I miss my mother so much, I wonder if she thinks of me at night when she goes to sleep?
Does she remember how she used to oil my hair, rubbing that mix of sesame and mustard-seed that smelled so much and stung my hair like the prickling of ants’ feet? I would squirm and howl when my mother rubbed it into my scalp, and writhe my neck to move my head away from her firm fingers.
“Be quiet, Rupa!” she shouted, and smacked my forehead with the back of the hairbrush. I would glare at her through the tears of pain and humiliation trickling out of my eyes and she would glare back at me, unperturbed by my childish wrath.
“Why are you doing it the old way!” I shrieked. “There are hundreds of treatments that would do the same thing! Aminos, bioceuticals, things that will alter my DNA so my hair doesn’t grow out frizzy. Why do you always insist on this stupid oil that makes a mess and smells like rotten eggs!”
“You’ll be thankful one day that I do this for you. Those chemicals would kill you, you want to die for your vanity? May God give you a daughter that you can do this for one day as well.”
My mother was a Religious. She believed in God, and she taught me to fear him, though I did not love him the way I love my mother. My mother did not have good hair, like mine. My hair is long and thick, it hangs down past my waist. My mother’s hair was short and fragile, breaking away in strands around her head that she found on her pillow every morning.
“Let me oil your hair for you,” I would tell her on days that we were at peace, not war, days when we were friends, as much as a fourteen year old and her mother can be friends. “Come, Ma. Sit down here. The oil is warm, just the way you like it.”
“Na, na, Rupa,” my mother replied. “My hair is weak. I haven’t time. I have a hundred things to do.”
But I would still insist, and then it was my fingers that would massage her scalp while she closed her eyes and luxuriated in the unexpected pleasure.
“Ma, can I have a nosepin like yours?” I said quickly, hoping my hands in her hair could coax her into agreement. I had always admired my mother’s nosepin, the sparkling diamond that twinkled from the side of her nose. It seemed to me the ultimate sign of being grown up and of being beautiful.
“No, and don’t ask me again,” said my mother, dashing my hopes. “You’re not old enough yet.”
I pursed my lips in disappointment, but with her back to me, she couldn’t see my pout. I tried another tack. “Ma, you were right about the oil. You said it would make my hair strong and look, it has. It will do the same for you.”
“My time for looking beautiful has gone. It’s your turn now.”
And somehow her praise was a good substitute for a nosepin, for the time being. And somehow those words that slipped out of her in that unguarded moment were a prayer that God heard directly and made happen, because I became beautiful the day after she said those words. You won’t believe me, but it’s true. That night, I went to bed an ugly, scrawny, gawky thing and in the morning when I woke up and the early sunlight warmed me, it turned my skin from dark gravel into smooth butter. My breasts blossomed and my hips widened, my legs lengthened and my waist thinned. My hair settled from frizzy spider’s web to moth’s silken wings. My eyes grew large and liquid and my bulbous lips and big nose shrank to fit my face perfectly, which had become a burnished opal overnight.
I was beautiful and my mother had made it happen. She had spoken her words in some special combination, made some bargain with God when I was asleep at night, I don’t know what she did. But it worked, and when I came down to breakfast that morning both my father and brother Zee stared at me as if I were a stranger sitting in their daughter’s chair, while my mother smiled and said nothing. But her eyes met mine and said everything.
At first I was enchanted by my own loveliness, and spent many hours locked in the bathroom and staring in the mirror, lifting my hair up off my neck to see the curve of my spine, holding my breasts high and enjoying the weight of them in my hands. I would shift my thighs and point my toes and admire the way the lines of my body moved up in one direction, towards parts of me that were equally beautiful but mysterious, harder to see in a mirror.
Now, when my mother called me to sit in front of her with the oil and the comb, I rushed to bring them to her, and crouched at her feet, holding the oil in my hands and smiling at myself as the thousands of tiny feet marched all over my scalp and the odor of mustard seed offended my nostrils. I would do anything to keep my hair shining and thick like this, so that when I held it my fist could not close completely around it.
“Now can I get a nosepin?”
“Rupa, stop bothering me. You’re pretty enough. You don’t need a nosepin.”
Again, my mother’s compliments were like honey, but that kind of beauty has its price; it took away my peace. And beauty without peace is torture, a curse that befalls an entire family. And in my family, I can’t tell who was more cursed, me or my brother Zee. Poor Zee!
