The house smelled damp as he walked in. She was in the bedroom, reading. Though it was getting dark, she was still wearing the tinted, rimless, Bolle glasses. She had a pretty, sharp-featured face and was wearing a short cotton skirt and a sleeveless linen blouse. Everything about her – the tasteful, expensive clothes, her calm dark eyes, shaded by the glasses, her slow quiet voice and easy logic – reflected a life in which there had always been enough money and time and room to move away from anything unpleasant. She had spent three months of the previous year in Cambodia and Laos, where a Montagnard shaman had read her aura.
“You will always have young lovers,” the shaman had told her.
A month after he had left the Army, they had decided to move in together and had rented the house by the beach in Wadduwa three weeks ago, at the beginning of December. Now it was the 31st — New Year’s eve.
The money he had saved in the Army was gone. He had drunk it up, given it away, spent it on taxis and trishaws. The house in Wadduwa had been good at first. He had been glad to be away from Colombo, where there was too much noise, too many people who didn’t pay attention, who talked too much and got in the way. In Colombo, he had provoked fights with strangers whose faces he couldn’t remember, and found himself sobering up in a bus or trishaw, trying to remember what he had done. He would finger the cuts on his faces or suck his skinned knuckles, and try to remember, bruised and hungover. When it did come back to him, he would try to forget again, glad to have got away and not be in jail. Two assault charges, one in the Fort, and the other in Mount Lavinia, were gathering dust in the inactive files of the two police stations, the ‘Suspect Information’ boxes empty except for the words “Male, 5’7″, 150-lbs, blk hair, dk t-shirt, blu jeans”. Another box on the forms queried ‘Weapons/force used’, and was filled in, “Hands & feet”.
It had been better since he had moved to the beach. He had begun to watch himself, watch for the signs and avoid people when he felt it coming on. Like a woman with PMS, he laughed to himself. But the southwest monsoon was beginning, and things seemed to be closing in. The omens were unfavourable.
He scooped the ashes out of the brick barbeque pit in the back garden. He removed the grill, then packed newspapers down against the scorched earth before carefully laying Xs of kindling, crossed and interlocked twigs over that, and balanced wedges of dry firewood on top. He lit it up.
The paper flared, burning away a full-page ad for the National Savings Bank that offered a special gift to anyone opening an account on New year’s Day. The kindling caught, and in a minute, the big chunks of wood were flaming. The logical progression of fire always pleased him. A slow, controlled explosion.
Then she was at the back door, talking about her weekend – another encounter group “mini-marathon”. Two days without sleep in a bungalow in the fashionable Central Highland holiday town of Nuwara Eliya, with twenty other people and Rohan, the group leader. That time in Cambodia, when she had found the shaman, she had stopped popping E’s.
“God,” she said, “it was fantastic. Really. Something very real happened this time. Doors opened. You could feel the doors open.” She laughed, took a pull on her cigarette, and flung her bare arms wide. “I was surrounded by people who were attacking me because they cared about me – as me. Then that doorway opened and it was full of support, sharing with them, getting in touch with ourselves, and our feelings, like… even if I don’t like somebody, that’s OK, because it opens up things for honesty.” She was smoking furiously. “On the first afternoon, everybody was watching, and Rohan asks me, ‘What d’you feel?’ And I thought and said ‘Nothing, I feel nothing. I don’t trust what I feel.’ And Rohan just smiled – he has a beautiful smile, by the way – and he said, ‘We hear what you say, and that’s how we begin to really feel, by admitting that we feel nothing.'”
“Rohan wants to feel something in your panties,” he said, as he went into the house.
He walked into the kitchen, and a cluster of cockroaches broke like a lacquered sunburst, fanning out as they ran for safety behind the sink.
“Nice manoeuvre, boys,” he said, speaking to the dark space between the sink and the wall. “Precise and coordinated, I have to admit.”
He didn’t like the cockroaches, but he felt that since they had been there before he had moved into the house, they had as much right to stay as he did. He went out of his way not to step on them, and refused to let her spray them with insecticide.
“Can you imagine what it mus’ be feeling like,” he had asked her “to be sprayed with that shit, an’ then have to crawl off an’ wait for it to eat you alive? How can you sleep, knowing that that they’re in agony, dying all around you in the dark? Listening to them die.”
