The little boy was about five years old. He was living in an old two-story house below Bonham Road in the mid-levels of Hong Kong. At night, looking out from the balcony, his nanny would tell him that the flickering lights across the harbor were ghosts winking at him. He would pull up his blanket further to cover himself when going to bed.
Outside the house was a large terrace with a few trees. They seemed like giants as the young boy looked up to the clear blue sky. The branches reached out sideways like parallel limbs perpendicular to the trunk. It was before he knew what seasons meant, except for being dressed up or down as the temperature changed.
He remembered, however, picking up those very large red flowers, each somewhat bigger than his tiny hands. They usually dropped each year at the same time when his blue silk jacket was taken off of him as the temperature warmed. Once, one of these flowers dropped on his head and he cried, running back into the house to his mother’s arms.
One day, he received a shot given by a doctor making a house call, and he again cried, but much louder, as the needle went into his butt. But he saw the elders only got theirs on their arms. Pills were wrapped inside paper and crushed into pieces before he was made to swallow the bitter powder. He, however, relished the sweet taste of a syrupy oil spoon-fed to him.
Just as his sweater was also taken off his body, perhaps a month after the flower dropped on his head, there started floating in the sky some white stuff. This too would drift to the ground. By this time, green leaves had started filling up the tree. His nanny would pick up some of the fluffy stuff and take it inside the house. There, she would open her pillow case and stuff it in to refill the pillow.
“This is the same stuff inside your silk-lined jacket,” the nanny told the little boy. As the days went by, his shoe sizes grew from 1 to 2. The walk each day to his kindergarten, two blocks away behind an old church, seemed shorter and shorter. The boy grew, and small toys changed from wood to iron, and then, later still, to plastic.
As time flew by, what seemed a very long day, week, month, or even year became shorter, as the boy became a teenager, a young adult, middle aged, finally arriving at old age. His internal clock raced now, making time feel shorter as it became a smaller fraction of the time he had lived through.
But the red flowers continued to bloom year after year, and the cotton-like fluffy stuff continued to drift down from the sky. He now realized that it was the Cotton Tree, also known as kapok, that had so fascinated him since childhood. Once an important commodity cargo shipped across the ocean from Asia to Europe and America as stuffing for mattresses and cushions, it had long since been replaced by synthetic fiber.
Years went by, and he had long given up all his toys. However, every year he would continue to pick up the red flowers, putting them into pots or even as a floating plaything for his bath. And his pillow, stuffed with that white, fluffy stuff, cushioned his head as his hair grew from black to gray and then white.
Fortunately, the vaccination shots he once received in his butt as a child had long ago moved to his arm. Long live the Cotton Tree, Amen.