360. Full Circle

This is a true story about revolution, bloodshed, and cakes.

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away:

China – 1300s.

The Ming people were planning a revolution. They were tired of being oppressed by the Mongolian rulers, and decided that they will overthrow them. They had their battle plans laid out, their strategies made, and weapons ready… But at the last moment, the Mongolian rulers issued a ban on all social gatherings. And so the Ming revolutionaries were left sitting at home, waiting for the signal to attack, which never came because they could not talk to each other.

The leaders of the revolution, Ming Taizu and Wencheng, decided that they should do something about this. They hatched a plan.

The first thing they did was to spread a rumor that a deadly plague had broken out. Whomever contracted the disease died immediately. (Not Ebola, but similar). The second thing they did was bake small cakes.

(if you want to save the world and you’re serious about it, go learn how to bake. I believe that one day, cakes will save the world)

They baked small cakes. And the third thing they did was tell everyone that to survive the plague, they must eat these small cakes. Because these small cakes will give them special powers and immunity towards the disease, keeping them alive.

They all ate the small cakes. The Mongolians at the cakes. The Ming people ate the cakes. Everyone had cake. To the Mongolians, they were just eating cakes that tasted a little funky – but you did what you had to do to stay alive. When the Ming revolutionaries cut open the cake and found the egg yolk suspended in the lotus paste filling, however, they immediately knew that it was a secret message to launch their attack on the night of the full moon.

When the full moon came on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the Ming revolutionaries picked up their weapons, took to the streets, and like in Les Misérables they stormed the palace. But unlike Les Misérables, 1) they did not sing; and 2) instead of dying one by one by one, they actually succeeded in their plan. Like that, the Mongolian rulers were overthrown and the Ming dynasty was formed.

Some happy events happened after, followed by a series of very nasty events. But we won’t go there. If you tell a story long enough, it always ends in death and heartbreak. If you want to have a good ending, you have to know when to cut it short. Slap an ending on it. Capture that perfect, triumphant moment in a photograph made from words and leave them be, going on only if you will say “and they lived happily ever after”.

Tell your stories beyond death and heartbreak, and you’ll always find yourself back at the beginning, where we all begin again, as though we have never left.

And always remember: if you want to save the world, learn how to bake.

Because cakes will one day save the world.

359. The Constellation Hunter, Aquila, and A Lot of Booze

When Aquila retired from Zeus’ courts to become the constellation in the northern sky, he imagined it would be an idyllic life full of pleasant monotony. Which was true, for the first couple of thousand years. Where he was stationed, there was enough alcohol for all the old gods of the forgotten pantheon; and since none of them were around, there was no obligation for Aquila to share any of it with them for old time’s sake.

Never would he have thought that he would find himself staring up at the pointy end of an arrow.

“Hi,” the Constellation Hunter said, grinning.

Aquila blinked twice. Thrice. Spilled his glass as he raised his hands in surrender. “Hi,” he replied.

The Constellation Hunter glanced at the alcohol cloud. “That’s a lot of booze.”

Aquila swallowed hard. “It is.”

“Care to pour me a drink?”

Alcohol coursing through his veins, Aquila’s brain was at least clear enough to know that he could not profit from defying the man who had the golden arrow pointed at him. He swirled the alcohol into a goblet made of stars and offered it to the Constellation Hunter. The Hunter did not receive it, keeping his bow and arrow trained at the spot between Aquila’s eyes.

“I know who you are,” Aquila said.

“Yeah?”

“You’re the death of the old gods. The collapse of stars. The darkness at the end of all things.”

“Oh, me? No, no,” the Hunter said. “You’ve got it all wrong. I’m just a hunter. Looking for good game, you see. What you’re talking about is the anti-life here.” He nodded at the bow. “This is the end of all things. I’m just here to collect the bodies for my gallery.”

“This is just a game to you?” Aquila said, straitening his spine. “Twenty-four of us you have hunted down. Tracked me all the way around the cosmos, searching through galaxies, only to find me here. You’re telling me that it is not for some grand purpose? That you’re not trying to blot the light of the sun? You’re just here because… because you think this is fun?”

