“Mum, this is delicious. Your panta is the best I’ve ever had!” Amir gushed, stuffing morsels into his mouth.
“Thank you, dear. Here, have some more. You look so thin, you don’t get enough food at the camp, do you?” Mrs Hossain, Amir’s mother, fussed over her son, delighted to see him after so long.
“We eat enough, Ma. Don’t worry,” Hassan hid his smile in a sip of water.
“I wish you could be back for good. I would cook you panta every day. And bhapa pithas with extra gur, just the way you like it.”
She smiled dreamily, thinking of the old days when she would find her seven-year-old son on their porch, picking out all the sweet, brown parts from his favourite dessert while the white crumbs remained on the plate.
Those days were long gone, Amir was a grown man now. A soldier, fighting for his homeland, risking his life for his loved ones. Such a brave boy she had given birth to— how could something fill you with so much pride and tear you up at the same time?
“Don’t cry, Ma. You’ll see me again.”
Amir’s words brought her back to the present, and she tasted the salty tears on her lips.
“When I come back, it will be just you and me and we will spend our days however you want.”
“Alright, alright.” The woman raised her hands in surrender. “Your bed is laid out and ready, now go to sleep like a good boy. What time will you be up?”
“I’ll be gone before you’re up, Ma,” he replied.
The old woman stayed up as long as her tired eyelids would permit her to, staring at her son, drinking in the vision of him sleeping peacefully. She didn’t want to lose his face, the way his eyebrows joined together in the middle of his forehead, the way a spot on his chin fell into a dimple when he smiled. She wanted every bit of him to be forever etched into her memory, hoping it would suffice until she saw him next. It never did. The next morning when she opened her eyes, he was already gone.
She went about her day cleaning and dusting. She brought down a photo frame from the wall, with a picture of Amir in it. As she wiped the glass, the glassy eyes staring back at her through the frame reminded her of something else. Someone’s eyes had stared at her in that way, but she couldn’t remember whose. As an eerie feeling crept over her, she hung the frame back up and went on with her daily chores.
All the while Amir was gone, her time was spent waiting for him. She filled her days with mindless activities such as cooking, cleaning, knitting blankets and sweaters, but her heart and mind were always with her son. Amir loved to wear her knitted sweaters during winter, so she stocked up those of different colours and patterns. She didn’t like visiting her neighbours anymore. Their probing questions made her uneasy. Ever since that fateful day, she had stopped interacting with them. What had really happened that day? She couldn’t remember. Her memory was not as strong as it used to be.
She counted the days, although she had no idea when he would be back. He never mentioned a specific date. As the weeks passed by she grew more and more anxious. One day, she decided to make Amir’s favourite—bhapa pithas—and sure enough, by nighttime he showed up to indulge.
“Your pithas are the best, Ma.” Amir licked his fingers, enjoying every bit of his pitha.
“Why don’t you go and see Jamal’s mother?”Amir’s mother asked, “She is always asking about you. She would like to see you.”
Hassan’s face grew dark. “No, Ma. I’d rather be here with you,” he replied with a small smile, avoiding his mother’s eyes.
“Why didn’t you come sooner?” Amir’s mother grumbled, “I waited and waited.”
“You know why, Ma. It’s not easy to visit from where I am.”
“No, I don’t. I don’t want to hear your excuses. You made me wait long enough.”
“Yes. You do, Ma. They’re not excuses.” Hassan grabbed his mother by the shoulders and looked into her eyes, “You can’t keep living like this, Ma. You have to remember.”
“No, no, no!” she pressed her hands over her ears. She was determined not to remember. The bloody shirt. The unbearable stench of blood—metallic, sweet, and sickening. The neighbours carrying the body into her house. The glassy lifeless eyes that had stared back and refused to answer her cries. The harder she tried to keep the images away, the more they surfaced and filled her head, until she was on the ground, sobbing loud enough to wake the entire village.
It all began to fall into place—the eyes from the photograph, why the neighbours’ questions had bothered her. They had simply wanted to console her, but she didn’t want to listen. She wanted to wipe the day from her memory completely, as if it had never happened. It had been working so well.
“It’s alright, Ma,” Amir knelt beside her, “It didn’t hurt much. I’m free of pain now. I can be at peace, but not until you have accepted the truth. Unless you stop waiting for me to come back, there will be no peace for me. I don’t have much time left. I don’t think I can be back again. Will you tell me a story? Like you used to?”
She sighed, and nodded. They settled down on the floor as she sat cross-legged, and he rested his head on her lap. As the tears continued to stream down her face, she began, “Once there was an old woman called Panta Buri…”
It was all Amir ever needed, a stomach full of bhapa pithas, and his mother’s voice lulling him to sleep while her hands stroked his hair gently. He closed his eyes and drifted off to an unknown world.
When she opened her eyes the next morning, her lap was empty. He was gone. This time he was truly gone, for good. And she had to accept the truth.
She stared into the distance, lost in thought. She had spent a long time in her imaginary little world, full of ghosts from her past but it was time to move on. She had a long day ahead of her. She had neighbours to make amends with, and sweaters to knit. If Amir could no longer wear them in this life, he would wear them in the next one.
Kashfia Hassan loves to write professionally and for fun.