The mangroves inhale her, a buzzing, air-thick, knotted world. She has seen eighty-one years of their change—
Eighty-two? Perhaps eighty. The decades, like the roots, tangle themselves together, extend into murky depths. In her best sturdy shoes, Sik pads as quickly as she can over the silt. Her soles squelch in the softened edges. Brackish water laps at her feet, languid but somehow alive, thrumming with far-out currents. She thinks she catches the glint of crocodile eyes, but it sinks beneath the surface before she can be sure. Around the mud-flats, mottled brown crabs cling to the trees, make her mouth water with the pickled-vinegar memory, the porridge dinners. But no time for hearty meals now. She scuttles along.
The insects whine in a pulse; Sik absorbs it and her own blood hums in response. The paper flutter of wings, somewhere in the speckled canopy. She catches its tailstream the way her mother once taught her; her soul soars for a heightened breath and a flash of vivid, blurring colour before ripping away. She doubles over, groaning. Suddenly she is sweating more than she already was. That is a muscle she has not stretched in many years. Why, when there are now cameras and film and radios to bring the sights and sounds to you? She imagines what her mother would say: Careless. Arrogant. Rootless. Jam bhoi sang tao lai. You can’t have it both ways.
Still, in that one soaring glimpse through the crow’s eyes, she saw what she needed to see. They are coming.
She catches her breath and then picks up her pace, hobbling through the swamp. Her hospital gown snags on branches. The roots attempt to trip her; she drags one foot and then another over. Those muscles are also not what they once were. But she will not need them for much longer. Kuh, kuh, kuh. The bird coughs out its own song, but Sik hears familiar Teochew syllables. Go, go, go.
She goes, goes, goes. There was a time the mangrove forest grew every year, but there are few saplings now that the islanders have set their sights on more romantic plants to populate the land. All these trees are as old as she is. Older. As comforting as that is, it makes her ache. Not many choose to come here any longer. What will happen when they are outgrown?
Her foot catches on a jut of rock and she falls. Her knees nearly crumple with the impact and she hisses under her breath. Even now worrying about the future, she scolds herself, dusting off the sand and pushing herself to her feet.
The fall and the thoughts have cost her a precious minute, however. A hum of an approaching disturbance vibrates through the roots, sending the water shivering. Loud, clumsy, but too-fast footsteps, faster than she is. As she hobbles deeper into the swamp the trees seem to lean in—embracing, shielding, capturing, their earthy, slightly saline scent turning the air viscous. She does not know what she is looking for, exactly, but she will know it when she sees it. Hurry, hurry. An owl hoots low overhead. A flutter of white feathers. The shape of a woman sailing into the corner of her eye. Sik whips around, but it’s only her own shadow racing over the water’s surface. Her heart pounds nonetheless.
Then she looks across the bank and sees it. The spot at the edge of the water. The trees around it bow gently away, skirting the copse with their many legs to create a waiting little bay.
Hurriedly she finds the shallowest part of the water and splashes across. Some slithery brown creature jolts away from her in a panic. She scrabbles onto the opposite bank and drops onto the soil, panting. When she’s collected herself, she lets the swamp sink back in, and she knows she’s found the place.
The island has changed so rapidly her memories are stuttered instead of smooth. Suddenly, skyscrapers. Suddenly, condominiums. Suddenly, no more kampungs and only trishaws for tourists, and suddenly her children are speaking English and going to holidays in Japan every year, and suddenly, the city is unrecognisable. She does not always know if it still has a space for her, too old to learn the new ways, left behind in an island that no longer exists. But the mangroves have a place for her. This place, for her. It recognises her, the soil moulding soft around her limbs and the trees around her protecting.
She shuts her eyes briefly to the hum and chirping, the slosh of the slowed tides. She remembers times out in her father’s fishing boat that the waves were not docile like this. They roared, black and spitting, threatening to upend the world. But the mangroves keep them safe from those waves; they tame them. She remembers a time when the mangroves wrapped the island. Now they cling in scraggly patches to the coast, replaced by factories and farms and slim pretty trees with concrete-stunted roots, and the dragon tides lick their lips at the land.
Sik’s eyes fly open. Bursting onto the opposite bank, tripping and cursing and sweating and wide-eyed, are her three children. She swears under her breath. She has to do it now.
