You realize you’re old at fifty-five when people shut themselves inside vaulted homes and the town turns ghostly at noon, and from the window all you see is a tiny Bharat, whose face and girth have turned forty but mind has remained at five through ten long years, as he pedals his child-bicycle around the stilt-parking, calling out in his nasal voice “Fifty-three! Fifty-four! Fifty-five!” and then he looks up, senses you’re watching, and you mutter “Fuck you” under your breath at his daily counting routine, for the apathy it shows for the hell the world is girdled in, his callousness palpable in his blue surgical mask that hangs below his fat nose in disdain for order and authority, but he stops counting when you reach the ground floor and wave at your first floor bedroom window for what might be the last time, before hauling yourself unaided into the dented cargo carrier that showed up as an ‘ambulance’ to rush you unaccompanied over a barren stretch of hot asphalt lined by the palm trees of a battered Bombay, hurtling alone with not a man or motor in sight, showing scant regard to freestanding programmed traffic signals that are otherwise bounded in a sea of metal boxes on shiny wheels in the unremitting rat race of the maximum city, but right now rules and order are superfluous roadblocks for you’re headed to a pitstop called a hospital on way to a crematorium, and so you forgive this lorn tin contraption pressed into emergency ambulance service for being what it is because in these exigent times when the city lacks all that it always had in plenty: real hospital beds, uninfected doctors, beautiful nurses, bottled oxygen, dubious Remdesivir, indispensable cremation grounds, peaceful graveyards, and the effortful civility of cosmetic times, all of which have receded like your small neighborhood where you now imagine your infected wife and affected daughter gazing at your things, maybe sniffing for your smell, and you picture them picturing your last and lonely dash to the hospital, and you can hear them snivel for being denied by Science the familial courtesy of seeing a dead man off in a cremation ground, let alone take him to hospital for admission and leave only after enquiring about the possible discharge date, because they say that today, even corpses can fatally infect, and so your daughter better be prepared that the city will get rid of your cadaver somehow and let her and her mother know only later, and your folks must derive solace that you were one of tens of thousands, and while your dog may whine and blink soulfully all day but will eventually lay his chin on a different foot and make peace with the idea of seeking yours in another life, a thought you hastily brush away as you board what seems like the vaporous aircraft for egress, coughing out a cup of blood to signal your arrival in hospital, the last cup followed by a couple of hurried valedictory breaths or so it seems, until you awaken not in a well-earned Empyrean nor in a quenchless Gehenna but in a floodlit ICU amid clanging medical machines, gasping patients and the buzz of a godsent army in blue PPE armor suits to wage a tug of war every night against Yama the God of Death, for your body, and if not yours, then for those on the other three beds in your room that are emptied unbreathing, leaving you howling a miserable farewell into the oxygen contraption, till they are replaced with new, breathlessly gasping ones almost four times in rotation over in the weeks that crawl by, during which you learn the art of breathing evenly, shamelessly, while young breaths on adjoining beds cease and leave your heavy unseeing eyes clouded in guilt, until you see the sky again, and this time on the road it is you who is dented in your body and heart and mind and soul and not the vehicle which purrs in a leisurely overcautious crawl, your wife by your side, and you imagine your daughter pacing the house with a grin as wide and lush as the Kashmir valley across her cherubic face, but before that, when the gate opens to the car and gate guards peer in surprise, you hear a familiar voice call “Fifty-six!” and you mutter “Bless you” to Bharat and his daily routine for going past your age, and he stares at you, and so you open the car door, and so you hobble out to him, and so you hug him, and so you fix his mask above his fat nose and even pinch it once, but this time it is you who stares when you catch something changing in him for the first time in ten years, when his mouth stretches under his mask and his eyes confirm he smiled, and synchronously then, the cacophony of bulbuls in your first floor balcony tells you that you may well be young once again, at fifty-six.
Ash Kaul is a Kashmiri writer, mountaineer and strategist. His short stories, essays and flash pieces appear or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Terrain, Consequence, Another Chicago Magazine, X-R-A-Y Magazine, The Ocotillo Review and elsewhere. He was a finalist in Cutbank’s Montana Prize for Fiction, won a ‘favorite’ in a Reflex Fiction (UK) competition, and was longlisted in a Retreat West, UK themed competition. He also enjoys writing political satire. He contributed an international political satire column in LITRO, UK and USA. His political satire also appears or is forthcoming in Barzakh magazine, The Satirist and Bella Caledonia. He can be contacted as LaughingAshes(at)gmail.com
Art by Steve Anwyll @oneloveasshole