Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Minu Varghese

Mother's Loss

The house is full up with people. I cannot lift myself up for I am too weary. The relatives and neighbours who have gathered in the house talk in whispers and move about restlessly. I am lying down on a straw mat on the cold floor. The little room is suffocating for me what with the crowd in it. I wish I were out in the open, breathing fresh air. I cannot do anything about it now, as I am too exhausted. I remain where I am, drenched in sweat and tears, weeping now and then and lying down inert at other times.

I hear some women pleading with me time and again to eat and drink. Some even try to force a little tea down my throat. I hear them and feel them but I cannot do anything more. How I wish I were alone and away from all sounds and touches. I am grateful for the presence of people at one moment; the next sees me craving for solitude. I truly appreciate the pains these people take to be around and be of use. I wish I could tell them that but my tongue refuses to yield. I stay mute; remain lying, with my eyes tight shut.

 I wonder where my husband is. He must be somewhere around but I hear nothing about him. I hear nothing to be honest. All around it is noisy but I seem to have lost the enthusiasm to decipher anything from the mixed sounds of males and females, adults and children. I distinctly hear the sea and I know the passing of time from the changing tones in which the sea speaks to me.

This dilapidated shack on the sea shore, so close to the waves, has been my home since my marriage. Before that I was still close to the sea but in the house that belonged to my parents. This small house which was built a few years after my marriage is closer to the sea. I am a daughter of the sea, so to speak. I understand every single cadence of the waves. The rhythm of the sea mingles with the rhythm of my existence. Amazing how the sea still provides me comfort . Given a chance, I would run out and jump into the sea and let the waves rock me to tranquillity. I sense my soul flying off my body and seeking refuge on the bluish green expanse of the waters outside my home.

In the initial hours of my present trauma my ears were constantly straining themselves for the much desired news. I was hopeful, almost sure. Gradually it changed. All I am capable of now is to keep my mind clogged to the extent that it does not differentiate any sound except the lulls and roars of the sea and thus I manage to block out the world to that measure. I let myself drift. I know that it is the only alternative left. I focus on what flashes across the screens of my memory. The pain vanishes; I am transported to a realm where I feel I truly belong. I may look fast asleep but I am wide awake. Present overlaps with the past and future becomes less and less of my concern. All anticipations and anxieties give way to a delicious, euphoric experience of joy immeasurable.

 My only son, my first born is tall and hefty. He grew up surprisingly fast. All the years in which he spent most of his time with his mother in this house are way back in the past but like yesterday to me. Or is it like today, now? I can sense his small hands hugging me from behind as I am crouching over the fire, cooking the mid day meal. His cheeks rub against mine and his chin tickles me in the crook of my shoulder. I lift my shoulder and his face is crushed softly between my shoulder and neck. We giggle together. He hugs me tight with his little hands.

He is rushing back from school calling out for me. I answer him from the tiny kitchen pouring warm milk into his cup. The milk is a precious commodity procured with difficulty in this place. I save most of what we get for him. He is good at studies and they say milk is essential for a boy who is growing up. I want him to study well and become a powerful person. That is my idea of power. He should have a good job and a high place in the society. I strive to provide him with all that is required for the materialization of my wish. He is a sensitive soul. I have no doubt he would find it tough to live out my dreams. We seem to share thoughts and dreams.

 His school days are filled with cheer and pride as accomplishments happen every other day. He wins medals and trophies and we celebrate over each unique victory. We feel the limitations of our house only when we struggle for a place to display the tokens of his toil. I keep them wrapped in an old metal trunk I got at the time of my marriage, hoping that we would have a bigger and better house with facilities to showcase them.  I never object to his going to the sea on fishing expeditions with his father and the other fisher folk as he is careful not to let it stand in the way of his academic pursuits. He is good at the sea. I feel proud that he does not detest the way his father and his relatives earn their livelihood. Such a fine boy he is. His ways delight me no end.

The day he passed his school final examination is alive in my mind all the time of my wakefulness. The nuns who run the school in the fishermen’s colony are all brimming with joy at the achievement of my son. I could hardly hold back my tears on his coming home with the certificate of excellence he received from school. His higher education is not something we can easily arrange for. His father’s illness makes it difficult for us to maintain the regular pattern of lives. Money is hard to come by and I start selling fish in the market.

It pains my son no end to see me carrying heavy loads of fish all by myself to the market.  He does all that is within his means and ability to render me help. He helps me cook and clean. At times he snatches time off his studies and comes with me to the shore where I collect the fish and help me make a good buy. He accompanies me to the market too. I never feel miserable as I know he would soon be finishing his studies and earning good wages. Our lives would change for the better and all hardships would end. Looking forward all the time with such fond hope and always wishing for good for my son I never feel down or depressed. It may be that it is not in my element to mourn at my plight even when living gets quite hard. I have this way of bearing with the burdensome aspects of life with a smile that comes from the inner chambers of my soul.

