“Addressing the Manticore” by Jeremy Sim
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Huiling’s leviathan regards me through bulletproof glass, one colossal eye inclined in its rheumy socket. It does not blink, and the sheen and smell of hoary water stagnates in the airport terminal. Tentacles curl on gleaming tile. Smooth muscle ripples under sterile light.
On this side of the glass, an airport security officer picks his nose. It’s morning, and the departures board has only eight entries. Air-conditioned light peeks in through the modern ceiling. I try to catch a glimpse of Huiling behind the massive bulk, but her leviathan is blocking my view of the security queue. Its gaze follows me across the terminal as a group of Japanese businessmen stride soberly through its midsection, their briefcases vanishing neatly into thick carapace.
My heart starts to race. She’s leaving. What if I never see her again? What if this is my last chance to make some grand, final parting gesture?
Shoes squeaking on the bright floor, I start to run.
Huiling used to send hellbats against my window at night. They flung their flaming bodies against it, smearing squashed noses across the glass, shrieking and scrabbling until I was sure the whole of Upper Toa Payoh must hear. They never did. My mum heard once, I think. She popped her head into the room, her hair full of curlers.
“Oh good,” she said in broken English. “Keep your window closed. Tonight lots of mosquito.”
The bats always stopped after a few minutes, and I was always sad to see them go. They gave me a satisfying feeling, like the feeling of soft rug under your bare toes. Huiling knew I liked to hear from her, when calling would raise suspicions with my family or hers. The bats were “I love you, good night, see you at school tomorrow.”
I’d stand at the window, there on the 28th floor, looking out into the glare of apartment lights in the humid, cicada-filled dark, and I could only summon a tiny, immobile phoenix in response.
There was no way she could see it from her bedroom window three blocks away, but sometimes she smiled the next day and said “I saw it, bodoh.”
It’s like squeezing clay out of the tips of your fingers, summoning. I could do it since I was eleven, five long years ago. At the time, it bothered me that no one else could see the results of my summoning, my tiny centaurs and kirins. They danced across my desk, galloping with their tiny spears at a jaunt, while Mr. Tan droned on about ionic bonding. No one noticed.
“Ma, can you see this?” I asked her once. I’d summoned a spectral butterfly, and it flexed its wings translucently on the tip of my index finger.
“A butterfly. I made it for you.”
“Thank you, Donny,” she said. “Eh, your Maths homework, have you done it yet or not?”
“Yes,” I said.
Huiling could see them. I’ll never forget the first day of Secondary One, when she strode into class with two cockatrices behind her. They were big, the size of housecats, and their pointed tails waved assuredly in the air as they goose-stepped between the desks, heads bobbing. I had never summoned anything larger than a mouse before.
It wasn’t just that she could summon large animals. She moved with her summons. She owned them. They reflected her mannerisms, and she reflected theirs. “That girl a bit arrogant,” whispered my friend Marcus to me, on the day with the cockatrices. “Ya?”
I nodded, not speaking. She had plopped her backpack down in the far corner by the window, all the way across the classroom.
I was afraid of her at first, and just watched. After about thirty minutes the cockatrices started to fade away, just like mine. Their beaks and scales grew more and more transparent until, with a slight ‘pop’, they were gone. I watched as she looked around for them during the class change period, after chemistry with Mr. Tan and before Chinese with Madam Neo.
She creased her eyebrows when she saw that they were gone, then closed her eyes and summoned a manticore. It stood silently in front of the bulletin board, its head barely under the ceiling fan. It stared at Madam Neo for the bigger part of an hour, its head fur rippling in the breeze.
In the last period before the end of school, I took a deep breath, turned and clasped my hands together. I pushed clay out of my fingers and molded a tiny pegasus, which shook out its mane and launched itself into the air, gliding over towards her desk.
The effect on her was electric. She stared at the pegasus as if nothing else in the world were real, watching it stand by her pencil case and chew at an itchy spot under its wing. She began to search through the class then, seeking its source.
