Authors: Olivia Chadha
a novel by
Balance of Fragile Things
A novel by Olivia Chadha
Published byAshland Creek Press
Â© 2012 Olivia Chadha
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without written permission of the publisher.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2012931270
This is a work of fiction. All characters and scenarios appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover and book design by John Yunker.
Cover painting, “On the Wings of Butterflies,” by Pegi Smith.
For my mother, father, and brother.
“The past is never dead; it's not even past.”â William Faulkner
On the Wing
Watching the Butterfly
Posted on October 4
Today, people are blind. Our age is less introspective than the previous. We worry neither for the small things nor the large things but rather for thenowthings.
In order to observe her closely, one must make amends with solitude. Not by walking alone but by approaching her with a singularity of mind and the purest of intentions. She delights in our awe, when we come to her without vanity or an architect's eye. She mourns us, too. You can see it in the wings of the swallowtail as she soars with a melancholic flight from one flower to the next. There is a desire for an audience that somehow is lost on those who can no longer see the smallest things. Does she wish for sun? It is wrong to assume she has disconnected from us. Each time we walk past an oak, mourning cloak, field of springtime grass, or newly snowcapped mountain, she sees.
To be human is to be a part of nature. To feel separate is to be the anomaly. In her presence we feel the sorrows of modernity fall away like the chrysalis giving way to time. In her presence we feel once more hers, a thing belongingâsimultaneously a child and an elder.
Why would we watch a butterfly? When we don't have time to look up and cannot let go of modernity, why would we try? These delicate things are indicators of the forest's health. They tell stories of flood and drought. Their wings are maps to worlds unseen. They are cartographers and pollinators. When the forest and soil are healthy, they are, too. Adults lay their eggs on one kind of plant. The caterpillars eat that one kind of plant. They mummify themselves on one type of plant. The adult then flies in that area eating the nectar from flowers, rotting fruit, or mineral-rich rainwater collecting on the ground. If the host plant is suffering, water is toxic, ground quality is poorâthen the butterflies are directly affected. Watch them, and watch the health of the forest and land. When we watch a butterfly flutter from flower to leaf to sky, teasingly, as though its wings are attached to invisible thread that some unseen puppeteer is pulling, we can also see the strength of those living things around it.
When we see an ancient butterfly nearing the end of its life with wings tattered like sails, still searching for nourishment, we may come to a greater understanding of what connects us all. Even battle-scarred, we all still seek the sun, try to avoid pain, and attempt to find food. Thus, all life is connected: Insecta, Lepidoptera, Mammalia.
The insects beneath your feet are managing the earth on which you walk. The trees you pass are providing food and shelter for hundreds of living things in addition to the shade they provide you and your home. The bees busy in your flower bed are carrying with them saddlebags of pollen and pollinating every other flower, including vegetables growing in your area. What most people don't know is that butterflies and moths aren't just flying flowers: They are the second most important pollinator next to bees. They, too, have a job in the world, and looking pretty is one of their lesser engagements. What we choose to notice about these connections differentiates us as a species. Perhaps many of us no longer see her as she is; rather, she has become a reflection of how we see ourselves.
When Joe Balestrieri landed a solid right on Vic Singh's nose, the entire student body of Cobalt High probably heard the crack. The sound echoed in Vic's ears as his face went hot, stomach dropped, tears gushed, and copious amounts of blood splattered the front of his T-shirt as well as his assailant's.
Vic's first reaction was worry as he gingerly put his hand in the pocket of his corduroy jacket and felt for something. Then, relieved, he balanced himself against the lockers so he wouldn't faint. The blow had loosened thepatkathat enclosed his unshorn hair; it fell like an autumn leaf to the linoleum floor among blackened splotches of gum. His braid tumbled halfway down his back, a precursor to an imminent turban-wearing future. The length of his hair shocked even Vic as he stood with it naked to the world. He could have dodged the punch and prevented a broken nose; he actually thought of this option as he watched Joe's fistâin slow motion, like a heat-seeking missileâfollow the trajectory to his face. But Vic was more concerned with what was in his pocket than with Joe's simian fist.
Vic spit blood, and the crowd of rubbernecking studentsooh'd andahh'd, then moved closer. The pain from his septum sped through his nerves and reached his toes. This had been the worst day of his life, and at that precise moment, he wondered why he'd gotten out of bed at all. It had begun with a freak rainstorm that had drenched him on his walk through the abandoned industrial park on his way to school. He'd taken refuge under a gathering of trees.
“Jerk,” Vic said under his breath. He looked at Joe and imagined what it would be like to grow four inches and be able to stare down into his soulless eyes. It wasn't fair. Vic was just trying to get by, like everyone else, but Joe had singled him out long ago with tired teasing and insults like “Ali Baba” and “Babu”âthough this was the first time he'd physically assaulted him. Joe was Goliath, and he had to have a weakness. Today Vic'seye for an eye and the whole world's blindT-shirt had ironically attracted Joe to him like a huffer to an open jar of glue.
“You need glasses or something?” Vic said.
Joe laughed, though he took a few steps back.
Vic would get his revenge. He wouldn't react carelessly. He'd craft a plan that would show up Joe in the end. If he couldn't best him with strength, he'd take him down with his brains. Like Batman, who went full-throttle against any and all evil in Gotham, Vic would have his day, he vowed to himself.
He adjusted his nose and realized that this already large feature on his face was now even larger from the swelling. Vic had his father's nose. It was a sometimes trunk-like proboscis, depending on the time of day and allotment of shadow. His mother had told him his profile illustrated his relation to great rulers across oceans and time. These rulers, she said, were conquerors who led their people to victory. Vic had never learned more about these rulers, their names, or their empires, so his mind had constructed disembodied kingly faces with enormous noses, lips with wide moustaches, and heads with heavy crowns. Vic's eyebrows, soft as tufts of rabbit fur and bushy like the wool behind the ear of a yak, were also the exact eyebrows that framed the moon-shaped face of his grandfather, Sardar Harbans Singh. Vic knew this only from photographs; his grandfather lived in India, and they had never met. But here, now, on this North American continent in the tenth month of the year, the vessels that kept Vic's beak alive were bringing forth a torrent of blood.
“Oh my God.” Katie, the freckle-faced object of Vic's affection, put her hands over her mouth.
“I'm okay,” Vic said through the blood and tried to smile, which made Katie cringe again. The posse scattered, though Joe stood frozen.
For once Vic was thankful for the robust size of his nose, as he assumed the size allowed a particularly shocking amount of blood to flow. To him, it seemed, his dissimilarity was the cause of his bully magnetism. He'd never cut his hair, becausekeshwas one of The Five Ks of Sikhism, and he wore apatkato keep his hair neat and clean. Or perhaps it was the language Vic spoke when he'd first entered school, something he calledEngjabithat was halfway between English and Punjabi. He uttered words that no teacher could translate when he was in first grade and just beginning to learn that the first letter of the alphabet looked like an apple and the second letter could be turned into a bumblebee if doubled on its side. Or perhaps it was the fact that his father made him follow the traditions of Sikhism when most kids were taking their fashion tips from MTV, not Guru Gobind Singh of the seventeenth century. Every time his parents were called into the school to discuss matters pertaining to Vic, they defended their son passionately with more foreign words likestarpÄ«baandjhuthÃ¡, but the principal would have no idea they were pointing out the finer points of their family's culture, or that they thought what was being said was mostly untrue. Vic thought they'd set him up for the worst thing any teen could endureâdifference.
All of these thoughts flooded his mind as the blood poured out. One of Joe's friends pulled him away from the sight of Vic's gore.
“Stupid camel jockey can't even bleed right.” The brilliant Joe Balestrieri had to say something. He didn't know that Vic wasn't even 100 percent Indian.
Joe's racial slur made Vic's face burn with an unearthly desire to defend his culture, his father's religion, his mother's heritage, and his grandparents' existence. But he would not throw a punch. He imagined what his father would want him to do: Vic would let out a war cryâ“Jo bole so nihal!”âand with juggernaut speed he would charge Joe and hit him, dead on. Then he'd unsheathe his knife and stab Joe in the gut. But in this reality, Vic simply smiled at Joe with fire in his eyes and stuffed his anger down deep in his belly.
“See ya round,” Joe said.
Joe walked away with a sneer, and Vic stared at his back; he hoped his eyes would ignite a flame that would lead everyone to believe that Joe spontaneously combusted. Paranormal scientists would use Joe's remains for proof of the phenomenon and add Joe Balestrieri as a footnote to a contemporary version of theDe Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis. Vic imagined them standing over a glass table that was lit from beneath, each holding a different scalpel or knife while they pieced together what little was left of Joe's adolescent combustion. Vic laughed because he imagined that would be all Joe would amount to one dayâa pile of volatile organic garbage.
“Come on, let's get some ice.” Mrs. Stein, the English teacher, took Vic by the arm. The gym teacher, Mr. Smith, grabbed Joe as he made his way down the hall and dragged him forcefully to his office without saying a word.
When Vic and Mrs. Stein arrived in the nurse's office, she let him go into the bathroom to clean up. After he closed the door behind him, he opened his jacket once more and retrieved a very small blue butterfly from his pocket. No larger than a nickel, its light blue luminescent scales sparkled. Vic puzzled over the markings and the difference between the left and right forewings and hind wings. This inconsistency made Vic uneasy. He analyzed the antennae. Looking more closely, he realized that it was not moving as much as it had been when he'd first found it, at lunch, in the gutter outside of Cobalt High on a pile of dead leaves. It had appeared injured then, but he assumed if he got it home he could give it some rotten fruit or salt water to revive it. But now, noticing its broken antennae, he felt the need to rush home to get it under his microscope. The previous year Vic had identified a Red-Spotted Purple, and it had been, up until this moment, the most amazing butterfly he'd seen. Its wings were akin to majestic glass windows, with shades of burnt orange, sky blue, and eggplant all framed in black. The butterfly had been so enthralled in drinking juices from a sap flow on a deciduous tree that it had barely moved while Vic observed it.
This one, though, was different from anything he'd ever seen. The left and right wings were slightly dissimilar in shape. It was so very fragile. Science usually offered Vic comfort because it explained the world. But thisâthis was unexpected, and the sight of it made him anxious.
He sighed, folded a large piece of paper towel into an envelope, and slipped the butterfly inside. He changed into his PE shirt and threw his favorite one, now bloodied beyond repair, in the wastebasket. Then he twisted his long braid on top of his head and wrapped the dustypatkaaround it before exiting.
Ms. McClasky, the nurse, handed him an ice pack and said, “Sit down and let me take a look.” She lifted his face into the light and looked into his nostrils. After she packed them with gauze, she said, “Put pressure on your nose with the ice.”
Vic's wandering eyes landed on a poster on the corkboard to the right of the door. The flyer read:Yearbook contest. Art, photos, all submissions considered. Win $20 and see your art on this year's inside cover!Katie was in charge of the yearbook, and Vic thought of the possibilities. Maybe he could finally speak with Katie properly and, well, bask in her honey-colored aura.
“Stay still, head back, Mr. Singh,” the nurse said. Just then the principal, Mrs. Cohen, whose disapproving look spoke volumes, entered the room.
“At least school is nearly over for the day. Here.” Mrs. Cohen handed him a letter. “Give this to your parents when you get home. I will call this evening to make certain they received it.”
Vic's thoughts turned to his father, who, in his mind, was going to kill him, not because he was in a fight but because he was injuredâwhich very specifically meant that hedidn'tbreak his opponent's nose.
Ikpaul Singh looked out the window of his Kwicki Fill gas station. His eyes traveled down Sycamore Road, across the graying asphalt and beyond the line of cars that had been rerouted around the massive hole in the road. He noticed the frost had arrived early this year, and he tried to rub the serpentine ice patterns from the double-paned windows with his shirt's cuff. The ice wouldn't budge; he realized he was rubbing from the wrong side of the glass. He looked above the trees that grew perilously close to the power lines and frowned at the bruise of clouds gathering. As his longing for a glimpse of the sun grew, he wondered how long it would take to walk to the Punjab if, of course, he could walk on water. He imagined walking with extraordinarily large feet the length of battleships. He would cross seas, continents, and mountains. In an old oak he saw apippaltree, with a trunk the size of an elephant's waist and bark the texture of a riverbed in drought. Paul saw beyond concrete; he saw the suffocated earth under the palimpsest asphalt and gravel.
The construction on Sycamore was as constant as the cloud coverage. And now the prehistoric machines were at it again, with their shovel-toothed mouths and their smoke-puffing blowholes, right outside his gas station. This time the traffic wasn't caused by the new construction in the Heights. The title of the article on page A9 in theDaily Mirrorin Paul's hands said the hole was the beginning of a sinkhole. He couldn't believe it. A sinkhole in Cobalt, New York? What next, he thought, an earthquake? The mess was already preventing drivers from entering his station from Sycamore. It caused business to decline, as it always did every time they ripped up the road, even though he'd climbed up the ladder at five that morning to lower his gas prices below the Stop and Go station's by nine-tenths of a cent. Those stupid-bastard city councilmen were just wasting money lifting and repaving roads every year, he thought. The title of the article was “Sinkholes, Man vs. Nature: Who's to Blame?”
“It'd better be nature,” Paul grumbled, “or else I'll chase down the idiot who started this mess. Pothole, sinkhole, asshole, same difference.” He decided to write a letter to theDaily Mirror; his wife, Maija, had a friend who worked there. She'd be obligated to rescue his letter from the slush pile.
He glared at the expanding pile of debris and soil alongside the gaping hole. What they were digging up, he had no idea. What he did know was that he would send another e-mail to the city complaining of his loss of business since the construction began. His station's peripheral location, like a useless appendix to Main Street, already had poor traffic. It now suffered aesthetically from the dust and debris, and he feared the Kwicki Fill was beginning to look like a halfway house for construction workers and their temporary defecation rooms. He would have to do something clever to draw the customers inside the convenience store, and quick. Winter would cut the construction project short, as it usually did, and when the snow melted in the spring he'd see the gash in the road once more. Where were the moderate seasons, like autumn? Seems we have only two seasons in this town, Paul thought: sticky-hot summer and freeze-your-tatte-off winter.
He shrugged, used a pencil to scratch his scalp under his turban, and flattened his blue dress shirt down a stomach that was just beginning to show the roundness of middle age. Then he stuffed the newspaper into the drawer under the counter and turned his attention to the boxes of windshield fluid that needed unpacking. Today he would make a pyramid of the blue bottles that would entice everyone to make an impulse purchase in his c-store. Perhaps he could sell the whole lot of them in one day. He smiled. Goals made his day speed by.
His knife was in his back pocket, as always. He took it out gingerly, holding it weightlessly, like a child, and unfolded the blade from the handle. He'd bought this knife with his own money when he was a young man. He ran his thumb along the blade. It was getting dull; he would sharpen it soon. On the silver handle was a poorly sketched chain of elephants carrying a man and woman atop their backs. The vendor had said it had special powers, but Paul just liked the handle. He dug the blade into the flesh of the cardboard, then moved it down and away from himself until the box surrendered its contents. He would usually display the first case of windshield fluid at the earliest sign of winter, but today he knew that the debris from the construction would stick to motorists' windshields when they passed by, which would in turn remind them to check their fluid levels. He would be ready. They would buy his windshield fluid. Maybe, if he was really lucky, they'd get flat tires and have to purchase new ones from Paul's inventory.
When he bent toward the first group of blue bottles, something crunched in his back pocket. He pulled out the nuisance, an envelope. One quarter of its face was covered in stamps, and the rest displayed the gaudy handwriting of someone who had recently learned English.
It was another letter from his father.
Please respondwas written in bold on the back of the envelope near the adhesive lip. Paul's heart sank. Even from across the world, his father could make him feel inadequate. Paul's father had been nicknamed “Papaji” decades earlier by a British-educated head of their Punjab village as a term of endearment. Even when relatives attempted to use the common “Dadda” or “Daddaji,” the man scoffed and protested, demanding to be called Papaji by all. Paul had yet to open any of the letters, and they were beginning to pile up. He wondered what Mr. Sardar Harbans Singh wanted so desperately that he'd felt the need to mail one letter per week for the past two months. Paul wanted to leave India and his father behind himâthat's why he'd come to America years earlier. The letter rustled when he shoved it back into his pocket. The sound was familiar, like wind rushing through wheat.
At least there aren't any snakes here in this village, he thought. This barely comforted him. He looked at the sinkhole and imagined a monstrous basilisk jutting through the surface and swallowing the construction workers. The bell on the convenience store door jingled him back to the present, and he returned to his position behind the counter.
“Marlboro Mediums.” A gruff teenager stared at Paul's crimson turban as if it were a second head and handed him a wad of crumpled dollars.
Paul sized up his customer with a pointedly critical squint and ran his fingers through his beard in contemplation. He saw his torn jeans and stringy blond hair; he saw a blue jacket with a license-plate-shaped patch on the lapel that readJoe. He saw his buddies waiting for him in an old Mazda outside. Joe smelled as if his backpack were filled with garbage. Who would let their child leave the house looking like this? No shower? No clean clothes? Paul couldn't understand, even after twenty years of living in this little town, what went on, if anything, in parents' heads to just give up on their offspring. He told Maija the other day,These kids smoke like it is some sort of privilege. And their parents think they can blame our little stores for selling to minors? Their precious children dress like no-good beggars on the street. And here they have been given so much. Paul lifted a pack of cigarettes from the display and slid them across the counter without taking an eye off the grungy kid.
“I'm eighteen, man.”
“And I'm not your father,samajhna?” Paul turned his back to his customer and mumbled, “And don't read the warning label.”
“What did you say?”
“Have a nice day.”
As he got the kid his change, Paul reread the form that the corporate Kwicki Fill office sent last month, which stated the four Ks of customer service: kindness, konsideration, kalm, and kare. Paul didn't find the misuse of the letter K particularly funny, but since his station was just a drop in the Kwicki Fill bucket he had to post the list where he could see it at all times. His religion's use of the letter K was meaningful, not vulgar (kaccha,kesh,kangha,kirpan, andkara). By the time he finished reading the list, Joe had already disappeared into the Mazda. The car coughed black smoke out of its tailpipe as it cut off an old lady turning into the station.
The green Salem Lights clock read two-thirty. Paul looked outside and saw his fifteen-year-old son walking past on his way home from school. He decided Vic looked more like a twelve-year-old, but his growth spurt would surely be on its way. This was going to be his big year. He looked at Vic, who had his backpack on and his tidy jacket zipped up all the way. Now, that's how children should look. They should be proud to be seen, not filthy and smelly, he thought. But today there was something different: Hispatkawas dirty, and his nose was no longer symmetrical.
Vic waved and kept walking.
“Oi,puttar, where are you going? Come here!”
Vic stopped before crossing the road construction and turned toward his father.
“What happened? Come inside!”
“I tripped and fell at lunch.” He moved slowly toward his father.
Unlikely, Paul thought. “Who did this?”
Vic's lips tightened until they turned white.
Paul put theback in a minutesign on the door, then inspected his son's face, bruised and broken as it was, just like his own had been after a fight. “Assholes are a dime a handful.”
Paul took him quickly into the unisex bathroom inside the station and locked the door. After washing his hands, Paul straightened his son's back and brought him closer to eye level. He placed his large hand flush against Vic's nose.
“Brace yourself. This will hurt, but only for a second,puttar.”
Vic leaned against the tiled wall.
“Don't worry; I've done this to myself twice.” Paul rested his large hand across Vic's nose and, in one quick movement, he thrust it back to center of his face.
Vic screamed. Tears poured. Paul handed his son a towel for the tears and blood. Paul removed the stainedpatkaand took out a white handkerchief from the back pocket of his brown slacks.
“Puttar,you need to cover your hair and keep it clean. Otherwise you're going to have to wash it like the Americans, okay? There are ten gurus, Vic; the first one brought us peace and education, but Gobind, the tenth, brought theKhalsa.”
He spoke of the sacrifices the gurus had made to better their lives, and how this unshorn hair, thiskesh, was a symbol of his connection to their martyrdom and willingness to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. He tucked the handkerchief around the braid that was wound into a bun at the very top of Vic's head, took a pin from his own turban, and bisected the small yet adequate pile of hair and fabric.
“Puttar, you will stand up to thepÃ¡galsthat have been tormenting you. Yes, you will fight back.” Paul's hands dug into Vic's shoulders a little too deeply.
Paul took out his knife and held it to his son. “Sometimes the only way to protect yourself is to make others fear you first.”
Vic put his hands in his pockets. The ancient-looking blade glimmered dangerously.
“No.” Vic's voice cracked.
“Look”âPaul put the knife on the counter and sucked in his stomachâ“I want you to remember that running only makes them chase you faster. They are like hyenas. Stand your ground. Aim for their weaknesses: their knees, their necks, and their feet. It's not the biggest one that you should attack first but the smallest. Once they see you defeat one of their own, they will back off.”
“Papa?” Vic motioned to the door.
“Um, nothing.” Vic cleaned his glasses with the edge of his shirt.
“Okay then. Now go home; your mother is waiting. Where's your sister? You're supposed to walk with her.”
“She has play practice.” They reentered the store.
“Oh,achchhÃ¡.She's your responsibility, you know.”
“I have to study, Papa. I have an exam tomorrow.”
Paul held Vic's face in his hands. He looked forward to the day when his son would become a man. It was difficult for Paul. How could his sonâthe son of an ex-boxer, an ex-farmer, and an ex-warriorâallow someone to break his nose? This was not possible. He thought of his Papaji, with the shotgun slung over his shoulder and his knife at the ready to cut whatever needed cutting. Vic's snake was this bully, and Paul was going to help him stand up to him regardless of the consequence. They would both have their day, and the other kids would fear his name: Varunesh Dzintar Singh. Paul's eyes glowed, his large nose tingled, and his calloused hands pressed the cheeks of his son just a little too firmly.
“I will make you stronger,puttar. Tonight I will show you how to fight.” Paul beamed; Vic looked terrified. “Okay then,chaliÃ¡. Go home and see your mother. I will be home later.”
He watched Vic maneuver across the construction and turn onto their street, a cul-de-sac. He noticed that Vic bounced on his toes just a little bit. That would not do. Not for his son. Paul would teach him how to walk, talk, punch, and box. He would show him how to have honor. Paul opened the cabinet under the cash register and caressed his cricket bat; he'd never used it, not once since they'd moved here. He had wanted to whack many of his customers on the noggin several times over the past week, but it wouldn't have been right. But defending oneself, yes, that would be acceptable. The bell on the door jingled, and an old lady entered.
“Hi, Paul. How's life treating ya?”
“Living the dream, Mrs. Carmichael, as always.” He gave her his million-dollar smile.
Mrs. Carmichael, an octogenarian, walked around the convenience store, checking the expiration dates on each bottle of milk before pouring a small cup of coffee and topping it off with the freshest milk, which she then returned to the refrigerated section.
“That racket outside is going to raise the dead!”
“You're telling me.” Paul stretched his arm out and looked at the foreman through the inch of space between his pointer finger and thumb. Then he squished the man in the distance.
“One day they're going to dig too deep and find what they're looking for.”
“Eh, what do you mean?”
“Oh, you know.” She slurped her hot coffee. “Every town keeps their secrets in the ground. You've heard the rumors about PMI, right?”
