In a rite of passage, Sita is warned by a priest to avoid mirrors. He’s told, “Mirrors steal your manhood.” But there are secrets he is keeping from his family, secrets about his true identity. “Husband, Lover, He” by Shastri Akella is a story about love and tradition set against the backdrop of colonial India.
Mirrors steal your manhood. That’s why the boy is in the temple. He stands shivering in the dark, colonnaded entrance, his eyes hot with sleep. It is the hour between the moth and the butterfly: One has slept, the other hasn’t risen. The hour without flutter. The temple doesn’t smell like a temple. It secretes not the scent of frankincense but the mossy odor of damp stone.
A flickering light floats up the steps. The priest and his acolyte appear at the entrance, washed in the halo of a lantern. They walk past the boy and unlock the Deity’s Chamber. The Eternal Lamp burns bright at the foot of Hanuman, illuminating his muscled, vermilion body.
The godmen commence the ceremony, the rite of passage that, before him, his brother was subjected to, and before him, their father, and their father’s father, when they each turned sixteen. It begins with the bellow of a conch (how could so small a shell, contained within the cupped palms of the acolyte, produce a note so plangent?); then comes the electric contact of ash against his flesh: the second acolyte flings at him a gritty fistful; and finally, the renunciation itself: the boy hands over his mirror, wrapped in wool, to the priest.
“Mirrors steal your manhood,” the priest warns him. “Don’t look into one again.”
* * *
He enters the room of his parents. His mother naps on the floor with her forehead pressed to the cool cement wall. He unveils the mirror and looks at himself. His presence unlocks the mirror like it’s a door, his manhood steps out of his body, crosses that passage, and leaves. He’s certain. Why would a priest lie? He veils the mirror once more. He steps over his mother and exits the house. He renames himself Sita. His body is ready for the game of Wife.
* * *
The farmer’s boy and the boy meet in the cowshed. Sita slips a small bale of hay under his shirt. The inanimate unborn tickles his flesh as he massages Husband’s farmer feet.
Later, the cow eats the hay, warm with Sita’s heat.
“You wasted my seed,” Husband says.
“The cow will have your baby,” Sita says. “We’ll take your surname, the calf and me.”
Husband rewards him with a kiss.
* * *
Husband gives Sita a gift. Four metal pipes, green as the ocean, cold as winter. Held together by fishline that runs through the eyeholes at their tips.
“Windchimes,” Husband says. “My birthday gift. Now it’s yours.”
“Gift from whom?” Sita asks.
“The foreigner,” Husband replies.
The foreigner’s hair is yellow as the hay that’s tucked between Sita’s shirt and belly, his face is pale as cotton. His Hindi sounds funny, the vowels as sharp as the consonants when they leave his tongue and fall upon you like a whip. He buys barley from Husband’s father. Sita is proud that he remembers the fact. It makes him feel he’s part of Husband’s family.
“He’s beautiful,” Sita says.
“Foreigners bring disease,” Husband scoffs. “The sort our flesh isn’t built to fight.”
Sita lays his head down on Husband’s lap.
“We’ll all die someday,” he says. “Beauty might as well be the cause.”
“You don’t always die,” Husband says, raking Sita’s hair. “Sometimes it’s a sickness, sometimes prolonged, sometimes painful.”
“The virus living inside him now lives inside you. That’s something?”
“Whore,” Husband says. “Lusting after other men when I’m right here.”
He spits on Sita’s face. The force of it as it hits his cheek, its liquid heat as it runs along the side of his nose, down his upper lip, and into his mouth: Sita is alive to this trajectory.
* * *
The men in Sita’s family—his brother, and before that, their father, and his father—are weavers. The rhythm of their fates may vary: Sita’s brother clothes the weapons of the Sultan’s army—scabbards for the swords, for canons rainproof covers (sewn from oilcloths), for shields sweaters made of microfiber; his father is the village chief’s employee. But the undertow of their lives is the same: a needle moving through fabric.