He liked the caterpillars that had invaded the house when the rains began. He tracked their slow, sure movement across the windows and walls. When they found their own spot, they would start to spin their cocoons. Scattered over the walls, they looked like little knots of muscle, pulling the house tight. Even in the heaviest of rains, the house no longer leaked as it had done before the caterpillars came. Their cocoons were all slightly different – mottled, creams and browns -and very delicate. She had wanted to put them back outside, but even if she was careful, trying to pull them loose gently, the cocoons tore and they died. He had told her to leave them alone. Things had been better for him since moving to Wadduwa, and the cocoons held the house together.
He glanced out to see how the fire was going, and smiled.
“This ain’t no upward mobile freeway,” he sang softly along with the CD player, shuffling from foot to foot, flopping his head like a puppet. “This is the rooooaaaaaaaad to Hell…” He turned and looked through the empty doorway into the kitchen; smiled more broadly, nodded his head, and said in a cheerful voice, “Hi, is your encounter card full? No? You know, there’re these feelings I have, that I’ve been, you know, keeping bottled up. You see, I did some things… Could I, you know, share them with you? Sirra? Tha’ss very supportive of you.”
He looked in the cupboard where he kept his beer mug, but it wasn’t there. His beer mug was a heavy glass one with a pewter brim, and had a flaw running down its length, like a transparent scar. He looked in the sink and through the other cupboards.
“Where’s my mug?”
Turning around, he knocked over an empty olive oil bottle that was standing by the sink. The dark green bottle fell over harmlessly.
“Fuck it!” he shouted, snatching the bottle up and chucking it over his shoulder. Dust and slivers of glass exploded from the far wall. “Where’s my bloody mug?”
He burst through the bedroom doorway as if an enemy was waiting for him. She was reading a pale blue paperback called Spiritualism & Clairvoyance.
“You really are childish sometimes,” she said, not looking up from the book.
He slapped the book out of her hands and it flapped across the room and into the wall.
“Tha’ss right, I’m a childish bugger.” He spun and punched his fist through the cheap wood of the door, gashing his hand. He slowly turned back to her, sucking his knuckles. He smiled at her, his teeth pink with blood, and asked in a pleasant voice, “So that was even more childish, no?” Then his voice hardened. “Wasn’t it? Uh?” He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Right? Say it. You bloody say it. Say it now!”
He let her go. “Right. Tha’ss right. Absolutely. Right! Aren’t you happy that we sorted that out?” Then he yelled, “And you don’t know anything about me!” swinging at the door and splintering it again, then again. “Nothing! Nothing!”
He stepped back from the ruined door, out of breath, and stood looking at his bloodied hands.
“I know that I’m tired of your moods and rages,” she said softly.
“So am I, babe.”
Later, he sat in the garden, with his face close to the fire, drunk on Lion Lager. He thought now about how fire was like the sea, colours changing and floating into one another. The fire was hot on his face, and sweat trickled down his neck, and the lump on the bridge of his nose throbbed, still tender where it had been broken when a bouncer punched him in a Bambalapitiya casino. The iced beer made his tooth ache, a tooth that had been chipped in a fight with a colour sergeant back in Trinco, a fight that had grown out of a drunken argument about whether the war was still racially motivated or not.
The crescent scar over his right eye seemed to pull tight. An old friend had thrown a bottle of Carlsberg across her kitchen to him, splitting his scalp open. It had been a party she had organised for a poet only a week after he had left the Army.
The cut had bled a lot, flowing down over his eyes, dripping from his chin. He had cupped his hands and caught the blood, lapping it up like tap water, laughing crazily. He spotted a pretty girl, her face smooth and perfect. She had on a hip-hugging black miniskirt and fourteen-thousand-rupee Odel/Gucci high heels. She was watching him in horror.
“Hey, sweetie,” he had called to her. “Hey, my little yuppie, information-age baby.”
He had walked towards her, fixing her with his bloody eye. He had snatched her by her highlighted, straightened hair, bent her head back, and kissed her full on the mouth, forcing his tongue between her lips. She had broken loose, her chin bloody, retching, and run for the door.
Now, sitting in front of the fire, Ruwan smiled. A person’s scars are a record of his dealings with the world. He was pleased with the phrase, and stared at the flaw in the beer mug, the firelight opalescent through the amber liquid, and wondered whether he should become a writer.
He passed out in the garden, in front of the fire, sweat on his face, dreaming that he was in the jungle, taking a break in the midday heat. Beads of sweat trickling like blue flies down his neck, the fire rustling like elephant grass. He could feel the web harness-kit across his left shoulder and the T-56 under his right knee. If anything happened, he could be up and running with all his kit, sprinting the first few meters in his sleep.
