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.
I’d dreamed of opening the place when my wife was in medical school. My wife: endowed with enough ambition and success to make two sets of Indian parents proud; enough to stave off my family’s concern about my own odd professional choices. I had finally gotten around to the paperwork and the rentals when she started her psychiatric residency. Now, when my life was at last arranged, she was gone.
The man called Narada surveyed a shelf of some of my glass bird eyes.
“My favorite is the red-eyed vireo.” I hovered my finger above the case. The vireo’s sclera is crimson, like drying blood. Its black pupil sits circular within the elliptical eyeball. Up close I could see Narada’s deep black eyes. I could hardly distinguish his irises from his pupils. You could hide a lot, or lose a lot, in eyes like those.
“I read about you in the Globe.”
He nodded at the wall behind my desk, where I had framed the Lifestyle page featuring me among “Cambridge’s Eccentrics, New and Old.” They had also profiled a typewriter repairman, the Au Bon Pain chess player, and the owner of a basement music club who, on impassioned nights, stood at the end of a concert to invite the audience to Carry the music home with you, on your shoulders, on your heels! From my shop, I’d seen the exiting crowds a few times. People filed up the staircase from basement to street, sticking together in a small, gelatinous cluster like a collective, breathing mass of jellyfish, kicking their tentacley limbs up and down the brick-lain streets before atomizing, to go to their own homes, alone. The club proprietor took up most of the spread.
“You told them you only do eyes,” Narada said. “You said, ‘Only eyes. For now.’”
“Yes,” I said, irritated; how many times had someone asked me—only eyes? Really? Not even a nose? I was trained in other things, besides glass, too—ceramics, sculpture. But what was so wrong with a bit of focus? “For now.”
“What would it take for you to change things up?” Narada asked.
He extracted a lengthy metal instrument from his pocket—it was thin like a needle and ended in a soft scoop. He stuck it in his right ear and dug around for almost thirty seconds. I watched his black eyes for clues about how it felt to dig around in such an enormous ear, but he was impassive. It was an unseemly gesture, like picking one’s teeth at a party, but he seemed so at ease that I wasn’t embarrassed for either of us.
He removed the instrument. A large glob of strange earwax clutched its end. It was burnt orange, marked with a few natural indentations like cratered cliffs. Narada took a thumb and a forefinger to the edge of the glob and pinched to show it was moldable. It softened, appeared to give a little exhale.
“For example,” he said, “I was wondering if you’d ever considered ears.” He proffered the instrument. “And if maybe you could work with this.”
* * *
I brewed tea. We sat at my lunch table to chat. I apologized for the strong smells of paint and various alcohol solutions.
“Narada,” I said. “That’s not such a common name.” He cocked his right ear; I’d spoken too softly. I repeated.
He explained: The sage Narada was a devotee of Vishnu and a famed musician known for his skill with the veena. He was, the myths said, also a mischief-maker, always interfering with other people’s families. The original Narada also reported up to the gods on mortal affairs.
“I didn’t know any of that,” I said. “I was not raised religious.”
“Who is, among your generation of Indian-Americans?” Narada shrugged. “Some stories are there, but is there belief?”
I said probably not in the American sense. Then I thought of my wife, and her doctor colleague who brought her to church and took her from me, and I tried to put it out of my mind to listen to Narada.
“I fell short of the namesake,” he was saying. “As a child, I loved music. I took lessons in Carnatic singing from age four! But eventually it became too hard to hear the nuances of songs. It takes all my effort to discern just the outline of what another person is saying. If I don’t strain, all I hear is my own wax. Can you imagine what earwax sounds like?”
“Not really,” I said, loudly.
“Like the awkward silence on a bad first date,” he said. “I’ve never been a gossip, either. You need clean ears for that, too.”
We sipped our tea, brewed milky-sweet the way my wife taught me, and Narada explained that when he was eight or so, his parents began taking him to the hospital in Madras to have his ears drained once a month. Back then, his ears clung flat against his head, like blooming lotuses. The doctors couldn’t do much. Relief from each appointment lasted a few days; soon, he’d be back at school, shaking loose new globs of wax. He tried hearing aids twice. Both times they gave him paralyzing migraines. He made do. He learned to read lips as backup.
“My parents were in denial, and never thought to send me to some special school for the deaf,” he said. “It would have been shameful.”
