There was a lady who lived on my street, and every afternoon one winter, after a polite game of cricket, I would visit with her for a cup of tea I did not drink, and the chance to play with the many kittens she had in her apartment.
My mother frowned upon our liaison, for this lady was well past what is considered the marriageable age, lived all by herself, and had a great number of male friends who visited frequently and were the subject of much gossip amongst the ladies of the street. But the awkwardness of the subject prevented Mother from emphatically expressing her dislike, aided perhaps by the realization that I was in it for the cats – no pun – and we could not, for reasons unknown, have our own.
This lady, whose name I no longer care to remember, occupied a two bedroom apartment on the first floor of a house on our street (or, the upper portion as it is called here). There was an aquarium in the parlor adjoining the bedrooms and the kitchen; the water in it was always filthy; my older friend perhaps found it easier to replace the fish instead of the murky liquid she expected them to live in. Her other pets, of course, were the kittens, all of whom were full of vivacious energy and covered in soft fur for good luck.
- “When they say a cat has nine lives, is it because they have so many kittens and only a few need survive to continue the species?” I asked her one afternoon, ever fascinated by the newly discussed subject of dinosaur extinction at school, and grappling with the concept of death.
- “I think not,” she casually replied, “have another biscuit.”
So I did, I was such a good little boy.
Presently she found me staring at the half-full ashtray on the coffee table.
- “Those are a friend’s.” She lied hastily, probably thinking of what my mother would say about it if she knew.
- “I won’t tell.” My earnestness was written on my forehead. “I never tell.”
- “There is nothing to tell.” We agreed on that.
One of the kittens scurried headlong, for reasons known only to little animals, into her bedroom. A sanctuary I had hitherto stayed out of. Eager to prove my loyalty and the value I attached to our friendship, I chased the animal into the forbidding chamber.
It was a messy room, smelled of stale tobacco smoke and the air felt damp to the skin. The curtains were parted, and the winter sun cast its feeble vehemence only unevenly about the chamber.
The kitten had by this time, taken the characteristics of a mole-rat and was burrowing intently into a heap of clothing of questionable cleanliness that lay on the floor. I dared not intervene.
- “What’s it doing?” She called from her indolent repose on the divan in the parlor.
- “I don’t know!” I replied, and walked closer to the pile: attempting the pretense of a proactive attempt to retrieve the renegade mole-rat.
- “Well?” She now leaned in the doorway, expectantly.
I did not answer. My eyes were riveted upon a large jar that lay atop her dresser; filled with a liquid murkier than that in the aquarium. The faint sunlight, further weakened by the wire mesh in front of it, danced through the jar’s unfathomable contents – giving it an apparent life of its own from my vantage point, which was just below the jar itself (I was always short).
I heard the rustling of fabric as my friend finally attacked the treasure-hunting kitten. But I could not turn to watch the commotion. She uttered a soft oath in Urdu, which I found distinctly unladylike but atrociously charming, as the kitten darted from wherever it was to someplace less accessible. I heard all this, but saw and felt only the life force pulsating in the jar. Everything else was insignificant in its presence, outshone by the invisible, mysterious beauty of whatever it contained.
- “What are you staring at?” She asked with more annoyance than I felt warranted.
- “What is this?”
- “It’s none of your business.” Her tone stung me.
- “I should go.” I threatened.
- “You should.” My bluff called, I left dejectedly.
I did not visit again for five or six days. When I caught her peeping from a window as I strolled back from the nearby playing field each afternoon, I faked indifference. My boyish pride, even then standing taller than myself or my imagined accomplishments, would not permit a hasty thaw.
Eventually, I found myself back in her parlor with its faint air of misuse and untidiness; wondering only how best to ask her about the jar which had been on my mind all week since I had seen it.
- “You want to know more about the jar, don’t you?” Her divination of my thoughts was unsettling, but I was relieved I did not have to bring it up myself.
- “Yes,” I replied timidly, suddenly fascinated by a newfound and inescapable interest in the biscuit tray of old silver.
- “Well, ask then.” She had a faint glimmer of a sly smile appearing at the corners of her mouth. I was all at once surprised to find her quite attractive to look at, but only did so out of the corner of my eyes. It is impolite to gaze at women, mother said, it made them self-conscious.
- “What’s in it?” I finally mustered.
- “A snake.”
I was terrified; I had never seen a snake before except in movies.
- “And if you look into its eyes you cannot move as it slowly eats you whole.” She continued.
- “No, please don’t lie.” What I meant, of course, was please don’t let it be a snake. This whole fear-thing was extremely unpleasant.
My friend threw back her head in a sensuous motion and laughed. I got the impression her good humor was chemically induced, I was scared; but lacked the strength to leave.
She got up and teetered into her bedroom, returning presently with the jar clutched to her breast like some prized infant. Why are infants so prized anyway? I pondered that question.
The lady placed the jar atop the coffee table, and lay back on the divan she loved so much. It was as if she had disappeared from view; once more, the Jar was all that mattered. Although this room was better-lit than the circumstances of my first viewing of the jar, its contents had been jostled by unaccustomed motion; and were clouded in a suspension opaque and mysterious.
We sat in silence. She smoked; I’d always known the cigarettes were hers. I stared at the jar, willing the shroud to dissipate so that I might sate my curiosity. The sun continued its descent, and the windows darkened. In annoyance, I flicked all the switches along the walls, and then turned them off one by one until whatever amorphous criterion I had for illumination was met. The first faint halo of the jar’s contents now appeared, and I stared into it. Cigarette smoke made my eyes itch, but not that day. So we sat, insignificant companions to the mystery of the jar. We stared; I at the jar, she at the ceiling.
When it seemed that I could wait no more, for the ezzan-i-maghrib sounded, and that was my cue to return home, a face crystallized within the jar, and not just a face: complete with perfectly formed ears, an endless forehead stretching to reveal a shaven, hairless scalp atop a dome-like skull, a bit of neck trailed below the chin.
There was nothing horrific about the severed-head-in-a-jar; quite on the contrary, it appealed so strongly to my nascent aesthetic sense, and found me so unprepared, that I was overcome with emotion. I felt my body heat up as if on fire, the blood flow speeded up until all I could hear was the pounding of my heart – louder and faster than an express train. It appeared to my eleven-year-old mind that the head had existed in that jar of its own accord for all eternity, and would continue to so exist until the end of time.
The eyes were closed in blissful repose, the nose angled downward gently and ending in a raised tip right above the cleft of the upper lip. The bit of cheekbone visible below the left eye seemed to belong there – prettier than any dimple I had ever seen, failing to detract from and perhaps even amplifying the sense of serenity that permeated the face. What I beheld perfect beyond the ability of the most masterful sculptors.
- “Isn’t she pretty?” I found her question both untimely and stupid, I did not know how long I had been enraptured, bewitched even, by the sight, but my companion’s relative ugliness should have enforced her silence.
- “It is obvious.” I attempted to sneer.
- “Is it now? I think she looks a lot like me.”
I stared at my lady-friend in disbelief. In what twisted, malformed way could she possibly hope to reflect the same beauty that radiated from the jar? The head was Aphrodite to her Medusa, and yet far more capable of transfixing the gaze of the onlooker than Medusa’s ever was.
- “So do you like my sister?” That playful, sly smile of hers crept across her face.
- “Very much, but why does she live in a jar?” My knowledge of death, disfigurement and dismemberment was extremely vague.
- “Because she’s better this way, and everyone’s happier.”
- “How so?”
- “Because this way, I get to be the prettier sister.”
I was suddenly too frightened to dissent.
- “Yes, quite.” I lied.
February 18, 2010