Monday, June 22, 2015

The Dance of the Soulmates

This post is from a competition I entered into earlier this year. I did not win but have received feedback from various parties prompting me to place the story on my blog. As such, here it is. It's quite a lengthy piece but for those who wish to suspend disbelief for a few minutes, I present to to your esteemed selves...

The Dance of the Soulmates
By Uzair Parker

I’m standing in the cell where my husband had spent the last three years of his life and despite my resolution to remain firm; I cannot hold back the tears. I succumb to emotion, allowing grief to wash over me as my hands trace the outline of a small wooden chair and a few books neatly piled atop a three legged desk. 

The tiny brick room is dimly lit by a single globe suspended from the dark ceiling and there is a strong smell of bleach permeating from the stone cold floor. Even through the cold darkness and sharp pungency, I can feel his presence, even smell him. As I close my eyes I stretch out my hand and for a moment it feels as if I can reach out and grasp him from beyond the void of darkness that separates us.

It had been three years of painful separation. 

Three years ago he had accepted a post to re-establish a demolished school in Northern Sialkhot, Pakistan.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

And so began the madness. Endless phone calls, video conferences, back and forth email and three trips to over nineteen locations and known detention facilities. No demands were given, none of the known terrorist channels claimed responsibility…no public execution videos. Every minute seemed like an hour, every hour a day and every day a week. Then, as the last few glimmers of light faded and with the last of our contacts exhausted, the dread and despair set in as the hopelessness of the situation overcame us. His parents and siblings, friends and family had to accept the unwanted truth: Aaron was gone.

But for me, he was never truly gone. And so I chose not to move on and held on to the belief that someday, by some miracle, by some miracle, perhaps….just perhaps…

And then, three years later, this:

UN Intel picked up a trail after last month's earthquake. Someone dropped a hint of a British man being held in a detention facility in Asadabad, Afghanistan. Description matches Aaron. Like Islamabad, Afghan military have allowed us a four hour search and retrieve window. We have him Essie, I just know it. Come quickly, Paul.

But by the time we got here, the trail had gone cold. Aaron was gone, again.

We learn that Aaron had been held here but then mysteriously 'vanished' a few hours ago. No accountability, no answers. It's a story we have heard before but today we don't buy into it. Paul and his team go to work. They infiltrate the remaining cells across the detention facility, they interrogate the guards, and they squeeze out as much information as they can.

I'm aware of a narrow corridor, wet floors, damp concrete walls and a red light at the end of the passage as I'm taken to the cell where he had been detained. All of the cell doors had been forcibly opened.

In an adjacent cell, a young Indian doctor tends to a man who is so heavily bandaged, that, but for a feint gap through which dark eyes protrudes, his appearance is that of a grotesque mummy.

I shudder to imagine the scars and mutilations that lay behind. 

Inside my husband’s prison cell, I shut my eyes and try to piece together all of the facts, but my emotions seem to block out all thought. For the moment, the facts do not matter. For the moment the comprehension of how and why and when is being deterred by one unquestionable truth: Aaron had been here.

Perhaps it's my own need for fulfilment, my own desperate need for solace that I grope around in the dark, my hands falling on every surface, every little corner. Had he touched here…had his fingers traced along the edge of this table, or this sorry excuse for a pillow? His scent was still here, I was sure of it…Why had he been held here so long? Where had he been taken? 

Oh God, had he been killed?

In desperation I begin foraging through the few remaining objects in the room. There are two volumes of English literature and a collection of poetry on the desk. Without thinking, I reach for the denim bound blue book on poetry: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and other lyrical ballads.”

On the inside cover, neatly written in black ink, I gasp in recognition of Aaron's handwriting:
“My Dear Essie. Happy Anniversary, Aaron.”

Immediately below it, a magnificent pencil drawing:

Aaron had draws a picture of a boat on a lake opposite an island with two big trees and a brilliant sunset in the background. My heart explodes as I recognise the scene.

It was our first date.

Aaron passionately believed in the idea of a soulmate, the unique counterpart that existed for each of us and by which the very essence of our beings would intertwine. The perfect partner, the deepest bond and strongest connection, Aaron held true to his belief that in the unspoken union of two such souls, there could be no greater joy.

He had surprised me with a picnic lunch along a sunset lake. We had sailed out into the middle and then to a little island on the far side, an island with two gigantic chestnut trees in the centre where we each had carved separate messages into the bark which we would never read. His reasoning was that if we were indeed soulmates, then there would be no need to read each other’s messages. We would just know it.

My heart thumping in my chest, I scrutinise the drawing. With a shock of pure exhilaration I note the scribbled-down words inscribed on each of the trees and as I piece them together, a gigantic lump in my throat, I reach a startling realisation. My husband had left me a message: 

“What heavenly cloth doth our destiny intertwine, for I am yours and you, mine.”

My hands tremble and my mind is a flurry of shock and emotion as I nervously turn the page.