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.)
“You miss a lot as a child who can’t hear,” he explained in that same overloud voice. “It’s difficult to make friends. You cannot catch social cues. No one wants to tell you a secret if they can’t whisper it. Even in a room locked away from the rest of the world, tell me: would you want to yell your deepest secret at a person?”
I thought about it. At first, my wife was a whisperer. She liked to trade intimacies on the pillow at night in low tones, as though the bedroom was made of soufflé and we risked it collapsing if we spoke too loud. Maybe we, in the end, were the ones made of soufflé. Because everything buckled quickly when she started to yell: how I believed in nothing. How I had no vision for my life; I was borrowing hers. The one time I failed to adopt her line of sight, though, was when she tried to make me understand what she saw in the church her doctor colleague had taken her to. She showed me the video of her on the evangelical big-screen, which now appeared in the church’s promotional ads. Her brown face in the milky-white crowd, everyone singing, happy day, you washed my sins away. Her arms in the air, fingertips touching something that to me just looked like blue light but to her was, I don’t know, the Holy Spirit. She was singing into that Sunday morning all the things I couldn’t hear. Maybe you could yell your secrets, but not to a person. Only to your God.
Now that she was gone and the bedroom hollow and the bed cold, I hiccupped and sloshed and coughed and rid myself of snot many nights, a cleansing ritual before sleep.
“This is all fascinating,” I said to Narada, meaning it. “But why do you think I can help you?”
“Something strange happened a few months ago,” Narada said. “Occasionally I get fed up about my condition all over again, often after another attempt at love has gone wrong. It’s not easy, looking and hearing like this, to initiate or sustain a relationship. It’s fine here, as I’m sitting with you, un-globbing my ears as we talk—” (and indeed, he was occasionally scooping around with that instrument, placing a chunk of wax on a blue glass-blown Venetian ashtray—decorative, bought by my wife on our honeymoon). “But one can’t do so on first dates. Women—people, really—trade in vulnerabilities and confessions, a currency I cannot readily access.”
I nodded. I understood.
“At any rate, another attempt at love had flailed, this one with a neuroscientist at the university who at first seemed completely fascinated by me, but I suppose my novelty wore off. So I found myself stepping into a kitschy so-called New Age shop in Salem. An Irishwoman there told me to make something out of the thing causing me pain. So I removed a chunk of wax and she said, ‘Come tomorrow, I’ll have a candle for you.’”
“She made a candle with your earwax?”
Narada nodded. “But it smelled terrible. When she burned it, even I gagged. It was like a kitchen sink before it gets so clogged you have to call the plumber. Like rotten pasta puttanesca, everything in the fridge gone bad.”
“Gosh,” I said.
“Yes,” he agreed. “She couldn’t sell such a hideous candle. But for a week after, I burnt it, and even though it was foul, I felt different. I had cleared space in my head. I could hear new things. In the end, I threw it away, but I kept thinking about what she said: that if someone made use of my excess, I’d be free.”
“I’m not sure a wax ear is useful,” I said. “Most people don’t even think my eyeballs are useful. My former wife certainly did not.”
“There’s a symmetry to it,” he said. “I trust symmetry.” There was, of course, another symmetry—surely he’d been compelled by my south Indian last name. A younger desi guy serving an elder desi guy’s needs. Brown guys can have a difficult time of it. Especially those of us who are both brown and eccentric.
We talked for much of the afternoon. I learned that Narada worked in accounting at the university and that he had educated himself on social customs by reading Dale Carnegie when he came to America. At some point, my neighbor began singing again. Her choice was rough and throaty—German, I thought—and Narada looked at me oddly when I stopped, mid-sentence during a summary of my separation, as she coughed on a high note. She stomped in frustration.
“Can you hear her?” I asked.
He extracted his instrument, as he had been doing two or three times an hour, and rustled around in his ear.
She picked up where she left off and crashed on the highest note once more. Narada smiled dopily.
“She’s not all that good,” I said.
“But she is particular,” he said. “She sings as though something depends on it.”
The afternoon rolled on and the globs collected on my wife’s ashtray as we spoke, mounting into a small waxy sculpture, like a figure you’d keep on your desk for company.