He was two years older than me, but I looked up to him as if he were a giant. We were so close when we were small, me following him everywhere, he taking time to read books to me or approve of my drawings and poems. I had no friends my own age – the nearest girl lived twenty kilometers away from our home – and so my brother became my best friend when I was four and he was six. We played together, daddy coming home from work and mummy looking after the house and children turned into fanciful games of knights saving princesses from monsters.
Our father was always at work and our mother hadn’t much time for us, busy with housework and women’s committees. So I thought we had an unspoken agreement, Zee and me, to stick together no matter what. Looking back, I see how little I had understood of the situation; how my childish thoughts and needs blinded me to what he, a boy working hard at growing into a man, felt he had to do — show his friends that he had no time for a creature as insignificant as I.
At first when Zee started looking at me with different eyes, I found it strangely wonderful. I had spent the last five years getting used to his sullen silences, his withdrawal from our friendship, his studied ignoring of me whenever I came into the room. He’d mocked me when I spoke, rolling his eyes and moving his mouth to imitate my words in a high-pitched voice. If I cried or got angry, he laughed. I found him now cruel when he had been kind, and I struggled not to hate him back for it. But the more love I showed him, the more he brushed me off as if I were nothing more than a mosquito buzzing around his head.
But now, the change in him was apparent. When I came into the room, he would pretend to ignore me as before. But when I wasn’t looking – or when he thought I wasn’t – he would glance at me furtively. The glances would turn into long stares that took in not just my face, but a part of my body – my legs, my hips, sometimes my breasts. And then he would break away and stare at the floor, his cheeks crimson.
If he had talked to me, if he had been my friend like in the old days, it would have been different. He would have seen me as something normal, the same little person that had hung on to his every word and played games with him and read stories together. Instead, he acted as though I were some kind of strange creature he had never encountered before. It’s true that there weren’t many girls his age for him to meet or interact with. We were one of the few families that had a girl at all in our zone. And my brother went to one of the all-male schools in the city, so he had no hope of ever meeting a girl there, let alone befriending us.
I began to get nervous around him. Why did he always look at me like that, with his dark, deep-set eyes that were just like mine, even down to the heavy fringe of lashes and the eyebrows that were just a little too short for our eyes? Why did he just slink away, instead of talking to me?
I was not the only one who noticed. My mother saw those looks. There was something about them that worried her; she found more and more ways to keep us away from each other – telling Zee to go fetch something from the store, telling me to go to my room and study. But Zee’s eyes always found their way to me, as I bent over to take something out of the oven, or reached up high to bring a box down from a cupboard. And I found his looks uncomfortable, but at the same time I was always a little bit happy that he was looking, because it meant I wasn’t a stone or a shoe or any other object in the room. It meant that he loved me still.
Zee’s eyes, over the months, became ever more watchful of me. So did my mother’s. She began to scold me more, getting angry with me over every small thing that I did or didn’t do. If it was wrong, she shouted. If it was right, it wasn’t right enough, and I still got shouted at.
She began to criticize how I dressed, telling me that my clothes were too tight, or that my neckline was too low, my hemline too high. I didn’t even know what a prostitute was, but I soon learned. “A woman who likes to show everyone her body,” screamed my mother, as I turned my back and ran stumbling to my room, pulling my skirt lower over my knees and tears burning my eyes. And Zee watching both of us, biting his lips and the red blossoming on his face.
One morning I got up early to take a shower, before Zee woke up. He would not allow me a moment’s peace in there, hammering on the door, shouting at me to get out so he could stay in there, luxuriating in the hot water, then staring at himself in the mirror and combing his hair this way and that.
The shower was my safe place, where I could dream, reflect, plan and sometimes, just close my eyes and think of nothing. I was only fourteen, think about it – a child. I didn’t deserve to have so many burdens placed on me: the situation in my house, of course, my father’s absence, which we never spoke about but which was louder than a sonic boom, my mother’s gimlet eyes, my brother’s peculiar gaze.
