Ten years ago when my wife, Tina, died I buried her under the red maples in the backyard. This made it possible for me to be close to her at all times of the day, and in all seasons. I could watch her from the kitchen window while doing the dishes or cooking. In summers I would play with my daughter Huma in the yard amidst Tina’s quiet presence. In fall she was warmed by the red gold and orange of the leaves. Nature, Huma and I have kept her company all these years. I share my thoughts with her every hour of each day, and when I cannot sleep at night I tell her how much I love and miss her, and that without her I feel inadequate to take care of our child.
For a long time this was the truth that mattered to me. A truth with which I lived every day with an aching heart and a loneliness that made me a vigilant parent lest I fail to be present to the one person I desperately loved. The other truth was much more harsh and difficult to reconcile with. This other truth had to do with my journey from a remote part in Pakistan to another remote part in America. We had been married for a year when I accepted a teaching position in an elementary school in America. I had a Computer Science degree from the UK. When my father died I had no immediate family left in Pakistan. So I decided to leave for America to seek a new life with a new family.
This small town was more like a hamlet with few schools, hospitals and industry but we were happy for it felt like a new beginning. Tina and I were hopeful for our futures together and for the future of our child who was born a year after we arrived. The town was fenced in by a forest on one side and a blue sea on the other. No matter where we were in this town we could always hear the gentle murmur of the waves. It was a background sound to all our activities. Even at night I could hear the water lapping. But if we walked to the opposite side everything became quiet and still. We could see the tall, lush trees of the wooded area. Sometimes Tina and I would walk in the forest and hear another kind of murmuring and whispering—that of squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, rodents, swallows, thrushes, finches and ospreys.
At school the teaching faculty was mostly white except for some African American and Latina members of the faculty. The school principal was an older white woman named Helen Spires. I always felt she was reserved but kind and helpful. When I was new in town and in this school she helped me settle in and took the time to meet Tina whom she suspected may have felt lonely in this remote place. She drove us around to show us the town with its grocery store, post office, theatre, and pharmacy. At the time I didn’t think one day I would ask her about where the nearest cemetery would be located. But years later when I did she told me there was only one cemetery with a boundary around it and that I was better off burying Tina elsewhere.
“Elsewhere?” I had asked her with dismay, “where can I bury a dead body but in a cemetery?”
She had placed her hand on my shoulder to comfort me.
“I know Mr. Karim. This must be hard for you. You are away from home and now you have to bury your wife. This is no time to be dealing with the unpleasant realities of American life but so it is.”
She hesitated for a moment. I interrupted.
“What do you mean Ma’am?”
“I mean some people in this town see you as an outsider and they would be unhappy if you buried Tina in the cemetery. You see this is a very old town and you are still seen as a new comer.”
Listening to Mrs. Spires I wept for my loss and for my situation. Huma was only two years old at the time and did not understand how tragedy had already found its place in her life. There was no mosque or a Muslim cleric with whom I could speak. I did not have the money to fly a dead body to Pakistan and frankly, deep down I did not want to part from Tina. I wanted her near me and Huma. So I decided to bury her in my back yard where she has been my constant companion in spirit.
The town cemetery was a bit further away from the town. One day out of curiosity I drove my truck down the dirt road to get a glimpse of the place the town held so dear. There it was on a hill bordered by a white fence. There were trees with pendant branches gently swinging with the breeze. The entire place looked like a garden—a serene, secluded, fragrant, quiet garden. I noticed a woman and a boy leaning over a grave, placing flowers. She was wearing a straw hat for the sun was hot that day. I said a prayer and drove away.
My life with Huma was both private and public. Everyone at school knew I was a single parent. Everyone at the pharmacy and the grocery store were also aware that my wife had tragically died young leaving me with the care of a daughter. I learned to bathe her, clothe her, cook for her and read to her. She was a sweet child, most attentive to my instructions as if she understood that Baba was trying hard without Mama at his side. As she grew older she would participate in small chores like placing table mats, crockery and cutlery on the kitchen table. She had questions about her mother: was she beautiful, did she miss Pakistan when she moved here, how I met Mama.
“Did she love me?”
“Of course she loved you.”
“Then why did she leave me?”
“She couldn’t help it. She fell ill and didn’t recover. She didn’t mean to leave you or me.”
With time she learned to live with the silences surrounding her Mama. She accepted her absence in her life even when it meant accepting the void that came with it. She had friends in school but often, after school she would walk on the shore alone. Upon returning she would share some rocks and shells with me that she had gathered.
“Look at this one Baba. Isn’t it pretty?” she held out a large scalloped shell.
“Yes it is lovely.” I said taking the shell from her and looking at it intently, “it’s bigger and shiner than others.” Then after a pause I added, “You shouldn’t go to the shore alone. We can go together.” I gently discouraged her from her solitary walks.
