Excerpt from "The Mentor"

His fingers flutter above the Fazioli grand piano and the Esplanade Concert Hall falls silent, waiting to witness his wizardry.

The spotlight focuses on him, Alexander Pritt, barely fourteen, sitting alone on the stage. His golden blonde hair and crystal blue eyes conjure an image of a delicate porcelain doll. A closer examination of his face reveals the playful glimmer in his eyes. His slender arms sway and there is a balletic fluidity to their movements.

He plays Balakirev’s Islamey – An Oriental Fantasy, considered by many to be one of the hardest classical composition ever composed. Balakirev, the eccentric Russian composer, had a nervous breakdown after completing the piece. I, myself, did not attempt the piece until my twenties.

He plays the frenetic tempo of the second stanza. His finger movements border the divine. He plays it so magnificently that it utterly breaks my heart.

He is my prized pupil, a student I never sought nor wanted. He is my first and only student. I had no desire to waste my time teaching youths, but my wife asked me to teach that young boy and I did. You don’t get to my age without knowing that a happy wife is a happy life. Against my best judgment, I took him under my wings.

He soared so high that I barely managed to catch a glimpse of his shadow. I warned him of the story of Icarus, a boy who flew too high with his fake wings and how the sun scorched him for it. He laughed it off. I keep telling myself he’s just a boy. But with a talent to transform the world, a reminder would ring in my mind and insist that he was more than just an ordinary boy.

The world heralded me a genius, someone whose brilliance can only be seen once a decade. But, when he played his first piece, I instinctively knew that he was a prodigy we would only witness once a century. His greatness surpasses mine and I hated him for it.

He never had to spend days learning a piece and playing it until his fingernails bled from practice. He never had to spend nights doing listening practice to recall musical notes. I worked operosely to get my so-called gift. He barely lifted his fingers. Perfect auditory memory and muscle memory retention ensure that he only needs to hear a piece and plays it at least ten times until he masters it. By the twentieth time, he would be able to inject his transcendental sensibilities into it, just as he’s doing with Islamey.

On stage, Alex pauses for dramatic effect, the same technique that I had taught him, but he had made it his own. The silent interlude makes the audience hungrier for his dazzling spell.

Oh, how I wish I had not taken him to be my student! At least then I won’t be digging my own grave. My wife, Angela, bless her soul, said that I needed to encourage him and how sad it would be if a talent like his is lost to the world. She never once suspected my disdain for the boy nor my reason for not accepting students.

The world’s greatest do not become great by mentoring others, they become great by crushing all opposition. My competitiveness is my edge and Angela had rendered it dull by having me tutor the boy.

The boy was cute when he first started, that I have to admit. But, even a bloodhound is endearing when it’s a pup. I remembered when he first asked me to tutor him. He was so afraid of asking the great and famous pianist of the century to tutor him. He called me mentor and that’s been the designation ever since.

Mentor. It’s funny, really. As musicians, we’ve been trained to break sounds into smaller segments and to play around with them. So, “ment” and “tor” easily become “tor” and “ment.” Every time the boy says mentor, all I hear is torment. Whoever came up with the word is a genius in his own right, adequately defining the torment of the mentor. I want the boy to succeed, he is my prized pupil after all, but I never wanted him to surpass me. Which artist would want to jeopardize his own legacy?

*****

Excerpt from The Mentor, first published in BROKEN WORLDS. Copyright © 2015 S Mickey Lin. 

Excerpt from "Adrift"

A tiny raindrop on the patrol boat’s windshield catches Lieutenant Htin’s attention. He hears a roaring thunder in the distance just as the mild monsoon transforms into a torrential tempest.  

The heavy downpour and furious winds generate raging waves hammering Htin’s patrol boat. Htin Aung, a striking man with chestnut skin and copper eyes, stiffens his shipshape muscles as he grips the wheel to steady the seasoned boat. Although Htin’s coast guard training is still crystal clear in his mind, the monsoon’s ever-changing mood tests his reflexes in newfound ways. After a series of frantic bouts with the aqueous beast, Htin prays to the merciful Allah that his reflexes and resolve will be strong enough to keep the boat afloat.

Then, without a drop of reason, the monsoon wind simply leaves the way it came – surprisingly.

Htin shifts his boat to neutral and steps out of the bridge. The once choppy water now sways the boat in a gentle, rhythmic percussion. Htin attunes himself and rocks to the aquatic melody that sailors are so accustomed to. Midway through his private dance, Htin lets out a laugh at the whimsical wind. One moment he was struggling to keep the boat upright, the next moment he is dancing to its intimate tunes.

Htin closes his eyes and feels the warmth of a monsoon breeze blowing lightly on his face. A familiar sensation tingles through his body and one word drifts to the tip of his tongue. Home. Snapshots of his mischievous childhood linger in the darkness. Htin opens his eyes to dissolve those wistful longings.

He looks around and sees the luminous moon hanging in the obsidian sky, its brilliance bleaching the distant stars. Another gust of the warm monsoon breeze and Htin is again transported back to the past. This time, the wind has blown him back to that fateful night. The night he said goodbye to his mother.

The moon looks the same as it did that night, radiant and glorious. Only the luster in his mother’s copper eyes shone brighter. Moniyan, his mother, was the beauty of Sittwe with her chestnut skin, silky, sun-kissed hair and piercing copper eyes. Htin thanked Allah for allowing him to inherit a semblance of her good looks.

Her beauty was unparalleled, blemished that night purely by the reddish tinge in her eyes. His mother had wept for weeks and her tears darkened the glistening copper to a muddy, reddish hue. She was still crying as she walked with him to the makeshift pier. At the pier, she hugged him so tightly that he could hear the shivering of her heavy heart.

“No matter what, remember these three things. One, Allah is all-knowing. Two, I love you more than anything in life. You are the greatest joy in my life and you always will be. And three, remember who you are. Remember your dreams. Don’t ever let anyone take that away from you.”

She tapped her slender finger on his chest, pointing at his heart, almost as though she wanted her words, her pride, and her dreams to sink into the bottom of his heart and reside in his as they did in hers.

She had used up all her savings to buy him a one-way ticket to Australia. He was to be her future embodied.

She cried again as she placed her favorite jacket on him, nudging him toward the plank leading to the dinghy boat. He, still a boy without nary a hair on his chest nor a tenor to his voice, obeyed. He got on the boat and waved to his mother until the obsidian night consumed her. 

Australia! Htin laughs. His mother had big dreams for him in Australia, but the monsoon wind blew those away. It blew in new dreams and a different future.

The wind brought him to Singapore – a country unlike any other.

*****

Excerpt from Adrift, first published in ROJAK: STORIES FROM THE SINGAPORE WRITERS GROUP. Copyright © 2014 S Mickey Lin.