Broken Dream, p.1Joyce Chng
There are real angels living amongst us. This is what they have been saying in Meng for a long time. Angels, with feathered wings and wondrous flight. Walking amongst us, living with us, they whisper excitedly.
It is always raining in Meng. What is Meng, but a broken mish-mashed dream, a patchwork of fallen buildings and artifices on the verge of deterioration? Stand on the roof and you will see its darkened skies, with the city lights making it look magical from above. Go to street level and it is simply detritus, roads choked with traffic and huddled people rushing past ancient buildings pre-war and pre-everything else. Old restaurants, redolent of garish traditional figures straight out from the legends and myths, dragon and phoenix pillars writhing in an eternal dance, temples tucked in the middle of back lanes with thick incense filling the air. And all the while, the rain falls, constantly, turning Meng into an always-night, always-dusk.
And yet, the angels live here, in Meng. Beauty in the middle of decay.
Where the angels came from is a mystery. How they became angels is another mystery. Some say that it is a gift from the gods, right from the Heavenly Jade Emperor. Some say that it is a virus, created to mess with DNA.
Some say that it is a curse, running in families. A shame hidden behind family pride and name.
I would say that all these theories are valid. Why? For I am one. An angel.
I became one when I was sixteen. I remember the day perfectly, because changing into an angel, wings splitting out from your back is something you will remember forever.
Growing up in Meng is not easy, for every child. More so when the child is known to be different or marked as different by his or her peers. A Meng-child lives in perpetual fear of his or her surroundings, ever watchful, ever alert, perhaps an unwitting trait passed down from war-scarred ancestors. So, a Meng-child always walks, hunched and eyes lowered. The back curves, becomes natural – and soon, you become part of the huddled crowd, walking in the ever-rain.
I turned sixteen on Qing Ming. People would visit their familial graves, clearing the weeds and cleaning the offering dishes. Throngs would visit the grave hill on Qing Ming, where the stone mounds turn the hill into another city. I remember being unhappy on that day; my parents had gone off early to “sweep the graves” of my grandparents and had left a bowl of vermicelli with two small hard-boiled eggs on the table for me. The house felt cold and empty without them, the rain making the feeling of loneliness more unbearable. I ate the vermicelli and left for school…
… where I was taunted and laughed at by my class-mates with their feral laughter and clawed comments. Earlier in the week, they threw my books into a midden. My precious books talking about hong kong, the world and science. I wanted to tell them that they were bastard children, from a bastard culture thrown together by a frantic post-war government.
Angry, half-sobbing, half-raging, I turned away from their cruelty and simply ran. Wind whizzed past, stinging my face while I flagellated myself with an internal litany of self-hate. Halfway through my blind lope, it happened.
I felt a tearing pain, of flesh being ripped apart, on my back. The pain made me dizzy and I gasped, out of shock more than of agony. Then, the agony came like a physical electrical shock and I shrieked as two things burst forth, with a spray of red blood (my blood) and the crunch of tendons and bones. I found myself on the ground, my uniform torn, a pool of blood slowly being diluted by the drizzle. There was a lingering ache on my back as if I had pulled a muscle. There was also a buzz of excited whispers and muttered words.
I glanced at my sides, seeing the feathered wings, still pink with blood and other fluids. The rainwater was gently cleaning the coppery redness away and I knew that the color of the wings was going to be white. Swan-white.
Gingerly, slowly, I stood up and I watched my mockers back away, fearful and awed by my terrifying transformation. Almost instinctively, I spread my wings and I felt them unfold, their strength pulling at new muscles and bones, like the tug of wind on sails. Suddenly, there was a ray of sunlight, the first I had ever seen – razor-sharp and razor-bright, lancing everyone on the stop. It bathed me with radiance.
I began to laugh and my mockers ran away. My wings dried very quickly and I admired their beauty, reminding me of the taxonomy books I had read when I was a child. With a downward sweep of my new wings, I leapt into the air and flew towards the sky.
