Four days in Goa nearly killed me. It started the morning my bus arrived in Mapusa and I didn’t see my uncle Quinton waiting for me. A swarm of rickshaw drivers had crowded the bus doors when I got off. I shook my head at them, and tried to push through to get my bag from the cavity of the bus. “My uncle is picking me up,” I repeated, and heaved a backpack onto my shoulders. Less than a week before Christmas, the heat of the morning sun felt strange to me as I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and found my uncle’s number.
“Hello…hello?” There was a dog barking in the background on the line and I almost didn’t hear my uncle.
“Uncle?” I asked.
“Aiden. Where are you?” Uncle Quinton’s voice was soft, and it reminded me of the voice of his daughter, Maria, the cousin I’d just left in Mumbai the night before.
“I’ve reached Maupsa.”
“You reached! So early?”
“The bus was early.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m…next to the road, in front of a market.”
“Stay there. I’ll come.”
I put my cell back in my pocket and looked towards the market. There were bright oranges, yellows and pinks, amongst dust. Women in saris sat on straw mats piled with fruit: bananas, guavas, pomegranates, and papayas as big as watermelons. One very old woman squatted beside a woven basket full of fish that looked like the minnows we used to catch in our creek back home. They were the same size and shape, but the morning sun caught the shine of their skin like silver coins. The fish glistened despite the flies – they flew and landed in between strokes of a wrinkled hand that waved and shooed. Stalls of bangles, electronics, and clothing were touched by a light breeze that mixed sweet and sour scents.
Voices spoke in Konkani. It was a language in which I only knew swear words. On the overnight bus, they had made the stop announcements in Hindi. Maria had warned me when I left Mumbai to be careful on the bus. Maria said, “Listen for the name of the city. And remember your bus number if you get off at a rest stop. They all look the same, and sometimes these drivers leave quick, and you will be stuck.” I only got off the bus once at night. I followed a line of men into a concrete hut that had a metal urinal wall and a drain at the bottom. Heat came off the metal like a furnace. The line for food at the rest stop was even longer. I was thankful Maria’s mother had packed me cutlets in a foil package for the journey. “These places the drivers get paid to stop at, more oil than food you get,” she said. I ate in my blue cushioned seat on the bus and looked out the window at the moon. It was a crescent that sat below Venus and Jupiter to make a smile in the night sky. I couldn’t help but smile back. I drew a smiley face in my journal next to the date as well, hoping the celestial sign meant I was headed in the right direction. Leaving university without a degree had left me uncertain of everything, except that I needed to go on this trip.
“Canada, you want to buy a bracelet?” A boy held a sheet of cardboard with lines of woven string bracelets attached. He must have recognized the flag stitched onto my backpack.
“No, thank you.”
“Special price for you Canada. Forty rupees.” The boy was barefoot, but had tiny gold earrings, the size of poppy seeds. He continued, “Boys or girls can wear. Buy one for your girlfriend.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I said.
“You know why you don’t have a girlfriend? Because you don’t have a bracelet!” The boy smiled with mischievous eyes. He reminded me of my neighbourhood friends and I – we were enterprising kids once too. After every snowfall we would first shovel our own driveways, and Mrs. McNally’s, an old woman who lived next to us, then go around to people’s houses and ask if they wanted their driveways done for five dollars. We’d always bring along my sister, Ally, and the other younger kids. They carried mini shovels with Mickey Mouse or other cartoon characters printed on them that few people could say no to. Once the customers agreed and shut their doors, we’d signal a couple of the older kids join us, and do most of the actual shovelling.
“Can’t argue with that,” I said, and took out a few notes from my pocket, not bothering to bargain down the price this time.
I pointed to a yellow and white bracelet, and the boy said, “That’s a very good one, it will always keep you on the right path.” He flipped the cardboard over and released a knot with one pull. He then wrapped the bracelet around my left wrist and tied three firm knots with his small hands that looked much older than they were.
“Thank you,” the boy said, before running off.
I went back to looking up and down the road for my uncle. I wished I had asked him on the phone what he was wearing so I could recognize him. I had only met my uncle as a young child, and remembered so little of that trip with my parents. I hoped I’d be able to recognize him from photos, and my mom’s stories. “Quinton’s as tall as sugar cane. He’s gone thin with age, but he’s still got his strength. He has to, to live in that house alone.”
I scanned the faces that passed, and finally, I found a familiar one. Uncle Quinton wore a faded blue, cotton dress shirt, and khaki slacks. His eyes darted from person to person, and his face held a worried expression I would see often on him in the coming days.
I waved my arm and called out, “Uncle.”
He turned, and came right over. “Aiden. You made it!” He pulled me in for a hug but my backpack prevented him from getting his arms all the way around me.
“How was the journey?” he asked.
“Good. I didn’t get much sleep on the bus, but other than that it was fine.”
