Numara - Main Street - Descend the stairs toward the dock near Nalia's item shop.
Once there was a woman who came from a foreign land to marry into an old family.
Her husband was from a tiny village in the mountains but he was working in a thriving harbor town abroad when he met and fell in love with her. At the time he asked her to marry him, his father in his home country collapsed and died. Being the eldest son in his family, the young man had no choice but to return to his homeland—taking her with him, of course.
Her name was Myna. This was not a name used by the women of his homeland.
Indeed, her name was not the only thing about her that was different.
The color of her skin, hair, and eyes, and the language she spoke were all different.
Had the young man’s hometown been a harbor city where people of many different lands cross paths, there would have been nothing unusual about this. In such places there were any number of homes that welcomed foreign men and women into the family, generation after generation.
“But this is about as deep in the country as you can get.” The young man told Kaim, sighing, on the night he made Myna his wife.
Kaim had rushed here all the way from the harbor town in the far country to attend the wedding.
At the banquet, the young man had given Kaim a look, and the two had slipped away from the festivities. They were standing in the garden, looking up at the night sky.
“When the eldest son marries, his wishes are of no importance. What matters is ‘family’.
The two families negotiate the engagement, and a bride is chosen who is acceptable to the groom’s parents. That’s how it was with my parents, and my grandparents did the same.”
“I know what you mean.” Kaim said with a nod.
Judging from the formal wedding ceremony, it was easy to imagine the highly conservative nature of the area, and just as easy to imagine that the relatives had not welcomed Myna into the family.
“Alex” Kaim said to the young man.
“Yes?” the young man answered, still looking up at the sky.
“You are the only one who can protect Myna, you know.”
“I know that much, Kaim.”
“Myna is a wonderful girl.”
“I know that, too, of course.”
The three were good friends. Kaim and Alex had worked together offloading ships at the same pier, and also together they had often gone to the neighborhood where Myna worked in an outdoor stall. Even now Kaim retains the bitter sweet memory of Alex and Myna struggling to communicate in each other’s languages.
“You know, Kaim” Alex said that night under the sky, “I think you sensed it, too, but Myna was drawn less to me than to—”
Kaim cut him short. “Never mind.” He said with a pained smile.
Of course Kaim knew how Myna felt. And if he had responded to her feeling, she and Alex would not have been married here today.
But Kaim had held back. Instead, he had urged Alex to pursue his love for Myna and helped the two come face to face. He felt no regrets about having played the part of an unlikely Cupid for them. Destined to continue his never-ending journey, Kaim was unable to love Myna in return.
One of Alex’s uncles stepped out of the house, drunk.
“Hey, Alex, what are you doing out here?” he growled.
“The groom can’t be absent from the reception!”
“Sure, I’ll be right there.” Alex said, turning toward his uncle.
Kaim tapped him on the shoulder.
“Make Myna happy, Alex.”
“Leave it to me.” He answered with a smile.
“Come on,” said the uncle. “Hurry up. The groom’s supposed to sit there the whole time! The entire family is here, and we’re going to drink the night away!” He grabbed Alex’s hand and dragged him back into the house.
The man was all smiles with Alex, but when he glanced at Kaim, his borderline polite smile could not disguise the gleam of distrust in his eye for an outsider. Kaim was sure he had noticed that same gleam, though perhaps not as openly displayed, in eyes that alighted on Myna.
So that was the kind of village to which Myna had come as a bride.
“You’d better make her happy, Alex.” Kaim called out again toward his friend’s receding form. “I'm counting on you!”
But now the uncle had his arm around Alex’s shoulders, and he was noisily monopolizing his nephew’s attention. Alex never heard those words from Kaim.
It was three months later when Alex came to visit Kaim at work on the pier.
“I'm in town on a buying trip. So I thought I’d stop by to say hello.” Alex announced.
But, judging from the fatigue evident on his friend’s face, Kaim had a pretty good idea of his real reason for coming here.
As casually as possible, Kaim asked, “How is Myna doing?”
With a feeble smile, Alex replied, “After the wedding…things happened.”
Myna had been accepted neither as a member of the family,
nor as a resident of a village.
There were too many differences: in daily customs, in culture.
But the one thing that made Myna too different for the tiny village was
the brown color of her skin.
