It is the time of the black ants dying. They topple like old men on long legs gone suddenly useless; lie folded in on themselves like fragments of blackberries. Penny does not know what seasons they observe; she doesn’t know their ceremonies or their marriage rites, or how long they are allowed to stay in their beady oval thoraxes, their round heads and striding purposeful limbs.
Alive, they are huge, they range silently on the sink-top in amongst the milk-powder cans and toast crumbs. Penny has to keep swabbing down the counter; even though the sweeper-lady comes daily to do the floors and toilet, she is not responsible for the kitchen.
The ants are big as fire engines, and they don’t make long stringy trails the way the small ants do; they are more like bumblebees; they range alone. They remind Penny of the wood-ants in the Sierra Nevada of California; rambling about on fallen mulchy logs. I love them, thinks Penny; they are somehow clean, and they walk about like great machines when we are gone, and run for cover when we return. They die in the milk can in sticky sweetness, dinosaurs in white tar.
Now she is in the shop. It is a proper shop, not just a cubicle; it has a big window in front displaying flowered sheets and stacks of pastel towels. Mahatma Gandhi Road bustles and toots and streams by outside, crowded and noisy.
At the front are tall shelves with bolts of cloth vertically arranged in them, like books. Then there are the sheets, on more shelves, stacked horizontally. Pillowcases are inside the packages with the sheets, but only one pillowcase per sheet; you have to buy another sheet to get another pillowcase. There are no fitted sheets. It doesn’t matter; for mattresses are pallets only, or scratchy coira, thicker, but of unpredictable dimension.
Penny has already bought as many of the beautiful soft crisp sheets as she can in good conscience get; she loves dressing up her bed like an English maiden. She has had tailors up and down the road create for her pillowcases frilled with lace and white cloth. No polyester mix is this; 100% cotton, requiring ironing by the dhobi.
At the back, the space reaches into piled weighty squares and labyrinths, into back alleys behind the soft main street of bright bolts and a cloth-covered bench for laying the heavy oblongs out on, opening out a portion, fwap, fwap, fwap. Little boys work back there, tickling each other with scissors and beating pillows with long sticks used for measuring.
Soon they will be old, she thinks, pressing the long pillows down with old hands. I love them, their limbs like ants’. Brown arms, brown legs.
She stares about her. Bolts of cloth fill shelves like pistons of a dead machine, metamorp’d into satiny langour. I love them, she thinks again; they are silky flattened cylinders, like the essences of bodies, stacked in coloured rows and muted curves. Rolls of sheeny smoothness with coned ends.
To the ceiling, respectable hefts of expensive clean-flanked brocades. Thirsty columns at rest like soldiers. Mosquito nets eased up beneath the ceiling in cupboards, children in bunk-beds, silent nothing in their heads like mosquito nets, babyish green. Soft. Dark back there behind the bolts.
He is at his desk. His mustache seems polite, his ears are clean-curved. Black, those dressed-up young moustaches; he wears black sharped trousers with thick cuffed bottoms. Heels on his shoes like she never sees here; like tiny desire-memories of her past city. She thinks of the two curves of his bottom like moustache curves, black; the shirt pale yellow like sunlight when it finally reaches the floor in a north-facing attic.
Does he know his effect?
He is beautiful. Don’t give me away so soon.
As liquid as a million other Indians’, and seven times beautiful. Quick sculpted hands.
He is sculpted and genteel, and she loves him already.
She is free to love. She came from far away, from a free city with spanning bridges shouting their arch of wild grace over glittering, freewheeling wave-caps. She came here to study the art of bending her body into calmer and calmer pretzels so that she can breathe the dubious air more perfectly; soothe her youthful troubles from within; can then tote the wisdom home and sell it to the questioning populace of her nativity.
She is studying Yoga at an institute over on the other side of the Mula-Mutha river.
“I like the rain best,” she replies to his animated asking. “The monsoon. For me it is best.” Skin becomes softer…and their mother used to sing when it rained. She jumped over puddles, and small green shoots fed from her eyes and ears, and she laughed and we cradled ourselves together.
