Detainee 717


Chapter 21

In a sprawling room Salah sits alone inside a cage the size of his and Yasmin’s cramped bedroom at home.

In the last hour of his captivity, the much larger space surrounding the cage has been mysteriously silent, like a hidden wooded enclave where, blanketing smooth stones, a secret stream unfolds its stillness in the water’s flow. Yet the stillness is deceptive. Salah is the room’s only occupant, the hard wood floor and walls with their huge acoustic panels and high airy ceiling echoing only emptiness. No furniture adorns the room outside the cage. Molecules here move with the volatile soundless stealth of the burglar in the house who robs and flees before the sleepers awaken or, after robbing, stays and in an ecstasy of gratuitous violence unnecessarily kills.

Everything is quiet and sinister as a cold blue eye peering through the chiseled darkness of a keyhole. There is a door in the opposite wall but not one with a keyhole. Above the door, a large flat black screen held from behind in a bracketing fixture mounted to the wall. This screen is silent, a frame for a sleek rectangular abyss. Salah’s elbows are planted on the card table’s surface with cupped hands receiving the weight of his bowed head, as a basin cradles heavy water flowing from its fountain. Salah lifting his face and looking down almost expects to see his palms wearing a corduroy of worry imprinted by his forehead’s wrinkles. This is something Yasmin has told him many times, a kindergarten present in her tone reserving for him the seat nearest the teacher for the student needing remediation. Telling Salah with exaggerated weariness that the anchor of his frown drags all the flesh of his forehead down toward his eyebrows and the bridge of his nose. Doesn’t he know this, how it gives him the look, commonly seen in mugshots, of an ill-humored defiance darkly pinpointed and compressed at the brow and about the eyes? Her scolding is almost a lament, seeming to rise from some ancient provenance and having something to do with the long-suffering oversight women must eternally extend to men, over actions and behaviors that should ideally unfold as simple, self-explanatory, intersecting with a realm of mature common sense. Though her exasperation is always softened by playful affection, he could have assumed the adversarial role of the husband determined to exercise his unchallenegeable masculine sovereignity above all feminine oversight. In his Pakistan husband was a well defined persona handed down to men by history, tradition, by an ironclad lineage that carried the echo of the lion untamed, the imperial prowl and roar of ancient patriarchal generations. Even in America he had gradually come to see it was just the same. Between the two countries there were not many differences regarding how husbands were expected to handle themselves in relation to wives. Or maybe it would be more fitting to say that while differences did exist, they were only supercial. He had chosen not to resist most aspects of Yasmin’s oversight, but not because he was so advanced in his thinking about matters of gender – no: No. And this was distressing, that his ideas weren’t as forward-thinking as they should or could have been. He was committed to a course of nonresistance to her oversight only because he knew she needed to execute it; it was an outlet for her high-strung jittery temperament, the energy that without outward expression overflowed and funneled inward in ever-tightening self-destructive loops, finally racing without purpose along the frayed threads and meridians of nerves with nothing to attach their signals to except neurosis, a mind that never rested, never ceased to burn, lit with the fuel of affictive and obsessive images.

She would tell Salah how he was ruining his forehead with wrinkles, but beyond this, what would she say or think or feel if she could see him now? She would see the clothes he’d been forced to wear, the flabby orange pants cinched at the waist with a feeble drawstring, no shoes or socks, the kite of a large white T-shirt hanging from the thin wooden-frame bones of his torso. Wearing the kite of the T-shirt, he sees himself dangling high in the sky, lofted by unanchoring blue winds, attached to his body in the cage by miles of fragile string, looking down at the caged body and waiting for the moment when the string snaps and he floats away. Yasmin would assume that the abstract spatter of bloodstains on the T-shirt was Salah’s. She would have no way of knowing they had been caused by a sledgehammer exploding the skull and face of a corpse, no way of knowing that the T-shirt had been used to wipe from the floor some of the blood-swept shrapnel of brain matter and bone and then given to Salah to wear. He had been forced to put it on. The tall man held the shirt out, extended it between the cage’s bar toward Salah, and though he dangled it there wordlessly his eyes made an eloquent promise of the violence that would be innovatively delivered as retribution for any gestures of resistance, large or small. And so to prevent Yasmin from pulling out her own hair by the roots and weeping at the sight of him, Salah would try to explain that the T-shirt was not stained by his blood, but he would be unable to, his voice would be little more than an evaporation, fading into the air and leaving a hopeless stain of silence.

She would take stock of the full pitcher of water untouched on the table in front of him, the empty styrofoam cup, and see that the strength to drink had deserted him, that he sat with his neck drooping, limp as a doddering line of drool, unable to support his head. No longer in the car with his head swallowed by the black hood, waking to find himself strapped to the chair, Salah had nevertheless been able to witness his own thoughts in their post-drug drift through his head. It did not matter that the thoughts were specimens floating garishly in mental formaldehyde, anesthesized and surreal. What mattered was that the thoughts were his, possessions allowing him to locate an identity housed centrally and dependably inside his skull. Sometimes when he was at work in the store or sitting contentedly at the dinner table with his family, it would occur to him that it wasn’t really possible to build a permanent shelter for an essence, a personal identity called Salah Bhatti, on a foundation as impermanent and fleeting, as chaotic, as a veering stream of thoughts, twinkling as they did in and out of their mysterious astral existence with barely any reason or rhyme and traceable to no locale, whether coming or going. And so the contentment would quickly disappear, replaced by a cloud of confusion. But in this place he needed his thoughts, despite the precariousness of their status and the vague fear-sketched depictions they now stretched in a film before his eyes. Without them there was nothing familiar to cling to, nothing to underscore who he was; there was only an invasion of random events being forced on him from the outer world, a bludegeon of events used by the deputized representatives of some force or power that had haunted him before he fled Pakistan and still dragged a trailing shadow behind him after he had rushed blindly into America’s open arms: the soul-sick woman with amused eyes shedding her veils and dancing with her breasts so close to his face he saw the aureoles around her nipples puckering in sepia grains; the man with the physique of the biblical Goliath and the careening mind of a boy; the soul-sick man they both called K13, the one Salah intuitively understood would become his overriding concern, the one who would most tightly grip the reins of his fate, though he had disappeared when the woman was dancing and hadn’t returned. The one who had struck the cold face of the dead youth with the sledgehammer to sicken him, to pierce his heart with ugliness, to make him ashamed to be human.

