Sitting on the front porch of the bungalow that stands alone on a plot of land carpeted with with common nut sledge, I swat away the large flies with a bamboo fan while sipping on tepid tea. The air is alive with the constant hum of insects and the chirping of the pied mynas whose nests fill the enormous banyan trees that encircle the village. Several young boys are kicking a ball to one another on the dirt road that passes in front of the bungalow. The boys play silently, the only noises they make being the impact of their bare feet against the ball, or an occasional whoop of excitement, uttered by accident; they have been told not to disturb the new missionary and his wife.
The screen door opens and my wife, Leah, steps out of the bungalow. “It’ll be dark soon. Ananya is preparing dinner now,” she says as she goes to the porch railing, leans against it, her body limp, her limbs dangling in a way that resembles a wilting plant, and watches as one of the boys picks up the ball and runs down the road. He’s chased by the others, all disappearing beyond the banyan trees. She slaps at a flying insect from in front of her face and says, “We’ve been here a month and every day is the same.”
“I warned you that you might find it boring,” I tell her as I hold hold the cup of tea over the railing, and dump out the last of it. “Perhaps if you became more involved at the school . . .”
Leah quickly turns, as if shot through by a jolt of electricity, her eyes lit with fire. “Nothing I know would be of any use to the children of this village,” she says venomously. “If only you had told me the truth about where we were coming to!” As if escaping a sinking ship she rushes to the screen door, but there she abruptly stops as if reminded that in all of India there’s nowhere else for her to go, and gazes at me with the compassion fit for a man about to face a firing squad. “I’ll come get you when dinner is ready,” she says, and goes in.
The dining room is aglow from the flames of the lanterns that set on tables in each corner in the room. Faded, worn, tapestries with traditional depictions of the Hindu Gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva hang on the walls. Their edges flutter, stirred by the breeze from the slowly rotating blades of the ceiling fan located above the table. On one wall there is a simple wooden cross. The window is closed, shutting out the invasion of insects that usually occurs every dusk. The loud, menacing growl of a tiger that roams the border of the village and has killed two of the villagers can’t be kept out; it’s a reminder that there are dangers that lurk about here unlike the dangers back in Minnesota.
Ananya pushes open the swinging door that separates the kitchen from the dining room and enters carrying a tray holding four bowls and a plate of naan. As she walks in she brings with her the scents of saffron, garam masala, curry, and cinnamon. She’s wearing a bright yellow sari that wraps around her slender body in layers and drapes over her black hair. There’s a vermilion dot in the middle of her forehead; she’s a married woman. The silver bracelets on her wrists jingle as she places the tray on the table. Silently she scoops servings of rice, vegetable masala, and fish rubbed with spices on our plates, and puts slices of mango and naan on smaller dishes next to the plates.
“This looks delicious, Ananya,” I say as I inhale the spices wafting from the masala.
She nods and smiles wanly, but doesn’t look at me. Her eyes are the shape of almonds and her dark skin the texture of silk. In the month we’ve been here she has said less than a dozen words to me. Her glances are always furtive; my stares are direct.
She turns her gaze to Leah and after a moment of searching the inscrutable expression on my wife’s face, she says, “I hope this is to your liking, Mahodaya.” She never calls my wife by her name, but instead uses the Hindi word for madam.
“Tell me, Ananya. Doesn’t your husband mind that you cook for us every night?” I ask as I shovel a chunk of potato dripping with reddish-brown curry sauce into my mouth.
“My husband is working in New Delhi while I remain here to look after our parents.” She repositions the cloth that covers her hair. “Will there be anything else?” She’s looking at Leah when she asks this.
“Not for now,” Leah and I say in unison.
For the remainder of the meal Ananya remains in the kitchen. Leah is quiet throughout the meal, studying her plate as if it were a getaway map. When we finish eating, Leah helps Ananya clear the table. Before leaving the dining room I hear the two of them in the kitchen whispering and giggling like school girls. There’s a musicality to their merriment, like the warbling of song birds
Seeing Leah through the mosquito netting around the bed is like looking at her through a gauzy mist. She’s sitting on the stool to the vanity dresser and staring at her reflection in the mirror as she takes long, slow strokes with the brush through her blonde hair. The bedroom has the scent of jasmine, the fragrance of the perfume she sprays on her wrists before coming to bed.
“Ananya is very pretty, don’t you think?” I ask.
“You’re just now noticing?” Leah replies. She places the brush on the dresser, stands and removes her robe. She’s wearing the pale blue nightgown she wore during our honeymoon the year before. Walking to her side of the bed she appears to float, like an apparition. She extinguishes the flame in the lantern by the bed and climbs in. I reach over to touch her, to caress her.
“Not tonight,” she says.
I then notice in the ambient light two of Ananya’s bracelets on Leah’s wrist. “Did Ananya give those to you?” I say.
“Of course,” Leah says. “She wants me to feel less lonely.”
The cotton sheet that covers my body suddenly feels like a pile of rocks, pinning me to my place in the bed.
The school is a large one room structure built of cinder blocks. It’s unpainted and there is no glass in the four windows and no door. The thirty-one students share desks that have broken tops and wobbly seats.
I’m at the blackboard and writing verbs when I hear shouts and screaming coming from the center of the village. The students rush to the windows and climb on one another to see what is happening. “Haathee,” they begin to yell with panicked excitement. I stand behind them and see villagers running toward the direction of the bungalow.
“What is it?” I ask the students.
“Elephants are on their trail,” one of them replies. “They are extremely dangerous.”
“Where’s the trail?”
“It runs alongside where you’re living.”
I run out of the school and down the road, shoving aside the villagers who have clogged the road to get a glimpse of the elephants. They’ve seen wild elephants before of course, but their fear of and fascination with them is palpable; they gawk, but stand ready to run. I stop fifty yards from the bungalow and see that Leah is standing in the yard with Ananya, not ten yards away from an enormous bull elephant and a smaller, albeit still large, cow. The elephants have stopped and are rocking back and forth, waving their trunks and flapping their ears. The bull’s bellowing is deafening.
Then the bull charges at the women.
Helplessly I watch as Ananya pushes Leah aside and out of the path of the charging elephant, and shouts as she waves her arms. With all the ferocity of a runaway train the elephants knocks her to the ground and then tramples on her. Their rampage done, the two elephants run into the brush beneath the banyan trees and disappear from sight.
I reach Leah as she begins to crawl to the broken body of Ananya. I take her in my arms and rock her as she wails.
“She was in love with me,” Leah says, choking back a sob.
I want to respond, to explain that if Ananya had actually been in love with her, it was meaningless.
She looks into my eyes, possibly searching for my soul, and says, “I was in love with her too.”
About the Author: Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 340 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Five collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/ He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977