Fiction / Wayne Mok


:: Oblation ::

            I would often dream about John Calvin. That might be a weird thing to dream about, but I had just returned from sem­i­nary abroad after fin­ish­ing a the­sis on John Calvin’s Chris­tol­ogy. In my dreams, I would see him stand­ing behind the pul­pit of the church in Gene­va, arms high, nose in the Bible, preach­ing to a crowd­ed room of peo­ple trans­fixed on him. He wasn’t a tall man, but there was a sense of urgency, almost anx­i­ety, in the tone of his gut­tur­al voice. In those dreams, I would be in the front pew look­ing up, tak­ing in every last word that came out of his mouth like I was sip­ping on pure water from an ancient spring. Occa­sion­al­ly, the dream would turn into a night­mare. One moment, I’d be sit­ting in the front pew, but the next, I’d feel out of place, con­scious that I didn’t belong—my black hair, yel­low skin, flat nose, Asian eyes—and I’d be dragged out of the church by the con­gre­ga­tion, thrown out onto the street. Calvin him­self would close the church doors, say­ing some­thing to me in a lan­guage he knew I did not under­stand. It didn’t hap­pen often, but when it did, I couldn’t help but be dis­turbed by what it might’ve meant.

            The the­sis on Calvin won the Bavinck Prize that year. The pan­el praised the piece and espe­cial­ly applaud­ed the appli­ca­tion I drew out for the church and social jus­tice. One pro­fes­sor said he would talk to an edi­tor he knew to see if they would be inter­est­ed in it. The same week the prize was announced, the vic­ar from my church in Hong Kong called. He heard the news and asked if I was inter­est­ed in a job. He was plan­ning to retire in a few years and was look­ing for some­one who could replace him then. It seemed like a sign from God and I accept­ed the posi­tion on the spot.

            I first encoun­tered the home­less man a few months after I returned to Hong Kong. The Christ­mas Eve ser­vice just end­ed. I had preached on the birth nar­ra­tive in the Gospel of Luke and talked about Calvin’s con­cept of the accom­mo­da­tion of God; it was my best ser­mon yet. At the end of the ser­vice, a mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion came up and said that he saw Jesus descend­ing into the sanc­tu­ary as I was preaching.

            As a year­ly tra­di­tion, the church gave out gifts to every­one who attend­ed the ser­vice. The box was wrapped with a fes­tive print of baby Jesus in the manger. Inside was a mug with a Bible verse print­ed on it. On my way out, the vic­ar hand­ed me one with a sly smirk on his face, “We need to get rid of these—the sex­ton needs space in the store­room for the new nativ­i­ty scene.”

            I took it.

            “Want another?”

            I shook my head, “I don’t know what I’d do with it.”

            The night sky was bright, illu­mi­nat­ed by the lights of Hong Kong push­ing against the dark­ness long for­got­ten. A large crowd streamed past the church towards the MTR Sta­tion on their way to the fes­tiv­i­ties that would run late into the night. I straight­ened my cler­i­cal col­lar and head­ed towards home.

            Halfway across a desert­ed foot­bridge on my usu­al route home, I saw him. A pair of feet with frayed socks stuck out from under­neath a flat­tened card­board box. A damp T‑shirt was draped over the rail­ing. As I walked clos­er, I was struck by a sour stench—like that of urine mixed with beer. I cov­ered my nose. An emp­ty take­out box lay open reveal­ing a used pair of chop­sticks, some chewed up meat, and a few tooth­picks. The man’s head rest­ed on a pair of old shoes.

            My ini­tial instinct was to walk past the man, but as he twist­ed and turned under his card­board box, try­ing to find his way into sleep, I felt some­thing. It was dif­fi­cult to name it at the time, but I deduced it was prob­a­bly some­thing like com­pas­sion, or char­i­ty, or maybe even love. It was Christ­mas after all.

            I tip toed over, bent down, and lay the gift next to his feet, care­ful not to touch him. Just before walk­ing down the steps at the end of the bridge, I looked back. The neat­ly wrapped gift stood in stark con­trast to the filth that cov­ered every­thing about the man. The Apos­tle Paul had once said, “A man reap what he sows,” and I couldn’t help but won­der what the man did in the past to deserve his present life. The roar of the street and the chat­ter of the crowd below was almost deaf­en­ing. A tram passed by under­neath with Christ­mas car­ols blast­ing on its speakers.

