The Rolling of the Tiger's Eye
By Peter Loh
Years ago, when Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth the Second, my uncle received his crown of glory when he converted to Christianity. Since then my uncle had been trying to save our souls. The soul according to him is the self of the body, which is used as its temporary home. His wife shared in most of his beliefs and was quite influenced by him. Soon to be converted, she had still a little doubt, which was about whether animals had souls. In order not to inadvertently transgress, she played it safe by being a vegetarian, and kept off meat. She did not want to devour the animals' otherwise temporal abodes. She refrained from eating pork and beef, especially her irresistible beef kway teow.
Fearing the possibility of the soul left wondering homelessly, she would warn us children, "Don't you play tricks on your friends when they're asleep." "You draw funny faces on your friends when they're asleep... your friends will not be able to wake up." she would continue. She meant that the soul could be a happy traveler, taking its leave of absence from the body during sleep. If the face was painted over or made unrecognizable, then it might not be able to discern the body it was trying to return to.
"That's how people die in their sleep."
My father, much younger than my uncle, did not have a clear idea of the soul. Somehow he was wrestling with the idea that the soul could be in more than one place. He was finally convinced that we possessed many souls. He explained to me that when one dreamed of being one moment in China, climbing up the Great Walls and then climbing down Mount Matterhorn in Switzerland the next, we exhibited two souls. For it was impossible for one soul to cover such distance apart in such short time. Hence, this was the manifestation of two juxtaposed souls in the dream.
He did not talk very much about this. He knew that my uncle was smarter about such things, but even if he were to let my uncle save his soul, he would not know which particular soul should be saved. He became irreconcilably unconverted.
My father read old Chinese swashbuckling storybooks, in which the heroes or heroines would leap and fly. It was natural that he chose to practise martial arts. He believed that depending on the level of expertise, an exponent should be able to sustain a punch or stop a thrust of the knife at the stomach. His ultimate quest was to perfect the skill to achieve the dream of being in two places, even while fully awake, and not dreaming; the calling up and meeting of his souls at will.
This could be done, according to him, by unlocking a gate to celestial traveling. The key for this was to be his index finger. He told me the finger had to traverse a perfect circle in an absolutely vertical plane or absolutely horizontal plane. The kung fu style of Tai Chee incorporated a component called the Rolling of the Tiger's Eye. Here his downward facing palm would move slowly and gracefully in a vertical circle, caressing the imaginary tiger's eyeball, inflated to the size of a basketball, supported on his left palm.
In the morning when the air was light, he practised his exercise assiduously, in the backyard. Till the last days of his death, he was able to complete the required number of steps to complete a set. When he was dying, he stopped midway after he had reached the rolling of the eye. Copious perspiration and laborious breathing exhausted him afterwards. My mother told him that she had bought a coffin of mahogany wood with the house money she saved up and the contribution from my uncle and auntie. It was stored downstairs in the small storeroom. In the last moment of his life, there was a short spell of restfulness before he gave out his last breath. His right hand moved imperceptibly and his finger traced circles on a horizontal plane. Then a faint smile appeared on his face before he closed his eyes. We kept on calling out his name, pleading loudly for him to stay. We wept and wailed.
Toward the end of funeral rites when the lid of the coffin was to be covered and nailed, I moved towards it during the moment when everyone cried the loudest. I tip-toed forward and peeked inside. My mother had laid his hand near his favourite water pipe, his pocket watch with the chain and his reading glass. His clasped hands seemed to beckon me to receive a gift. My mother saw me and quickly pulled at my sackcloth sleeve to lead me away. Fearing that last dangerous moment when the lid came down was really an invitation to join the dead – a commonly held belief - we were told to look away at the time of the shutting. The coffin was closed and the wooden mallet knocked down the nails. I had proof that my father succeeded in unlocking the celestial gate, finally, with the pointer finger drawing the perfect circle. All these years, I have kept a tiny, gossamer feather taken from his clasped hands at the final moment in a safe place. He had told me to do so in a dream the night before, when his soul had instructed me to retrieve the sliver of an angel's wing from the Milky Way.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002