A silver and grey serpent with flaking scales, overgrown toenails and halitosis crawled onto the red-tiled roof of a house overlooking the sea. The four shishi guarding the corners of the roof shook their ceramic manes nervously. His deathly wheeze unsettled them.
Nian was weary and ancient. He wasn’t really that old. Not by the understanding of mankind. He had developed sentience only a year ago. But, what a year! He had lived thousands, no, millions of lives. In that single year, he had watched people get sick, cry out in pain, give up their will, and die. He had seen young mothers give birth with grandiose plans for their feeble infants. And other infants growing up into mediocre youths, thus dashing their parents’ hopes of nurturing the next prodigy. He learnt a truth about human life—all is the same, and will remain the same, day after day after day.
“Happy New Year!” Nian heard somebody hailing him. He turned and saw a middle-aged man. He was nondescript in every way except for the fact that he was balancing calmly on a sloping roof that had no human means of access.
“You can see me? Well, you must be from that crowd,” Nian said. Nian was referring to the set of supernatural creatures who could perceive spiritual beings like him. “For your information, the new year’s not going to be happy. It’ll be a year, just like any other year. But, for the sake of convention, happy new year to you too. What’s your name?”
“A.O.D. And you are Nian.”
“Ayodee? That’s a strange name, even for a supernatural creature.”
A.O.D. paused, and then shrugged.
“I know why you’re here,” Nian continued. “You’ve come to tell me to make way for Xin Nian. Don’t worry, I won’t fight him for the position.” Nian gave a scoffing laugh.
“You’re cynical,” Ayodee said, giving Nian a measuring look.
“There’s a difference between cynicism and nihilism. I am not cynical, I just have philosophy.”
“Tell me about your philosophy,” Ayodee said. He sat down and made himself comfortable beside Nian.
“Humans don’t talk much about nihilism anymore. It’s gone out of fad and has been replaced by the term ‘existentialism’,” Nian explained, “But it means the same thing—these humans do the same thing, think the same way—all the time! They say they have ‘aspirations’, but then they spend their limited life sitting in a café or playing hours of phone games.
“You’d think they would regret all the time they’ve wasted. But, no. Even before they reach their 50s, they’re lamenting about work and dreaming about retirement. Then, all too soon, they lament about life and dream about death.”
Nian leaned towards Ayodee. “It’s because they know! Some part of them knows that life is futile. So they try to rush towards death. That’s nihilism.”
Ayodee nodded. Nian sighed and scratched a nearby shishi idly under its chin. The shishi shook him off irritably and turned its back on him.
“That’s right. Look to the east. Your Xin Nian is coming and you’ll be rid of me,” Nian told the lion.
“No, he won’t,” Ayodee announced flatly.
Nian turned and looked at Ayodee uncomprehendingly.
“Xin Nian won’t be coming,” Ayodee explained.
Nian grinned. “Of course, he will come. In the course of history, when has the new year ever failed to appear after the old year has passed?”
“There’s always a first time for everything. You said there is nothing new under the sun. Well, tonight, you will witness something new—Xin Nian will not appear over the eastern horizon. Not today, not tomorrow. Not ever.
“You know the petition going around the social media?” Ayodee asked.
“The one that says ‘No 2018’? It’s just another hashtag.”
“And TV stations are not organising new year programmes.”
Ayodee said, “Nian, you’ve done well as a nihilist. In this one year, you’ve evangelised the world. Like you, the humans think that the future is futile, so they’re banning the new year.”
“You mean I would have to stay around for another year, maybe forever?” Nian shuddered. “They will get bored with me! They will want a change.”
“Not really. With the internet, the world has gotten smaller. Even the very young have explored all that they might be curious about. There’s nothing new to experience. If the petition succeeds, the term “2018” will be banned all over the world. As long as there is nobody to welcome the new year, Xin Nian will not be born. Since there can’t be a void, you will just have to continue as Nian.”
He got up and dusted his pants. “That’s all I’ve come to tell you.”
“No! I wouldn’t let it happen,” Nian roared. He shook his scales and reared up to his full height. “So, you’re saying that as long as I can find someone who looks forward to 2018, Xin Nian can be born?”
Nian sprang off the rooftop with an energy that he had not felt for some time. “Finding a believer will be no challenge! I know just the person,” he muttered to himself.
