The Gift by Ellen Weeren
On his tenth birthday, Kayare woke to the cold of metal pushed so potently against his palm that he could almost taste the metal in his mouth. The tang of it was rich like honey, only not so much sweet as necessary. Under his pillow, his father Baba had left a camel bone handled knife with a red string tied several times around its finger groves. Its blade curved like a crescent moon. Kayare recognized the knife as his grandfather’s, Dadaji. How proud he would have been to see it set so firmly against Kayare’s skin. Kayare never imagined a blade could feel so frigid.
Now he understood why his cousin insisted on meeting him at the river this very morning. He’d been foolish to believe that Sanjeev had turned well-meaning and kind. He wanted to see the knife. Probably even use it.
Kayare brought the knife to breakfast because he knew his father would expect this. Secretly, he wanted to tuck it back under his pillow and not wake up on top of it. His wish had now become rolling the morning back into night, undoing this thing—this gift of malice. He’d wanted a dholak drum for his birthday. He loved the hollow sound of palm against taut skin, the roundness of its belly. The way the stings crisscrossed in uniform patterns even though that was unnecessary to affect the perfect thud. It would have been simple gift that could cause no harm, purposeful or accidental. It would have been something that could not have been slipped in under his neck without his knowing.
At the table, Leyla showed off her present: a turtle the size of a tangerine. Its markings matched so many of the constellations she watched at night, ragged squares drawn together through unsure lines. The outlines of a world left unexplored only because it was wildly beyond reach.
She’d already been outside to find leaves and grass for this to eat and set them right on her own plate. Beyond everyone else he knew, Leyla had a knack for loving anything that breathed. “We all share one lung,” she often said. He preferred to think of a shared breath as theirs alone. They were two souls entwined by birth and blood.
Leyla named everything that air seeped through. Not only bushes and full-grown trees, but branches and leaves. Individual ants crawling on their trunks. Eggs resting in a nest. Every single thing that lived deserved a name, a whiff of spoken air that let it know that it mattered to someone. Even if that someone was a small girl, in a small village, who sometimes struggled with breath herself, who often wanted to forget her own name but could not.
When she leaned down to kiss the small of the turtle’s nose, it surprised her with a snap.
“I guess I’ll have to name you Pinch, silly turtle,” she said.
Their mother Momi called out, “Silly Leyla, you mean. You cannot eat a birthday meal without your oil bath. Come here you two.”
Momi and Baba motioned them over to her and instructed that they strip down to their undergarments for their birthday cleansing. Kayare now stood a full hand length taller than his twin yet she was far thinner, more frail. His brown eyes had a lightness Leyla’s did not enjoy. The only thing that showed more promise was her long, thick hair, knotted from a night of sleep.
After kissing them on both cheeks, Momi rubbed their temples with olive oil, massaged their shoulders, dabbed the buttons of their noses. She polished their elbows and knees until their skin shined and all dust vanished.
Baba dipped his fingers in the oil and rolled them along their spines. He whispered, “May you each live at least a hundred years and die when your faces are fixed with smiles that cannot be undone by any worldly thing.”
Afterwards Momi gave them each a cup cow’s milk sprinkled with cane sugar and poppy seeds, a special birthday treat. They were allowed to take one swallow before spinning three times to the East, followed by two more gulps. This was sure to keep major obstacles out of their paths until they turned eleven.
“This is a day for simplicity,” Momi cautioned. “Do not dwell on excesses or unnecessary things. Eat slowly. Walk leisurely. Let living things be. Enjoy the moments you are given. They will not come again.”
Finally, Baba lit the lamp filled with ghee. They would be required to let it burn throughout the day. It was believed that whoever saw the flame’s energy fan out into smoke would have the most auspicious year.
Leyla vowed to watch the lamp burn for the entire day but Momi insisted that school was more important than luck and rushed them over to breakfast.