I pretended to be incredibly interested in Mrs. Chiu’s history lesson, my neck warming. But I wavered, and she caught my eye as a four-tone chime sounded, signaling the end of the school day.
“You?” said her fierce eyes.
She called me bodoh, which means stupid or useless in Malay. She called me that right after I kissed her for the first time, under the yellow streetlamps of a side alley near the hawker center, where big-eared Caucasian businessmen wiped sweat off their foreheads and laughed uncertainly with their Singaporean wives.
“Bodoh,” she said, her lips still near enough that I could feel the moisture of her breath.
It’s hard to describe how I felt at that moment, surrounded by the smell of night and the swish of passing BMWs on the wet road. My country has no seasons; it’s summer and rain all year long. But I’ve seen winter and snow, on TV and in Hollywood movies, and maybe what I felt that night was a brief respite, the warmth of a discarded sweater on a snowy day.
I kissed her again.
Huiling was a dancer. She danced with the Bishan Community Center Chinese Dance Association, and she was the best by far.
“I knew you were a good dancer the first time I saw you, you know that?”
“Rubbish,” she said. We were setting up some plywood props for an upcoming dance festival, and she paused to straighten an errant lantern. A basilisk, her basilisk, sat watching us from the shadows to stage left. My froglike chaan maneuvered for a more comfortable position on its flat head, splaying the long toes on its three legs as it climbed.
“I did. You move like a mythical creature.”
Huiling burst out laughing. “You move like a mythical creature too. A minotaur.”
But she didn’t protest when I said she had a spot of gold glitter on her nose, and kissed her instead.
“Hey bodoh, what’s over there?” she said, frowning.
I turned to see the two screeching heads of a massive bird. They flew straight at me, beaks gaping. I screamed. In an instant it had passed through me, insubstantial.
My heart was hammering. “Oh my God,” I said. “Don’t do that.”
Huiling was laughing again.
I put a hand to my chest. “Walau,” I said, smiling sheepishly, as the bird swooped to a stop behind her. Its wingspan was easily the length of the entire stage, and its twin beaks looked hard enough to crack heads. “Throwing rocs. It’s a good thing you don’t live in a glass house.”
The following Monday, we sat in chapel in our stiff-collared uniforms and pretended to listen as Pastor Lim stood on stage and talked about the inventions of the past ten years: the Hubble Telescope, the Pentium processor, the Laserdisc.
“After all these years,” he said, the microphone bobbing next to his Adam’s Apple, “there is still no invention greater than the Bible.”
Huiling leaned over. “I volunteered to set up props again on Wednesday. Want to come?”
I smiled and nodded. Later on, when Pastor Lim prayed for us and said Amen, I echoed him and meant it.
She was annoyed that I scored higher than her in Advanced Maths and Chemistry, and that homework was so easy for me. I tried to help, of course, but what started as fifteen minutes of tutoring interspersed with soft touches and wistful glances turned quickly to frustration.
“It’s minus b square,” I said. It was a hot day, and sweat was itching under the fringe of hair on the back of my neck.
“I know,” she snapped. “I just forgot to write it, okay?” She made a rough mark with her mechanical pencil, smudging the equation.
“Mr. Tan deducts marks for that.”
“Aiyah, stop bothering me lah!”
Our time together, already limited by our parents and our schoolwork and our friends, began to seem less special. At times, we even fought.
“I don’t want you to go, okay?” she said over the phone one night, her tone clipped. “Don’t go to East Coast Park with those people.”
“Ling, it’s my church fellowship. Must go lah. Otherwise what do I say? Anyway you have rehearsal, right?”
“You are too accommodating, you know that?”
“Yah! I know! Otherwise how to accommodate you?”
She hung up, right then. When I called back, she hung up again. The third time, it was her mother.
“Hello?” said Huiling’s mum. She sounded concerned.
That time, I hung up.
It felt like we were the worst couple in the world. It didn’t make any sense to me. How could a boyfriend and girlfriend fight so much?
