Crabs

“I have something very important to tell you,” she started.

I turned around because turning around was all I knew.

“I’m quite sure there aren’t anymore crabs on this beach,” she said.

“Crabs?”

“Yes, crabs.”

All around the waves tumbled, one on top of the next, spitting out shiny foam and lacklustre sprinkles. I was curious as to how this related to our walk.

“Tell me more about these crabs.”

“Well,” she started, “when I was younger mother and I would come down here. We would squat by the rocky pools and look for crabs. Sometimes I would get tired and just sit down. I didn’t mind the wet sand. Mother would always scream.”

“Scream at you to stand up?”

“Yes, of course. What else would she scream for?”

The sun hid behind white, innocuous clouds.

I was deep in thought as the waves continued to shuffle. What was it about crabs that bothered her? Was it to do with the way they moved about as her little hands tried to grab for them? Was it, perhaps, an instinctive reaction to all that had changed in her life? That even the simplest of things; crabs, for goodness sake. Even the crabs had ran somewhere, further away.

Later as we were having lunch I watched her pick apart a mussel. They were the freshest in town. The beach flowed endlessly along the solid shoreline. Part of her face was in the sun but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Have I ever told you that I really enjoy these walks?”

I looked up from my platter and smiled in acknowledgement.

“Too bad there aren’t any crabs,” I mentioned.

“No, too bad there aren’t. I think they’ve all moved somewhere else.”

I stared hard at the beach. The breeze played with the trees.

“Something bad must have happened. And they had to leave.”

“Maybe a disease or something,” she added.

“Yes. Maybe.”

We finished our meal in silence.

***

Later we were walking again, her in front of me. The sun was lower in the horizon this time. The breeze still played with the trees. She turned back at me, then looked forward again. She was trying to balance on the ever moving shoreline as the waves came and went. I watched her stumble over this impossible tightrope.

I stepped on something hard, depressing it into the sand.

It was a shell. But no. It was moving.

A crab.

A tiny one too. It looked up at me with eyes that spoke of countless miseries. They were glossy and black, and incredibly small. In its entirety it was no larger than a packet of chilli sauce.

I bent over to pick it up. It looked at me with a mixture of fear and gratefulness. Its eyes went in and out of their sockets. Maybe that’s how they blink. I looked up and saw that she was further ahead now.

The shell was grey, both claws evenly sized. It hardly struggled as I held it between forefinger and thumb. That in the years she spent walking the beach and finding none I should step on a crab on my first visit.

I walked to her, slow steps traipsing between waves. The sun slapped the side of my face as she urged me to hurry up.

I waved at her and her silhouette waved back. In my hand was her childhood. It was struggling now, and started clawing at my palm.

“I found it!” I shouted.

She turned to look, the waves shimmered.

The crab adjusted its pincer and at the precise angle clamped down on my little finger. I let out a sharp cry and released the creature, watching as a precisely timed wave took it away.

Everything happened very quickly. All that was left was the sound of the breeze.

Perhaps I could have jumped, maybe lunged forward to grab the poor thing. But until today I don’t know why I didn’t. I just watched the damn thing fall out of my hands. Disappear into foamy waves that turned water opaque then transparent, opaque then transparent.

Later she would ask me what I found, and I would tell her a well rehearsed line.

“It was nothing.”

She laughed and continued walking.

And naturally part of me would think that something did happen, something very special, something potentially groundbreaking. It was so close, so close to being a moment we could share and relish and ruminate about in wonder.

And then part of me would think that perhaps what I told her was true. Between salted mussels and the bothered palms, nothing special happened on the beach that day.

 

 

Rooftops

My father told me when I was younger that if you went on a rooftop in the dead of night and made a wish, that in the morning the wish would come true. Now that I think about it, I wasn’t so sure why he said that. Feeding a naive child such a notion must not have been the wisest thing to do.

Sure enough, on the day grandpa passed away I attempted just that. I snuck out of my room in the dead of night and climbed the railing of my house’s balcony. Reaching out for the edge of the roof, my foot slipped on the railing and I fell 2 stories. I broke both my legs that night, and passed out immediately. Right before I fainted, however, I heard grandpa calling my name from above. I swore I did. It was so clear, the way his voice cut through the air as I passed out. I was so sure I could have saved him had I just made it onto the roof and made a wish.

My father was visibly shaken after the incident, and implored my mother not to scold me. “I fed him tales before he slept, I will take responsibility for what happened,” he said. My mother had just lost her own father, and could not endure the possibility of losing her son as well. She did not talk to any of us until after Grandpa was cremated. I sat in the hospital and thought of what would have happened had I successfully climbed up the roof. Grandpa would be back, I was sure of that, and I would not be in the state I was in. It took me a few years before I snapped out of it and stopped blaming myself for my family’s grief. I must have imagined the voice of my grandfather that night.

Many years later, my own father died. After I put my own kids to bed, I found myself climbing to a rooftop again. Of course, I had no hopes of reviving my father, but just knew that this was something I had to do. I made sure not to slip this time, though. Thankfully, modern housing made the task of climbing to the roof safer. There was a thin ladder that led up to the top, and unlike the slanted apex roof of my old home, this was a flat roof.

