2

Innumeratry

By Subodhana Wijeyeratne

 

earth 2 moons

 

It is a limp autumn day and frosty wind sends dead herds of leaves rattling over the pavement. Raju scurries across Mass Ave and enters the department eyes-down and hurrying so that he can later pretend that he did not see anyone. Up on the fourth floor they have recarpeted the lobby and on the wall at the top of the stairs are now the names of donors, golden and all-capped, like the names of ancient deities.

He finds Prof. Mutati by a photocopying machine, scratching his thin-haired scalp. The machine clatters and spits out images of his palm. He looks up at Raju, eyes watering.

‘I only wanted to email someone a letter,’ he says.

‘This is a photocopying machine, Professor,’ says Raju.

‘Ah yes. I see.’ He squints. He clearly doesn’t. ‘Are you here to see me?’

     ‘Yes, Prof. Mutati.’

     ‘Ah. Yes. Well.’

He steers Raju down the corridor and into his perfectly square office. Three of the walls are slathered with books as thickly as ivy over an old cottage and the fourth is a slab of charmless glass through which Raju can see one third of a bone-grey car park and a single tree, leafless and shuddering. Flapping from one branch is a ragged World Cup banner already half lost to New England grime. He sits in an undersized chair and waits while Mutati inspects some sheets of paper with one eyebrow cocked and his lips moving slowly as if chanting a spell. Eventually the committee in his head comes to an agreement and he puts the paper down.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘It’s very good. It’s very…brave.’

Raju jerks upright as if bitten.

‘Brave?’

     ‘Ah, yes. Yes. If I’m right, you’re saying that it is not the events that followed the election per say that matter, but the way in which they were strung together into a narrative, correct?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘And to prove your point you’ve very neatly strung together your own little narrative, excluding some of the more controversial incidents that followed. It’s very cool, very good.’

     Raju blinks and wonders what Mutati is talking about, but meeting with an expert in the field is no time to waste on learning things. He scribbles ‘what’s missing?’ in his little pad and when he looks up Mutati is peering at him over his glasses.

     ‘But,’ he says.

     Raju’s throat constricts.

     ‘But?’

     ‘Raju, we’ve worked together for a long time now, haven’t we?’

     ‘Yes, Professor Mutati.’

     ‘And you went to school in Australia?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Well, then this is all the more baffling.’

     Raju squirms.

     ‘What is?’

     ‘Well, do you – do you purposely avoid numeratry in your work?’

     ‘Nu – numeratry?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘I’m sorry, Prof. Mutati – what’s that?’

     Mutati raises his eyebrows and leans back, fingers latticed over his belly.

     ‘You mean you don’t know what numeratry is?’

     ‘I’ve. I’m. No, I’m sorry. I’ve never – what is it?’

‘Gosh,’ says Mutati. ‘Goodness. You mean to say you went through all of your education without knowing that each section of your paper must add up to exactly the same number of words, or alternatively have a relationship between the numbers of those words that can be expressed in the form of an equation or some other meaningful mathematical relationship?’

Raju looks around the room to see if perhaps this is some elaborate joke. If perhaps that insufferable bastard Cambio will jump out from behind a book rack and chortle heartily. But then he remembers that there is no space between the books and the wall and in any case Mutati’s sense of humour is so mild that involving anybody else would dilute it to beyond recognition. The old man stares at him across the table, jaw slack, like an astonished lemur.

‘This is the first I’ve ever heard of it,’ says Raju.

‘Gosh. Really?’

‘So – each section of my essay must have the same number of words?’

‘Or some progression that can be encapsulated elegantly. Muuttaa goes for the golden mean in Things Been and UnBeen, and that’s why the last chapter is 256 pages long. Haven’t you ever wondered?’

‘I always just thought he was a dreadful writer.’

‘Well, yes, that too. But I went for multiples of 44 in my book on vacuums, which was much more elegant.’ He waves Raju’s paper at him. ‘I’ve never seen anything of the sort in your work. And now you tell me you’ve never even heard of it?’

‘No, Professor. Never. I feel like…I don’t know what I feel like. I mean, what’s the purpose of it?’

‘What’s the purpose of anything in the English language? What’s the purpose of capitals?’

‘To indicate proper nouns, I suppose.’