“If only she could speak with people! Myna is trying her best to learn our language. But my mother and the other relatives make no attempt to learn hers. Not so much as a ‘Good morning’ or a ‘Thank you.’ They insist it’s up to the daughter-in-law to do all the adapting.”
Still, Myna was working hard to draw closer to Alex's family and birthplace. She would be the first one out to the fields in the morning, work without a break until the sun went down, and do sewing until late at night. She would try to talk to people in the local dialect that Alex had taught her, using gestures and body language, and she would apologize profusely, with abject smiles, whenever she failed to understand what they were saying.
Kaim could easily imagine Myna going through these exertions, which made Alex’s report all the more painful to him.
“You should come to visit us now and then, Kaim. Myna would love to see you, too” Kaim responded vaguely with a silent nod. When Alex added “I want you to come and cheer her up,” he said nothing in reply.
“What’s wrong, Kaim? Are you angry?”
“I'm not going to visit.”
“You promised me you’d make her happy, remember? We agreed that you’re the only one who can do that.”
“Sorry, I haven’t got time for this. I have to get this ship loaded before it sails at sunset.”
With this curt dismissal, Kaim turned away and continued working. Alex
stared at him from behind, looking frustrated and confused. Kaim could
feel his friend’s gaze on his back. Because he could feel it, he kept working
without another backward glance.
Eventually, Alex gave up and left.
Neither man spoke words of farewell.
A year after the wedding, Myna gave birth to a son.
The boy had brown skin like his mother.
He had just started crawling when Alex visited Kaim again.
There was talk of a divorce, Alex said.
“There's nothing wrong with our relationship. Myna and I love each other, that’s for certain. But my mother and the relatives say there is no way they can accept a brown-skinned child as the family heir. His existence supposedly harms the marriage prospects of my younger brother and sister, too. So they want us to send the baby to Myna’s family. It’s gone that far…”
Alex had lost a great deal of weight. He was obviously living with much pain every day, trapped as he was between “family” and Myna.
None of this made sense to Kaim.
However “trapped” Alex might be, as long as he was firm on what was important to him, there could only be one answer to his family’s demands, and he should be able to arrive at it without anguish or confusion.
“I know how strong you are,” Alex sighed, speaking to Kaim’s back as Kaim went on hoisting huge, spine-snapping crates in silence.
The longshoremen here were well paid for handling crates on their own—loads that it would take three ordinary men to lift. The daily wage was calculated by the number of loads each man lifted, so asking for help would result in a pay cut. For this reason, Kaim and the others never complained or asked for help. They would lift even the heaviest loads by themselves.
Alex had been like that, too.
If someone nearby asked him, “Are you going to be okay with that?”
he would be all the more determined to do it on his own.
“Fine, fine.” He would smile and, gritting his teeth, he would lift the giant load.
But Alex was not like that anymore.
“I'm starting to think that, maybe, in the long run, tying Myna down to a life in my village, is just going to make her unhappy. My relatives say they’ll support Myna and the baby. So It’s not as if I’d be abandoning her or chasing her away. It’s just that, for both our sakes, starting a new life…”
Having finished piling crates on the deck, Kaim turned toward Alex for the first time.
He was looking down at Alex on the pier.
“And you’re all right with that?”
“If you’re convinced it’s the right thing, then go ahead and do it.
It’s not for me to interfere.”
Alex’s features distorted under the impact of Kaim’s words.
Kaim said nothing more but went back to work.
His anger and frustration were reaching the boiling point.
Alex had no idea that Myna had been writing to Kaim on occasion since shortly after the wedding.
About the hardships she had been facing in the home of her husband’s family, she said not a word.
Instead, she would spell out how happy her current life was and declare repeatedly how much Alex loved her.
Always, the letters would end like this: “I'm sure you, too, must be living happily, Kaim.”
This was why Alex's report of the situation at home had filled him with such intense anger and frustration.
He had never answered Myna’s letters.
He felt certain that if he were to write to her—whether with words of encouragement or comfort, or even playing along with her sad lies—something important that gave her spiritual support would snap in two.
“Come see the baby, Kaim.” Alex pleaded. “Myna would be thrilled if you’d do that.”
Instead of responding to Alex, Kaim called out to him from on deck,
“See that crate over there? Can you lift it?”
The crate near Alex was of the same size and weight as the one that Kaim had just loaded onto the ship.
