To someone else, it would’ve been a regular, but somewhat uncomfortable, 12 hours at their neighbour’s, but for Baali, it was more than that. She had spent the day in an unoccupied, sparsely furnished apartment on the third floor of her building. It belonged to her neighbour Toru, who had moved out, curtains and all, a few months ago. Baali, who lived one floor above this place, was using it as a quarantine ward because her own family, crammed in a similar apartment upstairs, was sick.
To someone else, it would’ve been just that. But Baali – perceptive, intense, furious Baali – noticed audio-visual minutiae that coloured her experience of living there. The sound of car horns was unfiltered and loud; her own apartment on the fourth floor received a milder version of this vehicular cacophony.
When she spoke on the phone, her voice, unimpeded by furniture, collided with the walls of this empty house, creating echoes that mocked her solitude.
The view was misplaced too. From Toru’s balcony, the neighbourhood looked familiar yet incorrectly placed; Baali saw her very own St. Madame Besanto Road from a new angle. The position of everything, on that busy, six-road junction, a popular landmark in suburban Mumbaska, was disturbed, because she was on a different floor; the tops of the skyscrapers across the street were farther away, the shops on the footpath were larger, and she could read things – shop names, posters and advertisements stuck on lampposts, ‘no parking’ signs – more clearly from here. She felt as though the street she lived on was one large movie set that someone had pushed closer to her, magnifying everything slightly.
Baali had spent the day trying to write a short story. She played with three ideas.
The first, a story of a fictitious housewife, the timid kind who dutifully wears traditional black and gold beads around her neck to symbolise her husband’s breath, who migrates from semi-urban Indroska to a large, brown-unfriendly megacity in The United States of Ambroska and eventually hangs herself in the bedroom of her husband’s house, a place she never really came to call her own.
In the second story, a priest, in 12th century Italoska, sits at his desk by candle light and dips his feather in a pot of ink to write a prayer about compassion, love and peace. By dawn, when his 20-verse prayer is finally complete, the priest, sleepy and cranky, gets frustrated enough with a buzzing fly to swat her and wrap her in his parchment, before going to sleep, forgetting all about his smudged, crumpled words, now a tomb for an insect.
In her third story, an industrious, exhausted mother, weathered and worn by circumstance, doesn’t give up dodging avalanches and storms till she finds a safe place to keep her babies; the ‘big reveal’ at the end of this story is that the mother is a housefly who finds a warm, cozy home for her larvae in the open wound of an aged stray dog. It’s a happy ending for her baby maggots who eat into the dog’s flesh and grow up to become healthy, fully functioning flies.
Baali liked to write stories that bordered on the absurd and ended with a magical twist of some kind, often morbid or shocking. That day, though, she was unable to concentrate in that apartment, hostile in its otherness. It was, after all, someone else’s place, with some other family’s memories, dysfunctionalities and fights hanging in the air, swirling along with the spirits of someone else’s foremothers.
Compared to her own overstocked, airless apartment, the breeze moved differently through the empty spaces of this one. Even the ghosts of this house were unfriendly… or maybe just unfamiliar to her, like the ghost of Toru’s retarded aunt who stared at Baali from the sofa all day while she tried to write her story.
Just as Baali shut her notebook and reached for a spoon for her night-time tonic, she felt the stirrings of a new idea in her head; that night, she would write an academic commentary on the reason paranoia across different kinds of psychopathology often came down to recurring themes, like ‘abduction by aliens’, ‘they are out to get me’, and ‘they’re listening to my thoughts’. It would be a good break from her dark-themed fiction. But first, she needed some fresh air.
She went to the balcony, straightened out her posture and flapped her wings. It felt good to stretch out after a day spent indoors. Spreading out across the breadth of the balcony, she took off for a midnight glide, flying out of Toru’s house, into the night, squinting to keep the glare of the city-lights out of her eyes.
Originally appeared in Sad Goose Cooperative.
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