“Durian dah mula jatuh ni…” (“The durians have started to fall…”)
We all knew what Uncle meant when he talked about durians falling. It meant he wanted to go back to the kampung, to see the orchard.
It was a story interposed with legend and myth. The orchard Uncle’s son bought, when he bought it, was less an orchard and more a thicket of wild bush. One would say of the orchard, “There’s a little bit of fruit tree in my bush” if there were any fruit for the eye to behold.
So why did he buy the land? Because of the location, because of our grandmother. The orchard was right across the patch of land Uncle had bought to build a house for his mother. Both patches of land were smack in the city and five minutes away from his sisters’ homes.
For a long time, our nonagenarian grandmother had wanted a house with an orchard so close she would be able to see the fruits growing from her bedroom window. By the time the search for the right land and the construction of the right house was complete, our grandmother had had a stroke and lost general use of her legs. In the beginning, she could be wheeled out to see the orchard in the evenings. But after another stroke, our grandmother could only be propped up in her bed by the window, to watch her son gardening from afar.
With a lot of faith, and even more hard work, the bush gradually disappeared and durian trees which were beginning to flower magically appeared from behind them. For many weeks Uncle sent enough clouds of smoke to cover the whole of Kota Bharu from the endless burning of dead trees and leaves.
When the first durian fruits appeared, the entire neighbourhood was excited. Neighbours we never knew existed came to inspect the trees and proudly staked claim to the fruits. They had lived there for many years, long before our family came, and had watched the trees barren and without fruit season upon season. They felt they deserved to be rewarded for their patience.
When Uncle talked about durians and reminisced about the squirrels he had to shoot, he shook his head sighing. He was thinking about how much work it would be to chase up all the squirrels that had been running rampant, pulling down baby fruits in his absence. He was thinking about the poor baby fruits that they lost to the squirrels and the harsh monsoon wind blowing in the night. He was thinking about asking his boss for leave yet again, the workshops and seminars and the paperwork — oh, the hills of paperwork on his desk that he would inevitably have to leave so that he can attend to the orchard.
After the 10-hour drive from the city to the kampung, Uncle would take a short nap before immersing himself in the dealings of the orchard. The fallen branches and leaves that needed to be raked, the new saplings that needed to be planted, the squirrels that needed to be hunted down, the old logs that needed to be chopped down and cleared away, the rambutan and langsat clusters that needed to be pulled down, and of course, the fallen durians that needed to be sought, found, and cracked open.
In between these tasks, he would run into grandmother’s room periodically, to show her a sample of the new salak fruit, or bring her a bowl of the ripened langsat, or discuss his unraveling plans for the orchard. He would report to her about the different fruits they had and would soon have, and she would nod and smile listening. At the end of each report, he would ask her if she was happy with everything and if she had the energy to be wheeled out to see her orchard. She would reassure him that she was very happy, though she would rather watch from the window.
Eventually, the time to go back to the city would come. He had a job, a family, and another life in another place a 10-hour car ride away. As easy as it was for him to decide to leave the city, it was always a source of dread for him to leave his mother, the orchard and the kampung. She would be fraught with anxiety on the day of his departure and cry inconsolably, until it was finally time for him to leave. She had four daughters, all golden girls in their own right, who spent at least one meal a day with her. But when Uncle left, she would lament that she was all alone, that there was no one to take care of her orchard.
Before leaving, Uncle would promise to return soon, because he did not finish fixing the orchard gate, or there were some squirrels still running around, or there were new saplings that needed to be pruned or a dead tree he did not have time to fell. She would then dry her tears on the sleeve of her kaftan and smile bravely, reassured that he would return because he had to. She would wave to him from the window as he backed out of the driveway between the house and the orchard. She waved until he was out of her sight completely, and would often continue staring at the orchard long after he had left. She would keep watch of her orchard until he returned, and be the first to report to him when the next durian falls.
(Photo is Durians waiting to fall by Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah)
Khayriyyah is a lab rat by day, writer by night.