M L Krishnan
Listen. This is how a God falls in love with you.
First comes the fever, with temperatures soaring like the midday sun moving through the star of Agni, your forehead a plot of parched land, your sanity shimmering in and out of focus like the slippery mercury of a thermometer. Then comes the chills, with your bones rattling against the loose cloth of your skin, your delirium a fine mist cooling the heat haze of your perception. You welcomed the supernal wrongness of this cold. You allowed it to buffet you on its tides of comforting madness.
And then the livid embroidery of your rashes stitching their way along your forearms, your inner thighs, your protuberant-bone hips. You nurtured them with a preternatural burst of love from the scorched hollow of your chest, you wore it proudly — this tapestry of fire-ant scars for the queen of blight. It was as it should be.
They said, they said that Tenmozhi had MalariaFilariaTyphoidDengue something or the other to do with stagnant pools of water and mosquitoes and the unerring wretchedness of the combinations thereof. They clucked and bustled and rallied and portioned out soiled packets of blame in equal measure that eventually found their way back to her, bursting with enthusiastic malice as they were wont to do. Tenmozhi descended further into the cool, loamy soil of herself — scarcely aware of the fevered girl-shaped husk that lay wound up in a tight whorl in a damp corner of the courtyard.
Tenmozhi was born in a town that was too magnanimous to be a village and too venal and small in its aspirations to deem itself a city. Her town still fed and nurtured a panchayat entirely made up of old and middle-aged men with a penchant for tapping into the bubbling lava of their insecurities that roiled under their skin and found its release in quick bursts of fury, keeping her townsfolk comfortably submerged under a bog of murky listlessness, grinding down even the faint vestiges of a will into a smooth, edgeless quiescence.
She was a prodigiously curious child who punctuated every statement made in her vicinity with a shrieking "yaen???", her wide prow of a forehead knotted in taproots of concentration as she spat out the whys that gurgled at the base of her throat, oblivious to the mumbling tremors of disapproval that ricocheted off the adults.
As she grew older, Tenmozhi began to understand that weaving the cloak of conformity in yielding to her parents every whim would give her a thin packet of refuge that she could leverage occasionally. She buried her inconvenient self under dense sheets of cultivated placidity — the extravagance of her indifference so absolute that even her parents began to relay the artifice of their daughter's personality as unmitigated fact. Through this all, Tenmozhi had nurtured a beast inside herself that whirred dolefully from the echoing caldera of her stomach and was only sated when she went to school. So she fed it subject after subject, from Veerapandi Kattaboman's exploits in her Tamil history classes, to the elegant logic of trigonometric functions, to the abstruseness of English Grammar that beckoned maddeningly at her from the far shores of her comprehension. This inflamed her beast even further, propping Tenmozhi up in class and forcing her into a cocoon of sharp, incisive understanding that expressed itself in crushing tides of academic excellence.
When she was seven, Tenmozhi fell violently in love with her cousin, with the polished teak-wood skin and the big shoulders and the raucous laughter that fell out of her in firecrackers that momentarily lit up her surroundings. Indhu-akka wanted more than anything else to teach English, to feel its strange cadences inside her mouth, to make someone, anyone, understand her ferocious urgency in sharing her love for the language itself, for the ways in which the pure sensation of the words fitting together kept her awake at night, the anxious bomb of her happiness ticking against her skull. So she squirreled away her degrees through correspondence without leaving the corralled perimeter of her room, under the growing hum of her parents' discontent.
When she gingerly trod over the subject of educating herself further, her parents swiftly bound her in a marriage to a panchayat member with a pale, distended ash-gourd face that sat heavily on his shoulders and subsumed his neck, the wiry tendrils of his greying hair wisping out of his nose and ears like a warning.
Two weeks later, Indhu-akka's letter was found. She had instructed everyone to not look for her in the expansive sprawl of her handwriting, indicating that she had travelled "out of station" — the phrase written conspicuously in English and underlined twice.
One afternoon, Indhu-akka had declared that she was going to the market in Budalur, and had met with little resistance from her husband's household as she had calcified into unresponsiveness since the day of her wedding. They welcomed this sudden sputtering of life in their new bride with ill-concealed relief, and had bustled her out of the house with meaningless shopping lists and gruff, threat-laced encouragements.
