Oh My Soul

Show me how to lay it down. Tell me I’m not alone. Can You keep me from going under?

There’s a place where fear has to face the God you know.

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Black

Black is my favourite colour. It is a colour that no matter how you try to dye other colours over it, it will still remain black. It is not the colour of sin or of sadness, it is the colour of obstinate rebellion against the pressure of liberal society.

It is the colour of steadfastness.

I want to be black – steadfast and never changing – the one painting over others, not the one being painted over. But society doesn’t accept people dyed in black.

People come up to you with paint in a balloon. They smile at you and say hi. You smile back and you say hi. You enjoy a conversation with them. You want to be friends. They continue smiling and hand their balloon to you. Paint yourself with my colour so that I know you’re serious. Okay, you reply. You squeeze the paint over your own colour.

The two of you travel along together. Then a bicycle comes and knocks you over. You fall into the mud. The colour they painted you over with is now a different colour. They frown at you. They whisper about you. They talk about how concerned they are about you behind your back. They smile at you. Then they dye themselves over with someone else’s colour and now you’re not their friend anymore.

You never liked that colour anyway. So you find someone else you like talking to and dye yourself in their colour.

Be yourself, they say. But no one really knows what that actually means. When you write cards to people, you only list the things that they did for you. You don’t thank them for who they are, only what they did for you. That’s the true colour of the world.

Black is my favourite colour. It is the colour of nothing. The colour of death. The colour that cannot be dyed over. The colour that is permanent and never changing. The colour that is irreversible. Unless you meet someone who is white with the potency of bleach, you are invincible.

I am not black. I am an ugly muddy brown, the colour you get when you mix too many colours together. A colour that only gets uglier and uglier as other colours are thrown into the mix. What was my original colour?

It doesn’t really matter. I can’t remember it anyway.

Checkmate

Checkmate doesn’t mean you’ve simply cornered the enemy king. It’s a declaration that the enemy king is yours.”

Life is a game, they say, but what crappy game has 7 billion players wandering around, creating their own rules to achieve objectives that they made up for themselves?

That is the first question that the story ‘No Game No Life’ presented to me in the form that I appreciate the most: anime. Chess is a game that you can win at if you are capable of considering the 10^24 moves that can be made. Almost any other game can be manipulated and logically conquered with mathematics, physics and a good knowledge of the rules.

That is the key to winning. Knowledge. If you know what card your opponent holds in their hand, you know how to play your own. If you know what is the move the opponent will make, you know how to attack and defend yourself at the same time. If you know the opponent’s weak point, you know how to manipulate them to give you what you want.

With knowledge, you have the skeleton key to unlock any door you want, fully aware of the consequences. And so knowledge is something I endeavour to store up for myself. That is why people dedicate years and years of their lives to study the Bible. If that is indeed the rulebook by which the game called ‘Reality’ is run, than it would be undoubtedly important to know everything you can about this world and anticipate how to conquer it.

If you do not endeavour to find out everything you can about everything, if you cannot separate fact from fiction, you will walk to your own death. In a world of voices, do you know which one to mute? In a world of enemies, do you know which one to trust?

Are you amazed? ‘No Game No Life’ explains all this through a comedic animated story. More than just the importance of knowledge, I have learnt a lot of other things.

Rule by fear leads to assassination.

The first loss will hurt, but that’s why it was fun.

People who can’t fly have to create a way to do so even though they stay the same.

To doThe weak should leave it to the strong to fight head-on.

 

In a real war, only a fool waits for the enemy’s turn.

There is no more trusted observer than someone who suspects you.

Only an idiot starts a fight he can’t win.

Fulfilled people are just an urban legend.

I could write about these things for days on end, but at the end of the day, the important thing is that I realised that it is I, the player, who controls the game. To do everything for a reason from now on, that is my aim. To think of the infinite goal rather than the immediate one, to work without giving power to the enemy, to start fights that I know beyond a doubt I will win, to fight with wisdom and most of all, to learn the rules before the crucial point.

Checkmate.

I am going to be more than just a misunderstood existence in this world, I will be someone you regret not understanding better.

“In every time, in every world, the strong polish their fangs while the weak polish their wisdom.”

The Theory of ‘Resume’

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Mysterious as the English language is, fluid and ever changing, it has allowed this word to hole multiple meanings. A résumé is the piece of paper that speaks of your background and skills with which you get yourself a job by having your employer read it and assess its details. Resume, the verb on the the other hand, implies a new beginning of an action that was halted for whatever reason.