When my distant relative proposes to take my son to the Middle East for a job, he pleads with me to let him go. “Mama I will not stop my studies. I will work for two years and return with enough money to continue my studies. That way it will be a lot easier. You will not be taxed like this anymore. In two years there will be sufficient for us to lead a rather comfortable life”. How my determined son convinces me over time that it is the best option!

Just like the sea, the airplanes are also part of our lives, as the airport is close to the sea and to us. The day he flies off to the distant country is the first day he is separated from me. How hard it is to be torn away from him, knowing it is not just for a day or two but at least for a year or two. What is lure enough for me to let this happen? My son is walking off to the plane in his majestic stride and disappearing in to the interior. He turns to look back at the spot we are waiting to witness his departure and waves. I wonder if he sees us. My eyes and nose give me trouble. I strain to focus my eyes on him as far as a view is possible. My mind is filled with pain, anxiety, pride and hope. I see him stepping in to the plane. The plane takes off. It disappears from my view.

I hear from him in the next five hours. He is safe and with relatives. He would join for work in a couple of days. I settle down to the new life, still going to the market, managing the house, waiting for news from him. He never keeps me waiting for he regularly calls me up and tells me lots about the life there. I see the far away land through his eyes. I live there through him. I get to know people I have not known so far. I taste the foreign food, total novelty to me. I have two lives now: the one I live here, the ordinary, mundane life of a fisher woman and the life of a woman who is abroad with her son.
 I share my second, new life with my friends near my house and those I sit with in the market. Some of my regular customers ask me about my son and I pour forth all the stories as briefly as time allows. He sends lot of things home for me and his father through friends and relatives. He wants me to taste the food items he gets there so he sends what he could afford. Clothes and utensils follow. His father is happy about all this but keeps telling me that we should caution the boy not to spend too much. I pass on the message religiously and he reassures me saying, “Don’t worry Ma, I get enough to afford all this. I have savings kept apart.” I smile a smile of contentment.

His first home coming, such a joyous moment! His father, though not quite well, gets ready earlier than me to go to the air port. “Yes, we should go and receive him,” he says aloud to the neighbour who is asking if it is not easier if the boy comes home on his own. I am surprised at the insistence of my husband that we should go receive the boy. My husband is never too overt in his expressions of affection. I sense his boundless joy and understand that he too has been badly tormented being separated from our son.
He had a different look altogether but I had no difficulty recognizing him among the people streaming out of the exit gate at the air port. The hug in which he held his father and I together was reward enough for all the anxious, painful waiting through the months for a mere sight of him. The ceremonious welcome he receives from the neighbours and his friends!

The boat is disappearing from my sight and I see the red jacket he is wearing fading away from sight. He decided to go with his friends to the sea just for old time’s sake. He is overjoyed at the prospect. I do not try to hold him back. He had been away for long and we thought it just natural for him to want to enjoy a fishing trip. He is adept at deep sea fishing. His friends are jubilant at his decision to join them. The boat leaves the shore with seventeen of them including the crew.

 My son, where is he now? My weak throat does not let the sound out. I choke. Someone is patting me on my back and shoulders. I choke again. There is a commotion in the room and I realize that my movement is the reason behind that. Some are concerned about me and some others are just curious about how I deal with my torment. Sure they will pass judgements when they find an opportunity. Have seen many a one of the kind and can predict their words and deeds. Nothing interesting about them, nothing to appreciate, nothing at all to learn from.  I feel like getting up on my feet and walking towards the sea. My limbs do not obey me, I slither back on to the mattress and lie there once again, with my dress sticking  to my body, my hair to my scalp, for I am sweating profusely. I yearn for some cold air, a breeze, the comforting touch of my son.

The boat speeding away with my son in red jacket standing and waving at me for one last time is all I have to cling on to till I breathe my last. The boat came back without him and I was told that he was found missing in the dead of the night. He might have fallen off board. How could that be? It intrigues me no end to think of such a possibility. He could swim like a professional. If he fell in to the sea by some accident, he would swim back to me as he knows how I would suffer if he fails to make it to me. Nothing would stop him from reaching back to me.

What about other boats? Would none of those boats rescue my hapless son struggling for his life in the middle of the sea? What about the coast guard? Won’t they be notified? We have signalling systems and very efficient people in the rescue teams. It is impossible that he would fail to return to me safe.

 “It is the fourth day”, they say to each other, “today the body will be found.” The sounds reach me but I prefer to shut out those sounds and cling to my visions of his life with us. I refuse to stop the search though the world ceases all searches at the finding of a mangled, bloated remnant of a human corpse. I am in the middle of the sea where my one and only son fell off the boat, searching for him, holding out the lantern of my hope, wishing he would pop his head up and raise his arms, and I would be able to grab him and reach back home victorious. 

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