The Blighted Harvest
I. Mrs Fernandes
Mrs Fernandes stepped out of her house and on to the quiet Azad Maidan Road. The light fell low and slanting on the street. She wheeled her youngest in a stroller; the other two, about five and nine, followed reluctantly on foot. Plump and still pimpled at thirty-six, she had over the course of ten years managed to produce three remarkably dull but sane children.
Mrs Fernandes knew she was being watched. She patted down her skirt and pushed the stroller with even more determination. That’s right, Mrs Fernandes, you go ahead and waddle down the road with that smug smile on your face, content in the knowledge that in time, your children will produce some goodness in this world, however mediocre and meritless.
I moved Mother away from the window. On good days, we’d map out the futures of those children: glorified clerkdom perhaps, some humdrum but secure occupation shifting files from one desk to another, stapling papers together, filing them in rust-eaten cabinets and then returning to their desks to eat from their packed tiffins, chapattis and fish curry, rescued from the previous evening’s meal. They would come home, retire for the night, turn to their spouse in gratitude and pleasure them, a desultory pleasuring of diminishing returns. They would be happy if somewhat unfulfilled. They would be overcome with a sense of greatness because Mrs Fernandes would spend a lifetime assuring them of it, and because being ordinary is a much-valued performance in society.
A few hours later, Mrs Fernandes’s curtains would be drawn and her door barricaded, shielding her children from the screeching siren parked across the road.
The summer before, I overhead Father and Mother talking.
They were sitting on the garden bench. It must have been morning. I remember the cicadas singing and a pale light pooling at their feet. Mother had in her hair a white champa flower. It was wilting already.
Father said, ‘I’ll break your neck.’
‘How will you do it?’ Mother asked matter-of-factly, as if taking down notes.
‘I’ll wrap my fingers round it,’ he told her.
‘I have a technique. You’ll see.’
An awkward silence spilled between them. That evening, Mother came into my room, sat on my bed and said, ‘I must consult a dietitian.’
‘Why?’ I asked saucer-eyed.
‘Oh it’s nothing to worry about sweetie. I just need to eat healthy.’
She kissed me on my forehead, her skin damp and decaying.
‘Good night,’ she said and flicked off the light switch. Darkness flooded the room. She was still standing there, by the door; an angular shadow cast on a moonlit wall. ‘Your Father will be leaving tomorrow. He won’t be coming back,’ she said after a while and closed the door behind her.
A few days later, I saw her reading Your Blood Type Diet.
‘It’s important to eat food compatible with your blood type,’ she told me, ‘I’ve been eating the wrong food. I’m an AB, and I’ve been eating the wrong food my entire life.’
Her eyes were dead. I stared at her, not fully comprehending.
Along with the diet books came several DVDs; a didactic male voice, robbed of joy, kept us company at all hours of the day, informing us about carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins, fat, and sugar, the great white poison which would settle like powdery snow in our cells and kill us in our sleep. His predictions were dire; an apocalyptic act of nature awaited us as we sunned in the bliss of dietary depravity. I felt my stomach churn with guilt.
I watched as Mother counted her calories, liquefied her proteins into green smoothies, and rationed her carbohydrates until she refused to eat any more. I watched as she became a fierce opponent of red meat. Even fruit was not to escape her vilification; too much sugar, she mumbled. Her eyes sunken, her skin papery, her hair listless, the still summer days turned with her shiftless ambitions. She dissipated and deflated until her skirts barely hung onto her dwindling hips. Her body was a chrysalis steadily detaching itself from her soul.
That year we had come to believe the bounty of summer would last forever - the false hope which engenders itself in the human heart contrary to evidence that all things come to an end.
‘You know, I’m so afraid,’ she said, when at last the monsoons struck, and the first rains came weeping down on our garden vines.
‘Of what?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. So many things.’
‘The people on TV. They’re watching me. All the time, they’re watching me. Plotting against me. Will you stay home today?’
Mother expected me to be the grown-up at sixteen. ‘I can’t,’ I said, ‘I’ll miss class. Nobody is watching you.’
When I returned from school, she had moved into my bedroom. She had dragged a trampoline-line bed from the guest room and propped it against the wall.
‘It’s only temporary,’ she assured me. I looked into her eyes, buried now in pools of black, and I knew she meant it.
Something happens when you start sleeping with a grown woman. You learn things about them: that they cry late into the night, that they moan in their sleep, that floating images creep into their minds causing them pain as they sleep; that some distant past, some fearful future, some primal burden rests permanently within them, fathomless, bottomless, and relentless.