It was drizzling the next day — New Year’s Day — and the beach was deserted. He stepped carefully across the outcrops of dark coral that made up the reef, over the fragile life of the tidal pools. He crouched occasionally to study one of the clear basins – starfish, black anemone, small striped fish flashing in the shadows.
Anyone watching from the trees might have thought he was studying a roadmap, shifting from one leg to the other, tilting his head, studying the highways for the best route – the fastest, the most scenic – one that would take him through a particular town, maybe.
But he was looking for what he called clues, some pattern in the tidal pools of the reef that might explain something or part of something, might hint at what he should do, or forecast an event. The patterns or movements of larger masses – the ocean, wind in the trees, the quality of the light, birds and clouds – he called them omens. They were no more or less important than clues, but he watched them differently. Omens moved around and over him. They came and went suddenly, and he could only hope to learn their meaning before they were gone. They couldn’t be studied like tidal pools. The world was alive with omens and clues, like dust sparkling in the sun. He felt that if he could discern the pattern in time, he could leap into it and take his place in the world, like stepping into a complex and manic dance.
He found a shark’s tooth in the sand, a big one, shaped like an arrowhead. The body of the tooth was a glossy, speckled grey, the edges serrated. The root, the part that had somehow pulled from the shark’s jaw, was wedge-shaped, a thick wing, porous, the colour of driftwood. The tooth was flawless, not a chip or crack in it. He placed it carefully back in the depression in the sand where he had found it, setting it in like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.
On the way back to the house, he stopped to watch a crow peck at the white eye of a large fish head. The head was thick and solid, sitting in the sand like a grey club. The crow pecked mechanically, without malice or relish, tearing off a small scrap of eye, tipping its head back to swallow, then pecking some more. He walked towards the fish head, and the crow sideskipped towards the water’s edge, fixing the man fearlessly with its bright black eye.
The fish head had a heavy, low-slung jaw that he prodded open with his big toe. The jaw flanges were thick with pearly mucus, and gave way slowly to rows of needlelike teeth.
He sat on the dry sand above the high water mark and looked out to sea. On the horizon, a big seagoing tug was towing the hulk of an old freighter north to the Colombo docks. The freighter had no masts or superstructure, and it rode high in the water. It was too far away to see the towlines, so the freighter seemed to be stalking the tug, maimed and blind, neither gaining nor falling behind.
“Ah,” he said, smiling, “the omens are many and confusing this day.” He was thinking of the poosari who had taught him how to read the omens.
It was dusk before he started back towards the small house. The crow was still pecking tirelessly at the fish head. The lighthouse in the distance blinked, and he could feel the insistent wind begin to blow, howling in his ears, chilling him, reminding him that he was supposed to be dead, that there had been a mistake at Elephant Pass. The space that his body was supposed to occupy in the world had closed over while he was still alive to fill it, shutting him out.
The pile of cocoons was just outside the back door. They were dying, but still trying to move. The cocoons were ragged and torn, like clumps of pale hair pulled off a burned corpse. The caterpillars seemed to move slightly, rustling the cocoons, whispering to Ruwan. In the dim light, the cocoons moved more slowly, and then not at all. Ruwan heard the whispering and the old terror rose in his chest and up into his mouth.
She was sitting inside at a table, writing. As she took a drag at one of her cigarettes, he kicked the table over, catapulting paper, books, and half a cup of tea against the wall, leaving her sitting in the chair in the middle of the room. He placed one hand against her chest, palm in her cleavage, fingers and thumb loose against the softness of her throat and, very deliberately, pushed her and the chair over backwards.
“Don’ move,” he said.
She was in an awkward position, her legs straddling the back of the chair, skirt gathered up over her smooth thighs, braced on one arm, about to scramble up and away from him.
“Don’t– fucking– move. I’ll kill you if you move. I’ll break your fucking back. Shit, you’re mad to–“
“I don’t think–“
“Shut the fuck up. You can’t do things li’ that. The caterpillars know what they’re doing. They crawl along ’til they fin’ the place where they’re supposed to be. They know where it is when they find it, and they stop there an’ start wrapping up. When you start messing aroun’ with things like that… they’ve been here for a million years, they survived because they know when to stop an’ start building – you fuck up patterns, constants, can’t you see?” He put his foot on her chest, feeling the roundness of her breasts against the sandy sole of his foot. “Can’t you see?” She nodded her head. “An’ it’s all over – it’s too late now – an’ that– is when– the bad shit starts.”