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We, the ancient Supreme Court of Singapore, do not believe in local ghosts. We believe in order and justice. We believe in the old way of things.

Unfortunately, the way of things is not in our favor these days.

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During the riots, those who were still here wanted to destroy us. That is quite literally what they said. We knew our history; we knew that our makers had created us for a noble reason—justice, no matter what those others might call it. But we are stones, and we cannot talk or defend ourselves. So after they had gone around looting and yelling and running amok across the rest of the half-abandoned island, they finally came down to us, their anger still simmering hot, and declared with brazen certainty that they were going to tear us down. 

They could have destroyed us quite easily, ironically, with our maker’s other tools — long reach excavators, some chains, or just a good old Paveway IV bomb to go on and get it out of their system — but, in that chaotic, history-obtuse time, they went and decided to lay down the weapons of large-scale construction. It was an improvised response to the practical kind of question that other men — our makers, their allies, and their descendants — kept asking them in response to their demands: If you stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, how will you eat? Communicate? Build anything? But they were stubborn. Through sheer fury and idealism, they cut short the supply chain’s long tongue in the span of just sixty days — Later see how was their word of the day. Indeed “later,” a decision was made, or rather they couldn’t make up their minds: they left us standing.

As for the tools, they took them away, all those cranes and pipes and concrete bricks, claiming they were the new owners and that they intended to take the place of the bosses they had chased out with their violence. They wanted to reinvent everything. We even heard that they meant to throw production out the window entirely in the long run. That they might turn those tools into playrooms, laundry poles, ladders, and who knows what else besides.

Ridiculous! As if they did not know that to build is to destroy, that every society needs momentum, needs more, full stop, always. 

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By the time the riots came, it had already been over a century since our makers had left us behind, during a show named Independence. They left but we stayed, and through us, parts of their teachings remained. We kept their ideals, securing them in our high ceilings. Before the island’s gradual abandonment, and then the riots, reduced us to this nothing — mere stones arranged with rot, space, scars — we were a Court, and then after that we were refurbished to become a highly respected and beloved Museum. We were the building where justice and history happened. We housed truth and order, the pieces of a sane narrative that allowed life to be lived. 

* * *

Many decades later, we were awakened by the pattering of a child’s feet on the floor of our main hall. They were wobbly, those steps, first imbued with the ill-feigned bravado of the young, then slowed soon by puzzlement. She was curious about us, and us about her. It had been a vast, sleepful century since anything human had walked through us, and it felt to us the way being tickled right on the collarbone might feel to you.

She was not alone. Soon after she had tread through the main hall, more little feet followed. They were even less certain but they were trusting of this girl, the sound of her bare feet (we shuddered) scarfing our marble halls, across the foyer and its black and formerly white tiles. Only one of the children stopped to read the engraving on the ground, obstinately clear despite the years and dirt:

1ST APRIL 1937

Well, to be honest, we could not tell if he could read. (Were they still teaching their children to do that?) We simply noted his pause. Then he was off again, following the little group as they scuttled through us. What a strange and pleasant sensation it was to have bodies, again, pacing our floors — especially with that energetic, unrestrained curiosity of youth. To be sure, they did not look up at the dilapidated sky bridges, nor did they glance once toward old City Hall. We doubted very much they knew what we represented. But we thought, now that they were here, that they might very well learn something from us yet.

The children began to run, delighted now by our strangeness and our echoes, up and down and through, until they reached the old holding cells. 

Once patched up for visitors, the narrow cells now stood stale and scuffed. Admittedly these were not the finest rooms in the building, and we felt a little embarrassed. One of them, a taller boy with teeth slightly too large for his mouth, pulled at the metal door, enjoying its extravagant creak. “What is this one for?” he asked, peering in.

“A toilet, silly,” said another, pointing to the hole in the ground. She entered the cell and jumped up on the bench inside, her long black braids swinging. She looked at our tiled walls, stale and dirty but as unmarked as the day they were unveiled for the Museum.

“No lah, look,” said the taller boy outside, grabbing the door and shutting it from the outside with a loud clang. He grinned wide, his big teeth glinting in the musty air. The girl with the braids laughed and jumped off the bench. But when she reached the door she frowned. “How to open?”

