Secrets Behind A Jigsaw
John Lee JK
Dedicated to readers
who like the novels
of Herman Melville.
Copyright 2015 by John Lee JK. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted without the written permission of the author.
Born in 1969 in Singapore, John Lee JK obtained Bachelor of Arts degree in 1993 reading Philosophy, Economics and English Literature, and post-graduate degrees. He has worked as a manager in the public sector for more than 20 years, contributing his best years to public service. He completed 2.5 years of National Service in the Republic of Singapore Navy. In the past three years, he suffered from asthma and breathing difficulty and was rushed many times to the Hospital’s emergency department for treatment. He wrote his first and last novel Secrets Behind A Jigsaw in remembrance of Herman Melville.
A Revived Jonathan, January 1976
In the daytime I hear a Kafkaesque voice. Anxious and high-pitched, like someone who has been kidnapped and gagged, attempting to speak through a thick handkerchief. Sometimes the voice sounds like a shriek. Seems to come from the past and foretell the future. Sometimes it’s a coarse whisper, as if saying ‘the future comprises bygone events in Someone’s eyes’. Or the past, the present and the future is like an infant egret spreading its wings for brief moments. A flurry of jabs. An instance of siblicide. Strong winds come. Their nest made of stubby twigs, long stalks and sticks is gone. Both egrets are gone, but the shriek remains. Something else like a shadow whispers, ‘we cannot exit alive’. Or was I allowed to half-succeed in a strange way?
The voice lingers. 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 pasted on the wall. I remember its golden mane. An orange blaze that comes from its nape, dorsum, shoulders and forehead. It’s 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 the voice comes from a second picture. A magnificent Laysan albatross soaring into a blue sky in northwestern Hawaii, with long wings, a dark tail, gray mantle and upperwing. Its lower rump and underparts are clean white. A squid dangles at its bill. It’s a symbol of hope and aspiration, although its species is threatened by environmental pollution.
Or the 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. Although a symbol of determination and fearlessness, it sounds plaintive as it rests under the shade, unable to find a mate in the harsh savanna.
The murmuring can also come from a greyish whale with a long tusk called a narwhal when it’s logging like a drowned sailor or when it’s being pursued for its meat and ivory. Or a hoarse whisper comes from a black scarab worshipped by ancient Egyptians as a solar deity as he rolls the sun across the sky. Other times a muffled grunt comes from a giant softshell turtle weighing more than two hundred pounds, its olive-colored carapace lying motionless under the sand most of the time. Are they saying, ‘Can I return to bygone days where angels and deities didn’t need to play hide-and-seek with earthly children?’ Or am I dreaming? Half-hallucinating? Trekking in another mental terrain? Slipping into another layer of the unconscious?
Slowly I come to terms with 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 proboscis monkey whose huge nose attracts females. The red-lipped batfish, a poor swimmer, it prefers to walk on the ocean floor. The Angora rabbit that looks like a furry balloon, its wool finer and softer than cashmere. The giant Chinese salamander, more than five feet long and weighs more than a hundred pounds, it whines like a crying human child. The pink fairy Armadillo with leathery shells covering its dorsal side, it looks like a mythical warrior from another planet. The giant Coconut crab which is half the size of a man when it spreads its limbs, it looks like an armored monster spider left behind by aliens to terrorize us.
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. Empathizes with human suffering and grief. Waking up, I remember. I was a lover of nature, poems and the arts. Taught English Literature for many years, specializing in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Kafka’s The Trial. A pursuer of grey shadows when I was 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 remember. I practiced Zen meditation for many years, hoping it would hone my skill in writing a haiku. Strangely it deepened my appreciation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Edvard Munch’s The Scream of Nature and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Above all, it 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. Perhaps the wine and the phobia prompted me to interrogate deities, pagan gods and the unseen One regarding the existence of moral and natural evils. Yes, only after midnight, when encouraged by my twin sister Joan.
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. They sized me up with quizzical glances, turned their heads and walked away. I could hear their inner laughter, even when there was none. Or I learned to juggle their half-sympathetic looks, skeptical coughs and near-cynical stares. Understandably, quite a number of those accountants, engineers, lawyers, marketing executives and information technology consultants squinted at me as if I were just disgorged from a time-travelling cocoon spun seven hundred years ago by a medieval alchemist.
For those who suffered from guilt, I was naïve and reckless. Talked to them in private about their morally ambiguous acts or misdeeds in the past and explained the Memory Windows theory. Four outcomes awaited me. First, the astute wrongdoers ignored me and asked for concrete evidence. Second, the impulsive ones berated and warned me not to talk to anybody about their past. Third, the aggressive ones grabbed my shoulders, shook and threatened me, demanding that I should keep absolutely quiet about their shadowy deeds. Finally, the insidious ones smirked and walked away, planning how to teach me a lesson. Thus, I was seriously wounded and dying.
A Revived Jonathan, January 1976
At night I overhear Kafkaesque echoes. Am I a woodpecker trying to make music while hunting? A marabou stork practicing a dance to attract a female? Or a muslin moth trying to free myself from the raptorial legs of a mantis? A dumbo octopod finding a place to hide because my fin has been bitten off by a viperfish? A tufted deer hiding inside a crack near the bottom of a cliff and surrounded by a family of wolves? Or am I a self-muttering, self-overhearing walnut without the husk, trapped inside a flask filled with anti-aging liquid in a laboratory?
