This must have been a dream because I can’t remember how it began, the details of the ending are hazy, but I remember everything in between. What followed waking was rebuilding, reconstructing, retracing, recovering. You and I recanting – all that was said and done before.
I was sewn back, not in a hurry, and yet threads of you embroidered themselves into me. Your dust got caught in the bricks that remade me, your voice trapped in these crooked crevices, reminding me to look for you. And so I do even a world away.
I look at every passing bus, to see if it’s your face in the window reading comics at the back of the paper. And every time somebody orders a steak well done, a smile rises to my lips, the resurfacing of an inside joke that once was – your penchant for rich food, and mine for poor puns. I look under coffee mugs, behind polished oakwood doors, waiting for you to spring at me, for the thrill of a fear anticipated. But I’ve lost the fragment of that sorrow, the piercing I felt when it was new.
When did I become so audacious, rushing to the edges of sharp cliffs? It is you who taught me to fearlessly jump. You became the air around me that scraped my skin as I fell, holding me, cradling me, even as I bled. Through those cuts and bruises, you entered and remained, like fragrance in my hair, revealing itself every time I moved. You permeated the notes of a lullaby. The one with the mockingbird.
I don’t go to that side of town anymore, where you used to live. Even the thought of it haunts me, the once-familiar geography tortures me even in memory. The neighborhood is filled with ghosts waiting to devour me. The lake that you could see from your terrace has a specter looming over it. The park nearby is filled with vampire children.
I’m so afraid I’ll run into you. But I’ll be disappointed if I don’t.
Someday maybe I’ll visit, though I already know you live somewhere else now. Someday, after these ghosts have been laid to rest.
Hi everyone! I’m working on a minimalist fiction project for this year’s #AtoZChallenge. The story will be shared in snippets, and the events occur non-sequentially. It is for the reader to interpret and form the “whole”. You can read all the posts here. Join me, and do share links to your AtoZ posts as well!
Of late, this rough little slimy rope has been growing around my mind telling me I sound overly self indulgent, a la Elizabeth Gilbert from what I assume to be a pre-Eat Pray Love era. I have criticized the book in the past because I felt it was the work of a privileged person who had the means to indulge if she so wished. But I stand here corrected, because unless we’ve been on the edge of chaos and confusion, I don’t think we are in a position to judge. So humor me while I too find my footing like she did.
While I do not have the resources to take a year off work and go eating in Italy or cycling in Bali, I do know that I’m going to move out of my comfortable box. For two whole years now, I have been caught in this conflict between stagnancy and listlessness. This is partly because I’m used to things changing – change, as the saying goes, has been the only constant in my life.
Growing up, we changed cities every four years (give or take one year). Which meant every four years, I had to leave behind friends, houses, familiar settings. Which means, even now, while I am surprisingly loyal to my friends, I remain a tad detached out of fear of being eventually uprooted from their lives. This is my normal.
This year, I will complete eight years in Bangalore. That’s double of what I’m used to. This February, I will have lived in my current residence for four years. Those who know me know that every part of me rejected this house since the day I moved in. The reasons why I have my name on the contract, the forceful ways I’m tied to it – all of it only caused me to reject it more. You cannot turn a house into a home if you’re so busy disconnecting from it. Did I give it a try? Yes, because as I mentioned above, it’s a house that’s been forced on me, so goddammit, I tried to make it work. But eventually you reach a breaking point. One where the dissonance around you shakes everything you know and you’re willing to let go of it all. Why now and not before? That’s a story for another day.
The next part of my grand 2017-figure life out plan/idea is that I’ve decided to move to a different city. Which city? I don’t know. Am I jinxing it by speaking too soon about it? Maybe. Is the world a hostile place right now (quite possibly on the brink of war)? I do believe it. But eight years ago also the world was a shaky place and I still quit a cozy job to move cities for my own reasons – a move which was unanimously labeled “hasty and stupid” by family and friends. I still like to think I made it, professionally at least. Only back then, I knew where to move and what I wanted to do. Elizabeth Gilbert knew where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. Right now, I do not know either.
The knuckles have been cracked. A neck rotation stretch has been done. But the writing is still a little rusty – beginning with sentences in the passive voice. But write we must, and here’s why.