“Cannot!” shouted Big Teeth, a little gleeful. He held onto the handle on his side. Around him, the three other children looked uncertain.

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Braids and Big Teeth looked at each other through the gate, her expression incredulous. Slowly she reached a hand to the smooth metal on her side, opposite which there was a lock and handle.

She pushed on the gate so that it rattled. We waited for the boy to push back against it and laugh again. 

But he opened it. She remained in the doorframe and ran a finger delicately over the rust, in the manner of curious children who do not know how to distinguish what is good for them from what might kill.

“My grandpa says last time here they locked people up,” Big Teeth said. “His great-uncle even they locked, one time.”

“Why?” she asked.

“He says they used rope last time to kill him,” he said. “They put it round his neck.”

“But why?”

He wiggled his eyebrows. “Drugs,” he said in a shocking, malicious whisper. “They killed people for drugs.”

The five of them looked at the bench, as if trying to imagine the individuals who once had sat there for their crimes. In the quietness our holiness imposed itself for a second, but the spell broke when the littlest screamed that he, too, was going to lock them up, and began trying to push two of the older ones into the cell. They yelled back and swatted him like a fly.

“Stop it lah you, we’re not playing!” hissed Braids. 

The littlest stopped pushing, then threw his head back and laughed, his mirth boiling over, rolling around through his round cheeks and tiny teeth. The older ones did not join in. They kept staring at the bench.

“Imagine if you died here,” murmured another child who hadn’t spoken yet, a scrawny one with droopy eyelids.

Braids frowned.

At that moment, there was a change in the still air and we felt something slither in, something not quite as human and solid as the children before us. Oh — this was strange. As we have said, we do not believe in local ghosts. We are God-fearing, Queen-serving solids. But there are situations in which we can sense what you might call a presence, which probably has to do with the regional humidity and heat, and we feel a little uneasy. A local might describe this in supernatural terms. They might turn to possession as an explanation for what suddenly caused Big Teeth to peel his lips back again, to reveal a smile mad and macabre.

To us, it was quite clear that the boy was unwell.

“They say your ancestors last time did this to us,” he said, his voice clear and high. He was looking right at Braids.

“They say your ancestors locked us up and made us work long hours for pennies.

“Are you reading a story?” asked the very little child, unafraid.

“No,” said Braids quietly. “He’s talking about the past.”

It was as if we could feel the old ghosts circling around them, whispering from our unstable joints. We wanted to see the accusations, the cries. We wanted to see justice take shape, or worse, to see what would befall in its absence.

The four children eyed Big Teeth, who stared back. The air grew thick. We waited for blood. We waited for Braids to rush up and shake him, clench her teeth and say I’m leaving you here alone to rot, poor crazy idiot

But blood did not come. Big Teeth gave a wary sigh and brought a hand to his face, as if to hide his fury, or his shame. 

“I’m bored,” declared Braids loudly, and we thought we heard her voice tremble just a little. She gave Big Teeth a long, beseeching look.

He thought for a second. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

We thought we could feel the ghosts shifting too. We thought they seemed as uneasy, as unimpressed as us, but it might have been our own projections.

* * *

As we said, we do not believe in local ghosts. Nevertheless, after that visit from the children, they became more and more apparent to us, until we could not really deny them, much as we disapproved of their activities. It eventually became the ghosts’ custom to occasionally gather on our steps to smoke and dish extensively. This is how we would hear about the way the rest of society was declining, far from the eyes of our makers and from our own ability to witness their developments — if you could call them that.

Those local spirits, a diverse group of various ghouls and imps, dripping in oil and blood, would sit under our arches while talking with increasing gusto about the changes up in the rest of the island. Our area — formerly known as the Central Business District — was now a humid, hopeless ruin, overrun with vines and mangroves. We were now part cemetery, part natural sea rise defence. Talk about imaginative architecture. On the inland side, we had been sealed off from humanity. Between us and the closest organised society of Men was a thick patch of fruit trees — durian, mango, rambutan — dotted as well with mushroom pods and other little gardening projects. (From what the ghosts said, it sounded like they had also tried their hand at larger farming experiments — rice and soy — but it hadn’t gone so well. No surprise there, since the heat and soil were no good for that anymore.) Although our human visitors were few, we were regularly visited by creatures of increasing and surprising variety: mouse deer, lizards, birds. Those pests were not important. What we wanted to know was what was going on with the men.