She walked to the table with a bowl of lemon idiyappam. Roasted almonds nestled sweetly into the mounds of yellow rice. Kayare and Leyla were each given a coconut sweet with browned edges. It measured nearly the same size as the turtle. Baba teased that he would eat their treats but Kayare knew Momi would never let that happen.
While they were eating, Momi brought out two dholak drums, a larger one for Kayare and a smaller one for Leyla.
“But we’ve given them their gifts,” Baba said.
“Yes, the ones you wanted them to have,” Momi answered. “Remember, it matters not whether the knife falls on the mango or the mango falls on the knife, either way the mango suffers. These are gifts of joy.”
“Thank you Momi, thank you,” was all that Kayare could manage.
Leyla sat Pinch on top of her drum as if it were a skyward tower.
“Now get along to school. Both of you,” Momi said.
Kayare tapped on the drum head with his thumb.
“Yes,” Baba agreed. But his eyes squinted as if the sun had entered the room not only unannounced but also unwelcomed.
* * * *
After the morning meal, Kayare hid his knife in his school book. Then he walked Leyla to school. Instead of going in himself, he rushed to the river where his younger cousin expected him. He feared the schoolmaster far less than his fear of Sanjeev.
He found Sanjeev waiting in the morning heat, already sweating. His arms were crossed, his foot tapping. Without greeting Kayare, Sanjeev grabbed the weapon. Inspected it. Spit on the handle and wiped it clean. Then he pressed the razor-sharp point into the top of his own thumb and twisted it. When he pulled the knife away, a small glob of blood formed. Sanjeev smeared it across his palm and held his hand up, satisfied.
He then took the shiny blade and sliced along the outside line of his smallest finger. The cut looked like a gill on a fish. Blood trickled down his arm in an inky stream, staining his skin.
“Why were you gifted this?” Sanjeev said. “It’s wasted on the likes of you.”
He was right. Sanjeev would have already killed with this weapon. The sun would have barely beat him to the morning rift. He would not have waited to need it, would have felt no fear against the curve of its blade. Spiders and mice would have been shown no mercy. There would have been joy in every vein that slowed, every heart that stopped.
“Give it back,” Kayare said almost under his breath.
But Sanjeev pulled the blade across his own cheek too close to his eye for Kayare’s liking, raising his skin into a thin white line. He’d risked a permanent scar.
Kayare could not be outdone by this kid, his uncle’s son. He had to balance the praise of his father against the angst of his mother. He could do no damage to his face. But what was left?
Sanjeev tipped the knife against Kayare’s ribs. “Your turn,” he said.
“Yea, yea,” Kayare answered and took a step back.
He could try to catch a conger eel with his bare hands and cut out its eyes, eat them after. But if he fell in the water or failed to catch the eel, he’d prove his uncle right. A snake didn’t make sense. The boys caught them all the time and tied their tails into knots. He needed something his knife could sink into.
He walked to the edge of a river so brown it was incapable of reflecting sunlight. A bullfrog sat on a rock, plump like an overripe melon. He picked it up by its back. Press hard against its waxy, cool skin. He held it near his face. Squeezed tightly. Its eyes bulged right along with Kayare’s. This was exactly the type of frog Leyla would keep as a pet, a friend for Pinch. She’d name it something ridiculous like Hara.
He slid the tip of the silver blade across the frog’s forehead, its eyes now closed. It skimmed its skin. His cousin leaned in closer, hands on his knees, expectations high. Sanjeev’s delight settled in like humidity. Kayare put Hara on the ground and lowered his bare foot over it to hold it in place. With the back of his hand, he wiped the sweat from under his nose and held his other hand out for the knife.
Sanjeev pressed it against Kayare’s palm without damaging his skin. The metal was still cold.
Just as Kayare lowered the blade onto Hara’s back, they heard shouting and three shots rang out. Sanjeev picked up his bag and ran away toward their school.
Kayare removed his foot from Hara’s back. Before it could jump into the river, he put the frog in his shirt pocket. It would be his birthday gift for Leyla. He secured the camel bone knife within a twist on his rope belt. Then he followed the thunderous noises in the distance. He ran to the curve in the river where his uncle often hunted, keeping his hand always gently enough over his pocket.
