A Short Story by Archana Kokroo
We have been driving for a long time, starting at 6 AM. Now it is getting close to dusk. I could see the warm glow of the sun setting to my left. The road was windy and steep, sharp curves threw me from one side to the other churning my stomach at every curve. I looked up the road and saw the silhouette of sun going down behind the trees. The valley down below was slowly being covered by the mist of the night. The autumn hue threw a fiery color on the trees and the wind moved menacingly between the pines watching my every move. The air was thick like my heart filled so full with secrets I have been carrying.
The driver was quiet, spoke very little. After the brief introduction he kept to himself and that suited me just fine. Although I didn’t want to reveal much to him, I started speaking to him about why I was returning home.
“I am coming back after 20 years,” I said as if reminding myself. “My parents wanted me to get good education and sent me to the city and, now that I am starting a new job, I wanted to see my family.”
“Hmm,” he said reflecting a bit, “that must have been hard”
“Yes” I said and we both fell quiet. The fact was that my father had just passed away and I was here to pay my last respects. He had been ailing for a while, a heart-broken man who finally passed in his sleep.
We reached my home late. As we pulled in, I saw someone open the door and my brother stepped out. He ran towards me and hugged me tight then, putting his arm across my shoulders, led me inside the house. I could see a shadow on the doorway, with drooping shoulders and tilted head. It was my mother. She came forward slowly and held me in an embrace, whispering, with tears rolling down her eyes.
“Oh! I’ve been waiting for this day for ages! How you have grown.”
Then came my sister-in-law, nieces and nephews. It took a while before I could finally sit down. They all bombarded me with questions, too many of them, and I kept answering.
Dinner was laid and mom had made my special dish, lamb korma. As I ate, my mom watched me with endearment, tears rolling down those beautiful eyes. “You should rest,” she said. Later in my room, I threw myself on the bed too tired to even change and I sank in letting the fatigue take over me. I must have fallen asleep because I woke up in a sweat. My heart was pounding, my breath shallow, my skin soaking wet. It was the nightmare! I got up to open the window and get some air, staring right at my uncle’s compound. It was a full moon and the house looked frozen in time. It all came back like a flash as if it were waiting to be let out!
That’s where it had all started. It had come full circle.
I had sneaked out of my home as my mother was scolding my older brother Salman who was always getting in trouble.
It was dark and my father had not yet returned from his shop. My father and my uncle ran a grocery shop few miles away from our home. My uncle’s house was next to ours separated by a wooden fence. The fence was broken at a few places and that was the perfect spot to sneak out into my uncle’s compound. His wife was so pretty that I called her Pari (a fairy). My uncle, on the other hand, was far from handsome. He walked with a limp and always looked morose. Their little son Zubin was my best friend. He was eight years old and I was ten.
I tiptoed around the front yard so as not to make noise and let myself in. Expecting to see my aunt in the kitchen, I walked straight in but the kitchen was empty. I looked around the house was dark. No sign of Zubin. Wondering where he was, I started my way into the back of the house. I could hear some whispers coming from the back room and softly walked in that direction. I could hear my aunt whispering and giggling at the same time and saying “No, please, don’t. Don’t do that. Someone will come in.”
It seemed that she was trying to get away, but yet she was laughing. What came next froze me in my steps. I heard a man’s voice softly whispering, “He won’t be back for an hour.” The voice sounded very familiar. At this time I knew I was in the wrong place and had to leave. I walked out softly and started to make my way back but something held me. It was a voice. I could see the lights from my house shining, and after a while saw the man leave my aunt’s house and make his way into our house. I ducked into the hole in the fence and ran into our home.
My mom had set the dinner table but she looked up when she saw me and asked, “Where were you?” I said nothing and sat on my chair. My father came and sat down in front of me, greeted my mother briefly and started to eat. His eyes were all the time fixed on the plate never looking up as my mom served him. He looked slightly flushed and avoided all eye contact with us.
After a while, he said to my brother Salman, “Why don’t you run over to your uncle’s house and see if he’s back? He had to stay back to finish the accounts.” With that, he got up and went up to his room.
I looked up and saw my mom cleaning up after dinner mechanically, her face strained and eyes blank. I started cleaning with her and she looked at me lovingly. Putting her fingers through my hair, she stroked me. “Go to bed, honey, I’m fine.”
A few weeks after this episode, I was playing with Zubin when he showed me his new collection of toy trucks. He knew I was crazy about trucks and wanted to share.” Uncle Ahmed got these for me, he said I’m a good boy.”
I was angry because my father knew that I wanted the trucks so badly but never bought one for me. I smashed the truck on the floor and ran out of their house crying. At home my mom asked, “What’s the matter with you?”
