In the Kitchen on a Rainy Day

The purplish-red onion sat in your palm.

Like my heart, you held it firmly.

As if afraid, it would roll onto the dusty

floor. Quietly, you reached

for a knife. The ceramic one we bought

together, a lifetime ago. You

said it would never blunt, stain, or rust.

Unlike us, lovers cast in iron, now

decayed. Blunt, stained, without trust.

The crunching sound, two halves.

One always bigger than the other.

Your fingers, peeling apart the skin,

so gentle, so familiar. A lifetime

of thickened walls, grown in muddy

fields. Torn away like scabs.

You chopped methodically, from left

to right. From right, to wrong. Pieces

of flesh scattering across the wooden

board. Bruises, an ugly, purplish-red.

The crushed remains, scraped

into a plastic bowl. The type that said

disposable, breakable, vulnerable.

You reached for another onion,

a white, unblemished one. Found

while wandering alone

in the supermarket. I left that day,

tears in my eyes-

for I stood too close, while you



How to make a Monster

Take an innocent
infant. Marinate
with neglect. Rub deep
into its skin. Ignore
the cries, shrieks, scream
for attention. Let it rest
in your cold embrace.
Watch it fade
from pink to ghastly
white. Shred viciously.
Bake the heart until
it shrivels. Sear
slightly. Boil with
abandon. Every part
pickled in a different
jar. Douse in your
alcohol of choice. Add
more to taste. Finally,
simmer in a pressure cooker.
You might ask
“How will I know when it’s done?”
When it starts to resemble

Lost in Space

Lost in Space

We are planets, orbiting
In perpetual silence, wrapped
By the vast space
Which separates us. We
Strive, forced onwards
By gravity, but always ending
Where we started.
Decades spent in a never-ending
Cycle. To give purpose to life,
Death, love and loss. We spin,
Seeking the sun, a fleeting
Glimpse, followed by darkness.
Again and again we circle,
Narrowly avoiding each other.
Yet sometimes, we break
From our orbit to Collide,
Turning Into dusty debris,
spiralling into the abyss
Together. An asteroid shower,
So surreal, carrying our
Hopes and dreams
To faraway lands.

The Rose in the Glass

The Rose in the Glass

In a garden by the sea,
Filled with orchids, lilies, daffodils.
There was an odd irregularity,
A twinkling dome, of glass and steel.

For there she bloomed,
Of beauty incarnate,
A life so fragile, a rose so sweet,
A crystal Palace for the last retreat.

Encased in her private sanctuary,
Thousands flocked for a fleeting glimpse.
But from afar outside her sparkling jail,
The thorns within were left unseen.

The heat of the people’s adoration,
Sweltering envy mixed with lustful greed.
The delicate rose burning in scarlet flames,
Oh so dazzling, wrapped in smokey chains.

The sun would set on the trampled garden,
Long shadows cast across broken leaves.
The sweet smell of the dead and dying,
A graveyard etched, in black ink.

The people would leave with baskets,
Filled with orchids, lilies, daffodils.
The whole garden picked clean of life,
Besides the rose in her deadly vice.

For though the people wanted her,
She was a dream, unattainable.
And like the rest, she would slowly wither,
Never picked, but encased forever.
In her safe, transparent womb,
Which would then become her tomb.


Black were my boots,
When we first met.
The pungent Kiwi,
You sniffed, curiously.

Black was the ink,
Marring sheafs of paper.
As you wondered,
I graduated.

Black were my nightmares,
As I wake, watching you
Twitch, Yelp, a ruckus din.
Tell me, what’s in your dream?

Black was the box,
They put you in.
Rigor Mortis,
Your loving heart, it ceased.

White is where I hope you’ve gone,
To meadows bright, and golden corn.
For light is all you’ve given us,
Kuro my boy,
goodbye at last.