After her dance the woman left for a short time and returned with the towering man, who threw the black hood over his head once more and handcuffed him, lifting him from the chair to his feet in a sweeping motion as though Salah were a broom, the warm weight of the man’s huge hands hooked heavy on his shoulders from behind as he was prodded and steered somewhere not far away. The giant said in a booming rumble, “Attention Mr. Bhatti (in France it’s attencion, in Spanish it’s atencion, we’re in English now so it’s attenSHUN), but did you know you ARE being detained against your will, that MAKES YOU a detainee, and the number of the detainee is 717, which is also known as the number of the beast?”

“Goddamnit Audi,” the woman said, “not today because it’s been one of my rare good days, desist with all this babbling, no more, or you’ll be the one who finds himself detained.” Another name that did not make sense to Salah, a man named after … what was it, an automobile?

“Haven’t you done enough to me?” this Audi cried. “Look what you made happen when you didn’t make the accident desist on my goddamn dropped-on head!”

The outburst was followed by the ripped-paper sound of a disciplinary slap across the face. The man voiced a small simmering grumble and abruptly fell silent. Even through the black hood Salah could smell and feel in the titan’s exhalations the forceful wind of garlic, the stale weather of garlic, a hot autumn of it. Salah was being navigated slowly down a narrow flight of stairs, his captors allowed him to take his time, and the sensation of his feet groping off the stair’s edge, of not seeing where he was stepping, was for him somehow worse than the physical pain caused by a blow would have been. His clenching toes inching timidly forward to meet the air. Audi laughed and the sound of the laughter sank to the bottom. To the bottom of what? Was he laughing at Salah’s clenching toes inching forward timidly to meet the air? Thoughts crawling through the head like frantic insects. This is how it would be all the time with blindness, every step forward would carry me deeper into uncertainly if I were blind. I couldn’t take it, I could only hope to be forgiven for killing myself. Because I would have to kill myself, there would be no other way. And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to your destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good. Then no, I would have to eventually learn to live as I must live, deep inside blindness. I won’t argue with her, with Taj about whether learning to live as you are made to live is the right thing to do. Salah remembered receiving the letter from his cousin two months ago concerning his dear father, Muhammad. Two months ago, and still this broken heart. But what else to expect? That he should tell me a lie? Farhan gives me the news about my father and tells me what he has to tell me. Dear Cousin Salah, your father Muhammad is going blind, please remember his advanced age, we were able to take him to a doctor who told us that he has macular degeneration and there is not much at this stage that can be done, but otherwise his health is good and may it continue to be so, inshalla, taking into consideration his extreme age. As though the giant had taken pity on him, Salah suddenly felt himself again swept up into the air and was then placed on the floor, he no longer had to feel his feet cringing as he slid forward to find the stair’s edge. Then the hood and handcuffs were removed and Salah was standing before a cage with spacious height and width, perhaps 15 X 12, in the middle of a much larger room with no furnishings and he went in and sat down on the floor in the corner. Audi left without closing the cage’s door, marching out of the room with high soldierly steps and swinging his arms exaggeratedly with youthful relish. When he was gone the woman who had meted out the disciplinary slap stepped into the cage. Her movement was frictionless as though concocted from ice, it was in a strange way coldly musical; at the same time, she exercised a graceless but god-like territorial appropriation that caused a sickening constriction in Salah’s experience of space and time, compressing and narrowing his sense of occupying to the fullest extent all the nameless nooks and crannies of his subjectivity, compromising his sense of possessing complete ownership over his inner realm of thought and feeling. He could no longer remember what the word here meant, because his connection to what the word signified had been completely severed. But he understood the meaning of the word there with a horrible clarity. Standing over him and looking down, this queen of time and space asked, “Did you ever think that you would find yourself in this situation one day?” Her eyes were full of penetrating hazel depth, welling with a supporting emotion he did not try to name to himself. Eyes that reflected the arcing flash and lightening thrust of sharp-edged steel weapons. Her only hint of softness: The wings of her hair, parted down the middle, were the color of a raven’s eyes and seemed swollen with a rich and avid shimmer, the layered and incremental blackness produced by a hypnotist counting a subject backward to zero. You would not say that she was a pretty woman when you were looking directly at her but you would say it in retrospect, after she was no longer in your presence. “What I’m saying is, did you expect that you would find yourself in just this predicament sooner or later?”

