When he opened his eyes, Mother was standing by the bed. "Amma, Amma, take me," he said, sitting up. Motherís palms were cool, her eyes full when she kissed him. "You have been away for too many days," he complained. He had decided to never forgive her for leaving him alone with Father and the cook with the rough hands. No one had asked his opinion about this deceit. No one had asked his permission. He had made up his mind not to smile when she returned. He would not even be pleased to see her. But when Mother gathered him up in her arms, he started crying petulantly.
"Why, Appu? I was away for only two days." Mother put him down in the chair by the kitchen table. Father was sitting in another chair, his face hidden behind the newspaper. "Appu, have tea with us today. And you can have the sweets Iíve brought." She opened a couple of tins.
Mother is trying to make me happy. I should not make a fool of myself.
"I donít want any."
Father lowered his paper and glared at him, then took a slow drag on his cigarette.
"Donít get angry with him," Mother said.
"It is you, Radha, who pampers him. He never does as he is told. Such a disobedient child."
"But he is only a child." Mother put a small laddu and a piece of murrukku on his plate. Father watched him. He took the cigarette out of his mouth, pursed his lips and blew smoke.
The laddu is too sweet. I shall tell Mother everything, he decided as he crunched the murrukku. I shall tell her about everything that happened while she was gone. I shall tell her that I was made to eat rice with only sour buttermilk, that I was made to sleep alone in a dark room, that Stella had come, that at night lots of people had shouted and laughed and opened bottles downstairs. So when she puts him to sleep, she wonít tell him that Father loves him so much that he should always obey him. Let Mother see how wicked Father is. Then perhaps sheíll stop ignoring him when Father comes home from work.
"I hope Appu behaved himself. I was restless, thinking about how things were going here," Mother said.
Father pulled Mother onto his lap. Appu looked down, pretending not to see. He broke the laddu and spread the crumbs on the plate. Father gets angry with Mother only if he watches them. When he went down the stairs that night, the night before Mother returned, Stella had been sitting in Fatherís lap. He had thought that Stella had left before dusk. Why was Stella sitting in Fatherís lap with the lights on when everyone else was asleep? Leaning on the railings, he called out softly: "Stella." Stella looked up and smiled, but didnít reply. And then Father asked, "Why are you smiling?" His voice was strange, as if his throat ached. Stella was silent.
"Tell me," he said.
"The child," Stella turned his face towards him. Father got up quickly. Stella almost fell. Father took him to the room and put him in bed. He patted his legs, trying to put him to sleep.
"Why hasnít Stella gone home?"
Closing the windows, Father said, "She is going. Sheíll go once night falls."
"Isnít it night?"
"For children, yes. For grown-ups, itís barely dusk."
He knew it was a lie, because sometimes, when he wakes up at night, he hears the cuckoo clock chime the hour. Mother would be deep in sleep. Then he would climb on top of her and wake her up, saying he was thirsty. So he knew that Father was lying. On the stairs, he had heard the clock chime like he had heard before. "Father, please lie down here. I donít feel sleepy."
"Appu, I shall be back very soon."
As Father closed the door softly he wanted to ask again, ĎWhy isnít Stella going home?í No one answered. But for a long time he heard his fatherís voice. First it was angry, then it was muffled by Stellaís sobs, then it was soft and pleadingÖ When he woke up in the morning, he vividly remembered a dream in which he rode a horse across the skies.
"Amma, I went to many places riding the horse."
"While you were away. When Stella came in the evening."
Father dropped the papers. The cigarette butt glinted at his lip.
"Stella. You donít know Stella, Amma? That tall Stella? That Stella with the painted face?"
Father stubbed out his cigarette in his teacup and laughed out loud."First, it was a horse. Now, Stella. Does he dream all these things or imagine them?"
Mother poured a drop of coffee into his milk to give it some colour. She looked as though she was about to smile. Father looked angry. What am I doing, he asked himself.
"StellaÖ From where in hell does he gets all these names? Do you know, Radha, how many lies he tells every day?"
Father lit another cigarette and waved out the burning matchstick
"Heís only a child," Mother poured his coffee into the saucer to cool it.
"Iíll beat this habit of lying out of him." Father sounded angry, and Appu could not look at him. He dipped his finger in the coffee: Who was lying? Father, or him? Was it all a dream? That Stella had come, and that he had ridden a horse? He never remembers the faces of people in his dreams. But he remembers Stella very clearly. Her painted nails, her loud laughter, the smell of her dress. He remembers everything clearly. Stella was certainly not a dream. Stella had come in the evening. She had chucked him under the chin and asked, "Is Amma at home? Iíve come to see her." Then she talked with Father for a long time ó often in a language he understood little of ó and they laughed together. Then they had some tea. On her way out she asked him, "Will you forget Stella?" Was this a lie? Was this just a dream? He doesnít remember what the horse had looked like. He remembers only the white dust that scattered from the sky when it galloped. It was certainly a dream. But StellaÖ
Father stood up and ground out his cigarette with his foot. "If you make up lies again like this, IíllÖ"
"Why are you getting angry? Heís only a child." Mother took him out and put him down on the grass mat in the veranda. She put his toys before him. The rabbit with the lost ear, the red truck, pieces of sticksÖ
Father took the newspaper to the bedroom. When they were alone, Mother took his hands in hers and said, "Appu, never lie. Donít you want to be like your father when you grow up?"
Motherís hands were cool. A trace of vermilion from her forehead had fallen onto the bridge of her nose. He thought his mother was very beautiful. "Amma, canít I talk about the horse either?" he asked.
Translated from the Malayalam
story ĎNunakalí by Sindhu
V. Nair with TLM
Kamala Das writes fiction in Malayalam, under the pen-name of Madhavikutty, and poetry and novellas in English. A recent convert to Islam, she is also known as Kamala Suraiya