Paul's blank look said it all.
“Never mind. Hey, am I going to win that trip to Mexico this week?”
“GuaranteedâI see it in your future.”
“Did your wife tell you that? Then it'd mean something. Otherwise, I'd think you just want a cut of my winnings!”
Mrs. Carmichael placed the correct change on the counter, took a sip of her coffee, and tucked the scratchers in her purse. “Keep the change.”
“Have a nice day.”
“All righty. See you next week, Mr. Singh.”
Paul Singh knew two things: One, he would train his son to defend himself; and, two, he would find out if his psychic wife could see what was written on lottery tickets.Maija
Empress of Multitasking, Goddess of Kitchen and Garden, Countess of Costcoâin her mind, Maija Mazur Singh listed all the appropriate titles that she could stitch on her zip-up cardigan's lapel. On this, her day off, she'd cooked, cleaned, and learned a fewthingsâand it was only the afternoon, which meant she still had time to appraise her children's secret lives before they returned from school.
Maija had managed to concoct a beautiful sauerbraten and had even remembered to add a few extra peppercorns to quench Paul's incessant need for spice. To Maija, it seemed he had long burned all the taste buds from his tongue, that the little buds had all waved their white flags after decades of interpreting the scorch of raw chili peppers. Paul claimed capsicum was good for his gums, and Maija wondered what good gums were when the tongue was collateral damage.
She'd also baked an Alexander cake and glazed it to perfection. She'd vacuumed the house and even spent an hour watching Montel Williams's self-help parenting program. Maija felt as if she could do it all, at least when she was the only one at home. The other inhabitants, her family, made getting things done difficult. No matter what she did or how hard she tried, she could not control everything; she was far from all-knowing, and she had not been blessed with strong parental communication skills. She had the sight, that was certain, but she rarely saw futures for her family, which was even more frustrating and led to her snooping. Instead of inquiring about Isabella's female changes and Vic's experiences at school, Maija held it in. Birds and bees remained bottled up, and they stung and ate each other. Since she couldn't discuss these difficult topics, she was forced to infiltrate their personal things and read them like runes.
Maija inspected the shoebox that she'd found tucked deep beneath Isabella's bed. It was, of course, more than a boxâit was a portal into Isabella's brain, and Maija, mother of no words, parented as she mushroomed: once in a while and when no one was looking. She told herself it was out of love, but deep down she knew that entering dresser drawers and lifting dust ruffles with the intention of unearthing clusters of fleshy chanterelle fragrant with teen angst was necessary. Maija's mother, whom she called Ma while almost everyone else referred to her as Oma, wouldn't have even paused before looking, Maija reassured herself. If she'd bothered at all.
Oma's interest had always been, in Maija's eyes, in the lives of others. After Papa had passed away, it was as though Oma's identity as a mother had vanished along with her identity as a wife, leaving Maija alone. When they had first immigrated to Cleveland through the sponsorship of a Latvian Baptist church, Maija would go through Oma's things in hopes of feeling closer to her. Sneaking Oma's cameo around her neck had comforted her as she'd fought through the Ohio school system's remedial classes with disabled students, students branded as “slow” and other immigrants who struggled with the English language.
Oma would open this box and say that everything in her house was hers anyway, Maija thought as she sat at the foot of Isabella's bed. But still she hesitated.
She could still hear Montel Williams telling mothers that snooping was not right. His eyes had glimmered, his teeth had glistened, and his hairless head had glowed. Though she knew Montel meant to defend teen privacy to an audience of mothers, his piece only motivated her to scour Vic's and Isabella's bedrooms for secrets.
She imagined all the possible terrors stashed within Isabella's box: marijuana (the devil's weed), weapons (perhaps a gun), or, worse, the Pill. Like Pandora, whose all-gifted hands released the evils of the world and left poor Elpis, hope, in the jar, Maija opened the lid. She puzzled at the contents. If they were emblematic of her daughter's inner self, they weren't going to expose their secrets easily. She perused the items that belonged in the garbage: bottle caps, bits of string, paper clips linked together in a circle, a leaf, a ball of used rubber bands, Band-Aids, and gauze pads. Maija caressed the ordinary office supplies, searching for signs of rebellion. What did these items say about Isabella? It could mean she had a strange desire to collect dirty things; there was a term for that afflictionâyes, hoarding. Or perhaps these were simply here to throw someone like Maija off a trail; she was a clever girl.
Maija dug further, and under the odd collection of stickers she found the treasure of all parenting treasures: a diary. She opened the first page and shut it immediately. Then she slowly opened it again and flipped quickly through the whole book. She saw some sort of code: BFF, 2GTBT, 459, 4EAE, BTWIAILWU. None of these codes made sense to Maija. Was Isabella in trouble? The only codes that Maija knew were pharmacological: OTC (over the counter), QOD (every other day), PO (for the mouth), and BID (twice a day). She closed the book and tried to forget everything that had taken place over the previous few minutes. She wished she'd never opened it in the first place.
The phone rang, and Maija jumped. In a rush, she rearranged the box the way she had found it and put it back under Isabella's bed in the same place. Guilt and regret began to build in her heart. She wished she could forget what just happened and pretend that there wasn't a code to decipher. It was her deepest flaw, that she could see the futures of others but not of her loved ones. What good was being a psychic at all? She shuffled her slipper-clad feet to the piss-yellow kitchen to the phone. The walls looked dreadful during the afternoon, when the fluorescent lights had to be turned on above the sink. “Summer Apricot, mydÅ«re.” Maija rolled her Rs. “Curse you, Lowe's employee who sold me this paint.”
The phone rang a third time, and Maija picked it up.
“Hallo? Yes, Paul, my dear, what did you say?” Her heart pounded in her chest. “No, I've never played the lottery. Wellâ” Maija squinted, hoping the adjustment would increase the acuteness of her large ears, which hid beneath piles of thick brown curls.
“You want me to look at some lottery tickets? Why, darling? You knowitdoesn't work that way.” She scrunched her nose into a button-sized embellishment between her two high cheekbones. Maija's blue eyes were murky like the sea, and her hair, particularly on humid fall days like this one, would mat together like seaweed tossed in a ruthless current. But an ocean goddess she was not. She was no mermaid or undine. She was stout, like her favorite beer, which she drank warm.
“Fine, yes, sweetie, I will look at them. Oh, bring home a gallon of milk, will you, dear?”
She cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder as she stacked the mail in a neat pile next to the computer in the kitchen nook. There was a notice from Cobalt High inviting parents to join the PTA, a few coupons from Dante's Hops and Pies, and another letter from India. “What? Myputns!Poor Vicki. Okay, I will wait for him.” News that her son was coming home with an injury was upsetting. At that moment her heart raced, and the letter from India began emanating light. It flickered opal like a small galaxy. It was irresistible to Maija.
“Uz redzÄÅ¡anos,” she said, then hung up.
This letter was different than the others from Paul's father. She lifted it to the fluorescent light and looked at the thin piece of parchment folded into a square inside. Maija had never met Paul's family because, he'd told her, they were poor and couldn't afford the plane tickets from India. Paul and Maija had met in a pharmacy in Cobalt years and years ago. He'd crushed his hand while fixing his car, and he'd been getting antibiotics to ward off infection. She'd fallen in love with him after their first picnic date in the park, when he told her she was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen and then kissed her. He told her she tasted like strawberries. They were married in the Cobalt courthouse by a justice, and only a couple friends were in attendance along with Oma. Her day was far from the wedding she'd imagined, but they were in love. Yet every time Maija asked him about his family, Paul turned to ice. Once, he'd mentioned something vague about his father's anger, and she took it to mean that his abusive nature had caused Paul to immigrate to America. Not knowing the details allowed Maija's imagination to run without reins.
Don't you think it would be good to make amends now?she'd asked years earlier.Whatever happened, happened so long ago.
Piyar, you should be thankful I am not speaking to them,he replied.Otherwise they might decide to move in with us like other Indian in-laws.
She'd kept her mouth shut after that.
The letters had begun to arrive a couple months ago, and their frequency was increasing. Why didn't Paul's father just call like a normal person? Maija shrugged and took a deep sniff from the letter's edge. The glue on the envelope's lip smelled like a journey across a sea by steamship.
At that moment, everything within Maija's vision froze, and her lips became icy, as though a cool breeze had blown across her face. The saliva in her mouth vanished. Her perspective was slipping, and she was being pulled gently backward into herself. It was an uncanny feeling. She thought it must be similar to the sensation Alice felt as she grew taller in the bottom of the rabbit hole.
Inside her mind, Maija came upon a scene. She felt rain pelt her face as she approached a dense forest. The trees bent and swayed under the wind, then parted to expose a dirt path. Maija moved forward, frightened. Her feet were bare. It felt as if the trees were watching her as she intruded into their home. A lion appeared up ahead, and she knew to follow. The dirt beneath her feet turned to water that began to rise. The lion vanished under the water, and in its place was something shiny in the soil. Maija was pushed into the water, which turned into an ocean. She swam under the water toward the shiny object, and when she reached for it, the edge cut her finger. Suddenly the water rushed away, and she was left, cheek down, in the mud. A small aluminum butterfly lay in her hand. She heard a tearing sound. A tall man wearing akurta pajamawas dragging a longkirpanalong the forest ground in the distance. The blade was slicing open the land as he walked. Reddish brown soil bubbled up from the gash.
The vibrations of his steps shook Maija back into her kitchen. She sat up on the floor in front of the open refrigerator. A pitcher on the top shelf lay on its side; iced tea pooled around her bare feet. The slippers were across the room.
From her vision, she knew that her father-in-law was coming to her home, and there was nothing she could do about it. She shook her head. Maija hoped he wouldn't pollute her home with his violence. Now she knew what was written in the letter: The man whom Paul called Papaji was coming. There was more, much more to decipher, but one thing was clear: His presence would change her home.
Maija wiped up the iced tea and threw the dishtowel in the sink. Dammit, she could work and plan and cook, and still she felt she had no control over life. She could see silly things in the futureâthe way she saw Mrs. Carmichael win fifty dollars on her scratcher, and now the strange vision about her father-in-lawâbut rarely anything to do with her immediate family.
Maija took off her reading glasses and looked at the letter. She focused her eyes, those penetrating steel orbs set perfectly apart with almond-shaped lids that suggested her relation to Mongolia. She was a woman of few words; she spoke through grin or sneer. Slow to warm, her stare, chilly as though it trickled from some mountain up on high, would grip others' smiles and greetings. And no, her eyebrows wouldn't curl, her eyelashes wouldn't flutter, and the uncanny, unabashed line one could draw from her eyes to those of her acquaintances could have been traveled by icicle. Maija's corneas, irises, lenses, retinas, and optic nerves rested precariously atop centuries of Latvian political oppressionâthey were the peaks of glaciers of her forced suspicion for all who were free to flash their teeth, for they might be the ones reporting to the KGB.
Okay, she said to herself, deep breath in, and deep breath out. Focus on the positive. Be present. She chanted a slogan: Where is my happy place? She dodged images in her head of Vic being beaten at school and of Papaji hitting Paul as a child.
Maija curled her toes and relaxed them, donned her slippers, and shuffled along to the pots with the makings ofsivÄnagalerts, her favorite aspic loaf, on the stove. She relished the few days a week she could spend at home from her part-time job as a pharmacy technicianâand nothing would ruin her day. Her feet would swell to a half size larger when she worked; during one shift, she would stand for at least ten hours. So, over the four days a week she spent at home, she kept her prettily painted toes nestled deep within her fuzzy, size-eight sheepskin slippers. Her feet were a size six. As she shuffled in the too-big slippers, she made a rhythm with her feet: one-two-three, one-two-three. She loved dancing. And though Paul did, too, they literally moved to beats from very different drummers: his was atablaand sitar, hers akokleand woodwind. As she shuffled across the kitchen floor, she wondered whether she should tell Paul what she'd seen. Better not, she thought; he needed to read the letters himself. Maybe she'd ask him about them. And in her kitchen, with the aroma of her sauerbraten wafting in the nostrils of her button-sized nose, she waltzed across the linoleum floor and directly, accidentally, into Vic.
“Oh,mans zvirbulis, you are home.”
When Vic was born, he'd weighed only a few pounds, and as Maija held him in her arms she decided he resembled a little bird. Now, she gasped at her son's battered face and had to steady herself against the counter. “Vicki, who did this?”
She lifted his face under the light. His nose had been broken. Black eyes were forming. His cheek was bruised and swollen. Maija began to cry without a sound. This was the work of a villain. “Oh, my baby!”
“Mama, can we talk about this later? Ouch!” Vic's voice was nasally, and Maija pushed him to sit at a kitchen stool and turned his face this way and that. She looked into his nostrils, cut pieces off a new sponge, and carefully shoved the sponge inside. Then she piled a bag of frozen lima beans on his face and told him to sit still.
“Oh dear, does it hurt much?”
He did not respond.
“Where is your sissy Queen Isabella?” Maija asked while nervously dumping a pile of ibuprofen into her hand; a few fell to the floor, and she didn't pick them up.
“Rehearsal. The play.”
“Ah, yes, will Michelle give her a ride home, then?” She tried her hardest not to say anything about the fight because that was Paul's department, though it was difficult. “You know, you are lucky to have such a nice little sissy, Vicki; you should take care of her. Ninth grade can be very difficult for kids these days.”
Maija's fountain of parenting knowledge reached the end. She considered the archetypes she'd learned from television, including the troubled teens, pregnant teens, druggy teens, and even prostituting teens. Just earlier that day, she'd watched a special on the Internet and teens, and she was thankful neither of her children spent much time on their one family computer in the kitchen, except when papers were due. Oh yes, Vic had an obsession with a video game that had something to do with building a city, an entire simulated world. That and his blog he told her about. This sounded nice to Maijaâso creative, not destructiveâbut Vic would never show his mother his creations.
“Please don't call me Vicki, Mama. Call me Vic.”
“Oh yes. Sorry,mazs dÄls.” Maija put her hands on Vic's cheeks and concentrated in an attempt to see something, anythingâbut the other world gave her nothing, as usual.
“Mama, quit it!”
“Who did this to you?”
“I don't want to talk about it.”
“Your father will fix it.”
“It's like I'm asking for it, wearing this stupid thing on my head and all.”
“There isn't even agurdwÃ¡rÃ¡in this townâwhy should I have to wear this?”
“You want I should start one? You're lucky I don't send you to Latvian camp. There's one in Pennsylvania, you know. Or maybe you'd rather.” Maija's cold eyes found Vic's pupils.
He looked unfazed. “You don't get it. Do kids in Latvia wear this?”
“I know how difficult the teen years are.”
Vic went to his room without looking back at his mother. She knew he wouldn't emerge until his father requested his presence in the backyard later. She knew he thought it was unfair that his sister didn't have to display an element of their father's orthodox religion. But wasn't that part of being a teenager, thinking the world's against you and wondering why it's so unfair?
Maija wondered how having a grandparent in the house would change her children. She went to his bedroom; the door wasn't closed all the way, so she peeked inside. His hair was flowing down his back in curls, rebelling against the turban. He looked small under all that hair. He was sitting on the edge of his bed reading a comic. She wanted to go in, wanted to talk, but she wouldn't. What was he reading? A story about a rabbit samurai? She couldn't read the rest of the cover.Ach, she wanted to enter, but she remembered hearing somewhere that it was best to give space to teens. She just hoped he wasn't imagining what it would feel like to hold a sword in his own hands. But then she remembered his aversion to sharp objects and felt better.Isabella
The stage was a collection of loosely assembled wood, nails, and glue, its floor covered in thick black paint, dulled and scratched by a thousand feet that crossed it in productions ofAMidsummer Night's DreamandThe Crucible. Behind the curtained walls: four metal chairs, six bowler hats, broken track lights, a working stepladder, and a podium. Stage left: a wooden cutout of a leafless willow tree painted black and gray. Stage right: petite Isabella Singh, with long black hair and caramel eyes hidden behind glasses, and sixteen-year-old Erik Fritjof, who looked like a scrawny descendant of Vikings.
Isabella's surroundings were standard as far as high school theaters went, but she had never been inside a real theater. The Royal Cineplex 5 didn't count; that was where she'd sneak in the back door with a bag of sour gummy worms tucked in her pocket and stay all day long, bouncing from one movie to the next as if it was her job. This theater was different. Its smell, for one thing, was a combination of dense mothballs and Elmer's glue. Isabella imagined that the stage was pasted together and wondered if it might collapse under the six drama club members and one rotund teacher. She estimated the distance to the exit was thirty seconds away at a sprint, and she wondered, if she ran fast enough, whether she could defy the space-time continuum and go back in time to three weeks earlier and not join the drama club.
“Are we square? One more time.” Mr. Tewkesbury rubbed his belly over his red flannel shirt. Mr. Tewkesbury's Worcester accent caused him to avoid Rs as though they were arsenic, so hissquaresounded likesk-way.
Isabella adjusted the bowler hat tipped on her head. The black circle drawn over her left eye with face paint was running down her cheek. Rumor had it that the face paint was left over from when Tewks had done a stint in the circus as a clown. That was after his off-Broadway days, which he reminded his students of often. They'd been practicing the scene fromWaiting for Godotbecause it would, as Tewks put it, help them intellectually understand his own play,1,001 Cries, which they would be performing in three weeks. Each week, he'd cast a different actor as Vladimir or Estragon. Now it was Isabella's turn as Estragon.
Isabella read her line. “Where are the leaves?”
Erik said, “It must be dead.”
Isabella said, “No more weeping.”
Tewks screamed, “No, no, no! You both sound like robots. Put some feeling into it. Remember what I told you earlier.”
Isabella pushed her glasses higher on her nose. The rest of the club held its breath, too afraid to express their lack of comprehension. “Um, no, Mr. Tewkesbury. What do you mean by âdefiling plot,' and what does, er, something about ârupturing representations of reality' mean?”
He growled and clumsily cleaned his round spectacles on the edge of his shirt. “I knew my gift to you all would go unappreciated.” He twisted his copy ofWaiting for Godotinto an object appropriate for hitting students, then spread his hands and pushed outward at the students, as if through this action he could blast them all off the stage and out the rear door. “The author is a postmodernist. He is destroying the grand narrative.”
“I get it, Mr. Tewkesbury. They don't, but I do.” Tracy Finch's voice was cotton candy.
“No, I understand that part,” Isabella said. “It's minimalist. But what's the point? Is it a play about nothing?” Isabella moved closer to Erik for support. Michelle, her best friend, moved toward her as well.
“Wellâin a way.” Tewks squinted.
“LikeSeinfeld?” Erik ventured.
“Nothing likeSeinfeld. Take five.” Tewks clapped his hands, then pointed to Tracy, and they both went toward his office.
“Fun, fun,” Michelle said to Isabella.
“What's he thinking, anyway? High school theater is about the big five.” Erik shrugged.
“The Crucible, A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, and of course, if you're daring,Arsenic and Old Lace.I didn't sign up for postmodern drama. I hate the way that Tewks is forcing it down our throats. And, like, we should be spending time rehearsing1,001 Cries.”
“Yeah, and what's up with Tracy? She's so obviously his lap dog.” Michelle tousled her blonde pixie haircut and stuck her finger down her throat in a faux gag.
Isabella nodded in agreement. She thought about Tracy. Isabella found herself hesitant around Tracy, always afraid she would see signs of the girl who had lived next door when they were children. What if Isabella got the urge to remind Tracy of the day they'd played hide-and-seek and Isabella had lost her pink My Little Pony in Tracy's backyard? What might happen if she mentioned the time they'd dressed in Mrs. Finch's clothes and pretended to be mommies to their baby dolls?
Reminiscing was only meaningful between two friends. Isabella would be a fool to ask Tracy how she liked living in the Heights, across the river. She would be even more foolish to ask how her life had changed since PMI closed and her father, who was a PMI director, was laid off and given enough severance to begin building the Heights development. The Finch flock had sold their house next to the Singhs on Peregrine Court, moved to their gated community across the river, and ascended the social ladder into the upper echelon of Cobalt. Isabella's father used to obsess about what Mr. Finch did to receive such a massive severance. It gave him little comfort to know the Finches had inherited the land on which they'd built the development from Mr. Finch's great-grandfather.
As Tewks and Tracy returned, Isabella looked at Tracyâin spite of the downpour of doubt, not because of it. Tracy's golden hair cascaded over her shoulders and down her slender back. Aside from the hair and eyes, Isabella couldn't find a trace of the girl she had known five years earlier. It was strange to realize that so much time had passed, yet this was the first moment Isabella had studied her ex-friend unabashedly. The sightings in the school halls were fleeting. Getting a good look at Tracy was like trying to spot a gazelle in a field of reeds. The divide between the microcosms of student society didn't allow them to interact.
Tewks had returned with a stack of paper, sweaty with determination. The students gathered around him eagerly.
“This should be good.” Erik nudged Isabella's arm. She felt sparks all over her body.
Michelle gripped Isabella's arm. “Isabella, I have to tell you something.”
Her friend looked nervous.
“Now,” Tewks said, “I have to reassign the lead role, since the lead will no longer be with us. No complaining, no trading, and no crying.”
Tracy scowled at Isabella.
“Isabella,” Tewks continued, “since you've shown some promise, and I assume you've spent time with Michelle as she worked on this role, you will play Samantha from now on.”
Gasps rose from the group.
“What? Me? Why?” Isabella turned to her friend. “Michelle?” Samantha was the President's daughter, who during the play was trapped in the bomb shelter with the Vice President, trying to talk him out of pressing the doomsday button.
“You will be perfect.” Tewks grinned and clapped his hands together, making it so.
“I'm sorry,” Michelle whispered. “I just found out and wanted to tell you before this, but all my teachers got a letter from my dad. I'm moving.”
Isabella felt as if she'd been hit twice by a truck: Her best friend was moving, and she had to take her role. She'd signed up for drama club for three reasons: Michelle, Mrs. Stein, and Erik. First Michelle had wanted her to join. Then Mrs. Stein had ultimately convinced her to join after Isabella had neglected to turn in a paper about Charlotte BrontÃ«. Isabella had tried to use “religious holiday” and “my grandmother's sick” as excuses, but Mrs. Stein had seen through it and suggested that she join the drama club for extra credit, adding that this extra credit would, in fact, be required in order to receive a decent grade in the class. And then Isabella had met Erik and decided she wanted to stay.
“You've made a mistake,” Isabella said to Tewks. She was fine with a bit part like Girl #3 or the Explosion, which stood to the rear of the stage and didn't have to do much but screamBamand shake a tambourine at a particular moment.
“Why, are you not comfortable playing the lead?”
“No, it's justâ”
“Look, figure out if you want it by tomorrow morning. I'd really like to see you as Samantha. She's the Lolita of the play, okay, and you're perfect for the part.”
Isabella blushed. Erik whispered, “That's hot.”
“I'll have to think about it.” She fought the urge to vomit; her heart raced.
“Okay.” Tewks rolled his eyes. “You have one day. The show is scheduled to begin in three weeks. And now that we've changed things, we are in a crunch.” He continued reassigning a few of the smaller roles.
