A Summer's Nightfall
Life always changes dramatically.
I was returning home from a medical conference in St. Louis when my car started wobbling with a flat tire near Exit 22. Fortunately, the barren interstate ran through the ripe farmlands of Arkansas and I could see tiny peaks of a township near the exit. I took it and dragged the car into the parish.
“Well,” said the mechanic, seriously looking at my car, “I checked your spare and it’s deflated, plus one of the back tires has scratches. I’ll say you should have ‘em all changed.”
“No, that’ll take too long,” I said. “I have an important dinner to attend and… just fix the flat please.”
“But Sir, it’s gettin’ dark n’ rainy and you’d wanna drive home safe,” he explained. “It’ll only be couple of hours. Trust me.”
The graying sky had begun to drip lightly. The summer breeze was actually very refreshing and called for a stroll. So, I left the workshop and decided to follow the moonlight into a cluster of trees a few yards away.
The town was a sweet little setup with huge breathing space that is such a novelty for us city dwellers. It reminded me of my village in Pakistan: of its rich earth and open summer skies pouring gleefully over fields of gold. It brought back the scents of my mother’s kitchen, the gurgle of my father’s hookah, the tranquil shade of the old neemtree standing proudly in the village center, and the faint memory of a promise I made to love someone forever.
I remembered Nadia.
Everyone in the village called her my shadow because she would follow me everywhere like a lovesick kitten. She was my best friend, and after we came to America, graduated from med school together, shared the best and the worst of our training, I realized I loved her… always had. And now, I wanted to marry her.
But life changes dramatically.
Nadia had a plan I didn’t understand. She wanted to go back to Pakistan.
“No, stay here with me!” I protested. “I promise I’ll love you forever.”
“But the village needs me more,” she replied. She pressed my hand warmly, the honey-gold specks in her eyes shining brightly. “Amir, please, won’t you come home with me?” she asked hopefully.
“No,” I said coldly, “I am home.”
Ten years went by. I made money, friends, bought a big house by the river in one the most coveted Memphian neighborhoods, and became a hero in the world of Pediatrics as every one of my little patients hopped home happily visit after visit.
So, why didn’t my eyes smile anymore?
The breeze was tickling my senses. Suddenly, I smelt a delicious fragrance dancing up my nostrils, clipping the cord of my unhappy thoughts. Somebody was cooking something nearby.
I know that smell…it is chapatti, I thought excitedly.
Childhood memories clicked through my mind like frozen frames from long ago: my mother in her kitchen, rolling out balls of dough into perfect circles, slapping them onto a griddle sitting on a wood stove, toasting them, the aroma of fresh chapatti, filling our home with warmth and peace.
The air wore that familiar perfume now.
I came to a broken wall, covered with moss, soot and age, and there was a woman sitting in its shade, toasting chapattis on a
griddle, on a wood stove, just like my mother. She looked up at the crunch of dried leaves under my feet. She was beautiful. She wore a tattered shawl. And she had an ethereal quality about her.
“Hello, stranger,” she said calmly. “I told him we might have company tonight.”
I was surprised. She noticed the shock and smiled.
“By him I mean my husband,” she said, “I had a feeling someone might come from the parish so I wanted him to stay home.”
“Oh,” I said, “I – I’m not from the parish.”
“No, you’re not. Please, sit” she said, pointing to a stool. “My husband likes to go for long walks every evening. He will be back
I sat down. The orange glow of the open flame drenched everything in a warm dream laced with an inviting aroma of fresh food.
“You know my mother used to make these when I was little.” I said pointing to the chapattis.
“She doesn’t make them now?” she asked.
“She probably does,” I said, “but I came here a long time ago.” The gnawing at my heart was definitely guilt… or homesickness.
She stopped toasting and handed me a piece of the bread. She told me her grandmother was from the East and taught her to make this special kind of oriental bread. Her husband loved it and so she made it for dinner every night, right here by the wall.
“It’s delicious,” I said, swallowing big chunks hungrily.
She laughed. The dulcet tones of her laughter seem to leave a twinkle in the air. Her eyes reflected compassion. Somehow, I felt I could tell her anything. I talked about home and my family. I talked about Nadia. I was stunned at how much my heart had held back all these years. The sweetness of my past poured through my eyes. And for the first time in many years I wanted to go home, to see my mother, to taste her chapattis, and to follow Nadia everywhere like a lovesick kitten. But I didn’t know how.
“They have all learnt to live without me,”I moaned. “I can’t go back and disrupt their lives. It is too late now.”
“Well, stranger,” she said wisely, “if you don’t go, you’ll never know.”
“But… what if they don’t need me?” I asked desperately.
She tilted her head and looked at me in a strange way that stripped me down to my bare heart.
"But they do,” she spoke dreamily. “Can you not see your mother still waits for you at the dinner table? Your father needs your advice about the farmlands… and your brothers still cherish the last picture you sat for with them…”
Suddenly, I could see my family as she described them. The frozen frames were thawing. I saw my parents; my brothers had grown to be handsome, strong men; and I saw Nadia. I saw her like she was right there beside me…like I could touch her!
“She’s still waiting,” the woman’s voice echoed in the background, “but you must hurry. She won’t wait forever.”
I saw Nadia stepping forward with her hand stretched out but the vision melted into darkness before she could touch me. Now, it was the woman, her cold wood stove, and the sudden silence of reality.
“If you don’t go,” she broke the silence,“you’ll never know.”
“Who are you?” I finally found my voice.
She smiled and said, “My stove is cold…and you should go home now.”
I was speechless. I wanted to thank her but the words jammed in my throat. I quietly got up and, without a second glance, started toward the township. The mechanic jumped to his feet as he saw me.
“There you are!” he said, sighing with relief, “I thought you got lost in the woods.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I lost track of time talking to that woman who cooks by the wall in the forest every night. Hey, will you tell her I said thanks for…” I stopped. The mechanic was staring at me.
“Or not,” I said with a faint smile.“Thank you for everything.”
My car was waiting, ready to hit the road again. As I pulled out of the garage, the mechanic waved at me to stop and came by the window.
“Sir…” he hesitated, and then continued,“There ain’t no woman here like the one you just described.”
“I didn’t think so,” I replied. “It doesn’t matter. Goodbye.”
I left the confused mechanic, the parish, and the enchantress behind to take on a new road. As unreal as that woman may have been, she gave me back my lost legacy. I had done enough to please my mind. Now, it was time to listen to my heart. And my heart said it was time to connect with the past.
It was time to really head home.