The post The Hidden Dragon appeared first on The Scribbling Geek.
I was ten, no, nine, when I was told the legend of the hidden dragon.
The steps were in front of the building Ah Ma and I lived in. Every day, to reach the rest of the world, I had to pass through them. The energetic rascal I was, I usually sprinted, and soon I became addicted to the wooziness while I bounced down the curbs, or the tightness in my chest after a triumphant ascent. One afternoon, I tripped. I tumbled down a third of the steps. I cracked my right wrist after it slammed against the centre banister. I also broke two teeth and a rib.
Because Ah Ma could not afford to send me to the hospital or even a street clinic, I was placed under the care of an elderly neighbour who claimed to have worked for a chiropractor in the mainland. In his dank flat, I thus rested for four, no, five days. Giddy from the fumes of the many pots of herbs that were always simmering, nauseated by the murky concoctions I had to drink throughout the day. For a wild child like me, being incapacitated this way, in such a depressing place, was quite akin to being banished to hell. I whined continuously to be released from the ordeal. I also kicked up a huge fuss over anything. That was when I was told about the hidden dragon. It was an attempt to silent me. Also to coerce me into finishing the vile medication.
“I do not believe you,” I remember sulking and snapping after the opening of the story. “There is no dragon here!”
“There is. But nowadays it stays hidden. Because there are too many naughty children who do not listen to their elders.”
What nonsense. But this was only to be expected of Pastor Lum, the one who told the story. He was a gaunt, balding man who headed a small church near our derelict estate, and several times each week, he ventured into our area. To share food, to spread his beliefs, or just to chat. Every kid I knew avoided him whenever possible for while he was friendly, he had a terrible tendency to nag for hours. To be stuck in bed beside him, listening to yet another of his never-ending stories, that was itself another form of torment. Almost as bad as drinking those murky concoctions.
“The government removed it a few years ago, you see. Another naughty boy who did not listen to his parents fell and broke his head against it. They replaced it with what you see nowadays. But the dragon is still there. Hidden. Two days ago, it decided to punish you for not listening to your grandmother about running down those steps.”
“Lies! You are just saying that to get me to drink medicine!”
“I do want you to finish your medicine. I also want you to stop loitering with those older boys at the football field. Come to my church after school each day. We will work on improving your results.”
And that was it. All that was ever said by Pastor Lum about the dragon. Obviously, I soon realised that the story was merely something he cooked up on the spot to coax me into behaving myself. While the centre banister did once have a mighty Chinese dragon as the handrail, like the rest of the buildings surrounding it, it quickly fell into disrepair, losing many of its mosaic tiles and even, as I was told, both of its horns. The sight of something like that, in a neighbourhood populated by the depressed and downtrodden and superstitious, swiftly invited disgust and hatred. Someone lodged a complaint with the local council. One afternoon soon after, the dragon was replaced by a simple metal banister. The picture I saw of the dragon, the only one I ever found, had it already chipped to pieces. The debris was lying in a pile beside the lowest step. Its final fate nowhere else but at the junkyard.
With the story being only that, you would expect that I soon forget about the entire episode. I didn’t. Perhaps it was residue trauma from the accident, or perhaps Pastor Lum managed to connect with something in me that afternoon. The tale of the hidden dragon never left my mind. I began using the steps respectfully, and usually as far away from the centre banister as possible. At home, I refrained from looking out of our only window, particularly at night, because that had a full view of the steps. Did I mention that the head of the dragon used to be at the top of the steps, and so it once gazed directly at my home? And then there was that one time when I got distracted from chatting with two football buddies. I carelessly brushed my arm against the centre banister. Later that night, a mysterious ache developed in that arm. This made me rushed to Pastor Lum’s church the next morning and prayed feverishly to the heavenly father he spoke of for help. After the ache disappeared, I ensured I never strayed near the centre banister again. Till today, I keep to the sides when using those steps. I have not touched the centre banister for over ten years.
Laughable, I know. An embarrassing story in which I allowed a childish phobia to survive into adulthood. But over the years, something else also happened. Something I could claim to typical of such irrational paranoia. As much as I feared the hidden dragon, I also developed a fascination and a respect for it. I came to envision it as a far worse form of Pastor Lum. An unforgiving, unflinching eye always alert for my wrongdoings and constantly ready to inflict terrible punishment. At seventeen, moments before entering the store I was told to rob, I thought I felt the dragon drifting beside me. The sensation was creepy enough to make me back out from the crime, despite knowing it would cost me my promotion in the triad. Half a year later, as I laid recuperating from a machete attack, I suffered nightmares of the dragon digging into the wounds with its claw. On returning home, I sat on the steps for an hour, chain smoking and drinking beer. Silently, I mocked the dragon for failing in its attempt to strike me down. But at the same time, I also thanked it for a lesson well learned. The next round, I swore, I would not linger in a fight. I would not foolishly allow bloodlust to overwhelm me. No one would ever again add another scar to me. I would be the one scarring others.
