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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 16.
A Few Hours Later

   Three children on the riverbank. A pair of twins and another, whose mauve corduroy pinafore said Holiday! in a tilting, happy font.
   Wet leaves in the trees shimmered like beaten metal. Dense clumps of yellow bamboo drooped into the river as though grieving in advance for what they knew was going to happen. The river itself was dark and quiet. An absence rather than a presence, betraying no sign of how high and strong it really was.
   Estha and Rahel dragged the boat out of the bushes where they usually hid it. The paddles that Velutha had made were hidden in a hollow tree. They set it down in the water and held it steady for Sophie Mol to climb in. They seemed to trust the darkness and moved up and down the glistening stone steps as surefooted as young goats.
   Sophie Mol was more tentative. A little frightened of what lurked in the shadows around her. She had a cloth bag with food purloined from the fridge slung across her chest Bread, cake, biscuits. The twins, weighed down by their mother’s words—If it weren’t for you I would be free. I should have dumped you in an orphanage the day you were born. You’re the millstones round my neck! —carried nothing. Thanks to what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha, their Home away from Home was already equipped. In the two weeks since Estha rowed scarlet jam and Thought Two Thoughts, they had squirreled away Essential Provisions: matches, potatoes, a battered saucepan, an inflatable goose, socks with multicolored toes, ballpoint pens with London buses and the Qantas koala with loosened button eyes.
   “What if Ammu finds us and begs us to come back?”
   “Then we will. But only if she begs.”
   Sophie Mol had convinced the twins that it was essential that she go along too. That the absence of children, all children, would heighten the adults’ remorse. It would make them truly sorry; like the grown-ups in Hamelin after the Pied Piper took away all their children. They would search everywhere and just when they were sure that all three of them were dead, they would return home in triumph. Valued, loved, and needed more than ever. Her clinching argument was that if she were left behind she might be tortured and forced to reveal their hiding place.
   Estha waited until Rahel got in, then took his place, sitting astride the little boat as though it were a seesaw. He used his legs to push the boat away from the shore. As they lurched into the deeper water they began to row diagonally upstream, against the current, the way Velutha had taught them to. (If you want to end up there, you must aim there.)
   In the dark they couldn’t see that they were in the wrong lane on a silent highway full of muffled traffic. That branches, logs, parts of trees, were motoring towards them at some speed.
   They were past the Really Deep, only yards from the Other Side, when they collided with a floating log and the little boat tipped over. It had happened to them often enough on previous expeditions across the river and they would swim after the boat and, using it as a float, dog-paddle to the shore. This time, they couldn’t see their boat in the dark. It was swept away in the current. They headed for the shore, surprised at how much effort it took them to cover that short distance.
   Estha managed to grab a low branch that arched down into the water. He peered downriver through the darkness to see if he could see the boat at all.-
   “I can’t see anything. It’s gone.”
   Rahel, covered in slush, clambered ashore and held a hand out to help Estha pull himself out of the water. It took them a few minutes to catch their breath and register the loss of the boat. To mourn its passing.
   “And all our food is spoiled,” Rahel said to Sophie Mol and was met with silence. A rushing, rolling, fishswimming silence.
   “Sophie Mol?” she whispered to the rushing river. “We’re here! Here! Near the illimba tree!”
   On Rahel’s heart Pappachi’s moth snapped open its somber wings.
   And lifted its legs.
   They ran along the bank calling out to her. But she was gone. Carried away on the muffled highway. Graygreen. With fish in it. With the sky and trees in it. And at night the broken yellow moon in it,
   There was no storm-music. No whirlpool spun up from the inky depths of the Meenachal. No shark supervised the tragedy.
   Just a quiet handing-over ceremony. A boat spilling its cargo. A river accepting the offering. One small life. A brief sunbeam. With a silver thimble clenched for luck in its little fist
   It was four in the morning, still dark, when the twins, exhausted, distraught and covered in mud, made their way through the swamp and approached the History House. Hansel and Gretel in a ghastly fairy tale in which their dreams would be captured and re-dreamed. They lay down in the back verandah on a grass mat with an inflatable goose and a Qantas koala bear. A pair of damp dwarfs, numb with fear, waiting for the world to end.
   “D’you think she’s dead by now?”
   Estha didn’t answer.
   “What’s going to happen?”
   “We’ll go to jail.”
   He Jolly Well knew. Little Man. He lived in a Cara-van. Dum dum.

   They didn’t see someone else lying asleep in the shadows. As lonely as a wolf. A brown leaf on his black back. That made the monsoons come on time.
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Capo di tutti capi

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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 17.
Cochin Harbor Terminus

   In his clean room in the dirty Ayemenem House, Estha (not old, not young) sat on his bed in the dark. He sat very straight. Shoulders squared. Hands in his lap. As though he was next in line for some sort of inspection. Or waiting to be arrested.
   The ironing was done. It sat in a neat pile on the ironing board. He had done Rahel’s clothes as well.
   It was raining steadily. Night rain. That lonely drummer practicing his roll long after the rest of the band has gone to bed.
   In the side mittam, by the separate “Men’s Needs” entrance, the chrome tailfins of the old Plymouth gleamed momentarily in the lightning. For years after Chacko left for Canada, Baby Kochamma had had it washed regularly. Twice a week for a small fee, Kochu Maria’s brother-in-law who drove the yellow municipal garbage truck in Kottayam would drive into Ayemenem (heralded by the stench of Kottayam’s refuse, which lingered long after he had gone) to divest his sister-in-law of her salary and drive the Plymouth around to keep its battery charged. When she took up television, Baby Kochamma dropped the car and the garden simultaneously. Tutti-frutti.
   With every monsoon, the old car settled more firmly into the ground. Like an angular, arthritic hen settling stiffly on her clutch of eggs. With no intention of ever getting up. Grass grew around its flat tires. The PARADISE PICKLES & PRESERVES signboard rotted and fell inward like a collapsed crown.
   A creeper stole a look at itself in the remaining mottled half of the cracked driver’s mirror.
   A sparrow lay dead on the backseat. She had found her way in through a hole in the windscreen, tempted by some seat-sponge for her nest. She never found her way out. No one noticed her panicked car-window appeals. She died on the backseat, with her legs in the air. Like a joke.

   Kochu Maria was asleep on the drawing-room floor, curled into a comma in the flickering light of the television that was still on. American policemen were stuffing a handcuffed teenaged boy into a police car. There was blood spattered on the pavement. The police-car lights flashed and a siren wailed a warning. A wasted woman, the boy’s mother perhaps, watched fearfully from the shadows. The boy struggled. They had used a mosaic blur on the upper part of his face so that he couldn’t sue them. He had caked blood all over his mouth and down the front of his T-shirt like a red bib. His babypink lips were lifted off his teeth in a snarl. He looked like a werewolf. He screamed through the car window at the camera.
   “I’m fifteen years old and I wish I were a better person than I am. But I’m not. Do you want to hear my pathetic story?”
   He spat at the camera and a missile of spit splattered over the lens and dribbled down.

