A Moment of Silence by Hananah Zaheer

 Mr Dar was trying hard to keep a straight face as he made his way into the darkened bedroom. In one hand he carried a plate piled high with food and in the other a glass of wine that he had poured in secret in the attic.  Kicking at the door behind him, he heard it shut with a thud and finally let a smile break across his uneven face. In all the time he had been married, never once had he been allowed to bring food into the bedroom and lately, on account of his wife’s illness, had been refused entry himself. But that morning his wife had died, leaving him the sole owner and master of the house she had run like a military base for twenty-nine years. It was September, it was a new fall, and he felt like a free man.


In the faint evening light from the windows behind the headboard, he could see that the bed was still unmade, the sheets rumpled exactly as the medics had left them that morning when they had crowded around the still figure of his wife. He had hovered on the edges of the room, dazed at once by the suddenness of her death, and the presence of so many people in the small room. Only after they left, and he was done making the obligatory phone calls to her family in Pakistan, had he allowed himself to sit at the kitchen table, feeling the tension in his legs ebb away as he sipped on a cup of lukewarm tea. Dead. The word had a ring to it, a finality, like the sound of a bullet leaving the barrel. Relatives had hovered around him, whispering and tsk tsking, wondering out loud how he had the strength. For he had been here before, at this precise table, with a cup of tea sitting on front of him, shocked into silence by the death of his daughter seven years ago. He had not found the words then either, and the people that surrounded him this time felt that he was perhaps again muted by the death of his wife. So he nodded and stayed silent, taking small sips of the tea, all the while wishing the house would empty of the well-wishers who had swarmed in as soon as they had heard the news.


Upstairs, he edged his way over to the bed and kept smiling even as he tripped over his wife’s slippers on her side of the bed. Some of the wine spilled on his shirt. Instinctively, his hands rose to cover the spot. Years of furtive drinking had made him cautious. But the bed was empty, the bathroom lights off, and the only sounds he could hear were the low murmurs of his wife’s cousins, who had shooed the visitors out so Mr Dar could rest, and then closed the door behind them, insisting on spending the night so he would not be alone.


He set the food and the wine down on the bedside table and sat down on the bed. It was strange to be in this room, this house, without his wife, a feeling that would take getting used to. When they had first gotten married, he had enjoyed her constant presence, her curiosity about him and his habits. He had liked the fact that all he had to do was reach out and she would respond, resting her hand in his. The conversations had been easy, fluid. They talked of everything and nothing, pausing the flow for him to go to work and return. They had smiled together at glances of their friends, envious at the easy nature of their friendship that had developed despite their marriage having been arranged over the phone. There had never been any fights, both of them averse to overt displays of emotion, and the calm existence that their daughter, Sara, had been born into was something Mr Dar had been proud of. After Sara, their only child, had died, gun to her own head, the calm had broken. His wife, unable to contain her questions, had bombarded him with them, the whys, the whats, the hows. She had howled and screamed, filling up the room until he felt like the noises were invading his lungs and he had wanted to tear his clothes off and breathe. The gunshot, as he imagined it over and over staring at the empty gun case sitting in his bedside table, started to make cracks in everything around him. The sofas, he found, were not as comfortable any more, the lamps not as illuminating as he would have liked. Even his wife’s touch had started to feel like the crawl of cold metal against skin, and he found himself withdrawing every time she reached out to him. There had been no blame thrown around, nor had he actually attempted to search for any answers. Things happen, he said and accepted it just as it had come, the quiet explosion, and tried to pretend that Sara was still away at college, still angry at them, perhaps. He found himself spending more and more time in the attic to escape the tears that constantly seemed to be streaming down his wife’s face. She, never the immaculate housekeeper, devoted her energies to maintaining their house. They met over dinner, and breakfast, and sat in silences that grew increasingly awkward. She sometimes tried to penetrate the quiet, and he responded, feeling it was his obligation to provide conversation. But then they returned to their own worlds, she worrying, frowning, watching. And he trying not to. His own hesitation to reach out to his wife bothered him deeply. So, he fabricated work trips and spent the days holed up in a hotel down the street, watching movies and drinking. The harder she tried to speak to him, clinging to him like one of those infernal vines on every piece of bedding she owned, the more convinced he became of his own need for independence. Inevitably, she cried. In an act of surrender and shame, he scuttled around the house, most often to the kitchen and helped her peel garlic cloves or onions, to rid his conscience of guilt.


All that was over now. Despite the stamp his wife had left on the space around him – the flowered bedspread, doilies, rug, a heap of his clothes neatly ironed and folded, her jewellery box and perfumes sitting atop the dresser next to a picture of her parents, the room in disarray from the morning – Mr Dar could already feel the solitude descend on him.


He sat crumbling cookies in his palm before depositing the morsels in his mouth, and listened to the lowered voices downstairs, wondering what to do next. It was getting close to bedtime, and he needed to be rested for the funeral the next afternoon. His wife’s relatives had declared that Friday, being the most blessed day of the week, would have to be the day. At first he had objected to their interference, feeling perhaps that he might need some more time to get used to the idea, but then, recalling his wife’s perpetual nitpicking with anything he planned, had let the eager faces bury themselves in animated conversations about which mosque to contact. He had excused himself from the discussion, feeling lighter than he had in years, and even though his own surprise at the quickness with which he ascended the stairs passed, he held his smile until he closed the door of the bedroom behind him. The house was his to run.


Washing the crumbs down with the remaining wine, he wiped his hands, slowly and deliberately, on his pants as he looked around for something to write on. There was so much to be done. The bedside lamp, a golden cherub holding up a candle atop which sat the bulb, flickered as he turned it on. He shook the wire that ran from the base and disappeared somewhere behind the headboard, and promised himself some new lamps. Something modern, something like he had seen in the apartment Sara had by her university. Red perhaps. Or blue. In the lamp’s dim light, he noticed his wife’s wedding band, threaded through a gold chain, on the bedside table. Over the years, she had made a habit of taking it off before doing household chores and then promptly losing it; inevitably, he had been the one to go on the hunt for it, grudgingly tearing himself away from reading Newsweek or the latest cricket stats on the internet. In the past couple of years, as she had spent more and more time in bed, complaining of headaches and shortness of breath, then increasingly of other aches and pains, finally succumbing to the lungs that had been failing her long before they were found out. She had shrunk, her clothes sitting on her frame like a voluminous shroud. It had become easier and easier for the ring to slip off her fingers and she decided to string it on a chain and wear it around her neck. Lifting the ring, he recalled how gaunt her fingers had been in the last few months, and how her desire to hold his hands, to have him near her, had grown. He had let her caress him, cringing inside at the feeling of the dry, wasting skin of her hand running along his own. Her eyes, once the same green as those of his daughter, had sunken into her cheeks, seeming to lose colour. He had often found himself studying the patterns on the carpet as he sat in silence with her, the short burst of oxygen from the oxygen pump the only sound between them until she fell asleep and he tiptoed back to the guest bedroom down the hall.


Mr Dar took a deep breath and swallowed, trying to contain the irritation that had started to prick at his limbs at the memory of his wife’s sick face. Even in sickness his wife’s eyes had held a constant accusation, almost as if she blamed him for not being the one in bed. In her last days, he had often imagined her dying, afraid that she would see it in his eyes, and the night before she had passed away had sat by her bed, watching her struggle to breath, and despite the guilt, trying to see if he could will her chest to stop rising. She had handed him the ring then, perhaps to remind him of his vows he had thought, and asked him to keep it safe.


Mr Dar threw the tiny noose at her picture on the dresser. The ring rolled off the chain onto the floor and under the dresser where he heard it cling against the wall and then settle. He lifted the glass to his lips and finding only a drop slowly sliding down the side, cursed. On an impulse, he stood up on the bed and raised his hands so that they almost touched the ceiling. The headboard creaked as he jumped on the mattress, once, enjoying the feel of the textured ceiling sharply graze his fingertips. From his vantage point, everything in the room seemed small. He could see a layer of dark dust on the top of the fan, the mirror, and the pictures that hung on the wall and even the furniture that seemed to have invaded the room. The room needed to be purged, opened up. This could be his first project, followed by the spare room being converted into the library, and the small garden behind the house where he had always wanted to lay red brick down to emulate the veranda in his childhood home. Sara’s room he would attend to last, perhaps keep it as it was. Just in case, he thought, knowing that for the last seven years his wife had cleaned the room devotedly, not for Sara, but for him. Just in case.


As he stabilised himself on the bed, his eyes fell on the curtains on the wall across the bed. He shook his head. There were no windows behind those curtains, and he had never understood his wife’s reasoning for placing them there. This wall is next to the hallway, he had pointed out, pursing his lips under his moustache, and hallways don’t have windows. So? She had shrugged, it adds an illusion of light. And he had had to climb up, fearful of falling off the chair, and put the curtain rod up for the sake of her illusion.


Those would be the first to go, he decided, lowering himself from the bed and making his way over to the curtains. They silk crumpled in his hands as he closed his fists around the fabric and then yanked, bringing the curtain rods down with it. The fabric settled at his feet, dust entering his nose and mouth. He grinned. The act gave him more satisfaction than he had anticipated and he wanted more. He kicked at the green and pink flowered rug beneath his feet, pushing it over to a corner of the room, then moved to the dresser and with one swipe of his arm, sent everything crashing to the floor. One of the perfume bottles cracked and filled the room with the sickly sweet smell of crushed jasmines. But strong as it was, the smell could do nothing to cover the buried odour that always permeated the room: a mixture of Bengay and decay, as if the flowers on everything had rotted long ago, and having been preserved, filled the room with a musty smell of death. He thought that he might like some fresh air, and would have opened the windows had they not been painted shut when his wife had decided to freshen up the window frames and sealed the windows shut with a coating of white paint. He would have to get those working, too. Stamp the house; make it his own. He looked around for something to attend to next.


Mr Dar couldn’t help but look over his shoulder as he pulled his wife’s bedside drawer open. It was full and heavy in his hands as he eased it out and dumped the contents on the bed. Books, novels and a collection of memorable phrases tumbled out among various bottles of medication. He pushed these aside, his eye having been caught by a letter-sized package that peeked out from beneath her copy of the Quran. The golden string that held the package glinted at him, and he had a moment of wildly fantastic excitement as he slid it out, wondering if he was about to discover letters from some old lover of his wife’s. He asked himself if he really would be surprised; he himself had recently found himself thinking of the girl who used to live next door to his childhood home in Lahore, the one whom, on the occasional nights when the books failed to hold his attention, he would climb to the terrace to stare at, leaning over the balcony pretending to gaze at the stars.


The wrapping paper felt rough to the touch, and peering at it closely, he could see dried rose petals immersed in the fibre itself. His heart beat faster against his chest as he carefully undid the tie on the string. While he himself had stopped bringing flowers for his wife soon after their daughter left home for college, distracted by work and middle age, the sight of dried rose petals roused in him a sense of betrayal he had not felt since their only daughter decided to abandon all faith and culture and move in with a Hindu boy that went to college with her.


The vellum opened to reveal a leather-covered writing pad that was monogrammed with the initials ‘RD’. Mr Dar stared, his breaths shortening, at the elaborately cursive gold writing. He knew it; only a lover, only someone who expects letters, would give such a thing to someone. He frowned at the initials that stood for both his name and hers, a coincidence he had found charming when he had first heard of his impending marriage to her, and wondered who could have sent her such an expensive looking item. Certainly she had no use for it; she had no one to write to, he thought, considering that he had forbidden her to communicate with their daughter. A few months after that, over dinner, she had declared that holding on to friends from her youth was causing her to stagnate, and had let those relationships fall away as well. He had been her only friend.


He hesitated. Did he want, he wondered, to think of her as being affectionate, to think that some form of love could have still survived in her shrunken body. He fingered the edges of the pad. After Sara’s death, he had comforted himself with the thought that theirs was a companionship of sorts: both limited, both lonely, both bound to each other. He couldn’t think whom it might be that she corresponded with; the men in their lives, his friends with the same sagging faces as him, the same greying hair, the same paunchy stomachs, couldn’t have offered much more than he. And she, his wife, hardly left the house except for Sunday visits to the Pakistani grocery store.  Mr Dar’s hands trembled as he opened the maroon leather cover of the writing pad, and retrieved the plain white envelope. He lifted it to his nose and sniffed at it, taking in the tape-covered back flap that had appeared to have been opened and re-opened repeatedly. With  a deep breath to slow his heartbeat down, he turned the envelope over. There on the front, scrawled in his daughter’s neat handwriting, was his name.


Mr Dar blinked, once, twice, then looked away and looked back at the envelope, as if wondering whether his eyes had somehow fooled him. They hadn’t. There it was, the determined curve of the R, resting on two short legs, followed by the squiggles that he knew spelled out his first name. He lifted a hand to his hair, pulling at it unconsciously. His breath came out in erratic spurts  as he tore the envelope open, letting his eyes run over the page.

Dear Abba,

I know you won’t speak to me. But I thought, perhaps, you could write. Amma  says you seem lonely. 

I miss you Abba. Please write.

He flipped the piece of paper over to see if there was any more, but the back was empty. Upon reading the words again, he could feel a tightness start to grip the inside of his head. There was no date on the letter, just a year – the year of her death, and a cross to signify a kiss. He sat, holding the note in his hand, and stared blankly at the wall across from him, empty except for the holes where the curtain rod had been. Vaguely, and out of habit, he considered how irresponsible Sara had been to spend so much money on a luxury item.


Mr Dar felt an unexpected anger rise inside him. His hands shook; he felt his jaw clench and wanted to grind even their air out of existence. She, his wife, had kept this a secret. She had, knowingly, as he had gone about his life, struggling, for it had been a struggle to maintain the clam existence, to be the one who did not explode as the world fell apart around him, kept this from him. This, the last thing that his daughter had ever sent him, the last words she had ever addressed to him, his wife had hidden.  And even as she lay there, on her death bed, holding his hand, she had known that he would find it, had known that she had in her keeping, the power. She had been looking to win, he realised. And she had.


Not accustomed to being taken by such anger, Mr Dar did the only thing he could think of. He howled. A deep, gurgling howl that emanated from the pit of his stomach, and ended with his voice cracking. The murmurs that had been wafting up through the course of the evening stopped and he could feel the stunned silence of the visitors reaching up to him through the cracks under the door.  He felt invaded. By these people, by this space, by his wife. He howled again, screaming over and over, and flung himself at everything in sight. He kicked at the chair, threw punches at the mirror, feeling a growing need to destroy even more when that shattered. He opened up her drawers, tearing at everything he could get his hands on. His teeth felt raw from biting into paper, cloth, whatever came in his hand. Outside his door was a sudden rush of voices, a banging, screams asking him to open the door, is everything okay, what are you doing. Call the police, said someone. Call 911.  He tore, and tore, pulling at the seams of the pillows, throwing her head against the door and putting his fist through the wall.  His mouth tasted of blood as he continued to scream and hurl himself at everything he could find.


Suddenly, the door burst open, and then, there was silence.  He stopped. Staring at him were the faces of his wife’s cousins, strangers, shocked at the scene before them.  They watched him, the nervousness apparent in their eyes, in the biting of the lips, the fingers against the throats. Their eyes were wide, questions, conclusions, evident.  He stared back at them, conscious now of the scene before them, the sights between them. He knew what it must seem like to them. He knew what they must think. He wanted to correct them, but the words refused to form in his head.

Are you okay, they finally asked. Are you okay?


He wanted to answer them, thought perhaps he should say something. But the words seemed to fail him. Is he okay, they asked each other, not having found an answer from him. He stared back at them, taking in their paleness, their concern, and then lifted himself off the floor and crawled into the bed. And they stood there, watching, as he pulled the covers over his head, shutting out the noise, and wept.



Hananah Zaheer is a lover of average coffee, an avid student of people, and a collector of books. She has an MFA in creative writing, and spends her time teaching, writing, and lamenting about the lack of time in a day.