There was something to holding the areca nuts in the folds of her palm, watching them change to a dull pink, and the brownness adamantly clinging to their shrivelled sides. It was their scent, mixed with sweat that got to her, her nails leaving moon shaped indents on their skin. She counted them with her fingertips, pushing them across her palm lines like rosary beads, watching the girl pump water from the public tap. She mirrored the girl’s sun-baked arms with her wrist, in an upward-downward movement, as the nuts slipped, one by one, out of her hand. The action reminded her of the previous night, frail, brown hands turning into portly hips, pounding into her as she watched from below; a tongue touching the corner of her eye, leaving a trail of dribble along her nose. She remembered not shying away from the stink of stale food on his breath, instead, picking out the faint scent of areca nut, leaning forward, her nose following its path. That was the extent of her memory of the previous night; his name and face, she had peeled out, just as he peeled her out of her sweat-soaked sari. As she let the last nut drop to the ground, the girl stopped pumping; the fluorescent green pot now filled to the brim, she squatted to wrap her arms around it. The girl had been the result of another of her nightly trysts twelve years back. She could scarcely draw him in her head now, his features just as insignificant as the girl’s, his arched, feminine eyebrows sketched haphazardly across his daughter’s forehead.
As she watched the girl carry the pot up the stony hill, she got up to follow, only to bump into a lady from the village, who quickly averted her eyes from the pair. An involuntary smile lifted the corner of her mouth at this. She was used to this treatment from the village ladies, acknowledging her presence only when they were in groups, and even then, their smiles wrapped protectively around a joke. She was even aware of the names they had given her, all sirens from long forgotten southern movies. Her real name had long since hidden itself between the pleats of her sari, only occasionally peaking out at her when she draped it back after the night. Her appearance did not mirror her namesakes by any means. The face that stared back at her from the termite infested mirror every day was almost grotesque looking. She had begun to use scissors to trim her facial hair some years back, giving her cheeks and chin a grayish hue. Her face had sharp masculine lines, beady eyes lined with excessive kohl and thin lips painted red. A small black spot stood off to the side of her upper lip, just shy of touching it.
Yet, there hadn’t been lonely nights in years. Her trick was to sit cross-legged, bent over her glass, in the riverside shack, her eyes occasionally skimming over the drunken crowd of men. She knew that her appeal was in the manly drawl of her voice, as she placed her order, not once wavering and the scent of alcohol, jasmine, and her own perspiration. Some nights even ended with a few hundred rupee notes tucked into her blouse while others with her running after them, the morning after, with a heated skillet. She hadn’t let the men near the girl yet, but the thought had occurred to her with the occasional gray strands that she plucked out of her head. They made their way back to the house, her eyes falling on the strange new plant that grew by her chilies. She had first noticed it a few days back when the fruit fell a few breaths short of growing into a jackfruit. She had plucked one and angled it towards the sun, examining each side, as it raked her palm. Its surface wasn’t smooth like the areca nut fruit, nor was its smell reassuring. The bumps and crests on the skin reminded her of the tendons she had traced with her tongue over the years. She had rubbed it along the curve of her elbow to see if it would feel better than whiskers that had whispered to the bulge of her waist.
The pock-marked tea stall owner had warned her, as he impatiently tugged her skirt down to find the fruit tied to the end, that it was a cursed plant, its fruits coughed out in anger by the gods. His words seemed reasonable enough; the wretched thing looked like it had borne the brunt of the gods, its skin just as jagged as hers. Over the weeks, she had developed a revulsion to it, seeing her own arms grow out like branches, in her dream, wrapped around the girl’s stretched neck. Now, as she took each step, she saw it take a step, deeper into the ground, extending its fingers to hold her house within its fist. She pulled out her areca nuts from her pouch, placing it between her tongue and teeth, and walked past the plant. Tonight, the tea stall owner had promised to return with fried sardines and cashew apple ale. She locked the girl in the kitchen, running a dishrag under her armpits and dusting talcum powder on the underside of her lip. Her jasmine flowers were slightly shriveled; she sprinkled water over them and pinned them to her hair. Just as she dusted wood shavings off the sheets of her bed, he entered, empty handed, his eyes repeatedly washing over the garden behind him. His fists clenched over the thorns of the cursed fruit, as it forced its way out of his hand and fell at her feet.
” You’re growing gold in your yard, darling”, he said, his fingers running down her arms. ” Just you wait till I get the barrel tomorrow. Three thousand for one, we can sell them all. It can bring back people from death’s door, this. We’ll sell it and go to the city. You’ll come with me, of course.” As each tendril of her hair came out of the braid, she watched the fruit break open, its beady eyes looking back at her own. Its branches grew out, unlatching the kitchen door, hissing as it raised its hood over the girl. She closed her eyes, pushing back the narrowed eyes, sniffing at his neck for a hint of the familiar. She thought of how the areca nut fruit felt against her mouth and pressed her lips to his, seeking its touch within the wrinkles of his mouth. She found the rough patch of the cursed fruit instead, now making its way down her elbow. The night was painted in green after that, as she hovered between sight, touch, dreams, and wakefulness.
“It can cure any disease, see. And to think it was cursed! I’ll just pick up my sickle and barrel.” As his back turned to leave towards the brackish river, she emptied a bottle of alcohol on the plant, the matchstick reflected in the amber of her eye, like the ripe areca nut fruits , as she took measured steps back, her mouth widening in a laugh as wild as the blazing fire.
Rishitha Shetty is an undergraduate student from Bangalore, India. She has been previously published in the literary yard. She is a member of Bangalore Writers Workshop