Ten Seconds in An Empress’ Life (Short Story)

My previous stories had focused on Plot, while this one on Setting and Description.

Coursera Prompt: Slow motion moment. A one to two pager describing a scene that would have taken 10 seconds in real life. No inner monologue of the characters, only what they are doing. Nothing that happens before or after the 10-second timeframe. No wondering about what’s happening elsewhere. No mental planning on what the character’s going to do next. Strictly actions and material details only.

It was not easy – I think I had broken some of the rules.


 

The young Empress bit her lower lip and clenched her fists. She watched with intense stare every movement her infant son made as he crawled closer to the assortment of items meticulously arranged in front of him. Uncharacteristically gritting her teeth, The Empress’ facial expression concealed little of her impatience and despair.

Bai Xue, the lady-in-waiting standing next to her, was surprised by this rare loss of composure, but wisely dared not speak a word. Xue was sure The Empress could see with her peripheral vision the shortening length of the trees’ shadows outside the window. It was almost noontime. As she shifted her sight to somehow distance herself from The Empress, Xue accidentally exchanged a look with the triumphant-looking Imperial Concubine. The way her black irises glittered in premature glory sent shivers to Xue’s spine.

Only the one-year-old seemed unaware of the heavy atmosphere surrounding him. He had stopped crawling and now lied on his stomach. He was laughing happily and punching his tiny fists in the air, displaying no interest in any of the prophetic articles lain before him, the determinants of the crown prince’s future once grabbed by his tiny hands. A Confucian book, a wise king. A brush pen, an ink stone, an abacus, an intelligent king. An arrow, a sheathed sword, a warrior king. A toy, a playful king. A vase of flowers, a gentle king -a weak king.

And the royal stamp, the legitimate king.

Xue fearfully stole a look at The Empress, who seemed, if Xue did not know better, to be slightly trembling. The Empress’ shoulders loosened and her body shook inconspicuously. The jewels on her headdress swung awkwardly, shimmering violently in the sunlight.

The light from his mother’s headdress caught the young crown prince’s attention. Within an instant, his laugh turned to a smile and then to a puzzled pout. He could sense she was not pleased. He kept his stare fixated on his mother, looking for a clue. Bai Xue could almost feel a cloud of relief vaporizing out of The Empress’ body as she curled her thin lips into an encouraging, motherly smile. The royal stamp, Xue and everyone present in the court could almost hear The Empress’ mind, grab the royal stamp, my son. The Empress directed her sight to the stamp with such intensity that she would produce the same effect if she had instead pointed her finger to the object.

The crown prince tilted his tiny head, seemingly for the first time noticing the tools of fate in front of him. He began to crawl, only this time left to right instead of forward. He extended his short arm upward to the flowers and opened his fist.

Xue lost her mandibular control and gaped at the horrifying spectacle. And The Empress’ eyes! Xue could not distinguish whether it was fear or wrath or pain that flashed them. Whatever it was, for that one millisecond Xue witnessed a mother relinquished her love for her child.

But the heavens had other plans. The short reach of the prince’s puny right arm did not allow him to grab the flower, so he pulled it down, and landed his palm unintentionally on the stamp. He acknowledged the stamp’s existence as it touched his baby skin, looked at it with interest, wrapped his fingers around it, and lifted it closer to his face.

Bai Xue never felt so relieved in her life. She could feel the atmosphere changed as the crowd sighed relief and cheerful murmurs arose. She heard a gasp coming from the Imperial Concubine’s direction. In her wave relief, Xue noticed a second too late that The Empress had left her side, gracefully and noiselessly, to kneel and embrace her son. She smiled widely.

Bai Xue noticed that The Empress was still biting her lower lip.

 

Jumbled,

M

 

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Saved by the Bell… Not

When I was probably eleven or twelve years old (maybe thirteen, actually), we learnt about conducting debates (the formal kind) in Indonesian Language class. The details escaped my memory, but I think later on in the semester, we were going to form small groups and conduct non-moderated debates as a final group exam.

I can only comprehend it now, but the reason I was so excited with the idea of participating in a debate was the opportunity to have controversial opinions and speak up about it. Again, I didn’t understand it then, but I was excited because whether I realised it or not, it was a rare luxury for someone whose education by that point in time had been packaged exclusively in Catholic and Christian contexts*.

