Shadows

I don’t remember it too well. I just remember the running. I did not understand where I was running to. Or why I was running. I just was.

Larks circled overhead, their melodies echoing in the wide expanse. The first rays of sunlight had pierced the night and the sky was bleeding profusely, drenched in a crimson light.

And I just ran.                     

My legs were carrying me, my body soaring and leaping over the rocky terrain of the lakeside with agility that I had no idea I possessed.

Wait. My body skidded to a halt. Lake-side?

Could it be? No it couldn’t possibly be. It was so far.

But it was. Yes it was.

My body had brought me back here. Here, where I hadn’t been in a long time. Here, where I had never been alone. With a gasp, all the memories began crashing back.

 

I remembered the grainy sand. I remembered the tumultuous waves swirling and colliding with each other. I remembered the bundle of trees past which the foliage gave way to the ruins of a dilapidated cottage which was always covered in darkness due to the impregnable canopy of leaves overhead. I remembered going to the cottage everyday with my brother, where we would sit in the cottage, surrounded by nothing but darkness and neglect. The darkness had held a perpetual sense of obscurity encompassed in its tendrils of nothingness. It held a grotesquely beautiful escape in its atramentous filaments, twisting and turning around the world like poison ivy creeping up around the decaying walls of the cottage.

It was the one place I knew where there were never any shadows; where you could truly escape the shade that was always by your side. Whenever I entered that clearing, I used to look behind me and watched my shadow being left in the light. I watched it shrivel into nonexistence and dissipate. I would remain shadow-less till I reentered the light. I used to think it couldn’t reach me here in the dark. I used to think I was safe.

My grandmother used to tell me that all of us had evil and good inside of us; the light and the dark. The two were constantly at war with each other. In the day, the light was stronger and it kicked out the darkness from inside of us, which appeared as our shadow. And at night, the shadow crept back into us.

From that day on, I had always slept with the lights on. My brother used to turn them off as soon as I had fallen asleep.

My brother was nothing like me. He was not afraid of his shadow. He saw the clearing as the place where his shadow was strongest, where he was surrounded by the darkness. I saw it as the one place where I had let the darkness around me destroy the one inside of me.

When our father used to come home at night, smelling of alcohol and fury, I used to cower in my blanket and pretend that I couldn’t hear the screaming. My brother didn’t cower. He just sat there, tears of fury brimming in his eyes and his fists clenched. When the screams ended, I would go to sleep. But if I woke up at night, I would see the moon reflected in his open eyes.

I won’t lie. I was afraid of him. I loved him as all siblings are obligated to, but he terrified me.

Growing up, he was never reprimanded. He was never scolded. I was blamed for everything he did. And I silently bore the brunt of the repercussions of his actions. I was too afraid to say who was really to blame.

I never understood him truly, but he knew the darkest corners of my soul.

Then one day, after school, we went to the cottage again. I lay there against the cold musty wall, relaxing in the solace that the darkness brought.

We sat there in the murky blackness. Silence. Nothingness.

My brother’s voice pierced the stillness.

“I have had enough,” he said in a dead voice. Emotionless. Blank.

I didn’t know what he meant. I was too afraid to ask. We spoke no more that day.

Now I stood here. With the wind ruffling my hair. I felt cold as I started to walk the path that twined through the woods and to my house, my shadow trailing faithfully behind me.

I walked the roads I used to walk every day. I turned left once, and then a right and kept on following the road till I reached the house I grew up in.

The windows were dusty. The once clean lawn was overrun with weeds. I looked to the second window from the right, a pane was still shattered. It had been years. No one had fixed it.

 

The next few days, my brother acted strange.

One fateful night, when the might of the wind shook the panes of the window and howled against the walls, my father came home. He had been fired from his job, and he was angry. I covered myself in the blankets as the wailing of the wind and the screaming from downstairs melded into a cacophony of chaos. It was then when the creaking of my brother’s bed was swallowed by the shrieking, when the slide of the drawer was masked by the shaking panes and when the bombardment of the wind drowned out the creak of the door. Lightning. I don’t remember.

