THE FORBIDDEN TEMPLE

This is a project that came out of a collaboration with the english writer Natalie Baker. Together we developed the narration and the designs and we came up with a story and 5 illustrations ( plus one extra ). 

 

There once was an ancient temple that stood on top of a hill in a deep, dark forest protecting the City of Spirits. This was no ordinary temple; an immortal princess had been laid to rest beneath the shrine. Old inscriptions were carved on the walls like giant scars, but only a few understood the meaning of such proverbs. As time passed, the ancient temple began to lose its rich crimson glow. The forest became unruly and wild, until one evening an army of trees gripped their weathered fingers around the temple walls and swallowed it whole. The city’s people awoke to a frightening sight. All that remained in its shadow was a dark, protruding form with spindly limbs and glistening eyes embedded in its skin. The eyes belonged to none other than the immortal princess.

***

      Blackened bramble and burnt to crisp, the evening glow casts a silver shadow over the City of Spirits. All that can be seen is the Forbidden Temple illuminated in the night sky. It stands proud, peering down on the miniature people with their papier-mâché houses and bonfires warming naked children with flickering flames. Across the city, the grounds are littered with glossy sweet wrappers and ghost money to celebrate ancestral Gods. These small offerings colour the streets and sparkle beneath the starry sky. Tiny homes are spilling with people – fat, bulging stomachs and red in the face. They raise a glass to the Gods and guzzle wine from fermented jars. The rich and poor dine together beneath the big-bellied moon while their young ones run around with dirty feet and sour breath. Grandmothers, mothers and sisters emerge with dewy skin from hours behind piping hot stoves, serving steamed buns and jewelled lentils piled high on silver plates. Mountains of glutinous pork and thin rice noodles are tangled up like webs, mounded onto plates and devoured. The moon illuminates every corner of the city, where skinny cats and diseased dogs hide their dirty faces, pacing and salivating. Waiting. Ready to chew on the fats, juices and bones of sacrificed animals. 

     As the festivities proceed and the bonfires continue to bellow, a young girl wanders alone. Her name is Little Chau and she is afraid of the dark. She is afraid of losing her way back home. Tired and bloated from hours of gorging on the feast, she follows the path that weaves through the forest towards the decaying temple. Quiet footsteps. Hush. She is careful not to disturb the birds nesting in the trees. The forest’s rumbling stomach chews on organic matter and waste from the realms below. Darkness surrounds her until she sees nothing but a lone star blinking tirelessly in the sky. Everything is black. Fear wraps his suffocating arms around her waist and draws her in. Fear glides down her throat like a snake and settles in her stomach. Fear buries his ghoulish head in her womb. Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Little Chau clenches her fists and whispers a mantra. I must control my demons. They must not control me. I am brave and I am strong. As she follows the path to the Forbidden Temple, its melancholy branches entrance her. They sway in time to the music of the city, reaching out beyond the moon, planets and stars. I am not afraid. I am not afraid. I am not afraid. She cries out to the wind but it turns its head away from her. She grows weary with each step. Unsteady and arms limp, she drags her feet behind her, broken as a shackled slave. 

    Now that the feast has drawn to an end, the mortals join hands and dance about the fire. Animal skins and brittle bones are strung like pearls and worn around the necks of children, chiming as they change direction. Two steps forward, one step back. Hips jut and arms flail as they cry out to the Gods. Relics of the past are worn on the backs of strong men like shining armour, to commemorate deceased patriarchs. The sufferings of those far gone are remembered. Come to us. Follow us. Dance with us. The dead rise from chambers, ashes and rotten deposits. Vacuous bodies journey to the heart of the city and manifest as animal spirits, stronger than the force of life. They melt and whirl and twirl, rising from the earth that conceals their whole human form. Immortal souls melt with the living and together they rejoice as one. Life meets death. They are masked beasts tormenting, laughing and crawling between dancing feet on fertile land.

    As Little Chau approaches the temple, she looks back on the City of Spirits. It is smaller now, a storybook. It is a world far away. She can see her own settlement in the distance. There is movement, light and deafening sound, she is sure of it. But she cannot hear a thing. It is silent in the forest. Her stomach tightens and she has the sudden urge to rip her silk tunic. But she must not spoil it. She must keep it clean. It must be as good as new when she returns home. As Little Chau edges closer to the tree, she imagines its hollow shell containing jewels and gold from many years ago. Long before the temple was swallowed whole. Closer. She moves around the tree admiring its blemished shell. Its tangled body amazes her. The twisted branches and rickety trunk are the arteries and veins that form a lifeline. Her finger traces the contours; like rivers on a map they are masterfully etched across the tree’s aging belly. Life. Heart. Fate. Pink fleshy wounds swell beneath cracked skin. The temple is a wounded soldier, weary from years at battle. Little Chau reaches out, she is not afraid anymore. As she strokes its rough edge, the tree withdraws. Its eyes open wide and sparkle like perfect rubies waiting to be plucked from the stem. Little Chau clasps her hand around the biggest ruby and uses all her strength to tug at it. Nothing. She tries for a second time but the stubborn ruby remains embedded in the tree. As she tries for a third time, the roots tremble and shudder as if waking from a disturbed sleep. Thick branches swoop down and Little Chau is lifted up and away from the trunk, as the Forbidden Temple opens its mouth to reveal a door. 

    The walls are damp, swollen and throbbing and the ground is littered with broken pieces of china and stone. She is careful not to graze her feet. Reams of yellow wire hang loose from twisted branches. They are gigantic lungs filling the temple with fresh oxygen from the forest. Little Chau takes a deep, clean inhalation and twirls around in her tunic. I am brave. I am strong. I am warrior. Her beady eyes open wide hunting for trinkets and treasures to take home to her mother. She searches for gold, shimmering diamonds and gemstones but all that can be seen are tiny stars glowing like phosphorescence in the endless night sky. Ghostly white candles float above her head as if attached to invisible string. There are hundreds of them and together they move in time like an effortlessly synchronised orchestra. Enchanted, Little Chau reaches out and wraps her fingers around a dancing candle. But the candle melts and covers her arm with a thin layer of wax. Little Chau’s skin blisters beneath the cloudy liquid, and as the wax solidifies, her arm becomes stiff and wooden like a lifeless mannequin. Hot tears begin to fall from the sky like giant pellets pounding against the temple walls. Shielding her face against the rain, Little Chau starts to run as fast as her feet will carry her. As she turns a corner, she discovers a small cavity and decides to take shelter until the rain eases off. Through blurred vision she discovers a pearl necklace wrapped around a branch like a sleeping serpent. Pretty necklace. Beautiful treasures. I will be rich. She begins to tug at the pearls. Goddess Chau. Immortal Chau. Princess Chau. The necklace unravels, and as the pearls multiply, Little Chau loses her feet. The pearled snake wraps itself around Little Chau’s body, clinging to the tunic and tightening its grip around her ankles. She kicks her feet, thrashing her legs and arms against the walls. Gigantic branches swoop down like tentacles in blind defence. Little Chau cries out to the spirits and her mother. Her shrill cry echoes through the forest and the city, but is lost in a sea of light, music and celebration. As the last dance is danced, the immortal princess wraps her mangled legs around Little Chau and she is swallowed whole into a bottomless pit. It is there that she remains invisible to the living. Forever young – incarcerated in a chamber of filth.