To Dance Like a Peacock | Chitra Gopalakrishnan

Visual Credit: Gitumoni Talukdar, Copyright of image belongs to Chitra Gopalakrishnan

Neelesh lies motionless in a dusty, dark brown ground hollow, in a sand-silt-clay combined earth bowl, his soft, spongy body muddied, bloodied. His extended metallic blue-green plumage with its sea-foam undertone, and its multitude of eyespots, is all askew, spun-out. And, a portion of his exposed, bulging, flesh fizzes with insects, the bug sounds blurring into a long, whirring noise. A white noise almost.

Beside him, that is half of him, bright, yellow, mustard flowers, with their pale green arrow-shaped leaves, and tall, slim stalks sway, even as they release little clouds of nitrate. Pungent whiffs that sting the nose, and the eyes.

Neelesh’s head, and legs are missing.

From over the hollow he lies in, and from the slits in the mustard stalks, you can still see the zigzagged portion of his savagely-cut, bulbous jugular, made light with the loss of head, and blood. As his underside. Made bereft of its support, with his understory completely gone. 

It is hard to believe at this moment that his neck, once rich with iridescent blue, swung like a snake in dalliance or in quest for food. Or just like that. Just because he felt like. Or that his even-toed gait, and agile mating dance was admired by everyone who chanced on it. 

It is the cool month of February in 2021, at our farm, in Mehrauli, on the outskirts of New Delhi. It is the time when the sun cannot decide whether to dim its light with shadow play behind clouds or shine with a light impishness so as to reflect a mere suggestion of heat. This unlike its avatar in summer where it brazenly flays the skin of the earth, and certainly of people, plants, and animals. 

It is also the time when the land is vibrant with water-air-earth scents, with whistling birds who cannot contain their joy, with scurrying squirrels and chameleons, as with buzzing insects. 

And, it is most certainly the time when our manicured greens are plump with unruly flowers, gaudy-red poppies, pink petunias, white lilies, mustard marigolds, mauve roses, yellow zinnias, and indigo shoe-flowers, all of who grow in wild abandon. 

Ironically, Neelesh, our peacock, loses his life when the earth around us, here at our farm, on the capital of the country, moves uncomplainingly to the rhythms of a diverse life, to the interplay with the world around it. When everything around is so full of promise. When everything is lush with the covenant of growing. 

For us, Neelesh’s death is a grand absurdity. 

Over the month of January, we see Neelesh, our favorite and regular peacock visitor, ail with what we believe to be some kind of pox in his left eye. He barely sees with it, yet he tries to keep this eye-slit parallel to the grass. This for a prey-eye vision in the world he feeds from. Be it berries, flower seeds or the wiggly mass of worms that squirm in the soil. Ants, millipedes, crickets, termites, centipedes, and flying locust.

Neelesh comes more often than ever that month, every day and evening, his extended plumage and all, to demand his share of grain from our bird feeder. 

“I believe he is asking to be fed rather than be allowed to seek his feed because of his condition,” my cook, Reba, asserts.

She is the one who has named this peacock Neelesh, which translates in Hindi as blue, and is the one who feeds him grain on demand, as assiduously as one would feed a brawling baby on demand. She makes small balls of mashed up rice, and leaves it lying if ever he wants “a change of taste”. And, the large cement water bowl that he drinks off is always full, “in case he is wary of bending too low, and is scared of being caught unawares by marauding monkeys or menacing cats,” she says.

By the end of January, Neelesh finds it hard to fly to and fro from his perch on the tall silver oak tree, one among the many that lines our boundary wall. So mostly during the day, he plinks and puckers around our greens, gathers himself together into a ball to rest in sunny patches, frightened by everything other than us, and in the evening, when he eventually decides to rest atop the tree, he emits cries. We believe his screeches to be hollers of alarm, conveying to us his fear of being eaten up by stealthy predators who use the night to subterfuge their intent, and his sleep to complete their kill. 

It was one of the many cats that slink around at night on the farm that got Neelesh. At least, we at the farm believe this to be so. We have our suspicions on a tom cat we have named Bagadbilla because he is wild, grumpy, and smelly.

