Memento Mori by Elaine Chiew

Memento Mori by Elaine Chiew

Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013

Knit, knit, purl, purl. Fingers that tremble, muscles that have atrophied. My needles clack at cross-purposes. I’m still learning to hold them. I see the question in their eyes, what is he doing here?

This is my fifth session. Never know what can happen when one answers an ad in the local papers, decide to rejoin life. The other three in the knitting club barely look up. They are intent. Knit, knit, purl, purl.

I haven’t spoken to any one of them beyond introductions. I don’t know how long they’ve been knitting together. They give no indication they even know each other. Every Tuesday evening, we gather here, at the Trebovir Road Recreational Club in Fulham, three Japanese women—two of them identical twins, and me, the one old white man with shaking hands. They must think I’m a pervert. There’s an instructor, elderly herself, who hails from Dorset.

It calms me, I hear myself saying. My three words hang in the air, like frozen skeletons. Then, one of the twins looks up. I believe she said her name was Maeda. Her twin is Setsuko. Maeda with the swinging braid, Setsuko with the outstanding earlobes. Her ears are really something to look at—pointy, overlarge, with thick fleshy lobes. She has hair cropped short, as if to show off this one asset.

Knit, knit, purl, purl. Maeda sizes me up, then says, I’m glad. Setsuko nods and her eyes are steady as she appraises me, and there’s a feeling of being exposed. My hands shake violently and I turn red. She smiles. Not a pitying smile, not a cajoling smile. There is such a smile—at once mysterious, at once understanding. As if to say, there’s a secret, a benign secret, a lifetime of secrets, secrets for when you’re small, or when you’re tall. Secrets for when you’re blue, or behaving like a fool. Secrets for every occasion.

From then on, I can’t stop staring at Setsuko. Her earlobes twitch when she’s curious, elongate when she’s focused, curl when she’s sucking on an orange, ripple when she’s amused. This beguiles me. What earlobes.

She looks nothing like my wife. I think about Setsuko at night, lying on my bed, how she’s nothing like my wife. Jinho didn’t knit; her smile made the corner of her lips turn down, and she didn’t have outstanding earlobes. Jinho couldn’t abide secrets, had an uncanny knack of ferreting them out, and died thinking she’d solved every mystery pertaining to me. But I miss her, a kind of gnawing, gritting, ferreting kind of missing that’s all Jinho.


Can you show me? I’ve come early and it’s just Setsuko and I. Kimiko, the last person in our contingent, has apparently come down with pneumonia. Maeda is late.

Setsuko nods, a precise movement of her head. Her earlobes twitch.  She sets down her needles, comes over to me, and positions her hands on top of mine. Her touch is cold and dry.

Such cold hands you have, I exclaim.

Do I? She laughs self-consciously. She rubs them together, puts them back and says, Better?

The coldness, combined with the gentle affability of her demeanor, settle the violent tremor in my hands, and for once, they slow down.

As her hands slowly guide me, I watch the miracle unfolding before me—my hands knitting, knitting, then purling.  Setsuko says, Levadopa is known to have helped others. Do you know of it?

I don’t look at her. Am on that.

She purses her lips, her earlobes elongate. You’ve got it, I think. Just keep going.

And indeed, when she lets go, my hands are knitting, knitting, purling, of their own accord. Somehow, the continuous, concentrated motions still the shaking, control it if only for brief moments. I drop my needles, look at my hands as if they’ve finally lost all motor function. I can’t believe it!

Setsuko smiles at me. Her earlobes ripple. You see, she says, you’ve got it.


It begins to get dark at four. We turn our clocks back one hour. This is the season Jinho loved. How mulchy autumn smells, she often said. It’s like a brand new world about to be born. All the world dying around her, and all she smelled was glorious, vivifying mulch. She loved everything about it: Guy Fawkes Day, pumpkins, the storefronts glazed with white frosting, the pulling out of gloves, hats, scarves from the closet. Cable-knit sweaters—she had scores of them, in myriad colors.

Setsuko must have sensed my loneliness. She watches me with careful, serious eyes. When we finish, she watches me struggle to put my coat on, my hands trembling violently, and I can sense her eyes on my back as I shamble away. It makes me nervous to be observed so meticulously, and as if sensing my discomfort, Setsuko asks me to join her and Maeda for dinner one evening.

She says a new Wagamama has just opened in Earl’s Court, and if I enjoy noodles, I might like it. Maeda says nothing, but there’s a frown on her face.

