It was, Junhao supposed, about time to admit that he was lost. For the last few hours he had been walking towards the series of flats he could see above the tree-line, but he seemed to be getting no closer.
His stomach growled. Junhao knew that he still had some candy on him somewhere, but for the life of him he could not remember where exactly. He sighed. He had always liked this pair of pocket-studded shorts for the numbers of small knick-knacks it let him carry, but on occasions like this he was willing to admit that it made finding things a pain.
Deciding that he needed a break anyway, Junhao sat himself on a nearby log and started to methodically pat down each of his shorts’ many pockets. This quick search revealed a half-melted Kit-Kat bar nestled in a pocket by his thigh. Junhao unwrapped it gingerly and took a large bite, chewing slowly. He swallowed, and felt the pangs of hunger subside.
Satisfied, he covered the remnants of the Kit-Kat bar with its wrapper, intending to save it for later. Then a sudden thought struck him, and he placed the bar carefully on the log where he had sat. This done, he set off through the woods once more. He had only been walking for a few minutes when he spotted the log and the candy bar he’d left there lying innocuously in his path.
Junhao sat down on the log again and took a deep breath. He would not cry. Crying was for girls and babies. He was 12 years old now and he would not cry. And yet, nothing about this made any sense to him. He was willing to admit that there were things about the world that only the grown-ups knew, but it seemed entirely illogical that he could walk in a straight line and end up back where he had started.
Junhao dashed furiously at his eyes, wiping away the beginnings of a tear. That did not count, he decided – it had been some dust in his eye. He sniffed. Maybe a short cry would do him good.
Junhao glanced at his surroundings. There was no one there. Something hard unclenched within him, and his body sagged as he released the breath he had been unconsciously holding all this time.
He sobbed, then began to cry.
Presently the tears ceased and he rubbed their remnants from his eyes. It had been a good cry. He got up from his log, determined to find his way out of this strange grove once and for all.
“You done yet?”
Junhao whirled around and found himself staring at a Malay boy who stood, arms akimbo, in a clearing just behind the log where he had sat.
“I said – are you done yet?”
The stranger tapped his foot impatiently.
“Look, I have better things to do than watch you bawl like a crybaby, so if you need more time to cry for your mommy just let me know and I’ll come back later.”
“I wasn’t crying!” he said. “I… I just had something in my eyes.”
The stranger snorted.
“Yeah right – as if I haven’t heard that excuse before.” His gaze fell on the candy bar by Junhao’s side.
“Candy!” he cried.
Before Junhao could react, the strange boy snatched up the half-eaten candy bar and greedily crammed it into his mouth.
“Hey!” This, at least, was something Junhao understood. He knew that one could not let the theft of candy go unpunished. It was the principle of the thing – if you let the bigger kids take your candy soon they’d be taking your lunch money and making you do their homework just like they’d done to poor Mark over in 6B. And so far, this newcomer had been acting like those bigger kids had before they learned that 5 years of Taekwondo could more than compensate for any difference in size.
Junhao steadied himself. Then, very deliberately, he kicked the stranger in his solar plexus and watched him collapse. Junhao picked up his candy bar from where it had fallen, but a quick glance showed him that most of the candy was gone and he dropped it in disgust. He returned his attention to the strange boy, who by now had managed to prop himself up on one knee.
“You done yet?” Junhao asked.
The stranger did not seem to appreciate the irony.
“Wha- What’d you do that for?” he asked, gasping for air.
“You shouldn’t have taken my candy. I was saving that for later.”
“I’m so- sorry – it’s just, I haven’t seen candy for so long.”
Junhao eyed the strange boy. For the first time he noticed the ragged state of the latter’s clothes and the way they hung, loosely, around his thin frame.
“It’s okay,” Junhao replied, his tone softening. “My name’s Junhao, by the way. What’s yours?” He extended his hand.
The boy staggered to his feet.
“I’m Harun. Nice to meet you.”
Smiling brilliantly, Harun clasped Junhao’s offered hand and shook it vigorously, all traces of his former animosity gone. Junhao tried to keep his face stern, but found himself involuntarily grinning in reply. There was something about that smile – it seemed so open, so genuinely joyful that Junhao found himself unable to dislike its wearer.
