In a soggy London street he stood, shaking his dreadlocks like wind-struck branches of a willow and moving his weathered bow on the shiny strings of his broken violin. His clothes were torn, his feet, covered in mud, and his whole presence was soaked in the rhapsody of every note of Paganini’s Caprice 24 that he was playing. People dropped a shilling or two and quickly moved away before his stinking body odor invaded their pristine essence.
She was a brown woman with earnest eyes and wavy hair. She wore sorrow on her lips and smelled like tuberose. The moving crowd kept moving but she stood motionless, following the rise and fall of every note with her whole being. When he finished playing, she walked into his putrid space and asked, “Will you take me home?”
“Where is home?” He asked.
“Home is where it never is, and yet it’s there.”
He looked at her and thought for a moment. Then he nodded his head. “No,” he said, as he walked away. “You will absorb my soul.”
“Please, don’t leave me, please! ‘Day is desire and night is sleep. There are no shadows anywhere.’” She started sobbing. Her eyes got clouded and he submerged into her overflowing tears. And then he was gone.
She woke up to a sobbing voice—her own—desperately trying to stop her Paganini dream from vanishing away.
The night was quiet and the tree was lonely. The creek yonder was filled with fluid emptiness. The dark sky curved downward and rested behind the silhouetted town. Light lived there—within the framework of each house. Light and sound and laughter and Life. Then all went quiet. Quietly sleeping. Sleeping, like dead. The insomniac, being unable to dream, sat under the tree and wanted to hear what it had to say. But the tree, being lonely, was rustling with unstoppable words, and thus, inaudible. The insomniac therefore started to talk, hoping to be heard.
“I have an obsession, and I am unable to control it,” said the insomniac.
“Staying awake is a good kind of obsession, for it makes you want to go numb.”
“Staying awake makes me feel alive, but the obsession comes afterward—as knowledge. And I know what I don’t have and I pine and my obsession grows.”
“What is it that you are obsessed about?” asked the silence of the sky.
“Sleep; because only in sleep I can dream, and only in dream music plays in parallel octaves.”
“Then you should absorb your obsession, before it outgrows you—like my netting roots. If I want to be free from them, I will die.”
The insomniac tried digging holes with two hands around the captive tree, hoping to unwind its trunk from the jumbled roots that spread from one corner of the garden to the end of horizon’s end. But the tree cringed at the touch of ten cold fingers. When something is dead, trees know it first. The obsession had to end, the insomniac muttered. In this world, in order to win any battle, one must surrender to one’s darkness.
Michigan Lake was frozen solid. The roads swirled around it like layers of icing and the endless buildings stood like lines marked with crayon—vertical, colorful, but pointless. Looking up, one could see a dull winter sky covered in skyscrapers. Each building had at least forty floors, with countless homes in each floor—homes that are filled with consciousness: moving, living, thinking, eating, fucking, sleeping consciousness. But from the Michigan Avenue Bridge, each of those hanging homes looked like a box framed by a window, neatly packed, as if ready to ship home. All those living creatures! After so much toil and so much hassle, all they do is crawl into those boxes and wait for the sun to give them the signal to crawl out again.
A flake of snow softly landed on her shoulder, brushing against her nose, which caused Kheya to twitch her nose and sneeze. She looked at her phone. Professor Hamid should be here any minute now. Last night, he had expressed his desire to revisit Picasso before flying back home, to Bangladesh. Even though Picasso was not her type, Kheya promised to accompany him. The three days long conference had turned her head into a frozen SanDisk, in a dire need of a reboot and a visit to the museum might help. The wind pierced through her skin like needles of ice. She tried to save her face by covering it with her gloved hands, but it was of no avail. By the time Professor Hamid arrived, Kheya’s nose had turned blue. He was caught in the middle of some old acquaintances that wanted to pull him at the direction of the bar for the sake of bygone Bangladeshi days. He chuckled. But he had promised to return to them after their museum visit.
“Should we call an Uber?” Kheya tapped her phone.
“Yours is a lazy generation,” said the old professor. “It’s only a few blocks away, right on Michigan Avenue, and you’re already fidgeting!”
“Point taken,” Kheya interrupted. “Let me turn on the Google map.”
“Just follow me, you, lazy woman with no sense of direction.”
Kheya let the old man lead the way. Professor Hamid, being a mentor from her college days back home, and a respected man, took the role of an experienced guide that day. He made sure Kheya did not jaywalk on a busy road, or did not walk slow when the ‘walk’ signal turned yellow before they crossed the street.
“The first time I came here, I was a young doctorate student,“ he said as they entered the museum. “Ihab Hassan brought me. Ihab said, ‘Hamid, to see a little of Picasso, you should visit Chicago,’ and we drove here all the way from Wisconsin. What a wonderful experience it was, strolling through the rooms filled with wondrous pieces: Renoir, Gauguin, Monet, Matisse, Sisley, Van Gogh, Braque, and Picasso! And then we dedicated the rest of our night to drinking.”
“You mean, the post-modernist Ihab Hassan?” Kheya asked.
“Yup, that very one.”
“Next please!” Shouted the Lady from the Coat–drop section.
“Give me your coat,” Professor Hamid snatched her jacket away and rushed to the line. Kheya waited in a corner and watched the old man, standing in line, holding their jackets, then paying for them and handing them to the lady. He came back with two tokens and kept them in his pocket. “You know they won’t allow water bottles inside the museum. Finish it now!” He ordered.
