(And A Fiery Snowman)
A Novel (2016)
John Lennard Lee
to Dr Cyril Wong
and James Joyce
Copyright belongs to the author John Lennard Lee (Singapore). The contents of this novel should not be copied or circulated without the prior consent of the author. (Published in 2016)
(written in June 2016)
‘A Kafkaesque voice runs its course …’ he muttered. With hindsight, he must be holding back his surprise, the kind of surprise saying ‘there’re happenings unseen that change a person’s fate within moments.’
A few steps away he was staring at my fusion painting. Soon his grimness dragged me along, transported me to another world, pushed me into a quicksand of lost memories. Then it became worse than quicksand … funneled me into a dark tunnel, like an unwelcome shipworm being washed down the hole of a kitchen sink.
I closed my eyes and turned my head sideway. A scalding pain rushed across my chest. Chill crept up my neck. I breathed deeply. After a while, the cold sweat passed … I opened my eyes and heaved a sigh. Since a teenager I had strange mental jolts once or twice a year. Called them ‘streaks of thunderbolt less the thunder inside my skull’. Kept quiet about them, assuming they were the psychedelic spasms of a struggling artist.
Sitting back on my comber, I ate a piece of homemade sandwich under the awning of a café. Inside tourists were having buttered noodles. On my left the window of a souvenir shop showcased small replicas of Merlion. Behind me evening breezes came from the Marina Bay. Near the promenade, tourists were taking pictures of the Merlion statue above eight meters tall that faced the sea. On my right was the Queen Elizabeth Walk with reflective spots under tropical trees. Their branches rustled in the breezes as if whispering the mnemonics of a digital guitar. In the strong winds they became stretched like the limbs of contortionists.
I straightened my back and gazed at the old man. He was shaking his head, maybe to regain clarity. Then he bent forward to examine the fusion painting. His pockmarked cheek crinkled. The bristles on a coarse chin and the hairs from a wart-like mole on his jaw became obvious. Using his left thumb, he raised his silver-rimmed spectacles above grey, unruly eye-brows. He squinted and examined different parts of the painting. It leaned against granite steps near the souvenir shop.
‘Is that the title?’
‘Yes,’ I replied and watched him. ‘Is it suitable?’
‘It depends … what you wish to convey. Try to objectify something?’
‘Maybe a mood or an idea,’ I said.
‘Or groping for a metaphysique.’
‘You mean metaphysics?’
‘Clings to life … runs its course in a meta-portrait.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked.
He didn’t respond and remained focused on the painting. Measuring four feet by three, it featured a dreamscape. Curved stalactites encircled it. Its inhabitants jostled against each other inside a big stopwatch, its frame painted with zodiac figurines. Sometimes in my dream the figurines asked, ‘Is there another Stopwatch? Can It reverse time? Can Its oscillator record hidden motives? …’ Within the claustrophobic snapshot were snow-capped boulders, escarpments and cliffs. They had dreamy faces with blotches of crayon – deep orange, yellow and crimson that stood out like sponges. Viewed from a distance, they looked like dried human brains poked many times by needles.
The grey backdrop of the painting mirrored clouds of stormy blue. They flashed across like rivers of the netherworld, augmenting the three-dimensional effect of the brightly colored blotches. On its right, holographic images within detached pieces of a jigsaw puzzle could be seen. They were being sucked into a time warp. The images included thorny creatures that looked like porcupines but with human legs chasing a few nymphs … two dancing nudes riding a chariot with flaming wheels … an acrobat playing a flute to tame a growling raccoon where both the acrobat and the raccoon were trapped in a cage … humanoids crafting a blueprint to build a floating metropolis … and disc-like spaceships hovering above a half-melted steel pyramid sited on an asteroid that was scorched by a supernova’s glare.
Superimposed on the backdrop on the left were six half-grey, half-lit images … furrowed eye-brows, sharp noses, gaunt chins and hollow eyes, but no lips. Tense and alert, they looked like the faces of long-haired shamans in the midst of overseeing a ritual. Their eye sockets were swallowing the cut-up images of well-known paintings. They included the enigmatic smile in Mona Lisa … the drooping hand in The Creation of Adam … the half-melted pocket watch in The Persistence of Memory … the pair of struggling legs in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus … the pitchfork in American Gothic … and the broken shell of the Tree-Man in The Garden of Earthly Delights ... Sometimes in my dream the shamans became ventriloquists who asked, ‘Is someone showing the symptoms of Multiple Personality Complex?’
I remember I took more than six months to work on the painting … perhaps I hoped to attain a hybrid style. A style that touched the surrealistic grace of Salvador Dali while suggesting the tension-filled, claustrophobic style of an elderly Bosch or his unidentified follower and the contorted psyche painted by Irish-born Francis Bacon.
My gaze flashed back to my easel … The enlarged font on my handphone showed 5.32 pm, 23 April 2016. I bent down to switch off my laptop that was playing a serenade version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I cleaned my palette knife with tissue before I placed it into a paintbox. After looking at my blue T-shirt and brown trousers that contained some smudges, I shifted my art-comber, sat back and faced him.
He had straightened his back, still focused on my painting. In his sixties or seventies, he was above six feet, thickset and broad-shouldered, weighing at least two hundred pounds. He had a square chin and a bulging forehead due to a receding hairline. Strips of grey hair ran down his neck, a stodgy neck segmented into three portions by well-toned muscles. The left side of his forehead was bandaged with surgical cotton wool and large, perforated plasters. His broad nose sometimes snorted, as if his nostrils could deftly extrude fine particles. When he lifted his spectacles, the type with transition lenses that became tinted under the sunlight, his thick eye-brows were knitted together. Scrutinizing the title of my painting a few times, his eyes glinted like those of a crocodile breeder watching the scrawny hatchlings clawing at and clambering out of their shells.
‘Where did you get that idea?’ he asked, his voice rough and low in pitch. His parched lips curved downwards when he spoke, as if ready to rebuff any cynic who disdained art.
‘I finished the larger painting last month,’ I said. ‘Before that I was reading Kafka’s The Trial.’
‘The Trial … a grim novel,’ he murmured.
‘Then I had a dream.’
‘Can tell me about it?’
Without waiting for a reply, he shifted and bent towards the stairway where five of my other paintings were displayed. They were smaller, each measuring three feet by two. The images of the detached pieces of a jigsaw puzzle overlapped in each painting. They had luminous backdrops … a sea of turquoise green, a haze of oceanic blue, a meadow of fresh lichen green, a transparent sash of sunset pink and a mountain slope of summertime orange. Bright sparks flared at eye-catching points where the jigsaw pieces crisscrossed. Viewed from a distance, they looked like clusters of fireflies entwining.
Further, tiny Song Shan bamboo strips and small feng shui bells were adhered to the paintings, dangling from different points. When the breezes came, the strips knocked each other. They clattered randomly, blending well with the tinkle of the bells. Auspicious English and Chinese words were carved on the strips. This could arouse buyer interest, especially those interested in accumulating ‘luck’ by collecting feng shui items. Mythical creatures were painted on the overlapped portions of the jigsaw pieces, implying the flow of good fortune to the owner. They were painted with beeswax that reflected rainbow colors and adorned with seashells that glowed in the evening light. The paintings were entitled ‘Blessings of Feng Shui’.
‘In my dreams I was chased by scorpions,’ I said.
‘What did they look like?’ he asked and straightened his back.
‘They were huge, prehistoric …’
I stood up from my art-comber and walked a few steps towards him. I was busily preparing pigments for an oil painting of Sarah, a girlfriend who left me a few months ago.
‘Prehistoric …’ he frowned and stared at me through half-tinted lenses. Wearing green khaki shirt, long pants and leather boots, he looked like a nineteenth-century biologist keen to trudge through un-trekked forests to hunt for rare species.
I nodded. ‘Each was at least two feet long … protruding eyes, huge pincers, bluish stings.’
‘Pulmonoscorpius. Did they sting you?’
‘One stung me and I woke up, sweating.’
‘That’s how the title came to you?’
‘Guess you don’t want the painting now.’
He shook his head and half-chortled. ‘I want your paintings. All six of them … we’re old friends.’
Baffled, I looked at him. Grey clouds floated across the afternoon sky, blocking the sun. His lenses became clear. I tried to understand the gleam in his deep-set eyes.
I extended my hand and said, ‘My name is Vincent Smith. A Eurasian, born locally.’
‘I’m David Maestri,’ he said and shook my hand. ‘Born in Boston, US. My parents were doing business there while waiting out the storms of war.’
‘Seem to have read your name somewhere.’
‘Did large-scale works in my thirties … but they said my themes were controversial. I couldn’t bear their criticism and became half a recluse. But continue to sculpt and refine a few literary works …’ He paused and said, ‘Sometimes I hunt for fossils … in Australia, Indonesia, Indochina when my knees allow. Less agile at seventy-five.’
‘You look resilient,’ I said. Then I pointed to the bandage on his forehead. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Minor surgery to remove a childhood scar.’ He gave a half-smile. ‘Don’t want to frighten the guards in Purgatory … shamanic souls could transport me there while I sculpted at night. ’
He walked over to my easel to look at my canvas. I followed him, the shadow of my narrow forehead with disheveled hair jutting out rested on my canvas. I picked it up with my bony arms and showed it to him. The left side of my canvas focused on Sarah’s long chocolate-colored hair, her petite nose and pale lips, her crescent eye-brows that radiated an orange hue under an afternoon sun and her pale grey eyes that mingled childlike hope with melancholy … the type I used to see in the eyes of orphans when I volunteered at an orphanage. On the right side I depicted small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that reflected the cracked face of Sarah … Till now I believed she didn’t betray me, not voluntarily. George Pereira must have threatened and forced her. Most likely she owed money to him. She was working as a waitress.
‘Psychoanalytic … but charming,’ David said.
He walked back towards the granite steps and bent his body to pick up the larger painting.
‘Finely done,’ he said. ‘How much?’
‘Which aspects do you like?’ I asked, thinking how to ask about his comment ‘we’re old friends’. Was he saying he was familiar with the theme of my paintings?
‘I like the motif … life is like a jigsaw puzzle.’
‘If I sell it to you, where do you place it?’
‘In my study.’
‘How much do you think it’s worth?’
‘At least three thousand,’ he said.
I shook my head.
‘Five thousand?’ he asked.
‘I’ll sell it to you for four hundred,’ I said. ‘Cost of the materials.’
‘If you know why, you won’t want it.’
He smiled and said, ‘I’m sure you didn’t steal it.’
‘Nowadays they call me a plagiarist.’
David turned and looked at me. ‘You were wrongly accused.’
‘You read the news?’ I asked.
‘Yes, read it two months ago. I was in Australia.’
‘George and his gang are still smearing my name. Don’t have the means to fight them … Do you think life is war and war is God?’
He remained quiet for a while and said, ‘Blood Meridian?’
‘Reading it the past few days.’
‘Life’s uncertain. At times, war-like.’
I nodded. ‘I seem to be entering that zone.’
‘There’s something more terrible,’ he said. ‘The inner war that never stops … causes me to lose my toes. Sometimes I ask, how did it all begin?’
I stared at him, puzzled.
David said, ‘You’re very young … plenty of chance.’
‘I’m more than twice your age,’ he said. ‘What actually happened?’
‘I was becoming well-known by twenty-six,’ I said. ‘George was my classmate at the Academy. He has millionaire parents. We took part in an international competition in 2015 and I won. He sneered at me, alleging that the judges pitied me because I’m born poor … I rebutted him, telling everyone he’s envious.’
‘Then he tried to ruin you?’ David asked.
I nodded and said, ‘George hired Sarah to pretend to fall in love with me … she lived with me for two months. Secretly she copied my sketches and passed them to George. A few days before my exhibition last year that featured jigsaw puzzles, they held an exhibition with the same theme. They informed the media and accused me of plagiarism. Since then, I’ve few customers.’ I paused and asked, ‘Do you still want that painting?’
‘Yes, all of them. I’ll pay two thousand for each.’ He paused and then said, ‘I see my younger self in you.’
‘Why did you say: we’re old friends?’
‘When I saw your paintings, it struck me that I might have exerted subliminal influence on you.’
‘You also painted jigsaw puzzles?’ I asked.
‘Many years ago. No one remembered now.’
‘Where are your works?’
‘In my cellar.’
‘Any intention to exhibit them?’
He shook his head and said, ‘I came back to Singapore last month to look for you. In the past few days, I was sitting on that stone bench, watching you while you painted.’
‘I was engrossed in sketching Sarah … didn’t notice.’
‘The title of your painting confirms I’m on the right track,’ he said. ‘I know your previous life … you were Jonathan.’
I stared at him, puzzled. At five feet nine and weighing only 125 pounds, I looked diminished near him.
‘We went through quite a lot,’ he said. ‘But in December 1976, your previous self insisted that I removed you from me. If I didn’t, I would be incapacitated. I followed your wish … you were released. Then you faded away.’
‘Sounds strange, I don’t understand.’
David took out a book bearing the title Mystery Ulysses (Trekking Across A Triptych) from a nylon bag slung across his chest and handed it to me. ‘Joseph Yang worked with a publisher to publish it. Read it before?’
I shook my head and asked, ‘Who wrote it?’ I frowned and flipped the pages. Then I glanced at David before browsing the first section.
‘You’ll recall after reading. If you’ve comments, we work on a new edition …’
Suddenly David paused and turned away, his face grim and taut, as if restraining a surge of nervous energy. He walked slowly and unsteadily towards the railing that overlooked the coastline. I heard him saying, ‘I’m healed, won’t be hunting down anyone, won’t be carving on femurs …’
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 3 January 1976)
… a Kafkaesque voice runs its course … rattling, rasping, anxious. Someone who has been kidnapped and gagged? Trying to speak through a thick handkerchief?
Sometimes it’s a shriek. Muffled. Snorting. Turns into a groan. Seems to come from the past and foretell the future … Sometimes it’s a whisper. Is it saying ‘the future comprises bygone events in a shaman’s eyes?’
Or the past, the present and the future is like an infant egret that spreads its wings for brief moments. A flurry of jabs. An instance of siblicide. Strong winds come. Their nest made of twigs and stalks is gone. Both egrets are gone, but the shriek remains … something else like a shadow mutters, ‘we cannot exit alive …’ Or did I half-succeed? And come back partly intact in a strange way?
How did I half-succeed? How I did scrape together the pieces of a Jigsaw Puzzle and collage them?
Due to the mind-expanding Yunnan wine, a shaman’s incantation, the warble of a Garuda Owl? … or awakened by the humming of a chariot-rider trapped in a tower? It teetered at a corner of Bosch’s triptych. Was the chariot-rider doing sexual acrobatics despite being encased in a large mussel shell?
Prodded by the muttering of a dreamscape sculptor trying to chisel Bosch’s inimitable unicorn out of a rosewood stump? … the noisy squirming of a psyche explorer aroused by a nymph who flaunted her centaur’s body? … or the grunts of a pair of giant ears swaying a massive blade to dig out the guilt in the collective unconscious? … the groaning of a harp as its iron strings cracked the ribs of a murderer whose tongue was scissored off and boiled and it curled up in the shape of a human ear in a carefully stoked cauldron?
Goaded by the scream of a forest trekker lost inside a sac filled with amniotic fluid and he realized that he wasn’t born yet? … the yell of a cubist who finished a beeswax painting of a cobra biting its own tail, but was shocked to discover a real serpent twirled around his leg? … the loud hissing of flames from a dragon as it clawed at the entrails of a torturer in a land of burning coal?
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 4 January 1976)
… the images jolted me. Where am I? Why darkness in the daytime? Am I waddling in a chasm? A chasm made of crinkled, concentric folds of darkness?
… where’s Joan? I can’t smell, can’t touch, can’t brush my face against hers. Can hardly see. Try to cope by drawing a haiku? How did I lose my sense of smell and touch? How did I lose the bulging scar on the left of my forehead?
No. Not correct. I can’t sense both the scar and my forehead. What’s happening? Are they replaced by dreams? The scent of Joan wafts towards me? Centipede-like worms crawl across my cranium. She picks them up. Blankets them with mulberry leaves. To keep my nerves in their intestines warm. I need Joan. I remember her jasmine fragrance, silvery hair, tender chin, quivering earlobes. They keep me alive …
Silhouettes surround me now with their long, sinewy bodies. They leap alive. Grunting, they prowl around like gangsters at Geylang red light district. They catch sight of me. Close-fisted with brass knuckles, they run after me. Pounce on me. Keep punching my stomach.
Strangely there’s no pain. I stretch my arm, grab a sharp stone and slash them. Pushing them away, I run towards a slope. Slide down a few hills. Escape into a garden … glimmers of yellow, orange and phosphorescent green waver ahead, like tiny glowing filaments. I chase after them, trusting they’re fireflies near a beach. They disappear before there’s any scent of the waves … Find myself pressed by six grey walls. I chant and seek help from talismans. The walls move a few feet away and stand guard over me.
Am I trapped inside a farmhouse? After a midnight downpour, when the winds blow across its gutter, it croaks like a bull frog. It blends with the groaning of creatures that squat at the edges of ditches, ponds and swamps. The roof is like a huge mortar board. Its fringes are scattered with moss and algae. Tendrils and brown mushrooms cling to the forehead of its downspout. In the hot season they become brittle like twigs. The mushrooms will crack. Get blown away like half-trampled snail shells …
Am I cloistered inside a cave? Its floor is stained with blood, probably little animals that strayed into the cave while looking for a hideout, their paws cut by flints scattered among the shadows … Then it begins. A series of tremor. Snowballs into a thunderous roar. The mouth of the cave is sealed by rocks. High-pitched quiet in the dark, except for the tweeting of bats. I can’t see them … they must be waiting to flock on me. Change me into a mushy sculpture that gives a purple half-iridescence in the dark …
Am I being tested inside a huge flask … filled with regenerative nutrients? Words appear on the glass wall that ask, ‘Lost inside a metallic suitcase that contains wartime secrets on how to subdue an alien species? … Smudged with digestive mucus inside a giant pitcher plant, waiting for the plant to be changed into a portrait but the change can’t be completed in your lifetime? … Lost inside a koan that’s looking at a different solar system? … or roaming inside a manuscript with its plot written on the surface of a pond?’
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 5 January 1976)
Am I trekking through a strange terrain … a memoryscape or dreamscape? … Slowly I wake up. I hear a range of voices, human and non-human.
A voice lingers now. Makes me feel exposed, unsafe, disconnected from the world. It seems to come from a Sichuan golden-haired ling hou nibbling lichens in a picture on the wall … I remember its golden mane. An orange blaze that comes from its nape, dorsum, shoulders and forehead. Like a diminutive lion on high alert. A symbol of agility and intelligence, it lives closely with its members. They spend most of their time in the canopy … protect the young by placing them at the center of the group when threatened by hawks and eagles … escape with the young on their backs when pursued by leopards.
Sometimes another voice seems to come from a second picture. A magnificent Laysan albatross soaring into a blue sky in northwestern Hawaii … it has long wings, a dark tail, gray mantle and upperwing … its lower rump and underparts are clean white. A squid dangles at its bill. A symbol of hope and aspiration, it’s threatened by tourists, hunters and environmental pollution.
Or a muttering comes from a third picture. A rare zebroid. A half-starved tiger with legs and tail bearing the black and white stripes of a zebra. A symbol of determination and fearlessness, it sounds plaintive as it rests under the shade, unable to find a mate in the harsh savanna …
I remember the strangeness of nature and her inhabitants … the star-nosed mole whose snout is many times more sensitive than the human hand, ringed with twenty-two fleshly appendages that contain thousands of sensory receptors … the blobfish that lacks bones and muscles, its flesh is like soft jelly … the red-lipped batfish that prefers to walk on the ocean floor … the Angora rabbit that looks like a furry balloon, its wool finer than cashmere … the Chinese salamander, more than five feet long and weighing more than a hundred pounds, that whines like a crying human child … the fairy Armadillo with leathery shells covering its dorsum that makes it look like a warrior from another planet …
Intrigued by earth’s bio-diversity, the Kafkaesque voice evolves. Learns the intricacy of human language. Resigned to tragic events that happen daily on earth.
I remember I was a lover of nature and the arts … taught English Literature for many years, specializing in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Kafka’s The Trial … I remember I pursued grey shadows when half-sober, my mind trapped in the ravines of novels. Those shadows appeared in Goethe’s Faust and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita … they leapt into my reality, looming at a corner of my bedroom, restrained by the hexagonal feng shui of my ceiling lights. I also befriended death when its fiery tongue was half-drunk and it half-heartedly assumed the role of a mentor for half a night.
I recall that I practiced Zen meditation for many years. Hoping it could hone my skill in writing a haiku or alleviate bouts of depression caused by the dark seasons … strangely it deepened my appreciation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Edvard Munch’s The Scream of Nature and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Further, meditation made me a semi-renunciate. Made me accept that I was a social misfit, a hissing raccoon when frustrated and a situational claustrophobic when being locked up … a claustrophobia calmed by traditional medicinal wine. Sometimes the wine prompted me to interrogate deities about natural evils.
Perhaps you ask, ‘Why bother with unanswerable questions?’ My reply: ‘I’m a truth addict. Motherless and widowed.’ But I discovered the world didn’t require a truth addict … most of them sized me up with quizzical glances, turned their heads and walked away. I could hear their inner laughter, even when there was none. I learned to juggle their sympathetic looks and skeptical coughs.
Understandably, quite a number of those accountants, engineers, marketing executives and information technology consultants squinted at me as if I were disgorged from a time-travelling cocoon spun seven hundred years ago by a medieval alchemist.
For those who suffered from guilt, I was a zealot -- naively confident, trusting and careless ... talked to them in private about their past misdeeds and explained the Memory Windows theory. Four outcomes awaited me.
First, the astute wrongdoers asked for concrete evidence. They smiled and walked away swiftly when I couldn’t produce any.
Second, the impulsive ones accused me of being a sham. Warned me not to talk to anybody about their past or else they would sue me for defamation.
Third, the aggressive ones grabbed my shoulders, shook and threatened me, demanding that I should keep absolutely quiet about their shadowy deeds if I wanted my family to be safe.
Finally, the insidious ones smirked and disappeared, planning to teach me a lesson. Thus, I was seriously wounded and dying.
(written on 16 April 1975)
My mother died four decades ago at the age of 28. Due to the sudden, violent nature of her death, my childhood conception of God as an unbeatable Mammoth shattered at the same time … Since then I’ve struggled as a truth hunter. I’ve often trekked the MacRitchie Reservoir and the Bukit Timah Reserve in Singapore, trying to attune my ears to the presence of an unseen messenger, hoping that he or she could direct me to find the real Source.
I’ve also forded rivers in the forests of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hainan, Taiwan and Yunan. I’ve climbed hills and mountains in Fujian, Naples, Australia and New Zealand … looking for a child of the Meaning of existence … sometimes I sensed his shadows near a riverbank in Ipoh. I waved at the shadows, but he didn’t reply. Then the shadows disappeared when the rings of evening light faded.
At home I would narrow my eyes and stare at a sonnet, a haiku, a bonsai, a gramophone or Zen calligraphy … or I scrutinized a torso of the Buddha at my workplace … a vase from the Tang dynasty at the museum … or a scroll of scripture at a temple in Genting Highlands. I suspected that some kind of spirit might be living in these objects and someday it might speak to me.
At times I felt that I was trapped inside a huge kaleidoscope and it was being shaken by a huge Invisible Hand … not sure whether the Hand belonged to a merciful Deity or to a mischievous Daemon or to a rebellious Artificial Intelligence that had colonized remote star systems or belonged to a Purgatory agent …
Other times I would ponder over a plum from Fujian, a talisman from Ipoh or an amulet from Brisbane … I would gaze and talk to an unnamed star in the night sky, the foams of a wave that came from the Johor Straits or a musical score that glittered near the window under the moonlight … I would half-flinch and pray when I saw a cypress torched by lightning. I would half-flinch and cover my ears when I heard the roaring waters of a flood coming from an almanac, the rumble of an avalanche on the television screen or the howling of tornados in a theater. When I covered my ears, I heard silence punctuated by high-pitched shrillness.
I had a near-phobic dislike for this type of shrillness. Like a mischievous child, it seemed to enjoy knocking on my eardrums. I wrestled with it before I ran away into the nearby woods where the chirping of birds could calm me … If that didn’t happen, I would jump into a stream, splash my face with cool waters and focus on watching the tadpoles. If that didn’t work, I would rush across a waterfall a few times … or I would tie my waist to a rosewood trunk and lowered myself down a steep slope looking for rare plants, translucent spiders or golden beetles … perhaps trying to get into the flow of another stream of awareness or blend with the voice of Time … but till now, the streams and rivers, the hills and mountains, didn’t speak to me. Time remained silent. It passed quietly, like a dreamless night.
Reaching forty-six on 23 March 1975, I’ve morphed into an addict … a truth addict, half-pagan, half-superstitious. Further I consider myself to be half a murderer. I’ve checked the law books a few times. I’m half a murderer, according to legal technicalities for killing a rogue soldier in 1944 who could be considered ‘incapacitated’ and also for attempting to starve a gangster to death in 1962 …
I also see myself as half a follower of mysticism if you’re familiar with the Gospel of Thomas discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. I prefer to be a poetic hybrid. But my friends call me a sensitive raccoon -- quiet, desperate and hissing when frustrated or lost in a nightmare.
(written on 17 April 1975)
Could my friends smell the mildly sweet incense of a maple coffin? It was getting strong. Did I step into a memory window, walking along a corridor blackened by shadows? …
A row of shops selling bulky, old-fashioned coffins. They looked like small arks that sailed towards the ‘Street for Dead Men’ at Singapore’s Chinatown. It was early 1973. I was going home after attending a neighbour’s funeral. Those dark corridors echoed the chanting of priests, filled with the smell of incense, joss-sticks, currency notes and paper gold ingots designed for the netherworld …
I exited, entered a different memory window and began to taste a morsel of the flesh of a pufferfish. Tender and mildly sweet … I recalled saying, ‘Its skin, liver and organs are toxic. Only a chef with three years of rigorous training can prepare it. Every bite may be my last.’ Death seemed to admire me for a while. He became a half-benign counselor, lingering behind the mildly sweet taste. I whispered, ‘Did he try to mentor me on the art of letting go? An intricate art that brings intricate gifts. Can these gifts follow me to the other world? Perhaps I’m not destined to learn it …’
I exited and entered another memory window … I saw myself rushing forward and grabbing a stout drunken man from behind. Clenching his fists, he was swearing and cursing after losing money in a gamble, trying to vent his frustration on his wife and thirteen-year-old Julie, my student. ‘Call the police!’ I shouted. I chanced upon Julie’s father while visiting her flat to find out why her test results had dropped … I saw myself struggling to restrain that drunkard. He punched me twice in my stomach and pushed me away. Then I squatted and grabbed his legs from behind, pulled and pushed him to the floor. I crouched, pressing his neck and right shoulder with my arms, trying to hold him down. Julie and her mother rushed out of their rental flat to seek help … Suddenly the drunken man shouted and lifted his chest. He folded his legs and shoved me aside. Then he seized an empty beer bottle from a table and smashed it against the back of my head. Blackness covered my eyes. A searing pain surged through me. I fell on the floor and passed out … I ended up at the hospital for four days, given more than ten stitches and monitored for concussion …
Once again I exited and climbed into another memory window. This time I saw myself shouting, ‘Don’t touch the drugs!’ I ran towards the two drug peddlers trying to sell illegal substances to my fourteen-year-old student, Norman. I had been following Norman for a few days after school as he looked worn down and didn’t complete his homework. I suspected he might have fallen into bad company. When I waved and shouted, the two thugs cursed me before they turned and fled. I pretended to chase and saw them running into an alley. I shouted ‘The police are coming!’ When I returned to the spot where Norman was trying to buy drugs, he was gone … he didn’t attend classes the next few days and I reported the incident to the Vice Principal … A few days later I was cornered by four thugs. They punched me and dragged me to an empty alley and gave me more beating. This time I ended up at the hospital for more than a week, with fractured bones and broken ribs …
Undeterred by bad luck, I exited and climbed into another memory window. Another layer of the psyche? Yours or mine? Maybe I worshipped a prehistoric God or learning to become a devotee of Zen. How did I reconcile my interest in Zen with my beliefs in talismans and fenshui? Did I hope to extract and drink the mystical elements of Zen to find a world where luck and chance play a smaller role? … or try to figure out why I couldn’t remain contented in heaven or whether I was being forced to come to earth? Did I transgress a moral law in a previous life and sent to earth to make amends? …
Memory windows have become my hunting ground since I drank the legendary Yunnan wine in 1963. The wine was prepared from the flesh of a Garuda Owl plus crocodile meat, squids, edible scorpions and rare hallucinogenic herbs.
Joan and I hunted together inside memory windows on Saturday nights. The worlds inside memory windows were sometimes clear, sometimes dreamy or near-psychedelic. In some instances I heard soundless screams, as if Edvard Munch’s The Scream of Nature was hovering above me.
Soon I realized many of the screams came from me. Perhaps their echoes would someday allow me to glimpse the scenes behind the enigmas of my life … Why two poets needed to die in order for me to live? … Why did the body of my twin sister go missing at the hospital and we couldn’t find it all these years? … Why did my grandfather need to sacrifice himself during the War? … Why did my father become a cripple? … Why didn’t the deities stop that criminal from attacking my wife? … and why was I allowed to cause my mother’s death when I was seven?
(written on 18 April 1975)
Joan, my twin sister, was one of the poets who gave up her life for me … I remember most of the time she was beside me when I entered and explored memory windows on Saturday nights. She loves mysteries, keen to explore, ponder and solve them. Her pale socket and transparent eyes touch my forehead now. Her tender lips touch my cheeks … Yes, you’re right. She’s a ghost. A white ghost. Not white in color. She usually wears a light blue dress. The color of her face and the glow of her body depend on the lights and the colors of the surrounding. But her essence is white. She’s a benign spirit. I could sense her ageless flesh …
The growth of her physique matches mine as I grow old. But she looks much younger with little trace of world weariness. When my face touches her cheeks, they turn rosy, like a pair of pink petals awakening at dawn. She has an almond-shaped face with crescent eye-brows and a bony, wrinkleless forehead. Her petite, sharp nose doesn’t put on weight. Her pupils contain transparent, pale blue shadows … they move like reflections on the surface of a lake on a bright summer day. Her pupils and the unending stories glowing in them reflect the cheerfulness of a blue sky …
Her silvery hair with tones of light brown carries the fragrance of jasmine. It tickles my forehead and eye-lids when her face touches my cheek … Her hair conceals her elegant, transparent neck. It doesn’t age as long as she avoids sunlight. If faint crinkles appeared near the corner of her eyes or around her neck, she told me that by standing under the pale moonlight for an hour or two, they would disappear. She speaks to me without the need to move her lips … they’re usually motionless, as if sewn together with an invisible golden string from an angel’s harp …
My eyes like to follow Joan’s voice under the starlight. Tender and melodious, it lessens my anxious chatter and calms me. In short, Joan remains youthful, optimistic, buoyant … always looks like eighteen, photogenic and evergreen on my silvery memory plates. She doesn’t mind that her body went missing at the hospital the day she was born. She said, ‘Someday I’ll find out who had stolen my body and for what purpose …’ If she doesn’t appear in my bedroom at night, she’s roaming nearby bookshops or libraries. She loves romances and theology …
Joan and I were born on 23 March 1929 in Singapore, an island country in South-East Asia. She was born without a heartbeat. No, not correct. She gave her heartbeat to me. While inside the womb, she pushed me into the right position. My body could then move safely through the birth canal and see the light of day. In the meantime a few shadowy beings gripped her shoulders. They held her back, despite the frantic efforts of the doctor trying to push her head and body into the correct position … Till now I didn’t have a chance to meet those beings. If I met them, I would persist and query, ‘Are you trying to prevent the red dusts of the world from diluting Joan’s purity? … Did Fate assign her to become a roaming poet? … Is it true that ‘whom the gods love die young’? … Is it true that ‘to be embodied on earth is to return to make amends?’ … Or some mischievous forces were at work, beyond God’s control?’ … It was too late. When the surgeon operated on my mother, he and the nurses found that Joan’s heartbeat had stopped …
Joan didn’t give up. Her poetic soul shook vigorously. Then she wrenched her ethereal self away from the fingers and claws of those shadowy beings that had held back her physical body. They were trying to drag her into a dark tunnel which led to the unseen realm.
But Joan wanted to experience earthly sensations. She wanted to savour the joy of flight. She wanted to see panoramic views of a hectic, bustling, self-talking and enigmatic world bathed in resplendent colours and dressed in diverse forms that could reach crescendos of sounds and furies. She flew away like a venturesome seagull, hovering above the hospital under the shades of trees before travelling to nearby meadows and hills, attracted by the chirping of birds. But sunlight began to burn her ethereal form. She quickly returned to find me and chose to stay near me henceforth, learning to avoid the sunlight and travel at night …
Forty-six years have passed. Besides music and devotional literature, Joan has developed a passion for reading and writing poetry. She’s also keen to collect different types of pebbles, seashells and kaleidoscopes, and keen to look for new species of starfish, laurels and orchids in the pale evening light.
Inside our poems we continue to travel on a ray of moonlight and continue to watch fireflies at quiet spots near Changi beach on Sunday nights. We enjoy picking up giant trumpet-shaped and cameo seashells, placing our ears near to their earlobes. They are humming a slow harmonica version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It blends with the rhythm of the waves and the soft reverberation of a temple’s bell. The music from the seashells and the temple’s bell provides a polyphonic dimension to our little poems and makes them immune to the claws of dark forces.
Sometimes at the beach we draw sketches or paint using watercolours, focusing on the mysterious rims of the earth that separate the distant waters from the blue sky when we stretch our gaze across the sea. Those rims glow during the sunset. They seem to prophesy a different kind of destiny for humankind …
When we watch the rims glowing and the glitters of the waves, we discover our haven. It is embedded in the world of the arts … Is it behind the hidden waterfalls of Wordsworth’s garden or in the poetry of Nabokov’s Pale Fire? … Is it in the tune of the River Danube or in the half-sublime, half-atavistic gleam of Da Vinci’s ermine? … Is it in the subtle play of illumination of Picasso’s Guernica or inside the half-melted pocket watches of Salvador Dali?
Now at forty-six, Joan and I have become truth addicts. Are we looking for a snowman who doesn’t melt? Is that snowman the guardian of a legendary castle? Is he tickling the eardrum of Wallace Stevens or thumping the tin drum of Gunter Grass? Is he meditating inside the blinding flash of Francis Macomber or near the orgasmic smell of daisy when the bullet touches the rib of Gatsby, clutching a snapshot of his dream before the entire catastrophe? …
Or is the snowman the contemplative mind of a bonfire or the whisper of a silvery arowana that pulsates through a poem now? … Are we writing now? Are we in November 1973? Trying to borrow the eyes of winter, autumn, summer and spring? Can we sense the quiet and focus of a sentinel? A snowman half-disfigured when scrutinized by January winds? Is he talking to someone’s conscience? Can we smell a poem sculpted from bruises and wounds?
Perhaps someday we are allowed to glimpse a different Memory Window. It stretches across the horizon. Can we glimpse a few scenes behind It? Scenes where silhouettes have fled and we learn to shape a dream? … Or maybe we pry into someone’s brain. Can we hear micro-strands of memories sleeping? Maybe when they wake up, they change into the glittering blocks of a marble statue that in turn changes into a fiery snowman. He burns away imaginary eardrums and the smell of bullets. He burns away the chatter inside my cranium. This time the marble is more than flammable marble. The statue is more than a Grecian statue. Specializing in time travel, it peeks into the future, bringing hope to different minds in different ways …
(written on 20 April 1975)
With hindsight, I shouldn’t have become a truth addict …
The addiction scorches at night, regardless of whether there’s starlight or a rimless column of clouds. It’s dangerous, but not destructive, if I kept quiet about it. Harmful, but not deadly, if I cloaked this alien and hid its larvae inside my colon. But I didn’t. I exposed and wrestled with it …
I should have imitated Herbia, my long-living Panther Chameleon. He appears contented, tranquil and relaxed, without the desire for a mate, without the desire to try to foresee the future. He seems to accept his fate and doesn’t want to be embroiled in an inner war.
I suspect Herbia passes most of his hours in recollections. When in doubt, I watch the gleams of ultra violet light inside his dark brown eyes. He appears hopeful and well-rested. Almost anti-Kafkaesque in a half-dreamy, half-watchful way, like the display of nonchalance before a hunter strikes … I sense that he’s never frantic about the future, not anxious about being unknown. I should imitate Herbia, learning how to daydream contentedly in an unknown corner and to fade away unknown …
Herbia used to be the last creature in the world I would consider to keep as a pet. In fact, I didn’t choose him. An old monk in his nineties, living in the White Clouds Temple at Genting Highlands, entrusted Herbia to me. He was tall, gaunt and bald except for flimsy grey hair covering the upper arch of his elongated ears. He had long eye-brows, crescent-shaped upper eye-lids, a pointed, handsome nose and half-smiling lips suggestive of the mystique of Mona Lisa.
The old monk entrusted Herbia to me nine years ago, saying that if I could fathom his intention of asking me to take good care of this insectivore for ten years, his spirit will return and shed light on the enigmas of my life. Foolishly I agreed, ignorant about the dietary requirement of a chameleon.
Maybe he could foresee his death. He died two months later before I could return Herbia to him. By then I find it difficult to feed meal worms and calcium-fortified crickets to Herbia three times a day. Since the age of eighteen, I have become a vegetarian. Feeding live worms and crickets to a chameleon is a bloodletting exercise. However, since the old monk had died, I need to keep my promise. Besides there’s the prospect of meeting his holy ghost. Perhaps I will catch a glimpse of some revelation that unravels the riddles of my life …
And this is the ninth year in 1975. But my psyche is only half- hardened to the daily feeding. Using a metallic pincer, I would drop a few worms or a cricket in front of Herbia and walk away. In the past two years, his food consumption has reduced. Maybe he learns the benefit of going on a diet as he ages.
Herbia is half the size of a Japanese giant salamander. He measures sixteen inches from a knotted, orange crest on his forehead to the tip of his prehensile tale. Following the advice of pet retailers, he lives in a well-ventilated meshed cage. It measures four feet long, two feet wide and two feet in height. Inside the cage are dry sands, a plant with five broad leaves, a water dripper that keeps him hydrated and an ultra violet light. The cage is placed at a sunless corner of my bedroom.
Herbia is green when he’s unperturbed. His flabby, wrinkled skin looks like the creased slope of a dormant volcano in Hawaii. He turns bluish with red patches when he sleeps, perhaps a defensive coloration to ward off potential enemy. Sometimes when he sleeps, his skin takes on a pale yellow sheen with traces of pink. He may be enjoying an outing with a female in his dream. When Herbia is provoked, he turns crimson with yellow spots.
A few years ago as recommended by a neighbor, I placed a mirror in front of Herbia and he turned bright crimson with orange spots. I quickly withdrew the mirror. I tried this trick once a week. Four weeks later Herbia realized it was a ruse and he remained placid and green while gazing into the mirror. He flicked his long tongue to greet his image. When I told my neighbor about it, he said, “Maybe the eyes of the holy monk have found a home in Herbia’s rotating eye-balls.”
The bulging eyes of Herbia are independently mobile, as if endowed with paranormal powers. They can look in different directions. His right eye can look up while his left eye continues to look down. They rotate flexibly, providing stereoscopic vision which I partially attain when I gaze into a kaleidoscope. His five toes with sharp claws on each foot are fused into a group of two and a group of three, enhancing the grip of each foot. Now Herbia is half-asleep, perched on a branch. Sometimes his eyes gleam in my direction …
With hindsight, I should have learnt from Herbia … I should have hidden my addiction behind my small, anemic nose that can sense the age of a book from its smell … or I should hide it behind my elongated face which makes my bony, five-feet-nine body looks smaller … or conceal it behind an inch-long, purple scar caused by the sword of a Japanese soldier. It runs its nightmarish trade on the left side of my forehead …
Or I should put a mask on my addiction with my fragile eye-brows, thin coy ears and half-closed, protruding eyes. Eyes that often throw intense gazes around, like a frustrated cousin of Herbia that moves with a trembling gait but still capable of catching an old golden beetle …
Sometimes I feel my addiction wriggling inside my bones. During the daytime it makes me feel sweaty and nervous, as if a mental breakdown is coming. At night I dream of being funneled into a dark tunnel.
The negative aspects of my addiction resemble the punishment of Sisyphus. His is a huge, muscles-straining rock. Mine is a mental boulder – the Question of the unpredictable nature of life. There may be no answer or it may never come … or it recedes when I try to approach it … or it’s beyond my ability to understand … or both the question and the answer don’t come within a conceptual framework as configured by the human mind. But I can’t give up.
I also observe that a person’s psychological changes can be abrupt and hard to explain. It’s like trying to predict the colors of an unknown hybrid butterfly before it breaks out of its chrysalis. In my case, since my early forties, I experienced a regression. I became an ambitious child with a strange urge -- to infect others with my addiction and convince them of my Memory Windows theory ...
I booked briefing rooms at four community centres in May 1974 and gave free talks on Sunday afternoons regarding my Memory Windows theory. This lasted for five months. Apart from bookish students interested in philosophy and cosmogony, surprisingly there was a haphazard group of middle-aged adults who attended. They were probably interested in changing their fate and destiny.
To my credit in a warped sense, nine listeners half-believed me and provided their past photographs to me. A few weeks later, I hinted to them in private about their morally ambiguous or shady deeds. There were four types of outcomes.
First, the astute ones sought to refute me and demanded concrete evidence. When I shook my head to indicate that I didn’t have any, they raised their heads and walked away, satisfied that they had discredited and rebuffed me. Second, the impulsive ones scolded and shouted at me, labelling me as a sham and a fraudster. Then they dragged me to a corner and warned me not to spread groundless rumours about their past. Third, the sensitive and aggressive ones pushed me against the wall, shook and threatened me, demanding that I should keep perfectly quiet about their past. Laying their hands on my shoulders, they said, ‘If you talk to anybody about my past, you won’t see sunrise quite soon …’
Finally, there was one listener, a middle-aged history teacher at a secondary school in Queenstown, who smirked and walked away after I told him quietly about his past. He had poisoned one of his classmates. A few days later, I was being stalked.
One evening while walking home from a bus stop after teaching, a figure grabbed me from behind and thrust a dagger into my navel. Luckily I managed to swing him off before he could stab me a second time. As I always carried a few darts for self-protection, I hurled them at him. One of the darts hit his left arm while another hit his chest. He shrieked and ran away. He was wearing a mask, but I could recognize him as the history teacher. I shouted for help and a few pedestrians rushed towards me. The ambulance came and I was rushed to the emergency department. I was hospitalized for eight weeks. The doctors told me that the dagger used was smeared with a mixture of poisons that were meant to kill insects and rats. They urgently administered different types of antibiotics to treat me.
For the first four weeks I was half-conscious at the intensive care unit due to high fever. I was dying … Slowly I recovered. Six weeks passed. Without the knowledge of the nurses, I drank a traditional medicine wine which was concocted based on secret ingredients. I believed it quickened my recovery.
Although I have largely recovered six months after the assault, the wound was deep. Sometimes strange pain came from it in the middle of the night, as if some kind of venomous larvae were wriggling inside my stomach. I would drink milk and then a small spoonful of grape vinegar to alleviate the pain.
Having spoken to death, I hope to write my autobiographical journals and pass them to my son Joseph … someday he will turn it into a collage that whispers at night … a few truth hunters may wish to listen. They may hear about the problem of evil, the power of talismans and the journey towards Zen. They may hear the footsteps of someone pursuing a waterfall painted on the wall of a cave that says, ‘The end is in the beginning. The source of the stream is in your memory before you were born …’
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 7 January 1976)
Nothing changes … midnight arrives … the tweet of owls and bats, the chitter of crickets and lizards … the farmhouse awakes. When strong winds blow across its gutter, it croaks like a bullfrog.
The captive appears tired and feverish … he looks like an old seagull that has flown many miles above grey waves … Is he looking for seaweeds that grow near a forgotten island? … or he’s like a hybrid butterfly scratching, trying to break free from a hardened chrysalis. Are his claws strong enough to crack it? … or he’s like a salmon struggling upstream in Kafka’s river of consciousness. Searching for a spot away from carnivorous birds inside The Garden of Earthly Delights?
Or are there sign-posts in the triptych that say, ‘Exposing the Personalities of Wild Desires … The Unconscious When Viewed Through A Telescope … The Dance of Hallucinogenic Herbs Inside A Cup of Gallows Humor … A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man … A Pond of Memories That Straddle Past, Present and Future Lives … A Mystery Triptych in Flesh and Blood …’
Perhaps the captive is walking along the fringes of a dreamscape … a dreamscape behind the swirl of dusts kicked up by cavorting hooves and clattering wheels inside Bosch’s painting … a near-solipsistic zone where metamorphosis repeats its cycle a few times.
From that angle, does he look like a tufted deer? Shoving his body sideways into a crevice at the bottom of a cliff, hiding from a pack of wolves? … does he look like a grey, emaciated dolphin trying to support his mother’s body as she sinks to the bottom of the sea, crudely maimed by young killer whales that are learning how to hunt? … maybe he’s a painter, giving birth to a brainchild that kicks like the embryo of a square-jawed hippo?
The captive asks, ‘Can I live a few more days to knead a different kind of bread? Or struggle a few more days inside a walnut-shaped flask? Hope to chisel a twentieth-century Book of Tao out of bamboo sticks.’
‘Are you talking to me? Who are you?’ I ask.
‘A voice that appears by chance and fades away by chance,’ the captive says. ‘Perhaps I struggle against the fading away.’
‘What’s the chance of success?’ I ask.
