Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

She Crumbled and Turned to Ashes

by Clarissa Goenawan

At first, nothing was unusual.

      I was on the phone with my sister. She sat at her desk by the window in her rented room in Akakawa. The sun shone through the curtain, casting brown highlights on her long dark hair. She asked me question after question, but I just mumbled one-word answers, impatient for the conversation to be over. But then, before my eyes, she crumbled and turned to ashes.


I woke up in a black sedan; the dream would have slipped from my mind, had it not been for the white porcelain urn in my lap. Resembling a short cylindrical vase, it was decorated with a painting of a flying cuckoo and chrysanthemums. Inside were the ashes of my sister, Keiko Ishida, who had been only thirty-three when she died.

      I loosened my tie and asked Honda, “How much longer?”

      He turned the steering wheel. “Almost there.”

      “Mind putting on some music?”

      “Of course not,” he answered, flicking a button.

      The radio played Billie Holiday’s “Summertime.”

      For a Friday afternoon, the journey was smooth. The sun was high, no traffic jam in sight. Even the music was relaxing, the kind meant to make you drum your fingers to the beat. 

      My hands tightened involuntarily around the urn, and I stared at it. Honda glanced at me for a second before turning his eyes back to the road.

      “Keiko used to love jazz,” he said.

      I nodded, unable to speak. The small stack of cassettes that made up her collection—what would happen to them now?

      “The funny thing was, she couldn’t name a single jazz musician,” he continued.

      I cleared my throat. “You don’t need to be knowledgeable to appreciate jazz.”

      “Well said, Ishida.”

      Actually, it was my sister who had first spoken those words to me.

      Even now, I could picture her sitting at her desk, her hand twisting the phone cord. A self-satisfied smile on her face as she murmured, “You don’t need to be knowledgeable to appreciate jazz.”

      Strange that this image was etched in my mind, though I’d never seen her rented room—I had no idea what it looked like.

      “We’re here,” Honda said as the car pulled up to the entrance of the Katsuragi Hotel.

      “Thank you for your help arranging the memorial service,” I said.

      “Don’t mention it. Keiko’s done a lot for me in the past.”

      I nodded and got out, still clutching the urn. I was already heading through the entrance when I heard him call after me.


     I turned. Honda had already wound down the passenger window.

      “What are you going to do with . . . ?” He scratched the back of his neck, looking at the urn.

      “I haven’t decided yet.”

      “If you want the ashes scattered at sea, we can ask the crematorium staff. They’ll handle it for a small fee.”

      “That won’t do,” I said. “My sister was afraid of water. She couldn’t swim.”


Honda and my sister had taught at the same cram school. It was he who had arranged my accommodations.

      “It’s sparsely furnished, but cheap and livable,” he had said, a completely accurate description. A queen-sized bed, a small television, a wardrobe, and a dressing table with matching chair—that was all. The furniture was dated but functional. Relatively clean, the room had an en-suite bathroom and a slightly musty odor.

      I placed the urn on the dressing table and looked at my watch. It was two-thirty, so I had an hour to make my way to the police station. I took off my suit and left it hanging over the back of the chair. I needed to shower, to wash away the smell of the funeral incense.

      Sliding the bathroom door, I glanced at the dressing table. The urn stood there silently.


I arrived at the police station to find a lone young officer manning the counter. I was the only visitor. When I gave the man my name, he stood to open the office door.

      “Follow me,” he said, and I did, surprised he would leave the counter unattended.

      The officer led me down a cramped corridor and gestured for me to enter a room on the right. I knocked on the door twice, took a deep breath, and turned the knob.

      “Excuse me,” I said.

      A middle-aged man sat behind a desk piled high with folders. His hair was thinning, and he wore a faded black suit over a crumpled white shirt. For a police officer, the man dressed sloppily.

      The room we were in was windowless and smaller than I’d expected. Perhaps it was designed to make visitors feel claustrophobic. The desk ran from wall to wall, dividing the office in two. I wondered how the officer managed to get to his chair each morning. Did he climb over the desk, or crawl underneath it?

      He looked at me. “Mr. Ren Ishida?”


      “Please, have a seat.” He motioned to the two empty chairs in front of the desk. “I’m sorry for what happened to Miss Keiko Ishida. This must be a difficult time for you and your family.” He shifted the folders over to one side and handed me his business card. “I’m in charge of Miss Ishida’s case. You can call me Oda.”

