Short fiction by Divya Ghelani.
Roots was first published in the BareLit Anthology by Brainmill Press.
‘Quit your job!’ you told me. You ran into the kitchen, flinging your leather jacket on a chair. ‘We’re going on a road trip!’
You kissed me, a hungry kiss filled with future. Then you held my hands and said you wanted adventure.
‘I’ve seen too many movies and read too many books to be stuck in a shit-hole like this!’ you said. ‘I want to live, to see.’
You poured yourself a cup of coffee and sloshed it about as you painted our future. I watched, mesmerized, as you spoke of volcanoes and pilgrimages, of towns without technology, of sunsets and sunrises, of ancient burial sites and jungles with snakes and orang-utans. You looked so beautiful. Your face glowed with dreams of the future as you spoke of coral leafs and waterfalls, an underwater paradise. We made love on the kitchen floor, quickly and breathlessly, grasping at one another as if it were our last time. Satisfied, we wrapped ourselves in a blanket and fell asleep on the living room settee.
When I awoke it was early morning and the birds outside were going crazy. You were on your hands and knees, rummaging through your rucksack.
‘Here,’ you said. ‘Take a look at these!’
You handed me a stack of tourist maps, flight details, print outs of traveller blogs. You’d even bought a box of malaria tablets from Boots. All we had to do was save up, buy tickets, book the accommodation. You had the whole thing planned out.
‘You want to come, don’t you?’ you said.
Your hand was on my hip, just how I liked it. I stood silently as you moved in close to tell me you loved me. Your lips sealed the deal. Your dazzling curls, your confidence, your shining arguments, your knowing grin. You were always running ahead of me, a skyscraper on legs, and I was always struggling to keep up. Could you hear me running behind you? How long do you think that could have lasted, Adam? How long?
You won me over. Of course you did. My fear of leaving home was not as great as my fear of losing you. For months we ate cheap meals and did overtime in our bullshit jobs, whispering travel plans to bored co-workers. We forfeited our yearly cinema passes in favour of illegally streamed movies. We cut each other’s hair. We stopped buying organic, committed to flasks instead of coffee shops. We used the public library instead of Amazon. I made my own wax from sugar and lemon, tearing up old bed sheets for the strips just like my mother had taught me.
You wanted to see everything and I wanted pull you in, my dragon kite in the high winds. The size of your dreams awed and scared me. That’s why I suggested the US for the first leg of our trip.
‘You never know,’ I said. ‘We might run out of money sooner than we think. And I’d like to see the US, just once in my life. It’s not exotic but it sort of is too, what with all that culture, all those movies we’ve seen.’
You acquiesced and I sighed with relief. We made love and talked into the night. It was like we were growing our very own magical baby.
One day in late spring when the leaves were beginning to fall, it happened. You logged onto our joint bank account after payday and discovered that we’d met our target by saving £8000. £8000! You were too excited to sleep and spent the whole night sitting in bed with your laptop Googling the places we’d visit after the US: Thailand, Nepal, Jamaica, Peru. My mind drifted from one strange dream to another. In the morning, you told me we should hand in our notices at the same time and then message one another when it was done. We threw an impromptu party at our home that evening. Everyone got drunk and silly and you climbed onto the kitchen table and toasted me. You said you were ‘crazy’ about your Sita and that I was the sexiest most brilliant woman you’d ever met. We were going to ‘shag our way across the world!’ Our friends roared their approval.
Both sets of parents arrived to see us off at the railway station. Yours kissed us goodbye, two pecks on each cheek. Mine hugged me and cried and told us to be in contact every day. My mother, in her blue and gold sari and black cardigan, was tense and anxious. She had prepared a puro in tissue paper, tied together with red string. She pressed it into my palms for good luck, her eyes darting between you and me. My father called after you as we headed over to the platform.
‘Adam!’ he said. ‘When you come home, marry Sita. Settle down. Get jobs. Have children. I’m an old man. I am not from your generation. But I know life.’
I recall the knot in my mother’s eyebrows as my father spoke, the strange way my suitcase felt both heavy and light.
We laughed and joked through that train journey. On the long flight to Los Angeles airport, we held each other’s hands, dozed and snogged, watched movies and comedy shows. We laughed and pulled faces, peeling the tin foil from our dinky in-flight meals. Sometimes I placed my head on your shoulder. Sometimes I woke and watched you doze.
In Los Angeles, we took a cab from the airport to El Segundo. There we ate In and Out Burgers just like the man in the travelogue had recommended. Then we headed to a car rental place where the Indian man at the desk spoke to me in Hindi until he saw that I was with you. You looked through his catalogue of cars and chose a cheap little Ford, all black and shiny, with a CD player for your music and a big drinks holder on the driver’s side.
