Friday, November 21, 2008

safe zone

Ibede sat on his little three-legged chair and was spinning the paper strips around his skewer deftly and precisely. As he spun the paper into a tight little roll, the edges of which were fanned on each end, he mused on his dilemma.

Only that morning Manakte had reminded him of his innumerable character flaws, his propensity for gloomy cynicism about the future being the highlighted flaw of that morning.

"Honestly," Manakte had said with a belligerent and patronising tone in her voice "The trouble with you Ibede, is that you are too.... Fussy!" She'd rattled off the last word as if it had popped into her head at that moment and had surprised her by its accuracy.

Ibede had only muttered about pots and kettles being black as each other under his breath. Taking Manakte on in one of her tirades would engender even more spleen thrown at him. It was as if she believed her whole world was finely balanced on his brain circuitry operating within her specifically stated parameters and when he didn't perform adequately, it was not her fault the parameters had shifted! He should have known!

Ibede picked up another strip of magazine and began twirling his particular skillful magic on it. The little buds of paper he spun around skewers became beautifully designed artworks. The embedded inks in the disused papers matched and sorted by his astute artistic eye were to be woven into door hangings, which from a distance appeared to be scenes....ephemeral and indistinct but captivating and delightful.

He hated his work. It paid the few meagre bills he had. A few denaso's for old magazines from the local agency and the rest to cover his food and the upkeep of his beloved box.

Not even Manakte knew about the box. No one knew about the box. Ibede would weave through the city streets on his morning off from twirling paper beads, so that no one he knew personally could track him on his route to the box. Not that anyone would have wanted to find him given the boxes location. It was practically in the centre of the city dump. The piles of rotting refuse rising high around him like giant mountains only stinking, filthy and fetid. Ibede refused to acknowledge the smell of these mountians, for once inside the box he felt so wondrously at peace both within and without, he hardly cared for other smells in the immediate vicinity. Inside this amazing thing, he found solace from the world where he could just "be" what he thought himself to be.

No one was there to denigrate him for his character flaws. No one was there to make him work harder or faster on twirling endless pieces of coloured paper on skewers, or thread the finished paper beads into shimmering and essentially useless artifacts for greedy tourists. In the box, Ibede was safe, ensconced within a world unto his own creation. Nothing could impede his world within the pinewood scent of the place.

The box was essentially a large packing crate. It appeared to have been purpose built as the planks on each side were all firmly slotted together to the point of being nearly weatherproof. Only the narrow entrance in one corner, which Ibede had managed to cover with the cleanest piece of hessian he could rummage from the dump, allowed the weather in. Inside the box it was semi-dark and this lent a kind of ethereal element when entering it. After awhile, sitting there, his eyes adjusted to the soft diffuse sunlight coming in through the hessian cover in the corner.

In the corner he'd supplied himself with a small wad off incense and a burner. It could have been a very dangerous idea to light such a thing inside a pinewood box, but for Ibede it as a part of the pleasure of existing here. For him, it was the twixt place between heaven and earth...that moment of transitory danger between Nirvana and Hell where you didn't know what you deserved. This soft piece of danger, regarding the box, made it even more extraordinary for him.

The box was very large, probably the size of a sea freight container. In fact, Ibede could well have housed his family in the box if he'd chosen to tell Manakte about it. She would have added the box to their home requirements in no time flat, making Ibede disassemble it and rebuild it next to the rough corrugated construction they presently called "Home". This is why Ibede kept the box a secret. He little knew anything of wood and woodworking tools and he knew he could never have reassembled the box to such exquisite exactness like it was now. That it had survived its unceremonious dumping in the centre of the city refuse heap...for whatever reason...was testament in his mind to its longevity. He saw it as a device to think with.

Ibede did very little inside the box except feel especially safe. Here he could unleash his imaginative capacity for thinking about the possibilities of a long distant future where people didn't need to live under corrugated iron or have to spin paper to make a living. Inside this box, Ibede just thought. Imagined. Explored his own self and put the pieces of things together to make it all make sense. Then he assimilated what insights he found inside his box and returned to again live among the mountains of fetid human activity, wiser and more serene than he had dared hope for.

The box soothed his soul. It became like Mother and Father, Spiritual Guide and Mentor to Ibede. His work, which he hated so much but was so assiduously good at, was less burdensome when he could spend the time in the box musing on countless artistic possibilities for paper beads, before he had the tools to work those possibilities into realities. His craft became exceptional. Others noticed. Others became suspicious.

Manakte heard on the city grapevine that her husband "was up to something" the day she had spent a few denaso's extra above housekeeping on a new "door" for their abode. It was a heavy piece of canvas, smelling of oil and fish and weather but she had immediately grasped that such a thing would do an even better job of keeping out the weather than the current flap of material serving as their door. She had scrounged every deni she could to acquire this great prize. In passing, the store owner had mentioned seeing Ibede ambling past that morning. Manakte had never really taken much interest in her husbands doings on his morning off from the bead factory, but for some reason on this day, something else piqued her interest. Apparently, she learned, Ibede had been grinning!

