[Glossary: ‘Hsiao’ is a diminutive, meaning ‘little’. The ‘samfoo - literally ‘tunic, trousers’ - is a style of outfit that originated in China and was commonly worn by Chinese women and girls in Singapore and Malaysia from the 19C up to the 1960s, but thereafter became increasingly considered as old fashioned.]
The air was hot, and heavy with the impending rain. The jungle itself was restless and irritable, like Hsiao Ling’s mistress, who was expecting yet another baby. All afternoon, dark clouds had been amassing, and long flashes of lightning rent the lowering sky.
Still, it was not the approaching thunder and monsoon deluge that was worrying the little servant girl, who was crouching in the unkempt shadows just beyond the edge of the plantation.
The girl, Hsiao Ling, was hiding in the undergrowth, ignoring the mosquitoes and trying to calm her ragged breathing. She was small and wiry and possibly nine years old. On her feet were red work clogs, which looked quite gaudy against the faded floral of her cotton samfoo. On either side of her head, two scrawny plaits stuck out to meet the tops of her narrow shoulders. If there was an ounce of fat on her at all, it was in the soft oval curve of her cheeks. At the moment, Hsiao Ling’s forehead, with its fringe of hair cut straight across, was sticky with dust and perspiration, but she dared not lift up her hand to wipe it in case the movement gave her away.
Insects whinged close to her ear, and the ground was industrious with the click and rustle of things with many legs. Hsiao Ling stole a glance downwards every now and then, to make sure she was not in the way of any fire ants. Their bites stung like anything, and the last time she had had to hide like this, she had disturbed a line of them. Oh, how she had hopped in agony, and tried to brush them away - and so was discovered, and soundly thrashed.
This time, she was determined to remain hidden for as long as possible. At least until mistress had exhausted the worst of her anger. Then, if she slipped indoors again to go about her chores just before the evening meal, the bustle of preparation would surely be an adequate distraction. And by the time everyone in the household had eaten, no-one would be in the mood to punish her.
This thought fortified her a little, even as the moisture-laden sky released its burden with a crash of thunder like a heavy groan, and the rain drenched her in a steady roar, delayed only momentarily by the leaves and branches above her.
Now nothing could be heard above the torrent, so the other servants stopped bothering to call out to her. Even Old Lee, who was within so few paces of spotting her that she hardly dared to breathe, turned back towards the house.
And so she was left all alone and thankful, awash in the warm green smell of rain-soaked earth and foliage.