A Year in the North

Rashi Rohatgi

If she’d had her way he wouldn’t have learned to speak at all. His eyes seemed fully grown already, irises big and black as olives, and as they orbited one another in the kitchen, Priti understood that he had begun to know her: seen the way her knuckles trembled just before she pushed on the power to the food processor, the way she’d eat the onions cut every afternoon after puja, layer by layer, a tearful prasad. She’d known that firangis kept animals in their homes—had even known a more assimilated auntie and uncle who’d kept a dog, its white hair coating the living room—and so knew any arguments would ultimately be overruled. And of course if they set the mongoose free it would die, immediately, terrified, in the early autumn frost. So Nenn was here, and every evening, while she retired to the bath to exchange banal messages with her distracted friends during their lunch breaks, she would listen to Pierre read to their new housemate from the local papers. Slowly. Repeating prepositional phrases, to remember them.

She didn’t speak to Nenn, but he quickly adapted himself to the daily routine. There were four shops in the village, all of them full of overpriced and pointless items: banker’s lamps, huge flanks of mutton. There were three yaamas in Priti’s solitary day: the first was the shortest, just a first gasp of fresh air, head turned east to catch the orange tail of the sun’s rise, longer now that the equinox had passed. The second, a gray and pregnant pause of morning, required movement. Nenn sat in the pen pocket of her t-shirt, body bundled underneath the thick-knit sweater, head almost wrapped up in the end of her red scarf. Neither of them said anything inside of the stores. Then: the harbor. Priti and Nenn learned not to come around lunch hour, when the shrimp man came to offload his catch and when peons from the offices nearby made their way from green-glassed block to wooden restaurant and back again. Otherwise it was quiet, most of the boats out, the lighthouse blinking seemingly haphazardly, though Priti didn’t see how this could be the case. If the heat from Nenn’s tiny mass didn’t radiate through her enough to warm her fingertips, they’d stop at the mosque and leave a coin in the dropbox next to the carafe, she would pour the coffee into the empty travel mug emblazoned with the logo of her erstwhile employer. She’d hold it between her mittens until they reached the top of the hill at the outskirts of the village, a way station of green before houses gave way to proper stone mountains, before roads gave way to proper trails. They’d watch the islands float in the distance as she drank, or didn’t drink, east first, then south, then west, and then Nenn would nod and they’d descend straight back home, shaking off their garments and lighting the stove to heat water and thaw as the third apportioned yaama began. If there was a package for Pierre, she would leave the contents on his nightstand and give the box to Nenn as though he were a child, in addition to being child-sized or really, infant-sized. He would examine it with respect and sometimes, when she came out of the bedroom in the morning, she’d find him sleeping in it.

On the fifth week after his arrival, after the puja tears, he told her he was going for a walk, and would she please leave the door slightly ajar, as he couldn’t reach the door handle. “Ji,” she said, and before thinking better of it or further about it, watched him slink out, without even socks or a hat against the chill.

For a few days after that she was wary of him, unable to determine whose responsibility it was to speak next. She couldn’t make herself doubt what she’d seen and heard: otherwise, her whole life might collapse. But until she decided whether or not she wanted this conversation to continue she refrained from praying or singing out loud. There was no other way Nenn could have learned Hindi, unless he spent his nights reading through her neglected, though dearly delivered, library. She didn’t think he had the thumbs to do so, but then, she had assumed his coat was scant protection, and he’d gallivanted for almost an hour uncovered.

Instead of praying, singing bhajans, or crying, she spent that time knitting for him. Pierre asked her to knit him a hat, too, but she rolled her eyes. He wore a size easily available, and owned several machine-knit hats, his favorite of which was emblazoned with the same logo as her coffee mug. On the fourth day she left the finished set of knitwear—orange and green, Marius-patterned—next to Nenn’s current sleeping box, and the next day she folded him into it and watched him go for another walk.

Finally, she was charmed by the realization that he was waiting for her to decide whether or not she wanted to talk, that he would not impinge upon her mental space until she signaled acquiescence or even eagerness. The day was Chhoti Diwali, anyway, so it would have been strange not to perform her puja. When she began to sing, asking Bhagwan to give her mental strength, she paused to glance to her left. Nenn was singing with her. Now that she had the wherewithal to listen, she found that his voice was soft and clear, not at all chipmunk-like, as she had expected, but very much as solemn as she had imagined.

