The sun was in my face, making my body damp and causing me to lower my eyes. My dress was stuck to my back and liquid trickled down from the hollow of my left armpit, tickling, leaving a trail of salt down my side. I placed my elbows on my knees, breaking that contact with my inner arms (I detest that sticky feeling). The inside of a car is the hottest place on earth on a hot day. The window was down and outside noises and dust had me raising it back up but only a little. The road was full of potholes and bumps so I was sweaty, sticky, dusty and uncomfortable. The hospital was up head. My stomach was queasy and my anxiety was rising with every turn of the wheels. So now, I was sweaty, sticky, dusty, uncomfortable and anxious. I only needed the urge to pee.
I always admired people who effortlessly parallel parked. My dad is really good at it. He makes quite a show of it; every time its like he’s once again showing his driving instructor like, yeah, I got this, cool guy glasses and knowing smirk. The engine cut off. I pressed pause on the skits video on personality types I was watching, put my phone in my bag and moved to turn to the door. My dad handed me the tumbler of fruit juice we had bought for the patient we were going to see. My stomach was so fluttery, full of dark matter, so to speak. We sanitized outside the hospital lobby and walked into the ground floor, straight to the back, up three flights of stairs then took a left to the reception that housed the room number we were looking for. The nurse at the desk told us his doctor had just left him, and yes we could go right in.
He still looked like a fighter. Like a legend. Whose days of might and renown still glowed past the saggy skin, sunken eyes and low, strong rumble of a voice that had struck awe and fear (mostly fear) into my very soul when I was ten years old.
June 26, 2003
The low decimal hum of young voices filled the air in the first grade classroom of a Muslim religious school. Children in that class were aged between 7 and 9 years old, typically vigorous, sparse of attention and always fighting to be the one to write for teacher on the blackboard. Two girls were huddled together, heads nearly under their desk swapping telenovela stories.
”Have you watched Secreto de Amor?”
”Yes! Carlos Raul married Barbara then Maria Clara went and got married to Lisandro,”
Cue shocked, everlastingly astounded gasp.
”What did God-mother say?”
”She had a sudden heart attack and died,”
(The God-mother of the female lead always has a heart attack and dies).
Poor chile’s jaw is almost unhinged.
”Lisandro and Maria Clara are just marrying for convenience. He knows she doesn’t love him,”
”Barbara lied to Carlos about Maria Clara, but -‘
”Are you two cooking down there?”
The teacher’s voice gave both girls a start and they bumped their heads on the desk lids sitting up. Just then, the shrill call of the bell a couple floors below rang out and sudden activity filled the room. Children stood, grabbing their book bags and hoisting them up, but did not move to the door until the teacher stopped speaking. Out in the hall, the girls’ bathroom was directly in front of them, the stairs a little more to their right. The classes adjacent to them were already emptying of their learners and the hallway was starting to crowd up. There were stairways at both ends but the two girls took the one closest to them. It was break time and everybody would be heading outside to buy snacks and/or play in the spaces around the school. Munira and me were going mostly to eat. In the stairwell, the combination of young robust children and the less than spacious room available amplified their raised voices and their loud pounding feet. The following is a description of the events as they unfolded to the best of my recollection. Two flights down, the word ‘pole pole’ which means slowly, was roared in such a terrific, thunderous voice that I half-expected the walls to come crumbling down around my ears and I, shrink into the rubble. That voice! That voice hit you like a brick wall. It stunned. It immobilised it terrified completely that for a moment the entire building went quiet and the halls and stairways utterly silent. All the children frozen in place. If the impact was so for those above as below, one can only imagine the experience of one who happens to be within sight and sound of the source. His eyes were wide, aggressive, blazing, startlingly angry, his jaw tight, stance rigid outside the door to his classroom, a black rubber v-belt in his hand. His face was contorted and he looked like the acid in his guts was rising steadily up. I swear I had barely spoken but at that moment I was certain my mere presence there was insulting him. Being nearly 30 now I have still never seen anyone so powerfully enraged. The sight of him burning a hole in the middle of my eyes is one that will not easily be forgotten.
