We buried her two days after she died. I know I was supposed to be crying, but somehow, the tears didn’t come. It didn’t surprise me.
At the funeral, I could see the others whispering, gossiping, about how I wasn’t affected enough, or that I wasn’t being respectful.
If only they knew the truth.
I finish my evening jog later than usual. It’s November, and a cold, dry wind blows; a smattering of thin raindrops hits my face, and I shudder.
It’s darker than it normally is at six-thirty. I quicken my steps and turn to the road leading up to my home.
It’s a small, isolated house, tucked away in the corner of the neighbourhood. I don’t really mind; it suits me perfectly.
The streetlight goes off, as usual, at six-thirty and thirty seconds. They’ve been cutting off power for a week now, saying something about redistribution, and it’s probably going to go on for another week. It’s a good thing I have a generator.
I unlock my door and walk in, blinking in the bright glare of the bulb, in stark contrast to the street behind. I toss my keys into the small hanging rack on the wall; a move I’ve been practising for a year now, and one that still elicits a smile from me.
As usual, I walk into the kitchen to have a glass of juice. A picture hangs on the refrigerator of my mother and me, laughing and licking a single ice cream. I tried to remove it the day she died, eight years ago, but it was like it was stuck with superglue or something. I finally left it and there it still hangs.
Every time I pass it, that one memory floats vaguely into my mind. Of him.
I first met him on a Sunday; a bright, sunny, summer Sunday, outside in the garden. He strode up the road purposefully towards our house. I was sitting in the garden, feeding the little sparrows and mynahs that came every day.
He was a curious-looking man; short with a broad torso that tapered into such scrawny legs that it was a wonder he could stand. He grinned at me as he opened the gate. “Is your mother home?”
I tilted my head to one side, assessing this funny-looking man, and whether it was safe to answer him.
“Yes,” I lied; I decided it wasn’t safe to tell him I was alone. A faint expression of disappointment crossed his face, but he smiled as genially as ever and said, “Can you call her? She and I have some very important things to discuss.”
I shook my head. “She’s sleeping right now. I don’t want to wake her.”
He stayed quiet for several seconds, then whistled softly. Almost at once, the birds I was feeding flew to him; each and every one of them, making a racket, and fighting to sit on his shoulders.
I was surprised. I had never seen them take so quickly to anyone but me.
He whistled louder, a jaunty, bluesy tune, occasionally switching to ‘doo-dee-doo’ or ‘na-na.’ I found myself involuntarily bobbing my head, watching with fascination as the birds pecked his roughly bearded cheeks.
“You like that?” he asked, abruptly stopping.
“You want to hear another?”
Before I could answer, a car drew up. It was my mother. “Darling, Vivi,” she called, getting out. ‘Vivi’ was her favourite name for me; short for Vidya. “Come and help me with these bags.”
She turned and stopped short. “You.”
The man bowed. They both stood like that for a while; her with lips pursed and a stony expression; him with pleading dark eyes and a sad smile.
“Get out.” My mother spoke harshly.
She stalked past him without another glance and dragged me by the arm back into the house. She slammed the door before the man could follow, and I heard the birds chirp and fly away, just like in movies.
I was still watching him walk slowly down the road from the window when my mother caught me by the arm and whirled me around. She wore an expression I’d never seen before, but one that I was accursed to see many times more; a wild-eyed look of panic, with a sense of foreboding. It was the same expression that one has when one realizes the world is ending.
“You are never, ever to speak to that man again!” she shouted. “Do you understand me?! Never! He’ll tell you a lot of things. Don’t believe him! He’s a liar and a cheat! He’ll steal everything from you if he gets the chance! He’ll try and tell you that you’re his daughter. Don’t believe him! You are mine and mine alone! No one else’s, do you understand me?”
She grabbed the collar of my dress as she spoke and shook me vigorously. I could only nod mutely, and fight back the sudden tears that threatened to fall.
My mother hugged me close to her. “You belong to no one else, you hear,” she said, stroking my hair. “Only me.”
I blink. The image of the man floats before me again, and I feel my heartstrings tighten. I shake my head and gulp down my drink as fast as it will go, and end off with a satisfying belch.
My eyes rove around the room and land on the picture hanging on the refrigerator once again. That day was a summer day; a beautiful, bright summer day, with the birds chirping and the dogs barking and the breeze blowing.
I was in the park behind our house. It was supposed to be closed, but I didn’t care. The slide was pretty big and at that time, it was one of the greatest joys I had. My mother didn’t know about it and I thought it was best to keep it that way.
