Illustration: Fahim Anzoom
For a while now, the locals had avoided taking that particular road, insisting on going through winding alleys and badly dug-up streets to reach their destinations, while the short stretch of asphalt right in front lay forlorn, with only the dust as its most frequent commuter. They would mumble things about 'traffic accidents' and poor lighting but no one could truthfully testify to hearing even the slightest swish of a speeding vehicle, let alone enough to cause accidents. And the lights always lit up by sundown and stood out like beacons in the otherwise dark surroundings.
But there was a more simple explanation behind all of it, one they didn't mention for fear of being ridiculed. They thought that stretch of road was cursed. Every single person in the area thought so. For every night they would hear the same shuffling footsteps scraping through the asphalt, in lockstep with another, softer patter of steps. One that you were sure to miss unless you were straining your ears really hard. At the very beginning there had been no shuffling; only the smart taps of presumptuously accomplished feet. And the locals would peer out from behind their curtains, wondering who on earth would take that road so late at night? And they would see two men, briefcases in hand, kicking up the dust under the yellow glare of the road lights. Men of the world. Ah, yes. They ran the world, of course. They moved the movable flotsam and jetsam and carried tidbits of vital importance in their briefcases. And they walked this road, every night with their unbending ritual. The locals didn't dare to meddle in such matters of import. They contented themselves to watch from the shadows.
Gradually, night after night, the footsteps lost their impetus. Fusing softly with the rugged blacktop to leave a whispering thud and their gait became more awkward as their backs hunched and the grips on their briefcases slackened. Men of the world, the locals argued. Surely such a job is taxing on them? And to do it every day, too. The nights clumped together closely and every night the locals would be at their windows, hushed and waiting with baited breath to witness the transformation. The briefcases were soon gone and they walked empty handed, but their tasks were etched onto their skins, which was now slowly rotting away under their chequered shirts. It hit one of them before the other and before long; he had abandoned his shoes and the neatly parted hair. The only things left were shuffling footsteps and the smell of necrotising tissue.
After that, the locals had stopped watching and shut their windows before night fell. It was hard to tell if this was because they were scared or because of the smell. They could still hear the low patter of steps and knew that the other man was still fighting. The last man. But they always waited for that night when the shuffling would intensify and resonate around that deserted stretch of tar and stone and there would be no more dust kicked up. Men of the world, they would say then. No doubt they'd want to turn everybody into one of them. Best to steer clear of that road altogether.
Out there in the yellow haze of the road, the last man slowly trudged on. Where to, he didn't know. If only they had told him. If only he had asked. He could feel the other 'man of the world' breathing down his neck, hungry for a bite. Maybe he should give in to it and the road would no longer show him the vicissitudes of the past hidden away as trinkets draped in a carpet of untouched dust and questions. Maybe then he would derive neither pleasure nor pain from doing the same thing over and over again. Just passing by, with nothing in mind except the endless road ahead and a curious desire to taste raw meat.
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His voice was earnest, and just the right amount of soft. Enough to permeate the quiet, enough not to overpower the dancing sailor's silent song of longing for the Sea. His hands moved swiftly as he wove the sailor's tale, using his strings to make the wooden doll dance. He made the sailor leap, maddened by desire, into the blue paper-and-cotton sea, to be united with his love for all eternity. His fingers slowed down as the sailor began to drown, and his voice faded away. The hush around the circle was now more pronounced than ever, and he glanced around anxiously. The crowd needed a moment to gather themselves before that quiet of part of town came alive with applause. His young face broke into a smile...
And smiling still, the puppeteer gently guided himself out of his own reverie. Those hands were now frail and knotted, but they still retained their magic. Not that the world outside his dusty windows cared for magic anymore. His marionettes no longer invited anyone into his little shop. No one stopped by for a small show at this corner of the bustling town. His art was dying, and he was dying with it. He had pondered burning everything down, sitting in this very chair, staring at his dolls. They'd stared back, their beady eyes reproachful. He had abandoned that line of thought. He could not bring himself to set fire to what he had so lovingly crafted. He could not betray himself. But end himself? His eyes rested upon the brown-paper package. “One last dance", he whispered.
He fastened the strings around his fingers, strings attached to the limbs of a beautiful wooden doll clad in blue, with hair the colour of a storm-tossed sea. Tonight, he would re-tell his favourite story. He would re-enact the dance that followed the Sailor's Leap, the Lament of the Sea, his Lady Love. He worked his fingers and the marionette slowly rose up out of the blue ocean. His hands began to move faster in the air as the Sea spoke of her grief through her dance. The sailor had loved the Sea and the Sea had loved him back. He had jumped into her watery depths to be at one, but she had lost him forever. She had taken his life, and the Sea could not breathe. So, she foamed and frothed (his hands were now a blur, his marionette driven wild), crashing mercilessly against ships, rocks and walls and… his hands went limp. The Sea had no more fight left in her.
At the back of the little shop bursting with magic, a gunshot sounded. A pair of glasses lay shattered near the hearth, shards reflecting the burning fire. Two marionettes sprang to life, lifting themselves up out of their cardboard home, unaided by any strings. The Sea rushed into the Sailor's embrace, lovers meeting at last. Arms entwined, they danced.