I am a shepherd. The children who mock my gait tell me that I have grown old. Their fevered voices make a shrewd assessment of my age. I am a shepherd—I persist. I tend to my instincts. Step after step, the walk tires me. The vegetable basket hangs limply by my arm. There are days I cannot put up with it. Put up with anything. I am growing old—I relent. I groan. The glare is too bright for my eyes. I evade the glances that walk beside me and hasten inside the shadowy basement. Sanjay, the board outside my apartment welcomes me.
The silence lingers on to every crevice. The upholstery needs mending—I remind myself. I chug a swill of tonic water and put the vegetable basket down. The tendons in my arm relax. I am still—I confirm. My mind wanders—I lament. I make noise by tapping my feet against the wooden floor. The infantile sound confirms my presence. There is not much to do. I walk around the room and take a book out from the bookshelf. Tolstoy. Anil would have reprimanded. Anil. He would rather have me read Dostoevsky. He complains by making splashing noises in the bathtub. The water runs smooth and white. It foams near the edges. I tighten the noose around his neck. He needs to stop screaming. The pages float in the bathtub. I close the tap.
Once there were two people who lived together. I am forgetting their names. I run my fingers nimbly on the paper. It used to have an address. My memory fails me. The bedding is soft and padded. I press my hips and arch my back comfortably against the bed-support. Some other day, I remind myself. I keep the paper alongside the mattress and think of my day. Silence greets me once again. I live alone. The creases on the mattress belie a second presence. Once there were two people who lived together—it screams. I close my mind to it.
I look at my face with delight. I used to be charming once. The remnants of my youth are intact in the tightness around my nose. I was a boy once. I am a man now. A man from my former self gives an approving nod. He stands behind me. I see his face in the mirror. Stop looking now. He chides me for my narcissism. I concede. I am blood, bone, and marrow. Fresh semen flows inside me. I flash a wide smile. Anil chides me again. He reminds me of the time. I need to get dressed. I have to go somewhere. I turn around and find him gone.
My sister tells me she is worried for me. Her face is animated with tears and sighs. She leans against me and rubs my shoulder affectionately. Her voice sounds assuring. She makes indecipherable noises with her mouth and nose. She is grieving—I remember now. She mourns spaciously with her arms occupying every corner of my back. I find her touch comforting. There is not much I can feel. I feel nothing. I give her a perfunctory nod and get up from the table. Phantoms surround me. They offer words of commiseration. I know nothing. Fine voices. Their equilibrium disorients me. I am jolted from my self. I shrink back. I must.
The night appears hollow and dark. I crest my arm against the window frame and light up a cigarette. A woman from across the building smiles at me. Her long, slender back makes a silhouette behind her dressing curtain. I smile back. The smoke tendrils and reaches my nostril. I cough violently. Anil looks at me reprovingly. Sorry. He resumes reading in the bed. I think of going to the bed. I press the burning stub against the windowsill and throw the cigarette away. I take off my shirt and step into the bed. The sheets bemoan the absence of another body. I let the lights on. Fleeting sounds run at a distance. They snuggle up to me like a faithful lover. I remain intact.
I must move on. I get off the couch and step in the balcony. The static on the cable makes jarring noises behind me. The wintry sun casts its pallor in dim shades. The railing feels cold and obsolete. Anil holds a cup of tea for me. I take the cup from him and warm my hands with it. I thank him for that. He looks away into the horizon. I push him down from the balcony. He falls on the pavement and sinks beneath it. There is not a sound of discomfort in his voice.
I leave my apartment again. I cannot keep up with the walk. My bones creak. I carry too much weight. My burden both shocks and amuses me. I must let some weight down—I remind myself. The air is rancid with the smell of burnt wood and freshly washed vegetables. I take a detour around the grocers’ building and go to a park instead. Here the air is sweet with the sound of chirping and drunken laughter. I nestle my body on a bench. I am growing too old. The thought scares me. People from all walks of life walk down my path. Hand in hand. I feel alone.
I come back to my apartment. I find Anil lying down on the sofa. He asks me where I had been. I walk past him and climb the stairs to my bedroom. Once there were two people who lived together. I pick up the paper lying on the bedside and give it a thorough, searching look. My mind fails me again. I fold it and keep it inside the inner pocket of my coat. There is not much I can do. I am getting weary of my persistence. Yet I persist. I perspire.
I am afraid of the space around me. There are times I think it is too much. I must look for a smaller apartment. I must revive my old contacts. I hate the sight of my body. Nausea starts wringing inside me. I let it grow and reach my chest. It pains me. I must hold myself. I try shrinking back. I cannot. My hands start to tremble and shake. I feel the urge to open my mouth and emit a long muted howl. I fall down on my knees and press my hands against my mouth. The bile tastes like acid. It rushes along my throat with an aggressive impulse. I let it reach my mouth and flow out.
I look at my face in the mirror again. Anil calls me from the shower. I remove a piece of pipe from the plumbing and thrash him with it. He makes no sound. The water gushes at me. It roars. I try to staunch it. It keeps festering. It splashes against my face and washes my whole body. It punishes me for my wrongdoing. I howl in vain. I run outside the room and find Anil waiting in the lobby area. He reminds me of a party we had to attend. We are already late. He checks his watch and signals me to hurry up. I resign. I wear my coat and walk beside him. Hand in hand. I am no longer a shepherd.
Sahil Sood was born in Ludhiana in December 1993. He is a Chartered Accountant by profession. He discovered his love of reading and writing at a young age, getting published in academic journals and newspapers. He draws inspiration from the work of James Baldwin, Elfriede Jelinek, Christopher Isherwood, and Virginia Woolf. “A Thousand Dreams Within Me Softly Burn” is his debut novel. He currently resides in Chandigarh and can be reached at [email protected]
Sahil Sood was born in Ludhiana in December 1993. He is a Chartered Accountant by profession. He discovered his love of reading and writing at a young age, getting published in academic journals and newspapers. He draws inspiration from the work of James Baldwin, Elfriede Jelinek, Christopher Isherwood, and Virginia Woolf. “A Thousand Dreams Within Me Softly Burn” is his debut novel. He can be reached at sahilsood 042 @ gmail.com.