Growing up in Southeast Asia, the seventh month of the Lunar calendar was a strange time of the year. Buddhists and Taoists believe that during this period, the King of Hell would release the ghosts or spirits in his domain to wander the mortal world, seeking food and entertainment. People were told to be especially careful around the time of the Hungry Ghosts Festival, because wandering spirits could sometimes visit the living.
Being neither Buddhist or Taoist, I seldom paid attention to these beliefs. But everything has been different this year. These are sad and worrying times. As the weeks neared the Ghost Month, I have felt that everything around me was being shrouded or getting blurry around the edges. Just slightly off-kilter.
Not long before the Ghost Month, I had a dream about my childhood home in Singapore. I had not dreamed about the place in years. It showed the bedroom at the back of the Queenstown flat, next to the kitchen. The walls were a buttercup yellow, or maybe it was the morning sun coming in from the window on the left.
I was lying on my back on the single bed, with the doorway to the right. Someone - I took to be my elder sister - was getting into the other bed, placed against the wall adjoining the kitchen. She tugged at the sheets near my feet.
At first, I thought she was just straightening them. But she was trying to pull them off and so I told her to cut it out. Still not saying a word, she grabbed my left foot so hard that the pain woke me up.
Sitting up in bed, I saw a small dark figure in the bedroom, over to my right. Could it be something that followed me out of my dream, or was it the cause of my pain? Silently calling on the Powers-That-Be, or guardian spirit who might be at hand, I told the shadow to go away. Two loud cracks came from the glass door out the back. Like someone had clapped a command, in dismissal.
When I turned on the bedside lamp, there was no shadow in the room. But my left foot was so sore that I had to rub at it for at least five minutes. When the pain persisted, I went into the bathroom to check my foot in better light. It was distinctively swollen, bigger than the right foot. On the right foot however, was a small round bruise, the size of an Australian five-cent piece, like a finger mark.
My husband, Rex slept through everything, though he did remember being roused briefly by the sound of crackling glass. Later that day, I messaged a friend about it. He was of the opinion that a guardian spirit could have come at my call and promptly took care of my unwelcome visitor. When he said that, the same glass door went CRACK... A coincidence?
Some days later, I was washing up at the kitchen sink in the morning, when I saw something moving across the granite countertop. A large blue flask with a glass on top of it, was moving to the right. I could gauge that they had shifted a whole inch because they were right in front of the knife block.
Lifting up the flask and the glass, I checked if it was wet at its base or if there was water on the kitchen counter. The flask and granite surface were both dry to my touch.
Just as I was looking in that direction where the flask had been, an empty vanilla essence bottle and two small plastic containers moved an inch to the right. The little tubs were stacked on top of each other and did not topple. I had the distinct impression that someone was there, trying to get my attention.
This struck me as quite a feat because the flask by itself was rather heavy. I said: 'Cool. Neat trick.'
But now that I was paying attention, nothing else happened. I did think it odd that the empty IXL jam jar sitting on the edge of the sink was not moved at all. Like someone was taking care not to break anything.
The following morning, my cousin from Singapore emailed that my much-loved Aunty May had passed away in Hong Kong. Allowing for the time difference, I estimated that it was close to the time I saw the items moving at the kitchen sink.
Aunty May was my mother's eldest sister, who had been like a second mother to her when they were growing up in post-War Singapore. She had been a strong-willed personality, a vibrant spirit and full of energy. Her actions had always been sincere and her advice down-to-earth.
A wave of sadness came over me as I was sitting at my laptop, thinking how much she would be missed. Then, I smelled sandalwood.
The scent of sandalwood always makes me think of a Buddhist temple, meditation and things of the spirit. As if someone had lit incense sticks to pray at a shrine or family altar. But as far as I know, none of my neighbours would be burning incense.
It comforts me to think that Aunty May came back to say goodbye.