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lydia lambrou

New Fiction


by Lydia Lambrou

Just after sun break, her discreet shuffle out of the cupboard gestured good morning to the laid out corpse. She was called Khushboo. Her Maa had named her. Khushboo meant nice smell or fragrance. It was a little difficult to understand why, why that name … given that Khushboo picked ways through people’s poo every day.

Just beyond the cupboard, in their home, the old woman knew it was time. The body she’d been carrying for so long now crinkled in the shack’s creases, and as the burning light of the sun opened her up, piercing through the damp dark and casting a shadow, slowly, slowly, the body collapsed in.

Slowly, slowly, so too did Khushboo begin to give way, her tall silhouette was falling, making tiny trembles, shakily folding down its thin existence, like dark liquid wishing only to flow down a dirty drain. But neither her body nor her mind would allow it. From the floor, long slender limbs were fighting their way to remembering Khusboo’s reason for existence, her everyday actions, the piercing pictures that were masquerading in self-deception and ready to haunt her.

Khushboo had to travel backwards to her fear, her terror, her angst, tricking the mind into believing everything was still and the same, that Maa was alive, steadily reversing the ticking of time, up and down the spine, there Khushboo was …

In Ahmadabad, in Gujarat
much of the day passed,
delicately creeping, in lingering seconds,
Click-err-de- clock- click-err-de-clock…
The footsteps kept her safe
Should she appear, then her walking was slow
enough to see.

Khushboo was afraid of the dark shape that never spoke, ruler of breath, so mute. It was definitely a she, a female presence, something other than her and much more powerful, the she mute:

The alleyways were the worst,
hundreds of paths winding in and out,
snaking their way around the city.
She lurked in them, sneaky, sly….
Furthering slightly forward as the rickshaw
veered into her slow meandering,
causing a slide to the floor,
when she arrived up against her,
that big mute.

Khushboo’s trembling subsided as the man diverted her gaze in trying a little too hard to make-up for his error in judgement. Her fear of the mute usually helped to avoid such situations. Now that she filled the air with that sinister silence, the small male seemed tantamount to a tiny insect in comparison to her towering figure. Finding strength, he was tricked out of the way and cautious footsteps managed yet again to steal out of she mute territory.

The feeling of safety was nearing closer in slipping around the last corner, only five feet away from ghar but then she made another emergence. The old woman lay within reach peeping out amidst shacks, thrown together like cardboard boxes. The children must have damaged the protection from she with their games and ruined boundaries. Barely able to catch her breath in crawling to the safety and wrinkly hands of aged Maa, the mute slid away from the wall and their place. She had played her trick for the second time that day.

Khushboo’s tongue continued to taste at the fear, furthering in and out of her mind, up and down the spine.

How cold hearted and spiteful, all this following without warning. The children made noise, trains chugged railways day and night, the traffic beeped continuously and the sounds were alarming. They had rhythm, shape and meaning. It sent her body on alert and ready.

The mute had warned her on only a few occasions. One particularly harsh, hot and dusty day, the wind gave the signal, blowing the choking air of the city and covering every inch of their home. She was showing off her power and when the gust stopped, it enabled her to see what she really was. Always so big but never exactly the same, there were so many parts to her. Then, there it was, this one sidedness, it was such a vicious day and she was just standing there, watching…
      Maa was too far away, had been taken by…. her Maa’s words shook her mind:
      “She uses the wind as her ears.”
      Even when terrified- even though trying to mumble sense-reason through trembles … she made no response, just standing, big, tall, saying nothing, like this she side to her did. Maa was already so helpless, barely seeing, sullied skin, damaged lungs, soiled from work. Now Maa was being completely severed away through all the bad turns, the frowning wind. The force was biting, skewing the skull, leaving debris on the heart. She did it to her Maa, pulled back her ears, and made her deaf to the world.

Diminishing like a lost spirit, they muttered about her, the she mute of Ahmadabad. As the shoe wallah fixed her deliberately worn in chappals, he was careful not to say anything. As soon as feet were inching far enough away, there were his whispers: “She’s walking around Amdavad like a ghost…anymore smaller steps and she’ll disappear into the walls.”

