I’d been watching him for ten minutes, and the hooded man had not moved an inch. His face was focused on the view before him; his hands tucked inside the pockets of his grey sweater. I had never seen him glance anywhere else. It was as if he was scared that he would miss something if he turned around. Who was he waiting for, I wondered.
People passed by, glanced at him and frowned. Some stopped to get a better look, others giggled and laughed. Was it because of his extraordinary height? I surmised that he was above 7 feet tall. Or was it his looks? I could only imagine, for I’d never seen his face.
Not before long, someone entered the shop. I turned my attention to a middle-aged man. He wanted a frock for his daughter. I entertained him, asking him questions and giving him answers. Much of it was marketing tricks, sales talk to convince the customer that all the items in our shop were worth his money. They worked most of the times. His presence at the store made me forget the hooded man. At least for a while. After he had paid and left, my attention went back to Colsus, a name I gave the stranger, after a tall and thin character I had read in a fairy tale about friendly giants. He was still standing in the same spot but was now looking up as if gazing at the airplanes. I saw him leave after an hour or so.
The following day, I was astonished to see him again, wearing the same clothing, standing at the same spot, and leaving again around an hour later. Whoever it was that he was waiting for must have changed their plans. So I thought he would not come anymore, but he showed up again the next day and this continued for two weeks.
The guards were beginning to keep an eye on him and would stand a few meters behind him as precautionary measures. I became anxious, too. Not because I was worried he was a bad man. No. He didn’t appear like one to me. Instead, I felt an impulse to connect with him. He appeared to be waiting for someone who wasn’t coming. When I saw him make an odd hand gesture and bow his head down as if disappointed, my own sadness began to surface, and I felt a hollowness in my heart. An emptiness, a longing, a loss. For I knew exactly how it felt to be waiting for someone who never came.
I could hardly understand it but I had a feeling he needed a friend. By this time, my curiosity had peaked, and I was keen to talk to the man.
Wednesday wasn’t busy. I waited for the clock to chime at 6 pm. Like clockwork, Colsus turned up and was already heading towards the same spot at the arrival terminal. He was wearing the same hooded sweater. Since I was determined to approach him this time, I asked my co-worker to take care of the shop and left.
Apprehensive of how he would react, I cracked my knuckles and sighed.
A meter away from him, I cleared my throat to announce my presence. He didn’t turn. So I stepped nearer and stood right next to him. My head just managed to level with his waist.
“Hello! Is the person you’re waiting for arriving today?” I asked, looking up, ready to meet his gaze.
He didn’t respond. He didn’t move either. But I wasn’t quick to give up.
“Ah, you’re doing research then?”
He remained quiet. I blushed, I was embarrassed. I felt he did not want to be bothered. I slowly turned away.
I was about to leave when he spoke.
“I am sorry for being rude. I was engrossed in watching those flying objects in the sky.”
Smiling, I turned and asked, “Flying objects? The way you call them sounds better than what I call them.” I was now standing beside him.
“What do you call them then?” He turned and our eyes met. I was taken aback. My smile faded as I looked at his face. It was as pale as a ghost; his nose long and straight; his cheeks hollow; his deep-seated eyes were as black as night, and his eyebrows could hardly be noticed. The only colored part of his face was his lips, a pale pink rose. He looked as though he had not been exposed to sunlight for many years. He reminded me of some fearsome creatures I had seen in a horror movie.
“My hideous face must have startled you?” It was a statement rather than a question.
“Yes. No… I mean, a little,” I stammered. I heard him chortle. Somehow that made everything which followed easier. I instantly felt relaxed. There was nothing scary about his face…apart from the passing thought of him suffering from a dreadful disease that might make me sick too.
After a moment of silence, he said, “I call them flying objects. What do you call them?”
“Airplanes! What else do you think?”
When he heard the word ‘airplanes’, he pondered for a while and then replied, “These airplanes…I…I have never seen them before.”
“What?” I frowned with a slight smile on my face, unable to discern whether he was serious or joking. “Where have you been? Airplanes are everywhere!” I asked with playfulness.
“I have been asleep…for two centuries!”
I burst out laughing. “Centuries?! Only vampires sleep that long! And they don’t come out while the sun is up.”
I couldn’t help but play along with him. It had been so long since I played such a game.
“Vampires do not exist. At least I have never seen them,” he said. “Every 200 years, we get to experience life on the surface for a few days.”
“We? Surface? 200 years? What are you?” I asked; a grin was still painted on my face.
“We are Imageos or dwellers of the underground. We hibernate beneath the surface of the Earth for 200 years at a stretch. The last time we walked among humans was in 1850.”
His words were scary, but they failed to evoke fear in me. I didn’t even feel threatened.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
I lost my grin. Slowly it dawned on me that there could be other unknown creatures inhabiting this planet apart from humans and animals. I had never imagined meeting a human-like creature, with their strange facial features, in reality.
“You said 200 years. But it’s only 2018. Why wake up now?”
“Our deep slumber was disturbed by constant drilling of the ground. Our homes were destroyed by falling mud and rock debris. Some parts were even flooded during this year’s torrential downpour. We were forced to resurface earlier.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you. But do not feel sad. We will be fine. I am not sure about you, humans, though!”
I couldn’t say anything. There was truth in his statement.
Then I said, “I wish I could sleep like you.”
“May I know why you feel like that? We Imageos hardly get enough waking time to experience the world around us. We wish that we slept less and were awake longer.”
