This story is by HUBERT DU and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Jataka tales are Buddhist myths presented in parables. In one story, a man was told that he would die in a few days. One day, he passed some drowning ants and he put some leaves in the water for them, thus rescuing them. Years passed, and he did not die. It was said that his life was prolonged when he saved the ants.
I was fifty-two years old and working as a night-shift security officer. Married for half a year, my wife and I were different and she made no secret of it, and disputed on almost everything. Sometimes I wanted a new life and was not sure if marriage helped. I had attempted suicide once due to such an incoherent life.
A new life, the only hope – whatever that meant for me.
I was an introvert – an unassertive and agreeable person. Averse to superstition, myths, conspiracy theories and the like. I did not bother others – and I never wanted to antagonize Irene. In my own unassuming ways, I maintained my own obscure roles in life and at work, minding my own business whenever I could.
One night, all of this changed.
“Hey!” a day-shift colleague approached me,”You better go and have a look. Your partner is sleeping on the job.”
“He has been lying there for a long time ….ever since I came.”
His speech and demeanour connoted cynicism and condescension. Why did he not just go and tap the man on the shoulder? It was at the main gate, in the glare of public view!
Then, I felt something amiss. Roland? A rather stern man, he had almost an impeccable sense of discipline and responsibility. We were not exactly close friends, as I was only less than a week at the workplace. But I understood him from the amicable encounter with him the night before.
It had be the night before that the change occurred.
We talked about the vicissitudes of life. How flimsy life is. The irrealistic expectations of life.
“The Hong Kong actress Barbara Yung died at age 26,” Roland said pensively,”She had everything in life, yet she committed suicide.”
We talked about religion. He told me about his fall in business, the adversities and downfalls he faced before he sprung back to life. Later, Roland gave me a Buddha pendant for blessing, the supplement for his lessons in hope.
“I have worn this for many years and it has blessed me greatly,” he said before passing it to me.
Such a generous person! Selfless in the transference of merits as the gift of pendant signified. Blessings must be shared, Roland briefly taught me.
We spoke for half an hour before Roland went for his puff, a breach of his routines as he was a heavy chain smoker.
A breach of my reclusive character, too, as I did not like to talk too long with people – so, it could be then, that the change in me happened.
“Roland, Roland,” I pleaded, “Wake up.”
My head went reeling, indecisive what to do next. Resuscitate him while shouting for more help? Call the police? Amidst the mire of incongruent thoughts, the evil and cynical part of me sneaked up, harshly saying: “Get away. His breath is stained with nicotine – and you don’t know what else. Kiss of life? It’s not your fault!”
Thankfully, a young teacher came out from his car as he had just arrived for work, attracted by a small crowd already formed outside the guardhouse.
“Let me start his heartbeat and you call the police,” he directed.
With my confidence re-generated, I really did that kiss of life, in rhythm with the man’s pumps on Roland’s chest.
Then, my thoughts went astray. Goodness! it must have been more than 10 minutes since Roland was seen on the ground before I was told about it. Did he have any chance at all?
I heaved a big sigh of despair. The teacher sensed it and stopped, recognizing the unspoken signal. My eyes watered. Roland was gone.
The ambulance came, and I went along as it screamed its way to the hospital.
Desperately, I tried to skim a lesson from the Jataka tales. He had saved a life because he gave me hope – Roland deserved an extension of his own secular life. I was a drowning ant, I pleaded in my heart, to whoever could hear – men, immortals, or a Buddha.
But Roland was no more.
I have changed since. Never before had I cared so much for a person. In fact, I had always been struggling inside of me to bother about whatever happened in the rest of the world.
Two months later, my wife, Irene, revealed that she was already pregnant for a while. I beamed with joy at the news. Me – an old man having a child?
That was a brand new life for me!!
I was both frightened and excited when I went to look at my boy while my wife recuperated after the Caesarian. Born one month ahead of time, he looked grey, tiny and almost non-human. Is it because of my late age? How will he grow up and “survive” in school?
“Are you the grandfather?” The nurse in the maternity ward asked me. I smiled. I told Irene about it and we had a good laugh together.
When he was two years old, my wife bought 2 shirts that read: ”I make adorable babies” and “Adorable Baby.” Our photos in the respective clothes were posted on Facebook and immortalised.
When he was two, Alec was a legend. I enjoyed watching his adept fingers on the iPad. An independent boy at four, he used the Macbook like a pro. He was internet-savvy. He also surfed the internet and watched cartoons by himself. Once, he even took photos of our maid who was idling around instead of work. Of course, we did our due diligence to put things aright, which meant taking the mobile phone away from him as well.
Talk about reincarnation! How can an infant know so much of the technology which I struggled for quite a while in adulthood? Perhaps Alec was the byproduct of karmic dues that Roland had repaid. I was a saved ant. I believe in myths.
However, Alec could not talk well. When he was in kindergarten, the school counselor recommended him to the psychologist who diagnosed that he was perhaps dyslexic, suspected autistic, perhaps antisocial. “Perhaps” – I heard the psychologist’s diagnosis. I was angry but unable to pinpoint my object of animosity. Karma or the quack analysis of behavior?
Alec went to the school for the intellectually disabled: I desperately accepted this percieved lifeline, like a drowning man clutching the straw. The almost routine fights with Irene hurt, so Alec needed a different environment to grow – away from the normal school. That was what I thought.
I was a split man, despondent, depressed and consumed by anger. I needed to serve Alec’s destiny which had splinted into mine. I could do more. I remembered that day when the flames of Hell were stoked.
“Can you tell me where his colouring pencils are put?” I angrily approached Irene. “His numbers book? He has not been taught anything productive. No studies.
“They are not giving him Chinese lessons,” I yelled, “Can you tell me where his things are put – so that I can teach him by myself?”
Irene simply watched her movie, ignoring me. The fires of anger bellowed inside me. Then she did something unimagineable: she screamed back vindictively.
“Alec, come,” I called calmly and icily to my son.
Suddenly I had lost all hope, my feelings depleted.” Let us go out.”
I wanted to walk him to the parapet wall and threw him 10 floors down from where we lived. Then I would join him.
Alec trotted towards me. From afar I watched that happy march: then, I was suddenly overwhelmed by some inexplicable feelings. My head was swooned by the childlike expresssion of faith and obedience of a human in response to a fatherly call. My vision blurred.
Alec is ten years old now. After school hours, he learns computer coding, organized by the school. He is taking higher Chinese now. For the last two years, he went the slow path for learners because he was a complete stranger to that difficult language. By his own effort, he learned from an app that Irene installed on the phone for him. The school is putting him on a programme for Maths, meant for gifted children.
My life is better as my relationship with Irene improves. Mostly it is because we enjoyed parenting Alec together. He is the cute child no adults can fail to love. As adults grow, things, too, get better. Roland is living and still much in touch with me. He is Alec, a legend in my life. A salve to my insanity in dire times of doubt.
I still believe in the Jataka tales.