It also helped that I quite liked the teacher, a tall middle-aged man with big mustache and glasses and deep voice. We had two teachers for Indonesian Language class, one for the rules of language: grammar and sentence structure and poem structure, while this teacher on the application of language, the more interesting stuff: stories and debates and newspaper articles. Try as I did, I couldn’t remember anything this teacher (whom I supposedly quite liked) had taught me, as if all my memories related to him and his class had been erased to make space for this singular incident.

Approaching the end of that Introduction to Debate class, we had listed out the possible topics for debate – capital punishment and cloning and child adoption were there on the whiteboard. He concluded the lesson with asserting that ability to debate with evidences to back up your claim is important when we enter real life, because, “everything, any subject, can be open to debate…”

When he said those words, I felt a surge of strange excitement I still could not explain today. I felt that somehow those words indirectly permitting me to form and own and express my opinion and this lesson was preparing me for that. I experienced this weird moment when I was getting to be happy – not yet happy because he hasn’t finished his sentence, but I was getting to be happy. The only other instance in my life in which one moment invoked that kind-of-similar-but-not-really feeling was the few seconds between me seeing an email from my university of choice and finally opening it.

“…except abortion. No debate about it. GILA itu, orang yang pro aborsi!**”

And then the bell rang.

His lesson was over for the day and he walked out the classroom for the next teacher to come in. I felt like losing mandibular control and remained gaping for a while. I was getting to feel happy and then suddenly, I wasn’t. And now, more than a decade later, I have never forgotten that moment. I couldn’t. The entirety of the scene is too vivid. His strong emphasis on the first syllable of the word chosen to describe pro-abortionist. His deep and authoritative voice. His conclusive tone. His dismissal of possibility of debate on the subject. The finality of it all.

Why?

Is what I wanted to ask. I wanted to raise my hand and asked, because I, the whole eleven or twelve year-old me, could think of at least one reason that the subject could be debated without being “gila”. My reactionary argument was “What if it was choose-the-mother-or-the-baby type of scenario?” Today, I can definitely name more and better arguments. Sarah Silverman’s answer to Bill Maher comes to mind: she never had an abortion. She doesn’t know if she’d do it. Maybe she will put it up for adoption. But she know she will be damned if that prevented her from speaking up for other women’s right to their bodies.

Why?

I didn’t know what I wanted to happen even if I did ask, but I know wasn’t happy with that statement and I wanted him to justify saying it. I wanted to raise my hand and asked but I didn’t. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t and my inaction will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I interrogated my young self and demanded why she didn’t raise her hand and ask. She said she was scared.

Prior to that day, I was being a smart-ass in History class. I vaguely remembered the teacher was saying something about oversupply of coffee beans during the Dutch colony time and that they had to throw what they had in the sea.*** It made no sense to me and wearing my realist’s thinking cap, I asked in a matter-of-fact manner why didn’t they just store the beans somewhere and hide it until there were demand again and hurrah, they’d be rich. And there was one second of silence followed by a boy who shouted jokingly, “You are so evil you are born to be a corrupter****!” – or something to that effect. The other kids laughed, too.

I remembered that after the laughter died down a bit, the teacher thought for a few seconds and answered that coffee is perishable commodities and such tactic wouldn’t work since it required complicity from a lot of people. I thought that was an okay, safe answer. I was eleven or twelve and did not know what supply chain was. What I knew was that I was not going to a corrupt politician or anything bearing semblance to it.

I was not being evil. I was being a realist and I put myself in the shoes of colonial-era Dutchmen, and could not understand why we (the Dutchmen) were cool with slavery but not with hoarding commodities. I had divorced myself with morals and ethics when making that comment, but of course I didn’t verbally state that caveat. I could see how my peers were somewhat appalled at my line of reasoning, but that incident never led into bullying or anything awful (for obvious reason, a classmate expressing an point of view of an evil capitalist in one boring History lesson was not a scandalous enough incident to be made fun of – I mean, what mean names could they even call me? Coffee Tycoon?).

But I hated that they called me evil for that brief moment. So, I was scared. And I remained scared that day in Indonesian Language class that I would be called evil again. Even more so because, this time, I would have expressed my idealist side. Realist thinking is often cold and clinical; I had that on my side when I was divorcing ethics and morals commenting about those freaking coffee. I was thinking as a corrupt Dutch and I was evil – I can make sense of that.