In this month of March, we are still trying to deal with the aftershocks of our experience as we are struggling to pull peacock Neelesh’s story in. It is a fluid feeling. We still grieve for his smell, and fear of death before succumbing to its abyss. For his loss of dignity and privacy in death, that, maybe, we denied by becoming spectators to it. And, for our inability to respond effectively to his beseech for help, for our failure to save his life.

My ex-colleague from a green organisation I worked for, Shoma Arun, who rushes to comfort us, says this, to us, and to Reba in particular, “There is no world in which humanity exists apart from the natural world. It is clearer than ever that our fates are intertwined, that our world should be a circumambient one, one that sees and accommodates the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of living species. So take comfort in the fact that you have tried to cherish, and help a creature as much as you could, and as long as he lived. That you have played a role in nature’s orchestra, not that of an imperious conductor who believes he can control fates or nature’s design, but that of a contributor.”

“Why does the earth pull in a creature’s story thus? Why are we all just mud-marrowed bones in the end? Why do all our stories, human, plant or animal, end in dust-covered death?” asks an insistent, tear-stained, sixteen-year-old, Kunal, our gardener Nandlal’s son, who draws and writes verses in his spare time.

He does not understand Shoma’s words. Or believes that his question is different. I know he also asks because he has just recently lost his grandmother. His mother says to me that morning, “His tears still feel as if they come all the way from his toes.” 

None of us have answers for him. 

What we do know is that Neelesh’s brutal, abrupt death makes us confront ours. It makes us face up to the fact that death is part of our living.  It makes us confront the truth that death, and its aftermath, is frightening. And, that the idea of the oblivion at death being like nonexistence before birth is too scary to think of. To understand.

Days later, our psychologist friend, Leela Singh, brings some instinctive wisdom with her. “While we live in the present, with our brains that shield us from our eventual death with crafty ingenuity, we ingrain ourselves in biology, one that helps us live. We shut down predictions of death, believing that it happens to others, not us. It is called the escape treadmill. Yet death is a leveller. It will happen to every one of us,” she says. 

“How does one handle this eventuality, the finality of death, especially if one has no belief in the afterlife? If there is no belief in being absorbed by God or a higher power, realm or consciousness? That at this point we lose the journey’s map altogether? This even as I am a Hindu living in India?” I wish to know.

“You need to cultivate the capacity, and responsiveness to this eventuality across your lifespan. In essence, having a good death is about how you live a good life,” she says reflectively. 

Is this our answer then?

That death will come no matter what. In any way that it will. Like the rain that will fall. Like the sun that will shine. Like the wind that will blow. And that what we make of death, and how we react to contact with it will depend on us. It can be terrible, satisfying or seemingly merciful. It can be what we choose it to be. Just as we can choose what we make of our life. 

Is it up to us then to decide on how to confront death? To still the fear of dying, as rigor mortis waits to creep in, and before the pronouncement, “Pupils fixed and dilated. No heart sounds. No breath sounds. No pulse” is made?

There is no denying that despite these arguments, and answers, the mystery, and fear of death remains. 

I would say, for me, personally, though I have realized that true sorrow is the loss of life, not the state of death or the act of dying. 

More importantly, I have come to the realization that there is time to understand the afterlife. Who knows, if I do understand it, and gain faith in it, my fears of death may just fall away? The earth, land, water, and sky may turn alive with possibilities. Of our energies returning in altered forms and states.



Chitra Gopalakrishnan uses her ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism.
Author profile: www.chitragopalakrishnan.com

ghost ghazal in prose after the marriage – nathan elias

Matt Clifford - Photo Credit Matt Diss ALOC Media

Before I went, loving you was the best part of my life. There you are, emerald eyes, in each memory when I reflect upon my life. You couldn’t see me as I hovered near you while you wept on the couch, thumbing through the box of photos that represents but a fraction of my life. I tried to speak your name and was amazed when the sound was a bird’s chirp. You stood up, went to the window, and momentarily forgot my life. In this realm of transparency and emptiness, we cling to fleeting moments. We dance throughout history, for time is not linear in the afterlife. I wanted to see your birth; I wanted, regrettably, to see your death. I wanted to drift through the detritus that creates a composite of your life: New York. Florida. Australia. California. Coordinates that, on the other side, do not exist. In the city of angels, and through your eyes, emerald, I can see the best parts of my life. In circumnavigating the remainder of your days without me, I’ve come to understand the art of moving on and letting go, even though I could not master this art during my life. And this is why I must now transcend. Evaporate. Disintegrate at the sound of you whispering, “Nathan, my love, I will see you when I go, but until then I must live my life.”