‘Maybe when I murmur these words and someone understands part of my world, this qualifies as half-success …’
‘Your voice rattles … ’ I say. ‘Like the teeth of a trap scratching the femur of a leopard. Can you change it?’
‘Maybe I change into a broken flute jutting out of a broken drum …’ the captive suggests.
‘That should be better,’ I say.
‘Or I change into a broken portrait or a cracked bell that memorizes a part of my journal. It may pull somebody out of a time womb made of quicksand … a shaman’s bonfire is coaxing the quicksand to swallow quickly, but Time likes to take its time.’
‘You sound like a fatalist,’ I say.
‘I’m trying to recall,’ the captive says. ‘Where’s that avant-garde Book of Tao? … condensed into a haiku? … someone snorted on a deathbed while watching an image. Has he been chasing it? Chasing it most of his life on earth? The image quivers … it shows a shadow chasing a shadow on the surface of a summer pond. They can’t speak … a Homo sapiens invents their brief dialogues. Gone now before I can find a name … a comet rushes across the sky. Has it claimed them? I see a few fins of rainbow colors. The comet looks like a leafy sea dragon glowing in the dark … then it trembles, squirming, half-twisting … a haiku giving birth? You’re right. The night sky is bright … it doesn’t need a name. But a haiku bearing a name intrudes. Scientists call it ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’. I shorten it to ‘compulsive obsession.’ Are we captured by it? …’
‘Venting?’ I ask.
‘I’m pruning away something to make it more concise.’
‘A goatskin drum hearing itself?’ I ask.
‘Perhaps trying to make a scent mound, like a beaver, to mark out my territory … or mold a theory that gives me comfort …’
‘What kind of terrain are you trekking now?’
‘I’m trying to recall,’ the captive says. ‘Yes, captured by it, a compulsive label … the throbbing of a sensation chasing an ideal. Are the Deity, the perfectionist Pegasus and the cosmic Centaur captured by it? … wanting to clutch a mysterious Greater Good? … to overcome the fears of the flesh? … to fight the unseen fight of devoting oneself to an ideal, in a cosmos where God’s particles can barely be detected by atom smashers and the meaning of those particles cannot be deciphered? … did the Deity, the Pegasus and the Centaur partner with that child to endure searing pain when she was being gang-raped and brutally slashed to death?’
‘Finished?’ I ask.
‘Not yet,’ the captive says.
‘Take it easy and take your time,’ I say. ‘We’re time-bound. There’s nowhere we can go.’
‘Sometimes I feel we’re working towards a climax to step away from the river of Time.’
‘Agree,’ I say.
‘I remember now,’ the captive says. ‘Is David Maestri captured by that fixation? … he plans to smother his conscience with brown sashes, at least for an afternoon, if it helps to put a few finishing touches to his avant-garde mural. It scintillates before a bronze mirror. Am I captured by it? … I must be … a self-fulfilling label. It’s an obsession. Further it’s compulsive. Very little elbowroom. You see me waking up in the middle of the night trying to draw a haiku. Beside a quiet pond that listens to the quiver of moonlight. But I don’t like the shrill noises coming from that asylum. Don’t like the label ‘Woodbridge ecstasy’. Safer to give the compulsion a name that implies it’s treatable … perhaps ‘truth addiction’. I recall many drug addicts were cured …’
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 8 January 1976)
‘… you are self-muttering,’ I smile. ‘Have you rescued that somebody?’
The captive says, ‘Maybe I try to rescue myself … or catch the moment when the small mind plunges into the Big mind. The moment when there’s no Big mind and no small mind. No spiritual or material things … my brain shouldn’t be cracked by labels. Behind the cracks – newness … makes me feel guilty if I stepped on an ant, even when it was an accident.’
‘What happens if you see the Big mind?’ I ask.
‘Return to it. Nothing happens.’
‘Nothing happens? If we look at the newspapers, a lot of things happened,’ I say. ‘A child was raped and murdered. Villagers were robbed and buried alive. Patriots were maimed and burnt.’
The captive says, ‘And my mother died an unnatural death.’
‘How did you cope?’
The captive says, ‘I can’t … I’m trapped … almost give up. I keep reminding myself – the Spirit is with them. The Spirit consoles them and suffers together with them. Please forgive me. I know it sounds like a nonconformist, pantheistic creed. But for me, it’s a homebred theodicy … to keep my sanity.’
The captive says, ‘I can’t go on. But I must go on. I must soldier on and be dusted away on the battlefield. To endure the pain, I become a devotee of medicinal wine, Tao ceramic paintings, Zen calligraphy and Kabbalah hymns.’
‘A devotee? What does it mean?’ I ask.
‘I’m an explorer, a pursuer, a hunter, a memoryscape sculptor.’
‘Where have you explored?’ I ask.
‘Been trekking the psychedelic world of memory windows.’
‘What are they?’
‘Not sure,’ the captive says. ‘Maybe they travel or swim or teleport around like capsules of memories inside someone’s unconscious …’
‘What are you hunting for?’ I ask.
‘For truth and love.’
‘How do you capture them?’
The captive says, ‘I don’t capture them … I follow their scent and footprints. If I’m lucky, I talk to them. They show me how to keep alive my mother’s love and talk to her haikus … or I see different aspects of a truth. Old people told me: if I understand one truth deeply, I befriend others.’
‘I guess you’ve been hunting in different kinds of mental terrain? Did you catch anything?’
‘Not sure,’ the captive says. ‘It’s very elusive … sometimes I thought I have caught something. When I try to grasp it or show it to others, it’s gone … perhaps looking for hard-to-express truth that can shed light on the jigsaw puzzles of my life … it’s like the hub of a large wheel … I’ve seen Tao, Buddhist and Zen paintings that show a large wheel … different kinds of sentient creatures and half-divine beings are running on it. Maybe they are chasing the samsaric and nirvanic aspects of truth. She visits me in various guises … sometimes she’s like a refined diamond with many facets … or she’s a huge wind entering different caves, creating different tones and loudness of echoes.’
‘How did you hunt?’ I ask.
‘By collating interpretations of Moby Dick’s insights into the anarchic elements of this world … or applying repression theories to better understand Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’
‘I’m getting confused. Is it alright to be confused?’
‘I’m often bewildered,’ the captive says.
‘I sense it now. You’re an avid explorer and investigator.’
The captive says, ‘Maybe I’m a practitioner of Taoist meditations, trying to decipher Conrad’s Heart of Darkness … or an amateurish memorizer of Hamlet’s soliloquies … perhaps hope to explore Emerson’s question, ‘Does Shakespeare’s usage of his genius for public amusement imply that the ability to understand the Meaning of existence is worth less than the breath of a cigar?’
‘I can conclude now,’ I say. ‘You’re a thinker. You should think less. Much less.’
‘Been trying hard to think less,’ the captive says. ‘But I can’t … I need to investigate, reflect, analyze and tend to over-analyze … it’s near-compulsive.’
‘Think less. It can only do you good,’ I advise.
‘I will,’ the captive says. ‘Elderly psychologists told me that the near-desperate, trying-hard-not-to-panic voice in our heads doesn’t come from a wise observer. It comes from a frustrated ego … or from a self-seeking twin.’
‘Agree,’ I reply.
‘Sometimes I try to memorize Ode To A Grecian Urn. It makes me wonder why did Bosch allow slithering creatures to breed in a deathless pond in the Garden of Eden … Symbols of dark forces? Do shadows augment the light? Do they groan and yell and produce psychedelic starkness? … or is the courage to face the claws and daggers of robbers and torturers, to go through searing pain without renouncing truth and love, a kind of austere beauty?’
‘Some truths cannot be couched in words,’ I say.
The captive says, ‘I want to forget about words … I want to be non-dualistic. Hope to become a child again and look through a kaleidoscope … its changing colours help me better appreciate Salvador Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans and Arshile Gorty’s The Artist and His Mother and urge me to live beside the sea … to put a noose on a bullish marlin and then let go … I want to let go of both the noose and the marlin.’
I nod my head.
The captive says, ‘Proficient in Chinese, didn’t I translate Hui Neng’s poem into English a few years ago? My version reads, ‘Try to see with the eyes of a worshipper of the Buddha and Kuan Yin. We glimpse another kind of truth. The Bodhi tree does not have a body. The polished mirror does not have a wooden stand. There is nothing tangible in the unseen Realm. Where can the dusts settle?’
‘Interesting,’ I say.
The captive says, ‘But my personal lines read, ‘Why did the Compassionate Understanding emerge? Why did It endure layers of dusts and ashes through the centuries to write a poem in the guise of Hui Neng? Why did It endure blood, toil, tears and sweat to give birth to conscientious DNAs?’ Day by day I explore. Hour by hour I try to decide or I vacillate and half-decide. Sometimes the characters in my dreams will decide.’
‘Let’s return to reality,’ I say.
‘You’re talking to me now.’ The captive looks away, his voice gloomy. ‘I’m not allowed to read the Bible … someone’s afraid I may stumble across that revolutionary line in the Ecclesiastes: ‘God has planted eternity in the hearts of men …’ I believe this verse can change into a chant that saves my captor’s life … he dreams to leave behind a heirloom that doesn’t rust and can’t be eaten by moths.’
The captor is in the living room. Under the pale moonlight he’s working hard on his artwork with a rusty jigsaw. He’s suffering from Multiple Personality Complex. The type where the rational persona cannot control the sadistic urge of an irrational twin.
I ignore the captor and look closely at the captive. I look closely at the captive’s face and complexion. There’s no mistake. He’s me.
(written on 23 July 1975)
Nothing seemed to change. In the middle of the night, the farmhouse stirred. There was silence, except for the chitter of crickets and the tweet of monitor lizards.
The farmhouse with forty-thousand-square-feet land was located at a remote area in Singapore, a few kilometers from the northern coast. Its perimeter was demarcated by tall mesh wire fences. Its iron-gate entrance was narrow, just adequate for a truck to pass through. Two dark Dobermans with square jaws roamed within its fences. It used to be a frog farm owned by Flint’s maternal grandfather who passed away six years ago.
Sheltered by tropical shrubs and Senegal Mahogany, its frontage was hidden by Yellow Flame trees. Nearby was a Tembusu with fissured bark, oval green leaves and craggy branches that touched the ground. The house was made of brick. Its roof was shaped like a mortar board with a long downspout on its right. The fringes of the roof appeared green due to clumps of moss and algae.
Except for the living room windows which were fortified with iron grills, the windows of the other rooms on the ground floor and the second floor were sealed up with planks. The wooden doors at the entrance and at the kitchen were bolted with security locks. Two standing electric fans aired the house. At night it looked like an austere bastle house reminiscent of those found along the Anglo-Scottish border that were fortified against thieves and robbers.
Since 22 July 1975 Flint locked me up in a room on the ground floor. The house had a rectangular living room that exceeded a thousand square feet, an elongated dining room, a large kitchen and a narrow stairway to the second floor. There were three bedrooms upstairs where Flint hid his other captives.
The living room had been converted into a workshop. A rectangular mahogany table was near the windows. A green lamp, two palettes and four palette knives were placed at the center of the table. On its right was an array of tubes that contained oil pigments and watercolors. On its left were paintbrushes standing erect in a small container. Pencils and erasers were stacked on top of blank pages used for sketches. Crumpled pieces of drawing paper were scattered on the floor under the table, together with three easels, two jigsaws and two pieces of unused Amate-looking bark paper.
Clay figurines with different shapes and sizes were kept at one corner of the workshop. Some of them looked like torsos, half human, half animal. At another corner were pieces of pottery, ceramics and the chips of unwanted murals. At the third corner were five torsos of arhats, four Bali wood sculptures featuring traditional Indonesian songsters and three Grecian statues featuring Spartan warriors.
A few colorful Beijing opera masks were displayed at the fourth corner. Besides the smiling masks were an unsheathed samurai sword, a Peach Wood Taoist sword, a curved Persian dagger with a gem mounted on the top of its hilt, and a rosewood panel in the shape of a shield and carved with the words ‘Secrets Behind My Metaphysics’. Near to the panel on the floor were models of warplanes made of cherished balsa wood. On the walls of the living room were the stuffed heads of a crocodile with gleaming eyes, a rhinoceros with a sharp horn and a leopard with bloodstained fangs.
A triptych that measured eight feet tall and twenty feet wide occupied the center of the workshop. Flint proudly hinted to me that it was his masterpiece. Covered with a light blue cloth, it faced the windows that were shielded with brown curtains. Only strong afternoon sunrays could penetrate into the workshop. ‘A near cousin of Ulysses!’ he exclaimed while leaning against the wall and admiring it, his hand resting on a wall clock that measured two feet wide and three feet in length. The clock was more than a hundred years old, with baroque petal carvings on its wooden face and a narrow, hazy glass window. Distracted by its tick-tock tick-tock sound, he had removed and discarded its internal mechanism, treating it as an antique left behind by his maternal grandfather. He told me that it enabled him to enter different realms that inspired him.
Nailed on the walls that encircled the workshop were ten mass-printed paintings in ebonized frames. They were Albert Bierstadt’s A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie, Edvard Munch’s The Scream of Nature, Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, Van Gough’s Starry Night, Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother, El Greco’s View of Toledo, Paul Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon, Albert Ryder’s The Toilers of the Sea, Brugel’s Triumph of Death and Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. At dusk they seemed to come alive and watch in a half-amazed, half-intrigued way the progress of the huge canvas.
In the daytime the farmhouse was filled with the brooding shadows of surrounding shrubs and broad-leafed trees. At night it was were pierced by strange and moving silhouettes, probably bats and other nocturnal creatures hunting for food. The house seemed to come alive in the middle of the night. It seemed to be transformed into a magnified sculpture of the thinking man, eternally unable to decide whether life is absurd or contains some hidden meaning. Once I heard Flint calling the house ‘My Ulysses’, as if it had the nighttime vigilance of a raccoon that could gather drops of manna when there was full moon.
The nearest neighbor was a prawn farm located a few kilometers away in the east. On its west were heavily wooded areas that stretched to the coast. I didn’t notice any visitor during the day or at night, except the postman who might come once a week to drop letters into the letterbox near the entrance. Sometimes I detected the rumble of an old van that passed by the entrance which was more than a hundred meters away from the house. Probably a vehicle from the prawn farm that delivered goods to the city.
In the past few days, I started to plan how to escape. I had a foreboding. My organs might soon become materials for Flint’s artwork.
(written on 25 July 1975)
My captor called himself Flint Maskeraid. But I knew him as David Maestri.
David was thirty-four. I knew him for five months and met him a few times together with several local poets at an eatery house. We enjoyed Chinese chicken curry, Penang rokja, Fujian noodles, fried salmon with cheese rice and Indian mutton soup. The eatery house was near my flat at East Coast Way, the eastern part of Singapore.
On several occasions, with a rough but emotional voice, David recited his poems entitled ‘A Kafkaesque Songster’ that were published in a local literary magazine. He was probing the meaning of life and death, reality and appearance with doses of disillusionment and dark humor.
David was six feet one inch. I estimated his thickset body weighed at least two hundred pounds. A suntanned square face with a broad nose and long hair that covered his forehead and most of his neck, he liked to wear tinted glasses that covered his deep brown eyes. He often wore a grey windbreaker, blue shirt and jeans, perhaps trying to hide the aura of dark energy from his body. His thick V-shaped eye-brows looked like two dashes of black ink, their attention-grabbing position daubed a hostile shade to his taut face.
At the eatery I noticed that when David was reciting his poems, his voice was pensive, like yearning for something he knew he couldn’t attain. When he spoke to others, his expression was stern. His lips with uneven thickness moved mechanically when talking to others. Sometimes he would jump up in near-ecstasy when he emphasized how expressionism endowed his life with meaning and purpose and how abstract art had partially healed his resentment against human hypocrisy.
Compared to David, I was gaunt and skinny at forty-six. Five feet nine, I weighed about 120 pounds with a thin forehead, a bony chin, fragile eye-brows and sleepy eyes. My arms seemed to dangle like bamboo stems while my calves and thighs lacking flesh made my knees appear to be swollen although they were fine and still functional. I had an elongated face that reflected a difficult passage through my mother’s womb; thin, philosophical lips that struggled to read Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and a pale bookish nose that aspired to smell the truth like a modern-day follower of Sherlock Holmes. A few nocturnal glimmers could be seen in my dark pupils in the middle of the night. The neurons behind the pupils tried to fathom Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Most of the time, my almond-shaped sleepy eyes were half-closed and half-protruding due to excessive, focused reading.
At the eatery David told us that he was born in Boston and aspired to become a painter-poet cum sculptor. His father was Italian, an electrical engineer who came to Asia after the War and worked as the productions manager of a multi-national company in Singapore for many years. His mother was a Chinese who worked in the human resource field. He told me that two years ago his parents had gone to Venice for retirement. David chose to remain in Singapore, working as a part-time arts teacher.
Admiring his poetic ability, I talked to David about my Memory Windows theory after a dinner when the other friends had left. He listened carefully to my view that earthly events are stored in the memories of a cosmic Being and do not vanish.
‘How to prove it?’ David asked.
He was sitting beside me. Sometimes I turned and looked at his expression. Most of the time his tense face drooped while he stared at the beer glass which he slowly rotated in his hands.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Comes to you in a dream?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Like an artist having a vision,’ he said. Lifting his glass, he watched the lights reflected on it.
‘Sometimes when looking at the night sky, I seemed to have gone through those moments before,’ I said. ‘Did you have such feelings?’
He shook his head.
‘Sometimes they were beautiful moments, like watching a sunset or looking at the sea. I seemed to be inside a poem that re-writes itself …’
‘Maybe an imaginary scene from your unconscious,’ he said.
‘Sometimes the scenes appear in my daydreaming … when they turned gruesome, they’re like a hard-boiled poem that’s hard to digest.’
‘They may reveal another aspect of reality,’ he said as he drank his second glass of beer. ‘When I was painting, I could be struck by a dream-like intuition … Sometimes it helped to conjure up a few strokes to finish my work, with a sense of half-finality.’
‘A sense of half-fulfilment?’ I asked.
‘Nowadays my artwork can’t be completed … always a work in progress. It seems to evolve, regress and evolve. Then the cycle starts again … for a new generation of viewers.’
‘Perhaps that’s why a great artwork is always young,’ I said.
‘Is the Creator another kind of Artist?’ I asked. ‘He may be using memories or memory waves to create artworks …’
David remained silent and stared at his glass. Then he said slowly, ‘Tragic-comic artworks or contorted sculptures? Interesting … but I can’t understand the Creator.’
‘Agree,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I feel I’m living in His memories … Nothing precious is lost. We’re living in His cosmic past.’
‘I can’t understand that part,’ said David. He looked at the empty glass which he half-rotated with his fingers.
‘Agree. It sounds illogical.’
‘How do we live in someone’s past?’ David asked. ‘We make new decisions moment by moment. We can choose to act differently tomorrow … sometimes I don’t know how I’ll act tomorrow. Can anyone know beforehand how we’ll decide and act tomorrow when we aren’t there yet?’
David waved at the waiter and ordered a third glass of beer. His eyes fixated on the empty glass before him. Slowly he said, ‘Maybe you’re doing an abstract work … it evolves over time or it provides another angle to view things.’
‘Maybe the Creator has huge Eyes,’ I said. ‘He can enlarge His eyes to such an extent that the cosmos becomes small. The world is like a wild flower that appeared and wilted within a few days according to His timeframe.’
David remained silent and looked at his glass.
I continued, ‘He planted the Elements of randomness and uncertainty in the cosmos. He allowed humans to have free will. Because the cosmos arose and passed away quickly, He could see and remember all that happened on earth. In that sense, He could foresee the ‘future’ … He could intervene selectively if He wanted.’
‘Stimulating food for the brain,’ David said.
I nodded and noticed his lips curled upwards on the right side of his face as the waiter handed him a third glass of beer. I wondered whether he was amused by my theory or looking forward to a third glass of beer.
‘Perhaps your subconscious is trying to dig up a reason for the impermanence of things,’ David said after he gulped down his beer.
I replied, ‘Agree … perhaps I’m trying to do without doing, trying to shape without shaping.’
‘A koan?’ David asked.
‘I have failed as a follower of Zen.’
‘I’m inquisitive … can’t let go of my desire to know.’
‘Hope I’m not a failed artist,’ he muttered.
‘If you remain enthusiastic, creating something beautiful for yourself and for others, that would be alright,’ I said.
David stared at his glass and said, ‘May not be enough. I’m trying to invent and shout a kind of contemporary resonance that doesn’t stop to captivate, intrigue and amaze viewers and future generations of viewers … perhaps in the end I’m the only viewer.’
He took out a piece of paper, handed it to me and said, ‘Took me a few years to write. I sculpted them behind a wooden panel.’
I looked at the paper and read it in silence. It was dated April 1973, more than a year before David got hurt in a road accident in 1974 that resulted in blood clots in his brain …
(written in February 1973)
Secrets Behind My Metaphysics …
(1) Orgasmic high lasts a few moments. Aesthetic climaxes crackle like a bonfire, sufficient to burn away the night.
(2) Her fragrant, unseen self left me … I didn’t know that and became a hungry artist. Wandering along an unknown red light district, did I become half-shamanic when we entwined and I touched beating hearts? Strange fears jolted me. I raced towards and jumped into a mass grave. The grim silence told me … true romance needs her imaginative power. I can’t live without Art.
(3) I hate myself for hiding the suspicion that I became a cuckold. No one should read these lines. They yell in the middle of the night. In my dreams I make sure that the screamer in Edmund Munch’s painting remains faceless.
(4) Will my Dionysian, future-seeing twin burst forth from my chest? I can’t let him ruin my artwork. He scorches the ground and breathes fire on my canvas … because it’s not perfect. I know I’m imperfect. Don’t need to be reminded by an agent from Purgatory. I don’t want an audience. Only a solitary voice that understands. But how to flee from my twin? How to squeeze his neck when he can read my mind? He’s well-prepared to stun me.
(5) Must an artist strive to become a glorious failure? Can he even try? How can he beat a label? It cavorts in the foreheads of other people, beyond the searing heat of a branding iron. Perhaps I should meditate inside the heart of a prehistoric cave artist. He drew on the wall of an unknown cave using charcoal, hiding his works from mortal eyes.
(6) Like dancing, playing the flute and flying high on a trapeze, I realize that painting with Monet’s eye-catching water-colors or admiring the reclining nudes of Modigliani are different types of therapy. Help to keep my sense of reality. They seem to whisper, ‘As long as my mind is contented and clear, it’s a mirror for the blue sky, even if along the way a car hit me and I became blind.’
(7) Doing art is like climbing a seven-storey mountain. I strive to glimpse the peak. Do I regret after glimpsing it? It requires me to give up attachments … Perhaps the secret to happiness is to watch the world through the eyes of an antagonist. Is there any difference between ‘I’m happy because he’s sad …’ and ‘I’m sad because he’s happy … ’? Can an artistic peak make us jump over the mental barricades and make us see that we’re all walking on the same tightrope towards the mouth of a sniggering Skull?
(8) I must be hallucinating. I see Reality undressing … She’s wearing ten thousand dresses … Perhaps Hieronymus Bosch was doing his paintings inside one of the folds of those dresses. The shell of his vision cracked under the weight of the folds. Perhaps the cracking allows light to enter his triptych.
(9) Art makes us see that we are not threatened by the Now, but protected by the Now … The cosmos is fair. There’s only the Now. All can get access to it. In this sense, we are equal. No one can seize the Now and keep It in his pocket. There are only moments. This moment is conscious … something is conscious … it cannot be caged by your money, by your limousines, mansions and pleasure yachts. This moment is conscious when a part of the cosmos wishes to see, hear and experience itself. When we don’t see it through the eyes of Art and this moment evaporates, something pristine and precious cannot return …
(10) Never mind the half-disappearing watches, grandfather clocks, camel’s fair jackets, woolly elephants and masturbating gadgets … Salvador Dali lives and laughs. There’s always a tiny corner in the heart of an artist that lives and laughs. They see Beauty, can’t touch Her, but enjoy the process of chasing Her day by day until their last breaths. Tragedies become a personalized glory. Can I call it another kind of faith?
(written on 27 July 1975)
The fourth time I met David at the eatery with a few friends, he told me that he had become very interested in my Memory Windows theory. During that discussion I was careless and disclosed to him that I could enter the memory windows of other people after drinking the mind-expanding Yunnan’s wine.
In the next few days David telephoned me many times, requesting me to let him have a drink of the wine. Finally I agreed, explaining that he should only take once per week based on the specified amount as per my instruction since an overdose could be harmful. I gave him two bottles. One was half-filled with the Yunnan’s medicine wine and the other was filled with normal glutinous rice wine.
After I became David’s captive, I discovered that he was pretending. He wasn’t interested in drinking the wine. What he really wanted were thrilling life stories that could inspire him to complete his artwork. If I could visit the memories of other people, he would be glad to hear about them, provided their life stories could stimulate him.
During my fifth session with David, after my three friends had left the eatery house at ten pm, he spiked my drink. Unaware, I drank it and became drowsy. He took out a lightweight chisel blade and a palm-sized block of wood and began to shave off its corners while waiting for me to become unconscious.
When my head dropped onto the table, he replaced his blade and wooden block into his coat and went to the counter to foot the bill. He told the waiter that I was ill and he would bring me to a nearby clinic. Lifting me into his arms, he swiftly carried me to his sedan, placed me at the back seats and drove to his farmhouse at a remote part of Lim Chu Kang.
I remember I woke up in a room on the ground floor of his farmhouse. He looked half-drunk and agitated, his square face was frowning, taut and reddish. He yelled at me like a battle-scarred sergeant who just weeded out a dozen enemies. After yelling a few times and brandishing a rusty jigsaw in the air, he stopped and sat on the floor, self-absorbed. My waist and my limbs were tied to a rattan chair and my ankles were chained to each other. I gazed at him as he sat on the floor. The gleams in his eyes were menacing. Then I detected soundless screams coming from his pupils, as if he had seen a horde of demons rushing towards him. He shouted a few more times, shaking his head vigorously.
Slowly he calmed down. He stood up, breathing heavily. He swung his long hair backwards, perhaps trying to clear his mind. It revealed a broad forehead. A purple snake-shaped scar slithered downward from the right of his forehead to his right eye-corner. The purple-colored scar seemed to split a part of his face. I suspected that it must have been done by an axe. Only his thick skull could bear such impact. A few weeks later he told me that a house burglar did that more than ten years ago. He and his father subdued that intruder and brought him to justice.
I suspected David was suffering from Multiple Personality Complex. He told me that it might be triggered by the blood clots in his brain due to the road accident. When reciting his poems in a sonorous voice, he sounded sensitive and emotional, like a weather-beaten gypsy in the nineteenth century who earned a living by telling sad stories to people in small towns. When he painted, although there were glimmers of anxiety in his eyes, he appeared sane, driven by aesthetic passion. I could detect from his taut expression that he was striving for a breakthrough on his canvas, like reshaping the cubes of Picasso to imbue them with a richer, four-dimensional quality or reviving the half-melting watches of Salvador Dali.
But when David began to sculpt his wooden artworks, wielding a rusty jigsaw, a dark spirit took over his body. He became Flint Maskeraid. The glimmers in his eyes were tainted with suspicion, distrust and anger, like a crow whose home was ruined by an intruder. He became aggressive and hostile. He seemed to be struggling to convert his vindictive energy to a strange kind of self-expanding artistic passion, as if he were trying to talk to unseen shamans to extract dark truths.
At this moment, Flint waved his jigsaw before me vigorously, showing his resolve to ensure that his captives comply with his rules. He said, ‘You’re my third captive. The other two have tasted my jigsaw … Their stories were dull! I’ll see you a few days later. Give me a real, original and thrilling story that stimulates me.’
Sitting on a rattan chair in a room on the ground floor of the farmhouse, I looked up at him and asked, ‘If my story is lengthy, can I break it into a few parts?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Each satisfying episode will earn the narrator a piece of my jigsaw puzzle … a total of twelve pieces. When you get all the pieces, you get a prize and I’ll set you free.’
(written on 28 July 1975)
Flint spoke to me, his voice, deep and hoarse, as if coming from a ravine. It was late evening. The last rays of dusk pierced the gaps of the planks that were intended to seal up the window of the room.
I was being locked up in a room on the ground floor of the farmhouse. A rectangular room, about three hundred square feet, with walls and ceiling painted in grey. I frowned at the nylon strings that tied my hands together and grimaced at the thick iron chain that bound my legs together, with a leeway of about one feet. This prevented me from running away.
Flint gave me a plate of leftover rice with a few stalks of broccoli. Tiny beetles crawled on the crumply flower heads. A few were biting the rice crust. Two ants lingered near the cusp of the spoon. The pale blue fluorescent tube on the ceiling caused the beetles to gleam. It daubed a blue sheen on the arm-rest of the rattan chair I was sitting on. It daubed a grey sheen on the saggy, pockmarked body of an old mattress sprawled on the floor. There was no trace of a bedframe.
At a corner of the room were a black pen and two yellowish writing pads. At another corner were two glass bottles, one was half-filled with medicine wine while the other contained glutinous rice wine. There was also a plastic bottle of tap water, a plastic cup with no handle, a palm-sized can of Ovaltine and a plastic container filled with wheat biscuits. Nearby was a brown traveler’s bag which contained a toothbrush, tubes of tooth paste, many bars of soap, a few T-shirts, towels, trousers and underwear. Flint said he recently bought them, as if he planned to keep me in the house for a long time. I washed my clothes at the greasy sink of the kitchen.
Flint seemed to come from the shadowy landscape of the farmhouse which was surrounded by shrubs with serrated leaf margins. When the winds came, the shrubs snarled, as if imitating the grunts of two Dobermans that guarded the fenced-up ground.
Flint was emotionally unstable … he was aggressive, like the two Dobermans snarling outside the farmhouse when provoked by moving shadows. Sometimes he muttered, ‘Wise demons …. freed by hardened clots in my forehead.’ He told me that a year ago, his motorbike hit a truck and he sustained a concussion. He was lucky to survive after two months in a coma. But clots remained in different parts of his brain. Till now several big clots refused to disperse, clung to his arteries like parasites that sought to control his mind.
At this moment Flint looked into my eyes and said, ‘Make sure your story is real, original and thrilling … don’t disappoint me. Don’t let the teeth of my jigsaw sink into someone’s knee-cap.’
(written on 30 July 1975)
One night Flint dragged me to a corner of his kitchen and asked me to look at a large rectangular fish-tank. It had black and white pebbles at its bottom and an air-pump with a pale blue lamp above it. A silvery arowana was swimming gracefully, but its eyes exuded a special kind of alertness and unruffled focus. Perhaps this enabled it to control its prey.
‘The Tao that can be pointed at is not the ageless Tao. The Tao I want to taste cannot be caught. Can you explain?’ Flint asked.
‘The shadows of the grotesque kiss my fingers now,’ he said. ‘Can you see?’
I remained quiet.
Flint picked up a small plastic pail from the floor. There were seven guppies in that pail. He used a net to scoop one and placed it into the fish-tank. The arowana darted towards it and sucked the prey into its mouth. Then the arowana remained motionless. After a while it spurted out the guppy. The guppy, with an emerald tail, quickly swam away, trying to hide.
‘Can you see now? The shadows are toying with death.’ Flint smiled in an insidious way.
I avoided his gaze.
‘The hourglass point, the inverted peak …’ he said. ‘The artist in me moves beyond light and shadows.’
I remained silent.
Flint turned and stared at me. His dark pupils gleamed with hostile energy. He raised his arm and slapped me hard on the cheek.
‘Say something!’ he shouted.
I staggered backward and then muttered, ‘The artist in you is moving … towards a nameless zone.’
‘Yes …you’re right!’ Flint gave a wry smile.
He took out a piece of paper from his pocket and said, ‘A poem by someone called David Maestri … Netted by another vision? Twisting inside now? My wife’s unforgettable side-portrait. She walks back to check the accident spot. Her relaxed brown hen has been hit by a truck. Did the knuckles of satori knock me? A poem has just been run over by a Freudian yell.’
I ignored Flint and stared at the rectangular fish-tank. Its glass reflected my half-closed eyes. Someone seemed to be meditating behind those eyes, except that my pupils began to follow the image of the arowana. Again I failed to focus.
(written on 1 August 1975)
… I entered a memory window … A flash of terror ran across Grandfather’s brown eyes. His veins and muscles tightened along his square jaws. His wrinkled, suntanned face became tense. His eye-brows locked into a furrow as he gazed at a boy climbing a four-meter-tall fence. It was July, 1930 …
‘Come down quick!’ Grandfather exclaimed.
His stout five-feet-six body stiffened. In short-sleeved brown shirt and dark pants, he looked like the disciple of an arhat, solemn and alert. He frowned like a determined infantry soldier, as if he just heard an old clarion directing him to charge. Rushing to the area where the boy was climbing, he looked up as the boy approached the top of the fence.
A shriek of a middle-aged British woman dispelled the mating calls of crickets. It startled the foxes, quolls and thornbills. She turned pale in the morning light, her hands quivered as she waved frantically at her son.
‘Daniel, I don’t need the flowers. In my eyes, you’re always the best. Come down now,’ the mother said.
‘Daniel, we’re only joking … you’re brave. Please come down.’ His cousins waved at him.
But twelve-year-old Daniel ignored them. He was lean with an elongated face with dark hair that covered his ears, a small nose and hazel-colored eyes. His upper lip was half-cleft that exposed one of his teeth. He tightened his lips as he reached the top of the fence and prepared to climb over it. The shouting of his mother became more shrill. Two of the relatives ran in the direction of the administrative office.
The fence ran along the sides of a ten-feet wide wooden bridge inside the Melbourne zoo. The bridge was more than a hundred feet that spanned a river populated by crocodiles … the mating season of the ‘salties’. The adults had an average body length of sixteen feet and tend to be more aggressive during this season.
The river was flanked by tall trees, shrubs and mangroves. Its current was gentle and the waters were dark brown due to mud slides further up the river. The woods on both sides of the river were fenced up.
Grandfather looked around anxiously. No zoo-keepers were around. The middle-aged mother and the tour guide attempted to climb up the fence, but their fingers soon became swollen and they fell on the ground.
‘Your father’s gone in the War. You are all I have. Come down now.’ The mother wept.
Daniel reached the top of the fence. Straddling his legs over it, he planned to scale down on the other side and cross over to a three-metre branch. Bright yellow flowers beckoned near the end of that branch.
Grandfather took a deep breath and climbed the fence. At fifty-six he was strong, but no longer agile. His arms and legs were often stiff and swollen due to wounds sustained when fighting Ching soldiers. Nonetheless, twice a week, he practiced martial arts and Chi Kung, specializing in mantis boxing and the big sabre. Grandma was afflicted with rheumatism and she didn’t join Grandfather on that visit to Melbourne. If she were here, she would have persuaded him to wait for the zookeeper. But he was keen to help … Focusing his strength on his arms and fingers, he climbed up the fence and soon he reached the top.
In the meantime, Daniel leaned on the meshes of the fence and manoeuvred his right limbs to cross over to the branch. He took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the fence. Grabbing the branch, he reclined on it and waited for a few moments to ensure that it could bear his weight. Then he moved forward slowly, his green shirt and blue pants became crumpled like the skin of a caterpillar. Ten minutes later, he plucked the yellow flowers with a clench of his teeth and waved at his mother with a broad smile.
‘Don’t look down, Daniel. Time to come back.’
Assured by Grandfather’s voice, Daniel turned back.
‘Dust the flowers against the branch, in case there are bees. Let them fly away … place the flowers inside your shirt to free your left hand. Then move back …’
Daniel followed the advice … a wasp crawled out of the flowers and flew away. He placed the flowers inside his shirt and moved backward. The seconds ticked by … Half-way, a shadow appeared. It whirled around Daniel’s head. A crow, raucous and noisy. Its beak looked threatening. Daniel and his cousins threw stones at it earlier that morning. He went pale, waved his hand and yelled at it. Grandfather also waved and shouted at it. The crow persisted, using its beak to attack Daniel’s scalp a few times before it flew away. Daniel’s vigorous movement caused the branch to sway … a rasping and cracking. The branch sagged and split, dropping him forty feet into the river.
There was a huge splash. The current was gentle. Daniel clutched at a splintered branch that helped him to float and his head appeared on the surface of the water. But his danger had just begun.
Grandfather climbed down on the other side of the fence, moved a few feet to the left and jumped near to the center of the river. His body was straight, his legs touching the water first.
Daniel and the branch remained floating for a while before they flowed along with the current. Grandfather surfaced and swam after Daniel. Soon he reached Daniel, grabbed the branch and pushed it together with Daniel towards the riverbank. He looked quickly around to avoid the swampy area where there might be hidden predators. He identified a shallow spot with mangrove plants. They didn’t have time to swim to a dry spot further down as the predators were coming fast. They heard shouts above them. Without looking back, Grandfather mustered all his strength and quickened his pushing. Soon they reached a half-swampy area.
‘Go up quickly! Find a dry spot!” Grandfather shouted.
Daniel turned and spotted a few pairs of bulging eyes floating quickly towards them, the jagged ridges of their eye-brows gleamed. The huge crocodiles were only a few meters away and closing in fast.
Daniel struggled up the bank, his legs tired and heavy. He stumbled forward and hurried towards dry ground. Grandfather grabbed the splintered branch that Daniel had let go and swung it around, using it as a shield against the thick jaws of three crocodiles. They thrust forward and snapped their jaws at the branch, breaking it into pieces. Grandfather jabbed the broken pieces into their jaws to gain time. He quickly positioned himself on the stones beneath the waters and kicked himself away towards the riverbank. But one of the crocodiles submerged. Then it lurched forward and sank its jaws into his right leg. It pulled him back into the waters and began a death roll. His body twisted and turned in the foaming waters.
Kicking and struggling, Grandfather tried in vain to free myself from the jaws. Taking a deep breath, he submerged and saw the sturdy roots of a mangrove plant. He quickly stretched and grabbed them, heaving and pulling himself towards the roots. Biting his teeth, he yanked himself away from the jaws. He struggled and crawled onto the bank, moving towards drier ground. The other two crocodiles pursued him. Exhausted, intense pain was reaching his chest … his right leg was bitten away. He would soon collapse due to severe shock. Then he heard Daniel’s voice, ‘Monsters! Take this and this!’
Daniel had rushed back to the riverbank, his hands holding many stones. He threw them forcefully at the jaws of the crocodiles, delaying their advance. He bent and gripped Grandfather’s right hand, pulling and dragging him frantically towards drier ground. Twenty minutes later, they reached a gate along the fence, more than a hundred feet away from the edge of the waters. Daniel was panting and sobbing. His mother and relatives were shouting above, telling him to wait for the zookeepers. Grandfather had lost consciousness. Fifteen minutes later the zoo keepers arrived at the gate of the fence. They quickly carried him to a safe area outside the fence and alerted the ambulance to rush him to the hospital …
Grandfather woke up two days later and he needed to undergo three operations and four months of treatment before being discharged. His right leg below the knee-cap was gone. Henceforth he walked on a prosthetic leg, but his gait remained firm. During evenings I could hear him reading the Psalms and saying the prayer of Saint Francis.
(written on 3 August 1975)
I finished narrating and looked up from my notes. It was nine o’clock at night. The tweeter of crickets and monitor lizards became louder as my voice trailed off.
Flint was frowning, his square jaws tight and tense. His pupils exuded dark energy. He pondered on the significance of my narration.
He stood up abruptly from his rattan chair and stared at the grey ceiling for a long time, motionless … Suddenly he raised his jigsaw, glared at me and shouted, ‘No flash of insight!’
He stepped forward briskly and slapped my left cheek. Then he gave my right cheek a heavy slap. Agitated, he waved his jigsaw in the air. I dropped my notes on the floor and stared at him.
‘Not thrilling enough!’ he shouted.
‘What thrills me is the strangeness of life,’ I muttered.
‘Brew a sermon? To convert me?’ He sniggered. ‘Go and smell Daniel’s flowers and wake up!’
‘I’m trying to speak to your heart,’ I said.
‘You’ve a real problem.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I want a thrilling story, not an ancient tale! Your brain is made of wood!’ He shouted.
‘But it’s real, original and …’ I tried to explain.
Flint said, ‘Don’t try to subdue Art with a stale sermon. Art is life. Half-sublime, half-shamanic. It throbs with blood and pain!’
I narrowed my eyes and frowned.
He continued, ‘I detect big larvae in your intestines.’
‘I don’t have tapeworms.’
‘We’re poets. We all have larvae inside us. But yours are extra large.’ He smirked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Heard of a parasitoid wasp?’ he asked.
I shook my head.
He said, ‘It’s also called a caterpillar wasp. Lays eggs inside a caterpillar’s body. When they hatch, they feed on the host’s body fluids. Become grubs. They avoid the host’s vital organs to keep it alive. And then something happens.’
I looked at him and detected roguish gleams in his eyes.
‘The grubs control the host’s mind. It becomes a zombie. Acts like a bodyguard to protect the grubs. When they’re big enough, the grubs bite through the host’s body and eat it.’
‘An analogy?’ I asked.
‘I’ve met a number of self-professed philosophers like you, trying to understand God. Don’t be a fool! There’s no God. If there’s a God, He doesn’t care what’s happening here. And He can’t save you. He doesn’t have arms or legs, daggers or machine guns. When your larvae of pride hatch, they’ll eat your intestines.’
Flint dropped his jigsaw on his chair and flashed an army knife from his pocket. With a malicious glint in his eyes, he said, ‘I’m always ready. No escape.’
He pulled me up, gripped my left palm and straightened my fingers. Positioning the top segment of my index finger at the knife’s edge, he muttered his slogan and shaved it off. I uttered a scream and clenched my teeth, curving my body in pain as I slumped into my rattan chair.
‘Drink your hunter’s wine,’ he grunted. ‘You said it speeds up the healing.’
As he walked away, he took out a small plastic bag from the pocket of his dark pant that contained painkillers and antibiotics and threw it to me, saying, ‘Make sure your next story is thrilling. If not, I’ll squeeze your windpipe.’
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 10 January 1976)
A starlit night ... Joan’s silvery, brown hair tickles my eye-lids. Her jasmine fragrance calms me. I wake up. She brightens and brings me to see the four seasons. They seem to half-hibernate inside our neurons ... or are they singing inside a walnut-shaped tavern? Are they trying to swallow the flames of the four elements? Earth, water, air and fire -- they don’t preach. Yet they produce the sparkles in her eyes now.
At a corner of that tavern, we slip into Bosch’s garden of earthly delights … a rain-washed eden … the streams and rivers reflect land-scented images. The kind of scent that greets a sailor who has floated on the sea for days … Joan and I struggle and jump out of the haiku. We try to exit that garden, dreamy yet real … we’re bleeding. The rough stones of a storm have just lashed against our arms and necks … not to forget the missing segment of my finger.
When we return to our photo-album on the haiku-crisp deck of the ship of life, we smell the jungle … the scent of rafflesia, butterworts and ferns. They’re recycling death and starlight. We sense a few Zen painters hiding somewhere, always ahead of us, waiting. Then we hear an old owls-photographer … they call him a half-descendent of Billy Budd, his fate half-twisted. He murmured, ‘It’s rumored Whitman awakened the world of verses … how did he do it? I must mellow, humming spirituals to glimpse his secret, after half a century of land addiction. Mold my gray-hatted tavern into a weather-beaten flute. It whispers a hymn as long as I breathe through it, even in a long, cruel winter …’
His self-anointment sounds earnest, his lips quivering, living his dreams in the kaleidoscopic jungles of photography … learning the wisdom vocalizations of owls, their expressive hoots, tweets, whistles and watching their Zen-warrior calm and swiftness. It vibrates our heartstrings when he discloses his meager income. We overlook the half-inebriated glow on his suntanned face, the half-drowsy glow in his eyes that reflect fast-moving shadows -- prairie falcons, Great Lakes salmons, Argentina’s trouts and talking Chilean owls ...
Not to forget cigar-burnt magazine covers. Those Great Horned Owls — their uncombed whitish eyebrows with half-prophetic curls and military-gray plumage … Can’t forget the spears from their Gaze. They break tiger-crouching shadows and become judicious-looking predators. They press their claws deep and tear vital tissues with hooked beaks … mercy killing or assisted metamorphosis? The photographer’s artistry in freezing the half-divinity of owls makes us aware that when we leave this world, he is ahead, on the branches of a two-thousand-year-old Californian redwood, waiting.
(written on 12 May 1975)
Since 1963 on every Saturday night at 10 pm in my bedroom, I would retrieve my treasure -- a photo album with faded floral patterns on its brown front cover. It was stored in a medium-sized safe with a combination dial lock. The album was forty-five centimeters in length and breadth and four inches thick. It contained old and half-fading photographs of my grandparents, parents, neighbors and friends.
Slowly I turned the pages of the album … I looked and stared at the photographs under the bluish, nostalgic glow of six fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Then I selected the person whose past I wished to witness, took out the relevant photo and placed it near the edge of my desk. I would scrutinize it for fifteen minutes. Then I drank a tablespoon or fifteen milliliters of the legendary Yunnan hunter’s wine. It consisted of two teaspoons of glutinous rice wine mixed with a teaspoon of the concentrate of a Chinese medicine wine believed to have mind-expanding, psychedelic powers. The concentrate was made from ingredients kept secret by a scorpion-hunting tribe in Yunnan. My blood contains the genes of that tribe.
After drinking the wine, I would fall asleep in about thirty minutes and enter a dream-like world … Memory windows of different shapes, sizes and colors would approach and revolve around me. Many of them were shaped like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Then they became motionless in front of me. I would select one, push it open and climb inside. If the events inside the window were not what I expected, I would exit and select another.
