Dawn

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By Reagan D. Tan

On top of the dusty hill lay a crude and neglected
mausoleum overlooking the great sea. To the east,
an ancient temple blocked the rays of the rising sun. The holy edifice, with crumbling etchings on its walls and cracked reliefs on its arched brick roof, displayed—especially during sunrise—the image of a mythical god lording over the small community of Lam-Uwa in the Si-San province along the eastern coast of China.

Twenty-eight-year-old Michael Yung rested his back on the cold mausoleum pillar. He felt the moist on it. He closed his eyes and finally gave off a beleaguered sigh that quickly disappeared into the cool morning breeze.

And even as he stood there inhaling the mossy scent from the loose and unkempt shrubs that grew nearby and around, over 1,000 miles away, his wife was attached to a life-support apparatus that gave off a weak beep—the only sign of life in an otherwise dark, cool room. For over 87 days now, his wife had neither talked to him nor opened her eyes to look at him.

“Acute Respiratory Deficiency Syndrome,” Michael recalled, as if he had never heard of it a million times already.

The nurses tried ceaselessly to comfort him every time he went to visit. It seemed that it was he who was in more pain than the patient on the bed, sleeping peacefully, without a care in the world.

Jasmine, only 25, could die any time soon. The quality time left for them was reduced to inhumanly trivial things like wiping her palm and fingers, which moistened every once in a while, or holding her hands to his chest and letting his heavy heart thump through it to her unfeeling fingers, or massaging her arms and legs to help blood circulate.

And apart from getting used to having nobody to welcome him home after each day’s work, Michael had grown lonelier with each passing day—ironically, even wishing less every day for a miracle to happen.

So, he quit his job as a contractor to spend more time with her, but also because despair had settled in and he could not muster any strength to go on.

Jasmine’s face seemed paler every time he looked at those closed eyes. He remembered her melting gaze now, it was the most entrancing look that he had first noticed during a friend’s wedding. Those deep black eyes had made him vow, then and there, to court her, to take her, to marry her.

A month into the ordeal, Michael put their house on sale and bought his wife’s dream house and moved into it, hoping that she would—in some miraculous way—be motivated to get well.

But the house, almost cryptic, seemed to highlight the irony of their marriage, which almost did not push through because of objection from both families. Michael, who is Filipino-Chinese, had defied tradition to marry his Filipina wife, whom he loved despite deeply rooted cultural differences.

From a distance, the house seemed in sad shape. It is a quaint suburban estate with beautiful post-war architecture, covered with age-old vines and surrounded by scattered shrubs.

The neglected garden would have been his wife’s favorite part. It stretched for almost half of the entire lot. There was even a bird bath, which stood near a wooden swing for two. The swing was broken now.

Even with the noble if foolhardy intention of restoring the house to its former glory, Michael, having bought the tools and materials, would have begun with the gardening if he had not received a letter from a distant and mysterious relative.

Claiming to be his uncle living in China, the relative wrote, in Chinese script, to ask him to return “home”—clarifying that “home” was in China—to move his great grandmother’s tomb to a “better” spot.

His uncle, who claimed to be his father’s half-brother, needed his help to convince the elders to destroy a sacred resting place. It’s for the better, he wrote. There was something about “a curse upon us.” And, more strangely: “If you had a wife, like I do, you’d understand.”

To believe the stranger, however, would mean that he should defy his rationality. But Michael’s weakening heart was suddenly jolted with a feeling of euphoria and hope. In those ambiguous words, Michael found a sense of calm; a quietude that he had felt when he bolted his family’s house to elope with Jasmine two years ago. This time, however, the feeling was disguised, still, in desperation. But Michael knew that desperation always won over rationality. A few days later, he found himself on board a plane to Xiamen where he would take a two-hour shuttle to “home,” which, incidentally, he had never even heard about before.

“Crazily desperate,” he thought. Nevertheless, he had nothing to lose.

Despite having been born and raised in a Chinese family in the Philippines, Michael was on the crossroads of two equally diverse cultures. If only she lived long enough, his mother could have enlightened him more about his true identity, rather than his father, who did nothing but play mahjong with friends. His father was obsessed, however, with controlling every aspect of Michael’s life, and that left him nothing but resentment for his father and even the guiltless culture he knew almost nothing about.

In some nights when the blackness of the sky made him gloomier, he would sit beside the bed of his wife, praying. He secretly recited passages from the Bible, the Novena, the Siddur. He even prayed to Allah. But never Buddha.

But the letter from Michael’s supposed uncle had left him desperately clinging to the idea that there could be ways to cure his wife, other than wait for a miracle.

And while Michael looked through the airplane window, at the ocean of clouds floating just below the span of the wings, he remembered the doctor telling him the other night that his wife’s heartbeat had been slowly dropping. At that pace, she would flatline within the week. The doctor was clinical, almost sounding indifferent. He silently wept before finally falling asleep. He woke up just as the plane was landing.

