Nana hasn’t seen an ocean or lake for decades, since she left the business of fish bladder trafficking, since her husband, a middle man for the fish mafia, was thrown overboard into a ring of hammerheads on a wet night. Perhaps that’s why she’s so easily excited by thunderstorms. When I visited her a few years ago, she sat for two hours watching a passing storm. At the time, Nana lived in a one bedroom apartment facing the inner courtyard of her brick high-rise complex, a matted grassland dotted with weed, mosquitos, mice, and thickets of vines, crawling up the brick walls like arms jabbed and poked by needles. When I tilted my head far enough, I could see the opening above the courtyard through the window, where black clouds billowed from the west, their brassy countenances fattening the air and dulling everything. We sat in silence that evening, Nana with green tea, me with my bitten finger-beds, rain slapping the window a thousand times over, both of us watching the courtyard bleed with water and the vine fade away in a blur of mist. Nana soaked in the brilliance and brute violence of the storm, intrigued and fascinated, whilst I didn’t see anything different with this thunderstorm than the last.
When mama plows us to Nana’s house, there are eruptions of periodic yelling and questions of do we really have to go? God, it’s so boring there, there’s nothing to do. And always, with clinging fingers to the front door, we drive to her house in silence. For a couch, Nana has a tower of three mattresses. There are always cockroaches on these mattresses because Nana eats here, so we have learned over the years to glance over the tower before pressing ourselves together onto the thing. The Pakistani flag, just a patch of dark green and the vertex of a crescent moon, melts out from in between the bottom two mattresses like cheese in a burger.
Nana has had the same pack of 12 assorted colored pencils for decades, each one accentuated with bite marks in the places the pencil was held in between her teeth for concentration when she’s meticulously drawing sharks on the corners of napkins. Her drawings seem childish to me now (the sharks looking more like a portly circular whale), but when I was more naive, I thought otherwise. Her sharks were once blue and white, with full bodies and sharp, canine teeth, eyes, bulbous hair, and always a toothy smile. But on the back of a Chipotle napkin once, Nana drew a shark with a trace of red around the mouth, like lipstick, and said “something like Kool-aid, that’s what it ate.” From there, the innocent blue and white sharks vanished, and to replace them were purple sharks with mozzarella sticks and tarantella-shaped rings and glittered sharks with disco balls for eyes and chicken tenders for a fin.
Nana cannot understand English, yet the only channel she can tolerate is CNN, as if there is comfort in letting the foreign voice of a newscaster plump her apartment. She throws a fit coupled with a period of verbal shunning if we ever do so much as request a change of channel. So we sit quietly, quaintly on the tower of mattresses. One time, Nana asked about the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate broadcast on CNN, but my pashto vocabulary on political jargon was not stellar and so my explanations did not suffice her questions. But still she kept pressing me, more questions that I could not answer, and so before my patience wronged me, I fled to the bathroom with the intent of staying there until Nana’s faze passed. Standing in front of the mirror, in a dull, yellow light, a part of me thought that I won’t miss this when Nana is gone. But I quickly buried the thought because what sickened grandchild wishes for their grandmother’s death. When I emerged from the bathroom, CNN still hummed against the walls, as always, but Nana was resting by the window, one cheek pressed against the glass like a pancake. On a napkin in her lap, there was a shark with a party hat, a cake balanced on its head, green teardrops springing from its gills. I sat on the tower of mattresses and looked at the wedding ring in the fishnet underneath the row of army medals by the door.
One summer Nana stayed over for Ramadan. She’s had joint pain for years around the perimeter of her knee but never believed in doctors so its been left untreated. She slept on an air mattress in the entry hall of our house because she couldn’t trek up the stairs to the guest room and refused to be carried. She spent her days with the front door open, watching the cars and cradling her 12 colored pencils. A friend once came over and asked, what’s with your grandmother and sharks? and I stared at her wide-eyed.
