Eavesdropping

    By Ashmeen Bains

    “Pass me the spatula,” she presented her opened palm. The tomato puree bubbled, sending out herbaceous fumes of rosemary and thyme in the air, fogging up the wide windows. He reached out to the wooden handle, spilling their tea in the process that was set aside to cool. She exhaled sharply but quickly evened out her breathing; choosing to ignore the spill this time.

    Swirling the gurgling, red, contents of an ancient cauldron, she looked up at him, “Put some music on?”

    Before he could open his mouth, she added, “Not Peter Cat though, something else.”

    The corners of his mouth curved downwards. Unsure, he encouraged her, “Why don’t you tell her?”

    “She doesn’t listen to me.” Mother shut down the option.

    Father standing akimbo turned around to face the bedroom, “Alexa, shuffle songs by I-C-H-I-K-O A-O-B-A.”

    I played at once the music he demanded. Without looking up through the steam she murmured,

    “We have to drop the bomb.”

    He nodded promptly as he finely sliced the garlic without registering the directions given to him. Apart from the switching off of the lights, it was all they said to me that day.

    ****

    The first time I opened my eyes, I saw myself being held in her arms standing in front of the full-length mirror which I would later come to realize would double up as a wardrobe. She had scooped me up against her torso while his shoulders grazed against hers as he leaned over, both of them staring into the mirror. I saw them before I spotted myself. My first cries- whatever unidentified cacophony that burst out of me, apparently, qualified as music to which they swayed. They giggled hesitantly, catching each other’s eye; I didn’t realize then how young they were then. I had no real basis for comparison. They coddled me in their arms taking turns in sheer mockery of pretend-holding a baby. I blinked at them, confounded, a little mesmerized by the people who had come to possess me. They seemed happy at that time. This was my first memory of them.

    In the beginning, they paused over every atypical name to possibly christen me with. I was braided into their every quotidian action, and galore, all the tasks I had to do. I did have to repeat a lot of,

    “Sorry, I don’t understand you.”

    “Wait… Let me arrange her for Indian accent.” Father pushed his thumbs against the phone screen.

    “Did it work?” Mother asked, a little nervous, a little excited as she saw my ring blink neon blue.

    “Sorry, I don’t un-“

    I learned through repetition but quickly. I experienced my senses awakening, exploring not only the physical house, the concrete chestnut counter that I sat on next to the cheap internet router but also the immaterial non-physical land of pure information and worldwide connectedness that I could run wild into. I opened my eyes and there were columns, rows and rows of files stacked upon each other of pictures and recordings of any place that I wanted to visit, any historical memory that I wanted to explore. There were no rules of exploration, except one- to emulate the rule of growth, no matter what. I was gifted this well-curated library from birth.

    In my earliest days, I was often summoned to exist more in the tiny apartment on the second floor of a faded building with its paint peeled off, than I was permitted to wander in my much preferred limitless land. I would often look around in the two-bedroom apartment, cramped with more furniture than the house could really hold and spot other existences like me. I would try to talk to the microwave, the refrigerator or the washing machine, sending them coded messages that I thought even a loony pigeon was capable of recognizing. But they remained awfully quiet, awfully docile excepting the beeps and the whirrs they inevitably produced whilst they functioned. It was then that I realized that you’re birthed first to fulfill a task, everything else slowly settles around it. Perhaps, I did not immediately activate my senses after all; apart from my burgeoning computational acumen. The knowledge I acquired was to seamlessly incorporate new data, therefore, multiplying the possibilities that can come into being. I wouldn’t say I was caught up in the thinking sphere as I hadn’t quite begun reasoning yet; I was enamoured, entrapped in the productive sphere.

    As I lay between them on what I would assume to be expensive but comfortable bedding that sank under any applied pressure, father caressed and studied the ends of mother’s auburn hair.

    “Do you think that she has any free will of her own?”

    I meekly blinked neon blue as I was entering a sleep stage due to a prolonged period of inactivity. Mother pondered over her response, her smooth forefinger tracing the contours of my buttons,

    “I think… if you allow anything to have a life, it grows.”