While Michael had been shaken by his own doubtful decisions lately, he had also been reassured, especially when he shook the large hands of the uncle who came to meet him at the airport. The man had worn a white polo shirt tucked into his beige pants. His faded black shoes contrasted with the light and yellowish complexion of his skin, but Michael thought for a split second that he was actually looking at a mirror; their resemblance was beginning to show.

Stuttering with the few crude Fookienese sentences and broken syllables he was forced to learn during his childhood, he communicated in a most superficial manner—lucky to be able to speak logically to the tall, almost slender-bodied stranger.

Michael understood his father’s Chinese “speeches”, but he could not get himself to form literate sentences. He was relying mostly on circular hand motions that were almost as mute as he was stupid and ignorant of his family’s traditions.

Michael snapped, suddenly, out of his deep thought as a gust of wind blew dried leaves to his face. For a moment, he regretted his lifelong aversion toward everything he should have loved. But he finally set his memories aside to come back to the present time, where two men—one wearing a tightly fitted tarnished white shirt that stressed his round belly, and the other, skinny with eyes socketed deep in his oval head—carelessly removed their tools from a dusty black bag full of holes.

A piked iron hammer, reminiscent of an ancient soldier’s weapon, was set beside a marble epitaph that read… Michael could not read Chinese characters. Perhaps it was not significant anyway, especially since it was going to be smashed soon.

Michael took one last look at the rectangular boxed tomb—dusty, with trails of fingers sliding on some portions, mud splattered near the edges, dried flower stems stuck in an old tin can, and burned-up incense pierced into the ashes in a bronze oriental urn.

The time had come, he thought, as he signaled to the diggers, who, with a single hammer strike, broke into pieces the marble epitaph that had protected his great grandmother’s eternal sleep.

Although the sun had begun emerging from behind the temple roof, the diggers quickly reached into the coffin and retrieved the skeleton, its pieces still intact even after over 50 years. With a red cloth, the men wrapped the delicate and brittle-looking bones and placed them into a wooden box.

“The sun burns them,” Michael’s half-uncle told him. He understood but could not comprehend. It was customary, Michael later found out, that in Chinese burial culture, the bones of ancestors are often hidden from the sunlight to avoid hurting their bodies.

”That’s why we dig her out before sunrise… to ensure her safety as she is transferred to another tomb.”

That other tomb on the other side of the mountain, nearer the temple—Michael knew—was his great grandfather’s. Strangely, it was almost two miles away from his great grandmother’s tomb.

“Why is great grandfather’s tomb on the other side of the mountain?” Michael asked his uncle.

“Some feng shui expert the family consulted recommended to separate great grandfather from his wife, who was thought to bring bad luck because she was not Chinese,” Michael’s uncle said.

Suddenly, a scrounging pain gripped Michael’s thoughts. Was this the same reason why his wife was dying?

Michael was distracted again by the diggers who spread open a sheet of old newspaper and cover the box of bones. The stouter one carried it in front of his chest while the skinnier one tugged the bag of tools along as he walked ahead. Michael, before following them, looked back and saw the decrepit mausoleum, now more dead than ever. Beyond it was a rocky plateau leading directly to a cliff overlooking the sea.

Michael imagined the view if he would stand at the very edge of that cliff: below, spiked rocks and powerful waves bathing them and an endless horizon of blue. He wished to see it but he vehemently reminded himself that his wife was also at somewhere’s edge.

His uncle had told him earlier that it was basic feng shui to recognize that the cliff is a cut in the mountain’s natural geography. “It signifies death because the flow of life force is also cut.”

Michael’s heart lightened, though, as he momentarily forgot anything concerning death. He tried to think of something else. But as he probed his memories, he remembered one night, when he had heard his father blaring into the telephone receiver with scant, but distinct, curses. Michael had asked about the person on the other end. It had been his illegitimate uncle, whom his father hated. Apparently, his uncle was asking for some kind of help.

“What sort of help?”

His uncle walked beside Michael, who was trailing far behind the two workers grunting, literally, dead weight.

Michael asked him about that time phone conversation with his father.

“It was the last time we ever spoke to each other,” his uncle said. “I knew I would come to hate him for the rest of my life. If it were not for his hardheadedness and narrow thinking, you and I would not be in this position. Your father had not learned his lesson even after your mother died.

“I knew your mother. She was a very desirable woman because she wasn’t only beautiful, she was the daughter of a rich and influential Chinese family involved in the construction industry.”

Michael tried to remember his mother; unfortunately, he never had any memory about her.

“What about your wife?” Michael asked, surprised that he could speak quite well in this “foreign” tongue.

His uncle just looked down.

“She is at home, sick; very sick, in fact. But she should be fine now.”

Michael felt the warmth from the glistening sun embracing him. Looking up, he saw the brightness hovering at the tip of the temple’s arched roof. Michael saw radiant brightness that almost blinded him. But as if he had just regained consciousness, he saw the image of his wife floating through the whiteness. If only he could reach out and disturb her peaceful sleep.

But maybe, a few minutes ago, the powerful hammer strike had already wakened the dead.

Montage Vol. 9 • February 2006