Man woke up and looked about. The bedroom was bizarrely empty. It looked unfamiliar, as if he had never lived in it. The mosquito net, folded on the two arms of the bed, looked like a ghost flopping on its belly. The crumpled stash of dirty clothes lay motionless at the corner of the room. He could see his wife’s bra. Its wavy surface told him that she had worn it at least for a week.
Woman had gone off to her duty very early in the morning. The solitude of the morning stayed with him. He was happy, he felt, to have got a new life that no man to his familiarity had ever found. He sat on his bed with an overwhelming joy that came through a dream. And it made him happier that that there was nobody in the house to share this uncanny happiness with.
After a few minutes he went to the toilet and turned on the tap. But only a few drops of water trickled from it onto the faded mosaic floor. He could see a little water in the big pail – black, stagnant, unused. He didn’t dip the grimy mug to scoop it. It was only when he saw the stained commode that an old thought resurfaced on his mind: they were living like den animals in this two room flat without any veranda, dining, or ample windows – a cursed fate, enslaving.
He came out of the toilet with alert steps, as if afraid to wake up the other self he had lost last night. Nothing would have awakened him just then. His breakfast was ready in the other room, but he wouldn’t sit at the unvarnished table, the only other furniture in the house besides a small bed that his wife had bought last year. He put on his office clothes – a striped, black pant and a wrinkled grey shirt – and slowly closed the door and started climbing the stairs. It always took three minutes to reach the third floor from his door, but he didn’t count it today. He rang the calling bell of his house owner, paid seven thousand taka house rent and started for the bus stop. As he walked, he planned a few things that were required now.
Soon he got on a bus full of passengers, and when it began to pull out he became truly curious about his future, a strange infinity he was yet to realize. He had thought calmly before leaving his home that he was going to submit a resignation letter. Yes, today, and a few things later…because last night like a divine promise, he had learned through a whispered dream: that he was going to live an eternal life with the first sigh of the morning on his face!
He considered the milling crowd on the street and realized that it was the first day of spring in the Bengali year. The vernal euphoria breathed frenziedly in the city, and star-crossed lovers, clad in green-yellow sari and red panjabi, were promenading on pavement, fairground and parks. Trees, dressed in parrot-green leaves and newly bloomed flowers, stood gazing down at the busy street. After crossing Science Laboratory intersection, he noticed a single tree standing alone on the street divider. Its incarnadine flowers made him look deeper into his life. For a long time he had found himself a lose brick in the vast structure of the city – silenced, vanquished by its trackless growth that always made him feel slighted. He considered himself unlucky to have born in a small country, was ashamed of its pettiness, of it producing millions who couldn’t feel, like him, the magic of life. So every day, with a sacred wish to fade into an absolute oblivion, he waded through all these places, knowing that he was a mere university graduate, a fact that turned him into a cashier for fifteen thousand taka. His siblings waited in the village for his money, fees they needed for schools so they could also lead a slave’s life at his age!
This euphoria around him, he knew deep in his mind, was going to end soon, sooner than these lovelorn people would ever know. And he thought at the moment, with an absolute pride, that he had no connection with all these festivals of the world. His heart kept fluttering in that mysterious dream that changed everything in his life. Now that he had an eternal life the past seemed to him nothing but a faded memory laden with troubling affairs and issues that had tormented him for a long time. He had been snubbed by many – in his village, office, and even in New Paltan lane where he had been living for the last two years. He had lived a ghost’s life, and the wretched being, who made it even worse with a false promise to send him off to a land of many opportunities, was now to be a damned ghost as well – he decided this with a suppressed joy.
He felt a plume of excitement rising in his heart as he took to his heel with a murderous wish and got off the bus at Mirpur. He could plan now everything so easily, realizing that life had finally given him some respite. The dream was a bellwether; it ushered him away from his troubles, made him do things he had long wanted to do. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel how strange it was that everybody was going to die. Death, like his murky past, seemed to be an unusual thing for him now.
There were only a few people in the office. He had come half-an-hour earlier today and whisked everyone off to his desk, the second lowest rung in the office after the doorman and the peon. Switching on the computer, he soon started typing a letter in a sarcastic vein:
Maestro Apparel Ltd.