   Baby Kochamma was in her room, sitting up in bed, filling in a Listerine discount coupon that offered a two-rupee rebate on their new 500m1 bottle and two-thousand-rupee gift vouchers to the Lucky Winners of their lottery.
   Giant shadows of small insects swooped along the walls and ceiling. To get rid of them Baby Kochamma had put out the lights and lit a large candle in a tub of water. The water was already thick with singed carcasses. The candlelight accentuated her rouged cheeks and painted mouth. Her mascara was smudged. Her jewelry gleamed.
   She tilted the coupon towards the candle.
   Which brand of mouthwash do you usually use?
   Listerine, Baby Kochamma wrote in a hand grown spidery with age.
   State the reasons for your preference:
   She didn’t hesitate. Tangy Taste. Fresh Breath. She had learned the smart, snappy language of television commercials.
   She filled in her name and lied about her age.
   Under Occupation: she wrote, Ornamental Gardening (Dip) Roch.
   She put the coupon into an envelope marked RELIABLE MEDICOS, KOTTAYAM. It would go with Kochu Maria in the morning, when she went into town on her Bestbakery cream-bun expedition.
   Baby Kochamma picked up her maroon diary, which came with its own pen. She turned to 19 June and made a fresh entry. Her manner was routine. She wrote: I lovc you I love you.
   Every page in the diary had an identical entry. She had a case full of diaries with identical entries. Some said more than just that. Some had the day’s accounts, To-do lists, snatches of favorite dialogue from favorite soaps. But even these entries all began with the same words: I love you I love you.
   Father Mulligan had died four years ago of viral hepatitis, in an ashram north of Rishikesh. His years of contemplation of Hindu scriptures had led initially to theological curiosity, but eventually to a change of faith. Fifteen years ago, Father Mulligan became a Vaishnavite. A devotee of Lord Vishnu. He stayed in touch with Baby Kochamma even after he joined the ashram. He wrote to her every Diwali and sent her a greeting card every New Year. A few years ago he sent her a photograph of himself addressing a gathering of middle-class Punjabi widows at a spiritual camp. The women were all in white with their sari palloos drawn over their heads. Father Mulligan was in saffron. A yolk addressing a sea of boiled eggs. His white beard and hair were long, but combed and groomed. A saffron Santa with votive ash on his forehead. Baby Kochamma couldn’t believe it. It was the only thing he ever sent her that she hadn’t kept She was offended by the fact that he had actually, eventually, renounced his vows, but not for her. For other vows. It was like welcoming someone with open arms, only to have him walk straight past into someone else’s.
   Father Mulligan’s death did not alter the text of the entries in Baby Kochamma’s diary, simply because as far as she was concerned it did not alter his availability. If anything, she possessed him in death in a way that she never had while he was alive. At least her memory of him was hers. Wholly hers. Savagely, fiercely, hers. Not to be shared with Faith, far less with competing co-nuns, and co-sadhus or whatever it was they called themselves. Co-swamis.
   His rejection of her in life (gentle and compassionate though it was) was neutralized by death. In her memory of him, he embraced her. Just her. In the way a man embraces a woman. Once he was dead, Baby Kochamma stripped Father Mulligan of his ridiculous saffron robes and re-clothed him in the Coca-Cola cassock she so loved. (Her senses feasted, between changes, on that lean, concave, Christlike body.) She snatched away his begging bowl, pedicured his horny Hindu soles and gave him back his comfortable sandals. She re-converted him into the high-stepping camel that came to lunch on Thursdays.
   And every night, night after night, year after year, in diary after diary after diary, she wrote: I love you I love you.
   She put the pen back into the pen-loop and shut the diary. She took off her glasses, dislodged her dentures with her tongue, severing the strands of saliva that attached them to her gums like the sagging strings of a harp, and dropped them into a glass of Listerine. They sank to the bottom and sent up little bubbles, like prayers. Her nightcap. A clenched-smile soda. Tangy teeth in the morning.
   Baby Kochamma settled back on her pillow and waited to hear Rahel come out of Estha’s room. They had begun to make her uneasy, both of them. A few mornings ago she had opened her window (for a Breath of Fresh Air) and caught them red-handed in the act of Returning From Somewhere. Clearly they had spent the whole night out. Together. Where could they have been? What and how much did they remember? When would they leave? What were they doing, sitting together in the dark for so long? She fell asleep propped up against her pillows, thinking that perhaps, over the sound of the rain and the television, she hadn’t heard Estha’s door open. That Rahel had gone to bed long ago. She hadn’t.
   Rahel was lying on Estha’s bed. She looked thinner lying down. Younger. Smaller. Her face was turned towards the window beside the bed. Slanting rain hit the bars of the window-grill and shattered into a line spray over her face and her smooth bare arm. Her soft, sleeveless T-shirt was a glowing yellow in the dark. The bottom half of her, in blue jeans, melted into the darkness.
   It was a little cold. A little wet. A little quiet. The Air.
   But what was there to say?
   From where he sat, at the end of the bed, Estha, without turning his head, could see her. Faintly outlined. The sharp line of her jaw. Her collarbones like wings that spread from the base of her throat to the ends of her shoulders. A bird held down by skin.
   She turned her head and looked at him. He sat very straight. Waiting for the inspection. He had finished the ironing.
   She was lovely to him. Her hair. Her cheeks. Her small, cleverlooking hands.
   His sister.
   A nagging sound started up in his head. The sound of passing trains. The light and shade and light and shade that falls on you if you have a window seat.
   He sat even straighter. Still, he could see her. Grown into their mother’s skin. The liquid glint of her eyes in the dark. Her small straight nose. Her mouth, full-lipped. Something wounded-looking about it. As though it was flinching from something. As though long ago someone—a man with rings—had hit her across it. A beautiful, hurt mouth.
   Their beautiful mother’s mouth, Estha thought. Ammu’s mouth. That had kissed his hand through the barred train window. First class, on the Madras Mail to Madras.
   “Bye, Estha. Godbless,” Ammu’s mouth had said. Ammu’s trying-notto-cry mouth.
   The last time he had seen her.
   She was standing on the platform of the Cochin Harbor Terminus, her face turned up to the train window. Her skin gray, wan, robbed of its luminous sheen by the neon station light. Daylight stopped by trains on either side. Long corks that kept the darkness bottled in. The Madras Mail. The Flying Rani.
   Rahel held by Ammu’s hand. A mosquito on a leash. A Refugee Stick Insect in Bata sandals. An Airport Fairy at a railway station.
   Stamping her feet on the platform, unsettling clouds of settled station-filth. Until Ammu shook her and told her to Stoppit and she Stoppited. Around them the hostling-jostling crowd.
   Scurrying hurrying buying selling luggage trundling porter paying children shitting people spitting coming going begging bargaining reservation-checking.
   Echoing stationsounds.
   Hawkers selling coffee. Tea.
   Gaunt children, blond with, malnutrition, selling smutty magazines and food they couldn’t afford to eat themselves.
   Melted chocolates. Cigarette sweets.
   Coca Cola Fanta icecream rose milk.
   Pink-skinned dolls. Rattles. Love-in-Tokyos.
   Hollow plastic parakeets full of sweets with heads you could unscrew.
   Yellow-rimmed red sunglasses.
   Toy watches with the time painted on them.
   A cartful of defective toothbrushes.
   The Cochin Harbor Terminus.
   Gray in the stationlight. Hollow people. Homeless. Hungry. Still touched by last year’s famine. Their revolution postponed for the Time Being by Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad (Soviet Stooge. Running Dog,). The former apple of Peking’s eye.
   The air was thick with flies.
   A blind man without eyelids and eyes as blue as faded jeans, his skin pitted with smallpox scars, chatted to a leper without fingers, taking dexterous drags from scavenged cigarette stubs that lay beside him in a heap.
   “What about you? When did you move here?”
   As though they had had a choice. As though they had picked this for their home from a vast array of posh housing estates listed in a glossy pamphlet
   A man sitting on a red weighing machine unstrapped his artificial leg (knee downwards) with a black boot and nice white sock painted on it. The hollow, knobbled calf was pink, like proper calves should be. (When you re-create the image of man, why repeat God’s mistakes?) Inside it he stored his ticket. His towel. His stainless-steel tumbler. His smells. His secrets. His love. His hope. His madness. His infinnate joy. His real foot was bare.
   He bought some tea for his tumbler.
   An old lady vomited. A lumpy pool. And went on with her life.
   The Stationworld. Society’s circus. Where, with the rush of commerce, despair came home to roost and hardened slowly into resignation.
   But this time, for Ammu and her two-egg twins, there was no Plymouth window to watch it through. No net to save them as they vaulted through the circus air.
   Pack your things and leave, Chacko had said. Stepping over a broken door. A handle in his hand. And Ammu, though her hands were trembling, hadn’t looked up from her unnecessary hemming. A tin of ribbons lay open on her lap.

