Once upon a time, the angels in heaven were on a break from their divine duties. The angels have their break during the last extra six hours of a year, before the earth makes a full circle around the sun. The six hours fall on November 1 earth time, from 12:00 till 6:00 a.m. GMT.
The favorite past time of these lily-white spirits the size of a bee hummingbird during these six hours is to flock down to earth in their multitude and sit on the clouds in the sky and watch human beings go about their day to day lives.
“What is it about our mortal fellow beings that draws us in,” they would say in their divine language, as their eyes roamed about the earth.
“There is charm in his beleaguered existence,” they would muse, “charm in his flesh, the heavy uniform of existence he is enveloped in; charm in the constant conflict his existence is, between the desire of his spirit and his flesh, which plays out in everything he says and does not say; he does and does not do; he thinks and he does not think; he feels and he does not feel and who he becomes and who he does not become”.
Of all the human experiences, the angels were drawn to the experience of love, for no human experience lent his spirit power over his flesh and brought the best out of him as much as the experience of love does. That is when the angels perceive his likeness to them most.
Presently, an archangel among them conceived a mischief that he wanted his fellow angels to get on.
“Look here,” he began, “it must not have escaped your keen notice that the human experiences we gather here to watch and relive have been increasingly turning bland at best and stale at worst”.
The angels turned away from watching down and gathered towards each other.
“What has become of human experience!” one angel exclaimed, for it was something they all knew too well, yet too afraid to say.
“Experience is but a projection, a projection of the being that humanity has become” the first archangel speaks, “humanity has become slave to his flesh; his flesh holds him by the scuff of his neck and drags him about to its desire. Thus, every year, we are treated to a show of ennui, mediocrity, obscenity, wickedness, selfishness, greed, immorality”.
“Even the experience of love is so tainted with lust, mistrust, selfishness that it is not pleasant to watch anymore,” another archangel chimes in.
“But what has made him so weak, so helpless against flesh; is humanity incapable of overcoming his flesh,” an angel asked.
“Prodigality,” the first archangel muttered, in answer.
“Prodigality?” repeated an angel.
“Prodigality,” replied the first archangel, “Humanity has grown more and more prodigal, wasteful towards his own precious existence; he has too much of it, too long of existence to care to spend it wisely”.
“Even when his lifespan is diminished from over a century to less than a hundred?” inquired the same angel.
“If only his lifespan were only a year like that of a housefly; or better yet only twenty-four hours like that of a mayfly,” the first archangel answered, “he would then value it enough to care to attend to the desires of his spirit”.
The first archangel paused. “I have a proposition,” he continued.
“A proposition?” the angels repeated.
“Let’s hear it,” they said.
“What if we were to direct, to effect, the human experiences we wish to come to and watch,” he advanced his intention, “one that plays out only during the hours of our break, exclusive for our entertainment, an experience of love, that is so sublime that we could scent its pleasing aroma from up here”.
A murmur of intrigue rippled across the angels.
“How do you mean?” a second archangel’s voice raised above the rest.
“We find a couple first,” the first archangel began, eager to impart his plan, “a couple at the prime of their love, their love just beginning to sprout, yet to be tinkered with by their infirmities”.
“Then, we part them, part them from one another” he went on, “for the span of the year we are away on our divine duties. On the hours of our break, we cross their paths and bring them back unto each other’s presence. We give them an hour of union for every turn the earth makes around the sun, their rendezvous the lifespan of a mayfly, and then we whisk them away from one another, leaving them craving for more”.
“How does this produce the experience we yearn to relive?” the second archangel asked, puzzled.
“To make the experience first make the man,” the first archangel answered, “for a person cannot express what they are not. First, we build the couple into their higher selves who, in their interaction, are able to produce experience of sublime love”.
“The time apart is the time of growth into their higher selves?” the second archangel conjectured.
“Exactly,” he exclaimed. “You see,” he began to explain, “growth into the higher selves is a lot like wine making; love is the yeast that ferments them into the higher selves during the time away from each other”.
“Human love between the sexes suffers, suffocates from lack of space, both spatial and temporal space,” the first archangel continued, “The sharp, sour experience of love we are treated with every year is because of lack of space — in their lack of restraint, neediness, insecurity they reach out unto each other, see each other, call or text each other, and open the cover off the oak barrel of their love, before it ever ferments to maturity”.
“And how do you reckon we separate them?” asked the second archangel skeptically.
“First, we make a duplicate universe,” he said, hesitantly.
“A duplicate universe!” the angels exclaimed in outrage.
“An exact replica of the existent universe with everything in it” he continued, over their murmur, “We remove from each universe, one of the couple, their nears and dears, their records, and their memories, except from the heads of the lovers, and place them in separate universes of existence. We make the universes go on a parallel path all year-round and conflate them during the hours of our break, whence the couples are brought into one another’s presence”.
“But another universe!” the second angel spoke, “That is a preposterous an arrangement for an hour of entertainment once a year, when we could easily place them on the opposite poles of the earth, throw all obstacles on their way that prevents them from ever setting foot outside”.
“The whole universe goes into the making of a single experience, even as simple human experience as that boy yonder plucking a flower,” he countered.