During Ramadan, we took Nana to Target. She was awed by most everything in the store, pointing to this and that and commanding me to push her wheelchair over so she can touch this and that. She spent an hour staring at the selection of biking helmets and I sat on a tricycle, utterly bored. As we passed the stationary aisle, I plucked a pack of fresh colored pencils for Nana, remembering her finger-sized and dilapidated set, bitten from decades of shark drawings. But Nana hissed and slapped them way when she saw them, asked how I could commit such an abomination of an act, and verbally shunned me for a couple of hours, her usual way of voicing her distaste. Later that day, as we sat at a McDonald’s, Nana licked her fingers of the remaining crumbs of a chicken McNugget, her bony hands and ivory limbs reaching across the table for more, brown eyes wide and excited, almost like a child. That night Nana drew a shark modeling a bicycle helmet and hid it underneath her pillow.
After each visit, the joy perspiring from our bodies from the feeling of driving away from Nana’s house, on the road to our normal lives, our outside lives, is a fire on its own. As Nana’s brick-high-rise complex shrinks into a facet of the far-off scenery, looking back at the thing, infested with mice and cock-roaches and riddled with constant power-outages, I wonder if Nana wants more from life than this.
Later on, in my teenage years, Nana became outwardly devout to God. Visits compromised of shark drawings and long epilogues on the Prophet Mohammad, Jesus, Moses (peace be upon them), and Allah, the all-knowing, the most-gracious, the merciful. Imams and Islamic Scholars replaced CNN. Nana cannot understand Arabic, but she still lets the voice of the Arabic quran, the holy scripture, plump her apartment. Strangely, Nana lightened during this time, and carried herself as if she had a sweet secret, as if God had given her a glimpse of the seven heavens.
The night before my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, in the early morning hours, Nana rolled to the freezer and threw the ice-cream cake out the window, explaining the next morning that birthdays are not to be celebrated in this way, this Western way. Praise God on your birthday, she said, for letting you live this long and recognize that you are one day closer to the Day of Judgement, the promised meeting with your lord, and death. I refused to say what the others said, that Nana is crazed, because she was 84, and not much longer.
Nana died on a Tuesday in March. At her funeral, we played hide-and-seek. The ceremony itself was hushed and startlingly short, and afterwards we stood in the parking lot of the cemetery, talking and running and enjoying a great deal of hilarity. Nana who stole napkins to draw sharks, drained everyone with constant warnings about God, lived in a place we all pitched in to pay for but were all too happy to leave, why did she bite the bait but not stay hooked? The fishing is good, better for us, when Nana is on the other side of the lake, because that way the bass and salmon will have nothing to fear and come near, fill our pooling bellies, something Nana wouldn’t do.
When Mama and I went to her apartment to empty it for the landlord, I found three cereal boxes full of napkins littered with shark drawings. The last shark left by Nana was the strangest one I’d ever seen; it had a round stump for a tail, massive, bulging eyes, humanoid legs, and arms jetting from the gills and fins. In a cookie tin-can, I found the remains of Nana’s 12 assorted colored pencils. Mama looked at them once and said that they’ve got no worth, utter trash, but I shuffled a few into my backpack anyway. That night, I tried not to think of the army medals, the piggy bank filled with ashes, the twenty thousand pakistani rupees left in a safe underneath the kitchen sink, the binoculars and fishing net and fishing rod thrown on top of the fridge, Nana sleeping on an air mattress by the front door with her shoulders shaking and sagging like teardrops, her hollow stare at the bleating rain, the strange joy she found in chicken nuggets and thunderstorms, her cracked countenance, this knowing that there will be no more fits during the drive to Nana’s house, the certainty that this is what we internally, quietly wanted.
Zoha Arif will graduate from the Academy for Information Technology in the spring of 2021. She lives in Union, New Jersey and melts away her free time appreciating peanut butter, eating books, breathing computer science, chasing squirrels, and spilling her strangest ideas into her works of fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has previously been published or is forthcoming in Polyphony Lit and the Showbear Family Circus.