Fire and Joy

He was running in an unknown land, barefoot on a sunny day. His dark brown hair contrasted starkly with his fair skin. He could not have been more than 8 years old, he thought. Behind him, his mother was running and heaving. She was a frail woman in her early thirties, but looked so tired under the scorching sun running in the vast field with the expanse like that of an ocean, that her eyes gave an impression of a senile sixty year old. She was calling out, “Aiden! Stop, will you?” But he kept running, not looking behind even for a split of a second, giggling and waving his right hand in the air. She called out again but her voice faded gradually, “Don’t do this to me.”

And then it was all but a sudden silence. He had crossed the boundary-less verdant field and was running down the long stairs that rose high into the sky when he realized that the voice was not following him anymore. He turned around and looked to the top, into the heavens he felt; his eyes narrowed from the attack of powerful sunrays glaring back at him. He started ascending the stairs calling out for her but there were no answers, no hushes and no heaving breathes. He panicked and started running with strength more than his physical body possessed while screaming, “Maah-mee!”

***

Aiden woke up screaming out loud; dews of cold sweat covered his forehead that ran down to wash away the dark shadows of past hovering over it. His physical body sat with bent back and stiff legs while his mind still wandered in that unknown land. Everything was pitch black around him, except his alarm clock that glowed and read 2:00 A.M. His head throbbed as if a nail was being hammered into it. He tried to assuage the pain by pressing his sweaty palms against his ears, to silence all the voices shouting in his mind. But as the pain grew more intense, his hands slipped off his ears to the back of his head where they clasped to support each other. He threw himself back on his bed and withdrew into a cocoon trying to shun all the memories from his childhood- but failing miserably. He remembered his mother’s beautiful face, her warm embrace and her laughter that echoed within the walls of his dampened heart; even more so he remembered the tragedy that fell upon her, her absence reminding him of his greatest loss and the void her death had created in his life. Inimical and swingeing were his dreams; towering the hopes of getting motherly affection that he had already lost, of building a world devoid of regret and motherless life, and wrecking them all in a blink- thus!

       ***

Nola waited in the car for Aiden impatiently. He had said that he would be out in five minutes but she had been waiting since fifteen minutes and there was no trace of him yet. She kept checking her glistening watch every now and then while tapping her fingers on the steering wheel; the taps growing faster and louder with every passing minute. Finally, Aiden appeared on the front deck with his father waving behind him and soon Nola forgot everything watching him in his midnight denim jeans and white henly shirt. She couldn’t help but adore him and forgive him, of course. Right then, she noticed that something was different in the man who was walking towards her but looking through her- he had sunken eyes hinting at a long sleepless night and red swollen lips that told a tale of survival through those dark hours.

He must have bitten his lips sore, she thought.

“Rough night?” she asked when he was buckling up his seat belt.

“It was alright.” he lied.

“You don’t seem so.”

“I said I’m alright!” he snapped at her.

Nola decided to hold her tongue for the moment and drove in silence to Duthie Park. They had planned to spend the entire day basking in the sun and catching up since they hadn’t been able to do so in a while. The park was spacious and green with winter gardens, tall evergreen trees, ornamental flower beds and had a splendid view specially in the warm afternoons. Duthie Park was one of the most beautiful and popular parks in Aberdeen, if not in the entire Scotland.

Nola looked around for a spot to settle and have a drink before going on a stroll by the banks of River Dee around the park.  After a quick observation, she found an airy space in front of a hedge where flowers of spring bloomed. Aiden followed her quietly. He stared at the white circular bandstand in front of them across the park trail. It was supported by nine pillars that stood in perfect alignment, yet it looked lost and out of place. It stood bright against the green backdrop yet looked ignored, even abandoned. It was not that the bandstand wasn’t well-maintained; it was just him and somehow the lone standing structure reflected his inner-self. Nola set up the mat and spread a sheet of white cloth with patterns of red boxes over it. The setting was done with an undivided attention of an archer aiming for a bull’s eye as if it held the entire country at stake.