When I was finally at the top I sat down on the cleanest patch of ground I could find, and just took some time to breathe. It was the peculiar time that one knew not whether to call morning or night. I realised then that I hadn’t had time for myself the past week with relatives coming to offer their condolences, and my children needing attention of their own as well. I sat there, the moon casting its faint glow all over me, shrouding me in pallor. I thought of why, in our quietest moments, we tend to think the most coherent thoughts. It was as if my mind became suddenly active, an arrow flying straight to the bullseye. I quickly conjured up a small list of things I wish I could have told my father.

I was startled by a rustling below, and crawled over to the edge, carefully. It was my neighbours son, coming home late into the night. I spied on him from above, as he made his way to the front door. It was probably a raunchy night of drinks, I thought.

And then came my wildest realisation. It was my father all this time. He had been on the rooftop all those years ago, the same way I was on the rooftop now. That was the only way I was noticed and brought to the hospital in the dead of night. That was the only way I could have heard my name being called out from above as I passed out. It wasn’t grandpa after all. And if not for him I would have been left unconscious until the morning. Nobody would have noticed me there, except that he did. And so we sat there, on different rooftops, 20 years apart. But we were sharing something special, I was sure of that. I could very much feel him there, beside me. Just silently hoping.

Later that night, I opened the door to my son’s bedroom, and watched him as he slept. There he was, my son. Then I finally understood why my father told me those bedtime stories. Because he wanted me to imagine a world where people didn’t die and we had no regrets about the things we didn’t say. I knew then, what I had to do.

I closed the door, and went off to bed. I thought of just the story to tell him, a story about rooftops. But it would have to wait for tomorrow night.

Biting the Big Apple

It was one of those nights that made you want to dissolve into the air. It wasn’t hot, mind you, but misty. It was a misty night where a cloak of vapour hung above the park benches we were sitting at.

“Let’s sit at those swings instead,” she said, tugging at my arm.

I had no choice but to agree. Besides, it was quite a while since I last sat at a swing.

We soon got into a rhythm, her up, me down, me up, her down. It stayed like that for quite a while.

“How do you think it’s going to be like in New York?” I asked. Our voices fluctuated in volume according to our positions on the swing.

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to find out.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“You do know, that this is the last time I’ll see you for the next six months?”

I heard her laugh. “Of course, I’m the one going. I know all too well.”

“Well, good.”

We swung in silence. The air hit my face, the momentum made my stomach drop at times. Maybe it wasn’t just the momentum.

“You seem to be thinking about something.”

“I am,” I admitted. “Aren’t you?”

“What’s there to think about? Bright lights, big city. They write songs about it all the time, and I can see from afar that it’s a scary place. That, we all know. If I start thinking about my life there now, I won’t hear the end of it. I’ll probably go crazy.”

“I know what you mean. But haven’t you thought about anything at all?”

The swings creaked under our weight.

“No, not particularly.”

“That’s strange. I’ve been thinking a lot,” I conceded.

“Thinking about what?”

“How sometimes being there for someone isn’t the toughest thing to do.”

“Then what is?” She asked.

“Giving them distance when they really need it. That’s the toughest thing. To care for someone is too easy, it’s what the heart desires anyway. Care and concern is pretty intrinsic if you ask me. A given.”

The night seemed dead still as she shuffled my words in her head. I could almost hear her think.

“But how would someone know that you care?” She questioned. “I mean, think about it. Distance can mean a lot of things. It gives so much space for ambiguity.”

“Can’t you see what I’m trying to say?”

She looked at me as we swung past each other for the fifty-third time.

“No, enlighten me.”

I relented. “I’m talking about us,”

She scoffed. “Was there ever an ‘us’ though?”

“I told you I’d be there for you.”

“And I’ve told you that you don’t have to. I’m leaving for the next four years, and I have a lot of my own shit to settle. You can’t be there for me, even if you really want to. There are a lot of things out there that Skype can’t solve. There’s too much that distance can’t offer. What if I’m hungry for supper, but it’s one AM and New York is fucking dangerous at night? What if a gunman walks into my apartment and I WhatsApped you about it and you freak out and realise you can’t do a single thing half a world away? Do you ever think of the pain it’ll cause me? Worst of all, do you ever think of the pain it will cause you?”

I kept quiet. Soon our bodies melded into the cool night, and our swings finally started to get in sync. It would be best to get into a deep conversation about why we exist in this universe, or about why males can pee standing up and females can’t (well technically they can), but we just kept quiet. There was a wall between us that hell couldn’t tear down.

“Let’s go. My mom is going to shout at me soon.”

We both dismounted the swings, and continued walking. I reached out for her hand, but she crossed her arms. I could hardly breathe, but I kept myself composed. In front of her, I had to.

She spoke first.

“I really want things to be okay between us, I really do. But it’s just very difficult right now. I’m still discovering who I am; this crazy journey that I’m about to embark on is testament to that. It’s film school, don’t you see? It has been my dream since you knew me. Since forever. You can’t stop this from happening. Even if it’s a nightmare for you, it has to run its course.”

You make these nightmares sound like anti-biotics. What do you mean by run its course? So you pursue your dreams and I stay here in a perpetual nightmare? Is that what you’re trying to say? Was this ever fair for me?

But of course I didn’t say that. It was three months of us going out, and she was finally talking about it. About us. I couldn’t risk an argument, even if it meant putting my ego aside.

“You’re right. It has to be like this.” I forced myself to say.

