Issue 9

Rust and Blue

 · Fiction


From the room in which her girlhood had ended, she watched the evening sky fill with altocumuluses, hordes of pale lavender sheep with occasional flecks of pink and orange, swarming the sky. Sheep of vapor, bodies light, on their way somewhere, someplace no one could follow. Mornings in the goat pen — that’s what she thought of, mornings of her childhood — the smell of goats that her mother had kept. She was alone in the room with the dense scent that evenings in these hilly areas brought with them, the smell that pushed her into an odoriferous forest of memories which she was about to delve into.

The day her girlhood had ended was the day when her would-be husband had come to see her, to make sure that she was exactly similar to the photograph that he had seen of her, to make sure that she walked and talked properly. Her friends with whom she had gone to school had come over — one with a child at her waist and the other with an engorged, enormously pregnant belly. They peeked through the curtains that had been washed specially for the occasion, curtains that smelled like the hard soap that had been rubbed over them to get them cleaned. The loss of her girlhood was the smell of the soap manufactured by the women in the village and sold through the local co-op society.

Her friends, after having peeked through the curtain, remarked with giggles, “Look how hairy his arms are! Lucy kutty is marrying a hairy ape!” She was indignant, even a little afraid. She peered through the small crack between the door and the curtain to see if he was indeed a hairy ape. He wasn’t. Even then, when he wed her at the church, and afterwards when he walked into the room, the night of their marriage, all she could think of was “hairy ape” — a night marked by the smell of incense that was a stifling blanket of dead flowers, the weight of which she felt more and more as the night waned.

In the monotony of the life that followed, with him supervising the laborers in the field and coming home in the evening smelling of mud and the sun, Lucy cooking for the workers and her husband, her cooking seasoned with occasional glances at the women singing in the field to ease their work, she became pregnant. When the doctor told her that she would be having twins, it was something she did not expect — a pleasant surprise. A boy and a girl. He waited outside the examination room for her to come out and give him the news. When she told him, his response was a short “Anganeyaano?” or “Is that so?” The next day, the women who worked in the fields knew. Standing in the yard, they called her, asked her to come out of the house. Offered her bits and pieces of wisdom. “Don’t eat garlic. Your twins will turn to be devious and deformed.” “Massage you belly every day. Shall we ask ‘Sir’ to do it?” They tittered, a pack of nutty brown doves in a slimy brown field.

When she had the twins, she thought she was going to die. She screamed. Yelled. Begged them to come out. The nurse by her bedside told her, “Good women don’t scream. Didn’t your mother tell you that?” “My mother is dead!” She snapped, pungent anger wrapped in pain burning her nostrils. When they finally emerged, after having them cleaned, she held them and put her face to the top of their heads with wisps of hair, catching whiffs of their heady scent — a milky reminder of forgotten times and places. It became her favorite thing to do with them — inhaling the scent of their dependency, the scent of the world that they had left behind.

It was his idea to give them names starting with an “L.” So that we’d become an L family, he said. Louis, Lucy, Larry, Leena. L. L. L. L. The tip of the tongue rising to meet the ridge behind the upper front teeth four times.

The twins brought with them a strange exuberance, a warmth that she had never known before. She thought if she held them long enough, she’d smell like them. The strange, untouched redolence that they had brought with them.

When the twins were a month old, her husband complained of a mild cold before going to work. By the evening, the cold had wound its way into a fever. The next day he had pain in his joints. When he turned around in the cot, he heard his bones creak. The fetidness of sickness. He told her to make some chukku kaapi, guzzled it all day, burying himself under the grayish blanket which made his skin itch. The fever went down. He thought he had conquered it. He sat up in his armchair in the verandah, thinking about how resilient his body was — the human strength contained in his frame.

However, the strength of his frame did not prove strong enough. The fever returned with a vigor unmatched by the body. He fell before it quaking, shaking and shivering. The smell of sickness in the air. Like smoke from a pile of wood that refuses to burn. It was then that she noticed that the whites of his eyes were no longer white, they were yellow — yellow that was seedy, yellow of insidious intent.

She got the twins dressed, asked one of the workers to drive them to the doctor’s in her husband’s jeep. The doctor told her that her husband needed a hospital, not a doctor. They drove through dilapidated roads, the twins getting used to the ups and downs of the journey. She held them close, caught whiffs of their scent from the top of their heads. A scent to calm her down, to anchor her to this moment now. The twins didn’t cry, it surprised her — as though they knew. At the hospital they said that he was too far gone and they couldn’t take him in now. She was close to tears now, so were the twins — they whimpered. She pressed them to her face. The laborer, sensing the situation, told her of a herbalist who lived nearby and who might be able to cure Sir. She ordered him to drive, her heart fluttering in her chest cavity and around the twins who hadn’t cried.

The herbalist took a look at her husband who’d been laid flat on the jeep’s backseat. Lifted his eyelids and peered into the yellow whites. What did they tell him?

The herbalist then called the laborer aside, rattled off a list of herbs and explained how to use them. The man got hold of oils, roots and leaves, powdered them, juiced them and made them into a paste. Fed it to Sir, applied it on Sir’s body just as the herbalist had instructed. For days, the house smelled like an old ayurvedic chest of medicine which had been opened after a long time. On the fifteenth day, he opened his eyes, asked for the twins. Sat up and touched them. They cried, the memory of his touch, having receded from them.

