Aduhi Chawngthu takes us on an intense yet tender journey with her unnamed protagonist…
She always awoke with the dawn. That dark hour before the first light appeared, before the dew evaporated and the dust got unsettled. Lie in bed for a few seconds until the moment of full awakening. Get up, don’t make any noise, open the bedroom door as noiselessly as possible, but most importantly, don’t wake him. Slow and careful steps, tiptoe, close the door gently behind you.
“Out for a walk”, she wrote on an old phone bill. Then she tore up the paper and scattered the pieces inside her pocket.
Many summers ago when she lived near the sea, she would take her dogs out in the morning, letting them run on the beach, unleashed. Her face always turned towards the sun, towards the light, to what she called freedom. Running along with the dogs gave her a sense of nonexistence, as if there was only her shadow, and she was an invisible weightless body floating very close to the ground.
The city was big, and it blinded her at night, crowding her, making her feel trapped in a jungle of lights. Sometimes the noise of the cars honking on the street below their apartment left her disoriented.
“Is it always like this? Always this raucous?”
“Most of the time. It will get quieter at Christmas, when the students go home.” He did not look up from his book, something about space explorers getting lost in another universe. He had probably borrowed it from his students.
And there were the voices inside her head. Who were they? A long forgotten lover? That lost tourist she sheltered for a week? Or could it be her father, lost at sea, his body never found. The voices had come on and off, sometimes mocking her, sometimes laughing maniacally, sometimes a low murmur. She restrained herself from replying, from screaming at them, telling them to shut up and go away.
I am not crazy. I am not crazy. I am not crazy.
I am not.
There were good days and bad days. Sometimes, on the bad mornings, he would hear her stifle a cry when she thought he was asleep. He’d lie there, not daring to breathe or move, not wanting to embarrass her. He knew her eyes were red, her lips swollen from biting, and could almost feel the hot tears that bathed her face. The crying sessions were always followed by a deep sleep, as if she had exhausted the supply of tears and had to recharge the batteries.
Summer mornings were her favourite time of the year. His too. Some mornings she would wake him, and together they would watch the sky change colour, from a nightly black to a metallic grey, then to beautiful pinks and oranges, until the sun turns a hot yellow, burning everything in sight.
They had not watched the sunrise together in two years. He loved the mornings as much as she did, but something held him back, something about her demanded solitude, and most of the time he was simply too tired.
That summer was cruel. At nights when it got too hot he dragged the mattress down from the bed and slept on the floor near the big window. The first night was wonderful, but in the morning he was woken by the sun coming through the window, hitting him right on the eyes. From the next night he slept facing the other way round, and a small problem solved.
She was not the type to cuddle, hugging her folded knees, rolling herself up embryonically. But her physical presence made him happy, happy that she was there, in person, that she chose to be with him.
He vividly remembered the night he felt the heat coming through her thin cotton shirt. There was a wide gap between them in the bed, yet he could feel the heat rising from her back. He got up, soaked a towel in cold water and wiped her neck and chest. That look on her face, that half asleep half smile was something he captured and locked away in his memory, like all the other good things he stored deep in his private happiness box, somewhere deep in his brain, which nobody else could access.
In the morning she was gone.
It was true, he never expected her to stay, but he couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed to wake up to find all her belongings gone, including the Shrek ashtray she liked so much. He would have loved to keep that, clean it and keep it on top of the TV. Then he could look at it from time to time when the TV programs get too boring.
“Ogres are like onions”, was always her favourite movie line. He finally understood what that line meant. There were parts of her, layers which he would never unravel, mysteries he would never solve. And she made him cry. Yes, he cried. But he was not ashamed. For the first time in 15 years he let the tears slide down his cheeks and watched the world turn hazy.
He lifted the mattress and placed it back on the bed. The big window was open, and the smell of the wet earth floated in. A comforting, earthy smell. The rains had come. He smiled; life would go on.
Story by Aduhi Chawngthu. Aduhi is a civil servant currently based in Mizoram.
Photo by Ruati Chhangte.
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