* * *
Earwax consists of old skin and hair. Too much can keep you from perceiving the outside world. Too little leaves you unprotected. There are two types of earwax: wet and dry. Narada’s was neither. His was like hard clay, firm yet pliable.
Narada had left me enough to make a single ear. I sat down the next day to try it out. I used the tips of my fingers to create a delicate, shallow, crescent shape. Girlish. Above me, in #3, I heard the professor’s door open and her heels galumph. I pressed my thumb into the wax to create the impression of the canal. The professor ran water and began to sing. Even those imperfect high notes contained a full woodiness. As I added corrugation marks with a toothpick to demonstrate cartilage, I thought, That is how I would have liked to respond when my wife asked me to offer up whispered bedroom vulnerabilities—in a foreign language, conveying the shape of my wants and desires. Some things, like raw feelings at the core of us, cannot be expressed in soufflé whispers.
I left the waxen ear out that night to set, planning to bake it in the kiln at the artists’ co-op the next morning. But when I arrived, it was smooth. It was shiny like porcelain, though I’d not glazed it. I pressed it to my cheek and startled at how warm it was.
* * *
Narada was thrilled with that first ear. He insisted I keep it, so I placed it in a stand on my desk, in between my wife’s green eyes. He started dropping off more wax, once a week, on Fridays. I’d work with it on Saturdays and check on it Sunday mornings. Invariably, the ears had hardened. They were always warm to the touch.
Early on a Sunday, I was lining up a number of new ears in their own display case. I arranged them on pink tissue paper. I’d been focusing on Narada’s materials, since I had plenty of eyeballs in stock. I’d made several crescent, feminine ears, modeled off of my first set, and even pierced a few, threading through jewelry for an extra touch. I had made one pair wide like the President’s and attached false hair to another set so they resembled a grandfather’s. I sculpted a few as bugles, in tribute to Narada.
I had not yet sold a pair, but seeing them splayed out beneath the clean glass, like premature infants swaddled in the ICU, I was overtaken with the sense that I had made something important and alive.
I closed up the glass, muffling those ears back inside, and caught sight of the green eyeballs peering at me from my desk. I decided to call my wife. Former wife.
We had been in touch here and there. I’d called to ask why she had returned the eyes, and she had said she was sorry to have hurt me, but she couldn’t have them around, watching her like that. She reminded me that we did not speak the same love languages. “You speak in gifts and gestures,” she’d said. “And I just wanted you to talk to me and hear me.”
“Is he there?” I asked. Her doctor colleague, the one who’d taken her to church with him, was a handsome guy, with banana-colored hair.
“It’s not about him,” she said.
She wanted me to believe our marriage hadn’t ended over something so mundane as an earthly rival, that I’d lost out to her true dream man, Jesus. When He is with you all the time, listening to the ineffable resonances beneath your pulse, what could you want with a maker of glass eyeballs?
“Are you still going to that church?”
“I’m on my way out the door now.”
I sighed. I regretted calling. It was still my instinct, when I felt some upwelling of contentment or accomplishment, to reach for her. But I realized now that I did not really want to talk to her or hear her ideas. I just wanted to exhale some emotion into the world and see it like my breath in the winter.
“You don’t actually believe in God,” I said. “I don’t believe you do.”
My wife had only invited me to “worship service” once. I said I would not go, that it was too unlike the way I—we—had grown up. She said she understood, but that this might be a sign that it was time. Time? Her private clock: so quiet. I never heard it ticking.
Sunday mornings, we used to have sex with the television on. We married young; it seemed the way to live when you are married young. That’s what we might have been doing today, had she not woken up before me one Sunday after a patient of hers hung himself—the patient she’d had to have committed during a manic episode when he tried to follow her home, shouting words she couldn’t understand, like glossolalia, trying to communicate something from inside the storm of his sickness. On that Sunday, the beginning of our end, she took a walk and ran into the colleague on his way to church. He invited her to stop in. She stayed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, softer, distant. “What do you want to talk about? I’ll listen.”
“No,” I said. “Really what I want to do when I call you is scream.”
“Okay,” she said. “Scream.”
“I left. You can scream. Go.”
I put the phone on my desk and turned it to speaker. I took a deep inhale and expelled. It was a bad yell, a louder version of the noise you make when a doctor says say ahhh and clamps down on your tongue with a depressor.
“Satisfied?” she said.