Dream within a Dream

You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I whispered beneath the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep.
Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
Can I not save
One from the pitiless depth
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Circuit Breaker

First, it was the silence.
The humming of machinery,
The TV, air conditioner,
Grinding to a stop.
Then came the darkness,
Punctuated by light from
The windows. Long,
Dark lines cast
Across our faces. The window
Grilles now prison bars.
There was a salty tang
In the air. Tense drops of
Perspiration beading our foreheads.
I felt my mum
Grabbing my hand, her
Calluses like sandpaper
Polishing, always polishing.
We were frozen
In time, as though we too,
Needed power.
Papa perched precariously
Upon a plastic stool. Reaching
For the metal box
I have never noticed. Yellow
Stains on his white shirt. Flick,
And we moved again. Like
clockwork puppets.
White noise etching flickering
shadows, in the lines
on my mother’s face.
My dad flicked, And ashes
Crumbled from his cigarette.
I perched precariously upon
Pen, pencils, a pretty
paper prison. Wishing
For the darkness,
Where we were once close.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

A coin clinked into the plastic container wedged between his thighs. Grasshopper nodded his head in thanks vigorously as the man strode away, leaving a trail of dust behind. It stung his eyes but it was good because it made his eyes red and watery, and people tended to give more when they thought he was crying.

Business was good on some days. However it was a struggle to even collect 20 yuan on others. Foreigners were the best. They would take pictures of him, a young boy clad in scraps of discarded clothes, malnourished and deformed, sitting along the sides of the busy street. When business was bad, he would pose for the photos too, spreading his toothless mouth into a grimace and pulling off the blanket to show his absent feet. They would always pay for the photo with extra coins they had, sometimes even with a note or two.

It was way past midnight before the van came. He poured the coins into a pouch slung over his neck and used his hands to drag himself to the van across the cobbled street. The neon lights blurred as he lurched forward, his thighs rattling on the cobblestones. He had to be fast or the van would leave without him, another forgotten waif huddled under rags in a row of homeless bodies, like tombstones in a concrete cemetery.

He could still remember how life was like with legs. The moist grass beneath his feet as he ran in the yard, paddling in a pool while a halo of air held him afloat, curling his legs amidst the tangle of blankets on his bed. In dribs and drabs, the memories would come back to him, ephemeral scenes that dissolved as he tried to grab hold of them.

They hauled him into the van and took the pouch of coins. Rat face counted the coins and smiled in approval. Perhaps he would get extra gruel today. The new boy sitting opposite him was whimpering but he would stop crying soon. His arm still bled from the stitches and his left eye oozed pus every now and then. He would have told him that it was good for business, to have pus and blood but he doubted the boy would understand his grunts. New Boy was dressed in city clothes the day they brought him in. He had overheard Nurse saying something about him having too little blood. Perhaps that was why they only took one arm and an eye.

That night, he slept next to New Boy in the room they all shared. There were eleven heads in the room and around twice the number of limbs shared amongst them. Roach was the first to become completely limbless. Rat face had said that it was good for business but realized it took too much work to lug roach onto the streets and back so the rest could keep their remaining limbs.

As moonlight filtered through the jagged cracks in the splintering roof, it illuminated the heap of children huddled together, deformed limbs twitching and lips stretched into rare smiles as they fell asleep. It was the only time their minds could wander to better places, to the ethereal memories and sweet release that only dreams had the power to give. They clutched each other with their maimed bodies, the only familiar things in their world of undeserved desolation and cruelty. New Boy’s eyes rolled beneath his eyelids as he watched a firework display with his mum. Roach grunted as he picked his way through the meadow of untamed grass towards his farmhouse. Grasshopper had the widest smile on his face as he remembered a woman in white, singing in that beautiful voice of hers as she danced in the rain while he watched and clapped with his stubby hands, like an angel in a wide expanse of falling stars.

The next day, they took his other eye. It fell to Grasshopper to bring New Boy around the den, one lurching on two hands, and the other lurching around blind. The weeks passed and the bleeding stopped, but the whimpering did not. While the whimpers annoyed the others, Grasshopper enjoyed keeping company with New Boy as it made him feel important and useful again. Perhaps there was also satisfaction at being a tad more superior and senior than the other boy. The two boys slowly became inseparable and a brotherhood formed between the two boys who had lost everything they once had.

