Alone in my dreams, the world around me was dazzling and my mood was wondrous but sad.
The next morning, I caught a bus to my village and watched the cities disappearing into a blur of grey. I got off the bus and stopped beside the river. Rays of sunset light shimmered on the water, reminding me of impressionist paintings that captured nature’s moods in dots of colours.
Everything was changed except the river. I could hardly believe so much time had passed since my last visit. I didn’t recognize anything. I turned around and walked the dimly lit streets that were lined with small stone cottages on either side. There were times that the alleys became so narrow I couldn’t progress without my bag or elbow suffering a scrape. Nevertheless, I persevered. I stumbled around in the darkness, hoping to find the village square where I might at least orient myself or encounter a villager. I grew weary, so I went to knock on the red door of a random cottage. As my fist rose, I saw a man entering the village with a herd of goats and cows. Even though it had started to drizzle, I could feel the peace and leisure with which he walked as he approached. As he drew closer, I recognized that he was my grandfather. After retiring from teaching, he spent most of his time taking care of his animals.
Soon, the baa’s of his flock overwhelmed every other sound. A few minutes later, we were face to face. I breathed the life in the air as he drew closer; the bells around the animals’ necks grew louder. My heart warmed as his grey beard danced in the wind. I relaxed into his embrace.
‘You’re finally here, I see,’ he said.
‘Yes ,Grandpa, The trip took its toll on me.’ I fell into step alongside him.
‘How is your life in the city? I read your article in the paper last week. I love your words. I found them amusing.’
‘Fine, Grandpa. My life is fast paced. It’s hard to keep up with at times, but I think the tradeoff is fair. I make good money and don’t want for anything.’
He wrapped one arm around my shoulders as we made our way to his home. His heavy shawl protected me from the rain.
‘Do you still like this weather?’ I asked.
‘If I love anything in the world, it’s the rain. Even now, when I’m too old and it’s too cold, I still answer its call. There’s sweetness in its scent and an energy that infects me. A sense of consciousness washes over me; time slows down. I feel it coursing through my veins. Sometimes I wonder if I only like the rain so as to be different from all the people who hate it.’
He shrugged his shoulders as his eyebrows lifted toward his hairline.
‘Maybe I’m just out of my mind. I love the sound of the thunder rolling through the house. I also know my garden is getting a good watering.’
The drizzle grew to a steady downpour, so we quickened our pace.
I found myself in a cramped but tidy room. A log burned in the fire place. Grandpa led me to a chair as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, grumbling to let me know that it was previously his. Upon sitting, I found that I didn’t want to turn my head because the warmth of the fire offset the chill air. As I stared into the flames, a pleasant grogginess came over me.
‘Grandpa, when was the last time you went to the city?’
‘Fifteen years ago. Your father took me. No more than a week passed before I determined that I was not able to live there. Nature called to me every morning. I had to come home.’
‘What did Nature say to convince you to come back?’ I asked as I inhaled the steam from the bowl he set in front of me.
‘She told me she missed me,’ he chuckled.
The chair across from me creaked as he lowered himself into it.
‘Do you remember when you were a child and how much you loved being outdoors?’
I winced as he shoveled a spoonful of the hot stew into his mouth.
‘When you were a child, you fell in love with summer, mostly because you didn’t like wearing shoes. When it rained, you played as if there was no tomorrow, not caring that you were getting your shorts wet. I remember you telling me how good the mud felt between your toes. Your grandma would always get mad at me because she had to clean up your little footprints every day.’
The memories were a springboard for others that ran through my mind. I remembered being fascinated with the chickens he kept in the back yard. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to catch one, though he made it look easy. My grandmother, who was just as handy as he was, had built the coop. I would follow grandpa inside, the hens clucking and twittering. I remembered the warmth and softness of their feathers on my palms. I would pet them while he reached underneath to retrieve the freshly laid eggs. They always provided a nice breakfast for us. The man sitting across from me was no longer the man in those memories.
‘What do you think about coming to live with me in the city? You’re getting older and you need someone to help take care of you. I’m just concerned about you being alone, Grandpa.’
