a short story by Teo Yu Sheng
The old lady was sitting there again, at the corner table in the food court.
Her grey hair always carries a strange sense of defiance in them; hanging freely over her scalp, the strands pull and flow in different directions, as if gravity has no sway over them. And they never grow in length, the ends always refusing to make contact with her shoulders, the bangs always covering exactly half her eyebrows. As if time has no effect on them.
After a while, I become convinced that it has to be the table that she sits in. The table that brings the time of an aged lady to a standstill. The table that keeps her hair – and mind – adrift in the air.
She has spoken to be before, a few weeks ago. I was walking home from the bus stop in the evening, and she was standing alone in the middle of the pathway, turning around to look at everyone who walked past her. I didn’t recognise her in the dim light, so I mistook her for someone who’d only lost her way. But as I walked over, I realised who she was. The-old-lady-with-the-table-that-stops-time-and-defies-gravity.
“The heavens shall bless your soul!” she declared to me in mandarin with a coarse voice, her right hand gesturing first at the sky, then at me, shaking a little as it conducted a potent force from beyond the clouds into the lanky frame of my mortal body.
I nodded slightly and walked away, as she turned her focus on to the next passerby, busily fulfilling her sacred duty as High Priestess of the Imperial Court.
She wore her usual dress at the food court today — white with small pink dots, made from cheap fabric that’s rough and unyielding in the beginning, but limp and submissive now. And as I drew near, I could see that she was shaking her head, her right hand drawing a repeating pattern over the tabletop with a used piece of tissue.
For a brief moment, our eyes met.
Her frown was deep, but her gaze deeper. As I peered into it, and as she peered into me, I could clearly see the predicament that she had found herself in. The High Priestess was imprisoned in the dungeons of her Imperial Court, betrayed by her mediocre disciples and outwitted by her jealous colleagues. No matter how many times she tried, her spells wouldn’t work, because of the Seven-Star-Flying-Fox formation cast by the traitors on the locked door. And because she was underground, the High Priestess was unable to evoke the holy powers that were bestowed upon her by the Higher Orders above. She was trapped, she was struggling, and ultimately, she was powerless. The only thing that could possibly break the formation and set her free was a single dose of concern from an uninvolved stranger.
There was no question as to what I would do for her.
I looked away and walked in the other direction, and the High Priestess of the Imperial Court transformed back into the-old-lady-with-the-table-that-stops-time-and-defies-gravity.
Cover art designed by me.