The postman walked to the end of the street. There were no signs of life in this house. Large and vacant windows stood dangerously poised and awfully dusty. They gazed at the postman like two sleepy eyes asking why they had been awoken from their dreams.
He walked up to the doorbell and pressed it twice. By the third ring, he was sure there was no one at home. His eyebrows furrowed as he, almost reluctantly, slid the bulging envelope through the gap between the metallic door and the outer wall of the house.
This was not the first time he had found residents of a house to be out of town. In recent years, houses were being abandoned and people were moving out, migrating and disappearing.
Still, letters came addressed to the inhabitants of the city. Their postal addresses were the only windows they had left open to their past lives. The increasing piles of unopened letters were the remnants of the life they had built in the city.
Before embarking on his bicycle for a trip to the next town, the postman cast one last look at the forlorn house. In his eyes, you could see the glimmer of a dying hope that glinted in the gaping windows, reflecting off the glass in the empty house like the rays of the setting sun.
In his first year of service at the Post Office, Belal was not sure if he would ever be tired of his job. He neither possessed an overdose of patriotism nor was he blinded by the security of the position itself. He was merely enchanted by the prospect of how much of a difference he could make in the lives of the people. Here he was, nineteen and in love with the grand ideals of the world, sorting out the mail that came knocking at the doors of his city.
“Belal, you’re working too hard for too small a job,” said Yusuf, the man to whom he directly reported.
“What happened to the ideals you taught me?” asked Belal amusedly, his fingers deftly applying glue to the marked edges of the familiar blue envelopes. Using his left hand, he traced the red letters on the front side. Khidmat. Diyanat. Amanat.
“They are right there as you point them out to be. That’s where they belong,” said Yusuf drumming at the desk. He could feel a fever coming and the city’s moody monsoon was the perfect soundtrack to his misery.
“So you’re saying they are far too precious to be put out there in the real world?”
“Just get done with the envelopes and go home,” said Yusuf.
Three of Belal’s fingers had gotten stuck together because of the excessive amounts of the glue he had removed from the white bottle with the blue cap. Motioning towards his fingers helplessly, Belal left the chamber.
It was only when he saw Belal’s retreating figure that Yusuf realised that he had forgotten something about this young man: he had no “home” to go to.
Years before the postman arrived, the house with the large windows was never quite admired for its large windows. Their largeness was almost hidden by the deep purple shades of the curtains that hung before them. A small, blithe face would peek out from the curtains each morning and, for rest of the day, inhabitants of the city would be enthralled by the antics of the child, just as they would be drawn by the aroma coming from the house.
“The child is attempting to kill itself,” said Bin Yameen, looking over his newspaper.
“Our child has a name,” snapped Mayako. She returned to replacing the ribbon of her typewriter.
“Alright then. Bell is attempting to kill himself. He’s standing too near the windows. They could fly open any moment now.” Bin Yameen refused to match his nonchalant tone with Mayako’s slightly annoyed one.
Mayako paced across the room, almost tripping over a wooden train set, and sat next to seven-year-old Belal. She cupped his face in her hands, looked straight into his inky black eyes, and smiled.
“What are you doing, meri jaan?” she asked the child.
“I’m looking at the sky. It is red today,” said Belal, staring at the sunset.
“What do you think it will be tomorrow, my love?” Mayako cleaned breadcrumbs from his face.
“Yellow!” Belal burst into a fit of giggles.
Mayako stiffened; never letting go of Belal’s hand, she turned off the television set. A special feature had been showing interviews from survivors of the atom bomb. Speaking now from the same country that had once bombed his own, a 68-year-old Japanese-American man recalled his teenage years in Hiroshima. It came suddenly, he said. It was like lightning, scribbling the sky with scrawls of yellow.
Those same yellow scrawls were the ones Mayako found in a painting she had made with her father. They’re a cancer, he had told her. He wanted them to take the painting away from his sight, and so she did. After her father’s funeral, people who came to share her sorrow and theirs asked her about the painting hanging on her wall. Did Bin Yameen paint this? Why doesn’t he do this for a living? Much more profitable than journalism, if you ask me. Mayako looked at the scrawls which stood out in the blood-red painting as if she was seeing them for the first time.
“This was a wedding gift from my father,” she’d lie each time.
Belal could still taste the tangy and metallic traces of blood in his mouth even though the place where his tongue was hurt had now stopped bleeding. His clothes smelled like death and his hands were covered in glittery, black dust that refused to be wiped off.
