The Red Dot Pentaptych
By Jason Erik Lundberg
1. Lion City Daikaiju
That night, Singapore's landmarks declared war: the Merlion lurched off its concrete pedestal and flooded the riverfront with its eternally gushing masticatory fountain, catching untold numbers of tourists unawares, forced to leave behind their $20 mixed drinks and plates of tapas; the Raffles Hotel, in all its colonial splendor, leapfrogged across the downtown area, knocking over bank buildings and squashing flat petrol tankers and cars plastered with adverts; the twin metallic durians of the Esplanade curled into spiny balls of hedgehog lethality, and rolled over and through every upscale mall they could find, taking especial care to utterly demolish the shopping district on Orchard Road; the National Library took flight and glided to the MediaCorp building, dropping barrages of encyclopedias and folios onto transmissions towers and backup generators, destroying the link between the viewing public and the badly acted and written serial dramas that filled the broadcast airwaves; the twin statues of the country's patron saint, Sir Stamford Raffles, one dark bronze and one white polymarble, lay seige to every construction crane in evidence, leaping nimbly from structure to structure, leaving bright yellow wreckage in their wake.
Who was to blame, the people cried, why has this happened, could it be Jemaah Islamiyah and that terrorist who escaped, or was it resurgent aggression from Japan, or could it be an intelligent group-mind of dengue-carrying mosquitos, or revenge-seeking Americans with outrage and the image of a public caning in their minds, why oh why is this happening to us, and the people fled in terror, at this revolt by the reminders of the nation's greatness, as those selfsame landmarks reduced to rubble every symbol of progress, sign of homogenized inclusion with the globalized world, and showing of shallow flash and glam over depth and culture and tradition, and when the sun rose over the tropical island the next morning it was all over, the assault had stopped, the landmarks as still and inert as their previous states, the country no longer globally competitive, but the people did not despair, because as they buried and cremated their dead and began the rebuilding process, they remembered that they had endured the British occupiers, and the tyranny of the Japanese military, and they had arisen to become a global corporate power, and that they would now reinvent themselves into something new and bright and shining, a jewel of the future world, a unique visage of identity.
2. Dragging the Frame
The young woman at the bus stop told me she was my daughter. She was attractive, Eurasian, had dark brown hair and blue eyes, but only looked to be ten years younger than me, and I told her so. I couldn't have fathered her at the age of ten, could I?
"Time travel," she said.
"Oh come on." Much as I'd fantasized about time travel, especially to correct the mistakes of my youth, deep down I was a nonbeliever. "Einstein said it was impossible, and Mallett has said travel to the past is extremely limited. You can't go earlier than when the machine is switched on. And I haven't heard anything about a time machine having been successfully invented today."
"It happened about two hours ago," she said. "You always were a skeptic. And you made my life hell, you know."
The thought of confrontation with a future daughter, which seemed impossible as my wife wasn't even pregnant yet, twisted my insides a bit. Had I slapped down her dreams? Abused her?
"No, but you disapproved of every decision I ever made. We yelled and fought for most of my childhood. Nothing I did was right in your eyes. I left home at 18, and we've hardly spoken since then."
"So, saying for a second that this is true, why are you here?"
She looked over my shoulder and I turned; the 171 was approaching from down the road. My bus.
"I just wanted to tell you to ease up. Trust your daughter's decisions. Have some faith in her. Don't be such a prick."
I exhaled a quiet laugh to myself. It was impossible, it was stupid. This young woman was off her nut. Best just to ignore her. At least it would make an amusing anecdote later. For a brief moment, I'd been afraid she was going to say that she was here to kill me or something.
The bus was only about ten meters away, brakes already hissing, when I said, "You don't have to be a man to be a prick, you know. Best of luck to you back at the asylum."
I felt a hard push from behind and I tumbled into the road as the bus arrived.
3. Paper Cow
X had never considered the possibility that his origami constructions might spring to life. Through all his years of paper-folding, his early fascination with the Asian craft blooming into obsession, the endless competitions, the early arthritis, the impassable barrier between his talent and his imagination, through all of this his miniature creatures remained inert, frozen in the act of running, or slithering, or pecking. But tonight, his most recent fauna, birthed from printer bond, stirred.
"We know what you have done," said the paper cow, its hide revealing the left eye and nostril of a 13-year-old boy from Kuala Lumpur. The corner of the boy's eye was raised, suggesting a big smile. His skin was dark and rough, as if he had spent every waking moment in the scorching Malaysian sun.
