ONE OF THE TOP THREE ENTRIES OF BOUND’S SHORT STORY CONTEST 2019
“Are you scared of the dead, too?” the boy asks her, palming his way into the world under the bed. She is a young girl, small enough to comfortably coop herself under the bed without hitting her head. Somewhere agarbathis merrily burn away, hungry feet scrunch the gravel, and a mother’s scream dies into an animal groan. Then, a moment’s silence; under the bed, a few spider webs arch its corners, all seemingly unoccupied—as if they had gone to see the dead body as well—and the smell of camphor. Somewhere in the room a bucket gurgles away at forgotten clothes.
“How long have you been here?” he asks her.
“I don’t remember.”
“When will they take the body away?”
“I don’t know.”
The room is empty, but he can hear voices, voices of men, of women, crying. He listens to see if Amma or Ammamma is one of them. He never heard them cry before, until yesterday. When they did, he felt it inside him, the sharp nib of a pencil stuck into his chest.
“Sleep is like death.”
The midnight cry of the telephone had not woken him up, but the shuffling of bed sheets, the slow hurried whispers of his mother’s feet did. He looked around. Dark except for the spots of light falling from the window—his neighbours, Kekas uncle and his wife, too scared to sleep in the dark—silent except for the thud of feet going downstairs—Amma’s.
Amma walks in the dark, the light from her phone reaching beyond the staircase. She walks past closed and empty rooms, past beds where Ammamma and Appappa slept, all the way to the landline nested away at one corner of the crowded shelf in the kitchen, near a tin with his favourite biscuits.
When he heard a cry, he almost thought he had imagined it.
It was Ammamma, her words barely words, slipping into whines and sputtering sobs.
And then a soft howl.
They were sitting at the dining table, the two women, his mother’s head resting on her straggling and lean palms, his grandmother staring vacantly at a TV that showed nothing.
“Sleep is like death.”
The glass bangles on the girl’s arms jingle. His gaze turns to them—red, blue, violet, orange—before he looks at her face again.
“My friend told me, during maths tuition at Lily’s, on that evening when the old man Keshavan finally died, that every time we close our eyes we go a little closer to death. Not too close to get caught. But sometimes we do.”
“Did he hit a century?”
She looks at the door—open; through which legs, dressed in all kinds of colours, but mostly white, are moving about.
He forgot to close the door. What was he thinking, leaving the door open like that? Now anybody could come looking for him, Amma, Kochamma, or Chittappa, and take him away. Careless. He has been too careless these days. Didn’t Bindu Miss say the same? Some days it is an eraser that he has misplaced, some days an identity card which has his embarrassing monkey-haircut photo on it…
And some days, he thinks, it is a door that he forgot to close.
He goes to Damodaran Sir’s for maths tuition. Lots of experience, lots of students scoring full marks, Amma once told him. And there’s Damu at Sir’s house, a man who never wears a shirt but only a lungi. Damu climbs Sir’s coconut trees and hacks down all the ripe coconuts with clenched teeth. Some evenings, if everyone is doing maths correctly and Sir is in a good mood, he gives them coconut with jaggery. Some days, if Sir is late and nobody else is around, Damu talks to the boy, asking him about his father and grandfather, where they are from and what they are doing.
The day the old man Keshavan finally died, the boy, sitting alone on a bench in the veranda, looked at his new watch. He was hoping to show it to his friends, but none of them were there. He turned and saw people rushing outside Sir’s gate, all of them, he thought, going to see the old man one last time.
It was then that he saw it, on the back bench. Two small sticks, which, on close inspection, were wrapped in dried leaves. He thumbed them—and they broke into four.
“What did you do to my beedis?” Damu came rushing from behind the house a few minutes later.
The boy returned them to the bench, but Damu clenched his teeth.
“Twenty rupees. Give it to me right now.”
“I don’t have any money,” the boy said, checking his bag anyway.
Damu let out an exaggerated sigh and sat on one of the benches. He began unbuttoning his shirt impatiently, clearly uncomfortable at wearing one.
The world under the bed is safe.
There were more people on the road now. Some of them were crying. Damu regarded the scene for a while.
To his surprise, under old pencils, erasers, and all kinds of chits from school, the boy found an old ten rupee note. He shouldered his bag. Sir won’t be taking classes today, he thought, not this late. He gave the money to Damu, who eyed it with suspicion.
“So, you do have money.”
Damu stepped out and held the note against the sky. “Do you know what is more real?” he said, considering Sir’s ripe coconuts overhead.
The boy shook his head.
Damu pointed at the ribbons of grey unfurling against the evening sky. “Death.”
“Where is the smoke coming from?”
“The field,” Damu said. “Where the old man is getting burned.”
Damu eyed the coconuts once again. The large house behind the boy, dwarfing him, was empty.
“The dead body,” Damu said, knowing he had the boy’s attention, “has begun its journey. Its journey towards—do you have a cycle, boy?”
It got punctured yesterday.
“Then you better run,” Damu said, crouching on the sand. “You better run with your life, boy. It is the old man’s final journey. You better run, and you better be careful. He might just pick you up on his way.”
“Where do you think the dead go when they die?…”
The world under the bed is safe. Against the cold green marble, he feels his heart speed up. Brett Lee speed. Around him: dust, faded supermarket bills, forgotten safety pins, and buttons rolled away to temporary oblivion. And the girl. Her face away from him, her gaze at the door.
“Who are you?”
“I am seeing you for the first time.”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t know how to explain.”
“Are you Nalini amma’s granddaughter?”
“No, I don’t know how to tell you…”
He understands. Even he sometimes has trouble telling distant relatives that no, he is not Malathi kochamma’s or Vilasini akka’s son, but Chippy’s. But no, Chippy is not Chandrika’s daughter, Chandrika is Srinivasan’s wife, and Srinivasan is—it is complicated.
