Singapore’s Blood Meridian (2018)
(written on 23 June 2016)
‘Convergence, Scream and Memory,’ the old man muttered to himself the title of my fusion painting, an acrylic done on a linen canvas, gallery-wrapped. Displayed for sale the past five months with no offer yet, it leaned against the external wall of a souvenir shop where the evening light cast a column of scales across it. Some of the scales glimmered like tiny pairs of eyes.
Those eyes belonged to the same person: someone who relied on cough syrup, and someone who feared needles, the talons of a sea hawk and mirrors with cracks. Then he beat them, and became a painter who liked to paint half-melting clocks, flowers, table knives, medieval lances, electronic cymbals, photographs and computers suspended above a green river. And he bought six oranda goldfish and a flap-necked chameleon: they reminded him to live one day at a time, although he liked to read about quasars and time warps during the weekends. Living close to the fringes of society, he befriended the jobless, the homeless and victims of crime affected by flashbacks. Yes, those eyes belonged to me; perhaps they were looking for a buyer who could find something worthwhile in the painting.
The old man, probably in his sixties, was drawn to it. At least six feet four, he was rugged and huge, and I seemed to be covered by the shadows of his broad shoulders and grey, furry hair. His eyebrows were thick and gave a shading to his heavy-lidded eyes. His nose was sharp and a few wrinkles ran across his forehead, the right side bandaged with a cotton wool. His brawny hands belonged to those of a sculptor or a weightlifter, or he could be a forest trekker who often used a parang to make a path, which might explain the smell of ferns from his khaki shirt. By the end of the day, he became, in my mind, a sort of underground battler who sustained a fire in his spine.
He was engrossed in studying my painting. All of a sudden, his grimness pulled me in and took me to another place, pushing me into a quicksand of lost memories. It funnelled me into a dark tunnel, and I began to shrink, sliding and dropping, like going down the hole of a kitchen sink. The world around me rotated, twilight zones alternated with darkness.
I closed my eyes, burning sensations jabbed at my throat. I breathed in and exhaled slowly, seven or eight times: the pain in my throat lessened, but the small patches of purple, which floated like amoebas inside my eyeballs, took time to fade. The world stopped turning and became normal again, and I felt the warmth of evening rays.
Opening my eyes, I heaved a sigh. Since a teenager, I had mental jolts once or twice a day: they were like streaks of lightning inside my skull and I kept quiet about them, believing they were the after-effects of taking psychedelic herbs. A minor sacrifice for getting breakthrough ideas.
Lean at five feet ten, in lavender T-shirt and bermuda shorts, I sat back on my comber under the awning of a café, the Aroma Expresso, that diagonally faced me. Inside, tourists were having custard croissants, grilled chicken salad and fried samba rice, with light instrumental coming through the glass doors, a blend of jazz and bossa nova.
On my left, the window of a souvenir shop showcased small replicas of Merlion. Some distance away near the park, tourists were taking pictures of the Merlion statue that spouted water from its mouth. Above eight metres tall, it faced the Marina Bay, with modern commercial buildings and skyscrapers of Raffles Place in the background. The glass facades gleamed when they caught the sparkles of the waves, or they became faces of apathetic blue, when grey clouds blocked out the sun.
The old man bent forward to relook at the words typed on a small removable label on the painting.
‘Is that the title, in the left corner?’ His voice was sonorous.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Is it suitable?’
‘Depends on what you want to express.'
'Maybe a mood or an idea.’
He straightened his body and said, ‘A post-cubist collage. You’re painting your subconscious.’
He looked at me. ‘Jonathan used to say, the meaning of life is an objective mystery.’
‘A close friend. He always struggled.’
‘He wanted to glimpse whether life on earth is a kind of Artwork.’
I thought for a while and said, ‘The sunflowers and the crucifix. Did he find any answer?’
The old man did not reply; he turned and relooked at my fusion painting. Four feet by three, it featured a dreamscape. Pasted at the centre, in a circle, were eight photos that showed different types of stopwatches: carefully painted ferrets, ermines and baboons jostled against each other inside the circle.
The backdrop mirrored clouds of stormy blue. On the right, I painted the detached pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; they contained images which included creatures that looked like porcupines but each had many pairs of human legs … an acrobat who waved a flute to tame a raccoon where both the acrobat and the raccoon were trapped inside a cage … and humanoids building a floating metropolis on a planet where land was submerged in water.
On the left of the backdrop, I painted six grey-skinned shamans: sharp noses, furrowed brows and hollow eyes. Holding shovels, their arms were raised in an excited way, as if they had dug up relics that could bring them good luck. And their eye sockets were swallowing the cut up photos of well-known paintings, which included the enigmatic smile from Mona Lisa; the half-melted pocket watch from The Persistence of Memory; the pair of struggling legs from Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; the pitchfork from American Gothic; the flayed skin of Michelangelo from The Last Judgement; and the broken shell of the Tree-Man from The Garden of Earthly Delights.
I took nine months to bring some sort of closure to the painting: perhaps I tried to portray the psyche that contained cracked mirrors.
My Samsung handphone showed 6.03 pm, 12 June 2016. I bent down to switch off my second-hand Acer laptop that was playing a serenade version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. After cleaning my palette knives with a cloth, I placed them into a plastic box near a Tupperware that contained homemade sandwiches.
‘How did the title come to you?’ he asked.
‘I was reading Kafka’s The Trial. Then I had a dream.’
‘Can tell me about it?’
‘Inside my dreams, I’m chased by scorpions.’
‘What do they look like?’
‘Each is two feet long, with huge pincers.’
He was listening intently and said, ‘Pulmonoscorpius.’
‘One stings me and I woke up, sweating.’
‘That’s how the title came to you?’
I nodded. ‘Guess you don’t want the painting now.’
He half-chortled, the grey curls of his hair quivered in the breeze. ‘I want your paintings. All of them ... we’re old friends.’
Baffled, I looked at him. He walked towards the external walls of the café where three of my feng shui paintings were displayed. Each measured three feet by two and showed the detached pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They had luminous backdrops: a sea of turquoise green, a haze of oceanic blue and a meadow of summertime orange. Tiny bamboo strips and small feng shui bells dangled from different points of the paintings, and auspicious Chinese words were carved on the strips, suggesting the flow of good fortune to the owner.
Standing up, I walked towards him and extended my hand.
‘My name’s Vincent Chang, a Singaporean.’
He shook my hand. ‘I’m David Mason, born in Boston. My parents were working there, to wait out the storms of war.’
‘Seem to have heard your name.’
‘Do some artworks privately. Perhaps next week, I show you my latest painting in my house, near the north coast.’
‘What is it about?’
‘A haggard Bartholomew, struggling to free a roebuck that’s trapped in a thornbush. It’s set against a rugged terrain in winter. A blizzard is seen coming in the background.’
‘Does it symbolize something?’
‘Maybe the harshness of life. It’s rather unique. Didn't come across any painting on Bartholomew freeing a roebuck.’
‘Yes, I’m interested.’
He smiled. ‘Sometimes I hunt for rare species in Australia and Borneo when my knees allow. Less agile at seventy-five.’
‘You look ten years younger.’
‘Credit goes to my garlic salmon soup. They keep my spleen going. And I can tinker with the art of hunting and letting go.’
‘Blunt the beak and talons of my falcon, and train it to catch quails. I also catch electric eels with a lasso tied to a pole. Then I release all of them back to the wild. I try to be a non-killing carnivore.’
‘Pick up only salmons that completed their life cycle’.
Removing his black-rimmed glasses, he put it inside his shirt pocket, and his yellowish deep-set eyes gave me a piercing yet sympathetic look, as if he could foresee my future.
Looking at the bandage on his forehead, I asked, ‘Are you alright?’
‘Minor surgery to take away a scar.’
Walking over to my comber and easel, he looked at my canvas that portrayed Sarah. I followed him, the shadow of my narrow forehead with dishevelled hair rested on my canvas. I picked it up and showed it to him, saying it was only half-done. The left side of the painting focused on Sarah’s short chocolate-coloured hair, crescent eye-brows and luminous eyes; on the right, I painted small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which reflected the cracked face of Sarah.
Till now I believed Sarah didn’t betray me. George must have forced her. Most likely she owed him money; she was a waitress.
‘Psychoanalytic,’ David said.
He walked back towards my fusion painting and picked it up. ‘Finely done. How much?’
I approached him and asked, ‘How much do you think it’s worth?’
‘Five thousand,’ he said.
I shook my head.
‘Seven thousand?’ he asked.
‘I’ll sell it to you for two thousand, material cost and basic efforts.’
‘Why the low price?’
‘If you know why, you won’t want it.’
‘It’s intricate. I like it.’
I turned gloomy. ‘Nowadays they call me a plagiarist.’
He thought for a while and said, ‘You were wrongly accused.’
‘You read the news?’
‘My friend was intrigued by your paintings and asked me to visit your website. Got caught by your sunlit valleys and riverbanks, the way you do the cropping and filling the frame. Then I read about what happened to you.' He turned and looked at me. ‘Is George coming at you?’
I nodded. ‘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?’
I nodded. ‘Reading it the past few days.’
Clouded images flashed across my mind. The breezes seemed to carry David’s voice to the dimly lit passageways of glazed buildings and hotels in the distance. In the evening light, the buildings wore yellow gowns made of toughened glass; when night came, I would wander, in my dreams, through the foyers, showing my artworks to interested buyers. Some of them had computers that whirred non-stop, seeking to discover algorithms that could beat the financial markets.
I shook my head to chase away the images. Evening rays reflecting off a window of the souvenir shop fell on David’s face, and he turned towards me to avoid the glare, saying, ‘Jonathan often asked, ‘Why did God go through the trouble of creating this world? Why can't everything stay peaceful in heaven?'
I asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’
‘Not sure. I follow a different artistic God. She's less powerful, always fighting against dark forces.’ He paused and said, ‘Can you remember anything about Jonathan Yang? To him, this world is very unnatural. What is natural? In his mind, a natural world is without animals, without human beings, without bloodshed, and has only celestial beings who live in harmony. But our world is full of conflicts.'
I shook my head. ‘I can’t remember Jonathan Yang. Do I know him?’
He gazed in the direction of the coastline and said, ‘Jonathan kept asking, ‘Why did a benevolent, all-powerful God allow diseases, crimes, wars and earthquakes?’ And he proposed his ‘God is biting the bullet’ theodicy, saying: God is unable to actualize faith, courage and endurance in a peaceful, pain-free heaven. Therefore God blends part of His spirit with human bodies, and partners with conscientious humans to actualize these qualities in the face of pain and death on earth, so that He attains a higher level of Godhood. In short, Jonathan was saying, our sufferings are not purposeless and have not been in vain.'
Reflecting on his words, I remained quiet.
He said, ‘We’re free to disagree with Jonathan. That’s his subjective interpretation. For me, the issue goes beyond logic and concepts.'
‘Life remains a mystery, a mixture of good and bad things happening,' I said.
He nodded. ‘At various times I call myself an experimenter, an agnostic, a freethinker. Then I drop these labels, and paint freely as I like it … to reduce the screams inside.’
‘Screams?’ I asked.
‘Shot across my head, when I try too hard to get breakthrough ideas.'
‘How did you handle them?’
‘Rush to the beach, near my house. The waves chase them away.'
I nodded. ‘Someday I'll drop the labels: an expressionist, a surrealist, a futurist.’
‘You’re young, plenty of chance.’
‘What actually happened?’
‘I was becoming well-known locally at twenty-six,’ I said. ‘George was my classmate at the Academy, with rich parents. We took part in a competition and I won. He said the judges pitied me because I’m poor, and I rebutted him.'
‘Then he tried to ruin you?’
I nodded. ‘He hired Sarah to befriend me at a gallery and pretend to fall in love with me, some months before my first exhibition. She visited my flat a few times. I showed her my drawings, then she sort of disappeared. She probably used her cellphone to take pictures of my works and passed them to George. A few days before my exhibition, George held an exhibition with the same theme, and accused me that I copied him. Do you still want the painting?’
‘Yes, all of them. I’ll pay five thousand each.’
I thanked him, insisted on a lower sum and asked, ‘Why did you say, we’re old friends?’
‘Some of my old paintings might have influenced you.’
‘You also painted jigsaw puzzles?’ I asked.
‘Many years ago.'
‘Any plan to exhibit them?’
He shook his head and gave a half-smile. 'I come back to look for you.’
‘The title of your painting confirms I’m on the right track … you're Jonathan.’
I stared at him, puzzled. 'I don’t understand.’
David said, ‘I had an accident-induced personality disorder in 1975 and harmed a few persons. I was caught and sent to a mental institution. Some months later, I knocked out two guards and escaped. They tracked me down and brought me to a detention centre in Changi.'
I listened intently and nodded.
‘This time I took my medicine, and stayed in a solitary cell for a few years. After my release, I worked as a rainforest guide in Malaysia.’
He took out a book from the side pocket of his pant and passed it to me, with the title Singapore’s Blood Meridian. ‘Written by Jonathan. You can add a fresh chapter if you want. I'll find Jonathan's son to do it and …’
Before he could finish the sentence, his face became grim and taut. He breathed in deeply to restrain a surge of energy and walked away in the direction of the coastline, saying, ‘I'm healed, won’t be hunting down anyone.’
As David's long and broad shadows disappeared down the slope near the coastline, I sat down on my comber and waited. He didn't come back after twenty minutes. I packed up, planning to buy mixed vegetable rice before returning to a rental room in Jurong and read the strange book given to me.
A Revived Jonathan Yang In A Research Laboratory
(transcribed in January 1976)
‘Convergence, Scream and Memory … strange people and artworks with a life of their own, in search of lost time …’
Who’s talking? Am I hearing my own voice?
Who am I? Where exactly am I? I can sense the warmth of light, but why is it completely dark?
Where’s Joan? I can't sense or touch her. And I can't see. I can't see anything. How did I lose my sight and sense of touch? What happened? How did I end up like this?
No, I won't give up. I will see with my mind, and I will recall the past. I begin to imagine and visualize: perhaps this can lead to mental associations that revive patches of memories.
And I imagine that the scent of Joan is wafting towards me now, her fragrance softens the smell of mosses and pitcher plants. I seem to recall something, and I see the foliage and dark greenery of a forest. Am I being transported to the past, to a jungle in Sumatra where my family and I were fleeing from brutal Japanese soldiers?
I sense moving shadows, and see myself running and panting. Am I running away from gangsters who wear masks? Their brass knuckles gleam under the jaundiced street lamps. I keep running, then I slip and fall. Picking myself up, I slide down a hill and stumble into a cave. There's a roar and the mouth of the cave is sealed by rocks; there’s high-pitched quiet in the dark, except for the squeaks of tomb bats waiting to flock on me.
Or is my voice trapped inside quivering strands of neurons? They float inside a walnut-shaped bowl, which is kept in an aquarium filled with anti-aging liquid. Are scientists trying to capture some of my brain pulses and transport them to another brain? Am I a guinea pig in their experiments?
Or am I walking across a dreamscape? I can sense the glitter of sunlight, and I hear a voice: it comes from a Sichuan golden-haired ling hou that nibbles lichens inside a picture on my bedroom wall. Then I hear another voice, from a second picture: it’s a magnificent Laysan albatross that soars into a blue sky. Then I hear a squawk, from a third picture: it’s a zebroid, the offspring of a zebra stallion and a horse mare, with black and white stripes.
I remember the strangeness of Nature and her inhabitants: the star-nosed mole whose snout is more sensitive than the human hand, ringed with fleshly appendages ... the Angora rabbit that looks like a furry balloon, its wool finer than cashmere ... the Chinese salamander that whines like a crying human child ... and the fairy Armadillo with leathery shells which make it look like a warrior from another planet.
My voice evolves and I remember the intricacy of human language. Slowly I recall that I was born in Singapore in March 1929, at the St Andrew’s Mission Hospital, a three-storey building on Erskine Road; my mother was a nurse, and my father an ex-KMT officer; I lived in a shop house in the Whampoa area where my grandfather ran a grocery business, and I studied at a nearby school.
As a boy, I loved trekking in the woods to look for a type of transparent green spider as well as for tadpoles, crossbreed pheasants and squirrels. I was approaching thirteen when the War came. And my family and I went to hide in the forests of Sumatra, returning to Singapore when the War ended.
From age twenty-one onwards, after getting my high school certificate, I started teaching; at the same time I attended evening classes for five years to get a degree before teaching high school students, specializing in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Kafka’s The Trial.
I also practised Zen meditation, thirty minutes per day at night: it made me accept that I was a social misfit and a claustrophobic when taking a lift. A type of claustrophobia that was alleviated by taking medicine wine. Sometimes the wine prompted me to ask my neighbours and people in the street about their views on ‘Why does an imperfect world exist?’ and 'Is there supernatural Intelligence hidden in the cosmos?'
Perhaps you ask, ‘Why bother with unanswerable questions?’
My reply, ‘I’m a Truth addict.’
The world viewed me with annoyance and suspicion; my friends and neighbours found me weird; and those accountants, engineers and marketing executives whom I accosted in the street sized me up with quizzical glances and walked away briskly, assuming I was suffering from work-related stress.
When I reached my forties, I gave talks at a community centre on my cosmological views: those who attended wanted to find out whether I could offer effective feng shui methods to improve their luck. On my part, I was naively confident, persuading them to pass to me their photos; surprisingly, a number of them agreed. A few weeks later, I talked to them in private about their past misdeeds, without disclosing how I accessed their guilt-ridden memories -- that’s a closely guarded secret.
Four outcomes awaited me. First, the astute wrongdoers asked for concrete evidence, and when I couldn’t produce any, they snorted and walked away. Second, the impulsive ones accused me of being a sham and warned me not to talk about their past or they would sue me. Third, the aggressive ones threatened me, demanding that I should keep absolutely quiet about their past if I wanted my family to be safe. Finally, there was an insidious guy who smirked and disappeared, hatching a plan to get rid of me: soon I was seriously wounded and dying.
(written in February 1975)
My name is Jonathan Yang, born in Singapore in 1929, and will be 46 next month. As a boy, I was known in the Whampoa area as ‘that squirrel-faced, inquisitive child’ who doggedly enquired with retired school teachers, elderly pastors, old KMT soldiers and reticent monks about otherworldly existence. During the War, my family and I went to Sumatra, moving from island to island, forest to forest, running away from Japanese soldiers; after returning to Singapore following the end of the War, I resumed my studies and became an English Literature teacher.
When I grew up, every now and then, I forded rivers in the forests of Malaysia, Thailand and Yunnan, and I climbed mountains in Myanmar and Naples, looking for the legendary child of the forest who could shed light on the mystery of life. At home I would half-close my eyes and stare meditatively at a bonsai or Zen calligraphy or a torso of the Buddha, or ruminate on the power of a talisman from Fujian and an amulet from Brisbane.
Sometimes while meditating, I could hear the roaring waters of a flood, and when I covered my ears, the silence was punctuated by high-pitched shrillness. I have a phobic dislike for this type of shrillness and will rush to the nearby woods where the chirping of birds will calm me. If that’s not enough, I will wade into a stream, splash my face with cool waters and focus on the wiggle of tadpoles. And if that’s not enough, I will rush across that baby cosmos a few times, a name I gave to a juvenile waterfall near a Whampoa village.
One secret is that I consider myself to be ‘half a slaughterer’. I have checked the law books a few times: technically, according to legal rules, I am guilty of ‘manslaughter’, and in another instance, of attempted and premeditated ‘murder’. First, I killed a rogue soldier in 1944 who could be considered ‘incapacitated’ at those moments when I smashed his skull; second, many years later in 1962, after elaborate planning, I attempted to starve a gangster to death. At night, I assure myself that I'm only half-guilty, considering their heinous deeds.
Another self-revelation: in my younger days, my friends used to call me ‘a sensitive raccoon’ when I hunched over a table at a quiet corner of the library, trying to figure out the metaphorical meaning of some verses from Saint John’s Gospel. Reaching forty, I learn to frown less and hiss less when people talk to me when I am in the midst of trying to figure out some arcane biblical passages; quietly I repeat to myself these verses from Lao Tzu: ‘The Master's power is like this. He lets all things come and go effortlessly. He never expects results. Thus he is never disappointed.’
Further, I have an unusual pet, a long-living Panther Chameleon called Herbia, who has kept me company since 1966 while I read Emily Dickinson or did some amateurish watercolours at night. Most of the time, Herbia is contented and tranquil. Sometimes I forgot to feed him in the morning and he became agitated in the evening. Sensing my presence after I returned home from teaching, he would move his body forward and backward, his skin showing crimson patches; and I quickly placed one or two meal worms inside his cage.
Half the size of a Japanese giant salamander, Herbia measures sixteen inches from a knotted crest on his forehead to the tip of his prehensile tail. He lives in a large meshed cage in a corner of my bedroom: the cage contains dry sands, two plants with broad leaves, a water dripper and an ultra violet light. When awake he’s usually green in colour, and turns bluish when sleeping, perhaps a defensive coloration to frighten away potential enemy.
A monk in his nineties, who lived in Perak, gave Herbia to me. The monk was tall and gaunt, with grey hair that covered the upper arch of his ears, and he had long eye-brows and half-smiling lips that were suggestive of the mystique of Mona Lisa. He said that if I could fathom his intention of asking me to take care of Herbia for ten years, he would be able to shed some light on the enigmas of my life. Recklessly I agreed, ignorant about the dietary requirement of a chameleon.
Maybe the monk could foresee his death; after giving Herbia to me, he passed away four months later. By then, I found it difficult to feed meal worms to Herbia two times a day. I’m mostly a vegetarian, except when going out with friends in the weekends, as I’m influenced by the Buddhist notion of accumulating some merit for my next life. Somehow I find feeding live worms to a chameleon is a near-bloodletting exercise. However, since the old monk has died, I need to keep my promise.
Perhaps the old monk wanted me to learn from Herbia about the importance of patience, acceptance and living in the Now. Because there may be no answer to the Question on the unpredictable nature of life, or the answer recedes when I try to approach it. Perhaps both the question and the answer do not come within a conceptual framework, but I remain stubborn.
When I reached my forties, I became an ambitious child with a strange urge -- to infect others with my addiction to catch glimpses of the Truth. I booked briefing rooms at a community centre in February 1974 and gave free talks on Sunday afternoons about my beliefs on ‘why does the Creator allow natural and moral evils’. A haphazard group of middle-aged adults attended: they were interested in feng shui methods that can improve their fate.
A handful of listeners half-believed me and provided their photos to me; a few weeks later, I talked to them about their past wrongdoing and suggested that they should make amends. The astute ones demanded concrete evidence and when I could not produce any, they walked away, satisfied that they had discredited me. The impulsive and aggressive ones called me a fraudster, demanding that I keep absolutely quiet about their past if I wanted my life to go on as per normal. Finally, there was a middle-aged history teacher from a secondary school in Queenstown who walked away after I told him about his past -- he had poisoned his classmate. A few days later, I was being stalked.
One evening as I walked home from a bus stop after teaching, a figure grabbed me from behind and thrust a three-inch dagger into my belly. I shouted in pain as he pulled out his dagger, my blood spurted onto my shirt and pants. Instinctively, I used my right elbow to knock his chest, swinging him off before he could stab me a second time. As I carried a few darts for self-protection, I took them out from my pocket and flung them at him: one of the darts hit his left arm while another hit his chest, and he shrieked and ran away. He wore a mask, but his physique gave him away: he was that history teacher.
I shouted for help and a few pedestrians ran towards me. Fifteen minutes later the ambulance came and sent me to the emergency department where I was hospitalized for eight weeks. The doctors told me that the attacker’s dagger was smeared with a mixture of poisons that were meant to kill rats. They administered different types of antibiotics to treat me.
For the first three weeks, I drifted in and out of consciousness at the intensive care unit due to high fever. Slowly I recovered. Without the knowledge of the nurses and doctors, I drank the Yunnan medicine wine, which I believed had quickened my recovery. Six months after the assault I had largely recovered, but the wound was deep; sometimes strange pain came from it in the middle of the night, as if some sort of larvae were biting my intestines.
During that time, I started to write my autobiographical journals and passed them in batches to my son Joseph, telling him to keep the journals a secret and publish them twenty years after my death. I was prompted by the words of Elie Wiesel, ‘Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty.’
(written in February 1975)
I entered a memory portal … I was tasting the flesh of a pufferfish while visiting Tokyo in the summer of 1972: the flesh was tender and mildly sweet, its skin, liver and organs were toxic. Only a chef with three years of rigorous training could prepare it: every bite could be my last. I had the strange feeling that Death seemed to admire me for a while, becoming a sort of half-benign, half-amazed counselor, lingering somewhere behind. I whispered to myself, ‘Does he plan to mentor me on the art of letting go? Perhaps I’m not destined to master it.’
On another Saturday night I chose and entered a different memory portal: inside that world, I was grabbing a stout, half-drunken man from behind; he was beating his wife and fourteen-year-old Julie, my student. I chanced upon Julie’s father while visiting their flat in June 1966 to find out why her mid-year exam results had dropped. The half-drunken man clenched his fists and shouted at me, ‘Let go of your unlucky hands! I’ll castrate you if I lost my next bet!’ I shouted to Julie, ‘Call the police!’ Gritting my teeth, I wrapped my arms around him, then he swung his body violently and broke my hold. Turning, he punched me three times in the stomach and pushed me away, then he moved towards his wife and shouted, ‘Why you let this scum come in?’ I lurched forward and pulled his legs from behind, pushing him to the floor; when his long pants crumpled, there were tattoos on his calves. Julie and her mother rushed out of their rental flat to seek help. The half-drunken man yelled and knocked me with his elbow and seized a beer bottle from a table. Sitting on the floor, I lifted my arms and tried to fend him off. He made a few false moves and then smashed the bottle on my forehead. I fell on the floor and passed out, and ended up at the hospital, where I was given more than ten stitches ...
On a different Saturday night, I entered a memory portal: I was teaching Animal Farm in 1961 when Bennett, a lanky fifteen-year-old who came from a well-to-do family, abruptly pushed away his chair and stood up. His eyes were half-closed, his face was pale with saliva dripping from a corner of his mouth. He scratched his spiky hair and swayed his body. Moments later, to the shock of the students in the class, about half were female, he stepped on his desk and started to strip. Rushing forward, I tried to stop him, but he lifted his leg and kicked my chin. I fell back, with Paul, the class monitor, supporting me from behind. Soon Bennett was naked, and he rubbed his manhood with vigour and flaunted it with a weird grin, amid the clapping of a few roguish students who did not heed my shouts to go to the canteen. After he felt satisfied, he jumped down from the desk, picked up a pen-knife and brandished it. The remaining students fled and I approached him, saying, 'Relax, Bennett, I got what you want. You want Elvis or Acid or Loony. Got plenty of them.’ Half-dazed, he looked at me and mumbled, 'Give them to me. I want to fly ... fly away from this world.’ I replied, 'Relax and follow me, I give them to you.’ Bennett followed me as we walked towards the teacher’s desk. Turning swiftly, I grabbed his right hand that was holding the pen-knife and half-twisted it; he yelled and dropped the knife. Paul gripped Bennett's arms from behind and we pressed him on the ground; soon two male teachers rushed in and together we kept him on the ground until the ambulance arrived. The paramedic told me that Bennett had a psychotic attack, due to over-consumption of drugs ...
I exited and entered a different memory portal: I was shouting, ‘Don’t touch the drugs!’, running towards two peddlers who tried to sell illegal substances to my sixteen-year-old student, Norman. I had been following him for a few days after school as he looked worn down and didn't complete his homework. When I shouted at the two peddlers, they cursed loudly and fled. I pretended to give chase and shouted ‘Police! Police!’ In the meantime Norman ran into an alley and disappeared, and he didn’t attend classes the next day. I reported the incident to the Vice Principal. A few days later, in March 1963, I was cornered by four thugs: they dragged me to an empty alley and gave me cruel punches. This time I ended up at the hospital for a few weeks with three broken ribs …
On a different night, I chose and entered a memory portal: I was admiring an array of genre-mixing artworks that were displayed along a street in Brisbane in the autumn of 1970. I came upon five paintings which were hauntingly vivid: (a) The first showed a teenage Michelangelo sitting on the floor, his arms lifted high: he was trying to defend himself during one of the furious beatings by his father who wanted to prevent his son from becoming a sculptor. Art was regarded in those days as a low occupation pursued by peasants. (b) The second painting showed Van Gogh suffering an episode of mental breakdown and using a razor to cut away a part of his left ear; in the background, dozens of his paintings were on the floor and marked ‘unsold’. He could only sell one or two paintings during his lifetime, although he completed hundreds. (c) The third painting showed a young Modigliani drinking and taking drugs to maintain a front of vitality, so as to mask his poor health from his friends: he would be ostracized if they found out his lung illness. He struggled as an artist for years, but had little recognition when he died at the age of thirty-five in 1920. (d) The last painting showed Father Maximilian Kolbe in his monastery providing shelter to many Jews whom he hid from the Nazis. Subsequently Father Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo, subjected to beatings and transferred to Auschwitz concentration camp where he volunteered to die in place of a stranger. After more than a week of starvation in a prison cell and he didn’t die, the guards killed him on 14 August 1941 with an injection of carbolic acid, when he was forty-seven. In one corner of the painting was a quote from the English preacher Frederick Robertson: ‘On earth we have nothing to do with success or results, only being true to God. Defeat in doing right is nevertheless victory.’ …
What are memory portals? Where do they come from? For me, they come are from the Collective Unconscious, a place that stores human memories. For more than ten years, I believe I have been accessing the Collective Unconscious and enter my memory portals as well as those of others. I can do so after drinking the legendary Yunnan wine, a type of mind-expanding wine prepared from the flesh of a Garuda Owl plus crocodile meat, squids, edible scorpions and psychoactive herbs.
And this is my closely guarded secret. Since 1964, on every Saturday night in my bedroom, I will retrieve my treasure: a photo album with faded floral patterns on a brown cover, which is kept in a medium-sized safe with a dial lock; it is four inches thick and contains old photographs of my grandparents, parents, neighbours and friends.
Slowly turning the pages, I will take out the photo of the person whose memory portals I wish to enter. I will focus on his or her face in the photo for fifteen minutes before drinking a tablespoon or fifteen millilitres of the Yunnan wine: it consists of two teaspoons of glutinous rice wine mixed with a teaspoon of the psychoactive medicine wine.
After drinking it and falling asleep in thirty minutes, I will enter a dream-like world. Memory portals will float towards me: oval, circular or rectangular in shape, about six feet in height and width relative to my size, and they become motionless in front of me. The portals contain unforgettable or guilt-ridden or traumatic memories of that person in the photograph. Choosing one of the portals, I will climb inside; if the people and events inside the portals do not match what I am looking for, I will exit and choose another portal. Joan and I explore memory portals together, as unseen, passive observers: we cannot affect the events inside those worlds.
In exploring the worlds inside memory portals, I hope to glimpse some of the truth behind the enigmas of my life: Why two poets need to die in order for me to live? Why did the body of my twin sister disappear at the hospital and we could not find it all these years? Why did my father become a cripple? Why didn’t the deities stop that criminal from harming my wife? And why did I cause my mother’s death when I was seven?
(written in March 1975)
Joan, my twin sister, is one of the poets who gave up her life for me, and she is always beside me when I explore the worlds inside memory portals on Saturday nights. Her transparent eyes touch my forehead now, her tender lips touching my cheeks. Yes, you are right: she is a ghost, a white ghost. She is not white in color, for she 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, as she is a benign spirit.
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 pink petals that awake at dawn. She has an almond-shaped face with crescent eye-brows and a wrinkleless forehead; her sharp nose does not put on weight, and her pupils contain pale blue shadows that move like reflections on a pond on a cheerful summer’s day.
Her silvery hair with tones of brown carries the fragrance of jasmine: it tickles my forehead when her face touches my cheek. Her hair conceals her elegant, transparent neck that does not age as long as she avoids sunlight. If faint crinkles appeared near the corner of her eyes, she has proven to me that after she stands under the moonlight for half an hour, they will disappear. She speaks to me without the need to move her lips, which are usually motionless, as if sewn together with an invisible golden string from a celestial harp. And my ears like to follow Joan’s voice under the starlight, which is tender and melodious.
