(Many years before I could write about child abuse, and my personal experiences, with dispassion, I wrote this early, awkward short story. It’s here not because it’s much good–it was very raw work–but because I’ve always been fond of it. Little Pig remains a reminder to me that the best thing to do with bad memories is to let them go; better yet, transform them into something you can live with. Then, let go, and live the rest of your life. My childhood had books in it, and loving family; tree-climbing, and magnificent expeditions into the wild fringes of Palam Airfield.
It also had its demons; but over time, I learned that the predators in your life cannot prevent you from owning your own happiness.)
Little pig, little pig
It’s when she’s reaching up for the ball that Anasuya knows for sure something’s wrong. Her hand connects, and she knows that the ball will soar up, so close, but hit the rim of the basket instead of going all the way home.
What’s bothering her is the scratchy feeling at the back of her throat, a soreness in her muscles, the sense that her body is being slowly squeezed to bits by a giant. She’s already a star athlete; she’s the only girl from Class V on the school team. But she struggles for the rest of the game with a growing sense of bonelessness and muscle ache.
“Not one of your best performances, Anu,” says Mr Pinto, her coach. There’s no judgement in his voice, he’s just surprised. She nods. “I’m sorry, coach,” she says, standing up and reaching for her gym bag. Her head whirls and for the first time in her life, Anu faints. She’s conscious of feeling cold, shivering, just before she hits the ground.
The voices swirl above her head. She feels as though she’s under water, her face pressed up against something cool and green, listening from a great distance.
“… burning up… shouldn’t have been playing…”
“….said nothing, I had no idea…”
“…phoned her mother… doctor… should be here…”
Then the world closes over her, and she floats off into the stillness.
* * * * *
Lemongrass and mothballs. The pillowcase seems to stretch on forever, an ocean of cool, clean, scented white. Someone’s put a blanket over her but she wants to tell them it’s the scratchy one, it needs a sheet beneath it. Someone’s massaging her head with strong, capable fingers. Again, she has that sense of being underwater, the way she feels when she dives from the highest diving board and cuts into the water, the way she feels when she puts out a hand and touches the tiles on the floor of the pool, cocooned by the silence of the water.
She can hear voices. Doc Mukherjee’s calm, rumbling tones. “Malaria… dangerously high fever…. these pills, four times a day…”
She closes her eyes. Sleep envelops her like a heavy razai.
The room is filled with the insistently sweet scent of roses. They’ve been shoved clumsily into vases that occupy any free space, niches in the bookshelf, free space on the dressing table, the foot of the bed. Some are still cellophane-wrapped. In wavery writing, a banner on the wall opposite that she can see if she raises her head a few painful inches says, “Get Well Soon, Anusuya!!!!”
The words echo and shimmer in her mind. Get Well Soon Anusuya. Got Wall Scones Anusunya. Grit Hell Spoons Anaesthesia. It doesn’t make sense. She’s not well. How long has she been sick?
Someone’s in the room. She turns her head, feeling the full leaden useless weight of it. She tries to speak, but it’s tiring. She concentrates on getting the words out: “How long have I been ill?”
The blurred outlines of a face swim into view. Her mother’s small, worried features. At first Anu can’t understand what she’s saying, the words are dancing in her head. Doing the rumba, samba, salsa, tango and cha-cha-cha, with a bit of Bharatnatyam and Kathakali thrown in just for variety. If she tries really hard, she can understand maybe one word out of seven. “Eed is phai summacks do squaps malaria and tentam pergo sansum all of us worried strak ferish nambla two weeks two weeks two weeks.”
It echoes in her head. Two weeks. Two weeks. Fourteen days. She can’t work out how many hours. A million zillion hours? No, surely less than that. A few hundred hours? Must be more than that. Her sheets are soaked. Where did the last two weeks go? She wishes someone would change the sheets. Her mother is speaking, her mouth opening and closing. She looks like a fish. Anusuya tries to say, “Ma, you look like a fish.” Her eyes close. She sleeps.
* * * *
When she wakes up, it’s night. The window is dark, there’s just a bedside lamp winking solemnly in the blackness. Her room is cool and though her bones hurt, she feels better.
Her mother is sleeping in the shabby pink-striped chair right next to the bed. Anusuya reaches for a glass of water, not wanting to disturb her, but the movement wakes her up. She smiles at her daughter. “Feeling any better, Anu?”
“A little. Ma, you’ve been here all through?”
“Yes, darling. You had a lot of fever this afternoon, but it seems to have gone down now. Do you want the TV on?”
Anu thinks about it. Then she smiles. “Would you read me a story, Ma?”
It’s one of their oldest rituals; the bedtime story. And her mother’s face softens as she picks up a book of fairy tales; her voice is calm and soothing and those magic words, “Once upon a time”, lull Anu into a deep sleep.
* * * *
That night, Anusuya dreams.