However, my change had brought me confusion. My parents found it too unnerving and refused to talk to me. Hurt, I took to the sky, in a pair of ripped jeans and a t-shirt hastily converted to accommodate two large white wings. In the always-darkness of Meng, I flew. Simply flew, with no direction in mind. It was a mindless flight, to chase away the maelstrom in my own head.
Meng stretched forth beneath me. It was night. Then again, it was always night. Lights sparkled like fairy lights; I could see traffic moving haphazardly, the figures of people ant-like as they rushed through the streets. Clusters of brightness shone most around the pleasure areas where the restaurants were. Even high above in the air, I could hear the hawkers shouting to potential customers. My stomach growled, wishing for grilled cuttlefish lacquered with sweet dark sauce and a cup of tie kwan yin.
My wings beat steadily. I was becoming increasingly drenched. I searched desperately for a sanctuary, where I could rest or hide from prying eyes.
I grew gradually tired and I descended lower, lower… until I touched down at a back lane filled with hawkers and restaurants. People stared at me, though they did nothing. Someone offered me a bowl of hot rice dumplings and I ate it gratefully. When I was done, the hawker took the bowl back and watched me with amazement in his eyes.
I drew a considerable audience. Children in ragged cloths looked at me, tugging at my wing tips. Hawkers sidled up, offering me samples of their wares. Women with garish make-up – prostitutes – watched me like sleek cats in expensive cheongsams, their eyes kohled and barely masking their jealousy.
In the midst of “Do you want to try this?” and “Can I touch your wings?”, I caught sight of a young woman, wearing a voluminous dark cloak. She walked over and placed a hand on my shoulder. She said something that I would always remember.
Thanking the hawkers and waving nervously at the children, I followed her.
Meng is a unforgiving world. Perpetual darkness. Rain. Whatever form of beauty – be it plant or animal – wilted in Meng, unable to grow. Yet, the woman led me through back-roads filled with animal activity. Vermin – rats and strays. We walked past lean animal forms slinking beside us.
We drew near to a broken-down warehouse. There was light in there.
“You will be safe here,” the young woman said and drew down her hood. I realized that she was not as young as I thought; there were crow’s feet around her eyes and a sadness pulling at her lips. She removed her large cloak and I saw that she had wings too. Grey wings, tipped in black. Like a seagull. She wore a simple t-shirt and a long floral skirt.
“You may call me Tern,” her voice was soft but with authority. I saw that there were people like me, like her. Lounging around. Sitting on the floor. Eating. Laughing. Or just sitting quietly, in almost catatonic states. One common thing: we all had wings. There was a cheery bonfire in the middle of the warehouse, providing some warmth in the damp cold. Someone was strumming a guitar, singing an old folk song about the moon lady and the rabbit.
She was still talking to me, her grey eyes watching me calmly. I had to introduce myself, glanced at my wings and said, “You may call me White.”
Tern chuckled, this time with real humor and warmth. “Come, White, let’s join us.” And she led me to the group of angels who stood up to welcome me.
There is another world co-existing with Meng. It lives in Meng but not totally in Meng. The angels call this world Min. Tern is their unofficial leader; she is the one who brings in the newly-born angels and introduces them to another way of living, another culture.
In Min, we are not the gifts from the Heavenly Jade Emperor. Nor we ever discuss the consequences of genetic engineering. We simply do what we can to survive. At the same time, we make gardens out of the debris that is Meng. In the warehouse, we grow vegetables, using salvaged lights from the second-hand shops as sunlight. The vegetables are then given to the few orphanages in Meng. Orphanages in Meng are thought to be places for pariah children. Angels are part-pariah and we understand how the children feel.
The angels come in various shapes and sizes. The wing colors come in dazzling colors and hue. There are simple white and brown wings. Black flashes on the back of a muscular young man named Crowman. There are even wings that look like parakeet wings, all rainbow and flashy.