In short, Joan remains youthful, optimistic, buoyant: she always looks like eighteen, photogenic and evergreen on my silvery memory plates. She does not mind that her body went missing at the hospital the day she was born, saying, ‘Someday I’ll find out who had taken away my body and for what purpose.’ If she didn’t appear in my bedroom at night, she is roaming nearby bookshops or libraries for she loves romances and theology.
Joan and I were born on 23 March 1929 in Singapore, an island country in South-East Asia, part of the Straits Settlements that came under British control as a Crown Colony before the Second World War. We were born at the St Andrew’s Mission Hospital which was founded in 1913 by medical doctor Charlotte Ferguson-Davie, wife of the first Anglican Archbishop of Singapore: it focused on providing medical care to poor women and children. With donations from philanthropists and various organizations, it evolved into an established hospital in the mid-1920s with main wards, an operating theatre and delivery rooms, where competent doctors and nurses served different races and helped to deliver hundreds of babies every year.
However, they could not save my twin sister, because Joan 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 and held her back, despite the frantic efforts of the doctor to push her head and body into the correct position. By the time the doctor operated on my mother, he found that Joan’s heartbeat had stopped.
But Joan did not give up: her soul shook vigorously, and she escaped from those shadowy beings that held her back. She wanted to experience earthly sensations, and she flew away like a sea gull and went to nearby hills, attracted by the chirping of birds. But sunlight began to burn her; she returned and stayed near me, learning to avoid sunlight and travel at night.
When I was six years old, I told my mother about Joan, how we could talk to each other, how we read story books and played with our toy cars together in the evening, and how we huddled together in my bed at night. My mother's eyes glinted with shock, since Joan could only be seen and heard by me.
Further, no one in the family told me about my dead sister, although I did eavesdrop on a few conversations between the older neighbours and my grandmother, about the police’s inability to find my sister’s body. My mother kept her promise not to share our secret with anyone, otherwise my grandmother would immediately bring me to see the priests and monks who would perform elaborate rituals to cleanse me.
But my mother remained anxious that I might be suffering from a type of survivor guilt. She visited her psychiatrist friend and used a hypothetical example concerning a neighbour's son who could talk to the apparition of his twin. She asked the doctor whether that boy was having illusions, or whether he was born with extrasensory perception.
The psychiatrist took out a piece of clean, blank paper and crumpled it, saying, 'As at today, science is not able to verify extrasensory perception or telepathy. But I think your neighbour's son may be suffering from a type of subliminal guilt, what I called ‘the wounded, crumpled psyche’. Such mental scars take time to heal. For more serious cases, the patient may have illusions, or in some instances, display symptoms of a split personality.’ From that day onward, my mother often brought me to the parks or the beach, teaching me to sing hymns and read devotional poems; on my part, I sensed her anxiety and never talked to her about Joan.
Forty-six years have passed since our births in 1929. Besides music, Joan likes poetry and collecting different types of pebbles and seashells. Sometimes we write our poems together, and in our poems, we travel on a ray of moonlight and watch fireflies at quiet spots near Changi beach. We like to pick up trumpet-shaped and cameo seashells and place our ears near to their earlobes: the seashells echo a tune that can overcome the sound of strong waves.
We also like to explore the memory portals of well-known magazine photographers. Inside those portals, we have visited some intriguing places. The limestone pinnacles at Tianzi mountains in Hunan, which are covered in lush greenery, and they look like mountains floating in the sky when their lower portions are shrouded by mist. The Chocolate Hills of Bohol Island in the Philippines where more than a thousand dome-shaped hills populate the rolling terrain. The uninhabited valley at Salt Lake City in Utah, which is filled with mushroom-shaped rock formations that look like goblins. The Spotted Lake in British Columbia, Canada, where we strolled along the hardened walkways around colourful mineral pools: royal yellow, laurel green and cobalt blue. The Giant Causeway in Northern Ireland which consists of more than 30,000 pillar-like columns and hexagonal structures, made of molten basalt due to ancient volcanic eruptions, so bizarre in appearance that the locals said they were moulded by giants. And the Cotton Palace in southwest Turkey where water cascades down the shimmering white terraces of carbonate minerals. These visits provide vivid images that linger in some of our poems.
(written in March 1973)
A Kafkaesque Songster …
(David wrote this poem in 1973 before his road accident in late 1974. 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 no longer masters. Descending from the forehead of a mountain, he dives towards the farmhouses. The shadow of his golden-brown wings touches me, then he turns around and heads towards a cave and disappears.
The eagle's flight makes me determined to write some verses. I borrow a boomerang from the farmhouse manager and walk across the meadow towards the river, where my wife and her friends are splashing in the waters.
Sitting cross-legged a short distance away, I meditate and look hard at the boomerang and imagine its flight through the blue sky. After half an hour, there’s no life-changing peek. Removing my clothes, I penguin towards the waters: the coolness tickles my spine and recreates all the running nerves of my toes, and my skin becomes alert to the sound of a diving bell spider. Meanwhile, the long green river reflects the shivers of adult-sized children, their bewildered eyes addicted to electronic porn games.
I begin splashing and give up eavesdropping on the moss-twined boulders, although they may be talking about how to concoct an elixir. In the meantime, anxieties float like a waterproof painting towards the horizon. The beetles and dragonflies welcome us, after we toss aside our nets.
The river continues to flow, and it can’t stop, akin to time. Maybe it’s content to be solipsistic. But tiny strangers intrude on my mind: they begin to moan, proving themselves to be more than sole-lips-cease-tick wordplay. The moaning comes from the larynx of desires. Like bed-bugs, they bite, flee, hide and return at odd hours. I wave my fists, to keep their pink horns at bay.
My year-long practice becomes circular, which includes music, movies, jogging, taekwondo and zazen. But before the year is up, the throb inside my wife’s lover feels twisted-cum-thwarted; he gives away green hats, which I receive and paint them in pink. Both the giver and the receiver need to un-frustrate, like uncorking champagne. The consequences deserve emphasis: an undesired pregnancy is like an undiagnosed miscarriage during a spotless holiday. And the small tumor-shaped lump is tied to the boomerang, which is thrown deep inside the forest.
The flesh of the lump becomes a liquid in the heat of the night, and it kisses the roots of the trees, sharing its nutrients with nutmegs. Noontime the next day, the nutmegs are plucked by the farmhouse manager and used to make pastries: a portion reaches the dining table of his customer, providing sustenance to his sweaty fingers that struggle to type these lines.
(written in July 1975)
David Mason is thirty-four. I know him for seven months. During those months, every few weeks we met up together with a dozen local artists and writers at an eatery house. And we enjoyed curry fish head, Penang rokja, Fujian noodles, fried salmon with cheese rice and Indian mutton soup. The one-storey eatery house where we met to talk about art and poetry was near my flat at East Coast Way, the eastern part of Singapore. Spacious with a wide frontage and six ceiling fans, it could accommodate twenty round tables with six chairs each.
At six feet five and two hundred and twenty pounds, David has a square chin, rugged cheekbones, an aquiline nose and long hair that covers his forehead and neck. He likes to wear tinted glasses that cover his heavy-lidded brown eyes. His forehead is broad and robust, and his thick V-shaped eyebrows look like two dashes of black ink. He usually wears blue shirt, loose jeans and a grey windbreaker that partially hides his aura of fierce but vitalizing energy.
On several occasions at the eatery, in a sonorous voice, David recited his poem ‘A Kafkaesque Songster’ that was published in a local magazine: it probed the meaning of dreams and reality, loneliness and self-alienation, with doses of dark humour. Most of the time he looked solemn and self-absorbed, as if his brain had travelled to a different time zone in search of breakthrough ideas; sometimes he jumped up in ecstasy when he emphasized how expressionism endowed his life with hope, and how his surrealist artworks reduced his resentment against human hypocrisy.
Compared to David, I am diminished and gaunt at forty-six. At five feet ten, I weigh a hundred and twenty-five pounds with a narrow forehead, bony chin, sleepy eyes and slender limbs. My arms seem to dangle like bamboo stems, although the fibres and sinews are still strong. My calves and thighs, which lack flesh, make my knees appear swollen, although they are fine and resilient. I have an elongated face which implies a difficult passage through my mother’s womb; thin, philosophical lips that struggle to read Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and a pale bookish nose that aspires to smell the truth. A few nocturnal glimmers can be seen in my dark pupils after midnight as I plod through William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
David said he was born in Boston and wanted to become a painter 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, while his mother was a Chinese who worked in the human resource field. His parents recently returned to Venice for retirement; on his part, with an advanced diploma in art from a local academy, he chose to remain in Singapore, working as a part-time arts teacher.
Admiring his poetic ability, sometime in June 1975, I talked to him about my cosmological views after a dinner when our friends had left, suggesting that earthly events are stored in the Collective Unconscious.
‘How to prove it?’ He asked, his lips curved downwards. He was sitting beside me, and sometimes I turned and looked at his part thoughtful, part drifting expression. His face looked downward as he stared at the beer glass, which he rotated in his hands.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Came to you in a dream?’
‘Like an artist’s vision,’ he said, lifting his glass and watching the lights reflected off it.
I said, ‘Sometimes when gazing at the night sky, I seemed to have lived through those moments before.’
After drinking his second glass of beer, he said, ‘Sometimes I’m struck by dream-like intuitions. They bring some degree of closure to my works. What David used to say, a sense of half-finality.’
‘A sense of half-completion?’ I asked.
He paused and said, ‘I guess by now you’re used to my odd habit of speech. I like to regard David as one of my twins. My idealistic, underground twin.’
‘And my twin used to say, his artwork can’t be completed. Always a work in progress. It seems to evolve, regress and evolve.’
‘Maybe that’s how an artwork acquires some qualities that withstand the test of time,’ I said.
I continued, ‘Maybe this world is a sort of mysterious Artwork. People, animals and things come alive in different ways. And we can choose to do good or bad or be indifferent. I recalled, you once said, God is a kind of Artist. She may be using memories or memory waves to create artworks.’
He remained silent, stared at his beer glass and said slowly, ‘Yes, David Mason’s God is a sort of strange, underground Artist. Experimental, nonconformist, pioneering. She’s not your intelligent Cosmos or all-knowing Creator. She’s is less powerful, and fights against the dark forces with avant-garde artworks.’
‘I like avant-garde artworks. Some of them make me feel that I’m living inside the memories of a Creator, living in His cosmic past.’
He narrowed his eyes. ‘Cosmic past? You mean, all the things and events happening around us now are already over, and they exist somewhere in the past?’
‘How to live in Someone’s past?’ he asked. ‘We make new decisions moment by moment. We choose to act differently. Can Someone know in advance how I will act an hour from now?’ He waved at the waiter and ordered a third glass of beer. Focusing on the empty glass before him, he said, ‘Are you mentally doing an abstract painting, trying to get a fresh angle to view things?’
‘Maybe the Creator has huge Eyes,’ I said slowly. ‘He can enlarge His eyes to such an extent that the visible cosmos becomes small. It becomes a wild flower in His hand that appears, blossoms and disappears within a few days, according to His timeframe.’
He remained quiet and looked at his glass.
I continued, ‘He planted the element of chance and random forces in the cosmos to achieve a Purpose, perhaps to actualize courage and endurance. Because the cosmos arose and passed away quickly in His Eyes within a few days, He could see and remember all that happened on earth. In that sense, from our perspective of living now on earth, He could foresee the future. All things around us already happened. And maybe He could intervene selectively if He wanted, by entering a sort of time warp and use His power to influence some events.’
‘What happens if He changed a past event?’ he asked.
I paused and said, ‘If He intervened and changed a past event, future events will be affected. This will give rise to a new set of memories and He will preserve it separately in the Collective Unconscious ... but all this is speculative.’
He thought for a while and said, ‘Stimulating food for the brain.’
His lips curled upwards as the waiter handed him a third glass of beer, and I wondered whether he was amused by my theory. Then he said, ‘I think my underground twin will respond with his theory of limited benevolence.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘David will say, a cat has nine lives. Maybe each human is allotted six lives during his journey on earth. And your Creator, or the deities working under Him, will intervene. They’ll save us six times when we encounter grave physical danger, especially during those times when death was just around the corner and we couldn’t see it. It’s just that your Creator or the deities keep quiet about it.’
I nodded and reflected on his words.
He asked, ‘When you come up with ‘Living In His Cosmic Past’, are you trying to dig up a reason for the impermanence of things?’
‘Maybe I try to shape something without touching the wheel and clay.’
He paused and said, ‘Sounds like a koan.’
‘I have failed as a follower of Zen,’ I said.
‘I know there’re only mind waves, only thoughts, images and desires. Sparks of mental energy that arise and pass away. But there’s one desire that keeps coming back.’
‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘The desire to know. And I keep asking, ‘Why did God allow crimes, accidents, wars and earthquakes?’
He shook his head. ‘You’re too insistent. Your God may turn out to be just an idea.’
‘But when I pray and meditate, sometimes I sense His presence.’
He shrugged. ‘Well, He didn’t help me. I’m a failed artist. Seven years are gone. Can’t sell any of my paintings.’
I said slowly, ‘If you create something beautiful for yourself and for others, that should be alright.’
He frowned. ‘Not enough. I need to invent a kind of contemporary resonance that intrigues viewers and future generations of viewers. Perhaps in the end, I’m the only viewer.’
(written in July 1975)
When I met David at the eatery in early July 1975, he told me that he had become very interested in my cosmological and theological views. I was careless and hinted that I could access the Collective Unconscious and enter the memory portals of other people after drinking the psychoactive Yunnan medicine wine.
My father and my son also drank the wine in small, diluted amount once a week to sustain their health. A decade ago, the diluted form of the wine had cured their illnesses after they drank it consistently twice per week for a year. Since then, they drank the wine in its diluted form, and they did not acquire the ability to enter memory portals. On my part, I experimented with the mind-expanding properties of the wine by taking stronger doses of the concentrate.
In the next few days David telephoned me many times and requested to have a drink of the wine. Finally I agreed, stressing that he should only take it once per week, based on the specified amount as per my instruction, and I gave him two bottles: one was only twenty percent filled with the Yunnan’s medicine wine and the other was filled with glutinous rice wine.
After becoming David’s captive, I discovered that he was pretending: he was not interested in drinking the wine. Flint, the aggressive alter ego who controlled David’s mind and body, told me that in the past, David took psychoactive herbs once or twice a month, seeking to obtain breakthrough ideas. Flint said, he would not take any of those herbs or substances because psychedelic experiences would loosen his hold on David, and he would not take that risk; what he wanted were thrilling stories from me that could inspire him in his artwork.
During my tenth encounter with David in mid-July 1975, after my friends had left the eatery house at ten pm, he spiked my drink; unaware, I drank it and became drowsy. Taking out a lightweight chisel blade and a palm-sized block of wood, he began to shave off its corners and waited for me to become unconscious.
When my head dropped onto the table, he replaced his blade and wooden block into his coat; then he went to the counter to foot the bill, telling the waiter that I was ill and he would bring me to a nearby clinic. Lifting me into his arms, he carried me to his sedan, placed me at the back seats and drove to his farmhouse.
I woke up in a room on the ground floor in the middle of the night: the room was about four hundred square feet with dusty floor tiles, a small cupboard, a few rattan chairs and an old pockmarked mattress; yellowish fluorescent tubes were on the right side of the ceiling and the walls were painted grey; two windows at the end of the room were sealed up with wooden planks and covered with plastic sheets where minimal sound could pass through.
Sitting on a rattan chair, my ankles were bound by an iron chain and my left wrist was handcuffed to the metallic bedframe; the chain of my handcuff was about one metre in length, allowing me to reach the items nearby which included a plastic container with wheat biscuits, a can of ovaltine, two plastic bottles of water, a plastic cup, pencils and a writing pad. Slightly farther away at a corner were two glass bottles: one was twenty percent-filled with medicine wine and the other contained glutinous rice wine.
Flint looked tense and agitated, his square face taut and reddish; after yelling at me a few times like a battle-scarred sergeant who just weeded out a dozen enemies, he brandished a jigsaw in the air and sat on a chair, self-absorbed. Gazing at him, I perceived anger in his eyes. He shook his head with vigour a few times, as if releasing weeks of pent-up frustrations; then he stood up and swung his long hair backwards which revealed a broad forehead: a purple snake-shaped scar slithered down its right side. He told me some days later that a house burglar did that more than ten years ago; he and his father eventually caught the intruder and brought him to justice.
At this moment, Flint waved a jigsaw before me, saying, ‘You’re my third captive. The other two upstairs have tasted my fists. Their stories were dull!’
I remained quiet for a while and said, ‘No, you’re David. You’re David, the artist. You won’t harm anyone. Remember, we eat together, we share our poems and I teach you Chinese calligraphy. Please let us go.’
Flint walked toward me, slapped my face and said gruffly, ‘Wake up, I’m not David. I already hinted to you. David is my underground twin. I pretended to be him. Can’t you see the flames in my eyes?’
Sagging into my chair, I remained quiet.
He scowled and said, ‘That accident released me from David’s psyche. I’m his repressed twin. In the past nine months, I’ve taken over his mind and body. And I believe, for the remaining years of his life.’
Closing my eyes, I breathed deeply and shook my head a few times; then I opened my eyes, squinted and looked around the grey room and whispered, ‘Is this a dream?’
He gazed at me. ‘My acting skills are good. I pretended to be David when I met you and your friends. Twice a week, I allow David’s voice to appear at night and we do our artworks together. After that, I’ll tuck away his voice.’
I shook my head and muttered, ‘How could that be?’
‘Because of his aesthetic ideals, he repressed me for years. Now I’m finally free. I’ll pretend to be David, for I know all his thoughts. I’ll do some artworks, find a few girls at Geylang and enjoy life.’
I breathed in deeply, calming myself, and began to think how to escape.
He paused and said, ‘Sometimes in the middle of the night, I could hear David persuading me to free all of you. I ignored him and his puny artistic God. Make a guess, why I choose you and the two guys upstairs?’
I thought for a while and shook my head.
He stepped forward, slapped me and growled, ‘Make a guess.’
‘We did something wrong?’
‘No, it’s your look. You and the two guys upstairs look like that stooge, Alvin.’
‘The guy who seduced my wife. He’s lucky. He returned to England before I could get him.’
I stared at the dusty floor and said slowly, ‘It’s not our fault. We cannot control our looks.’
‘Yes, not your fault. That will make you great.’
He gave a half-smile. ‘The three of you shall suffer on behalf of Alvin. Since you believe in heaven, your sufferings are not in vain.’
My eyes looked downward at the dusty floor.
Flint said, ‘I’ll give you a chance. Give me real, original and thrilling stories that stimulate me, and you’ll be fine.’
I thought for a while and asked, ‘If my story is long, can I break it into a few parts?’
‘Yes, each episode that satisfies me will earn you a star. If you get nine stars, you win a mystery prize. And I’ll release you.’
(written in July 1975)
In the middle of the night, the farmhouse stirs: there is silence, except for the chitter of crickets and the tweet of monitor lizards. It is sometime in July 1975.
The farmhouse with forty-thousand-square-feet land is at a remote area in Singapore, near the north coast. Demarcated by tall mesh wire fences, two dark Dobermans roam the ground. Its iron-gate entrance is narrow, just enough for a truck to pass through. It used to be a frog farm owned by David’s maternal grandfather who died six years ago.
The house is made of grey bricks, its roof is like a huge mortar board with a long downspout on its right. The frontage and sidewalls are sheltered by Yellow Flame trees, and on its right is a Tembusu with fissured bark and oval green leaves. The living room windows are fortified with iron grills, while the bedroom windows are sealed with planks. At night it looks like an austere bastle house, similar to those found along the Anglo-Scottish border, which is fortified against thieves.
The house has a spacious rectangular living room, a dining room, a large kitchen and a narrow stairway to the second floor. The living room has been converted into a workshop with a mahogany table near the windows; a green lamp, a container with paintbrushes and palette knives, and an array of tubes are on the table; the tubes contain acrylics, oil pigments and watercolors. Crumpled pieces of paper are scattered on the floor.
Clay figurines with different shapes and sizes are kept at one corner of the workshop: some of them look like torsos, half human, half animal. At another corner are pieces of pottery, ceramics, photomontage and chips of unwanted murals. At a third corner are torsos of arhats, Bali wood sculptures that feature Indonesian songsters, and Greek statues that look like Spartan warriors. Colourful Beijing opera masks are displayed at a fourth corner. Below the masks, on top of a waist-high cupboard, are an unsheathed samurai sword, a Peach Wood Taoist sword and a Persian dagger with a gem on its hilt. On the opposite wall are the stuffed heads of a crocodile, a rhinoceros and a leopard; at night their eyes gleam when the yellowish fluorescent light shines on them.
A triptych that measures eight feet tall and twenty feet wide occupies the center of the workshop: Flint told me a few times that it is his and David’s masterwork. Covered with a light blue cloth, it faces a row of windows that are shielded with thick brown curtains, which only strong afternoon sunrays can partly penetrate.
‘A time-travelling Ulysses,’ Flint once said, as he leaned against the wall and admired the artwork, his hand resting on a wall clock that measures two feet wide and three feet tall. The clock is more than fifty years old with baroque petal carvings on its hood and bonnet, and a narrow glass window near its navel that is supposed to display the movement of the pendulum. Distracted by its tick-tock tick-tock sound, Flint had removed and discarded the internal mechanism and treated it as an antique.
Hanging on the walls that encircle the workshop are twelve mass-printed paintings in ebonized frames: they are Jackson Pollock’s Convergence; Edvard Munch’s The Scream; 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; Henri Rousseau’s The Dream; Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks; Brugel’s Triumph of Death; and Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. At dusk they seem to come alive in a strange way, and watch the progress of my captor’s artwork.
In the daytime, the farmhouse is filled with the brooding shadows of trees; at night, it is pierced by moving silhouettes, probably bats and other nocturnal creatures. Surrounded by wooded areas, the nearest neighbour is a prawn farm a few kilometres away. I didn’t notice any visitor during the day or at night.
Since 16 July 1975 Flint has locked me up in a room on the ground floor; a handcuff binds my left hand to the metallic bedframe, and an iron chain binds my ankles. The fluorescent light daubed a yellowish sheen on a pockmarked mattress. On the floor of my room is a traveller’s bag that contains toiletries, a few shirts, pants and towels. Three times a week, under Flint’s watchful gaze, I wash my clothes at the kitchen sink; near to the sink was a large rice cooker which he uses to steam potatoes, salmon meat and green beans for our lunch and dinner. Sometimes he also cooks and eats the brains of goats, believing they can energize his brain cells.
In short, from day one since I was trapped here, I’ve been planning how to escape, fearing that some portion of my body will become part of Flint’s artwork.
(written in August 1975)
I entered a memory portal … A flash of terror ran across Grandfather’s eyes, his muscles tightened along his square jaws. His wrinkled face became tense, as he spotted a boy climbing a tall fence. It was July, 1932.
‘Come down quick!’ he exclaimed.
His stout five-feet-six body stiffened. In short-sleeved shirt and dark pants, he frowned like a determined infantry soldier, as if he just heard a clarion which directed him to charge. Rushing to the area where the boy was climbing, he looked up as the boy approached the top of the fence.
The shriek of a middle-aged British woman dispelled the mating calls of crickets: her slender face turned pale in the morning light, her hands quivered as she waved frantically at her son. ‘Thomas, come down quick. I don’t need the flowers ...’
‘What we said was a joke ... you’re brave. Come down.’ His cousins waved at him.
But twelve-year-old Thomas ignored them; chubby with dark hair covering his ears and forehead, with a small nose and a half-cleft upper lip, he tightened his jaws as he struggled to reach the top of the fence and prepared to climb over it. The shouting of his mother became more shrill, and two of his cousins ran in the direction of the administrative office.
The fence ran along the sides of a wooden bridge inside the Melbourne zoo: the bridge, more than a hundred feet, spanned a river populated by crocodiles. It was 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 and the water was dark brown due to mud slides further up the river; the woods on both sides of the river were fenced up.
Looking around anxiously, Grandfather could not see any zoo-keepers. 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; trembling, the mother said, ‘Your father’s gone in the War ... you are all I have. Come down now.’
Reaching the top of the fence, Thomas straddled his legs over it: he planned to climb down the other side and crossed over to a three-metre branch, where bright yellow flowers beckoned near the end of that branch.
Grandfather took a deep breath and climbed the fence; in his late fifties, he remained strong, but no longer agile: his arms and legs were often stiff and swollen due to wounds sustained when fighting against Ching soldiers. Nonetheless, twice a week, he continued to practise martial arts and Chi Kung, and he specialized in mantis boxing and the big sabre. Grandma was afflicted with rheumatism and she didn’t join him 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 Thomas climbed down the other side of the fence and manoeuvred his limbs to cross over to the branch. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself away from the fence and grabbed the branch with outstretched arms. He crossed over to the branch, 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 he waved at his mother with a broad smile.
‘Don’t look down, time to come back.’
Assured by Grandfather’s voice, Thomas turned back.
‘Dust the flowers against the branch, in case there are bees. Place the flowers inside your shirt, then move back slowly,’ said Grandfather.
Thomas followed the advice and dusted the flowers against the branch: a wasp crawled out and flew away. Placing the flowers inside his shirt, he moved backward, and the seconds ticked by. Half-way, a shadow appeared which whirled around him: it was a crow, raucous and noisy, its beak moved near to his hair in a threatening way. Thomas and his cousins had threw stones at it earlier that morning.
The boy’s face went pale; he waved his hand vigorously and yelled at the crow. Grandfather also waved and shouted at it, but the crow persisted and used its beak to attack Thomas’ scalp a few times before flying away. The boy’s movement caused the branch to sway; soon he heard rasping and cracking coming from the branch which sagged, split and dropped him forty feet into the river.
There was a huge splash. Thomas struggled in the water before he swam towards the splintered branch; he clutched and held onto it which enabled him to float, but his danger had just begun.
Climbing down the other side of the fence, Grandfather moved a few feet to the left and jumped near to the centre of the river, his body was straight, his legs touching the water first. Meanwhile Thomas held onto the branch, flowing with the current. Grandfather surfaced and swam after him; soon he reached Thomas, and he grabbed the branch and pushed it together with the boy towards the riverbank.
Looking around quickly to avoid the swampy area where there might be hidden predators, he identified a shallow spot near to mangrove plants. They didn’t have time to swim to a dry spot further down: the predators were coming fast. Grandfather heard shouts above them. Without looking back, he mustered all his strength and quickened his pushing; soon they reached a half-swampy area.
‘Go up quickly! Find a dry spot!’ Grandfather shouted.
Taking a brief backward glance, Thomas spotted a few pairs of bulging eyes floating towards them, the jagged ridges of their eyebrows gleamed: the crocodiles were only a few metres away and closing in fast. Thomas struggled up the bank, his legs tired and heavy as he stumbled forward and hurried towards the dry ground.
Grabbing the splintered branch that the boy had let go, Grandfather swung it around, using it as a shield against the thick jaws of the crocodiles. They thrust forward and snapped their jaws at the branch and broke it into pieces. He jabbed the broken pieces at their jaws to gain time; then he half-squatted on the stones beneath the waters and kicked himself away towards the riverbank. But one of the crocodiles submerged, lurched forward and sank its jaws into his right leg. Pulling him back into the waters, it began a death roll: their bodies twisted and turned in the foaming waters.
Kicking and struggling, Grandfather tried in vain to free himself from the jaws. Taking a deep breath, he submerged and spotted the sturdy roots of a mangrove plant: he quickly stretched and grabbed them, and pulled himself towards the roots. Biting his teeth, he yanked himself away from the jaws; then he struggled and crawled onto the bank and inched towards the dry ground, with other crocodiles following him.
Grandfather was exhausted and intense pain radiated across his body; his right leg was bitten away. He knew that he would soon collapse; then he heard the boy’s voice, ‘Monsters! Take this and this!’
Thomas had rushed back to the riverbank; with stones in his hands, he threw them forcefully at the jaws of the crocodiles, to delay 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, about two hundred feet away from the edge of the waters, with no predators nearby.
Thomas panted and wept softly, his mother and cousins shouted from the bridge, telling him to wait for the zookeepers. Grandfather had lost consciousness. Fifteen minutes later, the zoo keepers arrived and they unlocked the gate, entered the area and brought Grandpa and Thomas to a safe area …
Waking up two days later at the hospital, Grandfather underwent operations and a few 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 energetic and firm.
(written in August 1975)
I finished reading from my notes and looked up from my chair. It was ten minutes past eleven at night, the tweet of crickets and monitor lizards outside the farmhouse became louder as my voice trailed off. The yellowish light from the fluorescent tubes seemed to make the grey walls around me come alive with small, hazy faces that floated across my eyes.
Flint frowned, his square jaws tight and tense, his eyes exuded dark energy. Wearing a brown shirt and hiking pants, his tinted glasses were kept in his shirt pocket. He briskly stood up from his rattan chair and stared at the ceiling, then he turned and glared at me. Stepping forward, he slapped my cheek and grunted, ‘Brew a sermon? To convert me?’
‘I try to speak to your heart,’ I said.
‘You’ve a real problem.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I want stimulation, not an ancient tale!’
‘But it’s real, original and …’
He said gruffly, ‘Don’t try to subdue art with a sermon. Art is life. It throbs with blood and pain.’
I narrowed my eyes and looked at him.
Calming down, he sat on his chair and said, ‘I sense big larvae in your intestines. We’re poets with larvae inside, but yours are extra large.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Heard of a parasitoid wasp?’
I shook my head.
Giving a wry smile, he said, ‘It’s a wasp that lays eggs inside a caterpillar’s body. When they hatch, the grubs feed on the host’s body fluids. They avoid the vital organs of the host, to keep the host alive, and then something happens.’
‘What happens?’ I muttered.
‘The grubs control the host’s mind. The host becomes a zombie, acting like a bodyguard to protect the grubs. Finally the grubs bite through the host’s body.’
He scowled. ‘I’m not David Mason. I don’t dangle from the tail of his artistic God. I follow the shamans inside me. When your larvae of pride hatch, they’ll eat your intestines.’
Sitting back on my chair, I remained quiet.
Taking out an army dagger from the pocket of his pants and with a glint in his eyes, he leaned towards me and said, ‘There’s no escape.’
Gripping my left forefinger, he slid it across his dagger. A sharp pain pulsated through me and blood dripped from my finger. I curved my body in agony and slumped into my chair.
He retrieved a plastic bag from another pocket of his pants and threw it at me: it contained a bottle of antiseptics, dressing pads, painkillers and antibiotics.
Before leaving the room, he warned, ‘Make sure your next story jolts me. Don’t let me squeeze your windpipe three days later.’
(written in March 1975)
Before the Second World War, my family and I lived in an old shop house with three rooms in the Whampoa area where my grandfather rented it to run a grocery shop. After the War, my father partnered with three of his ex-KMT comrades to open a grocery store in the Aljunied area and we rented a terrace house at nearby MacPherson Road where we lived there until 1952.
Then we moved to an apartment flat in East Coast Way. I had antagonised local gangsters and we needed to shift to the East Coast flat to avoid their harassment. Working as an English Literature teacher, I also changed school from the McPherson area to the East Coast area.
Thus, from 1952 until now in 1975, we live in a 850-square-feet, three-bedroom apartment at East Coast Way, on the ninth floor of an old twelve-storey building. It has ninety-six units, an auspicious number, surrounded by flats, rows of terrace houses and pockets of eateries. My father and I like to play Chinese chess with our neighbors on weekends, and after our games, together with grandma, we walk to nearby stalls to taste our favorite dishes, such as Hainanese chicken, laksa noodles, Nonya pastries and Malay-style chendol.
We chose this apartment in East Coast not for its nearness to eateries, but for its heightened security, which did not change all these years. The three blocks are surrounded with tall walls and four security guards on shift duties are stationed at the entrance guardhouse: at night two of them are working, taking turns to pace around the compound with a large guard dog. We need the security guards, the tall walls and the guard dog: they can deter intruders.
My bedroom is a kind of protective cocoon. At night, I will meditate inside it. Its four walls and ceiling are painted white. When I run my palm over the walls, I feel tiny bulges of plaster granules: they feel uneven, yet strangely smooth, like the ribs of a once reigning Leviathan.
