On Heavens High
Sitting there on her bed with their hands entwined, the two begin to speak.
“I feel I love my brother more than you do,” Lam says.
She just looks at him.
“Don’t tell me I’m right,” he says, looking slightly away.
“I won’t tell you you’re wrong,” Needa says, looking the same way.
“Will you hold my hand?” she asks.
“Will you hold mine?”
“Yes,” she says, “I think I will.”
Lam was born on the same day as Needa, the same time if you asked them. The time was 11:55 pm on a cold night; the kind that would only hold personal importance. They locked eyes from one stroller to the other, as their story goes, and the rest is history—again, personal history, not the kind you would come across in-between pages. Needa had trouble breathing and Lam had trouble seeing, but it was sorted out within the confines of the night by the attendees and the attendees’ attendees. The hospital, St. Edith & Helen’s, was a respectable place, with respectable people, and they did more of their fair share of respectable things. However, Needa never looked at the hospital she was born in with anything less than spite and unkindness. There is something about
hospitals, she had long ago decided, something that will never be righteee. She would hardly ever visit St. Edith & Helen’s or any other—never for her own matters. If ever she did, it would only be when a friend or a friend’s friend had met with a terrible accident or had given birth, or something similarly devastating that gave her little wiggle room and hardly any options but to walk into those automated sliding doors that she despised, like you and I might despise the plague or the rodeo.
It didn’t matter to her that it was a hospital that had brought her and Lam together, that a hospital was responsible for her breathing again; that a hospital had fished out a kidney stone from inside her father’s caged body and had prolonged or altogether eliminated other devastations that could’ve really put a hamper on things. These matters didn’t matter. She hated hospitals, their beds, their food. She could not come within spitting distance of one even if her own insides were scrambling and her outsides were boiling. So, imagine her surprise when Lam said he wanted to take up medicine.
They were eighteen. Eighteen and a half to be precise. Needa was keeping up with commerce as she did before, or “Oh, Just Business,” as she liked to call it. Worse yet, she was staying within city limits, just outside, at the most. When Lam had announced to Needa before anyone else, that he was going to take up medicine as a profession, and was going offshore to do so, a part of Needa all but refused to react, leaving the other parts screaming and scrounging for a supportive face to pull and a hand that was to somehow pat him on the back and not wrap around his neck.
Lam left on the third of the next month, after a series of “goodbyes” and a string of “see you laters”. Not many get accepted to Hopkins, let alone Earth’s Statford—the “finest within the finest,” where Lam enrolled, much like how you and I enrolled in our own outstandingly less impressive universities. Earth had established itself as the leading place-to-be in modern medicine, as Lam explained, and he simply had to go there to fulfill his potential or dream or some other noise. He was the sole passenger on the sleek, silvery ship that was to carry him. Chosen as the sole admitted-student from Ether, Lam was to take a long and taxing journey that no one envied, though several desired, with eyes greener than you could imagine. It would take him twenty years to get there, and a boat ride thereon down the long Oceania and then finally, twenty years and two days later, he would be in Statford, the great, respectable, honourable, venerable institution which warranted its own slab of land and earth in the island that bore its name. This is what Lam signed up for, with a smile and free of second thoughts. He would not age a day in those twenty years, he was assured and as he very well knew. These things didn’t matter to him. This was just clutter. Cobwebs in the way of the grand prize. So, he left Needa there in their home city of Emna and their home planet of Ether, and set sail for the much larger planet Earth, where the Earthlings, he was told, look almost identical to Etherians, if you swapped their usual purplish skin for the variant shades of brown and their usually strong, white hair for the wide variety of black, brown, yellow, and even auburn. Earth was, after all, part of the same galaxy cluster as Ether, and was also bound by the same Dewey Decimal Classifications that their region—Region 1-7-A—was ruled under. These overflowing details, among many others omitted for the sake of all that was good, were typed to Needa on a last, excruciatingly long message he sent, almost as a way to simultaneously excuse himself for his impending desertion and his own bubbling self-doubt, that demanded answers as to how they could subside.
He waved from the side window of his one-passenger spacecraft. He looked up and saw like diamonds those things shining so bright in the spaces above which will now be his home for the foreseeable twenty years, and then he looked back down at faces that had no idea what he was about to go through, not even Uncle Jaben, who made a similar trip, but that was only for four years and nothing like what he’s set to endure. He pushed these things aside, again. He pushed the faces and fluttering hands aside to pick them apart from each other. Needa was looking, fixed, up at him, with a smile that belonged in a museum or at least a camera, but his was forced off in the midst of takeoff, and he only had his memory to trust to capture and remember this moment, which suddenly meant a great deal to him. They just looked at each other, as if the sounds of the harsh burning engines didn’t bother their ears one bit.
