As the snake slowly slid across my right shoulder and turned just enough to come face-to-face with me, it opened its fangs to spit venom and I closed my eyes. Not feeling anything burning my skin or closed eyes, I opened one eye in a tiny slit to see that the face of the snake alone had changed to that of a snarling tiger. The face of a tiger, resplendent in its yellow and black and the body of a thin, well-kept snake. No sounds of fear nor whimpers of dismay came out of my mouth. Just silence as I opened my eyes a little wider. The ceiling was just as low as ever and the fan seemed to sway threateningly at me. “One day, it will come down on my head,” I told myself.
I got out of bed in one swift motion. No sign of sweat on my brow after what should have felt like a nightmare. No, I was too used to it. It had become a part of my nights, a vision or dream or nightmare, call it what you want, it had appeared in my sleep for over twenty years now. Every night when I switched off the lights turned on the swaying fan, covered myself with the thin white sheet, and reached across the spare side of the bed to switch on the alarm, I knew that I would see it again. The long, thin, grey snake with its tiger face.
I usually woke up before the alarm rang. I often wonder why I ever bother with one in the first place. Even if I did sleep late one morning as a result of the dream continuing and reaching some sort of fruition stage, I had no need to feel guilty. No husband to send to work, no kids to whip off to school, no office to hurry to, no maid to rattle off instructions to; no I was alone and I liked it that way. Too many years, no actually too many lifetimes had gone by in these past twenty years for me to really care anymore.
As I moved towards the kitchen to get my usual cup of strong brew, I felt the ground under me shiver a little at first and then there was a loud groaning noise as if someone had caught hold of the building in a bear hug and squeezed a little of its life out. I watched in a fascinated horror as the walls of my small bedroom were slowly peeled off to reveal the outside dawn. Large cracks appeared on the floor that had housed by prized rugs for years. The rugs were no longer visible.
The time of dawn in my town was usually a beautiful one. Birds chirping, the sound of trees swaying in the distant breeze, the golden hues of the peeping sun casting their bright yellow golden slivers on everything in its path. If there was one thing that I never heard, it was the sound of the jostling humanity. I was the earliest riser in the vicinity. And yet today, there were screams and groans surrounding me from all sides. A little disoriented at first, I looked up as if seeking help, only to see that the swaying of the ceiling fan had stopped permanently. It did what I always prophesied that it would. Luckily, my head had escaped its downward path.
I knew I had to do something. I just couldn’t figure out what.
As I stood, rooted to a spot that no longer had a steady foundation, several of my prized possessions and treasured memories falling down into the abyss, I heard a tiny wail somewhere under my feet. As I roused myself and tried to focus on the sounds that floated up to me, I could make out that somebody was trapped on the floor below mine. Just as I moved forward, my beautiful chandelier let loose its electrical bindings and floated down to the ground with an almost featherlike grace. Even its crash seemed to be noiseless, amidst all the chaos around me.
I lived in a two-storied apartment building that had only four apartments. Two were vacant at that time and the one below me, the one on the ground floor, was occupied by a young couple who were expecting their first child. Despite the fact that we were the only two ladies in the building, out of the three inhabitants, if you don’t count the security guard, there was hardly any interaction between us. And I preferred to keep it this way. Having lost my husband and two teenaged daughters in a car crash twenty years ago, the sight of a loving couple, displaying loud signs of affection for each other and all the coochie cooing really jarred on my nerves. She had come up one day with a freshly baked cinnamon cake, a flagging off of some sort of friendship. I had told her over the fastened door chain that I despised cinnamon cake or for that matter any cake at all and had shut the door on her face. Every time we bumped into each other on the terrace, which was a common one, or in the parking lot, which housed only four cars anyway, she looked like she wanted to smile but was too afraid to do so.
Then one day, a few months ago, she had come up again with a box of sweets, wedged her left foot firmly in the gap left by the fastened door chain and told me very sweetly that she was pregnant. “We, my husband and I, do not have any family nor do we know anyone in this town. We wanted to share our news with somebody. Please accept this box of sweets and bless us.” Unmoved by her words, I said that I had diabetes and was not allowed to eat sweets. I left her there, with her left foot wedged uncertainly in the gap and trotted off into the bedroom. She must have waited for a minute or two, before I heard the door bang shut. The loud complaints below clearly drifted up into my apartment. I did not care.
That had been that. The only sign of the new life was the growing stomach, which I watched from a distance. It brought back too many memories for comfort. I stopped going to the terrace and used the back stairs every time I needed to go out, avoiding the parking lot altogether. A few of those times, I thought that I heard someone laugh behind my back but I did not care.
A few naked bulbs that nested on the walls exploded as if by some unseen force inside them. I narrowly escaped getting caught in the path of one of them. I moved a little faster this time. I took the front stairs this time, or what was left of them and hurried towards the front gate. Till this day, I do not know what or who made me turn back. I did. I looked into the ground floor apartment. All I could see was smoke. A fire had broken out near the circuit board. The wails continued from inside. I retraced my steps and moved towards the ground floor apartment and kicked the door with all might. It fell down quite easily, already ravaged by the quakes and the fire. The husband lay under a chandelier, eyes open yet unseeing. Instinctively, I knew that there was no point in wasting any time there. I moved towards what seemed the bedroom, from where the wailing seemed to emanate. The girl lay on the bed, unable to move from the weight of the fan that had descended on her left foot. Only half conscious, tiny wails escaped her mouth. Despite the size of her stomach that indicated that her pregnancy was in its last stage, she seemed quite light. I could not of course drag her in this state, so I somehow half carried and half dragged her out of the complex and onto the road. Several other people lay on the road in different states of misery.
I lay in the attended bed that night. The doctor had said that mother and child would survive the ordeal. She had some smoke in her lungs and some bad bruises where the fan had fallen. Her real wounds she did not know yet. We hadn’t told her anything about her husband. That would have to wait for a better day. Ironical isn’t it, waiting for a better day to shatter her life!
I had to make some quick choices. All my things were gone and so were hers. But her loss was far more. She had no one left except the baby and I hadn’t had anyone for the past twenty years. She was roughly the same age that my elder daughter would have been if she had lived. I decided that it was time I had a new daughter and become a grandmother in the same breath.
I slept that night on a single hospital attender bed. There was no alarm to be had except for the nurse who would come in the morning with the sponge and lukewarm water. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. The next morning, the nurse came in with the sponge and the lukewarm water. That alarm had woken me up. I had slept dreamless after twenty years.