August 18, 2022

Politics and Commentary News Aggregator

“The Face in the Mirror,” by Mohsin Hamid

9 min read

Once he had returned to his own home, Anders wondered whether the rifle actually made him safer, for he felt he was all alone, and it was better to be non-confrontational than to stand up to trouble, and he imagined that somehow people were more likely to come for him if they found out he was armed, even though they would not find out, even though so many folks were armed, he just had this sense that it was essential not to be seen as a threat, for to be seen as a threat, as dark as he was, was to risk one day being obliterated.

At work Anders was no longer the only one who had changed, there were others, and a gym that had been almost a whites-only gym now often had three, or even four, dark men present, and Anders had thought this would make things better, but it seemed the opposite was happening, and the gym was increasingly tense, and men who had known each other for years now acted like they did not know each other, or, worse, disliked each other, bore a grudge.

One night as Anders was ready to leave, two men got into an argument, and they took it outside, and they were older guys, but big, bulky and strong and surprisingly quick despite their bellies, and they started to shove each other in the parking lot, and a few people gathered round, but those who gathered did not say anything, that was what struck Anders, they did not tell the two to stop, or cheer them on, they were silent, they just watched, and soon the two men were punching, and it was ferocious, and out of the grunts and the shuffles came the sound of a fist hitting the side of a face, the solid crack of it, the thud, softly liquid and bone-breaking at the same time, such a visceral, disturbing sound that it made Anders turn away, and he walked off, walked off without seeing what happened next, whether the dark one had the better of it or the pale one, Anders did not want to see, and though he did not see, the sound lingered, and it kept coming to him even as he lay in his bed that night, causing a wince, or a grimace, a physical response, Anders twitching there by himself, in echo.

Anders had heard that the militants had begun to clear people out, dark people, running them out of town, and when he saw cars pull up to his house he knew what it meant, though it is perhaps always a surprise when what one is waiting for, what one is dreading, a calamity of this magnitude, actually happens, so Anders was prepared and not prepared, but, prepared as he was, he was not expecting one of the three men who came for him to be a man he knew, a man he was acquainted with, which made it much worse, more intimate, like being shushed as you were strangled, and Anders did not pause for them to get to his door, Anders opened it himself, and he stood there in the doorway, his rifle in his hands, a ready carry, with muzzle high, the son a picture of his father on a hunt.

Anders hoped he looked more brave than he felt, and the three of them were armed but they stopped when they saw him, a few paces away, and they stared at him with contempt and fascination, and Anders thought the one he knew stared at him with enthusiasm, too, like this was special for him, personal, and Anders could perceive how self-righteous they were, how certain that he, Anders, was in the wrong, that he was the bandit here, trying to rob them, they who had been robbed already and had nothing left, just their whiteness, the worth of it, and they would not let him take that, not him or anyone else.

But they did not particularly relish that he had a weapon and seemed to have grabbed part of the initiative, that was their role after all, and they were not expecting this from him, and it muddied the simplicity of the situation, and so they halted, and they faced off, his acquaintance, the two strangers, and Anders, and Anders said hello guys, what can I do.

They spoke, and Anders listened, and in the end the men said he had better be gone when they got back, and Anders said they would have to see about that, and as Anders said it he almost believed he would stay, and he had an anger in his voice, an anger he was glad for, despite their dismissive smiles, but when they withdrew to their cars and Anders felt the magnitude of his relief, a relief that washed over him and drenched him with defeat, he knew that he would be gone, that, mere minutes hence, he would be fleeing, and this place, his place, so familiar, would be lost to him, his no longer.

When Anders arrived at his father’s house, his father took him inside and drew the tattered curtains, and then parked his son’s car, the car that had been his wife’s car, behind the house, on the narrow sliver of land that his wife had called her garden, where once grew flowers and tomatoes and snap peas and thyme, but which now was a patch of dirt with tufts of weeds, weeds dry and dead at the onset of winter, and Anders’s father checked to make sure the car was not visible from the street, moving weakly and stiffly, but also with purpose, and after that, spent beyond reckoning, he sat himself next to his son in the living room, the television on and their rifles at their sides, and they waited there for someone to show up and demand that Anders be given over, but no one did, no one came, no, not on that first night at least.

