My aunt has birthed five children, all of whom now have spouses and children of their own. My mother tells me they are coming over for dinner as she cups the bottom of a cucumber in the palm of her hand and peels around the top.
The dark green skin falls snakelike into the kitchen sink along with her sweat. Flies latch onto the screen outside the kitchen window and buzz at us as she drops the freshly peeled cucumber onto a cutting board and begins to hack it into small pieces.
The two of us try to count the number of guests we are expecting and start to panic when we run out of fingers. Over the past week little pustules have begun to spring up on my hands—probably a reaction to the water, which has seemed a little brown of late. It is highly likely that I will rot away before the guests—we have counted nineteen people so far—arrive. Small hairs curl above my mother’s head in the humidity and Ghafur shuffles into the room. The house constricts around us and my nerves begin to take over the muscles in my mouth.
Ghafur is a small, shifty man and does not foster delight around the home because he has hemorrhoids. When we see the back of his kameez painted bright red and ask him what it is, he says, red paint, though of course we know he is bleeding from the inside out. Soon he will be unable to do the dishes, which, of course, will be hard on all of us. This is his job; If he becomes incapacitated due to blood loss, who will wash these plates, saucers, cups, bowls, and cutlery after the guests—twenty-three and counting—have left? The red spot on his kameez grows larger and larger as he stands over the sink, thumbing, clinking, cleaning dishes, the water running over his hands and arms as his shoulders sink lower and the sun moves across the sky. My mother is standing in the middle of an explosion of tomatoes and onions and yoghurt and red meat that bleeds pink over kitchen counters and in pans. My father is still not home from the office, but when he gets home he will take me to the hospital near our house even though I could easily drive myself.
For my diseased hands, my mother tells me.
From the kitchen window I can see the neighboring Uncle up on the terrace of his house, shirtless and sweating, his shalwar swinging around his legs and weights strapped to his flabby arms, his hairy breasts jiggling as he squats up and down. I feel faint looking at him. Heat lies across the two of us like a second skin. Some days I want to swallow entire glaciers. Uncle begins another squat only to dizzy out of sight behind the railing of his terrace. I watch from the window but he doesn’t reappear. Perhaps he has died. I feel solemn and not sad—maybe even a little envious—though only in the way living people are when they have the luxury of imagining themselves dead without actually being dead. When I tell my mother about the fainting Uncle she shushes me distractedly and tells me we must mind our own business. Why were you looking at him anyway, she asks me, knife in hand, cutting, cutting, cutting. Why don’t you ever help? she says, looking meaningfully at my hands.
I could kill her. There are things all over and around the house that could kill her, like knives, or scorpions that rest under leaves in the rain, or the men with bombs strapped to their chests who have begun to circle our neighborhood, or possibly even my father’s nose. The trick is not to think about it—the killing, not the nose—though the rule applies to both, and instead to focus on something else, anything else, like, for example, the principles of delight and happiness. Perhaps Uncle did not faint but only saw me observing him. Perhaps he crawled back into his house on his hands and knees, trying to hide from my judgmental eyes (which are shaped exactly like my mother’s; the outside corners curve down the side of my face as if they are trying to point at the corners of my mouth (also pointing down)).
The west windows of our house face outward, past our neighbor’s house, toward the Himalayas. When I was a child, my father went on a seven day trip across four of the peaks, and I remember waking up to him entering the house, shrunken and shaking violently, my mother wrapping him in blankets and sitting him next to the fire, handing him mugs and mugs of tea over the course of the day. Now in his stories, my father has conquered the Himalayas—maybe I dreamt the small, shivery cartoon man. He does not remember being sick when I ask him about it.
Some nights the mountains rain on me in my dreams and I wake up in the morning, muddled and happy, still half-asleep, and safe, under huge chunks of rocks, roots, and trees.
I hear the door open and my mother stops stirring over the stove to look up as my father appears in the kitchen doorway. His nose is huge: large insects could probably nest there. His brown suit has creases in it and the front of his collar is yellowing. What’s going on, he says, and my mother, frying and frazzled, tells him about my aunt and her offspring and her offspring’s offspring coming over for dinner. No notice? he asks, and his nose threatens us, but my mother heads him off before he can start on a tirade against her relatives. She needs to go the hospital, my mother says, motioning toward me with a dripping ladle. My father looks at my flaking hands, nods.