The first archangel paused in reflection. “Being in the same universe means being in communication,” he added.
“Humanity, like us,” he went on, “has communication with one another that putting no space between them, no placing them light years apart in the boundless universe would deter, for he communes in his thoughts and feelings; he does not, of course, comprehend this because his flesh has blinded him to this faculty. This is at the heart of his predicaments; that he communicates fear, distrust, hatred unto others in the privacy of his mind; that the altercations, confrontations, aggression, and conflict he meets with in the physical world are but the culminations of the internal communications, in his mind, long before the first words are uttered, and the first acts are committed”.
“If we let the couple remain in the same universe,” he contended, “there is no telling what the outcome of their mental communications by the time we get back here on our break; no force in the universe could stand in the way of this communication”.
“Plus, experience of love of the grandeur and sublimity such as we yearn to relive,” he pleaded with them, “requires that we sever all kinds of communications; that they be put in separate universes of existence, and that these universes are tightly sealed from one another for the year round”.
“What is it exactly you wish us to see for this outlandish setting” the second archangel sighed.
“Eternity,” the first archangel proclaimed, “we shall witness eternity in the moment; we shall see their spirits perform before us inspired dance of love with abandon”.
The angels reflected upon this curious idea long.
“What about The Holy One” the second archangel aired the concern at the back of the minds of all angels, “surely it will not please Him if we intervened in the affairs of human beings”.
“I am sure He will not begrudge this little adventure for our relief from our thankless duties from the beginning of time,” he replied.
“This couple,” the second archangel spoke at long length, “have you anyone in mind?”.
“That!” the first archangel said, bringing his two hands to a clap, “I will let the congregation choose”.
The eyes of the angels roved around the surface of the earth in search of a couple who would fit the roles. Unbeknownst to them, lovers of all races from the four corners of the earth were auditioning for the parts, all lovers, all the way from the clandestine affair of young lovers under the shades of a tree, hiding from the prying eyes of the village in a village in the Kalahari; the couple in the counter of a fast food shop exchanging a subtle indications of interests; the woman speaking over the phone with her man, a soldier on the other side of the world; the couple canoeing in the amazon forests; the ones having a late night dinner date, sitting by the moonlight window in Madrid etc.
At long last, the multitudinous eyes of the angels converged on a spot on the northern hemisphere, a public bench in a park upon a young couple, in their mid-twenties. There was nothing out-of-the-earth about them, about their appearance, about the way they interacted with one another by any human measure. If at all, they appeared petty. They sat cross with one another, pouting, with a space between them that could sit another couple. They seemed to question what they were doing there than enjoying each other’s company. Theirs was at that stage of relationship when a couple find one another incomprehensible. They wanted to bash the other’s head wide open and see what is in there that was making them say, do, and be all the wrong things. The girl wished she could domesticate him, domesticate his wild-boarish masculinity. The boy wished the woman was simpler, more carefree, and let him be.
“Look,” the boy said, “you clearly are not feeling right today. Maybe we should leave now and meet another time”.
“Oh, so it is me then,” the girl grunted, irritated.
“Something is clearly bothering you, in your head; I have been trying to get you out of your head for the last hour, and bring you here, to this bench, next to me” the boy sighed.
“If you weren’t so much in your head, you would know better than to ask me what is bothering me,” she snapped.
A long, tense silent punctuated this exchange. She eyed him take a deep sigh to see how much this had stung him. The boy was grappling to not let his anger get to him.
“Listen,” the girl spoke, “I will give you another chance to save this day”.
“Another chance,” the boy sniggered, “how mighty gracious of you, your highness”. The girl is annoyed.
“Fine,” the boy sighed, turning to her, “let’s start over again, I mean, from the beginning,” assuming playfulness to ease the tension.
The girl turned on her side to face him, trying to shake off the bad air in her as well; she wanted this to work too.
“From the beginning,” the boy repeated, “from the first time we met”.
“The beginning?” said the girl, squinting, “what was wrong with our beginning”.
“Nothing,” the boy shrugged.
“Any way, you are walking down the street, with your earphone on, and I approach you,” the boy commentated. The girl studied his face, in expectation.
The boy stopped, like an actor on set about to go on action.
“Ahm, hi,” he spoke, working up a nervous smile, “ahm, you must be new? Do you study here?”
“Hi,” she responded, trying to work up smile but only succeeding in putting a wan smile, “ahm, no I am not — “.
“Wait,” the boy interrupted, “that is not exactly how you reacted”.
“Huh?” the girl asked.
“You lit up with smile; you thanked the heavens, because the most gorgeous man on earth approached you” he chuckled.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she retorted.
“This is not how you approached me, either” she added, turning her face away.
“Oh, yeah, humor me!” the boy muttered.
“No, it is not,” she continued, “you looked vulnerable, like you put all your heart into the approach, as though your life depended on it, and you handed it to me, all the power at my mercy, that my response could make or break you and yet you looked safe in your vulnerability, like a child in his mother’s arms”.
“Oh gawd!” the boy exclaimed.
“That was why I gave you my number; I do not give out my number to a stranger I just met on the street,” she reflected.
