‘The Last Time It Ticked’ by Darshi Ranmuthu

Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

If you peer in to the exact depth of my eyes you will see it, the reflection. The destination where my heart has tiptoed is reflected in the retina, in the iris, in to the macula. It is radiant, could penetrate your iris by its mighty thrust, a fulfilment of hopes swaddled in the warmth of old escapades. You see the shivering cardiac muscles and the extra vibration of vocal chords joining together to make meaning. Then you will also see the grades page of my exaltation on peace negotiations and you may raise your eye brows at the irony I have imposed on myself, because you know that Devind is on a short mission for the International Humanitarian Bureau, in the destroyed Mesopotamian territory. This is the first time away from his usual local office. I tell you, that I have been enveloped by some optimistic nature, even if I know there has been something devious since the beginning. Something distanced me from the reality, from seeing through, something I cannot reach. You may perhaps accuse me of gullibility.

My heart pumps different blood, flowing quizzical and bemused. His endeavours for the sake of humanity were supposed to be delivered to only one set of trainees in the capital city of that war-torn terrain. I am not putting you into my entangled ball of string. Until the day before yesterday we -He, our little girl Sashi and I- have had our tidings exchanged through the handsets and in emails, except Sashi’s constant sobbing over some inexplicable speculations. Sashi’s aunty, my sister managed to use her novice child minding skills which was a boon.

But during last three days, storms, floods and tornadoes were dashing through my mind. You see the weariness of the gaze of my eyes yearning for sleep, and you may hesitate about my mannerism that is falsifying what you really see. Yes, I tell you the truth, I insanely try to present them as two discrete entities, in front of my acquaintances. All I wanted to know was if he is breathing the same air as we do. The day before yesterday I got an answer from the other end of the communication line.

“He had to travel to Hilla, hundred meters further from Baghdad and the war escalated it seemed. I know it was settled when we sent him. But now we are unable to contact him.”

You hear that the haze of uprising in the terrain he left for, signalled calamity. How I wish I had my shivering muscles appeased, premonitions which are under wraps pacified, and dreadful thoughts banned from flowing through my mind? Don’t you dare deny that it has been dubious to me about how he was assigned for this mission and was there a catch? I feel that I was kept at a distance from knowing the underlined and bold phrases of that venture. Despite all such knots and tangles, you tend to gasp at the polished outward look, the priority their logos gain, and the predominating role they are assigned in a needy territory, which I would proclaim a shield.

Nothing can keep the three of us apart, I believe and I console my hesitated blood.

You notice that I check my wrist, the watch, with the same radiance you see in my eyes. It is more than a microscopic eye could catch. If you are curious; we have a sentiment attached to each other’s watches. He did want to leave his behind, to keep in my care. I wanted him to wear it as I took pain to find the kind he likes. He simply agreed, if you remember.

It has been another scorching day. Long awaiting in the hot weather  is just one unpleasant experience. People seem to be tuned in, while waiting in the bus, as if they are inflating a balloon with their patience that goes in the hot sun. I feel a flutter in my bag and take the cellular phone out. An unknown voice. You know now, after the day before yesterday, I have been inclined to think even a spark could blaze the whole world.

“Hi, I am Roger’s wife. How far away are you from home?”

Now you are going to help me with semantics. Why does a colleague’s wife want to know this, at this time of the day? Now the strategy of questioning in place of answering might work here. Roger is not only a friend but also a mediator of communication, working at the local office. Why it was not Roger but his wife?

“Sorry, may I ask why?”

“Roger asked me to check. Are you on the way?”

“Yes, can you call me back bit later?”

“How long will it take to go?”

“What is it?”

You may ask why I did not go investigating her uncertainty in the first place, you would not if you had any idea how an utter blankness occurred  at a ‘significant moment’ affects the sequence of the day.

It was not a consolation, no solace rather mystification. Let me tell you how my mind leaps over the boundaries of gratification through spasms of unidentified glooms. You will also see it is burdened, like a rain cloud, by mystifying calls here and there, bemusing the vulnerable ‘thing’.

