Back when we had knees the colour of maroon crayons, one July evening I sat on a recycled plastic garden bench pulling baby worms out of a flabby melon. I pretended I was the war-willed hand of God, Judgment day was melting this tubby, piss-colored planet and these were my newly hatched snakes; my miniature Samaels who would speed into settling all mortal, moral debts for the humankind. Then, the recess bell rang so I threw away the rotting fruit into trash and ran toward the hostel library.
This was the semester I was first sent to the school psychologist because after studying about the Jacobins in history class, I had started telling other students that I was the second coming of Saint Just. Je ne suis d’aucune faction, je les combattrai toutes. I wrote the credo on the first page of my Math textbook in wonderful calligraphy and was promptly dispatched for counseling. This was also the semester I won an inter-school playwriting competition and subsequently failed algebra much to the embarrassment of all my teachers. For 8 weeks, a saber-toothed therapist asked me the same question about whether I had any tendencies of self-harm. I said yes, I watch a lot of Bollywood films. She didn’t laugh and I canceled all possibilities for a career in comedy.
After therapy, I developed a fondness for bowler hats and Fellini, orchestrated beggarly weekend productions in the hostel’s dining room aided by resources from the kleptomaniac cook who thought I looked a lot like his dead kid. Later we would all trickle down into the garden, mouthfuls of raw mango faleros, eyes glittering like silver dusted tourmaline. This was usually after Father Isa had picked a boy and guided him to his own study for additional hours of coaching. It could be for anything extra-curricular– a math Olympiad or a spelling bee contest; even though we never saw the coached boys actually participate in any competitions. It didn’t matter. As long as these special classes continued, the rest of us were free to loiter in the premises much like an eager batch of grasshoppers that followed us around as our loyal entourage. We always hoped Father Isa would pick someone to tutor on Saturday evenings. As long as it wasn’t one of us.
Outside, One boy always monkeyed about on the see-saw like he was trying to slurp the cherry-orange popsicle the sun had started to imitate. The Other boy split his bottom lip on the barbed metal of the jungle gym. We told him he would get tetanus and they’d eventually have to chop off his legs to stubs; leave him to sing for alms outside some famous and busy mosque back in the city. I promised to immortalize him in my directorial debut as I jotted this exceptional plot into the diary I had become best friends with. He leapt across the iron grid and tore the cheap, red notebook till my ambitious screenplay lazily floated in the air like the tired feathers of a sparrow hunted mid-flight.
I barked newly learned Hindi cuss words at him. I felt a mixture of pride and guilt trickle down my throat. He flipped me the bird. I wondered if he felt the same. Then Father Isa came looking for him and I felt my pulse mimic a freight train. We didn’t speak for a week. When we did, I asked him what Father Isa’s study looked like, how many books did it have, did he get to bring some back with him? He stuffed a fistful of sand-roasted peanuts into his mouth, chomped so hard I thought he’d swallow his own tongue much like the epileptic beggar we had seen outside the mosque in the city. He grinned at me, his lips spread in the psychotic smile of a Halloween pumpkin carved by a clumsy child. His mouth mirrored a festering wound. He opened it wide so I could see the messy ball of spit and peanut bits swirling inside.
Back then, all our words were broken doors, wild things slept curled around our feet and we quietly buried a tailless scorpion beneath the mulberry bush. Father Isa once pulled the mini, mauve beehive of the smallest fruit and locked it behind his jaws. We shuddered. What if the poison struck him dead much like the monotonous gong blatting against the Eucalyptus trees outside the school’s chapel? Would we go to jail or his funeral? We didn’t even have nice funeral clothes. We didn’t have any nice clothes till Father Isa picked us up. So we waited. Nothing happened.
One boy said it is logical how venom aborts venom. The Other boy said nothing; chewed on a petal of a palash flower; rolled around in the moist, gaunt grass like a Labrador unchained for the first time. The skin on his back wetter, pinker than a gingerly peeled lychee. When I grow up I want to become a clown, he said. You already are one, I said. He thumbed the long scar zipping up the flesh on his belly as if it were a circus tent. The terrace had grown a beard of bees. We were gently grazed by the lavender plume of dusk – three drowsy birds too tame for the wilderness of the sky.
When we had nothing left to do, we took out the internal ink reservoirs from ballpoint pens and held them to the flickering tongue of a stolen zippo. We watched a thick blue bulge bloat at the tapered end – One boy said it reminded him of his father’s tumor or a really fat indigo bunting. The Other boy said he didn’t know what a tumor or a fat indigo bunting was but the former sounded ugly and the latter sounded gay. Back then gay mostly meant happy coz some dead, white poet penned poems about daffodils for us to rote-learn in the English class. Ugly meant a tall glass of turmeric flavored milk to cure the common cold set by jumping puddles during the late monsoon months, Saturday afternoon gym classes, Father Isa’s hairy mole that quivered eerily whenever he called out a boy’s name for a special sermon or additional tutoring in his office.
My mother had recently started a new phase of categorizing people as vegetables; an aunt was an onion (red-faced, layers upon layers of teary-eyed confessions), my grandfather was a bitter gourd (shriveled, pock-marked, acerbic, would be a lot easier to deal with if stuffed), a teenaged cousin was galangal (left on his own would sprout unsightly growth in every direction) my father was a tiger nut (Spanish, exotic, rarely ever seen in these parts). These are the kind of people who make life harder, she would say. I never asked how or why, just silently chewed on the limp spinach fritters she’d pile on my plate. Personally, I believed that all people made life harder.
Soon after, One boy started seeing Jesus in toast and potatoes. He walked around with a broken Philips Walkman hanging from his neck, a pair of sellotaped Raybans rescued from the garbage bin and a tinfoil hat. He called himself Fellini. He was never again asked into Father Isa’s study or allowed to return to the hostel after the Christmas break. The Other boy was dispatched to the army school, learned taxidermy and the disciplined way of breaking a nose or someone’s spirit without having to apologize for either. On his 50th birthday, they found Father Isa’s lifeless body propped against the rocking chair in his old study. He looked like a praying mantis, the cook spat. His pristine white robed speckled carmine. One boy said – a blood garden of musk roses. The Other boy went to the world’s highest battlefield in Siachen and never came back.
But before all of this happened there was one prickly, Indian summer when the three of us had short-circuited the main fuse in the dorms trying to make an electronic mosquito repellant from a soapboax for the science fair. Then we bribed the dorm prefect to help us escape onto the rooftop and were nearly choked by the velocity of our own breath galloping across the old brick stairs. We reached the ledge, sat in the dark, three sets of hands folded into each other like shoelaces. Falling asleep seemed like an exercise in teaching colours to a blind child.
We woke up as dawn gathered its skirt of city dirt and dry leaves, tip-toed through the tiled terrace like a new bride. One boy pointed his index finger toward an air-raid of parrots quilting the sky as though a flying carpet of moss-colored velvet. The Other Boy arched his slingshot. Suddenly, the air gasped like a drowning body battling its own weight.
Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist, writer, and the maker of world's finest Spanish omelettes. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in tNY.Press, Bluestem Magazine, Black & BLUE Writing, Cordite Poetry Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Electric Cereal, ,Potluck, Fruita Pulp, Inkscrawl & others. Her first poetry collection Bone Tongue was published by Thought Catalog Books in 2015. She can be found squeeing about small furry animals, football (the proper kind), & neuroscience at viperslang or @zaharaesque.