A journal of narrative writing.
Little Deaths

Hannah awoke at dawn on the day she was to drown the kittens. She wanted to make certain that they were dead and buried before Ananda arrived for the Saturday lawn ritual. Ananda has been awake for an hour or so, lying in bed and wondering when he could leave and arrive in time to comfort, but not confront, the murderess. For a half an hour, they lay in their separate beds in their separate houses, pondering the crime about to be committed. Hannah was afraid her willingness to commit infanticide would make her appear harsh, unwomanly. Ananda feared that by failing to offer to do the deed himself, he would seem delicate to her, emasculated. Already, he felt she misunderstood his refusal to consummate their friendship and this seemed just another instance in which his masculinity would be called into question. Neither gave much though to the mewling, unformed masses wrapped in an old pink towel in a banana box on Hannah's front porch. Their fate was predetermined, immutable.

Twice, Hannah got out of bed and went downstairs, believing she was ready to do away with the tiny bundles of hunger and pain that cried out with such surprising strength. The first time Bansid, skeletal and listless, hovered by the door. Her skin hung so loosely on her desiccated frame that her dry teats nearly drug the ground. Hannah gathered her delicately into her arms, carried her upstairs to sleep on the forbidden bed, and curled herself around the cat protectively. Once Bansid was asleep, she went downstairs again and into the kitchen, filled the mop bucket with warm water and salt, concocting false amniotic fluid. She imagined the not quite kittens slipping quietly into death, fooled into believing that they were returning to the place before hunger and light. She carried the bucket out to the porch and set it next to the banana box.

She lifted each of the kittens out of the box with a shovel, unwilling to touch their not quite formed bodies. The first, black and covered with the dry gore of birth, seemed near dead already and slipped silently from the shovel and into the water. The second lifted it's tiny eyeless head with the first touch of the cold metal and began to cry. Hannah heard it struggle and thrash when it hit the water and leaned over the porch railing to retch. The third, a tiny replica of its mother, had begun howling when the second was lifted from the box, and Hannah dumped it quickly into the brine to silence it. The last two were hopeless enmeshed in umbilical rope - one already dead and drawing flies - so she scooped them into the bucket together. Superstitiously, almost silently, she recited the Kaddish. She reached to pick up the bucket and carry it out to the waiting grave in the back yard, but when she glanced down she saw that three of the kittens were still trying to lift themselves out of the water. The warmth and the salt had not fooled them. She put down the shovel and walked to the other end of the porch. They were so tiny, so frail, she had expected them to simply acquiesce and slip away; their struggle unnerved her. She stared out into the street, waiting for them to die.

She saw Ananda when he was still a block away. He was several hours earlier than usual, he didn't normally come until at least noon. Hannah ran down the steps and out onto the sidewalk to stop him.

"Please, don't come up on the porch. I've just put the kittens in the bucket, and they aren't dead yet. I wasn't expecting you for a while. I'm sorry. I had wanted to have this done before you got here. I'm really sorry." She rushed to get the words out, to block him from coming onto the porch. "Why don't we go around to the back door and you can wait in the kitchen until I'm done out here?"

"No, I'll wait out here with you. Here, let us go and sit over there on the swing. It will not be long, surely, before they are ready to be buried?" Ananda regarded her coolly, hoping to figure from her expression if she expected him to take over the grim task at hand. It was so hard to understand women in this country. They talked always of feminism and equality and yet they seemed so weak to him, so willing to fall back on the old stereotypes when it suited. Hannah, for instance, had no compunction about saving up difficult jar lids and leaky faucets during the week and then asking with doe eyes and wetted lips if while he was here. . . He glanced towards the bucket with distaste. He did not like this habit of keeping animals in the house, and he did not want to have anything to do with their maintenance. He looked back at Hannah, already beginning to resent the imposition, and tried to gauge the look on her face.

Hannah noticed the detachment in his eyes as he regarded her; saw the look of distaste when he glanced at the bucket of drowning kittens. Oh god, she thought, he thinks I'm some kind of monster to be able to do this so calmly. He looks almost angry that I'm not freaking out. Damn, I'm really not in the mood for theatrics this morning. She looked away from him and toward the gruesome mass still churning in the bucket, willing herself to tears that simply would not come. Finally, she turned and sat next to him on the swing.

"God, this is so awful," she said, giving him what she hoped was a look of anguish and despair. "I feel evil, ghoulish, just sitting here waiting for them to die. I'm really sorry you had to see this."

