Indrina Kanth and Cara Mayo

Cara Mayo
In the Woods

Inspiration Piece

The Clearing
By Indrina Kanth

Response

She met him in the wood when she was young, when she first moved to the house on Bedford. She heard a snap and saw him standing behind her, dirty and angry. “You don’t belong here,” he said.

“Who are you?”

“The protector of this forest and you can’t stay here.” He stood with arms across his chest, wearing a bright blue wind jacket and a green hat. His nose was red from the cold. He was a tall boy, no more than eight or nine.

“Why not? This is my forest, too now.”

“Prove it by answering a riddle.” Shantha was a clever girl and she liked puzzles. He was stern-faced, thinking, until he smiled and snapped his fingers, “What month has 28 days?”

“All of them,” she knew that one. He was disappointed. “Should I tell you one?” He looked at her, green eyes narrowing as he considered her black hair, ear muffs, her coat that needed mending.

“Yes. Tell me something I don’t know.”

* * *

He went to a weekly boarding school but came home on weekends. She would see him on Saturdays when they met in a small clearing, closer to her home than his. He would bring a thermos of hot chocolate to share. He told stories of school, boys run-amuck, and would ask her about India where she has been once. She told him about temples and the Taj Mahal. She left out the dirty streets and beggars.

His father worked in the city, an executive in a bank and his mother ran local charity boards. Shantha didn’t understand their jobs. Her parents worked hard. Sandeep was a doctor at the county hospital. He worked in clinics to pick up extra hours. Indu worked as a secretary and did Indian catering in the evenings for the neighborhood.

“Your cuisine is so exotic, Mrs. Sharma. We just love it!” the women would say when they picked up their packages. Indu would smile, shaking her head in a way that let them think whatever they wanted. Indu would wait up for Sandeep after putting Shantha to bed, listening softly to old records of Bengali singers who Shantha did not know. She cried as she listened.

“What’s wrong?” Shantha had asked once after creeping out of bed. Her mother was startled, quickly sitting up, adjusting her sari where it fell off her shoulder.

“I miss home,” she said.

“This is home,” Shantha replied, crawling into her lap. Indu held Shantha until she fell asleep, breathing in her mother’s smell of rosewater.

* * *

“Tell me something I don’t know,” he says, walking up to Shantha as she sits in the clearing. He has been gone for weeks; his family has been making trips to their country house upstate while the weather is still warm. His hair is long, wavy brown strands that fall into his face covering his eyes. He wears a tailored jacket and jeans.

“What goes up but never goes down?” she asks, raising an eyebrow. He returns the expression, and then bites his bottom lip. He often chews them, making them raw and redder in the cold.

“Your age, fool.” He was pretending. She cannot stump him though she has tried. “Go again.”

“Today is my birthday,” she says.

“Really?” he asks. “Well, happy birthday. How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Sweet sixteen. How do you guys celebrate?” On birthdays Indu would make a cake. The year before Shantha received an embroidered pillow made by Indu and a silver letter opener from Sandeep.

“What about you?” she asks.

“What do you want for your birthday?” He asks, ignoring her question. She brushes his hair away with her hand. He looks at her, their faces close. He looks at her lips.

“I want to run away,” she says, laughing and pouring more chocolate.

“We should run away then,” he says after a moment.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she says.

“The more you take of these the more you leave behind. What are they?”

She knows the answer, “Footsteps.”

* * *

For the birthday dinner, Indu makes lamb with potato curry and green beans which they eat after she has handed off the catered dishes she prepared. This is Shantha’s favorite meal, though she never asks for it. Sandeep arrives home early from the hospital and they eat together as Sandeep talks about his patients. They speak in Bengali at home. Sandeep delivered two babies that week and treated a family whose names all started with the letter K. “Americans,” he laughs.

When they have finished eating, her mother hands her a small box. Shantha opens it. It is a gold band she has seen before on her mother. Indu wears it on the third finger of her left hand. It is from her grandmother’s wedding jewelry. She remembers little of her grandmother who died when she was seven, soon after they moved to this house, though she is told she resembles her with her light skin, long black hair and black eyes.

“It’s beautiful,” Shantha says. “So beautiful.”

“Now it is yours,” Indu says. Indu brings out a lemon cake with vanilla frosting. She places a candle on it when the doorbell rings. Sandeep goes to answer, and Shantha hears his voice greeting Sandeep at the door. She breathes in quickly.

He walks into the room, he is wearing a suit, his hair is washed and out of his face. He is striking, handsome.

“Please have some cake,” Indu says, moving to get another plate.

“It looks great but I can’t stay.” He has never been in her home and she has never been in his. She remembers the wood, what she said about running away, and feels her pulse quicken.

“I have something for Shantha.” She is wearing a salwar kameez, something she has never worn outside her house. She feels very hot. “From my family,” he says. He walks to her and hands her a small box. Sandeep pulls out a chair for him to sit, but he refuses. The wood on the chair is worn, the upholstery fading.

“Happy birthday,” he says, smiling. Lifting the top, she sees a gold chain with a locket in the center.

“How beautiful,” Indu says.

“It’s too much,” Shantha says quickly, putting it back in the box.

“Really, it’s nothing,” he says.

“I can’t accept this.”

“Don’t be rude, say thank you,” Sandeep says.

“Put it on,” he says. They all look at her as she turns the clasp, placing it on her neck. She feels the chain, cool against her collar. It makes her shiver.

“Thank you,” she says.

“It’s really nothing. I’m sorry but I have to run. Good evening, Dr. and Mrs. Sharma.” He pauses, looking around the room. “You have a beautiful home.” He stands beside Sandeep who wears a brown tunic and glasses. He leaves.

The three of them finish their dinner in silence. She thanks her parents again for the present, for the cake. She kisses them before bed. When her parents are asleep she opens the door, stepping out into the cold.

She has never gone to the clearing at night, but even in the dark she can find her way. She feels the trees; they are different in this light. The ground crunches beneath her feet. Shantha thinks of him, how different he was in the suit, how different from the boy who fell in the wood when they were thirteen and he wanted to run. “Follow me!” he called back to her. She tried but he was fast, taller and long-legged. He turned back and tripped on a root, falling hard into the ground. She ran to him, but he was up before she made it.

“See,” he said, “You’re no match for me.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said, laughing as she checked his knee for cuts.

She digs at the ground with her hand, moving with purpose, making a hole deep enough, and places the locket inside. She should leave it here in their clearing. She sees it shine even in the deep blue light. She sits until dawn, until the light begins to change. She picks up the locket, wiping it clean with her bed shirt, and walks home before her parents awaken. She puts the locket in the bottom drawer of her dresser. She places the gold ring on her third finger, where it fits, and crawls into bed smelling of pine and moss, dreaming of lost things.

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One Comment

  1. melissa pasanen
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 2:48 pm | #

    love this story – so full of longing, like the gaze in the painting. beautiful pair.

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