By Tan Kaiyi
I was setting up the livestream on the living room’s television when Ma called. “Ah Boon, hand me the gift packs on the table.” I ignored her for the moment, playing around with the video settings. Finally, the words “The Parade Will Start In…” appeared on screen, followed by a countdown timer below them.
There was an ongoing discussion to call the parade ‘a ceremony’. I remember a member of the opposition questioning a minister of the ruling party on the choice of words. “It’s a show of power, of our strength,” the minister had said. “Is it? Many performances seem more like acts of reverence, not deterrence,” his opponent had fired back. She had a point though. The parade usually began with protective blessings from the leaders of our four major religions.
But nothing changed. It was still called a parade.
Ma shouted for me again. I yelled back, saying that I heard her.
I took up the four scarlet packs, one for each of us, from the dining room table and walked into the kitchen. There used to be five but that was two years ago.
She was steaming some chicken and the aroma flirted with my sense of smell. She indicated the four metal plates on the table. I unzipped the packs and decanted the content of each bag onto each plate. The lingering scent of iron mingled with the chicken’s aroma. If it weren’t for the food, it would have smelled like a dozen people got deep cuts at the same time. I disposed off the bags and proceeded to bring the four plates, two at a time, to the common corridor outside. I placed them on a table in between two burning scarlet candles. After that, I took a moment to observe the housing blocks opposite ours.
The flags were out over the parapets and windows, all bearing the symbol of the five red eyes with a bloody vertical streak on the right. Every year when we mark our independence, the blocks are transformed into hideous guardians that keep watch over residents with endless sight. On the third floor of the block directly across mine, I spotted an inverted flag. There was always one idiot. Some of us wondered if anything would happen if we hung it the wrong way. Martin, a friend from my polytechnic days, said that he did it once. He’s still alive. But Ming Teck said that a friend of a friend went mad the day after he made the error.
However, we all knew that the plates of blood were essential. The official explanation was that the blood symbolised our people’s sacrifice and the right to our own soil — a bond that even they could not tear asunder. Others believe it is a type of offering or they are offended by its smell. Whatever the true reason, the most important thing was the plates worked. Two stories below us, Madam Loo had placed one short for her family once. The next day, her son vanished. A week later, she opened the door to his room and I remember hearing the scream. Until today, she never told anyone what she saw.
Below, I saw a small dark green tent on a tiny field that contained a group of soldiers and policemen. A table with five plates was set up beside the tent, exposed to the sky. A few years back, I used to wonder why they never worried about it getting wet — until I noticed that it never rained on this day. The soldiers and policemen were deployed to ensure the peace. I wondered why. No one wanted to mess around, especially today. A long time ago when grandpa was alive, I asked him why everyone was so serious, why we had to do all this and why I couldn’t go out to play. I don’t remember much of the conversation but I know he mentioned the Japanese and how we wouldn’t have expelled them if it weren’t for their power… Now, a door was opened and no one knew how to close it.
A young girl walked up to the tent, bearing some plastic bags that looked like they contained food. A tall Malay soldier, whom I presumed was the officer-in-charge, stepped out. He initially refused but I knew he would cave in. I was a soldier before — all of us sons were — and we were always hungry. He received them gracefully. I heard someone cough beside me.
Bala had stepped out of his flat next to us for a smoke. He usually observed the common decency of not smoking when anyone of us were around, but today was an exception. I smiled at him and he returned the greeting. Couple of years ago, I asked him if he ever felt that moving from Mumbai was a bad deal due to what we had to do annually on this day. He seemed okay. “One day only, never mind. The rest of the year is good,” he said.
I went back in, on cue with the shrieks of the fighter jets above. The air force claimed that they shot down one of them before. The evidence was classified, which meant that no one believed them. Ma called out again, asking if the livestream was ready. “Yes, done a few minutes ago already lah,” I said, annoyed. Pa was on the sofa of the living room already. Jie (sister) walked lazily out of her room, her hair still wet from a recent shower, and inspected the dinner that appeared on the table. “Parade start first then we eat. Remember to chant. Don’t play with this kind of thing,” my mother said, wiping her hands on her apron.
We all gathered in the living room and watched the countdown intently. One minute left. Pa adjusted himself on the couch and straightened up. I heard Ma uttering the first three words of the chant. Whether its effect was to ward them off or pray to them, we weren’t certain. But it was safer to chant. I only heard the first three words in my mind, imagining a silent chorus in the inner heart of the nation, all reciting:
We all proclaim…
We all proclaim…
We all proclaim…
We had to be strong, all of us. Gor (brother) wasn’t strong enough. I had to be strong.
No one was going to help us.
The countdown timer reached zero, and the screen turned a living crimson.
Tan Kaiyi is a content consultant at a marketing communications firm, based in Singapore. His poems have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. Kaiyi’s horror story, The Siege, appeared in Kitaab’s Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018).
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