A dark night cringed on the campus. It was a starless night. In urban worlds, being bereft of the stars in the night sky wasn’t a very unusual phenomenon for the small town botany professor but it hadn’t been very good lately.
“If only I could end this paper today”, he said sitting in his peach painted room. A half burnt cigarette balanced itself on a metallic ashtray, a wine glass adjacent to it and a small fern plant on the window in front of his study. He liked to look at the sunlight hitting his books; he didn’t care if it was always the evening sun. He couldn’t afford the apartment in which the morning sun could grace his rooms. In his defense, there was nothing bad in the gloom and Sheheryar was a fan of gloom ever since he came out to his family.
“There’s nothing wrong with being realistic”, he said to his Khala at a family wedding.
“Arey get married na!” She retorted.
“With a man really? I don’t think there is any possibility of that happening in reality or fiction Khala.”
“Arey why not, at least go to a level of living together, I’ll see the rest of it. Your father is gullible. He would believe anything. Tension na le!”
“Yeah, and Khala even that is a far fetched possibility”, he looked towards windows because he didn’t have the right thing to say. As if just like his childhood a koel would perch on the window pane, and start talking to him.”
“He’s saying that he will always love me Ammi”, a six-year-old Sheheryar said as to why he would look at that bird and mumble things. His mother, a practical lady and an atheist would often complain to her husband about this unnatural attitude of their only son.
“You got to take him to some psychiatrist Saleem, he’s sick. He is hallucinating.” And besides being excessively occupied in his brass business, Saleem always retorted with “I talked to Zain, my friend the psychiatrist”, in his defense. “It is at most an illusion. Definitely not hallucinations”.
“Can you for once be a father, a logical father to your only son?” requested his mother.
“Can you stop this nonsense, please?” his father retorted back.
So as time passed by, Sheheryar realized that telling his parents about this little koel fiasco would cause intense fights between his parents. Eventually, Sheheryar stopped opening up to them. Nevertheless she left his father anyway.
But the koel didn’t.
He used to wake him up every Saturday until his twenty-first birthday. But ten years had passed since then. He’s older now. Maybe the bird had died or Sheheryar’s ‘condition’ had improved. Nonetheless, for ten years he had been looking towards the windows and expecting a black bird with a red tail to just appear out of thin air and talk to him like old days. This time when his Khala asked him the most important question of his life, his lips went dry and he looked towards the balcony in her room.
“Khala you’re too much. Let’s eat now. Enough gossip.”
A roar echoed throughout the sky. Sheheryar was working on his thesis on gymnosperms and their gene propagation, while his tired eyes switched back and forth from the pictures in his book towards his mobile phone screen. It was about to rain and before he could anticipate, he heard another thunder and lightning in the 3 AM darkness. His apartment faced a large football field. It was a neat, well-maintained, arranged colony for the staff and faculty. It overlooked a dingy and dusty campus playground, which was used less often by the students and their teachers but more by the residents who lived nearby the University. But this night was different. It was raining as if it had never rained. And there was no one on the road.
Someone knocked on his door. His pet cat Doodle would hide in crevices all over the campus but she was a wild spirit. He always saw clear expressions in her face all the time. He hadn’t seen her in a while now. Although this particular detail wasn’t very well rooted in his own duality of existence, he made a lot of efforts to separate the real from the illusion. He had been on anti-psychotics drugs since a year now. His attention and grasp were very much in his own hands, but after a failed relationship, he couldn’t stop the dam of distortions he held so silently. But it was all in the past now. He was much more stable now according to his psychiatrist.
Tonight’s tempest was yet another of the many uneventful Februaries that he had. But who could be knocking his gloomy door at 3 am in this damned night, he thought.
Burning up another cigarette, he moved towards the door and asked in his deep voice “Who the hell is there?” But he only heard whimpering and an eerie silence.
He watched through the peephole, but he couldn’t believe what he saw. “Ya Allah!” He exclaimed. “I hope this is not some hallucination.” Swiftly he opened the door, only to see a thin, young man around twenty-two, naked, wet and drenched. His face was lit by a small bulb outside the door, which revealed a perfectly chiselled jaw and a beard which was left trimmed on the upper lip, his eyes were hazel and as water dropped from his wet hairs over his chest and down towards his stomach and groin, Sheheryar suddenly realised that he had been shamelessly staring instead of bringing him a blanket.
“Can you help me?” he said in a feeble voice.
“Oh apologies”, he said, still in awe, “Do come in. Here, take this towel and these clothes. Get yourself comfortable. I was about to make some tea. Would you like to have some?”
Sheheryar went to his kitchen and started boiling water when he saw from the corner of his eyes this young man change into his clothes. He couldn’t help but notice a red tattoo of something written in Pashtun on his right buttock. He was overtaken by this sudden and inappropriate infatuation but he wasn’t to act on it. He offered him chai and asked him what had happened.
He looked into Sheheryar’s eyes and with a gentle bow of disappointment, vulnerability and humility, he said, “I work at the McDonalds in the nearby Meena market. I’m from Himachal and here for a few weeks to get some money to open a restaurant in my village. I got robbed and I woke up in the garbage can near the University. I saw the light of your room, and…”
“It’s ok. I’m Sheheryar. I’m a Botany professor here. Where do you live?”
“To be honest it’s only my first week here. I was crashing in a small room provided to me by the manager, but I need a house to rent. Look I appreciate you helping me. You don’t have to do anything. I’ll be gone in the morning. I really don’t want to impose.”
“Umm, don’t worry. I have a friend who is renting an apartment. I’ll talk to him. You don’t have to live in that room anymore. You’ll be ready to shift in a week.”