Dawn was breaking upon the hurt city. They were saying that it was a suicide bomb. Belal could see the cracks in the road and his first urge was to skip across them but something told him to stay away.
From somewhere in the rubble, he could hear his parents speak to him as if they were lying there. They were telling him a story and they took turns in doing so. It was like a poorly orchestrated version of a game played in complete darkness where no player could see any move being made. He would never get to ask them how the story ended or if it ended at all.
When his parents’ voices had died out, Belal focused his attention on identifying every other unfamiliar sound. He could hear the breaking of glass most clearly. He imagined what they might be clearing – trinkets, mirrors, dining tables, windows, light bulbs, perhaps some cutlery. There were ambulances screaming and bulldozers grumbling. He wanted to call out to his family and ask for one last story. But his voice had gone and his throat was dry.
Someone will clear out what is broken, he thought. Someone will take care of me too.
When the nurses tucked him into the last available hospital bed, Belal heard the call to prayer. He always loved the sound of each word of the azaan as it gently lapped over the otherwise harsh noises generated by the mosque’s loudspeakers. But it wasn’t the same voice he heard each morning as his parents got ready for work and he wasn’t happy to hear it.
Belal only felt a growing desire to wash off the filth that had caked his skin. If he could return home, he would not mind the long walk from his room to the sink. He would not mind waking up the rest of his siblings. But there was no way he could walk in those corridors again, nor could he ever splash water on his face and watch it slide down his cheeks to his lips where he would taste the sea in them.
“We’re going to have to tell him someday,” said Mayako, spelling out those dreaded words, which had been haunting her for years.
“Tell him what? That we picked him off the streets? That the only reason he’s part of our family is because we couldn’t have kids?” Bin Yameen removed his spectacles to reveal a set of tired eyes.
“You did not sound so bitter when you first said we would call him our son.” Mayako’s voice choked even though she hadn’t had the chance to make the grand speech she had prepared in the morning while brushing her teeth.
“What makes you think that he doesn’t already know? Look at us. I’m an Arab who still cannot get rid of the Palestinian in him. You’re Japanese, even to the very core of your thought processes,” said Bin Yameen.
“We need to tell him so that he doesn’t grow up thinking we lied to him. I’m not going to do to him what is being done to refugee children from our time,” said Mayako, resolution steeling her gaze.
“You’re lucky, Mayako, that you had someone who could lie to you about all the pain in the world. I didn’t have that. I want Bell to have that.” Bin Yameen picked up the multicoloured highlighters that had fallen from his desk.
“His name is Belal,” whispered Mayako. She looked through the windows across the family room and saw the city bustling outside their home. There were shades of anger in the streets of Karachi and people had been debating how best to end a war. Mayako placed her forehead on the cool glass of the window. She could hear the wind, traffic, and the family of a koel chirping on the ledge.
Bin Yameen rose and stood beside her. He held her hands in his own.
“If you think he is ready, I will not stop you. If I am needed, I will be there. If he wants to leave, I will help him find his place.” Bin Yameen planted a kiss on his wife’s forehead.
Mayako stood still by the windows, where the silken curtains covered her and hid her from both the outside world and the little world they had created in their home. She was in that place where a woman knows that she is alone, where no human can reach out to bandage her wounds and where the only hope of kindness rises from her heart to the heavens above.
Making no attempt to hide his panic, Radio Pakistan’s newscaster announced that the city was held hostage by those who claimed to have cut off its water supply.
“That’s so Gotham!” Nur turned up the volume of the radio. “Where will we find our Batman? All I see around here are poor imitations of the Joker.”
Belal looked over at his daughter and turned the dial back. The radio died out as immediately as it had begun.
“Give it a rest. This city is far too pained to hear your comic book references. It’ll throw back your pop culture and demand these poor imitations to send you back where you came from.” Belal exited the open road before them and turned into a narrower lane.
“Where I came from? Let’s not forget who is the outsider here!” Nur laughed.
“Your father has lived here long enough to be a citizen. Our country still doesn’t see him as one unfortunately,” Asiyah’s voice drifted from the backseat.
Belal stopped the car in front of a dimly lit house. He thought of Bin Yameen reading in the light coming from the windows, with newspapers spread out before him and a pen tucked away behind his ear.
“When we go in, what should I expect?” Nur asked with closed eyes.