After a terrible few months, I think I had an epiphany of sorts. Make that two epiphanies. No, correction: one epiphany and one sort-of-revelation. You’d think an epiphany would be a grand event that shakes the ground beneath your feet, tears the sky open like a curtain, lightning would strike and thunder would roar, and lions would fall from the sky. But, like nearly everything of importance that happens in a person’s lifetime, epiphanies strike without fanfare. Silently. A simple thought that seems to clear a lot of the fog.
We’ve been taught since childhood that we must not let go of that which we love and that which loves us. I love to write, and on some days, the good days, writing loves me back. It would be foolish to waste that for the reasons I had. My reasons included plagiarism, the terrible state of literature, the terrible state of the world, the terrible state of my life, the rampant back-scratching and reciprocation in the blogging community, the lack of audience, false friends and more. If you think about it, really think about it, I think I did not give up writing for myself, but I gave it up for others. Which is… mind-numbingly stupid.
I may not be as great a writer as my dad thinks I am. But I’m not as bad as my colleague thinks I am. I may not be as good as a certain writer, I may not be as bad as another certain writer. But I’m a writer in my own right, irrespective of where I stand on a scale that someone constructed. And that’s true for anyone who is or wants to be a writer – it doesn’t matter where you stand or who reads you – you have a gift, don’t give that up. We don’t give up on gifts; so few have them, and even fewer have the chance to use them.
So while I sat, wallowing in misery and self pity, and doubts about my ability as a writer, fears about my ability to even carry on with life, a voice whispered, “You don’t get second chances. Don’t give up on writing; that’s the one thing you have that’s entirely your own. Don’t give that up. If you do, you’ll never turn the clock back and get back to it.” I think it was the voice of rational thought. Or, for the spiritually inclined, maybe it was the voice of God? Or maybe my role models speaking to me from the beyond? Whatever it was, it made me realize that I have to do this – I can’t protect my work from being stolen, I can’t force people to read me, and I can’t control what happens in life or who I meet or how they treat me – writing is something I must do. Anything else I say, anything I say to not write, is an excuse, feeble at best. Granted, to reach this conclusion (or epiphany, as I like to believe it is), to understand that you don’t get second chances, to get it through my head that you don’t let go of what’s important, I had to go through the worst pain I’ve known – something, which, at the time, I believed, it would be impossible to recover from – but it’s taught me so much. It’s taught me what’s truly important, and made me realize I was about to throw that away out of pettiness. And I’m recovering. If you had met me this time last month, I would have told you that’s never gonna happen. But to heal is a choice I must make for myself. And that’s what I’m gonna do.
And I’m gonna keep writing till I can. Cos that’s what writers do.
Slipping in and out of consciousness, my mind did not register that someone was offering me water. I drank in large gulps, but my mind held a brown noise. Somewhat satiated, my eyes opened, though not fully. Through the slits, I noticed an old acquaintance. He was wearing the stripes of Town Commander. Revived by the water, I regained focus and realized it was indeed Lathlock.
“Is that you, Joel, my man?” he asked in a cautious tone. The tone was his signature. He sounded worried about something at all times.
“Yes,” I whispered, my voice still gratingly hoarse, even to my ears.
He was leaning over me, bent on one knee. I had been lying on my back on the scorching road, trying to sit up. He offered me a hand, which I grasped as firmly as I could. He straightened up. I tried to do the same, but my knees buckled.
“Joel, man, here, have some wheat chocolate.”
I gratefully took the bar from him and gobbled it up. I did not even chew it. For a minute I thought I was going to choke. Lathlock must have sensed it. He placed a hand on my shoulder and brought out his water bag again. I took it from him wordlessly.
“Wheat chocolate? What happened to real stuff?” I asked after I had had another sip of water. I realized my question may have sounded rude, but Lathlock appeared unoffended. He shrugged and said, “It’s all gone, man. All of it. Everyone took some with them when they left the town. The Eaglebacks from the North looted the rest.”
The flat tone was more horrifying than any words he had used. I remembered how much we would laugh at his expense because of his cautious way of speaking, but I would give anything to hear that instead of this resigned voice.
“Lathlock, what happened around here?”
“Didn’t you know, Joel, man?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” Lathlock scratched his forehead, as though bringing the memories up to the surface to narrate what happened, “we heard a rumour that the Eaglebacks were coming. Everyone panicked. I had been promoted to Town Commander just a while before. I could not leave, of course; captain and the sinking ship and all that. Sassa stayed back. So did Koop. Everyone else is gone, man.”
