The dilemma of a belief in the innocence of children is most acute when one’s own son is a bully, or like his father, prone to violence. Is such a parent protecting violence or are they the victims of their faith in innocence? What happens when the protector is also the prey? What does it mean to live with violence, to become so desensitised that one can’t see what the black eye in the mirror sees? Would one wish to slow down the failure of magnolia leaves against the violence of the season, come to relish the breaking spine of a dry leaf? Then again, what else may become possible, like when a bully slows down to observe the pain of his victim? What may happen when a mother comes to see her son as a predator?
— Kinjal Sethia
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Mothers & Sons
Fred pummels and kicks. Tomas stands still, knees bent, fists shielding face, the breath knocked out of him sometimes audibly, but making no other sound. Fred throws his shoulders into his assault. Dad would be proud.
After standing around in the yard all day, Fred was itching for action. When he asked this kid what he wanted to be, and the kid said ‘a pianist,’ Fred figured it was what Dad calls a citizen’s duty to scare him straight.
This is better than kicking around a ball. With a ball there’s no thrill, wondering whether the ball will scream, bringing Daddy Ball to the rescue. Does this kid even have a dad? Tomas, what a pussy name.
One of Fred’s punches misfires and hits the air. Fred lurches forward and something snaps. He rubs his shoulder, rubbing the torn ligament into his bone. The pain feels good. Tomas peers sidelong as if to ask Fred if he’s done. Fred sneers. His little mutt would show more spirit. He administers one final kick, revenge for his sprained shoulder. He walks away, kicking along a pebble. He has won, but his shoulder screams and his heart is empty of the triumph of victory. Well, sometimes if it’s too easy, it doesn’t feel good.
This was too easy. They’re on a playdate in Tomas’s backyard. One squeal and Mommy Ball would’ve run out. Fucking pussy, seven-year-old Fred decides, kicking the pebble so hard he stubs his toe. His toe roars, drowning out his shoulder’s screaming. Fred kicks the pebble again. Wordlessly he knows all about drowning out pain.
Peering through the window he sees Tomas’s mother on the dirty beige couch, her back to the world, the darkened drawing-room flickering ghostly television blue. Fred looks back to see if Tomas’s coming to snitch. Tomas stands where Fred left him, hugging himself, gazing up at the big magnolia that showers with crumpled October gold, the deflated kiddie pool and dust-furred stationary bike. Fred sits down on the two-step stoop, one eye on Tomas, the other out the rusted gate.
Late afternoon’s deep gold is just rosying, and a fresh breeze is cooling Fred’s boxing sweat, chilling Fred’s neck, making Fred, too, hug himself – when the familiar hum clears its own path under the television’s whining and the neighbours’ yelling. Fred watches Mom emerging from her Subaru. Stella unlatches the gate, minding the rust, then glancing around to see if anyone saw her minding. Only Fred. She walks up the asphalt driveway, smiling too wide. “Did you have a good time, honey?”
Fred brushes a dead sycamore leaf from his shorts. She doesn’t know the half of it, and what she does know she pretends not to. Simmering with contempt, Fred can barely be civil to her – only she’d run snitching, and then he’d catch it. He rises, looks past her at their car, and says, “Can we go?”
Their voices bring out Tomas’s mother. Maria pats Fred’s cheek, asks if they had a good time, insists that they stay for snacks, and summons Tomas. Stella glances at her wristwatch, summons the tight smile of the over-engaged tennis mom graciously shuffling plans, and shrugs Okay. Maria sends the boys in to wash. As they pass under the scrutiny of two mothers, Fred thanks God he didn’t draw blood. Tomas just looks crumpled and dead-eyed as always.
Stella offers to help with the snacks. She’s here to help, only she’s not sure how. With the belligerence of third-world hospitality Maria refuses help, bids Stella make herself at home, and hustles kitchenwards. Stella shrugs and steps out for a smoke.
Leaves cover the yard. Each maple leaf is all one colour, either crimson or mustard, paper-thin, smooth as the woman-skin on a Vogue cover. Oak leaves hold their thick spines straight, crinkling only slightly along their scallop edges; across each leaf sprawls a whole summer-autumn forest, green-red-and-gold. The magnolia leaves are mottled green-yellow-brown, curled up lengthwise in foetal position. Back and forth, across Maria’s yard, over the fallen maple and oak and magnolia leaves, Stella paces.
