Twelve explosive short stories present twelve provoking female narratives. Read A Bonfire of Shoes from Radhika Iyer’s debut collection, Why are you here?
A BONFIRE OF SHOES
I jumped off the bus and walked down the path to my house, dragging my schoolbag behind me, wincing as the noise of the gravel ripping through my bag punctuated the sunny but breezy afternoon.
I looked down at my white, canvas school shoes. The sole was peeling off the left shoe, and I could see a layer of grit seeping in. If I wasn’t careful, the sole would fold over and I could trip. Maybe then Father would get me a new pair of shoes.
I opened the door and there she was, lying on the sofa. She seemed to be fast asleep, or maybe dead. Her saree was hitched up to her calves and her silver toe rings twinkled on her dainty feet. I dropped my bag and crept forward.
‘Mother’, I called softly. She did not stir. I reached down and jingled the bell on her toe ring. She stirred and opened her eyes.
‘Baby, you’re home. The medicine made me sleepy.’
Mother closed her eyes again.
I squeezed into the sofa and continued to play with her toe ring.
Mother touched her belly gently.
‘I had some pains.’
I put my hand over hers. ‘When? This morning? You went to the doctor?’
‘I felt some pain so I called Auntie Jas. She had the car so she took me to hospital.’
I grimaced. I hated the neighbours, especially Auntie Jas, with her glamorous outfits and hairstyles. She would always give Baby a top-to-bottom distasteful look. Her favourite line to Baby’s sister was, ‘Neetu, you are so thin and Baby is so round. Is she eating all your food?!’ Then she, her husband, and her two perfectly slim daughters would burst into laughter. But now, I felt oddly grateful.
I put my head on Mother’s legs. Mother stroked my hair.
‘Don’t worry, the baby boy is safe.’
I raised my head and looked at her.
‘What? Don’t you want a baby brother? You want another sister?’
I shook my head. I didn’t want anything. I wanted to be the Baby. I was always the Baby. But I remained silent. Neetu was 15, and I was 12. Everyone had hoped I would be a boy. Mother had lost a baby when I was six and another when I was eight, so all her hopes were pinned on this baby being born safe, and being a boy.
I reached out and touched the slight swell of her belly beneath her cotton saree.
‘When did the pain start? This morning?’, I asked hesitantly.
‘No, Baby, I’ve been having a few days of pain and discomfort. Today it just got slightly worse and I called Father but there was no answer at his office, so I called Auntie Jas. Don’t think anything bad, okay?’
Don’t think anything bad? Mother was beginning to sound like Father. Every time he had finished pummeling her, he would say to us, ‘it’s okay, don’t think anything bad.’
We would try not to think at all as we knelt over her on the floor, whispering softly to her, holding her, making her hot drinks, and forcing her to swallow some paracetamol.
I had a fleeting memory of a shoe. A black shoe. I had woken up to shouting at around 2:00 am. Father had just returned home after a farewell party for one of his colleagues. I lay in bed listening to them yelling at each other. Then I heard the familiar sound. Mother had been knocked down.
I slowly crept out of bed, not wanting to wake Neetu. The room door was never completely shut. That was not allowed. I stood just inside the door and poked my head out. The harsh, fluorescent light blinded me for a second.
Mother was lying on the floor, her head twisted awkwardly against the leg of the coffee table. She was quiet, she always was when she was on the floor. She had one arm over her face and another over her stomach.
Father was still wearing his good office shoes. Gleaming, shiny black shoes that I usually polished for an hour every weekend. He extended his right shoe and flicked her arm away from her stomach. ‘You’re mad’, he said. ‘You’re completely insane.’ He coughed. The shoe then pressed down on her stomach.
Mother let out a sound then. A long, drawn-out whine like an ambulance siren in the distance. Father lifted his foot, stepped over her, and then kicked her bottom with his left foot. Another wail pierced the air.
Then he walked up to the front door which was still open, kicked off his shoes, slammed the door shut, and trudged to his room. He coughed again.
Mother had seemed fine that morning, making breakfast, seeing us off to school. I did not tell Neetu anything. If she knew, she did not say anything either. We had grown used to this. There was no need to talk about it.
‘Go and wash and then eat something’, Mother’s voice broke my reverie.
‘You are okay?’ Mother smiled and nodded.
‘Schools are closing from tomorrow for the lockdown. Here’s the letter.’
I opened the side pocket of my bag, took out the letter and left it beside Mother.
I took a long nap after lunch that afternoon. A roar jerked me awake. It was almost 5:00 pm. I ran out into the living room. Father was standing by the front door, still wearing his shoes. Mother was curled up on the sofa, clutching her stomach.
‘Let’s go now!’, he yelled. Mother rose slowly. I ran over and helped her up. ‘I’m taking her to hospital. I don’t know where Neetu is. Stay here. If we are very late, go to the neighbour’s house’, he said sternly. I heard him cough in the garage.
