‘So…………? The blue or the red one?’ The eyes of the kind old man twinkled with pleasure and a kind of amusement only knowing can bring. The child hesitated. His black shining eyes shifted from one marble to the other. The colours fascinated him. There was magic in glass marbles.
Everybody knew there was magic in glass marbles. Well, not everybody of course.
His father stopped seeing the magic in glass marbles ages ago. Now his magic lay in foreign lands, whiskey and exotic women.
For his mother, glass marbles probably did not even exist. Her magic lay in the few moments of exhausted sleep after a long tiring day in office.
His grandfather was a different story altogether. The old man was special. Glass marbles, stone marbles, coloured marbles, black marbles, green marbles……..each marble was an object of great fascination and a treasure unexplored.
‘Each marble contains a great mystery’, his grandfather told him. He held the marble to the sun and rolled it in his great gnarly fingers. The old man looked more like a jeweler, sitting in his dark mysterious shop, in ancient Babylon. The reflected beams of the sun, borrowed coloured patterns from the marble and traced them on his deeply lined forehead.
‘If you look closely, very closely, you will see a white shadow frozen in the gallery of time in each glass marble’, he told the child, clouded eyes lost in ages past.
‘What are these white shadows Grandpa? Are they ghosts?’ The little boy used to ask the old man, his sweet upturned face displaying an innocent curiosity, only childhood can accommodate.
‘Yes ghosts, but they are not dark and terrible. These are the ghosts of memories, sad and preserved forever’. The old man smiled tiredly.
‘Memories? What memories?’ The boy asked with wonder.
His grandfather smiled sadly:
‘Memories of times past;
Each time a candy melts on your tongue and its shiny wrapper crinkles stickily in your hands;
Each time the black clouds gather in the midst of a sultry July afternoon and rain pours down;
Each time you play in the sand and the small castles you build, seem loftier than the real ones;
Each time you smell the warm and musty fragrance of old quilts in the long nights of December;
And each time you hold hands with a friend and promise to be friends forever.’
The old man fell quiet. He was lost in the world of candies he would never eat again and friends, he would never see again.
‘Go on. What other memories?’ The boy impatiently shook his grandfather’s shoulder, bringing him back to the present.
‘Well!’ the old man smiled, ‘each time any of these sweet things happens, its memory becomes a small tiny ghost and goes and sleeps in a glass marble forever.’
‘Hey look Grandpa, there is a yellow butterfly. Can I go and catch it?’ The child was easily distracted. He was too young for memories and their tired ghosts.
The old man encouraged the small boy with a smile and he ran away after the butterfly.
The old man looked up at the billowing gray white clouds.
‘Ahh! There is a wolf and it is running after another wolf’. He silently chuckled and tried to trace patterns in the ever changing cloud formations.
He remembered the time when he was six and could look at the sky for hours at end. The sky was a wide and never ending canvas and his imagination, the perfect painter. Seeing meaning in abstract patterns was his one big specialty. Where these patterns existed, that didn’t matter at all.
It could be the crumbling plaster on the wall;
It could be the moss sticking to the old walls;
It could be the water swirling in the bucket when he opened the tap to full;
It could even be a tiny ink drop falling onto clean white paper.
Everything made sense when he was young.
The patterns evolved into figures and alphabets, sinister and funny in their dramatic postures.
The patterns became animals, ferocious and rare.
The patterns became race cars, the noise of their engines resounding off the walls.
The patterns became horse riders, bent forward in fury, riding to ancient battles.
And sometimes the patterns became things he could not grasp but somehow knew, existed somewhere.
He looked up again but failed to see any wolves or horses. The clouds were just clouds, drifting on the shoulders of warm air.
The old man closed his eyes and smelt rain, falling somewhere far but with a promise of sweet salvation. He remembered the time when he tried to fight thunder and succeeded. It was a steamy August night and the air was thickly laden with moisture. He was on the rooftop, alone as usual, feeling at one with the all-encompassing darkness.
Something big was coming. He could feel it in the air. Suddenly the horizon turned a deep dark shade of reddish black. Then a crack of thunder, far away but still frightening. The wind started blowing with a sudden fury and the clouds rolled. He felt the first few heavy drops of rain wetting his matted hair. Then it poured in torrents. The lightening created negatives of the world around him, capturing the dancing trees.
That night, thunder became an old Norse god and lightening, his fearsome spear. He saw the god touching the dark wet world with his spear and felt awed. He became a shaman and danced in circles, his chants lost in the thunder and rain.
‘Whoa! What a strange night it was’ The old man scratched his head and tried to hear thunder, but it was lost within the polluted folds of the noisy city.
Suddenly the laughter of children disturbed his reverie. He saw his grandson playing with a friend. The children were running after the butterfly hovering over the flower beds. The old man looked at the two boys, their sweaty faces shining with excitement.
He thought of the friends he made and the friends he lost somewhere while living his own life.
He thought of their smells, the childhood smells of new erasers and sweat, uncorrupted by adult hormones.
He thought of the games they played together, each deserving volumes of detailed instructions.
He thought of the excitement and he thought of the happiness they had together.
He thought of the bruises and the sweet pain that came along.
He tried to visualize the faces of his childhood friends, but strangely there was nothing. Only vague cloudy wisps of grey smoke.
Startled, the old man picked up a marble, but the tiny ghost in there had no face too. He twirled it in his fingers and kept on twirling until it slipped out of his fingers, rolling on the bricks. It kept on rolling till it hit a stone and then stopped.