   But Rahel had. Looked up. And seen that Chacko had disappeared and left a monster in his place.

   A thicklipped man with rings, cool in white, bought Scissors cigarettes from a platform vendor. Three packs. To smoke in the train corridor.
   For Men of Action
   He was Estha’s escort. A Family Friend who happened to be going to Madras. Mr Kurien Maathen.
   Since there was going to be a grown-up with Estha anyway, Mammachi said there was no need to waste money on another ticket. Baba was buying Madras-Calcutta. Ammu was buying Time. She too had to pack her things and leave. To start a new life, in which she could afford to keep her children. Until then, it had been decided that one twin could stay in Ayejnenem. Not both. Together they were trouble. nataS ni rieht scye. They had to be separated.
   Maybe they’re right, Ammu’s whisper said as she packed his trunk and hold-all. Maybe a boy does need a Baba.
   The thicklipped man was in the coup‚ next to Estha’s. He said he’d try and change seats with someone once the train started.
   For now he left the little family alone.
   He knew that a hellish angel hovered over them. Went where they went Stopped where they stopped. Dripping wax from a bent candle.
   Everybody knew.
   It had been in the papers. The news of Sophie Mol’s death, of the police “Encounter” with a Paravan charged with kidnapping and murder. Of the subsequent Communist Party siege of Paradise Pickles & Preserves, led by Ayemenem’s own Crusader for Justice and Spokesman of the Oppressed. Comrade K. N. M. Pillai claimed that the Management had implicated the Paravan in a false police case because he was an active member of the Communist Party.
   That they wanted to eliminate him for indulging in “Lawful Union Activities.”
   All that had been in the papers. The Official Version.
   Of course the thicklipped man with rings had no idea about the other version.
   The one in which a posse of Touchable Policemen crossed the Meenachal River, sluggish and swollen with recent rain, and picked their way through the wet undergrowth, clumping into the Heart of Darkness.
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Capo di tutti capi

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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 18.
The History House

   A posse of Touchable Policemen crossed the Meenachal River, sluggish and swollen with recent rain, and picked their way through the wet undergrowth, the clink of handcuff in someone’s heavy pocket.
   Their wide khaki shorts were rigid with starch, and bobbed over the tall grass like a row of stiff skirts, quite independent of the limbs that moved inside them.
   There were six of them. Servants of the State.
   The Kottayam Police. A cartoonplatoon. New-Age princes in funny pointed helmets. Cardboard lined with cotton. Hairoil stained. Their shabby khaki crowns.
   Dark of Heart.
   They lifted their thin legs high, clumping through tall grass. Ground creepers snagged in their dewdamp leghair. Burrs and grass flowers enhanced their dull socks. Brown millipedes slept in the soles of their steel-tipped, Touchable boots. Rough grass left their legskin raw, crisscrossed with cuts. Wet mud fatted under their feet as they squelched through the swamp.
   They trudged past darter birds on the tops of trees, drying their sodden wings spread out like laundry against the sky. Past egrets. Cormorants. Adjutant storks. Sarus cranes looking for space to dance. Purple herons with pitiless eyes. Deafening, their wraark wraark wraark. Motherbirds and their eggs.
   The early morning heat was full of the promise of worse to come. Beyond the swamp that smelled of still water, they walked past ancient trees cloaked in vines. Gigantic mani plants. Wild pepper. Cascading purple acuminus.
   Past a deepblue beetle balanced on an unbending blade of grass. Past giant spider webs that had withstood the rain and spread like whispered gossip from tree to tree.
   A banana flower sheathed in claret bracts hung from a scruffy, torn-leafed tree. A gem held out by a grubby schoolboy. A jewel in the velvet jungle.
   Crimson dragonflies mated in the air. Doubledeckered. Deft. One admiring policeman watched and wondered briefly about the dynamics of dragonfly sex, and what went into what. Then his mind clicked to attention and Police Thoughts returned.
   Past tall anthills congealed in the rain. Slumped like drugged sentries asleep at the gates of Paradise.
   Past butterflies drifting through the air like happy messages.
   Huge ferns.
   A chameleon.
   A startling shoeflower.
   The scurry of gray jungle fowl running for cover.
   The nutmeg tree that Vellya Paapen hadn’t found.

   A forked canal. Still. Choked with duckweed. Like a dead green snake. A tree trunk fallen over it. The Touchable Policemen minced across. Twirling polished bamboo batons.
   Hairy fairies with lethal wands.
   Then the sunlight was fractured by thin trunks of tilting trees.
   Dark of Heart neS~&-tiptoed 4fl to the Heart of Darkness. The sound of stridulating crickets swelled.
   Gray squirrels streaked down mottled trunks of rubber trees that slanted towards the sun. Old scars slashed across their bark. Sealed. Healed. Untapped.
   Acres of this, and then, a grassy clearing. A house.
   The History House.
   Whose doors were locked and windows open.
   With cold stone floors and billowing, ship-shaped shadows on the walls.
   Where waxy ancestors with tough toe-nails and breath that smelled of yellow maps whispered papery whispers.
   Where translucent lizards lived behind old paintings.
   Where dreams were captured and re-dreamed.
   Where an old Englishman ghost, sickled to a tree, was abrogated by a pair of two-egg twins—a Mobile Republic with a Puff who had planted a Marxist flag in the earth beside him. As the platoon of policemen minced past they didn’t hear him beg. In his kindmissionary voice. Excuse me, would you, umm... you wouldn’t happen to umm... I don’t suppose you’d have a cigar on you? No?… No, I didn’t think so.
   The History House.
   Where, in the years that followed, the Terror (still-to-come) would be buried in a shallow grave. Hidden under the happy humming of hotel cooks. The humbling of old Communists. The slow death of dancers. The toy histories that rich tourists came to play with.

   It was a beautiful house.
   White-walled once. Red-roofed. But painted in weather-colors now. With brushes dipped in nature’s palette. Mossgreen. Earthbrown. Crumbleblack. Making it look older than it really was. Like sunken treasure dredged up from the ocean bed. Whale-kissed and barnacled. Swaddled in silence. Breathing bubbles through its broken windows.
   Deep verandah ran all around. The rooms themselves were recessed, buried in shadow. The tiled roof swept down like the sides of an immense, upside-down boat. Rotting beams supported on once-white pillars had buckled at the center, leaving a yawning, gaping hole. A History-hole. A History-shaped Hole in the Universe through which, at twilight, dense clouds of silent bats billowed like factory smoke and drifted into the night.
   They returned at dawn with news of the world. A gray haze in the rosy distance that suddenly coalesced and blackened over the house before it plummeted through the History-hole like smoke in a film running backwards.
   All day they slept, the bats. Lining the roof like fur. Spattering the floors with shit.

   The policemen stopped and fanned out. They didn’t really need to, but they liked these Touchable games.
   They positioned themselves strategically. Crouching by the broken, low stone boundary wall.
   Quick piss.
   Hot foam on warm stone. Police-piss.
   Drowned ants in yellow bubbly.
   Deep breaths.
   Then together, on their knees and elbows, they crept towards the house. Like Film-policemen. Softly, softly through the grass. Batons in their hands. Machine guns in their minds. Responsibility for the Touchable Future on their thin but able shoulders.
   They found their quarry in the back verandah. A Spoiled Puff. A Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo. And in another corner (as lonely as a wolf)—a carpenter with blood-red nails.
   Asleep. Making nonsense of all that Touchable cunning.
   The Surprise Swoop.
   The Headlines in their heads.

Desperado Caught in Police Dragnet

   For this insolence, this spoiling-the-fun, their quarry paid. Oh yes.
   They woke Velutha with their boots.

