Short Story: Other Lives By Sohana Manzoor
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by
— W. B Yeats
The morning was still chilly when the krishnachura tree saw the two sitting on a pile of rubbles by the large playground near the school building. They were about five or six years of age. The boy was in navy blue shorts and white shirt. The girl was dressed in blue. The two small figures obviously knew one another well. They were comfortable in each other’s company and sat there dangling their legs. The boy suddenly held out his palm and offered something to the girl. She looked at it with curiosity, but then shook her head. The boy scratched his head, baffled. He looked at the small item in his palm and took out a piece of cloth. He cleaned it carefully and then offered it to the girl again. “It’s clean now. Take it.”
A small frown appeared on the moppet’s forehead, but she stretched out her hand gingerly. The boy placed his gift carefully in her palm. She took it near her face, there was a small glint and suddenly she smiled. The glass pebble turned into a sapphire and the boy beamed too. Then they got up and went away to the playground romping together.
The girl was heard to ask, “Did you do your homework?”
The boy shook his head, “It was too difficult and both my parents were busy with Molly. She has been ill.”
“That’s not good. Let’s go back to the classroom. You can copy mine.”
The boy grinned. Relieved.
“Yeeeyeeyy—- yeyyy—- yeeyyyy…”
The shouts and laughter reverberated throughout the house. The three mothers covered their ears and exclaimed, “Goodness gracious!” “Can you hear them?” “They’ll bring down the house in no time.”
There were five children of different ages in the house. Now with two more added, it was like both hell and heaven had broken loose. They were running up and down the stairs throughout the day. Their study time was totally disrupted. And they were laughing and merry-making from early morning to the night.
He was hanging onto the railings of the staircase while his younger sister Molly was murmuring, “You’ll fall, you’ll fall, you’ll fall. . .”
A pair of eyes from the first-floor landing were looking at him with a mixture of admiration and apprehension. “I think you should let go.” The 10-year old girl in elephant printed tops and orange slacks finally whispered. “You might get hurt.”
The boy let go. The girl smiled. She had a lovely smile; and when her smile reached her eyes, her entire face was illuminated with a ray that transformed her, or so the boy thought.
In the afternoon, he was chasing their next-door neighbour Ahmed out of the garden with one shoe in hand. Ahmed was a truant sort; always causing problems in their games. The girl burst into a gale of laughter. And she kept on laughing through the evening whenever she caught his eyes. Somehow him chasing the other boy in one shoe on his foot and the other in his hand made him appear comical and adorable at the same time. He hung his head down, but also observed her from the corner of his eyes, a lopsided smile on his lips.
That night, she fell asleep while playing in the room that he and his brother shared. They were looking for her all over the house. Finally, her father discovered her under a pile of blankets. How she got under them was a mystery. The boy pulled a long face and said, “She could have slept here too. There was no need to carry her all the way to their room.”
A teen-age boy sat by the pond on a silent noon when everybody else took a siesta. He looked at the soft rippling dark waters of the pond. The steps that disappeared into the water always made him wonder where they went. And where did she go? He imagined that she walked into the waters and turned into a mermaid. Would he ever see her again?
His father was telling him the other day, “She is a brilliant student—stood second in her class last year. And what have YOU been doing?” He could almost hear what his father would say if he heard his thoughts. “What can you offer her, eh? And why would her parents agree? And don’t try to meet her- don’t embarrass me.”
A sound caused him to wake up from his reveries—what was that? The little mermaid with blue fins and a silver star on her forehead surfaced from the water. Only he could see her on these still noons when nothing stirred but his imagination. And she held out her palm. In exchange for his sapphire, she offered him a pearl made of her tear,
The girl sat in the veranda of their little home. She was slim and pretty even though her movements were awkward. From time to time she peered out to look on the front lane as if she was expecting someone to approach. The sun started to drop in the west, the violet hour was near. She looked at the sky and the setting sun. She wondered what the future had in store for her.
He did not come.
Why did he not come? He had left his notebook with her mother. At least, he should have come to get that, right? Or maybe, he would come the next day?
She waited. The day passed. Next day too. A week was gone. He did not leave any number and her mother said to her father, “The boy left his notebook. I wonder what happened….Do you see his dad often? Ask him.”
The father never brought back any news. Her mother did not ask again. And she dared not ask.
The days were dragon-drawn.
The little mermaid had to become a woman as all mermaids do.
Only, in her case she did not want to turn into one. So, she was dragged out, held down, gagged, cut up and shut up.
She lost her tail and she lost her voice. The searing pain of the experience made her lose her memory as well. All she had left were some blurred pictures. She buried him. She had to. She buried him so deep that even she did not know. She remembered there was a boy with whom she went to school. She vaguely remembered some of his antics and often smiled about them. But she forgot who he was, or what he meant to her. She also did not remember that everything changed because he did not come back.
Doors sometimes get locked and keys buried. Sometimes we forget that there was a room even, or a secret garden. Does the heart ever give up though? It keeps on looking for the pattern. It keeps on searching, even when the mind does not know it. Then something clicks and an entire wall falls off.
“Life piled on life, we’re all too little.”
A man and a woman approaching their fifties met when the sun was setting in the west. The evening was golden. The sky was blue. The sun that shone was orange. The hour was purple too. There were grains of sand in the rushing wind. They both could smell the sea.
“Do you know, I went to see you that day? The notebook was just a ploy.” A boy from a long-lost time spoke through his lips.
“Why did you not come again? I waited and waited for you…” Who was it that spoke? The mermaid who had lost her tail and whose voice was long gone?
They looked at each other with memories from another life.
A life of forbidden innocence.
The boy still sat by the pond.
The girl waited in the veranda looking at the western horizon.
And surely the children ran through a long forgotten two-storied house. And two smaller children played somewhere in the rubbles even further back.
Gazes met for the fraction of a second and hearts spilled. The wind played on allowing them a few moments of communion.
Then the other lives crashed in.
Life could have been quite ordinary if they had met on the appointed day. They did not, however, and hence the memories turned into precious stones that kept them traversing the rough paths of life. Meanwhile, 33 years have passed.
About the Author
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. She also translates and writes creatively.