“I like the hot,” he says. “The hotter the better. In the heat I am never ill.”
Do you live in a small clean hovel? she wonders. Does rain make it bleed? Does your mother care for you when you are unwell, or does a wife make chai and boss a scrawny ayah around with strident Marathi cries? Or do you live in a flat made of concrete built round leaning poles? Or a big house with an Ambassador car outside and a chauffeur in it, always ready to go?
He shows her the mosquito net she asks about, or rather has his man show her. From a high stool the brown hand holds the canopy, cream green, silky nylon, clean as lace, green sherbet lingerie. The skirt of it swirls round the floor like a belle.
“I never knew a mosquito net could be so beautiful!” she cries, in the broad child-speak she saves for ears full of strange Hindi.
“In India we have very beautiful mosquitoes!” he replies after a minute has gone on behind his liquid eyes.
So openly does she laugh, he then tells another shopper, a paunchy man: “In India we have very beautiful mosquitoes!”
She is thinking he is even-tempered, humorous, light. His dark-fringed eyes are sad, in the print of the cell it was made so, and lush are his eyes, luxuriant-souled, where soul is cheap.
They are discussing curtains. He stands in the window at the front of the shop, gesturing to colors, like a local veldt-animal beside a watering-hole, a pool of different hues. He speaks to his assistant, and their Hindi tramps through a thicket, moving fast as storm-tossed leaves.
He turns again to her. She is standing in the mirror half-sideways, in a beam of unknowing. Her dress is Punjabi style, long three-quarter-sleeved tunic over loose trousers with gathered ankles. Today it is a muted blue with gold trim. Her sandy hair is in kinship with the gold. Her face is startlingly pale, like, she thinks, something that has been under a log. Perhaps this is just the contrast with the people around her. Her gold braid is long down her back. She angles towards him.
She has come here broad and ordinary, on singing thighs. She has discovered that her studies (and they are generally serious) do not complete her the way this shop does – she needs to swathe herself in colors, dream up, in the night, new combinations of silks and rayons for salwar kameez. She needs to clothe her flat in experiments, and change them sometimes; for she is restless, and her yoga helps but does not quench this. Though that is why she travelled from so very far away.
Curtains move through her mind. Green cloth, the secret shade of leaves – many thousands of leaf-greens there are, a hundred per human finger, turning in wind. Only some can be represented here – but she celebrates the ones she sees – chartreuse, pond, grass, river.
Summer and dust make leaves thirsty, and those colors are there too. Her skin leafs the greens.
…Thighs that bind her to all women, all men.
They are alone in the shop now.
The little boys hum like ants and he has sent them out to get a Coke and Gold-spot; she heard those discussions trampling in the commotion of his speech.
He turns to her again.
“You would like a drink, hot or cold?” he asks in his lilting, formal way.
“No,” she says, turning her wide soft face side to side. The air ties gauze around her, making space where her head was.
The boys are back in a second.
“Straw,” he says, “Straw -” and they are gone again.
He beckons her to the back of the shop, opens a drawer and takes the bottle-top pryer out from paper layers, and opens with a warm hiss the juice of warm black ants.
The bottle of Coke is the temperature of flesh in her hand. She holds it, embarrassed, until the straw is brought and she puts it in, relieved at nothing, and pulls the tepid liquid to her mouth, not wanting it, and it is here, fuzzing down the back of her tongue to heat her belly and rise again as heated speed.
She glances again to the mirror. Her face seems to have been issued to her; she is not responsible for it. It is barely pink, it is somehow formless, the eyes cupped in standard sockets.
I am so plain, she thinks. Plain and beautiful – for if I exist I must be beautiful; nothing else could be possible, moral, bearable. I would lift a hand to touch the grainy quality from my eye, but it is there by choice: it is my longing, my cooking like a stove.
I will not see and therefore I am blind.
