Story Contest 2017 #1 Results » First Prize Winner - Senior Category
“A Dance of Mists and Dyes” by Adarsh Raj Bhatt, is the First Prize winning story in the senior category of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2017 which was organized by Kids World Fun.
A Dance of Mists and Dyes
A splendid swirl of colours. A sensual swish of a brush. Blue eyes crackling with focussed energy, sapphire studs that had rarely ever darted beyond the edges of the canvas before them. Even those pensive, immersed darts that they often made, from one minute detail of the canvas to another, even they looked to be laden with a solemn purpose. The profound throbs of his deep blue fire.
Abraham’s father was painting.
And while Khurshid painted…as a silly boy who kept wondering at his papa’s month-long retreats, Abraham had once spent over seven hours outside his door, spying in through the keyhole.
Aye, while Khurshid painted, the size of his universe shrank to the exact dimensions of the canvas, while the content of his universe morphed purely into dyes dancing on linen.
“...reported to have infiltrated our adjacent district. One thing’s for sure, Baghdad’s been crossed into once again. Might want to stay indoors with the wife and babes, Hiram. The Bleeder is not one to be taken lightly, aye?”
Abraham’s attention returned to the dull drone of murmurs inside Al Halaq, one of the many local barber shops of Baghdad.
Labeeb’s scissors continued their monotonous cutting over Abraham’s head. He had been discussing terrorist infiltration into Baghdad with another barber, Hiram, Ab had heard. That didn’t bother Ab much. To be sure, ever since the Bleeder had joined ISIL, some of the Middle East’s most brutal terrorists had successfully crossed into Baghdad, but the city had more security arrangements than any other in Iraq. Even so, Labeeb was right about the Bleeder. Everybody in Iraq lapsed into a cutting paralysis at the very mention of the Muslim extremist. Given his Islamic godliness, his hellish heartlessness made for some savage irony. Any transgression of the ISIL that the Bleeder had his hand behind was an oath of the obliteration of life to an extent and through means that were deemed fitting of but an infernal, contorted and hateful soul- a beast draped in man’s flesh.
Labeeb continued with Ab’s haircut.
“The greatest artist, him of the deep blue fire,” the words chimed melodiously in Ab’s head; they often did, whenever he sat idle. These were the beginning words of a song on Ab’s father that his mummy had composed. Though Adriel’s was a cheerful voice, Ab noted for the millionth time, upon closing one’s eyes, one could discern an almost mystifying loneliness underneath.
Without warning, the drowsy Al Halaq atmosphere was shattered by a thunderous crash. It took only a half-second for Ab’s eyes to flick towards the door and for him to vault sideways over his seat. And not a heartbeat too soon for just as he crouched low, dozens of rounds of gunfire bellowed out their giant song of dread and doom and every person inside Al Halaq heard it. Labeeb heard it, Ab was certain, for he fell on top of the boy with considerable impact, and Ab’s face received a spray of a dense warm wetness from the junction between the barber’s shoulder and neck. Hiram and Irfan and Abdullah all heard the song. Ab’s ears rang painfully with the onslaught of berserk gunfire. After a few more seconds, the shooting stopped, and only bloodcurdling screams remained to rise and capture the air in their terrible folds, howls that seeped with exquisite agony.
Ab tried to ignore them and steady his frantic breaths. After that giant song had rumbled, Ab felt tears well up uncontrollably in his eyes. He knew that it would have taken just a single bullet to find him and render his sister defenceless. Ab was the only family left to little Ayizah ever since Adriel had lost too much of blood seven years ago and Khurshid had wordlessly staggered into the heart of the gathering dusk for good, leaving his children behind to gape at his withdrawing deep blue fire.
But the broad steel base of the chair had concealed and protected him well enough.
“All departed, far as I can tell,” Ab heard. “Rashid, count the pigs.”
“Very good, Bleeder.”
And in that moment, seventeen-year old Abraham felt all the light and hope and colour drain out from his world, and he felt his soul grow weighty with gloom. The first voice...
Upon him, Labeeb’s body abruptly gave a spasm- causing the chair to revolve- even as his mouth gurgled blood in his death throes. In the stretching stillness, it was enough.
