Oreo

Oreo recently underwent a severe tick infection and  woke up one day as a giant tick.

It all started from a few ticks here and there, peppered across his body. He probably caught it from rolling around in grass patches during the evening walks. We should have been more careful and kept to the pavements. Then from there they overtook, fought their way through antiseptic barriers, prying fingernails and extensive grooming. The ticks won, and infested my house with the efficacy of a virus, the frightening imposition of an unreasonable law. My dog suffered, and so did we.

But one morning, all the ticks were gone, every last one. We made sure to check the entire house after our ordeal was over, and sure enough, every last morsel had mysteriously vanished. Except Oreo stood now, crouched over the kitchen sink, a gigantic tick. He was four feet long and as thick as a puffy boaster before your head sinks in.

No one was about to sink anything into the monstrosity. My parents cordoned off the kitchen area, holding their ground. My father told me to stand back from the door as he regarded the thing with fear. “He may stick its stinger thing through the door and suck your blood dry,” he warned. But he’s our dog! I insisted. No one was listening, much less convinced. My mother quickly dialled pest control.

I walked to the window and observed him. The tick had a brownish back that tapered to black towards his head, a few hairs poking out between his eyes. You didn’t notice these things when seen in miniature form, but this was as good as a microscopic view of the damn pest. It was revolting. The stinger probed out, waving about like a wizard wielding his wand in search for an object to cast a spell on. I looked on in horror infused fascination. I was still convinced it was my dog. It had to be.

“Pest control won’t believe us!” Shouted my mother, phone dangling from trembling hands. We were in a state of positive panic. “Why did you tell them the whole truth?” Blared father. My mother placed the phone on the receiver and took a deep breath. “They can’t catch that thing with a butterfly net.”

And she was right. Perhaps a bear trap would have to do, but to think of the juices that would explode and dirty the entire kitchen if it had to come down to using a bear trap. It needn’t come to that, I decided. I had to do something before my parents resorted to the unthinkable. They hadn’t mentioned killing him, but I was afraid the current sentiment would lead to that inevitable conclusion.

I opened the door. My mother ran forward but father held her back. A parent shouldn’t have to watch their kid die, but I was confident they wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I stepped in and closed the door behind me. The kitchen lights were turned off and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. It wasn’t so easy to make out his entire form from the brightness outside.

Beady black eyes followed me as I pranced around the perimeter of the kitchen. He stood on the sink. I was not sure at all about anything he would do, but I was confident it would be anything but to hurt me. I took a can of biscuits from the top shelf. His gaze never left me, and a slight pivot could be discerned as his six legs adjusted to balance on the edges of the sink. It became a game of who could read whom first.

I took out a cream cracker from the biscuit tin and presented it to him. His antennae began to move about wildly, then uncontrollably, almost like ruffled leaves in the autumn breeze. But really, it was more like a dog wagging its tail. It was he. “Oreo,” I called out. He looked up at me. I threw the cracker on the floor in front of the sink and he jumped off like a loaded spring and devoured it. My mother let out a scream outside and disappeared from view behind the glass door. My father watched on, pale faced, holding on to the doorknob, about to burst in on the first sign of trouble. I was doing well. I had to do more to prove he was our dog, and not a hungry tick after our blood.

I reached my hand forward, very daringly and with a heart of faith. Nothing was going to happen. I could pet his brown scaly forehead like I always used to. The texture would be different, the being entirely the same. He made soft squeaky sounds, his demented proboscis of certain death waved about manically, attempting to feel at any flesh that came nearby. But he liked me! I was his owner and he my dog. He wouldn’t use his member against me, would he? It was hard to tell but I reached out, one inch preceding the next before I was a subway 6-inch away.

The door burst open and my father charged in with a hammer raised up high, I could glance from the peripheries, something dark and unnecessary being raised in some sort of aggressive stance, a warrior with his mallet. A huge swing came thundering down with the swiftness of finality. Bang. The floor was struck. Oreo clambered over me before I could react, jumping on my chest but never intending to attack me. One of his six legs clinched onto my shoulder and he propelled himself over me, artfully dodging the hammer, scuttling between my father’s legs like a football. My father fell forward in shock, tumbling over me. The door was ajar, and so Oreo did the sensible thing and scuttled out. Mother was laid out on the floor, struck unconscious by the morning’s interesting turn of events. He sniffed her face before deciding that licking her with the proboscis of doom would do no one any favours. He moved on to the front door, and my mother was none the wiser to his advances. I was relieved.