“Yes, you must be tired. Come, we’ll go home.” He led me to a line of scooters just off the road. They all looked identical, but he stopped at one, turned the key to lift up the seat, and pulled out a helmet. He put the helmet on, closed the seat and sat down.
“You only have one helmet?” I asked.
“By law only the driver needs a helmet. Come, sit.”
With my backpack on, I awkwardly put one leg over the scooter and sat down behind him.
Uncle started the engine and slowly manoeuvred the few yards before the main road. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to hold on to, and didn’t want to loop my arms around his chest; just as I was about to ask, he pulled onto the road and hit the gas. The weight of my backpack pulled me back and down. I tried to grab the back of his shirt with my right hand but it slipped from my grasp. I landed half on my side with my left arm underneath. I could hear the horns of the vehicles avoiding me, but I didn’t move until I felt a hand helping me up.
“You okay, Canada?” The boy still clutched his cardboard with bracelets in his other hand.
“Yes, thank you.” Just as I said it, I felt a pain in my left arm and held it up – below my bracelet there was a pink scrape, just beginning to bleed.
“I thought this thing was supposed to keep me on the right path?”
“Right path can be bumpy,” the boy said, with a subtle swivel of this head.
I saw my uncle’s scooter circle back around and stop close-by. “Aiden, are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Just a small cut.”
“Array, you have to hold on at the back. I think that backpack is too big.” He helped me take my pack off, then placed it lying down where his feet would normally go. He rested his legs on top of my bag so it looked like he was a biker riding a large motorcycle. He took a note out of his front shirt pocket and slipped it to the boy. I got back on the scooter and this time Uncle told me to grip the metal bar behind the seat. I held on as tight as could, and we were off once again.
* * *
“Molly! Enough.” Uncle shouted to his dog after we’d pulled up to his home. Molly had amber fur and a lean build; she was running and barking on the other side of a waist-high stone wall that surrounded the front of his house. The weathered stone had a diamond pattern that must have been chiseled in.
I held out my hand through the metal gate at the centre of the wall. Molly sniffed my hand with a wet nose, and stopped barking.
Uncle parked the scooter at the side of the house and then led me through the gate.
The orange clay tile on the roof looked like burnt toast, but not black. Sheets of corrugated metal slanted down over the two front windows, like eyelashes over dark eyes.
“Come, I will give you a tour of the house your mother grew up in.” He unlocked the solid wood door with a key. Molly brushed past my leg and raced in.
“It’s so cool in here,” I said. Stepping inside felt like going down into a basement on a hot summer day. The front room had a small television in one corner, a radio with cassette tapes piled on top, two chairs in the centre, and an altar on the wall with framed pictures of Jesus and Mary, crosses, candles and crucifixes.
“It’s the walls. They’re made from blocks of iron ore stone, covered with limestone plaster,” he said, placing the palm of his hand flat against the closest one. “Over a century old.”
The walls were the same colour as the outside of the house: a light yellow, like the inside of a banana. I tried to imagine how such massive blocks of stone were made and moved so many years ago. I kept picturing the walls in the Flintstones‘ homes.
“And the floor.” He stomped his sandal on the hard, smooth surface. “Cow dung.”
I stared at the brown, cement-like floor, looking for something I hadn’t noticed, then sniffed the air, searching for a scent I had failed to detect. I was going ask how it was made, but felt my cell phone vibrating in my pocket.
“Hi Aiden, Maria speaking.” My cousin’s slow and soft voice was comforting to hear again.
“Hi Maria, how are you?” I said.
“I’m well. You reached okay?”
“Yes, thank you Maria. I literally just walked in the door.”
“Good, I prayed you’d be safe on your journey.”
“How did your prayer meeting go?” I asked, but saw Uncle Quinton’s face turn to disappointment, and regretted asking this in front of him.
“Oh it was good. I won’t talk long, just wanted to see you made it. And, I forgot to ask what time you’ll be coming back on the twenty-fourth?”
“One sec, let me get my ticket from my bag. Do you want to talk to your dad?”
There was the slightest hesitation before she said, “Okay.”
I handed the phone to her father, and unzipped my bag to dig for my journal, which had the ticket inside.
“Hi Maria…I’m good. Yes, he recognized me. But you know, he happened upon an accident. Fell right off the scooter and cut his arm…yes, I’ll put ghanerdem on it.”
In one of the side pockets I found my journal, and the novel I was reading, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. I opened up the journal to the back; the pouch held my train ticket along with pictures from home. I handed the ticket to Uncle, pointing to the time.
“Arrives at VT Station at seven AM,” Uncle said. I couldn’t hear what Maria said to him next, but he glanced at the altar, then said, “Okay, then, take care. Tell your mother I will call her later on. Okay, bye.”
I felt guilty then that I’d be leaving Uncle Quinton alone here for Christmas, and I’d be in Mumbai with Maria and her mother.
Uncle handed back the phone, but held onto the ticket.
“Seven hundred rupees you paid? Upper Class. When I go to Bombay it costs me forty rupees.”