They looked, and had stopped waving. A thought
occurred to him to blow a kiss, but he couldn’t quite meet her eyes as they got smaller and smaller or her body which shrank down to about a quarter of its size, then half its size, and then a fourth and then it disappeared and fused with the ground which itself got smaller and smaller until a tap on the shoulder twisted him away from the window and he was given the liberty to walk about the ship now.
Lam rested peacefully and agelessly in those 20 years among the stars he knew almost each name of, but never once had the chance to see. When he awoke and they were at the IM Metro Landing Station, Lam looked still 18 or so – his beard yet to grow. The stewards offered him some beverages, and slices of fruit from Ether, but Lam had no taste for food at that moment or any real feeling anywhere behind his teeth. He collected his bag from the cabinet, which housed, apart from air, a few good books and a few pens, which floated about leisurely inside the whole time. Before getting off the ship, he ran off to the lavatory, more importantly the lavatory mirror, which gave him physical reassurance that he still was who he was before this long trip, which really didn’t seem that long, although it left a curious, swirling feeling in the pit of his stomach. He saw his wrinkle-free skin, dazzling almost under the bathroom lights; his purple as ever skin, his hair, as bright and white as he had left it, keeping shape like a gardener had come in every Tuesday to clip the hedges, which perhaps someone did, and anything in the way of facial hair had yet to form around his chin or under his nose. He still was who he was before, despite the ample winding, stretching dreams he had dreamt, a lot of it tense and jarring, but all of it now seeping out down the sinkhole he had uncorked just as soon as his eyes forced open.
This was Earth, then? The skies blue, the seas blue, many of the eyes blue, and the pants too. They must love blue, he observed firstly of the many scattered and disparate group of Earthlings he saw, all stopped every once in a while to look, up and then down and up again, at Lam, whose very decidedly alien appearance was very greatly intriguing to most of the passers-by, if not strange and foreign and utterly circus-like. Over time, the Earth people did not exactly discriminate too intensely, and Lam navigated mostly clear of it; some maybe held prejudices, but that was out of anyone’s hands and those that did, did so politely in their own homes and town meetings. He wholly welcomed the challenge the first few semesters and first few years, maybe even more. Re-learning some of the things and re-adjusting some of the other things were activities to him akin to breathing or jogging. He did it ferociously and tactfully, rising up the ranks where there were no ranks and high atop those that did. Within five to six years’ time he was everything a doctor should be, save for welcoming and charming, which he never quite mastered. But within another five to six years, there was a shift somewhere in him that wouldn’t so easily go away. It was unpleasant and unappetising, this feeling, and he didn’t expect it for another ten or so years. It was, if you could call it, a deep and emphatic homesickness.
After enough time had passed, Lam began feeling his roots—the limbs he had cut off to get here. He felt like his work had plateaued, even though it didn’t, and his life here had plateaued, even though he had barely scratched anything resembling a surface. He couldn’t get over it. In no short time, he was drowning under it; the weight and the crashing waves, all telling him he had done wrong along the way, which, yeah, maybe he had. He listened to those voices with his ears perking and his head nodding; they were his own, after all. It made great sense, and he was nearly convinced. He wanted to go back, but he just couldn’t. He couldn’t leave the work he had accomplished and was still accomplishing behind and go backwards just on account of a feeling in his stomach and a voice, both of which could be subdued with enough of the right prescription anyway. He couldn’t. Just couldn’t.
He was about 50 now, and he just couldn’t stop thinking about home. It was beginning to affect his work, his life, and everything in between. Relationships were never a priority with him on Earth and he hardly ever made any eyes at any woman, but that had changed. Lam had recently struck up a friendship that, at a feverish turn, had evolved itself into a much more physical matter. The woman herself had just celebrated her 73rd birthday the day before when Lam paid her a visit in her high-up second floor apartment. The woman, Elisa Ramsden, was the mother of a colleague he serially met at gatherings, but whose name he could never care to remember. He didn’t know at first what it was that had a hold on him every instance he’d look at Elisa, but it didn’t
take him too long a week to make the connection. Elisa Ramsden had filmy, floaty white hair that she kept behind her ears and down her upper back. While the skin wasn’t quite purple, rather pink and tanned, she gave him enough of a reminder of home for him to latch on to the aged woman and ring in as much charm and fluency as he could possibly bring out from his 30-year-old body to do so.
