Fiction by Rafee Shaams
If I only knew the reception my wife would go on to receive during my stay, I would’ve decided to return with prior notice or tried doing this via online or even practiced all my announcements on distant cousins before unleashing this “blasphemy” on my poor mother, for the insults that ensued when I’d introduced Mother to her had doubtless left my beloved scarred, left me so embarrassed that I’d probably need many nights of icy flashbacks and pangs of “If-only-I-had”s to finally get past them.
And this was merely the second day of our badly timed vacation. Standing amidst all the relatives who’d come to see us that day, I knew this wouldn’t be easy. We still had four more days till the New Year’s dinner.
I was the fourth of four children, born a miscalculation since my parents had always envisioned having only three: one was lonely and two was out of fashion, but three? Three was perfect. Their oldest, Lomla, heavyset and tall like the giants from Phlashland, was forgetful and clumsy, which was why he’d been working all his life as a construction worker, losing his fingers by day and his wife’s patience by night. He was followed by Domla, who, though lankier and shorter in comparison, was exactly like him. Rejecting our parents’ prophecies of sibling discontent, he’d grown to be extremely fond of his eldest, and, during his brief foray into mediocre literature in his teens, even had once proclaimed himself to be the Seymour to his Buddy Glass. They both loved fishing, spent their weekends together, and pitied their third brother, Romla, for working in a bank and not being anything like them.
Then there’s me: Komla, an epilogue, the sort if you ask my parents you’d be shocked to find at the end, for you hadn’t expected one for the life of you. I’m sure they meant it as a compliment.
I was born ten years after Romla, during peacetime, unlike all the others who had to grow up during times of shrapnel, burning red villages, and the medicinal smell of freshly bandaged body parts. I was a different child, and I don’t say that just because I’m telling this story, but because if I weren’t like this—an afterthought so radical it changed the whole patchwork of life stories my mother had painstakingly tried to weave all her life—I wouldn’t have ever felt like leaving home at the first chance I got, wouldn’t have met my beloved in a village far away in the southern highlands of the planet Balbur.
I should talk about that. I had this brilliant idea of telling my mother about how we met, thinking our love story, set in a planet of redheads and telemarketers and the exotic sentient remains of the local population, would win her over; that my mother, a vocal proponent of the love affair, would hear my words and look into my eyes and feel my affections for her and approve.
But here’s the story anyway: I was nineteen and done with school. My then girlfriend, Jahannum, had just about ditched me after having tried every trick she could find to get me to ditch her for her. I was feeling quite like old Lomla’s wooden trains, which he used to abuse till they were just pieces of random shapes waiting to be stepped on in the garage. I spent a lot of those times in the garage, trying to work some wood into familiar shapes but that didn’t really help. We don’t go to college in this family, and it seemed like there wouldn’t be ever anything to seriously do anymore.
That was when Balbur came up in conversation. My friend, Mr. Haran, who detested Jahannum with the same severity I obsessed her with, offered me work as his assistant on his trip to a colony I had never heard of before. He wouldn’t be doing any exciting work, just routine observations, and I would be helping him type letters and reports. I was good at typing, good at helping to observe. I wanted to be out of this world, for Jahannum had rid me of any interest I had in the many things we’d enjoyed doing together. They all now reeked of her and it was hard, hard, trying to attempt doing them.
When we had reached Balbur, I was already in high spirits. The blue-purple sky of Balbur contrasted well with the auburn headed beauties of the planet, who treated us like royalty. Treated me like some prince from seven jungles deep. I was given new rings, passcodes to all their upper-class facilities. They had invited me into their houses for dinner. They were a nice bunch of people, our cousins from worlds away, surprisingly still loyal after all this time. There must be an equation somewhere about this, for I think if you have enough colonies, a constant number of them (clearly a small number) would always be at your feet even when all the others had already put guns to your head and demanded their release from our dirty shackles. Balbur was one of those colonies, where people never protested, never talked back. Mr. Haran disagreed with me on this, though. He would say that these looked like so because we simply didn’t count the ones who did.
My beloved belonged to those who we didn’t count. I wasn’t even aware of their existence until two weeks later when, scanning some old records for the archive, I happened upon the villages in the highlands. Mr. Haran, who knew little more than me, inquired about this discovery to the officers who reluctantly admitted to things living up there. They didn’t talk, our officers said, or react in any way to our elementary torture routines. They don’t feel, they said, as if that was bad, as if that canceled their membership from the Living Beings club.