It’s after midnight. The tweet of owls and bats, the chitter of crickets and lizards, the silence of the night. They sharpen and become high-pitched. A captive appears. Tired, feverish, seeking refuge. Is he like a seagull that has flown many miles? Straining his eyes above the grey waves, looking for the traces of a new continent? Or a hybrid butterfly struggling to break free? Has its chrysalis hardened and changed colour? Need claws to crack it? Or a salmon struggling upstream? Searching for a spot away from insectivores and carnivorous birds on the first panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights? Trying to give birth to a brainchild that kicked like the embryo of a square-jawed hippo? Or is he struggling upstream in Kafka’s river of consciousness? Searching for a forbidden fruit that once swallowed, he will become immune to angst and fears?
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.
Or that captive talks to me because I’m a truth-hunter trying to live a few more days to knead a different kind of bread? A devotee of haikus and medicinal wine trekking the psychedelic world of memory windows to keep alive my mother’s love? A teacher collating interpretations of Moby Dick’s insights into the anarchic elements of the world?
Or I’m a student of psychology applying repression theories to better understand Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A practitioner of Taoist and Zen meditations to free myself from flatland-conceptual models when trying to decipher Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. An amateurish memorizer of Hamlet’s soliloquies, exploring 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?’
Or I’m a dreamy memorizer of Ode To A Grecian Urn, wondering why Hieronymus Bosch allowed slithering creatures to breed in a deathless pond in the Garden of Eden. Symbols of dark forces in Someone’s enigmatic plan? Do they play a role in actualizing ‘truth is beauty, beauty is truth’ where shadows augment the light? Am I prompted to glimpse some aspects of a truth that cannot be couched in words? Can I become a child again and look through a kaleidoscope without the need to understand and let the changing colours of light to amaze me? Perhaps in this way I can better appreciate Salvador Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans and Arshile Gorty’s The Artist and His Mother.
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?’
My response, ‘Why did the Compassionate Understanding emerge? Why did It endure layers of dusts and ashes through the centuries to manifest Itself, to write a poem in the guise of Hui Neng? Why did It endure blood, toil, tears and sweat through countless seasons to become the ageless DNAs of Hui Neng? They continue to give birth to Zen followers.’ Day by day, I explore. Hour by hour, I try to decide or I vacillate and half-decide. Moment by moment, I drift and dream. Sometimes the characters in my dreams will decide.
Let’s return to reality. Am I talking to a captive in a farmhouse? He’s not allowed to read the Bible, in case he may stumble across a glow in the Ecclesiastes as revolutionary as ‘God has planted eternity in the hearts of men.’ That may turn out to be the chant of a talisman that resolves the jigsaw puzzle of his captor’s life. The captor appears to be suffering from Multiple Personality Complex. The type where the rational persona cannot control the sadistic urge of an irrational twin.
Jonathan Yang, April 1975
My mother died four decades ago. Since then I have struggled as a truth hunter, trying to glimpse the Meaning of existence. I would narrow my eyes and stare hard at a sonnet, a haiku, a novella, a bonsai, a Victorian gramophone, an oil painting or a Zen calligraphy, hoping that it would disclose its innermost secret. Or I would scrutinize 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 felt that we were trapped inside a huge kaleidoscope and being shaken by a huge Invisible Hand. We were like broken pieces of mirrors rotating, reflecting glimmers of truth to each other. Perhaps someday I might catch a few of those glimmers.
Other times I would ponder over a walnut from California, 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 would try to escape by rushing across a waterfall, climbing up a slope, pushing hard on a swing near Kovan chapel or jumping into a hole that looked like a grave. Perhaps I was trying to get into the flow of another stream of awareness or blend with the voice of time, hoping to catch a glimpse of Reality. But time 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 in accordance with legal technicalities for killing a rogue soldier during the Second World War and for attempting to starve a gangster to death in 1962; and I regard myself to be half a follower of mysticism if you’re familiar with the Gospel of Thomas discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. But I prefer to be known as a poetic hybrid, although my friends call me a sensitive raccoon -- quiet, desperate, hissing my teeth when frustrated or lost in a nightmare.
Could they smell the mildly sweet incense of a maple coffin? It was getting strong. Was I stepping into a memory window, walking along a corridor blackened by shadows? I saw a row of shops selling bulky, old-fashioned coffins, shaped 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, and filled with the conversations of unseen talismans.
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 internal organs are toxic. Only a chef with three years of rigorous training can prepare the dish. Every bite may be my last.’ Death seemed to admire me for a while, became a half-benign counselor, lingering behind the mildly sweet taste. I recalled whispering, ‘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. Another layer of the psyche? Another layer of the subconscious? Yours or mine? Maybe I worshipped a prehistoric God. Maybe I was learning to become a devotee of Zen. How did I reconcile my interest in Zen with my beliefs in talismans, exorcism and fenshui? Or did I try to extract and blend their mystical elements to find a world where luck and chance play a small role? Or was I trying to figure out why we could not remain contented in heaven or whether we were being forced to come to earth? Or did I transgress a moral law in a previous life and was I being sent to earth to make amends?