So when those rambunctious ghosts — hantu, as they called them — gathered, we listened hungrily for details of what lay beyond, concerning the men. What we heard sounded like a whole hodgepodge of disorder unravelling — shop floor meetings, tree houses, deranged bicycles, hours and hours of primitive debate disguised as elections. The experiment was spoiling. It was no wonder, we thought. Before the riots, before things had started to go bad, the island had bloomed with petrochemical and financial glory. The original system had withered crisis after crisis until at last the government began to worry that the accounting would slip out of their control. The bills were becoming too steep to justify the continuation of the old order — they began moving citizens out, leaving in place a minimal corporate structure to keep the economy running and allowing guest workers from undeveloped countries to keep coming in. And then the cuts came, the food restrictions, the expansions of the dormitories. The administrative shell they left was well-thought-out, but it was fragile, and in the end, it was the death of one worker that set off  the riots — a long-winded series of events which were more rampage than revolution, in our opinion. We wondered whether things could have been different if those others had not left, whether there was anything here still worth saving. Mostly, we were despondent, accepting our fate as the lonely ruins of a former civilisational glory.

The ghosts’ discourse was far less grandiose. They liked to talk about the dynamics among the men — who was mucking about with who, who was upset about someone else’s faster-growing crop, so on and so on. They were devisers of mischief, trying to figure out how to sow even more discord in the miserable dwellers’ lives.

In the corner saying nothing was the hantu raya, the most powerful of the lot. Eyes glowing red against his shadowy non-body, nursing a bottle of ethereal hibiscus drink, he leaned silently against the wall as the rest of them cackled and squabbled away. Once in a while he would tap the tiles of our floor with his non-foot, as if to test that our structures would hold. We understood that in the taxonomy of local myths, he was one who could disburse limitless power to the hungry and the greedy, often at a steep cost. He could shapeshift and enter a person’s consciousness, taking over their actions and erasing their memory of it. So went the common lore, at least. At social gatherings, the hantu raya was more of a wallflower.

After their parties the hantu would disperse, some going back to their indefinite naps in the thick of the mangrove, a few others strolling to the populated areas to hang on to a semblance of relevance in this new world, trying to recognise themselves in the stories people passed around.

It was clear to us that they seemed as lost as we did in this new system of life. Maybe this would always be what humans would do to memories they did not like: stuff them in a sweaty mangrove until the ants and sunshine took them.

* * *

Why were we spared? Opinions differ. All we know is that, at the end of the people’s rampage — most of which we heard of, but did not see — liberating men from their dormitories and their cells, taking tools from warehouses, and so on — they arrived before us and said we were to be destroyed.

Then they stood, uncertain, before our hallowed steps. Just as those children would, centuries later. They were led only by sentiment. Our height and whiteness made them spellbound. By our silence, we were giving them one last chance to enter and convict themselves.

Aiyah, quickly let’s go, said one. Later we can burn down some more.

It’s stone, said another, It’s so big. Are we really just going to go destroy everything, just because we can?

It’s not like the statue, said a third. That one just needs rope to tear down what.

In unison the group’s heads turned away from us and toward our brother, the statue of our maker’s first leader, who stood, once white and polished, now a bit smeared with soot but still tall, unbowed. Even in their fervour his dignity impressed them. They could not help but think of them, our makers, our past braided with their future.

After a while, they left. We do not know why, but they decided to keep us — and him — standing.

We heard there was more violence, more repression, after those sixty days. Or maybe it was not exactly violence. Whatever it was — it was sticky, long, and angry. Maybe the whole world experienced it, this summer of riots. We sighed and raised our eyebrows at them, because anger is not our kind of emotion. Our killing had been efficient and purposeful. Whatever we destroyed, we always built over with something superior. History was better when it was a line.