I remember going downstairs and watching my father lying on the floor, a cleaver embedded in his skull and blood seeping out. I remember the blood spiraling out on the floor and my mother shrieking as my brother just stood there. Lightning flashed, throwing the whole room into relief and casting the shadows far away.

That is when I saw it.

My brother had no shadow.

And as my mother screamed in disbelief and the rain crashed down on the window, my brother just stood there. His lip curled into a smile.

I knocked on the door.

Once. Twice.

“Hold your horses I’m coming I’m coming! Who is it at his ungodly hour? I hope you aren’t one of those sales-”

The door swung open as my mother opened it.

Her sentence trailed off as she looked at me. There was a second of silence, utter crushing silence. Then I noticed that her pupils were dilating.

“Mother,” I said. “I’m home.”

She tried to say something but no sound came out as her eyes brimmed with tears. I smiled. My mother was speechless with happiness.

Suddenly, she tried to slam the door and run away.

What.

I didn’t understand.

I grabbed the door just as she tried to slam it and ran in behind her as she tried to run to the kitchen.

“MOTHER!” I bellowed.”What is wrong?”

“S-s-stay away from me,” she stammered. “How did you ret-“

“Mother what are you saying? Are you okay? What has gotten into you? I come back after so much time and is this how you greet your so-“

“I HAVE NO SON!” she yelled.  She was shaking, her muscles taut and her eyes brimming with tears.

I knew I had abandoned her after that night, but I don’t think that warranted such an outburst.

The light above flickered.

She was sobbing now.

“I’ll never forgive you,” she sobbed.

“I’m sorry, mother…”

A whisper. Begging. Imploring. Pleading.

She looked at me with a look full of such unadulterated hatred that I flinched.

“…forgiveness…” she whispered.

“You want forgiveness?” Her voice was building.

“YOU WANT FORGIVENESS FOR KILLING YOUR FATHER!?” Explosion. Fury.

Silence.

“Mother, that wasn’t me. That was him. You know it. You were there. You saw it.”

“WHO?” she screamed.

“…my brother, mom.”

Clearly, my mother had been suppressing memories.

More silence. Then my mother wailed a loud wail of someone who had given up. She clenched her hair and began tugging as streams of tears washed down her face. She buried her head in her hands.

Then she looked at me:

“YOU HAVE NO BROTHER!”

The light flickered again. Throwing the world into shade.

“I thought they were curing you I thought the-“ She broke off, crying.

“Curing?” I asked.

“At the asylum,” she sobbed. Resigned.

I looked down at myself. I saw myself clad in a white robe. A plastic tag on my left hand.

Sr. No. 1583

“No, mother. My brother. I remember him. We went to the cottage.”

“You always went alone,” she said in a dead voice.

The light flickered as I fell to the ground with my head pounding.

Headache. Throbbing. A shrill sound. My brother’s face. The world spinning. Tears.

The light flickered one last time, and as I knelt on the ground, my brother’s shadow stood over me.

‘The darkness never leaves,’ it whispered. ‘You can’t escape your shadow.’

 

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Whistle

Disclaimer: The following story is based on true events. However the places and people mentioned are figments of my imagination, the former being only very loosely based on reality. So I apologize for any factual discrepancies. This story is meant to provide some food for thought and I would like to thank Scarface for urging me to write on this topic. This is quite different from other stories I have written in the past so any feedback would be appreciated.


 

House number 16, colony 3, West Bank, Gaza. 

Father 12:34 pm

Fear is a powerful emotion. It is very odd. It cripples you at times, and at times it gives you a feeling of being more alive than you can ever imagine.

It is all in the adrenaline, you see. FIght or fright.

For me, my entire life had been transformed into one endless nightmare. For the past ten years of my life, I had lived with the feeling of impending death looming above me. Then two weeks ago the bombs started to fall.