Of course I wasn’t. I told her I’d stop calling, and she said I still could, if I needed closure, and I thought of that phrase of hers, love languages. I marveled at how we had made comprehensible sounds at one another and yet still couldn’t convey what we meant, what we meant, to each other.
When we hung up, I locked my shop, pulled on my fall coat, and stepped into the square. A gloomy, late morning. Students were still asleep; stores mostly closed. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and turned the corner and came upon that basement music club run by the other eccentric. Someone had put out a sandwich board on the brick-lain sidewalk that advertised, in pink chalk, Sunday Jazz Brunch. I descended the stairs and pushed open the heavy crimson door. Inside, there was Narada, seated alone at a table by the modest stage, pressing those bugle ears forward to catch the sound.
I plonked down across from him. He raised his salt-and-pepper eyebrows in delight. The pianist on stage was playing a riff of ‘Isn’t She Lovely’—it took me a while to recognize the familiar tune beneath the improvisations. The musician mashed his hands down on the keys, and yet nothing he produced was dissonant; I marveled at the order within the chaos.
“Can you hear okay?” I said.
“Wonderfully,” Narada said, speaking at an almost normal decibel. “There’s a vast new space in my head and the music can fill it up.”
I sat there listening but I didn’t feel that silence, only the echo of the scream I had emitted back in my shop.
Narada and I ate poached eggs. He drank a bellini, feeling festive. When the music and food were over, we walked outside together. It had begun to rain. Narada had brought an umbrella. Huddled beneath it, we bumped shoulders as we passed the man with the cardboard warnings. The Globe was spread out over his torso like a blanket, and his sign lay face down.
“So, it’s working,” I said, as Narada and I shook hands on my doorstep.
“Yes.” He looked like he was about to add something. “Thank you,” he said. “An immense thank you.”
* * *
I hung a new sign from the stoop: Oculus and Auris. Specialty makers of fine eyeballs and ears. I called the Globe reporter who’d profiled me. She agreed to tweet news of my additional wares.
I sold the first set to my upstairs neighbor, who came in saying she’d been meaning to stop by for a long time, and now couldn’t resist the addition of Auris to my stocks. She wore a turquoise blazer and a soft black t-shirt underneath, through which I could see the handsome outline of her breasts. She was maybe five-ten, taller than me, with broad shoulders. She chose those first crescent, girlish ears, and bought a set of sharp black robin’s eyes as well. I wrapped everything in tissue and cotton and placed each ear and each eye in its own box.
“It’s a wonderful time for strange art,” she informed me. “People are extremely bored with the way the world works.”
Other people came, too: a goth teenage girl bought a pair of thick ears into which I had inserted lobe-expanding gauges. She said her boyfriend would be all about this shit. She held the ears to her nose and inhaled deeply, then whispered something in them.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“It’s a secret,” she said, and I wrapped them up.
I sold one pair to a guitarist. Another with dangly earrings went to a shrill-voiced woman wearing pearls; the wide Presidential ones to a gabby government major. It was quite a roll Narada had me on, here.
Amid all the success, I had the thought to mail a pair of Narada’s bugles to my ex-wife. I said they were a new project. I wasn’t sure what else to write. When I fell asleep that night, I sprawled alone on my starchy sheets—she had taken the 700-thread-count ones—and tried to keep my wet hiccupping as soft as possible so I wouldn’t collapse our bedroom soufflé.
On Friday, Narada arrived in a comic whirl, holding just a tiny steel bowl of wax. He wore a navy goose down coat. Somewhat inured, now, to the shape of his ears, I had begun noticing other parts of him, like those beetle-black eyes, and the gray-caterpillar brows, and the face that was curiously unlined for his age, and the occasional whitish stubble coating his chin.
“I need you to make one more pair and sell them to the woman upstairs,” he said, shaking his head like a dog trying to rid itself of water. “And then no more. After that, no more. Put them all away.”
“Her, yes,” he sighed, and sunk into the chair across from me, pressing his fingertips to his temples.
“I already sold her a pair,” I said.
“How could you know that?”
“My friend,” Narada said. “It would seem the ears you are selling are my ears.”
“Well, in a way,” I said, thinking he wanted a share of the proceeds. I wouldn’t mind.