“They have villages!” Mr. Haran cried and packed his bags. We were going there, he said, going to the villages. “We’ll make new friends, Komla!” He declared. I nodded. I wasn’t sure if these things wanted to be friends with us. But I didn’t say anything. Over dinner, when the Governor General tried telling us to forget about them, Mr. Haran cried back, “They have villages!” and the General let him be. He cared as little as he professionally could. No one else cared that much about Balbur. Why should he? Mr. Haran was free to do whatever he wanted, provided it didn’t cost him his job. That’s what he told us that night.
We went to bed early. It was difficult for me to fall asleep with all the guttural squawking of the foreign birds outside. I never really did get used to them during my stay there, but I managed to somehow that night, waking up few hours later, sweating and wondering if Mr. Haran was waiting for me.
He wasn’t, but that’s because I wasn’t late. It was going to be a rickety journey, I was told. Accompanying us in our car, provided graciously by the General, was Mr. Duriya, a small man with hundreds of badges, his numerous aids and assistants; Ms. Hariya, a professor of Balburi Cultures at the local university; several bulky guards with their cylindrical weapons, “for our protection”; Dr. Boorin, lover of corpses and folk music; and two journalists who didn’t have names.
We set out at noon, with Mr. Duriya assuring us it would only be a two hour drive, which it wasn’t. We passed the apple-white buildings, standing rigid and disciplined in sectioned blocks and cut into fields of blond tubular trees, moving up against each other in the salty breeze like teenagers in a mosh pit. There were water pumps every few squares and shiny pebbles lining the edges of the clean, barely ever used road. By the time we reached their village, the afterglow had already left the sky bruised in vermilion, left us tired in our crumpled up clothes and uniforms. It smelled like my mother’s cooking in here. There were only walls around here. Rectangle, lone walls, erected twenty squares or so apart. These were decorated, each in a different, perhaps individual, style. Mr. Haran kept giggling in excitement.
We wondered where the things were, whether they would come out to meet us. Mr. Haran was already on his knees, observing the designs on the walls, “Do you think this is language?” he asked.
We didn’t know. The others had started taking photographs. We seemed to be having fun, hypothesizing how they might look, how they might think we look, whether they’d have similar tastes and ideals and longings. When the night was strong and they did show up, we learned they were black square blocks, shiny and levitating, beeping among themselves now and then.
“Surely you can’t blame us. How did you expect we’d react? You come home two years later—married to a block of stone!”
“She’s not a block of stone, Mother. It’s my wife you’re talking about.”
“Your wife’s a block of stone.”
“Have you gone crazy? I told you that time. It was a bad idea to go prancing with that Mr. Haran to some goddam crazy colony. Look what happened!”
“I thought you’d understand.”
“I do, I do understand. I know you’re all broken. You still haven’t gotten over that girl and it’s breaking you apart.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That girl. You know. Jahannum. You should’ve come to me. I could’ve helped you start anew. I’m your mother.”
“But why would you let me help? You had friends. You had that Mr. Haran, and you let him mess with your brain and now look where you are! You have any idea how happy I was to find you had returned just in time for my New Year’s dinner? Now what do I tell everyone? What do I tell my guests? That you’ve returned with a piece of rock? One that you’re married to?”
“Mother, I’m telling you, just give her a chance. You know you wouldn’t be saying all this if she were like us.”
“That’s the whole point. She’s not like us. How can you not see that?”
“I can! That’s what made me like her, Mother.”
“I’m setting up an appointment with your old Dr. Phalix. I think I have his number somewhere here.”
“Mother, stop this. I’m not crazy. And Dr. Phalix is dead. We went to his funeral four years ago, don’t you remember?”
“Mother, please think about this. She’s a nice person, once you get to know her. She’s just a bit quite.”
“She’s a piece of rock. I’m sure she’s ‘just a bit quite’.”
“ ... Why won’t you at least try? It can’t hurt, can it? Do it for me?”
“Do what? What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. Take her out for lunch or something.”
“I’m not going out to lunch with a rock in my hand.”
I would say I fell in love then and there at first sight, and that’s how I tell it to my old friends from school, but that wasn’t true. They all looked so alike, I didn’t even know who the leader was and who his beautiful daughter waiting to be swept away by a foreigner. I was about to find that out later.
But first we had to learn how to communicate, how to say we didn’t mean any harm, how to say, “Come look at our city just several hours away!”, how to have us invited into their community for further study.
One thing though was clear from the start. They wanted us to move. They wanted to invite us into their homes, into their walls, wanted us to stick ourselves into the walls the way they did.