Ab could not even sense- much less struggle against- the masked terrorist when he descended on him. He was clutched roughly by the hair and dragged out. Three masked men, his brain registered slowly, jeering at him with double-barrelled assault rifles in their hands. Three men, and one who had stayed at the door, dressed all in rough spun black. He wore no weapon. He wore a mask, but where the other three’s masks showed their eyes, his revealed nothing of his face.
An agonizing guilt surged through him at the thought of little Ayizah, alone and vulnerable in their home. His eyes did not stray from the mask that had no slits for eyes. The mask gazed back at him, giving away nothing. The remaining three terrorists waited, their anticipations palpable in the air- but they knew better than to move a muscle. This was always the Bleeder’s moment.
Very slowly, without removing his gaze from Abraham’s face, the Bleeder’s hand opened as he extended his right arm in the air towards the gunman who was the closest to him. The man seemed puzzled at first, but unslung his heavy rifle and reloaded it. While he was doing that, he muttered to Ab, “You’re lucky, lad. The Bleeder bleeds pigs like you to death with his beloved blades. He don’t take pity on everyone by using guns.” Holding his rifle by the barrel, he handed it to the Bleeder.
The Bleeder fired a shot at his heart.
Abraham screamed in shock for a long time even as the Bleeder fired a dozen rounds into the other two terrorists. This time, the gun wasn’t reloaded.
Ab’s head pounded with the ear-splitting sounds of gunfire so close to his ears. But it rang more prominently with the voice with which the Bleeder had given the command to the man named Rashid. He slowly turned his head upwards…
...to see an unmasked handsome face. And in those eyes, there crackled a deep blue fire.
Abraham gasped, breathless, feeling as if he had been shot in the lung. “Wh---wha---but---but...” Khurshid walked towards him, his jaw hard. He picked Ab up and sat him on a chair, swiftly checking for wounds. When he’d made sure that there weren’t any, he redressed Ab. And then, he looked up at him in the eye. Ab picked out concern as stark as the blue.
“Does your sibling still live?” the Bleeder asked in a level tone, and made to smooth Ab’s dishevelled hair.
Ab pounced at Khurshid and used his entire body weight to pin him to the ground, where Khurshid’s head cracked on the marble, next to somebody else’s. Before his chop could find his father’s neck, Khurshid caught Ab’s hands in mid-air, hauled him up and calmly put him down on the chair, holding him there with one hand on the chest. He spat out blood and phlegm. “Does your sibling still live?”
Ab stopped his futile struggling. “Her name’s Ayizah.”
“So she lives...I had feared-”
“-that the ISIL might have raped the seven-year old and recorded a video of ripping apart her soft throat in the name of their God? Or would you have liked to do your daughter yourself, monster, perhaps painting the scenes on canvas with her blood for dye and her innards for brushes?”
Khurshid breathed in deeply, his back not as straight as it had been a moment ago.
“You will want information. You will need reasons. You are the son of the Bleeder of ISIL, Abraham.” He drew his hand back from Ab’s chest and took the chair adjacent to him before swivelling around to face him. “And I am here to tell you why.” The sapphire studs were flecked with a torment so profound that Ab almost reached out to Khurshid. Then, he remembered Ayizah. He kept silent, his nose wrinkling slightly at the pungent stench of so many dead people around them. He glanced at the door. The Bleeder didn’t miss that.
“If you’re worried about the authorities storming inside, don’t worry. There is a festive procession in the streets today, and so the sound of firing never escaped the shop. Besides, before entering, my men replaced the signboard at the door with a ‘Closed’ one. And as for the smell, eighteen dead men do give off quite an odour, granted, though I myself am not bothered much by the dead anymore,” he said.
“Are you about sure?” Ab asked quietly.
Khurshid slumped back, suddenly weary, but then he nodded. “Then she’s where I’ll start from...Ab, your mother, Adriel... was an exquisite creation. You have to understand. She used to be a devout Christian before our marriage. But my conservative house was not one that condoned inter-faith bonds. And so, Adriel converted. She turned her family’s pleas and hopes to dust in their hearts and turned her back on her Redeemer to tread on towards my Allah. For me. For us.”