"How often are you going to say you're sorry?" Ananda asked, taking her chin in his hand. "A hundred times, a thousand? I came early because I thought you might not be able to do it, that you might need my help in some way. So?"

So that's it, she thought, a little taken aback. He wants to see that I can't do this, that I need for him to take care of these little unpleasantries for me. It didn't make sense to her, after all she was what her father called "a big, strapping girl", proud of being without the frivolity and squeamishness so often foisted upon her sex by popular misconception. Ananda, on the other hand, was delicate of frame and nature, and so averse to death that he was a life-long vegetarian. Hannah wondered briefly how the five tiny murders fit into the notion of karma.

Hannah studied Ananda's fine, thin lines and thought how ridiculous it was that he should see himself as her savior, this man she could probably snap like a twig. Wasn't it enough that she saved up small household crises for him to solve on these Saturdays when he came and played husband? Still, he came from such a foreign world and it was a gallant gesture. Above all, Hannah did not want to be seen as unfeeling, cold. She wanted Ananda to have faith in her ability to love; she wanted to be thought of someone he could love. And so she swallowed her pride and turned to him, ready to feign weakness in order to allow him to show his strength.

"No, really, I can do this myself." Her words were slow, deliberate. She looked at the ground and tried to appear wistful. "You do so much for me already, cutting my grass and all. I couldn't ask you to do this." She let out a sigh, hoping it was just enough to indicate pain but not so long as to appear melodramatic.

Ananda's heart fell. Clearly, he thought, she is waiting for me to offer again to bury the kittens. He felt sick to his stomach and wished he had arrived fifteen minutes later. He should have called first. But perhaps she would simply have put off killing them, waiting for his arrival, if he had. He felt himself growing angry, but at the same time he wanted her to understand that he cared for her and did not like to see her in pain.

"No," he said as firmly as he could manage, hoping that his voice carried authority but that he did not sound bossy, domineering. "I will do it. You go in the house and fix me some tea, please. Do not come out again until I have come inside. I think it will be best this way."

Hannah moved to kiss him lightly on the lips, but he turned his head and offered his cheek instead. She was puzzled by his aloofness. Wasn't this what he had wanted? He had practically ordered her into the house. She tried not to be annoyed at the obvious note of command in his voice. He half guided, half pushed her towards the door and so she went inside to boil the milk for his tea.

Ananda glanced into the bucket and saw that the struggle had ceased. He lifted his burden and took the shovel, carrying them down to the hole Hannah had dug by the mimosa tree. Climbing down the steep hill, some of the water from the bucket sloshed out onto the leg of his jeans and he gagged. He dumped the bucket, water and all, into the grave and then covered it with the dirt and pieces of sod laid carefully to the side. Leaving the bucket and shovel under the tree, he went into the house through the back door. Hannah stood at the stove, scaling the milk for his tea and looking, he thought, rather pleased with herself.

"Well, it's done now. You needn't worry about it any longer, they are buried. Please, may I have my cup of tea and could you throw these in the washer?" He stepped out of his jeans and handed them to her. "Some of the water came out of the bucket as I was carrying it down the hill, and I do not relish the idea of wearing them until they have been cleaned."

She handed him the mug and took the pants. "Of course. I'll just run down to the basement. I haven't put sugar in the tea yet, it's in the bowl on the table. I'll be right back up."

"Have you something that I could wear while the jeans are being washed? I feel a little odd standing around in my underclothes." Only now that the jeans were off his body did his nakedness occur to him; he felt embarrassed and all the more resentful.

"I don't know. My pants would all be way too big for you, but I'll look around and see what I can find. It'll just take a second, go ahead and drink your tea before it gets cold."

Hannah took the jeans down to the washer and looked for something that Ananda could wear. He was so slight; she hadn't noticed just how tiny he was until she had seen him standing there looking so fragile, vulnerable. Her own pants would hang clownishly from his frame, accentuating the difference between them. She searched and finally came up with an old pair of women's jogging shorts, pink and torn, from when she was thinner. No doubt they would offend his sense of modesty, but it was the best her vanity would allow her to offer.

Ananda took the shorts dubiously. There was a message here, he was sure, but he did not know how to read it. Certainly, she did not intend for him to mow the lawn dressed in these? They seemed to him ready for the rag bin, ripped at the seams and the elastic gone. Also, they were obviously made for a woman. Anger so fierce he could barely contain it welled up inside him. This insult was too great. He flung the shorts to the ground.

"I will not be wearing these. They are not for a man. Please, just go and get my jeans back for me."

