Rohini watched her parent’s altercation silently from behind the door which was slightly ajar and shaking now and then from the violent vibrations in the room. Her large round eyes were distended, like one who had been crying for a long time. Cries and screams rent the silent night and awakened her rudely from a fitful sleep. She had heard them quarreling in the evening; it had gone on well into the night and now when she fell asleep out of sheer fright and exhaustion, she was again shaken out of slumber to witness her parents hurtling towards what seemed to be a calamitous ending.
She saw her mother slumped on the bed at an awkward angle while her father stood on the other side of the bed and berated her in unbridled fury. There was little that she could understand, but she knew from their gestures and looks that they were matched equally, the mother though in tears defending her position haughtily, and the father bristling with rage and a sense of righteousness.
Now her father smashed a glass vase by hurling it on the floor. The crash of the vase rang loud in the silent night and for a brief and perilous moment silence regained her position in the hot and livid spaces of their small bungalow at the corner of the street. Rohini saw her father stride across the room towards the exit. She hid herself behind the door, her tiny back pressed tightly against the wall, when he pushed the door violently as he stepped out. If it were not for the stopper, which halted the door just an inch from her nose, she would have been crushed like a mosquito in a handclap.
Father left the house in a huff and mother slapped her forehead in a fatalistic way. Then she got up suddenly, and driven as it were by a brainwave, she collected her things and Rohini’s on the bed. She packed two suitcases, shouted for Rohini who ran to her absent-mindedly, and they both left the house in the family car. When Rohini tried to draw her attention to the unlocked house, the mother shushed her and snapped, “keep quiet!” And off they sped to the airport and away they flew in the first available flight out of the city.
The quarrels were not new to the seven year old; the fact that they grew louder and lasted longer each time they occurred was also beginning to impress itself on the growing mind. But what she was not prepared for, or had not yet reconciled herself to, was a split in the family. She had been fearing it a long time, but like the ostrich that buried its head in the face of danger did not bring herself to confront the question. Neither her age, nor her equally childish bevy of companions, was equipped to deal with a calamity of this kind. So she kept her fears masked behind her large eyes, which sometimes appeared bloodshot perhaps on account of it; or, the frequent secret crying might have something to do with it.
Now as the plane took off she saw the fiery glow of the rising sun and the earth dark and silent and motionless below, soon to disappear from view as they flew into the rolling clouds. She shot sidelong glances at her mother, who seemed eternally occupied with something or other. Whenever the girl made an attempt to say something, she would either ignore her or ask her to wait. The plane leveled off a little above the clouds and seemed to be suspended in the sky motionless, like a hawk studying its prey. She saw a whole new world in the white vaporous substance of clouds; dark sepulchral cavernous shadows and catacombs created weird shapes that struck terror in her heart. A dense mass of cloud headed towards the stationary plane and soon engulfed it for a few interminable seconds in a shroud of dark miasm. Rohini shivered and looked at her mother who was absorbed in something she took out from her handbag.
“Where are we going, Mommy?” She whispered; her voice tremulous and eyes glowed with tears. But Mommy made no answer; she continued to busy herself with papers and numbers.
About a couple of hours passed since they left their home. She looked through the window and the clouds were no longer there; instead, she saw what looked like a stream glistening in the morning light hedged between towering rocks that rolled away into the horizon. She recalled her father’s face as he strode out of the house – it was livid with rage. He had hurried out and gone away godknowswhere, without looking back, without his wallet or his car, in a nightgown that hung loosely about his lean frame. She had spent very little time with him alone – he was always busy with his office work or engrossed in his avocations which were too numerous to list. But when he did find time for her, it was always with affection and tenderness, and she felt the remembered joy rising in her tender heart at the recollection of the few and eventful happy hours. Mommy was rarely seen indoors and this appeared to be the crux of the problem between her hapless parents. She had numerous friends and they sought her company even after dark; she sometimes spent the night with her spirited and talkative companions, leaving Rohini on play dates.
The plane landed on the outskirts of a dusty little town; beyond the airport tall reedy weeds skirted the boundary wall and a lone crow went cawing loudly overhead as if it were attempting to draw the attention of the mindless machinery or the heartless humans below. Or so it seemed to Rohini as she felt the pull of her Mommy on her slender wrist.
A tall and thin woman in pink slacks and dangling earrings received them outside the airport.
“Hi, Pramila! It is so good to see you. Dear me, little Rohini, you have grown!”
“Hi Samira.” Rohini noted that her mother responded without the ardor with which the taller woman greeted her.
And the trio got into her station wagon which rolled off in a cloud of dust. The two women spoke incessantly, scarcely looking behind where Rohini shared the space with their suitcases. Dust rose and swirled around the speeding automobile. The road looked ancient and lined on both sides with sun-soaked land where wild grass grew in patches in an otherwise arid land of unremitting flatness and emptiness.
Rohini felt the heat of the Sun as the morning advanced, and the clouds were no where to be seen, only a clear blue sky and an occasional tree on the featureless landscape. A gray-green butterfly, its wings a mottled red, caught in the rush of the racing wagon slammed against the glass on the window, lost a wing and slid down the pane to a dusty death. Rohini watched the spectacle with horror and felt something rise inside her and choke her throat. She looked at the women in the front row who appeared to have completely unnoticed the tragedy they had left behind only a minute ago.
The wagon came to an intersection and Samira took the turn where the roadside arrow pointed skyward. The signboard disturbed Rohini, but the woman never looked at it as she maneuvered the vehicle into the narrow lane that led off the airport road and into an unpaved path along which a thick cluster of row houses were seen draped in a spray of diaphanous dust.