Yet, how they became angels sadden me most. They are tales of rejection, just like mine. Once Tern brought in a young girl, about three years older than me, on the verge of changing into an angel. She was crying when Tern made her sit down and removed her top, revealing an engorged back. Tern taught me how to massage the swollen spots, how to coax the wings out. So, I sat down behind the girl and began to massage the spots. A group of women had arranged themselves around us, singing softly. Something moved beneath my fingers and I recall my own transformation. This girl had the benefit of a support group around her. I had none. I shook the thoughts from my mind and concentrated on the massaging.
She howled as her back suddenly bunched and burst, vestigial wings emerging with strands of wet feathers. I continued to massage the back and the wings gradually emerged with a moist sucking sound, unfurling like a blossoming morning glory. The wings were a tawny-gold. The girl sobbed in relief while we cleaned her bloody back with sponges soaked in warm water.
Such is the life in Min.
I yearned for flight though. I wanted to touch the sky again, feel the wind on my face. I would look at the dark clouds, wishing for the sharp sun to pierce through. As much as I loved the life in Min, I longed for more.
By this time, my wings had gotten stronger and powerful. It was akin to exercising new limbs. I had taken to flying in the large old abandoned hangar where steel birds used to roost. Others would join me in flight and we would swoop around, laughing, enjoying the primal freedom of flying. Yet, I would still gaze wistfully at the moody heavens.
It was around the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts when it started. Angels started disappearing one by one. Accidents do happen in Meng and Min – people would go disappearing for days and turn up again, smiling as if nothing has happened. But their absences took longer than usual and Tern became worried.
No one knew exactly how old Tern was. Many speculated that she was one of the First Ones, right back to the time when people started manifesting wings. The First Ones, they say, came right after the war, appearing in new births. As for Tern, she looked as young as a woman of twenty, though the wrinkles around her gentle eyes belied her real age. She moved with purpose and when she spoke, people listened to her. I certainly did, being a teenager of seventeen. She also took me under her wing.
Now when Tern worried, there was a palpable aura around her. The rest would walk softly and dared not speak. She would sit by the window, her grey wings folded on her back, and pray quietly to herself.
I had just come back from a brief journey to my old childhood home when I spied Tern sitting by the window. My mind was still filled with sadness; I had left a bag of fresh vegetables and fruits next to the kitchen window of the still-quiet house. I knew my mother was around because I had heard the ancient gramophone crackling with songs from a place called Shanghai. So, when I approached Tern, I was carrying my own invisible burdens too.
“Tern,” I said, seeing the frown on her face.
She glanced at me. “White” was all she said.
We could smell the faint hint of burning in the air. It was the middle of the month-long festival, a time when the dead walked the land. Angels walked with the dead too, invisible to the general public and still as real. Somewhere, someone was burning paper money offerings.
“Crowman has been gone for days,” Tern spoke suddenly.
I remembered Crowman’s laughter. He was handsome and had his fair share of admirers. He was a hard worker, tireless and quick with a joke. His black wings were glossy and beautiful to touch. They felt like dark velvet.
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, to calm Tern down, when one of the youngest angels ran panting towards us. His name was Bright, because his wings often glittered.
“Tern!” Bright skidded to a halt, beating his wings frantically to prevent himself from colliding into Tern who held him gently. “Tern, we … found him!”
Dread filled me immediately and I saw that Tern was similarly affected. “Quick, Bright, bring us there now.”
Bright’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “Tern, I… they… he…”
“Bring us there now,” there was steel in Tern’s voice and Bright shut his mouth, reluctant to speak. He only led us to the place where they found Crowman’s body.
He was found in the middle of an abandoned junkyard. The smell of decaying metal was strong in the air. The rain pelted down relentlessly. We gathered around a broken body, black feathers strewn everywhere. He looked as if he had plummeted from the sky and hit the ground flat. There was no sign of blood.
Bright and the young angels sobbed in a corner. Tern’s face was ashen. I shivered and wrapped my arms around my body.