“The third year is the worst,” confided our friend Zhirong. “Margaret and I nearly split up then. It was bad.”
“Last year you said the second year was the worst. And before that, you said the eighth month was the worst.”
“Well, err, those are bad too. But the third year, I’m telling you. Worst.”
We never broke up. Both of us said the words on numerous occasions. We didn’t talk for weeks, sometimes months. We had slammed phones and bitter pager beeps. We had cold shoulders and skipped birthdays and awkward social gatherings.
“Can we please just address the elephant in the room?” said Margaret. “It’s fine if you two don’t want to talk to each other, but you’re making it really uncomfortable. Donny, you’re clutching your fork like you’re going to stab her.”
“There’s no elephant in the room,” I said, because behind Huiling was a humongous manticore, always her favorite when she put on her passive-aggressive act. The manticore’s meter-long fangs dripped poison, which plopped and sizzled on the white tablecloth. It was making the restaurant smell like a butcher’s coffin.
We had intermissions, though, between fights. Those were the times I loved her most, when she’d glance upward at me, her eyes uncertain as a bird’s. It made me happy, holding the hand that I was convinced was made to be in mine. Because… why else could we see each others’ summons? It had to be fate. Perhaps that was why our breakups never lasted.
In those cursory times, those cracked-china moments, it seemed Huiling agreed.
“You only have one chance at life, you know?” I heard Madam Chia say, standing in front of the remedial Physics class on a drippy Saturday morning. I was at school for a prefect’s meeting, and I found myself taking the long way around school so I could pass by room 4-F. There was a dragon in the room, snorting out charged clouds of soot as it rested its head on the floor. Its green eyes remained wide open, suspicious. Trailing behind me was a will-o’-wisp, its tiny lantern casting orange light on the dripping stucco.
“You all know your O levels are in three months right? Your marks on the mock exam were horrible. Worst I’ve ever seen.” Her voice echoed out into the hall, sounding far away but each word striking like a bell. “You all better pull your socks up in these last three months. If you all don’t do well and don’t get into university, you might as well be failures in life.”
I was waiting for her in the refectory when remedial class ended. She made a beeline for me, sat down, and rested her head on her arms. “I’m dead,” she said.
“I can’t remember anything. Madam Chia shouted at me.”
“What did you forget?”
She looked up from her arms. “Bodoh. Let’s go somewhere.”
She grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet. We walked out of school together, looking up at the cloudy sky. She didn’t say a word until we clambered into the red pleather seats on bus 661.
“Let’s ride to the end of the line. As far away from this stupid place as possible.”
Thirty minutes later we ended up at Changi Beach, where dark waves crashed over crab-infested boulders. Hairy half-coconut shells bobbed in and out, following the tide. The breeze was fresh and salty, and smelled of drizzle. Huiling looked calmer. She pulled me off the bus and off the pavement.
“Do you believe in destiny?” she said as we walked along the beach, our toes sinking into the cold sand.
“What do you mean?”
“Chia always says you only have one chance at life. But what does it mean? A chance to do what?” She looked up at me. “Are we meant to do something special in life? Or is life just random? Sometimes I think it’s just random. But what if I’m just missing something important?”
I thought she was talking about her poor results at school. She had that hunched look about her that she got when she was bested by a complicated Maths problem.
” Forget about Chia,” I said, tossing a dried tree seed into the waves. “I think we’re destined for certain things in life. But Chia won’t be the one to help us find out.”
She stopped, suddenly, and turned to face me. “How come I can only summon monsters?”
Her voice grated, like the rusted edge of a pocketknife. The wind blew her hair up around her face, framing her eyes like a dark halo.
The waves surged in behind her to crash on the shore. My heart fluttered as I realized that one of the ‘waves’ sat glistening, half-submerged in the grey sunlight. Huiling’s leviathan.