Now I can smell death in the smoke that spirals to the sky. I hear death in the silence of the streets. I see it in the eyes of everyone around me. Everyday another day in a living hell.

Death doesn’t scare me. Death is better than this life. But I can’t let anything happen to my family. My wife and my two beautiful children. I have to be here for them.

My son is ten and my daughter is six. They have lived all their lives like this: afraid. I don’t know what to do anymore.

I sit in the cramped room. I am thankful we even have this place. Food is scarce but we have enough money to afford it. Water is rare too. But we are alive and I am thankful for that. I have buried too many people as it is. So many friends I will never see again.

I look over to the small alcove that functions as an impromptu kitchen and see my wife kneading dough to cook later. It is almost finished. We will have to go the market again soon.

The children are asleep in the corner of the room, their faces covered with a shiny sheen of sweat in the sweltering heat. We used to sleep outside, but it is too dangerous now.

I just sit and stare at them, their tiny chests moving up and down in tandem with their breathing.

I hope they are having sweet dreams. In the kitchen, my wife begins to whistle as she cooks.


 

Son 02:24 pm

I am running.

I can’t remember from what.

I don’t know where to.

I don’t know where I am. I look around and all I see are flames. I spin around wildly until I hear something familiar: mother’s whistling.

With a start, I jolt upright in bed.

Just a nightmare, I repeat to myself. Just a nightmare. 

I am shaking and mother runs over from the kitchen and wraps me in her embrace. I put my arms around her and sob into her shoulder. She smells of flour and perfume and the scent soothes me.

She runs her fingers through my hair and I lean against her shoulder.

I feel safe.

In the distance, I hear the Azaan ringing through the air.


In a few minutes, all of the mosques nearby are calling out for prayers. The voice carries more in the silence engulfing the city, and the azaans all coalesce into a symphony that reverbrates throughout the city. The streets still remain empty, a few people emerge out of the safeties of their homes to go answer the call to prayer. Most of them are too afraid after the aerial attack on a mosque the previous week.


After we all pray, mother and father ready themselves for a trip to the market. Mother dons her abaya and father extracts some ration coupons from the safe beneath a loose floorboard.

The market is nearby, only a five minute walk from our residence. But father still barrages me with instructions.

Take care of your sister while we are at the market.

Don’t open the door for anyone.

If the phone rings, pick it up as soon as possible.

And whatever happens, don’t go outside.

I nod and watch from the window as they walk hurriedly down the street. They are holding hands.

I take out a rusty toy car from under the sofa and begin to play with it, aimlessly.

03:04 pm

It’s been ten minutes since my parents had gone. They should be back soon.

Just then, there was a huge explosion that shook the windows and made dust fall off the ceiling.

My sister jolted awake and I ran to the window, frantically peering outside to see where the explosion had come from.

My heart stopped in my chest. It felt as if someone had ripped a hole through my chest and was crushing my heart with an iron fist.

I could see a cloud of dust and smoke in the distance, right above where the market was.


Mother 02:48 pm

I remember the market used to be so much more alive the last time I was here.

Ever since the Israel airstrikes had begun, the market looked so lifeless. Only a handful of people were mulling about. It depressed me.

My husband and I quickly made way to the shop and bought some flour, some spices and we headed to buy a few vegetables from the greengrocer outside.

As I haggled with the shopkeeper, my husband spotted a friend of his and walked over to greet him in the centre of the market, by a fountain that had been dry for years.

It all happened at once.

People began to shout and the market erupted in chaos as everybody began to yell and run to cover as an aircraft shot across the sky. Something plummeted from the sky and landed squarely in the middle of the market, right on the fountain beside which her husband stood.

Time stopped.

She saw the fountain explode in a fiery inferno. Her husband stood silhouetted against the billowing flames for a second. Their eyes met for the last time. His hair was billowing in front of him from the blast. He tried to raise his hand as if reaching for her’s. And then he was engulfed in the inferno. 