‘And yet plenty of languages get by without it. It’s just convention, but being able to use it indicates a certain rigour. I must say, I’m astonished you’ve never heard of it.’ Mutati hands the paper back to Raju. ‘I suggest you go forth and rework the paper to include some. I can’t defend you against Cambio and Kawaroo any more if you don’t even know what numeratry is.’

‘They – they have a problem with it?’

‘Goodness, yes. Especially Kawaroo.’ Mutati leans across the desk, conspiratorial and fatherly, and pushes his glasses up his nose. ‘You know what he’s like.’

He dismisses Raju with a wave. As soon as he is outside Raju types furiously on his phone for a bit and then reads equally intently for a bit longer. Eventually he looks up, pale-faced and blinking, and staggers away down the stairs. If he had been paying attention, he would have averted his eyes, and walked faster. But it did not matter when he arrived, and it doesn’t matter now. There is no one in the building who wants to talk to him anyhow.

 

*

 

Night falls as if the world had been swallowed by some celestial predator as Raju makes his way along the ice crusted streets to the bar. If he’d been paying attention he would have seen winter’s shy beauty all about him. Crystalline filigrees of moisture on the grey pavement blocks and hoarfrost growing like needlesharp fur on fallen leaves. He might also have noticed the dead eyes of the homeless watching him from between the dumpsters, each reduced to a shapeless lump of humanity burqa’d in tattered old rags. But he has no time for anything but himself and this is to be expected, because he is an academic, and capable of being human about no more than one thing at a time.

Dustin – bamboo-thin and straight-backed, the topmost button of his shirt done – is already half drunk by the time Raju finds him in a booth in the recesses of the bar. Raju slips in opposite him.

‘Have you ever heard of numeratry?’ he says without preamble.

Dustin shrugs.

‘Sure. Haven’t you?’

‘No.’

Dustin snorts into his beer and flecks of floam flee the rim like snow before the wind.

‘Seriously? It’s, like, writing 101.’

Raju sighs and sinks into his chair.

‘I’ve never heard of it in my goddamn life. Not once in all the years I was in school. Not once in any of the books I’ve read. Not in Moby Prick or in Things Been and UnBeen or in A Christmas Yodel. Never.’

Dustin peers at him over his glasses.

‘It’s not the end of the world. It’s kinda weird, though.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, I mean – its basic writing. Everyone knows about it.’ He takes another sip. ‘Kanye South knows about it.’

Raju holds his head in his hands.

‘Mutati says Kawaroo and Cambio are out to get me over it.’

‘Out to get you?’

‘Yeah, because I don’t use it in my writing.’

‘Well, best get on it, don’t you think?’

‘But it’s so fucking absurd. Use the same number of letters in every section of my writing?’

‘Well, it doesn’t have to be the same number-’

‘But why? What’s the point?’

Dustin chuckles.

‘My friend. It is the system. The system is repressive.’

‘Yeah yeah. The system suborns the individual and renders them disaggregated in body and mind and commodifies each. Just shut the fuck up and let me be miserable, you goddamn communist.’

They sit in silence and after a while Raju’s attention drifts up the shadowstained woodpanel walls and along the lines of bottles serried near the ceiling in memoriam of brain cells butchered and dignity lost. Eventually it settles on one of the TV screens up there. Somewhere it is warm enough for the men to be wearing vests, two teams are playing football. He remembers vaguely that it is the World Cup and this is something, he recalls, normal people get excited about.

‘Who’s playing?’ he asks.

     ‘Portugal and Yugoslavia.’

     ‘Portugal and Yugoslavia?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Do they still call themselves that?’

     ‘Um. Yes.’

     ‘I’d’ve thought they’d have changed their name by now.’

     ‘Why?’

     ‘I mean, it’s not really still Yugoslavia, is it?’

     ‘Why?’

     Raju blinks.

     ‘The Yugoslav war? The genocide in Bosnia? It’s just, like, Serbia and Montenegro at this point, right?’

     Dustin picks up his beer and glugs half of it.

     ‘What genocide in Bosnia?’

     Raju gawps and then whips out his phone and types furiously for a few moments. Then he stares at his screen and types again. Finally he looks up at Dustin, mouth open, face bleached in the light of the TV. Dustin has never seen a man in the process of developing a flop sweat and the little shiny specks blooming on Raju’s skin are so fascinating that for a while he forgets that what he is looking at is a friend and that that friends looks like he may collapse into a puddle any moment now.

