This story is by Natdia and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Chen Haoyu woke up with a start. He panted hard, his heart beating erratically. His pillow sweat-stained; Haoyu had been suffering from fretful nights’ sleep for thirteen consecutive days. The same dream haunted him each time.
He kept seeing himself sweeping a huge grey grave overlooking a majestic rain tree found in the older section of Choa Chu Kang Chinese cemetery situated in the west side of the sunny island of Singapore. There were a few lines of Hokkien inscriptions on the grave which he could not read. Surrounded by darkness, there seemed to be a bright shadow of a figure in the background; watching him intently throughout as Haoyu swept the grave, burnt incense and offered joss papers, only to vanish suddenly after he had recited prayers for the deceased.
Haoyu was not the superstitious type. He was neither proficient in his first language, Hokkien nor did he care for specific Chinese traditions that his family followed fervently. To please his mother, he would merely go through the motion of each Chinese festival as required. However, this time, he had a nagging feeling that he had to take actions. This was not a common occurrence. Could there be a specific reason why he was getting those nightmares?
“Haoyu, come! Breakfast is served. Have your congee while it’s hot,” Li Huifen called out to her son, Haoyu. Huifen was a doting mother. Haoyu was her only son. His father had passed away three years ago of a sudden heart attack. A housewife for most of her married life, she was used to serving her family day in and day out. She dutifully completed her household chores and cooked daily meals for her family. However, she was a reserved lady who often looked troubled but would not share her thoughts with her family members. In fact, there seemed to be an air of sadness about her that no one could fathom, not even her son.
Haoyu decided that he would open up to his mother about his dreams. She had always been there for him and he knew he could rely on her.
“Ma, I have been suffering from a nightmare,” Haoyu explained the cause of his troubled sleep to his mother.
“Haoyu, it is a sign. You should get yourself involved in the upcoming Qingming festival this month. Go and clean the old graves and offer incense. Maybe someone needs help, you never know. It doesn’t hurt to do something for the deceased,” Huifen told her son.
“Thanks Ma. I’ll consider it,” Haoyu decided that maybe Mother was right. He could not go on living the way he was, listless, unfocused and disturbed. It was also affecting his day job as a delivery man. He was not in the right mood to do any food delivery the past two weeks but he knew this could not go on. Whatever it was, he was determined to nip the problem in the bud. He would start by visiting the grave that appeared in his dreams.
After doing extensive research on the internet about the Chinese cemetery and talking to three close friends who often visited Chinese graves, Haoyu was ready for a visit to the cemetery during the first day of Qingming. Not yet ready to share his thoughts with anyone else except his mother, he decided he would do this alone and did not ask anyone to accompany him.
It was a sweltering afternoon. Haoyu was in the god-forsaken section of the cemetery, looking out for that particular grey tomb and the rain tree overlooking it. The sun was high up in the sky and the heat was unbearable. Haoyu wiped the sweat from his forehead with both arms and knelt on the ground. He had been wandering about aimlessly for around an hour and he suspected he was lost. He took a sip of water from his water bottle and looked up.
Without warning, there was an old man standing in front of him. Haoyu fell backwards in shock. Where did this old man come from? He had winter-white hair and faded skin and had on a white tattered singlet with ragged shorts. He pointed to Haoyu and gestured for him to stand and follow him. Haoyu decided to go along. Maybe this old man was a caretaker of the Chinese cemetery? He would probably know where the grey tomb was.
“Sir, I need to look for a particular grey grave. I’ve been looking for it but to no avail,” Haoyu lamented to the dishevelled old man. “Call me Ah Kong. I’m old enough to be your grandfather,” replied the old man before pointing forward with his shaky, crooked fingers.
They walked for another ten minutes before they stopped at a particular grave surrounded by tall weeds that looked archaic and uncared for. It looked just like the one in his dreams! He’d finally found it! He turned to thank the old man but he had disappeared! Where did he go? Haoyu turned back to the grave and suddenly, the old man was on the opposite side of the grave, looking down at it. A gust of wind blew suddenly and he started to have goosebumps all over his body. He had an uneasy feeling but decided to brush it off. He wanted to make the best out of his time there so he started pulling out the tall weeds around the grave.
“How’s your mother doing?” the old man asked unexpectedly. Haoyu answered blankly, almost dazed, “Oh, Ma is fine. She enjoys watching Taiwanese films when she has completed her household chores.” The old man smiled weakly. After pulling out the weeds, Haoyu started brushing off the dirt that had thickened around the grave. The inscriptions on the grave were blocked by grime and it would take few rounds of brushing to clean. It was early evening before he left home hurriedly to avoid nightfall. He was determined to return the next day to ensure the cleanliness of that grave.
That night, Haoyu fell asleep almost immediately. He dreamt of being in the cemetery again but this time, there was bright light around the grey grave and he could see the outline of the apparition. The next morning, Haoyu realised he had slept better and that whatever he was doing at the grave was probably working out well for him. He was less anxious and determined to clean the grave thoroughly.
Off he went after packing cleaning accessories and updating his mother about his grave experience the day before. He thought of his surreal encounter. Whose grave was that? Who was the strange old man who guided him to the grave? Why did he ask about Ma? Even Ma had a grim expression when Haoyu mentioned that the old man inquired about her. Anyhow, Haoyu brushed off his thoughts the moment he reached the grave. “Scrub, scrub,” off he went brushing the grime off the old, grey grave.
“Excellent effort,” a feeble voice was heard.
Haoyu turned and saw the same old man.
“Oh Ah Kong, you’re here,” Haoyu remarked, “I’m going to offer some joss papers now.”
The old man smiled feebly with tears in his eyes.
“That smile looked strangely familiar?” Haoyu thought.
Haoyu returned the smile, closed his eyes and knelt before the grave, making prayers for the deceased. When he opened his eyes, the old man was gone. Haoyu placed a bouquet of fresh flowers on the grave and noticed the Hokkien inscriptions on the tombstone were clearer. He decided to take a photo of them and ask his mother what the inscriptions stated.
As his hand moved down the tombstone, he touched something hard. It was a white envelope and there was an old photograph inside of a man, a woman and a female toddler. They were smiling widely in the photo dated January 10, 1962. Haoyu gasped loudly. That toddler was his mother! She had a similar photograph in her photo album. She had never talked about her father though. The only secret information Haoyu overheard from his late father was that he had left the family for another woman when she was five. He never came back and Haoyu’s grandmother died of grief shortly after. Haoyu’s mother, the only child, was adopted and brought up by their neighbours, the Liu family.
There were bold words at the back of the photo. Haoyu looked closely. The words said, “Pa is sorry. Forgive me Huifen.” Stunned, Haoyu sat against the grave and closed his eyes. His exhaustion led to him falling asleep. This time, the apparition was clear. It was the same old man he saw at the grave but he was now well-dressed. The old man approached him and said, “Thank you for visiting me, grandson.” Haoyu woke up with a start and everything hit him instantly. “The old man I saw was my biological grandfather?” Haoyu started pondering, “Should I tell Ma?”