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The Silent Tune
Gathered around in a circle, my brother and I sat cross-legged on our parent’s bed, my father before us with his head propped up against his pillow. His long legs were stretched to their fullest length, his heels just barely dangling off the edge. He was drinking his nightly cup of herbal tea, steam flying off the surface as it sat on the table beside him. Eagerly, my older brother shook my father’s arm.
“Papa, tell us a story!”
“Story, Papa, story!” I chimed in, my arms clutching one of his legs, head resting on his knee as I stared up at him with pleading eyes. He frowned and shook his head, lifting his cup to his lips to take a sip. Over the edge of the cup he said,
“Why, Papa? You always do.” I whimpered, forcing tears to creep up along the edges of my eyes, ready to make them fall down my cheeks if I had to.
“You won’t like tonight’s story. It’s too scary for you, dear.” He said softly, running his hand over my head.
“Nothing’s scary for me! I’ll beat up all the monsters in the story, I promise!” my brother exclaimed, jumping up with his chest puffed out and his fist outstretched as he stood in a goofy kung-fu pose. My father chuckled as he stretched out a hand to playfully squeeze my brother’s nose.
“Ah, of course, you’re the strongest man in the world! How did I forget that?” my father said in an exaggerated tone that made me giggle.
“Alright you two. Just this once.” He said with a small sigh and smile.
I crawled up closer to him, fitting myself into the crook of his shoulder. He draped his arm over me protectively and pulled me closer. My brother followed suit, not wanting to be left out of the fun, and claimed my father’s other shoulder for his own. Once we were all settled, he began his tale:
When my father was still living in his rural town in the Pakistani countryside, he had a young cousin named Ansari. Ansari was rambunctious as a child, always managing to find trouble and didn’t change a bit as he grew up. He and my father were great friends, always going off on adventures to see new things and explore their small town.
They had a designated meeting place at the town’s railroad junction, a few roads down from both of their homes. Everyday at 11am sharp, they’d meet at the junction and walk along the train tracks as they mapped out their plans for the day.
During late August of my father’s thirteenth year, he and Ansari had made plans to meet at their usual spot, one last adventure before Ansari and his family moved to India for his education. Ansari, who was always too cocky for his own good, always managed to tick off an upperclassman or two during his school days and ended ip getting into fights.
At one point, things got so bad the principal threatened to expel Ansari if he didn’t stop. His parents had already grown weary of the countless warnings and scolding’s they received from the school, and decided that Ansari was better off elsewhere. Somewhere he can start fresh. So his admission into a Calcutta preparatory school was finalized and his house was put up for sale. Their meeting was a week before the move and they’d both been excited to be up to their old tricks again.
But the morning of, my grandmother woke my father earlier than usual to run some errands for her and shortly after he returned he fell asleep, assuming he’d be able to get up by 11am. He ended up sleeping til 5, waking up with a start when he realized how late he was. In a rush he ran out of the house and towards the railroad junction, hoping Ansari wasn’t too angry with him. But when he arrived at the junction, it was deserted.
Guessing Ansari had already went home, my father visited his aunt and uncle, Ansari’s parents. Upon asking for Ansari, his mother answered saying that Ansari had been out since morning, and that he said he’d be with my father. At that moment, my father felt in his gut that something had gone terribly wrong.
He, his uncle, and my grandfather all went out in search of Ansari but to no avail. At dawn, after hours of searching, they contacted the police. Days of intense investigation spread out like an eternity for my father, came up blank and by the third week the police told my father and his family to give up, and that simply praying would help him now.
The evening the police officers announced the end of the investigation, my father had gone out for a walk, his mind blank as his feet carried him wherever they wished. When he finally came to a halt, he realized he’d reached the railroad junction.
The sun had already begun to set and my father turned back to return home when he heard footsteps in the distance. Along the tracks he saw Ansari, pacing back and forth casually, a faint smile on his face as he whistled a familiar tune. My father couldn’t believe his eyes; Ansari was right in front of him, alive and well. Frantically, my father called out for him, walking towards where he stood. He’d only made it halfway when he turned to the tongs of bells, indicating an incoming train.