I always meant to say it was a dog’s life here in this office! Every second I spent here in the last two years I have felt it. I have been always treated like a dog. I have never disobeyed you, never hoped for any grant or promotion because I knew it would be futile to argue with someone whose standard of living is way different than mine. Luckily, as it will always be, I am now above all earthly promotions. Cheers to my dream! I have been granted an eternal life! So, on this profound day, as a token of faith in my dream and the eternity of life, I hereby resign from this job.
With canine sincerity,
Giving the enveloped letter to the half-smiling peon, he left the office silently. People kept thronging the street like the vernal breeze that blew on end, stirring leaves and hearts of the city dwellers. The breeze touched his thin, uncut hair and tousled them, making him feel more confident than ever, confident about what he had determined earlier on the bus.
But soon it struck him as curious what if all these people were given an infinite life! Would they move frenziedly like this after knowing that this short spring, some futile months on the calendar, was to cave in to the hot sweltering summer days, breathing ominously on spring’s nape? He felt detached from everyone, anything around him, and glided past the crowd and got on another bus that would take him to Savar, miles away from the city, where lived the wretched being he was going to kill.
He had already killed him in his head a thousand times, leaping into a violent attack with a sharpest knife and hacking him to death – painfully, mercilessly. He reached such a state of mind that when the shady businessman opened the door he hit him almost mechanically, with a wooden flower vase full of purple orchids, as though he had already rehearsed the act many a time. And when the victim passed out, he trussed his hands and legs with a bed sheet, and cut his vein, flesh, and ligaments with a frenzied pleasure that he felt in the vernal breeze. There was nobody in the house, as if the lone businessman were waiting for his predestined death. Never for a single moment did he feel that he had killed someone for the first time. Even if he felt so he would have said to himself that there was always something that people do for the first time in life.
Some of the maimed limbs lay scattered in the toilet. Bloodstream, dripping onto the perfectly tiled floor, made an eerily red pool. He looked at the trophy of his act and felt that he had undid some wrongs done not only to him but to a slew of people who were waiting for revenge in the nooks of their heart. But this thought didn’t stay with him for long, as one could only possibly create more dead men than living ones. So, with a frenzied excitement, he gouged out the eye of the man with a sharp penknife.
The device proved handy, really handy! He did it exactly like a scene of his childhood film: A crow pecking at a dying cat’s eye and gouging it out slowly, diligently, with its long hooked beak. The cat tried to paw the crow away with feeble cries, but the crow knew it could never do so. He pursued his long-felt desire: the eye, cut from the socket, hung on some clumps of fibre until he pried it off entirely and put it on the dead man’s navel! He washed his body like a ritual and left the house, scaling a brick wall in the backyard.
The lust for blood finally began to ebb away, and he headed back to his home thinking about the same vernal futility of life, looking at the throngs of people in a vividly adorned world with tusks of dust storming the city sky, masking everything with a euphoric feeling and showing a false face to innocent souls.
Woman noticed a smile written on her husband’s face when he reached home, though she realized that he was not smiling at all. She didn’t dare to ask him, for when Man had lost his hope – since the last year’s spring – to go abroad he turned morose, especially at night. It was because the mindless cacophony of the backstreet neighbourhood became unbearable then. They could have gone back to her mother’s home in the village to start a new life, but that would not be a good choice for her husband. It was not a game, yet she had run out of her skin, had been doing her part the best way she could to keep her family sewn with love and happiness.
After dinner Man sat on the bed, by the only window in the room that overlooked the lane of their neighbourhood, and addressed to his wife in a low, mysterious voice, “I need to tell you something. Though it may be hard for you to get it…” His voice turned still, as deep as an echo coming back from the depth of an abyss: “Now for an unspecified reason, I can’t see you age and die before my eyes. It will be too hard, too complicated for both of us. I want to divorce you or you to divorce me. You are free to start your life once again as I have already done today, though it would be beyond your wildest thought to imagine how I did it.” His eyes rested on tailgating rickshaws in the street, scurrying like ants. His wife – flummoxed, speechless – tried to fathom her husband’s words as it was the first time this tall and meek man said something in such a strange manner. She felt she was standing at the edge of a precipice and tried to realize if it was a mere illusion. The marriage was an irrevocable sanctity in her life. He could hit her, abuse her, but should never say something that periled such an ancient sanctity. When he even said slightly contemptuously that she could look for a new partner since she still had the remnants of her youth, she broke into sobs and tried to hide her face on his chest.
