In the nineties, Singapore’s Mount Faber park had another name—lover’s park. In between evening breezes, the air sweltered, the young couple’s faces became enveloped by humidity, as if suffocated by hot breaths of the dense primordial vegetation.
“Hurry up and follow me,” Hong said, shuffling his feet a few steps up the concrete stairway to the left, amidst the chirping, stridulating sound of the crickets.
“Ouch,” Penny said. “Go gentle with my hand.”
Hong couldn’t help it when he got excited, forgetting that Penny’s fingers suffered from arthritis. Hong was an ex-athlete, and the swollen joints in Penny’s fingers were due to autoimmune disease. “Sorry, we need to move fast, I’ll explain later.”
Out of breath, they went behind the shrubs, a stone’s throw from the cable car station. “Why are we hiding?” Penny’s brows furrowed.
“I saw the priest from your parish,” Hong whispered. Hong imagined the tungsten red eyes of the priest as he walked in the dark. The two glowing dots could burn through the souls of the unrepentant, punishing those who indulged in the sins of the flesh.
The Catholic priests in this era tended to be strict, and took a serious view of their pastoral duty. On many nights, Monsignor Koh was famous for stalking around Mount Faber Park with a cane, in search of unwed Catholic youths, who might be up to activities unsanctioned by the Church.
They turned the corner, and ran into the ghostly icon of Singapore—the Merlion, a three-meter tall statue made of polymarble. It towered over the southern coast of Singapore, like a guardian, a sphinx that didn’t sleep. Why was this creature with head of a lion and body of a fish associated with Singapore? This island had never been a fishing village, and the sightings of a lion in ancient Singapore were dubious. Yet the myth of this hybrid persisted. As if Singapore needed to be watched over by this strange beast.
“Thanks for watching over me,” Penny whispered.
“Don’t mention it,” Hong responded with a steady voice.
The rays of moonlight heightened the profile of Penny’s face, showing up the dimples of her cheeks, and those mischievous eyes that Hong had known so well over the years. Penny was Catholic, whereas Hong was a non-believer, who went to Church just to keep her company. He was all brawn and she, all brain. They made a strange couple, like a merlion whose head and body were incompatible. Yet, on that day when they emerged from the hospital, something stronger than religion had bound them. Eight years, that’s how long he knew this face and how long he’d watched it evolve, the malar rashes that didn’t resolve even after medical treatment.
It seemed ages, but the fiery priest left when Hong couldn’t hold his breath any longer. They sighed with relief, even though they hadn’t done anything illicit. They loved to visit this place, just for the thrill of it.“Tonight reminds me of another place I’ve been to.” Penny blushed.
“Where?” Hong was energized by the earlier adrenaline rush.
“Lindisfarne.” She said the last syllable loud, like she would say Lady Windermere’s FAN.
Hong looked stumbled. Then he said,“I know that! It’s also called Holy Island.” The island is off the coast of Northumberland in Britain, and it is accessible only by a causeway that is submerged under the sea half the day.
“I was running, guided by a masked man,” Penny’s nostrils flared. “Along the causeway, away from the Island.”
“What, why?” Hong stared, unblinking. Penny was unbelievable, he thought. Her head full of stories, she lived and thrashed about in some of them. Bewildering.
“We were chased by a dozen apparitions,” she blinked rapidly, her lips trembled, her voice shrill. “They looked like medieval monks in long robes.”
“That’s just a legend,” Hong smiled.
“No time to think,” Penny’s voice quivered. “Good thing my companion’s strong and sinewy. Quick on his feet.”
“You outran the monks?” Hong asked.
“No, the masked man turned around and faced his pursuers,” she said. “With a sly look, he waved his hand as if it was Moses’s staff.”
“You can’t be serious,” Hong grew jealous. A mysterious man. Biblical powers.
Penny shared a playful grin, clearly enjoying herself. “Before any of the monks could say the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, the walls of sea water had collapsed around them.”
“Lovely,” Hong humored her.
“Not for them,” she glared with scorn. “I heard their pathetic screams from the shore.”
Hong imagined the sea swallowed the monks like the Egyptian soldiers in Exodus.
“The masked man said,’Take that, you false prophets and hypocrites. May you burn in sulfur.’” A vein throbbed in Penny’s forehead.
“What happened next?” Hong wanted to know.
“I must find out who he is,” she placed a hand on her chest, and closed her eyes.
“Yes?” Hong nodded.
The leaves rustled with the breeze. The softness of the moon reflected on the glistening surface of Penny’s eyes. The starry sky loomed overhead.
She squeezed Hong’s hand. “I peeled away his mask when he least expected it.The man’s face is familiar.”
Hong was silent. The suspense’s killing me.
“It was you. You saved me.”Penny pressed her fingers to her smiling lips.
Her hand drifted to Hong’s back, where a horizontal scar ran across. Her tears swelled. In an act of communion, Hong had gifted her one of his kidneys. They had become a Merlion.