The Black, Black Night

Art: Ashwin Chacko

I remember dragging the toy truck—with a missing fourth wheel—across the red carpet—Vroom! Vroom! —and outside it had been dark. And dark it had been, the kind where the moon refuses to climb the sky and the stars are fewer, cold and static. The kind where the cry of a lone bird would fill the heart with terror. The kind where if you stepped outside, the dark would yank you by your collar and suck you in. 

In the other room, the television was on, and something funny played, for, the canned laughter echoed in the hallway; was it the tumbling man? And upstairs, whilst the show went on, the voices of Ma and Pa had swelled from angry hisses that had begun in the kitchen to the loud cursing afterwards. Steady winds rammed against closed windows. Cold air sneaked in like an uninvited guest.

I remember the doorbell; urgent and non-stop. And urgent it was, for, Pa had hurried down the stairs (swerving violently), past me, past the television, towards the door; Ma following after him. I dragged the truck across the red carpet onto the floor now, bringing it back to the garage where other toys stood lined. I was readying to fix the truck. Outside, the voices grew in number. The first might have been the Grampa, the one who smelled like soap. The second might have been his wife, the one who gave me cookies and jam. Afterwards, I lost count.

I remember Pa jumping through several red lights, lunging into that blinding dark. I remember clutching my teddy tight. I was worried I would miss the eight o’clock cartoon that night. And miss I did, for, we were never to return to our house again. The television would have gone on—show after show, no one to watch, what went on in the TV after I had gone to bed? — and the truck would have sat in the garage forever; my red toy truck. When the car finally did halt—so that the car lurched forward and the engine died—Pa leaped out of the driver’s seat, and Ma who had never forgotten to collect me from the backseat ran, ran after him, stumbling forward as she went. And there I sat, in the cold of October—I remember this because it had been my birthday month—waiting for Ma to pick me up. I clutched my teddy tight. I sat there looking at the burning bright yellow.

I remember the fire; the fire was something that happened only in the cartoons when a mouse lit a bomb, or the cat lit the rocket, and each would place it at the end of each other’s tail. Then they would skyrocket to space and turn into stars. And burn it did, the flame licking the small house, the black smoke rising to fill the sky, to swallow the entire neighbourhood, to engulf everything that came its way. Men older than me, a lot older than the oldest kids in my school, filled the night with chants. They marched like bees towards the fire. They were like the ones on the television that Ma and Pa watched—the adults’ cartoons. And I struggled to wiggle out of my seat, clutching my teddy tighter than ever.

 I remember Pa, how he kept running towards the burning house, like a moth constantly bouncing off the bright bulb. And run he did, running like he was searching for something; anything. In the far distance, several knots of men stood, and beside them stood their wives. Beside them stood children like me—hooting. I wanted to console Ma, who had collapsed onto the ground. Ma, I am coming. Ma, do not cry. Ma, your hero is coming. Ma, I will be a good boy. Ma, I will eat the green p on the plate. Ma, I will never wet my bed. I remember the fire stretching its arms widely, preparing for another leap. Waves of fire curling—and dancing—and devouring. And leap it did, like a beast upon its prey. And prey it did—upon the already blackened house—now resembling a mound. Ma rushed towards the fire. Ma, come here. Ma. The figures—now black silhouettes against the bright yellow—continued to wave their arms frantically; chanting, chanting something. Were they cheering for Pa? Pa, where are you?

I remember a man peering at me through the window. I clutched my teddy. Half his face—with a long scar running from his forehead across his cheek—illuminated in the burning log he carried. Blood-red eyes with flashes of yellow. I remember his teeth showing. Several men followed. A few kicked the car. Someone shattered the glass and reached for my teddy, ripping off his hand before running off into the dark. The chants continued to fill the night air.

I remember only the growing noises—the chants—until a deafening shot like a BOOM! I recoiled. People darted in different directions. The flames hissed. Against the dark, they glowed. And glow they did, for hours. Until a pair of hands snatched me from my seat—and through the window—and I was passed between rough hands—like a piece of luggage—until at last, I remember Ma’s hands caressing my forehead. My memory of fire ends. Afterwards, there are only dreams.

Afterwards, though it was sunny in the city where we went, Ma never smiled. I cried because Ma did. Ma, stop crying. And cry I did, for days, for months. I cried for my red truck; I cried for the rose plant we left behind; I cried for the toys in the garage; I cried for the animals in the zoo whom I could never say goodbye to; I cried for Pa. Where is Pa, I would ask Ma. Why do you lie to me, Ma? Where is Pa? And Ma, she only looked at me; blank and cold.

Ma, she says, “we owned a library.” What is a li-bra-yay? Is it the place Pa used to go work to? The place that kept him until it was dark? And she would put on a weak smile—tears rolling down her cheeks. And she would draw the blinds. We would cocoon in our blanket—I missed my blanket, the one with moons and stars over it—but I was warm, and we would make do. In her gentle voice, she would shine a light upon a tiny book of pictures—elephants, funny looking horses, fairies, moons, stars, tigers with human heads—with scribblings in between, which were called “words”—and would begin: “Once upon a time…”

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