She’s grateful that Abe’s home again. But should she talk to him about Fred? Abe’s raising Fred as Abe’s father raised him. And because that raising failed on Abe, he’s determined to make it work on Fred. Abe’s determination is the stubbornness of failure. Stella pictures confronting Abe, now that he’s back after all these years.
Now that he’s been back all these months, settled into his ways, will it do any good to confront him? After all, he hasn’t turned out so very badly: everybody’s got faults. Besides, Fred could use some discipline.
Stella can’t lose Abe again. Her mind baulks at her problem and flits away, looking for a distraction, finding it easily, finding Maria’s problem.
Stella paces past the parched flowerbeds, the wall that’s been gouged as if with hammer-blows, the fence in disrepair, and the darkened drawing-room. She remembers Maria’s empty eyes and the kid’s haunted look – Tomas, was it? There’s definitely something wrong here, something more than poverty. Would it be rude to offer Maria cash?
Pacing up and down, Stella dives into this problem. Much easier to thrust secret money into a stranger’s palm, to smile down into her eyes, than to find the words to reach someone you can’t lose again, someone who always means well.
Her mind stops thinking, but her feet keep pacing, and she hears her boots crunching the leaves. She flinches at the sound, then decides she’s being silly. When her cigarette’s first half has dulled her nicotine craving she notices that each leaf makes its own music. The maple leaves, smooth and supple, merely rustle under her boots, flattened against the ground. The oak leaves, thick but brittle, crunch like riverbed pebbles. It’s the small, thin magnolia leaves that make the most satisfying crunch.
Like crunching the baby bones of a mouthful of sardines, crunching loudly, still not loud enough to block out that crack-crack still echoing as she dined alone in her room. Absenting herself is the only way Stella dares tell Abe she’s upset. Problem is, he doesn’t notice.
From the stony yard to the garden where bedhead dandelions strangle parched rosebushes, to the driveway where Tomas’s scooter lies on its side, Stella paces, listening to the leaf-music. It varies not just by leaf, but by surface. On the grass, the crunch is muted. The drive’s porous asphalt yields acoustic diversity: some portions of dry leaf refugee in the pores and escape crumbling. But, on the concrete stoop, there’s no escape. There she can make even the maple leaves crunch, crack-crack, break to pieces, once and for all, nothing left to worry about. Joyful as a child in the first snow, Stella strides, composing a symphony of autumn music, singing in her head, I-can’t-hear-you, na-na-na-na-na.
The boys troop up the dark corridor. Fred says “Me first,” pushes Tomas out of the way, and locks the bathroom door behind himself.
The rug before the sink might’ve once been peach; now it’s layered gray-brown and stinks of mould. The white bath towel huddled over the bathtub is yellowed. The yellow shower curtains are mottled green-brown at the bottom. The hand towel, clinging to the ring with one fingertip, is stained coffee-brown and ketchup-crimson. The toothpaste tube, printed with hut-shaped squiggles, has been almost emptied, rolled tight, and left capless, gagging white vomit.
Christ, what losers! Can’t even afford American toothpaste. He did that pussy a favour, beating him up. Fred turns up his freckled button nose, leans gingerly over the sink, and soaps up thoroughly, though nobody’s watching – in Fred’s head somebody’s always watching. Fred looks around, grimacing like an irascible hotel inspector, waiting to shout, ‘Hopeless!’
He glares at the water-spotted steel tumbler housing two toothbrushes with their bristles bent out of shape. If he knew which toothbrush was Tomas’s, he’d drop it into the toilet. The pussy didn’t even try to fight back. It was too easy, and when it’s too easy, winning doesn’t feel good. Cheated of the good-feeling he’s earned, Fred looks around for something that’s definitely Tomas’s, something more he can break to get even.
Hands frothing white, water running, Fred feels something brushing his foot. He jumps away and peers under the sink and all around himself. Nothing. Just imagining things again, worrying us for nothing! He sets his lips and prepares to rinse off. Then he sees it.
Yellow, crouching on the floor behind the sink’s fat ceramic trunk. Fred gasps and stumbles back. Is that what ran across his feet? It’s huge. His back against the door, his eyes wide, Fred watches. The yellow thing doesn’t move. Loud and slow the seconds tick by in Fred’s head.