Kheya obeyed him as if she was a little girl, and he, her father. Suddenly, she felt a pang inside her—a pang that turned into a clump of pain and clogged her throat. She missed her dead father. It had been twenty years since anyone had spoken to her in a father’s voice.
“Where do you want to start?” Professor Hamid was looking at the map trying to locate a starting point.
“In any museum, I always start with Monet and Van Gogh.”
“Good strategy,” he said. “Let’s go! It’s on the third floor.”
“If we get lost, I’ll come back to Gogh,” Kheya said.
“And I’ll be with Picasso,” answered the spirited man as he jumped up the stairs with her, but then slowed down a little and held on to the railing.
“ Are you grown old, Professor Hamid?” Kheya became concerned, “ Why didn’t you tell me? We could’ve taken the elevator.”
“Just limping my way toward the olden age,” he said as they entered ‘The Poet’s Garden.’
Kheya stood in front of the painting of Van Gogh’s garden and lost her sense of time. Each brush stroke and each etching of innumerable shades of green grew into new trees and kept pulling her into the landscape, alluring her to enter a garden that was not there. Pine and Birch and bushes of various shapes and wild flowers were scattered all over the canvas. And in the right corner of the garden stood a weeping willow—sad and lonely, like an instrument of wind, waiting to be played.
By the time she joined Professor Hamid in the Picasso room, the sun had already set. She found him glued in front of the man with the blue guitar. He smiled softly as she touched his arm. “This one is still my favorite, “ he said, “you do remember Wallace Stevens, no?” Then, without waiting for her answer, he started reciting,
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are
The man replied, “Things as they are.
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Say it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
Professor Hamid’s hands were in his pocket. His eyes were roaming in a land faraway, where he once loved a painter named Ripa—the woman who had left her life behind like stacks of dusty paintings. But Kheya was not listening to his recital anymore. Her eyes were not seeing the melting man and his blue guitar. She imagined herself standing in the poet’s garden—under Van Gogh’s weeping willow, where a blue man was playing Paganini on his broken violin. But where was the music coming from? Was the man inside this building? Had he come looking for her? Did it take him this long to cross the Atlantic, to leave the soggy streets of London in search of her? Kheya ran for the door.
“Wait, wait, let me collect our jackets!” Professor Hamid screamed.
He ordered her to put the jacket on before they stepped out. The night was freezing and they had a long walk back to the hotel, he reminded her. But Kheya was not paying attention. She dashed out of the museum and ran toward the sound of the music—leaving everyone behind and forgetting all the logic and logistics of life—in search of a blue man with a broken violin.
Inside every living head there’s a living thought.
Inside every thought there’s a bug that bugs--
A bug with a thousand wings.
Wings that flutter and pause and flutter again,
Willing, wishing, flying, and yet not able to fly.
For the sky within the head is not a sky at all
And the thousand wings, even though a thousand,
Is still one, and stuck, within a head that is no home.
Will you take me home? Will somebody, ever?
Asks the bug to the one that’s not there.
Of course, says darkness. But where is home?
Home is where it never is, and yet it’s there.
Will you love me? Will anybody, ever?
Of course, says silence. But what is love?
Love is what you think it’s not.
Between you and the shapes you take
There will always be a thinking thought
In the shape of my silhouette.
A shape that will neither fade
Nor will it let you rest
Until it’s eaten by its own darkness.
‘Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.’
Hearing a man playing on his blue guitar
And obsessed with the thought of a homeward trip
The bug spreads its thousand wings and flutters hard
Until it cracks the skull—its only home.
Until, instead of flying, it drops
Thoughtless, and dead.
And its last flutter is a cry, not for the wind
But for that of which winds are made.
The man was standing under a streetlight, playing his violin with utmost intensity. Paganini’s Caprice 24. His dreadlocks hung around him like strings of fire and swayed like stooping branches of a weeping willow. His clothes were torn and his boots were old and his fingers, crooked, like a crab’s claw, clutched over his violin. A white bucket sat idle on the pavement, waiting to be filled with the pity of passing strangers. With his bow, he was raising a storm through all the eleven variations of the Caprice, shifting rapidly through the parallel octaves and rising and falling through the intervals and the arpeggios. Kheya stood amidst the crowd, putting all her five senses together into one sense of yearning for her music man.
“You have found me! You have come back for me.” She cried. “Will you take me with you this time? I promise not to absorb your soul. I’ll walk behind you as your third shadow and you’ll never notice my absence. Between you and the shapes your music take, I will stay like a silhouette. My wings are stuck inside my head. My skull has a thousand cracks. My days are desire and my nights are sleepless. I have surrendered to my own darkness, but I still see no light. Will you take me home, my love, will anybody, ever?”
The blue man put his violin in its case. He picked his bucket and emptied it in his backpack. He then flipped his white cane and started knocking randomly with it on the pavement and started walking behind the sound he could not hear.
“Wait! Don’t go! Don’t leave me here! If you’ve come to me from my dream, then I should be in that dream too!”
But the blue man, deaf and blind that he was, left without saying anything. Kheya sat, under the streetlight, trying to dig holes with her two hands around the captive light post, hoping to unwind its foot from the grip of the concrete earth. But the streetlight flickered as she touched the pavement with her cold fingers. When something is dead inside, the light sees it first.
Long after the shadow of the blue man with a broken violin vanished into the sky, Kheya sat under the streetlight, waiting to hear the serenade of love one last time, and crying—not for the wind, but for that of which winds are made.
Fayeza Hasanat is an author, translator, and academic. She teaches in the English Department of the University of Central Florida, USA.