I shrugged my shoulders, unable to answer him.
He continued, “Even if you can sleep for years, your family will miss you. They will surely not like it.”
“I don’t have a family!” I quipped.
He looked at me and I saw his iris expand into a big ball of grey and his eyes looked sad after that.
“Friends?” he asked.
“I know people. But I don’t really have friends.”
He laughed heavily. For the first time in my life, I heard laughter that was so amusingly contagious I joined in, laughing at myself.
When our laughter subsided, he continued, “Eight billion humans on earth, one million in this city and you have no friends!”
I snickered. “Do you have any?”
“In my world, we are all friends.”
“Really? Wow!” At that moment I felt a pang in my heart. Humans could never be friends with everybody in the world even if they had the opportunity to do so.
We fell silent for a while. Then he abruptly made the same hand gesture I saw him doing before. His thumbs and forefingers formed a circle as if to imitate spectacles and he nodded up and down. He then kept both his hands inside the pockets of his sweater again.
“I saw you do that before. What is that for?”
“I do it every now and then to remind me that I am already awake and no longer sleeping.”
He then went on to tell me the consequences if he forgot to make the gesture.
“If I fail to do that, I will fall to the ground as though I fainted. Like how you humans fall when you lose your consciousness. But that part is not worrisome. When Imageos faint, we lose our breath and pulse momentarily. For 200 minutes. What humans might do to our bodies once some of your experts stumble upon us in our temporary suspension from life…is what I am more worried about.”
“I understand what you’re saying.”
He smiled as if he believed that I did understand what he revealed to me.
We stood there in silence and gazed at two airplanes flickering their landing lights before hitting the runway. An unusual togetherness was growing between us.
After a while, I asked, “Why the airport, though? I mean, you must be astonished to find so many changes in 200 years.”
“I’ve been to other places as well. But we are earth-bound creatures, hence flight has always fascinated the Imageos. I have seen many birds in my life but have never seen such big flying objects in the sky before. What a marvellous invention by your kind!”
“Yes, they are. Crossing oceans and continents and visiting distant places are now possible in a matter of hours.”
“Spellbinding,” he mumbled. I smiled. Then he continued, “You mentioned you didn’t have a family? What happened?”
“Oh. It’s not always the case. I had a mother. But -,”
“Where is your father?” he interrupted.
“I never knew him!”
“I am so sorry!”
“It’s alright,” I said.
“Please, continue. I would like to know your story.”
“Well, when I was eight, my mother left me in an orphanage. She said she couldn’t take care of me anymore, that in the orphanage I need not worry whether there was food because there would always be food on the table. Though she promised to come back for me, I pleaded. Wept like anyone would. I thought that I’d rather starve with her than be with the people I knew nothing about. But what else could an eight-year-old girl do at such times? So I accepted my situation and waited. Weeks turned to months and months to years. She never came back. It’s been ten years, and I have given up waiting. Now all I do is spend my days in solitary forgetfulness.”
He held my hand, and we stood gazing at the sky. It was already night, and the heavens were full of stars. Every now and then a shooting star streaked through the darkness and fell like fireworks over the vast horizon.
After an interminable length of time spent in the companionship of silence, my friend lifted his right hand high above him as though he was trying to reach the stars. He curled his fingers as though they were plucking one of them from the sky. With his left hand, he turned my hand that he was holding upside down and covered my palm with his right.
“This is for you, my dear friend,” he said.
He let go of my hand, and I was astonished to find an object that glittered like a star in my palm. I gasped as I marvelled at it. For a second, I thought it was really a star.
Seeing my reaction, he laughed. “It is not a star, my dear friend. It is what the Imageos call the astrolithos, also known as the starstone. We carry it with us, even when we sleep. It connects all the Imageos with each other. If something happens to one, it is felt by all. This starstone keeps us united at all times, even in our sleep, since we cannot meet each other when we are awake.”
“Why? Why can’t you meet others now that you are awake?”
“Imageos are awake for only a short span of time, exactly one lunar month. We wake during the full moon and when the next full moon comes around, we have to go back to our two centuries of sleep. Also, as Imageos are separated by vast distances, it is impossible to cover the distance in such a short period.”
On hearing this, I looked up at the sky and saw a full moon beaming over us. A sudden sadness filled my soul and tears welled-up in my eyes. I looked at him beseechingly and said, “Please don’t tell me this is your last night awake!”
“I am afraid so, my dear friend. Today, with the rising of the full moon, I have been awake for exactly one lunar month.”
I began to weep and hugged him tightly. Within hours of knowing him, I had become deeply attached to him, an underground-dwelling human-like creature. All he had done was talk and share his precious time with me. And it was amazing to feel so strong a bond so swiftly.
He held me and caressed my head gently.
“Do not be sad, my dear friend. When I am gone, the starstone will keep you company. Just the way it connects all Imageos together, it has the power to connect the one who holds it to our great network of fellowship and oneness. Whenever you are sad and lonely, just hold the astrolithos in the palm of your hand and you will feel me beside you in your thoughts. Even in your solitude, even in your sleep, our friendship will not cease.”
So saying, he departed into the night. I stood there with the starstone in my hand and though he had disappeared into the darkness he was still with me. Even in my sadness, he had left me happy.
My friend, Colsus the Imageo, would not awaken for another two centuries. When he does rise from his sleep of two hundred years, I would have long vanished from the face of the Earth. But in my heart, I was certain our connection will endure forever and ever.
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