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Mother's Loss

Muniza Tariq

 
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They were both brought home as kids.
Shantanu was old enough to walk right through the moss green, termite-infested door that quivered with every whiff of the sea breeze.
Buddy, on the other hand, was brought in a basket. No, not a new, fancy thing, the kinds we see in TV commercials with a red bow on it.
No.
This one was made of moist, almost torn strands and let out a very peculiar stench that threw right in the heart of a dense bamboo jungle, on a rainy day. He was a 6-day-old Labrador. Orphaned and famished, his voice was meeker than he was. It was going to take him one more month before he would know how to balance his weight on all fours without rolling over like a ball.
They had come to stay with George, a full-time brooder and an occasional sailor.
While Shantanu was brought in to take care of Buddy, Buddy didn’t have a well-defined role to play.
His only duties were to chew on shoes, gulp half a kg boiled chicken and grow like an unattended wound.
To the insatiable, attention-seeking Buddy, George seemed a callous giant. It seemed an emotional blasphemy to his little mutt-head when George didn’t reciprocate his excitement, quite unapologetically. He refused to let buddy anywhere near him.
It wasn’t surprising for those who knew George.
But who knew George?
People would guess his age and it all depended on the time of the day they saw him.
To those who saw him when he’d set out to the sea every morning at 5:30 a.m., he appeared to be 40. His energy would burn in his eyes. Blazing like two embers, he’d rub them while flicking his hair back, letting the saline gush of wind comb them.
Sipping black coffee and sand from a dirty beer tumbler, which he got free with the last carton he bought, George appeared young and virile.
 His muscles flexing, his heart pounding with the excitement that some mistook to be delirium, he’d look at the sea lusciously. He looked a young man, eagerly in love, definitely younger than 40.
When he’d return, he’d hit old Delly’s shack for supper and beer.  He looked old, exhausted and listless. Some said he looked 60. Some others said he looked 70. Here, it all depended on how far or close he sat to the trippy, greasy lamp, which drunkards clung to, night after night.
There, he’d play a hand or two with old chums, sing a little after downing some and then walk out to the sea. He’d stare right into the face of the black, roaring infinity and not bat an eye.

Not till someone would break his dark surf with a pat on his shoulder. When he startled back to reality, he looked as old as time.


peacock_feather

 

He’d fake a smile and clarify, “Wonder why at night, the sea looks soot black but the waves look glistening white. Have you ever noticed? Ha! Sometimes I feel I am the only one who sees things like this. But really, you never noticed. I must be drunk…”
That was a lot of conversation for George.
He wasn’t used to words or friends. Even Old Monk could get no more than few nods out of him. While others indulged in trivial talks from younger years, confessed flings with their neighbour’s wives, he just sipped through their silly slurs.
What they did know was that he had lost his wife to the sea.
And they believed, his meaningless expeditions, every now and then, were a way to get in touch with his long gone beloved. Why, he wouldn’t return with any fish or fight any pirates there in the heart of the blue nowhere. So people went with the most undisputed explanation that their idle minds could concoct.
No one demanded an explanation or initiated a conversation with him. And George preferred it that way.

 

Shantanu, now 15, had long given up.
Over the years, he had learnt to do everything right without really talking to George.
He knew that his smile wouldn’t make George’s morning tea any special. He knew that even if he flicked away some money, it wouldn’t matter to George. He knew George wouldn’t have dinner if he started drinking at 7. And he knew he was going to sail when he saw him fill a flagon.
What kept him going was the money he was making for doing nothing and Buddy.
When Buddy would return to him after his futile show of affection aimed at George, Shantanu showered him with love in all the ways he could imagine.
He would rub his coffee brown forehead, pat his back and feed him more chicken than was usually fed to him.
He even sacrificed his favourite pair of slippers and cheered for Buddy as he tore it to pieces.
Like Shantanu, Buddy would have given up on George too, but one night, everything changed.
After finishing a bottle of whiskey, George had found himself a comfortable spot by the sea.
There, he sat, all alone, his ravenous gaze dissolving into the black momentum that could only be heard.
George would never have found out that he had company if it were not for a faint panting sound, to his right. Unalarmed, he turned and found Buddy devouring the sea, the dark spectacle it made.
Buddy, for the first time, didn’t jump around him or seek his attention. He just looked at the sea like nothing else around him existed.
George took an insignificant fraction of a moment to detect that look, hanging on the black snout that almost merged with the moonless night.
When George took his eyes off Buddy, he felt something in his heart churn.