nat ghost small

Nathan Elias is a finalist for The Saturday Evening Post’s 2020 Great American Fiction Contest. He is the author of the chapbooks Glass City Blues: Poems and A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here: A Novelette. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where he served as editor on the literary journal Lunch Ticket. More of Nathan’s writing can be found in Entropy, PANK, Hobart, and many other publications. www.Nathan-Elias.com | @_NathanElias

Cover Art: Jack Anstey

generational curse – miss jody

Hiding The Ghost Of My Favorite Lover From The Others

I am a fourth generation Piscean, on my mother’s side. My grandmother’s eldest and youngest of four were both Pisces, and my mother’s eldest and youngest of four were both Pisces. My Grandma Buffalo, my Granny, and my Mom: all storytellers. And so it was passed down to me, the awkward sort of storytelling that has so much truth to it that it must be fiction.

Most of the stories I heard as a child came orally, but some were only told in dainty, precise cursive on yellowed pages because they were too dreadful to be told out loud. One such came from my great grandmother, known to me as Vida, who married a John E Byrd and after him a John E Buffalo. She had a type. It was she that wrote down the story of her sister’s death.

They were six and four, and it was tasked to her to keep watch over the young girl. It was the winter of 1907 or 1908, in a rural town in southwest Missouri, and the pond was almost as frozen as the ground. Almost. They travelled out onto the pond, Vida coaxing her small sister farther and farther out. By the time she was able to get back up to the house and drag her parents to the pond her sister had already begun to freeze under the shattered ice.

With the ground being too far gone to allow for a proper burial, they had placed her into a coffin made of stone and situated it into a corner of the north barn. Alone. There it sat until the warmth of spring began to melt away the protective layer over the hill Vida’s mother wanted her daughter to sleep. They had briefly opened the coffin to place into it items that the girl had loved, and that’s when they learned the truth. Vida’s sister had only been in a coma. When she awoke to find herself trapped in stone she had done everything in her power to claw her way out. Only it hadn’t worked, and she perished seemingly a second time, worse for wear.

A great horror settled over me the first time reading these words. Granny could not confirm that Vida had a sister by that name, the old family Bible did not appear to list the child’s name in the genealogy of the family during that time. Was it simply a story she had written, though a great deal different than the poems about her children and grandchildren and her hymns to the Lord?

I try not to think about it, afraid that I too will write stories wishing my sister dead.


itsmeWhen you feel homesick for the colors you don’t have words for, that you saw once in a dream, that’s miss jody. She has two cats in her home, named Alfredrick “Alfie” Boris Karloff the Sea Captain, and another named Nereus “Nereus” The First Mate. Her favorite goddess is Freya, and her favorite place to live is in her home in Centennial, CO. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

Art: Hiding The Ghost of My Favorite Lover From The Others by Miss Jody

silence – annette freeman

silence

I was criticised by any number of people for what I did to the old piano. When my sculpture was exhibited at the gallery — all dismantled frames and twisted strings and bereft keys — I was criticised. Oh, yes. People at the Opening drew in shocked breaths and waggled their champagne glasses. The word desecration was used; also destructive and obscene. Obscene? I’ll tell you what’s obscene — having to put up with someone who is supposed to have moved on. My sculpture was large and it used most of the innards of the piano in a constructivist-style thing intended to reference a mound or hill. Like a burial mound. I even included an ironic plastic rose on the top, a dirty pink thing, to reference a wreath, but I don’t think the art lovers at the opening got that. They certainly mourned the piano, though.

“What did you have against that poor piano?” a tipsy art-type in an old-fashioned bow-tie asked me. He’d gone for whisky.

“How long have you got?” I replied, and sipped my champagne, leaving lipstick on the glass, blood red, which is ironic also, since the death of the piano was under discussion. In all truth, it wasn’t the piano itself that had earned my ire, but its former owner. I’ll tell you what happened and you can judge for yourself if I was justified in dismantling the thing.

