Monday, October 29, 2012
Makara excerpt by Kristen Ringman
Fionnuala is such a daughter: a part-human, part-seal Deaf woman who falls in love with Neela, a Hearing woman in India. While growing up with Neela’s family in Tamil Nadu, she struggles with her distant parents living apart in Ireland and Indonesia. Eventually her father brings her to Venice where she becomes a mime artist. What binds them all together is the unstoppable undercurrent of ache running through the sea of their lives.
I was fourteen when the darkness started. It was a year after the night my arms became splattered with blisters from the ants. The night when Neela first touched me and I could feel my entire body singing to her, wanting to sign, move, speak.
Finally, it said.
* * *
Neela and I sneaked away together often. Our bedroom became our own private temple in homage to our favourite stories and each other’s bodies. We kept a picture of Lakshmi besides our picture of Ganesh on the wall. We conversed in sign and wrote in Tamil. Sometimes we just stared and let the words flow back and forth beneath our eyelids.
Neela’s skin was almost black, like many South Indians. She had a round face and thin eyebrows. Her hair flowed down to her waist in soft waves. Her eyes were dark, but when the sunlight shone in them, I was able to see tiny flecks of gold around her pupils. We liked to compare our lips in the mirror because they were so different from each other. My lips were narrow and pointy. Pale against paler skin. Neela’s lips didn’t have the same two points on top that mine did. Hers were rounded and full. The kind of lips you can’t stop thinking about kissing. The kind of lips you want to feel on your skin. I was self-conscious of my freckles, but Neela said they were beautiful. She licked them sometimes.
Father hadn’t written in months. He was somewhere in Indonesia. I pictured him diving with sharks, examining the corals shining with shades of red, orange, and yellow, rivaling the brightness of the saris around me.
* * *
The day the darkness began was a day like any other. It was a sweltering afternoon. Neela and I went home from school early. We wanted to do something bad. Our newfound womanhood leaned us towards experimentation. The canyons called to us—promises of daytime nudity, swimming in our favourite pool, making love in the sunlight. I was thinking of the curve of Neela’s wet hip against the canyon rocks as she pulled her body up onto the ledge. The way I would try to brush the red dirt flecks off her skin, but they would only stick to my fingers until we jumped back into the water. The way her dark hands tangled in the auburn waves of my hair as she braided wet flowers into it.
I didn’t notice Neela’s Amma standing near the shops as we passed. Her eyes met Neela’s, and I could feel the ground shaking below us. She was furious to see us so far from school and why?! I read the Tamil on her lips without needing anything written down. Normally that would have made me feel proud, but I was terrified.
Neela pretended to cry, and Amma said something terrible to her. I didn’t know what it was. I pinched Neela’s arm on our way back to school repeatedly, but she would not tell me.
After school, we were sent to our room without dinner. On our shared bed on the floor, Neela finally signed, A demon will come here tonight.
I laughed. I brought her under our blue elephant sheets, and told her we were safe there. I signed, Remember G-a-n-e-s-h? He will protect us!
She shook her head. Not now.
How can I do anything if I don’t know what’s going on?
She sat for a moment. Tears made salt rivers upon her face, prominent against the dark of her skin. Her eyes were full of fear. She never showed fear without courage lurking behind it. Her ego was strong like a snake—but it wasn’t strong now. She began slowly.
I’m going to write the name down, then you burn paper and I’ll tell the story. Ok?
NILI, she wrote.
I burned the paper and waited. My stomach grumbled. My eyes were tired, although the sky was still violet. We both sat cross-legged beneath the blue sheet. The grey and white batik elephants froze in their procession to watch the story told by the moving hands below.
Her story went like this:
In a small hut by the river, there lived a man and his wife. She was by far the most beautiful woman of the entire village and the man felt lucky to have her. She became pregnant and throughout the pregnancy, she was very sick. They were both afraid for the child, but the woman was strong. She held on through her contractions until she was finally able to squeeze the baby out of her. Once the little boy was in her husband’s arms, she died.
The father wept as he washed his healthy son and cut the cord linking him to his mother.
The ghost of the man’s dead wife materialised out of the far shadow in the corner. The man was overjoyed to see his wife’s soul come to bless her baby and kiss him goodbye. But as she glided closer, he saw a deep blackness in her eyes. The man bolted out of his home and ran with his child, still damp in his arms, up to the hut of a saint. He felt her breath upon the back of his neck. She whispered into his ears, “Let me kill the child.”
The baby wailed.
When they reached the hut, the door was already open for him. Saints knew such things before they happened. As the man entered, the door slammed behind him. Strange herbs were hanging on small strings from the ceiling of the hut. The saint sat cross-legged by a glowing fire. He wore only a white lungi and clear crystal beads hanging from his neck. His hair was long and tied back with a string. His eyebrows were thick. His deep brown eyes radiated peace.
The saint spoke in a whisper. “Your wife’s sorrow at her own death and separation from her child has caused her to become a demon. She will try to kill you and the child until she has succeeded.” He took a gleaming silver blade from beneath his skirt and handed it to the man. “This knife will protect you both from her as long as you hold it. Lose it, and you will not escape your death again.”
The man understood. He replied over and over, “Nandre nandre nandre.”
He crept back out into the dark.
His wife was waiting, but when she saw the knife she vanished into the night. With the knife in his hands, he walked back home and slept until dawn. As the sun rose, the light comforted him. He began to prepare his wife’s body for burial. First, however, he had to carry the child down to the river for a bath and gather water for washing the body. As the husband made his way to the river, the demon took on solid form in the sunlight and went before the leader of their village. She cried before him: “My husband has gone mad and stolen my child and he has a knife he will use to kill me with if I get near them! Please help me!”
The village leader responded: “Where is your husband, so that I may demand his knife from him and give you back your child?”
“The river, the river.” She moaned and followed him with an invisible smile upon her perfect lips.
When the leader saw the husband with the blade in his hands, he yelled: “Set down your knife and give your child to his mother! You must not abuse her like this!”
The husband cried: “You don’t understand! My wife is dead! That woman behind you is a demon!”
“I will hear nothing of that! She has been weeping and weeping over your madness! Drop that knife! End this now!”
The man looked to the heavens. He looked towards the saint’s hut at the top of the hill. Neither the saint nor the god Shiva seemed to be near enough to help him. Giving in to his fate, he kissed his child, and replied: “Let it be finished then!”
The man let his sacred knife slide through his hands as the demon flew towards him. She grabbed her child and ate him. As the remaining chunks of his tiny body fell from her hands and his blood poured into the river, she seized her husband with her long nails and tore into his flesh, too. And she disappeared.
The story was terrifying, but I didn’t know how it related to what Amma had told her. Seeing the question in my eyes, she signed, Wait, I’ll finish.
I waited as she rested her hands on her skirt. I let my own hands press against her knees for comfort and found that she was still shaking. She continued. Mothers here tell this story to their children. If we pretend to cry, they say we are Nili?? crying and once the sun goes down, she will come and get us.
My hands couldn’t move to reply. We clasped against each other in the terror Neela had shared. Between us, the terror grew so large it filled the room. There were moments when we felt Nili’s hands scratching at our sheet that we kept covering our heads—a mystical barrier. We didn’t notice the sweat dripping down the sides of our faces, down our necks, between our breasts. We didn’t lie down for the fear that she would crush us beneath her. The night passed from one gasp to another.
In a subtitled YouTube clip, the publisher discusses why he chose to publish Makara –click http://youtu.be/PkclltSFGCw
To purchase, click http://www.handtype.com/books/makara