            That night, I had a night­mare. I was sit­ting in the church at Gene­va in my cas­sock, man­u­script in my hands, ready to preach on the Beat­i­tudes from the Gospel of Matthew. At some point dur­ing the first hymn, I looked down at my man­u­script and real­ized that it was all in Latin—I didn’t read Latin. The next moment, the pul­pit was emp­ty and the con­gre­ga­tion, includ­ing Calvin him­self were all look­ing in my direc­tion. I start­ed to pan­ic. An uncom­fort­able heat rose with­in my chest and ascend­ed into my neck. My cheeks took on a red flush, my hands start­ed to trem­ble, and my abdomen tight­ened. I man­aged to stand up and pro­ceed­ed to walk towards the pul­pit, but before I arrived, some­one was already there. I couldn’t make out his face, but I some­how knew exact­ly who it was—it was the home­less man. He wore the same damp T‑shirt and pair of old socks that I saw on the bridge.

            The man then opened his mouth to preach in Latin, with a voice far deep­er and more force­ful than that of Calvin’s, “Beati pau­peres spir­i­tu quo­ni­am …” As his deaf­en­ing voice echoed through­out the church, I felt an urge to run. I gath­ered my strength and ran down the cen­ter aisle towards the exit, but just before I could reach the doors, I felt my abdomen and groin give way. I woke up drenched in sweat. I pulled off my blan­ket and got out of bed, but my pants were so wet it felt like I just got out of the pool. Half-con­scious, I stood there try­ing to fig­ure out what had hap­pened before I caught a whiff of an odor and glanced at my bed—I had peed my pants.

            As I was in the show­er clean­ing myself off, I thought about the dream and what just happened—was God angry that I gave the home­less man a cheap gift? Was there some­thing spir­i­tu­al going on with the man—demonic pos­ses­sion? Did he need my help? Was God speak­ing to me? I had no clue, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew I need­ed to vis­it him again. I need­ed to find out. I put on a set of fresh­ly ironed cler­i­cal clothes and went to see the man, with a hunch that the vis­it would make things right, somehow.

            He was sit­ting on his card­board box, cross-legged, sip­ping on a bot­tle of beer while eat­ing a steamed pork bun. A Chi­nese man with a big face, dark skinned with unkempt greasy hair, he was dressed in the same red­dish-brown T‑shirt, car­go shorts, with a dif­fer­ent pair of socks this time, but the same hor­rid stench. The mug from the church was at his side, full of cig­a­rette butts emit­ting a con­stant stream of smoke like incense in a censer. The Bible verse print­ed on it felt odd­ly out of place.

            I point­ed at the mug, “I left that there for you.”

            He turned his head, “What?”

            “It was a gift.”

            He looked at it, before tak­ing a sip of his beer. “What about it? You want it back?”

            “No, but you shouldn’t be using it for cigarettes.”

            He shook his head and downed the rest of his beer. In a swift motion, he whacked the mug with the emp­ty beer bot­tle. The mug skid­ded on the con­crete floor before hit­ting a met­al rail. Upon impact, the mug shat­tered into pieces, send­ing cig­a­rette butts fly­ing across the rest of the bridge.

            “Get lost,” he yelled.

              Stunned by his response, I ran as fast as I could in my cas­sock to the oth­er side of the bridge and felt a shard of the bro­ken mug crack beneath my foot.

            At staff meet­ing lat­er in the week, I shared about the man. The vic­ar nod­ded in approval. “It is our call­ing as min­is­ters to rep­re­sent Christ to the poor,” he said, sip­ping instant cof­fee from anoth­er Christ­mas mug. Though his com­ment affirmed my intu­ition that I did the right thing, the more I thought about the man, the more dis­gust­ed I felt—the way the man dressed, the way he spoke, his lack of man­ners and respect, not just for me, but for God, even his stink. I knew that it was wrong to not help some­one in need, but I couldn’t help but think the man didn’t want my help, in which case, there prob­a­bly wasn’t any rea­son to vis­it him again. 

            In the fol­low­ing weeks, mirages, or per­haps you can call them visions, of the man, began to appear wher­ev­er I would go. He would be out­side the super­mar­ket beg­ging for loose change. He would be sprawled out on the bot­tom deck of the tram. He would be smok­ing in the park, loud­ly com­ment­ing on the play of casu­al foot­ball teams. These visions became more and more fre­quent, and I kept try­ing to ignore them, until one day after work as I was leav­ing the church, I had a vision of him there at the front of the chapel, ine­bri­at­ed, loung­ing by the altar, burp­ing after tak­ing a swig of wine out of the chal­ice. God was sure­ly say­ing some­thing, like he spoke to Samuel in the night. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew that the only way to find out was to see the man again.

