First published in Best Australian Stories 2014 (Black Inc) Editor Amanda Lohrey
The stink of hot dead animal blows up from the creek. The grown-ups all complain, but I don’t mind so much because the mud’s great fun to play in, like quicksand from a Tarzan movie. We chuck all sorts of stuff in to see how fast the mud can swallow it. After the flood, when swirling grey water came up to the verandah and a dead cow floated past, we found a whole box of Hawaiian records washed up in the yard. The ones that still played we gave to Gran; the rest we threw into the mud and watched as they sank under. Sometimes we go mud-walking and before you know it, the mud is over your shorts like a giant’s slobbery mouth sucking hard on your legs, making fart noises. You’ve got to be careful and hang on to the mangrove branches or you could get pulled right under and die.
Paper hats droop and stick to our foreheads with sweat as we sit on the verandah eating Christmas lunch. On the telly some old guy is singing carols about snow, but it’s hard to hear the words over the screeching of fruit bats in the mangroves. The grown-ups’ table is set all fancy with matching knives and forks, the best dishes and even serviettes. You can hardly see the decorated cloth there’s so much food: cold chook, prawns, a big ugly ham and lots of tomato and lettuce. Gran did it all. Mum hasn’t been doing much today, apart from sitting in her chair staring at nothing. Sometimes it’s like she stares right through me, like she has x-ray vision, or I’m invisible. Like she’s thinking about something – and it’s not me. Maybe she’s thinking about that ticket.
Aunty Julie and Uncle Dave and their lot are here as well. Their kids are little, like my baby sister Louise, so the kiddy table is already covered in mush and dribble. I squint into the glare, down the backyard to the creek. I can’t wait to go fishing. Max, my big brother, got a new fishing rod from Santa. I got a guitar, an almost real one. Louise was the most excited though; she couldn’t stop squealing when she found the Sunshine Family dolls in the sack at the end of her bed − a set of three, a mum and a dad and a baby too. She loves them so much she’s even playing with them while we’re eating.
Everyone on the verandah gobbles and laughs; talking louder and louder over each other and the music and the noise of the bats. Except Mum whose mouth is clamped tight. She doesn’t look happy like you should at Christmas. She’s staring at her plate like she’s trying to figure out exactly what a prawn is.
Gran forces a chicken leg onto my plate even though I’ve told her a million times I hate chicken. She’s got a bit of everything on hers and is pecking at the food with her knife and fork like a magpie fussing with a bug, false teeth clacking with every bite. Because Mum is working now, Gran’s been coming over every day, not only on Sundays like before. Mum gets home really late, and lots of nights she doesn’t get back from the office till after we’ve gone to bed. It used to be more fun when she was here all the time, but maybe she has to work late to buy more tickets. Still, I wish she wouldn’t work so much. When she’s away Dad lets Louise get away with murder just because she’s the baby.
Like now, playing with her dolls at the table when I’m not allowed to have my guitar. She’s not even playing with them right. Instead of Mr. Sunshine she’s got my GI Joe. My GI Joe. I never said she could.
“Hey! Who said you could play with Joe?”
She pretends to ignore me and turns so I can’t see what she’s doing. I give her a poke.
“Daddy! Mikey’s hitting me!”
“She’s got my man and she doesn’t even need him. She’s got a man doll of her own now.” I reach around and grab GI Joe. “She’ll break him.”
“Michael!” roars Dad. “Stop that rot this instant or you won’t see your guitar for a week.”
“She’s the one who took him!”
But Louise has started her fake-crying act, and Dad always takes her side so I have to give Joe back even though he’s mine.
“Why don’t you play with Mr. Sunshine, you sook?” I scowl at Lou. “They’re supposed to go together. They’re a family, you know.”
“Mr. Sunshine is boring. I like GI Joe better, he’s got a scratchy beard,” she says with a sulk in her voice.
Mum starts laughing, a strange sort of cartoon laugh, like that crazy dog, Muttley, in the Whacky Racers, and it’s so freaky that Louise stops her moaning and stares at Mum. We all do. It doesn’t sound like her normal laugh at all. She goes on and on like she’s about to bust a gut. Maybe she’s saved up every laugh she’s missed out on lately. She tries to say something like, “Oh those kids,” but it doesn’t come out right because she’s spluttering chewed-up chicken and salad onto the table.
“Fiona,” says Dad, like she’s one of us kids about to get into trouble. He’s going redder. I suppose he’s embarrassed. It is embarrassing. Grandma and Uncle Dave and Aunty Julie have stopped chewing and are looking at Mum like she’s some kind of loony.
Mum covers her mouth with her hand and chuckles into it, like something really funny has happened. Maybe there was some grown-up joke I didn’t get. None of the other grown-ups are smiling though.