“Thank you so much”. The storm was no excuse for Sheheryar for any distraction. He didn’t sleep that night.
The next morning Sheheryar found his clothes stacked on the sofa. The boy had left.
Sheheryar felt absolutely amused by the fact that although he wanted to kiss him the moment he saw him but resisted so much that he didn’t even ask his name. Sheheryar later went to McDonalds to ask about this particular boy, but there was no information on the description. Probably it was too late.
Another week ended and Sheheryar sat in his study, alone, smoking his last cigarette for the day, surfing aimlessly social media on his mobile, and taking an increased dose of anti-psychotics as he was convinced that the boy was another hallucination.
It started to drizzle again. In a split second, he was transferred to that moment one week ago when he had thought he found everything.
It was 3 am. He couldn’t sleep. It was still drizzling. The week that had passed brought him immense disregard to his decision-making and his insecure way of handling things. He struggled with his ability to separate reality from fallacy. His last relationship ended because of his inability to give him any time. His thesis was leading nowhere and his prospects of staying in the university were bleaker than they were a week ago. Somehow a single restless night made him realise all the things he could have grabbed just by claiming them at the right moment, but he didn’t. He had many regrets in his life. Life had not taught him to break the norm. Life had taught him to following the right things, not taking risks, planning everything ahead and although he had a successful career, he had enough regrets to fill many botany books.
Nature disagreed one more time with Sheheryar. A similar knock was heard on his door. He could never think of something so monumental happening again. But it did. As he opened the door, he saw the boy again – drenched, naked, smiling back at him. His dry and thin sultry body with the perfect chest and almost well-carved legs stood in front of him once again. He looked on the little droplets that had settled momentarily on his locks but slipped now and then on his back and abdomen.
Sheheryar could not let go of this moment. He went outside, on the portico, and kissed him, long and deep. It was no time for any regrets or distractions. He allowed the rain to fall down on him this one time. He held his hand and brought him inside, gave him a towel and kept looking at him as if all his answers were in his naked body.
“It’s not a very professor thing to stare, Professor”, said the boy.
“Oh pardon me. I…..” Sheheryar apologised, embarrassed.
“I thought you’ll never do this”, he smiled back.
“I never asked your name”, Sheheryar asked with a similar smile.
“My name is Zaryab”.
“It’s a beautiful name. Let me kiss you again on that.”
Sheheryar’s life couldn’t have been any happier since that day. Zaryab stayed with him since that day. Often going back to Himachal on the weekends to meet his mother about whom he never talked. He used to come back every Monday or Tuesday with abrasions on his back, sometimes on his chest, sometimes extremely starved, and sometimes extremely tired. But Sheheryar didn’t need any explanations. Not now at least.
“I have so much to tell you. You hardly know about me Sheheryar. But I’m afraid I will lose you if I reveal them to you”, he said one night sitting beside a small fire in their backyard.
“Then don’t. Let me see you now. I don’t need anything else.” He hugged him. While playing with his unkempt hairs and inhaling them as he rested his head on Zaryab’s shoulder, he said, “It seems I have always loved you. We might move from here to the capital. It’s much better there.”
“You are so foolish Sheheryar. I regret that I have made you blind. What if I leave you and never come back?”
“Until then maybe there’s nothing as too much sex or too much cuddle”, he smirked.
“You’re unbelievable”. He smirked back.
“Yeah but that tattoo on your bum is even more breathtaking. What does that mean?”
“It’s Pashto. It means music. I had always loved music. Sufi particularly. Let me sing you a Pashto song”.
The fire sent magical spurts into the air as Zaryab sang the most melodious song Sheheryar had ever listened to in his life. “It speaks of a trapped king who kept waiting for his love and died. Only to have found his love when he went to heaven” said Zaryab, “isn’t it beautiful professor Saab?”
“So are you.”
A year had passed like this. It was February again. Zaryab had gone away to his home over the weekend. Sheheryar sat in his study once again, a wine glass at his side, reading a book by Murakami, smoking. He had stopped taking the pills. He received a phone call. It was his Khala.
“Sheheryar, Allah! Gazab ho gaya! Please come here. It is very urgent. Zaryab is here. I don’t know how. He’s not moving. I’m very scared…”
Sheheryar didn’t even lock the door. He rushed to his Khala’s apartment. Zaryab was naked and dead, on the balcony. Khala was sitting near his head that had bled profusely.
“There was a small bird who was eating my rice. I just hit it with my hand. It got stuck in the fan and hit the floor pretty hard. Suddenly he appeared from nowhere. Ya Allah! What sorcery! What magic! He is dead now Sheheryar. Dead!!”
Sheheryar couldn’t listen to her sobs anymore. He found a small note in his study when he was done with the funeral.
Zaryab had written it.
Please don’t judge me for what I’m about to tell you. I might never come back from this trip again. Don’t try to find me. I might not be alive. My time has come. A koel can’t live so long. But I’m happy I did, and that too with you. Do you remember we used to talk then you were a little boy? I have loved you forever. I convinced a Djinn to grant me human form and some years so that I could love you ad be with you. But I’m a sinner. I fell in love with you, against my nature and against everything. I lied to you. But I don’t care anymore. I have lived a lifetime with you. I’m glad I could touch you the way I wanted. Don’t smoke any more my love, and don’t take those pills. You were the music of my heart. You’ll always be. Now I die in peace. I will always love you.
Thank you for your love. I’ll find you in heaven again.”
Sheheryar sat on his study table, in his peach painted room, with a smoke in hand, a wine glass adjacent to his books, and a whole lot of gloom to cry on.