The engine shuddered and the long queues, stationary buses, stories of commercial outlets started to move backward. A breeze that came through the open windows pacifies the yearning bodies as if pleasing memories bring labyrinths in mind to a straight pathway.

I will take you along a causeway. The day he left for a mission in a war torn country was the first long departure since the day we were bound by the wedlock. The farewell got marked by heavy-hearted, desolate, and bereft scratches. I wish it were more expressive, and opened up but it rather locked us up.  His minutes-long adieu filled with hopes heaped up with a good return after a quarter of a year, did not make our three-year-old very happy. Undoubtedly he must have felt the same towards his little girl.

Finally it is time to celebrate the fulfilment of hopes that will make Sashi’s little world big, that will make missing bits fit together, that will make our spirits refreshed, simply by a message I am anticipating, straight from him, this evening.

Now listen to what happened at the ‘significant moment’ at my university exam today. I am so used to the new technology even if I have not mastered it. Usually it is me who fill the cups of others with my well-used or ready-to-use matter. I am trying to find the end of the ball of string that my mind is entangled in. I try to remember all of fiasco and why it happened for my examiner’s satisfaction and not mine. I was like a novice in front of the computer; I felt like I just landed from Mars! Making the examiner feel empowered and contented with scholarly leverage, was an achievement.

You may wonder if I am religious. If going to the temple together, the solace in our stressful, frustrated life style, is what it means, yes I am. I remember his letters with words about Saddam Hussain. I remember Mr. Fernando, my International Relations lecturer, his explanations of international law, conflict resolution, treaties and pacts, but what about the ‘operative hands’? Something heedless, you must agree!

Help me to remember Sashi’s request for afternoon tea, this morning. I pull the cord and it clinks.

“Excuse me please, excuse me.”

Take your curious eyes off, it is not impatience, it is the need to get rid of the smell of sweat, gusts of breaths and disgust of involuntary physical contact. After a minute of a wiggling and zigzagging and squishing through the living statues, I make my way to the exit. I walk down to the small shop.

Freshly baked bread and black spotted banana will make a good afternoon snack with a spread. I talk to the man behind the counter with absent smiles and pay and get my lot with ‘automated’ mannerism.

I remember Roger’s wife.  I feel like a teenager anxiously waiting for the first call on a new phone even if it is quizzical. This is actually our shared phone, our first mobile and is ‘smart’ enough.  I check if there are any scratches on the display and wipe it with my finger tips as if I am doing it to my wrist watch. It is all clean and clear. I visualize he has his watch still intact, not further away from the wrist bone, just right circumference to match the strap size.

Follow me, if you want to see how cheerful our little house is going to be. I walk down the steep hill on to the bridge spanning the stream across the paddy field. I embrace the tickle the cool breeze brushes on me, sweeping across the blades of paddy plants enforcing them to kiss the boggy floor, which is momentary.

I puff and huff at the end of the hill after the bridge, to relieve myself from my stressful and intense course of the day.

As my footsteps scurry in an attempt to pass my rambling mind, I see a car with the logo of that humanitarian organization, parked in the small strip outside the gate. You do not have to come closer to listen to a high tempo beat of my heart. I ignore the sight of the logo anyway because it is not something important to me, but…..

I crept through my gate in the eagerness to see Sashi and to get ready for tomorrow. I feel something as I see Roger, my brother-in-law and another delegate casting their eyes towards my presence as if I am the ghastly feminine figure of Mohini.

I cannot understand why my sister has lost her twenty five year old exuberant gaze that was there this morning. At least Sashi looks as cheerful as she used to be. Why do I notice the flowers in the pots that have been watered regularly withered?

I do not realize why everyone sounds absent of words or behaves as if they do not know whose turn it is to speak. I could not bear the lengthened silence anymore and I feel some weird whirlwind howling around. Finally the delegate introduced to me as James broke the silence, not with what I have been anticipating, but about a sniper attack that determined the end of our world, and the next destination for Sashi and me without his presence and all we deserve of him. From here to where? Do you know how deep the meaning of the word ‘destination’ for a widow is?