“Do you know who died?” she asks.
“No. I don’t know. Amma didn’t tell me. We got a call yesterday night and everybody started crying.”
“She was not very old.”
“Amma said she did not die in her sleep. Which is bad.” He looks around him. Something has caught his attention.
“Can you hear it?”
“Someone swallowing. No, like someone drinking water. Slowly. Very slowly. Listen.”
Her bangles, the boy thinks, she shouldn’t be wearing them.
“I can’t hear anything.”
“Where do you think the dead go when they die? Wherever they are going, they might catch others as well. So what if she, whoever she is, is leaving, and maybe she is walking around this house, and maybe”—his voice almost a whisper—“maybe she is in this room now. And your bangles are making sounds.”
And what if this was her room, this was her bed?
He doesn’t ask, but he cannot stop his thoughts. He didn’t think of this before, he was too scared when the dead body came. He only wanted to hide somewhere.
They wait, keeping silence, the girl holding her bangles in place, the boy clipping his nose with two fingers to avoid a sneeze. Crows caw from the mango tree, the blue Hari Om bus blows its horn and speeds past, and a phone, lost somewhere in the house, begins to ring.
“Why do you think she is walking around the house?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that she won’t see it again, the things, her things, her room, her mother. Maybe she is going somewhere very far and she can’t come back again.”
She eases her hold on her bangles. He leaves his nose alone.
“Is this your first death?” he asks.
“Yes. What about you?”
“But dead people haunt those who live.”
“Maybe”—he remembers a film he saw long back—“maybe only they do that.”
“The ones who didn’t die in their sleep.”
“She killed herself.”
The sound of water, he hears it again. Maybe a tap left open in the bathroom, water dripping slowly from it. Or rain.
“How do you know if you are dead?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
She looks at her arms, then lets go of her bangles, lets them jingle one last time.
“Maybe you stop being scared.”
Before she can answer, the door is closed.
Then, suddenly, there are three loud knocks on the door.
The two pairs of legs stand still and close. A blue shirt drops to the floor. A smudge of dirt on its collar. John Players. The boy’s father has one of these, almost the same colour. When he is old enough for a job, he will, like his father, buy a John Players.
The legs move further closer. The boy looks at the girl, who has a hand on her mouth. She gently shakes her head.
“I don’t have anyone anymore,” the man above them says.
“It is not like that,” the woman says, her voice almost a whisper. “I am here. For now.”
The man mumbles something, and then the sounds: fingers crawling up a piece of fabric, an unruly nose straining to be in control, the clearing of a throat, the slight jingle of bangles.
Something falls again. It bounces off the marble, its sound stolen away by the sirens of an ambulance, and comes to rest before the boy.
The ambulance is starting. The dead body will be taken away anytime now, and they can finally come out and then he won’t have to be by himself in this large house filled with people he does not know. They can talk about things, others things than the dead. He can ask her about Lily’s. Is it true that she beats only on the knuckles? Maybe he can tell her about Damodaran Sir and that he doesn’t beat anybody, and maybe she will change from Lily’s, and then they can go for tuitions together and talk about things, other things than the dead—
The man and the woman sit on the bed, which swells against the boy and the girl.
The boy covers his nose, tries to blink away a speck of dust. A gate clangs open and the sirens get louder. Anytime now.
When the legs reappear, the blue shirt is taken. A hand reaches down to the floor.
Then, suddenly, there are three loud knocks on the door.
Outside, someone shouts to make way. The whole world, it seems to the boy, is crying. He plugs his ears, trying to make it all go away. He stares at the earring. A faded silver star.
Someone shouts from outside the door that they are taking the body away. The knocks stop.
The man and the woman hurry, leaving the door, once again, open.
The girl keeps a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Your hand is cold, the boy wants to say. He cannot hear people cry anymore. On all fours—
“Don’t go,” she says.
—he gets out.
He looks out the window and sees the man in the blue shirt beside the ambulance, its doors shut, a crowd around it.
He watches the haze of blue in the crowd, its thick shock of black hair, its face turned to the other side, until a wave of white swiftly washes it away and the gate reluctantly closes behind the ambulance.
And when the boy crouches, he only sees the other end of the bed, and the silver earring on the cold green marble floor.
He inspects the room one last time, even opens a cupboard.
They didn’t get to talk. He didn’t get to ask her name. About Lily’s, about—
“Here you are.” Amma, a loose hand on the doorway. “I’ve been looking everywhere. Everyone is asking about you.”
That is a lie. Was she crying? Her hair is neatly tied into a bun. There are crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes.
Together they walk through the house. They watch the faces around them, they pick newspapers from the floor, restore errant chairs, empty cups of leftover chai, one of them still full.
Maybe she is still around. Maybe she went to the bathroom and didn’t tell him because she was shy. He just needs to find her.
Amma gives him a cup of chai at the dining table. “You didn’t drink chai in the morning.”
She goes to the kitchen again, hopefully to get him some biscuits. But she returns empty-handed.
“People are strange,” she says. “Mythili lost an earring. A hundred people are looking for it in the kitchen.”
“Could you help her find it? She says she had it in the kitchen. It is easy for people to forget things today.”
There is less sugar in the chai. He doesn’t tell her.
“I’ll look for it,” he says. He knows he will. He will disappear into rooms he knows are the wrong ones. He will look for it everywhere—on crowded tables, under heavy cushions, empty beds, on cold green marble floors. When it gets dark and cold, he will, with the yellow of a torch, look for it and wait for it to twinkle or jingle.
“It looks like a starfish,” he hears his mother say.