Palimpsest by Alisha Mughal
Content Warning: This story contains details that may be sensitive to some readers. Please practice safe care.
When I was little my mother told me about Judgement Day.
It would be a day when everything would be falling apart, but a day that because of this extreme chaos would invoke wonder and would end up being, on the whole, very quiet. We all would watch in silent awe as our world broke. She told me about how it had already been determined who would be allowed into Heaven, but that no one on Earth knew who it would be. Only God knew, she said. Then, leaning in close to me with narrowed eyes and a mischievous grin playing lightly on her lips, she said she knew that she would be going to Heaven. Wide-eyed and believing her to be magic, I asked her how: How could she know this when she just told me that no one knew? She leaned in closer, as though about to gift me her most precious secret, and whispered in a tone unblemished by self-doubt that she was certainly among the elect because of her passion for prayer, her care, her love — for me, for my father, for everyone — and her wanting always to do the right thing. I thought for a moment, trying to fit her large gift into my small mind, and then I asked her when.
When would Judgement Day come? She said she didn’t know, that no one did. But she did know that it would be heralded by a sound. An unbearably loud sound.
I am awakened by booming — boom, boom, boom coming up the stairs. His heavy, slow steps. Not deliberate. Nothing seemed about him of late to be deliberate. Out of reflex engendered by habit, so that he might not trip and crack his teeth on the hardwood, he slowly climbs up the stairs. Each step thunders through the house and the crystal clinks in its display cabinet downstairs, the windowpanes rattle in their frames; the house shudders at his every banging step, until finally, at the top of the stairs, his feet begin to scuffle and slide toward the master bedroom. The door is slammed shut and a final tremor tears through the house.
Then, somewhere very nearby, begins a scraping and scratching. He’s in the walk-in closet. The closet is separated from my room by a very thin wall, as are all the rooms separated in this house of very thin walls. They forget that the walls are so thin. He is digging, I can tell. Digging through the piles of clothes on the ground, and in the process falling every now and then heavily against the shelves and racks that hold my mother’s clothes, which tumble down every time he loses balance, feels himself, his bulwark of a body, careening to the left despite himself, despite his kneeling solidly in one spot. Her clothes fall with a soft sigh to the ground, and he begins rummaging through them, too, thinking they are his clothes and hoping to find something among their colourful folds.
It is 9 a.m. and I am slightly surprised when I realize that it has only been an hour since I was last woken up by the sound of the front door being slammed shut. He has finally left, I had thought then. I’d turned over in bed, sighing and thinking that the stained glass inserts that my mother had put into the door over the summer were a bad idea, too dainty for the haphazard, wild manner in which doors in this house were treated, then I had gone back to sleep. My classes for the day had been cancelled.
But he had come back.
He is in the walk-in closet and through the wall I hear him whispering angrily in words that rush clumsily into each other, wondering what that woman has done with his wallet. My mother. Something falls with a dull thud and rolls away on the carpet, he curses, then goes back to digging. I pull my blanket up over my head and squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating on my breathing — in through the nose, out through the mouth — and on the sound of my breathing. If I push my tongue up to the roof of my mouth I hear the blood rushing behind my ears roaring and surging like a waterfall, and so I keep my tongue to the roof of my mouth until my ears begin to hurt.
Somewhere far away and nearby a clammy hand has a difficult time trying to open the master bedroom’s door — the brass doorknob locks if turned additionally in a certain way after the door has been closed, and the clammy hand’s owner, forgetting this, blindly and frenetically yanks at the knob. Turning it this way and that, locking it and unlocking it again and again, until at last the door opens. Then the scraping and sliding of heavy steps, and finally the boom boom boom that accompanies them down, the rattling and shuddering of the house an ovation attendant to his descent. I sigh and close my eyes.
I am awakened again an hour later, but this time by a resounding, intermittent roar: his snoring, swelling and cracking through the house every few seconds. I decide to get out of bed, get out while he is still asleep. I creep downstairs, wishing fervently, with fingers crossed, that he is in the basement. He is not. He is in the room right across from the kitchen, sprawled on the couch that is too small for him — his feet hang over the arm rest. His face is stuffed in the cushion, his mouth agape, and one arm hangs down over the edge with his fist resting on the floor. I hold my breath and grab a granola bar and tiptoe back up the stairs.
When I come back down to throw the wrapper away and to get a glass of water, he is on the ground, face down. I wonder for a moment why I hadn’t heard him fall and then I remember that I had been concentrating on not hearing. Still his snores, wet, guttural sounds, trawl menacingly through the house, but now he is on the ground. I try to be as loud as I can throwing away the wrapper and getting out a glass and filling it up, yanking open cabinet doors, slamming them shut — perhaps my noise might wake him up, get him to climb back onto the couch. There is something not right about sleeping on the floor as he is — his face down on the hardwood, it can’t be comfortable.
My noise does not wake him up, though. I wonder at the intensity of his stupor and, confounded, I go back up the stairs, this time not on my toes. I recall, as an anxious buzzing spreads in my chest, that people who snore do not dream. In my room, I shut the door behind me and sit down with my back against it and close my eyes and see him on the ground and snoring and not dreaming and I wonder about waking him up. But I am afraid of him, of him when he is drunk. Of his unkindness.