The day New Boy started speaking, everybody crowded around him to listen. He was one of the few who could still speak with proper words and as he was older than the others, he could still remember his life before they took his eyes. New Boy said his real name was Shao Lun and he was from Beijing. His brother was kidnapped when he was young and his father turned to alcohol and gambling. His father borrowed heavily from the loan sharks who harassed their family when he was unable to repay his debt. However, one day his dad treated the family to a nice restaurant and told them that he had managed to repay his debts by starting a business and even asked Shao Lun along on a business trip. The business meeting took place in a pub and his dad had gone into a room to speak with his business partners while he waited in the adjoining room. That was when some men had grabbed him and pulled him into a van parked outside. He said his father did not hear him shouting for help, as the music was too loud.

Grasshopper liked listening to the New Boy’s stories, as he had never known a life outside begging. He listened in rapture as he talked about the family he had, the streets in Beijing, the food he used to eat, the brother he lost when he was little. Sometimes, he would even sing for Grasshopper, the same song the woman in his dreams sang while dancing in the rain.

Grasshopper could still remember how he met Rat Face. He was with his mother when it happened. It was raining and his mum was singing to him for he was afraid of thunderstorms. They were in a city mall to pick out a present for his birthday. He could still remember the faint scent of his mum’s perfume as she crouched next to him, caressing his head and humming while the storm raged outside the mall. He could remember the jostling crowd as people rushed for cover within the cramped confines of the mall, the smell of their cloying sweat mingling with the musty stench of the rain. That was when a man bumped into his mother and Rat Face appeared to pull him away into a nearby stairwell. Something was stuffed over his mouth, burning him as he tried to call for help. The next thing he remembered was the darkness and pain as Nurse stood over him, gloved hands covered in blood. He had been strapped to a table, splinters digging into his arms. That was when he recognized the shoes on the bloody stumps next to him and he realized he could never walk again.

When Rat Face first started sending New Boy out to collect coins, Grasshopper was made to beg on the street opposite to keep an eye out for the blind boy. It was bad for business as the coin was split but he did not mind. There was once, when he had dropped his coins into a nearby ditch, New Boy had split his coins with him so that Rat Face did not whip him for not collecting enough. They both did not have food that night but at least he did not have to sleep on his stomach while his back wept red tears.

One night, before they slept, New Boy showed him a pile of coins he had kept in the rags that bound his elbow where they had removed his hand. He said that he was saving enough to escape. Everyday, he kept one more coin in his rags. He probably did not realize that he would not be able to hide away enough coins to buy a ticket to Beijing and moreover, how would he read the train signs when he was blind. He did not say anything though, as all he could do was grunt.

Business was good the day he saw his mum. It was a cloudy day, close to the New Year so the streets were crowded. Lights twinkled from every surface in hues of red, orange and yellow. Makeshift stores cluttered the streets, with storeowners screaming their wares at people squeezing past. Children crowded around whirling displays of toys while the adults sampled treats that shopkeepers promised was made from pure beef. It was amongst all the chaos and disorder that he saw her. Like a lone, white island surrounded by the fiery sea of red, she was standing at a stall, long hair fluttering in the wind, in the same dress she wore the day they got separated. She looked the same as she did seven years ago. He stared at her from across the road, his mind an uncomprehending mess, as he froze in shock while tears welled up in an unbidden surge of emotions.

He started crawling across the street to her, weaving between legs, which quickly got out of the way of the mutilated child crawling across the street. He lost sight of her for a moment and panicked, heart pounding, before seeing her again, at another stall selling umbrellas. He tried calling out, but all that came out was a gurgle as his toothless mouth tried to form the words. New Boy, he could still speak. He started lurching forward with more intensity, towards the blind boy sitting at the curb.

He tried to tell the blind boy that he had seen his mother but he did not understand his words. He just asked if the day had ended. She was slowly walking away, never once looking at the two boys on the street. In desperation, he tried throwing the coins he had at her, but it fell short. People were starting to take notice of the anxious boy without legs though, and the children were squealing in excitement at the unexpected wealth falling from the sky. In desperation, he ripped off the rags on New Boy’s hand, letting his saved coins spill out in a foul mixture of blood, pus and corroded metal. He grabbed a handful of coins and threw it in her direction as people started surrounding them, blocking out the sight of her.