Blue fire then stirred in Khurshid’s eyes like embers in the hearth as he went on, and Ab was caught off guard to hear a choked voice, every word a shocked whisper.
“And then we were together, Ab, as lovers. One soul, two bodies. Ah, but even then, I was the monster that Iraq knows me as now, Ab. My art was my curse. Adriel was the closest to my heart, but art? Art was my heart. And so, I established these laws. She was to never enter my room, even when I actually may not be in it, since that’s where I stored my paintings and it irked me to think of anybody near my darlings, most of all Adriel. And I would completely put her out of my mind, my life, for many weeks, even for a few months, I recall, and stay in my room throughout those days, surrounded by my works, drinking them in, those gulps of delectable art, breathing and bathing in my visions of colour and canvas. Even the times I did spend with her contained scarcely any warmth from my side, as the years rolled by. Art clouded my sight. It submerged her in my life, mercilessly.
“But...Adriel...Adriel, so pure, so beautiful, Ab, she stood through it all with astonishing strength. She understood me, you see, understood that she was my second wife, that I was married to my work above all. Our relationship was founded on her self-sacrifice. The inhuman things I often said to your mother would have pushed anybody else to separation. I told her that I was the wind, swift and limitless, and that staying with her was putting the wind in a cage. I did love her more than you can ever imagine, Abraham, make no mistake on that count, but… what can I say, she was always mine but I was never truly hers. How priceless is that?”
Abraham did not answer.
“Unflinching sacrifice, unthinking love, unimaginable care, and all I offered in return was a portion of my love... tell me, son, whom did your sister take after, me or Adriel?” His voice had become a hollow moan, the vessel of an excruciating void.
Puzzled lines furrowed Ab’s brow. “How can you not know whom your daughter took after? It is quite clear at the earliest stage. I do not understand.”
Khurshid didn’t meet Ab’s eyes, and his mouth became a line. “Because I have never once laid my eyes on her. You see, I was at my cruellest, blindest right around the time when your sister was born. I don’t believe you will remember those months even though you were ten years old. I was holed up in my room in what will go on to become my longest retreat ever. Three months, Ab. Three months of pure art, and pure, uncompromising isolation. And then, I remember getting a phone call from a local hospital. “Congratulations, it is a girl child!” I failed to comprehend, at first. How could this have happened in just three months? But slowly, it all fell into place. Adriel had kept the pregnancy from me for six whole months, and I had, in all my ruthless ignorance, managed to miss it, too. She must have commanded you to keep silent about the womb, and herself hid it from me for those six months because she knew that I would feel weary and snap very violently at the news of another oncoming responsibility, another distraction from art.” Khurshid looked up to stare at Ab. “During the nine months when the man is supposed to be the indispensable right-hand, she chose to ensure my comfort, and handled that great burden by herself. Do you see now how exquisite she was?”
Tears had welled up in Abraham’s eyes. He scowled through the sadness. “Exquisite...and the unluckiest wife in Iraq.”
“She was. She truly was,” Khurshid nodded miserably. “After the call from the hospital, all of Adriel’s inner trauma from ever since we had been married came smashing in through the veil of my cold self-centricity. And when it broke through, all of her bravery, her sacrifice, her faith in me, her ethereal beauty coupled with the dank depths of my heartless indifference, it destroyed me with guilt, Ab. It reached down to engulf what heart I still had left. I vowed to reform, to become the man she had always deserved, vowed to care for her as a father and love her as a lover. I was about to become the most doting partner, son, I was about to…” Khurshid mumbled weakly.
Ab leaned forward.
“...but when I reached the hospital with shining eyes, the blood loss had already taken her away. You were howling at her feet. The babe was bawling as well. And I heard neither of you. All I heard was a ringing silence. I then walked out of the complex towards my car. You had come out after me, calling me a monster, screaming out that I had been the cause behind Adriel’s hardships, behind the murder of her happiness and, in the end, behind her death itself.”
Abraham’s face could have been made out of stone. “Why, I was not too wrong there, Bleeder.”