     ‘I think you need to go home, buddy,’ says Dustin eventually.

     Raju takes a deep breath, and nods.

     ‘Yeah, maybe I do. Maybe this’ll all be ok in the morning.’

     ‘Maybe -’

     He leaves before Dustin can finish, rushing out in to the cold with his coat buttoned wrong. At the corner, he slips and falls face-first into a pile of snow. When he gets up a chunk stays on his head like an alien parasite all the way home. He does not notice.

 

*

 

When he was younger he had spent a year abroad on exchange. He was there primarily to drink but the university had insisted that they attend language classes so this is what he did, hungover and tetchy, every Monday. Each class was oversized and each teacher incompetent enough that he had spent six or seven months slipping through the cracks. But then finally exams came around and he found himself having to speak in front of a whole class about something for ten minutes and the night before the exam he realized with chest-crushing horror that he had nothing to say.

The next day he got on the stage and told them about his dog. A waiflike and mysterious Collie who had chosen his family as much as they had chosen it. A dog that had unerringly found their car the day they had collected from the pound and waited for him by the gate every day after school. He told his gradually spellbound audience about how it slept by his side and how it sat by him as he waded through his maths homework and how when he was lonely he would look in its eyes and in those unfathomable and inarticulate animal depths see nothing more complicated, or more welcome, than love.

     He told them how they discovered it had a brain tumour. How it grew from the size of a pea to the size of a grape and then the size of a satsuma. How it bulged out the side of its long-muzzled face and gave it a constant leer. The other children called it Quasimodo and when he defended it they started calling him Jumbo Jet and those were names that stuck until he was into his teens.

By now he was halfway through his speech and sitting in prim rows beneath the fluorescent lights the whole class was silent and attentive and even the teacher at the back had her hand on her mouth and moist eyes.

He told them how one by one the dog’s senses failed. It went deaf and then it went blind and finally it lost control of its back legs. It recognized only his smell and by the end it lay in a bed in a corner of the living room and moved only to eat, or when he came into the room. Then it would stick its snout in the air and sniff and sniff until he came close and wrapped his arms around it – its fur still silky, its body still warm – and held it till it fell asleep. He was holding it when it died.

Of course, none of it is true.

His family has had many dogs in his life and they all lived long lives and died old and fully in possession of their senses. But still, telling the story up there, he was overcome with the sadness of it all, and he wept. The teacher weepy too and so did most of the students, even if his speech was full of mistakes, even if he got the word for far and different mixed up, even if his grammar was unsophisticated. The only one unimpressed was the slight Cambodian boy sitting off to the left, whose own language skills were flawless, and who Raju had earlier in the day told to shut the hell up because he would not stop commenting on the size of Raju’s thighs.

He got an A for the class. The Cambodian got an A-. Raju still counts it amongst the greatest moments of his life. 

 

*

 

He finds Anandini in her back garden lining a bunch of dolls and figurines on a half-completed concrete wall jutting into her lawn. She waves at him and wanders over to where he is standing, clinging like an octopus to the side of the door, blinking furiously though the sun is neither high, nor bright, nor even visible through the smog-thick slabs of New England cloud.

     ‘Where’ve you been?’ she says.

     ‘In my room,’ says Raju. ‘We need to talk.’

     ‘Come on, then.’

     She reaches round the side of the wall and drags out a sledgehammer and hefts this onto one bony shoulder. Then she walks back over to the wall, tilted under the under the weight of the thing. The grass is tatty and grey-brown underfoot and closer to the wall it is pocked with multicoloured flecks of detritus there’d been an explosion in a piñata factory.

Raju stops a few feet away and lets his sister take position, legs parted, back straight, lips pursed. She snorts through her nose and lifts the sledgehammer and brings it down in a slow arc onto one of the dolls. An eyeball eyeball hits Raju on the leg.

     ‘I think I’ve had some kind of stroke,’ he says.

     She turns to him.

     ‘A stroke?’

     ‘Yeah.’ He wraps his arms around himself. ‘I’m remembering things wrong.’

     Anandini eyes the next doll. A dark skinned thing with fat cheeks and wide pleading eyes. She obliterates it and its head flies over the fence and into the neighbour’s yard.

