Seven for a Secret
One for sorrow, two for joy…
The clamor of the children outside her window was as raucous as the flock of shaliks at whom they were chanting. She rested her elbows on the window as she half-lay, half-sat in bed, watching the yellow-billed, brown birds fight amongst themselves over grass seeds. The children stood nearby, watching them, touching their forefingers and pinkies to their lips as they recited the well-worn mantra. She had done the same when she had been a child, solemn in the belief that the number of shaliks one spotted together bespoke the day's destiny. How many shaliks were down there now?
The baby sleeping beside her muttered in guttural consonants. She moved towards the baby. Was he alright? Was he having trouble breathing?
Her mother walked into the room with a bowl of thin chicken soup, "Here you go."
"Ma, is he okay? He was making a funny noise. He's okay, isn't he? He can breathe alright?"
The baby grunted in his sleep again. "There, see…" she said anxiously. She pulled at her clothing, the end of her milk-stained sari clung to her breasts in twin crescents, wet, yet warm.
Her mother bent over the infant and crooned, "Oh we'll be making funnier noises before we're done, won't we?" She straightened up and smiled at her daughter, "He's fine. You're not. You need to build up your strength."
She began, "But I'm not hungry, ma, I just had…"
Her mother scolded, "Don't argue, child, eat. If you don't eat properly, neither does he, it's as simple as that. Your milk hasn't started flowing properly yet. Eat up."
She was supposed to stay the customary forty days with her mother before returning to her in-laws. For forty days she was to remain indoors and feed herself, preparing for the languid but sustained tide that clogged and then dissipated (from) her heavy breasts. Her mother-in-law came visiting almost every day, always with a little something for her. Translucent tapioca and a sticky mess of brown dates stewed in the brightness of milk, bitter-black dollops of kalijira paste as encouragement, a calling to the milk to flow abundant and thick as the first rains of monsoon, a gentle welling from within.
Three for letter, four for boy…
The opulent rotundity of milk and motherhood had laid siege to her body almost as soon as she had become aware of being usurped, as she made her gentle surrender. It was as if a different body was taking shape, growing within her own skin: breasts engorged like unseasoned wood left out in the rain, nipples tumescent and brown, delicate sweetmeats steeped overnight in sugared water, the lush flesh of her calves and arms about to burst out like the firm golden pulp of overripe mangoes. Subterranean odors wafted within this body that was no longer hers.
She had been over four months gone then, when her bouts of dizziness, gut-nausea, and every-night feral dreams (every night) had left her standing in front of the doctor's office with a watery green piece of paper in her hand; urgent dispatch from the unborn, love-note from that sea-creature of divine waters.
It was weeks later that a thin grey probe, shaped like the fish that floated within her, glided in a gelid caress over the triumphant curve of her distended belly bringing her news of her bounty: it was to be a son, the lamp to light the paths of his forefathers. The soon-to-be grandfathers slaughtered black goats in celebration -- her father in offering for her, his father in prayers for the coming heir. Blood for blood, flesh for flesh to plead for their wellbeing.
Five for silver, six for gold…
Under her mother's watchful eye, she carefully ran the razor over the baby's soft head. The delicate wisps of silvery down covering his head fell on the new white fabric spread under him like the fluff of the feathery kaash blooms of early spring. The hair had to be shaved off at seven days, the finger and toenails clipped. Minute nail clippings lay invisible on the whiteness of the sheet, slivers of an infant moon. The nail clippings and the hair would have to be gathered carefully, not a strand, not a shard to be lost, swept away or left lying around forgotten. They had to be hoarded, these twin receptacles of the fragility and precision of pristine life, they had to be buried in the earth, preferably at the roots of a "good" tree, like neem or tulsi so that no dark desires could shadow his coming days.
She held the dozing baby to her breast and gazed at the darkness outside at the fragile spun-gold geometry of dancing fireflies. The golden-yellow silk threads of the baby blanket he was wrapped in gleamed softly. She had spent days selecting pieces of cloth culled from saris that had been softened with use. The silken threads for the intricate tapestries that would meld the cloths into swaddling cloths, diapers and small quilts she had unraveled from the sari borders. It was her baby's dreams that she had embroidered in the months he was within her; the woven cotton that had previously covered the welcoming arms and laps of the two grandmothers grew comfortable and loving in her busy hands. Now he lay fast asleep in her arms, warm in the clasp of the blanket and his mother's embrace.
Seven for a secret never to be told.
The tender claustrophobia of marriage had left her completely unprepared for the splendid solitude of motherhood. It was as if she and the baby were tuned into a bandwidth that no one else could receive. Or she had shut down all channels bar one inside of her, and no one had figured it out yet. People moved around her, came and went, did things, spoke, poked and prodded, and it was as if she was there but not looking, not listening, her eyes were fixed on something distant, something different altogether, her ears attuned to a whispered conversation going on in the next room. It was an effort to remember that there were indeed other people in this world of theirs, that things happened that had nothing to do with either of them. It was almost impossible to imagine that life other than their own existed.
Yet, day by day things were changing: she was re-entering the land of the living, so to speak. She was re-inventing her life, rediscovering the forgotten fact that she had a life. And as she re-explored her own, so she unveiled with deepening disquietude that he was beginning to have a life apart from her, a life unknown, immeasurable.
The baby opened his eyes and turned to look at his father -- the same look of calm recognition he gave her when he saw her nearing, her breast bared as if an offering of something vital. Something wrenched deep within her, anguish that welled up from her womb.
The thought was incredible to her, utterly beyond belief that here came a time when this child was becoming a separate person, someone with likes and dislikes other than her own, who would have his own preferences as to food, clothes, people, love and life. That he would be something other than an extension of who she was. The flesh that had ripened within her day after day, the calcification of her warmth had all led to this: that the cord would finally, utterly be severed. It seemed cruel to her, and unnecessary. A rending of her self into ragged pieces that meant nothing at all, that finally left her standing alone near the opening dark.
There were so many things that were hers, wholly hers that no one else knew or could even begin to understand. The soft grunts he made as he suckled at her breast, an almost smile accompanied by a sighing that only happened for a split second when he had finally sated himself with milk, and as he drifted off to sleep, the soft burbling and the complicated signs he made with his fingers upon her bare skin, an anointing of cabalistic charms keeping the both of them safe from the approaching oblivion.
All this had meant that he was hers. Till now. All this and more.
These were the things that would remain untold. A tender desolation flooded her belly, engulfed this house of flesh, bereaved her. As she watched him turn away from her, she felt hot shadowy tears spill down her cheeks in twin rivulets -- one for sorrow, two for joy.