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The story has begun…

Chapter I

Atia Cader
Founder & Creative Director
Paper Stone Scissors

Sitting by the waters edge, I watch the simple act of a father frolicking in the pool with his two children. Droplets dance into the air and catch the glint of afternoon sunlight as peels of laughter mix with yelps of indignity and the slap of skin on the surface of the water.

The touch, the embrace, the act of play as they submerge each other is fun and the feeling of belonging and security is palpable. The experience will become embedded in the memory of all three as time passes by.

When in life does one thing cease and another begin?

Chapter II

Nalini Sorensen
Children’s Book Author

I turn my face upwards, and feel the sun’s rays on my face. They seem to reassure me that the iciness in my fingers will melt soon. I close my eyes and let the warmth soak into my skin.

The laughter from the pool takes me back to happier days, when Dad, Anna and I loved being with each other. When Dad would let me stand on his shoulders in the pool, hold my arms in his, all spread out, and throw me into the water with a gigantic splash. And Anna would scream…

A tiny voice interrupts my thoughts asking, “Have you seen my dad?” I open my eyes and immediately blink as the harsh rays blind me. As my eyes focus, I see a little girl standing in front of me. She continues, “He was walking behind me, but I can’t see him anymore.”

Chapter III

Adrian Sandiford
Editor-at-Large, Time Out Beijing

She appears to be more confused than scared. “Can you help?” she asks. “Here’s his picture.” She hands me her phone. I shield the device with my fan in order to block out the sun’s glare and study the photo she’s brought up. Her dad’s features are so strikingly feminine I initially confuse him for a woman.

I tell her that I’ve not seen him. She begins to slip into distress. I try and provide the necessary words of reassurance and comfort. But her unhappiness continues to swell. As we talk I notice that the trio from the pool have now dried and dressed.

The previously frolicking father, who now has a somewhat scholarly look to his attire, leads his two sons over to us. One of the boys plays a toy flute as he walks. The other is too busy tapping away on his iPad to watch where he’s going and nearly trips. His father yanks the tablet away from him and flips the jade-coloured cover shut.

Just as this family of three reach us, the sound of a drum being beaten fills the air. We turn as one in search of its source, which seems to be coming from among the peach trees atop a nearby hill. The instrument grows louder, and louder, until a bedraggled old man limps in to view, leaning on a crutch — behind him, a white mule, and its rider, with drum in hand.

Chapter IV

Richard Hsu
Founder of TEDxShanghai, Curator, Creative Trouble-Maker

One father comforting the children, one father missing.

The sun shines, but the wind is chilled with worries and questions. There is a void.

Beating of the drum and clicking steps of the mule; no one else is in sight.

In a resort in Wuyishan bamboo village, with low walls beside rice fields.

The young girl’s cell phone rings.

Chapter V

Sisyphusam
Marketing Manager of IDEAT China

“I know you are in trouble right now. Trust those people around you, and you will find your father,” says the strange voice on the phone.

After a moment of silence, the little girl bursts into tears. They roll down her cheeks and her cries fill the early summer air with tension.

“Where’s my father!?” she screams at the phone, but there is nobody on the other side. “He must have been kidnapped, or killed!” she yells.

Her shouting is making me feel uncomfortable, and I regret that I was the first person to be approached by this little girl. Just as I begin to think that the whole situation feels like a bad joke, the family of three arrive. The father also seems exasperated. He cannot hide his discontent with his two sons, and sharply tells them to stop asking questions about the girl.

The drumming from the hill shifts my attention away from the family. My gaze falls on the rider who slowly approaches, circling all five of us before stopping next to the little girl.

Chapter VI

Ryan J. King
Professor & Head of Marketing at the Squirrelz

This bizarre scene continues to develop around me. It would be easy to get up and walk away, but I don’t want to miss a thing. I open my eyes as wide as I can, taking in as much as possible, trying to get some clarity.

As I look around, surveying this incidence of complexity, I notice the striking similarities between the little girl and the rider of the mule. Looking at their dress and personal appearance, they seem to be worlds apart, but the resemblance is uncanny. This couldn’t possibly be the father that the girl was seeking, could it? After all, she hadn’t run to the man and embraced him as a loving daughter would greet a father, or sought his protection from the world that had scared her so.

But at least she has stopped crying.

