f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Dark House by Renee Ronika Bhatti-Klug

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dark House by Renee Ronika Bhatti-Klug

Let him who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with
flaming torches,
go, walk by the light of your fires
and of the torches you have set
ablaze.

–Isaiah 50:10b-11


In archways, I’ve always wondered what to do with myself. But in his archway, the one I had known since I was a girl, I knew to touch the highest point of the arch with the tips of my fingers before passing through. It was a rite my brothers and I performed to initiate the warm afternoons. Our mother would scold us for being impolite at someone else’s house, but what she meant was her in-laws’ house—the house my grandparents had been saving to buy since they came here from India before our dad was born. Our father didn’t mind our entrance ritual. I think he saw it as his father’s gift to us. All my brothers and I knew was every Saturday, while at our grandparents’, it became easier to reach the arch. After a while, we didn’t even have to jump.

Ravi, who was born a year, a week and a day before me, on a Sunday, had fourteen pimples on his cheeks and our grandmother kept reentering the living room to tell him she found another. “Ravi, look! There is now one growing from your ear. Give it to God, boy, otherwise you will have spots.”

Ravi slumped into the couch and gripped the Atari controller, steadying his glare on the fuzzy TV. Sim, who was almost out of high school, smirked. “I guess we know who lucked out in the gene pool, hey Rav?” Ravi’s animated frog hurled itself under an oncoming car. Sim leaned over the couch and untied a ribbon on my braid. I scowled and huddled closer to Ravi, who I knew wouldn’t give me any trouble. Ravi didn’t give anyone trouble. He was our grandfather’s favorite and, if it weren’t for all his pimples, he would have been our grandmother’s favorite too.

He was my favorite. Sim was too old for me. What did I care if a Lamborghini could outrace a Testarossa? Ravi would follow Sim around the house, holding up sketches of different cars he had drawn. Sim would turn around, snatch them from Ravi, and evenly state, “Testarossas don’t come in that shade of red.” Ravi would find the right shade and redraw the car until Sim was content.

I was content staring at my movie posters of American and Indian actresses. Nancy McKeon was my favorite American celebrity and Rekha was my favorite Indian star. When Rekha danced, her black hair wisped in waves across her shoulders. My hair unraveled in strings of muted dark brown. Mom hated that I adored Rekha, who she claimed was a professing witch. Mom was a professing Catholic who believed witches belonged on one side while saints belonged on another. On which side of what she didn’t specify.

Dad was hardly around. He was a pilot and had six fingers on his left hand. He said the sixth, which was just an extra pinky, was for luck. Our father, to our mother’s dismay, was without religion. Our mother, to our father’s dismay, was without faith. He couldn’t agree with the stoicism of the Catholics, or any other religion: Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist. “The mindless chatter of chants and rehearsed reading of scripture is not what God intended.” He didn’t say what it was that God intended, although Dad was content with the religious watching of Bollywood movies (for which I was content). On the weekends our Dad was home, he piled a stack of movies on the Beta and we would search our way through them, circling our eyes around the gilded love songs and recycled plots.

Ravi and Sim, like me, avoided religion altogether. Our grandfather didn’t push it, so Ravi didn’t notice it. Sim was too good for it and I had no clue what to make of it. There were so many religions to choose. My friend Rebekkah said God chooses us so it was easy for her to believe in Jesus. My other friend Mara was Jewish and said that was only because of her family. “Even though I’m getting Bat Mitzvahed,” she said, “when I turn eighteen I’m not going to be Jewish anymore.” When she was eighteen, Mara hit an oncoming truck while driving in her hatchback and spent the next four months in a coma before finally passing away.

But when we were twelve, everything seemed like a grandiose choice. Even Rebekkah savored the opportunity to select from sticky or rock candy when she came to my house for sleepovers. It didn’t matter that she believed in Jesus; I in Rekha; Mara in turning eighteen. We knew to survive seventh grade, we would have to rely on our ability to be arbitrary just to avoid getting crushed.

For the fall formal, two boys asked Mara to the dance, one asked Rebekkah and I ended up asking Sim what I would do if no one asked me. “You crawl in a hole and die, kiddo.” For Sim—a Michelangelo effigy of obdurate muscles and sienna skin—the extent of conflicts in his pretty world was whether to splash on Drakkar or Polo before going to the football game.