Indhu-akka had walked the entire thirteen kilometers to the Kallanai dam in the solar-flare heat of the midafternoon as the sun pierced through her skull and exploded in starbursts of pain along her temples, and was never seen again.
When the news finally reached Tenmozhi, she felt a great rush of sensation whooshing away from her body, leaving behind an arid patch of skin and rustling hair where a girl had once been. In the days, months and years that followed, she felt the faint stirrings of an emotion, a pulsating core that swelled upwards and beat against her chest in an enormous swarm of paper wasps, their coarse wings scraping against her ribcage in an incessant drone, keeping her alert and watchful, always.
Begin retching up those expensive medicines in bright, shining ribbons of thin bile. Drive your parents into exhausting their last scraps of patience in the smooth promises hidden within the porcelain ovals of the allopathic tablets, and have them fetch the psychopomp — with his sandalwood and turmeric unguents, with his cluster of brass bells, with his spirit-binding branches of neem leaves — at long last.
You slowly stir awake under a cannonball tree, its flowers gaping open around you in their red and coral iridescence, a sea of fleshy mouths.
A woman, a girl, sits across from you, her skin a burnt umber, her eyes pitted hollows that sink into the inky opacity of the night. Bright lines of sacred ash on her body give off a phosphorescent glow under a sliver of a moon that hangs defiantly above a murky bank of clouds.
Now she is there, away.
Now she is here, cocooning you tightly between her knees. She holds you close, she clasps you closer still, until your breath sings together softly, intermittently.
Now you swallow a sob that flutters thickly against the back of your throat.
Now your emotions come untethered, hanging loose against the singed carapace of your chest. You wonder, you wonder at the obscenity of your feelings splitting your skin open in lightning strikes of unremitting happiness.
Now you turn around abruptly in the bone-cradle of her knees. You feel the rancid bubbles of your fever fisting its way out, crushing your esophagus in a force of yearning that films over your lungs in glass-dust.
Now you fall on her, a girl, a ravenous augur, a woman. Your lips slide over the lines of sacred ash, bisecting the red earth of her body into planes of reference, your pearlescent salivary trails diagram her into being.
Now she seizes you, pulling off the cotton scrap of your covering in a swift, decisive movement. Beyond the periphery of the cannonball tree, time waits on its haunches — it waits, for an infinitesimal moment that folds in on itself in a mobius strip of permanence.
Hers was a bright and terrible beauty, fearsome to behold. What choice did Tenmozhi have in the matter? What else could she have done, but to splay her wide open, and drink in the salt-sea of her?
Legs arc into parabolas with urgent regularity. Hands and mouths slide ferociously over hollows and bumps and crevices, over the slopes of breast and hip and thigh. Amidst the slipping of skin over skin, Tenmozhi briefly hazards a glance into the tilt of her eyes, into their swirling promises of unrelieved futility.
She cradles the brittle loneliness of ages past, of millennia even, when she was but a wailing notion in the miasmic vortices of myth, when she was the place itself before she took on the mantle of guarding the place, when she first heaved on the supple musculature of the human form and wore it uncertainly. When she finally settled into her flesh, her disquiet was a buzzing pall skittering off her limbs in crackling motes of static electricity that spun viral traceloops of love around the humans that she inordinately desired.
The psychopomp stretches quietly as the clear grey of dawn cracks open into shimmering bands of pale-orange sky. A few feet away, a somber ring of bael trees clack and chitter together softly in the wind, the bright yellow cloth on their branchlets almost inviting in the daybreak glow, but he knew better than to abandon his place. He would not move.
Tenmozhi walks out of the loop of trees, clothed in nothing but the cloying perfume of the cannonball flowers and her long, oily hair. She walks steadily away into the distance, a slowly vanishing speck; near-impossible for the psychopomp to reach her.
M. L. Krishnan is a graphic designer and illustrator originally hailing from the coastal shores of Tamil Nadu, India. She currently lives and works in the Midwest.