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All things come in wrappers. At first, because the world is new and unknown, one does not notice the wrappers but only the thing that lies beneath, set alight by the flame of curiosity. Rain turns the dry earth to mud, but the mud is not simply wet dirt or filth; it is the squelch of boots, a brother’s cry of surprise as he is pushed into it, the flight of a ball as it interrupts raindrops on their way down, down. Sadness, anger, love, hate — each is the same. Each begins definitively in passion and ends definitively in passion too; nothing hesitates or lingers. The world is weightless; the wrappers are thin peels that impede nothing. All motion is ceaselessly forward.
And then, at some later time, things are abruptly obscured by their wrappers. The flame of curiosity is dampened by habit and hesitation. The thin peels quickly thicken and hide what lies beneath and all that one sees is the wrapper. A tree’s life, its heart — what makes the tree a tree — is lost beneath the bark. There are those who are content with only the wrappers, a life in the shallows; but for the rest, the challenge of life, insurmountable, is to claw back beneath the surface to that world where mud is more than dirt and emotion is more than thought, where all things are pure instinct, all action, and the wrappers are so thin they may as well be invisible.
K and the man are standing in a thick current of traffic. The stream of traffic is composed of lithe bodies that crash forward, one after another like waves into a still coastline, stumbling drunkenly through cobbled streets. It leans against the walls of pubs and spills through the doors of cafés and pushes down the ground and up against the low, squat sky.
From within the stream, K can sense the full weight of the world outside — its voices, its words and meanings — but only in the way that a child can feel the future beyond, certain yet so distant it feels like fiction. The stream parts around her and the man as if they are a boulder. His lips are on hers, her body leaning into his. Each is pushing their weight on the other. K feels none of the excitement that she remembers from her first kiss, which she had imagined she might if she ever kissed someone else.
She had forgotten that smell was a part of this: the smell of another person on their breath, their skin, imprinted on the kiss itself. He smells, in a moment of realization, like the inside of her car: worn leather, an amalgam of the various crumbs in the creases of the seats. Beneath that first car-smell, she detects another: It is a dampness, as if the man is rain. The dampness is familiar; it lingers in, and has undone K’s bedroom wallpaper, which now hangs in thin, peeled ribbons; it fills the pockets in her clothes and weighs her down. The dampness is in her; it follows like a thundercloud, putting out fires wherever they might manage to burn.
And suddenly she can’t keep her eyes shut anymore, and suddenly she can’t leave her lips on his or his body on hers, and suddenly she pushes him away and says, I need to leave. The wrapper is too thick, too heavy to lift, and the thing that lies beneath, though desirable and familiar once, is now too alien. The man is confused — to him, she smells like himself, like the kiss, the promise of the night — and though he is upset, he gathers himself and apologizes if he has upset her. He asks if she wants to get coffee instead. No, but thank you, K says. I’m sorry, and she recedes into that stream of effervescent wings as they beat and beat.
K pushes her way through the stream of tourists. All the voices that clamor for the surface appear only a string of hollow sounds that float lightly to the top, like bubbles in a flute of champagne, and sit there for a moment before each pops with a gentle explosion. The stream grows thicker and narrower, butterflies pile one upon the other. Soon, the struggle of wings forces K to the edge of the stream, and she falls out.
From the outside, she can’t tell one body from the other, one voice from another, and though she knows it is only a large crowd of butterflies, she can no longer see into the river of traffic. The stream is shrouded in an unnatural mist of sorts, a low fog that has settled around all the bobbing heads and wings and which obscures them from onlookers. The moonlight glints off the surface and is returned to itself. She turns to look at the stretch of shops behind her, beside the foggy stream. The first one sells hats, the second prints photographs, the third sells jewelry, and the fourth is a pet store.
K is looking into the pet store, closed now, through the shop’s front window, through the dim reflection of her own body — a whisper of wings, vacant eyes, a peel of herself. She sees the pets: puppies and kittens, snakes, cages of canaries and doves, all asleep. The store’s lights are on. One of the kittens is awake. She is laying on her belly, with her head rested on the curves of her paws. Her unblinking eyes are fixed on K. The other kittens are asleep, laying one on top of another, all wrinkled like old laundry. She lifts her head up and, though K does not hear it through the glass, the kitten purrs, sweet like a cloud of perfume and as desperate too. She swipes a paw at the cage and sets the metal frame aquiver. The other kittens give her a sidelong glance of distaste and return to sleep. Now a canary is awake. She blinks rapidly. She moves sideways along her perch and pecks at her feet. She begins flapping her wings, fluttering violently. The cage sways from side to side, like a ship caught in a tempest. She cries. At first, the other animals do nothing. Those that have sat in the cages for many months do not flinch. The rest fall, one by one, into a shattering symphony. The snakes slither from side to side slamming the walls of their cages. The dogs howl. The kittens shriek.
As the symphony rises, K sees the reflection of a butterfly some distance behind her. The butterfly flutters up from the pulsating, foggy stream, rising through the mist like a hand from a grave. The butterfly is delicate. Her wings are deep blue, the color of the bottom-most leagues of the sea. K can only tell her apart from the night by the glimmerings of the moon, which fall on her back and embolden the outlines of her body. The butterfly flies higher and higher up, toward the moon, that battered hole which sits above the world and lets out into the heavens. She struggles, pushing against the weight of the open sky, upwards. Each desperate flap of her wings is like the kicking legs of a child who learned to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. The moon eclipses all other sight. It is all her eyes can see, that torturous hole. K, with her ears still fixed on the still-rising crescendo of the animals, sees the butterfly crumple like a simple autumn leaf and fall to the earth, swaying side to side along the furrows in the sky.
K pries loose a cobblestone from the street and hurls it through the storefront. An alarm goes off. The animals rattle the cages louder, howl louder. K floats up through the hole in the window and begins unlocking each cage. Doves fling themselves outside their cages and take wildly to the sky. Dogs leap out, lick K, wag their tails, and sprint into the night. The kittens melt into the shadows. K stands there for a moment, in the store with all those empty, unlocked cages, and feels a lightness, the hot pulse of action, inside her. Then, she dissolves back into the rhythm of the street and returns to the hotel room.
—Yash Kumbhat’s (‘21) column of serialized fiction is called ‘Little Deaths’ and is a triptych of short stories that explore the literal and figurative interpretations of a ‘petite mort.’
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