The fabric his father works on changes by the season. In the winters, when silk cuts his skin—his fingers marked with thin red lines until welts take their place—Sita’s mother feeds him and, for a better part of the season, he doesn’t speak. But now, in the summer, his mood is light as the cotton he works with. He takes Sita to the village fair early one evening.
Children crowd the street: girls his age dressed in batik churidars, laughing, playing catch. In one year, two if they’re lucky, they will get married and leave their village in a palanquin, never again to be seen; boys, some his age, some little older, their hairs oiled, their faces and dhotis clean, walk with hands thrown over each other’s shoulders. Their friendships are no longer innocent of caste.
As Sita bites into red cotton candy, as they walk past a hand-cranked Ferris Wheel, his father asks him, “What kind of a weaver will you be when you grow up?”
“A weaver for farmers,” Sita replies.
His father cranks his eyebrow, impressed and wary. Where had his boy found his resolve? Didn’t he, until last year, fumble when faced with the question?
“Sacks for carrying rice,” Sita continues. “Sacks for carrying wheat. The two are different, you know? And oh, the vegetables—don’t even get me started. Putting okra in sacks meant for onions is like…like placing a howdah on a donkey.”
His father laughs fondly. He rubs Sita’s shoulder. “I know, son,” he says. “I know.”
Buoyed by his father’s adoration, Sita continues: sacks for sickles, sacks for sugar, sacks for sawdust.
His father halts unexpectedly at a tent where an old man sits behind baskets full of toys and trinkets. He dips his hand into a basket full of marbles, gathers all that his fist can hold and hands them over to the vendor who pours them into a paper-bag.
“The only thing we people have, we of the weaver caste, is pride,” his father says as he hands the bag over to Sita. “That, and our craft. Let go of neither.”
He won’t, Sita promises, thumbing the marbles, hard and cold, a frozen eye at the heart of each.
* * *
Sita gives Husband an anecdotal account of his outing with his father.
“What if he finds out?” Husband asks.
“Finds out?” Sita asks.
“The source of your information,” Husband says. “You’ll get us in trouble.”
“He’ll assume we are friends,” Sita says. “If he finds out.”
“Friends,” Husband mocks. “Because that happens. Farmer and weaver castes mix.”
* * *
“I want to fast for you on Karva Chauth,” Sita says.
He knows the rules: They meet only in the afternoons, when their mother nap, when their fathers are at work—Husband’s father tilling his land, Sita’s father working his loom. But how can he not perform the ritual that wives all over partake of to secure from the gods a long life for their Husbands? How can he fail his namesake, the most devout wife in the whole wide world?
“Stop,” Husband snaps, rearing himself up on his elbow. “You’ll get us in trouble.”
“Sorry,” Sita says, his throat thick with tears.
Husband wipes Sita’s cheek but doesn’t change his decision.
Sita fasts anyway: at lunch, at dinner, he claims to have a stomachache. His mother gives him a glass of buttermilk. Excitement, not hunger, makes him go weak in the knees when, on the pretext of seeking help on a Sanskrit quiz, he steps out of his house, moves through the dark like a shadow, and knocks on Husband’s door.
“Never thought my boy had any good Sanskrit in him,” Husband’s mother says when Sita presents his request, the hand holding the glass full of buttermilk pressed to his back.
They bring their copies to the front porch.
“Stupid girl,” Husband chides after his mother closes the door.
Sita bends to touch Husband’s feet. Husband touches Sita’s warm scalp. Sita thrums like a string that’s just been plucked. He looks, as ritual dictates, first at the moon, then at Husband’s face: his chin shaped like a pebble and just as smooth, the black tufts of hair on his upper lip, oiled and combed, his eyes, with a spilling of white from moonlight, like a splash of milk in tea. Husband brings the glass of buttermilk to Sita’s lips and breaks his fast.
* * *
In the monsoons, Husband has seasonal depression. They continue to meet in the cowshed. But Husband doesn’t say a word. Sita doesn’t mind.
“You’re good to me,” Husband says, waking up from his nap. “No complaints, no demands. I’d like to keep you around.”