“We will bury him,” Tern broke the ragged silence by saying tersely. And that was it. We buried Crowman in an empty spot near the warehouse. A simple stone marked where he lay.
It was night when everyone crept near the bonfire and talked about the death. There was a sudden fear in the air. Min was no longer safe.
Tern appeared just then, her eyes flashing in anger. “We should not let this defeat us!” She shouted. She never shouted and the sight of her doing so stunned a lot. “Never!” Saying this, she stormed back to her room deep inside the warehouse.
The sorrow lingered for a while. Tern did not emerge from her room for days and we feared for her sanity. It was only nearing the end of the Hungry Ghosts’ Festival when her depression lifted and she came out, wan but smiling. We were cheered by her recovery and life went on with us preparing for the approaching Mid-Autumn Festival. Tern laughed and became healthy. She helped us hang the lanterns in the warehouse and even baked the sweet mooncakes, telling us humorous anecdotes and making us laugh.
So, it came as a shock when she disappeared too.
At first, we thought she had gone off to visit old friends across Meng. I helped run the place for the first week. When the second week came and still no sign of Tern, we became disturbed and remembered Crowman’s death. I dreamt of his awkward body, his back broken by the impact of his fall… and woke up, feeling more disquieted than usual.
I hated sitting around to wait. With only a bandanna around my head, I took off, wings beating hard. I would look for her.
Meng was still the same as I remembered. Dark, decaying, the buildings sagging with history. The streets were still always-night and I flew, scanning the land beneath me. I prided myself with excellent eye-sight.
It was close to evening when I flew past the Spires. The Spires are remnants from the war, large pieces of metal embedded in the earth like giant jagged razor blades. They rise, in the middle of Meng. Lofty name for an awful place. No one ever dares to go near the Spires.
I glanced down, seeing very faint words on one of the Spires. B-52. I shuddered and veered away from its unwholesome edge. It looked laced with copper.
Something fluttering caught my eye. I thought it was a rare bird, flapping its wings. I mad
I saw a familiar floral skirt, billowing in the wind.
It was Tern.
The Spire had pierced right through her chest and she hung in an U-shape, facing the sky. Her eyes were open but sightless. They had already been sightless for a long time.
I sobbed the entire way back to the warehouse. I did not tell anyone. Instead, I walked blindly to her room. The door was surprisingly open, as if she indeed wanted someone to enter.
I stepped into a crystal land. I wiped my swollen eyes and stared. Light glistened everywhere, like a million prisms. I stared harder and I could see wind chimes, made of the same glass material, hanging from the ceiling. In the middle of the room was a nest-like bed. Paper was strewn around it untidily.
Sniffling, I knelt down and rummaged through the paper. It felt right somewhat, picking through Tern’s belongings. I could see that there was writing on the paper. The hand writing it was neat, organized. It was Tern’s.
I began to read.
“I am writing this for the sake of posterity so that the future has to know. I am one of the First and by now, I am very old. The angel-gift prolongs my life. However, I am not sure how long I will live.”
I blinked, confused, at the revelation.
“I am also writing this to warn the rest that the angel-gift is unstable. The makers of this gift, the geneticists, have only given us wings and enabled us to fly. They have forgotten to say that it has an expiry date. For each person, the angel-gift acts differently. In the past, angels have gone crazy or have simply expired. They say that they can feel it in their bones.”
The paper fell from hands suddenly gone numb.
And for the second time in my life, I ran. I ran out of Tern’s room, the shock screaming through my body. My wings rustled, half-open. Expiry date. Expiry date. I could hear myself half-sobbing it out and halting people in their tracks. What happened, White? Tell us? Expiry date. Expiry date. Where is Tern? Did you find her? How is she?
I flung myself into the open, out into the rain. People ran behind me, trying to stop me from becoming another absence.
Broken Dream by Joyce Chng / Science Fiction have rating 3.4 out of 5 / Based on37 votes