An excerpt from The Shy Star, a story for children about a young girl named Kitty who ventures out to the Hong Kong Park. The story was first published in IMPRINT issue 12.
(Caution: May be suitable also for adults.)
The next day, Kitty and seven other children took a trip with Ms Sofia to Hong Kong Park.
“Look here, it says this tree is four hundred years old. It’s older than your Grandpa, older than anyone could be.”
“Ms Sofia, it doesn’t look like a tree,” one of the boys said, and he was right. The tree didn’t have branches, only a stub of a trunk with a few leaves growing at the end of its twigs.
Kitty stood there for a long time looking at the tree that wasn’t a tree. Finally she asked, “Why do you have only 991 leaves?”
“That’s all I need,” said the tree that sat on its own grass patch framed by a fence and paved paths.
“Don’t you want more?”
“Well, I had plenty of leaves long time ago when I was taller. If I had more now, it would be hard for each leaf to get sunshine.”
“Are you really four hundred years old?”
“No, I’m older. That sign has been there for years.”
“So how old?”
“How old are you?”
Kitty held up her thumb and two fingers. “I’m almost three years old.”
“Hmm, so you are two then.”
Kitty wiggled her thumb that was not quite as long as the other two fingers. “Almost three.”
The tree laughed. “Well in that case,” the tree said and waved half of its leaves, “I’m almost five hundred!”
“Have you always been here?”
“I have been here my entire life, but here has not always been here. Long time ago there was no lake, not even a pond, but a sea for the fishermen to fish at. Then men of the sea sailed to this island and became the men of the land. All those glass trees over there are younger than your Grandpa, and some of them are even younger than you.”
“I don’t have a Grandpa,” Kitty said quietly.
“Everyone has two.”
“Well, I don’t know either one of them. Would you be my Grandpa?”
“I could be your Grandma. I’m old enough to be twice as wise as any two dusty Grandpas put together. See that man with a sharp spike standing in the bushes? Oh, he can’t hurt you. Ask him to tell you a story.”
“A metal man cannot talk,” Kitty protested.
“Are you sure? You are talking to me,” the tree said and rustled its leaves dropping one of them on the ground. “That’s for you. You’ll need it more than I do.”
Kitty stepped over the fence onto the grass and picked up the small green leaf. “Thank you.”
“No walking on the lawn! Come along now.” Kitty followed Ms Sofia and the other children to the metal man who was holding a pointy-ended gun in his arms. “…second World War. It was unveiled in 1991…” Ms Sofia’s voice faded in and out of Kitty’s ears.
Kitty clutched the leaf in her hand and mustered enough courage to say, “Hello, I’m Kitty.” She waited politely for the metal man to introduce himself but he kept quiet. The man was looking at something so Kitty turned to see what he was so interested in. Kitty saw birds with their punk hairdos hiding in the bushes. She moved closer in order to ask the birds whether they were scared of the metal man, but before she had a chance, the bulbuls flew away.
Kitty turned back to the metal man who kept staring at the same spot where the birds had been. “What are you looking at?” Kitty asked the man but there was no response. “My grandma asked me to speak with you. She said that you would tell me a story.” But the man just gazed into the distance. Kitty ran back to the tree that wasn’t a tree. “Grandma! Grandma, the metal man won’t talk to me.”
“He won’t say anything?”
“Not a word.”
“Hmm, interesting. Why do you think he won’t speak to you?”
“He is busy looking at something.”
“Oh, his head has been turned that way ever since he moved here. He cannot turn it without breaking his metal neck.”
“I bet he cannot open his mouth either. Maybe only living things can talk. Is that right Grandma?”
“It certainly would explain things.”
“So all the trees, plants and animals can talk?”
“And fungus, microbes and bacteria.”
“Well, to me a man is just another animal, but that’s just me,” said the tree.
“What about children?”
“Girls and boys, women and men are all human, are they not?”
Kitty though about this for a moment. “I’m a girl, not an animal. But sometimes, I pretend to be a cat.”
“I bet you are a leopard cat – extraordinary but quite good at hiding the fact. Can I see your paws?” Kitty put the leaf into her pocket and showed her hands to the tree that asked, “What do you need to become a cat?”
“Nothing, or maybe a tail.”
“I thought you needed a proper name,” said the tree taken by surprise. “I’m curious: when you are Kitty the cat, do you think of yourself as an animal or as a feline?”
“Wait. Ask me again,” Kitty said and began to knead the grass with her paws.
“Are you an animal or a cat?”
“I thought so.”
“There are plenty of fish in the lake. Help yourself.”
Updated on November 2nd, 2013
The complete short story, The Shy Star, on page 197 of IMPRINT issue 12, the annual anthology of Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society.