On one night, the kind they’d shared many of before, Lam came into her house with his spare solid key. She rose from her seat when she saw him come in and motioned a wave quite pure and calming. Lam did not have in his shallow smile or anywhere else on his face anything truly as substantial or at-all convincing. Every time, he failed to even meet the basic requirements of a friend, let alone a lover. Elisa tolerated him regardless; she was, after all, transported back to her youth every time she saw Lam, who seemed to look past her superficial age and into some hidden beauty that she didn’t often realize she or anyone else her age had. Lam was the exotic lover some of her peers and ex-husbands looked jealously at, and to Lam, Elisa was a reminder back to the people that were, and still are, his people. But that didn’t take long to wear off. It was Needa that was most missing from Lam’s current narrow plane of existence and her silver sheen of hair that he most wanted to retreat back to. What was she doing? What was she up to? Who was she with? These thoughts were his thoughts, and soon the only thoughts he could think of. What was she doing? Where was she going?
Needa raced back home straight from her office door. The nanny had called to inform her of Lam’s falling down and slicing his knees, which left bruises the size of apples on his two stubby joints. She had to leave a half-round table of investors waiting on the promise of a reschedule, and another client delegated to. “These are the moments you earn the 0’s in your paychecks,” she decreed, as she left the many jobs left undone to her many underlings.
It wasn’t a long ride to her house really. It was a short trip of three to-the-dot minutes, that she calculated to the approximate distance when building the small, but neatly stacked place of commerce. “Oh, Just Business” had transformed to the shape of “NNCS Worldgroup Ltd.” in a thriving current that swept her gently into her cozy, comfort-rich life with a son and a husband to keep her company.
Needa came back to her house in a calm panic, asking the nanny and her son what had happened and how much does it hurt. Upon getting her answers, all in muted tones from around low-hung heads, she hurried her fingers through Lam’s hair with one hand, messing the already messy thing, and lifted her black leather-bound case with the other. The nonexistent severity of the situation, considerably less sticky than she’d imagined, made it easier on her to leave the matter to her husband, Mal, who had come home a half-minute before. Mal didn’t much resemble his brother, whose name was only spoken through their child’s, though most would consider it a good, if not an indelibly great, thing, given the brother’s sheer, near blinding handsomeness, which really was a handsomeness more commonly found in dreams than in persons. You really wouldn’t take anyone’s word for it, but once you saw it, saw him, there was no denying it or him.
Needa hadn’t seen him for perhaps sixteen years. They engaged in “hellos” and “see you at homes” so frequently they had lost all meaning, and breakfast table meetings and chit-chattings held similarly meaningless significance and even Lam began seeing it. “Handsome father,” he’d say, “do you not love mommy?”
“I do,” he’d reply. “I do, I do, I do.”
On her way back to the office Needa decided to stop at an old ice cream parlour, where she’d drink milkshakes out of the glass well after they had stopped thawing. The floats would sink to her hands, stick to the table, and she wouldn’t notice, and neither would Lam. She noticed it now in the side-view mirror of memory. Where before she only felt, now could see. See things a bit better, clearer, less opaque. She didn’t know what to make of it. She habitually forgot about Lam year—and sometimes years—round, but on the days she remembered, she found she couldn’t forget him. Like leap days, they would come, and inevitably, go—pass without the magic they’d come in. And she knew the days were gone.
Lam had just travelled, across and crossways through several interconnecting clouds of flights and waves of nebulae, trying to get to Ether and back to Needa – back, back, back was all that mattered. Back now he was in Ether and the planet looked as much like a picture as it ever did, just as the one he had at the forefront of his closed red eyes on the year-spanning, pocket-sucking journey here. The first thing he did was rush, and rushes were highly uncommon in him before, back to the house that saw him grow along its pencil-marked white and gigantic walls. He didn’t stick to chat, nor could he find the time for tête-à-têtes, with either of his fathers, his cousins, or even Uncle Jaben, who had all come to visit serendipitously on that day he rushed.
He went out the backdoor in almost the same walk that welcomed him in through the front; his legs were barely alive and only, by a thin line, holding up and resisting all urges of sleep. As he came in to rest his bags on the floor by his dusty molded door, so he went out, with a pocket curved with packed wallets, passports, and thus and so and such-and-such.
It was to the old ice cream parlour he went, where he’d grip tall drinks or shakes in his hand, freely and much-unknowingly letting the ice melt over the hours. The ice would change into water and end up in small puddles of strawberry pink on the table. He would often end up spilling his untouched drink—allowing it to flow over the tables, chairs, floor tiles.
