The Bengal Kittens
by Shahinur Islam
“Only two more weeks left for fall,” Rini says to me, looking out through the window, her words striking a soft musical note of the upcoming fall colours on the chord of my heart.
Over late-afternoon-coffee at our dining table, we’ve been shooting the breeze. As soon as I hear her forecasting about fall, I peep out. See a pool of reclining sunshine trying to daub warmth on the ash-colour roof of the front house. See its warmth melting right away into the dark surface. Also see it giving sporadic sparkles of smiles on the right-side-maple leaves. But this fall prediction puts me down in the mouth, as summer—the absolute guarantor of outdoor joy and enjoyment—seems to be playing the departing note two weeks ahead.
Meanwhile, we overhear someone knocking at the door…knock-knock…
“Our beloved son, for sure! Doesn’t eat, doesn’t drink, only hangs out all day,” I speak up to Rini, while getting out and opening the door. My eyes pop out when I see Antu holding two kittens.
They’ve adopted the golden appearance of the royal Bengal tiger, but sported large black spots instead of stripes. With their adorable and affectionate looks, they meow at me and fidget to hop on to my lap. Are they treating me as their grandpa at first glance?
Maybe. They also evoke a furtive fragrance right away at leopard’s pace from a wasteland corner of my mind, which makes me almost unbridled. Setting it aside for now, I scan Antu’s apparently pale face, and bawl out,
“Why didn’t you come for lunch? Where did you bring them from?”
“I ate with my friends. Bought the kitties to keep. Aren’t they so cute?” says he.
I feel like coughing. Spinning around, I cough twice, and walk back to the chair I was sitting on. There I think of the fragrance awaking dad’s memories. I remember his three pet dogs that once saved his life. Remember their unswerving loyalty to him. Remember the haunting story of dad and his dogs that mom often told me.
Until I was ten years old, every night I used to nestle against mom on bed. She told me dad’s story so many nights, yes, so many nights that I still feel as if I saw it happen with my own eyes. So lively and fresh! It had two main reasons—first, except for being witness, I was quite familiar with the setting, the context, the materials, the characters of the story as I’m with my own breath for my existence. Second, the way mom narrated with her distinctive style and sense of intonation.
The story ran like this:
Dad used to hunt migratory birds, so he and my two elder brothers went shooting in a small boat at the wee hours of a winter morning to the Bramhaputra River sands. Unlike now, that time the river was teeming with water; the vessels like cargos, ships, ferries, navigated effortlessly. Their boat being small and light, they were faced with a storm that flipped it midway. They struggled to float against the ruffled waves and strong current, but soon started suffering the despairing weariness. Deep darkness descended all around. All their efforts, struggles ended almost in vain. Now there was nothing to do but pray to the Saviour. Luckily, they spotted a ship flashing like a firefly. The flash gave a ray of hope to the desperately despaired souls. The sailor anchored off near them. All the while, dad and brothers were paddling with their both hands except for the eldest one who was holding the gun high with his left hand. But whenever the sailor sighted the arms, he stopped and suspected they were confirmed pirates, so rescuing them meant his own ruin. Meant digging a canal and inviting crocodiles. Meant saving his probable killers. He was poised to steer away. His decision shattered their last hope to the ground. As if a boat sank near the bank! As if the suffocated dipping in air couldn’t breathe in oxygen! They beseeched; they implored; they begged. But all their supplications just failed to convince the sailor anyway, so when he was about to steer, he happened to glimpse the bank where three dogs were barking, but not retreating anyway, their eyes fixed on these drowning men. Although he couldn’t hear their barks strangled in the noise of the ship and the storm, he could fathom their suggestive gestures. And he’d learned before that animals like dogs don’t lie. Only then the sailor changed his mind and rescued dad and brothers, at last!
It’s not uncommon in a river or sea, yet as many times as I used to hear it in mom’s characteristically attractive style of story-telling, I felt creepy, hiding my face in her breast as the victims were my own people, my then outer world.
But I was more flabbergasted at the common sense of the dogs than anxious and scared of probable loss. I wondered how they got the news beforehand. Wondered how their barking cries shot through the huge, ruffled waves, and how their doggedness made the sailor listen to them, at last.