“No, no.” Narada swatted the air. “I mean, I can hear what goes on with the people who you sold them to. Come.”
“Ear to ear,” he instructed.
After a moment’s hesitation, I pressed my right ear to his left one. The wide lips of his bugles tickled me; they were feverishly warm. I felt him take a large inhale. He put a hand over his eyes, as though shutting off the other senses to heighten this one. Then I heard it: a cacophony of voices and noises, like rush hour at a train station. I shut my own eyes and caught familiar strains—my upstairs neighbor crescendoing into the climax of something in Italian—and then unknown voices, clanging against one another: a girl whispered be gentle, please. A guitar string reverberated, hollow. Fucking shitbag, yelled another, a sound of thudding. And then, through it all, a slow, rising, hiccupping—someone weeping, louder than the rest. It was terrible to have in my brain.
Narada released his breath and stepped away from me. Briefly: silence.
“How many have you sold in the last week?”
I counted on my fingers. “Maybe seven.”
“Each of those makes it louder and harder to hear her. She was the first, wasn’t she?” I nodded. “I can, if I focus very hard, pick one person out of the mess.” Narada’s black-beetle eyes trailed up to the ceiling. “She rarely speaks. She lives alone. On the phone, she is perfunctory. She does not gossip. She comes home from work and walks around in loud heels and when she wants to break the silence, she sings. I want more of her.”
“Wait,” I began.
He cleared his throat and his eyes fell on the bugle ear I kept on my desk. “I heard you, once, before you sold them to anyone else. That morning you found me at the jazz club. I heard you talking on the phone. I heard you scream.”
“It was at my wife,” I said.
“It didn’t suit me.” Then I realized. “I sent her a pair.”
Narada’s beetle-black eyes widened. “Oh, dear,” he said.
“Could you tell? Who’s who, in there?” I noticed my speech becoming quite rapid.
Narada sighed. “I am not certain. It is a bit of a storm.” Something silver glinted in his black eyes, like a coin being tossed into a pool of dark ink. “What I can tell you is that I won’t be able to hear anything—not your ex-wife, not my opera singer—if you keep selling so many.”
“Try,” I said. I was feeling something thickening my spine. “Try to hear just her.” I hoped, perhaps was even praying, that she hadn’t thrown them out. That this time, she had accepted my gift. “I’ll play you a video—” I reached around for my phone, where I still had some recordings of her—“so you know what she sounds like. Try to hear her. Do that, and I’ll get a set to my neighbor.”
* * *
I made one more pair modeled off of Narada’s bugles. I knocked on the door upstairs and I told my neighbor it was a thank you gift for buying the inaugural ears.
“What lovely timing,” she said. She wore a glittering red dress and a black shawl over her shoulders. She had excellent breasts, the red setting off her cream skin neatly. “I’m on my way to my brother’s house, and he was admiring mine last week.” She apologized that she had to run or she would invite me in for a cuppa—but perhaps, another time. I thought she was twinkling at me—and I was so surprised at the flash of want, from her, from me in response, that I didn’t correct her to say that those were for her and no one else. How would I say that, anyway?
I rushed back to my shop and wrapped all the unsold ears in cotton and placed them in boxes inside a larger box. I thought Narada might catch just a bit of her before she handed those ears off; I wanted to mute these to ease things.
Narada showed up later that week in the evening, just as I was closing up. He looked mournful. His bugles were actually drooping.
“I heard her unwrap them, and I heard her singing on her way out the door, and then I heard her in the cab on the way to someone else’s house—”
“Her brother’s,” I said.
“She was singing along with the cab driver. Such a free woman. Singing Phantom of the Opera. Laughing. No small talk in the car—just got in, heard the driver’s music and joined. Before she gave them to her brother, she kissed them. Do you know what a kiss on the earlobe sounds like?”
I couldn’t guess.
“Like the quietest secret anyone’s ever told you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know how to make her keep them herself.”
Narada slouched at the table across from me.
“That brother has so many arguments with his wife. He and his wife—they subscribe to the notion that one should not go to bed angry. Their fights go on and on. She has imbibed too many self-help books, I-statements, I-hear, I-hear-you-saying—and they talk even longer—”
He made a netted basket of his hands, and laid his forehead in it. He spoke into his hands. “But I do have… what you asked for. Would you like to? Hear her, I mean?”