Dammit! Isabella's thoughts were so loud she wondered if others could hear her. She couldn't possibly manage the lead role. She couldn't even remember her homework, much less an entire script. It was Tewks's fault they were behind schedule; now they all were going to be punished for his lack of connection to reality.
“No, not okay, Tewks.” Tracy was the only student who had the permission to call him by his nickname. “She's all wrong for the part. I should be Samantha. Look at her! She totally can't even handle us looking at her right now. How is she supposed to manage an entire audience?”
Isabella laughed nervously. Her nose, which was a smaller, feminine version of her brother's, turned scarlet. When she was born, Isabella had looked just like her father's second cousin's motherâa woman named Rani who everyone said wassohnÃ¡. When Isabella was eight, she began to look more like her mother's side of the family; her eyes appeared more unintentionally intense day by day. Now, as a teen, she finally looked like herself, independent of the Singh or Mazur tribes, aside from the nose.
“Shush up, Tracy. Samantha's Best Friend is a great role for you.” He turned back to Isabella. “We'll have to do something about that overly responsive nose of yours. Do you have contacts?”
“You'll be great,” Erik said before tossing his backpack over his shoulder and leaving with the other students.
In the hallway, Michelle held her hand and said, “Remember that time we told our moms we were sleeping at each other's houses and went to the haunted house in Oswego instead?”
“Yeah, brilliant idea. We didn't even make it until dark.” Isabella rolled her eyes.
“And we thought we were going to sleep there through the night and take pictures of the old woman ghost.”
“Mrs. Fletcher. Yeah, that was super creepy.”
Then Michelle changed the subject. “I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to tell you first,” she said. “My dad had to tell Tewks because he's a teacher.”
“What's going on?”
“It's my immune system. They don't know what's wrong with me. They think I'mâ”
“Don't even say it.”
Michelle had been sick for months, but Isabella had just assumed it was mono or the flu or something that teenagers get. She never thought it was serious.
“I don't know. Maybe I've got something bad in my blood.”
“Where are you going?”
“New York City. My dad got transferred there so we can be close to NYU and Columbia hospitals. I'm scared, Iz.”
Isabella hugged her friend. “It'll be okay. I know it will.” She said a prayer in her mind. She held Michelle's hand as they walked. “The city isn't far. I can take a bus there in three hours.”
“Promise. I'll ride the bus even if I have to sit next to a weirdo.”
“You're gonna do great as Samantha.”
“You can. Do it for me.”
Isabella's stomach turned, and her head shook no.
“You want to come over?”
“I should head home. Mom's all into QT together. I'll walk.”
“I have to pack anyway. I'll call you before I leave.”
“I can't believeâ” Isabella stopped, her words flat in her mouth.
She walked the long way home from school. The cold air was heavy with moisture. Isabella let the tears come without fight. They rolled warmly down her cheeks and around her mouth, then collected at the delicate point of her chin. She wished her run-down suburban surroundings were a desert, ocean, or forest. The houses she passed in the neighborhood around Cobalt High seemed to be watching her, judging her with their chipped-paint faces. Instead of inducing visions of comfort and apple pie, the wordneighborhoodtwisted Isabella's stomach into knots.
She ducked into the clearing that ran between an old factory and the river near the Flats. Nature ignores us, she thought; it doesn't watch us. The wild had reclaimed the factory-turned-brownfield. Concrete slabs, rebar, and other remnants of the booming assembly of computer parts were almost fully appropriated. Tall grasses, young sycamores, and ivy sprouted from gaps in the walls and tilted cement blocks. A steel rod stabbed an oak tree that had grown too close to a wall. How slow the pain must have been, Isabella thought. The bark looked as if it had parted and made way for the metal that embedded itself into itâbut it grew beyond that point; its branch made a detour around the steel. The tree continued.
She slowed her steps and peered into a glassless window of the factory. It smelled sweet inside, as if the last person who'd left had dumped a barrel of clover honey on the floor. They must have left quickly, she noted, because telephones, folders, desks, and other typical office equipment were still inside, as if an atom bomb had vaporized all the humans. She heard thewhoo-whooof a barn owl that was perched high in the rafters. It stared down at her with its ghostly, heart-shaped face. Humans leave permanent stains on the spaces they use, she thought, then turned her back to the brownfield and walked toward the thicket.
She'd learned in fourth grade that the cougar,felis concolor,and the wolf,canis lupus, were common in New York Stateâeven here in the Southern Tier. Isabella looked for an imprint of these animals, but they'd left nothing. She imagined the cougar slinking through the tall grass and the wolf leaping through the forest. The image was so foreign, like trying to imagine an elephant or a grazing triceratops. She'd also completed a report on the Iroquois in that same class. Her mind was filling with absent lives. She took in her surroundings, extinct and otherwise.
As she continued along, the ground grew wet because of the Chautauqua River. A large black willow moaned with the wind. It looked nothing like the black cutout on the stage; this one still had most of its leaves. The wind blew, but the tree stood still. The roots ruptured the earth as though the spine of a creature were rising to the surface. Then Isabella noticed the long thin branches lift gently with the breeze. Just a moment before, she hadn't noticed this slight movement. She refocused her eyes, as though she were watching it for the first time, and was amazed: A beetle dove under a root. Ants marched in a line to the water's edge. Her shadow caused night to fall upon a forest of reeds. If she focused too hard, she could no longer see the details, but if she allowed her peripheral vision to lead, everything movedâlike when she tried to count the number of stars in the Pleiades and they would disappear, then playfully reappear a moment later when she focused on something else.
Isabella bent over and picked up a rock at her feet. The rock wasn't special, but the moment was. She memorized the rough, reddish-gray surface. The rock would find a place among her collection in the shoebox or her locker at school. She wanted to remember this moment because she felt present. Some moments she wanted to remember because of their painâlike the ball of rubber bands she'd “borrowed” from Ms. Simm's desk after she'd passed away at ninetyâor because of their joy, as in the paper clips she'd “borrowed” from Erik. These items embodied the essence of people, and when she perused her collection, it felt like communing with friends. She'd collected so many little things, and she never forgot the feeling of the moment to which it was attached.
Her path took her along the river; in this light the water looked black as tar. She met up with Main Street in the Flats and followed it all the way to her house on Peregrine Court, the split-level at the end of the cul-de-sac. As she turned her key in the lock, she heard strange metallic noisestwangandtingfrom the backyard. She didn't check to see what it was; she just stood and listened instead.Paul
From his chair at the head of the table, Paul surveyed the dining room as an emperor might his empire. He cast his eyes across the various dishes his wife had prepared for their dinner: sauerbraten, cabbage salad,specpiragi,and Alexander cake for dessert. His family sat in the designated chairs Maija had assigned at the beginning of time, after she'd bought the table-and-chair set, sanded them down, and stained them this deep walnut color.
Paul perused his offspring's cleanliness, noting Izzy's frizzy hair and Vic's face, which appeared more masculine because of his broken nose. He looked at his wife, his love, and noticed she looked tired. He remembered when he first saw Maijaâhow every part of her glowed as if there were something she knew about the world, some secret no one else knew about how it all was going to turn out. His love for Maija had grown exponentially every year since the first moment he'd kissed her in the park. He put his hand on hers and squeezed. She squeezed back.
Paul wiped his lips with his handkerchief. His mouth was watering.
Maija said, “Isabella, perhaps you should say it tonight for us.”
Grace wasn't common in the Singh householdâand Paul did not like it when Maija asked the children to say itâbut Maija seemed happier after doing this ceremony, so he never interrupted. Maija arched her eyebrows over her granite eyes, but Isabella was quiet; only the sauerbraten bubbled.
Paul cleared his throat theatrically. Isabella sighed and closed her eyes; Vic did, too. But Paul sat twisting the moustache above his lip, as he often did, watching all of them.
“Thank you for the food, God,” Isabella said, “and may you watch over all of us and”âshe fought for wordsâ“may you forgive us all. Amen.”
Maija pursed her full lips. “What do we need forgiveness for?”
Isabella shrugged her shoulders. “I dunno. It just sounded right.”
Paul thought that was silly. Forgiveness. For what? For being alive? Silly, but Isabella was a young woman, and, well, she was still learning.
“Did you find the letters from your father, Paul?” Maija ladled somejusonto the beef on Paul's plate.
“Not now,piyar,” Paul said.
Paul kept his eyes locked on his plate. He thought about the pile of letters, one of which, he'd noticed, had already been opened and resealed poorly. He looked at Vic. No, his son had too many other important things going on. Then he looked at Maijaâbut she wouldn't be so anxious to see the contents if she'd already opened it. His eyes fell on his daughter, and right away he knew she was the culprit because her nose was red, which was a dead giveaway. But why she might do such a thing? Could it be because she wondered why his letters were being handled like a gift jewel sent from a maharaja? Paul imagined she'd opened the letter with the steam from her hot peppermint tea the week before, marveling at the careful up-and-down strokes of a ballpoint pen that made symbolsâthe Punjabi writing was a cross between ancient Greek and Chineseâand at how much like saltwater the parchment smelled. Or perhaps she'd thought nothing at all.
“What happened to your nose, Vic?” Isabella said. “It's bigger than it was yesterday.”
“What happened to your face, Izzy?”
“Paul, darling? The lettersâhave you read them?”
Paul ignored his wife. He ignored his children. Instead, he relished the rich beef juice that filled his mouth. Paul thought Vic was looking even more handsome now. The bruises added a certain depth to his face. He knew, too, that having such scars while at school would be beneficial to his son's persona. Though he had been the recipient of the damage, he would be now considered a little dangerous, devil-may-care. Girls would find him more attractive and reckless. Paul watched his son eat as if he'd never seen food before, and added eating properly to the list of things he wished to teach him before too long.
Paul looked at Vic's hands as he shoved more and more food in his mouth. The bandages around his son's fingers told a deeper story. When Paul had returned home from the station earlier that evening, he'd decided that he would instruct Vic in the ways of Punjabi martial arts. Paul began with sword training. He kept hiskirpansin the garage, above the chainsaw near a box with the Christmas ornaments. After he'd dusted them off, he'd taken Vic into the backyard and taught him to swing them and slice the air, though Vic had only managed to flail wildly and shear the tops off of Maija's roses.
Then they moved to sprinting; Paul joyfully showed Vic how to extend his neck and back synchronically with his calves and knees. They bounded like antelope along the fence until Paul was winded. Then there was hand-to-hand combat, which was most difficult for Vic. Paul insisted he should learn how to box, not to instigate a brawl but rather to be prepared in the event of one breaking out. He'd told him bullies were like locustsâthey don't stop until you smash them underfootâand he felt smart saying that. Paul had held up his hands and made Vic punch them repeatedly then alternately hit him in the stomach: right jab, left jab, right hook, left hook, body blow. One punch in particular turned Paul's complexion green. To hide the bout of nausea, Paul had blocked a punch and accidentally bent one of his son's fingers halfway backward.
Jesus, Papa, you wanna break my hand, too?
It's not broken, just sprained, it's okay, Paul said.Let's do push-ups now, all right? One-handed.
Paul had been so cheerful during the calisthenics that he'd barely noticed his burning muscles and strained back. As he watched his son, a harsh truth showered down upon him: How was he supposed to best his bully now, with an injured finger? Vic wasn't great at arm wrestling even with a healthy hand, and his punches were weak. Paul knew that the bully wouldn't stop until Vic fought back. Vic would have to use his brain. Intelligence was an asset in times like these. Paul had heard about the business of outsourcing for protection at Cobalt High: One kid traded his newest video game to be able to sit near another kid at lunch and walk home near him after school. Enlisting the support of others in his defense was an option, but that was far from heroic. No son of his would buy protection like that wimpy kid.
“Paul?” Maija pleaded.
“Um hum,” Paul mumbled.
“The letters, darling. Did you find them?”
“I did. I found them.”
“Oh, good, good. I wonder what they say.”
Paul watched Maija survey the placement of the dishes on their doilies, which were supposed to prevent humid stains from appearing on the surface of the wood dining table. She adjusted them with care. Up to this point in their marriage, Paul had appreciated the fact that Maija had allowed him to manage Vic, just as she would manage Queen Isabella. Paul and Maija had discussed, when she was pregnant with Vic, that their parental duties would be divided equally.You are good with the emotional, but perhaps I should handle the boy myself,na? he'd said. One boy and one girl later, they had become this thing he'd read about in theDaily Mirrorcalled a nuclear familyâalmost.
“Paul, dear”âMaija swallowed her foodâ“do you think that these exercises you do with Vic are, what is it, extreme? Doesn't he get exercise in his gym class?”
“Mai-ja.” Paul's voice separated her name into two distinct scolding syllables, but she didn't waver. Vic, on the other hand, dropped his head.
“Well, then, maybe you could explain exactly what you were doing out there with my son.”
“Mama, it's fine.”
“See, Maija,it's fine. The boy likes spending time with his father.” Paul shook his head. He was not going to give her any clues about his logic. In his mind, it wasn't her place to wonder about such things.
“Okay, yes, fine.” Maija offered a soft smile. “Have you read them?”
Paul looked out the window at the rain, which tattooed a rhythm on the concrete patio in their backyard. He took to shredding beef on his plate with his fork and knife. Why was Maija pushing him, here, now, in front of the children, for heaven's sake? He did not know. Any conversation about his father was sure to give him indigestion. He already ate several rolls of Tums every week. Even the suggestion of the letters triggered an unpleasant taste of blood in the back of his mouth. The beef turned to metal.
He found himself suddenly in different surroundings, reminiscing about a faraway place he was beginning to forget. He remembered his childhood in the village, which felt to him a distant memory of someone else's lifeâ1955, Punjab: He was chasing his big brother, Kamal, under a dry, dusty sun through a wheat field that stretched all the way into tomorrow. The wheat, six feet in the air, was ready for harvest. Papaji was cutting it with adÃ¡trÃ,his handheld sickle. Paul and Kamal went to get a closer look at the bundles of wheat.
Come on,yÃ¡r, you're too slow!Kamal teased Paul.
Paul was smaller than his older brother. He stretched his body until sinews strained and muscles cramped. Kamal ran faster. His legs were longer, and his body was sleek like a panther's. Kamal had Papaji's countenance and would have his size, too. Paul hoped for the growth spurt that his Bebbeji said would come in time, though he knew even then that height alone wouldn't fill the crevasse between them; his differences would become more apparent as he grew. That secret was buried in the blood, and no one ever talked about it.
That day, as Paul and Kamal ran through the field that rose above their heads, they accidentally separated. Paul turned round and round to locate his brother, but all he could see was a golden wall of wheat. Then he heard Kamal scream. The wheat parted as Paul ran in the direction of the desperate voice. The tall grass whipped his cheeks and cut his chin. When Paul found Kamal, he was prostrate on the ground, shaking, a brown-and-black snake writhing nearby.
It bit me! Kill it,bhÃ¡Ã! Kamal tossed him a knife. His nine-year-old hands clenched his foot as if pressure would make the serpent withdraw its poison. Snakes hid everywhere on their property, under beds, beneath bales of wheatâloathed demons of the earth.
Paul lifted the knife and dug his heel into the soil for balance, but he froze when the snake hissed. It buckled back into itself, threatening to uncoil in his direction. Fear consumed Paul, and he dropped the knife and ran to get his father.
Papaji wiped his forehead with the back of his rough and calloused hand, tucked the edge of his turban back into its form, and slung his shotgun over his shoulder. Kamal was sweating when they found him amidst the forest of wheat. His foot, bloodied by the fangs that had entered his skin, was now twice its normal size and purple.
Where is it?Papaji aimed his shotgun at the ground around them, but Kamal said it had gone back into the thicket. Papaji smacked Paul across his cheek and told him he should have killed the snake so it would not bite again.Or do you want it come out of the earth and bite you too,na? What good are you,puttar?He addressed Paul in the same tone he used to speak with the washer boy.
Papaji pushed up the sleeves of hiskurta, leaned over Kamal, and took his injured foot in his hand.Hold your brother steady, he said. Like a skilled surgeon, he flicked open his knife and cut a sizeable hole around the two deep bite marks. Kamal screamed. Papaji put his mouth to the wound, now rushing with blood, sucked the venom, and then spat.
Hurry,puttar. Follow me.
Papaji carried Kamal back to thehaveliand asked his wife to fetch the nearest doctor. Paul's little sister, Prithi, cried amidst the commotion. It was five hours before anyone came to look at Kamal, five hours of writhing pain and prayer.Wahe guru, wahe guruâhis mother's prayers steadied everyone. But when he came, the doctor was pleased by Papaji's method of venom extraction and thought Kamal had a good chance of healing on his own after his body dealt with the fever and poison. The doctor cleaned the wound with iodine and hot water, then tied it up while instructing Kamal to remain upright to keep the venom away from his heart. The doctor gave Papaji a small flask of whiskey to administer to Kamal for the pain and told him to clean the dressing on the wound each day. He said he would return in a week.
Kamal beat the poison; the snake wouldn't be his murderer. Yet Papaji still blamed Paul for Kamal's tragic life; Paul felt guilty just by touching the letter. Though he was now a man with children of his own, the whisper of memory drew Paul back into a world of childhood regret and guilt. Paul grew frightened of the day when he would trip over that snake and have his turn with the fangs because he'd failed to kill it in the wheat fields of his youth. Paul had always hoped to find likeness with his family in his own appearance, but instead it set him apart. His face was round; Kamal's was thin. His nose was large; Kamal's was a perfect symmetrical slope. His hair was soft; Kamal's was thick, like a horse's tail. They were foils. Not to mention the terrible scar that ran up Paul's body from mid-thigh to his upper arm. He'd been told that when he was two, in a fit of curiosity he'd pulled a pot of boiling oil down onto himself. His torso today still looked as though it had gone through a meat grinder, as the scar stretched across his broadening adult form.
“Darling?” Maija's voice jarred Paul into the present.
“Thisâwhat is this, broiled beef?âlacks flavor and spice.” Paul spoke angrily through his full mouth.
“Did you hear me? Have you readâ?” Maija asked.
Vic shoved food into his mouth at an alarming speed.
“MundÃ¡, slow down or you'll choke.” Paul placed his large hand on Vic's hand.
“My head hurts,” Vic said. “May I please be excused?”
“Yes, darling, of course.” Maija turned to Vic when she spoke.
“No,puttar, stay.” Paul dropped his fork on his plate.
Paul noticed Isabella's face change from white to green. She put her hands over her mouth and seemed to win the battle with a beast in her stomach, but then lost the war. She ran to the bathroom, and Paul heard the purge
Maija looked at Vic. “Tell me, Vic, darling, does she have boyfriend?”
Vic shrugged his shoulders, made a gross-out face, and mouthed, “I don't know.”
“She'll be fine,” Paul said. “It's probably nerves, the play.”
“Darling, the letters.” Maija sighed.
Paul growled, stood, pushed the chair behind him to the floor, and walked out of the room. He returned with the tall stack of letters, which he threw on the table, tipping the salt and pepper shakers. He tore open the envelopes one by one, occasionally tearing the letter inside. He read, took large draughts of his beer, grunted, and stabbed his wife withkirpan-sharp glares.
Then Paul lifted his chair from the ground, sat back down, and asked for the good scotch. Vic brought the bottle to the table with a glass. He asked for two more glasses, poured an inch into each glass, and passed one to his wife and one to his son.
“Sardar Harbans Singh is coming. We will need to prepare.”
No one pressed him for details, and for that Paul was thankful.
On the Wing
Posted on October 7
Some people hate the winters here because they expand across six of the twelve months of the year. Others find only the early summer exciting, with the end of school and ignition of fireflies, like fairies, floating through a transformed and magical night. I don't have a favorite season, but the in-between days when nature prepares for change have a special place in my heart. When seasons change, nature shows us who she really is. She's vulnerable at the end of summer when the grasses have grown too high and face decay and drought. Things go in reverseâleaves experience vertigo as they fall from their royal seats at the tops of willows, oaks, and other deciduous relatives. Flowers retract their blooms; petals turn mushroom-brown. Nature begins to shut her doors as bears prepare for hibernation, and many late-season butterflies reach their Spartan-esque pupa, which will remain frozen in stasis until the springtime thaw. Autumn is a time of en masse preparation.
Now, here in Cobalt, New York, the clouds have begun to darken and wrap fog around us like a wool scarf. There's little left for us to do other than self-soothe with long walks trampling through the fallen leaves. After the sun escapes the day, on a fairly clear night, I climb out my window and lie on the roof under the stars. The return of my friend Orion with his canine companions makes me happy. Every fall I wait for him to appear; throughout the year my eyes search an empty night sky for his figure, even though I know he is not there. Signs of consistency bring my mind peace.
The metamorphosis must bring the caterpillar comfort. After she consumes more than 2,700 times her weight, her tired jaws must celebrate when she hears her internal scale telling her she's fattened enough. Then, she casts a silken thread from her mouth, lassos a branch, flips around like a tiny acrobat, and holds the thread with her toes. Then she unzips her exoskeleton coat of caterpillar skin and exposes her hard chrysalis self underneath. Inside, during her longest rest, cells rearrange and move into different order. I wonder what it feels like to change, to truly morph like that. I wish I could rearrange into something like a grizzly bear or wolfânot a werewolf with its full moon limits but to shape-shift into something wild and strong forever, something that belongs only to nature.
I wonder if the unnamed butterfly I found earlier is endemic to Cobalt; it looks quite similar to the one I found a week ago except for the difference in color and shape on each side. It must be a part of the blue family because of the color, though it's possible it is a copper because I've been wrong about identifying them before.
It reminds me of the Spring Azure I saw months ago. I was sitting atop a clump of mud near a puddle of rainwater on the path I was taking beside the Chautauqua River; I thought my eyes were tricking me. I thought a piece of bright blue sky had fallen to the ground. The sun lit its wings in a way that reflected its slightly powder-blue iridescence. It must have been a male because they tend to be flashier to the human eye than the females. I kneeled down and lay flat on the damp ground about one foot away. It couldn't have been larger than my thumbnail, wings open. As it was so consumed with its meal of salt and nutrients from the wet earth, it didn't even seem to notice my presence. We spent nearly two minutes next to each other. I could also make out its drinking straw, the proboscis. Its wings were still warming to the world as they weren't fully uncurled and were still moist from its chrysalis. I read that Spring Azures only live for a few days before they lay eggs and die. Most of us think of the life of a butterfly as only the time when they are in the adult stage, in flight. The time it lives as an egg, caterpillar, in chrysalis to pupa, should be considered its infancy. If its life was three days long, and I spent two minutes with it, then we were more than passersby, perhaps acquaintances.
It would be a shame if the nameless blue remains so. I will take it on as my special duty to find out what it was like when it was alive, so that in death, it can find peace. I've spent a great deal of time searching through the Internet and the limited books I have here at my fingertips, and I still haven't found what I'm looking for. If anyone is reading this, if you have any idea what this butterfly is called, please post a comment below. Here is a brief description: one inch across the full body, maybe less, outer margins of the forewings and hind wings have a whitish fringe, the left side of the body is mostly an iridescent blue and the right side is an earthy brown, and there are white circles filled with black scattered along the post-median area of the wings. The left side has slightly sharper edges than the right. I have found butterflies that match parts of this description. Perhaps it's a new breed I've found, or perhaps nature has created a freak, like me.