Khushboo edged further and further away from herself, feet pushing on from behind, arms trying to find a heart and legs crawling up and down, the whispers “She’s afraid of…” the laughter “her own…” then suddenly, Khushboo’s spine bounced back into her head:

Did everyone know about her haunting by she? After her care to stop her, hide her, keep her away? All the prayers, the sacrifices and how could she still be so powerful? How could she exist and walk the streets in the same way as Khushboo did every day, only protected by her covers?

It did no good to stare and cast shame but some other women had the mute with them too, when she left her sometimes, rewarded for waking at the earliest hour, doing all her work without complaints, eating the leftover scraps cleanly enough, she mute would go and through clothing covers, the peripheral vision, there was the reality that she was haunting another. Maybe they hadn’t woken up at sun break or had forgotten to pray and so the mute had found out and wanted to show the women up from the dark; to make them sullen in the light.

The mute could come for no reason at all, just to scare you, to make you live in constant dread and prove that you could not live life like she. Her Maa’s words spun loops in her head:
      “Such a slow child, can’t you be faster for others?”
      “No left hand”; “Look I can see.”
      …She mute had been eating too, she played tricks to make me look bad and didn’t want me to enjoy food on particular occasions, in the wrong way—but it was just the leftovers! For the first time that mute became visible in my life and made me look at her with my hand in my mouth … a face full of food. She was indicating that I was to be watched and followed, gesturing that soon it wouldn’t matter which hand was used, they would both be the same, and endless efforts would have to be made, to decontaminate.

Khushboo could smell the excrement on her hands and feel the puke in her mouth. Still, continuing with the self-recital, trying to remember, to find the strength:

She mute’s presence meant every action was more difficult. It was just the knowing that she could be there, anywhere, hiding. Yet, with the definite passing of years, it had become ever so slightly easier to trace where she would show and therefore avoid her presence. Whole days and sometimes weeks could pass without seeing she if one was careful, and aware. It was a matter of not getting in the way of what the mute wanted. There were certain things that she did not have to know. If a woman was to survive not every action could be an honourable one. Work needed to be done and most of it was not clean. During these days, in the darkest corners, the thought of her was most petrifying. One move in the wrong direction could make that mute appear. Things were to be enacted at the correct time with the right observation of effort otherwise she would surface and diminish her existence.

However painful, Khushboo kept moving back to overcome what was past. Her feet recalled every slight against her, in all the lingering movements:

Years of walking those narrow streets, in, out, around, up down. There were so many sides to her, so many faces. In revisiting familiar places, slowly, slowly, they moved over inches in time. It was the same putrefying smells; the movements; shapes. Reflecting the pattern of her life so far and laughing at her.

Seen from above and casting down, the streets, sounds, fumes, railways, traffic, dust, oranges, yellows, reds, pinks … the black dark form.

Khushboo was so blocked up now, the drainpipes of her mind pumping with perceived pain, that it would be difficult to lift her up again:

The patterns of her life, the number of movements, the slow, and slithering … Spin of her Maa’s words:
      “Such a sly, sneaky child.”
      “Such a dark child.”

Khushboo seemed to be further darkened every day, with the heat of the sun and everything touched.

She didn’t even try to speak, just lay there staring and moving from side to side. It was back and forth as her body repeated its movement war against the dirt, the dust, the excrement, thick air. It was her against the wall, above the holes, on top of the train, in the tracks, sheltering under the rickshaw and hiding below the ground:
      “So tall, can’t you be shorter for others”?

Sometimes the mute even came to find Khushboo in her dreams, sweat secreting out of her until eyes were forced open and in the end the exhaustion would triumph. So much so, that she found herself locked within the shack, her own little ghar, a small dark cupboard. It was to keep safe. Inside was calm and peaceful but when Khushboo wanted, out came deep laughter or desperate cries. Now and then, without the strangling sounds, there was the feeling of the beat, in every part of her, truly existing in those moments in and out of the breaths and without the terror. The mute never found her there. Ha, ha, ha, ha … a thought occurred to her, maybe she was too scared.