“I don’t have any children,” he had said once when I was in high school and needed his signature on a permission slip. I didn’t know it was out of drunkenness then. I’d just thought that it was a very bad, violent, mean mood that he would sometimes get into and that would need a night’s sleep to be alleviated.
I decide that I should get some readings done for my classes. But despite my best efforts I find my eyes running over the same convoluted sentence over and over again without grasping its meaning, staring at the thin greyish-white pages that together form a brick of recycled material that smells of dust. Divergent thoughts scurry about in my mind that is full of his snores and the rapid thudding of my heart. I find myself taking in raspy breaths. I don’t know what to do and with every beat of my heart I find the task of waking him up becoming an increasingly urgent and increasingly difficult ordeal — it is something that I feel I need to do, but already it seems too late for anything to be done.
I sit this way, my head and chest buzzing, for many hours that seem to me to be one single, agonizing moment that ends the second I feel a thundering beneath me. I look up at my clock sat atop my bedside table. It is 3 p.m. and my mother is home from work. She eases her car into the garage beneath my room, my room shudders as she slams her door shut, and the thundering begins again as the garage door closes.
There is a steady, piercing pain behind my eyes, and I wonder what I ought to do. Nothing, there is nothing I can do. I hold my breath and wait for the yelling to begin. But the yelling does not begin.
She calls to him gently, asking him why he is asleep like that on the ground. I imagine her kneeling next to him, trying to get him to get up. He continues his deep snoring. Then she calls my name wildly, almost instinctively — she doesn’t know that my classes were cancelled, that I am home — and my heart leaps into my throat and I find myself before her and him on the floor and I don’t remember coming down the stairs. She asks me why he is on the floor sleeping like that, for how long has he been there, why won’t he wake up? I say I don’t know. She shakes him, he does not wake up, she yanks his head up into her lap and lightly smacks his face, but he does not wake up.
“Call 911,” she says to me with tears pooling in her big, round eyes. I can’t move, I can’t look away from his snoring face. She yells something at me and I still can’t move. She crawls on her knees to the small table with the phone on it and begins to dial.
I hear her say that he is unconscious and I shake my head — it seems wrong to me that she should say he is unconscious. He isn’t unconscious, he is sleeping. But he isn’t dreaming, a voice in my head reminds me.
“They’re on their way,” she says to me. I watch her crawl back to him and put his face in her lap. She pries open his lips with her fingers and looks into his mouth. A mangled wad of nicotine gum is lodged between his teeth and the inside of his cheek. She takes it out of his mouth and holds it up to me in her palm. “Throw this out,” she demands of me. I do as she says, not knowing why, just feeling that this is something that ought to be done.
A low, plaintive wail announces the coming of officials. Official help. I rush to the door and open it before they ring the bell. I stand behind the door as they rush in, following behind them only when they’re all in. They fuss about him, and he does not wake up. They put him on a stretcher and I wonder how it only takes two of them to heave his big body onto it. They roll him out, his snores meandering behind him until they rack through the house no longer. The police ask me some questions, but I can’t seem to understand their words, and my mother supplies them with any information she can.
They want to know how long he has been like this. He’s been asleep for a few hours, I tell them, remembering suddenly all the time I had spent being frightened of the steadily snoring man.
My mother and I follow him to the hospital. They tell us that he has taken too many sleeping pills, and my mother collapses into a chair. I sit down next to her and place my hand on her shoulder and feel pathetic and useless doing this. My eyes feel heavy and I can’t seem to get them up off the blue-gray ground. I stare at the dust plastered in the corner where the tile meets the drywall and I hear my mother tell the doctors and the police about how stressed he had been at work, how he had suspected for a very long time that they were going to fire him, how he had told her last night that his work phone had been wiped of all data, how he thought that those monsters at work must have sapped his phone. How he didn’t know what to do.
The doctors tell us that we must wait for the drug to pass through his body, that he will be all right in a day or two. We go home.
In the kitchen that evening, washing up the remains of a dinner that went entirely untouched, I can’t look across the hall to the room with the couch that had been too small for his body. I press my tongue up to the roof of my mouth and focus on the pain in my ears so that I won’t think about how I walked past him as he killed himself. I shut off all the lights and go up to my room with thoughts hovering like a black cloud of flies over roadkill around something I can’t quite make out until I am in bed.
It is a dark hole I see in my mind, black and growing bigger, nearer — so black it sucks in all the light of my thoughts, of my memories, of who I was before this day, so black that it leaves me with no past.
He comes back home after a week’s stay at the hospital, after spending the last three days talking to the resident psychiatrist. The skin beneath his eyes is dark brown, his neck that before was sturdy is haggard. Every time he swallows water, cords that never before were visible can be seen working violently to take the liquid down, every time he swallows food he winces, as if it is simply too much work.
He doesn’t speak much, but neither do my mother and I. At dinner we each of us keep our head down, our eyes on the food before us as if eating it were the most significant task we had ever been faced with. We concentrate on what is directly before us so that the harrowing badness of everything else might be erased by sheer neglect.