She yanks off her shoes as her oldest son, Ah Seng, starts making his way across the shallows. He lunges forward, but she thrusts her feet into the water before he reaches her. The mud closes around her ankles.
“Go away, Ah Seng!” He’s reached her now; she bats him away as he tries to pull her up. Her daughter and her youngest son, Ah Mui and Ah Yik, have started across as well, although Ah Yik’s face twists as his expensive shoes touch the water.
“Ma,” Ah Mui pleads from a distance. “Please come home. We already prepared the plot.”
“I told you I don’t want that plot right! I told you I wanted to come to the mangroves!” She finds the sudden strength to wrestle Ah Seng. A renewed energy has begun seeping into her veins, a new solidity firming up her muscles so badly ravaged by the illness. She sucks in a vicious breath. She has not felt this strong for many years. “You never listen to what I say, and you still dare be shocked.”
“Who wants to come to the mangroves!” Ah Yik throws up his hands. He has abandoned his wading attempt and returned to dry land. His fancy shirt is soaked through, and it reminds her suddenly of him as a little boy wet from playing in the rain. She knows all his business partners call him Richard, but he will always be Ah Yik to her, the chubby child with his singlet turned translucent, wet hair dripping into his Milo. “You don’t know what they’re going to have to do to them in ten, twenty years—”
“In the park you have protection; we can look after you there,” Ah Seng says, but his despairing expression, and the way he steps back from her, knows it is a lost battle. He can see the roots already twining up her legs.
Ah Mui is still trying. “We paid the shaman for a beautiful flower tree—”
“Flower tree! Flower tree do what? Let people pick only. Look nice nice in the park, hor? Let lightning strike only.” Sik thumps her chest, which echoes like a drum. “My ah gong died in the war, you know! He fought against the Japanese. He never get to choose his path, but he die to protect the island, you think I want to be a flower tree! I old already, don’t care about being beautiful. I don’t need you to protect me.” Ah Mui opens her mouth, but Sik cuts her off. “Need shaman somemore. Here, the old magic all connected, don’t need anything but your spirit. Huh? You watch. You learn. Maybe when your time comes you will choose to be useful also, instead of become those trees that will blow over in a monsoon! Burden everyone only.”
Her children exchange wary looks, one eye still on her as though surrounding a wounded animal. Sik sighs, even as she feels her spine straighten, her ribs begin knitting together. The magic has not yet reached her soft heart. “Come, lah,” she says gently, reaching forward as much as her stiffened torso will allow. “Don’t fight already.”
After a fractured pause, Ah Mui is the first to stumble forward and fall awkwardly into her mother’s browning arms. Sik kisses her forehead, the way she did when Mui was a girl. When Ah Mui pulls away her eyes are glistening and she sniffles.
Ah Seng gruffly holds her for one, three, five seconds, tucking his head in the crook of her neck. “Bye, Ma.”
Ah Yik hesitates. Then, finally, he puts his feet in the water and trudges over to her. He brushes against her roots, but it doesn’t hurt. His arms go around her, and by now she can’t feel his chest rising and falling against hers, but she feels his chin shuddering against her shoulder. “Aiya,” she croons, patting him stiffly on the back. Her hands are starting to harden, grow rough. “It’s okay one, Ah Yik. The path not so hard. Can always come see Ah Ma.”
When Ah Yik steps away, they are all three standing in front of her. Mui’s arms are wrapped around her; Ah Yik has his hands shoved in his pockets. Ah Seng worries the hem of his shirt. Sik smiles at them as her fingers knot and lengthen, as her hair thickens and spreads, as her roots sink deeper and further into the swamp and the land. Her view of the children fades, and in its place rises a warm wind of greater consciousness. She sees the crocodile lazy on the water’s edge; the hornbill that watches for prey; the spider weaving its web. She sees the island curving into the horizon. The boats that bob against the skyline; the buildings that perforate it. The bustling port and the floating market, the dusting of trees along pin-straight roads.
Faintly, as she sinks into the swamp, she is aware of hands gently resting on her sides, cheeks against her branches, and three soft, steady pulses merging slowly into one. An old instinct swims hazily to the surface, melds into the new. I will protect you, she murmurs, and then she slips and twines and tilts her head upward, roots steadfast in the earth and arms reaching toward the sun.