I wanted to stand up, sit down, wail and disappear all at once. The old man was a nightmare. Virtually no school day ended without a beating, or the threat of a beating. I was starting to really loath that classroom. His voice had petrified me many a time on the thresholds of the stairs. I found myself subconsciously attuned now to my surroundings every time I neared his floor, keen to clear it, then feeling intense, childish glee when I heard him soon after from the ground floor. However, nothing could have prepared me enough for when I discovered that my third year class would be with him. On the first day of school, his classroom had looked, felt like an examination room. Sparse, clinical, utilitarian, but nearly four months had passed now. I stopped noticing. The desks were lined in three columns and his table was not at the front with the board but on the side, right in front of the door. Everything was neat, the stacks of books on top, pens, the rubber v-belt, a waste paper basket and his walking cane near the chair(please don’t go back there, please don’t go back there). The windows on the far wall were open, wind aggravating the trees outside. In the middle row I felt the breeze tickle the back of my sweaty neck(please don’t go back there, please don’t go back there). My tummy was sick, and physicists would have found indubitable evidence of dark matter had they looked in it right then. His voice trebled,
”Open your books to where we stopped yesterday,”
Ah,crap. We were going back there.
Since Monday we had been reading and rereading the same verse of the same chapter out of the Holy Book, failing, then receiving three lashings on the hand, coming back the next day, repeat. It’s Thursday. The red marks were still blatant, still stung with a simple touch, still throbbed when I closed my hand. He barked for the first desk under the window to read. She got it wrong, and I felt my stomach contract. The desk mate followed. She was also wrong. Deep breaths. The turns went down the line. That whole column failed and he stood, whip in hand, and came to the first desk. He would have you extend your hand palm up, straighten your fingers if you cupped them then hold them in place. The sound of the rubber whistle through the air and connect with a loud slap! on the girl’s soft palm made my body jerk. I was sitting four desks down the middle row a frightened witness. After several such slaps! I looked at my hands, wished I could go mad right then and jump out the windows. It wasn’t far to fall. He finished with the last of that column and made his way back up the front, smacking the whip on top of the first desk, barking at her to begin. The girl’s voice so obviously shook as she began to read that I had to hold back a commiserating sob. As she travelled down the verse and reached the fatal juncture she paused, quite unable, afraid, to go on. The silence was paranormal.
She said the first letter, stopped again.
Terrified beyond words, she went mute.
I felt like the poor girl. He let the silence stretch, knowing she would break first and when she did, and ultimately failed, he had raised his whip and got her on the shoulder, and she jumped up yelling, crying loudly, and he let her know he wasn’t done yet. I would have laughed but I was worried for myself. She sat back down and the quiet sniffles and cries of my fallen classmates came out like the disembodied voices of ghosts at the edge of one’s consciousness. The recitation continued.
Two more failed but then it got to the second desk. The occupants were older given the rest of the class but that had never been a concern. The older of them read first and she elongated a vowel at the end of a word, making sure to pronounce as if already saying the oncoming letter; and when she didn’t get the requisite ‘wrong,‘ it was like all the tense air in the room got breathed in and the rest of us expelled it in one breath, reciting things exactly the same even though we didn’t understand why. Honestly couldn’t have cared enough to learn.
There were no windows in the hospital room and the dress still clung to my back. I had wanted so much to see this old man but now that I was here I hadn’t the foggiest notion what to say to him. He had struck fear in my heart when I was young but at the same time fanned the flames of a fierce interest in philosophical and historic subjects. These hands that had always trembled, now only skin and bones had once held a stick of chalk to a board and wrote with enviable, flowing script when it wasn’t whooping the very devil out of me. That lion-like vibrato in his throat, once capable of reducing me to soft whimpers held not it’s fearsome strength anymore, a mere shadow of his days of glory now dimming. But when he turned to look at me his eyes still compelled, and I could feel his will as a fire burning in a space fast failing to contain it.
”Biba, fairing well? How are they where you live? Is the harvest good?”
”Thank the Good Lord.”
”I will. But it rains”
”I’m happy to hear that. Say hello everyone”
Alas, that he can still faze me so when I’m a grown woman.