I wake up early on Sunday to the smell of something burning and step out, barefoot, on the moss-cushioned mosaic tiles. The cold air is moist, with mist hanging around like gaunt ghosts. A sudden gust makes me shiver and I tighten the sash of my knee-length housecoat, feeling the sore hardness of my nipples as I rub my lower stomach to ease the nagging pain.
My husband gives no indication of having seen me. He is burning the caterpillars on the blooming Moringa tree before they become a serious menace. Meticulous to the marrow, Project Caterpillar Extermination has been scheduled for this Sunday morning. Forehead furrowed in concentration, he dips the soft white cloth tied to a long pole into the can of kerosene. His bald patch is a perfect oval. Sweat patches underarm reveal the dark hair within. There is a jungle brush in his chest too. When I had braided his chest hair he got goose bumps. One tiny braid almost stood up straight.
This year, too, the fuzzy grey caterpillars have come after the north-east monsoons. Rain-washed leaves glisten clean as ever, green, while the torn and bleached white string-less kites lodged high on the tree branches all along our lane flap hard, refusing to let go, and the red and black millipede trains have begun their daily trips—in and out of the tunnel nose of the terracotta smoking man that I made by hand.
I go closer, looking at the profusion of white flowers. The branches of the Moringa are filled with tiny leaves that bend and sway with the wind, belying its nutritional capability to sustain families and livestock through intense droughts, giving it the well-earned nickname—miracle tree. The sap oozes from the wound on the bark, where my husband has buried the Indian knife that he will use to truncate after burning. I reach out, but cringe on seeing the caterpillars. There must be hundreds. Some have joined to emboss the greyish-beige bark with furry patterns. Others march in single files to hang freely from leaves, forming chains like caterpillar pods, instead of the long drumstick pods that would otherwise adorn the tree.
I planted the Moringa just after our marriage, with green dreams of plucking tender, easily twistable drumsticks right out of the tree. I love the vegetable curried or sautéed, any which way. Really, it is a treat to split open the grooved skin of the pod and scoop out the flesh and soft seeds with my fingers, savouring the sharp tangy flavour as it slides on my tongue. Initially, I tried to teach my husband how to eat drumsticks, but he did not see the point of it, when he could just as easily pop a cut piece of cooked drumstick with the skin into his mouth, masticate to extract the maximum and spit it out. His side plate would fill with these, splayed like chewed up toothbrush bristles.
Every year, as soon as the white flowers bloom, before my Moringa can yield drumsticks, the caterpillars arrive. Then he burns them along with the tree, as it is only the way to get rid of them. The tree has always grown back but he may kill it this time; six times might be its limit.
I move back to lean on the outer wall and shut my eyes. The smell of moist earth lulls me but then I smell the mouldy sour-sweet mangoes that I had put out to air on the window sill and forgotten about. My stomach churns. Linking my fingers together, I say to myself, will power girl, all you need to do is concentrate and it will happen. This is my hope against hope, as the storks of science have long given up on me. I tried one of the test tube varieties but even that did not work. I am still willing and waiting.
Long babies suck their thumbs and hang with their limbs twisted like pods. Tender green with eyes shut tight. I have to pluck them and make them mine before the caterpillars get to them. I open my eyes and see only the caterpillars.
“Do you think all caterpillars become butterflies?” I ask, as my fingers work at untangling last night’s knots from my hair.
“I guess some of them might become moths. But these will become charred shrimps,” he says, still not looking at me.
He puts a finger on his lips to hush me, strikes a match and holds it steady until the cloth saturated with kerosene blazes yellow-orange. He uses this to burn the branch of the Moringa that slowly catches fire. The caterpillars curl up, lose their fuzziness, and drop down, shrivelled. Yes. They are charred shrimps. The kerosene stench is so strong that I hold my breath for as long as I can and imagine the dull brown bark becoming a canvas of colourful butterflies.
Those caterpillars that have no time to curl up stand rooted to the branch, their charred remains caught in mid action. Some fall to the lower branches in slow motion. As the fire blazes orange, they turned bright green-brown-black. A faded kite, suddenly dislodged, nosedives.
I feel productive when I fashion red clay with my fingers into forms. I hold and cherish these for a while before I send them away to be sold. I want to preserve some of the charred caterpillars in tiny terracotta coffins.
They would be shaped like the nests that solitary bees built. I once found a two-compartment bee’s nest in an unused box file and kept it safely until it became red powder. I can even sell batches of mummified caterpillars. Imagine a board, “For sale—caterpillar mummies.” Caterpillars don’t become mummies, as being a caterpillar is just a transitory stage.
“Can’t we let a few be? Just once …”
“No. You know how dangerous they are,” he says, scratching his elbows.
My elbows itch in response though I am standing safely away. If the caterpillars touch human skin they lead to intense itching and swelling. He wipes the sweat from his forehead leaving a black line of soot. His cheeks sport black rouge. His nose looks swollen.
