That year mother cried a lot, nights. Or maybe she had always cried, and that was the first year I was old enough to notice. I would wake up in the hot Calcutta dark and the sound of her weeping would be all around me, pressing in, wave upon wave, until I could no longer tell where it was coming from. The first few times it happened, I would sit up in the narrow child's bed that she had recently taken to sharing with me and whisper her name. But that would make her pull me close and hold me tight against her shaking body, where the damp smell of talcum powder and sari starch would choke me until I couldn't bear it any longer and would start to struggle away. Which only made her cry more. So after some time I learned to lie rigid and unmoving under the bedsheet, plugging my fingers into my ears to block out her sobs. And if I closed my eyes very tight and held them that way long enough, little dots of light would appear against my eyelids and I could almost pretend I was among the stars.
One morning when she was getting me ready for school, braiding my hair into the slick, tight pigtail that I disliked because it always hung stiffly down my back, I noticed something funny about her face. Not the dark circles under her eyes. Those were always there. It was high up on her cheek, a yellow blotch with its edges turning purple. It looked like my knee did after I bumped into the chipped mahogany dresser next to our bed last month.
"What's that, Ma? Does it hurt?" I reached up, wanting to touch it, but she jerked away.
"Nothing. It's nothing. Now hurry up or you'll miss the bus. And don't make so much noise, or you'll wake your father."
Father always slept late in the mornings. Because he worked so hard at the Rashbihari Printing Press where he was a foreman, earning food and rent money for us, Mother had explained. Since she usually put me to bed before he came home, I didn't see him much. I heard him, though, shouts that shook the walls of my bedroom like they were paper, the sounds of falling dishes. Things fell a lot when Father was around, maybe because he was so large. His hands were especially big, with blackened, split nails and veins that stood up under the skin like blue snakes. I remembered their chemical smell and the hard feel of his fingers from when I was little and he used to pick me up suddenly and throw me all the way up to the ceiling, up and down, up and down, while Mother pulled at his arms, begging him to stop, and I screamed and screamed with terror until I had no breath left.
A couple of days later Mother had another mark on her face, even bigger and reddish-blue. It was on the side of her forehead and made her face look lopsided. This time when I asked her about it she didn't say anything, just turned the other way and stared at a spot on the wall where the plaster had cracked and started peeling in the shape of a drooping mouth. Then she asked me how I would like to visit my grandpa for a few days.
"Grandpa!" I knew about grandpas. Most of my friends in the third grade had them. They gave them presents on birthdays and took them to the big zoo in Alipore during vacations. "I didn't know I had a grandpa!"
I was so excited I forgot to keep my voice down and Mother quickly put a hand over my mouth.
"Shhh. It's a secret, just for you and me. Why don't we pack quickly, and I'll tell you more about him once we're on the train."
"A train!" This was surely a magic day, I thought, as I tried to picture what traveling on a train would be like.
We packed fast, stuffing a few saris and dresses into two bags Mother brought out from under the bed. They were made from the same rough, nubby jute as the shopping bag that Father used to bring home fresh fish from the bazaar, but from their stiffness I could tell they were new. I wondered when Mother bought them and how she'd paid for them, and then I wondered how she would buy our tickets. She never had much money, and whenever she asked for any, Father flew into one of his rages. But maybe she'd been saving up for this trip for a long time. As we packed, Mother kept stopping as though she was listening for something, but all I heard was Father's snores. We tiptoed around and spoke in whispers. It was so exciting that I didn't mind not having breakfast, or even having to leave all my toys behind.
I was entranced by the steamy smell of the train, the shriek of its whistle-loud without being scary-that announced when a tunnel was coming up, its comforting, joggly rhythm that soothed me into a half sleep. I was lucky enough to get a window seat, and from it I watched as the narrow, smoke-streaked apartment buildings of Calcutta, with crumpled washing hanging from identical boxlike balconies, gave way to little brick houses with yellow squash vines growing in the yard. Later there were fields and fields of green so bright that when I closed my eyes the color pulsed inside my lids, and ponds with clusters of tiny purple flowers floating on them. Mother, who had grown up in the country, told me they were water hyacinths, and as she watched them catch the sunlight, it seemed to me that the line of her mouth wavered and turned soft.
After a while she pulled me close and cupped my chin in her hand. From her face I could see she had something important to say, so I didn't squirm away as I usually would have. "My uncle-your grandpa-that we're going to see," she said, "lives way away in a village full of bamboo forests and big rivers with silver fish. His house is in the middle of a meadow where buffaloes and goats roam all day, and there's a well to drink water from."
"A real well!" I clapped my hands in delight. I'd only seen wells in picture books.
"Yes, with a little bucket on a rope, and if you like you can fill the bucket and carry it in." Then she added, a bit hesitantly, "We might be staying with him for a while."
Staying with a grandpa-uncle who had a well and buffaloes and goats and bamboo forests sounded lovely, and I told Mother so, with my best smile.
"Will you miss your father?" There was a strange look in her eyes.
"No," I said in a definite tone. Already, as I turned my head to look at a pair of long-tailed birds with red breasts, his loud-voiced presence was fading from my mind.
When the train finally dropped us off on a dusty little platform with a yellow signboard that spelled out Gopalpur in big black letters, not a soul was in sight. The afternoon sun burned right into my skull, and my stomach felt like it had been empty for years.