We stood at the bus stop in silence. I forced myself to read the bus numbers and the bus stops they went to front to back, then back to front. Only two buses passed this particular stop near my house, so it wasn’t too hard. She, on the other hand, was looking out anxiously for her bus, making sure she wouldn’t miss it.

Her bus came, and I didn’t even bother trying to hug her. There was no point.

She waved at me and I waved back. All I remembered from that last moment was her small hands. I might as well have been a palm tree in the breeze.

The bus pulled away from the station, and disappeared around the bend, first out of sight, before even the sound of its engine faded.

Walking back home I saw two foreign construction workers resting at a discarded sofa, left outside their quarters under a flyover.

They both used their phones and smiled to themselves as they scrolled through. My heart ached with ferocity.

I walked a few more steps and sat at an empty park bench. The air was so still you could hear a snail slide across the ground. Home was no more than a ten-minute stroll away. I sat there and imagined how it would be like for things to run their course, for my nightmare to play out like water rushing to the terrifying drop of a waterfall. How it ever came to this, I couldn’t have guessed. All I knew was that each day before she left had been a silent hell, going through the motions like it was all I could do. It was like cutting a terminal patient’s fingernails or scrubbing the deck of a sinking ship. You did it merely to pretend that everything would be okay. But how stupid was I to assume that it was going to be okay, that distance would ever afford an intangible closeness? How stupid was I to assume that things were ever mutual?

It was at that realisation that I felt a stinging pain on my right ankle. It was a snake.

I looked down and I saw it, as long as a wine bottle and no thicker than a pencil. It was brown with black spots, and looked harmless as far as snakes go. But it had bit me, the damn thing.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t afraid. I stepped on its body with my other foot, pulling its fangs out of my ankle. The snake then began to writhe as it was pinned down with my left foot, and I promptly delivered the finishing blow by stomping down in its head. I could hear its skull crack between sole and pavement.

I didn’t bring my phone from home, and so couldn’t take any pictures of the snake, nor identify its species. I had no choice but to pick it up and hold in in my hand. It was tiny, this snake. But it had quite a sting. They’d need to identify it if they were to inject me with any anti-venom. Deciding against rushing home in fear of the potential venom in the snake, I decided to get to the hospital immediately.

I hailed a cab, hiding the dead snake behind my back.

It turned out that the snake wasn’t venomous. The doctor did a quick google search and confirmed it. After all, he wasn’t a snake expert.

“You probably trampled on it and it bit you in self-defence. It’s just a common garden snake.”

“Like a garden salad,” I remarked.

“Yeah, something like that. Very generic and safe,” patronised the doctor, though I was quite sure it was nothing like that.

“That’s good to hear.”

“Bet you were quite scared back there,” chuckled the doctor.

“Of course. Who wouldn’t be? I didn’t even know the damn species. We’re always scared of what we don’t know, right?”

“Well, but now you do know, so you’ll be okay. I made sure to apply some alcohol on your wound in case of infection.”

But now you do know. 

I later asked if I could use the hospital phone to contact my family, and the doctor told me to use the one at the reception.

I walked over and dialled her number. She picked up after five rings.

“Hello,” came her voice.

“I’m ending things,” I started.

“Ending things?”

“I’m running away this time. I know now that it’s for the best. I am putting distance between us, once and for all.”

“What’s with the sudden…”

“There’s no reason for this; it’s just how I feel, and I’m entitled to go with that. I’m so sick of thinking about you and putting you first all the time. I realise now that it doesn’t matter. It never mattered, not to us, and especially not to you. Have fun out there in New York. Make some new friends and create a legacy. You’ll be great out there, alright? I won’t bother you anymore because clearly that’s not what you want. So bye, and please. Take care of yourself.”

The breathing on the other end of the line was slow but heavy, and I was breathing pretty hard too. The alcohol they rubbed on my wound made my ankle feel warm. My heart beat uncontrollably within my chest.

Stay, I wanted so badly to say. Don’t go to the big apple. You don’t need to go so far from home to find yourself.

But after thirty seconds of silence, I hung up.

 

 

 

 

 

June 12, 2016

This is a short excerpt from a longer piece of work that I am currently working on. It was written quite a while back, but I would like to dedicate it today to the horrific events that unfolded on June 12, 2016. 


 

Meanwhile, the two men browsed about. They wore ordinary attires: plain t-shirts, fitting pants and one of them had a pair of sunglasses hanging from the neck hole of his shirt. It was perhaps the ordinary that stood out on this otherwise gay couple. I smiled at them and they smiled at me, one of them leaning close and resting his chin on the shoulder of the other, waving emphatically as the other picked up a book to flip through.

“What I don’t appreciate about Singapore literature,” one of them later told me, “is that every story seems to feature a stock homosexual character.”

I asked him what he meant by “stock”.

“These homosexual characters, they are contrived into fictional works, their identity always at odds with society’s expectations, their lives miserable and hype surrounding them riled up. Every damn local author sees a need to work such a character into the story, and you know why?”

I noticed that his partner wasn’t particularly vocal about this issue. Maybe he didn’t mind the attention, maybe he didn’t care for literature in general. Who knew? I gestured for him to continue.