“You can’t please everyone,” the Hunter said. “You just have to please yourself.”

“And when you have hunted down the last twelve of us. What then? Will that be enough for you, to have snuffed out the life of all constellations?”

The Hunter shrugged. “Maybe.”

Aquila doused the Hunter’s face in alcohol. It floated off his face in swirls of purple, orange, and pink. The Hunter did not even blink.

“You done?” the Hunter asked.

“Do what you must.”

Except Aquila never managed to finish his sentence. Somewhere towards the end of “what”, before he started to say “you”, the Hunter released the bowstring and the golden arrow split Aquila’s skull apart. Then Aquila was no more – one by one his light dimmed and died. On his split forehead, the star Altair went out in a brilliant supernova.

The Hunter checked his list. Next, after a crude drawing of Aquila, was what looked like a crab.

He can wait, The Hunter thought as he made himself a drink and took a long swig from the cup made of stars.

352. A Little Love For Your Coffee

Alice draws a little heart shape in every cup she brews. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first thing in the morning, before the sun even rises; or in the dead of the night, as people amble by as they would watch TV: inattentive, detached, bored. In the center of every mug, atop a pool of golden-brown coffee, she draws a little heart shape in cream, frothy and light.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes, she reasons.

She learned how to make it on her own, through a step-by-step tutorial she found on the internet, and then through trial and error. God knows there were many trials and errors.

She will always remember the day she made the perfect heart shape: a week and two days after she found the tutorial on the internet. On the surface of her morning coffee, she traces delicate lines with a toothpick, making a little groove from the top of the milk circle, then pulling the lower edge out so that it grew a tail. In the spur of the moment, Alice puts a little dot at the end of the heart, like a full stop. She admires her handiwork.

And then she takes a picture of it for Instagram.

One day a man walks into the shop. It is near closing time: the chairs are stacked upside-down on the tables and the floors are newly mopped. The lights are dimmed and a pop-rock track plays in the background. The last of the cups are being washed. The trash is being taken out. Then the man walks in, shoving the door aside violently. He sits in the corner, by the window, takes out a cigarette and begins to smoke.

No one quite knows what to do.

The man was big enough and looked don’t-mess-with-me enough that they leave him alone. Cleaning up tobacco ash was a 5-minute inconvenience. A black eye, or broken bones, would be an inconvenience lasting significantly longer than 5 minutes. But by 1am, the man is still there, and everyone is anxious to go home.

Alice knows just what to do. She goes into the back, whips up a fresh batch of coffee; and while it steams away on the countertop, she pours the milk in and draws a little heart shape on the surface. Nervously, she steps towards the man with the cup balanced on a ceramic saucer. She lays it down. The spoon makes a little tinkling sound against the ceramic as the saucer touches the table.

The man looks at the cup, and then up at Alice. He says, “You made this?”

“Yes sir,” she says. “It’s on the house.”

The man offers a smile that turns sour. “It’s shit,” he says, and flips the cup off the table. It shatters into a messy puddle of wasted coffee and ceramic shards. Without a word, he walks past her and out the store, into the night. Alice continues standing there, looking at the mess for a long time.

Her coworkers help her clean up, and despite her insistence that she is okay and has no need for anyone to worry for her, she cries inconsolably into the night, only finding the solace of sleep an hour before dawn breaks over the city. She wakes up that day two hours late for her first lecture and misses the second one because the bus would not wait for her.

At 5pm she goes into the shop. She offers a smile to anyone who asks her if she is okay. She stashes her bag in the back, changes into uniform, puts an apron on. When she emerges a minute later, there is a cup of coffee waiting to be delivered to a glum-faced fellow sitting alone near the magazines.

She picks up the milk jug and draws a little heart shape in the middle of the coffee. The fellow seems pleasantly surprised by it. She offers a smile for him, and he returns one.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes.

346. Troubled Time

-sentences.

Fred and Lloyd are twins. The identical sort. There’s no separating them, no matter how hard you tried. And if there is something they like more than anything in the world, it’s raising hell. Even better if you explicitly tell them not to.

They think alike. Like most twins. But unlike most twins, they are – how to say it – off sync. You would think there’s something wrong with one of them, but there isn’t. Just that one of them was born slightly disconnected from the space-time continuum.