The wagon came to a screeching halt in front of a house which looked like it needed a fresh coat of paint and the lawn that separated it from the wicket gate needed mowing. The gate creaked open and the tall woman led the way in. Rohini smelled the dust and felt its insinuating intrusion into every pore of her being. She looked at her mother who seemed completely oblivious to everything that troubled her daughter.
The door opened and a heavy man in a bowler hat stepped out; he wore jeans and a round-necked grey T-shirt. He looked as if he had just returned from his morning jog on the dusty plains, for the loose sandy soil still clung to his sneakers. Behind him stood a man in white bermudas and a navy blue top, holding the door wide open. Pramila nodded at the first man and shot past him to the second, who took her hand and with an arm round her shoulders led her into one of the rooms inside. Rohini stopped and looked at the man in the bowler hat. He stretched his lips in a silent greeting and pointed to a chair inside. He picked up the suitcases and left them in the room beside Rohini, and then disappeared into a room upstairs where Samira joined him after a while, closing the front door. Rohini watched the door behind which her mother was closeted with the man in the bermudas. She looked around the room wondering when her mother would find it appropriate to bring her little one up-to-date in her scheme of things.
The room had one large window and three rooms connected to it – one was probably kitchen, she thought, and the other the restroom. It was the third room immediately below the stairs that contained her mother and the stranger in bermudas. The curtain filtered the morning light, which seemed feeble and ineffective in this closed room; though there was nothing on the walls that was worthy of being seen. An old faded photo frame hung in a far corner of a wall, a little tilted to one side, and seemed to contain a picture of Samira and the man in the bowler hat. Beside it and a little away to the center hung an antler’s skull, its gouged out eyes sent a shiver down her spine. A round tea-table stood near a sofa set against the wall, its glass top chipped at the edges – it might have fallen on its side several times, mused Rohini, and rather hard perhaps to get the edges so jagged as to cut one’s hand if handled carelessly.
It was strangely quiet in the house, rather disquieting for her, especially after coming out of a noisy house where talking meant shouting and disagreement meant quarreling. Four adults in the house and yet she heard not a whisper, nor the sound of a furniture moving. The silence unnerved her. She longed to shout and even scream, but did not trust herself even to make a wimper, for there was a lump in her throat. Her large eyes roamed wildly across the enclosing spaces and the constriction inside her only grew stronger by the minute. She spied a wasp, solitary and desperate, it made several rounds of the hollow and airless confine, but could not locate the hole it had used to enter. And now it was stuck for good, thought Rohini, unless she opened the door to let her out.
Feeling a rush of sympathy for the winged creature, lost and inadvertently confined, she got up to help when the door opened and Pramila stepped out with the man in bermudas in tow.
“Rohini, this is Jay. He is going to be your step father,” she said pointing at the man, who suddenly seemed to have grown in stature; he loomed over her now and extended his paw-like hand to her.
Rohini turned away from the man and looked at her mother in astonishment, and then opened her mouth to protest. Pramila was quick to cut in smoothly:
“It is alright, Jay, she will take some time over it. Let’s make a move, shall we?”
Jay turned away from Rohini abruptly and loped upstairs. Pramila opened the front door. Light poured into the room and the far morose corners began to take on a deeper shade of gloominess. Rohini watched as the wasp took the path laid out by the light and took wing into the open air and beyond.
Jay returned with Samira and the man in bowler hat who answered to the name Sunny. Jay picked up one suitcase while Sunny took the other and they trudged out of the house towards the parked wagon. Rohini followed the women who once again fell into a monotonous chatter. Sunny took the wheel and Samira took the seat beside him. Jay went back into the house to fetch his own luggage and Pramila followed him saying she needed to go to the rest room.
Rohini swept a tiny finger along the walls of the wagon gathering dust and blowing it away into the hot and humid air.
“Why did she bring the child with her? Is she so attached to her?” Rohini heard Sunny ask Samira. She slowed in her track and waited for Samira’s response.
“No. She said nothing could hurt the guy more than separating the child from him.”
Before Sunny could say more, Jay bounced out of the house with his baggage.
“You have got a handful there, Jay,” Sunny said pointing at Rohini. “You have a head start for a family life.”
Jay leered and said, almost thoughtlessly, “unfortunately she is going to outlive us, you know, so you see …” and stopped as he saw Rohini loitering behind the wagon.
Pramila and Jay occupied the second row and Rohini once again hitched the ride among the suitcases, crouched like a stowaway. The wind slammed the canvas flaps, which rose and fell in a dull and thunderous monotony. She wished she had wings to rise and soar on the slashing wind.
About an hour’s drive later they stopped by an inn. The journey had been rough and the dust piled in generous amounts on the surface of the machine. Rohini ached to get out and run as far as she could without ever looking back again. They left her to brood over every possible and impossible means of escape. Alone and helpless, she looked along the dusty path that led to the inn and the land stretching away to the horizon in an endless monotony of weeds and solitary trees. Her sight fell on two large steel frames of a car’s headlamps. The frames were almost circular with a hollow interior which shone brightly in the sun. Rohini looked at them for a long time before jumping out to fetch them. She wedged the frames between the suitcases, making sure that neither the wind nor the bumpy ride would dislodge them from their place.
After a while the adults came out of the inn in pairs, guffawing over lewd jokes. Still shaking with laughter, Pramila gave Rohini an ice cream cone. Samira noticed the hollow frames between the suitcases, for the sunlight glinted off their smooth and shining surface.
“Where did that come from?” she asked aloud of no one in particular. Everyone crowded round the back to take a look and raised a questioning eye at Rohini for an explanation.
Rohini looked at each of the inquisitive faces before her and said in a flat tone devoid of all emotion: “I need them to frame the skulls of mother and stepfather after they are dead.”