In the shower that morning my mind drifted away to what my life would be like when I became a Wife. Would my husband be handsome, rich, clever? I wasn’t much interested in the boys in my class, as we weren’t friends – we weren’t allowed to be. They weren’t what I had in mind, anyway, when I pictured Husbands: strong, protective and kind, grown up men of at least twenty or twenty-five – that was properly grown up, wasn’t it? The boys in my class were smelly and their voices squealed when they most wanted them to be deep and manly. They ran around with untucked shirts and one of the boys usually forgot to do up the zipper and would stand at the front of the class with the white of his underpants a flag between the black cloth of his trousers making all of us giggle.
That’s when I noticed that the bathroom door, which I’d closed when I went inside, was slightly ajar. A shadow blocked the light from the hallway. I gasped in shock as I realized that there was someone on the other side of the door, watching me. My heart jumping like a rabbit in my chest, I reached out for my towel to cover my body. Then I stepped out of the water, legs trembling, and moved quickly to see who was there, even as I dreaded to find out. When had my mother started spying on me in the bathroom? She must be in a really bad mood today – I feared her black days, which meant more searing words for me. Would she be angry with me for idling in the shower, for wasting water, or time, or… touching myself? Why hadn’t I just taken the five minutes I usually did and just gotten out quickly? Why hadn’t she just burst in and started shouting? It wasn’t like her to be silent, or to wait for me to confess my wrongdoing to her.
But as I reached the bathroom door, and flung it open, whoever it was on the other side had disappeared. And I heard a door slam down the hallway. I recognized that door slam, as I’d heard it almost every day of my life for the past five years, banged in my face in annoyance.
“What are you doing like that out here?” My mother’s voice cracked like a branch breaking off a tree, sharp and sudden, signaling destruction in its wake.
“Ma, I —” I stopped, unsure how to go on. I was standing in the hallway, dripping water onto the clean floor, my long wet hair tangled like snakes all the way down my back. I must have been a pathetic sight.
She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head. There were dishes in her hands or she’d have grabbed me by the arm and marched me back into the bathroom.
“There was someone at the door,” I whispered. I didn’t want Zee to hear. But I knew he’d be at his own door, ear pressed to it, to hear. “While I was inside.”
“What? Inside our house?” My mother’s face constricted, became smaller. She’d always worried that without my father here to protect us, we were vulnerable to robbery.
“Ma, listen. No, Ma, it wasn’t a stranger. Ma!”
She had put the plates down quickly and was about to step into action, to check the doors and windows, the security screen, to call Zee. I held the towel closed with one hand and grabbed her arm with the other. She stopped in her tracks. I pulled her back into the still-steaming bathroom and shut the door behind us. She faced me, face flaring with a strange expression, eyebrows drawn down in a frown, eyes fixed on me, biting her lips so that the skin around her mouth turned white.
“It wasn’t a stranger, Ma. It was Zee. He was – watching me. While I showered.” I felt horrible saying it; I was betraying my brother, my best friend. But I had to tell Ma. All those hours watching those endless films, that instructed us on how to stay safe, to report any incidents of men following us or saying things to us or touching us, making us feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any way – it was a crime and it had to be reported.
My mother made a strange sound, as if I had kicked her in the stomach. She staggered for a moment, and put her hands on the table to steady herself.
“Ma?” I said, forgetting my anxiety, feeling only worried for her. “Are you all right?”
“Don’t,” she said, pulling her arm away from my hand seeking to reassure, or to be reassured. This had never happened to us before, this tearing apart, the rending of the very cloth our family was made of. But I could feel it coming undone all around me.
“I don’t want to hear this.”
“I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear this – this, this filth. I won’t listen to you. Don’t say another word.”
“But Ma! I’m telling the truth!”
We were still speaking in furious whispers, which I realize now were still protecting Zee.
“Enough, Rupa. I have to get breakfast ready for …” Her voice trailed off. There was still a chance, I thought madly. Another childish mistake. We never want to believe our gods and goddesses are human, do we?
“Please, Ma. Listen to me. I’m telling the truth. Zee’s been acting strangely around me for months now. I know you’ve seen it. He – he stares at me. It makes me feel bad. And now he’s watching me in the bathroom. Please, Ma, you have to do something. You have to help me.”
Instead of the comforting hug I thought I would get from Ma, the promise that she would scold Zee, turn some of the fury she was always unleashing on me at the right target, my mother was hardening in front of my eyes. She was turning to stone. I could see it in the way her mouth became a thin, set line, her eyes went from warm to cold, and then glassy, as if she was seeing straight through me.