Harun released Junhao’s hand and dusted himself off.
“Now then,” he said. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to know how to get out of here?”
Junhao’s heart leapt. He had been so preoccupied by Harun’s sudden appearance that he had forgotten his own predicament.
“Yes!” he replied. “Can you show me the way out?”
“Well, if I could, do you think I’d still be here?”
Junhao’s temper flared once more. Curling his hands into fists, he took a step towards Harun.
“Stop wasting my time!” he said. “Do you know how to get out of here or not?”
“Whoa there!” Harun backed away from Junhao, hands raised defensively. “Relax, relax. I was just kidding. I can tell you how to get out of here, but it’s not that simple, alright?”
Junhao unballed his hands.
“What do you mean?”
Harun sighed, and sat himself down on a log.
“You should sit too,” he said, gesturing to another log beside him. “This is going to take a while.”
The first thing you need to know about this place, (Harun said), is that it’s old. Like, really old. Think of the oldest person you know. This place is older than his father, and his grandfather, and his great grand-father combined. And the thing is, I’ve been here as long as this place existed. No-
“That’s bullshit,” said Junhao. The swear word felt strange on his tongue but he felt that the occasion warranted it. “You can’t be that old.”
“You don’t have white hair, and old people have white hair,” Junhao said, triumphantly. This, he knew, was a fact.
Harun considered the point.
“You’re probably right about that,” he admitted. “But it doesn’t change the fact that I really am that old.”
“And why should I believe you?” Junhao raised an eyebrow skeptically.
“You don’t really have a choice, do you? After all, I don’t think you can get out of here yourself.”
It was Junhao’s turn to pause for thought. As much as he hated to admit it, Harun was right – he could see no other way out of this strange forest.
With a sigh of resignation, Junhao sat down on the log beside Harun and motioned for the latter to continue his tale.
Good, I’m glad that’s all settled. Now, where were we? Ah yes, as I was saying, this place is old, older than the father of the oldest per-
Yes, yes, I know I’ve said that all already, I was just worried you might have for-
Okay, I get it! I’ll move on…
Anyway, back when the forest was still young, the city around us today was just a collection of families living in a fishing village. And like every village in those times, it had a king. Now, everyone called him a king because they didn’t want to get our heads chopped off, but in all honesty he was at best a kind of petty chieftain – you know, the type of person who’s a big fish only because he lives in a really small pond.
As kings go I guess the king wasn’t really that bad of a guy. I mean he taxed his subjects pretty heavily, but if you paid up you could be sure that his men would leave you alone for the rest of the year – which is more than could be said for most of the other kings around that time. So even though the villagers would grumble about their king and mock him behind his back, they still made sure to pay their taxes on time and bow appropriately whenever he walked past.
In those days, everything had a kind of pleasing pattern about it, and if there never was anything to get extremely happy or excited about at least there was never anything that would disturb you too much or upset you in a really serious way. That’s what my father used to tell me, at least, because things started changing a few years after I was born.
No one knows when exactly it started, but one day the swordfish that lived in the waters near the village suddenly took it into their heads to start attacking the fishing boats that the villagers sent to sea. At first, the fishermen treated the swordfish as nothing more than a minor nuisance. After all, the fish didn’t have the best aim and avoiding them was fairly trivial if one was paying attention.
But as the months passed the swordfish grew deadlier and deadlier, as if they were learning from each successive attack. Instead of attacking one by one, the fish began to attack in groups, overwhelming the fishermen through sheer numbers. The fish also began to time their attacks when their victims were most vulnerable – at dawn, as the fishermen waded into the water to unmoor their boats, they would be beset by crazed fish that leapt out of the sea and flung themselves at them like a shower of so many spears. And at dusk, swordfish would be lying in wait by the pier, piercing man and net as the returning fishermen went about the cumbersome task of unloading their daily catch.
The villagers tried everything they could to dissuade these murderous fish, but nothing seemed to work. The fish were too smart to fall for any bait and their beaks could saw through even the toughest of nets. Even a troop of the king’s best warriors were sent packing by the fish, who by now had perfected the art of aerial assault. The warriors had not even reached the shoreline when swordfish leapt out from the water, cutting them down where they stood with vicious, slashing blows.