‘My girlfriend can’t even read a map,’ you told him.
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
In LA the roads were long and wide and for three weeks, we drove along the West Coast. It was like starring in our very own movie, a biopic of our lives. I stretched my feet on the dashboard to paint my toenails blue, watched as they sparkled and dried in the setting sun. Your music collection became the soundtrack to our journey: Prince, Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Al Green … and the sea was pretty and crackly, unreal and sparkling, as if some giant hand had reached out of the sky and covered it cellophane.
We walked along beaches at sunset, gathering seashells, the cool sea air reminding me of salt and vinegar chips. We marvelled at rich people’s beach houses, their once-beautiful exteriors bashed and roughed up by the ocean, a great leveller. We found our own beaches too. They were private by default because when we turned up early morning or late at night there wasn’t another soul in sight. The lights that twinkled along the bay seemed so distant.
We visited beaches with malls and shops. We roamed and loitered, ate lollypops, stripped to our bikinis and shorts, paddled in the sea, kissed and held hands, sunsets and sunrises, sand in your shoes, sunglasses on, sunglasses off, dry Martinis and sex, ‘bust-your-stomach-open-and-go-to-sleep’ spaghetti meatballs, the massive sun turned into tiny bits of glitter in the sand. Adam, do you remember those sea lions lying on that beach like fat moustachioed sunbathers? Do you remember those seagulls perched on the top of our car, fighting for food? Saccharine memories, like that pecan pie we ate in Sally’s Café with its cheerful rainbow sign. More sunrises and sunsets, more golden beaches, more pecan pies, more bottomless cups of cheap bullshit coffee. And do you remember that bitch you couldn’t take your eyes off, the one who looked like that seventeen-year-old temp at your work? I turned my gaze to the ocean. There, a majestic-looking white boat with big white sails was heading towards the horizon, as if to fall off the edge of the earth.
At night, we stayed in Motel 6s that felt too anonymous to make love in. Sometimes they stank of smoke even though we’d specifically booked the non-smoking rooms. Our faceless neighbours made weird noises. Their weirdness bought us closer and we held hands in the dark, discussing our dreams for the future. You kept talking about how you were ‘woke’ to your purpose in life, how you never wanted to go home. ‘What was home anyway?’ you said. You wanted to see as much as the world had to offer, to taste, to see. I thought of our parents, yours and mine, the little town market we had left behind, the allotment patch. Suddenly, I sat up.
‘What about children?’ I said. ‘And marriage?’
You shrugged your shoulders.
‘What about it,’ you said, your eyes mocking. ‘Do you really believe in all that crap?’
Did I? Were those even my dreams? Hadn’t my mother suffered? I listened and nodded, feeling confused and strange.
‘Forget it,’ I told myself. ‘Life is now. Moment by moment, and Adam loves you. This trip is time you’ll never get back.’ As the road unfolded before us my dreams felt strange and foolish. They were so pedestrian beside yours, monstrous in their littleness. And how could I blame you with your heart so full of the world? I empathised. I recalled that big suburban house in your childhood, the cold ‘two pecks on the cheek’ parents you were both running from and towards.
You drove our little black Ford towards Yosemite National Park in the central Sierra Nevada of California. By the time we reached it, the weather had changed so much that it felt as if a film set had imported in foreign goblets of snow. Big fat snowflakes seemed to spit out of the cold sky coating the tall regal pines that lined the road we were traveling on. Everything felt so strange and unseasonal, like Christmas in summer.
The park guide, in her earmuffs and scarf, sent us back to the store on the road to buy tyre tracks. She said there had been accidents in the past and that Yosemite was dangerous in the snow. The tyre tracks were so expensive they made you worry about our money reserves for the whole trip. We stood at the store, eating sandwiches and procrastinating. But by the time we chose some tracks, a whole hour had passed and the snow had stopped completely. The shopkeeper laughed and told us we were off the hook. He said it was destiny.
The views inside Yosemite National Park were awesome, nothing like I had ever imagined. Our jaws dropped in wonder that the United States could look like this. Even you, with your guidebooks and maps, seemed surprised.
We drove in silence and I photographed the whole place with my eyes, a series of postcards to send home: evergreens in snow, crazy-coloured skies, mist on the mountains, streams gurgling through cracked rocks. It opened you up just knowing a place like that existed. It made you breathe deeper.