The downpour is raucous. Sita can’t hear him. But the nap that gives Husband a sweaty afterglow slows the movement of his lips and Sita reads them.
“I’d like, very much, to belong to you,” Sita says.
“Be discrete and we’re good for three years, maybe four.”
And then? Sita doesn’t ask. He dreams of a future where Husband owns land in a far-off country, a place they can run away to under the cover of night and monsoon clouds, the home that they make for themselves over there and the farm they tend to surrounded by wilderness and vacancy, their hours, unburdened by judgement, producing a child one day—why not? He forsook his manhood after all.
“What are you thinking?” Husband asks, sitting up.
Sita doesn’t reply. Perhaps I too suffer from seasonal depression, he thinks.
* * *
Monsoon is the season of velvet. The fabric gives his father’s shoulders a droop. It puts him in a strange mood. Sita tries to avoid his father. But they must eat dinner together as a family. His father insists. They sit cross-legged on the kitchen floor, one next to the other—his father, his mother, he—and eat out of banana leaves. When his father asks after his studies, he keeps his voice small and supplies answers that he knows will keep him invisible.
One day, his father leans over his mother, stretches a hand towards him, not to wring his ear, but to dig two fingers into Sita’s hair and extract a strand of hay.
“Not my fault,” Sita says. “I can’t look into mirrors anymore.”
His father leans towards him again, takes his left hand, and sniffs it.
“Will you let me eat in peace?” his mother grumbles.
“You smell like barley,” his father says.
The light of the lantern slashes through his hardened eyes. Sita looks away.
Sita doesn’t give Husband an anecdotal account of this conversation. He doesn’t stop visiting the cowshed. What kind of a fool rejects paradise because of its impending date of expiry?
His father doesn’t appear in the cowshed the next day or even the day after that. Sita has six more afternoons of pleasure. Only later does Sita understand the reason for the delay. His father sanctioned Sita the time he needed to say his goodbye and never return to the spot of the illicit rendezvous so that when he did show up, he wouldn’t find his son and chalk his premonition off as paranoia.
On the sixth evening, after Husband leaves through the front door, he makes his way out through the rear. He runs straight into his father. His hair is a mess. His lips are wet. The smells on him, the very heat of him, reveal what he’s been up to.
“I told you, son,” his father says, “not to ruin our pride.”
“You will leave for your brother’s place tomorrow,” his father says.
* * *
The palanquin that is carrying him away reaches the outskirts. The silhouette of a face appears against the curtain drawn over the palanquin door. Sita knows it is Husband from the sound of his breath.
“Do they know about me?” Husband asks.
“You will be a farmer one day,” Sita says. “I can really be your wife then—your weaver?”
Laughter spills from Husband’s mouth, bitter as a fruit that left its branch prematurely. His silhouette slips from the curtain. Sita looks out. Washed in the light of the moon, he sees Husband, falling behind. His eyes leak like a fruit left on its branch for too long.
A messenger comes for Sita’s brother. There is a war, bigger than anything the Sultan has waged. There are more swords, more cannons, more shields that must be clothed before they make their way from the mainland to the border. He must report to the armory right away and work overtime until the middle of winter.
Sita chants aloud the mrityünjãyã mantra as his brother saddles his horse. He anoints man and beast with vermilion.
“Wait for me on winter’s shortest day,” his brother says, “I will be back by sundown, a man decorated by our king, but you must, in the meanwhile, persist with the routine.”
“One, two, three—yes,” Sita says.
With great relief, he watches his brother ride away, leaving in his wake a dust cloud. His brother’s home has no mirror on its walls and, over the last thirteen days (has it only been thirteen days since the palanquin dropped him off at his brother’s place?), his manhood—its coarseness—reentered his body and slowly erasde his Sita-self. Of this he was certain. Why would his brother lie about the ritual’s consequences?
Sita strips, steps into the bath, and scrubs a wet soap. He brings his lips to the heel of his palm, and blows at the lather. Bubbles take wing from his hand and bob slowly about.
As he watches his reflection on each shivering surface, he says out loud, “Sita, Sita, Sita.”