We are silent as we drive to the hospital over potted roads, past stooped men and women being beaten by the weather. If he is dead, the man in the neighboring house has been so for an hour and a half by now. The afternoon crawls alongside us in the car.
The lobby of the hospital doubles as a waiting room. There is a woman standing smack-bang in the middle of the long hallway, holding a baby to her neck and a water bottle in her free hand. Every two minutes she shakes her leg and lifts the arm holding the water bottle and pours a little water over the baby’s head. It drips down the motionless infant and wets the front of her kameez as doctors and nurses blur past us. Her dupatta clings to her curves and the security guard sitting in the corner of the doorway caresses his gun and eyes her sleepily. I try not to look and my father leaves to talk to the receptionist. When I walk past the woman with the baby to take one of the seats lining the walls, she turns her head to follow me with her eyes and says, audibly, Cover your neck. Some people look up like weeds thrusting at us in the heat. Her eyes press into me. Cover your neck! she commands again, and I ignore her and sit down and stare determinedly into the corners of the room. Of all the places on the female body it is indeed joyous that this ugly, ungainly woman has discovered this place of longing, the neck.
In this town, we hide our most prized possessions—like our bodies and our health—so people don’t steal them from us. We pretend to be sick all the time and are therefore less alarmed when we actually become sick. I rub the palm of my hand over the side of my neck and the security guard glances from me to the woman. The infant moans in her arms, stretching taller from her neck. She turns away from me, repulsed. I can understand wanting to blow these things up. The doctor is too busy to look at my hands today so we drive home.
My hands are steaks in my lap, large and untended.
On the way back, my father peers intently over the steering wheel at the curving road.
How many people are coming again?
Twenty-five, I say, maybe more.
At home, my mother purses her mouth at my hands, and my father walks past her into the house. We need bananas for the fruit chaat, I’ve run out of bananas. He ignores her and walks into their bedroom, pulling at the buttons of his collar, his nose shrinking.
The man on the terrace has been dead now for three hours, and in that time my mother has cooked a meal for twenty-six people, maybe more. She is armed with two brooms, which are swinging from her hands, the ends of the spindly twigs scraping against the marble floors. Ghafur, she says to his red back, and he turns to us, his eyes bloodshot, his arms still soapy. For a second, it looks like my mother will cry and I feel my throat close up against something hard and rotting. I’ll do it, I volunteer. Behind my mother, by the sink, I see Ghafur’s shoulders slump a little in relief.
She hands me a broom without looking at me, and we begin to attack the house with it. It hasn’t rained in what feels like years. A hard ache begins at my knees and travels up my spine to the back of my head. When I’m done I scrape all the dust and grime into a dustpan and throw it out onto the peels of fruit sizzling in the trash can.
Bananas, my mother says again, to herself. The quiet in the house is broken by the sound of running water and the sound of silence from the bedroom. My father is asleep, or dead. I imagine saying this to my mother. Mind your own business, she replies, and continues trying to reach for the black on the ceiling fans. Her back is thin and arched as she works her way up the two-step ladder and lunges with the broom at the wings of the fan.
All those years ago when my father came home from his trek and my mother poured cups of tea for him, I think she wanted him to die. She covered him in blankets and nudged him closer to the fire. Her mouth became pinched like a small, curving snake in the hot, orange bedroom.
I’ll take him to the hospital, I tell my mother, gently now, because I love her and the lower half of Ghafur’s kameez is completely soaked. And I’ll bring back the bananas. She nods, defeated and tired. You should go shower, I add.
In the next house, they have probably discovered the body by now, burnt and crisp and scary like a platter of freedom. They have asked the two security guards who sit by the gate of the house to carry it down to one of the rooms. Now his family is probably leaning over it, calm and hard and panicking like melting metal rods.
