Exoskeleton – Sobia Ali

One day pawing the dust heap in our backyard with the neighbourhood kids I found an opaque white bottle, sealed with a rubber cork stopper. There it was among the rubble and the withering weeds and no one noticing it. I inched forward slowly, afraid others would see and take it. I took a chance, plucked it off the ground, and ran. Behind me I could hear their startled grunts of ‘now what did she find?’

Your shadow falling diagonally across the sunlit yard caused my heart to flutter and my hands to conceal behind my back. Swallowing a hard lump of sun diffused air, I stepped forth. Framed in the doorway, your lips pursed in that peculiar way, you barked— ‘what are you hiding?’

I knew better than to disobey and brought out the bottle clutched greedily in my sweaty palms. You took it wordlessly, your silence eloquent of hundred rebukes. I went inside and washed hands and feet, my eyes blurred with tears set off by a mental picture of the bottle being forcibly flung in the distance, its contents unspilled and out of reach forever.

* * *

You start remaining sad in the last days of your life, hardly smiling ever, your perky expression lost in the folds of your skin, the ‘gesture’ of pursed lips a pathetic thing on the hollowed out mouth, and the blankness of your stare reminiscent of something absent and gone from life.

And I, come out of dark corners, have taken over the whole house. Framed in the doorway, my shadow falling diagonally across the sunlit yard, I listen to you mutter about delicate things that pulse and shiver in response to identical presences near, and the cruel forces of nature that want to do them apart.

I stare out at the small garden where you used to potter about all day long, now neglected and disorderly, and the mournful trees, and think of ineffectualness and miscommunication. Of the failure of preservation, the slippage of life, the stealthy creeping of loss and loneliness.

* * *

Sorting out your things, boxes upon boxes of mothballed objects, memories flood me when I come across the white bottle. Incredulous, I uncork and look. Inside are the shell of a snail and the skeleton wings of a butterfly. I bring it to you, the decay around you rubbing on me. You seize it in the loosely fleshed hands, childish curiosity playing off your facial edges. Your face fell. I ask, ‘what is it, mother?’ wiping the dribble off your mouth.

Then you speak in a far away voice, ‘I found them in the garden staring at each other. They were in love, I knew. And they were going to move on and
forget each other. I caught them and put in this bottle. I hurled it across the backyard where you dug it up. I could not get myself rid of it again.

After a long silence you whisper again— ‘ where did they go? Those delicate, lively things.’

I want to ask, but don’t, if you had confined the snail and butterfly the same day I discovered the bottle. If they were alive then, and could have been saved. Because there is a look in your eyes that, I hope, at last means acceptance.

Sobia Ali has an MA in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, The Indian Quarterly, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Gone Lawn, The Punch Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, trampset, Lunate, Kitaab, ActiveMuse, Ombak Magazine, Literary Yard, and is forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Close To The Bone’ and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her novel.

Image via Pixabay

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