His manhood leaves his body and enters the bubbles that, upon contact with his toenail, his clavicle, flares into a hundred droplets.
He wakes up at ten the next morning and, with a cup of tea, stands on the porch. His mind, freed of the routine that he has no intentions of continuing—one, two, three—becomes aware of his dwelling, its context: No house speckles the vista before him, no roof silhouettes the skyline, the air isn’t peppered with the hum of human voices. Land, wind, and sky point like an arrow to the horizon. Why his brother, a royal weaver, is cursed to such isolation, he doesn’t know.
Sita strings the green windchimes between balcony and room. In the raucous nighttime wind it produces a pair of notes that blur into each other as they spill across his floor, but in the morning, when its green copper pipes are glistened with rainwater and the wind was mellow, those two notes are distinct and whole and he can tell them apart: Komal Gandhar, Teevra Gandhar, the same note in two versions, one a base note, smoked, sublime, the other high-pitched and spry. They feel like a child and her older self coming home together, having played a clever trick on time.
* * *
The last of the monsoon showers are chronic. The tree in the backyard garden rains down its lemons as the rain shakes its leaves and branches. The vine on the garden fence, Night Jasmine, grows thick as a muscle. In the shoulder season between monsoon and winter—ten days—mating calls rise from the throats of beasts and curdle the jungle’s velvet dark. Sita wakes up to the taste of salt on his lips and the memory of touch: the hay tickling his flesh, Husband’s sole hard against his thumb. He enters the forest after sunrise. He seeks and finds Life in every movement: leaves bent by the weight of residual rainwater, the descent of a feather, the ascent of its bird. The tree barks are sponged with moss. The earth is thick with wildflowers, their petals the purple of a clot. He reaches for one and plucks it with ease. He leaves it on his kitchen countertop and keeps on it a discreet watch. He expects to see the roots, fine as the hair of an infant, thirst and twitch. Is a plant plucked from the earth but not fully withered alive or dead?
Certain that it has little chance of surviving, let alone thriving, he plants it in his backyard. It takes root overnight and rears towards the rising sun its blameless purple head.
* * *
On the night of winter solstice, Sita stands in front of the house with a sinking heart. One, two, three. He holds a garland of Night Jasmine, prepared to decorate his brother. The garden, after months of neglect, is fixed, but the purple wildflower, he keeps.
The sky slowly fills with stars but the dust on the horizon remains unstirred. To the touch of moonlight, the buds of the garland open and release their oily fragrance. Each flower a mouth, its perfume a nocturnal secret.
He discerns a figure running in the distance, a man who gets bigger and bigger until he stands right in front of Sita—life-sized, a full head taller—and plucks from his pocket a missive that, without clearing his throat and still panting, he starts to read. The Sultan’s arsenal has birthed more weapons. His brother is needed, for the unforeseeable future, to clothe their bodies.
The news of his brother’s postponed arrival, the conflict that caused it, the freedom it meant: It all feels less potent to Sita than the messenger’s body. His eyes are blue, his hair—wavy, thick—is the red of terracotta. The skin on his face is paler than the flesh of Sita’s palm. His mouth is unmarked by hair or hardship.
Sita says, “You must drink some water, I cannot let you go until you drink our water, it’s our custom, we give visitors our water.”
For the first time in months he releases his voice into another’s ears and, miraculously, it still works. The messenger nods. Sita turn swiftly on his foot. The garland falls at the foreigner’s dusty feet. He picks it up and holds it out. Sita holds his hand and leads him to the bedroom. Sita dims the lantern, kneels down, and takes the boy’s throbbing muscle into his mouth. His sweat smells tender, Sita thinks.
Afterwards, the boy sits on the floor with his back to the bed. Sita asked for his name.
“Karan,” he says.
Sita is startled by the mismatch between his appearance and his name. The foreigner burst out laughing, a sound full of smooth pebbles, unlike anything Sita had heard before, as though those who look foreign have a foreign laughter.
“They rename us when we come here,” he says.
“Where are you from?”
“Far away. An island across the ocean.”
