Conjunctions:24 Critical Mass

The Warden
The view from our outhouse never changes. We have spent a lifetime of nights listening to silence, as if the world outside is a rumor. Or on some nights, when we hear the sound of the wind, all of them—husbands, sons, master, mistress—are impotent ghosts, circling the little cottage, condemned to incessant and futile whispers.

     The wakefulness of old age has made us an ideal couple. Even our bouts of insomnia come together.

     She thinks we are different. Ah, we are in this together, I tell her in the rare moment when I love her.

     We? she asks, wonderingly. The word gurgles round and round in her mouth.

     When I first met my young charge, the mistress of the house who is kept locked up in the outhouse, I had just lost my baby. I knew how to keep up my strength when looking after helpless infants: you sleep when they do, so that you can watch them the rest of the time with wide-open eyes.

     On full moon nights, when she cannot sleep, she becomes petulant and quarrelsome, as if a beauty like her can never be crossed. She sidles up to me, unable to leave me alone. Her face is an inch from mine. Her breath is foul, her lips cave in with her effort to speak. The brownish, naked gums thrust forward like an ugly wall.

     I tried to open the big window once, so that she could feel the fresh rain against her skin. I pushed and pushed, but it would not give way. She watched me from her corner, a mischievous grin on her face.

     But she was not always a toothless old woman. She was like a little girl—sometimes a mute and subdued one—the day after a visit from her husband in the big house.

     The day before, I combed her hair and plaited it tightly. The oil dripped from the tip of her braid. I knew how to make use of my chance; I never knew when he would come again, or when she would let me tidy her up next, like a meek little child-bride.

     It was always a moonless night when he came to her. She was at her quietest then, a tame, docile little thing.

     Basamma, she would beg me, as if she expected him, will you comb my hair properly? And tie my sari? I have forgotten how.

     He was not such a humble supplicant. She does not need you now, he would say to me curtly from the door. And I was to make myself scarce for the next hour, but within earshot in case there was trouble.

That white, white flower. So cunning, so sweet-smelling. Teases and teases, all the petals are like crescent moons. Then it came nearer and the smell was like vomit. The smooth white rubbery petals, thick, thicker, I couldn’t even breathe. I saw the bee inside, he thought I didn’t see it, but I saw him sting. You leave my rubber flower alone, I said to him, you don’t even like it. It’s ugly and stupid and smelly, I know, but I married that flower. How else to protect it?

Once she bit him, hard, her teeth had drawn blood on his arm. I had to run back to the outhouse, save him, hold her down, lock ourselves in. Shutting out her wild, frenzied screams, holding down her stick-like arms that had now grown powerful talons, I shot him a glance that said, Are you satisfied?

     He would have hit me, I know, if he had not been so frightened of her. We have given you a home, haven’t we, he hissed between his teeth, and left before I could say anything aloud. I could have said a thing or two—shown him a few things as well—that would have straightened out his pretty, wavy hair for life.

She is really a witch. Hah, she thinks I don’t know. I have seen her—why, a thousand times—taking away something that belongs to me. The spell gets stronger that way. She hides my shit and even my bloody rags. She sweeps at midnight so that I cannot sleep. I know how to make signals—I learned it when I was very little. A beautiful bride-princess. When the blood trickled down like a long thin snake, all the way down to my knees, I scraped it off with fingers and pressed them, signals and signals, on the bare walls. She didn’t like it. Ha, I said to her, you don’t know what it means.

     I know all kinds of magic so that you can’t bring that hairy bee in here again. You—I want to laugh till I cry, it’s so funny—are a stupid old witch. You don’t know why your big balloon breasts burst, do you? Didn’t you see me lying quietly in the corner, looking? My tongue rolled out and wriggled across the dark shadows of the room. It wriggled like a long, long earthworm. When you looked, it played dead and you thought it was nothing.

     He can show me his sting and you be a cow with swollen udders, I don’t care. My father, that old gardener who planted one rotten seed every year, would have laughed and laughed at you. He had twenty servants, he slept with three every night. I can see it all—I turn and turn the mud like an earthworm. But shall I kiss you? Or send the worm crawling up your thick, scaly legs?

