Last night the snake came to me.
I was surprised, though little surprises me nowadays.
He was more beautiful than I remembered. His plated green skin shone like rainwater on banana plants in the garden plot we used to tend behind the dream caves. But maybe as I grow older I begin to see beauty where I never expected it before.
I said, It's been a while, friend. But I don't blame you for that. Not anymore.
To show he bore me no ill will either, he widened his eyes. It was like a flash of sun on a sliver of mirror glass.
The last time he'd appeared was a time of great change in my life, a time first of possibility, then of darkness. He had not returned after that, though I'd cried and called on him until I had no voice left.
Why did he come now, when I was finally at peace with my losses, the bargains I'd made? When I'd opened my fists and let the things I longed for slip from them?
His body glowed with light. A clear, full light tinged with coastal purples, late afternoon in the cypresses along the Pacific. I watched for a while, and knew he had come to foretell another change.
But whose--and what?
Not a birth. Rakhi wouldn't do that to herself, single mother that she is already. Though all my life that child has done the unexpected.
A union, then? Rakhi returning to Sonny, as I still hoped? Or was a new man about to enter her life?
The snake grew dim until he was the color of weeds in water, a thin echo suspended in greenish silt.
It was a death he was foretelling.
My heart started pounding, slow, arrhythmic. An arthritic beat that echoed ineach cavity of my body.
Don't let it be Rakhi, don't let it be Sonny or Jonaki. Don't let it be my husband, whom I've failed in so many ways.
The snake was almost invisible as he curled and uncurled. Hieroglyphs, knots, ravelings.
Will it hurt? I whispered. Will it hurt a great deal?
He lashed his tail. The air was the color of old telegraph wire.
Will it at least be quick?
His scales winked yes. From somewhere smoke rolled in to cover him. Or was the smoke part of what is to come?
Will it happen soon?
A small irritation in the glint from his eyes. In the world he inhabited, soon had little meaning. Once again I'd asked the wrong question.
He began to undulate away. His tongue was a thin pink whip. I had the absurd desire to touch it.
Wait! How can I prepare?
He swiveled the flat oval of his head toward me. I put out my hand. His tongue--why, it wasn't whiplike at all but soft and sorrowful, as though made from old silk.
I think he said, There is no preparation other than understanding.
What must I understand?
Death ends things, but it can be a beginning, too. A chance to gain back what you'd botched. Can you even remember what that was?
I tried to think backward. It was like peering through a frosted window. The sand-filled caves. The lessons. We novices were learning to read the dreams of beggars and kings and saints. Ravana, Tunga-dhwaja, Narad Muni--. But I'd given it up halfway.
He was fading. A thought flowed over my skin like a breath.
But only if you seize the moment. Only if--
Then he was gone.2 - Rakhi
My mother always slept alone.
Until I was about eight years old, I didn't give it much thought. It was merely a part of my nightly routine, where she would tuck me in and sit on the edge of my bed for a while, smoothing my hair with light fingers in the half dark, humming. The next part of our bedtime ritual consisted of storytelling. It was I who made up the stories. They were about Nina-Miki, a girl my age who lived on a planet named Agosolin III and led an amazingly adventurous life. I would have preferred the stories to have come from my mother, and to have been set in India, where she grew up, a land that seemed to me to be shaded with unending mystery. But my mother told me that she didn't know any good stories, and that India wasn't all that mysterious. It was just another place, not so different, in its essentials, from California. I wasn't convinced, but I didn't fret too much. Nina-Miki's adventures (if I say so myself) were quite enthralling. I was proud of being their creator, and of having my mother, who was a careful listener, as my audience.
When the story was done my mother would kiss me, her lips as cool as silver on my forehead. Sleep now, she whispered as she left, shutting the door behind her. But I'd lie awake, listening to the soft cotton swish of her sari as she walked down the corridor. She'd stop at the door to my dad's bedroom--that was how I thought of the big, dark room in the back of the house with its large, too soft bed and its tie-dyed bedspread--and I'd hear the companionable rumble of their voices as they talked. In a few minutes I'd hear his door closing, her footsteps walking away. She moved quietly and with confidence, the way deer might step deep inside a forest, the rustle of her clothes a leafy breeze. I'd listen until I heard the door to the sewing room open and close, the sigh of the hinges. Then I'd let go and fall into the chocolate-syrup world of my dreams.
