Recognition dawned upon him, as he opened his eyes and turned to look out the window. Being part of one of the more roundabout options toward his intended destination, it wasn’t a route that drivers frequently took. A sense of nostalgia overcame him as he stared at the scene behind the glass. He never thought that he would ever pass through the place again, much less lay eyes on it. Despite his lifetime of effort to leave the place behind, somehow he couldn’t help the emotions that washed through him.
The market was busy. As it always was, in the region. Even with his closed windows, sounds of whistles and shouting were more than audible. Sometimes, he could even make out what people were saying, in spite of the glass barrier. But such noise was a normal part of daily life in the region.
Marketing goods was a regular need for survival. Not a day could pass without a shouting match. A competition for the most attention. A constant fight for the greatest sales and profits. A hubbub that likely simultaneously attracted and disgusted its tourist population, but a place that they stayed all the same.
Children ran shoeless on the sandy ground, darting past stores and through the slowly passing traffic. A childhood dream of his. But one that he wasn’t qualified to fulfill in much of his youth. Unlike many of the people that he’d associated with recently, his family wasn’t well off, nor could it even be qualified as middle class. With his family’s state of poverty and desperation, every working hand, or literally voice, mattered.
His mother did try to make things better, but that didn’t mean that he was totally free of responsibilities. He saw hardship erode away at her, despite her strong will and tendency to suffer in silence. But it was because of her efforts that he had managed to become the man that he did. He could still remember the night that prompted the entire change in his mindset. A night firmly etched in his childhood memories.
It was New Year’s Day. Having just gotten back from school, he sat at one of the tables at his mother’s stall. A spot that was normally dedicated to customers, but a space he’d take nonetheless everyday afterschool. He swung his legs, waiting on the bench. A routine for him now.
Regardless of the number of customers that occupied the stall, she would always prepare him a bowl of noodles when he returned. It was a sort of combination between lunch and dinner. A meal that was served too late because of the school day to qualify as an average lunch, but too early in the evening to be considered dinner. School lunches were expensive, and without an option to bring packed lunches, a large bowl of noodles after school was a workable alternative.
Despite waiting, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander to the offer that the lecturer at school extended to him earlier that day. A dream that he always wanted fulfilled, but never had the opportunity to. His teachers were going. His classmates were going. Even the neighbors seemed like they were going. But he couldn’t.
He couldn’t abandon his mother. Not on New Year’s Day. Being one of the days of business and competition, he couldn’t leave his mother to handle the crowds alone. Many people would be wandering the streets tonight, searching for street food, his mother’s specialty. But there was a thing with crowds. Small crowds tended to attract larger crowds. No crowds tended to attract no crowds.
On days like these, the disparity between the customers visiting stalls was enough to be a goldmine for one and nothing but a gasp of air for the other. Initially attracting a crowd was just as important as maintaining one, if they wanted to make any profit at a night like these. Crowds were, after all, fickle. They determined the stalls to visit, judging quality based on perceived popularity. Though, underneath it all and invisible to them, was the power of marketing.
Holidays were the days of the greatest shouting matches. A single person’s efforts were frequently insufficient. One voice was easily overwhelmed by another. Furthermore, some stalls employed their entire family on days like these. After all, it was common sense that the power of many exceeded the power of one. But on holidays, it was even worse. Not only was there more shouting from the street businesses and more general noise caused by crowds, but competition also existed between different types of stalls.
If not for his father’s early passing, perhaps he would still be able to leave. Even with the souvenir stores doing the best shouting one event nights, his mother had the advantage of selling food, one of the most valuable commodities on nights full of people. He stared down into the bowl of noodles, as his mother set it down before him. There, in his own reflection, he saw the man that abandoned his mother alone in the world. The man that caused her song to vanish.
Since his father’s death, she had to manage the entire stall by herself, including the food preparation, the monetary exchanges, and the shouting advertisements. Though, he could still remember the days when she sung beautifully, her voice now carried a perpetual hoarseness. Permanent damage from the endless shouting. Knowing that she was once a songstress prior to marriage, he couldn’t imagine how much that must pain her. Still, she persisted as a saleswoman, doing her best to earn a living for the two of them.
Even while he contributed to the shouting match, as soon as he was old enough, the few hours of relaxing her voice weren’t nearly enough to restore it. She worked so hard so that they could survive. So, he knew it was wrong to secretly covet sneaking out into the night to see a sky lantern festival, even if his teachers and classmates did tempt him. He knew it was wrong to wish to abandon her alone at the stall, even if it was for one night. He sighed, as he slurped on the soup.
Sneaking a glance back at his mother, who was busy cooking, while taking an order from a customer. Being New Year’s, he knew that she had to prepare more food than normal. Guilt weighed down on him, as he finished the bowl. Part of him still wanted to sneak away. Part of him wanted to blend in with the other customers that walked away from her stall after finishing their meals, just so that he could catch a glimpse of the annual ceremony. His mother probably wouldn’t notice his leaving. But the largest crowd of customers would be coming soon, and if he left her now, she would be on her own to secure sales.
