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The Heart Gets into Slices - Rochelle Potkar

It was during a school break one afternoon in grade seven when the thing between me and my sister, Janet first took shape.

I was revising a history lesson, “The Siege of Leningrad. September 1941-1944. Germans bombarding their target city by planes and artillery…” when a clatter sounded off the far floor. I tiptoed to the place of rising voices. My parents didn’t know I was home. I had slipped into the house with a spare key to study during the lunch hour, wanting to slip back out with equal speed for extra class. “How long can we live on just 3,000 rupees? We have girls to feed and educate. You have no sense of responsibility at all.” It was Ma.

A chair scratched its hoofs over ground, and Pa stood facing her, bare-chested in worn-out shorts. His fingers were painted in rice and curry as he raised his hand. “One more word…” and Ma ducked.
Pa worked in a pharmaceutical factory on dodgy second and third shifts. Ma was a housewife. And if it wasn’t for my friend, Sandra, and her bet of scoring higher in the upcoming exams, I would have missed their fight completely. I retraced my steps, grabbed my textbook, and left.

One late evening, Janet and I were curled on the settee, studying. I was reading about the Second World War: “Allies opposing the Axis powers. The United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States who emerged in the latter half of the war…”

“I have told you never to interfere!”

We looked up at each other.

“You keep lending money to your worthless friends on high interest until they can return nothing!!”

Steel utensils clanked. Followed by some eerie, stomach-wrenching quiet. Ma’s voice broke and grew louder. When you cannot see something you only pirouette over fears for the worse. We rushed to the dining room. Ma was heaped on the floor, blood dropping from her nose, her meager cotton dress covered in a map of mercurial red. Pa kicked her in the stomach as she caved further into herself. Then with a balled up fist, he boxed her eye and ear. We stood frozen like wood near the doorframe until the bedroom door slammed.

Then we were by her side, collecting her, joining our hands over the slouch of her back.

A raw maroon circle gathered around her eye the next day. She wore dark glasses to hide it. It made her look stylish, somehow. Ma wouldn’t talk about this.

We fidgeted over inane talk. Food, TV, books, exams, night, light, alarm clock, breakfast, school…
And when it was unbearable, I got back to my books. “Holocaust – the violent deaths of Jewish victims estimated at six million.”

A month was left for the interim exams. Over the next few nights, my revisions went rigorous. I intended to do well in history if not any other subject.

“World War II was an enormously trying situation for Russia…”

“It is your job to mop when the water spills!”

“You could have easily switched on the valve at 8:30 when the society pumps water!”

…a country that was not ready either economically or military-wise…”

“And what makes you think I will wait for that?”

“...to defend itself against the Germans…”

“It’s a notice given to everybody. Why do you have to go against everything?”

“This is my tank. I am not going to wait for your society to tell me what to do. When it overflows, you will mop.”

A stir began in the pit of my stomach.

“Call one of your worthless friends to do it for you.”

The first sentences in a textbook not only anchor paragraphs into place but also act as lifebuoys. I just had to find one easy paragraph where refuge could be sought. Once found, I could read it again and again.

“What’s going on?” Janet asked, entering the drawing room. She squinted against the light, her hair tossed in a black cloud. Reading the look on my face, she sighed as we tiptoed toward the dining room. A plate with finger marks running in curry lay on the table. Ma stood in one corner against the thick knife in Pa’s hand.

“I will kill you.”

“What else can you do? If you were man enough you would have lived like one. I cannot live with a pauper like you.”

I willed Ma to quietness. Digging my fingernails into the flesh of my palms, I prized open the beginnings of a timely prayer that could prevent this nightmare. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name... Your kingdom come...

Should I say something? Should I get between them? How? I was aware of Pa’s unconditional wrath. Once, when a visiting aunt had interfered, she was hit by an iron stool flung at her head. Receiving a cut to her forehead, she bled and had to be rushed to the doctor. She came back with a white plaster over her head, shortening her month-long stay and leaving as soon as she was fit to journey back.

“I will cut you to pieces. No one leaves me,” snarled Pa now.

In happier times, Pa had showed us how his knife, unguarded from its sheath could be used on robbers and trespassers. I had not bothered to think then that homes with sparse second-hand furniture were rarely burgled into or that a knife crusted in rust kill. It could barely squish an overripe tomato.

Over the weekend I put my textbooks aside.

“Who do you think is right?” I asked Janet.

“Of course Ma! What’s wrong with you to even ask such a thing?”

“What about Pa? Why does she always nag him?”

“How can you say this? He beats her. I can’t believe you are siding with him when Ma takes such good care of us.”

“So does he, in his way, doesn’t he?”  Didn’t that amount to anything?

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Janet and I did not speak for two weeks, sharing the same room like strangers. The day she broke the spell, she asked, “Are you on his side because you’ve done something you don’t want Ma to know of?”

“Why does she fight when he’s drunk?” I asked, “Why not wait to talk to him when he’s sober? She should know by now when to speak and when not to! She could save herself.”

“You are stupid to think like that,” she said.

You are.”

“You.”

“You.”

“You.”

“You.”

I grabbed her tube of fairness cream that I gifted her on her birthday and applied its contents over my legs. “Go tell Ma, but I won’t give this back to you!”

She watched the cream pulp out of the tube and dry over my shins. Her eyes brimmed. I mimicked her frog-like contorted face and threw the almost empty tube on the loft above, where the water storage tank lay – one of the favored topics of our parents’ arguments.

Once, I volunteered to fill Janet’s fountain pens. She was running late for an exam and was grateful for any help, as she pushed into her brown and beige pinafore.

But when she came home, she was livid. “You filled those pens with water! How could you? I had to ask for a pen right in the middle of the exam, wasting ten minutes of my time    just waiting!”
I felt bad but only for a moment. I was getting used to keeping little emotion with me, lest it trickle across my face unceremoniously when least expected, betraying the steel of strength I was learning to hold.

Sometimes I caught Ma retaliating. Like on a warm afternoon when she placed wrapped up food in the far corner of the fridge.

“What are you doing, Ma?”

“I am teaching your father a lesson. Let him come home and find all the food finished. Serves him right for never giving enough money for expenses.”

Weeks earlier, I had seen Pa examining his knife. “I have got many people killed with this. Does she think I can’t finish her? Wait and watch, if she thinks she can leave me, she will go to her grave in pieces.”

Ma moved into our bedroom now, sharing Janet’s bed, and Pa slept alone in their room.

The academic year was over. I scored the highest in History. I always managed to get a new History textbook even if I borrowed the rest from older friends. Ma kept my textbooks for Janet, hoping each year that the syllabus wouldn’t change.

“Why do you think they’re both wrong? First it was him, then her, and now you say both are. I think you are against Ma because she makes you do more housework, and against Pa because he doesn’t give you enough pocket money,” said Janet.

“You are so dumb to think so.”

“You are!”

“You.”

“You.”

“You.”

Janet and I did not speak again for days. We exchanged only nods or grunts for common decisions: like the color of a new shared bathing soap, or regulating the fan speed, or the appropriate time to turn off the night lamp.

In those days, Janet and I were not only at odds about our opinions, but also about boys. She fancied Michael, a guy we ran into frequently at church. He was my dance partner for one of the events.

“I can bet he hasn’t even looked at you,” I said.

“And you think he likes you?”

“I never said that.”

“You think only you are beautiful.”

“And you think you are?”

We sprung to the mirror, darting our eyes over the confluence of our cheeks, the bridges of our noses, the continents of our chins, eyebrows, eyelashes, foreheads.

“I look better.”

“No, I do.”

“So then let Michael decide,” I said.

Michael was a school dropout who worked on bicycles, in a hire-and-repair shop. He did not have the stress of math tests and chemistry equations on his face and this added to our enchantment. Frisky blonde hair, fair-skinned, with a dimple on his angular face... (hmm..sigh!).

“When you don’t oil your hair it becomes like that. Like hay,” Ma told us.

Janet took the morning and noon slots, walking with him on her way to and from school and I, the evenings on the way back from tuitions. Empty laughs would follow over the setting of many-an-evening sun over the trees and four-story buildings of our town. It went on   like this for seven grueling days. As it turned out, Michael chose me. Janet had to accept defeat and admit I was more beautiful. From then on, she was more agreeable. But I had to keep a distance from the spoils of my victory. There was only one thing on Michael’s mind after that-- eventual marriage. And I didn’t care for cycles.

We began college. Ma’s and Pa’s fights reduced to a trickle. Perhaps it wasn’t as fashionable to fight in front of young women as it was in front of impressionable children. Also, their themes deteriorated. How long could one fight over the number of fish pieces in a curry or if a certain relative was welcome or not in our house?

My father’s blunt knife lay forgotten under his pillow, cold from disuse, but warming its curved place.
It was the silence between Janet and me that took over, and they went on for days, once lasting six months. We differed from those who got their poison out by nightfall. We kept ours in for longer, with more dignity.

When my first relationship broke up and I stayed home, Janet did not bother to stop chatting on her phone or watching movies with friends or going out on outings with her friends.
When Ma was against her fancying a boy from another religion (“You are not to see him again!”), she called me at work; I was a part-time librarian.

“If you tell Ma about us, she might think differently. You know Yusuf. He isn’t that bad, and not as bad as she thinks.”

I didn’t say a word to her, and of course I didn’t speak about it to Ma either.

Once college ended, I left for the city. By then, I had given up on History, no longer charmed by the legacy and chronology of things dead and past.

I returned a year later after yet another breakup, and would walk through the town going on and on, as if hoping to I could reach the end of the world, just walking. Or I would rest my chin over our balcony for hours. It was so good to be home.

Janet had claimed our room all for herself and Ma had moved back into Pa’s room. Our parents came to us for words and support about aging-related aches and pains for which they wouldn’t see a doctor.
One day, Ma came to sit beside me at the window. It was the eve of my temporary, new job at an Accountant’s office.

“What is really going on between the two of you?” she asked in a low voice.

“Nothing!” I was startled that she should want an account of something that had started years ago.

“Really, Ma, you need to ask her.” It had been some time since I looked her squarely in her face. Their fights had left cruel marks, stitches across her forehead, a smaller eye and frayed, bruised skin.

One day, our parents suggested we claim our share of Ma’s gold and the property– meaning the house. “You would both get exactly half.”

“But why now? We are not waiting for you to die,” I said.

“Well, I would like to have the part of the house where I stay,” said Janet.

“No. You will not. That’s my side,” I said. Our words hung like carcasses in a mutton shop, our eyes meeting in cold hardness.

“How can you fight about something that is yours anyway?” said Pa. He had grown into a brooding caveman, retired from the factory, now killing his time on long evening walks. His burnt-earth features carved out a mask of what he once was.

“This is all so petty, so silly!” he said in disbelief.

But his voice trailed off.

With the fresh, raw nerve of a new fight ticking in, Janet and I weren’t listening.

This story was first published in H.A.L Publishing’s Journal: Far Enough East

- Rochelle Potkar is from Mumbai. Her fiction has appeared in several Indian and international anthologies, some of which include: The Medulla Review, Sein und Werden, Women Writers,  Nassau Review, Far Enough East, and Writer's Hub.

To listen to Rochelle perform this story, click here.