By now, many of the branches are ablaze, while others are charred black. A sharp jab of pain makes me clutch my stomach. But instead of my stomach, I rub my nails together in hope. I have often done this as a child. Running in circles and rubbing my nails when desperate. I stop and notice the gaps in my deep maroon nail varnish staring right back. My nails feel dirty. I reach into the pocket of my house coat and feel the cool smoothness of the blade. It is my husband’s precious shaving blade, the one with the sword sign on it. I shave the nail. Once I start, I slough away, exposing layer after layer of the clean nail within. It feels so smooth, like cutting into a piece of wax. The potholes in my nails deepen. I am going right through and will soon draw blood.
He says, “Just this final branch and I will be through.”
I drop the blade on hearing his voice, pretend to reach out for a twig and wonder if he expects me to share his shower like we used to. The smell of kerosene is making me nauseous. Mixed with his sweat it will be impossible.
I realise the sheer futility of it all as blood trickles steadily into my panties. I am glad that the pain and longing is over as I was two weeks late. I turn to go in.
“Stay back for a while and watch the fun as I squash the remaining fellows with my slippers.”
“No. Periods,” I whisper. He sees my face and at once knows.
I hurry away feeling hollow. Before he stamps those alive as they wriggle hard to get away, never to fly free. I almost reach the door when I hear the snap and whoosh of a branch falling, followed by a loud curse and then a dull thud.
I turn around and run back on seeing him fall.
Finally, I call him by his name, Akash. But Akash is far away. His eyes are closed. The dead branch must have hit him on its way down. Must have been distracted by what I had told him. The branch isn’t that big. Was it something else? There are no visible bruises except for the swollen nose that now has a red spot on it.
I wipe the soot from his forehead and shake him lightly. His bald patch shines. I kiss it quickly, lick my lips and taste the salt. He does not stir. I grasp his wrist to check the pulse but my hands are shaking, so I put my head on his chest, panic and then realise that it is his right side. I feel his chest heave and sigh in relief.
The blackened dead branch that had fallen is moving. Am I imagining it? I look closer. There are so many of them still alive and they are marching down from the branch that is hardly ten feet away. The sick smell of old blood engulfs me as it seeps through my panties. Damn those caterpillars! I need to do something.
Akash is too heavy to drag away. Also, I am not sure if it is safe to move him without medical help. But I can burn them and finish what he started. I have never burnt anything before. Not even lit a camp fire. But it had looked easy when he was doing it. I pick up the remaining cloth and wind it on the stick. The can of kerosene is very light. It is almost empty. There would not be enough to soak the cloth.One of them reaches Akash. I use his slipper to push it away and do the same with three more but many are creeping steadily forward. I suppose he is a mound blocking their way. I decide to run and get help as he is not going to die if a few of them get on him. But then, I remember the millipedes and the terracotta smoking man. Like them, the caterpillars could easily mistake his ears or nose for a dark tunnel to cross and get stuck halfway or decide to settle down. Will butterflies fly out of his ears then? I feel a surge of protective love for this huge man who loved me enough to protect me from my barrenness.
I pour whatever kerosene is left over them and strike a match. It does not light up. I strike two more. Why am I so useless at doing anything? There is a breeze and the matchbox is soggy. Another hour maybe two and the gardener will come.
They are shrugging the kerosene off their porcupine quills like hair armour and moving. I put on Akash’s slippers and as they come close, I put my foot on them and twist until they turn to whey. Gingerly at first and then with a speed that astonishes me. His slippers are getting sticky. Those that curl up I shove away with a branch. I jump, kick and shove non stop as I run around protecting Akash from all sides. I cross over him once and then again. I worry, as it is considered inauspicious to cross over anyone. So I cross once more and make it three. Three is a good number.
The snap, whoosh and dull thud of another branch falling sounds like a death knell. The Moringa is not burning anymore but the burnt branches are falling off with some caterpillars still alive. I tremble seeing one on my house coat. I carefully push it away with a stick. The charred skeleton of the tree leans precariously forward. The sap no longer oozes from it.
I link my fingers, shut my eyes tight and will Akash to open his eyes. Then I hug him and concentrate like never before. He is all I have.
Judges’ comments: There is a special kind of beauty in the simplicity of smallness, of capturing a brief, intimate moment, and suspending a single, sustained emotion. This story does so quite well.
Hema Raman has been published in anthologies and magazines in India. She is writing her first novel.
Katha 2010 Results
FIRST PLACE (cash award $300):
Burning the Moringa by HEMA S. RAMAN,
SECOND PLACE (cash award $200):
Don’t Call Us a Girl Band by JAYINEE BASU, San Diego Calif.
THIRD PLACE (cash award $100):
Cross Dressing by VRINDA BALIGA,
Mango Tree by JAYA PADMANABHAN,
Los Altos Hills, Calif.
Green or Brown by PERVIN C,