Please post a comment below if you know what I've found.
Maija saw tiles. From behind her counter in Jones Drugs, she looked at Mrs. Eleanora Finch and saw marble, glass, porcelain, and travertine. There were so many shapes and sizes, from the smallest and most variegated used to craft classical Italian mosaics to the sapphire squares that allowed Eleanora's kitchen and bathroom floors to match. How far had the little blue gems traveled to arrive in such a place? Were they made in China or Taiwan, or had some skillful Mexican or Italian man flattened a lump of clay into perfect thickness, sliced it into squares, and then fired it in a kiln? Maija wondered if he would hand paint each one or simply cover the squares with blue glaze and place them into the kiln's inferno once more. She could see him bending slightly and sliding the tray into the fire, a movement not unlike a child from a fairy tale his grandmother had told him about, a curious boy who was pushed into the oven and baked in the dough. Would he even have guessed that his tiles, from far across the Pacific or Atlantic and then a series of smaller seas, would arrive in a small town and play such a central role in a life so unaware of the importance of tile density and resistance? Maija couldn't just come out and ask her. She couldn't control the images and thoughts that poured into her mind as she stared across the counter at Eleanora Finch.
Maija took one look at Eleanora and knew she would die soon. She would have a heart attack.
Eleanora was the head of Cobalt High's PTA. And here, this Sunday, Eleanora's clogged arteries wouldn't be death's agent provocateurâno, it would be the blue-gray tiles that covered her shower that would crack her skull as her chest tightened and her feet slipped on the water.
As Eleanora handed her the small piece of paper from Dr. Green's office, her hand grazed Maija's wrist, and through this teensy touch, Maija saw something worrisome. What she saw without her eyes was not a complete and total picture but a series of images and flashes of sounds: Eleanora's floral Sunday dress hanging on a towel rack to loosen the wrinkles with steam; a shower running; a thud; blood mixing with water. It felt like a presage whispered to her from an inaudible voice.Maija took Eleanora's prescription and told her it would be ready in ten to fifteen minutes if she wanted to wait. Hoping Eleanora would wait, Maija attempted to sound as pleasant as she could and even added a sappy smile at the end of her sentence. Eleanora smiled at Maija, asked her how she was, then turned her back to her before Maija could reply.
Maija could never bring herself to truly rely on her visions. Sometimes the presage was dead on, and she felt it in every scruple of her being. She'd see something, and it would happen. Like the time she got up in the middle of the night with the feeling she should lock the door and in the morning heard that the neighbor's house had been robbed. Other times, particularly when dealing with death, these phantasms of her mind were more imprecise and symbolic, as the recent one with Papaji seemed to be. They could also be a manifestation of her anxieties and fears. She'd never understood why she couldn't see her family's futures. That was a cruel joke. Or perhaps the sight had to have limitations. Without vulnerability, her ability would be too powerful. This gift was a curse. But perhaps the disturbing image of Eleanora lying like a dead fish on the floor of her shower, breathing in the water that had puddled around her body, meant only that she would have an awful fall. Maija's mind may have altered the vision to include her latent feelings about Eleanora, who, since she had moved from the house next door five years ago, hadn't called her once.
No, she realized, this forecast was true. She had felt Eleanora's heart stop and her throat close.
Maija both believed and didn't believe her visions. If she doubted them too much, she would doubt herself, and it would be maddening to think that she was lying to herself. Still, Maija's confidence regarding her sight was waning because of her recent divination malfunction, the case of Mr. Bozeman. He came in last month as a new patient to fill a Viagra prescription. She had a terrible vision of a dark room in his house on Monroe Avenue, where he kept a girl no more than five years old tied to a chair and dressed in provocative clothes. She'd assumed from her vision that he was molesting a little girl and called the police with an anonymous tip that led nowhere. She even stole his address from his medical records and sat in her car one night across the street from his house, just in case she saw a child in need. It nearly drove her mad for a whole week, until she convinced the police anonymously that she was a neighbor and heard a fight and glass breaking. It turned out, the police said, that Mr. Bozeman was just babysitting his granddaughter. Why Maija saw what she had seen was beyond her. Regardless, a moment of misleading clairvoyance had been a blow to her self-esteem, not to mention her conscience, because she rarely acted upon the visions. If the images in her mind were becoming questionable, Maija feared the worst: that her sanity was finally giving way to the imagined future.
Perhaps Eleanora's demise would not come to pass, but still Maija felt the urgency to try to save her former friend from a potentially painful end. Maybe the Plavix would thin her blood enough to give her another season, but medicine was about as accurate as soothsaying. Everything is theory, she thought, and most medicine had a success rate similar to the placebo in trials. The pills considered actual medicine were guesses that made large corporations piles of cash. If you popped a pill, your world of troubles nearly vanished, along with your liver. Nothing was ever truly certain; this was the only fact that Maija truly believed.
Maija watched Eleanora spin the display of plastic reading glasses. She was, as her surname suggested, avian in shape, with a face that drew to a slight point in the center and long fingers that mocked feathers. She seemed so young and didn't appear sick.
Maija typed Eleanora's information into the computer and put the slip of paper in a plastic basket behind her. She glanced at a postcard that a chain pharmacy recently mailed to her offering relocation to their newest store and top salary for experienced technicians. She propped up the card next to her screen so she could read more about it while she worked. The store was in Orlando, Florida, and she'd always wanted to see a white-sand beach. Beside the postcard was her favorite photo of Paul, taken during Christmas a few years ago at the Jones Drugs company party. He'd had a few eggnogs and looked like he was having a great time, smiling, laughing. Someone had dared him to put the plush antlers atop of his turban, and he never was one to pass up a dare. It was the small things Maija kept in her station that distracted her from the reality of her day-to-day. Palm trees and plush antlers were powerful numbing agents, as powerful as cocaine eye drops.
“Hey, lady. I'm next.”
A lumpy-looking man stood at the counter. He came in from time to time to fill his antipsychotic drug, and today he looked worse than usual. His prescription was lost among his banana-length fingers as he held it out to where Maija had been standing earlier. The line had grown during the mere moments her back had been turned. Of course, the phone began to ring as wellâline one, line two, and then line five were all on hold while she accepted a glare from the man with the big hands. This pharmacy had only one pharmacist, Tom Tingle, a man who on some days resembled Santa Claus and on others a truck driver. A girl named Shandy, whom Tom called their intern though it had been more than ten years since she'd walked through the doors of any school, managed the register. The pharmacy also had a drive-through window, but, thankfully, few of their customers had discovered this additional convenience.
Maija left the phone lines blinking and gave her physically present customer her attention. Tom Tingle was sitting on his stool as usual, not filling prescriptions but ready to check Maija's work after she was through. He smiled impatiently at her and moved the toothpick from corner to corner in his mouth. Today he looked like he drove a big rig.
“Can I help you, sir?”
The man responded by shoving his scrip forward once more and grunting with his mouth closed. His breath reeked even through his pursed lips. Maija looked at the scrip; it was the anti-seizure medicine Dilantin. She didn't need her power of insight to know that the dosage was extremely high, even for a man of his size.
“Sir, I have to call your doctor. It'll just be one moment.”
“Why do you need to call her? I brought the paper like I'm supposed to, right? You think I'm stupid?”
Maija was tempted to say yes but forced her face into a smile instead. “Not at all; this is only protocol.” She ignored the blinking lights as she dialed the doctor's number.
“What kind of call?” The man yelled this in a voice that bordered on hysterical.
The other customers were unimpressed by his antics, and they continued to stare impatiently at Maija over his shoulder. Maija heard the phone ring once through the receiver, but then she heard a familiar and unfortunate sound: three multi-tonal beeps followed byI'm sorry, the number has been disconnected orâand she hung up.
She looked up at the man, then toward the exit door that led to the rear parking lot. For one millisecond she considered the shoes on her swollen feet and wondered if she could make it to the safety of the Cutlass before the man noticed her absence. For one moment she imagined an alternate reality where her ankles had wings and she could tell Tom Tingle that he was an ass as she flitted away. It was the worry she felt for Eleanora that jarred her back into reality once more.
She went to the man at the counter and said, quietly but clearly, “I'm sorry, I cannot fill it. Your doctor is no longer in service. High dose.”
The man seemed stupefied by her quick and fearless response, but he held his ground through confused eyes. “Can't fill it? This is legit, and you are required by law to fill it for me.”
“No, I'm not.” And she really wasn't. She had that one and only eject button in her back pocket that allowed her to toss out the crass, the slovenly, and the frighteningly rude. She'd never refused beforeâbut Mr. Halitosis was different. He scared her. She could tell he was a drug user.
He asked to talk to her boss as he scowled at her. The man's open mouth allowed Maija to glance at the source of his gutter breath. He suffered from oral dental hyperplasia, a strange and off-putting condition that could have been brought on by his medicine. His gums grew halfway over his teeth, leaving the enamel looking like lumps of pebbles. And his saliva had all but dried up, which created a warm, dry nest where bacteria could grow. Maija sympathized, or tried; he needed better medical treatment because he obviously couldn't take care of himself.
“Boss, yes, well, I am sure he would be happy toâ” Maija turned and saw only an empty stool spinning around. Tom was gone. Shandy was biting her chipped purple fingernails and reading a magazine behind the register. Maija stood alone.
“Huh?” Shandy replied with a digit wedged between her lips.
“Tomâwhere is he?”
Shandy shrugged and went back to her article. Maija glimpsed the article: “Swine-Child,” about a forty-pound baby born with the head of a pig. She never had seen such articles in Latvia. Here anyone could say anything and make money from it. But, she thought, that is one of the reasons she'd immigrated.
She told the man that her boss was gone at the moment, but that he was welcome to come back later or try a different pharmacy. He grabbed the slip of paper, crumpled it up, and threw it at Maija's face without saying a word. Relieved by his exit, she went to work on Eleanora's medicine. Like a confident cuckoo that clucks an hour late, Tom reappeared with a sub sandwich in his handâit was only ten in the morning.
Maija took a deep breath. This was the first hour of her day; she would have to stand here in the medicinal trenches behind the counter wearing her white god coat for at least nine more hours. She dug her heels into the rubber mat that helped her stand for hours on end and counted pills with a metal spatula. Eleanora was conducting a one-person fashion show in the slim, two-by-four-inch mirror on the side of the reading glasses display.She fluffed her wispy hair with her thin fingers, flashed a diamond the size of a walnut that couldn't have been real, and puckered her thin, almost nonexistent lips.
Mr. Herbert Finch, her husband, was a small and quiet man. Maija had only seen him a few times, years ago when she'd visit Eleanora for tea. The Finch flock had never accepted any of her dinner invitations, so she hadn't had the chance to speak with him a great deal, or graze his hand for a tidbit of his future. He was shorter than Eleanora and much older. The gossipers in town whispered about how Eleanora had only married him for his potential fortune. Maija marveled at how ironic it would be if Eleanora died before her older husband. She felt a little sorry for Herbert.
She finished her prescription and handed it to Tom for inspection. Tom, lifting his nose from his sandwich, gave the bottle a hurried nod.
“Eleanora? It's ready.” Maija stood at the receiving end at the window under a sign that readPick up. Maija saw Tom pull a stack of official-looking papers on top of his sub. Even Shandy took a moment to look up from her magazine to acknowledge Eleanora.
“Can I pay for these here?” Eleanora handed Maija five pairs of reading glasses. “I just can't keep track of my glasses; if I stash a pair in every drawer, maybe I'd be able to read my day planner.”
“Sure, no problem.”
Maija attempted to touch Eleanora's hand again as she took the glasses from her, but her fingers fumbled and missed their chance. She just wanted to be sure of what she'd seen; if she spent any sleepless nights drowning in guilt, she wanted to know whether she deserved it or not. But her insight was stubborn and defiant and refused to give her any further image or message.
So Maija rang up the glasses and asked Eleanora if she was familiar with the medicine. She said she was, though she never looked up from the depths of her purse. Maija paused and told her it was very important for her to follow the instructions on the bottle. Eleanora waved her on, pulled out her overstuffed wallet, and dealt her a credit card out of a stack. Maija knelt down to swipe the Visa through the card machine under the counter. As she did so, she heard tires swerving on the rain-soaked road outside. The machine beeped at Maija, and she saw, much to her dismay, that the card was declined. She desperately swiped the card through the machine again, and again. It was social suicide, but she had to find the courage to efficiently ask Eleanora for another card. Maija stood with a board-straight back and gave a reassuring smile.
As she was about to open her mouth and let the words march professionally from her tongue, an explosion sent her falling to the floor. The drive-through window had shattered and sprayed shards of thin glass across the pharmacy and everyone within a twenty-foot radius. The brick that had broken the window landed right on the counter and smashed the bag that held Eleanora's medicine, denting the countertop.
Shandy held her hand to her right eye and screamed, while Tom ran into the back room again. Maija looked up, through the broken window, and saw the man with the Dilantin prescription standing in the fog with his mouth contorted into a pout.
Maija stood up, shaking, and yelled, “Asshole!”
The man jumped in his car and disappeared.
Maija cursed at the man in Latvian as she picked pieces of glass from her thick locks. Her net of hair had caught the majority of the glass and, thankfully, protected her face.
Eleanora took her card and bag with the smashed prescription and glasses from Maija and ran out the door.Crap, Maija thought. She would put the pills and glasses on Eleanora's growing tab.
In only a few minutes, the police arrived and Maija gave them a description of the assailant. “He was like a beastâugly, sick, and a drug user.”
“Any idea what triggered this?” The office took notes.
“He's on an antipsychotic. I can't imagine how he sees the world.”
Shandy and Tom did not back her up. They said they hadn't seen a thing. By the end of all the brouhaha, Maija's watch only read two o'clock.
After the police left, Maija took refuge in the break room and locked the door by shoving a chair under the doorknob. Her hands quivered as she drank tinny-tasting water out of a Styrofoam cup. The fake wood paneling that seemed to cover every surface in the room, from table to cabinets to the sides of the ancient microwave, felt as if they were pushing in against her. The fluorescent tube light flickered. As she sat in a cold plastic chair, she lifted her knees to her chest and held them tight for a moment. Her breath left her lips dry and cold. Why, she thought, hadn't she seen the man's attack coming? Her sight was really off, and it had taken her intuition as well. She should have known that he would explode. She should have smelled it, if not dreamt it. She looked at the clock that smirked at her. Two o'clock! She'd promised to take Isabella to her first gynecological appointment today. This was one of those moments for which bottling up emotions came in handy.
She would also have to find an inconspicuous way to contact Eleanora to find out if she was healthy. She couldn't just call her up as a pharmacy technician because that could lead to unnecessary questions. It was curiosity that really got to Maija. She could deal with emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, and happiness quite well, but she could not manage to quell curiosity once it made itself known. Curiosity would sit in the center of her thoughts like a shiny red box with a big gold bow, begging to be opened. She hated the suggestion of being haunted by a person who wasn't even dead yet; perhaps she would attend the new member meeting for the PTA. She would have to find a way to speak with her.
At least no one had been injured. Her thoughts were erratic, and her chest felt tight. Maija left the break room and told Tom that she was taking a sick day. Tom mumbled something about telling corporate, but Maija held her hand up to his face, which stopped the flow of words. She walked out of the pharmacy with her purse slung over her shoulder and looked under her car before she climbed in.Ach, she needed a cup of tea.Isabella
Birds and bees, fowl and insect: Isabella tried to understand the connection between these two flying creatures and human reproduction. Euphemisms only complicated the transmission of knowledge. She prayed her mother wouldn't feel the need to tell her about the birds and the bees, as she'd learned about sex long ago through a friend's older sister. As her mom drove the Cutlass through the fog,Isabella bit a hangnail and drew blood. She sat stiffly in the passenger seat, holding her backpack in her lap like a life preserver. Her mother turned on the windshield wipers to clear the mist.
“Oh, my God, Mama! Turn it off!” Isabella yelled. A large brown moth had gotten caught against the glass, only an inch from the wiper's path. Her mother switched them off.
“Poor creature.” Her mother slowed the car, and the moth escaped.
Potholes punctuated the remainder of the ride to Dr. Gott's office. Her mother seemed tenser than usual. Isabella's stomachaches were worsening, and in a female form there were so many other organs down there, from ovaries to fallopian tubes, that Dr. Foster, their family physician, suggested Isabella make her first gynecological appointment to rule out ectopic pregnancy, cysts, and endometriosis. She could only imagine what her mother must've felt and thought when Dr. Foster even said the wordpregnant. She must have freaked out. Isabella had no desire to have sex. Kissing, however, she thought of often when she saw Erik.
Her mother had told her that Oma had never mentioned to her how babies were made but that she'd managed to make two. When Isabella woke at thirteen to blood in her panties, her mother said,Don't fret,meita. This is a part of your life now. You are a woman now.And she left a box of tampons under the bathroom sink.
“So, Izzy,” her mother said. “The exam might feel strange, but it only takes a second, and before you know it we'll be on our way home.”
“Okay, Mama.” Isabella clenched her jaw.
Her mother inhaled, gripped the wheel, and said, “Do you have any questions you'd like to ask me? I mean, about, you know, theâsex.” She whispered the wordsex.
“No.” Isabella wished she had never heard the wordsexfrom her mother's mouth.
“Because you know it is only meant for people who are married.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“For making of the babies.”
“You're too young to have a baby.”
Isabella wiped the small beads of sweat from her upper lip and daydreamed about being anywhere but locked in a moving vehicle with her mother skating around a sex talk. When they arrived at the doctor's office and were assigned an exam room, Isabella said, “Mama, maybe you can wait in the car or the waiting room?”
“No, no, I should come in with you.”
“I don't know, Mama.” Isabella imagined her mother's awkwardness making the exam even worse.
“I'll come in.”
“Mama, I justâ”
“Izzy, fine, go on and change and I will come in afterward.”
Isabella sighed, frustrated by her mother's cluelessness. She wanted to tell her she needed to do this alone. Instead she said, “Whatever.”
Isabella entered the room, closed the door behind her, and put on the gown. She left her green-striped tube socks on as a remnant of a less naked world. The mint-green gown did not feel fresh, and it was rough against her skin. They'd said “take off everything,” so she had, almost.
Now she examined the room: Q-tips and cotton balls, tongue depressors and a box of gloves, size extra-large. Dr. Gott must have big hands, Isabella thought, big paws. She opened the first drawer and found open boxes of syringes, small bottles with soft plastic lids, and a cream she couldn't pronounce. She took a syringe and put it in the pocket of her jeans, which were folded up on a chair with the rest of her clothes.
The next drawer was full of tubes of lotion, most with the wordglideintegrated into the brand name: AstroGlide, SureGlide, GlideRight. She looked at the biohazard waste can and noticed a scrap of tissue hanging out of the top. Doctor's offices should be sterile so you forget about all the other butts that have sat on the table before yours, Isabella thoughtâlike a thin piece of white paper can actually protect us from one another anyway. Might as well be sitting butt to butt with Mrs. Mulch (who she'd seen in the lobby making a follow-up appointment for something contagious) or Ms. Charlotte (who smelled as though she needed immediate attention). Isabella tore a few sheets of paper towels from the dispenser and put them bum-level on the table, then rested her bare back against the paper. Her gown left much to be desired, as it was nothing like a dress. They should call them aprons instead, or chaps perhaps, she thought.
There was a knock on the door.
Her mother entered the room and sat down with a stack ofPeoplemagazines. Isabella gripped the crunchy paper. They wouldn't find anything inside her unless she could get pregnant just by looking at someone. She remembered seventh grade, when the principal separated the girls and boys for reproductive abstinence education. Coach Seibel, chapped-lipped and red-faced, led the boys, and Ms. Johovic, an ex-army nurse, led the girls. Ms. Johovic was brutal in her description of the female anatomy as an “overly fertile fruit tree that would take the pollen from any bee to make a crabapple.” So romantic, Isabella thought. Ms. Johovic's chalk drawing of the uterus looked like a cross-section of a fly.
Thank God for the mobile that hung from the popcorn ceiling and the little origami horses that dangled from a carousel-type structure. Isabella wondered if the horses would keep her from freaking out during the examination. She had no idea how cold the forceps would be and how strange it would feel to shoot the breeze with someone while they opened you up inside and scraped your cervix with a tiny metal brush. Yet the horses danced, and Isabella watched. She heard metallic carousel music playing in her mind. She heard the organ puffing thick notes against theoompa-oompaof the tuba and the twang of a flute. She remembered the Mad Hatter's un-birthday tea party. The air smelled of candy. Her skin grew dewy with midsummer humidity. The origami horses' pulpy forms were shocking pink, blue, and yellow. She almost succeeded in leaving the fluorescent confines of the paper-toweled table. Then, with one shiver, she psychically returned to Dr. Gott's examination room, awaiting Her Divinity's presence.
She didn't know how much longer she could stand to wait. Her jeans looked so inviting and warm on the chair next to her mother. She wanted to get dressed. Her mother would understand; she obviously didn't want to be here either. But then the door opened, and in walked the long-awaited white coat.
“So.” The doctor looked Isabella up and down. “I am Dr. Gott, but you can call me Polly.” She shook her mother's hand.
Polly was an adult-shaped person, not tall but taller than Isabella, and she smelled of vanilla perfume. Isabella couldn't get a good look at her hands. “It says here that you're having pains in your abdomen?”
“I guess. I mean, yes. Dr. Foster said it could just be food allergies or something, but that since I am fourteen, I should get checked out.” Isabella blushed.
“And when did your last menstrual cycle begin?”
“Oh, um, two weeks ago.”
“Okay, and how long have you had pain in your abdomen?”
“When did this start?”
“I don't remember.”
“About two months, I'd say,” her mother interjected. “That's when I had to start making peppermint tea for her every night. Yes, two months.”
“How long does the pain last when it happens?”
“I don't know.”
“An evening. It lasts the whole evening.” Her mother put down her magazine.
“Okay, Isabella, is that true?”
She shrugged a yes.
“Well, let's take a look then, okay? Just lie back for me and tell me when it hurts.” Dr. Gott pulled out the table extension, which allowed Isabella to rest her legs as Dr. Gott pressed her abdomen in various areas, beginning with the middle. Isabella could feel her lunch still sitting there in her stomach, and she hoped Dr. Gott didn't think it was a tumor growing inside. The doctor's large hands moved to the right, then the left, the lower center, the lower left. Her hands were huge. The nails were short. The mobile watched her as this woman pressed her belly. When she reached the lower right, Isabella lurched forward and upright.
“Sorry,” Dr. Gott said. “Now, does it hurt worse once my hands lifted or when they first pushed down?”
“I don't know; it just hurts.” Now she really wanted to leave.
“Have you been feeling sick to your stomach?”
“Yes. For weeks.”
“Since the play,” her mother said. “It's stage fright, I think.”
“Okay, now relax. I am going to take a look inside, okay?”
Isabella hadneverfelt such a deep pain before, nor had she felt more uncomfortable with another human being. She'd had her period, sure; she'd heard about these kinds of gynecological tests, but she wasn't prepared.
“What are you looking for?” she asked and peeked over her blue paper apron down at the doctor, holding on to the table with both hands. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to have let her mother into the room with her. Her mother was looking away, sitting in the furthest corner of her chair as though she, too, wanted out of the small room.