“How do we do that now?” Ms. Hariya asked.
“I don’t know. You’re the expert. How do we politely say no?”
She looked confused.
Meanwhile, our hosts had started vibrating.
“What’s that? What’s going on?” Asked Mr. Haran.
We weren’t sure.
“Maybe they’re offended that we don’t seem to fit into their walls,” I theorized.
“How do we do that, genius? Dr. Boorin countered.
It was awkward, it was night. The stars on Balbur were white enough for us to not require any artificial lightning. The villagers, so dark and glossy in their square bodies, looked at you so weird you felt like disowning all your half-thoughts of sufferings and heartbreaks.
Finally, ignoring all the others’ warnings, I plunged myself against the wall, pretending to squeeze into the slot. Our friends noticed this and stopped vibrating.
Mr. Haran was thrilled. “It’s working!” He cried.
It was. By now, they all lay still, floating silently, wondering perhaps in their own way what it was that we were. We were thinking the same thing too, so much so that we decided to kidnap one back to the city.
Romla was supposed to be the artist in the family, which was why he worked in a bank. He didn’t want to be a banker. It was something he ended up doing. He also ended up marrying the Calculator, who, till my return, had had the good fortune of being my mother’s least liked daughter-in-law. She was a little insulted now, since her title was snatched by, as she cruelly termed my wife, “a hovering rock”.
It was still two days before the dinner and I wanted to visit my brothers and have a chat. Romla and I lounged in his backyard. The Calculator joined us later, asking how everything was with Mother.
I shrugged. “I’m not complaining, though,” I said, “I know it’ll take her some time to get used to this.”
“What if she never does?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I can be frank, your mother hates me because she thinks I lured Romla out of a painting career.”
“My mother doesn’t hate you,” Romla cut in.
“She does, Rom. Let me talk,” she said, sitting up, “What I’m trying to say is she’s not my fan for that. What you have is a rock for a wife.”
“SHE’S NOT A ROCK.”
“ ... ”
“I thought you guys would at least back me up on this, man”
“We are, we are doing that, trust me. As weird as it is for us, we’re all here for you, man.”
“Thank you. That’s all I needed to hear.”
“But still ... ” She did that face.
“Just promise me you’ll think about this, okay?”
“Think about what?”
“You know, all this?”
“Yeah, maybe there’s still some time left. Maybe you can annul all this. Just think about it, okay. You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna. But just think whether you really wanna stay married to ... her. I mean, are you sure, are you sure inside that this isn’t just a reaction to something else, something that’s probably hurting you but you don’t know still.”
Back in the city, the General was delighted that we’d managed to return without bloodshed. The nameless journalists talked about our kidnapping in gaudy, bloated tones in their columns. The Balburi knew beforehand of these creatures, but now that the prospect of a live one was on display, there was considerable interest among the auburn-haired populace.
Mr. Haran didn’t want it on display, “At least, not yet,” he said.
We wanted to work with the university, wanted to help learn more about them. The university didn’t seem that enthusiastic as us, but Mr. Haran assured me this was just how they were. Nevertheless, they helped us investigate. They had to. There was the General’s order.
We tried many experiments, even a few nonstandard ones, but we weren’t successful, for it beeped when it felt like, stopped levitating whenever it wanted, and never once vibrated like it did with its family back in the village. We felt useless. Mr. Haran even had started thinking of abandoning it, and paying attention elsewhere.
I was tired too. I don’t want to sound mean, but I too felt it wasn’t going anywhere. I even admit I stopped finding the creature that interesting. Until it started printing out thermal paper from a slot in its body, explaining in brief bold text that it was not an “it” but a “she.”
My two eldest brothers lived in two square houses with a tubular corridor connecting the two. Their wives were twins and they had the same number of kids: two boys. They ate the same dishes and complained about the same cricket matches. When asked whether they’d ever consider doing different things at the same time, they shrugged. In fact, that was what I asked now, seated in their living room, wondering why I never really made the effort to connect more with them, for weird as they were, pretending to be conjoined twins all their adult lives, they were still my brothers and I needed their support.
“We’re not showing up this year at Mom’s,” they said in unison.
“ ... How come?”
“I don’t know. I’d rather be home and watch the TV. Plus, Mom’s going to make a scene about your magic rock and I have no wish to witness that.”
“She’s not my magic rock.”
“C’mon, it’s probably my last time here, seeing how things are going to be, and I wanna be together with everyone one last time. Show up for me.”