   Esthappen and Rahel woke to the shout of sleep surprised by shattered kneecaps.
   Screams died in them and floated belly up, like dead fish. Cowering on the floor, rocking between dread and disbelief, they realized that the man being beaten was Velutha. Where had he come from? What had he done? Why had the policemen brought him here?
   They heard the thud of wood on flesh. Boot on bone. On teeth. The muffled grunt when a stomach is kicked in. The muted crunch of skull on cement. The gurgle of blood on a man’s breath when his lung is torn by the jagged end of a broken rib.
   Blue-lipped and dinner-plate-eyed, they watched, mesmerized by something that they sensed but didn’t understand: the absence of caprice in what the policemen did. The abyss where anger should have been. The sober, steady brutality, the economy of it all.
   They were opening a bottle.
   Or shutting a tap.
   Cracking an egg to make an omelette.
   The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear—civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.
   Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify.
   Men’s Needs.
   What Esthappen and Rahel witnessed that morning, though they didn’t know it then, was a clinical demonstration in controlled conditions (this was not war after all, or genocide) of human nature’s pursuit of ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly. It was human history, masquerading as God’s Purpose, revealing herself to an under-age audience.
   There was nothing accidental about what happened that morning. Nothing incidental. It was no stray mugging or personal settling of scores. This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it.
   History in live performance.
   If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him.
   Unlike the custom of rampaging religious mobs or conquering armies running riot, that morning in the Heart of Darkness the posse of Touchable Policemen acted with economy, not frenzy. Efficiency, not anarchy. Responsibility, not hysteria. They didn’t tear out his hair or burn him alive. They didn’t hack off his genitals and stuff them in his mouth. They didn’t rape him. Or behead him.
   After all they were not battling an epidemic. They were merely inoculating a community against an outbreak.

   In the back verandah of the History House, as the man they loved was smashed and broken, Mrs. Eapen and Mrs. Rajagopalan, Twin Ambassadors of God-knows-what, learned two new lessons.
   Lesson Number One:
   Blood barely shows on a Black Man. (Dum dum)
   Lesson Number Two:
   It smells though.
   Like old roses on a breeze. (Dum dum)

   “Madiyo? ” one of History’s Agents asked.
   “Madi aayirikkum, ”another replied.

   They stepped away from him. Craftsmen assessing their work. Seeking aesthetic distance.
   Their Work, abandoned by God and History; by Marx, by Man, by Woman, and—in the hours to come—by Children, lay folded on the floor. He was semi-conscious, but wasn’t moving.
   His skull was fractured in three places. His nose and both his cheekbones were smashed, leaving his face pulpy, undefined. The blow to his mouth had split open his upper lip and broken six teeth, three of which were embedded in his lower lip, hideously inverting his beautiful smile. Four of his ribs were splintered, one had pierced his left lung, which was what made him bleed from his mouth. The blood on his breath bright red. Fresh. Frothy. His lower intestine was ruptured and hemorrhaged, the blood collected in his abdominal cavity. His spine was damaged in two places, the concussion had paralyzed his right arm and resulted in a loss of control over his bladder and rectum. Both his kneecaps were shattered.
   Still they brought out the handcuffs.
   With the sourmetal smell. Like steel bus rails and the bus conductor’s hands from holding them. That was when they noticed his painted nails. One of them held them up and waved the fingers coquettishly at the others. They laughed.
   “What’s this?” in a high falsetto. “AC-DC?”
   One of them flicked at his penis with his stick. “Come on, show us your special secret. Show us how big it gets when you blow it up.” Then he lifted his boot (with millipedes curled into its sole) and brought it down with a soft thud.
   They locked his arms across his back.
   And click.
   Below a Lucky Leaf. An autumn leaf at night. That made the monsoons come on time.
   He had goosebumps where the handcuffs touched his skin.
   “It isn’t him,” Rahel whispered to Estha. “I can tell. It’s his twin brother. Urumban. From Kochi.”
   Unwilling to seek refuge in fiction, Estha said nothing.
   Someone was speaking to them. A kind Touchable Policeman. Kind to his kind.
   “Mon, Mol, are you all right? Did he hurt you?” And not together, but almost, the twins replied in a whisper. “Yes. No.”
   “Don’t worry. You’re safe with us now.”
   Then the policemen looked around and saw the grass mat. The pots and pans.
   The inflatable goose.
   The Qantas koala with loosened button eyes. The ballpoint pens with London’s streets in them. Socks with separate colored toes.
   Yellow-rimmed red plastic sunglasses.
   A watch with the time painted on it.
   “Whose are these? Where did they come from? Who brought them?” An edge of worry in the voice.
   Estha and Rahel, full of fish, stared back at him.
   The policemen looked at one another. They knew what they had to do.
   The Qantas koala they took for their children.
   And the pens and socks. Police children with multicolored toes. They burst the goose with a cigarette. Bang. And buried the rubber scraps.
   Yooseless goose. Too recognizable.
   The glasses one of them wore. The others laughed, so he kept them on for awhile.
   The watch they all forgot. It stayed behind in the History House. In the back verandah.
   A faulty record of the time. Ten to two.
   They left.
   Six princes, their pockets stuffed with toys.

   A pair of two-egg twins.
   And the God of Loss.
   He couldn’t walk. So they dragged him.
   Nobody saw them.
   Bats, of course, are blind.
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 19.
Saving Ammu

