How Old Were Your Sons by Fathima Afra Irfan

“How old were your sons?” the detective asked the woman sitting quietly on the chair, although he already knew.

She just stared ahead, with a dead look in her eyes.  The only movement was that of her hands, twisting and untwisting a handkerchief between her fingers.

They were in a tiny, constricted room with grey walls and a floor of hard concrete. There was only one source of light in the room, a single bulb that hung just a few feet above a metal table, giving off a blinding white-blue glare. Tiny moth like creatures crowded the light bulb, the flapping of their delicate wings punctuated by the soft thuds of their bodies making contact with the glass. The air carried the unpleasant smell of rat droppings and cigarette smoke.

The detective gently shook the pen he held between his fingers back and forth, as he looked down at the file spread out before him on the table. “It says here they were seven and six,” he said. He stood with his palms resting on the table, his dark brown eyes darting over the contents of the file for the umpteenth time. In his forties, he was tall man, with black hair that was only just beginning to grey.  He wore glasses on his face that almost always rested on the bridge of his nose.  He was as well liked by his colleagues, as he was disliked by those he interrogated.

“They were handsome little fellows, no? Such a shame,” he said shaking his head. The woman’s eyes glistened with moisture. She turned her head to the side and let out a deep breath, which slowly picked up pace until it turned in to a light, dry cough.

The detective watched her patiently. Truth be told, he found her oddly alluring even though she wasn’t strikingly beautiful. She had a delicate mouth but her nose seemed large and disproportionate compared to the rest of her small round face. Her white blouse complimented her caramel skin tone and she had tied her dark, black hair in a hurried bun. His overwhelming impression was one of frailty – her large attractive eyes were shadowed by long lashes from above and dark circles from below.

He could also see the new but slowly healing red scratches on her face clearly, thanks to the illumination provided by the light bulb, which she had seemed to share an intimate moment with just minutes ago.  She smelled of disinfectant and hospital wards. The odor was enough to bring back unpleasant memories of his little brother’s illness and of how they had lost him to leukemia in the end.

Shrugging off his momentary distraction, the detective returned his attention to the interview, trying to ease her in with a different question. “What exactly do you remember about that day?

She continued to look the other way, ignoring him.

The detective sighed lightly, “Hey, it’s alright. Um…Look, the sooner you tell me the details, the sooner you can be let out.  But you have to cooperate. We only want to know what happened.”

No response.

“The doctor told us you were fine, but if your throat still hurts, you could write it down for me. Maybe you would prefer that, since that’s how you asked for things at the hospital,” said the detective pushing a few sheets of paper and a pen towards her.

Nothing.

The detective pursed his lips together.  He had had enough of her attitude. He needed a harsher approach. He had tried being civil with her. Well at least, to a certain degree.

He stood up straight, tall and intimidating, clipping the pen into the breast pocket of his shirt. “Well I must say, your children weren’t as lucky as you were. But really I’m wondering if it had anything to do with luck.”

Her eyes slowly shifted to his, taking her time to register what he had implied. “What?” she blinked as she furrowed her eyebrows. Her voice was a little hoarse.

The detective held eye contact with her, before her gaze flitted away. He felt a rush of satisfaction: It speaks!

He clarified for her, “All the evidence, everything right here, points towards intended murder.” He tapped the file, his tone accusing. He had her attention now. Her eyes were staring sharply towards him again. “What do you mean? I-I- was in the river with them. I was in the hospital, these past couple of days fighting for my life! I was with my children the whole time!”

“The whole time, while they were drowning. You’re not with them now are you?” the detective retorted.

At that the woman’s face took on a look of utter panic, before she broke down into a fresh wave of tears and sobs. He rolled his eyes, unmoved by what he thought of as her drama.

Pretty she might be, but he didn’t trust this woman. He knew perfectly well that people were capable of violence, regardless of how ideal and perfect they might appear to the world.

His brother had been like that, and that was part of the reason the detective had never really allowed himself to grieve. Maybe he was heartless, but he also remembered how as a boy, his brother once stabbed a street dog with a pair of scissors and then said, “You’re next!”, grinning and winking at him playfully. Though he was the elder, their parents never believed him when he tried to tell them what was happening – his brother simply got away with everything. His childhood had taught him skepticism, and his job had always reinforced that lesson.

