Sometimes, When the Light Strikes
ILLUSTRATION BY KSENIA SPIZHEVAYA
THE WINDOWS at Alina’s uncle’s house curved inward, and pools of light collected in strange shapes on the wooden floor. If she tilted her head and squinted, the shadows looked like a hive of angry bees. “Look,” she told her cousin, “it’s kind of like bees.” He examined the illuminated edges carefully. “The ratios are all off. Maybe if the bees were all, like, two feet tall.” She nodded, re-tracing the light with her finger. “Monster bees,” she said earnestly. He laughed, slightly. “This is like the world's most fucked up Rorschach test.” He pronounced ‘Rorschach’ with an odd emphasis on the last syllable, spitting out the word like a bone that had caught in his throat.
Faizan reached across from her to shut another box, carefully snipping off the edge of the tape with a pair of ridiculously tiny scissors. The room was almost empty now, of the collection of musty old books, the strange knick knacks, the pictures of her uncle and aunt stiff and upright on their wedding day. The cupboard full of decorative plates had been emptied, and the floral carpet rolled up and stuffed into the corner of the room. There was just some furniture left – a fat old armchair, looking like a drooping elderly gentleman, stately and exhausted in the corner. A glass-topped coffee table, smudged with a thousand fingerprints, dark brown legs just slightly unsteady. And the sofa.
She had been avoiding looking at the sofa. There was a damp spot on the left cushion, still, from where her uncle had died on it one week ago, while reading the morning paper. He had pissed himself. His nurse hadn’t told her this explicitly, when she had called to inform Alina of his passing. But she did say that his clothes were soiled. And she suggested that the family have the sofa dry-cleaned if they were going to sell it. Corpses often piss or shit themselves – the animating spirit leaving the body to its own disgusting devices. Maybe, Alina mused, it wasn’t disgusting – maybe it was beautiful, the way the body let go of shame, leaving an inheritance of mess and fluid.
Faizan caught Alina’s vacant stare, his eyes clouded still with the grief of losing a father, which was a little bit like a loss of faith, or gravity. A boy needs a father, Alina had read somewhere, to learn how to be a man. In that moment, Faizan seemed achingly young, limbs still unsteady from a late growth spurt, gangly and seventeen and now, brutally, irrevocably unmanned.
“Alina,” he said to her, softly, voice trailing off into nothing. “I know,” she replied, echoing his softness. “Go downstairs. Have a cigarette break – don’t look at me like that, I know you have a pack somewhere, you’ve been coming home smelling like the Marlboro Man since you were 14.”
He winced sheepishly, producing a nearly-empty pack of cigarettes from his pocket with a weak flourish.
“Go on, then,” she said, pushing him toward the stairs. “I’ll be here.” He walked downstairs, dazed, fishing out a green plastic lighter with a desperate urgency.
She let out a breath once she was alone – letting her body slump over, losing the corporate stiffness of being The Adult in the room. She hated having Faizan here, packing up his father’s things with an economy of sentiment, deciding which objects qualified as a legacy and which must be donated, thrown away, resigned to the ash-heap of the past. It felt like asking him to dig a million little graves. But her mother had insisted that sorting through Uncle Mohsin’s possessions would be ‘closure,’ that Faizan needed to process his grief in a healthy way, that materialising pain helped organise it into manageable chunks. “Ma,” Alina said, exasperated, “I don’t think we can help Faizan through this with Inspirational Facebook Quotes.” “No need to be dismissive, young lady. I spoke to Dr. Qadir about it and he agreed with me.” “Ma – Dr. Qadir is a podiatrist!” At this, Alina’s mother lost her patience, getting up in a huff, “So what? He went to Harvard, you know.” Alina tried very hard not to roll her eyes, and when she received no congratulations for this valiant attempt, went ahead and rolled them anyway. “Faizan needs to become a man,” Alina’s mother added, on her way out the door, stopping to adjust the bouquet of flowers they had gotten to brighten up the room for visitors bearing condolences. “He has to take responsibility. He doesn’t have anyone left to do it for him.”
Her mother had left the room before the words bubbling up in Alina’s chest managed to make it past her teeth, which was good. She would have just laughed if Alina had said what she wanted to - a pathetic, too small, offering - “He has me!” Faizan’s mother, Alina had heard a few times, in hushed tones, at family gatherings, was a nutjob. She sacrificed one black sheep every week, from the time Faizan was born, until she died six years later, to protect him from the evil eye. Uncle Mohsin hadn’t kept up the tradition, to the best of her knowledge. Alina imagined what it was like – to love someone enough to be entirely illogical, to remove yourself from anything resembling sanity and fall back on folklore and pools of blood in the fields. She imagined what it was like to be loved like that, and have it snatched away from you before you could even ever notice it was there. Faizan was moving in with his maternal aunt and uncle, a childless couple who had a strong sense of a duty and a house that always smelled vaguely of fish. Alina’s parents had offered to take him in, but they lived too far from Faizan’s school, and they already had four kids to worry about, and Alina suspected Faizan knew that her mother said cruel and honest things about his dead parents behind their backs.