   At the police station, Inspector Thomas Mathew sent for two Coca-Colas. With straws. A servile constable brought them on a plastic tray and offered them to the two muddy children sitting across the table from the Inspector, their heads only a little higher than the mess of files and papers on it
   So once again, in the space of two weeks, bottled Fear for Estha. Chilled. Fizzed. Sometimes Things went worse with Coke.
   The fizz went up his nose. He burped. Rahel giggled. She blew through her straw till the drink bubbled over onto her dress. All over the floor. Estha read aloud from the board on the wall.
   “ssenetiloP,” he said. “ssenetiloP, ecneidebO.”
   “ytlayoL, ecnegilletnI,” Rahel said.
   To his credit, Inspector Thomas Mathew remained calm. He sensed the growing incoherence in the children. He noted the dilated pupils. He had seen it all before… the human mind’s escape valve. Its way of managing trauma. He made allowances for that, and couched his questions cleverly. Innocuously. Between When is your birthday, Mon? and What’s your favorite color, Mol?
   Gradually, in a fractured, disjointed fashion, things began to fall into place. His men had briefed him about the pots and pans. The grass mat. The impossible-to-forget toys. They began to make sense now. Inspector Thomas Mathew was not amused. He sent a jeep for Baby Kochamma. He made sure that the children were not in the room when she arrived. He didn’t greet her
   “Have a seat,” he said.
   Baby Kochamma sensed that something was terribly wrong. “Have you found them? Is everything all right?” “Nothing is all right,” the Inspector assured her. From the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice, Baby Kochamma realized that she was dealing with a different person this time. Not the accommodating police officer of their previous meeting. She lowered herself into a chair. Inspector Thomas Mathew didn’t mince his words.
   The Kottayam Police had acted on the basis of an F.I.R. filed by her. The Paravan had been caught. Unfortunately he had been badly injured in the encounter and in all likelihood would not live through the night. But now the children said that they had gone of their own volition. Their boat had capsized and the English child had drowned by accident. Which left the police saddled with the Death in Custody of a technically innocent man. True, he was a Paravan. True, he had misbehaved. But these were troubled times and technically, as per the law, he was an innocent man. There was no case.
   “Attempted rape?” Baby Kochamma suggested weakly. “Where is the rape-victim’s complaint? Has it been filed? Has she made a statement? Have you brought it with you?” The Inspector’s tone was belligerent. Almost hostile.
   Baby Kochamma looked as though she had shrunk. Pouches of flesh hung from her eyes and jowls. Fear fermented in her and the spit in her mouth turned sour. The Inspector pushed a glass of water towards her.
   “The matter is very simple. Either the rape-victim must file a complaint. Or the children must identify the Paravan as their abductor in the presence of a police witness. Or,” He waited for Baby Kochamma to look at him. “Or I must charge you with lodging a false F.I.R. Criminal offense.”
   Sweat stained Baby Kochamma’s light-blue blouse dark blue. Inspector Thomas Mathew didn’t hustle her. He knew that given the political climate, he himself could be in very serious trouble. He was aware that Comrade K. N. M. Pillai would not pass up this opportunity. He kicked himself for acting so impulsively. He used his printed hand towel to reach inside his shirt and wipe his chest and armpits. It was quiet in his office. The sounds of police-station activity, the clumping of boots, the occasional howl of pain from somebody being interrogated, seemed distant, as though they were coming from somewhere else.
   “The children will do as they’re told,” Baby Kochamma said. “If I could have a few moments alone with them.”
   “As you wish.” The Inspector rose to leave the office.
   “Please give me five minutes before you send them in.”
   Inspector Thomas Mathew nodded his assent and left.
   Baby Kochamma wiped her shining, sweaty face. She stretched her neck, looking up at the ceiling in order to wipe the sweat from crevices between her rolls of neckfat with the end of her pallu. She kissed her crucifix.
   Hail Mary, full of grace…
   The words of the prayer deserted her.
   The door opened. Estha and Rahel were ushered in. Caked with mud. Drenched in Coca-Cola.
   The sight of Baby Kochamma made them suddenly sober. The moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts spread its wings over both their hearts. Why had she come? Where was Ammu? Was she still locked up?
   Baby Kochamma looked at them sternly. She said nothing for a long time. When she spoke her voice was hoarse and unfamiliar.
   “Whose boat was it? Where did you get it from?”
   “Ours. That we found. Velutha mended it for us,” Rahel whispered.
   “How long have you had it?”
   “We found it the day Sophie Mol came.”“And you stole things from the house and took them across the river in it?”
   “We were only playing…”
   “Playing? Is that what you call it?
   Baby Kochamma looked at them for a long time before she spoke again.
   “Your lovely little cousin’s body is lying in the drawing room. The fish have eaten out her eyes. Her mother can’t stop crying. Is that what you call playing?”
   A sudden breeze made the flowered window curtain billow. Outside Rahel could see jeeps parked. And walking people. A man was trying to start his motorcycle. Each time he jumped on the kickstarter lever, his helmet slipped to one side.
   Inside the Inspector’s room, Pappachi’s Moth was on the move.
   “It’s a terrible thing to take a person’s life,” Baby Kochamma said. “It’s the worst thing that anyone can ever do. Even God doesn’t forgive that. You know that, don’t you?”
   Two heads nodded twice.
   “And yet”—she looked sadly at them—”you did it.” She looked them in the eye. “You are murderers.” She waited for this to sink in.
   “You know that I know that it wasn’t an accident. I know how jealous of her you were. And if the judge asks me in court I’ll have to tell him, won’t I? I can’t tell a lie, can I?” She patted the chair next to her “Here, come and sit down-”
   Four cheeks of two obedient bottoms squeezed into it.
   “I’ll have to tell them how it was strictly against the Rules for you to go alone to the river. How you forced her to go with you although you knew that she couldn’t swim. How you pushed her out of the boat in the middle of the river. It wasn’t an accident, was it?”
   Four saucers stared back at her. Fascinated by the story she was telling them. Then what happened?
   “So now you’ll have to go to jail,” Baby Kochamma said kindly. “And your mother will go to jail because of you. Would you like that?”
   Frightened eyes and a fountain looked back at her
   “Three of you in three different jails. Do you know what jails in India are like?”
   Too heads shook twice.
   Baby Kochamma built up her case. She drew (from her imagination) vivid pictures of prison life. The cockroach-crisp food. Thechhi-chhi piled in the toilets like soft brown mountains. The bedbugs. The beatings. She dwelled on the long years Ammu would be put away because of them. How she would be an old, sick woman with lice in her hair when she came out—if she didn’t die in jail, that was. Systematically, in her kind, concerned voice she conjured up the macabre future in store for them. When she had stamped our every ray of hope, destroyed their lives completely, like a fairy godmother she presented them with a solution. God would never forgive them for what they had done, but here on Earth there was a way of undoing some of the damage. Of saving their mother from humiliation and suffering on their account. Provided they were prepared to be practical.
   “Luckily,” Baby Kochamma said, “luckily for you, the police have made a mistake. A lucky mistake.” She paused. “You know what it is, don’t you?”
   There were people trapped in the glass paperweight on the policeman’s desk. Estha could see them. A waltzing man and a waltzing woman. She wore a white dress with legs underneath.
   “Don’t you?”
   There was paperweight waltz music. Mammachi was playing it on her violin.
   “The thing is,” Baby Kochamma’s voice was saying, “what’s done s done. The inspector says he’s going to die anyway. So it won’t really matter to him what the police think. What matters is whether you want to go to jail and make Ammu go to jail because of you. It’s up to you to decide that.”
   There were bubbles inside the paperweight which made the man and woman look as though they were waltzing underwater. They looked happy. Maybe they were getting married. She in her white dress. He in his black suit and bow tie. They were looking deep into each other’s eyes.
   “If you want to save her, all you have to do is to go with the Uncle with the big meeshas. He’ll ask you a question. One question. All you have to do is to say `Yes.’ Then we can all go home. It’s so easy. It’s a small price to pay.”
   Baby Kochamma followed Estha’s gaze. It was all she could do to prevent herself from taking the paperweight and flinging it out of the window. Her heart was hammering.
   “So!” she said, with a bright, brittle smile, the strain beginning to tell in her voice. “What shall I tell the Inspector Uncle? What have we decided? D’you want to save Arnmu or shall we send her to jail?”
   As though she was offering them a choice of two treats. Fishing or bathing the pigs? Bathing the pigs or fishing?
   The twins looked up at her. Not together (but almost) two frightened voices whispered, “Save Ammu.”
   In the years to come they would replay this scene in their heads. As children. As teenagers. As adults. Had they been deceived into doing what they did? Had they been tricked into condemnation?
   In a way, yes. But it wasn’t as simple as that. They both knew that they had been given a choice. And how quick they had been in the choosing! They hadn’t given it more than a second of thought before they looked up and said (not together, but almost) “Save Ammu.” Save us. Save our mother.
   Baby Kochamma beamed. Relief worked like a laxative. She needed to go to the bathroom. Urgently. She opened the door and asked for the Inspector.
   “They’re good little children,” she told him when he came. “They’ll go with you.”
   “No need for both. One will serve the purpose,” Inspector Thomas Mathew said. “Any one. Mon. Mol. Who wants to come with me?”
   “Estha.” Baby Kochamma chose. Knowing him to be the more practical of the two. The more tractable. The more farsighted. The more responsible. “You go. Goodboy.”
   Little Man. He lived in a cara-van. Dum dum.
   Estha went.
   Ambassador E. Pelvis. With saucer-eyes and a spoiled puff. A short ambassador flanked by tall policemen, on a terrible mission deep into the bowels of the Kottayam police station. Their footsteps echoing on the flagstone floor.
   Rahel remained behind in the Inspector’s office and listened to the rude sounds of Baby Kochamma’s relief dribbling down the sides of the Inspector’s pot in his attached toilet.
   “The flush doesn’t work,” she said when she came out “It’s so annoying.”
   Embarrassed that the Inspector would see the color and consistency of her stool.

   The lock-up was pitch-dark. Estha could see nothing, but he could hear the sound of rasping, labored breathing. The smell of shit made him retch. Someone switched on the light. Bright Blinding. Velutha appeared on the scummy, slippery floor: A mangled genie invoked by a modern lamp. He was naked, his soiled mundu had come undone. Blood spilled from his skull like a secret. His face was swollen and his head look liked a pumpkin, too large and heavy for the slender stem it grew from. A pumpkin with a monstrous upside-down smile. Police boots stepped back from the rim of a pool of urine spreading from him, the bright, bare electric bulb reflected in it.
   Dead fish floated up in Estha. One of the policemen prodded Velutha with his foot. There was no response. Inspector Thomas Mathew squatted on his haunches and raked his jeep key across the sole of Velutha’s foot. Swollen eyes opened. Wandered. Then focused through a film of blood on a beloved child. Estha imagined hat something in him smiled. Not his mouth, but some other unhurt part of him. His elbow perhaps. Or shoulder.
   The Inspector asked his question. Estha’s mouth said Yes.
   Childhood tiptoed out.
   Silence slid in like a bolt.
   Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared.