“I'm just taking a sample to be sure that everything is as it should be. It'll only take a second. We women have more than just stomachs in there, you know.”
When she was done, Dr. Gott slid off her extremely large gloves from her extremely large hands and told Isabella she could sit up. It was wet between her legs. Now she was truly cold.
Dr. Gott smiled. “Everything looks fine. We'll call if the test shows anything abnormal. I doubt you have a cyst. I'd say you might want to eat more fiber and drink more water. Perhaps your system is out of balance. Try this.” She handed Isabella some samples of fiber supplements. “Let me know how you feel in a month. If the pain becomes acute or you get a fever, call me.”
After her mother stepped out into the hall, Isabella got dressed in under a minute and dumped her gown in the trash. They were quiet on the ride home. Isabella was relieved. Dr. Gott must have assured her mother that she was not having sex. She was pleased with this small victory.
“I don't think anything is wrong with me. Just a stomachache.”
“Yes, that's great. Take the fiber supplements and drink more water.”
When they arrived home, Isabella looked at her mother and wished, for once, that she'd open up or close completely. She felt her mother teetered somewhere between the two stages, which made her nervous. She envied the fictional relationships characters on sitcoms had with their mothers as friends or buddies.
Isabella changed into her pajamas when they got home, even though it was only late afternoon. Her mother took a nap that lasted for hours. When her father came home from the station, she felt his curiosity as to why she was wearing flannel pajamas during the day. Isabella was thankful for once that her father pretended not to notice her at this particular moment because, she knew, he ignored things that could potentially be uniquely female, as that was outside his department.
As Paul stood on the concrete step leading into his dingy garage, he imagined how it would feel to stand on a porch gazing into the expansive Western wilderness. Where those boxes lined the walls three deep, tumbleweed would be rolling. The unfinished ceiling of exposed wood and wires would be a tangle of manzanita branches through which he would watch a hawk against a blue sky dive skillfully toward the sandy earth after a rabbit or rodent. He squinted, though the space was already dimly lit.
Paul went back inside to his bedroom closet and traded his slippers for his cowboy boots. He returned to his garage with a cowboy's swagger. His strut was smooth because he'd practiced before; it was just like Eastwood's inTheGood, the Bad and the Ugly. Paul had studied the movie as a child when he visited the city with his family. He'd seen every western he could get his hands on.Hang 'Em High,A Fistful of Dollars, andFor a Few Dollars Morewere his favorites. He'd always wanted to be a real American cowboy. He imagined he was a loner wandering into a skeleton of a town. Wind had blown dust into the air and turned the midday light to the shades of sunset, and the silence was ear piercing. Paul smiled and sat down on the concrete step leading to his garage, took his knife from his back pocket, and used the edge of the blade to trim his fingernails. Maybe he'd pick up whittling.
He looked around the room, and his imagined surroundings vanished; the mess confronted his eyes as a vulgar contrast to the Wild West. There hadn't been room to park their car in the garage for years. He had no idea what they kept in these boxes. The one thing in the garage that he always kept a watchful eye on was the small gray lockbox with his pistol inside. It was set high on the shelf above the door leading back to the house and was always locked for safety. But besides this, the whole family could go almost an entire year without retrieving anything from the garage.
Paul stood, sizing up a box at the bottom of the pile, then kicking it with the metal tipped toe of his boot. A large crack opened on the cardboard seam. He bent to see what was inside: a few hunter-green files filled with old receipts, a stack of photos he'd never seen, and a beer stein withIkpaul Singh #1engraved on a sliver of nickel in an old-English font. He'd won it through the regional Service Station of the Year contest. He shoved his hand into the hole to free the stein from the jungle of papers, but its size denied him the return journey. He used his knife to widen the split cardboard seam by slicing a circle around the gash, but still it wouldn't come out. Something must be wrapped around the handle.
Though there were several more practical methods for retrieving the stein, such as disassembling the piles of boxes or moving the ones that impeded his box's freedom, when he saw his ax he remembered how Indians used the tomahawk in battle inThe Last of the Mohicansand couldn't resist the smooth handle. He hadn't used it since that old sycamore fell in their backyard and he'd decided to chop it up, bit by bit. He lifted the ax from the hook on the wall, planted his feet firmly into the concrete floor, and took a conservative swipe at the box. He missed the crease by an inch or two and instead decapitated pale pink buds from a silk flower arrangement. He tried once more and this time delivered a messy wound. Sweat poured from his brow as he focused. Again he struck the box, and again. Injuries were inflicted on the surrounding tchotchkes, and two smaller boxes collapsed completely and expelled their scraps and books and knickknacks: a water testing kit, two identical pairs of gardening gloves, and a few feet of non-specific plastic tubing. He hit the two-by-four in the wall three times. He even slammed the blade into the concrete, but the only evidence of that mistake was a twang of pain inside his rotator cuff.
“Hey, Papa. I found them.” Isabella stood in the doorway between the garage and the house. In her hand was a small, shiny object: nail clippers. “What happened in here?”
Paul placed the ax back on the wall hook, wiped his forehead, and said, “Just cleaning.”
“Now I know why Mama doesn't let you clean the kitchen.”
“Did she say something about that?”
“No, I was just kidding, Papa.”
“How was your doctor's appointment?”
Paul waited for more information, but nothing came.
“Well, I'll be inside then, Papa.”
Paul looked at the mess, made out the location of the stein, and dug in with both hands. He pulled it free as the precarious tower of boxes crumbled. He spit-shined his prize and sat down again on his concrete step. He doubted that Papaji had ever seen a stein beforeâor won an award.
The activity had been a good stress relieverâhis father's pending arrival had put Paul on edge. After he'd read the letters, in which the same information was written in variations, Paul had kept the last one in his pocket at all times. Papaji's letters, formally signedMr. Harbans Singh, were written in Punjabi and usually began with a fragment of gossip. “Massey Sukminder thinks the servant stole her shoes; the woman is losing her mind.” Or “Uncle Chand is going in for stomach surgery. Thanks be to God. The man smells of old age. We can only hope for the best.”
Papaji had moved from the village into his cousin's home in New Delhi because of a bad foot. The four-story flat had become a convalescent space for all the related aging elders. Admitting he needed help walking had not been easy for PapajiâPaul understood this from the letters. He was a man who liked the outdoors, his shotgun, and hishaveli. Living in New Delhi was akin to living in an unpaved New York City. The pain in his foot must have truly become unbearable, Paul thought, for him to trade his wheat fields for the oppressive congestion of the city streets.
And when he arrived, what would they talk about? Would Papaji judge his family as he'd judged Paul his whole life? Papaji had barely acknowledged Paul since the accident, and now his presence would force Paul to remember things that he wished had passed with the dead. Paul could do nothing but prepare himself for the stoic presence of his father by reminding himself that this was his home, not Papaji's, and he belonged here.
He'd studied the intricate characters that he missed and was thankful he could still read Punjabi. The most recent one read:
To Mr. Ikpaul Singh:
You would be interested to learn that Gurumukh Uncle did well after his visit to the apothecary. They managed to heal his blinding headaches with a homeopathic tincture. I know it has been long since we've spoken. I believe you have now received at least one of the letters I've sent in duplicate because I was not confident of the address. My son, I now see, nearing the end of my life, that I wasted the time I was given with you. I hope that you receive me now, at this late hour, as my flight to America is fast approaching. I've enclosed my flight information below. My injury has almost crippled me, son, and I am coming in hopes that a good American doctor will be able to help my ailing limb. I've saved money to pay for the medical care.
Sardar Harbans Singh
American Airlines, New Delhi to NYC La Guardia, 3:00 p.m.
US Airways, NYC La Guardia to Cobalt, 5:00 p.m.
Papaji had not mentioned his mother, Bebbeji, in the letters. No one had mentioned her since Paul had left for America. She'd passed away right after he'd leftâand he hadn't had the money saved then to return home for the funeral. Papaji and Bebbeji had been estranged and hadn't lived together since before Paul was a teenager; divorce hadn't been an option. They had been too young when they married. She had been barely fifteen; he'd turned seventeen the day before their wedding ceremony. The pressures of adulthood and the damaging events that transpired during the Partition had taken a toll on their relationship. Paul had been relieved when they separatedâthe silence he felt between his mother and father had been so unbearable that he had to move all the way to America to escape the void.
Paul made his way into the house with a prize in his hands. “Maija, look what I found! Who packed my German stein away?”
Isabella came out of her room and whispered that Maija was napping. And finally, Paul realized that Maija was indeed tired. He'd wondered why she had taken a napâthis was out of character. Before they'd decided to have children, Paul and Maija had a talk about children and how it would change their lives forever. She was worried that he wouldn't find her attractive after she put on baby weight, but he assured her he would, and his affections had never waned. He was worried that he wouldn't be a good father because, well, his father was such a phantasm of a figure in his life. Maija made it clear to him that they would do as others had done for centuries and figure it out as they went along. They made love that night with such passion that they saw the sun rise. A few weeks later, Maija had come to him and whispered that they were going to have a baby.
Now, Paul walked into the bedroom to watch Maija sleep. Her arm was draped over her eyes as though she wanted to keep the light out. He went to the bed beside her, carefully, so as not to wake her, and kissed her cheek. Maija smiled without lifting her arm from her eyes.
“Piyar, you okay?” he asked.
“Okay. Rest well.” He left the room quietly.
In the kitchen, Paul sat down and turned on the old PC. He placed the stein gently next to the screen, where he suspected it would remain until Maija managed to pack it away secretly once more. Paul appraised his nail cutting job and tapped his two pointer fingers against the keys. In the search engine, he typed:road construction Cobalt. The first link led him to the local paper, theDaily Mirror. He began to sort through the various articles in hopes of finding a report about the mess in front of his station, but because it was a side road, nothing came up. What had apparently begun as a village improvement had ended up an enormous hole in the ground with a gigantic pile of debris beside it. He wanted to know how repaving the road or repairing the sinkhole could lead to such destruction, and whether there was any way he could be compensated for his lost business.
The journalists at theDaily Mirror, however, were not so concerned with side roads in the city. Paul skipped over the next story, about a ten-year-old girl not far from their neighborhood who recently won a national spelling bee.
“Papa, um, what are you looking for?” Isabella stood behind him, her eyes squinting at the screen through her glasses.
“DhÃ, what are theseums? All the timeum. Be sure of yourself, or don't say anything.” Then, after making note of her red-and-green plaid pajamas, he said in a different tone, “Just reading the paper.”
Isabella shrugged her shoulders, got a glass of water, and went back to her room. As soon as he heard her door close, Paul typedconstructioninto the newspaper's search box. There were several links to the Chautauqua Bridge reconstruction and the recent upgrades at the water treatment plant, but nothing much about the road construction on Sycamore Road. As he clicked through the archives, his mind wandered.
He imagined sitting behind a podium, shuffling several sheets of loose-leaf paper. There were important men, like the mayor and Dante Espirito of Dante's Hops and Pies, wearing black and navy wool suits, sitting behind microphoned tables waiting for his speech to begin. The wood-paneled walls in the hall rivaled the courtroom in aLaw & Orderepisode. He cleared his throat and began to speak knowledgeably about the thickness of asphalt and the benefits of creating a working construction plan before beginning a demolition process. Behind him on a screen, a projector illuminated charts and graphs and maps that Paul pointed to at the perfect time to highlight his plan. The suited men nodded and applauded Paul as he bowed and shook hands. He would be the hero of the town. Paul would find a way to fix the road. He would become a politician.
Finally, his search brought him to an archived article that contained a city map, so he clicked on the magnification icon. The crossroads were clear enoughâbut what was that large rectangle surrounding the entire block? It was shaded in a light green and unlabeled. The rectangle extended across the railroad tracks, behind the gas station, across the street into the residential area, and down Main Street right where the construction was taking place. His station was in the center of the rectangle. At the very bottom of the map he found a copyright that readCobalt Historical Society, 2000. He found the Historical Society's website, located the hours of operation, and decided he had time to go there before Maija woke from her nap.
He remembered how his father was the one honest man in the village and, because of his knack for truth, became a sort of counselor for all. He sat in on first meetings when a wedding would be arranged: He sat in the background and listened to the way the groom's family spoke (or the bride's) and could decipher whether the family was hiding behind a dowry or behind greasy smiles, and sometimes he'd inquire about filial illness or ask to see the teeth of the girl or boy to be engaged to ensure they were healthy. People trusted him, Harbans Singh, as his beard was the longest, and he was the tallest and the most vocally reservedâthese qualities together made him honorable to all. Paul straightened his back, smoothed his moustache like wings on his upper lip, and left the house.
The Cobalt Historical Society was located on a street that once was residential but had been consumed by industry, then spat out. Skeleton structures and buildings that no longer functioned as either home or business lined Monroe Avenue. Paul parked and looked out across an empty parking lot the size of a city block, perpendicular to where he stood. It looked like a hurried graveyard, as the asphalt was lumpy and uneven. The stretch of black was empty, and the Kmart for which it had been constructed was going out of business. The Historical Society, housed within a whitewashed Victorian house, was the only structure around that looked as though it contained life. Paul thought if he could pretend it was the nineteenth century and look away from the industrial ugliness, perhaps he could find beauty in his surroundings. He wondered if this town had been a Pleasantville when it was first settled. Or if it had always been just a scab on the earth's surface, a blacktop Band-Aid suffocating the grass.
He entered the building, and an older woman behind the desk introduced herself as Nancy and guided him on a photo tour of the town. As they went from room to room, she pointed to the life-sized images on the walls of the first bank in town, the first carousel, and ghostly figures in turn-of-the-century attire, and she told him how Cobalt was the first stop for any Italian or Irish immigrant who landed in New York City.
“There was a train that brought them all right here,” she said. “There was a factory that employed more than twenty thousand men, women and children. They made shoes.”
Paul thought about how any association with feet as a profession was characteristic of the lowest caste in India. Though Gandhi had metaphorically ousted the caste system, remnants of it still remained. Paul questioned what the harm was in making shoesâeveryone needed themâbut he couldn't get past the caste crisis. That was an entirely different problem.
He noticed one fellow that showed up in almost all of the photos.
“Oh, that's our founder, Heathrow Johnson,” Nancy said. “He built this town on a strong work ethic.” She pointed to a photograph from at least one hundred years earlier of the gray stone arch that curved over Main Street. There was a freemason's symbol at the highest point and an inscription that read:Home of the Square Deal. The arch was still there; Paul passed it each time he went down Main Street. It was now directly next to the golden arches of a McDonald's, which cast a shadow over the stone structure.
Nancy told him that Cobalt was first a mining community but that all of the digging in the earth had been long since abandoned because a catastrophic flood had brought the natural water table higher more than a century ago.
“Do you keep maps of the town?” he asked. “Can I look at them?”
She was delighted to have someone interested in the layout of the townâso delighted, in fact, that she smiled as she unlocked the back room, which she said hadn't been opened in years. She turned on the flickering fluorescent lights and pulled out several maps protected by a thin plastic film. As Paul sat down, she spread the maps across the table and said, “These are originals. Say, where are you from?”
“That's interesting. So far away.” She leaned in too close over Paul's shoulder as he perused the map. He could smell the hairspray that she'd sprayed on her white hair. This closeness made him uncomfortable, so he twisted his wedding band to make certain Nancy could see it clearly. He was thankful when the phone rang and she excused herself.
The map that interested Paul most was the one that illustrated the different underground goings-on: the drainage, sewer systems, and water. A complicated web of snakes twisted around everything. He placed the underground map beside a very simple map of the natural area, which depicted the hills, the low points, and the bodies of water. He didn't notice anything unusual except for the web of pipes that tangled under the town in several different areas.
Nancy came back into the room.
“Ms. Nancy, do you know of any other maps that would show what is under the ground here?”
“Maybe I could help you better if you told me what you were looking for.”
“I'm a history buff. This is my neighborhood, here. Just want to know what came before us.”
She wrinkled her forehead and went to the back room. When she returned, she brought three maps of different sizes. “These are from around the time Progressive Machines International came to town, in 1908, but it wasn't called that yet. A lot of things changed since then. Be careful with these; they are the only ones that PMI left.”
The PMI campus sprawled across the base of the hillside, contained only by the borders of South Street and the forest line. It ran about four full city blocks. Paul saw now how close his home on Peregrine was to the site. Every building on the PMI campus was white: white concrete, marble, frosted glass. It dominated the surrounding area like an industrial ice city. It had shut down about five years ago, and many of the streets had closed as well. Everyone assumed that PMI, like many corporations in a changing world, found it cheaper to outsource.
Paul shook his head. The Cobalt community had depended on PMI. Families moved into town because of Progressive Machines International's promise:Our machines make your life easier. Then, suddenly, as though it was only a phantom, the company dissolved after sixty or so years of operation. No more bustling about. Thousands of peopleâmothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friendsâwithout jobs and without decent severance packages flooded the unemployment lines in downtown Cobalt. Some had worked their entire lives at the plant and had no other skills other than the specific placement of a particular chip in a particular slot, that key into that typewriter. Even Paul had worked there for a short time, until he decided he wanted to run his own business. He'd gotten a good deal on the gas station from a family who'd inherited it and didn't want it, and that was that.
The phone rang once more, and Nancy went into the lobby to answer. Paul looked at the map. He put his finger on Main Street and walked it toward his station. There were things he couldn't make out along the pipeline. Oh, how he wanted to make a copy of this map. Perhaps Nancy would allow it. Noâshe wanted to be the gatekeeper of Cobalt's history. Paul squinted, cleared his throat, and made up his mind. He looked toward the lobby and saw Nancy twirling the phone cord in her hand, her back to him. He gently rolled the map into a tube and covered it with his Members Only jacket. He waved to Nancy as though he were sayingIt's all rightand left with the jacket under his arm. He walked with a swagger, slow and methodical. He was a renegade.Vic
It wasn't long before Vic gave in to the ache in his knees and knelt on the ground. The grass was cool and a bit moist. He tried to prevent grass stains on his knees by keeping his movement down to a minimum. It was quiet in Vic's favorite pastureâhe had to walk nearly a mile from the closest street before he came to the first hill, then across a short span of bog and then over another hill to finally arrive at the stretch of earth that stood just in front of the thick red pine and hemlock forest.
Vic enjoyed visiting this place he calledhis landfor many reasons. Though homesteading was a thing of America's distant past, and he knew claiming open land and building a home was now a romantic chapter in a history book, he still dreamed of such a life, in which he'd have the freedom to live near an untouched forest that would provide deer to observe and berries to pick. His land was beautiful in a sigh-inducing way. Little insects and butterflies coasted above the tall grasses, and if he squinted, they would become fairies or gnomes. Although it was fall, and there had been a particularly odd first frost, there were still a few airborne mayflies. Vic adjusted the brown baseball cap atop hispatkaand narrowed his eyes. He was watching the few coasting insects, hoping to spot a butterfly, a grass skipper or small satyr. He would love to see a satyr to inspect the small dots on its wings, which mock a many-eyed creature of a much larger size. Maybe he would finally spot that strange blue butterfly in his shadow box that books failed to identify. He knew that there were various blues in the area, but he had only seen them in the spring months.
Just earlier that day, Vic had made one of his more fascinating discoveries while researching the area's butterflies in the public library: Some caterpillars allowed themselves to be raised by ants. Myrmecophily was the term that explained how ants nurtured and protected certain caterpillars as they grew in exchange for the sweet juice they excreted just for them. Some caterpillars returned the hospitality by eating their nurse ants. Vic would think twice before stepping on one, or wiping out an entire hill, for that matter. The strange word he wasn't certain how to pronounce rang out in syllables in his mind:mer-me-co-fily. Vic was relieved to realize that his interior was a secret place that no one could hear if they were simply walking past. No one disturbed him in the library; not even the librarian looked up from her large stack of books to notice him. Vic's collection comprisedEssential Lepidoptera; History of the Sikhs Vol. I; How to Tie Knots, Vol. II; Walden Pond; andLives of a Cell. The Cobalt Public Library was his favorite after-school stop; he had to take two buses out of his way to get there. Cobalt High only had a couple of bookshelves, but in the public library, he could stack books around himself and manufacture invisibility. After he read as much as he could about butterfly habitats and habits, he jumped onto the next bus from downtown Cobalt tohis landto inspect the invertebrate life firsthand because books could only teach him so much.
The afternoon light hung shadows behind every leaf of grass. Vic saw only one Little Yellow butterfly flitting wildly around a clump of weeds. He took out his notebook, and on a new page he wrote:Little Yellow, perhaps a sulphur. The book was half-full of his notations and sketches, and he transcribed his notes onto his blog.
Vic's fascination with winged insects began when he was seven years old; his parents had given him a ladybug farm for his birthday. He set up the small plastic dome, arranged the leaves and fake plastic trees, and mailed away for his fifteen to twenty ladybug larvae. Ladybug Land looked like a fun place. It was a bug amusement park, where the ladybugs could slide down the gray plastic volcano into the green plastic forest as though it were a water slide. The front of the stickered base read:Watch the magic of metamorphosis!The bugs grew up quickly, as larvae are accustomed to do, and soon Vic watched the red-and-black bugs fly around inside the clear dome. One day, however, he noticed one particularly small bug fly repeatedly against Ladybug Land's plastic walls. Again and again, the flying bug rammed against the plastic until Vic realized that he just wanted out. He took the whole lot out to his mother's rose garden and released all of his little friends. He watched as some flew, some crawled, and most escaped alive. From then on, Vic always found himself watching the ground closely for insects. Butterflies became a natural fascination when he realized how variegated they were.
He put his sketchbook down on a tree stump. A breeze rustled the tree limbs, and one yellowed and wrinkled sycamore leaf fell to the ground. The changing light played with the bark of the trunks in the forest, and Vic could have sworn there was something moving within. One low-hanging branch of hemlock jostled in the wind and exposed a stake in the ground. The branch fell upon the stake once more, covering it up. There wasn't a house for miles. He never saw a person around here, but all this must belong to someone. As he pondered this idea of land ownership, the sound of a firecracker fractured the air.
His neck burned from moving so quickly in reaction. He crouched low to the ground and turned around, searching the horizon atop the hill for movement. He couldn't see over the hill, which made him nervous. The air tingled and pinched sounds to a different tone. Vic knew that anyone he'd run into out here would mean trouble, but the villains from his imagination were the worst: a witch who'd trap him in a cage and eat him for dinner, a toothless serial killer who'd escaped Sing Sing, or the revenge-seeking ghost of a Civil War soldier. He picked up his backpack and made a beeline for the forest, creepy branches be damned.
He was well camouflaged by the densely needled red pine. He thanked the gods he wore the brown baseball hat today over hispatkaâthe white fabric would have been a beacon. He crouched behind a massive tree trunk and waited. And there! He saw tops of heads coming over the hill. Threeâno, fourâguys. They were throwing things at each other teasingly.
He heard, “Hey, dipshit!” and “I'm going to kick your ass!”
Unfortunately for Vic, it was Joe Balestrieri and his friends. They were the kind who'd dismember small animals for kicks and break their neighbor's window just to hear the glass shatter. Joe lit a match and touched the flame to something in his hand, then threw it at one of his mindless soldiers of mayhem. The firecracker exploded in midair. Vic hoped they would kill each other.