Heart in mouth, he tiptoes around the bathroom, craning his neck, approaching the thing sideways, like his mutt approaching a strange dog: wide semicircle, butt-sniff before nose-sniff. Fred comes up against the bathtub, crouches, and edges forward towards the yellow thing. Five feet away, he sees what it is. A tee-shirt! He giggles. He strides forward, drags out the crumpled ball with his foot, and kicks it open.
The yellow T-shirt’s Batman graphic has crumbled into fragments. Some of Batman’s fragments have washed away; the others straggle, black and rubbery, across the front. Across the T-shirt’s back is a faded red-brown stain. Fred’s mind recoils and fills itself with the sound of the faucet, the sound of water still running, water so lulling, drowning out everything else. Outside the locked door, Tomas, waiting for his turn to wash up, starts humming softy, tonelessly, pausing every few notes, as if to breathe, as if he’s always one second away from running out of breath. Fred’s mind is still shut, but knowledge comes anyway and forces it open. Fred knows these stains.
The water still running, his hands still soapy, Fred double-checks the door-lock, then crouches over the T-shirt. Someone’s scrubbed at the stain. It’s deeper on one side, circular, but the circle’s been scrubbed across the fabric, and there’s a tiny rend. Yellow paint has been smeared over the stain. But the paint has crumbled and washed off too, leaving yellow fragments as rubbery as Batman’s.
Fred wonders how long the shirt’s been there. Bundled up damp, the shirt stinks – but so does the whole bathroom. How long does your pain lie, balled up and stinking, before your mother smells it through the stink of everything else? Fred crouches, his shadow across the half-uncrumpled T-shirt, shielding it from the harsh white light.
A few minutes have deepened dusk’s rose to violet. Stella’s still tramping around, smart boots making sharp leaf-music. She lights a second cigarette, just for the friendly little orange eye in the dusk, just for company. She’s never been good at being alone.
Her boot’s heel sticks over the path’s edge. She stumbles. Her arms flail and she re-balances. But, her face two feet from the ground, she sees.
She sees a magnolia leaf, the kind that makes the best music, the kind she’s been seeking out to trample on, half-crushed, speckled black-and-white. She straightens up and looks around. This other magnolia leaf is speckled too. So’s this one. She walks back across the yard, peering. All the fallen magnolia leaves, all the ones she’s not yet crushed, are black-and-white with fungus.
Well! Stella knows something about trees. She knows that when autumn leeches a leaf of its green, it leeches also its pest resistance. Maybe that’s all this is. The tree has given up on life for this year; it’s right for its decay to feed other life. She stands telling herself it’s alright.
She dashes between the ivy-covered swings and jungle gym and peers up at the magnolia tree. The day’s last light is just enough to see by. On this branch, all the leaves are speckled black-and-white. She edges back under another branch. All speckled here too. She shuffles around under the tree, head back, eyes staring, neck straining. Every leaf she can see, every leaf that’s still clinging on, half bitten away, dry, curled up, is speckled.
She approaches the trunk. Fingers and eyes run over the bark to identify the species, and freeze, and her breath hisses dagger-like, as she realises this is a sweet bay.
This species isn’t deciduous. For this tree, spring won’t bring a whole new life. This tree can’t afford to give up on life in autumn, to shed all its leaves at once. Her neck cranes and her eyes peer, searching for another answer, searching in vain. This magnolia isn’t hibernating. It’s dying.
She gazes down at the magnolia leaves fallen and crushed. Her arched neck throbs, the throbbing filling her mind, denying room for thought, and she’s grateful. Her cigarette stub burns her fingers. Gasping Fuck, she drops it. She looks up. It’s night. Why’s the yard unlit? Beyond the fence, a single streetlight flickers sullenly alive.
Stella extinguishes the stub with her boot toe, careful not to crush any more leaves. She picks her way back across the yard. She tramples one leaf accidentally, but its bones are already broken, and it makes little noise: you would hear only if you were listening.
She leans against the one-storey shack and looks into the drawing-room. Maria’s hastily setting it to rights. Fred shuffles in from the corridor. He’s got that strange look, which he gets sometimes when nobody’s watching, which Stella teases him about. She sees now what it is. He looks haunted. How has she never seen it before? She’s always looking at him, when he’s not looking back, checking that he’s alright.