            The man was there lying on flat­tened box­es. A blan­ket was pushed to the side, soak­ing up runoff from the rail­ings. A bro­ken umbrel­la faced the street, shield­ing off the mild rain. Neon signs illu­mi­nat­ing the bridge gave the night a red­dish-green glow. His stink seemed to be inten­si­fied by the humid­i­ty, mak­ing each breath that much hard­er to bear.

            He sat up and wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt, “What do you want?”

            I point­ed towards the church, “I’m a min­is­ter there. I want to help.”

            He ignored me and reached for a pack of cigarettes.

            I pulled out a paper bag from my brief­case and put it on the ground in front of him. He took the bag, pulled out a bot­tle of water, and then a chick­en avo­ca­do sour­dough sand­wich I picked up from an expen­sive sand­wich place down the street. He held the sand­wich close to his face, and then sniffed it, like an animal.

             “I don’t eat gwei­lo food,” he said, set­ting it down on the floor.

            “Sir,” I said, try­ing my best to con­vey respect, “I’m try­ing to help.”

            He shook his head and chuck­led, “I know your type; you don’t want to help.” He tossed the sand­wich at my feet. “You know what will help? Tsing Tao, cig­a­rettes, fried rice …” he paused for a moment, “and a Mark Six tick­et.” He roared with laugh­ter and pro­ceed­ed to pick up the water bot­tle, “I’ll take this though.” I walked away, annoyed at the man, and if I was being hon­est, at God.

            That week, the mild rain strength­ened into a typhoon. Streets start­ed to flood and there were land­slides in rur­al areas. Schools were closed, work halt­ed, peo­ple stayed home. The news report­ed that it was the strongest typhoon record­ed in half a cen­tu­ry. Per­haps it was cab­in fever, but a week into the storm, my apart­ment began to smell like the home­less man. That same nasty stink. At first, I thought it was a clogged drain or a plumb­ing issue caused by the rain. I plumbed the toi­lets, snaked every drain, checked for leaks, but to no avail. I took out the trash, cleaned out the fridge. I spent the rest of the day clean­ing and san­i­tiz­ing the entire apartment—I vac­u­umed and mopped, wiped down every sur­face, cleaned the mold out of the grout in the bath­room, scrubbed the kitchen down along with all the grime from the past year. I even threw out any­thing remote­ly close to old into large garbage bags and resealed my win­dows and doors to ensure noth­ing could get in. Still, the scent lin­gered. It was as if his pres­ence infil­trat­ed every cor­ner of the apart­ment, not want­i­ng to leave.

            That night, exhaust­ed from the clean­ing, I fell into a deep sleep. It was the same dream. I was sit­ting in the first row of the chapel as usu­al, lis­ten­ing to Calvin as he preached, but this time, Theodore Beza, John Knox, and younger the­olo­gians like Charles Hodge and Abra­ham Kuyper were there was well. The greats. Con­scious of their pres­ence, I was ner­vous, but also excit­ed about being there, when the stench hit me. That God-awful stench. I looked around. Oth­er peo­ple smelled it too. Peo­ple pulled out hand­ker­chiefs and cov­ered their faces; oth­ers tried to fan the smell away with their hands. The stench con­tin­ued to inten­si­fy. An old­er mem­ber of the church faint­ed in her seat, and moments lat­er, a young child vom­it­ed on a pew. A few peo­ple in the back tried to open the doors, but they were locked. No one could get out. The crowd start­ed to rush towards the door, ram­ming them­selves against it, try­ing to break the lock. The church Fathers stood in hor­ror at what was going on, bewil­dered at the situation.

            I, too, made a run for the door, but stopped when I real­ized that the stench was com­ing out of my mouth. Every breath I exhaled emanat­ed a smell so sick­en­ing that it trig­gered my gag reflex. I tried to hold it in, but my abdom­i­nal mus­cles and diaphragm con­tract­ed vio­lent­ly, send­ing a burn­ing sen­sa­tion up my chest and into my throat. Expect­ing food or bile to come out, I knelt on the ground and bent over, but instead, all that came out was more of the smell, an end­less stream of putrid odor that smelled like skunk mixed with rot­ten cabbage.

