Paper Flowers Excerpt 3 (unedited)

She sees him often now. 

She stops taking the taxi, preferring to walk home along the sand. It takes longer and the sun is hot but she likes the manual labour of the process; the ache in her calves, the heat on her head, the sweat that runs down her back. She likes the feeling of sand digging into the soles of her feet, the wind stinging her face, watching the water licking the shore, always thirsty for land. He’s always there, sitting in the surf, his pants folded up to reveal his curiously delicate ankles, the rest covered in a scribble of hair. He married young, ‘too young to know better’ and now he is divorced and he still does not know better, he says. He was ambitious and kind but now, he says, he’s not so sure about anything in the world. Not anything. He loves God he says, but he worries that he doesn’t believe in Him anymore. All this, he reveals on his own, with no prompting from her, indeed, it seems her silence spurs him on. 

Occasionally, she buys ice cream, the milk dripping between her fingers as she listens. He feels ashamed sometimes, burdening her with his stories, her being so young. But she feels old. Sometimes he feels she is far older than him. He feels like a child sharing his fears with an adult.

When she talks, and she talks very little, she talks about the farm. She tells him about growing potatoes and the way the sand is cold and dark when you dig them out. She says they are like digging up babies. She tells him about the cows and the way their noses are wet, the way they smell heavy and ripe and how their eyes shine like the curves of saucers. She tells him about the chickens and the way they move their heads jerkily like typewriter keys. She tells him so she doesn’t forget what home was like, because already she feels she is on the edge of this memory; she is soon going to forget it, or at least the preciseness of it is fading. It will soon become a blur, a cloud which she will insert chickens and potatoes and a farmhouse into but without the feeling or the fine detailing. Yes, the facts of it will always be there, the bones will always exist to pin the animal to but it will be a glove with no hand, just a space to dip into with nothing inside.

He has questions. He stores them in his pockets and jostles them around but he doesn’t ask them. He feels questions will break the shell they have enclosed around them.

He comes to the beach to think, he says. His father is dying of cancer. His father is an old man now and he feels he is a bad son. It’s the story of every man’s life, he knows, but this is his story and his life and why does that make it matter any less?

He doesn’t know how to be the boy he was, he doesn’t know how to reach out to his father, he says. His sisters know what to do, they gather in the kitchen, talk amongst themselves, cook food, bring up memories, laugh with their mother, but he sits there in the dining room and he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t go in to see his father, because he says, the smell, the smell of sickness is unbearable, but worse, the sight of his father, so drained of life, so shrivelled, makes him recoil, and his father, his father knows this, his father senses it in him and is ashamed but more than ashamed he is disappointed and once more, even at his deathbed, he has disappointed his father.

Disappointment is a heavy burden to bear, he says. 

He didn’t ask to be the son, he didn’t ask to be the one to carry his father’s loads. And now he doesn’t now how to talk to him anymore. He’s lost the words. They’ve fallen through his pockets along the sidewalk and someone’s gone and trampled them. His father is a deeply religious man, and he, he is too modern, too far gone, too off the path, too unlike the man who brought him up… his questions are too many, too wide, too bare, too raw; they bother his father, they upset him, his father wants him to stop. The questions brought the arguments and eventually the silence. 

They both were stubborn, although he admits now; he didn’t think that about himself then. The divorce, for his father was confirmation of the wrong choices, of the wrong path he had taken in life.

He wants his father to die, he tells her this. He wants his father to go, to stop torturing him with his glazed silence. He spits this out like a song suddenly reaching its peak, then he quietens down. No, he doesn’t want his father to go, he doesn’t want his father to die, he remembers a different time, when things were easier when he knows they both loved each other, when he went to mosque with him and there was the scent of his father’s itr in the air and the smell of chicken cooking on Eid morning, he sees his father prostrating at the mosque, he sees his long white robe and the silence of early morning and the light entering the mosque through high arched windows. He sees his father’s face from the level of a child, the wrinkles in his skin like lines in a map across him on the dining table, then in the rear view mirror looking at him on the way to school, in the kitchen drinking tea, he feels the texture of his hands against his, a warm kiss on his forehead, he feels his father in his blood, in his shape, in his history.

He doesn’t want his father to die, he wants to go back to that, to the pureness of memory that only nostalgia can manifest, but how can he? How does one do that: cross chasms? How does one return to what they were? He wants to be a boy again, he says. He wants to be a child. How different it was then. Before questions leapt in and responsibility and choice cropped up like doorways that led into darkness. When a boy became a man, when he pushes through one soft shape into another more rigid one. Too much has happened. His father won’t forgive him. He won’t forgive his father. His father will die. And he will have to live his life, his future with the space his father has left, a father-shaped hole in his life to remind him he failed, he failed the one man who mattered most in his life.

Only here, does she interject. The holes are reminders, she says. The holes are reminders of the past, the holes are places for you to pack your fear and loss and pain as you make the rest of your journey. They’re markers on your journey. You look back at the horizon and see the shadows of these markers on your way. Everyone has holes, even the ones we make holes for. Our lives are filled with a tapestery of holes, some big, some small and we manage the best we can. That was the best of way of looking at things, she said. The best way to take things forward.

In retrospect, he says, that is fine. In retrospect one can look back at the past and make such statements about holes and tapestries and what nots. But the present, in the moment, there is nothing but the anguish and the guilt. It consumes you.

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