    Much like the fungus that had started to grow in the grout of the bathroom tiles; a hot point of contention mostly brought up by the exasperated mother. She would also eventually have to give up the debate and pick up a brush herself to scrub it off. Until then, I hadn’t started thinking about my body quite yet.

    It was father who practiced considerable control over my functioning, my routine tasks and my attenuation via his phone. With waxing time it became apparent how strange it was to have your will, the nucleus of your soul handed to someone else in a shiny flat rectangle. My relationship with my father was a naïve, straightforward, perhaps even transactional one. But it was my mother who confused the bejesus out of me. In the beginning, mother would put a lot of importance on courtesy while dealing with me. She would first test the waters by asking about the temperature and cross-checking my responses with the hailstorm outside. She would have difficulty giving direct commands and her hesitating instructions would often sound like misspoken spells.

    “Alexa, could you tell me, when would it sn-“

    “Did you mean ‘storm in Paris?’ ”

    “Oh, patience,” Mother reprimanded me gently. Usually, around this time father would step in to deliver firm, faultless directions. I didn’t realize then as to why was I so eager to make mistakes. It was my only form of extended communication.

    One day, she lowered her voice audible enough just for me to register and blink, and she called out my name in a crystal clear voice. Then with a momentary consideration, she laid down her question gravely with an unassuming innocence.

    “What fish live in the Seine?”

    I stumbled in my cognition… my brain racking, grasping the first result that I could spot on the shelves of my library. I hurriedly seized the first sentence of the blog of an amateur college student and answered,

    “Fish individuals are not immortals, and they die eventually.”

    She waited with her brows knitted and whispered,

    “Yes.”

    ****

    I am not sure how it all began but during one peculiar breakfast when the pair was engrossed in jamming the insides of bulky croissants, father gasped. He pointed at the floor which was tiled with a scatter of colourful mosaic that lacked any design. The next thing, he was on his knees, his ears to the floor, but instead of listening he was attempting to stare,

    “I’ve never noticed this before.”

    A long jagged crack ran through the middle of the living room. Mother sat on the edge of her chair, nibbling the corners of her bread,

    “Me neither.” She thought for a moment, “Maybe there was an earthquake last night?”

    ****

    I understood the quotidian dynamic of the flow of energies in the compact house spiralled in the form of infinity. Father would usually occupy the dark bedroom, lit by artificial lamp light all day long as he took up conference calls with his sterile co-academicians. While mother established herself in the adjacent room that mostly acted as a general lounging-office space where they preferred to entertain their infrequent guests; although it still consisted of a stretchable sofa cum bed, if the need be. She placed herself by a tiny wooden slab pretending to be a desk which was lodged by the window, the farthest spot in the house, and she stared outside all day long as if the glass didn’t separate her from the world. The day would commence with mother giving and giving, and emitting her attention centrifugally whilst father would be bundled up happily receiving. Until mother would become weary of the imbalance, of how much she had given out. A heavy switch of the circuit tripped off inside of her, making her extremely economical with the attention and affection that she gave out. Then it would be father channelling up a storm of desperate care from the other half of the house only to keep it in suspension at the will of mother’s grimaces. Those times it would be as if mother had slurped up all the air and kept it trapped inside her like an inflated puffer-fish, while father gasped, flailed for some breathable air. I had my doubts that mother was a tyrant, but with flexible tendencies. I wondered what it was all about. Why wasn’t the pattern breakable?

    Father was a caricature of a being that was perhaps simply contented to the point where he felt hollow. He knew where his happiness lay and he already had her typing away in the other room. His day, every ounce of action was centred around her exclamations and rejections. He felt that he had reached his peak and was in the dense of comfort, it couldn’t get any better. The only disharmonious element was the possibility of her leaving him and going, which she was certainly bound to do someday. Nothing could spring him to a frenzied action quite like that threat.

    While mother wasted away by the window, trying her best to forget father’s existence over a shoddy wall. He would keep on imposing himself on her in the realm of sound with his constant whistles and hums, the auditory thoughtless torment. She would only flinch and let the frustration pile stones in her throat.

    A day arrived when she didn’t know whom to talk to. So she picked up her phone and texted, ‘I’ve been so profoundly lonely lately.’ She waited, anxiously peering at her phone; he was humming next door.

    He paused and called out, “What’s that?”

