by Shipra Sharma
Water from the bucket spills and plops on my feet, waking me up from not exactly sleep but a sense of nothingness I often drift mesmerized by the vacuum inside my mind. For a second I feel as though a large rodent with a bristling skin around its nose had sniffed at my feet. But in the shudder of that moment when I look down, the diffused streaks of light, deviating incoherently from the blades of the exhaust fan, lights up the layer of water on my skin. It is shining dimly, and slowly vanishes like a tide from shingle.
I am sitting in the bathroom for half an hour but I still haven’t taken off my clothes. The cuffs of my Salwaar are wet, and the droplets unleashed by the fast jet of the faucet prickles my skin tenderly at various places.
I turn off the faucet and the piercing shrieks of the morning birds reach my ears. They seem to be in some conflict, but not over the space on a parapet or power wire, rather while swooping across the sky in circles. Their rapacious arguments are rambling out from the sphere they are forming, from multiple directions. I look up at the drop struggling to stretch itself free from the mouth of the tap, like a disgruntled child from his father. For some reason I fear the splash of this drop on the tight skin of the water in the bucket will scare away the birds, and they will scatter to a place where I will never hear them again.
Before I could reach my palm to catch it, I hear a light, almost guilty tap on the door.
‘Bhavna, are you done?’ Milan’s soft conscious voice makes its way to my ears. It disturbs the magical equilibrium of the tiny space around me; jerks out everything, soaps, creams, lotions, from the trance they were all in. Even the drop of water shivers and lands with such a loud noise, that immediately a silence spreads outside, and it seems there was no noise out there at all.
‘No,’ I say, and gurgle some water down the drain so its noise confirms I am at some work, I am not thinking – the thing Milan fears most.
‘Have you forgot you have an appointment with Dr. Sahni? Hurry, please.’ He stops speaking, but I know he is still outside, hardly breathing so I don’t hear him standing. My hands go round my knees and I shrink into a tight ball. Sometimes I wish to collapse into myself, like a star, become smaller and smaller, denser, until I would be imperceptible to this outside world. But I would still carry inside me the affluence of all human traits, like a black hole that might be holding the memories of its dazzling days.
‘I am almost ready.’ Milan releases the breath he was holding. As always my voice from behind the closed door has soothed him. It assures him that his insane wife, as other people address me behind my back, is all right. Her mistrustful and confused mind has not made her do anything to herself.
I take off my clothes and bathe, pouring the water noiselessly on me. As if it’s not water, but a soft cloth sliding down my skin. My ears are taut, ready for the birds that I hope will return anytime with their incessant clamoring.
When I go out I see Milan maneuvering around the table, arranging the plates for breakfast. The cuffs of his kurta are wide and sweep over the items without his noticing. He doesn’t look up, but his movements suffer a change. His limbs look more tense, and that means he knows I am looking.
‘I have made sandwiches,’ he says. He looks up and grins. For a second the apricot pops on his chin with all its dwarf craters and hills, and then disappears.
‘There were so many birds outside,’ I say, flinging away the towel on a nearby chair, and moving forward slowly.
‘Yes, didn’t you hear their deafening cries?’
‘I am afraid, my dear,’ he says lightheartedly, still looking down at the table, ‘I was here all the time but I haven’t heard any birds.’
Something stirs inside me, renewing my senses, and I feel the touch of the many drops that escaped the careless sweeps of the towel on my skin, now trailing under the cloth, irritating me to the point of madness.
‘Are you deaf?’ I cry. ‘Your ears are plugged. There were hundreds of them, hundreds!’
Milan turns almost still, like a doll has run out of battery and has to stop irrespective of the awkward position it is in. His body relaxes a little. Strangely, I even notice the millimeter of droop in his shoulders and the fluctuations in his heartbeat. He walks towards me. With his every step my heart misses a beat. Maybe he will hit me. He has never even held me tightly, but still whenever he walks towards me with that preoccupied _expression I feel the only way he has left to shut me up is to slap me.
He slowly places his hands on my shoulders, and dances his fingers on my back as if they have found a platform for a show. I wriggle a little and try to back off, but he holds me firm.