I was going to say that the tickets for regular class were all booked, but let it go.
“Come, let’s take care of that cut.” He led me down the hallway, past a room with two single beds, past the kitchen to the right, and out the door to the backyard.
The first thing I noticed was the outhouse, not ten feet from the house. It was like a mini version of the house, with the same walls and roof. Maria had warned me when I was in Mumbai that there was only an outhouse here. “Dad put a door on it a while back. Before that, you had to sing when you were using the toilet, so no one would come in. And when I was young, some people had a piggy toilet. The waste would go down to the pigs. The gross thing was that people would then eat those same pigs.”
Uncle pointed to the right, and said, “Be careful of the well.”
The deep, open hole in the ground was square-shaped and about half the size of the outhouse. The well sat directly below the kitchen window, and had a pulley and rope with a copper pot tied to one end to fetch the water through the window.
Uncle’s eyes were on the ground as he walked around the well, past the outhouse and towards one of the stone walls separating his backyard from the neighbours’. These walls were made from round rocks stacked one on top of the other, and enclosed a few towering trees in the yard before being taken over by jungle the further back they went.
Molly trotted to a spot shaded by the trees and lay down.
“Is that a mango tree?” I recognized the leaves from a small potted one my mom grew back home.
“Yes, but it’s not the season. In the summer that tree is full of mangoes. Hundreds.” His eyes remained on the ground, like he was looking for a four leaf clover.
“Do you eat them?”
“Of course. The neighbours come also. We pick some early, but by the time they get ripe we’re eating mangoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Uncle stopped, bent down, and tore off the leaves of what looked like a weed.
“Come,” he said, and placed the leaves on the stone wall.
As I approached, I heard a voice from the other side of the wall. “Uncle, have you seen my Cock-a-doodle-do? I can’t find him.” The little girl had her hair in a ponytail and wore a pink T-shirt.
“No, I haven’t seen that rooster of yours,” Uncle said. “Probably out gallivanting.”
“He’s a naughty fellow,” she said, then pointed at me, “Who’s that?”
“Priscilla, this is Aiden. Clara Aunty’s son, from Canada.”
“Very far away. By plane you have to go,” he said.
I smiled at Priscilla, and she smiled back with her two front teeth missing. I wanted to grab my journal again as it had a world map at the back that I could show her. But Priscilla noticed the leaves Uncle had picked and asked me, “You got a hurt?”
“Yes.” I said, and put my arm over the wall to show her.
“He fell right off the back of the scooter,” Uncle said.
Priscilla stared at me, like she’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing. I wished my uncle would stop telling everyone that. He held the leaves over my arm, and with both hands he rubbed them together like he was hand-washing a piece of clothing. A strong, unpleasant smell filled the air, and liquid from the leaves dripped down onto my arm and into the cut.
“Ow!” I hadn’t expected it to sting.
“Hurts, yes. But it’s a very good antiseptic. This will clear it.”
“Can I have your bracelet?” Priscilla asked.
I was going to give it to her, but Uncle answered before I could. “Priscilla. Hush. You don’t ask like that. Now, where’s your brother?”
“Pedro’s playing football.”
“Soccer?” I asked. “Where does he play?”
“Near the church,” Priscilla said.
“Later in the day you can go,” Uncle said. “Have breakfast and take rest first. Come I still have to show you the toilet.”
We said goodbye to Priscilla, who went back to searching for her rooster, and Uncle led me back to the outhouse. The wood on this door was thin and didn’t have a lock. Inside, pieces of wood and tools were tucked in against one wall, and around a short corner was a squatter toilet and a pail of water with a small plastic container floating inside. I had encountered the squatter toilet in Mumbai, yet my leg muscles were still not accustomed to sustaining such a position.
Light snuck in through the space between the walls and the roof, but a light bulb hung from the ceiling. “Where’s the switch?” I asked, not seeing it anywhere inside.
“Ah, come,” Uncle said, with a half-smile, and led me back inside the house.
There was a small fridge, the size of the one I had had in my dorm room. Above the fridge was a red light bulb and a switch. He flicked the switch and the red light went on.
“This turns the outside light on too. So just flick this switch before and after you go.”
“Did you make this?”
“Yes, I put it in a little while back.”
“It’s a smart idea,” I said. When Maria had told me about the outhouse, she didn’t mention the light bulb. When I’d asked her when the last time she’d gone to Goa was, she went quiet, and then answered, “It’s been a long time.” I asked her if she doesn’t like it there, but I didn’t know how to respond when she said, “I love it, but Brother Abraham says we must let go of what we love.”
Uncle flicked the switch off, and said, “This bulb will probably go soon though, I haven’t changed it yet.”
“I heard they’re working on light bulbs that could last up to twenty-five years.” This was one of the few things I retained from my chemistry professor’s lectures.
“I don’t think I like the idea of a light bulb lasting longer than I will.”