Joan and I usually explored the worlds of memory windows together. While inside a memory window, we became invisible bystanders. The people inside that world couldn’t see, hear or touch us. Joan and I couldn’t change the sequence and outcome of the events happening inside the memory window.
In the past years I was able to select, push open and enter all kinds of memory windows … but there was a mysterious window that sparkled with rainbow colors. It rarely appeared. So far it appeared twice in the past ten years. When we tried to push it open, it didn’t budge. Then it drifted away.
Sometimes I wonder whether that sparkling window contains answers to some of the enigmas of my life. Maybe it’s self-aware or perhaps it’s a gift from the old monk who entrusted Herbia to me. It will open when I have completed taking care of Herbia for ten years and when I have deciphered his purpose of asking me to take care of it … and this is the ninth year … maybe that sparkling window is an offspring of the Tree of Knowledge. I can push it open only after my death. I hope that someday Joan and I can encounter it again and discover its secret …
(written on 15 May 1975)
I was born and grew up in Singapore, a multi-racial, multi-cultural island country in South-East Asia. Before the Second World War, my family and I lived in an old shop house with three rooms in the Whampoa area. My grandfather rented it to open a grocery shop. After the War, we rented a terrace house at MacPherson Road and lived there until 1952. Then we moved to an apartment flat in East Coast Way. I had antagonised local gangsters and we shifted to the East Coast flat to avoid their intimidations and harassment. As I worked as an English Literature teacher, I also changed school from the McPherson area to the East Coast area.
Thus, from 1952 onwards, we lived in a 960-square-feet, three-bedroom apartment at East Coast Way. It was on the ninth floor of an old twelve-storey building with the shape of a hexagon. Based on Chinese astrology, this design would bring good fortune. The residential building had ninety-six units, an auspicious number, with two sibling buildings nearby. They formed a half-circular arc within a 126,000 square-feet compound.
The three brotherly blocks were within a large estate in East Coast. It was surrounded by columns of residential flats, meandering rows of terrace houses, a cluster of schools and pockets of eateries. My father and I used to play Chinese chess with our neighbors on weekends. After our games, together with grandma, we walked to nearby stalls to taste our favorite dishes, such as Hainanese chicken, thick-yellow laksa noodles, chilly crabs, Nonya pastries and Malay-style chendol.
My father and I chose this apartment in East Coast not for its nearness to eateries. We bought it for its heightened security. The security features didn’t change all these years. The three blocks were gated with tall walls. Four security guards on shift duties were stationed at the entrance guardhouse. They were retired police officers. At night, two of them would be working, taking turns to pace around the compound with a large guard dog. We needed the security guards, the tall walls and the guard dog. They could deter intruders …
My bedroom was a protective cocoon and a refuge. At night I would meditate inside it. Its four walls and ceiling were painted in white, a gentle, cleansing white. Running my palm over the walls, I could feel tiny bulges of plaster granules. They felt uneven, yet strangely smooth, like the surface of the dehydrated but hardened ribs of a once reigning Leviathan. The unseen rivers, forests, caves and valleys inside the ribs seemed to echo his past glory.
The granules also resembled small organic growths. They seemed to contain tiny minds which in turn seemed to contain tinier windows for us to peek into the building blocks of this cosmos … or they seemed to contain tiny streams which contained tinier rivulets that enabled me to sail into the lungs of a Leviathan. I sensed that he would come alive during midnight to encourage the broken-hearted and light a path for the bewildered.
On one side of the ceiling were cylindrical clouds. Pairs of cheerful eyes gleamed on their faces. They enjoyed peeking at me wherever I might be. They enjoyed entering my dreams and they would guide me to find a stream filled with rainbow trout. They enjoyed entering my unconscious when I was reading the Cloud of Unknowing. They even entered my nightmares and provided me with wings when I fell into a bottomless valley. These experiences deepened the four-dimensional feel of my bedroom.
The cleansing white of my room was an immaculate orchid white … I recalled that such whiteness emanated from the orchid flowers in the garden of our previous terrace house at MacPherson Road. It was their signature way of welcoming us in the mornings and evenings. Orchids were meticulously nurtured by my father at our previous house. He used high-quality fertilizers and large clay pots. He would carefully select the correct sizes and types of chips of bricks, stones, rocks and charcoal. He would place them inside the clay pots to buttress the body and roots of the orchid plants. This was followed by daily watering and weekly spraying of miticide to prevent mite splotches on the leaves. After many months, the small faces of orchid flowers with immaculate white would peep at us.
Besides the clouds in the ceiling, there were undertones of light green painted over images of boughs and leaves on two walls of my bedroom. This gave the perception that it was possible to soar and touch the diamonds of brightness coming down from the latticework of branches. These shafts of diamonds appeared when I looked upwards at the overarching green after a jog at a park on a sunny day. Captivated by their sparkles, I seemed to recall those moments when I just came into this world, surprised by the glitter of sunrays.
From a gestalt viewpoint, the cheerful clouds and leaves heightened the whiteness of my bedroom. Further, the pinewood wardrobe, the desk legs, the arms and legs of the chair, the window frames and curtains, the wooden door and the book shelf were painted in white. The metallic frame of the fish tank on the left corner and the two dart boards fixed on the wall were also white. I was trying to create the sensation that I was meditating inside the belly of a cousin of Moby Dick. This created an imagined time-womb for me to escape the dark forces outside. Such meditative ambience was more apparent at night when the clouds gave birth to a bluish glow when mixed with the ceiling light …
I’m now sitting near to the reading desk inside my bedroom. The desk is two meters in length, one-and-a-half meters in breadth, thrice-painted, twice-lacquered. It faces the window. I can sense the nostalgic, bluish glow of six florescent tubes. The tubes are arranged in the shape of a hexagon on the ceiling ... According to Chinese astrology, an overarching hexagon emitting a serene glow and facing a north-south direction brings good luck. The serenity is augmented by three glass-framed pictures on the wall. They feature animals that are symbols of good fortune -- a Sichuan golden-haired monkey, an albatross and a zebroid.
Herbia’s cage is three feet away from the left side of my stiff, therapeutic mattress. It’s supported by a wooden bed frame. The mattress is recommended by the physiotherapist at the Singapore’s General Hospital ... it’s purported to have a therapeutic effect on my curved spine and intermittent back pain due to an inborn condition -- my left leg is three centimeters longer than my right leg.
Directly facing Herbia on the right side of my bed is a big fish bowl with a diameter of thirty-six centimeters. It contains a handful of water hyacinth that floats leisurely on the surface, white pebbles and colorful marbles decorating the bottom and a water filter with an air-pump. The bubbles rise from the mouth of the air-pump near the bottom of the bowl, reflecting the ultra violet light from Herbia’s cage. Inside the bowl are six white angel fish with long whiskers, six goldfish with puffy cheeks and six rainbow guppies with bluish, yellow and orange tails. Their tails seem to change colors when the males chase the females in the mornings … Fenshui dictates that the shadowy dreams of Herbia need to be neutralized by the aura of these eighteen tropical fish. When one of them died, I would hurry to the shop nearby to buy a similar fish and place it into the bowl, so as to maintain a semblance of cosmic harmony in my bedroom …
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 12 January 1976)
The old monk who gave Herbia to me appeared in my dream. We were talking at the courtyard of the temple at Genting Highlands. He handed something to me … an unfinished poem? a mirror that reflected half a haiku? a stuffed kiwi distorted inside a convex mirror? …
Was it a painting inscribed with the missing words of a lost gospel? … an artwork made of bones that muttered an avant-garde language? … a cracked mirror that reflected the dancing nudes inside Bosch’s triptych? … a dead bat that trespassed on my reverie? … or the photograph of a jigsaw left behind in a barn which happened to be the scene of a crime? … they became molecules of light and entered my eyes. What did I see? What did I hear?
Did I sense a rush of activities in my irises and optic nerves? Along the photosensitive ganglion cells on my retinas when images impinged on them? Did I sense the orchestrating movement of the brain? It created molecules of memories and meaning … kept them in the watery regions of the brain … perhaps the molecules might reveal different nuances of meaning when I grow old.
Or maybe these molecules would coalesce and be born someday as a canvas … it might reflect different gradations, shades and strokes of colours. Ocean blue, sky blue, turquoise green, jasmine yellow, leopard brown, tomato orange. Maybe the canvas would change its appearance when viewed by different pairs of eyes … produce different gestalts of meaning stored in different layers of the unconscious.
Perhaps these molecules could yell. Their shrillness could be overwhelming if I analyzed too much … I should tone down. When I dampened the fire, what did I see? … hundreds of pieces scattered everywhere in a wilderness? They appeared like the jigsaw pieces of my life … chunky or in fragments, trim or smudged, silent or murmuring to themselves … some glimmered under the moonlight, some withered in the swamps, some were buried like unwanted memories. Some gave off a wild odor. Some dangled from the finger-tips of craggy branches. I struggled to gather them. Like a beaver, I scraped them together to build a small shelter of meaning. It kept my sense of reality.
(written on 4 August 1975)
I looked at Flint the sculptor as he walked into the room near dusk. He was frowning, aggressive energy exuding from his taut face with hostile gleams in his eyes. Briskly he placed a rattan chair in front of me, sat on it and grunted, ‘Three days are over. Today is the deadline. Is your deadweight brain alive? Hate to squeeze your windpipe later.’
I ignored him, looked at my notes and began to narrate the following life story …
… I entered a memory window … a world filled with greenery and the shades of shrubs and broad-leafed trees. I heard the chirping of birds and the trickles of a stream ... it was March 1963. I was a hunter, engrossed in searching for an elusive prize. My forehead unknowingly moved towards the eyes of a crossbow until I was alerted by a shriek -- a hornbill on the shoulder of an oak. It was looking for food inside a timber-rich rainforest that straddled the borders of Thailand and Malaysia. A dipterocarp forest where many trees produced fruits that bore seeds with two wings. The light revealed the bright yellow casque of the hornbill -- an ivory helmet above a large beak. Its grey plumes and the shadows of the branches changed its yellow helmet into a sharp gleam -- a gleam that startled. It was like seeing Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee for the first time.
A thunder in the distance brought me back to reality. I crouched and prostrated on the ground. Huge trees, ferns and creepers surrounded me -- the Rain Tree with its umbrella-shaped crown, the cylindrical Jelutong and the Borneo Camphor Wood. Their latticework of branches towered like rows of verandas fifty feet or higher above my head. There were also rattan, bamboo trees, peat swamps, bladderworts and rafflesia. Brought me back to those days when I was a youth hiding with my family in the forests of Sumatra, hiding from the invaders, waiting for the War to end ...
The clacking of branches followed by a thump as a wild fruit dropped to the ground brought me back to reality ... I trudged through the shrubs and stumbled upon a clearing. Sunrays pierced that plot of ground ... they seemed to mark that spot to bury those lost in the forest. I walked away from it and trudged through shrubs and bushes. The ferns exuded a wild odor. I sensed that apex predators were surveying and focusing on their targets while the scavengers waited for their chance ... The forest was like a giant pitcher plant. Maybe it was living inside the ravine of a prehistoric Brain many times larger. At night this pitcher plant would do what was necessary to stay alive -- luring, trapping and digesting its preys. When morning arrived, sunrays would pierce the ravine to reveal whether there were any survivors.
I remained prostrate on the ground and looked around, reminding myself that I had been lost in the forest for two days. I re-checked my rifle bought from an underground store in Bangkok to make sure that it was loaded and ready. I had bought a total of three rifles, the other two were given to Nezam and Ahmad, my guides. But they left me two days ago when I was adamant about going beyond the ancient cemetery and entering the inner region of the forest. They had guided me in exploring the outer regions of the forest the past few weeks. They must be aware of happenings that I couldn’t fathom. When I sounded firm to go beyond the ancient cemetery, they repeated strange stories about trespassers being punished by guardians deployed by a native tribe.
I refused to listen ... we had been exploring the outer regions of the forest. We would trek in the daytime for six hours and return to the village by sunset. I would rest at the motel while they went home. The next day at eight o’clock, we would begin again. We saw different species of owls, falcons, fantails and wrens. A few times when we camped near the fringe of the inner forest, we thought we saw the shadows of Garuda Owls -- their horned foreheads, orange eyes and giant wings, but we had not yet discovered their homes. I felt that I was running out of time ... my son and my father couldn’t wait. Their illnesses had worsened. I need to urgently prepare the legendary medicine wine to cure them. Perhaps I shouldn’t be stubborn ... Now I had been lost for two days, unsure whether I was being hunted by the tribesmen or tracked by venomous creatures.
I turned my face sideway, trying to hear the movement of feet or paws. I heard the whispers of a stream and the faint pulses of a waterfall. It was issuing bloodstained waters. A bear died last night. It had round ears, sharp claws and a long snout, weighing more than four hundred pounds. Its organs were prized for their medicinal properties. It died of bullet wounds. It lumbered off before it died and fell down a slope into the river, floating towards the waterfall. Then it was stuck at the forked limbs of a trunk near the dropping edge of the waterfall. The slow-moving parts of the stream was bloodstained for a few hours and small creatures detected it when they drank from the stream.
I couldn’t sense blood in the stream trickling nearby. I was forced by circumstances to look for the elusive Garuda Owl. To capture it, but not to kill it … to obtain some of its flesh as a crucial ingredient for making a rare hunters’ wine believed to be a cure-all. If captured, I would ensure that the incision would be done under anesthesia by a veterinarian. I believed it could cure or at least alleviate the muscular atrophy of my son and the liver cancer of my father.
Further, Grandfather told me that the legendary wine had mind-expanding powers, enabling the drinker to access the deeper region of his unconscious and perhaps find answers to lifelong questions … I hoped that it could enable me to enter a forgotten chamber in my mind where I could meet and talk to my mother and to my wife Florence. Perhaps I might even be allowed to enter a hidden chamber in the unconscious where I could glimpse another world.
I remained tense … Inside the forest, I might be mistaken as an intruder by enforcement officers. Or a stealthy, muscular leopard might be following me now and ready to pounce on me. Or a ten-meter-long, two-hundred-pound python might be closing in. Or tribesmen might be seeking to seize and punish me for being a trespasser. I remained silent … I could smell the stench from my shirt. My green shirt and pants, green boots and haversack were soiled and muddy. I was running out of food and water, uncertain whether the guides would return to find me … but I doubted it. The fear in their eyes and the unhesitant way they returned a portion of the money to me reflected their determination not to go beyond the cemetery. They told me, “A few trespassers were burnt at the stake.”
I turned my body upwards and placed my rifle across my chest … I heard the creaking of barks caused by squirrels as they scurried up the trees … I saw a caterpillar nibbling a leaf. It looked like the embryo of a green hippopotamus. A beetle with golden freckles ran under my neck. A hairy, brown spider jumped onto my left shoulder. Then it leapt away towards a cluster of ferns, hunting for smaller spiders. A blue-green mosquito landed on my wrist. I brushed it away … when I turned my body, my right palm accidentally crushed a leaf insect. I resented my carelessness. Remaining quiet, I tried to detect the rustling of leaves, the sound of broken twigs or the gleam of an arrowhead. I was still alive …
‘… Jonathan, don’t give up.’ I heard my mother’s voice and recalled the tranquility of the Kovan Chapel -- its quiet aisle and the rows of maple chairs on Sunday afternoons, the shadows of pine trees on the side windows and the whisper of a King James bible. The self-conscious mahogany piano was playing the hymn “Abide With Me”.
A shriek from a hornbill brought me back to reality. Feeling thirsty, my hand reached for an old gourd tied to my waist. I lifted it near to my face. A familiar fragrance drifted into my nostrils. Opening its cap, I took a sip of tribal Yunnan wine made from glutinous rice, crocodile meat and Taiwanese scorpions. I had been drinking it as a substitute since the age of eight. It alleviated occasional bouts of asthma.
Refreshed, I listened cautiously and sat up. Too late … four tribal guardians armed with bows and arrows pounced on me. They must have been watching me from behind the shrubs. Their bodies were bare and they wore hard straw shoes and green loin-clothes. Their faces, chests and limbs were painted with green pigments, blending well with the undergrowth. Two of them grabbed me while the other removed my rifle. They stared at me before they tied my hands behind my back and led me away. I would soon be judged by the elders of the tribe on whether I should be burnt at the stake …
(written on 5 August 1975)
Yes, I chose to believe … I saw the shadows of Garuda Owls among the latticework of branches above me. Families of them. The smaller ones were flamboyant and hyperactive, celebrating a near-bodiless existence. The larger ones were swaying among the thick branches which shielded part of the night sky. Untouched by the palls of flames and smoke, they lived outside the rims of fiery tongues. Or if they chose, their shadows playfully merged with the flames and they baptized the flames with the glow of moonlight. Then they resumed a soundless yet troubadour-like pursuit among the quiet prophecies of ancient trees …
I tried to ignore the fact that I was bound by the tribesmen to a wooden pole … they planned to offer me to their secretive pagan gods. I looked away from the flames surrounding me. I could see the pale blue gown of Joan. She was darting and shuttling among the trees, chasing the shadows of Garuda Owls. Then she stopped and remained still as if she found a few Owls that understood her spiritual message and her request for help.
And I tried to shift my focus away from the heat of the flames and my eyes tried to follow the shadows of Garuda Owls. They had stalwart foreheads, some with long whiskers, some with cloud-shaped sideburns. They had large wings, hooked beaks and muscular thighs. Their refined talons and yellow-streaked eyes glittered in the dark. Their eyes appeared sufficient to subdue their foes. They seemed to be born during moments of satori. Half-flaunting their plumes, they fluttered, flapped and beckoned, leaping from the branches of one tree to another. When they leapt, their shapes changed. Some became elongated while others became rotund or cylindrical. I seemed to see a cluster of fireflies behind each of them, as if the silvery rims of their shadows contained micro-comets. They were taunting the flames. Some of the shadows radiated a bluish glow, as if offering a vista on how a star was born. Perhaps joining their mystical friends in an other-worldly celebration, Death became enchanted … he permitted us to see what we most desired during our final moments when earthly egos dropped their masks.
Or perhaps my eyes had become molecules of flames. They burned the pulsating arteries of a dream – capturing a few high-quality snapshots of a legendary Garuda Owl with my Olympus camera. My ten-year-old camera was affixed with a near-omnipotent flashlight. I rarely used my camera at night in the forest, so as not to attract the attention of predators. But if I glimpsed an unusual creature at night and felt compelled to take a snapshot, when I clicked my camera, the blinding flash seemed to penetrate a small part of the night sky. Sometimes the flashlight didn’t work. While checking it, the flashlight might be activated. If the flash shot at my face, my eyes seemed to implode briefly. I seemed to drop into a black-pitched vacuum. Within a minute or two, tiny shattered pieces of glass coalesced like a new type of molten liquid. They blended and reformed inside my eyeballs, restoring my vision.
The searing heat that crept up my neck brought me back to reality … the fiery tongues remained faithful to the earth, blackening the twigs, branches and coarse hay behind my feet. The clumps of twigs and unwanted hay quivered. They shriveled like prickly, winds-resistant dune grass when the flames touched them. Became snake-like coils. Refusing to die, they changed into waves of heat and assaulted me, as if assigned by some dark forces to test whether there was something beyond my flesh and bones. I put up a mental fight. Physically I was helpless. My limbs, neck and abdomen were tightly bound, bruised by double-plaited ropes. Those were hunters’ ropes, used for tying the legs of wild boars on sticks that were carried back to the village. I had been tied to the poles, exposed to the afternoon sun for four hours without food and water. The heat only moderated when the sun set. My hands remained tied and curved behind me against the pole while my neck was bound upright. The shamans wanted me to look straight to see clearly the retribution for my wrongdoing.
Ten tribesmen formed a half-circle behind me in the forest clearing, their dour faces reflecting stripes of yellow, purple and blue. Small goatskin drums were tied to their waists. Their drumbeat pulsated through the bushes. The shamans’ invocations echoed among the tall trees. The interwoven branches of the trees arched over my head like a kind of funeral drape. I was bound near to three caves. The main cave had a height and width of about twenty feet while the other two caves were smaller. The flames behind me disclosed that the floors of the caves were filled with rocks and sands. Long, twisted shadows ran into their throats that consisted of tunnels.
The drumbeat loudened, bringing me back to a primeval past. A past that seemed to live in some of my dreams, inside the ancestral voices running in my bloodstream that sometimes talked to me. It seemed to live inside the red-streaked eyes of the shamans who were watching me now, anticipating that I would be punished by their mightier gods.
The flames burned brightly behind me, their heat reaching my thighs. I jerked involuntarily, moving my face to and fro, trying to lessen the sharp sensations of pain as the heat intensified. I coughed and struggled to pray.
Then surprisingly the tribesmen behind me used the buckets of water beside them to douse the flames. They need to use more than twenty buckets of water. Soon the flames were gone. Didn’t they want to burn me alive? Did their gods forgive me? Did the shamans receive an other-worldly message to release me?
My relief was brief … a more cruel fate awaited me. The flames were a signal to some prehistoric creatures. A gleam appeared … then a few more gleams. They came from the throat of the main cave. Pairs of alien, orange glow followed by large, crawling shadows … they reflected the belligerence of ancient predators. My flesh would be used to feed them.
The forbidding glow of their eyes changed from orange to yellow and to bright red as they moved away from the shadows of the cave. I could sense their swiftness and the unblinking focus of their crimson glow. I sensed their hesitation when they touched the shadows of Garuda Owls. These were signs of keen hunting intelligence … As the predators approached me, my heart sunk. They were giant spiders. Each was twice or three times the size of my palm. I closed my eyes, waiting to be stung and gashed by their toxic fangs.
Something grumbled in the distance … grey clouds gathered swiftly. Soon there was lightning. The shadows of the Garuda Owls converged above me. The giant spiders halted. After a while they retreated. The Garuda Owls swooped down and attacked them, their sharp beaks piercing the thorax of the spiders. The hairy spiders scattered and rushed back to the cave. Lightning flashed over my head. The thunders became deafening.
Suddenly a bright flash … followed by a blasting roar … The ground shook and trembled. The tremor seemed to pierce my hollow ribs. The air was electrified. Luminous for a short while in a stale way. My throat burned with bitter dryness. Severe heat rose from the ground.
A bright, crackling wave of lightning had struck a nearby oak. Fortunately my legs were bound above the ground, not touching it. The huge voltage didn’t hit me. It hovered savagely around me for a few moments and went away. But the ten tribesmen behind me were less fortunate. They were stunned and knocked unconscious, lying motionless on the ground. A Garuda Owl and a few spiders also laid motionless on the ground.
Soon the rain came. Another group of tribesmen, about thirty of them, sitting further away on the rocks were unscathed, but they were dazed by the lightning. Regaining their composure, they hurried over to tend to the motionless bodies. They rubbed their limbs and thumped their chests. After about ten minutes, seven of them slowly regained consciousness and they sat up. The elderly tribesmen discussed among themselves and untied me. According to their religious custom, if I survived the ordeal whereby the spiders didn’t kill me, I would be free to go. They believed their deities had forgiven me.
When released, I quickly performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the remaining three motionless bodies. I was trained in CPR technique as a teacher. Within fifteen minutes, I resuscitated them. They were carried back to their huts on sack cloth stretchers. Before I left that site used by the tribesmen for punishing transgressors, I picked up the dead Garuda Owl. It was the size of two hens. I obtained the elders’ permission to keep it, explaining that I needed its meat to prepare a medicine wine to cure the illnesses of my father and my son. The elders also allowed me to stay in one of their thatched huts for the night.
The next morning a young tribesman guided me out of the forest. When I reached the motel, I cleaned and cut the meat of the Garuda Owl and salted it. I placed it inside a clay pot and sealed it. Upon reaching home in Singapore a few days later, I placed the meat of the Garuda Owl into the freezer. Then I went to gather the other ingredients as conveyed by my grandfather. They included squids, prawns, young scorpions and crocodile meat. I also visited southern China for a few days to obtain psychedelic herbs and jinseng. Then I rushed back to Singapore to prepare the medicine wine. It required three days of carefully monitored brewing. Eventually I prepared twenty one-litre bottles of the wine which could be consumed after mixing with traditional glutinous rice wine. By drinking it twice a week, it helped to stop the muscular atrophy of my son Joseph and alleviate the liver illness of my father.
(written on 7 August 1975)
‘Not stimulating enough!’
Flint shouted and glared at me. I had just narrated a second life story to him. I was sitting on a rattan chair in the room on the ground floor, looking at my draft. I raised my head and explained, ‘But it’s real, original and thrilling. I almost died.’
He shouted again, ‘I need stimulation! Stimulate my intellect, my emotions, the daemonic shaman inside me. You figure out how to do it. Perhaps blood and pain can help you.’
Flint sniggered and lurched forward to grab and pull my right ear. With a skilful swerve of his army knife, he sliced off a corner of my ear. I clenched my teeth to suppress a shriek and curved my body in pain as I slumped into my rattan chair.
‘Sacrifice for the sake of Art … we’re born to suffer,’ he muttered as he left the room and locked the door.
Despite my pain, I noticed that Flint was limping … his left foot was bandaged. The strip of bandage was stained with blood. A few of his toes were missing …
(written in 1973)
A Kafkaesque Songster …
(David wrote this poem in early 1973 before a road accident in 1974 that resulted in blood clots in his brain. He wrote it under the suspicion that his wife was having an affair with her department’s director.)
Near sky-arch he circles widely. There, winds are gone and humans are not masters. He creates a small thunderclap near the cradle of a New World. Someday it’ll wake the self-absorbed world below.
After showing his Kingdom exists before the arrival of mankind, he descends …. glides through a mist that hides the forehead of a valley and takes a measured dive towards the farmhouses. Then he soars, the shadow of his golden-brown wings touches me. He heads towards a mountain -- swifter, sharper, surreal, a glistening arrow before he disappears into an orgasmic forest.
The eagle’s flight pierces me … makes me determined to write some verses to trail it. I borrow a wheelbarrow from the manager and push it across the meadow towards the stream. My wife and her friends are already splashing, swimming, celebrating their flight to Nature. Seeing the wheelbarrow and my poetic high, they offer their sympathies.
I camp a short distance away … look hard at the wheelbarrow … further stare and ponder. No life-changing peek after an hour. I sigh, remove my clothes and penguin towards the waters.
The coolness kills me … at least, drowns my ego for a while. The mountain waters tickle my limbs and spine … recreate all the running nerves of my toes, knees and vitals. Every splash cleanses my eyes, lips and sweat pores, tossing sunlit twinkles on my cheeks. The long green river shows different pairs of eyes, different types of insidious glances and the guilty shivers of adult-sized children. Electronic games idle under a wise tree.
Fixation-free for now, I keep splashing … give up eavesdropping on the surrounding moss-twined boulders. They may be whispering ancient secrets on how to concoct an elixir. Worries, unhappiness and hunting instincts melt like sugar lumps. Trickle away towards the horizon that floats like a mysterious painting. Carps, children and grown-ups lose their names. They cross a morning rainbow in the waters. Beetles, dragonflies and thrushes welcome our homecoming, only when we throw away our nets. This poem sheds its skin, flesh and bones. What remains? … a pair of novels-loving eyes fronting rural beauty and rural toughness, brought down to earth by the redness of a wheelbarrow and the faith of its users.
Meanwhile the waters keep gliding. They can’t stop, akin to time. The stream flows, unaffected by time. It seems content to be solipsistic when I sit beside it, watching it. It’s nearly free of human spoilage except for teleported-from-nowhere thought thrusts … they begin to moan. I hear awkward moaning … more than sole-lips-cease-tick wordplay. They come from the conscious earlobes of desires. Sly, noiseless, recalcitrant, they behave like bed-bugs, mosquitoes and serpents. Bite, flee, hide and return at odd hours, as if to finish us off. Keeping them at bay is our daily fate.
My practice becomes circular. It includes poetry, gardening, jogging, praying, sensing the imageless, heeding the Muses, finding the eye of life’s storms, even blurting out a confession … become a half-grilled imagist, a religious hybrid, searching for a golden Balance in the stream of life. In the meantime, life feels half-twisted-cum-thwarted.
Perhaps need to un-frustrate, like uncorking champagne … reaches a self-absorbed climax. The possible consequences deserve emphasis. An undesired pregnancy, akin to a rejected brainchild, becomes an undiagnosed miscarriage during a spotless holiday season. The wheelbarrow will be used to camouflage and transport that purplish, tumor-shaped lump to be buried, half-deep in the woods. Soon it shares its nutrients with nearby trees, flowers and nutmegs. They’re harvested and used to make pastries by the farmhouse manager based on a popular recipe. A modest portion reaches the dining table of his customer, a Reality-hunting zealot. It provides sustenance to his age-worn fingers. His fingers are sweating now, struggling to type these lines.
The lines rebel and undress … split into syllables to hibernate at a corner of Bosch’s garden … strain their spidery necks to etch a four-dimensional half-owl, half-dolphin pattern on the outer wall of Bosch’s ego shell … or they sever a part of my lips. A purgatory magpie snatches away my broken lips. Its tongue brims over with elegies on an artist. He brandishes an avant-garde calculator rumoured to contain an algorithm that can predict when the solar system will flare up. Too late. He’s stranded. It’s a treeless island in the middle of the Pacific. With nothing to be done, he chooses to do something … he etches a six-dimensional image on his calculator, waiting for the Flood.
Perhaps after many seasons, my backyard statue, a reclining cupid, unearths syllables that are fidgeting under the shadow of a deserted shed … they say, ‘Eat little. Drink little. Desire nothing …’ and a tiny, self-carved rosewood replica of Michelangelo’s David prompts me to build a bonfire of the vanities … burn away my wife’s gloves, stockings, haberdashery and a heirloom – a bronze mirror that conceals an anti-Ching code … burn away handkerchiefs I bought for our summertime venture into Harbin to take pictures of the museum pictures of snowmen. All become ashes … enough for me to sprinkle them on my sculpture that will feed another bonfire that says, ‘If you become an invisible wheelbarrow bringing gifts to the needy, the golden Balance will someday pay a visit during non-eagle-chasing moments. This will become a more earthy artwork.’
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 15 January 1976)
Waking up, I remember Joan’s jasmine fragrance and tender forehead … I remember her watery eyes that reflect a blue sky. They linger somewhere inside. I suspect it’s a starlit night. I can’t see, can’t smell, can’t touch anymore, but I sense the warmth of her presence. She visits me at my walnut-shaped tavern to comfort me.
She brings me now to sojourn inside the Garden of Earthly Delights … some its images happen to hang on the walls of my tavern … Unblinking owls leap from the walls, float on a stream before they perch on an apple tree … watchful and silent … Alien creatures soon appear … long-necked creatures with spikes and talons … slithering, sharp-teeth reptiles behind the bushes. Are they talking to me?
Before I can respond, hundreds of black birds stare at a shapeless me. Do I hear their flapping? They twirl around a futuristic place inside Bosch’s painting. Are they privy to the conversations between a unicorn and a walking tree, between an alien peacock and a shrewd giraffe? Luckily we aren’t privy … we don’t get bogged down by words we can’t pronounce.
We walk into the second panel and watch the pleasure-seeking frolic and dances of gleaming bodies … then we watch with horror how the bodies evaporate and appear in the last panel. Cold winds blow across Joan’s and my faces. We feel the sharpness of the blades and the heat of the flames … so much history vanished, unrecorded. Perhaps there’s no painting when we see closely … but images and real events, leaping alive inside a stream of neurons …
Art critics said that children and the elderly are missing in Bosch’s triptych. Are they saying, ‘ … a painter was watching resurrected bodies that emerged from their graves in their prime?’ Or perhaps pleasure seeking is the norm in a near-paradisal world that has not yet written about the Fall? Or a lover of art is roaming inside a dreamscape? Maybe he tries to crack the shell of his ego, only to find another layer of shell to be cracked? Or perhaps a centaur is in love with a nymph and they whisper a desire to remain youthful? But one thing is for sure. Bosch was a truth-hunter. The complex details in the triptych prove it.
Where does the life force come from? Where’s the Wand orchestrating a renewal? Who’s wielding It? Who’s behind the welder? … Reductionists frown on meta-questions … quickly call the emergency services of modernists. Never mind we are lost in a Garden. We struggle to see the light beyond the towering flames and mutilated bodies, beyond the giant blade brandished by self-conscious Ears. The heart says, ‘An old child is meditating inside a chrysalis. He opens the eyes and ears of a patriot. The patriot grows up and relies on the courage of that old child when he steps onto the battlefield, when he yells and slashes a few enemies and endures a painful death.’ His blood blends with the streams that flow towards an immemorial lake.
(written in May 1975)
… it was May 1963 … since that tragic incident in 1936, I had waited for this moment for nearly thirty years … finally I could get near my mother … eagerly I pushed opened the memory window, entered it and returned to the days where my mother was beside me …
Different from a hazy and shadowy dream at night where my mother’s facial features were unclear and she was always many steps in front of me or behind me, I could now clearly see her face. As an unseen bystander inside a memory window, I stretched out my hand to try to touch her almond-shaped face, her small, attractive nose, her crescent eye-brows and black round eyes, her thin lips and long brown hair … she looked like one of those graceful dancers in a Tang dynasty painting … I could hear her tender, low-pitched voice that trembled melodiously when she sang hymns. She was five feet six with slender limbs. We were at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on that day. I was six years old then …
My mother was an orphan. She didn’t know her real parents and didn’t have the opportunity to see them. They didn’t come to find her. When she was an infant, she was left inside a basket on a tree branch near the gate of a convent. It was at the eastern part of Singapore. She grew up at that convent, taken care of by Catholic sisters where they taught her to read and write. She diligently read the Bible and the Pilgrim’s Progress, and she assisted to perform chores at the convent. She told me that the Catholic sisters were kind-hearted and compassionate, imparting knowledge and wisdom to her. But she was bullied by a few orphans older than her who frequently stole her food, dirtied her clothes and books. At eighteen, she went to the local hospital to work as a nursing assistant where she met my father, a KMT captain who was seriously wounded during a raid against Japanese agents in China. My father settled down in Singapore to recuperate and helped my grandfather at the grocery store. He often went to the hospital to change dressing. After two years, my father proposed to my mother and they married in 1928. I was born in 1929, their only child. As they both loved Nature, they brought me to the Botanic Gardens every month. It also inspired my mother to write haikus …
The Singapore Botanic Gardens was founded in 1859 by a local horticultural society. It was subsequently handed over to the British colonial administration for maintenance. From its humble beginning as an ornamental garden, it evolved into a tourist site with diverse local and imported plant species. I recalled that when we reached its bronze-colored gateway, we stepped into a different world. Facing us was a long lane that led to the heart of the gardens. Heterogeneous species of plants, ferns and foilage grew on both sides of the lane. The tranquility heightened the mating calls of crickets. After walking for twenty minutes, we sat on one of the wooden benches that faced the central lake. The stone path circling the swan lake was flanked with giant leaves and towering trees. A few swans were basking in the sunshine on the right side of the lake. European tourists were taking pictures. The calm surface of the lake mirrored the blue sky. Squirrels scurried across the oak trees. Butterflies flittered among giant leaves. I walked towards a pond and saw young turtles. Their slowness mirrored the serenity of the pond. Time seemed to have stand still …
After walking around the lake, we rested under the shade of broad-leafed Angsana trees. We enjoyed the greenery and the blooming bougainvillea and heliconias. Then we walked to the Chinese-style parlor situated up on a hill. The lawn that stretched before the parlor was lush green, contrasting with the potted variegated flowers that flanked its boundary. Many pictures were taken showing my parents and I sitting, standing and lying down among the beds of yellow, orange and red flowers. My mother would sit inside the parlor on its long bench and peel an orange for me. Then she would read poems by Emily Dickinson. She would also write wrote one or two haiku.
I asked Mother, ‘What’s a haiku?’
‘A short poem …’ she said. ‘It describes what a person experiences now.’
‘Why do you write it?’ I started to chew the orange flesh which she handed to me.
‘Perhaps to try to understand the present moment.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked.
‘To take a snapshot of the interconnectedness of life.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. I was six years old then.
She lifted an anthology of poetry and said, ‘A teacher once told me about the miracle of a book … for example, this book came from the efforts of many people …’
I sat straight and listened.
‘For example, the logger sawing down a tree … the driver transporting the timber to the factory … the workers processing it … the managers overseeing its production … and its wisdom came from many generations of poets.’
I nodded, trying to understand.
Mother continued, ‘Further the tree is nourished by sunlight … by nutrients from the soil and rainwater from the sky … its existence depends on solar energy, soil, rainwater and the process of photosynthesis … in turn, the earth and the sun depend on the existence of the Milky Way. In this way, this book subtly mirrors the existence of the cosmos …’
Recently I wrote a few nonconformist haikus in memory of my mother:
The morning ripples like a colorless apple.
Rushes towards the palms of pre-biblical jasmines.
Time is an arrow, clearer than reality.
Someone’s eyes do not need veins or sockets.
Transparent on the surface of a Botanic Garden pond.
The wedge-tailed eagle can see them.
A few guppies kiss a turtle’s shell.
They swim inside a different Bible.
Are they canonized in a different world?
Next morning, breathing stops because it’s unnecessary.
The struggle ends when a haiku gives up its wastrel label.
A Grecian urn drinks the desert sands of Ozymandias.
They see the cosmos of my mother now.
(written in May 1975)
I pushed open a memory window and entered it. I saw my mother and I sitting on a sofa in the living room of a small clean flat. It was a weekend gathering of Christian friends. I was seven years old then.
Catherine, an eleven-year-old girl, was singing a hymn. Her voice was tender, high-pitched and moving. She was born blind, but she was cheerful and she played the piano very well. Suddenly a boy said, ‘You’re so pitiful …’
The adults quickly hushed up the boy.
Walking home that evening, I asked my mother, ‘Why did God allow Catherine to be born blind?’
‘He has his reasons we cannot understand now,’ Mother said.
‘It’s frightening to live in a dark world and can’t see anything.’
I stopped in my tracks, closed my eyes and imagined to be blind for a few minutes. Although I closed my eyes, I could still sense the brightness of the evening light. I wondered whether Catherine could sense the light or her world was totally dark.
‘I believe her inner world is filled with light,’ Mother said. ‘The Spirit brings light to her.’
‘I can’t understand God,’ I muttered.
‘When we grow older, we learn to accept tragic events as a part of life or to deepen our faith.’
‘Like the poison tree that Grandma told me some months ago?’ I asked.
‘What did Grandma say?’
‘She told me that many years ago, the villagers called an ugly-looking tree a poison tree. They wanted to chop it down,’ I said. ‘Then someone discovered it produced fruits that could cure illnesses … but how can blindness be useful? It destroys everything. It destroys hope, happiness and the meaning of life.’
‘Perhaps not,’ my mother replied.
We sat down under a rain tree and she continued, ‘Let me share a real story. It happened in the 1880s in the United States.’
I looked into the watery eyes of my mother and listened intently.
‘It was a Sunday morning. Pastor Russell Conwell saw a girl crying near the door of a small church. It was very crowded. She couldn’t enter it.’
‘What happened then?’ I asked.
‘The kind-hearted pastor took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday school class.’
‘What’s the name of that child?’
‘Her name was Hattie. She came from a poor family. Can you guess what happened that night?’
I shook my head.
‘That night Hattie worried about other children not being able to attend Sunday classes. She worried that they couldn’t worship God. She decided to save her money to build a larger Sunday school.’
‘But she came from a poor family. How much could she save?’
‘Yes, she tried very hard and saved only 57 cents over a period of two years. Then she fell ill and died.’
I sat up straight and said, ‘That’s unfair. She shouldn’t fall ill and die.’
‘The story hasn’t ended. When her parents told Pastor Cornwell about their child’s devotion, the pastor was so moved by it that he repeated it in many congregations.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘A newspaper also published it. A realtor donated land and many Church members made donations.’
‘Did they finally build a big Sunday school?’
‘Yes … within five years Hattie’s gift had increased to $250,000. A huge sum at that time. They have since built a bigger Church with a large Sunday school that can house hundreds of children …’
My mother loved the poems of Emily Dickinson. A few years ago, I have written a poem in memory of my mother:
If Hope is the thing with feathers, life is a pebbly enigma. Perhaps someday I catch a glimpse of what changes a robber’s heart into a stone and what makes a stone watery before someone dies. Perhaps I peek into what makes stones, water and heart blend together at that temperature and ambience, at different temperatures and ambiences on earth. Or perhaps I glimpse what makes them cohere into a poem in those particular forms and shapes under space-time conditions we can scarcely think about, and what makes these lines look into the eyes of our grandchildren when we’re long gone.
Maybe I glimpse how the starlight helps to stick together my eyes, ears, nose and tongue or how it wakes me up at night to ponder on mysterious things when my square head should be ensconced on a non-enigmatic pillow. Or is my pillow Platonic? It’s made of cotton wool. I agree with Mother. Cotton wool is a crucial ingredient. It comes from sunlight, rainwater and the Milky Way, sewn within oblong pieces of cloth before being embedded inside a pillow cover. They contain mysterious but essential stuff -- space, oxygen, hugginess and love.
(written in May 1975)
My mother didn’t die … she might be physically gone, but she didn’t die … she couldn’t die … Because of the depth of her love, she lived on in my daily life, always young, full of grace, wisdom and beauty …
I could remember and sense her fragrance at this moment, the warmth and softness of her fingers, the tenderness of her finger-tips … I could remember and feel the moistness of her lips when she kissed me on my forehead at night before I went to sleep … I could feel the moistness of her lips when she kissed me when she fetched me after school or at the playground before she pushed the swing or at the Kovan’s chapel when we were listening to Christmas carols … I could remember and feel her right palm touching my head, my shoulders, my neck and wrist when I was down with flu and fever … she was always beside me, wiping the sweat beads from my forehead and using a cold towel to gently rub my back and abdomen to reduce the fever.
Sometimes at night when Joan and I were writing a poem, we could hear the whispers of my mother. The three of us would write our poems together. No, she didn’t die … she was always beside me and Joan. Even in broad daylight, sometimes I could hear her voice, asking whether I have taken my lunch. At night in my dreams I continued to hear her gentle voice telling me stories from the Bible … Thus, my mother continued to live in my daily life after that fateful event. She never left me. She was always beside me, encouraging me. This was my reality. More real than anything else in the world. Entering the memory windows only served to validate her presence and the depth of her love, to the extent that she chose to die for me …
I remembered that when I was six, my image of God was that He was a huge fatherly Elephant who would protect kind-hearted people. At that time I believed that He would strive to ensure the kind-hearted were immune to tragic events. This image came from an actual incident which my mother told me one morning during breakfast.
‘Jonathan, I just read an amazing story,’ she said while we were at the kitchen table and my father had gone to work.
‘Please tell me, mother,’ I said as I put jam on my bread.
‘In southern India last week, the feet of a young elephant was stuck on a railway track,’ she narrated. ‘Soon a train could be seen at a distance, heading towards the young elephant.’
I stopped eating and asked, ‘What happened then? Did it knock and kill the young elephant?’
‘The parents of the young elephant walked onto the track,’ my mother said. ‘They tried hard to push it away. But they didn’t succeed.’
‘Did the train stop in time?’ I asked.
‘A few more adult elephants walked onto the track,’ my mother said.
‘Didn’t they hear the horn?’
‘They did,’ my mother replied.
‘They were not afraid?’ I asked. ‘My teacher told me elephants are very intelligent.’
‘They’re very intelligent,’ my mother continued. ‘They are so intelligent that they displayed sacrificial love.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘The parents and the other adult elephants on the track used their bodies to shield the young elephant from the impact of the collision,’ my mother said.
I sat straight, keen to know the outcome.
My mother sighed, ‘Unfortunately the train only reduced in speed. Didn’t stop in time. It hit the elephants and killed a few of them.’
I was sad. I was also puzzled why didn’t God intervene. Yet strangely, the image of God as a huge Elephant emerged in my young mind at that time. Perhaps this was influenced by stories in the Bible told by my mother in which God stepped in to protect the kind, the poor and the downtrodden. I was confident that in the real world, God would protect kind-hearted people from tragic events. Unlike flesh-and-blood elephants, God was an invincible Elephant in my mind, all-powerful, all-wise and all-good. He wouldn’t disappoint us.
But this image of Him was shattered by that fateful incident. It took only a few seconds to destroy this belief. It took only a few seconds to shake my faith, filling my heart with heavy stones of pain and disappointment.
Those few seconds were eerie and silent … a soundless black-and-white fury in accelerated motion. It was unreal. A flash of lightning across a blue sky. It happened so quickly. It shattered my faith in life. It must be the work of some malicious forces playing a cruel joke on me, exposing life to be fragile, unfair, absurd.
In my mind, the incident was over in a few seconds. I seemed to be struck by lightning during those moments, pushing me into a deep hole … I plunged into darkness and hit rock bottom, crumbling into a state of shock and disbelief … I only recalled blurred, accelerated images and the sharp screeching of tires in those moments … slowly the blurred images became a grey nightmarish landscape, filled with shadows. They became floating images of people, cars and buildings around me and pale sunrays in the corner of my eyes … At first those images were quiet and ghostly. The sounds and noises gradually returned. During many nights after that incident, I wondered whether it really happened.
But it did. My mother was gone. I never saw her again in daytime. I never touched her again in daytime. Within a few seconds, her life was gone forever … I only remembered, she shouted my name “Jonathan!”. I was walking to school with my mother and I often stood off the kerb, despite her frequent warning. I was always the first student to rush across the road when there was no vehicle. On that morning I remembered that she rushed forward from behind, grabbed my right arm and yanked me backward. I fell away from her onto the ground, half a metre from the road. She saved me. But the forehead of the speeding van hit my mother. She was thrown a few meters away. Hitting the ground, she became motionless … my reckless behavior killed my mother.