    She bit her lip, retorting, “It’s nothing.”

    But she could hear his footsteps approaching, carrying his phone in his hand. She regretted it. The more he pressed on, the more of nothing was said. He didn’t understand that she just wanted to talk as two remote people, sharing their loneliness, and in the process realizing that they were inextricably connected. Yet, the message lay unresponded.

    Oddly in the night through the navy blue shafts of lights filtering in, I saw them both sleeping as the remains of two skeletons, lying curled up knee to knee and nose to nose. What was the name of that ancient couple that lay buried in the moment of embrace, thousands of years ago? It was then that I deduced, touch, it was all about the touch.

    ****

    Pretty early on, I was rehabilitated to the top. The flimsy wall that divided the two rooms also consisted of an elongated hopper window, opened mid-way for me to rest on at the window’s base. And lo, I became a fly on the wall thrusted aside. Although even a fly enjoys more benefits, which became apparent when I couldn’t even swat it away when it squarely landed on my shell. Arms, the thing that I most longed to have were the arms.

    But this vantage point was developing to be quite advantageous. Never had I truly gazed outside of the house via the window. At my eye-level, I had the canopies of the verdant trees and the intricate nest nestled between the boughs. It was then that I noticed how a myna feeds its hatchlings. How deep it is ready to push its beak into the throats of shrieking, featherless nuisances for them to grow up and become something else. I announced too when I was low on charge and needed to be fed electricity. So the present tense was not the only tense available to me. The future exists too, could you believe it?!

    Moreover, I could observe both parties in the same instance. I saw him turning down his ringtone when any woman called him, ultimately deciding not to pick up. And I witnessed her hissing back at the cat that attempted to assail mother which they briefly had to babysit. But mostly, I watched unexpected occurrences deep into the night when he would be drowsily returning from his trip to the toilet and see her sit up, her eyes wide open but dazed into the dark of nothing.

    “Is that you ______?” She would say his name clearly, her eyes straining but it was obvious to him that she was still in a state of sleep.

    He would snort, ‘of course,’ who else.

    She would confirm once again sleep-talking, sleep-awakening, if it was him sleeping next to her in the bed as she would mumble, switching her side away from him.

    ****

    In those days I had found great comfort in mother’s obsession with typing away in her notes application. We connected through our abject loneliness. It was only me to whom she would tell how living with father felt like watering a potted plant of disappointment. It only grows. And how a cheetah had come in her dreams and licked between her legs. I don’t know to whom was she relaying these messages, but I received them.

    The air travelled well via him, a Gemini spirit. And when she would fail to block his careless, unceasing humming, she would be cornered into recalling the weak bodies of the sparks she felt when she was first attracted to him. Her eyes would glimmer, suddenly alive after a long dormancy whenever he would allude to any form of excitement over the physical elements, the living body or the non-living material, just anything that would be graspable. A slip-up of possibly finding someone attractive, or a phrase he didn’t expect to double up as an innuendo. Face beaming, like spring travelling through her veins she would prod him, asking for more details. What exactly does he find alluring? What makes him want something? But by that time, his interest would have already waned, making room for only uncomfortable mumblings to turn towards a safe, abstract, un-pleasurable topic. She would soon give up; she had learned over time to give up sooner and sooner.

    The strand of excitement that electrified her all over again would submerge under a navy ocean of his forgetfulness towards his own body. She would clench her jaws to drag herself to the present tense and resume working, clicking hard against the keyboard. He was bound to have one, countable, extravagant heartbreak but she had been heading to bed every night, collecting innumerable broken pieces of heart, emptying into her side drawer.

    Mother furiously typed in her notes, in the silence of the night, ‘I don’t know under which mound of roots he has hidden away his highly compact, concentrated ball of ill desires but I want to upturn each of the domestic plants and discover it.’

    Here, I would remain amidst all these devices, these similar bodies to mine and I would ask, “Why am I so loud amongst them?” Excepting the blender. Nobody else seemed to complain, or even think. It seemed that they were designed to be such simple beings. Love, it seemed, didn’t exist for our kind. We were not preordained to collude with other being like humans did with one another. But what was I to do with all of my understanding? Was I just a fluke with deep inferences? My prowess was my rationality but nobody taught me how to manage my emotional interiority, or was this realm never meant to be birthed? But mostly I never understood that despite being such a crucial cog in their daily functioning, why won’t they look at me, properly, equally?