“Stop it, Mum,” I say. “Your head will fall off.”
Then everyone starts laughing too, normal laughs. Mum stops with a sigh and wipes her eyes with a serviette.
“Must be time for pudding, hey Gran?” she says, as if nothing weird has happened.
“What was so funny? We’d all like to be in on the joke,” asks Dad. He crosses his arms hard across his chest and rocks back on his chair, glaring at Mum as if he’s about to yell at her like he does sometimes when there aren’t other grown-ups around.
Mum looks the other way, as if she didn’t even hear what he said. I hate it when she does that. Sometimes she can make you feel as if you’re not even a person, like you’re a prawn maybe.
Mostly Mum’s really nice. I love it when she lies down in my bed at night and puts her arm under my neck. We talk for ages, about music and the stars on TV, like whether the Six Million Dollar man could really run faster than our car, about Disneyland, and how far the moon is, and how great it would be to go there, about everything really.
Lately, she’s been coming in to say goodnight when she gets home from work but she smells different, a bit like Dad’s aftershave but more like pepper, it makes me sneeze. Sometimes she falls asleep next to me. The other night I woke in the dark and she was still there. My neck was getting a crick in it, but before I could wriggle out from her arms I heard a noise. Like she was crying. But Mums don’t cry. I stayed still and listened so hard I thought my ears would pop. Quiet sort of snuffling, but definitely crying. I thought maybe she was thinking about something really sad, like when our dog died.
I coughed, so she knew I was awake, and said, “Don’t cry Mum. Blacky’s in heaven now. Don’t be sad.”
She sniffed so strongly I heard snot going down her throat. “Go back to sleep, Mikey. You’re right, Blacky’s in heaven. Mummy’s tired, that’s all. I won’t cry anymore.”
I did go back to sleep, but not for a long time. Not till after I heard her whisper to herself, “After Christmas. Just give the kids their Christmas.”
It didn’t make any sense.
She cries other times too, not only when she fights with Dad. Most mornings her eyes look red and sore, though if I ask her what’s wrong, she gets grouchy. Dad says he’s sorry and tries to make her happy. He bought her a great Christmas present, a box full of perfume and soap with a picture of a dancing Spanish lady on the lid. She opened it this morning, but put it to one side with half the wrapping still on, and didn’t even give him a thank-you kiss like you’re supposed to.
Gran brings out the Christmas pudding. I hate all the sultanas and orange peel, but I take a big piece anyway because she always hides money in it. I cover the pudding with ice cream and mush it all together so it looks like I’m eating some while I search. Everyone’s quiet after Mum’s freaky laughing attack. The only sound is the stupid singing on the telly and spoons scratching up the last bits of soggy stuff from the bottom of bowls.
Mum says, “Good pudding this year. I’m full as a goog,” and pats her tummy. She gets up from the table and half-smiles. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll go and have a little lie down.”
“You do that, dear,” says Gran. “You’re looking tired.”
Mum goes to her room and closes the door.
The noise starts up again. Louise whines about me and Max kicking her, and the baby cousins run around screaming, because that’s what they do. The grown-ups lean forward over their empty pudding plates and whisper together. About Mum. About Mum and some guy called Roger. I’ve heard his name before. I wonder if he has a beard.
“What are you saying?” I ask. “What are you talking about Mum for? Don’t you know it’s rude to talk behind people’s backs?” That’s what my teacher says.
“Don’t worry about it, Mikey. It’s adult talk. You kids go play now,” says Dad. “Take the little ones down the jetty. Try out that new fishing rod.”
Gran scoops a pile of meat scraps into a plastic bag to use as bait. “Mind those littlies near the water Max. You too, Mikey,” she calls after us.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Max out loud, then whispers to me, “How come we always have to look after the babies?”
Luckily, not long after we cast in the line, the cousins get bored and go up to the house. Louise sits quietly next to us on the jetty playing with Mrs. Sunshine and she’s not too annoying so we let her stay.
When I think Louise isn’t listening, I ask Max, “Do you think Mum was laughing like that because of the ticket?”
“Remember I told you. The airplane ticket I found in that suitcase when I was looking for presents.” It was hidden behind the broom cupboard in the laundry. It was a new suitcase, blue with red edges, full of Mum’s clothes. There were some dresses and nighties I’d never seen before, soft and silky like Mrs Sunshine’s bride-gown and an old photo of us kids when we were little. Right on top was a shiny ticket with a colour picture of a plane on it. Probably to Disneyland. I packed it back exactly the way I found it, and raced to tell Max, but he didn’t seem as excited as me. I suppose there is only one ticket and it’s my birthday coming up, so it’s probably for me, and he’s jealous.