Memory windows have become my psychedelic hunting ground for many years since I drank the legendary Yunnan’s medicine wine. I did the hunting together with Joan on Saturday nights. Every now and then while journeying inside the memory windows, I detected soundless screams from Edvard Munch’s The Scream of Nature. Soon I realized that they came from me. Perhaps someday their reverberation would enable me to glimpse the truth 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 despite being a patriot?’, ‘Why didn’t the deities stop that criminal from attacking my wife, Florence?’, ‘Why was my son Joseph diagnosed with muscular atrophy at a young age?’ and ‘Why was I allowed to cause my mother’s death when I was seven?’
Jonathan Yang, April 1975
Joan, my twin sister, was one of the poets who gave up her life for me. 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 and blood.
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, the transparent shadows inside her pupils like reflections on the surface of a lake and their unending stories, reflect the cheerfulness of a blue sky.
Her silvery, brown hair carries the fragrance of jasmine. It tickles my forehead and eye-lids when her face touches my cheek. Her jasmine hair modestly conceals her elegant, transparent neck that doesn’t age as long as she avoids sunlight. 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.
And my eyes follow Joan’s voice under the starlight. Tender and melodious, it heals my squeaks, calms my sense of frustration and reduces my fragmentary complaints. In short, Joan remains youthful, optimistic, buoyant. Always looks seventeen, 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. Someday we’ll find out who had stolen her 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 so that my body could 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 the control of God?’ It was too late. When the surgeon operated on my mother, he and the nurses found that Joan’s heartbeat had stopped.
But 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 songbirds and the whispers of a river. But sunlight began to burn her ethereal form. She quickly returned to find me and chose to stay near me during her stay on earth. Slowly she learnt 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 a quiet spot at 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 that 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 jazz of Ellison’s novel? 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 kaleidoscopes of Salvador Dali’s melting watches? Or is it hidden in Max Ernst’s paintings that half-deify and re-invigorate body parts?
Now at the age of forty-six, Joan and I have become truth addicts. Are we now looking for a snowman who doesn’t melt in the middle of an equatorial rainforest in Singapore? Is that snowman the guardian of a legendary castle or an imaginary oasis? Is that snowman 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 final dream before the entire catastrophe? Is the snowman the contemplative mind of a bonfire or the whisper of a pale-green, silvery arowana that pulsates through the bloodstream of 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 pulsating through someone’s imagination? 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 shadows and silhouettes have fled and we learn to shape a dream? Or maybe we pry into someone’s brain. Finger its veins, tissues and neurons. Breathe in the energy of their whirling hearts. Can we hear micro-strands of memories sleeping? Can we hear them sleeping and speaking inside the hidden chambers of Someone’s heart? Maybe they’re magnified in another world. Maybe they change into the glittering blocks of a marble statue. This time -- ghostlier, saintlier, a fiery snowman. He burns away imaginary eardrums and the smell of bullets. He burns away the small talk inside my cranium and the husk of my walnut. This time the marble is more than flammable marble. The statue is more than a Grecian statue. It can speak, metamorphose, time-travel. Brings hope to different minds in different ways at His disposal.
A Revived Jonathan, January 1976
Tonight I wander in a dream, entering a panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. I step across a threshold. Smell the flames of purgatory and the tinge of burning flesh. Am I hiding from rogue soldiers? Am I running away from their bayonets and studded whips?
I turn away and walk into a dark forest. It appears to be self-aware. Filled with the shadows of scorpionflies, Goliath beetles, thorn bugs and prickly stick insects. Filled with the colours of an atlas moth that glow and change gradually in the horizon, from light green to blue to yellow to crimson. Filled with the grunts of lobster claws, beehive ginger and orchids that look like parrots, eagles and human skulls. The forest is hunting behind tall eucalypti and ancient pines. I avoid shadows that contain red-streaked gleams and suppressed growls. There are unseen creatures. But my elbows and hands are already bleeding, cut by the teeth along the edges of leaves.
I wade into a swamp shrouded by a mist, a swamp that flicks its tongue in a soundless way, like an anaconda. The muddy, rough limbs of the swamp 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 a forbidden area guarded by flaming swords? An out-of-bounds area of the Unconscious? Or ghosts from the Second World War return to haunt me? Am I running away from the long swords of Japanese soldiers? Running away from their smudged fingernails and bullets? Hiding from the blasts of their bombs?
Or am I straying into a giant cage at a corner of The Garden of Earthly Delights? Is the cage made of dreams, memories and fogs? Does it move on uneven terrains? I see silhouettes surrounding me now. They seem to come from huge armadillo lizards and spiny anteaters. Crisscross like craggy branches above me. But I can’t see the rims of the cage, its meshes stretch everywhere. Is the giant cage a small interlocking piece of a Jigsawed Enigma? Is this interlocking piece marked ‘Part 1, Number 5’? Do I see fidgety pieces of jigsawed enigmas and riddles that challenge a straying mind, asking ‘Is a work of art redundant in the eyes of the world, but precious in the eyes of the Unknowable?’ Or am I hunting for a voice less ghostly, a whisper that echoes ‘Part 1, Number 5’?
Perhaps I’m hoping to glimpse something timeless. 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? Or a gleam inside the eye of a patriot throwing his last grenade at the invaders and he didn’t ask, ‘Why wars and moral evils? Did the Unknowable agree to sacrifice so much blood, tears and sweat for a moral-aesthetic-ontological ideal?’ I need to catch a glimpse. I become a truth addict.
My 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.
Jonathan Yang, April 1975
With hindsight, I shouldn’t have become a truth addict.
