In the dream, he hiked up a gloriously green cliff under a mellow sun, feeling not a tendril of fatigue in his limbs despite the thirty-degree incline. The nightmare began when he reached the summit. When he peered down, he didn’t see a verdant vista but a mass of orange balloons that filled the landscape. Feeling serene and soul-relaxed, and with a blissful smile, he swan dove into the balloons, which parted to reveal a sulfur-gray void below just as he was about to hit them headfirst. He awoke panting; his chest beat hard; his forehead was slick with sweat. He lay in bed long after his agitation ceased.
Madhavi, a light sleeper, was deep in tear-weary slumber beside him. She didn’t awaken when he did. She continued to snore softly in his ear. When he turned off the light the night before, his wife was curled up like an infant, just the way Vimal used to sleep; her hands were tucked between her upraised knees and her lustrous hair covered her face. He imagined she was still in that position, for he hadn’t felt her toss and turn as was her custom.
He could faintly smell the sandalwood perfume she’d worn the night before at the Italian restaurant by the lake. The main course went smoothly enough; it was the first time they were eating out since the accident six months earlier that had claimed their son, and their conversation had been light and inconsequential and they even exchanged laughter. However, after the dessert of tiramisu, Madhavi erupted in tears and fled when a family with a small boy entered; never one to display emotion in public much less break down like that, she hurried out without touching her mug of perfectly sweetened cappuccino, leaving Prasad to endure the bewildered and accusatory stares of the other diners while he waited for the server to return with the change.
She sobbed in the car. Prasad drove silently back to their rented log cabin, kneading her shoulders with one hand, listening to her disjointed explanation for her tears: “That family that came in … and that boy … black hair, dark eyes like Vimal’s …” Prasad stroked her neck, shushed her gently and urged her to listen to Monk, whose two-fingered piano jazz was oozing out of the speakers of the Honda. “It’s all right,” he said, “I saw him, and I, too, felt what you felt.”
“Just not as strongly,” she snapped, to which he didn’t reply.
They remained silent for the rest of the night, their thoughts on their son, who was killed on his second birthday by a rust-flecked, dull-green Ford Escort as he darted into the street in pursuit of an orange balloon carried away by a sudden wind. It wasn’t the driver’s fault, that much was clear right away: She was going ten miles under the posted speed limit of twenty-five and she couldn’t have seen Vimal, not when the child was so swift-footed in pursuit of that balloon, though dozens of others were tethered to the bushes, waiting to be tossed and bounced about by the birthday baby.
Once, when Madhavi said she wanted another child, Prasad replied that he probably wouldn’t ever be ready to be a father again. He should’ve stopped there but he went on to voice long-buried anger: He told her that she’d forced them into premature parenthood and that he hadn’t wanted a child before they’d visited Europe, before they’d bought a home in the suburbs, before they’d made love under the stars on a gelid night and experienced other delights other childless couples seemed to enjoy in the books and the movies.
Madhavi retreated to the bedroom and wordlessly rejected the apologies Prasad offered later that night, after he returned from a furious walk. She went to bed without waiting for him to join her, and neither slept well that night. The next day she called in sick to spend the day alone in the rented Baltimore row house. When Prasad returned from work, he found his dinner on the table with a note to warm the plate for three minutes on high in the Kenmore. Madhavi was already in bed, though it was still twilight outside, and for the first time in their two-year marriage, they didn’t have supper together. For many months afterward, their silences were lengthy and their conversations were forced, and it was to mend that which had gone so grievously wrong between them that Prasad insisted on their spending a three-day weekend in the Appalachians, an offer Madhavi accepted only after days of coaxing.
On the drive up, Madhavi had one of her rare moments of anger. She asked in a tremulous voice as they were crossing the Maryland line into Pennsylvania, “Do you feel anything, Prasad? You’ve never wept for Vimal, never felt angry that he’s dead, never expressed any remorse for having taken your eyes off him for those few seconds when he ran into the street, never said you’re sorry that he’s gone. Do you feel anything?”
And Prasad, who rarely spoke unless he had something to say, kept quiet. He turned up the volume on the radio and listened to yet another report on Hindu-Muslim violence back home in India. But her words stung him. As he drove on in utter silence, he wondered whether he’d indeed become callous, or whether he felt little sorrow because the boy had meant little to him?
Such were the thoughts and recollections that swirled inside Prasad’s head that Appalachian morning as he lay beneath the covers, which barely managed to stave off the chill. Though his extremities were turning numb, he gnawed on his fingernails and spat tiny slivers into the darkness. He carried on in this methodically destructive way for a long while, and when there were no more nail protrusions to chew on, he began to gnaw on the skin under and around his fingernails. He couldn’t see the spots of bright blood that erupted, but he could feel the sharp pricks of pain, but he nevertheless kept gnawing at his fingertips, which had suffered many such assaults of late.
He stopped in mid-bite and examined his fingers in the emerging light of the dawn. Enough of the wallowing, he told himself curtly, no more sorrow. It was time he moved on, but for that he first had to move.
He flung aside the sheets and got out of bed to make tea the only way he knew: two cups of milk, half a cup of water, two tablespoons of coarsely cut Assam tea, and two packets of Equal to eliminate the bitter edge. After gulping the tea, he dressed quietly in the living room and tiptoed out to walk about in the fresh air to clear his head.
To the right of the cabin began a rough trail, which disappeared into the mist-shrouded woods. The trees were speckled with red, orange, and yellow, but most of the leaves formed a multicolored carpet on the dew-softened earth. The trail circled the lake for a few miles before climbing into the low hills in the distance. He was determined to walk for as long as needed to quiet the agitation in his heart.
