By Gemma Pereira
Mr Chan, who lived at unit number seven, twenty-two, never slept at night. His small flat was a single room. It was his kitchen, his dining room and his bedroom. At night, he would unroll his narrow, straw-coloured mat and lay it on the floor. Then he would lie awake and watch over his plants. His flooring was made of blue linoleum, divided by a square-tiled design. On a few tiles were some potted plants—a lucky bamboo plant, an orchid, a bonsai plant, a money plant and more, each pot to a tile.
As a whole, he considered himself a lucky man. He had a roof over his head, food to eat and a good amount of savings that would last him for many years to come. He was even able to pay for his daughter's wedding. She visited him once a week on Sundays—mostly alone, since her husband often worked on weekends. As much as he loved her, he sometimes wished that she would leave him alone.
Whenever she came, she fussed over him, insisting on cooking for him and re-arranging everything, pushing the plants to one side so that she could sit down on the floor and stretch her legs out even though he had a good cane chair for her sit on.
"Pa, why don't you get rid of some of your plants?"
Mr Chan pressed his lips firmly together and kept silent.
"There are too many! Who keeps so many plants in a small flat like this? If you had a balcony, then maybe. They can't even get the sun in here."
"Hai. Stop asking so much," He said.
"Pa, if you throw these plants away, I can buy you a nice couch and then when people come, they can have somewhere to sit."
"What's wrong with the cane chair?" He asked, indignantly.
"Nothing's wrong with the chair. It's just old and uncomfortable. Plus, the seat smells. I will take it back with me to wash it."
"No need. No need! Just leave it." Gesticulating wildly, he placed both his hands on the cane chair as if they would grow roots into the floor.
She sighed and gave up the fight.
When she left, he re-arranged his pots and put them back on their designated tiles, turning the pots left and right until he was sure they were at the right angle for the sun. "No sun?" He muttered to himself under his breath. The last rays of the orange sunset shone directly onto their leaves, giving them a burst of colour, which delighted him immensely. The plants were always at their most radiant when the sun was about to set.
He laid out his mat as the orange sky faded and the sky turned from blue to black. The moon shone, spilling its silvery rays into his flat as he lay in the darkness. A gentle breeze shook their leaves and their stems swayed in the moonlight. He caressed their waxy leaves and whispered lovingly to them as he watered them with small sprays from his watering can, his fingers sliding deep into the soil. He carefully gathered a handful of soil and sniffed eagerly, before letting the earth dribble through his fingers, back into the pots. Again and again he would dig his fingers deeply into the soil, wetting his skin with their moisture, until he was sure that every grain of earth breathed with life. Finally, he would make an offering to the earth goddess, light some incense and go to sleep as dawn approached.
In the morning he opened his eyes in a panic, sitting up abruptly on his mat. Slightly disoriented, he got onto his knees and turned around searchingly, looking at all four corners of his flat. His hands felt around his mat for something. He lifted his thin blanket off but there was nothing. Then he turned to his potted plants and sighed with relief.
The following Sunday, his daughter arrived with a gift for him—a terrarium. Mr Chan was not very impressed. He looked at it with disgust.
"What is this toy?"
"It's not a toy. It's a terrarium," she responded.
"A terrarium. It's an ecosystem all on its own. You don't need to water it all the time. It's self-sufficient."
"If no need to water, then how can it be alive?"
"It just survives on its own moisture. You can water it now and then. Leave it in the sun and it will be fine."
"Hm." He snorted, peering at the large bulb of glass with mistrust. The plants were a lot smaller than he was accustomed to. It was like a little garden existing in a bottle.
"Just like a toy," he muttered to himself.
As he watched over the plants that night, a great tiredness fell upon him and he collapsed onto his mat, fast asleep, though he fought hard to keep his eyes open. By the time he forced his eyes open again, his flat was pitch-black and he could barely see his hand in front of his face. No light streamed in from the moon, or from the streetlights that never went off, not even in a power cut. He fumbled around blindly for the switch, but was unable to. A sickening sensation came upon him. His arms thrashed about wildly for the light, but he scratched hopelessly against the walls. His breathing grew laboured.
The room suddenly felt cold and he heard the distant sound of a thunderstorm. The clouds rumbled. There was a clap of thunder and a jolt of lightning sent a sliver of white light into the darkness of his flat.
He was aghast.
His plants were dead.