“Father got Zubin a set of trucks. I have been asking for these for months now! Does he not like me?”
Mother held me close to her bosom and after a long time said, “I don’t know about your father, but I love you.”
School was about a mile away and I used to walk there with Zubin every morning and back in the evening. The road was narrow and passed around a dense forest which was mostly impassable because of the thick woods. We had been cautioned about not going inside the woods because people had seen bears and other animals lurking around. Behind that forest lived a group of gypsies and the villagers were suspicious of them. The road itself was well not traveled since we lived away from the city and our neighborhood had only a few houses.
One day, in anger, I went inside the forbidden forest and walked in a very dense patch of vegetation. The ground was covered with thick moss and dead leaves. The trees covered the sky and there was no light pouring in. It was a dark there even on a sunny day. I ran back and found the road with difficulty.
It was September and a day before my birthday when the situation started to really turn bad. One evening while playing, I saw my mother come out of my aunt’s house in a frenzy. As she came close I could see that she was crying. Her face was red and she went straight up to her room closing the door behind her.
Soon after, my father came home. It was too early for him, so I knew something was wrong. We could hear angry words and screams coming out of that room. Mom was crying loudly. My brother and I stood outside her room helplessly not knowing what to do. Salman held me close and shielded my ears from the epithet that was coming out of mother’s mouth. Eventually father came out and left without a look at us. He went straight to uncle’s house. My mother did not come out until the next morning.
We missed dinner that day. Our house had turned into a nightmare. My birthday went without any celebration. Father would not come home till the next week. Zubin seemed to be getting the best of the both worlds. His mom doted on him and so did my father. My uncle was completely ignored by all sides and seemed like a shadow in his own house.
And in this lurid game, one accident would change everyone’s life.
That day, after school, some kids made jokes on me. “Oh, your dad is living with your aunt. What do you call her, Mom?” And their laughter made me want to die. I turned red with shame, punched the boy in his face, and ran as fast as I could, trying to get away from the ugliness of the world.
“Wait for me, Sammi, wait,” I heard Zubin’s voice. I ran faster and could hear him coming after me. I hated him and did not want to see his face. Everything about him reminded of my mother’s unhappiness. I was running fast, panting tears rolling down from my eyes.
As I approached the woods, I took a breath and stopped, turning around to see Zubin close by. I yelled, “Get lost! Don’t come after me.”
“I want us to be friends again!” he pleaded.
“We can’t be friends anymore. Don’t you see what you have done? You have taken my father away from me. And people are laughing at me because of you.”
He came towards me and I stepped back. “Don’t touch me,” I cried, “I hate you!”
He kept coming towards me and I tried to keep him back. I ran into the woods to get away and be by myself for some time, but he kept on following me. With each step that he got closer to me, my temper rose by degrees! My ears were getting hotter and then I turned around, grabbed him by his shoulders and pushed him on the ground. I started clobbering him.
My anger came out through my tears and fists and expletive curses. And they did not stop. He kept screaming and blood poured out of the cuts on his face, but I did not stop. All the venom was pouring out. At some point I dragged him up and banged his head on a nearby stone again and again and again. When I came to my senses I saw him lying motionless on the ground.
For a few minutes I was paralyzed and did not know what to do. I looked around, saw no one, then covered him up with the dead leaves making sure he was not visible, and then ran home.
I sneaked up the courtyard and checked around to see if anyone was around.
At home my mom was busy in the kitchen, so without making a noise, I ran up and changed into fresh clothes. I shoved the soiled clothes under the bed. As I came down my mom looked at me curiously and asked, “Why did you change?”
“Oh, my clothes got messed up at school while playing.” She looked with peering eyes and asked “Is there something wrong? You look frightened.” Before she could ask any more, I shook my head and ran out. I stayed outside for a long time thinking of a story to tell and, as dusk settled, I came back and heard aunt Pari talking to mom. They came out and asked me, “Did you see Zubin after school?”
“No, he does not come with me anymore.”
“He has not come back home after school,” Aunt Pari stated. “Do you know where he could go?” She was frantic.
“I don’t know,” I said.
My mom said, “He may be playing with other kids.” But Pari shook her head and said, “He plays only with Sammi.”
“Go fetch your uncle from the shop,” my mom said, and turned back to the kitchen.
Aunt Pari looked at me with a strange look on her face. I looked away scared and ran to get my uncle from the shop. Soon the whole village was in our backyard.
Later that evening a search party went looking for Zubin. I went with them.
We did not find him. Someone called the police. It was getting serious.