* * *

   Ammu’s reaction stunned her. The ground fell away from under her feet. She knew she had an ally in Inspector Thomas Mathew. But how long would that last? What if he was transferred and the case re-opened? It was possible considering the shouting, sloga~fleeting crowd of Party workers that Comrade K. N. M. Pillai had managed to assemble outside the gate. That prevented the laborers from coming to work, and left vast quantities of mangoes, bananas, pineapple, garlic and ginger rotting slowly on the premises of Paradise Pickles.
   Baby Kochamma knew she had to get Ammu out of Ayemenem as soon as possible.
   She managed that by doing what she was best at. Irrigating her fields, nourishing her crops with other people’s passions.
   She gnawed like a rat into the godown of Chacko’s grief. Within its walls she planted an easy, accessible target for his insane anger. It wasn’t hard for her to portray Ammu as the person actually responsible for Sophie Mol’s death. Ammu and her two-egg twins.
   Chacko breaking down doors was only the sad bull thrashing at the end of Baby Kochamma’s leash. It was her idea that Ammu be made to pack her bags and leave. That Estha be Returned.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 20.
The Madras Mail

   And so, at the Cochin Harbor Terminus, Estha Alone at the barred train window. Ambassador E. Pelvis. A millstone with a puff. And a greenwavy, thickwatery, lumpy, seaweedy, floaty, bottomless bottomful feeling. His trunk with his name on it was under his seat. His tiflin box with tomato sandwiches and his Eagle flask with an eagle was on the little folding table in front of him.
   Next to him an eating lady in a green and purple Kanjeevaram sari and diamonds clustered like shining bees on each nostril offered him yellow laddoos in a box. Estha shook his head. She smiled and coaxed, her kind eyes disappeared into slits behind her glasses. She made kissing sounds with her mouth.
   “Try one. Verrrry sweet,” she said in Tamil. Rombo maduram.
   “Sweet,” her oldest daughter, who was about Estha’s age, said in English.
   Estha shook his head again. The lady ruffled his hair and spoiled his puff. Her family (husband and three children) was already eating. Big round yellow laddoo crumbs on the seat. Trainrumbles under their feet. The blue nightlight not yet on.
   The eating lady’s small son switched it on. The eating lady switched it off. She explained to the child that it was a sleeping light. Not an awake light.
   Every First Class train thing was green. The seats green. The berths green. The floor green. The chains green. Darkgreen Lightgreen.
   To Stop Train Pull Chain, it said in green.
   Ot pots niart llup niahc, Estha thought in green.
   Through the window bars, Ammu held his hand.
   “Keep your ticket carefully,” Ammu’s mouth said. Ammu’s trying-not-to-cry mouth. “They’ll come and check.”
   Estha nodded down at Ammu’s face tilted up to the train window. At Rahel, small and smudged with station dirt. All three of them bonded by the certain, separate knowledge that they had loved a man to death.
   That wasn’t in the papers.
   It took the twins years to understand Ammu’s part in what had happened. At Sophie Mol’s funeral and in the days before Estha was Returned, they saw her swollen eyes, and with the self-centeredness of children, held themselves wholly culpable for her grief.
   “Eat the sandwiches before they get soggy,” Ammu said. “And don’t forget to write.”
   She scanned the finger-nails of the little hand she held, and slid a black sickle of dirt from under the thumb-nail.
   “And look after my sweetheart for me. Until I come and get him.”
   “When, Ammu? When will you come for him?”
   “But when? When eggzackly?”
   “Soon, sweetheart. As soon as I can.”
   “Month-after-next? Ammu?” Deliberately making it a long time away so that Ammu would say Before that, Estha. Be practical. What about your studies?
   “As soon as I get a job. As soon as I can go away from here and get a job,” Ammu said. –
   “But that will be never!” A wave of panic. A bottomless bottomful feeling.
   The eating lady eavesdropped indulgently.
   “See how nicely he speaks English,” she said to her children in Tamil.
   “But that will be never,” her oldest daughter said combatively… “En ee vee ee aar. Never.”
   By “never” Estha had only meant that it would be too far away. That it wouldn’t be now, wouldn’t be soon.
   By “never” he hadn’t meant, Not Ever.
   But that’s how the words came out
   But that will be never!
   For Never they just took the 0 and Tout of Not Ever.
   The Government.
   Where people were sent to Jolly Well Behave.
   And that’s how it had all turned out.
   Never. Not Ever.
   It was his fault that the faraway man in Ammu’s chest stopped shouting. His fault that she died alone in the lodge with no one to lie at the back of her and talk to her.
   Because he was the one that had said it But Ammu that will be never! “Don’t be silly, Estha. It’ll be soon,” Ammu’s mouth said. “I’ll be a teacher. I’ll start a school. And you and Rahel will be in it.”
   “And we’ll be able to afford it because it will be Ours!” Estha said with his enduring pragmatism. His eye on the main chance. Free bus rides. Free funerals. Free education. Little Man. He lived in a cara-van. Dum dum.
   “We’ll have our own house,” Ammu said.
   “A little house,” Rahel said.
   “And in our school we’ll have classrooms and blackboards,” Estha said.
   “And chalk.”
   “And Real Teachers teaching.”
   “And proper punishments,” Rahel said.
   This was the stuff their dreams were made of. On the day that Estha was Returned. Chalk. Blackboards. Proper punishments.
   They didn’t ask to be let off lightly. They only asked for punishments that fitted their crimes. Not ones that came like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. Not ones you spent your whole life in, wandering through its maze of shelves.
   Without warning the train began to move. Very slowly.
   Estha’s pupils dilated. His nails dug into Ammu’s hand as she walked along the platform. Her walk turning into a run as the Madras Mail picked up speed.
   Godbless, my baby. My sweetheart. I’ll come for you soon!
   “Ammu!” Estha said as she disengaged her hand. Prising loose small finger after finger.
   “Ammu! Feeling vomity!”
   Estha’s voice lifted into a wail.
   Little Elvis-the-Pelvis with a spoiled, special-outing puff. And beige and pointy shoes. He left his voice behind.
   On the station platform Rahel doubled over and screamed and screamed.
   The train pulled out. The light pulled in.
   Twenty-three years later, Rahel, dark woman in a yellow T-shirt, turns to Estha in the dark.
   “Esthapappychachen Kuttappen Peter Mon,” she says.
   She whispers.
   She moves her mouth.
   Their beautiful mother’s mouth.
   Estha, sitting very straight, waiting to be arrested, takes his fingers to it. To touch the words it makes. To keep the whisper. His fingers follow the shape of it. The touch of teeth. His hand is held and kissed.
   Pressed against the coldness of a cheek, wet with shattered rain.
   Then she sat up and put her arms around him. Drew him down beside her.
   They lay like that for a long time. Awake in the dark. Quietness and Emptiness.
   Not old. Not young.
   But a viable die-able age.
   They were strangers who had met in a chance encounter. They had known each other before Life began.
   There is very little that anyone could say to clarify what happened next. Nothing that (in Mammachi’s book) would separate Sex from Love. Or Needs from Feelings.
   Except perhaps that no Watcher watched through Rahel’s eyes. No one stared out of a window at the sea. Or a boat in the river. Or a passerby in the mist in a hat.
   Except perhaps that it was a little cold. A little wet. But very quiet. The Air.
   But what was there to say?
   Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honeycolored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.
   Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.
   On the roof of the abandoned factory, the lonely drummer drummed. A gauze door slammed. A mouse rushed across the factory floor. Cobwebs sealed old pickle vats. Empty, all but one-in which a small heap of congealed white dust lay. Bone dust from a Bar Nowl. Long dead. Pickled owl.
   In answer to Sophie Mol’s question: Chacko, where do old birds go to die? Why don’t dead ones fall like stones from the sky?
   Asked on the evening of the day she arrived. She was standing on the edge of Baby Kochamma’s ornamental pond looking up at the kites wheeling in the sky.
   Sophie Mol. Hatted, bell-bottomed and Loved from the Beginning.
   Margaret Kochamma (because she knew that when you travel to the Heart of Darkness [b] Anything can Happen to Anyone) called her in to have her regimen of pills. Filaria. Malaria. Diarrhea. She had no prophylaxis, unfortunately, for Death by Drowning.
   Then it was time for dinner.
   “Supper, silly,” Sophie Mol said when Estha was sent to call her.
   At supper silly, the children sat at a separate smaller table. Sophie Mol, with her back to the grown-ups, made gruesome faces at the food. Every mouthful she ate was displayed to her admiring younger cousins, half-chewed, mulched, lying on her tongue like fresh vomit.
   When Rahel did the same, Ammu saw her and took her to bed.
   Ammu tucked her naughty daughter in and switched off the light. Her goodnight kiss left no spit on Rahel’s cheek and Rahel could tell that she wasn’t really angry.
   “You’re not angry, Ammu.” In a happy whisper. A little more her mother loved her.
   Ammu kissed her again.
   “Goodnight, sweetheart. Godbless.”
   “Goodnight, Ammu. Send Estha soon.” And as Ammu walked away she heard her daughter whisper, “Ammu!”
   “What is it?”
   “We be of one blood, Thou and I! ”
   Ammu leaned against the bedroom door in the dark, reluctant to return to the dinner table, where the conversation circled like a moth around the white child and her mother as though they were the only source of light. Ammu felt that she would die, wither and die, if she heard another word. If she had to endure another minute of Chacko’s proud, tennis-trophy smile. Or the undercurrent of sexual jealousy that emanated from Mammachi. Or Baby Kochamma’s conversation that was designed to exclude Ammu and her children, to inform them of their place in the scheme of things.
   As she leaned against the door in the darkness, she felt her dream, her Afternoon-mare, move inside her like a rib of water rising from the ocean, gathering into a wave. The cheerful one-armed man with salty skin and a shoulder that ended abruptly like a cliff emerged from the shadows of the jagged beach and walked towards her.
   Who was he?
   Who could he have been?
   The God of Loss.
   The God of Small Things.
   The God of Goosebumps and Sudden Smiles.
   He could do only one thing at a time.
   If he touched her he couldn’t talk to her, if he loved her be couldn’t leave, if he spoke he couldn’t listen, if he fought be couldn’t win.
   Ammu longed for him. Ached for him with the whole of her biology.
   She returned to the dinner table.
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Capo di tutti capi

Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 21.
The Cost of Living

   When the old house had closed its bleary eyes and settled into sleep, Ammu, wearing one of Chacko’s old shirts over a long white petticoat, walked out onto the front verandah. She paced up and down for awhile. Restless. Feral. Then she sat on the wicker chair below the moldy, button-eyed bison head and the portraits of the Little Blessed One and Aleyooty Ammachi that hung on either side of it. Her twins were sleeping the way they did when they were exhausted—with their eyes half open, two small monsters. They got that from their father.
   Ammu switched on her tangerine transistor. A man’s voice crackled through it. An English song she hadn’t heard before.
   She sat there in the dark. A lonely, lambent woman looking out at her embittered aunt’s ornamental garden, listening to a tangerine. To a voice from far away. Wafting through the night. Sailing over lakes and rivers. Over dense heads of trees. Past the yellow church. Past the school. Bumping up the dirt road. Up the steps of the verandah. To her.

   Barely listening to the music, she watched the frenzy of insects flitting around the light, vying to kill themselves.
   The words of the song exploded in her head.

There’s no time to lose
I heard her say
Cash your dreams before
They slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you
Will lose your mind.

   Ammu drew her knees up and hugged them. She couldn’t believe it. The cheap coincidence of those words. She stared fiercely out at the garden. Ousa the Bar Nowl flew past on a silent nocturnal patrol. The fleshy anthuriums gleamed like gunmetal.
   She remained sitting for awhile. Long after the song had ended. Then suddenly she rose from her chair and walked out of her world like a witch. To a better, happier place.
   She moved quickly through the darkness, like an insect following a chemical trail. She knew the path to the river as well as her children did and could have found her way there blindfolded. She didn’t know what it was that made her hurry through the undergrowth. That turned her walk into a run. That made her arrive on the banks of the Meenachal breathless. Sobbing. As though she was late for something. As though her life depended on getting there in time. As though she knew he would be there. Waiting. As though be knew she would come.
   He did.
   That knowledge had slid into him that afternoon. Cleanly. Like the sharp edge of a knife. When history had slipped up. While he had held her little daughter in his arms. When her eyes had told him he was not the only giver of gifts. That she had gifts to give him too, that in return for his boats, his boxes, his small windmills, she would trade her deep dimples when she smiled. Her smooth brown skin. Her shining shoulders. Her eyes that were always somewhere else.
   He wasn’t there.
   Ammu sat on the stone steps that led to the water. She buried her head in her arms, feeling foolish for having been so sure. So certain.

   Farther downstream in the middle of the river, Velutha floated on his back, looking up at the stars. His paralyzed brother and his one-eyed father had eaten the dinner he had cooked them and were asleep. So he was free to lie in the river and drift slowly with the current. A log. A serene crocodile. Coconut trees bent into the river and watched him float by. Yellow bamboo wept Small fish took coquettish liberties with him. Pecked him.
   He flipped over and began to swim. Upstream. Against the current. He turned towards the bank for one last look, treading water, feeling foolish for having been so sure. So certain.
   When he saw her the detonation almost drowned him. It took all his strength to stay afloat. He trod water, standing in the middle of a dark river.
   She didn’t see the knob of his head bobbing over the dark river. He could have been anything. A floating coconut In any case she wasn’t looking. Her head was buried in her arms.
   He watched her. He took his time.
   Had he known that he was about to enter a tunnel whose only egress was his own annihilation, would he have turned away?
   Perhaps not
   Who can tell?