Leaving her to fight for their shared survival, leaving her to fend against the onrush of people while cooking, was just too unfair. But she had promised him all those years ago to take him to see the sky lantern ceremony. Even though he knew that it took place on one of the days of the greatest sales of the year, he couldn’t help but still hope that one day, they could live life without needing to fight for income on a holiday. The ceremony would be starting soon. He allowed his eyes to linger at the sky, briefly staring at it with a yearning gaze.
He sighed, forcefully turning away, as he stood. It’s not like his mother didn’t take him to other ceremonies whenever they made an unusually large profit. Whenever they made some excess. New Year’s Day was the first day of the year, one of the days of the greatest uncertainty for their annual finances. He couldn’t blame her.
Occupying an empty space next to his mother’s stall, he began shouting the usual advertisements.
“Great food! Cheap prices!” He could hear himself shout as he focused on greeting each potential customer with a smile or a trick, hoping that it would be enough to grab their attention. “Unique taste in the area! You won’t regret visiting!”
“Dear.” His mother addressed him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Didn’t you want to go to the lantern ceremony?”
“It’s okay.” He answered, suppressing the desires that he thought were well hidden away. “This is more important.”
“Missing out your childhood isn’t unimportant. You can never get it back once it’s gone.” His mother replied, with a smile. “I know that I’ve been too busy to leave the stall, but I’m sure that you’re old enough to know how to get there on your own.”
“I…” He started, hesitating. To think that he had been considering leaving her alone, while she was thinking for him this entire time. “I think I’ll stay here with you.”
“Don’t worry about me.” His mother answered, patting his head. “I’ve been doing this job for years now. You think I can’t handle a single night without you?”
“I…” He tried again. How could he respond to that? His mother had indeed been running the shop by herself for years now. Yet, he could see the toll it took on her. Music, she had once told him, was an expression of feelings. And for her, she had shared, it was an expression of happiness. But it’d been so long since he’s heard her sing or hum as she worked. Her songs have simply vanished. Gone the moment his father died. Gone even before her eventual voice loss.
“I know that you’re a considerate child. But I don’t think I’ll be able to live with myself if our living circumstances robbed you of childhood.” She said, looking him in the eye. Her gaze, loving, if not a bit sad. Standing, she turned turning him and gave him a gentle push. “Run along now. Just promise me that you’ll try to have some fun!”
“Okay.” He said, turning back and returning his mother’s smile.
Though he knew that he should’ve stayed at the stall, he also knew that she wouldn’t have let him stay, knowing full well that his heart was elsewhere. Running in the direction of the ceremony, he promised himself that he would give her a better life. A life that didn’t force her to participate in a regular shouting match. A life where financial worries could no longer deny them relaxation and holiday celebrations. One day, he’d promised himself, he’d find the out clause to the lifestyle that bound them and give her one that she deserved.
It’s been quite some time since he’d first fulfilled that promise. Since then, they’d moved away from the marketplace and into a more suburban area. But since then, if not longer, he also hadn’t gone to see her. His mother. Despite having bought her a home that she could be proud of, he couldn’t remember the last time he’s seen her in person. He couldn’t remember the last time they’ve sat down to talk. He couldn’t remember the last time he’s spent any time with her.
Seeing the old place jogged up memories that he’d long forgotten. Suddenly, he noticed a dull ache in his chest that grew stronger under his attention. He missed her. He couldn’t remember when his priorities subconsciously shifted away from spending time with his mother. He snicked as he suddenly found all his actions and contributions over the past years laughable.
Though, he supposed work had that effect on people didn’t it? Quietly, like a predator sneaking up on it’s prey, it took precedence over everything in his life. Without realizing, he had let it consume him, transforming him into a workaholic that was never home. Under the guise of trying to give her a better life, he’d let his focus deviate from that very goal, allowing his ambition to lead him instead. With the claim that he would obtain the ability to grant her all that she’d wanted, he’d neglected the very thing that seemed to matter to her. Their time together. Their shared happiness.
“Driver, turn around.” He said. “There’s some place else that I’d like to go instead.”
In his carelessness, he had let his work climb to the highest pedestal in his life, becoming his greatest pride and his greatest desire. He had let it blind him to the thing that once mattered the most. But, he wasn’t going to let himself become its puppet again.
Silently, he thanked whatever made his driver take the unconventional route today. Silently, he thanked whatever forces that made him wake up at just the moment to see the place that he once called home. Whoever or whatever it was granted him an invaluable gift. An invaluable reminder.
He clenched his fist, promising himself that he’d never let himself forget the reason that he worked again. He looked up at the sky, as the car drove toward home. Toward the place where his mother waited for him. Perhaps this year, they’d finally get to see the sky lantern festival together.
This story was inspired by the writing prompt from the “Promptly Written” Publication.
From the Memory Books
“_Give us a more in-depth look into the real you”
_Who was your childhood hero?
Also, if you liked this story: be sure to check out my other stories that touch on the topic of family.