In this country Salah still had trouble sifting through the difference between questions that were meant to be answered and questions posed only for the effect they would have on the listener. For questions falling in the latter category, answers were not expected or necessary. Taj had explained that these kinds of questions were rhetorical, they were known as figures of speech. Salah suffered a moment of acute agony and indecision, not knowing whether the woman expected him to actually answer, and he bitterly and blindly blamed himself, felt the writhe and web of the rebuke in his chest. He did not want her to reveal her anger to him, did not want to glimpse the darkness beneath it. He had already seen K13 defile the body of the youth and knew that a person without respect for the dead would be unable to express respect for the living, and for that reason K13 was a man who would be incapable of finding any value in life itself; life was his nemesis and that made him a dangerous man. Even small children sensed something when confronted by death, Salah had seen as much years ago in Lahore, a child with his mother walking past the body of an old man who had collapsed in the street and died. Men had pulled the body onto the sidewalk and into the shadow of a watch repair shop, and the proprietor came out with a sheet to shield the body from the eyes of curiosity seekers until authorities could transport it to the morgue. But the child, perhaps four years old, although quickly pulled along by his mother, had already seen the body before the sheet could be applied, and he bursted out in hysterical tears. The mother swooped him up and, clutching her son protectively to her bosom, risked her life by crossing in the middle of the street, darting through the reckless wealth of traffic. As if the key to her and her son’s protection lay in demonstrating a recklessness greater than that of the drivers; or perhaps the act could also have been called an act of faith. Yet the boy struggled in her embrace until he was in a position that allowed him to stare over her shoulder at the covered body, and then he cried louder than ever; he suffered for the dead man. Even a child knew that tears and lamenting in the face of something as vast and sacred as death were appropriate, that the old man deserved them. Tiny though the boy was, something in him knew that he was crying for his own mortality, that just as he was shedding tears for the old man, he would one day, in a future he would not be able to imagine for decades, be inescapably singled out as the recipient of such tears; his turn and time would come. Salah had not seen the dancing woman defile a corpse or commit blatant acts of violence, but her restless eyes, as she looked down on him and asked him questions he did not know how to answer, unleashed a torrent of glances that was carcinogenic, assaulting his body with the aggressive zeal of a fatal disease. “Cat got your tongue? Listen, that wasn’t very nice of me, eating in front of you earlier without offering you anything, was it. Well, whatever my job is, it never entails being nice. And that’s just fine with me. Jesus, I sound bitter even to myself. I can imagine how it must sound to you.” He wanted her to go on, to say the words that would lead him to the edge of an understanding; he waited, but she paused and paused and paused. “That’s not true. Delete that. I cannot imagine.”

In that other inaugural room, the first one with the antique throne-like chair, the hulking man, wearing white gloves and something like a butler’s jacket too tight for an upper torso displaying an almost architectural expansiveness, had placed a folding table and stool in front of Salah with his reedy wrists and ankles clasped by the felt-lined restraints, the woman sitting on the stool and waiting, having once again donned her black string bikini top and tangerine-colored sari. Then the man left and returned with a tray bearing dishes, steaming plates, bowls and silverware, a single crystal glass, a white candlestick in a holder of pewter that remained unlit. He covered the table with a tablecloth that was so tyrannically white that Salah had the confused sensation his narrowed eyes were kneeling before it in submission. Without a sound she ate what was before her, the halwa-poori, savoring it, the muscles of her jaws just below the temples bunching almost imperceptibly and pulsing softly but insistently with each thoroughly chewed mouthful. Salah had no appetite but the sight of the meal became a feline slinking with caressive pleasure in a figure-eight around the ankles of memory, a purring recollection of many such meals in Lahore carrying him away. Until she summoned him back. “Listen to me, Salah. Sometimes something happens, I mean to me personally, and after it does, I realize I’m not surprised because something in me knew it would happen all along. Look back, now. Is this where you thought you might end up?”

So she wanted him to answer. He sat on the floor in the cage’s corner. His legs were stretched out lifeless and flat as though deflated, and he felt compelled to look at them, looking with dull and perplexed fascination. “Maybe I’ve had some suspicions like that,” he remarked quietly, as though talking only to himself.

This small confession appeared to satisfy her. Having said it he knew immediately that it was true. Deep in his chest a sigh that had been imprisoned within a perpetually arrested exhalation finally found release, and a familiar inner tension that had been tightening its wires from the time of his early adolescence eased for a moment. With this easing, he too was briefly touched by a kind of satisfaction. It was the corrupted satisfaction that blossoms as a blackened rose when a long-harbored fear is confirmed by an outward event, when the worst has finally happened and the dread of anticipation is over, and the only thing left to do is to mercifully cultivate the swift demise of the rose.

“Maybe,” she said, “this won’t have to turn out bad for you after all.” He spoke without meaning to. “It has already become bad.” But if she heard, she made no comment. Maybe he had not spoken these words aloud, maybe they were thoughts rolling deceptive echoes through his mind.

Audi returned with the same table and stool the woman had used for her meal in the first room. He placed them slowly with fetishistic precision in the center of the cage, nudging them inches to one side or the other, making microscopic adjustments in the arrangement and then stepping back to gain perspective, gauging the overall effect. Each time he stepped back, he extended his arm out before him, made a fist almost the size of the sledgehammer’s head, held his thumb erect in painterly fashion, cocking his head this way and that. This went on for some time, with the woman standing off to the side, arms crossed at her breast. She had lapsed into a kind of glazed forbearance, allowing the giant’s antics to proceed unchecked. Her face with the dual accents of high cheekbone, the faultless complexion like a transparency laid atop smooth burnt sienna, was completely devoid of expression. She offered a divided presence, watching the absurd and intricate kinetics of Audi’s florid preoccupations on the one hand while at the same time subtracting herself from involvement through a cold absorption into the inscrutable world of her private thoughts. Nothing at all concerning the nature of her private thoughts could be deduced from the disposition of the facial features. Salah was accustomed to seeing some trace of person’s inner drama acted out in the theater of the face, if only subtly or dimly. He could clearly see when his friend Aadesh hung a semblance of laughter on his lips like a coat on a hook, something that could be easily added or removed, something to disguise the absence of laughter in his heart. When he was sad Jhanda’s mouth became a smudged line, appearing and disappearing so quickly that if you blinked you might miss it. Taj’s eyes discharged something when she was disappointed, as when a snake is milked for venom. When Audi was finally satisfied he put the picture of water and the Styrofoam cup on the tabletop.

“Where is the tablecloth?” he asked. He received no answer. “Sis? Sorry. Lamborghini, where is the white cloth?”

“I don’t know. You had it last.”

He shook his head with firm denial. “NOT. I …”

Lamborghini, a taller than average woman, stepped closer to Audi, tossed her head back, rolled her eyes upward to address him. “Now just a minute. You told me you wanted to handle all that, remember Audi? The table and the chair, the dishes, all of it.”

