The cold water came as a shock, forcing Nadini to resurface and gasp for fresh air. She gulped a mouthful and dove again, plunging into the relative darkness with each stroke. But her lungs won’t let her go all the way. The cold water reigned at her arms and strangled her for air. She made her way back to the shore, empty-handed, and collapsed on to the dark, moist soil that wrapped her wet skin.
With each breath the scent of ripe guavas drifted through her inflated nostrils, overwhelming her with insatiable desire. The coarse yet soft texture of the guavas turned acrid in her mouth. The memory of the servant boy who moved like liquid gold over her sister’s milky skin had forever tarnished its taste for her.
Nandini slashed through the dense undergrowth, ripping apart the hammock of weeds that knitted the woods together. The machete’s rough edges—corroded black with years of neglect—made the task harder than it seemed.
With each swing, the pulse beneath her eyelids throbbed a second faster. With each cut, the woods echoed with her heaving breaths; the buzz of honeybees and the songs of mainas fading away into the stillness of the noon air.
Sweat streamed down her face—blinding her momentarily, choking her senses with its acrid taste. The silk shirt clung to her skin like a wet tissue paper. Her tiring nape, aching back and blistering hands made the agony of a hot Indian summer unbearable to her overworked arms.
She wasn’t used to labor in any form or sense of the word. But the thought of her family heirloom, resting at the bottom of the pond, willed her to action.
“See you tomorrow at 7 then,” I remind Deepa before getting off the school bus. “We’re so going to have an awesome time!”
“Yeah,” grins back Deepa, grooving in her seat, to the amusement of others, “the best! You sure your Mom’s okay with it? She isn’t worried about, you know,” she shrugs and spells out the word B-O-Y-S.
“Of course, she’s cool. Temporary insanity.” I shrug back.
If she isn’t yet, she will be, as soon as Dad gets here.
“See ya,” I wave from the sidewalk. Sunny mimics me and I thump his soft, silky-haired head. I’ve already doled out my entire collection of tenners to him. At least he should act the part. “Go to your room and act sick, will you?” I tell him. “But not too sick. Remember, you get better as soon as you see Dad. I don’t want to spend the entire weekend babysitting you and Mom.”
Three days to “doomsday” and Mom turns into this zealot baba follower who refuses to do anything but watch Baba ka Darbar all day long. Remote in one hand, phone in another. Ordering a thali the moment a new prayer service goes live.
“How come he’s live?” I say, munching on crackers with toppings of ketchup and mustard sauce, our gourmet lunch for today. “Shouldn’t he be hiding somewhere, performing some ‘yugya-shagya’ in secret?”
Mom shudders at this and looks about fearfully, as if waiting for lightning to strike and smite us all out of existence. When that doesn’t happen, she finally speaks. “Baba has his ways,” she says mystically, “and don’t be disrespectful, Rinku. I have taught you better than that.”
“I am a tree,” I tell them but they laugh. “But I am, I’m a tree, I’ve roots in this place, sunk deep into the earth.” If you move me, I’ll die.
“Do you realize how insane you sound,” they say. “This is no way to live. Stuck in your room all day long, not eating or drinking or meeting friends.”
“I work,” I tell them, “from home. It’s called telecommuting.”
“We’ve never seen you do anything. You don’t even comb your hair anymore. When was the last time you bathed?”
“Bathed?” I don’t know: yesterday, or a week before yesterday? “Why should that matter though?” And for whom should I clean up?
They crowd about me then, my uncles and aunts, near and distant cousins, and so-called friends — like a pack of hyenas too lazy to hunt for themselves, gleeful at the prospect of feasting off my ready despair.
“Now don’t be a fatalist,” says an aunt I don’t recall having. “Life’s beautiful, full of possibilities,” another cousin adds.
She is always there at 8. At the bus stop next to the florist. She sits there tapping her foot, watching the open sky change hues over the vacant lot across the road. Sipping the coffee she brought from home. In a thermos. Softly humming a song. The air around her alive and full of promise. She sits there, not once checking her watch. Only pushing off when the first of the daily commuters arrive, when it’s time for the 8.45.
I ask her why she comes here. There’s a perfectly beautiful park two blocks down. Is she here to meet someone? Could I interest her in a bunch of fresh peonies or a freshly brewed cuppa from down the street?
Nah, she says. Gives an easy smile. A strand of hair swaying across her youthful face. Though she’s no beauty, there’s a brightness about her that’s hard to miss.
You can sit here a while though, she says, patting the empty space next to her. If you’re not in a hurry.
She gives me a once over. My attaché, the crisp business suit and tie, shiny shoes polished to perfection, reflecting my scrubbed clean face, hers if I move in any closer, are not doing me any favors.
“You are not going to the school dance, and that’s that.”
Mom quits on me mid-argument and walks off.
“But that’s not fair,” I say, chasing after her into the living room. “Everybody’s going. Even Sheila with two left feet. And I will be the only one who won’t. And everybody would have a wonderful time, but me. Mom, are you even listening?”
She is searching for something under the daybed. Not finding it there, she checks around the sofas, and then behind the doors and beneath the window curtains. “You’re in eight grade,”she says dropping the edge a curtain. “How bad can it be?”
Orlinda was right of course. Shelly loved her. Why wouldn’t a three-legged frog hidden in her cupboard, behind all the clothes, in a box with punched-in holes do that? It longed for fresh air. And every time she let it out to play, it got just that. It was a wonder that the squishy, bouncy creature didn’t just fly out the window and hop back to the brook behind the dorm.
Shelly didn’t croak. Either it didn’t know how to, for want of similar four-legged companions, or just didn’t think it was worth its while to chat with the overbearing Ollie, who just loved it to bits. Like it wasn’t an ugly, green frog, but the prettiest doll in the room.
Mollie cracked a smile. She could already think of a hundred wicked pranks to pull on all the unsuspecting dwellers of the dorm.
“Why not stuff it in that Long Hair’s bed and see what happens?” she said.
The room where Mollie was to spend the rest of the year — or more — was on the first floor of the four-story middle school dormitory, a ten-minute walk from the main school building. The station wagon parked in the driveway was gone by the time Sister Maria got downstairs, having attended to various administrative matters on her way. Dusk had turned the sky azure and the school empty … but for a few senior students hanging about on the front steps, exchanging notes. The dorm wasn’t buzzing with much activity either.
It was adequate, this room, like her sisters’, except with fewer beds. It had two of everything—beds, chairs, cupboards, study tables, and table lamps. The bed by the window with a beautiful view of the woods and the brook was taken. The bed next to the door was to be hers.
“Now, unpack your things and come downstairs in fifteen minutes,” said Sister Maria. She tapped the dial of her wrist watch and smiled. “That’s 7 by the wall clock. Now, hurry, scoot. You haven’t got much time if you want the best piece of Mrs. Banerjee’s delectably sweet and tarty apple pie!”