Whoever thought to combine these two words with the same coding of the 26 letters of the alphabet was intelligent.

Writing your résumé results in unconscious thoughts of your past, what you have been doing with your time, how your experiences have actually impacted you. With this, you see for yourself how much you have accomplished, how much you want to accomplish. It is not just a redundant piece of document that once it disappears into the hands of a man in an office, will never be thought of again.

You see, in fact, the possibilities that lie before you, the should haves, could haves, if onlys. You see all the redundant habits you have collected over the years. You see what you have been drawn to because of who you are and your personality. You see where you have fallen, where you have been routed, where you have failed to become the person you wanted to be.

It is a period of reflection of what you truly want to do based on what you have already done. And after you write it, you resume your life, with new vigor, with a renewed sense of purpose, an inkling perhaps, of what you would like to accomplish in the future.

If only more people thought on a daily basis of whether they would put the activities they engage in into their résumé. Would that party you attended be something you can put into your résumé? Would being late for every class for 10 years of your life be a skill you are proud of? Would looking down on everyone who has a better life than you be an attitude you can use later on in life?

What about the multitude of YouTube videos you watch? What about the time spent flirting with social media? What about the efforts you put into studying, thinking, working and sweating?

It is the habits you develop that make something worth writing about. The way with which you approach life. The thoughts you put into your own head. Do you control your life or does your life control you?

When the short pause you put on your life to write your résumé ends and your life resumes, what will you change?

Shapeshifter III

The maidservant of the Li Household always begins work just as the sun rises. Mai put on her white coloured robes and shook Jun and Lan awake. If Ying had permitted her to use her various forms, she could have had all the day’s work completed before the eighth hour.

As Mai emerged from her room, she saw white robed servants milling around the house; the laundry was being scrubbed, water was carried into the kitchen and the smell of broth drifted through the air. Jun came out of the room rubbing his eyes and blinked in bewilderment at the sight of the servants in the courtyard, scrubbing sheets and pots.

“The master’s servants have returned,” said Jun.

“Which means,” Mai guessed, “the master will return today.”

A tall man wearing the jade green robes of a senior servant greeted Mai. She bowed to him. “My apologies for being unaware of your return.”

He gestured for her to lift her head. “A servant should be able to slip in and out of the house like a shadow. It is I who must thank you for keeping the house in such pristine order with only the cook’s apprentice and a laundry maid to assist you. I hear you hosted the five chiefs of the Horse Mountain tribes.”

Mai smiled briefly. “A servant should be able to keep the house in order no matter the circumstances.”

The head servant, whose name was Qing, chuckled. “Very good. Now carry on with your duties.”

The Li household had twelve servants in total. Modest for a feudal lord but with good reason. In the past, they had many but after that incident, the General moved his family to this, their summer home and they lived here with just eleven trusted servants.

Twelve, after Ying made a deal with her.

Mai’s duty in the Li household was to tend solely to the needs of the next lady of the house, Ying. So her day began by brewing tea in the kitchen and serving it to the lady.

Today, she chose to make elderberry tea to calm her mood from the chaos of the previous day. As the tea brewed, she kneaded the dough and made the lady’s favourite jiaozi along with some rice porridge. As she was on the way to Ying’s bedroom, Lan handed her a tiny scroll. This was rolled up with a loose hemp string. It was tied to a pigeon’s leg, she noted.

“Lady Li,” she said, pulling the curtains open. “Time to wake up.”

Ying turned over and covered her head with her embroidered blanket. She sat up slowly as Mai poured the tea and served it. “This morning, General Li and Mistress Xin will return from the capital, as such you will not have lessons with Master Yu.”

“Yes!” exclaimed Ying. At Mai’s stare, she took another dignified sip of her tea.

“You will still have to read the books he asked you to read yesterday. There is no schedule for your afternoon but I am sure your mother will want to do embroidery with you and test your poetry.” Ying gave her a withering look. Mai handed over the small scrolled letter. “A pigeon sent this. It arrived just now.”

As Mai helped Ying put on her clothes, a pale pink robe with a light blue sash, the lady read the letter. “We have yet another rat to catch, Mai.”

Mai began to comb Ying’s hair. “Oh?”

“Mother’s embroidery will have to wait. I will make a trip into town to visit that person.” There was only one person whom Ying would visit at a time like this.

Mai slid the last pin into place on the lady’s head and stepped back. “Is it necessary to meet that person?”

Ying’s laughter was dry. “Yes, certainly. If not just to see the grimace on your face.”