But, if at that time I had spoken about what I believed (and still do), I would be called evil again when I wasn’t coming from a place of evil. And in that split-second I unconsciously knew that I and my whole eleven or twelve years of living would not be able to argue my standpoint eloquently. I hadn’t even developed a standpoint yet then. I only knew it was a subject. Abortion is a subject and it should be open for a debate.

But, I was scared. I didn’t raise my hand. I wished I did but I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t.

And then the bell rang.


 

I struggled to find a balance when writing this blogpost. I don’t want this post to encompass all what I think about abortion or corruption and less about what I want to say about education. On the other hand, I don’t want to write in such a way that abortion or corruption, both important topics, to be mere vehicles for my self-reflection as well. More than anything, I want to write about my experience being educated, and how those important topics came into play in my education. It is also about me regretting and setting the path to redemption for what I did not do more than a decade ago.

 

Jumbled, yours truly,

M


 

Footnotes

*A little bit of background: most schools in Indonesia from kindergarten to high school were and are religion-oriented. Majority of public schools are Islam-oriented, while private schools, which are fewer in number, are often Christian or Catholic or Buddhist. International schools that I knew of at the time were mostly Christian-oriented.

**”INSANE , that’s what those pro-abortion people are!” The translation to English just doesn’t convey the same emotion.

***I’m not even sure which part of Indonesian history was this, I couldn’t find the record of it anywhere in the Internet. But I am sure this was not in any way mixed up with the limited knowledge I have about Boston Tea Party.

****Corrupter is not a common term used in English-speaking nations as far as I know, but in Indonesia, white-collar criminals with embezzlement, fraud, or other cases of abuses from being in positions of power are often grouped together under the banner koruptor.

 

Anxious Yawning (Short Story)

Here is my second writing assignment for Coursera’s creative writing course (syllabus and lecturer from Wesleyan). 100 to 200-word story on a trip to a doctor, with ABDCE structure (Action, Background, Development, Conflict, Ending).


Anxious Yawning

Abe gulped the last drop of his third espresso for the morning. As he felt his heart beating faster – it always did after even only a moderate intake of caffeine -Abe started to think of rescheduling his upcoming therapist appointment, his first ever appointment. He had been hesitating in the past few weeks… especially with this particular shrink.

No, he tried to encourage himself, I should go. I need this. It’s okay if I look a bit nervous after that much caffeine.

As he pushed open the café glass door and stepped into the crisp mid-autumn air, Abe yawned widely. His gaping, exaggerated yawn was not in any way suggesting poor quality of the espressos he had been served. No, Abe was well aware that his yawning was one of the peculiar, still unexplained behaviors exhibited by very nervous humans (and apparently, dogs). He learnt all this in school. Some of his patients used to do this, too.

Soon, Abe spotted the signboard he was looking for, probably the most nondescript signboard that ever was. It read: “Gareth J. Watson, PhD, MSC. Therapist.” Abe had a signboard once. Not long ago. Now it’s gone along with his license.

Well, would you look at that, thought Abe bitterly as he swung the door open with more force than needed, the bastard Gary! Graduated the last among us all and now the only one still practicing…with a PhD to boot, too!


 

Jumbled,

M

 

The Disgraced Ringmaster (Short Story)

A few days ago, I enrolled in a four-week creative writing course on Coursera. I had been waiting for this kind of courses for a while, strangely Coursera did not have a lot of selections in this area. Most of other writing courses are more focused on professional writing.

The first writing assignment was to write a 250-word short story using the Pyramid structure (Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement). Other requirement includes having a main character with three specific “wants”, three reasons behind those “wants”, and three flaws. The structure of the story needs to be as such: the first sentence has to start with introduction of the protagonist, followed by a second one with inciting incident leading up to rising actions. Now, the tricky part is that the instructor gave twelve words, each of them needs to be incorporated in every other sentence starting from the third sentence onward. The words are: trick, memory, aboard, tiger, pretend, carrot, appliance, cage, rings, crow, filthy, and explode.