Khurshid’s breath went out of him. He had to inhale again. “I was too numb to look at you and as I got into the car, you broke down on the road again and got in, too, wailing loudly in the back. I reversed, and then slammed down on the accelerator. We hit the hospital building at full throttle.” Khurshid’s gaze was fixed on a barber whose brain had been blown where he stood; the body was now supported awkwardly in between a chair and the wall.
“We were admitted in adjacent beds. Ayizah was there, too, resting beside you, but I took care to not see her face as I had an intuition that she’d taken after Adriel.” Khurshid told Abraham. “Son, now you understand why you do not have any significant recollections of your childhood until you reached ten. The airbag of the front-seat could cushion me against serious injury, less so for you. Amnesia. Along with severe shock.”
Abraham tried to pounce at his father again, but found that he did not have the strength for it. He only ended up jerking his arms suddenly. Khurshid made no move to restrain him this time.
Abraham grounded his teeth in frustration. The memory of Khurshid leaving the hospital was one which had burned itself into his memory, among a handful others like his mummy’s beautiful face, and the eerie one of Khurshid painting alone in his room.
“Why?” Abraham muttered. “You were a wealthy, famed artist. Iraq was proud of you. Why would you leave us to become a terrorist?”
“Ever seen a fish on land, son? After Adriel departed, I was a fish on land, capable of nothing but blinded, tortured spasms. She had been celestial every inch of the grim road. While there are truly no words to express the gaping emptiness inside me that scorched my soul, I do have an explanation for the Bleeder. After hearing news of a daughter, I had resolved to love my Adriel with all my soul and watch over the three of you as a guardian. We would have been a happy family.” He laughed a dark, torn laugh. “But it was not to be, was it? Our family’s joyous future was stolen, son, stolen from us by a cruel Allah who saw it fit to curse the delivery and snatch the life from someone who had turned to worship Him and love Him instead of her own God. What a doting Allah he is, indeed, to have bled dry an angel such as my Adriel, the centre of my universe, the bravest human being I have ever known.
“All I felt was a vicious, blistering injustice. I burned in it like Adriel before me. I understood it was my punishment that had been His motive. Here is the truth, Abraham. Are you listening well?” The Bleeder asked of his son, and his tone quickened as blue fire surged alive in his eyes. “I never sat at this table of revenge out of my personal emotional disruption, for I knew I deserved worse after those nine years of Adriel’s oppression. No, I became what I have become because I could not dedicate my whole heart to Adriel in life. I felt bound to do so in death; dedicate the rest of my years to ensuring retribution for her unjust murder. But how you drag your God to justice, I wondered in desperation. When the answer struck me, I found it as abominable as it was imperative.”
“How do you do it?” Ab asked, not daring to breathe.
“You fell his Kingdom. When the world witnesses and hears of savage crimes being committed by Muslims and hell’s inferno being stoked in holy worship, all in the name of Allah, then His Kingdom, the institution of Islam, is outcast as one that preaches warfare, malice and hatred. This was the token of my deep gratitude to Adriel for having laid down her dreams for me. Sowing fear, distrust, condemnation and eventual alienation of Allah and His Islam in the hearts of all men was my tool for breaking Allah as He once broke an angel.” His eyes softened. “She was your angel as well, son.”
There was a pause for some moments. Ab spoke slowly, “And so, you added your flair to this lie about Islam, a religion founded on the very ideals of love, tolerance and compassion...you dethroned your god. ”
“Aye, I did. For the past seven years, with every bone and breath in my body, I have. I think of myself still as a painter, only one who painted a warzone with armed men as my paintbrushes. Aside from a dominating inhumanity, being creative also ensured that I rose quickly as ISIL’s poster-boy. I could always outwit the information agencies and think up new, unusual means to smuggle in men, ammunition and financial resources whenever and wherever we needed them.”
Repulsion surged through Abraham, along with the faintest trace of fear. Both made him get to his feet slowly and take three steps back.
“Sit down, Ab, do you honestly believe I would ever harm you?”
“I never once believed that you would leave your children alone and vulnerable, no better than orphans,” Ab pointed out coolly.
“Butchery and bombings…” Khurshid replied softly, “they may have realized my objective of defaming Allah, distorting Islam, to a great extent, but they never could prove my love for Adriel, could they?” He rested his hands on his knees, his expression pained. “I just wanted to do something about it, Abraham. Ah, I am the monster in people’s dreams….but by the gods, monsters have their demons, too.” He murmured to his son.