I lay out plastic tarp over the back seat of the car and lead a swaying Ghafur to it. His face is brown and sweaty, unshaven. Both of us are embarrassed by his pain. It drags at the car’s engine as I drive.
I park at the hospital for the second time today and turn to watch him get out. People point. The clouds hover over us and the sun sets. The red on his shirt floods their consciences and mine. They think he is a victim and who is to say he is not. I wonder if the woman with the baby has left by now. I’ll come back and get you, I say to him, not sure that I will. There are hearses in the street behind me. Shining black cars like insects with pincers heading to a feast. My father thinks patriotism is a terrible thing. He thinks you can prevent great tragedies by dismantling buildings and places exactly when they begin to intertwine with your organs.
The streetlights are working when I drive back home with the bananas, so I can see it clearly from a long way away. It is a small dog, white, standing by the side of the road, next to grass so tall and thick that if the dog moved a little to the left it would be enveloped immediately. The cicadas have begun their nightly mourning for the rain. The heat pulses against my brain and the dog comes closer.
At home, my mother should have showered by now and my father is probably awake. The food has been cooked and the table laid. The summer stretches ahead of us: long, hazy, and endless.
The dog’s underbelly is brown and its tail is a short, happy stump. I press down on the accelerator and thump into it. Before I hit it, I can see the dog begin to move its head toward the grass, but by then it is too late. The car crunches against its back legs and even the cicadas fall silent at the sound of the mewling. I stop the car and get out and watch its open mouth make high-pitched whines as it lies splashed horizontally against the concrete. One of its back legs is completely broken and its white fur is matted with blood and mud. It is an animal, a bitch, I tell myself, but I want so badly to fix something that I get down on my knees and run my swollen hands over its belly. Its mouth is covered with spittle, and when I try and place my arms around it to lift it off the concrete it begins to cry with renewed intensity. When I stand with it in my arms, one of its legs dangles at a right angle to its body which is warm and wet as if someone has heated a sack of yoghurt and placed it, oozing, onto me.
I set it on the back seat of the car, onto the tarp already stained by Ghafur. When I get home the dog has stopped making noise, but its stomach is still rising and falling, and spit continues to gather around its muzzle. In the dark, it looks like the dog’s teeth are curving into its mouth. I ring the doorbell repeatedly until my mother opens the door. She is beaming for her guests, but her smile freezes when she sees me, blood soaked, my finger still on the hard nub of the doorbell. What happened? Her voice is high, higher, highest, and my father is behind her—wearing a freshly ironed shirt and pants with middle creases that could cut open the world.
Are you hurt? Her voice is quiet and raw and my father moves past her to grab onto my upper arms to shake me. No, I say, it’s the dog. I ran into one. My voice is smooth in the night to match their outfits and their faces. They are both gleaming for their guests despite the tragedies taking place around us. Behind them I can smell the house: spices and cheap air freshener. Every light is on.
I lead them to the parked car, taking care to walk calmly ahead of them, my head high. They peer into the windows to look at the now dead dog. For a second, the sight chips away at my mother’s smile like an ice pick, and I think of this morning when she almost cried, but then she turns back to me. I relax when I see how angry she is. It calms the pulsing in my head. Go shower, she hisses. There are cars turning into our street, their headlights reaching our house and then beaming into it. They have begun to turn toward our gate. Get in the house, quick, says my father behind her. Both of them are stricken and old as if they have run long marathons without water and will fall to the ground from exhaustion any second now. They sway by the car window, side by side, blocking my view of the dog.
I walk to my bedroom, ahead of the clamor of voices beginning to rise outside the house. I get in the shower with my clothes on and stay there long after the water runs clear. When I descend back down the stairs in new, dry clothes, I see that ten small boys and girls, five couples, as well as my aunt and an assortment of servants and nannies, have crowded themselves into our drawing room. They rise as one to welcome me and I start at the beginning.
I go from adult to adult, offering up my cheek. The children hover by their parents’ sides, buzzing with a strange, reckless energy, their straining eyes searching the room. The dog rots into my soul but our guests are unsuspecting and polite. They are waiting for me to reach them so they can congratulate me for all the great things I will surely be accomplishing in the future.