“Because they don’t know how to write a good novel, so adding in controversy is the only way for them to sell their work. Our country is so damn sanitized that our plight is used to replace good literature. Include a homosexual in a storybook for a truly inclusive yet controversial narrative all at once. Homosexuals feel represented, the public feels uncomfortable and the government feels challenged. It’s almost too good an offer to dismiss! People read and drool, but forget that somewhere out there good literature exists, just not in their hands. Books may very well be a tool to deliver a message, but these writers like to shove sexuality in our faces like a butcher using a meat cleaver to slice garlic. If books can make a difference, this certainly isn’t the way to do it.”

I thought of the Satanic verses. 37 lives.

“What would really help is a quiet confidence in ourselves,” started the other. He had remained silent until now. “In a state like this it is all too easy to feel displaced, too easy to feel like all the attention has been focused on us because of what the public views as abnormal. Take a good look at us, and you’ll see that there’s nothing particularly abnormal about the way we work at all. These texts would never say such a thing. This isn’t what the public wants to hear. Nobody cares of the subtlety of such relationships, only the exaggerated secrets and dirt between the sheets.”

And he was right. There was nothing they could be faulted for. In fact, they were less touchy than normal couples, only glancing at each other affectionately as they walked by the shelves. Everything about them suggested a quaint state of equilibrium. They were two human beings in love. In their private spheres this was nothing to be ashamed about. It was society that placed them on the stake.

“We don’t quite like the owner of this bookstore”, whispered the more vocal of the two. “We think his works speak lowly of us. Again, it’s the same deal. It exaggerates our problems and insecurities to get attention rather than seek truth.”

“What would the truth be then?” I realised I hadn’t read any of Irfan’s plays featuring homosexual characters.

“The truth would be known to everyone if we were treated as equals. And we think this starts in the manner we’re portrayed. From homosexual artists to how gays are portrayed in art, we need to focus on creating art that is beautiful, creating art that adds value rather than subtract, that is real rather than sensational.”

“So we should tell it like it is?”

“Yes, tell it like it is. I like that. And also, writers should get off their high horses, and stop feeling like we are poor souls that need their saving. It’s hardly the case. We are perfectly capable of finding our own happiness.”

They looked at each other affectionately, before purchasing a novel by William Faulkner. They left without saying goodbye.


 

The Curse of the Red Rock

Once upon a time there was a man wandering through a desert on his camel. The sun was high in the sky, and he was on his way to a neighbouring town to run some errands. He chanced upon a large red rock rising out of the ground. It was about as tall as he was and about three times wider as well. Yes, it must have been.

He had never seen this rock before on any of his previous journeys. It must have been recently uncovered, or at least placed there by someone. Or something.

He motioned for his camel to bring him closer, but the damn creature wouldn’t budge. He whipped him and shouted fierce commands, but he stayed still on his original course. This was unusual. His camel always listened to him.

Never mind, he’ll do this by himself. Anchoring the camel to a rock, the man dismounted and approached the red rock by himself.

He noticed that there were inscriptions on the rock, telling the man a tale of the rocks origins. There was once a queen who devoted her entire life to the king, only to find him cheating on a mistress. Enraged, she took a dagger to his heart one night as he slept, and dug it out and ate it. She was executed immediately, with the heart still ingested within her.

It is rumoured that as she went to hell, she spat out the kings heart, which was too vile to enter the gates. She wrote the tale of revenge on the sides, before casting it to Earth. It thus rose from the ground in the form of this red rock.

This must be a joke, thought the man. But of course it did make for an interesting story. He walked around the rock. It did look incredibly red, almost bright crimson. There was an ethereal quality about it, the way it shimmered too brightly in the sun and looked too dense. He was unsure whether this was an accurate judgment of matters, especially after reading such an absurd story.

He walked back to his camel, and took a chisel with him, chipping off a small portion of the rock. He placed it in his satchel, and rode the remainder of the way to town.

I swear I saw the rock, he would later tell his friends over drinks. I was there, and the camel didn’t even budge. It was as if the thing was cursed. 

His friends laughed. We have travelled the same route for thirty years and have not seen a thing. Don’t trust your eyes all the time. Dehydration gets to you and you start seeing things. You need to rest. 

He wanted to argue back, but decided that he would just drink a little more instead. He didn’t even bother showing them the chiselled portion, just wanted to forget he ever saw the damn thing.

Just as he was about to leave, the bartender grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him over to a quiet corner of the bar.

I’ve heard about your rock before. You’d want to have nothing to do with it. Many travellers have come and gone through my bar. The ones that talk about the rock; they never return. 

At this point the man was dead drunk, and so the bartender’s words hardly registered. His friends pulled him back to supposed safety, and they left together, singing rowdily into the Arabian night.

Nothing happened over the next three days, and the man began to feel better about himself and his encounter with the rock. His friends were right, perhaps. It was just an illusion. At night his wife approached him with something in her hand.

I found this in your pocket as I was doing the laundry.

The man looked at her palm, and on it sat a small chipped off portion of the red rock. His heart sank. Yes, he had seen the red rock after all! He took it unsteadily from her hand, and placed it in his drawer.

It’s nothing, he told his wife.

Then you better have a damn good explanation for keeping it, she replied.

I’ll do the laundry next week, was all he could manage. They kissed each other goodnight and blew out the candles.

On the next morning he woke up to an empty bed. His wife was nowhere to be found. He thought that perhaps she had gone off early to the market, but by three in the afternoon she had not returned home. By dinnertime he finally made a report to the authorities, who mounted a citywide search. Through the outskirts of town to every last drain cover they searched. But by last light they had found nothing. She was gone, just like that.