I stared in disbelief. This was my town, my Bafnamolos. How could this happen?
“Come on, now, there’s no use standing here in the sun. You’ll just faint again. Come on, wrap your arm around my shoulders.”
As we walked, I looked at the changed landscape before me. Bafnamolos was unrecognizable. The land was once lush green. Before me now lay a ghost town. Sadness seemed to palpitate from the earth. A deep weariness filled my heart. Where once we heard the laughter of children, there was emptiness and metal rods – skeletons of buildings. Where once lovers met, there was emptiness and metal rods. Where I first kissed Fragiara, my promised mate, there was emptiness. And metal rods.
Fragiara. My promised. She was to be mine, as was ordained. But I had betrayed her. As penance, I was ordered out of the town. At first, truth be told, I was relieved. I loved Fragiara, that was certain. But I always had the urge to leave this town. A curiosity to find out what was beyond the borders of Bafnamolos.
While I was gone, Fragiara married another man. I heard he was a gypsy, and he carried her off on great travels with him. She could not be faulted, for I had betrayed her first. Only when I was away did I realize how much she meant to me. I would whisper her name to the breeze every night, hoping it would be carried to her. When I heard about her elopement, I felt truly happy for her, with only a tinge of sadness for having lost her forever. She deserved it after all. She deserved better than me. I never stopped whispering her name though.
Lathlock took me to his quarters. Sassa was in the office, doing some paperwork. She appeared startled to see me.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted out.
“Nice to see you too, Sassa.” I replied.
Sassa and I had a strange relationship. She was a friend, and a good one too. But she was a rude woman. On most days, I could not stand her.
“What brings you here now, Joel?” she asked in a more even tone.
“It was time for me to return, that’s all.”
“Surely you know there’s nothing left here.”
“I do now. Your Town Commander was just filling me in.”
I pulled a chair, while Lathlock brought me some more wheat chocolate and water. Sassa sat next to me and placed her hand on mine. “I’m sorry about Fragiara,” she said quietly.
“Thanks. I am sorry about Noah.”
Her eyes widened again, “How do you –“
I placed my other hand on hers to silence her. I knew her well enough to know when she would burst into tears. Noah was her promised, her beloved. While Noah had always behaved courteously towards her, I always suspected he did not return her love fully. A week ago, I received news that Noah had married another girl; in essence, Noah had behaved a lot like me. It was this news that prompted me to return to Bafnamolos. For all the word I received, I did not know the town had been so thoroughly abandoned.
“Who are these Eaglebacks?”
“They’re from the North,” Lathlock replied, his voice taking on that flat tone again, “Some of us worked for them. Eventually they decided, there was a lot more profit in silencing us. All of us. So they decided to simply take what they always felt entitled to. Wrongly, of course, but who’s to do the explaining?”
I pondered over this. I could not think of any response, so I stupidly repeated, “And they all left? Each one of them?”
Beside me, Sassa sighed loudly and said, “I’m surprised what your news bearers bring to you and what they don’t. Such misplaced priorities when it comes to gossip, isn’t it?”
It stung. She was right. I thought of all the times I had believed that of all people in the town, Sassa could never be right – not about one single thing. As each bit of news was brought to me, about the wars in other parts of the world, about a distant time in history, I realized Sassa had always been right. It was I who had been wrong each time.
When I didn’t respond, she continued, “You can stop feeling bad about what you did, Joel. Not because it wasn’t wrong. It was. But when the threat came, strangely it was exactly what everyone else did.”
“What do you mean?”
“Prikarius committed suicide. His promised’s father broke his word and married her off to someone else. He couldn’t take it. Paula’s promised got on to a caravan. I heard he reached a port and boarded a ship and sailed off. Paula dug a hole in the ground and closed her eyes. I heard the hole transported her to some other town, a lusher one. Looks like everyone thought it was okay to leave their promised ones in the lurch.”
Once again, I had no response.
“So why did you really return, oh great Joel?” she asked.
“This is my town.”
“Would you have returned had you known there was nothing left here? No one for you to return to?”
I did not know. Why had I really returned? What did I really want?