When we came back home, I saw fresh wash being hung on the clothesline with my soiled clothes on it. My mom’s face looked white, her lips pressed tightly, trying hard to keep her composure. She called me aside and asked me “Tell me the truth. Why we’re your clothes dirty?” I related the incident with the boys at school. She turned and went inside.
By now there was a frenzied mob in my uncle’s house. My father was talking to the cop when he saw me. He came directly to me and asked. “Did you not see him after school?” “No” I replied, and related the incident about the boys again to the crowd. His face turned red, kept quiet. “Zubin was there and they made fun of him as well. That was the last time I saw him.” There was a silent pause. Everyone looked uncomfortable. My father turned away and so did my uncle. Someone said, “We need to go to search the woods. I have seen the gypsies come that way sometimes.”
The police chief sent the cops to talk to boys in the school. The boys said Zubin left school soon after me. I had rehearsed my story many times in my head, saying that the boys at school had upset me so much that I ran home and went straight to my room. My mom reiterated that. Next day they found Zubin’s body, mauled, they said, by a bear. Why would he go there? It didn’t make sense. There were many questions on everyone’s mind. The police declared it an accidental death.
Shrieks and cries came out of my uncle’s house which would change to wails and laments. Mom and I did not go there, but my father stayed for many days. Finally when he came back, he had aged a thousand years. Our house was cast by gloom.
One night my mom came to my room, sat on my bed and said “Did you have anything to do with it? Tell me, I will keep it a secret.”
“No,” I said, and pretended to sleep. That day a strange transformation came through me. I started to hate myself.
Soon after, I would be visited by Zubin at night. We would play in the woods and then he would disappear. The nightmares got bad enough that my mother thought it was better if I spent some time with her brother’s family in the city. And a month later my uncle came to take me away until things got better. They never did, and here I was 20 years later!
I would get occasional letters from my brother who would keep me abreast of the news at home. He had left studies to help my uncle run the store. Father had stopped going out and had become a recluse. My aunt had turned crazy with grief. My mother had taken charge over the house and my brother had taken over the store.
Ultimately, my uncle who had never been given a proper regard by anyone now was the head of the family. And soon my brother and uncle changed the look of the business, making it the largest grocery store in town and would soon add more stores to consolidate the family name.
Next morning I woke up with a headache. I had been waking up between dreams of Zubin and me playing in their courtyard. We were playing hide and seek, and then I couldn’t find him. I woke up screaming his name and instinctively walked to the window. I looked down and there was my aunt standing below my window. She looked old, bent over, her hair all gone, like a faded image from the past. She looked up and saw me, her eyes fixed as if she was looking at a ghost of the past.
I withdrew from the window quickly . . . my heart beating fast. It took me time to compose myself and get ready to join the family.
Downstairs kids were playing, running around hiding behind their mother who was going about her morning chores. My brother was getting ready for the store. My mom was sitting on a chair looking over to my aunt’s compound. She looked up as she saw me come down. She asked me “Did you sleep well?”
“I never sleep well, ” I answered.
“Neither does she. She wanders all night long, looking for her lost son.”
She peered into my eyes and said, “Zubin’s accident destroyed two families. I lost my son the same day and have just found him, but she will never find hers.”
I looked at those kids playing in kitchen remembering Zubin all around me, playfully coaxing me into a mischief.
After breakfast I walked down the hill. The road which led to our school was nowhere to be seen. The ground was covered with landfill. The forest had been cut back and cleared. What lay in front was a playground for the kids. The area was completely changed. I could see families and children walking around. As I strolled around, I could see a fountain around which the kids were playing. It was Zubin’s memorial. The tombstone read:
Fly away, oh eagle, fly away from evil.
Rest in clouds and shower us your grace.
On my way back, I gathered all my courage and made my way into my uncle’s compound. My aunt was sitting outside on the veranda. She saw me coming and straightened up. I slowly came around and sat beside her. For a long time we both sat silent. Then she lifted her hand and placed it on my head and said, “You have grown into a handsome man.” I smiled and said nothing. “I wonder how Zubin would look now?” she said. “Better than me, I’m sure. Do you want to have tea with me?”
“Sure,” I said and followed her into the kitchen. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of green tea and took me back years. I closed my eyes taking in the smell. She meticulously brewed the tea and poured it into two cups and sat down in front of me. I started taking sips to fill my brain and body with the pleasantness of the past. She watched my face intently and said, “It was not your fault you know.” I opened my eyes with a startle to see her face looking calm.
