerged on the other side where there is a canal. breath. I

follow the canal. it’s hot and my skin is flush. two girls cycle beside each other in

silence, the canal widens, my heart quickens, I turn a bend and I see the first ships

on the horizon. an elderly couple pat a dog, all three of them look at me but I don’t

return their gaze. asphalt gives way to soil and then to sand. I climb onto the rocks,

past a woman and a dog. they look at me but I don’t return their gaze. I walk to the

edge and meet the sea - this sea, whom I last met a year and a half ago, after popo

passed. breath. ‘tanjong’ is malay for cape, a point of high land that juts out into

the sea. ‘katong’ was a species of sea turtle that is now extinct. it also refers to the

rippling effect of a sea mirage when looking out from shore. breath. I look around.

there is an orange glow in the horizon to my right, over the cluttered skyline. it’s

raining over the city. I take off my shoes, my socks and feel the warm rock radiating

through my heels, the back of my calves, the outside of my thighs, my butt, I lie

down, slowly, the warmth rolling up my spine, my arms, through my shoulders,

finally touching the back of my skull. my eyes are closed (I don’t remember closing

them) and I blink them open again. I turn onto my side and a small crab is staring at

me. we stare at each other. the crab is almost the same colour as the rock it sits on

whereas I am not. we are both completely motionless. breath. popo escaped from

廣 東 when the japanese invaded in 1937, first to hong kong and later to singapore.

she fled in a boat with her aunt and a brother, the latter of whom died at sea, on a

journey which lasted months. I think of him sometimes. once I asked her if she

could remember anything from being on the boat. she looked away from me and

shook her head, muttering “ 凄 凉 … ”, something which she used to say pretty often.

I always struggle to translate this phrase into english. I don’t know any english

words which can possibly bear the sentiment this phrase evokes (how do we

translate anything, really?) breath. at some point my gaze had floated out onto the

horizon and I catch myself, darting my attention back to the crab but it was gone. I

drag my gaze back out onto the horizon and a bolt of lightning suddenly blazes

across the sky. the ships, the waves, everything, the crab who disappeared, all of it

exploding and leaving behind just their outlines. my eyes squeeze shut and that

image is printed onto the back of my eyelids. I lie there, on my side. the image

bleeds and fades. I open my eyes. breath. I sit up and drink some water from my

bottle. I don’t really know what time it is. little raindrops start to fall. breath. popo is

my grandmother, but we are not related by blood. I once read somewhere that

blood can be thought of as one’s personal ocean. not only is blood mostly water,

but the watery portion of blood, the plasma, has a concentration of salt and other

ions that is remarkably similar to sea water. one of the few if not only differences

between the two substances is that blood, unlike sea water, is always poised to

clot, to relinquish liquidity and assume solidity. some membranes, like our human

skin, give the illusion of impermeability. still, we perspire, urinate, ingest, ejaculate,

menstruate, lactate, breathe, cry. we take in the world, selectively, and send it

flooding back out again. as I sit by the sea, the rain falling heavier around me, I

realise how my selection navigates other membranes too, some arguably more

subtle than skin — those that are either too ephemeral or too monumental to be

perceived as easily — a weather front, a gravitational threshold, a wall of grief, a

coastline, the equator, a mirage, death.

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