BY: Rishitha Shetty
Daaru tasted love in the first bite of fish. So much so, that when little Kumara pinched an ant between his fingers and brought it to his lips, she did not notice. She crunched on, her tongue sucking river off of its burnt tail. She preferred the fish from the river Netravati to that of the sea; its delicious stink stayed on her palm for days. Mother Netravati bled into boulders every year during monsoon and her wrath flowed out of the soggy flesh of dead things, and this was the first catch after the rains; she mixed juice and love and placed them between bones.
Daaru had been watching over little Kumara for two monsoons now. They would sit separated by the threshold of the house, Daaru eating her lunch, little Kumara playing with his wooden toys, while his mother Saamu of Satthera took her afternoon nap. Daaru wasn’t allowed to step foot into the house or touch the child. She only had to call out to Saamu of Satthera in case of trouble. As long as she had worked here, this had never happened. Daaru was told that Saamu of Satthera had been born out of an areca petal when the childless old chieftain dropped a single tear from his eye. Daaru saw this divinity in Saamu’s rice brown cheeks, her elephant gait, and in her black boulder eyes. The child, on the other hand, was quite unremarkable. His skin was a dull gold; it was nothing like Daaru’s daughter Thanni’s shimmering coal cheeks. Little Kumara’s eyes did not sparkle with mischief. He cried quietly, unlike Thanni, whose wails were loud enough to make the cows bleat. He was a well-behaved boy, easily overlooked at most times. He elicited no affection in Daaru, but the job was easy as the boy gave her no trouble.
Daaru held her fish in a maize-yellow plantain leaf; what it couldn’t hold fell into the waves of her nylon skirt. She would pick up the crumbs, she decided, after running her tongue on the leaf. Meanwhile, little Kumara crawled up to the door, just outside of which Daaru sat with her fish. He shifted one pink foot out, squatted, and urinated on the doorstep. He then reached his hand out to the coconut shell that held Daaru’s water and overturned it. He was about to reach for the leaf in her hand when Daaru noticed the babbling child. She was on her feet in an instant, plantain leaf held tightly in right fist, heart bursting out of blouse, and called out to little Kumara’s mother. “Akke, Akke, come out.”
Little pearls had begun to form in little Kumara’s eyes when Saamu of Satthera, scratching her chin, walked out to the front door. He began to hiccup, at first like the trembling boats on Netravati, and then he screamed as if to burst out of his body. “What Daaru!” said Saamu of Satthera. “He has never cried so before.”
Daaru’s soul trembled at the sound of little Kumara’s cry. “Akke, Akke. Our beautiful little Kumara has grabbed the evil eye,” she said. Saamu of Satthera picked him up and rocked him this way and that. Little Kumara’s crying got louder and his tears soaked Saamu’s saree. She unbuttoned her blouse and held out her breast to his mouth. The child refused to suckle. His wails were so loud that they broke all the hearts in the village. “I must put him to sleep,” Saamu said, and walked inside with the shrieking Kumara. “Pray for him, dear Daaru. Pray for our beloved Kumara.”
Daaru turned toward her own home, her heart heavy with pain. Unlike the villagers, this pain was not because of despair from little Kumara’s crying. Daaru’s pain was physical. Her breasts felt leaden with a hundred iron nails. Kumara’s voice followed Daaru home and the louder he cried, the heavier her breasts became. At home, the cries echoed through her dung-caked walls. Daaru’s mother sat in a corner, hunched over a pot of boiling rice, and shed silent tears. Even Thanni did not make any noise. She did not try to dig out termite mounds or crush the cat’s tail between her feet. Instead, she shook like a frail leaf on her jute mat. Daaru laid Thanni on her lap and opened her throbbing breast. Thanni suckled and suckled, but there was no milk. The tired child then fell asleep to the sadness of Kumara’s voice.
Even the rooster did not crow the next morning. Little Kumara’s cries crashed into coconut trees, cracked open rocks, and broke old bones. Daaru’s breasts, like rice sacks hanging off a cart, did not allow her to walk two steps without exhaustion. As she made her way through the village, she saw empty farms and unmanned carts. The farm ladies sang of the death of god, their voices set to the rhythm of little Kumara’s wails. Old trees bowed down in mourning, their leaves covering the ground. When Daaru reached the house, Saamu was rocking little Kumara in a swing made of her saree, tied to a tree. The child splashed in his tears, his skin blue, bloodshot eyes now big and dark like the empty village well. When Daaru looked into them, she felt her soul splinter once more. She cupped both breasts and held them up.
“I must go pray at the river, Daaru. Only Mother Netravati can drink my child’s tears,” said Saamu. “Watch him, dear Daaru. Watch him while I pray.” Saamu wrapped little Kumara in her saree and Daaru followed her to the river’s edge. Saamu put Kumara on the ground and stripped out of her soaked saree to her blouse and skirt. She joined her hands and walked into the water, like a child into her mother’s embrace.
Daaru, drenched in sweat, squeezed her breasts. She watched little Kumara out of her pain, his body twisting out of shape, his voice ululating through the village, now stronger with centuries of sadness. She opened her blouse and bent down to look into little Kumara’s eyes. The child was hissing through his sobs now, his blue skin turning coconut brown. Daaru grazed her finger on his forehead. He felt like burning camphor. Saamu of Satthera had walked so far into the river that she was invisible. Daaru picked up little Kumara and attached his mouth to her breast.
The child drank the misery of the village through Daaru’s milk. Daaru had now begun to bleed from her breast. Little Kumara suckled, his lips and teeth wet with her blood. She wondered if losing divinity came with a kind of learning, or solidarity with misery, for Kumara’s eyes were now bigger than she had ever seen them, and they had never seemed so beautiful. “Like the wet grinding stone,” she thought. Little Kumara’s eyes seemed to have seen all the secrets of the seven worlds.
Rishitha Shetty is currently pursuing her masters in English literature. Her work has appeared in Isacoustic, Califragile, The Quail Bell magazine, Muse India, The Indian Review, Spark, and The Literary Yard. She is a member of Bangalore Writers Workshop. Blog: https://phrasesinthecreek.wordpress.com