“You know, the Eaglebacks are going to come back,” Lathlock spoke up, “None of us will stay back then. There’s no point in being martyrs. We should’ve left with the others. We were hoping we would actually find you, in whichever town you had been sent off to. We have a few weeks. A month tops.”
“Is there no way to fight them?”
“There are five of us and a thousand of them. They have weapons and mutant eagles the size of sphinxes. What do you think?” Lathlock replied.
“Five? I thought only Sassa, Koop and you were here.”
“And me,” said a voice from the doorway. I looked up to find Amy, the woman I had betrayed Fragiara for. She looked frail. There was some grey in her hair. But her eyes shone and she reflected none of the resigned attitude I saw in Sassa and Lathlock.
“But we still cannot fight. We will leave the town,” she said, as if plucking my thoughts and replying to them.
“Why did you come back, Joel?” Sassa asked again.
“Because I was homesick!” I cried, “Who are these Eaglebacks! Why are they destroying my town, the only home I’ve known!”
Oh, hello! Don’t mind me, I am just sitting here with my hypothetical pipe in my mouth, musing about things. Again. Trying to make sense of a few things.
You know, I wrote a short story when I was 12 – it was a murder mystery, and the main theme was jealousy. About two years later, I wrote a story about how mankind was the worst thing to have happened to the universe since the big bang – told from the POV of a cockroach that survived a nuclear holocaust. There were a bunch of stories in between with a lot of blood and gore; mostly fluff pieces written to shock the reader. My English teacher enjoyed the stories tremendously – the cockroach one was a favourite of hers, I remember. The point of this little narrative is that – I was always enticed by the darker side of human emotion. Happy endings never appealed to me, joy never appealed to me – someone was always dead in my stories.
Why then have I stopped exploring it now?
You see, stories of that genre come naturally to me. My rationale is simple – every writer glorifies their protagonists – flawless and irreproachable heroes and heroines. Would any writer, through the characters, or otherwise, admit to their own faults? After all, most heroes and heroines are a superior alter ego of their creators. Through my characters, am I pushing my own flaws on to paper? Not exactly – jealousy isn’t an emotion I feel, nor have I ever murdered anyone. But I can tell you about a flaw that I do have – I am easily influenced. I have my own opinions (of course) but you tell me something quite a few times, I will start thinking like you. And that’s a horrible, horrible trait in a human being.
In retrospect, I have come to realize when and how I stopped writing fiction, where the darkness has gone. I don’t want this to be a name-and-blame sort of post, mainly because whoever it was who said whatever it was that they said to me, ultimately, the fault is my own – my head is bloody easy to get into!
I have made excuses for it – I thought I had writer’s block (I don’t), I thought I was distracted (not really), I thought I was reading too many books and that was killing my imagination (I partially do still believe this, but there’s more to it). How did I realize that I have killed my own darkness? In the past, the stories I have written deal with some kinda deep rooted fear we all have within us – or so I’d like to think. It is not just about the ghosts – I have written about a man who derives joy from seeing a child die, I have written about depression and suicide caused by the world’s opinion of you, I have written about a criminally insane father – the darkest corners. I don’t claim to be Palahniuk or someone like that, but my exploratory path has been on those lines. Then why is it that, when a few months ago, I was about to write a story about a handicapped man’s death, I was horrified by my own thoughts? I could not believe that my mind could conceive such a ruthless, tragic thing, and I reprimanded myself for being a bad human being. But why? Isn’t that what I had always been writing about?
Because I had been led to believe that my stories would be my destruction.
A sensible writer would hear something as dramatic as this and wave a smug “tah-tah” and send those words upon the breeze, never to be bothered by them again. I, however, am not as sensible as I wanna be – it is way too easy “perform inception” on my mind. Suddenly, I grew afraid. The thought had been sown – the darker my stories, the unhappier my life would be. However much I wanted to believe it hadn’t, it had. And little by little, it was corroding my brain, eating up my imagination, forcing me to not ever write a piece of fiction where there was any kind of darkness whatsoever.
Fear is the one enemy of the writer. And I am terribly afraid. I have my own self to blame for having such a pliable, thought-plantable, stupid head. Sure, I wrote two stories even after the incident, but both are not as “dark” as my stories usually are. Not half as disturbing. Not “me”.
All I’ve done until now is not let myself admit to this. But I have to. If I want to go back to who I was, I need to admit that this is a problem.
Now to find the solution – uproot that thought and throw it off.