Belal looked up from the steering wheel at the house with the large windows. He played with the pen-shaped sword embossed on his car keys. The sword glinted in the dark. What a strange and silly thing to carry around, he thought.
“Your grandparents will both have dinner ready and one of them will be writing,” Asiyah predicted.
“The other will be complaining about what he should be writing,” Belal said.
“What will they be writing about?” Nur asked, opening her eyes.
“The water supply. Possibly,” Belal said.
A security guard walked up to the streetlamp and switched it on. He blew on his whistle – a soft, low sound – and from the neighbouring street another whistle was heard.
“Don’t worry. It’s better than Gotham,” Asiyah smiled, gently easing Nur’s hand from out of the seatbelt and opening the car lock for her.
Their daughter stepped out of the minivan and raced to the doors of the house, wanting to be the first to ring the bell.
Belal looked at the cracked glass of his wristwatch. He needed to be back at the central post office if he was to clock in on the extra hours he had worked today.
“This batch came in from the capital and this has to be shipped to North America!” yelled a man behind the counter.
“Yusuf, I’m going back home, okay? Try to be specific next time around. North America comprises more than one country, you know,” Belal raised his voice so that Yusuf could hear him over the din of the traffic of letters and parcels.
“Oh just ship yourself to one of them, will you!” Yusuf scowled.
Belal chuckled and headed towards his bicycle. He had been using the public transport system for months but with the increasing rate and duration of traffic jams in the city, he just could not cope anymore.
“I think our city has more cars than people,” said Asiyah when Belal arrived home.
“Is this the environmentalist in you speaking up and sacrificing her need for a car?” asked Belal, biting into his paratha roll.
“You forget that your daughter cares more about climate change than either of us,” Asiyah nodded at Nur who was engrossed in the children’s section of the newspaper. Nur peeked from behind the newspaper and beamed at her mother.
Belal noticed the quiet exchange.
“Hey, I never said Nur would be the one driving. What’s her father here for?” He passed Nur a glass of water.
Nur grinned. “Everything!”
In the afterglow of the compliment, Belal began clearing the dinner table. Asiyah took the dishes from him and handed him his phone.
“Your phone was in the kitchen. Mayako called twice.”
Belal walked towards the doorway, hoping the call would go through. A popular cell phone service provider had installed a satellite near his home recently and ever since, his own cell phone services were being jammed. Our city has more cell phones than the people who can use them, thought Belal.
The call could not get through and he told Asiyah he’d go check on his parents.
“I’ll come home soon,” he said.
The windows were surprisingly closed when he reached. An uneasiness settled over Belal.
“Mama,” murmured Belal as a tall figure draped in a white chador welcomed him inside. “Is everything okay? We were worried.”
“You are here alone,” said Mayako, as if stating a fact.
“Yes, Asiyah and Nur are at home…” Belal looked at her with growing apprehension.
“Your father, Bin Yameen of the city of Jenin, passed away today. He was shot at, thrice. They were aiming for the heart and kept missing him until he fell because of the first two bullets. The last one achieved its goal,” said Mayako, still in the same matter of fact tone.
Belal crumpled like a paper doll. He had not seen this coming. He knew Bin Yameen was a journalist whose letterbox had a pile of threats delivered to him during and after each new story. But to have lost him, to have lost a father once again, did not make sense to him.
Belal was not their child. He did not possess Mayako’s stoic acceptance of the truth. Nor did he have Bin Yameen’s eloquence. He did not know what to say.
“I’m going to take you away from here, Mama,” whispered Belal.
“Where shall we go?” Mayako spoke as if they were discussing a weekend trip.
“I don’t know yet. I’m going to take you away. You can’t stay here. Whoever did this will hurt you too. They’ll find you and they’ll hurt you,” said Belal. He blubbered like he was a little child complaining about a gash on his hands except that the hands were not his own and the gash was a series of bullet wounds to his father’s chest.
“You have Nur to think of,” said Mayako, in a tone that suggested she had thought this conversation through.
“I do. I’m going to take her with us, if she wants to go. Asiyah always wanted us to travel. We won’t stay here,” said Belal.
“What about your post office?” asked Mayako.
“It’s not mine,” said Belal. “It belongs to the rest of the country too. They’ll look after it.”
“A letter came for Bin Yameen. When we had married and when we knew I could not bear children. It was the first of many letters,” Mayako spoke as though she had been transported to a different time.
“I don’t understand,” said Belal. “Please let me pack your things and take you away from this place.”