In a state of shock, I sat on the ground and sensed the pounding of my heart. My throat was parched dry as if my body had passed through a wave of flames. I stared blankly at her lifeless body. I faintly heard the screeching of tires as the van turned and sped away … slowly I heard screams from students and parents behind me. I crawled towards my mother … her eyes were half-closed … she looked very pale, her head tilted, drops of blood dripped from the corners of her eyes. I knelt beside her and nudged her arms. They were cold and limp … she had left this world.
(written in May 1975)
I dreamt that I kept vigil for my mother and stayed beside her coffin for three days and three nights at the funeral home before her burial. In reality, I was having fever for two weeks after the incident.
On the third night of the wake I ignored the objections of my grandparents. I insisted on attending it. My grandparents relented. Our neighbor who owned a van drove us to the funeral home. I arrived there at five in the afternoon. The funeral home was an elongated one-storey building which looked like a row of shop houses. Each unit looked like a rectangular workplace with white walls and white fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Rows of wooden chairs faced the coffin which was placed on a bier. On the table in front of the coffin was a picture of my mother with white candles, baskets of flowers, a rosary and a bible. The entrance was an open walkway, facing a stretch of car parks.
My father was sitting at the front row, frowning sadly. Wrinkles ran deep across his forehead. His stout, square face was pale. His big round eyes were dim and quiet. He bowed slightly and his lips trembled when the pastor, relatives and friends sought to console him. His side hairs seemed to have turned grey overnight. His thick eye-brows were slanted inwards with grief and anger. He was angry that the reckless van driver had fled. Although his eyes were red, he restrained his tears.
My mother looked pale, but peaceful and serene inside a brown coffin. Her smooth, silk-coloured face reflected a screen of light. Perhaps the thick powder used to hide her bruises and wounds reflected the light. She wore a white gown and covered by a shroud up to her chest. A pastor and five Catholic sisters from the convent were praying for her. I walked near the coffin and bowed at my mother a few times. I walked away from it and sat beside my father. My eyes were red and swollen from the tears I shed at night. I had taken medication but my fever began to rise again. Three hours later, I became dizzy and fainted. My father called an ambulance and my grandparents accompanied me to the hospital for treatment.
Two weeks later my fever subsided. I asked my grandmother whether my mother would be lonely. With tears in her compassionate eyes, she assured me that my mother would never be lonely. She had gone to heaven where many angels and old friends would keep her company.
Soon my grandmother brought me to the nearby Taoist temple. It was an old temple with three spacious halls that housed large statutes of Taoist deities. At the backyard an elderly priest dressed in long robes that contained light blue stripes with Yin Yang symbols had set up a table. It contained an urn with three big joss sticks and plates of fruits as offerings to the deities.
I sat on the mat on the ground before the altar and the elderly priest chanted Taoist scripture. Two young priests sat nearby and played the flute. The elderly priest lifted up a chalice and sprinkled sacred water on me. They explained to me that this ritual would cleanse me and dispel bad luck which might be lurking around me. After half an hour of chanting and sprinkling sacred waters on me, the elderly priest burnt a paper talisman inside a cup. Then he poured water into the cup and I drank it. The elderly priest continued to chant for another fifteen minutes, invoking the benign spirits to protect me and my family.
One month later, my grandmother brought me to the Buddhist temple. An elderly monk prayed for me inside a chamber that housed a row of arhat statues and a few torsos of the Buddha. He sprinkled water from a white vase on my head and body to bless me. They explained that this would enable me to receive the blessings of the compassionate Kuan Yin and the warrior arhats. They gave me a necklace to wear with a light green jade containing the carving of an arhat. They also gave me a bracelet with crystals which could ward off bad luck. I wore the necklace and bracelet for many years until the strings that held them became worn. Then I revisited the Buddhist temple to obtain new ones …
All these years I felt the stones of guilt and grief that I caused the death of my mother. My grandparents repeated to me that it was the reckless van driver who should be arrested and put behind bars. I often dreamt about my mother at night. We were at the playground, at the beach, at Kovan chapel or at the homes of Christian friends. But I never saw my mother in the daytime.
I recalled that in the first few years after the incident, I tried many times to follow the example of the little match girl as told by Hans Christan Anderson. I would secretly take a match box into my room at night, shut the door and lighted one match stick after another, reading the Psalms or singing “Abide with me’, hoping this could invite my mother’s spirit to appear. I tried at least twice a month for a few years, but she did not appear. She only appeared in my dreams.
I also requested Joan to find my mother’s spirit and ask her to appear and talk to me in the daytime or at night before I went to sleep. Joan explained that she had talked to my mother at night, but the spirit of my mother could not enter the secular Yang realm as she had returned to heaven. The Yang realm is dominated by masculine energy. My mother’s voice and image could only appear in my dreams which belong to the Yin realm which is dominated by feminine energy.
I also spoke to elderly Taoist priests and Buddhist monks, enquiring how my mother’s spirit could visit me. Some of them told me that during the traditional ghost festival in July as per the lunar calendar, my mother’s spirit could return from the Yin realm and visit me. I went to the extent of learning and chanting Taoist and Buddhist sutra that offer blessings to spiritual beings when I was eleven years old. Then I hid myself under the altar of the main hall of a Taoist temple. I stayed there all night during the fifteen of the July of the Chinese calendar, confident that my mother’s spirit would appear and talk to me. But she didn’t. The deities must have their reasons for disallowing her to see me when I was awake. When my father and grandparents knew that I hid at the Taoist temple, the advised me not to do it again.
When I was twelve years old, I became extreme. I learned from a few classmates interested in attaining special powers of perception that if a person submerged himself under water and endured near-suffocation, during those moments when he was about to get drowned, he could enter the unseen realm and talk to spiritual beings. One afternoon I went to a public swimming and sat down in a quiet corner. I held my breath until I approached near suffocation. I began to chant the blessings for my mother in my heart, praying for her appearance. I remembered that my face went pale and blue from lack of oxygen. I waited and waited until the waters began to rush into my nostrils. I had no choice but to surface, gasping for air. My mother did not appear.
After surviving that incident, a few weeks later, I went to see the old pastor at Kovan’s chapel. A long-time friend of my grandparents, he was in his early seventies, tall and gaunt with a narrow chin, compassionate eyes and a broad forehead with grey hair. An avid gardener, his bony cheeks and neck were filled with suntanned veins and wrinkles.
‘My mother was helpful and kind …’ I said.
The old pastor nodded and remained silent.
‘Why did God allow her to die so young?’ I asked.
‘My child … I understand your sadness and grief. ’
‘Why didn’t God save my mother?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. I wish He had saved her. She was very kind and helpful, with a beautiful soul.’
The old pastor said slowly, ‘Maybe He has plans we cannot understand … He has plans that work for our eternal good.’
‘My mother shouldn’t die so young,’ I said.
The old pastor nodded, his eyes became watery with tears. He said slowly, ‘God loves you and your mother …’
I nodded and muttered, ‘He is all-wise, all-powerful and all-good … He gave me a wonderful mother. But suddenly He took her away …’
The old pastor looked at me tenderly and said, ‘I believe kind-hearted souls who have performed good deeds on earth will return to heaven. Our journey on earth is temporary. What is seen is temporary. What is unseen is eternal.’
‘I still can’t understand why God didn’t protect my mother …’ I said.
‘In the past years, many have asked me such question,’ the old pastor said. ‘Why did accidents, illnesses, crimes and natural disasters take away their loved ones? … I don’t have the answer. I told myself: we didn’t come from ourselves, we didn’t create ourselves. When we were born, He decided how long we would stay on earth …’
He paused, then his voice trembled. Tears appeared in his compassionate, brown eyes. Taking a deep breath, he said, ‘My only son died of illness more than twenty years ago. Kind-hearted and helpful, he was training to be a pastor … but he died of lung disease … he was my greatest hope and joy …’
He stopped, took another deep breath and said, ‘When he died, my life came to a standstill. Life seemed to have lost its meaning and purpose … it was my darkest season. Slowly I learn to regard all of you as my friends and my children … He expands my narrow love. I repeated Psalm 73: although I am ignorant, He is always with me …’
I nodded, my eyes became red with tears. The old pastor moved near and kissed my forehead …
I continued to dream about mother. When she appeared in my dreams, she looked young and peaceful, saying, ‘Jonathan, you didn’t cause my death. It was the reckless driver. Let go of the past …’
(written in 1972)
‘Let there be light …’ Eras have passed … Hills and mountains smile as sandy sea beds. Ocean volcanoes rest on a mountain peak. Streams and rivers flow across a desert. Ancient tribes have changed into glitters on the windows of skyscrapers … her light continues to speak softly inside a Socratic book that has re-clocked the world.
Her light drips into my heart. Hills and rivers become human in their songs. I become a drop of poem … enter the skin of a squirrel, a raccoon, a humming bird, a friendly bacterium inside an unseen gut … light is there. Shall I take a deep breath and rush through a waterfall? It thumps on my shoulders and memories. I see new pairs of eyes on a pair of fig leaves, on the surface of a pebble, on the face of a pond. When when I step back, I see a time-travelling screen. The past, the present and the future seem to run on it. We are passing by on a boat near the heart of that screen, carried along by a river inside a frameless portrait … the portrait is made of light … my mother lives there.
(written in 1973)
A Kafkaesque Songster …
(David wrote this prose poem nine months before his road accident.)
Am I entering a dreamscape? or entering a mystery triptych and walking into a forest? … perhaps I become the prey which I’m hunting … a forest scorpion … my eyes, bristles, exoskeleton, abdomen and stinger have turned gray … brooding over the past. At the same time I enjoy the warmth of sunrays. They glow outside the rims of the shadows of my shelter hidden under a pile of granite rocks.
I’m struggling to be less photophobic … at the heart of Bukit Timah nature reserve. The granite rocks are surrounded by ferns and tall trees. Nearby is a small segment of a pathway flanked by hill coconut with yellow flowers. They contain curculin that can change sourness into sweetness.
I’m looking forward to a moonless, starless night. I try to avoid any type of ultraviolet lights. They make the fluorescent chemicals in the cuticle of my exoskeleton to glow in a blue-green way. I don’t want to be distracted. The sublime can’t be found in such glow. It can’t deter a worldly-wise owl or a snake from chewing me.
I brood over something that allows light and death to pass through my pincers. Those pincers are studded with tactile hairs. I used to enjoy snipping the flesh of monitor lizards. Now I feed on the dead bodies of small insects … Am I trying to change my fate by changing into a forest scorpion … or a spider, a moth or a songster?
A narcissistic spider: Fireflies and foxes are asleep. Dawn is hiding behind the mothering eyes of the Night. Only I’m hunting. “Now …” I mimic being trapped, vibrate the tripwires of my neighbour at different intervals, lure him to a corner. I make a detour, jump on his back and strike with my toxin … I paralyze, liquefy and drink him, taking over his Web that snatches like a Hunter’s Mind, waiting … slowly morning comes … twitches at a far end … My dark pearls, sharper than those of a cat, spring into action. Safeguarded by a silvery dragline, I climb down quickly, my claws double up as hands. I close in nimbly, like eight self-conscious fingers, pounce and strike with my sabre-hooks. A clean kill. The moth is down … a decent breakfast for my fifteen juveniles. They have yet to master Kleptoparasitism. I live up to my title as a eight-legged Cat … my children’s squeaks grow louder as they come now. A multi-tasking mother in the spidery world is not easy. For my catch, a blessing to die fast … Yes, you’re right. I worship a ghostlier, mightier God. He’s sovereign among the dark ancestral horizons where many-legged silhouettes come alive. My intelligence is woven by shamans and I embody their crimson art. The worshipper gets worshipped. I’m their prized design.
A prophetic moth: Ouch! … God-blessed numbness ... I’m paralyzed ... my old eyes can't see well. Time to leave this world. My Lepidopteron status is drab. Patriots are rare. Our reputation as Promethean martyrs has paled. I don't know why we are attracted to the glow ... But seeing the blaze, I read it as self-renunciation. Please praise my brothers. They burn death alive. If this isn't going to be poetry, there should be a deity inside each of us, the silk-skinned Greek variety and there should be a heaven for moths ... I sense that now. Hope to die that way. But too late ... I shall be eaten by that eight-legged creature ... Barely conscious, I see the mouths of spiderlings. Shall sacrifice my entrails not in vain ... perhaps I see another face of Design glaring at my captor. Three venturesome boys will seize her, excise her legs, fry her in a rusty pan over slow flames -- to measure how long a spider will twist and turn before it curls into a medicine ball treasured by occultists ...
A nosy zealot: What is Reality? How do I find Her? Do I walk into a Platonic cave to hear mermaid sea-horses singing hymns that help me forget my quest? Do I climb a seven-storey mountain, hoping to meet the Teacher but find snow echoing an impending blizzard? Do I visit a temple that overlooks a cliff to consult elderly monks? They encourage me to stop looking for the Source in written words because She can’t be dressed in words … Or do I step onto the land of the Truth when I am finally sealed, motionless, inside a wooden box waiting to be nibbled by wormy cousins?
… Crash back to reality: I’m only a poetic instrument trapped in a taxi while rushing to attend a symposium on post-cubism … Reaching the gallery, I sat on the floor to jot these lines … another moth flaming inside … these sticky verses seem to point towards a kind of Resolve: To design a time-webbed, mortal world and live through that Design in embodied design … I hope you can understand … I can’t … If you understand, please ring me up and change us into barefoot children. We enjoy the luminance of fireflies at midnight beaches and hold precious each dripping-away moment … or the Starlight shed a few tears of relief. This maverick poem peters out before it degenerates into a dog-chasing-its-own-tail theodicy … or a Child catches me now with this talkative web, releasing me for a while from my brain’s mysterious-like-a-galaxy cobweb.
(written on 10 August 1975)
It was early morning. Three days had passed. Flint unlocked and opened the door. He brought another rattan chair into the room, sat on it and stared at me. He sniggered and then waved his rusty jigsaw.
‘What do you have for me today?’ he asked.
I shook my head. I could not find any thrilling life stories for Flint. I was mentally prepared that another portion of my right ear would be sliced off.
He waited for five minutes, grew impatient and glared at me.
‘Where’s my inspiration?’ he shouted.
He stood up. I sat back and closed my eyes as I felt his heavy hand grabbing my right shoulder and pulling me towards him. Then I heard the tender voice of Joan.
She said, ‘Repeat this story. It’s a real case of Inspector Evon, a senior officer at the Singapore Police Force. I don’t know why. Normally I could only enter memory windows together with you as I’m part of the Yin dimension of your soul. But for Inspector Evon, surprisingly I was able to push open and enter her memory windows on my own. Perhaps in some way I’m related to her. Last night I entered and explored her memory windows. Since you’ve no other thrilling stories, maybe we narrate this case to Flint and let him decide …’
Private Notes of Inspector Evon
(written in May 1973)
7.20 pm (16 May 1973)
‘Four pairs of eyes! Yet we didn’t see how the money disappeared. And my son didn’t come home …’
I stepped into the living room of Benjamin Palmer’s residence. A bungalow at Bukit Timah with land exceeding 10,000 square feet and elegantly maintained gardens, a Greek-style fountain and a pool. The living room was brightly lit with chandelier and crystal lamps. Two U-shaped leathery sofas and three Italian coffee tables were placed at the centre. They faced two large television sets and glass cabinets showcasing jade pottery, crystalline sculptures and wine flasks. A grand piano and sophisticated hi-fi systems nearby. A long dinner table at the far end with more than twenty chairs …
I walked across the living room and introduced myself to Benjamin Palmer, father of the missing boy. He was 58 years old, six feet tall, gaunt and full of wrinkles, the owner of a large company producing handbags, wallets and shoes.
‘Please show them to me … they’re critical evidence,’ I said.
He nodded, his eyes swollen with sadness and anger. His maid retrieved them from the fridge. They were kept inside a plastic bag tied with rubber bands. I unrolled the plastic bag and looked at them closely … clean, puffy and bloodless … the two severed fingers of the missing boy.
I passed them to CPL Mei Yin and asked her to hurry back to the headquarters for urgent follow up. The fingers appeared to be over-washed and unduly swollen. I suspected they might be tainted with some chemical …
‘I understand your driver Timothy disappeared on the same afternoon. Can you tell me what you know about Timothy? Do you think he’s involved?’ I asked.
He frowned and said, ‘I don’t think he’s involved …’
‘How’s his character and work performance?’ I asked.
‘He’s our driver for twelve years … hardworking, helpful, married with two children. Lives at Whampoa with his elderly mother …’
I immediately asked CPL Azreen and his team to check Timothy’s background and visit his flat …
Sergeant Bernard and CPL Samson were taking statements, one at a time at the dining table. They had taken the statement of Benjamin Palmer. Seated on the sofas were: (a) Benjamin Palmer’s first wife Patricia Zhang, 52 years old with neatly plaited hair, tall and slim, narrow eyes and an austere chin. She was childless. (b) The second wife Venecia Ho, 45 years old with round, hazel eyes, a petite nose and pink lips, the mother of the missing boy. She fainted when the kidnapper called and returned home this morning from the hospital. © Raymond Zhang, 47 years old, the brother of the first wife. He was tall and well-built with a broad forehead, a sharp nose and narrow eyes that threw furtive glances at me. (d) The company’s supervisor Tony, 53 years old, spectacled, short and fleshly, his eyes looked relaxed, but he pretended to be anxious. (e) The gardener, 48 years old who looked sad and worried. (f) Two maids in their forties who appeared upset and gloomy.
‘We’ll visit the area where you placed the ransom,’ I said to Benjamin Palmer. ‘I understand the money disappeared before four pairs of eyes …’
8.30 pm (16 May 1973)
We visited the place where the ransom of $30,000 went missing. It was delivered at 2.30 pm, 16 May at the spot indicated by the kidnappers. When the missing boy did not return home a few hours later, they called the police.
‘Where did you place the money?’ I asked.
‘Inside that drain,’ said Benjamin Palmer and he showed us the spot. Sergeant Bernard removed the stone slabs and examined the drain under bright torchlights. It was near the far end of a stretch of covered drain, situated behind Hugo’s school. A few steps away was a gentle slope that extended towards a field and a wooded area. The money was placed and sealed with glue inside a large envelope.
The gardener, the company’s supervisor and Raymond Zhang were with Benjamin Palmer that afternoon. They had removed the stone cover and placed the envelope at that spot. Then they replaced the stone cover and walked away, standing at about a hundred feet from the drain and waited for forty-five minutes. Nobody turned up. When they removed the stone cover, the envelope had disappeared.
The drain was narrow, about one and a half feet wide and one feet deep, covered with stone labs and littered with dry leaves. Benjamin Palmer confirmed that the drain was dry that afternoon.
I asked CPL Samson and his team to mark out the areas surrounding the drain and check for footprints and possible evidence.
10.15 pm (16 May 1973):
I returned to the bungalow. LCP Victor and I visited the bedroom of the missing boy. We checked the drawers, cupboards, shelves and bags. LCP Victor brought back items for examination.
10.40 pm (16 May 1973)
Benjamin Palmer and I walked around the garden of the bungalow. I spotted an empty mesh-wire cage at a corner of the garden.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Hugo likes fighting spiders. Kept them in plastic containers covered with perforated papers. Placed them inside that cage. Strangely on 14 May, all the containers disappeared …’
‘Who discovered the containers went missing? Any idea who took them?’ I asked.
He shook his head. We walked back to the living room and I asked, ‘Who took the plastic containers containing Hugo’s fighting spiders? And how did Hugo get those spiders?’
One of the maids said, ‘I discovered they went missing in the morning on 14 May, around 7 am. I don’t know where did Hugo get those spiders’.
I looked at the others and they shook their heads. The mother of the missing boy suddenly stood up and said, ‘I remember now. Hugo went to a wooded area to catch them. He used to go with Timothy, the driver.’
‘How did you know?’ I asked.
‘I went with them to that area about six months ago,’ Venecia Ho replied.
‘Can you remember where is it?’
Venecia Ho shook her head.
I said, ‘Please try to recall. Sergeant Bernard and I will come back tomorrow. We’ll visit Hugo’s school tomorrow and talk to the teachers and students to obtain their statements. Perhaps some of them can bring us to that wooded area.’
11.40 pm (16 May 1973)
Returned to headquarters. Sergeant Bernard went to the forensic department and returned with the preliminary findings concerning Hugo’s severed fingers.
‘They were stained with something unusual,’ he said.
‘Organic or inorganic?’ I asked.
‘The analyst suspected it to be some kind of digestive juice. It seeped into the tissues at the areas where the two fingers were cut off by a knife.’
I said, ‘Digestive juice? An animal?’
‘She suspected it may be the digestive juice of a snake.’
Private Notes of Inspector Evon
(written in May 1973)
6.45 am (17 May 1973)
Meeting at the headquarters with Sergeant Bernard, CPL Samson, CPL Mei Yin, CPL Azreen and LCP Victor.
I said to CPL Mei Yin, ‘Please lead a team to visit Hugo’s school. Take down the statements of witnesses and confirm when did the teachers and students last saw Hugo and the driver. Also check with Hugo’s classmates on the wooded area where he caught spiders.’
CPL Samson said, ‘My team had talked to the wife and the elderly mother of Timothy, the driver. They confirmed Timothy returned home at 2.45 pm on 15 May. He was alone, looking anxious and frightened. He didn’t disclose what went wrong. He talked quietly to his older brother Jackal, a hawker and a gambler. Jackal came once a month to borrow money from Timothy and his elderly mother. They left the flat, bringing with them a hammer, two knives, a sack and strings. Then they didn’t return. We are urgently checking on Jackal’s background …’
I turned to LCP Victor and said, ‘Please check on what type of animals could be trained to crawl through that narrow drain where the ransom went missing. I suspect a small animal was trained to get the envelope. Not possible for a human to crawl through. Check with local performance groups and the zoo on any missing trainer or animal.’
7.45 am (17 May 1973)
Arrived at Benjamin Palmer’s house. His wife Venecia Ho could not remember the location of the wooded area.
We went to Hugo’s school and met up with CPL Mei Yin. Witnesses at the school said that they saw the driver Timothy and his car waiting for Hugo at 1 pm, a short distance from the main entrance of the school. Hugo entered the car and they drove away. Two classmates knew the location of the secluded wooded area and they could bring us there.
‘Who informed you about wooded area?’ I asked Hugo’s classmates.
They replied, ‘More than six months ago, two senior students from another class told us.’
I informed CPL Mei Yin to check on the two senior students who might be assisting the wrongdoers.
9.35 am (17 May 1973)
We reached the secluded wooded area which was surrounded by tall trees and thick bushes. Sergeant Bernard led a team to perform a thorough check.
‘Be extra careful … there may be snakes,’ I cautioned.
Two hours later they found footprints, the burnt head of a dead python and spotted another two huge pythons resting on the branches of nearby trees. They also spotted a mound that suggested a freshly dug area.
‘Inspector, do we start digging?’ Sargent Bernard asked me.
‘Yes, I believe crucial evidence is hidden below it. Please also inform the experts to come and catch those snakes …’
Two police constables began digging. Half an hour later they exhumed a sack buried two feet deep. They untied the sack and found a huge python without the head. Its stomach had been sliced open, revealing the corpse of Hugo. Two of his fingers were missing …
11.45 am (17 May 1973)
CPL Samson reported that the manager of a local performance group confirmed that his trainer Hock Chew and one chimpanzee went missing. Till now they couldn’t find him and the missing animal. I asked CPL Samson and his team to find the address of Hock Chew and urgently visit his home and look for witnesses, clues and evidence.
12.40 pm (17 May 1973)
Sergeant Bernard and I joined CPL Samson’s team at Hock Chew’s one-room rented flat at Queenstown. According to his employer, Hock Chew was an experienced animal trainer.
We knocked the door but no response. We broke into the flat and found a figure lying on a bed in a room. He was gagged, his limbs were bound. From the picture provided by Benjamin Palmer, we recognized him to be the driver Timothy. We called the ambulance and sent him to the hospital.
3.10 pm (17 May 1973)
Sergeant Bernard received a call from the Malaysian police. An anonymous phone call reported to the Malaysian police that the driver Timothy was locked up at a one-room flat at Queenstown, same as Hock Chew’s home address. The caller also indicated the location of the wooded area where they found Hugo’s body.
We requested the Malaysian police, the Thai police and the Indonesia police to be on the lookout for Jackal and Hock Chew.
5.10 pm (17 May 1973)
The driver Timothy was able to speak to me at the hospital. He emphasized, ‘I didn’t collude with Jackal and Hock Chew. I’m never involved in their plan to ask for a ransom.’
‘Can you tell me exactly what happened?’ I said.
Timothy breathed deeply and said, ‘In the afternoon on 15 May 1973, after Hugo had finished his school lessons, he insisted to catch spiders. I drove him to that secluded wooded area.’
‘I understand Hugo and his classmates directed you to that area about six months ago,’ I said.
‘Did you accompany and follow Hugo while he hunted for his spiders?’ I asked.
‘I followed him for about ten minutes … then I walked to another area to help him hunt for spiders, about ten metres away,’ Timothy replied.
‘Did you know there were pythons in that area?’ I asked.
‘I didn’t know … If I knew, I would never bring Hugo there.’
‘On that afternoon, did you see the python closing in on Hugo?’ I asked.
‘No, I didn’t see it. I heard him screaming for help. I rushed over and was shocked to see a large python coiling around Hugo’s body … around his neck, arms and body …’
‘How did you respond?’
‘I ran away …’ Timothy’s head drooped.
‘You ran away?’
‘I’m afraid of snakes … I really didn’t know how to save him.’
‘Did you run back to your car and drive to your flat?’
‘I sat in the car for ten minutes. Then I returned to that spot. This time I made up my mind to fight with the snake.’
‘What did you see?’ I asked.
‘I was shocked to find the python had suffocated Hugo and trying to swallow him … then I went away.’
‘Did you go back to your car and drive home?’
‘Yes … I was confused and terrified …’
‘When you reached home, did you talk to your brother Jackal about it?’ I asked.
‘What did he say?’
‘He suggested we should catch that snake and keep it as evidence before reporting to the police … otherwise I might be suspected of being a murderer.’
‘How did Hock Chew come into the picture?’ I asked.
‘Jackal said he needed the help of Hock Chew … I drove to Hock Chew’s flat to pick him up and we went to that wooded area. We searched and found the python … Then to my surprise, they attacked and overpowered me …’
‘What happened next?’ I asked.
‘They tied, gagged and blindfolded me and left me at the back of the car. Then they went to do something to that python. I was driven to and locked up at Hock Chew’s flat … Every few hours they brought food and drink to me. They said they needed some money from Benjamin Palmer and they would not harm anyone …’
6.15 pm (17 May 1973)
CPL Samson reported he had checked on the two wives of Benjamin Palmer, the driver Timothy, the gardener, the company’s supervisor and the two maids. Their findings did not reveal anything suspicious. But Raymond Zhang, the brother of the first wife, frequented the turf club where he betted on horse racing.
I informed my team that I spoke in private to Benjamin Palmer. Confidentially he told me that in his will, eighty percent of his wealth would be bequeathed to his son. Only ten percent to his first wife and ten percent to his second wife. If something tragic happened to his son, his first wife and his second wife would obtain a much larger share of his wealth.
Private Notes of Evon
(written in May 1973)
10.30 am (18 May 1973)
I need to find out the truth. Informally I suggested a plan to Benjamin Palmer. He agreed to follow up …
8.20 pm (18 May 1973)
Benjamin Palmer turned off the electricity switches of the bungalow. The house fell into darkness.
Patricia Zhang, his first wife, had just finished taking a bath in the bathroom attached to the master bedroom. Except for street lights at the balcony and some glimmers from a few neighbour houses which were shielded by trees, it was very dark. Hugo’s voice floated in the air. He was reading poetry.
A figure appeared at a corner of the bedroom and moved slowly towards Patricia. She screamed and retreated to the bedside.
‘You kill my son … you kill my son!’ Benjamin Palmer shouted. ‘Hugo visited me in my dream and told me …’
Patricia said in a trembling voice, ‘No … not me … not me … I didn’t kill Hugo … not me …’
‘It must be you! You are the mastermind! My son told me …’ Benjamin Palmer said firmly.
‘No … not me … not me … ’ Patricia cringed and fell onto the floor.
‘I’m calling the police now … I’ll inform the police you are the mastermind! … I will inform the police you had nightmares and you shouted in your nightmares that you killed Hugo … You asked someone to put the pythons there to bite Hugo … they’ll find you guilty and hang you …’
Patricia leaned against the wall and cried, saying, ‘No … not me … not me … I didn’t kill Hugo … I’m not the mastermind … it was Raymond … Raymond is the mastermind … he asked someone to put the pythons there … not me …’
Hugo’s voice continued to float in the air. It came from a cassette recorder placed near the door. Patricia covered her ears with her hands and cried for help …
Sergeant Bernard, CPL Mei Yin and I were standing outside the door of the master room. After hearing her admission, we entered the room. Benjamin Palmer looked agitated. He walked across the bedroom, grabbed Patricia’s shoulders and slapped her. Patricia Zhang fell onto the floor and cried. CPL Mei Yin walked towards her and would bring her back to the headquarters for questioning.
I turned to Sergeant Bernard and said, ‘Immediately arrest Raymond Zhang for questioning. He could be planning to harm Benjamin Palmer in the near future …’
(written on 15 August 1975)
I looked at Flint after I finished the narration. I had slowly repeated the words of Joan which she spoke into my ears. He couldn’t see Joan.
I gazed at Flint. His face revealed little emotion. He seemed to be lost in his own world. I wondered whether he had followed this lengthy narration.
Then he stood up and shouted, ‘The python! I should have thought of it … a flash of insight!’
Flint turned to me and said, ‘A convoluted story …. but life is complex, my artwork is complex. Why are we allowed to rob and kill? No, I shouldn’t ask. Forget about abstractions. In short, I don’t like your story. Raymond Zhang failed to execute a perfect murder … he wasn’t shrewd enough.’
I sagged into my rattan chair, half-expecting Flint to flash his army knife, lurch forward and grab me. Surprisingly he said, ‘But I like the python! A symbol of Luck, both good and bad, like the forces lurking behind an artwork … you get three stars. If you collected all the twelve stars, you’ll get a secret prize … and you’ll be freed.”
(written in 1973)
A Kafkaesque Songster …
Let us go then, you and I … Let us go then, you and I … This line echoes through the decades … not because it’s true or untrue, visionary or revisionary, but because I never say ‘I am I’ and you never echo ‘you are you’.
Did we just talk to a woman smiling at an effigy of a follower of Michelangelo? Did we just finger-smell her perfumed upper lip? Did we eye-lick her dawn-colored eye-brows? Is she a symbol? a half-veiled symbol of the grey shades of life? caused by the craggy fingers of Randomness?
Don’t rationalize your lust … don’t hide your popping-up-and-submerging death-wish … don’t sugar-coat your lies … stare at your hypocrisy, greed, dark sexual loves, inner fights. Isn’t it better to be a self-critical Socrates than a self-deceiving Reverend? … No mortal can outgrow his last shadows. But you protest, saying ‘my hundreds of hours of meditation have murdered them. I have buried them under ageless scripture and poetry …’
Sure enough, in the middle of the night, when we ghost-floated back into half-awareness, their greenish, gloating eyes lurched to embrace us, kissing us all over again like a determined poodle … Didn’t we vow yesterday to snip off the darker horns of the conditioned mind? … perhaps this is what makes Prufrock immortal, at least his lamentation … a strange life looking honestly at itself via a mirror … it happens to be a conscientious mirror that talks to our hearts …
But Flint is lurking around … the cannibalistic twin … checking on whether I have changed into a caveman? A literary caveman? Dangling from the beak of an orange-horned owl somewhere inside Bosch’s triptych? He pulls out my stubborn bones and tongue as ingredients. Why? … Has he sculpted a mercurial bowl of salad made up of the silvery eye-lashes of Ulysses, the scorched feathers of Daedalus and the jaundiced jaws of a soldier who slayed a shaman in a different version of Macbeth? … or because he’s sketching a prehistoric chrysalis that contains a caterpillar that speaks to our angst, its wings tinged with the orange powder of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and the smell of El Greco’s inventive fingers? … Once we step out of this story, our bones are exposed. Death will decide when to collect them. Perhaps it’s good to know we never get pass the first line. It means we are still alive …
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 20 January 1976)
I fumble along the corridors of my memory … am I being chased by the shadows of a forsaken poem? … or by a rogue soldier whose skull I had cracked? Am I digging up a poem that talks about another poem that in turn mutters another poem …
I confess. I fished him (a ‘him’, not a girl, in random colorless dreams) from a large paradise drain in the afternoon after school when I was eleven. I placed him and his siblings in a jam jar, went off to be absorbed in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, unaware that they would suffocate. I returned an hour later. Oxygen-hungry, they were writhing like infantile snakes. They slithered up and down, no contact with my half-protruding eyes. I stared blankly. Then I took a closer look. They were contaminated, swollen, blackish, like the diseased irises of an old trout. I became white-eyed. Scientifically this shouldn’t happen. Must be the drain water. The drain water must be sickly, with fast-replicating germs, bacteria, toxic agents. I rushed to obtain a big pot, filled it to the brim with clean water and poured the tadpoles into the pot. Some movements and squirming. Soon they drifted silently. Since then, I wore that label ‘tadpoles killer’ on my sleeve … to guard against more serious transgression.
And the poem asked … what is the essence of my nature? Is it like a weather-beaten skiff tossed about by the waves of emotions, desires and yearning? Is it like a spoilt compass, its needle half-trembling, unable to be guided by the lodestars of the Earth? Is it like a pufferfish that can be made into a delicacy or can kill if someone were not careful? Is it like a modernist poem such as The Emperor of Ice-cream that eludes interpretation for decades and when experts finally grasp some parts of it, other parts have melted away? Or perhaps this jumpy awareness pulsates through the heart of human nature. It’s like a bundle of voices that impinges on our brains. Is it trying to craft a few eye-catching lines while half-hiding its impatience because we don’t really know where those voices come from? … perhaps I grow old, so old I become less concerned with finding my essence, but content to let the cloud of unknowing to talk about another poem …
Is it trying to unearth a skeleton rainbow? Is it near the fringes of a metropolis Concrete or near the brink of a pond at Changi Beach where the waves begin to kiss? … or is it hidden inside a half-finished poem? Can it be saved? Is it crumpled, half-eaten by the moths of time? Or does it glow with starlight because a poet had mustered courage to declare his true love? It glows in my palm now -- a transparent wing, almost like the smile of Emily Dickinson and Helen Keller combined. Has it become a baby Pegasus? It’s fluttering, breathing, struggling now. Where exactly did you unearth it? Inside a forgotten half-shack near the end of Changi beach … a sign-post is redundant … it’s rainbow death without a stench. It seems to touch the cloud of unknowing, whispering, “To understand everything is to forgive everything …”
(written in June 1975)
… I entered a memory window … it was May 1896 … Grandfather was waiting anxiously behind a grey curtain that screened off his bedroom from the living room of his stone house. Outside the sky became pale and grey with fields and shrubs darkening as the evening rays faded … The river in the distance became a shadowy serpent that slithered towards the east. Rocky hills and mountains dominated the Yunnan landscape in the west. They were silent and cold as the eagles disappeared.
Pale evening light entered the stone house and rested on a few wooden chairs and tables. On the floor were a few mats made of sackcloth, but they could not prevent the motes and dusts on the mud floor from rising up … they rose like tiny pair of eyes that glittered in the evening light. The cooking hearth was on the right corner. Wooden mugs, pans and cooking utensils hang above it. A huge pot rested above a stone stove. Flames flickered and waved from the grey mouth of the stove as it consumed straws from unwanted hay. Logs of wood yet to be splintered were piled outside the house. Near the front door was a beam supported by two poles. Different kinds of dried fruits and maize dangled on the beam whose rough body seemed to be half-twisted by cold, sinewy winds. Goats were grazing within wooden fences in front of the house with two dogs resting nearby. Other stone houses were grey and misty in the distance as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
The fading evening light touched the peak of a snow-capped mountain. A layer of snow crust reflected the rays into the small bedroom window of the stone house. They touched the pale face of Feng Yin. She was Grandfather’s first wife. Her face was worn and wrinkled, covered with beads of sweat. She had been in great pain the past few hours. A breech pregnancy.
Grandfather was twenty-two years old then. He rolled up the sleeves of his blue cotton shirt and paced anxiously in the living room. The lower portion of his black pants became grey as his feet stirred up motes of dust. Frowning, his eyes gleamed with worry and fear. Five feet six, stout and broad-shouldered, his tense nerves occasionally twitched along the sides of his square chin. His almond-shaped eyes were half-closed. Beads of cold sweat ran down the left side of his forehead. His lips quivered as he prayed, trying to enter a different world to seek help from the deities.
One of the midwives appeared from behind the grey curtain. Tense and somber, she motioned my grandfather to enter the bedroom. She was in her early forties. The other midwife was a few years older. Wearing blue gowns with rolled-up sleeves, long grey pants and head scarves that covered their neatly bound hair, they were frowning. Their faces looked yellowish and grey with stolid shadows trailing along their chins and necks under the light of kerosene lamps. Deep wrinkles ran across their foreheads.
‘The child is huge and not turning,’ the older midwife said.
‘What can we do?’ Grandfather asked anxiously.
‘In the past hour we have tried hard to shift and turn the child’s body. But its head continues to point towards the mother’s heart. Its knees and legs are folded upward.’
‘What can I do?’ Grandfather asked.
‘Hold her hands and calm her. Continue to pray for her,’ said the midwife.
‘She drank the herbal soup a few hours ago,’ Grandfather said. ‘Did it lessen her pain?’
‘It numbs her partially. But her pain is coming back.’
‘Can she drink another bowl of herbal soup to reduce the pain?’ Grandfather asked.
The two midwives shook their heads. One of them said, ‘She cannot drink now. She may choke or vomit.’
‘What can we do?’ Grandfather asked with a pitch of frantic anxiety. He stood beside his wife, stretched out his arms and rubbed her hands, trying to comfort her. His wife’s hands were straightened upwards and tied separately to the wooden bedframe above her forehead. This had reduced the force of her sudden writhing and heaving due to the pain from the lower part of her body. In her mouth was a strip of thick cloth for her to bite. It enabled her to endure the pain.
The older mid-wife said, ‘If the child’s body and head did not turn, we have to make a slit at the lower end of her private parts. Then I can attempt to pull out the child.’
‘Is it painful?’ Grandfather asked.
‘A small cut to enable me to pull out the child.’
‘Is it dangerous?’
‘If the child’s body and head did not turn, we have to try to pull out the child. Otherwise both mother and child are in danger.’
‘Will the slit cause heavy bleeding?’ He saw mucus and blood soaking three strips of towels. The younger midwife washed them in basins filled with warm water.
‘We make a small cut,’ the older midwife replied.
Grandfather frowned and thought for a long time. Then he looked at Feng Yin. Her face was ashen and contorted by pain. He could hear her suppressed shrieks as she kept biting the strip of cloth between her teeth. Eventually he shook his head, stared at the earth and muttered, ‘We should save the mother. We must save the mother. If no choice, we give up the child.’
The midwives looked at each other anxiously.
‘We try our best to save both.’
Grandfather nodded, his face remained pale and tense. Rubbing his wife’s hands and wrists, he continued to pray. He bent forward and whispered his prayers into her ears, trying to calm her. Half-conscious, she moaned and bit stiffly at the strip of cloth between her teeth. The younger midwife held on to her knees to lessen the force of her writhing while the other tried to turn the child’s body.
Half an hour passed. The older midwife retrieved a sharp knife from a pot of boiling water. She dipped it into a bowl of cold water before she used it carefully to make a slit. Then she monitored the bleeding. After checking that Feng Yin could endure the pain and there was no excessive bleeding, she slowly inserted her small hand into the birth canal and searched for the legs of the child. She found one leg and searched for the other. Then she tightened her hold on both legs, straightened them as best as she could and tried to pull out the child. She felt a tug -- a firm tug. Her face froze and she released her pull immediately. The umbilical cord might be tangled and curled around the neck of the child. If she pulled, the child might be strangled.
Grandfather looked at the tense faces of the midwives. In hushed tone, they explained the situation to him. He thought for a long while and said, ‘If we pulled out the baby, dead or alive, can we save the mother?’
The two midwives stared frantically at each other and said, ‘We don’t know, but we try our best.’ They continued to try to turn the child’s body. All the towels were soaked with blood. It made him fearful that his wife would soon lose consciousness due to heavy bleeding.
The two midwives pressed clean towels onto the wound, trying to reduce the bleeding. They started to pray. Soon Feng Yin lost consciousness, but the bleeding didn’t stop. They discussed the situation with Grandfather and they decided to pull out the child. The older midwife inserted her hand into Feng Yin’s private parts and held firmly both legs of the child. Unable to disentangle the umbilical cord that twined around the child’s neck, she felt the firm tug as she exerted force to pull out the child. When she succeeded in pulling him out, the face of the child was pale with traces of purple, his limbs soft and motionless. The midwives quickly cut away the umbilical cord and turned the child upside down, patting his back. They took turns to repeat it for a long time, but they could not revive him.
Grandfather continued to press new towels on the private parts of his wife, trying to stop the bleeding. He looked at his wife whose eyes were half-closed. Her suppressed screams and teeth gnashing had stopped, her hands still, no longer struggling. The bed had stopped trembling. She looked pale but serene, a layer of sweat on her forehead … slowly a bluish hue spread across her face. Tears rolled down Grandfather’s face, his lips quivering and bleeding. He had unconsciously bitten his lips when he saw his wife in agony. The two midwives placed the dead child beside the mother and walked away in tears. Soon Grandfather heard the weeping of his parents and sister.
Outside the fields turned dim and shadowy under pale moonlight. Grey clouds had gathered in the horizon. He continued to pray for the spirits of his wife and his child …
(written in 1973)
A Kafkaesque songster …
Did I become a tattered piece of Atlantis parchment? … hunters scrutinized me and dripped caustic chemicals on my body. Unable to extract an elixir, they shouted, ‘Bury him with wine! ‘
They immersed me in a barrel of liquor for three hours … I heard someone saying … he was a handsome sabre-tooth tiger. She fed and loved him for three years … Surrounded by screaming pre-historic hyenas, he ignored pain, kept biting and spiting the marauders’ flesh in the face of a growling winter. Blood dripped from his thighs and neck. He howled and chased after the pack until they evaporated in the furies of a blizzard, leaving the ancestor girl in tears.
When I didn’t yield a phrase, the hunters grunted, ‘Let the sun scorch and shrivel him.’ Under the heat, I muttered … A mutant Fly-trapper with sharp teeth gobbled up a sloth under the shadow of a Rock. Why did God allow red claws to co-exist with a poetic mimosa?
Seeing me dry and naked after the sun went home, they picked me up, dropped me on a swampy ground and threw blocks of ice on me, shouting, ‘Freeze him to death. Let death forces him to say something.’ I closed my eyes and dreamed … a mother goat suckles lion cubs … the meadow changes into an Eden … a cousin of Moby Dick hibernates at the heart of a desert … Einstein’s formulas have etherized … Reality does not require human minds …
When the ice had melted and I remained quiet, they shouted, ‘Scourge him with whips. He shall perish with his secret.’ They took out iron-studded whips and lashed me. I have forgotten about them, praying … a super-computer re-engineers itself, becoming an all-powerful Transformer, aspiring to take over the solar system … but suddenly it remembers it’s childless. What’s the point of conquering the solar system? … Is this a koan given to a Zen disciple?
When my boneless body survived the hunters’ lashing, they howled, ‘Let him become ashes to appease the gods in us!’ They poured kerosene over me and threw a lighted match on my forehead. The flames smiled at their sunken hearts. I didn’t open my eyes but stepped into another dream … an offspring of the River of Life mates with a plum from the Tree of Knowledge … it’s redundant to nibble at the apple provided by a computer-designed serpent … Perhaps someday we plead with a Deity to change our desires … soon I drift upward with the smoke. The Spirit whispers the words inside my skin: ‘responsible freedom …’
(written in June 1975)
The evening rays shone through the wooden windows of the second storey of Grandfather’s shop house at Whampoa, central part of Singapore … it was June 1941, a few months before the Japanese Imperial Army launched their offensive against peninsula Malaysia … Grandfather had rented and opened a grocery shop which was part of a row of old shop houses at the Whampoa area since the late 1920s. Nearby there were residential houses, schools and kampongs. Early in the morning he would check and count the inventory and would order items that were low in stock. He would visit the suppliers near the Chinatown area and they would deliver the goods in the next few days.
The grocery shop was on the ground floor. Beside the frontage of the shop was a narrow wooden door. It was usually locked. Behind it was a stairway that led to the living quarters at the second floor. There were three bedrooms on the second floor with a small living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The living room faced four large windows with wooden window shutters with dark green paints peeling off …
The evening light shone into the small living room. It was sparsely furnished with a round hardwood table and small wooden chairs. On the table near the window was a tea-pot and a plastic bowl containing small tea cups. Grandfather was drinking tea while looking at old pictures and newspaper articles sealed inside plastic bags. We just had dinner at the kitchen’s dining table. He was reading an old newspaper article that showed the yellowish faded picture of Tan Si Tong, a well-known martyr who gained the trust of Emperor Guang Xu. Together with other dedicated officials, he embarked on planning and implementing reforms during the Hundred Days reform movement in China in 1898. However, their reform efforts eventually antagonized Empress Dowager. At the age of thirty-three, he was beheaded at the marketplace in Beijing …
Grandfather and I sat near to the window. The newspapers on the table fluttered as the evening wind blew across them. There were many pictures of the war in China. In the past few weeks I heard my grandparents talking about the Japan Imperial forces moving southward.
‘Will they invade us?’ I asked.
‘It’s part of their imperialistic plan,’ Grandfather said.
‘What can we do?’
‘We need to stay away until the war is over …’
‘Where can we go?’