Sita finds the phrase thrilling. Across the ocean. How would he ever calculate that distance or the time it took to cover it, source and destination separated by, no less, an ocean?
Sita rakes his red hair. “What’s your name over there—across the ocean?”
He tells Sita and together they practice its pronunciation, once, two times over. Jason. Jason. But Sita’s tongue can’t mimic the sound of it as he hears it. So he breaks it into two words as if it is a loaf of bread: two words from his mother tongue: Jai, sun. Victory, listen. He arrives at an approximate pronunciation of the beautiful stranger’s name that he says once then repeats. Jai-sun. Jai-sun.
Sita takes Jason to his backyard and shows him the Night Jasmine.
“I like those better,” Jason says, pointing to the purple flowers, their bodies washed in a moonlight that’s unnaturally bright, a molten whiteness that drenches Jason’s nose, his wrist, the nape of his neck. It’s Karvachauth, Sita remembers. He touches his throat.
“Tell me,” Sita says. “When you go home will you tell your children all your braveries?”
“Children!” he laughs. “I’m only a glorified postman. Nothing brave about it. Know why I got this job?” He pinches the skin on his forearm. “Because this is a good cover.”
“Cover for what?” Sita asks.
“No one suspects I’m a royal messenger,” Jason said.
“Who do they think you are?”
“A foreign trader’s servant. Funnier still, they think I’m a foreign trader.”
“So many people know about foreign traders?” Sita asks, pinching his chin.
“Your ports are full of my people.”
“Why do they rename you if your value is being foreign?”
“So the Sultan’s men feel I’m one of them.”
“But you don’t look like one of us.”
“I didn’t choose the rules.”
“Did you choose your name?”
Jason smiles and Sita joins his smile to Jason’s and the intimacy of this act warms him.
Jason tells him that he once worked for a fur trader in his homeland. He’d spend his mornings in steam-clouded basements separating fur from red foxes and white polecats. Then, his employer bartered him to the Delhi sultan: He took silks, spices, and miniatures; he gave cured furs and men like Jason who worked the ranks of messengers.
“Why are you here?” Jason asks.
“My brother is training me,” Sita says.
“To be a weaver?”
“To be a man.”
For twelve days, until the day of his brother’s departure, Sita woke up at the crack of dawn and said out loud, as he rubbed his palms together and pressed them to his eyelids, “Fear is as foreign to a man’s heart as the taste of beef is to a Hindu’s lips.” Then, he entered the forest behind his house where he braved nocturnal creatures as his body breached layer after layer of a pale, milky mist until, torched by sunlight, it turned to the color of tea and lifted. In the afternoons, he announced, “A man worships work as beasts worship man,” and tended with great vigor to his garden, a lemon tree circled by a vegetable patch of cauliflowers, peppers, and potatoes. And in the nights, he said, “It is as natural for a man to think of women as it is for a woman to bear her man’s sons,” and stroked himself.
“The boy you think of to finish at night: He’s the reason you’re here,” Jason says.
Sita doesn’t reply. Jason wraps his arms around Sita. Sita presses his head to Jason’s chest. The wind shakes the chimes and Jason looks up.
“C and C-sharp,” Jason says.
He points a bony finger at the green chimes.
When the sky lightens further, Jason wants to leave, Sita knows. After four breaths, he releases himself from Jason’s grip.
Jason and he step out the door. Jason’s gaze sweeps across the house and its surroundings: vacant, barren.
“What’s it like out there, at war?” Sita asks.
“The opposite of this,” Jason says. “Everything changes all the time.”
Against Jason’s blue eyes, Sita is a naked brushstroke reflected twice.
Sita fixes his gaze on Jason’ shoulder as he turns, hunches against the twilit sky, and runs.
* * *
One morning, more than a month later, Sita wakes up with a slightly swollen womb. He decides it is a stomach infection and places himself on a diet of lemon juiced into hot water.
