You don’t need a wound in the flesh to feel pain, thought Kenneth as he gently pushed the needle into his wife’s vein-just as the doctor has taught him. Jolly, who was lying with her eyes half-closed: a child’s expression of defense against the bad things in the world, whimpered faintly before fading to sleep.
She would come awake in not more than two hours. He knew that.
Her pains were getting only worse the more she neared death.
Terry was back from school at 4:30.
“You are early?” Kenneth said with the barest hint of surprise in his voice.
“Didn’t go to the tuition class. Came home straight after school. Wanted to spend more time with mom.” As she spoke cryptically, Terry took the school bag off from her back and kept it on the sofa before moving to the bedroom where her mother was lying asleep.
There was nothing that Kenneth could say to something like that. He merely nodded, keeping all the sadness out of his face, and gazed back at the magazine he has been reading.
He has kept the shop shut over the last couple of days, not because it was the weekend- he keeps the shop open even on Sundays- but because he just didn’t feel like it.
Ever since Jolly has been diagnosed his heart had taken flight in fear. Fear of losing the one you have loved for more than two decades, of losing the only life that he knew , of not being able to make the necessary adjustments that would enable him to move on, and worst of all, of actually being able to make those adjustments.
Theirs was a classic love marriage: met and fell in love at the college, her parents were richer so they opposed the marriage, but she persisted and eventually her parents had to agree.
And the love between them had only grown during the marriage which has lasted 22 years. 22 years, 5 months and thirteen days as Kenneth would tell you. Kenneth was world-weary enough to know that a relationship in which love only grows is something of a rarity-especially if it’s a married relation.
For every marriage was a façade at some level- put on for the sake of others. The pulse rate of underlying love may be erratic at worse and uneven at best. But on the surface, no ripple should be formed. That’s the rule that’s to be followed.
And it’s not that theirs was a marriage that hasn’t weathered storms. But the storms-even when these were perpetuated by the strain between them were overcome thanks to the love which blossomed and enveloped them in a protective cocoon during the worst of it.
But according to the doctors, the marriage which amplified love was going to end in a short while- in a couple of months.
But does a marriage end just because one of the partners is no more in the world? Kenneth wondered as he upped the shutter to the shop and began turning the systems on.
There were three computers in the small internet café cum real estate consultancy that he ran from the shop adjacent to his house.
The consultancy part was a latter day addition-after just about everyone in the country started having smartphones and an internet connection-even if they didn’t have a proper functioning toilet at home.
And unsurprisingly enough, even though his real estate links were limited to the regions that cover Kariavattom and Thumpa- it was that business that pulled in more money than what the café business brought in.
Kenneth looked around at the shop which he had started after his return from the Gulf so many years ago.
He used to work as a spray painter at an oil rig in Abu Dhabi for about a decade. He had saved a decent sum in that time to enable him to buy a place in Thumpa near Trivandrum, not far from both his and Jolly’s paternal homes.
The shop was dusty from remaining shut. He would have to clean if off before anyone would come in. Having a decent proximity to the ocean- the closest beachfront could be reached in under half an hour by feet-also meant that the atmosphere could get dustier than you would like.
But he never had any qualms doing such chores as cleaning. Sometimes, Terry would join him. But not today. Today, he was doing it all on his own. And he felt thankful for that, thankful for the chance to take off his mind from all the scary questions that he faced- about a future without Jolly that he could barely imagine and yet which stood in front of him bathed in the stark light of reality.
He felt thankful for the few moments when the cleaning up was all that concerned him.
The picture came to him accidentally.
It was printed in a page of a newspaper that was used as a wrapper for something that he brought the other day from the grocer’s. He was about to throw the paper in with the rest of the garbage when his eyes fell on the picture.
It was the picture of a young child. Its eyes were as big as bulbs and you could easily count the number of bones in its body. With the large forehead and bald head it looked like the child had some disease though it was obvious from the image that the greatest disease that the child had was that of malnutrition.
The caption beneath made it clear that the image was taken at a medical camp conducted by the WHO somewhere in Ethiopia this last month. There were some more details to be had but the paper was torn from that point down.
Notwithstanding the abject horror of its starved subject, one couldn’t say that there was anything unusual about the picture- after all, you do see such pictures every other day in the news all around the world. How much of help that actually was, is anyone’s guess.