Who else is such faithful? Who’s so loyal? Who can sense the danger of their master beforehand and keep trying to save until and unless he’s safe? They’re pets, dogs in particular. Although a kind of man might forge the same inseparable bond, it never seems unconditional. And very rare on the conditions as well. That’s why, only, only the pet dogs have since occupied the place of kin of soul in my heart.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep any pets so far because of my unsettled life-style and fretful living. And now such an illness has attacked me that I can’t even think of keeping any furry animals around whereas, unbeknown to me, my other being, Antu, has brought two kittens, though not dogs. This thing is delighting me, my heart dancing. Making my chest and rib bones shudder with joy. The children who make up for their parent’s inabilities, fulfil parent’s unfulfilled dreams, are undoubtedly a great source of delight. In fact, there’s no other such great attainment as this.
But my joy is ebbing soon like the feeble youth of summer that is withering away on the rooftop under the smiling cover of maple leaves. A new anxiety engulfs me. Engulfs Rini more than me as she knows it well, so she already left me. Left for our son’s inner room to bring home to him how his hobby would cost him his dad’s life. Would it be good eventually?
Antu’s jaw sags. How come? He wonders if she’s concocted a story. Everybody here keeps pets. What though he keeps? He decides unwaveringly to keep the kitties. Bears them under his armpits and a packet of soft food in his right fist and returns to me.
As she doesn’t pamper the thing, he sits by me. His kittens straighten their legs and purr and meow at me. Seconds later, I feel like coughing once again. Turning my face, I cough and ask him to leave them in his room. He rejoins, “Look, dad, how cute the kitties are! I’ll keep with me as long as I’m home. Man’s not safe where animals aren’t”
Antu may have thought I don’t like them, nor do I let them keep. But almost anybody, at first glance, can feel affectionate towards them. Anybody can even pant for keeping them. And honestly speaking, I just have a soft spot for pets.
Rini comes again and keeps swaying him, “Doctor’s forbidden to keep anything furry or hairy at home. It’ll make your dad’s case only worse. See last month we even took the floor carpets off!”
He sinks in the heart, takes the kittens to his room without a murmur, and confines himself all night. Both of us request him persistently to open the door, but he doesn’t even for dinner.
I awake early morning and knock at his door and try to comfort him, “Well, the kittens will be with us,” although I still don’t know how to keep them as keeping them means adding fuel to my illness.
Hearing me, he opens the door and wraps me straight in the arms for a while. After that, our eyes meet, and I discover his eyes tear-soaked and reddish. He lowers his gaze and says, “Dad, no more kitties with us. Please take them to the Humane Society right away.”
I know my son: first he’ll go his way, but eventually he’ll come our way. I’m sure he’s pondered over what Rini said to him yesterday, and taken a whole night to wipe his affection for the kittens. I still tell him to keep, but he still goes on refusing.
However much he refuses, he’s unable to wipe out his affection for the kittens, unable to rid himself of the feeling of belonging, as his looks and airs mirror something else. He refuses only for my sake. Now he insists me I take them to the Society. Isn’t it a simple equation that if he can bring them, he can also take them back? But I know he can’t, he can’t face it, so he’s also said that after he’s left home, I’ll leave them to Society.
I just left them without letting him know. While I was handing them over to the Society, the kittens seemed not to leave me. They were hopping on to my lap and shoulder, snuggling down and rubbing their faces against my body and mewing high-pitched. As if they were insisting, “We got our shelter, our home. We don’t wanna lose it.” And whenever I put them down on the ground, they were rolling over and stretching their legs.
After I left them with Society, I happened to conjure up Antu’s teary eyes, sadness-smitten face. I couldn’t even pay the price of his hobby owing to my illness. This inability was blurring my eyes and making my way home feel steep and impassible like a hill. I couldn’t go straight home, so I drove to this park.
The park abounds with trees—maples, cedars, oaks, pines, and so on. I see the late-morning-green trees swaying in the wind and basking in the sun. Also notice a protruding maple tree turn yellowish so early. The tree shares something with me—it’s changed its colour fast, or has to change for its survival and can’t hold green any more as I myself have given up food for soul for my healthiness.
I only murmur to myself, “Rini! My fall has come two weeks earlier. Its colours have varieties, glitters, and surprises, too, but no vividness of soul.”