     ‘Like what?’

     ‘Like Yugoslavia.’

     ‘Yugoslavia?’

     ‘I was convinced it broke up in the 90s! I spent hours reading up on it yesterday. I’ve got all these names in my head but they’re all wrong. None of it happened.’

     Anandini swings and misses and chips a white scar into the concrete.

     ‘You’re under a lot of pressure, little brother. Maybe it’s your way of coping.’

     ‘I don’t feel stressed.’

     ‘These things manifest in different ways.’

     ‘What’ve I got to be stressed about? I got my presentation on Friday, but I’ve done those a million times.’ Raju watches a doll’s arm spin past him like a helicopter blade. ‘Have you heard of numeratry?’

     ‘Hate numeratry. It’s so dumb.’

     ‘I didn’t even know it was a thing.’    

     ‘What?’

     ‘Seriously. Have I ever mentioned it to you before?’

     ‘Why would we ever talk about something like that?’

     ‘Annie, please. Can you stop for a moment? I feel like I’m cracking up.’

     She takes one last swing and destroys a fat ceramic Chinese boy and drops the sledgehammer to the floor. Then she comes over to him and wraps her arms around him and holds him to her, skinny and familiar.

     ‘It’s ok, man. It’s alright. You want some cake?’

     They go inside and she fixes him some tea and piles some fancies on a plate and takes him through to the living room. He eats in silence and she watches him, smiling, until he’s finished.

     ‘I should call mum,’ he says.

     Her smile fades.

     ‘Maybe that’s it.’

     ‘What?’

     Anandini watches him and then slides her hands – fingers like string beans — slowly across the table. She wraps them around his.

     ‘Look, it’s been hard on all of us. But you’ve got to accept what’s what.’ She sniffs. ‘You think I don’t wish it hadn’t happened?’

     ‘What’re you talking about?’

     ‘Reggie.’

     ‘Jesus, Annie, what’re you talking about?’

     She sits back, frowning, eyes fixed on him.

     ‘You have to accept that it happened, man. You can’t go on pretending like you can just call mum whenever you want.’

     ‘Why wouldn’t I be able to?’

     ‘Reggie, please.’

     ‘No, Annie, why?’ He takes out his phone and starts flicking through it. ‘Why can’t I – Jesus, where is her number? What the hell is going on? Did you delete it from my phone?’

     He keeps going, hands trembling, and when he looks up Anandini is still watching him, twin silver streaks down her cheeks. She wipes them with the palms of her hands and looks out through the window.

     ‘Why’re you crying?’

     ‘I hate seeing you like this. Maybe you should go see someone.’

     ‘Annie – what’s wrong with mum?’

     Anandini looks back at him.

     ‘You really need me to tell you?’

     ‘Goddamnit, Annie, this isn’t -’

     ‘She left,’ says Anandini. ‘She’s gone.’

     ‘She’s dead?’

     ‘No, she’s not dead. She’s in Minorca, or some place. Jesus, do you not remember what she said?’

     He scans her face for some sign of humour but there is none. There is just his sister, a little older than he remembers, maybe a little greyer. Suffusing her face, with its long nose and wide-set eyes and mouth always vivid red even without makeup, is a grief like he has never seen before. In that instant, he knows she is not lying.

She gets up.

     ‘Listen,’ she says. ‘You deal with it however, alright? But just don’t keep pretending like it didn’t happen. It’s exhausting.’

     ‘Annie-’

     She walks out the room, arms wrapped around herself. Raju gets up and follows but she can move fast when she wants to and is up the stairs and in her room before he is even out the door.

     He ambles back to the chair, and looks at his phone. He scans all his contacts but his mother is not there. Then he scans all his past calls and he hasn’t called her in months. Eventually he finds her profile online. There are pictures of her, standing on a beach, standing by a castle. Somewhere with luminous seas and limestone walls. Smiling in all of them, her arms around some man Raju has never seen before. Some bulbous and redfaced white guy wearing a wide brimmed hat. In those familiar features is a joy like he has never seen before. He notices it, and it stings.  

 

*

 

‘Gosh,’ says Professor Mutati. ‘Goodness.’