“Well, I am still that child,” the boy replied, “I have aged only a month since”, shaking his head in amusement.
“Funny,” he said, smiling at her, “a vulnerable child was what I also thought of you too”.
“Copycat!” she muttered.
“Yeah — ,” he answered, “walking in the lone street, in the gathering dusk, earphones on, you looked a child lost, with all her possession in the world in the backpack she was carrying. I wanted to put my arms around you and protect you from whatever you were fleeing; from the dusk that wanted to swallow you; from the worry that was eating you up inside”.
He paused, “from time from ever stealing a speck from how beautiful you looked at that moment” he added.
It was a fitful true moment between them. They sank in silence as though anything they said or did would disturb the moment.
“It is getting late,” the girl said, at long length, “we should go”.
They sauntered towards the bus station.
“Brr! it is getting cold,” the girl said.
“I noticed,” the boy returned playfully, pressing his legs together hyperbolically, “because I am not wearing underwear”.
Salma veered around and grimaced at that. She gave him a nudge. Zach jumped back, chuckling.
“Who says that?!” she exclaimed, trying to sound annoyed.
“You and I, we are incompatible, aren’t we” he said, half-heartedly, as they walked to the station.
“Tell me about it,”
“What is your star?”
“Your star? your zodiac star?”
“I don’t know — I don’t believe in that stuff,”
“What is your birth date,”
“hmm ice queen Aquarius — our stars could not be more incompatible”.
“This is my ride,” Salma said, stopping before the bus. She turned around and began to walk.
“Hey,” Zach called after her, “how about a good night hug”.
“No,” she said coyly as she kept walking to the bus.
“Not when you are not wearing your underwear,” she smiled. The old women getting on the bus before her shot a sharp disapproving look at the couple. The couple went their ways giggling.
The couple thus walked to their separate world, smile on their faces, optimism in their hearts, leaving the cultivation of their relationship over date for another day, give it time, thus welcoming little space to come between them, as all relationships, as all things in nature, do to replenish. Little did they know that that little space would be the entire infinite universe between them for a whole year; that infinite, mute darkness, darker than death, would isolate them from one another, and that they would spend the whole year groping for one another in that darkness; that their relationship from then on would not be their little private matter, but a cosmos matter; that they became the guinea pig of divine experiment and jesters for the entertainment of these celestial beings; that the cosmos was already at work in that objective as they spoke.
“I have a theory,” the first archangel said, as they walked back to duty, “harmony in humanity can only be attained if a universe is built between each of them, universe between spouses even in their marriage bed, and only if they are allowed to interact for just one hour a year, while their longing lasts, before their flesh and its infirmities kicks in”.
The Holy One saw this, saw what his angels were up to. Yet, in His infinite wisdom, He decided against intervening and let His angels draw the lesson from the experience, for experience does a better job of teaching them than He could do any other way.
November 1. 12:00 GMT. The earth came full circle around the sun in both universes. The angels were settled on the clouds, with greater anticipation than usual to see what had become of their experiment. The parallel universes are conflated. Zack and Salma, because that were the couple’s names, were brought back to the same universe of existence.
The eyes of the angels searched for their lead actors. They found Salma in a supermarket, in blue dungaree over crimson sweater, her tousled hair restrained inside a brown beanie. There was listlessness about the way she went about her shopping.
About three miles northwest of where Salma stood, the eyes of the angels met the figure of Zach, in black jacket over white turtleneck sweater, seated in a bus, looking out of the window, emptiness in his eyes.
The angels were happy to lay back and wait and let the force of their love, now in contact, pull them into each other’s presence, as they knew it would.
Little after an hour, the galaxies of their existence rammed into each other when the escalator brought Zach a few feet face to face with Salma.
A tremor of disbelief shook their being at the sight of each other. They stood rooted to the spot, stared at one another. The tremor of disbelief steadied to realization, realization that the other was actually alive, present in front of them, blood and flesh. The realization then welled up varied emotions in their hearts, of joy at the mere presence of the other; anger, indignation at the cruelty the other inflicted on them in ghosting them, condemning them to a year of painful uncertainty; and the fear that their love and pain was over nothing, that they did not mean much to the other, and that the other might have thought telling them of their leave was as necessary as telling the doorknob of the house they had left. They could not allow themselves to act on their joy and throw themselves into each other’s arms; nor act on their indignation and walk away.
The emotions calmed down to a cold determination, determination to face the truth, painful as it was certain to be, truth as to if they had been mistaken in entertaining the belief that they meant something to each other; what was the meaning of the other’s sudden, rude appearance now. This, they both thought in their minds, they needed so they would find the strength to uproot their hopeless love.
They could but allow the other the benefit of the doubt. They hid their feelings behind an impassive look and stepped forward into the now short, open space between them. Each decided in their mind that they would let the other bid their own time, let them come out with it in their own time.
“You!” said Zach, breaking the year-long silence between them.
“You!” said Salma, avoiding his gaze.
“You look — different,” Zach sighed.
“Yeah?” Salma replied, “you have changed yourself”.
An uncomfortable silence ensued.
“I-a, I wasa-I was going for a walk,” he mumbled, “could we take a walk?”