He made his way to a maternity hospital and found a heavily pregnant woman. “I’m sure she can’t wait to bring her baby into the world!” Nian rubbed his hands in glee. But the woman was bawling loudly into a soaked tissue.
“The bastard left me! He got me pregnant and now he wants to go overseas and leave me to look after this baby myself.”
“Still, it’d be a good year, right?” Nian pleaded.
The woman could not see or hear him, but she moaned, “I wish the baby will never be born.”
Sighing, Nian turned away.
“Children!” Nian brightened. “Children are so full of hope and curiosity. They will surely love the new year. I know where I can find plenty of children!”
Nian slithered to a nearby primary school. It was empty. “Oh right, it’s still the school break.” He found a mother touring the school with her son.
“I don’t want to go to school,” the kid whined.
“Nonsense. Every child goes to school. You’ll like it,” his mother said dismissively.
“I wish school will never start,” the child said.
“Do you think I want 2018 to come?” his mother retorted, “Oh, where I am going to find the money to pay for your tuition?” She dragged him off.
“Argh!” Nian writhed in frustration. He only had half a day left to convert the world to welcome 2018. “The TV station! I need to warn the newscasters. If nobody welcomes the new year, they’ll be stuck in the past! I’ll be stuck!”
Nian hurried to the TV station. He found the news editors and whispered urgently in their ears. “Put up a news item about new things to do in 2018, new restaurants opening, new movies, Prince Harry’s wedding.”
The chief editor passed around a communique. “Our instructions from the top,” he said drily. The junior editors read the letter. Nian peered over their shoulders. “Keep the focus on the international arena. For domestic matters, report everything as status quo.”
“Right, you heard the Man,” the chief editor barked. “Blame the economy on the Jerusalem situation and Trump. Churn out more dialogue on the Rohingyas—that one’s not gonna change. And no springcleaning at home! No new year for you guys!”
“Wait!” Nian bellowed. “The way to swing everything up is not to keep harping on the dismal. We need to celebrate the good stuff—like the new year!”
But nobody heard him, naturally.
Nian clapped his hands. “Let’s have a party! Loud music, dance tracks… and fireworks.”
The thought of fireworks set off a lightbulb in Nian’s mind. He gave up on the news team, hopped onto a train bound for Jurong and got off outside a fireworks factory.
“Businessmen love the new year,” Nian thought confidently, “This fireworks owner will make big bucks from putting on a light show. I’m sure he’s looking forward to the profit he’s gonna reap from tonight’s countdown party!”
He found the factory owner tearing at his hair. “First, they freeze the headcount on foreign labour. Then, the picky local staff quits on me. And now I’m slapped with a fine for failing safety regulations? I’m pulling out of the countdown. Might as well put my name down for the petition to stop 2018.”
Nian did not even pause to yell at the man. He turned tail and fled.
“Churches!” he panted. “Churches celebrate the countdown. I need to see a pastor now!” He slithered into a church and found a pastor rehearsing his sermon. “The end times are upon us. Stop with your short-term and long-term plans! You fool! Have you not read Luke 12:20? This very night, your life may be demanded from you.”
Nian tapped his claws impatiently on the marble floor, waiting for the end of the sermon. Good tidings and the new year were not mentioned at all.
With a heavy heart, he crawled to a nearby park to think. A drop of rain fell from the sky.
“Great! Rain on top of all my problems.”
An echo seemed to float over the wind. “You’re so cynical…”
“I’m not cynical. I have a philosophy,” Nian replied automatically. “Cynicism is just a response, but a philosophy is something you have thought out carefully, believe in passionately and teach others.”
Another light went on in his head. “What did Ayodee say? He called me a good evangelist. Because I believed wholeheartedly in nihilism, the whole world was influenced. So, if I want people to like the new year, I would have to genuinely and eagerly desire it. Me! I have to be my first convert.”
There was only an hour left before the stroke of midnight. The rain was coming down in earnest now. But it did not impinge on Nian at all. All his effort was focused on the question, “Can I, do I, really believe that the future is worth living for?”
His musings brought him back to the red-roofed house. He had come here hours ago because he had to bid farewell to somebody. He wanted to spend his last hours with her, even though she could neither see nor hear him. Of all the humans in the world, Tan Su-Lin was the one who captivated his heart.