Uncle moved towards the kitchen and said, “I’ll make some tea. Sit,” pointing to the table and chairs.
* * *
I woke up to the sound of something shattering. When I sat up in the bed, the touch and sight of the white mosquito net confused me, and I struggled to get out from under it. I saw Uncle’s bed was empty and went to the front door where Molly was barking. The almost thunderous sound from above went in waves, and then stopped.
I saw the face of a boy peeking in through the window.
“Monkeys,” he said.
Uncle came rushing in from the back of the house, and addressed the boy, “Are they still out there?”
“It’s okay Uncle, I chased them away with stones.”
“Good job, Pedro.”
“Monkeys?” I asked, still frightened and confused from being jolted from sleep.
“In between the trees they run on roofs, and sometimes knock down the tiles,” the boy said. “It doesn’t happen too often so you should feel lucky, not everyone gets the monkeys welcoming them.”
I had to grin, my heart slowing from its panicked pace.
“But they know what they’re doing,” Uncle said. “They wait for midday when people are napping.”
Pedro hoisted himself up on the window ledge. “Priscilla said you play football?”
“Yes,” I said, and realized this was Priscilla’s brother.
“You should come play.”
“Let him eat first. I’ll take him to the tea stall and then I’ll drop him off at the field after.”
Pedro agreed, and dropped down from the window.
Uncle and I locked up the house, then took the two-minute-scooter-ride to a tiny tea stall tucked in between a number of banana trees. There were dark metal tables and chairs under the shade of a roof that looked like it was thatched coconut leaves. There were candies and sweets in a glass display, and bottles of cashew fenny liquor on a shelf behind the counter.
As soon as we sat down, a man came and poured water for us in steel cups. Uncle said something in Konkani to the man, and he took away my cup of water. He returned a moment later with a bottle of water and two steaming cups of chai.
“Your mother told me you left school,” Uncle said, picking up his cup and blowing steam away from the rim. “That’s very bad, you should have finished your studies first, then come.”
“I can go back, if I want.” I tried to take a sip of my chai, but it was far too hot. I thought back to that year of engineering. I remember it was a shock at first to have so many other Indian students in my class, coming from a town where my sister and I were the only ones. Among that circle, my nickname was ‘Coconut’ – brown on the outside, white on the inside. I disliked that name at first, as it implied I was missing something, that there was something I was faking or hiding; however, as the semester wore on and we all became friends, the name became endearing. And yet, strangely, the feeling that I actually was missing a piece of my identity grew, like a lost prologue, whose omission was only felt by those born between cultures.
I did well enough in my courses first semester, but things changed for me second semester. I remember buying my textbooks from the bookstore: The Fundamental Principles of Fluid Mechanics, Materials Science and Engineering, Vol 6., Ordinary Differential Equations. All of them were thick texts, covered in shiny plastic wrapping. On the way to the checkout, I stopped at a table and picked up an equally thick copy of Rohinton Mistry’s, A Fine Balance. I read the back, and thinking I could use a break, placed it into my already heavy basket. I didn’t read a word of my textbooks until I finished that book. Soon after, I felt India calling me. It was as though the place I’d always been told I was from, but had never truly known, suddenly needed knowing.
The winter wore on at school. The ice gradually blocked my window, and I returned to the bookstore often. Along with many books of fiction, I purchased a journal, and soon filled it. The only time I actually studied was the night before mid-terms and exams, cramming, for fear of failing. I barely passed, and not long after I decided that I would come on this trip.
The waiter returned with two plates filled with bhajais: one filled with potato, the other onion.
“Did you go to school Uncle?” I asked, and began eating.
“I went to VJTI, a Technical Institute in Bombay. I got my Weaving Manufacturing Certificate. Then I was able to get a job for Swedesi Mills, part of Tata.”
“What did you do, though?”
“Textiles. We took cotton and made cloth. Nowadays everything is electronically controlled, but back then we used huge looms. ‘Swinging Monsters,’ we used to call them. It started with Platt Brothers Loom, plain looms. Then came the Japanese Sakomoto Looms, these were semi-automatic. And by the time the Shuttle-less Nuovobigno looms came out, I was Assistant Weaving Master.” He described each loom like it was an old friend.
“How long were you there?”
“Twenty-five years. But the price of land in Bombay went through the roof, so they moved the whole operation to Gujarat. Everyone lost their job. I was almost fifty, and no one hired you that old. We fought for years to get the pension we were owed. In the end we got half of what we were supposed to. Although, without it, I don’t know what I’d do.”
I thought of how much my plane ticket alone cost, and how much I had made working just the few months after I left school.
“It would be different if Maria was working or married, but she isn’t. I’m still supporting her.” Uncle downed the last of his chai like a shot of alcohol.
* * *
“Kitem adlem nisteak?” One of the boys playing soccer asked me.
I shook my head, and said, “I’m sorry. I only speak English, unfortunately.”