But his maternal relatives were, frankly, also nutjobs – it must have been a trait that ran in families. They refused to step into a house where death had come so recently until it had been purified by a mystic, carob and sage burned, prayers recited. So Alina had offered to pack it up. And her mother had insisted Faizan accompany her. Now, Alina found herself here, nostrils filled with the scent of bleach and rot, condoning (encouraging?) teenage smoking, and fumbling to bite off tangled-up tape because Faizan had taken the too-tiny scissors downstairs with him. “What do you think?” Alina said, eyes turned upward, half-hearted and bitterly amused, imagining Uncle Mohsin looking disapprovingly downward, halo quivering with indignation. “You always had an opinion on everything, fucking bastard.” She turned back to the shelf she was clearing, vision suddenly blurred, and grasped for a dragon figurine with trembling hands. It was made of pure jade, a wedding gift to Uncle Mohsin from his in-laws. Alina remembered the day she had bullied Faizan into taking it off the shelf, to use in one of their imaginary games – “We need a dragon, all fairy tales have dragons, don’t you know anything?” Faizan had seemed unimpressed by her logic, all of five years old and more interested in trains and boogers than playing princess with his eight-year old cousin. “I know lots,” he said, “more than you.”
Even at eight — or perhaps, especially at eight — Alina was adept at getting what she wanted. The soft cruelty of girlhood, like the edge of a high heel digging into the skin above her ankle, made her say: “You’re just a scaredy-cat.” Faizan puffed up at that, pushing his chest out, a machismo so feigned and out of place on his little body that Alina felt a sudden, deep vertigo. He had stolen the dragon, like Alina knew he would, and insisted on playing the evil overlord to Alina’s damsel in distress. Back then, it had been just another day, just another game, interrupted by juice and sliced fruit appearing in front of them, placed by an invisible, adult hand. Faizan was whisked off for an afternoon nap, howling all the while at the unfairness of Alina being allowed to stay awake. But now – well, now Alina remembered how Faizan’s lip had quivered when she accused him of cowardice. She remembered the intense, animal panic in his eyes when the dragon had almost slipped from her grasp, during an especially intense scene involving a runaway prince.
“I’m bored. Let’s watch T.V,” he’d said, after the near-miss. Alina hadn’t known, then, the significance of this shift in register, but she knew that there was a reason she hadn’t picked up the dragon herself. She knew that, despite calling Faizan a scaredy-cat, she was the one who was little, and afraid, in that house, shivering sometimes for no reason, like a creature left out in the cold. “Ok,” Alina had said, “You pick.” That had been, for as long as she could remember, all that she could give him – a quiet, awkward generosity that was foreign to her, and unnoticeable to him. She remembered, distantly, holding Faizan as a baby. She had been entranced by the scrunch of his little nose, the soft wrinkle of his fat hands. The night-nurse who looked after Faizan had warned her not to grip too hard, “He’s very sensitive.” The memory unspooled, faded around the edges, circling around her mind and knotting itself up – she had never unlearned the gentleness of that first touch. Alina recognised that she was, perhaps, not a very good person and she tried very hard not to care. She made sarcastic, biting comments to her mother, and never had time for anyone else’s emotions, had far too much determination and a deficit of empathy. But something about Faizan’s tiny waving fists, stuttering with the shock of a body that wasn’t yet aware of itself, had earned an exception - she would always be good to him.
Uncle Mohsin, she suspected, didn’t have that guiding first principle. He was a terrible father, and he would be an even worse ghost, haunting Faizan forever now with the unsaid, unexpressed, unloving truth. She wished he had lived longer – just so Faizan had enough time to hate him before he left. Losing the love of a father seemed somehow easier than losing the unrealised potential of the love of a father. Uncle Mohsin had been fond of Alina – had walked in on her yelling at her mother once, infuriated about something small and insignificant, and laughed himself hoarse. It was fitting, Alina thought, wrapping the jade dragon tightly in bubble wrap, that Uncle Mohsin would identify with and love the parts of herself she truly hated. He had this uncanny ability to bring out the darkest versions of people, like some kind of wizard or terrible political podcast host. “Ha. I used this thing as an ashtray once,” Faizan said, appearing suddenly at the door, watching Alina put away the dragon with a hollowness ringing through his voice. Her eyes flickered up to his, shocked. “And Uncle Mohsin didn’t eviscerate you?” she asked, only half-joking. “Nah,” he said, ambling into the room, the smell of smoke clinging to his clothes, “he never caught me. I got good at hiding shit.”