The bottom has been reached in the Coke. Good. She places the bottle on the table.
Her limbs feel as if they are in love. Thick thighs loving themselves like Rubens beneath her tunic and drawers.
Nobody has ever loved the keeper of a cushion shop. How could they? He is made for ordinary times, for women made of veils and duty, for intense duplication in so many other faces. His back is brown.
She thinks, I could open my eyes and see, but why? The blood is felt enough beneath my veins.
Ridges in bolts of cloth, too felt, too close, too perfectly done. How to see them? Too many. She looks into her veins and feels, secretly – blood blooming like roses.
There is a half-open loft above the shop, its railing above them. A narrow ladder goes up.
How did it happen? Some wind blew an open light across them.
He pauses over her diagram of curtains. His energy falls about her body like lamplight. She is leaning beside a velvet bolster, pine-tree green. He rearranges his hands. The wind has blown softly in and taken out everything between her ears, just airy cotton left, and this intimate mix of colors; buttes and landscapes in cloth, and the thick inner talk of blood. She is happy. She will let him in.
She is here for this – this afternoon, the levitated shop-floor; she has always been for this.
Now they’re in the room above the shop. He’s sent the boys home, tugged down the metal shop-front shutter like rippled elephant hide, a final thunder-rattle as it drops, pulled by the two firm arms.
It’s dark in here now, business walks the street but can’t get in, a wall has come like thunder to hide the silent den within. Far back in the shop, the ladder had ascended to hoped-for heaven. It is of bamboo, notched square on notched square, crosspieces to hold a man.
She must have pulled herself just so up a ladder as a pioneer woman in the Sierra foothills, where the gold had come and gone. She must have had honeymoons in rough lofts where the bark still clung to scratch her arms. The strength of him below her as she climbs, reaching up to cushion her. The glow all around her bottom-which-is-wrapped-in-dress. It has always been so.
She is a giraffe. At the watering-hole. Nature wakes tiny flowers from spread-out grasses. The veldt showers upwards. Some sort of love goes up the ladder to the sky. Their limbs are finding freedom as they come out into the dim room above. Get them to the bed.
It’s not a bed really, just an area where bolts of cloth can be pulled out onto a big cotton pallet covered in fabric. Maybe it was not there yesterday and won’t be tomorrow; maybe it was there always, unslept on, kept tidy by fastidious goblins. Maybe he naps on it during the long lunchtimes when the shop is closed.
It’s here now. The fabric is worn and dark. All about the vertical rolls of cloth watch like creatures in a packed jungle. They are third arms, indifferent policemen, guards beside the square. Plants around a hidden courtyard.
One small and dusty window lets in a modicum of light.
They are holding each other, standing. She is wrapped in strangeness. The backs of her nostrils register his scents like a blow of exotica. His thin shirt covers his muscles and her hands apprehend them, here at his shoulder-blades, then down to the smooth pillars beneath the skin of his back. He’s like a horse or a leopard, she thinks – and the sweat of him damps her palms.
Keep me faithful to myself. Keep me in my bones. Let me be here, where I am – not daydreaming on my yoga mat, but here where I want to be. My Shiva, my fate.
They turn together, holding each other in the dark hum of energy. They almost merge, two shadows into tree-shade. Unseen.
She can’t bring herself back now – she wants to scatter and fall after herself, as if she’s tumbled down into the hold of a ship. Into the abyss she wants to fly after herself, out her own ears and follow him around the room as he follows her, flying.
They are innocent. It is the taste she’s always wanted. His turmeric-and-Madrassiwallah scents elevate them beyond what she knows: bearded boys in lumberjack shirts, thin youths in muslin peasant blouses she has embroidered with her own hair. Pale octopus-arms, lost for true purpose, floundering apart from the meaning body of their own souls.
When she gets, she always wants. It is a sickness in her, she thinks; though perhaps it is just nature singing through blind woman, hungering for her own creation.