While she was digging for a packet of crisps in the basket, Aiden, in a very apologetic tone, broke the silence. “I saw her in my dream last night.”

Nola knew that Aiden had nightmares very often and seeing his mother was one of the worst. He had lost his mother at the tender age of eleven and her death had a poignant effect on his life. As for her, she remembered his mother from the tangles of wild brown curly hair that matched her light brown eyes and thick Irish accent. She had broad facial features but a frail and sickly looking body. She had an air of dignity mixed with tender kindness that rendered her a reverential persona. She had soft features with low cheekbones but a mighty laugh. Never such contrasting features in one person had she ever seen before! In one of the traditional family gatherings, she was wearing a white apron, a red kerchief and brogue shoes visible under the red ankle-length skirt. When she saw his mother smiling in the video, she reckoned that Aiden had inherited her smile.

She had died in a road accident in Ireland and with her went a huge part of Aiden’s being that was never replaced again. He blamed himself for the tragedy and suffered a long time in agony. That was when his father decided to move into Scotland- in the hopes of making Aiden feel less bitter. He blamed his loathsome tongue to such a degree that he stopped speaking entirely for four months. Although he did recover slowly from that colossal trauma, he was never the same person again. He barely talked to people around him and started having frequent nightmares. The little fire that once lighted his life perished away with his mother resting inside the coffin in the drizzling rain.

Aiden reached for the cooler that Nola had brought and took out a can of beer. He needed the beer to swallow his heart in one single gulp and never to feel that part again. After two empty cans, he laid on Nola’s lap, his face turning away while Nola ran her fingers through his hair with great affection and sympathy. Generally, she was the talker between them but she knew all too well when to let the silence fill in.

“I’m sorry, Nola.”

“Den, it was not your fault in any way.”

“It was. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

“I was talking about that accident, my love.”

“Yes, it was my fault.” Den started to lose himself in the sunken valleys of erstwhile memories that haunted him frequently. The boundaries between the past and the present started to become nebulous and he started drowning beneath the memory bane.

***

It was drizzling that day in Drogheda like it always did in most parts of Ireland. Aiden had got himself in a fight at school with Stephen. The school administration had called his mother and warned her of his expulsion in case of any further “violent attacks” on the students, as they put it. She was undoubtedly vexed and her countenance said it all, although no words were spoken in the car on the way back home. When they reached home, she tried to calm her boiling temper and talk him in first. But he acted peevish and brushed her off with a snort. That exacerbated her beyond limits and she started yelling like a mad woman, striding along the length of the drawing room. What a devil he was, he thought! He demanded her to stay away from him and told her how he wished he didn’t have a mother. His words were caustic- she was deeply hurt and gasped heavily at every drop of venom he vehemently spat on her.

She was heart-broken but she was a mother to the last. She condoned Aiden’s venomous words, lowered her guards and tried to talk him in again- her voice suggesting a tone of an apology. He was filled with so much malice and rancor that he pushed her away when she tried to hug him. What a vile creature he was, he failed to see! She stumbled backwards with her hands covering her mouth in shock while she breathed like a drowning woman struggling to get out on the surface but was held down by a chain. He did that to her- it was him who had chained her down.

He shouted at her on top of his lungs- filled with bitterness- to go away and never come back. His black tongue kept its promise- she never indeed returned back! She ran out of the house, got into the car and sped off. He waited hours for her to come back so that he could apologize for his contemptuousness but she never came back. Her car hit a pole as she steered right sharply to save a cyclist in the John Street area and suffered serious head injuries. Few minutes after the accident, she took her last breath and left him hanging all alone like she was castigating him for what he had done. She left without a final good-bye.

***

Nola broke the chain of memories, “There was nothing you could have done. Den, it was an accident for god’s sake.”

“Every time I go back to that day, I think I could have changed our destiny. I could have just listened to her and let her hug me. I could have said sorry, just one word, sorry. I could have talked to her with the respect a mother deserves. I could have said that I loved her above everything. I could have done so many things; but I didn’t. It was all on my account.” he thought.