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, carefree 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 late nineties, living in the White Clouds Temple at Genting Highlands, entrusted Herbia to me. That was nine years ago. He told me that if I could fathom his intention of asking me to take good care of this insectivore for ten years, his spirit will return to shed light on the enigmas of my life. Foolishly I agreed, ignorant about the dietary requirement of a chameleon.
Maybe the old monk 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 still not 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 observed Herbia more closely and learned from him. It can reduce my urge to glimpse the Truth or enable me to restrain my addiction. Perhaps I should have hidden my addiction behind my small, anemic nose. It can sense the age of a book from its smell. I should have hidden it behind my elongated face that makes my bony, five-feet-seven body looks smaller. Or I should have concealed 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 have buried it underneath my sunken cheeks that shy away from sunrays-induced fever. Maybe I should put a mask on my addiction with my fragile eye-brows, thin coy ears, self-muttering lips and half-closed, protruding eyes. Eyes that sometimes 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 sucked into a whirlpool. Perhaps it symbolizes a descent into darkness. I begin to pray, seeking the help of the gracious Spirit. In some aspects, it resembles the punishment of Sisyphus. His is a huge, muscles-straining rock. Mine is a mental boulder – the Question of the unpredictable nature of life, its senselessness and cruelty. There may be no answer or it may never come. Or it recedes when I try to approach it. Or it’s well beyond my ability to understand. Or maybe the question is irrelevant or meaningless in a godless universe. Or both the question and the answer don’t come within a conceptual framework as conjured by the human mind. But I must keep trying.
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 experience a regression, as if I’m becoming 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 tactfully hinted to them in private about their shadowy past. The astute ones sought to refute me and demanded concrete evidence. When I shook my head indicating that I was not in any official position to gather concrete or verifiable evidence, they raised their nose and walked away, satisfied that they had exposed me as a sham. The impulsive ones scolded and shouted at me, labelling me as insane. Then they quietly warned me not to spread groundless rumours about their past. The sensitive and aggressive ones pushed me against the wall, grimaced 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.’
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. I always carried a few darts for self-protection and 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 attacker had escaped while I need to be hospitalized for eight weeks. The doctors told me that his dagger was smeared with a mixture of poisons that could 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 had quickened my recovery.
Although I have largely recovered six months after the assault, the dagger wound was deep. Sometimes I felt strange pain coming from the abdomen in the middle of the night. Seeing death more clearly, I resolve to write my autobiographical journals that note down key events of my life. Hope to pass them to my son. Perhaps someday he can weave them into an artwork that whispers at night. A few truth hunters may wish to listen. They may hear about the problem of evil or the journey towards Zen. They may hear the footsteps of someone pursuing an unseen waterfall that whispers: The end is in the beginning. The source is in your memory before you are born …
Do these journals look like fragmentary pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? Are they trying to compose a soliloquy as complex as “To be or not to be” because each phrase can trigger, invoke, paint and splash dozens of clear-cut or hazy or overlapping images, memories and pictures in the mind of each reader? Or are they trying to hint that the Creator is in fact just and fair, to the extent that when He walked on earth, He did not exempt Himself from the laws of risks, vulnerability, pain and death which He built into the visible world? Or these murmurings come from an exposed, defiant walnut that looks like a jigsawed enigma?
Maybe these lines are quarantined ice cubes of memory with irregular shapes. They look like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Self-muttering, jittery and half-melting, are they living inside a memory window marked ‘Part 1, Number 6’? Are they wriggling inside the neuron of a dolphin that’s swimming away from Tasmania towards the Australian mainland? Or are they trapped inside a Memory Window that stretches across the Yangtze River? Maybe they’re lost in a wilderness near to the northern rim of the Antarctic, hiding in a crevice to avoid a blizzard raging inside a novel.
When the blizzard is gone after I have turned to the next page, do these memory cubes look like the fragments of a dismembered jigsaw puzzle? Are they emerging from their hideout now? Planning to float on an ice-sheet and sail to a rainforest near to the heart of Singapore, a section of a rainforest which is marked ‘Part 1, Number 6’ on the map of a local explorer? Can they stand the heat of truth-hunting inside that rainforest? Can they stand the blaze of a bonfire ignited by a band of insectivores who are connoisseurs of exotic food? But where can ice cubes hide? Can they run away from impartial sunrays? Can they escape the beaks of crows, the knives of an underworld ice sculptor who loves swallowing ice cubes or the rotating teeth of a Jigsaw which we call Time?
I must be mistaken. I feel the shadows and claws of tiny jigsawed enigmas that are running amok inside my forehead. They bear names such as Amnesia, Alzheimer’s, Bipolar Disorder and Sleeping Disease. They can assault me one at a time or they can mount an onslaught against me all at the same time. But I just read the Webster’s, Longman and Oxford dictionaries. They define ‘enigma’ as a puzzling question, person, thing or circumstance; and they define ‘jigsaw’ as (a) a jigsaw puzzle that refers to a picture printed on wood or cardboard and cut into pieces of different shapes to be fitted together; (b) a mystery or complex situation; or © a saw with a fine blade. Inside the dictionaries, they appear limp and lifeless. They cannot bruise or maim me.
