Saturday, July 19, 2014

One Slipper

We could start, This is the true story of a mother who lost a son. Those are facts. Or, This is the true story of a hero whose comrades called him Captain of the Future. These are also facts. But instead I will begin with a deceptively small fact that also happens to contain within it the mystery of our very existence, of Hamid's disappearance—and the uninterrupted relationship between the living and the dead.

This is the story of one slipper.

          As we know, our story starts in many places simultaneously, but we will meet Hamid on Sunday at midnight, standing watch on the bridge of a cargo ship headed for Nova Scotia. A tall, lanky sailor in his mid-30s, he has brown eyes but a curiously hard, blue-eyed gaze. The gaze is at odds with his soft mouth, easy laugh, and the head of dark, childish curls. Hamid's lifetime of extraordinary experiences leaves no trace on him, he will always look boyish. We often mistake such men as souls on whom life has left no impression
—shallow men, reckless men—men untouched by the vicissitudes of life. We can't see the interior, how deeply the invisible, unexpressed self is marked.

          In another part of the world, where Dutch is spoken, there is a woman with strikingly similar features. She is also tall, but rather sturdy, with the same delicate nose and full lips. Her wavy, white hair is swept up into a loose bun with an assortment of combs and pins. Unlike her son, she has always looked far older than her years. She dresses modestly, in sensible shoes and heavy stockings, a cheerful scarf always fastened around her throat with a Victorian brooch, no matter the season. Her gaze is as warm as Hamid's is cool. She transmits a feeling of gentle candor and care. She is radiant with the knowledge of life's vicissitudes, conveysin the crinkle of her eyes when she smiles, in her marvelous laughter and the way she listens, nodding her head thoughtfullywhat we can only call the radiance of love.

         Standing watch for four hours while much of the ship sleeps, Hamid must have time to think about more than navigation. Perhaps he thinks about his girlfriend. Perhaps he contemplates his last trip, or his next. Last year he was captain of a ship bound for the Amazon, leading his second clandestine campaign to protect the South American rainforest. On that trip he suffered a brain hemorrhage, but still managed to guide his ship to port, as befitting a captain. His current assignment as second mate is the last part of his recovery before leading another Amazon campaign in just two months' time. 

          What does he think about? We don't know. All we know is his watch ends at 4 am. Later, his mother may imagine Hamid in the dark, before he heads to bed, leaning on the aft bulwark, waiting for the sun to rise starboard over the Atlantic while having a smoke. Hamid is probably tired, but in July at this hour the open sea refreshes and the ship's forward movement through vastness is reassuring. He takes in all that surrounds him like a deep blue breath filling his lungs: the deep blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the ocean, the endless wind. The water barely glimmers in that first light, under the fading stars. Everything is possible right now, is poised to happen. Hamid is alone on his planet and all that surrounds him is his. He exhales and the sun rises.

          We know something is wrong when the sun reaches its zenith. Hamid fails to appear at noon for his next watch. A general alarm is sounded to signal man overboard. The ship changes course to return to the place where Hamid was last seen eight hours before, at 44° 05 North latitude and 61° 30 West latitude. Every inch of the ship is searched and the Canadian Coastguard is alerted. Five ships and two planes are dispatched to conduct a massive search. 

          What we find on Monday evening, after 18 hours searching, is a single slipper, on the aft deck near the port side.

What happens next, when the search is called off, will be different for all of us. We will, each of us, tell a story of our own. Did he jump? Was there another aneurysm? Was he pushed? Is he hiding somewhere? Did he really sit on the bulwark to watch the sun rise and lose his balance? What does it feel like to fall backward? To be alone in the ship's waketo shift, between one moment and the next, from watching the the ocean to being the ocean? Was he cold? Did he watch the ship sail away? Perhaps it is out of respect for his mother that I rarely contemplate such questions. 

          What I do ask is similar to the question Where is Hamid? But what I really ask is Where is Hamid's slipper? The question is wordless, akin to the turning of a lighthouse beam, round and round, illuminating nothing. I probably think of the slipper every day, worrying over its whereabouts but unable to ask. 

          Sometimes I think, He is still Captain of the Future—he is already there.

          Sometimes I wonder about my vanished friend in Sri Lanka. Was he tortured and killed by the army, or by the rebels, or is he living up in the hills, married, with grandchildren, alive? I've asked humanitarian aid workers and people in his hometown to help me but, as with Hamid, there are no answers. In the absence of proof, I indulge in a memory that seems to have nothing to do with Hamid or my friend, to serve no intelligent purpose, except to frame a crucial question, wordlessly.

At the end of a quiet street in the city of Colombo, a narrow strip of sand divides the Indian Ocean from a sea wall. The sand is coarse, its grains as big as demerara sugar mixed in with black pebbles. Through a gap in the wall, we see men walking along that margin of sand, never glancing at the breakers that come so close, or the ships out in the distance. It must be midday because the men don't cast shadows. They walk briskly, purposefully, sinking into their own footsteps, sometimes swallowed ankle-deep or tripping over stray flip-flops scattered along the beach, tangled in seaweed. Not one of these sandals has a mate. 

          The missing sandals, the men in their urgency, where do they end up?

          Sometimes I think, All the oceans of the world are connected.

          Sometimes I think of how every summer, as a child, I would lean over the bulwark on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, entranced, as if being daredby the churning wake.

          Hamid's mother died last year, the same year that my own mother died. As I go through my mother's belongings, weighing the significance of each object before deciding what to do with it, I find something Hamid's mother brought us decades ago, before Hamid vanished, and which suddenly brings me face-to-face with Hamid's slipper.    

          The polished stone is as beautiful as I remembered it to bemysterious, round and flat, like the moonand nearly as big as the whole well of my palm. Although the stone contains many colors, it is predominantly a deep mineral-red streaked with blue and gold. It has always reminded me of the Earth and the Moon. Holding it, one feels connected to something. 

          Hamid's mother explained that she had brought it back from Delhi, where every summer she tended a Sufi shrine. Beautiful stones, such as this one, are left at the saint's tomb as reverent offerings. I remember how she stroked the face of the stone before giving it.

          Dutch sounds strange to English ears, at once soft and gutteral. My mother said it sounded the way she imagined gnomes might secretly converse. Sometimes, instead of saying goodnight, my mother and I would imitate the way Hamid's mother would abruptly stand and take her leave. 

          "Well, I go now," she would say. But in her lilting Dutch accent it came out, Fell, I go now. And she would smile her radiant smile, and we would smile back.