   He began to swim towards her. Quietly. Cutting through the water with no fuss. He had almost reached the bank when she looked up and saw him. His feet touched the muddy riverbed. As he rose from the dark river and walked up the stone steps, she saw that the world they stood in was his. That he belonged to it. That it belonged to him. The water. The mud. The trees. The fish. The stars. He moved so easily through it. As she watched him she understood the quality of his beauty. How his labor had shaped him. How the wood he fashioned had fashioned him. Each plank he planed, each nail he drove, each thing he made had molded him. Had left its stamp on him. Had given him his strength, his supple grace.
   He wore a thin white cloth around his loins, looped between his dark legs. He shook the water from his hair. She could see his smile in the dark. His white, sudden smile that he had carried with him from boyhood into manhood. His only luggage.
   They looked at each other. They weren’t thinking anymore. The time for that had come and gone. Smashed smiles lay ahead of them. But that would be later.
   Lay Ter.
   He stood before her with the river dripping from him. She stayed sitting on the steps, watching him. Her face pale in the moonlight. A sudden chill crept over him. His heart hammered. It was all a terrible mistake. He had misunderstood her. The whole thing was a figment of his imagination. This was a trap. There were people in the bushes. Watching. She was the delectable bait. How could it be otherwise? They had seen him in the march. He tried to make his voice casual. Normal. It came out in a croak.
   “Ammukutty… what is it—” She went to him and laid the length of her body against his. He just stood there. He didn’t touch her. He was shivering. Partly with cold. Partly terror. Partly aching desire. Despite his fear his body was prepared to take the bait. It wanted her. Urgently. His wetness wet her. She put her arms around him.
   He tried to be rational. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
   I could lose everything. My job. My family. My livelihood. Everything.
   She could hear the wild hammering of his heart.
   She held him till it calmed down. Somewhat.
   She unbuttoned her shirt. They stood there. Skin to skin. Her brownness against his blackness. Her softness against his hardness. Her nut-brown breasts (that wouldn’t support a toothbrush) against his smooth ebony chest. She smelled the river on him. His Particular Paravan smell that so disgusted Baby Kochamma. Ammu put out her tongue and tasted it,. in the hollow of his throat. On the lobe of his ear. She pulled his head down toward her and kissed his mouth. A cloudy kiss. A kiss that demanded a kiss-back. He kissed her back. First cautiously Then urgently. Slowly his arms came up behind her. He stroked her back. Very gently. She could feel the skin on his palms. Rough. Callused. Sandpaper. He was careful not to hurt her. She could feel how soft she felt to him. She could feel herself through him. Her skin. The way her body existed only where he touched her. The rest of her was smoke. She felt him shudder against her His hands were on her haunches (that could support a whole array of toothbrushes), pulling her hips against his, to let her know how much he wanted her.
   Biology designed the dance. Terror timed it. Dictated the rhythm with which their bodies answered each other. As though they knew already that for each tremor of pleasure they would pay with an equal measure of pain. As though they knew that how far they went would be measured against how far they would be taken. So they held back. Tormented each other. Gave of each other slowly. But that only made it worse. It only raised the stakes. It only cost them more. Because it smoothed the wrinkles, the fumble and rush of unfamiliar love and roused them to fever pitch.
   Behind them the river pulsed through the darkness, shimmering like wild silk. Yellow bamboo wept.
   Night’s elbows rested on the water and watched them. They lay under the mangosteen tree, where only recently a gray old boatplant with boatflowers and boatfruit had been uprooted bya Mobile Republic. A wasp. A flag. A surprised puff. A Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo.
   The scurrying, hurrying, boatworld was already gone.
   The White termites on their way to work.
   The White ladybirds on their way home.
   The White beetles burrowing away from the light The White grasshoppers with whitewood violins.
   The sad white music. All gone.
   Leaving a boat-shaped patch of bare dry earth, cleared and ready for love. As though Esthappen and Rahel had prepared the ground for them. Willed this to happen. The twin midwives of Ammu’s dream.
   Ammu, naked now, crouched over Velutha, her mouth on his. He drew her hair around them like a tent. Like her children did when they wanted to exclude the outside world. She slid further down, introducing herself to the rest of him. His neck. His nipples. His chocolate stomach. She sipped the last of the river from the hollow of his navel. She pressed the heat of his erection against her eyelids. She tasted him, salty in her mouth. He sat up and drew her back to him. She felt his belly tighten under her, hard as a board. She felt her wetness slipping on his skin. He took her nipple in his mouth and cradled her other breast in his callused palm. Velvet gloved in sandpaper.
   At the moment that she guided him into her, she caught a passing glimpse of his youth, his youngness, the wonder in his eyes at the secret he had unearthed and she smiled down at him as though he was her child.
   Once he was inside her, fear was derailed and biology took over. The cost of living climbed to unaffordable heights; though later Baby Kochamma would say it was a Small Price to Pay.
   Was it?
   Two lives. Two children’s childhoods.
   And a history lesson for future offenders.
   Clouded eyes held clouded eyes in a steady gaze and a luminous woman opened herself to a luminous man. She was as wide and deep as a river in spate. He sailed on her waters. She could feel him moving deeper and deeper into her. Frantic. Frenzied. Asking to be let in further. Further. Stopped only by the shape of her. The shape of him. And when he was refused, when he had touched the deepest depths of her, with a sobbing, shuddering sigh, he drowned.
   She lay against him. Their bodies slick with sweat. She felt his body drop away from her. His breath become more regular. She saw his eyes clear. He stroked her hair, sensing that the knot that had eased in him was still tight and quivering in her. Gently he turned her over on her back. He wiped the sweat and grit from her with his wet cloth. He lay over her, careful not to put his weight on her. Small stones pressed into the skin of his forearm. He kissed her eyes. Her ears. Her breasts. Her belly. Her seven silver stretchmarks from her twins. The line of down that led from her navel to her dark triangle, that told him where she wanted him to go. The inside of her legs, where her skin was softest. Then carpenter’s hands lifted her hips and an untouchable tongue touched the innermost part of her. Drank long and deep from the bowl of her.
   She danced for him. On that boat-shaped piece of earth. She lived.
   He held her against him, resting his back against the mangosteen tree, while she cried and laughed at once. Then, for what seemed like an eternity, but was really no more than five minutes, she slept leaning against him, her back against his chest. Seven years of oblivion lifted off her and flew into the shadows on weighty, quaking wings. Like a dull, steel peahen. And on Ammu’s Road (to Age and Death) a small, sunny meadow appeared. Copper grass spangled with blue butterflies. Beyond it, an abyss.
   Slowly the terror seeped back into him. At what he had done. At what he knew he would do again. And again.
   She woke to the sound of his heart knocking against his chest. As though it was searching for a way out. For that movable rib. A secret sliding-folding panel. His arms were still around her, she could feel the muscles move while his hands played with a dry palm frond. Ammu smiled to herself in the dark, thinking how much she loved his arms—the shape and strength of them, how safe she felt resting in them when actually it was the most dangerous place she could be.
   He folded his fear into a perfect rose. He held it out in the palm of his hand. She took it from him and put it in her hair.
   She moved closer, wanting to be within him, to touch more of him. He gathered her into the cave of his body. A breeze lifted off the river and cooled their warm bodies.
   It was a little cold. A little wet. A little quiet. The Air.
   But what was there to say?

   An hour later Ammu disengaged herself gently…
   I have to go.
   He said nothing, didn’t move. He watched her dress.
   Only one thing mattered now. They knew that it was all they could ask of each other. The only thing. Ever. They both knew that.

   Even later, on the thirteen nights that followed this one, instinctively they stuck to the Small Things. The Big Things ever lurked inside. They knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things.
   They laughed at ant-bites on each other’s bottoms. At clumsy caterpillars sliding off the ends of leaves, at overturned beetles that couldn’t right themselves. At the pair of small fish that always sought Velutha out in the river and bit him. At a particularly devout praying mantis. At the minute spider who lived in a crack in the wall of the back verandah of the History House and camouflaged himself by covering his body with bits of rubbish. A sliver of wasp wing. Part of a cobweb. Dust. Leaf rot The empty thorax of a dead bee. Chappa Thamburan, Velutha called him. Lord Rubbish. One night they contributed to his wardrobe—a flake of garlic skin—and were deeply offended when he rejected it along with the rest of his armor from which he emerged-disgruntled, naked, snot-colored. As though he deplored their taste in clothes. For a few days he remained in this suicidal state of disdainful undress. The rejected shell of garbage stayed standing, like an outmoded world-view. An antiquated philosophy. Then it crumbled. Gradually Chappa Thamburan acquired a new ensemble.
   Without admitting it to each other or themselves, they linked their fates, their futures (their Love, their Madness, their Hope, their Infinnate joy), to his. They checked on him every night (with growing panic as time went by) to see if he had survived the day. They fretted over his frailty. His smallness. The adequacy of his camouflage. His seemingly self-destructive pride. They grew to love his eclectic taste. His shambling dignity.
   They chose him because they knew that they had to put their faith in fragility. Stick to Smallness. Each time they parted, they extracted only one small promise from each other:
   They knew that things could change in a day. They were right about that.
   They were wrong about Chappu Thamburan, though. He outlived Velutha. He fathered future generations.
   He died of natural causes.

   That first night, on the day that Sophie Mol came, Velutha watched his lover dress. When she was ready she squatted facing him. She touched him lightly with her fingers and left a trail of goosebumps on his skin. Like flat chalk on a blackboard. Like breeze in a paddyfield. Like jet-streaks in a blue church sky. He took her face in his hands and drew it towards his. He closed his eyes and smelled her skin. Ammu laughed.
   Yes, Margaret, she thought. We do it to each other too.
   She kissed his closed eyes and stood up. Velutha with his back against the mangosteen tree watched her walk away.
   She had a dry rose in her hair.
   She turned to say it once again: “Naaley.”
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