Only for a short time, my mother promised when she left, but the shortness has grown longer, many years, almost twelve, and I am now grown.
Yin Xiuzhen, Portable Cities, 2011. Suitcase and clothes. © the artist and Pace Gallery
In a labor camp, somewhere in the Persian Gulf, a laborer swallowed his passport and turned into a passport. His roommate swallowed a suitcase and turned into a little suitcase. When the third roommate, privy and vital to the master plan, ran away the next morning with the suitcase and the new passport, he made it past the guard on night duty, made it on the morning bus to the airport, past the bored ticket agent at Check-In, past Security, past pat-down and a rummage through his suitcase, past using the bathroom once, twice, thrice, to pee, to shit, to sit, past Duty-Free, where he stared at chocolates and booze and magazines and currencies, past families eating fast food in tracksuits or designer wear, past men and women sleeping on the floor, past his past, past his present, past the gold in the souks, the cranes in the sky, petrol in the air, dreams in his head, past God and the devil, the smell of mess halls, past humidity and hot air, past it all, until he found an empty chair in the Departures lounge, where he sat and held his future in his palms. It was then the little suitcase sprouted legs and ears, and the passport developed palms and long fingers as well as a nose and a mustache, and soon after boarding call, at the very moment the stewardess checked his documents, the third laborer was asked to wait.
The stewardess needed time to figure out what protocol she should follow or what precedent the man and his possessions had set. The man preferred not to wait and ran as fast as he could through the door to boarding, past passengers who had already gone through and formed a line inside the tube with the little windows, waiting like blood in a syringe, now followed at an animal’s pace by the little suitcase on legs, ridden like a horse by the passport with the long fingers, a sight that both fascinated and terrified and caused personnel, propelled by some odd sense of duty, to stand in the way of the trio and block their path, to protect the plane and its pilots and cabin crew from what they couldn’t define. It didn’t matter what they did, it wouldn’t have mattered what they did, because the man leading the charge, in an act of despair, opened his mouth wide to ask them all to get away get away, wide wide wider, until he swallowed the first person in his path, then the next, and the next, refusing to stop running, as the little suitcase did the same, opening and closing itself, running into people, sucking people in like a sinkhole, aided by the passport jockey, who assisted by stuffing those who fought desperately to escape. It happened so quickly, the running, the swallowing, the madness, the stuffing, that when the trio reached the aircraft doors, they seemed first surprised rather than jubilant, then relieved as pilots and the cabin crew stared from the other end of the tube, where everyone, including the remaining passengers, had now run to and watched them like cats watching dogs.
They rushed into the empty plane, locked its door, with the little suitcase and the little passport finding seats in First Class and putting on their seat belts.
The little suitcase, the little passport, and the man caught their breath, inhaling and exhaling as though nails filled the air, while in the distance, like the sound of a million horses, well-meaning men with guns and gas rushed the gate where the stewardess had screamed then fainted. The trio realized it was now or never, abhi ya nahi, do or die, so they rushed into the empty plane, locked its door, with the little suitcase and the little passport finding seats in First Class and putting on their seat belts, while the man ran to the back of the plane and began swallowing everything in sight, starting with the two lavatories, the trolleys with the veg and non-veg options, the apple juice and the Bloody Marys, the seats and the magazines, the tray tables and the blinking lights, the blankets and the overhead bins, the socks and the TV monitors, the cabin air with its lingering halitosis and the candies, swallowing everything in sight, moving expertly from Economy to Business to First, swallowing even the little suitcase and the little passport, swallowing the carpets, the emergency exits, the airplane controls and smudged windows and the odor of pilots, slipping down the aircraft’s nose and continuing to swallow as he moved from the aircraft’s beak toward its base, swallowing wings, wheels, luggage, fuel, skin, presence, until the man was unrecognizable anymore, and had turned into an enormous jumbo, observed from the cordoned-off terminal by dumb-struck passengers and the men armed with guns and gas whose leader wondered on his walkie-talkie what sort of protocol ought to be followed here, but he needn’t have bothered. The plane had begun taxiing down the runaway, past other waiting aircrafts, ignoring pleas from the Control Tower to desist, to wait a minute, to let’s talk this through, to whadabout the hostages, but the plane didn’t care, it went on its merry way, picking up speed, lifting its beak, tucking in its mighty wheels, returning its cargo.