“Do you reckon that’s it?” I ask. “You know, why she was laughing? Cause she’s going to take us to Disneyland and it’s the best surprise ever?”
Max looks at me as if I’m some kind of retard. He goes to say something then changes his mind and says, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a cigarette now, sitting here fishing, smoking a Marlboro, like in that ad?”
“Yeah,” I say and stretch out on the wonky boards of the jetty, dreaming about meeting Mickey Mouse and going on all those fantastic rides.
Then Max leaps up shouting, “Fish! Fish!” He starts reeling in the line but he’s so excited he stumbles and trips over my legs. He falls onto Lou. The jetty tips up on its barrels and SPLASH! We’re all in the muddy water. It’s not deep and Max and I both know how to swim, but Lou is screaming her head off, flailing as if she’s about to drown. Max doesn’t help her – he’s busy hanging onto his rod trying to bring in the fish.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” he yells, scrambling in the mud up the bank, reeling frantically.
I grab Louise by the arm and tug her in, until we’re both sloshing in black goo, getting sucked down. She panics and thrashes, making us sink deeper. And deeper.
“Mrs. Sunshine!” she shouts. “Where’s Mrs. Sunshine?”
“It’s only a stupid doll,” I yell. “Stop hitting me! I’ll find her as soon as I get you out.”
I lug her by the back of her dress and pull her through the stinking mud onto the grass.
Max stands and winds the reel like a madman. “See it? There he is. It’s a whopper, mate! Check it out!”
As soon as I’ve hauled my legs free of the mud, I turn and see a flash of white fish-belly skimming through the ripples. It isn’t exactly what I’d call a whopper, but it’s pretty big all right. “Unreal! Keep going Max, you’ve almost got it. He’s coming, he’s coming.”
“Wah!” cries Louise, being a baby as usual. Can’t she see we’re busy doing important men’s business with the fish? “Mrs. Sunshine. She’s being sucked under!”
Bugger. I follow Lou’s pointed finger and spot Mrs. Sunshine’s hair glinting in the sun, fanned out on the oily surface of the mud.
“I see her. I’ll get her in a minute. I gotta help Max first.”
“I’ve got him, mate. I’ve got him – you go get the doll. I’ll be right.” Max pants as he skips the fish the last few feet, its ugly catfish face snarling at us.
I jump back in and heave my legs through, just as Mrs. Sunshine’s head goes under. I fumble in the mud and pull her out, completely covered in grunge. She’s pretty slippery but I hold her tight around the waist and lift her up. I’m like a hero but no one is clapping.
Max calls out and hoists a foot-long catfish out of the water, dangling at the end of his line. He’s grinning like he’s caught a man-eating shark.
“Here,” I say, and hand Lou the doll. “Though I don’t reckon you can call her Mrs. Sunshine anymore. More like Mrs. Mud.” Max and I crack up but Lou doesn’t think it’s funny. She starts crying again and runs up the hill to the house, clutching the sludge-covered doll to her chest.
I try to feel sad for her; I mean it’s pretty rough to have your present ruined right on Christmas, but really I don’t care much. I’m too excited about Max’s fish. I wish I’d caught it.
We sit on the bank in our grotty clothes watching the fish thrash and twitch.
“Let’s go show Dad,” says Max.
“And Mum. Maybe she’ll cook it for dinner.”
“Maybe Dad will let us make a fire and we can cook it ourselves.”
And we run, our legs caked in grey hard mud, up towards the house, the fish held high between us, still twisting on the line.
VOICES – excerpt from Thrill Seekers
I hear them talking in the dark. I hear Douggie sobbing, telling Mum everything, things mothers aren’t supposed to know. And I’m angry with him for being so weak. Angry with him for breaking the rules, for telling and getting us all into trouble.
We’ve been at the local park together, the Oxley Creek boys, wearing footy jerseys and jeans against the cold of a Brisbane winter night. My little brother Douggie, his best mate Steve, Russ, Jacko and me, have been drinking all day, the usual casks of moselle. It’s Saturday so we’ve had time on our hands. No bloody school. Some of the others dribbled in after footy and work at the garage and tried to catch up. Jacko drove his heap of shit bomb to the pub and bought spirits, bottles of vodka and rum and scotch, and litres of coke to mix with it. It was going to be a big night. No special reason, just Saturday.
We scored an ounce of dope from school yesterday and there’s still most of it left, despite us smoking a dent in it last night, bonging on in the cubby-house down the back of our place. It’s on the banks of the creek, camouflaged by mangroves and overgrown bamboo, an old chook shed we’ve fixed up and turned into the best cubby in the street. It’s taken us from boat and bike adventures, ciggies and soft drink, to bongs and beer. There are cushions and carpet and even electricity to plug in the CD player and the heater on cold nights – the perfect place for endless weekend sessions.