But what struck Kenneth about this picture was the smile on the child’s face. Lack of food had rendered the child so forlorn that one couldn’t even tell from the picture if it was a boy or a girl. And the brutally emaciated appearance made it hard to estimate its age as well.
But there was that smile- one that wasn’t feeble by any means. No, on the contrary- it was a smile of triumph, a self-satisfied smile at the fact that even in such a condition, the child could pull off a smile that exposed its teeth all the way to its gums in an expression of happiness, no matter how momentary.
It was a smile that said, “I may be suffering but I am not going to infect you- the reader with the suffering, not if I could help it!”
In a previous stage of his life, Kenneth wouldn’t have found anything special about the photograph. But now, in this phase when he was doing his best to contain all the pain and anger at the injustice that was being meted out to him by an unseen god and put on a brave face, at least for the sake of his daughter, if not for anyone else, he found in the child’s face a reflection of his own existence at this point in life.
In his mind, the child was a girl, one who was younger than his twelve year old Terry, at least by a couple of years.
To Kenneth, it felt like the earth was coming apart at its seams when a shrill scream breaks the silence of the night. Notwithstanding the chemo and the anti-pain drugs which she gets pumped full of, Jolly still got the jab of pain at times like a sword piercing her side.
But it wasn’t any localized area of her body that felt the pain. It was a pain which overtook her entire body. In fact, on the instances when the sharp edge of pain became the most felt thing in the world, for Jolly, her whole body was pain incarnate.
Lying beside her, Kenneth dreaded the nights when she woke up screaming with pain- not because it disturbed him- though it did- but because of the abject helplessness that he felt at such times. The best he could do was inject more morphine into her- something that he was to do unless absolutely necessary, as per the doctors.
It was Jolly’s wish to spend the last days of her life in her own home, with her husband and daughter. And Kenneth was only glad to accommodate her wishes. Declining vehemently help from anyone- unless it came from Terry, he himself cleaned, fed and took care of her lovingly. Apart from the times she met the doctors when they took her for the chemotherapy, Kenneth had made the arrangement for a medical professional to come visit her once every three days. This meant that the brunt of taking care of her fell largely on his own shoulders- Terry being away at school most of the days.
But never did he feel less than glad to be doing all the things for her himself-including cleaning up the shit from between her ass cheeks.
Except at those nights when he would wake up to her screams and find himself helpless, his words of solace inadequate to placate the bestial pain which lashed against her body with the vehemence of a long harbored vengeance.
He used to pray to god during such nights, praying earnestly for Jesus to give her respite- to alleviate her pain even if He was unwilling to elongate her lifespan. But it’s hard to keep up your faith as you watch your wife waste away layer by layer, day by day, as you watch like a silent witness whose hands are tied behind his back.
Mute. Helpless. Angry.
Yet still maintaining a stoic silence because you don’t want your daughter to see you fall apart- not at a time when you are soon going to be the only one she could confide in life.
It wasn’t long before in Kenneth’s mind, Jesus was all but replaced with the image of the unknown (girl)child in Ethiopia, who smiled, smiled against all odds.
And on some nights while lying beside his dear wife who moaned with pain even though for all practical purposes she was unconscious, he would imagine that the dark skinned girl with the brightest smile has walked into their room, offering him a solace that he couldn’t find in his waking life.
Of course, in these dreams or stress-induced hallucinations or whatever you wanted to call it, the girl was much fleshier, more lively and animated, not to mention wearing prettier clothes than how she appeared in the picture. And she would smile even more wonderfully, and whisper words into his ear, words of comfort and words of strength. One couldn’t say that these were profound words. In fact, what she said could be as simple as “Everything is going to be alright, so don’t worry”- the kind of things which would usually come across as kitsch.
But not from her.
When the words flew out from between those lips- so black and thick and exotic to Kenneth, they became the balm for his weary soul, the oasis at the end of a long trek across the desert. It quenched his thirst, replenished his spirit and gave him the strength to wake up and face the next day when the dawn came around, as it inevitably did.
He had noticed the boy a few times at the shop. He would come there to browse the net-usually after school. He could tell for the boy would be in his school uniform. He was in the 12th standard- the son of the owner of a supermarket in the area.
