F I C T I O N
Jannatul Ferdous Tulona
Rahel took a second sip from the teacup on the table to wash down the lump of anxiety blocking her voice. The next second, she cringed and regretted. What remained in the cup now was toxic, metamorphosed milky ice-tea with an odd, obnoxious taste. The expression on her face must have been equally odd too, for it made Miss X break into a brief giggle and sealed her lips with the shadow of a smile afterwards. Rahel discovered four new facts about her companion as she watched her laugh out loud for the first time. They were:
1. She could comprehend humour, meaning she was not mentally retarded.
2. She had a bad case of cold, that gave her a slightly raspy giggle and a risky nose that erupted into a mini snot blizzard along with the trigger of any reflex.
3. Two of her front teeth and one in the lower set sported three large holes altogether and made her momentarily transform from about eight to eighty, upon exposure. This could also be considered one of the multiple mysterious reasons, or the major factor behind her unwavering act of solemn silence.
4. The last discovery was fundamental, as it left Rahel devoid of any doubts about the conclusion that she was, indeed, in deep trouble. Despite all her other apparent flaws, the malnourished copper-brown wild bush of hair, sun-burnt skin painted thickly with snot and sweat now, nails on both hands and feet rich with dark, dirty diggings to an extent that suggested she lived underground, the secret flaw in her teeth that peeked out as she laughed, blessed her with an unmissable, candid cuteness. In the case of Rahel, it caused the lump in her throat to pass down, and dangerously settle over one corner in the left of her chest.
A little encouraged though, she offered a half-smile to X and picked up the untouched red packet of biscuits sitting between them, in search of something else to offer next. When X looked away to face the wall in response to the proposal, she accepted awkward silence to be the dignified, and the only option available.
Rahel sighed, got up, and walked out of the cabin to retire from her exhausting trail of efforts with a cigarette. The scene outside was a surrounding of eye-soothing tranquil, a classic version of blue waves blended with floating greeneries and distant, mini black figures of fishermen’s boats. The sun had sailed midway across the sky, the perfect spot for her to watch over the little beings below toiling in this wrathful heat. Rahel wondered if today’s morning had been all an illusion.
She had opened her eyes to complete darkness, experienced a few seconds of unearthly silence, after which came floating again the noise that had woken her up. It sounded like the soft fluttering of wings, coupled with intermittent, faint whistles from behind her door. Half of her mind that was rational, assumed it to be the random chicks and kittens that strolled around the steamer like tourists all day long. The other half that was still sleep-deprived and confused, had no idea what it was but warned Rahel to stay away from it. ‘It’, however, went on long enough for her to wake up completely and check for herself, charging with annoyance. She opened the door to find a tiny figure standing behind it, half hiding, half hesitating. For a chick though, she was a little taller than usual, deeply drenched and covered in an oversized yellow frock, flapping her tiny arms to stop shivering and breathing from her mouth, making weak whistles in the process.
If it were not for the whips of bone-rattling chilly winds and rain relentlessly attacking her, Rahel would have stood there for a considerable amount of time, staring at the small, scared face under the flashlight of her phone. But, instead, she stepped aside and let the half-frozen chick hop in, and stepped outside, sensing her mission would be futile nonetheless.
Outside, it was dead dark and cold, and not a soul in sight on the roof of the steamer. Influenced by adrenaline and temporary bravery, Rahel had charged with her fists on the only occupied cabin among the four neighbouring hers. The sixty-something-aged couple inhabiting it ignored her altogether, but the clouds growled more furiously than ever before in all this time, and Rahel scurried off to her room like a scared child.
The storm ravaging the sky and sea had eventually shredded off its anger and nature had returned to normalcy, Rahel being the only exception, experiencing the most unusual day of her twenty-seven years of life. She had developed an active dislike for kids from the time she used to be one herself, and with age, the dislike had grown old to become fear, that intensified largely in case of stranger children. Despite this tendency, Rahel had sincerely tried in extracting any information about the identity of Miss ‘X’, while maintaining friendliness. She’d adopted the resilience with which often her mother kept repeatedly inquiring about Rahel’s thoughts on marriage, and had asked the girl much simpler things only, her name and how she had ended up at the roof of the steamer at four in the morning, all in vain.
