Then there was the mother who locked her children inside the house because, she said, the world was a bad place.
She stole out one night when the children were asleep and the father away and bought planks of wood and hammered them across the windows. She left a slit open in one through which she looked down at the street lined with tall buildings. Shadows moved behind some lit windows; others were so dark anything could be behind them. Pools of yellow light lit the sidewalk, riddled with bumps and cracks that caught the feet of her children; plumes of smoke rose from the sad rag bundles that lay about. From a distance came a high-pitched scream; some young people shot out of a side street and scattered away. Cars sped through the red light; earlier in the week a car had taken a turn too quickly at the school corner, knocked a child dead, and gone on without stopping.
The mother shivered, arranged herself on the couch, and waited for the morning.
There were two children, a boy and a girl, twelve and six. The boy’s head came to the mother’s forehead; his feet – with high arches and narrow heels like the father’s who traveled for work seven days a week for low pay because he couldn’t say no to his boss – were already bigger than hers. Hair sprouted newly in the boy’s armpits. Daily he checked them for length, used cologne, and locked the door when he changed. With unseemly interest he studied the mother’s bra in the laundry but leaned away from her soft embraces. At skating lessons she watched him follow the teacher with his eyes to see her breasts bounce. At mealtimes he asked for serving after serving, scraped his plate clean, and brought up masculine burps that bore the fumes of everything he’d eaten. Burrrrrrp, he went, like a satisfied young lion, and the mother knew he’d taken full possession of his body.
Both children ate without pause. They popped nuts in their mouths and guzzled milk, gobbled up chips and devoured rolls. They amassed flesh, added calcium to their bones at such a rate that the mother could see their porous white lengths growing.
“Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up,” she said. “The land of grownups is not the heaven you think it is. Did you know your father and I used to touch each other once? Do you know money doesn’t grow in ATMs?”
Things had been better when they were younger. When they played crawl-crawl in the grass and juggled balls, popped corn and curled up to sleep in a tangled heap. But things had been difficult then, too, and the girl was still little. She tripped on her own sandals and caught her fingers in doors, bumped her head on the edge of the pool and got poked by thorns and stung by bees, sometimes all on the same day. She’d even been bitten by a duck once. Yes, a duck – a plump mallard that had waddled by the playground, his green-gold plumage shining like expensive silk, his beak pert and shiny. She’d reached out to pet him; in a flash, he’d nipped her.
At the beach yesterday, the mother had taken her eyes off the girl for one second to spread a towel. In that second the girl had wandered off. She’d been wearing a pink swimsuit, but when the mother got up to look, she saw that everyone was wearing pink. Even the men’s trunks had pink in them, and the women’s suits were all pink. Pails, shovels, and towels were pink. So were umbrellas and people’s hats, which were much too big. The mother looked and looked for the girl. The sun turned big and pink and bathed everything in a pink light that was pinker than the girl’s suit and swallowed the pink of it. The pink people lazed and laughed on the rolling pink sands, and grew pinker and bigger than the girl, who’d vanished like a piece of sucked candy. The mother fell to her knees, terrified. After a while the girl came back by herself; she’d only been looking for starfish.
That was when the mother decided to board the children in.
It would work if she didn’t let them out and didn’t let the outside in. If she had groceries delivered, held lessons every day, and fed the children small portions so they grew slowly. If she made sure everything had rounded edges or was padded.
In the morning the children woke to find the mother still sitting on the couch in her nightgown. “Why are you sitting there, Ma?” said the boy. “Where’s breakfast?”
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “No more school for you. No more playground. No more outside.”
“I want to go to school,” said the girl.
“I’m sorry,” said the mother. “I can’t let you out. The world is a bad place.”
The doorbell rang, no time to talk. It was the workmen the mother had called. The men installed extra-thick carpet, padded the walls and the furniture, and added a new front door with double locks. While they worked, the mother passed the children bread-and-butter sandwiches under their door. When the men left she jumped on the floor and banged on the walls to check their work. She double locked the door and placed the key in an inner pocket. She taped a note outside that said, “No children in this house.”
Anu Kandikuppa worked as an economics consultant for many years before she began to write fiction. Anu has short stories published or forthcoming in The Florida Review, Salt Hill, The Normal School, Juked, and other journals. Her work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
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