“I don’t go too far, Baba. I don’t stay too long. But I love standing there feeling the cool air on my face. When I close my eyes I can hear a world hidden in the sea.”
“What kind of world?” I was interested in what she imagined lived in the sea.
“The sea is alive with all sorts of sounds even when on the surface it looks serene.”
“Sounds? What kinds of sounds?”
“Whistling, purring, groaning, humming, hooting.” She said innocently.
“And who is making those sounds?”
“All the creatures that live there.”
“Does it scare you to know there are creatures living under the sea?”
“No. They are playful.”
I was a bit worried about Huma’s rich imagination. I thought her solitary habits were feeding her fantasies. But she was an excellent student. She was a keen learner and retained the information given to her. She received excellent grades and her teachers loved her. I had no reason to worry except when I caught her fantasizing more than I thought was reasonable.
“Maybe you should write stories and poems of what you imagine lives under the sea.” I suggested.
“I could write a poem on this sea shell.” She smiled showing the cream colored shiny sea shell.
In explicit and tacit ways each of us understood the other. I found myself less lonesome with school activities and life with Huma. At twelve she was quite aware of herself and her surroundings. The landscape where she had grown up was a teacher of elements, trees, birds, gulls, storms, sand-dunes, and silence. She was receptive to the richness of the place. There was no way I could contain her imagination and her ability to receive the magic from the spaces around her. Her walks now included the wooded area on the other side of the town. Sometimes I was concerned for her safety when she was late from her walks, but then she would return with leaves and petals in her hair, her hands full of objects she picked up: a quaint smelling shrub, a curved bone, a peculiar-looking twig, a long, white, soft feather, a wing of a bird. She had a wooden box in her room where she would collect these items. For some reason she called them poems.
“You go out and find poems?” I remarked as I was cooking and she was laying the table.
“There are a lot of poems Baba, both outside and inside.”
“Inside what?” By now I had become accustomed to hearing something insightful about nature. I actually looked forward to these conversations that brought us together in a new way.
“Inside trees. Inside the earth. Inside the sea. Inside birds. Inside toads. Everything is alive Baba and it speaks to us if only we took the time to listen.”
“How can you hear them? Do you get very close to them?”
“Yes. The other day I got close to the big elm and placed my hand on the bark. I could hear the elm murmuring and moving. It’s a real presence.”
“Who is the elm talking to?”
“The tree talks to its branches, leaves, stems, flowers, roots and soil. Most of all the tree talks to light and color.”
“So when you touch the tree trunk what do you feel?”
“I feel vibrations and hear sounds. The rest is feeling. I feel happy when I pick up the energy of the tree. It gives me energy. I feel connected to the tree. We are not alone Baba. We are all together.”
“Yes, I know, sweet-heart but most of us forget. You are lucky you didn’t forget. You remember your bliss all the time.” I whispered to myself.
As she spent more time near the sea and in the woods Huma would leap into this other place and become one with it. She would lose herself and merge with the living presences around her. Often she would return from her walks and say, “I was the wave crashing on the shore Baba. I felt so lovely.” “I was grass today and it rained on me,” “I draped the trees with light today,” “I was the lichen on the rocks,” “I was a flying seagull,” “I was the orange in the maple tree when it floated down and rested on Mama’s grave. I felt her peace, Baba.”
Sometimes she would observe a nimbus around a flying eagle or a tiny woodpecker. Once with ecstasy she narrated a sighting of a herd of deer with shiny antlers. They were running in the woods and she saw them with their antlers ablaze. She said they looked like magical creatures, their movements graceful and light, running in sync with each other they seemed to be traveling to a mysterious place. Once she observed luminosity on the tops of trees. She thought it was as if the moon got trapped in the branches. The gentle white light flowed from each leaf and each bough. She said she stood under the moon-lit trees and felt awash by the light. She said she felt bliss.
I often wondered what made Huma so porous to her surroundings. She was solitary in the best of ways for she inhabited worlds within her. The wilderness lived in her without making her wild. Perhaps she did not like separations so she connected with everything. Perhaps she did not like being alone so she became everything. She loved the world with fierceness and an abandon that was liberating.
It was the Fourth of July holiday. Huma sat in her room writing and then decided to go for a walk. I was up on a ladder painting the house when she waved at me saying she won’t be too long. It was eleven in the morning. We were planning on watching the fireworks later. I finished painting and fixed myself a sandwich. I was clearing the table when a boy came running to the door.
“Mr. Karim. Hurry up. Your daughter is hurt.” He said.
“Hurt? Where is she?”
