Loophole

Izmir sat at the dinner table, seething. The food at his disposal suddenly lost all its allure. The morsel in his mouth suddenly felt rubbery, tasteless. With some effort he forced it down, his ears burning, fists clenched, mind reeling. His mother’s tirade did not seem to be heading for the finish line anytime soon. He had been at the receiving end of these tirades for many years, but they never seemed to get any easier to bear. Try as he might, he could never block them out and every word penetrated to his very core and left him helpless and angry, usually resulting in a loss of appetite and a sleepless night. He was eleven years old now, but his emaciated cheeks and baggy, sunken eyes gave him the appearance of an older, malnourished kid.

When he was younger, the tirades were few and far between, a blip on an otherwise happy and fulfilling childhood. But with the birth of his little sister the financial strain on his mother increased and she was never one who was known for dealing with pressure. His father, a lawyer, left soon afterwards, without a word of apology or explanation. The abandonment, coupled with the loss of his income, meagre as it was, struck blows from which his mother’s psyche could not recover.

The tirades did not need a trigger, they came at regular intervals and with little or no provocation and they were always aimed at him, never at his little sister. But for this Izmir was thankful. His four year old sister, Manna, was everything to him. No matter how dark his day, one smile from her innocent, chubby face would put his mind at ease. He spent many an hour on summer days carrying her on his back and taking walks in the fields. They’d talk of anything and everything, Manna’s questions never ceased and Izmir’s patient replies supplied all the answers she could wish for. For the questions he did not know the answer to, Izmir used his wonderfully creative mind and created fantastical answers which Manna gobbled up with relish.

Izmir’s greatest fear was that Manna, on growing up, would also have to bear the vicious attacks from which she had thus far been exempt. His nightly ruminations were constantly visited with visions of her green eyes overflowing with tears, her otherwise ready and piercing tongue stunned into silence.
At all costs, that day must not arrive, resolved Izmir.
————————————————————————————————————

Two years on, Izmir realised his fears had been well founded. Manna had just begun to become the target of her mother’s tantrums. Izmir recognised the signs from his own experiences. And already he could see it affecting her mood. She had been an exceptionally cheerful child, and still was, but one sensed a troubled mind behind that winning smile that always played on her lips.

The fact that he was at a similar age when his mother’s behaviour towards him had taken a turn for the worse was not lost on him. Soon his mother would stop all pretence at civility and spout venom at every instance she was brought face to face with her daughter. And Manna’s intelligent, inquisitive mind would be clouded with anger and resentment. Izmir knew all too well from his own experience just how crippling those sentiments could be and he shuddered at the prospect of seeing his sister go through such an ordeal before him.

The long walks the siblings habitually took together lengthened in duration and length, but now the solace was needed by Manna more than her brother. Having experienced nothing but pure affection at the hands of her mother and brother for all of her young life, this sudden change in her mother’s behaviour had shaken Manna and her mind was too frail to adjust just yet. She did not understand what caused this drastic deviation in her life and did not accept its finality. Even in the midst of the worst of the tirades, Manna still held her arms out to her mother in the hope that she would be hugged and forgiven just as she would have been a few short months ago that now seemed a lifetime away. But all she got in return was a cold stare and a chilling response that would reduce her to a quivering pulp. When this happened, Izmir would hold her hand and slowly but firmly lead her out of the room and out into the fields, no matter what hour of the day or night it was. They roamed for hours sometimes under the starlit sky, discussing possible shapes and constellations that the stars formed, and interpreting them with fabulous tales laced in no small measure with their own dreams and hopes to prevent them from crumbling under the weight of reality.

Sometimes they would return to find the door locked from the inside, their mother fast asleep, deaf to their pleas and protestations. These nights the both of them would spend outside, Izmir comforting his sister, keeping her warm.

Things seemed to continue in the same vein, but there was a subtle shift in the undercurrents which would have long standing repercussions. If their mother had been a little more attentive to their feelings, she might have noticed it too, but as it was, the undercurrents remained undercurrents and the tirades kept coming. Only they seemed to affect the two children less each time, a new and somewhat disconcerting defiance could be found in their eyes. They took her tongue lashings with their chin raised, silent but by no means cowed, holding each other’s hand in a show of solidarity in the face of a storm of words. Frustrated by the lack of response she was used to getting, the mother on one occasion grabbed a rod from the fireside and struck Manna on the arm raised to protect her face. This was the first time she had resorted to physical violence and the tension in the room was palpable.

“Let’s go, Manna,” were the quiet words from Izmir. The lack of emotion in the words held more menace than all the hours of shouting they had endured in their lives.

