Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Second Prize, Jim Wungramyao Kasom

The Homecoming

Shimtharla wakes up to the sharp sound of hammer driving on a nail. It is too much of a nuisance for her, at times when she can be easily wakened by anything louder than silence. She wishes she could jump out of her bed and put some manners into whosoever was bothering with her walls. But as soon as she hears her sons' baritone voices through the wooden partition; she cringes back in shame. 
The other day her two sons were up on the roof, painting the rust off with bright green color. Though Shimtharla was nothing part of it, she was there the whole day listening to their laughs and sometimes unpleasantly suspicious that they would fall off the roof. It made her nervous and tired. Lately she can't seem to omit disaster out of her thoughts. 

Thoughts always clam her mind as though she was never going to live long enough to recall all her memories. She is always working on chiseling out some concrete thoughts, and at the back of her mind there is always something urgent lurking. It wasn’t that she didn’t know it coming but she had never seen anyone gone so blank. There was nothing to draw any warning from anyone; or eavesdrop from their routine gossips. 

First thing she wanted was to clean the house and neutralize the smell. It almost rained the whole year round and there was just Mayori and herself in the four room house. She didn't send any words but her sons Ngaranmi and Aning came back from town to work on her crammed room. They pulled down the wooden walls of two rooms and turned it into a decent living room. It is the largest room she has ever had for herself. She grew up without her own room or a bed.

They have a separate kitchen and that didn’t help too much in killing the raw smell of dampness. She would clean the whole house before her children came home for their vacation. She would peel wild apples the whole night under a lantern, after she had sent the kids to bed. In the morning the room smelled of apples boiled in sugary water. At best times her house smelled of Wild apples. 

Her boys in the other room find some money stashed away in a crack of the wall while bringing down the wall.
“It's pitiful, she must have saved it for some important things and she never got to use it,” says Ngaranmi.
“We can ask her, she might just remember in pieces,” Aning, the younger son says.

They show it to her, thinking it will mean something; if it can refresh her memories. She only says she must have left it some days ago. But it is not true. She has been in bed for almost a year since the back ache came down hard on her.  It was just her way of saying to keep up with time and her ailing. She must have misplaced so many important things in her life, too many important things left unsaid in the closed corner of her mind; then after so many years those memories might click in bits but never wholly. But when they least expect her to remember, she surprises them. Every conversation with her was a bit of a gamble; they don't know what to expect, and they still have reservations when it comes to talking in front of her. She was breathing and being alive, trying to keep pace with the world in her own way.

On one wild apple picking, her youngest son climbed up a tree. She watched the towering figure of the small boy above her and she was alarmed. Strangely she felt like she was going to get drowned. She shouted at Amai to be a nice boy and climb down the tree. The boy smiled and started laughing incorrigibly as he always did when he’s about to do something different. She got dizzy, starring at the clouds twirling around Amai and the tree as if it were uprooting the tree. He looked so tender and fragile like he could be blown away with the wind. 

Her girls Mayori and Arin enter the room and clog over her face and suffocate her with smiles. She smiles back without knowing what they were smiling at. She wishes to ask but she had asked so many times and each time she can't hold her memories still, longer than she can hold water in her palm. Now she doesn't see any reason to ask but to go with the flow. 

“Mom, do you still remember? I came here yesterday to see you. Do you still remember that?” asks Arin.
“I do, I do?”  She says. But slowly her mind fills up with memories of her mother when she looks into the eyes of her daughter Arin. Such resemblance, her mother could be standing there. She cries. 

“What happened?” Arin asks.
“I miss my mother,” she says.
The room fills with laughter. She laughs with them.
“Mom, we'll have to take you outside for a bath, we'll lift you tenderly,” says Arin.
“No child, not in this cold. I can easily get sick,” Shimtharla said.
“Let the boys lift her up, it's easier on her too when they lift up at a go,” says Mayori.
“No not the boys,” says she.
They laugh again.

“She'll live as long as she has this sense of embarrassment,” says Arin the older daughter.
In the warm noonday sunlight they undress her tenderly, down to her waist. Everything to do with her demands patience and love, even the simplest ordeal like dressing and undressing. She had put on everything she could lay her hand on. There were layers of straps wound around her waist in knots and those things always demands scissors and blades. She wasn’t the kind of woman who needed such attention; she was more of a kind who attends to such needs.