The shockwave and the blast of heat hit her and she fell backwards. She felt a warmth spreading through her and she looked down to see her chest studded with shrapnel. The pain didn’t even hit her. All she felt was emptiness. Then she felt no more.

The last thing image in her mind was that of her children.

What would they eat at night


Son 03:05 pm

No.

This can’t be.

They are okay.

They will be home any minute and we will laugh about his.

My sister is crying.

The phone is ringing.

THE PHONE!

I run to the phone and pick it up.

My hands are trembling. My throat is choking up and I try to say something but a mechanical voice begins to speak before I can say anything. It speaks in some language I don’t understand.

Please evacuate this area. You have three minutes before we will authorize an airstrike on this area. Please evacuate before that.

My sister is crying louder now. Outside the window, I can see people running.

Stupid people. Father said to stay inside no matter what happens. I go and hug my sister and try to stop her from crying.

I hear a whistling sound. I think it must be mother. But this sound is coming from above us.

Mother is whistling to us, calling us.

The bomb fell next to their window. The blast force killed them instantaneously. They did not suffer. The entire neighborhood was levelled and many people died in the explosion or from the resulting injuries. Many people were left homeless and helpless after the bomb fell. 

When the rescuers removed the rubble later, they discovered two children, charred beyond recognition wrapped in an eternal embrace. They were laid to rest with the others.


Solace

The room was abysmal at best. Torn paper carpeted the rotting floor. A dingy table leaned in the center of the room, next to a couch old enough to have probably been used to furnish caves by the Neanderthals.

A man sat on the couch. His clothes were torn and frayed, splattered with grease and tears. He had the face of someone who could have been at one time a handsome man, but his scraggy face paid no testament to his former attractiveness. He wasn’t an old man by any account, hardly thirty years of age but he looked much older. The scarce hairs on his head were streaked with gray. His steely eyes stared vacantly, traumatic memories swirling in their pensive depths.

From afar, he looked like any common drug-addict. The kind of person kids whisper about and adults scoff at. But his eyes exuded grief.

He used to be an intelligent person, acing all his exams and being the epitome of sensibleness at one time. But with this gift, like with all gifts, came a curse. He was too arrogant and selfish to love. He thought it was beneath him to delve into such basic trivialities, which were nothing more than flaws in our psyche.

And like all gifts, it had an expiration date.

After a constant stream of successes, his downfall began. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

And he fell hard.

He lost his job and his fancy house and his shiny car. And at that moment, when he was lost and helpless, he realized he didn’t have anyone to turn to.

Fast forward one month later, later the same night, he lay draped over this musty couch, his hands lolling around. In front of him, was an empty bottle of whiskey.  Another bottle was on the end table, and he grappled with it, fumbling as it slid out of his drunken grip.

He wanted not to feel as his world crashed around him; as everything he held dear to himself loomed on the brink of being lost forever. He swung the bottle towards him and took a long gulp, the alcohol burning his throat. The burn was good. It distracted him.

He fell back into the couch, silent tears sliding down his cheek. His face was scrunched into a mask of stupor fuelled sorrow.

His hands shaking, he navigated to the pocket of his trousers and extracted a bunched up tissue paper. Slowly unwrapping it, a couple of pills fell into his lap. With trembling hands, he took two of them and put them in his mouth. He then swallowed them down with an abundant sip of whiskey.

Slowly, as they dissolved in his body, he felt his movements becoming sluggish and slow. He felt distant, a rising crescendo of emptiness.

Then all he felt was numbness: a morbid absence of feeling. It should have terrified him, but it did not. He felt himself craving the numbness. It took away the pain and fear. It took away the feeling of helplessness and loneliness. It took away the feeling that he had nothing to turn to.

Slipping into the relief, he allowed himself to drift away into the abyss.

As he drifted away, he felt one last pang of regret. Regret that he had no one to hold him and no shoulder to cry on. No one to tell him that it would be okay. No one to be his anchor.

