By Ananthu MC
Arts Illustrated's Short Story Contest, Winner
I press our calling bell thrice and step back.
There is no one, my brother says, as usual.
I am just giving a chance for the thief to escape, I say.
After, I fish out the key from my pocket. Amma, since she was going to be late from work, had given the key to the old auntie next door, who offered us orange squash, a faint bead of it now hangs from the corner of my brother’s mouth.
I ask him to wipe it off, no, not on his white school uniform, but on his handkerchief.
I wash my hands with soap, make my brother do it as well. We change into our home clothes like good boys, and I get bread and jam from the fridge, and we settle down before the TV. Outside, we see Mr Vincent snailing forward as usual, crumpled cloth bag in one hand, a milk-white walking stick in another, toward the supermarket. He moves so slowly it breaks my heart. His journey to and back from the supermarket takes almost an hour, Amma often coming back soon after him.
As usual, when Amma is away, my brother runs upstairs and takes out Daddy’s giant book of photos from where she thinks she has hidden it from us. My brother occasionally argues that the book still smells of Daddy, but I don’t tell him otherwise.
This evening, we rarely look up at the TV. Because there is a new photo in the book. A photo of a painting. The page yellowing like the rest of the book, but, unlike them, this one, I think, does smell like Daddy.
I think you are not allowed to photograph a painting, but Daddy always did, or still does, things like that, things you are not quite allowed to do, and had, in fact, gotten into trouble several times, Amma had told us, until she stopped telling us his stories, which made us want to seek them out ourselves. If the book inside Amma had shut, we would at least open this, though secretly. Because we didn’t want her to find us with it, even though we thought this would have made her happy, and not sad, and not moved her to tears like that one evening when she hadn’t spoken a word about Daddy, when we were all watching TV, an English movie, which my brother and I watched with great interest, though we didn’t understand half of the dialogues, and out of nowhere, in the middle of a scene that made my brother laugh, Amma started to cry. It was him flowing out of her tears, she said later to me when my brother was asleep. She had to cry and cry and cry until he was no longer there inside her.
Where did this new photo come from? Magic, my brother whispers. But I am the older one, the only man of the family, Amma had told me, so I am to be clear, be honest, be clever. To look after my little brother.
That we might have missed the picture because it is a huge book is the simplest, most logical, explanation, but not quite the one, I feel, seeing his expression, my brother wants to hold onto.
My brother traces a finger through the photo. This looks like a dragon, no?
Usually, we make up stories of what Daddy was doing when he took the picture. According to a picture of an ice-cream shop, he was going to eat ice-creams in our stead. A picture of stacks and stacks of chocolates and toys meant he had gone there to buy things he would later parcel to us.
My brother, confused, yawns. The picture doesn’t tell him anything. There is a thin dragon, lost on its way to somewhere, unspooling a ribbon of fire. The red is the fiery evening sky I sometimes see when I cycle home from tuitions. A rooster, a waterfall of red on its head, makes my brother wish he was in Ammamma’s house, dipping a piece of appam into the chicken curry she had made us last Christmas. Sometimes when I look up at the sky, beside the comical dragons and errant lambs, I sometimes see faucets left open, wispy white clouds whispering out.
I like the lollipop, he says, returning the book, and I find, quite clearly, its hypnotic twirl.
I want an Alpenliebe now. Can you call Amma and tell her?
But I am looking outside, thinking why Daddy took this picture. If he saw the same things we saw. We were in the picture, in a way, and perhaps Daddy too was, once. I wonder if he is lost in it, waiting to be discovered by a discerning eye. I look at what looks like eyes, flattened faces, alien expressions, eddying swirls of grey on black, as hypnotic as the sweet lollipop twirl.
I ask him to look at the picture again, proposing a silly game—find as many things as he can, and compare with me; whoever has the most, wins—so that I have the space to wonder if I should really tell him that even if Daddy is in some ice-cream shop or a house by the sea, or buying us expensive things, he is not coming back to us, that I sometimes wish he opened the door when I press our calling bell. That Amma has begun evicting what remained of him slowly and secretly, that there is no way to tell if this book is going to be next.
It’s too boring, my brother says, and the TV has him again, until the power blinks out.
Outside, I see Mr Vincent passing us by, his cloth bag not crumpled anymore but hanging heavy from one hand, and I wonder, not for the first time, what it is that he bought. Amma will be home soon, but I pick up the phone anyway, for an Alpenliebe.
This story is told by a young boy whose father has deserted the family and while his mother is away at work, he takes care of his younger brother. Often, on their return from school, keeping this a secret from their mother, they search for their father in a book of photographs. ‘Usually, we make up stories of what Daddy was doing when he took the picture,’ he says. But when they find a photo taken by him of a painting, they are lost. The younger boy likes the lollipop in it, and the older boy, looking, finds ‘quite clearly, its hypnotic twirl.’ But he also sees, ‘the eddying swirls of grey and black’ and wonders if his father saw them too. Using language that is both visual and poetic, the writer deftly weaves a rooted-in-reality story around Dhanur Goyal’s abstract art. – Abha Iyengar
About Ananthu MC
Ananthu MC writes every day, but the extraordinary hasn’t happened yet. He graduated from the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, in 2018, and still misses it. He is from Kerala.