The Moonlight Palace
and Danai began to clear the table, bearing the roast away like a corpse.
    We had already opened our Christmas gifts that morning—small gifts but extravagances, given our circumstances. My salary at Kahani’s had after all done little to change matters, and wintertime was an expensive season. With the late monsoons came more rain damage, more needed repairs. But Grandfather had insisted on presents. Nei-Nei and I had each received bottles of perfume. The servants also were given gifts, and Dawid, a handsome engraved pen. I had no idea where the money for all this munificence had come from. Surely not from Grandfather’s pension—which went to our necessities. Nor from Nei-Nei’s household money, of which a lavish portion had gone toward this Christmas feast.
    Unlike Deepavali, which went on for days, or the Chinese Spring Festival, which lasted for at least three, Christmas struck me as a rather flimsy holiday, like the crackers we had just opened—noisy but short-lived. I wondered if the Christians felt disappointed when night fell, and thought that I must remember to ask my friend Bridget about it.
    We sat in an almost sullen silence. I had the anxious feeling that this miasma could turn, at any instant, into a group depression. Even British Grandfather looked to be at a loss.
    Dawid cleared his throat. “Now we will sing Christmas songs,” he announced. Dawid and I knew the songs from our many Christmas choral recitals at the Raffles School. He started with “Silent Night.” British Grandfather instantly joined in, and Uncle Chachi mouthed the wrong words, while the rest just hummed along. We sang “The First Noel,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
    Grandfather’s eyes were shining with happiness, bluer than blue. This was the British Grandfather I remembered, fierce and happy, the center of attention, the leader of our small band. We switched to “Good King Wenceslas,” and then I saw that Grandfather was not smiling at all, but weeping. Nei-Nei laid one hand on his shoulder. The rest of us dragged slowly to a silent halt, and only Dawid went on obliviously singing for a few lines, alone:
    “Sire, the night is darker now,
    And the wind blows stronger.
    Fails my heart, I know not how . . .”
    Then there was silence, interrupted only by the sound of Grandfather’s hiccupping breaths.
    “Oh, this is so foolish,” said Grandfather after a moment, mopping his eyes. “A silly child’s son g . . . ” He shook his head. “Forgive me. I look in the mirror,” Grandfather went on, “and I am simply—amazed. Who is that old man? Who can he be? Indeed, it is not I, not the I who lives inside my head. When I dream at night, I can run and my legs and heart are strong. And yet, I am swept back into the past by a few children’s songs.” Now he did smile, and his smile had the temporary brilliancy of a rain-washed sky.
    “Inside every old man lies the heart of a ten-year-old boy. Brave . . . unstoppable. The defender of field mice!”
    Nei-Nei Down put her fingers up to her mouth. Her eyes shone out at British Grandfather. “You are still our great defender,” she said.
    Soon afterward, the Singapore aunties and uncles came by for a late-night visit, along with unattached cousins twice and three times removed. All were somewhat bewildered by the evidence of a Christian holiday—they had come, in fact, because everything was closed on Christmas and there was nothing left to do but to go visiting. Otherwise, it was an ordinary day, and their ordinariness came as a great blessing.
    Nei-Nei brought out plates of halwa and her much-loved almond crescent cookies dusted with sugar, and these rendered the plum pudding less overwhelming. It became merely another sweet, just as the evening became merely another evening.
    In a shadowy corner of the room, British Grandfather and Uncle Chachi took up their usual game of Congkak—a game played with boards and tamarind seeds. I saw them watching Nei-Nei Down

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