They exchanged a few sentences, maximum, after that, never during their outing, and usually not until that fallow space between her tears and ten minutes before Pierre’s anticipated return, when she began dinner preparation. She couldn’t, she explained, ask Nenn questions the way he liked to ask her; she knew that if she began to discern the inner life of a mongoose she’d have gone mad, and she preferred to avoid that. So Nenn asked questions and would wait for her answer, and, sometimes, in response to her reply, his eyes would darken or gleam or widen, but he always trusted that the response she gave was the full response she was going to provide. Gradually, she began to breathe more easily, knowing that, cold as she was, Pierre had given her a family.

As the autumnal moon, low-slung and quivering in the thick northern air, waxed anew, Priti told Nenn about trick-or-treating. At first, she described to him the gloomy walks through her natal neighborhood canvassing for UNICEF, freezing in her determination not to cover her princess costume. As she lifted a spangled satin lengha up for him from its tissue papered box, a garment she’d worn to every formal event before and after puberty, she’d explained that despite her embarrassment in front of the snakes dressed up as cats—no, metaphorically, she promised, as the tips of his eyes narrowed—she’d loved the way they gaped at the bare midriff she was allowed to display. And later, when she’d met Pierre at a Halloween party her first year in the city, though she didn’t say so then, she’d loved the way he’d gaped, too.

By the empty afternoon at the month’s end, the village had become dark and its surface icy, and Priti, having no purchase on it, was constrained to only those paths others had found worth walking on and salted. Nenn strained against her pocket, paw on his brow against the reflected sun, determined to enact a posada of disguised mirth. They’d spent the sunlit hours scouring the shops for toy bears wearing aviators; he needed the small glasses for his Amelia Earhart costume. As she’d known, there weren’t any—there hadn’t been any yesterday, and no ships had come in since—but Priti had felt Nenn’s heart pulsing and felt there was no option.

She felt whipped frozen and appropriately dressed all at once, her naval only protected, as Nenn was, by the lengha’s orni instead of her customary red scarf. It wasn’t a concession to the mongoose’s fervor but rather in response to the quiver she felt in her over-exposed stomach. Though he hadn’t spoken yet to Pierre, she could sense it was only a matter of time, of a change in season, and the season was changing clearly now. She’d begun buying vegetables frozen to avoid the window above the sink, out of which bolts of emerald, bright and thin as chiffon, flung through the sky disconsolate and angry at being left behind with nothing but the darkness for company. Nenn would leave her then, sometimes not bothering to wrap up in the scarves she’d prepared for him by now in every color, every pattern she knew how to make, and would come back when Pierre did, when the peas were again plump and the rice fattened, the freshly chopped onions coated in chonk. Priti did not know how to stop their alliance, and had an inchoate idea that to try to would be not only churlish but sinful.

They argued that night, dressing not for a night of revelry but at least a shared nod to nostalgia at the gossipy pub: Pierre had bought himself a yellow sweatshirt, yellow pants—and a yellow hat, of course—to be the man in the yellow hat, and she had to explain that Nenn had his own ideas, that he didn’t want to pretend to be a small monkey unless he could be a small monkey wearing a leather jacket sewn together out of her once-fanciest gloves, as well as her orni knotted into an ascot. By the time she explained that she couldn’t be the monkey, either, obviously, Pierre’s pacing had made it impossible for her to do anything but stand as still as possible and close her eyes.

“Priti can wear the yellow, and you can be the monkey.”

If Pierre was going to throw Nenn against the wall, she was going to keep her eyes closed. But there was silence—finally—and then Pierre’s warm, sleepy laugh. When she looked, Pierre was tossing Nenn up in the air like a volleyball. “Okay, champ, now that is a good idea.” He placed him tenderly on the kitchen island next to her shivling and peeled the sweatshirt off. Nenn was wearing a brown henley underneath that Priti had to admit would do well for a monkey, but when he saw her face Pierre winked and peeled that off, too. “Give us a minute or twenty.”