Father got up in an instant and made a run for the animal. He was in full fight. He’s not going to hurt us, I wanted to say. I should have said. It was hard to get through to a man hardened in life, seeing fingernail size ticks in his fifty-odd years then suddenly encountering a larger, much cuter cousin. Did it even occur to him that maybe, just maybe, this creature was just my dog in a ticks form? Of course not, I thought. We live in a world where form is everything. He would as soon believe Hitler to love the Jews.

I followed closely behind, and saw for myself the true horror of Oreo’s newfound abilities. His proboscis punched hole after hole through the wooden front door, tearing the base of it apart before our eyes like a raging elephant impaling his trainer. Splinters flew, along with my satisfied imagination. My father stepped back, and so did I. It was a work of art. Not the door, mind you. Art is the fact that it was the door, and not us, that was going though this severe treatment. Art is the beauty of a situation despite its potential for ugliness.

He punched a hole big enough for himself and felt about the edges with his feelers. He looked back at us one last time, beady black eyes shimmering. So long old friend, I muttered under my breath.

My Dad and I watched as he scuttled out into the streets. Strangely, there were no screams. Not yet.

“Was he wearing a collar?” I asked.

My father did not reply.

This is Home, Surely

It was a few minutes after five that she started thinking about how it all went wrong for her.

She sat alone on a stiff couch as the evening light penetrated the makeshift living room. It was a couch meant only for one person, and there she sat, stock still as the images of celebration flashed on the television before her.

The one room flat she lived in was old and in a state of eager decay, the paint flaking off the walls and seemed to writhe like fresh earthworms when viewed from certain angles. Things she used to own were packed in stacks as high as five feet; old rice cookers that have gone beyond repair, newspapers from a time long gone, old shoes and clothes that her only son used to own. She could not let go of these little reminders; it was all she owned from her past life.

A basic trip to the toilet would mean she had to weave between the towering stacks. She would pass by the portrait of her late husband, tucked in a lonely corner between the rusty fridge and the light controls to the kitchen. Her husband was a tall and handsome man when they first met, and in her eyes, still the tall and handsome man on the day that he died. They were by each other through it all, knowing not what was ahead. They had met in 1969, on a sweltering afternoon in June. It was a student rally and they were from brother sister schools. She smiled as she recalled the exact sequence of events. Her memory felt like the only thing she truly owned. The nation was still young at that time, not much older than their love for each other, and much less certain of what was to come, an entire country tried to pull itself together for its one shot at showing the world what it could do.

On the television, the parade had started. Troupe after troupe of dancers and performers streamed onto the grounds, while a sea of red surrounded the entire procession. The Singapore flag was scattered about like insignificant birdfeed, and in the hands of the audience were a thousand more flags being waved frantically by parents, children, white collar workers, troubled youth and the lonely elderly. Within that sea of red, every last negative emotion was readily extinguished and replaced by unquestioning elation. At least, that was how she saw it. Age does turn one cynical.

She shifted in her seat to relieve her stiff back, leaning her left elbow more firmly on the armrest. From the little box that was her television, soldiers started to spill onto the parade ground; they marched with crisp precision and had hardened faces, faces that looked almost identical under stiff headdresses. It reminded her of the day her son enlisted. He had to spend three months on a lonely island off the east coast of Singapore, and in many ways, it was the loneliest three months she had to face. Uncertain of how things would turn out, nothing her husband whispered into her soft ears could replace her fears, could never convince her that her son wasn’t about to be changed for the worst.

After the President had inspected the contingent, the soldiers proceeded to march off. There was a pompous display of military strength, but was there a single reason to believe that the soldiers appreciated this the same way the nation did? She suddenly thought about the early years of her marriage, being relocated out of her simple Kampong, living in a small HDB estate in Toa Payoh. There was nothing to look forward to, yet everything. The future seemed like a wad of PlayDoh; it was entirely up to them to mould it with patience and creativity. Such was the promise of a young nation.