“Your breakfast is ready, my lady,” Mai deferred and bowed. Ying straightened her back and left the room.

After breakfast, Ying retreated to the Swift Owl study to pout over the readings Master Yu gave her and Mai took the remains of the breakfast to the kitchen. The other servants had already begun to eat and they waved her over to join them.

She scooped her share of the rice porridge and sat between Lan and an older laundry maid. The servants were telling stories of the capital and Jun was listening to them with wide eyes.

“The buildings were like mountains and there were guards everywhere. You could barely walk without being asked to show your nameplate,” said Shuli, who tended the General’s gardens.

“People are more numerous than ants in the whole of the Southern Province. There are all sorts of people there. Even a few with Mai’s eye colour,” added his brother, Shuye, who cared for the horses in the stables.

“That is amazing!” exclaimed Jun, “Mai’s eye colour is really rare. Do those people come from where she comes from?”

There was a pause in the conversation. “Where would that be?” asked the chef, Ba.

Everyone turned to look at Mai who was still eating. “Come to think of it,” said Zhen, General Li’s messenger boy, who did not observe the sudden tension in the air, “those ladies did not have eyes as pale as Mai’s.”

Shuli grinned and prodded Zhen with his elbow, “How do you know such details about those ladies?”

Zhen stuck his tongue out at Shuli. Jun laughed. “He must have been enamoured.”

The messenger boy turned to the cook’s apprentice. “I was not!” he declared. Mai smiled, glad for the distraction. But she saw from the corner of her eye, the laundry servant sitting next to her, Tiya, casting a wary glance at her.

Why would someone like her come to the capital?

Later on, as she was cleaning the windows of Ying’s room, Tiya came in to store the lady’s cleaned bedsheets. She paused to stare at Mai, hesitating. Finally, she asked, “Mai, you’re not human, are you?”

The cloth dropped from her hand. She turned to smile at Tiya. “You startled me.” Mai picked up the cloth and rinsed it in a wooden basin of water. “Why wouldn’t I be human?”

Tiya’s eyes widened and she seemed to realise the ridiculous claim she was making. “It is because those ladies we saw in the capital who also had such unusual grey eyes… that is… one of them,” she held out her fist, “had the hand of a tiger.”

“Are you sure?” Mai asked, turning her back on Tiya and resuming her task.

“Well…” She heard Tiya shift behind her. “I’m not sure if I imagined it. Because when I looked again, her hand was perfectly normal.”

“There you go.” Mai put the cloth into the basin and straightened up with a smile. “You were probably seeing things.”

Tiya’s mouth formed an obstinate line. “I am certain of what I saw.”

“And so you think that all grey eyed females can turn their hands into tiger paws?”

Her face flushed at the chastisement. “That…”

Mai held her hands out for the bundle of sheets Tiya was holding. “Here, I’ll take that from you. I think you need to rest. You must be exhausted from your journey.”

Tiya placed a hand on her own forehead. “Perhaps I am. I don’t know what came over me. I’m truly sorry for suggesting something so ludicrous.”

“I am not bothered by it. Maybe it was something else you saw on that lady’s hand.”

Mai followed Tiya to the room she shared with the other laundry servant. “Maybe. But back then when the young lady was trapped in the burning of the original House, I remember I saw a bear charge into the house to save her but it was you who came out…”

Shapeshifter II

Chapter Two

General Li was the governor of the Southern Province, the lord over the tribes deep in the Horse Mountains all the way east to the city by the Great Silver Lake. It was no easy feat to keep the citizens loyal to him without brute force but he tried to do so with a kind heart and an open hand. Most respected him for his fair rule of the land but others took advantage of his kindness and so Ying took it upon herself to still their itching fingers.

This very afternoon, the tribal chiefs from the Horse Mountains came to pay their respects and deliver the General’s share of their animals. There were five of them and they sat in a sprawling manner on plump embroidered cushions around the low wooden table, downing rice wine and laughing in a boisterous manner. Ying sat in her room across the courtyard, listening to the raucous laughter as Mai helped her put on her formal red outer robe and silver hairpin.

“She ran away, you said, Fang,” Mun guffawed. “I hope she finds her way into my home.” Another burst of laughter. Ying’s hand reached for the small phial inside her sleeve. Mai smiled.

“The farmers that work the sloping fields should have their houses burnt!” shouted Tailung. “Their carcasses should be fed to the pigs!”

A sound of shattering glass. Ying glared at Mai. “You removed all of Father’s valuable vases from that room?”

