Indra's Rice

By S. Evans

In her dream, she knelt before a writing table made of sandalwood. A brush lay on the table, next to an inkwell. Both were made of horn so thin that it was translucent. Eight grains of rice were scattered across the table, polished and gleaming like tiny gems.

Ganesh, in his aspect as Gajanana, loomed behind her, his trunk curling and uncurling. The noose he carried in his upper left hand rested loosely about her neck, rope prickling against her pulse-points. When she breathed in, she could smell his skin: sweet milk and the tart scent of pomegranate seeds.

"Take the brush and write," Gajanana told her. His voice was softer than the beat of her heart.

She dipped the brush in the inkwell, intending to write her name upon the first grain of rice. But she could not remember what her name was. Her hand shook, and ink blackened the grain of rice. The noose tightened about her neck.

"No," Gajanana said, leaning so close to her shoulder that she could see his broken tusk out of the corner of her eye. His sorrow smelled like mangos. "Try again."

Indra wakes, tangled in the bedclothes. She is gasping for air, nasal cannula dislodged by restless sleep. Oxygen tickles her neck, flowing out of the plastic prongs: too far away to do any good. She fumbles, fingers numb, as she replaces the cannula.

Murali stirs at her stertorous breathing. He mumbles a complaint, burying his greying head in the pillows. Once, he would have woken when she began to gulp air in ever-greater quantities. Once, he would have replaced the cannula with deft fingers, and kissed her, and perhaps been moved to passion. Twenty years of marriage have worn such considerations away.

The storm pressure in Indra's chest eases. She takes shallow breaths, easing out of the bed and taking hold of the handle of the oxygen canister. The tubing that rubs against her upper lip is a leash, anchoring her to the heavy green cylinder topped with gauges.

It is only a few steps to the shrine, where Ganesh, bronze and plump, sits with yesterday's wilted peonies lying at his feet. Indra does not need to bring the oxygen tank with her; her leash will reach that far. She brings it regardless, ignoring the way it drags at her hand and tangles in her nightgown. What if there is a fire? A gunman? A robber or rapist in the night?

She wants to be able to run if there is danger. She wants to be able to run, period. She wants to be free. She wants . . . she cannot put words to what she wants. The ache in her chest is like summer thunder.

Ganesh looks grave as Indra clears the flowers away. She goes to the kitchen, imagining that she can feel his eyes on her. Returning to the shrine, she smears peanut butter across the God's face.

"I do not know what You want from me," she tells him -- but softly, so that Murali does not awaken and laugh at her. "Please."

She stops, not knowing what else to say, or to ask for, a sediment of unanswered prayers thick on her tongue. Ganesh does not answer, and she cannot hear her husband breathing over the hiss of the oxygen in her nostrils.

Eventually, she returns to bed.

On the second grain, she tried to write the name of her husband, who had once called her a pearl beyond price. She could not remember his name, either. The noose tightened further about her neck. Gajanana said again, "No."

The alarm clock wakes them both. Indra lies in bed, staring at the shadows on the ceiling while her husband showers. The smell of peanut butter lingers in the air. She wonders if he will notice.

Murali takes his time in the bathroom, using up most of their hour-before-work. She brews tea, strong and perfumed, to cover the smell of her offering to the God. When she re-enters the bedroom, he is there.

"Is there tea?" he asks.

She has made tea each morning for all the years of their marriage. Not trusting her tongue, she nods mutely and shuts herself into the bathroom.

Water runs down Indra's skin, past sagging breasts and pale stretch marks. It is lukewarm, rapidly becoming colder. She lathers her hair, tolerating the drip of water down her nose. After ten years, she has become accustomed to the high-pitched sound of droplets skiing down the tubing, wetting the outside of her oxygen tank as it sits on the bathroom mat.

The curtain is pulled open; she startles, inhaling a mouthful of bubbles, feet slipping against the bathtub floor. Recovering, she stares at her husband.

"You didn't put it in a mug for me," he tells her. He does not look at her body.

"I am sorry. My mind was on other things this morning." But what she thinks is: You know where the mugs are.

Murali hesitates, looking at her face. He pulls the curtain shut. "I will wait downstairs for you."