I hold my tears, my agony, my disbelief, my feminine nature clutched  to my heart. I roll and crumple and shove my exact feelings to the darkest corner of my heart. I summon courage to look at Sashi as if I am just peeking through the precipice of misery I have fallen in to call out ‘I am fine’.

You think it is a solace that we have to go; go to his house of secured walls; the house I had premonitions about his coffin lying in. I am vulnerable, I admit. I embrace my little girl, Sashi and bid my sister to leave her tears behind. Jesus’ resurrection story comes promising at this moment, even though it sounds ethereal. Sashi will believe it if I say he is no more but will wake up from his rest in due course, moving  her  away from the verge of the tragedy, before she feels the depth of it.

I lock myself  inside the four walls that we spent the first part of our matrimony, his ancestral home, as a custom of the world we were born in to. I do not let any hands to mollify my tense muscles, or to anoint my strained fleshy heart. I see your heart melting at my little girl’s chirpy manner and  her questions about what she has seen in people in that mourning colour. I am struggling to be proactive to find hideouts before she comes up with another question. I am too fragile to see Sashi in distress.

The day turned up when we see him in a sealed casket. The local news agencies were like ravens as his life ended with an unusual specification, implying sympathy, opening eyes of humanitarian organizations and a spur to the readers. I want to cry out “let me wail”. I want a shoulder to lean on, ears to listen to my heart, and blood to warm up my cold palms and my soul.

Now you begin to wonder, there is no need to, as it is the reality of a distressed mind. I wonder why I am here. I feel like I am floating. I find my senses estranged and benumbed; I feel my sanity slipping away. I hear my watch ticking so loud as my hands on my face gave me a secure yet lonely feeling.

Somebody gives me his briefcase. Please tell me, where is he? Walking down the departure lounge? Sashi is not here to welcome him. He will wonder why.

I open his briefcase instinctively.

I remember the days we shared love between each other so bravely. I love this stillness of his pictured memories, his handkerchiefs, most of all the smell inside. I wish we could snuggle in it and enclose ourselves. I grab the badge, the one that has been pinned on to his shirt. Red lines in a white background, smeared in red. That stain belongs to Sashi who has identical components in her veins. The air around me whirls. It has dried my lacrimation. I hear nobody, see no flashing lights, or nobody looking at me, as you see.

He has been adored; souvenirs from his trainees, photos full of smiling faces around him, even the ones with burqas. I grab one thing frantically, after throwing all other feelings away, the thing I longed to see intact, the watch. I recognize what fear, loss and solitude means. I take it into my palm stroking it like I am doing this to his lively hair. I see red smudges. I am careful not to smear them with my sweat; we own our mementos wrapped in each other’s sweat and warmth. I listen to his watch. I only hear sort of gabbling, outside. I shake it. I check to see if it ‘looks’ dormant; not from a watch-repairer’s point of view.

You may hear mumbles, “so unfortunate”, “poor child”. I look at the watch. Carefully. My eyes have not boycotted functioning, only my cerebral cortex has. The watch shows the hands; one at six and the other is between ten and eleven behind the smudgy glass crystal. I check with my cousin about the time zone after all is calm and grey and when I feel the profound, pitch black bottom of loneliness for the first time in life. It was exactly the time I underwent a blackout, in the examination room. That was the last time it ticked, before his last breath, his last bit of warm blood got pumped out of his flesh.

Darshi RanmuthuAuthor’s Bio: Darshi Ranmuthu is a 46 year old Sri Lankan living in New Zealand. She works as an early childhood educator, and is also a short story writer and poet. She has Bachelor of Arts (Sri Lanka), Bachelor of Teaching  and Postgraduate Diploma in Education both from New Zealand institutions. She has epublished one poetry book. She started her writing career when she was ten. One of her short stories was published in the 4th floor journal, New Zealand. Contact here here.

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