            At some point, the chapel cleared out. I was on my knees in the mid­dle of the aisle, alone, when I heard some­one walk­ing towards me. I looked up—it was the home­less man. It was him. He was behind all of this, that damned human being. My imme­di­ate reac­tion was to get up and tack­le him to the ground, but my body ached so much I couldn’t move. As he moved towards me, the stench strange­ly began to fade, and instead, there was a faint trace of anoth­er scent. I wasn’t sure exact­ly what it was, but it was an allur­ing scent—not just a scent you appre­ci­at­ed like that of a rose or lily, but an aro­ma that whet­ted your appetite and made you hun­gry. Not before long, he was stand­ing over me. The stench had van­ished and the fra­grant scent by that point was over­whelm­ing. The nau­sea was gone and I felt famished—stomach growl­ing, mouth drool­ing, dying for food with a hunger that peo­ple prob­a­bly only expe­ri­enced in a famine, and I woke up, starving.

            I checked the time, got dressed, and went down to the restau­rant down­stairs. It was Thurs­day after­noon. The wind and rain seemed be let­ting up. Shops had reopened and peo­ple returned to the streets just in time for the East­er week­end ahead. I opened the door and entered the fra­grance that filled the restaurant—Yangzhou friend rice—the tra­di­tion­al Can­tonese type with eggs, peas, bits of char siu, prawn, and scal­lions. I placed an order. As I wait­ed, I stood at the counter of the restau­rant watch­ing as the chef stirred the rice in his wok, I thought about the ser­mon I was prepar­ing for the week­end on the Para­ble of the Ban­quet. I won­dered what that feast would be like, and whether it’d be any­thing like a Chi­nese ban­quet. Who would be there? Would I? What about the home­less man? Per­haps it was guilt, or maybe the voice of the Spir­it, I placed a sec­ond order.

            I stepped out onto the street, when the sky began to crack, releas­ing buck­ets of water splash­ing onto the side­walk. Fall­en leaves, branch­es, and lit­ter were scat­tered all over. I held onto the bag of food with one hand. With the oth­er, I opened my umbrel­la, shield­ing myself from the skies that roared above.

            There were two umbrel­las this time, both bro­ken, posi­tioned against the rails. The thun­der­ing rain, the neon signs, the fra­grance from the restau­rants, and exhaust from the busses and trucks all seemed to cur­tain the space around us.

            He lift­ed his head. “You again. What do you want?” he asked, rub­bing his eyes with both hands.

            “I’m hun­gry,” I said, “Want to eat?”

            Unex­pect­ed­ly, he sighed, in the way old Chi­nese men do and said, “Come sit.” He shift­ed his belong­ings aside and made space on the cardboard.

            I hesitated—reasons not to flood­ed my mind—but in the moment, it was the only thing that felt right. The card­board was cold and wet. I took out a box of food and set it in front of him, “What you asked for.” He popped off the lid. The aro­ma of the rice filled the space between us. He smiled, show­ing his stained teeth before tak­ing a spoon to dig in. He scooped each por­tion of rice with a gen­tle swoop; rais­ing the spoon up to his mouth, he closed his mouth around the spoon, mak­ing sure to catch every grain, then chewed.

            I opened my box and began to eat, spoon after spoon of fried rice. The aro­ma of the scal­lions and heat from the oil filled my nos­trils, the bits of bar­be­qued pork and chopped up bits of prawn tick­led my tongue. I chewed metic­u­lous­ly after each bite, slow­ly fill­ing the deep recess­es of my stom­ach. The rain con­tin­ued to drown out all that was around us. After what felt like a long time, I was stuffed. I thought I had eat­en a lot, but there was still food left in the box.

            “You want that?” he asked. I shook my head. He took my box, closed its lid, and put it by his bags.

            By this point, I was tired. I need­ed to work on my ser­mon so I decid­ed to leave. But as I attempt­ed to push myself off the ground, I felt a deep sense of exhaus­tion as you would after run­ning a marathon. Even the act of try­ing to get off the ground felt like an impos­si­ble task. I leaned back against the rail­ing and tilt­ed my head towards the sky. The rain splat­tered on my face, sting­ing my eyes. I opened my mouth, hop­ing to catch a few drops of rain to alle­vi­ate my thirst.

            I heard the man crack open a bot­tle of water. “Drink,” he said, hold­ing out the bot­tle to me.

            I took the bot­tle. The first sip was bit­ter, remind­ing me of the first time I tast­ed wine at the Eucharist. I spit it out onto the floor. I scraped my tongue against my molars, hop­ing to get rid of the taste. The bit­ter­ness sunk in, burn­ing my tongue and the walls of my mouth. “It’s bit­ter,” I point­ed to the bottle.

            “Just drink it.”

