The Birds Are Singing A New Song

Copyright © 3 May 1996 Patrick Khoo
PFS Creative Prose Prize 1991

The first thing she heard when she opened the car door was the chirping of the birds. They were singing the same familiar tune that she had heard for more than 16 years. She looked around. The house she had called her home since she was able to talk, looked the same as when she had left it a few hours ago. And yet in a way, it was different.

"Cheryl . . . . Cheryl . . . ," her Aunt’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

"Yes," she replied. She got out of the car and for a moment, took in her Aunt’s features. Aunty Yeap was a stout divorcee in her early forties. Her hair was not very neat that day and her face mirrored the worry and sadness that was bound up inside her. But she was a kind woman, gentle and easy going. She lived with her son Chiok Kee, a few doors down the road from Cheryl.

As she closed the car door, Cheryl wondered if her mother whom she did not have the chance to know, was like Aunty Yeap. Aunty Yeap and her mother were sisters but they looked quite different in their photograph taken together. Her mother was killed in a car accident when Cheryl was two.

Chiok Kee meanwhile, opened the door to Cheryl’s house. Chiok Kee was about Cheryl’s age except slightly taller and thinner. He was her closest companion, more like a brother to her especially since she was an only child. The two cousins were very close and now Cheryl would need his help even more.

As they entered the house, Aunty Yeap started to speak. "I’ll make us something to drink."

Her voice seemed to fill the entire house. From the sounds of cups and saucers knocking against each other, she had to be in the kitchen. Chiok Kee and Cheryl were alone in the living room. He couldn't bear to look at her. Instead, his eyes looked down at the floor.

"Is there anything I can do?" He asked without looking up. She looked around the room. The chairs were neatly arranged. The drapes were half drawn. On the coffee table was a picture of her and her father. The two smiling, happy faces started back at Cheryl. It was taken three years ago when Cheryl and her father were at Genting Highlands for a holiday.

"I think I’ll go and lie down for a while."

"Good idea. If you need anything, just call." He looked at her. She looked so vulnerable and he knew that deep inside, she was hurting badly. He put his arms around her and hugged her tightly.

"It’s going to be okay." She nodded her head and picked up the photograph on the table. She took a last look at Chiok Kee and climbed slowly up the stairs.

As she walked towards her room, she passed her father’s room. She couldn't bear to go in. It was too painful. Instead, she fought back the tears and hastened to her room, closing the door behind her.

Her room was like most other teenager’s rooms, a bit untidy with that strong feeling of being lived in. She walked over to her study table which was next to the window and sat down. Outside, she could hear the birds singing the same old song over and over again. She hated it. She covered her ears with her hands and tried to shut it out. She closed her eyes and her mind started to whirl.

Why? Why must God be so cruel? Why did He have to let families fall apart? First her mother whom she didn’t even know and now her father. Who’s next? Aunty Yeap? Chiok Kee? Heart attack, the doctors had said, but she knew her father was as fit as a fiddle. He was so full of joy and life before. He used to fetch her and Chiok Kee back from kindergarten many years ago. He always smiled secretly to himself, listening to his daughter and his nephew argue and fight. She remembered how he taught her to ride a bicycle after Aunty Yeap had bought Chiok Kee a bicycle.

"It’s all a matter of practice," he had said. Practise she did, and the day finally came when she could ride Chiok Kee’s bicycle without the trainer wheels. She was so happy that day. Chiok Kee screamed and shouted with joy while her father stood beaming. Even Aunty Yeap was caught up in all the excitement. But now her father had followed her mother. Her unknown mother. Who was her mother?

"Your mother was a very nice lady. She was beautiful, charming and caring. In some ways you’re just like your mother, you know?" Her father had said one day. She had seen her father sitting all alone in the dark staring into space.

"What’s wrong daddy?"

"Oh, nothing much, just remembering your mother that’s all. Hey shouldn't you be in bed?" He picked her up and carried her upstairs. If he was in a good mood, he would tell her a story before she slept. She liked the story about the Chinese songbird being replaced in the Emperor’s Chamber by a mechanical bird and how the Emperor eventually asked for the real songbird in the end.

"Can I have my own songbird?" She would ask.

"Certainly. Just listen carefully and you will hear the birds singing outside your room." And sure enough, the birds were singing away late into the night.

"Just like the Chinese songbird, they will keep singing even when you’re feeling sad." Just like the birds outside her window, her father was there with her all the time. Her father was there with her when she won her school’s elocution contest years later when she was in secondary school. She practised very hard and finally on the day of the contest, her hard work and determination paid off. Her delivery was perfect and when it was over, she saw everyone clapping. Her father was clapping the loudest and was smiling from ear to ear.

Her father shared his success with her too, like when he got a promotion and a bonus. His company gave him a free two night stay at Genting Highlands for completing a project ahead of schedule. He took her on that trip and they had a lot of fun. Her favorite was the bumper cars and they must have spent a fortune on it. The two days were the dearest days of her life and her only wish was that her mother could be with them.

"I know. I wish the same thing too, but the past is gone and there is only today and tomorrow. We can only remember the memories and cherish them. Then we must get on with our lives." Her father was right but she could not accept it. When she failed her mid-year exams a couple of years later, her father didn't get mad like she had expected. Instead, he comforted her and wiped away her tears, telling her that her best effort was more important than some silly exams. He was there when she needed him but where was he now? Where?

Why couldn’t he come back to her? What should she do now? Stay with Aunty Yeap? It was the most logical thing to do and yet she didn’t want to leave the house. There were too many memories. Oh, what should she do? Where was her father to advise her? She needed him now and she needed him badly. She was at a loss at what to do and her mind was confused. Feelings of anger, frustration, despair and regret boiled within her. The pain of her memories was too much to bear. She felt like she was about to burst. The memory of her father’s voice tormented her, the sight of her father’s face tortured her.

Suddenly, something made her look up. She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked outside the window. The rays of the setting sun were reflected off the clouds forming a beautiful picture. The red, yellow and crimson colours were mixed in a way no man could ever reproduce. And suddenly, in the middle of it all, she saw the arc of a rainbow. The rainbow stretched from one end of the horizon to the other with no beginning and no ending.

"We just pick ourselves up."

The clouds shifted and rolled, making the rainbow become even more distinct.

"We must get on with our lives."

But the beauty was short-lived and the rainbow began to fade.

"Remember the memories and cherish them."

While the picture began to unravel in front of her very eyes, a realization dawned upon her. Her despair was lifted, her confusion gone. Suddenly it was all so clear. Her father was still with her, and so was her mother.

There was a knock on the door. "Cheryl, are you awake?"

"Yes, I am," she answered, her voice filled with a new found happiness. Chiok Kee sensed it, and felt much better himself.

"Well my mother has made us something to drink."

"I feel much better now. I’ll be right down." And indeed, she did feel much better. She now knew that no matter where she was, her father would be with her in spirit and in memory. He would live forever in her heart and nothing could ever separate them now. Then, just as she was opening her room door to go downstairs, she realized that the birds were singing.

"They will keep singing even when you’re feeling sad."

But this time, the birds weren't singing the same song she knew so well. They were singing a new song.


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