Camphor, I decided, as I sniffed the air delicately. It had to be. My head throbbed; rubbery veins would pump with thick red blood that threatened to tear the walls of its containers. I clench my jaw to calm the throbbing. It works, and the musty aroma settles on my skin, my mouth. Taste buds on my tongue curl into oblivion; hoping to avoid the smell that fast travels through my nostrils; it won’t be long before-
You’re awake, the voice says; it’s oily. I nod, aware that the voice cannot see me. Have you slept at all? he asks, concern clouding his voice.
I shake my head, ever so slightly. This time he knows because my hair rustles against the fabric of my pillow. Blue, he told me, is the color of our pillows, when we dressed them in their cases last week. I imagine resting my head against the sky when I sleep.
Do you want me to tell you a story? he asks softly, after a pause of uncertainty.
My moods for my husband’s stories vary greatly; I lust after them on some days, on others they make me sick with all the improbable plots.
Today, I crave a story, and he tells me one about a girl with only four fingers on one hand. I imagine jagged flesh, unevenly cut; yellow bone peeking out of the pink flesh. The handiwork of a jealous lover, he says unfeelingly. Handiwork, handy work, hands, cut hands. My tongue flips these words around. No man ever gave her a ring. There was no finger to place the ring on. My stomach turns at the thought of fresh blood, smelling of coarse iron dripping on her skirt, unable to stop. When it finally ceases, she smiles, the worst is over.
In the morning, I kiss his arm; the velvety skin like a pot of honey, like the ones my father would gift my mother on their anniversaries. As kids we found it touching, though she never liked honey. The pots were always the same; glass and rounded. They had a ribbon tied around the neck, always baby pink. Sometimes, the honey stained the ribbon. I would dip my chubby finger in the pot when my father was not looking and suck it. The chalky, cloying honey left a bitter aftertaste. The dregs that remained on my fingers would be wiped against the back of my dresses. He grunts contentedly, possibly happy that my kiss woke him up rather than the piercing alarm. He lightly reciprocates the kiss on my forehead, like a grazing feather. We are late; me for my dog-sitting and him for his magazine job. I write, he told me once, stories, thought pieces, anything they want me to write.
Anything? I asked.
Sometimes, he replied, they ask you to write against what you stand for. I do it anyway. The real world has no place for morals.
That’s not true. You are not firm enough, my voice rises.
And you don’t understand the real world, he retorted immediately, almost too fast, as if he had rehearsed the answer.
I cry for a long time after that, he brings roses. The silky texture of the flowers calms me. It’s as if he never uttered those words. Roses are the flowers I like the least, he knows it.
When he returns home from work, the honey on his skin disappears, instead replaced by salt, not like the salt in sea-water. Stale, musty sweat, a fluid I believe only he secretes. I relish it.
Oli, I hear him coo. My neighbor’s ten year old labrador jumps from my lap towards him. Do you think we should get a dog? he asks absently. The thumping of Oli’s tail on our wooden floor tells me he is scratching the dog under his ear, and then moving his fingers just above his snout, finally cupping Oli’s face in both his hands. I would love one, I answer. The conversation is a script. A reused one. It repeats periodically but never materializes. As he walks towards me, the smell of his sweat mixed with Oli’s odor floats towards me, reaching me before he does. We kiss for a moment, the duration decreases every day, knowingly or unknowingly. Oli is probably watching, wondering about the depth of our affection. Quite shallow, old boy, I say in my head. If we were dogs, him and me, we could fuck and separate. Unfortunately, we are human beings with a pressing need to commit.
Growing up on a farm, I prayed for modernity to hit my family like a truck. They were old-school. The frills in the collars of my dress suffocated me and I wore my hair long enough to tie it around my neck like a noose. Let me cut it, please, I begged routinely. Yet they were adamant.
Jesus wore his hair long, too. If he could, as a man, you can, my mother said, eliciting giggles from my father and oldest brother. I cut an inch or two every month and buried the strands in the soil. A subtle act of rebellion. I was empowered. Then, I saw him. He was scrawny, built like a thirteen year-old boy instead of eighteen. Sparse tufts of hair grew on his face, above his lip. I wanted to know what his body would feel like against mine, how my skin would redden when his prickly beard chafed it. When we had sex, it was bumpy, like pulling a worn car over a rocky hill. It didn’t matter. The entire time he was inside me, I thought of how invigorating it was to break yet another rule my parents bound me by.
The next day, I went blind.
Blind is too absolute. What happened to me was slightly different. I ceased to see. My eyes refused to open, like they were glued shut. The days that followed, I felt different fingers on my face. My mother’s sleek, pearl-like finger tips that were scented with cocoa butter, the lotion my aunt sent her from abroad that she used, tried to pry my eyes open. My father pushed hers aside and did the same with his stubby fingers coated with the sour smell of smoke. Doctors’ fingers touched my face too. I remember a particular doctor, a middle-aged man with soft hands. His gentle touch comforted me. Amidst all this, I was oddly peaceful. My usual bellowing nature rested gently against the adversity, accepting its fate without question. Perceptive, the doctor stated one day. I could smell fairly well. I could distinguish scents, flavors, fragrances. Fresh pine, citrus, floral, mint, rot. I made an inventory in my head. Smells were stacked up against each other, available to me when my sight failed.
