As though through a mirrored reflection, I can see his face as he walks away, the smile still broad and beautiful.
Outside, I feel blinded by the light. I can hear my father’s laughter, loud and clear inside the house. I look around and hear other sounds. The sound of the school bus idling, Auntie Keya’s German Shepherd barking, four-year-old twins, Maya and Mala banging steel pans in rhythm to a nursery rhyme, Dr. Ghosh’s car starting up. The multicolored memory of last night fades to sepia.
“Da,” I say when he comes out dressed for work. “Look, that bird.”
“What about it?”
“I think it’s bruised. It’s not able to hop. There, do you see it? It’s dragging.”
“Survival of the fittest, son. If it cannot survive…” he shrugs and leaves the words unsaid. He gets into the car and drives off with a wave, missing the dragging sparrow by a few inches.
I walk up to the bird. The eyes are perfect circles, anticipating and fearing my intervention. I reach a hand out and quickly grab it before it can move away. The bird’s chest heaves in terror. I caress it, rubbing my index finger down its feathered back. It feels soft and hard at once. The heaving subsides, but the eyes still move restlessly, looking for rescue. “Trust me.” I whisper to the sparrow.
I look back at the house, hesitating about going in. The house is like every other house on the street. Whitewashed with a dark teak wood front door and white window trims. The windows that face out to the street have curtains that protect our secrets.
I remember walking down that same street last week, late, after the lights in every house had turned out the day. At Dr. Ghosh’s house, there are no curtains and I’d stood watching, that evening, as Dr. and Mrs. Ghosh weaved in and out of their living room. I’d heard my mother call my name but I’d been loath to leave my spot, peering into the lighted living room. Dr. Ghosh had reached for a newspaper and I had angled my head to make out the words,The Statesman, while he’d held the newspaper extended in both hands. Then he’d neatly folded the newspaper four times. Reaching for a pencil from a table nearby, he’d written something in. I knew it must be the crossword, for Mrs. Ghosh once told my mother that he’d won the title “Crossword Fiend” during his residency at Calcutta Medical College. Mrs. Ghosh had walked in and peered over her husband’s shoulder. She’d pointed at something on the folded newspaper. A clue? Dr. Ghosh had nodded and smiled, bundling affection in that stretch of lips. That smile pierced me as I’d stood outside in the dark. The faint sound of music had wafted out, like a colored streamer. Not anything familiar, songs sung in a different tongue.
I walk into my house with my injured bird. My mother is in the kitchen. She turns and looks sideways at me. My heart beats painfully and the bird shifts in my palm. I’m thankful I cannot see the other side of her face, immediately. She glances at the bird and meets my eyes.
She gets an old dishrag and a cardboard box. She motions for me to put the bird down. I put the bird in the box. It stares up at me with shallow eyes and then looks down. There is no depth to the bird’s eyes; the whites have overpowered the brown pupils. My mother gets a large sieve and places it over the box. The sieve is round and the box is square. This misalignment bothers me.
Breakfast is set out and I pick up the fork and slowly deliberately mash my peeled, hardboiled egg till it is a mess of white and yellow. I eat in silence without taking my eyes off the trapped bird. I can smell my mother.
She stands behind me. She smells of cloves and fatigue. Her hands reach out to place another toast on my plate. I look at her hands, brown and veined. The veins are ridges of blue on the back of her hand, the skin hardly masking the color.
“What do you want in your lunchbox?” she asks
“That’s not enough.”
“It is. It’s just about bloody enough.” I yell and leave the house.
In the evening, I pull myself back into the house. It is clean and smells of the spices my mother’s used. I sniff the air trying to guess at dinner. It’s a ground gravy dish, I surmise, vindaloo, curry, or makhani. Yesterday’s decaying odor has all but disappeared.
When Da arrives, I’m at the dining table with my books spread out and my mother in the kitchen. She comes out, when she hears the door, and for the first time since yesterday I look at her face. The shame overwhelms me and I quickly look down.
“At your books, son?” he asks in his loud buoyant tone.
I nod my head, with my face determinedly down.
“Do you see that, Su? Our son doesn’t have the time to even look at his old man. Children these days! What has my beautiful wife been up to all day? I smell something, delicious. Do you smell it, Vik?” my father asks me. “Yes, your mother’s spent her day slaving for us. Have you thanked her, huh?”