It's not their land, he thought. How'd they manage to find this place? Joe, their leader, bent down to where Vic had just been thinking about butterflies and picked something up from the ground.
“Hey, what's this?”
His notebook. In his rush he must have left it there, exposed, alone. The mob looked at his entries, which dated back to early spring, and laughed. Vic was relieved he hadn't put his name anywhere inside the book. Maybe they would just think some old man had dropped it. Maybe they wouldn't think about looking in the forest for a recent passerby to torment. The posse circled around the notebook, tore pages out, and crumpled them into a pile. Then, each lit a firecracker and stepped back. The whole thing exploded. Sheets became yellow flames, then quickly metamorphosed into black wisps of ash in the air. The thugs let the flames continue unattended and continued their path of destruction directly in front of Vic. He held his breath, clenched his teeth, and grasped the branches of the tree tightly. Time stood still until they were out of sight.
The fire left nothing more than a scorch of black on the grass. Vic could see the small wisp of smoke trundle into the air above his sketchbook's corpse. He smelled its burned pages. He wished he hadn't forgotten his notebook. Now he was truly thankful for his blog; no one could destroy that, at least, unless they had his password.
When he was certain the thugs were long gone, he backed up from the tree trunk and shook out his hands, as his palms were white from holding onto the bark so tightly. Vic picked up his pack and took a large step backward, deeper into the forest. As he did so, he felt the strangest sensation he'd ever felt: The earth moved under his feet.
The sound that escaped the ground wasn't loud at all. It was more like awhooshthan a crack. And suddenly everything turned black.
Vic fell for so long that his stomach hit the back of his throat. His arms and legs flailed in the darkness, but only air and dirt slipped between his fingers. When he landed, his bottom skidded to a stop along a rocky strip of land, and he wondered if he was still alive. Whether something was physically covering his eyes or there was simply not enough light to see, he didn't know. The air was musky and thick with sweet-smelling moisture; he had fallen into a hole of some sort, of this he was certain. Like Dante in the forest, he, too, had fallen into hell. His heart raced, and he tried to quiet his thoughts. What kinds of monsters lurked here? As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he felt vulnerable, like a small mammal fumbling stupidly near a snake's hole at night. He reached blindly into his backpack. He now knew why he kept the emergency kit with him at all times: Swiss army knife, six feet of rope, tweezers, a plastic rain tarp, and the waterproof matches that he'd hoped to be able to use someday. Today was the day.
He lit one of the matches and looked around. He'd landed on a ledge over a deep crevasse. If he'd moved one more foot in the other direction, he'd have kept going down who knows how far. A metal ladder was screwed into rock and led back up, and another ladder led down. This place was manmade.
The match burned out and singed his fingers, and now Vic found himself in a darker place than before. He needed to light somethingwiththe match, but he hadn't thought that one through when planning his emergency kit, and the Dark Knight he was not. His hands moved through the darkness, and he grabbed in the direction of the ladder. It was cold down here. He tried not to think about the things that would like to live in this complete darkness. He tried so hard that he almost forgot to breathe. Got it. With both hands on the ladder, he pulled his feet up, moving higher and higher until he could see a sliver of light from above. It was as though the earth had swallowed him. He thrust his hand through the pile of leaves that had blanketed the opening, and lifted himself up and out into the light once more. He paused at the surface and realized that he had just found one terrific hiding place. Joe's posse had passed it by, so they couldn't know about it. He smiled; this place would be his fort from now on. After, of course, he equipped himself with defensive weapons and lanterns, lots of lanterns.
Maija applied another coat of lipstick as though this shade of red would make her feel brighter and more cheerful. She was getting ready to retrieve her father-in-law from the airport, and she still couldn't figure out what to wear. If she wore a dress, it would appear she was trying too hard to look feminine. If she wore what she wore every dayâjeans and a sweaterâit would appear that she was treating this day like any other, which would illustrate her disdain. She needed to be an example for her children, but at the same time, she wanted to be herself. She was sitting at the dressing table in her bra and underwear, painting her face with soft brushstrokes of lipstick, when she heard Paul calling from the foyer again. She couldn't move. This was an identity crisis, after all.
Maija knew this arrival would unsettle their happy little home. Papaji was a mythical creatureâsomeone who'd affected her life from afar since she'd first married Paul, even though they'd never met. She knew this man would bring answers to questions that she'd carried all these years. Here she was, a grown woman, nervous about the arrival of her in-law, or, as her friend Adelaide called him, The Outlaw. Adelaide was witty; she was good for venting. Maija had convinced Adelaide to come with her to the PTA meeting the previous day by telling her she could write a story about it for theDaily Mirror.
Though she hadn't known what she would do when she arrived at the PTA's new members meeting, Maija had to attend. She couldn't ignore the vision that entirely consumed her life. Everywhere she looked, Maija could see only the way Eleanora's expression was tortured as she took her last breath, a mixture of warm shower water, blood, and air. Her wide eyes looked as though she were questioning her very own death as the walls closed around her. It was as though even Maija, in her vision, knew there was something she could do to break the line toward this future. She had to try; Eleanora's eyes pleaded with her every time Maija closed her own lids.
There had been twenty women in Cobalt High's music room that night. Maija didn't see the small man in attendance, Herbert, until he moved from behind the upright piano. The others Maija recognized were Eleanora; Jennifer Thomas, a mother of triplets in the first grade; Harmony Tingle, wife to Tom Tingle and mother to their two middle schoolâaged children; and Deborah Espirito, wife to Dante Espirito and mother to their four children. Sheets of music for “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Away in the Manger,” and the four verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the notes colored in crayon hung on the walls. Maija was not comfortable making small talk because to her it was pointless. She knew what people were really asking in their seemingly harmless questions.Where do you live?meantHow much money do you make?AndWhat grade are your kids in?meantHow old are you, really?She was on psychic business here and had no time to make friends.
Thank you all for coming to the new members meeting. Eleanora had paused to take a Styrofoam cup of coffee from Jennifer Thomas.The PTA depends on your participation. Without you, there wouldn't be an association at all. Please take a moment to fill out this form with your information. Eleanora passed around copies of the PTA Individual Member Form, which asked for basic contact information.Then we'll all introduce ourselves.
Maija hadn't been sure what to do. If she filled it out, Eleanora would have her information, and she'd be forced to commit to these silly meetings. If she didn't fill it out, she'd look suspicious. There were far too many attentive eyes evaluating the new members, as though they were joining an elite book club run by Oprah herself.
Maija had dressed casually: slacks and a sweater. She saw how new money had changed her old neighbor. Instead of the ratty tracksuits she used to wear, Eleanora wore a fitted Ann Taylor suit. It looked uncomfortable. The Heights trend was an anomaly in Cobalt. Maija had heard of the McMansion phenomenon in America as it had infected the suburbs of larger cities, but Cobalt was a modest village with little pretense. Until now, there hadn't been a gated community within the city borders. Maija couldn't help but wonder what they were trying to keep in or out of those gates.
Maija had taken a leisurely drive into the Heights one day out of curiosity. The street leading up to the Heights' entrance seemed to wind needlessly. Between the young pines and willows she'd caught glimpses of the enormous wrought iron gate. She recalled how the Vatican was designed; as leaders would enter the structure on either side, they would get only a hint of the enormity of St. Peter's Basilica between the Roman colonnades. Each peek would deliver a sensation akin to that of arriving closer to God himself. Every step the kings and emperors took would remind them of their place below the church. This winding drive on Heights Way was designed to induce a similar sensation, though it did nothing more than increase Maija's frustration. Small, manmade hills complicated the three-mile drive that would only have been one mile as the crow flies. It was a sad attempt at a labyrinth; Daedalus would have stomped directly through the development. When she arrived at the locked gate and realized that she did not have the code to enter, she pulled her car to the side and got out to take a look around, peering through the bars. The entire community was closer to the old Cobalt village and PMI's campus than she had thought. The neatly arranged houses appeared to have swallowed steroids. They were massive clones, all born from the same gray and white palette, and had small, unnaturally green, manicured lawns. She thought it strange that there weren't any sidewalks at all, as though the outdoors were not to be explored. It seemed empty, a ghost town. There weren't any children riding their bikes or parents mowing their lawns. But the eeriest attribute of the community was the blaring silence. Not a fly flew, nor bee buzzed. The street signs, with grandiose names like Prominence Point and Grand Terrace Drive, were rusting. Maija had left quickly, wondering what the Finch family saw in such a soulless place.
At the PTA meeting, she'd taken a pen from her purse and pretended to jot down her name, address, and phone number. Instead, while Jennifer, Eleanora, and Harmony were discussing the new fall clothes at Talbot's, she wrote a note:
Dear Mrs. Finch,
You are in danger. Please be careful to take your medicine and watch your footing on slippery surfaces. I only want to help.
She'd stashed the form on top of the pile and gone to the restroom, signaling to Adelaide with a wink that it was time to go.
The mirror into which Maija peered was cracked. She pressed her palms to either side of the glass and said aloud,What were you thinking, Maija dear? You actually believe Eleanora's going to read that note and not call the police? She'll know it was you, Maija. It was you who told her she was going to die this weekend.
She fidgeted with her wild curls, and, just as she was planning her escape to the parking lot, saw that Adelaide had entered the bathroom.
Addie was shaped like a bubble. Her blonde, curly hair was piled in a bun at the top of her head. Everything about her was round, without an edge in sight. Like Maija, she, too, was dressed in jeans and a sweater.You're not an idiot. She deserves it, you know. Being so high and mighty all the time.
They'd walked to the parking lot together.So, she's going to die, huh?Adelaide continued.Tomorrow, you say?
I don't know anything anymore.
Serves her right. Adelaide chuckled.
Oh, dear. Maija didn't think Eleanora deserved to die just because she was nasty. Most nasty people lived longer than nice ones. That was the law of the universe.
Over coffee and pie at the Thunderbird Diner, they discussed Maija's seeing life.
I've always wondered about that psychic stuff, Adelaide said.I read Sylvia Browne. Do you know who she is? Of course you do.
Maija told Adelaide about how sometimes the dearly departed would come to her to make peace with their unsolved problems they left on earth. One memory that still haunted her was that of Vic and Isabella's babysitter, Alex, who died suddenly in a car crash near their house many years ago. That night, Alex had appeared in Maija's bedroom wearing that big red bandana in her hair, waving and smiling. Maija thought she was really in the house and waved back at her. She didn't find out until the next night that Alex was dead, that she'd come to say good-bye.
Maija's grandparents, neighbors, friends, random people she'd never metâall came to say their good-byes. Her favorite Sunday section of the newspaper was, of course, the obituaries. It surprised her how many times they chose to print the deceased's high school yearbook photos, even if they were in their nineties. The shades of people that Maija would see were a blend of their younger and older selves. They were a moving form within time and space, uncontained. She'd never tried to explain this to anyone outside of her family.
That night at the diner, Maija had even told Adelaide about the recent dreams that didn't feel like her own. In her nightly imaginings, the ones in which Eleanora Finch was not the main character, she felt as if she had been walking through Latvia. She had dreams of Riga and the countryside, marsh and forest, rivers and sand. The birch trees were somewhat familiar. She could hear soldiers marching. In these dreams, she looked down at her feet and they weren't hers; perhaps they were Oma's. Maija, now more than ever, needed a friend, and was grateful to have Adelaide in her waking life.
Now, still sitting at her dressing table, Maija looked at her watch and realized that if they didn't get to the airport soon, they might be late. She'd heard Paul call everyone down into the foyer ten minutes ago, but her legs were molasses.Paul
Paul stood alone in the foyer with his back to the front door and fiddled with the scrap of paper in his hands. The well-folded creases on Papaji's itinerary had been softened to a fabric-like flexibility. The last time he held an itinerary in his hand that readNew Delhi to New Yorkwas long, long ago. Paul thought of his twenty-year-old self as a pioneer, a frontiersman of sorts, with a turban rather than a coonskin hat, charting his path across oceans and through forests. And he knew that Papaji's visit would bring all memories, desired or not, into the present.
Paul's arrival in America hadn't been one of singing swallows and trumpeting youths. He'd landed in Cobalt exhausted, with a small bag over his shoulder and a twenty-dollar bill in his pocket. His distant cousin, Baba, was the point man for immigration from their village. Baba had come to America on his own and found work, a Herculean feat that had lifted him to mythic status in the village. Now all who wanted to immigrate to the new world had to go through him. Paul had sent him a letter and asked if he could sponsor his visit for a work visa.
He'd gotten a reply almost immediately via phone.Oi,bhÃ¡Ã!Come out here. We will have a first-class job waiting for you. Take the next flight.
Though the wordCobaltwas on his ticket, he thought he was going to New York Cityâthe only New York he'd ever heard of. He'd never seen it, but he'd heard it was a wild place where people made piles of money from a shouting gallery and where a person could get anything delivered at any hour. He'd heard you could order toilet paper when you ran out, and someone would bring it to your bathroom. When Paul arrived, after piles of paperwork and months of waiting for his visa, he found himself alone. No one met him in the airport as he stepped into the terminal. And the New York that he landed in was not the metropolis he'd hoped for. There was a state called New York, he'd learned, with a small village named Cobalt that had a population smaller than his village in India. He was at least a three-hour drive from the mega-city of his dreams. He was terrified and vulnerable, and his surroundings did nothing to comfort his foreignness. All of his senses told Paul that this place into which he had just entered was not home. It was not a town where he'd be able to findpakorasfor a snack orkhichuriwhen he was sick. Here he would not find a good glass of chai or pick up a game of cricket with other young men his age. No, Cobalt would be nothing like his village. Of all the emotions Paul had felt at that moment, the one he did not expect was relief.
He remembered where he'd slept that night: near Gate Two. What he ate for dinner: a bag of Cheesie Crunchies from the vending machine. He remembered the smell of cleaning supplies in the men's room where he'd washed his face and rinsed his mouth. Baba came the following night. He nonchalantly told Paul he'd gotten the days mixed up. Paul had sat in the airport for forty-eight hours by then and was still jet-lagged from his flight. He was getting strange looks from the security guard. Paul forgot to be angry with Baba when he arrived to claim him. The delight of seeing someone who knew him trumped all.
The joy of this new experience began to fade after a few months of sleeping on the floor of Baba's studio apartment. He ate pasta and soup with small balls of meat from a can, while his taste buds longed for cumin and cardamom. This was a new life for Paul, and he had to remind himself of the various exchanges he would have to make in the new culture. Chef Boyardee was just another thing he'd grow to love.
A few days after he'd arrived, Baba dressed Paul in one of his polyester suits and took him to meet Mr. Charleston, the head of manufacturing at PMI. Though Paul's English was rough, he could understand the verbal exchange between Baba and Mr. Charleston through their hand gestures: A flip of the wrist upward from Baba meant something positive; downward meant pleading; a pointer finger waggling left and right was something potentially disastrous; a finger standing tall and proud was something promising. From the sidelines, Paul watched his future unfold, curious as to what he'd be doing here.
Of course he has machining experience. Worked on a farm his whole life. He can run anything. Fix anything. He's smarter than he looks! Green card all the way! One hundred percent.A tall and taut finger rose into the air.
Mr. Charleston acquiesced. A few overly vigorous handshakes later, Paul was given a short tour of the facilities and told to come the next morning to begin. His eight to ten hours were spent pressing the tiny tip of a hot metal wire to a very specific spot on a computer motherboard. Some days he'd actually slip a small chip into place on the big jigsaw puzzle of a motherboard. He saved up as much money as he could and stashed it under his mattress, in old coffee cans and pickle jars. It was almost a year before he and Baba could afford to rent a larger, one-bedroom apartment. More cousins came shortly after they'd moved. The larger apartment wasn't big enough for Baba's ten new relatives, even with the breakfast nook. Paul took his pickle jars to the bank and got a cashier's check for a deposit on his own apartment. Lucky for him, too, because not long after Paul had moved, Baba was picked up for harboring illegals from India. From his apartment down the street, Paul had heard that the authorities took his other “cousins” and dropped them off at the airport with one-way tickets. He watched until he was the only one left. Paul had never considered returning home. He didn't answer any letters from the village. He wanted to be forward moving, like the machines he was making, so he continued.
Folds of time concealed sections of Paul's past, covering events and years of his life. He moved on quickly from difficult situations, and his willingness to sever ties left him alone much of the time, with impossible questions dangling around him. His departure from India had been a final snip to the village umbilical cord. This was the most difficult separation he'd ever madeânot because he regretted it but because images and people continued to haunt him long after he left.
Now, in the foyer, Paul straightened his collar in the oversized mirror on the wall above the key bowl. He recalled the day of his secondary school portrait. The student body, thirty in all, had stood still, dressed in starched slacks and shirts and lined up in rows. Expressions were frozen awkwardly, almost frightened, almost proud. His brother, Kamal, sat in the front row on a chair, his eyes sparkling. Paul was just a dot in the back. Paul hadn't taken the sepia-toned photo with him when he'd come to America.
He wondered what his brother would have looked like as an adult. He couldn't see Kamal as a man because death had cut his life short. The loss of his brother had changed his family forever. Paul's heart had filled with thick concrete before it had a chance to expand on its own. Kamal's ghost visited Paul in his dreams. Perhaps it was because he could not recall in complete detail the one thing that truly mattered: how his brother died. And so he fought long and hard to erase all memories of his brother from his mind. If he'd never existed, he couldn't have died and left Paul the only son to receive his parents' bitterness.
Paul dabbed the sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief, then refolded it and slid it into his back pocket. Maybe the old man wasn't coming as the letter had said. Maybe he'd wrote the wrong date and time on the loose-leaf paper.
“Chalo!” Paul called for his family, but no one came. “We are going to be late.” He listened but no one responded. “Piyar? Vic? Izzy? I'll be in the car.”
Vic looked out the window of the car as they drove to the airport. His mother had forced him to wear a periwinkle embroidered tunic that she believed his grandfather had given him years earlierâthe shirt had traveled the world in order to arrive on Vic's doorstepâand it was too tight. His grandfather had passed it to his neighbor in New Delhi who had a son who was visiting America to interview for a position as an engineer. This neighbor's son, whom the Singhs had addressed ascousin, arrived in New York City and drove over three hours to their home in Cobalt. Cousin didn't realize how far the Singhs lived from Manhattan, or even that there was a state connected to the city, but when he arrived he was rewarded with a lengthy conversation with Maija and Paul about their relations, whether it was marriage or blood, and a mention of American girls who they knew would love to meet anIndianIndian. He filled his belly with plenty of tea and fried, sugary things and finally delivered the long-awaited package of gifts. Inside the brown paper was a set of glass bangles for Isabella, a tea cozy for Maija, a small chess set and tie that was made in China for Paul, and this most desirable shirt for Vic. The shirt didn't fit his shoulders, and the Nehru-style neck was a little tight. But still he wore it, and along with hispatka, Vic looked more Indian than American.
Though it had been difficult at first, he'd finally come to grips with idea that he would be sharing his room with his sister to give Papaji his own space. In addition to the duct tape he'd adhered poorly to the carpet, he tacked a sheet to the ceiling with Isabella's help so they couldn't see each other undress. He also didn't want his sister to see the artifacts he'd found underground. He'd moved most of his findings back into the hole in the ground and put the rest under his bed. He could only look at the bits of metal and rock when she was at rehearsal.
He'd managed to go back to the hole several times and even figured out how best to descend into the shaft without hurting himself. Armed with a fluorescent lantern hanging from his teeth, a slingshot, and rocks in his pockets, Vic climbed carefully down the ladder for what felt like a solid five minutes. He continued downward, with his eyes squeezed shut until he finally felt his feet arrive at a level surface. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust, but when they did, he was glad he'd followed his adventurous side. His feet were on sandy mud, and above him was a low ceiling of curved rock. A tunnel stretched in two directions. He bent down and entered.
The ground was damp. Vic rubbed his fingers along the cold walls. Veins of different minerals made jagged patterns in the sandstone. He walked in both directions for a few steps until he felt more of the same. To make the cave more inhabitable, he'd brought a rain tarp, a blanket, a box of crackers, a milk crate, a bottle of water, and a few comic books he didn't mind getting wet. He'd also brought cans of food he didn't think anyone would miss, like navy beans and baby corn, though he didn't have a can opener yet. Vic built a shelf out of a pile of rocks and hardened soil. On it he kept his most prized possession: the shadow box with his blue butterflies.
He would never have killed to peruse a butterfly like other collectors; he felt fortunate to have found them so close to their natural deaths. Some collectors paid tens of thousands of dollars to smugglers for rare and endangered species of butterflies and moths. He thought those villains should all die by the same torture they inflict on the butterfliesâimpalement. He looked at his shadow box. There they sat, almost glowing blue in the dim light as though their wings were phosphorescent and still living.
Though he'd agreed to havetime with Papaonce a week, when his father continued to train him in the finer points of combat, he still didn't feel comfortable enough to tell his father of his new fort. Vic wondered how their small three-bedroom home would change with Papaji in the house. He hoped he wouldn't have to havetime with Papaji, too. At least he had somewhere else he could be if things got to be too much at home.
At the airport, Vic fiddled with the matches he'd grabbed from the market. These, too, would end up in his underground palace. He noticed that he still had a pile of rocks in a pocket in his trousers, which made him feel closer to his adventure even while fulfilling his filial duty in his light-blue collared shirt.Isabella
They all stood shoulder to shoulder at the gate, as her father specified, but it was too close for Isabella's taste, so she shifted back and forth and finally went to the bathroom for the third time. She dropped her water bottle into the recycling bin en route. It was in the restroom that she discovered she actually enjoyed ocean-scented air freshener, though that all porcelain in public bathrooms reminded her of doctors and their exams. She saw a quarter on the ground and picked it up for her collection.
Isabella had moved her found treasures to her locker at school. She didn't want her brother to find her pilfered things. She wasn't a thief. She was a collector. She organized her collection in her locker with plastic bags, jars, and boxes and arranged the items in a tidy manner according to area of memory: medical (things she grabbed from doctor's offices), organic (things found in nature), Homo sapiens (objects belonging to people), strange (antiques), and things of unknown origin. There was bag of nails and a box with pieces of glass, a rainbow pencil topper with the nameCourtneyetched along side, and a new collection Isabella designated to all things pertaining to the play. So far these weren't particularly exciting: a receipt from Friendly's that she'd found onstage, dated January 12, 1987, for a fishwich; a piece of a chain probably having belonged at one point to a gold-plated necklace, which she'd found dangling from a Christmas tree prop; and the first page of a play with no title. The only words on the page had something to do with stealing a car and the good heart of a man named Thomas. It was, in general, melodramatic writing, she thought.
This reminded her that she still had to memorize her lines. Every time she opened her script she felt burned by Tewks's title page:1,001 Criesby Harry Tewkesbury. She wondered if he'd plagiarized the text from some unknown author, changed the title, and pasted his name on the title page. He made Isabella nervous. The way he spoke to the cast was a precise kind of condescension, as if he didn't realize they were older than sixth graders. When people were overly particular, they were built to pop, Isabella thought. Something was going to send him over the edge one day.