     Raju eyes Mutati’s moley face across the table, marble-pale and patinaed with sweat. He waits for the old man to say more but all he receives is a watery stare. Eventually Mutati fidgets a little and says, ‘But it’s not a stroke?’

     ‘Apparently not.’

     ‘You have been under a lot of pressure.’

     ‘Everyone keeps saying that.’

     ‘Maybe on some level you’re worried about the paper. It’s very brave.’

     Again Raju waits for something more and yet again, like so often in his life, he feels like he is staring into a well, desperately looking for the things everyone insists are down there. And, as always, he sees is nothing.

     ‘Well,’ says Mutati. ‘Your public awaits.’

     He comes round the table and reaches for him and for one dizzying moment Raju thinks that perhaps the old man is about to hug him. But in the last moment he flinches and ends up just patting him awkwardly on the shoulder, twice.

     Raju follows him through to the next room. There is a gaggle of chattering people there, crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at a set of tables arranged in a rectangle, and more people gathered by the walls, and still more people piling in through the double doors to the left. He knows he knows half of them yet their faces all seem to have melted and he can’t quite tell who any of them are. Then Professor Mutati says something at the podium and there is some limp applause and everyone looks at him.

He looks at the papers in front of him and there are words on them and some part of his brain kicks into gear like a trained dog. It begins to read and keeps on, as steadily as a metronome, even though another part of him is scanning the room in mild panic. Finally he turns over the last page and snaps to himself and what he sees is a sea of frowning and perplexed faces gawping at him as if he had just wandered into the room and dropped his trousers in front of them all.

Professor Mutati says a few more things in what sounds like Esperanto. These are the symptoms of a stroke, things Raju vaguely. Then he hears the word ‘questions’ and a hand goes up in the back. Attached to it is a fat man with a moonshaped face swelling above his collar like a ripe mushroom.

It is Professor Cambio.

     ‘Um, yes,’ says Raju.

     ‘I’m shocked,’ says Cambio.

     Raju blinks and waits a moment. The man says nothing else.

     ‘Um-’

     ‘I’m shocked,’ says Cambio again. ‘I’m shocked that you don’t mention the Bowling Green Massacre anywhere in your piece.’

     ‘Um. Alright.’

     ‘I’m immoral. It’s foolish. It’s a regressive -’

     ‘Well, now,’ says Mutati. ‘I don’t believe it’s regressive at all. I believe it’s brave.’

     ‘Brave?’ says Cambio. ‘Not only is numeratry grade-school at best -’ whispers in the crowd, now – ‘but it purports to construct a meaningful narrative of political violence without any mention of the worst politically inspired massacre in British history. How do you explain that?’

     Raju swallows and looks at Mutati.

     ‘Well, it would be self-evident, no?’ says the old man. ‘I believe Raju’s arguing that it is entirely possible to construct a narrative even without mentioning Bowling Green. Isn’t that so?’

     ‘Yes, yes!’ says Raju. ‘Quite. The Bowling Green Massacre is, for the purposes of this paper, irrelevant.’

     Muttering now. Heads shaking. Arms crossed. Through the door Raju sees two policeman speaking with somebody. One of them looks through the crack and straight at him and his glare, laser-hot, is cut off by the door swinging shut.

     ‘Irrelevant?’ thunders Cambio. ‘How absurd. Is Holocaust irrelevant to the Second World War? Are machetes irrelevant to the Rwandan genocide? I mean, judging from this, I’d say you don’t even know what the Bowling Green Massacre is.’ Much humourless mirth at this. ‘Well? Do you?’

     Raju breathes deep, and a clutch of memories waft through his head. A dog lying on a dog bed. A classroom full of rapt exchange students. A Cambodian boy scowling as he receives a certificate from a woman who has already forgotten his name.

     He breathes deep.

     ‘I’m well familiar with the massacre, yes, Professor Cambio,’ he says. And with those words he abandons himself to the untruth like a man on a rollercoaster watching the world rush up to meet him and knowing that even if he were to wrench himself out of the rattling carriage there would be nothing awaiting him but silence and then death. ‘I’m well familiar with the massacre, and the context, and the nature of the victims. I’m not trying to disrespect them or deny that what happened, happened. In fact, if anything, my piece is arguing the opposite.’ The man on the rollercoaster throws up his hands. ‘In knowingly presenting a comprehensive narrative that ignores the truth – one that is believable and, on the surface, verisimilitudinous – I reveal that the hyperreal is in fact a profoundly subjective and, therefore, dangerous quantity.’