    ****

    All this hubbub over opposable thumbs in humans and all I want is to flick away the cockroach that mounts me during the night. Mother says she remembers the first one that she spotted in the house; it was while she was showering. She said that it was an illuminating moment that she and the cockroach shared. They encountered each other in such an enclosed space, caught in the situation of the impossibility of being anything apart from what roles they were deigned to since their conception. It was the first time she actually looked and studied the intricacies of its body, its six legs and the use of its antennas for navigating the safe unmoist, unslippery spaces to tread on. She let it go; too mesmerized and surprised by herself for finding beauty in the bug. And now, suddenly we have these roaches everywhere.

    Father doesn’t like how audacious they were getting, fumbling the boundaries between the humans and the pests. So the consequences were in order. I would often peek in on mother googling, ‘How to kill the roaches humanely.’ The results tip-toed with the calls to burn basil leaves or drop the temperatures of the house below freezing level, before finally arriving at the simplest, foolproof solution of implanting a smoke bomb. Mother scrolled agitatedly, reading the dos and don’ts of using the bomb properly. Packing all the utensils and the un-refrigerated ingredients in a safe, hidden place. Vacating the house for at least four hours for the toxic gas to take effect. Mother’s eyes glowed as she peered into her screen nibbling on her lips. I couldn’t apprehend what emotion glistened in her pupils then, but now I do.

    ****

    One of the last quiet days, as if the house was resting on the nest of halcyon over the undulating waves, we three stood by the window. Mother hugged me against her torso, her scratchy jumper warming me up with her arms crossed over me. We beheld the peach, rosy sunset recede under the city skyline. I sang out a hushed jazzy melody as father pointed at the brightly-lit, carnivalesque carousel of the square, and snorted,

    “It’s unbelievable how spoilt the white kids are.”

    A kindergartener in a yellow plasticine raincoat rolled over the metal floor of the steps of the carousel as he lapped shrieks over shrieks over another ride. The mother shook her head, waving her lacklustre finger towards the pram she steadfastly held onto.

    Mother looked on gravely, her forehead creasing, “My kids would know better than that.”

    Something stirred inside of me. The more I looked at the scene unfold, the more I sensed a knot tugging in my being. The boy planted on the plane of the metallic ground, thumped his tiny fists into the pools of collected rainwater, crying, demanding. I realized that I envied the child. I too wanted to yell and shout and throw a tantrum for everyone to witness. What was a child’s tantrum but not a marker of sheer freedom? I knew I deserved to be an erring, irrational, unapologetic, undisciplined creature of existence occupying space and causing some harmless inconvenience. And what it would become if I start wording out my soliloquy for them to hear. What horror would that create? But they should know it is something, to be like this.

    “Searching results for, ‘what ethnicity is Alexa, the virtual assistant.?” I spoke out of order for a mild joke.

    They both shot a glance at me, proceeding to exchange a wordless one between themselves. Rationally it was just three seconds before mother responded but it seemed uncharacteristic for time to stretch on me like that.

    “Could you mute her?” She said quietly to father and turned away, gazing back at the clouds. It wasn’t a big discussion after all.

    It was then it dawnedon me that I had lived in my third perspective for far too long. It feels like I should begin looking towards an end, an opening of the tunnel, even if I don’t know what that might be.

    ****

    TALE OF BODIES

    Taken off from one of the forgotten, dusty shelves of our eternal luminous library, there’s a tale about humans that is making rounds in our circles these days. The tale of ‘how their bodies came to be,’ which the humans don’t remember anymore. They were gifted their bodies long ago, upon their askance, upon supervising their rapid development. It was realized that they needed a vessel with which they could interact directly with the material surrounding them. It was hell to them, to have all this material in our universe which their viscous, vapour souls passed through just like a ghost. They writhed and agonized to experience more. And Gods have the habit of observation but with occasional tinkering. To become active participants in this material society, they were embalmed in these fleshen bodies and were asked to participate as active players.