At the restaurant, I am bewildered by the plethora of choices. I ask Setsuko to choose something for me. This Setsuko tries to do with a gravity akin to my asking her help writing a will. She asks me questions about whether I like dry or soupy, thick or thin noodles, wheat- or rice-based, what meat I like best, whether I am allergic to anything, whether I like spices like coriander and star anise. Jinho would have just assumed I’d like what she ordered for me, and most of the time, I did. Maeda becomes impatient. Have you never eaten noodles, David? I find it strange how some people don’t like to expose themselves to other people’s cuisine.

I find it difficult to explain how I’ve let Jinho do a lot of things for me after my diagnosis, that learning again to do things for myself, now that I’m alone again, seems to have shrunk my world to necessary activities.

Setsuko nods sympathetically at my cryptic sentences, but Maeda only twitches her lips, as if preparing for a grimace.

When the food arrives, it brings an unexpected moment of humiliation for me. Not only am I unable to hold my chopsticks together, I’m also unable to roll the noodles with the fork they offer me as a substitute. Either I wear a bib to prevent spattering my shirtfront or I hold the chopsticks the way I hold knitting needles.

Undone by yakisoba! I say, with a deep chuckle of mortification.

Setsuko flushes with embarrassment. We should have known better.

Maeda reaches over and cuts up my noodles as if she’s cutting a pizza into eighths. It works a miracle—the shorter strands allow me to roll the fork round less, the shorter strands bunching thickly around the tines, enabling me to eat without everyone stealing lopsided glances at me.

Thank you.

Maeda stares back impassively. She has still not made up her mind about me.


I find myself knitting a sweater. I hope it will be a sweater. I’m really not sure. It may turn out to be a poodle-sweater. Or a rinky-dink hat.

Setsuko and Maeda are side by side. I’m toying with the idea of asking Setsuko out for a cup of coffee. It’s Setsuko I’m enchanted by. Even though they both have the same pale, lucid features, the bottomless dark pupils, the incandescent smiles, Setsuko’s earlobes have bewitched me, and her smile is just a few neons brighter. And lately, we exchange looks, like two adolescents with crushes. Maeda ignores this. But Kimiko’s eyes dart back and forth. Her face. My face. She senses that the Crush-O-Meter has jumped a few notches every time we smile at each other.

We also hold the occasional conversation. I ask Setsuko to show me the woven basket stitch. She sets down her needles. She rises, smooths down her skirt. My heart rate accelerates. Maeda frowns at her knitting. Kimiko’s eyes blink rapidly.

Setsuko walks over. I’ve come to recognize her smell, a powdery smell of hibiscus and lilac. She leans over, puts her hands on top of mine. The shaking increases. A trail of heat blazes through my innards; my heart knocks and thumps to a clandestine bass beat.

Setsuko too is registering a reaction. Her earlobes are flapping, side to side. Their vigorous dancing is a sight to behold. Like flippers, they flip, flip, flip, and Setsuko’s chest is rising and falling, in tandem.  The two of us exchange a heated look.

Sit down before you piss all over yourself, Maeda’s voice rasps through our sozzled senses. My needles drop to the floor with a loud clatter. Setsuko blushes.

What kind of basket-weaving is this? Maeda mutters.

Setsuko spins on her heels. She returns to her seat, picks up her knitting as if there’s been no interruption. Knit, knit, knit, purl, purl, purl. She doesn’t dare spare me another glance. The instructor has a bemused expression; Kimiko gives a pronounced shiver.


It’s so cold now that I haven’t gone in four or five weeks. I’m feeling very sick. The trembling in my muscles has deteriorated; I can’t hold a coffee cup to my lips without scalding myself. Avoiding Setsuko. Not because of Maeda, but because I have nothing to offer her. Nothing left over from Jinho. Also, I had a dream about Setsuko. Of her lying on my bed, stripped down to a thin chemise, and her legs were made of twigs. Her face turning to me seemed so vulnerable, yet so inviting, so alive and full of feeling, yet as pallid as death. I find myself frozen, unable to touch, despite the desire coursing through me.

I look at the clock. It’s ten past seven, but I’m not hungry. Most nights, I eat two pieces of toast with honey, and even then, the dry, crumbly taste sticks in my throat.

The phone rings. A voice I don’t recognize is on the line. I don’t want to buy anything. Thank you. I like that I’m polite to telemarketers. I like that I’m polite but firm.

The phone rings again. My hiss slides down the trunkline.

Don’t hang up, it’s Maeda.

She doesn’t sound like herself. At first, I think she’s hiccupping. I’m so drawn to the sounds of her burps and the catches of her breath that I’m not really listening. But her sentences arrive intact, as if she’s spent many minutes rehearsing them to calm herself. I’ve got to go to the police station. Something terrible has happened to Setsuko. An ambulance has taken her. They found the man.

What’s happened?

Setsuko. Setsuko’s been knifed on the street.