Shimtharla’s shriveled skin mottled and soft glints in the sun. She had always had a good yellowish complexion; she has only gained more red moles. Her skin turns reddish like a baby as soon as Arin pours some hot water. It reminds Shimtharla of giving baths to her children when they were young. 

How could she take back another bath from them?
The hour is lazy like Sunday afternoons and the sun begins to sip dipper into her skin. She lets her head fall back slowly as Mayori strikes her hair with a comb.
“I have always wanted a good bath, how wonderful,” Shimtharla said.
“But mom, we forced you into this,” says Mayaori smiling.
“Exactly,” she said without any compunction.

Arin washes all the clothes and dries them on a clothesline strung between a plum tree and a mulberry tree. She looks at her baby sister and her heart swells up with admiration for Mayori who had looked after her mother so diligently. 

“It must have been hard on you,” Arin says to Mayori without taking her eyes off.
“Not really. I’m so happy that I lived with her for so long,” says Mayori.
“Yes, it’s only right. You’ve been always her favorite child. I think she has spoiled you,” Arin says with a smile. 

Mayori does not smile but her eyes follow the comb as she slowly strikes her mother’s hair. “That’s not true. You should know that she was most concerned about you because you married a man from another village. You know she never got over with that. I think her ailment got worse because of that heartbreak.”

“You can’t blame all on me. What about our brothers. They never came home until now,”
“It’s not the same,” says Mayori.
“I know. But she was never a stranger to heartbreaks since Amai died. She had known too much pain. I thought nothing would break her again.”

“You never know. Everyone has a breaking point,” Mayori says.
“She wanted me to stay unmarried?”
“You’ll have to understand, she has never gone out of the village. The world is too much for her.”
When they look at her mother she doesn’t resemble the strong woman she always was; the pastor’s wife who was all full of life and giving. She has frazzled out.  Maybe she’s given out everything to others. If too much of generosity could hurt, she’ll be the first to go.
“Why is it so quiet? Where are all the babies?” Shimtharla says waking from her intermittent dozes.
“There are no babies,” Mayori says.
“No there are always babies.” 

A decade of babysitting has left an undeletable fondness for children. On Arin’s previous visit, Shimtharla wouldn’t let Arin’s baby out of her sight. At times she became too cautious and would engage with the baby the whole day. So they had to take the baby out to give her some rest. For few minutes, she kept asking about the baby but she soon forgot. 

At evening when Shimtharla receives a surprise visit from the local pastor, Mayori was so grateful that the house was in place. If her mother was in her right mind she wouldn't have allowed her things to be disposed, least of all burn in a heap. 

The pastor’s prayer was sincere and brief. He does not ask for healing as most home visit prayers are meant to be. You can’t do much about some eighty years old sleeping in a bed all the time. Even Mayori only ask for a painless death and a sane moment so that her mother can say her prayers and see her children and grandchildren before she dies. 

They eat dinner before sundown and at night sit around Shimtharla's bed rummaging through old memories. They narrate stories of their childhood and each story relate to each other because they have shared their childhood. Now talking about it was like reading from the same book. Any one of them would have traded place with Shimtharla for that night. She deserves a good send off, a good talk and a good time to reflect her past. Instead she sits on a haunch in her bed, snoozing the whole time. 

She was the one to huddle up all her children. When they were younger she would tell stories of how she began to take great responsibilities at young age. She doesn't remember exactly when she started slogging out in the paddy field. It seemed to her that she had been borne in the paddy field with a spade and a farmer's hand. She once told them that she would have liked to be born as a modern girl. Life seemed so much easier with so many inventions and machines to take care of human chores.
The only thing she wouldn't trade for was their talks. They would talk through all day even when they were working in the paddy field. Their talks were not ordinary. It was almost everything they had for fun. There were lots of elements to the art of story telling. Regaling stories by the fire inhaling the smell of pine was all part of it. The kitchen hasn't changed too much. It was Shimtharla's favorite spot in the house and it was here that she spun most of her stories like a veteran preacher. Most of her stories came from her friend Amau. They exchanged stories like they were meant to do all their life. They were like Siamese twins, inseparable and always together. How they managed to find new stories to tell each other while being at the same farm, digging the same piece of mud was a miracle even to them. They practically shared their lives.

