Apr/May 2010  •   Fiction

Should I Weep

by Indira Chandrasekhar

The Principal walked into the room in the middle of the geography lesson, and the class quickly stood to attention.

"Good morning, girls," the Principal said.

"Good morning, Madam," they replied.

The geography teacher dropped her chalk and hastily straightened to wipe out the drawing of the oxbow lake on the blackboard. The Principal was strict about precision, even when it came to sketches.

Sunanda stared as the oxbow lake disappeared. Intestines made oxbow shapes, masses of waste snaking within vigorous, peristaltic walls. Like the river bending past her classroom, so compacted with refuse, a bottle tossed onto it didn't sink.

Did intestines exist singly? Rivers did. You could have one river, one oxbow lake. Could you have one intestine?

"You may sit." The Principal adjusted her stiffly starched sari, her tight, firm hairdo casting a grotesque shadow on the wall, as if a hunched being was suctioned to her head.

Sunanda shifted in her chair. Her oxbow bends were changing direction. She felt churned up, sick.

"Settle down girls. There's something I have to tell you." The Principal cast her sharp eyes about the room. "Mrs. L, your biology teacher, died on the operating table last night."

The silence was sudden, the shuffling and whispering, the faint scraping from the starched pleats of the girls' uniforms, stilled. Then the geography teacher dropped the duster with a crash, triggering a host of reactions from the girls. Hira burst into hysterical tears. Should I weep? Sunanda wondered. She didn't feel upset or sad. All the same she lifted her hand to her mouth and gasped like the others. Despite Sunanda's efforts, the Principal noticed she had reacted differently. The Principal looked at her and said, "Sunanda, your right shoe lace is undone."

Sunanda looked down at her shoe and its trailing lace. There was a dark, corrugated print on the blanco whiteness of the lace—whose shoe print was it, she wondered—and its end was scruffy and brown.

"Didn't I point that out to you in the corridor this morning? It is one thing to act as if you cannot speak when you are spoken to, we have to accept that, but I will not excuse untidiness. Tie it. Now."

The girls snickered. Sunanda bent to knot the lace. She was afraid they would see her panties with the line of dark that wouldn't wash out of the seams and the edges. None of the others secreted dark juices. They didn't know what it was like to feel their organs move and contort. It was not as if she didn't want to speak, but ever since her ovaries had ripped open, a thick bell of slowness contained her. The only thing she really could feel was the pain. She didn't need to pick up the bifurcating tubes within her and hold them as she had held the intestines in order to sense them. No, these tubes were outlined in a deep ache spiraling directly to the wall of her abdomen.

The Principal was telling the class about the assembly to be arranged for Mrs. L. Mrs. L had taught them about bifurcating tubes, about ovaries and eggs and fertilization. "You'll feel it every month, the thickness and the tension and the flow," she'd said. Only Sunanda had known what she was talking about.

Mrs. L had also taught them about intestines. They had opened up a frog. "Pin it, pin its legs," Mrs. L had said, her large body flapping above the girls as they bent over the lab tables. "Open the abdominal wall. Look, there, you can see the intestines."

The frog's intestines were shinier than Sunanda had imagined, purple-red and fine and shiny. And when Sunanda touched the hot, slippery volumes, they jumped, warm and alive. She had leapt back with a start.

"It is dead, you silly girl. Don't leap about in the laboratory." Mrs. L's voice was gravelly, like a man's, and her protuberant stomach rose in convex glory under her breasts.

"She's a beer drinker," said the American girl who had spent three months in their school. Sunanda and the rest of the class had stared in incomprehension. "Yeah, my mum tells my dad beer makes the guts big. My dad's got a giant big gut." Sunanda wondered if the American girl's dad and Mrs. L had more oxbow twists in their intestines than others.

When Sunanda had peeped into the lab the day they dissected the frogs, there was a sack in the corner, smelling of ponds and the egginess of rotting vegetation. "You are early. Come back after the recess," Mrs. L. shouted out from her cubicle.

The assistant saw Sunanda staring at the sack. "Frogs," he said with his habitual leer. He scratched his crotch, picked up the sack and inverted it into a long glass jar. The frogs tumbled in, their limbs waving in random directions. He poured a measure of chloroform from a brown glass bottle. As the fumes rose he corked the tall glass jar. The frogs began to leap, a single-minded mass pushing the cork with snouts and forelimbs, screaming a shrill, desperate sound. Frogs are normally silent animals. The males croak when they seek a mate, but otherwise they are voiceless. Sunanda knew that from her biology lecture. But these frogs were screaming their last breaths away in unison as they tried to escape their collective fate.

Mrs. L probably hadn't screamed when they covered her face in chloroform. She would have counted backwards and forwards until she was too drowsy to use that gravelly voice. The blade would have been sharp, the gloved hands that sliced open her abdomen, precise. How had they managed to pin back those large, ungainly muscles? They must have had to contort her arms and legs, wrestling atrophied shoulders and hips into submission. Had they lifted out the slippery mass of her twisting intestines? Was it full of waste, pulped remnants of her thick, dry rotis and garlic chutney?

Sunanda could smell that garlic chutney. It had pervaded the lab, pungent and tangy over the smells of frog and chloroform and formaldehyde. Mrs. L's stomach and breasts had pressed down as she leaned over Sunanda and pointed out the different organs.

"Those are the vocal cords," she had said. "Humans have them, too, although some of us, like Sunanda, stop using them." She had laughed, exuding fumes, setting the entire class into a giggle as Sunanda stood, pressed between the frog's exposed intestines and Mrs. L's twisting gut.

What had they done with Mrs. L's insides? She had seen the peon toss the frogs out for the stray dogs after the lab class. The dogs seemed to know the timetable and waited in the ditch outside, snarling over the remains. It was the pups that got the intestines, miniscule and stringy, dragging them off in the dust. Mrs. L's intestines would be too large for the pups. Maybe the thick convoluted tube went to the big male with one eye who growled whenever Sunanda passed by. He would sink his snarling teeth into them.

"I want each of you to write a sentence for the memorial assembly. Hira, you seemed deeply affected by her death. You were one of her better students, so you may read it out." The Principal looked around the class as if gauging the affect of this announcement. The girls sat straight, waiting to be dismissed. "You can relax now girls, cry if you want to." Sunanda made a strangled sound. "Sunanda, did you want to say something? Would you like to make a comment?"

Frogs are silent creatures, Sunanda wanted to say. All the girls were looking at her.

"Yes, Sunanda," the Principal said impatiently. "Do you have something to add?"

Air squeezed through Sunanda's vocal cords and rushed past the strips of vibrating tendon to resonate in her oral cavity, forcing open her mouth in a high-pitched scream.