She tastes his skin. They are shining. His lips. She is wet on them. So quickly. They chase each other through their flesh. They cannot precisely find. They are a marvel in their shine.
They are so thirsty. Each drift and touch fires them. He is sweet and she imbibes him. They are embracing with the knowledge of what they are about to do. Some intuition whispers of folly; but she is tired of being sensible, counting her rupees, watching about her for danger in this crowded land. Each is in her/his private sin of joy.
They unbutton, unhook, untie. His yellow shirt drops onto the floor. Skim the slight hairs. Bite under chin-face. Now the magnet works like fever. There is no going; they are gone.
They fall to the bed in love-panic. The bed steals up and quiets them, brings in delight around the edges. Their clothes are mostly gone now, piled up with their brothers the bolts, out of the field of play.
They feel the human in each other all of a sudden, and stop for a moment and look at each other’s faces before embarrassment makes them hide in movement again.
The mystery bites their flesh. They are eaten by tiny crustaceans in a twilit jungle swamp. Deep in the green of mulch they twine and rot. They are holding each other deep beneath the surface, strangling for air.
He is saying something into her sweaty hair, her ear. His voice is tangled up by his desire.
“Sandhya -” he says. “Your name – I am naming you. Twilight – this light as it is now, in here – and in that nearly darkness, you see, the light of the sun is still captured in the trees or on the stones – like your hair. Sandhya – it is hidden and yet it is still light. That is you.”
Dusk seems to deepen in the window. With his flesh around her she feels for a moment as if she’s inside her mother, waiting to be born. She is a stalactite in a cave, in an earthquaked room, and soon the midwife will hold her up and crow.
Oh Mama, my bliss begun.
He says, “Twilight.” In his schoolboy tone, the ‘w’ a ‘v,’ the dark of a shoe.
“Do you know,” he says.
She had tasted where he was raised from the flesh like the thing that made her. Like ichtyosaurus from the swamp – no longer does she curse its name or cry ick or flinch.
She swamps and lies open like a fever, taking in her name as he calls it. He has jolted her in great black jolts. Fever spreads about her limbs like cavemen’s fire.
She hadn’t asked for this. She received like someone’s wife, who is someone’s mother, some normal woman on the face of the earth, not a constrained young tightrope-walker like herself, twisting herself into god-shapes for the amusement of some inner greed.
But this afternoon she wanted only drowning. She tasted, tasted, rolled in it, delight.
Somebody freed. Forgotten how – wiped, back to the insides of mountains, and the breath of skies. Nobody did it, but she is freed – some unknown magma flowed up and bloomed out of her like a volcano. All day long, every day, it has been longing to flow…She only hopes for the black principle to smite, crack open her fires. She only longs to open, open, shelter open under the sky. Sky, enter me. Make me thine.
They are lying quiet now, he has fallen away and snores just a little, like men do, oh, they do. She has leisure to think about her name. He has given her a name!
Her mother had named her Penelope, and her father had consented because he tended to consent, then. He was busy and distracted by his work, and was happy that his own lost mother was mentioned next – the middle name was Gloria. Terrible, old-fashioned name, and then to be called “penny” – after a coin, the lowest of coins! Or a shoe – the penny-loafer of her childhood. Mercantile! thought Penny/Sandhya. No, Sandhya it is to be – as if all her life she had been waiting for a better name and and now this cloth-merchant had given it to her. She was so grateful she didn’t know what to do, but tears came from her pale-lidded eyes. For a moment she feels he is not only lover and son and father but guru too – giving her back her proper name.
The black ants are crawling on her lover’s hand. Eating the juice. Running wide-legged on the floor like firemen to catch the flow. Apple jam, murmur the ants.
In the corner, cockroaches eat the ants that died. Summer awakes the ants, summer kills them. They thrive like flies and die. Dead ones lie like beggars curled out in the streets. Thick as thumbs. Fat as war, the cockroaches move in on them and eat, chiseling with sharp heads at the remains.