Jonathan Yang, July 1975
It’s after midnight now. A captive is talking to me. Is the captive someone I’ve been trying not to focus on? But the pain discloses reality to be a haze. It pushes me to focus on that someone. His eyes offer a gestalt. A different Kafka talking to a different Bosch in a garden? A garden haunted by enigmas? A garden cut into pieces by the jigsaws of Time? It seems to engulf me like part of a night sky without rims where stars have burnt away.
Can I shatter my dreams in that garden and escape from the maze? Perhaps reality is a self-muttering window-pane. Musty and murky, it doesn’t follow the advice of George Orwell. Or is this captive a part of the psyche? Another layer of the unconscious? The window-pane is becoming unseen, like a Zen sutra, so as to effectively bear the brunt of a storm. Is it whispering, “Let the storms arise and pass away. Let go of life and death.”?
I look at the captive. I look at his face and complexion. There’s no mistake. He’s me. I’m a captive of Flint the sculptor. The life story which Flint doesn’t like happens to be my real life story.
Jonathan Yang, July 1975
Sometimes Flint appeared in my dreams and I asked myself, besides me, what other people did he lock up in this two-storeyed farmhouse? What secrets did he bury near a huge Tembusu? His farmhouse was quiet and secluded, sheltered by tropical shrubs and a few Senegal Mahogany. Its frontage was hidden by Yellow Flame and Angsana trees. Nearby was a huge Tembusu with deeply fissured bark, oval green leaves and craggy branches that touched the ground.
Flint wielded a jigsaw. Rusty and worn, it rotated and whizzed like an electric paintbrush. Chiseled out formless figurines with holes. They contained jutting pieces that gave off a stale smell. He stringed and bound the figurines tightly to his canvas which was eight feet tall and twenty feet wide.
Was Flint using his jigsaw to create avant-garde artworks or to exact revenge? Was he engaged in another kind of truth hunting? Or did I lock myself up inside a jigsaw puzzle to avoid baptism by fire, to avoid trudging through an earthly purgatory? Without cradling those flaming enigmas in my arms, can I catch a glimpse of their truth? Was there a voice inside that glimpse, saying, ‘Whom the gods love die young’?
Jonathan Yang, July 1975
In the middle of the night, the farmhouse awoke. There was silence, except for the high-pitched cadence of crickets and the tweet of monitor lizards. I was locked up in one of the two rooms on the ground floor of the farmhouse. The ground floor had a rectangular living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a toilet and a narrow stairway to the second floor. There were three bedrooms upstairs where Flint hid his other captives. The farmhouse was made of brick, its roof looked like a mortar board with a long downspout on its right.
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 centre of the table. On the right side of the table were an array of paint tubes that contained oil pigments and tubes containing watercolors. On its left were a bundle of paintbrushes standing erect in a small container. There were also many pencils and erasers stacked on top of folded-up sketches. Crumpled pieces of paper scattered on the floor beneath the table together with two easels, three portable jigsaws and a sketch book. A pile of clay figurines with different shapes and sizes was kept at one corner of the workshop. Some of the figurines looked like torsos, half human, half animal. At another corner were pieces of pottery, ceramics and the chips of unwanted murals. At a third corner were five torsos of arhats, four Bali wood sculptures featuring traditional Indonesian songsters and three Grecian statues featuring Spartan warriors. On the walls of the living room were the stuffed heads of a crocodile with gleaming eyes, a rhinoceros with a formidable horn and a leopard with bloodstained fangs.
A huge canvas occupied the center of the living room. He told me that it measured eight feet tall and twenty feet wide. 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. The huge canvas was the sculptor-artist’s monumental work in progress. ‘Shiva!’ He exclaimed a few times while leaning against the wall on his left, his hand resting on an oblong wall clock that measured two feet wide and three feet in length. The clock should be more than a hundred years old, with baroque petal carvings on its wooden face and a narrow 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 and different time dimensions which inspired him to work on his masterpiece.
Nailed on the walls that encircled the workshop were ten mass-printed famous paintings in ebonized frames. They included 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, 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.
Except for the windows in the living room which were fortified with iron grills, the windows of the bedrooms on the second floor and the two rooms on the ground floor were sealed up with planks. The heavy wooden doors at the entrance and at the kitchen were bolted with high security locks. Two standing electric fans aired the house.
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 huge silhouettes. The house seemed to come alive in the middle of the night, becoming a magnified sculpture of the thinking man, eternally unable to decide whether life is absurd or contains some hidden meaning.
The farmhouse was located at a remote area of Lim Chu Kang in Singapore, a few kilometers from the northern coast of the island country. The perimeter of its forty-thousand-square-feet land 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 the fences. It used to be a frog farm owned by Flint’s maternal grandfather who passed away six years ago. He converted it into his residence cum workshop in the past few years.
The nearest neighbor was a prawn farm located a few kilometers away at the eastern side. At the western side and its rear were heavily wooded areas that stretched to the coast. I didn’t notice any visitor during daytime or night time, except for the postman who might come once a week to drop a letter at the letterbox standing near the iron-gate entrance. Sometimes I detected the rumble of an old van that passed by the entrance more than a hundred meters away from the farmhouse, probably a vehicle from the prawn farm that delivered its goods to the city once a week.
In the past few days, I had started to plan how to escape. I had a foreboding. My organs might soon become materials for Flint’s artwork.