“Manticores. Minotaurs. Hydras. Spiders. Bats. Snakes. Giant squids.” She listed her summons one by one, her eyes never leaving mine. “Monsters. Villains. Disgusting creatures of darkness and evil. That’s me.”
“You just prefer them.”
She shook her head. “I’ve tried. I can’t summon anything pretty or nice. Yesterday I tried to summon a unicorn, and I got a hellhound.”
“Nothing bad about a hellhound.”
“But I can’t summon anything else, that’s the point.”
“But that’s fine,” I said impatiently. “I like your summons. I recognize them. Like the way your kraken has a crusting on barnacles on its right eye. Or the way your giant spiders chitter. I think they’re great.”
“But what if nobody else thinks so?”
“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” I said. “Nobody else can see them anyway, right?”
She focused on her shoes. “Sometimes I feel like they can.”
I didn’t answer.
“This is it, you know, bodoh? In three months everything will be over. Some of us will go on to JC, some of us won’t. Everyone will be in a different place.” She coughed and smoothed out the un-tucked edge of her uniform. “You know I won’t make it to the same school as you, right?”
“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “And you don’t know that. Anyway, there’s no point talking about this now. We’ll see what happens.”
But what she said stayed with me, a touch of haze and drizzle in my heart. They came back to haunt me in the following months, when the moon sat lonely in the night sky and watched me study.
Pastor Lim bowed his head on a Monday three months later and prayed for God to give us presence of mind during our exams. Clarity of thought, he said. Amen.
I was too tired to echo him. The nights and days had melded together to me, an endless vortex of school, study, eat, sleep. On that particular Monday in chapel, it was time for sleep.
The exams were two days away.
I pressed my mechanical pencil against the paper, methodically filling out oblong bubbles to spell out my name. The proctor stood, buzzard-like, on the stage at the front of the hall.
Huiling sat ahead of me and to the right, five seats away in the air-conditioned hall. A four-legged drake stared back at me, its glassy eyes full of annoyance.
She had grown more and more touchy over the past two months. She didn’t speak to me for weeks, and sometimes when she saw me her eyes would immediately harden, like a fire toad’s. It was all right. I knew she was stressed. I didn’t push her.
But I still went to see her dance. Even when she wouldn’t talk to me. Even when I could see the simmer of her anger in every movement, when she would storm backstage after the final dance. Huiling’s dancing was like spring. And even though our exams approached and circles appeared under her eyes and she forgot steps sometimes, I was always glad I went to see her.
I filled out the first bubble in the multiple-choice section, making sure I left no gaps in my shading.
On the final day of exams, I left the exam hall thoroughly exhausted. I stood there, blinking in the thick heat, wondering what to do next. I wasn’t the only one. My classmates gathered around me, finding their voices like miners emerging from a collapsed mine.
My classmate Vincent ran up. “Yeah!!” he shouted. “It’s over!”
The world stirred back into movement. People were laughing. Someone threw his backpack into the air, cheering, and it landed on the polished tile with a loud smack.
I felt a smile take over my face.
It was really over.
Christmas lights were hung up all along Orchard Road, and women in heels hurried by, protecting their handbags from warm droplets that fell from red-and-green bulbs in the post-rain drip. I was walking to the MRT station in a T-shirt and shorts, having folded away my Secondary school uniform for the last time two weeks ago.
I glanced at my pager. It was Huiling. I ducked into a 7-11 and inserted twenty cents into one of the big orange payphones.
“Hello?” she said.
She didn’t say anything for a long time.
“Hello?” I said eventually, worried that I had been cut off.
I was about to see if I had another twenty cent coin when she spoke.
“I have some news,” she blurted out.
The tension in my gut came back immediately. Had she gotten her results already? It was about time for them to be mailed out. Was it bad news? Good news? Mediocre news?
“What is it?” I said, perhaps a bit hastily.
She hesitated. “I’m moving to England.”
I nearly dropped the phone. “What?”
Her voice sounded soft, like it was coming to me through velvet. She spoke quickly. “My father’s company is sending him there. They waited until after our O’s to tell me.”