“I didn’t say the cloth.”

“Oh but yes, you certainly did say that.” Although she was standing very close to him, she took yet another step, forcing Audi to plant a relinquishing step back. “Just because you don’t remember doesn’t mean you didn’t say it. Are you telling me that my memory concerning this whole thing is flawed?” The assertion of firm denial on his face wavered and became a worried look that widened his eyes. “No, no, it’s just I …”

“Is my memory eff-ed up, Audi? Have you ever known it to be eff-ed up?”

“Your memory? Your memory is … you can’t see how a memory works but … yours works real good …”

“That is correct. Thank you. Shall we go?” She began walking away and then abruptly stopped, turning to face him. “That’s one word I don’t say enough, Audi, and it’s such a beautiful sounding word: shall. I can’t begin to tell you what it makes me think of.” Her tone was almost wistful. “ Try it, Audi. I’d really ike to hear it pronounced in a voice other than my own.” Audi looked at her. His face was a blank and guarded surface. “Try to make my voice sound like your voice?”

“No. I’d just like you to say the word shall.” A timer ticks quietly in her voice, a timer wired to a fuse. “The word shall. See the man on the floor? He has a name: Salah. Certain words, the sound of them, make me aware for a split second that there’s such a thing as beauty. This is an ugly city we live in, Audi. An ugly city in an ugly nation in an ugly world.” “In an ugly universe, and maybe in an ugly alternative universe like in DC Multiverse comics.” The statement was absorbed inside the implacable radius of her silence. “They both have S’s and both have A’s, right? Both the words you like.”

Her eyebrows lifted and her eyes struck a spark of surprise, pleasant incredulity. “Why, that’s true,” she acknowledged with high inflection, tilting her head to the left as she looked reassessingly at Audi.

“I’ll be damned.”

He spoke quickly, perhaps wanting to bask in her continued good graces, to take advantage of her implied praise. “SHALL,” he said with gravity, standing up straight. “SHAL—LLL.” “You never cease to amaze me. In one way or another.”

She left the room and he followed behind her, smiling.

An hour has passed, two hours, none returning to the room. Salah’s elbows all this time planted on the table, cheeks cradled in the palms of both hands, forehead nearly parallel to the table top. Light without attributes or qualities, an apparitional face without features, pervades the room. It could be any hour of the day or night. Taj is always able to guess the time almost exactly, within the margin of a minute or two; she wears no wristwatch, consults no clock, does not need to study the position of the sun in the sky. Unlike his daughter, Salah has no internal clock that enables him to accurately surmise the time, displays no innate sense of cardinal direction. The consensus among his family members is that his sense of direction will never improve until he learns to doubt himself less and trust himself more. If Salah drives them all to a destination in an unfamiliar part of the city, Taj drolly instructs the others as they pull out of the driveway to cross their fingers, face east and pray, and then with funereal ceremony hands her father her print-out of the Yahoo driving directions. He would be the first to admit that the directions are numbered and logically structured, easy to understand; but if, instead of specifying an upcoming turn or exit as right or left, the directions instruct the driver to turn east or west, north or south, he invariably makes the wrong decision and takes the wrong turn or exit. That their laughter and teasing is always good-natured and forgiving makes it easy for him to laugh at himself with the others. But secretly the deficiency worries him, as though it points to some deeper, more sinister defect of character that at any moment could trigger grave consequences for them all. Yasmin has described the ability to orient oneself to cardinal points on the compass without needing devices or maps as a sense of knowing beyond reason, a small special gift of intuition. “Poor husband,” she cheerfully calls out from the back seat, where she prefers to sit with Taj, after Salah fatefully makes yet another doomed turn. His son is his only ally, demonstrating his loyalty by his silence, his refusal to join in with his mother and Taj’s banter. Jhanda always sits next to his father in the front; the boy is too old to be installed in a child’s safety seat, but has inherited Salah’s wire-thiness, his father’s slight and almost linear presence, and the seat belt that stretches its slant across his chest, freezeing when it should retract in the mechanism above the door, is never a snug fit, no matter how insistently they attempt to adjust it. So Yasmin puts a pillow between Jhanda’s back and the car seat to plump him forward into the sag of the belt. “I keep telling you, this business of north, south, east and west isn’t the mathematics you make it out to be.” “It’s surely not rocket science, Baba,” Taj agrees.

“You see, here?” What he sees when he looks in the rearview mirror is Yasmin touching her chest, tapping it softly. “You can feel the right direction in here, in this area. Here where you find warmth, like in a house. In here you find your sense of direction, all you need is in here.”

