A Migrating Bird's Song
By Kutoli N
Our people have been chanters of stories since the days of yore. Perhaps, we used to have a script once but it was either lost or never begun. It would not be a stretch to say that, what script is to civilization, story-bearers are to oral traditions. Much like a great tapestry, each person’s tale is somehow connected to the larger life he belongs to in its space and time.
Incidentally, I come from a long line of story-chanters.
When I was three, I first heard my grandpa and mother serenade the villagers with wonderful stories. The gift belonged on my mother’s side of the family. Father lived in dignified silence. My best recollection of my early years is of those story sessions with me luxuriously sitting in the comfort of my father’s lap. Whenever mother presented a comical tale, I remember how father and I would find each other’s eyes and gently chuckle in warm companionship.
One other happy recollection was mine and mother’s daily bonding through a regular grooming routine we used to follow. She would chant my favourite stories as she gently but meticulously combed my hair with a bamboo comb. Unable to resist anymore, I’d turn around to exclaim- “Mother, when will my turn come?”
Mother would hug me then but just as quickly warn me, “Child, be patient. If you want to finish well, you must wait. Some of us did not and lost their way, only to become story-bearers of a different sort.” There was a palpable sadness as she said the last words.
My childish mind found it most cryptic. My mother, the story-chanter was no prophet as far as I knew. Only alas…
Today I follow the path of my ancestors but it is one less trodden than the rest.
I remember the first time I watched the migratory birds fly leisurely across winter’s rare blue sky. I was six but it is etched in my memory because that was the same winter my dearest father passed away. They told me it was a mysterious fever that took him. I was shortly sent away to town by my mother to live with an uncle and his family. How grandpa objected to it! Surely, mother would not be as cruel as to send me away when I needed her most?
My heart was hurt and lonely. Despite uncle and aunt’s kindness, I never took to town life. It also did not help that I was a below average student. I loathed arithmetic most of all but drew exceedingly well. That was my lone consolation at school and my art books were my best companions all those years.
I was never allowed to come home during the vacations. Nevertheless, mother visited me once a year. Those were my best two days of each year. We would share the same bed and neither of us would sleep because I would talk incessantly about my life while my mother quietly listened. The last day always hurt because she would never bid me good bye. Mother would wake up while still dark and after quietly taking her leave from uncle and aunt, she would walk away into the breaking dawn imagining that I still slept fitfully. Unknown to them, I would shed forlorn tears in hurt at her ignoring me altogether. In time I stopped being my chatty self even when she visited.
In those days, academics was sacrosanct and art counted for nothing. Teachers would tease me and students would repeat it after them. I suffered quietly until the end of my 7th grade. Something happened the next year that changed my school experience. No, I did not become an overnight academic success. Mother had sent money to hire a tuition teacher and it helped. That stopped my teachers from complaining. As for the students, their view of me changed along with my physical transformation. To everybody’s surprise, the class dullard had blossomed into a beautiful young girl. I had only just arrived at the cusp of womanhood.
Strangely for all my popularity, I never took to making friends. I was kind to all but could not be close to any. I found I preferred solitude.
In no time I turned 17 and graduated from school. It was then that mother finally allowed me to visit her briefly in the village.
Today, I mark that year as the beginning of the end of the person I was meant to be. I met the love of my life and he changed my world entirely.
He was a quiet man when I first saw him. There were more handsome and friendly men in the village but his demeanour drew me to him. While all the others were trying to best each other for my favour, he kept at a distance and let the others have their turn. He would do nothing but quietly observe. I knew he was interested too or he wouldn’t be present wherever I went. As days passed, I took his quietness for shyness and sympathized. When I asked mother casually about him, I was surprised by her gruff dismissal. It was surprising because everyone else seemed to like him well enough. I put it all down to mother’s eccentricity. I felt I no longer understood her after all those years of separation.
It was the last week of my stay in the village. That morning had witnessed a heavy downpour. At noon, mother asked me to pick some wild greens for dinner. I was alone and enjoying the quiet activity of the forest when I saw him beside me in a thrice. It took me by surprise but his smile reassured me. That was the first time I saw him smile.
