She shuddered, screamed; gorging up in flames. She paced the floor, gripped the walls, stumbling upon her own shadow - the black clouds of despair.
The burnt sienna flames devoured her, the vapor and choking odor of fire grueling and irresistible, crushing her bit by bit and spreading in volumes. The bathroom door creaked.
The smell of flesh and skin, tattered and lost, overpowered the space, while tears slid up and down the labyrinth of pain.
She kicked the door, pushing her face, flickering, towards the window. She had known the futility of this scream, this rush to live, on the verge of surrender. “Help, help, I want to live,” for one last time, “I want to live,” the screams reverberated through the old, brittle, half-bolted window.
The thick fog of men, and women, family and neighbors, slid around, contemplating, witnessing the devouring, inch by inch. As they broke open the door at last, the charred flesh recoiled, stockpiled against their ceaseless enquiries.
“Why did she do this?” A hunched, elderly lady frowned.
“How could she do this?” A middle-aged housewife cried out.
“Let’s rush to the hospital. We may still have some chance. Maybe the doctors could save the baby still.”
Her young son said. He flung his arms around the body in smoke. Others poured buckets of water, to pacify the flames.
In the narrow front porch, where the queries and smells of the smoke reiterated in fragmented bursts, her toddler son of three chortled as he caught ants and frolicked with the stray dogs. The child was searching for his first learnt words, hashing and rehashing, “Mother, mother, Maa, my Maa”. They took her away. The world came around him in a maze, haunting, deep, dark, Implausible, like his unlearnt words, pauses, phrases.
The flesh surrendered, slipped into an infinite void. Inside the latched door of a surgical ward, doctors struggled to evacuate a charred human fetus from a fire consumed womb. The girl fetus had a blue tinge of sky in her furrowed forehead. When she came out, coiled, burnt out, her silken hair tousled and smoked, mirrored her mother’s. The six month-old fetus had gripped her fading earth, her last breaths, hanging loose, interspersed with her mother’s last, dying embers.
The doctors came out of the surgical ward. The deaths were now confirmed to the family. For one, a formal death certificate was issued in haste. For the other, nothing of that sort would ever be required. After all, the earth didn’t shatter with this half-baked tragic tale. She was a femme fatale, after all, and the girl breathing inside her would trail after her, for sure…words splashed along, riding in waves, waxing and waning in time, while the neighborhood lapped up the waves
In a household of ten people, a husband and his kith and kin, each a furious complaining drone, her tears regenerated each night. Her kitchen chores, her fasts and religious obeisance, the cups of tea she made, her humming presence, had been a living threat to the sound and fury of their thundering voices.
At twenty-four, married with a toddler son, in a family of patriarchs grumbling and well-meaning matriarchs looming above her, she gulped the spoonful of their bizarre demands. Every night, she had gagged and clenched her lips, serving up hot dinners. Nostalgia of a long-lost home, of music, books and old friends, emaciated memories were forlorn entities, burning through the night sky. The husband would come to her, grope her in between frantic, long distance office trips. Their love whispered, rolled around, surreptitiously, a grey forbidden piece of fabric.
“Do you love me? Will you love me forever?” She had asked him in her first nuptial night with him.
“Why do you ask? Am I not your husband? Am I not supposed to love you all my life?” He had replied.
She was the unexpected gust of wind, flinging her presence too fast. They summoned her often, threatening her to mend her ways, tagging her as a witch. She was ensnaring their son, their brother, bit by bit, with her furtive eyes, her thick curls, her frail melodies.
In months and years, the magic potion they whispered in his ears, worked. She was truly a witch, slapped, snapped, drugged into silence. And then, the words he spoke to her, had transformed to a darkening quiet. She had hidden the torn, dead skin of her nightmares. She smiled, sang lilting love songs in the terrace and hugged the coconut tree, its leaves canopying her afternoons.
“What a lovely voice she has! Is that your daughter-in-law who sings on the terrace?” A neighbor had asked her mother-in-law.
“Oh, forget that wicked girl. She’s insane!” The mother-in-law frowned.
In a terrace right across, a wistful young man, close to her age, would play his flute and scribble poems, until darkness descended. All day, she chased her truant toddler, a kite in the verdant air. In the afternoons, the young neighbor held in his arms the chuckling child. In the terrace, he became the child’s pony, ran across in carefree delight, chased insects, their laughter echoing in the air that bubbled with love and longings. In the terrace, the glances she exchanged with him had floated in clusters of poetry. She had been led astray; the shades of her desire, scarlet, bronze, earthen, pastel, unveiled in the untimely rain.
"Don't you burn me like that. Let it end now, or else I will forever lose the direction back home." She had implored.
"But do you call that wretched house of mean people your 'home'? Tell me, how do they serve you, how do those damn walls and those cursed interiors housing such people deserve that name?" In the thick, impenetrable silence of their open courtyard, he would stealthily clasp her trembling hands and they would enter the warm, moist, welcoming room tucked in a corner of his humble home; she would slip into the cozy, forbidden confines of his embrace.
The flutist and the poet caressed her scars. “You are my muse. My silent, secret, unwavering anchor”, he would say, as they met in hurried clandestine encounters. Their glances intersected often at the tulsi plant, the courtyard, the porch and the neighboring pond. His blood had boiled as he had clasped her papery wrists one night, taking in the last drops of monsoon. He urged her to bring along her sleeping toddler from the room, elope with him. Her ornate vermilion had smudged; she looked into his eyes in tarnished stupor, for one last time.
Within seconds, she felt a thud, a bang in her head, followed by vehement kicks and curses.
In the dark crevices of her womb, a sapling had breathed, rustled, moved and drifted the dwindling promise of a tainted embrace.
“This kultaa, this dreadful promiscuous woman has brought shame to us, opened the door to hell. She’d better be off our sight,” they hissed to her at night.
One by one, they paraded in the room, their footsteps dense, and sounds menacingly cold. “We want the child ripped apart, finished by tomorrow, and this our final word!”
The bathroom door latched the next morning, and then the fire and the flames draped her like a quilt. She screamed to live, while her breath choked, for the last few fragmented moments, red, withering, flickering, lapped up by the embers. The sapling inside her wiggled, fluttered, withered and burned.
For years, the neighborhood hummed this half-baked tragic tale. She was a femme fatale, after all, and the girl breathing inside her would have trailed after her, if she had been alive, for sure.