Today, We Clean Out The War Cabinet
Most people consider the new year the perfect time for a new beginning. Hence, it was the perfect time to publish this short fiction- Aashmika’s take on new beginnings. Losing a loved one can be devastating and it can take forever to come to terms with it, and sadly sometimes people never do. But there will always be the proverbial silver lining, and as one door closes, another could open. This story, of the recently widowed Mina, starts by pulling on our heartstrings. But then as it twists and turns and she rediscovers herself in the most unexpected manner, we partake in her joy. If you’re one of those who thinks that, for whatever reason, you can’t start over, this story is perfect for you.
Every day since he had died, Mina spent a minimum of four and a half minutes crying. Everything of his made her cry: his shoes in the shoe cupboard, his toothbrush leaning dolefully against hers near the washbasin, his 10,000 books collecting dust in the shelves, his heavy crystal hookahs which would never be used again, and worst, worst, of all, his sundry war memorabilia, meticulously labelled and categorized – collected long before she had been wedded to him. When she had entered his home on the first day after their marriage, she had been slightly horrified looking at the floating glass display cabinet along the perimeter of the living room. All sorts of haunting things: stamped letters from dying soldiers to their mothers and wives, stuffed animals with cotton jutting out of amputated limbs, suspiciously stained pieces of clothing, a good three stacks of postcards from war inflicted or war inflicting countries, and an entire collection of original pamphlets and items with Nazi emblems on them. She didn’t really believe any of it was genuine as he said he had gotten most of it off eBay – but that didn’t make her feel any better. As she would learn over the years, the neatly exhibited ravages of war would always remain his most prized possession, more so than his wedding ring even, which he misplaced the third week into their marriage.
He had been pretty disregardful of their marriage during those beginning years. She used to feel – and rightly so – that her husband hadn’t actually wanted to get married to her, or get married at all for that matter, and indeed for three out of the five-hour long wedding ceremony and reception, he had been busy on the phone. Granted that these were work calls, but no one had thought it prudent to even request him to switch off his phone for the duration of the seven sacred rounds around the matrimonial fire. She would never forget or forgive the insufferable family of that moribund patient that distracted her husband from carrying out his vow during the sixth circumambulation. So it was only she who had prayed for a healthy and prosperous life after marriage, while he had been occupied trying to convince a certain Mrs Agnihotri that her husband wouldn’t make it if she didn’t let them perform bypass surgery on him in the next day or two. Mina was convinced that because he had not recited that vow with her during that sixth round, and of course, because of the fact that he was a cardiothoracic surgeon, her husband had had to die of a cardiac arrest. It only made sense that the Universe would react in this manner.
Mina was a huge believer in the power of the Universe. She wasn’t particularly religious, but ever since she was nine, she had put her full faith in the Universe and its ways. She was convinced that the Universe was an active participant in her life’s choices and decisions, and its nature was such that it cared deeply for her but it was also compelled to follow the Law, so she always made sure she didn’t make any unreasonable desires for it to fulfil. Actually, she didn’t make any desires at all, no undue wants or dreams, because she didn’t want to burden it. She knew that when the time was right, it would gift her with unimaginable happiness, or at least the right portion of happiness she deserved.
When she had seen her husband for the first time in the picture her parents had shown her, she knew instantly that something irreversible had occurred in her destiny. He was tall, rich, and not exceptionally repulsive, and she knew she was to marry him. Because she was aware that this was her fate, Mina had loved him almost instantaneously, even though it had been an arranged marriage. And because she was aware that this was her time to be happy, she had been happy. Indeed, the more she saw of him, the more she loved him – mere-exposure effect, it was called, according to the Internet – and the more she was happy. But as everyone knows one cannot be happy forever, and the fateful day came, fourteen years later, when she found him with one sock on – just one sock, mind – he was in the unnatural habit of only getting ready bottom to top – sprawled before his dresser, verily dead.