I locked the door and got in my truck along with the boy. I drove to the wooded area and got off the truck. The boy led me to the place where we found Huma lying on the ground with a branch on her head. I removed the branch and picked up Huma and brought her to the truck. I drove straight to the hospital. Apparently the branch had ruptured an artery in her head. She died before we reached the hospital.
“I want to take her home with me.” I insisted.
“We need to do a postmortem.”
“Can I take the body after the postmortem?”
I came home around three in the afternoon. As I drove close to the house I saw Mrs. Spires standing outside my house. She looked pale and distracted. When I got off my truck she hugged me and cried as if her heart was irretrievably broken. In that moment she was a woman, a mother crying for a child she loved. All the other faculty members were with her. Most of them had tears in their eyes. They were shaken by the suddenness of the event. There were also a number of Huma’s class mates and their parents, also people from the post office and the grocery store. One by one they hugged me and offered their condolences and expressed their surprise at this painful end to my beautiful daughter. I opened my living room and every one stepped in. Some had brought flowers, and candles which they lit in the house and outside the property. One of the students started singing Ave Maria and the others joined them. They sat with me, holding my hand, touching my shoulder, comforting me in every way they could. Some of them stayed with me all night. There were no fourth of July fireworks that night. I must have slept at some point for when I woke up I was alone with the scent of flowers and an aching heart.
My first thought was of Tina. I got up and went to the backyard and sat beside her grave. I don’t recall for how long I sat crying and seeking her forgiveness for failing as a father to protect Huma.
“She was your gift to me and l lost her. You have to forgive me.” I must have said it a hundred times. My chest hurt from sobbing and from being hunched over the grave. Then I came inside, changed and went to the hospital to bring Huma home. Everyone in the town had suggested I bury Huma in the town cemetery but I did not agree. I wanted her near Tina. I wanted both of them near me so that I could talk to them at all times of the day, and in all seasons, with the maple leaves keeping them warm in fall.
Mrs. Spires would bring food to my place. We would sit at the kitchen table and quietly have supper. Sometimes we would walk on the shore listening to the sound of gulls, waves and wind. Mrs Spires was generous with her time and her kindness. I felt safe sharing my sorrows with her.
“Why do you think I have been tested so much? I am not yet fifty and I feel I have gone through the worst. I find it difficult to go on. Morning comes and I feel the burden of my responsibilities. I cry in my shower, I cry when I say my morning prayers, I have to remind myself to eat.”
“We are all tested in different ways. I lost my mother when I was only five. That was one reason I loved Huma so much for I knew how hard it is to live without a mom. I also lost my husband to cancer. One day we were vacationing in Italy and the next he found out he was dying. It took only a few months and then he was gone.”
I stopped walking and looked at her in disbelief, “I didn’t know that. I am so sorry. And yet you are so joyful at school with the kids and with your faculty.”
Mrs. Spires smiled and continued to walk.
“I was a lonely child. I found joy with Henry when I met him in college. He was full of life. We had twenty blissful years. I learned joy from him.”
“By being grateful. By making connections. By offering help. We are here for others—to befriend them, to console them, to bring food to them, to teach them. We are not meant to be alone.”
I covered my face with both my hands and sobbed. I was caught by an overwhelming sense that perhaps, I had been selfish in my bereavement—feeling sorry for myself in my solitary walks talking to Huma and Tina. In my desolation I felt Mrs. Spires’ arms around me, her head touching mine. I heard her say, “You must shed all the tears that come to you. Tears can heal.”
Six months after I buried Huma, while I was cleaning up her room, I found a notebook. She had written a poem on each of the objects that she found on her walks. She kept a record of her connection with the wilderness by way of writing a poem. I handed the notebook to Mrs. Spires. I thought that if she saw merit in the writing she might publish some of the poems in the school magazine. It would be a nice way of remembering Huma.
Twenty years have gone by and I still live in the same town and in the same house with Tina and Huma beside me. I am told I could get a better job outside this town but I do not wish to leave. I know every family here. I participate in the town celebrations and ceremonies. They are my people and I belong with them. At night when sleep evades me I think to myself, maybe it takes human beings to dissolve in the earth, and become part of the elements to be an insider, to be a friend, and to feel that perhaps now one is part of what matters the most.
Some nights I dream of Huma running with the herd of deer with the shiny antlers. She is swift and nimble, with a light of her own.
Note: Huma is a Muslim name meaning a mythical bird that is considered lucky. Huma is also referred to as bird of paradise. “Hu” means spirit and “mah” means water.
TAHSEEN BÉA is a creative writer and a scholar. Her recent publications include a scholarly book Engaging Body and Soul: Cultivating Feminine Wisdom with Atropos. Her short stories have published in Your Impossible Voice, The Penman Review, and The Write Launch. She has a PhD in American Modernism and Feminist Theory. Her author website is www.tahseenbea.com.