After we bought the ice creams and came home, I snuck away to the park. I was halfway down the slide, whooping with joy, when my mother caught me. I landed with a thud on the ground and saw her figure running towards me.
It puzzled and frightened me at that moment because she was supposed to be at work. I later found out she was fired.
She came thundering towards me, screaming and shouting. I got up and brushed myself off, before running towards her.
“What happened?” I said, as she drew nearer.
“Are you crazy?!” she bellowed, raising her hand to slap me. I instinctively moved back. “Are you crazy? You could have died!”
This was an overstatement. “Ma, it’s not a big slide,” I said, stepping back further.
“It could have broken,” she continued, “or you could have slipped on your way up. Or God forbid, you could have landed harder, then you might’ve hit your head. And then- then what would I do?”
The Look was back on her face and she stepped closer and hugged me fiercely. “I can’t afford to lose you, Vivi,” she said. “I can’t. You’re mine, and if you’re mine, it’s my job to take care of you.”
I kneel down and touch the photograph, tears welling up in my eyes. It’s cool and dusty and smells a little. She looks so happy. So happy, I think, a small smile on my face. I still don’t think I know where everything went wrong.
“You’re meeting him, aren’t you?” She accosted me in the hallway.
I paused for a moment, then answered with a defiant, “Yes.”
“Goddamn it, Vivi, I told you no! I told you he’s going to lie to you and cheat you-”
“He’s not going to cheat me, Ma!”
“How do you know?” She jabbed an accusing finger at me. “How can you be so sure that he’s not going to cheat you?”
I shrugged, feeling angry. “He won’t. I know him.”
“I know him better!” she exploded. “I lived with him for ten years, so I know him better. I know what he’s going to do, and he’s going to hurt you!”
“He’s my dad, Ma! He’s not going to hurt me!”
“Goddamn it, he’s not your dad! You’re not his daughter! You’re my daughter! Mine and only mine!”
I backed away slowly. She rubbed her eyes and sighed. “Look, I’m trying to protect you here. I can’t lose you, Vivi, I just can’t. And he’s trying to steal you away from me, can’t you see that? He wants to see me in pain. He wants to see me suffer and-”
“He’s my dad, ma,” I whispered. “He’s not trying to steal me away from you.”
“You don’t understand!” The Look was back. “If I lose you, I’ll have no one! Vivi! Vivi, don’t run away! Where are you going? Vivi! I can’t lose you!”
The tears break through. They stream down my cheeks and I let them. I don’t try to wipe them away.
This happens to me every week, but this week. This week was the week my mom died, eight years ago. She always said eight was her favourite number. She gave birth to me when she was twenty-eight, I was born on the eighth of the eighth month; she was born on the eighteenth of the eighth month.
My eighth birthday was celebrated with great splendour. The entire neighbourhood attended. I never knew where she got the money from, and I still don’t.
“She knows, doesn’t she?” he asked quietly. We were sitting on a green and yellow bench in a public park, me sucking a lollipop and him a sour mint.
I stopped sucking and looked into his infinitely deep eyes. It was then that I realized how much he’d aged since I’d first seen him. I could do nothing but nod shamefully.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. “I just thought you wouldn’t want to meet again if I told you.”
With a heavy sigh, he got up. “It’s best that we don’t see each other anymore.”
I started. “Papa, no, please! Papa, please, I want to come live with you! I don’t want Mama, please! Papa!” I got up and chased after him, tugging at his sleeve, but he wrenched his hand away.
“You can’t leave her,” he said sharply. “You can’t.”
I stopped in my tracks, a shocked and hurt expression on my face. “I can’t leave her? What the hell does that mean?”
“Goodbye, Vidya.” There was no sign of any emotion in his voice. He strode away quickly and quietly, without another glance.
The next time I saw him was on TV; an apparent hanging. But I knew the truth.
With a deep sigh, I get up and walk upstairs to my room. I’m not hungry, so I just take a packet of chips and lie on my bed. There’s nothing on the TV, so I put a movie on the laptop, and huddle up in bed, only a single bulb glowing outside my room.
I’m about an hour into the movie, sleepy but excited because the movie is finally picking up pace, when the light goes off.
I frown. The generator must have tripped. I pause the movie and shuffle downstairs.
It’s pitch dark, which is nothing new, but the light I leave on outside my door, on the porch, is off.
The generator must have tripped, I think again and open the door. The cold breeze stings my face and I shiver. I jog around to the back, where the noisy hum of the generator should have been there, but is not.
