Birds Fly Away
By Rabia Ramzan
Everything was comfortable and cheery as always or perhaps, more than ordinarily patronizing…a general impression of preparation and relief, highly conducive to spirit and amusing anticipations, with a completely modern character which imparted an air of convenience: dusty streets passing in a frigid blur, rusting iron doors, barred and locked as usual with no sign of anything discernible, unclosed window-shutters, drooping roofs, scribbled-on walls with whitewash torn everywhere, silent noises of the footfalls, mute knockings at the doors, and quiet turnings of the handles, dim lights strobing in the dark spells and folding inside themselves until absorbing the sunlight completely, deep and red flickering fires proceeding from the hollows of chimneys and echoing in clouded darkness, howling wind steeping in shadow…Nothing had changed. Everything was same.
It was the third day. And, I, holding my son’s hand tight, was taking him to school routinely. I did not want to stop or even look at it; conceivably, I didn’t want to face the harsh reality or possibly I might have thought that by avoiding looking at it, I could also avoid the impending doom. But I began to walk towards it nervously. I couldn’t resist: towering in front of me stood that old-looking locked door of a decrepit house, the dismal stone walls with sadness oozing out of every crack and crevice. They all gazed over me. Standing tall, the somber portrait of their cold eyes glared at me.
Gaping at what stood in front of me, I trembled close towards the deserted door and reaching for the handle hesitantly, my hands began to quiver, my heart started beating faster, making it harder for me to breathe, my voice strangled in pain; my body was being overwhelmed by fear. I forced myself closer and grabbed the handle with my hands still shaking. A cool shudder trickled down my spine. The cold wind whispered the worrisome voice of Ms. Shin Hye into my ears: “the birds fly away, never to return”. Wondering if all of this was real but not taking my chances, I slowly paid my respect and shunning all the fears and thoughts, held my son’s hand tighter and set off to where I was heading before getting distracted. This house had always been a source of motherly comfort to me, but now, there was something that really chilled my bones.
Stumbling at past, I could see the shadow of Ms Shin Hye passing and repassing perfectly, distinctly. She was a particularly fearless and scrupulously religious, square, short woman, with black hair; dressed like some picture book vendors, with the impression of being left in charge of the empty house by the proprietor.
I still remember the day when my husband and I had come to take possession in this neighborhood. She was the first person we encountered. She was nice enough to help us in settling things down; brought us food for one week until we had properly accommodated. The days went on and she became a helping hand to me. I never heard her complain but counting her blessings always. She was never angry, neither perturbed, nor vexed, but the only thing visible in her black shiny eyes was a strange sadness and hollowness.
Lost in her thoughts, I didn’t realize what time we reached and when my son entered the school gate. On my way back, my eyes unintentionally circumambulated her ramen stall; it was closed and there were no customers.
On reaching home, I finished my household chores and fell further deep into past. All that was in sight was the day she died on. It came out that I was invited to her house that day. She had prepared a sumptuous lunch, though it wasn’t a special day, nor was it the birthday of her son, neither of her daughter’s, which she used to celebrate grandly. She seemed different and pale. There was something very peculiar about her eyes. With tears springing from her eyes, she closed the door but her hands wouldn’t let her push it hard against the latch. Exhibiting all the symptoms of extreme loneliness, she raked through the darkness, along a seemingly never ending path, but found none within it.
“I had always been strong enough that nothing made me sad or give in”, she said with titanic courage, “I never took anything to my heart; nothing ever got hold of me, even the death of my beloved husband. But, lately, I feel that my loneliness is eating me up. It will kill me. Before it does, I want to see my children again”.
“I want them home now, can they not come back and play with me?” she coughed to apprize herself of their absence, and turned again towards the wall.
“I was the only child of my parents”, she reflected. “My father was a doctor and my mother, a teacher. We lived in a remote area of Daegu. My father was earning much, and, because my mother was a frugal lady, they were able to save a big sum of money and bought this house in central Seoul. We lived here happily. I was admitted to the best high school of the town. It was hardly a year that we had shifted to this house when one day coming back from their jobs, my parents’ car met an accident and they died leaving me alone in this ruthless world to fight the currents of the wild wind on my own. I left the school, did many part-time jobs and married Park Hyun Soo. We had two children, Gun Hye and Tae Shin. They fought and loved each other. Life went on. I thought that now nothing would change and my house would always be filled with happy chirps of my birds. I can still recall, they were in college then. It was raining heavily on that day and Hyun Soo did not come back home. We called everyone we knew, searched wherever we could, but to no avail. The night passed away and the next day, he came home, but dead. He had died of heart attack. He could not manage to pay the interest on debt. The restaurant was sold and I was left empty handed. I started working ramen seller to fend for my children. And, after burning midnight oil, I could enable my children to seek higher education and get good jobs. I got my daughter married and sent her to America but had I the slightest idea that she would never return, I wouldn’t have let her go. My son also wanted to explore the new skies. He flew to England and got married. He used to call me in the beginning but then I did not hear from him ever again”. I didn’t realize until later what she meant by: “The time has come. The last bird is about to fly. The nest would soon be empty. I pray that there never be any lonely bird dying of frost.”
There were hundreds of people on her funeral to bid the lonely bird farewell. It was the first time I had seen her children and grandchildren. They were crying; the sea of tears was not drying. They regretted they could not come earlier. Now, even if they wanted to come back, there was no mother bird to nestle them, nor the nest; she had entrusted her house to an orphanage. Soon, they retired to the new nests they had built, but which comparable to this one, were nothing but mere shadows of this nest, deprived of the warmth and comfort of it.
“Keep hold of your son. Let him fly but make sure that he doesn’t take the flight that might hinder him from coming back”, she would say.
The knock at the door dragged me back to present and I was surprised to see my son back home. I looked at the clock and realized how much time had elapsed. I gave him jajangmyeon to eat and started helping him with his home work. Soon after, I was shushing my son, holding him tight in my lap as if he would fly away, the moment I would let him free and he, constantly pointing at his atlas, was saying that he wanted to go to this country and that and that he would never come back. His thoughtlessly uttered words faltered my thoughts and I was shivering, not knowing what to do.
I froze in fear. I felt sick. Considering this all a dream, I shut my eyes and tried to fill up with some hope and make myself believe that these apprehensions were not real, but as many times as I attempted this, all the fears rushed back.