When the sky began to darken, we drove back to the main entrance gates. It was off-peak season so we rented one of the more expensive cottages just outside. It looked so wooden and rustic but inside was America: big TVs and electric tin openers, a pink-cushioned bed and homemade cookies next to a ‘Welcome Honeymooners!’ card. We had sex. I held you back as I guided you in, negotiating the distance between us.
Early next morning, while you slept, I opened the shutters to see the iconic view advertised in the cottage brochure. All I could see was a sea of thick and oppressive fog. It was as if there had been a silent war that night, foreign bombings we hadn’t been aware of. Or else it was as if a massive forest fire had ripped through everything leaving only the honeymoon suite on the hill. I closed the shutters, feeling the mist in my bones. Awake, you looked out onto an altogether different sky: the fog had turned to thin mist and we drank coffee, watching the hazy white tips of mountaintops, snowy like the Himalayas. We took up our rucksacks and headed towards the big trees.
‘On the website it says they’re so big,’ you enthused, ‘you’ll think you’re dreaming.’
You said it was always a secret destination of yours, to come to the US and see sequoias. When you were a little boy, your grandfather had showed you the pictures of them in Reader’s Digest. You’d finished a whole string of wildlife books but the one with the big trees had kept you dreaming. You’d clean forgotten about the book and yet here we were heading to see the sequoias.
‘Think of it, Sita!’ you said. ‘A tree so big and wide that if you cut a hole into its trunk, you could take a truck and drive right through!’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It can’t be true.’
But Yosemite has many wonders. Tioga Road, Tuolumne Meadows, Hetchy Hetchy and Crane Flat all distracted us with their wondrous displays. We saw the falls and the beautiful valley from Glacier Point after which we headed back to our honeymoon cottage. When we finally reached The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, it was day three of our park visit and the sun was setting, bleeding its peaches and light blues into the sky. We parked our little black Ford in the designated car park and stepped out to find the giant trees. The redwoods had so enormous I had thought of Jack And The Bean Stalk. But Adam, the sequoia trees were straight out of a more wondrous tale entirely. So story-ish, they were the origin of stories. It was their realness that made them magical. I pressed my palms against the bark of a younger one. It felt rough and smooth.
‘Woah!’ you said, clicking pictures with your mobile phone. ‘Amazing!’
I left you to it, wandering beyond the designated path, venturing further into the forest. After a few minutes of walking alone, the tourists seemed to fall away. Silence breathed. You were both near and far. I gazed up at the one or two stars that were making themselves known and then all of a sudden I found myself wandering in fog. Moments later, I found myself confronted with largest tree I’d ever seen. The mist covered its branches.
‘Cold isn’t it?’ said a voice.
‘What?’ I said, looking about.
‘No,’ it said. ‘I’m here.’
I looked about me but again, no one. I did a full circle of the sequoia’s massive trunk, passing its wooden sign, which read: ‘The Grizzly Giant’. I looked up too, as high as I could, but the tree’s enormous branches and leaves seemed to be made of mist. I gazed at the tree’s trunk. It featured a blackened hole and I remembered a park guide telling us of a big forest fire long ago. He said some of the animals had died of fright long after the fire had ravaged their home: post-traumatic stress syndrome. I stepped over the fence that guarded the tree from visitors. My fingers searched the blackened hole. It was soft and tender, as if someone had burnt the tree’s heart out. As I examined my black-stained fingers I asked myself: ‘Was it … speaking to me? Could it be true?’
‘You know,’ said the tree, ‘this whole place used to look so different. I used to look so different. Once upon a time, so long ago. Your name, Sita. It means ‘daughter of the earth’.
My heart began to race. How could it know?
‘Don’t worry,’ it said. ‘I know … it’s not normal. And yet, here we were. You and I.’
‘What happened?’ I said. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Life,’ replied the tree. ‘Changes.’
‘How are you speaking to me? From where?’
‘We’re speaking one soul to another. I know you don’t believe it, but you feel it, don’t you? When I saw you I said to myself, “That is a woman looking for roots, a place to pitch up and call home.” ‘How could I know?’ said the tree, reading my thoughts. ‘I see you, Sita. You were born into this world and you were loved. Now … you’re wounded. There’s been a fire … you’re burnt out inside. Believe me, I know. Here, in this other place, you don’t know who you are. Look at the sky above you.’
The mist began to clear and I saw the tree in its immensity.
‘See those branches that reach upwards and out? They exist because I am rooted. I know what you are. I know what you need.’
My voice had left me and it felt as if the entire forest was hallucinating. I saw my mother in a sari made of the trees leaves, her nervous hands on the puro, the gold bangles that would me mine when I married him.