It was my turn to be silent. “When are you leaving?”
“In three weeks.”
We let the line hang silent for a good twenty seconds. I imagined her at home, kneeling on her bed, clutching the phone with both hands. I stood there in the 7-11, wedged into a corner between cases of Sprite and Tiger beer. An old man squeezed past me, holding two packs of cigarettes. The phone line, transmitting nothing but cloudy static, was the only thing connecting us. And my twenty cents was running out.
“Stay there.” I said. “I’m coming to you.”
“No,” she said. “My mum is home.”
“Does it matter?” My face felt warm. “Come out then, if I can’t come over.”
“I can’t. We have to eat dinner.”
“Ling. How about tonight? Meet me at–”
I cursed. My time had run out, and a shrill monotone assaulted me from the earpiece.
I replaced the handset, and got on the first bus towards home.
She didn’t want to go. It was unfair. She hated her parents. They were awful. She’d try to stay with her aunt. Her cousin. Her grandfather. Anything. She’d even rather be homeless than go to England.
I agreed. She was already sixteen – shouldn’t that be considered grown-up? She could make her own decisions about where she was going to live. Her parents couldn’t force her. Surely there was a law about it.
But as the days passed, I began to have an undercurrent of second thoughts. I sat with a tiny golden deer on the ground floor of my flat, picking at the stained concrete. Huiling showed up with a massive scorpion, stepping across the parking lot like she owned it.
“Hi,” she said, her mouth a cross between a smile and a grimace.
“What did you want to talk to me about?”
I took a deep breath. My stomach felt cold, like I’d waded out too far at the beach and felt the ocean’s true cold underneath the cold surface layer.
I blurted it out. “I think you should go.”
She froze, mid-step.
“I mean, it’s an opportunity. England’s a good country, right? You should be happy there. I mean, you’ve been here all your life, but… you don’t like it here, do you? You’d be crazy to. Nobody likes it here. All anyone cares about is what you do in school. How you do on exams. Why you’re not turning into the ‘useful person’ everyone wants. I think there’s more to life than being just useful. Our O’s results are coming back soon. You could go and leave that crap all behind.”
I stopped, aware that I had said everything perhaps a little too fast.
Huiling was looking at me in a way I couldn’t describe. I got prickles on my neck from the way she was looking at me. It was like the silence in the kitchen after you have just shattered your favorite cup. It was like a whistle of wind through the roof during an afternoon rainstorm, when nobody is home.
“You think my life is some crap that I don’t like?”
“No – I didn’t mean–”
“You already think my results are going to be bad, don’t you?”
She just glared at me. Contained in that glare was the biggest accusation of all: I thought our time together was meaningful. Apparently you didn’t.
“I didn’t mean that, Ling. In England you could do whatever you wanted. You could dance.”
“I don’t want to dance,” she said, and spun away so I couldn’t see her face. “How come you don’t understand either? You’re just like my parents. I don’t want to dance. I want… this.” She twitched her hand, and somehow encompassed everything beautiful in the world. “Don’t… you?”
Suddenly the air was full of white. Bright cottony tufts spilled from her hands into the air, like an infinite dandelion. “I don’t want to hear it,” she said, her back still turned. “You really are stupid.”
The white tufts swarmed me. It was only when they got close to my face that I saw that each little tuft had a pair of beady red eyes and a sharp pair of fangs. I swatted at them helplessly, watching as they latched on to my arms and neck, biting.
“Hey!” Without thinking, I released a cloud of spectral butterflies, which tried valiantly to keep the tufts away from my eyes and nose. “Ling!”
When the cloud of white tufts cleared, Huiling was gone. I stood there, hunched over, holding my arms close and breathing heavily.
The tiny fangs hadn’t hurt me. I hadn’t felt them at all. But as the last one faded away, its jaws still working viciously at my forearm, I wished more than anything that I had.