That was when New Boy started punching him as he groaned and moaned with all his strength. It was Rat Face who pulled them apart and carried him back to the van as it started to rain. Blood mingled with his tears as he looked across the mass of heaving bodies to see his mum one last time, holding the hand of another little boy and staring at him, not a hint of recognition on her face. That was the last image he remembered, as he was strapped to the wooden table back at the Rat’s den. It was the image seared into his mind as Nurse poured burning liquid into his eyes. And he would always remember, hearing her over the rain as Rat Face carried him away, her sweet voice singing in that melody he remembered, Rain, Rain, go Away.

The Way of the Warrior

For Hideki Tojo, the worst part of the war was the climate. He could stand the ringing in his ears from the resounding sounds of explosions that reverberated around him constantly. He could stand the hunger that constantly gnawed at his stomach from the lack of rations. But the one thing he could not stand was the hot, humid weather that drenched him and his comrades in perspiration as they trudged through the damp swamps and muddy wetlands.

Like cattle, they were herded in large contingents down the spine of Malaya through the hottest and wettest time of the year. The rain would come down in droves of stinging needles, whipping both trees and soldiers alike, drenching the world in a dismal layer of sticky, smelly moisture. Seen from above, the soldiers in their green helmets made it look as though the forest itself was moving, flowing down the spine of Malaya, a deadly green flow preceded by bursts of orange flames. Ironically, the stains on the soldier’s Uniforms were not blood nor other war related grime you would expect, but instead marks from the brown dirt that lodged itself into every crevice of their uniforms and bodies.

Under the watchful eye of their commanders, the soldiers marched through the dense vegetation, resting twice a day to consume their meager rations before continuing their monotonous trek through the jungle. Hideki’s contingent was part of the battalion that made up the flank of the army and therefore only heard the sounds of battle from afar but none of them had actually sighted the enemy. All they saw were the decimated camps of the Kichiku Beiei (Bestial Americans and British) that they passed, some still unravaged by war but abandoned by the British soldiers fleeing from the oncoming tide of Japanese troops.

Back in Japan, Hideki had led an ordinary, mundane life. His family lived in a temporary shelter made of wood and paper in the Hiroshima precinct, for an earthquake had destroyed their previous home. He would go to school every morning, hang out with his friends after school at the movie theatres, which mostly screened patriotic Japanese films and then go home in the evenings for dinner with his parents. When he was enlisted into the Imperial Japanese Army, he failed his basic military course due to a leg injury and was given the rank of a private. When his battalion was called to arms, he had dutifully picked up his rifle and marched off to war, unsure of what to expect, in his shiny boots and crisp uniform prepared by his mother.

Overhead, another Japanese fighter flew by. At first, the soldiers would duck and find cover every time the screech of an airplane was heard. But now, all they did was continue to march, the sound of the airplanes just another hum in the air, mixing in with the other sounds of distant explosions. The Imperial Japanese Army had complete air control over the battlefield due to their infiltration of British Intelligence, which gave them access to all the enemy’s flight schedules. It was a massacre.

Hakko Ichiu, all the world under one roof. That was the mantra that was hammered into their hearts as they marched under their flags into foreign land. That was what kept them going, knowing that they would be doing good for the world, bringing all the barbaric lands together under the rule of the Emperor, bringing everyone under one roof, under one rule for the benefit of the world.

An explosion that sounded especially close shocked Hideki and his comrades out of their trance-like marching. The soldiers, sensing real danger for once, crouched low to the ground, loading and preparing their rifles and ammunition as another shell blasted a crater metres away from their front line. A shot was fired, another. Suddenly everyone was emptying their bullet cartridges, firing indiscriminately in front of them. All training flew out the window as adrenaline took over and self-preservation kicked in.

