Literature The Change Issue

Fiction: The lives collector

“I looked up and saw other prisoners in the jars above and across from me, pressing their hands against their ears and shutting their eyes; kids my age that are trapped for eternity like me.”
“I looked up and saw other prisoners in the jars above and across from me, pressing their hands against their ears and shutting their eyes; kids my age that are trapped for eternity like me.”

I hated my mother for doing this to me. With a lunch box stuffed with juicy jam and carrot sandwiches, my dad drove me for five hours, away from the city and skyscrapers and along the narrow, two-lane road that led to my grandmother’s farm. I was being punished. I wouldn’t be spending time in our London home this summer, chasing ducks near Hyde Park’s lake nor climbing up its trees.

My mother scolded me, piercing my ears with: ‘Your brother could’ve died!’ and ‘When will you grow up?’ as we drove him to the hospital to check if he had a concussion.

All I wanted to do was to create an elevator.  My best friend had one in her home and I thought it would be cool if we had one too.

As my parents napped in the afternoon, my 10-year-old brother Ahmed and I carried the green plastic laundry basket up to my balcony, tied one end with a rope, and the other end to the balcony rail.

My brother volunteered to sit in the basket, which I would slowly lower till it reached the ground. ‘Genius’ was what came to my mind. Maybe I was onto something, I thought. Maybe everyone could have affordable elevators this way. I wondered if I was the next Thomas Edison.

Ahmed squeezed himself in the basket, gripped its black handles, and I started lowering him. I was doing pretty well and felt pretty proud until my arms ached and my palms got sweaty. By the time he had reached halfway to the ground, my grip loosened and I knew I was going to drop him.

I didn’t realise that I had been yelling for help until my father rushed to the balcony, fighting to push his eyes open, and held on to the rope as my brother was steadily lowered again. But the basket was wobbly, and he hit his head against the pavement.

During the ride to the hospital, Ahmed didn’t cry. I knew he was trying to defend me by remaining silent, but that didn’t help. Not this time.

My mother decided that the best way to punish me was to send me to my grandmother’s farm and have me spend my summer there with no TV, arcades, or friends; to spend it in a place where my grandmother went to bed right after sunset and woke up when her chickens and goats did.

Grandma was old, didn’t drive and her sole source of entertainment were her elderly neighbours, who visited her in the early evenings.

A week after I arrived, when her neighbour Haleema came to visit her, grandma asked me to run to the town’s one grocery shop and grab a bottle of fresh milk for the tea.

‘Don’t go to the shop around the corner unless you want to be eaten by old Suhail!’ she warned.

Suhail was the town’s oldest person. All the elderly in town remember him being very old ever since they were children. Legend has it that he is over 1000 years old, and that he stays alive by feeding on naughty children.

A request like this wouldn’t have normally excited me, but my bored twelve-year-old brain was going crazy and I needed to get out of the house, away from the goats, chickens and chatter of elderly women.

 I sprinted outside, afraid that my grandmother would change her mind, decide to have Arabic coffee instead and I would be deprived of this outing.

I forgot to ask her to remind me which direction the grocery store was, but I didn’t care. The more time I had outside the better, and I thought that I could finally visit that shop around the corner that everyone spoke so mysteriously about.

I was kicking a small rock along the dirt road that divided the farms when I came across Suhail’s shop.

The shop’s dilapidated sign read: ‘The nature and life store’. What a bizarre name, I thought. I figured that Ahmed would have a laugh at this when I told him, and that he would totally be jealous knowing that I finally got to see Suhail, the man our grandmother scared us with when we refused to go to bed when we were younger.

‘Suhail likes young naughty children like you. Listen to your grandmother so that he doesn’t eat you!’ she cautioned.

But my parents always dismissed her tales about old man Suhail as urban legend.

I pushed the glass door covered with a thick coat of dust open. It screeched loudly. It seemed like no one had stepped foot in the store for months. Maybe even years.

Natural light fought its way to enter the store through all the dust coating its shop front. The store was empty of everything. I opened the door leading to the storage area. The sign on it read ‘No entry’.

There, lay rows of high, iron rail bookshelves placed against opposite walls, and lined with glass jars that each had white tape plastered on them.  Written on the tape were strange labels such as: ‘The artist wannabe’, ‘The one who wants to flee to America’, and ‘The loud one’. I had to stand on my tiptoes to make them out.

