First Reads: In This Desert, There Were Seeds
From our shifting sense of community and identity, to our frustrations with existing political, social and economic structures—In This Desert, There Were Seeds transcends boundaries and captures the persistence of ordinary lives in deserts literal and metaphorical.
Co-published with Margaret River Press, and co-edited by Jon Gresham and Elizabeth Tan, this anthology consists of 20 writers from Singapore and Western Australia.
It all started when a big, beautiful watermelon appeared overnight in a town that was not particularly big, nor particularly beautiful.
The greyness had hit the town first, rendering it barren before claiming the rest of the island. Grass was reduced to a brittle shade of brown. Trees stood listlessly on the verge of banal deaths. The elderly in the estate began to die one by one, their bodies and brains regressing from lack of stimulation before ceasing altogether. It was as if a fog had descended, choking the air and all life. There was no obvious violence. Everything natural simply faded or died.
So imagine that in such a town, a big, vibrant watermelon erupted into existence. It grew overnight on a grass patch just in front of Mr Tan's house.
It was like this: sixty-three-year-old Mr Tan woke up, sat on his bed, and as sleep ebbed away, he registered an anomaly at the periphery of his vision. A burst of colour. He looked out his open window and saw it. A big, green orb in a field of infertile brownness. For some reason the sight filled him immediately with fear instead of hope.
One must understand that the presence of an anomaly could only be understood by Mr Tan as the arrival of more Bad Things.
It was, after all, the death of five great trees in the neighbourhood eight years ago that had signalled the beginning of the greyness. Then birds began to fall. The flowers stopped blooming. The rain forgot itself, mutely showering the island for days at a time. Street cats stopped fighting to climb the dead trees and sleep on their branches, without a care even when the rain fell upon them. They slept, dreaming human dreams. Blue sky. Grass green again. Birds strutting about, clueless but alive.
Not a single thing had grown in the neighbourhood, in the whole island, for the past eight years. All that was left were rectangular beds of dirt and sand where grass, bushes, flowers, and trees used to be. So one must understand why, on that morning, Mr Tan could only read the presence of the watermelon as an omen.
He was prone to dreaming. That was his flaw. He used to think that if you dreamt hard enough, repeated an image or desire with enough intensity, things could be willed into existence. He used to dream of wealth and grandchildren. He dreamt of a luxurious retirement. Of massaging his wife's feet in the morning on another of their many holidays. None of these things came to happen. So when he saw the watermelon, he thought that perhaps he had not killed that part of his dreaming self enough. He thought that perhaps there was a part of him that was dreaming still. Dreaming of a return to an earlier time; a time when things still grew.
But when he walked out his bedroom, across the hallway, and opened the door, he saw that the watermelon was indeed there. Its unmistakable reality was almost violent in its presence. He slotted his feet into his slippers and walked towards it.
When he squatted in front of the watermelon, his eyes were alarmed at the shock of colour. He had forgotten what it felt like when his eyes registered colour, bright and alive. How it was enough to change the way everything looked. He stared, remembering all those years ago when he read that green was a healing colour and calming for the eyes. He observed the wavering dark green lines stretching themselves end to end on a lighter green body. Not knowing what they were called, his wife once called them stretchmarks.
"Is it yours?" His neighbour, Ms Sharifah, appeared behind him without him noticing. How long had he been squatting in front of the watermelon, waiting for his eyes to adjust?
"I don't know, it was here when I looked out the window this morning."
At that moment, Mr Tan realised that it was possible to reach out and touch it. This scared him. To touch something so alien to their current environment felt to him an adventurous act, as if he were a child again, new to the world.
He was about to touch it, but Ms Sharifah's five-year-old burst onto the grass patch and grabbed at the watermelon.
"Raiyan!" Ms Sharifah whispered sharply.
Raiyan kept grabbing and ignored his mother, fuelled by the energy of a child seeing something new. As he lifted the watermelon up, they saw that it was rooted to the ground. It had not been dropped or left there. It was growing in the earth. Ms Sharifah lost any annoyance with her son and squatted next to Mr Tan, leaving her son shrieking in excitement,
assailing her with questions.
"It really grew here? When?" She pulled her son towards her.
"What is this, Mama? Is it sick?" Raiyan was touching it, taking pleasure in hearing the sounds it made when he rapped on its side. He lifted its roots with his little fingers, querying even the ants.
"What is this, Mis-ter Ant?"
"This is a watermelon, sayang, and it is not sick. This is the colour green," Sharifah replied.
The more the watermelon grew, the more something in the neighbourhood changed. It started in the people who walked past it every day. Each day was another day they realised such a thing was possible. Each day there bubbled within them a desire that the watermelon would continue to exist. They walked past it even with anxiety, fearing as they approached that it might have died or disappeared just like so many other things in the neighbourhood.
A whole month passed until one day, a laminated note was stuck on the watermelon. On it read the declaration:
This fruit was not planted by the town council. If it belongs to a resident, we ask that it be removed. If no action is taken, the council will deem it appropriate to remove it.
The next week, a young man appeared at Mr Tan's doorstep. He wore a white shirt, black pants, shiny important-looking shoes and uncomplicated rectangular steel-frame glasses. He seemed to be the same age as Mr Tan's son, maybe younger.
"Hello sir, are you Mr Tan Yao Guang?" "Yes. Yau Kwang."
"We received notice that there's a watermelon growing in the grass patch in front of your home. Did you plant it there?"
"No, I didn't. You call that a grass patch? Where got grass?" "Do you know who planted the watermelon there?"
"It just appeared overnight. I wish I could plant something else."
"Do you realise it's illegal?" "You want to take it away?"
"I didn't say anything about taking it away, I'm just asking who planted it there."
"When was the last time you saw a watermelon?"
The young man did not reply to Mr Tan's question. Mr Tan had the brief feeling as if the young man's soul had cracked through the skin of his face and shown a little tenderness in his eyes. But the part of him that made him choose his job ultimately reigned over his soul and locked it back in submission. His face returned to a professional expression and presented Mr Tan an unsettling smile. Before leaving, he parted with what seemed like genuine warmth.
"Thank you, Mr Tan, if you have any updates about the watermelon, please contact the town council office and ask to speak to me. My name is Darren Gan."
What was most absurd was not the threat of removing the watermelon. It was not even the suggestion that Mr Tan would cooperate with the Town Council. The most absurd thing was the fact that Darren Gan had not looked at the watermelon at all during his visit. Not once.
Mr Tan believed that it was a deeply sad flaw to refuse to see a miracle.
extract from "A Minor Kalahari" by Diana Rahim