When I moved in with Simon I kept my studio in the inner city. His place wasn’t far away but it was an upscale building, one of those new apartment blocks. They had CCTV cameras everywhere: didn’t want any undesirables, deplorables, muddying the terrazzo floors or shooting up in the shrubbery. You wouldn’t have thought that such a new build, where a year or so earlier there had been only a depthless mud-hole gouged into the land, could harbour any wraiths from the past. But my theory is — and I have reason to know — that the wraiths preserve their longevity by attaching their icy tendrils to objects, and objects can be moved around, as was this blighted piano. Simon told me that it had been a family piano for decades. In fact, it was an old wooden-framed thing, out of date and untuneable. Were you imagining an elegant baby grand with a rosewood cabinet? No, this was an old upright, scratched from many moves, barely playable. It had candle sconces screwed to its front. Candles! How long ago did people play the piano by candlelight? The dark ages?

I shouldn’t make flippant remarks about the dark. That piano and I were to share some sombre times. Simon and I had been together for about a year when I moved in with him. I was sure he was my soul-mate. I still am, and if he ever forgives me — or, as I prefer to think of it, understands me — I think we could be happy. If you notice an edge to my voice while I’m telling what happened, it’s because of Simon. When he found the piano gone, and I told him what I’d done with it, he went into a funk. He refused to come to the Opening at the gallery and so he hasn’t seen what a far, far better thing it has become. Those critics who could stomach the dismemberment have been raving about it. My agent is fielding offers. I have hopes that it’ll go to Abu Dhabi.

Simon goes away on business trips often, mostly to the US, for a week or two at a time. He packs a couple of his sharp suits into a folding suit bag and jets off to do whatever international-finance-types do. As for me, I’m a night owl and often come home late from my studio to the empty terrazzo-floored lobby of the apartment block. I rarely run across anyone from the other apartments. It’s an echoey lobby; there’s not much in it except a couple of Eames-replica chairs that I’ve never seen anyone sit on. There are security cameras with red cyclonic eyes staring down from the corners of the ceiling.

The old piano was an incongruous piece of furniture in Simon’s place, interior-decoration-wise, so naturally I asked him about it.

“It was Eliza’s,” he said, as if admitting something he’d rather I didn’t know.

Eliza was his ex. They hadn’t been married, exactly, unless you count that hybrid Buddhist-Hindu-hippy ceremony they went through in Kathmandu. Then Eliza was lost on the trail while they were hiking to Tengboche. Lost, as in never found. Almost certainly she went over the edge of a ravine into the Dudh Kosi and her body swept away downstream, though it was never recovered. Simon spent a long time hoping. That whole incident was years ago. He’d had two or three girlfriends between Eliza and me. But still he’d dragged the piano on at least two moves that I knew of. It sat against the wall of the living room, looking across at the Léger print on the opposite wall. It seemed to me to be constantly watching us as we lounged in front of the TV, or drank cocktails on the balcony, or slow-danced on the rug, listening to jazz. It appeared to me to disapprove of jazz.

Simon told me, when I pressed him, that the piano had first belonged to Eliza’s great-aunt, a spinster who’d lived in Melbourne and had gone to India as a missionary. Apparently she was revered in Eliza’s family. That was in the days when proselytizing was applauded. The great-aunt was musical. She played not only the piano but also the violin. That was all that Simon knew about this ephemeral person from the past, the musical missionary, Eliza’s relative. The piano was then bequeathed though Eliza’s relations — aunt, cousin, father — until, as each of them died, it eventually settled on her. She played, quite well. I’ve heard her. She favours eerie things, like Messiaen — at least that’s what I thought it was when I heard her. Yes, I’ve heard that piano play on many nights when I was alone in the apartment. Did I mention that we were on the thirty-fifth floor? An aerie. It was as if angels were malevolently plucking harp strings where they had no right.

All of this sounds fanciful, I know, and to start with I thought so too. The first time I heard the playing it was about 2 AM. I got up and marched out of the bedroom switching on all the lights. But the notes merely faded at my approach and so I assumed that I was imagining the whole thing. But the playing in the wee hours went on, only when Simon wasn’t there, of course. Obviously it was meant for me alone. I was targeted. I took to leaving all the lamps on in the living room but it made no difference. The music still woke me — and the lamps went out.