The wailing that filled the air has been replaced by a silence that cuts right through me. The family notices it too. The boys are silent, and the father is standing still.

A look from the father in my direction confirmed that he has noticed it. For a moment, we stare deeply into each other’s eyes, communicating the revelations that we have received. His sons observe this game of telepathic tennis, wondering what could have caused two complete strangers to have a moment of such clarity.

It is at that moment that I realise the girl has disappeared.

Chapter VII

Jon Walmsley
Rock Musician & Product Designer

Steadily, we follow the faint timbre of the drum as the bamboo forest cracks beneath our feet…1,2,3…1,2,3. The younger of the two sons now seems transfixed on the beat’s cadence as the forest sways around him. He casually breaks the ominously placed golden orb spider webs with his face. Piercing rays shimmer the dust of our steps as if sucked towards a dying sun, and I can’t help but think that the old man on the hill is taking life in much the same way – extracting energy as if part of some ancient ritualistic tradition.

My drifting thoughts and a yearning for solitude take me beyond the man and his two huddled sons. I find myself within a clearing as cool air passes overhead, momentarily parting the bamboo ceiling to unveil a full moon emblazoned against a purple sky. Everything seems more visceral than before as if the wind has blown a primitive invocation to adapt. Recalling my previous incantation by the water’s edge, I smile and glance back towards the father.

“You can turn back now. I’ll go on ahead”.

Instinctively, I walk on alone. The rhythm now seems to intensify with each passing step, as if its sole purpose is my attraction. Sensing its imminent source beyond a large granite bolder, I take one deep, final breath, press my face to the cold stone and peer around the moist rock face.

Chapter VIII
Thomas O’Malley
Comic Book Superhero & Copywriter
When in life does one thing cease and another begin?

This rock, unmoving in the moonlight. Is it the blank page between chapters? The semi-colon between clauses? The pause of stillness between breaths?

No.

It was once the boiling blood of the Earth. Someday it will be sand. Nothing is forever.

Only in a memory does a little girl live eternal. Only in a memory can Anna’s broken face crease into honeyed laughter.

Beyond the rock stands a little girl. But not the same girl.

“Oh, Anna. Anna!”

It can’t be you. A trick of the twilight, the forest, the music.

What of the man on the mule, the vanishing girl? What purpose of theirs to guide me here? Were they even real? Have I slumbered while these visions appeared?

With a rustle of leaves, a frail old men steps into the moonlight. Anna – is it Anna? – turns to him.

“Father.”

Chapter IX
Rob Han
Social Entrepreneur

It’s been decades since we last spoke; I can barely recognize him. Up close, I see that time has not treated him well. Each day since Anna went missing has chipped away a part of his body. Little is left.

The only memories that remain of my father are our days of putrid silence interrupted by screams of blame. Who was meant to watch over Anna the day she disappeared? The day a little girl was lost, who desperately searched for her family, yet was washed away by the torrents of irresponsibility.

Fingers were pointed.

He blamed me, I blamed him. The passing time has eroded the truth, but it never took away what is still crystal clear to me today: I hate him.

I’ve never been the same since Anna was gone. What my father lost in his body, I lost in my mind and soul. The only thing that filled the emptiness was a knot of guilt brooding in a pool of delirium.

I needed to hate him. How else could I survive the truth that I will never know what happened to my sister? But here, in this dark forest under the beating drum, I see now that my father needed to survive the same truth.

When we face a common obstacle, no lines can separate one’s responsibility from another’s. We are all bound together to overcome.

Just before I utter the first words in decades to my father, I feel the knot inside of me loosen.

Chapter X

Jimmy Chen
Blogger & Creative

“She is awake”, I hear someone saying. I open my eyes.  I’m not in the forest anymore – where is this place? Wait. The mule rider? But where is the mule? And why the white coat.

His words bring the other people into focus. It’s the family I’d seen at the resort. All dressed in white coats. I notice that the father has only aged a little, while the two boys have grown into young gentlemen.

“Compared to those two you’re lucky”, says the mule rider. “Getting away with just a concussion after what happened to the car.” I notice there are two beds on the other side of the room, behind the partition. I know who lies there. It’s father and Anna.

A flashback. We’re in my father’s Chevrolet as he drives, tipsily, down the highway. Suddenly, a bright light blinds us and the world turns upside down. It’s all his fault.