Her lover shakes the ant from his hand. He is awake, like a boy child. She thinks that out in the streets, the boys run like ants, the ants like boys. Thinly they thrive and die.
We are suspended in the shop-jungle, have descended bamboo stairs – clothes resumed, moist parts covered. The dark sings humming around us. Grains of stars.
I am not here, really, I am empty twilight, maybe that is why my name means that – the empty thing before night takes all away. How empty am I? she wonders. Has my lover given me a self? Do I need one? Here in India, where everything is taken away, everything given – everything a person could not hold, can’t exactly see, does not know the name of. So be it.
They stand in the dark without embracing, though their bodies touch and mold. The simple magnet has reversed its poles, and now it dances towards solitude and street. Who knows where he will go?
“I will go out to my motorbike,” he says, “it is not so far, it is just in the street.”
A small door is opened in the shutter. The swoon is over, the twilight had begun. “Look,” he says, and his body is made of tenderness, undeliberate and innocent, “it is twilight.”
Tenderness too is cheap.
“The time of your name.” He is pleased that he is saying something romantic to her, and he is proud of his own eloquence. It is over. The poles are reversed.
There is no thought about whether they will meet again. The time has been eaten, the bee has sucked the flower, the twilight has eaten the day.
As Sandhya, the re-named, starts across the pavement, shaking off from herself as from a dream the sweat-glow remembrances of the hour past…she must suddenly come awake to navigate the crowds milling and pushing about her everywhere.
Thin brown people, content to be shoved up onto each other. Trying to get somewhere, speeding nervously along in and out of the human stream like the traffic on the street – just like that; betel-stained mouths, white dhotis and kurtas, old men with rheumy eyes, plump matrons bustling in tight-wrapped saris.
She is looking for a rickshaw – hand raised – thinking now about her dinner, dhal and rice and bhaji, back at the Yoga Centre. Her stomach feels hollow.
Aha – a rickshaw – slowing to the curb – she runs towards it, only to see that someone has gotten there before her.
Her eye is caught by a swish of fabric moving as the woman ducks into the rickshaw and lifts the skirt of her robe in after her, swinging her parcels in to land with a thump on the floor. Something swings out before her as she stoops and then swings back again to rest at her belly.
The robe is peachy orange; the thing swinging out was some sort of necklace, on wooden beads….ah yes.
One of those Rajneesh people. A strange cult – she has heard they have sex at their ashram, lots of it, night and day; sometimes all together, or in smaller lots, like people in a yoga class only doing something…else.
Penny/Sandhya shudders a little – it all sounds so very public. No wonder there is dismay at their antics, India-wide.
She herself has never been to the place; nor would she go. She loves the solemnity of her yoga mornings, bending her body this way, relaxing into the pose, breathing, hoping to empty or at least quiet her mind; feeling her progress as the months advance. That is spirituality; discipline, order, taming the beast with procedure. Lawless wildness is…what her father has criticized the country for, during dinner-table exhortations; what she herself dislikes. What had just happened with…that man (she had never heard his name) was something different; a delicious aberration, forgivable; but private, private. Nobody will know.
The rickshaw speeds away into the fracas of traffic; Sandhya soon hails another, and rides the rocking swerving golf-cart back to her place across the river, in time for food.
A few weeks later she notices her breasts have swelled and look like someone else’s breasts – pointy, thrusting, like sassy torpedoes hunting for game. She is embarrassed and hides them under her shawl. But she cannot ignore the heaviness in her belly when she breakfasts and then has to run to the clean porcelain squat-toilet, to bend and bring up her chai and chappattis….
She stays as long as she can, letting out the cord in her trousers to allow her expanding waist. She does not know what to do; it is a nightmare come to pass.
She can no longer bend and flow like a cobra; her body seems to be telling her that this is no nonsense, that she is supposed now to lounge about and eat Californian goodies and go for aimless walks. Her body tells her that Indian traffic is intolerable; that the market where she buys papayas and custard apples is filthy and has terrible smells in it.