“The letter came and was pressed through the gap between the door and the outer wall of this very home we stand in. It was bulging and Bin Yameen always said that meant it came from home,” Mayako’s voice was getting stronger as she spoke.
“Home?” Belal did not know where this was going. “Who was writing to him?”
“Aida, his sister. All of her brief lifetime, that woman ran refugee camps,” said Mayako. “We told her about the miscarriages because she had always been so excited about being an aunt. Her work and her words made us consider adopting you. We had found a home in each other, we wanted to share it with you. It was her letters which brought us a little bit closer to getting to know you.”
Mayako traced their journey to places in Pakistan where those without families lived. The letters from adoption agencies kept coming to their home with the large windows. But it was the sight of Belal, fondly called Bell by the Refugee Agency, scampering about a shelter home in Karachi, which drew Mayako and Bin Yameen to this lost boy.
“We have had this conversation before, Mama. We are running out of time. They will come looking for the evidence and they can hurt you. There is no point in staying and waiting for them to come attack us,” said Belal.
“Letters are important, Belal. Your daughter knows this although she is only fifteen. She writes to those in Palestine, on both sides of the apartheid wall. Nur knows how important words are. She’s brave, Belal. She got that from you,” Mayako spoke as though she had not heard him.
“I don’t have to work at the post office to know all this.” Belal rubbed his eyes, which were now red with grief.
“But you did, and that’s why you chose it. You kept returning to the post office,” said Mayako. “You found Asiyah and you loved her but you still went to that dilapidated office just so you could keep earning honestly for your family.”
“Asiyah knew that with the qualifications I had – my status as a refugee – add to that the displacement from one city to the other, I would not have gotten a better job,” said Belal, wearied by the weight of the discussion.
“Asiyah loves you, so does Nur. They would want you to keep sending the messages through.” Mayako took Belal’s face in her hands, just as she did all those years ago.
“Why does this message not matter to you?” Belal looked at her with clear and honest eyes.
“The one where they killed your husband with three deliberate bullets.” Belal’s frown deepened.
“What does this message mean to you?” asked Mayako. Not a single crease line appeared on her forehead.
“That we have to leave.” Belal let the words sink in. “You especially. They won’t harm me just yet because they have to build a case against me.”
“Did you ever get around to reading the Batman comics I got you?” asked Mayako.
“Yes. Nur still has them.” Belal managed a small smile.
“Bin Yameen is like Batman for me, not because he is my hero but rather for the reasons why he kept fighting. He kept writing. He kept sending messages,” said Mayako. “He was my reminder that you can be more than a witness. You can be a messenger.”
“Mama, if you’re trying to romanticise the notion that my father died because he was a bearer of hope in these dark and difficult times, then you are doing a horrible job at it because right now, somewhere in this city, his body is rotting and blood is seeping out from his wounds.” Belal moved away from her.
“Those who killed him have removed his body and given it a burial,” said Mayako as plainly as if she were a newscaster. “I received a call from an unknown number asking me how I wanted him buried. I asked them if any of them knew the Muslim prayer of the funeral and surprisingly, a few of them did. It makes me wonder what they have gone through to know that at least.”
At this, Mayako drew the curtains with one last tug and proceeded to the kitchen, leaving Belal alone in the family room. She emerged with a glass of water in her hand; dipping the end of her chador in the cold water, she wiped Belal’s face.
“This city has enough writers, Belal. We both know that. There are those who write lies for a living and there are people like Bin Yameen and Nur who write the truth even if no one will read or believe it.” Mayako spoke of the love of her life as if he was still in the room, buried beneath a pile of work. “And then there are messengers, people like you. What you do matters, even if the city falls apart. The letters will keep coming. People will keep writing. You must be there when it happens. You have to help get the messages through.”
Belal looked at his father’s desk and saw the news clippings, highlighters, and half-read books. He spotted a white container of glue with the blue lid – the very same one Belal had recommended years ago – and a stack of envelopes. Each envelope had addresses in Bin Yameen’s painstakingly neat handwriting. Belal checked the seals, they were still intact. He looked over at his mother and she nodded.
On his way out, Belal struggled to find his car. The street was dark and no light came from the house as Mayako had drawn the blinds of the large windows. The security guard, with his shrill whistle, was nowhere to be seen or heard today. His post near the streetlamp was abandoned. Just as he was about to leave, the postman pocketed the stack of envelopes, perched on tiptoes, and turned on the streetlight.