“In the warm bungalow of the solar plexus,” Taj explains, also touching her chest, but a little lower. Stretched out in the car’s back seat, choked by the hands of the hood, Salah had tried to find or feel the warm bungalow of the solar plexus, hoping he would be able to sense what direction the car was traveling in and somehow use that knowledge to his advantage. Nothing came to him, no matter how hard he listened. If it was there at all, that bungalow they spoke of, then it was empty, occupied only by ghosts cloaked in their paltry sheets as they drifted listlessly to and fro, not some abode of the highest sanctity alive with holy whispering that fell from unseen lips. He imagined the bungalow would be fed by the warmth of its fireplace, but there was perhaps only a wall inside him where the hearth should have been. What he found instead in the space of the alleged bungalow was the bereaved and barren feeling that a man who has decided on suicide must feel. With his head submerged in the hood’s darkness and his hands cuffed behind his back, his breath came in jagged gasps as he thought about wrong decisions. I should have never walked to the car with him, with so many people at the parade I could have screamed at the top of my voice. His threat to harm my family was insane, if he shot me in the street he wouldn’t have been able to escape, he was trapped in the parade crowd and would have been arrested. Look at how many police were there to keep order. Maybe he would have shot me dead in the street but he would’ve been instantly caught and put in prison. He’d bring no harm to my family and Yasmin could collect the insurance. Why didn’t this occur to me then? What stopped me from hearing the right directions? Because Dharr’s mother wouldn’t let me hear it? The sound of her grieving still blocks all other sounds out for me. When I told Yasmin about Dharr and his mother, everything that happened to me, I thought telling her the truth was the right thing to do and would make things easier for me. Her nerves make her fragile, but she has wisdom, I always try to learn from the way she sees life. There’s too much fear in the way I see things. Salah also had the idea that by telling Yasmin the truth, the spirit of Dharr’s mother would be appeased and disconnect from him. He had tried over and over to speak to her haunting presence directly, and he would start by addressing her with deep respect as Mrs. Singh, but what he wanted to say sounded inadequate and he would be unable to continue. The madman’s car stabbed forward and leaned through turns sharply and a terrible pain twisted through Salah’s neck; his eyes were singed by a heat drawn up from the submerged resevoir where molten tears were pooled. It was important that his wife understand his plight with Mrs. Singh. Forgive me, Yasmin, I’ve tried to be a whole human being, but it’s like trying to gather broken glass with my bare fingers. Forgive me, I know I’ve lost something of value, I still don’t know how to get it back. The car jolted again, then a sleep unlike any he had known before struck him down with a cold fist of brass and he shattered into a black mist that he could taste as an aluminum residue in his mouth when he finally opened his eyes and found himself strapped to the chair.

And in fact he realizes in the cage that he senses the presence of Dharr’s mother. Her presence faint, but it will soon attain translucent outline and substance. “I was wondering where you were,” he says aloud freely, lifting his head from his hands for the first time since Audi and the woman left this room. His line of sight drifts upward to an area above the screen and his eyesight, as though driven by a hammer, nails itself to watery paillettes of radiance reflected off the screen’s profoundly black glass, spilling upward against the wall’s whispering pallor, its weak wan cream. Here he finds resurrected the inexpungeable day that Mrs. Singh, in the rending contortions of her helplessness and grief, emptied her eyes on him like cups filled with judgement as he watched her through the car’s passenger window and Mustafa, laughing viciously, sped away on a howl of tires. This is how it always happens: If he is not careful and allows himself to think about her for any length of time, if he forgets and allows his memory of the day of Dharr’s death to begin to take shape, drawing itself ouf of a low-humming mist, then his thoughts become a door that Dharr’s mother opens and passes through. In one of his letters to his cousin Farhan, Salah asked about Mrs. Singh. Not knowing the woman himself, Farhan made inquiries with acquaintances in Lahore and was informed that she had died years ago, at around the time Salah had immigrated to the United States. Dear Salah, I’ve done as you wished and looked into the matter of the lady you asked about, Saira Singh. She passed on shortly after her only son died a long time ago, and some say she died of a broken heart. I’m curious, Cousin, as to why you ask, is this someone who was a friend? Salah wrote back, I knew her son, Dharr, when I was a boy and I think of him frequently. During his early years in America Salah corresponded with Farhan faithfully once a month. The letters enabled him to keep abreast of his father’s condition, stay current with events both in Pakistan and Lahore, and send his cousin what money he could to provide for Muhammad’s needs. While Farhan did not want to accept the money Salah sent, Salah knew that the mullah worked tirelessly to make ends meet for his wife and two children and struggled to sustain the growth of the mosque; he couldn’t afford to cover his father’s expenses – food, clothing, check-ups with physicians, pharmaceutical supplies, and all the incidentals and accessories required to ensure survival in a modern world. Salah could not put a price on the peace of mind his cousin’s generosity and selflessness afforded him: assuring Salah there were no suspicions at all attached to his father’s presence, who was simply viewed as another elderly resident of Narang Mandi with a body bent by the pressure of time into the shape of a curled wood shaving, fragile and possessing the wispy weight of some faerie of the element of air. It had been impossible to conceal Muhammad’s presence completely from townspeople, but Farhan had been able to minimize it. On the infrequent occasions when the old man was seen in public surrounded by the precarious bubble of his kindly senility, he was simply viewed as a member of Farhan’s extended family to be respected for the long life Allah had chosen to grant him. A year ago Taj taught Salah a rudimentary set of operations that introduced him to the use of her laptop, and he and Farhan began emailing each other instead of writing. Farhan had been given Salah’s address and phone number, but understood that they were ony to be used in the event of an emergency; any trail leading back to Salah could jeophardize his father’s safety. But the more time that passed, the less Salah trusted the instinct that led him to set precautions in place to prevent Mustafa from finding and hurting his father in order to punish Salah for defaulting on his debt. (salah had though many ties of repaying Mustafa—in fact, this was a daydream of his. But he would have had to make a choice – pay Mustafa or take care of his family. talk about the modest profits from his store … although he had loaned 5000 to his friend aadesh, and he was guilty about not giving the money to smustafa Still staring at a spot above the screen on the wall Salah announces, “I still think of Dharr and the role I played …”

He then speaks aloud to Taj. “I know your computer has been in the shop for three days, you need it for classes. Your mother will get it out tomorrow.” He then remembers that Taj is away with her geology class, her classmates and teacher, working on her special project., and that she won’t be home until tomorrow. This is her first time spending the night away from home, and he begins to think of all the things that could go wrong, but his attention is siphoned away toward the spangles of light move agitatedly and form the shapes of distorted mouths bickering and quarreling with Salah and with the wall’s authority and dominion, its power to neutralize and absorb the vitality of whatever moves across its surface, including the trail of vision. A streamroller of fatigue passes over him and he can’t resist the murmurous lights or stop his eyelids from dropping like sails on boats that sink below a rise of waves. With his eyes closed, things for a time can cease to matter, although he wonders whether from her doorway Mrs. Singh can see him only as a body, a shape or form external to her, the observable Salah sitting at the table in his cage; or whether she has access to the universe behind his eyes where he drifts in the borderless space that holds his thoughts and heartbeats, holds the unceasing blue-gaslight flicker of his emotions, the grainy black-and-white clouds of memories floating inside them. His eyes open and begin closing slowly and irresistibly all over again, a cycle miniaturized in a nightmare of repetition, the eyes repeating themselves, an occurrence minute and helpless as a stutter. As the lids sink he sees the door of the cage move slightly.