Pedro replied to the boy, then said to me, “He’s asking what you got for fish today?”
“Fish?” I asked.
“What food you ate? Your meal. We eat fish for lunch so often, everyone just asks what kind.”
“Oh. I didn’t have fish, but my meal was very tasty.”
The seven other boys were all different ages, and all barefoot. After Uncle had dropped me off, I wasn’t so sure about playing. The field had a slight slant, but then dropped off at a forty-five degree angle on one side. The earth was hard: red dirt, with tiny, rounded stones that the boys called xencare scattered everywhere.
We divided into teams and began to play; the kids were half my age but all were fast and strong on the ball. Pedro was on the opposite team and the best of the bunch – I couldn’t get the ball off of him. Running on the small stones was difficult at first, and I slipped around a bit.
After Pedro scored his fourth goal in the metal nets with no mesh, I asked him, “Will you play for Portugal or India?”
“Football I’d play for Portugal. Cricket I’d play for India.”
There was once a time I dreamed of playing soccer for Canada.
After half an hour I hadn’t even got one good shot off. The game was out of reach, but I still wanted to score at least one goal. I was near the edge of the field and kicked the ball with the outside of my foot. The ball sailed towards the net but I lost track of it when I slipped on the small stones – I landed on my side and momentum carried me down the hill. I could feel my right arm scraping the ground before my slide turned into a roll.
When I opened my eyes, Pedro was running down the hill.
“Are you alright?” he asked, when he reached me.
“I think so,” I said, embarrassed that I’d fallen. Then I remembered about the shot. “Did I score?”
“Yes, it went in.”
We both smiled, as we heard church bells ring.
“Time to go home,” Pedro said.
We said goodbye to the other kids, and Pedro and I walked back to our homes. Seeing the scrape on my arm he said, “Come, I know a plant for that.”
“No, thank you.” Remembering the sting of the last one.
“It’s not that one. This won’t hurt, it’s just aloe.”
We stopped off at Pedro’s house and he broke a leaf off the spiked aloe plant growing in his front yard. He told me to hold out my arm and with two fingers squeezed out the gel. I spread it over the scrape and felt a cooling sensation. I didn’t notice my Uncle Quinton walk up behind us.
“What happened?” Uncle asked. Molly followed close behind, tongue out and tail wagging.
“Just slipped down the hill while playing,” I said.
“What will your mother say?”
“You have to be careful.”
“Uncle, you didn’t give him fish for lunch?” Pedro asked.
“No. Tomorrow we’ll have to get one. Aiden, after church, I’ll show you the beaches and we’ll get a fresh fish.”
* * *
The mass was in Konkani, so I understood none of it, but was surprised how similar many of the actions and order of events were to home. After the mass, everyone mingled outside, near the large white statue of St. Francis of Assisi. I had vague memories of a story I’d been told by my father about that statue. Something involving an accident, a bad priest, and telling me the full story when I was older. Before I could ask Uncle about it, I noticed both Priscilla and Pedro rushing towards us. Priscilla was in a dress, and Pedro wore dress pants and a shirt. They were each trying to be the first to tell me something but were laughing too hard for me to understand.
“What is it?” I asked, smiling.
Neither of them spoke, and then they switched from trying to be the first to tell me, to exchanging, “You tell him,” back and forth.
Finally, Priscilla said, “My mom said to invite you and Uncle over to dinner tomorrow.”
I looked to Uncle, and he nodded.
“That sounds great Priscilla. Thank you,” I said. “Did you find your rooster?”
“No, he’s still missing.”
“I hope he’s okay.”
“Probably got eaten by something,” Pedro joked.
“I’m sure he’ll turn up,” Uncle said.
“Can you play football today?” Pedro asked.
“We’re going to see the beaches today,” Uncle said.
We said goodbye to the pair, and went back to Uncle’s scooter. After making a stop to change out of our church clothes at Uncle’s house, we began the journey. I held on to the back of the scooter this time. We went to three beaches that day, each with a different seductive meeting of sand and sea. The first beach was mostly filled with pale Europeans lying on cabana chairs under large umbrellas and being served drinks. The next beach had only Indian tourists. They took pictures and frolicked in the shallow water in their ordinary clothes instead of swimwear.
The third beach was my favourite. Just before we got off Uncle’s scooter and walked down to the beach, we passed what looked like a slum at first glance. The small houses were made of a patchwork of corrugated metal, plastic and thatched coconut leaves. There were clothes hanging on short lines. Some women in saris were washing pots near a well. A few kids were flying kites, while others were laughing as they rolled the frame of an old tire back and forth. When we got to the beach, it felt more real than the others. Maybe it was because there were less people, and only local people at this one. But there was something else as well. Something about the water and trees that felt familiar – the scene reminded me of a picture that hung in the living room of my parent’s house, and had been in my dreams since I was young. Sitting in the sand and watching the water it felt like I belonged, like I’d stepped back into one of those dreams.