Indra leans against the tiled wall of the shower, heart racing in her chest. She is trembling as the cold water carries suds down her body, toward the drain. Eventually, she pushes away from the wall and rinses her hair. Before reaching for a towel, she turns the valve on the oxygen tank upward until it reads 3 liters/min instead of 2.

When she returns to the kitchen, Murali is waiting as he promised. One of the cupboard doors is ajar. "I looked," he tells her. "But I could not find the mugs."

The scent of mangos filled the room: she could not remember the name of her daughter, her village, her country. She could not remember the words that began the Gita. She could not breathe.

Dizzy from the pressure of the noose at her neck, she placed the brush on the table and closed her eyes.

"Why do you hesitate?" Gajanana asked, words clear through the ringing in her ears.

She shaped the words, unable to speak them with the knot of his noose twisting into her voicebox. "I cannot breathe, Lord."

His disappointment smelled like peppermint.

The needle on the tank gauge now points at 5 liters per minute. The hiss of the oxygen is more insistent, a dry dusty sound that reminds her of snakes in the grass. Indra's nose itches constantly. It bleeds when she rubs at it, despite applications of Vaseline to her desiccated nostrils.

Despite all this, Indra's hands do not tremble as she works. DNA congeals into gelatinous white strands at the bottom of the test tube, clinging to the glass rod that she holds. She twirls the rod, wrapping base pairs around its end like cotton candy.

With the DNA transferred into neatly labeled containers, Indra starts the centrifuge. It, too, whirls, condensing the DNA down further.

Years ago, when she and Murali had first come to the United States, they took their daughter, Madhavi, to a circus. Madhavi ate a ball of sticky-sweet sugar threads as large as her head. Then, frightened by the funhouse mirrors, Madhavi cried until she vomited, pink drool hanging from her lips as she sobbed.

Murali was so angry on that day. He found the vendor and yelled at him, pointing and waving his arms about in the air. He called the cotton candy poison, and refused to let Madhavi consume any more of it. Rotten, he said. All rotten. No good.

Indra tries not to think about Murali, or about Madhavi, back in India with the Peace Corps. Instead, she thinks about the DNA, spinning, spinning, spinning. But the words rattle around within her skull: rotten. No good. She decides that this will be her last attempt. If she cannot isolate the retrovirally inserted codons, if she can find no proof that her grain is producing soma, she will abandon the project and give up the grant.

There will be others eager to take up the challenge. The latest blight has nearly wiped out the river grass that soma is extracted from. MedCFA is desperate; FDA trials cannot begin without soma to test, and supplies are limited. And after the media stories, the interviews of the Phase One volunteers, the focus on the two Marines who accepted court-martial and dishonorable discharge rather than lift a hand against another human being again. . . .

When the centrifuge stops, Indra is panting, clenched fist rubbing at her chest as if to chase away the pain beneath her breastbone. She does not want to turn her oxygen up any further. It is Tuesday, and she has only one more tank for the week. She does not want to go to see the doctor, with his purple-gloved hands and distracted smile.

The micropipette is steady in her hands; Indra adds the restriction enzymes and denaturing solution. When she transfers the DNA yet again, her touch is delicate. She does not bump or tear the gel. Switching on the current, she waits for the DNA fragments to travel, for the Southern blot to be complete.

Indra closes her eyes. The timer wakes her, an insistent buzzing that makes her ears ring. She slides the gel off the plate without hope, blotting it without watching. Her hands have gone through these motions a hundred and ten times without success.

She does not recognize the pattern of bars that luminesce on the gel until she has stared at it for a full minute. Her knees threaten to buckle; she backs out, away from the hood. Without thinking, she twists the valve on the oxygen tank counterclockwise until she can breathe again.

It is there, in the essence of the grain. The experiment has worked.

Despite the cannula that rubs at her upper lip, Indra shivers, feeling the touch of Gajanana's noose. She speaks to the empty room in Hindi. "The DNA is there, but the protein may not be expressed. This is just the first step."

She wants to run. Her bones know the truth: it will work.

Two grains of rice remained on the table, but she was afraid to look at them.

"Pick up the brush," Gajanana told her.