Except when Rahel tried to talk to her, the girl seemed to have slipped into her new environment like a cold foot into a woollen sock, in complete comfort, watching Rahel’s whereabouts with wide-eyed amusement, perched on the tall stool beside the table. Only upon being questioned, many of her face muscles would tighten and thin eyebrows slightly bend into a formidable frown, her shoeless feet would stop their rhythmic rocking beneath the hem of her frock, which she would keep clenched in one tiny fist, and her chapped lips pursed into a narrow line to complete the stern avatar.
Rahel sensed a solid pull at her sleeve as she stood leaning on the railing of the roof, a similar sternness unknowingly painted on her face as she reminisced and worried. It was the girl, holding out Rahel’s noisy Nokia with a call from home. She slumped down on the floor before she picked up, already tired of her mother’s disapproval.
“Yes, Ma. I’m still on the way.”
“No, Ma. I’ve eaten, food is awesome.”
“Yes, I’m taking pictures. Everyone here is volunteering.”
The lady on the other end took little regard of her sarcasm or troubled tone and ran the conversation by herself: A lecture on the perils of journeying by steamers—highlights the additional hazards of being young, alone, and a woman on top of that.
A minute passed in complete peace after Rahel hung up with a final, “Yes, Ma. I’ll have lunch.”
Just then, Rahel heard almost silent sobs. For a moment she thought it was her inner voice. It was, however, X, she found out, turning to the shadow beside her.
Since they had first met, Rahel found herself at utmost unease at this point. She patted X’s head lightly, like she was a tiger’s cub. Nevertheless, the tinge of touch switched on a circuit of secret pain and trauma inside the body that was only too small to host it all, and finally resulted in an explosion. She held onto Rahel as strongly as her tiny fists allowed, the silent sobs having broken into shock waves of violent vibrations. It was finally her turn to repeat dialogues, and as she went on wanting to go back to her Ma in loud, uncontrollable cries, Rahel repented over not appreciating the blessed previous act of silence. When the initial outburst of grief had subsided, it left behind X’s lost voice. Breathlessly, she narrated the sequence of events she remembered from recent times leading her to Rahel’s door, sadly, finally ending again with an appeal to see her Ma. By that time, however, Rahel had come to realise it was an undoubtedly impossible and an immensely cruel wish to be true. The girl had a name and a mother, until last night. She had a father too, until last year.
Following his untimely death at an accident, it seemed their luck had been buried too since then. From modestly poor to homeless, their hardships had over time grown, wrestled, and strangled them till they had reached the edge of the world. Finally, it was all going to be over, Bilu (who somewhat still remained by the pseudonym X in Rahel’s mind) explained, as her Ma had explained. They were moving to a “better place”, with more rice for the two of them and less work for her Ma.
The whole of yesterday, Bilu had held her heart and hopes high, tottering with joy on her heels on her way to the terminal, a daydream about the other end of the journey blurring the vision needed to notice the aloofness in her mother. She remembered getting cold as they waited on the roof, snuggling up under her Ma’s smelly shawl and steely embrace while the ship was still stagnant. Just then, the clouds had growled for the first time that night, and her Ma, as if shaken by an alarm, got up, and left for the toilet.
Soon, the ship had set sail, the dark clouds too, and Bilu watched and waited. The storm in the sky and the one inside her grew with the same pace that night, both reaching their peak just when Bilu had finished a frantic, futile search all across the ship for her Ma half an hour later. After that, there was nothing to remember, she shivered as she recalled, except a numbing, choking loneliness.
As much as Rahel felt like joining Bilu in the sobbing, she raced her brain restlessly to find a way to make it stop somehow. Bilu made her second wish in a while, much to the ease and surprise of Rahel, meekly whispering she was hungry. Rahel would have seized the chance at lightning speed anyway, however, honestly admitted about the horses galloping in her tummy too. Their shadows touching, together they set out for the canteen downstairs.
“You know, I’m so glad Ma didn’t join me this time, all she does is yell at me anyway,” Rahel announced at the empty lunch table to burst the bubble of silence before it engulfed Bilu and took her back to her home of melancholy. She looked intently at Rahel, half puzzled, half curious, contemplating whether or not to let out a similar secret complain. The contemplating didn’t stretch too long, Bilu was as effervescent as a bottle of Coke that accidentally fell open, letting out one by one tales of unfair punishments with bubbles of mischief in her large, unblinking eyes.
“Ma had picked up b-a-d words a few months ago and yells them at everyone nearby!” she whispered at b-a-d and shook her head, gravely, utterly disappointed.