On our way back to the scooter, Uncle said, “Come we’ll have a coconut.” We walked over to a table with a stack of coconuts. The tall trees behind them had leaves that moved in the breeze like shaggy hair would atop someone’s head.
There were two men at the stand; the younger one carried a machete.
Uncle said, “Two. One tender coconut for him.”
“Very good.” The merchant made an almost check mark in the air with his head. He spoke in Konkani to the young man, who began to cut the coconuts. Then he then turned to me and asked, “Where are you from my friend?”
“Canada. How did you know I’m not from here?” I hadn’t spoken yet, and wasn’t wearing my backpack.
The coconut seller said with a chuckle, “You have hope in your eyes. Too much hope for here.”
The young man handed one coconut to my uncle and another coconut to me; there was a hole sliced in the top and a plastic straw floated in the water filled almost to the brim.
“Too much hope,” Uncle said, “Guess how much he paid for a train ticket to Bombay?”
The merchant leaned in.
“Aye-ye-ye-ya,” the man said, and then translated to the young man. Both of them looked at me like they were simultaneously impressed that I had spent that much and was foolish for doing so.
I felt more foolish than boastful, but I stopped myself from getting annoyed with Uncle. I wasn’t certain why he’d tell this to people we’d just met, but had a feeling it was just a quick way to get them to like me.
Uncle finished his drink sooner than me and paid the man fifteen rupees.
“Did this one cost more?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s a tender coconut. The young ones cost more.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The older ones we can just drop to the ground,” the coconut seller said. “But the young ones would get bruised or broken, so we have to lower them down with a rope. Takes more time.”
I looked up at the coconut tree behind him, “I used to dream of climbing coconut trees when I was younger.”
“So long as you don’t dream under the coconut tree.” The man let out another chuckle, then continued, “Might be your last if one falls and hits your head.”
“You used to climb them right?” I asked Uncle. “I remember hearing stories of you spending whole afternoons up the coconut trees.”
“That was a long time ago.” Uncle looked at the other merchant stalls down the road, squinting in the sun. “Let me see if I can go get one fish. You’ll stay here?”
I nodded, and he walked away.
After I finished the water, the young man cut open the coconut and gave me a small piece of the shell to use as a spoon and scrape the tender flesh from the inside.
When I glanced up at the coconut trees again, the merchant said, “You want to try to climb?”
“I probably shouldn’t.”
“Come. It’s not too difficult.”
I thought of Uncle coming back and finding me up in a coconut tree. Part of me wanted to show him that I could indeed do it.
The merchant spoke in Konkani to the young man with the machete. The young man moved to the closest tree behind him, and motioned with his hand for me to come over.
I joined him at the tree, and he put both hands around the trunk and made a pulling motion – I guessed this meant keep to them tight. Then he angled his feet so they almost curled around the trunk. One hand after the other he moved higher, shimmying his feet up in stride.
My sister, Ally, and I had climbed many trees back in Canada, but none without branches. I put my arms around the tree, like the young man had. The trunk was coarse – it had ringed ridges, and felt like sandpaper. I realized my feet didn’t bend the way the young man’s did. I pulled with my arms and pushed with my feet as hard as I could, moving my body upwards.
“That’s it! You’re a natural,” I heard the merchant shout from below as I moved higher.
I looked up and saw the young man hanging on with one arm and smiling, encouraging me on. At that moment, it felt like I might make it to the top.
My climbing slowed when I felt the strain in my arms and legs. When my muscles started shaking, I stopped, wrapping my arms and legs around the tree and hugging it as tight as I could.
I looked up and saw the young man had stopped and was waiting for me.
“Take a break, it’s okay,” the merchant called up.
I put my chin against my shoulder and glanced down at the merchant fifteen feet below.
“I think that’s as far as I can go.”
“Yes. How do I get down?”
“Slide down, slowly.”
I loosened my grip, but didn’t move. I could feel the sweat beads on my forehead and I wanted to wipe them away, but couldn’t. When I loosened my grip more, I descended too rapidly. The inside of my thighs and chest rubbed against the tree trunk as I tried to regain my hold. When I finally stopped sliding, I hugged the tree even tighter than I had before.
The young man climbed down the other side of the tree and then down to the ground. He stood below me and I felt his hands around my waist. I loosened my grip and he helped lift me to the ground.
I was relieved when I felt the sand and stone beneath me. I stayed sitting there for a few seconds, but my back straightened when I heard my uncle’s voice.
“Aiden, what you doing?” He was carrying a plastic bag with the fish inside.
“I just thought I’d try.”
“You’re not from here. You could have gotten really hurt. What would I have done then?”
I stood up and brushed myself off. The fresh scrapes on my legs and chest stung, but the feelings of embarrassment and failure stung a little more.
“Tomorrow, I’m not going to let you out of my sight.”
* * *
In the afternoon the next day, Uncle and I sat in the tea stall again, drinking chai and eating the Parle-G biscuits.