Obediently, I look at my mother and the words come out a little more forcefully than I expect. “Thank you, Ma.”
“You don’t need to thank me,” my mother says, “Thank-yous are for strangers.”
I wish I understood her, her quiet, her forbearance, and her rejection of my thank you. Oddly, I feel hurt. I then remember my bird. “Where’s she? Where’s my sparrow?”
My mother points to the kitchen and I run in. The bird is sitting in the box, still alive, with her chest gently dipping in and out. The eyes are dull, though, as though her fight is close to over.
“Ma, did you feed her?”
She comes into the kitchen, and says softly, “Yes, Vikram, sunflower seeds and some bread crumbs. I peer into the box and the seeds and bread lie strewn, untouched.”
“She hasn’t eaten it.” There is a plea in my voice.
My father comes into the kitchen.
“What is this? What is this?”
“The bird,” I say.
He looks at the brown box and shakes his head disapprovingly. “Son, nature has its own rules. The brave die proud, the weak are the ones who suffer. Let this creature out of its misery.” My mother stands beside me and puts her hand on my shoulder. “For him,” she says.
“Draw the curtains in the living room,” Da commands abruptly. “Do you want everybody to look in?”
I take my sparrow and go to Dr. Ghosh’s house.
“Can you take a look, Sir? I picked her up this morning. Something’s wrong. She almost got run over. She hasn’t eaten all day.”
Dr. Ghosh ushers me in and I stand against the window as the surgeon flexes his fingers and wiggles them. Then he shakes them and finally gently, beautifully, picks up my little bird and examines the bird’s beak, legs, stomach and chest. Then he finally says, “I’m not a bird doctor, Vikram, but it looks to me like the left leg is broken and she needs a splint.” He goes to the kitchen and comes out with a matchbox. He fashions a splint with a bunch of matches.
I take the bird back to my house. The curtained house creaks with quiet. I creep into my room with the bird in the box.
The next day, Da is cheerful and buoyant. He takes me to the movies and talks to me of having courage. I laugh at his jokes and feel light and undone. There is freedom in this. So I laugh louder. My father’s answering laugh is like a gunshot, booming and bursting.
These are the days in between. It seems irrevocable, this happiness. By the third day, even my mother has relaxed enough to smile at Da. His cheerfulness is like a disease spreading and striking. Da pulls my mother to him. She stands in his embrace, looking at me. Da releases her and comes to me, running his right hand over my hair. He asks about my bird and looks into my precious box, and marvels at Dr. Ghosh’s splint.
Happiness and shame, I reflect, are related. Both are to be hidden; both cannot be displayed. My mother has figured this out already. She begrudgingly accepts happiness and readily accepts shame. I am shamed by my happiness.
Behind the drawn curtains, Da and I solve quadratic equations and parse French grammar. My mother keeps us fed and hydrated as we wrestle and rollick foolishly. She is never a part of it. She stands behind an invisible line and watches, silently. And in her face there is a waiting.
Then, on the eleventh day, Da brings home his misery. He is the same man, I reason. My mother looks into his eyes and knows the pattern of the next few hours. I watch as her face empties. Each emotion slowly drains from her face; sadness, concern, happiness, hope and yet still acceptance. She goes through the house and draws the curtains closed in every room. I am trapped inside.
It is later, when I need to fill the bird’s bowl with water, I venture to the kitchen, passing by the dining table where Da sits sprawled with the glass of amber in front of him and a lit cigarette resting on the ashtray. He sees me and beckons. I approach and he sees the bird in the box. He reaches inside and takes the bird out. Then he laughs. In a dirty minute, he’s reached for his own box of matches and lit one of them. While the live bird sits within his grip, he applies the match to the splint. The bird goes up in flames.
“There! I’ve solved your problem!”
My mother lunges at the flaming bird and Da applies his fist to her almost healed upper lip. It splits again. I do nothing; just stand and watch.
Da wakes up around noon. I’m waiting for him. He stretches luxuriously when he sees me. “I am like a mango tree,” he says.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer and is currently in the process of writing a 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, Hyderabad, India.
Mango Tree by JAYA PADMANABHAN, Los Altos Hills, Calif.
Green or Brown by PERVIN C,