But tonight the party got too big for the cubby, fellas we didn’t even know that well turned up hoping for a smoke, waving bottles of rum and pretending we were best mates. It was getting way too crowded and noisy and Mum was freaking, so we moved to the park.
Scrambling under the barbed wire fence at the end of the street, we cut through the paddock and spooked the skittish white horse that lived there. It chased after Douggie, almost biting him on the arse, and we all cracked up. Streetlights lit up the fog floating in the gullies like smoke machine effects in a rock video as we crossed the field to the park. In the black shadow of fig trees we sat on benches near the creek and partied on.
It was a dark night, no moon, and finger-burning cold. The spirits warmed us but not enough, so we made a bonfire, first with fallen branches and rubbish from bins, then with the bench we were sitting on. It was heavy, weighted down with cement blocks buried in the earth, but with all of us rocking it forward and back, heaving and falling, we managed to drag it onto the flames. Sparks flew up into the sky, spraying high firework orange against the night.
We laughed, and sang stupid songs, boasted about girls we’ve had, played air guitar, and clapped sticks together. We pretended we were Abos and danced around the fire swivelling our feet on the slippery grass, acting like crazy birds and hunters. The dope made us laugh. Well, usually it did. But we weren’t laughing that much tonight. There was a bad mood hanging in the air, hovering over each of us, but mainly over Douggie.
I’ve noticed it happening to him over the last few weeks, especially when we’ve been smoking the really strong heads. He hasn’t been able to keep up. His eyes get that stupid glazed-over half-crossed look and he starts speaking bullshit. Hearing stuff that no one says, getting paranoid. We all noticed.
Even so, Steve couldn’t understand it when suddenly Douggie said, ‘Fucken shut up Steve. I know what you’ve been saying about me. What you’ve been doing, you bastard!’
‘I haven’t been doing anything. What’re you on about?’
I was sitting between them, my arse cold and wet on the dewy grass, my face roasting in the fire. Steve hadn’t said anything about Douggie..
‘Don’t bloody lie to me. I can hear you.’
Really, Steve hadn’t said a thing.
‘Keep your shirt on Doug. You’re my best mate. Why would I say something?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ Douggie shook his head, then started getting all teary, choking up. Everyone else had gone quiet, nothing but the screeching of fruit bats echoing in the dark.
‘Fuck you, you arsehole!’ Douggie yelled. ‘Don’t pretend. Don’t lie to me!’
He leapt up and started laying into Steve, his small fists hard and pointy. Steve’s much bigger than Douggie, all rugby player, no neck, and he didn’t want to fight. They’ve been best mates since grade three. But Douggie was hurting him, drawing blood. So he struck back. Holding onto each other they punched at close range, fight-dancing too close to the fire. The fellas we didn’t know made a circle and started the chant.
‘Fight, fight, fight.’
‘Douggie! Stop it!’ I yelled. ‘He didn’t say anything.’
I tried to pull them apart but only got whacked for my efforts, punched from both sides. Jacko and Russ came running to give me a hand. We were mates, blood-brothers, the Oxley Creek boys. We fought other people, not each other. Russ held Steve back while Jacko grabbed Douggie’s arms and helped me pull him off. He was throwing wild punches and swearing, his face distorted and ugly in the firelight, saliva and blood spraying as he screamed.
‘You bastard! You fucken bastard! You’re supposed to be my friend. How could you do that to me? How could you say that?’
‘Shit Douggie, I haven’t said anything. You’re crazy, bloody crazy!’
‘Fuck youse!’ roared Douggie and wrestled free of our arms, wriggling out of his jersey, leaving us holding only its emptiness, the shell of the boy that once was. He ran off into the foggy night, running from the demons that were chasing him.
He’s my little brother but I didn’t run after him. I sat there with the others, consoling Steve, drinking more, rolling another joint, shaking my head over Douggie losing it. I stayed on with our mates while he ran off into the darkness alone. Because I was afraid. I was afraid of the voices he heard that were so real to him, afraid that if I listened hard enough I would hear them too. And if I heard them then everyone would be shaking their heads over me, and calling me a ‘fucken crazy bastard’ too.
The fire died down and everyone but our gang went home. We didn’t have the strength left to move another bench, so we pissed on the embers till they were soaked and headed back to the cubby. We went back the secret way, scrambling along the creek-bank, sliding and falling into the mud.
