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The Chase

Steadying the wheelbarrow full of dull grey bauxite with one hand and pulling the vehicle to rest briefly against his knee, Kin Langpaw wiped his perspiring brow with the back of his other hand. The fiery noon sun beat down on the miners mercilessly, and the torrid dryness made Kin's throat itch for moisture. With his hand, he shielded his face against the fierce, blinding rays and glanced up at the sun, wondering how long it would be before the foreman would announce a break.

Kin turned to the direction of the abrupt shout. Pailin the foreman, a short, stocky man wearing a banana yellow shirt streaked with dirt, was glaring at Kin with his arms akimbo. Groaning under his breath but retaining a straight face, Kin speculated what the matter was this time.

"What is it, boss?"
"What are you standing there for, man? Don't you have any work to do?"
"Yeah, boss, I was just taking a little break between"
"Taking a break?" Pailin roared, "Why is it that every time I look at you, you are taking a break?" Pailin moved closer to Kin, and looked him in the eye menacingly. His voice lowered into a threatening whisper. "I don't have to tell you twice, Langpaw, that I have a dozen other good and able men lined up for your job. If this job is too hard on your delicate bones then you are welcome to leave. Now get to work." Pailin spat on the ground angrily and stormed away.

Sighing, Kin picked up his wheelbarrow and maneuvered it carefully toward the conveyor belt. He gasped under its astonishing weight and wished that the workday were over.

His wish came true four sweltering, toilsome hours later, as he collected his daily wages from the reluctant hand of the foreman and tucked the money into his shirt pocket. He then bid his colleagues good bye and pointed his steps homeward, making for the Batang Rajang River, where he would catch a small, rickety motorboat upstream to his village.

He walked through a field of lush green grass growing in high young stalks. The weather had improved considerably, the sun still warm but with a pleasant afternoon breeze wafting through the air. The sky had taken on that marvelous midday huea glorious, tender, baby blue with thin white clouds that resembled gauzy tufts of cotton. Such tropical climate on the island of Borneo was typical, and Kin was quite used to it.

He had been born and raised in Kampung Pesang, a tiny village of farmers on the banks of the mighty Batang Rajang River. Kin's father had been an ethnic Chinese man, a farmer of pineapple and sugarcane. His mother had been the daughter of bumiputera, pure indigenous Malays. Kin had inherited his tall, lean structure from his father, and from his mother he had received sharp large eyes and skin the color of polished cacao beans. He had attended his local village school up to the seventh standard and was able to read the newspaper passed around in the grocer's shop every morning. After he had saved some money as a miner, he aimed to travel to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to seek his fortune.

Trudging along the rough dirt path, he pulled out a pack of cheap cigarettes and placed one in his mouth. Lighting it with a matchstick, he drew in the sweet scent of tobacco and slowed his pace. He came to the edge of a large teak plantation. He paused there, and pulled out one more cigarette. He contemplated whether or not he should take his usual route along the edge of the plantation or try his luck at a shortcut and steal across the plantation instead. At the thought of the hot bowl of sticky rice and steamed vegetables lovingly cooked by his mother and waiting for him on the mud floor of his hut, he made his decision and gingerly stepped over the short bamboo barrier of the plantation.

He had never taken this shortcut before, but he stood tall and walked steadily, relishing his cigarette and humming a catchy popular song. He thought about going to a big city in a few months' time. The only time he had been outside of the island of Borneo was many years ago when he and his father had traveled on a cargo ship to the Spratly Islands as part of the fishing crew. He wondered what he would find in the big city across the South China Sea. Perhaps he would have his own businessperhaps a clothes shop or a small restaurant. Maybe he would be able to take a brief degree course and enter a profession. He was certainly smart, enough, as the headmaster of his school used to say about him. He would definitely find a bride there, a beautiful maiden who would love him more every day. He would marry her, and he would build a house, and then they would have a family, and then…

Engrossed in his thoughts, he suddenly looked about him and realized that he had no idea where he was and how he had got there. Dusk fell as he trod the forest floor, still damp from the rain of the morning before. The sky became alarmingly dark, and the only light for miles was a Chinese lantern glowing softly orange on the porch of the plantation house. Cursing, he realized that had he taken his usual route, he would have been home by now. The twilight closed in around him like a jail cell, and he was solitary in his intense fear.

The twittering of the night creatures crawled under his skin. The birds seemed to be chattering farewells to one another. An owl hooted in an old, trembling voice while another answered it. The moon, very flimsy and feeble tonight, sidled its way up across the dark silhouettes of the enormous teak trees.