The man was distraught. Wait no, he was worst than distraught. He was unsettled. He grieved without closure. It was the worst kind of grief. He didn’t know what to make of his wife’s disappearance. He had been a good husband to her, and nothing ever came between them. He had no explanations to give the search teams, and as a token of appreciation could only serve them copious amounts of chai every time they came to deliver news.

Three days passed and he began to fear the worst. He was unable to sleep properly, and his appetite decreased tremendously. He lost an indecent amount of weight and began to pray before he went to bed, though he was never the religious type.

It was in the most desperate hour before the sun rose that he suddenly remembered an admonition issued by the bartender. The ones that talk about the rock, they never return. 

He went over to the bar before it opened for that night, and asked the bartender what he meant. I’m not sure if I should tell you, said the Bartender. One of my customers told me; that the red rock only shows itself to people who are truly in love. It acts as a curse, for those that see it will lose the one they love; and subsequently be driven mad themselves, living out their lives in misery. The customers who have seen the rock have all met a similar fate as you. They have lost their loved ones in one way or another. 

But I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, remarked the man.

Ah, see. That’s the strange thing. The bartender was now deep in thought. Yours is the first of its case. Your wife merely disappeared without a trace. I’m not saying she’s still alive, but the rock usually doesn’t leave any space for ambiguities. Either you’re not in love and don’t see the rock, or you see the rock and your loved one dies. Having your wife disappear puts her in a precarious limbo. 

A precarious limbo indeed. The man did not know what to expect, but the bartender was right. Day by day he could feel himself going crazy. He needed to do something, even if it meant he might lose everything. He rode his camel back again, to the site where he saw the red rock.

Sure enough, it sat in the sand, clear as day. He thought of his missing wife, and his heart ached. He unmounted his donkey and walked. The rock glistened a brighter red than ever, much brighter than he last remembered.

the inscription was different this time.

You have injured me, and I need my piece back. Give that to me, and I will give you back your wife. 

The man chuckled in disbelief. The rock was trying to communicate with him.

Worst of all, he was paying attention. This was all he had to go by. He really missed her, everything about her. This he knew. She was someone that he couldn’t afford to lose, not in this life, not in the lives that followed. Walking back to his camel with his eyes full of tears, he understood what he had to do.

He came back on the next day, small red rock in hand. He had spent the entire night deliberating on what to do, and his steps were tired and draggy. His stomach growled from his self-willed hunger as he presented the small red rock to the larger red rock as he neared. So it has come to this; me offering something to a rock. He placed the rock on the portion that was chipped off. It should have been resolved.

But then something strange happened. The inscriptions of the red rock began to change.

What are you doing? It read. This is not what I want. 

Then is this what you want? Thought the man.

From behind his back he produced a sledgehammer that he tucked into his pants, and began hammering at the rock. It was wild and purposeless swings at first, but the strikes became more accurate, more purposeful. A huge storm cloud began to envelop him and the rock, tossing dust and sand all over the place, into his eyes, his clothes. The wind was so strong that it even started to meddle with his posture. He soon found it difficult to stand, and having to strike the rock became all the harder. His hammer merely made contact with the rock, not ever causing a dent. The sand then started producing shapes in the air. He saw an image of his wife appear in front of him, beautiful in youth, then suddenly turning older. Her eyes sank into their sockets in a matter of seconds and her skin sagged in huge wrinkly flaps. She began to defacate uncontrollably as she squatted on the ground. The sand made him see all this. She looked like a mess. He stopped hammering, and stared at the apparition. The skin started falling off his wife, and she motioned to him, pointing an accusing finger. Soon all that was left was a skeleton, frail and trembling before that, too, crumbled to the ground, blown away by the prevailing wind.

It was at that moment that he felt an ineffable warmth well up within, overflowing with an intensity that matched the sound of the wind. Despite all that he saw, he still wanted her to be safe and by his side, he decided. I still love her he said to himself. But he didn’t need to say this to know. To love is to believe, to stop hope from turning cruel. He felt this hope as he gripped the hammer tightly, and with a newfound strength went at the rock, screaming and hacking away at it.

He realised later that the rock was testing him, and he had passed the test. But then he knew that this was never about him. In the distance he could hear the sound of his camel screaming, calling out to be released but still he kept swinging, feeling larger pieces of the rock chipping off.

The storm ended as quickly as it started. The rock was completely destroyed by then. It laid crumbled and broken, beaten silly into the ground. The man was covered in dust, and almost completely floored. He was gasping for breath, and longed for a sip of water. But he was alive. And a part of him knew that she was, too. His love had outlasted the rock.

He took the camel back, and noticed that the town, too, was ravaged by the sandstorm. Some of the flimsier roofs had collapsed and the outdoor market was forced to close down. But other than that, everyone was safe. His house looked to be in good shape, and as he got home he heard a voice.

I just came from the market and you wouldn’t believe the size of the sandstorm that hit us.

He went up to his wife and held her lightly in his arms, as if making sure he wouldn’t be hugging thin air if he squeezed any harder.

What’s with this? She asked, kissing him on the cheek. what happened to you? You seem so much…skinnier. I don’t remember you like this.