“Once I scraped my knees playing cricket with Rinku, and she had threatened to chop my legs off and hand them over to use as bats next time!”
“She never gets me ice-cream or candy-floss, but the time I had eaten from Rinku’s blue candy-floss, she slapped me till my cheeks turned blue!”
By the time the rants had ended, her tea-coloured cheeks were cherry red from suppressed sulks.
“I think it’s good that your Ma didn’t join you either,” Rahel suggested solemnly.
“Tell you what, when we get off the ship we’ll search and find her, but as long as you’re here…” she finished the idea with a wink, lighting up a flicker of mischief-muddled hope in the angry brown eyes waiting for justice.
In cue with their conspiracy, the canteen boy arrived with one large tray topped with steaming bowls containing colourful curry and hills of plain white rice. Rahel served out a generous pile of rice to her guest, who kept staring at the bowl, so she served some more, and then a little more, until more than half the dish was plated out. The same happened in case of the curry and dal (watery lentil soup), and in the end, what remained of the chick was only an ear to ear grin wide enough to be visible from both sides of the mini-mountain of food in front of her. They declared a race on who finishes first, and Rahel to her own surprise, lost. Bilu was noticeably ecstatic. She looked down at the balloon of a belly now peeking out from her parted shawl with pride and content, her own tiny trophy. Watching her face lit up, Rahel realised that the shamefully simple lunch of extra spicy egg curry and distasteful dal was a feast for the starved child. They washed off their hands on their plates and walked away from the table, one too full and happy, one too small and guilty.
The first floor was clogged with containers and people, and the smell of food and business. The second was made for cabins mostly, also featuring a narrow space for no use, instead of a verandah. Ultimately, they were back on the roof, Rahel midway her second smoke of the day. Her friend turned out to have an inappropriately greedy appetite for her age, as she expressed an outrageous demand of a cigarette. As promised before, she was allowed to ‘have fun’ and a Benson. The fact that it was unlit never bothered her, since she seemed to enjoy it ten times more than Rahel, taking in mighty fake puffs and blowing out a stream of spit bubbles instead of smoke. All she got for punishment, for spit-showering the railing enclosing the roof, was a pinch on the tip of her risky nose, that fired back an avalanche attack of snot, wetting Rahel’s hands.
A cult of unidentifiable black birds fluttered away above their heads just then, inquisitive over the imperfect melody of a child’s squeals of laughter gurgling in the lazy late afternoon air.
Because the eight-year-old was an expert in devising entertainment like all eight-year-old people, both of them failed to notice the time slyly, swiftly, melting the day to dusk. Bilu urged, and later enforced a lice-eradicating session, picking phantom lice off Rahel’s bob meticulously like a monkey, despite her repeated, vigorous denials of having lice, or much hair on her head at all. It was only a trailer of a malicious prank, which later turned to a takeover of her body by Bilu, who sat on her head claiming it throne to herself, her legs flung over Rahel’s neck and swinging with the wind like a paper doll’s. Long after, when the tyrant had run out of breath, she returned Rahel to her body and got off to rest. Together beside each other, at that moment, they looked and were a family of vagabonds, with mad hair and crumpled clothes, sharing the same smile and smell, and by some magic, a piece of childhood too.
The other passengers in the steamer took little regard for them, except a fancy hippie seller who had come to the roof to try his luck. He carried with him a wide assortment of weird products, the most eye-catching of them all being a monkey. Bilu inspected his items – colourful soaps, flashy ornaments, ointments that worked miracles, dolls, hats, horns, and whatnot. Yet ultimately, it was the monkey that won her heart, to Rahel’s horror. She tugged its tail, made faces at it, tried to doll it up with the tacky jewellery from the cart, and ended up loving it. The hippie having sensed her intentions, or probably genuinely annoyed at this point, began pressing for a purchase, or to stop touching his ‘item’. Bilu put up a desperate act of wooing Rahel instantly. Watery eyes and a pleading pout didn’t help, so she stomped around the roof yelling, “Please!” for a while (which seemed more of a threat than a request), and lastly hung herself from Rahel’s sleeve, swinging from there, demanding to go on until Rahel gave in. She had the least idea of what was going to happen next, as Rahel picked her up and fled to the cabin, closing the door on the hippie’s face, leaving both him and her too stunned to burst into protest.
