Saints of gold
It was another early sunset on a rainy day in Dhaka. Alamin was walking with a polythene bag of groceries back to his small, rented apartment. Well, not his apartment, but he'd lived there for so long that it felt like his. The rain soaked his hair and dripped into his eyes, but he barely noticed. Saad baba should be hungry by now.
The moment he pushed the front door open, he was greeted with a shout, "Alamin mama?" from the back of the apartment.
"Ji, baba. I'm home. Your food will be ready soon."
"Thank god. I'm starving, mama."
Alamin laughed. "I know."
"Bring it down here, please, when you're done."
He bustled around the kitchen, tinkering with pots and pans and his small arsenal of spoons and forks. Within a few minutes, the smell of hot spices and sizzling oil permeated the tiny home he'd shared with his young charge for the past 10 years. It was hard to believe that the fumbling little boy he'd carried around on his shoulders now stood taller than him, but that was the way of life.
Balancing the heavy tray on one hand, Alamin knocked on Saad's door.
"Come in, mama."
As usual, the room was a mess. Shaking his head, Alamin cleared the nearest table as much as possible and set the tray down. Saad was sitting cross-legged on the floor, at the feet of one of the statues, his back to Alamin.
"Mama, did you speak to the vendor?" he asked.
"I did, choto baba. The delivery will be next week."
There was a moment of silence, and Alamin sighed internally. He had displeased his young master with his answer. He'd known it would. Perhaps he should've prepared the chains in advance. Saad baba liked things to be done before he asked for them.
Saad turned around slowly.
He was a handsome young man, 23 years of age, with a shock of pitch-black hair and the most probing eyes Alamin had ever seen. Even as a child, Saad's eyes had had that peculiar light in them, as if they could see things others could not.
"I need the delivery tomorrow, mama", Saad said slowly. "I told you that before you went out."
His skin was pale. Almost unnaturally so. He had not felt the touch of sunlight for almost a decade now.
"I know, choto baba," Alamin said, hanging his head. "But the man had been sick, and— "
That night, after Alamin had whipped himself four times and washed and bandaged the cuts on his back, he sat in his usual corner and watched as Saad worked on the statues until dawn. Even after all these years, he still wondered how the boy handled the molten gold with no protection.
"The saints do not care for the sick", Saad said softly. "They care only for the strong and the devoted. Are you not devoted, mama?"
Alamin's heart stuttered. "I am, Saad baba. I always was."
That was a lie. It had taken some time for Alamin to accept young Saad's peculiarities, and even longer to realise that this young man was gifted in ways most people would never believe. The Holy Touch, he called it. Anointed by the Great Saints.
"Then I want the delivery tomorrow. The Second demands another coating." Saad reverently touched the ankle of the statue he was sitting near. The gold shimmered in the dim light. "You will pay penance for your lack of faith tonight, mama. Four stripes should do it."
The skin on Alamin's back prickled in fear, but he was careful to keep his face calm. "Of course, choto baba. I brought your dinner."
Saad smiled. And just like that, that harsh, cold face transformed into a beautiful young man, intelligent and sharp-eyed.
That night, after Alamin had whipped himself four times and washed and bandaged the cuts on his back, he sat in his usual corner and watched as Saad worked on the statues until dawn. Even after all these years, he still wondered how the boy handled the molten gold with no protection. The skin on his hands had burned off long ago, and were now permanently coated with a thin layer of gold extending halfway up to his elbows. At times, in the dark red glow of the lamps, it almost seemed like Saad was slowly transmuting to gold himself.
Even as Alamin watched, the young man scooped a cupped handful of smoking, molten gold and lathered it onto the already-thick layer on the Second Saint's left arm. This was the third coating in six months. There had been a time when they could afford a full coating on all three saints every month, back when the family wealth had seemed inexhaustible. Only a small amount of it was now left. Gold was expensive. How the years had changed…
Alamin jerked out of yellowed memories. "Ji, baba?"
"I must kill the gold vendor. The Second says so."
"Is he holy enough to join their ranks, baba?" Alamin said, frowning. The vendor was a goldsmith, skilled in making jewellery but he had nothing to make him stand out.
The other Saints were special. The First was Saad's father, or what remained of his corpse after the 12-year-old Saad had killed him and coated him in gold as the First Saint. The Second was his mother, killed two years later. The Third was their landlord, strangled a month after they'd moved to this city. The landlord's wife was meant to be the Fourth Saint, but her body had decomposed before the vendor could deliver the gold for the first coating. She'd been discarded, and the ranks of the Saints had remained unfinished ever since.
"He gave us gold when we asked for it", Saad said softly, scooping up another handful of steaming gold. "He has earned his place."
"He never knew why we bought so much gold, though, baba," Alamin sighed.
"And he was smart enough never to ask. And for this, mama, the Holy Saints of Gold have decided to reward him. He will be the Fifth."
Alamin shivered. His throat was tight with joy. Could it be? Had the Saints finally heard his prayers? "Fifth? What about the Fourth, baba?"
Saad turned around and smiled gently at his old caretaker.
Alamin's eyes welled with joy as he nodded.
Alamin nearly stumbled and fell as he ran out of the room and into the kitchen. The ceremony required a special knife, so he picked the oldest one they had. The one he'd used to slice and dice food for his young charge for over 20 years. Yes, a holy knife. Perfect.
He stumbled back into Saad's room and handed the knife to him carefully. And then he laid himself down on the floor, full-length. His heart was hammering with excitement. At last, at last! Oh, it was happening at last!
Saad studied Alamin for a moment, and then rose to his knees and lifted the knife over the old man's throat. He smiled slightly. "I will miss your cooking, mama."
Alamin sobbed in ecstasy. "But I will watch over you, choto baba, as the Fourth Saint."
Sarazeen Saif Ahana is an adjunct member of the faculty of Independent University, Bangladesh where she teaches English and marvels at the beauty and complexity of language.