Unread

Our story is
Just everyone else’s
We start slow like a pinball circling
The edges of the abyss, before
Plunging headlong into the
Deep

Our story is
Not just anyone else’s
Written and rewritten
Encounters in unbound
Manuscripts lying unkempt
In the untended shelves of
Memory. Like lines leaning
Against each other, we were
Unparalleled.

We wrote for
No one but our eyes
Our last chapter is spilt
Ink gently tracing the outline
Of an embrace hand-drawn
Vodka-stained and trembling
At an unseen corner of a
Sunday night

Our story is
None of the
Tired tragedies
We read in a language
Not our own, but pages of
Forbidding conjectures now
Torn away to leave
Nothing but an

Epilogue of
Stolen glances and silent
Knowing looks
In between the covers
Of our books.

To Everything There Is A Season

“Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
J. R. R. TolkienThe Return of the King (1955)

Time is either a gentle breeze, or a sandstorm sweeping the Arabian coasts. If the former, it soothes the melancholy soul with a whisper; if the latter, it is blinding and abrasive, tearing into the skin like a serrated claw dripping with the vengeance of the endless hour. Time is a forgetting. Our chores and worries wash over and smooth those burning footprints at noontime, and suddenly it is evening; the toll of the day’s burden weighs heavily on us, and we sleep to wake and sway to Earth’s diurnal rhythm once again.

Two weeks have passed since his passing. He died twice—once on a bed embraced by a tangle of plastic tubes with a flatline for a eulogy, the next when he was wheeled into the fire to the tune of cacophanous wailing. Death pervades all realms of signification.

I was there when he left the second time.

As the climactic closure and public acknowledgement of a life lived and expired, the final send-off at the viewing gallery of Mount Vernon crematorium is a theatrical experience that is at once surreal and sobering. As family and friends file onto the tiered platforms, the scene is disconcertingly reminiscent of an amphitheatre silent with anticipation. The cue is the forlorn appearance of the coffin below draped in white lilies, slow but sure in its fatal course. Then a sudden outpouring of grief ensues. Behind the veil of glass, a paroxysmal clamour erupts as the scene momentarily transforms into a grand spectacle of mourning—one that seems almost as contrived in its orchestration as it is heart-wrenching in its desperate pathos.

I remember clasping instinctively onto the wooden rail in front of me, as if for metaphysical support, with a strange detachment even as I was for many reasons emotionally invested in the scene. To be sure, it was a moment of lasts—last farewells, last professions of love and promises of waiting, last apologies muted behind the unmoving glass, last glimpses of the mortal vessel we call the body. Nonetheless, even in my blinding sorrow I did realise: this procession is undoubtedly a symbolic performance of our mortal condition. The glass of the gallery itself metamorphoses into an existential barrier between the living and the irrevocably dead—and our powerlessness over the decrees of Nature seems palpable in every way. It is a moment of human defeat—one we cannot bear to concede willingly but will need to, eventually, because it would be folly to stand vigil by the husk of the one we love, indefinitely (love them as we may). Our time is a life punctuated with many such losses and partings—and seated deep within our anguished reluctance to let go is the knowledge that we must.

And Time is a remembering that our own grains of sand will one day fill our graves. While the narratives of the dead are spent, ours continue to be written. That is why, in spite of our fierce grieving, we enlist the services of those who wheel the dead into the place of ashes; they play the part of fate and necessity, to do what we alone cannot.

Brief Candle

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare, Macbeth (5.5.19-28)

I was fearful of what I might see. How much has Death already taken away from a man struggling to breathe, not to drown under the weight of his own mangled body? Pallid green curtains, like a shroud of shadow, enclosed the beds—encapsuled—each leaving its resident to fade away in quiet privacy; or else to shield the wet eyes of those to be left behind, weary with grief, from the visible inevitability of what is to come.

We stepped into the ward. There was a silent pall hanging about in the still sanitised air. The short path to the bed at the end was lined with a scattering of mourners—here a pair, arms about one another in shared pathos; there a solitary boy, face hung with blank resignation; then there were the unmistakable sounds of sniffling and blowing noses like the early drops of rain before the monsoon.