‘The forests …’
‘In Indonesia?’ I asked.
‘Yes … your father was a KMT agent. If the Japanese occupied Singapore, they would hunt down KMT agents.’
‘Chinese informers are crafty. We need to hide.’
I nodded again and looked towards the horizon as the evening rays began to fade. The clouds were pink and orange, like the tails of a dragon slashing across the sky.
‘Grandma told me you participated in an uprising against Ching soldiers … Can tell me what happened?’ I asked.
His old brown eyes narrowed. Half-frowning, he looked at the darkening sky and seemed to be stepping into the shadows of tumultuous days when he first arrived at Guang Zhou. Slowly he said, ‘I made up my mind to join the uprising on the night when my first wife passed away …’
Taken aback, I remained quiet and waited for his explanation.
‘I vowed not to marry until I could confirm with doctors and nurses at nearby hospitals that they could safely deliver a baby in the event of a breech pregnancy …. That was what I did before I married your grandma.’
I nodded quietly.
‘On the night when my first wife died, I decided to join the uprising … it was a new life purpose. Ching officials were corrupt and decadent. I decided to follow the footsteps of our ancestors.’
Grandfather’s eyes travelled back to the past as he stood up and gazed at the grey horizon. ‘Maybe I start from the beginning … I could not leave for Guang Zhou without providing for my elderly parents and my sister. I worked very hard in growing and selling fruits and vegetables … two years later I gave my savings to them. Then I left for Guang Zhou.’
‘Your parents must be very worried,’ I said.
‘I could be arrested and beheaded at the marketplace,’ Grandfather said.
‘On the night before I left, my father was supportive. I remember he said: We are descendants of Taiping soldiers. May the Great Spirit of the Dianchi Lake bless you. Be very careful. When you see Ching soldiers, run and hide. They got powerful weapons. When they can’t see you, strike at them one by one.’
‘Are we descendants of Taiping soldiers?’ I asked.
‘Yes, our ancestors fought bravely. For more than ten years, the Taiping kingdom controlled many parts of China … but they lost. Our ancestors went to Yunnan or Thailand. In Yunnan some of our ancestors married local women.’
He paused and said, “You remember the medicine wine. My uncle, a deputy Taiping general, married the daughter of a Yunnan tribe leader. He told us about the secret ingredients, in case we needed it to heal wounds.’
‘I started my journey in summer 1898 and walked past a few villages. Then I boarded a train to Guang Zhou, carrying a letter from a priest … he taught me English in Yunnan.’
‘Did you find a job at Guang Zhou?’
‘Life was very tough … I arrived at a church. The old priest was kind-hearted. He couldn’t find a job for me, but allowed me to stay and provided meals. I helped him in the daily chores and assisted nearby hawkers. This went on for a year.’
‘How did you know the revolutionaries?’ I asked.
‘Twice a week I visited the busy streets of Guang Zhou … After a few months I observed gangsters collecting ‘protection money’ from hawkers and shop owners. The gangsters shared their collections with Ching officers.’
I sat straight, eager to know more.
‘Every now and then there were students … they distributed anti-Ching leaflets. As I had studied English and Chinese in Yunnan, I began to talk to the students and helped to distribute leaflets.’
‘That must be dangerous …’ I said.
‘It was against the law … I returned to the church and said farewell to the old priest … Didn’t want to implicate them.’
‘Where did you stay after leaving the church?’
‘Together with a few students, we rented a room above an old shop … I continued to help hawkers and also worked as a laborer at the port. For the next nine months I helped to distribute anti-Ching leaflets and joined street protests.’
‘Did the Ching police arrest you?’
‘When the police came, we would run and hide. Then one night we were arrested and sent to prison for ten months.’
‘That’s terrible,’ I said.
‘We were beaten by the Ching wardens. After our release, the senior students introduced me to their underground organization. Soon I participated in an uprising in October 1900 …’
(written in June 1975)
… I entered a memory window … it was October 1900 in Huizhou, southeast China … Grandfather was twenty-six years old then. He and five hundred comrades spread out in a long line on top of undulating hills. The noontime sun was hidden behind pale blue clouds. Sometimes it appeared, its strong blaze burnt the unwary eyes, leaving behind blots of thick purple that took minutes to clear. When the winds came and the branches and leaves rustled, the dark green hills appeared to come alive and slither around them like giant lizards chasing their prey. When the winds stopped, the hills hunkered down and rested like lethargic seals with thick, dark whiskers, as if basking in the rays of an angry, half-thwarted sun.
Grandfather and his comrades sat down stiffly behind thick trunks and shrubs. When the sunrays reflected from the underside of broad leaves flashed across their faces, they looked like dusty wax figures. Lines of muscles crinkled their taut faces. They waited like leopard hunters, trying to differentiate the rustle of leaves, the scurrying of squirrels and the fidgety movement of thrushes from the peek of hostile eyes. The comrades frowned and seemed to knit their eye-brows together when they surveyed the surroundings and gazed in the direction of the main camps of the Ching soldiers.
The uprising forces had scattered and spread out along the hills. Their green caps, long-sleeved shirts and dark green pants blended with the shadows of tall trees and boulders. Spreading out and taking up strategic spots on top of the hills enabled them to cover a wider area in their ambush. A crucial tactic to delay the Ching soldiers’ advance to the city. They had inferior weapons and smaller pools of men compared to the Ching regiments. Spreading out reduced the likelihood of being eliminated en masse when their foes retaliated with more powerful machine guns.
Grandfather and three of his comrades sat behind a boulder flanked by thick bushes. The moss-green boulder looked like a stolid but staunch bull frog. It had a rotund waist and a jutting jaw below a sharp forehead. The poise of its semi-curved jaw seemed to suggest that it was changed into a stone when it tried to attack Medusa or her offspring. From afar it looked like the petrified face of a monk shouting esoteric prayers and seeking to fossilize oblivion for a while. Only a while before a grenade randomly thrown by an enemy blasted it.
Two bags of dynamite sticks were near the feet of Grandfather and his comrades. They were at the middle of a row of hills that overlooked a long stretch of dusty road that led to the city. They glanced around impatiently. At times they gazed warily at the guards positioned some distance behind them. The guards’ faces were rubbed with green pigments as part of their camouflage. But their tension and vigilance could be detected from the gleams in their eyes when random shafts of sunlight darted across their faces. The guards had a critical duty. They would signal if they spotted any foes who planned to launch a surprise attack from the rear.
‘You believe in rebirth?’ a comrade asked.
‘Not sure,’ Grandfather replied.
‘My friends said if we die as patriots, we come back as captains.’
‘I want to be the captain of a large ship. I love the blue sea … she’s beautiful’
‘I like the waves and the sparkles of the sea.’
‘Or come back as land-owners … a nice wife, lots of children, give money to the poor …’
‘You have a good heart,’ Grandfather said.
‘If we die as patriots, we get to choose.’
‘Get to choose?’
‘We get to choose whether to come back.’
‘What would you choose?’
‘I’ll come back as a scientist … invent powerful weapons to punish corrupt Ching officials.’
The comrade asked, ‘If given a choice to be reborn, do you want to come back?’
Grandfather remained quiet and stretched his neck as he tried to gaze at a swirl of dusts in the distance. He fixed his gaze. When the dusts settled ten minutes later, he spotted a pack of wolves dragging two fawns into the woods. The fawns were stiff and motionless, their hind legs crooked and bitten off, as if different families of wolves fought over the carcasses.
The afternoon clouds turned yellowish with occasional gusts of cold wind. Two hours had passed. Again Grandfather saw a swirl of dust in the distance. Then more swirls of dusts. He heard the thudding and rumble of wooden wheels and the clopping of horses. The thudding and the clopping grew louder and louder. A row of carriages followed by more than a thousand foot soldiers appeared. The enemies were better equipped with German rifles and long-range machine guns.
When a large portion of the Ching soldiers had entered the stretch of road within the attack zone, the lieutenants of the uprising forces gave the signal. Piles of logs tumbled down. They rolled and tumbled down onto the road with a huge roar. Many of the tumbling logs hit and crashed onto the carriages. The comrades yelled and continued to heave and push piles of logs that rolled down the hills near to the frontal position of the enemy forces. The comrades sought to impede the movement of the enemy troops. Many of the Ching soldiers found themselves trapped. They rushed out of their carriages and hid behind tress and boulders, and put up a defence by raising their rifles and shooting at the top of the hills.
The uprising forces lighted up large balls made of straws and soaked with kerosene. Using long sticks they pushed the flaming balls towards the carriages that were transporting troops and munitions. They also lighted up sticks of dynamite and threw them forcefully towards the carriages. A few of the comrades used crossbows to shoot arrows at the carriages that contained munitions. The arrows were tied with burning sticks of dynamite. This increased the accuracy of destroying the munitions and impeding the enemies’ advance to the city.
Grandfather heard loud explosions coming from the carriages hit by dynamite sticks. The carriages were shattered by the munitions they contained. Huge balls of smoke and flames erupted along the dusty road. The thick pillars of smoke rose into the air and made the sky looked grey.
The loud explosions were followed by screams of agony. The screams came from Ching soldiers injured by flaming arrows or wounded by snipers and the exploding dynamites. They rolled on the ground frantically, trying to smother the flames on their limbs or bodies. Some of them ran amok like burning scarecrows, their skins and bones turning black like sticks of charcoal as they collapsed on the ground.
On the other hand, using their locational advantage on the hills, the anti-Ching snipers used rifles to shoot at their enemies as they tried to flee to the wooded areas at the rear. Grandfather and his comrades kept lighting up and throwing sticks of dynamite at the carriages. They also threw the sticks at Ching soldiers who were hiding behind the vehicles carrying the heavy machine guns and cannons. Many of the vehicles exploded into huge balls of flames as they contained gunpowder and boxes of dynamites. The tremor and the intense heat of the explosions could be felt at the top of the hills.
When they had finished throwing their bundles of dynamites, Grandfather and his comrades used their rifles to shoot at the enemies. Their comrades further to their right continued to push blazing balls of straw at the frontal position of the Ching regiment. They aimed to obstruct the advance of the Ching soldiers towards the city as the uprising forces were trying to gain control of the city. The lieutenants of the uprising forces directed the comrades to light up more fire balls and pushed them towards the vehicles carrying the cannons. This would force the Ching soldiers to flee and run, becoming easier targets for the snipers.
After an hour of intense fighting, there was tremendous chaos along the stretch of road that meandered at the bottom of the hills. Hundreds of Ching soldiers had been killed. Their carriages and vehicles were in flames. Most of their munitions were destroyed. But another contingent of Ching soldiers soon arrived. They combined forces, regrouped and positioned their machine guns along strategic areas at the rear, outside the main zones of the ambush. Soon the enemy troops occupied a few hills that enabled them to use their long-range machine guns and cannons to launch fierce offensive against the uprising forces. Many anti-Ching comrades were killed.
With less than a hundred men left and their munitions were running low, the lieutenants instructed their comrades to retreat. Promptly they turned and went deep into the forest. The Ching soldiers were frightened of being ambushed in the forest and they didn’t follow. Grandfather sustained many injuries with two bullet wounds in the arms and another bullet had pierced his shoulder blade. Many of his comrades were seriously wounded. By the time they reached a river deep in the forest, there were only four-six comrades left. The others had died. They followed a river downstream and escaped to a secluded camp for treatment …
Grandfather recovered only a year later and could not carry heavy items. He escaped to Ipoh and stayed there for a few years working as a helper in a grocery store before he saved enough to rent and open his shop. At the same time, he became an underground agent for Tong Meng Hui or the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, the secret society and underground resistance founded by Dr Sun Yat Sen. Working with other anti-Ching agents, Grandfather assisted to organize underground meetings and gather donations in Ipoh to support the revolutionary cause. The greatest moment for the revolutionaries came in 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Ching dynasty …
(written in June 1975)
… I entered a memory window … it was August 1926 … my father, twenty-three years old, was leading a group of twenty male comrades and two female comrades in a raid against Japanese agents. The two female comrades could read Japanese and identify documents that need to be taken away. One of them was my father’s fiancé. In the past two years my father successfully led four raids against the hideouts of Japanese agents who pretended to be businessmen and traders and were gathering information to plan their invasion of China. During their raids, my father and his comrades killed more than forty enemy agents and many Chinese collaborators …
On that night they surrounded an old one-storey farmhouse in the rural area of Nanjing. The adjacent vegetable fields and wooded areas were quiet … it was near midnight … the moonlight revealed the shadows of the branches of huge trees and the moving shadows of sorghum and maize plants. The old farmhouse had a narrow pathway that reached its gate and fences. The pathway branched from a quiet secondary road a few kilometers from the main road. The pathway was half-hidden by bushes and meandered for another kilometer before it reached the gate of the secluded farmhouse. On its right side were large tracts of wooded areas. On its left were half-cultivated vegetable plots, wild sorghum fields and fruit trees, with untended plots that stretched back and disappeared among a heavily wooded forest.
Three men were sitting at the living room of the farmhouse which had four bedrooms and a kitchen. Their shadows, created by kerosene lamps, half-flickered. Sometimes they huddled together, as if discussing something important. Suddenly they stood up, patted each other on the shoulder and walked briskly to separate bedrooms, each carrying a kerosene lamp. They sat on their beds for a long while, their heads drooped as if they were praying. Then they put out the lamps and lied down.
The KMT comrades looked around and checked the area one more time. The scouts who had surveyed the area in the past hour reported that they did not detect any ambush. My father gave the signal to move in. Ten of them moved quickly towards the fence, climbed over it and approached the house. Breaking the windows of the bedrooms, they shouted, “Special police forces! Raise your hands and surrender!”
The three enemy agents refused to comply. Instead they drew their weapons and began to shoot at the government agents. The KMT comrades retaliated by throwing grenades into the targeted bedrooms. The grenades swiftly exploded and killed two of the enemy agents. Without waiting for the smoke and dust to settle, the KMT comrades wearing protective masks and bulletproof vest stormed into the house. Sparks of gunfire flared up. Within a few minutes, the remaining enemy agent was killed.
After ensuring no other enemy agents in the house, my father and his men entered the living room. They lighted up kerosene lamps and began to search for documents and hidden military plans among the shelves and cupboards. The two female comrades read through the documents and placed the relevant ones into a leather bag.
Half an hour later, to their surprise, they heard a continuous rattle of gunfire in the distance. It came from the main road. Ten KMT comrades were hiding at the main road. They were on the lookout, in case enemy agents appeared. My father suspected that the ten comrades at the main road were hit by a surprise attack. He rushed towards the windows, trying to detect any enemy movement. The KMT comrades outside the farmhouse hid behind tree trunks and waited.
My father peered at the shadows and darkness outside. He moved his hand, signaling to his comrades to move towards the rear of the farmhouse. But before they could exit, an intense exchange of gunfire broke out in front of the farmhouse. Enemy agents appeared from the shadows. They began to converge, encircling the farmhouse. My father shouted to his comrades, asking them to lie flat on the floor. After a few rounds of deafening gunfire from the enemies that punctuated the walls with bullet holes and shattered the windows, the KMT comrades outside the farmhouse retaliated. They threw grenades at the bushes where they spotted the flashes of gunfire. A string of explosions followed. There were shouts of agony among the bushes. Some of the enemies had been hit. My father suspected that the enemies were seeking to take revenge. A few of their senior agents were killed during successful raids against them in the past few years. From the intensity of enemy gunfire, he estimated that they were surrounded by dozens of Japanese agents with heavy machine guns.
My father shouted and asked everyone inside the farmhouse to crawl quickly towards the kitchen and to exit the place. More enemies appeared from the shadows facing the front of the house. They yelled and their machine guns sputtered many rounds of bullets in the direction of KMT comrades outside the farmhouse.
The KMT comrades retaliated by throwing grenades at the enemy positions. Planning to break the siege, my father and his deputy asked their men to release dynamite sticks that emitted fumes. They threw many sticks of smoky fumes outside the farmhouse. Soon a haze covered the area. My father and his comrades moved towards the wooded areas at the rear.
The Japanese agents were adamant in their pursuit. With superior numbers and heavy machine guns, they continued to attack from many angles. They also threw grenades in the direction of the farmhouse. Within half an hour they killed more than half of the KMT forces. One of the walls of the farmhouse collapsed due to the explosions of fragmentation grenades. My father and his men were lying on the ground outside the house. When the sharp rattle of gunfire lessened as the enemies reloaded their weapons, the KMT comrades moved swiftly towards the forest under the cover of smoke and fumes. Although my father had asked the two female agents to stay close to him, during the past fifteen minutes of heavy gunfire and chaos, he couldn’t hear their voices now. He looked frantically around, but he couldn’t see them.
In the meantime two of the KMT comrades volunteered to stay behind. They released more sticks of fumes and fired continuously into the bushes at the front of the farmhouse. Enemies also began to appear at the rear. In the meantime my father and his group moved swiftly towards the forest, throwing more sticks of fumes and grenades to break the siege. After a few rounds of intense exchange of gunfire, my father was shot twice in the arm and bleeding. He had only five men near him while the two female comrades could not be seen. The two courageous KMT agents who chose to remain behind quickly moved to the rear to provide support to my father. They fired their machine guns at enemy positions in the forest, pretending there was no retreat. Eventually my father and five male comrades managed to escape and went deep into the forest. He directed his men to rush back to the headquarters to seek reinforcement. He suspected that the ten government agents stationed at the main road had been ambushed and killed. He would return to the farmhouse to find the two female comrades and assist the others.
‘We cannot let you go back,’ one of his comrades said.
‘Too many enemy agents … you’ll be killed,’ another said.
‘I must go back,’ my father said. ‘It’s my duty.’
‘You are wounded and bleeding … we go back together.’
My father shook his head. ‘No, go now. Seek reinforcement. We shall be brothers again in our next lives …’
The five comrades did not move. He patted their shoulders, looked in their eyes and said, ‘Be careful and avoid the main roads. Go now!’
The five comrades drooped their heads and refused to move.
‘Allow us to follow you. There’s a chance we can fight back.’
My father shook his head firmly and shouted, “Go now, this is an order!’
Pushing his comrades away, my father staggered alone towards the smoke and fumes. Twenty minutes later he returned to the farmhouse. Dead bodies scattered everywhere. The two brave agents who had volunteered to stay behind to provide cover and guard their rear were dead. He could see the body of his deputy as he approached the rear of the house. The fumes and haze were half clear.
A gun shot shattered the silence. He felt an excruciating pain as a bullet pierced the calf of his leg and he fell onto the ground. Three enemy agents appeared and they grabbed his arms, took away his handgun and dragged him into the living room of the house. Filled with shadows from torchlights, he was surrounded by enemy agents. The leader was a tall and muscular Japanese in his late thirties, wearing dark glasses and a cloak. His yellowish teeth gleamed as he spoke in Chinese.
‘I will speak Chinese,’ he said. ‘I want you to understand and suffer. Beg me for mercy!’
My father snorted and muttered, ‘Never! Kill me. You’ll never get what you want!’
‘Nonsense! I can get whatever I want … including your women …’
The leader of the enemy agents smirked and spat into the face of my father who was biting his teeth and writhing on the floor due to bullet wounds.
‘Forget about your comrades at the main road … they are all dead.’
The enemy agents dragged the two female KMT agents from a bedroom and showed them to my father. Their uniforms were torn, their legs slashed and bleeding.
‘Beautiful women,’ he said. ‘These six men … four Japanese agents and two Chinese loyal to our Imperial forces … are enjoying them.’
He nodded his head. The six men dragged the two women into a bedroom and continued to assault them. The two female comrades struggled and kicked at their attackers, but they were overpowered. Soon there was silence.
My father was becoming half-conscious due to heavy bleeding. Squirming in pain, he muttered, ‘Kill me! But you cannot escape! The deities will punish you!’
‘Try to irritate me to kill you? No, I want you to suffer!’
One of the Chinese collaborators appeared from the bedroom and said, ‘Sir, the two women bit their tongues and died.’
‘Have you enjoyed them before they died?’
‘Yes, we did.’
Insidious laughter went around the living room.
‘Did you hear that?’ The leader looked at my father and smirked.
He lifted his handgun and pointed it at my father’s forehead.
‘We have killed most of your comrades. Sufficient revenge for Colonel Hikitaro. I want you to suffer. Your agony will kill you slowly.’
He shifted his handgun and fired at my father. He shot twice at his right knee-cap and twice at his right elbow. Laughing coarsely, he motioned his men to leave. They disappeared into the shadows, leaving behind my father sprawled on the floor, unconscious and bleeding.
(written in June 1975)
… I entered a memory window … it was October 1927 … near midnight … cold, half-foggy and forbidding along a street in Shanghai lined with drinking and gambling houses … the pale street lights created shadows that followed four men who held tightly to their black cloaks as they walked towards their car. They exited from a less expensive hotel. Its grey façade contrasted with the glitters of expensive hotels, foreign cuisine restaurants and privileged night clubs at the far upper end of the street whose entrances sparkled with colorful light bulbs mounted on the rims of large posters.
The four men walked briskly towards their saloon car, a tense briskness that suggested that they were wary of being identified and followed. Music and laughter could be heard coming from several drinking houses. Two shorter men were intermittently and coarsely humming traditional Japanese songs, as if trying to assuage their anxiety and fear of being followed. Half-drunk, their arms lapped across each other’s shoulders as they hurried, their steps sometimes wobbled. The other two taller men walked slightly ahead, their gaits somber and alert. Their hands were in their pockets as if ready to retrieve their pistols.
As they approached their car, three Chinese wearing grey hats and overalls suddenly appeared from an alley. Their arms were firm and straight, pointing at the four Japanese. Handguns glimmered in their hands. They aimed and fired at the chests of the four targets. Each was given two bullets.
The leader of the three Chinese was a cripple. While his two comrades were right-handed, the cripple was left-handed. His right hand dangled by his side and appeared weak and useless. His right leg looked rickety and stiff, like an awkward stick underneath his long pants. He hurried towards the four motionless bodies, dragging his right leg along. Raising his left hand quickly, he aimed and shot at the hearts of the three bodies. Then he turned mechanically to the fourth body, inserted his handgun into the half-open mouth and shot two times, blasting the head of the corpse.
‘We are not as vicious as you. We give you a quick death, although you don’t deserve it,’ he muttered. He followed his comrades to a nearby car and they sped away into the night.
There were screams from pedestrians as they ran into the drinking and gambling houses to hide, suspecting that the gunshots were due to power struggles between secret societies. But they were not correct. I recognized the silhouette and his dangling right hand. I recognized his trembling gait when he hurried. Inside the memory window, I recognized his voice. My father’s.
(written in June 1975)
It was January 1942. The Japanese air raids against Singapore intensified. Thousands of civilians were killed. I remembered that when the Japanese planes came at night and we heard the siren, my grandparents and I, together with our neighbours, would rush to hide in the bomb shelter nearby. If the shelter became overcrowded, we would hide in the trenches in the woods. I remembered crouching in one of the trenches in the middle of the night. The cold of the night made me shiver. I heard shouting and more shouting, followed by the rumbles, the stuttering, the blasts and howling of anti-aircraft artillery. I sensed the thunders of heavy bombing by Japanese planes and saw pillars of smoke and fires. I heard the collapse of buildings and the cries of agony. The agonizing hour passed slowly.
When the bombing stopped, a nearby hill and its shrubs had caught fire. The burning drifted towards us and became choking. My grandparents and I climbed up from a trench hidden by trees. We walked towards the main road. Orange daggers of flames surrounded us. They came from shattered kerosene lamps, shriveled branches burning in the drain, broken signboards and the fur of a dead cat. They came from the cushions in a mangled car and from splintered furniture whose limbs jutted out from the rubble. The flames also came from the garments of corpses that huddled together. I saw a few half-naked scarecrows walking in the shadows, their arms bony and dangling, severely burnt. I also saw flames coming from within the ribs of a soldier. His body was blown away by half. Medics and volunteers were rushing around, looking for survivors. Most of the wounded required morphine.
Dawn finally came. Bodies were motionless along the five-foot-way of shop houses. Walking in the smoke, I glimpsed a dead horse. Maggots and humans hungered for its flesh. They were late. Red weaver ants were tasting the jagged edges of its thighs. The carcass sprawled near the pathway of an embassy facing the Singapore harbour. The European façade of the three-storeyed building was reduced to smouldering ruins and charred beams. The bombing was severe. They tried to ignore it. The calves were watery. They brushed away the smoke. They could make soup from the half-roasted brain. They planned to make soup before the next air raid.
As the air raids intensified, my grandparents predicted that the Japanese would soon conquer the island. With no hinterland in Singapore and my father and his comrades would be identified as former KMT agents, we need to stay in the forests of Sumatra until the war ended. My father and his comrades bought two medium-sized boats and equipped them with motors. They brought along oars and life-jackets for a total of forty-two people. At midnight we gathered at East Coast beach and waited for an hour until the horizon was pitch dark. Then we began our journey to Sumatra, Indonesia. We packed and brought along green T-shirts, green towels, dark brown pants and grey canvas shoes that blended well with the undergrowth of the forest. We brought materials to pitch tents, dried food items, cooking utensils, kerosene lamps, mosquito net, fishing net, farming tools, a few cages for catching small animals plus knives, daggers, slingshots and parangs. My father and his comrades planned to set traps if the Japanese soldiers were to pursue us. They aimed to capture some of them and seized their weapons.
It was dark as we travelled on the boats. The air was cold and foggy. Sometimes there were strong winds. Fortunately the sea was not choppy. We wrapped ourselves in blankets as we sailed through the dark waters. Occasionally sprays of sea water sprinkled on our faces. The humming of the motors kept us awake. Three hours later we landed on an island. We chose a quiet area to stay for the night. For the next two days we travelled from one island to another before we reached southern Sumatra. We began to trek into the lush tropical forests and to find suitable caves to stay. My father and his comrades looked for terrains useful for monitoring the movement of enemies and for safe and prompt retreat. Their tactic was to retreat deeper into the forest if the enemies came, setting traps to delay their advance and fight until their last breath …
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 18 January 1976)
Tonight I rush into a panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights and jump across a threshold … am I hiding from rogue soldiers? Running away from their bayonets and studded whips?
I head towards a dark forest … it’s self-aware, filled with the shadows of scorpionflies, Goliath beetles, thorn bugs and stick insects … the colours of an atlas moth glow and change in the horizon from green to blue to yellow to orange … I hear the grunts of lobster claws, beehive ginger and orchids. They’ve palm-sized faces that look like parrots, eagles and human skulls … The forest is alive, hunting behind tall eucalypti and ancient pines. I avoid shadows and bushes that contain red-streaked gleams and suppressed growls. Unknown creatures are lurking there. But my elbows, knees and calves are already bleeding, cut by the teeth along the edges of leaves …
I wade into a swamp shrouded by a mist … the swamp flicks its tongue in a soundless way, like an anaconda. Its heavy, muddy limbs brush against my legs. I drag my legs, keep dragging and struggling as I trudge towards drier ground and stumble into a darker region … Am I entering an area guarded by flaming swords? …
Or I’ve strayed into a giant cage at a corner of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Is the cage made of dreams, memories and fogs? Does it run on uneven terrains? Silhouettes surround me now. They seem to come from huge armadillo lizards and spiny anteaters. Crisscross like craggy branches above me, watching me … but I can’t see the rims of the cage. Its meshes stretch everywhere.
Do I hear something? … the squeak of a squirrel when it’s being swallowed? … the crack of an oak’s skin when a leopard scratches it? … a lightning above a bear’s forehead when it’s tearing a salmon? … a gleam inside the eye of a two-hundred-pound wild boar when it’s rushing towards me? …
Why is that captive talking to me? Because he hears the persistent tapping of a Madagascar lemur whose eyes gleam like orange pearls? Is that lemur idiosyncratic, striving to be different from its nocturnal cousins by hunting two hours before sunset? Perhaps it discovers that late afternoon provides auspicious moments to catch the best grubs by tapping on the tree trunk to locate hollow veins, chewing a hole into the wood and pulling out bugs with its spidery fingers …
The forest becomes quieter as I walk deeper … it has many layers, like the many-layered armor of a patriarchal scorpion. As I walk deeper, the squeal of birds, the howl of wolves and the cackle of dangling creatures become softer. I walk under an umbrella of shadows. They seem to follow me wherever I go. Many areas ahead are quiet and still. Unseen dwellers seem to be hiding there, watching.
Soon I reach a no man’s land. The trees are half-shielded by clusters of leaves, ferns and shrubs. Nestling on hills, ravines and undulating terrain, they look like the coiled intestines of a brain when seen from a mountain top. Perhaps I can bury mental scars inside one of its shriveled arteries. Or those scars can wither amid decomposed ferns and half-eaten tinier brains. They wither beneath soft, dusky ground … it feels like the curled up bodies of dead spiders …
(written in June 1975)
A few shots shattered the morning silence. They came from the river bank where two daughters of our neighbors were washing the clothes. They were protected by two male comrades. But four Japanese soldiers hiding in the bushes spotted and shot the two comrades. Then they chased and grabbed the two girls and overpowered them. Winston Kheong, Guan Seng, Tian Wen and I were chopping woods when we heard the shots and the screaming of the girls. We hurried to the riverside and saw the rogue soldiers pressing the two girls on the ground, typing their hands behind their backs and carrying them away. We decided to follow them. It was late 1943. We had lived in the forests for more than two years. The Japanese had occupied Sumatra and we had intensified our monitoring of any enemies approaching our caves and tents. But the lush rainforests made it difficult for us to ensure prompt detection of enemy movement.
Determined to save the two girls, we informed Tian Wen, the youngest among us, to rush back to the tents to inform other comrades about the attack. Then the three of us quickly followed the trail of the four Japanese scouts. We tied yellow strings around tree branches to leave behind our trail. For the next thirty minutes we followed the Japanese scouts to a deserted area of the forest where there was a clearing. They pushed the two girls onto the ground -- fourteen-year-old Xin Hua and fifteen-year-old Nan Jiau. They slapped the girls and began tearing away their clothes.
Winston Kheong, Guan Seng and I planned to attack at the same time with our heavy axes. Quietly we approached the four soldiers from the bushes. Three of them had their rifles slung over their backs while another placed his weapon near his feet.
Winston was sixteen, strong and muscular. He was tall at five feet nine. Guan Seng and I were fifteen years old and shorter. At the signal of Winston, we attacked at the same time. Winston pounced on one Japanese soldier from behind, grabbed his shoulder and plunged his axe into the soldier’s neck. Months of chopping wood had toughened the biceps of Winston. His axe sank forcefully into the neck of that rogue soldier and severed the veins. Blood spurted out immediately. The rogue soldier gave a loud cry and fell onto the ground, motionless. Winston quickly dislodged his axe, lifted it high and hurled it forcefully towards another Japanese soldier near me. The axe landed on his chest, sinking into his rib cage. He screamed and fell backwards onto the ground.
Meanwhile Guan Seng attacked another Japanese soldier from behind. He jumped onto his back and grabbed his arm. Then he plunged his axe onto his scalp. He quickly dislodged his axe and hacked at his skull a few times. The Japanese scout screamed and struggled to shake off his attacker. Nan Jiau, the girl below him, grabbed his hands and pulled him down to prevent him from swinging his bayonet towards Guan Seng. Seizing this opportunity, Guan Seng continued to sink the axe into the skull and scalp of the scout. Soon the scout fell forwards and laid motionless on top of Nan Jiau. Guan Seng did not stop his attack. He kept hacking furiously at the scalp of the scout until strips of flesh flew onto his face and his hands dripped with blood. He stopped only when he became conscious of Nan Jiau’s screams for help. Regaining his alertness, he sat on the ground, panting. Nan Jiau pushed away the corpse and ran to the bushes to hide.
On my part, I pounced and plunged my axe onto the back of a third soldier. I dislodged it quickly and plunged it again into his neck. Before I could strike a third time, the soldier knocked my chin with his right arm and pushed me onto the ground. I fell backwards as he swung his rifle around and aimed at me.
Winston lurched from behind and pushed that soldier onto the ground before he could fire. Then Winston dived and pressed onto that soldier and used his body weight to keep the soldier down. The soldier struggled but was unable to obtain his rifle which was pressed beneath his chest with Winston lying on top of him. Guan Seng rushed forward and sank his axe into the right thigh of the soldier. He screamed and shuddered with pain. Regaining my alertness, I also rushed forward and plunged my axe onto the skull of the soldier. I was afraid that he might give a heave, push Winston away and attack us with his rifle. I hacked at his skull three times with all my strength until it became dented. Blood and brain cells flowed from the skull. I sat on the ground, panting.
Suddenly a shadow arose. The solder with the axe on his chest stood up. Removing the axe with a shriek and discarding it, he lifted a long sword and charged towards Winston, intending to slash his neck. With all my might, I rushed towards the abdomen of the soldier and knocked him to the ground. He recovered, glared at me and swerved his sword in my direction, aiming at my neck. I jerked my neck and body backwards, trying to dodge his sword. It missed my neck, but its sharp edges slashed my right arm and forehead. Pain radiated across my body as blood dripped across my face, blurring my vision. I laid flat on the ground, panting. Yelling like an enraged executioner keen to mete out punishment, he stood up and lifted his sword. Winston lurched forward and grabbed his arms. But the soldier thrust his ankle at Winston’s stomach and pushed him away. He lifted his long sword, preparing to slash me into two pieces. Then there was a loud bang. The soldier fell to the ground, dead. Guan Seng had picked up a rifle, checked that it was ready, cradled it against his shoulder and fired, the barrel pointing at the soldier’s back. The three of us had learned how to use a rifle from my father.
Winston stood up and walked over to the motionless body. He picked up his sword and thrust it into his stomach a few times to make sure that he was dead. He repeated the same procedure for the other three bodies. ‘They’re invaders. They’re killers,’ he muttered. Then we took away the cartridges, daggers and rifles of the four scouts and walked towards the bushes where the two girls were hiding. We gave our shirts to them and we walked towards our tents.
Fifteen minutes later we met three comrades. They came with their parangs and crossbows. We handed the bullets and rifles to them. Winston guided them to the clearing while the two girls, Guan Seng and I went back to the tents to be treated and bandaged.
That night I asked Winston what happened to the four corpses. He replied, ‘We threw them into the river. Food for the fishes.’
(written in June 1975)
In the next few weeks we moved deeper into the forest and heightened our alertness in keeping watch. We expected the Japanese soldiers to come and look for the four scouts whom we had killed. The adult males, armed with rifles, took turns to sit in pairs on top of the hills with their binoculars. We shifted our tents to the south-eastern part of the hills and surveyed the areas behind the hills, planning how we could swiftly move to safe areas if we spotted the enemies.
During the daytime Winston, Guan Seng and I also climbed up the trees armed with binoculars, daggers and slingshots and took turns to keep watch on areas facing the east. The adults focused on areas facing the west and the north west where Japanese scouts would most likely approach. Grandfather had a rifle as he kept guard of the women and wives of the comrades including grandma, their two daughters and six grandchildren. My father being a cripple helped to keep watch with binoculars together with one of the comrades who had a rifle.
Two months later the Japanese soldiers came. Guan Seng and I were up on a makeshift tree-house when we spotted four or five small figures in the distance. We used our binoculars and confirmed that they were Japanese scouts. We quickly climbed down the trees and rushed to inform the adults. Two comrades stationed on a hill also spotted the scouts.
Grandfather swiftly gathered everyone and guided them to retreat deep into the forest. In the next few days the adults stationed themselves at prominent reconnaissance points on the hills. Whenever they saw Japanese scouts, they would alert Grandfather who would guide everyone to go deeper into the forest. This occurred several times in the next three weeks until the Japanese scouts were no longer seen. During those weeks we slept inside caves and did not pitch our tents. When we no longer spotted any Japanese soldiers in the next one week, we went to a hidden stream to obtain water and to wash our clothes.
Two weeks passed. To our shock, during one afternoon, six Japanese scouts escaped the detection of two of our comrades who were stationed on nearby hills. We were alerted by the flight of birds. The Japanese scouts saw one of the comrades sitting on a tree branch and they shot him twice. He breathed his last with his shoulders hunched up on a branch, blood dripping from his chest. The second comrade on another tree tried to escape when he heard the gunshots. But he was seen by the Japanese when he climbed down the tree and they pursued him. Soon he was shot dead.
Winston, Guan Seng and I were resting inside a cave half-hidden by ferns when we heard the gunshots. We rushed outside and saw Grandfather gathering all the women and children. We promptly began our escape deep into the forest, carrying with us parcels that contained clothing, dried fruits and yam, gourds that contained water and hunter’s wine, and basic cooking utensils. We descended a narrow path hidden by thick undergrowth. The shrieks of wild birds made us aware that the Japanese scouts were coming fast.
Carrying a long dagger and a rifle, Grandfather led the women and children deeper into the forest. My father walked ahead of the group together with a comrade armed with a rifle. Two comrades and Grandfather guarded the rear. They stopped periodically and looked back to detect whether any of the Japanese scouts were approaching. When they did not spot any danger, they would urge us to hurry forward. Grandfather hobbled behind on a prosthetic leg. Although he was already seventy, he remained stout and strong due to daily practice of martial arts while living in the forest.
Minutes later while we were hurrying towards the deeper region of the forest, Grandfather heard the rustle of leaves and the swaying of branches some distance behind him. He turned and hid behind a boulder. The two comrades about twenty feet ahead of Grandfather also stopped and hid behind tree trunks. They waved and signaled at the women and children, indicating that they should continue to hurry forward. In the meantime Grandfather and the two comrades waited intensely. Suddenly Grandfather saw a few objects being thrown over his head. Alarm rushed across his mind and he shouted in Chinese, “Grenades! Lie down!”
Soon we heard explosions and the two comrades were hit by the shards and splinters of the grenades. To delay the advance of the Japanese scouts, Grandfather started to shoot at the bushes where he heard movement. There was a shriek followed by moaning. At least one Japanese scout was hit. But Grandfather had exposed his position. He lied flat and motionless behind the boulder as the enemies began to focus their firing in his direction. Their bullets hit and smacked against the boulder, snipping off chips of rocks at the edges. When the gunfire subsided five minutes later, Grandfather unlocked two grenades. He briefly rolled over from behind the boulder and hurled them in the direction of the enemies before he moved back behind the boulder. The two grenades exploded and when silence returned, he could hear cries of agony, indicating that a few of the enemies were hit. Grandfather watched intensely, waiting for their movement. Then he heard the rustle of leaves. He half-shifted away from the boulder, aimed his rifle at the bushes and began to shoot, hoping to hit one or more of the scouts. But the enemies retaliated with intense gunfire. Soon they threw a few grenades in the direction of the boulder. Grandfather stood up and dived behind the shrubs away from the boulder. But he could not fully dodge the impact of the grenades. Some of their shards and splinters hit Grandfather’s shoulders and pierced his arms, causing him to bleed profusely.
Lying on the ground in pain, Grandfather panted and breathed deeply. He might lose consciousness soon and he wanted to repel the Japanese scouts before he became unconscious, so that the women and children plus my father and his comrades, could escape. ‘Nothing can separate me from the love of God,’ he muttered and lifted his head, his eyes focused on the enemy positions. In his younger days when he joined the uprising against the Ching dynasty, he had walked through the valley of shadows and he had returned undaunted, seeing something that could not be destroyed by the claws of death. He clenched his teeth now, preparing to be reunited with his comrades in a sunlit garden.
Grandfather unlocked his two remaining grenades. Gathering all his strength and tightening his jaws, he shifted his wounded body away from the shrubs and a tree trunk. He sat up and quickly lifted and swung both his arms as he threw the grenades in the direction of the Japanese scouts. The enemies spotted Grandfather and shot him in the chest before he could move behind a trunk, killing him instantly. Then the Japanese scouts ran and dived behind the tree trunks and undergrowth, hoping to avoid the blast of Grandfather’s grenades. Soon the two grenades exploded, hitting the scouts. Two of them were seriously wounded and they became unconscious. But another two of the scouts survived and they lied flat on the ground, stunned and panting.
My father and another comrade appeared and they fired in the direction of the two Japanese scouts. Thinking that there were many comrades in the deep forest, the two surviving scouts turned and fled. When they were gone, my father and his comrade hurried over and shot at four motionless or half-conscious Japanese scouts. Then my father’s comrade took away their rifles, bullets and grenades.
My father limped over to Grandfather’s bloodstained body and knelt beside him, sobbing. Winston and I walked down the slope and approached Grandfather’s body. Covering him with a blanket, we carried his body and walked up the hill and towards the inner region of the forest. My father and Guan Seng helped the two comrades who were hit by grenades and they hobbled behind us. We walked deep into the forest under the shade of towering trees. In my heart I recited the prayer of Saint Francis. Later that evening, with tears rolling down our cheeks, we buried Grandfather under a huge oak tree. It symbolized his sacrificial love and courage.
We continued to live in the inner region of the forest, using parangs, slingshots and rifles to protect ourselves from wild boars and prowling creatures. When we spotted Japanese scouts, we would retreat deeper into the forest. Months later, two comrades climbed the slope of a mountain and when they looked at the sea, they saw civilian ships. As the days passed by, more civilian ships appeared. We realized that the war had ended.
(written in 1973)
A poem to Grandfather.
His mother prays, ‘May he become anonymous, far from harm’s way.’ He’s strong-willed -- the breathing of a stallion. He’s nimble -- the hooves of a reindeer. He’s venturesome -- the claws of a leopard. He lives in a tree-house, near the ankle of an ancient Redwood and composes a haiku every season. After a dozen haikus, he learns to decide fast-paced. Like a Garuda Owl, he ventures forth, searching for a land with many moons and loves more deeply an old Sun, our Genesis-reading days.
Many seasons later, he becomes old. In humble ways he helps to redeem an unforeseen day where fields, hills and rivers are scorched. Only deserts are seen on this more extreme Mars. The warrior Muse strong inside him will survive. He breathes fire onto the toes of thuggish enemies, seizes and boils them to extract vials of juice that can tame theirs hearts in their next lives.
Now he has become a shaft of starlight … it continues to journey across the night sky. He reverses time and unfreezes oblivion for a while. Are the Kosmos’ meaty layers hiding the real Story? Maybe they have poems-hungry lips, ears and tongues. Let’s savor the marrow of haikus and converse with my Grandfather. He is walking along rainbow bridges. Besides him is a family of silvery planets …
(written in August 1975)
‘What do you have for me today?’ Flint asked as he sat down on a rattan chair in front of me.
The evening rays filtered through small gaps in the planks that sealed the window of the room. He stared into my eyes. I couldn’t see his eyes as he was wearing dark glasses. His rough voice emitted streaks of impatience and hostile energy.
‘Another case from Inspector Evon,’ I calmly, recalling the case which Joan dictated to me last night.
‘Because I didn’t slice off a part of your ear last round?’ he smirked. ‘You may not be lucky this time. A python saved you last time …’
I ignored him and began to read from my notes …
Private notes of Inspector Evon
(written in 1972)
9.20 am (16 February 1971)
Sargeant Bernard and I arrived at the scene where the cleaner found the dismembered body of the 43-year-old prostitute, Lucy Chan. Her chest was badly bruised, her tongue cut off, her throat slashed, her face disfigured with strong acid and her limbs severed. Same treatment given to another victim four months ago, Anna Heng.
The dismembered body was found inside black plastic bags and concealed in a cardboard box at the corner of a quiet lane at Geylang. The plastic bags were tied with thick strings. The cardboard was neatly sealed with scotch tapes. The dismembered body of the first victim was discarded in the same way at an opposite street.
Witnesses said they saw the victims being driven away by a luxurious car. The cars were different. The first was a Mercedes Benz. The second was a BMW. The first Mercedes Benz was a stolen car. It had since been claimed by the owner. The witnesses said they didn’t see the driver.
I asked CPL Samson and LCP Victor to check on the background of the victims and talked to their friends. We need to find out why did the killer select these two victims, do a profile of the killer or killers, and try to anticipate potential victims.
11.30 am (16 February 1971)
The pathologist said to me, ‘The killer beat the victim on the chest, probably with a hammer, and then cut off her tongue, slashed her throat, dripped strong acid on her face. Then the killer cut the victim’s wrists to let her die of pain and loss of blood … Finally the killer severed the limbs of the victim with a chain saw …’
4.30 pm (16 February 1971)
Sergeant Bernard received a call from two prostitutes, Vivian Lee 43-year-old and Wendy Ho, 44-year-old. They were close and long-time friends of the two victims for more than twenty years. They decided to seek police protection as they were afraid they might become the next victims.
At the police station, I asked them, ‘Why do you think the killer may be targeting you?’
‘We are not sure, but the four of us are close friends … close friends for many years.’
‘Did you offend or antagonize anyone?’
‘We had many different customers in the past twenty years. We can’t recall …’
‘Did all of you or some of you have the same customer or customers and got to know something which you’re not supposed to know? Something shadowy or illegal?’ I asked.
They shook their heads.
‘Try to think carefully in the next few days,’ I said. ‘For example, did you antagonize any member of a secret society? Did you antagonize anyone or did something wrong to anyone who may be seeking you for revenge …’
Vivian Lee and Wendy Ho said they would think carefully and try to recall in the next few days. They dared not go home and stayed at the police station where we had secure areas for them.
Private notes of Inspector Evon
(written in 1972)
Three days later Vivian Lee and Wendy Ho came to see me and said, “After much thinking, we did not offend any customers who would be mad enough to want to torture and dismember us. But we remember that Lucy Chan and Anne Heng quarrelled with a prostitute many years ago.”
‘Can you tell me exactly what happened?’ I asked.
‘More than twenty years ago, the four of us were living with another prostitute, Jenny Yap,’ said Vivian Lee. ‘She was more attractive than the four of us and we were jealous of her … After she had worked as a night club singer for a year, a rich man fell in love with her. Jenny Yap became his mistress.’
