January 22, 2018

The Return

short story

The Return

by Shahinur Islam

“Biru! When are we returning home?”

Dad shoots the question at me just like every other night as soon as he hears my door-slamming. His shooting style and tone turn out that, all day long, he’s been mountainously weighed down with the question. So weighed down, so heavily loaded that he’s not been able to prop it up anymore. As if he’d give under its weight if I arrived a bit later! He now seems slightly lighter though, immediately after he’s shot the question.

The night is very calm and quiet, so his question enters my mind smoothly, and in a moment rules out other thoughts already residing and reigning in my mind. Almost every night I have to come home late as I work in a very distant place for the evening shift to make ends meet. By the time, Ma serves dinner on the dining table and pops into bed to wipe out the tiredness of her day-long work. Other members fall asleep, too. Dad alone still stays wide awake. Perhaps he can’t get enough sleep nowadays owing to the old age illness. But his repeated asking of the question may be better attributed to his assumption that there’s nobody else to take him home but me.

Behind this belief, dad, of course, has enough logical reasons. Perhaps he likes me from deep in his heart. Perhaps he thinks me to be the best companion for his loneliness, and wants to be the best companion of my loneliness as well. Perhaps he doesn’t mean to disturb his other sons, who have their own families and kids, while I don’t have any.

My unsettled lifestyle turned out to be an advantage in quite a few times before, when he was hospitalized for a couple of weeks, and I was there to take care of him each time. Probably it’s made him believe that only I can afford the time and scope to take him home. What’s left to do is only to insist me.

Every midnight I try to satisfy him, saying this or that to his question. In so doing, I pitch a story to him every time.

In the summer time I say, “It’s unbearably hot there. You’ll fall sick in a moment. We’ll go in winter.”

In winter I say, “Dad, I’m under lots of work pressure now. We’ll go when the pressure goes down.”

And for tonight, I simply reply, “Dad, I just don’t have any leave. Whenever I get, I’ll take you. Don’t worry.”

In the leisure when I try to be engaged in writings on my home computer, Dad sits by me silently and sees my works. He sometimes takes tea, sometimes chomps one or two crispy cookies. In fact, he gropes for the taste, the smell, the touch of the lost past while sitting by me. And I serve as a ventilator of his past. Or he craves for swopping with me the touches of our souls.

Fifteen years back, he left the few friends he had in the country village, though he met with them twice by the time. But here he doesn’t get the scope to shoot the breeze with other same language speaking people beyond his family, partly because of his limited mobility, partly because of the few available people of the same origin. And every member of the family remains on the run with his or her everyday work, though they usually don’t stint themselves on taking his care. As a whole, he stays lonely most of the time, so he delights much more in being with me.

Dad exudes inward exuberance at my works, admiring and inspiring me. The close circuit camera of my feelings records he loves me much, likes my works as well. He swaps brief words with me. The few words he has with me are mostly a try of telling what he saw in last night’s dream, just like a persistent child who can’t get happy until and unless it tells its parents what it’s seen new.

But as he has a feeble memory now, he gets stuck midway, and gives an isolated, broken, unfitting depiction of his last night’s dream, again in which his powerful bittersweet memories of living for last sixty years in the country village often intrude as a perfect burglar. But most of the time, he’s usually a silent talker, and other times, a talkative loner.

Silence prevails in both cases. And the power of this silence is it itself speaks without saying anything, connects the said and unsaid speeches without uttering, lets the words settle down in the mind to give them a transparent meaning. And it seems to bring about relief, too. Only when beloved ones sit by, they don’t need chit-chat all the time. The connection with mind still goes on intimately without words.

The other late nights, Dad usually doesn’t appear at my room, rather ends up throwing to me the day-long strangled longing in a form of the midnight question. But before that, he adds longingly two small words “You arrived?” Why he’s sneaked into my room now is not rightly known to me. By the time, I’m in my room, finishing my dinner. It seems he can read every rattle I have, every noise I make—from handling the glasses and plates to walking and pulling the door. This way he rightly maps where I am home. As for now, he has traced my present position and followed me in my own room.

“Dad! You wanna say something?” I ask.

He doesn’t give me any straight answer. He repeats his desire and mostly rattles off the past activities as if my question was a perfect catalyst to instantly pour out his longings heaped as clouds in the sky of his mind. Or as if the heat of my question melted all the frozen ice of his Antarctica-like mind so swiftly that he went on to pour out his soul in an abrupt, persistent and heavy stream,

“I don’t feel good, dear. Just take me home once. I haven’t said prayers for dad and mom at their graves for long. The old sacred fig tree still calls me. I still hear its leaves ringing at full and hot noon. I don’t see the green paddy fields for long. Don’t walk along their narrow pathways. Don’t talk to the village people. Who knows how the pond is!”

I keep listening to him, leaning against the chair and closing my eyes. I picture his words in my imagination. After all, I’ve spent a long time, too, in that environment: playing football in the harvest-reaped fields whether it rained or shone; swimming and diving, catching fish with a hook or a net in the small river flowing by our village or in our nearby pond; hanging out, partying, kidding, and stealing as well with friends from one village to another; and what not. The list doesn’t end here, though.