It starts well. She’s playing basketball, and she’s the captain of the team. They’ve been practising for months together, and they respond to each other’s moves instinctively, seamlessly. She’s laughing as she scores a basket, and then another; as she blocks an over-ambitious defender from the other team, and figures out their strategy, and sends in her people, in deadly knots of twos and threes, to dismantle their game plan. She’s laughing as she stretches and leaps up and from an impossible but possible distance, scores the winning basket….
…and she comes down, walking on air, and she lands in the middle of a forest, a thicket of thorn trees and deodars and she looks around for her team, but they’re gone, sucked somewhere else in the middle of this deep green hilly silence, and there’s just her, in her basketball shift.
She’s tired, and sweaty. There’s a clearing ahead, with a teeny-tiny cottage in the middle of it, and nothing has ever looked that inviting, and she walks towards it. And oh. And oh, because inside, it’s just as cozy as it seems. There are clean clothes laid out—for her? Well, they’re in her size—on the dining table, and she finds herself walking upstairs, to the shower, which is blessedly, beautifully, perfectly warm. She showers, she dresses, she comes downstairs and rests in the chaise lounge that curves lovingly round her body, and she drifts off to sleep.
It’s the knocking at the door that wakes her, a thunderous clang-clang-clang that shifts her out of the dream sleep. “Who’s there?” she calls.
And a voice as deadly as datura and as pleasant as marshmallow says, “It’s me, it’s the big bad wolf. Little pig, little pig, let me come in?”
In her dream, she is feisty. She calls back, “You’re not getting in; not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” And she settles back, drawing her hands in… trotters, they’re trotters, and her nose/ snout is whiffling overtime, and her pink skin has hairs standing up on end, and she is grunting, and looking up at the ceiling, which is made of straw, and somehow, she knows she has to run, NOW, and she leaps out of the chair on all fours…. The door opens at the pressure of her snout, but as she trots, she smells something dank and feral, something so wild that her porcine nostrils go crazy, she smells predator, and blood, and she sees those intelligent wolf’s eyes, roaming and fixing on her… and she squeals, and runs for what her life is worth…
Those teeth flash down just behind her hooves; she kicks up mud in a panic to blind the predator. Ahead, she just knows it, is a house made of wood and twigs, if only she can reach that; but the wolf’s teeth snap on air, and then snap again, and she feels a searing pain in the tendon on her left foot. She turns, panicked, and looks right into the maw of the wolf, its learing, saliva-specked tongue, its sharp, unforgiving teeth, its red throat—and she squeals again, despairingly, as the teeth fasten on her neck..
* * *
And then she wakes up. Her mother is bustling around the room. Anusuya has been changed, she is in fresh clothes, and her skin smells less stale—she has been sponged. The bedclothes smell of lemon and lavender, and the flowers have been renewed—fresh bouquets litter the end of the bed.
“Ma,” says Anusuya, “did you get any sleep?”
Her mother turns, and smiles. Her face looks drawn and tired, but her eyes are as twinkly as ever. “You had a rough night, baby,” she says, “it’s the fever dreams—that can happen with malaria.”
Anusuya frowns. “They seemed so real,” she says, “kind of scary.”
Her mother nods. “Once your fever comes down, the dreams will go. They’re only dreams, baby. I’ll get you some breakfast—something light, all right?”
Anusuya nods as her mother shuts the door behind her. She burrows back under the sheets, and something scratches her lightly—a thin, thorny twig. She looks at it, puzzled, and then looks around at the flowers that some of her friends and teachers have been sending. It must have fallen out from one of the bouquets, she thinks, closing her eyes.
She drifts in and out of sleep that day, but whenever she wakes up, she finds her mother there, her mother’s hands, smelling of Johnson’s Baby Lotion and haldi-and-garlic, gently smoothening her brow.
* * *
The next day is much, much better. Some of her friends come over—Sameera, the awe-inspiring games captain, Shahana, the giggly friend who shares the back bench with her, three of her team mates. She’s happy to see them, but she tires quickly, unable to sustain the conversation for more than fifteen minutes. They leave, their voices echoing cheerfully around the room:
“See you at the St Ignatius versus Columbus game!”
“I’ll bring you some comic books, okay? The new Sandman’s just come in…”
“We’ll have a party on Facebook when you’re feeling better, Anu.”
She falls back into sleep the moment they’ve left. She’s in a house, deep in the heart of the forest. It’s made of twigs and wood, and it smells of fresh-cut trees. She likes it here. There’s a small cluster of apples and nuts scattered on the mud floor, and she gets down on all fours, snorting and grunting, and snuffles after them.
“The doctor’s coming,” her mother’s voice says, far, far away. “Let’s get you dressed.”
She eats an apple, and it tastes of the sun and of summer. She stretches, and her skin feels loose and beautiful; it’s a shade of pink she’s never seen before, the blood coursing beneath the veins. She trots away from the apples and finds a beautiful bed of warm, comforting mud; she digs herself in and wallows to her heart’s content.
There’s the cold sting of the stethoscope on her chest. “Breathe in,” says Dr Mukherjee. “All well, my dear?”