It was why he felt little sympathy for the woman weeping bitterly into her handkerchief.  He took off his glasses and started to clean the lenses with his already wrinkled shirt, waiting for her to calm down. Seeing she needed another moment, he brushed off the stray sugar crystals that had fallen off from the kimbula banis he had with his tea and straightened his khaki pants. On the table, placed on a saucer was another sweet bun and a bottle of lukewarm cream soda. Though she would glance at them occasionally, the woman left them untouched.

Finally, he addressed her, firmly but not unkindly: “Sita, crying isn’t going to help you out of this situation. Just tell me the truth.”

This struck a chord, and she responded, tears clogging her voice. “The t-truth? The truth is I-I wanted to end my life. But I couldn’t leave my children. Not with him.”

“You mean your husband?” the detective asked. “Your husband was-“

“He was a monster,” she said loudly, her voice quivering as she interrupted the detective. “He was a drunkard. He abused us. And his friends…. wh–what they did to me and my children… ”

She was silent for a while. “I-I couldn’t leave them alone with him,” she whispered. “My children had no childhood. They-they would wish to be dead, like I wished it upon myself. ”

The detective then said, “But clearly, you never approached the police for help.”

“The police wouldn’t have helped. In my town…they would never…” She seemed to run out of words.

The detective shook his head at that. “You see, I just don’t believe you. What if the reason you didn’t come to the police was because of your affair?”

A sound of protest escaped Sita’s throat.

He didn’t let her continue. “If you’re trying to deny it, don’t bother. Your husband already told us about the affair. It’s your word against his. He said you were planning on running away without the kids, that you didn’t want the burden. ”

Sita’s voice hitched with panic as she rushed to contradict him. “My husband is lying. He’s lying. He’s the liar. Not me!”

“It’s alright. I understand. The possibility of a fresh start and leaving behind the life you had was tempting, wasn’t it? To live without the worries and reminders of a previous life…” his voice trailed away, offering her understanding.

Her eyes widened at that and she stared at him for a few seconds.

Belatedly, she hastily tried to croak out a “No…” but he did not let her complete her sentence. Completely confident, he laid it all out. “Here’s what I think happened. You went to the river with both of them but you planned to come back alone. They were children. It would be easy enough to blame it on their being mischievous and straying too far from their mother. It would be as simple as holding their heads down, and keeping yours above. But you miscalculated, didn’t you? What was it, the river currents or maybe the weight of your two children?”

Sita’s eyes widened at that. “That’s not true. It isn’t, it isn’t!” she exclaimed as she started shaking her head violently.

The detective just ignored her. “There were clothes at the site. You were the only one with a change of clothes. You were planning on coming back without your children. So you could run away, with nothing to weigh you down. Would be difficult to do that in jail now, no?”

Tears were rolling in great rivers down her cheeks, “Please, I don’t know what happened to the clothes.”

“Well, I don’t believe you,” he said harshly.  The woman cringed at the sound of his voice and slowly looked down at the palm of her hands. Her voice was barely audible when she said, “My children must be thanking me. At least they had the escape I wanted. Better for your children than for yourself right?” she looked up, and then, she smiled sadly.

The detective stared at her for a moment, his head running with thoughts. Was that a confession? Could he even call it that?

The woman now reached for the cream soda on the table with shaky hands, and as she lifted the straw up to her lips, the bottle fell on to the floor and shattered into pieces. “Sorry, sorry,” she whispered, dropping down to her knees. She began frantically pushing the shards of glass into a pile with her bare palms.

The detective looked at the mess on the floor, where the cream soda had formed a sticky puddle. The broken glass reflected the light and formed tiny dancing rainbows on the walls. He sighed.

“Stop, stop. I’ll get someone to clean that up.”

Stepping out onto the corridor, he spotted a colleague. “Hey I need someone in there to…” he began saying, only to have the rest of his words cut off by a loud shriek. His eyes widened as he froze momentarily before running towards the room he had left just moments ago. He burst in through the door with a gun in his hand, his colleague on his heels.

The sight that awaited him made his eyes widen. The woman held her wrists up as blood flowed down her arms freely, in rivulets of crimson. Tightly gripped in her hands was a shard from the broken bottle. “Call an ambulance!” yelled the detective, as he rushed toward her.

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