II: Them Days (B)
Continued, 3820 words.
It is a different day, a new day. And on this day, I didn’t think much about the previous day. I hardly ever did that—recounted events. I always felt that they held me back in a particular way. And at 12, I didn’t want to be held back. I felt so free, and that’s how I wanted to remain. It’s how I saw life. And despite my talks with Grandpa and most things that happened around me, I went on. Living life, like every day, was just some other new day that offered possibilities. I grabbed them without wasting chances. I was never one to, anyway. I took whatever came my way that felt deserved my attention, touch, or even connection. And freedom was among the cozy things that I felt all around me. And I loved how it felt, to be able to do the things I did, the way I did. I was but 12.
The world felt like a beautiful place. A place I desired to travel, see, but with no hurry. We lived in a vast universe, with differences which tore to the very cradles of our existence, and every version of today, to me, offered comfort. Peace. And at a point, it even started to feel like a discovery, regardless of where I was. I lived. In the same world as everyone else, I lived and saw beauty where the very scarcity of it would char eyes.
Where there were possibilities, all dreams were a reality. All that was needed was time. But oh, time was one luxury I couldn’t afford. I didn’t. It had enormous, huge wings. And a swift camouflage. Neither bird nor chameleon matched it, and yet, it flapped on and changed on, smoothly, but insanely fast, almost as if it was made for it—time.
Lights fade in.
Natural noises filled the air, and I stood over a slope, bare-chest, holding in my right hand, a plastic can that I had with craft, converted into a seat of sorts. It was completely opened up on one side, leaving a hollow between where the can’s upper earlier stood, and the backside. My tiny fingers went around the handle, which was the only part that seemed whole, oh—and the bottom too. It had to remain that way, to form what would become a seat. It needed to remain with both the handle and the base, you see, and of course, its backside too; it is where my half-naked buttocks would sit on!
I had my left hand clenched into a fist. I was covered in dust on the front, on my head, and the back. A tattered short dressed my lower part. My feet stood bare, and I looked once at the left, raising my toes as I did, watching the sand squeeze through them, before turning to the right and doing the same.
I smiled when I heard her voice call out, then looked over to the hill which faced the one I was on. Susan wore nothing but the grace of God on her top and an almost similar rag over her bottom. She was little and young, perhaps three years less, and her female features were taking slightly later than the other girls of her age to show. Susan wouldn’t mind, therefore, playing with the boys. She still enjoyed their company, anyway, as they felt like all the family she had.
“Hey!” I called my lungs out and almost toppled off the hill. My left hand swung a few times, then finally supported my weight, saving me from tragic embarrassment.
“Let’s go!” Susan called back in her tiny, soft voice. She almost sounded like an echo from a past day.
I took my can and looked at the lads below, drenched in jealousy and awaiting all my literal pitfalls.
I remember the thrill of taking down those little slopes. I would first celebrate my courage and mastery of the skill the first few seconds down. Then not nearly halfway gone, I would wake to the realization of how high I was dropping, and how fast. The fear would seize me, and I would lose control and scream for help at the top of my lungs. And the little devils below would have their fun. Susan would later smile at me. Prod, then ask me to be braver next time. And knowing my fear of heights pretty well, one thing was already clear to me: I lost the girl long, long before I had her!
“Boys. And girl. Get dressed and run home.” Zak’s voice cut into our little paradise, and we all looked up the hill, I with a frowned little face.
“Go home.” A little guy who was half-submerged in the water, said back, before dipping his little head in and popping back out.
“Brother, you too… you all. You know what the Clausarks could be doing back home. Run.” Zak looked at me. “Your Grandpa.” Well, that hit the spot, and in no time, we were out and scrambling for our pants.
The story of beasts and sharks is how it started. Snatchers, they were called, who walked the earth by day. It was no fairy tale, but fair imagery for the little ones. A way the elderlies thought to instill reasonable fear. And as we grew older, we learned that the Clausarks were collectors. A brutal lot of them. The ones that they sent to our side of the settlements. I didn’t know what it is we paid for, and at such times, Grandpa would make so much sense. He always grumbled about this “subscription to life.” Well, I always wished that they would take what they came for and left. But they seemed to derive a certain satisfaction in reminding us of our place, the Claus.
And such events would suck away all the beauty in the land, and all I would see was an endless desert, with fences of fire all around. Such were the times when freedom felt quite stuffy, and I would do with an in-depth explanation of what it really meant.
