Detour by Vrinda Baliga

 

A chimpanzee in a zoo in Sweden hurls rocks at visitors.

Your father told you this. It used to be a favorite pastime back when you were young — sitting together in the garden, with him sharing interesting snippets from his newspaper.

The chimpanzee didn't do this in a sudden fit of rage. It collected the rocks into a heap, well before the zoo opened, in readiness for the first visitors. Researchers were fascinated by its ability to pre-plan and execute the attacks.

"They all want to know how he does it," you said. "Nobody seems to be interested in why he does it."

Your father didn't say anything. But you still remember the incident because of the respect, the pride you saw in his eyes when he looked at you.

His eyes flutter open. He looks about squinting, and reaches out automatically for his spectacles. His hand finds only the cold stone of the park bench. He straightens, confused, searching with greater agitation. He finally locates the glasses on a chain around his neck. He puts them on, but the disorientation remains on his face.

"Good evening, Mr. Karanth," you say.

He starts. He hadn't noticed your presence at the far end of the bench. He had been fast asleep when you found him,when you sat down to catch your breath. You could have woken him earlier, but you didn't. Instead, you sat there watching as his chest rose and fell. You watched the tiny facial twitches, the pacing of his eyeballs behind closed eyelids...

"It's getting dark, isn't it, Mr. Karanth?" you say, blending the right proportion of pleasantness and authority in your voice.

"Mr. Karanth," he repeats slowly, rolling the name over his tongue, tasting it. Then, with greater confidence, "Yes, I am Mr. Karanth."

"I suppose you are going home now?" you say.

"Yes, yes, of course," he says quickly, struggling to his feet. "I must be on my way."

You walk with him. He looks uncomfortable, but doesn't object. At the first intersection, his steps falter. He looks uncertainly first to the left, then to the right. Then, all of a sudden, he plops down cross-legged on the pavement.

"I don't think I will be going home after all," he states.

You sit down too. There is a moment of silence as he studies your face suspiciously.

"Do you know Rahul?" he hisses suddenly. "Has Rahul sent you?"

"No," you say.

His face clears in relief.

"He's my son, you know. He poisons my milk...I've been flushing it down the toilet all these days...you know, when he's not looking...but I think he's found out. I don't want to go home."

"Don't worry," you reassure him. "You can come and stay at my place."

His eyes fill; the mute gratitude tears at your soul.

Later, you sit by his bed as he must have done a million times after the last of the just-one-more bedtime stories. He seems at peace. Perhaps there is a kinder world in his dreams. After all, the strange logic of dreams is sometimes so seductively clear when compared to the incomprehensible reality of waking life.

Much later, you shut your laptop, lean back on the couch and close your eyes. Your thoughts drift to the events of the day. The project meeting at work...the call from home...the panic in the day-nurse's voice...the dash back...the frantic searching...the relief. You know you've been lucky today, though you're not quite ready to admit it yet. It's the first time he has wandered off by himself. He might have gone further, it might have been hours before you found him. You might not have found him at all.

You remember the things he said.

You know how. You still ask why.

Eventually, you will fall asleep and drift into your own parallel universe. Where fathers are fathers and sons are sons and the roles are never reversed. Not ever.

Vrinda Baliga is a freelance writer, living in Hyderabad, India. She enjoys writing short stories and poetry. Her work has appeared in Cezanne's Carrot, EveryDay Fiction and Camroc Press Review, and is due to appear in Rose and Thorn.