To Nola, he didn’t reply anything.

They decided to walk around the park by the banks of the river to let the uneasiness in the heart flow out with the comfort of walking together. Nola’s eyes danced in all directions, mapping every corner of the park, to distract herself from looking into Aiden’s face. Aiden who was lost in his own thoughts, meanwhile, reached for her hands and clasped his fingers into hers. He began, “Even today, when I try to sleep, her face comes to me with its melancholy smile; her benign voice swells in my ears; I see her running after me and laughing, while her eyes beaming with purity of her soul within. I feel so close to her and so much happier. And then, she just disappears. A gut-wrenching feeling stabs me and I struggle to breathe.”

“My poor Aiden, I understand it must have been a terrible experience for you to bear such a bone-crunching burden. But things happen as they are supposed to and not as we want them to. It was the Almighty’s will. You cannot blame yourself for that horrible accident. It has been more than fourteen years and it’s time to move on,” Nola said with a patient but slightly firm voice to assure him that she was telling the truth and that he couldn’t ignore it. She swiftly moved from his side to the front, draping her arms over his shoulders, and stepped lightly on his toes. Aiden was taken aback but when he saw playfulness in Nola’s rosy face, he played along. He then wrapped his arms around her and started to walk, carrying her on his toes. They forgot the world around and dance-walked along the banks like couples lost in romance and youth.

Nola asked, “Do you hear me, Mr. Aiden?”

Aiden forced a smile, “Yes, Miss Nola.”

“Some noble soul said that you have to make peace with your past to be happy in your present. And know that I am your present.”

He nodded.

She took his left hand and placed it on her stomach, “And this is your future. Our future.”

He nodded again; he thought he had missed something when it suddenly came to him and blew him away. “Are you? You actually mean?” he asked incoherently.

She beamed and blushed with the redness of rose. Aiden’s eyes welled up when he ran his fingers all over her stomach- to Nola it looked like he was trying to locate the baby in her womb. When he finally did, he knelt before it, moved his face close and whispered, “I have let down my loved ones before. Not this time. It’s a promise.” Unbridled tears of joy gushed out of Aiden’s burdened eyes, washed down the fire that burnt his heart and left him with tranquility he had not experienced for a long time.

***

Few weeks later, Aiden made a marriage proposal to Nola which was more than gladly accepted. They got married in his hometown Drogheda in Ireland as a tribute to his mother. Nola smoothed for him the path of life filled with inevitable uncertainties and disappointments and Aiden appreciated her love as a blessing from the heavens above. Not a day passed by when he hadn’t remembered his mother, but her demise no longer burdened him. The anticipation of beatific future drowned out the echoes from the doleful past. They were blessed with a beautiful daughter and Nola decided to name her Maebh that meant “a cause of great joy”. She couldn’t have found more apt a name for the joy Maebh brought in their life.

***

Nola and Aiden laid together under the open night sky. Aiden, resting his head on his hands by degrees, laid sideways looking at Nola- who was laying on her back contemplating the vastness of the sky and countless stars. She pondered for a long time and then turned towards him.

She asked, “When a star falls, does God allow us to make two wishes at the same time? Is it cheating?”

“I think so. You are only supposed to make one wish. Aren’t you?”

“Oh” was followed by a sigh. After a brief moment, a new idea hit her and she lightened up as quickly as she was disappointed earlier. “In that case, I think I will make alternate wishes from now on. One for you and one for Maebh.”

“So, you are going to wish for us alternately?” he laughed, “That sounds like a plan.”

“Uh-huh.” impressed by her own smartness of the idea, she continued, “Aren’t you going to ask the next question?”

Aiden laid on his back, held her hand and said, “I don’t have to. I know the answer all too well.”

They looked at each other and started singing together, “Till the day I am too old and my eyes are so weak that I can’t see a falling star to make the same wish again.”

***

 

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