In The Sandbox

The mud is not inanimate as she had thought it to be; out of the corner of her eyes, she sees it move in a sleek file. Pushing back the mass of curls out of the way with her chubby fingers, she squats down in the corner of the sandbox. On closer look, she finds that this moving piece of mud is different from the rest. For one thing, it is green. She puts out her hand to feel the cylindrical body wriggle, protesting against her hold. She puts it back on the concrete path beside the sandbox and observes.

The worm makes its way quickly towards the opposite side of the narrow path, towards the swings and slides where the older kids play. The playground is usually filled with boisterous children of all ages. But not today; today, it is just her. The knowledge emboldens her, and she crosses the path to follow the worm.

There is a little growth of grass here, with weeds scattered here and there. The worm quickly scuttles over behind one of the weedy leaves. The leaves interest her more; they are different than the grass around, and different than the full-shaped ones in her book. They are carved and designed like the stencils that she has for her colouring books. Bending over the tiny plant, she carefully plucks out a leaf. The mud around immediately becomes a sea of motion; ants and worms all in chaos. She takes a few sharp steps back; they are all like Chico dog, unhappy to be disturbed from their slumber.

The swings are too high for her to get on by herself; she had fallen trying yesterday. Can she try again today? In his usual bouncing excitement, Chico dog had jumped on the swings last week, only to land flying on the ground; shocked that the seats moved. She had been amused by his horrified look.

She stands in front of one of swings, set slightly lower than the rest. The seat is in line with her chest. A rush of struggling limbs; arms tightened on the metal ropes, legs flailing about in the air, and she is flat on the ground. She settles down on the lower seat of the see-saw to rest.

worm

Photo by Jairo Alzate

 

The insect hole, hidden behind the shade of the small plant, has gone back to its peaceful existence. She sees lines of ants following each other in and out of the hole. The worm that she had followed has climbed over on one of the intricately patterned leaves. It is soon joined by a friend, and together, they cut out a pattern across the midrib, somewhat like the lace on the socks that she is wearing.

She is distracted by the sound of laughter coming from the street, and looks up to see two boys enter the playground. They are slightly older than her; she has seen them sit on the swings by themselves. They make their way to the see-saw.

“Get up, we want to play.”

She obliges, and toddles back to her sandbox, vaguely aware of the chatter behind her. One of the worms has escaped from its leaf house again, and joins her in the sandbox. Her shoes have left a pattern in the mud, and the worm follows the crevices. This fascinates her. She creates a gateway out of her shoe’s print, and begins tracing a path with her finger for the worm. The worm is slow, and by the time it reaches the gateway, she has already created an elaborate labyrinth over half the sandbox. Settling down cross-legged in the middle of the sandbox, she watches the progress of the worm, engrossed.

A heap of mud lands directly over the worm, burying it. The two boys are standing over her, their hands muddy.

“Go away. We want to play.”

She looks back to ground. The worm has managed to find its way out of the mud, and is gliding down the tiny mound.

Before she can point this out to the boys, she is showered in fistfuls of mud. The mud pies are strong, hard enough to hurt her. She covers her face, but her hands are already dirty. Tears spring from her eyes, streaking across her muddy face. She does not understand.

“What the mother must be thinking, leaving her girl playing about in the mud like that!”

She opens her eyes to find the women, the boys’ mothers scrutinizing her, distaste plain on their faces. She looks towards the gate for comfort, her red house visible on the other side of the pavement. Chico dog had been roaming in their garden, but now has come to the playground to investigate. He gives her a lick. The women look on in disgust. One of the boys takes a fancy to Chico and makes to pet him, but is pulled back by his mother.

She wants to tell the boys that Chico will not bite, wants them to know that the worm climbed out of the heap of mud. Chico tugs at her pinafore.

*

She is in the tub, telling her mother all about the worm, how she fell down the swing, how the boys were scared of Chico. Her mother smiles, asks her questions about the stencil leaves, and gently washes the mud out of her hair. Inwardly, she thinks of the articles she read that morning, about prestigious science awards going only to men, of glass ceilings that would not break. She thinks of her own hard-earned tenure, her patronizing colleagues, her difficult journey. She tries to quieten the guilt that is seeping through her; guilt of being a few minutes late, caught up in a work call. She looks at her bright, inquisitive daughter, and wonders if mud is enough to sow seeds of doubt and hesitation.

As the mother tucks her into bed, her daughter tells her that she will go and see the worms tomorrow. She hopes that they will have new patterns on their leaves. A relieved sigh escapes the mother. Today, at least, was not the day.