‘Maybe there were. I might not have heard them.’ He walks me to the table and pulls back a chair by waddling it on its hind legs. ‘Now sit and have breakfast. We don’t have to be late for the appointment.’
There he is again, conscious, afraid, anxious, that anytime I can refuse to see a doctor. As many times before I had done. I know the person in the white overcoat, sitting across the table and frowning at a paperweight would make me believe that I am suffering from some syndrome, that talking to oneself is not normal. Those crystal clear voices of the creatures I hear are nothing but figments of my imagination. The people I confront in the attic, sitting cross-legged on the abandoned trunks are long dead, their smiles and teasing grins just a mirage. It’s all negative inside me that turns corporeal and gains a face. The red color I see around me, roiling, boiling, unending sticky redness, is some bloodthirsty part of me, trying to conquer my spirit, terminate my existence.
‘I am not feeling comfortable,’ I say. Milan places the cup on the table and grips my hand. His is peculiarly cold, in spite of the steaming cup his fingers were curving on. He grips me with strength, with assurance, so my skin beneath his hand wrinkles into folds.
‘I’ll be with you. Why do you worry? Mr. Sahni is really going to help you.’
His voice is soft and I can see his words getting indented onto the oozing steam while passing through it, like a curtain takes the shape of a person crossing it without bothering to find its edge.
‘Am I mad?’ I say suddenly. Milan bends his head slightly and smiles wryly. Does it mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’?
‘Why you think like that?’
‘That’s why you always insist on me seeing a Psychiatrist.’
He releases my hand and sighs, and then starts to play with the sandwich by turning it in rounds. ‘Such sessions will do you good.’
‘How do you know?’
He picks up the piece and bites through its soft skin. The layer of irresistible looking cream appears at its sides. He takes a small sip of the tea and even though his lips are closed as his jaw masticates. I can see the liquid dissolving into the freshly meshed pieces, softening them further and releasing a unique addictive taste that in spite of my pestering him with questions spreads a calm on his face.
‘After your first session you were feeling good.’
‘But it didn’t help. I still hear things you don’t. I heard birds today.’
‘Perhaps there were birds.’
‘Perhaps.’ I smile.
He gestures towards my plate that means I should hurry. But the uncomfortable, sickly smell of the doctors room, stowed away in some hidden channels since my last visit, once again find its way to me, with all its detail and effect. The contours and the colors of the articles I had focused in his room while answering his piercing questions for one long hour flapping in front of my eyes like flash cards. The sickness gathers inside me, like an army secretly crawling up, and when close to the throat it is ready to pounce out as a puke.
Everything swirls around me as I make a run towards the bathroom. The walls stretch and tilt and dissolve as tears roll down. My head bends over the sink that stares back at me in disgusting expectation. But the evil force that was jarring my bones and stirring through my organs suddenly vanishes, and my mouth is left gasping in anticipation.
Milan comes in silently and stands behind me. The loose end of his kurta makes a contact with the loose end of my kameez. More tears give away to gravity. Their splash on the porcelain is loud and clear, and I feel their noise is summoning the birds back.
Milan straightens me up from the shoulder and then looks at my face in the mirror.
‘You are all right,’ he says. His hands encircle my waist and pull me closer. I look into the mirror and find an almost intimidating determination in his eyes.
‘The birds have come back,’ I say. ‘I am again hearing their loud shrieks.’
He blows air on my neck and implants a moist kiss there. He places his chin on my shoulder and his hair is within my reach to fondle. And I do fondle them.
‘I am also hearing them,’ he says. ‘They are squawking real loudly. Are they the same birds you were hearing before?’
‘Yes. Now I am sure you will accompany me for the session.’
His grip tightens around me and he looks at me in the mirror with such distance in his eyes that I feel it’s not me but my soul he is holding. The real me is inside the mirror, impenetrable, spectral.
‘But why?’ he says.
‘There are no birds. It’s all silent. How are you hearing them?’
He turns me around with a jerk and we both laugh together. His breath is very warm, and makes me flinch when it touches my face. It dries away my tears instantly. ‘Dr. Sahni is going to have a real hard time with you.’
Shipra: I am a commerce student in India, Punjab. My short stories had appeared in some ezines, and writing stories is my favorite work. You have permission to use my work as well my email address. Contact Shipra.