      I nodded and read the card: hidetoshi oda, senior detective.

      “Mr. Ishida, I need you to tell me as much information as you can.” He took out a tape recorder. “May we proceed?”


      The detective pressed the record button, looked at his watch, and began a well-rehearsed script. He gave the time, date, and location of the interview before introducing himself and me. I confirmed my identity, and he started with the official interview.

      “Tell me about your sister,” he said. “Were you two close?”

      “I suppose so. She called at least once a week,” I answered.

      “When was the last time you spoke to her?”

      “Last Monday.”

      He turned his table calendar to face me. “That would have been the sixth of June?”


      “June 6, 1994,” he muttered into the tape recorder. “And what did you talk about?”

      I stared at the blank wall behind him. “Nothing much, just the usual stuff.”

“Can you be more specific?”

      I took a moment to recall our last conversation. What had we talked about? Yes, of course. We’d talked about my date.

      “Did you go out with Nae this weekend?” my sister asked.

      “Uh-huh,” I answered. “The obligatory Saturday night date.”

      “Where did you go?”

      “An Italian restaurant.”

      “The fine dining kind?”

      “I guess it counts as one.”

      “Really?” she exclaimed. “I wasn’t aware you had such refined taste.”

      “It was Nae’s idea, not mine. She learned about it from a fashion magazine.”

      “Was it good?”

     I snickered. “Far from it.”

      “What happened?”

     Where should I start? “Service was slow, the pasta was bland, and it was expensive. I should have known what to expect when taking restaurant recommendations from a fashion magazine.”

      She laughed. “Are you sure your expectations weren’t too high?”

      “Trust me,” I said, “it was bad.”

      “And where did you go after that?”

      I paused. “Nowhere.”

      “What?” She raised her voice. “That was all?”

      “Yes.” I echoed, “That was all.”

      “Are you for real?”

      “Is it me, or do you sound disappointed?”

      “I am disappointed,” she said. “You’re so boring for someone so young.”

    “Don’t talk like you’re an old woman. We’re only nine years apart. Anyway, what were you expecting?”

      “People your age would usually go for a romantic walk after dinner. Or are you withholding the best part from me?”

      “Sorry to disappoint you again, but she went straight home.”

      I wasn’t lying, but that was only part of the story. Nae and I had had an argument during dinner. To be fair, I was already in a bad mood. The restaurant’s lackluster food and poor service made it worse. So when Nae kept pressing me with questions about my future plans—our future plans, according to her—I became agitated.

      “You’re so desperate to get married,” I said. “Are you afraid you’re going to be the only one left on the shelf?”

      I realized I’d gone too far when she stood and grabbed her bag. She hadn’t even touched her main course.

      “Don’t expect me to talk to you again until you’ve apologized,” she said before storming out.

      I sighed. Nae was stubborn. She would carry out her threat, but that was fine. I needed a break. Lately, all of our conversations were about marriage, even though I’d told her I wasn’t ready. A little distance could be a good thing.

      I left the restaurant soon after she did. On my way to the train station, I saw a bar across the street. I went in and ordered a beer. A woman took the empty seat next to me. We started talking, and I ended up having more drinks than I intended to. She was attractive enough, though I believe the alcohol and dim lighting played a part. One thing led to another, and I found myself in the bed of her upscale studio apartment.

      After we were done, she drifted off to sleep while I showered. The last train had gone, so I stayed for the night. She was still sound asleep when I woke up around four in the morning. Not wanting to get any more involved with her, I left quietly.

      Of course, I didn’t share any of this with my sister. She would’ve asked about the woman, and I hardly remembered her face, let alone her name. We had talked for hours, but the memories had evaporated. The only thing I remembered was that she had a tiny mole at the nape of her neck.

      “Ren, why so quiet?” my sister asked.

      “I’m tired,” I lied.

      She continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “But you like Italian food, don’t you? I remember you used to polish off the spaghetti Bolognese I would make.”

      “I only like it if it’s done well.”

      “I know a good Italian place. It’s not fancy like the one you went to—just a small, homey eatery run by an elderly couple. I’ll take you there when you come to Akakawa. It’s outside of town, but worth the trip.”

      I smiled, sensing her excitement. “All right,” I said, and that was the last time we spoke.

Editors' note:
This is an excerpt from Clarissa Goenawan's Rainbirds (Soho Press),
published in March 2018.

ImageClarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Singapore, Australia, the UK, and the US. Rainbirds is her first novel.
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