“Ahm-yeah, I have half an hour,” said she, in a tone that sounded too expressionless to her liking.
“There is a food festival in town,” Zach spoke, in effort to steer clear of the sore subject.
Over the restrained, disjointed exchanges that ensued, they sensed of a far more natural, seamless, deeper conversations between them, between their souls. They were kept out of the conversations try as they did to eavesdrop. They could only sense of the presence of this communion, of its intensity, in the clouds of joy their hearts bubbled; in how their walk felt like a walk in these clouds of joy, in how they prayed this walk could last forever; in the sharpness it lent their senses that enabled them to perceive the tiniest details about the other; and in how they felt they could identify the other if the other was put among the hay of the entire human race who had ever treaded the earth.
Yet, they resented these feelings, admonished themselves for feeling the raptures for the heartless person next to them, who pushed them over the cliff, into the abyss of painful uncertainty, and left them there to languish in misery. But still, they watched helplessly as their souls draw into the other’s embrace, like a child into her unwelcome divorced father, despite her mother’s reprimanding glances.
As they walked through the busy bazaar, half-heartedly looking about, they grew more and more impatient with the other, with what was taking the other so long to come out with it, deliver the hard truth, prick this momentary false joy, and release them of their misery.
Presently, they came to a bench outside the bazaar.
“Shall we take a breather here?” Zach said, as he lowered down to a seat. Salma sat an arm away from him without a word.
“So,” Zach said, at length, looking at a distance, bracing himself up for what his probe was going to uncover, “are you on vacation?”
“No,” Salma rejoined, puzzled by the question.
“You?” she asked back.
“Nope,” he replied.
“So, you have been on student exchange program?” he wondered, for that seemed the only other sensible explanation for her absence.
“No,” she muttered, “not moved a foot from here” she said, irritated at the way he was ambling up to it.
“You sure have done a fine job of avoiding me” he muttered.
She fired a disgusted look at him.
“Look, Salma,” Zach said sternly, taking the anger on her face for discomfort at being confronted, “I do not have any intention of nagging you for — what you did, for running off, without so much as texting me, nor will I stand on your way and beg you to stay”.
Salma looked at him with her eyebrows raised in incredulity.
“I just wanted to know why,” he continued, taking her speechlessness on account of guilt, “I have replayed the memory of our last meeting countless times for a possible reason, but I could not find anything more than our frequent squabble”.
Zach looked at Salma in waiting.
There was only one sensible explanation in Salma’s mind to what she was hearing; he was play-acting, acting her part, what she had been through, what she felt; he acted the part well, so well; he made it seem so real, like the devil himself. He was making a mockery of what she had been through.
The insolence, the apathy of this act burned her face.
“I knew you were facetious,” she snapped, “but I never imagined even in your facetiousness you would have the insensitivity to come here after one year and make a play act of the pain your sudden disappearance has caused me”.
Her voice quivered. Tears of anger began to well in her. She did not want him to see her cry. She broke into a run.
Zach woke up from his stupor and ran after her.
“Salma, wait! but what does this mean? What does this mean?” he called after her.
He caught up with her and caught her by her arm. They stood in front of each other panting.
“What do you want from me?” she shouted, panting.
“Tell me,” he gasped, “tell me why. You owe me that much”.
“Stop it!” she screamed.
The angels hid behind the clouds as the couple altercated.
The couple stared at each other in disbelief. One was telling the other to deny reality, the reality of the other’s absence, not just from each other’s presence, but from the premises of the university, the spots they frequented, ones they like to ‘run into’ whenever they were too mad at each other to ask the other’s company.
“Tell me this,” he snarled, “why have you avoided coming to the cafe you like to hang out”.
“I did not,” she retorted, trying to break herself free of his grip, “I was there yesterday, the day before that, and the day before that”.
He shook his head incredulously.
Salma was running out of patience; this was an insult too much; he was now calling her deluded. She was equally angry with herself because she was still standing there, how much more of his insults can she take before she saw him for what he was, a bully, a devil and muster the courage to leave, for good.
“That still does not explain why you have not replied to my emails,” he added.
“Oh, please!” she exclaimed.
He reached down to his pocket, pulled out his phone, to show her the evidence that would corner her into not denying.
“Here,” he said, as he opened the email tread with her. His eyes froze at what he perceived: a long thread of emails from each of them, not in reply to one another but over each other, sent over the months of their absence. The messages, unbeknownst to them, were delivered at the exact moment when they returned to the same universe.
“This cannot be,” he muttered, in shock. “This cannot be. I check my email for your email,”, as often as my heartbeat, he thought.
The slumped down on the grass, side by side, their heads reeling with confusion. They engaged in subdued conversations, with long-drawn silence, in search of an explanation. Their universes of existence peeled as they were thus engaged, and they disappeared from each other, inches away, yet a universe apart.
The first archangel exchanged the following conversation with the angels as they walked back to duty.
“Now they will know”.
“Now they will know”
“You know what that means?”
“What does that mean?”
“Knowing means predictability; predictability is a leak that will let in all the prodigality, wastefulness back into their now blissful hour”.
“What do we do about it?”