I helped Mother get into the car and then came back into the house. I sat on the sofa, hugging my knees, not moving, watching the clock.
The front door opened. ‘Oh my God, why are you sitting in the dark? It’s 7:00 pm!’
Neetu switched on the lights and looked at me. I told her what had happened that evening. I did not tell her about the kicks earlier that morning.
‘Where were you?’
‘I went to Val’s house ‘cause I don’t know when we will see each other again, what with this lockdown and all.’
Neetu showered and we ate the leftovers from lunch. We watched TV wordlessly. It was after 9:00 pm when we heard the car pulling into the garage. We dashed out.
Mother opened the door, smiling strangely, ‘Everything is okay.’
I glanced at Father. He was silent. Then, he coughed.
Mother walked slowly into the house. ‘Have you eaten?’ We nodded. We scrambled to reheat the food and set the table again. Father and Mother ate together quietly. Mother instructed me to go to bed at 10:00 pm, but Neetu stayed up.
I woke with a start. There were noises. I could not trace where they came from. I got up and reached out, Neetu was not in her bed. I stumbled out. The lights were on in the living room and dining room. I heard crackling and shouting in the backyard. The heavy, sliding doors leading to the back garden were slightly open and I stepped out. I was overwhelmed with a force of heat and light. There was a fire in the backyard.
The flames leapt high, casting light on the surrounding trees, disturbing nocturnal life that had thus far been blanketed by a moonless night. I thought momentarily that this was one of Father’s ‘bonfires’, when he set out to burn old newspapers, coconut husks, and any rubbish, claiming the fire kept away mosquitoes. Then my startled eyes found Mother.
Mother was standing close to the fire, holding a saree. She meticulously unfolded a six-yard piece of material and flung it ceremoniously into the bonfire.
Her green and gold wedding saree went in, followed by her expensive, pure silk, dry-clean only, bright orange saree.
‘Stop her! Or she will burn everything’, Father’s voice rang out.
I did not answer. I stood there, fascinated by the dancing flames, little bubbles of colour bursting through them.
‘Baby!’ Father was screaming.
Where was Neetu?
Neetu came running out of the house, the light cast by the flames revealing an anguished face. She reached down and grabbed a pile of clothes. That’s what she had been doing, running back and forth taking Mother’s clothes back into the house.
‘Help me’, Neetu was sobbing now.
Father came forward. Neetu was still trying to grab hold of a saree that Mother was grasping. He tried to wrench the saree from Mother’s tight grip.
Suddenly the wind lifted and the saree billowed out like a gigantic flag, its sapphire blue background illuminated by gold and silver embroidery. The tassels at the end of the saree caught fire and the flames began to lick their way upwards. Father released Mother’s hand and strode away.
‘Let go! Let go!’ Neetu was now trying to force Mother to release the saree. She kept turning and throwing desperate looks at me. I just stood there, watching. I could not do anything. I had never seen Mother like this, so strong, determined, and yet inexplicably serene. Mother suddenly unclenched her fist and the saree flew up and then floated down, spreading over the fire like a parachute. The fire sputtered and then rose again in tall streaks.
Neetu stepped back in fright. Then I saw Mother reach down for something beneath the pile of sarees. It did not look like a piece of clothing. As Mother straightened, Baby saw what it was. It was Father’s black shoes. His only pair of work shoes. Mother lifted the left shoe up in triumph and then flung it into the fire. There was a loud explosive sound like a lorry backfiring, followed by a burst of flames. She clasped the right shoe in her hand. She placed it against her stomach and closed her eyes. Then she flung that shoe too into the flames.
Neetu was sobbing uncontrollably now. I ran into the house, through the living room and opened the front door. I could hear Father in the kitchen, swearing and grunting. He was doing something with the tap. I stepped out onto the porch and on my left was the old, rickety, wobbly shoe rack propped up against the wall. I grabbed my school shoes with the peeling soles and ran back into the house and out into the back. Neetu was still sobbing while Mother had seemed to stop feeding the fire. She stood staring at the flames.
I could feel the heat of the fire through my thin cotton nightdress. I lifted the left shoe up in the same way Mother had done and threw it into the fire.
Then I spotted Father running out with the garden hose, spraying water in all directions. He approached the fire and doused the flames, coughing violently. I did not dare throw the right shoe in. It was too late. He would see me.
Neetu walked up and put her arms around Mother, holding her tight, although she was the one trembling. Mother still gazed at the extinguished fire, her eyes shining.
I walked back through the house and replaced my only school shoe on the shoe rack. I looked out through the living room window. Neetu was still holding Mother and crying. Father was still spraying water into the heap of ash and smoke. I went into my room and lay on the bed. I did not know what time it was but I knew this:
Father had no shoes for work. I only had one school shoe. Father was coughing, often.
I was the only Baby, always.