As the December wind whistled through the dry leaves of the Amaltas tree in their back yard, she tossed in her secret blend of spices. "Ammi-jaan, Faruq and Imran will be coming home with me after special class. Can you make your special biriyani please?”. His teenage words rung fresh in her ears, as the aroma of the spices made her eyes water. She wondered why. After all, she’d been making this biriyani for years and not once had her eyes filled up. ‘Why today?’ she wondered, as she mixed the spices with long, amber grains of the basmati rice. Her little boy was growing up fast. She looked at the haphazard drawing of the car, that Khalid had drawn on one of the pages of his notebook. She still remembered the excitement in his eyes, as he explained each part of the model to her, completely oblivious to the fact that she didn’t understand anything he was saying. She’d never been to school. But she knew it was important to him. So she'd carefully torn out the sheet and pasted it on the cleanest wall of the otherwise sooty kitchen.
Wiping her moist eyes, she smiled as the Imam called out the ‘Salat-az-zuhr’. ‘Allah, please take care of my son. May all his dreams come true!’ she whispered, inadvertently reciting the prayer with the Imam.
A few miles away, as the rickety Land Cruiser pulled away, fourteen year old Khalid lay by the road side, his eyes wide open, his bullet ridden body devoid of all life. Back home, as his mother lovingly added the final touches to the biriyani, the flame of the gas - stove suddenly went out.
Truth be told, I had written this piece the previous Sunday. Two days later, when I heard the news of the Peshawar attack, I was in shock. Not just because of the brutality and the massacre of those innocent souls, but also because to me, it seemed like something I had written as fiction had actually come true. And for some inexplicable reason, my conscience was guilt-ridden. As if somehow, my words literally came true. And that somehow, in some minuscule way, I was responsible too. (Have you ever felt that way?)
I'd almost decided to delete this piece from my draft folder, where it was constantly haunting me. But then I decided to publish it anyway. Not just a dedication to the hundreds of innocent dreams and ambitions being quashed every day. But also to serve as a reminder to me. To bring up my son to be a more tolerant and better human being. And for the thousands of dreams that were crushed to pulp by those cowards hiding under the shroud of misplaced and misconstrued faith.
P.S. The original ending was this, but I changed it because the coincidence was far too creepy for me.
I cannot help licking my lips as I watch Gary cover the sponge cake with dark-chocolate frosting. There is a certain finesse in the way that he applies each layer, just gentle enough to kiss the surface, but merciless enough to make sure that it stays on. I know that there is work to be done, and that in approximately four minutes and twenty-three seconds, Chef Pierre will be screaming out my name for not having done the dishes. This would be followed by him thundering into the room, picking me up by the collar and rattling me like a toddler’s toy. I should know - we’ve followed the same pattern of events every Christmas eve, for the past eight years I’ve been employed here. Despite that, my gaze is fixed on the piece of art that Gary has been perfecting for the past three hours. And as I stand there, hiding behind the thick curtain that separates my kingdom of grease-laden pans, grimy cutlery pieces and soap suds of various shapes and sizes, there comes the booming voice calling out my name. “Georggggge….!”. I sigh loudly. Not because of my name being called out incorrectly. I sigh because a large blob of glistening dark chocolate frosting has broken the ranks and smoothly slid onto the floor, where it will soon form a dark, brown pond of melted chocolate liquid, which is of no good to anyone. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to taste that delicious cake that is being constructed!
But wait! Where are my manners? Let’s start again. This time with an introduction. My name is Jorge. Jorge Gabriella. And I’m all of ten years old. And before you call me ‘George’, let me stop you - it’s pronounced ‘Hor-hey’; Yes, I understand the difficulty. And yes, I blame my immigrant Colombian parents too. At least, I think they were Colombian. You see, I’ve never known my parents. I grew up in an orphanage in Jersey, and when I was two, I was kidnapped and then sold to Roberto Maquis, the owner of this grand restaurant that I work in. Or so I've been told. And today, I reign as the undisputed leader of the ‘Clean Pots, Utensils and Pans’. Or the C-PUPs, as I call them.
I know what's passing through your mind. Why don’t I run away? There is a good reason for that. In exchange for my cleaning the PUPs, I get all the leftovers that I want and a comfortable bedding made from the empty sacks that the onions come in. I don’t go to school, but I do get $10 every week, something I have been collecting for as long as I can remember. I also don't run away Mr. Maquis says he has a lot of connections and that he would find me, break every bone in my body, and not give me any food. And if I’m honest, I don’t want to risk it. Plus I don’t really know where I’d go if escaped.
But there is something that I’ve always wished for. To celebrate at least one Christmas like how they show in those movies. With friends. With family. Waiting for Santa. Opening presents. Have a nice roast for lunch. Watching lots of television. Drink lots of egg-nog. And then go to sleep with a tummy full of food and heart full of warmth and love. Not that I don’t enjoy my Christmases. I have a day off on Christmas. But since there is no one to look after me, I’m usually locked up at the restaurant. I know it sounds awful, but it really isn’t that bad. Gary usually leaves a piece of roast chicken with some mashed potatoes in the fridge for me to have on Christmas Day. Of course, Chef Pierre or Mr. Maquis doesn't know about this. They’d fire Gary in a heart beat if they come to know. Thankfully, they both leave early on Christmas Eve, so it’s usually Gary closing up.