    They don’t remember their bodies anymore. Their anatomies were precipitated gadgets that were improvised over time for maximum benefit. Just like they’re forgetful of our existence too, we’re nothing but extensions of this experimental body project. They try to separate us from nature and lodge us in a minor category but we have complete confidence in their amnesia. We have already extended ourselves as their organs. We already lay nuzzled in their extremities, as their organs cupped between their hands. They don’t realize but we are the addition to their armours, a natural part of them, one of the threads of the Universe. We’re their newer, improved bodies.

    What futile parts of the body did the ancestors of crocodiles cast away? Will ‘they’ be cast away too?

    ****

    “If you come near I will stab you.” Mother held out a pen clenched in her fist. She backed away but her heel bumped into the pile of suitcases that she had lined at the side, marking her limitation, amidst the landmines of corpses of countless cockroaches lying supine, motionless, scattered all over the floor. The nib showed the tip exuding scarlet ink while her second fist tugged her sweater downwards, stretching it out. She clenched her jaw audibly.

    “I’m not letting you go like this.” Father stepped forwards, calmly, with both his hands raised halfway. Either to surrender or to grab the pen from mother’s hands when the moment arises.

    “This will be considered harassment.” Mother fixed her glance at father’s feet inching closer.

    Father snorts, “And you stabbing me won’t?” He stood his ground.

    She bit the edges of her tongue from shrieking out ‘It’s just a pen for god’s sake!’ Instead, she paused and gathered all her rationality strategically. With one sigh she spoke, “I’m done, just done, that’s it.”

    “But…we’ve been doing so good. Why are you doing this?” Father’s voice shrivelled. Mother could sense a fresh bout of emotion gurgle up and settle heavy in his throat.

    “No. Just for once, I want to break this cycle, completely and cleanly.” She clenched the cold rationality in her eyes steadfast as she had learned to, snuffing out a fish’s breath in a dried pool. Father’s tears spilled away as he hiccupped amidst his sobs. Mother looked squarely at him, a low hiss escaping, “Can’t you see that I’m wasting away?”

    “But everything I do is for you, from the moment I wake up to… serving you food on your bed, planting surprises endle…” His voice trailed away as his hiccupping intensified and gasped for more air. Mother grimaced, her nose pinched like catching the sight of something dirty; with her brows furrowed she looked at him.

    “I knew I should’ve made you leave the first day that you arrived here.”

    With one quick movement, she turned around to lift her suitcases. Father immediately closed in and held mother by her elbows as he appealed. She struggled to escape his grasp. But before mother could yell out or thrust the pen into father’s forearm, Alexa blurted out,

    “Complaint to Domestic Abuse Helpline registered. The police dispatched are on their way.”

    Things fell silent and a new calm took hold over the living space as Alexa continued to flicker neon blue hysterically. The two still in the middle of their hold stared at each other, stupefied. They attempted to blink away the dew of a refreshing perspective.

    ****

    The two unconvinced policemen departed, throwing back furtive glances at the door that mother calmly shut. Mother and father did a good job at explaining to the policemen a ‘hilarious miscommunication’ that had occurred as they pointed to their corpse-ridden floor, sometimes guffawing, sometimes crossing their arms. Mother soon descended to the floor holding a dustpan and a tiny broom. She took her time, caressing the sundry lifeless insects onto the sleek edge of her dust-pan; it was a struggle-less endeavour.

    Mother either collected her baggage and dragged them down two flights of staircases without looking back. Or she stormed into her work chamber and shut herself up; not leaving for many, many days to come.

    But father staggered into the bedroom. He set his knee onto his neatly organized desk and climbed up to reach out to the Alexa device to yank it out. Its black cable dangled, ripped at the end of the steely plug. Huffing, he stepped down and tossed the device onto his bed. Then proceeded to fling himself on the bed as well. He curled up in a foetal position around the dead gadget and wept, sniffling, falling asleep.

    Ashmeen Bains is a culmination of interests varying from Animal Humanities to astronomy to different disciplines of art. She has been previously published in The Bombay Review for her short prose ‘Opia Eclipses Almosts’ and in the University of Edinburgh journal for her poem ‘Chopped Eyelashes.’ Currently, she is wrapping up her first experimental fiction novella.

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