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Manoa 13.2 (2001) 133-137
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Sharon May Brown
That's what she always asked for.
The first time, it had startled him--the soft insistence of her voice, the scent of her hair in the dark stairwell, the light pressure of her fingertips on his wrist. He'd pulled his hand back as if he'd been burned and hurried up the last few steps.
He didn't tell his wife. But that night, as they lay in bed, not touching, she asked, "Baajyaa-mha, was it right, what we did?"
Outside, the street noise of Kathmandu pushed weakly against the closed shutters. Baajyaa-mha, she had said. Like a proper Newar wife, she never called him by name, not even when they were alone. Instead, she called him grandchild's father. Only after he died would she call him beloved, if she chose. He wondered now if she would.
"There was nothing else we could do," he replied.
Sohan listened to the shallow breathing of the baby between them and tried to remember when his wife had started calling him grandchild's father instead of children's father. It bothered him because, after all, they still had five other children. It was sometime after Jharana left. But how long? He didn't know. Time no longer seemed measured or evenly paced. Entire days disappeared; minutes expanded into hours.
"We had no choice," he said again to fill the silence.
Sohan hated the quiet--of his house, of his wife, even of this baby, who never seemed to cry. Not like Jharana when she was a child. She had wailed and kept them up nights on end, as if she wanted to make sure the whole world knew she had arrived. When she left, it seemed she took all sound with her. Not just within the house but outside as well. The shopkeepers Sohan had known his whole life no longer joked or gossiped with him, treating him like a foreigner instead. The two families who had shared their building for fifteen years now passed him silently in the halls. Everyone seemed to know. Only the blind old woman who sold cauliflower and tomatoes on the sidewalk, her grandson huddled under her shawl, smiled and spoke to him as if nothing had happened. Sohan had stopped leaving the house except to go to work. His wife no longer visited the neighbors for [End Page 133] tea. His children had stopped playing with their schoolmates in the afternoon. The family spent more time at home, but even so, the house seemed quieter than before.
"Baajyaa-mha, we must have the naming ceremony. She's almost seven months."
"Yes," he said, trying to remember when the grandchild had been born. Was it really almost seven months?
"What should we call the baby?"
"Whatever you want," he said. "It doesn't matter."
He had not thought about it at all. With Jharana, their first daughter, they had mulled over different names for weeks before the ceremony. Every night they had whispered and argued in the dark before making love. At last they had agreed on Jharana because the girl was as noisy and beautiful as a waterfall.
Jharana had always asked for sugar as a child. That's how Sohan knew it was she that first time on the stairs, even though he couldn't see her. He wondered whether she would come back or whether he had scared her off by pushing her away. But the following week, she spoke again. This time he was ascending the second flight on his way to the roof, where he went nearly every night to drink the sweet tea his wife kept for him in a thermos. The stairway coiled five stories through the center of the house, like a dark, crooked spine, quietly deteriorating. From it branched the hallways and small rooms shared by the families that rented the building. Sohan stepped onto a rotting board his wife had asked him many times to replace. It rocked under his foot so that when he heard the...