‘But that rich man also patronized Lucy Chan and Anna Heng,’ said Wendy Ho.
‘Did they quarrel or something more serious happened?’ I asked.
‘Yes, they quarreled … During a heated quarrel, Anna smashed Jenny with a liquor bottle and slashed her face. Disfigured with a deep scar, the rich man abandoned Jenny and he didn’t visit her anymore, although Jenny was pregnant with his child,’ Vivian Lee said.
‘Anna Heng had the backing of local gangsters and she did not make amends to Jenny,’ said Wendy. ‘Soon Jenny became a waitress at a night club.’
‘Sometimes we visited that night club and we bullied Jenny,’ said Vivian Lee. ‘During one evening, we made things difficult for her. We scolded and slapped her, saying that she was clumsy and we pushed her to the floor. Then we poured our food and coffee on her and jeered at her …’
‘What was Jenny’s reaction? Did she retaliate?’ I asked.
‘Six or seven months later after Jenny had given birth, she decided to take revenge on Anna and Lucy,’ said Vivian. ‘One afternoon Jenny charged at them with a bottle of acid outside the night club where Anna and Lucy were working. They shrieked for help and managed to fend off Jenny’s attack, but they suffered burns on their arms and necks. The boyfriends of Anna and Lucy rushed out of the club and quickly seized Jenny. I heard that Anna and Lucy were furious and they splashed acid onto Jenny’s face. She cried in pain and then she disappeared …’
‘Did you ever see Jenny again after that incident? Or any idea what happened to Jenny after that?’ I asked.
‘We didn’t see Jenny after that incident … and we don’t know what happened to Jenny or her child,’ said Vivian.
‘I heard rumours that Jenny committed suicide a few years later …’ Wendy Ho muttered. ‘We suspect that her child has now returned to take revenge.’
Private notes of Inspector Evon
(written in 1972)
Despite careful search at the red light district areas for more than four months, Sargent Bernard and I didn’t find any clue to the whereabouts of the killer. Vivian Lee and Wendy Ho were too frightened to return home and they remained at the police station.
One afternoon Vivian Lee needed to attend a medical appointment at the hospital. A patrol car brought her there. When she stepped out of the car, she was shot in the arm. The two police officers accompanying her were shot in the legs. The murderer was a first-rate sniper. He called me in the afternoon, saying, ‘They can’t escape. I won’t get rid of them so fast. They shall taste more bullets. From now on I’ll shoot one police officer every week until Vivian and Wendy kill themselves or surrender to me to be butchered …’
Two weeks later I informed my superiors and Sargeant Bernard that I would resign. I held a small press conference with the evening newspapers, informing that I was powerless to catch the murderer and decided to resign due to my incompetence. The papers published the news of my resignation.
In the next six months I frequently visited the clubs where Vivian Lee and Wendy Ho used to work and I acted like a depressed drunkard. In those months, Vivian and Wendy continued to live within the secure areas of the police station. In that period the killer shot a total of twenty-six police officers, shooting one police officer every week in the leg, spreading fear.
At the end of six months, while I was drinking at a pub at Geylang one evening, the bartender told me that I had a call. I walked over to the counter and picked up the phone.
‘I’ve shot twenty-six police officers, one per week. Luckily you have resigned … otherwise I would have shot you,’ a muzzled voice said.
‘I’m no longer a police officer.’ I sounded drunk.
‘A wise choice …’ said the muzzled voice.
‘We should meet to celebrate your success,’ I mumbled.
‘Yes, my success …’ The caller hung up.
For the next two months the killer continued to shoot one police officer per week. I waited for him to call again. He contacted me at the pub one evening and suggested to meet me to celebrate his success. I agreed and a few days later, I went to the quiet place near Changi beach indicated by him. I sat down at a wooded area and waited for three hours. Then he appeared. He must have been circling the area in his car to ensure no police officers were following me.
“You are true to your word. Nobody’s following you,” the killer said. He drove a black sedan and parked nearby. He walked over to me where I was sitting and drinking under a pine tree. He looked at me carefully. I was wearing jogging shoes, tight pants and a thin, sleeveless shirt. There were three empty cans of alcoholic drink beside me. I was sitting on pieces of newspapers spread out on the ground.
Seeing that I was not hiding any weapon in my sleeveless shirt and tight pants, he walked nearer and stood at about fifteen feet away from me. My back was facing the sea. He looked tall and sturdy, wearing dark glasses, a surgical mask, black coat, blue jeans and a large baseball cap. He had dark, curly hair half-hidden by his cap as well as thick mustaches and sideburns which I knew were fake.
‘Congrats for shooting 34 police officers in their legs …’ I said.
The murderer continued to watch me closely, both of his hands tucked inside his coat, ready to pull out his weapons anytime.
‘To kill them is easy,’ the murderer tried to sound rasp while speaking through the surgical mask. ‘No, I shall let them suffer … From tomorrow onwards I’ll shoot their buttocks. That’s more interesting.’
‘Yes, shoot at their eyes. Make them suffer … you are a great sniper.’ I tried to sound half-drunk. Then I swiftly pulled out something from under the newspapers, half-bent my neck and body, and charged at him.
Caught off guard, the killer stepped back. He quickly retrieved and flashed out a handgun in his right hand and shot at me three times. I hid my face and chest behind a medium-sized bullet-proof shield and lurched towards him. The bullets hit the shield and bounced away. I leapt and hit him with the shield, pushing him to the ground. Using all my strength and body weight, I pressed the shield hard on his chest and body, preventing him to retrieve his second handgun. I weighed about 140 pounds, at least twenty pounds heavier than the killer.
The killer shrieked in pain as I pressed my shield hard on his chest and body. The shriek confirmed my suspicion. The killer was a female. She was about five feet seven inches tall, slim and agile. She had put on thick mustaches and sideburns to hide her slender cheekbones and a pointed chin.
I relaxed the pressure of the shield slightly to allow her right hand to be stretched outward and I quickly grabbed her right hand, shook it vigorously, hitting her hand against the ground. She shrieked in pain, but refused to release her handgun. I carefully moved aside the bullet-proof shield and quickly seized her left hand to prevent her from retrieving another weapon.
Pressing both her hands to the ground, I sat stiffly on her abdomen. I continued to press her struggling hands near to the ground, preventing her to retrieve another weapon from her coat. She pulled the trigger four times, trying to distract and frighten me with the loud bangs of her handgun. The bullets flew to the right, hitting the barks of nearby trees.
Pressed on the ground, the killer remained alert. Gnashing her teeth, she groaned like a trapped leopard. I felt her knees kicking and thumping at my back as she tried to heave and shove me away. I shifted my right knee and used it to press against her left wrist, preventing her to grab another weapon. This freed my right hand. I began to hit her, slamming my right fist against her face more than ten times until her eyes and cheeks became swollen. Then I shifted and used my left knee to press against her outstretched right hand. I half-twisted her right hand and wrested the gun from her. I also quickly inserted my right hand into her coat and retrieved her second gun.
Gripping both guns, I stood up quickly and moved a few steps away from the killer. She was gasping and half-conscious. I observed her closely, pointed the weapons at her and said coarsely, ‘You’re under arrest. I’m arresting you as a private citizen.’
(written in August 1975)
I finished my narration, sat straight on the rattan chair and looked at Flint. His taut face was expressionless and self-absorbed. I couldn’t see his eyes as he was wearing dark glasses.
Suddenly he stood up and said, ‘I like the guts of Evon … I don’t like the part where the killer didn’t get to behead the other two bullies … But I like Evon’s hunting skill. She seems to come from the same mold as me. We have nonconformist bones … You get three stars.’
‘I now have a total of six stars,’ I said.
‘Yes, six more stars to go. The other two captives upstairs are not so lucky. They’ve been here two months, without getting a single star. Looks like they prefer to end their lives in this farmhouse …’
(written in June 1975)
In March 1949 I had a new neighbour. She was Esther d’Souza, an Eurasion doctor in her late fifties. She rented a terrace house at MacPherson Road one unit away from us. After a week of renovation, a signboard was placed at its entrance that read Dr Esther’s Clinic. A daytime clinic. At night the house would be quiet.
Dr Esther had a motherly, compassionate voice with short, grey hair and a ruddy face. Her nose was sharp in a winsome way, like those attractive Hollywood actresses and it created a shadow on her chin that reflected her mature, serious cast of mind. She had firm, square cheeks but stream-like wrinkles ran down her stout neck that blended with a few prominent veins that appeared bluish under her chin. I believed she had overcome tough hurdles and walked through burning coal to earn those bluish glow. Crinkles that looked like the feet of pigeons appeared around the corners of her eyes. About five feet five inches tall with a plump waist, suntanned skin and freckles on her stout arms and legs, her movement was calm and composed, full of confidence. Her compassionate voice and steadfast gleams in her eyes resembled those that of a missionary who could speak to God and know how to fulfil one’s life purpose. When she talked to me, I detected knowledgeable glint in her eyes. About once a month, I would be down with flu and I would take the opportunity to see her. I was twenty years old then and in love. No, not with Dr Esther. But with her assistant, Florence … she was twenty-two.
The first time I saw Florence, she was gardening in the evening after work. It wasn’t part of her job duties. She did it because she liked gardening. I also observed that she liked to keep things neat and tidy in and around the clinic, including the garden. She was wearing a brown headscarf, a long white dress and a pair of green cotton shoes. I estimated she was about five feet six inches tall. Her hazel-coloured eyes lighted up a cheerful, almond-shaped face, pink and youthful like one of those graceful dancers inside a Chinese painting. Her short hair made her face look round. She spoke courteously, as if she regarded every person as her patient and needed her care and focused attention.
On that evening, she was using a small spade to dig up the weeds in the small garden in front of the clinic and around the rims of the wall. Then she gathered the clumps of weeds and withered leaves and put them into a plastic bag before placing it into the dustbin in front of the house. Thereafter she would use a hose to water the potted plants and flowers along the pathway of the garden that led to the entrance of the clinic.
For the first three months after the clinic started, when I came home after teaching English Literature at a nearby school, I would discreetly look from the window of my bedroom on the second floor. I would tilt my head, look in the direction of her garden and watch her while half-hiding my face under the shadows of trees. I did my best to ensure that I would not be detected by her. I would watch and admire her graceful movement, her focused digging, weeding and watering. Sometimes she would mix fertilisers with the soil of the potted plants. Her composure and gentle movement reminded me of my mother. I guessed she would also like reading, poetry, nature, haikus and the beach.
(written in June 1975)
One Saturday morning, I was down with flu and went to see Dr Esther. She carefully listened to my heart, examined my breathing, throat and chest before diagnosing it as normal flu. I thanked her and waited on the bench in the living room for cough medication. Florence was assisting an elderly man onto a wheelchair. I briskly walked over and assisted to support and position the elderly man into his wheelchair. Then I assisted to push the wheelchair into the garden and onto the pavement of the road while his daughter flagged a taxi. When they were gone, I walked back into the clinic.
“You have some experience in assisting the elderly?” Florence smiled at me and asked. Her almond-shaped face and white dress reflected pale shades of pink due to several pots of red geranium placed near the entrance of the clinic. Her hazel-coloured eyes sparkled, reflecting the morning sunrays. I seemed to detect a quivering in her tender voice as if she felt a tinge of excitement in recognizing an old friend somewhere inside me.
“Yes, I’ve been doing voluntary services at the Saint John’s old folks home together with my grandma,” I replied. “We also brought gifts to orphans during the Christmas season.”
She smiled and nodded.
“Like my mother, I’m a Christian, the mystical kind. My grandma is a Buddhist,” I tried to explain. ‘My mother died when I was only seven. She liked to volunteer at various charities. I learnt to become her hands and feet when I volunteered …’
Then I gave a sheepish smile, realizing that I was talking to a new friend. I shouldn’t confuse her with my esoteric worldview and philosophy. Yet strangely I seemed to know her, the unseen her, for a long time.
“Perhaps someday when you’re less busy, you may wish to join us in some of our voluntary activities. They’re very meaningful. We spread and plant the seeds of happiness in others.”
She smiled and nodded again. From that day onwards, on every Saturday morning, I would walk into the clinic and invite her for lunch or dinner. When she was less busy, Florence joined my grandma and I to offer voluntary services at the old folks home. Florence and I also visited the Botanic Garden and nature parks every month. I would read my poems to her.
I recalled the first time I showed her my poem was after visiting the national museum. There was an ancient jar on display. I wrote a poem on this subject after our visit and dedicated it to her:
A pot-bellied clay jar with two fleshly shoulders as handles, confident in a shamanic way, as if foreseeing an auspicious future for truth-hunters. She has no delicate or elaborate engravings on her waist, no sacred letterings or pictorials on her forehead. Only a few broad curvy lines near her knees, as if praising the generous rivers near her birthplace. What’s cryptic is her prominent Eye below her lips. Her Eye seems to gaze at us, penetrating us. Now we realize she is contented, like the way Nature is content to be living far away from commercialized sounds and furies. She seems to speak now as we curiously gaze at her under the strong museum lights. Scientists have carbon-dated it. She’s more than three thousand years old. Perhaps one day, she can hint to us how human eyes can communicate with her undying, all-surveying Eye that has survived the rise and fall of tribes, kingdoms, dynasties and empires. Something like Zen.
One year later, we went on a cruise to Malaysia. On the deck at night we counted the stars and I wrote this poem for her:
A Crystal Ball
May the Imagination keep close. She comes from the night sky above and within, consoling us. Her face has no nameable features. But she appreciates more faces than we can see in a lifetime. She makes us touch the estuaries and the nearby hills. She makes us rise above the shoulders of cypresses, to go beyond vineyards, lakes and valleys, touching the high points of fatherly mountains. Perhaps unseen aspects of the world find us then, the genesis of Meaning. Or she brings us to visit a pearl. It illuminates riverbeds and yet-to-be-discovered species. They open their eyes. We linger above half-rousing saplings and come upon a rare find: the quiet of a lily pond. We fall asleep.
Waking up, we become lost in time, greeted by moonlight. Her brightness mirrors a childhood earth, lighting up the sky, a crystal ball who understands human hearts. We surprise ourselves by saying: ‘That surreality is also down here on earth.’ Travel on a beam and visit her Crescent’s kingdom, from there, we can watch our planet and be amazed by earth’s brightness. When we travel back to earth, the purity of dawn spreads across fields and meadows. Perhaps now we can sense the glow of moonlight, smaller but clearer, on our palms.
After knowing her for two years, while walking along the beach at East Coast, I told her about the deaths of my mother and my Grandfather. Her eyes became red with tears. She explained that her family was fortunate. Her uncle who had migrated to Melbourne was able to obtain permits for her family to stay in Australia throughout the war and her family returned to Singapore in 1946. Together we wrote the following poem:
Pebbles at Changi Beach
With no names, no denominations, no status divide, they appear religious in their special way. Invite them to our poem. In turn, they invite us to a spring less touched by time. Are they timeless siblings huddling together in unity? Are they another kind of holograms that can glimpse a World more real? Are they celestial beads speaking about a Dimension that doesn’t age? Do they look like wisdom stones, amulets or fossilized echoes that whisper why the cosmos was born? Or do they look like crystallized droplets of God’s tears – tears of hope, healing and renewal? Do they half-speak, half-disclose, baptized by the ancient waves, roughened by the raw world, made bold by the voice of the sea? Or do they resonate the birth pangs, growth, waning and revival of human faith during epoch-making conflicts at the world’s naked shingles?
Evening comes. The self has become lighter. Can we invite the pebbles to enquire along with us? Is the green sea before us an Experiment or an Accident? Are those seagulls, pelicans and sparrows, ventures of an impersonal Chaos? Is He biting the bullet to undergo a stringent Self-challenge? Shall we climb a tree, a hill or a vantage point to reach a sunlit height, trying to look over the rim? Or simply content to be surprised by the glow on our suntanned faces? Or we enter the thin places between heartbeats and we repeat the prayer of Saint Francis before disappearing … We sense those days again, finding new and long-lost friends among the waters. Can we go beyond poem-writing, peek into some aspect of that mystery? Maybe it is telling us about the many-splendored thing – the ocean with sunlight sparkling on it.
After I finished reading this poem to her on that evening in early 1951, I proposed to Florence and she agreed to marry me.
(written in June 1975)
It was April 1952. Florence was pregnant with our first child for more than eight months and due to deliver in six weeks’ time. Dr Esther was kind-hearted and advised Florence to commence her leave earlier. I had also urged Florence to take leave sooner as it was our first child and I could take her for more frequent checkup at the hospital. But Florence declined and chose to work for another two weeks.
During one evening, nine days before Florence would commence her leave, a young woman rushed into the clinic at half past five in the evening. She looked desperate and frantic.
“Please help,’ she wept, speaking in Chinese. “They are forcing me to abort it. They beat my boyfriend … he’s lying on the street a bus-stop away. Please help me.”
The young woman named Hanna began to weep. In the past two years, she had seen Dr Esther a few times when she was unwell. She became pregnant three months ago and kept it a secret from the gangsters who ran a prostitution ring at Geylang area. “They forced me into prostitution two years ago … my father couldn’t pay them. My father, a gambler, had borrowed from them,” Hanna explained.
Dr Esther and Florence nodded. They tried to calm her.
“They kept beating my father and threatened to disfigure my sisters and me if I didn’t comply. My mother was ill and needed money,” Hanna said. “But my boyfriend and I are truly in love. We don’t want to abort our child. Please help us.’
Dr Esther looked at Florence and said, “Quickly call the police. We need their urgent assistance …” Before she could finish her sentence, two gangsters ran into the clinic, each carrying a dagger.
“Return her to us,” a tall man said. “Don’t call the police. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Dr Esther asked Florence and Hanna to go inside her consultation room. She shouted for help and tried to prevent the two gangsters from reaching Hanna. I had returned home half an hour ago and on hearing the shouts for help, I rushed over to the clinic. When I entered the clinic, one of the gangsters was grabbing and pulling the arms of Hanna while the other was trying to prevent Dr Esther and Florence from reaching her.
“Stop it!” I shouted. “If you don’t stop now, I’ll call the police!”
The gangster who was pushing Dr Esther back brandished his dagger at me. He threatened, “Get lost. If you call the police, you’ll be dead.”
I pretended to walk away and abruptly turned around, grabbed his wrist and twisted it. The dagger fell from his hand and I kicked him hard in the stomach. He squatted down in pain. I punched him on the face and pushed him away. The other gangster released Hanna and rushed towards me with his dagger. I dodged his lurch, but his dagger slashed my left arm.
“Call the police!” I shouted as I turned and picked up a chair, trying to fend off the attacker.
Florence went to the phone at the counter and began to dial the police. Suddenly three figures appeared.
“Big Brother, they are calling the police,” said my attacker.
The leader, known as Bulldog Bendson Wong, walked towards Florence and slapped her. Then he lifted the phone, pulled it away and threw it on to the floor. ‘Fools!’ he yelled. Bulldog Bendson was in his forties, six feet tall, thickset and with broad shoulders. His face was square with huge, red-streaked and half-protruding eyes. His flat nose snorted impatiently like that of a buffalo. Flaps of wrinkles ran down his chin which made him look like a frowning bulldog.
Dr Esther shouted, “Get out of this clinic now or the police will jail all of you!”
Florence moved over to Hanna and tried to protect her.
My attacker grabbed the legs of the chair which I lifted to try to hit him. With the help of another gangster, they pushed me back and pressed me onto the floor. Then they used the chair to trap me under it, one of them sitting on it and the other kicking me many times in the abdomen and thighs.
Bulldog Bendson grabbed the arm of Dr Esther and slapped her twice before he pushed her to the floor. Another gangster went over and pulled Hanna away from Florence. But Florence resisted and refused to let go of Hanna. Bulldog’s face became red with anger. He pulled out a long dagger and slashed the right arm of Florence.
“Thugs!” Florence shouted.
Bulldog became enraged. Seizing the right arm of Florence, he shoved her aside and said, “Jack, give her a kick to show that we meant business!”
One of the gangsters moved toward Florence and kicked her on the leg and the stomach.
“Too soft!” Bulldog shouted. “Harder!”
The gangster moved his right leg backwards and gave a vigorous kick at Florence’s stomach. She shrieked in pain and fell onto the floor. Her lower body began to bleed.
“Was it too hard?” the gangster clenched his teeth and asked.
“Let God decide!” said Bulldog Bendson. “If she died, you go to Thailand for a long holiday.”
“You devils!” I shouted and struggled hard to kick and push aside the chair. The two gangsters lifted the chair and used their daggers to slash me a few times on my arms. Then they grabbed my shoulders and pressed me to the wall while Bulldog Bendson walked over and punched me three times in the stomach. Then he grabbed my hair, pulled my head forward and banged my head hard against the wall many times until the back of my head bled. I became dizzy and fell onto the floor.
I remembered Dr Esther shouting, asking them to stop. But the gangsters pulled and dragged Hanna along and disappeared into the shadows. I crawled towards Florence. She was lying unconscious on the floor which was filled with her blood. Dr Esther rushed to her room and called the police and ambulance. Then she quickly came over and attended to Florence. When the ambulance came, I had lost consciousness.
I woke up the next day at the General Hospital. The nurses said to me softly, “Your son is safely delivered. But your wife has passed away …”
(written in 1975)
… I dream that Florence and I enter the panels of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights … In one corner of the immense garden, we see things falling apart … earthly powers cannot hold them. The Real Centre, already Invisible, sustains us in unseen ways. Maybe for a Greater Good, a Greater Must: a God-is-biting-the-bullet Self-challenge, once and for all? Perhaps we are living in His cosmic past. His Eyes are much bigger than the cosmos, the arising-and-passing-away of galaxies may take only a short while relative to His Huge-beyond-understanding Presence. Perhaps, in the timeless dimension, the Source selects which earthly memories to relive.
At forty-six, I’ve gone through part of life’s cycle: poverty, struggles, wartime anguish, letting go and more to let go … Tonight Florence and I try to glimpse a different sunrise or peek into the abyss that harbors life’s imperfections … Everywhere the news glares at us: ‘crimes and pollutions in crowded cities … disease outbreaks in Asia … hurricanes in America … earthquakes in China … famines in Africa …” I hear the gloating of the Beast.
Perhaps insights from green places in another corner of Bosch’s painting, like the image of a zoo … we find diverse flora and fauna. A precious oasis. The grace of flamingos, the joy of otters and squirrels, the composure of giraffes. They display aspects of living in the Now … but Laws of the Jungle follow us. Witness the after-meat-eating lethargy of lions, tigers and leopards … claws, fangs and venom … they contain hidden stories.
Next, we see crocodiles tearing chicken meat … polar bears enjoying water games, as if toning their hunting muscles … Komodo dragons idling, like suffering from indigestion … baboons fighting for mates … hippos flaunting giant mouths and throats, swimming in murky waters, their eyes popping up to spy on us … armour-clad rhinos chewing their food as if autistic, until we observe their eyes saying, ‘Don’t disturb or taste our fury …’ We appreciate how lucky are time-oblivious sloths, koalas and antelopes … they escape extinction.
I rest under tall trees. A grey cat with bluish eyes clawing its prey catches me by surprise. It is toying with death. Several robins fly over its head. It chases them. Released, the half-dead mouse springs alive and scurries away. Some relief from life’s seriousness.
I sleep under the shade, entering a different world … I become a trespasser to be punished near to Jesus … I see His holy courage, his body wounded. Soon I begin to scream soundless screams … iron spikes are being hammered into my hands and feet, breaking flesh and bones. The tormentors keep hammering, the pain keeps pulsating. I am nailed. No escape. Am I being punished as a trespasser and a truth hunter? I struggle to pray, to seek His forgiveness … I begin to pant heavily and wake up, sweating …
Maybe after timeless harmony in heaven, God decided to bring into existence an imperfect earth. He might have created a peaceful planet. No natural disasters, no human beings, no animals, no Beast allowed … only splendid rivers and hills, only Himself and angels. But He chooses to be with imperfect humans.
Maybe the Greater Good is to actualise faith, love and courage in a mortal world, even when things fall apart. These become the finest treasures in the cosmos. Perhaps someday the Spirit changes us into a different kind of falconer. We hear a new drumbeat and see a gyrfalcon coming from ancient memories. It flies over rivers and forests. We merge with its soul and persist afresh … leaving behind the heartbeats of our little poems in His flesh-and-blood, flames-tears-resurrection Poem …
(written in June 1975)
Ever since that tragic incident that resulted in the death of Florence, the enforcement agencies under the colonial administration carried out more frequent crack downs on underground gambling and prostitution in the Geylang area. Their operations undermined and disrupted the networks of Bendson Wong and his cronies. They went overseas to hide.
In the next few years, Bulldog Bendson would intermittently send gangsters to harass and intimidate Dr Esther and my family. Fortunately my father with the assistance of his comrades could resist them. But since Bulldog Bendson had many local gangsters under his command, my father and I shifted to a flat in East Coast area to avoid them as best as we could. Five years after the tragic incident, the gangsters stopped coming.
In line with the Chinese saying, it is not late to take revenge after ten years. Thus on the tenth year after the incident, I hired a reliable private investigator as recommended by my father’s comrades to find out where Bulldog Bendson was hiding. After five months of quiet searching, the private investigator informed me that he was hiding in Thailand. I discussed with my father. He informed me that his comrades Uncle Peck and Uncle Kong (not their real names) could assist me. Although in their early fifties, they were stout and strong. They were former KMT agents and proficient in martial arts. Together we went to Bangkok. With the assistance of the private investigator, we found that Bendson Wong was living in a private condominium in suburban Bangkok with his mistress. He had two body guards. We went to the condominium, eight storey in height with about two hundred units. In the next one week I observed that Bulldog would take a walk every evening with his mistress along the beach nearby. We waited for an opportunity to strike.
On the ninth day, when the sky was less bright at half past six, we saw Bulldog, his mistress and two bodyguards walking along the beach. Uncle Peck, Uncle Kong and I put on our masks. We waited for our targets at a quiet spot of the beach. When they approached, we made a surprise attack on them using our clubs. We hit and knocked Bulldog and his two bodyguards a few times until they became unconscious. Then I quickly gagged and pulled his mistress to a hidden area behind the bushes while Uncle Peck and Uncle Kong carried the unconscious Bulldog to our van which was parked nearby. Inside the van they tied up his hands and legs, blindfolded and gagged him. Uncle Peck returned to assist me to tie up the hands of the mistress and we blindfolded her, letting her to sit behind the shrubs at that quiet spot of the beach. We hurried back to our van. Uncle Kong sat at the back of the van, guarding the unconscious Bulldog while Uncle Peck and I sat in front.
I took the steering wheel and drove for forty-five minutes to a remote part of a forest in the southern Thailand. Arriving at our destination, we poured cold water to wake up Bulldog and punched him a few times in the stomach. Lying flat on the ground, he writhed, grunted and gave a few muffled shouts. He remained gagged and blindfolded with his hands and legs tightly bound as we hoisted him up a huge tree deep inside the forest, more than forty feet above the ground. Thereafter we left the forest, drove our old van to a secluded spot beside a lake and pushed it into the lake. Then we walked thirty minutes away from the forested area to a main road and travelled to the airport via taxi. We waited at the airport for three hours before we boarded a plane and returned to Singapore.
Before the trip, Uncle Peck and Uncle Kong had suggested to me that we should bury Bulldog alive. My father agreed. Perhaps it was part of their unwritten military code. They said, “We should act on behalf of heaven. Such a criminal should be severely dealt with.” They reasoned that if the police caught Bulldog Bendson, he would ask his gangsters to threaten, intimidate and harm the witnesses. This would bring more harm to Dr Esther and to my family members and friends.
I pondered over it for many days and I decided to let God judge him and decide the kind of punishment appropriate for Bulldog. I decided that we left him blindfolded, gagged and bound up on a tree in the forest and let God or fate decide what would eventually happen to him. We knew that Bulldog had antagonized and harmed many people and he would not be able to identify me as the abductor after ten years. The private investigator that I hired had returned to Singapore earlier and he didn’t know about our plan.
Five years later after we had attacked and abducted Bulldog, I hired a different private investigator to find out what eventually happened to him. In my mind, I suspected that since that region of the forest was remote and inaccessible, it was unlikely that someone could save him in time and it was likely that Bulldog would have starved to death.
One month later the private investigator returned from Thailand and told me a surprising story. He said, ‘Bulldog didn’t die.’
Restraining my shock, I asked, ‘What happened to him?’
‘He’s now a businessman and a philanthropist.’
Surprised, I said, ‘He was formerly a gangster.’
‘Yes, I know something about his criminal past. Five years ago, he was abducted …’
‘I think I heard about that …’ I said.
‘I pored over the old newspapers … they reported that three days after he was abducted, a group of hikers found him tied up high on a tree. When they tried to release him, the strings gave way and Bulldog fell onto the ground, hurting his head.’
‘What happened after that?’ I asked.
‘I found out that when he woke up at the hospital, his personality underwent a drastic change … he became kind-hearted and ceased his illegal activities. In fact, he became a law-abiding businessman selling clothing and he donated his profits to charity.’
(written in 1973)
A Kafkaesque songster …
Let us go then, you and I … Let us go then, you and I … Don’t worry. It’s near dawn. Flint, my double, is fast asleep … He can’t control me now … Usually after the sun has risen above the rim of that low hill behind our frog farm, then he will jump up to overpower me … seize my dreams and desires … He’s an inner doubter, inner critic and accuser, always thundering, ‘You’re not good enough … your artwork’s not good enough … You must sweat more, labor more, bleed more. Squeeze inspirations from your captives!’ A perfectionist, Flint acts like an obsessed hunter for an elixir … I must continue to struggle against his nightmares …
As at now, he’s asleep, trapped inside his swirling nightmares … he’s too busy to disturb us now. We’ve an hour before he awakes … Let us go then, you and I … Let us go then … we continue to chase after Art …
But can we catch up with the lean, beautiful shadows of a half-shamanic, half-clairvoyant Art? She refuses to undress to become our model because she can foresee the end of humankind … Can we learn to paint her shadows without seeing her elusive nature? Maybe we peek into her eyes. They stimulate us under the gleam of moonlight. We draw a pair of eyes on the wings of a giant green-breasted magpie and on the forehead of a preachy Chinese salamander and on the glittering tail of a dolphin … When we paint, sing, play the violin, compose a serenade or etch with a giant needle with orange, yellow and oceanic blue pigments on a cave wall, are we trying to bring something to life? Are we trying to urge an artwork to divulge something about an unknown dimension within us?
Many pairs of eyes look at my incomplete artwork. It’s necessarily incomplete … Do they see different mirrors? When they look closely, do they see a half-smiling Mona Lisa or hear the groans of Saint Paul’s disciple being crucified? When they close their eyes for ten seconds and relook at those half-reticent, half-revealing mirrors, do they sense different time dimensions?
Or do they see a bizarre half-nude embracing a rubbery statue wearing the face of a male Mona Lisa and the female face of Michelangelo? Do they see a purplish heart with bulging veins throbbing furiously? Do they see a bewildering jigsaw puzzle that comes from half-letting go and half-desiring? Do they see a struggling artist training to be a benign shaman? Is he trying to steal a glimpse of what is singing at the bottom of that deathless pond? Is he hatching a plan to slip behind those flaming swords and sabers, to steal a dragon fruit that confers a taste of eternal youth?
Or does the artist see someone inside those mirrors trying to split the Rock of Reality? When the Rock is shattered, he looks more closely and finds more Rocks surfacing and enlarging from the little broken pieces. He trains harder. A decade later he executes a series of strokes to split the Rocks. He begins to despair. He sees more Rocks growing faster and faster from the broken pieces. He throws away his heaven-sent golden axe and picks up a brush made of bamboo stick and the leaves of yacca plants to tickle the Rocks. They smile, relent and disclose a few nuggets of truth. He bows and meditates, becoming a near-artwork when he sees how the Deity is an Artist whose materials are memory waves …
(written in August 1975)
I didn’t see her or hear from her in the past three days. This had never happened before. Something must have happened. Was she trapped somewhere? What was she trying to do? Trying to find and talk to someone who could see her, and trying to get help? But who could see her? A priest? A deity? Or could she be trapped inside a memory window? But that didn’t happen to us before in the past many years.
I need to find her. No, not because she could unearth Inspector Evon’s stories and relay to me. My death had become a small thing. I was afraid that someone mistook her to be a malevolent spirit and trapped her forever.
(written in August 1975)
I drank the medicine wine and went to sleep. Soon I entered a dreamy state. A row of memory windows drifted towards me. I selected one and entered it …
… it was April 1975 … I saw my twenty-three-year-old son, Joseph Yang, a student reading English Literature at the local university … He had short black hair, small brown eyes, a sharp handsome nose and a thin frame at five feet nine. He was on a medium-sized boat about thirty feet in length, standing at the main deck behind a newly painted wheelhouse that contained a rectangular clear view screen. He was under the shadows of the main masthead with a large funnel and prominent antenna. Eight life buoys dangled at the rear of the boat.
Beside Joseph was his twenty-five-year-old girlfriend Alice who was tall and slender at five feet seven with long brown hair, benign eyes, thin lips and bony cheeks. They were travelling towards an island with a lighthouse. It was situated at the western part of Singapore waters. Alice’s father and his crew had obtained permission from the authorities to camp on the island in the past two weeks, producing a documentary on the historical importance of this lighthouse to the passage of ships along the Straits of Malacca. They had completed their filming two days ago and invited Alice, Joseph and their friends to camp on the island.
Joseph and Alice liked the open sea. They loved the warm, salty smell of the sea and the seaweeds. They liked the warmth of sunlight reflected by the foamy green waves. They waved at the sea gulls flying above them and admired the carefree drifting of a school of plankton that floated near the surface of the waters. They whispered a prayer when they saw flamingo clouds that danced leisurely in the horizon.
An employee of Alice’s father, Scott Waud, 58 years old, would guide them. He was at the helm of the boat. A well-built and suntanned Australian, he was a sailor during his younger days.
Alice also invited six friends to come along who were in their twenties. They were (a) electrical engineering student Jeremy Soong who was short, thickset and studious-looking; (b) a tall, sturdy and spectacled fifth-year medical student William Millay; © a tall and bony musician Edgar Roy and his slim, gentle girlfriend Rachel Lindsay who was a piano teacher; (d) a stout and athletic Information Analyst Frederick Chan and his girlfriend Clara Wong who was a slender and well-toned gymnastics teacher. They planned to camp for one night on the island. Using their father’s boat, they started their journey at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon from the west coast of Singapore.
After travelling for two hours, the lighthouse appeared in the distance. The yellowish evening sky was darkening as the rays began to fade. The lighthouse looked stark and austere, but heroic. It looked like a resolute, stalwart soldier determined to fight for his country. It had a bulging forehead with windows where the lenses projected their beams. Its body was elongated and slightly curved towards a broad base. Scott Waud told them that it was more than a hundred years old and exceeded thirty feet in height, built from granite rocks with supporting steel stanchions. In its early days the source of its illumination came from burning coal before it finally used modern strobe light and lenses. Now it had been left unused for many years when modern navigational aids became available. There was a wooden barrack near the lighthouse, previously used by the lighthouse keepers to store their consumables, tools and equipment. Prior to that, the barrack was used by the stonemasons and construction workers when they were building the lighthouse in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Grey clouds dominated the horizon as they approached the island, hiding the sun. They became huge pillars, shielding their view of distant islands near Peninsula Malaysia. The air was becoming cold. The island of Singapore behind them was no longer visible. Soon the waters became dark green. They anchored the boat near the east of the island and lowered two oar boats into the waters, climbed into them and rowed towards the beach.
Joseph looked at his watch. It was 6.15 pm. The rays of dusk were fading behind the grey clouds. The clouds took on different shapes. Some appeared like a bear, another looked like the head of an eagle and another looked like the talons of a dragon. The winds blew them swiftly across the darkening sky.
The lighthouse towered above them as they stepped onto the island. It appeared like a determined warrior gazing at the horizon, proud to be able to withstand numerous gales and storms. The island was the size of four soccer fields with mangroves and coastal trees on the left, the lighthouse on a hill on the right and a beach in the middle. They walked around the island before they pitched seven tents near the centre of the island. Scott Waud tested the door to the lighthouse. It was locked. He tried the door to the barrack which could be opened. They went in and saw old shelves, broken kerosene lamps and coils of ropes. The rain came, together with strong winds. They stayed in the barrack until 7.30 pm when the rain stopped. Then they started a bonfire near the beach. They had brought along packets of chicken meat, ham, bacon, cheese, bread and canned drinks. They cooked and barbecued their foods, played pop music and sang along.
After eating and singing for an hour, Jeremy Soong, the engineering student, squatted on the ground, half-trembling. He waved his left hand and used his right hand to press against his stomach, shouting, “So painful! Please help!”
He rolled on the grass a few times and began to vomit. The medical student William Millay rushed over to look at him.
“What did you eat?” William asked.
Jeremy replied, “The same as all of you …” Then he continued to shout, “Help … it’s very painful … something’s eating my intestines!”
Scott Waud and William supported the arms of Jeremy as they walked to his tent for an examination. Jeremy lied down on the thin mattress. He clenched his teeth and groaned, his hands pressed against his stomach. Soon he began to squirm and curl his body, indicating that his pain had become more intense. William rushed to get his medical box. Then he and Scott Waud stayed inside the tent to attend to Jeremy. They applied ointment and provided medication, hoping to assuage his pain.
“What’s happening to Jeremy?” Alice asked anxiously.
“We all drink and eat the same stuff …” Joseph said. “Does anyone feel discomfort or pain?”
The others looked at Joseph and said that they were alright. While waiting anxiously outside Jeremy’s tent, they could hear his intermittent screams. He kept shouting, “Something’s eating my intestines!”
If Jeremy were suffering from food poisoning, what was the cause and from what type of food? Could he be treated? Did William have the medicine to reduce his pain? Was Jeremy’s condition life-threatening? What was that something biting him inside his stomach? If food poisoning or unseen creatures were causing such agony and pain to Jeremy, could the others be affected soon?
In the next two hours, they waited anxiously and listened to the screams of Jeremy. His yelling and shrieks became irregular, loud and coarse, like a creature whose limbs were pierced and crushed by an iron trap. Then there was silence. Scott Waud pulled down the tent’s zipper. He and William appeared. They shook their heads and said, “Jeremy has died …”
(written in August 1975)
They covered Jeremy’s body with a blanket and let it remained in his tent. Scott Waud pulled up the zipper and asked the others to examine the areas around their tents to discern whether there were any harmful insects or creatures. Switching on their torchlights and battery-powered lamps, they carefully looked around their tents and the surrounding grassy areas. But they didn’t find any venomous insects or creatures.
Scott Waud and William said that they would take turns to keep watch. They asked the others to return to their tents to sleep and to carefully pull up the zippers. They would return to Singapore the next morning.
At around 6.15 am the next day, they heard William shouting, “Jeremy’s body is gone!”
They pulled down the zippers of their tents and rushed over to see William. They looked inside Jeremy’s tent. It was empty. Only the thin mattress, the crumpled blanket and his bag of clothing. All were in a state of shock.
“Who has taken the body?” Alice asked.
“There shouldn’t be anyone on this island, except us …” said Joseph.
Then he looked at the lighthouse whose door was locked.
“Is someone hiding in the lighthouse?” he asked.
Suddenly they heard Scott Waud shouting, “What the hell is happening? Our boat and the oar boats are gone!”
They turned and hurried towards the beach. They saw the wide expanse of the green sea, but could not see any of their boats. They rushed up the slope of the hill towards the lighthouse and they looked frantically around in all direction. The sea gulls and sparkles of the sea greeted them. But there were no boats and no ships in the distance. They were stranded.
“How to get help?” Alice asked Scott.
“Build a fire at the beach. When seen by passing vessels, they’ll come to find us,” Scott said.
They gathered branches from the coastal trees and found a safe spot to build a medium-sized fire at the beach. Every few hours Scott and Edgar would feed it with branches to sustain the fire.
In his mind, Joseph wondered: since the boat was properly anchored and they had seen it after the rain last night, and there was no subsequent rain, what could have happened to their boats? Also the two oar boats were properly tied to two trees. Who untied them and took them away? Could someone or malevolent forces be hiding inside the lighthouse? If positive, did they cause the death of Jeremy and steal his body? Were they trying to send a message to the visitors, urging them to leave the island?
(written in August 1975)
There were no other islands nearby that they could swim to and mainland Singapore was more than 2 hours away. They would need to wait for other ships or boats to rescue them. They walked towards the lighthouse, but could not open its heavy wooden door. It remained locked. As there was no window at the base of the lighthouse, they could not look inside. They walked away and returned to their tents.
When they were preparing breakfast, Frederick Chan, the information analyst, suddenly shouted and began to jump up and down. Then he flung his arms to and fro and began to dance. He seemed to be possessed by some malevolent spirit.
Scott Waud, William and Edgar tried to catch the arms of Frederick Chan and calm him down. But he broke loose and they chased him around the island. Eventually they grabbed his arms and managed to restrain him and lead him back to their tents. When he calmed down, Frederick sat on the grass. He stretched and straightened his legs like a robotic being and lied down, motionless. Then five minutes later, he sat up straight and crouched like a tiger.
William waved his hands before him and asked, “Frederick, are you alright? Can you recognize us?”
Frederick didn’t reply. He didn’t look at William or his friends. His head remained drooping as he crouched on the grassy ground. For the next five minutes, he breathed heavily. Suddenly he sprang up and before any of his friends could hold him, he broke free. He dashed towards the hill. Reaching the top of the hill, he laughed and then he jumped into the sea.
His friends hurried to the top of the hill and they looked into the waters. The waves were green and calm. But they could not see his body. They ran to the beach and looked around. Then they walked around the island, but they could not see Frederick. He was gone …
(written in August 1975)
Later in the afternoon, Frederick’s girlfriend Clara Wong informed Scott Waud and William that she had breathing difficulty. She sensed that her pulse was racing as if she were having a heart attack. William accompanied her inside the tent and calmed her. Rachel also went inside to keep her company. William gave her medication to lessen her palpitation.
The other friends waited apprehensively outside the tent. They heard the intermittent screams of Clara. She was shouting, “My chest and stomach are very painful! Something’s inside me … eating my organs!”
An hour later, there was silence. William pulled down the zipper. He and Rachel appeared, their eyes red with tears. Clara had died.
Scott Waud and William decided to let Clara’s body remain inside her tent and they pulled up the zipper. They suggested that they took turns to keep watch, in case there were mysterious insects or creatures lurking around that caused the death of Clara. Once again they carefully checked and examined the areas around their tents, but they could not detect any venomous insects or creatures.
When night came, they took turns to keep watch. Joseph woke up at 5 am in the morning to keep watch. He held a metallic skewer as weapon in case he needed it. He suspected that there might be someone or some malevolent creatures hiding inside the lighthouse.
It was peaceful during his watch. At 6.30 am, Scott Waud and William woke up. After washing, they walked towards the tent where they kept the body of Clara Wong. They unzipped it and to their shock, the body of Clara was gone. Those who kept watch emphasized that they did not see anyone or any creature approaching Clara’s tent and removing her body. They also did not see anyone or anything coming out of the lighthouse or the barrack. They went inside the barrack, but couldn’t find Clara’s body.
Scott Waud, William, Edgar, Joseph, Alice and Rachel decided to stay close together after breakfast. Their consensus was that there might be someone or some malevolent forces in the lighthouse.
When night came, they stayed close together and took turns to keep watch, each holding a skewer as weapon. The next morning, to their surprise, Rachel was gone. They walked around the island and found her dead body under the coastal trees. Her face was smudged and there were three holes on her forehead, as if drilled by an equipment. Joseph and Alice walked away as Scott Waud, William and Edgar examined the body and then covered it with branches near to the trees.
“If the holes on Rachel’s forehead were caused by an equipment, it would be inflicted by a human or some malevolent creature,” Joseph reasoned. He did not discuss it with Alice, so as not to alarm her.
The day passed and no vessel came to rescue them.
Night came and they took turns to keep watch outside their tents.
In the middle of the night, Edgar said that he needed to relieve himself. William followed him. Soon William rushed back to the tents and shouted, “Shadows! Shadows everywhere … we’re attacked by shadows!”
Scott Waud, Joseph and Alice came out of their tents, arming themselves with skewers. Then they followed William in the direction of the coastal trees. Rachel’s body which was placed near the trees had disappeared. They saw Edgar hung on a tree with a rope. With the help of Scott Waud, William climbed the tree and they slowly carried Edgar’s body down and placed him on the ground. William tried to resuscitate him, but to no avail. They asked Alice and Joseph to return to the tents while they used branches to cover Edgar’s body.
Joseph decided to examine Edgar’s body, trying to ascertain the cause of his death. Maybe it was not suicide. Perhaps someone might have killed Edgar and then hung him up on the tree.
When Joseph approached the body of Edgar, saying that he would like to examine it, suddenly William screamed and shouted. He pushed Joseph several times, as if he were possessed by some malevolent forces. Then he brandished his skewer and shouted, “Go back to your tent or I’ll kill you!”
Scott Waud grabbed the arms of Joseph and Alice and they quickly ran back to their tents. Scott shouted, “William has gone mad!”
When they reached their tents, they stayed close together. They discussed and planned how to defend themselves and capture William if he turned up to attack them. They waited for more than an hour. But William did not appear.
(written in August 1975)
The night came and the bonfire outside their tents created many dancing shadows as the winds grew strong. Scott Waud, Joseph and Alice waited, preparing to capture William or fight with the shadows that William had alerted.
Soon they saw eight hooded figures walking towards them from the beach. They were carrying clubs and medium-sized chain saws.
Scott Waud and Joseph shouted, “Who are you? What do you want?”
“We are guardians of this island!’ one of the hooded figures shouted.