My heart lurches, dislodges. Where is she?

At Chelsea Westminster. But you can’t go see her now. She’s in emergency care.

My eyes clamp shut. Not Setsuko. Why Setsuko?

I’ve got to go to the police station. They caught him just two blocks away, with her purse. I saw the whole thing. Maeda’s breaths are coming fast, in bundles. They want me to identify him. She gives a strange cry. I’m so sorry. I need your help. Can you come with me? Please?


I pick Maeda up at her apartment. Setsuko’s apartment, too. Even in this kind of situation, I can’t help looking around. Looking and wondering whose cracked vase full of gladiolus is at the windowsill, whose knitted tea cosy dangles from a hook on the wall. The apartment is crowded with furniture, afghans, rugs, bric-a-brac, dusty books. A white fluffy Pekingese unfurls from the couch and reveals its sharp, pointy nose.

Maeda puts on her coat. This is a lot of trouble and inconvenience for you. I am sorry. Our brother has just left for Japan. Normally I would call him for these kinds of things. We don’t have many men friends.

Maeda sees me looking around. It will mean so much to Setsuko if you come see her.  But her eyes holding mine are brown and limpid, and a bubble of unspoken dialogue blooms between us. She’s telling me that it will mean a lot to her too if I go.


At the police station, Maeda trembles, pitching herself from side to side, but has no trouble identifying the man. He wears a hoodie over his head, and when asked to remove it, he spits. His shorn skull is tattooed all over with designs of serpents and Chinese characters. A thin, long face; lips that crease into an indecipherable line. Jinho would have said this man’s future was written on his lips. He was destined to spend his life behind lines, behind bars.

I hold Maeda’s hand, and I’m vibrating her hand. My hand holding hers jitters wildly between us. The deputy on duty looks at our spasming hands, and his eyes cut swiftly to mine, before he looks away, stricken with sudden knowledge. We are deformed creatures to him. He jots down Maeda’s visual identification.

We are at the police station a long time. Maeda tells it again and again. I am filled with newfound admiration at her endurance, her composure.  When we walk outside, Maeda sags against me, her face crumples, and the air turns brittle. On the way over, she had told me how she did rehearse what she’d said on the phone, how worried she was that I wouldn’t pick up the phone or worse, say I couldn’t help. It gives me instant inspiration. In her ear, I whisper. Half-turn clockwise, stop. Position fork again. Another slow half-turn clockwise. Stop. Renew grip on fork. Eye on noodles. Check amount of coiling. Another half-turn clockwise. Stop. Maeda looks at me with sudden understanding.  Her fingers curl around my wrist.


Setsuko lies, bleached white, against a white pillow. A jolt of dread, spikes of adrenaline, filter through me. The doctor is right on our heels. She lost a lot of blood. We’ll monitor her vital signs. Narrowly missed her lungs and heart. If she makes it through tonight… the rest of her sentence is left dangling.

Maeda holds her sister’s hand tight. She starts talking in Japanese, a torrent, a gush, a waterfall of conjugations. Maeda talks as if Setsuko can hear everything. Such energetic vocals, hardly punctuated, pour from her. My eyes fly around the white hospital room, as if I expect the words to land there, transcribing themselves, writing on the wall.

Much later, Maeda rises to get us cups of coffee. I say I should go, but she halts me with a hand grabbing mine. No, your turn, she says.

I stare at Setsuko. What do I say? What is there to say? In Jinho’s last moments, her face had the same death pall. It seems inappropriate to say something so bleak. And then, I blink. Again. Twice. Setsuko’s earlobes are rippling. Twitch, ripple, twitch. Amused and curious.

Are you awake?  Her earlobes are doing a jig all by themselves.

Can you hear me? My voice sounds ghostly.

I don’t see that this whole thing is so funny, I say, crabby. Twitch, ripple, curl. I’ve only seen those earlobes curl when she eats something sour, when she’s awake. I sniff my armpits, thinking maybe my perspiration smells sour.

Her lips flatten. The earlobes stop twitching. Her eyes remain closed, and her face is very still now. Please come back. I want to say, desperate, but I realize I have no right to ask for anything. If every life deserves one great love, I’ve already had mine. A new feeling is inside me though, ballooning out with pressure, pressing against my ribcage, expanding, growing weightier. It actually hurts. I identify the feeling. I’m not ready for it, but there’s also not much time left.

Setsuko’s lips seem to grace upward. A secret for later. A secret that is memento mori. Nothing like Jinho, it’s all Setsuko, right here. I reach out and clasp her hand, and one beautiful finger crooks, unwitting, skimming, just grazing the back of my fingers. And her touch, the slightness of it, is as dry and cold as ever.

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