This is how our first conversation went.
“How did you know I was here?’
“That is my secret”, he enigmatically replied.
“Why did you say no to all those guys?”
“I haven’t made up my mind yet”, this time it was my turn to respond in mild confusion.
“Do you know you are so pretty? I have only seen one other woman as pretty as you.”
Charmed by an off-hand compliment but intrigued by his vague afterthought, I bluntly asked him who he meant.
“You do not know her.” He simply stated.
Suddenly I was more curious than afraid or uneasy. So I asked him if he would not relent.
“Be here tomorrow around this time.” Saying which, he abruptly left.
My heart thumped violently as I walked back home. I did not know whether it was excitement or nervousness. I wondered if I should go the next day to see him.
That night, I dreamt a very strange dream. Between two foliaged trees sat a spider weaving an intricate shiny web. It looked very enchanting from afar but the closer I walked toward it, I felt my head expand and my tongue swell up. I remember waking up with a soft gasp.
The following day I went. It was more out of curiosity than anything else. Mother would not have liked it so I did not tell her where I was about.
He sat waiting on a tree stump holding a bunch of fresh flowers tied together with a twine. This time there was no welcoming smile as he gave them to me.
“You are late. Next time, don’t be.” He simply stated.
“Have you told your mother about me yet?”
The sudden familiarity and the insinuation of intimacy alarmed me for a second.
“Why would I?” I waspishly answered back.
“You may not know it yet but you wouldn’t have come again if there wasn’t anything to tell anyone.”
With that cryptic remark, he suddenly smiled and almost knocked me off with his next sentence.
“I fell in love with you the moment my eyes fell on you. Give me a chance to show you how happy I will make you. It is high time someone gave you the happiness you deserve.”
Before I could express my astonishment at such a sudden overture, he changed his topic and asked me whether I wanted to know about that other woman he had compared me to. I needed no further persuasion.
Following a full hour of charming conversation and full blown compliments, I felt I had known him for a long time. This was no shy and aloof man. I remembered laughing so hard at his jokes that my sides ached as we made to walk back to the village together. Without realizing, I had told him all about my life in the town and my dream of becoming a story-chanter someday. People looked up and whispered as they saw us walk back to the village in happy companionship. I was oblivious to all but him.
The neighbourhood kids mercilessly teased us as we came within sight of my house. When he went no further, I was slightly dismayed but also greatly relieved. After that gruff dismissal from mother, I instinctively knew that he would not be welcome at our house. Perhaps when I knew him well enough, I’d tell mother about him.
Unbeknownst to me, he was already planning our marriage.
Only after I reached home did I realise that he had said nothing about our next meet. I was in a fix. I had never met a person like him. In fact, from the snatches of our conversation which was mostly him asking me questions, I had only managed to find out his age and general interests. I regretted not asking him more questions. Next time I would… I promised myself.
A whole week passed and it was the morning before my departure back to town. I had always loved village life because that was where home and my childhood memories lay. Leaving mother was going to be hard as well. She had been nothing but kind although somewhat formal and distant. The years of being apart had apparently changed our relationship. But she was the only family left. I also thought of ‘Ikki’.
That was his name.
By then, I was starting to think I had imagined my meeting him. Was it possible for someone to withdraw without ado after such a passionate profession of love? I was beginning to think meeting him had been a mistake when he reappeared again in a most strange way.
Mother and I were working in our vegetable patch. Cucumbers were aplenty and we were happily counting the new buds when we heard our wooden front door being unlatched. It was an old one and made a sound whenever anyone pried it open. Ikki and an older person I did not know were walking towards us. I was too stunned to see him so suddenly, and that too, at our doorstep. Mother’s face showed obvious anger.
“It is considered rude to visit strangers’ home without any notice.” I heard mother speak out first. This was unlike the gracious and proper host my mother was.
“Come in. Say what you have to say and leave immediately.”
The older guy seemed more embarrassed than angered by this discourteous welcome. He seemed to step reluctantly towards us. Ikki impatiently stepped in front of him and began to address mother,
“Aunty, we aren’t strangers by any measure. You and mother were good childhood friends. I am here to request something on the strength of that association.”