Mai dipped her head, unable to bow while tying the knot of Ying’s red robe. “Yes, my lady. It was done as you instructed.”

Ying grunted. “I am not enjoying this as much as I should be.”

As she entered the Dancing Lotus room by sliding the door open and slamming it against its frame. Mai followed her into the room, smiling like a ghost. “Shape up, esteemed chiefs of the Horse Mountains. We will begin our discussion shortly.”

Like the sudden arrival of a storm, the men paused whatever they were doing and bowed to Ying. “You are as beautiful as the sunrise today, my lady,” greeted the oldest chief of the five, Han.

She waved for them to sit up. “Let’s dispense with the flattery,” she said sweetly. “What news do you bring from the Horse Mountains?”

The chiefs hastily tightened their belts and straightened their hats, sitting upright across from Ying. Only one, the most drunken one, Yuan, took a prolonged swig of the porcelain pitcher. Fang, a man with strangely cultured eyebrows for a man from the Horse Mountains, replied, “We bring the well wishes of our people to your parents who are visiting the capital.”

Ying took out her red patterned fan and began to fan away the fumes of alcohol. Well wishes? You chose to bring your greetings when my parents are not around. “You brought my father’s share of your produce as well, I hope.”

Han exchanged a stiff glance with Mun who looked chastened. “About that…” began Mun, “The caravans were crossing a river when a herd of bulls rammed straight into them and killed the animals that we brought.”

Ying slammed her fan down on the table abruptly. “A herd of bulls? The last time it was bandits and before that, an illness. Bulls?”

Fang came forward and bowed beside Ying. “Forgive us, Lady Li! We saved as many as we could. The few that survived are now resting in ChangEr city. We will bring them as soon as they have recovered from their injuries.”

She reached one hand into her sleeve and opened the phial, tipping it onto the handkerchief kept in the same sleeve. Ying brought it out and wiped the sweat on Fang’s face and neck. “Rise, esteemed Chief Fang. Do not grovel like that before me.”

Fang kept his eyes on hers. She retracted her hand and smiled.

“It can’t be helped then.”

Han nodded and stroked his white beard as he dipped his head in a quick bow. “You are a noble and benevolent Lady.”

Ying made sure to smile at Fang as she answered, “You are too kind. Now let us forget this unpleasantness. Mai, bring us dinner!”

~

That evening, Fang mounted his horse, his head as light as a feather. He did not have as much to drink as the rest of the other men yet he felt as if he had swallowed an entire barrel of wine. Maybe it was the way General Li cultured his wine that made it especially potent.

For all the ingenuity of the General to keep peace within his lands, he left his household in the hands of an incompetent daughter. Fang parted from the other chiefs at ChangEr and rode back along the river to the bridge where the bulls had attacked the caravan. There, he slid off his horse and stumbled over to the nearby farm.

His face felt hot and flushed against the cool night breeze and his vision kept slipping from him. Did he drink too much after all? He squinted into the darkness, looking for the door to the house. He staggered on, unsure if he was walking in a straight line. The burning sensation intensified and his breathing became laboured.

Maybe he should not have let himself drink at all. It would be bad if he let slip something with his wine-loosened tongue. What did General Li put in his wine? His foot slipped and water pooled into his shoe. The river. He was heading in the wrong direction. He turned around but he could not tell which way to go. Everything looked white dotted with purple stars.

He was looking for the man who lent him a herd of bulls. He needed to silence the man. If he could just sober up…

He blinked. Someone was standing in front of him. A plain-faced young lady with a single black plait. She was smiling. Despite her nondescript face, Chief Fang felt like there was something alluring about her. He squinted even though it hurt his head. Ah, it was her eyes. They were a light grey. A very light grey.

He lurched forward, stepping towards her but he found himself deeper into the river. The lady merely watched. What was she doing, standing in the river?

A hot burning pain jolted through his throat and he began to cough, vomiting liquid. The lady continued to watch. He began to taste blood. His heart burned. He clutched at it with one hand, using the other to reach out to the lady. Get out of the water, you will catch a cold, he wanted to say.

But the lady was gone. In her place was a beautiful woman with loose long hair and wings, black as a raven against the white shapes of his vision. She reached out to him with an arm, only what touched him was not a hand but hard claws like that of a tiger.

Before his throat was crushed by the inhuman tiger hand, it occurred to him that this beautiful face also had light grey eyes.

~

Ying slapped Mai across the face. The maidservant dropped to the ground and bowed low. “I’m so sorry, my lady!” she gushed. “He was taking too long.”