Ibede never grinned! Manakte suddenly saw in a moment that Ibede had some sort of secret which he kept from her. Why was he grinning? Where did he actually go on those mornings? What did he really do?

It was not just "Secret Men's Business" anymore, his usual grumpily said reason for his absences from home - there was something else going on here. No one Manakte knew in their circle of associates had ever once mentioned seeing Ibede grin, let alone smiling. He maybe curled up the corner of his lips on the rare occasion but generally he was either merely irritable or morose. She knew he hated his work.

It was then she suddenly realised that about the only time Ibede was really "charming" and sociable was after he'd arrived home from one of his mornings out. Her curiosity was in overdrive. Nothing would stop her now in finding out where her husband went. Cleverly, Manakte, walked the market stalls and garnered little snippets of information about Ibede's movements through the town. It transpired he was somewhat well-known among all the marketeers, dipping his brow at some acknowledging them in silence as he passed by.

Manakte became more assertive and concocted a story that she needed to find Ibede immediately as there was an emergency at home. This of course, led even more marketeers to give her directions and possible threads on where to find him.

When she came to the large gate that led into the city dump, she was appalled. "What could my husband be doing in this place?" she thought to herself in aghast horror. Although Ibede and Manakte were not untouchables, the thought of stepping through the gates made Manakte shudder as if she had become tainted with the blood of being untouchable herself.

She stopped in front of a particularly enormous pile of rubbish and pondered her next strategy. She figured it would be almost impossible to simply stumble on Ibede amongst the oversized piles and her nose would not have stood it for very long anyway. She resolved to come here quickly the next morning Ibede had off to follow him from the gates herself.

The air inside their corrugated home bristled over the next two weeks as Ibede felt Manakte was up to something and Manakte did her best to hide her impatience and curiosity about Ibede's alternative hobby. They each knew the other knew something was going on but being as out of love as two married partners could be they never mentioned it.

It was for this reason that Ibede took an especially long and winding path through the city streets to the box on the next, overcast, morning off work. Manakte had carefully disguised herself as best as she had been able and had gone straight to the dump, waiting with barely contained impatience for her slow husband to arrive. When she saw him, she quickly turned into the wall so he would mistake her for one of the untouchable women that usually haunted the dumpsite. It worked, Ibede was so intent on his goal he never took notice of Manakte watching him from behind the long veil in front of her eyes. Her mind lurched when she saw him grinning a huge smile that dropped a good 20 years off his face! Astonished would hardly begin to describe her state at that point. It revved up the curiosity count within her by a factor of ten.

She carefully followed Ibede into the dump. When she saw him disappear inside a big, rather useful looking packing crate, she was assuming he was going to meet someone there. She waited for the full four hours as the sky blackened and the storm clouds harkened. When Ibede came out of the box finally, she watched him as he straightened himself, stretched a good deal and then stand there looking into the sky and smiling the most unearthly smile she'd ever seen on his face. He looked positively angelic standing there as if he was in some kind of drug induced crazy zone of bliss! Was her husband doing drugs? How was he able to afford it. No one else emerged from the box.

With a great deal of will power, Manakte managed to stand and continue to rag-pick from the vile pile in front of her. Her nose had become somewhat accustomed to the smell by now, but the heavy humidity in the air and the weighty stillness seemed to be slowly sucking the oxygen from her lungs, only replacing it with the sulphuric gases of the dump itself. Her lungs and eyes were burning but she refused to move. She wanted to investigate the box for herself once Ibede had left.

Ibede seemed to glow and then slowly, from his feet up, he took on a different persona. It was as if he was putting on clothes. Gradually he reverted into the man she thought she knew well, the true Ibede, her husband. He sloped, gloomily away through the piles back towards his real life in the heart of the city. Manakte fleetingly thought she probably should go home immediately or he will wonder why she was not there. However, the lure of the box was too much for her and she needed to know just what compelled her husband to stay inside it so long.

She carefully lifted the piece of hessian aside and peered in. The box was black.

"Hello?" she asked timidly, half expecting to hear breathing or a voice from the inky black come back to her in answer.

Nothing. She stepped inside and allowed her eyes to become accustomed to the gloom. The box was practically empty. There was a large sitting cushion on the floor and a box of incense in the corner. She'd wondered where that had gone! The Devil! Other than that, the box was completely empty. This confused Manakte so much she didn't quite know where to begin on this mystery. What possessed a man to deprive himself of human company and enter a foul-smelling dump to sit inside a discarded packing crate on his own for hour upon hour with nothing but incense for company?

Manakte didn't get it at all. Ibede became a complete and utter mystery to her in that moment. She realised she never did know the man she married. She merely used him for the convenience of being a suitably married woman. Ibede had hardly any say in the matters of home and family, she ruled and that was how she liked it. Without him though, she literally would become one of the untouchable women she was currently pretending to be. Not a happy existence to say the least, for either of them.

