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Fiction || Charcoal Dream (Sabrina Binte Masud)

Photograph: Linh Nguyen

Harun stumbled out of the movie theater. The crowd leaving the building forced him out the door into the absence of rain. His leg muscles were shaking from the pressure on his back. Even someone like him couldn’t maintain his spot for too long. His legs could paddle three gunny sacks full of rice with a man on top any day. But it couldn’t keep him rooted to the spot when the crowd wanted to leave the theater. He decided to anchor himself exactly where he was, no matter what. He planted his feet on the soaked ground, thighs apart; holding on to the ends of his gamchain two closed fists hanging off his shoulder, the heroes do it, in the movies. Someone used his palm on his back to force him forward.

“Out of the way!” said the man, heavier and taller. Harun once again had to give way. He glared back at the impatient man. A head full of oil drenched hair with sweat glistening on his forehead looked over at Harun before his fat lips parted in one corner showing off molars sheltering bittle leafs and yellow teeth. “Eh! hero! Feeling like a hero aren’t we?” He spat on the footpath colored, puce. The skinny girl in cotton kamij and tight braids next to him stepped away from the man whose grip was holding her in a fist above her wrist that twinkled rainbow glass bangles, the color of which had turned also puce with the neon Cinema lights overhead. The dollop of fluid missed her by couple of inches. Utilizing this opportunity, she stepped away, still anchored, putting some distance between the man a feet taller and couple of feet wider than her and the smell of whose sweat reinstated its presence when the hollow of his arm pit was disclosed.

“I would have split your head in two if there was a brick in my hand.” Harun said these words, hitched his lungi upto his knee and using the leverage of untangled legs started running down the alleyway, right next to the cinema hall. Unfortunately one of his three years old hawaii sandals had a mind of its own and decided not to follow its owner. The sandal stayed in its spot facing the man and his skinny ensemble while Harun hopped away in a left bare foot.

Harun ran through an alleyway where his shadows couldn’t follow him. They couldn’t because it was a city night and the streetlights down this way never worked. Moving forward the situation wouldn’t improve either as Harun ran through one lane after another, jumping across pot holes and running gutters. He snaked through one funnel to another while back walls of factories, borderline of colonies, hawker’s market, sixty years old government offices, a college football field laced his progression.

It is not that his running was comfortable either. It is not that he didn’t stumble on a mossy gutter or that his toe didn’t accumulate onion peel or he didn’t have to linger over the glass that stuck to his heel. It is only that he could maintain a determined speed, no matter what, because the sole of his feet is almost an inch thick of crusty caked skin that had required kerosene oil application since he was ten years old to keep the germ from festering.

In between the edges of the lane came railroad junctions and silent vegetable bazars. In between the walls peeped boxed tea stalls and a bubble of lit dimples in the dark. It also contained dozing cha-wallas and cigarette-wallas and condensed shape of crouching lungi clad, jeans clad men in deep huddle.

While he ran the sky over head was not noticeable. Distant satellites sparkled here and there and were surprisingly visible. But while he ran, his progression remained untraceable parallel to the twinkling dots. The walls in both sides moved away and so did the lamp posts. But Harun could never replace the positioning of the manmade stars. One might call it an event horizon phenomenon, an existence so immeasurable that the progression gets slower. Harun wasn’t at all aware of the fact that he could be used as a sample to explain the power of gravity that existed at the rim of a black hole. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t part of it. It seemed his inability to cover one distance from another in comparison to a satellite and earth’s surface could easily create the illusion of event horizon, the place where time slows down before it gets swallowed whole.

Harun only stopped when he reached the sandal-wala whose shop was closed for the night. He raised his fist and brought it down on the makeshift bamboo made jhapi which when opened discloses an interior that fits only the sandal-wala while he sits on the ground with hundreds of second hand sandals and a limited number of new ones. It also fits the sandal-wala as he spends the night lying on the floor mat as he can sleep in fetal position. But it can never fit a customer on board nor does it require to at a railway junction bazaar. The crowd slow down here for a breathe or two. Standing is sufficient.