That night Manna and Izmir did not come back to the house, they spent the entire night in deep discussion, never leaving each other’s hand for a moment and the red dawn found them lying side by side In the fields a few kilometres from home.

They returned to the house for breakfast, silently sitting through another round of remonstrations. But their mother might as well have been speaking to the wall for all the difference it made to them. At one point Manna even burst forth in a giggle after an exchange of secretive glances between the giggles. This unconcerned behaviour put their mother ill at ease and seemed to subdue her if only temporarily.

“Ma, I’m going to the town to see if I can get any work for today. I won’t be back till evening,” Izmir called over his shoulder as he picked up his jacket from the chair.

His mother did not reply.

He walked over to Manna, gave her a hug and a kiss, ruffled her hair and walked out into bright sun.
————————————————————————————————————

Izmir spent the day working in the town, cleaning people’s houses or shops in exchange for a pittance. Usually he would only work for those who agreed to pay him at least a dignified amount, but today he seemed more concerned with covering as many houses as he could rather than earning a good pay. On his way down the streets he made it a point to greet every shopkeeper and passerby whose eye fell upon him. He worked feverishly quick, covering a number of houses that he ordinarily would have covered in three days. When he saw the evening shadows lengthen and the day approached its close, he set off back towards his home.

Manna was waiting for him in the fields, her cheeks flushed and eyes bright. She seemed a little unsteady on her feet, almost intoxicated with the intensity of the emotions she was experiencing.

Izmir approached her, gave her an all encompassing hug and quietly whispered into her ear.
“Is it done?”

“Yes, brother. Just like you said.”

“Good, now listen to me very carefully. Do you love me?”

“Yes, brother.”

““Do you want to stay with me always?”

“Always.”

“Then you will do as I say? No matter how scary it is?”

“Yes, brother.”

Izmir smiled, looked into those beautiful eyes. Somehow they had still preserved their innocence.
————————————————————————————————————

The police lights outside the house attracted the neighbours from miles around. A scandal of this magnitude had not been seen or heard of for many generations in this area. The townsfolk whispered nervously to each other, recounting the horror that took place within those four walls. The police too, unused to dealing with anything more serious than cattle theft, seemed unsure of how to proceed.

One female officer had the unenviable task of speaking to the children. She spoke to Izmir first.

“Hi, Izmir, my name is Caroline.”

“Hello,” Izmir said, his pale face streaked with mud and tears.

“I know this must be very hard for you, but we need your help to find out what happened to your mother.”

Izmir looked up, the most sincere look of helplessness upon his face.

“I went into town this morning, I go there to work sometimes to earn a little extra money. We don’t have a lot of money at home. When I got back, I saw Manna, that’s my little sister. She was telling me she made the bad man go away.”

“The bad man?” asked Caroline.

“Well, you see, my mother used to get very angry sometimes. She would shout at us, sometimes even hit us. But when she didn’t get angry, on the good days she was very loving. She was Manna’s favourite person. So I told Manna that on the bad days the spirit of a bad man would possess Mama. He would creep into her heart and make her bad. ”

A feeling of dread crept slowly up Caroline’s spine. “Dear God, no,” she whispered.
Izmir continued.

“I went inside and I saw Mama…” his voice broke, “I saw Mama like she is now.”

“So, it was Manna? She did that?” Caroline asked, desperately hoping there was an alternative explanation.

“It’s not her fault. She didn’t do anything, please don’t take her away. She thought Mama was possessed. She is just a little girl, please don’t punish her,” Izmir pleaded desperately, tears flowing from his eyes.

Caroline could not muster up a reply. Disbelief and horror had paralysed her. She stared silently for a moment, then turned and walked away to speak to her superior.

On questioning Manna, Izmir’s story was corroborated. The mother had been fine that morning, but in the afternoon had flown into a rage and beat Manna with a rod. The ugly welt on her arm was proof of that. Manna, wanting her Mama back from the “Bad man”, resolved to make him go away. The gruesome result was there for all to see.

The question of what was to be done with the kids was resolved with the arrival of an aunt who agreed to take them in. Izmir and Manna shifted into their new home and seemed to take the death of their mother quite well for a couple of children their age.
————————————————————————————————————

If one were to carefully sift through the books in Izmir’s room in the old household, one would find a book of law, originally owned by Izmir’s father. On a certain earmarked page, one would find the law stating that if a child under the age of seven commits a crime in India, he/she cannot be convicted and must be treated as though he/she did not commit a crime at all.

Izmir and Manna never visited their mother’s grave. One cannot explain things to the dead.

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