"I can't. They're already in the wash. Here, I'll go and find something else." She was shocked by his vehemence. God, she thought, he's so easy to offend. "I'm sorry that they are women's shorts, although really they're kind of androgynous except for the color. But, look, I don't have a lot of guy's clothes laying around here, you know?"

"Please, I can not mow the grass in these. Isn't there a pair of your jeans that I could borrow? I have seen that you sometimes wear men's, could you go and get me one of those?"

Hannah went up to her bedroom and dug around until she found a pair of cut-offs that had fit last summer, but not this one. They would still be ridiculously big on Ananda, and she was certain he would not like that the back left side had been patched with flowered fabric, but she couldn't bend any farther. As she searched for something he could use as a belt, the melancholy of the morning settled into resignation and a thin patina of tiredness.

"Here you go. Not much of a fashion statement but they're really all I could find. Maybe you could leave a pair of sweats or something over here, just in case something like this ever happens again." She handed him the sorts and an old macramé belt that tied, rather than buckled, so could be made to fit.

"Nothing like this will happen again." Hannah started at the hard edge of annoyance in his voice and wondered exactly what he had meant. Was this his way of telling her he would not be back after today?

"These will do for today. I am going now to mow the lawn. You will make lunch? I am feeling very hungry for something spicy."

Ananda walked out the door and Hannah began pulling pots and pans down from the rack overhead. She had gotten used to the absence of pleases and thank-yous in his requests. She searched through the cupboard, trying to decide which dahl would go best with the eggplants and tomatoes she had bought at the farmer's market.

While Hannah chopped and fried and boiled, filling the house will sweet, foreign smells, Ananda pushed the old gas-powered mower through the weeds behind her house. He felt sloppy, exposed, in the old shorts and silently berated himself for having given her his jeans. He couldn't get used to her casual life; the accumulation of clutter, the unkempt hair unnerved him. At first, he had taken her ragged clothes and general dishevelment for signs of poverty - which he could accept, even rescues her from - but then he had seen the silver candlesticks, the baby pictures taken on manicured lawns or in rooms heavy with art and antiques. It made no sense to him that she would choose to live this way. It had something to do with being what she called "unencumbered by the American dream" and what others had called being a hippy, but he just didn't understand it and wanted no part of it. He fantasized that she would learn by his example and begin to act like a normal girl; one he could love, one who would not insult him with ragged shorts and the deaths of tiny things.

As she bustled among the bubbling pots, Hannah hummed tunelessly to herself. She was a kitchen witch sort of woman, most comfortable brewing soothing soups or kneading the dough for heavy breads later to be thickly coated with butter. Indian cooking suited her sense of aesthetics, filling the house with strong aromas and the sounds of popping seeds and sizzling oils. Even a simple meal took every pot she owned and each dish required it's own elaborate masala. She ground fenugreek and cumin, black salt and neem leaves in the small porcelain mortar Ananda had given her as a gift. She puffed chapattis and fried papads, put out lime pickle and chutneys, chopped cucumbers and jalapenos for the raita. The elegance of so many relishes and accouterments appealed to her, and she often wondered if she had been seduced not by Ananda himself but by the luxury of cooking for him.

The smells from the kitchen wafted out to Ananda through an open window. He had been amazed at how quickly Hannah had picked up on the basics, if not the subtleties, of Indian cooking and the heady aromas of lunch both cheered him and made him homesick. It was the tiny mistakes in her cooking that made him melancholy; the flavor just slightly off that reminded him of how much better things had been before. The sweat trickled down his forehead and stung his eyes as he remembered a sweeter, softer woman left behind. Often these days, he found himself unable to recall what the appeal of America had been, why he had left India - and Amita - behind. He continued to push the mower through the grass beside the ramshackle house of a woman he could not comprehend, refusing to fall into the nostalgia that seemed to haunt him more and more. He had made these choices, and now he was determined to make them work.

Hannah poured the rich curries and dhal into her grandmother's serving dishes and set a pitcher of limewater on the table before calling Ananda to come in and eat. He culled a bouquet of goldenrod and black-eyed susans from the neighbor's garden and she put them in an old wine bottle in the center of the table. The juxtaposition of silver and old bottles, things American and Indian, disquieted Ananda. Everything about Hannah herself seemed to him a contradiction. He wanted to pin her down, know her, but she had an uncanny ability to charm and dismay him simultaneously. He washed his hands and sat down at the table as she brought a steaming plate of perfectly puffed chapattis from the stove.