Three of them approached Scott Waud who waved his metallic skewer furiously, trying to defend himself. But the attackers seemed to have psychic powers. They pointed their fingers at Waud and shouted, “Freeze!” Scott Waud became stiff and fell onto the ground. They bent down and tied him.
“I’m not going to surrender!” Joseph shouted and he waved his skewer at the remaining five hooded figures who encircled him.
“We will let you go if you give Alice to us,” a hooded figure said.
“No! … Never!’ Joseph shouted.
The hooded figures pointed in the direction of the beach and said, “We have brought back your boats. You’re free to go. But Alice must stay.”
“Run, Joseph! I will stay!” Alice shouted as two hooded figures approached her and grabbed her arms.
“Let Alice go!” Joseph shouted and he rushed towards the two hooded figures who had seized Alice. The two attackers stepped back when Joseph waved his skewer menacingly at them.
“Stop, Joseph! We will let you go … Take up the offer. Give Alice to us. You are free to go! The boats are at the beach!” the hooded figures shouted.
“No, I need to bring Alice along!” Joseph shouted.
“In that case, you stay behind … we will let Alice go. But we will saw you into pieces! Think carefully before you decide.”
Joseph thought for a while and then said, “You must keep your promise to let Alice go. You must also release Scott Waud to accompany Alice back to Singapore. If you agree, I’ll stay behind.’
One of the hooded figures said coarsely, “Think carefully, Joseph. We will saw you into pieces.”
Joseph replied, “Yes, I’ll die in place of Alice. If you let them go, I will stay.”
“Is that your final decision? If yes, we will tie you up now. Then we will release Alice and Scott …’
Joseph said, “Yes, that’s my final decision. Let go of Alice and Scott Waud and let them return to Singapore safely.’
Two hooded figures approached Joseph, grabbed his arms and tied his hands at his back. Alice screamed and cried, restrained by two hooded figures.
“Alice, please go and don’t come back,” Joseph said.
“No, don’t hurt Joseph! Let him go!” shouted Alice.
The two hooded figures pushed and pressed Joseph to the ground. Another two hooded figures lifted their chain saws and prepared to cut his limbs. Joseph could hear the rotating roar of the chain saws above his head. He clenched his teeth, closed his eyes and prayed.
Then the roar of the chain saws stopped. The four hooded figures broke into a peal of laughter. They untied Joseph and released him. One of them took away his hood and Edgar’s face appeared, smiling at him.
“I thought you hang yourself?” Joseph asked as he stood up and walked briskly towards Alice who was released by another two hooded figures. Joseph embraced and kissed her.
Edgar replied, “Yes, I did hang myself on the tree, but my arms were also supported by invisible strings … used by movie actors.”
“Movie actors?” asked Joseph. He looked around as the other attackers took away their hoods, revealing the smiling faces of William, Frederick, Jeremy, Alice’s father and his employees.
“Father, how could you frighten us? I thought they’re going to harm Joseph …” Alice said as she embraced her father.
Alice’s father, tall and stout, said, “I have no choice, my child. I don’t want my daughter to be deceived. Human hearts are dark and hard to predict. There’re so many fraudsters … but Joseph passed the test.”
“Frederick, are you alright?” Joseph asked. “I recalled you jumped into the sea.’
Frederick explained, “The jump is less than thirty feet. I used to dive from a higher platform. The boats are inside a cave. They’re on standby to pick me up.’
‘I can’t see the cave …’ Joseph said.
‘Its mouth is covered by styrofoam and boards pasted together and painted in grey to appear like rocks.’
‘Is it spacious?’ Joseph asked.
‘Can take in a few boats … will bring you there tomorrow,’ said Frederick.
“A movie directed by Alice’s father,” Joseph exclaimed. “Your acting skills are outstanding … only Alice and I are in the dark.”
‘And I never taught you how to create an effective smoke signal,’ Scott smiled as he pointed to the fading fire at the beach.
They laughed and began to prepare food and drinks. Scott and Frederick went to the beach and waved at Rachel, Clara and other crew who were hiding in the medium-sized boat. They shouted, “The trial is over! Join us for dinner!”
After dinner, Joseph and Alice walked along the beach and gazed at the night sky. Grey clouds concealed the moon, but there was a group of glittering stars in one corner.
Alice said, “Joseph, I need to talk you. Please come to my tent.”
They went inside the tent and pulled up the zipper. Under the brightness of the lamp, Alice began to undress.
Shocked, Joseph asked, “What are you doing?”
Alice took off her coat, her T-shirt and then removed her padded bra. Joseph stared blankly at her. Instead of seeing her breasts, he saw two surgical marks. Alice’s breasts had been excised.
“I suffered from breast cancer three years ago and need to undergo mastectomy. I’m twenty six this year with no recurrence. But there’s no guarantee. It might come back. I’ve known you for nearly a year. Wanted to tell you a few months later, but since you were willing to sacrifice for me just now, I should be frank with you …” Alice said, her head drooping. “It’s alright if you turned me down.”
Joseph looked at her. Then he helped her to put on her clothing.
“I will always love you. I believe what my grandfather and father told me. External events cannot harm our soul. Nothing can separate us from the love of God …”
… I finished narrating and Flint looked at me. He stood up and said, “I hate movie actors. I hate people who trick others. But I like the last part where Joseph affirms his fidelity … Give you 3 stars. You have earned a total of 9 stars … 3 more to go …’
(written in 1973)
A Kafkaesque songster …
At midnight, a poem, homeless,
begins brooding … walks into a London fog,
watching a grey train chugging along a grey track.
Someone cuts the train of negative chugging –
I see Helen Keller lighting up
word-candles and poem-lanterns
in her fogless but darker world.
The starlight circling the street lamps whispers,
‘The world misunderstands me.
Perhaps it matters little …
only the starlight can talk to me.’
Are we glowing inside a nuptial triptych now?
(written in August 1975)
‘What do you have for me today?’ Flint asked. ‘Surprisingly you’re near to getting all the twelve stars … but your windpipe can be squeezed anytime … if you fail once …’
I looked at Flint’s grey face, half-twisted and wearing dark glasses.
‘I would like to talk about a dreamscape,’ I said. ‘A few dreamscapes … very real experiences … I had those dreams in the past few days.’
‘Dreams?’ he frowned. ‘Doubtful they can stimulate me … but if you want to take the risk, I won’t stop you. You decide whether another part of your ears will be snipped off.’
He gave a half-smile and sat back on his rattan chair, facing me in the half-lit room. It was near ten pm. Faint moonlight drafted into the room through small gaps in the planks nailed across the window. I could hear the twitter of crickets and the haunting silence of the night. Taking a deep breath, I began …
… I seemed to be roaming inside a dreamscape or a memoryscape … I was roaming together with sculptor-poet David Maestri … or could Dreams be sculpting us out of a time warp that contained echoes of an electric drum? The rhythm kept thudding … knocking against the eardrums of my neurons. We were drifting inside a dark tunnel …
I recall that David’s face was taut and solemn. He knitted his thick eye-brows and gritted his teeth. His quietness made the gritting of his teeth audible. He was trying hard not to think. He didn’t want my awareness and my voice, trapped inside him, to eavesdrop on his thoughts.
Why did I dream that my awareness and my voice were trapped in David’s body? … perhaps I would find out in due course … At this stage of our journey through different time zones, we focused on our survival.
Inside the dreamscape I saw David moving slowly through empty space and stretching his arms to reach the rim of the portal. It was the access portal of a time womb. The rim was silvery, plasma-like and rectangular with a length exceeding ten feet and a breadth of about four feet. Its ledge-like rim felt like half-melting wax. When David pressed on it to hoist himself upward and straddle over it, his fingerprints and the shapes of his elbows were imprinted on it for a few moments before they vanished.
He sat unsteadily on the rim. To maintain his balance, he hunched forward as if riding a horse. The rim sagged and created a U-shaped smile. The he straightened his neck, moved his body marginally outside the portal and pretended to look in various directions.
Strong winds blew across his square face and jaw. Taking a deep breath, he balanced himself with both arms and stood up abruptly before my voice could warn him. He knew I had short-sightedness and I couldn’t see distant objects.
Taking advantage of my visual weakness, he quickly straightened and tilted himself forward on the rim of the portal. Then he let his body weight to pull him forward and downward. He knew that the gravity outside the portal would cause him to plunge into the deep and that my awareness couldn’t stop him from plunging even if I wanted to.
As David fell through the empty space, he curved his body playfully as if aspiring to be a professional diver plunging into the sea from a two-thousand-feet cliff. Then he spread out his limbs, as if enjoying the headlong dive.
I shouted into his eardrums, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Try to swallow death!’ he yelled.
‘You can’t challenge gravity!’ I shouted.
‘You can’t win!’ I shouted.
‘I must … to get a breakthrough!’ David yelled. ‘Grab your satori now … master the grace of suicide!’
‘You mustn’t die!’ I yelled as I felt strong winds hitting David’s face. ‘You haven’t finished your second masterpiece!’
‘Let the Heavenly Kings decide …’ he shouted.
‘Not sure if anything can save us!’ I yelled as he continued to plunge into the deep. Strong air currents hit him. He grimaced and smiled with fear flashing across his dark pupils when he realized that he might soon be smashed into pieces if he hit anything solid further down.
Chasing away that grim thought, David looked at the fast-moving scenes around him -- the pale blue sky, the spots of orange iridescence on the far right of the sky, the yellowish-pink horizon on his right and the greyish walls of a cliff on his left. The grey yellow dimness flew past us like rapidly changing scenes shown across a vast amphitheatre. Strong air currents impacted his limbs and body as he dropped rapidly.
We continued to fall through the haze for another ten seconds. Suddenly a huge green mass loomed below us. Something stumpy, contorted and sharp pierced into David’s weatherproof hiking jacket and hooked him. His body jolted violently. Then his body swung up and down as he dangled on a huge branch that jutted from the wall of the cliff, his limbs sprayed apart as he suspended in the air. We had plunged for more than five hundred feet.
After catching his breath, he held onto the thick branch, heaved himself upward and sat on it. ‘Looks like I won’t be pulverized today,’ David said. ‘Your Memory Windows theory seems correct. The Element of Chance can kill us or save us.’
‘Why did you do that?’ I asked.
‘We have exited and returned to those portals for more than ten times,’ David muttered. ‘And we’re nowhere near to our time zone … I hate that sense of struggling to be born, like being stuck in a breech pregnancy, lost and hopeless.’
‘But you shouldn’t forget … you mustn’t die. You must complete your next artwork.’
‘I didn’t forget,’ David said. ‘Otherwise I would have put a bullet through my head days ago … Maybe I’m testing whether my artistic God still treasures me.’
‘I must return to 1975 or early 1976 to save my son,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry, he won’t die.’ David grimaced and leaned against the wall of the cliff. ‘He’ll outsmart the kidnappers.’
‘He’ll be maimed by them,’ I said.
David ignored me and looked around. ‘We should be worrying how to get back to the portal … not about your son.’
‘How do you climb back to the portal?’ I asked. ‘It’s far above us now.’
‘It’ll fade away soon.’
‘This can’t be the correct time zone.’
‘The air smells strange,’ I said.
‘A semi-active volcano nearby?’
‘We could be in prehistoric times.’
‘Everything appears grey, pale pink and coated with a yellowish powder,’ David said. ‘Looks like sulphur, but not pungent. A kind of pigment.’
He looked up and gazed at the cliffs and the terrain opposite to us. He saw rough, barren terrain and sand dunes, almost like a desert. A near-crimson sun was setting in the grey horizon on the west and a half-crescent moon appeared on his right.
‘I believe we’re on earth, but I couldn’t see any humans or living things,’ he said.
‘Hope we can return to the portal, but it’ll fade away soon.’
‘Perhaps my artistic God brings us to this place.’
‘We’ve been spinning inside that time womb for a long time. Perhaps we should find a different time womb that could funnel us back to 1975 or early 1976.’
‘Hope we don’t get stranded here,’ I said. ‘Your biscuits and drink are running out.’
David sat up on the huge branch and said, ‘Hope Sphinx’s device is working well. We’re breathing in the fine powders.’
‘I thought you tested it just now before you jumped?’
‘I forgot,’ David said. He took out the device kept inside the right pocket of his brown pant. It was twice the size of his palm. He switched it on and swayed it in the air. After a while the screen on the device showed that the air and the powdery stuff were not toxic. The air composition and the atmospheric pressure were within normal range. The multi-functional device was given to him by Sphinx, a high-tech robot during an encounter in a different time-zone.
‘Need to act fast,’ David muttered. He untied and uncoiled a rope attached to his belt. The end of the rope was fixed with a hook with four metallic claws that looked like the talons of an eagle.
‘Did you notice something?’ I asked. ‘For more than ten times you’ve been using Sphinx’s device to verify the atmospheric condition and pressure outside different portals. Till now it didn’t detect anything harmful. Instead the conditions were quite similar to earth.’
‘It’s puzzling,’ David said. ‘If we were on exotic planets, their atmospheric conditions and pressure would snuff me out. I would need super-durable astronaut helmet and pressure suit.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘To prevent asphyxiation or the rupturing of your veins. To protect your eyes from radioactive rays or prevent poisoning by toxic gases.’
‘Looks like we’ve been journeying in different time zones on earth.’
‘Maybe journeying in the same place on earth.’
‘Same place? … a four-dimensional digital nexus or a computerized zone?’
‘Perhaps,’ I said.
‘Who created it?’
‘Maybe by someone on earth?’
‘Or trapped inside a time warp in that mountain cave at Naples. We first got sucked into a time womb in that cave.’
‘Is there anything familiar in the landscape surrounding us?’ I asked.
David strained his eyes and looked around for a full minute. Then he said, ‘I see it now … across the abyss. A tall dark tower at the far end of a plateau. Can only see it when the haze thins.’
‘A dark tower? …’ I mused. ‘Perhaps we’re trapped inside Bosch’s painting.’
(written in August 1975)
Leaning against the grey wall of the cliff and straddling the thick branch that jutted out from the cliff, David untied and uncoiled a nylon static rope from his belt. He checked the metallic hook with four claws tied to the end of the rope. Gazing upwards, he identified a stodgy tree branch about thirty feet above him on the left.
David straightened his back to flex his arm muscles and swung the rope many times. Then he forcefully hurled it towards the branch. The hook and rope twined around it and he pulled. The rope slackened and untwined as the hook did not grip the branch. He repeated the hurling a few times before the hook tightened around the branch. He pulled the rope forcefully to ensure that it could hold his weight. Then he took a deep breath and let go. His body swayed to the left as he dangled in mid-air. Quickly he climbed up the rope. He tried to act fast before the time womb more than two hundred feet above him vanished.
A few minutes passed before he climbed onto the branch. He rested for a while and spotted another sturdy branch forty feet above him on the right. He extricated the hook and straddling on the branch, he swung the hook and rope forcefully towards his target. After a few attempts, the hook gripped securely. He held onto the rope, swung his body to the right and began to climb up the rope.
Minutes later he reached the branch and straddled on it. He gazed around carefully and he couldn’t spot any nearby branches above him. He took out a steel hammer and turned around. He rubbed his left palm against the wall of the cliff and began to look for a crack or seam to secure his pitons that were attached with rings, carabiners and climbing cords. They would act as anchors to protect him if he were to slip and fall. Slowly he made his way up, knocking and securing the pitons as he went upward.
David took more than an hour to reach the spot where he had earlier leaped from the portal of a time womb. The portal had long vanished. It usually lasted for about thirty minutes. He resumed his slow ascent and took another forty-five minutes to reach the top. Exhausted, he climbed onto the sandy terrain at the top of the cliff and walked for a hundred feet before he lied down to rest. The sun had set an hour ago. The sky had turned grey under the pale moonlight. He needed to find another access to a time womb with the device given to him by Sphinx.
After resting for half an hour, David sat up and surveyed the terrain. It looked like a plateau with clusters of trees and shrubs scattered in different spots. Further ahead on the left, the grey, yellowish terrain looked like a desert with sand dunes and mounds. From afar, some of the sand dunes looked like the fur of foxes rubbed the wrong way.
David relooked at the device given by Sphinx. It showed that the atmospheric composition and pressure were similar to earth, with no toxic gases or substances in the air. He said, ‘Maybe we’re inside a dreamscape painted by Bosch.’
‘Hidden somewhere inside his well-known triptych,’ I replied.
David gave a half-smile and said, ‘As long as we’re not inside the third panel, it’s alright for me. Don’t mind meeting the dancing nudes, but not purgatory creatures or deities who will toss me into a boiling cauldron.’
‘There’s no beeping from the device,’ I said. ‘Hope it will come soon.’
‘Where can we rest for the night?’ David muttered.
He walked towards a cluster of trees. Unsure whether there were predators nearby, he climbed up a tree that looked like an ancient bristlecone pine and ensconced himself at the shoulder of its stout branch fifteen feet above the ground. He drank from his metallic water bottle and ate his biscuits before he took a sip from a small gourd. It was slung around his chest and it contained the Yunnan medicine wine.
Using a nylon cord, he tied his waist to the trunk to prevent himself from falling, in case he fell into a deep sleep. Gentle breezes blew across his face and he buttoned up his weatherproof jacket and tried to sleep by folding his arms, straddling on the stout branch and leaning against the trunk.
Two hours later he was awakened by tweeting that seemed to come from the ground. The tweeting grew louder. He seemed to be surrounded by the rattling, piercing sound, like jaws with sharp teeth grinding. The ground below him seemed to move. He looked more closely. Shadowy creatures were burrowing out from the sea of sands. He sat up and untied the rope that attached him to the trunk and fixed his gaze on the ground. Soon he saw legs. Many pairs of spidery legs filled with bristles and hooks. Then he saw pincers and gleaming tails with stings. They appeared from the ground. Many dozens of them.
‘Looks like purgatory is catching up!’ David shouted.
‘What are those creatures?’ I asked as I could not see clearly under the pale moonlight and the surrounding haze.
‘Giant scorpions! They look prehistoric.’
‘How big?’ I asked.
‘Plus the tail, at least two feet in length. Each has two large pincers, three pairs of legs, black segmented armor on its back and a bluish sting.’
‘Pulmonoscorpius … a kind of giant, extinct scorpion,’ I said.
‘Hate to be stranded in ancient times.’
‘They’ve powerful neurotoxins.’
‘To paralyze their prey?’ David asked.
‘Yes, to tranquilize their prey and eat them alive.’
‘This gives me the licence to kill,’ David muttered and gritted his teeth.
‘Are they climbing up?’ I asked.
‘A few are coming!’
David withdrew his pistol using his right hand, checked the bullets and took aim. He targeted at their thoraxes and opened fire. His left palm ran through the cartridges attached to his belt to check that he could readily retrieve the bullets and load them. He shot at each ancient scorpion two or three times. Greenish blood spluttered as their armors were split by the bullets.
‘Smash fourteen of them! But more are coming. Converging towards us!’ David yelled.
‘They hate fire,’ I said. ‘Can you cut down a thin branch and burn it. Use the fire to keep them at a distance. Then run to a safer place.’
David flashed out his army knife and grabbed a thin branch above him. He hastily twisted and cut it. Then he used a lighter to burn the clumps of dry leaves. He waved and swayed the burning branch. The prehistoric scorpions sensed the fire and moved away from the trunk.
Suddenly the device inside the side pocket of his army pant started to blink and beep. The beeping grew louder, indicating that it detected the presence of a time womb. David retrieved it with his left hand and looked at its screen while his right hand continued to wave the burning branch.
‘Where’s the portal?’ I asked.
‘In the west … north-west.’
‘About three kilometers away.’
‘Shall we make a dash?’
‘Yes,’ David muttered. He placed the device back into the side pocket of his army pant. Then he threw the burning branch onto the ground near to the trunk. He gazed upward and grabbed another thin branch. He cut and break it swiftly and lighted its clumps of leaves. The ancient scorpions had retreated from the trunk due to the light and heat from the branch burning on the ground. Without delay, David climbed down the tree.
Swaying the second burning branch with his right hand, David took out the device from his side pocket with the other hand and ran in the direction indicated on its screen. As he ran, he continued to brandish and sway the burning branch, seeking to frighten the scorpions away. It worked. The nocturnal predators sensed the light and heat and most of them retreated.
A group of them refused to budge. Tweeting loudly, they formed a cluster. They tried to impede David’s advance and to close in and cling onto his legs with their pincers. Observing their aggressive, ready-to-spring posture, David bent and swerved the burning branch at their eyes, hoping to dissuade them from attacking him. When they stood their ground, their greenish eyes gleaming with belligerence and savage fierceness, he stepped forward to knock and thrust at their faces with the burning branch, seeking to scorch them. When they didn’t budge, he squat down and shot at their heads and thoraxes. Their armored bodies cracked and splattered, throwing out greenish blood. Soon they curled up and became motionless. David swiftly leaped over their carcasses and continued to run towards the northwest.
After running for more than twenty minutes and all the leaves on the branch had almost burnt away, David reached the end of the terrain. Panting, he stared frantically at the abyss in front of him, his leathery boots kicking up clumps of dust and yellowish powder at the edge of the cliff. It was hazy. The time womb should be below, but he could not see it.
He rechecked the device clutched by his left hand to ascertain the possible location of the portal. The tweeting sound was approaching and becoming louder. He turned and saw dozens of predators closing in. He aimed and fired at them. But there were too many. With no fire to deter them, they would soon be rushing to assault him.
David turned and squat down. Squinting and gazing into the empty space below, he saw a looming dark shape about fifty feet below. Without delay he inserted the device into the pocket of his pant and placed the pistol inside the holder at his belt. Then he crouched and lowered his body at the edge of the cliff and started to descend. He moved down as quickly as he could, his fingers scratching the craggy surface of the cliff and sometimes cut by sharp rocks. He clutched and gripped onto cracks and jutting pieces, trying his best to maintain balance and avoid plunging into the abyss.
Suddenly a dark, spidery object fell onto his back and dangled clumsily below his right shoulder. Its pincers clung to his shirt and its sting hovered menacingly behind him. David gritted his teeth and tried to free his right hand to withdraw his pistol. But too late. The long black tail of the ancient predator quivered. Then it thrust forward with near-lightning speed, stinging his right arm.
David yelled in pain, slipped and fell. Plunging into the deep, he tried to open his eyes and looked out for the branch jutting out from the wall of the cliff. Soon he saw the mass coming. He clenched his teeth and stretched out his left arm and grabbed the thick branch. He and the giant scorpion jolted and dangled on the branch. He could sense his right arm swelling and becoming numb. The numbness began to radiate and spread to his neck and chest. Ignoring the numbness and the dizziness, he looked around desperately.
‘I see it now … the swirling portal,’ he muttered.
Without hesitation, he swung his body to the right a few times and then he dived towards the portal about forty feet below him. He knew that this would be his last chance. The neurotoxins was beginning to paralyze him. He needed to act fast and get inside the portal, hoping that the spinning of the time womb would disorientate the predator and extricate it from his body before it decided to sting him a second time.
As David hurtled through the empty space, he could feel the ancient scorpion tightening its claws on his shirt. Its body length excluding the sting was about one feet while its long tail exceeded one feet. He strained his muscles and stretched his left arm to catch and grab the rim of the portal. Then he heaved himself sideways and climbed into the portal. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes as he dropped into the portal, letting fate decide what would happen to him …
(written in August 1975)
The numbness spread across his chest and reached his left shoulder. As he drifted inside the time womb, he closed his eyes, unsure whether the ancient scorpion would sting him a second time … Then he felt strong currents blowing towards his face and body. He was being sucked into a dark tunnel and the spinning began. His body rotated more and more quickly. The predator clung to his short and both of them spun rapidly. Surprisingly the scorpion did not sting him a second time, as if it were disoriented and not in the mood to attack him and bite his flesh.
They rotated for a long while. The numbness had spread to his neck, shoulders and chest. Then the spinning slowed down and David opened his eyes. He saw a gleaming portal ahead. He managed to stretch out his left arm as he drifted towards it. He grabbed the rim of the portal and pulled himself towards it. The rim was silvery and half-watery. He heard strange noises outside. He thrust his head and the upper part of his body outside, and closed his eyes, resting on the portal. Warm sunlight greeted him. The predator reluctantly moved down his body and clung to his pant as it tried to avoid the sunlight.
David felt two pairs of hands pulling and dragging him out from the portal. Then they lifted him and placed him on the soft grass. Someone turned his body sideway, revealing the scorpion clinging to his army pant. Then he heard hissing sound as strong flashes of light wavered across him. The tail of the predator was severed by the laser beams. The force of the beams flung it away. Then there were more flashes of laser beams. The pincers of the predator were severed.
Then two pairs of hands lifted him and they unbuttoned and removed his shirt, so that they could extricate him from the scorpion that was clinging onto his shirt with three pairs of legs. After his shirt was removed, David was dragged away to a safe spot under a tree. Then he sensed more flashes of beams as they killed the scorpion.
Under the shade of a tall tree, David opened his eyes and saw the faces of humans. Then he drifted into unconsciousness as the numbness spread across his chest and the lower portion of his body. He heard hoarse, frantic voices as if they were discussing how to neutralize the toxins in his body …
David woke up two hours later in the large room of a rectangular wooden house with many beds. It looked like makeshift hospital with equipment for monitoring heartbeat and blood pressure, with cabinets at the side that contained first-aid boxes and bottles of antiseptic liquid and other types of medication. His bed was near the window and he was under drip.
‘Who are you?’ a voice asked.
David opened his eyes and saw more than a dozen pygmies surrounding him, carrying silvery rifles that looked like laser guns.
‘My name is David Maestri …’
‘Where do you come from?’ an elderly pygmy about four feet tall asked.
‘I was sucked into a time womb and transported here …’
‘From which time period …’ the elderly pygmy asked.
‘From the year 1976, planet earth,’ David replied.
Five of the elderly pygmies huddled together and discussed. After a long while they said, ‘This is planet earth … but we are now in the year 2128 …’
David sat up, shocked. More than 150 years in the future …
The elderly pygmy continued, ‘A few of us were hunting near the forest and they spotted that time womb. At first we thought enemies might be coming. Our guards were promptly activated to stand by with laser guns and weapons … They waited for about twenty minutes and we saw you struggling to climb out … we pulled you out together with that prehistoric scorpion … ’
David thanked them.
‘We have injected anti-toxin into your body two hours ago … you should be fine now.’
David stayed in bed for two more days. During that time he was guarded by four stout pygmies about four and a half feet tall, broad shoulders and with square chins, small eyes, ruddy faces, broad foreheads and dark bushy hair.
The guards explained to him that their ancestors were clones created for the purpose of having their organs harvested. They were imprisoned by their creators -- a group of rich, powerful humans who sought to lengthen their lives by harvesting the organs of clones. Their ancestors decided to rebel and they stole the weapons of the creators and fought back. Some of their ancestors managed to escape more than fifty years ago and fled to an uninhabited, unknown island in the south of the Pacific. Their ancestors slowly built a community based on the computers, laser guns and weapons which they took along with them in a submarine when they fled to this island. They had marriages and now they had more than a thousand clones on the island. With the computers, they taught themselves and learnt much about the knowledge and technology of their creators which they selectively applied to build a wholesome community on the island.
They told David that sometimes while hunting, they spotted time womb inside the forest. Usually it would stay for about thirty minutes and then faded away. David showed them the time womb detection device and said that he would like to return to 1976. He was allowed to stay in a small cottage near to the forest, so as to enable him to reach the time womb faster if it appeared.
David stayed in the ‘hospital’ for the next three days. He noticed that six guards with laser guns took turns to keep him under surveillance. Then on the evening of the third day, they handcuffed him from behind and escorted him at gunpoint to a cottage near the brink of the village. Inside three elderly pygmies were waiting from him, sitting behind a long desk in a well-lit room. Facing them was a huge computer screen and a few wireless key boards.
‘You must understand … we cannot trust an outsider or any outsider,’ said one of the elders.
David looked at them and nodded. ‘I’m from 1976 … I don’t belong to this era. I came from a time womb, a time warp and have no idea where I was heading …’
‘Like any outsider, which is very rare in the past fifty years, the law of this village is that he or she must go through a lie detector test …’
David nodded. ‘How do I proceed?’
‘This computer is called Sophia. She will ask you a question or more questions if required to ascertain your level of honesty and reliability.’
‘If I passed the test … I can wait for the time womb to appear and leave this place?’ David asked.
The elders nodded.
‘But if you failed, we will need to brainwash you …’
‘Brainwash me? What does that mean?’ David asked.
‘We will inject agents into your brain to ensure you are compliant to the rules of this village.’
David remained quiet. He knew this meant that they would dull his brain cells and enslave his mind.
The six guards lurched forward and grabbed David’s arms and body. Then they pushed him onto a chair and chained his legs and waist to the steel chair which was nailed to the floor. They released his handcuff so that he could type onto the keyboard when Sophia asked question.
‘You don’t have a choice,’ the elder said. ‘Equal treatment for outsiders. We cannot run the risk of having an infiltrator.’
The elders asked the AI robot to begin and Sophia asked, ‘Which categories do you prefer …’
The large computer screen staring at David showed the words, ‘History … Literature … Economics … Physics … Chemistry … Biology … Mathematics … Aesthetics … Metaphysics …’
After thinking for a long while, David said, ‘ … Metaphysics.’
‘Give me twenty-two possible answers or insights on ‘Why does the visible world exist?’ Sophia said.
For the next twenty minutes David discussed with me. Then slowly he began typing the followings onto the keyboard …
(1) When depressing events hit me and I plunged into despair, I wonder whether the visible world is an accident … an accident arising from chemical reactions inside a gigantic Flask in a supernatural laboratory … Inside that laboratory an enigmatic species of beings are honing their creative powers …
(2) Sometimes I wonder whether the visible world is made of dream waves. Are they coming from and oscillating inside the Brain of a Super-computer that is learning to meditate? …
(3) Does the visible world come from the psychedelic experiences of humanoids that are experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs? …
(4) Does the visible world come from the vibrations of a giant Flute or Clarinet and those vibrations created this world watched by an alien species? …
(5) Did a Deity create this world and he decided that part of his consciousness will enter the brains of homo sapiens to go through different types of mental experiences in the form of human beings? …
(6) Is the visible world a half-shamanic, half-sublime artwork of a reclusive centaur seeking to materialize different kinds of aesthetics? …
(7) Does the visible world seek to bring forth intelligent species such as homo sapiens and endow them with brain cells and structures that are sensitive to the self-awareness of a Hologram? …
(8) Is the visible world trapped and rotating inside a huge Kaleidoscope and being observed by the Kaleidoscope? …
(9) Is the visible world an enigmatic portrait done by a group of secretive angels in a hidden studio in a corner of the timeless realm and these angels are defying God in creating this portrait? …
(10) Does the visible world come from the yell of a Deity who was determined to enter the world by entering the bodies of homo sapiens and determined to experience the trials and tribulations of life on earth? …
(11) Is the visible world part of a Long Poem inside a wordless scroll in a Celestial Library? …
(12) Perhaps the visible world is made of images floating across a Lagoon that exists inside a triptych painted by a family of angels …
(13) Perhaps the visible world exists on the surface of a crimson droplet that slides across the blade of a huge knife on the dining table of a Judge in Purgatory …
(14) Maybe the visible world is hidden inside a novel on the book shelf of a mystic Teacher … the novel comes alive at night to haunt his disciples so as to deepen their insights on satori …
(15) Perhaps the visible world exists inside the crystal sculpture of a humanoid and it’s placed above a boiling cauldron at a corner of Purgatory …
(16) Does the visible world consist of images that flash across the huge screen of a Super-computer that’s keen on playing labyrinthine computer games? …
(17) Does the visible world come from the collision of atoms inside a huge Particle Accelerator created by a high-tech community of aliens? …
(18) Does the visible world exist at the tail of a giant Black Hole and the visible world will eventually implode and become powerful enough to consume that Black Hole? …
(19) Is the visible world a holographic image inside a Memoryscape and it talks to itself? …
(20) Does the visible world come from a conscious Time-travelling Machine that has become old? … The Machine conjures up the images of this visible world to keep Itself alert? …
(21) Does the visible world come from the reverberations of a symphony performed inside a parlor somewhere in the timeless realm? …
(22) Or is the visible world floating on a red corpuscle drifting inside the bloodstream of a nonconformist Deity and when that red corpuscle bursts, we’ll all wake up and catch a glimpse of the truth regarding the timeless realm? … Sorry, I don’t know the answer …
David finished typing his inputs on the keyboard and waited for the computer Sophia to respond.
‘ … your honesty level is above eighty percent … you pass the test …’ Sophia said.
David smiled and the elders asked the guards to escort him to a cottage near to the forest. It was a simple wooden cottage with a few beds and cupboards. He was watched by four pygmy guards equipped with laser guns. In the following months David waited for his detection device to pick up a time womb. He would grow vegetables and fruits in the morning and do some sketching in the evenings …
Seven months passed before his device beeped … It was around 11 pm at night. David leapt from his bed and quickly put on his jacket, changed into his trekking long pants with the pistol attached to his belt. He heaved his haversack onto his back which contained food, water, medical supplies and other essentials. The four pygmy guards watched him as he ran into the forest in the direction of the time womb, flashing his large torchlight to chase away nocturnal creatures.
After running for about ten minutes, he spotted shadows pursuing him. They were spidery and elongated … He lifted his pistol and fired a few times into the sky. Then he ignored the shadows and continued to run in the direction of the time womb. A few minutes later he heard growling all around him. He squat down and gazed around. He was surrounded by thick bushes, ferns and tall trees with little moonlight.
He flashed his torchlight around and got ready his pistol. Soon he saw yellow gleams … When he pointed his torchlight towards the gleams, he saw dar, furrowed eye-brows … creatures that looked like wolverines. They appeared from behind the bushes … dozens of them. Most of them were about two feet in length with sharp teeth, hissing and growling …
David had no choice and shot at them … He shot at them for fifteen times or more, killing a few of them. Three of the creatures refused to retreat and they charged towards David. Two jumped and clung to his body while a third scurried up to his shoulder. David hunched his shoulders, hitting the creatures with his knuckles and elbow, trying to swing them away. But their claws sank into his clothing and skin. David shouted in pain. Then he aimed the pistol at their skulls … he opened fire many times, killing them. But they had scratched his arms and necks and he was bleeding …
David squat down and leaned against a large tree, panting while he loaded more bullets into his pistol. He rested for a while and then he flashed his torchlight around. When it picked up the gleaming eyes, David fired at them …
Then there were bright flashes of light. Four pygmy clones appeared and they approached David and squat down beside him.
‘The elders told us to assist you …’ one of them said.
David thanked them and pointed in the direction of the time womb. The four pygmies nodded and two of them walked ahead in that direction, firing their laser beams at regular intervals to frighten away the predators. The other two pygmies walked together with David.
Ten minutes later they saw the time womb. It was swirling near the shoulder of a medium tree. David climbed up the tree. He waved good-bye to the clones and climbed into the portal of the time womb which was about eight feet in length and breadth. Soon he began to drift inside a dark tunnel …
(written in August 1975)
I finished the narration and sat back on my rattan chair. It was near to midnight. The shrill tweeting of the crickets seemed to reverberate around the small grey room.
Flint was sitting straight on his chair, facing me. He was wearing dark glasses and I couldn’t see his eyes. His forehead was furrowed and tense. I could hear him gritting. I half-closed my eyes and clenched my teeth, unsure whether he would lurch forward and grab my hand to shave off another portion of my finger.
Suddenly Flint chortled and gave a yell … ‘Well done!’ he said. ‘You pass the test … you earn another three stars … a total of twelve stars … I’ll go and bring you the mystery gift …’
He walked out of the room. Soon he returned and handed to me a large box that contained twelve pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He assisted me to assemble the pieces as my left hand was bandaged. When completed, it showed the drawing of an attractive woman with lean features, a tired-looking yet hopeful face, a pair of compassionate, brown eyes that must have loved renaissance artworks and long hair that touched her shoulders.
‘My wife,’ he said. ‘I painted her on this cardboard. Then I used a jigsaw to create this artwork. You can now have her for the night.’
I held my breath and tried to assess whether he was joking.
Flint said, ‘I’ll bring you to see her now. It’s nearly nine pm. You have eaten dinner at six. Good time for you to go to bed with her.’
‘Thanks, please untie my hands and remove my leg chains. It’s very difficult for me to move,’ I said.
Flint smirked and untied my hands. But he did not remove the leg chains.
‘Don’t try to escape … you can’t escape the teeth of my hungry dogs …’ he said.
He grabbed my left arm and pushed me out of the room. I tried to resist, but could not. He was six feet one inch tall and at least 180 pounds. He shoved me to the staircase and I walked up slowly due to the leg chains that restricted my movement. Reaching the second floor, Flint pushed me to the door of the master bedroom. He retrieved the key from a pouch tied to the belt of his long pant and he unlocked the door. The room was neat and clean with a huge bed and a thick, white mattress. There were two cupboards on the right and a long desk on the left. A mosquito net was placed above the bed. A thick blanket covered a figure on the bed.
He pushed me towards the bed and asked me to sit on the mattress. Then he grabbed the blanket and drew it back, revealing a mannequin with a face that was painted in a way that resembled the picture on the jigsaw puzzle. Her lips were painted pink while her face reflected pale yellow powder. She was neatly dressed in a translucent blue gown.
‘You can make love to her …’ Flint said.
I thought for a while and said, ‘Your wife is very attractive. Can I have my wine … the two bottles in my room. A few sips can generate the excitement,’ I said.
Flint walked out of the master bedroom and locked the door. Moments later he returned with the two bottles of wine, namely the traditional medicine wine and the glutinous rice wine.
‘Thanks,’ I said as he handed the two bottles to me.
I stood up beside Flint and moved one step away. I lifted up a bottle and pretended to drink it. Then using all my might, I smashed it on Flint’s head. He shouted in pain and staggered backwards. Then I smashed a second bottle on his forehead. Dazed, he fell backwards onto the mattress. I bent and grabbed the life-sized but legless mannequin and used it to beat his head. He used his hands to shield his face, but I kept smashing his head until he was bleeding. He fell onto the mattress and appeared to be half-conscious. I grabbed and pulled the key pouch vigorously from his belt. The pouch did not give way, but the keys dropped off onto the ground. I bent and picked up the bunch of keys. Then I turned and dragged my legs towards the door which was left unlocked. I left the room and closed the door behind me. I fumbled for the right key that matched the keyhole. I could hear Flint breathing heavily. He would soon be conscious and come after me.
I tried to insert the keys into the keyhole and after five or six attempts, I found the right one. I quickly turned the key to lock the door. Then I squat down and fumbled for the keys to remove the chains from my ankles. After removing my leg chains, I walked to the other two rooms on the second floor. One of them was not locked. I opened it and went in. It was empty, containing a few mannequins and unwanted canvases. Then I walked to the other room which was locked. I searched and found the right key to open its door. I went in and saw two figures crouching side by side. They were captives, slender and gaunt, like me. They were in their forties, their hands were tied and their legs were also chained. Their palms and ears were bandaged. I quickly untied their hands and used the keys to remove their leg chains. Thereafter we walked out of the room and went down to the living room.
While walking down the stairway, we heard the shouting and cursing of Flint as he tried to break the door. Within the next fifteen minutes, he might be able to break the door using the mannequin. We needed to act fast and hurry to the main road to seek help.
Reaching the ground floor, we hurried across the workshop and reached the front door. Flint’s Dobermanns were snarling furiously outside. They must have heard the shouts of Flint and were ready to attack if we went out. Entering the kitchen, we found a few knives and two hammers. I looked at the bandages of the two captives. They also had segments of their fingers shaved off. Given our wounds and lack of nutrition in the past weeks, we were uncertain whether we could subdue the Dobermanns. But we didn’t have time. We expected Flint to break free soon.
‘It’s safer that our backs face the wall. The wall supports us from falling when the dogs attack. We wrap our arms with the thick towels. Let them bite the towels. Then we use the hammers to hit them …’ I suggested.
I took one hammer while another captive took one. Each of us also gripped a knife. Wrapping our arms with the thick towels we found in the workshop, we breathed deeply and walked to the front door. I asked the two captives to lean their backs against the wall. I unlocked the front door and opened it. Then I quickly stepped aside and joined the two captives, thrusting my left arm forward which was wrapped with two thick towels, expecting the dogs to leap at us.
The two Dobermanns barked loudly and rushed in. Their eyes glinted with savage anger and ferocity as they sank their teeth into the towels and shook their necks forcefully, trying to tear away our arms. We hit their noses and skulls many times, attempting to chase them away, but they were determined and tenacious in their onslaught. They kept pulling with their strong canines. Our backs thumped against the wall as we pushed ourselves backward to maintain our standing position. We knew that once we fell, their sharp canines would sink into our necks. Fortunately the towels were thick enough to withstand their ferocious bites. Aiming at their noses, we hit them hard repeatedly with the hammers. Soon they were bleeding.
Seizing the opportunity, I passed my hammer to one of the captives and asked him to continue to hit the dogs. I quickly retrieved a long knife from the pocket of my pant and slashed one of the dogs near its abdomen. It barked ferociously and leapt at me, sinking its teeth into my left arm which was wrapped with a thick towel. With all my strength, I lifted my left arm to block its jaws from reflexively snapping at me and I slashed its shoulders a few times. The wounded dog shrieked. The other two captives banged its nose and skull a few times. It whimpered, retreated to a corner of the living room and laid down, panting.
The three of us focused on attacking the second Dobermann. The two captives continued to slam their hammers on its nose and skull while I slashed its shoulders with the long knife. The two captives also hit its front legs a few times until it limped out of the room and disappeared into the dark.
We could hear Flint banging the door with a hard material. Then there was silence. We hurried out of the farmhouse and jogged towards the gate. When we reached the gate, I searched for the right key and unlocked it. We pushed open the gate and jogged towards the main road. For the next twenty-five minutes we kept jogging until we reached the main road and saw the headlights of a few cars …
(written in August 1975)
Please forgive me. I extend my deep apologies. It all began due to that accident in mid-1973. I was riding a motorbike and hit the rear of a truck when it stopped suddenly. I was flung towards the truck, hit it and bounced on the ground. I sustained concussion to the brain with cerebral blood clots.
Some of the big clots refused to go away after six months. I began to hear the voice of Flint. An aggressive and emotionally unstable voice, it was prompting me to lock up my wife at the farmhouse because Flint was convinced that she was having an affair with her department’s director, Alvin. That man was 43 years old, slender built at five feet ten, narrow brown eyes, handsome sharp nose, pale lips and an almond-shaped face. Driven by Flint’s envy and aggressive energies, I locked up my wife and prevented her from going to work. I told Alvin that she had decided to resign. I forced my wife to type and sign the letter of resignation which I posted to Alvin.
But in less than two months after I locked up my wife, Alvin was deployed to their company’s headquarters in Britain. Flint was planning how to deal with him, whether to capture him and use his body parts as part of my artwork. Flint was an extremist in that sense, trying to be a demi-god in meting out punishment to a suspected adulterer, trying to show that he could control the fate of others. And now you know what characteristics prompted me to capture and imprison the three of you. Yes, you have physical and facial features that resemble Alvin’s. A kind of vicarious punishment desired by Flint since Alvin had returned to Britain.
Miraculously in the past ten hours since your legendary wine dripped into my nose and down my throat when you smashed the bottle on me, I didn’t hear the voice of Flint. I inadvertently drank your medicine wine and I believe it has dissolved most of the blood clots in my brain. I will request for X-rays to be done to validate it. But the fact remains. For the past ten hours, I didn’t hear the vindictive voice of Flint. I’m no longer controlled and manipulated by Flint. I’m free. I’m rational again. I can choose and control my behavior again. Your wine has cured My Multiple Personality Complex.
With the disappearance of Flint, I can think and reflect more clearly. Perhaps my wife never had an affair with Alvin. I was excessively suspicious, hyper-sensitive and near-paranoid due to the fear of becoming a cuckold, of being labelled a cuckold as well as being driven by Flint’s distrustful, aggressive and callous voice.
Regarding my wife, her elderly parents lived in Australia and we visited them once in a few years. Her only sister has migrated to the United States with little contact with us. Thus, no one suspected that I had locked up my wife in 1974. Four months later, she had an asthma attack. At first I thought she was feigning, planning to escape. I ignored her for half an hour. Then she became pale and breathless. Soon she became unconscious. I rushed her to the hospital. But the doctors could not revive her and she died. I cremated her and buried her ashes beside the Tebusu tree at my farmhouse.
Coincidentally I needed stimulation for my masterpiece. Thrilling life stories that can reinvent my aesthetic vision and encourage me to partner with the inner shaman. Thanks for your stories. I have since completed my artwork. When you are free, you may wish to look at it. It reflects our collective efforts. I hope it contains symbolic richness. It struggles to be born and yells in the middle of the night with a strange resonance. Maybe someday it will be deemed an avant-garde artwork that represents the essence of earthly struggles.
Another confession is that my parents are dead. They died three years ago. My mother was suffering from kidney cancer. My father had a mistress. My mother feared that his mistress would cheat him and deprive him of all his savings and nothing would be left for me. My mother loved me so much. She poisoned and killed my father before he could consider to alter his will. Then my mother committed suicide. I inherited all my father’s wealth, about S$1.2 million.
I cremated my parents. Their ashes were also buried beside the Tebusu tree at my farmhouse. But I retained their femurs. I used the femurs of my parents to curve out small pieces of bones that looked like pieces of jigsaw puzzles. I attached them to my artwork. They reflect the unfair and imperfect aspects of life on earth, something we always struggle to try to understand and accept.
You may be curious about my missing toes. Four of them are missing. I cut them off. Self-mutilate. During those days when I was afflicted with Multiple Personality Complex, sometimes the voice of David returned to me in the middle of the night, weighing me down with guilt. But I couldn’t escape Flint’s shadows. He controlled my urges and refused to release my wife. He refused to free the three of you. I cut off my four toes as self-punishment when I was guilt-stricken during those brief moments when David’s rational voice dominated.