Jonathan Yang, April 1975
Poetry keeps me sane. Discloses other worlds where claws, fangs and daggers become rubbery and soft. They can’t make me bleed anymore. Poetry gives me hope. It also preserves my memory of a kind-hearted mother bitten by the canines of a metallic Doberman. Did I transgress the iron laws of Risks, Randomness, Chaos and Enigmas?
Jonathan Yang, 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 bedroom on the ground floor of the farmhouse. A rectangular room, about two hundred square feet, with walls and ceiling painted in grey.
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, pock-marked 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, tooth paste, bars of soap, a few T-shirts, towels, short pants and underwear. I was allowed to wash the clothing for my use at the greasy, oil-stained sink of the kitchen.
Flint said, ‘Stimulate me! 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.’
He 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.
As I watched him with tired and half-closed eyes, his unshaven chin tightened suddenly. Was he struck by an omen? His eyes narrowed like those of a black panther.
Flint the sculptor became David Maestri, the semi-idealistic, half-disillusioned poet. His hoarse voice trailed off. Maybe he had earlier turned back that medieval wall clock in his workshop, inviting shamanic forces to design a masterstroke to his artwork. David mumbled, ‘I don’t like this insight, but maybe a true artist should mete out punishment like a demi-god. The two adulterers in the room upstairs. They should atone for their sins.’
Jonathan Yang, July 1975
I frowned at the nylon strings that tied my hands together and grimaced at the two iron balls chained to my legs, each weighing fifteen pounds. I imitated a Taoist priest and wrote an invisible talisman on my palm, convinced that it could be sensed by warrior deities.
Flint Maskeraid was emotionally unstable. A sadist. Aggressive like the two dark Dobermans snarling outside when provoked by moving shadows. He muttered to himself, ‘Wise demons inside me. Freed by hardened clots inside my forehead.’ Speeding a year ago, his motorbike hit a truck when he sustained a concussion to his brain. 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 alien parasites and behaved like self-conscious tumors that controlled his mind.
Flint told me yesterday that he kept me and the other captives alive to witness how we would continue to suffer. He said that he liked to observe how we would change into nocturnal creatures, hunting for crumbs of light.
Jonathan Yang, July 1975
David Maestri was Flint’s real name. He was thirty-four. I knew him for five months and met him together with a few 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 an emotional but hoarse voice, David recited his poems with the title “A Kafkaesque Songster” that were published in a local literary magazine. He explained that he was probing into the meaning of life and death, love and self-alienation, reality and appearance. We detected doses of disillusionment and dark humor in his poems.
David said that he was a painter-poet cum avant garde sculptor. His father was Italian, an electrical engineer who 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 while pursuing his interests in avant-garde art forms.
Admiring his poetic ability, I casually talked to David about my Memory Windows theory during one of my dinner sessions with him. He listened carefully to my views that all earthly events are stored in the memories of a cosmic Being and they do not vanish. The cosmic Being can choose to revisit those memories which He finds worthwhile.
David seemed to be very interested in my theory. He discussed at length with me on this subject a few times. I was careless during one of the discussions and disclosed to him that I could enter the memory windows of other people after drinking the Yunnan’s medicine wine due to its mind-expanding, psychedelic properties. He earnestly requested me a few times to let him have a drink of the medicine 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. However, after I became David’s captive, I discovered that he was pretending. He wasn’t interested in drinking the medicine wine. All along, he suspected that I was a quack and a fraudster. What he really wanted were real, original and 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 that their life stories could stimulate him in attaining breakthrough artistic visions.
During my sixth dinner 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. I saw gleams of cunning and maliciousness in his eyes as he flashed out a lightweight chisel blade and a palm-sized block of wood. He began to shave off its corners while waiting for me to sink into a deeper state of drowsiness. 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.
David Maestri was six feet one inch in height. I estimated that he weighed at least 180 pounds. He had a suntanned square face, a rough chin and a sharp nose. At the eatery, he wore 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 look like two dashes of black ink, their attention-grabbing position daubed a hostile shade to his taut face.
I noticed that when David was not reciting his poems, his lips with uneven thickness move mechanically when he spoke. He sounded like a neurotic sergeant who just weeded out a dozen enemies. His earlobes were long and fleshly, swerved to one side when he swung his head in agitation, yelled and then stopped in self-absorbed thinking, as if trying to catch an aesthetic vision. He looked like a frowning, weather-beaten figurine half-raising a machete at the corner of a deserted temple. When he became aware of his mortality again, he yelled and brandished a rusty jigsaw in the air. His earlobes trembled, the menacing gleams of his eyes produced soundless screams, as if he had detected a horde of demons rushing towards him. He shouted a few times, shaking his head with fear and anger. Slowly he returned to reality. When he sat on the floor to calm down, I spotted a purple snake-shaped scar slithering from his forehead to his left eye-corner. It seemed to split a part of his face. Must have been done by an axe. Only his thick skull could bear such impact. He told me a house burglar did that more than ten years ago. He and his father subdued that intruder and brought him to justice.
Compared to David, I was gaunt and skinny at forty-six. Five feet seven, I weighed 120 pounds. My appearance -- a typical school teacher with thin coy ears, a thin forehead, a bony chin, fragile eye-brows and sleepy eyes. Plus an elongated face that reflected a difficult passage through my mother’s womb. Thin, philosophical lips that struggled to read Kant’s Categorical Imperative. A pale bookish nose that aspired to smell the truth like a modern-day follower of Sherlock Holmes. A few nocturnal glimmers might be seen inside my dark pupils in the middle of the night. The neurons behind the pupils tried to fathom Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. My almond-shaped sleepy eyes were half-closed and half-protruding due to excessive, focused reading. At this moment my eyes were enlarged and red-streaked due to the rush of adrenaline. My lips were taut as I listened to Flint’s pronouncement.