My father looked back at Ansari, who continued pacing, completely unaware of the approaching train. My father called out even more, his voice growing hoarse. With each second the rumbling of the train grew stronger and closer, until the pebbles beneath my fathers feet began to quake in its coming presence. Still, Ansari did not respond. My father broke out in a run, trying to reach Ansari as the train rushed down the tracks, straight towards Ansari. With all his might, my father yelled out for Ansari and finally, he looked up.
Slowly, Ansari turned towards my father, his eyes wide in fear, his mouth opening to speak when his figure disappeared, erased from view by the passing train. My father screamed for the longest time, his voice muffled by the train’s shrieking whistle. Finally it passed and my father ran up the tracks, tears in his eyes, to where Ansari had stood, fearing the worst. But when he reached the tracks he stopped.
Standing in the exact spot when he’d last seen Ansari, he saw nothing. No body. No blood. Not a single trace of anyone having been there. Dazed, my father stumbled back home and told of what he’d seen, but the police found nothing as well. It was all in my father’s head, they said, him failing to cope with the loss. But to this day, my father can still remember the tune Ansari had been whistling, from the note he had started with, to the last one he ever heard.
* * *
That night had been 13 years ago, though I remember it clearly. The way my father’s face hardened as he told the story, the wetness of his eyes as he uttered his lost cousin’s name. I hadn’t thought much of it until recently, while I was finishing packing. And now, on the plane to Karachi, I realize the small detail I had overlooked.
That tomorrow is Uncle Ansari’s death anniversary and that it’s the same date as when my father told my brother and I the story. My father’s hesitance to retell that incident wasn’t because it was too scary for us. But it was too painful for him to relive.
This year, my father wished to go back to Pakistan and visit the cemetery with his family, pay his respects at a tombstone placed over an empty grave, as they’d never found Uncle Ansari’s body. It was only my parents and I going on this trip, my brother opting to watch the house as he continued his part-time law internship while off from college. I’d just tagged along because there was nothing to do at home anyways. Though I’m sure Pakistan won’t be any more entertaining.
The arrival and trip to my father’s old home went by in a blur, my mind hazy from jetlag and unable to comprehend a thing. All I could remember was walking in the airport and then suddenly waking up in a foreign bed, forehead slick with sweat. Still drowsy, I peel myself off the damp, clinging sheets and peer out the window beside me. It was early evening, around 5 o’clock with the sun beginning to make its descent, as the sounds of the bustling streets waft up from below to me ears. A knock on the door alerts me of my mother’s arrival with a cup of tea and some toast.
“You’re up, good. Now eat this and get changed. Your father won’t be back for another hour.” She said, placing the food on a small table in the corner before walking through the door once more.
With a bored sigh, I walk over to the bathroom to wash up and change. Tea in one hand, toast in another, I resettle myself by the window, continuing to stare out the window.
A lot has changed about this place. From the stories my father used to tell, he lived in a town so closely knit and casual that parents let their children roam free in the streets because no one feared one another.
Life was simple, everyone owned their own animals and children would wake up early in the day to help out in their parent’s fields. My father used to boast about all the tall coconut and mango trees that lined the dirt roads, ones that bore the sweetest fruit and were great challenges to climb.
The times he spent in his youth were ones I was envious of and admired, his memories drenched in golden light and happiness that I feel my own lacked. But what’s become of my father’s place of birth and the topic of my childish admiration is quite lack-luster.
Every possible piece of land had a larger apartment complex built on it, dull gray cement structures with dusty surfaces from the dirt cars below kick up. There was barely any space to walk anymore, street vendors lined up at every corner yelling out their wares and older women haggled persistently for goods. Everything was loud and hot, the air thick with the scent of gasoline and rotting sewage. Not a trace of the warm and peaceful days my father and his cousin had lived their lives in.
