The Night of the Great Peacock Moths
Shamas stands in the open door and watches the earth, the magnet that it
is, pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself. With their
deliberate, almost-impaired pace, they fall like feathers sinking in
water. The snowstorm has rinsed the air of the incense that drifts into
the houses from the nearby lake with the xylophone jetty, but it is
there even when absent, drawing attention to its own disappearance.
This is the first snow of the season and the neighbourhood's children will be on the slopes all day today, burning candles to heat the runners of toboggans to make them slip with increased fluency, daring each other to lick the frozen spikes of the railings around the church and those around the mosque, smuggling cheese-graters out of the kitchens to refine the symmetry of the snowmen they will build, oblivious to the cold because everything is a sublime adventure at that age; an oyster tolerates the pearl embedded in its flesh, and so the pebbles on the lake shore don't seem to pain the soles of the children's bare feet.
An icicle breaks off from above and drops like a radiant dagger towards Shamas, shattering on the stone step he is standing on, turning into white powder the way a crystal of sugar loses its transparency when crushed. With a movement of his foot, Shamas sends this temporary debris into the snow-covered front garden where in May and June there will be rosebuds the size and solidity of strawberries, into the corner where one of his children had buried a dead finch many years ago, not allowing anyone to set foot on that spot afterwards lest the delicate bones crack under the weight, the tiny skull as fragile as the eggshell within which it had formed the previous spring.
The house is on a street that runs along the base of a hill. This street is linked by a side-street to a shelf-like road higher up the hill and, in late summer, when the abundant dropped fruit of the wild cherry trees gets trodden on, the footpaths up there are stained with red and dark-blue smears.
In the mornings the adolescents from down here can be seen keeping an eye on the elevated road for the bus that takes them to school, eating breakfast on the doorstep if the parents and the weather permit it, racing up the side-street when they glimpse the vanilla-and-green vehicle coming between the cherry treesup there between the gaps in the trunks where a small figure is walking through the snow now. Fishing for carp one night, Shamas's younger son had catapulted into the lake a mass of flowers from those trees, hoping they would prove an alternative to the expensive hyacinths which drew the fish to the surface within moments, but the cherry blossom was a failure, as were the dandelions that lit up the dark water the following night with a hundred vivid suns; perfume was the key and only the clusters of lilac were a success but their season was soon gone.
According to the children, the lakeas dazzling as a mirror and shaped like the letter Xwas created in the early days of the earth when a towering giant fell out of the sky; and he is still there, still alive, the regular ebb and flow of the tides being the gentle rhythm of his heart still beating, the crashing waves of October his convulsive attempts to free himself. Just inside the water's margin the stones are covered in tufts of wet moss, bringing to mind the broken pulp of a squeezed lemon, and to stand up to the waist in the calm summer water is to become two- headed like the jacks and queens on playing cards, right side up either way. On the shore the winds rush from every direction during the winter months to twist themselves around the body like a sari, and he remembers one of his children saying that his biology teacher dispatched a pair of boys with cellophane bags to the lake whenever she needed a frog for dissection. Very occasionally in the past, the lake has frozen over and then the children have walked on it, "pretending to be Jesus."
Excerpted from Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam Copyright © 2005 by Nadeem Aslam. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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