 

That night, a sleepy Shantanu opened the door for them. He instantly knew something consequential had transpired between George and Buddy.
And then, not much later, he saw George patting Buddy’s back while watching TV.
Shantanu knew for sure.
He was now the odd man out.
Human beings have favourites. Animals have love.
Buddy’s love was undivided. Things didn’t change between Shantanu and him.
George’s newfound attention was only for Buddy. Things hadn’t changed between Shantanu and him.
Shantanu didn’t know for sure what he was experiencing.
He was jealous. He was hurt. Buddy loved him just the same as before.
George looked through him much like he did earlier. So, he couldn’t even justify it to himself, the nagging pain it all caused.
The most pathetic feeling in the world is the one you can’t describe. This was clearly it.
When there were no conversations in the house, it didn’t hurt so. Now there were conversations but he wasn’t part of them.
George’s almost hoarse voice didn’t reek of love. It was so rarely heard, it was like an exclusivity of sorts. And now, Buddy’s prerogative.
“Buddy, come on old man. Let’s go for a walk.”
He’d hawk up every now and then.
“Now now, don’t be silly. Not the face. No…no…”.
“Buddy, did you have a bellyful?”
Even the few questions that contributed to Shantanu’s meager share of conversation with George were now Buddy’s.
“Dirty man! How many days have you not been near water?”
“Is there enough chicken for ya? Is there? Is there?”
Shantanu’s troubled little mind didn’t know what to do.
Should I start talking to him myself?
Should I let it be?
Should I let Buddy know that I am hurting?

He decided to try the first one of his options.
The night before he rehearsed in his mind what his first words would be.
“Good morning”, Shantanu let out, hesitantly.
George looked up from the newspaper he was reading out in the verandah. The sun was just stretching out. Through the faint light that had begun to spread as if reluctantly, he just looked, nodded and took the cup of tea that Shantanu had brought.
Of course it must have been weird for him. I have never wished him Good Morning before. Shantanu’s heart was filled with hope.
At dinnertime, while preparing rice and fish curry, he also prepared himself for another round of conversation. He prepared the curry with hands nervous in hope and a heart restless with excitement.
If a dog can melt the man, I am sure there is hope for me.
But his hopes met with a rude end when he carried fish curry and rice to an empty sitting room.
He heard George talking to Buddy, “Let’s go to Delly’s old man! You will have a lot of fun there.”
Shantanu was up all night.
His wounded heart told him unbelievably horrible things.
Go back to your village. Earlier at least the dog was yours. Now you are all alone. The man never cared for you. He never wanted you. He never will, more so because he now has the dog.
He hated himself for referring to Buddy as the dog.
He hated himself for being less important than the dog.

He looked out of the window. The sun was going to be up soon.
No sign of them.
He was now worried.
Did George go sailing with Buddy?
Unlikely. He never did, without the flagon.
He hadn’t set out to the sea since he and Buddy bonded. Surely, he would have informed Shantanu.
The sun was now blazing down. It was 8 a.m.
Shantanu dragged his tired, hungry body to the kitchen and put some water on the stove.
He suddenly heard the gate open. He ran out, forgetting the pain, the sleeplessness and the insult that had been consuming him for days.
He saw only George walk in. No sign of Buddy.
He looked around and then his eyes met George’s.
George finally started a conversation with him.
 “Buddy… he just disappeared.”
He entered the cottage, threw his hat on the floor and reached out for a bottle of rum.
He drank all day. With each sip his pain deepened. Shantanu was suddenly in the whirl again, this time for entirely different reasons.
He suddenly felt his heart squirm in agony.
He wanted to hug Geroge, tell him that he was there for him and that Buddy will come back soon.
But he couldn’t. His tongue felt like a piece of lead, throbbing with all the words that he couldn’t manage to utter.
He just hid in his room and stared at nothing, all through the day.
The cobweb-laden clock ticked away, rather sadistically.
The sun drowned in the sea.
George was sipping his hundredth drink when he felt something nuzzling into his left leg. As a reflex action, he threw his leg fiercely in a kick.
A loud squeal filled the air.
He stared in horror at a teary-eyed Shantanu on all fours, his tongue hanging out.

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