“You leave that up to me”.
In the year that transpired in pining for each other and ruminating upon their lot, they grew more and more convinced that there was force greater than their human will at play in their disappearance from each other while they lived in the small world of the university, in the world at large that is so transparent and interconnected; that this can only be a freak of fate. They did not know what this force was and what its intentions were in dooming them to such a senseless fate. They only knew that they were imprisoned, imprisoned from one another, for the crimes they did not understand; and that the last meeting one year later to the day and hour, on November 1, from 4 to 5, was no accident, but a cruelly skimp annual, one-hour visitation the fates permitted them to see each other.
When the hour of their visitation came, they hurried to the place they last met with the very gait of longing. Despite themselves. Despite reasoning with themselves that this love was jinxed, that it would only cause them great pain and sorrow, and that they would be wise to uproot it from their heart and throw it away sooner.
Yet, they knew no vitality, warmth, joy as each other’s presence welled inside them during that one hour, which eclipsed all the vitality, warmth, and joy of the remaining eight thousand seven hundred fifty-nine hours of the year put together. Against its contrast, they felt like they were corpses, breathing corpses, who came alive in the hour or in its fervent anticipation.
They were not prepared for the turn of event that Fate had in script for them for the hour when they got there. No sooner than had they come within six meters from each other, trying to steady their excitement, an emergency ambulance with its light and sirens on shot like an arrow from nowhere, pulled to a stop between them on the narrow pedestrian street in front of the medical center. Out emerged two emergency service technicians and they began to pull out an old man in stretcher, ever so slowly, careful not to move a muscle. The old man groaned feebly in excruciating pain. A nurse came running from inside the medical center to meet them. The scene played out before Zach and Salma’s eyes strange as a dream. They attended to it with foreboding surfacing on the horizon of their minds.
“Mr. Elias, a retired mechanic, widower,” the first emergency service technician was telling the nurse.
“Injured?” the nurse asked.
“Fell of the stairs,” the technician replied.
“Three days ago, apparently,” said the other technician.
“Three days ago?” the nurse repeated.
“The owner of the restaurant in the neighbourhood where the old man dined,” the second technician explained, “she said she had not see him come for three days; said she sent her daughter to check up on him; the child found him sprawled on the floor, writhing with pain”.
The nurse shook her head in pity. “Has his relatives been informed?” she asked.
“His closest relative, his nephew, has been,” the first technician reported. “But he lives out of the country; earliest he can get here is in ten hours”.
“God knows he can survive that long,” the second technician.
The couple watched on, stranded on the spot at the unearthliness of this event.
The eyes of the old man were starkly agile against his pain-numbed body. His restless soul fluttered frantically through his gaze from face to face of the strangers that stood over his body, searching for a place of compassion to rest on in their eyes.
They went past the impersonal, seasoned pity of the persons in uniform to the raw, distressed, empathetic eyes of the innocuous Salma. The old man suffered to lift his left arm towards Salma, as a tear rolled down the corner of his left eye.
Salma was moved to walk forward towards him, take his hand, and fold it back to his side. The old man held tight to her hands and eyes.
“Any chance the poor old man is known to you, mom,” the nurse asked, taking off her eyes from her occupation to study what was happening.
Salma shook her head in answer without taking her eyes off the old man.
The nurse sighed. “Could you be a generous soul and stand by him as we provide him with intensive care,” she spoke.
Salma directed a wistful glance towards Zach at the request.
At that moment, they knew that could only be the doing of the capricious Fate; that Fate was dropping the care of the lone, agonizing old man on their lap in the one hour in the whole year they were to feed love to their love-starved souls. They felt like they were long famine-stricken persons who have just been given a morsel only to be begged for the morsel by a more starved soul. They could not say no; they could not turn their back on this lonely, suffering old man in his darkest hour; not without turning their back on their love. The old man was brought to seek refuge under the shelter of their love; they could not help but let him in, even though that meant leaving that shelter all to him.
Zach could only respond with slightest nod and the faintest smile of submission. Salma nodded back at the nurse.
The medical attendants pushed the stretcher forward. Salma moved beside the old man holding his hand. Zach trailed behind them.
At the entrance of the emergency medical service, the nurse barred Zach’s path.
“You cannot come in here,” she said.
“But he is with me,” Salma pleaded.
“I am afraid we cannot allow any more person in here,” the nurse explained, “it is the medical center policy”.
Salma and Zach exchanged a helpless look.
“If you could wait for her outside,” the nurse added, annoyed at the silliness of the couple not to see the gravity of the situation to give up the pleasures of their little date for the care of a soul in agony.
Wait?! Zach wanted to open the door and shout after the nurse we have waited for a whole torturous year for this hour; we are being robbed of that hour now; that the whole event is a robbery and you are an accomplice in that day light robbery; and it is not just an hour, but the whole year that is being taken away from us. I will not see my love for another year. I do not know if I could survive another year of the scourge of her longing. And I have no way of knowing what obstacle the Fates would throw on our way next year.