As she left the restroom, she took the script from her purse. Joining her family again, she read the cast of characters. Her name was first. The lead. The star. She blushed. Her name was written in pen on top of a mound of Wite-Out; it was obvious she hadn't been the first Samantha. She read the scene while they waited for her grandfather. It wasn't half bad. It began, like the work of Aeschylus, with a cryptic message from the chorus. The monologue belonged to Samantha; she had the distinguished role of the daughter of the President. After her short piece, in which she said something about the fragility of humankind and the ferocity of the horses of war, the play began with an intense scene of action.
“Multiple explosions and people screaming wildly” was the specific direction. Isabella imagined how she might design the stage. If she could freeze the opening scene, she'd light the stage delicately with floor lights shining upward to the scaffolding and ask the cast to freeze in their most uncomfortable positions. The shadows would become as large a presence as the four people in the scene. The audience would want to hear gunfire, helicopters, bombs, cries, though there would be none to hear. It would be like staring atGuernicathrough a microscope; one had to be patient and swallow the tragic images and moments, careful not to choke on it. To the right would be a large leather chair tipped on its side. All the books would be scattered at the base of the bookshelf. White papers that once held top-secret memos about the encroaching Third World War would be strewn across everything, crunching underfoot like yesterday's trash. Two half-destroyed walls would partition the room that had once been the Oval Office. High against the corner of the partial wall would be a shadow of the doomsday clock with its hands set at one minute to the hour. The cast would bustle about, papers would fly, bombs would explode, and Samantha would then throw herself at the Vice President's feet. His hand would reach for a button, red as a hot poker, ready to stab the earth's core. She would beg him not to press the doomsday triggerâand with this, the action again would slow and Samantha would drag the Vice President into the bomb shelter. The scene would freeze once more; stagehands dressed in black would rearrange the props like phantoms.
The previous day, she'd gone to rehearsal filled with curiosity.
All right, peopleâplaces. Tewks had come in wearing a strange, thrift-store knit scarf around his neck, so tight that Isabella wondered if he might cut off the oxygen to his brain and faint.
Butterflies had soared in her stomach. Erik, playing the Vice President, had smiled at her, and she'd tried to smile back but only managed to curl one side of her mouth into a smirk of sorts. Erik was skinny and tall and had longish hair that slipped into his field of vision every few minutes. In other words, he was cute.You look nice, he said.
Isabella hadn't been able to handle the compliment, as awkward and benign as it was, and her stomach flipped. She excused herself from the stage, with one hand over her mouth and the other waving ahold on, and ran to the nearest bathroom to throw up. Her stomach hurt in the same place it had in Dr. Gott's office. But she was not about to go back to see her again. She rinsed her mouth out in the green sink, read what had been written in marker on the mirrorâIt's not nice to write on school propertyâwiped the tears from her eyes, refilled her water bottle, shoved an Altoids mint into her mouth, and returned to the theater.
Sorry. Stomach bug.
Tewks had not been pleased, and he'd raised his hand in protest.We have to learn to overcome these things in theater. You might have to get through a scene without running to the bathroom, Isabella.
And hope that no one minds the throw-up all over my shirt?
The show must go on. Plays are about synergy, and if you can't manage to get through a scene in rehearsal without throwing up, then what are we to do?
Tracy Finch had stared at Isabella with her vicious eyes.If you can't do it, I can. She stretched the wordcanto wicked lengths.I've already memorized your lines. Tracy had just been killing time until her scene, hassling everyone and threatening to take their parts away from them like a director's hound.
Begin again, Tewks said.
The first attack took us by surpriseâIsabella coughed.
Isabella! What do you think you're doing?Tewks leapt to his feet.
Do you call that crying? You need to work on your believability. You can break the audience's spell if you remind them that they are watching a play.
At this Isabella had sighed, her hate for Tewks growing inside her heart like a blossoming, billowing balloonâready to explode. She'd swallowed her pride and thought of the worst thing she possibly could. She saw flames rising from a house, her family trapped inside. The lump in her chest moved into her throatâandvoilÃ !A tear. It rolled lazily from the corner of her eye. She felt its cool trail crossing her cheek to her lips and delivered her next line:Is there anyone besides us left?
Okay, cut! Well done. That's good. Maybe next time you can wear less mascara?
Isabella's hand went to her eyes; rivers of black ran down her face. She probably looked like Tammy Faye Bakker. Well, at least no one could deny whether she was crying or not. It was real. She actually felt a pit in her stomach and wondered for the first time how real actors did this for a living. How could they channel a different life for a period of time and then return to their own? Did the other world knock on their doors, like a doppelganger trapped behind the mind's transparent wall, and demand attention? She'd decided then and there that if she were going to act in the future, she'd only do comedies.
On their way out of the theater, after an hour-long lecture from Tewks on the importance of stage presence, which he described as something innate, Isabella and Erik had reentered the world of Cobalt High. The school in all of its concrete glory seemed dimmer and grimier than usual; the hallways were covered in old gum, and the tags of last names no one could read tattooed the lockers, walls, and, yes, even the ceiling, as if a marker or can of spray paint had been all it took to claim ownership of something inanimate. Isabella found that she preferred the world onstage: Though she and Erik had walked together, a wall resembling reality had grown once more between them; they couldn't touch or look at each other with longing eyes because no script directed them to do so. They did not speak. They were on their own. It had been awkward, but they'd continued on through the halls as though they were betrothedâuntil they reached the end of the front hall. Isabella thought she would act professionally, as she did this acting thing all the time, and she'd waved goodbye to Erik with an open hand, even though she wanted to touch him.
Hey, Erik called, and she'd turned.
Umâhe moved closerâTewks is a total freak.
Yeah, total freakazoid.
You wanna go to a movie or something, sometime soon?
Yeah, sure, okay.
Okay, well, see ya.
Remembering the moment, Isabella shivered and looked around at her surroundings in the airport. Her stomach turned.
“Isabella, put that play away. Your grandfather will be here soon.” Her mother's eyebrows slanted down.
“Mama, he's late. What am I supposed to do?”
Her mother did not respond.
USAirways Flight 785 from La Guardia to Cobalt, New York, 5 p.m.: Delayed.
Paul wrapped his large hand around Maija's shoulder and squeezed. “I think that's his plane landing now.”
They had prepared as best they could. That's all Paul could think to himself as they stoodâa starched, creased, gelled, and straightened broodâwaiting in their Sunday best for the last male elder of Paul's family to arrive at Cobalt's airport. If this moment were a photograph, as it should have been, the edges would curl in a rococo frame that would rest atop a great aunt's bureau covered in dust. If captured, this image would serve as evidence to future generations who might poke their fingers toward Great Aunt So-and-So's photo and exclaim, “Aren't those the American Singhs picking up their last patriarch from the Cobalt airport?” It was a scene like many others in any small airport. Sardar Harbans Singh was to arrive any minute now, and the entire Singh family was there with their clean-smelling clothes, smiles, and uncomfortable sighs.
Paul watched the commuter plane soar over the white-pine forest and coast along the slick black runway. The turboprop emerged from the mist like Gandaberunda, the mythological two-headed bird, ready to battle Shiva. History and the here and now crashed deep beneath Paul's sternum; the collision caused acid reflux to coat the back of his esophagus. He focused his eyes on the busy carpet instead; he watched it crawl like burrowing worms and wished he could dive under it and disappear altogether. It wasn't Papaji he feared seeing, though he did not want to see him now or ever. It was the shade of himself he'd abandoned in the village and all the ghosts that chased him, which he knew were hitchhikers in his father's luggage.
“It'll be okay,” Maija whispered, only for his ears.
Passengers filed like ants down the stairs along the tarmac to Gate Two and toward the security area. They were a weary yet organized swarm. Five, ten, twelve people passed with their wheeled bags and disheveled hair. Next came an elderly lady with a walker, shuffling slowly along the carpet. Paul searched with a poised smile and lungs inflated, anticipating a joyful release. Minutes expanded like an already over-full helium balloon, compounded by the pressure of high altitude. Two security guards and one policeman rushed past them toward the gate. Paul followed, his eyes squinting with inquiry.
A husky TSA lady stopped Paul from entering the gate. “You can't go in without a ticket.”
“But I'm looking for a passenger.”
The TSA lady pointed to a woman at the ticket counter. The woman's nametag readShirley. Shirley wore more makeup than you can find at a Walmart, Paul thought.
“Can I help you?” The added syllables in her accent were most certainly Texan. Paul liked Texans; they reminded him of Punjabis.
“Yes, I'm looking for my father. He was on that flight.”
Shirley looked at Paul's turban, then the gate, then tapped the tips of her acrylic nails on her keyboard.
“Mr. Harbans Singh?”
“Yes, that's my father. Where is he?”
“Sir”âshe moved closer and spoke quietlyâ“there was a problem. He's going to be detained untilâ”
“What? Detained? What for?”
Shirley tapped her acrylic nails against the counter. “Sir, please calm down. They are bringing him now.”
“I am calm; thisisme calm, madam. You don't want to see meâupset.” Paul clenched his hands into fists and dug his nails into his palms. Luckily, Papaji and his security entourage turned the corner at that moment and made their way toward Paul.
His father seemed to be a relic of the giant from Paul's memories. The cane he used now pulled his posture to the right. The beard that had been black and, on special occasions, wound up and glued tight against his jawline, was emancipated from the tyranny of beard fixer and flowed silver down his chest.
“Papaji?” Paul moved toward him.
“Puttar, they think I'm a jihadi!”
“Sir, keep your voice down,” the officer said between his gritted teeth.
Onlookers whirled around to stare.
“That's my father! Where are you taking him?” Paul jogged alongside them. “Wait!”
The group walked into the airport security office. The police officer closed the door, then turned toward Paul.
“Your father made some peculiar statements on the plane to another passenger. We have to take him in for a background check and questioning.”
“What did he say?” Paul felt his family surround him.
“A lady he was sitting next to asked him if he was an Arab.”
Paul felt his face drop miles.
“He used profanities, then threatened to show her his sword to prove he wasn't.”
“You must be mistaken. He's an old man; he doesn't know what he's saying. Clearly he's senile.”
“We found a large knife in his suitcase. He checked it in India, but still, we're living in crazy times.”
“Knives are ceremonial to our culture, sir; they are not to be used to fight. They are for show.”
“Bad time to say anything aboard a plane.”
“You should talk to that lady who started the whole thing. She's ignorant. He was only trying to prove he was a Sikh, the furthest thing from a jihadi terrorist.”
“Details.” The officer used his tongue to pick out an invisible fragment of food in his incisor.
Paul hated the ignorance he'd experienced since September 11. People assumed the turban he wore was related to the head covering the mullahs wore in the Middle East. He'd read about a few attacks against Sikhs, one of the victims an owner of a liquor store, clubbed by an imbecile who was never caught. Stupidity is more dangerous than intelligence, he thought.
Maija moved toward the policeman. “Listen, if he hasn't done anything wrong, hasn't violated any law, I suggest you release him now before I call my lawyer and best friend, who's a reporter for theDaily Mirror. She'd be happy to write a headline in tomorrow's paper and launch a full investigation into this matter.” Maija's eyes flashed steel, an attribute Paul adored about his wife.
Within moments, Papaji was out of the security office and staring, weary-eyed, at his American family. He shook his head and mumbled, “ManÃ© Sikh han.” He looked at Paul and smiled, all teeth.
“It's been too long,puttar.” He held his hand out to Paul, and Paul took it.
“So who do we have here?” Papaji said in English, with an intimidating tone, and looked from Maija to Isabella to Vic. He shook Maija's hand as if she were made of glass and nodded pleasantly at her.
Isabella walked up to him and said, “Hello, Papaji.”
He seemed taken aback by her directness, but instead of showing surprise, he said, “Hello,potrÃ.”
When his eyes rested on Vic, something in him seemed to change. He went to him and said, “You must be Varunesh Singh. Let me look at you.” Papaji ran his eyes across Vic's form as though he were searching for something. He seemed to be making note of his height and weight. He perused his face and paused, as though the world he'd once known as flat was now round. Papaji bent down closer to look Vic in the eye. “Oh,” was all he said as he gently ran his huge thumbs across Vic's bushy eyebrows, then pointed to his own tufty brows.
“Nice to meet you, my grandson.” His accent was thick across the English words he struggled to find.
The air around Paul seemed to get heavier; he used his pointer finger to loosen his shirt collar. Something in the air stung his eyes, and he wiped them with his handkerchief.
“Papaji, let's get out of here before they change their mind about us. Let's go.” He turned to Vic, tossed him the keys to the Cutlass Supreme and said, “Get the car,puttar; bring it round.”
Vic looked shocked. “But I've never driven.”
Vic did not hesitate a second time. When he brought the car, Paul saw that Vic's arms were stretched to their limit, gripping the wheel at ten and two as if his life depended on the completion of the task. He drove too close to the curb and slid one tire up onto the sidewalk. Maija had to show him where the parking brake was.
“Good-looking boy,” Papaji whispered to Paul in Punjabi. “Good he followsKhalsa.”
Maija asked Papaji to sit in the front as Paul would drive home, but he insisted on the backseat, next to the kids.
As they drove home, Paul looked at his father's reflection in the rearview mirror. Papaji was taking in the scenery, and Paul imagined he was probably looking for monkeys in the trees or for signs of snakes in the tall grasses.
On the Wing
Posted on October 9
Watching is patience magnified. If you are fortunate enough to see a butterfly's spectacular flight, you have to resist the desire to run after it; if you do, you will look like a fool. Let her come to you; she's coy. The most successful watching occurs when you catch her off-guard, while she's devouring her lunch, a decaying piece of fruit, or slurping flower nectar or a salty puddle of water. Her eyes are poor. Butterflies and moths are beautiful to our dingy world, but imagine what they look like to one another. They see ultraviolet colors, colors beyond the spectrum of our eyes. They are also nearsighted. The flowers stand out to them like flashing landing pads awaiting their arrival. The vegetation absorbs ultraviolet light, making them stand out. Their predatorsâbirds, reptilesâcan't see UV light, so this is their secret language. Because of her poor sight, it is easy to get close to her while she consumes her liquid diet. Her utensil of choice: a straw-like proboscis. I heard about a Postman butterfly, which got its name from its fixed flower route. From flower to flower, they drink the same nectar every day of their short lives. What a spectacular creature of habit.
Or, if you are even luckier, you will see a chrysalis freshly opened and the young adult, new to the world, pumping its blood through its wings readying for its first flight. The chrysalis tears open gently, the adult butterfly breaks free of the shell, and it veins expand the little sails. Its damp wings are like the curled lips of a clamshell. You feel honored to see its transformation. Change takes time. She zips her proboscis together like two sides of a straw, if she's lucky to have the ability to eat. Some, like the Atlas moth, are born without mouths. It seems an odd product of nature, an adult emerging after such a process only to lay eggs and die three days later. It is so ephemeral. A watcher bearing witness is graced.
But where are they? The answer is: everywhere. If it's cool, they rest beneath branches, warming their bodies. If it's warm, they are flitting low above grasses, flowers, trees, and puddles. When one catches your eye, it's because you showed patience to nature, and she is offered as a gift. They are the fairies in our world, pixies in the human realm. Their stained-glass windows so brilliant and whimsical we can't help but remember that this is what matters. You hold your breath and forget where you were rushing off to mere moments before. They are the sirens of the world we used to live in, the one we could live in.
If you get the chance to meet a butterfly in the wild when it's consuming a meal, you can look closely at its eyes, two orbs of glass with worlds inside. The light refracting through its opaque wings. Or, the edge of its hind leg fringed with tears and nibbles from battles lost. Look even closer at her almost imperceptible scales, each a different-colored sequin. Or observe how it carries on the wind, higher and higher, coasting on a mini current, then dives like a nervous debutante, shy at her first dance. They are nature in its moving state; it's only when you are quiet that she will reveal herself to you. Or perhaps she is watching you with her false eyespot when she is in prayer. To see her in flight is a giftâto see them in a glass case, drained of life, is like visiting the skeleton of a once-pretty girl.
Here is a list of my butterfly sightings by memory, so they might not be accurate, and I do not have the exact dates, only the seasons. This list is far from complete, but a start is a start.
Elfin: Large black eyes lined in white, smaller than most leaves. Its scales glitter purple and green across its dusty brown wings.
Blue Copper:Iridescent on forewings: open grassy field. I almost got it confused with a blue, but it is much larger.
Eastern Tailed-Blue: It was a blue in size (tiny) and had two commas of orange on the edge of its wing and tufty tails the size of raindrops on the edge of its hind wing. It was drinking from a daisy-looking flower in the flats.
Spicebush Swallowtail:This is the largest butterfly I've seen, spanning the length of my hand relaxed. It has green tones on brown/black wings and bright yellow shades on the edges of the wings. It was drinking from a spicebush.
Little Yellow: The difference between a sulphur and a Yellow is their antennae. Yellows' antennae are black and white, while sulphurs' are pink.
Common Sootywing:It was like its name, dark in complexion. The wings were soft black/brown and flecked with white spots. It sat like skippers do, wings spread back, easily mistaken by the untrained eye for a moth.
Unnamed Blue:I still have yet to identify the invertebrate I found not too long ago, in a ravine in a suburban area. It is a blue, tiny in size, with white circles lined in black near its hind wing. Wings are fringed with white, and there is a deep brownish tone under the violet blue color (the left and right are different colors). To me, it looks like a mutant.
To my present plight, I wonder if anyone has anything further to offer. I still haven't been able to determine an identity for my finding. I wonder if, perhaps, the creature is not a product of nature but a creation of man's doing. A Frankenstein butterfly.
You should get the Peterson's Guide; it's comprehensive. Also, don't forget that the environment could be responsible for affecting the butterfly. I know it sounds wild, but it's possible. Have you looked into environmental causes? âBF Girl NY
Thanks, BF Girl! I will get the book and look into external effects. âVic
Days later, during breakfast, Papaji looked at the backyard, through the kitchen window from the comfort of the dining table.His gaze had intent, as though sight itself was something he'd discovered only recently. He watched how the rain fell downward from heaven, as it usually did, but somehow the force of its landing seemed to pull the ground upward with each heavy drop. The raindrops' recoil splattered mud on the side of the house; gutters bloated with leaves and muck; muddy craters opened in the earth; grass became flooded rice fields; oak leaves not yet ready to fall spun across a large puddle in the backyard. Low areas under trees turned into seas, and bubbles rose to the surface and burst like translucent bombs.
His eyes meandered over the empty plates his daughter-in-law had placed on the table, and he hoped heranddÃ¡wouldn't be as hard and rubbery as the eggs that Tata, the cook, made for him in the flat in Delhiâthose grayish-yellow balls of clay. Tata didn't know the first thing about food preparation, and in Papaji's mind he should have been either shot or relegated to the realm of tea preparation alone. Maija looked nothing like an Indian woman, with her wild hair and blue jeans. He wondered what Paul saw in her. But when she placed the perfectly jiggly eggsâlike two cheerful breastsâin front of him, he couldn't help but purse his lips and offer a small nod.
It had been raining for five days straight since his arrival. He told the family that each day of rain represented a different member of the Singh household. No one seemed to understand what he meant, but they all nodded their heads and smiled at the breakfast table when he said this. He repeated his statement once more in his thick Punjabi accent, this time with his right pointer finger extended high above his scrambled eggs: “Each day is forikperson. Isabella has the first day, okay? Vic has the second and so on. My day is today.” Much to his delight, they responded with smiles of agreement. He would have a good time while he was here.
“But who will have tomorrow?” Isabella asked with scrambled eggs in her mouth.
“If it rains tomorrow and the next, we will have a visitor,” he said. And his American family seemed satisfied with this answer.
Home. So this was where his remaining family lived. Papaji had seen many homes, so many walls over his life, though he longed for only one home. That home, lost so very long ago during the great fissure that forced him south into India, was truly gone forever. It represented a time when the evil in the world was merely fiction in a cautionary tale, buried in a dusty book out of reach. Innocence, on some level, he'd left in the mortar between the walls, in the tiled floor, and with his family's worldly possessions. He'd left his innocence in the memories of his wife and first son, still pure before their journey. Home, home, home. His longing drove him, on occasion, mad. It became a phantom that haunted him like the ghost of a deceased loved one. It whispered in his ear and became embedded in his flesh.
Papaji was not comfortable in this house. He'd noticed Paul hadn't looked him in the eyes since he arrived. Not once. It had been a long time since he'd seen his son. He hoped that they would come together now, as they should have long ago. He'd imagined time and again as he planned this trip that they would talk about politics and India and farming, as they should have done when Paul was a child. Papaji had crafted scenes of their reunion that consisted of tears and apologies. Perhaps he dreamed this scenario so often that he thought it was a true possibility.
He hoped Paul would come around. Paul could be working too hard, or maybe he wasn't eating well, he thought. Perhaps it was depression from the rain that made him so angry. Papaji himself always experienced a bout of sadness during the annual monsoon downpour in India. The village celebrated when it began because it put an end to the dry season; young and old would run out into the pelting rain and let the shower clean the dust from their clothes. After a week of merciless rain, the roads would become flooded, mudslides would commence, and the same village would curse the skies for their inexorable fury. From dry to wet, content to misery, the interconnectivity between humankind and nature was evident to Papaji. Since he arrived, he had been looking forward to taking a short walk in the woods to get a closer look at the trees and the wildlife, but because of the constant downpour he could only stare at the few trees gathered in the backyard through the fogged-up windows. One of them would have to give: Paul, himself, or the weather.
It was dark all the time in Cobalt. What a sad place. The clouds seemed to push down closer and closer to the ground each day, leaving pockets of mist and fog in nooks and crevices around hills and curbs. It was an altogether messy sort of rain.
“Pea soup,hÃ¡nji,” Paul said as he flicked an angry hand at the outside.
Papaji peered down at the soil through the thick, double-paned glass. This American earth wasn't made for the monsoon. It was not sturdy or porous enough. The soil flipped and flopped like over-whipped egg whites and deflated and farted when the air ran out of it. Papaji's Indian earth was different, stronger. Sure, their floods and torrential storms sunk their cities and villages, but they always rose again like a forgotten Atlantis. Here in Cobalt, the streets and drains didn't suck the water; they seemed to pour the water back into the streets with garbage from underneath. He'd seen this phenomenon through the front window in the living room. The drain on Peregrine Court was coughing up murky waters like an old man clearing his lungs. The concrete might cave in, and the trees might lift up and out of the ground on their own and walk away, roots in tow. Over-watered land with no irrigation and a town on the verge of being swallowed by its own bowelsâwhat civil engineer built this place? No care for details, no planning for the future. Whoever it was, he was agoondaand should be run out of town with nothing but his underkaccha.
“A monsoon so late?” he asked. He used a pencil he'd found next to the kitchen computer to scratch his scalp under his white turban. Vic began to explain the differences between this rainstorm and the monsoon Papaji was familiar with in the Punjab, but in the middle of his treatise, he stopped talking altogether. Papaji caught sight of Paul's clenched jaw and squinting eyes.
“If yourputtarwants to tell me how the world works, that's fine, Ikpaul.” He glared at Paul.
“He's a smart boy, Papaji.” Paul looked down at his plate.