Below the lines:
“Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
A new Earth and new Heaven,”

Aaron had scratched out the remaining verses and added “The memory of a Cheeseburger or seven”

Cheeseburger: Once again I descend into the calm and soothing comfort of nostalgia, the tears coming unbidden as I recall to memory the day Aaron proposed to me. 

He was always a romanticist enthralled by grand gestures of affection but outwardly hating the stereotypical romance of our time. He refused to fall under the ‘that couple’ banner and would mock and decry the buttered up unoriginality of ‘normal behaviour’. He regarded the clich├ęd ‘proposal’ as the cardinal sin of romance, believing there to be no justification for it. The restaurant reservation, the quiet word with the waiter, the ring slyly slipped into the champagne glass and the bended knee - for him all of these culminated in the most deplorable of romantic mockery. It was, as he called it, “The cheesiest of cheddar”

Thus it was that when he eventually did propose to me, it was over dinner he had skilfully prepared. Food, he believed was one of the most intimate moments any couple could indulge in, and with his artisan hands I was treated to a most spectacular meal. Well, more precisely, with an ‘artisan hand’ as he had sustained a nasty fracture after falling off his bike that afternoon. Despite my insisting in helping him cook, he rather firmly sat me down at the table while he busied himself in the kitchen, waving at me with his bandaged hand like a gleeful lunatic. 

At the end of it I was presented with a glorious home-crafted cheeseburger, the type you would expect to see at an expensive restaurant or in glossy food magazines.  A homemade ground beef patty, crusty iceberg lettuce, crispy onion rings, relish and pickle and on top of the golden sesame bun he had placed a little flagpole stick with the words: “I know its cheesy but I have placed a ring under the bun. Please marry me Essie”
And I had married him...on condition that I would be allowed more of his glorious cooking. And so the humble cheeseburger had become the symbol of every anniversary we shared for the next seven years. “The memory of a Cheeseburger or seven”

On the next page, he had drawn a set of ten small windows, seven of them done as comic-strip style illustrations and the remaining three blank and I immediately note the reference. Seven windows: each representing a wedding anniversary and three blank windows for the years that we had been apart.

Below these drawings he had written a small note: “It is only by a suspension of disbelief that we allow ourselves to be fully immersed within the myth and truly appreciate the enigma of the story. Then, the impossible becomes possible, the implausible plausible and the monsters in the movies 'more' real.”

Aaron was not one for indulging in the social media trends of our time. He was, to coin the term, a ‘romantic surrealist’; more at home with the collected works of romantic writers than with any modern interpretations, a man born out of time. He despised decadence in all of its forms and refused to allow convention to dictate the governance of his life. But of his many peculiarities, the most striking one was this: He loved monster movies.
Aaron owned an extensive collection of DVDs on monsters ranging from Dracula to Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Black Lagoon creatures, Aliens and the many King Kongs and Godzillas and much more. He cherished the idea of what he called “suspended escapism” – by which one could simply leave one's brain at the door, make some popcorn and enjoy a movie.

For a moment, I’m confused by the note and its meaning. Was Aaron referring to his situation? Were the monsters a reference to his captives?

The rest of the book contains no further messages except for three quickly scribbled notes on the inner back-cover:

“We made love while mummy watched” and “I'm hot. E.P” and “Frankenstein is keeping me safe.”

My momentary bewilderment turns to surprise and then to shock and then to exhilaration as the sequence of puzzles begins to unravel before me. To anyone else, the cryptic nature of these last three messages would be overlooked as something bizarre, even lewd, but I and I alone, knew Aaron. 

He often spoke of the secret language which lovers shared, those unspoken glances and those key words which could only be understood by two. The private joke, the hidden meaning, the message within the message. He called it “The dance of the soulmates”.

“We made love while mummy watched”. The evening before Aaron left for Pakistan, we had made love on our living room couch. As our bodies bound together, wrapped in the pleasure of intimacy, we were completely unaware of the movie which had just started playing. Later, as we lay blissfully in each other’s arms, Aaron noticed that the movie had been playing the whole time. “Oh no,” he remarked, “We made love while mummy watched!”

The movie had been the 1999 remake of The Mummy, one of Aaron’s favourites. “I’m hot. E.P”Imhotep. The Mummy. 

“Frankenstein is keeping me safe”. Doctor Frankenstein.

Yes Aaron, the implausible had just become more plausible. The monsters had just become more real. My body shaking as the epiphany of revelation overcomes me, I stumble out of the cell, unable to control the joyful tears, unable to contain my excitement. I reach the adjacent cell where the young Indian doctor tends to the bandaged man. The doctor gives me a knowing and reassuring smile and gestures towards the bed. 

The bandaged man reaches for my hand and squeezes it gently. The familiar voice that comes from beneath is full of life and hope. “Essie!” he exclaims and I cry joyfully as the words escape me. “Aaron!”

What heavenly cloth indeed.

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