A Blue God
By Quek Shin Yi
You are lying on a mattress, staring up at water stains on the ceiling. The ceiling is also caked with dirt, which has fossilized into ridges. Often, you have imagined that the ceiling looks like a map, with the water stains and ridges shaped like the continents and seas of a foreign world. You have stared at them for so long that you can sketch every corner of that world in this air, with your eyes closed. You know that you can, because you have tried doing so.
You are wearing a grey singlet, which smells sour with sweat. Your armpits are damp, and fine beads are running down your forehead, even though you are not moving and are lying in shade. The afternoon air presses down, oppressive and lead-like upon your chest. A sullen shaft of sunlight descends from a small window above your head, and brands itself upon the dirt floor, streaked with the shadows of grilles. Layers of dust glitter like dead eyes in its shaft.
You are supposed to be repenting. So you think about karmic cycles, reincarnation, and God. Especially God. You think a lot about God. In particular, you think a lot about the relation of God to the disembodied voices that call out to each other, the colourless laughter and cries that reverberate through the hollow corridors and walls here. You also think about a wrinkled priest with blind blue eyes, who once stood under the coloured sunlight of stained glass, crumpled hands tied in a jewelled rosary, murmuring for you to be forgiven by the Lord.
A papery blue scrap slips past the iron bars of your little window, floating translucent through the shaft of sunlight like a shred of sky. You are reminded briefly of the priest's blind blue eyes. The sight pricks a moment of sheer sensory delight. You have not seen colour other than the ochre of walls and urine and sweat on your singlet, the ink of baton against the pallid green of guards' uniforms, the purple of bulging veins in neck as baton smashes against tendon and muscle. You get up from the damp heat of your back against the mattress, and reach your hand out to catch it.
It is a butterfly wing. Its edge is lined with black, as though charred by fire.
You put it in one calloused, grimy palm, and stroke it tenderly with a finger. Then you creak to your feet. You squint up at the grille-streaked light mounted high up in your wall. Swinging your arm, you try to hurl the wing out of it. The torn wing flutters up a little, and rocks back down again. So you try again, jumping this time. Still, the window is too high for the wing. So you try a running jump. Next you try a frog jump, crouching low and springing up. Then you try hurling it, like a discus. After that you try slam dunking it like a basketball player.
The periodic thumps of your feet against the floor catch the attention of a guard. He comes echoing down the passage, clanging his baton against the iron bars of the cells he passes. A swell of unrest murmurs through the floor. Before the clanging reaches your cell, you grab the wing and throw yourself onto the mattress, shutting your eyes.
Boots click to a halt in front of your cell. The baton rattles between the iron bars. You open your eyes and give the guard your stupidest stare. He glares back at you for a moment, rat eyes gleaming, paunch pressed against the bars of your cell. Then he wipes his nose and moustache with the back of his thumb, sneers, and moves on. His boots echo down the corridor, dragging the clang of the baton like chains along the floor.
He thinks that it cannot be you. You are a good prisoner, and give no trouble to the guards. You are here for the murder of a man, which places you close to the top of the pecking order in prison. No one in your position pleads innocence. So when you say that you did not kill the man, everyone including the guards believes you. Because you also have the physique of a boxer and the tattoo of a snake coiled around your shoulders, you garner a special sort of respect among inmates, for looking like a murderer and being innocent of the crime.
You are in here for life. Fifty-eight years later, when your bones and tendons have shrivelled and your back has folded and your eyes have turned milky white, an equally old man who has lived your life in freedom will admit to your crime, and you will be exonerated. You will be let out upon the wet winter side-walk, toothless jaw chattering in the cold, and when night falls you will curl up among some cardboard boxes below a bridge. There you will die in your sleep, while Christmas carols are sung in sweaters and scarves under the light of a lamp on the bridge above you.
But you do not know that, yet. Meanwhile, you open your fingers. You find that you have tightened your grip too far, and the butterfly wing has crumpled to fragments. You finger the pieces. Returning back into the grille-streaked pew of light, you place both hands together. Murmuring something, you grind the remnants of the wing to dust and let it fall, glistening in the light, onto the ground.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010