‘You’re my third captive. The other two have tasted my jigsaw.’
I suspected David was suffering from Multiple Personality Complex, most likely due to blood clots in his brain. When he was reciting his poems, he sounded sentimental and nostalgic, like a weather-beaten travelling gypsy during the nineteenth century who earned a living by telling soul-stirring romances to people in small towns. When he painted, although there were glimmers of anxiety, desperation and aggressive energies in his eyes, he appeared quite 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 and profundity 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. Flint became hostile, yet I seemed to sense that he was struggling to convert part of his vindictive energy into a strange kind of aesthetic passion, as if he were attempting to talk to unseen shamanic beings and extract darker truths. When his captives didn’t provide him with a thrilling story that satisfied him, Flint displayed little sympathy when he shaved off a segment of their fingers. He only smirked and muttered, ‘You deserve it, adulterer.’
At this moment, he waved his jigsaw before me vigorously, showing his resolve to ensure that his captives comply with his rules. He said in a rasp voice, ‘Give me a real, original and thrilling story three days from now.’
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. ‘To be fair, each satisfying story or episode will earn the narrator a piece of my jigsaw puzzle. It’s made up of nine pieces. When you earn all the pieces and assemble my jigsaw, you get the ultimate prize. It’s a pleasurable secret. In addition, you’ll be freed forever.’
David Maesteri, 1973
A Kafkaesque Songster, Part (1)
(David wrote this poem in early 1973 before his accident and before he suffered from cerebral blood clots. He wrote this poem 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. Humans are not masters. He creates a thunder near the cradle of an unsung New World. Maybe, someday, to wake the self-absorbed world below.
After showing his Kingdom exists before the arrival of mankind, he descends, passing a mist that hides the forehead of a valley. He takes a measured dive and swerves 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 penetrates me. Makes me determined to write a poem to trail it. I borrow a red wheelbarrow from the farmhouse manager and push it across the meadow towards the stream. My wife and her friends are already splashing, chasing, swimming, celebrating their flight to Nature’s beauty. Seeing the wheelbarrow and my poetic high, they offer sympathies.
I camp a short distance away, nursing an urge to emulate Williams in the raw. Look hard at the wheelbarrow. Further stare and ponder. No Vista after an hour. No life-changing Peek. 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 thighs, limbs and spine. They recreate all the running nerves of my fingers, toes, knees and vitals. Every splash cleanses my eyes, lips, sweat pores, tossing sunlit twinkles on my cheeks and into the long green mirror. The mirror shows different pairs of morning eyes, different types of playful, insidious glances and the half-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 towards the horizon mysteries. Carps, children and grown-ups lose their names, crossing a morning rainbow in the waters. Beetles, dragonflies and thrushes welcome our homecoming as we throw away our nets. This poem sheds its skin, flesh and bones. What remains? A pair of novels-loving, nostalgic eyes fronting nameless angels, eyes-redundant gods. They glimpse the rural beauty and redness of a wheelbarrow, the faith and perseverance of its users, dissolving into the silhouettes-stretched-long-and-unbeatable haven of images.
Meanwhile, waters keep gliding. Cannot be stopped, akin to time. The stream flows, unaffected by time, content to be solipsistic when we sit beside it, watching it, as yet free of human spoilage, except for teleported-from-nowhere thought thrusts. They begin to moaning awkward -- more than sole-lips-cease-tick wordplay -- 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.
Our practice is circular. This includes poetry, gardening, working, jogging, praying, sensing the imageless, heeding the Muses, finding the eye of life’s storms, even confession … a half-grilled imagist, a religious hybrid, still searching for a golden Balance in the stream of life. In the meantime, life feels half-twisted-cum-thwarted.
Perhaps must un-frustrate, like uncorking champagne. Reaches a self-absorbed climax. The possible consequences deserve emphasis. Any undesired pregnancy, akin to a rejected brainchild, becomes an undiagnosed miscarriage during a spotless holiday season. The red wheelbarrow will be used to camouflage and transport that purplish, tumor-shaped lump for a Christian burial under a great pine, half-deep in the woods. Soon it shares its nutrients with nearby fruit trees, flowers and nutmegs. They are 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. The fingers are sweating now, trying to sublimate, struggling to type these lines.
Maybe after many seasons, they mellow and come alive, whispering: If we become an invisible wheelbarrow bringing gifts to the needy, someday the golden Balance will visit us during our non-eagle-chasing moments. This will become a more earthy artwork.
Jonathan Yang, April 1975
Someone speaks to me. I look at his body. His leg is mutilated by a Jigsaw. Does It have a name – Fate, Violence or Cruelty? Is there an unseen tattoo on his forehead? Does it feature The Scream of Nature? We believe it can be dispelled by a splash of hot blood.
Jonathan Yang, April 1975
I entered a memory window. A flash of terror ran across Grandfather’s brown eyes. His veins and muscles along his square jaws tightened. His wrinkled suntanned face became tense, accentuating his look of being a rugged Chinese peasant inured to the vagaries of the weather. His eye-brows locked into a furrow as he gazed at a boy climbing a four-meter-tall fence. His shadow passed Grandfather’s forehead as the boy inched up the fence.