Broken

Download / By Sunset Girl

She stood waiting, unsure whether to sit. It was an empty room mostly; a green, old and worn-down sofa, a chair with a broken back, a small table. A small, grilled window looked out to the busy street; a lot of noise. But she did not hear the noise; the turmoil inside her was too great in itself.

It had been three years since Maya had last seen her father. A small time, really, but she had lived a whole new life during that time. Resentment, anger and shame had filled her in those initial days. Now, it was replaced by dread. She had a thousand questions for him, but no words.

The door opened and her father entered. He had not changed much, nothing that struck her. It was almost too easy; there was no shock that is usually present when you see someone after a long time. It was, as if, a continuation of the past, as if no break had taken place. It scared her more.

He shuffled over to the sofa and sat down with a grunt. She was somewhat hurt. Had she hoped for some change? Had she perhaps expected an apologetic behavior, awkwardness mixed with sorrow? Shame? Remorse? It bothered her that even after such a long time, this small act by her father affected her so much.

Positioning herself on the chair, she looked resentfully at him. She had thought that time would heal the wounds, or would at least make her detached enough for this meeting. But she was still so trapped into all those emotions. She wanted to get up and run away. She wanted to hit him. She wanted…anything, anything that would release that burden that had been making her shoulders, head, her entire body, ache for three years.

He broke the silence.

“Maya… You’ve been well…?”

Such a cursory question, something that she would have answered immediately at a social gathering; Yes, very well. Thank you! But she wouldn’t answer today. She hadn’t come here to have pleasant chats about the weather, ignoring the elephant in the room. She had come to…to… Why had she come here? She asked herself again. She still had no definite answer.

You have been well?” she asked, unable to keep her tone less accusatory.

“Ah, yes, well… The neighborhood is nice.”

A silence again.

He stood up and shuffled inside. A minute later, he came back with a glass of water and a plate of biscuits.

“You liked these ones… Marie biscuits…” he ventured.

A pain had now settled in her heart. This was difficult, more difficult than singular hatred for somebody.

*

Daddy! Look what I brought!” Maya shouted with glee, holding the trophy in her hands.

She burst into the house, but her father wasn’t in the drawing room. Impatiently, she ran back to the kitchen garden; her father was very big on home-grown vegetables.

Kitchen…Living room…Study… Maya rushed upstairs to find him. The door to her parents’ bedroom was half closed. She pushed it open. He was there…

*

The maid came running at the sound of the glass shattering.

It had shaken her, that she was still so possessed by old nightmares; incidences that she had thought to be buried. She wasn’t ready to do this, wasn’t ready to look into her father’s eyes.

The ride home was uneventful. Her taxi passed through familiar streets but she was lost in a whirlpool of her emotions.

She regretted her decision.

*

The girl was too scared to scream. And she was so tiny; she couldn’t have battled a man of her father’s size alone. In fact, both of them together could not have made a difference either. But Maya’s father stopped on seeing her enter the room. He didn’t say anything. Maya would not let him. She could not stop screaming. The girl rushed to Maya as soon as her Daddys hands loosened. She was trembling with fear and still couldn’t say anything. Maya couldn’t say anything coherent either. It was all a jumble of words; accusations and disgust.

*

The taxi came to a stop at her hotel, and broke her flow of memories; memories that she had locked deep within, and which were now open and unwilling to be subdued easily. She still shuddered to think of what would have happened had she not reached her house in time. More than that, she shuddered to think what would have happened had she stopped screaming and allowed her father to talk. Her father was never at loss for words. He was a lawyer; he would have made such convincing statements. And she knew she would have believed him. Like she had all her life.

She returned home the next morning.

*

Sitting in her psychiatrist’s office,  Maya could not help remembering the faint memories of her childhood… how Daddy used to wink at the waitresses, and then laugh innocently when he caught her looking…how he would stare at women who passed by them every morning while they went for walk in the park. Had he always been a pervert? Had she just been too trusting or too preoccupied to notice?

*

Her father acted as if nothing was wrong, as if the very basis of all relationships with him hadn’t changed. Her mother had been too ashamed to speak to her. The girl, her father’s student, hadn’t made any complaint. A lot of money was involved.

Why did her mother choose to turn a blind eye towards his follies? What happened to all her teachings about truth and pride? Why did the girl not speak up? Maya could not decide whose behavior troubled her more.

*

She promised herself that she would return again some day; when it would be less painful, less humiliating, less … personal. She would then return as just a researcher, merely curious to know the mind of a criminal. Till then, this story would remain broken.