‘Oh, but I’m not. I am with the Earth.’ The edge of the cup hid his face as he drank what remained of his stew. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his belly, a smile spreading across his lips. ‘I think we should sleep now.’
He left me in silence. As he walked away, the shadow the fire cast on the wall made him appear twice his size.
The next morning, I woke up to Grandpa’s usual complaints about me sleeping too late. Breakfast was waiting when I entered the kitchen. It was my favorite: fresh butter on whole-wheat toasted biscuits that were, of course, homemade. After breakfast, we traveled to the pasture. I was amazed that his horses and cattle moved to the fields without any guidance. From the oak tree we sat under, it looked as if they were following the wind. The smell of freshly cut grass wafted into my nose. I stretched my legs over the soft grass.
‘I guess I am getting old, if you consider eighty old,’ Grandfather said. ‘You know we measure human life by the number of years remaining. Even though that may be true, I still love the feeling of the Earth on my skin. We have switched places, now I’m the one who loves feeling the mud between my toes. I like the rough texture of tree bark on my hands and the way the grass wraps around my feet when I’m walking. I always find myself spreading out when I lay on the ground. I want every part of me to connect with the Earth. Life is simple. Beauty is simple. It’s all around us. We make things complicated. We spread greed, lust, jealousy onto the Earth, disrupting its natural balances. If only people knew that it gives us everything we need.’
As I laid next to him, it wasn’t hard to understand why his feelings for the Earth were as passionate as they were. It had been his muse since the beginning of his life. I relaxed more with each breath, the ground molding to the shape of my body.
‘It feels good being in touch with the Earth like this, Grandpa.’
‘You are feeling its love. It is my belief that we are meant to be in tune with this Earth. We are made from this.’ He opened his hands to reveal a glob of moist dirt. ‘The same love the Creator has for the Earth, he has for us, because we are one and the same. This –’ he placed the mound in my hands ‘– is where we come from and we must always remember that.’
‘How does the Earth work Grandpa?’
‘Do you know about the poles? How they are oppositely charged?’
‘It is my belief that the Earth is positive and people are negative. In order for us to remain balanced, we must ground ourselves to the Earth’s charge. In order to realize our true power, we have to be connected to the source.’
Silence invaded the gap between us. For a moment, I thought he was waiting for me to respond. I remained quiet, not wanting to disrupt the rhythm of his wisdom. Several minutes passed. I rolled over to see him with his eyes closed, no signs of movement to show that he was still alive.
His eyes peeled open. He motioned for me to stay where I was.
‘There is no Earth in the city, or rather not enough to suit me,’ he said. ‘People work day and night only to return home with little more than they had. They live in magnificent buildings and drive fancy cars, yet they can’t sleep at night. They are living an illusion of happiness.’
He asked me if I knew why my father died. I didn’t answer, not wanting to seem foolish.
‘Your father, the oldest of my children, started his life as a child of the Earth. He was much like you. He loved playing in the garden, making tracks and roads for his toy vehicles. He was a recluse, staying to himself most of the time. His downfall began when he moved to the city. It wasn’t long after that he lost his connection with the Earth. That is the reason your father, my son, died so young.’
I retreated into my mind as I remembered how lonely my dad had been. He spent the majority of his last days alone in his room. My mother and I found him dead in his chair. He lived and died in silence. It made sense that he died for not living his truth.
‘I want to know more about your connection to the Earth, Grandpa, as well as your childhood.’
‘I’ll tell you about my favorite tree. When I was a boy, it was my escape from the world.’ He adjusted his position and cleared his throat. ‘It was reaching the heat of the day, the air stale, and the temperature smoldering. The grass, brown from lack of water, crunched under my feet with each step. Despite the heat dulling my senses, I could still hear a song in the breeze. The shaking leaves acted as a tambourine, the crickets resembled a quartet of strings. The humming wind brought it all together, creating the perfect symphony.’