Back at home I went to get some water from the laundry under the house. It was late, after three, Mum was asleep for sure. With any luck Douggie would’ve found his way to bed to sleep it off. There was no Dad to wake up. No Dad to come waving his belt as a threat, roaring at me about looking after my brother. Maybe Douggie would’ve been able to keep it together if Dad was still around. He was always Dad’s favourite. Douggie’s never been the same since Dad died. He’s too soft. It doesn’t pay to be soft. It’s different for me. I’m older. I’m hard.
I’m at the back of the house, the unmown grass wetting my jeans, when I hear them. The voices. I hear Douggie crying, telling Mum everything, about the fight and the drugs and the booze. Then I hear Mum, but it doesn’t sound like her. She isn’t yelling. She doesn’t even sound angry. Her voice is soft and low, coming from Douggie’s room, a gentle rumble, comforting him, telling him that everything’s going to be all right – that he’s going to be all right.
And I’m angry. Angry with Douggie for being so weak, for running and telling, for dobbing and getting us all into trouble. I’m angry and guilty and sad. A groan escapes from the back of my throat. He’s my little brother and I didn’t even stand by him. I should’ve stopped him smoking when he first started hearing shit. I should’ve taken the bong away, stopped him drinking, listened and tried to understand. But I didn’t do anything.
I stand cemented to the grass, listening and hating myself. The sound of Douggie’s pathetic whimpers and my mother comforting him, cuts me deeper than I can bear.
Forcing my legs to move I take the three extra steps to the laundry and pick up one of Mum’s empty vodka bottles from the floor. I turn on the cold tap over the grimy cement tub but it squeals and sings in its rusty pipes. I turn it off in a hurry but it’s too late. There’s quiet, then…
‘Brian?’ Mum calls. ‘Brian is that you? Come here, love.’
I don’t answer. I have no voice.
I drop the bottle smashing it into the tub, and run, my heart thumping, back down the hill to the cubby. Almost there I retch and heave, vomiting violently, black-red like old blood. I wipe my mouth and my eyes on my jersey and go back in to the fellas.
Everyone’s asleep but Steve. He’s holding the bong close to his battered lips and crying.
‘Shut up,’ I say and snatch the bong away.
I grab the whisky and drain the last of it in a couple of burning swigs. I pack and pull three huge cones in a row, till I can’t feel the ache in my guts anymore.
I’m sixteen. Douggie’s fifteen.
He isn’t all right. He’ll never be all right again.
TROUBLE (Thrill Seekers)
When the police car pulls up in the driveway at home, it’s almost dawn. Kookaburras are laughing their heads off like it’s any other day. If I’m lucky, Mum won’t wake up to answer the door. But from where I’m sitting in the back, I see her already peeking out through the lounge room curtains. What the fuck am I going to say?
The pig beside me gets out and comes around to my door.
‘Can’t I just stay here?’
He keeps a firm grip on my arm as we trudge up the overgrown pathway, behind the other two cops.
They knock like only trouble can, hard and sharp, like gunshots.
I hear Mum inside rustling around, chucking things behind the couch. She’s still tying the cord on her dressing gown, and smoothing back her hair into an elastic when she edges the door open.
‘Yes, that’s me. That’s my son Brian you’ve got there. Bri?’ She holds out her hand towards me and I lift my eyes from my sneakers. Hope she can’t tell I’ve been crying.
Mum leans towards me, her arms stretched wide and I’d do anything just to drop into them and hide. Be ten again and let her take care of everything. I step closer to her but the pig beside me drags me back. ‘Hold your horses,’ he says.
Mum frowns and puts her hands on her hips. ‘What? What is it officer? What’s he done?’
‘There’s been an incident, Mrs. Spencer. Brian here has been charged with possession of a prohibited substance and is due to appear in court day after tomorrow.’ He checks his watch, ‘Make that tomorrow, at ten. Do you take full responsibility for his attendance?’
‘Incident? Illicit substance? What’s going on? A bit of pot? Is that it? I know my boys have been dabbling but they’re good boys really. You see they lost a good friend only a few months ago and their father…’
Oh shit, I hope she’s not going to tell the whole bloody story, break down like she usually does.
‘Mrs. Spencer I think we’d better come inside.’
‘No. I don’t think so. I know my rights. You just give me my boy and be on your way. I’ll be ringing my lawyer about this.’ She doesn’t really have a lawyer but it sounds pretty good. ‘Give me my boy.’
They let go of my shoulder and I let her hug me. Then something awful happens. I cry. Right there in front of the pigs. Can’t help it. Mum only comes up to my chin these days but there’s something about the way she holds me that makes me feel small. I struggle for breath, cling to her, trying to pull myself back together but I don’t know whether that’s possible. I feel like I’m a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that’s been tipped onto the floor. Who knows if all the pieces are still there? It’s been one shit of a night. Once Mum finds out what I’ve done she may never hold me again.