     The man on the rollercoaster is bellowing now, a mad jibbering between laughter and screaming, a senseless torrent born of exhilaration and terror.

Prof. Cambio snorts and sits. The crowd settles abruptly like liquid hydrogen approaching absolute zero. And finally Professor Mutati turns to Raju, grinning, and pats him on the back.

     ‘See?’ he says, scanning the crowd. ‘He knows what he’s talking about.’

 

*

 

It is a pilgrimage Raju rarely makes because it is always the most melancholy journey of his life. Still, there is enough guilt in him to impell him out of the city and up the hills once every month. This day spring is advancing like a distant warfront and the soil has turned mushy in anticipation. He exits the taxi and heads down the driveway to the mansion hunkered between the trees up ahead like a hiding giant. In past the reception where the fat nurses know him well enough just to smile and wave him through.

Once this must have been a place full of lives being lived, thinks Raju, and not just lives being wound down. But where there were portraits on the wall, now there are just fading motivational posters or discoloured rectangles lost in the gloom. Where there was once a magnificent dining room there are now three or four TVs and old people clustered around them like shellshocked soldiers awaiting what they know will be their final orders. Where there were once stately displays there are now locked steel cupboards teeming with diapers and syringes and little vials of fluid, blue like neon lights, yellow like toxic piss.

     He finds his grandfather sitting by the window in his room and from the entrance he is little more than a shabby silhouette. He does not turn, though Raju’s footfall is intentionally heavy, and he does not look at his face for a long time after Raju has taken a seat opposite. Eventually runs a finger over his moustache – perfect and silver – and nods.

     ‘Sergeant,’ he says.

     ‘No, it’s me,’ says Raju. ‘Raju.’

     His grandfather peers at him.

     ‘Quite right. You’re Neela’s boy.’

     ‘Nilmini’s.’

     ‘Nilmini?’ He frowns. He cannot remember a Nilmini, Raju can tell. But still, he smiles graciously. ‘Ah, yes. You’re in Boston.’

     ‘I am. How’re you?’

     ‘Quite well. Quite well.’ He reaches out for him and Raju helps him up with one slender arm and over to his bed. Then he absentmindedly reaches for his chamberpot and pisses lustily and Raju stares through the window while he does.

     ‘You’re Nilmini’s boy,’ says the old man after a while. He touches his face. ‘Oh, Nilmini. Why did she leave?’

     ‘I don’t know, Grandfather.’ Raju sighs. ‘I didn’t even know she’d left till earlier this week.’ 

     ‘Me neither,’ says his grandfather.

     ‘Really?’

     ‘Oh yes. I forget things, you see.’

     ‘Right.’

     ‘I forget things, you see.’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘I forgot you were Nilmini’s son. I forgot who Nilmini was.’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘I forgot why she even married your father. She was always too good for him.’

     ‘I think she has someone else now.’

     ‘Oh yes? A white fellow?’

     ‘Looks like it.’

     ‘Yes, yes. Where are they? Yugoslavia?’

     Raju sits up.

     ‘Why would you say that?’

     ‘Say what?’

     ‘Yugoslavia?’

     ‘Did I?’ The old man peers at him. ‘I’m hungry. Will you eat with me?’

     He helps his grandfather shuffle down the corridor and one by one they pass people who wave and say hello and though his grandfather nods gravely and smiles at each Raju can tell he has no idea who any of them are. Finally they go to the dining hall and it is freezing cold and so Raju runs back to the room to get a warmer coat. When he returns his grandfather is sitting at a table with an empty tray in front of him, silently vexed. He looks up at Raju and says, ‘Oh, hello.’

     ‘Hello, grandfather.’

     ‘You’re Neela’s boy.’

     Raju shakes his head.

     ‘Nilmini’s.’  

     ‘Ah. I can’t quite remember why I’m here.’

     ‘Are you hungry?’

     ‘Yes.’

     On a counter to the left is mac and cheese and burgers and other drab fare desiccating under hotlights on an assortment of shiny metal trays. He brings back a bowl of the cheesy pasta and a sweet drink and his grandfather eats in silence. Then he looks over at the TV. There is a war somewhere and rockets are being fired and the ticker at the bottom says Space Shuttle Challenger completes 100th mission.

