Fiction: E.V. Slate

Leaving Chimbai Road

The one thing Teresa didn’t want anyone to know about her, but which everyone seemed to find out (usually because she would end up telling them), was that when she was seven and a half, she and her father and four brothers fell into a defunct well.

They had been settling down to sleep and it was very late, which was usual, the three youngest lying crosswise on the charpoy. Thomas, who was five, was kicking John, the eldest, gently on the ear as he squatted beside them, unfolding his hammock. John said, “Stop it.” Thomas giggled and kept on. All of a sudden, they smelled popcorn.

Here was a family with five living children, and every night when Joseph came back from the railroad station, barely able to lift his heels, the bicycle popcorn vendor would lash out at him: “Why won’t you buy one bag? I’ve seen your kids eating food off the ground. Come on, look at this!” He would lift the lid of the black kettle and show Joseph the puffed kernels, so clean-looking and soft. “Take a bag home for once!” This time Joseph must have pulled a face the vendor didn’t like, and so he had pushed his bicycle after him down the alleyway. “If you won’t treat them, I will!” he finally said, leaning the bike against the wall of Joseph’s hut and pulling out a fistful of the white nuggets with a blue plastic bag. It looked like a lumpy balloon. “Here, kids! See what you’ve been missing,” he called into the doorway after Joseph, who was timid and, after his wife ran away, had no one to bully in life but his own children. Looking another man in the eye and refusing a gift made to shame him probably would have been too much to ask.

But there is no saying what Joseph really would have done next (watch mutely while his children enjoyed the snack? Eat some himself? Offer the vendor tea?), because as soon as the visitor stepped inside the ground gave way. This happened with a dull, indifferent sound, like muffled thunder.

The vendor alone was able to react, to lean back and avoid the plunge downward. Deep inside the well, Joseph found a jutting brick against which he could wedge the toes of his left foot and stay momentarily afloat, but his children kept crawling over him, grabbing at his forearms and his belt. The water was less water than filth: by the second week of June the monsoon had saturated the ground, filling every crevice and mingling with the sewers, and now it seemed to be seeping up as if to flood the city from below just when the rains had stopped.

Above all of her brothers and her father, Teresa could be heard, braying as deep and indignant as a donkey. (This is when she first learned the power of her own voice.) In no time the neighbors came running barefoot and in their undershirts. They swung their lanterns in the dark and argued about what to do. A few ropes, all too short, were thrown down and then pulled back up. Most of the men had known about this old well, and though some of them were friendly and some even distantly related to Joseph (and all Catholics too), no one had warned him or explained why the hut had come so cheap to rent.

The popcorn vendor rode out to phone for the firemen and when they came they wagged their heads and said it was not their job to be going underground like this. There was a long pause, longer than there should have been. “Yes, but do you have a ladder?” someone finally asked.

Alan, Teresa’s only child, doesn’t know this story yet—there is really no reason why he should. At the age of eight and a half, he does know that his mother is terribly afraid of ghosts. They even have a guard dog—not a street mongrel, but a long-haired and smaller breed of shepherd that one of her bosses, a young manager from Switzerland, left behind a year ago. At night it lies chained outside their doorway off Chimbai Road, panting from the heat, its tongue drooping sideways over its teeth. The once beautiful fur is now filthy and matted, but still the beast is admired in the lanes—enough so that now and then some of the teenagers will launch exciting little raids to try and steal it. But the dog is miserable and tetchy, so bitter and lonely for its absent master that each time it rises up and barks madly, waking even some of the apartment dwellers on Hill Road. “Good boy, Ship,” Teresa whispers. “Thank God for him, thank Jesus!” Her plastic rosary beads click in the darkness, a sound so familiar and comforting to Alan that he falls asleep again with his forehead pressed against her shoulder. In the morning he doesn’t remember and she tells him that once again the dog has scared away the ghosts of her father and her brother, Thomas. Alan is eating a fresh roll—she buys one from outside each morning while he lingers in bed—and drinks the sweet tea she has made for herself. “What happened to them?” he finally thinks to ask.

E. V. SLATE has won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award as well as grants from the St. Botolph Club Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her stories have appeared in The Pedestal Magazine and in Best New American Voices 2005. She currently lives in Cambridge and is at work on a novel.

(c) Copyright 2006, E. V. Slate; author retains all rights.