I got the creeps and decided to run out and fetch my grandmother her milk. Suddenly my grandmother’s house didn’t seem so bad. Maybe she was right all these years. My heart thudded.

As I turned towards the door, I bumped into Suhail. He was a very old man indeed, with deep wrinkles engraving his cheeks and forehead.

He was dressed in a white thobe, a red-checkered ghutra and held a yellow rosary in his hand. He was so tall that his ghutra almost rubbed the ceiling fan.

I didn’t hear him walk in.  How did he appear out of nowhere? I wondered. Was he human?       

I swallowed and apologised as I walked around him, my hand reaching out to grab the storage door’s handle and get out of there.

But his soft-spoken voice stopped me.

‘Sarah, what is a nice girl like you doing in a dead town like this?’ he asked.

The hairs on my arms stood.

‘How did you…’

‘In a small town like this, everyone knows everything’.

‘So…’ he started out before he paced through the room and stood proudly in front of one of his shelves.

‘We both know you don’t want to be here spending your summer in this doomed place. How do you imagine your perfect life to be? I’ll help you get your wish’ he assured me gently.

Something in his tone comforted me.

‘Well…’ I said as I loosened my grip on the handle and walked slowly towards the strange man like someone awaiting their salvation.

What was my grandma on about? Suhail didn’t seem harmful. How could he be? With his white thobe and soft white beard he looked angelic, like a grandfather whose lap you’d sit on and tell all your worries to, and he would stroke your hair and assure you that it would all be all right.

‘I hate my parents for leaving me here. I wish I had new parents and that I lived in London and never ever had to see them or this place ever again!’  I blurted out. It was word vomit and my chest was pounding as I said it, but it was my wish.

His eyes were twinkling now, like he had waited an eternity to hear the words I had just uttered.

He grabbed an empty jar from the bookshelf and wrote the words ‘London girl’ on it with an almost dry marker pen he pressed hard on.

He walked, slowly now, towards me, holding the empty jar in hand, and motioned for me to take it from him.

I stared down at it and picked it up slowly. When I looked up, Suhail didn’t look so angelic anymore. His pupils dilated and he smiled widely, revealing an evil grin and yellow-stained teeth.

His head fell back and he laughed uncontrollably.

From behind the cloudy glass, I could barely make out her age, and I couldn’t read the date on the calendar that was taped to cover that green mould on the wall behind her.

‘You heard my story. Please call my mother, my grandmother, the police, anyone, please.’ I begged, banged my fists against the glass, almost tipping it from her hand, tears choking my throat.

I thought she was about to say something, that she would agree to help, when she quickly placed my jar back on the shelf and rushed back to sweep the floor.

He interrupted her sweeping and motioned for her to leave the store. She obediently dropped her broom and rushed outside.

He peaked outside through that dirty shop front window, checking that she was far away, and walked back towards my shelf.

He picked up the jar, delicately examining me inside. I must be the size of an insect because he looked gigantic to me, squinting his eyes to see me clearly as I stapled my body against one end of the glass jar.

‘Oh dear Sara. You don’t give up do you? Trying to speak to that deaf-mute girl’, he chuckled.

‘Everyone you know is long gone. It’s been 200 years. If only you had been a good girl and listened to your grandmother’. He placed the jar and me back on the shelf and wiped the dust from his hand on the sides of his thobe.

‘Your poor grandmother tried to convince your parents that I ate you’, he added. ‘But no one listened. Come to think about it, would you have believed her?’ he pointed at me.

His laughter echoed in the air, and I sunk down to my despair. Where did the time go? How did it feel like a day had passed and not centuries?

I looked up and saw other prisoners in the jars above and across from me, pressing their hands against their ears and shutting their eyes; kids my age that are trapped for eternity like me.

Tap tap tap!  The prisoner in the jar next to me tried to capture my attention. I turned to steal a glance at him as Suhail dove deeper in his laughter.

The prisoner pointed to the shop’s half-closed door, and there she was in her red polka dot jalabiya and silk abaya, standing in front of Suhail’s shop, hesitant to walk in.

My grandmother.

Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.