In his final moments of consciousness, he realized what he had been missing his whole life. The bottle slipped out of his hand and crashed to the floor. He realized something, and a single cry of regret escaped his lips:

There is more solace in the embrace of a best friend or the kiss of a lover or the hug of a parent than any bottle or pill in the world.

He felt the ache of absence inside of him, and he curled up and waited for the reprieve.


This story is in an odd way dedicated to all those people who have been by my side when I needed them to be. Whom I can rely on and depend upon their unconditional and unwavering support and love. Especially my mother and a few of my close friends.

Dear reader, if you read all of that, please read this and try to keep those whom you love close to you. Love them shamelessly. Enjoy unconditionally. Sacrifice your pride for them if you need to, but never lose them. Because nothing hurts more than losing someone.

Except maybe a chainsaw.

 

Curtain Call

She looked at the tiny vial in her hands. The vial brimmed with a transparent liquid that caught the moonlight and sparkled deviously. She absentmindedly twirled the vial between her long slender fingers, savoring the feeling of power it accompanied. Her lips were quivering slightly and she felt slightly hot, despite the flapping wetness of the night air.

She gazed out of her window, out to the oak swaying in the windy night. Her windows struggled to smash shut, barely restrained by the rusty stopper. Swirling black clouds blotted out the moon, casting a twisted silver lining of steely light against a mass of black.

She felt the tears begin to rise as she felt the pressure pounding down on her. All through her life, she had been told what to do. She had been expected to study, and ace all her examinations and be the ideal daughter. Her father had made it no secret that he had wanted a son, and never in her life had she remembered a word or act of kindness from her father.

The only thing that she really liked to do was to act. It was her passion, and she felt it liberated her in a  way little else could. When she was on stage, acting, she didn’t have to be herself. She could delve into the personas of noble ladies and foreign diplomats and queens and strong independent women. When she was up there, she could be free. Whenever it seemed like everything was going downhill, she could turn to the theater.

Until her father had decreed that she had grown too old for acting.

And now, she sat in her room, alone. She sobbed heartily, her body wracking with dry spasms of despair. Her entire life, she had been helpless. She had been little more than a tool for her parents to fill their wishes through her entity. She was just a vessel. She could see her life ahead of her, and it was bleak. She didn’t want to lead such an existence at all.

Today was the day, she had decided, that she would take control for once. For the first time, she would do what she wanted and not care. No one had cared for what she had wanted, why should she?

When she had wanted to enroll in summer camp, her father had refused on the grounds that it was pointless.

She had never gone to a field trip. She wasn’t allowed to make any friends. She was allowed to just…exist.

She had had enough. She was going to rebel. One final act of defiance. One final act to break free.

With a steely resolve and shaking hands, she opened the vial and downed it in one gulp.

It was tasteless. 

For a second, as the rush began to subside, the enormity of her decision hit her. What this would mean.

And she came to the realization that she had nothing to live for. No one to live for. Nothing to grasp onto and clutch onto it for support. She envied everyone who had an anchor: a best friend, a parent, a sibling, a wife, a child, a puppy.

She slowly got up from her bed as she began to feel the contents of the vial coursing through her body. At first it began like a slow heat, slowly ascending till it felt like a blazing inferno trapped inside her veins, scorching her from the inside.

The clouds parted and a single moonbeam burst forth through the inky night and pirouetted into the room, illuminating her. She was surrounded by a diaphanous aureole of light, like a final spotlight. 

Her vision began to blur, her breathing growing shallow and painful. Her head hurt with an excruciating throbbing. As she tried to scream, she discovered her vocal chords would not obey.

A strong gust of wind blew, and the rusty stopper gave into the relentless force of the wind. The windows banged shut, the glass resonating with the force of the impact. As the branches of the oak danced in the wind, they bombarded her window.

The howling of the wind, the branches against the glass, it all sounded like the tumultuous roar
of a happy audience. This wasn’t the cacophony of conflict, this was the symphony of appreciation.

A slight smile curled up against the side of her lips, despite the pain. She began to picture, slightly, the thronging mass of people cheering for her in the theater.