"Where's Grandpa-uncle? Why isn't he here?"
Mother didn't answer for a moment. Then she said, "He doesn't know we're coming." She put on a bright expression, but I could see a small muscle jumping in her cheek. "Now, don't you worry. You just take the little bag and I'll take the big one, and in no time at all we'll be at his house."
But the sun had dipped behind the jagged leaves of the coconut palms on the horizon before we reached Grandpa-uncle's home. Mother lost her way a couple of times-because they had put in new roads, she said. The roads looked pretty old to me, with deep buffalo-cart ruts running along them, but I didn't say anything. And when she asked me if I was hungry, I said no.
Finally, there it was, a tiny house, almost a play house, with mud walls and straw on the roof like in my storybook pictures. Mother knocked on the door, and after a while an old man came out. He must have been the oldest man in the whole world. All his hair was white, and he had a long white beard as well. He squinted at us in surprise, but when she told him who we were, he took us in and gave us some puffed rice and sweet creamy milk. From his own cow, he told me, as he watched me gulp it down. Then he ruffled my hair and sent me to the backyard to play with the chickens. I had never seen real live chickens up close before and immediately loved how they squacked and flapped their wings and how fast they could run when chased.
I was having a wonderful time with them when Mother came out. The first thing I noticed was that she was crying. I had never seen her cry in the daytime before, and it frightened me, because somehow I'd always believed that daytime was a safe time into which dark night things couldn't intrude. Now I stood watching her, hating the way her lips twisted and her nostrils flared, hating the thin red lines that wavered across the whites of her eyes. My mouth went dry and I felt like I was going to throw up. Then I saw she was smiling through the tears.
"Uncle says we can stay here as long as we want, that I never have to go back to . . ."
"To what, Ma?"
But she only wiped at her eyes and told me to come in and see where I was going to sleep.
Grandpa-uncle soon became my best friend. All day I would follow him around as he went about his job, which was taking care of the zamindar's orchards. He taught me the names of all the trees-mango, lichee, kul-and let me taste the first ripe fruits. He pointed out hares and squirrels and girgitis that hid in the grass, their shiny greenish bodies pulsing in the sun. On his off-days he took me fishing and taught me how to hold the rod right and how to tell when there was a nibble, and although all I caught were scraggly little things that we threw back in the pond, he always encouraged me and said I was learning a lot. He himself was a good fisherman, patient and cheerful, with a stillness about him that drew the fish to his hook. He was considerate as well, and whenever he brought home a catch for Mother to cook, he always cleaned and cut it up first, because the sight of blood made her feel sick.
All of this was so exciting that I didn't spend much time with Mother, though I did notice she was kind of quiet. Then one night I woke up to her crying, just like before. I lay there listening to those racking, muffled sobs that seemed to go on forever. It was like sliding into a dark, bottomless hole. I gripped my bedsheet, twisting it around my knuckles as though it could save me. A part of me wanted to go and put my arms around her, but the other part was afraid of what she might tell me, what she might want. So I just lay there, my shoulders and jaws and fists tight and aching, trying to believe that her crying was one of the night sounds coming in through the open window, like the cries of the jhi-jhi bugs and the yellow-beaked kokil, and after a time I was too tired to stay awake because all day I had been helping Grandpa-uncle with the bats.
The bats were a real problem. They had descended, all of a sudden, on the mango orchard, and within a day they had bitten into and ruined hundreds of mangoes. Grandpa-uncle tried everything-sticks and drums and magic powder from the wisewoman in the next village-but nothing worked. Finally he had to use poison. I never really saw how he did it because he made me stay away, but the next morning there were bat carcasses all over the orchard. We couldn't leave them to rot, of course, so Grandpa-uncle went around with a big jute sack and picked them up. I went along and pointed them out to him with a stick. He said I was a good helper, that without me he never would have managed to spot them all with his failing eyes.
You would have thought that after the first week the bats would have figured it out and found another place to live. But no. Every morning there were just as many dead bodies. I asked Grandpa-uncle about this. He shook his head and said he didn't understand either.
"I guess they just don't realize what's happening. They don't realize that by flying somewhere else they'll be safe. Or maybe they do, but there's something that keeps pulling them back here." I wanted to ask him what that something was, but just then I found a real whopper lying under the hibiscus bush, all purply-black and crinkled up, the biggest I had ever seen, and forgot about my question.
Maybe the bats did catch on, because a few days later we found only about ten bodies, and only three the next day. Grandpa-uncle was even more pleased than I was. I knew how much he hated the job because of how he grimaced each time he bent over to pick up a carcass and how there was a white, pinched look about his mouth by the time the sack was full. He said we would celebrate by going fishing at Kalodighi, the big lake which was all the way at the other end of the village.
We started early the next day, while the tall grasses next to the meadow path were still bent over and sparkly with dew. Grandpa-uncle carried the poles, the little tin bucket filled with worms he had collected at dawn, and a knife to gut the fish we caught. I held tight to the knotted cloth in which Mother had packed chapatis and potato curry for our lunch, and some sandesh made with new jaggery as a special dessert treat. From time to time I gave little skips of excitement, because though I'd heard a lot about Kalodighi, where the water was so deep that it looked black, and where the best and biggest fish were to be found, Grandpa-uncle hadn't taken me there yet. Maybe, I thought, today I would finally catch such a big fish that Grandpa-uncle and Mother would be really proud of me.