“This story is suffused with charm, and strangeness, and the author commits to the strangeness full-heartedly so I jump in too. I wouldn’t think ear wax would end up being such a doorway into our internal lives, but here it is, and Narada and the narrator’s shared eccentricities won me over entirely. Here is a writer willing to take risks with content and language to get at something deeper underneath— this happens on a sentence level with things like the “souffle” aspect of his relationship, and on the story-level with the ear wax and its magical properties. Uniquely and utterly itself.” That’s how judge Aimee Bender described this wonderful story from Sanjena Sathian, the third place finalist for our 2018 Winter Short Story Award. Dive in below.
When Narada turned twelve and grew taller and sprouted chest hair, he thought his ears might normalize. But instead they began to careen out sideways, as though straining to hear, reaching hopelessly at the world that buzzed beyond reach. (He had given up on music by then, and his father no longer took him to kutcheris; it was too painful for Narada, who longed to sit in the front row and keep taala on his knee.
My shop had been open for a few weeks when the man called Narada arrived to ask me for a strange favor.
I was bent over my desk, examining the gray iris on one of my latest glass eyeballs. My shop sat on the second floor of a half-commercial, half-residential building. Above me lived a professor who sang in an amateur opera company. She could never quite reach the highest notes, but hearing her strive for them made my stomach dip like just before the rush on a roller coaster. While I worked, that professor was rehearsing up there. I heard her voice lift as I raised the eyeball to check its verisimilitude. The light shone through the piece and formed a peculiar cone on the far wall. A good glass eyeball gives the impression that it is following you as you move. I shifted the eyeball to the left, and though it caught the light, it wasn’t correct. The pupil stared uncannily at the cream wall. As I frowned at the imperfection, I noticed Narada, standing in my doorframe.
When I first meet a person, I usually look at their eyes first—a matter of inspiration. I noted that his were extremely dark. But I was so taken with his ears that his eyes became secondary. I had never seen ears like those. They stretched maybe three inches in either direction, beginning slender and blooming out like bugles. He turned, and his ears swayed, the bottom lobes—the lips of the bugles—floppy.
My upstairs neighbor had stopped singing. In the silence, I realized I’d been rude.
“Welcome,” I said. “Let me know if you’d like me to take anything out of the cases.”
“J. Ramakrishanan? This is yours,” he said, loudly. He reached into the pocket of his English hunting jacket and handed me a package. I noted the sender’s address. It was the package I had mailed my former wife the week prior, returned. “I saw it on your stoop.”
When my wife left, she neglected to take with her the glass eyeballs I’d made for our first anniversary. I had modeled them off of her Kashmiri green eyes. Pistachio green, stunning against her light skin. I planned to make them the first of many. I thought everyone in the world deserved to have her eyes looking at them, deserved to buy her eyes as paperweights or bookends. I had a dream of a whole line of eyeball products modeled off of my wife’s eyes. But once I made the first set, she said, “Please don’t make any more,” so I stopped.
“Expecting anything good?” my visitor said. His voice emerged echoey. Too loud. I’ve always felt one should behave around glass eyeballs the way one would around rare, musty books: with reverence.
“Nothing particular,” I said, tearing at the edge of the paper—yes, it was the original box. I placed the package on my desk. “Thanks for bringing it up. Feel free to look around.”
He began to wander. My shop was just a room with a back kitchen so I could make tea and lunch. I blew and painted glass at an artists’ co-op nearby. Large windows overlooked the square. The top of an orange-splotched tree appeared in the lower window frame; when the wind rose, those leaves tapped against the glass. Outside, an old man challenged strangers to chess next to the Au Bon Pain. A homeless person shouted by the newsstand, holding up religious messages on cardboard. Once, his sign read: Salvation is the best free app you can download. Another time: Gossip is the devil’s radio. Don’t be his DJ.
Autumn in Cambridge is my favorite time of year.
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