The Premature Pilgrimage
I plant my sneaker-clad feet right in the middle of the worn tarred pavement that marks the start of my pilgrimage and take a deep, steadying breath. At dawn, the cool air is laced with the smell of vehicle exhaust even though there are few cars driving along the main road, which is a five-minute walk away. The crickets sing a joyous tune, but they sound like drunk partygoers revelling in that last high before they are forced to return to their mundane desk jobs with a splitting headache. I close my eyes in a bid to calm my nerves.
Every few years, I make this trip. How many years? It depends on how many blades of grass I pluck off the ground in my one fist when I complete my ritual the previous time round. The longest I’ve gone is nine years. It was agony—like asking an addict to go cold turkey. I suppose I could always cheat by just yanking off one tiny blade of grass. But, hey, a simple bet with blind Fate makes life more interesting, right? I like to make light of some major decisions in life like that.
The journey, however, is a whole different matter.
Everything has to be perfect because this is the last time I am doing this. Oh, trust me when I say I would have preferred to stick to the schedule Fate dealt me the last time round—four blades of grass, four years. And I still have some fight left in me, you know, at sixty-three years old, to make this trip at least a couple more times. But when the government announced last week that this piece of land which I am so attached to will be rezoned ‘for future commercial development’, I knew that this was it—I had to bring forward my expedition a year and fifteen days, and, for the first time, document my final pilgrimage.
I retrieve the new semi-pro camera I bought yesterday from my haversack and switch it on. Focusing on the first pink flecks that have appeared across the dark violet sky, I start filming.
My voice shivers when I pan the camera to the pavement and say, “It all began here.” Then I push the ‘Stop’ button and shake my head. Too clichéd. I delete the clip.
The sky is getting lighter. I cannot afford delays like this.
I try a different approach.
“When I was eighteen, I was lured to this cemetery by a girl I had a crush on.” I point the camera to the left of pavement, where there is an aged gravestone shaped like the ones the Chinese favoured some forty years ago. Overgrown weeds suffocated the neglected tomb. The camera lens passes over several more tombs in the area. Less than a handful of them look well-maintained. I continue my recounting. “I thought it was a great chance to get her to fall for me, if she saw how courageous I was.”
I proceed down the footpath to a lamp post about fifty metres away. “She was standing here, bright-eyed, waiting for me. Sometimes, I can still smell the sweet rose scent she wore. The fragrance seemed to come straight from the floral print dress that she had picked for this special date with me. I remember the poppy red ribbons she used to secure her two braids. I remember her coy smile which broke so many hearts.
“Her smile made me, the bespectacled nerd known for his smarts, forget to ask how she had managed to come to this secluded place in the wee hours of the morning without any form of transport.
“I think I returned the smile—except mine was much less devastating,” I say, with an attempt at humour. “She slipped her hand into mine and led me towards the wooded area, which was— is—home to many more tombs. Big tombs belonging to the rich families. I think she said, ‘Come, Ah Quan, I want to show you something.’ I cannot remember the words exactly because I was so distracted by the feel of her soft hand encased inside mine.”
I walk down the unbeaten path we took decades ago. My shirt is sticking to my back now that the sun is beaming at me. I am panting from the strain of climbing up these steep slopes and trying to keep the camera steady. It doesn’t help that I am carrying a heavy tool in my haversack, but the fresh green smell from the morning dew keeps me going.
Finally, I reach an old raintree. Its thick and low branches canopy over me, a protective guardian welcoming her seldom-seen ward. I fling my haversack on the ground and it lands with a thud. I bend over, rest my hands on my trembling knees and try to catch my breath. Insidious age has crept into my every vein.
The video is still running. It must be catching a shaky view of the wild grass in the area. Artistic.
“She stopped here, right in front of this tree. She reached back to unbutton her dress with a mischievous expression. I was dumbfounded at my luck, but then something struck me over the head.” My voice deepens as unchecked emotions run through me at the memory. “The sun was up, but all I saw was darkness. All I heard was musical laughter.”
Turning the camera on myself, I see sweat dripping down the sides of my face, beading at my forehead and upper lip. “When the haziness cleared, I saw a figure hunched over me. But it wasn’t her. The hair was too short, and the cologne, too spicy. I heard her voice then. She sounded a little amused, a little scared when she said, “Mark, try not to injure him. The dare was to make him go home without his pants.”
“A hand reached for my belt. But I was faster. My fingers closed around the hilt of the fruit knife I’d brought along in my pants pocket for courage.” Taking a shuttered breath, I wiped wayward tears away with the back of my hand and swallowed. “I showed her—and that Mark—I showed these tricksters what bravery was. It was the last life lesson they attended.”
I reach into my discarded backpack for my trusty shovel. I dig at a spot near the tree trunk. I dig as if my life depends on it. The hole widens and deepens. A clang sounds as I hit the jackpot I’m looking for—a palm-sized tin box.
Two faded poppy red ribbons sat in the rusty case just as they always had. With the knife that saved my life, I slit both my wrists. My blood restores the vibrant colour of the fabric. I won’t die from this little bit of blood loss. But the drugs will do the trick.
I swallow a fistful of pills with a bottle of water as I sit with my back against my faithful guardian and witness.
Dappled sunlight streaks through the leaves of the raintree and warms my skin. I lay down beside the camera, making sure my profile is in the frame. For the last time, I relive the moment I was reborn.
This short story was first published in Pulp Toast/Roti Bakar: A Roll of the Dice.