It becomes a problem when they try to finish each other’s-

339. Tears Of My Enemies

Eugene never liked chemistry a lot.

While it was probable that chemistry probably didn’t like him a lot either, that was none of his concern. But the recipe called for a teaspoon of “the tears of your enemies”, whatever that was supposed to mean.

“What if it’s tear, like tearing paper,” Anita offered, “Not like teardrop? I mean, it could probably work just well.”

Eugene gave her a cold look. “Yes,” he said, “And what, pray tell, is a teaspoon of tear-as-in-tearing-paper?”

Anita sighed and sat down.

In retrospect, she should have stopped him from buying the tome at all. The gypsy shop looked dodgy to begin with – but the woman with the multicolored dress inside was one hell of a saleswoman. Before Anita realized what was happening, Eugene was already sold to the idea of a potion that will bring him victory in all his endeavors.

“If this is about your finals,” she had said, “I maintain that you should just sit down and study. You know, like the rest of us.”

He didn’t listen. He never did.

The other ingredients were easy to find: hair from a brown cat, a small pearl, mud from the battleground, a drop of blood… The last bit was where they got stuck. A little Google search made things further complicated when they found out that there were different types of tears for different types of emotions – and it wasn’t in the poetic way. Tears of joy and tears of grief literally had different chemical makeups.

They had argued back and forth about what kind of tears should an enemy shed; and after ruling out onion tears, joyful tears, and tears of humiliation, they finally agreed that the “tears of my enemy” should be tears of pain. A swift kick to the groin or a really hot chili would do.

“But who is my enemy?” Eugene piped up. “Does it have to be like, a sworn archnemesis, or something? Does he need to have tried to kill me? Or hate me, at least? What if I see him as an enemy, but he doesn’t feel the same way? Is he still my enemy?”

“Best to be safe on that one,” Anita said. “Would you happen to have any sworn archnemeses waiting around? Preferably within an hour’s drive and not too powerful or vengeful?”

“Nuts,” Eugene folded his arms. “Why does this have to be so difficult?”

“More difficult than just studying?”

“No.”

She sighed again. With the finals coming up in less than a week, you’d imagine that a reasonable person would put these silly things away and start being pragmatic. Here he was, lost in his fantasy, and he made fun of her for liking The Lord of the Rings.

The smack on the nose came hard and sudden. Lost in her pondering, Anita didn’t see Eugene walk around the table to where she sat, and now her nose was hot on the inside – it was going to bleed, for sure; and her vision was blurring up. She bent over, soundless more from shock than anything else.

“Hold that. Hold that,” Eugene’s voice came, and instead of an apology, something cold and metallic touched her face.

“Oh, you piece of shit,” she spat as he carried the teaspoon of her tears away, then mixing it in with the other ingredients. If directed hate was what qualified one as an enemy, he had just earned himself one, all right.

God, she hoped he failed.

325. You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger

You will meet a tall, dark stranger. He will be where you wouldn’t think he is, and he will be everything you think he is… And some more.

He will like you, and you will like him. He will be sweet, sensitive, and have a penchant for witty jokes and diamond-shaped cufflinks. On your third meeting, they will be matching red hearts, like the ones on poker cards, and you will notice it, but not say anything about it, because you like a man who knows how to be subtle.

…What’s that? Will he be handsome? Heavens, how on earth would I know? Pay attention now.

You will invite him for dinner, and he will accept. He will show up five minutes before six, and you will tell him the dinner’s not until seven, and he will say, oh no, I must have mixed up the time. May I use the bathroom? And you will say that he can, and when he’s in the bathroom, you will hurry into the kitchen and turn up the oven temperature in hopes of getting the chicken done faster, and you will end up with a burnt chicken, a cut index finger – right below the second knuckle; it will be a shallow cut, but it will bleed nonetheless -, and tears when he comes into your kitchen to investigate the ringing sound that is the smoke alarm.