Just after sun break, a discreet shuffle out of the cupboard gestured good morning to the laid out corpse. She was called Khushboo. Her Maa had named her. Khushboo meant nice smell or fragrance. It was a little difficult to understand why, why that name…given that Khushboo picked ways through people’s poo every day.

Just beyond the cupboard, in their home, the old woman knew it was time. The body she’d been carrying for so long now crinkled in the shack’s creases, and as the burning light of the sun opened her up, piercing through the damp dark and casting a shadow, slowly, slowly, the body collapsed in.

All the feelings of guilt surfaced along with regret at not having being there. Why hadn’t Khushboo woken up earlier? The nightmare of mute was beginning to die its death, since there was the need, right this minute, for she to come and punish her for good. “Come and take me,” murmured poor Khushboo’s feeble whispers. For a while there was nothing to think, or feel, there was just the loss, in the black.

It was a short time after that emptiness, her journey backwards had begun … in her body, in her mind, round and round, travelling, delicately creeping, trembling, the safety, cold heartedness, warning, terror, like a ghost, dark and light, her feet, the choking, the heat, wishing to escape like dark liquid down a drain pipe but Khushboo’s body and mind wouldn’t let her…

She had to get up, to find the strength. Day was night and night was day. One was continuously submitting to the other. But the hour had arrived to stand for Maa, the mummy that had kept her safe. Khushboo’s turn to prepare things, and make them better, there was no room, at this moment, for all the horror. Khushboo had to get up, stop hiding, and use every bit of power.

As soon as Khushboo managed to rise, to step outside, without the usual precautions … there the mute was. Big, dark, towering but instead of her usual terror and for the first time: Khushboo had the verity to see the dark in a different light. To realise how beautiful she could be, the figure, the mute, slow and stillness. How tall, so quiet, alone in the world and not saying a word. Khushboo was mesmerised.

What would she do if Khushboo moved to one side? Soundlessly shifting but then so did the darkness, against the wall. Lifting up one hand and so did she. Two hands, so did she. Everything Khushboo did, she, would copy and follow. Why be scared of her, her own reflection? Where was the omnipotence in that? It was true what they said in all those whispers. Khushboo had been terrified of and therefore living in, her own dark, deluding shadow.

Born a fragrance but covered in shit. Khushboo laughed until her stomach ached with the pain. Having realised the dark she cast, and no longer fearing it, what else could there be for her to do? Her Maa was dead. It screamed through Khushboo, beating down her brain. All that had been taken. Not by the mute, by herself. The sinister silence of life so far, yet Khushboo knew she had the ability to talk but what was the point? Who was there to listen? There wasn’t any need for all those words, since they just came out like dirty dust in the end.

She was the she mute. It was a role she’d played most successfully her whole life and now Khushboo didn’t know where to turn. What more? Then her dead Maa’s words took over her thoughts again and there still existed the knowledge that she couldn’t just … but still how could she take this?

Falling to the ground, Khushboo began to vomit out everything she’d swallowed, the smell of rubbish and excreta, the dirty looks, streets, toilets … all the things that had been done that Khushboo had not wanted to do. Now she could see herself as much more than just a dark figure but knew at her core there subsisted something far worse, much more polluted, what Khushboo really was: human being.

Khushboo was a human that had been born into the Valmiki caste; Bhangi; manual scavenger; ‘night soil worker’; remover of human waste. Holding onto these things, from birth until death, felt like the taking on of burdens and waste of all castes upon her shoulders, on top of her head. Such actions reeked of the atrocities of others and made her human heroine. It stank like nothing else. There were those at the base of everything, brave enough to shout out and change things but Khushboo hadn’t had the strength to bother.

Motherless, husbandless, childless, speechless…sick to the stomach. In the projectile out of more and more, in wanting to choke on the effluvia of Ahmadabad … but yet again, scuppered by the spin, the recounting of Maa’s words:
       “Those given life can never take it away...”