Halfway there, Kayare heard the thud. The too familiar sound of an elephant falling, followed by the sounds of sawing. If he didn’t know the difference, he would have thought it a swarm of bees. But bees did not follow his uncle, only death did that.
When he reached the clearing, he was out of breath. He’d gotten there too late to see the hunt, always a thankful step behind the hunters. The elephant was there, motionless but groaning. A low rumble like a train.
Kayare let go of his pocket and Hara jumped free, leaving a patch of wetness behind.
He looked around the clearing before approaching the elephant, its tusks gone. This one was smaller than the ones before it, its feet the size of his Amma’s naan, its face not yet mature.
The elephant was kneeling on all four knees, its head leaning forward, like a baby learning to crawl. Not yet frozen but unable to move. Its tail barely swayed.
Kayare walked a circle around it, then reversed and circled back . He dragged his foot behind him to smear the hunters’ tracks. There was no way for the small boy to help it up, offer it a sense of hope or explanation. The elephant moaned again, slow and humble. It titled its head but couldn’t keep it raised.
Kayare knelt down near the elephant’s face. So many names came rushing forward in his mind but he pushed them away. What was the point of giving the near dead a name?
The bullets had been sharp. They pierced the elephant’s hide with precision, creating a perfect circle from which no blood spilled. The largest hole drilled in between the elephant’s eyes, which now squinted into almond shapes as if they were trying to focus under a sun too bright, a death too slow. He knew his uncle always shot at the biggest mass of his target. That allowed him to separate the distance between skill and luck. Face his target head on. Eye to eye. There was a joy, his uncle claimed, in watching life seep out. Kayare never believed this and now he was sure it wasn’t true. Bringing on a death like this was not victory but madness.
A name spilled off Kayare’s tongue, Arun. He patted Arun’s forehead, let his long eyelashes brush against his palm. Arun let out a heavy sigh, his chin fell further down. The powdered dust kicked up without much enthusiasm, resigned to falling back to earth.
The second and third bullets had drilled into Arun’s cheek. Kayare pulled the elephant’s fanlike ear across the wounds to cover them, brushed it down. Arun closed his eyes. His groans a murmur.
Kayare pulled his knife out and turned the blade, pressed it against the elephant’s neck, released it. He felt no joy, no fear. Only resignation. What was the better thing to do? Endure suffering with Arun or end it? He did not understand how the blood of a killer was part of the same blood that ran through his own veins. Calculated and brutal. What prize could be worth this destruction?
Leaning his ear against the elephant’s chest, Kayare felt the faint beat of Arun’s heart. He pushed harder to try to also hear it, but its echo was lost to a windless day.
Kayare stood up. Heaved all his weight against the calf to push it on its side. He unfolded its legs, stretched them out. Then he nestled his own body into the crook between the elephant’s front leg and neck. Used his ear as a pillow. Kayare slowed his breathing to match Arun’s, a steady beat like a drum whose skin has been pulled too tight. One long heavy breath led to another. Kayare closed his eyes. Frogs croaked in the distance and the tired sun began to set.
Kayare knew that when he got home Baba would ask how he’d used his gift. Kayare planned to exaggerate the story of the frog. Arun becomes the one thing he will never share with his father. Momi and Leyla will learn every detail except the elephant’s name.
© Ellen Weeren, 2018
Ellen Weeren is an MFA candidate at George Mason University. She was awarded the 2018 Dan Rudy Fiction Prize from GMU, is the first recipient of the Marjorie Kinnear Sydor Literary Citizenship Award, and was the Peter Taylor Fellow at the 2015 Kenyon Review Novel Writing Workshop. Her short story “In the Dust of Elephants” received Honorable Mention recognition from Glimmertrain. Her work is forthcoming in the inaugural issue of the Hong Kong Review. She is working on a novel.
The Gift was read by Olivia Killingsworth on 3rd October 2018 for Courage & Cowardice