A child witnesses a murder


Literary fiction


James Jennings (Australia)


Not long ago the old dog punched my grandma so hard that she had blood on the bone by her eye. I wanted to cry about this and I told Viet Nam and he said not to worry.
The place I see things from is the stair. The stair is made of metal and it twists around and around. It is covered in front by a plant my mama planted there which is also twisting everywhere and clinging to the stair with brown sticks and green leaves and lovely yellow flowers. It is called alemanda. I sit on the metal stair behind the leaves and I can watch everything. I even saw when grandma made the old dog turn into sugar and ketchup.
From the stair I can see what I want. If I look up I see the sky and the clouds. If I look down, there is the balcony of the downstairs flat, and it goes all around the whole building in a beautiful open way. Our house is an old house. Downstairs belongs to my uncle. On his balcony there are nice tiles, red and white. You can run on them but you must wear shoes or they will burn your feet. The white tiles are white and the red ones are the same colour as stale ketchup. When I turn my head round I can look down on the roof next door. This roof is made of old squares of metal and, except where they mended it, the squares are rusty and dirty. This is where Viet Nam goes when he comes to play with me. He walks on the roof and curls his tail and does pieces of shit there. Nobody cleans it up and some of the pieces are grey like stones. The cat is called Viet Nam because he is lazy and Viet Nam means lazy.
Along our balcony we have white metal railings and my grandma hangs the washing all along there to dry. Along the balcony downstairs there are more railings and more washing. The twisting staircase also has a railing which you have to hold tight when you go down or you will fall. My uncle Tep takes his blue shirt straight from the railing and puts it on without even bringing it inside. My grandma says he smells like sunshine. She is friends with uncle Tep. If my mama comes home she puts her underwear there and the underwears are so pretty in the wind with flowers and tiny hearts that I watch them all day. My mama’s job is a night flower and she has so many, it is much too hard to count them. When I am grown up I will have many underwears like mama going all around the balcony and each one will be a different colour – red, blue, orange, green, yellow, and white.
Right below me where I sit on the stair there is a spirit house where we give food to the spirits who live in our house. The spirits like the food to go stale and they wait for the flies to come on the red saomao fruit before they eat them. I like the spirit house very much. It is yellow and shiny, with a pointed golden roof just like a tiny pagoda. Sometimes the spirits are not happy and they come to make a mess in the kitchen and push cups off the shelf. This is maybe because their house is on a shelf attached to the downstairs balcony and the spirits don’t feel safe jutting out like that. When they are in a bad mood we buy them white jasmine flowers to settle them down.
The night spirits are bad spirits. Grandma put a bag of ketchup water outside the front door to stop them coming to drink my blood. They drank the red water instead and flew away. But now there is a giant television screen on one of the high buildings they have built on Sihanouk Boulevard. This giant screen makes the sky go green then blue then yellow. I love it because it is like fireworks in the sky and the spirits hate it because it frightens them away.
My grandpa was an angry man and he liked to have arguments with my grandma. He was angry because he had been in a war and anybody who goes in a war gets angry a lot. That is why I called him the old dog. He was very old and he did no work so he sat at home and got angry. I know he goes with my mama in age so when he is thirty-eight my mama will be eighteen and when he is forty she will be twenty. My grandma is not as old as my grandpa. When they had arguments they shouted a lot and I hid on the stair and talked to the day-spirits and to Viet Nam so that I could feel happy and not mind the shouting. But a few days ago they shouted even more and they shouted about me. Grandma said I was going to start going to school and grandpa said no it was much too expensive and there was no money. Then grandma said I had to go to school or I would end up an old fool like him. Then the old dog said it was all that Sovany’s fault and she should have got herself fucked in the other hole and then there wouldn’t have been any little girl to have to send to school.
Grandma said that was a very bad thing to say. She said Sovany who is my mama works hard to get everyone enough rice and she had had enough of this talk. She took the metal stick which keeps the door jammed shut at night. Then she hit grandpa on the head. It was very funny because grandpa’s head melted like a lump of sugar when you put it in the tea. It went soft. After that it went red but at first it was just brown and soft. Grandpa lay on the floor and grandma spat on him. When she had finished spitting she put a big green cloth on him and pulled his legs so she dragged him along the balcony. There were red ketchup lines exactly like at Burger King when I put my fingers in the ketchup to make a long line. But the red tiles were tomato colour already so you could see nothing there. The lines from grandpa’s broken head were only on the white tiles.
She put grandpa in a place near the toilet where the auntie from next door does her weaving. I cannot say what place it is because I promised to Viet Nam I would tell nobody. She made grandpa go in this place just like when Viet Nam squeezes through his hole in the rusty roof. At first grandpa would not go in but she pushed him harder and he went in. Then she put the lid on again to keep the spirits out and anyway grandpa didn’t need rice because he was dead. After that she cleaned the tiles very slowly so the spirits would not smell grandpa’s blood, then she got her Samsung which has all the pictures of me in it and she called Sovany who is my mama. She had a nice talk with my mama and she was smiling and I could hear my mama was smiling as well. Everybody was feeling happy and I said thank you to the spirits in their pagoda and thank you to Viet Nam as well.
Today my mama talked to me on grandma’s Samsung and I could see her face on the screen. I showed her Viet Nam purring and she laughed and was happy. She told me I was going to go to school and I would become a person who works in a travel agency or an air hostess who is a lady who flies in planes. She flew her hand through the air like a plane. I said I did not want that very much, I did not want to leave Cambodia because it is the best country and I wanted to be a night-blossoming flower like her. She said I was silly and she loved me very much and in ten years I would go and work in a travel agent on Monivong Boulevard. I told her again I wanted to be a night flower with lots and lots of underwears just like her and she laughed again and again and she gave me a kiss on the Samsung and now we are all very happy and we will always be happy and Viet Nam also promises that he will never ever tell anyone about that place where grandma tidied the old dog.

Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1



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