I painted cylindrical clouds with cheerful eyes on the ceiling. They often enter my dreams and guide me to find a stream filled with rainbow trout, and they even enter my nightmares and provide me with wings if I fell into a bottomless valley. I also painted light green over images of boughs and leaves on one half of the ceiling; they give me the sensation that I can look up and stretch my arms and touch the little diamonds of brightness which come down from the latticework of branches on a sunny day.
The pinewood wardrobe, my desk and chair, the book shelf and the dart board on the wall are painted white. Perhaps I try to create the sensation that I can meditate inside the belly of a cousin of Moby Dick, a kind of time capsule for me to regain strength to fight the dark forces outside.
I’m now sitting near my desk, which faces the window. I enjoy the bluish glow of six short florescent tubes, arranged in the shape of a hexagon on the ceiling; according to Chinese astrology, an overarching hexagon facing the north-south direction brings good luck.
Herbia’s cage is three feet away from the left side of my stiff, therapeutic mattress which is supported by a wooden bedframe. The mattress is recommended by the physiotherapist at the General Hospital: it is said to have a therapeutic effect on my back pain due to an inborn condition -- my left leg is one centimeter shorter than my right leg.
Near to Herbia’s cage is a big fish bowl that contains water hyacinth which floats on the surface with white pebbles and colorful marbles at the bottom. Inside the bowl are six angel fish with long whiskers, six goldfish with puffy cheeks, and six guppies whose colourful tails seem to change colors when the males persistently chase the females in the mornings. Fenshui dictates that the shadowy dreams of Herbia need to be neutralized by the iridescence of these tropical fish; and when one of them died, I would hurry to the shop nearby to buy a similar fish and place it into the bowl, to maintain a sense of cosmic harmony in my bedroom.
On the wall adjacent to my desk are three glass-framed pictures which feature animals that are symbols of good fortune -- a Sichuan golden-haired monkey, an albatross and a zebroid.
Directly above my desk is a triptych covered with clear plastic sheets. I created it using three thick cardboards, each measuring two feet by two. In the centre of each cardboard is the eight trigrams of Taoist cosmology, and the trigrams are surrounded by Chinese zodiac animals which I drew with a mixture of yellow, orange and red crayons.
Below the triptych is a framed calligraphy which I wrote in Chinese in rice paper. It is a quote from Lao Tzu and, if translated in English, it reads: ‘There is something mysterious, undifferentiated and complete which exists before Heaven and Earth. Soundless, formless, changeless, it permeates all things. It is the Mother of the universe. I do not know its name. I call it Tao.’
(written in August 1975)
Flint frowned as he walked into the room near dusk. He placed a rattan chair in front of me, sat on it and grunted, ‘Three days over. Ready?’
Sitting straight, I nodded, somewhat distracted by a woodpecker knocking its beak against a trunk near the window. Looking at the stack of handwritten papers on my lap under the yellowish fluorescent light, I strained my eyes and narrated the following life story …
I enter a memory portal and encounter a world filled with the shades of tall and broad-leafed trees. I heard the chirping of birds and the babble of a river. Every now and then my tired eyes were struck by rays of heat from the afternoon sun.
It was June 1963: I was a hunter, engrossed in searching for an elusive target, the Garuda owl, and unsure whether predators were watching me. I seemed to sense the movement of some furry animal behind a tree as it looked for food inside that timber-rich forest which straddled the borders of Thailand and Malaysia. A dipterocarp forest where trees produce fruits that bear seeds with two wings.
Squatting and gazing around, that furry creature did not appear. Instead I spotted a hornbill. The afternoon light revealed its bright yellow casque, which looked like an ivory helmet above a large beak. Its grey plumes and the dark green foliage in the background 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 chimpanzee’s scream brought me back to reality. Dropping to my knees, I prostrated on the ground. Stumpy branches, dangling cords, jutting boughs, creepers and huge trees above a hundred feet surrounded me: the Rain Tree with its umbrella-shaped crown, the cylindrical Jelutong and the Borneo Camphor Wood, and the latticework of branches that towered above me like rows of green verandas. They brought me back to those days when I was a youth hiding with my family in the forests of Sumatra, fleeing from brutal Japanese soldiers during the War.
I heard the clacking of branches and I held my breath. Soon there was a thump as a heavy fruit dropped to the ground. I relaxed a while, then I stood up and trudged through thorny vines and shrubs, and stumbled upon a clearing. Sunrays pierced that plot of ground, which seemed to mark that spot to bury those lost in the forest.
Walking away from the clearing, I plodded through bushes and ferns that gave off a wild odor. Strangely I sensed that apex predators were focusing on their targets in different parts of the forest, while the scavengers waited for their turn. And the forest was like a large pitcher plant living inside a giant primeval Brain where everything soon turned bluish-green in colour. At night the large pitcher plant would do what was necessary to stay alive: it lured, trapped and digested its preys. When morning arrived, sunrays would penetrate the digestive tracts of the pitcher plant to reveal whether there were any survivors.
Tired, I sat down under the shade of tall trees and hid behind thick shrubs. I strained to hear the movement of feet or paws; instead I heard the currents of a river. A large bear had died last night of bullet wounds: it had round ears, sharp claws and a long snout, its organs were prized for their medicinal properties. Fleeing to the inner region, it fell down a slope and into the river before it died; after floating for a distance, its body became stuck at the forked limbs of a trunk near the river’s slow-moving part.
Shaking my head a few times to regain clarity, I lied down on the ground to take a rest; then I listened carefully and tried to detect any predator or tribesmen. If I met any of the tribesmen, I would explain to them that I had been lost in the forest for nearly two days, and I would offer them money or anything they need if they could assist me … I checked my rifle to make sure that it was loaded and ready, in case a predator attacked me. A few weeks ago, I bought three rifles from an underground store at Bangkok, giving two of them to my guides, Ahmad and Nezam. They left me two days ago when I was firm about going beyond the ancient cemetery and entering the inner region of the forest; they had guided me in exploring the outer region for three weeks where we trekked in the daytime and returned to the village before sunset. We came across different species of owls, falcons, fantails and wrens. Perhaps a few times during the evenings, we spotted the shadows of Garuda Owls: their horned foreheads, orange eyes and giant wings, but they were gone before we could follow them.
My guides tried hard to dissuade me from entering the inner region, repeating stories of trespassers being punished. But I was running out of time as the illnesses of my father and my son had worsened, and I need to urgently prepare the medicine wine to cure them. My mind was focused on capturing a Garuda Owl. And I only meant to capture it, not to kill it. I needed some of its flesh to prepare the medicine wine, which I believed could cure the chronic asthma of my son and the liver disease of my father. If captured, I would bring the Owl to the clinic where the incision would be done under anesthesia by a veterinarian.
Grandfather told me that a few centuries ago, the young daughter of a powerful tribe’s leader at Yunnan was suffering from illnesses, and the leader sent a few groups of medicine men to search for a cure. They visited different parts of China, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia; after months of searching and experimentation, one group discovered the ingredients to prepare the medicine wine that could cure the illnesses of that girl. The secret ingredients were handed down from one generation of tribal leader to the next. An uncle of my Grandfather fled to Yunnan to escape Ching soldiers, and he married the daughter of the tribe’s leader. When he found out the ingredients, he told Grandfather about the matter and how to prepare the wine, since he believed that it could quicken the healing of wounds, and his descendants might be involved in anti-Ching activities …
Lying flat on the ground, I remained tense: a leopard or a python might be closing in. Gripping my rifle, I remained quiet, smelling the stench from my shirt and pants, which were soiled and muddy. I heard the creaking of barks caused by squirrels as they scurried up nearby trees. And I saw a caterpillar, which looked like the embryo of a green hippopotamus, nibbling a leaf inches away from my face. A hairy spider jumped onto my shoulder, then it leapt away towards a cluster of ferns and started to hunt for smaller spiders. A blue-green mosquito rested on my wrist and I chased it away. Turning my body sideways, my elbow crushed a snail; I resented my carelessness.
A few minutes later, an orange knot of fidgety ants fell onto my hand; they disentangled themselves and started to run along the long sleeve of my shirt, like tiny alien soldiers on a mission. I brushed them away, unsure whether they were ants or poisonous rove beetles that could cause severe blisters. Remaining quiet, I tried to detect the rustle of leaves or the sound of broken twigs.
Feeling thirsty, I reached for a gourd tied to my waist and lifted it near to my face; a familiar fragrance drifted into my nostrils. Opening its cap, I took a sip of the wine: it consisted of glutinous rice wine, crocodile meat and Taiwanese scorpions. Since young, I had been drinking it as a substitute to assuage back pain.
Refreshed by the wine, I sat up and listened cautiously, but it was too late. Four tribal guardians armed with bows and arrows pounced on me: they must have been watching me from behind the shrubs. Their upper bodies were bare and they wore hard straw shoes and green loin-clothes; their faces, chests and limbs were painted with green pigments that blended well with the undergrowth. Two of them grabbed me while the other two took away my rifle and army knife. I explained to them a few times in English mixed with Malay that I had no hostile intention, and I only wanted to obtain some flesh of a Garuda owl to prepare a medicine wine and I would release the owl after the operation at a clinic … They did not seem to understand, and stared at me for a long while before tying my hands behind my back; then they frowned and grunted, and led me away. Their rough mutterings and pushing made me feel that I would soon be judged by their elders on whether I should be burnt at the stake.
(written in August 1975)
Yes, I chose to believe, and 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 swayed among the thick branches which shielded part of the night sky, their shadows playfully merged with the flames and they seemed to baptize the flames with the glow of moonlight.
I tried to ignore the fact that I was bound by the tribesmen to a wooden pole, trying to look away from the flames that came from behind me. The pale blue gown of Joan flashed across my eyes as she shuttled 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 request for help.
I shifted my attention away from the heat of the flames, which made the night sky above me looked grey and half-glittering, like a spoilt television screen that kept running. And I forced my eyes to follow the shadows of the Garuda Owls: they had stalwart foreheads, some with long whiskers, some with cloud-shaped sideburns. The adults had large wings, hooked beaks and muscular thighs, their talons and eyes glittered in the dark. Somehow I felt that the bluish glow of their eyes was sufficient to subdue their foes. They seemed to flaunt their plumes, then they fluttered, flapped and beckoned, flying from branches to branches. Sometimes in the midst of their flight, their shapes seemed to change: some became elongated while others became rotund or cylindrical, and I seemed to see a cluster of fireflies behind each of them as they taunted the flames.
The searing heat crept up my neck; the fiery tongues remained faithful to the earth, blackening the twigs, branches and coarse hay below my feet. The twigs and hay shriveled like dune grass when the flames touched them: they changed into waves of heat and attacked 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 since physically I was helpless: my limbs, waist and knees were tightly bound to the wooden pole, while my feet rested on a stone about one feet above the ground. I was exposed to the sun for more than three hours and the heat only moderated when the sun set. My hands were tied and curved behind me against the pole and my forehead was bound upright, which suggested that the shamans wanted me to look straight and see clearly the retribution for my wrongdoing.
Six tribesmen formed a half-circle behind me in the forest clearing, their dour faces reflecting stripes of yellow, purple and blue pigments. Small goatskin drums were tied to their waists and they moved their palms and fingers rhythmically, the drumbeat pulsating through my ribs. Three shamans and a dozen tribesmen stood on a large and flat rock more than a hundred feet away, watching; then the shamans began to chant in a sonorous way and their solemn invocations echoed among the tall trees. The interwoven branches 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 showed that the floors of the caves were filled with rocks and sands; long, twisted shadows ran into the throats of the caves that consisted of tunnels.
The drumbeat coming from the tribesmen behind me loudened, bringing me back to a primeval past; a past that glimmered in the background of my dreams; a past that lived inside the ancestral voices that travelled in my bloodstream. Somehow I sensed that the primeval past also lived inside the red-streaked eyes of the shamans as they continued to watch me, expecting 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 sensations of pain; soon I was coughing and struggling to pray.
Surprisingly, the six tribesmen behind me stood up, walked to the edge of the clearing and returned with buckets of water. They used them to douse the flames, and they repeated this step twice, using a total of twelve buckets.
After a while, the flames were gone, leaving behind swirls of smoke that drifted around me. Didn’t the shamans intend to burn me alive? Did their gods forgive me? Did the shamans receive an other-worldly message to release me?
My relief was brief; 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 appeared, followed by large, crawling shadows: they were ancient predators and my flesh would be used to feed them.
The glow of their eyes changed from pale green to yellow as they moved away from the shadows of the cave. I could sense their swiftness and the focus of their glow. As the predators approached me, my heart sunk: they were giant spiders, each as large as my palm. I closed my eyes and waited to be stung by their toxic fangs.
Something grumbled in the distance, followed by bright flashes of lightning. The shadows of the Garuda Owls converged above me. The giant spiders halted and after a while they retreated. The Garuda Owls swooped down and attacked them; they pierced the thorax of the spiders with their sharp beaks. The hairy spiders scattered and rushed back to the cave.
There was a massive flash across the night sky which was followed by a blasting roar and the ground trembled. The tremor pierced my hollow ribs, and the air was electrified for a few moments. My throat burned with bitter dryness. A bright, crackling wave of lightning had struck a giant oak about thirty metres away, its branches became blazed with daggers of flame. Fortunately my legs were bound above the ground and the huge voltage did not hit me: it hovered savagely over me for a while and went away. However, the six tribesmen behind me were stunned and knocked unconscious; they laid motionless on the ground. A Garuda Owl and a few spiders were also motionless in a curled up way on the ground.
Soon the rain came. The three shamans and the group of tribesmen who stood on a large rock behind us were unscathed, but were dazed by the lightning; they hurried over to the unconscious tribesmen and rubbed their limbs vigorously and thumped their chests. Ten minutes later, four of them awoke and sat up.
Two of the tribesmen untied me: according to their custom, if the spiders did not kill me, I would be set free as they believed that their gods had forgiven me. When released, I quickly performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the remaining two motionless bodies; as a school teacher I was trained in CPR. Fifteen minutes later I resuscitated them and they were carried by the tribesmen back to their huts. After talking to one of the elders and obtaining his permission, I picked up the dead Garuda Owl, the size of a rooster, and carried it in my right hand. That night I stayed in one of their huts.
The next morning a young tribesman guided me out of the forest. Reaching the motel, I cleaned and cut the meat of the Garuda Owl and salted it, sealing it with wax inside a clay pot before I packed up to go home. I travelled by bus to Singapore, so as to keep the clay pot safely beside me. When I reached home, I quickly placed the salted meat in the freezer, then I went to Chinatown to gather the ingredients which included prawns, scorpions, crocodile meat and ginseng before rushing back to prepare the medicine wine. It required three days of careful brewing. I also added rare psychoactive herbs which I had obtained from Thailand a few months ago. Eventually I prepared eighteen bottles of the medicine wine; by drinking a small amount twice a week, it helped to cure the chronic asthma of my son and alleviate the liver illness of my father.
(written in August 1975)
‘Is that all? Are you testing my patience?’ Flint glared at me.
I had just narrated a life story to him, two episodes on two different nights. My wrist watch on the dusty floor showed twenty minutes past eleven; the croaking of a few frogs could be heard, coming from a drain near the farmhouse.
Sitting on a rattan chair, I raised my head and said, ‘Yes, it’s real, original and thrilling. I almost died.’
‘That’s because you’re dumb and reckless. Nobody asks you to be a hero.’ His eyes gleamed with anger under the pale yellowish fluorescent light.
‘But I need to find a cure for …’
He cut me short. ‘Yes, you need a cure. You need to squeeze the larvae inside your intestines.’
Staring at the dusty floor, I remained quiet.
He stood up, walked towards me and slapped me. I slumped against my chair.
‘I should snip off your eye lashes,’ he growled.
I shook my head and said, ‘David, wake up. You’re David, the artist. Remember, we eat together, share our poems and …’
He said hoarsely, ‘I already told you. I control David’s mind and body in the past nine months. And I will control him for the remaining days of his life.’
I shook my head and said, ‘No, David, wake up! You can do it! You can chase away that voice. He’s only a voice. He cannot control you.’
Flint glared at me, lifted his right hand and slapped me a few times. ‘You’re so stubborn. Whatever you say, you can’t escape. You and David can’t run away from me.’
Avoiding his gaze, I remained quiet and looked at the floor.
He said in a deep, rough voice, ‘I repeat, I need stimulating life stories. Perhaps blood and pain can help you.’
Flint stepped forward and gripped my right ear. With brutal swiftness, he pulled my head towards his chest, took out a sharp knife and slashed the back portion of my ear. I shouted in pain as I curved my body and slumped into my chair.
‘This is your encounter with random forces,’ he muttered, walked out of the room and locked the door.
Despite my pain, I noticed that Flint was limping. His left foot was bandaged and the strip of bandage was stained with blood: one of his toes appeared to be missing.
A Revived Jonathan In A Research Laboratory
(transcribed in January 1976)
A starlit night. Joan’s jasmine fragrance calms me. She brings me to see an old friend, who splits into the four seasons, and they splash inside a River of neurons. Have they swallowed the flames of the four elements? Earth, water, air and fire -- they don’t preach, but they produce the sparkles in her eyes now.
At a corner of my tavern, we slip into Bosch’s garden of earthly delights, and I sense a rain-washed eden. The rivers carry land-scented images, the kind of scent that greets a sailor who has drifted on the sea for days. We walk along the riverbank. Alien creatures appear and chase us. We run and struggle to find an exit. Finally we close our eyes and jump off a cliff, to get out of that grim haiku.
Returning to the ship of life, we sense another jungle: the smell of Rafflesia, butterworts and ferns. They are recycling starlight and death. A few Zen painters are waiting somewhere. Then we hear an old owls-photographer who says, ‘It’s rumored Whitman awakened the world of verses. How did he do it? I must mellow and hum a different kind of spirituals to glimpse his secret, after half a century of land addiction. I must mould my gray-hatted tavern into a weather-beaten flute. It speaks as long as I breathe through it, even in a long, cruel winter.’
His self-anointment sounds earnest. They call him a descendant of Billy Budd, his fate half-twisted. He lives his dreams in the kaleidoscopic jungles of photography, learning the vocalizations of owls, and he likes to watch their Zen-warrior calm and swiftness. Our heartstrings vibrate when he discloses his meager income, getting half-lost in the half-drunken glow in his eyes. They reflect the fast-moving shadows of prairie falcons, Great Lakes salmons and Argentina’s trout.
Yes, we cannot forget those cigar-burnt magazine covers that feature the Great Horned Owls, their military-grey plumage and white eyebrows. And we cannot forget the spears in their eyes. Pressing their claws deep, they tear the tissues of their prey with hooked beaks, killing fast to lessen the pain. Is this another kind of mercy killing? The photographer’s artistry in freezing the half-divinity of owls makes us aware -- when we leave this world, he is ahead, on the branches of a two-thousand-year-old Californian redwood, waiting.
(written in March 1975)
I remember it was in August 1963 on a Saturday night, and after looking at the photos of my mother, I drank the mind-expanding Yunnan wine and fell asleep. I began to explore memory portals where I could find my mother. Since that tragic incident in 1936, I had waited for this moment for twenty-seven years. Finally I could get near my mother.
I selected and pushed opened a memory portal, entered it and returned to the days where my mother was beside me ... Different from dreams 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 inside the world of that memory portal.
As an unseen and transparent witness inside that world, I stood close to her, stretching out my hand cautiously to touch her almond-shaped face and delicate cheekbones: they had traces of both Chinese and Anglo-Saxon genes. I tried to touch her attractive nose, her crescent eyebrows and brown eye lashes, her thin lips and long, dark hair. In the morning sunrays, her honey-coloured eyes glinted with cheerfulness. My transparent palm passed through her face, but I was content to be near her.
At five feet six with slender limbs, she looked like a graceful dancer in a Tang dynasty painting. I recalled her tender, low-pitched voice that trembled melodiously when she sang hymns and Christian songs, and when she read poems by Emily Dickinson to me. On that morning, we were at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, sometime in 1935. 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 since they didn’t come to find her. When she was an infant, she was left inside a basket that was fastened to the upper portion of an iron gate of a convent at the eastern part of Singapore. And inside the basket was a piece of paper with the handwritten word ‘Linda’.
She grew up in that convent, taken care of by Catholic sisters who taught her how to read and write; she diligently read the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, and assisted to perform chores at the convent. She told me that the Catholic sisters were kind-hearted, imparting knowledge and wisdom to her, but she was bullied by a few orphans older than her and they frequently stole her biscuits, 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 had settled down in Singapore to recuperate and help my grandfather at a grocery shop, and he often went to the hospital to obtain pain medication. 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; my mother told me that it inspired her to write haiku.
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 remember 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, with heterogeneous species of plants, ferns and foilage on both sides of the lane; its tranquility heightened the mating calls of crickets.
After walking for a while, we sat on a wooden bench that faced the central lake where a few swans were basking beneath a blue sky. The stone path that circled the lake was flanked with giant leaves and trees; every now and then, squirrels scurried up the trunks, while bees and butterflies flittered among the flowering plants. I walked towards a pond that was near the lake and saw turtles: their slowness mirrored the pond’s serenity. Time came to a standstill ...
We walked around the lake before we rested under the shade of Angsana trees, enjoying the greenery and the blooming bougainvillea and heliconias before walking to a Chinese-style pavilion that was situated on the top of a slope.
The lawn that stretched before the pavilion was lush green which contrasted with the potted variegated flowers that flanked its boundary. Many pictures were taken which showed my parents and I sitting or lying down among the beds of yellow, orange and red flowers. My mother would sit on a long bench inside the pavilion and peel an orange for me, then she would read poems by Emily Dickinson or write a haiku.
‘What’s a haiku?’ I asked in Chinese, sometimes mixing my words with English when I talked to my mother.
‘A short poem, it describes what a person experiences now.’
‘Why do you write it?’ I chewed the orange flesh she handed to me.
‘Perhaps to try to understand the present moment.’
‘What does that mean?’
She rubbed my hair gently. ‘Perhaps to catch a glimpse of the interconnectedness of life.’
‘I don’t understand.’ I was six years old then.
She lifted an anthology of poetry and said, ‘A teacher once told me, this book is a miracle. It comes from the efforts of many people.’
I sat straight and listened.
‘The books depends on the logger who cut down a tree, the driver who transported the timber to the factory, and the workers and managers who produce the papers for making this book.’
My mother continued, ‘The tree need sunlight and the soil and rainwater. In this sense, the tree depends on the sun and the earth. In turn, the earth and the sun depend on the Milky Way. In this way, this book subtly mirrors the existence of the cosmos.’
I thought for a while and said, ‘Can give me some examples of haiku?’
My mother took out a notebook and said, ‘Two of Basho’s haiku:
The stems, just as they are,
the flowers, just as they are.
The bee emerging
from within the peony
goes away reluctantly. ’
‘I want to try,’ I murmured and frowned. After thinking for a long time, I said, ‘The turtle plops into the pond, the tadpole jumps out of it, which is which?’
My mother smiled, remained quiet for a while and said, ‘A cicada cannot talk, a wind carries its chitter out of love, someone prefers this.’
(written in March 1975)
I pushed open a memory portal and entered it: my mother and I were sitting on a green fabric sofa in the living room of a small, sparsely furnished flat at a weekend gathering of Christian friends.
Placed against the oblong wall was a waist-high, tawny-brown cupboard made of red oak with four stumpy legs and two rows of drawers. On top of the cupboard were framed family photos, ten figurines of cupids and guardian angels, a King James bible, rosaries with quartz-stone beads, a wooden rectangular-based standing cross about one feet tall, and a ceramic vase that was painted with Chinese zodiac animals and filled with lavenders.
On the left of the cupboard was a secondhand mahogany piano and an old guitar. Colourful cushions were on the floor, surrounding a squarish, knee-high coffee table made of pinewood. Other Christian friends were sitting on seven or eight plastic chairs near the sofa.
Catherine, an eleven-year-old girl, was singing a hymn while her mother played the piano; her voice was tender, high-pitched and moving. The girl was born blind, but she looked cheerful. Unexpectedly, 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?’ I was seven years old then.
‘He has reasons which we cannot understand now.’
I paused and murmured, ‘It’s frightening to live in a dark world and cannot see anything.’
I stopped in my tracks, closed my eyes and imagined to be blind for a few moments. Although I closed my eyes, I could still sense the brightness of the evening light, and I wondered whether Catherine had sensations of sunlight or her world was totally dark.
‘I believe her inner world is filled with light,’ my 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.’
‘Like the poison tree that Grandma told me some months ago?’ I asked.
‘What did she say?’
‘She told me that many years ago, the villagers called an ugly-looking tree a poison tree and they wanted to chop it down. Then someone found out that it produced fruits that could cure illnesses.’ I paused and said, ‘But how can blindness be useful? It destroys hope and happiness.’
Mother remained quiet; we walked towards a rain tree and sat down on the wooden bench, and she said slowly, ‘Let me share a real story which happened in the 1880s in the United States.’
I looked into the tender eyes of my mother and waited. She said, ‘It was a Sunday morning and Pastor Russell Conwell saw a girl crying near the door of a small church. It was very crowded and 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 the child?’
‘Her name was Hattie, and she came from a poor family. Can you guess what happened that night?’
I shook my head.
Mother said, ‘That night she became worried that other children couldn’t attend Sunday classes and couldn’t worship God. She decided to save money to help build a larger Sunday school.’
‘She came from a poor family, how much could she save?’ I asked.
‘Yes, she tried very hard and saved only 57 cents over a two-year period … then she fell ill and died.’
I sat up straight and said, ‘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 to many people.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘A newspaper also published it. A realtor was moved by it and donated land, and many Church members made donations.’
‘Did they finally build a bigger Sunday school?’
‘Yes, they did. Within five years, Hattie’s gift had increased to $250,000 which was a huge sum at that time. They’ve since built a bigger Church with a large Sunday school ...’
(written in March 1975)
My mother didn’t die; even though she may be physically gone, she didn’t die ... No, she can’t die. Because of the depth of her love, she lives on in my daily life, and she’s always young, full of grace, courage and beauty.
At this moment I can sense her homely fragrance, the warmth of her fingers and the tenderness of her finger-tips. I remember the moistness of her lips when she kissed my forehead every night before I went to sleep. And I remember the moistness of her lips when she kissed me after school or at the playground before she pushed the swing, or at the chapel when we were listening to Christmas carols.
I sense her right palm touching my forehead, my shoulders and my neck when I was down with flu and fever; she was always beside me, wiping the beads of sweat from my forehead and using a cold towel to gently rub my abdomen to reduce the fever. Sometimes at night when Joan and I were writing a poem, we could hear the whisper of my mother and the three of us would write our poem together ...
No, she didn’t die, she’s always beside me and Joan. Sometimes in broad daylight I could hear her voice, and she asked me whether I had taken lunch, and asked me to be extra careful when crossing the roads. At night in my dreams, I could hear her gentle voice, and she told me stories from the Bible and the Pilgrim’s Progress.
My mother continues to live in my daily life after that fateful event and she often appears in my dreams, encouraging me. This is my reality. Entering memory portals to relive past moments serves to validate her presence.
I remember that when I was seven, my image of God was that He was a huge fatherly Elephant who would protect kind-hearted people, and He would strive to ensure that the kind-hearted would be immune to tragic events; this image came indirectly 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 sitting at the kitchen table at the second floor of an old shop house in Whampoa and my father had gone downstairs to help at the grocery shop.
‘Please tell me, mother,’ I said as I started to eat hot dumplings filled with powderized red beans; they were made by my mother.
‘In southern India last week, the feet of a young elephant was stuck on a railway track, and a train could be seen at a distance, heading towards it.’
I stopped eating and asked, ‘What happened then?’
‘The parents of the young elephant walked onto the track and they tried to push their child away, but didn’t succeed.’
‘Did the train stop in time?’
‘A few more adult elephants walked onto the track.’
‘Didn’t they hear the horn?’
I asked, ‘They were not afraid? My teacher told me elephants are very intelligent.’
My mother said, ‘They’re very intelligent, so intelligent that they displayed sacrificial love.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘The parents and the other adult elephants that walked onto the track used their bodies to shield the young elephant from the oncoming train.’
I sat straight and listened.
My mother sighed, ‘Unfortunately the train could only reduce its speed and it didn’t stop in time. It hit the elephants and it killed a few of them.’
I was sad and also puzzled as to why God did not intervene; yet strangely, the image of God as a huge Elephant emerged in my young mind at that time. Perhaps I 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 and all-wise, and He wouldn’t disappoint us.
But a few months later, this image was shattered by that fateful incident; it took only 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, like a flash of lightning across a blue sky. And it happened so quickly -- it must be the work of some malicious forces that played a cruel, ruthless joke on me, which exposed life to be fragile. In my mind, I seemed to be struck by lightning during those moments which pushed 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 that turned into the floating images of ashen students and adults, and the fragmented gleams of cars and buildings. And the sunrays turned pale and cold in the corner of my eyes, as chills rushed up my chest and to my forehead, my eyes seeing patches of purple and streaks of blue.
At first all these images were cold, quiet and ghostly. Then the sounds and noises gradually returned, and I seemed to hear shouts and yells that were angry, bitter and accusatory, that were being heaped on me. And 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, and I never touched her again.
I only remembered, she shouted my name ‘Jonathan!’ I was walking to school with my mother and, despite her frequent warning, I stood off the kerb after I reached the end of a road pavement near a junction and I was always the first student to dart across the road when there was no vehicle. On that morning she rushed forward from behind, stood beside me and pushed me backwards. I fell onto the pavement … she saved me. She used her body to shield me.
Within moments the frontal corner of the speeding van hit her -- she was thrown many meters away, her face and body hit and rolled on the rough tarmac road a few times, then she became motionless. My reckless behavior had killed my mother.
In a state of shock, I sat on the ground, my heart pounding, my throat parched as if my body passed through a wave of flames. Staring blankly at her lifeless body, I faintly heard the screeching of tires as the van sped away. Slowly, I heard shouts from people behind me. I crawled towards my mother, her eyes were half-closed. She looked very pale, her head tilted and blood dripped from a corner of her eye. Kneeling beside her, I nudged her arms: they were cold and limp. She had left this world.
(written in April 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; in reality, I was having intermittent fever and sore throat for two weeks after the incident. On the third night of the wake, ignoring the objections of my grandparents, I insisted on attending it. My grandparents relented, and our neighbor who owned a van drove us to the funeral home.
We arrived at the funeral home at five in the afternoon, an elongated one-storey building that looked like a row of shop houses. Each segregated unit of the funeral home appeared like a rectangular workplace with white walls and long white fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. A squarish folding table was placed against the wall near the entrance, and on the table were a memorial book for writing condolences, a bible, a wooden standing crucifix, a plastic bowl that contained wrapped mint sweets, a flask of tea and plastic cups. Rows of tawny-brown wooden chairs faced the coffin that was placed on a bier; on the small table in front of the coffin was a framed picture of my mother, together with thick white candles, two baskets of sympathy flowers, small angel figurines, a rosary and a King James bible.
Frowning sadly, my father was sitting at the front row, wrinkles running deep across his forehead; his square face was pale, his eyes were dim and quiet. He bowed slightly and his lips trembled when relatives and friends tried to console him. His thick eye-brows were slanted inwards with grief and anger, for he was indignant that the reckless van driver had fled. Although his eyes were red, he restrained his tears.
My mother looked pale in a white gown, but peaceful and serene inside a light brown maple coffin, which cradled her like a nest made of soft cushion and linen blankets. Her silk-coloured face reflected a screen of light; the powder, applied on her face to hide her bruises and wounds, reflected the light. A pastor and five Catholic sisters from the convent were praying for her; I walked close to the coffin and bowed a few times before I walked toward my father and sat beside him, my eyes red and swollen. I had taken medication, but my fever began to rise again. Two hours later, I became dizzy and started to experience breathlessness, palpitation and chest pain; my father quickly called an ambulance and my grandparents accompanied me to the hospital.
Two weeks later, my fever subsided, and I asked my grandmother whether my mother would be lonely. With tears in her eyes, she assured me that my mother would never be lonely, for she had gone to a heavenly place where angels and old friends would keep her company.
