Toads on Lily Pads
Our house was situated on a hill known as the Dev Pahar in Chittagong. There was a pond next to our house down by the valley. I would often go out for walks for fresh air each afternoon; my favourite trail was around this pond.
The pond was surrounded by tall trees and bamboo tresses. A great many toads sat on innumerable lily pads on the surface of the pond. They leapt sprightly in and out of the water, legs splayed, and sat back upon the lily pads. The greenery around the pond was spectacular, especially on a rainy day. The leaves trembled, as the rain dribbled over. It was a summer’s rain. Raindrops also dribbled over the lily pads, where the toads had sat. They sang, serenading the rain. The rain responded. Then it performed a dance — the rain and the pond together, nuanced, choreographed. The pond dimpled, chuffed by this delightful duet. Nature woke up in a festive moment. The leaves of the bamboo shone in the rain, as did the young shoots beginning to open up.
On rainless days, the little toads sat without care, oblivious of what was coming. I felt as though they were waiting for the next rain dance. However, what came was not the rain, but something else. It was something so insidious that I knew it was going to threaten their existence on the lily pads. It would press them down to the bottom of the pond until the breathing stopped; the lily pads would cease to surface, as would the toads.
It eluded me, just as it eluded the toads. Who took their lifeline away? I realised that the mossy surroundings of the pond weren’t as clean as they used to be. Litter began to emerge, as people threw plastic bottles around the pond. Over months and years, this manmade litter doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. This deluge of plastic bottles impeded my view through the picture window, as well as on my walks. These issues belied a much bigger problem. Plastic bottles didn’t just hedge the edges of the pond but slid down into the waters as well.
As I lay one summer’s day, looking through my picture window at this tragedy unfolding before my eyes, I thought of a nursery rhyme: Who killed Cock Robin? The sparrow may have killed it, but what if this ecosystem, this magical, man-nature symbiotic balance were to be destroyed one day because of this litter? A relationship between human life and all other life would be scissored. Man, flora and fauna, the waters and the skies. The spiritual connection between the toads and the pond on the lily pads in the rain would also disappear. Even if one element were to be snapped, wouldn’t all hell break loose, and chaos descend? The rain fell again, but without romancing the pond. Instead, I watched the pond’s bottled surface, shoved around in the rough rains.
This begged a formidable question, Whom to blame for this?
That was the summer of the last great storm; our summer of discontent. Mangled mangoes fell in the fierce winds, people wandered dispossessed and lost, as the storm took everything they loved. The monsoon swept through, nipping buds, snapping bird nests perched on high branches in deep forests. Ants ran amok, drains clogged up in decrepit disorder. There were heightened drunkenness and muggy nights’ infusions.
Among the flying debris were plastic bottles. However, the drains were not the only thing that suffered. Beaches did too. This particular beach in the Bay of Bengal was a casualty of this calamity. The beach was a silent witness to many dreams; lovers lay entwined on the sinking sand in waxed moonlight.
Mandalas of human destiny were made and unmade. They signified that time had wiped out every earthly detail in the end. However, the fact remained that sands themselves were intrinsically ageless, and indestructible. Would it not then behoove all of us that such eternal elements remain unscarred and clean? Besides, sands also basined the essential oceans, and were handmaidens to the berthing of life; hence, it was paramount for both to be pristine and beautiful like Homer’s Wine Dark Sea.
As the ocean cleaned away the plastic debris, we failed to predict what it could do to underwater life. At the museum of the historic town of Berlin, Maryland, it took its rightful place as an age-old artifact. It was a kingdom covered in disposable bottles of Coca-Cola. The underwater mermaid king wore a crown decorated with balloon-sized plastic bottles. His queen, sitting next to him, wore a similar crown. Their palace was in a plastic bubble. A mermaid princess lay suffocated with her curled-up tail on the court floor. She didn’t breathe, neither did the king or queen, or even the ministers of this king’s court. The ocean cleansed it all, off the beach, yes, but to the demise of this little kingdom.
The mermaid princess had been playing amongst the corals and the Bengal Cone when a storm rose. It swept her aside and knocked her into the deep seas. The young, spirited princess recovered from the blow, and resurfaced to view the dark, dangerous sea-storm. Overwhelmed by its rugged beauty, she looked on open-mouthed, when she swallowed a dirty fragment from a broken bottle. She hiccupped and returned to the palace, but could not regain her breath. The King and the Queen looked on in fear as they witnessed the princess’s death in the court. She coughed and vomited, and then lay very still—her turquoise tail, inert like the lifeless studded stones edging it. She was given a water burial. Tears of pearls fell at her grave. Her parents believed, like the ancient Egyptians, that her soul would rise again; like the Orion constellation after seventy days, her soul would reappear in another part of the ocean.
However, the toxins kept coming. They suffocated, gradually, the entire mermaid kingdom. The king and the queen died, along with their subjects; the fish began to swallow plastic, inhaling this poisonous pollution. What an abominable mess? Such was the waste, the devastating damage that could not be repaired. The environment fell into complete disrepair. The ocean’s quietude was alarming. The waves roared no more, the underwater plants died, bottlenecked by plastic. The story of the mermaid kingdom’s annihilation rang true throughout history; that it had disappeared and had become a fantasy now.