The mule rider tells me that my father and Anna are seriously injured and in urgent need of blood. Our blood type is rare and there are no matches in the hospital.

I’ve been in a coma for 12-hours, says the mule rider, but I’m stable enough to donate blood.

12 hours? It feels like 12 years.

“But I have to be straight with you.” he continues hesitantly. “Your blood is limited, and we can only save one of them. I’ll leave you a moment to decide.”

Who should I save?

Chapter XI

Steven J. Finch
Writer, Poet, Artist

We would race, Anna and I, flowing through the trees like fresh streams. Anna always won. Fast as the miracle of light. Once I slipped a pebble in each of her shoes. When she stopped to take off her shoes, mid-run, she stumbled and fell, scraping her knees. We were only young. She bawled loudly, facing heavenward. Later our father told us a story about a dragon prince who stole a jade clapper, and took it into the ocean, where it became useless pebbles. The prince could not see beauty under his ocean. His eyes were always looking up. My father looked into my eyes. His eyes were lit with shame. He knew. My heart pounded, anticipating punishment. But he only said, “Our bodies are the contested grounds between past and future forces, between past memories and dreams of the future, but inside you is a path to your true feelings. Know you place, and where your feelings live. Know who you are and know who loves you.”

Our father changed, in a way sudden and slow. Our mother left. He became careless, drunk, and unresponsive. I began to resent him, because I knew that inside him was the same wise heart, and that he was, each year, burying it within himself. In my situation, father would give blood to Anna. He would not save himself. He was lost in the deep mountain of his heart. And so Anna and I must come out from the trees.

Chapter XII

Calvin Tsao

12 hours. 12 years.

Imagined – hallucinated
Memory – perception
Hatred – love
Longing – transcendence

Oh
How can I be freed
From attachment?

Chapter XIII

Kelly Wang
Art Collector, Chief Editor, Publisher, Producer

I sense father and Anna by my side. I feel their breath like a memory, and father’s hand on my shoulder. I hear Anna’s laugh, as if on the wind. There is so much love flowing between us.

I break down in tears.

“Help Anna,” I say to the doctor. The decision takes the last of my strength. I am exhausted. Only when something is being taken away from you does all the blame and anger disappear.

My eyes fall on my father and I notice how he has transformed into a gaunt old man, without a hint of a smile on his face. The only thing I can do is to pull Anna’s hand close to mine to gain some strength.

This is too cruel.

Chapter XIV

Coreene Horenko
Outreach Manager at volunteer-based helpline, Lifeline Shanghai

I shift seamlessly between dreaming, memory and longing.

When mother left, we held on tightly to father’s hand, until despair engulfed all that he was, and he too slowly crept away.

Away from laughter and endless summer days spent by the edge of a crystal sea. Away from our beloved stories of the dragon prince and his shimmering castle beyond the shores of our imagination.

No longer were stories shared, stories about bamboo forests, the clicking steps of a mule and the beating of a drum. Stories and memories faded, as we lost sense of each other and ourselves.

But shards of longing remain, entwined with a growing acceptance of what has been.

I don’t want to wake as I dream about floating upon that crystal sea. But someone is whispering to me: “Know who you are and who loves you.”

Chapter XV

Amelie Wang
Barista & Branding, Seesaw Coffee

Twenty years pass. When I open my mailbox, I find a wedding invitation from Anna. It’s her first contact with me since the accident.

After she woke up from her coma and found out about the decision I had made, she broke down. Filled with remorse, she blamed me for saving her instead of father.

When the doctor found out about our situation, he suggested adopting Anna. I was unable to raise her by myself and he had always wanted a daughter of his own. Feeling useless, I departed. But I have continued to write letters to her, in the hope that she would one day forgive me.

When I arrive at the wedding, at the edge of the crystal sea, I see Anna walking towards me. She wears the same smile she had as a child.

Chapter XVI

Matthieu Le Coq
BREIZH Citizen

Her smile says it all.

Feeling reassured, I smile back and started walking towards her.

Anna has reached a moment of her life when she can accept all that has happened, I think.

However, I notice the absence of a spark in her eyes when she looks at me. It tells me I haven’t been forgiven – and I never will be.

