Anne woke up to stifling heat, Spanish sunlight falling in a slant across her belly. Even her eyelids felt over-baked. Maria was bent over her, shaking her shoulder urgently. Immediately, Anne sat up. Had something happened to Carlos? He was the only person she knew in the village.

        Maria’s face was creased in a thousand wrinkles and her dark hair was tied up in a soft, loose bun at the back of her head. Her rapid-fire Spanish filled the room as she moved about, tying back the curtains, straightening out the hairbrushes on the dresser.

        Anne had not managed to master more than a few Spanish phrases since she met Carlos, but she recognized the word for ‘market’. Yawning, she swung herself off the bed and then stopped short. Where she came from, one did not stand braless in front of one’s boyfriend’s mother, wearing only a thin Gap tank top, washed so often it was on the brink of disappearing.

        But Maria seemed unfazed, chattering away as she made the bed expertly. Over the past few months, Anne had gotten used to the fact that Maria talked to her all the time,
regardless of whether or not she understood. Carlos’ mother seemed to believe that she could make Anne understand Spanish through the sheer torrential flow of her words.

        Anne had met Carlos at a house party in Barcelona. Carlos had sat on the edge of her chair, his curly hair falling into his eyes as he smiled and offered her a beer. He asked her where she was from. “Malaysia!” he cried, in the over-delighted way of those about to become drunk. He leaned in close and she could smell his cologne and the last cigarette he’d smoked. “So tell me more about Malaysia.”

        And so she had. Over beer and sangria and fragrant Spanish cigarettes and the sounds of the party jumping around them, she told him about the heat and light of her country, the colors of people’s faces, the richness of its food, the things that people worried about. And when he brought her a map she pointed it out to him. “Look,” she said, tracing the contours
of the country with her artist’s fingers. “Old people used to say that it looks like the heart of a banana tree.

        Ten months later, when he left, she packed her bags and followed him.

        At the market, Anne had a frightening moment when the noises of the shouting vendors and the colors of the vegetables seemed to melt together like a malevolent Frida Kahlo painting. She turned to look for Maria but the woman was gone.  Panic gripped her.

        And then Maria appeared by her side again, clutching a plastic bag of tomatoes. She looked carefully into Anne’s face, a tiny crease appearing on her forehead between her eyes.

        She led Anne to a nearby vendor, who was frying hot empanadas in a vat of boiling oil. She bought one for Anne and the man handed it over wrapped in newspaper. It tasted smoky and salty; the meat had a gamy flavor and the oil nauseated Anne. But she ate it gratefully, feeling her dizziness recede.

        It was about twenty minutes later that the first cramps hit her. She was helping Maria put away the groceries and then suddenly she was in the toilet with her insides seemingly determined to run out of her.

        It was a long afternoon of visits to the toilet and hours lying on the bed, curled up on her side in a patch of her own sweat and tears. Maria looked in from time to time, finally silenced by Anne’s pain and baffled by the crying jags brought on by a hot meat pastry. She brought Anne cups of tea and patted her forehead.

        And then, later in the afternoon, Anne heard the door open and shut and a stillness settle in the house. Maria returned half an hour later and came into Anne’s room. She placed a little cardboard box on the bed. Inside was a set of child’s poster color paints in a dozen small bottles. The colors were lurid and cheap, but Anne felt a surge of affection for Carlos’ mother.

        She painted from memory, mixing the colors in the bottle caps to get the shades she needed. Blue and green, obviously, and black for outlining. Deep into the hot afternoon, with memories and nausea assailing her, she painted the wall above the bed she shared with Carlos in a tiny village light years away from home. Her hand was steady, even as she gasped for breath and her head spun.

        Maria found her at dusk, when the setting sun filled the room with orange light and black shadows. Anne was sitting on the bed, her hand tracing and re-tracing the contours of the map she had drawn on the wall, of a country shaped like the heart of a banana tree.

Leeyee Lim is a Malaysian writer and copy-editor whose work has previously appeared in The Drum and Necessary Fiction. She can be found at

Like many of my stories, The Heart of a Banana Tree grew from several seeds  --- someone telling me in my childhood that Peninsular Malaysia is shaped like the heart of a banana tree, an image that came into my mind one day of a young girl painting a mural of a map on her bedroom wall, my own homesickness while living in Beijing, and my complex feelings about Malaysia. I wanted to write about the sense of alienation that a person can feel when living in a culture and context that is wholly foreign to his or her own. Also, I have a slight obsession with maps.




Copyright 2009