     ‘What is happening?’ says Raju’s grandfather. ‘More people killing each other. Sometimes, you know, I have no idea what’s going on.’

     Raju squeezes the old man’s hand and he looks at him with unexpected affection.

     ‘Me neither, grandfather. Me neither.’

     The old man smiles.

 

*

 

That year winter seems determined to fight spring to the death and so the next week Raju wakes to a layer of snow over the city three inches thick. He negotiates his way along the narrow valleys in the pavement between sloping piles of the stuff, white on top, black with particulates below. The lawns in the Yard, quagmires just two days before, are pristine and white and frozen solid.

     There are new people in the seminar today and so he sits at the back, chewing his pencil and letting them speak. He gets the measure of them soon enough. This one – tiny, frizzy-haired, wearing a frayed blue jumper – will correct him every chance she gets. The gaunt boy to her left cannot recognize a joke and everything he says is in painful earnest. The looming man next to him, scowling, doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t know why he’s there and doesn’t pay attention to any of the women. The conversation meanders like mercury through a maze and eventually Prof. Cambio points at Raju.

     ‘What do you think, Raju?’ he says.

     ‘Well,’ says Raju. ‘I’d say it was an assertion of their independence in a way. Perhaps not ideal, but still-‘

     The girl in the blue jumper jolts as if electrocuted.

     ‘Independence?’ She says. ‘They’re selling their bodies! They have no choice in the matter. They couldn’t possibly have wanted to.’

     ‘I’m not sure we can tell that with any certainty,’ say Raju. ‘I’m not saying it’s great. I’m just saying let’s not deny them agency just because they don’t behave the way we’d like them to have.’

     The girl glowers.

     ‘You can’t know that. You couldn’t understand what it’s like to be one of them, any more than you could understand what it would be like to walk on one of the moons.’

     ‘One of the moons?’

     ‘Yeah. That’s what I said.’

     Raju scowls. He gets up slowly and walks up to one of the windows and beyond it the sky is sinking through dark blue to black. Up to the left is a curve of the moon like a glowing cuticle. He stares at it for a while, heart hammering. Then he notices something else, off to the right. Smaller, brighter, undeniably moonlike. A blueish sphere, steady like a beacon.

For a few moments the horror returns, and the nausea. And with it that feeling of being lost in a space he does not understand, with no way of knowing which direction is which or if he was a thing for which directions had any meaning if they existed. It rises like a maddening chorus and he watches, heart thundering, waiting for the crescendo when surely he will just collapse like some exhausted star.

     And then – peace.

     So what, he thinks, if there are two moons. So what if everything seems to be strange and senseless. Maybe the world had always been this way, and he’d just not noticed. And what did it matter anyway? Maybe that’s what the process of growing old is: living in a world you recognize less and less.

     It didn’t make a difference. He is still there. His brain is still his own and so is his body and so is everything else that constitutes him. The people he loves and the people who love him. His ability to make some small difference.

No matter how perplexing and strange the word may seem, standing by and gaping like an idiot did no good for anyone.

He walks back to his chair and sits down.

     ‘Well?’ says the girl.

     Raju sits.

     ‘No,’ he says. ‘I disagree.’

    

    

 

THE END

 

Subodhana Wijeyeratne (ウィジェヤラットナー・スボー)
PhD candidate, Harvard University (History of Japan)
Academia.edu profile
LinkedIn profile

Author: I am a graduate student and writer living in Tokyo, Japan. I’ve been writing fiction for nearly twenty years — primarily speculative — and have had pieces appear in LampLight, Kzine, Liquid Imagination, The Future Fire, Expanded Horizons, and Electric Spec. In addition, I have had a piece included in Rosarium’s recent anthology Sunspot Jungle. My first collection of short stories, Tales from the Stone Lotus, is currently available on Amazon.  

 

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My name is Jack L. Bryson and I'm the editor of Teleport. I studied literature at University of Montana. I live in Mountain View Ca, and my email is coffeeant1@gmail.com

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this Borges style alternative reality story. The contemporary setting suggests the particular difficulties of sifting realities in the era of fake news and Google. Well-written, too.

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