He zipped up the windbreaker, stuffed his hands into its enormous pockets, and crunched the leaves under his Timberlands as he strode heavily down the path. The sparrows and the cardinals began to chirp and hop about in the sugar maples, the sun peeked out from behind the hills, and the water yielded its mystery as the low-hanging mist began to evaporate. The longer he walked, the clearer his mind became; the cascade of thought slowed to a trickle. He concentrated on his breathing—in and out, in and out, in and out—and delighted in being awake to the present. He could clearly see every leaf-stripped branch, every wind-induced ripple in the water; he could feel every frigid kiss of the breeze; he could hear every tweet and chirp from the birds amidst the pines and the maples.
He hiked up one hill and was halfway up another when he saw two crows, cawing and circling and pecking at a wriggling, brown lump on the earth. More crows alit on the branches, watching the two birds peck and pull at the wounded rabbit. A few of the birds swooped down to the earth, cawing, their wings held out, and fought for pecking rights with the birds already there.
Prasad hurled pebbles at them to drive them away. Approaching the rabbit gently, he saw that its hind leg was connected to the rest of the body by a slender thread of flesh and its flank had a bloody hole; its little nose quivered and its body trembled. Prasad looked around but he couldn’t see whatever creature had left the rabbit half eaten; all he saw were the crows, which cocked their ugly heads and glared at him from a short distance away, their eyes glinting like black glass. One crow hopped close to him, cawing, and it spread out its wings and puffed out its chest, and another crow wiped its beak on a tree stump as though sharpening it for breakfast of rabbit.
Prasad yelled and flailed his arms and the birds retreated for the moment. He crouched beside the rabbit. He could tell that the rabbit didn’t have long to live. The rabbit flattened itself against the earth and raised a long ear. Prasad stayed still for a while, watching its little quivering nose and its large, prune-dark eyes. When he extended his arm to touch it, it hopped away on its good leg, only to fall on its side a few yards away. The crows approached again with open beaks, and Prasad cursed at them and hurled a twig at the one closest to him, narrowly missing it as the whole sinister bunch of them took flight.
The rabbit lay on its side, watching him. Prasad thought he heard it sigh. It panted and wriggled and fresh blood trickled out of the wounded flank. Prasad watched helplessly, his eyes filling with tears, unable to do anything to comfort it as it lay there dying. The rabbit closed its eyes for a moment and its breath came out in snorts. When he reached out to pet its fur, it didn’t squirm.
“Vimal,” Prasad whispered, stroking the fur with his forefinger, “father should’ve have protected you, father shouldn’t have taken his eyes off you.”
The rabbit perked up one ear, then let it flop back down, trembling under his finger and watching him. Wiping his eyes, he petted the rabbit from head to tail, over and over, slower and gentler each time; he petted and petted until the creature’s eyes closed and the rabbit lay still. He sat on its haunches, petting its still form long after it died.
He bundled up the body in some wet leaves and washed the blood and dirt off the creature in a small stream nearby. He savagely dug a hole in the soft earth of the stream banks with his fingers, sweating with the effort, and he tossed his windbreaker on a rock and dug until the hole was deep enough to cover the body so well that it could lay there unmolested.
When he stood up at last, his hands were soil-black and his eyes were tear-dry. As he did after cremating his son, he sprinkled water on his head and joined his hands to utter a prayer in Sanskrit he’d learned as a child but had seldom uttered as an adult. For the first time since Vimal’s death, he prayed for the well being of his son’s soul; he uttered words he didn’t fully understand and directed them toward Hindu gods he didn’t particularly believe in; yet, the words came from his heart.
He returned to the cabin, weary of limb but determined of heart. He tromped in with muddy boots; black soil had caked dry on the sleeves of his red windbreaker, and he was redolent of sweat and the smoke from a dozen Marlboros.
Madhavi was heating the tea he had left for her on the stove as she smeared jelly on a slice of rye. She raised an eyebrow and wrinkled her nose, but didn’t question him. He took his time washing his hands at the sink before sitting down on the dining table. He stared at a burnished spot on the floor, feeling unperturbed and clear as to what to do next.
He knelt on the floor in front of his wife and held her hands. Madhavi looked at him with mild alarm.
“What is it, Prasad?”
“Vimal, poor Vimal,” he said, putting his head on her thighs.
She pressed his head to her belly. “Our boy,” she whispered.
“I should’ve run after the balloon, Madhavi,” he said. “I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off him.” He kissed her stomach and said, “I want another son, Madhavi, and I want to name him Vimal. This time I’ll never let Vimal chase after balloons, I’ll always keep him in my sight, I’ll do everything I’m supposed to do as a father. The little boy, that crushed body, the blood …”
“Enough, Prasad,” Madhavi said, stroking his hair. “Don’t make me cry.”
“Another boy, another Vimal,” he said, looking up at her, his eyes imploring her to say yes, to forgive him for his harshness of the past on the subject of having another child.
She looked at him vacantly, blinking back tears. She bit her lips, closed her eyes and sighed, facing the ceiling. Then, peering into her husband’s eyes, she held his face in her trembling hands and kissed his lips, smiling the way she did the day she delivered Vimal; the joy radiated in the deep-brown pools of warmth that were her eyes. And Prasad basked in that warmth and placed her hands on his chest, breaking into his first smile in six months as he felt his heart unburden itself of a million tears.
Raju Chebium is a journalist in Washington, DC.