There was a long pause in which Ab and Khurshid held the depth of each other’s gaze, each trying to gauge the other’s heart while concealing his own with a stoic mask. The silence stretched thin in Al Halaq.
“And then, I had a dream, about a year ago,” Khurshid spoke up, the sapphires glinting quietly. “It was a snippet of conversation from our wedding night...back when I could satisfy Adriel, love her as much in return.
‘Are you the one, Khurshid? Are you and I the two branches of a tree that has but two?’ she breathed. ‘Forever?’ I caught fear in that word.
I thought for a moment before getting up and drawing the curtains aside a little. ‘Look out of the window for me, my sweet.’
‘I am,’ she replied with widened eyes, sitting upright.
‘I am the sky, Adriel. And you are my moon. The night is so dark, and empty, and joyless, when the moon is not out. But when she is up there with her sky, there is only endless peace and perfection. The sky may be big and strong, but without the moon, he is utterly alone, stretching purposeless; because the moon, she is the heart of the sky.’
‘But what about my imperfections, my flaws?’ your mother asked, still too scared to hope.
I returned to the bed, close to her. ‘The moon has craters, too. It wouldn’t be half as beautiful if it did not.’ I took her in my arms and nuzzled her neck. ‘So fear not, my heart, because you forget that your imperfections make for the perfect catalysts.’
And as soon as the words left my mouth, your mother struck me with unnatural strength. I tasted blood. This has become a dark dream, I understood, not something out of memory.
‘But the moon has fallen from her place, Khurshid, what will you do now?’ Adriel asked, her voice smooth as satin.
‘Try to find her because I know I never can. Run and keep running because if I stop, the dark will engulf me from within. Avenge her.’
‘I died by anomaly but have been killed by you ten thousand times over since.’ Adriel spoke coldly. ‘Because you lie. You can find her in the sky.’
‘How?’ I whispered hoarsely, choked on anguish, blood and awe.
‘Stars.’ And then the dream dissolved.”
Abraham could only stare, dazed. He came back to slump on the chair.
Khurshid cocked his head to one side. “That was my reaction, too, so I forced the dream out of my head and continued with ISIL, until this morning. The moment I saw you on the floor, the meaning of my dream crystallized in my head. “The moon has fallen but you can find her in the sky.” Since I was the sky, this only meant that Adriel desired me to stay with her soul by loving the stars that were already studded in my life. Our children. Adriel’s beautiful, breathing legacies, the embodiments of her essence. You and little Ayizah, son.” He cupped Ab’s face with his hand. “I am here for you both, and if you will have me...I could be your father again. I could finally look at my daughter’s face. I do not know where your home is but whether you choose to take me to it or not, I will not smear my Adriel’s memory any further by drawing the blood of humans.”
“Your story is heart-breaking, it moves me…but how do I know that you did not lie to me about your dream that you didn’t just make my mummy’s words up to appeal to me and push me towards taking you back in? If you can orchestrate heinous massacre, surely you can tell a lie.”
“Not one about Adriel, never.” His face turned stern. “You can never know, son, if I lied to you or not. All you can do is take my word for it.”
“The word of the Bleeder, you mean. You have proved your impeccable honour to Iraq and the world in the past, sire. For that matter, I just realized that mine would be a decision made on the basis of an assumption that it was truly the spirit of my mother who entered your dream, and not just your imagination, which, we must agree, has grown quite unstable.”
Khurshid kept quiet. There was nothing to say.
“Won’t Ayizah and I be in legal danger for giving shelter to you?” Ab wondered suddenly.
