Lions of Stone
By Grey Yuen Yew Kuen
The first trick question of my life was about stone lions: how many of them are there guarding a house? It seemed easy enough, everyone knew there used to be a pair of them right at the front of the old house, one to the right of the door and the other to the left. The real answer was a little trickier, for right at the paw of one of the lions was a cub, and it could only be discerned by someone with an eye for details. That made them a sort of family of three, with the father, the mother, and the child.
Of the old house itself, my memories are still mostly intact, but I stop short of calling them fond. To be honest, they are mixed with the same sort of feeling that I suppose a butterfly would have for its broken chrysalis. The old house represented a better time when we were still rich, a kind of lost paradise. My relationship with it is a complicated thing.
Unlike most of those of my generation, the impact of our first black-and-white television did not affect me as much. It was the picture of stone lions that stayed clear in my mind after all these years. Many families down that old street had stone lions as well, although ours were the biggest. The rule was simple, the male was always on the left and the female on the right.
I spent most afternoons under the belly of the male lion, hiding from my mother and my sisters. Somewhere at the back of my mind I knew I was actually hiding from the rest of the world and the lot of bad men in it. There were many of them, I gathered, and they were waiting to pounce on us as though we were rats caught on the open streets. Bad men. Mother talked about them with Father in the late nights when they thought I was asleep; many times she would cry and Father would shout, and they would break some things in the house.
My second favourite hiding place had been one where I could overhear the conversations of the grown-ups in the main hall. But not everything I heard was good. The afternoon when my Second Uncle visited – the one I knew Mother hated and Father never named without an accompanying scowl – I knew I heard some things they would have kept better hidden from us children. Father had not come home in almost a week and Second Uncle knew. Mother did not smile when he walked over the threshold, and she hushed us children out to the backyard to play, neither of them aware of my secret passage back to the room just behind the hall. I heard much that I didn't understand, but I did hear Mother shouting at him until her voice was hoarse. The whole thing lasted only about twenty minutes, and then Second Uncle stormed out of the house with his head down in shame, but also seething with a lot of apparent anger. A rising sense of dread crept up inside me as I watched him from the corner. Something bad was going to happen to us all very soon.
And something from their exchange told me Father was not coming back. Ever.
I remembered crying. I remembered sneaking out to the front door without Mother seeing me; something inside me did not want to see her tears and at the same time needed to hide mine from her. I remembered crying the entire afternoon at the feet of the stone lions, waiting for the world to end, waiting to die.
My face was on the stone, my cheeks pressed against the roughness and my tears flowing onto it. So intent on crying I was, I hardly noticed the tall thin man who was passing by on the streets and stopped to look at me. His gait was more distinctive than his face, it was Old Man Chan. Everyone else in the neighbourhood called him Master Chan, but he was always Old Man Chan to me. None of my family could say much about him, only that he was an old fortune-teller who lived down the road, always polite but kept mostly to himself. I should have expected that he would find me, since he was always wandering on the streets that time of the day.
"Are you all right, little boy?" he said.
I was curled into a small ball just behind the male lion and my sobs were controlled. Who could tell how he found me? I looked up at him and I gave him no answer. He looked around a bit, as if to check if there were other bystanders, and then he stooped down to sit next to me. I had nothing to tell him, certainly not about how my father had disappeared and how we were losing everything in the house. How could I tell him that I understood what Mother meant yesterday when she told us that we were going to be poor again, and that I had to grow up fast, grow up to be the man of the house? I bit my lip and I continued sitting there, continued hiding in the shadow of the beast of stone.
"Do you know," he started to say, then coughed before continuing, "do you know how many—"
He looked at me and smiled. "So you know that one."
"My grandfather used to ask me that."
"Ah. I miss him. Used to have tea with him, you know. Every morning."
He had a look in his eyes that suggested that he knew more about my family than I did, although I really had no right to ask. Little boys kept quiet in the presence of elders. We sat in silence for a while, until my eyes were dry and no longer hurting, and then he made a gesture to indicate the mother lion on the other side. "You know that when the cub over there grows up, he would be another father lion, with a mate and a cub of his own. That is, if he is a male cub and not a female one, in which case she would be another mother lion."
I only nodded.
"But you do know," he went on, "about what the father lion does, right?" I shook my head but he was already talking again. "See the huge ball he has under his paw? That is supposed to be a coin, or an orb of power, and it means wealth. The old customs dictate that the man of the house be the one bringing in the money to feed the family."
Wealth. That meant money, I knew. I also knew Father did his best to earn money, and that bad men were coming for us because of it. I pursed my lips together and I felt the urge to cry again.
The old man pointed further up the stone lion. "The whole thing is carved from a single piece of stone, you know. If you look into the mouth, you will see a stone ball that can roll about freely. It's part of the same block of stone."
I knew about that. Very often I would stick my tiny fingers in and move the ball between the teeth, and I found out long ago it was exactly too big to be pulled out of the mouth.
"It represents the ocean, the rolling seas. The father lion has great responsibilities and he needs great powers to fulfil them. He has a family to protect. Sometimes if we are lucky, we can convince him that those in the household right behind him and his mate are part of his family as well."
