Short Story: At the Moonlit River’s Edge by William Tham Wai Liang




Here there is so much paranoia. They are angry and afraid that the colonial powers will keep coming and they will never stop. They say that the peninsula is just a puppet nation, run by the British imperialists and greedy conglomerates…In Sumatera, at least, I am far away from Jakarta. There the soldiers and the Islamists and the Communists are going to kill each other one day. But for now I am in Medan, where I can stay with people I trust.

Our ancestors came from here, they say. This is where all our stories began. The name ‘Melayu’ itself: In old dictionaries it meant ‘to flee’. In that sense we’ve always been wanderers, sojourners in the archipelago. But how much of that do we remember today? Does any of it still matter to us, in an age of atomic weapons and satellites?

How much I miss Malaya. I never saw much of it after I was taken to prison. Five years of prison, kept in filthy cells, where they beat us if we tried to talk to each other. Funny how many whispered stories still passed through the walls of Pudu, keeping us angry and alive. And then they told me that I had a choice of more years in prison, or I could go to Indonesia to join the rest of my people. How I laughed when they said that, how they forget that this region is a mixture of faces: There is the Malay, the Bugis, the Javanese, the Sulawesians, even the Chinese. In Medan I am close enough to home that on some days, when I drive to the coast, I imagine I can see the peninsula on the other side of the Strait. But I cannot cross it.

Did he ever hope Mirah would join him? Did he think that it would be simple for her to board a plane or a ferry to meet him in Indonesia? Instead, she left the Front and returned to a conventional life. The years of struggle were over and she was tired.

Below my ugly apartment, I could hear the rattling of long-distance trains heading towards the great central station. They were bound for different terminuses, like Singapore where British border guards still stood, like Butterworth where the ferries awaited, and even towards Tumpat, where the tracks cut their way through the jungle backwaters of the East Coast.

The book in front of me was barely written. I had collected so much material. Newspaper clippings, memoirs, even arrest warrants…but there were so many stories that it was impossible to know where to begin or what I was even going to say. I knew that I would miss details, misspell names, forget how exactly people were related to each other, and I had even less faith that the publisher I corresponded with was going to stay afloat long enough. “The Party may not tolerate us much longer,” I was warned, before I set out on the project.

Above all things I wanted to write about Ismail and Mirah, but then I would sideline Haji Murad and Hassan Itam and my wordless father.


One night I had a dream.

Mirah was waiting near the damp steps of the Federal Hotel. We drove along Batu Road, where the Coliseum flowed with whiskey…


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