            “You’re mad,” I set the bot­tle down on the floor. The bit­ter­ness trig­gered the mus­cles in my throat, which con­tract­ed, and I start­ed to cough violently.

            The man picked up the bot­tle. It had now accu­mu­lat­ed a lay­er of con­den­sa­tion, mak­ing the bot­tle glow as it refract­ed light from the ceil­ing pass­ing through it. He gazed into my eyes intent­ly, and hold­ing out the bot­tle, he repeat­ed, “Drink it.” In that moment, as I was chok­ing on my sali­va and regur­gi­tat­ed food, cough­ing vio­lent­ly to the point where it felt like my lungs would come right out of my mouth, I had a moment of insight: if I didn’t drink this, I was going to die here on this bridge. I took the bot­tle from the man and began to drink, swal­low­ing large gulps. The liq­uid tore at every tis­sue in my mouth and esoph­a­gus, claw­ing like scorpions.

            The taste of the water grad­u­al­ly trans­formed. Each sip seemed less bit­ter, but also eased the sting. I con­tin­ued to drink. Three-quar­ters way through the bot­tle, the water had not only regained its neu­tral fla­vor, but acquired a sur­pris­ing sweet­ness to it. I felt my body regain strength, absorb­ing the water one mol­e­cule at a time. I set the emp­ty bot­tle down, the sweet taste lin­ger­ing in my mouth.

            As I sat there next to the man, silent, watch­ing the last drops of rain waver before find­ing their way off the edges of the rail­ings, I thought about the gift—what hap­pened to the pieces of the shat­tered mug? Did they remain there, ignored by pedes­tri­ans? Where they cleaned up and dis­card­ed? Were they washed away, bit by bit, by the thun­der­ing rain? At that point, over­come with a sense of release, I couldn’t help but close my eyes, stretch my arms wide as if I were reach­ing for the ends of the uni­verse, and yell at the top my lungs.

            The rum­ble of the sky eased into a gen­tle growl. The veils of rain lift­ed, reveal­ing rays of light from the build­ings, shop signs, and street­lights. A dou­ble-deck­er bus hummed past, its sus­pen­sion squeak­ing. The clat­ter of pedes­tri­ans, chil­dren, and shop­keep­ers res­onat­ed, accent­ed by clang­ing dish­es and cups, gen­tle gusts of kitchen exhaust, and the faint clicks of cross­walk signals.

            I stood up and looked down at the man. His eyes were closed and his body inclined against the rails. The rise and fall of his chest pro­duced a gen­tle snort. Every so often, he’d wake him­self up with his own snor­ing, but then he’d catch his breath and fall back into a lull. I noticed the wrin­kles that lined his face, the streaks of white in his greasy disheveled hair, the cracked skin on his hands. He seemed old­er, frail­er, more worn out than when I first met him. As I walked down from the bridge into the night, I looked up at the sky. It had cleared up, reveal­ing a vast black can­vas glis­ten­ing with specks of shim­mer­ing dust. A thin film of water glazed the street, reflect­ing the bright sky above.

            I nev­er saw the man after that. The next time I crossed the bridge, it was clean as a whis­tle, no trace that any­one was ever there. Some­times I’m not even sure what happened—it felt like it was all just a dream. Even to this day, I’m not sure where he came from or who exact­ly he was. Nei­ther do I know whether there was any­thing I could’ve done to help him except bring him a box of fried rice. But I do know, now, that he had done for me some­thing that I could’ve nev­er done for myself.

From the writer


:: Account ::

I wrote this sto­ry short­ly after work­ing for a faith-based home­less ser­vice in Hong Kong. Dur­ing that time, I was exposed to the long-last­ing socio-eco­nom­ic rem­nants of British colo­nial­ism, the per­pet­u­a­tion of sys­temic injus­tice often through reli­gion, and the imbal­ance of pow­er between the rich and the poor in the city. At the same time, I saw great wealth in a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who did not have much, and beau­ty as they reclaimed the faith of the gwei­lo as their own. The expe­ri­ence forced me to con­sid­er my own faith and iden­ti­ty, so shaped by my life in the West, yet felt in many ways bank­rupt com­pared to those whom many of us would want noth­ing to do with—poor, old, for­eign, out­siders, neu­ro­di­ver­gent. Even though it’s all too easy for many to ide­al­ize pover­ty from a com­fort­able dis­tance, I think some­times, it’s that ini­tial gaze that makes us won­der whether what we need is often found in the places we least expect.


Wayne Mok is orig­i­nal­ly from Hong Kong and now lives in Syd­ney, Australia.