He would die on the stage one day, his voice ringing out on a magnificent soliloquy, to standing ovation, the applause ringing in his ears. Or so he thought.
He had finally agreed to play his mother, keep her alive in public memory. Her voice, her grace, her style, tone, clothes. Colors. Texture. Fragrance. And the slow disintegration… play out every detail to the end. When he stood under the lights, his face painted to look like hers, he forgot himself.
Then he forgot himself some more.
In the green room, where fans knocked for an autograph, a selfie, or even a smile from him, he cowered in front of the unlit mirror, groping to find his thoughts apart from his mother’s.
His mother, the thespian who ruled the stage like no one else after her. No one could get into her shoes as he could, they said, laying the script before him as if homage to the gods.
He had spent a decade taking care of her and her forgetfulness – her brain a sieve, he the receptacle. He drank her life to the lees, at first with unslaked thirst, then, slowly, as her memory overlaid his, with growing unease. Who else was there to give audience, who else to listen, listen, listen as she told him all that she had held up, her life overshadowed by the characters she had played, their lives, loves, losses, thoughts muffling hers, outstretched fingers clawing at her heart to fill with their passions, years spent with their absences and presences… And then, when age and immobility pushed them away, her mind rose to claim its space. Memories and words tumbled out and engulfed him. The patina of all she was over his soul and self.
Caught in the stage lights, he forgets where her thoughts end and his begin, but he leaves the audience in thrall. They have never seen a man play a woman thus. They come ready to laugh, and sit, stunned, long after the curtain call.
In the green room, he switches off the lights and sits in the dark, facing the mirror. Sometimes, he runs long tapering fingers down his arms, to feel his skin. So different from hers. He touches his dark hair, its coarseness, the wig of luxuriant grey kept aside on the chair next to him. He feels the difference and reminds himself that bodies and souls and spirits and selves are different. Thoughts, they merge. What are his thoughts? When was the last time he loved? Whom? For how long? The woman who had held a rose stalk between her teeth, dared him to bite the petals from it – where was she? What did he do after biting the petals, one by one, slowly, his breath on her face, her breath at his eyelids… Why does he remember her with such suddenness? He’s left his memories behind at the bed with the smell of his mother’s bedsores, in the imprint of her memories seeping onto the pillow, among the chiaroscuro of their lives scattered around the house. He rakes his mind, comes up gasping for air. Not a leaf, word, thought, emotion, action that he can claim as his. Then why this image, of the woman with the rose between her teeth? Who? When? And then what?
He switches on the lights above the mirror and lets the brightness wash over him, wills it, to penetrate the scum of borrowed memory. Scatter what is hers, he mutters, his face raised to the lights. The words cling to him like dead weight.
At dinner, he plays the fork across the ink-blue plate, scattering the rice, separating the long, white grains from one another, like sentries at erratic intervals or the stars of a disgruntled sky. Scatter. Scatter. He mutters, faster and faster. Grains leap out of the plate, flying stars; the fork clatters onto the floor. He pushes back the chair and stumbles into bed. Unable to rest, he leaves his room.
Night glistens on the road outside the hotel. These streets, the light snow. The haze of the streetlamps. The passing vehicles. He takes them in, etchings upon his mind. Someone shouts out his name. He stops. Who? Someone knows his name in a town that is not his. He looks around. This someone whom he does not share with his mother. Nothing to do with her, not of her past or her present, never of her future. His alone – this voice, this knowing. He opens his mouth and takes in lungsful of the crisp, cold air. He wants to dance on this slippery pavement. And then, like the albatross, the thought: it is because of her that he is here. Because of her, this voice calls out to him from a vehicle that does not stop. He stares at a mannequin in a shop window and finds his reflection peering back at him. The reflection wears his mother’s clothes, a long coat with brass buttons, scarf unknotted at the chest… He has walked out into the night in the garments he wore on stage, his mother’s.
As he slumps against the window glass, the shop door opens with a tinkle and a man calls out: Would you like to come inside? It’s freezing out there.
He doesn’t respond. What if his voice is not his?
The man withdraws into the warmth of the shop.
He stands cloaked in the silence of falling snow.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an award winning writer and independent books editor based in Pune. Her debut collection Cast Out and Other Stories was published in 2018 by Dhauli Books. Her short stories and book reviews have been published in various anthologies and literary journals. At present, she is fiction editor, The Bangalore Review; visiting faculty, Writing and Editing, at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune; and mentor, Scholastic Writers Academy.
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