Singing with Stompers
by Elise Ho
Minh hears the Stompers. Do you hear them too?
Minh can hear them from this unfamiliar city, across from this waiting room. They are ginormous legs, gigantic legs. They break through the sunless sky, pounding along the city edge. When Minh hears the Stompers, she wants to make music too. She wants to make noise as big and grand, as rhythmic as Mum’s old singing band.
Far off in the distance, Minh hears the Stompers as their ghostly march builds. She hears their leather pointed toes, marching across the empty fields. THUMP.
Sitting in waiting chairs, people’s bottoms jump.
Minh clambers atop the plastic seat, matching her scuffed runners to the faraway beat.
The Stompers THUMP.
And Minh’s shoes stomp along with a Crump.
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
Minh bounces up and down, up and down like she is striking a gong. Crump. Crump. BUMP.
“Keep the noise level down please,” the front-desk man asks politely as he fixes the knocked-down plastic tree. “The people here are busy filling in some papers, you see.”
Minh tells Mum there is nothing else to do, and Mum tugs Minh onto her lap. Her porcelain fingertips mime air piano over Minh’s kneecap.
Her nails tip and tap and toe.
Minh follows, their hands drifting together like soft falling snow.
Minh gets distracted. Do you get distracted too?
It is her first day at this unfamiliar school, in Minh’s unfamiliar city where everything is new. The kids are sliding down the slides, swinging up the swings. But Minh wants to play a song like she is plucking elegant strings.
Far off in the distance, Minh hears the Stompers as she peers beyond the monkey bars made of steel. She hears their stiletto heels, sharp as fangs, shooting past buildings with a BANG.
The kids in the playground speak in that unfamiliar slang.
Minh grips the climbing frame chains, swishing it against the pole and producing a metallic Clang.
Clang. Clang. PANG.
“You’re getting distracted. Don’t you want to play with us?” Anne huffs, hands on her hips. “You sound like those stompy feet whenever one of them slips.”
Minh no longer wants to be like those oversized feet. She’s heard that they crush crops and paddocks. It’s getting hard for farmers to make ends meet.
Minh recalls this to Mum, and Mum says she is simply misread. The kids will understand her better soon — it’s best to get to bed.
Mum tugs the quilt under Minh’s chin, cuddles her until she is snug. She sings her a lullaby, as sweet and soothing as her warm hug.
Her whisper sings, “hush” and, “harmony” and, “happy”.
At least tonight, as Minh is drifting off to sleep, not once does she hear her mother privately weep.
Minh gets bored. Do you get bored too?
You have to have a hard helmet when you’re outside, it’s not up to you. Minh’s class is doing that drill. That drill where you crouch under your desk whenever you hear the Stomper siren shrill. But Minh doesn’t want to wear her hard hat indoors too. She wants to play the drums in an imaginary music coup.
Far off in the distance, Minh hears the Stompers. Under the tables stuck with chewing gum, amidst the students trying to cram, she hears their heavy-duty soles, colliding against the earth with a SLAM.
Minh takes her helmet into her lap. She slaps her palms against the hard dome with a Wham.
She makes noise all the time, but it seems to make people mad. Maybe it’s better to close up like a clam.
Wham. Wham. BAM.
“Why are you always distracted, Minh?” The teacher, Mrs Hucklebush hollers near the bin. Her buttocks are wedged between the legs of a chair. “For goodness sake, put that helmet back on! You need to show some care!”
Minh tells Mum that in her upcoming class choir performance, she wants to sing clear and loud, and Mum adds extra bubbles in the bathtub for a fun, fluffy cloud.
As she squats in the bath, she can hear Mum in the shower. Her voice twitters, flitters, blossoms like the petals of a flower. In a tingly beat, the shower water shimmers around her feet — a pale halo made of misty matter.
The water drops pitter, pitter, patter.
Close by, Minh hears her mother. She knows that she too wants to emerge and bloom in song, just like Mum and no other.
Minh is excited. Are you excited too?
They are short on groceries and Mum wants to hurry to the queue. But Minh isn’t concerned with whether the store is going to run out of supplies soon. She’s just thrilled that the music playing inside the shop is their favourite tune.
Minh asks Mum to sing along too, but Mum is scavenging along the shelves, only to find them bare. She whips abouts, her face curtained with stranded strands of hair. Her hand hoists Minh through a bombardment of baskets and waists and stomachs from adults who are all bustling. And far off in the distance, Minh thinks she hears the Stompers, but all she sees are shoes shuffling and elbows jostling.
And Minh still doesn’t feel better than alone in this unfamiliar home and it’s getting harder to hear their favourite beat in the rising customer heat. And she wants to hear Mum’s soft croon soon because Minh wants to make noise with better poise when all her feet do are THUMP and her fists BANG her hands SLAM in a one-person band.
“Minh, don’t let go of my hand.”
The shopping trolleys BUMP into each other and their metal grids CLANG and then one man’s trolley charges with a WHAM into a checkout.
Minh tells Mum she wants her to sing their song, but Mum is on the lookout. “Not now.”
And it’s now so noisy, Minh can’t hear the Stompers or Mum or herself when she goes BUMP or CLANG or BAM.
“Minh, stop stomping. I need to get the Spam.”
BAM. BAM. BO—
“MINH. STOP! You’re not making this any easier. Just… just stop moving around and— LOOK AT ME! You’re too distracted and you’re too loud. For once, for just five minutes, STOP.”
Minh is nervous. Do you get nervous too?
She is on the school stage, wedged in the centre of her class crew. All the children’s unblinking eyes seem pinned on her. Minh feels small. She can hear the faraway piano begin, not played by Mum but by an old lady in a shawl.
Minh does not hear the Stomper when it slips. It is silent, steady even, if not for the tremoring walls or shuddering glass. She does not hear a sound until the microphones screech and teeter over her class.
They do not perform because everyone has to walk out of the gates in single file. Family cars rumble in front of the school and begin to pile.
Mum is silent, steady even, if not for her wobbly knees as she ambles towards Minh in her work heels. Her unblinking eyes are pinned on her, her chapping lips sealed.
Mum approaches Minh.
Minh peers back, back at Mum’s dull hairs that used to be all glistening black.
Then Minh says, “I never got to sing.”
Despite the sunless sky, Mum’s eyes squint tightly, like window shutters trying to shut out a storm. As she folds Minh inside her arms, Minh can hear her hiccups bubbling.
Later that evening, the newsman on TV says a Stomper had slipped and crushed a school close to Minh’s, only a block away.
Mum does not sing to her tonight.
There is no school today. Still, Minh gets up early.
Mum is on the couch, hairs fraying over her shoulders, mug getting cold in her hands.
Minh stands in front of Mum, but Mum’s eyes are downcast, glazed, unblinking — distracted.
Minh folds her arms behind her as she learned from class choir, wriggles her toes in the grey carpet, puffs her chest. And she sings Mum a song.
It is not as soft of sweet. It is not like petals blossoming from a flower.
But Mum can hear her lullaby and slowly, her gaze peeks upwards. There is a flash, a flicker.
Mum smiles. It is like the sun.