Rashmi Agrawal | April 2022
CW: physical abuse
You two, poles apart, yet somehow similar, related, interlaced. He was a rotten moth, spent beyond energies, searching for his ignis fatuus. You’re a butterfly, your wings wide, fluttering, reveling. His dark glance beseeching, lost, insecure. Your eyes glassy, ready to behold the world.
Pantaali wasn’t like anyone. He first arrested my mind, standing standstill in the gully by my grandfather’s house when I was spending a summer there. Barely twelve, I was enamored with his grin that bared his pearly teeth, his dark face and tanned lips a stark contrast. He tittered and bit into his forearms. Paused. Bit. Paused and bit again. And his pausing and biting startled me, scared me. A neighbor called him a moron from his roof.
Retracting a careless step, I fell into the bird feeder – a small water pit in the ground outside Grandpa’s house. Maa’s gentle hands pulled me up and caressed my back. “No one to be worried about,” she said, when I nagged her about the weird man. “He’s just teasing you; his name is Pantaali,” she added. But my heart thudded for long. That night, I had a nightmare of jaws chasing me, crushing, macerating my skull, and slurping my brain.
You, a divine mess when your curly black tresses clutter your face, wind conspiring against you. Your one hand around the strap dangling from the train’s ceiling. Other fiddles with the oversized handbag slipping from your shoulder, maybe carrying a lunch box. Chirping, talking about your partner, your friend enjoying your words. He kissed me, and his lips fondled… Your voice hushed, lost in the thronging hum of the train’s compartment. Red swamps your cheeks like Kashmiri apples, then strokes your neck.
The grind of Pantaali biting at his wrist or sides of his palm or the forearm started to sink in. Sometimes, I hollered at him. Or hid behind a burly green pillar of our house, looking at his white teeth salivating over his skin, speaking nothing—not him, not me. Maa said not to tease him with those sounds I made – of birds, dogs, and cats. I wished I knew how to roar like a lion.
You, standing in the same cabin of the train, have gelled with my days now. So are the wind pecking at your face, your vibrant salwar-kameez, your bag changing your arms, wayward rivulets of hair lurching for your attention, and your feeble talks with your friend. Sometimes, my eyes tangle with yours in the mess of who’re you and what’re you thinking. You reply with a cold blink, slowly unlocking your gaze away, back at your friend as if you have no rush. I can’t tell you that you sneak into my dreams draped in sarees. Maybe one day.
When we returned the following summer, Pantaali continued his game, cawing along like a cracked drum. One day, he noticed Maa behind me; she darted into the house, her breath jagged. Caws mummed, his eyes racing after her. Mine traced his. “What’s with you, nuts?” I howled at him and ran inside, hoping he would call me names in return. I asked Maa if she knew him; she hiccupped, shook her head, her lashes fluttering.
“He won’t harm you; maybe he wants to know you,” Maa said. I nodded, assuming she was being naïve. Then her tears said it all. I heard her; I was a teenager.
You look stunning in a saree. Its turquoise against a pink blouse accentuates your alabaster charm. And in that riot of colors, I see purple on your neck. A hickey? That’s when your gaze locks with mine, a little too long while we both wait for the same junction to disembark at.
As your hand rubs against mine, your nails jab my skin. My glance travel where you’ve been looking. Your thumb is tucked in the pit of your palm, your fingers trapping it inside. Within a fading moment, you vanish into the thin crowd, leaving me clueless.
Some signs are only for you to read, Maa said, when I quizzed about Pantaali the next summer. What signs? I asked. Just look into his eyes, boy, she said. And I did. Same big dark brown eyes, sharp at the inner corners with the whitest irises I had ever seen. Except in the mirror.
Some signs are only for you to read. Maa’s words resurface.
I search about hand signals. Help! Help? But how can I help you? I don’t even know your problem. I’m still a student; you’re an earning woman, confident, beautiful, my ignis fatuus, and I… burdened with the benefaction of my father’s money and a student loan. An aberrant moth.
Pantaali didn’t appear in the gully next summer. When I asked about him, Maa cried and spilled her past in a hushed voice. Neighbors for years, friends in school, sweethearts in college, and one day her father had planted my father in her life. The moth inflamed its sanity; its ignis fatuus was ephemeral.
You aren’t talking to your friend today, not caring for those fringes scratching your face as if your energy has violated you. I fiddle with a card, date and time marked at its back. Can it crack your cocoon? When the train stops—I’ve to get down early today to attend a guest lecture—our fingers brush, my skin electric against yours.
I tuck the card in your fist and skitter as if I’ve blundered. Maa, have I read the signs correctly?
I turn to watch the departing train. Before its undulating silhouette, you’re standing; standing at a station that’s not yours. You read the card, a psychologist’s. You follow, our steps match. My wrist swings to touch yours, our destination same.
Author’s Note – Holding your thumb tucked in your palm and folding the 4 fingers down to trap the thumb inside represents the sign of help (or violence at home). It became popular in the long isolation period during the pandemic.
Rashmi Agrawal lives in India and writes by a big window, enjoying the diverse seasons. She has recently won the Strands Publisher Flash Fiction contest for December month. Her words are available or forthcoming in Door is a Jar, Roi Fainéant Press, Alien Buddha, Inked in Gray, Dollar Store Magazine, GutSlut Press, The Hive, Chrysanthemum Chronicles, and others. Her short stories have found space in various anthologies. Nudge her @thrivingwordss.
Photo by Vibhav Satam
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