Afterwards, when the skirmish was over, the troops would continue their march across the broken Gurkha Contingent lines who had stayed behind to delay the Japanese troops for their British and Australian counterparts to retreat. All it took was 2 Japanese bombers to wipe out the resistance. Hideki was unsure if he had inflicted any damage on the enemy at all. He had a strange suspicion that his bullets had fell short of the enemy lines and it was the planes that had won the victory for them. In fact, the war was won the moment they had managed to achieve air superiority. The war was won even before it had begun.

The most important thing a General needs to understand before he leads his troops into battle is that his soldiers need to be given the right motivation to fight. That is why before every war, commanders would give his troops a rousing speech, imploring his soldiers to fight and die for their country, to die defending their homeland. That is why the Japanese won the war. While their soldiers fought with the mandate of Emperor Hirohito, truly believing that they were fighting to create a new and better world, the British and Americans were fighting to defend a land that they had colonized years ago, a land they saw as profitable but not worth their lives to defend.

Before Hideki embarked on The Sakura, the warship which would take them down to Singora, his contingent was put before a large projector screen that showed a speech made by General Akira Muto, the Chief Secretary of the Supreme War Council. On the flickering black and white screen, General Akiro was resplendent in his full Uniform, adorned with medals and badges, standing in front of the Japanese flag. The camera was tilted upward so it looked as though the General was talking down to them, the clear skies clearly visible behind his beret. In his speech, General Akira talked about the history of Japan and how Japan had flourished under the rule of Emperor Hirohito. He lamented the state of the world and charged the soldiers to bring the benevolence of Emperor Hirohito to the world, “so that everyone will experience the true greatness of his Imperial Majesty”. Bushido, the way of the warrior. Discipline, morality, honor in dying for one’s country.

When the Japanese troops marched into Singapore on 8 February 1942, the British were still reeling from shock. In two months, the Japanese had managed to breach the “Impregnable Fortress”, that was Singapore. The Japanese, a nation the British Newspapers portrayed as weak, barbaric and backward, had managed to achieve the impossible, conquering an entire nation with pure determination, discipline and ultimately, propaganda.

The battle was already over when Hideki’s Contingent reached the shores of Singapore. The British had surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army, which made Hideki and his comrades colonizers, or rather, freedom fighters, liberating the country from the tyrannical rule of the British.

The first thing Hideki noticed were the flames. They were everywhere, filling the air with thick, black smoke that enshrouded the entire city. Ash fell from the sky like burning snow. White flakes. Almost vulgar in its innocence. Coating the world below in a soft, powdery layer. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

The second thing he noticed, were the people. Covered in dirt, dressed in rags, people were rushing around the city, throwing water and sand onto the fires. Both the young children and elderly worked together to save their burning city. It reminded him of an ant’s nest that had just been destroyed. The people scurried around industriously, rounding up the wounded, dragging them to makeshift refugee compounds and medical tents. Commands were shouted in a myriad of languages that sounded foreign to his ears. With the kind of solidarity that comes when people have lost everything they owned, both the rich and poor, Malays and Chinese helped one another out of the wreckage that they once called home. What was particularly evident though, was the wide berth they gave to the Japanese soldiers as they trundled down the city road. Like a bubble in water, the mass of people diverged in front of the contingent and converged again after they had passed. It felt as though he was prying into another world in which he did not belong. He was an unwanted spectator. He was the violent perpetrator. He was unwelcome.

After the surrender, the Japanese soldiers rounded up the Eurasians. All of them were told to gather at the Padang, to be brought to Internment camps at Changi. It was the first time Hideki had managed to see the enemy up close. Kichiku Beiei. They didn’t look that bestial to him. On the contrary, they looked like a weak, sickly group of people with their pale skins and complicated outfits. They resembled cornered animals, huddling in the scorching sun.

As the Eurasians were marched away, the civilians who were gathered nearby started jeering. Would they also jeer at him when the Japanese were no longer in power? He prodded the Eurasians along the dusty road to Changi with the butt of his rifle. For some reason, he felt like a shepherd herding his flock of sheep to the slaughterhouse. Harmless, meek white sheep.