Timidly, their so-called electeds decided at last to turn the entire Central Business District into a “living museum,” returning to “inaugurate” us. At this, we rolled our marble eyes. The lack of order and planning! Honestly, over the blink of a century, that place was slipping back to being a sleepy little fishing village right before us and there was nothing we could do about it. For years, nobody came to visit us. 

The next time we saw any of the men, they were trying to get rid of us again — or what we stood for, rather. It went terribly. They did not enter us. They decided to settle their disputes in a different way, and of course there was violence. There wasn’t enough food from the gardens and they couldn’t agree on what to do about it. Then the bickering started and grew, turning to physical blows, until somebody collapsed, blood trickling from his mouth onto our steps. 

The second time they came to try to get rid of us, it was still too fresh in their minds, the pain of being left behind, of being those designated unworthy of survival. They had tried to teach compassion to their children and to each other but it was difficult when the environment was so hostile. We knew what hunger did, we had always known what it would do. We knew that you couldn’t share what was scarce; that was why property was essential. We watched knowingly as the men sat and tried to talk out their problems in the deadly heat. Your air conditioners are sputtering and your solar batteries are falling apart. You can’t feed yourselves. It won’t be long until you start tearing each other apart.

But they survived, and we survived. Our brother’s features grew smooth and browned with dirt. The vines grew over us. People stopped visiting. We were the dregs of the civilised world and we, the old Supreme Court, were holding on to our wholeness under the sun, hosting gossipy ghosts and listening to their stories of an experiment evolving in this wilderness: children getting their own way, complicated systems of barter, new days and traditions to mark different things.

We lost count, actually, of the number of ways and times we listened to stories about the men trying to pursue justice without recourse to us. Sometimes we overheard them as they walked among the fruit trees and sometimes we heard about it from the ghosts. But most of the time we did not receive any visitors. No one came to us for any reason — not to remember, nor reflect, nor rethink.

 When those children came in and ran through us and to the holding cells it had been so, so long since we had been in touch with humans. We thought we still had something to give them, but then, before we could understand what had happened, they left.

* * *

Years later they would be back. Big Teeth and Braids, though now the braids seemed shorter and the teeth more proportional. She screeched her bike to a halt and he slowed his down behind her just a few seconds later. When he got off his bike, we noticed he had a limp.

We tried to imagine their lives on the other side of the fruit trees. Were they a couple? A pair of unmarried artist anarchists living together in a tree house? Her working as a bike fixer, him a gardener? We were so starved for information, and all we ever got were the tales spun by those ghosts that sounded so impossibly sunny, so full of sparkles, that to see men in the flesh, actually walking toward our crumbling self, seemed like a drunken impossibility. The words we heard from the ghosts were things like: worker’s councils, vertical gardens, moon readings. Now we looked at the men to see what marks of weakness we could find, and we saw plenty. There was the boy’s limp, the girl’s tired look. Their skin bore the mark of the sun.

They stood before us, taking in our silence. Half of us had crumbled in a recent storm. We were not well.

“Remember one time we came here as kids?” he murmured.

She nodded, looking at us with pity. “So strange,” she said. “I’m not sure if this is a good idea.”

“We can still go.”

She threw him a look, as if to say she would not consider it. “Do you need a second before we go in?” she asked.

He nodded and sat down under one of the arches, looking out at the thick grass beyond. She squatted down beside him.

“It’s really very green,” he said.


“How are you feeling?”

She shrugged, her face hard. “The same.”


They sat for a while. Then he said: “I’m ready.”

They stood up and walked into us. Again, that slight tickle. As soon as they entered the air changed. It was as if it were charged with something, either history or spirits or justice — a kind of pulse that gave the very space its old sense of grandeur, if only a hint of it.

She walked around in us, slowly this time. Not rushing as she did as a child. She stopped at the inscription and frowned. She arched her neck and looked at the pieces of the sky bridges that remained. She walked around in our ruins, as if she were looking for something. We did not understand. Neither did he: “What are you looking for?”