Anders’s father was not yet used to Anders, to how Anders looked, and in a sense he had never been used to him, not even when Anders was a child, silent for so long, struggling to tie his laces or to write in a handwriting that people could read, for Anders’s father, though not a particularly good student, had always been competent, competent at the tasks he was given, and not just in school, outside it, too, but his son, his son was different, a difference the boy’s mother took to naturally, and so the boy became her boy, and there were walls between them, between him and his son, and Anders’s father could understand the bullies who had picked on his son when his son was small, and he could understand those who wanted Anders gone from town now, who were afraid of him, or threatened by him, by the dark man his boy had become, and they had a right to be, he would have felt the same in their shoes, he liked it no better than they did, and he could see the end his boy signalled, the end of things, he was not blind, but they would not take his boy, not easily, not from him, the boy’s father, and whatever Anders was, whatever his skin was, he was still his father’s son, and still his mother’s son, and he came first, before any other allegiance, he was what truly mattered, and Anders’s father was ready to do right by his son, it was a duty that meant more to him than life, and he wished he had more life in him, but he would do what he could with what little life he had.

In the morning the power went out, and the house was gloomy, with the curtains drawn and no lights, but still there was illumination enough to see by, and Anders’s father judged it best they save their candles for nightfall, and so they managed, in the dimness, and then Anders discovered that his phone no longer had reception, and neither did his father’s, and Anders wondered if the service had been cut off intentionally or if the backup batteries at the cell towers had died.

Anders was alone, lying propped up in his old childhood bed, far more alone without access to the online world, or if not literally more alone then more alone in how he felt, and yes the chatter online had been grim, not just in town but all over the country, but it had been something, and now it was taken from him, and time itself slowed, unwinding, like the minutes were tired, were reaching the finish, and then around midnight the power returned without warning and his phone caught a signal and time spooled back up again and continued.

Days passed, and although they heard the crack of gunfire on occasion, one night right outside, they were not themselves confronted, and Anders should have been relieved to have escaped the militants, temporarily, but if he was it was a fraught relief, for living again in close proximity to his father he was shocked to discover the degree of physical pain his father was enduring, pain his father could mask for a beat or two, but not for an entire evening, not for hours at a stretch, and Anders could see it in his father’s face, and in his movements, and though his father tried to spare him, and often retired to his bedroom, Anders could hear his muffled grunts and his low-pitched swearing, the battle being waged inside, the battle his father was losing, and it made Anders guilty for not being a better son, for having left his father so abandoned, even if he knew his father would not have permitted it to be otherwise, that just by being here Anders was taking something from his father, taking his dignity, and forcing his father to allow himself to be seen as he would not, and did not, wish to be seen.

“I really just need the one.”

Cartoon by Trevor Spaulding

Anders’s father rarely left his bedroom now, and there was a smell in it, a smell he could see in Anders’s face when his son entered, and sometimes could even smell himself, which was strange, like a fish feeling it was wet, and the smell they could smell was the smell of death, which Anders’s father knew was close, and this frightened him, but he was not completely afraid of being frightened, no, he had lived with fear a long time, and he had not let fear master him, not yet, and he would try to continue, to continue to not let fear master him, and often he did not have the energy to think, but when he did he thought of what made a death a good death, and his sense was that a good death would be one that did not scare his boy, that a father’s duty was not to avoid dying in front of his son, this a father could not control, but rather that if a father did have to die in front of his son he ought to die as well as he was able, to do it in a way that left his son with something, that left his son with the strength to live, and the strength to know that one day he could die well himself, as his father had, and so Anders’s father strove to make his final journey to his death into a giving, into a fathering, and it would not be easy, it was not easy, it was almost impossible, but that was what he set his mind, while he had his mind, on attempting to do.

Mohsin Hamid
2022-05-09 06:00:00

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