After the sun- just a moment ago ridiculously orange and too titillating for Samy Kandiah who was walking the town twice as he did daily except for weekends- slipped into the Straits of Malacca and lay like a fallen coin at its base (or so he liked to think), came the most confused period of the days and nights. Sunless, he thought, and moonless. Black birds circled the tops of buildings, squawking and shrieking madly, sensing the end of something, a certain unverifiable death that happened every single day between seven twenty-five and seven thirty PM. Crepuscular knowledge was what he had failed to acquire even though he stopped in front of “Ah Lang Hardware Store” to wait and see if once the sun exited and before the moon could start its shift, he’d get accosted by an old melody, coming from the hills or through some cave echo, and its tune would send him to sleep every night, and he’d dream about the truth and nothing else. It was time for that to hit him.
But “Ah Lang Hardware Store” brought no such luck. All he was left with when the hand on the clock tower crept towards a quarter to eight was the nervous urgency to get home before the Family sent out its youth to locate him, “just in case,” he could hear his wife shouting above the blender’s rattle, “he’s gone and jumped off a cliff”. His death, usually by his own volition, was anticipated by the Family with the regularity of a norm and sometimes Samy Kandiah felt that the Family would benefit from a sense of accomplishment if he went and jumped off the cliff that was real only in his wife’s sentences (which cliff? The one on the far end of the island? The one I’d have to take a two-hour bus journey to get to? He’d wanted to ask) or hang himself from the mango tree that his daughter-in-law seemed to have a fetish for. Many times she’d predicted his death materializing on the highest branch of the mango tree in the garden of “Shiva’s Abode”. And when she said this he’d be right there in front of her, sometimes even eating a fruit from the tree that would take his life. “If I do kill myself,” he’d once said while the Family froze and widened their eyes, “I’ll do it my own way, you hear? I’ll do it theatrically or make it look like murder and you’ll spend the next twenty years trying to figure it out”. Of course he knew he shouldn’t have said that. Then if he did finally vanish from their lives by some elaborate, gorgeous method, they’d know it was elaborate and gorgeous because he had fashioned it himself. They didn’t have the patience or the skill to wonder how something complex became complex. It was enough for them to know that the complexity was created, that it was not a mysterious occurrence. So now he couldn’t even kill himself. And again, the old melody, the magic, murmuring knowledge at twilight- one in the same or completely different, he didn’t know- did not come.
He walked home, fighting off insects, a great group of them, he could sense, dancing above his head, giving him an active halo whose energy he wished could have been donated to his limbs. He exercised Monday to Friday but his joints still creaked and his back, stiff from toil-free years, sometimes made him regret his afternoon armchair-sittings when he was younger and needed a cup of basil tea and a stack of books to assure himself that he was living. It wasn’t pure regret because he would not have become the man that he was and although people kept predicting his suicide- and he occasionally imagined it- he kind of liked his oldness, the fact that he ached in body and heart, and that the Family watched him with glazed eyes. There was no more room in the house for an armchair, just wooden and plastic chairs, many, many of them as though the armchair contained in its grandeur and comfort the ability to translate its qualities into quantities, sacrificing its value for the accommodation of a crowd.
He wished he’d only procreated once. But he’d been tricked and excited and too weak to resist the idea of living with his wife, one child between them to offer relief from each other. They had needed seven, apparently. And they still needed three of them- and the three’s mates and offspring- to make life continue as before, when they woke up in the mornings and it was enough not to worry about the beauty of enjoying an idle breakfast because a child was waking up in the next room and it was perfectly normal and true to talk about milk powder brands and the most effective rice cooker. He’d spent years bringing life into life, a profound contribution that made him feel less profound when he thought about it, walking the town of Coal Island seeking his old melody, his twilight knowledge.
When he got home he heard pans tumbling, oil popping and his wife ordering her daughters-in-law to dice green chillies with more passion. “You see this,” she said in her upbeat kitchen voice, “anyone will say a child has taken over the knife. Aiyoh, girls! Put your heart into it lah”. He removed his slippers, about to step into the home that he had designed forty years ago when he used to close his eyes before sleep and a pageantry of images spiced his nights, urging his hands in the morning to draw a house fit for a teacher and his wife or, as he often thought, a scholar and his wife.
“Ma! How many plates have you put on the table?” his second daughter-in-law shouted.
Plates. He wondered if he cared for them, those circular items that had become a fixture in life on which nourishment sat and fingers played, soaking up curry, the gloop of ladies’ fingers. He didn’t really want to see another melamine plate with floral designs. Suddenly he hated plates, hated them with a rough, stormy-sea anger. Why in the world were plates dominating their lives? He wanted to run into the kitchen, take every diseased plate there was and break each one with his foot. Let the blood come. It was time for that to hit him.