I stared with a new feeling, something between fear and amusement. As a boy I had heard all sorts of fairy tales, from the Moon Goddess to the Monkey King, and deep inside I knew they were all rubbish. To have Old Man Chan tell me something like that when the world was crashing down around my little shoulders seemed nothing less than a slap across the face. I wanted to choke, my body trying to decide between crying or just plain yelling, and then I turned and I ran straight back into the house.
I refused to talk for the rest of the day, and Mother had enough troubles of her own to worry about me. When night fell, I was in my room pretending to sleep and pretending I could wake up with everything all right again.
No. No sleep for the night, not if we were to wake up again. I could see the bad men when I looked into the darkness, the same way I had been seeing certain things I could never explain. Long I fought against the heaviness of my eyes, and waited until the big clock in the hall chimed three times. Then very slowly I sneaked my way to the front door. Every step I took gave a tiny creak from the wooden floor and made me look back constantly to see if I had woken anyone else. Did they know? I kept asking myself if Mother did know that the bad men would be coming for us this night. If I had found her out of her room and looking back at me, what could I have told her to make her believe we were in danger?
Past the hall I crept, where the ancestral tablets were staring right at me from their places on the shelves. Everything else was gone, sold off for some purpose or other that Mother refused to talk about. The huge vases that used to be in the corners, the jade-green horse on the table that I was forbidden to touch, they were all gone. My ancestors were all that remained, including my grandfather, who was now the leftmost tablet on the front row. Could they help me now? Could they save us?
Ahead loomed the front door. I stood about ten paces from the two slabs of wood with the horizontal bar across them, and I found my knees shaking. Beyond them was the outside world, a very different place from what it appeared to be in the day. What was a street filled with familiar faces and sounds became an evil place after the sun went down. And this night was worse than any of the rest.
They were coming.
In the darkness a crude broom by the wall caught my eye and I took it, my fingers only just touching my thumb as they went around the handle. I felt like a baby again, the urge to run crying to Father caught a hold on me before I remembered there was no one there. He was gone and even though no one told me, I really did know, and I should be crying instead of just fighting that quiver on my lip. The shock lingered behind all the other emotions when it should be bursting through. Perhaps after this night...
The footsteps came. They were here, and I could finally hear them. I could smell something else in the air as well. It was the smell of that clear liquid that Father used to put in those lamps he carried with him whenever he went off in the evenings. My arms were shaking. It did not help when I grabbed the broom with both hands. A part of me wanted to simply turn around and shout for my mother and sisters to wake up and run, and another part of me told me it was useless. I did not know why.
These men. How many were they outside? What did they look like? Were they born as bad men, or did they turn out that way because they did not listen to their parents when they were children? Were they the ones who ki—
I stopped thinking. All that held my attention was the door and how it would come crashing apart any time now. I would hit whoever came through with my broom and go on hitting him until they killed me. There was no other way to stop me just as there was no way to stop them.
Then came the sound I had not expected. No wood crashing, no cackling fire flowing in from under the door. It was a grinding sound, like stone rubbed against stone, and it was followed by a low growl. There were dogs in the neighbourhood and none of them ever sounded like that.
The commotion outside became more intense. Someone started a scream and was abruptly cut off. A sudden barrage of sounds went off, all too chaotic and too many for me to identify. My teeth had started chattering and I was gripping the broom so hard my fingers were hurting. I swallowed a few times, pulling my eyelids open in case I didn't know how I was to die. Something started to smash against something else, and broke, like wood against rock. More shrieks and screams.
It was late in the night and someone should have been awakened by the racket. My eyes darted around some more, half afraid to turn away from the door. No one came. It was all too short a time. No one would come.
Another sound filled the air, so loud, so powerful it could have been a clap of thunder right in front of me. It was a roar. A mighty roar. Never before had I been so frightened by a sound, not even as an adult now after all these years. It rang in my head like a commanding voice, and at that point the boy in me broke.
The tears came out from my eyes. I dropped my broom and I ran back into my room, trying to scream with every breath and failing. I remembered jumping back in bed, but little else. Did I fall asleep or did I black out? Did I wrap myself into a ball again to wait until the morning came, all the while imagining the bad men had broken in and were rampaging through the house? Of those hours I could recall nothing.
Hours went by, or it could have been days or years, until at last I saw sunlight coming through the window. Ready to be ridiculed as a child waking up from a dream, I made my way cautiously to the hall again. There were already people in the house, or more accurately, there was a crowd at the front door. I must have been trembling as I walked, for I could usually move without any grown-ups seeing me.
"Your son is up!" Someone was shouting, a voice I couldn't recognise. "Somebody stop him from seeing this! He'll get nightmares."
Mother came running to me. In one swoop she caught me and held me close, muttering, "Close your eyes. Close your eyes."
I was a rag-doll in her arms, and I was crying without stopping. Everything from last night to yesterday afternoon came out of me. Mother. She was safe. As she turned me around I saw my sisters at the back of the hall, and they were safe as well.
One more glance over my shoulder and I saw the thing the stranger wanted to shield from me. The front door was open, and right there at the threshold was a pool of blood. In the middle of it was something that resembled a man's arm, the fingers still clutching a knife. From my angle I could see only the tip of the stone lion outside. The paw, the one resting on the stone dais instead of on the ball, was smudged red with blood.
"The family," I muttered without Mother hearing any of it. "The family thanks you."QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008