“What time is your train tomorrow morning?” Uncle asked. He spoke louder than usual as there was a crow cawing in the surrounding trees.
“Ten-thirty.” I dunked a biscuit into my tea, but when I pulled it out the wet half crumbled into the tea.
“You’ll arrive on Christmas Eve. Maria will be happy.” Uncle dipped his biscuit in his tea twice, for only a second or two so it didn’t fall apart. “Just make sure she doesn’t take you to that cult. Or has she already?”
“She took me already, but don’t worry, there’s no chance of me joining.”
I thought back to that evening in Mumbai, when Maria took me to the building where the prayer services were held. The building looked like a government office from the outside. The inside was simple as well, with pews, an altar and a hall where everyone sat on the floor after the service.
Uncle continued, “You know, when your father came, he brought me one bottle of Johnny Walker. I hardly ever drink, only one glass on holidays, but Maria poured the whole bottle down the drain because Brother Abraham told them drinking was evil. If I ever meet that fellow I’d have many words for him.”
Maria had introduced me to Brother Abraham after the prayer service – I remembered him clearly. He was a short man, only about five foot two. But he had a thick moustache, and all the charisma and confidence of a leader. I remembered when we were walking home that night, Maria asked me, “What do you think of Brother Abraham?”
“He’s very…passionate,” I said, trying not to offend her. I didn’t think Brother Abraham was a horrible person, but not one I’d ever consider following.
There was a lone, dim street light on the road we walked on, but otherwise it was only lit from the light leftover from the houses. “You walk this way alone, Maria?”
“Yes. I like to look into the houses as I pass them, and see how people live,” she said. “What did you think of the service?”
“I don’t think I would ever join, but it was interesting,” I said.
“That’s okay. You know my father doesn’t approve of me going.”
“But he doesn’t understand how much it means to me. I’m going to be part of this my whole life,” she said, with such certainty.
We walked in silence for a few more moments, glancing into the glow of people’s homes as we passed. Both of our eyes lingered on one large family, paused in prayer before a meal.
The crow continued its cawing in the trees above the tea stall. Uncle finished his cup of chai, and then continued, “You know that group doesn’t follow The Church’s teachings. I should have forbidden Maria from going when she first went. I had no idea they would take my daughter away.”
I felt the urge to defend Maria then, but at the same time felt sorry for my uncle.
“Our Priest recently warned about this group. He said it was dangerous. If only they’d told us about it back when Maria had joined.”
The crow finally stopped its cawing, and the chatter of the other customers could now be heard.
“She seems happy,” I said. “And I don’t think it’s dangerous. They seemed like nice people, and what they do isn’t that much different from the Catholic Church. Actually, the most dangerous part I thought was walking back from their meeting hall at night.”
“I’ve tried telling her how many times not to walk at night. Her mother always used say she has no fear. Even as a little girl she wasn’t afraid of anything. I remember there was one day when she was eight or nine years old, and I heard her talking to someone in the backyard. I looked out the kitchen window and saw a cobra standing right next to her.”
“A king cobra?”
“Yes. I rushed outside. My first instinct was to pull her away, but the snake was too close. If I made a sudden move, it might strike.” Uncle’s leg moved up and down, tapping the ground. “It was a horrible feeling, not being able to protect her.”
“What happened next?”
“I heard Maria’s voice again. She spoke to the snake like it was a person, ‘Why are you here? This isn’t a place for you. You need to go back home.’ And then, as if the snake understood, it lowered itself to the ground. It slithered out of the backyard and into the jungle.”
Maria hadn’t told me this story, but I could so easily picture her saying these things. When we were in Mumbai, the first thing I noticed about her was how slowly she spoke, as if each word was selected with special care. However, what I soon came to appreciate most in Maria was how serene she was – there was a tranquillity in her that I’d never felt in anyone I’d met before.
Uncle and I sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the chatter around us. “I remember when she was young,” he continued, “everyone thought she was older than she was. The other kids would always come to her when they needed advice and didn’t want to ask an adult. Even the adults spoke to her as if she were grown up.”
“You know what,” I said. “That evening I went with Maria, after the service, the followers gathered around with Brother Abraham to chat and ask his advice. But there were more people lined up to see Maria and get her advice. She’s still helping others find their way.”
I saw a smile I hadn’t seen before in the corner of Uncle’s mouth.
* * *
The meal at Priscilla and Pedro’s was both simple and complex. Rice, chapatti and two curries were served, but the curries had such a rich and intricate taste I was tempted to lick my plate after the second helping. Their house was similar to Uncle’s and the children gave me a tour. I felt ashamed when I asked, “Where’s your room?” to Pedro, forgetting that most families here sleep in the same room.
They showed me the small manger they’d made by hand and told me about the contest in the village for the best one. When we finally sat down inside, I showed Priscilla the map at the back of my journal I’d brought along. She saw the pictures in the back pocket, and pulled them out.