A grim light tinged the blue studs. “You won’t be giving shelter to anybody. Son, we won’t be staying in Baghdad, or even Iraq, any longer. We would settle in India, for a start, then move to other Asian countries, before making for Europe, and then Africa, after some years. Governments and information agencies would give anything to bring me to justice, so we simply cannot stay in one place for more than a few months. ISIL would be hunting for its top agent as well. I would be disguising myself differently for every place, of course. But feel not an iota of distress for the future, my son. Having worked with a terrorist organization and having evaded endless odd investigative and police agencies in the past, I can state with experience that we won’t be caught, ever. If at all we are, Ayizah and you could simply say that you have been my hostages all this while; I will only second this claim during interrogation.” Khurshid lowered his voice, and leaned forward to murmur in Ab’s ear. “I loved your mother, Abraham, so much so that I damned my god for her. So, when I say that I will not let any harm or woe befall my children, out of a devotion to my Adriel…” his voice fell to a whisper that completely shrouded Ab’s senses, “know that not even the gods can protect and love you with more might and heart than me.”
His gaze turned distant, a deep ocean of cobalt intelligence, and Ab heard every word enunciated softly. “But I still sit at the table, my lord, and across from me, shrouded in shadow, I see you, too, silently daring me to leave my place. Just you and me, as it has always been, and as I fear, it always will be. I cannot discern your emotion, lord. Is rage what you feel? Discredited by your servant? Do you lament that absolute power of their faith that you lost to me, a faith that I have bled? You bled somebody, too, do you remember? Yours is an honestly indisputable doctrine of love, compassion and justice- all three of which you chose to deny her in order to watch my naked soul being ripped apart and writhe in agony, the agony of your justice. She never wronged you. She turned to pray at your feet in place of her Christ. We both lost something, lord...I wonder who shall judge us fair and just? Inshallah, I shall see you in some time, as all men do, and there in the centre of your gilded palace, perhaps we shall grapple and settle scores for all eternity. Abraham, my son, human blood is irrevocably my crimson sin, for no other blood will fill the goblet of Adriel’s justice like the blood of my lord. And then, we shall drink together; me, you and little Ayizah.”
Ab could not tell why, but he was saddened to note the indelible psychological impact that the prolonged period of senseless terrorism had left on Khurshid. He was only seventeen but years of living alone with an infant had made him grow and perceive in ways that he himself did not fully understand yet. And he had grown enough to be certain that the Bleeder had degraded- mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Abraham considered the man before him, the man who had been an artist, and gazed deep into the cool blue of his eyes. It was a man who had forsaken his little children and burned his kind wife in flames of icy disregard, who had disintegrated Ab’s memories of childhood almost completely, who was cursed across the globe, who had committed horrific crimes and had distorted his people’s and Islam’s true identity in the world’s eyes for the purpose of a lover’s devotion. It was the Bleeder.
And then, Ab’s attention fell on the feel of the hand resting on his cheek. It was a firm hand, the hand of a guardian, of a fervent lover. A hand of great grief, burden and keen remorse. It was the hand of a father’s guilt and more, of a father’s promise. A father, Ab thought. After the past seventeen years, the thought sat strange; threatening, even.
If this was a story, what would a hero do? The question sliced through Ab’s mind without explanation.
Am I the son who is heartlessly disparaging the countless innocent families that lost their loved ones by redeeming the man responsible and welcoming him back with warmth and acceptance?
Am I the hero? Or are the fables with heroes merely uplifting lies told to the despairing and hurting in a world where we are all sinners?
Ab pictured the glee on the face of his sister when she would come to know that their father had returned, and his mother’s soul when she would see the sky finally with his stars. Ab was not at all surprised to see her standing beside where Khurshid sat, dressed in a flowing but simple white dress.
Would it still be as dark a sin if you are in love, the worthiest of all emotions? As the thought unfurled quietly in his mind, Ab knew his heart had sighed within him.
Never breaking eye contact with Adriel, in a whisper that matched Khurshid’s, Ab said, “It would be good to have a parent with whom I can spend times that I’ll remember, for a change...father,” he kissed the warm hand resting on his cheek.
“I will fix him. I promise.” He breathed into the cool one on his other cheek.
Her twinkling gaze finally landed on Khurshid. A serene smile spread slowly on her face, touching her eyes with celestial grace. She sighed with closed eyes and started to melt into thin air to rest at last in peace that had long been denied her. Just before her face vanished, Ab thought she nodded to him. Or maybe, it was all just the shock of the morning playing tricks on his eyes.
Son and father exited Al Halaq together to merge with the vibrant river of celebrating people in the street outside.