‘Come down quick! It’s dangerous!’ Grandfather exclaimed.
His stout five-feet-six body stiffened. He looked like the disciple of an arhat, alert and solemn. His short-sleeved brown shirt and black pants exuded the vigor of an 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 at the zoo in Melbourne. It interrupted the hunting of the foxes and the sleep of mosaic-tailed rats in a nearby woodland. It startled the quolls, thornbills and sugar gliders. The British woman turned pale in the morning light. Her hands quivered as she waved frantically at her son. She watched helplessly as her son inched his way up the wire-mesh fence, like a young spider struggling up a weather-beaten wall with many peelings. The boy’s fingers and the tip of his mud-stained shoes latched onto the diamond-shaped spaces of the fence as he heaved his body upwards.
‘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, not faint-hearted. Please come down.’ His cousins waved at him, trying to catch his attention.
But twelve-year-old Daniel ignored them as he approached the top of the fence. He was slender with a lean, elongated face, dark hair that covered his ears, a small nose and hazel-colored eyes. His upper lip was half-cleft. It 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 to seek help.
The fence ran along the sides of a ten-feet wide wooden bridge inside the zoo. The bridge was more than a hundred feet that spanned a river. Saltwater crocodiles were basking below on the edges of the river. It was July, 1930. 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. Being a part of the zoo, the woods on both sides of the river were enclosed with fences to prevent visitors from straying into the territory of the crocodiles. The mouth and exit of the river were carefully fenced up.
Grandfather looked around anxiously. The middle-aged tour guide and the tourists did not appear to be trained in handling an emergency. No zoo-keepers were around at that moment. The middle-aged mother and the tour guide attempted to climb up the fence, but their fingers soon became swollen and they fell back on the ground.
‘Your father’s gone in the War. You are all I have. Please come down.’ 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 the three-metre branch of a huge tree. A cluster of bright yellow flowers beckoned near the end of that branch.
Grandfather took a deep breath and began to climb the fence. He must reach the boy fast. 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 persisted in practicing Chinese 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 this 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 the branch could bear his weight. Then he moved forward slowly, his green shirt and dark 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. A moment of unforgettable triumph.
‘Don’t look down, Daniel. Time to come back.’
Assured by Grandfather’s tender voice, Daniel began to plan how to turn back.
‘Dust the flowers against the branch,’ said Grandfather. ‘There may be bees inside. Let them fly away. Then place the flowers inside your shirt to free your left hand. Inch your way back. Then shift to grab my hand.’
Daniel followed the advice and brushed the flowers against the branch. A wasp crawled out 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, flapping its wings. A large crow, raucous and noisy. Its beak looked threatening. Daniel and his cousins threw stones at it earlier that morning. Was it trying to retaliate? He went pale, waved his left hand and yelled at the bird. Grandfather also waved and shouted at it, trying to chase it away. 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. He tried to quiet down, but it was too late. A sharp cracking sound broke his crisp breath. He sank a few feet away from Grandfather’s outstretched hand. The branch sagged further 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.
‘I’m coming!’ Grandfather shouted. He 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. The predators behind them 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. Grandfather’s body twisted and turned in the foaming waters. Kicking and struggling, he 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 saying the prayer of Saint Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Lord, grant that I may not seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Jonathan Yang, July 1975
I finished narrating the courageous deed of Grandfather 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 seemed to ponder 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, ‘Not inspiring! No flash of insight!’
Lifting his left hand, he stepped forward 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 journals and notes on the floor and stared at him, rubbing my face.
‘Not thrilling enough!’ he shouted.
‘What thrills me is the strangeness of life,’ I muttered.
‘Are you trying to 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,’ Flint said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I want a thrilling story that inspires me, not an ancient tale! Your brain is made of wood!’ He shouted.
‘But it’s real, original and heart-chilling, especially when Grandfather lost his leg,’ I tried to explain.
Flint said, ‘Don’t try to subdue Art with your stale sermon. Art is life. Art is chaos. Half-sublime, half-shamanic. It throbs with blood and pain!’
I narrowed my eyes and frowned.
He continued, ‘I detect big larvae in your colon and intestines.’
‘I don’t have tapeworms.’
‘We’re poets. We all have larvae inside us. But yours are extra large. Wriggling fiercely.’ 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 and become grubs. They avoid the host’s vital organs to keep it alive. And then something miraculous 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! It’s useless! 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. He doesn’t have a dagger or a machine gun. He doesn’t even have claws or teeth. He’s powerless. When your larvae of pride hatch, they will eat your intestines. You will bleed and die.’
Flint dropped his jigsaw on his chair and flashed an army knife from his pocket. With malicious glints in his eyes, he said, ‘I’m always ready. There’s 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, my right hand holding my injured palm. I curved my body in pain as I slumped into my rattan chair.
‘Drink your hunter’s wine,’ he grunted. ‘You said it can speed up the healing. God will save you.’
As he walked away, he said, ‘Give you another three days. Make sure your next story is thrilling. If not, I’ll squeeze your windpipe. A bloodless exit.’
( Please refer to Amazon.com.uk Kindle edition 2015 to read the book at only 99 cents Thank you, Merton Lee. )