How can she do the Downward-Facing Dog? How can she slip in and out of doorways, shops, some dark man’s life – with this burden of numb grief jutting out in front of her like an old codger’s beer belly? This kettle of curry?
But she has been learning the language of pacifism here…the inertia of mild control: control of these limbs only, and of nobody else.
How could she have been so stupid, so lulled by this ancient, crowded scenery, that she did not use a rubber – those scratchy-on-lily-softness horrible things?
And of course she never carried them with her, for that would have been to admit intent; she had relied, in her occasional meetings with pale boys, on her notions of what the phase was of her inner moon.
And this last time she had ignored even that.
And so she discovers she is too shocked to plan, or take any action. She just hopes the unwanted visitor will feel her mood and go away.
In the end she writes to her family.
Her mother, holding her letter, took fright and fell down the steps to the street, but was unharmed and recovered quickly. Her sister, a drama student and more urbane, laughed and said she’d love to be an auntie. Her father, married these ten years to a different woman – lived now at some distance, a hardware-store owner in a small town in northern California; where shaggy, pot-redolent youths strolled on paths through woods beside the fallen mulchy logs where huge black ants carried on their own employments and errands, and centipedes hid under bark-shards, and beetles munched cellulose in peace and happiness. And, after his initial shock and outrage, he rallied too, seeing that times had changed; and did not censor her.
And so Sandhya went back to the city of bridges, the sparkling city like an amphitheater on the Bay, and gave birth quite easily to little Edward, which means ‘Guardian of Riches,’ and he became the love of her life and all the song she’d longed for, the celebration and the honey and the home-baked bread and homespun cheese. And he was of course golden and fringey-eylashed; and he loved her in return, and after he’d grown up a bit Sandhya – for she insisted on keeping the name – did teach Yoga finally, and was often happy.
A bout the time she began to teach, she decided that Edward’s father should know of his existence; otherwise was not fair to either of them. And, somehow, she wanted him to know what she’d been through; and that it was his responsibility too – though in her letter she did not say this.
She addressed her letter to the shop; and after two or three months she received a reply, written in a square hand on ruled exercise-book paper, which smelt distinctly of monsoon and cloth-finishing chemicals, with a hint of curry-spice, like a watching tiger.
The letter was passionate, old-fashioned, flowery of phrase, and insisted that Rajagopal, for that was his name, should come to America and see his son; and that Sandhya must pay for the ticket. He would tell his wife that he was going on business.
Sandhya had nearly forgotten him now, though his smell of spicy armpit and the cool scent of the pan-wallah outside the shop was lodged still somewhere in the root of her nose like old orange-rind oils under one’s nails…
His son, though, was all and everything.
And somehow Sandhya didn’t manage to save the fare to fetch Rajagopal, and somehow she began dating a fellow who fixed people’s cars from his garage under a skinny house in Sunset City, and did it beautifully and with sane prices and was much in demand; and Edward worshipped him and watched his deft machinations with wrenches in awestruck wonder.
And so Rajagopal stayed on his own side of the world, despite his frequent, finally angry and beseeching letters.
And Sandhya’s mother found a new purpose as Grandmother and baby-sitter; and her father on his infrequent visits carried the child on his shoulders and played horsey with him quite beamingly; and as Edward grew they all took him to the zoo, or Fisherman’s Wharf, or on tramcars, to visit relations and have fun along the way.
But sometimes she wondered…when she’d baked some new recipe of bread, and was eating it warm from a small plate with a knife and butter to the side – and the afternoon light came in and struck the pot of marmalade, and the sweet and bitter orange aura seemed to suddenly surround her – she wondered if perhaps there had actually been more to India than even her yoga class, with its undoubtedly superior tradition, had been able to teach her.
She wondered if her lover’s embraces had been so important after all; she wondered if, in all that great subcontinent with its zillion layers of human endeavor, like a vast forest hiding worlds in worlds – there was something she might, in her fecundity, have missed – something central, precious; something pertaining to us all.