“I was just wondering how they did it before,” she said softly. “I mean, because no one ever got rid of all this.”

He looked as if he were about to say something, then stopped himself and hung back, watching his friend walk around with that crazed dedication of the grieving.

After a long while she wandered back to him. “I don’t know,” she said finally, laughing a little self-consciously. “I thought maybe there’s something I could find here that could — do something? Bring him back? Help me sleep?”

He nodded.

“But, I mean, he’s dead,” she said. “Still.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“I was looking for inspiration.”  


“I was remembering when we were trying to figure out this place as kids. When we visited the … you know. I know it’s fucked up.”  

“Maybe.” His voice was soft, and he held her gaze evenly. We couldn’t tell what it meant, that look. They must have both been thinking about the holding cells, those empty suggestions that spoke loudly above their heads. “You’re saying you want punishment?”

“I guess,” she sighed. “Yes. No. I don’t know. I keep thinking about the fire in the garden and if they had just been more careful about putting everything away. I keep thinking if we had had the medicine — ”

“No one had medicine that year.”

“I know.” She dropped her gaze to the ground.

“What do you want?”

“I want to fix everything,” she said, through her teeth. “I want someone to pay for it. I want to stop bloody feeling like this.”


Just then, we thought we could see, barely perceptible, the shadow of the hantu raya growing larger on the wall. His red eyes glowing.

The boy asked again: “What do you want?”

Her shoulders dropped. “I want to sleep without dreaming. I just want to fall asleep without thinking about food, and to sleep without dreaming, and I want to wake up after the sun is up already.”

Then she moved to him and collapsed into his chest, and he held her close. They stood there, in the empty hall. The hantu raya growled and skulked away.

“How about we use my plot together for the next week?” he suggested. “I’ll go talk to them. Maybe they can give us seeds or something. See how can we work this out.”

She gave a sceptical growl of assent. “Guess that’s all we can keep doing.”

He laughed and nodded.

“Can we go outside?” she asked, pulling away from him. “This place is damn ulu. Every time it’s like I’m seeing a ghost or something.” As they walked out she added: “We really should just tear it down.”

Well, Braids, we don’t like you either. We’re both just stuck here.

As they walked away we wondered if the shadow we saw on the wall — the hantu raya — was in fact our own. We wondered when we had started telling ourselves local stories and why. To entertain ourselves? To stay in tune with the world? To be less lonely?

They escaped and we felt them run out of us, like air fleeing a balloon. The rush of youth, and then stillness. We wanted to call out to them and tell them to come back, that there was still so much to relearn. So many tools we could tell them about: the excavators for digging, the robes for wearing, the key for locking, and the rope for hanging. Was it not fun, once? Was it not good?

But they were far out and away in the too-hot sun, and we are stones and we can’t talk. We watched them stretch out in the grass. No doubt they would go back home to their parents and their little community homes built in the skeletons of wealth, working in their little collectives, exhausting themselves running in place and amassing nothing, going nowhere, eating skinny local soups and watching sunsets and staying stagnant on the face of an Earth  that had once bestowed us with such magical riches that our makers could not bear to disrespect her with lack of ambition. Far from the centre of those homes, we could only guess what they were like. What we had heard was not encouraging. It sounded too much like an unsustainable pleasure.

As long as we are here, we will not be able to tell our story the way our makers would have told it, if they were still here. After all, we are only stones. When it is told, the story has a different color now. It is no longer the flag-waving epic it once was. It is carried over the land by scuttling ants and shy mimosa plants. It is told by the grass whispering all over our sagging structures, the wind washing away sins, the waves adding salt to the air, the cracks appearing between our parts, plus something or someone that we cannot quite make out, or cannot quite believe in, something speaking over us, in our voice, through those cracks, onto the overgrown land, saying, over and over again — we’re sorry, we’re sorry, we’re sorry.

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M Jesuthasan is a writer and fact-checker based in Marseille, France. His reporting has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Rest of World, and New Naratif among others. His creative fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Asian American Writer’s Workshop and Electric Literature.

Christian Blaza is a freelance illustrator based in New Jersey.