Every plastic bottle found its way into the waters, oblivious to the life therein: the green turtles, deep-sea lobsters, oysters, and jellyfish. Heaps of bottles fell over them like bullets, as though there was an Armageddon, an intergalactic war where bullets made of plastic bottles showered on the green planet. The land, the sea, nowhere, not even the islands, the paradise of Serendib, nor the silent island in the Bay, could escape it.
Soon there was a new world. It was a world made of plastic marvels. Men and women clothed in plastic, homes made of plastic. Roof gardens lost all their lustre, as they were replaced by plastic bottles in pots. In the summer, under molten heat, chemicals from the plastic leaked into the soil. An organic planet was warped completely out of orbit. The hanging gardens of vines, and scarlet bougainvillea, were no more. What hung now were rows of synthetic plastic bottles. They did not grow, neither did they produce. In the clay pots, now bottled plastic, a new kind of insipid, pale plant grew. It grew not to give pleasure, but out of spite.
Whoever was living by then, looked different, like the roof garden. They did not look healthy but emaciated. Breathing became difficult; people carried oxygen cylinders on their backs. Food was everyone’s concern because plastic now ruled. It stuffed up the waterways so badly that irrigation of the soil was impossible. Rainfall ceased, and this led to deforestation. Rainforests and fireflies coughed up blood. Roots stopped reaching out. They could not replenish themselves. This ecological imbalance gave rise to frequent floods; dead fish surfaced in the water. Landslides were a common occurrence. The ocean basin became a garbage dump. People walked the streets with filthy water gushing from the drains, and the pestilence of black fever threatened everyone. Children, men and women died in large numbers, their immune systems already compromised.
Not only were the magical days of the mermaids gone, these prosaic times too were coming to an end. The sense that the end was coming prevailed. People realised they would have to live off garbage. But it was too late now to go back to the golden age, when the gleaners sat singing and laughing on the airy front-yard, gleaning corn, threshing wheat, and walking on grapes to make red wines. People had been so misled by greed and power, they had traded off a cleaner environment.
Alas, when it all had come to pass, the greedy too realised that they could not eat money, and they could not eat plastic.
Why then did they use it in the first place? Because it was inexpensive and did not break. Even poor urchin picked bottles up from the dump to sell for a pittance to recyclers.
Of the plastic rubble, of the narrow bottleneck, of the choking, of the breathing, a little boy of seven cried out in his sleep one night. Upon waking, his mother held him close. He said he couldn’t breathe anymore. He was collecting plastic bottles from the heap by the beach. He found something shining inside in one of the bottles. He put his finger through the neck to reach it. He thought it was gold. He would sell it and buy food. He was hungry, this little boy. But he couldn’t. He slept at night and fought his nightmares. He saw a huge man made of plastic coming towards him. His face, his hands, and his entire body were plastic. He was Mr. Plastic. He had a huge bottle for a body. He picked the little boy and put him through the neck. The boy coughed and choked. He was sitting in a bubble then, a bubble devoid of oxygen. He couldn’t breathe. That was the little boy’s nightmare.
Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow.
Who destroyed the Rainforests? I, said Mr. Plastic, with my bottleneck.
Impossible, this jam that too many plastic bottles caused. In a clumsy effort to resolve this problem, they were dumped unscrupulously off the coasts of Cambodia and Indonesia, and many others. The rubbish pile just kept getting bigger. This posed a political problem amongst the nations. Would the world be large enough to contain so many plastic bottles? Even the moon would not be large enough. Flying debris had already been detected in space.
Northern Star penned how Cambodia planned to send back the rubbish to industrialised countries. Mars, or perhaps another inhabitable galaxy, could render help for these man-made calamities. This was getting out of hand. Something needed to be done.
The magical world was all gone. No matter. All this took its rightful place in a purist’s world. It was a minimalist, who stored images on her canvas. Here she was, this purist, painting pictures of plastic bottles only. She painted them in all sizes, and colours, red, green, and blue. The paintings looked stark, surrealistic. They looked grimy, and bottles toppled all over her canvas. She drew a black pith over the bottles, like a rotten orange rind over free-floating rubbish. This purist, painting this sullied heap of solid rubbish.
All part and parcel of nature, this man-made calamity was not so difficult to remove. Humans, who were an extension of nature, knew a world of decrepitude awaited if an alternative wasn’t invented fast. The sooner the better, if we didn’t want our planet to sink beneath the heavy waves of no return, and for our children to grow up in bottlenecks, without toads on lily pads serenading the rain, and without pond dimpling at the chill of a romantic touch. If this planet choked, then the environmentalists would have to stand corrected; there would be no planet B after all.
Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review,DD Magazine,The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few.Her short stories are a winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition,winner in The Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge, shortlisted by Cogito Literary Journal Contest, a finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, A Best of Cafelit 8. Her works are three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award, two-time nominated for Aurealis Awards. Her historical fiction,The Pacifist, is an announced Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice. She is a jury and a keynote speaker for KM Anthru Literature Prize, 2021. She has published with Cambridge University Press, Ellipsis Zine, Ginosko, Cabinet of the Heed and more. She was born and raised in Bangladesh, but she lives in Australia. She has two MA degrees, one from The University of Queensland, Australia, and the other from Dhaka University, Bangladesh.
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