She squints up at the police in the glare of the front-light.
‘What’s going on here? What’ve you done to my boy?’
‘Just calm down, Mrs. Spencer. We really need to come inside. There’s been an incident.’
‘You already said that. What is it? What he’s supposed to have done?’
‘Mrs. Spencer, it’s about your other son.’
‘Doug?’ she whispers. ‘Douggie?’ She sets her face for the worst, holding herself up on me. ‘He’s done it. He’s dead.’
‘No, Mrs. Spencer, he’s not dead. It’s not his life that’s in jeopardy. There’s been an incident, a serious incident. We really should come in.’
She tears me from her just like I knew she would. Shakes me. Hard. ‘Where’s your brother? Where’s Douggie? What’ve you done? Can’t you look after him for once in your life?’ She raises her hand like she’s going to slap my face but a policeman steps between us.
I open my mouth to tell her but nothing comes out except a groan.
To read more you’re going to have to buy the book I’m afraid!
This story was first published in the Asia Literary Review in December 2008.
Hope you like it 🙂
Spit lands on my neck from behind me in the high-school classroom. My tormentors do not bother to whisper or hide their faces, but shout the worst insult, as if it were my name. I thought it would be different here, away from my village. But it is the same. Always the same.
“Dirty cow-corpse-handling untouchable. What are you doing sitting in the front? Know your place. Get back to your village and clean leather,” says the son a spice merchant.
I do not even glance at him. I know better than that. I am here to learn, to get grades good enough to take me to university on a scholarship, far from people like him, from anyone who knows the curse of my family’s past.
I am Dalit, one of the “broken people”, untouchable. When I was born my mother gave me a name but no one uses it. They call me Chamar. I cannot enter the temple or drink from the well. I must use a clay cup that is destroyed afterwards so that others will not be tainted. I do not have a disease. I am not stupid or ill-looking or even very poor. I am not broken. But because I am Ravidas, because my father’s fathers made hides into leather and sold shoes, I am less than a man. Less than the cows that roam the streets, traffic giving way on either side. Even the cows have names.
Even though my father works in the south now, building the road that will one day bring Bihar into the 21st century with the rest of India, it was my family that were forced to clear the corpse of a beast that had died near the well. Only our hands were already soiled enough to touch the carcass. Pride stuck in my throat, blood thumping behind my eyes, as my mother and younger sisters and I struggled to drag the stinking cow to the edge of town near the railway tracks. The rest of the village watched from a distance, holding scarves to their noses. With wood from our own winter fire we burnt the corpse and as the flames rose and danced, I promised myself that I would escape. Somehow, I would find a way to escape the past.
Finally the teacher turns from his endless lines of algebra on the board, takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the chalk from his hands.
“That is enough,” he says. “The scheduled classes have a place here.”
“But Sir,” moans the merchant’s son. “Must he sit at the front? I am being polluted”
Calls of, “me too,” echo through the room.
He continues. “Every evening I am forced to go to temple for cleansing. It takes hours. How can I study?”
“Yes, yes,” his chorus joins in.
I am quiet, studying the teacher’s face. I know he will give in, that he too believes that the laws that force him to teach me should be repealed. I know, even though I am the best student in the class, with scores almost always one hundred percent, he will give my seat to a Brahmin and force me to the back row with the other Dalits and the stupid.
He tilts his head towards me. “If you wouldn’t mind?”
It is not a question.
“Sir.” I nod but I make no secret of my anger, thumping my books into a pile and scraping the bench angrily on the floorboards when I rise. I keep my eyes to the ground as I walk to the back and find my new place. When I am seated the teacher continues his lesson, waving chalk in the air, explaining the same mathematical principle as yesterday for those high castes who were too lazy to listen the first time.
I sigh and flick through my textbook moving onto the next chapter’s exercises. When I look up, I see Babai glancing at me sideways under the cover of her hair. A small smile of comfort on her lips.
Those lips. Soft and rose coloured. Plump.
I love her.
She loves me too.
Babai is the only other Dalit from our village who qualified for a scholarship. Though Dalit, her family are from a higher Jati than mine. They are clothes washers. Her mother takes in washing from the neighbours and her blind father works in Patna in a laundry.
Babai is strong like me. I’ve known that since we were children and I saw her standing up to her mother, refusing to tend her brothers whims when she had homework to do. I heard the screaming and the blows that fell but she did not give in. She’s even managed to convince her father to allow her to continue studying, not marry as others from the street have done; barely thirteen, sent to service the filthy rooms and wrinkled organs of men old enough to be their grandfathers.