Silhouetted against the moonbeam, she felt her legs buckling under the weight that her body had become. Groaning in pain, she sank to the floor as the pain began to crescendo.

Her back arched with mirthless agony of a body trying to persevere, she looked to be bowing for one last time. Her final curtain call. 

Then, as a single tear rolled down her cheek onto the curve of her smiling cheek, she fell to the ground. The pain began to fade, as did the spotlight. And before she knew it, she faded off into the darkness.

One final act of liberation.

One final bow.

Curtains close.

The Final Step

With the wind howling against my body, I stepped towards the precipice of the cliff staring out to the sea. The wind was belligerently pushing me back, raging with all its might against the direction I wanted to go. The night sky was clear and a million stars blazed overhead. In the middle of the sky, against a velvety black backdrop, hung the moon in all her glory. A glimmering organza of silvery light trickled down from her, casting itself upon the roaring waves and amalgamating into the black water, creating a sparkling visage of melded darkness and light. The tantalizing moonbeams flitted and danced over the vicious water, beckoning by their glitters. Calling towards them. Calling for me to join them.

The wind was cold. And I was clad in just a flimsy shirt and jeans. I had no idea what to wear and I wasn’t aware that there existed any proper attire for ending one’s existence. And I wasn’t too concerned about pneumonia mainly because I didn’t think I would be alive so long for it to pose a problem to me.

I took a deep breath. The frigid air burned my throat but I didn’t care. I felt alive. They say you never feel as alive as when you are near death. They are right.

It was like my body was alerting me to what I was giving up. Because suddenly I felt aware. More aware than I had ever felt before. I was aware of each muscle, each tendon and each nerve in my body. I felt my heart beating ferociously inside me, as if savouring its last moments. I felt the adrenaline coursing through my system. I felt my brain go into overdrive, filing through all of my memories and thoughts, desperately searching for something to dissuade me from my intent. But I didn’t worry. I calmly let my life flash before my eyes. I was in no hurry.

Beneath me the sea was vehemently crashing against the cliffs, the resounding sound amplified by the surrounding cliffs. The resonating sound was like a cacophony around me. The timeless chaotic music of the sea.

My throat was dry. My eyes were dry. My mouth was dry. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t sad. I was just…done.

Too long I lived with the pain. For too long I had survived with these feelings bottled up inside me. I had kept them holed up inside me, stashing them in the back of my head, burying them. Now the dam had burst, and the flood had ravaged me. I was now ready to end it.

The pain had been set free, a demon destroying my happiness.

The regret had been unleashed, a monster ruining my memories.

The hopelessness had been unchained, and now every shred of resolve had been eviscerated.

And I realized what the problem was. My existence caused more pain than it did relief. I was a source of endless discomfort to all those around me. To all those who cared. I didn’t want to cause any more pain. I was tired of hurting others. I was tired of disappointing them. Of disappointing myself.

I was a disgrace.

I was a burden.

I was nothing.

I take one more step. My feet are now on the edge, I am perched precariously on the edge. This thin rock under my feet is the only thing separating me from death; from bliss; from freedom.

I look down to the jagged rocks and the angry waters below me.

I look up to the stars twinkling with such earnest.

I look ahead to the horizon and see sea as far as my sight goes.

I open my arms.

The wind howls again, this time its not that adamant. This time its a melancholic wail. This time its pleading.

I stand on tiptoe.

I am ready.

One last breath.

A single tear escapes my eye and slides down my cheek.

My mouth curls into an involuntary smile.

I send a silent prayer of forgiveness to my friends and family, but they’ll be happier without me.

With that I swing forward on my feet and launch myself over the edge.

The wind whistles in my ear. It beats across my face. It is mind numbingly cold. The water is rushing towards me. The moonlight is reflecting off the water, its iridescence is mesmerizing.

I close my eyes.

I’m flying.

I’m free.

Then there is the impact.

I don’t even feel the pain.

All I feel is silence.

I feel disconnected.

I feel the bliss.

Then I feel no more.