Grandpa’s nose whistled as he inhaled. When his chest expanded as far as it could, he slowly released the air through the small gap between his lips. His shoulders dropped a bit more with each breath, his spine becoming straighter. I closed my eyes and matched his breath; the rhythm soon matched the rhythm of the music in the air. Once he was completely relaxed, he continued his story.
‘Some of the days were so hot it felt as if the heat was sticking to my skin. It was no use to dry my hands on my pants because they too were drenched in sweat. My hair stuck to my head, though I was thankful it kept the back of my neck from burning.
‘I found refuge under the shade of an old pine tree. I used to climb into it, resting on the branches. Though I was small, I was strong, but I was bolder than I was strong. The neighbors called me a wild child. I never quite figured out why, though it could have been because I dared to cross the scorching gravel driveways with my bare feet.’
He chuckled. ‘The soles of my feet were so thick I couldn’t feel anything.’
‘And here I thought you were a good boy,’ I teased.
‘I was a good boy…most of the time.’
‘I bet Great Grandpa would have something to say about that.’
‘So would the trees I climbed,’ he laughed. He told me how he thought of climbing trees as a challenge, hearing the branches taunting him about not being tall enough to reach them. ‘Ah, I remember the apple tree as if it were yesterday. It had a central trunk that split itself into three parts. I would wedge my foot into each crevice before rising on the tips of my toes to reach the next level. The tree was sturdy and its branches flexed, letting me know they were more than strong enough to hold my weight. I reached the middle, where the most shade was, and found a long branch to relax on. The best part about the tree was that I was alone and no one could find and bother me. The flecks of sunlight danced on my skin as the leaves above me shook in the breeze. I felt like I was a star on a platform, the spotlight on me. On the days I didn’t have the energy to climb, I would dance in circles, the animals my audience, and the shade my stage.’
I looked in his direction, unable to stop the smile from creeping across my face as I watched his fingers wave in the air. He twirled his toes in circles, his eyes darting back and forth under his eyelids as he relived his youth.
Though his memory was foggy on the rest of his childhood, the tree and his adventures with it were vivid. To him, it was more than a tree. It was his life.
Evening was encroaching when Grandpa called his dog to him. A few minutes later, a cloud of dust come from the other side of the hill, his animals appearing shortly thereafter. The dog’s deep barks intermingled with the herd’s steps, adding to the day’s song.
‘Look at the setting sun,’ grandpa instructed.
I flashed my gaze in the direction he pointed. I wasn’t paying much attention, my mind lost in my own vision of flying.
‘Look again. If you only take a quick look, you won’t see everything that is there. Most people never learn how to see with their heart. The eyes only allow one to see what is on the surface. True sight takes practice. It starts with trusting your inner feelings.’
That night was the last night I would spend with Grandpa before returning to the city.
I spent the next years living the disconnected existence Grandpa described, though I didn’t have trouble sleeping. Every so often, I would find myself thinking about that day and about his love for the Earth. Five years to the day, he would return to it. With his passing, I no longer had a reason to be in the country, so I left. Shortly after, my own children would venture on their own journeys.
I am a grandpa now, and even though I have stories to share, I have no one to share them with. My grandchildren are too far away. I left my country in hope of finding a better life; my children took their children and did the same. Both my kids and I have found the better life we sought, but we have forgotten to reconnect with the Earth. It wasn’t until then that I recognized Grandpa’s lesson. We are the Earth and to connect with our true power and to be able to share our power, we must stay connected with each other.
Words by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan
Art by Rhianna Carr
Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is a fiction writer from Pakistan, currently living in Saudi Arabia where he is a lecturer in English at Taif University. He is known for weaving Asian culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nasrullah’s work titled ‘A Man Who Was Donkey’, The Gawanus Book called it ‘stunning’. This short story was selected among the Notable Online Short Stories of 2003. His short story ‘In Search of God’ was included in Silverfish Book’s Twenty-Two New Asian Short Stories, published in 2016. He has been published in Evergreen Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Newtopia Magazine, Gowanus Books, Offcourse literary Journal, The Raven Chronicles, and many others. His debut story collection, ‘In Search of God’ can be found here: