The Gift of a Seed

The Gift of a Seed

Gene Lin's story is the second in our winter series. It came second in the junior category of South China Morning Post and RTHK's Top Story competition sponsored by Samsung and Pan Macmillan

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Gift of a Seed Story_L
Illustration: Martin Megino/SCMP
The year was 1995. I was 16, and my grandmother was 87. I met my grandmother only three times.

The first time was when I was aged six. We had visited their house for Lunar New Year. Though I do not remember explicit details regarding that night, I do recall how the incident ended in a heated argument, with my father and grandfather shouting furiously at each other, while my mother held me in her arms. Despite the tension in the room, I saw her sitting by the balcony, humming her lullaby, which I couldn't understand. Grandmother was so peaceful, it seemed she was unaware of the uneasy situation.

The second time I saw my grandmother was at my grandfather's funeral. It was said his health had declined drastically since the night we last saw him. I was 11 when I saw my grandfather sent into the cremation furnace, while people seemed to either cry in genuine grief or pretend to weep just to show their respect. Grandmother never shed a tear, sitting silently in the front row, gazing at grandfather's body in a dreamy way. She later put a flower on his grave.

I asked why she did not feel sad. Her reply is still clear in my mind. She said everyone dies eventually.

The last time I saw my grandmother was in a hospital in Kowloon. Her face was pale and sickly, yet when she closed her eyes, she looked like she was in a peaceful dream. Sometimes I wished she would just never wake up, because when she did, she spoke in a heavy, shallow voice, like something heavy was pressing against her chest.

The night was November 11, 1995. I was 16 and she was 87. It was a chilly day, and rainy, with the cold seeming to seep into even the hospital corridors. I was sitting by her bed listening to the sound of a heart monitor, just to make sure she was still alive.

Bleep ... bleep ... bleep ...

Grandmother's chest slowly rose and fell as she breathed heavily. The motion was so gentle I was fascinated by it; at that moment, life seemed more real than ever.

My father was talking on his phone out in the corridor, as he always does. I could hear his empty laugh - probably talking to some important business client. He rarely interacted with grandmother, almost as if he didn't want to. We learned to ignore it.

"Heh ..."

A sudden dry panting broke the silence. Grandmother had woken up. Her panting did not stop, then I realised what she needed. In the few days I had spent with her, I had learned to cope with her needs, even though she never spoke. I quickly grabbed the cup of water by the side of her bed and pressed it to her lips. She weakly sucked at the water and swallowed it, making a painful expression. Then she spoke.

"Wei ..."

Her voice was rough.

"Yes?" I calmly answered, not knowing what to expect. Our conversation had never extended further than short sentences, for we had never really spent time together; not even a decent family supper.

"Have I told you about the tree?" she asked.

"Tree?"

"The tree ... at my house."

Bleep ... bleep ... bleep ...

I was confused; my grandmother had lived in an old, 16-storey building in North Point for as long as I could remember. There were no trees there, or anywhere nearby.

"There are no trees in your apartment, Gran."

"No ... I was living elsewhere before I was married to your grandfather. In the very far north of China," she explained, before launching into more violent coughing. There was blood. I quickly pulled out a couple of tissues to clean her stains, but she insisted on doing it herself, and dropped them into the bin next to the bed.

"I still remember that place ... really miss it." Her whisper did not sound like it was addressed to me.

"We lived by a forest, and sometimes on summer mornings, the mist in the valley turned gold under the sun. It was always beautiful."

I quietly listened, though she didn't seem to sense my presence.

"Wei, why do you think everyone dies?"

The question was so sudden it took me by surprise. The truth was, I had never put too much thought into the concept of life and death. But I didn't feel uncomfortable being asked such a question. We may not have conversed much, but in those few days, we seemed to have developed a relationship closer to that of friends than grandmother and grandchild.

"I don't know; maybe because the world will get too crowded?"

She gave a weak laugh.

"Perhaps. But still, why does everything have to leave?"

"Why did you leave the forest?" I asked, quickly changing the subject in the hope of continuing the discussion.

"Our land was dead, the soil could not grow food anymore. Without food, we could not live. The Spirit of the Forest had died," she answered.

"The Spirit of the Forest?"

Bleep ... bleep ... bleep ...

"Guardian and owner of the land," she said. "It was rumoured he left, but I said different, because I knew."

I did not answer. Grandmother wouldn't lie to me. She respected me by treating me like an adult. To her, I was a companion, not a child.

Yet adults don't tell fairy tales.

"Gran, is this ... real?"

"As real as I see you." She spoke so quietly it almost sounded like a whisper. Her eyes were directed to the ceiling instead of me. It was odd to talk to someone in such a way.