Everywhere he went, the Civilians would stop and bow to him the Japanese way, staying bent over till he was out of their sight. It was an unsettling change for him. In Japan, he was the one who did most of the bowing. Of course, his commanders had told them to expect the bows as the people were bowing not to him, but out of respect of the great and powerful nation of Japan. He was simply an extension of Emperor Hirohito and they were bowing in happiness and gratitude to his Majesty for saving them from the poverty and aimless lives they had led before. When a Civilian did not bow quickly enough, Hideki and his fellow soldiers would hit them as though they were disobedient children needing to be taught a lesson.


Lessen. Discipline.

Later on, the Chinese would call it Sook Ching. The Purge through Purification. Kideki watched closely as the Chinese men filed past the hooded figures seated on stools in the shade. Every now and then one of the hooded figures would nod their heads and Kideki would pull aside the Chinese man they had nodded at. The hooded figures were the Fifth Columnists, locals who helped the Japanese identify other locals who had anti-Japanese sentiments. At the end of the screening, about ten thousand Chinese men were sent to the beach at Punggol Point where they were given spades and asked to dig. Obediently, they dug, a long, deep trench that stretched along the beach.

Hideki watched as the men literally dug their own graves. He did not know that moments later, he and his comrades would be forced to stand in a line behind the Chinese men, guns loaded and pointing at their backs. He did not know that the command to fire would be given and the night would be filled with the sputter of rifles as the men thumped into the graves they had dug. He did not know why he did not fire a single shot that night, even as everyone else around him hurled insults at the defenseless men and gunned them down. He did not know why the Chinese men were silent as they fell into their graves.

He did not know.

They did not know. Morality.

5 Months into the Japanese occupation, Hideki was sent to the Kempeitai (Military Police) compound at Outram to assist in Interrogations. While the exterior of the building looked innocent enough, the screams and shouts of human voices could be heard the moment Hideki stepped into the compound. Makeshift manacles were nailed to the walls and prisoners were being interrogated in a series of sadistic ways to elicit confessions and information about other anti-Japanese movements. Hideki was sent to the lower basements of the compound where he helped to carry and dispose the mutilated bodies into a large pit located behind the compound.

When she was brought in for questioning, she was stripped and tied spread-eagled on the cold, cement floor. It shamed Hideki to see a woman treated in such a crude manner yet when he broached the subject with his Japanese comrades, they sniggered and told him that the locals were not seen as humans. The natives were simply animals, to be taught Japanese values so that they could better serve the empire like how bulls helped them to plough fields or dogs were used to guard houses. It was disconcerting how nonchalant his friends were about the entire situation. When Kideki returned to stare at the woman, now bloodied and bruised but still very naked, he was struck by how she glared back at him contemptuously, as though she was the jailor and he the captive.

When the raping started, he watched as his friends penetrated her in a pool of her own blood, cheered by the others. As though spurred by the cheers, the young soldiers inflicted as much violence on the helpless woman as they could, trying to elicit the loudest scream or moan from the animal they were playing with to impress his watching friends. Each involuntary scream, each escaped shriek brought forth more violence, with one of his friends even ripping off a bunch of her hair in a frenzy of thrusts and waving the hair around like a macabre trophy. There was nothing animalistic about the very human howls of pain and the hardening in his pants as he watched. When it was his turn, he did not know why he didn’t step away. Like his other friends, he stepped up to the bound girl and gently penetrated her. At least he wasn’t hurting her, he told himself, as he gently caressed her smooth legs and breasts. As though sensing his weakness, with a strength that was unbecoming of her petite figure, she kicked him in the face with her leg and spat at him. Her eyes were defiant, imploring as she screamed a garbled mix of insults. Her mocking eyes followed him, even as he doubled over from the pain. Not wanting to look weak in front of his friends, he quickly straightened his body and grabbed a knife from the table. Even as he slit her throat, he saw her lips pull upward in a smile, welcoming the quick and painless death. Even as he dug the knife into the soft tissue in her neck, he could almost hear her imperceptible whisper of thanks. Even as her blood gushed out, crimson like his own blood, he couldn’t help but think of Bushido.

Honour in dying.

Honour in death for country.

Where was the honour?