Once I finished my meal, I headed downstairs to greet my great-aunt, Uncle Ansari’s mother, in whose house we were staying for the remainder of our trip. She was quite fit for her age, still standing tall and walking about with a youthful smile on her face. She seemed happy to greet me, hugging me so tight I thought my bones might crack.
“Ah my dear, haven’t you grown? A lovely young women is what you’re becoming.” She said lovingly as she strokes my head. I smile back in spite of my dreary mood.
“Thank you Auntie.” I replied politely, feeling a bit more at ease yet still awkward in my new environment.
“Why don’t you sit down and relax for a bit? Your mother and I are just finishing up dinner.” She said cheerily, leading me to the sofa before walking off back to the kitchen. I sit in silence for some time, starting to feel antsy from the lack of activity. If I were still at home, maybe I’d have gone for a jog by now, running through the local park that was a few blocks from our house. Just then my mother’s voice calls out for me. I quickly stand and walk over to the source of her voice, feeling grateful for some sort of activity.
“Dear, do you mind running down to the street vendor across the street? We need some fruit for the dessert.” My mother said, but my great-aunt interjected.
“No, no, don’t send her out like that! It’s too dangerous, she doesn’t know her way very well.” She said quickly, a hint of panic in her voice.
“Don’t worry Auntie! I’ll be just fine, I’ve gone on errand back home loads of times. Just give me the directions.” I said eagerly, not willing to give up a chance to get out of the house for a while. My auntie stares at me for a bit, her eyes still fearful until she lets out a reluctant sigh.
“Alright then. If you feel you can do it.” She said, and explained the road and turns I had to take. Once she was done, she handed me a few rupees and I headed out.
Boy, did it feel good to walk around. It only took me a few minutes to find the vendor and purchase the fruit, and out of boredom I ended up just taking a walk. I’m sure my aunt and mom wouldn’t mind if I was gone for 30 minutes. I’ll be back before sunset.
So I continue walking aimlessly, letting myself grow farther and farther away from the sounds of the streets. Eventually I came to my senses and realized I was in the outskirts of a field. I turn back and see only more fields, an eerie calm spreading over them. Yikes, that wasn’t what I planned. How could I have lost sight of the town so fast?
An uneasy feeling creeps up inside of me as I attempt to retrace my steps. But the fields were so vast, it seemed like there was no beginning to them, nor an end. As I slowly begin to panic, the tip of my shoe catches on something and in seconds I’m on the floor. With a grimace I sit up and discover what I’d tripped on. It was railroad tracks, with wild grass growing tall between the metal rods. Suddenly a thought comes to mind; my father said he lived near a railroad junction. Maybe if I follow these tracks, I’ll find my way back. It’s worth a shot.
I lift myself off the ground and dust off the dirt that clumped onto the bottom of my jeans. Taking a deep breath, I start off in the direction the tracks were leading me as I watched the sun creep lower and lower in the sky.
I had been walking for what seemed like hours in complete silence when suddenly, a high-pitched whistle broke out behind me. Startled I turn to find the source of the whistle and what I see is the front of a train. In a split second its piercing horn pounded through my ears and before I could let out a scream, before my heart could beat another second, everything disappeared.
My eyes burst open and I jump up gasping for air, running my hands all over to see if I was all in one piece. My heart was pounding in my chest as I regained my composure and looked around. I had been lying on the railroad tracks, unharmed. My head throbs as I attempt to remember what had happened, and slowly the memory of my trip, my walk in the fields, and the train all come back to me. How am I alive? How am I okay? Confused and unsure of myself, I stand up from my spot on the train tracks and look around. Strangely enough, things seemed different.
The long forgotten and unkept fields I had gotten lost in were now trimmed and proper. Shaking my head of such thoughts, I stagger down the tracks once more, my only focus being reaching the railroad junction and getting home. Finally, in the distance I see a small building situated right beside the tracks, a sign on its side indicating the railroad time table. Made it!
I rush forward, newfound energy running through at the prospect of being closer to home. I reach the front steps of the building and look up to see a young boy, of about 12 or 13 sitting on a bench alone, whistling to himself. He looks up at my approach and his eyes widen.