He’s alright, I’ll get a ten-pound bag of fungicide, a wheelbarrowful of toys, a 300-gallon kiddie pool, and I’ll show up here. Maria can’t turn that down, gifts for her son. Tomas will have a childhood, Maria will cure the magnolia, everything will be alright.
The boys drift from sofa to chair. Stella watches astonished, her bold son following Tomas’s lead, tailing him from chair to sofa. Finally, Tomas perches at the edge of a chair. Fred sits down beside him. Tomas flinches, just a hair, and his thin arms curl around his torso. Tomas does his best to hide everything, and his cowardly little gesture shocks Stella into knowledge, everything’s not alright, into courage.
Abe will be home tonight. His body will be exhausted from fourteen hours of physical labour, his will to fight drained. Fred will be in bed. That’ll be Stella’s opening, the window she’s hopped to and hopped away from again, all these months, looking for other people’s children to save. Tonight she will fly through that window.
Yes, she decides, yes, with a vehemence to compensate for her dithering, yes, today was the limit. Giving a seven-year-old ten minutes to tidy his room, and when he sweeps his toys under the bed making him stand out in the sun all day. And when Fred inched at noonday into the lemon tree’s shade, Abe’s armchair on the deck swung suddenly vacant, and Stella spilled her lemon tea. She can still hear the crack-crack resounding across the garden, still see Fred’s red palms and white face against the gray city night. Tonight she’ll lay down the law. If Abe doesn’t like it, let him go away again. This isn’t how she wants her child raised.
Stella wipes her feet on the mat, and steps into Maria’s drawing-room with the self-confidence of the woman who’s decided to set her garden to rights.
The television’s off. Party-coloured polyester scarves festoon the shabby sofa. A mound of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches confronts Stella and Fred. Hair brushed, face powdered, Maria presses seconds and thirds on her guests.
Perched in the corner, Tomas eats his allotted two sandwiches, presses his fingertips into the skin of his knees to collect the crumbs, and licks his fingertips clean, his movements swift, small, and silent. Then he sits, arms crossed, thumbs digging elbows, shoulders hunched, not looking at anyone, speaking only when Stella speaks to him. He starts to reply, but Maria speaks over him, urging and nagging, then replies for him. He’s fine, she says apologetically, just a little slow.
Whenever Tomas opens his mouth, Fred looks at him. Fred’s no longer afraid Tomas will snitch. He just wants Tomas to look at him. Finally, Tomas, obeying the wordless will of the strong, glances sidelong. His big black eyes struggle to focus on any object, even on a face. They don’t struggle hard; they give up easily. Stupid and blinking, accepting fate without question, Tomas’s eyes are empty of reproach.
The women chat. Stella wonders how to give Maria help without giving offence. The new Whole Foods checkout clerk caught Stella’s fancy last month, reminding her of college, when Stella wanted to save the world, and, what’s more, to get to know the world. Should she offer to replace this sofa? Now that she’s decided to fix her own home, the compulsion to inundate Maria with gifts has evaporated. Now Stella will be content with a token.
Maria presses another sandwich on Fred. Fred accepts it and waits till she gets busy telling Stella another story. Fred breaks his sandwich into two and offers Tomas half.
Tomas’s eyes creep ten times towards Fred’s face, stopping halfway up Fred’s torso, darting away again, moving a little closer each time to Fred’s face. Fred remembers that big, strong, timid man from the carnival, who needed many goes at the high striker, getting closer to the top each time, and then he did get there, he showed he could do it, he always could do it. Finally, Tomas takes the half-sandwich and eats it neatly, obediently. Then at last he meets Fred’s eyes. Stupid and blinking, accepting fate without question, Tomas’s eyes are not empty of gratitude.
Fred’s eyes fill up. He looks away and stuffs his mouth with the sandwich and swallows hard. Fred knows that swallowing is a foolproof way to strangle tears, unmanly tears.
Amita Basu’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over forty magazines and anthologies including The Penn Review, The Dalhousie Review, Mid-Atlantic Review, Gasher, and Bandit Fiction. She lives in Bangalore, has a PhD in cognitive science, teaches undergraduate psychology, likes Captain Planet, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/
The banner image is based on the late artist and photographer Andy Goldsworthy’s famous Red Leaf Batch (1983).