Gaps of Joy, and a Knot for Love by S. B. Divya

Prakash’s wife lay on a mattress as old as their marriage and as sunken as her cheeks. Devi’s hair was gray like the threadbare curtains, her body swollen and sweaty with betrayal, consuming itself in an immunological civil war. The doctor had shrugged in apology and prescribed pain medicine. “Nothing else we can do,” he’d said and left.

Their careworn daughter stood beside the bed. They’d named her Khushi—happiness—and Prakash’s magic had kept her true to her name until Devi became ill. Shadows crowded the space under Khushi’s eyes. Lines furrowed in her skin with a depth that belonged to someone older, someone like her father. She clutched an empty plastic bottle.

“We have no money left for more pills,” she whispered over her mother’s ragged snores.

“How much rice do we have?”

“Enough for two days, but we’ve nearly run out of milk.”

“I’ll go to the parks today. It’s only Wednesday, but perhaps a few families will be there.”

Prakash felt for his last pocket of happiness and blew a soft breath at his wife. Her breathing quieted. Not as effective as drugs, but better than nothing. Khushi watched and shuddered—the tension of an addict in withdrawal.

Guilt stabbed at Prakash. Months had passed since he had enough joy to share with Khushi. His daughter’s work as a cook paid their bills. His tips from bubble blowing earned enough to pay for their grains. Their happiness, however, could not be resupplied with money.

He left the room and gathered his supplies: a bottle of water, a jug of soapy solution, and a thin white towel. Outside, a light breeze pushed against sultry air of Tiruchi. A crack in the middle of Prakash’s sandal dug into his foot as he hobbled over uneven roads. Auto-rickshaws honked and careened past him, while the two-wheelers let their motors do the talking: “Move over, old man, lest we crush your feet!”

He paused at his usual turn. To the right lay the wealthier neighborhoods with their manicured parks and children in western clothing and parents who dropped generous bills at his feet. The children shrieked in delight at his handiwork, but the air of adult suspicion—never trust an old man in rags—tainted their joy.

Two days worth of rice, Khushi had said. The strain on her face gnawed at his resolve. Turn left today? To the shanties? The good parks would be mostly empty until the weekend, three days away. They could make the food stretch until then.

Prakash turned left toward the shanties where he grew up, the neighborhoods he’d neglected since his wife took ill. He knew he was close when he could smell the sewage and rotting food. He filled his lungs. Best to get it over with. The sound of young voices—calling, laughing, exclaiming—reached him next. He rounded the corner.

Barefoot boys with skin the color of sandalwood and eyes like night played a riotous game of cricket. Their field was dirt, broken bricks, cement rubble. Bits of plastic littered the uneven surface like dusty jewels.

“Bubble Thatha!”

They called him Grandfather, though he had no grandchildren of his own. Not yet, but when—if—Khushi had children, they would inherit his magic.

“Stop the game!”

“He’s back!”

At their cries, girls emerged from tin-shanty doors like shy butterflies, strands of jasmine woven through their braids and black paste marking their foreheads with perfect, tiny dots. They threaded into the cluster of boys, their faces alight with sunshine and bright expectation.

Warm air stirred as Prakash took his first gulp of soap solution. He closed his eyes, found the hard knot of love nestled between his heart and stomach, used it to push the solution through his lungs, into his mouth, and out, out and away, between lips forming an “O” of wonder.

The first outpouring was a cluster of small but multitudinous bubbles, at least one for each child to catch. The girls and boys shrieked, leaping about like cubs chasing after birds. Prakash inhaled their unadulterated joy. It flew to him on currents of air. He drew it through his lungs and beyond, to the interstices of his abdomen where laughter liked to live.

He took more time with the next round. He sent forth great oblong shapes, longer than any child was tall and fatter by a wide margin. The younger ones watched in awe as the prodigious forms swirled with every color of the rainbow. The older ones jumped and tried to pop the bubbles’ undulating bellies. They got all but one. It floated away, over rooftops of thatch and cement, disappearing into the aquamarine sky.

“More, Thatha, more!”

Their eagerness nestled into the warmth of his gut. He drew on the gentle possessiveness this instilled and shaped his cheeks and tongue and lips to produce a menagerie of soapy air. Rabbits, lions, giraffes, deer, and the more familiar—cows, goats, chickens—drifted over the lot like delicate blown glass.

A tendril of disappointment stole into him with the next indrawn breath. A young girl wearing peacock green stood to one side, frustration painting her face. She was new to him. He beckoned her over.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“I can’t catch any of them! I run fast, but I always miss.”

“Try standing still. Let the bubble find you, and then chase it.”

She returned to her spot, skepticism in her posture. The joy he gathered was precious, but he spent a pinch to infuse the peacock-shaped bubble that floated her way. Her doubt made way for wonder. The happiness she exuded more than made up for what he’d lost, and his insides swelled.

Clouds blew in on the next breeze, casting shadows and dulling the shine on Prakash’s creations. Afternoon thunder rumbled in the distance. The children groaned as one. They knew that the show was over, and they murmured their thanks as they drifted home.

“Will you come again?” asked the peacock girl.

He rinsed his mouth with water, wiped it clean with the towel, then spoke: “Tomorrow, and every day but Saturday.”

“Why not Saturday?”

“Because I get more happiness here than anywhere else, but I am still human. I need to make money to feed my family.”

The first heavy drops landed. The daily downpour followed within minutes. Prakash’s leather sandals became waterlogged and slippery with mud. The knot of love below his heart felt loose, ragged, but joy rumbled and quivered in his abdomen. It begged so hard for release—let me help you!—that he capitulated. He had plenty to spare today.

The house smelled of boiled milk and steamed rice, simple food for strained constitutions. Prakash dried off and went to the bedroom. Khushi lay beside her mother, the lines of strain eased by sleep. As he gazed at them, love gathered the frayed edges of the knot below his heart.

He sat on the chair next to his wife and took her hand.

“You’re here,” Devi whispered without opening her eyes.

“Yes.”

Prakash inhaled, drew joy from deep in his belly, and blew the infused mist toward his wife’s face.  Her breath grew more even. A touch of color returned to her skin. The corners of her lips tipped upward in a gentle curve like the base of a bubble.

“It’s better than the medicine,” she murmured, passing into her dreams once more.

Khushi stirred, opened her eyes, and sat up.

“Did you bring milk? I’ll start on dinner.”

She rose and walked toward the door.

“Wait,” Prakash said. “I didn’t get any milk, or money.”

“But—I don’t understand.”

“Forgive me. I think we need comfort even more.”

He placed his hand on Khushi’s head as if to bless her. Bubbles the size of champagne effervescence passed between them, and a sigh escaped her lips. Her frown eased. Her shoulders lifted. Her smile reflected her name.

“Thank you, Appa. I’ll cook some rice, just enough for Amma, none for you or me.”

Khushi’s gaunt figure left the room. Prakash returned to his bedside vigil, ignoring the hunger cramps in his stomach, exhaling well-being, and inhaling the love that saturated their home. Little by little, he repaired the frayed knot below his heart. By morning, the gaps in his belly would be empty, but his love perfect.

 

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