He did not say that outloud. Zach walked over to the glass wall and contented himself to watching Salma over the glass wall. As he watched the mute, doleful figure of Salma over the glass wall, the sense that this was not just the deed of capricious fate, but that it was actually a date, a deeper, more meaningful one than if he had her to his own; that the ICU was a fitting rendezvous; and that even as he stood on the other side of the ICU, with the glass wall between him and her, and even whilst she lent all her attention to the care of the old man, he felt of the presence of deeper communication;
that that conversation involved human agony, not just the agony of death of the old man, but all the agonies of the several souls that the bed in ICU had hosted over the years; he felt that he understood what the meaning of their love much more, against the background of suffering and death of the ICU than they would in any other way. As he was occupied in these thoughts, the universes moved apart from one another and all the persons in the ICU disappeared from his sight.
The angels were still glued to the scene, listening to the thoughts of Zach, when the first archangel moved the universes apart.
“I have not seen such a poignant experience since the woman who drank poison thinking her lover is dead”.
“That was a scene in a play, not real-life experience,”
“This has been a rite of passage, I dare say” another angel added.
“A right of passage indeed”
“Love comes of age after this,” an angel followed up.
The following year, the angels voiced their concern when the first archangel refused to bring the two universes back together on the appointed time. The lovers still waited in their separate universe, in distress, denied of their hour of love. Presently, the angels saw a street vendor speak to Zach.
“Care for some pea nuts”.
“Is it also a cure for curse?” he replied, absently.
The vendor smiled at what she thought was a morbid humour. “There is nothing that my home-roasted peanut cannot cure, honey” she joked.
Unable to think of anything else to do, Zach crouched beside her, talking to her, praying by some miracle Salma would appear before him.
Salma stood four feet in front of him, pulling her coat around her, in her universe.
Fear entered the hearts of the couple for the first time, the fear that perhaps the other might be dead; that henceforth, they would come there every year and not find the other.
The first angel would not hear of any of his fellow angels’ concerns. He was bent on denying the couple their annual one-hour union this year. He told his fellow angels this was part of his plan to deliver them a human experience that they would saviour till kingdom come.
“Sit back and watch the alchemy,” he proclaimed, “as dirt turns to gold; as fleeting human moment split under the sheer pressure of their longing and give birth to eternity in all its enormity”.
The angels thought he had gone mad, that he was taking this too far, that there was only so much sorrow that their fellow mortal being can endure, how much longer before The Holy One would come and bring this to an end.
The archangel pranced forward. He climbed up on a higher cloud and considered the scene of desolation of the couple. He wished for a symphony to accompany the scene and augment the mood. He closed his eyes and took a deep sigh. He raised his arms from his elbows and summoned thick clouds above the city in both universes.
Down on earth, people noticed the unseasonal imminence of rain. Salma watched as people began to run for shelter.
“Whoever you are waiting for will have decided against coming now in this weather,” said the vendor to Zach, as she gathered her items. The vendor scurried for the nearest shelter with her items.
Zach got up from where he crouched and walked over towards the open. He stood two feet apart from where she stood.
Like an orchestra conductor, the first archangel conducted the whole nature to play a symphony, a fitting symphony, in tune with the tensions of emotions in their hearts, emotions of longing, helplessness, despair, love, dying hope. The symphony began with drizzle, gentle wind, the rustle of the trees, chirrups of the birds. It gradually picked up in intensity, with claps of thunder in between and worked up to a frenzy to a gusty thunderstorm.
The couple remained where they stood, in the belief that if the other was alive and if the Fates unbarred the way unto each other then, no storm would deter their partner from coming there looking for them; and they did not allow themselves to be the quitter and not be there when their lover came. They peered through the torrents of rain for a sign of anyone coming, determined to wait, till the last minute, even if it were to be in the other’s presence for a minute.
The symphony played for the remainder of the hour and came to an emphatic end at the hour mark with the death of the hope in the lovers’ heart that they would see each other that year.
The angels could not help being transported by the sublimity of what they had witnessed, the music of nature lift the show of raw human melancholy to timeless beauty. They gave the first archangel a thunderous applause.
The couple sogged their way back home.
A string snapped in Salma’s heart.
The next year. The angels found Zach where they had left him. Salma was nowhere in sight. They found her crouched in her bed, sobbing with the violence of her spirit.
Zach had been standing for half an hour, still no sign of Salma. The angels looked at the first archangel, disapprovingly.
“Are you still at it?”
“Is this also your-doing?”
“Haven’t you had enough of these poor souls?”
“I have nothing to do with this!” the first archangel protested his innocence.
Presently, Salma pulled herself up and got out of her bed and walked to the place with determination in her gait.
Zach jumped to his feet at the sight of her.
She was still in her pyjamas. She looked as though she had been crying the whole year and had cried herself dry. There was cold stillness in her eyes.
“God, Sally, are you alright,” he said, as he lurched forward.
“I — am fine,” she said, pulling away from him.
Zach was slightly taken aback at her reaction.
“I came here to tell you that I am never coming back here,” she said, with a finality in her voice and coldness in her look, “I came here to tell you not to come here looking for me”.
“Why,” Zach said, at length.
“Can’t you see,” she said, “that this, this is all a mean joke? We are being made fun of?”
“But how does denying ourselves of the one-hour together in a whole year help?” Zach replied.
