This is the second part of Zireaux’s story, “The Importance of Breast Milk.” Part I appeared on Tuesday, November 16. You can read Part I here.
All rights reserved under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
The Importance of Breast Milk (Part II)
“So, is it true?”
“Is what true, sir?” asks Mukhul.
“You act as if you don’t know what you’ve done.”
“I’m afraid I don’t, sir.”
“My counterpart at DUFFI says you were just in his office discussing a story with him.”
“In other words, you’ve produced a story without first getting permission from us.”
“Well, I haven’t produced anything yet, sir.”
“You haven’t produced anything yet?”
“I had just mentioned a possible title — ”
“Then what’s all this?”
“What’s all what, sir?”
Mukhul looks around in the circular radius which the SALTY director’s hand directs him. Wisps of cigarette smoke. A gecko curled crescent-like on a wall. Three clean-shaven yUCkys like himself, playing cards.
Something strikes Mukhul then — literally, his own hand across his own face, which offers something equally striking in return: a faint but unmistakable suggestion of whiskers.
Once upon a time there was a man who went to work without shaving, thinks Mukhul. And his name — he was starting to tremble now — his name, oh God, was Mukhul.
“I — I don’t know how — ”
The Director directs a direly directive hand toward Mukhul’s belly-button which protrudes through a gap between the buttons of Mukhul’s over-extended shirt.
“Some money for some advice,” says the Director.
Mukhul withdraws two crumpled bills from his coin-purse and places them in the Director’s hand.
“You’re going to skip now.”
Mukhul, standing, starts to skip.
“No. Solitary Confinement and Inhumane Punishment. Listen to me. Do exactly what they say. Do not try to resist. Got it? Now, before you go, here — some tea.”
They drink their tea in silence. All of them. Mukhul and the Director. The card players. The unarmed guard who had escorted Mukhul in. Even the rifle-bearing one, who, in a moment, will haul him away.
* * *
There are only two kinds of stories in this world, Mukhal often thinks during the many miserable years he’s spent alone in his prison cell. There are make-believe stories, fictional stories, the kind of stories told to us by fellow human beings, stories which are invariably tainted, meddled with, distorted, polluted by their authors. And then, secondly, there are what might be called real stories, or natural stories; that is, stories untouched, unaltered, delivered to us straight from the universe itself.
Years later, in prison, she is the first foreign woman Mukhul has ever met. A watery-eyed, fair-skinned lady in dirty sandals and a faded yellow dress, she says she comes from an organization called WAR. She tells Mukhul that she is determined to secure his release from prison.
She leans forward, clutching his hand. “I know how difficult this must be for you,” she says. “So many years in solitary confinement can break a writer’s spirit. But unfortunately, believe me, your situation is quite common in countries and cultures such as this. Some governments fear creativity, you see. We have a lengthy registry of such cases at Writers Against Repression. Torture. Assassination. Seen it all. Writers of genius like yourself can cause instability, which can lead to — ”
Mukhul’s teacup shatters on the floor. He tells the lady from WAR the same story he always tells: that he isn’t a writer, that he’s a mere yUCky, a Unit Clerk, a man of eight words or less — “oh dear, just look at me now, babbling on” — a simple, harmless, unmarried Unit Clerk who, by not shaving, somehow managed to mix himself up in an imaginary story about a man who goes to work without shaving.
But the story — he laughs, and then, surprised by his laughter, laughs some more — the story doesn’t exist. He never wrote it. He never got permission to write it; although he recently related his version of events to his brother-in-law, who works at the Bureau of Maternal Propaganda (BUMP). But BUMP only publishes pregnancy guides, pamphlets promoting the benefits of breast milk, that sort of thing. They’d never publish a story about a man who goes to work without shaving.
“Quick,” says the woman from WAR, handing Mukhul a small scrap of paper as the guards approach to escort her away. “Your mother asked me to give you this.”
He opens the note. In the last flicker of candlelight from the hallway, just before the door to his cell is closed, he reads the following words:
Come home, my love. Probhani has agreed to marry
that Khalanghiri boy at PIMP.
Every day crying.
P.S. Tell warden less rice, more fruit. Rice will constipate you.
* * *
So many endings I’ve written for this story (I’ve been told to keep it short). Sometimes Mukhul dies in prison. Sometimes he’s rescued by WAR. Sometimes he fantasizes about his own escape – and his marriage to his beloved and beautiful Probhani – and in so imagining the events, he causes them to occur.
Of course, were this a real story, a story delivered straight from the universe, I’d need to tell it differently. For one thing, reader, I could never introduce you to Probhani in the flesh. I could never let you gaze into her dark green eyes, or see her trembling lips, or hear her thoughts (lyrical, song-like) as she sits on the bamboo swing in her bedroom brushing her long black hair, or reading the latest letter from her cousin who, by the way, is a very good friend of Mukhul’s brother-in-law at BUMP.
Nor could I ever let you visit her bedroom, witness the needlepoint peacock that covers her vanity table, open the little carved soapstone box in which she keeps a pair of gold earrings that once belonged to her great grandmother, a petal from a lotus blossom she plucked in her childhood village, and a small glossy black-and-white picture — salvaged and carefully cut from a discarded book-jacket — of her favourite poet (a once famous but now neglected writer named Zireaux).
Instead, I’d need to take you straight to my local library in Auckland, to a table covered with wine glasses, crispy little dumplings, fish-sticks arranged in neat floral designs. Palm trees through one window, an island volcano through another. The occasion? One of the venues for an annual literary festival – the place where I first met Mukhul’s mother in 1998.
“Have you been to the top of the Sky Tower?” I would recall myself asking the distracted woman. “Did you like the Harbour Bridge? Have you seen the boats along the Viaduct Basin?” — but here, in the library, amongst the people gathered for the literary festival, Mukhul’s mother wouldn’t seem to understand my questions. She’d carefully inspect the finger food.
“You must be very proud of your son,” one of the organizers of the event, a woman named Emilia Boyle, would say. “He’s such an inspiration. When did you first know that he’d become a great writer?”
Mukhul’s mother would need to look at her son, who is holding a serviette pimpled with crumbs and an empty plastic wine glass, while, at the same time, fiddling with the nozzle of a hot water tank, trying to pour some tea. A great writer? The serviette is oily. Bad for his stomach. The water will burn him. He’s got stains on his tie.
A few minutes earlier, I’d need to explain to you, reader (were this a real story), her son had stood in front of the audience and said his usual eight words: “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m here.” He had then proceeded to read a 19-word poem entitled “Prison,” a 22-word poem entitled “Close Shave,” and a 15-word poem entitled “Grandmother’s Earrings.” He had then sat down beside his beautiful wife; and that was enough. For that the audience had applauded.
For that, they’d always call him “great.”
I’d need to tell you, reader, that I doubt Mukhul’s mother has ever read any great writers, but maybe somewhere she’s seen a picture of one — Tolstoy or Tagore, or maybe Melville or Whitman, or even Rushdie — because, in a real story, she would have responded to Ms. Emilia Boyle’s question with the following observation:
“The hair,” she would have said, searching her limited English for the right word. “The — the beard. That’s when I knew. All the great writers. They all have beards.”