Nothing, I’m just… glad. Glad you didn’t get swept away by the sandstorm. 

She laughed at him. Don’t be silly, no one gets swept away by a sandstorm. Oh my, will you stop fussing?

The man wiped his eyes and held her tight this time. We just don’t want to take things for granted, do we? 

I guess not, said the wife. By the way I’ve been meaning to ask since morning; where did you go, and what’s with that bucket of red paint you left in the room? 

Nothing much, he replied. Just had some errands to run. 

He felt his pocket for the real red rock, the one he had chipped off on that fateful day. He held it out to look at it against the sunlight spilling in from the windows. It glowed brighter than ever, a stark reminder of the love that had overcome.

 

 

My Love is a Friday

When Anton died, Kevin felt nothing. Not for the first two hours. The announcement of his death was unceremonious. His boss handed him the receiver.

Something happened. Your brother.  

Kevin knew what had happened. It was too obvious, written all over his Boss’ face.

Nineteen years old and there he was, in a box that he had just barely managed to fill with the entirety of his frame.  His growth spurt came so late into his teens, it wasn’t so long ago that he was a child. But now Anton was gone, just like that.

Fuck, thought Kevin. But not because his brother was dead. No, it was far from that. He seemed to accept that Anton was dead the moment his boss walked towards him, cradling the receiver on that warm Friday afternoon. He was curious as to why he felt almost nothing. He stood at the elevator, waiting. Only his hand phone, car keys and wallet were by his side. He had left all his files behind.

He shuffled his feet impatiently. He looked at the ceiling light. Fluorescent lamps turn most of the heat it generates into light. It is and will always be an efficient alternative to the incandescent bulb. That he knew as a fact. You glean these little nuggets of information as you go along. You gather them and it propels you along. He may buy a house in the future, and very well tell the electrician to install more fluorescent lights to save on the energy use.

You learn a few things every day. Many things, if you’re lucky. The one thing Kevin learnt today was that his brother had died. But you may as well have told him that male seahorses give birth, or that one side of the moon will always be hidden from view. It made no difference. His brother’s death was mere information to him, as it would be on tomorrow’s news.

Not that Kevin wasn’t close to his brother, or that they had drifted hopelessly apart. They had grown up together under the same roof. Kevin was four years older, always the big bully. He would constantly berate Anton, calling him names and getting into pointless debates that would last longer than their worth. Kevin was a real dick. But of course, maturity cast a mellow cloak over their brotherly affairs, and they began to look out for each other in little ways. Kevin would buy occasional suppers back just for Anton, and they would talk about the topics that came with maturity. When Kevin booked out while he was still serving the army they would watch soccer and root for the same team. It was never just about soccer. He chuckled as he reminisced, shuttling down on the lift, tapping his feet. As with any brotherhood, a lot was left unsaid.

Perhaps for that, the emptiness remained.

Something had left his chest, and he felt nothing. Or rather, something had divided his heart into two factions; one that grieved, and one that knew it should be grieving but could not bring itself to. These two factions separated themselves ever so perfectly within his chest, and he was only acknowledging the latter. He knew that his family would be waiting for him at the morgue. He knew he would have to be strong, be strong for them. But not like this. He wanted to be strong, not unfeeling.

I want to feel something, he thought to himself. But then thoughts, for all they’re worth, are easily erased by inaction. He sat in his car and closed his eyes. Nothing. There was nothing in his heart that stirred him one bit. The stones on the sidewalk felt more for his brother than he did and he did not know why.

He remembered how his co-worker patted his back on the way out. She looked at him in earnest, telling him to take it slow, to let it seep in. He remembered the smell of her hair as she leaned in to hug him. Why should he remember that, of all things?

And what did she mean to let it seep in? If people complain all day about not having a grip on overwhelming emotion, then doesn’t he have the right to hate himself for being less than emotive about his brother’s death? Are the emotions of the moment a true representation of what someone means to us?

Kevin didn’t have the answers at all. He started the engine, engaged his GPS. There were five missed calls on his phone. Three were from his home phone, two others from his mother. His mother, who had to bury her son.

Life is unfair that way, he thought. He spent the last nineteen years watching his counterpart grow up and even when this was all crushed in one day, he felt nothing. Crushed between a lorry and a road divider.

Fucking unfair indeed. Why do feelings allocate themselves so unevenly that more feelings have to make up for this lack, plaster over the imperfections? For now Kevin felt guilt, and this guilt covered up the void like white paint over an imperfectly chipped under layer, pinching a small corner of his heart that would have otherwise been torn apart. He kept his eyes forward as he drove past Guillemard drive, down Canton Way.

It was as if the city forgot to smile that evening. Not that it was depressing to look at the city. In fact as the darkness descended upon the streets there was a brightness that permeated, that suddenly stood out. He didn’t remember the streetlights to be so spectacular, so … vibrant. Red, white, blue; the synthetic colours blended more and more into each other as the natural light faded from the sky. But he felt nothing for this as well. It was as if the city strove to be as far removed from reality as possible, distancing itself, almost completely, successfully from natures bid to get us to rest, to get us to forget about the turmoil of daylight. The city stretched the limits of human endeavour, allowing us to function outside darkness, letting greyish backlights illuminate the void. He suddenly felt violently nauseous.

