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The Husband's Name by Syed Rafay Ahmed
(From New Moon 2003)
Study of Old Man by Rembrandt
"Study of Old Man"
by Rembrandt

She is embalmed in white hospital sheets, as well as a stiff white blanket that makes her look as though she is wrapped in bandages. She lies still against a thin plastic pillow, covered with a crisp, starched case. Every so often her mouth moves, a cavity which is not really a mouth at all, but a puckered hole without lips or teeth. It is dry. She needs water. She cannot see.

She is uncomfortable, this barely breathing cadaver. A tissue of skin. A scaffold of bone with her wild white hair, her jaundice, her rising scent of decomposition. She is aware of her helpless state, her parched lips and ancient form, but she is cut off from the world. It has been years since she could communicate, compose intelligible sounds...She can only lie here as she is, judge time from the shadows inside her unseeing eyes.

Her back is stiff. That back of hers, she moves to speculate, must be speckled with age by now — the skin would be mottled and creased and thinned out like tissue paper. But who ever looks at their own back? You never plan on it changing. There are bits of your body you carry around all your life but never really own. She supposes that if anyone owned her back, it was her late husband, as he was the only one ever to see it regularly.

Even in old age she thinks of her husband at least once every day — something will rear up and remind her of that brief marriage which in time has come to seem more like an enclosure she'd stumbled upon, rather than a legal arrangement formally entered. It is a thought she would rather repress, not relive. He is always, in her recollections, lying in bed, waiting for her, a presence, a grief, an ache. But in fact, he had never once waited for her in bed, being occupied during the late hours in his favorite chair, always reading The Book. She must, she thinks, get that part right...he had never awaited her.

But what was his name? What was his name? Her husband's name? A suppressed pain. Fear. There is something careless about this kind of forgetting, something unpardonable, a great guilt. Her husband, her master. His face has the quality of a blurred photograph, yet she remembers his rough hands. His rough, calloused hands on her soft body. She shudders.

Feeling foolish, she starts through the alphabet, trying to associate a name with each letter: Albert, Benjamin, Charles, Daniel...

It feels as if every last cell of her brain has been driven into illness. Her lack of memory fills her with silent dread. Not my mind, Dear God, not my mind! She tries to compose herself.

Ernest, Frank...

Letter by letter she continues to analyze the sounds and impressions. What is this? Dear God!

George, Harry...

She begins to suspect the answer is beyond her reach. She sends out fingers of desire, need, thought — tries to project them into her past, to pull out something stable. The images seep through her fingers like fine sand peppered with doubt.

Ian, John, Ken, Lyle...

She has a deep envy of the living. She is tired of her half-existence. She is tired of being sad, tired of not even minding that someone her age should grieve. And in the thin bony box of her head she understands, and accepts the fact that her immense unhappiness is doomed to irrelevance anyway. Why worry? Why yearn towards a dream that is doomed to be unfulfilled?

Because it would ease her regret.

The woman can't even express her inner turmoil to others, apart from holding onto a loud, scratchy moan. She does this, on occasion, to no effect.

She feels a part of her wanting to go back to the things she used to like — the feel of a new toothbrush against her gums, for instance. Such a little thing that the nurses here overlook so often. She would like to feel the sun on her face, the wind in her hair, the crunch of sweet smelling grass beneath her feet. She'd like to lick an envelope, stick a stamp neatly in the corner, drop it in the mailbox. She'd like to clean her body out with a hoot of honest laughter. She'd like to sit on the toilet by herself.

She can fantasize about her independence all she wants. She can pray all she wants, she never was a praying woman and in the end she will still be where she is. She knows this. It is her station in life, the resolution of a rather mundane plot. She knows she has every right to brood, but she prefers to look forward toward her death. Even now she tries to wish it into existence.

It is going to happen. All this suffering will be washed away. Any day now...she can feel it. She can hope. She revels in wonder that she cannot bounce out of bed and go for a run down the streets of her youth at this very moment. Why is her body so unwilling, when her heart knows that it can be done? Why can't she even remember her husband's name?

She does not realize she has lost her place. With renewed vigor she begins anew:

Alfred, Ben, Chris, Dale...

BIO: Syed Rafay Ahmed is fascinated with life's idiosyncrasies. Seeking to explore the human condition in his stories, he tries to create "possible worlds," imagined dramatic embodiments of experience which allow him to explore basic "rules" of human nature and the structure of the world. Rafay has a B.A in Journalism and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Social Sciences from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan. Email: c/o Moondance.

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