A section of Majuba Tea Estate is visible to the east over the fence. The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day's blessing. It is Saturday, but the tea pickers are working their way up the slopes. There has been a storm in the night, and clouds are still marooned on the peaks. I step down the verandah onto a narrow strip of ceramic tiles, cold and wet beneath my bare soles. Aritomo obtained them from a ruined palace in Ayutthaya, where they had once paved the courtyard of an ancient and nameless king. The tiles are the last remnants of a forgotten kingdom, its histories consigned to oblivion.
I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath take shape, this cobweb of air that only a second ago had been inside me, I remember the sense of wonder it used to bring. The fatigue of the past months drains from my body, only to flood back into me a moment later. It feels strange that I no longer have to spend my weekends reading piles of appeal documents or catching up with the week's paperwork.
I breathe out through my mouth a few more times, watching my breaths fade away into the garden.
My secretary, Azizah, brought me the envelope shortly before we left my chambers to go into the courtroom. "This came for you just now, Puan," she said.
Inside was a note from Professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji, confirming the date and time of our meeting in Yugiri. It had been sent a week before. Looking at his neat handwriting, I wondered if it had been a mistake to have agreed to see him. I was about to telephone him in Tokyo to cancel the appointment when I realized he would already be on his way to Malaysia. And there was something else inside the envelope. Turning it over, a thin wooden stick, about five inches long, fell out onto my desk. I picked it up and dipped it into the light of my desk lamp. The wood was dark and smooth, its tip ringed with fine, overlapping grooves.
"So short-lah, the chopstick. For children is it?" Azizah said, coming into the room with a stack of documents for me to sign. "Where's the other one?"
"It's not a chopstick."
I sat there, looking at the stick on the table until Azizah reminded me that my retirement ceremony was about to begin. She helped me into my robe and together we went out to the corridor. She walked ahead of me as usual to give the advocates warning that Puan Hakim was on her waythey always used to watch her face to gauge my mood. Following behind her, I realized that this would be the last time I would make this walk from my chambers to my courtroom.
Built nearly a century ago, the Supreme Court building in Kuala Lumpur had the solidity of a colonial structure, erected to outlast empires. The high ceilings and the thick walls kept the air cool even on the hottest of days. My courtroom was large enough to seat forty, perhaps even fifty people, but on this Tuesday afternoon the advocates who had not arrived early had to huddle by the doors at the back. Azizah had informed me about the numbers attending the ceremony but I was still taken aback when I took my place on the bench beneath the portraits of the agong and his queen. Silence spread across the courtroom when Abdullah Mansor, the chief justice, entered and sat down next to me. He leaned over and spoke into my ear. "It's not too late to reconsider."
"You never give up, do you?" I said, giving him a brief smile.
"And you never change your mind." He sighed. "I know. But can't you stay on? You only have two more years to go."
Looking at him, I recalled the afternoon in his chambers when I told him of my decision to take early retirement. We had fought about many things over the yearspoints of law or the way he administered the courtsbut I had always respected his intellect, his sense of fairness and his loyalty to us judges. That afternoon was the only time he had ever lost his composure with me. Now there was only sadness in his face. I would miss him.
Excerpted from The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Copyright © 2012 by Tan Twan Eng. Excerpted by permission of Weinstein Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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