Usha Alexander


Whose face is this? Whose body? Whose skin is this, wrinkled and pale, stretched against these thin bones? Only the eyes are mine. Sita squinted at her image in the hand-mirror propped on her nightstand. Chin down, she studied her own features. What frail stuff this body is made of - my skin, my bones and my flesh grows thinner. See how close I am to dust?

She smoothed her hair away from her face and sighed. Only my nose grows bigger. And this white hair, which once was strong and black, now hangs limp around my face. She had never been considered especially beautiful, but with age she had come to appreciate the beauty inherent in youth, which even she must have once possessed. Where does it go: Time? Youth? A lifetime? Never mind... better now that it's gone. I have made my mistakes and finished with that part. Now I can look forward to God.

Sita pulled herself up slowly in bed. Bright morning sun gleamed through the window. She let its beams warm her before she unfastened her night shift. A narrow finger of pain pulled from the pit of her abdomen and she paused, biting her lip and clutching her midriff. She inhaled deeply and waited for it to pass, as it always did. She stood, her feet sinking into plush, rose-colored carpets, and made her way slowly around her spacious room. With terse movements, she drew a fresh underskirt, an old sari, and a blouse from an ornate, walnut dresser. Standing before her full-length mirror, she pulled the underskirt over her head and tied it around her waist. She noticed the hemline sloped sharply upward on the right side around her ankles. How I grow ever more crooked and odd, she thought.

She tugged at the skirt to straighten it, but to no avail. Sighing, she untied it and stared in annoyance at the cause of the problem: a fist-sized mound of flesh swelled from the right side of her abdomen. “Ayyappa,” she complained.

She had seen this bulge before, had watched it grow for months now, though never had probed the swelling nor examined it in any way. She could not say whether it was soft or hard. Vulgar, organic, and hideous, it had arrived one day, an alien entity that infested her body, growing there, nurturing itself on her secrets. She sensed that what she could see of it was only its monstrous head; its roots were entwined malevolently around her innards. She shook her head at it and clucked, as if scolding an errant dog for whom she had given up hope of discipline. She tied the skirt's drawstring underneath the swell, washed her face, wrapped the voluminous folds of her orange sari about her, and went downstairs to have tea.

Mornings were quiet in the great, empty house, its residents dispersed early to their separate lives outside. Babu, her younger brother, would be at work by now, settled behind his desk, poring over engineering bids and proposals at the consulting firm that he had built from nothing.

Meera, Babu's daughter, left for the gym over two hours ago; she would have a bagel at a downtown cafe near her office, where she worked at a large accounting firm. Sita sighed. With her intelligence - no less than her father's - she could be moving faster in her career. Meera's younger brother, Ravi, spent mornings among the stacks at the campus library, reading before his classes.

And I am here alone, left to wash the dishes, Sita mused. She felt no shame in this work. She took it up matter-of-factly, as the natural order of things. However, now and then, she could not resist wondering how her life might have been different if she was given the advantages that her niece and nephew had. What if she was granted a real education?

But the days of her youth in India were far behind her now. Her life, nearing its end, had led her here. It was, after all, not a bad place to end up after such a long and rugged road. There's no point in wondering what if things had been different, she reminded herself. Nor even whether my life was good or bad. The real question is, 'What will I leave to the children? Now that I am finished with it, what meaning will my life have for them?'
Sita was startled from her thoughts by the trilling of a bird outside the kitchen window. The stillness that framed the bird's cry unnerved her. It's too quiet here, she thought. Why does this house feel so empty of sound? It had struck her in these last few months that even when the whole family was home, sound did not seem to travel very far within these walls. It was too easy not to hear what was going on around her. In this house, words fell softly, burying themselves within the deep carpets or dissipating into the abundant folds of the satin drapes that framed the picture windows. Sometimes she felt that the quiet was itself a kind of sound, an echo of all the words never spoken within the family, all the stories never told.

© Usha Sri Charyulu Alexander 2018