“We can say no; we have the power to say no; it is called freewill,” she spoke in low expressionless voice, “I choose to exercise that power; I refuse to take part in it anymore; refuse to make a fool out of ourselves”.
“But this hour — this hour is all we have,” he protested.
“This hour is not ours,” she countered.
“Yes, the hour is like a meteor shower — it lights up my soul with joy,” she mused, “but what is an hour of joy if we die a painful death by the end of the hour; if every tick of our wrist watch shudders us to our spines during the hour”.
“Tell me; tell me you do not love me anymore,” he said, more out of anger than reason.
“That is the thing. I do not love you. This is not love; this is worship; a false love, a mirage that our spirits have formed in their distress,” she answered.
“I do not want to worship you; I want mundane, earthly love we sculpt in growing familiar with each other, in our everyday, imperfect, frail interactions, love that is not afraid to teeter on the edge between familiarity and contempt” she insisted.
Salma walked back home, heaving afresh with soulful cry.
Zach stood there, helplessness.
The angels returned to their seats in the clouds. They found neither in their rendezvous. Zach was in his sister’s place, listlessly sitting next to her, watching her three years old son playing. Presently, he sighed deeply and got back on his feet.
His sister grabbed his hand and pulled him to sit. He remained standing. She looked up at him. She pressed the back of his hand against her lips. Zach remained still, absently looking at her. At length, he slowly pulled his hand and plodded to the other room.
Salma travelled to her family’s. She sat by the hearth before her parents, a leg blanket pulled over her legs.
The first archangel was irate. He paced up and down before his fellow angels.
“Maybe it is time we let them be,” the second archangel spoke to him, softly.
“How can they not understand,” the first archangel fumed, “that all I am doing is take their one sorry long, dreary existence, and in return give them the opportunity to live many lives”.
“How can they not see that in the hour, they live a whole lifetime, a meaningful and blissful lifetime at that” he continued fuming.
“They are incapable of handling their existence,” he raged, “they will only squander it, I tell you. They will wake up one day and find out that they have spent it all on their own misery”.
The angels did not venture to say anything else to him as they walked back to duty.
The angels returned to earth the following year and the year after in the hope that the couple would give in under the relentless scourge of their longing and come running into each other’s arms. But the couple refused; they suffered to keep away from each other. In the hour of their passion, they put further space between them and travelled to their family’s and sought their solace. Each year, the angels sulked back to duty.
February 16, 4 p.m. three years later. A resigned looking Zach was seated by the corner of the bijou university café. He let his disinterested eyes wander outside of the glass wall of the café. Presently, chatter of a group three tables across him intruded into his unfocused thought. Someone is cheerful, he thought as he let his disinterested attention trail the chatter. From where he sat, he could see that group of two boys and three girls huddled around a table.
“I cannot believe you are making us celebrate your birthday over a croissant and cappuccino in a café,” the voice of a girl reached him.
“This is pathetic,” a boy interjected.
“I am too old for birthday celebration,” a faint, yet ghostly familiar voice, like a distant drum of war, reached his ear. It perked up his attention. His eyes searched for the face of the voice; it was the voice, he felt, but outside of the time and place of curse.
“No one is too old for birthday celebrations,” another girl spoke.
“Well,” voice spoke, “what are we waiting for; light the candle”.
“Wait,” a girl said, as she got up to her feet, “I should get this in video,”.
‘The girl moved out of her seat, revealing the birthday girl in front of her. Zach’s gaze broke into million pieces. It was the same curly hair, the same elusive face, the same arresting eyes, the same calm countenance, the same graceful presence.
The group began to sing her the birthday song, drawing the bemused attention of the students in the café on to themselves.
“This is embarrassing,” the birthday girl said, hiding her face in mild embarrassment.
“Well,” the girl next to her says, looking at her, “blow the candle already!”
The birthday girl blew the candle on her cupcake, which is greeted with claps.
“What did you wish?” the boy next to her asks her.
“I did not. I do not believe in wishes,” she answered drily.
The group exchanged a knowing look.
Zack found himself getting up on his feet. He waddled his way through towards the table.
He stood over the table and studied her face closely.
“Salma?” he cried.
The call, the familiarity of it veered her head as though holding her chin and turning her around. The friends around the table stared at him blankly and then back at Salma.
She stood up beside herself. They stood face to face, speechless. Salma looked at the air around him at the invisible fate if this was another of its mischief.
“Sally?” the boy next to her called, concerned.
The friends looked from him to her.
“Who is this?” the girl next to her asked.
“A friend,” Salma managed to say, coming to her senses.
“I am Zack,” Zach said, looking around the group.
“Well, Sally, are you going to ask him to join us or stand there and stare at him?” the friend next to her said.
Salma gestured him to join them, still unsure how to respond.
“It is not much of a birthday party, as you can tell” the first girl said, pulling him a chair beside her. “I am Tania,” she introduced herself, “can call me T”.
“So, how do you two know each other,” the boy next to Salma asked, studying Zach.
“From another world”, Zach quipped.
“Well, welcome to our world,” said the other boy.