This realization causes me to halt in the middle of the hallway, as memories erupt that I have tried to forget, buried deep inside and upon which I have built the foundations of my new life.

Anna’s eyes are like a key, opening the door on these emotions I had spent years putting away, one by one, peacefully.

She takes my hands. No longer the hands of a little girl but of a mature woman, “Thank you for coming today,” Anna says, taking my arm and leading me to the terrace.

Anna starts to fill in the gaps of two decades of silence while both of us gaze at the sea. Slowly, the comfort of sharing her life again makes my pain fade, blown away with the sea breeze.

But would we be able to mention father?

Chapter XVII

Matthew Baren
Filmmaker
Programmer, ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival, CINEMQ

Nothing is forever. Our moment passes like twenty years, and her hand moves from mine to someone else’s.

I had held her, been held, by eyes pumped full with my blood. Eyes ebbed with the same salt, which crashed beneath us, eating at the foundations of the terrace.

I wanted to say her name, but instead said something like, “It’s beautiful,” and she had smiled, glancing down at her dress. I never saw her again.

Anna. Anna. A name which runs through itself, recurrent and endless.

The wedding ends. Anna leaves, like our father before her, leaving me standing alone on that terrace.

Twenty years and twenty years more, I stand there still, at the edge of an ocean, watching as children play with their father in the water.

Chapter XVIII

Shiraz Randeria
Consulting Editorial Director for media clients
Creative Director at Kingdom of Heaven

I close my eyes and listen to their laughter. I think about them, each of their lives.

There’s a word I came across years ago in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – ‘Sonder’. It’s defined like this:

– the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, and worries. It’s an epic story in which you might appear only once, like an extra sipping coffee in the background, or as a blur of traffic that passes on the highway, or a lighted window at dusk.

Or a lone figure standing above a beach.

This word is also my surname, the name Anna gave away at her wedding. I used to think how burdensome it is, that, as an unmarried woman, I carry with me both the name of my father, the name of a bit-part role in everyone else’s story.

But of course, I am my own lead character. Every cog in a watch is vital, and being a fleeting detail in the lives of others doesn’t make me inconsequential.

While it’s impossible to always know how, my life interacts with everyone else’s in millions of small, intrinsic, untold ways. I recall the young couple I walked past this morning; a chance encounter. I don’t know why, but I smiled, spontaneously and generously. And they smiled back. And maybe they carried that smile to someone else. Perhaps my smile is still being passed on. Perhaps it will be passed on forever, around the world.

Chapter XIX

Trudy Hellier
Playwright

A shot runs through my body as I hit the icy water.

For a moment, distracted from their play, they turn to watch.

My arms pound the water, legs kicking with rhythmic determination; it feels good to breathe, to finally release the aching sadness.

When I finally stop, short of breath, heart pounding, I look back and can no longer see them playing on the beach.

Surrounded by blue, I float gently on the water; the sky above me is vast and glorious. A sea bird hovers over the water, spirals down and rises victorious, a shimmering prize flapping helplessly in its powerful beak.

She looks down at me, I relax into her arms and all is forgiven, nothing matters anymore.

I let go.

Spluttering violently, the water is expelled from my lungs as I gulp greedily at the sweet fresh air, the sand presses hard against the side of my face.

No longer playing, they are gathered around me, innocent children gazing curiously, their parents knowing.

Part XX

Gergana Le Coq
Creative Director, Shanghai
Paper Stone Scissors

It was on a warm Sunday afternoon when a woman of unknown origins died on a sandy beach surrounded by local children. Nobody knew who she was or where she came from. She did not carry any form of identification and nobody came forward to identify her. At the time of the event, she was referred to as Jane, and for the sake of this story, we will also refer to her as such.

On the day she died, Jane was wearing a wrap dress in a bright shade of yellow and around her neck hung a golden necklace. It carried an oval shaped pendant that opened in the middle to reveal two old photographs on either side: one of a man who appeared to be in his mid 40s and another of a young girl. A few of the witnesses claimed that she reached up and took hold of that necklace as her eyes closed for the very last time – she had a smile on her lips.

On the same day Jane died, there were 360,721 births recorded. One of them happened to be not far from where Jane took her last breath. A baby girl was born with a big smile on her face. Her parents bathed her in a room drenched with sunlight. Water droplets captured the magic of the sun.

A feeling of belonging commenced once more.