Years later, after the Japanese surrendered Singapore back to the British, Hideki would still remember her imploring gaze as her life coursed over his hands and spilled onto the floor. He would remember the light dimming from her eyes as he freed her from her shackles and dragged her out to the mass grave behind the compound to be buried with the rest of the mangled Chinese bodies. Years later, he would wonder why the first and only person he had killed in the war was a Chinese woman, unarmed and defenseless. He would wonder, but there would be no answers, only a faint memory of someone on a black and white screen telling him about Bushido, the way of the warrior. Discipline, morality, honor in dying for one’s country.

The Tattered Man

Everyday, he would be there. Tattered clothes clinging to his scrawny frame, perched on the curb, waiting for coins, any coins. He was always in the same spot, still and motionless, like another fixture on the road, an image in the background. An afterthought to an artist’s painting.

There was once, I tripped over him as I rushed past on my way to the office, briefcase in hand. I was struck by the lack of reaction from him even as my leg collided with his body and I fell unceremoniously in the middle of the street, amidst the throng of people scuttling up and down the boulevard. I mumbled a curse and brushed myself off, continuing on my way as though I had tripped over a stone on the road. I did not understand my apathy for the man I had just stumbled into. Perhaps in some warped mentality, I regarded him as another fixture on the road, not deserving of an apology, like an inconsequential pebble placed obstructively on the pavement to trip people up. Yet, my behavior rankled me throughout the day and I decided to give him some coins on my way home that evening. As I threw the coins into his lap, it felt strangely transactional, as though I was buying something from him. Perhaps I was purchasing my humanity. Funny how he had humanity on sale that day. Funny how humanity was only worth a few decrepit coins.

The next day, as I went pass him on my way to the office, I looked closer, trying to piece together the enigma that was the tattered man. For that was the term I coined for him, the tattered man. The first thing I noticed were his wounds, bare for the world to see, to pity him even more For the more pity he got, the more money he made too, I supposed. He had scores of lacerations all over his arms and legs, most of them still bleeding, as though he would tear out the scabs every now and then to ensure he would always have some fresh wound to display. The second thing I noticed was the smell. A putrid odour that seemed to permeate the air around him in a visible, sickly green haze. It reminded me of the overflowing garbage cans at my home. I threw him some loose change and hurried on to my office, frayed shoes slapping against the pavement.

There was once when it started to rain heavily as I was on my way to work, forcing me to head inside the nearest coffeehouse for shelter. I was curious as to what the tattered man would do, so I stood by the window to watch him. As the other beggars and vendors along the street grabbed their possessions and sought shelter, he remained where he was, soaking in the rain, hair plastered to his face in drabby clumps. His face was turned up to the heavens, and now and then, his lips would part as though to taste the warm rain that cascaded all over him. He did not mind the weather at all, even when lightning flashed across the sky. He was not alone on the street though, as people continued on with their lives, under all kinds of umbrellas, like colourful petals floating along the river. It was the first time I had actually noticed the rain in years, light sparkling off the tiny droplets that fell ceaselessly from the sky, the constant hum of the droplets exploding like fireworks off the tarmac and amidst it all, the tattered man with his upturned face, with perhaps the hint of a smile as he gazed at the heavens.

From that day onwards, I made it a point to always give him some coins whenever I visited the coffeehouse. I would drop some coins into his plastic cup and he would simply continue to stare at the ground with his downturned face. This went on for a week. Sometimes I wondered if he even knew that it was the same person giving him the coins. It became my obsession to try to elicit a response from him, any response at all.

At first, I tried talking to him; it was simple greetings, or asking him if he was hungry. I could have been talking to the roadside curb for all that mattered, at least that must have been how it looked to the other commuters who stared at me strangely as though I was mentally unhinged. It became a sort of game to me; sometimes I would try giving him food, placing it next to him. No response. There was once I even nudged him with the toe of my shoe. Also to no avail. I contemplated pushing his head up to look me in my face, to acknowledge my presence, but that would have been utterly impolite. So I continued with my small gestures, day after day.

