Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Bone-setter

Kim looked on with great sadness as her father lay on the bed immobilized by straps, tubes and needles all over his body. The regular beep of the heart monitor comfortingly reminded her he was still alive. The accident was almost fatal. His right thigh-bone was split diagonally from the knee to his hip and his left shoulder bone and upper arm was fractured in a few places. There was a crack in the back of his skull. Miraculously he survived.

The first time Kim's elder sister saw her father's condition she fainted and collapsed right in the door way. After she recovered she stayed around in the ward to help look after him. Once, she clumsily stepped on something while moving around the room and the heart monitor which normally went beep.. beep.. beep.. suddenly went beeeeeeeeeeeeee…. All at once nurses and doctors were swarming all over the ward in panic and yelling questions. For someone who'd lived most of her life in a village, moving around in an ICU ward was like living in an alien territory.

After he was discharged from hospital Kim's father was confined to the wheel-chair. Before they sent him home, they measured his right leg and found it was shortened by two inches. He tried to walk but it was more like a crouching and standing routine without much forward progress. And it was painful. And he couldn't lift his left arm.

One day they received a phone call from someone who claimed he was an old friend of Kim's father. They'd grown up together in the village near the jungle. During the Japanese occupation he joined the resistance movement. At the end of the war they wouldn't allow him to leave so he remained in the jungles to fight the British and later, the Malayan armed forces. The Emergency was long over but he still lived in the shadows. He learned of Kim's father's condition. He recognized him from a photograph in a newspaper article about the accident. He wanted to help an old friend. They made arrangements to pick him up from a bus station in a town 50 miles in the north.

He came. The two friends had an awkward reunion. They didn't have the chance to talk of old times. The job at hand was urgent. He made measurements of his friend's wounded leg, hip, shoulder and arm. Before they dropped him off at the local bus station, he left instructions for them to buy a free-range chicken, several large bottles of Wu-jia-pi wine and a list of herbs. The chicken must be male, perfectly healthy and exactly one kati in weight, not one tahil more, not one tahil less. They had to enquire at a few kampongs nearby before they found a chicken of that exact weight. The bill for all the items came to a few ringgits short of one thousand. Then they waited for the friend to call. This time, he asked to be picked up from a bus station in a different town.

He'd come prepared with pieces of bamboo, cut to size to fit perfectly his friend's body and limbs. After he'd checked and verified every item in the list, he was ready. He asked Kim to prepare the kitchen and get him a knife and a good sized wok. Then he told Kim to leave. She must not look. But she was curious. She peeped through a gap in the partition between the adjacent room and the kitchen.

He grabbed hold of the chicken, chanted some verses for a while and left it standing on the table. Curiously, the chicken did not move or try to run away. It stood on the spot quietly while he sharpened a knife and started a fire in the stove. Then he declared to no one in particular, This has to be done right. If I fail to do this right, I'll have to abandon this quest to heal my friend.

He raised the knife and sliced the chicken into two halves from the head to its feet while it remained standing, spilling its guts, blood and feathers on the table. He raised the knife again. This time the chicken was quartered, one piece in each direction of north, south, east and west. He gathered the pieces and threw them, guts, blood, feathers and all into the wok which he'd heated up on the stove. He poured in the wine and threw in the herbs. He stirred and stirred and stirred until after many hours he was left with a paste-like concoction. This he scooped from the wok and laid out on some old newspapers to let it cool.

He tore up strips of old clothes and tied Kim's father by his good arm, his good leg and his body to his iron bed. The whole family was asked to stand by to hold him from struggling and be prepared to listen to a lot of cursing and screaming from the patient for the pain would be unbearable. He then applied the concoction to the pieces of bamboo and tied them on to the wounded parts of the patient's body with strips of cloth.

Kim's father had very little education and most of his vocabulary consisted of the best of words never found in dictionaries. That night, for hours on end, the whole family had to put up with a whole string of expletives. He spat, he hissed, he cried and laughed, and he cursed everyone while the pain racked his whole body. But they kept silent and determinedly took turns to hold him down, wiped away his sweat, saliva and tears, while the man of the jungles told of how he once suffered a gunshot which broke his arm and had to heal himself with the same method with the help of his comrades.

At dawn, they found him sleeping soundly. The man removed the bamboo casts and threw them away. Again, they sent him off and he asked to be dropped off at a different location. They never heard from him again.

On their next visit to the hospital, Kim's father walked into the doctor's office with a slight limp. They measured his leg and found it shorter than the good leg by a mere half inch. The doctor pulled Kim aside and asked her endless questions. But Kim would never tell him the truth. She promised the man that it would remain a secret. She went home to look for the recipe but she couldn't find it.



  1. Some how I can believe. Don't underestimate the man of the jungle who lives by the law of the jungle. He has to be secretive because he is still a wanted man. The word trust, dignity and sincerity are not in their dictionary. You know who and what.

  2. And the jungle yields the best medicine if one knows its secrets. And the jungle is neutral and doesn't discriminate.

  3. when people start neglecting mother earth, we grow distant, and she will not be able to care for us. =\