They ordered an all-round defence when the engine of our 5-ton truck suffered a cardiac arrest, snorting out the last of its painful breath. Rapidly, the half a dozen of us dismounted and formed a defensive perimeter.
And so there I was crouched, alone, in a thick bush, crowned with daisies.
This was the first time in my life that I have ever seen wild daisies. They were coin-sized, gleaming an ethereal bluish white under the 2am moonlight. It was an ephemeral pause in the intensity of the night – no more gun fire, no more hollering, no more smoke grenades. And the pause would take a while.
Undisturbed and unseen by my trainers, I patted down the wet undergrowth to make a little cosy clearing hidden in the bush. Unslinging my rifle, I discarded it in the mud, then sat down comfortably and began munching stealthily on a combat ration pack of cold chicken rice.
This was a moment of heaven. Ephemeral as it was.
Some 30 paces ahead, something moved in the lalang.
Was it human? Unlikely. Wild boar? Not unthinkable. Something far more sinister? Very plausible.
The lalang rustled like a meandering torrent of undercurrents surging through calm water. It would reach my position in mere moments.
Instinct told me to grab my rifle. But common sense reminded me that (1) I still needed time to load a magazine into the unloaded rifle; (2) my magazines were loaded only with non-lethal blanks, and; (3) it would be a futile gesture to fire away for it would do nothing to help me except to draw the attention of the rest of the section and by that point of time I would possibly be mauled to death. Instead, I dropped my ration pack and hastily reached for my Swiss Army knife.
The blade swishing to life from its sheath glinted blue under the full moon. My ungloved knuckles were a resolute white. This razor-sharp weapon no longer than my palm now stood between me and the thing.
The rustling intensified like a prestissimo drum beat. And then it crashed through the undergrowth, stopping just inches from my face.
My first reaction was dumbfoundedness. The next was a moment of apprehension.
It was little child standing before me. Naked. Deformed. Greenish. Grinning. And definitely not a living thing.
Instantly, I knew what it was. The Malays called it toyol, the Hokkiens called it Kweekia – a mischievous and sometimes malevolent ghost child, evoked through black magic from a stillborn fetus.
Within mere seconds, it turned around and disappeared swiftly into the bushes. It was so swift that I couldn’t realise it took my rifle with it until I felt the tug of my rifle sling pulling away from under my boots. Naturally, I gave chase. Losing that would cost my life, or more accurately, seven years of my life in the detention barracks.
It moved incredibly fast. I bashed through undergrowth and branches. I felt twigs snapping and embedding itself in the uncountable nooks and crannies of my combat vest. I tried to follow the rustle of the lalang but the distance between us merely broadened till I could see no trace of it any longer.
And just when I thought I lost my rifle along with seven years of my life forever, I felt a force striking against my head. The immensity of the strike sent my combat helmet flying off my head.
I spun around. There it was squatting before me, rifle in its grasp, grinning sheepishly.
I reached into my kangaroo pouch, retrieving a ration pack of biscuits that I held out to it. There was nothing else I could do.
It took the biscuits and left the rifle at my feet.
They had tried searching for me the entire night. They combed the entire area, flattened every bush, prodded every clump of undergrowth too thick to be flattened. It was only at daybreak that my buddy found me unconscious with all my equipment intact at the exact position I had originally been at, just a mere five metres from the 5-ton truck. They had for some reason completely overlooked my position for the entire night.
When I came to, I had believed it would be an impossible task to explain my absence, but strangely I was neither reprimanded nor probed for an explanation.
Everyone instead were all staring in stupefaction at the spot I had been unconscious at. In the rising daylight, it became apparently clear to me.
Beneath the thick bush of daisies were the crumbled masonry of a Chinese grave. Deciphering the decaying lettering informed us that its occupant was a stillborn.