I looked at the clock. It was about seven. “She is usually home by now,” he said. That was new. Earlier than when we were together. I nodded.
He once more pressed that great ear to mine. Again, the cacophony, too many radio channels. I felt the warmth rise, as though someone was turning a stove higher. My cartilage felt as though it was being sunburnt. I would have pulled away, on instinct, if I had not heard her. She was whispering. Narada must have been really straining. I couldn’t tell what exactly she was saying, at first.
She spoke slowly, as though she were addressing one of her patients on the verge of cracking. And then I heard my name. The name she used for me. No one else used this name. “—and, Lord,” came her voice. “Lord, please take care of him. Ramu, I mean. Please help him understand… understand you, I guess. Please give him the gift of your grace.” Narada’s ear was so hot on me, and my cheeks were hot now, too, like how they felt mid glass-blow. “Please, if that takes a while, let him figure out how to be a happier. Please let him stop needing me.”
She fell silent, and the staticky frequencies of other ear-owners buzzed in the background, as though they were asking to be heard, too. I pictured her praying on her knees, like a child before bed. I saw her as she used to be: stepping into the kitchen and beginning to heat up brown rice and her mother’s dal recipe. I took comfort in my picture of her, as alone as I was.
But then, I heard her again. (Narada’s ears heated. Mine hurt; I felt they were turning baby-pink, raw.) “Honey,” she called, louder now, shouting between rooms. “Honey, did you heat up the tortellini?”
I stepped back from Narada, and I pressed my hands against my own ears. My palms were cool, like the feel of one of my eyeballs after the glass has set.
“I’m sorry,” Narada said. “I had not wanted to live up to this part of my namesake.” I went to stand in the window, in between two of my eyeball cases. This was winter, now, and everybody that moved through the square moved like an anonymous shadow. I wished for new sounds to fill my brain. Pink noise, white noise, anything to flush away what I had just heard, the betrayal. I had not just lost her to God, but to something as material and trite as another man. Narada went on. “The bit about interfering in other people’s families, I mean,” he said. “Narada the mischief-maker. No one likes him.”
“I don’t think you should tune into her, again,” I said, as though it were the easiest thing in the world. I spoke to the window. I would have to daub some aloe vera on my ears once Narada left. “I don’t think I should try to hear her.”
“I agree,” he said. “And for me—it’s too painful. You felt the heat?”
I nodded. “So what now? What about you? What do we do?”
“You have to keep making, keep selling.”
“Won’t it drive you mad? All that noise?” I turned back to him. His black eyes were impossible to read. If they were my own creations I would have said they were a failure; they lacked verisimilitude, failed to convey movement.
“It’s not entirely unlike how it was before,” he said. “Something’s keeping me from hearing the outside world, all over again. But, no. There is something different. Before, when I could not catch the outside world, the only alternative was my own lonely silence.”
I thought of what he had said the first time we met, about the awkward lull in a failed date, the thick, waxy quiet of a faltering relationship.
“Now, though,” he said. “Now when I can’t hear something in front of me, I close my eyes, and hear other things. I hear a girl falling in love with a boy for the first time. I hear the woman upstairs, a bit of her. I hear your wife. There is at least life in these ears now. It is better than the isolation of my own earwax.”
Outside, suddenly, the Yard lit up; someone had plugged in Christmas lights draped around one of the brick residence halls. A scattering of students burdened by heavy winter coats stood, looking up at them.
“And of course,” Narada said, softly now, perhaps at a decibel he could not himself detect. “I hear you, too.”
* * *
It went on. We had a partnership. He had given me mission; I created under its umbrella. He continued to come on Fridays, bearing wax. The ears kept selling. The reporter from the Globe did another spread on me. I mentioned Narada only as the muse for the bugle-shaped ears. The reporter held one in her hand and I had the sense she knew there was a mystery about them but it was like we agreed not to try to fit it into her newsprint. A major tech company ordered the ears as giveaways for their corporate retreat, as reminders to communicate better. I used up my wax supply for a while, causing prices to soar. I named the bugle ears limited editions.