Dad stops for a moment, huffs and puffs, and I open my eyes. He begins again,

“I wasn’t feeling good today either. So I tried to sleep in the early evening. I can’t figure it out why all of you’ve brought me down here from earth’s half distance.”

What on heck is there to console him? It’s true we can take him home at the cost of some efforts. But who will care for him there? Almost everybody of his family lives here. If we take him there, we’ve to bring him back after a couple of days or weeks. And once he comes back, he’ll pant for going back again. We’re but victims of modern time, modern system that costs all our personal time to meet the bare necessities of life in as many ways as possible. And it’s truer in the life of immigrant people, who live in a new environment and setting with most of the unknown people. Where’s the time to gratify the affectionate demands of the past? I, too, know the truth like other immigrant people.

Something still remains to be done. Something still remains to be said, at least. Every person has some personal choice of food for soul, on which they hope to live or dream to live. If we can’t help them live that way directly, it’s our sacred duty to let their hopes live, at least.

“Everything will be OK, Dad! Just a few more days,” I say to him, holding out a light of hope like other times.

“When? How many days to wait?” wheezes he, “You know I saw the dream in sleep again?”

“People see dreams in sleep, Dad. It’s nothing but a process of sleep.”

With that, I try to change its turn. Dad doesn’t bring himself to say anything after that. He just keeps silent beside me. His dream in sleep is like a desired dream of many people’s real life. I mean he dreams the same dream again and again.

I see him fidgeting. He seems to be willing to narrate it again, but I don’t give him any room to. Yet he doesn’t get up, as he’s aware that I don’t feel annoyed at it. That’s why, he bares his soul straight to me with pleasure.

I usually listen to him, but now I don’t feel like hearing the same thing, either. Besides, I feel very tired. Although tomorrow is a holiday, and I thought I’d continue writing till dawn, I feel tired. Very, very tired! An unknown, uncanny tiredness has simply seized me!

Perhaps Dad’s read the tiredness imprinted on my face, so he gets up to leave.

“Go to bed now. Don’t stay awake late,” he says to me before popping into bed in his room.

“You too, Dad. It’s about two o’clock,” I say, stretching and yawning.

“I just slept in the early evening. How much more can man sleep? You know my sleep’s been lighter nowadays? If I sleep, the dream wakes me up. If only I could have a deep sleep…!”

When I awake from drowsiness, I find Dad really falling fast asleep. Find him lying on his back and edging not an inch. Find his sunken eyes fully closed. Find his face wearing a transparent, innocent aura. Find his hand injected with a saline needle.

He desired to get the sleep in his room, but around four o’clock in the early morning, he fell sick suddenly. We called at 911; the paramedics showed up in five minutes and took him to hospital.

The developed countries provide a number of great benefits like this: one can get help hastily from the appropriate authorities. In fact, these types of benefits draw people to be permanently settled. But once settled permanently, they also get cut off the root, the origin, which brings about deep anguish, leaving their poor hearts scarred for life.

The thing can be compared to this—some wild animals get domesticated for their taste of man-given food and lose freedom and swiftness, get deprived of tastes of free and fresh air, water, smell, and this way, sacrifice food for mind.

Or it’s much like such concept as some Sufis rightly assert that we all were one with God before our birth. Whatever agony we suffer in this world is, in fact, the agony of being isolated from God. This agony appears in our life in different forms of sufferings.

Since four o’clock in the early morning, I’ve been sitting next to his bed at hospital. The nurse visits him every one hour. Other siblings, sisters-in-laws, and mom came over here and left away, too, as the place doesn’t allow everybody to stay all the time. And in my half-sleepy and half-awake state, I remember all the things one after another happened last night with him, though not continuously.  The periodic phone calls received from my anxious brothers and sisters-in-law and other close ones cause a break to my unavoidable remembrance of midnight happenings. That time I get out of the room and talk to them over phone for a moment.

After every round of a brief talk with them, I come back with the hope that, maybe, Dad is calling by my name this time. But when I pop in, I see him lying still as before. See him not moving an inch. See him not opening his eyes. By the time, I also call him by ‘Dad’ a number of times. But he doesn’t respond at all, nor does he seem to have heard me anymore.

“I’ll fulfil your dream, Dad!”

This promise resonated in my voice doesn’t work, either.

Perhaps he’s laughing in deep sleep at the false repetition of my long-time promise.

Perhaps he’s saying, “Are you kidding me once again?”

Or just saying to himself like a connoisseur, arching his eyebrows, “Now I know your tricks!”

It’s a quarter to seven in the morning.

I’m still eagerly waiting for the time when he wakes up, for the time when he opens his eyes and sees me again, for the time when he plops down by me as before, and for the time when he starts chatting to me again.

I want to let people know the good news. But he doesn’t wake up, nor does he move an inch. I can’t give the news, either.

He is really in deep sleep.

I get out and trudge down the premises for a few moments and see the sun already rising above the horizon at its eternal order. See the sunshine soft as Dad’s heart roaming about the walls, windows, premises and roads as well. See the wind taking its share and warming itself.