She sensed the sickly smell lifting, a fog dispelled by light. The herbalist had imposed a strict dietary regimen on him — no meat or alcohol for thirty days. He was back in the fields again, the realm of sun and wind.

One night, his friends invited him on a vigil, an all night vigil to trap the wild boar that had been damaging the crop. She lay down after his departure, with the twins at her side, in a night laden with the chemical smell of black beetles that arrived in droves after nightfall. He returned in the morning, the belief in his body further elevated, his body that had re-grown, thrived. They had captured the boar. They were getting together again in the evening. She knew of these meetings, laced with the smell of toddy and roast meet. She reminded him of what the herbalist had told them. Thirty days.

“I know,” he said, with more than a whiff of confidence in his utterance. The trust that he put in his body. He walked out into the dusk scented by the flowers that had started opening up, under the crepuscular cover of light. She watched him leave, swaddled by the scent of the twins.

His belief in his body was supreme. What could go wrong in a day? The thirtieth day was just tomorrow; tomorrow that seemed too long in coming. He took a swig from the bottle and bit into the chicken roasting over the fire. When he doubled over from stomach cramps that made him bend over and kiss the earth in an attempt to placate the pain, they brought him home.

She smelled it. The toddy. The meat. As he lay writhing in the cot, someone ran into the darkened road to fetch the herbalist. He retched. Heaved. Brought up blood. Thick, wine dark blood. Blood that smelled like iron. Liquid iron gurgling in his chest that stained her finger tips with its smell. Afterwards she asked them to burn his clothes because she couldn’t endure the ferrous smell: something that she caught on her fingers even now.

Blue Secrets

We sat down at the dinner table, dressed in identical colors — blue and yellow; colors that would later whisper to us about the secrets that they had overheard in the kitchen or in the bathroom or during the monotony of copulation. We, Larry and Leena, the twins of the house. Dinner was served. Chicken curry with chakka veichathu. The jackfruit that we had helped prepare. The soft white flesh, wrapped around smooth, hard seeds like the silence that descended over the house after amma had an argument with ammachi. About money. About us. About her life. About a father whom we’ve never seen. We had played with the jackfruit seeds in the afternoon, put them in water, imagined they were fishes, like the silver spotted fish that we always tried to catch in the stream, a fish that was too quick for us.

We were served by amma, small helpings. Ammachi served herself. We bit into our chicken, crunched the bones on our plate. Watching us eat, ammachi said, “Well, look at them eat now! Like of all of it’s going to disappear the next minute. What happened to the tears now? Meat is meat, after all. Meant to be eaten.” Across the table amma looked at ammachi. Red stares that only we could see, directed at ammachi’s head like two lasers. Red that clamored for a fight. Red that desired to be beaten down.

We looked at amma. We could chew no more. The chakka veichathu seemed to gleam in our plates. Small yellow mounds. We felt feathers brushing against the walls of our stomachs. Our bellies being ruffled by feathers from the inside. Just like the bright yellow feathers we had seen on the batch of colored chickens that the vendor had brought over to our house. Bright green, pink and yellow.

Ammachi said they were a waste of money. That they were going to die. We persisted. We wanted the chicks, we wanted the colours — pinkyellowgreen. An animated buzz inside us, pinkyellowgreen speaking to us in frenzied whispers to take them away. We persisted. And we persisted. We got our pinkyellowgreen.

One day one itself pink died. We tasted a metallic smell in the sadness. After two days green died, we heard the green sing to us about unrequited desires. Yellow didn’t die, yellow we raised, even after the loud yellow had washed off her and she grew into an ordinary hen. We looked after her. Sang to her. Sang with her. Went looking for her eggs — palepinkishwarm. Her eggs were our hearts drenched in liquid yellow, a toned down exuberance. Her eggs that amma made into perfect sunny-side ups. Smiling yellow yolks out on a white ceramic plate every morning. And her we fed every day, scattering brown grains in the yard, just as she fed us. Our shrieks on the day that she tried to drown herself in the stream sprinkled ice dust on our spines. We shuddered.

One evening, the evening we ate our chakka veichathu and chicken curry, we found ammachi plucking a chicken in the backyard. We had to know where the chicken had come from.

— From here, ammachi said.

— Here as in where? We wanted to know.

— Here, from our home.

— How’s that? We persisted.

— I killed it.

— How? We persisted, tinges of blue fear creeping into our voices.

— You take hold of the chicken. And twist its neck. Like this. And snap.

Blue flashes inside us. The salty tears that followed. We didn’t cry together, no, one of us started it, suffocated by the blue fear, and the other followed suit.

At the dinner table when ammachi spoke of tears and meat we knew that she was talking about our blue tears of the evening. How we were the worst. We had cried and eaten without any tears. Or guilt. We had crunched the bones on our plate. Enjoyed crunching them. We were the worst. Across the room red flashes of anger traded between ammachi and amma. We couldn’t eat anymore because of the ruffling of the feathers inside. And we knew. Yellow feathers being plucked off one by one. No more brown grains in the yard or exuberant yellow yolks in a white ceramic plate. Just us in the blue evening illuminated by red flashes.

When amma put us to bed, the blue of a frock and a shirt swirled around us, whispered to us about a man who had doubled over and we tasted the earth in our mouths before we slept.

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