the short story project


Lady of the Night

Short story by Royden V. Chan  1950
As we walked along the road that crossed the old Jewish cemetery, I reached out and held Amanda’s hand.
Even though it was a summer night, there was a chill in the air, which caused a thin veil of mist to rise from the two drainage canals that separated both sides of the road from the cemetery.
You could barely see the old tombstones rising above the haze that clung to the ground.
I met Amanda for the first time, earlier this evening when I sat next to her at the cinema. I could not believe that I was having a conversation with her, and more so, that I asked to accompany her home.
I was born with a cleft palate. The corrective surgery left an ugly scar on my top lip and affected the way I spoke.
From kindergarten to adulthood I was taunted and spurned because of my unusual appearance and speech impediment. No matter how much I tried, I was never able to change the unkind way I was treated.
My mother, who was a single parent, struggled to maintain our home on the small wages she earned.
She was constantly concerned about my physical and emotional condition and did her utmost to relieve the pain of my unhappiness.
“God loves you honey” she would say soothingly as she tried to comfort me.
“Even if no one else cares, he does, and that’s all that matters.”
“ But if he cares, why would he allow us to be so poor and give others more than they really need?”
“ It’s not God’s doing son. It’s our political system; the ideology of individualism and unbridled capitalism are culpable for these unjust and economic disparities.”
“Then why can’t God do something about our political system?”
“Because he has given us a free will which allows us to do whatever we choose to do here on earth.”
“Even though it’s so unfair and hurts so many people?”
“That doesn’t seem right to me.”
“But it’s God’s design and he knows what’s best for us. We will get our reward in heaven.”
“I would prefer to get it now, here on earth.”
“And what about me? …..It’s God who made me like this, not our political system.”
“As far as God is concerned son, you are perfect.”
I was not convinced,  but I was too young to have firm convictions of my own so I conceded to whatever she told me and accepted her faith.
We adhered to our religion resolutely. It relieved our despair; affording us our only comfort — the solace of hope. So we believed in its redemption and salvation, and that in our next life we will have all the respect, love, social acceptance and material well being which we were deprived of in this world.
But as I got older I became disillusioned with religion. I realized that it was not capable of insulating me from the afflictions I had to endure.
I became more ashamed of my physical defects and was inconsolably distressed by our social and economic condition.
I was angry with my mother. I blamed her for all of my anguish.
I hated the whole world. I hated life.
This shame and intense hate consumed me. It transformed me into an embittered self-conscious and lonely person; recoiling from all human contact.
When my mother died, after years of deprivation,  I became completely detached from my religion. I was not happy having to wait until I die to enjoy basic worldly pleasures or having to accept needless sufferings with pious acquiescence and more so having to love and forgive all those who inflict them on me.
So I discarded religion completely and embraced the tenets of philosophy; if I cannot have phenomenal happiness in this life, then I will settle for nothing less than noumenal equality.
“I no longer believed in the “dualism of matter and spirit.” It is all one and the same.
Heaven and earth and time and space and all the limitations of materiality no longer defined me.
I firmly believed, as I still do now, that I am an “equal part of the impersonal totality of all creation; included in the one great unity of pure spirit.”
This belief has liberated me from my physical and emotional miseries; accepting them as insignificant when compared to being an equally integral part of all creation.
I no longer need worldly possessions or human contact to find acceptance, happiness and fulfillment. “My essence is more significant than my physicality.”
As I sat in the seat next to her, she turned to me and said.
I did not respond but kept looking straight ahead in my usual impassive manner.
“I am so glad you are sitting next to me.” She continued, smiling as she talked. “It’s so much more enjoyable to watch a movie and share it with someone next to you.”
I kept watching the screen.
“My name is Amanda, what’s yours?”
She leaned over and touched my hand.
I quivered as I felt the warmth of her flesh against mine. I was about to get up and leave when she looked directly into my eyes and gently caressed my hand.
“I hope you don’t mind.”
This was the first time anyone, other than my mother had ever smiled at me and had ever touched me with such tenderness. This was the first time that a stranger had ever acknowledged me. I was bewildered, but somehow I felt relaxed and self assured.
I turned and looked at her.
“No.” I muttered.
She squeezed my hand and continued talking.
I noticed that her hair was black and dull but glistened like wet silk when the light from the screen flickered on lt. That her face was pale and expressionless but blushed and became lively when she talked. That her eyes were dark and soulful but brightened and became joyful when she smiled.
I was fascinated by that volatile nature of her fleeting beauty.
I kept staring at her as she talked. She was not repulsed by my attention; instead she was acknowledging me as normal likeable human being.
It felt as if she was peeling away that hardened skin of bitterness and indifference that covered my latent yearning for human contact.
I was surprised how interactive I had become, and how easy it was for me to talk to her.
She never seemed to notice my deformity or the way I spoke.
The mist was getting a bit heavier now and lingered longer in the air around us so that we could hardly see more than a few yards ahead.
I put my arm around her and was thrilled when she responded and snuggled even closer to me.
Her hair and skin smelled like a mixture of jasmine and the earthy perfume of wet rain. This reminded me of a similar fragrance I had once experienced a long time ago — an aroma that exuded from the flower of a plant named “Brunfelsia Americana” commonly called “Lady of the Night”
The unique scent of this flower emanates only at sunset, continues all night and stops exactly at sunrise.
I was entranced, but disheartened that something so gratifying should be so impermanent. This has intrigued and perplexed me for many years. I have often pondered over the correlation between the rare and ephemeral nature of this flower and the elusive and transient quality of “Happiness”
The closeness and warmth of her body ignite unknown passions within me. In all of my 28 years I have never felt such physical and emotional exhilaration. I want this sensation to last forever.
Now that I have felt the sweetness of Amanda’s body against mine and the excitement that her womanliness has aroused in me, I no longer believe that my essence is more significant than my physicality. I need tangible gratification. I crave for happiness derived from pleasures that I can feel and touch and smell, and be exhilarated by, through my senses.
I have been deluded all these years.
I now realize that “true happiness” can only be experienced in something as fundamental as this world, with all its material attributes.
It can never be found in the illusions of religion and philosophy.
I am no longer confused.
I know now, with all certainty, where I can find that permanent base for real and lasting happiness.
I have to get married to Amanda; she will be the absolute, enduring source for the fulfillment of what I have been yearning for all these years.
“This is where I live.”
Amanda’s soft voice stirs me from my reverie.
“Thanks for walking me home” she says as she slips her hand from mine.
“Wait Amanda! I have something to ask you…..something very important.”
“Another time” she whispers softly. “It’s almost dawn; I have to go in now.”
The mist has become so heavy that it obscures most of my vision, but as I look up and around, there are no houses to be seen, just the old grey tombstones, now totally enshrouded by the fog.
She turns off to the right of the road, floats across the canal and disappears into the cemetery.
A Short story by Royden V. Chan  1950
What is happiness?
You seek in one phrase
the definition of something
that is beyond all boundaries.
An emotion, as complex and
as variant, in quality and content
as  nature itself.
Is it possible,
to find the chemistry of this solution?
Or perhaps to weave some mantle of permanence
from this evanescent thing?
Or could we grasp
our fleeting joys or pleasures
and clasp them to our breast
so as to drain their nectar content dry
and by doing so
sweeten all the sea of our life’s bitter existence?
It will remain as it is —
a temporary, transient thing,
an unreal reality, that links
the chain of endurance for the living.
An eternity of happiness is the heritage of the dead.
Royden V. Chan

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