Everyone knows about her family. About her father. When he was young he joined a gang of dacoit, robbers who live in the woods. They were caught and punished by the policemen in Bodh Gaya, blinded with bicycle spokes and acid. He is an angry man. But he loves his daughter. And when he comes home he beats his wife for the bruises on his favourite’s face and tells Babai to study hard.
I have watched her a long time. Felt pride when she did well in examinations and smiled when she refused to clean the shirt of a boy who tried to put her in her place. She does not answer to Dalit, as even I do, but only to her name.
I decided long ago that she would be my wife.
She flicks her eyes towards me again but I send her a quick warning in return. We cannot risk being discovered or our long walks home will end.
Since we started school here, five miles from home, those of high caste ride the bus. My father, filled with pride, managed to save enough to buy me a second-hand bike. He’s paid well working on the road, richer now than many in our village.
My mother is proud too, but she keeps her pride behind closed doors.
“We will show them,” she whispers over dinner. “How many of them sit down to so many dishes every night? How many of those Brahmin witches’ sons score one hundred percent and win scholarships.”
It was my mother who bought the portrait of Ambedkar, the untouchable who became a politician and made such scholarships possible. She hung it on the wall beside Ganesh, the elephant god, remover of obstacles, and told me to pray to them both.
Every morning I ride my bicycle to school, bumping over the dusty roads, feeling free and light, as if everything is possible. My legs pump hard as the wheels spin, moving me forward, wind cooling my face, my heart singing.
I saw Babai walking as I rode past on the first day of school. In the afternoon we left together but so did the rest of our class, and they were watching, so I leapt onto the saddle and peddled away. But in the cover of trees only a mile distance I waited for her.
She started when she saw me, but her lowered eyes and the slight upward lilt of her lips gave me courage. Occasional traffic rattled past but the school bus was long gone so I dismounted and walked my bike along behind her. Keeping my distance.
I would’ve liked to offer her a ride, to have her sit on the crossbar as I did with my sisters. To ride us both home, the breeze blowing her long hair. But I am Ravidas, Chamar. And even washerwomen are polluted by my presence. Her father would kill us both if he saw her on my bike.
So I walked behind, watching the gentle rise and fall of her footsteps, the sweat of the long walk clinging the cloth of her sari to her hips.
I couldn’t trust my ears.
“Is it new?”
This time there was no mistaking it. She was talking to me.
I coughed and stuttered, my voice squeaking. “A present from my father.”
“I’d love to ride. It looks like fun.”
“It’s great!” Encouraged, I rambled on and on, delight in my new toy making me forget my shyness, till I realised that I had crept dangerously close behind her and there was traffic approaching. “Sorry,” I whispered, dropping back.
“Don’t be,” she said, turning her head with a swing of her hair and a smile, a movement so graceful and full of promise I felt like riding to the moon.
“Maybe tomorrow I could give you a ride? I mean… not here, not on the road. We could… could… go down one of the forest paths. Just a little.” I stopped in my tracks. I’d gone too far. If she repeated what I said to anyone, I would be chased from the village with sticks.I held my breath as she strode forward and away.
“I’d like that.”
That night I could hardly sleep for visions of her loveliness and the additions of my imagination. I saw her sitting in front of me on the bike, my arms around her waist, my forearms brushing against the exposed skin between her sari and blouse. I dreamt of her face leaning towards me, of her lips coming closer, their softness.
In the morning I had to wash my blanket and hang it on the line before my mother woke.
I looked for Babai in the woods on the way to school, waited too long so that I was late for class, only to find her already there. But in the afternoon she walked. And I rode after her.
Once the school bus had departed and we were in the cover of the forest she turned and smiled as I followed slowly behind her.
“My mother gave me bus money this morning.”
“Oh.” I didn’t tell her that all day I’d felt as if bears had torn the heart from my chest. “Would you like a ride?”
We lingered by a sidetrack and when there was no one in sight we rushed down it, till we could no longer see the passing carts and bicycles. And there in the forest I taught her to ride. Her skirt hitched over the crossbar, she squealed as I raced along behind her holding the seat until she found her balance, her cheeks flushed red like plums. We laughed like children together and when she was tired of riding we sat with our backs resting on a tree trunk, talking of life and ambition and family. Just as she had in my dream she turned her face to mine. Leant closer.
But her father was coming home and she couldn’t be late.
Before we left the shelter of the track I reached out and touched her hand. The thrill of electricity that raced between us me made me jump.
She did too. “What was that?”
“That is us,” I said as if I were a holy man who understood everything. I didn’t though. I only knew that the two of us together made some kind of magic and I never wanted the long walk home, watching the sway of her hips, to end.