She knew the world was to be hell for her now, and she had allowed madness and grief to come and swallow her. All the real and imaginary symptoms of her husband’s former patients began to make an appearance within her and she became all his patients at once. Dutifully she let her heart break every day and every night, as she slept alone in bed, as she ate breakfast alone at the table, and slowly but surely she began to know her heart and its routine with such clarity, that she could tell at what time of the day it was about to collapse, as well as identify all the things that could trigger it to feign unconsciousness. He had a lot of things. And he had left all of them behind. Irresponsible, for him to have died like this. She could not help but have this growing feeling of rancor toward him, for leaving all his things, for leaving her, abandoned, in the middle of this well-furbished island he had created for himself.
One late evening, after her tea-time heartbreak, as she was sipping some port wine in the kitchen, she – out of nowhere – felt her sex growing unusually pronounced. It was a dilemma then, whether she should go and pleasure herself, or negate the feelings and think of her dead husband instead. The Universe remained unresponsive and she decided, at that moment, to fuck it. Why not? After all, it had been a full year. She had devoted all her time to crying; when was she meant to stop? There were no signs, so all she could do was decide for herself. Even so, she withheld from satisfying her urges that night.
The next morning, she got up at 4:30 am because of a grotesque nightmare. In it, giving her a medicinal prescription for a wet broken heart, was her husband.
“But you’re dead. I don’t think this prescription would work.”
“You’re right. This must be your dream. Mina, just on a side-note – please tell the maid to clean out the war cabinet tomorrow. It hasn’t been cleaned since I passed. And make sure you’re there when she does it. Wouldn’t want anything to be damaged.”
“What about my heart.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
And then standing beside her in the light of mourning dawn, next to the bedside lamp, was the ghost of her dead husband.
“Here we are.”
She had been overjoyed, of course, seeing him again, and in his work gear at that – clean white scrubs, stethoscope gleaming around his neck – overjoyed, yes, but only to an extent. Somewhere deep within, she knew this was wrong, that this wasn’t supposed to happen, and if she were honest about it, she would know that the real reason she was only 75 percent overjoyed was because her heart didn’t really appreciate being startled back into love so soon.
“Today we clean out the war cabinet.”
And they cleaned out the war cabinet, her maid only slightly startled by her master’s apparition, because such things were common where she came from. She made it a point not to address him directly though and left any communication to be carried out by the couple themselves.
By lunch-time the next day Mina was already uncertain how to feel about this inexpedient situation. She was overjoyed to have him back of course, but it’s just that she wasn’t used to seeing so much of him. In the past 14 years that he had been alive, he had spent most of the day at the hospital. Being a heart surgeon was as full-time a job as jobs came, and he was out from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm every day – overtime in case of emergencies. Even on Sundays, he preferred being out – he played table-tennis with his buddies at the club, while Mina partook in a kitty party with her friends. Now that he was dead, these diurnal activities were out of the question. They jointly took a call that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to go to work in this condition, and he said to her:
“I think I’m going to go do some gardening until tea-time.”
He had never once done any gardening in his life. She wondered what had come into him; perhaps he was as unused to her company as she was to his.
And so it went on – for almost a week, her dead husband jostling around the place and only scraping his essence together to sit down with her at meal-times. She tried to make conversation with him but hardly succeeded. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but he was starting to make her slightly uncomfortable. It was startling having to see him come through the wall – she couldn’t understand why he would do that – the door was right there – and she especially disliked catching him trying to listen to his own heart through his stethoscope – it was extremely off-putting. Things were getting strikingly awkward and stiff between them and her heart became heavy with confusion: did it still love him? If yes, how much longer did it have to keep it up? During dinner on Friday, she resolved to talk to him.
“I was wondering … Don’t you have to get back?” She nervously sipped on her soup. With Christmas approaching, even Mumbai had begun to get slightly chilly. She had taken to cooking chicken soup in the evenings. He used to hate when she made soup, but now she couldn’t really be bothered to care.
“Get back where?”
