Sometimes my father would get temporary jobs decorating old lady’s houses within the area of our small harbour side town. He would come home speckled and cheerfully display his work jeans to me; “the sign of a hard day’s work”. He felt proud of the various shades of magnolia that repurposed what once was blue. At times like this, when I got home from school the house would be empty. At first I was delighted to have space for myself, I played Spice Girls loudly on my white cassette player or watched Pokémon on T.V. Eventually the novelty wore off, and when I’d come home to find Dad gone for work I would go truffling, snout in my parents papers to find secrets.
When I was ten I discovered the Mah-jong set. It lay in a small black briefcase-like box, unremarkable but it resembled other boxes in which I’d been able to paw through my mother’s old broken necklaces and pinless broaches so naturally I opened it. The inside was lined with red velvet. I never liked velvet, the sensation set my nerves on edge and reminded me of unwanted formal dresses, like the kind I’d been forced to wear to my confirmation but that should have been reserved for a funeral.
Within the box itself, however, were small beautiful Mah-jong tiles. They were ivory and bamboo (although I did not know the names for those things then) and when I used my short nail to dig one out from the set it sat corpse cold in my palm. I ran the bamboo side across my cheek and then, unable to resist, across my bottom lip. It felt too smooth, unfamiliar in its perfection. The icy little stone warmed slightly to my touch but remained cool; I thought of that same bottom lip pressing hard for the last time into my sister’s cheek as it too had refused to accept my warmth.
I asked my mother about the mah-jong set a few weeks later, I had become obsessed with it. Every time I was in the lounge I would clamber onto the armchair and reach onto the top of the bookcase and wriggle it out of its hiding place. I would touch. I would kiss, with reverence, the dead elephant tusk. It wasn’t until years later that I began to ask about questions of ethics. Not until many years later when my curious mouth would ask; “Don’t the elephants mind?” “Isn’t it cruel?” and “Should we have made them resuscitate her?”. My mother told me the Mah-jong set came from her teenage years, before I or even my sisters were born. Before she married my father and settled in a temporary happiness that was eventually rocked by lactose free baby formula and genetic disorders.
She moved it soon after, it found a new home and from then on I pretended not to know where it was. I pretended because it was being hoarded away from my sticky hands, like the precious things kept secret after a child dies; like the photos and the locks of hair. My mother wanted something of the person she always intended to be before hospitals and horror took over her life. I understood that. Part of me wanted that too. Wanted to remember what I was like before I had realised that my sister was sick and that she would not survive.
I became more careful. I restrained myself, with the self-restraint of a child who has seen her parents weep. It became a rarity, months would pass, eventually years, but even as an adult sometimes I was tempted to carefully lift the coffin lid to see the white little bodies in their rows. I would pick out two or three and roll them in my palm like dice but never drop them. Too aware of the fragile nature of even bones.
I rolled them in my hands until they clicked together, the sharp biting sound like dead teeth being snapped shut by the mortician before the body is sent to be prepared. Prepared for family viewings and little offerings being settled in the coffins. I shook them until they clattered gently but never too hard, I didn’t want cracks to appear in them, in my mother’s precious remnants of her old life. I tried to be good and while some bones were ground, burned and scattered, these ones remained as a testament to Life, not death. Something from before death. Something from before.
I decided to only go to the hiding place and look at the Mah-jong set when I wanted to be reminded of how it felt before death but time has passed and I don’t remember my way back there anymore.