She couldn’t concentrate, though she tried, on the dance of Pierre’s fingers against her thighs. “Mon loup,” she murmured, but instead of responding he increased his pace, his pressure, and she gave up, but when it was over and she waited for him to get out of the shower, she found the question still clutching at her heart: had he known Nenn’s secret all along, and let her cling to it for warmth? Or did he simply not care what she thought?

Nenn was quiet as they slipped down to the pub, a small respite. They stood at a corner table nodding constantly to Pierre’s coworkers, who’d inevitably wave him over rather than approach what, she had to assume, they thought was a rodent rather than a herpestine. To compensate, she let Nenn take sips of her plum porter. By the end of the evening he was swaying on the table, and she giggled. “You look like the lights,” she told him.

“You look like a princess,” he said, and she hadn’t the heart not to weep.

“My lovelies,” said Pierre, placing himself between them, one hand gripping two full mugs, leaving the other free to stroke Nenn’s tail. “Have we gotten to the sad part, then?”

On the walk home, the wind whistled through the gaps between Priti and Peirre’s clasped fingers. The moon, she told Nenn—riding as he’d come, atop Pierre’s shoulder—was made of cheese, or so she’d been told in her turn. Whatever spirits traveled between the veils tonight were mellow, and the streetlights led them to where they belonged. As she spoke to him, her tears turned to hail on her face, and fell, crushing the leaves beneath her feet. When she was finished Pierre taught Nenn the song he sang Priti at the end of every costume party they’d co-opted in celebration of their love, a song about dismembering birds that reminded him he was hungry. She wanted to pluck Nenn from his shoulder to stop him joining Pierre for a kebab, but instead she let herself into the house and decided it was time to buy curtains.

The next morning, snow blanketed the iced cobbles, and Priti made her way up the hill with her diminutive companion, though Nenn didn’t speak and never spoke to her again. By Christmas, by which Priti was sure she was pregnant, she wasn’t sure if he ever had.

The first time she left the baby with Nenn was when the sun rose. Lars was an incurious child. He contained, she’d hoped, some glimmer of suppressed light that would burst forth on Makar midday with the sun’s reappearance. A week earlier, as night stood ramrod straight through everything, Pierre had ruined Priti’s plans for an annaprashan by breaking the galette des rois she’d baked into tiny pieces and placing them alternately on the tongues of his baby and his pet. Priti began to leave the lights off in the kitchen whenever she ate, until it became clear Lars cared not one whit about her porridge or her onions. He was content to sit on the counter, staring at the sky, until Nenn came home. Then she’d place him on the floor, relieved: Nenn would mime akar bakar bambe bo with him until both were reduced to gleeful fits. So on Makar morning, Priti mashed sesame snaps with abandon, attempting to reverse engineer til ke laddoo, and when a tiny hand outstretched itself in the corner of her eye, she assumed it was Nenn home early—he kept unsteady hours, an eerie if benign ghost keeping corner. Until the soft, nail-free nubs hit her fingertips, and she jumped. “Tujhe bhi khaana hain, phir?” she asked, guiding the baby’s fair fingers to his mouth. For a moment, as he sucked on seed and sugar, she imagined he knew what she meant; a moment was enough to reignite her dreams of all-day hikes filled with antakshari and gossip no one else could understand. Then his nose crinkled at the sweet, or perhaps at the rough, and tears filled his eyes; she bared him her breast and wondered if she’d been such a drag.

By the time Nenn gave her his wide-eyed nodded greeting, she’d brushed her abortive baking attempts into the trash and was staring at Lars, splayed out on the counter, full and fast asleep, counting the stitches she’d need to knit him long johns. Nenn had been wearing two scarves at once, one purple and the other greige, and was unwinding them from above his eyes and below his chin, and after hanging them on their hooks he hopped up beside her and tickled Lars in the soft folds beneath his chin; nary a stir. It looked like the sun would pass them by, today, its reappearance to be marked only by the smug grunts of the shrimp vendors counting their post-lunch gains. She wanted to shrug at Nenn, but the thought of no reply made her heart still. There was only this to do: stare at the lumpen boy before them and let the light slip away unseen.