He crawled into Su-Lin’s room through the window. She was raised up in her bed. She hadn’t left that bed in a year. Su-Lin was in her late 60s, with wispy grey hair and thin pale limbs crisscrossed with spidery veins. She had fought a bout of cancer before Nian knew her. The cancer had relapsed and Su-Lin was given only weeks to live. But she had fought on. Nian had watched as she retched till her stomach was empty. He had been there when her hair fell out and grew back. He had accompanied her through the long nights when she had moaned and tossed in pain but refused to call out to her caregiver.
Su-Lin was scribbling feebly in her journal. She had to rest after every few words. Nian peered down at her entry:
1. Bake Brandon’s favourite banana bread.
2. Call Town Council to preserve the community garden on our street. How dare they think of razing it?!
3. Wrap Chinese New Year ang pows for my four grandchildren. Wait… do I have five?
4. Check whether my youngest grandchild is born.
5. Stay awake to greet the new y
The pen fell from Su-Lin’s hand. The effort of journalling had tired her and she had dozed off.
Nian pondered the last entry: “Stay awake to greet the new… what?”
Did Su-Lin intended to write “year”? Did Su-Lin love life so much that she would cling to it despite her pain and suffering? Nian wished that Su-Lin would wake up and answer his burning question. “Is 2018 worth living for?”
Suddenly, the alarm clock beside Su-Lin’s bed started shrilling. Su-Lin woke with a start.
“Ooh, it’s almost midnight. I mustn’t miss the countdown.”
Her daughter came into the room, “Ma, I thought you were asleep! Why did you set your alarm?”
“How can I sleep through such an important time—I need to greet the new year! Just like how I ushered in 2017, I must be here for 2018!”
Nian trembled like a leaf. Now he realised why he loved Su-Lin so much. How could he have forgotten?
The baby Nian had awoken to consciousness with a scream after the last stroke of midnight. He had thrashed around in panic, disoriented and frightened by his new surroundings. He had only calmed down when he realised he was not alone. A woman sat beside him, her friendly face haloed by warm lamplight. Her voice was soothing and welcoming: “2017 is here! Old things have passed. Everything is new!”
“Ma, the new year is no big deal. Go to sleep.” Su-Lin’s daughter yawned and headed back to her own bed.
Alone with Nian, Su-Lin whispered, “Thank you, 2017.”
Nian stiffened. Could Su-Lin see him?
But, no, she was smiling into space as she spoke, “Thank you for a good year. We have a new president and so does America. And I have a brand new grandchild! I’m sure you must be as excited as I am to greet 2018. I believe 2018 will do just as well as you have.”
As Su-Lin spoke, her eyelids flickered. She was drifting off again.
Nian did not try to wake her. He sat quietly at her bedside. There was no need for Su-Lin to greet 2018, because Nian would do it. He wanted to embrace Xin Nian with all the enthusiasm and bright hope that Su-Lin had welcomed him.
The second hand of the clock crept silently past the threshold of midnight. There was a subtle transformation in the atmosphere of the room, followed by a startled silence. Then, the room erupted with the thin wail of a baby. Nian marvelled at the tiny creature. It was as Su-Lin said. Xin Nian was incandescent in all his newness and innocence.
Nian picked up the baby tenderly and soothed it. “We’re here for you. Everything is all right.”
Nian heard a soft cough and looked up. Ayodee was standing there. Nian displayed the baby triumphantly. “Ayodee! See, Xin Nian is here!”
“Actually, the name is A-O-D. It’s an acronym,” Ayodee said.
Nian’s brow wrinkled in puzzlement and then he reared back in shock. He placed Xin Nian gently on Su-Lin’s bed before moving to put himself between Ayodee and the sleeping woman. He unsheathed his claws and gave a warning hiss.
“Angel of Death! You’re not having Su-Lin. Over my dead body.”
Ayodee said, “You don’t have a body.”
“You know what I mean!” Nian snarled.
Ayodee said apologetically, “It’s not Su-Lin I have come for. Up there, on the roof, a few hours ago, I called out to you.”
Light dawned on Nian’s face. His claws retracted. “Oh, right.”
He held up a finger to ask for a minute. He turned around to pick up Xin Nian again. The baby looked at him with young-old eyes.
“Xin Nian, you are inheriting a great legacy. The Rohingya crisis will be resolved on your watch, and North Korea will hold off its nukes for another year. Su-Lin will live to see her youngest grandchild. I know for a fact that the infant is not born yet, because the parents are going through a relationship hiccup, but they’ll work it out.
“Your year will be good, and don’t you forget it!