“Do not over extend your familiarity.” Mother viciously snapped back. As I looked at her in shock, I registered that for all her bravado, she had a worried look about her.
“Your daughter will tell you all about it, if she already hasn’t. I have been courting her and have come to ask for her hand in marriage. I have brought my late father’s younger brother to observe the formalities on my behalf.”
Now it was my turn to be shocked.
Marriage! What was he talking about?! How had he ever gotten the idea from our brief two meetings that I would say yes to him? I would have entered the conversation here but mother forbade me from speaking as she stood in front of me, hiding me from their view.
“You will not have my daughter. Not as long as I live. I know what you are.” That last sentence was punctuated with warning even as her voice shook with the intensity of her emotions.
This seemed to change Ikki’s approach.
“Don’t believe everything you hear aunty. None of it is true. How could I?!” he looked genuinely offended as he looked straight into mother’s eyes.
“I shall come back tomorrow and every day until you agree to give me your daughter. I have never loved another like her and I shall prove it.”
So saying, he looked at me. They were burning with frenzied passion. He quietly motioned to his uncle who had not even had a chance to speak. Together, they retreated out of our gate.
What followed was the worst argument mother and I had had in our life. It was her fault really. She started to accuse me of consorting with a ‘snake’ behind her back. That was like a slap on my face. Instead of coming clean, I got defensive and fought back without explaining the misunderstanding she seemed to be under.
“What if I am?! I am a grown woman now and I may choose to be courted by any one I like. You barely know me anymore and how you judge me mother!” I lashed out.
This sudden outburst surprised mother but they shocked my heart even more. I had not realised what I said until it came out. But as those words sunk in, I knew they had been an echo of my heart which I had kept repressed all those years. The vault was open now and there was no use maintaining formalities and niceties.
“You tell me that first and then I will let you tell me what to do with my life!”
I could see how that hurt mother but I was beyond caring for her due to my anger. I stared at her impudently. Her reply was surprisingly calm and gentle.
“Child, why have you carried this burden all these years without telling me? I am sorry if you feel I abandoned you all those years. You were sent away for your own good. Perhaps you thought me harsh for not even allowing you to come home on holidays. But it was all intended to make you find your real place in the world outside. That winter, your father and I were already planning to send you to your uncle’s to begin your education. After your father passed, I knew you wanted to be with me. But I wanted to do what was best for your future happiness like any mother. It was also my way of honouring your father’s last wish.”
It couldn’t be true! I was too deep in my wounds to want to let the truth of her words transform me. It was simply too late.
“You should have asked for my opinion too. But you did not. You chose not to. And now, you shall not decide for me what is best anymore.”
“Child, you were but too young to comprehend!”
Those anxious words fell on deaf ears. But she would not give up. She made one last attempt.
“Child, Ikki isn’t what you think him to be. His own mother…!”
That did it for me. I did not want to hear her defending another of her kind.
“I will do what is best for me. This once, let me be. And I am no more ‘child’. I am a woman”
I felt a lusty satisfaction after emptying out all my dormant bitterness at last. As I marched out of the room, I heard mother moaning tearfully. Reminiscent of all those years when mother would leave me without looking back at me, I did the same to her now. Whereas her lack of goodbye had been out of pain, mine was a sentence of guilt upon her.
That was the night I eloped with Ikki.
I had no such intention at first.
It was Ikki who came seeking me. It was a moonless night as I cooled off my anger in the yard. It took me a while to realise I was being watched. Warily, I looked in the direction of that presence and found him, half-hiding in the shadow of our lűtűsű tree. Before I could say a word, he began.
“You are no longer a child. Why should you lurk behind your mother’s shadow? Come with me and you will be set free forever. There will be no more loneliness in your life. I have left all I know and love for you. Will you trust me?”
His sudden passion and admission of ardency appealed to my heart after all the years of emotional anomie.