She has to shake herself out of that clean, comfortable pink pig’s skin; she has to work hard to come back into her long athlete girl’s body. She starts to tell him about her dreams, about the wolf knocking at the door, but a drowsiness overtakes her. “That’s not good,” she hears. “104 at this stage is unusual, I’d better stay.”
She slips back into sleep, and now she’s at the bottom of a ravine. There’s a waterfall nearby, but she’s pressed down, her belly close to the moss. She is quivering with fear. She doesn’t know how she knows this, but her pink skin is drenched with sweat, her nose is twitching in distress: she is the prey. Far away in the corners of her mind, a voice tells her to be strong, to leap and run like the basketball player, to trust to her sinews and tendons, to turn and face the predator. But she cannot do this.
The wolf lopes into view, handsome and sleek, at the top of the hill. She prays that it cannot smell her, cannot smell the sweat and the fear coming off her.
“An injection might help,” says Dr Mukherjee’s voice, far away. “I’ve never seen a case like this, Mrs Banerji. Quite inexplicable.”
If she breaks cover and runs like the wind, she might find her way to a cottage built of twigs and wood. She might. But if she stays still, perhaps the wolf won’t notice her.
“You’ll need more of those cold cloths, Mrs Banerji,” says Dr Mukherjee. “We have to get her temperature down.”
Ice bands her forehead, and somehow, she knows. The wolf hasn’t changed position; it stays up there, silent, beautiful and deadly in silhouette. But she knows and it knows. It has her scent. It knows where she is.
“Metakalfin. It’s the wonder drug of this decade, Mrs Banerji. If anything can help your daughter now, it’s this.”
She breaks. She can feel the power in her hind legs, the desperation that drives her forward. She can sense the wolf turning, its eyes narrowing joyfully as it marks its prey. She has to make it to the cottage. She must. There is no other way.
“No! Don’t let her thrash around so much! She must have the injection, and if the needle breaks off…”
She can feel its breath, rank and feral, thick with the blood of its last kill, on her shoulders. And just as she’s about to give up, there it is: the cottage. She sobs as she runs through the door. She is safe here, for now.
Little pig, says the voice in her head. It is sad and sorrowing, hopeful and despairing. Little pig, little pig, let me come in?
She gulps. Perhaps it’s reformed, she thinks, and then she looks at the thin bleeding gash on her flank. Perhaps not.
Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.
Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.
“Anu,” says her mother, “Oh, my Anusuya.”
She rolls thankfully into her mother’s warmth, her embrace. The shots have taken their effect. There is no warm, rank wolf-breath; she is not a pig, just a young girl suffering from malaria. Dr Mukherjee’s face, bespectacled, swims into view, and she smiles at him.
“You had a few bad moments there, my dear,” he says.
“I know,” she says, “but I guess it’ll be fine now. It must have been the fever.”
“Yes,” he says, “malaria can do strange things.”
She rests, looking up at the whitewashed ceiling, down at the brocaded curtains, around at the quiet normalcy of her room. She feels a slight itch, and massages a small scratch on her leg—she must have cut herself somehow, thrashing around with the fever. But it will be all right; in a week or two, she’ll be back at the basketball courts, perhaps a little weaker than normal. She’ll get her strength back eventually, and she can still be there for the big game, the one versus Loyola.
She can hear the front door open and close, as her mother goes out to see off Dr Mukherjee. Her bedroom window opens out onto the road, and she can hear their voices, a distant, comforting murmur.
Anu wonders whether she should switch on the TV, but the remote control is out of reach, and she doesn’t feel like getting up. The pillows have been stacked just right; she likes their coolness against her head.
Then she hears a creak, as the front door opens again. That must be Ma, coming back in; but no, her mother is still outside, talking to the doctor.
The bedroom door opens just a crack. She can see the red reflection from the Chinese lantern in the hallway. “Ma,” calls Anusuya. “Ma, is that you?”
There is no response, but she can hear something now. It sounds like the heavy breathing of a dog, she thinks, except that she doesn’t know anyone who has a dog in the neighbourhood. There’s a strange smell. Like wet fur and the rotting leaves in a forest.
“Ma?” calls Anu, but what comes out is a thin, high squeal. She turns, trying to get out of bed, and feels a heavy, hairy paw across her windpipe, and looks into a pair of flat yellow eyes. The wolf’s muzzle is matted and its breath stinks of rotting meat. There is mud on the sheets, and at the bottom of the bed, her flailing feet catch on thorny branches.
Outside, her mother is saying, “I hope so, Doctor. I’ll try the lemon barley water, she hasn’t been able to keep much down.”
Inside Anu’s room, as her bones are snapped one by one, a voice, as deadly as datura and as soft as marshmallow, says softly, “Hello, pig.” And then the wolf’s gleaming white teeth flash down.
(Copyright: Nilanjana S Roy; first published by Scholastic in 2006. This was an early story, perhaps the second short story I wrote as an adult, so please excuse the obvious teething troubles.)