But the initial promises were merely the veneer for the underlying struggles the nation was still attempting to overcome. If the nation looked to be struggling, you could bet the people had it harder. In the span of a few years she worked manual jobs ranging from a worker in soft drink factory to a clerk in a clothes-manufacturing warehouse. Sometimes the shifts stretched on for twelve hours at a time. All this time her husband attempted to start a coffee business, one that failed bitterly by the eighties. She would come home to a man clutching a bottle of Tiger beer in one hand and his face on the other. It hurt her in ways she could never (and perhaps should never) put in words. His failings crippled him with guilt, and it was never resolved until later in his life. Those years which they should have spent in happiness were thus lost in a cloud of forced kisses, turned backs and tense nights.

The sunlight withdrew from the living room, shrouding her in dim twilight. The sky over the parade darkened in equal correspondence, and the melody of home played on screen, the local singer belting out the high notes with utter conviction, the crowd echoing her efforts and the sounds of independence resonating beyond the parade grounds. Everybody in the crowd seemed to have his or her place all of a sudden. The cameras panned to individual faces, mouths wide open, lost in the tune of the song, lost in the idea of a common identity.

Where do I stand in all this? Shoved to this obscure corner of the nation, stuck in the most basic of housing estates I cannot help but feel so, so lonely. Not a single person has visited me since my son left all those months ago. My husband is gone. Not a soul has bothered to ring my doorbell, nobody to ask me how my day went. All these people on the screen cheering in unison, warm families huddling together at home in their little private space, light from the television spilling gently onto their contented faces. What about me? On this day that I should be with the ones I love, I have made the most harrowing realization. There is no one. There is no one to love.

 

The doorbell rang. The deep chime cut through static silence.

She was startled, so startled she almost slipped out of her skin. Someone has bothered to ring my doorbell.

 

Trembling, she hauled herself up, and dragged her heavy feet along, inching closer to the door. She reaches the door after considerable effort.

“Who is outside?” She asked.

“It’s me. I’m home.” It was her husband’s voice. She could recognize it from a mile away, and there was no mistaking it. In the deep recesses of her soul, she felt something shrivel up.

“You have finally come home,” she replied. Her voice was trembling uncontrollably, and she found herself hardly able to stand. Still, she did not open the door. It was her husbands’ voice, but she knew her husband might not be on the other side. Didn’t she just see him die a few months ago? Put to the test, could the human heart really conjure up what it yearned most dear?

“Yes I have,” replied the voice. “How have you been doing?”

“Lonely. Everyday has been a struggle. I am old, and with each passing day I cannot help but feel like I need you here more and more. Is your stepping through this door too much to ask?”

There was a brief pause, before the voice spoke again. “I really want to see you. Just open the door, mom.”

Before she could understand the implications of that statement, she had already unlocked the brass handle and opened the wooden door.

A man in his forties stood outside. He was wearing a polo shirt and bermudas, his hair styled in ridiculous pomp. In his hand he held a small cake, and there were seven lighted candles sticking out of it.

It was her son.

She felt a harried mixture of embarrassment and intense warmth spill down her chest. It had been her son’s voice all along. She stepped forward into his embrace, the son managing expectations by balancing the cake carefully.

“I thought you were in America? What about your job?” She inquired after stepping back. They had not met since the funeral.

“Happy birthday mom,” was all he said in reply. There was a soft glow in his eyes and the warmth of the candlelight. She gripped the doorknob so hard her knuckles turned white.

He continued, “don’t ask me why, but I had to be back for this, the thought of you spending your birthday alone was just… I just couldn’t let that happen at any rate. Sorry I am late; it was quite a rush from the airport. It must have felt terrible just sitting in there alone. But hey, I’m here.”

The son stepped into the house, and supported his mother by the shoulders. She put her hand around his waist, and both were stuck in a ridiculous waltz as they pranced towards the couch. She felt the tension in her chest ease off with every step he took, holding her tightly, the image of her husband still faint on the walls of her mind.

Mother and son sat around the cake, both faces glowing in the candlelight. The entire room was dark. It was just the two of them with the dim glow, and by all accounts, that was enough.