I exulted in his overwhelming confession that he would abandon all for me. But more than that, I saw that this was an opportunity to get back at my mother. She seemed to have an irrational distaste for Ikki. So, what better way to make her repent for her mistakes than to realise her worst fears by going away with him. I needed no further proof or motive. I simply held out my hand as he took them and walked away from mother and my home. I was so sure I would come back one day to show her that she had been wrong.
It has been nearly seven years to that day. I am back in the village with my mother. She is turning sixty this year. I am twenty four but my body is broken beyond repair. It was my ‘Rose’ who made me return one early November morning.
That previous night, Ikki gave me one of the worst beatings I had experienced. I passed out with my daughter coiled like a ball within the safety of my body. We were both soaked in sweat and blood when I came to consciousness by my darling’s weak call. He had already left for his usual drinking haunt. The neighbours had stopped intervening by then. They were frustrated by the idea that a woman would refuse to leave an abusive man. They probably thought I deserved what I got. There was no more sympathy for me. Our violent and conflict-filled home was an affront to the entire neighbourhood.
In the early years, a kindly woman once came and squeezed some money into my hands as she advised me where I could hide away for some time. I thanked her earnestly and told her I would think about it as I handed back the money to her. After she left, I walked over to our decrepit armoire and silently rummaged for my oldest, tattered night gown. On its edges, I had sewn in a pocket where I collected small change whenever I managed to hide them. It was a safety net for me and my daughter in case we needed to run away. I already had enough to take us out of town. But I still stayed and he beat me up almost every night while my daughter silently cried from under the bed. I had told her that was where she was to hide whenever daddy got ‘angry’.
In fact, not a single day had passed since the first day I found out about Ikki’s violent side that I did not think of running away. So why was I still here?
I did not know anymore.
I had initially thought I would be giving up too soon on my husband. Hadn’t he loved me enough to abandon everything and run away with me, for my sake? Oh I must love him too in his weakness! Those days he would be immediately repentant after his ‘weak’ nights. It was either the liquor or a bad day that was to blame. He would later make up to me so generously that I would feel guilty for thinking ill of him. He had a problem, poor man!
But the ‘good’ days grew few and fewer still. He stopped blaming the liquor or his bad days. I was suddenly the cause of all his misfortunes. I felt I probably was to blame even though I did not know how I had caused them. But wasn’t it proof enough that he had grown more and more unhappy since our elopement?
This was not how he was when we first met. Come to think of it now, did I even know how Ikki was before we ran away? But at that time, I was neither self-reflecting nor had the leisure for it. I tried to love him even more as he got more and more abusive in every way. I felt I deserved it.
I worked at a neighbour’s house as a cleaning lady cum baby sitter so as to sustain our home and fund his drinking. That was my penance. He would gruffly take the money as he went out to drink every evening. By nightfall, he would come back angrier and beat me up.
The thought of his wife being a servant at another’s home really irked him. I felt ashamed because I could not get a better job. I only had barely passed high school and had no qualifications. This went on until one day he forbade me from working anymore.
By then I was almost reaching my ninth month so I quietly conceded. I needed rest anyway. But with no money to fund his drinks, he got more sulky and violent.
I remember once sleeping on the floor in peak heat, perspiring through my already wet and uncomfortable night gown. I had grown too big to wear my old clothes and with no money at home, only my night gown fit my expanding tummy. The baby was moving uncomfortably in my belly and my back felt like it would snap. The next moment I was jolted to a sitting position by someone pulling me by my hair. He kicked me from behind.
How dare you start sleeping even during the day?! He shouted.
I barely registered what he said. His physical manhandling had sent me into premature labour. I remember crying out involuntarily for my mother as my body shook and heaved in excruciating pain.
He looked contemptuously at me and walked out again into the dark alley towards the liquor shop.
A kindly neighbour came and assisted me through an emergency home delivery. She was the local midwife. I offered her my last cash but she refused any payment. She silently offered prayers for the baby before she left with tearful eyes.
With the delivery of my baby came one more reason to stay with my abusive husband. My baby needed a father and any father was better than no father. I had lost mine too early and I would not make my daughter lose out.