One night when I am awake in my bed I hear through the wall them talking in hushed voices. He has lost his job, he begins to cry and unsuccessfully muffles his wails on something. I hear him ask her in a maniacal, shrill voice where they will get the money for my tuition. She says she will work overtime, work weekends, work. I turn over in bed and reach out and press the button on the fan standing next to my bed. It snuffs out their voices, filling my room, my head with a soft, even whirring.
They decide to go on a trip, the two of them. They decide they want to go back to the old country, spend a couple of months with her sister, his parents. I can’t go with them — I have my classes.
One evening, as I am pushing my dinner around my plate, he comes to me with a sheaf of papers folded in three upon itself. He puts it down before me and places the tissue box on top of it.
“This is an insurance policy,” he says, “in case something happens to us while we’re there, in case the plane crashes,” he says. I look at it before me. “In case we don’t make it back,” he says. Then walks away.
But they do make it back. Two months later they are back and she is exuberant with nostalgia quelled and nostalgia reignited as she tells me about all that she saw again — the beautiful stuff of her childhood. Of how they got sick after eating some bad food, how even this experience was laced with ebullient charm because it was shared with people she loves. People to whom she wants more than anything to go back.
“We can visit again when you finish school,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes and a warm pat on my shoulder. I smile at her and nod. He smiles with her and laughs when she laughs, but his eyes are dry with a certain disappointment, as if he did not meet with something he very much wanted to.
I am at school waiting for a late-night class to begin when my mother calls me wanting to know when I will be home. I tell her that I might be a few hours. Then she tells me that there are police cars surrounding our house, the front doorway stands jammed up with officers. She asks me if I would please come home now, and I tell her that I will. I get up just as the professor enters and I leave the room, the final meeting of the class I enjoyed the most out of all my classes. Sitting at the train station waiting for my train I fight a losing battle trying to hold back my tears. One rebel creeps over the ledge, dives down my face, and is followed by a stream like-minded. I wipe my face with my sleeve and board my train to our police-filled home.
I debark at the station and call my mother, asking her to pick me up. But she is tied up now at the police station, she tells me in a breaking voice, trying to keep sobs submerged in practicality. I tell her I will wait for her. I can’t but — I had missed by mere minutes the last bus that could take me home, and even if I hadn’t, she had told me that the front door, the foyer is blood splattered, that I should not see that alone.
I wait for an hour, according to my watch, but I don’t notice the time pass. I stand in the shelter, shivering and with teeth rattling in the blistering heat of an unseasonably hot spring evening, waiting for her. My brain feels tired and heavy and as though it is being sliced in half by a much too dull knife. I hadn’t done anything too strenuous — intellectually or physically — at all during the day. I had spent much of it putting off doing my readings, staring at the words streaming down large pages through thick books, when she had called me, and had ended up not doing them at all — but despite my inactivity I feel exhausted. I don’t let myself sit down, for I know that if I sit down, I will fall asleep and never wake up again. She needs me right now, says someone in my head in a voice that sounds to me like two Styrofoam cups being rubbed together. It is my duty to stay awake, say the Styrofoam twins.
I don’t notice my tear-spattered face until my mother hands me a tissue as I settle into the car, next to her — I had thought about getting in the back seat, but the Styrofoam cups had said that it would not be right. She tells me I have mascara running down my face and I recall that I used to be such a person as would sooner die than allow herself to be seen like this in public. But this person has been swallowed by the black hole, and now my arm seems too heavy to lift up to my face and I sit with the tissue crumpled in my hand and mascara bleeding down my face. Had people seen me cry? Does it much matter? No, it doesn’t matter.
She tells me he is dead. She tells me that he had slit his throat, and that for some reason he had slit it in the front foyer. Then he had called the police on himself. He had cut deep, deep enough, and was dead by the time they got to him. I don’t say anything. I don’t feel anything. I can’t hear my heart beating, so I press my hand to the centre of my chest and feel there a faint fluttering like that of the petals of a dying flower sat at an open window, dancing sadly in a weak breeze as the light fades on the last day of August. I wish I hadn’t felt a beating.
As the lights outside glide over the windshield, so do some short, uncomplicated thoughts swim ethereally as wraiths through my mind. One reminds me of my heaviness, my strain on him and her. Another twirls across my vision trailing shimmering curlicues that form the dates of all those times I was angry at him instead of trying to understand. I ought to have tried to understand. Another, a particularly lethargic one, reminds me of my quietness.
At home I cry quietly in my room as I listen to the sounds of my mother cleaning up the blood in the foyer, then I fall asleep on the ground next to my bed. I dream that he and she are all right, sitting comfortably on a couch that isn’t at all too small, and I am leaving them, stepping out the door and falling into a black hole that sucks me in eagerly — as though I had made it wait too long — and that is so black that it looks a flat dot, a period, on a pristine white page.
Alisha Mughal was born in Pakistan and grew up in Ontario, Canada. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and hopes that she might write a book some day. She has had stories appear in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Eunoia Review, and Noble / Gas Quarterly. She writes and resides in Ontario, Canada. Find her on Twitter: @alishamgl