But his womb grows steadily, first into a bump, and then, six months later, into something rounder, bigger, a thing on the verge of a glorious explosion. That night, Sita dreams that he gives birth to twin buffalos, each the size of a human newborn, their brown furs speckled with red. He wakes up remembering the game of Husband: that tidy bale of hay, felt heavier than the child in his womb.
I did banish my manhood, Sita thinks triumphantly. He imagines the conversation he has, when at some point in the future, he has a chance encounter with Husband who would, no doubt, be trapped in an unhappy marriage with a woman of his father’s choosing. Sita would present Jason’s child—his spitting image, red hair, blue eyes—like a trophy.
* * *
Time passes but he doesn’t stagger backward under the weight of the child who is weightless as air. He doesn’t press a hand to the small of his back when he walks through the woods every morning. He names out loud what birds, what trees he can for his child, he names the father twice. Jai-sun, Jai-sun.
One day a beggar finds his way to Sita’s far-flung home. Sita pours steaming hot rice into his caddy.
“God bless you,” the beggar says.
Sita brings his hands to his womb and says, “Bless my son instead. It’s almost time.”
He looks at Sita’s hands and frowns. His eyes widen. He backs away, drops the caddy to the ground, and turns and breaks into a hobbling run.
Sita wraps a blanket around his body, deciding to conceal his child from the evil whose presence the beggar had possibly sensed.
* * *
Nine months pass. Then ten. Neither does his brother materialize, nor does Jason show up with a new letter. Sita’s child continues to remain inside his flesh prison. Sita pictures the child’s growth marked inside his body’s walls. The purple wildlings continue to thrive: They take over the garden, choking the cauliflower and the peppers, row upon row of crazed-purple heads, fresh, like they were tended to by a pair of loving hands.
One morning to the beginning of spring—the air is washed, the light sharp—he sees a deer in his backyard. With its head lowered, it nibbles at grass. Sita wants to wrap his arms around its neck, trace the length of its spine, rake its golden fur. How long has it been since he experienced the creaturely comfort of being held?
The deer raises his head and looks at Sita, his ears taut. He bolts into the woods. Beasts don’t worship man, Sita knows. Good he stopped chanting those phony rules.
To the end of the season, Sita sees on the horizon a thin screen of dust. It is breached by the sun-caked forms of a bullock cart and six tall men. Sita wraps a shawl around his body and stands by the door. His stomach is a fruit on the brink of detaching from a drooping branch.
The men stop in front of his gate. They all look the same: pale faces and burly bodies turned red by his country’s harsh sun. As if Jason has cloned himself like the savage purple plant that has colonized his backyard.
A man gathers from the cart’s rear-end a brass plate and a sack that drips. He leaves them at Sita’s feet. He doesn’t smile but he earns Sita’s recognition.
Sita kneels and unknots the sack’s mouth. He is stung by a rancid odor. He feels his chest heave and turns his head away. Then, he wrinkles his nose, holds his breath, and dips his hands into the sack. His fingers meet a cold, hairy object. He heaves it out and drops it onto the plate. From the blazing brass surface his brother’s head stares skyward. His face, darkened, weathered, is speckled with ice.
Sita touched his cold rubbery cheek with his knuckles.
“You okay?” Jason asks.
The question causes his eyes to well. His tears drip into his brother’s eyes.
Jason follows Sita inside. Sita gives him a glass of water. The blue of his eyes is intact, so is the red of his hair. But war has taken the boy out of his face.
“We’re your country’s new rulers,” Jason says.
Sita frowns, confused by the declaration. Jason explains that Sita’s Sultan failed in his fight. Against who? The people from the island across the ocean.
“I thought your people were traders,” Sita says.
Sita pictures Jason weaving through the country with his entourage, bringing to families the remains of their dead, revealing that the pale-skinned bodies of his countrymen are replacing the dark-skinned bodies of Sita’s countrymen in the ranks of rulers, ministers, soldiers.
Jason beckons to his men. Two of them fetch a tall object that is concealed by cloth. Their faces, Sita realizes, as they walk past him, don’t resemble each other: One sports a golden moustache, the other has chubby cheeks.