I didn’t pay for the course, so I couldn’t have it submitted to be peer-graded. (Coursera isn’t what it used to be). But it was quite fun scribbling the story on my notebook, so I decided to post it here.

Needless to say, I exceeded the word count limit.


The Disgraced Ringmaster

In the middle of a drizzly night, a drunken old man with half-opened eyes and full grubby beard yelled obscenities loudly outside a bar. He had been kicked out of the bar for stumbling around disturbing other patrons, at one point spitting into someone else’s drink. After a while, the filthy old man finally stopped yelling and slowly pulled his wobbly legs up, still cursing under his alcohol-reeked breath.

Mr. P, the homeless old man, wondered around the slippery street for a while before entering another bar. Desperate for another glass of brandy – or maybe two – he feigned confidence and walked in pretending as if he still had enough money. When the bartender served him rudely, Mr. P grunted angrily, “Yer just a young lad, how the hell you think you can run a business being all rude to old men!”

The bartender shot Mr. P a disgusted look and sneered, “You ain’t just some old man, if memory serves me right you’re The Ringmaster from that damned circus.” He grinned mockingly, “I ain’t got no obligation being all nice and shit to no murderers. Besides, you always tricked the whole town with your crazy expensive tickets, thinkin’ we all stupid village people who never got no circus coming here before.”

At this point, a group of men sitting behind Mr. P had stopped their own rowdy conversation and been listening. When one of them realized who the old man in drenched, patched coat was, he laughed drunkenly, “Oh ho, wouldn’t you look at that old stinking crow getting all red and angry.” The men surrounded Mr. P now. Panicking to get out of his seat, Mr. P’s wobbly hand knocked over the bartender’s appliances. The men saw this clumsy act and, laughing even more mercilessly, dragged the scrawny old man by his coat and threw him outside the bar. “If you still got that much nerve showing up in this town,” said the most massive man in the group while clenching his knuckle-rings-decorated fist, “clearly we didn’t mess you up enough the last time.”

The first punch to his right temple wiped off the crazy, drunken smirk from Mr. P’s face. The pain and shock reminded him of how he felt witnessing helplessly as his old caravan exploded right before his eyes. Lying there in the pouring rain with strangers’ feet kicking his empty stomach, Mr. P couldn’t help but wondered if this was how his animals (and sometimes, his employees) felt when he administered his whip. “Carrots and sticks, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr.P once proudly answered when a member of his audience asked how he had trained and disciplined his troupe, “It’s all about punishment and reward.”

Among the nine people injured and the three dead on the day of explosion, there were two gymnasts, a clown, a veterinarian, and one nine-year-old boy who had sneaked into one of the tents to see his idolized funambulist.

But all Mr. P could think about when the massive man spat on his face was his favorite tiger Richie. Although Mr. P had always wanted a lion for his act, he always failed to utter any word of complaint every time he saw Richie jumping through the ring of fire, his amber stripes blending in color perfectly with the flame. Mr. P’s tears mixed with his blood and rain as he lifted himself up in a sitting position, unable to erase the image of Richie’s piercing eyes shining from the inside his blazing cage glaring at him accusingly, vengefully… savagely.

“Hey, old man,” the bartender suddenly appeared, pitifully covering Mr.P’s head with an umbrella and handing him a wad of cash, “Take this and just get aboard on a train, go, anywhere but here, okay?”

Mr. P coughed, looked up at the bartender’s face, at the wad of cash, at his dripping blood diluted by the rain. He shook his head weakly, with his last energy snatched the umbrella from the bartender’s hand, and limped away into the midnight rain.

 


By the way, Richie’s name was inspired by Richard Parker the Bengal tiger from Life of Pi. For Mr.P’s name… well, in my native language Pi is read as “pee” and the first time I read the novel, it was the translated version. I know Pi did not want to be called that and a big scene in the book was him writing 3.14159xxxxxxx on the chalkboard to drive exactly that point. But it’s always going to be pronounced “pee” in my head.

 

Jumbled and yours,

M

 

What if I Ate the Marshmallow?

I often took notice when people said anything that starts with “Even as a child I…” or “Since I was a kid, I…” and then continue on describing rather proudly or contently how, ever since they were little, these people had always held  certain (often laudable) opinions, ideas, passions, dreams, or attitudes that they carry on into adulthood. Did other people notice this?