Kenneth knew the boy’s father by sight, even must have said hi a couple of times but he couldn’t imagine that the boy wouldn’t having an internet connection at home. His father was what passed for a wealthy individual in these parts.
In fact, he remembered asking the boy about it-in a playful tone, of course.
The boy had said something about a faulty modem and having to get it fixed, or maybe a slow connection which rendered some urgent thing he had to do on the net all but impossible(though Kenneth couldn’t be sure how much urgency would a school student have when it comes to such things). The boy had also told him his name but that he forgot.
Indeed, he had lost all interest in the boy. Until he caught him in a hug with Terry. In his own backyard, for god’s sake!
In fact, Kenneth had a suspicion that something might be going on between his 12 year old daughter and the boy who was barely older than her. He had seen them exchanging glances a couple of times. But he had dismissed it as nothing but glances. Terry was too matured a person to get into any silly relationship like many girls her age-or so he thought.
But the sight that greeted him as he came out of the home into the backyard, looking for a broom to clean up a mess a random intruder of a cat had made in the kitchen made him realize that how different his little girl was from what he had thought.
“I love him! What is it to you?” his daughter said once he really started questioning her about the boy once the lad was gone.
Terry was not his biological daughter. One thing that Jesus didn’t want for the Kenneth-Jolly couple was a biological child- an irremediable defect in Jolly’s uterus meant that she wouldn’t be able to produce enough eggs to make a conception plausible.
The diagnosis of the issue was one of the storms in their life which the couple weathered only to come out in a tighter clasp of love- and one major reason for that was Kenneth’s decision to adopt a child.
Terry became the light when an overcast sky threatened to darken the joy in the couple’s life. They loved her, and though they let her know when she was old enough that she wasn’t born to them, never had they treated her any less than they would their own.
Kenneth has never raised a hand against her, and he wasn’t about to start.
But what Terry said broke his heart. More than anything, it hurt him to know that a few words spoken by his young daughter, words spoken in the flush of anger would be enough to make him feel like he was all alone in the world. This utter a sense of alienation, he hadn’t felt even when he was out there in the Gulf, living and working so far away from everything that he knew and held dear.
That night, he lied beside his wife waiting for a sleep that was taking its own sweet time in coming. Mercifully enough, Jolly was in a deep sleep: not even a whimper of pain had escaped her lips since the moon went up in the sky. Nights like these were indeed rare.
And by all accounts on such a night, Kenneth should have been able to sleep peacefully. But for some reason Jesus was against his sleeping peacefully on this chilly night when a cold wind kept blowing outside.
Kenneth kept turning on the bed- careful not to disturb Jolly’s sleep but not able to help the movements nonetheless. And whether he expected it or not, it wasn’t Jesus but the little African girl who came to his side with a sense of comfort.
She looked fleshier and healthier than ever before. In fact, there was a positive glow from her cheeks- a sheen of well being which was visible even in the dark. And she moved towards his side of the bed languidly, moving her body slowly, even sensuously like a grown woman.
In fact, there was one more thing that was different in her which Kenneth could see this time around- two small mounds beneath her soft white nightie. She was obviously too young, too small even to have such full a pair of breasts as the outlines suggested. But at the same time, he acknowledged to himself that the sexuality this odd mix of a young body and a full pair of breasts brought was oddly exhilarating.
And when she began to offer him more than words for comfort, when she willfully lied herself down beside him, pressing her body close to his, whispering in his ear, “Worry not. Everything is going to be alright.”, licking his ear, pecking on the cheek, Kenneth felt as if he was being taken care of by a grown woman, and he didn’t resist.
A few moments later, he pushed her even closer to his own body and made love to her.
The next morning, he woke up as early as dawn. He could feel the dried semen in his hand from last night’s masturbation. Jolly’s rhythmic breathing rose and fell beside him.
Until that night, Kenneth wasn’t aware how sexually frustrated he has been.
Ever since Jolly was bedridden, the couple hasn’t had sex but Kenneth rarely thought about it. His mind was overtaken with a sense of helplessness which was an unendingly burning coal of anguish. How then could he think of such things as sex?