He will hug you and tell you that it is going to be okay, he’s there now. He will tell you that before he graduated from business school and started work in the investment bank, he was in a culinary course for two – you will say “ouch!” at this point, as he applies the iodine on the cut – years before deciding that he didn’t want to spend his life in some fancy hotel’s kitchen. In that moment, you will look into his deep, dark eyes, observe his stubbled jawline, and realize that you’re in love.

Yes? …No, I don’t know if you’ll end up eating home or going out. Why would you think I know that? Moving on.

You will ask about his family on the third time you go out. It will be over dinner at a bar and grill, and he will be halfway through his barbequed ribs. You will ask the question as you’re reaching for a french fry on his plate, and you will bite half of it off before you note his hesitation, and he will say that he doesn’t want to talk about it.

You will ask him why doesn’t he want to talk about it, and he will insist that he doesn’t want to talk about it, and he will ask to be excused, even though the tickets to the 8 o’clock show to A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder have already been bought, and are sitting in his breast pocket. The first thing that crosses your mind is that if he’s going to leave, will he at least leave the tickets so that you can go and watch it. He will leave after paying the bill, and before the apology finds its way to your lips.

He will not reply your texts or answer your calls. You will try and find him on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google Plus, even on Myspace, and you will not find him anywhere. You will drown your sorrows in wine and belch them out in song. You will wish you have never met him to begin with, and you will spend years moping over the one that got away.

Well, why not, I’m quite done here, anyway. What’s his name, you ask? Goodness, you’re a basket full of questions, aren’t you? I don’t know, I haven’t met him. You can’t expect me to know the name of a man I don’t know, can you? Run along now, and remember to tell your friends where they can get their fortunes read.

308. At Midnight

At midnight, the imps come out to play. They emerge through little holes in the soil, squeezing in through cracks in the wall, and zipping through the air like demented insects on steroids. A hundred million invisible little creatures, all armed with little pitchforks and donning their best pair of red horns on their bald heads, come out at midnight to wreck havoc.

In a time long ago they used to set fires to farms and, in the disguise of fairies, lead night travelers to their doom in deep ravines. They used to prod cattle and dogs and cats with their little pitchforks, causing them to moo and bark and meow all night long, depriving their masters of sleep. These days, with concrete and steel replacing wood and straw, setting fires proved to be a little more difficult; and with headlights and streetlamps replacing starlight and lanterns, leading travelers to their doom had also become quite the challenge.

In the absence of cattle, they continue to prod the dogs and cats anyhow.

They fly around, silent as shadows, around heads and houses. They find their ways into closets and sew all your clothes a little bit smaller so that they will feel just a little bit tighter when you put them on in the morning. They reach into cabinets and misplace the thing that you will need first thing in the morning so that you will spend panicked hours looking for it, missing breakfast in the process, and eventually find it right next to where you thought you had left it. They excel, especially, at hiding car keys and wallets and loosening the connection between the charging cable and your phone so that you will wake up to a phone with a dead battery.

They work their ways into your fridge and subtly rearrange the items in it, pushing the jar of lard to the back of the fridge, where you will forget about it until you begin to smell the stink of fermentation months down the road. “Who put this in here?” you will ask, perplexed, and no one will be able to answer you.

With a swish and a prod of their pitchforks, they steal sleep from those who need them and pass it on to the people who would really be better off without it. They snag ideas from busy heads and plant them into idle minds, so that the once-good idea will become only good for collecting dust and growing gray mold in the stillness that is a blank mind. They steal the imagination of the new morning and shuffle them into your dreams, so that you will dream that you have woken up and washed up and went to the office, only to wake up and realize that you need to wash up and go to the office, only to wake up and realize that you haven’t actually woken up or washed up, only to wake up and realize…

Then, in the hours just before dawn, after they have filled your mind with cotton and strange dreams that you will not, for the life of you, be able to recount for the rest of your life, they flee. They disappear into the cracks in the wall and holes in the soil; and if you hear a little scurrying sound just as you stir from sleep, you will only remind yourself to complain to the landlord about the mice problem. There will be nothing left behind to show that the imps had ever been there.

And you will spend the next hour cursing as you search up and down for that flash drive that you swear you had left right beside your computer before you went off to sleep.

Meanwhile, the manic laughter underground goes on… and on… and on…