Not that I thought anything’s wrong with these humans with consistency in their characters. On contrary, they made me somewhat… insecure. And maybe jealous.

Take astronaut and real-life superhero Chris Hadfield as an example. In his memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth that I recently readwhile recounting how the historic moment on July 20th 1969 galvanized his life goal to be an astronaut, the pride of Canada wrote “I recognized even as a 9-year-old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I’d become.” 

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“And I decide that I’m not going out of this spaceship!”

I say this with no sarcasm: that was grand. Maybe his 9-year-old self did not articulate that thought in those exact words, but that boy sure lived by that boss principle and it took him right out of the planet.

Well, I could have taken comfort in thinking that Chris Hadfield is a different kind of human altogether. I might then avoid feeling bad about my younger self for not really having that kind of solid, purposeful discipline to help navigate my childhood and adolescence. I could probably assure myself that I was overthinking everything…

…if I had not known about The Marshmallow Experiment.

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You know, the famous one done in Stanford. No, not the one about the prisoners!
I first came across it in one of my Consumer Behavior lectures. For the uninitiated, the series of experiment was about delayed gratification among children aged 4 to 6, headed by Dr. Walter Mischel. I remembered this study because I thought the methodology was interesting; the researchers put a child in a room with no distraction except one marshmallow on a table. They then told the child that the researchers will go out of the room, and then the child can eat the first marshmallow or they can wait until the researchers come back and bring them a reward for waiting, a second marshmallow. Follow-up studies found significant correlation between the longer delay time to the better life outcomes of the kids, measured by parameters such as SAT scores, BMI, etc. 

Now. Childhood is a blur to me. I cannot know for sure what I would do if I were one of the kids in the experiment. I don’t remember even liking marshmallow as a kid, but would I be one of the kids who give in to temptation and eat the marshmallow? Given how I behave now as an adult, on some good days, I probably would’ve waited for that second marshmallow. But on some bad days, one may be enough. Plus, I think as a kid I might have started having doubts halfway through. What if there is no second marshmallow? What if the person lied? What if there is no second marshmallow and I wasted fifteen minutes waiting for it? If so, when I finally eat that first marshmallow it would’ve tasted awful. (Okay, so I may be projecting my adult’s mistrust and cynicism of the world too much here.)

But you get my point: a toddler Chris Hadfield would have waited, while a toddler me… I have no idea what that brat would do.

In any case, I consoled myself thinking that among those kids who didn’t wait long enough or at all, some of them must have turned out just fine. I could not find any further researches that track on these outliers, the kids who did eat the marshmallow and turned out having good enough, maybe above the median SAT scores? Aren’t they the interesting ones? I like to think that these kids, over the course of their teenage years, for some reason learned to control their innate impulses and beat the odds. They can’t all be doomed to lead less successful lives, right?

I don’t know the answer for sure, but a 2014 (edited 2015) CNN piece gave me some hope:

Does that mean children who can’t wait for two marshmallows are destined to live less fulfilling lives? Not necessarily. “I have no doubt that self-control skills … are imminently teachable,” said Mischel. It all comes down to training your mind to cool its emotional need for something it’s trying to avoid.

In the case of young children, Mischel said the preschoolers who waited for the marshmallows showed strategies that any parent could teach their child. Beyond that, he said, techniques for self-control can be learned at any age.

To clarify, for a devotee of The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight like me, it is strange that something from CNN could provide me with a kind of relief. However, it’s still nice to read that and use it to further strengthen my desire to be defined as a person by how much my worldview, mindset, and overall character have evolved since I was little – instead of by how I had behaved as a child. While deep down, everyone knew discipline is a quality that can be acquired even as an adult, it is nice to hear further validation on that…especially from the man whose experiment incited my worry in the first place.

I can at least have some peace in mind that even if I had eaten that marshmallow, there could be redemption if I willed myself. That my fate was not sealed.


Few years a go, I won a free notebook from a shopping mall prize draw. Whoever designed that notebook put an unapologetic Oscar Wilde quote on its very first page: “I can resist everything except temptation”. It’s a maxim that all shopping malls certainly wish their customers would live by. I thought that was funny.

I decided to use that notebook for my journals this year and let that quote be a reminder of what I don’t want to become.

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Jumbled and yours,

M