Subha Manoj

While I Was Away

Between you and me

Maria looked around her. Every object in her home seemed to mock her. We are all one, barring you. Go find someone of your kind, they seemed to say. Maria kept her mouth on the pillow and pushed it towards her face. She screamed into it once and then again.

She felt a layer of dirt on her skin and began to frantically rub her hands all over. She laughed, the kind which after a while gave way to tears, at the realisation that the dirt had become a part of her being.

I am no dirt, Maria.

Maria looked up and saw a woman. It seemed as if she was looking at her reflection, but Maria knew it wasn’t she. The woman seemed taller, older and uncomfortably calm, almost eerie.  

‘Who…who are you?’ Maria sat up straight.

Don’t you know me? We have been, well…friends for some time now. You sought me, although I wished you had not. You found me when you shut yourself within the four walls of your home, allowed yourself to be within the shackles you created.

‘I …. I sought you? Are you even real?’ Maria felt overwhelmed by emotions she couldn’t place.

The woman threw her head back, making her long black hair slide across her back. Maria thought she was about to laugh but she didn’t. Instead she stared at Maria.

‘But who are you?’

Have you heard the story of the king who was killed by his queen? She wanted to kill him, but without suspicion. She would make his favourite food everyday and add just a tad bit of poison in it. The gullible king relished not just the food but also his queen’s warmth. Every day she kept increasing the dose and just like that, the poison consumed the king. I am that poison. You will enjoy my warmth in the beginning till I start consuming you.

Maria felt a chill run down her spine and shivered slightly.  She remembered how Joseph and she would cook together. Joseph, her king. She had spurned him not once or twice, but many times over.

She watched the woman open her balcony door and go near the flowers.

‘Do you like flowers? They are my companions.’ Maria’s lips curled into a smile as she looked at her beautiful garden.

Yes I do, just like you. They are happy, lively and flourishing. I love to caress them, just like you do.

She went near the blooming orchids and touched them ever so softly. And just like that they wilted and turned black. Dead and Ugly. I am a curse, unlike these pretty ones. She spoke with a hint of vengeance.

Maria looked at the lifeless orchids. They had been lovingly planted together by her children and her. Her children still continued their innocent attempts to have their mother back.

‘I just want to be happy.’ Maria started sobbing.

Are you now…now that you have me?

‘You think I am? Do I look happy to you?! All I wanted was some peace…freedom from all the noise around me. So yes, I sent everyone awa….’

…You like to dance, right? Come, dance with me.

‘What?’  Maria asked quizzically.

The woman raised her hand and started swaying as if in a trance. As she swooned, the curtains in the room started flying softly. Maria felt warm breeze around her, but before she could savour it, the air around her became stale and hot. It burned her skin and she felt desperately thirsty. She grabbed her throat and ran towards the bottle of water kept near her bed-stand. She finished the bottle in one go and started panting, gasping for air. She looked up, the woman had stopped swaying. She was now looking at the collage of photos on one of the walls.

‘They are my family and friends.’ Maria spoke trying to breathe.

Are they? Yet, you chose me over them. What a pity!

‘I just wanted to be with myself, wished for calmness.’

The woman smirked. Being alone and lonely are two different things. You chose the latter. A mistake most people make. Being only with yourself is not calmness, it’s weakness. You are not strong enough to come close to me, no one is.  Glimpses of the moments captured in the photographs flashed in front of her eyes. Holidays, lazy Sundays, long drives, lunch at her favourite restaurant, the first time she held her children, Joseph’s kiss on their wedding day…

‘But I don’t like the noise around me anymore. I hate the chaos.’

Oh Maria, chaos and noise are like those earthworms around your orchids. They appear mucky, but they help the flowers thrive. My dear, you must embrace the madness…the chaos, in order to be sane.

‘But I am scared that if I let you go, I will not be peaceful.’

Humans are silly. They want me but fear me too. They want me at their beck and call, but panic when I stay a little longer than usual. They love the calmness I carry, but are scared of the heaviness I bring at the pit of their stomach. They misunderstand the cosy feeling they feel when they drink a hot cup of coffee watching the evening sky as me.

‘I feel sick….’ Maria ran to the bathroom and retched into the washbasin. She looked up in the mirror and saw the woman’s face staring back at her.

Maria, you won’t survive my entirety. I am the salt you add into your cake. Just a pinch. Anything more and wham! It will bring down everything like a pack of cards. You can find solace in me with everyone around you. I am not a replacement to anyone or anything in your life. I am not your destination, but just a part of your journey.

Just then the phone rang. It was Joseph.

Maria looked at her phone and then at the woman. She glanced at Maria and looked away towards the bright sun peeping through the window.

‘Hello’, Maria said composing herself.

‘It’s me. Mmm…well, actually, ummmm…I was thinking whether we can catch up on a movie and dinner. Kids and us.’ Joseph blurted all in one breath.

Maria tried to stop her tears by taking a deep breath in, but to no avail. ‘Ok, let’s go.’ She said finally. Maria turned to look at the woman. She stood at the same place as before, but seemed farther and slightly faded.

Immediately after, the front door opened with a bang. ‘Why is the door open, Mom? You have to tell this silly sister of mine to behave herself in front of my friends!’ ‘No Mom, it’s not me. It’s her. She pulled my hair. Oh by the way, Pooja aunty met us in the lift. She said she wants to go for Zumba classes with you. She will speak to you in the evening.’ ‘Zumba and Mom! Cool!! Promise us you will join.’

Strangely, Maria didn’t feel distressed hearing the tattle. Instead, she walked up to them, ‘Come, let’s bake a cake today.’ One step at a time, she told herself. She looked at the window. She saw no one. But she heard a voice deep within her, If you ever have to choose between me or you, choose yourself….always.  

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