Increasingly the curtains remained drawn in our bedroom. ‘We don’t want anyone watching us, do we? Especially not Mrs Fernandes from across the street.’
The doctor made frequent house calls: asthma, heart palpitations, dizziness, bobbing walls. A sinister black abyss opened up before Mother, into which she fell frequently. She stayed in bed refusing to leave the house. I became her errand girl, her buffer against evil, cosseting her from the eyes of the world. It wasn’t until I found her on the bathroom floor clutching her towel, her naked skeletal body forming a curious V-shape, that we realised the extent of our problems.
The doctor at the government hospital held her hand and said tenderly, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you. Not with your body at least.’
What I came to know of my mother that winter is this: she was kind and funny underneath that sheath of fearfulness. She disappeared every day into a thicket of trees which hid her from view. She shivered like a leaf at the mere thought of living life. She watched the night and she watched the day from behind drawn curtains. Outside the window, in the fog, she saw poisonous plumes, in the flowers, she smelt fumes, in the mounds of garden earth, she saw toxic wastelands, in the distance and within close proximity, there were always shadows watching her, waiting to engulf her. A year later, she slipped willingly into the shadows forever.
Mrs Fernandes no longer lived across the road. She had moved to a street far away, with houses that had gates and guards.
Our garden had turned to grassland without protest. Wayward bushes scrambled over fences. My daughter stood on an uneven mound of earth performing an imperfect pirouette with her skinny limbs arched skywards, the arc of life.
‘Look Mother, somebody’s watching us,’ she said suddenly, pointing to the window above.
It was Father.
I pushed open the door and ushered in my daughter. Once magnificent, the house had fallen to ruin, the walls eaten by moss on the rainward side and tunnelled by ants. Where we stood was shrouded in darkness. A long shaft of light leaked from the top of the marble stairwell, and there stirred signs of human life. Father appeared on the landing in his pyjamas.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘Come up then,’ he motioned impatiently with his hand, and retreated into his room. Always his anger had frightened me. It lurked just below the surface and I was afraid of what would happen if it burst forth. The room smelt of Vicks VapoRub, unwashed clothes, and dried up urine.
‘Sit,’ he said.
I moved a month-old pile of newspapers from the only chair with its caning still intact. My daughter sat on the chair. I sat on the bed beside Father. How old he had grown: his eyes were a cataractic glassy-grey; his hairs were but limp shoots of white. The once tall, large man sat slumped in front of me, covered in layers of clothing, huddled against the perpetual cold of old age.
My daughter and I sat there for a long time in silence. In between Father’s grunting, panting, swearing, and shouting, there came brief moments of lucidity.
‘You know the truth about me? I killed my wife,’ he said leaning forward, and then he disappeared once again into the labyrinth of his mind, slaying dragons and trying to find a way out. Here, in these four walls, Father had incarcerated himself after Mother’s death, picking at the carcass of his guilt. Here, he had curled up, trying to come to terms with his recalcitrant urge to hurt those closest to him.
I took his hand and looked over at my daughter. It was too late to absolve him of his guilt by revealing the truth but I did so anyway: ‘It’s a blighted harvest, I’m afraid. I’m glad you’re gone too,’ I told him.
On the way home, my daughter said, ‘I like Grandpa.’
Children are like dogs; they can sniff out the tiniest shred of goodness in human beings.
I felt myself being drawn into the folds of a familiar place. In those last months, before the bleakness overcame us, my daughter and I were blanketed by a divine clarity. We spoke of great things to accomplish in the future. We spoke of the type of men to date and the ones to avoid. We went to fast-food restaurants, ran our fingers over ketchup smeared table-tops, ordered chicken far too greasy and unhealthy for us. We went on holiday to Portugal, looked down on the River Tagus, took a giddy ride through Mouraria, marvelled at the tile work, even as our tour guide told us of the history of the Moors and the fado, tinged with so much sadness much like our lives. We laughed and cried that summer. On those days, when I could feel the sinister black tugging at my hem, I spoke incessantly and insanely about things that mattered. Her young face was flushed berry-red with squishy hope for the future. Her watery eyes pleaded for time; afraid that the waves would smother me in their pleated folds and carry me away before she was ready. Before she had said all the things that needed to be said, before she had told me, her Mother, how much she loved me, and how she was going to protect me from the eyes watching us.
Selma Carvalho is the author of three books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. Her short fiction has been widely published. She won runner up place in the New Asian Writing Contest 2017 and was a top six shortlistee for the London Short Story Prize 2017. Her stories have been short or longlisted in several contests including DNA-Out of Print 2016, Exeter Writers 2017, the Berlin Writing Prize 2017 and the Brighton Prize 2017.