Jwala

9:00 am. I should wake up.

11:00 am. You should wake up.

3:00 pm. WAKE UP!

The house smells of chilli. I salivate. The glands at the back of my throat tickle. My left eye twitches and my nose begins to itch. Stifle a yawn and supress a sneeze. I cough.

I listen to my own breathing. Roll over, check my phone. Zero messages, no calls either.

It frustrated me when she didn’t reply.

Swing my legs over the bed and I walk towards the bathroom. I sit on the toilet and tuck my hands beneath my thighs, the seat’s cold.

I pee. I listen to myself. Sigh. The face in the mirror isn’t mine. I smile at her. She looks sad.

I brush my teeth, she does too. Perhaps I should say something. I don’t.

My head throbs. The ache reaches my left arm and breast. She watches me as I palpitate. She smiles.

My eyes flutter but I stretch my lips and bare my teeth.

She tosses her head back and I see her laugh.  the pain turns cold. I hate her. my body shakes and the mirror breaks and suddenly my hands drip red.

*****

Noise. Too much of it. Beeping machines and loud, bellowing voices.

Always hated fluorescent lights. I ask her to turn them off. She smiles.

I shake my head and beg, she laughs at me. I look at her, urging her to listen.

She walks towards the switch. Click,

       click,                                                   

                       click,

 click.

I rub my eyes and run my tongue along my teeth while I watch her mimic me.

She giggles and raises her hands to her mouth.

My head starts to pulse.

 I’m on the ground and the nurse carries me — she touches me and I kick and the lights go off and it’s silent and my hands are around her hips.

****

I tell her not to. Once, twice, thrice.

 I ask her nicely. She puts one finger on the cut and traces it.

 I close my eyes but she walks in and sits behind my eyelids. She starts taking her clothes off.

People walk into the room. I open my mouth to warn her, to tell her to leave. But it’s too late

They’ve seen her.

And the bed breaks and my insides burn. People hold me and pin me down. she’s screaming. I know she’s afraid.  I vomit and it tastes like chili. She takes her clothes and runs out. they shove a tube inside my mouth.

*****

 ‘You have to go.’

‘Why? Don’t you want me here? With you?’

‘I do. I do. But you, you just need to go.’

‘Don’t pretend like you don’t enjoy it.’

‘I don’t. You’ve seen what it’s been doing to me.’

She pushed her mouth onto mine and found my tongue.

 I shoved her face with the base of my palm.

Her breath came out in puffs. She was angry.

‘Did you taste it?’ she growled.

 Yes, I had tasted it. My arms and legs and spine begin to shiver, taunting me. I feel myself shake. All the muscles in my body rupture and my bones split in half.

I hear her sigh in the distance.

****

‘Is she eating the chili?’

Yes, swami*, we make sure she does.’ Ammi replied in whispers.

‘Do you give her anything else?’

‘No swami, nothing else. Only chili.’

‘Okay.’ He turned to me and I swallowed as I watched Raya pace around him. ‘Radhika?’  I shifted my gaze. My eyes were on the birthmark above his right eyebrow. ‘Radhika, are you feeling better?’

‘Yes swami.’ Just as the words left my mouth, Raya bent down to his face and put her lips close to his. I gasped.

‘What is it? Is she here? Is she with us?’

I shook my head pleading with her to stop. ‘No swami. She’s not. She’s never with me anymore.’

‘Stop lying Radhika! Tell them I’m here! What does this bastard know anyway?’ her words came out in froth and some of it reached my face. I wiped my cheek with the back of my arm.

‘When can I stop?’ I murmured.

‘Stop what?’

‘Stop eating the chilies …’

I looked at Ammi. She pretended not to notice. She cleared her throat, ‘You will stop when swami says you can.’ She spoke to me but her eyes were on Raya.

Raya cocked her head onto one side. She rested her elbow on swami’s shoulder. ‘By Radhika eating nothing but chilies, I will miraculously disappear?’ Her voice was loud, and she enunciated her words as if she were delivering a speech. Her laugh rose from her throat and reminded me of galloping horses. ‘Why? Because the chili will burn her insides and burn me too?’ The laughter continued.

She took two steps and stood inches before Ammi’s face. ‘I will never leave.’ She hissed the words so that they left stains on her cheeks. ‘I will never leave,’ she repeated.

*****

The walls of my stomach burned. My tongue felt heavy and my saliva thickened. My sleeve was damp and yellow and I pictured my nostrils —swollen, red.

I imagined myself drinking water, iced water, right out of the freezer. I imagined it bathing my insides; I felt cooler. Raya watched me as I bit into the jwala. Her face was expressionless but her eyes didn’t shift. She stared as I took bite after bite, sniffling.

Ammi used to mix jwalas into my meals. She used to deseed them to take away some of the fire, but today she placed three, whole chillies on a plate and muttered something before turning on her heel and walking away.

‘Why are you doing this?’

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. ‘Raya-‘ i said before she cut me off,

‘Radhika.’

I took bigger bites.

‘I’m not leaving Radhika’

I chewed faster. It started to get difficult to breathe.

‘They’re fucking with you. You know that.’

One jwala left. I focused on its stem.

****

When we were kids, we’d fight over who slept on which side of the bed. She always wanted the right side. I didn’t have any preferences but because she fought for it, I figured something about it must be special, and so wanted it too. Eventually we’d agree that we’d each have half of that side. Our bodies touched and sometimes we held hands. We were only eight, we had no idea, but I suspect Ammi knew even then.

People raised their eyebrows in disapproval when we linked arms in public, or gave each other kisses on the cheek. But Raya didn’t care, she was obstinate. She’d lean in and lick my neck when she noticed a family talking about us. I’d cringe and move away, but she’d do it again. I used to think she only loved me because it was not allowed. When I asked her about it, she’d unbutton my shirt and whisper compliments about my “mind” and “body” as she kissed the length of my stomach.

*****

‘You know what? I think you want me to leave. I think you’re listening to that fucking priest because you fucking think it might work.’

The last chili set my insides on fire, I could feel it.

‘I can’t believe you Radhika. Are you done with us? Are you?’ She was screaming now and I knew what was coming next.

I stood up to leave before she could hit me but the burning inside slowed me down.

I felt something split somewhere on my face.

*****

When the car hit her I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry when they collected the ashes. I was confused. People were moaning and I watched on, with Raya’s arms around my waist. We watched our parents on their knees at the cemetery, we watched together as people condoled with our family. We sat cross legged on the grass, with her head in lap while I stroked her hair, and we watched the crowd get smaller as people gradually left. We sat on her bed and watched her belongings being boxed away.

I never understood what happened, and neither did she.

‘I’m happy you’re here,’ I breathed. She turned to me and touched my lips with her mouth, ‘I will always be here. I promise.’

****

 

 

*swami is the term Hindus use to refer to their priests.

*Jwala is a chili most commonly found in India, specifically Gujrat.

 

 

 

 

 

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