‘You mustn’t think of it as a betrayal. Being truly selfish is the greatest gift you can give. What are you to yourself when you feel like a ghost, like the mist and the fog?’
Adam was nowhere to be seen. The tourists too were long gone. The sky above was starry, a million silver eyes watching.
‘What doesn’t make you happy won’t make him happy.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I stammered. ‘I … he’s my …’
‘I came here long ago, Sita, with a burnt out heart. I was searching for answers but I needed to learn that which I had forgotten. I’ve seen such things … horror and beauty, sights to turn your dry blackened heart sweet once more.’
‘How have you?’ I asked, suddenly defiant. ‘You live in one place all these years. That sign says you’re 3300 years old. You’re stuck in the mud.’
‘You need to know how to look, Sita. You need to pay attention. That’s why you’re here. Or have you forgotten? Let me teach you.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about …’ I said, backing away.
There was a man, I told myself. A strange man behind the tree and he was going to come out and murder me. Adam would remember me. He’d come get me. He loved … just then the ground beneath me began to tremble and shake.
‘Come home,’ the tree said.
‘I think … we’re going to get married,’ I told the tree.
‘No. He’s … I don’t know …’
‘Still … after all this time you don’t know? Here is home. A real home … you’ll see.’
The ground beneath my feet began to rumble. The earth cracked and split and soon enough, the roots of the sequoia tree were upturning huge chunks of soil. Their ropes looked so beautiful. They rose up like magical tendrils, moved like dancing snakes, enticing me, pulling me towards them. They stroked my skin, my long black hair. They felt so … sweet.
‘And if I say no,’ I said, my voice trembling as I pushed them away.
‘How can you say no to home?’
‘What’s it like in there?’ I asked, as the trees roots lifted me like a tiny doll in their hands. I touched the bark of the tree. It felt both rough and soft.
‘You are god. You are everything.’
What happened next was something I could never have foreseen, not in my wildest dreams. You see, my heart opened. My beating heart burst in the cage of my chest and spilled out of my flesh like a cracked egg. It oozed from me, Adam, and that’s how the tree took it.
They say sequoias are old souls and I know what they mean. Living in here, within this giant of life, I know more than I’ve ever known. I see feelingly. The movement of a bird’s wing is a miracle and when even one droplet of rain falls on one of my leaves, an ecstasy of small vibrations rush through me. The nearest stream, though far, far away, reaches me like echoes in a human dream. I sense fear in animals, feel the life pulsing blood through their legs when they are chased. My branches reach up to other worlds and my many hands are shade for animals and humans and insects and plants like me. I am a resting place between flight, and the birds who dream in clouds above me procreate and make their homes in me. Tenacity and intelligence is my nature. I reach for the sun and give to others as they give it to me. I see changes all the time. Here, we give birth to one another. In the springtime squirrels scurry about me, delighting me with their tickling. And in the winter, the frost settles on my bones. I sleep with my inner eye open.
Every millisecond, Adam, is clear to me and every moment in this earth is a blessing, a series of blessings, transformation. I have seen the growth and decay of my fellow trees. It is nothing and everything. I saw you too. I don’t remember how long we were together or how long we have been apart. But I recall how you searched for me with police officers, the cars and the torches, the dogs on leashes. You called my parents from your mobile phone. I watched, interested, in a distant sort of way. And then years later, we met again. You returned to the scene of my ‘disappearance’ with a dazzling new woman. Her name was Patience Yin and she’d borne you two children. They were beauties, Adam. I loved their vigour and excitement. They climbed over the fence that surrounds me and touched my bark. Their squeals and pleasure rippled through me and I felt glad for you, for the new life you’d created. You encircled me with your sorrow before retreating for ice cream. Adam, when you left with Patience’s children that were somehow also mine, you became nothing more than ghosts to me. A series of recurring echoes and memories. I let you go and watched peacefully as thoughts of you passed me by.
Time loops around me like the concentric circles in my trunk. Beyond the peace and rest of the forest and the soil, a tiredness has set in, a feeling of restlessness. I hold it inside me for so long until one day, he comes. I feel the stranger before I see him and when I see him I know him. somehow I knew what to do too. He is tall and slim with curly black hair. He smells fragrant, unusual somehow. There is a green tattoo on his hand, the shape of a leaf.
‘Cold isn’t it?’ I say.
‘Who’s there? Who’s speaking to me?’ he says, his eyes filled with wonder.
‘I’m in here,’ I tell him. ‘And you look like a man in search of roots, a place to call home …’