But willful thought was just one part of the human psyche. One tiny part, many would say.
And beneath it boiled over a multitude of passions, coagulating in an ever-mounting desire for sexual gratification.
He was a 46 year old man with no ailments other than a small sprain in the right ankle which he got when he hastily descended the stairs the other day. Other than that, he didn’t even have diabetes. Why then should he not feel like having sex?
But a part of his mind found it abhorrent. “How can I indulge in such thoughts when my dear Jolly is lying so near death’s door, lying in a bed of pain?” he asked himself, and of God. But Jesus, as was becoming his nature of late, simply remained silent.
Kenneth maneuvered through the narrow channel that existed between the loud yearning for sex and his aversion towards the present state of affairs.. The African (girl)child was a symbol through all of this.
That girl is the ugliest thing you can think of! Kenneth said to himself and to God. The last thing that would actually stimulate sexual passion in anyone! So, I am not being unfaithful to Jolly or indulging in anything that a flesh-and-blood person in my situation would do. No, I am merely indulging in the demands of the flesh, without sacrificing my soul to some image of flesh and blood manifestation of shallow beauty!
This reasoning of Kenneth’s probably wouldn’t hold merit among a large number of people in the society. But it wasn’t society’s conscience that he was trying to placate- it was his own. And he was trying to justify himself to Jesus. Jesus still remained silent and Kenneth took it to be an assent.
At some point every night, while his cancer-ridden wife lied beside him and his school-going daughter was asleep in the room just a few meters away from theirs, he would sit up, then slowly putting his legs out, he would leave the bed, on the way taking the picture from his wallet which he had kept on the dressing table.
He would lock himself up in the bathroom, and looking at the image, muttering to himself, “Let my flesh be appeased with this!” he would masturbate. Some nights he would even do it twice. And though an adult like him requires far more than the assistance of his calloused hand to satisfy himself, he derived as much satisfaction as he could from the act, and never failed to thank Jesus for allowing him this tiny digression from the moral norms.
Night after night after night after night.
“Daddy, I am sorry, I am sorry I said all those things to you!”
There were tears in Terry’s eyes. Kenneth couldn’t remember when was the last time he had seen tears in her eyes. She has been extra-brave since her mother was taken ill- being brave for her daddy’s sake, probably.
They stood at the porch. Kenneth had just come in after shutting the shop for the night-actually, it was just 6 in the evening, but he felt that it was enough for the day.
“Mom looks very bad, Worse than ever,” Terry said. Kenneth could see that she had just come out of their room. “It’s like she is wasting away right in front of our eyes, getting from bad to worse on a daily basis!” she added.
The note of helplessness that rose in her voice was heartbreaking. A fresh bout of tears started pouring from her eyes.
It was all Kenneth could do to keep from crying.
Terry reached out and hugged him. “I am sorry I said all those things to you, daddy!” she said again. “I have never seen the boy since then. And I won’t!”
Kenneth felt a shiver of fatherly pride pass through his heart-like a bolt of electricity, enervating.
But along with it, he also felt something that wasn’t a matter of pride.
His chest touched his daughter’s small breasts and they felt as round and ample as the ones on the little African girl.
Gently prying himself away from her, he said, “Everything is going to be alright,” though he knew that it was just words. Planting a quick kiss on her forehead he said, “You go ahead and do your homework. Do focus on your school work, please.”
He offered a feeble smile.
That night, in the bathroom, he imagined the little African girl to be a fully grown woman- and the load of cum which hit his hand at the last jerk before ejaculation felt hotter than ever.
Old or young, all men share the same predicament- they need more excitement than the day before. And it wasn’t long before Kenneth began to yearn for more than the picture to find satisfaction.
In fact, he felt that he wanted to have Jolly if he were to find sexual gratification.
The kisses that he planted on the emaciated cheeks of his wife were now a little more than mere gestures of love. They were painted with the merest of sexual tints. Indeed, one night when he was sure that she was in a deep morphine-induced sleep, he ran the tip of his forehead across the length of her forehead, unable to control his urges.
But of course, that wasn’t enough.
And what gave him the next level of excitement came accidentally one night.
There he was sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, his quasi-hardened penis in one hand, the starving African girl’s picture in the other when from beyond the closed door rose a low yet shrill scream.