“What in the world…” he gasps, standing up to approach me. A pang of fear strikes me as he comes nearer, walking around me in circles, his expression full of confused wonder. Finally I break the silence and say in a slightly annoyed tone,
“I’d appreciate you not gawking at me like that.”
The boy jumps at the sound of my voice, as if realizing for the first time that I was a person. He grins sheepishly and says,
“Sorry about that, didn’t mean to be rude. You just looked a lot like my cousin, I almost thought you were him dressed like a girl!” He chuckled to himself, shaking his head. I furrow my brows, not quite understanding whether his comment should be taken as a compliment or not. Sensing my unease, he smiles brightly and announces in a proud voice,
“My name is Ansari by the way. Who are you?”
Wait. My eyes widen at the sound of my uncle’s name and a hand flies to my mouth. No way. It couldn’t be. No, impossible, Ansari is a common name. I shake my head and smile back uneasily.
“My name is Rabia.” I said with a small gulp, trying to keep myself composed. Ansari simply nods then heads back over to his seat.
“You can come sit too if you’d like.” He said, pointing his finger at the empty seat beside him. I slowly walk up the steps to the bench and sit down. I watch Ansari closely, as he swings his feet back and forth impatiently.
“Urgh, where could he be? It’s been hours and we were supposed to meet at 11. That idiot Rahim.” He said in frustration, shaking his head. My heart drops. Rahim is my father’s name. Suddenly two and two clicked and I came to the realization that this young boy was indeed Uncle Ansari. But that didn’t mean anything made any more sense. How could I be sitting with my long-lost uncle when all I see is a little kid? Lost in thought, I don’t realize Ansari get up to walk along the tracks. I jump up in shock.
“Ansari don’t go on the tracks, it’d dangerous!” I yell out to him, heart pounding as I recall the train that hit me. But Ansari simply looked up at me with a playful grin.
“Don’t worry Rabia. I’ve done this a million times. Besides, no trains come at this hour.” He said with a laugh and continued waltzing up and down the tracks, whistling happily to himself. I sit back down, the strange feeling in my gut still not disappearing. I look around for something to distract me and end up finding a bulletin board with a newspaper in it. I walk over to read it and when I see the date I stumble backwards. 1973. How the hell is it the exact day as my arrival in Pakistan, but in 1973?! I stand there staring at the paper for the longest time, trying to piece things together.
Okay, so I got hit by a train, and I wake up to find my dead uncle, alive and 12 years old, and in the year 1973. Yeah that makes total sense. That and me not being completely insane. So lost in my thoughts, it takes me a while to realize that I couldn’t hear whistling anymore. I turn back and venture out towards the tracks to look out, but no sign of Ansari.
Not a sound.
“Ansari where are you?” I call out, only to be answered by silence. Panic strikes and I rush out onto the tracks in search of him. I circle the building and see no sign of him. As I reach the front of the building once more, the clock overhead begins to ring, indicating a new hour. And the moment it does, a strong pressure encases my head, the pain so excruciating that I fall to my knees, hands clutching my head. I couldn’t make a sound, my throat closed off as if I was being strangled and I gasp for air. More pressure, more pain running through my body as my screams are muffled by unseen restraints. It continues endlessly until finally, the world turns dark.
I wake once more, my body splayed across railroad tracks far from civilization. I jump in panic. Ansari. Where could he be? I turn to and fro frantically, until realizing I wasn’t where I thought I was. What? I was just at the railroad junction looking for Ansari, what am I doing here? Eyebrows furrowed, I rise up from the floor and begin to make my way down the railroad tracks, my feet sensing some sort of familiarity to the path I was taking.
In minutes I’m facing the same building as before, the railroad junction. I run up to it, imagining Ansari seated on the bench with that playful grin of his. But when I reach the front steps, its deserted. Puzzled, I check around the building for him but to no avail. He wasn’t anywhere to be found. Dazed, I slump down into the bench and look around. My eyes circulate the room before falling on the bulletin board. The newspaper this time was different, a new headline plastered on top. I move towards it and read its date. 2012. I jump backwards. Oh my god. I’m back in my time. A smile creeps up my face as a wave of relief washes over me. Now I can go home!