His body already statue-still finds even deeper reserves of immobility. A cold flush slides down the drainpipe of his spine. Without standing or moving he yet manages to step on a landmine of paralysis, his eyelids at last arrested, his breath disappearing, disappeared, and the cotton balls of saliva he was in the process of swallowing halt their production. The cage door appears to move, just barely, in the wake of some kind of wind. Not an inch, not even half an inch, the movement thin as a hairline fracture in a aching bone. Moving as though occurring in the wake of a rumor of wind. It might also be the merest quantum of his imagination, projected, come to life. It’s possible he will never know whether what he sees is true, perhaps the motion emerges from what his mind insists on seeing. His tendency is to sit, to sit, to sit hoping for something to intervene, a path to be laid out at his feet; the tendency is to wait, to wait, to wait for something to trigger the next event and pave a way to salvation. To sit and wait in the same swathing fear he experienced when, as a young man, he’d tried to glimpse his future and succeeded only in envisioning the same life his father had accepted for himself, the life of a rickshaw wallah. It was only blind luck that led Salah to Imran, and it was luck that prevented him from traveling down the same road that carried his father through his days. Days when a man would strike him in the face with the edge of a briefcase. Days when a boy on a passing bus spat down on him from a glassless window, the saliva not torn into pieces by the wind as might be expected, but preserved as a coherent mass in the execution of some mission, as though to demonstrate that such heartbreaking humiliation could not have been avoided because it had been decreed by fate. Through Imran something had come along to change the course of the youthful Salah’s life, alter his destiny, but it was the only time such a thing had happened, and because the adult Salah realizes that he can never expect any person or event to furnish him with salvation, he stands up in the cell, gathering his legs beneath him like a man frantically gathering scattered twigs for a fire on a freezing night. He stands as though his name has been called and he has been summoned; Yasmin, he hears her calling his name, and Taj, and Jhanda, plus another voice he doesn’t recognize, all calling him forward: he walks to the door, twigs of his soles scraping the hard wood floor, an odor rises from the T-shirt he wears, the odor of humid blood and nihilism. Before he can touch the door with his outstretched hand the big toe of his left foot bumps the door’s framework and it eases open, proving that what he saw was no mirage. No sour creak or whine hides in the hinge, but a deep-seated tone as of the functioning of an organ in the body is heard and he grabs and holds the door to silence it.

Outside the cage the room seems even bigger, a stage in a theater with an unssen audience amused or appalled by his performance. The disquieting sensation of being observed compels him to turn away from the screen over the door and face the rear wall. He notices, mounted near the ceiling high in the corner, the protruding snout of a video camera aiming its lens impassively at the cage, taking in first the intimidating sweep of space in the room, and then in a dismissive way, secondarily, perhaps recording his presence only as an afterthought, as though the space in the room is more deserving of consideration, more significant than Salah. Nothing in the room except a dark bundle the size of a backpack leaning against one of the side walls. Standing over it he recognizes his long-sleeved navy shirt and khakis and Nikes, the clothes he was wearing when he was brought here crumpled in a disorderly ball. Quickly he removes what he’s wearing and with flashing limbs, with blur and strobe of elbows and knees, puts on his own clothes. The tidy weight in his back pocket must be his wallet, and he feels such a flush of joy to think they haven’t taken it or destroyed it that he finds himself carefully folding the flimsy orange pants and the T-shirt with its blood graffiti and then placing the package neat as a pat of butter on the floor. Witnessing himself in this act he laughs, soundlessly. The laughter, a crippled laborer pushing a leaden wheelbarrow up his constricted throat. You never change, do you? This is no time for folding clothes, not even for one moment, yet here you are, folding clothes. What is it, do you want to die here, or do you want to go home? Because this house, this house is a host to Death.

When he opens the door and steps into the hallway, to his right is the the long flight of stairs he walked down earlier. He sees it for what it is: a staircase in a haunted house, narrow and claustrophobic, a vertically ascending tomb, rising into dread. The high ceiling sheds light that drifts down through the air as a face sheds familiarity in death, when the last customary and fixed vestiges of human expression slide away like a wet slope on a hill. A blank mask of light dropping down, covering Salah’s own upturned face and blinking eyes, in suppression of his humanity. It must be evening or later. From somewhere upstairs he thinks he can hear the rumble of an undertone braided with several voices: the controlled and dangerously regulated voice of the woman, Lamborghini; the baffled and explosive voice of her brother, Audi; the muffled wailing of a baby whose outcry of hunger or primal misery wrings itself out of the lungs in a series of choked rhythmic contractions. Voices faint and faraway, unreal, seeming to reach his ears from a great elevated distance. As though the house itself is dreaming them, and sending the dream down the stairs to Salah. Fifteen feet to his left is a door that somehow gives him the impression that a small storage room is behind it, waiting to be discovered. When he opens it the room he expected to see isn’t there. The disorientation is a conjurer, a sinister magician, Salah’s unfulfilled expectation the tablecloth snatched suddenly away with a violently loud snap to mockingly uncover the illusion beneath the reality.