“It took me so long to acquire a poison that mimicked the symptoms of alcohol poisoning!” Ying pulled the covers of the blanket over her head. “Go away. I do not want to see you anymore tonight.”

She heard Mai get up, close the room’s curtains and quietly leave the room. She pushed the covers of the blanket away from her head and sighed.

“To kill with such a painless method as poison is so dull,” she muttered and turned over on her silken sheets.

Outside the room, Mai who was blowing out the candle heard and smiled, lifting her slender right arm. It morphed into a tiger’s arm and back to a human’s.

Shapeshifter I

Chapter One

“Lady Li.” The curtains were swept aside by a practiced hand and light filtered pink through her eyelids. Ying turned over in her silken sheets and buried her head with the edge of her embroidered blanket. “Time to wake up.”

She heard flowing water, the soft clink of porcelain and opened one eye. Beads of white light peeked through the embroidered swans. It was morning again. Ying sat up slowly, blinking at the maidservant who handed her a cup. The scent of chrysanthemums filled the air. She breathed into the cup and felt the steam press against her cheeks like two soft hands.

“Today you will have lessons in the morning with Master Yu, then in the afternoon you will meet with the village chiefs. Also there is a letter.”

She swallowed the warm tea which banished the rest of her drowsiness and sat in front of her dresser. “Ah, it is today then. Prepare the Dancing Lotus room for the gathering, Mai. And make sure to show our deepest hospitality.”

Mai smiled behind her and bowed. “Yes, my lady.” Her maidservant had a plain face as was typical of all servants the Li household employed. She was much taller than Ying and slouched to appear meeker. What as odd about her appearance was her eyes, a light soulless grey colour.

She combed Ying’s long black hair into an intricate coil of braids and secured the hair with deep sapphire pins. Ying broke the seal and opened the folded letter as Mai dressed Ying in a grey silk robe and tied her heeled slippers for her.

It read simply: It is ready. ~Zhang.

She folded it back up and slipped it into the hidden pocket in her robe sleeve. “Well?” demanded Ying. “Is breakfast prepared?”

Mai, who was staring at her, started and bowed again with a sinister smile. “My apologies, Lady Li. Yes, breakfast has been prepared.”

Ying clucked her tongue. “You still have much to learn before your maidservant act can be deemed flawless.”

Mai straightened up to her full height for a moment. “As expected of my difficult young mistress,” she replied sweetly.

The Moon Dragon Dining Hall was a large spacious room that overlooked both the inner and front courtyards. The teakwood table stretched across the length of the room and Ying sat alone on the ornate chair at the end of the table.

Mai stood a distance away by the hidden entryway into the kitchen, watching her young mistress eat. The meal was a bowl of warm broth accompanied by dishes of vegetables and hand-made jiaozi. It was Ying’s favourite food and she liked it best when Mai made it.

In the courtyard, two servants were hanging up the washing. One young boy, Jun, and an older girl who did not speak, Lan. There was normally a lot more activity in the House but with the Master and Mistress away at the capital, Ying was left alone with her three servants. The rooms lay quiet and only the birds chirped.

But she relished this sort of silence.

After breakfast, Ying inked a reply to Zhang on the letter he sent her and waited in the Swift Owl study for Master Yu. She gave her maidservant some instructions and with a bow, Mai left the room. She returned briefly with Master Yu before disappearing for the rest of the morning.

Ying listened patiently to the classics Master Yu read, though her mind was elsewhere. Though her eyes scanned the room for something interesting to see, her father had designed the Swift Owl study to contain little else save tall shelves of books and scrolls as well as one other tall study desk. Ying was certain she read the poem pinned to the wall a hundred times before Master Yu’s droning voice halted.

At last, Mai returned, her robes ruffled, the sleeves rolled and the string that held it together at the waist undone, to escort Master Yu out. The young mistress leaned her head on her elbows and sighed. “What a bore!”

Mai came back to the room with a tray of tea, her robes tidied once more. “Do not speak badly of your elders. It is not his fault that you have no interest in the classics.”

Ying sipped the elderberry tea and eyed Mai from the corner of her eye. “And? Did you do as I asked? You were in a mess when you returned.”

Mai bowed. “Zhang was watched so there was a bit of a delay.” She smiled and tilted her head mockingly. “It was swiftly dealt with.” From her sleeve she handed over a small glass phial filled with a dark purple liquid.

Ying held it up to the light and shook the phial languidly. She murmured with satisfaction, “Poison always has such beautiful colours.”