“He paid for my sins and your father’s. We took peace away from our families and my Zubin paid a price. We caused a lot of pain on both sides especially to your mother who has been nothing but kind to me. Do you know we are sisters? Yeah! Married to two brothers. She was stabbed by her own sister! After Zubin was gone and you had left, when my husband had forsaken me, she would come and console me. Your mother forgave me, but God didn’t. My Zubin never came back. I am still waiting.” She began to sob, soon both of us were crying, holding each other.
At some point, she stopped and said, “Go to his room, he is waiting for you.”
With dread and thumping heart, I climbed the stairs, looking back at my aunt and wanting to run out, but I kept going and opened that door once again.
The room looked exactly the same, but cleaner and neater. The bed was made, and I sat down to give myself some support. I could see his favorite toys arranged on the floor, those trucks that he had so excitedly showed off shining as if new. I suddenly felt a calm coming over me as if a weight had been lifted from my soul. I wanted to lie there on his bed and feel him so badly.
Downstairs I heard a voice followed by a spasmodic cough, Uncle was home. I climbed down quietly and when he saw me he looked surprised.
“Oh, I see we have a visitor.”
He stared at me for the longest time, his eyes softening slowly and slightly tearing up.
Then he opened his arms wide and I walked into a warm embrace. I had forgotten how tight his hugs were. He gave good squeeze, whispering, “I thought I would never see you again.” We held each other for some time.
“How long are you staying?” he asked.
“Leaving day after,” I said.
“Salman was saying you are an engineer, so at least someone in our family has brains,” he laughed.
“I am starting a new job next week,” I smiled.
“You have grown into a handsome man.”
He looked like a man tired of carrying a burden, shoulders sagging, his face was full of wrinkles and eyes hollowed with sadness. After a while he stood up and said, “Let’s take a walk, I want to know what an engineer does.”
I gave a hug to aunt Pari and followed uncle out of the house.
We walked around their garden into the street and back where the road lead to the park with Zubin’s memorial.
He talked about how Salman had worked hard to make the store into a successful business, and joked about how he’s keeping an old man on his toes.
“Someone needs to do my job. I can’t run anymore and your brother needs help. I have carried this burden ever since your father gave up. You know I am not cut out for this work, I always was happy taking orders.”
“I had thought that when I grow old you and Zubin would take our responsibility. But fate had something else in store.”
He talked about how aunt had almost become recluse and psychologically dependent on him, and how he now is a caregiver. “I am tired, I need rest.” There was desperation in his voice.
We reached the fountain and he sat down on the ground. He covered his eyes with his palms and I saw tears rolling down his eyes. I sat beside him holding his shoulders and could feel him sobbing. I did not know when I started to cry along with him. My tears came out as water pouring down that fountain I could hold them in no longer. My remorse, my repentance came out without effort. “I didn’t mean it, Uncle, I didn’t mean it,” I sobbed and sobbed.
He opened his eyes and looked at me strangely and said, “None of us meant what we did. It was all destined. He was taken for our sins, and we are all burning in a pit of hell ever since.”
“We all need forgiveness.”
I looked around, kids were playing hide and seek, some rolling on the grass, some on swings and some on the seesaw. This was Zubin’s place! How he must enjoy this gaiety and mischievousness.
We got up and started walking back. No words said, each in thoughts of his own. When I reached my home, I said goodbye to my uncle and went in.
My mom saw me come in and said “You’ve been gone a long time. Hope you spent it well.”
“Yes,” I said. “Very well.”
The next day I spent considerable time with my brother at his store and was amazed at how he had transformed a little shop into a modern, bustling business. He was very modest but I could see the pride in his eyes. Thereafter I went to local bazaar and bought some goodies for my nephew and niece.
Next morning was going to be an early start since it was a journey of ten hours to the city. I had a lot to pack. After an early dinner, I went into my room and started packing. From the window I could see aunt Pari looking up in my direction. The wind was picking up and the tree near my window was swinging like a shadow.
The ghost of the past has come to life,
To liberate me from sin and lies.
Forgive the mortal fate of omission,
And lessen the burden of wrongdoings.
Ready I am for servitude,
To change the lives of those suffering.
The driver came early and honked, waking me up. I came down partially dressed and handed him an envelope with a letter to my employer stating my regret that I could not join his company. I paid the driver his charges and a handsome tip. He looked at me quizzically.
“I found a better job,” I smiled.
Last night I buried Sammi so that Zubin would come alive.
Archana Kokroo is a practicing physician serving Bucks County for over a decade. Commitment to patients and dedication to work is her motto. Poetry is her love and writing her passion. A newcomer to the Writers Guild, Archana has for years been weaving stories in her mind and now hopes to bring them to life through her writing. She writes about life experiences, sometimes hers, but mostly of others, spoken through her words.