Her son realised that if the door opened any earlier, the depth of his mother’s longing may have never been revealed to him. It made him feel at peace with his choice of coming back.

He sang a birthday song for her as the fireworks illuminated the Singapore skyline. The feeling of warmth permeated. “Thank you for this, thank you for coming back here on my birthday” was all she could say at the end of it. The fireworks continued to illuminate the city, glows of red, orange and green punched through the sky.

“This is home, mom. Don’t you ever think I would forget that.”

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Finding Your Roots in a Foreign Land

I have never lived overseas before. Not independently at least. I have gone for a while but that was with my parents. Surely that wouldn’t count.

So, why would I, of all people, write about this topic? I’ve been backpacking through Europe with a friend for almost a month now. This sort of travelling is fast paced and almost hectic. There’s a lot to learn on the way, a lot to experience and a lot to understand about the different places and cultures. It is a time to get lost.

So get lost I did. For twenty odd days, we walked around old towns, castles, parks, museums. Finding our elusive selves within all that history and beauty that is Europe. We got so lost one day we only caught our cross-border train by a 20-second margin.

Then one day, an encounter with a random stranger pulled me straight back to Earth.

This happened in the most unlikeliest of places, in the huge KaDaWe Department stall in Berlin, Germany (the branded goods here are really cheap by the way). We were walking around the top level, where all the food was sold and were hunting for chocolates when we walked past this Asian food stall. A middle-aged Chinese man was behind the counter and at first he just looked at us. He looked to be in his forties, with a bald patch and generous smile. I smiled back at him, because, you know, both of us were the same race in a foreign country.

Later as we were about to walk down the escalator, he got our attention by waving at us to come over. I was surprised and a little suspicious at first, but we walked up to his store anyway. He looked at us in earnest and asked in fluent Mandarin, “are you both from China?” We chuckled and answered that we were in fact from Singapore. He looked pleasantly surprised and the amazingly high numbers that surround our weather took up the first part of the conversation. He smiled the whole way.

I was never a fluent at Mandarin, so I could only answer him in the most basic ways, and the conversation couldn’t carry very far. All I found out was, that he was from ShangHai, and loved the weather in Germany. I never did appreciate Mandarin back home. I dreaded it, and always failed my mother tongue. But then, speaking Mandarin with this man suddenly felt like the most natural thing to do. It was certainly better than repeating your english slowly and trying to mix in some German words.

It just felt right after a while, like the perfect Chinese Oral Exam.

He suddenly paused as two customers walked over. They were probably German, so he told us in Mandarin that he had to serve them first. He told us to feel free to stay, that he would cook something up just for us. Our eyes opened wide and I paused before replying, because after all, this was an expensive shopping district. He was offering us food despite the expensive rental, despite just meeting us five minutes ago and enduring our poor Mandarin.

We declined the offer because it just wouldn’t feel right to take this opportunity to have a free dinner. But this was the single most heartwarming and interesting incident of our trip. The image of the lone Chinese man cooking up Asian food in a fully western department stall is almost symbolic of his culture shock and the struggle for identity. How did most of his customers view the food he cooked? Would they feel for this culture the same way that he does? That, at the end of the day, is what i believe led him to offer us some food. He knew we would appreciate it in a way only the three of us could truly understand.

I see a lot of my friends going overseas for their studies or flying off for exchange. They show their eagerness beforehand, and upon touchdown they share a lot of photos and seem to have the time of their lives.

But after that phase is over, a lot of them start to miss home. There are the birthday dedications, the “sorry I couldn’t be there” posts, throwbacks to a time long gone and countdowns to the next time they’ll land in Singapore again.

In our eager bid to get lost and quench our wanderlust, we often forget that there is a place thousands of miles away that already has everything we need. It is the place you think about at 2 am on a sleepless night, scrolling through past photos, past messages and farewell letters. And then you end up smiling to yourself. It is the place that made you who you are today. It is about the people, the places and the past experiences. It is a place you’ll never forget even if you tried.

This is about a place called home. 

(I believe the Chinese man in his Chef’s apron would understand this so well if only he could read this. If only he could.)