Three months passed and my grandmother brought me to a nearby temple with spacious halls that housed large statutes of Taoist deities. At the backyard, an elderly priest, dressed in a long robe that contained light blue stripes with different arrangement of Yin Yang symbols, had set up a table; on it was a vase, a wooden chalice, small cups, an urn containing joss sticks and two plates of fruits.
I sat on the mat on the ground and the elderly priest chanted Taoist scripture while two young priests played the flute nearby. The elderly priest lifted up the chalice and sprinkled water on my body; he had earlier explained to my grandmother that this ritual would cleanse me and dispel bad luck which might be lurking around me.
After half an hour of chanting and sprinkling water on me, the elderly priest burnt two paper talismans inside a cup, then he poured water into the cup and I was asked to drink 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; from a white vase he sprinkled water on my forehead and body to bless me and he explained that this ritual would enable me to receive the blessings of the compassionate Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and the warrior arhats.
The elderly monk also gave me a necklace with a green jade that contained the carving of an arhat and a bracelet with crystals that could ward off bad luck. I wore the necklace and bracelet for many years until the strings that held them became worn, then I visited the Buddhist temple to obtain new ones.
All these years I felt the stones of guilt and grief in my heart; my grandparents consoled me, repeating to me that it was the reckless van driver who was guilty and that he should be arrested and put behind bars. I often dreamt about my mother at night, dreaming that we were at the playground, at the beach, at the 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, and at the same time, I would read the Psalms and sing ‘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 didn’t appear.
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 the timeless dimension which is part of 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 filled with 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.
When I was eleven, I learnt how to chant Taoist and Buddhist sutra that offer blessings to spiritual beings, then I hid myself under the long altar table of the main hall of a Taoist temple which was covered with a thick, embroidered cloth. I stayed there all night during the fifteen of the July of the Chinese calendar, chanting Taoist and Buddhist scripture, confident that my mother’s spirit would appear and talk to me, but she didn’t. When my father and grandparents knew that I hid at the Taoist temple, they sternly told me not to do it again.
When I reached twelve years old, I became extreme. I learned from a few classmates who were interested in attaining special powers of perception that if a person immersed himself in 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 pool and, immersing myself in the water, I sat down in a quiet corner of the pool. Holding my breath, my heart started to whisper blessings for my mother, praying for her appearance. My face went pale and blue due to lack of oxygen; I waited and waited until the waters began to rush into my nostrils and I had no choice but to surface, gasping for air. I tried a few times, but my mother did not appear.
In the months ahead, I would every now and then ask my grandparents, elderly pastors and monks how’s my mother, and they would assure me that she has returned to God’s Mansions. They would emphasize that it was the fault of that reckless driver who fled and escaped punishment, but he would stricken by his conscience. And they told me wisdom stories on self-forgiveness and letting of the past. Based on their encouragement, from the age of nine onwards and also after the War, I strive to become the hands and feet of my mother by doing voluntary work during the weekends at different orphanages and old folks’ homes.
(written in August 1975)
It was late evening; three days had passed. Flint unlocked and opened the door; bringing another chair into the room, he sat on it, stared at me and grunted, ‘What do you have for me today?’
Wearing a bluish singlet and short trousers, the veins on his biceps and forearms bulged as he was working on a stone sculpture in the past hour.
I looked at the dusty floor and avoided his gaze, and I spotted a lizard biting a cockroach at a corner of the room before it scurried away through the bottom gap of the door. The dark brown planks that sealed the windows of the room seemed to frown under the yellowish fluorescent light, and my mind twisted as it tried to unearth a thrilling life story.
After waiting for a while, Flint became impatient and shouted, ‘Where’s my story!’
The tweet of the crickets and the knocking of the woodpecker outside the farmhouse stopped abruptly. Holding my breath, I was mentally prepared that he might slice another part of my ear.
Flint stood up and leaned towards me. Sitting back, I closed my eyes. His heavy hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me towards him, then I heard Joan’s voice.
‘Jonathan, repeat after me. A real case of Inspector Evon. Normally I could only enter memory portals together with you. But for Inspector Evon, I could enter her memory portals on my own. Perhaps I’m related to her in some way, and last night I explored her memories. Since you don’t have other stories, shall we take the risk and narrate this case, and let Flint decide ...’
Personal Notes of Inspector Evon
(written in May 1973)
‘Four pairs of eyes! Yet we didn’t see how the money disappeared. And my son didn’t come home …’ Benjamin Palmer said to Sergeant Bernard.
16 May 1973, 5.20 pm: I stepped into the living room of Benjamin Palmer’s residence, a 15,000 square feet bungalow at Bukit Timah with elegantly maintained gardens, a Greek-style fountain and a pool. The living room with polished marble flooring was brightly lit with chandelier and crystal lamps. Expensive U-shaped leathery sofas and Italian coffee tables were placed at the centre of the living room: they faced two large television sets and were surrounded by glass cabinets that showcased jade pottery, wine flasks, crystalline sculptures of swans and cranes and songbirds, pictures of imposing baroque castles and gold-embossed portraits. Complex hi-fi systems, a few violins and a grand piano sat at a corner. On the walls of the dining area were three landscape paintings, and below them were waist-high Chinese zodiac animals made of thick porcelain which gleamed under the crystal lights.
Walking across the living room, I introduced myself to Benjamin Palmer, the father of the missing boy: he was fifty-eight, nearly six feet, gaunt, grey-haired and full of wrinkles, the owner of a large company that produced 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 near-bloodless, the two severed fingers of the missing boy.
The severed fingers appeared over-washed and unduly swollen, as if the perpetrators wanted to get rid of the traces of some chemical or contaminant. I passed them to Corporal Katherine who hurried back to the headquarters for follow up.
‘Your driver Timothy disappeared on the same afternoon, can you tell me what you know about him? His character, work performance, background. Do you think he’s involved?’ I asked.
Frowning, Benjamin Palmer said, ‘Don’t think he’s involved. He’s been our driver for twelve years, hardworking, helpful, married with two children.’
I asked Corporal Azreen and his team to check on Timothy’s background and visit his flat.
Sergeant Bernard and Corporal Samson were taking statements, one at a time at the long dining table; they had taken the statement of Benjamin Palmer. Seated on the sofas were: (a) Benjamin Palmer’s first wife Patricia Zhang, fifty-two, tall and slim, with narrow eyes and an austere chin; she was childless. (b) The second ‘wife’ (not legally registered) Venecia Ho, forty-five, 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. (c) Raymond Zhang, forty-seven, 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, who was spectacled, short and fleshly with relaxed eyes, but he pretended to be anxious. (e) The gardener who looked sad and worried. (f) Two maids in their thirties 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.’
Half an hour later we reached the place where the ransom of $80,000 went missing at around 3 pm, 16 May at the spot indicated by the kidnappers: when the missing boy did not return home two 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. Removing the stone slabs, Sergeant Bernard examined the drain which was grey and dry, about sixteen inches wide and one feet deep: it was at the far end of a stretch of covered drain that was situated behind Hugo’s school; nearby was a gentle slope that extended towards 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 the spot as indicated by the kidnapper, then they replaced the stone cover and walked away. Standing at about two hundred feet from the drain, they waited for forty-five minutes, but nobody turned up. When they returned to the spot and removed the stone cover, the envelope had disappeared. I asked my team to mark out relevant areas that surrounded the drain and check for footprints and any clues.
Returning to the bungalow, I visited the bedroom of the missing boy and examined the drawers, cupboards and shelves, and other items which belonged to the boy. An hour later, Benjamin Palmer and I walked around the garden where I spotted an empty mesh-wire cage at a corner. He explained, ‘Hugo likes fighting spiders, keeping them in plastic containers covered with perforated papers, and placed them inside that cage. Strangely, two days ago, the containers disappeared.’
We walked back to the living room and enquired about the matter, but no one knew who took the containers. ‘Where did Hugo catch those spiders?’ I asked.
Everyone remained silent, then the mother of the missing boy shuddered, her face went pale, and she said, ‘I remember now. Hugo went to a wooded area to catch them, together with his classmates and Timothy, the driver. They assured me that it was safe …’ She explained that her son told her about it six months ago, but she didn’t know who were the classmates or the location.
Returning to the headquarters that evening, Sergeant Bernard hurried to the forensic department and came back with the preliminary findings concerning Hugo’s severed fingers.
‘They were stained with something unusual,’ he said.
‘Organic or inorganic?’ I asked.
‘Some kind of digestive juice.’
‘It seeped into the areas where the fingers were cut off.’
‘Human or non-human?’ I asked.
‘They’re verifying it. Seems to come from a snake.’
Personal Notes of Inspector Evon
(written in May 1973)
6.45 am, 17 May 1973: Meeting at the headquarters.
I said to CPL Katherine, ‘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, and he didn’t disclose what went wrong. He talked quietly to his older brother Jackal, a hawker and a gambler. Jackal visited him once a month to borrow money from him 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. ‘Please check what type of small, intelligent animals can be trained to crawl through that narrow drain where the ransom went missing since it’s not possible for a human to crawl through it. Check with performance groups and the zoo on any missing trainer or animal.’
Later that morning, we went to Hugo’s school and met up with CPL Katherine. Witnesses said that they saw the driver Timothy and his car waiting for Hugo at 1.10 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 that wooded area?’ I asked Hugo’s classmates, and they explained that more than six months ago, two senior students from another class told them about it. I asked CPL Katherine to check on the two senior students who might be assisting the wrongdoers.
We reached the secluded wooded area which was surrounded by trees, thick bushes and undergrowth; 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 and the severed head of a python, and also spotted another three pythons that were resting on the branches of nearby trees; further, they discovered a mound that suggested a freshly dug area.
‘Inspector, do we start digging?’ Sargent Bernard asked.
‘Yes, there could be crucial evidence below it. Also inform the experts to come and catch those snakes. We need to find out where they come from.’
Two police constables started digging, and half an hour later, they exhumed a sack that was buried two feet deep. Untying it, they found a huge python without a head: its stomach had been sliced open, which contained Hugo’s body, and two of the boy’s fingers had been cut away.
Near noontime, CPL Samson reported to me 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 to find the address of Hock Chew, and thereafter we urgently visited his home, a one-room rented flat at Queenstown. We knocked at the door, but there was no response. Breaking into the flat, we found a figure lying on a bed in a room: he was gagged, his limbs bound. From the picture provided by Benjamin Palmer, he was the driver Timothy; we called the ambulance and sent him to the hospital.
Later that afternoon, 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, the same as Hock Chew’s home address, and the caller also indicated the location of the wooded area where they found Hugo’s body. We requested our counterparts in neighbouring countries to be on the lookout for Jackal and Hock Chew.
In the evening on 17 May, the driver Timothy was able to speak to me at the hospital, and he stressed that he didn’t collude with Jackal and Hock Chew, and he was not involved in their plan to ask for a ransom.
‘Can you tell me exactly what happened?’ I said.
Taking a deep breath, Timothy said, ‘In the afternoon on 15 May 1973, after Hugo had finished his lessons, he insisted on catching spiders, and I drove him to that area.’
‘I understand Hugo and his classmates directed you to that area about six months ago,’ I said.
‘Yes.’ Timothy nodded.
‘Did you follow Hugo while he hunted for his spiders?’
‘Yes, I followed him for a few minutes, then I walked to another area to help him look for spiders, about ten metres away.’
‘Did you know there were pythons in that area?’
‘I didn’t know. Otherwise I would never bring him there.’
‘On that afternoon, did you see the python closing in on Hugo?’
‘No, I didn’t see it. I heard his screams. I rushed over and was shocked to see a large python coiling around him. Soon I couldn’t see his face. ’
‘What did you do?’ I asked.
‘I’m afraid of snakes and didn’t know what to do … I looked around and picked up a thick branch and beat the snake, but it didn’t release Hugo. I kept beating it, but it was no use. Soon I realized, Hugo had died.’
‘What happened next?’ I asked.
‘I walked back to my car and went home.’
‘What happened when you reached home?’
‘I saw my brother Jackal and I told him about it.’
‘What did Jackal say or do?’
‘He suggested that we catch the snake and keep it as evidence before we report 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, and 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?’
‘They tied, gagged and blindfolded me and left me at the back seat of the car, then they went to do something. I was driven to and locked up at Hock Chew’s flat …’
Later that night, I thought about the case. Benjamin Palmer told me that in his will, eighty percent of his wealth would be bequeathed to his son, with ten percent to his first wife and ten percent to his ‘second wife’. If something tragic happened to his son, his two wives would obtain a much larger share of his wealth.
I must find out the truth. I picked up the phone and called Benjamin Palmer, suggesting a plan …
8.20 pm on 19 May 1973: Benjamin Palmer turned off the electricity switches of the bungalow and 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 the light of a street lamp that touched a corner of the balcony and some glimmers from a few surrounding houses, the master bedroom was 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!’ 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 him.’
‘It must be you! You are the mastermind! My son told me,’ Benjamin Palmer said firmly.
‘No, not me …’ Patricia 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 him. The judge will find you guilty and hang you!’
Patricia leaned against the wall and cried, saying, ‘No, not me … I didn’t kill Hugo. I’m not the mastermind … It’s Raymond, he’s the mastermind, he asked someone to put the pythons there.’
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 shouted for help. Sergeant Bernard, CPL Katherine and I were standing outside the door of the master room, and after hearing her admission, we entered the room. Benjamin Palmer looked agitated. Walking across the bedroom, he grabbed Patricia’s shoulders and slapped her, and she fell onto the floor. CPL Katherine walked towards her and would bring her back to the headquarters for questioning. Turning to Sergeant Bernard, I said, ‘Arrest Raymond Zhang for questioning, he may be planning to do more evil.’
(written in August 1975)
It was five minutes past midnight at the farmhouse; the tweet of an owl or some nocturnal creature could be heard outside.
I looked at Flint after I finished the narration, two episodes on two different nights. He couldn’t see Joan and wasn’t aware of her presence. For the first episode, I had slowly repeated the words of Joan which she spoke into my ears; for the second episode, I wrote it in my writing pad based on Joan’s narration, and I read to Flint on a different night.
I gazed at him, his thick eyebrows were furrowed, his pupils exuded hostile energy, his square chin and aquiline nose were taut; he was sitting upright and seemed to be lost in his own world. I wondered whether he had followed my narration. Raising his neck, he stared at the ceiling, stood up and muttered, ‘The python, I should have thought of it.’
Turning to me, he said, ‘A convoluted story, but life is complex. Why are there mobsters and murderers? No, I shouldn’t ask. No point asking. 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 chair, expecting Flint to take out his dagger, lurch forward and grab me.
Surprisingly he said, ‘But I like the python! A symbol of luck, both good and bad, like the forces hidden behind an artwork ... you get two stars. If you earned a total of nine stars, you’ll get a secret prize and I’ll release you.’
(written in April 1975)
I entered a memory portal: it was early October 1900 in Huizhou, southeast China. Grandfather was twenty-six years old then, a descendant of Taping soldiers from Yunnan. He and five hundred comrades spread out on top of undulating hills with patches of sandy and semi-grassy slopes: the hills overlooked a long stretch of yellowish, dusty road which led to the city.
The noontime sun was hidden behind the clouds; sometimes the sun appeared, its strong blaze burned unwary eyes, leaving behind blots of purple that took a full minute to clear. When the tree branches rustled in the strong winds, the dark green hills around them seemed to come alive, moving like giant lizards that were hunting. When the winds stopped, the hills hunkered down and rested like lethargic seals.
Grandfather and his comrades hid behind trunks and bushes; when sunrays reflected from leaves flashed across their faces, they looked like dusty wax figures, tense and anxious. They waited like leopard hunters and tried to differentiate the rustle of leaves and the fidgety movement of squirrels from the movement of enemy scouts. Every now and then, they knitted their eyebrows when they gazed in the direction of the camps of Ching soldiers.
The green long-sleeved shirts and cotton pants of the anti-Ching soldiers blended well with the trees and shrubs. And they spread out on top of the hills to cover a wider area in their ambush. Compared to Ching soldiers, the uprising comrades had inferior weapons and smaller pools of men: spreading out reduced the likelihood of being eliminated en masse when their enemies retaliated with more powerful machine guns.
Grandfather and three comrades shifted and moved behind a boulder flanked by trees. The moss-green boulder looked like a bull frog that had a rotund waist and a jutting jaw below a broad forehead, the shape of its half-opened jaw seemed to suggest that it was changed into a stone when it tried to attack a child of Medusa. From afar, the boulder looked like the petrified face of a monk who shouted esoteric prayers when he tried to fossilize Time for a while.
Two bags of dynamite sticks were near Grandfather’s feet; he and his comrades were at the middle of a row of hills that overlooked the stretch of dusty road. They glanced around impatiently, and sometimes they turned to look at the guards positioned some distance behind them; the guards’ faces were rubbed with green pigments as part of their camouflage, 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 alert the comrades if they spotted any foes who planned to launch a surprise attack from the rear.
‘Do you believe in rebirth?’ a comrade asked in Chinese.
‘Not sure,’ Grandfather replied.
‘My friends said, if we died as patriots, we can come back as navy captains.’
‘I want to be the captain of a large ship, because I love the blue sea.’
‘I like the waves, the sound of the waves, and the seagulls.’
‘Or I come back as a rich man, with a nice wife, lots of children, lots of money for my parents and poor neighbors.’
‘You have a good heart,’ Grandfather said.
‘If we died as patriots, we get to choose.’
‘Get to choose?’
‘We get to choose whether to come back.’
‘What would you choose? Do you want to come back as a navy captain or a rich merchant?’ the comrade asked.
Grandfather did not reply. He remained quiet and half-lifted his body, straining his neck as he gazed at a swirl of dusts in the distance. When the dusts thinned, he spotted a pack of wolves dragging two fawns into the woods: the fawns were stiff and motionless, their hind legs appeared to be bitten off as if different predators had fought over them.
Two hours passed, the afternoon clouds turned yellowish with occasional gusts of cold wind. Again Grandfather saw a swirl of dust in the distance, then there were more swirls. He heard the thudding and rumble of wooden wheels and the clopping of horses. The thudding and the clopping grew louder. A row of carriages and vehicles appeared, which were accompanied by more than two thousand Ching soldiers equipped with German rifles and long-range machine guns.
When a portion of the Ching soldiers 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 uprising comrades sought to impede the movement of enemy troops. The Ching soldiers rushed out of their carriages and hid behind them, and they lifted their rifles and fired at the comrades.
The uprising forces lighted up large balls made of straws that were soaked with kerosene, and they used long sticks to push the flaming balls down the hills. They also lighted up dynamite sticks and threw them at the enemies. At the same time a few comrades used crossbows to shoot arrows that were tied with burning sticks of dynamite at the carriages.
Soon loud explosions came from the carriages, shattered by the munitions they contained. Huge balls of smoke and flames erupted along the dusty road and part of the sky became grey. The loud explosions were followed by screams of agony: the screams came from Ching soldiers wounded by snipers or by the exploding dynamites. The clothes of many Ching soldiers were in flames and they rolled on the ground frantically, trying to smother the flames on their backs and on their limbs. Some of them ran amok like burning scarecrows, their limbs turning black, and they trembled like sticks of charcoal before collapsing on the ground.
Using their locational advantage on the hills, the uprising snipers shot at their enemies when 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, and they also threw the sticks at Ching soldiers who hid behind their vehicles. A few of the vehicles that carried munitions exploded into huge balls of flames, the intense heat could be felt at the top of the hills.
After they had finished throwing their dynamite sticks, Grandfather and his comrades used their rifles to take down the enemies. In the meantime their comrades on their right continued to push blazing balls of straw at the frontal position of the Ching regiment, seeking to obstruct the advance of Ching soldiers towards the city where the uprising forces were trying to gain control.
The lieutenants directed the comrades to light up more fire balls and push them towards the vehicles that carried the cannons, which forced the Ching soldiers to flee and became easier targets for the snipers.
After an hour of intense fighting, there was tremendous chaos along the stretch of road at the bottom of the hills: hundreds of Ching soldiers had been killed, their carriages and vehicles destroyed and in flames. But another contingent of Ching soldiers arrived, and they quickly combined forces, regrouped and positioned their machine guns along strategic areas at the rear. Soon the Ching troops occupied a few hills which enabled them to use their long-range machine guns and cannons to launch a fierce offensive, and many of the uprising comrades were killed.
With less than a hundred men left and their bullets were running out, the lieutenants of the uprising comrades instructed their men to retreat. They promptly turned and went deep into the forest; the Ching soldiers did not follow as they were frightened of being ambushed in the forest. Grandfather sustained two bullet wounds in the arms and another bullet had pierced his shoulder blade. Many of his comrades were seriously wounded, and by the time they reached a secluded camp deep in the forest, there were only forty-two comrades left …
Grandfather recovered only a year later, and he could not carry heavy items; he escaped to Ipoh and stayed there for a few years and worked as a helper at a grocery store before he saved enough to rent and open his shop. He became an underground agent for the Tong Meng Hui or the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, the 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. And the greatest moments for the revolutionaries came in 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Ching dynasty.
(written in April 1975)
I entered a memory portal. It was August 1926: my father, twenty-three years old, was leading a group of twenty-five male KMT comrades and two females in a raid against Japanese agents. The two females, proficient in Japanese, could identify documents that need to be taken away, and 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 so as to gather information for their plans to invade China. During their raids, my father and his comrades killed more than forty enemy agents and many Chinese collaborators.
That night they surrounded an old one-storey farmhouse in the rural area of Nanjing. The adjacent vegetable fields and wooded areas were quiet, the pale moonlight revealed the moving shadows of sorghum, maize plants and deciduous trees. A narrow pathway, partly hidden by bushes, meandered to the fence and gate of the farmhouse; the pathway branched from a quiet secondary road about five hundred meters away. On the right side of the pathway were tracts of wooded areas. On the left were half-cultivated vegetable plots and sorghum fields, with untended plots that stretched to the back of the farmhouse before they blended with a forest.
Three men sat at the living room of the farmhouse, their shadows created by kerosene lamps flickered; they huddled together, as if discussing something important. They stood up abruptly, patted each other on the shoulder and walked to separate bedrooms, each of them carrying a kerosene lamp. Sitting on their beds for a while, they lowered their heads as if in prayer, then they put out the lamps and lied down.
The KMT scouts had checked the surrounding fields and the forest at the back of the farmhouse: there was no trace of the enemy. The six vehicles of the KMT forces were hidden behind bushes near the quiet secondary road and eight comrades stayed behind to guard their vehicles. A few comrades were stationed inside the forest, and they would alert the others if enemies appeared or launched an attack from the forest.
My father gave the signal to move in. Five government agents moved quickly towards the fence, climbed over it and approached the house, breaking the windows of the bedrooms before they shouted in Chinese, ‘Police forces! Raise your hands and surrender!’ The three enemy agents refused to comply; instead they drew their weapons and started to shoot at the government agents. The KMT men retaliated by throwing grenades into the targeted bedrooms which exploded and killed two of the enemies. Without waiting for the dust to settle, the KMT men put on protective masks and stormed into the house: sparks of gunfire flared up and within a few moments, the remaining enemy was killed.
Entering the house, the government agents lighted up kerosene lamps which they brought along and began to search for military plans among the shelves; the two female comrades read through them and placed the relevant ones into leather bags. Half an hour later, to their surprise, they heard the rumble of vans which came from the secondary road; it was soon followed by a continuous rattle of gunfire. Suspecting that they were hit by a surprise attack that came from the front, my father hurried towards the wall near the windows and he tried to detect any enemy movement. The KMT men outside the farmhouse hid behind tree trunks and waited.
‘We need to leave now!’ my father said in Chinese. They moved towards the rear of the house and exited via the backdoor, then they hid behind tree trunks and tried to detect enemy movement that came from the direction of the secondary road.
A few minutes later an intense exchange of gunfire broke out. The clatter of rifles and the sonorous chugging of machine guns pierced the silence of the night. Enemy agents appeared from the shadows in the fields and they tried to encircle the KMT men. After a few rounds of deafening gunfire, several government agents were wounded; the remaining KMT comrades retaliated by firing at the bushes where they had spotted flashes of enemy gunfire and they threw grenades. A string of explosions followed. Shouts of agony came from the bushes, some of the enemies had been hit.
More enemies appeared from the direction of the secondary road and their machine guns rattled. A few KMT agents crouched and crawled quickly behind the bushes and they hurled grenades in the direction of the enemies. Their efforts were paid off: the grenades exploded and hit the enemies.
‘Retreat to the forest before they encircle us!’ my father told his men. To pre-empt the siege, he and his men threw sticks that emitted smoke and fumes in different directions; soon a haze covered the area. They moved quickly towards the forest at the rear, but the Japanese agents were adamant in their pursuit. With superior numbers and heavy machine guns, they continued to attack from different angles, and in the next thirty minutes of gunfire exchange, they killed more than half of the KMT forces.
My father and his men squatted behind tree trunks, and when the rattle of gunfire lessened as the enemies reloaded their weapons, they moved swiftly towards the forest under the cover of smoke and fumes. My father had asked the two females to stay close to him, but after the past fifteen minutes of gunfire exchange and chaos, he couldn’t find them. He looked frantically around in the haze, but he couldn’t see them. Three KMT comrades, who emerged from the forest area, volunteered to stay behind, throwing more sticks of fumes and firing continuously in the direction of the enemies, so as to mask the retreat of the other comrades.
My father and his remaining four men hurried towards the forest: he had been shot in the arm and was bleeding. Half-way into the forest, he directed them to rush to the headquarters to seek reinforcement, and he would return to the farmhouse to assist the other comrades.
‘We cannot let you go back,’ his comrade said.
‘Too many enemy agents, you will be killed,’ another said.
‘I must go back,’ my father said.
‘You are wounded and bleeding, we will go back together.’
Shaking his head, my father shouted, ‘No, go now and seek reinforcement! This is the only way to save the others. Go quickly! This is an order!’
Pushing away his four comrades, he staggered alone towards the smoke and fumes; fifteen minutes later he returned to the farmhouse. Bodies were scattered everywhere: the three comrades who had volunteered to stay behind were killed. A gun shot shattered the silence, and he felt an excruciating pain as a bullet pierced the calf of his leg and he fell on the ground. Five enemy agents appeared: they grabbed his arms, taking away his handgun, dragging him into the living room of the house. Inside, filled with shadows from torchlights, he was surrounded by Japanese agents, and the leader was a tall, muscular Japanese in his late thirties, wearing dark green cloak and boots, his yellowish teeth glinted as he spoke.
‘I will speak Chinese,’ he said. ‘I want you to understand and suffer. Beg me for mercy!’
My father muttered, ‘Kill me! You’ll never get what you want.’
‘I can get whatever I want, including your women.’ He spat twice into my father’s face. ‘Forget about your men near your vehicles. They are all dead.’
Dragging the two female comrades from a bedroom, the enemy agents showed them to my father: their dark green KMT uniforms were torn; their legs were slashed and bleeding.
The leader said, ‘These six men, four Japanese agents and two Chinese loyal to our Japanese forces, are enjoying them.’ He nodded his head, and the six men dragged the two women into the bedroom and continued to assault them. The two females struggled against their attackers, but they were overpowered; soon there was silence.
My father was half-conscious due to heavy bleeding; writhing in pain, he muttered, ‘Kill me! You cannot escape! The gods will punish you!’
‘Try to irritate me? 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 smirked, lifted his handgun and pointed it at my father’s head. ‘We have killed your comrades and enjoyed your women. Sufficient revenge for Lieutenant Colonel Hikitaro. I want you to suffer. Your agony will kill you slowly.’
He shifted his hand and fired twice at my father’s right knee-cap and twice at his right elbow. Laughing coarsely, he asked his men to leave, and they disappeared into the tangled shadows of trees, sorghum and bushes, leaving behind my father who was sprawled on the floor, unconscious and bleeding.
(written in April 1975)
I entered a memory portal. It was October 1927, near midnight, cold and foggy along a street in Shanghai that was lined with drinking and gambling houses. The yellowish street lights created shadows that followed four men who held tightly to their dark cloaks as they walked towards their car. They exited from a less expensive hotel whose grey façade contrasted with the glitters of foreign cuisine restaurants and privileged night clubs at the upper far end of the street. The entrances of those high class restaurants and clubs sparkled with colorful bulbs mounted on the rims of large boards displaying posters.
The four men walked briskly towards their saloon car, a tense briskness that suggested that they were wary of being identified. Music and laughter could be heard that came from several drinking houses. Two shorter men quietly hummed traditional Japanese songs; half-drunk, their arms lapped across each other’s shoulders as they hurried. The other two taller men walked slightly ahead, their hands were in their pockets as if ready to retrieve their weapons.
As the four men approached their car, five Chinese wearing grey hats and overalls appeared from an alley, and under the yellowish street lamps, guns glimmered in their hands. They lifted their hands, firm and straight, pointing at the four Japanese, firing at their necks and chests, each was given five to six bullets.
The leader of the five Chinese attackers was a cripple. While his 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 lying in the road, half-dragging his right leg along. Lifting his left hand, he aimed and shot at the heads of the four bodies. ‘We give you a quick death, although you don’t deserve it,’ he muttered in Chinese.
The leader followed his comrades to a nearby car and they sped away into the night. Screams came from pedestrians as they ran into the drinking 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, and I recognized his unsteady gait when he hurried. And inside the memory portal, I recognized his voice -- my father’s.
(written in April 1975)
It was January 1942; the Japanese air raids against Singapore started. Many were killed or wounded. I remember that when the Japanese planes came at night, the siren alerting us of the attack became loud and shrill. My family and I, and our neighbours, would quickly leave our shop houses to hide in an underground bomb shelter some distance away near a wooded area. If the shelter became overcrowded, we hid in nearby trenches dug by Chinese and Malay volunteers under the supervision of British soldiers. 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 and howling of anti-aircraft artillery, and I felt the thunders of heavy bombing by Japanese planes, that led to pillars of smoke and fires in the distance; the hour passed slowly.
When the bombing stopped, the nearby trees had caught fire; the burning drifted towards us and it became choking. My family and I climbed out from a trench and walked towards the main roads. In the distance were columns of smoke and flames, coming from the ruins and charred beams of damaged buildings that were burning fiercely. People walked away from the burning shop houses, coughing and crying for help. I saw flames coming from shattered kerosene lamps, broken signboards and damaged glass windows, from the cushions of mangled cars, and from the garments of corpses that huddled at a corner of the street. Soon the medics rushed around as they looked for survivors …
Grandfather predicted that the Japanese would soon capture the island. With no hinterland in Singapore and due to covert Chinese informers, 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, bringing along oars and life-jackets for a total of twenty-three 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. We packed and brought along green T-shirts, dark brown pants and canvas shoes that blended well with the undergrowth of the forests; we brought dried food items, a few sacks of rice, cooking utensils, kerosene lamps, mosquito net, fishing net, farming tools, parangs and materials to pitch tents. If the Japanese soldiers were to pursue us, my father and his comrades planned to ambush them and seize their weapons.
It was dark as we travelled on the boats, the air was cold and foggy with occasional strong winds. Fortunately the sea was not choppy, and we wrapped ourselves in blankets as we sailed through the dark waters. Sometimes sprays of sea water sprinkled on our faces, while the humming of the motors kept us awake. Four hours later, we landed on an island where we chose a quiet area to stay for the night. For the next five days, we travelled from one island to another before reaching southern Sumatra. Trekking across the lush tropical forests, we searched for suitable caves for dwelling and terrains which enabled us to promptly detect the approach of enemies and to retreat quickly. Our plan was to move deeper into the forest if the enemies came, and we would hide and fight until our last breath.
A Revived Jonathan In A Research Laboratory
(transcribed in February 1976)
Tonight I rush into a panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Am I running away from rogue soldiers? In the pale moonlight, I walk towards a forest, and I sense the movement of scorpionflies, Goliath beetles, thorn bugs and stick insects. A luna moth glows in the dark. I hear a screech from a salamander, and the rustle of lobster claws and beehive ginger.
In the middle of the night, the forest is alive, becoming a different type of predator. Something is hunting behind tall eucalypti and ancient pines. I avoid bushes that contain yellowish gleams. But my arms and elbows are already bleeding, cut by serrated leaves. Silhouettes surround me now, which seem to come from the shadows of armadillo lizards. Do I hear the squeak of a squirrel when it’s being swallowed by a snake, or the crack of an oak’s skin when a leopard scratches it, or the groans of a wild boar as it prepares to charge towards me?