He reached for his lucky money plant, but the leaves crumbled in his hands like ashes. He dug his fingers into the soil, but then threw his hand back painfully, for the soil was parched and the earth had hardened.
Just as he thought that his heart would stop beating, he sat up on his mat, his body slick with sweat. The sun was rising and he was now fully awake. He turned to his plants and saw that they were exactly as he had left them before. Then he bowed down before them and wept bitterly.
"I'm sorry, Ah-girl. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He lay there, prostrate on the ground, repeating his apology until he fell asleep again with exhaustion.
His daughter observed him carefully when she came to see him that weekend. There was something about him that was different, that reminded her of how he used to be before. How long ago was that? She wondered to herself. It was before his plant hobby began, she realised. His eyes were gaunt and bloodshot and his hands shook as he made some tea for her.
"Pa, let me do it."
"No," he insisted.
"Come on, Pa. You're not... I'll do it." She took the pot of tea from him.
"No!" He shouted, snatching it from her so violently that the pot fell onto the floor and broke.
"Okay. Sorry, Pa." Her eyes widened with fear and she stepped away from him.
"Leave me alone," he begged. She quickly got her handbag and left.
He sat cross-legged on his mat, observing the terrarium. It frustrated him. He could not hold it, nor feed it, nor water it. He could do nothing, but yet it defied his expectations, surviving on pure sunlight for a few weeks. "Impossible." He said to himself.
His daughter had not visited him for some time. He knew that he should call her to apologise but he could not bring himself to. He knew he would have to soon, because they would have to meet on the eighth of June. That day had been sacred to his family for the last twenty-five years.
The phone rang.
"It's coming soon."
"Do you want me to drive you there or meet you there?"
"I will meet you there."
"Um, it's nothing."
The night before the eighth of June, he had another dream. In his dream, he had woken up again, but his plants were all alive and well this time. What struck him was the terrarium. It was glowing as if the sun was shining from within it. When he looked inside he was amazed to see that a little girl was running around in it, playing happily. When he looked more closely at her, she giggled and hid behind a plant. "Pa! Play hide-and-seek with me,' she shouted at him. Suddenly he was in the glass bottle with her, playing hide-and-seek. She jumped up and he caught her, as he always had when she suddenly jumped at him. He breathed in the smell of her hair and hugged her tightly. She giggled and wriggled out of his grasp, her eyes widening with fear as she fell back suddenly onto the ground. "No!" He shouted, trying to catch her. She was gone. He turned around in circles, tearing at his hair. "No! No! No! Ah-girl!" He screamed. Perspiration streamed down the sides of his face. His chest heaved up and down. "Ah girl!"
"Pa?" She whispered, tugging gently on his hand. "Why are you crying? I'm alright." He looked down at her and saw that it was true. She was alright. He took her into his arms and hugged her with all his might. She squealed and kissed him on his cheek.
He was awake now.
"Pa? Are you there?" Shaking his head vigorously, he cleared his throat.
"Ya." He gripped the handle of his phone.
"I'm already here. Where are you?"
"I'll be there soon."
He took all the potted plants and put them into a few boxes, carrying them to the roadside. Then he flagged a cab down. "I don't want to drive inside." The cab driver told him. So he grasped the boxes carefully and made his way slowly inside, walking through the pathways that had grown familiar to him over the years.
His daughter was already there, with bunch of white flowers in her hands. She wore an expression of bewilderment when she saw him struggling with the boxes of plants and ran over to help him.
They stood before the white tombstone with the words Chan Ah Mei engraved upon it. Mr Chan laid out all his potted plants around her, lit a stick of incense, clasped it in both hands and waved it, then stuck it into the earth.
His daughter hooked her arm through his.
"I have something to tell you."
"What is it?"
"That day, when Big Sister died…," she trailed off uncertainly.
"Ya? Tell me."
"When you were sleeping, we were playing and she made me angry."
"So I tripped her on purpose. That's why she fell down the stairs." She was sobbing hard now.
"I made her die! I'm sorry."
He stood silently, without making a sound.
"Are you angry?" she asked.
"No. I'm not. Not your fault."
"But you thought it was yours," she said.
"Ya. But now I know. It wasn't."
"I'm sorry," she repeated.
"I forgive you," he said and hugged his daughter tightly.
When he went home that night, he put the terrarium up on his table—the best possible spot for the sun. The small glass universe shimmered like a star. He did not stay awake that night, but fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012