We bought the wheelchair first, my mother, my brother and I. We took our father to the grocery store. He asked us to stop near the tubs of pickled garlic, pickled mango, pickled chili, pickled olives. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be pickled he said, face laughing and cracked like a prune. This was the time after we were visited by the lady who said she knew a ghost and the ghost declared our father wasn’t sick. What a day that was. We were all in high spirits.
My father asked, Could this turn into a miracle story, and we didn’t have the heart to say No, though of course our hearts were screaming, No. We were living with our aunt whose house was close to all the hospitals. We were so sad in her house. Every day, I wore the same clothes.
My father wafted in and out of sleep. He waved his hands in the air, his fingers twirled above his head. We thought, He’s speaking to the ghost. We woke him up all the time. We were afraid he would offend the ghost and the ghost would take away his good diagnosis.
My father couldn’t go to the toilet on his own. He had to be helped on and off the seat. He took medicine all the time, for iron, for blood, to stop the pain. What a way to make the human body function. What a way to be sad. Some days he looked closely at his hand and at all the white pills in it and asked, What is all this powder? We spoke to him like he was a child. Every day I cried and cried and sometimes my mother tried to stop me and sometimes she gave in. When she cried her face swelled like a watermelon and her eyes became like seeds she could spit out. It was the saddest thing you ever saw except for my father dying.
I went to comedy clubs hosted on rooftops when I could get away. I sat on red floor cushions next to boys and women walked in with braids in their hair and loose white clothes printed with lines of color. Fans and air coolers waved around us, and the mountains stood tall in the distance. Female comedians took shots at the crowd. We all laughed loudly, faces strained with the effort of being happy. On these days I thought, How lucky I am.
At the grocery store near the pickled tubs, our father wore hunter green. He was okay. He was wearing track pants. For a while, he stood at a small sampling counter. He tried the olives stuffed with garlic, also the ones stuffed with cheese. He stood on unsteady legs next to my brother and fixed his gaze on the salesman. He said, This is very tasty.
I took the wheelchair out from behind him and sat on it for a while. I was tired after having wheeled him around the store, past the clothes, past the televisions, past the fruit, the vegetables and the baked goods, past the imported chocolates. He talked to me from the front so I had to lean into the back of his head. He talked like a man without teeth, lips curled into his mouth.
When he was standing and sampling the olives with my brother I sat on the wheelchair. I closed my eyes and just rested. When I opened them, I noticed that everyone who passed me was staring with great concern. Young women looked at my legs, men skirted around me like I was on fire, older ladies looked around for my attendant. What a tragedy, they all seemed to be thinking, What a young girl, What a loss of legs.
I watched my father grip the sampling counter with unsteady legs, slats of bones for arms. I put my feet on the wheelchair’s footrest and gripped the wheels. I rolled myself around. I took a round of the store. I made sure everyone saw me cruising, a big smile on my face. I went back through all the aisles, the television sets, the fruit, the vegetables and the baked goods. The imported chocolates. I stared longingly at all the clothes, specifically the pant legs. I chatted to customers, craning my neck up to look at them. I saw their eyes cloud with sympathy. My head said Okay, okay, okay, okay, good job, like a song. An older lady asked gently in the shoe section, What happened to your legs? Accident, I said, and looked at the display of heels standing tall like ice on the racks. She patted my shoulder. You’re very brave, she said. It felt good to be acknowledged.
The song in my head changed its tune. It beat to the tune of, You’re very brave. I coasted back toward the olive counter. I saw my father still standing, still eating olives. Stuffing his face. I wheeled myself over to him and got out of the wheelchair. Where were you? my brother asked. I stood on my strong, healthy legs and helped my father sit in my place. A group of little boys pointed. I kept the smile on my face though I felt the atmosphere in the store changing, turning slightly confused. Maybe hostile. I could walk. I was a liar, but I was also tired. The truth came to my defense. It crackled in the money people handed over to the cashiers, it carried itself out the door in shopping bags. It entered our house. My mother, my brother and I ate it for meals and it sustained us for a long time. You are so brave. We are so brave. We are the strongest people you know.
Mahreen Sohail has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College where she studied as a Fulbright scholar. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, A Public Space, No Tokens, Post Road, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She is also the recipient of the Charles Pick South Asia Fellowship (2014) and the A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellowship (2014). She currently lives in Islamabad, Pakistan.