The forest becomes quieter as I walk deeper. Like the inner regions of the mind, it has many layers. An umbrella of shadows follows me wherever I go. Reaching a no man’s land where the trees are half-covered by vines and climbing plants, the hills look like the coiled intestines of a brain when seen from a mountain top. I feel the urge to bury my scars somewhere inside these dark green intestines. My scars can wither beneath the dusky ground which feels like the curled up bodies of dead spiders.
Images flash across my mind as I walk near a beach under a grey sky. And I see more than a hundred civilians sweating, slogging and digging. They are digging a long trench out of the moist, clumpy grounds near Changi beach, and they keep pushing, thrusting and heaving their spades under the glare of the morning rays until the top of their heads cannot be seen. The captors shout at them and point their rifles at them, instructing them to throw their spades out of the trench and remain standing. Then a few dozen captors, who are World War Two Japanese soldiers, twist their lips, waiting for the order from their lieutenant to open fire ...
Another group of images appear before my mind, and I see a few hundred civilian captives climbing down from five trucks, their hands tied behind their backs. Blindfolded with strips of black cloth, they are separated into groups of fifty each, their wrists bound with long cords, and they are pushed and made to stand near the edge of the trench. In the late morning heat, the lieutenants raise their gleaming swords and then shout the order to open fire: the Japanese soldiers rattle their machine guns, and they keep rattling until the captives fall in a twisting, jolting way into the trench. Then the Japanese soldiers walk to the edge of the trench, look at the bloodstained bodies and shoot at any trembling bodies to ensure that they are dead. Another group of civilians, fifty of them, appear and they are instructed to fill up the trench with the clumpy soil on the promise that they will be freed. But after they finish their job, they are gathered and shot, and the sea becomes their burial ground. A voice whispers, the Sook Ching massacre in Singapore …
Images of night time emerge in my mind, and winds from the Pacific blow across the island. I can see apparitions rising from the trench near Changi beach. Lifting themselves, they travel across the woods, the hills and the roads. They hover over the barracks of the perpetrators and enter their dreams. Inside their dreams, the apparitions change into gruesome creatures and break the ribs of the murderers, telling them that earth has become a night-time Purgatory …
(written in April 1975)
A few shots shattered the morning silence, coming from the river bank where two daughters of my father’s comrades were washing the clothes. Protected by two male comrades, the girls were spotted by four Japanese scouts. After shooting and killing the two comrades, the rogue soldiers chased and grabbed the girls and overpowered them.
Winston, Guan Seng, Michael and I were chopping woods when we heard the shots and the screams of the girls. Rushing to the riverside, we saw the four Japanese pressing the two girls on the ground, then they tied their hands behind their backs, gagged their mouths with yellowish bandage strips and carried them away. Winston, Guan Seng and I followed them as they moved on. It was late 1943 and we had lived in the forests for more than one year. The Imperial Japanese Army had occupied Sumatra and we had intensified our monitoring of enemies approaching our caves and dwelling area, but the lush rainforests and undergrowth made it difficult for us to ensure prompt detection all the time.
Determined to save the two girls, we briskly informed Michael, the youngest among us, to rush back to the caves to inform other comrades, and the three of us started to follow the Japanese scouts, tying yellow strings around tree branches to leave behind a trail. We followed the rogue soldiers to a clearing where they pushed the two girls onto the ground, fourteen-year-old Xin Hua and fifteen-year-old Nan Jiau. Laughing coarsely, they slapped the faces of the girls and tore away their clothes.
Winston, Guan Seng and I planned to attack them at the same time with our axes. Quietly, we approached them from behind the bushes: three of the scouts had their rifles slung over their backs while another placed his weapon near his feet. Winston was sixteen, five feet nine, strong and muscular; Guan Seng and I were fifteen years old and shorter. At the signal of Winston, we began our attack. Winston pounced on one soldier from behind, grabbed his shoulder and plunged his axe into his neck. Months of chopping had toughened his biceps, and his axe sank forcefully into the neck of that rogue soldier and severed his veins. Blood spurted out and the soldier gave a loud cry and fell onto the ground, motionless.
Winston dislodged his axe, lifted it high and hurled it forcefully towards the soldier near me. The axe landed on his chest and it sank into his rib cage; he screamed, his body trembled and convulsed as he clutched at the handle of the axe, then he closed his eyes and fell backward onto the ground.
Meanwhile Guan Seng attacked another soldier from behind. Jumping onto his back, Guan Seng grabbed the soldier’s right arm to balance himself, then he plunged the axe onto the enemy’s scalp. Quickly he dislodged his axe and hacked at the skull a few times; the scout screamed and tried to shake him off, blooding dripping down his ashen face onto his green-breasted tunic. Nan Jiau, the girl below him, grabbed the soldier’s hands and tugged hard, trying to pull him down to prevent him from swinging his bayonet towards Guan Seng.
Seizing this opportunity, Guan Seng continued to hack at the enemy’s neck and skull; soon the soldier fell forwards and laid motionless on top of Nan Jiau. Guan Seng didn’t stop his attack, and he kept striking furiously at the enemy’s scalp 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 leaped forward and plunged my axe onto the back of a third soldier, then I quickly dislodged it and tried to strike at his neck. Before I could strike, he hit my chin with his right elbow and knocked me to 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 pull the trigger; then Winston dived and pressed onto that soldier and used his body weight to keep the Japanese down. Struggling and grunting, the soldier frantically moved his shoulders and torso, trying to thrust Winston aside, but Winston doggedly held onto his forearms while lying on top of him, and the soldier was unable to obtain his rifle which was pressed beneath his chest.
Rushing forward, Guan Seng sank his axe into the right thigh of the soldier, who screamed and shuddered with pain. Regaining my alertness, I also lurched forward and plunged my axe onto the skull of the soldier. I was afraid that he might push Winston away and attack us with his rifle, and I hacked at his skull four times with all my strength until it became dented, blood and brain cells flowing out from the skull, and I sat on the ground, panting.
Unexpectedly a shadow arose: the solder with the axe on his chest stood up. Removing the axe with a shriek, he tossed it aside, then he drew a sword about two feet long from a sheath tied to his waist and charged towards Winston, intending to slash his neck.
With all my might, I rushed towards the abdomen of that soldier and knocked him to the ground. Recovering promptly, he gave a shudder and glared at me before he gave a snarl like a leopard and swayed his sword in my direction, aiming at my head. I jerked my neck and body backwards, trying to dodge his sword. It missed my neck, but its sharp edges gashed my left forehead: pain radiated across my body and blood dripped across my face, blurring my vision. Lying on the ground, I panted, my heart pounding, thinking that this would be my end.
Scowling like an enraged executioner, the soldier darted forward, gnashing his teeth and standing near to my curved body, he scowled at me and lifted his sword. Winston charged at him, grabbing his arms, but the soldier thrust his ankle at Winston’s stomach and pushed him away. He lifted his sword again and gave a shriek like a wild boar, preparing to cut me into two pieces. I lifted my arms, trying to shield my neck and face. Then there was a loud bang -- he fell on top of me, dead. Guan Seng had picked up a rifle with a cock-on-closing design, pressed in the bolt to ensure 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.
Standing up, Winston walked over to the motionless body; gritting his teeth, he picked up the sword and thrust it into the body a few times to make sure that the scout was dead, then he repeated it for the other three bodies. ‘They’re killers,’ he muttered.
We took away the cartridges, daggers, rifles and binoculars of the four scouts and walked towards the bushes where the two girls were hiding. Giving them our shirts, the five of us walked away from the clearing. Twenty minutes later, we met three comrades who carried parangs, and we handed the rifles and bullets to them. Winston accompanied and guided them to the clearing, while the two girls, Guan Seng and I returned to the caves to be treated. That night I asked Winston what happened to the four corpses, and he replied, ‘We threw them into the river, food for the fish.’
(written in April 1975)
In the next few weeks, we moved deeper into the forest and increased our alertness in keeping watch, expecting 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. Further, we shifted our tents to the south-eastern part of the hills and surveyed the areas as we planned how to retreat swiftly when required.
During the daytime, Winston, Guan Seng and I climbed up the trees armed with daggers, slingshots and a pair of binoculars, and while eating boiled yams, potatoes and wild berries, we 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 come. Grandfather had a rifle as he kept guard of the women, which included grandma, their two daughters and six grandchildren, as well as the wives and children of the ex-KMT comrades. My father being a cripple helped to keep watch together with one of the comrades who had a rifle.
Five weeks later, the Japanese scouts came in the late afternoon. Guan Seng and I were up on a makeshift tree-house when we spotted a group of seven or eight small figures in the distance; we quickly climbed down the trees and rushed to inform the adults. Grandfather swiftly gathered everyone and guided them to retreat deep into the forest.
In the next few days the adults stationed themselves at prominent survey points on the hills, and whenever we saw Japanese scouts, we would go deeper into the forest, which occurred several times in the next three to four weeks until the scouts were no longer seen. During those weeks we slept inside the caves and did not pitch our tents.
Another month passed; to our shock, during one afternoon, a group of six Japanese scouts escaped the detection of two of our comrades who were stationed on a nearby hill. 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 a few times. He breathed his last with his shoulders hunched up on a branch, blood dripping from his nose and 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 and shot him.
Winston, Guan Seng and I had been keeping watch that whole morning and were taking a rest inside a cave hidden by trees and shrubs when we heard the sequence of gunshots. Rushing outside, we saw Grandfather gathering all the women and children; the three of us followed them and we promptly began our retreat, carrying parcels that contained clothing, dried fruits and gourds that contained water, and we descended a narrow path half-hidden by undergrowth. The shrieks of wild birds made us aware that the scouts were coming fast.
Carrying a parang and a rifle, Grandfather led the women and children deeper into the forest. My father walked unsteadily but quickly ahead of the group and he moved together with a comrade armed with a rifle. On the other hand, two comrades and Grandfather guarded the rear; they stopped periodically, crouching behind the bushes and gazing around with squinted eyes to detect whether any of the scouts had picked up their trail. Grandfather hobbled on a prosthetic leg with agility, his square face was taut and sombre, like a grey moth that planned to attack a flame, and his eyes glinted with the alertness of a leopard. Although he was seventy, he remained stout and strong due to frequent practice of martial arts while living in the forest.
Half an hour later, Grandfather observed the sway of branches some distance behind him. Suspecting that the enemy scouts might be closing in, he turned and hid behind a boulder flanked by shrubs, saplings and thistles; the two comrades about twenty feet ahead of Grandfather stopped and hid behind the tree trunks. They waved and signaled at the women and children, indicating that they should continue to hurry forward. Grandfather and the two comrades waited for the enemy scouts, intending to shoot at them to delay their advance.
Something gleamed in the corner of his eyes, and 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 amid the swirls of dusts, sharp stones and broken branches: the two comrades behind Grandfather were hit by the shards of the grenades.
Taking a deep breath, Grandfather opened fire at the bushes where he heard movement. There was a yell followed by moans; at least one Japanese scout was hit. But Grandfather had exposed his position, and he swiftly crouched behind the boulder as the enemies started to focus their firing in his direction, their bullets hitting and smacking against the boulder, snipping off chips of rocks at the edges.
When the gunfire lessened, Grandfather unlocked two grenades, lied on the ground and rolled over from behind the boulder, hurling the grenades in the direction of the enemies before moving quickly back behind the boulder. The two grenades exploded, and when silence returned, he could hear cries of agony. He listened and watched intensely, waiting for any movement. Then he heard the rustle of leaves. He half-shifted away from the boulder, aimed his rifle at the bushes and opened fire, hoping to hit one or more of the scouts. The enemies retaliated with intense gunfire and they threw a few grenades in the direction of the boulder that was shielding Grandfather, who dived behind the shrubs away from the boulder. But he could not fully dodge the impact of the grenades: some of the shards hit his shoulders and pierced his arms, and he started to bleed heavily.
Lying on the ground in pain, with an occasional shaft of sunray moving across his parched lips and ruptured veins, Grandfather panted and breathed deeply. He might lose consciousness soon, but he wanted to repel the Japanese scouts before he passed out, so that the children, the women and his family 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 Ching soldiers, 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, prepared to be reunited with his comrades in arms in a sunlit garden.
Narrowing his eyes, he unlocked his two remaining grenades. He gathered all his strength and shifted his wounded body away from the shrubs, then he sat up and swung his arms, throwing the grenades in the direction of the Japanese scouts. The enemies spotted him and shot him a few times in the chest before he could move behind a trunk, killing him ... The scouts ran and dived behind the tree trunks, trying to avoid the blast of Grandfather’s grenades. Soon the two grenades exploded which hit the scouts. Two of them were seriously wounded and became half-conscious; the other two survived and they lied flat on the ground, stunned and panting.
My father and another comrade, who had walked ahead of the women and children, appeared and fired in the direction of the 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 the two half-conscious Japanese scouts and took away their weapons. They also detected the wounded, motionless bodies of another two Japanese soldiers further up behind the bushes who had blacked out. My father’s comrade shot them and took away their rifles, bullets and daggers.
We walked near to Grandfather’s bloodstained body and knelt beside him, our eyes red with tears, trembling with grief and disbelief. Covering his body with a blanket, we carried it up the hill and trudged towards the inner region of the forest. Later that evening, after we had prayed with heavy hearts, we buried him under a huge oak.
We continued to live in the inner region of the forest, using parangs and slingshots to protect ourselves from wild boars and prowling creatures, reserving the rifles for the enemies. When we spotted Japanese scouts, we would move deep into the forest ... Many months passed. One afternoon, two comrades climbed the slope of a mountain, and when they looked in the direction of the sea, civilian ships appeared. As the days went by, more civilian ships appeared and we realized that the war had ended.
(written in August 1975)
‘What do you have for me tonight?’ Flint asked as he sat down on a rattan chair in front of me. The late evening rays filtered through small gaps in the planks that sealed the window of the room. I couldn’t see his eyes clearly as he wore tinted glasses, but his voice sounded impatient and hostile, an aura of aggressive energy surrounding his thickset body.
‘Another case from Inspector Evon,’ I said, looking at the notes 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.’
Ignoring him, I started to read from my notes ...
Personal notes of Inspector Evon
(written in 1972)
9.20 am, 16 August 1971: Sergeant Bernard and I arrived at the scene where the cleaner found the dismembered body of the 39-year-old prostitute, Lucy Chan. Her chest was badly bruised, her face disfigured and her throat slashed. Her limbs were awkwardly severed at the pelvic areas and elbows. The body parts were wrapped inside black plastic bags and concealed in a cardboard box in the corner of a quiet lane at Geylang, Singapore’s red light district. The plastic bags were meticulously tied with thick strings and the cardboard was sealed with scotch tapes. Another victim, Anna Heng, was murdered in the same brutal way four months ago.
I asked CPL Samson and LCP Victor to check on the background of the victims and talked to their friends, so as to find out why did the killer select these two victims and whether we can do a profile of the killer or killers, and try to anticipate potential victims.
Later that afternoon, Sergeant Bernard received a call from two prostitutes, 41-year-old Vivian Lee and 40-year-old Wendy Ho, who explained that they were close friends of the two victims for more than twenty years; fearing that they might be the next targets, they requested for urgent police protection. When they reached the police station that evening, I showed them to the interview room. After sitting down, I asked in Chinese, ‘Why do you think you are the next targets?’
‘We are not sure, but the four of us are close friends for many years,’ Vivian said in a high-pitched, half-quivering tone, her plump face looked pale and anxious.
‘Did you offend or antagonize anyone?’ I asked.
‘We had many different customers in the past years. We can’t recall …’
‘Did all of you or some of you have the same customer or customers, and did you know something which you’re not supposed to know?’ I asked.
They shook their heads and said that they would think carefully and try to recall in the next few days. As they dared not go home, they stayed at the police station where we had secure areas for them.
The next morning, they 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 Anna Heng quarrelled with a prostitute many years ago.’
‘Can you tell me exactly what happened?’ I asked.
‘About twenty years ago, the four of us were living with another prostitute, Jenny Yap,’ said Vivian. ‘She was more attractive than the four of us and we were jealous of her ... After she had worked in a night club for a year, a rich man fell in love with her and Jenny became his mistress.’
‘That rich man also patronized Lucy Chan and Anna Heng,’ said Wendy Ho in a hoarse voice, and I suspected that she was a heavy smoker and nicotine was impairing her larynx.
‘Did they quarrel or something more serious happened?’ I asked.
‘Yes, they quarrelled,’ said Vivian. ‘During a heated quarrel, Anna Heng smashed Jenny Yap with a liquor bottle and slashed her face. Disfigured with a deep scar, the rich man abandoned her, although Jenny was already pregnant with his child.’
‘What happened next?’ I asked.
‘Anna had the backing of local gangsters and she didn’t make amends to Jenny, and Jenny became a waitress at a different night club,’ said Wendy. ‘Sometimes when we visited that night club, we bullied Jenny, making things difficult for her. I remember that during one evening, we scolded and slapped Jenny, then we pushed her to the floor, pouring food and coffee on her.’
‘What happened next?’ I asked.
‘A few months later after Jenny had given birth, she took revenge. One evening, she charged at Anna and Lucy with a bottle of acid outside their night club, and they suffered burns on their arms and necks. The boyfriends of Anna and Lucy rushed out of the club and they seized Jenny. Anna and Lucy were furious and they poured acid on Jenny’s face. She was disfigured, sent to the hospital by an ambulance, and we didn’t see her again.’
‘Do you know what happened to Jenny?’ I asked.
‘We didn’t see her, and not sure what happened to her,’ said Vivian.
‘I heard rumours that she killed herself some years later …’ Wendy muttered. ‘We suspect her child has returned to take revenge ...’
Despite careful search at the red light district areas for more than three months, Sergeant 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 and a patrol car brought her there. When she stepped out of the car at the hospital car park area, she was shot in the arm, while the two police officers who accompanied her were shot in the legs: the murderer was a first-rate sniper. Two days later, he phoned me, saying, ‘They cannot escape and 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 surrender themselves to me.’
After another two weeks of intensive but fruitless search for the killer, I informed my superiors that I was incompetent and I would tender my resignation. I held a small press conference, so that the local papers would publish the news about my resignation.
In the next six months, I frequented the clubs where Vivian Lee and Wendy Ho used to work, and I acted like a depressed drunkard. During 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 snuffed you out,’ a muzzled voice said.
‘I’m no longer a police officer.’ I sounded drunk.
‘A wise choice, otherwise you’re lying in the hospital,’ said the muzzled voice.
‘We should meet to celebrate,’ I mumbled.
‘Yes, we should celebrate …’ There was low-pitched laughter and the killer hung up.
For the next two months, the killer continued to shoot one police officer per week, and I waited for him to call again. One evening while I was at the pub, he called me and suggested that we should meet me to celebrate his success. I agreed and a few days later, I went to the quiet, remote place at Changi beach as indicated by him. Sitting down at a wooded area, I waited for three hours before he appeared: he must have been circling the area in his car to ensure that 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, my back facing the sea, and he looked at me carefully. I wore jogging shoes, tight pants and a thin, sleeveless shirt, with two empty cans of alcoholic drink beside me, and I sat on pieces of newspapers that spread out on the ground.
Seeing that I did not hide any weapon in my sleeveless shirt and tight pants, he walked nearer and stood at about fifteen feet away from me. He looked tall and sturdy at about five feet eight, wearing dark glasses, a surgical mask, black coat, blue jeans and a baseball cap. He had dark, curly hair half-hidden by his cap as well as mustaches and sideburns which I suspected to be fake.
‘Congrats for shooting 34 police officers in their legs,’ I said.
The murderer continued to watch me closely, his right hand tucked inside his coat, ready to pull out his weapons anytime.
‘To kill them is easy,’ the murderer sounded rasp. ‘No, I shall let them suffer. From tomorrow onwards, I’ll shoot their buttocks. That will be more interesting.’
‘Yes, shoot at their eyes. Make them suffer … you are a great sniper.’ I tried to sound drunk, then I swiftly pulled out something from under the newspapers, bending my neck and body, and charged at him.
Caught off guard, the killer stepped back and tried to dodge my attack; he retrieved and flashed out a handgun with his right hand and shot at me twice. Hiding my face and chest behind a medium-sized bullet-proof shield, I lurched towards him; the bullets hit the shield and bounced away. Leaping towards him, I hit his chest with the shield before he could fire a third time, pushing him to the ground. Using all my strength and body weight, I pressed the shield hard on his chest and abdomen, and prevented him to retrieve his second handgun. I was about the same height as the killer, but I was heavier and more muscular due to weekly weight lifting.
The killer shrieked in pain as I pressed my shield hard on his chest and body. And the shriek confirmed my suspicion -- the killer was a female. She put on thick mustaches and sideburns to hide her pointed chin and slender cheekbones.
I relaxed slightly the pressure of the shield to allow her right hand to be stretched outward, then I used my left hand to grab her right wrist and shake it vigorously, hitting her hand against the ground. She yelled in pain, but she refused to release her handgun. Next I carefully moved aside the bullet-proof shield and used my right hand to seize her left wrist, preventing her from retrieving another weapon from her coat. Pressing both her hands on the ground, I sat stiffly on her abdomen. She pulled the trigger three times and tried to frighten me with the loud bang of her gun; the bullets flew to the right and hit the barks of nearby trees.
Pressed on the ground, the killer remained alert, gnashing her teeth and groaning like a trapped leopard. And her knees were kicking and thumping on my back as she tried to push me away. I shifted my right knee and used it to press against her left wrist: this tactic freed my right hand. I began to hit her, slamming my right fist against her face six or seven times until her eyes and cheeks became red and swollen. Next, I shifted my body and used my left knee to press against her right hand, which freed my left hand. Using both my hands, I half-twisted her right hand and wrested the gun from her. I also inserted my hand into her coat and retrieved her second gun.
Gripping both guns, I stood up 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 in a deep voice, ‘You’re under arrest. I’m arresting you in my capacity as a private citizen.’
(written in August 1975)
It was twenty minutes past eleven at night. After heavy rain that evening, the croaking of frogs near a pond some distance outside the fence of the farmhouse was loud. I finished my narration, sat straight on the rattan chair and looked at Flint. He was not wearing any glasses and his brown pupils glimmered, appearing self-absorbed.
He stood up abruptly and said, ‘I like the guts of Inspector Evon, but I don’t like the part where the killer didn’t get a chance to break the necks of the other two bullies.’
Sitting back on my chair, I looked tensely at the dusty floor, unsure whether Flint would lurch forward and slash another part of my ear.
He gazed at the ceiling and then said, ‘But I like Evon’s hunting skill.’
I relaxed a little.
‘Can you guess why I like Evon?’ he asked.
I thought for a while and remained quiet, trying to read his mind. He stepped forward, slapped my face and growled, ‘Make a guess. I hate people who don’t reply.’
I blinked my eyes, rubbed my face with my hand and said slowly, ‘Both of you are truth seekers.’
Flint chortled and said, ‘That’s half the story. Make another guess.’
‘Both of you … are good hunters?’
‘That’s a quarter of the story. Jonathan, you should know. You can enter the minds of other people.’
I thought for a while and said, ‘Both of you strive to be a sort of avant-garde … professionals in your own fields?’
Flint knitted his eyebrows. I breathed in deeply, wondering whether I had infuriated him. Then he relaxed, looked at me and punched my shoulder.
He said gruffly, ‘Actually, you are one of us. The answer is: you, Inspector Evon and I have non-conformist bones. We come from the same eccentric mold.’
I breathed in deeply, not sure whether he was satisfied with my story. Then I asked, ‘Does it mean, my story is acceptable and I get two stars?’
‘Yes, two stars.’
I thought for a while and said, ‘I now have a total of four stars.’
Flint nodded. ‘Yes, five more to go. The 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.’
The Persistence of Memory
A Revived Jonathan Yang In A Research Laboratory
(transcribed in February 1976)
Tonight, after drinking the Yunnan wine and falling asleep, Joan and I enter the memory portals of magazine photographers. We visit the Thor’s Well in Oregon which is a salt water fountain driven by the power of ocean tides. I was amazed by the spectacular waves that rushed into the gaping sinkhole and then they darted upwards with great force, as if some sort of ferocious, octopus-like giants with many limbs are struggling to appear from the huge tides and intent on recreating the world. Next, we travel to the remote Socotra island in Yemen, admiring the umbrella-shaped dragon blood trees, and the native species of starlings, warblers, chameleons and legless lizards. We also visit the mysterious mountains and lakes in Patagonia where we catch glimpses of Patagonian foxes, guanacos and cougars; the Ashikaga Flower Park in Japan where wisteria trees blossom during spring and produce long clusters of flowers that look like pastels of pink and purple; the Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan where the temple complex is situated on a cliff precipice more than ten thousand feet above the ground; and the awesome glacier caves in Iceland.
Then strangely, in our dream, we end up in the Spanish national art museum where we come face to face with Bosch’s triptych. Stepping into the first panel, we see a blue sky and many memory portals suspended in mid-air. Colourful birds, owls and pheasants leap out of the portals. Gathering on a flotsam, they travel down on a river before they fly and perch on an apple tree. Alien creatures with long necks, flaming red eyes and talons appear from behind the trees, and they talk to sharp-teeth reptiles that are clambering out of a hole in the ground.
All of a sudden, hundreds of black birds hover above me before they dive towards me. We dodge and lay flat on the ground, their thunderous flapping pass over us and they fly towards a futuristic cathedral in a corner of Bosch’s painting. We get up and walk into the second panel, and witness the pleasure-seeking frolic and dances of gleaming bodies. Then we watch with horror how their faces become contorted. Their bodies begin to liquefy and they appear in the last panel. Hot winds blow across our faces and we sense the intense heat of the flames coming from boiling cauldrons in the third panel. We hide and crouch behind thick bushes. A band of Executioners, who wear purple hoods, gowns and boots, walk by and they say, ‘So much history has vanished, unrecorded. Perhaps there’s no painting when you look closely, but real events seething inside a River of neurons.’
Then we realize there are no children and no elderly in Bosch’s triptych. Perhaps the painter was watching resurrected bodies that emerged, in their prime, from their graves? Or pleasure seeking is the norm in a near-paradisal world that has not yet heard about the Fall. Or is the painter trying to crack the shell of his ego, only to find another layer of shell to be cracked? Maybe some genetic re-engineering scientists are whispering a desire to remain youthful forever. One thing is for sure: Bosch was a truth-hunter. The haunting narratives in his triptych prove it.
(written in May 1975)
In March 1949 I had a new neighbour: an Eurasian doctor in her fifties who rented a terrace house, one unit from my family, at MacPherson Road near central Singapore. It was a two-storey terrace house with a built-in area of 1,680 square feet, consisting of one small bedroom on the ground floor which could be converted into a consultation room, two bedrooms upstairs, a cramped kitchen, a washroom on the ground floor and a square-shaped living room suitable to be converted into a clinic’s waiting area and a reception counter cum dispensary. After two weeks of renovation, a signboard was placed at the house’s gate entrance which read ‘Dr Esther’s Clinic’, a daytime clinic.
Dr Esther had short, grey hair and a ruddy face; her nose was sharp in a winsome way, resembling those of attractive Hollywood actresses, creating a tint of shadow on her chin. She had a broad chin, which made me suspect that she did weight-lifting during her younger days. There was a mole the size of a papaya seed on the right of her chin: the mole made her look scholarly with a serious cast of mind. Wrinkles ran down her ruddy cheeks and stout neck, blending with a few prominent veins which appeared bluish under her chin, giving me the impression that she had overcome tough hurdles and walked through burning coal to earn those bluish glow. Crinkles that looked like the feet of pigeons appeared at the corners of her eyes.
About five feet five with a plump waist and freckles on her arms and legs, Dr Esther’s movement was composed, full of confidence, with a motherly, compassionate voice. When she spoke, her sympathetic voice and the steadfast gleams in her eyes resembled those of a missionary who could talk to God and provide guidance on how to find one’s life purpose. When she talked to me, I detected knowledgeable glint in her eyes and wisdom in her tone, and somehow I knew that she could read my mind, and she understood my likes and dislikes, my quirks and eccentric bent of mind, delving into my heart’s desire. Fortunately, she was a benevolent person; otherwise I would try my best to avoid her. On my part, 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, who was twenty-two.
The first time I saw Florence, she was gardening in the evening after work, which wasn’t part of her job duties; she did it because she liked gardening, and she liked to keep things neat and tidy in and around the clinic and the garden. Usually she was wearing a light green dress with pink floral patterns, a headscarf that concealed part of her black, shiny hair, and green cotton shoes. I estimated she was about five feet six, her cheeks and finely shaped chin were suntanned and ruddy, and her hazel-coloured eyes shifted attention away from her small, delicate nose. When she smiled, her eyes glinted with honey-coloured sunrays which accentuated her cheerful, peach-shaped face, and she looked like a graceful Tang princess who had just consumed a refreshing longevity plum inside a medieval Chinese painting. She spoke courteously, as if she regarded every person as her patient, and needed her care and focused attention.
On that evening, she used 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, putting them into a plastic bag before placing it into a dustbin in front of the house. Thereafter she used 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 at a nearby primary school, I would discreetly look from the window of my bedroom on the second floor. Tilting my head, I gazed in the direction of her garden and watched her, partly hiding my face behind the curtain, doing my best not to be seen by her. I would watch and admire her graceful movement, her focused sweeping, digging, weeding and watering. Sometimes she would mix fertilisers with the soil of the potted plants. Strangely, her composure and gentle movement reminded me of my mother, and I believed she would also like poetry, haiku, nature and the beach.
(written in May 1975)
One Saturday morning, down with flu, I went to see Dr Esther. She carefully listened to my heart, examined my throat and chest before she diagnosed it as normal flu. After I thanked her, I exited her room, which was filled with the smell of sandalwood and lavender.
I waited on the bench in the living room for my 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.
After they were gone, I walked back into the clinic and stood close to the long Maplewood counter: behind it were four glass cabinets lined with plastic and glass bottles that contained pills, antiseptics and medicine, and two steel cupboards at the corner which kept files and medical records.
‘You’ve experience in assisting the elderly?’ Florence smiled and asked. Her peach-shaped face and her white dress reflected shades of pink due to sunlight reflected off several pots of red geranium placed outside the clinic’s doorway. Her hazel-coloured eyes sparkled, and I detected a quivering in her voice as if she felt a tinge of excitement in recognizing an old friend somewhere inside me.
‘Yes, I’ve been doing voluntary services,’ I said, with a touch of pride.
She smiled and nodded.
‘I mean, I’ve been helping out at Saint John’s old folks home and some orphanages for a number of years,’ I continued. ‘And we also brought gifts to them every month and during Christmas.’
She nodded again.
‘Perhaps you would like to join us someday,’ I said.
She curled her lips briefly and said, ‘Yes, I’ll consider.’
‘Like my mother, I’m a Christian, perhaps the mystical type …’ I tried to explain. ‘My mother died when I was seven. She liked to volunteer at various charities. I learnt to become her hands and feet when I volunteered.’ Then I stopped and gave a sheepish smile, realizing that I was talking to a new friend, and I shouldn’t confuse her with my traumatic past and esoteric worldview. Yet strangely I seemed to know her, the unseen part of her, for a long time.
‘I’m sorry to hear that, about your mother,’ she said slowly, with a touch of empathy and her eyes grew dim.
‘Perhaps someday when you’re less busy, you may wish to join us in some of our voluntary activities. We’re planting the seeds of hope.’
She smiled. ‘Yes, I’ll check my work schedule and consider.’
‘By the way, I’m an English teacher with a High School certificate. I’m also attending evening classes to get a degree in English Literature, so that I can teach high school students.’
She nodded. From that day onwards, on every Saturday morning, I would walk into the clinic and invite her for lunch or dinner, and when she was less busy, she joined my grandma and I to perform voluntary services at the old folks home. We also visited the Botanic Garden and nature parks every month, and I would read my poems to her.
The first time I showed her my poem was after we visited the national museum where an ancient jar was on display, and I wrote a poem and dedicated it to her:
It’s a three-feet-tall clay jar with two handles as her shoulders, with no engravings and no sacred lettering on her body, only a few broad lines near her knees, as if she’s praising the generous rivers that run near her birthplace. What's cryptic is her huge, solitary Eye situated above her shoulders, near the mouth of the jar: the Eye gazes at us and seems to talk to us as we approach her under the strong museum lights. Scientists have carbon-dated her, revealing that she's more than three thousand years old. Perhaps one day she will hint to us how human eyes can communicate with her ageless Eye that has survived the rise and fall of tribes, kingdoms and empires. Her Eye contains something near to Zen.