“Oh, I don’t know … Back to where you came from? It’s just that … I think maybe it’s time I tried to get over your death, New Year coming and all. Everyone says I should try and move on, but I don’t see how – how with you here…”
“No, I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that … practically speaking, for how long can this go on? For one thing, you can’t really physically touch anything. Must be kind of a bummer.”
“Kind of is. Listen, maybe you’re right. But there’s a problem.” He sheepishly scratched his chin and adjusted the strap of his watch.
“I’m not quite sure how.”
“I’m not quite sure how to get back.” Once again, irresponsible. Why was it up to her to figure out a way back for him? Even so, Mina tried everything. She prayed first to the Christian God, then a Hindu one, sought advice from the Islamic one, and appealed to yet another Hindu one. She had the option of trying a few more Hindu Gods but she decided against it. She beseeched the Universe to act, to do something, or just give her a sign, but before it could respond, she realised it wasn’t fair to ask it to intervene in something like this. She turned to the Internet. She came across plenty of search results on ‘How to get rid of the ghost of your dead husband’, while the ghost of her dead husband stood solemnly by, peering at the computer screen from behind her chair. It hadn’t taken her long to realise that the living memory of her dead husband was as resilient to the fire in her heart as his body had been susceptive to the actual thing that hot afternoon during his cremation. Wherever she went, whatever she did, she could not elude his presence. And where earlier he and his things would cause her tears, they now only erupted in her a strange sensation of being invaded. Mina was of the fresh opinion that she and her heart should be allowed to access the fifth stage of grief – acceptance – instead of unceremoniously being yanked back to stage zero. True, it was she who had elicited his comeback. But she hadn’t expected to be so perturbed by his presence. And so she made a drastic decision: she would get rid of all his things, empty the house of everything that would remind her of him, which was the only way she could think of to carry on her life without him in it; and perhaps, who knew, that way he would leave her in peace too.
So finally, one year and one week after her husband’s death, Mina finally began the ritual of sterilization.
Out went his blue razor, the blade of which still contained a short stray hair from the final time he had shaved; out went his home slippers, that had taken on a particularly dismal demeanor as they lay jilted in the corner of the bedroom; out went his clothes – casual wear, formal wear, work wear, and his 12 pairs of Nike socks. Her husband’s ghost let her work away, watching impassively, moving out of her way as she shot by from one room to the other.
“You should find someone who can get a good price on those hookahs for you,” he said, as she was emptying his desk drawer. She looked through him at the beautiful crystal hookahs that sat majestically near the bar area. She got up and walked towards them.
“Careful, they’re heavy.”
She wasn’t expecting it. The red one she had tried to pick up dropped straight to the floor, the pot cracking into two.
“What! I wasn’t expecting it to be so heavy!”
“You’ve broken it! No one’s going to want to buy that now.”
She looked at the broken red crystal for a full minute. What was that she had felt? No, she had had to be mistaken. Right? She heaved the blue one up – and promptly let it drop to the floor.
“Mina, what do you think you’re doing!”
“Just… making sure.”
She felt like a mischievous child as a smile crept up her cheek.
“Honestly, I can’t believe I have never done such a thing in my life.” Like a cat’s paw, her hand inched towards the third one, the exquisite green one, and nudged it straight off its throne, right to the ceramic floor. This time it wasn’t the hookah that cracked, but the tile.
“Now look what you’ve done!”
Mina stood there, surveying the damage. Suddenly she whipped her head towards him. “You know what. I think I’ve gone quite mad!”
“You think! Mina, I think it’s time you went to a psychiatrist – even though I don’t really believe in what they do. The pain of losing me has driven you right off the edge.”
“No. I don’t think it’s that.”
He gaped at her as he floated above his broken crystal hookahs.
“You know, most people think going mad is losing your senses, but for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m actually in control of myself. Look, for example, if I want, I can – ” She strode across the room, and reached towards the war cabinet.
“Don’t you dare.”
“ – I can do this.” She slid the glass to the side and picked up a yellowed postcard from one of the piles. It had a picture of some bridge and was signed off by some guy, possibly a World War I soldier or possibly the seller on eBay. Without a second thought, she ripped it apart.
