Saturday Features

Short shorts

  • Two stories that tell of love and lust, desire and longing
- Prateebha Tuladhar, Kathmandu

Oct 13, 2018-

 

1.

With some people, you can never tell. That’s how it was with her the first time he saw her. He could not tell who she was, what she did or thought, or how old. In fact, he hadn’t even noticed her. He saw her standing outside the bookstore. She waited for a bit and then she walked off in haste and was gone. Not important enough to take notice.

He only actually met her the time he had to run an errand for her mother. The old woman lived in a house crammed with books. Mostly reading. In between reading, she would instruct him to do this and that. The mother would ask a question now and then but mostly, she sat content with her reading.

The job was nothing artistic, but he believed his soul was made up of an artist’s breath, so he employed art in the furniture he polished. Very old furniture, the kind you buy as an heirloom for a secondhand price. Room by room, he polished every single piece of furniture in the house he could lay his hands on. It made him feel useful. The one room he hadn’t touched yet was the daughter’s. And this room, he had to wait until it was Saturday to open because the occupant was mostly away working in an office in the city.

So, the day he saw her again was on a Saturday. He didn’t exactly remember her from outside the bookstore. But something about her was familiar. She moved with a quietness, laughed like she had waited all her life.

When she led him into her room, she pointed at the furniture with brief instructions. And he noticed her room looked like it had been added later to the old house. Her furniture, unlike the rest of those in the house, was minimalist. Sparse lines. White. Just three things, including the bed. Unlike the rest of the house, there were no books here. There was something so white and faded about the room. The curtains, the sheets; a sort of radiance from being in a place of no prominence. He noticed later that it was her style. She was like her room. Quiet, fraying. Yes, frayed with years. He noticed she had an ancientness about her. She was probably close to his mother’s age.

She handed him a cup of masala tea in a huge mug as he polished the furniture. She smiled. He was at once conscious that his skin smelled like varnish. She told him he should get out on the balcony and enjoy her neighbour’s trees. They sat there in silence, drinking tea, watching the jacaranda trees, a thicket of green from monsoon.

Next day, they repeated the tea drinking. It was Sunday. Silence, trees, teas.

Monday would be his last day polishing furniture. Then he’d move on to a new errand in some other house. Perhaps picket fencing or painting the walls. So on his last day, he decided to bring her a gift. His mother had sent him some Kashmiri apples. They were green. He dropped them in his rucksack and made his way through Kathmandu’s deep alleyways to the old woman’s house. The apples knuckled his back as he walked.

He finally arrived. But the daughter’s silence was absent from the house. It was Monday. He handed the apples to the mother.

 

 

When he finished polishing her meagre furniture, he packed his tools and put them back in his rucksack. His fist like a withering blossom closed over the money the old woman handed him. He thanked her and said goodbye. That day, he went home barefoot. He left his slippers on their doorstep.

2.

She put her nose to his nape. Rubbed the tip of her nose slightly against the back of his neck. Nothing.

He pulled her away from his nape, making her face him. They looked at one another’s face for a bit. He put his nose against her face and said, let me smell your breath. This is the smell I think of when we are apart.

How does it smell, she asked.

Like some things I’ve always known, he said.

And she wondered what he meant.

Come here, he said and pressed her to himself.

She teased him about how afraid he was she would leave. He would get up in the middle of the night sometimes and grope the bed for her and then say, you’re still here? And then, thank God.

What does God have to do with my presence here, she would laugh. I don’t know, he would say. God is just a deity. Like death.

And they would start kissing again, like they’d done over and over again throughout the night. Their bodies would soon grow taut with a repetition of want, and they would soon become scattered breaths—her moans rising and falling as though in punctuation, until the two shuddered and collapsed in a heap, limbs intertwined.

This is how they had always been when together. Rife with want, riven with fissures that sank them deep into desire. Sometimes love.

How do I smell? He asked.

Ummm.

What smell in this world reminds you of me, he asked.

She tried in the passage of her mind to associate his being with things and memories. Flowers? Rain? Evening air? Morning? Water? Fire? What did he smell like?

She put her nose to his chest where a few strands of hair made a pattern. Nothing. She ran her nose across his shoulders, his hands, down to his stomach, lower, down his legs, his toes... Nothing. There was no body odour. Maybe it was her nose. She began her sniffing all over again. He laughed. Asked him what madness it was. She hushed him.

Continued to work her nose upward, across his back, his spine, his arms, and back to his face. Nothing.  She kissed his mouth. She couldn’t tell if the taste that lingered on it was an aftertaste of her own saliva or her memories spilled over his.

She pulled away. And they spent the rest of the night lying prostrate, staring at the lights the vehicles on the street cast on the ceiling and the walls. They held hands like two children afraid of losing their way on a busy street.

When she left his apartment in the morning, she tried to test her nose on the city. The city shone bright in the morning air, rising to meet the day with its hustle and bustle, the smell of tea and coffee wafting to touch passersby.

The fumes from vehicles violating the nostrils of early office-goers. The heat from the garbage at the corner, beginning to rot. And the Kathmandu dust swirling invisibly to rise as city dwellers trampled it under their feet.

She tried to recall his skin.

She felt strangely connected to all the smells around her. Like she’d always known these. They were her life. She felt the smells owned her because they provided her the comfort of constancy and consistency. They had always been around her as far as she could remember. She was one of those smells. Her body chose to smell like tea sometimes, and coffee on days when she had too much of it. Sometimes she smelled like her mother, like turmeric and ginger.

Sometimes, she was the smell of Angel’s trumpets. Especially when her body took a scent she wore and turned it into something of its own. Like those wild flowers that only bloomed in dark and dingy alleyways on monsoon nights.

What was the smell of his skin? She tried to recall but couldn’t.

And as she walked farther and farther away from his apartment, she became surer that his body had no odour. It was like nothing.

Published: 13-10-2018 08:24

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