He would sing a song, their song, and Needa would unconsciously brush her fingers across her forehead. That song came back to him, slow and unsteady, over waters wavy and undefined. Now back, back inside doors that carried rich memories as it did deep insect-bitten marks and time-ravaged bites, he began once more to sing. He hummed the tune over words he couldn’t remember and sang the ones he did aloud with youth and with feeling. No one was there to hide their bright-red faces in their hands this time, save for the cashier who didn’t seem inclined to offer any help of any sort. The song left him lonely. Gaping, he sang, more words than he thought he’d remember:
When the dust it settles
On the shadows that we left,
They’ll be searching your room
For traces that you left
In a year or two, they’ll forget
Everything we did,
Everything about us
Everything we ever did, did, did
When, can you remember,
The time that sits apart?
The time you slept away from me
In another lover’s heart?
A past unremembered,
A lake that’s mostly sand
Dries a few drops more as
You grab on to my hand, hand, hand
When the colours fade from our eyes
We’ll see in black-and-white
When the sun turns away its head
We’ll see without a light.
When our lucks run out
I’ll dance on tabletops
When our pensions come in late
We’ll starve to death for a month
And when we come back from the dead
They’ll say, “Oh, what weight you’ve put on! on, on”
Needa was just outside. She heard Lam singing their song – it would be impossible to unhear it at the volume and velocity he sang each word. But she remembered it differently, the song, the words, almost every word; every in’s being out’s, me’s being you’s, he’s being she’s. A different song entirely.
She stood just outside the door, like a stranger weary of coming in. She could see, through the openings of the glass panel, him, Lam, there, after how many years too many. He looked a man now, even while singing their puerile song. That song, that somehow had come upon the two of them with so much life that it warranted its own two legs in the last four minutes. She stood there.
He turned then, having run out of words to sing, and turned towards her direction for a second. She smiled, for that second. But he just stared in her direction. He didn’t recognise the longer, whiter hair, the almost crystalline glow, the features on her face, some more pronounced, some less so than when he last looked upon them. She wasn’t Needa.
Needa looked on, frightened at her anonymity. She watched him turn to another side, over to the counter, where he bent down to meet the unaffected cashier. She looked down at herself and noticed her fists clenched. She uneasily released the fingers from inside her palms’ grip, looking down still, a spot in the dirt perhaps, when she heard her name. Or maybe she didn’t.
Lam opened and passed through the door she posted herself by, idly and without a second thought as to why he found the woman so peculiarly familiar. But he did stop. He glanced up at Needa from below the little front steps he had just hurried through.
“You wouldn’t happen to know a Needa?” he said, “Needa Juripen?”
She puffed up her bottom lip.
“Hasn’t been around here.”
Lam turned again, a pirouette almost, and walked up ahead, slowly, very slowly. Needa thought to herself; should she have spoken to him? Used her voice? Let him hear it as she had heard his? She thought to herself, thoughts that didn’t come, or hold shape, at any rate that she’d prefer. They just came, flying in without anyone’s waving it on, flowing and going and never holding shape. She thought of what she would do, what would happen, and those thoughts came with an immersive passion. She saw it, thought it, the days to come, the magic, and the pitter-pattering beats in her chest began thudding and thumping within itself.
She goes up to him, pulls his shoulder and him back. She speaks this time. He recognises, this time, with an open smile, and she talks over him.
“It is you,” Lam says, over her words.
“And you’re back?” she says, over the thudding, throbbing beats.
“I am,” he says. And overcoming a thronging case of sobriety: “What are you doing today?”
“What are you doing now?” Needa says, her voice over his.
They go together, the two, wherever, it doesn’t matter. They talk again and look at each other again, glances cutting across the age and time between them. They talk about lives, their lives, Mal, etc, and it doesn’t matter. They walk-about and go-about places. They spend the day and the night:
The two, sitting there in her bed with their hands entwined, begin to speak.
“I feel I love my brother more than you do,” Lam says.
She just looks at him.
“Don’t tell me I’m right,” he says, looking slightly away.
“I won’t tell you you’re wrong,” Needa says, looking that same way.
“Will you hold my hand?” she says.
“Will you hold mine?”
“Yes,” she says, “I think I will.”
They spend the night, the day. And that’s where the day would end and more would come after that, and more and more, and more and more – until she felt the magic came back. But she didn’t believe in smokes and mirrors and hats and rabbits – not anymore. Not since she peeked through the curtains some time ago, in a past keeping shape, and saw proof that it couldn’t, couldn’t possibly exist. And then, there, the magic didn’t exist.
Needa saw Lam standing there, at the foot of the tiny front steps to the old ice cream parlour. She went down the three flights and walked, just past Lam, and left. Along the way, she couldn’t help but notice something in his eyes, something about his eyes, as she brushed, just, by his shoulders. Their eyes locked once more, only just, and there was something there missing. Either in his eye or in hers. She kept walking, leaving, him in the background. And she kept walking, getting taller and taller against her background getting shorter and shorter, smaller and smaller, until he was just a blur.`