A hysterical, wailing din abruptly sounded in Kin's ears. Terrified, he began to sprint in the opposite direction of the noise. Stray branches skinned his limbs and insects swarmed around him, but his legs swallowed the distance in large gulps. He was driven by fear.

He could no longer see where he was going. Darkness had engulfed the land. Kin felt himself slam hard against a something solid.

It raised its fierce head just as the moon bloomed into a brilliant shimmer. Its two horns were short, stubby, and looked sturdy enough to break diamonds. Its body was almost as large as an elephant's. The eyesthe eyes took his breath away with the ominous gleam locked within them. It was the ugliest creature Kin had ever set eyes upon.

It took a few steps back as Kin watched, stunned. Then it charged forward. The next thing he knew, Kin had a deep gash in his abdomen. He knew immediately that he had to run, as fast as possible and as far as possible. Otherwise tonight he would breathe his last.

He felt it charging behind him no matter how quickly he ran. He willed himself to run even faster but it was physically impossible. He prayed to God to save his life. He screamed for help in a voice so tremulous that he did not believe it was his.

He realized he could run no longer. He came to a tree and clambered up it as fast as he could. His arms and legs were skinned badly, his stomach was bleeding profusely, and half his clothing had been ripped into shreds.

He could see it lurking around the trunk. He could feel it breathe.

He spent the night in the tree, clinging tightly to the thin branch on which he sat.

The night passed in what seemed like days. At daybreak, Kin peered down the trunk of the tree and saw nothing but emerald moss. He dismounted from the tree rapidly and strode as quickly as he could toward the gushing sounds of the river, which had come alive after the silent night. An old man in a rowboat ferried Kin across the river, after which Kin plodded to his hut.

He finally set his view upon his home. He felt as if he hadn't been home for a lifetime.

"Kin!" His younger sister, Mei, spotted him through the doorway. She tore out of the house and wrapped her arms around her brother. "Kin, where were you? Mummy, Kin is here."

His parents rushed out of the house, both of their faces stricken with anxiety.

"Kin! Oh, Kin, my son, my beloved son, we were so afraid for you!" his mother wept into his chest.

His father demanded an explanation.
Kin opened his mouth to respond to his family, but before he knew it he had collapsed on the ground.

Later, he lay in bed and Mei put a tin glass of warm, frothy milk to his lips. He closed his eyes and remembered the icy glint in the rhinoceros's eyes, as he would for years to come.

By Nazia Ali

Book review

The lovely bones

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Thus starts Alice Sebold's gripping novel, "The Lovely Bones". Susie Salmon, the protagonist of the story, is speaking to the reader from heaven, a place which has prematurely become her permanent home since the day she was murdered by a strange neighbour named Mr Harvey. Susie watches life continue on earth without her, and the novel tells the tales of the lives of the people who were once there in her life.

There's Susie's father, Jack Salmon, obsessed with his daughter's death and strongly suspecting the right man; except there isn't enough evidence to back him up. His wife, Abigail is estranged from the family once the grief of losing a daughter sets in and distracts her pain in ways that lead to the collapse of their loving marriage. Susie's sister, Lindsey is also a victim of the murder; in a way quite different though.

Everywhere she goes, people seem to see only her dead sister's shadow on her and their pity does little to help her move on. Her younger brother, Buckley, who's hardly old enough to understand that his sister's gone forever, is slowly left to realize and struggle with the dreadful truth. There's Raj Singh, Susie's crush who comes to accept her death; while another girl, Ruth, cannot seem to let go of it.

A major tragedy such as this affects everyone who's part of the family. Their lives are forever altered; the shadow of Susie's death haunts each and every one of them. Some old bonds break under the weight while some are strengthened. New relationships are formed. Susie watches all this from a place where nothing can touch her; and yet the safety offered by her heaven does not compare to the ability to share, that has been robbed off her. She celebrates with every triumph of her family, grieves with their losses, watches, fascinated, as their lives branch out, grow and keep growing. She sees her murderer run to hide from one place to another and yet is helpless when it comes to giving clues to the ones desperately seeking him.

The novel is a poignant reflection on how death of a loved one can change the course of life. It is also an appreciation of life itself, the continuity of it despite its brevity. Winner of the American Booksellers Association's "Book of the Year" award, "The Lovely Bones" is a great read if you want something that's interesting, influencing, slightly disturbing even; but mostly unforgettable.

Comments? Queries? If you've read the book, tell us what you thought of it. Mail to rs.readers@gmail.com. If you've got an entry for our 500 Feat, hurry up and send it now. The contest closes on April 28.

By Maliha Bassam


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