But I don’t feel like overstaying there. If Dad wakes up by the time and calls me by any chance!

When I come back to the room, I notice the nurse looking for me, and when I go in, I find the doctor checking his conditions.

“How’s he now?” I ask, with a renewed hope in my mind.

“Call his dear and near ones, please. Looks like it’s his time…,” the doctor says.

I wasn’t ready at all to hear it, nor was I expecting it. After a moment, what was supposed to happen happened.

In a fraction of a second, yes, in a fraction of a second, an infinite… emptiness inside, outside and around me starts resounding just like Dad’s-often-told old sacred fig leaves, and gradually turns into a gigantic ethereal stone, and smashes and squashes me against it, crushes me like a heavy metal press, and tears my heart into pieces.

The sudden, horrible, unfulfillable vacuum has encompassed me for a whole week. Covered me like a thorny blanket of heavy fog. Now I’m sitting right under the sacred fig tree, and Dad is lying at rest before me. Lying below the earth this time, his present home.

After the asar prayer the village people finished the funeral ceremony. None of them is left here now. All alone, I feel currents of his vivid memories flowing and crisscrossing across my mind. One current is overlapping with another. One current is engulfing another. Even the memories behind the memories are jostling and rushing as well.

The sacred fig tree that he used to be fixated on and tag to his dream is standing on the bank of the pond, which he also used to talk about. Under the tree, my grandparents have been lying even before I was born. Now Dad’s joined them, too.

I can hear the same sound live now, yes the same swishing sound ringing in the leaves as Dad used to say and I used to match his words with images, closing my eyes. The agony of losing him is engulfing me in more burning flames than the predicted sizzling heat of the upcoming noon as it did for last few days at various places—on the airplane, in the car, in our village, even under this sacred fig tree, too.

His dream has come true now as some people’s dream has always. He’s returned to his village, his cherished home, but his last dream might not have come true if I hadn’t behaved stubbornly, because that day people who popped over to see him from outside were more or less harping on the same string:

“No need to take him home,”

“It’s just waste of money,”

“If the body isn’t buried quickly, the soul will suffer pain,”

“Everybody lives here; you better bury him here,”

“It’s troublesome to take him home,”

“Once a person dies, he or she can be buried at the same place,”

“People don’t have any feelings after death,”

and so on.

I didn’t doubt about the value of their realistic suggestions, but anyhow I couldn’t tolerate at all. Their each and every suggestion was igniting the flames of my stubbornness. The more I was hearing them, the more the flames were burning me. I was, by no means, feeling like yielding to any of them. My conscience didn’t even prick to behave rudely with some of those people as I was completely wrapped up in fulfilling Dad’s unfulfilled desire. I was suffering from an invariable sense of guilt, too. As if his soul was reminding me every second that he wouldn’t find peace anywhere but home! I didn’t take anything else into account then, nor did I try to understand.

But I’d no idea about what might have happened if my own brothers and sisters-in-law hadn’t supported and helped me, as I didn’t have so much financial strength as I had mental and mouth strength.

Dad’s dream came true eventually after he had shifted away from the earth surface of light and air to the earth bed of eternal darkness. Now he’s lying in his dream place, too. But lying without the joys of any taste, any sound, any touch, any sight of the fulfilment of his dream. As many times as I think this, tears but well up in my eyes. Even the blowing wind here can’t wipe my overflowing tears.

I’ve been squatting right under the tree for about two hours. All the while, I’ve walked along the weary ways of his fresh memories, keeping eyes fixed on the grave. Now I turn my face and cast a momentary glance at the pond where I used to dive, swim, and bathe in my childhood. And Dad used to sneak in, rebuke, and escort me home the day when I took bath for a long time here lest I was affected with fever.

Hardly have I remembered this memory when I sense a gentle palm snuggling onto my right shoulder. But I don’t feel like swiveling back at all. I just find everything worthless, useless, and meaningless.

After a moment I also hear a voice at my back, “Buddy”.

Even if I recognize it this time, I don’t look back, as it seems to me the person I was gazing at all the while, is gazing at the other place, other world.

Everybody has left after the funerals; only my buddy has come back. There is simply nobody else left but him to return to me in the village. He, too, seems to fail to say anything else after mumbling ‘buddy’.

An infinite vacuum, a limitless emptiness is lying on my left, right, front and upside, and a deep groan residing inside my heart. Only behind me, I feel a bead of affection lying. Now I swing back and wrap him straight in my arms in a try to fill up the vacuum. As if I quested for the shadow of the sacred fig tree in the friendly feelings. It’s like seawater fumbling for clouds after it has lost its dwelling place in the sea.

Some of my overflowing tears silently roll down the back of my friend when I rest my chin on his right shoulder. And at that posture, my blurry eye falls on Dad’s grave, again. I see the clay clods, which were slightly black and wet on it just two hours ago, have turned somewhat dry and white in the sun and the wind by now. Only his fresh memories are gliding deep in my mind. And will glide this way from now on without his real touch and contact!

Copyright © 2017 by the author

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply