Risk

Tishani Doshi is a poet and dancer. Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.

Katha: Short Stories by Indian Women, edited by Urvashi Butalia, is published by Telegram.

Lady Cassandra, Spartacus and the dancing man

Spartacus was born with three holes in his heart. When he came into the world, Bean and I were put on trains to different cities to stay with different aunts. We came back only when the doctors had fixed up Spartacus and his grape-sized heart. Everyone called him the miracle baby. Charlie and Love held him as though he really were a miracle baby.

What was it like having Spartacus to grow up with?
Hard and soft, hard and soft.

We lived in a house of ghosts at the time. They were everywhere. Bean and I used to catch them in our sleep at night. We used to chase them out of closets, listen for the sound of anklets on their heavy feet, wait for them at the doorway of our dreams. During the day they'd hang from the flame of the forest tree in the front yard with long ropes of twisted hair and gauzy gowns, their feet turned backwards at the ankles. When they saw us coming they'd stick their tongues out of their heads and roll their eyes about madly. Nan told us all about them. She used to put us up, one on each knee, and tell us which ones to watch out for.

There was the midget, Mary Jane, who lived in the pantry guarding tins of biscuits, who spat and hissed and cursed if you disturbed her sleep. There was Lady Cassandra who liked to chase cars after midnight, her face at the driver's window, streaming black hair behind her. There was the churrel Helen, who slept in Spartacus's baby cradle. A churrel is the ghost of a woman who loses her life in childbirth. Churrels are the saddest ghosts of them all.

Nan said that ghosts only stay in places where there's no feeling of shame, no faith in religion, no sense of discipline, no inclination for forgiveness, no patience and no knowledge. The ghosts in our house were ignorant, dark and foolish, she said. They remember their previous births and are neither humble nor wild. They know nothing.

But the ghost that knew everything was the dancing man. He used to climb down from the toy shelf every night like a dark island against the walls of the room that Bean and I shared. Sometimes he would slide all the way across the floor and teeter at the edge of our bedsheets. Once, when Bean was fast asleep, I thought I heard him whisper, I'm going to tell you a love story, in a voice that sounded like the night wind caught in a gust of leaves.

In our family, Bean was the imagination and I was the memory. She used to spend hours inventing identities for herself, making trips to foreign cities, wandering through their chaotic bazaars, bargaining for trinkets in their tapered streets. She charted routes across continents, discovered new islands, flew around in her biplane, hitchhiked from town to town with cowboys and troubadours. She did this long before I knew that a world existed outside our home, long before I understood what it meant to have a longing to leave.

Spartacus learned to walk when he was three. He was four when he learned to run. When he was twelve he had his first accident. By then he'd been running for years, waiting for a chance when we were asleep or distracted to find an opening in the gate or door. He'd run down the road, tearing down it like a wild animal, looking back every few seconds to see if we were following, laughing himself silly. At the corner, he'd wait for Charlie or Love or Bean or me to come get him. If no one came, he'd dance around and dart about from one end to the other until we did. Once, he ran right across the road at the end of the street and a scooter knocked him down. The neighbour's maid, who was buying vegetables, saw the whole thing and came running back with waterfalls streaming down her face, telling Nan how Spartacus just lay there on the road still as anything, not even crying. Bean and I didn't cry, but we were thinking the same thing: Spartacus was surely going to die. Nobody survived accidents like this; we were sure of it. Charlie told Bean to get into the rickshaw with her to the hospital, but Bean refused. She stood there with the tears frozen in her eyes and refused to move. I won't do it, I won't do it, she kept saying over and over again.

Finally, I got into the rickshaw with Charlie. All the way to the hospital I wondered what kind of a ghost Spartacus would become if he died, and if he'd continue to
live in our house. I prayed Spartacus wouldn't die. I prayed to all the gods I knew; Charlie's god and Love's god, because they were different. When we got to the Emergency Room Spartacus was sitting up in bed, blinking. He'd grazed the tops and bottoms of his teeth, elbows and knees. Charlie held him to her chest and wept. When Love got to the hospital he held Charlie and Spartacus for a long time. I stood at the corner of the bed watching them. I thought it must have been like this when he was getting patched up to become the miracle baby, when Bean and I were in different cities. It would have been nice to have Bean stand with me in the room watching Spartacus not die. On the way home in Love's car, Charlie held Spartacus like a baby in her lap. A twelve-year-old baby.

There were no noises the night we brought Spartacus back alive. Nothing moved. All the ghosts seemed to be sleeping out in the tree keeping a sacred silence.

I think of where we go to feel safe at nights. To our rooms, our houses, our beds. How these may not be the safest places in the world because when the darkness comes, the walls and seams that seem to hold us up can easily be undone. Dangers can enter like wild fires or killer waves at twilight or dusk, soundless and high, sweeping away the foundations of our lives as though they were specks of foam. I've seen pictures of families standing on the roofs of their houses, caught up in floods and tornadoes and earthquakes. Families in countries of war, living among the ruins of their old houses, hoping to one day rebuild brick and stone so their children won't have to sit outside with bloodied faces and hearts.

I want to tell Bean about the darkness, how it has come again. How it feels like the dancing man has come down from the wall after Charlie and Love have put us to bed. When Bean would dream of fairies and Ferris-wheels and I would hear the cats mating on the wall, their shrieks like babies dying. It has come again, the sound of babies dying.

What happened to me was something like a darkening. I want to tell Bean how I lay on a hospital bed, too young to know anything, so young that there were bones in my face that have since disappeared. How I walked out on jittery knees, collapsing on the floor of the elevator, trying to keep my eyes open, wanting to ask someone who knew, was it a boy or a girl? Was it like Spartacus? Could it have been?

Bean doesn't know anything about it and I can't tell her because she'll change the way she sees me. I can't tell Charlie or Love because they'll change the way they see me too. I have to fold it up and put it away. Could I tell Spartacus? Unblinking, smiling Spartacus?

When the man who pretends to love me comes, he lifts up the corner of my skirt, slides his hands across my shaved pubis and smiles. He's teetering at the edge of my bed-sheets. It's a secret we share. Isn't it fun? Oh, it has stopped being fun a long time ago. His hands don't melt on my skin anymore. They move like rough sandpaper over my body. I bend down and unzip his pants. He smiles again. Is this what he's waiting for? When it's over, he leaves. I make him go far away. He calls from a telephone booth saying things like love and want.

I want to tell Bean how he found his way into our room to sit in the wicker chair waiting patiently for me while Nan took her to piano lessons. I want to tell her that when I visit our house I can still see him sitting there, with his dark hair spread against the wall like an island. After all the wanderings, he's still sitting there, and he speaks. He doesn't know about the bucket at the side of the table with the lid covering the baby in it. He doesn't know about the nurses' eyes, their covered mouths, their green starchy uniforms.

What do you call the ghost of a baby who dies before it's born?
I have two permanent ghosts in my life. This is what I want to tell Bean.

This story first appeared in the collection 21 under 40 (Zubaan, New Delhi), edited by Anita Roy.

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