As the days went by, I realized that the only time I had ever seen him look up, was the day it had rained heavily. So I waited for the rain to come. But as though the heavens knew I was waiting for it to rain, the weather stayed clear and sunny week after week-it must have been the sunniest month I had ever experienced in my whole life. In my desperation for rain, I even started praying fervently for dark clouds and stormy weather. It struck me how ironic it was that the tattered man, in his silence and poverty, could prompt me to start praying when I had been refusing to go to church for the past 10 years of my life to the constant nagging and disappointment of my wife.

At last it rained. It was a day like any other in the office. The same old dreary papers and people, the same shirt and tie I wore the day before, and the week before, and the month before. But this morning, I had given the tattered man something different; I had given him a donut. It was bought from one of those expensive patisserie stores in the mall and it came in a nice box stamped with the store name on it. It was a fancy thing, coated in chocolate with a sprinkling of hazelnuts. I myself had never tried such a luxury before. I imagined the look of surprise that must have been on his face when I placed the box in his lap, for it must have been the first nice thing someone had given to him. I thought his curiosity would make him look up, but he did not. I might have dropped a gold bar in his lap and he would have still remained motionless, ”

It was one of the biggest rainstorms I had ever seen. The office windows would rattle along with the booming of the thunder every now and then and the rain lashed out at the world below like a slaver’s whip. It even whipped the tree outside my office window till it was bent over, uncomfortably similar to how I was always bowing in apology to my boss. There was still an hour more to go before I could leave the workplace but I knew I had to gaze upon the tattered man’s face that day. I could not bear another interminable month of waiting.

I stood up, picked up my bag and walked out of the office. I held my head up high as I walked pass the open door of my boss’s office, past the rows of cubicles that were crammed together, clutching my bag in my left hand and my umbrella in my right. I felt like a knight about to slay a dragon and rescue his village. Except, the dragon was the rain and the tattered man was the one I was about to rescue. I imagined all my co-workers looking up at me, admiration in their eyes for my courage in walking out of the office early. Most of them probably did not notice me leaving at all though. For as I walked out with my upturned face, it was the first time I noticed that everyone else had their faces turned down towards their desks, motionless at their cubicles. I reckoned that even if I were to drop a gold bar into their laps, they would still remain motionless, like rows and rows of pretty gargoyles standing guard in a drab cemetery.

I pushed my way out of the office building into the river of colorful umbrellas and followed the flow of people towards the coffee joint and where I knew I would find the tattered man. The wind was picking up and I could feel the rain soaking into my white shirt, into my brown pants, filling up my black shoes. I picked up my pace, as a sense of urgency suddenly gripped me. What if the rain stopped before I got to him? I splashed through the puddles of water. People were suddenly disappearing into buildings while the wind picked up and the rain, impossible as it may be came down stronger and harder with a vengeance. It felt like the wind was trying to push me away from the coffee joint, as though it wanted to blow me right back to my office building, into my work cubicle. I lost grip of my briefcase as I slipped in a puddle and I watched as it was blown away by the wind, smashing into a lamppost, white paper fluttering away into the distance. It looked like doves being released from its cage.

At last I saw him, a distant figure huddled in the shadow, the only living thing left on the deserted street, in the lifeless city I called my home. I made my way to him, step by step as the wind pulled at me, howling in my ears to turn back. But I was ready to face the music of the wind, as I had been doing so all my life, ignoring the howls and screeching of my wife and mother. I placed one foot in front of the other, again and again, bracing myself against the full fury of the elements till my leg was stopped short and I was looking down at his face.

For the first time, our eyes met. I was struck by how ordinary he looked, brown eyes nestled in his pale white face, his black hair blown about by the wind. For a moment, we were in a circle of tranquility amidst the thundering storm, sheltered by my umbrella. Then the wind broke our reverie and my umbrella was blown away and we were two figures in the shadow, indistinguishable from each other.

As the rain washed down on his upturned face, his lips cracked open into a smile and I saw, with full certainty, a tiny bit of brown donut – a hint of black chocolate still coating it, stuck between his white, white teeth. That was when I looked up at the heavens and started laughing.