Unfortunately, fist on the bamboo made jhapi doesn’t have the same impact as it does fist on the tin shed shop covers onscreen. Also, the heroes hardly ever use fist. They always kick. They kick doors down, warehouse gates off the hinge, windows in pieces, stacked up drums, bare knuckles and jaws.

“Buff”, “Buff”, cried the bamboo made jhapi shaking off dust. It didn’t wake the man inside though. The sound only occupied a smaller diameter. It couldn’t drown the frog’s mating call out of the wet ground. So it didn’t serve the purpose.

Harun was the running man. He couldn’t wait. Nor could he kick down the bamboo made jhapi as the man surely wouldn’t be as forgiving as the villain in the movies. He ran at the back of this attached bamboo made hovel right behind the thatch that was the sandal-walla’s shop. He knocked hard the rickety door that was attached to a card board sized shanty and screamed.

“Banu apa! Banu apaaa go! Farid bhai has a woman in his shop!”

The couple didn’t notice Harun crouching one corner of the entrance, reach out and grab a pair of sandals and run off in the distance. While the cacophony kept on rising with the number of lit windows Harun was already a dot in the horizon. The disheveled head of Farid kept on cringing away from the vehemence of the unfed Banu who kept on reaching for one sandal after another to hurl at her husband. Farid didn’t have a woman inside, obviously. But Farid couldn’t find a gap wither in between the screeching woman, howling frogs, sandal missiles and Harun’s vague presence in that particular reality.

Harun peeked through the window. There they were a mother and a child, safely tucked away underneath each other’s plumage. The tiny room gave off the aroma of baby breathe and curry. They huddled in each other as if looking for a way to return the way they were before, one body, twin souls. Even in this blazing summer heat turned heavy with after shower frog concerto they seemed cool as the mud wall of the tiny hut encased them in its womb.

Harun slipped off the tiny mud porch and looked for the spot. It wasn’t hard to find. Things have a way to leave traces behind be it a pair of sandals. The dual prints were right next to the two mossy breaks that led up to the porch. He brought out his sandals and placed them over the sandal dimple on the earth. The left one was dislodged by couple of centimeters. Will she notice? Harun stared at the out of shape left foot.

He sat down on the porch and stared at the satellite. He smiled. Doesn’t matter. She will choose to ignore it. She will be absolutely certain that the man came back in the middle of the night and left without waking her. She will even come up with stories how because he loves her so much so that he couldn’t bear to watch her all alone, sleeping, holding her son and must have left in heartache. Harun can hear her in his head.

“Did you know Harun, Sohel’s father came back last night?” she will say, the baby saddling her waist. “I don’t know what makes you doubt him so much. But he is helpless. He can’t afford to take care of us yet. But…” She will pause and adjust the baby’s weight.

“He brought me a new pair.” She will smile and find endless faith in her heart.

There is a famous dialogue they use in the movies. The heroine, in a torn sari, after toiling and struggling over unimaginable odds will sit in front of the brow beaten hero with a single plate of food. Amidst endless tears and not at all swollen eyes she will refuse to eat and say, “I will feel full if you are full.”

Harun believes in his heroes. He cannot call her stupid.

Harun scratched his feet, over the glass wound and kept staring at the manmade stars overhead. In his school books, as a younger Harun, he had memorized the information that the moon circles the earth. Although he had once seen a moon follow him all the way from Gajipur to Dhaka on the bus.

Harun looked down at the new pair of sandals replacing the old and the sandal prints just as it was. He wondered if it would have been better if he had stayed and not run away. The sandal prints reminded him of the heavy girth of the man. He frowned, not liking the feeling of self-preservation that had acted as his instinct.

No matter. Harun smiled as she would.

He made a mental note to pay back Faridbhai for the stolen sandal the day after and get him some raw turmeric smush.

Turmeric is good for wounds. []

First published in Issue #6 of CultureCult Magazine (Monsoon 2016)