My mother, a teller of stories, was born near the coastline, where I was born too, as well as my brother, on land watched by water, where coconut palms turn lakes and rivers olive. When the monsoons are heavy, the earth here is not only watered, the ground is drowned. The rivers break banks, flooding potholed streets, scaring strays, moving train tracks, leaving homes at the mercy of water, forcing people to wait by dry land, in a cousin’s home, wherever, until the water recedes, until the rivers have explored enough and wish to return. By then fish have nibbled in the kitchens of these houses, slept in the beds of strangers, defecated in their toilets, or died peacefully near makeshift altars, claimed by mollusks, crabs, water birds with wise faces. On decaying fish, bits of flotsam, water bugs leave eggs.
There is a river not far from my mother’s home, where my parents made me, near the Hindu temple where they were married, where the head priest, before he turned to priesthood, used to work in a butcher shop somewhere in Arabia, a frowned-upon but forgiven act. This river, my mother believed, was special, something the jinns may have had a hand in making. When the nights simmered like day, she told us, when weeks went by without rain, certain nights, the fish in the river would swim up to the bank, discarding their scales, fins, tails, becoming people, walking on land like they were testing its hospitality, in case the river beds dried up and they needed a new place to live. But the fish were a bundle of nerves when they ventured out, perplexed by the way of man, how to walk, drive cars, mine mountains, build machines, buy Gold Spot for the kids. The fish, my mother said, felt vulnerable, they became tense. In order to keep calm many openly participated in the vices on offer, comfortably overeating in shops selling spicy beef fry, trading stories with alcoholics who didn’t want to go home just yet, drinking fresh arrack straight from the toddy tapper’s pot, searching for women whose men toiled abroad, searching for men whose women did the same. Near dawn, after a lot of eating or love-making or fucking or drinking or wandering, the fish would return to the banks, disappear into the muddy river, convinced they were river creatures, unsuited for land.
She promised she would introduce us to her secret friends, men and women made entirely of liquid, who had little children our age made entirely of liquid.
My mother now works on land almost completely bereft of water, where there are no rivers, but a salty sea where many years ago men dove for pearls from wooden sambuks. She takes care of a girl who is around my age. Her name is Ibtisam and she understands our tongue. Only for a short time, my mother promised when she left, but the shortness has grown longer, many years, almost twelve, and I am now grown. Every two years she would return laden with gifts. At first, my little brother wouldn’t go near her, wouldn’t touch the chocolates she brought, or call her Amma, so she seduced him with stories, like she always did, when she used to feed or bathe him or put us to sleep. If she could manage it one day, she promised, she would introduce us to Ibtisam. Then, she promised, she would introduce us to her secret friends, men and women made entirely of liquid, who had little children our age made entirely of liquid. She referenced these families often in her conversations with us when she called, or in her letters. It was our secret, what we were in store for when she finally called for us to live with her, and we would be invited to the homes of her secret friends, where we would play with their children. They hide during the day, she wrote, to escape the heat. At dusk they emerge, exploring a more manageable climate, to partake in its nightlife, to eat at restaurants, to host dinners, to hold hands in the park, to play games, to kiss and not get caught, to teach their children how to ride bicycles. Before dawn, they disappear, only to return the following day.
Deepak Unnikishnan, winner of the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, is a writer from Abu Dhabi. His first set of short stories, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacup, was published by Vijitha Yapa Publications (Colombo, Sri Lanka). His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Drunken Boat , Himal Southasian, Bound Off, The State Vol IV: Dubai, the art project Autopoiesis, and in the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (Zubaan Books, India). He has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where on scholarship he completed the manuscript for his first work of fiction set in the Gulf, from which these stories are excerpted.