Not a storage space or room but a vast dome stretches above, where the sky has opened its black umbrella and beneath it the moon is round as the number zero, a white subtraction into deficiency and loss, a presence startling as a lone naked body standing in the middle of a fully clothed crowd. The moon is so powerful a negation that the night is only a shy infusion, a texturing darkness that struggles to dominate the visible world but fails. He can look through its permeable tint to a great shaggy space contained by a cyclone fence, barren land patched with stunted grass and dry weeds crisp as tempura, deformed bushes with humped backs curved close to the ground, an undulant surface that would bedevil the ankles of a runner with its unpredictability and rough cunning, with grapsing declivities, the small seasaws of embankments, trapdoors of crumbling soil, stumps and stones and twisting ridges. He enters this masquerade of terrain and squats and with his fists pounds blood into his ankles, then begins moving in a low crouch, arms extending when needed for sudden balance but otherwise held with elbows close to his sides to keep himself small. He has kept himself small throughout his life and that strategy inexorably became a secret skill honed in a vacuum of joy, and with each passing year he became less capable of escaping the tightening fetters of that disconsolate expertise. He learned to make himself small back home.

He kept himself small hoping that Muhammad would never know that his son was embittered and ashamed to have him as a father. He kept himself small at all times on the streets, hoping those with wealth wouldn’t abuse or mistreat him; kept himself small so that those in poverty wouldn’t claim him as one of their own, so that he was forever branded. In his classes at the Catholic school he kept himself small hoping teachers would not call on him to answer questions, alerting other students to the fact that he existed. Around his benefactor Imran Rajput he kept himself small, so that the man would not see that it had been a grave mistake to draw Salah into his circle; and for Imran’s brother, Mustafa, there was no other option but to be and remain small, because if deemed necessary, this man would kill others to make them as small as possible. For Dharr he kept himself small, and after the rape he found a way to compact himself even smaller, disappearing completely for a time. And perhaps most of all, he kept himself small for Dharr’s mother, hoping he could escape her notice altogether as he constantly resized his identity to become an ever diminishing dot, a dot the size of a black freckle on the red-polished shell of a tiny ladybug. She went away for long periods but always returned, and she had been with him today in the cage and was with him now in the phantoming moonlight. With Yasmin he kept himself least small, but after he told her about the day he was assaulted, he found himself retreating into smallness even with her. It didn’t matter that he knew she loved him in spite of what had been done to him; it wasn’t enough that she would continue to love him no matter what unimaginable things he might yet be made to suffer one day. Knowing that she loved him despite what he himself had done to others, done to Dharr and his mother, was not enough to prevent him from becoming smaller and smaller. If his fate is to be cocooned in self-imposed smallness, then is it too much to ask to be transported by this smallness across the tilting yard, to the skeletal fence topped by barbed wire. Is it too much to expect to be saved by it now, when it has saved him so many times before?

Darting glances over the shoulder while stumbling forward in his crouch. The house is huge, its discrete features swallowed by its size; nothing stands out, nothing is defined, he would not be able to describe it if he had to. Knowing only that the house stands with malignant bulk and glares down at him, like a spider quiescent and forever vigilant, hubbed stonily in the center of its web. Some windows are dark, some swollen with light. Jutting out of the side of the house is a railed appendage that might be a 2nd-floor balcony. Salah passing through an area in the yard where noises from the house are briefly amplified in a sweep of vibrations that must be wind, those voices, now bent by breezes, the infant with the shrunken doll-like cries. Reaching the fence he pitches his body into its links, a moth battering itself against the obliterating flame. The fence gives very little and he moves exploratatively sideways as if crawling along a wall. Pulling himself by fingers laced in the links, clinging yet continuing on sideways, every few feet pausing to lean back and beam his weight into his shoulder, flinging forward, bouncing, and then in frustration flattening his body into the fence. At some point he reaches a pole and when he throws himself into the fence bounces and the links rattle, clink loosely with the hollowness of empty bottles. On knees and hands as though searching for a contact lens he finds the links near the bottom are separated from the pole, in the same way a tooth is ripped away from the gum. Against the ground flattening himself thin as a cell on a slide, allowing gravity to pull him down into earth, below a moon that hangs its white in a pendant of judgment. This is how it feels when the body returns to the earth, deepening to dust. With the links clawing through the shirt on his back, he scrapes himself through to the other side, rolls on his back, then breathes heavily and waits to be scraped to his feet by a power greater than himself.

A glassy coldness reaching up through the earth’s hardness, pushing its palm against his back. The sight of the sky mingles with the surrounding mesh of olfaction and the result is a mongrel sensory experience, the wires of perception oddly crossed. Salah seems to smell the moon’s staring intensity and the ivory buds of stars but can’t identify a damp organic scent fermenting in the air’s unseen peripheries, inhabiting elusive shadows. Not impending rain but redolent of something rising from below rather than descending from above. Suggesting a volume vast and world-weighted in its depth, this not-quite scent is yet faint as a scratch from a kitten’s claw, passing through him faster than pre-verbal thought and moving quickly beyond the borders of retrieval. Tumbleweeds of association, wisps of gone, grey memory. Then, still on his back, he becomes aware of the tidy square in his back pocket digging into his flesh. Again a tidy rush of joy. My wallet, my wallet with my ID, my driver’s license, the license has my name on it. This is proof, whoever they think I am the proof is there on my license, my name. They missed the wallet somehow, they haven’t seen it, I need to take it to them, show it to them. Once they see it, this will end. If they apologize, if they’re sincere, I can find forgiveness. Even in the West isn’t it said, they know not what they do. They know not what they do. I understand, sometimes I know not what I do. But wait, Salah, Salah, no. No. You can’t take them the wallet. Take the wallet back to them and what would they say? Would they thank him? Beg his pardon and insist that he stand under a warm shower, let its knit soften his aching skin with warm running yarn? Would they bring him his freshly laundered clothes so that he could wear them once again in honesty and with the righteousness that has no trace of arrogance or self-regard in it? So that he could take them back in the same condition they were in when he put them on this morning, plain and clean, Salah the deserving owner of the clothes, having bought them through the same reliable mechanism of simplicity and submission that enabled him to put clothes on the backs of his wife and children, through the humility of daily labor. The house people suffer from sickness of the soul and would never thank him or beg his pardon. They would only be afraid of the trouble Salah could cause for them. The idea of taking the wallet to them is childish, absurd. I don’t even know what I’m doing, I don’t even have everyday wisdom, what makes me think I can tell my children anything of value? Every day Jhanda and Taj leave home, venture out into the streets, every day, and Salah worries that he hasn’t been able to give them the tools of common wisdom they need as defense against strangers and cunning friends blatantly looking out for number one. A phrase that Taj drew his attention to, and once she passed it along to her mother, even Yasmin told Salah that he needed more than anything to learn to look out for number one, numbero uno. And she raises her index finger to illustrate. One upraised finger standing for Salah but he knows that she wants him to understand that there are really four fingers incorporated into the one: one for Salah, one for Jhanda, one for Taj, and one for Yasmin herself.

