Then his hands were on hers, tight, stopping her as she tugged on his zipper.
"Don't. It isn't safe. I didn't expect this. I don't have anything with me. And I take it you don't either ."
The blood rocked so hard in the hollows of her body, she feared she'd break open. He had to repeat himself before she could understand the words. She shook her head vaguely, not caring. She wouldn't let go. Her body, thwarted so long, had seized on wildness like a birthright. A part of her cried, You're insane, girl. She pushed her face against him, his chest hairs wiry against her tongue, until finally his hands were gone. She could feel fingers, their drowning grip on her hair. She heard him say something. The words were too close, out of focus. Later she would think they had started with God. As in God I hope you know what you're doing.
Just three days left before her wedding, and Ruchira thinks, Does anyone ever know what they're really doing? What the tightening of certain muscles and the letting go of others, the aspiration of certain vowels and the holding back of others, will lead to? What terrifying wonder, what injured joy? But she had known one thing that night, even before he asked her to marry him and she said yes. She'd known what this, the next and final painting in her Mythic Images series, would be.
She adds a last stroke of burnt sienna to the painting and stands back to examine it. It's her best one so far, and it's ready now, at least this phase of it. Just in time, because it's to be her surprise wedding gift to Biren. She thinks how she'll do it--steal into their new condo the evening before the wedding--she has the key already--and hang it in the foyer so that he will see it first thing when they enter together as husband and wife. Or maybe she'll hang it opposite their bed, so they can look at it after lovemaking, or in the morning, waking each other up. The tree with its multicolored jewel leaves, its branches filled with silky birds. It's the kalpa taru, the wish-fulfilling tree, and the birds are shalikhs, those bold, brown creatures she would find everywhere when she visited Calcutta, with their clever pin eyes and their strident cry. Her grandmother used to call them birds of memory. Ruchira had meant to ask her why but never got around to it. Now she doesn't want to ask anyone else. She has given the birds the faces of the people she loves most dearly. And Biren too--she borrowed one of his photo albums, secretly, for this purpose. She has put him and herself, feathers touching, at the very center of the tree. (Why not? It's her right as artist to be egoistic if she wants.) Below them she has left empty branches, lots of them, for the birds she will paint in. New friends, children. Is it sentimental to be thinking about grandchildren already? She'll fill every space, and more. Maybe she'll never be done.
Then Biren's knocking, and she lifts the easel into the closet and rushes to the door and opens it. But it's not him, of course not, it's the middle of the afternoon, he's at work. She really should be more careful and keep the chain on while she checks who's outside, though this person doesn't look particularly dangerous. It's a young woman--well, maybe not so young, once you take in the cracked lines at the corners of her eyes--very thin and very pregnant, with spiky blond hair and a pierced eyebrow, wearing a shapeless pink smock that looks borrowed and a studded black leather jacket that she can no longer button over her belly. There's a look on her face--determined? resigned? exhilarated? Ruchira gets ready to tell her that she has come to the wrong address. Then she sees it, above the smock's meandering neckline, against the too-pale freckled skin. Red and blue. A bruise, or a half-healed wound. No. It's the hilt of a tattooed knife.
Ruchira sits awkwardly at her kitchen table, knees pressed together, as though she were the visitor here, and stares at the knife-woman. She had realized, right away, that she shouldn't let her in. But she couldn't just shut the door in the face of a pregnant woman who looked like she was starving, could she? It was not, however, a totally altruistic act. Ruchira knows this, though she is unable to articulate what it is that she hopes to gain from Biren's ex-lover. Now she stares at the woman, who is sitting in a chair opposite her and crumbling, with self-possession, the muffin that Ruchira has given her into a small anthill. Ruchira tries to be angry with her for being here. But she feels like someone who drowned a long time ago. In the underwater world she inhabits, there are no emotions, only a slow, seaweedy drifting. She asks, "Why did you come?"
Copyright 2001 by Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni. This section first appeared in the publication Prairie Schooner in Spring 2001.
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