I normally spend the rest of my Christmas Eve up in my little corner in the attic of the restaurant. It gets quite chilly there at night, but I like to sit by my little circular window and look outside. Last year, I even tried to stay awake through the night, so that I could catch a glimpse of Santa as he slid down ‘The Humberg’s’ chimney to deliver little Ethan his presents. Sadly, I fell asleep. Not this year though.
Gary has offered to take me to his apartment this year. He even got me a camera - a shiny, red one - so that I can capture a photo of Santa delivering presents. He also told me that I shouldn’t be upset if I don’t actually get to see Santa. But I’m sure I will. Gary lives in a really, tall building across town - one of the tallest, he says. I like Gary - he’s the only person here who cares about me. He gets me presents and cooks me nice meals, without any one else knowing. I wonder why Rachel told me to be careful around him. Rachel, is one of our station chefs by the way. She likes to make up stories about people, sometimes. I asked her why, but she wouldn’t tell me.
I must go now. I need to finish those vessels before we close for the day. And then I shall go home with Gary today. He has promised to make sure that I have a good time. And maybe I will spot Santa this year, after all.
[This post is written for the Project 365 program at We Post Daily aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. Was there a toy or thing you always wanted as a child, during the holidays or on your birthday, but never received? Tell us about it.] Image courtesy : HDwallpaper.com
I will always remember that day.Some say that it’s unreasonable to expect a five year old to remember everything in the right sequence of events. I’m inclined to agree. But deep down, I also know everything I saw and heard that night. No matter how much people trivialise what I say, they cannot take away what I saw. And when such memories are imprinted in your brain, with the same intensity that the colonial slave-traders branded their slaves, you hardly forget. And the nightmares liven them. Every single day.
I will always remember that day.
It was a few days before Christmas. I remember, because I was upset about having bitten Tony Gonzales on his arm. No, the biting did not bother me. He deserved it. What upset me was what my mother had said. She looked into my eyes and said that I had been a bad boy and so Santa wouldn’t be bringing me any presents that year. And she had told me off in front of that over-sized buffoon. Just for that, I wanted to bite his other arm too. Santa wasn’t going to come anyway. But I didn’t. It was because for the first time, my mother’s eyes were missing the twinkle that they always had. I couldn’t bear to see my mother upset. So I did nothing. Except follow her home with the demeanour of a quiet, little lamb.
That night at dinner, my mother had a forlorn expression. She had not spoken to me since the incident at school. Neither had she laughed when Maria, my elder sister, had recited a joke she had learned. I can’t remember what the joke was - but only that it was something funny, and I too had laughed along. Maria and I had a chasm of an age difference - 11 years. After dinner, my sister left for the movies along with her douche-bag of a boyfriend, Buster. I mean, who gives a dog’s name to a kid? After they’d gone, mother had rushed me upstairs. Father had not come home yet - he had been working rather late for the past few months and they had been arguing a lot.
Mother tucked me in tight and left without saying a good night or reading me my bed-time story of the little cat who would not have its milk. That was the first time that she had forgotten to do either. Usually she would sit around to make sure I had slept; but that day, it had seemed like she did not care. She had seemed impatient and agitated. I remember blaming myself for having made my mother upset. And I had cried myself to sleep for that.
I woke up to loud voices. Maybe screaming is more apt. I don’t think I noticed the time. All I knew was that it was late. Too late for my liking. And people were shouting. I tiptoed towards the stairs. The voices were coming from the kitchen. As I slowly climbed down the stairs, the voices became clearer. “You Bastard!” , I heard my mother scream. At least I think it was a scream. I’d never heard her raise her voice before. Not even when I had managed to slip a red sock into the washing machine along with all her whites.
Back then, I knew not what ‘bastard’ meant. All I knew was the intensity with which the words were spoken. And the hatred that coated each word. As I neared the kitchen, I heard a thud. And a groan. Followed by a long pause. And then a blood curdling cry. I stood rooted to the spot. The kitchen door, that was slightly ajar, was only a few feet away from me. But I couldn’t move.
"How could you? You wretched man! She’s your……", I heard my mother’s voice, slowly fade out. Like the horn of the local train did, as it sped away from the station. I still do not know where I got the strength from. But I took a step. And then another. And then a couple more, till I reached the door. And then I peered through the gap. In there, I saw the scene. One that would haunt my nights and days for months and years to come. One that no amount of therapy or counselling could cure. One that I wish I hadn’t seen or heard.
I noticed my mother sobbing. The sound started like a tiny sing-song noise, like the hum of the bees in Mr. Dickenson’s yard. Gradually rising and falling. And then it exploded. I had to rub my eyes to be sure that the source of the voice was indeed, my mother. I hoped it was not. But my eyes said otherwise.
She was leaning over a man on the chair, hugging him. Rocking back and forth, like she was cradling a baby. A man who I would soon find out was dead, with a kitchen knife through his chest. A man I would soon find out, was my father. I wondered why my sister hadn’t rushed down yet. I would find out later that she was in the kitchen that very moment. Lying in a puddle of blood. Unconscious. But still breathing. Barely.
I will always remember that day.
Because it was the day I lost my family.
Although this work is fiction, I have read and in some cases, even known a few families who have been shred to pieces because of instances like these. As a parent, it scares me. The fact that sometimes we cannot trust the very people who are responsible for us. I've left out explicit scenes or descriptions so as not to disturb the readers. Also it is the first time, I've attempted a 'first person narrative style'.
[This post is written for the Project 365 program at We Post Daily aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. Tell us about a conversation you couldn’t help but overhear and wish you hadn't] Image source: Getty Images