"So, how did you meet ...?"

"I was lost in the forest, the sun fell sooner than I expected ... There were no lights. I could not find my way back," she explained. "And then, he was there, the oddest thing I had ever seen ... At first sight, he looked like a deer, but the horns were of branches like trees, full of colourful fruits and golden leaves ... His mane was grass, twinkling under the moonlight. His front paw was the claw of a bird, and his face, his face ... like human, but yellow eyes ...

"But Wei, out of all the things that make him magical, it was the trail he left behind that I loved ... you see, every inch of soil he stepped on sprouted flowers, that's how I'd find him ... when I went into the woods, all I needed to search for was the flowers, millions and millions of flowers, Wei; that's his footprint."

I stared at grandmother's face as she looked up, seeing far beyond the white hospital ceiling. She reached out for my hand and held it.

"He guided me home. We met many times in the woods after that," Grandmother continued. "But he was weak, he told me humans were killing him. They were cutting down the trees, setting fire to his home. His land was shrinking. He couldn't go anywhere ... Wei, he was so weak, so weak, why do people do this?"

Bleep ... bleep ... bleep ...

Her voice was getting louder. She was speaking so vigorously the coughing started again, and this time there was even more blood. I had to wipe up for her. Then she continued, but more quietly.

"He was there before humans even existed, and he died just like that ... I couldn't do anything."

"What happened to him?" I asked.

"The last time I saw him, he gave me a seed. A giant seed ... told me it was a gift, that when he was dead, the seed would bring back the life of the forest ... I didn't know what to do, so I hid it in my house. Until one day, when I came home, a tree was right before me, it just stood there ... so big ... so tall. It was so large, it took 10 people holding hands to surround it ..."

Her eyes focused on the empty space as her voice faded slowly. I couldn't tell if she was still conscious. I turned to the heart monitor; the tiny waves of green line appeared slightly less frequently.

Grandmother's eyes closed softly. Her face was so peaceful it seemed like she was falling asleep as always.

She took a deep breath and slowly moved her lips as she whispered; she was so quiet, I wasn't sure if she was really speaking. "Wei ... why does everyone have to die?"

Bleep ... bleep ... bleep ...

Following an unusually long inhalation, Grandmother's chest gracefully moved upward, so smoothly it almost seemed she was levitating. It stayed there for a couple of seconds and descended just as slowly. As she exhaled her first decent breath in many years, the tension in her grip disappeared. The fingers locked between mine lost their strength and fell onto the soft, white bed sheet.

The heart monitor had stopped.

The next day, the room was flooded by warm sunshine. The rain had ended. I saw the nurses walking past me into the room as they replaced the bed sheets and retrieved the medical equipment that was no longer necessary. The bed was empty, as though never touched; there was no evidence to prove last night was real.

The last nurse replaced the withered flowers in the vase beside the bed with fresh ones and left without a word. The empty room was too quiet without the bleeping that had become normal to me.

I was sitting in a corner of the corridor, submerged in flashes of last night's memory. Father was still talking on his phone, apologising to his newest client about the delay because of the funeral. His words were as cold and empty as usual.

The year was 1995. I was 16, and she was 87.

To some extent, I have never left that hospital room. Even after I graduated and found a job overseas, my grandmother's words remained deep in my heart.

It wasn't until a similarly rainy night, though, that they really took hold - 20 years after her death.

I was working in China when I remembered it was the anniversary of my grandmother's death. As the memories resurfaced, I felt an urge to do something unexplainable.

The words of grandmother, the trees, the house, the seed ...

I wished to see the tree. I desired it for, after all these years, I realised I wanted to prove my grandmother's story was not wholly a lie. I made a lot of phone calls and found where she used to live. But what I saw was not quite what I expected.

There was no giant tree, because it was not there anymore.

What used to be the giant tree my grandmother claimed to exist had been cut down, leaving behind one of the largest trunks I had ever witnessed in my life.

A curious thing caught my attention. I discovered a cluster of flamboyantly coloured flowers in the middle of the stump as though it had spontaneously sprouted from nowhere. On closer inspection, I spotted another mass of flowers not far from the first, and another, and another ... it was definitely something of a pattern.

The trail of flowers slowly led to, and disappeared into, the forest, which was thriving with green.

And then, I saw it.

The moment I focused on the woods, I saw something, something I had glimpsed for just a second. It could've been my imagination, but I was sure of what I saw.

A golden light - a flash marking the presence of branches with golden leaves, bearing fruits of all colours, impossible to miss among the ordinary trees in the woods. The creature's skin glimmered like emerald as it disappeared, leaving a clump of flowers where it stood.

The year is 2015. I am 36, and my grandmother is still 87.

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