I kneel down by the red machine and flick my phone’s torch on. I flash it on the switchboard and it seems fine. The necessary switched are off too.
Then I see it. The power is low, which is odd. It should have been charged from the mains the entire morning and afternoon. Unless someone’s disconnected the power cable.
My stomach drops when I see the free end of the cable lying unconnected on the grass. I pick it up, searching for the mains cable, but I can’t seem to find it.
I curse softly and scrabble around the area, pulling out clumps of grass which I mistake for the wire.
I smell it first. A raw, putrid stench; an unmistakable rotten odour pervading the air around me. It’s filthy. Plain filthy. Like something one would smell at a…
And then I hear it.
I freeze, still on all fours.
“Vivi, are you there?”
My breathing gets shorter and shallower; raggedy, like my lungs are not big enough. I fell like I’m drowning. My mind is a confused mess of thoughts and my heart is thrashing my ribcage to pieces.
“Vivi.” A figure steps into view and my heart leaps to my throat.
It’s my mother. Or rather, her body. It’s beyond disgusting; a half-shaped mass of dirt, with flesh hanging off at odd places. Flashes of white show from inside the dirt-wall, which I assume to be bones. Worms and ants cover her entire lower body, and I see small flies hovering around her; the same ones one would see on a patch of cow-dung. Or a corpse.
“Vivi,” she repeats happily. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
I stay rooted to the spot, barely able to believe what I see. Part of me wants to rubbish everything I’m seeing, and get back to the movie. But I can’t bring the whole of myself to believe it. My heart knows it’s real.
“I thought you wouldn’t come if I called you, so I cut the power in the morning. The generator’s dead now, and the other cable is with me.” She holds up a wire in her skeletal, earthy hand, grinning happily.
Nearly her entire face is covered with dirt, except her hollow eye sockets and a few spots in her cheeks. She grins at me, showing her all her teeth, yellow and some broken. A worm pokes its head out from the back, through a gap where her left canine should have been.
“How are you, Vivi?” she asks, coming closer. “I see you’ve left our old home.”
She glances at the house behind me. “But this is also pretty nice. You thought it was perfect for us, right?”
Us? I blink uncomprehendingly.
“I remember all those years ago when you lowered me into the ground. You didn’t cry that day, did you, Vivi? I liked that. You knew I wasn’t gone forever, right? When I came in the morning, I saw our photo hanging on the fridge. You didn’t take it off,” she says proudly.
I want to tell her I couldn’t take it off, but can’t quite find my voice.
“I really like that you’ve thought of both of us, Vivi, but, no offence, I have a much better place for us,” she says. She waves an airy hand, sending dirt and flies hurtling everywhere. “It’s warm and nice and small. Just like it used to be when we were younger. You’ll love it. Just you and me.”
I back away slowly.
“Remember, when it was just you and me? Before all that other stuff? Before… before you met him and before I killed him and all that? I forgive you for that, by the way, I forgive you. I think you didn’t know what you were doing. You were a teenager, after all.
I was hurt, Vivi, but that’s behind me, now. I felt so bad when I had to leave you, eight years ago. It broke my heart, it really did. Do you forgive me, Vivi? You do forgive me, don’t you?”
“Wha…” I gurgle.
“Please, I was forced to leave. I didn’t want to, but I was forced to. I’m so sorry, Vivi, I really am. Please come back. We can go back to the old days. You can be my daughter again.”
She stretches out a long, bony finger, further elongated by a maggot sitting at the edge of it. She walks closer and closer to me, in a slow, deliberate fashion, with what is supposed to be a smile plastered onto her face. I want to run, but my legs refuse to move as if they are filled with lead. The smell gets stronger; she gets closer. I’m still unable to move.
She steps closer again; there’s less than a foot gap between us, and then, as I stare into the empty sockets that were once her eyes, it hits me. Why he told me I could never leave her. Because I couldn’t. The smell around her was not only disgusting, but also powerful, in a deep ancient sort of way. It drew me inexplicably to my mother, even though my brain told me to run away and never come back.
“I can be your mother again,” she says softly. “You want to be my daughter, don’t you?”
I muster up the strength and comprehension to shake my head, but she acts as if she missed it.
“I am your mother, Vivi.” She touches my cheek and I flinch involuntarily. “I am your mother, and you are my daughter. You are mine, forever and ever. Nothing can change that. Not even death.”
She gently takes my hand in her weathered, desiccated one. “Now, come on. Let’s go see our new house together, shall we?”