They asked who was who in each picture, but the one they were most fascinated by was one of my favourites too. It was a picture Ally had taken when we were kids in the field near our home. It was of two snow-covered evergreens in the distance and a young sapling up close with snow falling all around.
“What’s snow like?” Pedro asked.
Before I could think of how to describe it. Priscilla asked, “Does it burn you when falling?”
“No it just melts.”
“It’s so pretty,” she said.
“Everyone back home would say this place is pretty.” I felt sad then knowing I’d be leaving Goa tomorrow. “One day you’ll both have to come visit.”
They kept staring at the picture. They had far too much wonder in their eyes for me not to give the picture to them. I could almost see them imagining a world they never had before. I thought then just how precious the dreams of the young were. They could so easily be crushed or broken.
* * *
The next morning, Uncle and I ate a quick breakfast of tea and toast. I had packed my bag the previous night, but did a final check to make sure I didn’t forget anything. Molly had been trailing me the whole morning and began to lick my heels.
“She knows you’re leaving,” Uncle said, petting her head. “Have you got everything?”
“I think so.” I zipped up my backpack. “Just have to go to the washroom, then should be ready.”
“Okay. Let me just go fill gas in the scooter then. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I nodded, and he went out the front door. I flicked the light on for the bathroom. So Molly couldn’t get out, I opened the back door just enough to slide my body out. I went into the outhouse and closed the door behind me. The door slammed harder than I had intended, and I thought I heard something in the pile of wood, but then thought it was just something falling from the door closing.
When I finished going, just as I was pulling my pants back up, I heard a much louder noise come from the wood, like a chopped onion being tossed into a pan of hot oil. Disbelieving, I saw the snake’s head float out from the wood. Its body followed, dark brown and shiny. Two meters slithered along the ground, looping and coiling to block the door.
Molly began to bark fiercely from inside the house. My instincts arrived a few moments later. I grabbed a stick from the pile, and held it like a baseball player, ready.
The snake spread its hood, and rose to reach half my height.
I took a half step back, but there was nowhere further for me to go.
The snake hissed again. Looking into its eyes was both mesmerizing and terrifying. I was like an animal frozen by a vehicle’s headlights. The cobra flicked its tongue and moved its head in a wide circle.
It was then, in the middle of my panic, that a strange and calming thought came to me. The way the snake bobbed its head was just like the way so many people here did.
“Easy,” I said, lowering the stick very slowly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The snake remained standing.
I took two long, deep breathes. Gently, I said, “You need to go home.”
The snake stood for a few seconds more, then lowered to the ground. It flicked its tongue out twice more before it turned, and then slithered under the door. I waited for a little while in the outhouse. I wiped the sweat from my forehead. I should have been trembling, but the calm feeling that had come over me remained. When I heard Molly stop barking, I opened the door.
The train station felt relaxed compared to the ones in Mumbai, and the peace I’d felt with the snake followed me. Uncle and I sat and drank chai, waiting for my train. I put the two postcards I’d bought at the station into my journal: for Ally, and my parents.
“You sure you didn’t find anything?” I asked.
“I checked the whole yard and Pedro and Priscilla’s yard as well. Nothing. It must have gone away.” He checked if I was done my chai and took my empty paper cup and put it in his. “You were very lucky. A snake in that close an area is usually deadly.”
“If you hadn’t told me that story with Maria I don’t think I would have survived.”
Uncle looked off into the direction my train was to come from, then turned to me and said, “I think you’ll have a lot of tales to tell about your time here.”
I noticed the bracelet around my arm that I’d gotten on the first day, but before I could give it a further thought, Uncle said, “There’s your train,” and pointed back in the distance. “One minute, stay here. I’ll be back.” He rushed back to a stall where we’d bought the chai and postcards.
Just as the train rolled to a stop, Uncle came back, clutching a package of cashews.
“Can you give these to Maria?”
“They’re her favourite.” He gave the smile I had only seen from him once before. I wasn’t sure how I could explain to Maria the love I saw in his face at that moment.
“Take care, Aiden.”
“You too Uncle. And thank you – for everything.”
We hugged, and I wondered if I’d see him again.
I stepped onto the train and found my seat. I put my bag away but held my journal tight, excited to tell my tales.
When I looked out the window, I found Uncle, and he came over to the window, shaking my hand.
The whistle blew and the train began to move.
Uncle walked alongside the train holding my hand. As the train collected speed, he jogged. He let go when it got too fast, but kept running beside the train – I thought then, whatever I’d come here to find, whatever I thought I’d been missing, would always be running alongside me.
Derek Mascarenhas is a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program, a finalist and runner up for the Penguin Random House of Canada Student Award for Fiction, and a nominee for the Marina Nemat Award. He has been published in The Dalhousie Review, Switchback, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and The Antigonish Review. Derek is presently working on a novel, and finding a home for his linked short story collection, Coconut Dreams. See more at www.derekmascarenhas.ca.