If a family were a windowpane, Sayam’s would be one with webs of breakage spiraling from the gaping hole at the center. In the ten long years of his life, ever since his memory started keeping records and lodging them in various regions inside his head from where he could easily pluck them out to remember things, he had seen Baba shouting at Ammu.
Shouting over things that would grow tentacles and inject, as if, some ominous liquid into Baba’s head, filling him up with rage. Unbearable rage.
“Why is the rice so soft and gluey? Did I buy this with 75 taka per kg so you could cook it like shit?”
His face red and trembling, he ferociously worked his fingers through the sticky rice mixed with greasy beef, biting his lower lip hard with his teeth, as if his eyes, the bridge of his nose, the bones of his cheek, and the salt and pepper beard were about to shoot out of their respective places and crash against the white walls. Sayam stood at his bedroom’s door, watching Baba’s anger unfold. Jerking his chair back, Baba got up and swept everything off the table—the plates and bowls carrying lentil, pumpkin, spinach and beef curries, and fried fish. Until then, Ammu had silently stood beside Baba like she usually did during dinner, so that he wouldn’t have to do the hard work of scooping food for himself. She started crying after the thunderous crash of those plates rent the air. A hollow grew in Sayam’s stomach watching her cry, as it usually did at such moments. If only it could suck in her sorrow and Baba’s rage, and then closed like a touch-me-not plant.
It was on that night when it first appeared: one small, grey, and circular spot on his left thigh. He was eight, an age when he learnt how to sleep alone, how to recite some Surahs and the Kalimas to ward off the fear of ghosts, even though the fear kept creeping back into his heart. While pulling the duvet up to his neck, his skin aglow in the green of the dim light over the window, he suddenly felt a searing pain in his thigh, almost like the bite of an ant. He pulled down his trouser and fingered the spot. The pain thrummed on with no sign of alleviation. He was fully aware that if he knocked on the door of his parents’ room, asking them if they had any ointment, Baba would start cursing Ammu at the top of his voice, accusing her of not monitoring her son’s sleeping schedule, calling her all those names he had before: sister-fucker, bitch, slut. So, he braved the pain, pulling up the trouser and the duvet, closing his eyes, firmly blocking the thought of the pain that spread all over his body, pushing the tears out.
The next morning, although the spot remained, the pain was gone. So was his focus from the spot’s presence.
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Hours piled up.
A day bloomed. Then another day. Then another.
One stacked on top of another like a thick bundle of papers.
A month passed, plopping into the dizzying river of time. More followed suit.
Sayam turned ten. In the years since the first spot appeared, more laid siege to , as if out of jealousy at the smoothness of his skin. His legs, right up to the ankles, are covered with those grey spots. They didn’t herald their arrival with a stabbing pain like the very first one had. Silently, just like his fear of ghosts returned every night while sleeping even after reciting Surahs and the Kalimas, those spots, too, appeared. At first, he’d wanted to show them to his parents. But then he thought better of it, fearing for another fight, on top of the ones that regularly broke out anyway, and ditched his shorts and embraced full pants with a steely determination.
Just because Ammu, perhaps Baba would say, worked at a bank and did not look after Sayam like his aunties looked after their sons 24/7, these scaly spots appeared over his body from something he picked up one day to eat, from the friends he mingled with, from the places he went to play in the afternoon, from a lack of vitamins, and so on. Sayam’s imagination was filled with premonitions, one of which could just tumble off his mind and manifest itself.
Over the years, Sayam learnt to identify the landmines that surrounded his family, that set Baba’s anger in motion.
A salty chicken curry hid a fat one beneath it.
One poked out from the surface of a runny lentil dish.
Another one peeked from Ammu’s arrival back at home from her office at 8pm, instead of 7.
Expensive toys that Sayem loved—Lego blocks, Ben10 watch, remote-controlled Porsche—could touch off one.
In the next few months, as the landmines kept going off, as Ammu’s tears kept falling, those scaly spots crawled upwards, covering the length of his crotch, flat belly, chest, and his slightly bulged throat.
The air was heavy with the April heat. Wearing a turtleneck at this time of the year was unusual. But how else would Sayam cover them up? So, when his parents discovered the spots, tracing them from his neck down to his ankles, like he’d predicted earlier, Baba put it all on Ammu.
“All this while you didn’t notice?”
“How could I? It is not like I bathe him every day as if he’s a toddler.”
“How would I know? All you can do is crash into the sofa, put one of your legs on top of another, and watch TV after coming home from office, and give us shitty and rotten food to choke on!”
“I watch TV after coming home? Who cooks the dinner then? And I give you rotten food? Even a MasterChef can’t feed you!”
“Don’t say another word, cunt! I will slit your throat, you hear me?”
The crescendo of his voice opened up the hollow in Sayam’s stomach. He wished the spots had vanished from his skin.
“Herpes Zoster,” the bespectacled doctor with the orange beard said the next day. “He has to stay in home for a few weeks as much as possible.”
Wedged between his parents, Sayam shifted in his chair in frustration.
“Apply Zostrix over the spotted areas three times a day every eight hours,” the doctor added, handing Baba a thin, rectangular box of ointment.
Sayem’s gaze rested on the shiny surgical tong lying on a stainless-steel tray on the doctor’s desk. He wished he’d plucked the spots off his body one by one with that tong. He even wished he could shave himself free of the spots with Baba’s razor.
On Thursday, Sayam twitched anxiously in his bed when he noticed that it’d been two hours since Baba came home but Ammu was yet to.
“Why are you late?”
“It was the traffic.”
“Which road did you take?”
“The driver insisted on passing through Bijoy Sharani.”
“Don’t you know how jammed Bijoy Sharani gets after the evening?”
“Why are you shouting at me? I told him not to take this route, but he still did.”
“I am shouting because you may not care but I care a great deal about the money I have to pay for our car’s oil.”
“Who said I don’t care?”
“Oh, I am sorry, you care a lot! That is why you have to keep the car’s AC on all the time, as if your father throws money at us every month.”
“Why are you reacting like this? Why do you always react like this?”
The heated fight raged on in their bedroom. In his room, Sayam’s stomach churned. Droplets of sweat broke out on his skin. The sound of Baba and Ammu’s fight grew muffled. Dizziness blurred his vision. He felt the spots quickly climbing like ants from his neck to cover his face. His diaphragm contracted. Hot, tangy liquid threatened to dart out of his mouth. Quivering uncontrollably, he got up from his bed and made an attempt to rush for the bathroom. On his way out of the room, he stumbled over his study desk before falling on the floor, along with the glass of water perched on the edge of the desk.
The sound of a glass shattering travelled to his parents’ room, causing them to pause and rush to Sayam’s room.
They didn’t see him.
Only the broken shards of glass, little pools of water spread out on the mosaic floor like on a world map, and a grey-spotted fish writhing at the base of the desk, gasping for air.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a fiction writer.