July 15, 2017
The Mystical Old Man
I could always write "C-H-A-I-R" or "U-M-B-R-E-L-L-A" when our teacher instructed us to identify things on the board. That was how Julie chose a seat beside me. She was like a leech poring into all the answers I have got on my paper while I was always ever willing to share them. She was there with her angelic face looking perpetually it seemed at my paper. In such closeness, I could study the gentle features of her face, the wide-eyed girl who also happened to be a neighbor of ours although their house was far enough that she was not with the regular kids I play with every afternoon.
Julie had a face of dolls my cousins used to play and she wore dresses like those dolls wore. With flowers and sunbeams in them embroidered like badges. Her hair was always prim and her shoes shiny. When rainy seasons came, she was the only child who carried to school an umbrella made for kids while we carry the larger ones, whose length were nearly our heights, making us looked laughable and tragic it seems.
Even in the gardening activities, I would be the one toiling for her that it felt good to be so needed while she enjoyed being so dependent. At that age, the littlest of vocabulary in our minds never allowed us much conversation that what I did was merely stare at her face and wonder how it attracts my attention so much. In the afternoon, I would go home ahead so that I could again examine her face while she walked past Hadja Saniya's house.
One day she shook the entire class as she narrated to us, while we were playing in the fields, how she had a dwarf friend that she had put in the bottle. I inquired so earnestly if the dwarf was still there and said that in fact she had spoken to one of them that morning.
We all grouped around her for dwarf stories and she would tell them with so much energy that she sweated sometimes.
From then on, she was full of dwarf stories that my classmates proceeded to disregard her. Perhaps, bandwagons were a fact of life even in our tender ages that even I started to isolate her. She became bitter and always in argument when we chided her about the dwarfs. Until one day one of the dwarfs died and it seemed she never spoke again and became all the more introspective and isolated. In the second grade, she had changed classes but I continued to examine her face whenever she was around. As she grew older, the dresses she wore disappeared and started to wear jeans and t-shirts, and before we knew it, she had developed lesbian tendencies and became silent.
When I entered high school my grandfather took me back and paid for the expensive fees of my catholic schooling. He had become weaker and weaker that perhaps, he needed someone to tend over him when weakness consumed him altogether. He had bouts with asthma that often, we both slept in the hospital for days. The hospital became my second home during those years while I struggled with my studies.
In his healthier days, he would give me Arabic lessons and great myths of old. Being a Moslem preacher that he was, he was always writing some Arabic scribbles into his minute notebooks and I would ask about them.
"It is the mysteries of the world." He would always say. I wanted to ask if for who does he writes it for when almost nobody could understand Arabic but I did not.
I would observe him scribbling all afternoon like a well-versed scholar on composing his post-graduate opus. He had an apprentice whom he always consults every now and then, a young preacher named Abirin, who was also our relations. I would go along with him to these frequent visits and indeed they compared notes. I observed so keenly how they relate and strangely enough, they do not speak as much to each other but they would smile and grunt as if they understood each other. One time, they had this ritual where they lit up a candle and Abirin was holding the Tasbi, the Moslem prayer beads, and held it up that it lay there static in a hanging position. There was no one around except the three of us. Both of them continue to mumble Arabic verses that they both seemed to fall into a trance, including me that my sight got plastered into the hanging Tasbi. Then all of a sudden, the beads swayed back and forth, about forty-five degrees from left to right. Then it went forth in wild circular motion without the hands of Abirin moving. Then if stop so abruptly that even at that age, it must have been impossible. When after a while, the Tasbi stopped completely in a forty-five degrees position, for a bout sixty seconds and this had astounded me so much for I know this is not how gravity actually works. My hairs stood up and felt a sadness so deep that I wept there so hard, and tears flowed from my eyes like a river. Both of them pacified me telling me that "it's alright. It's all right. Stop your crying". And they were both smiling at each other without conversing in dialogues.
One of the manuscripts that Hadji Unih was writing one afternoon was a wide paper with shapes in them. It was so wide that he had to fold it before tucking it into his black leather case. In the middle of it all was a circle and at each side were three rectangular shapes. At each corner was a triangle and within the shapes were Arabic verses. I was particularly mystified by the work that I asked him its meaning and consequences. "It's the mystery of our existence," he would vaguely answer again. I imagined those writings to be charms that I had a keen eye on them, coveting them in my heart that I planned to tuck them away. I daydreamed that they would give me powers of the supernatural kind. One that could make me disappear perhaps and become invisible or one that would afford me extreme luck and plow in mountains and mountains of money and other riches. But it was only after he died that I have got hold of the paper that I wanted most. Not by stealing it away as I had planned but by just appearing in my sight several nights after he had died. All his garments and materials were distributed among the relations including all his writings and paraphernalia. It was only the one that I coveted much that I found in the empty closet that we both used to share. I was so consumed with sadness that after putting the paper in my bag I just forgot about it and did not mind it much until years later. His death meant that I had to go back to my mother and started the "silent years" of my life.
The death of Hadji Unih was like the world falling down on me. I awoke to a newer set of reality where the very person that almost became everything to me, to be the father and a mother, to provide every garment and every toy, suddenly disappeared. My body became literarily wobbly that uncertainties of future things cast a huge gloom into my mindset.
I became the more introspective and the change was so abrupt that my classmates once took notice of this change and ask if something wrong was happening to me. I said there was none.
As I visited his tomb every now and then, I would take a stone from the surface of the ground where he was buried thinking and hoping that his spirit would into the stone and guide me throughout my life. I would be like a man gone out of his head as I spoke to him while my words just flew into the wind. Extreme introspection was the consequence of his death to my person but sadness was not so. A week after he died, my mother and many others would still cry, especially my mother who even months and years after, she would wake up in the middle of the night to sit by the dimly lit kitchen of Hadja Saniya and cried. But I did not cry as much. Weeks after his death, I was playing basketball with so much fire that I excelled in it. I cried once and then never again. My body became lighter that despite the abrupt change in the things that I have, as compared to the things he had been affording me, I never cried so much over him. As if somebody was lifting me up and protected me from longing so much for him.
And yet, the lack of things was a something that I had to struggle with and took me a long time to adjust.
Years later, he would appear in my dreams. One of those dreams I quite remember so well. We were walking along the bridges and planks of a Moslem community by the sea, like typical communities of Samals. It was unlike any community that I see or that I have been. As we were walking, his footsteps became faster and faster, leaving me a little behind and struggling with my own footsteps. Then he walked faster that the distance between us became wider and wider until he ran suddenly forward. I was teary-eyed calling out for him, not to leave me behind. I could see him run and suddenly dived into the water below and swam towards the deeper sea. I was flooded with tears as I ran after him and I also jumped into the water. I struggled to swim as water poured in through my mouth and suddenly he appeared from under and carried me while he swam like a swooping tornado. When we were in the middle of the sea, he suddenly became a crocodile. I did not mind it so much as the ride gave me a serene exaltation, and a wide grin was on my face. The dream ended as we approached the beautiful orange sunset against the blue horizon
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