When I came to them, my breasts were full and heavy. The milk dripped like an open tap. I was ashamed to stand there in front of them, my sari damp and smelling of stale milk.

     A godsend, he called me, and brought the baby, a poor skinny little thing almost as lifeless as my own. I took it from him greedily and put the tiny mouth to my swollen nipples. How he sucked! He drew and drew them out, his eyes closed in bliss, forehead damp with sweat, my chest light and empty with relief.

     The next two times my breasts were empty. They had shrunk, and my nipples were dry, brown berries, hard and unyielding. I filled bottle after bottle with cow’s milk while she lay about mooning, unconcerned, her breasts ivory-white and virginal, her girlish stomach unmarked by her three children.

     The outhouse is all ours now. No one comes here—the daughter-in-law, or her children, or the servants. Once every few days, the son—the one I held at my breast, the eldest and now the owner of the house and the compound—puts in an appearance at the smaller window, the one with the iron bars. He peeps in, afraid she is awake.

     Is everything all right? he asks, week after week.

     Yes, now go away before she sees you, I tell him. What else can I say when he doesn’t have the brains to ask a different question each time?

Once they brought a baby and I liked him. So pretty and small, like a shy, star-shaped flower. I hid under the table and spied on my father. She was a fool, my mother cried all the time in her bed.

     Mine, they said. From your body. Liars. I was under the table, not the bed. No baby came out of this body. This is that witch’s pet piglet. Look at that sweet snout. Oh, it’s grunting, it’s squealing. Let’s tickle it, squeeze it a little. Look, tell me quickly. What is inside? Pig’s blood or prince-blood? That’s all I need to know.

When her son got married, they brought the newlywed couple here for a quick blessing. The poor girl was terrified, I could see that. But a mother-in-law is a mother-in-law, even if she is a mad old woman hidden in the backyard.

     She too seemed to know that, though she refused to look at her son. She took her daughter-in-law by the hand and made her sit on the stool I had covered with a freshly washed sari.

     She caressed the girl’s face gently and felt her long, thick plait, heavy with flowers. The girl sat on the stool like a statue, too afraid to move. Just when I was smug that things were going well, she bent down and lifted the girl’s sari.

I learned the art of cunning when I was very young. When they don’t let me out, or strip naked in the rain, I sit still in the darkest corner I can find. I am a sightless stone, and Basamma forgets to watch me.

     I can sit still and look inside. I can make rain, like the magician she told me about.

     It rains and rains. No one believes it, but sometimes I remember a time before this dark room. The petals fell a long while ago. Now it is almost time to pick the fruit. I can feel it, clusters of parasitic growths in my head, ripening.

Basamma, tell me a story, she would ask, sitting on the floor and looking up at me like an eager pupil. I know no story except my own, so I told her about my village.

     It’s thirty or forty years since I saw my village. In my memory, the little village, a mean cluster of huts, expands till it is a vast and magical landscape. The streams and fields nearby are intertwining stretches of blue and green ribbons.

     I have told her so many stories that I don’t know which of them belong to the village, and which of them I made up in my head. Anyway, she knows nothing. There is nothing in her mind but herself.

     She listened, her chin resting on her small, childlike hands, when I told her about my father who plucked coconuts all his life. The last time he climbed a coconut tree, he had thrown down a big pile of nuts before his legs suddenly gave way and he fell headlong, all the thirty or forty feet, right on top of the pile.

     I told her about my mother, who strung garlands for the gods and strings of sweet-smelling jasmine for the young women of the village. I told her about the little shop near the temple; the sister who died of a snakebite near the pond; the ghost that haunted the dry riverbed on summer nights; the bare-chested wanderer who came once a month from the forest, where he prayed to the gods of black magic. We never knew what guise he would come in next. Sometimes he was a beggar, humbly holding out his bowl for alms. Another month he told our fortunes. When he snarled at us for money, his eyes huge and a livid red, we ran for our lives before his curses could come true.

     Whenever I told her about my dead husband, or my baby, she became restless. She would hug herself tightly, or tickle her underarms and the soles of her feet. Like a fool I waited every time for the giggling to begin before I remembered what a mad bitch she is. A rotten seed, I tell you, what can you expect of the fruit?

