from MAKARA (Handtype Press, 2012)
I was fourteen when the darkness started. It was a year after the night my arms became splattered with blisters from the ants. The night when Neela first touched me and I could feel my entire body singing to her, wanting to sign, move, speak.
Finally, it said.
* * *
Neela and I sneaked away together often. Our bedroom became our own private temple in homage to our favourite stories and each other's bodies. We kept a picture of Lakshmi besides our picture of Ganesh on the wall. We conversed in sign and wrote in Tamil. Sometimes we just stared and let the words flow back and forth beneath our eyelids.
Neela's skin was almost black, like many South Indians. She had a round face and thin eyebrows. Her hair flowed down to her waist in soft waves. Her eyes were dark, but when the sunlight shone in them, I was able to see tiny flecks of gold around her pupils. We liked to compare our lips in the mirror because they were so different from each other. My lips were narrow and pointy. Pale against paler skin. Neela's lips didn't have the same two points on top that mine did. Hers were rounded and full. The kind of lips you can't stop thinking about kissing. The kind of lips you want to feel on your skin. I was self-conscious of my freckles, but Neela said they were beautiful. She licked them sometimes.
Father hadn't written in months. He was somewhere in Indonesia. I pictured him diving with sharks, examining the corals shining with shades of red, orange, and yellow, rivaling the brightness of the saris around me.
* * *
The day the darkness began was a day like any other. It was a sweltering afternoon. Neela and I went home from school early. We wanted to do something bad. Our newfound womanhood leaned us towards experimentation. The canyons called to us'promises of daytime nudity, swimming in our favourite pool, making love in the sunlight. I was thinking of the curve of Neela's wet hip against the canyon rocks as she pulled her body up onto the ledge. The way I would try to brush the red dirt flecks off her skin, but they would only stick to my fingers until we jumped back into the water. The way her dark hands tangled in the auburn waves of my hair as she braided wet flowers into it.
I didn't notice Neela's Amma standing near the shops as we passed. Her eyes met Neela's, and I could feel the ground shaking below us. She was furious to see us so far from school and why?! I read the Tamil on her lips without needing anything written down. Normally that would have made me feel proud, but I was terrified.
Neela pretended to cry, and Amma said something terrible to her. I didn't know what it was. I pinched Neela's arm on our way back to school repeatedly, but she would not tell me.
After school, we were sent to our room without dinner. On our shared bed on the floor, Neela finally signed, A demon will come here tonight.
I laughed. I brought her under our blue elephant sheets, and told her we were safe there. I signed, Remember G-a-n-e-s-h? He will protect us!
She shook her head. Not now.
How can I do anything if I don't know what's going on?
She sat for a moment. Tears made salt rivers upon her face, prominent against the dark of her skin. Her eyes were full of fear. She never showed fear without courage lurking behind it. Her ego was strong like a snake'but it wasn't strong now. She began slowly.
I'm going to write the name down, then you burn paper and I'll tell the story. Ok?
NILI, she wrote.
I burned the paper and waited. My stomach grumbled. My eyes were tired, although the sky was still violet. We both sat cross-legged beneath the blue sheet. The grey and white batik elephants froze in their procession to watch the story told by the moving hands below.