“I don’t want to hear another word,” said my mother, quite calmly, as if telling me the time or asking me if it was a pleasant weathered-day outdoors. And then she turned and left the room, and I got dressed quickly, my eyes on the floor because I wasn’t able to face looking at myself in the mirror.
When I was eating breakfast — Zee was having his in his room, thankfully, so that embarrassment was not mine to face today — my mother announced, in that same monotone that I wouldn’t be going to school.
“But what should I do?” I said, startled.
“You’ll help me around the house,” she replied.
I was beginning to think my mother would never let me go back to school. But on the night of the third day, she opened the door and pulled me out of my room, firmly, but not with harshness.
“Come here, Rupa.” She led me to the drawing room, which we barely ever used, except for when my father was home from Gedrosia and an endless stream of visitors came to meet him. The room smelled like must and dust motes turned slowly in the sunlight. It was the only room in the house that didn’t have a screen. My father had wanted to put a big one there, in the middle of the large white wall, but my mother stopped him. “Let this be the one place where we actually talk to each other,” she said. And I was astonished at her boldness to him.
“Sit,” she said, motioning to the sofa. Weak with relief, I sat down too quickly: the sofa made a loud sound as I fell into it. My mother bent down towards me, took my face in her hands, and held it tight, looking into my eyes.
“Ma…” My voice was weak as paper.
She stared at me hungrily, with an intensity that I had never seen before. “Oh, Rupa,” she whispered.
Then, in a different voice, “Don’t move.”
Before I could answer, she pressed her thumb into my right nostril. With her other hand, she brought something sharp to the skin of my nose, and pressed hard. I gasped in pain; my right eye began to water intensely. Her eyebrows were drawn down, two deep lines cut between her eyebrows as she worked the sharp object into my skin. I couldn’t move; I was paralyzed with the shock and the hurt. I couldn’t scream: something told me this was a transaction that would take place in utter silence.
When she was done, she held my face firmly in her hands again, inspecting her handiwork. I could feel the trickle of blood where the sharpness had penetrated me, and my cheek was wet with the tears that still fell from my eye. The other eye was dry as dust.
“Look,” said my mother, and held a mirror up to me. “You’re old enough now.”
Her nosepin now sat in my own nose, twinkling in the fold of skin just above my nostril, angry red and beginning to swell.
She thrust a small cube into my hand and told me to press it against my nose. Immediately the sting subsided, the little dose of skin smoother working in my blood vessels to clot the blood and stop the pain messages from going to my brain. A minty smell rose into my nostrils, one that I would forever smell whenever I cut myself, or saw my own blood.
Like this, Ma? I wanted to ask her. Is this how a girl becomes a woman, with unexpected cruelty and pain? With blood? But my mother was pulling me towards the front door of our house, her fingers cutting cruelly into the soft flesh of my upper arm.
“Ma, wait. Wait, Ma, please stop. Tell me what’s going on!” I was gabbling now, her steely determination starting to fray the edges of my nerves. But she kept pulling me to the door, strong and wiry despite her small size. She opened it quickly, then thrust her head out, looking left and right the way an animal checks for predators when it comes above ground.
My heart began to beat faster. “Ma, please. Please… I’m sorry about what I said about Zee, I’m sorry… I take it back. He wasn’t there, Ma…Ma, please!” My voice began to rise with hysteria as she yanked me through the door. I caught on to it with my fingernails, but I wasn’t strong enough to resist her. She half-pulled and half-pushed me until we were both outside.
“Get in the car, Rupa.”
“Ma, don’t send me away, please, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I started to cry, little girl sobs shaking my shoulders, breaking my voice into quavers.
“You have to go, Rupa. It’s for your own good. Better I do this than I have to bury you in a grave of dust and soil to keep you safe.”
I want to think that she really believed that. I really do want to think that she thought she knew best, as she left me there on the street and went back into the house and locked the door behind her. That it was the only way she could think of keeping me safe from Zee, from what he might do next to me in our house, and she unable to tell anyone about it.
I stumbled to the street, not a soul to help me or reason with my mother or convince her to take me back inside. And her nosepin, winking and flashing like a third eye on my face, was my mother’s brand straight across my heart, marking me both as her offspring and her outcast for the rest of my life.
This short story was first published in The Aleph Review.