“When will you return, Papa?”
“I will return when the bells toll…till then, stay sharp. Take care of your Mama for me, okay Mira?”
“Okay Papa!!! You can bet on it!”
It has been sixty years since I have last seen my father. My memory of him was when he was half my age.
The quintessential tall, dark and handsome man girls are honour-bound to fall in love with. I have not witnessed that spectacle though, but Mama’s stories were enough for me. She told me how they met, how he made my cradle with the wood from the forest, how he used to sing me to sleep when Mama was too tired.
How he had to go the front-lines when the war dragged on longer than necessary.
How he hugged us tight—unwilling to let go.
How he swung his pack over his shoulder and walked down that cobbled road which turned out of sight a few metres away.
I was ten years old at that time. Of all memories of my life, that day’s the most vivid—I was sitting on the porch, playing with my dolls. The war had shut down the schools as every able-bodied male adult was being drafted. Young women too left for the front-lines to serve as nurses and cooks, mothers with young children being the only ones who stayed back. The next-door uncle left a week before the last, a shroud came in yesterday.
Everyone was crying—Mama told me that he became a star.
I was confused—stars were so pretty. So why cry if anyone joins their ranks? They should be proud of it, right?
“They are very proud of him…but you see, once you become a star, you cannot come back. They are missing him very much…” Mama had explained to me back then.
Now, I can’t help but smile at my gullible ten-year-old self when I think about it.
Kids are so easy to explain yet equally difficult at the same time.
It pains one to see that innocent gleam in their eyes dwindle with advancing age. I know, I see my grandkids’ eyes everyday.
That day, when Papa ruffled my hair, I felt a strange sort of dread clutch my heart.
“What is it, Papa?” I asked, confused on seeing an uncharacteristic serious look on his usually happy face.
“Your Papa will be away for sometime, you see,” he began, kneeling down so that he was at my level. Mama stood next to him, her hand on his shoulder. I think she might have given him a reassuring squeeze…after all, it is always difficult for a parent to bid farewell to his child, may it be for months, years, forever.
“Where are you going? To Auntie’s corn farm in the next town?” I piped up. He always brought me yummy corn kebabs whenever he visited Auntie’s farm.
“Umm…no, actually your Papa has to go far, far away. Something important has happened and Papa is called to help other people. And you know it is good to help other people, right?”
I nodded, remembering the last story Papa had narrated to me at bedtime.
“God is always happy when we help others,” I said quickly, proud that I could remember the moral of the story.
“See, my Mira is so grown-up. Now Papa has to help people so he cannot help Mama, right? So it will be your job to help Mama now…can I trust you with that?” he said, smiling at me. His eyes were shining—maybe with unshed tears? I would never know.
“Of course Papa. I will take care of Mama!” I said, punching my fist into the air.
“But Papa, when will you return?” I asked slowly.
He froze in mid-action—he was climbing back to his feet.
“When the bells toll, that day I will return,” he said softly, enveloping me into a bone-crushing hug. I felt wetness on my shoulder…Papa was crying?
“Papa…why are…I do not understand…” I stuttered, the doll dropping from my hands.
“It’s nothing…something got into my eye, that’s all,” he said, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms.
“Don’t rub, Papa…it will worsen!” I said, jumping to try and wrench his hands away.
I was too short…and maybe too young.
I was eighteen years old.
The bells on the bell tower tolled when I was sixteen, making me run to the main road in excitement. But it was only the chief messenger, announcing the fact that the war had entered a phase of brief yet uneasy lull.
Something akin to the calm before a storm.
Two years passed.
There were no letters from the front-lines, the simple reason being the fact that there was no one to deliver them.
Our country was small one—we didn’t have people to spare to do work which “did not have the priority”.
Shrouds came everyday. Thankfully, not for us.
The other day, when I was buying eggs in the market, I heard an unearthly wail emanate from my best friend’s house. Her father’s shroud had come.
I went back to my home, my pace heavy.
Mama hugged me tight. I wept.
Soon, I was twenty-five. Newly married.
I lived two streets away, a two-storied lime-and-stone structure. Mama lived alone.
The bells tolled again, signalling the end of the fifteen-year-long war.
Men came home, tired, haggard. Some missing an eye, some a toe, some a limb. Some walked, some came on stretchers.
Papa wasn’t there.
I stood on the main road for two days straight, until the last of the stragglers were in company with their hearth and home.
Papa wasn’t there.
The Army office registered all the men who didn’t return home and didn’t feature in the death list as “Missing”.
Papa too was presently “missing”.
From that day onwards, the office became my daily pilgrimage centre.
Years piled on as wrinkles on my face, shivers in my hands. Mama passed away, peacefully in her sleep. Ten years after the war ended, all “missing” men that still remained unaccounted for were declared dead. Ten became twenty.
Soon, my kids had their own kids.
Yesterday, I had officially become seventy years old.
The little stone structure had now grown into a fine large house with a big garden. The little town had become a city.
The bells on the tower remained silent.
I sat on the rocking chair at the terrace, breathing in the cool night air. The stars shone brightly.
“…he became a star…”
Did my Papa become a star without me knowing?
The bell tower was more of a tourist place these days, not that bringer of news it was in my time.
A sudden gust of wind rocked my chair violently.
I stood up, looking at the tower.
The bells were ringing!
People started coming out on the verandahs and terraces to investigate the source of the noise.
A star, which shone alone at one corner of the sky, seemed to give me a wink.
“I will return…when the bells toll…”