When a boy did not ask me to the dance, I approached Henry Wheeler—the fattest kid in school—and asked if he wanted to go. “Can’t dance,” he mumbled under his raspy breath, and I didn’t press him further.

I cried in a lump on my bed the entire week before that Thursday night. I wouldn’t go to my first dance. This was something I saw happen in John Hughes’ movies to ugly, smart girls or geeky, frizz-headed boys. I was a cute kid. Our parents let me take my braids out after sixth grade, so I had long hair that landed just above my waist that I sometimes pulled back into a side ponytail. I had deep set almond-colored eyes, like our dad’s, a normal nose and only one crooked tooth. I was average height and I wasn’t too chubby. I got mostly Bs, some As, one C. I just didn’t get asked to the dance.

Ravi came into my room that Thursday after school and I asked him if Talia, the girl he asked to the dance, said yes. He nodded and sat on the bed. “I don’t think she would mind if I cancelled and went with you, though. Ryan can take her.” Ravi’s eyes counted stray strands on the olive shag carpeting.

“You would do that?” I asked, readjusting my head on the down pillow.

He shrugged. “She’s not my girlfriend.”

“I’m your sister.”

He looked over to me and smiled, “Yeah, I know.”

“Your face looks better.” He had started using a new medicine, some sort of industrial strength cream, that school year. Although he was darker than Sim, and had a baby face, I knew Ravi would age into a stunning and unassuming beauty. I hoped to turn out the same way. He didn’t seem convinced there was hope for either of us. “I’m serious, Rav. There are hardly any pimples left.”

“Yeah, but I bet you on Saturday Bibiji will still count the spots.”

“And then Dhadha will come to your rescue.”

On Saturday, as Ravi and I stretched to touch the arch and Sim thumped it with a finger, the dance was behind us, behind me.

It didn’t take clever convincing to sway Ravi into keeping his date with Talia, and then he had the brilliant thought to ask Ryan to take me instead of pawning off Talia. The four of us must have looked like a misguided rainbow walking into the crepe-dripped gymnasium. Ryan had dark blonde hair that stuck out like bird feathers; Talia’s hair was Garfield orange; Ravi’s hair was jet black; and I had my gloomy mess of string. When Rebekkah and Mara joined us with their dates, we danced and danced—forgetting any of this was ever an ordeal.

**

Ravi charged to the back room of our grandparents’ house, where he woke Dhadha from an afternoon slumber. The rest of us convened in the dining room, salivating over the scent of Bibiji’s aloo rotis—spiced mashed potatoes, onions and peas spread between homemade whole wheat Indian bread. We loved Bibiji’s Saturday treats and looked forward to them after a humdrum week of bologna sandwiches for lunch and whatever our mom would defrost or reheat for dinner. Unlike Bibiji, Mom didn’t see cooking as her gift. She worked at a law firm, typing depositions and answering calls, and wanted to recline in her La-Z-Boy and watch “Wheel of Fortune” when she came home. Once Sim could drive, we ate a lot of fast food and pizza.
Mom, like Dad, was a first generation American. I can’t remember her parents, but she said they were Guyanese Indians who wanted to check out entrepreneurial pursuits in the States. Our parents met twenty years later, the only two Indians at the state college. They traveled as hippies for a while, surfacing for funerals and Sim’s birth. Once he arrived, our parents moved into this house with Dhadha and Bibiji. They moved out once they had Ravi.

**

“Nina, beta, go get the yogurt from the refrigerator,” Bibiji turned to look at me after laying out placemats. “No more hamburgers for you. You will become plump.”

Our mother chuckled. “Panji, she’s a healthy young girl—slender even.”

“Yes, now,” Bibiji mused, “but in two years she will thank God for her Bibiji’s sound advice. Right, beta?” She pinched Sim’s chin and he nodded. “My beautiful Simjit. See? He does not eat high-flying American food too much and he is spotless and slim.”

I wanted to tell Bibiji that Mr. Spotless and Slim has pimples all over his back and in five years would be fat because he was the one who took me to burger joints. Instead I said, “Bibiji, Ravi’s face doesn’t have spots anymore.”

She snorted. “If he continues to surround himself only with your Dhadha, and refuses to listen to me, the spots will return.”