Pulling over to the side, he opened the door and immediately got on all fours at a grass patch by the pavement. He choked on saliva, and then on air, gagging uncontrollably but nothing came out. His stomach, it seemed, was empty. It expanded and contracted, like a desperate hand grabbing for something, anything to make sense of. Kevin wiped some overflowing saliva from the side of his mouth with his shirtsleeve. Standing up carefully, he got back into the car. He took a deep breath as he leaned against the steering wheel. In his heart was nothing that could be considered as grief, only layers of guilt painted one brushstroke on top of the next. The guilt of being alone in this car when his family needed him the most, the guilt of not feeling a tinge of sadness for Anton, the guilt of pointless guilt when the world told you that there was more to feel, always more to feel. He started the car again and moved along.

What is wrong with me?

Onto the slip road to the expressway, he turned on the radio. Sticky Leaves was playing, and as far as he knew it was sung by a local artist. The tune melded in with the night, the city lights illuminating each note. He imagined a huge silk scarf being draped over the city. As his car moved along the lyrics guided him into an obscure corner of his heart which he dared not venture. It happened almost instinctively, and he found himself in a dark, unfeeling place.

My love is proud, my love is small. 

He turned off the radio immediately and squinted to keep focus. The silence drowned out her voice instantaneously. Why should he feel anything for a silly mistake? Who was Anton but a stupid boy too young to be exploring his limits the way he did?

And then there was a flash. It was faster than he could anticipate. A motorbike rushed past him, with such speed that you could imagine the air rushing past your side window. The biker weaved through, relentlessly beating cars before they had a chance to change lanes or notice. It happened so quickly.

It was then that Kevin did feel something. It gripped his chest lightly at first, and then all at once. He sped up slightly to keep in view of the biker, weaving mercilessly through traffic to catch up. Soon he was going at 130 on the expressway, but he was too caught up with the chase to slow down. He would have gone faster if he had to, he knew that for a fact. But he didn’t have to.

My love is a Friday.

The bike turned out at the Bukit Timah exit and he slowed down as well. Soon a traffic light emerged, and the biker propped himself at side of the road, resting his leg on the kerb.

Kevin pulled up beside the biker. The streetlights shone on his helmet, glistening brightly, proudly. The night was still around them, the street hugging a band of preserved jungle.

He wound down his window.

“Hey.”

The biker continued to look forward.

“Hey!”

Startled by the unexpected yell, he jolted to the side, facing Kevin. He pushed his visor up. He turned out to be a young Malay man, looking no older than him.

“I saw you just now.”

“So?” Returned the biker.

“That was much too fast.”

“Did I hit you?”

“No, you didn’t.”

The biker looked forward again. “Then what’s your problem? Just drive lah.”

“You don’t get it.”

The biker did not respond, pulling his visor down and looking straight ahead.

“Look at me. Fucking look at me.”

The biker turned towards him, visor still down. He was listening.

And then there he was. All of Kevin’s anger melted away, and then all at once he understood. In front of him was Anton, the young boy so eager to prove himself to this world, to show the world just what he was made of. All 19 years, 179 cm of him. And he was not dead after all, no. Not dead at all. Just foolish in life, but certainly not dead. Kevin choked, but barely managed to compose himself. He had never seen his brother this way before, and of all times it was now that he needed to speak.

People care about you, he wanted to say. People want you back safe. The missed calls, misty eyed parents on lonely Friday nights; you may not get it now, but it shouldn’t take you too long to understand. What youth cannot teach you, you’ll have to learn yourself. That’s what growing up is about. You’ll see eventually that there are things in this life more precious than cutting across lanes and feeling like the king of the world for it. No one gives a dying damn about that in this life. All we need to know is that you’re safe and living for something. So be there, alright?  Alive. I’ll meet you there and we’ll talk about soccer and maybe we’ll all realise that it wasn’t your body after all. That you’re fine. Promise me this, that you will be fine. Please.

But he didn’t say anything. The silence enveloped them, made a name for itself, before it became too much. We seem to feel more for the things left unsaid anyway. The light turned green. The biker pointed a hefty middle finger at Kevin, before speeding off.

Kevin stepped on the gas and his car slowly inched forward.

Only then did he begin to weep.


Special thanks to Singer/Songwriter Lin Ying for letting me use her Single Sticky Leaves to illuminate the path for this story! 

What’s in a Short Story?

This year I’ve written quite a few short stories. I’ve become more casual about it actually. Last year when I set about writing short stories they were mostly already well planned out, plotted out with some key characterisations and plot lines. I made sure these short stories were complex and concocted to suit the mood, exactly how I wanted it. I am perfectionistic when I want to be. But only when I want to be; it can be controlled. Is that still considered perfectionist? Some would argue, no.

But that argument is for a different occasion. My year of short story writing has been different from what it used to be. Upon submitting my sample short story piece for an overseas writing program application in January, I got the email that I was rejected. I felt empty at first, because after all, this was something that I took quite some effort getting underway, and had been excitedly discussing with the people around me. This was still early into the semester, when everything seemed possible. At least that was how I saw it until the rejection came along.

I realised that my writing was too planned out, as if it mattered that someone who read it had to be happy with the ending. I was very careful in the way things turned out, tried extremely hard to be politically correct, and in many ways still am rather politically correct in the way I write. I haven’t had any staunch arguments come my way yet over what I wrote. Perhaps it’s because my style of writing tends to ask more questions than give any answers or assertions. Try arguing against someone asking questions and you’ll find this excessively difficult. It’s like watering a plastic rose. It isn’t productive. I was the guy you read not to get angry or disgusted with or find immense joy and recognition in. Instead, I was the guy you sought neutrality from, a middle ground where certain thoughts could find some rest. (I’m being vague, but it’s part of the plan.)

