In partnership with the Singapore Literature Prize, we took local fiction stories and interpreted them as movie posters. Here is a short story written by Shelly Bryant.
BY Shelly Bryant | Dec 27, 2017 | Books
What would local fiction stories look like if they were adapted for the big screen? Esquire partnered with the Singapore Literature Prize to interpret four authors and their fiction stories into movie posters. Starring actors Shane Mardjuki, Michelle Goh and a special appearance by the frontman of Stopgap, Adin Kindermann, there’s a psychological thriller, a romantic comedy, fantasy and horror. Here’s a piece by Shelly Bryant that can be found in her short story collection, Launch Pad.
It was easy to imagine that the Peregrine was aimlessly adrift, just the way Hamasaki would have liked it. This was always his favourite part of any run, when they were weeks away from land in every direction, as far south in the Indian Ocean as they could go without sighting Antarctica. The rest of the crew usually started to get restless at this point in a run, but none of them ever let Hamasaki know it. The boys all wanted to be included on the next run, and complaining about being sick of the sight of endless waters didn’t earn a guy another invitation to join Hamasaki’s crew.
But today, the solitude one usually found this far south had been disrupted. The equipment he’d volunteered to carry on his runs was picking up some strange readings. He wasn’t ready to let anyone know yet, not until he was sure what it was.
Anyway, he knew what the men said about the equipment. Not a single one of them bought the rationale he’d repeated so many times—that it was his civic duty to carry it, being captain of one of the few vessels that regularly plied these waters. Even his first mate, Azrul, was sceptical, though he never mentioned it. Hamasaki figured Azrul believed what he had heard the other crew members whisper, “You ever hear of a captain of a merchant ship that had any motivations that weren’t completely mercenary?”
Hamasaki shrugged and refocused his attention on the readings. These definitely weren’t pings—another reason not to alert Azrul yet. He didn’t want to get his first mate’s hopes up, thinking they’d stumbled across a part of that missing plane. These readings weren’t consistent with the sort of pings Azrul was hoping for, but that might not stop the first mate from jumping to that conclusion all the same. Finding a piece of MH370 would send him home a hero.
These sounds weren’t pings. It wasn’t the elusive black box. It wasn’t whale song either. In fact, if Hamasaki was reading this correctly, these sounds weren’t coming from underwater at all. Whatever was out there, it was above the surface, in the air somewhere.
But that couldn’t be right. Not this far from land. Any aircraft would have to be carried here on a ship equipped with a launch pad or runway. They were too far from land for any aircraft to make it this far alone, and his radar was not detecting any ships that size.
“What are you?” he said aloud, thumping the coordinates of their present location where it was marked on his charts.
He pulled the headphones on again and listened. It was unmistakable. The equipment was picking up a stream of sound that kept an irregular rhythm. It had been tailing them for hours. But when Hamasaki had gone on deck for a look, he saw nothing.
Gradually, the sound began to take a more regular shape. That wasn’t just a random series of tweets and blips. It was a tune.
Suddenly, it struck Hamasaki that the tune was familiar. Azrul whistled it all the time when he was distracted.
“Azrul!” Hamasaki shouted, bursting from his cabin. The men he passed in the narrow corridor shuffled out of the way as he stormed toward the deck.
“Azrul!” he shouted again as the blast of cold wind hit his cheeks. It was freezing, but it was sunny.
“Yes, captain,” the first mate called.
“Why are the instruments picking up your song?”
“Your song. The one you’re always whistling.”
“Wasn’t me, sir. I was busy yelling at the new Indonesian fellow you picked up in Melbourne. I wasn’t whistling anything.”
“Anybody else whistling it?”
Azrul shrugged. “‘Rasa Sayang’? Sure, could be anyone. Everybody knows it.”
The whistling came to them again, the tune of “Rasa Sayang”.
“Where’s that coming from?” Hamasaki asked.
Azrul shrugged. He looked around, then shrugged again.
Hamasaki looked up. “It sounds like it’s coming from up there.”
“Can’t be,” Azrul said. “No way any bird could fly this far away from land.”
Hamasaki held out a hand, indicating Azrul’s binoculars. The first mate handed them over.
Hamasaki focused in the direction the whistling was coming from. After a moment’s search, he saw something white fluttering in the distance. He looked more carefully, watching the movement. “There you are,” he whispered.
“What is it?” Azrul asked.
Hamasaki passed him the binoculars. “Tell me what you think first.”
After several minutes, Azrul said, “It looks like a bird.”
“But it can’t be. We’re too far from land.”
“I know. Let me have another look.”
Azrul handed him the field glasses. Hamasaki watched the slow, steady flapping of the wings. “It looks like a bird,” he said.
“Yah,” Azrul agreed. “Sir, do you think it might be something mechanical? A probe or something?”
“A probe? Probing for what? There’s nothing to probe out here.”
“A drone I mean? Maybe some military equipment.”
“Okay, I know what you mean, but still…for what? There’s nothing out here to observe or spy on.”
“Maybe it went rogue—got away from its developers. Maybe it’s lost.”
Hamasaki lowered the binoculars and looked at Azrul. “You’re joking, right?”
“Er. Not really.”
“But you know it sounds crazy?”
“Crazier than a single bird out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Singing ‘Rasa Sayang’…” Hamasaki couldn’t help but smile. Azrul grinned too, then started laughing. “That’s crazy either way.”
Hamasaki laughed too, long, loud, and hard. When they fell silent, they again heard the thing tweeting “Rasa Sayang”. Hamasaki wiped his eyes and lifted the binoculars again. The chorus seemed to be repeating on an endless loop, steady as the flapping of the creature’s wings. It was mesmerising.
“What do you think it is, sir?”
Hamasaki took a deep breath, keeping the lenses focused on the thing overhead. “I really don’t know,” he said at last. “But it looks like a bird.”
Through the binoculars, he watched the obscure white object flittering along in their wake, almost as if it were intentionally following the Peregrine’s route. Before his mind could quite grasp what he was seeing, a cloud floated across his field of vision, hiding the thing from view. Lowering the binoculars, Hamasaki stood beside Azrul, both of them silent as they waited for the wind to blow the cloud away. From the middle of the fluffy mass, strains of “Rasa Sayang” came to them. Before long, Hamasaki was whistling along, keeping time with the unknown creature’s song. Azrul looked at him, shrugged, then turned back to look toward the horizon. As he waited for the cloud cover to pass, the first mate started whistling in counterpoint, while the low rumble of the engines and endless miles of rolling waves formed a pleasing bass line beneath the melody carried by the captain and the unknown object flying in their wake.
It was a fine day to be adrift on the open sea.
“Peregrine” is included in Shelly Bryant’s short story collection, Launch Pad, published in September 2017 by Epigram Books and republished with permission in the November issue of Esquire.