I think Sim was glad to hear that, but it made me want to leap at Bibiji and whack her with a flyswatter. I was also mad at Ravi for abandoning me with Sim and Bibiji; at Mom for her neglect; at Dad for his absence; at Dhadha for loving Ravi so much he couldn’t see me.
I wanted to know what they did together so, that day, I excused myself from the table, pretended to enter the bathroom, and detoured down the hall to crouch in front of Dhadha’s study. I could hear him speaking, his voice inflected in subtle rhythms of wheezes and accented words, “Ravi, you must learn to be quiet, even when you are in pain. Another’s life must come before your own. You must not let the corruption of other men influence you to do what is not right.”

Ravi asked him then what was not right.

Guilt, like a plague, passed over me and I stood to run down the hall. Once I turned, I gasped when I plowed into a shaded figure.

“Spying?” Sim was grinning in that dark hallway.

“Shut up, Sim. I was just going to tell them lunch is ready.”

“So why didn’t you tell them?”

I rasped against the door. “Lunch is ready.” I faced Sim. “You were spying on me, so don’t think you’re so great.”

Sim walloped me on the head and walked toward the dining room. I waited for Dhadha and Ravi to emerge from the room. After a while, they still hadn’t appeared so I burst through the door and threw myself onto Dhadha’s lap. He flung his head back in laughter and hugged me as I plopped on him in the plushy recliner. Ravi stood and pressed the chair so it tilted, while the attached ottoman sprung out. At that, the chair tipped back, leaving the three of us sprawled on the carpet—groaning through giggles—as we made sure each of us was unharmed.

**

For the next five years, on every Saturday our fingers would smell of wrought iron and our evenings would end with the three of us laughing.

By then, Sim had gone off to college, graduated and married a girl he got pregnant senior year. They moved into a four-bedroom house on the opposite end of town, where he found a job as a senior accountant for a local company.

His son was born that fall. Little Simmy was a wonder to Bibiji and she offered to baby sit regularly. Sim’s wife Natalie resented motherhood—and Sim—and allowed Bibiji to have the time she offered with Simmy.

Ravi packed for college the week before I began senior year of high school, where I would serve as Student Body Treasurer. In their days, Sim was President and Ravi was Historian. I stood in the doorway of his bedroom while he paired socks. “Are you ready for a big city?” I asked, peering over his shoulder to glimpse his face.

“I think so.” He turned to me. “You should consider applying next year.”

I chuckled. “Sim went Ivy League; you’re going Big Ten; I’ll probably end up at some state college with a degree in marketing.”

“Well,” he gestured with his hand, “what do you want to do?”

I puckered my lips and shrugged.

“Yeah, me too.” He finished packing his socks and faced me. “Just don’t go getting yourself knocked up and married.”

“Aye, aye.” I reached to lift an old lantern Dhadha had given Ravi for his thirteenth birthday. “Does this thing work?” It had tiny jewels in deep shades fastened to the base.

He looked over his shoulder. “Needs oil.”

I set it back and reminded Ravi to pack it. “I know,” was all he said.

Our grandfather had the second in a series of strokes that winter. Ravi was going to college with one foot planted here. Dad and Dhadha urged Ravi to pursue his dream of becoming an architect, despite Dhadha’s fading health. Even Sim spoke to Ravi about not feeling guilty by going away. Ravi must have implied that Sim wouldn’t understand his apprehension since Sim wasn’t as close to Dhadha, because Sim refused to come to our grandparents’ house the last Saturday Ravi was here.

“He is busy,” Bibiji argued, “a man of his position is occupied even on Saturdays.”

But Dhadha, Ravi and I knew it was because Sim didn’t mind admitting Ravi’s absence wouldn’t cause him much grief.

Ravi departed the next day, Sunday, and left the lantern on my dresser with a note tucked beneath: “Take care of this while I’m away.”

I moved the lantern to my nightstand and pictured Ravi when I looked at it. If I stared long enough, my mind’s image of Ravi juxtaposed with a shadow of our grandfather. They had the same eyes: round and devout. Ravi’s emotions were betrayed by his eyes, and Dhadha’s eyes misted often.

The lantern was antique brass, brought from India, and it was uniquely ornate and simple. The intricacies of the jeweled base contrasted with the dim glass of the hurricane-shaped body. I could fall asleep calmly, without waking, knowing it was by my bedside.