One year later, we went on a cruise to Malaysia; on the deck at night we counted the stars and I dedicated this poem to her:
A Crystal Ball
May the Imagination keep close. She comes from the night sky and consoles us. Her face has no nameable features, but she appreciates more faces than we can see in a lifetime. She makes us touch the hills and makes us rise above the shoulders of cypresses, go beyond the vineyards and the lakes, and touch the high points of fatherly mountains. She brings us to visit a pearl that illuminates the riverbed and yet-to-be-discovered species. We linger above half-rousing saplings and come upon a rare find, the quiet of a lily pond, and we fall asleep.
When we wake up, the moonlight greets us. The brightness of the moon mirrors a childhood earth and she lights up the sky: she’s like a crystal ball who understands human hearts. We surprise ourselves by saying, ‘That kind of surreality is also found on earth.' Travelling on a beam, we visit her Crescent's kingdom, and from there, we can watch our planet and be amazed by earth's brightness. When we travel back to earth, the light of dawn spreads across the field; now the glow of moonlight is 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. 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 and no status divide, the pebbles appear religious in their special way. Invite them to our poem. In turn, they invite us to a spring less affected by time. Do they look like siblings who huddle together in unity? Do they look like crystal beads that try to talk to the waves? Do they look like crystallized droplets of God's tears - tears of hope, healing and renewal?
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? Shall we climb a tree or a hill to reach a sunlit height, or simply content to be surprised by the glow on our suntanned faces? Or shall we enter the thin places between our heartbeats and say the prayer of Saint Francis, so as to find long-lost friends along the shore. Perhaps we can step beyond poem-writing and focus on the many-splendored thing before us -- 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 May 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, advising Florence to commence her leave earlier. I also urged Florence to take leave sooner as it was our first child and I could take her for more frequent check-up at the hospital, but she declined, choosing 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 six in the evening, frantic and desperate.
‘Please help me,’ she wept, speaking in Chinese. ‘They force me to abort my child. They beat my boyfriend, and he’s bleeding and lying on the street a bus-stop away.’
The young woman was Hanna; in the past two years, she had seen Dr Esther a few times when she was unwell. Becoming pregnant three months ago, she kept it a secret from the gangsters who ran a prostitution ring at the Geylang area. ‘They forced me into prostitution a year ago when my father couldn’t pay them. He’s a gambler,’ she said.
Dr Esther and Florence nodded, trying to calm her.
‘They beat my father and threatened to disfigure my two sisters if I didn’t comply. My mother was ill and we needed money,’ Hanna said. ‘But my boyfriend and I are truly in love, and we don’t want to abort our child.’
Dr Esther frowned, looked briefly at Florence and said, ‘We need to call the police ...’ Rushing to the reception counter, she picked up the telephone but before she could complete her dialling, two gangsters, tall and sinewy with dark green tattoos of serpents and tigers on their forearms, walked into the clinic. They were scowling and muttering obscenities, each carrying a dagger; their yellowish eyes glinted with contempt and anger. One of them shouted in Hokkein, ‘Don’t call the police! Don’t do anything stupid!’
Dr Esther asked Florence and Hanna to go inside her consultation room, and she started to shout for help, trying to prevent the two gangsters from reaching Hanna.
I had returned home an hour ago, and hearing the shouts for help, I rushed over to the clinic. When I entered it, one of the gangsters was grabbing the arms of Hanna and was pulling her, while the other tried to prevent Dr Esther and Florence from reaching her.
‘Stop it!’ I shouted in Cantonese. ‘I’ll call the police!’
The gangster near to Dr Esther turned, glaring at me. Brandishing his dagger, he moved towards me and threatened me in Hokkein, ‘Get lost. Mind your own business or you’ll be sliced into pieces.’
Pretending to walk away, I shifted my body towards the doorway before I turned around abruptly, lurched forward to grip his wrist with both of my hands and twisted it. The gangster yelled in pain, dropping the dagger on the floor. Dashing forward, I knocked his chin with my right elbow, stunning him; he staggered backward and squatted on the floor. Moving a few steps forward, I bent and punched him on the face before pushing him away.
The other gangster shouted at me, ‘You fool! You want to go to hell, I’ll send you there!’ Releasing Hanna, he rushed towards me with his dagger. I stepped sideways to dodge his thrust before I lunged forward and punched his chin. He shook his head in pain, swerved his body forcefully and slashed my left arm.
‘Call the police!’ I shouted, my left arm bleeding as I stepped back to pick up a chair and charged at the attacker.
Florence rushed to the phone at the reception counter and dialled the police. Before she could reach the police, three figures appeared.
‘Big Brother, they are calling the police,’ said my attacker, in Hokkien.
The leader, known as Bulldog Bendson, walked towards Florence and slapped her. Lifting the phone, he pulled it away and threw it on to the floor. ‘Fools!’ he yelled. ‘We’re from the Green and White Tigers underworld.’
Bulldog Bendson was in his forties, six feet tall, burly and overweight, with broad shoulders, hefty arms and big knuckles. His chin was square with red-streaked, protruding eyes, and his flat nose snorted impatiently. Flaps of wrinkles ran down his cheeks which crinkled when he shouted.
Dr Esther glared at Bulldog Bendson and said, ‘Get out of this clinic now! Or I’ll call the police and they will jail all of you!’
Florence moved over to Hanna and tried to protect her. My attacker grabbed the legs of the chair that I was pushing against him and with the help of another gangster, they shoved me back and pressed me onto the floor, trapping me under the chair. My attacker sat on the chair while the other started kicking my abdomen, and I squirmed in pain.
Bulldog Bendson grabbed Dr Esther’s arm and slapped her a few times before he pushed her to the floor and kicked her thighs. 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, and he pulled out a dagger, moved towards Florence and slashed her arm. Florence gave a scream, bit her teeth and shouted, ‘Thugs! The police will arrest you!’
Enraged, Bulldog seized the right shoulder of Florence and yelled to his lackey in Hokkien, ‘Jack, give her a kick to prove that we mean business!’
A young, bony gangster with a sharp chin and spiky hair approached Florence; he spat on the floor before he slapped her face and kicked her thigh. Florence staggered backward, her right hand supporting her stomach. With anger gleaming in her eyes, she shouted, ‘God will punish you!’
Dr Esther sat up on the floor and shouted, ‘Stop! Please stop! She’s pregnant. Let her go!’ She stood up and walked unsteadily towards Florence, but Bulldog hit her arm and face, and pushed her onto the floor.
I struggled under the chair, shouting, ‘Let her go! Don’t harm her!’
Florence remained defiant and stared angrily at Bulldog and the gangster near her. Bulldog’s face grew grim and dark, and he shouted in Hokkein, ‘She’s cursing us, Jack. You are not a yellow chicken. We cannot lose face. Kick her stomach!’
Jack frowned and grunted his teeth, then he moved his right leg backwards and gave a vigorous kick at the left side of Florence’s stomach. She shrieked in pain and fell onto the floor, her lower body started to bleed. He clenched his fists and glared at Florence, but as more blood discharged from her body and dripped along her calves onto the tiled floor, Jack’s face turned pale. He stared blankly at Florence as she curled up her body in agony, her hands holding her stomach, her face became contorted with pain.
‘Will she die?’ Jack muttered.
Bulldog grunted in Hokkien, ‘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 hit my face until my nose bled, then they clutched my shoulders and pushed me against the wall. Bulldog walked over and punched me four times in the stomach. Grabbing my hair, he pulled my head forward, shook it and banged it against the wall five or six times until the back of my head began to bleed. I became dizzy and fell onto the floor.
Dr Esther shouted for help, and one of the gangsters moved forward and kicked her a few times before they dragged Hanna along and left the clinic. I crawled slowly towards Florence, who was unconscious on the floor. Dr Esther walked unsteadily to her room, picked up the phone and called the police, then she came back and attended to Florence. When the police and the ambulance came, I had blacked out.
The next day I woke up at the General Hospital. A senior nurse walked over to me and told me in a subdued voice, ‘Your son is safely delivered, but your wife has passed away.’
(written in May 1975)
Since that tragic incident which resulted in the death of Florence, with repeated complaints from me and my father, the enforcement agencies under the British colonial administration carried out crack downs on illegal gambling and prostitution in the Geylang area. Their operations disrupted the illegal activities of Bendson Wong and his cronies, who went overseas to hide.
In the next few years Bulldog Bendson would intermittently send gangsters to intimidate and harass Dr Esther and my family. With the assistance of his ex-KMT comrades, my father and I could resist them, but since Bendson had many local gangsters under his command, my family 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; after the tenth birthday of my son Joseph, who gave me the feeling that he could now take care of himself, I hired a private investigator to determine where Bendson Wong was hiding. After five months of searching, we found out that he was in Thailand. Two ex-KMT comrades Raymond and Norman (not their real names) could assist me; although in their early fifties, they were stout, strong and proficient in martial arts.
Reaching Thailand, with the assistance of the private investigator, we visited the private condominium in suburban Bangkok where Bendson lived with his mistress. In the next one week, we observed that Bendson, accompanied by two bodyguards, would take a walk every evening with his mistress along a beach nearby, and we waited for an opportunity to strike.
A few days later when the evening sky was grey, we decided to act. After monitoring an hour behind the bushes, we spotted Bendson, his mistress and two bodyguards walking along the beach. Putting on our masks, we moved to a quiet area behind the trees and bushes.
When the targets approached, we clutched and attacked them using clubs, hitting Bendson and his bodyguards a few times on their heads until they fell onto the ground, half-conscious. On my part I rushed forward and seized the mistress, threatening to beat her if she shouted. I quickly gagged her and pushed her to a secluded area behind the bushes.
In the meantime Raymond and Norman sealed the mouths of the two bodyguards with duct tape and bound their limbs with cable ties and left them writhing on the ground, then they carried the semi-unconscious Bendson to our van that was parked nearby. Inside the van, they fastened his hands and legs before they blindfolded and gagged him. Norman returned to assist me to tie up the hands of the mistress and we blindfolded her, letting her to sit behind the bushes. Hurrying back to our van, we drove for an hour to a remote part of a forest in southern Thailand.
Reaching our chosen spot inside the forest, we poured cold water on Bendson’s face to wake him up before punching him many times in the stomach until he vomited. Lying flat on the ground, he writhed and panted in pain. He remained blindfolded and gagged with a thick cloth and duct tape, both his hands and legs tightly bound as we hoisted him up a huge branch, forty feet above the ground. Then we left the area and drove directly to the airport, taking a plane back to Singapore.
Before the trip, Raymond, Norman and my father wanted to bury Bulldog Bendson alive; it was part of their unwritten military code, saying, ‘We should act on behalf of heaven. He’s a criminal and should be severely dealt with.’ They reasoned that if the police caught Bendson, he would send his gangsters to threaten and harm the witnesses.
After pondering a few days, I decided to let Fate determine the punishment appropriate for Bulldog: we would leave him blindfolded, gagged and bound up on a tree deep inside a forest and let Fate decide what would eventually happen to him. Since Bulldog had harmed many people, he would not be able to identify me as the abductor after ten years. The private investigator whom I hired had returned to Singapore earlier and he didn’t know about our plan ...
Five years passed since we hoisted Bulldog up that tree in the forest. I decided to hire a different private investigator to find out what happened to him. Since that region of the forest was remote, I suspected that he would have starved to death.
One month later the private investigator returned from Thailand and told me a surprising story, saying, ‘Bulldog Bendson didn’t die.’
Restraining my shock, I asked, ‘What happened to him?’
‘He’s now a businessman and a philanthropist.’
‘He was a gangster,’ I said.
‘Yes, I know something about his criminal past. Five years ago, he was abducted.’
‘I heard about that,’ I said.
The private investigator said, ‘I pored over the old newspapers, which 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 he fell on the ground, hurting his head.’
‘What happened after that?’ I asked.
‘After waking up at the hospital, he underwent a drastic change. Ceasing his illegal activities, he became a law-abiding businessman and ran a chain of clothing stores, donating his profits to charity.’
(written in August 1975)
I drank the medicine wine and went to sleep. Soon I entered a dreamy state and a row of memory portals 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 who studied English Literature at a local university. At five feet nine with a thin frame, he had short black hair, small brown eyes and a sharp handsome nose. Travelling on a medium-sized boat about thirty feet in length, he stood at the main deck, behind a newly painted wheelhouse. He was under the shadows of the main masthead that had a large funnel and prominent antenna; eight life buoys dangled from the rear of the boat.
Beside Joseph was his twenty-five-year-old girlfriend Alice who was slender at five feet seven: she had long brown hair, benign eyes and bony cheeks. They were heading towards an island with a lighthouse at the western part of Singapore. Alice’s father and his crew had obtained permission from the authorities to camp on the island for two weeks, to produce a documentary on the historical importance of that lighthouse to ships that traversed the Straits of Malacca. Their filming ended two days ago, and they invited Alice, Joseph and their friends to camp on the island.
Joseph and Alice liked the open sea: they loved the salty smell of the waves and the warmth of sunlight reflected by the foamy waters; they liked to watch a school of plankton that floated on the water, the sea gulls that flew above them and the flamingo clouds in the horizon.
At the helm of the boat was their guide Scott Waud, 58 years old, an employee of Alice’s father; 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 Malcolm Soong; (b) medical student William Millay; (c) musician Edgar Roy and his girlfriend Rachel Lindsay; (d) Information Analyst Frederick Chan and his girlfriend Clara Wong. Using their father’s boat, they started their journey at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and they intended to camp on the island for two days.
An hour passed; the evening sky darkened and the lighthouse appeared in the distance, stark and austere, like a soldier ready to do battle. It had a bulging forehead with windows where the lenses projected their beams; its body was elongated and slightly curved towards a broad base. More than a hundred years old, it was built from granite rocks with supporting steel stanchions, its height exceeded thirty feet. In its early days, the source of its illumination came from burning coal before it finally used modern strobe light and lenses. Now the lighthouse had been unused for many years when modern navigational aids became available. A wooden barrack squatted near it, previously used by the keepers to store consumables, tools and equipment; prior to that, it 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 and shielded their view of distant islands near Peninsula Malaysia, and the island of Singapore behind them was no longer visible. After they anchored their boat, they lowered two oar boats, climbed into them and rowed towards the beach. Joseph looked at his watch: it was 6.15 pm. The rays of dusk faded behind grey clouds that took on different shapes. The lighthouse seemed to be indifferent to them as they stepped onto the island, and it appeared like a determined warrior who gazed at the horizon, proud to be able to withstand numerous gales and storms.
The size of six soccer fields, the island had mangroves and coastal trees on its left, the lighthouse on a hill on its right, and a beach in the middle. They walked around the island and approached the lighthouse: it was locked. They tried the door to the barrack which could be opened; entering it, they saw old shelves, broken kerosene lamps and coils of ropes. Minutes later, the rain came, together with strong winds, which forced them to stay in the barrack until 7.30 pm when the rain abated. Then they walked to the beach and started a bonfire. Bringing out packets of chicken wings, ham, cheese, bread and canned drinks, they cooked and barbecued their foods, played pop music and sang along.
After eating and singing for an hour, Malcolm Soong, the engineering student, squatted on the ground, half-trembling. Waving his left hand, he used his right hand to press against his stomach and shouted, ‘So painful! Please help!’ He rolled on the grass a few times and began to vomit; medical student William Millay rushed over to look at him.
‘What did you eat?’ William asked.
Malcolm 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 Malcolm as they walked to his tent for an examination. Lying down on the thin mattress, Malcolm clenched his teeth and groaned, his hands pressing against his stomach; soon he squirmed and curled 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 Malcolm, applying ointment and medication, trying to lessen his pain.
‘What’s happening to Malcolm?’ Alice asked anxiously.
‘We all eat and drink the same stuff,’ Joseph said. ‘Does anyone feel discomfort or pain?’
The others looked at Joseph, saying that they were alright. As they waited anxiously outside Malcolm’s tent, they could hear his intermittent screams; he kept shouting, ‘Something’s eating my intestines!’
A train of thoughts rushed through Joseph’s mind: If Malcolm were suffering from food poisoning, what is the cause and from what type of food? Will the others and I be similarly affected? Does William have the medicine to reduce Malcolm’s pain? Is his condition life-threatening? What is that something that’s biting him inside his stomach?
In the next two hours, they waited anxiously, distraught by the occasional screams of Malcolm. Gradually, his yelling and shrieks became irregular, loud and coarse, like a creature whose limbs and body were pierced and crushed by an iron trap. Eventually, there was silence, except for the high-pitched whistle of the winds that came from the beach. Scott Waud pulled down the tent’s zipper, and he and William appeared; shaking their heads, they said, ‘Malcolm has died ...’
With eyes red with disbelief and sadness, William covered Malcolm’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 ascertain whether there were any venomous 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. Scott Waud and William said that they would take turns to keep watch and asked the others to return to their tents to sleep and to carefully pull up the zippers; they planned to return to Singapore the next morning.
Around 7 am the next day, during a quiet interval between the howl of strong winds, they heard William shouting a few times, ‘Malcolm’s body is gone!’ They pulled down the zippers of their tents, rushed over to see William, and gazed inside Malcolm’s tent: it was empty; only the thin mattress, the crumpled blanket and his bag of clothing were seen. 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 in the direction of the lighthouse, whose door was locked.
‘Is someone hiding in the lighthouse?’ he asked.
All of a sudden 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, and were greeted by the wide expanse of the dark green sea, but they couldn’t see their boats. Rushing up the slope of the hill towards the lighthouse, they looked around frantically in all directions: only the sea gulls and sparkles of the sea greeted them, with no boats and no ships in sight. 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,’ he said.
They started to gather branches under the row of 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 saw it after the rain last night and with no subsequent rain, what happened to their boats? Also the two oar boats were properly tied to the trees. Who untied them and took them away? Were someone or some malevolent forces hiding in the lighthouse? If positive, did they cause the death of Malcolm and steal his body? Were they sending a grim warning to the visitors, urging them to leave the island?
(written in August 1975)
With no islands nearby and mainland Singapore was more than 2 hours away, they would need to wait for other ships to rescue them. Approaching the lighthouse, they tried to open its heavy wooden door, but it remained locked, and since there was no window around the base of the lighthouse, they could not peek inside and they returned to their tents.
While preparing breakfast, Frederick Chan, the information analyst, gave a yell and began to jump up and down, flinging his arms to and fro and dancing like a puppet: he seemed to be possessed by some malevolent spirit. Scott Waud, William and Edgar tried to catch his arms and calm him down, but he broke loose and fled, and they chased him around the island. Eventually they grabbed his arms and managed to restrain and grip him before leading him back to their tents. Calming down, Frederick sat on the grass, then he stretched and straightened his legs in a swift, mechanical way like a robotic being and laid down, motionless; 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, his eyes remained motionless and looked straight, ignoring William, his head was drooping as he crouched on the grassy ground. For the next five minutes, he breathed heavily, then he sprang up abruptly, and before any of his friends could hold him, he broke free. He dashed towards the hill and on reaching the top, he yelled and jumped into the sea. His friends hurried to the spot and looked into the dark green waters: the waves near to the coastline were choppy and Frederick could not be seen. Had he drowned? Anxiously they ran to the beach, turning and straining their necks, looking in all directions, then they walked around the island, but they couldn’t see Frederick.
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. Bringing along his medical box, William accompanied her inside the tent and tried to calm her; Rachel also went inside to keep her company as William gave her medication to lessen her palpitation.
The other friends waited apprehensively outside the tent, hearing the intermittent screams of Clara who shouted, ‘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 creatures that lurked around and caused Clara’s death. They also re-examined the areas around their tents with torchlights and lamps, but they couldn’t detect any venomous insects.
When night came, they took turns to keep watch. Joseph woke up at 5 am in the morning to keep watch, holding a metallic skewer as weapon; he suspected that there might be someone or some malevolent creatures hiding inside the lighthouse, but it was peaceful during his watch.
At 6.30 am, Scott Waud and William woke up, and after washing, they walked towards the tent where Clara’s body laid; they unzipped it and found that Clara’s body was gone. Those who kept watch emphasized that they did not see anyone or any creature approach Clara’s tent and remove her body; they also did not see anyone come out of the lighthouse or the barrack. They walked to the barrack, opened its door and went inside, but they could not find her body.
Scott Waud, William, Edgar, Joseph, Alice and Rachel decided to stay close together; their consensus was that there might be someone or some malevolent forces living in the lighthouse. And when night came, they 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, with three holes on her forehead as if it were drilled by an equipment. Joseph and Alice walked away as Scott Waud, William and Edgar examined the body and covered it with branches.
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, but he didn’t 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 and William followed him; soon William rushed back to the tents and shouted, ‘Shadows! Shadows everywhere … they’re attacking us!’
Scott Waud, Joseph and Alice came out of their tents and armed themselves with skewers, and they followed William in the direction of the coastal trees. Rachel’s body which was placed near the trees had disappeared, and they saw Edgar’s body hung on a tree with a rope. William climbed up the tree and untied the rope; he and Scott Waud placed Edgar’s body on the ground. William tried to resuscitate him, but to no avail; he asked Alice and Joseph to return to the tents while he used branches to cover Edgar’s body.
Joseph decided to examine Edgar’s body, so as to better understand or identify the cause of his death or the method used by the attacker. When he approached Edgar’s body and said that he would like to examine it, William screamed. Darting forward, William pushed Joseph away, 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 ran back to their tents. Scott shouted, ‘William has gone mad!’ When they reached their tents, they stayed close together and discussed how to defend themselves and capture William if he turned up to attack them; they waited anxiously for an hour, but William did not appear.
The fire outside their tents created many dancing shadows as the winds grew strong and grey clouds drifted across the night sky. Scott Waud, Joseph and Alice waited, preparing to capture William or fight with the shadows that William had alerted. Eventually they saw eight hooded figures who were carrying clubs and medium-sized chain saws, and when they came near, Joseph shouted, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
‘We are guardians of this island!’ one of the figures shouted.
Three of them approached Scott Waud who waved his metallic skewer furiously and tried to defend himself. But two of the attackers stood behind him, swiftly grabbed his arms from the back and subdued him, pushing him to the ground and tying his hands behind his back.
‘I will not surrender!’ Joseph shouted, waving his skewer furiously at the five figures who encircled him.
‘We will let you go if you give Alice to us,’ a figure said.
‘No!’ Joseph shouted.
The figure raised his arm and pointed in the direction of the beach. ‘We have brought back your boats. You’re free to go, but Alice must stay.’
‘Run, Joseph! I’ll stay!’ Alice shouted as two attackers approached her, grabbed her arms and pushed her away from Joseph.
‘Let Alice go!’ Joseph shouted. Two tall figures stepped in and brandished their clubs, preventing Joseph from walking near Alice.
‘Stop, Joseph! Take the offer. Give Alice to us. You are free to go!’ A tall figure shouted.
‘No, I must bring Alice along!’ Joseph shouted.
‘In that case, you stay behind and we let Alice go. But we will cut you into pieces and toss your body parts into the sea! This is the punishment for trespassing on this island. Think carefully before you decide.’
Joseph thought for a while and said, ‘Alright, I will stay, but you must let Alice go. You must also let Scott to accompany her back to Singapore.’
The tall figure said coarsely, ‘We agree, but you must think carefully. We will cut you into pieces.’
Joseph replied, ‘Yes, I will stay. Let them go.’
‘Since that’s your final decision, we will tie you up now. Then we will release Alice and Scott.’
Joseph nodded; two figures approached him and tied his hands behind his back. Alice screamed and cried, but she was restrained by two attackers.
‘Alice, please go and don’t come back,’ Joseph said.
‘No, don’t hurt Joseph! Let him go!’ shouted Alice.
The two figures pushed and pressed Joseph on the ground, while another lifted a chain saw. Joseph clenched his teeth and closed his eyes and soon he could hear the mechanical roar of the chain saw above his head, which grew louder and louder as it approached his forehead. Then the roar stuttered and stopped; the hooded attackers who surrounded Joseph 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.
‘I thought you were suspended on that tree?’ Joseph asked as he stood up and walked briskly towards Alice who was released by her attackers; he embraced and kissed her.
Edgar replied, ‘Yes, dangling from that tree, but my arms were supported by invisible strings used by movie actors.’
‘Movie actors?’ asked Joseph. He looked around as the other attackers took away their hoods, which revealed the smiling faces of William, Frederick, Malcolm, Alice’s father and his employees.
‘Father, how could you terrify us? It’s so real,’ Alice said as she embraced her father.
Alice’s father, tall and stout, said, ‘I have no choice. 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 and walked towards him. ‘I recalled you jumped into the sea.’
Frederick said, ‘The jump is less than thirty feet. I used to dive from a higher platform in school. I submerged and swam to a cave below the cliff. The boats and others were inside that cave, on standby to assist me if I had any trouble.’
‘A cave?’ Joseph said.
‘Its mouth is covered by styrofoam boards painted in grey.’
‘Is it spacious?’ Joseph asked.
‘It can take in a few boats. I’ll bring you there tomorrow,’ Frederick said.
‘It’s a movie directed by Alice’s father,’ Joseph said to Scott. ‘Only Alice and I are in the dark.’
‘And I never taught you how to create an effective smoke signal,’ Scott smiled. Walking towards the beach, he waved at Rachel, Clara and other crew who were hiding in the oar boats on the beach, and he shouted, ‘Join us now! The trial’s over!’ …
It was fifteen minutes to midnight at the farmhouse; I finished narrating the two episodes on two different nights. I looked at Flint whose face was turned away from me.
He stood up briskly, arms akimbo and half-frowning, then he said, ‘I hate movie actors and I hate people who trick others. But I like the guts of Joseph … Give you two stars. You earn a total of six stars. Three more to go.’
(written in September 1975)
I didn’t see her or hear from her in the past three days, which didn’t happen 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 shaman? A follower of Tao? Or could she be trapped inside a memory portal? 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. I was afraid that someone mistook her to be a malevolent spirit and trapped her forever.
(written in September 1975)
‘What do you have for me today?’ Flint asked. ‘Surprisingly you’re near to getting all the nine stars, but your ears can snipped off anytime if your next life story is dull.’
It was half past nine at night; the tweet of crickets and other nocturnal creatures outside the farmhouse seemed to reverberate around the room. Taking a glance at Flint’s tinted glasses and his taut face, I looked at the notes on my lap and said, ‘I want to talk about a dream, a long and vivid dream. I believe it comes from real life experiences.’
He frowned. ‘Doubtful it can stimulate me. But if you want to take the risk, I won’t stop you.’
Giving a half-smile, he sat back on his rattan chair and gazed at me in the half-lit room. Faint moonlight entered the room through small gaps in the planks that were nailed across the windows. Taking a deep breath, I began ...
Entering a memory portal, I found myself trapped inside a dreamscape. I was drifting with David Mason inside a dark, spacious tunnel where blotches of dim light sometimes appeared nearby that crackled like a spoilt radio or screeched like an electric guitar or grumbled like a distant thunder.
Tense and somber, David knitted his eyebrows and gritted his teeth, his quietness made the gritting of his teeth audible. He tried hard not to think since he didn’t want my awareness, which was roaming inside him, to eavesdrop on his thoughts.
Why did I dream that my awareness and my voice were trapped inside David’s body, and I could talk to David inside his brain? Perhaps I will find out when the time is right. At this stage of our journey through different time zones, we focused on our survival.
I could sense that David was moving slowly through empty space inside the dark tunnel, and he stretched his arms to reach the rim of a portal, the access portal of a time womb that let him enter a different world and existential dimension. The rim was silvery, plasma-like and rectangular, with a length of about eight feet and a height of four feet: it was like half-melting wax but icy cold. When David pressed on it to hoist himself and straddled over it, his fingerprints and the shapes of his elbows were imprinted on the rim for a long while before they faded.
Sitting unsteadily, he hunched forward as if riding a horse. The rim sagged and created a U-shaped smile. Straightening his neck, he moved his body marginally outside the portal and pretended to peek in various directions. Inside the portal, strong winds blew across his face. Taking a deep breath, he stood up abruptly before my voice could warn him. Briskly he tilted himself forward on the rim of the portal, then he entered that strange world inside the portal by letting his body fall over, his body weight pulling him downward. He knew that the gravity inside that world would cause him to plunge into the deep and my awareness could not respond fast enough to stop him.
As David fell through the empty space inside that strange world, he curved his body like a professional diver plunging into the sea from a two-thousand-feet cliff before spreading out his limbs as if he enjoyed the headlong dive.
‘What are you doing?’ I yelled inside his mind.
‘Try to swallow the winds of death!’ he shouted back.
‘You can’t challenge gravity!’ I said.
‘I must conquer death!’
‘You can’t win!’
‘I must, to get a breakthrough!’ David yelled. ‘Grab your satori now. Master the grace of suicide.’
As he plunged into the deep, strong air currents hit him; he grimaced and frowned, fear flashed across his brown pupils when he realized that he might soon be smashed into pieces. Chasing away that grim thought, he glanced at the fast-moving scenes around him: the pale blue sky, the yellowish-pink horizon and the grey walls of the cliff on his left. He felt as if he were flying across the giant screen of an amphitheatre.
For the next ten seconds, he continued to fall through the haze, then a green mass loomed: something stumpy, contorted and sharp pierced his hiking jacket and hooked him. His body jolted violently, then he swung up and down as he dangled from a huge branch that jutted from the cliff’s wall. His limbs splayed as he became suspended in the air; he had plunged hundreds of feet.
Catching his breath, David held onto the thick branch, heaved himself upward and sat on it. ‘Looks like I won’t be pulverized today,’ he said. ‘Chance can kill us or save us.’
‘Why did you do that?’ I asked.
‘We have exited and returned to those portals more than twenty times, and nowhere near our time zone. I hate fruitless struggling, like being stuck in a breech pregnancy.’
‘But you mustn’t die, you must complete your artwork.’
‘I know. Otherwise I would have put a bullet through my head. Maybe I’m testing whether my artistic God still treasures me.’
‘We must return to early 1976 to save my son,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry, he won’t die.’ David winced and leaned against the wall of the cliff. ‘He’ll outsmart the kidnappers.’
‘He’ll be maimed by them,’ I said.
Ignoring me, David looked around. ‘We should be worrying about getting back to the portal, not about your son.’
‘How do you climb up?’ I asked. ‘It’s far above us now.’
‘And the time womb will fade away soon,’ he muttered.
‘This doesn’t feel like the correct time zone,’ I said.
‘Seems like we’re in a prehistoric time. Everything looks grey and pink, coated with a yellowish powder, like sulphur, but not pungent. It’s like a kind of pigment.’
Straining his eyes and gazing at the cliff and the terrain opposite us, he could see rough, barren terrain and sand dunes, almost like a desert; a near-crimson sun was setting in the west and a faint moon appeared on his right.
‘I believe we’re on Earth, but I can’t see any humans,’ he said. ‘Perhaps my artistic God brings us to this place.’
‘Purpose?’ I asked.
‘We’ve been spinning inside that time womb for a long time. Perhaps in this place, we find a different time womb that can funnel us back to 1976.’
‘Hope we don’t get stranded here and starve to death,’ I said. ‘Your biscuits and drink are running out.’
Sitting straight on the huge branch, he said, ‘Hope Sphinx’s device is working well … we’re breathing in the fine powders.’
‘You should have tested it before you plunged.’
He grimaced and took out a palm-sized device from his pant’s pocket. Switching it on, he swayed it in the air; after a while, the screen on the device showed that the air and the powdery stuff were not toxic, and 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 which we encountered some time ago in a different time-zone.
‘Need to act fast.’ 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. ‘We’ve been using Sphinx’s device to verify the atmospheric condition and pressure of those strange worlds inside different portals. Up to now, it didn’t detect anything harmful. In fact, those conditions were quite similar to Earth’s.’
David said, ‘If we were on exotic planets, their atmospheric conditions would snuff us out. We would need super-durable space helmet and pressure suit.’
‘Yes, to prevent the rupturing of your veins.’