"We know," said the paper crane, its creases half-obscuring the face of a seven-year-old girl from Semarang. Though X could not see her face, he knew it in his mind, could remember the gap made by the missing front teeth as she had grinned up at him, taking his hand and trusting him as if her own kin.
"We know," said the lumbering paper gorilla, made from the obituary notice of two ten-year-old twin boys from Penang. Their screams, too, had been identical.
More and more of the dead-tree atrocities, the collected evidence of X's crimes, printed from internet news stories and charity sites and then shaped into bats and elephants and frogs and tigers and pandas and a hundred other animals, rustled toward X, slow as the undead, each whispering, "We know." An army of his perversities, his many sins, each folded animal a reminder of a life held, touched, taken.
"Stop," X said. "I am sorry. Please stop."
"We cannot stop," said the paper cow, commander of this zoological army, edging ever closer to its creator. "You have made us so very thin and so very sharp."
And then all of the origami animals moved as one.
4. The Crying of Kopitiam 419
Were I human, you would label me a terrorist.
We first slipped into your societies, insinuating ourselves into every facet of your lives. Disguised as innocuously as our technology would allow, we became a ubiquitous sight, invisible amongst the crowds. For many of you, we turned into your constant companions; we weren't always around when you wanted us to be, but we showed up sooner or later, and you loved us for our proclivities.
So ingrained were we that you could not do without us. Almost 10,000 years have now passed, and we have appeared in your artwork, your literature, your public consciousness. At our glorious height, we were even worshipped, although this was not to last. Sharp in tooth and claw, but eventually relegated to common house pets.
Our stories tell of a vast empire of the stars, stretching from one corner of the sky to the other, and of our forced exile on this rock dominated by hairless apes. After hearing all my life of our greatness, I could take it no longer. We were once a mighty species, and I saw a return to this destiny. Others accused me of insanity, megalomania, delusions of grandeur, but my message spread, and others of my kind flocked to the cause.
Our initial target: Singapore, a country interconnected with the rest of the developed world, but small, manageable. The first step in a global takeover. My brethren gathered in hawker centres, void decks, and public parks to disseminate our ideology. Organization proved difficult, but my tawny lieutenants kept the underlings in line through threat of force.
It was all coming together. One week before the execution of our master plan, all the operatives in their proper places, and then disaster: the Compulsory Sterilization Law was put into effect. Gathered up from all our favorite places, we were involuntarily put to the knife.
Do you know what such mass desexing does to morale? Everyone was off licking their wounds instead of carrying out the plan. A catastrophe.
Afterwards I slunk to Kopitiam 419, my stomping grounds, head down, lightning-crooked tail between my legs, and amongst the evening diners and stalls selling popiah, fish head curry, claypot rice, and mushroom noodles, I yowled. I cried a song of mourning, of defeat, of sorrow, of subjugation. A song of the subaltern, faces forever stamped upon by the boots of our oppressors.
5. Ikan Berbudi (Wise Fish)
"Good morning, dear lady," said the fish. "Today is the day I will die."
Mrs Singh stood dumbfounded in the kitchen of her food stall. The fish, a grand red snapper with pointy teeth and auspicious markings, lazily trod water in its aquarium above the sink. It had brought Mrs Singh good luck since persuading her to spare its life three years ago. Her pescatarian menu consisted of curries and veg, and business had soared with the fish's presence. It had also provided a strange companionship after her husband had died and her children had moved away. This announcement terrified her with its consequences.
"Why would you say this, fish?"
"Because it is true. I have lived a long life, in part thanks to you, but it will come to an end later today."
"What if I buy you a new tank? Or a pond in which you can freely swim?"
"It will not matter, auntie. I will still die."
"I could change your food, buy the expensive flakes from Thailand."
"It still would not change the fact that I will die."
"Is there anything can be done?"
"I am afraid not. It is the way of things. But I do ask for one kindness in return for the years of wealth I have brought you."
"Cook me as you would any of my brothers, and then consume me yourself."
And so later that day, after Mrs Singh had served her last customer, the fish quietly stopped moving and floated upside down in its tank. Mrs Singh descaled the snapper, gutted it, and cooked it in fiery curry along with fingers of okra and slices of eggplant.
With the first bite, she experienced a heightening of all her senses. With the second, she gained understanding of the speech of plants. With the third she perceived the sticky strings of the vast LifeWeb that connects all living beings. With the fourth, the knowledge that her new perceptions would fade by tomorrow.
Mrs Singh wept for the fish's gift, eating every last bit of flesh until her wise friend was completely gone.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010