7.10 / September 2012

A Brief Rupture

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The girl had been cycling home from evening tuition, a thing she did this time of day almost by habit, without thought, without worry, her path always taking her down those same, quiet one-way streets with low walls and lonely old women hobbling home. The sun had sunk fully down but the sky was still lit, the houses and their walls still glimmering with the gold light that adheres a while to surfaces once the sun has fallen away. A light breeze was blushing by in gentle surges, the leaves of plants and trees shaking and stirring in the warmth. In the darkening sky stars were making themselves brighter, and beneath them bats were waking from their slumber, tired crows settling in heavy flocks upon the twisted boughs of rain trees. Long-awaited by their mothers and wives, weary men were also returning home, removing their shoes and aerating their feet, settling heavily into sitting-room chairs before radios and TVs. The movement and struggle of the day was finally over. Everyone was finally back home, and like a cloudy suspension shaken and swung and at last allowed to rest, life was beginning to settle once more into place, the fine white powder collecting along the bottom and the crystal water weightless above, silent and still. The men took out smeared bottles and spilled cheap liquor into their ginger beer, discussed the little details of the day with their wives and mothers as their sons and daughters sat listening on the floors. The furrowed eyebrows and creased foreheads began slowly to unfurl, to smooth themselves out. That brief moment of the day had arrived, nerves loosening and tensions dissipating, all petering out and silencing, as when the carriage of a Ferris wheel reaches the peak of its cycle and time seems to slow, and for an intangible moment stop, when, from the street outside, muffled through the moist evening air, the slow, cyclic cry of an animal began to reverberate through the walls of each house. At first it could be heard only in the silences between speech but it grew soon to submerge all other noise, a rhythmic sound, rising, falling, rising and falling, a moaning or howling or wailing growing louder and more sweeping, its urgent quality steadily sharpening. The children were the first to look alarmed, having fewer explanations at hand for the irregularities of life, but soon the adults noticed too, and they looked from one to another with a kind of confusion but also a faint glimmer of recognition, saying nothing in expectation that the sound would at any second cease while instead it only grew louder, more urgent, rising higher and higher till finally it hit the ceiling and froze into high-pitched screaming. They looked at one another in worry, stood up uncertainly from their settees and chairs, for the howling was surely a voice, and the voice surely a woman’s. House doors began to open and slowly, as though in trance, families began to stream out into the lane. The wailing, still rising and falling, was coming from a point in the middle of the street around which a few people were already standing, their feet rooted, their arms stiffly by their sides, a radius of three of four meters between them and the source of the sound. As the newcomers drew closer they discerned words in the howling, the word “where” and the word “teeth,” these two words, muffled and gargled, rising and falling, repeated endlessly in the slew of indistinct screaming. They joined the circle, and stared wordlessly into its center. A girl was lying in the middle of the street, blood dripping thickly from the two hands she cupped tightly to her mouth, her bicycle a mangled mess besides her. Scattered in pools of blood over the gravel were several tiny white trinkets which shone in the light of the streetlamp, more than twenty, almost thirty glistening white pebbles: incisors, molars, canines. Each time her tongue rolled over her toothless gums she felt the sensitive and slightly ticklish void and her terrified wailing, reinvigorated, rose higher, its meaning now clear to all. “Where are my teeth,” the girl was wailing, “where are my teeth,” rocking back and forth, on and on and on. It was a motorcycle that had hit her, people were whispering to each other, arms stiffly by their sides. The police had been called, and an ambulance was on the way. Some of them recognized her but no one knew her name or where she lived. A woman was kneeling down next to her and cradling her head in her arms, stroking her hair and repeating, softly and calmly, that she would be alright, that the ambulance was coming and that everything would be okay. The girl kept howling. She was inconsolable, deaf to the soothing voice, her howling was filled with terror, frantic, for somehow, no matter how much she screamed, she was unable to reach those who had gathered around her, the woman in whose hands she was being held, the families in stiff and silent rings around her. A dark, gaping void had grown between them, like a sheer cliff of sleek rock, devoid of footholds, like a sheet of perfectly polished glass by which their worlds were set apart. The crowd could hear the rising and falling of her screaming and they could see her sparkling teeth on the bloody street but there was not a thing they could do, not a single way to help. All they did was whisper to one another, that it was a motorcycle that had hit her, that the police had been called, and that an ambulance was on the way, and they looked around anxiously for new arrivals with whom to share this news. In the ambient background of her pain the girl could hear their hushed voices, could sense the buzzing of their confusion. They were all of them there, all together, in the same world, the same city, the same street, their bodies all in proximity, inhaling and exhaling the same air, and yet, even as she tried to reach them by howling louder, by calling out to them as if they did nothing only because they somehow could not hear, the void between them only became deeper, the pane of glass dividing them only became thicker.

The ambulance came. The girl was sedated, taken to hospital. The crowd continued standing on the street for a while, stiff and wordlessly still. Slowly then, not talking, they began to turn, walk silently back to their homes. They sat back down on their settees and chairs, stared in silence at the walls. The noise of TVs and radios echoed emptily in their sitting rooms. The children, wide-eyed and mute, waited for someone to speak. The women did what housework they could find, ironed the next day’s clothes and swept the floors. The men poured more cheap liquor into their glasses of ginger beer.

Anuk is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. He moved to New York in August 2011 to begin a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University. He writes in English, but his true love is the Tamil language.
7.10 / September 2012