She whimpered, shoving at the table. Her fingers scrabbled against its surface, and the pungent scent of sandalwood filled her throat. "I will not."

Her motion overset the ink bottle, flooding the seventh grain of rice. The noose tightened further.

Indra reclines on the sofa, staring at the dirt on the ceiling. Dusty cobwebs collect in the corners of the room. She chooses to do nothing; Murali will not notice, and Indra finds that it does not bother her as much as it once would have.

She could watch TV. Instead, she watches the pattern of shadows on the wall, cast by the trees outside. The shadows shift in the wind, bending and hunching like the shoulders of the clinic physician.

"I don't know," he told her. "I'm a little perplexed. Your lungs sound clear." He stepped backward, leaning against the doorknob as she told him about her dreams. From the look on his face, she knew his mind had already left the room, even if his body was present.

After the appointment, Indra stacked the antibiotics and the mammogram reminder card up in front of her shrine: they were talismans and protections for the waking world, ineffective against dreams.

The phone rings, a shrill echo of sound from kitchen, living room, bedroom. Indra sits up, and answers the phone. She can hear herself panting from exertion, the sound like static in the earpiece.

"Mom?" Madhavi's voice, fading in and out. "Mom, turn on the news."

"Madhavi, it must be the middle of the night there. What are you--"

Her daughter does not let her finish. "I don't have much time, there's a crowd six deep waiting for the embassy phone. Mom, they burned the village. They said -- they said they were harboring refugees."

"Are you safe?" Indra asks, the words too loud in her own ears. She sounds strangled. "Are you hurt?"

Madhavi does not answer her questions. "I'm coming home, Mom. It's too dangerous; they're pulling out all the Peace Corps personnel. I love you. Tell Daddy--" Indra hears her daughter's voice falter. "--Tell him I love him."

Indra rubs her throat, listening to the dial tone. She can feel the rough fibers of the noose around her throat, although her fingers encounter nothing but delicate folds of loose skin.

Outside, the wind is picking up. A leaf hits the window; Indra hears the sound of the garage door opening at the other end of the house. She picks up the remote and turns on the TV. She can see her reflection in the glass that covers the television screen, a mirror-ghost of her face superimposed over scenes of carnage and burning.

Murali enters to the sound of the television: gunfire. She turns to look at him; his face is ashen, and there is a cigarette in his hand. Smoke spirals toward the cobwebs on the ceiling. Smoke rises on the screen of the TV, over the hills that she once called home.

Before she can speak, he stubs out the cigarette against the doorframe. "They have declared war on us."

Pakistan. India. They. Us. A bubble of anger rises; she opens her mouth to tell him that he is part of the problem that led to this war. Then she sees the fear in his eyes. Instead of speaking, she holds out a hand to him. He drops the cigarette, falling to his knees in front of her, and pressing her hand against his cheek.

She does not have the breath, or the words, to tell him that she is afraid too.

The last grain of rice gleamed white against the wood of the desk. Her fingers were tingling; she could not feel the handle of the brush in her hand as she picked it up.

"Write," Gajanana said.

Spots danced in front of her eyes. It took her three tries to dip the brush in the inkwell. She was more aware of his hand on the noose than the grain of rice.

One grain of rice. One last chance.

Dizzied, she wrote one word in sweeping strokes across the desk itself. A petition. A plea. Gajanana's other name: Vigneshwara, remover of obstacles.

"Ah," exclaimed the God who stood behind her. His voice echoed through the chamber, a shout so loud that she felt her eardrums burst. The noose dropped from her neck, and she crouched on the floor, panting with relief.

She felt the touch of his trunk against her forehead -- a caress. A benediction.

Indra wakes up, gasping for breath, hands over her ears. She does not know when she fell asleep; the last time she looked at the clock it was four-thirty in the morning. Madhavi had just called; she was safe, in Algiers, waiting for a flight to France and then home.

Murali's hand on her back does not register at first. Not until he rubs the knot of muscle between her shoulder blades. "You were crying," he says, voice soft. "In your sleep. But I didn't want to wake you."

Indra breathes in, trying not to shudder. "A bad dream," she tells him.