“You seriously did not think I’d buy you a monkey, did you?” she blurted out, sensing the angry cloud of silence preparing to condense into a torrent of tears on the tiny face. This thankfully fed her anger to fume more instead of raining off, making her look away and resume playing mum. Rahel let her be and busied herself with a book. About an hour passed and the silence stung like a thorn in a foot, urging Rahel to take it out.
“I’m going downstairs, will be back in a while,” she spoke to the walls, as her friend sat in her old spot, still as a statue. Rahel locked the door and headed down to the dining, smug and apprehensive at herself for coming up with an ingenious idea to fix Bilu, at last. The crowd in the dining had skimmed out, making Rahel’s search easier. She found the vendor she had spotted during lunch, in a corner behind the stairs. Like other candy-floss sellers, he didn’t carry a long rod with the sweet-sticks prodded onto it. Instead, he carried them in a wide-faced bamboo bucket.
Rahel picked one at first from the pretty, pink bouquet of candy-flosses, thought for a second, smiled and announced, “I’ll have them all!”
Her giddy jog towards the cabin was halted by a tall, brooding figure standing beside her door. It was her neighbour, looking concerned. The old man signalled Rahel to come near. She obeyed, only curious about his interest in her. “Married?” he asked first, his small eyes shrinking smaller with suspicion into wrinkled eye bags. Rahel was genuinely stunned now, yet managed to pretend otherwise.
“No, why?” she replied sternly.
“That girl… yours?” He went on with his query, ignoring Rahel’s altogether. She repeated her reply, more sternly this time, visibly vexed. This time he softened a little, pity popping up in his eyes. “I sort of…guessed. Where did you find her anyways?” he asked.
Rahel sighed and began explaining the tragedy, not having to complete the story as he finished it for her, halfway. “They never have any real family, these people.”
He shook his head shamefully. “Who knows if she was even her real mother?” He suggested.
“I really don’t understand why you are so…friendly with her.” The question came out, and he glared at Rahel, snatching her speech. The man apparently knew she would fail at this one.
“It is best if you stay as far as possible from these.” ‘These’ could be anything, according to him, trash, toys, a nameless faceless girl. After all, they were all the same.
“I was thinking of reporting to the local police station for her Ma,” Rahel let him know, not trusting her voice or idea anymore. He blew it off with a snigger, nodding skeptically at her.
“There are missing cases for the lost, Miss, not the abandoned,” he said, unquestionably right. He left after leaving a little valuable advice and a “Good-night” for Rahel that she barely heard, shaken out of her spirit.
She returned to her room, mind elsewhere, knees weak. Only when she slumped to Bilu’s stool did she notice her on the bed, drowned in deep sleep. She sighed heavily, hoping the weight on her heart would leave too, as she watched the unloved bouquet of candy-flosses waiting on the table. A thousand questions fought in her mind. The realisation hit her over and over again, each time stinging more; the obnoxious old man was only speaking the terrible truth. She felt hot anger slapping her too, for being foolish like a child, with a child. What was she even thinking? Why did she have to care for a child whose own mother clearly did not? She never even liked kids, she remembered in dismay. However, as she walked over to take a closer look at the terror, she also realised how the last fact was a blatant lie. She had never been in contact with a child this long to challenge herself, and now that she did, she stood ironically defeated, inexplicably affectionate for an atom bomb, waiting to tick off in time.
A thief, soundlessly, she began packing up her scattered books and belongings into the bag. She could not take Bilu home, neither find her Ma, nor look her in the eye to confess all that. She would leave early morning when the steamer hits land, she decided with a dead heart.
The wait was a punishment she allowed for herself, as she lay awake and alert on the bed, concentrating on the mysterious gurgles murmuring from Bilu’s tummy instead of the powerful punches of guilt inside her own. When her eyes opened next, she was again wide awake and alert, also alarmed, as she realised it was too late. Yellow rays of sun pierced into the cabin, and in all that light, she discovered the room to be empty. The girl had disappeared like a dream. Rahel for one hideous, shameful moment, panicked and looked around to check if her bag was gone too.
But it was there, and so were the candy-flosses on the table. Bilu wasn’t a thief, after all. Rahel shivered slightly and realised she had somehow picked up a fever overnight, and to her utmost surprise, noticed a smelly shawl draped around her body, just then.
Jannatul Ferdous is a procrastinator by day, and a poet by night.