The sound of his wife triggered something in Kenneth’s brain- it brought to him memories of days and nights when she would moan beneath him, moan with pleasure the sound of which made him move against her body even more strongly, verging on the violent- just as the way he was now masturbating verged on the violent, just as his dick shooting cum now appeared like a gun spewing bullets.
He stared hard at the picture in his hand. Super-imposed was the sound that escalated from a low shrill moan of pain to a scream for mercy.
Kenneth found that he liked this combination of sight and sound.
After quickly washing himself, he got out of the bathroom, rushed to his wife’s side, and proclaimed, “I am here, darling!”
Brain tumour is not the sort of thing that you wish upon your worst enemy. And on your most beloved, it’s even more painful-no pun intended.
Every passing day bring us a step closer to death. In the case of Jolly, Kenneth began to wish that the steps would be taken hastily. Not because he didn’t love her anymore. On the contrary, faced with the terribly realistic prospect of losing her, his love for her had only increased. But unable to bear the sight of her being in so much pain, he started praying for her early demise.
Once again he stopped opening the shop and devoted entire days to her. She has always been loyal to him- making him the food that he loved and putting his and Terry’s priorities over hers. Always.
He felt that spending as much time as he could beside her during her last days was the least that he could do for her.
And as for her pain which simply wouldn’t lay low-sometimes not even with the morphine- he still prayed to Jesus to alleviate it.
He just couldn’t see the sense in it. Why was so much suffering inflicted on her? She wasn’t one of the villains of the world- not a terrorist or a wicked politician or a malicious businessman without regard for the life of others- just an ordinary housewife who found contentment in the life with her husband and daughter.
So, why so much pain on those who didn’t deserve it?
Jesus remained silent. It was as though His word-quota had run over.
So Kenneth turned his attention away from the crucifix on the wall and directed it inwards. He listened closely as one might for the coming of storm, the initial rumbles of a message. For if God didn’t talk from the heavens – or from a crucifix which you brought last year when you visited Velankanni with the family, He ought to speak from within your heart, right?
And Kenneth didn’t have to listen for long for the message to arrive. And the words, when they were spoken, were said in the voice of the child- that unknown dark child of Africa who has been his spiritual ally in this dark phase of his life.
“She has always been a loyal wife,” the voice said. “Always mindful to give you the pleasures that you needed-sometimes, the pleasures that you didn’t even know that you needed. And this pain that she is under- that too is a symptom of her wifely love for you. It’s meant to give you pleasure.” And after the briefest hesitation, “Do you understand?”
Yes. He did.
The moans of pain came even more frequently now.
Some days, Terry refrained from going to the school and stayed with her father to look after her mother. Other days, it would be Kenneth alone with his wife, trying to give her comfort- as big a spiritual comfort as the African child gave him on lonely nights.
As for his own fleshy comforts, he would wait- wait in the bathroom, for the moans of pain to begin, with the picture of the girl in hand- he barely even looked at it anymore, he could imagine her face as clearly as though she stood in front of him. And once the low moan of pain begins his fist began moving up and down, slowly, ever so slowly-savoring every moment of making love to both his wife and the unknown girl, squeezing his manhood dry until the inevitable eruption of joy arrived.
But one time, he heard moans which lasted far lesser than usual- not long enough for him to finish his masturbation to the sound of his wife, or so he thought.
For the vacuum left by the end of the moan was filled with a low whining-barely perceptible to the ear.
She is too weak even to cry, he thought, as both semen and tears exited him.
After washing himself, he went into the bedroom.
He always left a low blue light on in the room these nights. So he had no issues seeing that Terry was there, hunched over her mother’s body, her body quaking with woeful spasms. Her forehead resting on her mother’s chest, she was whining- a low and slow whine that was barely audible.
That was the sound I masturbated to, thought Kenneth.
Jolly’s final moan of pain has brought Terry running from the other room while her father was inside the bathroom, within a small cocoon of self-given pleasure.
Sensing him standing behind her, Terry looked up at her father. More tears now sprang from her eyes and she began to cry louder. “Mommy…mommy is gone!”
With soft remorse in his eyes and his heart pounding, Kenneth walked to his daughter and hugged her.