"The Pakistanis bombed Delhi. They used a nuclear warhead." Murali lifts his hand as he speaks; she bites her lip. The springs creak, mattress jouncing as he resettles his weight. She lies down, too, carefully not touching him. She does not look at the clock.

The cannula has worn blisters under her nose. She pulls it off for a moment, to ease her skin. The moment passes, but there is no pressure in her chest, no feeling of strangulation. She rolls out of bed, leaving the oxygen tank behind.

"Indra?" Murali asks, but she is past the curtain, into the shrine, and kneeling.

He joins her there, kneeling by her side. "I -- your oxygen?"

She does not trust her voice; she merely shakes her head. Ganesh is not weeping, is not sitting. There is a new statue in the shrine, larger and gold-plated. Ganesh is dancing, the noose gone from his hand. And there are three unlit cones of incense in front of him. She did not put them there.

Indra stares at her husband, the lines of his face familiar-unfamiliar in the darkness. He shrugs, but there is no embarrassment in his voice. "I thought I did not believe, but I was wrong. In times like these . . ."

After a moment, she reaches out to take his hand, finishing the sentence for him, as they used to do for each other so many years ago. ". . . in times like these, our hearts remember what is most important."

The storm in her chest is gone. She smiles at her husband as he tugs a lock of her hair with his free hand. "I love you," he says.

"I know."

Even in the dream, she was surprised to see the brush, the inkwell, the desk, the last grain of rice. But this time, there was no noose around her neck, and the inkwell was filled with molten gold. This time, Gajanana -- no, Vigneshwara -- stood at her side, his left lower hand resting on the small of her back.

"WRITE," Vigneshwara bade her. His ears flopped forward, and back again, as he shook his head. His broken tusk gleamed, capped in precious metals and crusted with emeralds.

She smiled at him, and picked up the brush. She wrote one word, in letters so small that only a god could read them bare-eyed: Peace.

And again, and again, until the inkwell ran dry and the grain of rice gleamed like solid gold. Her fingers did not cramp. Her hand did not shake.

The God's bellow of approval caused the world to crumble away around her.

The kettle whistles, low and soft. Indra hops up from her seat at the table and pours the tea, savoring the ability to make use of both her hands. The absence of the oxygen tank and tubing makes her bubble over with joy at odd moments.

Like now. She is laughing aloud when Murali stumbles down the stairs. He blinks at the inch-thick layer of envelopes on the table. "What are you doing?"

"I'm writing," she says, still smiling, "to everyone I know."

He blinks at her. "Why?"

"To share the good news."

Murali does not understand. She hands him his tea. He kisses her on the cheek and stumbles into the living room to turn on CNN. She cannot hear what the announcer is saying through the wall, and she does not care to know.

She gathers up her work, flipping through it: letters to India, Burma, England, California. To China. To Ghana and Australia. To aunts and cousins, friends and acquaintances. To everyone she knows.

Later, she will visit the experimental field, and fill the envelopes. Some of them will throw it away, she knows. Others will plant it without care, and the rice will not grow. Some of it will be eaten by birds; the image of an eagle nesting with a sparrow makes her chortle aloud.

Some will believe her; or, unbelieving, tend the rice regardless. It will grow, and the gene will spread and express itself. Indra has faith in Vigneshwara's blessing. She glances upward; the shrine is directly overhead.

"I will bring you back a handful of grain as well," she promises the ceiling.

The God is gone; the table remains, as do the brush and the grain of rice. Indra laughs, and picks up the grain of rice. It glitters in the light, heavy in her hand like a promise. She hesitates, and then picks up the brush as well, before walking from the carpeted room.

She glances to the side, through a window. Outside, the sun is rising, framed by shutters of ebony. She can smell the earth, wet and black from the rain.

The dirt is soft. The brush-handle will serve well enough as a makeshift trowel.

"And then," Indra says to herself, "we'll just have to see what grows."


Copyright © 2003 S. Evans

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Last in line when popularity was being handed out, S. Evans compensated by inventing an army of imaginary friends to take on imaginary adventures. This inevitably lead to the writing of speculative fiction. She lives in St. Paul with her spouse, her son, several cats, and a forest of bonsai trees. She is a pediatric resident at the University of Minnesota.