But he stayed outside, looking at the mango tree, now purely dark and seemingly fruitless, and then he put his slippers back on and walked away from the front porch, off to the garden shed he had built twenty years ago when he had lied to the Family (then only half its current size) about his fascination with periwinkles and dragonfruits. “I’ll grow them,” he said, “somewhere in the corner of this garden but I’ll need a shed to do that. For my tools”. No periwinkles or dragonfruits ever appeared, even faintly, from the soil for they had not had plants to grow out of. The shed stayed, however, and housed his books. His wife never entered it, fearing the proliferation of cobwebs in “such a filthy low-class thing as a shed”.
Samy sat on a rattan wicker chair and stared at the light bulb. He could still hear noises from the house. His son Kuhan had returned from work and was interesting the Family with two kilograms of mutton he had received as a present from his boss. Why was mutton such a fascination for them? He wanted to shout back at them. “Eh you,” he fancied himself saying, “the bloody sun at dusk is better, far better than a sickening piece of meat”. He liked mutton, he knew that, but he wouldn’t pray to it or allow it to make him happier than he had been before he had eaten it. Perhaps, he thought with a finality that shocked him, it was time to die.
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down—
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues for Noon.
He tried to remember more but he couldn’t. It was only the beginning of the poem. He had the collected works of Emily Dickinson in the shed, on a shelf unknown to him and he could have gone to look for it, but he didn’t want to. He had known the poem by heart before. It would return to him. Did he once try to recite it to his wife?
“Do you like poems?” yes, he had asked her that before marriage.
She giggled and flipped her hair. She was the only Ceylonese girl he knew who had green eyes. She was also the only Ceylonese girl he knew who didn’t need lipstick to project a red appetising mouth. She didn’t answer him. He should have known then. But it was wrong of him to think like that. In the early years, she had hidden birthday presents under the mattress for him, she’d cried during arguments, hugged him in the nights. Then something happened. No, no. Nothing actually happened. Everything was as it was from the beginning.
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine—
He should have recited it to her anyway. They would have had clarity then, when he was moustachioed and she had natural curls. Her arms had always been slim, lean, muscular flesh. How lucky he was that she had not grown fat, only thinner. And why did they have to procreate? It didn’t matter that they did, now that he thought of it.
When everything that ticked—has stopped—
And Space stares all around—
Or Grisly frosts—first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground—
The Beating Ground. Emily knew her stuff. Did the ground beat the feet or was the ground beating itself? Itself. It was less important to be beating something else. Nothing major could come out of it. He longed for twilight again. He’d wait in the shed till morning when the other twilight emerged. The pans were still tumbling but the oil had stopped popping. Dinner Is Served. But that was not what Samy wanted. In his thirties, he’d been called Mr. Samy Kennedy. Kennedys were handsome, oratorical, rhetorical…ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country. Well, he had taught schoolchildren for thirty years and they had still grown up dumb. One or two had become ministers of parliament. Did they bother to think about Emily alone in her room, thousands of poems beneath her bed? He had told them to imagine her and they had closed their eyes but what did they see? “Ma, more rice here lah!” a son shouted.
But most, like Chaos—Stopless—cool—
Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—
That was how the poem ended. He knew he had left out some verses but he could not remember them. At least he had got the ending right. And now there was no more. Out of Emily’s thousands, this was the one he had chosen for the night. Suddenly the thought of waiting in the shed till dawn bothered him. He wanted to get out, wherever, possibly back to “Ah Lang Hardware Store” but he had never had luck there. He opened the door of the shed and scanned the garden. It was quiet and dark and the Family was eating inside the house. He dashed across to the front gate, let himself out through the small opening and stood in front of the wall for a moment where no one in the house could see him. He leaned his head against the plaque of the house. It was cool on his skin. He touched it and turned around, facing it.
“Shiva’s Abode. No. 510”.
He knew that number from somewhere else too, back in the day when he had touched something, perhaps a piece of paper. Yes, dung-brown paper smelling of dung. A brand new second-hand copy of “The Collected Works of Emily Dickinson”, stolen from the public library. Now, on this very day, after forty years, only now did he realize that his favourite poem of Emily’s was numbered fifth hundred and tenth in that edition. Did it really take that long to make simple connections? Was there even a meaning in such a link?
He started running and he ran till dawn and he heard the Azan and he heard the birds and he saw the royal blue of the sky and he felt a song perch itself on his ear going, “Despair…tra la la…Despair…tra la la” and he collapsed with joy.