He won’t take the wallet back to the house but he has the wallet and it proves something. This is the first time in months, perhaps years, that he has felt a pinch of joy, to be who he is, Salah Bhatti. Whoever these people think he is, whatever punishment they believe that man deserves, Salah Bhatti is not that man. He is no one else, and he carries a past that belongs only to him, and the burdens that have shaped him and the deeds he must account for and redeem belong to him. He has earned those burdens, they are a part of who he is; they are the narrow neighborhoods of shadow clustered amoung the precincts of light he sometimes travels through. He is not who they think he is, and that means he’s innocent, at least in the context of this one thing. The thought spoons strength into his legs like a convalescent being fed a sip of soup, and he stands, stooping, looking back at the house. When he removes the wallet from his pocket and opens his hand he sees there is no wallet. It was never a wallet and just as quickly as it appeared the fractional joy fades. His hand holds the Verizon cell phone that Yasmin and Taj have forced him to buy. He would never have bought one for himself. Knowing that you can always be reached, that there is no place where solitutde can reign absolutely for even a single moment of the night or day, means that you can never truly be alone. Not in the car when there are no other passengers, not in an aisle of a supermarket momentarily empty as a ghostown, not on a late evening walk on your block when others are watching television in their homes. Those times when the damage done by the day might begin to be repaired, the small wounds bandaged. Here it is, the phone, but this time he rejoices. Although, ironically, he’s now utterly alone, in an untamed panorama, a kind of wilderness. When he opens the device the battery indicator shows an eight of one bar, a tiny matchstick burning a digital glow. He hits the send button and the phone erupts with a promising chirp, always ready to grant his every wish for connection during those times when he is not longing for a healing solitude; four rows of tones, a dozen sonic genies at the ready with their spurts of song trapped behind the phone’s buttons, waiting to spring out at the command of his touch. Immediately he closes the phone to quiet the light floating with oneiric buoyancy off the screen and begins to move, crouching again.

A short distance away from the fence he finds that he’s standing on a rise. A bluff, steep but not impossible to descend or climb, the bluff tumbling down into a ravine, and then a further leveling out of the land into a sparse grove of trees standing with the stringent spine of Praetorian guards, barring the way to more densely populated woods. Moonlight imbuing the scene with a foreshortened clarity that, while revealing details in the landscape, does not extend to any great distance or expand to significant width; there is visibility but it is contained, as though seen through a night vision scope fitted to a high-powered rifle. He’s surprised to see how far he is from the city, how remote and isolated the uncultivated landscape is. He decides to make the call further away from the house and then casts his intention far out over the bluff and down, as if casting the air-light line of a fly rod, the cast approximating a feathery suspension, and he follows that thread of intent, lowering himself carefully down the slope. Feeding himself into the hungry descent one jagged breath at a time but even so his feet slide on ball bearings of dislodged dirt and stone and he hears the crumble as it falls, recedes, tiny herds of sound galloping away down the brittle slant.

Only when he reaches the bottom does he discover that his breath has been bottled during his descent. Now he can breathe freely, chest trespassing beyond the tight fence of the ribs. A field opens before him, more stubble and gangly weeds, a blasted tree with a crown decapitated by the white guillotine of a lightning bolt. Sporadic noises of creatures skittering over dead leaves replicate the sound of junk snacks being nibbled, crunchy carbohydrates. To attract a mate a solitary nightbird sings three measures of the same piercing 3-note motif and then falls silent as through succumbing to hopelessness, tones playing on a flute of futility. Darkness slowly closing its lid, inching closer to the face of the earth, yet he can still take advantage of a ghostly visibility, the darkness striking an uneasy truce with moonlight. He bursts through the violent brush closing in on him, reaching out to jab at his forehead, scratch and poke at his eyes. That trace of odor with the suggestion of world-weighted depth that he could detect before in the air now advances a more definitive proposition: it’s water that he smells, brown odor rising off the skin of a river or perhaps a lake. A river, a lake: moisture rising from below rather than descending from above. What he means is that the world-weighted depth is water embedded in and contained by the earth. His ankle gives like a loosened bolt as he stumbles through a shallow ditch and he falls, pitching forward with his arms out. Crawling over patches where the ground is sodden to a rock large enough to offer itself as a back rest. Looking over his shoulder, the bluff can no longer be seen. Only the tops of trees are visible, stretching their thin limbs into a smeared horizon that has been absorbed by the sky. He thinks about Taj, who won’t be coming home tonight. If the field trip with her teacher and classmates had taken place earlier this afternoon, why were they waiting until tomorrow to come home? Why spend the night? It was a mistake to have let her go, naseau whirlpooling in his stomach and the nightbird crying out once again in musical anguish, he should have told Taj directly that he didn’t approve of her going, and he should not have placed Yasmin in the position of acting as his delegate. Why had he asked her to convince Taj not to go on the trip, knowing his wife would soften his words, pass a diluted version of his message along to their daughter? He remembers the cell phone. With a hand rippling like a pond he opens it.

Next Chapter

Chapter 22

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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