I dreamed a great deal during those years, and often my dreams were suffocatingly intense. I'd wake from them with my heart pounding so hard I thought it might burst. When I could move, I'd make my way down the dark corridor by feel. Under my fingers the walls were rough and unfamiliar, corrugated like dinosaur skin, all the way to the sewing room. I didn't know why she called it that; she never sewed. When I opened the sighing door, I'd see her on the floor, face turned to the wall, covers drawn up over her head, so still that for a moment I'd be afraid that she was dead. But she'd wake immediately, as though she could smell me the way an animal does her young. I'd try to crawl under her blanket, but she always took me--firmly but kindly--back to my own bed. She lay by me and stroked my hair, and sometimes, when the nightmare was particularly troubling, she recited words I didn't understand until I fell back into sleep. But she never stayed. In the morning when I awoke, she would be in the kitchen, making scrambled eggs. The sewing room would be bare--I never knew where she put her bedding. The carpet wasn't even flattened to indicate that someone had slept there.
My discovery occurred on an afternoon when I'd gone to play at the home of one of my classmates. This was a rare event because, in spite of my mother's urgings, I didn't tend to socialize much. Children my own age did not seem particularly interesting to me. I preferred to follow my mother around the house, though she didn't encourage this. On occasion, I listened from behind a door as she spoke on the phone, or watched her as she sat on the sofa with her eyes closed, a frown of concentration on her forehead. It amazed me how still she could be, how complete in herself. I tried it sometimes. But I could keep it up for only a few minutes before I'd get pins and needles.
I've forgotten the girl's name, and why in the course of the afternoon we went into her parents' bedroom, but I do remember her telling me not to jump on her parents' bed, they didn't like it.
"You mean your mom sleeps here--with your dad?" I asked, surprised and faintly disgusted.
"Sure she does," the girl replied. "You mean your mom doesn't?"
Under her incredulous eyes, I hung my guilty head.
"You guys are weird," she pronounced.
After that afternoon, I undertook a course of serious research. One by one, I went to the homes of the children I knew (they were not many) and, between games and snacks and TV, checked casually into their mothers' sleeping arrangements. Finally I was forced to conclude that my family was, indeed, weird.
Armed with the statistics, I confronted my mother.
That was when I made the other discovery, the one that would nudge and gnaw and mock at me all my growing-up years.
My mother was a dream teller.
The discovery did not come to me easily. My mother disliked speaking about herself and, over the years of my childhood, had perfected many methods for deflecting my questions. This time, though, I persisted.
"Why don't you sleep with Dad?" I kept asking. "Or at least with me, like Mallika's mother does? Don't you love us?"
She was quiet for so long, I was about to ask again. But then she said, "I do love you." I could hear the reluctance in her voice, like rust, making it brittle. "I don't sleep with you or your father because my work is to dream. I can't do it if someone is in bed with me."
My work is to dream. I turned the words over and over in my mind, intrigued. I didn't understand them, but I was in love with them already. I wanted to be able to say them to someone someday. At the same time, they frightened me. They seemed to move her out of my reach.
"What do you mean?" I asked, making my voice angry.
There was a look on her face--I would have called it despair, if I had known to do so. "I dream the dreams of other people," she said. "So I can help them live their lives."
I still didn't understand, but her face was pale and tight, like a cocoon, and her hands were clenched in her lap. I didn't have the heart to badger her further. Hadn't she admitted to the most important thing, that she loved us? I nodded my head as though I were satisfied with her explanation.
Her smile was laced with relief. She gave me a hug. I could feel the remnants of stiffness in her shoulders.
"Why don't you decide what you want for dinner?" she said. "You can help me cook it, if you like."
I allowed myself to be diverted and asked for ravioli. I'd had it for the first time on that fateful afternoon in my classmate's house. At home we rarely ate anything but Indian; that was the one way in which my mother kept her culture. She had never made ravioli before, but she looked it up in a cookbook. We spent the rest of the afternoon rolling, crimping, stuffing dough with cheese. The ravioli turned out lumpy, and the kitchen was a disaster, sauce smeared everywhere and shreds of cheese underfoot, but we were delighted with ourselves.
In the middle of boiling the ravioli my mother turned to me and said--though I hadn't shared my classmate's words with her--"Rakhi, remember this: being different doesn't mean that you're weird." She startled me in this manner from time to time, referring to things she couldn't possibly know. But her clairvoyance was erratic. It would create problems for us over the years, making her ignorant of events I expected her to know, secrets I longed to tell her but couldn't bear to speak of.
For example: the reason why I left Sonny.
At dinner Father admired the creative shapes we'd made and said it was a meal at once delicious and instructive. He cleaned up the kitchen afterward, humming a Hindi song as he scrubbed the sink with Comet, his hands encased in neon yellow rubber gloves. He was the tidy one in our household, the methodical one, always kind, the one with music. My mother--secretive, stubborn, unreliable--couldn't hold a tune to save her life. I wanted to be just like her.
Years later, after she died, my father would say, "Not true. She didn't love me, not really. She never let me get that close. The place right at the center of her--that was reserved for her dream gods or demons, whoever they were. She never shared that with anyone. Not even you."
And I would be forced to admit that he, too, was right.