As the hospital drapes were drawn, an unfamiliar visage faded into view—more unfamiliar, and distant than I had imagined. He was a crumpled canvas, almost bleached white; his cheeks were hollowed out like a palette that had run out of paint. The easel that once stood propping up vital colours of boyish mischief and paternal severity lay now in shambles. How vividly he had appeared in my memory as I left him some ten years ago, when our cars left each other at the Tuas causeway after our routine family trip (the last of many) to Genting Highlands. I still remember that face—full, glowing, my father’s friend. I recall navigating the theme parks with his boys, my childhood partners-in-crime—all of us blazing with unspoilt youth, all of us candles dancing in the dark.

Now I see them standing around me, heads once dizzy with childish delight, now hung with indescribable sorry. We have all grown up, some taller than we remember. All of us look tired, like the years have chipped at our gleaming mantles and left the frays drifting in the wind. How I wish I could reach out to embrace each of them with the same yesteryear innocence and careless glee. All of it has passed, irretrievably.

I look at his face, spaces once filled with hearty laughter. I do not recognise him. Those gentle eyes are now bereft of joy, only agape in shock like one trying in vain to escape the onslaught of an oncoming catastrophe—a speeding train, or the sudden collapse of civilisations. He stares as each of us draw closer in turn, his sobbing wife whispering our names as though they were her best kept secret. I know she wishes we had met one more time before, under lighter circumstances; now she sees us for the first time in years, all past our childhood prime—like her own children. Oh, how the years have worn us out.

Standing bent over what is left of her husband, she seems not to have aged at all. Her trembling fingers sweep his fringe to the side, and turning, she flings wide her arms with bitter reunion. We embrace her, the three of us—like her own children. And she sobs into us; we are all helpless. The scene melts into a torrent of tragic nostalgia. I feel his skeletal fingers as they twitch in my own, and I know it wouldn’t be long. He nods weakly, like a leaf of a book flipping in the breeze. What could I say? How much I wished I had seen him when I still remembered him as he was? Now the rest of him floats in frozen images in the darkroom of Memory—undeveloped spools of less trying times up in the cloudy mists of the Malaysian highlands.

“Rest now, close your eyes,” she says, maternally, in an assuring but broken voice. And he momentarily shuts them, but opens them soon enough, mouthing in weak whispers something else back. Here, there are no more formalities; the hiddenness of private souls are laid bare. Here, in a room at Gleneagles Hospital, on a Sunday afternoon, there is only a naked, desperate, helpless humanness—among us all, between us, we know.

I know he is going.

The Spaces in Memory

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

I’ve been seeing you in the places I least expect—in the sand-swirl of gravel roads less travelled by, along the corridors of nondescript buildings we never visited, in a sky that is no longer the same since we left. Memory is a morning that coats the most unlikely spaces in a diaphanous cloak of dew; and momentarily, even the most mundane object glistens with a familiar light like no other. Your phantom fingerprints smudge like the hiss of a burning brand—on benches that we never sat holding each other, watching the rain. Out of sheer exasperation at times, I try to shake myself out of this retrospective stupor. But the nostalgia bleeds into the present and tints the future a faded gold that cannot stay.

It is difficult to see how things could have turned out any way other than the melodramatic banging of clenched fists against closed doors we’d shut from the inside. Had I the perspicacity of hindsight, I would have let nature run its wrecking course and grind what was left of it to the ground. I would not have, in defiance, ended it before its time. That would have saved the both of us the debt that one of us would continue to pay long after the curtains fell. How would I have known—how would you have known? All the time after, I wish I knew better.

Sometimes (admittedly) I find myself wading and wallowing in these dysthymic pools that show only a reflection rippled with wistful regret. Like one Narcissus who reaches out to caress his lost image in a liquid looking glass, I set the surface in motion to witness history repeat itself again, and again—if only in my mind. I draw nearer the threshold: a part immersed in fantasy, the other gasping in doubt. Therein lies the danger of drowning in shallow water.

In writing I sometimes try my very best to recollect the bitter harvest and recreate the picture in finest grain. Yet it is either too painful or too inexpressible—I always find myself falling short of representing the scene in its tragic fidelity. To be sure, the actors are positioned on the stage, and memory—this masterful dramaturge—orchestrates the movement and the sound. The transparent look of naive wonder on your face, the tentative glance half wishing to be returned, or so I think. We stare out at the relentless downpour from the safety of the shed—the world disappears. How did I feel then?