“Thank you, I am happy to be here,” Zach muttered, “I am happy to be here” he repeated it to himself, with feeling.
Soon, the friends pulled Zach into the wings of their warm, friendly chatter. Zach and Salma were happy to ignore each other all through the conversation, in the euphoric knowledge that the other was there, praying that the other was there to stay. They drove greater mirth in the interaction than it merited, smiling and chuckling profusely at the slightest jest or quip. It did not escape her close friend, Tania, that a colour, a girlishness returned to her friend’s face that she had not seen in years, in the short span since this stranger had joined their table.
At length, Tania, “Guys, I do not know about you, but phew! I am tired”.
“It’s late,” her friend joined in, “let’s give the birthday girl her presents and head home”.
The friends handed Salma small, boxes of presents despite her mild protests that they should not have.
“Leo,” one of the girls shouted, addressing the boy to the right of Salma, “you scrooge, aren’t you giving her a present?”.
“I gave her mine earlier,” the boy spoke, rather shily.
“Earlier?” the girl asked.
“Two days ago,” he said, bashfully.
“Oh!” the other girl exclaimed.
The group eyes turned to Salma. Salma kept an expressionless face, avoided their searching gaze. An awkward silence descended upon the group.
“I don’t believe Zach has got you a present,” Tania said to deflect the awkwardness.
“I have not got you a present,” Zach said, addressing Salma for the first time.
She wanted to tell him, “There is nothing you would give me in the entire universe that would compare to the gift of your presence, your natural presence, with me now,” but she bit her tongue and instead said, “buying me an ice cream afterwards would do”.
Another awkward silence ensued, as Salma and Zach exchanged a long, meaningful gaze.
“Leo,” the girl spoke again, “do you mind giving me and Rita a ride home”.
The group hugged Salma goodbye.
“So, this is what finding love feels like,” the girl whispered into Salma’s ears, as she hugged her goodbye.
“Shush,” Salma whispered back, “but thank you for getting Leo out of the way”.
Zach and Salma had their first time alone for the first time. There was so much to talk about, so at loss where to start.
“Nice friends,” he said, as they watched the group flock out of the door.
“And a nice not-friend, too,” he said, looking at Leo stealing a look at them as he walked out.
She did not respond to that; she did not mind a little jealousy stir in his heart.
In their walk, Salma was irked at how perfect everything appeared; it seemed to her that there was a halo over their love and that the halo reflected upon everything they said and did and in the environment all around them. She did not like it. She wanted things to return to normal. She wanted them to go to that afternoon six years ago and begin from where they left off. She knew she could not undo overnight all the false glory they had built in absence, but she had to start, start that evening. There was only one place to start: try getting under her man’s skin, nudge him, bring out the disagreeable in him.
“Where are you taking me?” she pouted.
“The ice cream shop,” he replied, “do you have any other place in mind”.
“I cannot go,” she said.
“I want to go home”.
“Why. You said you wanted to”.
“I am tired,” she replied,
“but the shop — it is on the way”.
“Look, I don’t want to”.
“Do I have to tell you the reason?”.
He stopped walking. He studied her face doubtfully.
He saw her words were bereft of conviction. He thought it adorable that her thin show of irritation concealed her desire to remain in his presence; that it was wide open for him to see. He suppressed a smile, put on a stern face. He brusquely began to walk away without saying a word. The abruptness of his action caught her off guard. She uttered a yelp; her arm went up reflexively to catch him as though he was an invaluable glass object falling. Zach kept walking while she was rooted to her spot. He stopped. Turned around. Came back smiling at her.
“Argh,” she exclaimed.
“Unbelievable,” she mattered as she walked fast to ran away from him. He followed her, still chortling at her.
Thus, they marched to their new life, still quibbling.
“I am taking you to the shop even if I have to tie up and hoist you there”.
“That is called harassment, in case you do not know”.
“Aren’t we incompatible!”
“Tell me about it”.
“What is the shortest marriage ever in history?”
“You and I would improve that record by — 23 hours — and 59 minutes”.
“If we ever get to that, honey — is that your way of proposing”.
“You have a strange way of proposing”.
“I was — never mind”.
Early that morning, the strange sight of a lone angel at that unnatural time of the year appeared in the sky. It was the first archangel. He hauled the duplicate universe like a bee hummingbird pulling a long, heavy blanket, and placed it over the existent universe. He bound them back to one. He had learned the lesson; the experience had taught him. In the congregation in Heaven called at his behest, he confessed before The Holy One just as much. I have neither the liberty to disclose that lesson nor the ability to condense its complexity into words. The tale in as precipitously as I have related it to you is as far as I have the liberty and ability. I leave it unto you to glean the lesson between the lines.
In any event, soon as the first archangel was through fixing the cosmos, he wished he could stay back, he wished his fellow angels could be with him there too, to witness the moment, the moment of their natural reunion, after the long, brutal isolation. But he knew that was not possible; that he and the rest of the angels would have to contend themselves with sensing that reunion in the spike in the pulse of the universe.
From then on, the angels learned to mind their own business and let human beings be. From time to time, they would search Zach and Salma during their break.
Salma and Zach saw to it that they were anywhere but in each other’s presence during that hour.