“Swordfish don’t do that.” Harun told a good tale and Junhao’s attention had been caught for a while, but he still felt compelled to raise this salient point.
“And how would you know?” he asked. “Were you there?”
“When my mom brought me to the aquarium last week I saw swordfish and they were just swimming around. They didn’t attack people.”
“Well, I’m sorry that I’m stuck here and can’t go to fancy aquariums like you! Maybe these were, I dunno, special swordfish or something? I don’t know why they started attacking people either, but they just did, okay?”
It was strange, Junhao thought, how much more mature Harun sounded when telling his story. While listening to the boy tell his tale, Junhao could almost believe that the latter was an adult – with his tone of voice and choice of words seemed much more like the grownups Junhao had observed than other children his age. And yet, outside the confines of his story, Harun reverted to a childish, immature state. It was almost as if the Harun who told the story was a different person from the child who sat before him.
Harun gave Junhao a spiteful little kick, snapping the latter out of his train of thought.
“Are you paying attention? Look, if you interrupt me again I’m going to stop the story and you’re going to have to find your way out of here yourself.”
Harun looked genuinely upset, and Junhao thought he might actually follow through with his threat. Nodding his head, he waved Harun on – any questions could wait till the end of the story. Besides, he did want to hear what happened next.
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, where were we…
Ah yes, I remember – the attacks. They went on day after day, week after week, driving the villagers from the sea. For a while, the villagers managed to survive by fishing solely from the shore, but the swordfish soon broadened the scope of their raids, and attacks like the one that had driven off the king’s men became commonplace. The sea round the village, which had once been busy with boats and full of life, was now left empty and calm day after day. And in the morning, as the sun’s first rays refracted off the moving waves, one could see a single, dark mass of swordfish patrolling the waters beneath the vacant coast, ready to pounce on anyone who ventured too far towards the sea.
And that would have been the end of the whole village, if not for a little boy who liked to play with sticks.
You see, before all this stuff happened, the children of the village used to amuse themselves by going down to the beach and playing games on the sand and in the surf. But once the swordfish started acting all crazy, they had to find other ways to amuse themselves while their parents were off looking for food in the jungle nearby. And one little boy discovered that if you took a stick and peeled off its bark and sanded it against a log, you could make it sharp enough to pierce the soft trunk of a banana tree. Now this probably doesn’t sound much to kids like you these days with your Gameboys and your TV, but back then even something small like this could be a big deal if you let your imagination run wild enough. Soon, the children of the village had invented a game much like darts that revolved around this central idea of poking sticks into banana trees – the higher you could throw your stick, the more points you got, and so on, with countless variations.
And as this smart little boy watched his friends playing the game he had helped create, he was struck by an idea. If even sticks were sharp enough to get stuck in a banana tree trunk, wouldn’t the swordfishes’ beaks do the same? He took his idea to his dad, and would not stop whining until his dad agreed to give it a try. So one morning the two of them went out to the beach with a log cut from the wood of a banana tree, and watched as two swordfish sprung from the waves, ran the log through with their beaks, and found themselves stuck nose-first in the soft banana wood. The fish writhed and flopped this way and that, but no matter how they struggled they could not pull themselves out of the simple trap.
Once the fish had stopped struggling, boy and his father brought their trophy back to the village and told the others of their discovery. Working overnight, the men of the village cut down all the banana trees they could find and carried the logs to the beach, forming a wall of sorts where the sand met the sea.
When dawn came, the swordfish attacked. But this time, instead of piercing flesh and bone, their beaks sank harmlessly into the carefully positioned wall, pinning them to it like so many fish-shaped darts. A few minutes later, and the swordfish were all dead. The village was saved, and the ingenious little boy was the toast of the town.
“That’s a nice story,” Junhao said. “But what does it have to do with why we’re trapped in this forest?”
Harun held up a hand.
“I’m not done,” he said. “It doesn’t end here.”
If real life was like a fairy tale, our story would indeed have ended with a happy village and an exuberant child. But in real life, evil does not ever truly go away. It is always lurking just beyond the edge of our sight, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce itself to our imperfect hearts.