Many a year ago in chemistry class, I learnt of what I thought was a rather poetic phenomenon at the level of the atomic nucleus. At any one time, either the position or the momentum of an electron can be determined—but never both simultaneously. This is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And this is the catch-22 of memory: to remember the factuality of the scene is to forget the drowsy sensation of something a little like love. It is a feeling that is at once an ache and a warm glow. And yet to recall this is to let the canvas dissolve into a knot of irresolvable qualia. I can never piece together the full picture. Or else, I fear that doing so would finally fill the absence and extinguish that imaginary flame. Memory is a wall of dancing shadows—every man’s private Plato’s Cave.

Now I understand what you meant when you said feelings are a funny thing. We never really forget them—only how to describe them. For all its signifying potential, the reaches of language are frustratingly limited. I have realised, with protracted dismay, that I will never be able to render in writing the firing of a billion neurons on that rainy afternoon—and that terrible, terrific memory of something a little like love.

I can only fill those spaces with words, words, and more words.

A Forgetting

“Why do you think you are missing something you never had?”
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (1989)

I can’t quite pin this feeling down, but I know it’s been around for awhile—the lingering shadow of a leaf withering to the ground, in mid flight, on the draft of a wet Thursday monsoon. The rain blears the eyes—the lens of a camera out of focus. I listen to the sound of damp crickets, leaping in a careless canon through my open window—a mistuned string orchestra. I feel strangely absent.

I know I must write. I just don’t know why.

Years ago I told myself to write to speak—to speak past the meandering labyrinth of metaphors and metonyms and into the arms of a clearing in the lightless woods. The song would pierce the night.

Years later I know I have not spoken yet.

How do I outspeak the silence, when reason and rhetoric outrun my meaning? And all the time—out in the white noise of the world—I forget. It is too easy to slip into prefabricated gloves that fit so snugly, like second skin. Sometimes you forget there is something less invisible beneath the threaded fiction.

At times like these, I write to remember.

Homecoming

Green, black, and white,
Colours mock me like a mirage—
Oasis at the tip of the tongue,
Vanished. On the white sails
Of my shirt pocket, the gryphon
Once glided with overachieving ease
A season past, too soon.

Now I see in those young, scholarly eyes the same
Primordial light—gaze of gladiators.
Prometheus would be so proud.
I remember awaiting the anthem melody,

That never came
While others took flight
Through foreign gates—eagles soaring
Home on the phone calls
That I never got.

And though the disapproving fingers
Of the clock turns to tell me to
Forget, not to hope still for that
Better age—lost Eden,

Still sometimes, in the
Forgotten stillness of the night
I sleep
To wear once more the colours:
Green, black, and white.

***

Note:
This piece materialised a couple of months back out of a longing for closure in one of the darker chapters of my life—one that came to set the general mood of disconsolation and festering resentment in my late teens and earlier twenties. I don’t think I’ve gotten over it—I probably never will.

Echoes

“There we are again when I loved you so.”

It’s been almost eight years since things fell apart, irreparably. The impressions have dulled by degrees unimaginable—like the polaroid of an old friend, bleached almost invisible by time. I’d like to think I still remember, but the truth is far from it; I only recreate. Imagination is a jailor, and under his watchful gaze and direction the incarcerated artist daily paints the piece anew, before it is tossed at twilight, and replaced with a blank canvas. The picture arrives in different medleys of colour, but its brushstrokes always trace out the same fatal form.

The same asphalt path after a passing shower. The same feet falling in step with yours. The same glistening halos of midnight street lamps floating in placid puddles before us, on the way back. I have lost the template for the contours of your face, and the inquiring glint of your eyes—they have been drowned in the imagery of the event, a foregrounded splotch of ambivalent colour. We walk, and keep walking. We’ve been walking for a very, very long time. On this canvas, on many before, and many after, we will continue walking. I have lost the blueprint of those HDB apartments—one of which must have been yours. I must have drawn them flanking us like the inevitability of mountains in a mountainous vista; I must have painted their dew-glazed lilac walls, and silhouetted shadows dressing or undressing for bed against panels of fluorescent white and incandescent yellow. These are the fictions I have weaved into the canvas of memory, again and again. Sometimes the night is moonless—sometimes it shivers with the light of a thousand stars, and there is only you and I beneath that dauntless sky.

I can’t quite say I don’t miss you. Or perhaps I miss knowing how to draw your face into this romantic scene. Eight years have turned you into an indelible blot on this fabric. You will never vanish, only dissolve into an earthen shade on this starry night—the echo of absence.