A short story: Son & smoke

smokepic

“…no matter how many faces it possesses, all truth is made of the same substance: the same slippery, elusive smoke, so eager to escape our grasp, yet so eager to reveal its signs.”

As I walked into the living room, to grab my car keys from the coffee table, I spared my father a glance. I felt the familiar agitation that overcame me whenever I found him in such a state: he was huddled in his arm chair, in the far corner of the room, reading an old, dusty book, as he always seemed to be doing in his spare time. His keen, wrinkled hands were moving impatiently over the pages, as though he couldn’t get through it fast enough, as though perhaps he could delve into its very pages if he caressed it in the right way.
“I’m going out dad,” I called to him, already making to leave the room.
“Wait, come sit with me,” he called across the room.
I would have refused, as I normally did, but I saw a light of hope in his eyes, and didn’t want to be the reason it disappeared.

Perhaps the other boys haven’t arrived yet anyways, perhaps I could spare a few moments for my father tonight, I thought.
“Sure,” I replied, walking over to him and sitting on the sofa close by. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
“Yes, I wanted to share something with you. Just hold on one moment. I want to finish reading this page.”
I sat patiently for a few moments, watching his wide, scurrying eyes. He appeared to be in a strange, distant land, perhaps even on an adventure, and for a reason I couldn’t quite lay my finger on, something snapped inside me.

“No offence, dad, but it seems to me that you’re locked up inside this room all the time. Why would you waste all your time reading about the things other people have done, when you can just go out and experience them yourself?”
I knew my voice sounded agitated, aggressive even. I wanted to control it, to keep it neutral, but that was difficult when I felt this irritated. I’d caught passing glimpses of my father on numerous early mornings and late evenings, sitting in this exact spot and position, holding one of his large, heavy books, and displaying the same feverish expression.
It seemed to me that his entire life was passing by with him staring into those books, looking for something that he’d never find, something that was a mere palimpsest of real, corporeal experience and existence.

Instead of reacting, father took his time and continued to finish his page. When he finally did so, a few moments later, he looked up to softly smile at me, and lowered the book to his lap.
“You seem angry son. Is it something I’ve done?”
“No,” I replied quickly, turning my head away so I didn’t lie whilst looking into his sincere eyes. My father was old now, I didn’t want to hurt him.
“Please, don’t lie to me.”
I hesitated briefly, and then crumbled. “I don’t agree with the way you’ve been living your life after mum’s passing. I think you need to read less, experience more. Life is there to be lived, not only pondered.”
He didn’t respond, but continued to look into my eyes as though it was possible to read them as the pages before him, and so I continued, this time in a gentler tone.
“But then again, perhaps it’s not fair for me to judge you. I should respect your way of life just as you do mine. I know you don’t agree with the way I spend a lot of time with my friends outdoors, especially late at night, but you don’t try to control me, and so I won’t do that to you.”

I took a deep breath, as though announcing my final word.
“We’re from very different times, it only makes sense that we don’t see things the same way.” 
“We’re not so different, you and I,” he finally said, in a quiet voice. “I was once what you are now, and one day you will be what I am now.”
“There are plenty of out-going older people. It’s not an age thing, it’s a personality thing,” I explained, trying to keep my patience.
“Or, perhaps it’s a truth thing,” he replied simply.
Upon seeing my confusion, he elaborated. “We’re both looking for the truth. You believe you will find it upon spending time with others in the outside world, and I believe I’ll find it upon isolating myself, and looking to the great masters of the past, of whom we have nothing left but wise words.”
“It’s really not that deep dad,” I chuckled, raising my eyebrows high. “Times are different now, society isn’t into spirituality or truth anymore. Our only truth is that which we can prove by science and facts. And for most people, money is the new religion: the material world is the only thing that drives us anymore.”

I gave him a half-smile and shrugged, almost as though it was an unavoidable truth that one could no longer deny; but he looked suddenly serious and his face fell slightly before he spoke.
“It doesn’t matter if a human is born into a God-less, science-based, consumerist society, there is a part inside all of us that craves for the truth, to understand the bigger picture in which our small world fits in.”
“Okay, let’s say that, hypothetically speaking, that’s the case: wouldn’t the so-called truth be something different to each person, according to their own beliefs and experiences?”
“Oh, yes!” he said brightly, excitement pouring out of his, once again, lifted face. “The truth reveals itself to each individual according to their own identity and journey, and in their own time. However, the important thing to note is that, no matter how many faces it possesses, all truth is made of the same substance: the same slippery, elusive smoke, so eager to escape our grasp, yet so eager to reveal its signs.”

My fathers eyes were wide with elation, and, as he continued, I could tell this was something he truly believed.
“Regardless of the numerous ways the truth shows its signs to us, it’s a common thread of smoke that connects us all. And so, at it’s heart, it’s the same.”
I scoffed slightly, and struggled to keep my face straight.
“Okay fine, just say that what you’ve just told me about the nature of truth is a reality, why have I not yet experienced it?”
“The truth never exposed itself to the one who shouted for it to come forth. Discovering the truth takes time because it’s not a moment, it’s a process, and you must be patient.”
“Well, that’s convenient for your argument: if you haven’t experienced the alleged truth, it’s because you haven’t been patient enough. It sounds like make-believe and wishful thinking to me,” I said dismissively. “So, is this what you wanted to share with me?”
“You may leave now, son. You’ve given me plenty to think about, and I hope I’ve done the same for you,” he said, with a kind smile.

I woke the next morning and entered the kitchen to make coffee in a hazy state; I’d returned home fairly late last night, after a good time with some friends. Then, I walked into the living room, thinking I would find my father in his arm chair, as I always did, but instead I saw a note in the centre of it, written in his slanted register.
“Today, I will follow your advice. I will enter the outside world I have neglected for too long, for I feared how it looked without her by my side. I will take a morning walk, for the first time in as long as I can remember, alone. I will walk the paths I used to with your mother, with the hope that it will give me new patterns of smoke to follow and learn from. I no longer want to be afraid, not of a life without her, and, as you said so rightly, not of experiencing things that others have written so much on, whether they be joy or grief.”

I placed the letter on the coffee table and felt myself simultaneously overwhelmed with shame and delight: I was ashamed that I had failed to understand my father – his isolation from the world had not only been his choice, but what had been thrust upon him by his trepidation and sorrow – and I was delighted that he’d finally gained the courage to step out of the fears that had imprisoned him for so long.

It dawned upon me that if my father could take my advice so graciously, then I could do the same. Almost instinctively, my hands stretched towards the bookshelf placed next to his armchair. As my fingers traced through the thick, dusty spines, choosing the right title, the morning sun illuminated the entire shelf, and I could have sworn, for a moment, the shifting dust in the powerful rays had appeared to be – smoke.

Feeling a sense of wonder, I picked the one my finger had last rested on before the interruption of the rays – perhaps I was feeling momentarily spiritual, not that I would admit it to anyone who asked. Then, I settled into my fathers armchair, smiling to myself as I made a point of getting settled into the exact position he sat in, the one that annoyed me so much, and cracked open the spine.

Before I’d read even the first sentence, it occurred to me that perhaps I had been so angry with him all along because I’d felt he had access to a place of endless possibilities, secrets, and maybe even the truth, a place I’d never known, until now…

Anam Iqbal  

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