In the old days, Alex would not have hesitated to carry it up to the ship, every muscle in his body shuddering.
Now, however, Alex gave Kaim one timid glance and, smiling to hide his embarrassment, said only, “Not me.”
Kaim said nothing more.
He felt strongly that their long friendship had come to an end,
though in fact, for Kaim, whose life would go on through all eternity,
it had been nothing more than a momentary acquaintance.
Kaim has been on his endless journey ever since.
Now and then he thinks back to those bygone days.
Both Alex and Myna long ago came to dwell among his distant memories—
the kind of memories that revive with a deep sense of bitterness.
And they are there to this day.
Alex made his third trip to see Kaim a year after the baby was born.
Having wasted away to a mere shadow of his former self,
Alex stared vacantly at Kaim, and his voice lacked all intonation
as he announced Myna’s death.
She had killed herself.
“Hanged herself in the barn…”
Kaim was amazed at his own detachment as he took in Alex’s words.
Myna’s letters had stopped coming several months earlier. Either she no longer needed to spin those sad, little lies about being accepted by Alex’s family and the townsfolk, or she had lost the strength to invent them anymore. In effect it was the latter, Kaim was learning now.
“To the very end, she could not make anyone accept her—my mother, my family, or the town.” Alex said tearfully. “She was all alone, finally, to the very end…”
Without a word, Kaim punched Alex in the face.
Alex seemed to know and accept the fact that the punch would be coming. He did nothing to resist or defend himself. The fist hit him full-on and sent him sprawling in the road.
“Why?” Kaim demanded to know. “Why did you say she was all alone?”
and when Alex righted himself, he smashed him in the face again.
Alex began coughing violently and uncontrollably, and when he spat up a gob of blod, a broken back tooth came out with it.
Kaim knew well enough that Alex had been suffering, too, that he had been engaged in a desperate struggle to do something about being trapped between “family” and “wife.” Otherwise, he would never have wasted away so dramatically from the brawny young man he used to be.
As well as he knew this, however, Kaim could not forgive him.
He had promised. He had given his word. He would make Myna happy.
He would protect her.
Kaim could never forgive Alex for failing to make good on his oath.
Wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand, Alex dragged himself to his feet. “I know how strong you are,” he said to Kaim as he had once before, but this time his words took on a far sadder tone.
“But let me tell you this, Kaim. My mother and my relatives and the others… their way of looking at things is not completely crazy. To live in peace and quiet in the country, you have to follow the country’s special rules. It just so happens that one of those rules was not to accept a ‘bride’ like Myna. I was born and raised in that village, and I know the village code, know it all too well, which is why I have been in such pain all these months. I'm a weakling, I suppose. In your eyes, I'm probably so weak you want to spit on me. So laugh at me! Hit me! Despise me if you want to! Come on, hit me again!”
Alex thrust his face at Kaim for more punishment, and Kaim threw another punch.
This one landed squarely on his nose—and may have broken it.
Alex crumpled to his knees. The blood that gushed from his nose was blacker than the blood from his mouth. Alex looked up at Kaim with a smile of self-derision.
“Myna should have been with you. That’s what I think. If she had married you and not some weakling like me, she’d still be alive.”
With a wordless, strangled cry of rage, Kaim lunged at Alex, grabbing him by the collar and hoisting him to his feet.
And still another.
Kaim was not planning to stop punching Alex.
Now, though, with Kaim’s hand still fastened to the front of his shirt,
Alex looked straight at Kaim for the first time since coming to the dock.
“Why didn’t you ever answer Myna’s letters? That’s all she was hoping for—a letter from you.”
So he knew. Alex knew everything.
“It’s terrible out there in the country. Anybody who wants to can find out who wrote letters and who got them. Everybody out there is like family—everybody but Myna, that is.”
If Alex had wanted to, he could have quashed Myna’s letters easily. Then, not one of her sad, little lies would have reached Kaim.
But instead, Alex had read the letters, resealed the envelopes, and sent them to Kaim one after another. He had internalized Myna’s sad, little lies and started looking for Kaim’s answers even before she did.
Kaim stopped his fist in mid-air and asked, “How could I have possibly answered her?”
“Why not?” Alex retorted, “You knew how trapped she was feeling. You must have known how much encouragement one word from you could have given her.”
“But you were Myna’s husband.”