I ran, my little feet thumping on the ground, my mind pumping hope, and my heart racing. They were known to harass when they asked, the Claus. They didn’t mind the old or the young. They just left destruction everywhere they walked, the messengers from hell, coming to collect their dues of every round.
These were times, my heart felt tons heavy, and I wished I could see reality any other way. I wished that this was not the reality that we had to be in. And yet, such were the things we helplessly watched, as we had very little control over. If it wasn’t shutting the part of the heart and mind that cared and felt, then it was consumption—a whole lot of it.
And Grandpa’s words washed through my mind as I ran. “Freedom. What is it?”
Soon, I was home. With much gladness, everything and everyone looked calm. I checked back in the kitchen, then stood on my toes to reach Mother’s cheeks, on her slightly bent back. I kissed them, then quickly turned to walk to the living room.
The television was on, and Dad was seated at his usual corner. The remote control was on his hand, and he had his eyes glued to the old box. I looked at it once, then quickly shied off, knowing well what was playing. I collapsed on a large sofa, thinking about how Dad watched the same show with the same interest, every other time!
“Your Pap’s asleep. Resting.” Dad said. Grandpa was always off to bed by 5 PM. Although at times he was slightly earlier, maybe 5 AM or 5.30, he would be up most times by around 6 AM. One or two times every while, a little past 6.30, but never 7. I always wondered at his age, what went through his unconscious mind for 12 straight hours, sometimes more. It was the worry that got me up every day at 7, even though Mother thought I needed more sleep. I couldn’t help but inwardly wish, and for this, strongly, that Pap would be up every following morning, strong enough to take a stroll with me. They were deep ones, such wishes. And his smiles made them worthwhile.
I looked at Dad, then back at the screen with growing interest, as I slowly nodded. I stopped right there, where I couldn’t see it directly but could hear it. I had but a distant vision of it, like a mirage, but dancing on the bottom left corner of my eye. I listened.
There was a shuffling of feet as two men were ushered into some kind of a room. They were shoved off, and one let out a gasp. Two left. There was silence for a while. A deep voice, distantly, started to speak. And it said:
‘Freedom. You take a man away from it for too long; he forgets what it looks like. At a point, he wouldn’t know what to do with it if it was served to him on a silver platter.’
My eyes went straight to the screen, and I saw the backs of two men, dimly lit. They stood over the blurred figure of another man who lay on his back. With the camera zoomed in to the scene, I couldn’t tell where exactly they were. But all else looked dark as death. [Silence.] One of the men turned to the other beside him, then back at the one below. The latter proceeded:
‘Today they’re our enemies, as they tear us, tear our families apart. They separate us from the ones we love, and sell us for some cheap coin, to tend to their farms, like oxen. They marry off our little girls. And women. Have others for themselves. We cry. We fight. We try, every time, and fail. These shackles are big, I tell you.’
The man stopped, turned in a rumble, then proceeded.
‘Every shackle comes off, eventually. But some like these, they leave marks. Set you loose decades later, having tamed you till the core of your very existence is rubbed off the face of the earth. And yet, like dogs, we would turn back almost begging: MASTER! Take us back... what fools!’
And I couldn’t help but drift off, there and then. What was happening? Was this the knowledge I was hungry for? Were my eyes finally opening? Or my mind speaking to me for the first time? Everything made sense in a way I couldn’t comprehend. Not at 12. And yet, it was all right there. I could now see it, clear as day.
And Grandpa’s words echoed in there. So loud, I could hear, almost feel him beside me. “These breadcrumbs, you call them, what, nowadays- life? Freedom? Ah-ha! Child. You know nothing of either. We really lost it, when our chains wore a new tag: MODERN-DAY, they called it. Those ones are invisible, I tell you. And deadly. They shackle us through the very air-ha! Before our very eyes... and-and-it’s sickening, little one, how we let them. Every, damn, time.” He hadn’t apologized for cursing. “Sometimes, we can’t even help it.” He had added with some resignation in his voice.
“You listened, didn’t you?” Dad said, calling me back from my little world. I just looked at him. Almost smiling, but trying not to share too much of what was in my mind. “I always tell you,” he went on, “It is good that you know your history. Your roots. Who you are. Wherever you walk, carry it with you.”
And in my mind, I knew that yet another speech was on, and sadly, this time, Dad was right. Only, I had just gotten eyes. I needed a mouth to whisper the right words. But all was quiet. And the one person I had started to feel got me was ailing, and he was listening to another voice, a voice that whispered things that I wasn’t sure I was ready for yet. Not the emptiness, no. Not the sadness, or the sorrow. I wanted to live. Nonetheless, Grandpa’s view of life, his lessons, and his knowledge were priceless!
That night, things first took an interesting turn at home. We had just had a delicious dinner, and Mother cleared the table rather hastily, that night. The chicken had left an impression in my quiet, softened heart, and I couldn’t help but get lost in stray thought.
“Does he have to watch it?” Mother started. “Every other time, I mean.”
Dad had his back rested on his seat at the table. A toothpick stuck out of his mouth. An old gadget sat there before him and against the table, enclosed by his right grasp. He looked up once, fixing his eyes hard on Mother. He then dropped them, perhaps dismissing whatever thought he had conjured.
“Is it even healthy?” Mother went on as she wiped the table. “For his ’developing mind.” She said the word “developing” with some tinge of tone in it. Dad looked at her again, and when she turned on her way back to rinse off the table rag, their eyes locked.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dad responded.
Mother stopped, her hands immediately going around her waist. “Sorry, what’s wrong—with me?”
“You heard me.”
“Ah-hush!” Dad raised an index finger. “He’s a young mind. He needs to feed. Learn. History is everything he has for-for... the ’developing stages. He’s growing. He needs to know-where-”
“Oh-stop it with the ideas already! You will not tell me what’s right for my 12-year-old son when what you’re ‘feeding’ him stinks worse than your bottle of whiskey.” Mother approached Dad’s seated position. “And ever ‘hush’ me again... you’ll collect those fingers from the trash.” She turned, infuriated, then started to walk away, muttering underneath her breath: silly old man.
I felt minimized before them, every time they fought in my presence. It was always like I was watching two (complete) strangers from outside some window. I wished the fight had ended there. I watched Dad rise and make his way to their room, and it wasn’t long before the inevitable happened.
“He’s young.” Mother started.
“Who? Big boy-JO, you mean?” Dad sounded sarcastic.
My back dropped against the wall outside their room as I slid down to the floor, my head buried in my hands.
“He shouldn’t be hanging too much around Tyson. You know the ideologies he has. About life, and, you know? Everything?”
“What do you mean? All I see is wisdom, and necessary information passing to our son. Do you think you’ll always be there to guard him against the evils of this world? The least you can do is show him rather than cover his eyes. Unless you’re ready to fight all his battles.”
“I’m his Mother! And I care about his spiritual growth as much as I care about his survival in this wretched earth. Growth,” She said, “It is necessary. If not done right, he could become a poisonous tree, like you’re watering him to be.”
“Why worry if he turns poisonous in a rotten world? At least he would have some defense to get him through the day. Now, I need him to see the whys. Please, don’t blur the lines. Get out of my way, Christine. I won’t ask again.”
“Don’t you see! Your chauvinism is a reflection of the very things you think you’re keeping him away from. We’re covered in them. Submerged, you could say. These habits that we see, we learned them well. Now, they’re deeply rooted in us. We are what we hated them to be. We hate to see, but now, we fight most what we were, to become who they are.” Mother said. “But I want my child to live in a world where he doesn’t have to know all that, but lead a sweet, quiet life. He cannot live this. This is no life. Not even with the right tools to survive. God! There is no ‘right.’”
And I guess being able to listen to both their perspectives sometimes offered me a chance to be fair in my judgment of either or both of them. I loved my folks, and they both fed me different lessons and intended for me, different paths. I loved them nonetheless. I, however, was yet to discover myself. Discover who I truly was, with no influence from either or both. Figure out what I truly believed in. And to some extent, it was easier to cling to Mother, as that’s what she often offered—a chance of self-discovery. One thing she didn’t realize, though, was that she dictated how that journey would be walked because I was a child anyway. So, really, I was out of one prison and right into another.
And probably it is true what has been said about pain. Sad, but that it is the most profound connection we have to our core existence. Suffering—it is in so that most things become apparent, and are true.
And you see, it is okay to be down, isn’t it? For then, you can only go up. Many, many things in life are connected, I believe. And this was one, then, I felt strongly about.
That night, in the dead of night, I heard a pounding of feet before someone shook me a few seconds later, strongly. I am a heavy sleeper, and I get terrors with abrupt action or interruptions when I’m in slumber. But this night, none of that seemed to click in my mind. It didn’t matter anyway. “Jo,” Dad said in a slightly husky, yet emotional voice. I looked, a little confused, but gathered sense quick.
He got up, then switched on the lights, from a wall, a meter or more off my bed, and near the door. My eyes fought through the torturous feeling before they finally adjusted to the brightness. I hadn’t seen Dad half-naked before, perhaps but for the one time I walked in on him putting on a shirt, and taking off his vest the other. That night, he seemed to have a vest on his top. Over the bottom, he wore nothing but his undergarments. His socks went slightly above the ankles, and his thin, long legs strode once, delivering him right to my bedside.
“Dad?” I called.
“Oh, child. Come here.” He gave me a tight hug, which I didn’t hesitate to take. See, they were rare. But his hugs had this strange scent I liked. It was almost like I was in the arms of a stranger who knew me, cared about me, and loved me—a stranger-dad, with my Dad’s beating heart. I wasn’t around him often throughout my childhood. I guess that would explain a lot. On that night, his hug was a little tighter, and his scent, a little louder. He oozed out something extra. And it stunk. Fear. Despair. He held me by the shoulders, then looked at me right in the eyes. He stroked my face once. “I’m sorry, son.”
I saw Mother stand at the door and knew it. My heart crashed. “It’s Pap. He—” Dad couldn’t say it out.
Mother hid her mouth in her hands as she walked over to me. Her eyes were covered in tears. She sat at the bed, about a few centimeters away from Dad, stroking my feet over the beddings. She looked at me in the face, and I lay there still, processing the shock. My eyes were wide open now, and my face, expressionless. “Son,” Dad called. I couldn’t explain how I felt then. It was like this sudden emptiness. Like a part of me had just fallen off, and left me. “Jo,” Mother called. I looked at her, then shut my eyes once, and I’m not sure if they reopened.
Oh wretched earth Took a heart made of stone,
Molten rock, you turned it hot
And watched my flesh, turn to stone
Distant classical music plays over a slow fade to faint, flickering light, before total darkness. The music plays on in a diminished pitch.
“Jo.” A male voice called. It was a familiar voice.
I could hear more sounds, indistinct chatter, and a few nearer voices. I couldn’t feel my mouth or the rest of my body. The sound of my breathing kept me wondering, and so did the heavy machinery I could hear all around me.
“We’re running out of time now. If he doesn’t wake soon, then we may have to proceed with Phase Three without him.” The voice went on.
“He’s awake. He’s healthy. You’ll see. Just give him time.” A female voice responded. It was pretty familiar too.
“Doc, are you—”
“Almost, sir. Just a few more minutes.” A stranger spoke.
“You don’t have to call him ‘sir,’ you know.” The female voice said.
“Shut up, Susan. If, after the assessment, he’ll not be mentally stable within the 35th hour, then Phase Three will go in motion. Remember, it begins at 36. We’re at 32 now.”
“I am fully aware of all that, Zak. And I’m telling you, Jo is back. You’ll see.”
“You better be right. The fate of this nation depends on it.”
“You mean, that of—”
“Wow! You men and your untamable egos. Well then, we’ll just wait for the doctor’s report.”
“Which is ready, and right here. If Mr. Jo, isn’t awake anytime within the hour, mentally capable, then we should maybe try closer observation.”
“‘Will he wake?’ Is the question.”
“Well, he should, sir. Yes. Within the hour. He’s perhaps just trapped in some state of confusion, which may not last long. It’s upon him now to just—wake up.”
“Well, look at that!”
Someone cleared his throat. “Thanks, doc.” Zak’s voice sounded again. The young doctor audibly walked out of the room after a minute or so. The door soon slammed, then clicked.
“Well, then,” Zak said. “I guess all we have to do is beat patience.”
I made more futile attempts to move any and every part of my body. I wasn’t sure if anyone was watching me on the outside, and whether I was making any progress. The door slammed again, and I almost cursed. Had I missed something? Did anyone say anything prior? Who had just left? Was it Susan, or Zak? How I desired to talk to the former! I heard someone walk towards me, and my blood froze. The world might turn if it’s Zak, I thought. I was not going to die a second time, or take any chances with it, anyway, be it anyone who’d rather have me so. My eyes opened.
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