So going down the line of asking questions and discussing possibilities rather than certainties, I took it upon myself to focus on how to write a better short story. I felt like the short story would be the best way to discuss matters closer to my heart without the burden of being overly explicit. I also had to juggle my disappointment of not making it for the writing program into account, whereas people who were much younger than me made it without a hitch. It’s easy to feel that you’re not good enough at such junctures. But I kept my head up and replied to the selection committee that I would experiment with various styles and be back next year with a stronger application. I thanked them for the rejection and said that it would be a vast impetus to improve. Look at me, so politically correct.

And so a new wave of short stories arrived at my metaphorical shores; and were written once every other week, published in an embarrassingly short time with minimal edits. Not exactly professional, but I had to get things going over such a busy semester. The process went something like this.

I learnt that a short story need not be complex at all. Well, it may end up complex, but it would almost always depend on a simple beginning. A singular beginning. The story needs an entry point. But the funny thing is, your entry point need not be at the start of your story.

I like to say that en entry point may not be a particular scene or action. It could be a certain emotion, a certain character or personality; even the lyrics of a song that just floated around the corner. These elements intertwine with such complexity that it isn’t something you can put solely at the start. It’s some intangible matter that has to find its way into the story. Whether this will be at the front will be up for you to decide. For example, I like to use setting as the inspiration for my short stories. It could easily be my favourite entry point, and one that sticks around for most of the story. I would even argue that setting brings about its own intangibility in the way it carries certain memories and meanings that you cannot separate from its physicality. Your choice of setting will be a burden you have to carry through the rest of your story. It isn’t as simple as finding a party venue. Whether it’s a laundry room or unopened bar, I’d let the context settle in my mind from anywhere between ten minutes to a few days, perhaps take a few pictures of it and just let ideas simmer. It helps that you know where your story occurs, and more importantly, come to terms with its significance.

That being said, it’s important to know some significance, but it is ill-advised to start a story with everything figured out. That was the number one flaw in the way I wrote, the tendency for me to keep things prim and proper because I had it all planned out. Nowadays, I start off my stories without a solid plot to follow. Instead I chase the idea, the intangible psychophysical stuff that hangs over the story. Most of the time it’s me answering the question: why did I choose this setting, of all places? In other instances it may be a question of how to draw out a certain emotion (for example, a man feeling suicidal) at a certain point in the story, or perhaps how to arrive at a specific scene (i.e. a man unceremoniously slitting his wrists). You build your stories to arrive somewhere. Think of the entry way as an airport while the itinerary of your trip being the spontaneous madness of starting without a solid plan. The airport(s) will hold your trip together, the boundless possibilities in between allow you to go crazy.

So the whole point here is, to let your ideas create a story, instead of letting your story create the ideas. Do the latter, and you will end up constructing rather than creating. You want to create rather than construct, because to construct gives off the notion of planned rigidity, and no short story can entrance a reader that way. To create offers infinite possibilities, a ludicrous journey that you decide to take by virtue of your foolhardiness. It keeps the readers wondering how the story would go, and the best part is, it keeps you wondering as well.

Ideas and entry points merely set the backbone for your story. When you think about it, the action/emotion/setting may not even be significant, but the implication of it must be. Why something is significant is difficult to teach. In fact, it has to be discovered as you write, and not many people have the patience to get to a point where things get significant. It sort of fizzles out at the start. This has happened on many occasions, and would explain why my draft section is slowly filling up. From the start to the spark of realisation, it’s really up to you to think up all these strange scenarios and put your creative mind into overdrive, and allow yourself to immerse in  different possibilities. Even the ones you don’t like. That’s not easy as well, to immerse yourself in unwelcome possibilities.

I help myself by staring into space a lot, or by observing people as they go about their lives. Watching empty chairs in indoor spaces has a way of inviting infinite possibilities, the chance of boundless interaction or perhaps just the opportunity to soak in emptiness. And that’s just of a room empty chairs, which could be paralleled to a forest of uncultivated palms which could be as compelling as the dashboard of a car on a lonely Friday night. It can make sense, if you allow it to. Don’t be afraid to be dramatic about these things. Don’t shy away from going too far when people tell you that your thoughts are unproductive or useless. Or that you should “stay with us”. Imagine worlds within words and words within these worlds and be unapologetic about what goes on in your head.

I think that would be my biggest advice, to others and even to myself. To just hold you own in your path to being creative. Be spontaneous and enjoy the pain of failure. And even when things look bleak, you need to have the courage to try again. Writing short stories has been a reminder of all of these things.

Maybe next year will see me with a stronger application and perhaps then I may get into this illusive writing program. Or maybe it won’t. Who knows? I’m certainly not one to accurately judge my progress. I just sit down now and then and write as I feel like, keeping myself busy with wild, erratic thoughts and the silliest of possibilities. I’m not the best person to plot this chart of growth. All I can hope for is that in the short story lies a world I can continue to play around, travel through and discover, and at the darkest hour of a quiet 2 am, find some space to truly be free.