Her husband emitted a gasp and swept his hand over his translucent forehead. “I don’t understand why you would do that,” he whispered.
“I don’t understand either. It’s just something that needed to be done. I’m going to destroy all this horrid stuff. And you know what, you don’t really get a say, because you’re dead.”
“But I’m still here!”
“Not for long.”
A new determination stole over her. Everything would go. Everything that was his. So although it wasn’t exactly decent of her to go around breaking things in her own house, she did it anyway, because something about the act was in a way cathartic to her heart, which she felt was being reborn with every book she flung out of the shelf, with every swastika ridden item she extracted and threw out the window. It was very addictive and new – the feeling, and there had been very few moments in her life when she had felt such a rush of pure energy coursing through her veins. She felt like she would never be sleepy again in her whole life.
By dinner-time, it was almost as if the entire house had dropped to its haunches. She had not taken a break once since the time she had started dismantling her husband’s island, not once taken a sip of water or even relieved herself. She had not once thought about her husband as she defiled his property. Where was he now? She hadn’t seen him after his outburst regarding the wreckage of the war cabinet. She turned to go to the toilet. As she entered the bedroom, she saw him sulking on the bed. It did disturb her slightly, seeing him crouched up like that, and without comment, she slipped into the bathroom. She washed her face and looked up at the mirror. Who was this person? It was more than just her physical reflection. It was like she was glimpsing her real self for the first time in her life. She tried to call up her past but it was all fogged up, all her memories, and she wondered whether she had lived at all before this moment.
As she reentered the bedroom, he turned towards her and said, “I can’t believe you destroyed my war cabinet.”
“I can’t believe you talked me into getting the snip.”
He stared at her, not knowing what to say.
“Mina – you know I didn’t want to have kids…”
“I just thought it made sense …”
“Is this what all this is about?”
“Of course not. It’s just that… you were a doctor and my husband and of course I had to trust what you were saying was right. But… it was a sign, and I didn’t see it.”
“From the Universe, yes.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, you and your Universe.”
“Me and my Universe, yes.”
Mina stared at her dead husband, the world clear before her eyes like never before.
“I don’t think we have anything left to say to each other.”
He nodded, drifting right above the place his heart had given out on that fateful morning.
“So … Merry Christmas then?”
It was Christmas Eve – another sign. She smiled. “And a Happy New Year.”
She waited for him to fade – it seemed like the obvious thing for him to do. She looked expectantly at him. He waited too, apparently, he was also prepared to be pulled back in that instant to where he had come from. But he lingered still. They both looked awkwardly into each other.
“Oh, come on then. I’ll get dinner ready.”
That night in bed, when she was confident her husband wasn’t looking, she turned to the Internet once again. Signs were all very well when it came to retrospection – now that she thought of it, every single minute of her life could be said to have been a sign of what was to come – but at the present moment, she couldn’t really wait around for any more. She searched for ‘Best Adoption Agencies Mumbai’ and found what she was looking for. The Internet, it dawned on her, was turning out to be more powerful than the Universe. It had given her more answers than the Universe had ever done, indisputably so. She would always love her husband – and the Universe – but maybe it was time to switch faiths. She turned towards her husband’s ghost. “Goodnight,” she said.
The next morning, on Christmas day, as she’d open her eyes to an empty bed, Mina would realise that her ritual of sterilization was complete. Six days later, on New Year’s Day, as she’d sign her name on the sheets the adoption agency had given her, Mina would realise it had only just been the beginning.
Aashmika is a writer from Mumbai. She recently completed her MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University and also has an MA in English Literature from Mithibai College, Mumbai. She is also a belly dancer, which successfully battles her professional introversion. When she isn’t reading or writing prose or poetry, she is watching TV shows. She loves animals, tattoos, nature, and taking pictures of things.
Aashmika is currently working on her first novel (but don’t ask her about it).
Read her articles here.