So Khushboo had to live, and could no longer lie in her shadow. Death must choose her. How unfair was that? Trying not to curse birth and trying not to force death. What bad had been paved in past lives? What could be done now? Was it really human to live like this? So far, Khushboo knew she had done nothing for her people and nothing for herself. How could she? How could her fragrance be smelt beyond all that shit? That stench in finger nails, on hands, skin, and hair, in her orifices. Why couldn’t Khushboo just try to do more for herself and her caste?

“Such a quiet child!”, “Can’t you even try to speak for others...”

There had been the hope, that if Khushboo made no sound, was slow, discreet, and careful, the she mute would release her. She would see that Khushboo wasn’t meant for such a caste, or being, her death would be met with reward for the next life. Besides which, it was her Maa that had taught her a way of surviving, if she had no voice, no touch, no shadow, then she was doing what had to be done, in the eyes of higher caste humans, to fulfil her role as Dalit. Being not only this but also a Bhangi put Khushboo at the bottom of the ‘broken and depressed’ castes and led to all those taunts against her, even by other Dalits. Some of whom, had more concrete shacks to live in. Did that make them feel better than her?

The indignity of so-called untouchability did not stop men of all standing from trying to lay their hands on her. She had come to care little for herself, since Khushboo barely existed, had been given no recognition by God, nothing beyond her smell, the soiled fragrance. Now that Khushboo no longer feared her existence, or the dark reflection, where was the illusion? She had to do something…

Rising up, walking back and forth, click-er-de clock, click-er-de-clock, slowly, slowly then more quickly Khushboo started winding herself up for yet another day…..

It was all just a joke, a trick, a trick she made on herself. It had been a cheat into life. Maa was dead. It ripped round her head. What distraction was there? Khushboo was alive, she knew, remembered the child, little Khushboo, with the light feet and eyes that danced at night. So alive and wanting to run with the joy of it, it was time to live, to forget, cliker-d-clock,click-d,clock, winding herself up faster than seconds, so light, so nimble, beating time !

So lost as Khushboo was, within herself, it led to a failure in realising the sun was steadily rising and it began to beat hard upon her and the rest of Ahmadabad. Did it aim to penetrate through the venomous voices of betrayal, fingers of failure, and shadows of regret? Those that had promised to do so much for her and acted out nothing? The inaction, injustice and twisting of truths committed by Dalits and Brahmins alike? Did they make the sounds of colourful shapes and forms? Were they the perpetual castes? Or was it simply out to get Khushboo alone, for her failure to live, or speak up, to stand tall?

In a split second of time, the scorching sun cast she mute shadows of all the two-faced figures it could see through, everything that got in its way. This created a surge of heat that shocked Khushboo’s skull, in the stink of her verbal vomit. Her head had spun the words. Khushboo, a girl lucky enough to have been born a fragrance, until her mind’s eye was blinded by faeces, collapsed in her own lousy, languished, and forever limp, lyrics of life. Yet again, the she mute had managed triumph, in the first trick of the day….

Just after sun break, her discreet shuffle out of the cupboard gestured good morning to the laid out corpse. She was called Khushboo. Her Maa had named her. Khushboo meant nice smell or fragrance. It was a little difficult to understand why, why that name … given that Khushboo picked ways through people’s poo every day.

Just beyond the cupboard, in their home, the old woman knew it was time. The body she’d been carrying for so long now crinkled in the shack’s creases, and as the burning light of the sun opened her up, piercing through the damp dark and casting a shadow, slowly, slowly, the body collapsed in.

Lydia Lambrou/Antoniou is a 30 year old woman that enjoys writing and tries to fit it into her life, in between working. She also loves playing capoeira and living on the island of Cyprus, with the sun and sea. Life could be as simple as that, at least some of the time, if she didn't think too much and act too little. Unfortunately, like most characters in fiction: Lydia has her own inner struggles. The She Mute is her first short story and looks at the life of a fearful female, full of burdens and woes, struggling to survive in Gujarat, India. The story is an exploration of and experimentation with dark and light.

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