The Saturdays of my senior year were spent at the hospice, where our grandfather laid in a coma after a third stroke. Ravi called at two on those afternoons and we talked to him on the speakerphone. Little Simmy would add new words to the conversation as the months progressed.

Ravi came home the following summer and virtually slept in the hospice room. His eyes were bloodshot by day and melancholy by night. Bibiji brought food; our mother brought in a TV; our father stayed up with Ravi to discuss the school year; Sim brought Simmy by to divert Ravi’s attention away from our grandfather’s body attached to tubes and bags.

I came and went according to the mood I sensed from Ravi. Sometimes I could feel his loneliness as he watched Dhadha, so I stayed. When Ravi spoke to Dhadha, I waited outside and tried not to eavesdrop. Ravi had met a few girls, none of them very charismatic: some had obnoxious giggles; others relied too heavily on finding a boyfriend. Ravi was dissatisfied with his math professor, who was obtuse; but he loved his linguistics instructor, who also taught his Faulkner class. I smiled as Ravi gushed over Absalom, Absalom! “I struggled, but it was an eye-opening course. Most people thought I was crazy for taking it my first year. Dhadha, this author is really something.”

He was even taking a theology course and wanted our grandfather awake so he could share discoveries. “Dhadha, you’d be amazed.”

I remembered Rebekkah, whom I still saw but not as much. She joined the newspaper and while she was at staff meetings, I was planning events or decorating the gym. I thought of her whenever I heard the word “amaze.” She liked that word and used it when she discussed her beliefs.

I jerked my head back from the door when Sim arrived in the hallway with a squirmy Simmy. Natalie peeked in the room to say hello and hug Ravi, then me in the hallway, and dashed out the back entrance before Sim could object.

When I joined my brothers in the room, I noticed Ravi’s shoulders had broadened beyond Sim’s. Sim slouched while Ravi leaned forward, monitoring Dhadha’s breathing, pressing his wrist for his pulse. Simmy crawled on the floor so I swooped him into my arms. “Sim, I’m going to take little one here downstairs for a snack.”

“You should go with her, Ravi. You need a break.”

Ravi did not divert his eyes from Dhadha. “No, he looks better. He actually has some color.”
Sim offered Ravi his clunky cellular phone. “Look, I’ll call you from here if he wakes up. Go—get something to eat.”

Ravi glanced at me. “Will you bring me back some soup?”
Sim fumed. “For crying out loud, Ravi, when are you going to get over this obsession? He’s our grandfather too.”

I stepped forward. “Sim—”

Ravi stood. “No, Nina, that’s alright. You’re right, Sim. I’ll give you some time.” Ravi tucked the phone into his hand and ushered Simmy and me downstairs. We sat for a while, alternating between sprinkling crackers into soup and feeding bits to Simmy.

“You think he’ll be okay? The doctor said if his color returned he could wake up.”

Ravi looked at me. “He’s going to die.” He clambered out of the booth and rushed upstairs. I snatched Simmy and followed.

When we reached Dhadha’s doorway, we could see nurses huddled around the bed. One yelled for another to call the doctor and Ravi surged forward. I followed, panting with the weight of Simmy, and gasped when I heard the flatline shrill of the monitor. Ravi kicked the chair he had been sitting in and looked around for Sim.

Sim stood motionless in the corner—dulled by the white walls—staring at Ravi, whose chest began to heave until he asked, “What happened, Sim?”

Sim shook his head and glanced at me.

“Sim?” I repeated. Sim snapped out of his trance, lurched for Simmy, and bolted to the parking lot, running Ravi’s and my shouts into echoes.

**

The house was hollow when I approached it that afternoon, not bothering to touch the archway as I stepped onto the porch. I entered our grandparents’ house and found our father, mother and grandmother sipping tea in the dining room. I halted. Tears, in blades of fear, gouged my cheeks. “He’s gone.”

Our father stood. “Was Ravi there?”

I shook my head. “Just Sim. We had gone to get something to eat.”

Our father groped for his chair and our mother leaned to adjust it. Our grandmother covered her mouth with her chuni as it draped her head and torso.

Mom and Dad held each other while Bibiji wept. I stood still on the step where the rooms met. I didn’t know where Sim had gone, or why he left so suddenly. I wondered if Ravi was still in the hospice room with Dhadha, void of color and strength.

