Ice, published in Kimera




by Inderjeet Mani


At the airport there were swarms of Sikhs, stocky, smelling of garlic and soiled shoes fresh from the wheat fields of the Punjab. Scruffy young Western tourists in beads and sandals lay stretched out on the floor, their faces sullen, as if India had promised them much but left them confused and weary. As Rafiq sat and watched them, his hand resting lightly on Monique’s knee, he recalled that each time he left, he’d felt the same twinge of regret. Kissing the cheeks and foreheads of aged relatives — wizened old folks who had somehow acquired traces of his face, his teeth and skin — he always wondered if it was the last time he would see them, but each time he returned they seemed to have survived.

Monique was drumming nervously on the armrest, the way she did when she was planning something. He did not relish the thought of the long flight with her. He resisted the idea of climbing into the plane — it was like entering a tube of toothpaste, from which he would emerge squeezed out, refitted for the box that defined their life together in London, everything organized perfectly like place settings for their dinner guests. He would have preferred to spend the Saturday alone in London, quietly drinking his beer and admiring his coin collection, or even playing with a pet iguana — pleasures he would reserve for himself once Monique was gone.


*              *              *


Once he got on board, he realized something was terribly wrong. Monique seemed oblivious to it, she was busy chatting to the stewardess, her gentle French cadences echoing calmly beside his own agitated thoughts. Then he began to feel the plane gather speed and rise, swaying giddily from side to side as it thundered into the air. Soon they were up above the clouds, out of sight of the earth’s curves and indentations. The plane was taking him across mountains and valleys of tufted cloud and ice crystals, stretching infinitely towards a pink horizon. He looked towards the emergency exit, the handle inviting him to step out, to slide across alabaster cloud and begin a journey into unknown terrain. He felt as if he was about to crash through glass and emerge out into the open, except that it wasn’t glass but a crystalline substance — ice, encrusted with rough mineral growth, glistening with patches of ancient gold and obsidian along with green turf mold. Hacking into it would bring a shimmering curtain of shards spattering across the air, sharp fragments that reminded him of the wretched ideas and images that filled up his mind, scripts from an unknown alphabet, maps of constellations, the Chinese characters for sun, earth, and rice field — and a scrap of toilet paper clinging to Monique’s shoe.

He moved his feet, allowing her to squeeze by into her seat, then fingered the cell phone in his pocket. He wondered if he would suddenly get a call from his parents, but that was impossible since they had died years earlier. The last time he had spoken to his mother, she was on vacation with his father, after which there had been a terrible accident. Now his parents’ journey was over, and the only one he was supposedly close to was Monique. All he could feel as he looked outside was a curtain of ice that he would have to hack through with his axe.


*              *              *


The axe had cropped up repeatedly, in nightmares, in daydreams, in moments of sheer vacuity. Once he had buried it. Another time it had reappeared in a dark alley outside a police lock-up. One evening in Hampstead, while getting ready for a party, he had received an anonymous call from someone who was trying to hunt him down. A sickening taste came into his mouth, along with a feeling of revulsion.

“Perhaps you killed quelqu’un in another life”, Monique had said helpfully. “Remember when you were inside of me when you said you felt like chopping my head?”


*              *              *


The axe had something to do with his mother, he was sure of it. In Delhi, he had slept in her bed, her collection of Japanese dolls staring down at him from on top of the dresser. He could smell her hair lotion on the pillow. Afterwards, she was no longer a voice, just a presence, an invisible depression on the mattress. A splinter of ice came sliding towards him, and he ducked. She had disappeared forever, like those mysterious faces on missing persons posters, foul play suspected, perhaps fated to encasement in a living tomb, the leaves growing over them, or even prolonged incarceration with chains, unspeakable tortures with probes inserted everywhere, the scalp set on fire, the victims of sick fellows who got even with their pasts by changing the present irrevocably.


*              *              *


The axe had a small handle with a heavy, glistening blade. It was hard to try and chop anything with it, least of all a head, for that was what the sickening taste told him: it was someone’s head he had cherry-picked off its stalk. He wondered if it could have been Rahul’s? Rahul was a blithering oaf from college with trembling, nicotene-stained fingers, whom Rafiq had apparently driven insane thirty years earlier by stealing his stereo system. Rahul’s parents had warned their son about taking such an expensive apparatus to college: he would lose it; his mother was very strict; they weren’t too well off. But that hadn’t mattered to Rafiq, had it? He had threatened Rahul repeatedly with the prospect of the theft, and he remembered the frightened look on Rahul’s face. When the stereo disappeared, Rahul had complained to the Dean, but there was no evidence. Rafiq had stolen it because he wanted to be like Raskolnikov, to commit a crime and eventually, in the very long run, to get caught. It had fetched a good price, enough for a week’s supply of mescaline. A few months after the sale Rafiq had left college, and soon after he heard that Rahul had a breakdown.


*              *              *


When his father hugged him the last time they had met, Rafiq had cringed, as if his father, familiar with his ways, was about to see through him. Unlike his father, Rafiq had been corrupted at an early age, and thereafter degraded himself repeatedly, not to mention the numerous infidelities to Monique. He had certainly hacked through people’s lives, his terrible tantrums ruining scenes of domestic harmony; he had forced young women into slavery; he had been uncouth in his actions, a giant hand stretching across the land swiping wildly at things that came his way. It was good to make amends, even if the people one made amends to had disappeared forever. He was sorry all right, sorry for what he had done to his friends, to Rahul, to his women, to Monique, to his father, and his mother, but he didn’t recall beheading anyone. Unless he had somehow done it and forgotten.


*              *              *


Milarepa had written of a great diamond thunderbolt, a vajra which cleaves through truth. Who all had he wronged, apart from himself? And what about all those throughout history who had been wronged by others, tortured, torn apart by dogs, left to die in airless containers? Who was going to make amends for that? Hopefully not him! Perhaps that was why someone was hunting for him through all his waking hours, watching, waiting for the final moment. He wondered what fate would await him. His therapist had given him the usual garbage: anxiety, paranoia, childhood abuse, guilt, one needed to accept, did one not, that it was not one’s fault, stuff about not needing to worry about others’ sins, his own being too heavy.


*              *              *


He loved the metal blade, he liked to run his tongue along its beveled edge, feeling as if he was stepping across an ineluctably smooth surface. He had hacked into the universe and now it was waiting patiently for him, he would have to face up to it, he could feel the blood pulsing in his neck. He wondered about his head, how startled it would be if it were to suddenly tumble into a basket. What a look there would be in its eyes, dumb amazement at the sheer fact of the universe.

The axe came sliding across the ice to him, and he bent to pick it up.





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