But then Narada started to bring more—two, three industrial-sized containers, as though his body was producing additional wax in effort to protect him from the onslaught. Often I asked Narada to stay, to have tea, to clean out his ears and listen to my neighbor rehearsing. But he grew reticent. He began buzzing up from downstairs, so I had to retrieve the jars on my doorstep. I’d invite him in and he’d apologize in a new, soft voice—as though he no longer even needed to hear himself speak. “I have headaches,” he explained. I got the sense from the rumpled clothing peeking out from his goose down coat that he was no longer going to work, but I did not know how he was spending his time. He simply left me with the jars and retreated, wordlessly, into the gray, snowless winter.
I kept his jars on my desk next to the green eyeballs. I had hardly thought of them as my wife’s eyeballs, recently. As I worked, counting out inventory on pencil and paper or sculpting new ears, I felt them more like the eyes of a well-made doll: facsimiles of curiosity, but neither warm nor alive, the way Narada’s ears were.
* * *
One Friday, Narada did not show up. Instead, a young brown guy arrived and introduced himself as Mr. Narada’s assistant. He was a student in the neuroscience program studying creativity, and a Carnatic-trained vocalist in his own right, he said, all puffed up. “Though I’m nothing like Mr. Narada. He’s a true master. Came out of nowhere, didn’t he…”
I remembered that Narada had once been involved with a neuroscientist, but I did not know her name, and I did not want to ask this stranger about Narada’s romantic life.
“A master?” I said. Why, it had been years since Narada had known raagas and taalas.
“Funny, he can barely hear you speak, and yet he can hear… something essential out there in the world.”
I took the jar and felt its familiar weight in my palms; the wax warm through the glass.
“Really?” I said. “Narada? Are you sure?”
“Anyway,” the guy said. “I’ll be coming Fridays from now on. Mr. Narada doesn’t like to leave the house except for shows.” He turned to go.
“Wait,” I said. “Could you tell me when he’s performing next?”
“Soon, I think.” He tapped around on his phone. “Next weekend, at the bar here in Cambridge,” he said. “The basement one. You should come.”
* * *
I invited my upstairs neighbor to Narada’s show. She wore another glittery dress, this one emerald and heavy. She gripped my arm as we made our way down the basement stairs.
It was a crowd unlike the ones Narada had grown up with in Madras. No one sat keeping taala. We were Americans or Indian-Americans who couldn’t have recognized the raagas. And yet, there was something known about Narada’s set that night. He sat cross-legged on the stage, wearing slacks and a white button-down, and he kept his eyes closed the whole time. A mridangam player stared intently at him during the improvisational sections. Narada lifted his hand to his mouth and stretched it to the sky as though unspooling sound for us. Between songs, he pressed his fingers to his temples and guzzled water. His voice slipped and slid, like it would tumble into dissonance, but it never did. Always, it scooped into something sweet and swollen.
The magic of Narada was both obvious and too strange to articulate, so the audience settled into the lull that comes with rich food and wine and art that includes you.
“Those ears,” my neighbor marveled, whispering in mine. Her breath landed softly on my lobe. I wondered how many people in the audience had bought Narada’s ears, displayed them in their trinket cabinets, kissed them, whispered in them, yelled at them, and done in their vicinity all the other parts of living, the inscrutable parts that somehow still formed patterns and harmonies.
I wondered if we were hearing ourselves, a little. I looked up at the bluish lights, the color of the ones filtering through my wife’s evangelical promo video. I lifted my hand and touched what she had touched.
At the end, the club owner didn’t have to tell us: Carry the music home with you, on your shoulders, on your heels! We ascended the basement stairs, our limbs swaying like jellyfish tentacles. I carried my coat over my arm—I didn’t want it, even in this sharp Cambridge winter. My hand, floppy as a noodle, landed in my upstairs neighbor’s for a moment and she whispered, I thought you’d never, but then stopped because it didn’t seem like a night for confessions. All of us kept tripping down that brick-lain road, Narada’s voice on our shoulders, on our heels.
I turned my head to see if I could spy him emerging from the club. I thought I did. A shadowy figure. Long ears. Framed under the cone of a yellow streetlamp. I saw those black, black eyes, and I lifted my hand to wave, and he squinted. But to him, I must have been just a wobbly shape blending into the night.
Sanjena Sathian is a 2019 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an alumna of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has also been published in Boulevard, Joyland, and Salt Hill. Prior to Iowa, she worked as a reporter in San Francisco and Mumbai. You can find her at www.sanjena.com.