“If he takes after you, I think not,” Papaji mumbled and turned away from his son. He felt terrible the moment the words exited his mouth. Though Papaji tried to be civil, he found it difficult to change his old ways. He'd hated what his son represented for so long that he'd forgotten what it was like to see him as a person.
In Papaji's mind, there was an ongoing discussion: ahereand athere.Herethings were new and strange. He looked forward to viewing the American soaps likeThe Young and the RestlessandGeneral Hospital; they came highly recommended by his cousin. He liked the voice of Tanya Earhart, Channel 9's meteorologist. He hoped to find out why Paul came and stayed in America. And he was somewhat cheerful about the possibility that he would be under the care of a good doctor soon for his leg and foot pain.
There, on the other handâin Indiaâlife was familiar. The noises, smells, and overall congestion set him at ease. But the flat that stored all the Singh family's aging relatives, from Uncle Chand, whose stomach problems left a foul odor surrounding him, to Massy Sukminder, whose joints were almost completely locked straight, made him feel old. He wasn't dying like they were; he just had an old injury. His foot and leg throbbed daily. Shocking pain shot up and down his limbs with lightning precision. His son rather than his daughter would help. Girls left home to worry about their husband's relatives, but sons were always there for their fathers. Paul: his American son. He looked at Paul and his family. Even though they were Americanized and half-Latvian and mostly wore glasses, they looked like a good family.
Paul turned the TV on. The small box in plastic wood paneling sat on a lazy Susan so it could turn toward the living room or kitchen. The morning news was on, and weather forecasters were having a ball with their time in the limelightâthe only ones who were giddy about the gloom. Tanya Earhart, the heart-faced meteorologist, set aside a few more minutes during every hourly newscast to update the quantity of rainfall. There were three inches so far. Tanya made good use of her extra time to teach the public some meteorological vocabulary.Virga, they all learned, was the term for rain that falls and evaporates before it lands. Papaji had seen virga many times but never knew the word for the streaks of clouds that hung halfway across the sky. Papaji watched very closely when Tanya spoke. Her long hair was teased for height, her lips glossy like two rows of pomegranate seeds. He felt that learning English was important, so he repeated the word under his breath,veergha, and made a note to attempt to use the word sometime in the near future.
After breakfast he moved to a love seat in the living room, where he sipped his small cup of tea and nibbled on a cheese puff. His feet, bare and calloused, sat atop a pouf while he waited for the package to arrive with his life savings. He had bundled the rupees and a few other important things, wrapped them in plastic, and placed the bundle in a small box, also wrapped in brown paper and secured with almost an entire roll of packaging tape. He'd insured the package and sent it with the highest priority the post office in India offered, which was the speed post international rate.
Papaji's exercise was a slow walk to the mailbox on the sidewalk, twenty feet or so from the house. He opened an umbrella, wrapped himself in his brown wool cardigan, slid on his worn leather sandals, and shuffled to the curb. He leaned to the left ever so slightly to keep his weight lifted from his aching limb. He opened the aluminum mailbox and brought in the bills, junk mail, and some important-looking notices from the Publishers Clearing House and left them in the catchall in the foyer.
It was probably the humid air that made his joints swell like small balloons, but still he tried to smile when Maija brought him another cup of tea with two aspirintink-tinkingon the side of the saucer. The sky continued to threaten to downpour. If it wasn't raining, it was about to; if it finished raining, the sky would sigh relief and expose a grayish blue. The sun and all its effects were just becoming memories tucked away in a different dimension.
As Papaji sipped his tea, Vic sat beside him. Papaji looked at him closely and saw his fairly new clothes, sneakers, and jacket and thought how expensive these clothes must have been.
“Things are easy here, for you all, I mean. No farm, everything inside, safe, secure.”
“Did you need a shotgun? I mean, for protection and stuff?” Vic asked with wide eyes.
The old man sat deeper into the couch. “In the Punjab you needed to be ready for, what's the word?Dacoitsandbudmash.”
“They rob you in your sleep and kidnap the women. Very bad men,bahut kharÃ¡b.”
“Thieves? Did you learn how to fight, Papaji?
“Yes, we had to protect ourselves.”
“Was there adaâ?”
“Was there adacoitin your village?”
“Not just anydacoitâthe most terrible in all the land. His name was Harzarah Singh. Some said when he was very young he drank the blood of a viper and filled with evil. I just think it was greed, and he waspÃ¡gal, crazy.” Papaji wound his pointer finger at his temple. “But even Harzarah Singh could not rival the chaos that came with the Partition. It claimed even the sharpest men.”
Papaji took another sip of tea. “See, I grew up there,potrÃ¡,my father moved to Rawalpindi before I was born, and Bebbeji's family was from the area. It wasn't easy to just go go go. That's why I stayed. No one knew if this, this Partition, would come or if we could return once India was separated from Pakistan. I couldn't leave our home unprotected. I sent Bebbeji and Kamal to the village long before. There they met with other family members who also were going to rebuild. I stayed alone.”
He put down his tea. “I locked up the valuables we had in one room. We gathered, the ones who stayed, and watched over each other. My friend and neighbor, Aaqib, said he would watch over the house and told me to go. But I couldn't.”
“Why did you have to go? Why didn't he?”
“That,potrÃ¡, is a good question. The one country was divided into two: one for Muslims, the other for Hindus and Sikhs and whoever else. The politicians, you know. So, everyone was instructed that there was a date when this change of the border would be made. Some left long before to avoid any difficulty. Your grandmother. The rest were left to fend for themselves. One can't imagine the poison in people, until such a thing...”
Papaji's mind wandered as he struggled to find the words. In the winter of 1946, he'd packed up his wife, Anjana, and son Kamal, and sent them with one bullock and as much wheat flour as it could carry along with a few other Sikh families heading south toward Amritsar. He'd watched Anjana walk over the hill with Kamal in her arms until he couldn't see them anymore. From there, he'd expected them to continue onto a Punjab village outside of Jullundur, their ancestral land. There was no telling what trouble they would encounter along the way. He had to trust the men of the other families, who were like brothers and uncles to him, to protect his wife and son in his absence. He had to have faith that they would be allowed back into their family's village. Papaji's father's family had moved from Punjab to the rural village north of Rawalpindi when they had received the land at a good price from the British. The land, it turned out, was more difficult to cultivate than promised. But in the end, it was a fine village with strong and intelligent people, and the wheat, with a little encouragement, sprouted from the ground every year. His father and mother had both passed away from typhoid fever, and his other relatives remained in Southern Punjab. That had left Papaji as the sole inheritor of the land on which he was standing. But what good was this land without his wife and son? His gaze had followed the horizon as far as the next mountain.
And now, a dark cloud covered Papaji, and he became quiet.
“What was it like?” Vic's voice brought him into the present.
“At first, calm. Many left, so we thought it wouldn't be so bad. Then came the riots, and in the middle of the night the window shattered. Big sound. My shotgunâI kept it under the bedâwas next to me. I took up the gun and went to search the house. Someone had thrown a brick through the window. Then I heard the screams. A pack of thieves was running through the city, burning wherever they heard a non-Muslim lived.”
Papaji paused and used his cloth handkerchief to wipe his eyes and upper lip. He replaced his glasses and then twirled both sides of his moustache simultaneously toward the sky with his thumbs.
“What happened with your friend?”
“Did you ever see him again?”
“That's another story altogether. Another time.”
“How did you find Bebbeji?”
“It took months. I walked at night only. The darkness kept us safe. Many others were also going to the new border. So we walked in a large group; the more the better, in case we ran intoâ”
“You walked for months? How many miles?”
“I don't know. Do you have a map, or a globe?”
Vic left the room and returned with an atlas of the world, which he spread over the coffee table. He flipped to the page with India and the surrounding countries. Papaji leaned over the map, squinted his eyes, and pointed a finger at the lower portion of Pakistan.
“There is where we started.” He pushed his finger down about five hundred miles into India. “There is where I ended.”
“You must have been very tired. What did you do for food? It seems impossible to be able to travel that far, on foot!”
“Yes, but I survived. Vic, there is much to say, too much for now.” He laughed and shook his head. “I am tired. Please, I will sleep.” He pulled the throw blanket over his legs and closed his eyes. Within moments, he was snoring and dreaming.
Papaji dreamt of the rough roads, the regional checkpoints, and those who would try to benefit from the movement of refugees. There were many thieves, and their traveling group had to stand guard day and night. He'd taken comfort in the fact that not many dared to cause trouble with his people; the Sikhs were strong and known as fierce fighters. The travelers had taken shotguns and theirkirpans. Their strength could also make them a target, for if they were defeated and word spread, it would surely destroy the morale of other groups also en route. At least his cousin, Maddan Singh, also accompanied the group. He was a learned man who had a legal background and relations with the Temple Committee in Amritsar that protected thegurdwÃ¡rÃ¡and oversaw land ownership in the Punjab. He would know what to do if they encountered difficulty. Papaji now regretted staying as long as he did to guard their land and animals from thieves and squatters. He'd originally thought it would be only a year at most and had hoped to send for Anjana and Kamal as soon as the political heat disseminated. But he never set foot in that home again.Vic
Vic was feeling bold. He asked Papaji about the old house, the war, the lifestyle they'd all had before the Partition, and then the farm they bought with the reparations after. As Vic watched the old man stroke the edges of his beard, hesitate with his finger at the tip of his nose, and search his thoughts before answering, he saw something that gave him pause. At that moment, Vic realized that he looked just like his grandfather except for the long, white beard and the deep creases around his eyes and mouth. He had the nose. He had the bushy eyebrows. He wore the glasses. Papaji was a glimpse into Vic's future. Learning about his family's past quenched more than Vic's bookish need for information; Vic began to feel less like a single star in the sky and more like a part of a constellation.
Perhaps this was the reason for the changes he'd experienced lately. Regardless, Vic felt mighty. He'd challenged his science teacher on his answer to last week's extra credit equation. He complimented his mother's cooking by telling her that she “should have been a chef” and that “we are lucky to eat such excellent meals.” A well of strength was growing inside Vic. He was collecting information; knowledge was his spinach. Secrets made him feel powerful, and Vic relished his secret world. When he passed his reflection in the hallway mirror, he realized that he had grown at least an inch. All week, he had been starting his days with thirty pushups and a jog around the block.
Vic put on his rain poncho and backpack and went into the dreary early morning without his sister. She would take the bus to school later; he said he needed the walk, and no one questioned him. The construction on Main Street had come to a screeching halt because of the rain. The great sinkhole from which they were removing debris was flooded and, like a geyser, spewed dirty water back onto the earth's surface. As Vic passed, a few men were busy setting up pipes to drain the hole.
The morning was silent and heavy. The oppressive weather insulated the town as Vic's sneakers splashed along Main Street. He crossed Glenwood then made his way through the thick forest, up one hill, then another. The bog was quicksand under his sneakers, and he grew irritated each time he had to shake his foot free of the earth's suction. At the forest line ahead, the brilliant white bark of a series of birches stood out against the gloom. Vic saw a glimmer of blue on a slick tree's barkâa butterfly like the one he'd found earlier, but this one was even more mutated. One of its wings was a stump, and the other was wrinkled though open. Its body had not fully metamorphosed during the chrysalis stage, and the thorax still looked like a caterpillar's, green and wormlike. The proboscis was missing, too. He watched it try to move, but he knew it wouldn't survive, not like this. He extracted his tweezers and gently lifted the insect into a tin. It fell against the metal, and Vic watched as it died. He would have to give it a good inspection when he returned home later. What a tragedy, he thought. A life not given a chance to live.
When he lifted the collection of branches, skillfully twisted into a covering at the base of the birch, he felt a chill of air on his face. The edges of the hole were damp, but the inside walls were not. He lowered himself slowly into the square shaft, rung by rung.Vic had grown bolder each time he'd descended the ladder into the hole. Once he'd overcome the anxiety of having twenty feet of earth above his head, he was amazed by his secret presence within the hill of his village. The area directly below the surface entry was quite comfortable, nest-like. The lantern, hanging on a hook, was bright enough. Vic had brought a few more things: a can opener, small camping torch, some Band-Aids, a change of clothes, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
He had ventured quite far through the tunnel. Holding his lantern, Vic yelled his full name, Varunesh Dzintar Singh, down the shaft, and listened for the echo's reply. It took a long time, and the names fumbled over one another. But he had not walked the entire length. Time was of the essence now, as Vic knew he'd have to end his underground adventure if he saw signs of the rain seeping into the mine.
He put on his backpack and proceeded to move slowly through the tunnel. It went downward at a slight angle for quite some time, and his sneakers lacked adequate traction, which made for a slippery journey. Vic thought he heard something; he swore it was a bat, but then he remembered he'd just finished readingBatman: Year Oneby Frank Miller, and he told himself the noise was probably a beam creaking or water dripping.
The thought that the entire structure could crumble on him hadn't crossed Vic's mind until now. Suddenly he regretted not leaving a note at the surface in case he went missing. But he was here now, and everything seemed stable so far.
The farther he went, the thicker the air became. Vic's eyes watered, but he didn't wipe them because he didn't want to slip. As he continued slowly into the darkness, lit only by his lantern, Vic paused and turned to look how far he had come, but darkness consumed his wake.
He thought about Hansel and Gretel and their trail of crumbs through the forest, and he felt he should mark his path for the return journey. His mother's folktales had made quite an impression on himâwhen he was very young, she had told him her own version of Hansel and Gretel, and her Latvian adaptation was more gruesome than the one the Brothers Grimm had recorded. In his mother's version, the two children were lost forever in the forest, even after they escaped the witch's oven. The cloying smell increased the farther he went.
The tunnel continued downward, leveled out, then continued downward some more. It turned slightly to the left, then to the right. At times Vic felt as though the walls were closing in around him. Time seemed different in the mine. Without the marker of the sun or a clock to tell him exactly how many minutes were passing, Vic felt as though he'd been in the mine for hours, maybe even days. His senses were heightened as well. Sounds were louder in the tunnel: The dripping and creaking noises stood out against the silence. His feet became more sensitive to the type of ground on which he was walking. His sense of smell sharpened with the sweet air, and he felt the air's damp heaviness build.
Then Vic saw something shiny in the distance. The lamp offered only enough light to illuminate a few feet in front of him, so he continued forward carefully with his arm extended. The ground became slick, and he grabbed at the wall to support his sliding sneakersâbut he slipped and fell into a large pool of icy water. His scream filled the tunnel. Once he realized the pool was only a few feet deep, he stood up.
Vic looked ahead to see how far the pool of water went. He picked up the lantern, thankful that it was waterproof, and swung it forward. A brick wall up ahead, haphazardly constructed, ran from below the water to the ceiling.
He knew he needed to dry off if he was ever going to make it to school, and he was thankful he had a change of clothes back at the entryway with the rest of his new stash in case he got stuck in the mine or caught in the rain. He would have to change into his PE sneakers when he reached school.
Vic hoisted himself out of the water and made his way back to the mine's entrance. Once there, he changed into a dry pair of pants and a clean sweatshirt. When he ascended the ladder and entered the peculiar morning light, he realized there wasn't a great contrast between the underground and the aboveground worlds. The eerie sky was uncannily oppressive and claustrophobic, too, not a liberating reentry into the land of fresh air. Vic took off running, his shoes making a sloppy sound as he flew down the hills and into Cobalt.
The second late bell rang just as Vic entered his science classroom, breathless from the jog. Mr. Drew smirked and pointed at the clock. “Singh, you are a lucky man. One second later, and you'd end up in detention lockout.”
Mr. Drew closed the door to the classroom, and it automatically locked. Just at that moment, Joe Balestrieri arrived and kicked the door. Vic was glad to see him locked out of the classroom like an animal. Joe did this almost every day, as he'd rather sit in detention than learn anything. Mr. Drew ignored Joe and said, “Okay, people, turn to page one hundred in your textbooks. Today we are going to begin to memorize the periodic table of elements.”
Vic's feet were still wet, as he hadn't had a chance to trade his soggy sneakers for the dry ones in his gym locker. His frozen feet were beginning to smell; he tried to ignore the stench of his pre-ripened, sweat-upon shoes as Mr. Drew began his lecture. He just hoped that Katie, sitting at the desk to his right, couldn't smell him. When she smiled at him, he forgot his chilly feet but couldn't manage to return the expression. He burped instead. It was a strange reflex over which he had no control.
Katie laughed and turned to her friend. This type of embarrassment was not unfamiliar to Vic. His neurological system understood chemical compounds, physical pain, and differential equations. It did not, however, behave properly around girls. In the past, he'd drooled, burped, and almost farted once (thankfully the gas bubble was thwarted) while interacting with a female. He'd even stuttered while talking to Nurse McClasky, whose pockmarked face and broad shoulders made her look manly.
But he felt different today, bold, confident, and strong. Ah, he thought, Katie really does smell like peppermint. He wondered if she had freckles all over her body or just on the apples of her cheeks. He noticed a butterfly she'd drawn in black marker on the front of her binder, and this gave him even more courage. He swallowed and said, “Hey.”
“Yeah?” Katie turned toward him slightly.
“I want to join yearbook.”
“Yeah, sure.” She smiled.
“Okay?” He smiled back.
“Okay.” She wrote something in her notebook and tore it off, handing it to him. It was her e-mail address, and underneath she'd written:E-mail me!ïHe nodded coolly, though his heart skipped a beat.
The more elements his teacher recited, the more Vic thought of his unidentified little blue. He'd requested Peterson'sField Guide to Eastern Butterfliesfrom the local library, but it hadn't helped his search. Cobalt had some blue butterflies but nothing that looked as odd as the one he'd found. Blues were a sensitive group that relied on very specific vegetation for their food. The Silvery Blue and Plebejus Blue lived in the area during the spring and looked similar to his tiny find, but their markings and overall coloring were very different. He would return to the butterflies as soon as he could to listen to what they were trying to tell him.Paul
Paul couldn't believe his eyes. Adelaide had called earlier to let him know they'd printed his “excellent” letter to the editor, but she hadn't said that they'd printed the whole thing. It took up the entire Letter to the Editor section, and they'd even given it a title: “The Voice of Reason,” by Paul Singh. It couldn't have come at a better time. He used the largest magnet to hang it on the front of the refrigerator, then backed up a few feet to appraise it from a distance.
He could hear his father reciting his prayers, theJapji Sahib, from his bedroom. The harmonious sound offered a sonic frequency to the air in the house. Paul remembered how his skin would tingle from the vibrations of the early morning prayers at thegurdwÃ¡rÃ¡.Ik Onkar. Satnam. Karta purakh. Nirbhao. Nirvair. Akal murat. Ajuni. Saibhang. Gur prasad. Jap. Ad sach, jugad sach. Hai be sach. Nanak, hosi be sach.These lines brought Paul home. They invoked the idea that stayed with him regarding truth being god, being everything. Paul paused in the hall outside of his father's door and let the nostalgia wash over him; this made the hole in the center of his being more prominent.
Paul's favorite lines were at the end of the prayer:Pavan guru pari pita maataa dharat mahatt.Air is guru, water the father, the earth the great mother of all. He had recited small prayers in his own mind and had bowed before the micro-altar he'd made on the dresser with his copy of theJapji Sahiband an image of Guru Nanak on a slick, well-worn card. What would his father think of how little he'd passed to his children in terms of language and meaning? As his father recited the end of the prayer, Paul went back to the kitchen and waited for him to emerge.
“Good morning, Papaji. Did you rest well?” Paul spoke in Punjabi.
“Sat sri akal. Yes, yes, fine.” Papaji was dressed in his whitekurta pajama,and though his head had thefiftee,he hadn't wrapped his full turban. He did however, have a piece of cotton fabric tied around his chin and head, thetatha. To an outsider it would have seemed he had a toothache, but Paul knew he was fixing his beard in place with Welldone beard-fixing solution. The long hair had been twisted along his jaw, transforming his persona to a manicured arrangement of hair with a swirling moustache twisted to curved points. Kamal had taught Paul how to do this long before he had enough facial hair to try it.
“I came home for lunch. Are you hungry? I was going to make myself something.”
Papaji ticked his head back and forth in an affirmative and cast his gaze out the window at the hazy sun peeking through the high clouds. He unbound histatha.
Though Paul was hoping to find a few leftovers in the refrigerator, something from last night's dinner perhaps, he found a treasure instead: a stack of Tupperware containers, each labeled with the contents and the time to set in the microwave. Maija, you are wonderful, he thought. She'd made a chicken yogurt curry, basmati rice, anddaal, and she'd sliced cucumbers, carrots, and onions and tossed them with cilantro. There was even a small container of pecan bars.
Paul washed his hands, emptied the food into more attractive serving dishes, and heated them. He and his father ate in silence. Paul thought Maija's curry was delicious, but he could barely remember the taste of his mother's chicken to draw a comparison. He began to doubt his taste buds and lifted the hot serving dish. He'd forgotten to use a potholder and burned his handâand the smell of chicken curry and his father's beard fixer, along with the searing pain on his skin combined in some unearthly way and sent him on a journey into the past.
He remembered screams, gurgling sounds, his body flushed with heat. The tile floor was cold under his bare legs. He was a small child; the counter was so far above his head as he searched for the source of his pain. Tears flooded his eyes.
Oh, my God. Help! Someone help!Bebbeji picked Paul up and poured cold water over his body.
An old man came into the kitchen. Just leave him, Anjana, he's going to cause more problems.
No, I can't.
It wasn't your fault, what happened, but a husband won't see it that way if he finds out, and you will be left alone on the streets. Finish it!
Uncle, he's my child. I don't care what you say. Oh, God, what have I done?
Forever the past will haunt you through his existence.
As Paul reentered the present, the scarred skin on his side felt unusually tight. He looked around the room for something to secure his place in the worldâhe felt it was about to fall apart.
“Do you cook, also? American men cook, nah?” Papaji wiped his beard with a cloth napkin.
“No, Papaji, but I grill and make tea. Maija's cooking is much better than anything I could make. It's good, right?”
“First class. Very tasty. She cooks like asardarni. Do you come home every day for lunch?”
“No, only sometimes.” Paul put water on for tea and glanced at his letter to the editor on the fridge. “I was published. The newspaper here, look.” He handed the piece to his father.
Papaji cleaned his glasses and squinted at the page. “âThe Voice of Reason' is very important sounding.” He began to read the letter aloud, struggling through the words in English.
Paul was impressed. His father's English was better than he'd remembered, perhaps due to spending time in New Delhi. In the city people moved from Hindi to English to Punjabi to Urdu depending on to whom they were speaking. Paul said, “It's about the construction.”
But his father lifted his finger and continued to read, with his pointer underlining every word. It took several minutes; Paul made tea, drank his, and reheated his father's by the time Papaji lowered his glasses to the tip of his nose and said in Punjabi, “When can I see the station?”
“Terrible. Construction. We should learn about the soil.”
“Never heard of this sinkhole business.”
“No one in my family is a writer.”
Paul's heart sank. He took the scrap of newspaper from Papaji and returned it to its place on the fridge. “My family enjoys reading and writing.”
“Son, I am an old man.”
Paul's jaw clenched as he tossed the plates into the dishwasher.
“I have to get back.” Paul spoke in English. “I'll see you at dinner.” He picked up the remote control and showed his father how to flip through channels.
“Ikpaulâthank you,” Papaji said as Paul closed the door behind him softly.