The walls felt lopsided and the carpet groaned. It seemed as if a hundred years had passed when the hospice called for our grandmother. She asked to speak to Ravi and, after prolonged moments, they reported he was not there.

Our mother kept calling to Christ, who I think heard her because she fell asleep shortly thereafter, perched in grandfather’s chair.

Rebekkah once said the shortest passage in the Bible was “Jesus wept,” after Lazarus, whom Jesus later brought back to life, had died. Rebekkah said Jesus wept not because Lazarus died but because people didn’t believe Jesus could resurrect him. My mother worshipped a man on a cross who wept when his followers denied his power. Yet Jesus himself did not weep while he was on that cross. He looked asleep whenever I observed crucifixes. Although my father forbade them in the house, I noticed them in hospitals or friends’ houses. Rebekkah wore crosses absent of the slain Jesus. She said she refused to carry around a corpse when the Jesus she worshipped was still alive.

Everything I knew was dead. I called Natalie and she listened as I cried. Sim came home and, when Natalie put him on the phone, I could hear his languid breath. I waited for Ravi while our parents and grandmother finalized paperwork at the hospice. I went home to a bleak room, not knowing where Ravi was, and fell asleep—without changing my clothes or washing my face—alone in my bed, in my damp and empty space.

I woke up the next morning and wondered if God was there. I could not feel Him; I had never heard His voice and yet, within me, I needed a reconciliation between life and death. My entire life it felt as though Sim were death and Ravi, life. Yet they were both my brothers. I couldn’t depend on one, and the other became my salvation. But now he was not there. Ravi had vanished and my indignation blazed because Dhadha was my grandfather too. I had lost him too.

I dragged my arm across the bed to brush the lantern on the nightstand. It felt cold and I wrapped myself into the comforter. I lumbered throughout the house that day, waiting for the phone, wanting someone to step through the front door. Trounced in silence, my thoughts began to ricochet against the floorboards. I pulled on Ravi’s college sweatshirt, slipped on my sneakers and twisted my hair into a tight bun.

After driving around, I mingled mindless tasks with errands I had been postponing: I bought a cup of coffee; I peered into a bookstore; I picked up a hammer at the hardware store; I stopped at a candle shop.

I somehow steered myself to our grandparents’ house, where I saw Sim flailing his fist against the door. I bounded from the car and barreled toward the porch, halting in the archway as Ravi flung open the door.

Sim drew back as Ravi lurched forward. I shouted and Ravi jolted, recollecting himself, looking at me. “Do you know what he did?”

I couldn’t find words, so I searched the yellow mums in the flowerbed and imagined clouds shaped like question marks. I shook my head.

Sim turned to me. “Dhadha woke up while you were downstairs.”

“Why didn’t you call us?” I specifically remembered Ravi taking that hideous phone. “Did Dhadha say anything?”

Sim cowered his head. “He asked for Ravi.”

Ravi slid to sit on the doorstep. He buried his fingers in his rumpled hair. “Tell her what else was said, Sim.”

Sim stuttered through a disjointed sentence.

“Sim?” I leaned against the gate.

“I told him Ravi didn’t want to see him.” Sim closed his eyes. I could feel the air evaporate from the neighborhood. Sim looked to me in the archway and then at Ravi on the doorstep. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was—”

Ravi stood. “You were out of your mind, Sim. You know how important it was for me to see him one last time.”

“And it wasn’t important to me?”

“Sim, don’t be a jerk. You deliberately made sure I wasn’t going to be there.”

“Ravi, how was I supposed to know he’d wake up? If you think I’ve got that kind of power, you have a lot of growing up to do.”

“Quit your condescension, you—” Ravi gripped the doorframe. “Never mind. He means more to me than this—you’re not even worth it.” He went inside the house and closed the door.
Sim scraped past me and I wanted to shout at him, but words wedged within me as I watched him squeal off in his car. I squinted as he pulled away from the curb.

In the house, Ravi had turned off all the lights.

Outside, I was still in the archway when I remembered my bag and felt through its contents. I knocked at the door.

Ravi answered it after I had left and, sometime later, he told me he was grateful I had returned Dhadha’s gift. There in the doorway, after an eternity, Ravi kindled a flame.