‘Looks like we’ve been journeying in different time zones on Earth.’
‘Maybe journeying in the same place on Earth,’ I said.
‘Same place? A digital nexus or a computerized zone?’
‘Who created it?’ he muttered.
‘Maybe by someone on Earth. Is there anything familiar in the landscape that surrounds us?’ I asked.
David strained his eyes, looked around for a full minute and said, ‘I see it now, across the abyss. A tall dark tower with many birds hovering over it. I only see it when the haze thins.’
‘A tall, dark tower?’ I pondered and said, ‘Perhaps we’re trapped inside Bosch’s painting.’
(written in September 1975)
Leaning against the grey wall of the cliff and straddling the thick branch that jutted out from the cliff, David uncoiled a nylon static rope from his belt. He checked the metallic hook with four claws tied to the end of the rope, then he gazed upwards and focused on a stout branch about thirty feet above him on the left.
Straightening his back to flex his arm muscles, he swung the rope many times. Forcefully he hurled it towards the branch, and the hook and rope twined around it, but when he pulled at the rope, it slackened and untwined: the hook did not grip the branch. David repeated the hurling a few times before the hook tightened around the branch. After pulling the rope forcefully to ensure that it could hold his weight, he took a deep breath and let go. His body swayed to the left and dangled in mid-air for a while before he climbed up the rope; he needed to act fast before the time womb way above him vanished.
A few minutes passed and he managed to reach the branch above him. Sitting on it and resting, he gazed upward 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 climbed up the rope.
Ten minutes later he reached the branch and sat on it, tired and panting; he gazed upward but could not see any nearby branches above him. He took out a steel hammer and turned around. Rubbing his left palm against the wall of the cliff, he searched for a crack 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, securing the pitons as he climbed.
David took more than an hour to reach the spot where he had earlier leaped from a time portal: it had long vanished, as it usually appeared for about thirty minutes before fading away. He resumed his 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 a distance before he lied down to rest. The sun had set an hour ago, and the sky had turned grey under the pale moonlight. He needed to find another access to a time womb with the device given by Sphinx.
After resting for a few minutes, David sat up and surveyed the terrain: it looked like a plateau with clusters of trees and shrubs scattered in different spots. Further ahead, the grey, yellowish terrain looked like a desert with sand dunes and mounds, the sand dunes looked like the fur of foxes rubbed the wrong way. David checked the device given by Sphinx: the atmospheric composition and pressure were similar to Earth’s, with no toxic gases or substances in the air.
He muttered, ‘Maybe you are right. We’re inside a dreamscape painted by Bosch.’
‘Or stranded somewhere inside his famous triptych,’ I said.
David gave a half-smile. ‘As long as I’m not being tossed into a boiling cauldron, it’s alright for me. I don’t mind having a nice chat with dancing nudes.’
‘Hope Sphinx’s device will beep soon,’ I said.
Frowning, David said, ‘Let’s see where we can rest for the night.’
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 surveyed the surroundings, then he 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 taking a sip from a small gourd slung around his chest, which contained the diluted Yunnan 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; he buttoned up his weatherproof jacket and folded his arms, then he straddled on the stout branch and leaned against the trunk and tried to sleep.
Two hours later, he was awakened by tweets that seemed to come from the ground. The tweets grew louder and he listened carefully: he was surrounded by the rattling, piercing sound, like jaws with sharp teeth grinding, and the ground below him seemed to move. He looked more closely -- shadowy creatures burrowed out from the sea of sands. Sitting up, he 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 that were filled with bristles and hooks. Then he saw pincers and gleaming tails with stings, which emerged from the ground, many dozens of them.
‘Purgatory is catching up!’ he shouted.
‘What are those creatures?’ I asked as I could not see clearly under the pale moonlight.
‘Giant scorpions!’ he shouted.
‘How big?’ I asked.
‘Plus the tail, at least two feet in length. Each has two large pincers, black segmented armor and a bluish sting.’
‘Pulmonoscorpius, a kind of giant, extinct scorpion,’ I said.
‘I hate ancient creatures.’
‘They’ve powerful neurotoxins.’
‘To paralyze their prey?’
‘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 the tree?’ I asked.
‘A few are coming!’
David withdrew his handgun and took aim; targeting at their thoraxes, he opened fire, then he ran his palm across the cartridges attached to his belt to check that he could readily retrieve the bullets and load them. He shot at each scorpion two or three times, greenish blood splattered as their armors cracked.
‘Smashed six of them! But more are coming!’ he yelled.
‘They should hate fire,’ I said. ‘Can you cut down a branch and burn it. Use the fire to keep them at a distance.’
Flashing out his army knife, David grabbed a thin branch above him before he twisted and cut it. Using a lighter to burn the clumps of dry leaves, he swayed the burning branch for the next few minutes; the scorpions sensed the heat and some of them moved away from the tree. For the next hour, he loaded and reloaded his gun many times, and he kept firing at those predators that did not move away from the tree. Then the device inside a pocket of his pant started to beep; the beeping grew louder, indicating that it detected the presence of a time womb. He retrieved it and looked at its screen.
‘Where’s the portal?’ I asked.
‘In the west … north-west,’ David said.
‘About three kilometers away.’
‘Shall we make a dash?’
‘Yes,’ he muttered and placed the device into his pocket. Tossing the burning branch onto the ground near to the trunk, he gazed upward and grabbed another branch. He swiftly cut it and lighted its clumps of leaves. Most of the scorpions had shifted away from the tree due to the light and heat from the branch that was burning on the ground; without delay, he climbed down the tree.
Swaying the second burning branch with his right hand and retrieving the device from his pocket, he ran in the direction as indicated on its screen. As he raced across the sandy and rugged ground, he continued to wave the burning branch. It worked to a large extent: many of the nocturnal creatures sensed the heat and retreated.
But some refused to move, and tweeting loudly, they formed a cluster: they wanted to impede David’s advance and some tried to cling onto his legs with their pincers. Observing their aggressive, ready-to-spring posture, David bent and poked the burning branch at their eyes as he tried to prevent them from attacking him. And when they stood their ground and their greenish eyes gleamed with savage fierceness, he stepped forward to knock and thrust at their faces with the burning branch, seeking to scorch them. When they did not retreat, he squatted and shot at their heads and thoraxes. Their armored bodies cracked and threw out greenish blood, then they curled up and became motionless. David leaped over them 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, he reached the end of the sandy terrain. Panting, he stared at the abyss in front of him, his leathery boots kicked up clumps of dust and yellowish powder at the edge of the cliff. It was hazy and 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 tweets became louder behind him and when he turned, he could see dozens of predators closing in. He aimed and fired at them, but there were too many; with no burning branch to deter the fierce predators, they would soon be rushing to attack and sting him.
David turned and gazed into the empty space below and he seemed to detect a looming dark shape about fifty feet below. Without delay he inserted the device into the pocket of his pant and placed the handgun in the holder at his belt, then he crouched and lowered his body at the edge of the cliff and began to descend. Moving down as quickly as he could, his fingers began scratching the craggy surface of the cliff and sometimes he was cut by sharp rocks. He clutched and gripped at the cracks and jutting pieces, trying his best to maintain balance and avoid plunging into the abyss.
All of a sudden a dark, spidery object fell onto his back and dangled clumsily from below his right shoulder, its pincers clinging to his shirt and its sting hovering menacingly over him. David gritted his teeth and tried to free his right hand to withdraw his gun, but it was 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; he slipped and fell. Plunging into the deep, he looked frantically around, trying to grab the branch jutting out from the wall of the cliff. Soon his peripheral vision sensed the mass coming. Clenching his jaws, he stretched out his left arm and seized the branch. He and the giant scorpion jolted and dangled from the branch, and he could feel that his right arm was swelling and becoming numb, and the numbness started to 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 under his breath.
Without hesitation, he swung his body to the right a few times and dived towards the portal fifty feet below him, knowing that this would be his last chance. The neurotoxins had started to paralyze him, and he needed to act fast and get inside the time portal. He hoped that the spinning of the dark tunnel inside the portal would disorientate the predator and extricate it from his body before the scorpion decided to sting him a second time.
As he hurtled through empty space, he could feel the scorpion tightening its claws on his shirt: the grotesque creature with its shield-like exoskeleton and hooked sting exceeded two feet. Straining his muscles, David stretched his left arm and caught the rim of the time portal with a jolt. Clinging to the rim and taking a deep breath, he pulled himself towards it and climbed into the portal. He closed his eyes as he dropped inside the portal and clenched his teeth, letting fate decide what would happen to him …
(written in September 1975)
The numbness spread across his chest as he drifted inside the time womb, his eyes remaining close, unsure whether the giant scorpion would sting him a second time. Then he felt strong air currents blowing across 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 shirt and both of them swirled. And the scorpion did not sting David a second time, at least up to now; it was probably disoriented and not in the mood to attack him and bite his flesh, or it might be waiting for a better moment to strike.
After a while the spinning slowed down and David opened his eyes: a gleaming portal appeared nearby. Moving his left arm, he navigated himself towards it. Minutes later, he stretched his arm and gripped onto the rim of the portal, which was silvery and half-watery. Strange noises came from the world inside it. Thrusting his head and the upper part of his body outside, he closed his eyes and rested on the portal. Warm sunlight greeted him. The scorpion moved down his body and clutched at his pant as it tried to avoid the sunlight.
David felt two pairs of hands pulling him out of the portal; they lifted him and placed him on the soft grass. Someone turned his body sideway which revealed the scorpion clinging to his pant, then he heard hissing sound and strong flashes of light wavered near to him: the tail of the scorpion was severed by laser beams. This was followed by more flashes as its pincers were severed. Two pairs of hands lifted David, and they removed his belt and long pant, so that he could be separated from the scorpion that was holding onto his pant. Then rescuers carried David to a spot under a tree, and there were bright flashes of beams as they killed the scorpion.
Under the shade of a tall tree, David looked around and saw human faces. Before he drifted into unconsciousness as the numbness spread across his chest and the lower portion of his body, he could hear hoarse voices; they were probably discussing how to neutralize the toxins in his body. A few hours later, he woke up in the large room of a rectangular wooden house with many beds and with cabinets at the side that contained first-aid boxes, 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 in English.
He looked around and saw more than a dozen pygmies surrounding him, carrying silvery rifles that looked like laser guns.
‘I’m David Mason, and thanks for saving me.’
‘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?’
‘1976, planet Earth.’
Five elderly pygmies huddled together and discussed; after a long while, they turned and looked at David. ‘This is planet Earth … but we are in the year 2128.’
David sat up on the bed, surprised to hear that he was more than 150 years in the future.
The elderly pygmy continued, ‘A few of us were hunting near the forest and spotted that time womb. At first we thought enemies were coming and our guards were activated to stand by. They waited, saw you struggling to climb out and decided to help you.’
David thanked them again.
‘We have injected anti-toxin into your body and you should be fine,’ an elderly pygmy said.
David stayed in bed for five days; during that time he was guarded by four stout pygmies, four and a half feet tall with broad shoulders and square chins, small eyes and dark, bushy hair. The guards explained to him that their ancestors were clones created in North America for the purpose of having their organs harvested, and they were imprisoned by their creators, a group of rich and powerful humans who sought to lengthen their lives by harvesting their organs. Their ancestors decided to rebel. During the uprising, hundreds of their ancestors broke into the munitions depot and seized different types of weapons. After battling fiercely for a week, many of them died, but more than a hundred of their ancestors escaped via a submarine and fled to this reclusive island in the south of the Atlantic eighty years ago. Slowly they built a community with the computers and weapons which they took along with them; they had marriages and now their population had increased.
For the next few days, David stayed in the ‘hospital’. Six guards with laser guns took turns to keep him under watch. At the evening on the fourth day, they handcuffed him from behind and escorted him to a cottage near the brink of the village. Three elderly pygmies were waiting for him inside the cottage, sitting behind a long desk in a well-lit room; facing them was a huge computer screen and a few key boards.
‘You must understand: we cannot trust any outsider,’ said one of the elders.
David looked at them and said, ‘I came from a time womb, having no idea where I was heading.’
‘Similar to any outsider who came here, which is very rare in the past eighty years, our rule 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.’
‘If I passed the test, I can wait for a time portal to appear and leave this place?’ David asked.
The elders nodded.
‘But if you failed, we need to brainwash you.’
‘Brainwash me? What does that mean?’
‘We will inject agents into your bloodstream to ensure that you are compliant with the rules of this village.’
David remained quiet; it meant that they would dull his brain cells and enslave his mind. Gripping his arms and body, four guards pushed him to a steel chair before strapping his waist and legs to the chair which was nailed to the floor. Then they released his handcuff so that he could type on the keyboard.
The elder said, ‘We cannot run the risk of having an infiltrator.’ Then he asked the computer to begin and Sophia asked, ‘Which categories do you prefer?’
The large computer screen showed the words, ‘History … Literature … Physics … Chemistry … Biology … Mathematics … Aesthetics … Metaphysics …’
After thinking for a while, David said, ‘Metaphysics.’
Sophia said, ‘Give me twenty-two possible insights on Why does the visible world exist?’
David discussed with me for thirty minutes before he typed the followings:
(1) Does this World come from the chemical reactions inside a huge Flask in a Laboratory guarded by enigmatic aliens?
(2) Is this World made of dream waves that oscillate inside the Brain of a Super-computer which is struggling to meditate?
(3) Does this World exist inside the brain of a playful Angel who is having illusions and psychedelic experiences because He is experimenting with drugs?
(4) Does the World come from the vibrations of many giant Flutes which are weapons used by supernatural beings who try to subdue each other?
(5) Did a venturesome Intelligence create this World, and did He decide that a part of His consciousness will enter the brains of homo sapiens, so as to go through different types of bodily experiences on earth?
(6) Is this World a part-sublime, part-shamanic Artwork of a reclusive Centaur in the celestial realm, for the purpose of actualizing His artistic visions?
(7) Does the World seek to bring forth intelligent species such as homo sapiens with a significant degree of self-awareness and they can talk to an invisible Hologram that permeates the cosmos?
(8) Is the World rotating inside a huge, self-aware Kaleidoscope and it is being observed by that Kaleidoscope?
(9) Is the World a strange Artwork molded by a group of angels in a hidden studio, and these angels are defying God in creating this World?
(10) Did the World come from one dozen screams of an enigmatic Deity who was determined to enter the bodies of homo sapiens, so as to experience the turmoil of life on earth?
(11) Is the World part of a long Poem inside a wordless Scroll that is hidden in a celestial Library?
(12) Is the World made of images that float across the surface of a Lagoon which exists inside a Mystery Triptych painted by a family of supernatural Artists?
(13) Perhaps the 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 inside a hall of Purgatory?
(14) Maybe the World is hidden inside a Novel on the bookshelf of a mystic Teacher, and the Novel comes alive at night to haunt his disciples, so as to deepen their insight on satori?
(15) Perhaps the World exists inside a Crystal Sculpture that dangles from an iron chain above a boiling cauldron at a corner of Purgatory, where the owner of that Sculpture is being confined for disobeying the Creator?
(16) Does the World consist of images that flash across the huge screen of a Super-computer that is keen on playing labyrinthine computer games, and the Super-computer has a giant Brain called ‘Ulysses’ that can store memories of events that occur on earth?
(17) Does the World come from the collisions of giant atoms inside a huge Particle Accelerator which is created by a high-tech community of aliens, and the collisions are being photographed and made into abstract artworks?
(18) Does the World exist at the tail region of a giant Black Hole that’s rotating at the corner of a Galaxy?
(19) Is the World a holographic image inside a Memoryscape that spans the night skies, and this image will evolve to become self-aware and start talking to itself?
(20) Does the World come from a Time-travelling Machine that has become old, and this Machine conjures up changing images of a visible world to keep itself mentally alert?
(21) Does the world exist inside a giant red corpuscle that’s drifting inside the bloodstream of a Deity? When the red corpuscle bursts, we will wake up and catch a glimpse of the truth relating to this world?
(22) Is the World stricken with natural and moral evils because the mysterious Cosmos wants to subject Its Spirit to a stringent Self-Challenge by partnering with human beings, so as to bring forth faith, courage and endurance in the face of pain, sufferings and death on earth? The purpose is to attain a higher level of Godhood … Sorry, I don’t know the answer.
David finished typing his inputs and waited for Sophia to respond. Minutes later, Sophia said, ‘Your honesty level is above eighty percent. You pass the test.’
The elders nodded and the guards escorted David to a wooden house near the forest, and four pygmy guards continued to keep him under watch. In the following months, David waited for his device to pick up a time portal; he grew vegetables and fruits in the morning and did some sketches in the evenings.
Five months passed before his device beeped. It was around eleven pm at night; David leapt from his bed, put on his jacket and changed into his trekking pants with a handgun attached to his belt. He slung a bag across his back which was given by his rescuers; it contained vitamins, energy pills, biscuits, water, medicine and other essentials. The four guards watched him as he ran into the forest in the direction of the time portal, flashing his torchlight to chase away nocturnal creatures.
After running for about ten minutes, he spotted shadows pursuing him that were spidery and elongated. He lifted his gun and fired a few times into the sky, then he ignored the shadows and continued to run.
A few minutes later, surrounded by thick bushes and tall trees, he heard growling behind him. Flashing his torchlight backward, he got ready his gun. Yellow gleams appeared and when he pointed his torchlight towards those gleams, he saw thick, furrowed eye-brows -- creatures that looked like wolverines. They emerged from behind the bushes, a dozen of them. Hissing and growling, they were about two feet in length with sharp teeth.
David started to shoot them, killing a few of them. Some of the creatures refused to retreat and they rushed towards him -- three jumped on him and clung to his body while a fourth scurried up his shoulder. He hunched his shoulders, hitting the creatures with his knuckles and elbow, trying to swing them away, but their claws sank into his skin. He yelled in pain before aiming his handgun at their skulls and opened fire, killing them one by one. The bangs from his gun temporarily kept the other predators at bay.
Panting and his arms bleeding, he hurried to a nearby tree, dropped to his knees, leaned against it and loaded more bullets into his gun. When he flashed his torchlight, it picked up more gleaming eyes about twenty feet away. Before he opened fire, there were bright flashes of laser beams in the distance, then he heard the sound of running feet and there were more bright flashes, which helped to chase away the creatures. Four pygmies appeared and they approached David.
‘The elders tell us to assist you,’ one of them said.
He thanked them and pointed in the direction of the time portal. 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, while the other two walked together with David. Fifteen minutes later, they saw the time portal: it was rotating near the shoulder of a large tree. David said good-bye to the guards, climbed up the tree and entered the portal. Soon he began to drift and spin inside a dark tunnel …
(written in September 1975)
I finished the narration and sat back on my rattan chair. It was near to midnight; the familiar knocking of the woodpecker against a tree some distance from the farmhouse reached my ears. I had been reading to Flint from my notes on three different days in the past one week regarding the dream-like, time-travelling experiences that involved David and me.
Sitting straight on his chair, Flint half-tilted his head towards the ceiling and I could detect his scowled expression through his tinted glasses. His square chin was tense, his long hair disheveled and his forehead furrowed; soon he gritted his teeth. I half-closed my eyes and tightened my jaws, unsure whether he would lurch forward and attack me.
All of a sudden Flint chortled, gave a yell and said, ‘Well done! You pass the test. You get three stars, a total of nine stars … I’ll get the mystery prize for you.’
He walked out of the room and returned with a box which contained nine pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As my bandaged left hand remained handcuffed to the metallic bedframe, he assisted to assemble the pieces. When completed, it showed the drawing of an attractive woman with lean features, a tired-looking but hopeful face, a pair of compassionate brown eyes and long hair that touched her shoulders.
‘My wife,’ he said. ‘I painted her on this cardboard and created this artwork. You can have her for the night.’
I held my breath and tried to assess whether he was joking.
Flint hesitated for a while and muttered, ‘I’ll bring you to see her now. It’s nearly midnight. Good time for you to go to bed with her.’
‘Will you let me go?’ I asked. ‘You promised to release me.’
‘I never said I will free you physically. I meant to give you sexual release,’ Flint said in a hoarse voice and grunted impatiently. ‘If you tell me a few more stories that bring breakthrough ideas, I’ll consider again.’
I thought for a while and said, ‘Please remove my leg chains. It’s very difficult for me to move.’
Flint shook his head. ‘The leg chains looked good on you. There’s no escape. You can’t run away from me and from my hungry dogs.’
He unlocked my handcuff, grabbed my right arm and pushed me out of the room. I hesitated and tried to stall, thinking about how to escape. He shoved me to the staircase and I walked up slowly due to the leg chains that restricted my movement. Reaching the second floor, he pushed me to the door of the master bedroom, retrieved a bunch of keys from a pouch tied to his belt and unlocked it. The room was neat and clean with a huge bed, a flower-patterned mattress, two tawny-brown cupboards, several mahogany chairs with intricate carvings and a large dressing table with an oval-shaped mirror; a folded mosquito net was placed above the bed and a rose-pink blanket covered a figure on the bed.
Pushing me towards the bed, he asked me to sit on it, then he grabbed the blanket and drew it back, revealing a mannequin with a face that was painted in a way which resembled the picture on the jigsaw puzzle. Neatly dressed in a translucent blue gown, her eyes were close, her nose was carefully chiseled, her lips were pink and her face had a coat of pale yellowish powder.
‘You can make love to her,’ Flint said in a dreamy, expressionless way.
I thought for a while and said, ‘Your wife is very nice. Can I have my medicine wine? The two bottles in my room. I need to warm up my body.’
Flint walked out of the master bedroom and locked the door. Moments later he returned with the two bottles, namely the traditional medicine wine and the glutinous rice wine.
‘Thanks,’ I said as he handed them to me.
I stood up beside Flint and moved one step away. Taking a deep breath, I swiftly lifted up a bottle with my right hand and using all my strength, I smashed it on his forehead. He shouted in pain as the bottle shattered and he staggered backwards, using his left hand to press against his forehead. He swung his right hand, trying to strike me. I bent my body and dodged his fist, then I quickly used both hands to raise the second bottle up in the air, lurched forward and smashed it again on his forehead.
Dazed, he fell backwards onto the bed, both his eyes hurt by the strong medicine wine which started to drip into his nose. Lying on the bed, he closed his eyes in pain, his right arm moving to and fro, seeking to prevent me from hitting him. I grabbed the life-sized but legless mannequin and used it to beat his head. He lifted his bulky arms to defend, but I kept striking at his forehead, face and neck, trying to make him black out for a while. He waved his hands and shouted, ‘Stop! I can’t see!’ He turned his face and hid it under a pillow, groaning angrily, his left eye and cheeks were bleeding.
Bending my body, I stretched my right hand and pulled the bunch of keys from the pouch attached to his belt. He kicked his left leg aimlessly and hit my hip. I yelled in pain and fell onto the floor, then I turned and hurried with short steps towards the door which was left unlocked. Stepping out of the room, I quickly closed the door behind me, fumbled for the key that matched the keyhole and locked it, hoping that this could hold Flint back for a few minutes while I rescued the other two captives. Flint was cursing, and soon he would shake off his daze and come after me, probably wanting to wring my neck with his brawny hands.
I squatted and searched for the right keys to remove the chains from my ankles before hurrying to the other two rooms on the second floor. One of them was not locked and I went in: it was musty, containing two wardrobes, three mannequins, wooden sculptures of traditional Indonesian dancers and fading canvases. I exited and walked to the other room which was locked. I searched and found the right key to open it.
Entering it, I saw two figures, gaunt and tired-looking, sitting close to each other: their left hands were handcuffed to two separate metallic bedframes and their ankles were chained. The room had a few chairs, a cupboard, a brown bag that contained shirts, pants, towels and toiletries, two plastic mugs, two spittoons, bottles of water and biscuit containers. The two captives were in their forties, about the same height as me, their palms and ears were bandaged, their blue T shirts and short pants were smirched. I unlocked their handcuffs and removed their leg chains, then we quickly left the room and went down to the living room. While walking down the stairway, we heard Flint shouting as he tried to break open the door of the master bedroom; he would be able to break it soon. We must act fast and hurry to the main road to seek help.
Reaching the ground floor, we searched and found sharp knives in the kitchen. Holding onto the knives, we hurried across the workshop and reached the front door. The two Dobermanns were snarling outside: they must have heard the shouts of Flint and were waiting for us. Returning to the kitchen, we found thick towels and hammers. Given our wounds and lack of nutrition in the past few weeks, we were uncertain whether we could subdue the Dobermanns, but we didn’t have time, Flint might break free soon.
‘Our backs must face the wall, so that it supports us from falling,’ I said. ‘We wrap our arms with these thick towels, let the dogs bite them and we hit them hard.’
Arming ourselves with knives and hammers, we wrapped our hands with the thick towels and breathed deeply. The two captives leaned their backs against the wall as I unlocked the front door and opened it, then I quickly stepped aside and joined them, pressing my body against the wall.
The two Dobermanns barked fiercely and rushed in, their eyes glinted like vicious panthers as they leapt at us, sinking their teeth into the towels that wrapped our hands, shaking their necks forcefully as they tried to tear away our arms. Using the hammers, we hit their noses and skulls, hoping to chase them away, but they were fierce and tenacious in their attacks, and they kept biting, pulling and yanking with their strong canines. Our backs thumped against the wall as we pushed ourselves backwards to maintain our standing position. If we fell down, their sharp canines would sink into our necks and veins. Fortunately the towels were thick enough to withstand their savage bites; aiming at their noses, we hit them repeatedly, but they continued to bark fiercely and attack us.
Dropping my hammer, I retrieved a long knife from my pant’s pocket which I took from the kitchen. One of the dogs leaped at me, sinking its teeth into the two towels that protected my left arm. With all my strength, I lifted my left arm moderately and exerted forward pressure, blocking the jaws of the beast from reflexively snapping at my right hand when I attacked it. Using this technique, I swung the long knife outward, gashing its shoulder and neck, its blood spurting onto the floor. The other two captives also hit its nose heavily a few times with the hammers; it whimpered and retreated, then it limped off through the front door with a trail of blood behind it.
The three of us focused on attacking the second Dobermann: the two captives continued to strike its nose and skull with hammers while, using the same blocking technique, I gashed its shoulder and neck with the long knife. Soon it retreated and limped off into the darkness outside.
Strangely we didn’t hear Flint banging on the door in the past few minutes: there was silence upstairs. What happened to Flint? Why didn’t he persist in breaking open the door? Brushing aside my thoughts about Flint, we walked cautiously out of the farmhouse, gripping our hammers and knives, gazing around to assess whether there were other watchdogs before we hurried towards the gate. I searched for the right key and unlocked it; the iron-wrought gate creaked and groaned as we pushed it open, then we jogged towards the main road, and we kept running until the headlights of a few cars flashed across our tired faces …
(written in September 1975)
Please forgive me. My nightmare started due to that accident in November 1974. While riding a motorbike, I hit a truck when it stopped abruptly, resulting in a concussion and brain injury with blood clots. After a few months of in-patient treatment, some of the clots didn’t go away. Or rather the doctors said, they disappeared for a few days and came back again, clinging to me like phantom parasites.
Soon I heard the voice of Flint. As the days passed, Flint took over my mind and body, controlling my thoughts and actions, banishing my voice to a corner of his consciousness. Further, Flint pretended to be me and locked up my wife in the farmhouse, believing that she was having an affair with Alvin, her department’s director. Alvin was forty-three years old, a skinny guy with slender limbs, an almond face, a sharp nose and narrow eyes.
Forcing my wife to sign a letter of resignation, Flint posted it to Alvin. One month later Alvin left Singapore, deployed to his company’s headquarters in Britain. Alvin was lucky. At that time Flint was planning how to capture and deal with him. I think Flint would have told you what prompted him to abduct and lock up the three of you – yes, you have the physical and facial features that resemble Alvin’s, a kind of vicarious punishment desired by Flint.
Miraculously, in the past six hours since a portion of your undiluted medicine wine dripped into my nose and went down my throat when you smashed that bottle on me, I didn’t hear Flint’s voice. In the first two hours after I ingested your wine, I was feverish, my forehead and body seemed to burn. Slowly the fever and the pain went away, then Flint’s voice, his weird laughter and aggressive urges were gone. I believe your wine has burnt and vaporized Flint, by healing the blood clots and related chemical imbalances in my brain. I will request for X-rays to validate that the clots are gone, but the fact remains: in the past six hours, I didn’t hear Flint’s aggressive voice. I’m no longer controlled by him. I’m free again.
Now I can think clearly. Perhaps my wife didn’t have an affair with Alvin. I was paranoid and too suspicious. I didn’t have the courage to talk to her about it. When I showed my latest artworks to her in the past one year, she was no longer enthusiastic about them, unlike those days when we first married three years ago. Her indifference made me feel frustrated. I suppressed my feelings, which festered over time, making me assume that she had someone else in her heart. I regret it deeply. I should never assume. I should investigate and engage a Private Investigator to do it. Now I pray every night, seeking her forgiveness.
Regarding my wife, her elderly parents lived in Australia and her only sister has migrated to United States; we had little contact with them. Thus, no one knew that Flint had locked up my wife. A few weeks later, one evening, she had an asthma attack. Flint thought she was pretending, then she became pale and passed out. By the time Flint brought her to a clinic, it was too late. The doctors couldn’t revive her. Flint cremated her and buried the ashes beside the Tebusu tree at the farmhouse.
I’m depressed, feeling that I’m responsible for the birth of Flint. He probably came from my accumulated frustrations and anger when my artworks were not accepted for exhibition and could not be sold, and from my suspicion that my wife was having an affair. The road accident triggered Flint’s emergence. I will bear the stones of guilt for the rest of my life.
Another confession is that my parents are dead -- they died a few years ago. My mother was 58, suffering from kidney cancer, and she knew that my father had a mistress. Fearing that his mistress would cheat him and deprive him of his savings and nothing would be left for me, my mother poisoned him before he could alter his will, then she committed suicide.
I inherited my father’s assets, cash S$52,000 and his old two-bedroom apartment worth S$30,000. I cremated my parents, their ashes were also buried beside the Tebusu tree. Retaining their femurs, I used them to carve out small pieces of bones that looked like pieces of jigsaw puzzles, attaching them to my triptych. They reflect the imperfect aspects of life.
You may be curious about my bleeding toe. The top segment of one toe in my left leg is missing. During one night when Flint allowed my consciousness to surface, I felt guilty for locking up the three of you. Taking a deep breath, I rushed to the kitchen and chopped off one segment, hoping that the pain would chase away Flint. It didn’t work.
Well, thanks for your stories. I’ve completed my triptych. When you are free, take a look at it since it reflects our collective efforts.
Please destroy this letter after reading it. I hope to stay in a detention centre to expiate my wrongdoing, although I’m not sure whether I can endure the long days of confinement.
(written in September 1975)
Inspector Evon had features that closely resembled mine and my mother’s, but she did not have the warmth and tenderness of my mother: she looked stern, austere, non-smiling, with a taut chin. A few streaks of pale purple veins ran down her neck, which seemed to reflect her determination to bring perpetrators to justice. Same height as me, she was more fleshly and muscular, most likely due to weight lifting. She had half-bulging eyes, thin lips and a tanned face that occasionally beamed as if her brain were working ceaselessly on problematic cases, with sudden flashes of insight that jelled the conflicting clues together. Her pupils were brown with traces of blue, which suggested Chinese and Anglo-Saxon genes. Deep inside, I knew there could be no mistake -- Inspector Evon must be my twin sister. She didn’t die that day on 26 March 1929; although her heart had stopped beating, somehow it revived and someone had 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. It was eleven in the morning; the nurses had cleaned and dressed my wounds, and I had taken my meal and medication.
The two captives and I had finally escaped last night: we flagged a taxi and went to the nearest police station where we reported the case. The police quickly went to the farmhouse to arrest David, while an ambulance arrived at the police station and drove us to the hospital. I had telephoned and talked to my twenty-three-year old son Joseph Yang, to my father who was in his seventies and to my grandma who was ninety-three. Joseph and my father rushed to the hospital to see me last night, staying until four in the morning; they would come later at noon as I wished to be discharged by then.
Sergeant Bernard, a tall, muscular tall man in his mid-thirties, was standing behind Inspector Evon. He said, ‘We’ve arrested David Mason and placed him under observation.’