So our story must continue, for there was one man who did not celebrate with the rest of the village: the king. Where others saw a hero and a savior, the jealous king saw a boy that would one day become a man respected and admired by all – a man who would threaten his tenuous grip on power.
And who could say that he was not correct in his assessment? After all, things worked differently back then, and people were not afraid to change their government by force. We had all heard stories of rulers being offed by young upstarts, and certainly nobody had been very happy with our king’s failure to deal with this latest threat. In time, if events had been allowed to take their natural course, I might have had another story to tell you: one about a wise and just ruler who had replaced an old, despotic king.
But all this will remain mere conjecture, for our king decided to take matters into his own hands. He wanted the boy dead, but the boy was wise beyond his years, a sign that he was favored by the gods. For one such as he, no simple knife in the dark would suffice.
So the king went to a shaman of great power and questionable morals, and purchased a dagger imbued with a potent curse that waxed in power as the sun grew low. At dusk, the shaman assured him, there was no being alive who could withstand the power of the blade. So one evening, as the sun set blood-red in the west, the king slipped unnoticed into the little boy’s house, cloaked both by his sinister purpose and the terrible enchantment of the blade he bore.
That evening, the quiet of the village at dusk was rent by a terrible scream. And when the villagers rushed out of their houses to find its source, they found that the earth beneath their feet was stained red – as if a tide of blood had washed, unnoticed, through the village and out to sea. Of the boy and the king there was no sign.
It was a long time before either of the boys spoke again.
“What?” Harun blinked, his eyes snapping back into focus.
“Bukit Merah,” Junhao repeated. “Red Hill. I’ve always wondered how this part of town got its name.”
“Ah, yes.” Harun replied. “That would make sense.”
Harun’s eyes took on a distant aspect again, and he stared past Junhao into some unknown point in the undergrowth.
Junhao was old enough to know that look in Harun’s eyes was one of great pain, but the silence had begun to grow uncomfortable and he desperately wanted to find a way out of the forest.
“So what happened in the end?” he asked, by way of breaking the silence.
Harun paid him no heed. His gaze was still fixed on the sun which, unbeknownst to Junhao, had begun to set. It would soon be time.
“Harun?” Junhao waved his hand in front of the other boy’s face. “Hello? Can you hear me? You need to finish your story so the both of us can get out of here.”
“What are you even looking at anyway?”
Junhao began to turn his head look at what lay behind him. Acting quickly, Harun placed a firm hand on his shoulder, arresting his motion. And then he smiled his winning smile once more and saw with relief that he had recaptured Junhao’s attention.
“I’m sorry,” Harun said. “I was just trying to remember how the story ended. I think I’ve got it now.”
“Good. Let’s hear it.”
No, the boy did not die, though I am sure that many believed him dead. For there is a power to dawn and dusk, for in those moments the borders between worlds grows thin, and the same enchanted hour that gave the knife its power gave him the means to escape it.
A doorway was opened that day, by the same gods that had given the boy his insight, and though it cost him dearly the boy managed to cross it. But the king was pulled through with him by the power of his crossing, and till this day the two are still stuck in the twilight between worlds, one eternally poised to strike, one eternally awaiting the fatal blow.
“You were the little boy, weren’t you?” It had taken him a while, but Junhao had finally put two and two together. “And this forest, it has something to do with this… twilight you speak of?”
Harun shrugged. It was pointless hiding it any longer.
“Yes,” he said.
He was speaking quickly now.
“You see, every time I’ve tried to get out of here, the knife- well, it always follows me, for the curse that was put on it was very specific. A boy needs to die to it, or the wielder and the blade can never rest.”
Behind Junhao, something was moving.
“And you know, I thought, why does it have to me? Can’t it just be any other little boy? I’m not a bad person, really, but if you were in my shoes I think you would have done the same.”
“For what its worth, I’m sorry.”
The air around Harun wrenched and for a second Junhao felt a door opening to somewhere far and distant. And then the feeling was gone and so was Harun.
“Harun? Harun? Where are you? I don’t understand!”
He did not notice the shadowy figure behind him, or the blade that it held in its upraised arm. It was long and it was cruel and it gleamed in the light of the setting sun.