Sometimes, when the door is open, just a little, a crack lets in a bit of luminous sky. The light smells fresh. I can hear Basamma snore. She sits by the door, leaning against the stone wall, her bag of betel leaves on her lap. Her mouth hangs open like an empty cave.

     The guard dog keeps one ear open when asleep. I know how to tiptoe past smouldering monsters.

     Outside, the trees are lost in the depth of night. I laugh softly all the way to the pond where I washed away my wedding night.

A few times she did get away. I have to sleep too, don’t I? Old Ramayya in the village used to tell us: A mad person has three eyes, not two like you and me. So when he sleeps, don’t shut your eyes. He will open his third eye—the one that rises with the moon—and see his chance of escape. I was warned, I should have known, but what am I, a thing of iron and brass?

I used to dream of jasmine and hibiscus for years and years. Then the dreams went away. Now I see air and only air. They don’t even let the rain in here.

     I can’t remember if my mother sang to me. But when she did, I curled up and slept, safe in my shell like a soft, squishy snail. Then her full, rich voice became thinner as she went further and further away. It became thin as a reed; and as sharp as a knife.

She got out somehow, and she ran into the main house. She knew what she was after, she is no mad woman. She took the biggest, sharpest knife from the kitchen. She went round and round the house stealthily like a prowler, peeping, searching, sniffing the air which smelled so different from the outhouse.

     She slashed all the photographs—the rows and rows of great-grandfathers and mothers, their fathers and mothers. She drank all the milk in the kitchen like a hungry stray cat. She found the matches and lit a pretty little fire just outside the front door.

     Then she went to the well, the good one where we got all our drinking water from, and perched herself on the stony rim, lifting her sari to bare her buttocks. She shat in the well, giggling to herself, and jumped off easily. She was nearing the pond where she had bathed as a young bride when the smoke woke them up and they caught up with her.

     They shook me till my bones rattled. They called me a block of wood. A lump of coal. A piece of dog shit. I gave it to her, I can tell you. I can shake more than bones. They too must know that by now—years later, they fawn on me every time I say I am going back to the village.

     I can’t remember how to get to my village, and the fools—new, young ones who know even less than the old ones—pile endearments, flattery and saris on me. I keep the saris in a tin trunk. The key hangs from my neck.

     The day her husband died, they sent a servant to tell us. Pour fresh, cold water on her head, the fellow told me. She is a widow now.

     She had kept me up all night in one of her fevers of excitement. I felt my eyes burning with fatigue.

     I would have shouted at the servant, but I didn’t want to wake her up. I also wanted to go to the big house and see his dead body, but my bones felt at least a thousand years old.

     Out, I whispered to him furiously, we know what to do. She was born a widow. She doesn’t need you to tell her that.

I used to look at my face in the mirror all day, then it went away. Only ugly faces break glass. I had fireworks like glass breaking when I got married. My father, the bull, hung a garland of sly little marigolds on his only horn and threw them into the air.

     Oh please, please, one small mirror. They are so afraid of glass breaking. Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt. See, I look into your eyes like this, keep still or you will make it ugly, my face is not like that. Yes, that’s just right, darling, we will stand all alone in my own private chamber, away from the others, and look into each other’s eyes.

     I see myself, you see me. I am here, and in you, and everywhere. You are smiling—what a pretty smile—let me keep it for a few days?

I will go, I keep telling them. No, don’t, please, we need you, they say. She loves you and you love her. Love, love. The bitch is no longer in heat. It’s enough to make anyone vomit.

     The door is not made of iron. Why not open it? Locked from the outside? Oh the liars, the rumormongers!

     She lies there like a broken tree, not a leaf on her for years, and you are afraid? You make me laugh. I hold her in my arms and weep all over her. The tears flow from my face to hers. She is a broken, mangy old woman, just like me, and we lick the tears off each other’s faces.

Githa Hariharan is the author of the novel The Thousand Faces of Night (Penguin Books), which won the 1993 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, a collection of short stories, The Art of Dying (Penguin India) and The Ghosts of Vasu Master (Penguin India). She lives in New Delhi.