There had to be a forum for her writing somewhere. Words were made to find havens, to burrow holes and snuggle in little corners of the mind. She scribbled out a first sentence. The characters were nameless still, but she had thought of several possibilities for each one, good proper Indian names that would somehow anchor her words to the land.
Her setting, however, would be no-man’s land, mountains that grew out of and away from the land, cushioned by soft misty hands. That was all that she knew.
“The tiles won’t break”, X said to me, reaching down, her hand so steady. I crawl up the uneven ladder until I reach the roof, rising up on my feet. The tiles do not feel steady. They feel tensed, ready to throw me off, like a rearing horse.
She stopped there. It wouldn’t work. The words felt defensive, almost ready to attack. And she did not want that. Something playful, that’s what she wanted. And she had to have names. She did not like seeing a black X blotting out the identity of her character, making her story seem more like an algebra problem. She turned to a new page.
Presentation Convent had been a part of the small town for more than a hundred years. It had seen its’ inhabitants gradually evolve, white half-baked-batter skin giving way to browned chocolate skin. The property was hewn and carved out of the mountain to create a space for the church and its’ dormitory companion.
To five-year-old Latha, the church was a narrative. Its’ stories were splattered in vivid colour on the stained glass windows. They whispered in the watered-down browns and yellows of the oil paintings that hung on the white stone pillars in the church. The statues were stories too. Mother Mary stood in a corner, her arms closed tightly around the infant Jesus.
Outside, there was a statue of an adult Jesus, within a stone arch. He stood in the center, stairs rippling out under him like congealed waves, only to crash against the barrier of the silver gates that encircled it. His arms were open, reaching out, but indecisive, waiting to be met halfway.
Her brother, Thommen, would not play with her. He had resisted all pleas, bribes and threats on her part, stalking off into the orchards below the church. Latha waded through the crowd of grownups, gathered outside after the mass, determined to find him.
The orchards consisted of pear and plum trees, hovering over smaller bushes. Thin shafts of light leaked through the leaves. Thommen was not there. She wandered in further, reassured by the thread of voices that maintained her connection to the human world.
Latha walked until she reached a stone wall slithering through the matted grass. She had not found Thommen, and she was ready to concede defeat and allow him to elude her.
“Latha.” A voice was coming from somewhere above her, but there was no body visible to match it with.
“Latha. This is God.” The voice came from a tall green bush with thin veins of sunlight burning through it. She watched the bush, waiting. “You have to do whatever your brother tells you to do.”
“Why?” She pressed her hand to her mouth, but the word had already escaped and now lingered ominously in the air. There was a pause.
“Because I told you to do it.” Latha nodded her head quickly. “When your brother tells you to leave him alone, you have to do that.” She bobbed her head up and down again. The bush grew silent, its’ veins becoming duller as the sun moved.
“Latha.” This was a different voice, from up near the church. She hesitated for a moment before running up the path towards the church. Her mother was waiting near the car, and she scolded her for the thin streaks of green and brown that had crept onto her pink and white frock.
Thommen came out of the orchards a few minutes later. When he saw Latha, he began to laugh.
She stopped there. That was all that could be said about that episode. Her stories were never organic and whole; instead they were written as stray groups of words that would later be shuffled until they fit together. She moved on to a new page.
“And Jesus said, ‘Come with me, and I will teach you to be fishers of men’s souls’” The church was not full. Their family pew was the only one that was full, with Latha spilling out over the edges. Thommen felt important but bored in his alter boy uniform. He was too visible to everyone, sitting on one side of the alter with the two other boys, and so fidgeting was risky business.
He had seen Chinese fishing nets in Kerala on his holidays, lined up along the beach. They had burrowed into the sea and returned, fish enmeshed in the nets like specks of silver. The fish were still moving limply when they were brought to the shore.
Fishers of men’s souls. Would his soul flop and gasp too?
She was worried now. The story was starting to elude her control, drifting further away from the complete object she had glimpsed in her head. And if she could not bring her pieces together they would be rendered incoherent and barren. A new page was necessary.
Twelve years had passed and Latha knew now that she was no Moses hearing divine commands issued from a bush. Her brother had teased her enough about his little joke of playing God to ensure that fact. She also blamed her gradual leaning towards atheism on what was referred to within their family circle as the Burning Bush incident.
She had stopped going to church recently. Her fascination for stained-glass windows had succumbed to spiritual lethargy. But today was different. She had chosen to attend the Catholic retreat and go for confession. Partly because it was compulsory, but also to anchor herself to an omnipotent divinity she still secretly hoped existed.
The confession booth was a room, with the priest seated in full view. No curtains. Nothing like the movies. She sat down. The priest was silent. Apparently the initiative was supposed to come from her.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” She counted quickly in her head back to her holy communion, and the confession she had given, the only one she had ever given. “It has been ten years since my last confession.”
The reaction from the priest was subtle, slightly widened eyes being the only visible sign of shock. He did not seem surprised that her list of sins was long, maintaining a stoic expression until he heard her express a thought that had been whispering around her head for some time.
“What was that?”
“I doubt the existence of God.” Her thoughts suddenly seemed much more serious when they were accompanied by lust, jealousy and anger. Her face was flushed and her breath seemed to have a hard time finding its’ way into her lungs. She waited.
“Seven Hail Marys.” The heat receded from her cheeks. It had not worked. Her doubt still wandered, unexorcised. She got up and left.
Latha’s confession proved inspirational to the priest. Perhaps he had not met many people flickering between belief and atheism. Or perhaps he had met too many. Whatever his reasons, he dedicated the rest of his talk during the retreat to discussing how to handle a crisis in faith.
Her seat was five rows from the front, and she was no longer interested in believing in God. The magic of belief was gone, replaced by a more achievable indifference. His words flowed by her until they stopped being words and became sounds that lulled her mind and made her eyes heavy.
She did not realize that she had fallen asleep, or for how long. By the time she opened her eyes, people were leaving. A friend stopped to tell her that her snores had been audible three rows in front. And the priest walked out of the room, his shoulders slumped.
It had not worked. The words did not tie themselves to ethnicity. The names did nothing but pepper the story with little grains of authenticity. The story could have taken place anywhere, told by anyone. She put her pen down and closed the book.
(-- Resham George was shortlisted in Open Space 2010 Creative Writing Contest.)