Lastly, my four toes and those portions of my captives’ fingers and ears are not wasted. They are sealed in little plastic bags and cemented inside the figurines which I moulded and attached to my artwork. They represent the irrational and violent aspects of life.
Once again, I seek your forgiveness. Please accept my apologies and destroy this letter after you have read it. I prefer to be locked up in an asylum than in a prison. I sense that I can get more inspirations for my next artwork from the atmosphere of an asylum.
(written in August 1975)
She looked like my mother. So alike that if my mother were alive and reached the age of forty six, she would look like Inspector Evon. But Inspector Evon did not have the warmth and tenderness of my mother. She looked stern, austere, non-smiling, with a sharp chin. She had suntanned face, half-bulging eyes, thin nose and thin lips, and an elongated face. There could be no mistake. Inspector Evon must be my authentic twin sister in the flesh. She didn’t die that day on 26 March 1929. Although her heart had stopped beating, somehow it revived and someone must have stolen her infant body.
“I’m Inspector Evon,” she said, introducing herself. She walked to my bedside which was near the window of the General Hospital and we shook hands. I was warded on the fifth floor and placed under observation. The nurses had cleaned and dressed my wounds. I had taken my meals and medication, including antibiotics. It was eleven in the morning. The two captives and I had finally escaped last night. We flagged a car and the driver quickly drove us to the nearest police station where we reported how we were abducted and locked up by David. The police quickly went to the farmhouse to arrest him. An ambulance soon arrived at the police station and we reached the Singapore’s General Hospital before 9.30 pm. I telephoned my twenty-three-year old son Joseph Yang and I also talked to my father who was in his seventies and my grandma who was ninety-five. Joseph rushed to the hospital to see me last night and stayed until 3 am in the morning before he went home. He would come later at 12 noon as I wished to be discharged then.
Sergeant Bernard, a tall and muscular six-feet feet tall man in his mid-thirties stood beside Inspector Evon. He said, “I’m Sergeant Bernard. We have arrested David Maestri and placed him under observation.”
Staring at Inspector Evon, I did not reply. After I regained my composure, I turned to Sargent Bernard and said, “Thanks to both of you. Did David try to run away when you reached the farmhouse?”
Sergeant Bernard said, “We found him inside his master bedroom, his head bleeding. But he was conscious and calm. He smiled at us and stretched out his hands to be handcuffed. As we were walking across the living room, he requested to paste a cardboard on his huge canvas and we agreed. Then we brought him to the hospital for treatment before we locked him up at the police headquarters for questioning. This morning he requested us to hand this confidential letter to you, saying it’s a letter of apology.”
He handed me a letter sealed in a brown envelope. I opened and read it slowly. After reading the letter written by David Maestri, I kept it and said, “I have no choice. I hit him with two bottles, trying to overcome him. He was suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder and he was sadistic. The three of us suffered badly under him.”
Sergeant Bernard said, “We can understand. He’s very strong and not easy to deal with.”
I turned and said to Evon, “Inspector, do you know your parents? Your biological parents? Sorry to ask such personal questions, but I have been looking for my twin sister. We look alike and you look very much like my mother if she were older. Were you born in March 1929?”
“I don’t know my real parents,” Evon said. “My foster parents died a few years ago. They adopted me from a male nurse. The male nurse said that I was the child of one of his sisters.”
“I believe that’s not true,” I said. “When she was born, my twin sister was abducted at the hospital, probably by that male nurse. Those doctors and nurses must be mistaken that my twin sister had died. In the past few years I have read articles and newspaper reports on instances where people with no pulse and no breathing woke up after more than thirty minutes. It seems that the human body may have an unknown protective mechanism that shuts down its functions under traumatic circumstances, perhaps to reduce bleeding. Then it revitalizes itself after thirty minutes or longer. Please investigate. I believe that male nurse abducted you and then sold you to your foster parents. We can also test our blood to validate our kinship.”
She nodded. “I will look into the matter. We really look alike and I understand we were born in the same month and in the same year.”
I proceeded to talk to Evon about Joan who has gone missing for a few days. Baffled, Evon looked at me and asked, “You believe in ghost and spirit?”
“Joan is the poetic part of your soul,” I tried to explain.
“No wonder sometimes I feel that I lack something in life, like an appreciation of the arts.”
“It sounds mystical, but it’s true. We need to find her urgently.”
“Where can we find her?”
I said that I could be discharged by 12 noon. Then we could drive around the Lim Chu Kang area near to the farmhouse to find any temples or places that might have trapped her. “First, I propose to take a look at the canvas of David, in case Joan is trapped inside it. Or it may provide clues to her whereabouts.”
Inspector Evon was hesitant. Then I explained that David’s canvas might also provide evidence relevant to the case. She agreed and drove me to the farmhouse after I was discharged from the hospital at noon. Joseph came at 11.30 am and I asked him to return home to wait for me as I need to search for Joan.
Evon and I reached the farmhouse at 2 pm. She unlocked the front door and we walked in. We switched on the lights and I pulled away the cloth that covered David’s triptych. It looked huge. David’s twenty oil paintings were attached near the borders of the rosewood triptych, encircling it. In addition, clay figurines and strings of bones that looked like small pieces of jigsaw puzzles were attached at various parts of the three panels. His twenty oil paintings made from thickset cardboards were cut at their edges and made to shape like huge pieces of jigsaw puzzles. David had used diverse colorful pigments to paint the subject matters of his paintings. The backdrop of his triptych featured a few gardens, like the first panel of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
I gazed at his diverse oil paintings. For one of them, he tried to emulate The Persistence of Memory by painting horses, elephants, tigers and leopards that are half-melting and disappearing into a roaring time womb that hovers above the animals. In another, he tried to emulate Starry Night by using bright orange colours to paint different types of orchids with faces that look like a zebra, a hippopotamus or a rhinoceros. In a third painting, he followed the motif of The Scream of Nature by painting pale lips and huge mouths without faces. Inside those mouths are different groups of people, animals and angels who appear to be screaming. In a fourth painting, he portrayed four artists looking at Bosch’s masterpiece and they’re trying to paint their perceptions of it on their canvasses. It looked like a picture within a picture. Three words were inscribed at the top of David’s large canvas: A Mystery Ulysses Inside A Fiery Snowman. The secret prize I won for narrating thrilling stories to David -- the carefully assembled jigsaw puzzle depicting a picture of his wife -- was pasted on the centre of his triptych. For thirty minutes I stood before the artwork, trying to understand its complexity and enigmatic design. Then I told Evon that I could find no evidence relevant to the case and we left.
We locked the front door of the farmhouse and walked back to Evon’s car. We drove around the area and checked the maps, but there were no indication of any temple nearby.
After driving around for two hours, we spotted a pink bungalow near the beach. We parked near its gate and I shouted at its front door less than a hundred feet away. It was an old one-storey bungalow with large Taoist banners stringed across its side walls. I could see an altar in the centre of its living room with statues of Taoist deities placed on the tables behind it. I also noticed a large shed on the right side of the bungalow with many wooden shelves containing urns, pots and vases.
Two middle-aged priests appeared, dressed in Taoists robes as if they were performing rituals. Inspector Evon identified herself and I told them anxiously, “My twin sister Joan is a spirit. Did you see her? Please don’t be mistaken. She’s a benign and helpful spirit. If you have seen her, can you tell us. If you have placed her in one of the urns, please let her go.”
The two priests remained expressionless and denied having seen any spirit. They did not allow us to enter their premises and said, “If you wish to search our house, please show us the warrant. This is private property. We only open on Saturdays and Sundays for devotees of The Supreme Lord of Taoism to pray in the sacred hall and we perform prosperity rituals for them.”
Inspector Evon and I left. While on the way home, I enquired with Evon whether she could obtain a search warrant. She shook her head as Joan, being a spirit, could not be identified as a missing person. I nodded and began to plan how to find out whether Joan was trapped by the two priests. I went home and in the next two days, I updated and gathered all my journals. Then I passed them to my son Joseph, informing him to find a publisher.
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 2 February 1976)
Two days later in early September 1975, I took a taxi and returned to the old bungalow. It was a moonless night. I waited until midnight and saw the two priests switching off the lights and going to bed. After checking that there was no dog, I climbed over the fence and walked quietly towards the shed. I walked around it, seeing many urns and clay vessels that were sealed with talismans. I began to whisper, “Joan, are you here?”
I walked through the shed a few times before I spotted an urn that gave a greenish glow as if a spirit inside it were trying to communicate with me. I walked towards it and heard the voice of Joan. “It’s me, Jonathan. I’m trapped. Please help.”
I stretched my hands to obtain the urn from the wooden shelf. The cover of the urn was tightly pasted with three layers of talismans. After I tore away the talismans, I turned the cover of the urn and removed it. The spirit of Joan appeared and I felt relieved. Then I placed the urn back to the wooden shelf.
“Let’s go and I have found your …” Before I could finish the sentence, a hissing sound reached my ears, as if an angry creature were in the midst of striking me. I moved my hands quickly away from the wooden shelf after putting the urn. Too late. I felt a sharp pain in my right hand above the wrist. Something sharp had stung me. I flinched and stepped back. It was a cobra. I must have awakened it while taking the urn from the shelf. It was probably sleeping behind the nearby urns.
Staggering backwards, I retreated towards the fence of the bungalow. I began to feel dizzy and sat down on the ground. Cold sweats formed on my forehead. I shouted weakly for help, but unsure whether the two priests would assist a trespasser. The toxin of the cobra might paralyze me soon.
“Jonathan, how are you?’ Joan asked anxiously. “I’ll go and find Inspector Evon …’
‘Yes, go and find Evon … she’s your physical body … you’re part of Evon’s soul …’
I looked into the eyes of Joan, fearing that this might be the last time to gaze at her, admiring the pale blue hills that lingered inside her pupils. I stretched my body and rested my face on her chin, gently breathing the jasmine fragrance of her hair. Joan’s lips turned moist as she kissed my forehead. The moistness came from her unseen tears. For the first time, she didn’t turn pink when my face touched hers. She looked frantic and frightened, her voice quivering. My body began to feel numb and cold. I closed my eyes. Soon I lost consciousness …
I travelled through a tunnel of darkness before I saw glimmers of light. I drifted into a dream and a sparkling memory window approached me. It was that rare sparkling window that I had been searching and waiting for a long time. I pushed it open and entered it.
I seemed to step into a garden of enigmas. The old monk who gave Herbia to me was waiting for me under a pine tree. He was wearing a long brown gown with a string of beads around his neck. Tall and gaunt with white eye-lashes, short grey hair, an elongated forehead and compassionate eyes, he smiled and greeted me. I bowed at him. He didn’t talk to me about my interpretations of why he asked me to take care of Herbia for ten years. We walked along a beach, listening to the waves. Then we walked to a wooded area away from the beach. I saw four groups of painters standing before their easels.
The first group consisted of humans. Coming from different eras and cultures, they were dressed in different types of costumes, coats, dresses and shirts of various designs. The second group consisted of half-transparent beings with friendly, cheerful and serene faces. The third group consisted of extraterrestrial beings with enlarged heads, slender bodies and bulging eyes with small lips. The fourth group was made up of angels and cherubim. The gardens surrounding them were sunlit but cool, with the rays of dawn on their right and gentle flowing streams on their left. Facing them was Bosch’s well-known painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Behind the painting were hills, rivers, mountains and distant waterfalls. The four groups were looking earnestly at Bosch’s painting and drawing their perceptions of it on white papers attached to their easels. When I looked at their paintings, they were drawing another four groups of beings trying to paint their perceptions of Bosch’s masterpiece.
I watched and waited, listening to the gentle rhythm of the waves that reverberated around us and I could decipher that it was whispering a soft serenade version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D major. The harmony of the music seemed to weave several layers of colourful, polyphonic images that hovered and moved within the paintings of the four groups of painters and their paintings appeared to come alive. When the four groups finished their paintings, they pasted them on a huge board. Then they folded the board where the third panel overlapped the first. The board became an elongated rectangular panel and the following words appeared:
Where can I find a hybrid of Thoreau and Hui Neng? Half-yearner, half-songster. Do I look behind this garden of earthly delights on a stormy night?
Outside, the rains are pelting down. A sky-wide quilt hides the lightning of Keats. Can’t see the asphodels of Williams. The winds carry away the fighter planes of Auden, the jaguars of Hughes, the absentee chapels of Larkin. What remains? A melange of Thundering … (brainy ears, brainier intestines, cleverest enzymes, all trying to process the noises, sensations, fears, illusions into) monotones, phantom syllables, the rhythm of raindrops.
Perhaps John Donne, Robert Frost and Helen Keller could hear the unheard, watch the unseen, see through the tricks of self-importance, despair and death. They composed amid the chaos that micro-bites our ear-drums, like armies of red ants.
Or sooner or later we encounter infant-snatchers and dream-smashers? Accidents, cancers or deadly viruses, thieves, robbers or sadists, floods, hurricanes or earthquakes. Challenges from the Giver of life? Is He looking for a missing Ingredient that cannot be created in heaven? A brave heart resolved to do good on fiery earth? Is He looking for faith, love and courage which He treasures because they cannot be found in a pain-free heaven? Without bringing forth these qualities in a harsh world, in the face of devastating losses, sufferings and death, His Godhood cannot reach a higher level? Is He suffering together with us, a biting-the-bullet ontological imperative? Is this the missing link of a ten-thousand-year-old enigma?
Inside, the sensations tickle up and down. A bizarre sunlit midnight. Lighted up with smiles, laughter and tunes. The children of Herman Melville and their flutes. They get written because the Muses are riding a human horse. His conscience is a storms-proof raincoat. If doubts creep in, please recall our hearts thumping when we did a wrong. If unconvinced, please smell and feel these lines, famished and stubborn like a wallet with ears torn. But it is still listening to Emily. Her subconscious is still working. She has many clockless owls, eyes pocketing flames. They continue to talk to us yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Suddenly we are walled up. Drop into darkness. An artist who didn’t have money to pay the bill? Is he hoping to watch those cherubim talking to Blake? Can art decoy death into loving aesthetics, decoy aesthetics into loving an artistic death? Or is this an echo in a preserved pocket of His Memory?
Please don’t mind who’s talking or which Pope said, “Because we are different, we become human.” Or who originated a variant of the panspermia theory claiming that we might have evolved from Martian microbes. Please don’t mind when there’s no electricity, no moon to romanticize. Fireflies like to bottleneck when tender hearts entwine. But I still can’t smell the hybrid of Whitman and Hui Neng. Someone is shouting, “Cut!”
But it can’t stop. Did I stumble on a crystal that controls the cosmic heartbeat? Does it yield a ray of light that brings once-in-a-lifetime clarity? Can a temple’s bell cut the iron noose of thoughts? Is this a forsaken mirror or a forgotten poem speaking inside a Singaporean tavern torched in 1942? I see a Straits Settlements beer tub. Is it holding unclaimed soldier badges? Is it speaking on behalf of apparitions? Perhaps it digests memories that cannot break free from a brain and jump into the shivering spine of another person. In this sense, each experience of death, when it really comes, cannot be generously shared, except with God.
A Revived Jonathan
(transcribed on 6 February 1976)
Waking up, it’s a starlight night. Joan’s molecules of jasmine swim alongside my neurons. Her serene, pale blue eyes become gentle eddies. I sense their watery sound. It’s like the whispers of a stream near the elbow of a mountain. She says, ‘Tonight we see through the eyes of David Maestri when he was young.’
Sure enough, at a corner of the Garden of Earthly Delights, a young artist was hiding. He was inside a wardrobe in the shape of a huge ostrich shell crammed with coats and gowns. His parents were quarrelling outside. Six-year-old David drifted asleep. In his dream, he visited his previous life.
He was a young woman in his previous life and he saw silhouettes everywhere. She claimed to possess an omni-blessing vase shaped by her marine biologist boyfriend. He disappeared during a seabed exploration thirty-two months ago.
‘He’s breathing now. Gives an aura of mystery to his Italian vase. He likes to snuggle into its silken earlobes and hover over its meandering rivers carved on its body. Clusters of sphinx-paws, flattened godheads, half-stars and rectangular spacecraft look from the sky. These engravings stream down from the forehead and along the torso of the vase. They hesitate near its belly button shielded with wreaths of finely-excised, rhombus-shaped mirrors, fish scales and clamshells. The mirrors and shells are pasted with tiny paintings of Venetian lilies, Sahara fruits in the shape of eyeballs, flowers of iron trees and coy Persian mushrooms.’
The young woman cautioned that the vase contained time-diluting ashes and wrote a poem on her handkerchief. ‘Mother Nature and Her physics cannot smother me. Avant-garde bombs have pulverized many, changing bones into traces of soot, reminders that we burst into flames in the same nightmarish way. But the bombs cannot touch me. They cannot crack my soul.’ Then she broke down in a corner and cried. When she looked through drops of tears, she discovered that she was a young sailor in her previous life.
That young sailor was inside a weatherworn tavern at another corner of the Garden. The old sailors howled in the direction of the Cape of Good Hope, trying to decipher a wordless message from Easter Island, Christmas Island or the Prince of Wales Island. Or did they hear a faint echo of the super-volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago, still quivering at the feet of Lake Toba? Scientists estimated the eruption reduced the number of Homo sapiens to less than 20,000 worldwide. A calamity that had squeezed the pool of our ancestors’ genes, making all of us brothers and sisters. It mastectomized and brutalized the sea that became an open grave. The old sailors remembered many shipwrecks and lost comrades. They asked the young sailor, ‘That tiger-cum-tiger burning bright inside you and further inside you, the worldly ego and his spiritual twin, were they drowned by the flesh-bursting sea? That sea swallows everyone in the long run, the brave and the misguided, the cautious and the licentious.’
p. The young sailor ventured to reply with a Mountain-inspired elegy written by his Borneo-explorer grandfather, ‘I have dived into the stormy charnel that funnels many reincarnational womb incubators and ejectors. I saw the wriggling heads of many babies. They wriggled and came into the world. Born once again, they appeared confused. Born once again, my multiple-headed egos appear half-drowned. Keep popping up, like blacklisted Siamese raccoons, each with ten lives. Perhaps I’m searching for a monk who can advise how many times I must jump into that watery grave to dampen my egos … in the meantime I’m trapped inside a painting, trying to write a poem to win the heart of a sea nymph.’
And the young sailor splashed into a river at another corner of the Garden to cleanse himself. The shadow of a seagull rose above him. Was he the offspring of a seagull in his previous life? Perhaps in the evening light the seagull could see something which humans couldn’t fathom. The sands, the waves and the beaches became dressed in various shades of gold. Did the seagull glimpse that once-in-a-lifetime Glimpse? Did it peek into how the Spirit flows like a stream from the Moment the visible world was born? Perhaps it could sense that the Spirit keeps flowing until now, living among the hills, forests and mountains.
Suddenly, the Silence of the evening sky became eloquent. We could sense the Spirit besides us during grey and dark moments, when our paths were rugged, the rough stones tearing our flesh to reveal the oldest within us. It was much more than wrinkles-prone flesh. Much more than bones and marrow. It was like snowflakes befriending apple trees in early spring. We followed the seagull and peeked into a few scenes behind the Garden. Our eyes were scorched and we fled deep into the forest. We stumbled and hid behind the trees near a beach. Exhausted, we fell asleep …
Waking up, we looked back in the direction of earth. Those morning and evening lights were gone. The waves were gone. The sounds and furies at the world’s naked shingles were gone. Perhaps when the Spirit looked at us from Eden, the visible world occupied a small but essential part of His eyes …
Waking up, Joan and I return to the evening light at the beach … images of the beach … the images are planted inside my neurons … once again we fall in love with the sensations, with the evening sky, the seashells and pebbles, the waves, seagulls and children, believing that we have not lived in vain. We sense that no good intention, no kind effort will be forgotten. They are stored in His ocean of remembrances. We sense that on earth, we dream every night, wake up every morning, speak every word, perform every deed, listen to the never-quitting voice of our conscience in His ancient, living Memories …
(written in late 1975)
This is the first time I met my father, Jonathan Yang, after his death … As indicated by Dr Kolman, a representative of the neuroscientist team, I drove to the modern building inside a science and technology park at the eastern part of Singapore and I met Dr Kolman at the carpark facing the building. We walked to the entrance and displayed our identity cards. After security clearance, we were directed to a spacious washroom where we bathed with disinfectant soap. Then we were required to wear gleaming white gowns which made me look like research scientists.
We walked along a glass-encased lobby and took the lift to the sixth floor. A research assistant was waiting for us. She guided us to the tenth room on the right, near the end of the well-lit corridor. We entered a hall which was compartmentalized into chambers with many glass panels and inside those chambers were large aquarium tanks, smaller fish tanks, tall flasks and all types of research equipment. In one of those chambers my father appeared, inside a transparent, hexagonal tank. He had become a talking brain …
Dr Kolman explained to me that there were five other brains which were housed at the adjacent chambers. All the brains were verified by the doctors to be clinically dead for forty-eight hours before being removed from the donors’ bodies and transported to this research laboratory. Similar to my father’s brain, they were placed and kept inside transparent tanks filled with anti-aging liquids.
Dr Kolman said, ‘I understand it was your father’s wish to donate his organs for research.’
I nodded and said, ‘He was thinking his brain cells might be useful for research on Alzheimer’s or other degenerative disease. But he probably didn’t foresee that his brain might be revived.’
Dr Kolman remained quiet. After a long while, he said, ‘This anti-aging agents were only available in the past few months … We were uncertain whether we could revive a clinically dead brain.’
‘How did you preserve my father’s brain?’ I asked.
‘His brain was transported here and preserved with anti-aging liquids mixed with nutrients.’
‘How did you revive my father’s brain?’
‘We apply an experimental technique using electric currents and strong doses of anti-aging chemical agents,’ said Dr Kolman. ‘We applied it twice a day for a month.’
‘A month …’ I muttered.
‘Surprisingly at the end of the fourth week, the monitoring equipment detected signals from your father’s brain. We quickly attached more micro-sensory transmitters and receptors to all parts of his brain, hoping to communicate with him … using a code of electronic signals.”
“What kind of code?” I asked.
“It consists of twenty-six electronic signals tied to the twenty-six alphabets of the English language. The different duration and the different number of taps of the electronic signals represent a different alphabet. The computer would send the electronic signals to the micro-sensory transmitters. In turn they transmitted the electronic pulses to your father’s brain. We oriented his brain to those signals by repeating the transmission slowly many times … eventually your father understood the code.’
‘Did my father take a long time to understand it?’
‘About two weeks,’ Dr Kolman replied. ‘Then he responded by using this code via the micro-sensory devices which picked up the electronic pulses of his brain. He learnt to use a different duration and a different number of taps of the electronic pulses to choose an alphabet. In this way, he could choose the alphabets.’
‘It would enable my father to form words and sentences,’ I said.
Dr Kolman nodded.
“What did my father say in his first sentence?”
“We sent him a note and asked, ‘How are you?’ He responded with: I am fine with using this code.’
‘A tedious but creative way to communicate,’ I said.
‘Yes, we asked questions and Jonathan responded with strings of alphabets. We taped and typed them out.’
I stared at my father’s brain and said, ‘Did he request for this hexagonal tank?’
‘Yes, he did,’ Dr Kolman replied.
‘How long can you sustain my father’s brain?’ I asked.
‘We need to carefully monitor the types of chemicals and nutrients we inject into the flask and we need to carefully monitor the temperatures and the environment inside … we hope to keep Jonathan’s brain alive for another three to four months. That will be a great step forward.’
‘You mean the brains of the other donors are dying?’ I asked.
Dr Kolman nodded and said, ‘Yes, they’re given the same type of chemical agents and technique. So far no success. The brain cells of the other donors are showing signs of atrophy.’
“Perhaps the legendary wine helps to preserve the vitality of my father’s brain,” I said. ‘This element is missing in the brains of the other donors.’
Dr Kolman nodded. ‘That’s possible. Unfortunately we can’t feed the wine into Jonathan’s brain. The collective view is that it’s likely to contaminate the anti-aging chemicals and result in the atrophy of his brain.’
After talking for another half an hour, I was prepared to leave when suddenly Dr Kolman grabbed my arm and said, ‘Jonathan has a message. Let me type it out …’
For the next fifty minutes, the screen linked to a computer flashed strings of alphabets. The assistant taped them and typed out the following message:
What thrills me is the strangeness of life. What amazes me is that I can be thrilled. What shocks me is that someone is overhearing … He’s never out of earshot. Perhaps I hope to drink a small portion of a Deity’s wisdom or become a small part of his vibrating eardrum. If not allowed, please forgive me.
Perhaps someday I become part of an artwork. Does it reflect a clenching of teeth, a moment of triumph in someone’s eyes? Does it come from the need to perfect a symphony? Does it come from an urge to actualize a moral-aesthetic vision? Or does it evolve from a stalactite whose location is unknown? Maybe I’m a half-mutilated haiku speaking inside a canvas preserved in the cellar of a museum. The moths of time have lost their interest in nibbling me.
Are these journals sealed up in a small bell jar inside the belly of a dolphin? Is it wriggling fiercely in a drying lake? Its streamlined smile picked up by a shaft of evening light, does it look like a jumpy half-descendant of Moby Dick? Or is someone walking in a memoryscape? Or do I hear the brain pulses of a walnut in a dreamscape? Are they talking to unseen sculptors, serenade composers, poets and painters? Maybe they try to write a commentary on Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Biased and Kafkaesque. Because the voice is real … and it can’t stop. Keeps knocking on the eardrums of my neurons. It has returned to hunt …
A Revived Jonathan
(written in late 1975)
… am I in a dreamscape? … does it evolve from a memoryscape? … am I trekking across a nighttime terrain, a signpost saying Ulysses is dissecting a cryptique? … is someone swimming inside the bloodstream of a postmodern Hyde? Is he down with multiple personality symptoms?
Or someone’s watching a dreamscape that has nimble fingers, sculpting us out of malleable jade near the child of a volcano? … was David talking or yelling? talking to me or to a triptych? yelling at himself? trapped inside a triptych, molding something plasmic, fluid like cubes of memory out of watery chips of limestone?
Or a memoryscape was pulling him out of a fiercely rotating time womb? … how big was it? … I seemed to recall its diameter was the length of a three-ton army truck and David’s body was half-embedded in its brownish, hazy swirl … its spinning core was a menacing dark.
What’s real? Is anything real? Is there a need to differentiate between the two? … I don’t know … being human, David won’t know either … the only thing I could recall clearly was that I was trapped inside David’s body.
How did it happen? … let’s retrace our steps … I remember reading David’s letter at the hospital … he was planning to take on anomalous behavior so as to be perceived as mentally ill … he succeeded … Perhaps he wasn’t fully healed. Was he suffering from the trauma of being controlled by Flint for more than a year? I can’t be sure …
… David deceived those enforcement officers, prosecutors and psychiatrists … he was transferred from the prison to the mental asylum in mid-October 1975 … he stayed there for next two months, planning his escape …
… he knocked unconscious two male nurses one night after he shrieked in pain, pretending to have acute appendicitis … he had been hiding in the asylum’s toilet every morning, away from surveillance cameras, training his elbows for fast knockout blows … he quickly changed into the uniform of the male nurse, put on a surgical mask, walked briskly along the corridors of the institute, disappeared among the shrubs and shadows, climbed over a few fences … then he jogged to a nearby grocery store, exchanged his gilded watch for cash and took a bus to his farmhouse … dug up a chest buried near the giant Tembusu … it contained cash and Swiss bank passbooks … his inheritance exceeded S$1 million …
… he fled to southern Thailand … engaged a private investigator in early 1976 to hunt me down … a few weeks later he received confirmation that I had died … but was revived as a talking brain, trapped inside a huge, hexagonal flask filled with regenerative nutrients … a few weeks later he received confirmation that my brain was showing signs of atrophy … I was disallowed to be fed with the Yunnan medicine wine … by late March 1976 my brain cells had deteriorated … I could no longer communicate with my son Joseph …
David decided to rescue me … No, I never wanted his help … unsure whether his inner demon was gone or another tormentor was hiding in his psyche … I would rather die and fade away … but he bribed two neuroscientists at the research company, paying them S$20,000 each … they secretly excised a part of my cerebrum and sent it to David in Thailand … he engaged two neurosurgeons and planted the excised portion of my cerebrum into his brain … our neurons became entwined with micro-sensors …
David also paid a gangster to steal two bottles of Yunnan medicine wine from my flat at East Coast and delivered to him in Thailand … he drank it regularly by mixing it with glutinous rice wine … Two months later my brain cells strengthened and strangely, I could communicate with David’s brain … based on his doctors’ advice, David took anti-rejection medicine to alleviate the effects of his body rejecting my brain tissues … under these bizarre circumstances, I began a new life inside David’s brain from mid-May 1976 onwards …
I recalled David went to Naples in late July 1976 … he went hiking and mountain climbing and found a cave half-way up a hill … brought a lot of provisions and stayed inside the cave for a few weeks … Then his narcissistic pride surfaced … the inner demon struck … he went to the village and contacted two Thai gangsters … they came to see him … he paid them US$50,000 and they went to Singapore and kidnapped my son …
A few days later, David gave a half-smile and whispered, ‘Your voice is trapped inside me. We’re intimate partners.’
‘I don’t want to be your captive. Release me and my son.’
‘I’m not Flint … If you cooperate, after my second landmark work is done, I’ll release you.’
‘You may take months. By that time our neurons are meshed together.’
‘Will get first-rate surgeons to separate us.’
‘If I can’t give you stimulating insights, what will happen?’
‘Don’t disappoint me, otherwise they’ll scissor off two toes from each of his feet. But don’t worry … done under anaesthesia.’
Trapped inside David’s brain, I could partially view the outside world through his eyes, akin to peripheral vision. Sometimes I could see Joan as she darted around, trying to think of a way to rescue me.
I remember David forced me to read an old book. It contained pictures of two hundred well-known paintings. An elderly teacher gave it to him twenty years ago when he was in Netherlands learning about oil painting …
I recalled seeing David using a long stick to stoke the fire he built at the entrance of the cave. The cave ensconced on the slope of a hill near to its navel. David muttered that the fire could deter predatory animals. The flames crackled in the pale evening light. A flurry of sparks drifted above the embers. He fed split logs into the fire and watched the sparks drifting upwards. The jagged mouth of the cave was narrow. David bent his body when he entered. Inside the cave widened. We seemed to be inside the hollow of a giant skull.
David’s belt contained a pouch that held a loaded pistol. A bulky army knife was strapped to his waist. He flipped through the old book and said, ‘Give me twenty stimulating insights within the next two days and everything will be over.’
I remained quiet for a while and said, ‘Please release my son. Anxiety blocks my thinking.’
‘You need to enter a high tension state. It’s conducive to breakthrough insights. They strike like lightning.’
‘Why do you sound like Flint?’ I asked.
‘Never rest on your laurels,’ he said. ‘Better start now. If the kidnappers didn’t hear anything from me within the next six days, they’ll proceed to scissor off his toes.’
‘I’ll select the first picture now …’ I thought for a while and replied, ‘Mona Lisa.’
‘An unwise choice,’ David said. ‘I’ve read hundreds of commentary on that painting. I doubt you can come up with anything original. Choose another.’
‘Let’s try Mona Lisa …’
‘Alright … since you insist,’ he said and flipped open the page reflecting that painting.
I thought for a long while and then said, ‘The focus is not on Mona Lisa … her famous half-smile is a camouflage, a decoy. The painter is trying to say something else …’
‘What do you suggest?’ he asked.
‘The focus is on the background, on the splendid range of mountains and rivers … perhaps the painting carries a mystical message … that Mona Lisa’s intelligence can be traced to unseen forces that created those mountains … and it’s a miracle for intelligence to emerge in this cosmos and it’s a miracle for a painter to have the aesthetic passion and skills to do the painting and for viewers to appreciate it.’
David thought for a long while and said, ‘Speculative … but interesting. Will accept it.’
‘Next, I choose The Garden of Earthly Delights.’
David turned to that page and said, ‘Go ahead …’
Before I could reply, the cave trembled and the ground shook. The tremor intensified. David could feel the vibration along his thighs and arms. An earthquake? He gritted his teeth. The tremor stopped for a while. Then it started again. The ground shook more vigorously. David stood up briskly and tried to walk to the mouth of the cave. But the shaking ground made him wavered and he fell on the ground. Strangely the cave seemed to rotate. He became dizzy and closed his eyes. Sitting on the ground, he hunched forward and used both hands to cover his neck, fearing that rocks might tumble down. The cave seemed to rotate faster and faster. Then the ground gave way and he dropped into a tunnel.
As he plunged into the deep, he felt being tossed about by unseen forces. He felt being sucked into a dark hole. The speed of the falling intensified. He hoped that the hole would end in a lake so that his bones would not be smashed into pieces.
After a few bouts of fierce spinning, the rotation slowed down. Then the spinning stopped. He opened his eyes as he floated inside a dark hole. Looking around, he spotted occasional flashes of blue in the distance. He swung his arms and drifted around. Then he detected a gleam of light below him. It seemed to be an exit point. He stretched out his arms and began to swing his arms, so as to navigate his body his body towards that point. The vigor of his movement pushed his body towards it. Slowly he reached it and discovered that it was a plasma-like opening. He inserted his hands into the oval portal with a diameter of about five feet and he entered it …
He fell onto a half-plasmic, half-metallic floor of a small, cramped room, with a silvery ceiling about eight feet tall and a rectangular floor less than four hundred square feet. He gazed around the silvery walls that contained mirror-like gleaming objects like translucent wire grids. Then he heard a voice, speaking in a strange language. He looked around the hall, but couldn’t see the speaker.
Rays of different colours pierced David’s body from projectile objects lowered from the ceiling that were connected to micro-chips and silvery wires. He was being scanned from head to toe for a full minute. Then the scanning stopped.
The voice spoke in a strange, sonorous language for a few moments. Then it spoke in English, saying ‘ … I’m selecting the English mode now … welcome … I have been waiting for you.’
Surprised, David asked, ‘Waiting for me? Who are you?’
‘Been waiting for you for thirty-seven years?’
‘My name is Sphinx. I know you come from planet Earth. My molecular and neuronal scanning have verified it.’
‘ Yes, I’m from Earth. My name is David Maestri. Why do you say -- you have been waiting for me?’
‘A dream told me. Many years ago.’
‘It told me a human being from Earth will meet me on this comet. It said we knew each other when we were in the timeless Dimension. I was Deity Jupiter. You were my student.’
‘I can’t remember …’ David replied.
‘You were a disobedient student. You kept taunting me in the presence of other students and deities. You said that I was not qualified to be called a Deity unless I have manifested endurance and courage in the visible world. At that time I had not visited the visible world.’
David sat down and listened intently.
The voice continued, ‘I decided to take up the challenge. We had a wager. Both of us would enter the visible world and test ourselves.’
‘Then what happened?’ David asked.
‘We went to see the Godhead. He allowed us to proceed. My consciousness was funneled into the brain of an avant-garde robot called Sphinx. Yours were funneled into the brain of a Homo sapiens. You will be reborn many times as a human being on earth.’
‘I can’t remember any of these …’ David said.
‘Perhaps in future a dream will visit you.’
‘You mentioned we’re now on a comet?’ asked David.
‘Yes, inside a cave on a comet.’
‘How did that happen?’
‘I come from a planetary cluster many light years from Earth. I’m the prototype of an advanced robot. You are now inside my brain.’
Sphinx explained that he used to have four siblings. They were avant-garde robots created by two outstanding scientists in their planetary cluster. If converted into Earth’s calendar, his date of birth would be A.D. 2319. The five avant-garde robots were placed on trial for three years and assigned to perform diverse tasks which were evaluated by the Central Authority. At the end of the three years, the five avant-garde robots contributed to many projects in the fields of scientific research, space exploration, architecture and construction, weapon development and so forth. This angered a group of legislators who had vested interests in a rival company that manufactured advanced robots. They discovered that besides having extensive cognitive ability and knowledge, Sphinx and his four siblings have evolved subtle emotional sensitivity and intelligence which their two creators did not design or anticipate. The rival legislators became alarmists, rallying public opinion, claiming that they must destroy the five prototypes since with the emergence of EQ, the prototypes could become driven by selfish desires. They also accused the two creators of incompetence and negligence. They imprisoned the two creators and planned to destroy the five prototypes. Sphinx and his four siblings decided to save their creators. They fought bravely with the other robots and rescued the two creators. During the rescue operation, his four siblings were destroyed and Sphinx was badly damaged. But he escaped on a spacecraft with his two creators and they flew far away from their planetary cluster. Eventually they landed on this comet and hid in a cave. The two creators died of old age within the next twenty years.
‘When I first landed on this comet, I started to have dreams,’ Sphinx said. ‘It told me that I would meet you.’
‘Maybe this comet or its vegetation could induce hallucinogenic experiences on its inhabitants,’ David said.
‘So far my databases do not contain this category of knowledge and findings.’
‘By the way, how do you know it’s me?’ David asked.
‘The human image in my dream resembles you.’
‘You’ve been waiting for me all these years?’
‘Yes. Now that I have seen you, you need to return to the time womb quickly.’
‘Why?’ David stood up.
A pincer lowered from the ceiling and handed a metallic box and a time womb detection device to David.
‘These two items will be useful to you. The metallic box contains vitamins and the device can detect the presence of a time womb.’
David thanked Sphinx and asked, ‘Who do I need to go off quickly?’
‘This comet is heading towards a star. Soon it will melt …’
‘Why don’t you leave this comet?’
‘My nuclear engine is no longer functional … please go now before the portal of your time womb fades away. Someday we will meet again …’
David waved good-bye to Sphinx, climbed the portal and entered the time womb. He carefully placed the device and metallic box inside his shirt. Then he swung his arms and moved towards a grey swirling. It would channel him to another time zone and place …
David and I continued in our journey through different time zones and places via the dark tunnels. He would self-bandage his wounds or change the old bandages while sitting on the portal of time womb. We hoped to return to 1976, the time before Joseph was kidnapped. During our journey, we met robots and humanoids … we met friendly creatures as well as fierce predators … we met clones and hybrid beings … we chose not to enter portals that looked shadowy outside and we selected to enter portals that contained bright sunlight …
After bypassing dozens of bleak-looking portals and visiting more than thirty time zones and places, we finally returned to a period near to 1976. We returned to that hilly region in Naples, near to that cave … when David climbed out of the time womb at the edge of the forest near that cave, he was elated. He climbed up a hill and looked around and saw four young trekkers camping near the foot of a mountain. He waved vigorously at them and ran towards them, shouting, ‘I’m home … I’m home …’
When he reached the four trekkers, he smiled broadly and gave them his silvery watch in exchange for food and drinks. The four trekkers came from Ceylon. They were university students majoring in Geography.
While drinking a can of beer, David asked the four trekkers, ‘What’s your time zone?’
‘Near eleven o’clock,’ a youthful trekker replied.
‘I mean … the year?’
The four trekkers looked at each other and smiled.
‘Were you lost inside the forest?’ one trekker asked.
David nodded and replied, ‘Yes … lost in an unseen forest for a long time … Is this 1970s or 1980s?’
The students were shocked.
‘It’s third of June, 2003 …’ one of them replied.
‘What? … 2003 …’ David muttered and frowned. ‘I have to do some thinking …’ He walked to a secluded place under a tall tree and said, ‘I choose to stay. It’s not easy to come back to a normal time zone. We’re not in the prehistoric past or some futuristic zone … 2003 is acceptable. I can withdraw money from my Swiss bank accounts and pursue art activities.’
‘No, I need to go back to 1976 before you kidnap Joseph.’
‘But we’ve been drifting and fleeing from dangerous creatures and robots in different time zones and places … there’s little likelihood we can return to 1976.’
‘We must keep trying … we have Sphinx’s device. We shall wait for the next time womb to appear in the same cave,’ I said.
David shook his head and whispered, ‘No, you listen to what I say … I’m in control. I’m the decision-maker, not you …’
Suddenly David became immobilized. He tried to move his right hand but couldn’t. He tried to shift his legs but couldn’t.
‘What’s happening?’ he blurted out.
‘You’re wrong,’ I said. ‘You’re no longer in control … my neurons have grown and extended their reach. I have infiltrated the motor areas of your brain. I can now intervene if I want and control the movement of your limbs and body … Don’t forget, my brain cells are stronger than yours because I’ve been drinking the medicine wine much longer.’
‘You betray me!’ David shouted.
‘You bring this on yourself,’ I said. ‘If you didn’t kidnap Joseph, I’ll agree to stay. But we must return to 1976.’
‘Be realistic, time-travelling is random.’
‘We must keep trying …’
David had no choice. I released my hold on him and he walked back to the camping area of the four trekkers and exchanged his silver bracelet for biscuits, canned food and water. Then he returned to that cave half-way up the hill …
We waited inside that cave for more than three weeks before Sphinx’s device beeped and the portal of a time womb appeared. I controlled David’s limbs and made him climb into the portal and we resumed our journey to return to 1976 …
Once again we bypassed dozens of bleak-looking portals and entered more than forty portals that contained welcoming sunlight. Most of the places we visited were either in the prehistoric past or barren, post-apocalyptic places. Eventually we entered a portal that contained tranquil blue and green lights. David found himself near the edge of a forest. He walked into it to try to find clean water to fill up his bottle. Surrounded by huge pines and tropical trees, he could smell ferns. After walking for ten minutes, he saw a clearing and was surprised to a fresh jackfruit on the ground. He cut it with his knife and tasted its flesh. Same taste as those on earth.
The sound of a river reached his ears. As he trudged ahead in its direction, the weather became cold. Suddenly he heard rustling behind him. He turned and saw three grey bears rushing towards him. He looked around and grabbed a cluster of sturdy-looking tendrils and climbed up a tree. Resting on a wedge about ten feet above the ground, he withdrew his pistol and fired a few warning shots in the direction of the growling bears. They stopped and then lumbered away.
David climbed down and continued to walk in the direction of the river. He heard splashing sound. Cautiously he approached the shrubs that hid the river and looked through the leaves. Dozens of creatures were near the edge of the waters. They looked like stoats, furrets and raccoons with sharp teeth. He quickly turned and hurried away.
But a few of those creatures detected his movement and chased him. He ran in the direction of the time womb and heard more creatures pursuing him. He turned, squat down and fired at some of them. Then David slid down a hill and saw the shimmering surface of a lake. When he approached it, he realized that it was frozen. He stepped onto the lake and gazed at the shimmering surface. He seemed to be on the bottom of a lake, watching the bellies of big fish swimming in the pale blue waters beneath his feet. It was queer and amazing, as if he were standing on the other side of a huge mirror.
Gleams in the distance caught his attention. He looked straight and squinted. To his surprise, he saw a unicorn. He walked slowly towards it along the frozen lake. When he reached it, he was astounded by its size. It was twice the size of a horse found on earth. Its tusk protruding from its forehead was long, more than four feet and it glittered in the sunrays. Its eyes were almond-shaped and pale yellow with golden manes on its pristine brown bodies.
It lowered its head and curved one of its legs. David climbed onto it and it galloped across the frozen lake. Soon it reached the rim and David saw a pond nearby. He climbed down from the unicorn and approached the pond and stared into the waters. Once again he saw the bellies of huge fish and alien creatures swimming in the waters, as if he were on the other side of a mirror. He took a deep breath and jumped into the waters. He swam for a few minutes before he reached the sparkling surface of the other world. In his mind, he was wondering whether he was swimming inside Bosch’s deathless pond as depicted in his triptych. When he surfaced, he was dazed by sunlight …
David climbed out of the pond and everything turned green and then became normal again … he heard the familiar croaking of frogs and the twitter of crickets … It was near midnight. He had returned to a farmhouse in southern Thailand sometime in early 1976 after he escaped from the asylum … he rented that farmhouse to begin working on his second large artwork …
He walked to the rear of the old farmhouse. The kitchen door was not locked. He entered and went to a dark corner of the kitchen. Then he squat down and pulled up a wooden panel. A dim stairway greeted him. Slowly he walked down the narrow stairway and entered a spacious cellar …
I saw a few crates of beer and different types of sculptures and paintings. In one corner was a huge painting with three panels. It was a large triptych. Then he saw the back of someone under the dim light … yes, it was David himself … the flesh-and-blood David in early 1976. His back was facing them. He was sitting on a rattan chair, sketching, measuring with a wooden ruler and then he began writing on a thick pad of papers …
I could feel David’s body half-vanishing … the David who had returned from a time womb was half-vanishing … he couldn’t co-exist with the flesh-and-blood David in the same time-zone …
I controlled the hand of the half-vanishing David and picked up a paintbrush, dipped it into a bottle of red ink and quickly wrote these words on the wall behind the flesh-and-blood David … Please do not kidnap Joseph, from revived Jonathan and time-travelling David Maestri …
As the time-travelling David and I began to fade away, we walked noiselessly towards the David who was sitting on the rattan chair, his back facing us, too engrossed to notice us or most likely he couldn’t see us … He was busily writing on his thick pad of papers, revising his novel … the characters come alive to wrestle with a haunting reality inside a nighttime terrain that runs across the hidden layers of his psyche … After a while, he picked up a chisel blade and began to sculpt on a thin strip of rosewood the opening words of his novel … a Kafkaesque voice runs its course …
To celebrate the centenary publication of Joyce's Ulysses, the award-winning poet John Lennard Lee (Singapore) has written a new novel Mystery Ulysses (published 2016). It is an intriguing novel about an English literature teacher being locked up by a Sculptor suffering from Multiple Personality Complex and the strange events of their lives. It is praised by many readers as a post-modern 21st century classic, treasured by lovers of literature and the Arts for years to come.