“ ... ”
“You can leave after Mom’s done making her usual speech. I just can’t handle the thought of enduring that alone.”
“ ... We’ll try to make it.”
“It would mean a lot to me, you know,” I said.
They nodded. One of my nephews came up to me, kept his hand in mine, and told me how he’d love to come. I was going to cry right then but I didn’t want to be called a girl by Lomla so I stopped and told him I’d love that. I’d love that very much.
I couldn’t stay for long. I had left my wife with my mother, and there was no saying what could happen if you stayed with Mother for too long. She could try burying her, or even worse, condescendingly chat with her in that insulting way one talks to household objects, always overdoing it so that it doesn’t look “genuine”.
I don’t think she likes it when I leave her for long stretches of time. For her, the pain is biological.
Thousands of years ago, before the auburn headed beauties had set foot in Balbur, before we snatched it for ourselves and pretended to not see any of the living there, the democratic civilization of Kaltrupits—boxy, tentacular colony creatures, whose very body parts themselves knowingly lived in unison to hold the individual together—built a vast empire of such reputation that naturally everyone forgot all about them in a mere two centuries.
They were only the shells then, my wife’s people. While they acted as the operation station, the Kal inside them handled all the bodily functions needed for an average healthy Kaltrupi to function. They were a great addition to their star’s many planetary societies, but one day it had to all break apart an slowly disintegrate.
Perhaps no example makes it more perfectly clear than the story of my wife’s people that when your relationships and arrangements fall apart, you’d be the one left alone while your companions and comrades would be off with better and upgraded versions of you.
It was a meticulously planned effort by our ancestors’ enemies, my wife had typed back when we were discussing this back in her planet. They employed millions of old telemarketers in a scheme to phone up every Kal of a Kaltrupi and offered them a whole package of replacement pals, she had said. With them you now wouldn’t need to work with your fellow shell to be living. You wouldn’t have to cooperate. These replacements pals were operational, but they didn’t live. You had your very own passive, dead body. You ruled over it, you were the boss. Everybody liked being the boss.
That happened. They bought it, the whole lot. Soon all the Kal went away, leaving their shells miserable back in their old planet. The enemies didn’t even bother to think about them. They were merely the containers, it was true, but they were sentient too, they could say “I love you,” but that couldn’t mean anything anymore because by the time the telemarketers were done with their job, there wasn’t anyone in the planet to say it to.
What hurt wasn’t that the evil telemarketers tricked them into ditching a flourishing society built on cooperation from the body down, but that they didn’t care about them when going through it. You’d think if the only time neglect was acceptable it was then, when everyone else was being brainwashed through the power of dynamic marketing into destroying everything they’d known, but now, after so many years, even that seems harsh. If you had asked my opinion, I’d agree. I’d 100% betray the essence of my civilization if it meant not being left out.
That’s one reason she and I are perfect for each other. We understand. Her ancestors, like me, had to come to terms with our loved ones leaving us for better opportunities while we remained ourselves, unable to improve much about anything.
The day of the party, I had already braced myself for the humiliation that’d be directed at me in the form of my mother’s brief speech. I’d taken the necessary medication, drank lots of water, and apologized in advance to my wife on behalf of my mother.
There we were, Lomla and Domla, dutifully seated on opposite ends of Mother, with their wives and kids beside them, Romla and his wife by my end, assuring me repeatedly that it wouldn’t be as bad as I had kept telling them.
Mother started then, “Two years ago, when Komla left home, I’ll be honest with you,” she paused for some time, she had to, it’s the sort of thing people do in their speeches now, “I wasn’t very confident on this. I didn’t think he’d be able to get along there among strange people. But, as you can see, he very well did,” she did a “Ha Ha”, it’s the sort of thing people did in their speeches all the time, “And all I have to say is … it is what it is: you’re my son and your happiness is my happiness. I’d never stopped loving you and I would never stop loving my new daughter-in-law. Welcome back home! And everyone, everyone, happy New Year!”
Everyone clapped. I cried, I had to, it’s the sort of thing people never do after my mother’s dinner speech. I was happy too. Right then, sitting there at the table, helping myself graciously to Mother’s banana pudding, I believed nothing could possibly happen to stop me from being so happy, but that’s when we all heard the loud knocks on our door and I saw my ex, Jahannum, enter, greeting everybody like she was expected company, even shooting me a smile, before turning to my mother and going, “Sorry I’m late! It was so nice of you to invite me!”
Rafee Shaams is an essayist and short story writer. His story collection Who Even Cares Who Cares? was published by Bengal Publications in 2016.