When Nenek disappeared, everyone panicked. She simply left for her usual walk and didn’t come back. Mum was beside herself with worry. My aunts basically started calling everybody, demanding, beseeching, begging for her whereabouts.
Nenek’s memory had been slipping ever since. It started with small things first: forgetting to put certain ingredients in her cooking, misplacing items, mistaking names. She brushed our concern off, saying it was just old age. She hadn’t joined us on our nightly hunts for months. Her joints ached, her fingers stiff. She hated flying for too long.
She had been such an inspiration for the younger women, my sisters and cousins. We were a big family, yet we often got together for meals. Our blood was thick, our love was thicker. Nenek would cook our favorite food. Rendang. Curries. Even her special rojak which we must have every Saturday. Mum told us that Nenek taught her and her sisters how to sing and hunt. Sniffing out pregnant ladies in the vicinity. Looking for willing men. Mum was distraught that this era – Nenek’s time – was ending.
“It’s not a sin, you know,” Aunt Rashida said testily after we heard the diagnosis from the doctor. “Dementia isn’t a sin. It’s part of getting old. People get it.”
I remembered Mum glaring at Aunt Rashida, while Aunt Zaiton pretended not to listen to the impending argument. We all stood outside the consultation room, digesting what we had just heard, refusing to accept reality as it was.
We made sure Nenek kept herself active, labeling everything in the house, encouraging her to write her favorite pantuns down on paper (“You know, muscle memory!” Aunt Rashida again). She didn’t want to go to the therapy sessions arranged by the hospital. She was that stubborn, insisting that she was fine. She must have been powerful in her youth. And beautiful too, judging by the old photographs Mum had dug out from Nenek’s cupboards. Elegant, with an oval face, dark expressive eyes. Mum wanted to sort out Nenek’s belongings. She had bags of costume jewellery, sarongs and kebayas. Most of them were intricate. She felt heartsick she might have to give them away.
“God forbid you donate them to the museum,” Aunt Zaiton said severely to Mum. “I will hate you.”
“But you already hate me,” Mum replied mildly without batting an eyelid. Aunt Zaiton hissed and didn’t speak to us for a week.
Yet, Nenek’s disappearance united the family once more. We set out in the evening, when we were the most alive, our blood coursing through our veins like fire. We started by going to the usual places Nenek liked to visit. The stray cats who saw us fled the moment we appeared in the air, our hair streaming in the wind.
“She’s been complaining how hungry she is,” Mum fretted. The oldest of the sisters, she felt the heaviest responsibility on her shoulders. “She hasn’t had her dinner yet.”
The mention of dinner made my stomach growl and my thirst grow. I suddenly recalled Nenek telling me how excited she was, going to the newest shopping mall in our area. I had a hunch where Nenek was.
It was the smell of blood, the beautiful and alluring aroma that caught my attention and made me salivate all over. Women’s blood, most piquant and rich – the fragrance was most potent when they bled. I let my instincts lead me to Nenek.
And there she was, in a cubicle, her face smeared, her teeth bloody. She had overturned the sanitary pad bin in her rush to get to food. When I saw her, she was licking the thick curds of dark blood off a pad. Her usually neat hair was wild, her eyes were fierce with light, her fingers were claws clutching the used item.
“Food, food,” she was muttering to herself. I didn’t think she recognized me at all.
“Nenek, please go home,” I said in a very soft voice. Mum and my aunts turned up at that moment. Their faces were aghast, shocked at the sight of Nenek, their mother, reduced to such a state. Nenek didn’t resist when they pulled her away, gently, from the cubicle. Mum wiped her face with clean tissue paper while Aunt Rashida combed Nenek’s loosened hair. Aunt Zaiton kept watch.
Nobody said anything when we got back. Somewhere in her head, Nenek was already gone.
Joyce Chng is Singaporean. She writes science fiction, YA and things in between. She can be found at @jolantru and A Wolf’s Tale (http://awolfstale.wordpress.com).