F I C T I O N
Dogs. A pack of stray dogs chasing her. Although she tries to outrun them, they catch up to her. Just when she decidedly gives in as their prey, she realises, they weren’t hunting her down. She kneels to pat them. They jump around her gleefully. She stands up and looks around to find herself in the middle of barren land. The place echoed with emptiness and a painful void. She can’t fathom where she is or how she came here. She could swear she was in her bedroom back in New York even an hour ago. The dogs have left by now. She wonders where they went. She starts walking aimlessly with no sense of direction. Taking a few steps onward, she stumbles on a moss-laden brick bed. She bends forward to take a closer look.
No, it can’t be — she thinks to herself while picking the skull up with her hands.
Mariam woke up soaked in sweat. She gulped down an entire glass of water, but still felt thirsty. It was the fourth time she had had this dream this week. And she could swear it begins and ends in the same way, like a movie being reeled over and over again. She took a deep breath and tried to keep herself calm. The rest of the night was a blur in her mind. After tossing and turning for what felt like an eternity, she fell back asleep.
“Good evening, ma’am. How can we help you?” the hostess chirped.
“I believe there’s a table reserved for two by the name of Alex. Alex Burke.”
The waiter almost came immediately with a menu after Mariam was escorted to her table. “Just a glass of house white, for now, thank you.”
Picking it up from the table, she perused the menu. Although she knew what she was going to order, she mulled over other possibilities to kill time. Her train of thought was interrupted by a sloppy kiss on her forehead from her boyfriend, Alex.
“I’m late, again. How do you beat me to it every time?” he said half-panting. “So, what are we celebrating?”
“Nothing. I was thinking of going to Bangladesh.”
“That’s… that’s so out of the blue. I mean, I understand you want to visit your country but you haven’t been there since…”
“Since when? My father’s death? You don’t have to remind me,” Mariam cut him off bluntly.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to upset you. When do you plan on leaving?”
“Next month,” she replied.
“Will you be long?”
“A week or two, I suppose.”
Except for a few instances of “Can you pass me the salt”, the rest of the dinner sunk into an unwonted silence. Later that night, Mariam booked a flight to Bangladesh as soon as her leave was granted.
Mariam Bariq, 29, is an accomplished lawyer. Her soft features would often cause people to mistake her for being incapable of professional courtroom innuendos. Her father was a prominent film director back in the ’80s. He raised her as a single parent and one of his most important responsibilities was to never let Mariam discern the absence of her mother who passed away while giving birth to her.
While waiting for the plane to board, Mariam closed her eyes and reminisced about the last shred of memory she had of her native land, crying amidst a group of strangers as the final remnant of her past succumbed to cancer.
Dogs. Barren land. Brick bed. A skull.
“This is your captain speaking. We have started our descent and in a short while, we will be landing at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. I hope you had a comfortable…”
Mariam had made arrangements to go to her hometown beforehand. She reached a nameless village where her father’s house stood proudly as his only legacy. Although affluent in his time, Azhar Bariq was known as a humble and down to earth man who was true to his roots.
Mariam was received by a couple of villagers. Everyone was ecstatic to see Azhar Bhai’s Americanised daughter. Over lunch, she familiarised herself with some faces. By evening, she was sitting with the entire village while everyone took turns to boast about how significant a role they had in her upbringing using broken English.
“You have such nice thick hair today only because of me. Remember how I used to apply hot oil to your head every week?” Luna aunty yelled.
“She must only remember you for all the headaches you’ve given her with all that shouting, khala,” someone from the crowd shot back.
Mariam couldn’t stop laughing. She doesn’t remember the last time she had felt this serene and at home. Her mind wandered back to her life in New York. The thought of compensating with occidental manner every time someone looked at her funny because of her skin tone felt eccentric tonight.
Dogs. Barren land. Brick bed. A skull.
The next morning Mariam woke up with a knot in her stomach. She knew the time had come. Twelve years, she thought to herself.
The village looked even more scenic in the small hours. The grass gleamed under the heavy coat of mist. She absorbed the smell of freshly brewed tea coming from the frail wooden shops set up on the sidewalks.
After walking for another ten minutes, she finally reached the graveyard. She stood in front of the main gate as though she had turned to stone.
An elderly man asked, “Can I help you? Are you lost?”
“Huh? No, no! I’m not lost. Could you please tell me where Azhar Bariq’s been buried?”
“There it is.”
And surely, there it was. The moss-laden brick bed from her dream. Her father’s grave. She scanned around to make sure no one was in sight. Then, she kneeled down and started speaking in a hushed tone.
She thought for a while and continued, “Probably not the best way to start a conversation with the dead.”
She let out a soft chuckle that contrasted the tears in her eyes.
“There are a few things I wanted to tell you,” she paused as if she were expecting a reply from her father’s decayed body.
“This place has never been kind to me. It took away Ma and then you from me. I thought I could start afresh, somewhere far away from here. But, now I know, the piece of me that I have been searching for has been here all along. In our home.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat and wiped tears away from her cheeks.
“I’m sorry it took me twelve years to realise how selfish I have been. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me the most. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t visit you sooner. I love you, Baba.”
She stood in the middle of the barren land one last time. She called out for the dogs but they were nowhere to be seen. She took a few steps forward and expected to see the godforsaken brick layout. Instead, to her surprise, there stood a youthful man and a young girl hand in hand. Mariam’s face broke into a smile for now she knew, the last place she would think to look will always be her first place from now on.
As a single parent to three cats, Zara often struggles to balance between being a part-time student and a full-time procrastinator.