By Phan Ming Yen
Two weeks ago
After the stranger has left, all he sees are shadows cast by the flickering overhead light outside his studio. The memory comes back to Lucien.
Suddenly, he finds himself as a child once more, back in his hometown.
He is across the road from the clog maker's shophouse. The clog maker's daughter stands at the doorway. She is still in her school uniform. She waves to him. He hears her asking him to cross the road, to come to her home. He hears her laugh, falling in love with the way her long hair sweeps to one side as she continues waving.
A lorry drives past.
As the shophouse comes back into view, its charred walls stare back at him from across the road; a face emptied of eyes, tongue and mouth.
He screams her name.
The stranger says, We would like you to help us remember our daughter. We lost her in a fire. The overhead light is flickering. $1,000 per minute for the music and text. A 30-minute piece. Choir, string quartet and flute. The stranger is beginning to look familiar. We hear you work fast. We'll pay you in advance. The stranger reaches into the envelope and gives Lucien the cheque. The score in part, in full. The memorial is in two weeks.
"The clog maker got mixed up with some bad people. He went too far with them. Heard that they just wanted to frighten him. Didn't expect that it would end up like this."
"The girl we saw that night, the one walking to and fro in front of the window of the upper floor, she was the Goddess of Mercy. The Goddess was trying to save them from the fire."
Words the neighbours said after the fire: These are what Lucien hears each time he puts his fingers on the keyboard beside his work desk.
"No, no, it was not like that. It was the clog maker's daughter trying to get out through the window."
"The children were trapped inside."
"They couldn't recognise the bodies after that. Heard they were so badly burnt."
Words the neighbours said after the fire: These are what Lucien hears each time he takes a sheet of manuscript paper from a stack on his desk, as a ritual each time a commission comes in.
Throughout the past 30 years, he thought he had succeeded in keeping those words away; in keeping away her smile, and the way her long hair had been swept to one side. He thought he had succeeded – until the stranger turns up at his studio.
The floor is filling up with crushed balls of paper when his cellphone rings.
The stranger says, Can we have a listen, Mr Lucien?
Three days ago
He is at his desk, furiously writing out the parts, supporting the soprano with the long drawn sigh of the cello or suspending the wistful call of the flute over a menacing bass. He is at his desk, finding himself again, and again, on the night of the fire each time the flow of the music stops.
The girl is not looking down to the crowd among whom he is standing. The firemen have stopped trying to climb up to the windows. She turns away from the crowd.
"Please save them."
The flames reach the hem of her white dress
companions of the shadows flee in the night; weeping innocents, smothering, side by side
c r i e s
they are still inside
In the glow of the overhead light, the stranger says, We are here.
The aroma of burnt wood comes in with the breeze. A girl stands, hands outstretched, waiting.