It went that way. The next eight years. My rebelliousness towards the hidden dragon, if I could put it as that, made me unbeatable on the streets. I was thus one of my triad’s top fighters when Hou came to me with his offer.
We called him Mousey Hou because he not only resembled a mouse, he behaved that way too. Always at places where he was not wanted. Always greedy for scraps of goodies left over by the older brothers. And always with the most unusual and unbelievable information to sell. What he had for me this time was not information, though, more of a proposal. A dai-lou from an allied gang was sentenced to a year in prison for vice offenses. He sought protection while in jail from his many enemies. He was willing to pay handsomely for in-house bodyguards.
“Chi sin. Tell him to use his own guys.”
“It is not that you do not know about his condition. How many people Mad Leopard has left? He also thinks highly of you.”
“Dew lei ah ma lah! One year! You telling me to go in for a year?”
“Listen to me. Mad Leopard has deep ties with Dai-Lou Seng. You know about that! If you do this, our own dai-lou will pay you too, and look after your grandmother while you are gone. When you come out, you will be the next in line.”
Next in line. Tempting. I was, at that point, stuck in the position of executor. A post that made way too many enemies. “One year,” I reiterated. “What if I do not live to leave prison? I know what kind of enemies Mad Leopard has.”
“Eh. Are you telling me you cannot handle this? You? Whom both Dai-Lou Seng and Mad Leopard think so highly of?”
Flattery worked, as it usually does. Pre-payment was a greater enticer too. And so arrangements were made, paid for that was, for me to be arrested and jailed for robbery. On the evening before this took place, I went to the ceiling of an adjacent block, dangled my legs over the edge, and gazed at the steps. I had no doubt the hidden dragon disapproved of my agreement and was already scheming retribution, possibly soon to enact its worst reckoning yet. As the wind messed up my hair, and as I debated whether I would die or be paralysed if I plummet to the ground, I saw Pastor Lum hobbling towards the steps. Frail now, and stricken by arteritis, he ascended the steps awkwardly, stopping ever so often to catch his breath or to adjust his hold on the banister. Fascinated, I kept staring till he reached the top. Once there, he paused to catch his breath again, and then in a strange moment of realisation, turned his head in my direction. For the next half a minute, he stared at where I was, is stick-like frame still and straight. Several times, it felt as if he was going to wave. Or at least raise his arm.
But he could not have seen me. Pastor Lum was already elderly when he told me about the dragon, now he was just a shade of a man with terrible eyesight. Yet, I was certain that he knew I was there. Certain that he sensed me. In those brief seconds of connect, I shared his emptiness, his disappointment and his frustration. I felt all the words he had for me too. All the untold stories. Then, he resumed his hobbling and vanished into one of the buildings. I remained where I was for another hour. I did not see him emerge from the building.
That night, I looked out of the house window for the first time in many years. The centre banister, recently repainted white, glittered a little under the moonlight. That was all it was to me. A pale line of metallic white. Nothing more. For a moment, I wondered why I ever believed a sentient being dwelled there. After a while, I decided to go to sleep and not think about it.
Like me, both Dai-Lou Seng and Mad Leopard came from impoverished families and were school dropouts. Around fifteen or so, they were recruited to be runners by another dai-lou, and over the new few years, they worked their way up the hierarchy, eventually having their own followers and becoming affiliated with one of the strongest triads. Contented with what he had achieved, and knowing better than to be too greedy, Dai-Lou Seng withdrew from active involvement, managing the gambling dens he had with a distant hand. Mad Leopard, on the other hand, continued to lust for more money and power. He soon became a nuisance to many, including some elders of our triad. The rumour I heard, one of our own elders was the one who snitched to the police. It was punishment for Mad Leopard for being disrespectful during a ceremony. That elder felt Mad Leopard much needed a lesson in humility.
A lesson that Mad Leopard did not appear to have learned, or one that he refused to. In prison, he was as brash and as insufferable as ever, chalking up more adversaries by the day. This made my job of protecting him very difficult, especially after the wardens started turning a blind eye to many things. The tipping point happened on a Tuesday night before lockdown. I barely managed to shove Mad Leopard out of harm’s way. I then failed to dodge the following attack. The sharpened toothbrush stabbed three inches into me.