As the night wore on, Woman snuggled against Man’s chest. They made love afterwards, but his mind passed through a barren land full of dead faces with gouged-out eyes that he detested and tried to wipe off his memory. Only when he fell asleep – as if a ship had been docked after a long voyage – did he feel an uncanny peace inside. But he had to wake up with a start at dawn to feel a growing strain in his head that had been brewing up during his sleep. It was because he dreamed something completely opposite than what he had dreamed last night. He could hear – still whispering into his ear and tolling like an ominous bell at this quiet hour of the day that he was going to die today at sunset! It snatched his sleep away, leaving him utterly clueless to a chain of events that had happened yesterday.
Confused by such a mysterious whisper, he couldn’t even think how to take this prophecy; an exacerbating strain in his head also blunted his feeling. Woman slept beside him almost peacefully, breathing out as deathly as his new prophecy – though ruts of deep sadness were visible all over her face. He killed the tenderness that tried to crop up in his mind and lunged towards the washbasin in the toilet. He threw up for a few minutes and sat for hours until the sun made its way through the old curtains of the window.
He tried to remain calm and think why he would be prophesied for an eternal life on a night if it was to be revoked the following night with a new prophecy. It inflicted him with feelings too unbearable, too distressing to express. For a moment he thought he had been completely blundered by two back-to-back prophesies which could not be more than some nightmarish hunches, and also felt that before sunset everything was going to be fine, and this second prophecy would turn out to be a false one as well.
He never watched TV like his wife; rather, he read old magazines of assorted kinds in his spare time, not because he wanted to learn something from them but because he discovered that reading gave him some kind of shelter and solitude. He had always felt that nothing was enough in the city he lived: something newer, something speedier was always taking up the place of something else, an old rule of the world that was starkly visible in the changing colors of the city buildings, in its billboards, streets and people. It was this realization that had made him a silent spectator of things happening around him, and his morose face had worried his wife ever since. He switched on the TV and watched the news calmly, though a storm was racing in his mind. It showed the corpse of the businessman he had killed yesterday.
He realized that he had fallen into the strangest stage of his life. In his college days he had contemplated a lot – on god, religion and mysticism in life. He had forsaken his religion – Islam – as part of his conscious choice, a choice that didn’t make his life any better in later years. But now, as he left the house and his sleeping wife, he felt the need for something supernatural, something higher than him, that could explain the import of the two prophecies.
He went past Azimpur graveyard. A slew of mourners thronged the graveyard gate, with wreaths of flowers, rose water, and incense sticks. Their chants of the Quranic verses made him feel a little better, but he was dismayed soon. He remembered that the police was looking for him. Suddenly he laughed out so hysterically that an undertaker, whom he knew while living in this area for the last couple of years, looked at him suspiciously. He avoided exchanging niceties with him and thought if he was going to die at the sunset anyway why should he be afraid of getting arrested by the police?
Rickshaws trundled passed him as he walked on the street like a blind man, not looking at anything but feeling everything in his head. Hours later when the day changed its sides to noon, the world seemed to him more vivid and alive than before: the cacophony of human haulers, the ceaseless chatter of bickering sparrows on electric poles, the importunate prayers of street beggars, the laughter and candid conversations of jaywalking school goers – he listened to everything around him raptly, as though they were one long piece of music. He shut himself completely from what he needed to see around and walked from one end of the city to the other.
He stumbled and fell hard to his knees on the pavement. The pedestrians who helped him stand back thought he was drunk or even worse, a hash-smoker. In the evening he came back to the graveyard of his neighbourhood almost unknowingly. He was obsessed with thoughts of the second prophecy and its inevitable doom. Momentarily he blinked in the fading light of the sunset to see where he was but failed as soon as the high outline of trees dimmed before his eyes. He reached the old well at the end of the graveyard and smelled into it to recognize it was covered with lichen and moss. And soon he likened it to the abandonment of his own life.
A reeking odour from the well had been hanging in the air for the last fifty years. Leaning towards it, as he had been prophesied in his dream, he fell headlong into the leaden depth of the well. There was no witness to see him die; nobody to bid him a farewell of any sort. It was during his last breath that Man realized, as if finally waking up to reality, that he had been given a mortal day and a day of eternity to survive them, but he failed.
Mir Arif is an MFA (Creative Writing) candidate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His short stories have appeared in Kitaab, Himal Southasian, The Penmen Review, Six Seasons Review and Arts & Letters. His short story, “Adrift”, was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2019