translated by Moon-ok Lee and Nicholas Yohan Duvernay
WHEN OCTOBER CAME, Father covered the window that opened onto the main road with his old pacheura, a rectangular Nepalese shawl. It was the morning after the damp chill of night had begun to seep through the warped window frame and Father had started coughing hard. Earlier that summer, the mould that had grown beneath the floorboards had found its way into the furniture and the clothes hanging from pegs on the walls, and finally reached Father’s lungs and my lower legs. Father suffered from a wracking cough and I scratched my legs furiously all day as we endured the tedium of the summer. Month after month we listened to the rain pounding on the slate roof and stared into our glossy calendar with its clear, bright sunshine, a lush teak forest, snow-covered Annapurna, the calmly rippling waters of Pewa Lake and laughing children sucking on sugar cane.
Ten years ago this long, low building was used as a pigsty. It has five rough plank doors all in a row, lacks a porch and the eaves are short as a sparrow’s tail, which means I leave for school in the morning wearing shoes drenched with dew. A few days ago, the landlady stuck a scrap of yellow paper on the door of room number three. ‘Room Available’ it said. I peered through a crack in the door to look inside. The walls were mouldy like ours, stained and and scribbled on, and the peeling, tan-coloured linoleum was coated with dust like a thin layer of snow. I could just see a little pitch-black hole in the wall behind an old cupboard that leaned to one side. The hole was big enough for mice to scurry through. Flaking bits of cement and clods of dirt had been plastered around the hole, making it look like a fresh scab.
My chest contracted in fear and I felt myself jerk back from the door. You’d think I’d seen a heart exploded by a bullet blast.
Ali, the Pakistani boy who had been living in number three, had robbed his roommate and run off. He had taken advantage of the darkness and commotion of a stormy night to grab the money Vijay had hidden. Apparently, Vijay had dug a hole in the wall and saved his money there between remittances. Why hadn’t anyone, especially Vijay, heard Ali rustling about in his efforts to get at the money? Well, because Vijay had pulled two all nighters in a row, plus overtime. The colicky baby of the Bangladeshi lady in room two had been bawling all night and the Burmese guys were rattling on in front of the television and after that were drunk and singing. Marina, the Russian girl, wouldn’t have been home because she worked at night. Only Father and I, in room number four, went to bed early and lay awake in the darkness. But neither one of us could have heard the rustle of a thief over the din of our own thoughts, troubled as they were after Mother ran away.
The night Ali stole that money he might as well have taken the life of Vijay’s youngest son, who needed heart surgery. Vijay had come over here to work and to save up for the medical bills. Hard luck tales are so common in this neighbourhood that we’re practically tripping over them; nobody pays much attention to the latest goings-on. But I’ll bet Vijay’s scream, which could be heard ringing out at dawn so full of outrage and despair, won’t be forgotten anytime soon. These days he sits under the old persimmon tree in the yard and stares at the distant mountains. When clouds gather on the mountain peak, he sometimes mutters nonsense. It sounds as if he’s saying, ‘There goes a water buffalo.’ It seems the man will have to spend a long time with tears and sighs, as surely as winter will be over only when the red guts of unharvested persimmons drop – plop, plop – from the topmost branches.
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