My only friend back then visited our house every day, brimming with gossip and stories. My eyes remained closed, a mystery according to doctors. Surprisingly no illness accompanied my sudden loss of sight. I was healthy. My friend would hold my hand and we would walk by a lake for hours. She told me about her cousins abroad who wore mini-skirts and dyed their hair; about Sandi the German shepherd that the postman adopted; about her boyfriend who was saving himself until marriage. I was abreast with the news of the world around me.
He asked about you, she said on one of such walks, referring to the boy I hadn’t seen since the night we slept together.
What does he say?
He wants to meet you again. I told him about what happened, she said. We arranged a meeting, for him to meet me. It had to be discreet, away from my house lest my parents found out. On the day of the meeting, I rubbed some of my mother’s cocoa butter lotion on myself. By then, I knew all my dresses just by their textures. I chose the one which I would wear for a party; slightly shorter than the others and lavender. I pulled it down so that the beginning of the line of my cleavage was visible. I hoped he hadn’t changed since the day I saw him and slept with him.
Does it hurt? he asked, not wanting to be insensitive.
No, I shook my head.
I wanted to ask you if- if I could, well, see more of you?
I smiled in assent.
It was during our courtship that my eyes opened. I woke up one morning, and my eyelids were open. My family jumped with joy and clapped, but I still could not see. It was dark.
You have magnificent eyes, he said when he saw me. They are like little globes. I could stare at them forever.
They are empty, I said. He touched his lips to my eyebrows. His strong perfume overpowered my sense of smell. My eyes watered. A cheap, imitation perfume that stores sold, with a picture of a man with bulging muscles, I assumed. Beneath that, I drew in his coconut-like scent, the one that he carried with him even after we got married.
Our wedding was a modest affair, like our marriage. All the guests could fit into the large canopy my mother designed in front of our house. He stood by me the entire time, describing every single aspect of the ceremony. My dress, he told me, was an ivory colored satin piece that clung to my upper body and then flowed to the ground. It shone in the sun, he said, like a pearl. Its sleeves ended at my elbows and the neckline plunged. I carried a bouquet of roses, his choice. The intense fragrance seeped into the roof my head during the ceremony and developed into a slight headache later. That night, after all the guests left, we made love in my bedroom. It felt different from the first time. This time, he knew what to do with his hands; his tongue did not slobber all over my chin; he asked if I was pleased at regular intervals and I was. We slept on our wedding clothes afterwards.
After Oli’s mother, an old, cheerful woman took him back home, I feel a strange sort of loneliness. I want a baby, I tell him that evening. My hands try to grasp something in the empty air, in vain, hoping for a presence, something new to play with. I hear him sigh. His face would contort next, scowling, deepening the lines that are drawn vaguely on his shapely face, I assume.
Why, he says. It’s not a question. He does not expect an answer. The gentleness in his voice brings in a deluge of memories from the days of our courtship; of him stroking the back of my neck as my cantankerous self would send a barrage of questions his way, demanding to know this and that. The answers would come promptly, in vivid details so that I could conjure images not visible to me. It was easier for us then, without the ache of a marriage balancing on a thin thread gnawing at us.
I want a baby, I repeat again. My shoulders ache; I realize I have been slouching. The newspaper crinkles as he folds it and places it on the table. It will be a baby, a tiny human being. It’s not as easy as taking care of a dog, he says in exasperation at my stubbornness.
I have half a mind to throw a fit, fling myself against the wall and sob heavily, a tactic that has worked in the past. Instead, I resolutely push my chin up. I know, I say. A scenario flashes through my mind. A round-faced girl with curls that stick out from behind her ears, as tall as my knee, pushes her arms upwards, asking me to carry her. I say no, pouting, as if carrying her is an impossible task. She shakes her head with tenacity only capable of her mother and scrunches up her nose. We name her Eve; the first woman, who defied convention.
His breathing deepens. Okay, he says.
My insides burn with ecstasy. I will be a mother, soon, if nature wills.
That night he tells me a story again, about a woman who adopted a puppy and raised it lovingly in the mountains. The puppy grew up to love her like she was his own. Their bond thrived away from civilization, in the cold mountains. One day, a man looking for shelter stayed in their cottage, a cosy place. The next morning, the man’s limbs were found away from his body, ripped apart brutally. The dog was a wolf.
I wake up to his hands on my body, softly running them across my stomach, my hip bone and the flesh of my thighs. My eyes remain closed because they will never open again.
CEMA D’SOUZA, 19, is currently pursuing her triple major in Journalism, Psychology and English Studies at Christ University, Bangalore and breaking her New Year resolutions at an alarming speed. A quintessential bookworm, she can always be found with her nose buried in a good book.