Naturally I told Simon what was going on. I tried to convince him to get rid of the piano, maybe pass it on to another of Eliza’s relatives. He actually said that he wanted to keep it in case Eliza came back! She has come back, I said grimly. Then he went all solicitous on me. He said I was just having some residual delusions. I wasn’t long out of rehab. When I met Simon I was doing far too much junk for my own good, and it was he, bless him, who’d got me into a program. Now I was clean, off the stuff, and my work was blossoming. I owe Simon so much. He’s the love of my life.

The night-time playing continued sporadically, always when I was alone in the apartment.

“Get rid of it, please!” I was begging him now.

“Sweetheart, it’s in your head. I can’t let it go. It’s my only reminder of Eliza.”

“Can’t you just keep her photo or something?” He laughed.

“Sure, but what if she comes back and I don’t have her piano? It was her most precious possession.”

That was the second time he’d said that about her coming back. If she came back, where would that leave me? This point didn’t seem to concern him as he stared across the room at the piano, and I saw in his gaze some past in which I had no part. My first impulse was to remind him that Eliza was pretty certainly dead, and so not coming back for her piano, but I stopped. Of course she was back, as I’d told him the first time we had this conversation. I couldn’t get through to him.

The playing went on. It was creeping me out. One night I changed tactics and tried spying unseen on the piano. I put my eye up to the gap in the bedroom door, which I’d left ajar. But when I looked the playing stopped abruptly. I thought I saw something slip out the front door. I definitely heard a click as the door closed. This wraith came in the front door? It didn’t happen like that in stories.

After the next night of ghostly playing, I went down to the security booth in the basement carpark. I knew the guys there; I often spoke to them when I parked my VW Beetle — they liked my car. I asked if we could take a look at the CCTV footage of the lobby from the night before. I told them I thought I’d heard noises around 2 AM, which was true. We had to go backwards and forwards a bit, but we found it. It was eerie to watch: a long stretch of silent emptiness, the cameras watching creepily, pointed at the lobby doors, the lift, the fire stairs. Twice, figures of other residents crossed the floor, silent footsteps, silent arrival of the lift, silent opening and closing of the lift doors. Then, finally, a figure emerged just as silently from the fire stairs door. The guys were amazed — “that thing’s alarmed,” they said. But no alarm sounded, there was just the CCTV silent soundtrack. The figure was frustratingly indistinct. I was sure it was female, but the security boys argued about that for a while.

“It’s wearing a cap.”

“That’s a skirt, for sure.”

“Or trousers — can’t tell. It’s not clear enough.”

The footage had been clear enough earlier to recognise the legitimate residents. We stopped and started it but we couldn’t get a better picture. The figure disappeared as silently as it had come. We didn’t see the lift arrive, but we could see the illuminated floor numbers marking its ascent from the lobby, then stopping at Level 35.

After that I dismantled the piano. I took out its guts and moved strings, hammers, felts surreptitiously to my car bit by bit. I prised off all its keys with pliers and took them away, keeping the lid on my work so Simon wouldn’t notice what was going on. It took a while, I can tell you. Of course the playing had to stop then. I thought about leaving the empty thing there, just a carcass with its ridiculous candle sconces. But two things changed my mind. The first was the imperative of the work — as I brought these infused and laden objects together in my studio I saw that they needed more bulk, the bulk of the piano cabinet, the wood, the structure. And more detail: the pedal, the hinges, and those sconces. The second thing that prompted me to completely dismantle the piano was the final occurrence of that eerie Messiaen, playing in the silence of 2 AM, despite the keys and strings being entwined in my studio two suburbs away.

At the Opening, an art agent came over and asked me about the piece. He was wearing a dishdasha and a keffiyeh. I smiled winningly.

“What is the piece entitled?” he asked.

“I call it ’Silence.’

“And what is that strange smell it emits?”

SBGS December

Annette Freeman is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. She was born and raised in Tasmania, which she suspects is reflected in her writing in ways too mysterious to analyse. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney, the support of a terrific writing group, and boundless respect for a fine sentence.