But soon things came to a head. By then I had grown past feeling any love or even sympathy for him. It was fear that kept me. I felt so helpless. Running was easy but how would I live? Would I be able to make a better life for my daughter? Did I even know how to? Was I even capable of looking after another human being?
The physical abuse had not been the hardest part. The worst had been done by his mental and emotional abuse on me all those years. Towards the end, he began challenging me openly.
“I know what everyone tells you. “
“Run away from me, huh?! You’re a chicken. I felt sorry for you and ran away with you. But you have been an utter waste of my life. I hate you. Why don’t you run away? Better, why don’t you just die! And take your scrawny daughter with you too. Nobody wants you here or anywhere!
I am ashamed to say now that I believed every word he said and worse. I hated myself and my entire existence. I was afraid of life that lay outside my sad, ugly world. It was too alien, too harsh and judgemental. I did not belong anywhere. Sad and ugly as my life with Ikki was, at least it was familiar. He was evil but I knew what to expect at his hands. That seemed so much safer than anything else at that point. I only knew the world through him. I had grown into an empty, scared shell.
Those days, the only glimmer of joy came and radiated through my daughter’s love. She was as apt as her name.
I had named her in nostalgia after my mother’s garden roses. And how right she proved her name! She was as pretty as a bud. She spread her sweet aroma of life even in that dark, hopeless environment we called home. Dilapidated, dank, reeking of liquor, and often short of food; ours was a poor excuse of a home. But the anger and violence was what made it unliveable. Yet, how my Rose survived and even thrived!
I told her nothing of my young days. They were too painful to remember. But I told her of my story-chanting ancestry. My stories were the only way I could indulge her. She had only turned 6 but she grew before her time into wisdom. Now I know why she made me chant those stories over and over again. Like any child, she loved them too but she also understood that that was what kept me going. The remembrance of long gone happy memories gives one such solace. Rose however wondered why we never visited ‘granny’. I had conveniently told her granny lived too far and we had no money to travel. That satisfied her heart.
As long as my Rose was safe, I knew I could endure anything. And she was safe, wasn’t she?
The clouds over our life darkened further when I was eventually proved wrong there too.
The night I decided to leave that harrowing existence was the night Ikki beat up my Rose after pummelling me. What fear could not accomplish in my life, love finally did. A mother’s love knows no fear when her child is at stake. It would not have mattered if he had taken my very life. I would have still borne it. But enough was enough. My Rose was not made for such a life. I finally understood that a father like him was not worth having at all.
“Darling, shall we go and visit Granny?” I let out after an involuntary whimper.
Without missing a heartbeat, my Rose replied,
“Yes mother. Let us watch the migratory birds this year. It is almost winter.”
So here we are at long last. I returned to my mother with my daughter. People barely recognized me for I looked like a haggard and old woman. I was exactly Rose’s age when I left my happy life in the village after dad’s passing. Life has come full circle.
Ikki was not only a bully and an abuser. Like most abusers, he was a coward too. When he knew I had left him and gone back to my mother, he made a run for it. He may have fooled the village once by his deceptive front. But with our story out, he would not dare show his face again. A narcissist like him would look for praise and adoration elsewhere until he was exposed eventually. Mother later told me that she had known before anyone else because his own mother, her best friend, had confided in her about his sadistic whims. I had rejected my mother in a state of impulse and thrown my life and youth away on a manipulative serpent.
Yet she received me without judgement or question. She held me as I slowly recounted my ugly experiences and quietly wiped my tears with her work-worn hands. She had always loved me above herself and it was I who had misunderstood her all those years. I understand her now that I am a mother too.
What is etched in my past is irretrievable. The present is not to be lived dwelling on it.
Rose is enjoying a second chance at childhood. There she sits with her granny combing her hair with my old bamboo comb as she serenades my baby with the stories she would once tell me. People say she looks just like me. It must be true. I look at them and feel like I have been transported back to my happy childhood. I blink twice or thrice and look again to believe it. I had come here desperately looking for a safe refuge for my daughter but had found myself again.
I am home at last.
My daughter keeps saying she wants to see the migratory birds.
I know they will come.
I know this time, they will come for me.
“Father, I shall see you soon.”
By Kutoli N