The Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the fifteen day of the seventh lunar month. It is actually a festival based on the virtues of devotion, duty and compassion. Legend has it that the filial piety showed by a Buddhist monk moved the King of Hell so much, that his mother's suffering was eased in purgatory, and all the souls in that domain were granted a period of reprieve. Buddhists and Taoists believe that some ghosts wander through the earthly realm during the Ghost Month, because they did not have the proper rituals when they departed from life. Or they could be ancestors of those who have neglected to pay their respects to them. In Singapore, people would put offerings and burn prayer money to appease these spirits and hopefully give them some measure of peace.
This year, I have experienced a number of strange events during and around the Ghost Month. In mid-August, I was enjoying a late morning sleep-in, half-dozing and listening to the TV. All was peaceful. I could hear my husband, Rex, brushing his teeth at the sink in the bathroom. In the next moment, I found myself standing kerbside on a footpath, looking at a spot between two residential properties. A cat was creeping in the tall lush grass along a brown fence. Either wood or Colourbond. It was a wild cat, with markings like a snow leopard, about the size of a lynx cub. Its ears were pointed, with white wispy fur at the tips, but not tufty.
The whole scene felt so real. It did not have the haziness of a dream. I saw every detail for a few moments, as clear as daylight in front of me. I felt the firmness of the footpath beneath my feet. Smelled the nearby fresh green grass and slight dampness of the soil. I could also hear the murmur of the TV newsreader in the background. But before I could take a step towards the cat, I was back in bed.
That same afternoon, when I was waiting for Rex to lock up the garage in the basement carpark of our building, I saw a woman walking towards me from the corner to my left. I was standing in front of the lift or elevator, and she was approaching from the emergency exit that led upstairs to the street level. She looked to be in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. Medium height, slim, straight dark hair in a short bob and pale complexion. Her white blouse had short sleeves, with small black-and-yellow print, and her straight black skirt was knee-length. It was the middle of winter in Australia, but her legs were bare.
Turning to take a closer look at her, I was marveling to myself at how she was not cold, dressed as if it was for summer. At the same time, I wanted to note where she was going, so we could keep to proper social distancing.
But she was now gone! I did not see or hear anyone open the heavy fire door. She was just there in front of the grey wall, taking a few steps towards one of the garages. Her head had been turned at an angle from me. The image of her was almost distorted, like I had been looking at a reflection from a window pane or refracted through water.
Our apartment building is over twenty years old and we have lived there for nineteen years. Rex remembers that an insurance building used to be on the same site. The builders could have even used part of the same foundations during the construction. That woman did look like she was dressed for the office or was wearing some uniform.
It occurred to me that the woman did not appear to register that I was there. Perhaps she was just an imprint, an echo from the past? Or was I the echo in hers? When we got home, I glanced at the calendar near the front door and realized that we were still in the middle of the Ghost Month. Just another coincidence?
A week or so later, I was putting a few eggs to boil on the stove for 'mi goreng', a type of Indonesian fried noodles. I turned to the knife block next to the sink, looking for a pair of scissors to cut open the noodle packets. One pair was partially blocked by a few bottles, so I chose a second one within easier reach.
Then I turned to check on the eggs and found that the glass lid was covering the small pot on the stove. For a moment, I wondered if I had absent-mindedly done it myself. But I was not in the habit of covering the pot when boiling eggs. If I had somehow gone on auto-pilot, wouldn't I be following a usual routine?
Still puzzled over the lid, I turned back to put it in the sink, thinking to give it a rinse. The first pair of scissors was now sitting to the left of the sink on the kitchen counter, as if someone had obligingly placed it there for me. Now THAT I was certain I did not do. Not when I had already chosen another pair. Furthermore, the bottles were still in the way.
I simply said: "Thank you," replaced the kitchen scissors and carried on making lunch. There was no real cause for alarm. If anything, it felt like someone was trying to be helpful.
Around end-August, Rex and I watched the SBS TV drama series, 'Hungry Ghosts', which was based on happenings centered around an Australian Vietnamese community during the Ghost Month. It was during the second episode, the scene where the chief protagonist burned joss sticks at the family altar for her recently deceased grandmother.
Sandalwood! I was sure I could smell sandalwood again, but this time we were upstairs. Jumping to my feet, I tried to find if the scent of incense was coming from outside the bedroom window or wafting up the stairs from the corridor. But it was only near my side of the bed and dissipated after a minute or so.
Once again, I was reminded of Aunty May. Her funeral service had taken place just recently and many in the family would have liked to pay our final respects in person. But with the pandemic and travel restrictions in many countries, we had to settle for the service to be Zoomed from Hong Kong to our large clan around the world. I had only got the Zoom details of the session during the final moments and did not make it in time for the service.
As I was thinking about all this, someone called the woman protagonist in the TV show by name: May Le.
That made me smile.