Or was it? What had Ibede found that made his life have these moments of bliss? What spiritual entity was he in communion with that gave him that glowing energy of beautiful repose she'd witnessed in him before? What was her husband on?

Not quite knowing how to resolve such questions, Manakte threw off the slovenly and dirty veils she was wearing and pursing her lips, walked home in strident and determined steps. She would succeed in getting the truth from Ibede come hell or high water. The rain fell at that moment.

Manakte arrived at her shanty like a half drowned cat, bedraggled and miserable. The water from the sky didn't just rain, it plummeted down in torrents. The streets became almost impassable with traffic and people trying to escape the downpour. Gutters on plausible houses broke away and water rushed off the gaping wounds like rivers. Children were soon crying when they had shortly before, been laughing in the rain. The heavens opened and still the rain fell. Her home appeared and she went inside hoping to find some relief from the battering she was receiving outside. But, the sound inside her home was beyond deafening. It was so horrible in there she had to escape outside again. Calling for her family, she realised no one was home. Obviously they had escaped the deafening cacophony on the walls and roof as well.

But where were they? Ibede should have arrived home by now? Was he at his work already? Surely not?

An idea struck Manakte. It was a long shot but she thought she had nothing else to lose by following her hunch. She turned tail and began to run back the direction she had just come. Weaving in and out of bogged carts and frightened livestock, lost children and beleaguered adults, all trying to escape the sheer fortitude of the water coming from above. Never had Manakte seen rain like it. It cowed you, bowed you over with the force of it. It was like standing under the bottom of an angry waterfall. The streets were filling fast. There was no way her home would survive the flood sure to engulf the city before long.

When she arrived back at the gates to the city dump, she realised with a start, that she had in fact been travelling up a very gentle incline. The dump was actually higher than most of the rest of the city and was not flooding quite so quickly. She went among the sodden piles of flotsam, all seething and releasing vile smoke into the atmosphere as if it was thumbing its nose at the very rain.

Through the torrent, she saw the box and rushing for it she flew inside. Part of her expected to not see Ibede there, another part of her was hoping he wouldn't be. This box made her feel safe. The water outside was a muted thudding on the wood. The box, she realised was so well made, it barely leaked despite the deluge outside.

"Manakte?" Ibede's voice loomed from the gloomy depths.

"Ibede!" She stepped forward unable to clearly see her way. A pair of hands pulled her down onto the cushion. A few mewing sobs from the bodies of her children were heard nearby.

"Ibede! How...?"

"I claimed it! It's mine. No untouchable lives in it and they guard it for me too. I pay them to." said Ibede reading her thoughts. "It's my safe place Manakte. I come here to feel safe and to escape this life in my mind. This box free's me to be myself."

Manakte broke into sobs. Deep rattling sobs that seemed to be trying to match the emotional depth of the rain outside. "I want a safe zone too!" she screamed against Ibede's chest. It was then that Ibede learned how frightened Manakte really was under all her cruel beligerance. His heart softened and he let her spirit in a little and he smiled down at her kindly.

"I brought our children here to be safe." he said pragmatically. The children on hearing this cuddled around their unhappy parents and they all held each other on the sitting cushion until the torrential rain had subsided.

When it was quiet. They carefully ventured outside the box. The sun was setting opposite the darkest grey storm clouds Ibede had ever seen marching into the east. Around them, the piles of garbage steamed and farted foul smelling scents into the air. But astonishingly, they were not knee deep in water. The dump appeared as a small island rising from a gross and unsightly sea of unimaginable disaster.

The box had kept them safe. As the waters receded, they discovered they were some of the very few who had survived unscathed by the deluge. Friends, family, associates, the marketeers, many had suffered losses of incomparable quantity and quality. Eyes looked at Ibede and Manakte and their children as they stepped gingerly through the city back to their home to recover what they could from it.

"Ibede?" said Manakte quietly.

"Yes, wife" he replied as quietly.

"Please keep your safe zone a secret." she said simply.

Ibede looked at her, slightly astonished. This was not usual Manakte speaking. Normally, he would have been harangued and castigated for keeping such a thing so secret. The box would have been made to be rebuilt as a part of their makeshift home. This however, was a new Manakte speaking. He realised what she already had surmised, that if the box had been translocated, they would have drowned, trapped inside of it.

Where it was, embedded in a large pile of junk and human refuse on the crest of a gentle rise in the topography of the city, the box was more than a safe haven, it was an inspiration. Ibede smiled. It was a warm, open genuine smile and his face dropped 20 years.

Manakte finally loved him. Ibede finally felt safe outside of the box.


Anonymous said...

What a sweet story. At first I was reading my own life into it, but then I was taken on the journey you intended I think.

Thank you.

Michelle said...

You are most welcome. thank you :)