“Yes, that’s true, but you were always the one deepest in her heart. I knew that, and because I knew it, there was only one thing I could do.”
No, that couldn’t be!
Astounded, Kaim lowered his fist as Alex said to him, “I wrote to her, I pretended I was you, and I wrote her letter after letter. ‘Be strong,’ I told her. ‘Keep your spirits up.’ ‘I’ll come to see you soon.’ You’re too strong, Kaim, so you can’t understand the feelings of weak people. But I don’t have that problem: I'm weak, I understood how a weakling like Myna felt.”
Alex cried, the blood streaming from his nose and mouth.
“There is one thing I don’t know, though, Kaim. I don’t know whether Myna actually believed that the letters I wrote were from you, or whether she knew what I was doing and pretended to believe. I wonder. Was life in my village so painful to her that she couldn’t go on living there without pretending to believe?”
Kaim made no attempt to answer Alex’s question.
Slowly, he let the strength go out of his clenched fist and released his grip on Alex’s shirt.
Alex drew a step back from him, then took another step, putting distance between them before his final revelation.
“There was one letter, just one, that I didn’t send to you. That was three months ago. It was the first letter in which Myna begged you for help. She said she wanted to run away and asked you to come and save her. As soon as possible. To rescue her and the baby.”
That was the letter Alex threw away.
Posing as Kaim, he wrote a two-word answer:
The day after she read the letter from Alex, Myna hanged herself in the barn.
Kaim stood rooted to the spot, crestfallen.
This left him momentarily defenseless.
Alex shot his fist at Kaim’s solar plexus, though his feeble blow could hardly be called a “punch.” The pain it inflicted might have been greater for Alex’s own fist than for Kaim’s superbly conditioned muscles.
“What an idiot I was! ‘Be strong!’ Such words might have meant something to somebody like you, but to burden a weak person like Myna with them…no, they could only break and crush her.”
Alex gave another tearful, self-disparaging smile and thrust his face toward Kaim.
“So hit me! I don’t give a damn! Hit me all you want! Beat the hell out of me! But let me ask you this, Kaim, If I had sent her last letter to you, would you have finally answered that one? Would you have been able to accept Myna in all her weakness?”
Kaim did not know how to answer this question. Nor did he raise a clenched fist to Alex again.
So ended the story of Kaim and Alex.
Alex turned and walked away, but Kaim could not bring himself to call out to him. He simply stood there, drained of all emotion, and watched him go.
Alex did, however, turn to face Kaim again when he had put enough distance between them so that Kaim could barely make out his voice.
“I can tell you this much, Kaim.” He shouted. “I am going to raise that boy of mine! I’ll make him into a man of my village! I may have been too weak to be a husband, but as a father, I’ll do better. I’ll make him happy.”
Kaim returned his words with a silent nod. Alex allowed the hint of a smile to show on his badly swollen face. He then turned on his heels once more and strode away.
Kaim never saw Alex again.
Every now and then, Kaim remembers Alex and Myna as he proceeds on his endlessly long journey. When he thinks back on what he himself was like in those days, wanting only to be strong in all things, the memory is a bitter one.
If only he had been the person he is today!
The present-day Kaim would not have rejected such human weakness. Now he can accept the fact—sometimes with a pained smile, sometimes with genuine heartbreak—that everyone is weak.
If only he could begin his journey again!
Myna might not have had to die.
But this is no more than a hopeless dream.
He meets them only once, and they are gone forever—the mortals, the humans, the ones without eternal life. This is what makes them all the more dear to him. This is what makes his breast burn for them.
Aware now that he has failed to love human weakness throughout his battles and his wanderings, Kaim turns his steps toward Alex’s old village.
Alex himself, of course is long since dead.
But Alex’s descendants he can tell at a glance. They have brown skin.
Brown-skinned youths are the ones in charge of the village festivals.
Brown-skinned old women teach girls how to weave floral decorations.
Brown-skinned children and those who are not brown play together in all innocence, free of care.
Perhaps this can comprise a tiny epilogue to the story of Alex, Kaim, and Myna.
The graves of Alex and Myna lie side-by-side atop a low, wind-swept hill.
Kaim picks flowers from the field and offers them at the doomed couple’s graves before returning to the road.
What is human strength after all?
Kaim still does not know the answer to this question.
And this is why again today his journey must go on.