By Anam Abbas
My grandfather’s house was not a place of rules or admonitions.
My grandfather was not a man of many words.
He was a man of the other kind, who commands almost without trying, whose existence is enough reproach.
In my grandfather’s house, I would spend sometimes parts of a day, sometimes parts of a week, and once almost half a summer alone (other summers were spent there, but not alone, those were family vacation getaways). My parents would leave me to attend to their own affairs, in my grandfather’s care, in my grandfather’s house, my mother’s father, a consequential man.
I enjoyed these visits. I was free to entertain myself, and was read to when I was bored. The house held many objects of fascination, things that I could only look at from the corner of my eye, stare at from a distance. Not because there were rules. As I said my grandfather was not a man to lay down the law, but there was an unsaid business to my presence in his habitat. I did not dare touch anything, would not even think to ask him to explain the appearance of any object strange or commonplace in that house. He was a silent patriarch with an ancient history and no past.
I was perfectly content with this arrangement. You see, I was a child of few words. My pleasure lay quiet and dormant in my gaze, like a voluptuous woman, lazy in her bed-sheets, squirming in the glow of morning sunshine blazing through the gaps in her curtains.
Once, I remember having a fever.
My grandfather must have been busy with visitors and the servants shuffled me off to sleep in a room that my grandfather used mostly for his afternoon naps.
In his giant bed I twisted in my sick-sleep for hours, waking up in fragmented spells of sweat, drool and vertigo. When I finally stumbled out of the fever, I found my way to the attached washroom, a room I had never before visited. I splashed water on my face. I stood on the tile floor letting the cold seep through the soles of my feet like a healing wind. The light in that room was white, almost foggy, without the fog; a liquid white that massaged the senses, devoid of assault.
As I looked at my reflection in the mirror, in the strange white light and exhaustion of my body, I noticed a reflected glimmer. It was coming from the bathtub behind me.
It was peculiar enough that I broke away from the demonic battle with my mirror-face, a battle I often experienced around fevers- a game of self mockery, a moving away from self on to a play field where I battle with another self over the judgement of my face. It must be feverish hallucination, or some sort of existential ritual I put myself through in the wake of my body’s confirmation of its ineffectitude.
I pulled the shower curtain aside and peeked into the majestic bathtub, not the jacuzzi kind but your regular oblong tub, a shelled out eggplant. This one was white and the white of this tub, like the light, seemed to fade. Especially against the silver of the ship that lay there. No, not floating in water. It was just a metal ship in an empty tub. It took up three quarters of the tub. The other quarter, I stepped into, to closely examine the monstrosity.
It was big. It was very detailed, not with ornament, but precise like a machine ought to be. I read later about it . I could look it up because the name of the ship was inscribed, in nonchalant script, on its side. KANDAHAR.
In its lower expanses the actual ship could and did hold six thousand sharks. I saw this absurd aquarium and attempted to slide it out from the ships belly, but it was too heavy, unyielding.
At the helm, where it pointed to the void of an imaginary ocean – what ocean could bear the condescension of a ship so grandiose, I could not imagine. Surely not the tub – that was a grand joke. On this deck, I saw a white balloon-shaped object attached to a taught diagonal mast fastened to some mechanism deep inside the ship. I pulled at it. I do not know why I pulled at it. It was not calling out to be pulled. The pulling was not a result of a deep and calculated analysis. Nor was this movement of my arm an act of instinct, beautiful and amoral. It was simply a precipitation. I did know what should happen if I pulled. Certainly not what did happen.
I pulled and suddenly my feet were not touching the cool surface of the tub. The white balloon immediately expanded, bloating up with air I could not imagine the bathroom holding, lifting me with it. I found myself stuck between the balloon and the ceiling above, and as the balloon continued to expand I found myself wedged tight against the roof, the balloon buoying me up, pressed against my throat and belly, my chin pointing upwards like a question mark.
I could not see if this balloon was still attached to that strange protrusion from the belly of the ship. I am sure it was.
I could see from the corner of my eye the giant ship still sitting there, its form blurry but entirely in my landscape. It was a living thing then, not cruel or malicious but simply returning my gaze, not even with curiosity.
I considered a plan of action. Did the balloon continue to expand, or was my throat tightening with fear, panic – I could not tell. I was sweating again. I tore my eyes off the metallic expanse and my eyes darted around the bathroom like a bird freed only to find itself in a bigger cage; the four corners where the walls met the ceiling, the upper edges of the mirror, the light so happily situated on the roof where I found myself now paralyzed.
I do not know how long I stayed squashed to the ceiling before I made a decision. I put my hands on the ceiling and slid my neck from between the sandwich of balloon and cement. My stomach came next easily. I found myself hanging from the roof, my hands like suction cups the only force holding me there. I wonder only now, as I write this, at the absolute absurdity of it all. Nevertheless, I was free. I was a bundle of amazement at how easily I was freed from my captor, but with it came the realization that I must now jump. My heart skipped a beat and I considered for a second staying there, an eternal frog on the bathroom ceiling. But after that terrified moment of my heart in my throat, I jumped and landed on my feet. The balloon on its stick stayed as I left it, kissing the ceiling . I did not glance at the ship but immediately left the room and returned to the stale heat of my sick room.
I looked up Kandahar in the library years later. It was a military ship. My grandfather must have served on it, captained it perhaps. No, not a Captain, but a General. It was named after the war of course, venerated for many more feats than simply the six thousand sharks it held. That was just a necessary measure, not even an extravagance, when compared to its other majesties. It had been peopled by many Chinese workers you see; soldiers and workers. Mostly workers. It seems they would eat only shark. Shark is aesthetically congruent with metal. Very pleasing indeed. I learnt that the ship had had much mythical and mystical significance when designed. It was made entirely with a certain micro-fibrous metal, the discovery of which had meant much in the way of scientific progress, said much in the way of man’s achievement, consented much in the way of man’s conquest of his inferiors.
More and more I began to believe that my grandfather must have been an important man. Not only to have served on that ship, but to have in his possession a model of the ship. That was no ordinary circumstance. Perhaps, somewhere, the actual ship remained. Perhaps, sometimes, when the winds blew a certain way, his heart would lead him to revisit the ship, wherever it was kept. He would not enter it but sit beside it, like one sits outside a lion den in a zoo, with veneration and love, and nostalgia. He would sit beside it and watch the colours of the sky transform it as if the sun bent around the horizon just to take a peek at the angles and crevices of its metallic beauty, the wind sighing through its vastness, breathing finally onto my grandfather’s face, in respect and veneration to the man as well, for his silent companionship.
I too become still, even now, seventy years after the great war was won and more than twenty since my encounter, when the image of Kandahar slips into my brain. I hold my breath ‘til it passes, my throat once more tight and unyielding. I feel its beauty as a torment upon me, for I am unlike my grandfather: a weak and feeble creature not accustomed to fraternizing with the powerful and commanding. I am filled with a moving and dry fear at the memories of the ship, a nightmare of silver, the churlish black water, the metallic, rancid smell of unholy blood, and the cold cold cold of dead fish.
Anam Abbas grew up wanting to be an archaeologist but found herself instead an educator, writer, film-maker and yoga instructor. She still craves dirt under her fingernails and ancient dust on her eyelashes. She enjoys Cary Grant, Yma Sumac and making hats.