‘Did he try to run away?’ I asked.
‘No, he was conscious and calm inside his bedroom, his head bleeding. He stretched out his hands to be handcuffed.’
I said, ‘Fortunately he didn’t resist. He’s strong.’
Sergeant Bernard nodded. ‘While walking across the living room, he requested me to paste a cardboard on his huge artwork. Then we brought him to the hospital for treatment before locking him up at the headquarters. This morning he requested us to hand this confidential letter to you.’
He handed me a letter sealed in a brown envelope. I opened and read it slowly, then I kept it and said, ‘I have no choice. I hit him with two bottles, trying to overcome him. He has split personality disorder. The two captives and I suffered badly under him.’
Sergeant Bernard said, ‘He’s strong, not easy to deal with.’
I nodded and said, ‘As a teacher, I’ve read about psychosis and psychopathy, in case some of my students display such symptoms. I understand that psychotic behaviour is out of touch with reality, driven by delusions, paranoia or hallucinations about things, people and events that are not real, and psychotic behaviour is aberrant and irrational. On the other hand, a psychopath is in touch with reality, and most of the time he displays rational behaviour, although he’s mean, cold-hearted, aggressive or violent, driven by egotistic goals.’
‘Yes, I read about that,’ replied Sergeant Bernard.
‘I think Flint is the aggressive alter ego of David, released by that accident.’
Sergeant Bernard gave a half-smile and said, ‘We shall wait for the doctors’ assessment.’
I turned and sat straight, gazing at Evon before asking, ‘Inspector, do you know your parents? Your biological parents?’
She frowned and looked at me, yet there were gleams of understanding in her eyes.
I continued, ‘Sorry to ask personal questions, but I’ve been looking for my twin sister. Were you born in March 1929?’
Inspector Evon nodded. ‘I don’t know my real parents. My foster parents died a few years ago. They adopted me from a male nurse. That male nurse said, I was the child of one of his sisters.’
‘I believe that’s not true. My twin sister was abducted at the hospital, probably by that male nurse. Those doctors must be mistaken that my twin sister had died.’
Inspector Evon narrowed her eyes and looked at me, baffled.
I paused and said, ‘In the past few years I came across articles which said that people with no pulse and no breathing could wake 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, and then the body revitalizes itself after thirty minutes or longer. I believe that male nurse abducted you and sold you to your foster parents. Please investigate. We can test our blood to validate our kinship.’
Evon nodded. ‘I’ll look into the matter. We really look alike.’
I proceeded to talk to Evon about Joan who went missing for a few days. Puzzled, she looked at me. ‘You believe in ghost?’
‘Joan is the poetic part of your soul,’ I tried to explain.
She shrugged. ‘No wonder I feel lacking 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 suggested that she could drive me around the area near to the farmhouse to find any temples that might have trapped Joan. ‘First, I propose to take a look at David’s artwork, in case Joan is trapped inside it. It may provide clues to her whereabouts.’
Inspector Evon was hesitant, but I persuaded her that David’s canvas might provide evidence relevant to the case. Eventually she agreed and drove me to the farmhouse after I was discharged from the hospital. Joseph came at 11.30 am that morning and I asked him to return home to wait for me.
Reaching the farmhouse at around 2 pm, Evon unlocked the front door and we walked in. I switched on the lights and pulled away the cloth that covered David’s triptych -- it was huge, eight feet tall and twenty feet wide, featuring eight paintings that were created with acrylics, pastels and graphite on linen canvases: two paintings were attached to the first panel, four to the central panel and two to the third panel. The eight paintings were cut at their edges and looked like the detached pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. The prize which I won for narrating thrilling stories to David – a portrait of his wife in the form of an assembled jigsaw puzzle -- was pasted on the central panel.
Broken twigs, dried thistles and clay figurines dangled from various parts of the triptych. Its backdrop featured dreamscapes with a row of futuristic, glazed buildings that look like cathedrals, which are surrounded by meadows, green hills, meandering rivers and waterfalls, and clusters of colourful birds and winged creatures circle the spires of those buildings.
I looked more closely at the eight paintings, from left to right. In the first painting, David tried to emulate The Persistence of Memory; he depicted elongated horses, elephants, leopards, ligers, zebroids and strange crossbreeds that are half-melting, and they are being devoured by a huge Time Womb that hovers over them. Surrounding the Time Womb across a greenish sky are curvaceous females who look like mandolin players, fire dancers, circus contortionists and trapeze artistes. Below the painting was a quote from Rene Magritte: ‘If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.’
Next, he tried to emulate Starry Night by using bright colors to depict different types of orchids, heliconia, hibicus and frangipani flowers with bizarre faces that look like a baboon, a mantis, a salamander and a Komodo dragon. At the four corners are the expressionless faces of children who have no lips, their noses are sharp, their hairs curly and their eyes closed. Silvery serpents, winged horses and golden pigeons jut out from their foreheads. Below the painting was a quote from William Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It's not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity.’
Third, he followed the motif of The Scream of Nature and he painted Mirrors, dangling in mid-air, which reflect randomly distributed cracked lips, distorted noses, scarred eye-brows and huge mouths that are pointing in different directions, like the scattered fragments of human faces. Inside those mouths are human figures and bird-like creatures, some of them are leaping, some are crouching and some are waving their hands and appear to be screaming. Below the picture was a quote from Daniel Defoe: ‘It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.’
Fourth, he portrayed four richly gowned artists in a brightly lit studio: they are looking at Bosch’s masterpiece and painting their perceptions of it on their canvasses. The walls and ceiling of the studio show images of a jungle with an erupting volcano in the distance. Different types of birds, insects and creatures are frantically rushing out of the bushes into the studio in a three-dimensional way, which include flamingoes, hornbills, giant beetles, grasshoppers, ferrets, hyenas, wolverines and tigers. This time the quote below the painting was from Giorgio De Chirico: ‘To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere.’
Fifth, it showed a moonscape with a grey sky and the ground was pockmarked with crater-like hollows. Six elongated bony figures with shoulder-length hair, hawk noses and taut, muscular faces, gather around a bonfire, their mouths half-open and their scrawny arms raised high, holding clubs and spears. They look like shamans performing a ritual to invoke some dark forces that can empower them with clairvoyance and supernatural powers, and help them to achieve their goals. Below the painting was a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘Those who have a 'Why' to live for can bear with almost any 'How'.’
Sixth, it showed the half-cut faces of ferocious animals such as eagles, gorillas, wolves, serpents and cheetahs: they are displayed on a huge operating table without legs, which is supported by a giant human skull that has hollow eye sockets, glimmering cheekbones and rows of sharp teeth. The forehead of the skull contains cracks where on the left side, well-fed worms with many hooked legs are crawling out of the mushy brain cells, and on the right side, small figures that look like human scientists dressed in silvery cloaks are standing beside the cracks and talking to different types of humanoids that are trying to plaster the cracks with colorful movie posters. Below the painting was a quote from Edvard Hopper: ‘The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm, and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of colour, form and design.’
Seventh, it showed ten pairs of unclad figures entwined together inside a dimly lit forest, their genitals veiled by roses and fig leaves. The backdrop is a giant human brain with bright orange and pink rivers of neurons, and cupid-like figures, mermaids and cherubs are playing harps as they emerge from the pink rivers. Celestial beings in white gowns can be seen sitting inside semi-transparent spacecraft in different cylindrical, spherical and eagle-like shapes that are flying above the pink rivers. Below the picture was a quote from Marcel Proust: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’
The last painting showed a sky that is filled with columns of waves and sea tornadoes swirling in mid-air, with seven strange-looking spacecraft appearing from the watery chaos. On the ground are swampy seas with a floating city that has tall buildings with spiky glass domes. On top of a towering building is a humanoid with no nose and no lips, gazing at the spacecraft above him: he has three bulging eyes and he is armed with two laser guns strapped across his chest. Looking down from the green-yellowish sky are three giant bulging Eyes, each of their mirror-like surfaces show the three different panels of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Below the painting was a quote from Rene Magritte: ‘Nothing is confused except the mind.’
Three words were inscribed at the top of the triptych: Singapore’s Blood Meridian
I spent more than thirty minutes looking at the huge triptych, trying to understand its meaning and enigmatic design. Eventually I told Evon that I could find no evidence relevant to the case and we left, locking the front door of the house and walking back to Evon’s car. After checking the maps as regards the main and secondary roads, she drove around the area, trying to identify any potential buildings or spots that might assist us to find Joan.
An hour later, we encountered a bungalow near the beach. After parking by the roadside, we approached its gate and I shouted in the direction of its front door about a hundred feet away. It was an old one-storey bungalow with large Taoist banners stringed across its side walls; through its open windows, I could see an altar at the center of its living room and the statues of Taoist deities placed on the tables behind the altar. A large shed stood on the right side of the bungalow, with rows of wooden shelves that contained urns.
Two middle-aged priests appeared, half-bald, suntanned and stout, 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? She’s a benign spirit, please help her.’
The two priests were expressionless and denied having seen any spirit. Disallowing us to enter their premises, they said, ‘If you wish to search our house, please show us the warrant. We only open on Saturdays and Sundays, performing prosperity rituals for devotees.’
Inspector Evon and I left. On the way home, I enquired with Evon whether she could obtain a search warrant; she shook her head since 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.
In the next three days, I updated and collated my journals, including those passed to me by Evon which she retrieved from the farmhouse. Handing them to my son Joseph, I stressed to him that first, he should look for a publisher only twenty years after my death; second, he should not talk to anyone about the Yunnan medicine wine, its ingredients and its method of preparation; and third, as far as possible, he should not disclose to anyone that he’s my son.
A Revived Jonathan Yang Inside A Research Laboratory
(transcribed in February 1976)
I took a taxi and returned to the old bungalow on a moonless night. Squatting behind some undergrowth, I waited until midnight when the two priests switched off the lights and went to bed. After checking that there was no guard dog, I climbed over the fence and walked quietly towards the shed that was filled with shelves. The shelves contained urns that were sealed with talismans. Walking slowly around the shelves, I whispered repeatedly, ‘Joan, are you here? … Joan, where are you?’
Ten minutes passed and I spotted an urn that gave a greenish glow as if a spirit were trapped inside it. Approaching it, I heard the voice of Joan, ‘It’s me, Jonathan, I’m trapped.’
Raising both my hands, I gripped and lifted the urn from a wooden shelf, its cover was tightly pasted with three layers of talismans. Briskly I tore away the talismans before turning the cover of the urn and removing it. The spirit of Joan appeared and I felt relieved, then I placed the urn back to the wooden shelf.
‘Joan, 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 provoked and in the midst of striking me. I moved my hands quickly away from the wooden shelf. Too late. A sharp pain raced through my right forearm. Some creature had stung my right wrist -– a cobra.
I flinched and stepped back. I must have awakened it when I took the urn from the shelf; it was probably sleeping behind the nearby urns. After staggering towards the fence, I sat on the ground, cold sweats on my forehead. I tried to shout for help, but unsure whether the two priests would assist a trespasser. The toxin of the cobra started to paralyze me, and a cold mist began to cover my body and my vision became clouded.
‘Jonathan, how are you?’ Joan asked anxiously. ‘I’ll go and find Inspector Evon.’
‘Yes, go and find Evon ... she’s your physical body.’
I looked into the eyes of Joan, somehow sensing that this would be the last time that I could look at her, and I gazed at the pale blue glow inside her pupils. Crouching my body and resting my face on her chin, I detected her jasmine fragrance. For the first time Joan didn’t turn pink when my face touched hers, but she looked frightened and frantic, her voice quivering. My body began to feel numb and cold, and I started to gasp as if something were pressing hard on my chest and I could not breathe. I closed my eyes, half-conscious ...
I travelled through a long tunnel of darkness before spotting glimmers of light. A sparkling memory portal approached me. Pushing it open, I stepped into a sandy shore.
The old monk who gave Herbia to me was waiting for me under a Sea Almond, a large coastal tree. Wearing a brown gown with a string of beads around his neck, he smiled and greeted me. We walked along a beach and listened to the waves before we reached a wooded area, and we encountered 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 garments and costumes of various designs. The second group consisted of half-transparent beings with cheerful, serene faces. The third group consisted of extraterrestrial beings with enlarged heads, slender bodies and protruding eyes. The fourth group was made up of angels and cherubim. The groves that surrounded them were sunlit but cool, with green hillocks on their right and flowing streams on their left. Facing them was Bosch’s well-known painting The Garden of Earthly Delights; the four groups were looking earnestly at Bosch’s painting, then they painted their perceptions of it on their canvases.
I watched and listened to the rhythm of the waves that reverberated around us. When they had finished, they displayed their paintings by tying them to the hooks of a huge board that was mounted on a marble platform. I walked around the platform to look at the paintings from different angles; behind the board was a rosewood panel and the following words appeared which seemed to talk to me:
It’s a starlit night and someone says, ‘Tonight we see through the eyes of David Mason when he was young.’ At a corner of the Garden of Earthly Delights, inside a wardrobe, a child was hiding, his parents were arguing outside. Seven-year-old David drifted asleep, and in his dream, he visited his previous lives.
He was a young woman, and she claimed to possess a vase owned by her marine biologist boyfriend who disappeared during a seabed exploration a few years ago. She said, ‘He’s talking to his Italian vase now, and he likes to snuggle into its earlobes and hover over the rivers that meander along its body. Engravings of different animals stream down along the torso of the vase and hesitate near its belly button. And further below are rhombus-shaped clam shells pasted with tiny paintings which reflect Venetian lilies and Persian mushrooms.’ The young woman cautioned that the vase contained human ashes, then she became silent and glimpsed that she was a young sailor in her previous life.
The young sailor was inside a tavern where old sailors gazed in the direction of the Cape of Good Hope. Were they trying to decipher a message from Easter Island? Did they hear echoes of the super-volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago at Lake Toba which reduced the number of Homo sapiens to less than 20,000 worldwide and squeezed the pool of our ancestors’ genes?
Or did the old sailors remember how their ships were battered by storms and recall the names of the comrades they had lost? They asked the young sailor, ‘That tiger-cum-tiger burning bright inside you, the worldly ego and his spiritual twin, are they drowned by the sea? Its dark green waters swallow everyone in the long run, the brave and the misguided, the cautious and the licentious.’
The young sailor replied with an elegy written by his grandfather who spent a lifetime exploring the forests of Borneo, ‘I dive into the stormy sea, encountering womb-like incubators and the wriggling heads of many babies. Born once again, they appear doe-eyed but confused. Frantically I swim back to the shore to find the monk who can advise how many times I must jump into the watery grave to dampen my egos. In the meantime, when I wake up at midnight, I find myself trapped inside a painting, struggling to write a poem to win the heart of a nymph.’
The young sailor splashed into a river at a corner of the Garden and discovered that he was a seagull in his previous life. The seagull rose above the waters, and in the evening light, the sands, the waves and the beaches became dressed in various shades of gold ...
I returned to my dream world, but the old monk who entrusted Herbia to me was gone. I walked back to the beach where seagulls hovered over me. Sitting down on the sandy beach, I closed my eyes and meditated for a long while. When I opened my eyes, I was allowed to peek into a few scenes behind the Garden: my eyes were scorched and I ran into a forest and washed my eyes beside a stream. Then I fell asleep.
When I woke up, the forest was gone, the sounds and furies at the world's naked shingles were gone. A different world greeted me. Time seemed to be a thing of the past. And I met Joan, my wife Florence, my mother and my grandfather, and we smiled and talked for a long time. Falling in love with a different type of blue sky and coastal trees, a different kind of seagulls and beach and twilight, we closed our eyes and listened to the rhythm of the waves, and the words of Revelation 21:4 whispered in our hearts: God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, no more sorrow and no more pain, for the former things have passed away.
(written in February 1976)
This is the first time I met my father, Jonathan Yang, after his death. As invited by Dr Peter Kolman, a senior member of the neuroscientist team, I took a taxi to their restricted Research & Development complex, a rectangular twelve-storey building inside a science and technology park at the west part of Singapore, and I met Dr Kolman at the carpark area in front of the complex on a Friday morning in February 1976.
We shook hands before walking briskly to the entrance of the complex; he displayed his corporate card while I showed my identity card to the security guards. Upon clearance, we went to a spacious washroom at a corner of the ground floor where we bathed with disinfectant liquid and soap. After we dried ourselves, we put on designated clothing and white gowns.
Walking past a glass-encased lobby, we took the lift to the sixth floor where a research assistant was waiting for us and she guided us to a doorway. We entered a narrow passageway that led to a hall which was compartmentalized into many chambers separated by walls and glass panels. Inside those chambers were aquarium tanks and different types of flasks, tubes, cylinders, silvery valves, ducts and hoses, together with mainframe computers, monitoring equipment, and glass cabinets containing pharmaceutical products. In one of those chambers, inside a transparent hexagonal tank, my father appeared -- he had become a talking brain.
Dr Kolman, a neuroscientist from New York, was in his fifties, medium height, plump, fair-skinned, half-bald with a wide forehead and narrow eyes, and wearing silver-rimmed spectacles. He talked in measured phrases and explained to me that there were five other brains which were housed at adjacent chambers. All the brains, including my father’s, were verified to be clinically dead for at least forty-eight hours before being removed from the donors and transported to this laboratory. The other brains were also kept inside transparent tanks filled with anti-aging liquid.
‘I understand it was your father’s wish to donate his organs for research,’ said Dr Kolman.
I nodded. ‘He thought his brain cells might be useful for research on Alzheimer’s, but he didn’t foresee that his brain can be revived.’
He paused and said, ‘Yes, the anti-aging agents were only available in the past one year. We were unsure whether we could revive his brain.’
‘How did you preserve the brain tissues?’ I asked.
‘With anti-aging liquids mixed with finely prepared nutrients.’
‘How did you revive him?’
‘We use a technique that relies on electric currents and strong doses of chemical agents. We apply it twice a day for a month.’
‘A month …’ I pondered.
He nodded. ‘Surprisingly at the end of the fourth week, the sensory receptors attached to Jonathan’s brain detected signals. We attached more sensory receptors and tried to communicate with him, using a code.’
‘It consists of twenty-six electronic signals that are tied to twenty-six alphabets of the English language. Each alphabet is represented by a different number of taps and a different duration of taps of the electronic pulses.’
‘How did your team teach my father how to use the code?’
‘The computer sends the signals to the sensory transmitters attached to your father’s brain, and the sensory transmitters convert them into electronic brain pulses. We oriented his brain to those pulses by repeating the transmission many times. We aim to convey to Jonathan the structure and meaning of the code.’
‘Did my father take a long time to understand it?’
‘About three weeks. Then he responded by using the code. He has learnt to use a different number and a different duration of the taps to choose an alphabet.’
‘That would enable him to form words,’ I said.
Dr Kolman nodded.
‘What did my father say in his first sentence?’
‘We 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 transcribed them.’
‘I suppose my father requested for this hexagonal tank, since he believed hexagons bring good luck.’
He smiled and said, ‘Yes.’
‘How long can you sustain my father’s brain?’
‘We closely monitor the types and quality of anti-aging nutrients in the tank, as well as the temperature and quality of the environment outside the tank. We hope to keep his brain alive for a few months. That will be a great step forward.’
‘What about the brains of other donors?’ I asked.
‘They’re given the same type of chemicals, nutrients and treatment, but so far no success.’
‘Perhaps the medicine wine helps to preserve the vitality of my father’s brain,’ I said. ‘This element is missing in the brains of other donors.’
‘That’s possible, but we cannot feed the wine into Jonathan’s brain. You decide to keep the ingredients secret, which prevents our analysis. But we believe the wine will contaminate the anti-aging liquid and result in the atrophy of his brain tissues.’
After talking for another half an hour, I was prepared to leave; unexpectedly Dr Kolman grabbed my arm and said, ‘Jonathan has a message.’
For the next hour, the screen linked to a computer started to flash strings of alphabets. The research assistant taped and transcribed them …
What surprises me is the strangeness of life, the tiny pockets of awareness that scamper within me. Part sensitive, part whimsical, they smile, weep, laugh and struggle to find the courage to hold on day by day. Perhaps what shocks me is that someone is overhearing: He’s never out of earshot. And I hope to drink a small portion of that Stranger’s knowledge. If this is not allowed, please forgive me. Perhaps someday I become a small part of an Artwork that comes from the need to perfect a Symphony, or from Someone’s urge to actualize a moral-aesthetic vision. Or maybe I’m a haiku muttering inside a canvas which is kept in the cellar of a museum where the moths of time have lost their interest in nibbling me. Or I detect brain pulses that oscillate across a dream and those brain pulses want to write a commentary on Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. And those brain pulses cannot stop talking. They have returned to hunt.
A Revived Jonathan Yang and David Mason
(written in June 1976)
Am I a time traveller trapped in a solitary cell? Is someone talking to me, inviting me to step into a dream? Is someone trying to pull David out of a rotating time womb? How big is it? I recall now, its diameter is the length of a three-ton army truck and David’s body is half-embedded in it, its spinning core is brownish red. And then my awareness is sucked into it. I begin to spin, faster and faster, and I black out. When I wake up, everything is dark. And I realize that I’m trapped inside David’s body. How did it happen? To find out, I step into his stream of memories ...
I remember reading David’s letter at the hospital after I fled from his farmhouse. Then he was arrested and remanded, evaluated by doctors, put on trial and sent to a mental institution in October 1975. Confined in a solitary cell, he couldn’t get used to it.
A few months later, during a session at the exercise yard, David pretended to have stomach pain and went to the toilet, followed by two guards. The toilet was situated outside the fenced-up yard. When they were in the washroom, David knocked out the first guard with an elbow attack on his chin. Then he lurched towards the other guard and struck his neck with a karate chop.
Exiting the washroom, he ran towards the car park area. A few guards inside the yard spotted it, blew their whistles and gave chase. He darted towards a van that delivered vegetables. Approaching the driver who was unloading the cabbages, David punched him in the stomach, grabbed the key from his shirt pocket, got into the van and drove away, crashing through the barricade at the gateway.
Speeding to a housing estate fifteen minutes away, he abandoned the van in an alley, took a few buses and reached a sports complex where he hid his money and Swiss bank passbooks in a locker. Then he made his escape to Malaysia before fleeing to Thailand.
In Thailand he engaged a private investigator in January 1976 to hunt me down. A few weeks later, he received confirmation that I had died, but was revived as a talking brain inside a hexagonal tank in a Research & Development building in Jurong, west part of Singapore. Some months later, he received news that my brain was showing signs of atrophy, and he decided to rescue me. No, I never wanted his help. Unsure whether another tormentor was hiding in the forest of his mind, I would rather atrophy and fade away.
But David bribed two research assistants at the laboratory, paying them US$2,000 each. They excised a part of my brain, keeping it in a low-temperature cylinder which was connected to an equipment that provided nutrients and oxygen to my brain tissues via micro-tubes. Then they went to Malaysia and hired a van to deliver it to David. When David received the item in southern Thailand, he engaged a neurosurgeon to plant the excised portion of my cerebrum into his brain. Our neurons gradually became entwined.
Two months passed, and my neurons that were embedded within his brain strengthened. Strangely I could communicate with David’s inner voice. He 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 July 1976 onwards.
In September 1976, David went hiking and stayed in a cave that was on the slope of a hill. He stayed inside it for a few weeks, then his obsession with breakthrough ideas struck. He went to a nearby village, contacted two Thai gangsters and paid them US$3,000. The two gangsters went to Singapore, abducted my son and locked him up. A few days later inside the cave, David said to me, ‘You cannot escape now. We’re partners.’
‘I don’t want to be your partner. Release me and my son,’ I retorted.
‘I’m not Flint. If you cooperate, after my second landmark work is done, I’ll release you.’
‘You may take a long time. My son will suffer.’
‘Trust me, I can finish it quite soon.’
‘If I can’t give you stimulating ideas, what will happen to my son?’
‘Don’t disappoint me, or they’ll scissor off two of his toes.’
Trapped inside David’s brain, I could partially view the outside world through his eyes. I remember he was browsing through an old book that night: it contained pictures of well-known paintings. Then he walked to the entrance of the cave and used a stick to stoke the fire, saying it could deter predatory animals; the flames crackled and a flurry of sparks drifted above the embers. The jagged mouth of the cave was narrow and David need to bend his body when he entered. Inside the cave widened, like the hollow of a giant skull.
Walking back to the centre of the cave, David sat on the dusty ground, an army knife and a loaded handgun were attached to his belt. He flipped through the old book and muttered, ‘Give me twenty vibrant ideas in the next three days, and everything will be over.’
I remained quiet for a while and said, ‘Please release my son. Anxiety blocks my thinking.’
‘You need a high tension state, it’s conducive to getting breakthrough ideas.’
‘Why do you sound like Flint?’
‘Flint is gone, vaporized by your Yunnan wine ... Better start now. If the kidnappers didn’t hear anything from me in the next few 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.’
‘Unwise choice. I’ve read dozens of commentary on that painting. Don’t think you can come up with anything original. Choose another.’
‘Let’s try Mona Lisa.’
‘Alright, since you insist.’ He flipped open the page reflecting that painting.
Thinking for a long while, I said, ‘The focus is not on Mona Lisa and her famous half-smile is 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 mountains and rivers. Perhaps the painting is saying, Mona Lisa’s intelligence can be traced to unseen forces that created those mountains. It’s a miracle for intelligence to emerge on earth, and a miracle for a painter to have the aesthetic passion, insights and skills to do the painting. The half-smile of Mona Lisa reflects Da Vinci’s awareness of the strange intelligence that runs through this cosmos.’
David thought for a 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 comment, the cave trembled and the ground shook; the tremor intensified and David could feel the vibration running along his thighs. An earthquake? He gritted his teeth. The tremor stopped for a while, then it started again. The ground shook more vigorously. Standing up, he tried to walk to the mouth of the cave, but the strong vibration made him waver and he fell on the ground. Strangely the cave seemed to rotate and he became dizzy; 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 was being tossed about by unseen forces before he was funneled into a dark hole. He closed his eyes, hoping 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 and stopped: he opened his eyes and found himself floating inside a dark tunnel. Looking ahead, 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, which looked like an exit point; he stretched his arms and began to swing them, so as to navigate himself towards that point. A few minutes later, he could touch it: a plasma-like, oval portal with a diameter of about five feet. He stretched his hands and clutched at it before climbing into it.
He fell onto the metallic floor of a small, cramped room with a silvery ceiling about eight feet tall and a floor less than four hundred square feet. He gazed at the silvery walls that contained mirror-like gleaming objects embedded within translucent wire grids. Then a voice spoke in a strange language.
Looking around the room, he couldn’t see the speaker. Rays of different colours pierced his body, which came from projectile objects lowered from the ceiling that were connected to micro-chips and silvery wires: David was being scanned from head to toe.
When the scanning stopped, a voice spoke in an alien language for a few moments before it spoke in English. ‘I have selected the English mode … Welcome, I have been waiting for you.’
Surprised, David asked, ‘Who are you?’
‘I have been waiting for you for thirty-seven years?’
‘My name is Sphinx. I know you come from planet Earth. My molecular scanning has verified it.’
‘Yes, I’m from Earth. My name is David Mason. Why do you say, you have been waiting for me?’
‘I am directed by neuronal pulses and messages received by my brain many years ago. They came from somewhere near the heart of this Galaxy, and they told me to wait for you.’
‘Neuronal pulses and messages?’
‘They told me that a human being from Earth will meet me on this planet and that we knew each other when we were in the timeless zone. I was Deity Jupiter. You were my student.’
‘I can’t remember,’ David replied.
‘You were a disobedient student and kept taunting me in the presence of other students and deities. You said, I was not qualified to call myself a Deity unless I have manifested courage, fortitude and endurance in the visible world. At that time, I had not yet visited the visible, space-time world.’
David listened intently.
The voice continued, ‘I decided to take up the challenge and we had a wager: both of us would enter the visible world and test ourselves.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘We went to see the Godhead and He allowed us to proceed. The transfer of our consciousness to physical beings that existed in the visible world was through a random process. My consciousness was transferred to the brain of an avant-garde robot called Sphinx, and yours were transferred to the brain of a Homo sapiens.’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘Maybe in the future, you will receive neuronal pulses and messages that help you to remember.’
‘You mentioned, we’re now on a small planet?’ David asked.
‘Yes, inside a cave on a planet less than half the size of Earth.’
‘How did that happen?’
‘I come from a planetary cluster many light years from Earth. I am the prototype of an advanced robot and you are now inside the chamber of my brain.’
Sphinx explained that he used to have four siblings who 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 relating to scientific research, building construction, identifying new sources of energy and weapon development. This angered a group of legislators who had vested interests in a rival company that also manufactured advanced robots; they discovered that besides having extensive cognitive ability, Sphinx and his four siblings had evolved emotional sensitivity and intelligence which their two creators did not anticipate or design. To protect their financial interests, the rival legislators became alarmists and rallied public opinion, advocating that their communities must destroy the five prototypes based on the assumptions that with the emergence of EQ, the prototypes would become driven by selfish desires and could potentially harm their species.
Accusing the two creators of criminal negligence, they worked with the enforcement agency and obtained the Central Authority’s permission to detain the two creators pending a formal trial and to destroy the five prototypes. Sphinx and his four siblings decided to save their creators, and they fought bravely against other robots and rescued the two creators from the detention complex.
During the rescue, his four siblings were destroyed and Sphinx was badly damaged, but he escaped in a spacecraft with his two creators and they flew far away from their planetary cluster. Eventually they landed on this small planet and hid inside a cave; subsequently the two creators died of old age a decade ago.
‘When I landed here many years ago, I started to receive neuronal pulses and messages informing me that I would meet you.’
‘Maybe the atmospheric elements of this planet caused you to have illusions or hallucinatory experiences,’ David said.
‘My databases do not contain this category of knowledge.’
‘By the way, how do you know it’s me?’
‘The images in the neuronal messages resemble you.’
‘You’ve been waiting for me all these years?’
‘Yes. Now that I have seen you, you need to return to your time womb quickly.’
‘Why?’ David stood up. A pincer lowered from the ceiling and handed a time womb detection device to him.
‘This device will be useful to you,’ Sphinx said.
David thanked Sphinx and asked, ‘Who do I need to go quickly?’
‘This planet is being pulled by a star and soon it will melt.’
‘Why don’t you leave?’
‘The nuclear engine of my spacecraft is no longer functional. My time is up. Please go now before your time womb fades away. We will meet again in the timeless zone.’
David waved good-bye to Sphinx before carefully placing the device inside his shirt and climbing into the portal of the time womb. Inside the portal, he swung his arms slowly and moved towards a grey swirling that would channel him to another place ...
David and I continued our journey through different time zones and places via dark tunnels. I needed to return to early 1976 so as to dissuade the David who lived in that time zone from abducting my son. During our journey, we met robots, clones and humanoids, and we met friendly creatures as well as fierce predators. We did not enter portals that looked gloomy and chose to enter portals that gleamed with light.
After bypassing dozens of bleak-looking portals and visiting more than forty time zones and places, we finally returned to a period that seemed to be 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 a forest, he was elated. Trudging up a hill, he looked around and spotted four young trekkers camping near the foot of a hill. He waved and walked towards them, shouting, ‘I’m home! I’m home!’
Approaching the four trekkers, he smiled broadly, took out his crocodile-skin wallet and gave them a few US dollar bills to get some of their biscuits and drinks. The four trekkers came from Bangkok: they were university students who majored in geography.
While drinking a can of beer, David asked the four trekkers, ‘What’s your time zone?’
‘Near eleven o’clock,’ a trekker replied.
‘I mean, the year?’
The four trekkers looked at each other and smiled.
‘Were you lost inside the forest?’ a trekker asked. ‘And your papery dollar bills look old-fashioned, but I believe they’re legal tender. America is still strong.’
David nodded. ‘Yes. Is this 1970s or 1980s?’
One of the students said, ‘It’s third of June, 2028.’
‘What? 2028 …’ David muttered and frowned. ‘I need to do some thinking.’
Walking to a secluded place under a tree, he said to me, ‘I choose to stay since it’s not easy to come back to a normal time zone. We’re not in the prehistoric past or some remote, futuristic zone. 2028 is acceptable. I can withdraw money from my Swiss bank accounts and pursue art.’
‘No, we need to go back to 1976 before you abduct my son.’