Most days she was there but others I waited and she did not come. The days she walked made every disappointment bearable. We were not able to sneak down the track often. The road to our village is not a big one but India has many people in it. All coming and going somewhere.
The times we ran down the track into the forest will forever be carved on my heart. Just as our names are on the tree we’ve come to call our own. The day we scratched our names together into the bark of the old fig was the day we kissed. I’d wanted to as many times as there are stars in the heavens, but it wasn’t me who did it first. It was Babai.
Sitting side by side under our freshly cut names, she brought the warmth of her hand to my cheek, ran her finger along my top lip.
“You have a moustache.”
I nodded, afraid to speak. Wanting her to keep touching me. My body quivering.
“You are a man now.”
I kept my hands cupped at the front of my trousers, trying to hide the effect her touch was having.
“So handsome,” she whispered close to my ear, the heat and scent of her neck making my head swim.
Then she kissed me and it was better than in all my dreams. Her lips on mine. Sweet and soft. Her mouth. Her whole mouth.
I had to break away.
“We must go back.”
“It is late. We must remember…” I rose quickly before I could forget where we were and who I was and lose myself in her mouth, melt into her forever.
Angry, she stomped before me muttering. Before we reached the road I reached for her. “I will marry you. I don’t know how, but I will.”
That night I stayed awake writing by candlelight till the roosters crowed. I wrote a letter telling Babai everything I planned for us. University, good jobs, money, a wedding larger than any our village has ever seen. A wedding so large and a dowry so rich that my Jati would be forgotten. I wrote of my love as Shiva would to Shakti. My lingam, her yoni. Together. The children we would have. The life I would give her, away from our past and the curse of being born “broken”. Made promises. The last page I filled with, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” More than one hundred times.
That was two weeks ago. She keeps the letter down the front of her blouse, near her heart. When I walk close behind her I hear it rustling.
Now, when I see her looking at me as the rest of the class jeers, I see the face of my wife and the promise of our life together and nothing can hurt me.
Her brothers are waiting at the school gates to take her home. As I peddle out, not even glancing in her direction I hear them saying that their father has returned early. He has lost his job.
Around nine I am in bed, my hands pretending they are Babai’s, when I hear cries from down the street. I sit up in a panic ready to flee or run to Babai’s rescue. Her blind father is yelling, ranting. Her brothers shouting. Her mother screaming. And then, suddenly, it is quiet.
My mother heard the fighting too, and in the morning she tries to stop me leaving.
“Do not go to school today. Wait. See what has happened. Her father…”
But I have to go. I have to see Babai and make sure she is alright. My mother makes me pray before Ganesh and Ambedkar, and blesses me three times herself before she lets me out the front door. She stands watching as I throw my leg over my bike and ride down the street. It is empty. Quiet. There is nothing to worry about. It was just another family argument. Nothing about me.
Just before I hit the ground I see a glint of wire strung across the road.
The bike careens on at high speed without me as I thump onto the dirt, clutching my chest where I was struck. Before I have a chance to draw breath, Babai’s brothers are upon me. Her father barks orders from the side of the road, waving sheets of paper.
“I love you. I love you. I love you.”
I twist and turn but the two of them hold me fast, ripping my clothes, squeezing my throat. My mother runs onto the street and they kick her down.
“Chamar! Chamar! Filthy Chamar. Messing with my daughter.” The blind man froths at the mouth as he comes towards me wielding a razor. My stomach heaves.
“Hold him. I want to do this myself,” he yells.
My mother screams for mercy, for the intervention of the gods. I screw my eyes shut as the razor glints in the sun in the blind man’s hand.
As the brothers pin me to the ground a crowd gathers making way for the father.
He sits across my chest and brings the razor to my face, his wash reddened fingers grappling at my cheeks.
“Where is Babai?” I ask. My last thought is for her.
He answers with the razor, scraping it across my skull, tearing hair from its roots. The brothers hold my head for their father to finish. I hear Babai cry, “No!” and see her fighting through the circle of onlookers, her face swollen and blue.
Distracted, my captors loosen their grip. I lift my knees and kick the old man away, roll from between his legs, kick one brother in the crotch and scrabble in the dirt through the crowd away from the other.
Stumbling to my feet I break into a run. The brothers belt after me, the father roaring. I look back and see the whole village following, chanting, “Chamar! Chamar!’ If I fall I am dead.
I run. I run to the end of the houses, through the yellowing fields and across the railway tracks. I run as fast as I can, tears streaming. I will run all the way to the monks at Bodh Gaya if I have to. Fast and far I will run. As far as I need to.
I will not be broken any longer. I am not Dalit. Not Chamar.
I am not broken.
I am a man.
My name is Gopal Gite.