I survived, obviously. During the week I spent in the infirmary, Mad Leopard sent a slew of runners to visit me, some of whom, by the way, were not prisoners. I was promised many things, foremost of which being the assurance that Mad Leopard would remember what I have done for him, that after leaving prison, we would work hand in hand for a better tomorrow. Truth be told, I was not at all thrilled about these promises. Why would I want to be the sidekick of such a hated figure? I was deliberating how to re-establish my distance from Mad Leopard when Pastor Lum unexpectedly came to visit. After we sat down, and after I delivered a sanitised version about the cause of my injury, we stared at each other. From the look on his face, I knew he had bad news. I could also guess at what it was.
“When was it?” I asked when it became clear he did not know how to begin.
“Three weeks ago.”
“She did not want you to know. She insisted before she left that you not be informed.”
I frowned harder and gripped my chair. So till death, Ah Ma refused to forgive me. Which was unsurprising. Small as she was, she had always been fiery and obstinate. “Everything is taken care of?” I asked. “The flat?”
“Returned to the landlord. Some of your … brothers came during the funeral. They paid for everything and helped with returning the flat. They also wanted to inform you. But I demanded that they let me do it.” He hesitated. “They were not happy.”
“They are good brothers. They care.”
“Ah Kin, listen to me. Everyone can start afresh. As we Chinese say, look back and you would see the shore …”
“Pastor,” I raised a hand. “I am not a child. I am too old for stories. Besides,” I forced myself to smile. “You worship a fan kwai lou god. It’s wrong of you to quote a Buddhist saying.”
His face hardened, and for a moment, I thought he was going to storm off. He did not. He merely nodded and continued calmly. “Your grandmother gave up on you. I did not and I will not. You know where to find me when you are out. My door is always open to you, Ah Kin.”
“Pastor, there are others waiting for me out there. I do not think I need your help.”
He left. The following day, I requested my first favour from Mad Leopard. After the joss sticks were smuggled in, I lit them by myself in a corner of the courtyard. I stayed there till they finished burning.
Like clockwork, the youth was at the field on Thursday afternoon again. Playing football as always, his lithe body so agile as he weaved his way through the lesser players. Fine-boned and tall, with his hair always styled in the latest fashion, he was easily the most handsome in the group. The sort girls his age would be able to resist. From what I heard from Mousey Hou, despite still attending school, the youth already had three girls working under him. This disgusted me, prostitution of the young was the one vice I could never agree with. At the same time, it was also evidence that Mad Leopard was making a change for the better, so to speak. Having a gu ye jai in school was easily the smartest thing he did in a long time.
“Chin bui!” The youth greeted upon approaching. This time, his excuse for venturing near me was to deliberately shoot the ball in my direction. “Joining us today?”
“Play with you kids? No thank you.”
He laughed. Such a sunny laugh. How many girls were deceived by that? “Chin bui, all of us know of what you did for Brother Leopard while in there. Brother Leopard keeps talking about you! Show us what you can do. Let us have an eye-opener.”
Flattery. What got me involved with Leopard in the first place. I decided to cut short the conversation. “Tell Leopard I am still considering. The nightclub business is not something I am familiar with. I need time to think things through.”
“All of us will be there,” he pointed at his friends. “Brother Leopard would be sending other guys to help too. And Brother Seng …”
“I need more time.”
The cheeriness left his face. For a moment, I saw him for what he really was. A younger, more violent, deadlier version of me. I continued before reacted further. “Ah Long, is it? How long have you been following Leopard?”
“Since … last year. Why?”
I gestured at his chest. On the days the youth played shirtless, I had an eyeful of the massive dragon tattooed there. A feral beast with savage eyes. “You do not get into trouble at school, with such a thing drawn on you?”
“Huh? No one knows, except some friends.” His eyes narrowed in suspicious and he retreated a step. “Brother Leopard helped me with that. He took me to …”
“I know who he took you to. He offered the same help to me.” I got up. “Tell Mad Leopard I will reply by the end of the week. Tell Dai-Lou Seng to please stop sending people to the church too. I am only staying there till I find my own place. It is pointless to frighten the kids there.”
That look on his face again. Then he faked a smile and reverted to his earlier light-hearted tone. “Brother Seng joked that you have gone soft. You are teaching kids English. Reading with them. You are giving out bread at the estate too.”
“The pastor pays me to be a caretaker. And I am not teaching. I am in that class too. I keep an eye on the kids while learning with them.” Since he was doing it so radiantly, I smiled too. “You should come, Ah Long. Always helps, with girls, when you can speak English like a kwai lou. Speaking of which, I must get back to work.”
He went scarlet. I turned and left. As I strolled away, I imagined him swearing and the dragon on his back glowering. Somehow, that imagery made me grinned. For to me, the dragon was not glowering in menace. It seemed to be cheering in approval.
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