She looked at him then with fresh eyes. His brown hair flopped over his forehead like a tired tourist on a convenient bench, and his shoulders had the awkward half-width of a growing boy. The autumn sun reflected off his glasses, and his nose was reddened slightly from the cold. “Where’s your jacket?” she said absent-mindedly, staring at him, trying to spot his secret lives, as if they would suddenly appear if she looked hard enough, or lovingly enough, a cloud shifting, a curtain rising. “It’s 15 degrees, I don’t need a jacket,” he said, rolling his eyes and grabbing the tape from her hand, brandishing the tiny scissors with an absurd solemnity, like Godzilla holding a teacup. “Your nose is all red, you always get sick when the weather’s changing. Wait, I’ll go grab one of Uncle Mohsin’s old ones from downstairs.”
“I don’t want one of his jackets! Leave it alone,” he snapped. Alina flinched at his tone, but rallied - no matter how deep his voice got, or how seamlessly the aggression of manhood settled into his voice, she had seen him in diapers. That, she thought, gave her an unshakable power over him - there were men, and then there were boys, who were now bigger, taller, no longer fitting in a lap but still essentially harmless. Faizan was, she reasoned, just a big boy. “It’ll take me two minutes, I’ll just pop into his room and–” “I said leave it the fuck alone!” he thundered, throwing his hands up in frustration, catching the edge of the box with the gesture. They both watched, as the jade dragon fell onto the carpet with a teetering force so vicious that even the bubble-wrap was helpless – it shattered. Faizan stared at the pieces on the floor with a dawning horror. “I didn’t…I wasn’t trying to…I mean I don’t,” he paused, frustrated. “I’m not cold,” he finished lamely.
Alina watched, unspeaking, as Faizan turned and walked down the stairs, hands shoved into his pockets, head tilted downward. The room seemed to layer over itself, the past blurring with stunning velocity into the present, Uncle Mohsin was standing in the corner pale-faced and angry, his voice echoing through his sons’. Time, Alina knew, was the fourth dimension – and fear was a dimensionless thing, a permanent shadow etched into the floors of this house, always there, no matter the light. “I know lots,” Faizan had said, once, little and fragile, his spirit barely contained in his body yet, his soul still leaking out of his ears, “more than you.” His father had said the same, thought the same, lots and lots, abundance and gravitas, and Alina – left with nothing, knowing nothing, play-acting at adulthood like she once play-acted fairy tales.
She worked, for the next hour, until her eyes burned with fatigue. The chill in the air was pricking at her bared fingers, her hands turning pale and then a soft dusky pink as her circulation second-guessed itself. She felt vicious and exhausted, as the nakedness of the living room grew more pronounced, until it was as bare as a newborn, or a corpse. She had seen Uncle Mohsin’s body, before it was buried, covered in a wh sheet, his skin waxy and his hair somehow still electric, alive, moving slightly with the wind, like it had forgotten its own mortality. The room reminded her of the funeral, alive in surprising and stifled ways. But mostly gone. She ran her hand across the wall, almost expecting it to be coated in dust. The sound of steps making their way upstairs disturbed her from her half-hearted mourning, a shuffling sound, the scratchy hesitation of sneakers dragging on wood. Faizan emerged in the doorway, wearing Uncle Mohsin’s moth-bitten navy cardigan, awkwardly balancing a broom and a dustpan in his arms.
“Can you hold this while I sweep up the broken bits,” he said, thrusting the dustpan out toward Alina, like a benediction. She couldn’t help but smile at him.
“You look so grown up in that cardigan,” she said to him, grabbing both the broom and the dustpan from him and banishing him to the corner. “I can help,” he said, frowning, scuffing his shoes on the bare floor, looking around the room like a hunted thing. “Don’t be silly. That’s what I’m here for,” she said. He scoffed at that, “You’re here to help me pack dad’s things. Not to clean up my mess.” Alina looked at him like he was an idiot, because he was one, in this if nothing else.
“What do you think family is, dumbo? I’m always here to clean up your fucking mess.” Faizan laughed at that, and perched on the windowsill. “Remember when,” he started, and went off on a tangent about a childhood caper. Alina listened and nodded, and interjected with her own commentary. They sat there, surrounded by the strangely antiseptic quality of loss, the firm undoing of a life, and lapsed back into childhood.
Outside the window, the sun was being dragged kicking and screaming over the horizon, petulantly lighting the sky up in shades of orange and gold. The moon hovered polite and pale, waiting for permission to emerge fully. The final tinges of light caught on the shards of broken jade, and the floor seemed to expand a little bit, became an amphitheater for the flickering figures of dusk. The sound of laughter bounced around the room, and neither Alina nor Faizan thought to examine the floors for insects or actors or ghosts before darkness finally fell.
The title of this story has been taken from ‘Sometimes, When the Light’ by Lisel Mueller
Raniya Hosain won the 2020 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for women. You can find her on Instagram @raniya.hosain where she posts her writing and very strong opinions about literature.