 Marriage parted them a little while but they soon came back together. And gossips of married women worked like vengeance for greater part of their life. Now they are separated only by bad memories and poor hearing. Still, Amau came on Sundays and appraised her with stories of the villagers. Why would she do it when Shimtharla couldn't understand anything? Amau just smiled and said she was talking to her soul and not her mind. Deep down they recognize each other. Their physical departure was only meant to happen one day. It was no big thing. During Amau's last few visits she was still good in her head but wobbly on her feet; Shimtharla was steady on her feet but rotten in her head. They spent their days laughing away their misfortunes.

Ngaranmi builds a small fire inside Shimtharla’s room to kill the strange smell that had accumulated in her room over the years. He had learned to build that small fire on his many hunting expeditions with his father as a boy; small fires you can piss it off easily his father would say. Shimtharla sniffs under her breath and a smile comes easy when she sees the flickering fire. It was her life. Every day at dawn she would start the day with a fire. The rigidness of a day broke with the smell of the smoke.  
The glass window catches the flame and as it flickers she feels the sense of time in the fire. Earlier it was in the more important things like passing of season; the rapid growth of her children, the ripening of fruits and shedding of oak leaves that reminded her of passage of time but now she sees it even in least of all non living things.
On many sleepless nights she would watch the dark window and wait for the dawn to break in. It was much lonelier without light. She wishes for a place where she could watch the sun germinate out of the dark mountains first thing in the morning and where she could have the meloncholic sunset to herself. Nights bothered her with insomnia. At night she just wished she could make it throught the dark, and maybe say her final words in the morning glory surrounded by her children and grandchildren. 

The room is warm now. Aning sits behind her and lets her fall back on his arms. “Mom, Is it any better?” He asks.
“Maybe, I think so,” she responds.
“Sometimes she can’t sleep because her body is bruised from sleeping all the time. And sometimes she can’t sleep because her back gets stiff after sitting up for too long,” says Mayori looking at her mother and their eyes meet.

“No one should be looking after me. I’ve become a waste. I’ ashamed,” Shimtharla says.
“Mom, don’t ever say those words again. We’re all here to take care of you,” Arin says.
“Mom, do you have any important thing to say,” asked Ngaranmi, tapping her shoulder gently.
She had known all along that this day would come; a day she had to say the most important things. She had been saving meaningful words to say, words whispered in hush with her husband, things she had kept alone to herself all her life. So in her dreams it has always been a bright glorious morning, like the sun was doing its chore for the first time. There on her old bed she would sit up in Mayori’s arms and look into the eyes of all her children, grandchildren and all her friends. Then she would say goodbye to her friends and grandchildren, and ask for a family time with her children. She wouldn’t shed a tear because it was just a matter of time before everyone follows suit. She would tell them that she was leaving this world of pain and stepping up to a glorious heaven. Then she would smile and say that she was not afraid of dying because living with no memories was more painful than dying. Then she would say a soft prayer for herself and commit his soul for God to take.  

But it is night and nights soffocates her. Shimtharla was always a morning person. But most of all she does not remember many things anymore. She closes her eyes and tightens her grip on Mayori’s hand and says that Mayori must find a man but even if she doesn’t find one, all of them have to look after each other.
 “Are you afraid?” Aning ask.
“I don’t know,” shimtharla says.
“Don’t be, Amai and father will be waiting on the other side,” says Arin.
 “I’m afraid I don’t remember their faces too well,” says Shimtharla closing her eyes and trying to search her mind.

Shes sees Amai stradling between two branches on a wild apple tree. It was one of those family wild apples picking day when everyone had come home for Christmas. Amai was just turning 11 and he was shaking that tree for wild apples to fall off the tree. Shimtharla told him to be a good boy and climb down the tree but he wouldn’t. She began to panick. She sensed the disaster that was coming their way driven by unstopable force like the boy’s inscrutable will. It sucked the air out of her and her head began to twirl with the clouds and trees. But she couldn’t do anything. It was just a matter of seconds. When Amai fell of the tree and died she vented her anger towards heaven. A child was not supposed to die before any parents; it was against any good things she had known all her life. Then she understood that life defies reasoning. Only her heart submitted to the will of God.

“I don’t have time to sleep but I can’t help. What a waste old age is,” Shimtharla says, waking up from another sleep. Looking out of the window into the darkness she can’t omit disaster out of her mind but she isn’t bothered the least. But she still feels the weight of time pulling her world apart. She still looks out of the dark window and still dreams of another sunrise because she had watched so many sunrises from there. Then in the light she’ll feel better. She’ll think about how if she had the choice she’ll choose to live with pain than without it; than without any memories.

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