ALL GOOD THINGS
by B.A. Varghese
The milk was white and it squirted out from under his hands. He pulled and pulled the cow’s udders one at a time to a rhythmic beat and I watched it fall down in spurts after each pull. I didn’t know that. I just didn’t know that. I was mesmerized by Appachan’s hands as he pulled and pulled and out it dropped and when it hit it made a metallic clink until the bottom started filling then it sounded like liquid hitting liquid.
I didn’t want to come here. I didn’t want to leave home without my father. I told him I didn’t want to go but he told me I had to. He told me we didn’t have family here and that we had no one to help my mother once the baby came so we had to go. He told me I’d get to see all of Kerala and I’d get to see my grandparents and their farm. I told him I didn’t want to go but he gave me a look like I had no choice and that he wasn’t going to be happy if I didn’t go. I asked why he couldn’t come and he told me he had work and that he would come later, after the baby was born, and then he would bring us all back to the States. I told him I still didn’t want to go to India.
It took a long time to get here. I was on a plane, and then a car, and then a bus that said Pathanamthitta in faded black letters with a bunch of other letters I didn’t understand. Now, I was here watching Appachan as he sat crouched down on a stool, pulling and pulling. I wanted my mother but they kept me away from her and warned me that she needed her rest. At nights, I would sleep in the same room but on a separate bed. It was the only time besides meals that I got to see her. Most nights, I could hear her tossing and turning on the old flat mattress and I knew she wasn’t comfortable. I just couldn’t sleep with all the rustling she made. We were lucky to have a room with a ceiling fan, but it rotated so slowly that all it did was move around the thick humid air hanging in the room. I remembered one night I saw small beads of moonlit sweat flow down from my mother’s face and pool around her eyes before falling and disappearing into the pillow. I missed her and I wanted to touch her but I was afraid. I didn’t understand why this needed to happen. Doesn’t she have me?
During the day, Appachan would keep me busy with his daily chores around the farm. His house sat near the middle of a large sloped hill about a mile from the main road. At the bottom of the hill was a long river where I saw people fishing. The smell of wet smoke mixed with jasmine floated in the air and the sound of sharp chirps leapt from the trees. All along the round hill was a bulging thicket of assorted greenery so much that I could barely see the neighboring houses. But there was something beyond what I could see, beyond what was visible.
“Bobby!” shouted Appachan. “What are you doing? Pay attention.”
His voice knocked me and I focused back on his hands pulling. He scolded the cow when it moved.
“Look, this is where milk comes from,” he said. He pulled and it came out in a spurt and fell into a metal pail.
I smiled and nodded. He pulled and pulled, working his hands under the cow.
“Are you ready to be a big brother?” he said.
“I don’t know. I guess.”
“You have to help take care of baby. You’re a big boy. Very important to help your mummy.” The cow flinched and he moved his hands over her side to calm her down. He continued to pull.
“Good,” he said. “Our family grows. God’s blessing on us.”
I nodded. The milk rose halfway in the pail.
My appachan began to tell me how a cow gives milk. He explained that after a mother cow gives birth, the calf is allowed to spend a week with the mother so it can feed and grow. After a good week, the calf is separated and given different food. This allowed him the chance to milk the mother cow so the family could use the milk.
“That’s enough. Let’s take this inside.”
I walked behind him and watched the pail of milk sway back and forth in his hand. Does the calf ever get to rejoin his mother again?
After a few days, my mother went to the hospital in Kollam. It was a women’s hospital and men were not allowed to go there unless you were a doctor. I was too scared to stay with my grandparents without her so I was allowed to sleep overnight with her in the hospital. Stephen Uncle was also allowed to stay overnight, but only to watch over me. The nurses took every opportunity to remind us of our wrong and their grace.
“This is a women’s hospital. You are not allowed here.”
At night, I slept with my uncle on a floor mat near my mother’s bed. His arm around me felt warm, but I wished for my mother’s instead. She slept only a few feet away, but I knew she loved me.
During the day, Stephen Uncle took me to the local markets and we stopped in a tea shop. I walked in and the aroma lifted me off the ground. I smelled a patch of sweet milk boiling with tea and then some baked coconut treats. I floated to the table and Stephen Uncle ordered two deep fried plantains.
“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll really like them. They have the best.”
A man walked by with a plate of what smelled like buttery soft flatbread with spicy chicken curry.
“How come food back home doesn’t taste as good? As good as here?”
“I thought yours was better until your daddy told me. He said the food here is fresher. In America, food sits in a store for a very long time. Ah, here it is.”
The hot fried plantains arrived as if by magic in front of me. The outer batter was deep fried to a golden brown with crispier edges of dark brown where the sugar burned. I peeled some off, exposing steam and sweet soft plantain inside. I blew on it and took a bite. I let it sit in my mouth and I swirled it around with my tongue.
“You like it? Yes.”
I smiled and chewed.
“Can I take one banana tree back home? My mummy can make this for me.”
“No. Not possible. Too cold where you live to grow banana tree. And, once it bears bananas, you need to cut it down.”
“What? I don’t want to cut it down. I want to grow it for more bananas.”
“Banana tree bears fruit once, then dies. New ones grow from the ground. The old one must be cut down so the new ones have rich soil. Otherwise, the old tree uses soil as it dies. Old life must stop so that new life can begin.”
“It is the nature of things.”
We returned to the hospital and there was a crowd of nurses in my mother’s room. My ammachi saw me and motioned for me to come toward her. I entered the room and looked at my mother who was sleeping on a bed in the corner. Ammachi leaned forward and held her hand gently against my back.
“Do you want to see her? You are big brother now.”
I inched toward the nurses and one by one they moved away. Then I saw her. She was the smallest person I had ever seen.
“She’s going to eat all your food and grow bigger than you,” Ammachi teased.
Her tiny chest moved up and down with every tiny breath she took. In all her newness, my old world was cut from me, never to be returned to again. My sister was the rift that pushed our family apart and then the force that pulled it back together anew. The end of something good and the beginning of another. The nature of things.
B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University in New York in 1993 and has been working in the Information Technology field ever since. Inspired to explore his artistic side, he is currently working toward a degree in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Apalachee Review, Rose Red Review, The Camel Saloon, Foliate Oak, and other literary journals. More at www.bavarghese.com.
Image credit: Ilri on Flickr