But the relief dies out quickly when I begin to wonder about what has happened. Was that a dream? But how could I dream about someone I’ve never met? Besides, it felt so real…
My thoughts were cut short by the high-pitched sound of a person whistling. My heart jumps against my ribs.
I dash out of the building to the tracks in front of me, following the sound of the whistling. It was Ansari for sure, it’s the same tune!
I don’t know how long I had walked before I came to a stop. I look around and find myself half a mile down from the railroad junction, near a small creek. The whistling is right in my ears now, as if Ansari is standing right in front of me. But I’m alone.
I stand there, silently listening to the whistling when I feel a small push on my shoulder. I stumble and catch myself before falling into the creek. Breathing a sigh of relief, I stare down at my reflection in the thin stream of water, watching it ripple as the water passed. The more I stared the clearer the bottom of the creek became when suddenly, something was looking back at me.
I shriek, and fall backwards, kicking myself away from the creek in desperation.
It was a skull.
A human skull is buried at the bottom of that creek.
Heart racing, I scramble to me feet and back away from the creek. The whistling I had been hearing had stopped. Heart pounding I turn away and break out in a mad dash for the junction, not once trying to look back.
When I reach the junction, I fall down on the bench, out of breath. My hands were shaking as I stare down at them, my mind still unable to process what I’d seen. Out of nowhere, a hand clamps down on my shoulder and I scream, yanking myself away and turning to see where it’d come from. A elderly man, dressed in a conductor’s uniform, stared back at me with concern.
“Are you alright miss?” He inquired with a softness in his voice that put my heart to ease. I shake my head, unable to bring myself to speak. The man frowned and said,
“Are you lost?” I nod. The man smiles gently and beckons me forth.
“Don’t worry, dear. I have a telephone right here in the office you can use to call your family.” He said, and pointed at the doorway in the farthest end of the building, its door ajar. I shake my head once more.
“I-I don’t know the number, sir. I just came here, I’m staying with my aunt.” I said hesitantly, my voice cracking. The man furrowed his brows and pondered for a moment, his eyes on me.
“What is your father’s name?” he asked simply, still staring intently.
“Rahim.” I reply robotically as another pang of panic strikes me. Oh no. He’s probably back by now. He’ll be furious. I startle slightly at the sound of a chuckle. The conductor smiles and shakes his head.
“Should have guessed that much. You look just like him.” He said, as he walked towards the office and picked up the phone.
“You know my father?” I asked, moving towards the office doorway.
“Of course! He and his cousin Ansari used to come and play here all the time when they were younger. He said with a chuckle as he began dialing numbers on the phone.
“It’s a shame about Ansari though. The poor boy.” The conductor said, a tinge of sadness lining his voice as he spoke. I cringe at his statement as the previous events flash through my mind’s eye and a new feeling of fear creeps up inside of me.
“You know they never found his body, little Ansari. Some say he died around here.” He continued, holding the phone to his ear as he listens to the dial tone. My heart jumps into my throat as my thoughts come together.
It was Ansari’s.
I turn back to the path I had come from, looking off into the distance where I see the creek.
That’s where he died.
The conductor’s voice jolts my attention back to him.
“Well, I called your great-aunt. She’s been worried sick about you! Your father will be here any minute now to pick you up so sit tight.”
He said cheerily, and walked back over to his office. I sit back down on the bench and wait, letting my mind float away from me as the seconds tick by.
Soon the sound of a car honking catches my attention and I see my father pull up to the side of the junction in my great-aunt’s car. I call out a goodbye to the conductor, who’d popped his head out to wave hello to my father, and walk toward the car. My father looks at me, his expression unreadable.
“Come, sit down. You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.” He said, and gestured towards the passenger seat.
I continue to stand by the car, staring past my father and into the distance as I say,
“I can still hear him whistling, Papa.”