They set the object down against a wall and unveil it. A mirror. Sita is out of its range. It doesn’t hold his reflection. With a nod, Jason dismisses the men.
“I noticed you don’t have one,” Jason says.
“It’s yours,” Sita says, bringing a hand to his swollen belly.
“What are you saying?” Jason says.
“You’re just confused. You’re thinking, How is he with child? But sometimes Mother Nature works in strange ways.”
Sita thinks he’s being perfectly reasonable. But Jason shakes his head like a bull. Then it dawns on Sita. The problem is not the content of what he’s saying but his voice. It’s reduced to a rustle from disuse. Even he can’t hear what he says. What he hears are the thoughts rattling inside his head. He says Jason’s name and senses his lips move but he hears Jason, not Jai-sun. Perhaps spectacle will speak in my stead, Sita thinks. He unfurls his shawl and presses his belly forward. The way men press their chest out when they’re proud.
The glass drops from Jason’s hand and splinters on the floor. He wouldn’t meet Sita’s eyes. Sita catches them anyway and finds something he hasn’t seen there before. Terror.
Jason beats a hasty retreat. He joins his bevy of boys and beckons them to come closer. He grips their shoulders and speaks in a low whisper. How Sita wants to be in their midst, to smell the warm pungent heat of their armpits, to feel on his cheeks the spray of their spit, launched from apple-red lips. Shame stings Sita’s chest: he desires men who invade his country. His shame didn’t erase his desire.
The men leave. Jason doesn’t spare Sita a second look. In the wake of his rejection, the sting of Husband’s last bitter laughter feels less potent. At least he watched Sita leave.
A glare catches his eye: the brass plate mounted with his brother’s head burns bright in afternoon’s sunlight.
Sita digs a hollow in his backyard and buries it. He covers it with dirt, plants on top a purple wildflower, and flattens the earth with his palm.
A noise at his doorstep wakes him. When he opens the door, he sees a mark: a cross made in red. The paint, still wet, drips on his threshold. Nailed next to the cross is an official order: he’s forbidden from leaving the house; a failure to comply can lead to the death penalty. Why? Sita wonders as he strokes his swollen belly.
The rising sun occupies the mirror. Sita stands in front of it anyway, he strips and screams. At first, only the ghost of a sound emerges but he persists. Eventually, his voice, leaf-thin but strident, takes wing. He screams again, then again, relishing the ghastly music of his voice. When he pauses to give his throat a rest, he feels his thighs turn damp. His child’s time has come at last.
“There’s no pain, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in labor,” Sita thinks. What pain could the egress of this child cause, someone so light that Sita has to hold him tight when he comes out so he doesn’t float to the ceiling? Sita lies down, ready for childbirth. The air is tinged with the stench of metal and rust.
* * *
Where before the sun entered through his living room, now it shines through his kitchen. It frees the mirror of its glare and colors his body orange. He wraps his arms around his shoulders. He welcomes the reflection of his own flesh: its surface slick with sweat, not one but many swellings on his womb, as though he bears, like Gandhari, a hundred children. Two of them secrete a liquid, yellow as sulfur, their surface less purple than their unbleeding clones that surround them. He doesn’t feel the fever on his skin: not above, when he touches his forehead, not below: The symptomatic burning is absent. He can only sense its heat from a distance. His hand—now steady, now trembling—hovers above his body. It soars, sinks, pauses. Yes. That’s how high his flesh radiates the heat it fails to code into his skin.
He breaks the rule: “Rama,” he says, naming Husband. The relief is temporary. But he takes it. For a moment he isn’t short-breathed?
He will stay here, sure. At least he won’t have to be someone he is not: a man married to a woman, a man hiding behind the power of his skin. Isn’t isolation a blessing for the likes like him? As a question, it feels like a thing without a home. So he turns it into a statement, a form in which it exudes the wonder of a hymn. Isn’t isolation a blessing for the likes of him!
Shastri Akella earned his MFA in Creative Writing and PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He previously worked for a street theater troupe and for Google. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Electric Literature, World Literature Today, Rumpus, PANK, and The Common, among