Huiling’s leviathan regards me through bulletproof glass. I am almost at an angle where I can see the security lines, but by the time I reach the wall of the terminal, she has already shown her passport and been ushered through.
My stomach squeezes. It can’t end like this. I don’t even know her new address. Why did I wait so long to decide that I needed one last chance, one last talk with her?
I don’t even know what I want to say. Scenes from the past four years flicker in my mind like a movie reel. Our first kiss. The first day of school. Bats against my window. Holding her. Sitting at the back of an auditorium, watching her dance. Finding out through Margaret that Huiling had flunked her Advanced Maths O Level.
I turn around and sprint for the terminal entrance. My heart is pounding and my lungs are burning, but I don’t slow down. This feels like it may be the most important moment of my life.
I emerge into the midday heat. Compared to the air-conditioned terminal, it’s like walking into an oven. I dart past taxi drivers and chauffeurs. I leap over a chain, and nearly stumble on a drainage grate.
Someone once told me this: There is one special person out there for everyone. Be patient. Don’t worry and don’t rush. When you find her, you’ll know.
I try to swallow, but my throat is dry, and it turns into a cough. I have to spend a few moments with my hands on my knees, panting. A colony of big black ants swarms the sidewalk near my feet.
I squeeze my eyes shut, and my eyes burn like they’re trying to cry. I already found that person. It was obvious. In my mind, two cockatrices goose-step between school desks, flaunting their tailfeathers.
Congratulations, read the letter from the Ministry of Education when I got my results in the mail. You scored among the top ten percent of students in the MSCE ‘O’ Level Exams. High-performing students like you are a boon to our country and our society. We trust that you will go on to achieve great things in the future.
I limp my way towards a hillock at the edge of the parking lot, next to the two-storey fence that surrounds the runway. When I reach it, I grasp the fence in my hands and stare out at the runway, at the planes lined up in rows. Little boxlike trucks zip around like important bees. I think I see Huiling’s plane, a blue-and-gold jumbo jet with the Singapore Airlines logo.
They tell you these things before the tests. Before the judgments. Before the fights and crying and breakups. Before you grapple with expectations, disappointments, and constant feelings of futility. Before the world sets in and you realize that despite your hopes, griffons and basilisks only share one thing in common. They’re both mythical.
Huiling was the only other person who could see my summons. I kick the fence, hard. Why didn’t that count for something?
Fifteen minutes passes. Half an hour. When I see the plane I think is Huiling’s move off from its gate and reverse onto the runway, I suck in my breath and push harder than I ever have.
A magnificent, glowing phoenix erupts from the tips of my fingers, ten times bigger than any phoenix I have ever summoned. And as Huiling’s plane begins its trundle down the runway, my phoenix cuts across the tarmac to circle alongside it, sending sheets of golden flame billowing into the morning sky.
The scene is not quite as majestic as I imagined. The phoenix is still small, compared to the plane. I don’t know if Huiling can see it. I don’t know what side she’s sitting on, or even if she’s near a window. She might be looking at a magazine, or maybe she’s not even on this plane.
Still, my phoenix circles. The plane taxis, gains speed, and tilts itself up into the blue sky. My phoenix follows, pumping its wings to keep speed until both plane and bird are so small that I can hardly make them out against the glare of the sun.
I hope she saw it. I really do. I hope she was filled with emotion, and shed a tear like the ones running down my cheeks now. I hope she thinks of the tiny phoenixes I summoned for her, the I love you‘s from the 28th floor.
I want to tell myself that she’ll find happiness in England. That she’ll find friends, fulfillment, even love. I want to tell myself that I will, too. But it sounds too much like another story. Another myth that we tell ourselves, despite reality.
For now, I can only hope.
About the Author
Jeremy Sim recently moved to Germany, where he lives with his girlfriend Celine and a cute dog named Rico. When not writing, playing video games or experimenting in the kitchen, he practices the thrilling technique of arriving at the platform just as the train pulls away.
Read our interview with Jeremy Sim