The foghorn: it made her jump, but even this did not wake Lars. During the dark days, she’d not bothered to keep Lars on a schedule; if Pierre liked to wake him when he returned from work and read him news from all over the world, but especially news from the town in which they had both been working when they met, it was hardly her business. And so now the only way to wake him would be with cheer, with song, with inducements Priti could hardly—would hardly—summon up before seeing the tiniest bit of proof that they were not trapped in an everlasting darkness. If only Nenn would speak again, she could dispatch him, and he could report back.

Or she could report back. Another child—the child she imagined for herself when she woke, startled by the shattering of a fallen icicle on the doorstep, and pulled Lars towards her—would wonder, upon waking, where she had gone.

“An hour,” she told Nenn and then she was out of the house so quickly she had nothing wrapped to her at all.

She had to head away from town, of course; if she were seen, Lars would be seized and Pierre would abandon her to some glum hinterland prison. But from the top of the hill she could look down on the boats and the fjord beyond, and the islands that seemed to float in the sky instead of in the sea. And when the sun breached the horizon she raised her arms in greeting, and couldn’t stop herself: she sunk down, prostrate, and kissed the ice and shed tears upon it, and raised her arms towards the sun once again. Here, she was nothing but a body casting shadows. And perhaps Lars was her son, truly, for in that moment she thought nothing of the lives she wasn’t living.

The next day she prolonged Nenn’s night still further, and by the third day she understood that whatever else he spoke about with Pierre, on this he’d stay mum. Wasn’t he a brother, by proxy if not by birth? Wasn’t he more than capable of sustaining life? Wasn’t she—taking a creature into her heart—assimilating as they all wanted?

As the sun tested its welcome, rays brighter and stronger than in the winters of her childhood, Pierre grew merry. The ship heralded by the horn had brought a carnival to town until month’s end, and on its last evening she was to have Lars and herself prepared for a night out. “We can get his chart read, just like you wanted,” Pierre offered, eating potatoes she didn’t remember undersalting, and instead of giving him a sidelong glance and a punch on the arm she merely raised her eyebrows and went back to her knitting. When Lars refused his proffered bite, she merely let her lips quiver. How much smaller her husband loomed that week, her jeevansathi, this man she’d stretched out over her heart and mind and soul so fearlessly, so heedlessly. What did he know of Lars, of her, of Nenn, of anything beyond the world he’d kept for himself? What did he know of the sun in the winter and the way the ice tasted of a candle blown out in one swift breath?

Night and day were bifurcated now, neatly, and when it rained, as it often did, the clouds took the moon’s cue and left at dawn. Pierre slept with Lars, his hands ludicrously large against the soft skin of her son’s stomach. She left then, as soon as she knew her feet would be visible in the shade cast by her umbrella, and crossed the town and the hill and went straight to the mountains. By the time she returned something was always left for her, simmering on the stove, something full of cream and butter and wine and it felt like nothing so much as stumbling upon a witch’s cabin.

She kept her new phone close, though he never called; daily, she was supposed to call a friend, perhaps a former coworker from the city, anyone she liked, Pierre said in his magnanimous way. The internet in the mountains was fast, and the pixels on the screen tiny and sharp – not like eyes at all, she knew, but it hurt to look at them, and for what? She knew how she would vote, fifty years into the future; she knew what the weather was, today. Beyond that were mere facts: names of constellations grew more inaccessible with each lengthening day, incoming ships’ previous ports of call, so she might guess what it was safe to dream of, the actual and scientific composition of the moon.

When they separated, she’d hardly see him less: Pierre kept Lars close, protected and protector. She’d return to the city, reapply for her job, make muffled jokes at an interview about her dreams of romance and the cold, sharp slap of reality. She would take nothing from this house but for a bag full of yarn, for today, she celebrated Holi by unraveling each of the tiny mongoose scarves, the colors bursting of unmade mischief against her skin. It was hardly traditional, but it was a comfort against the unspoken tradition she knew she had started: each year, her family would grow older, and weaker, and more silent. Each year, looking north, she would remember that she had wandered so gracelessly into this shanti, shanti, shantih.

Rashi Rohatgi headshot

 

Rashi Rohatgi is the author of Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow (Galaxy Galloper Press, March 2020). A Pennsylvania native, she now lives in Arctic Norway. You can read more about her work at www.rashenka.com.