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by Tara Isabel Zambrano

Fatima pushes the wheelchair into the room. It has been a month since Mehmooda, her mother in law, and the owner of wheelchair died. Fatima's eyes drop involuntarily to the empty seat, her hands in the space tracing Mehmooda's body.

"Ammi,"she whispers, her voice diffused in the melancholic silence.

She pulls the brocade curtains apart and bright sun ushers in for the first time in two decades. Fatima's eyes squint against gnawing bolt of light. It wasn't the provoking Indian summer that her mother-in-law disliked, but that Mehmooda was accustomed to darkness. Naked light baffled her. Years of staring at her shrouded reflection had permanently dulled her eyes.

The room is under a lid. There are covers everywhere - over the TV set, another on an iron chest. There is a custom cover for the wheelchair; there is a neat lining on her closet shelves where all her clothes - black trousers, scarves and long tunics are layered inside cellophane wraps.

For an abrupt moment, Fatima feels a wave of relaxation that she thought she had lost the natural talent for. Her life, until a month ago, moved in stressed orbits between the kitchen and Mehmooda's room, returning to her bedroom only at night.

She watches the shameless sun over preserved, age-old darkness. The absence of over-dressed Mehmooda weighs on her. She’d never entered this room without a veil - her hands occasionally lurking under the salad or a fruit plate. It was here by the sill that she’d always pull a chair, adjust her scarf before slicing the bananas or peeling apples and oranges - removing the pits masterfully like an expert scavenger. And Mehmooda would never fail to give her an eyeful before repeating the illustrious stories of her youth and glory putting Fatima's average looks and her lower middle class maiden status to shame. But this had hardly bothered Fatima and she’d nod with a sense of childlike wonder at the stories she had known by heart.

Twenty years! Without Mehmooda, how would she have survived these years? But it's an afterthought. Initially, Mehmooda's sharp tongue and manipulative ways slit her confidence, and Fatima would repeatedly cry in front of her father, asking him ways to counter her mother-in-law. He suggested focusing on her husband and two sons. As for Mehmooda, he said: “be grateful every time she smiles at you - it is a faint ray of light that managed to escape a black hole.” Then he laughed. And Fatima realized the silliness and short life of her dismay.

Fatima lies down on Mehmooda’s bed. The ceiling looks unfamiliar. She has never noticed the color of the revolving fan, the shape of its blades, or the fact that it has been there all these years. Her house does not look like home. What does her house even looks like? All these years, she feels, she was married to Mehmooda - looking after her, serving her, rather than her son, Hassan. Her restrained lovemaking to her husband, with half of her clothes on, did the essential duty of producing two sons. And Hassan resigned to her broken attention as a norm for matrimony. He had told her more than once, "You are just like my mother minus her hoarse voice and shrewd behavior."

She wonders what she’ll do with the tedium of endless, empty hours. Her sons are in college and her husband is busy with his business. And she is exposed to the world. She’d taken refuge behind Mehmooda and now she is unable to move and cover herself. Everyone in the house, Fatima reflects, has a part of her mother in law - her two sons with avid tongue and lips but without her sly intelligence. Her husband is like Mehmooda without the nerves. But she is the one with no trace of Mehmooda, whatsoever. The endless ocean of Mehmooda has receded - leaving her on the shore like a solitary conch with no footprints to follow.

She feels a spasm in her belly. An uncontrolled gush of thoughts surge through her brain, an unyielding sorrow thick with nudity. She realizes the need to feel her body and its contours to make sure it belongs to her. One by one, her layers of clothing fall over Mehmooda's bed - each heavy as a sack of stone, a shroud released, taking her far into a realm where she can finally join with herself like one of her smooth, clandestine curves.


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