All day from the dusty couch—no jumping on the couch, Kristy said to him—Arya watched the pig. It was black like a bottle of paint, its nose flat like the bottle’s cap. It crouched behind the door, bunched against the point where the door and the wall formed a triangle, and made pig sounds. Arya watched Emma coax the pig with a banana, but it stayed in its corner, squealing. Jayden tried to pull it out by its legs, but Kristy came in just then and sent Jayden on a time-out. From the couch Arya listened to Jayden cry and waited for Kristy to pick him up, but she did not, though she was Jayden’s mother and Arya knew then it was better to let the pain he felt in his chest stay in his chest. All day he wanted to pet the pig but was afraid. He was afraid of the pig and of the dog running outside in the yard trying to jump onto the trampoline, of the mouse that sometimes sat on Kristy’s shoulders and went in and out her jacket, the birds Kristy fed sugar water to from a dipper because they were so small and because they had fallen off a nest. He was also afraid of the goat, though it was forever napping behind the fence outside. And because he was afraid of all the animals Kristy fed and cleaned, he was afraid of Kristy. He had never known a person to have so many animals.
He waited for it to be four so he could go home, and when at four Maya came to fetch him, the lump inside his chest disappeared and he went to the pig, still huddled behind the door, and touched its skin. It was cool and smooth, like he had thought it would be. Maya stood at the door and asked Kristy all the questions. Had he eaten? Did he sleep? Did he have a good time? Kristy said yes to everything though Arya had neither eaten nor slept nor had a good time, but he did not mind. He poked the pig gently with a finger, and when it grunted, he laughed.
Kristy grew vegetables in her yard. The first day Mamma had brought Arya to Kristy’s house she had pointed the vegetables out to him. “Look, baba, red tomatoes, yellow squash, green okra, purple eggplants. Like flowers.” Later she had stood with Kristy and admired the giant wooden gym Kristy’s husband had built for all the children Kristy babysat. “This whole place smells of wood, no Arunya?” Mamma had asked. Even then, as he had played and as Mamma had pushed the swing and the swing had taken him high, making his head feel hollow and his feet grow heavy, Arya had wanted to tell his mother he did not want to stay at Kristy’s house. He wanted to stay all day at home. He did not get bored at home. He did not want many new friends. He wanted her. But he had not said anything. He knew by then when asking no longer helped.
“Ready?” Maya asked now, tugging at his hand. The dog was still outside, lying under the window awning, winking at the acorns at its feet.
“Ready,” Arya said.
“What do you say?” Maya asked.
So he turned to Kristy and said, “Thank you,” but he did not look directly at her.
The evening was not soggy. The sun had dried the morning leaves, and Arya’s shoes did not squelch upon the gravel. Emma and Jayden went home in cars, but Arya’s house was only blocks away and he could walk. “It’s not far at all, Arunya,” Mamma had said that first day while she had pushed the swing. “It is just down the road, and when I get back from work, you will be home within seconds.” Mamma took the bus to and back from work and she sent Maya to get Arya because the bus stopped too far away from Kristy’s. If Mamma was to walk all the way, it would take her a half-hour to walk the distance. “Maya will be here exactly at four,” she had said, “and you will be home in ten minutes.”
Arya wondered about his mother’s work, its suddenness, its necessity. “Now that you are a big boy,” she had told him one night. “And the money will help.” Arya tried to imagine a bank. It was not a river bank, that he knew, but he could not imagine his mother’s bank. “Can I come with you?” he had asked, but she said children were not allowed, and Arya tried to imagine that too. His mother working in a place where children were not allowed.
But he was happy now. Mamma was already back from the bank. She was waiting for him, and when he finally got home, Mamma would open the door before Arya knocked on the panel or rang the doorbell. He knew his mother did not have eyes everywhere the way she insisted she did, but there was something of a spider in her and a thin, transparent thread started from her and ended on him. All day, no matter how far off, Arya felt his mother and she felt him. All day Arya felt slight tugs on his body as his mother finished chores and tasks across the town.
On the sidewalk Maya sometimes let go of his hands and fiddled with her skirt. She folded and unfolded her skirt at the waist, making it shorter and longer. “What do you think?” she asked. “Do I have nice legs?”
Arya looked at her legs. Both her knees were scraped, but she had covered only one with a Band-Aid. The other knee had a scab like a beetle on it. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I fell yesterday and today it doesn’t hurt. But I thought Derik would be more interested if he saw I was not some puny girl. I get all sorts of sores because I am active. I am a boy that way.”
“You are a boy?”
Maya laughed, and after that she walked too fast and Arya had to skip to keep up. He kicked what pine cones had fallen on the sidewalk. He counted the houses. “House house house house house,” he said. The houses were like train boxes, identical and endless, red like the ones in the pictures from India Mamma showed him some nights. The nights Mamma showed him pictures from the green album, she held him close and sang Hindi songs. Those nights the thin, transparent thread between Arya and his mother was so short he could step inside his mother’s eyes and see her house standing upon a crowded street, though he had never been to India. He had never seen flat-roofed houses. In Durham, only shops and malls had flat roofs. Houses were conical, with roofs patterned like waffles. Arya had not seen donkeys and camels either, though he had seen plenty of cows and horses and even a llama. When his mother talked about donkeys and camels, Arya stepped into her ears and tried to hear them. Mamma made cow and donkey sounds, but a camel’s sound he could not hear at all.
“Don’t you just hate row houses?” Maya asked. “I will never live in a row house. Imagine, if someone else’s house catches fire, yours could too. I don’t want to die because someone else threw a matchstick on their carpet. That’s stupid. Do you like Kristy’s house?”
“I don’t like napping there,” Arya said.
“I would not like to sleep there either, with all those animals.”
“The animals are nice,” Arya said. He told Maya about the pig. “Jayden tried to pull it out and was not gentle,” he said.
“Did the pig cry?” Maya asked.
“I don’t think so. Though I don’t know what pigs are like when they cry, so I am not sure.”
When Arya found another pine cone on the sidewalk, Maya put her palms on Arya’s cheeks and kissed him loudly on his lips. “I think you are a genius,” she said. “You have such nice, serious eyes. You look like a mathematician. I think mathematicians are sexy.” She combed her hair with her fingers. “Do you think I am sexy? Do you think I should make my skirt shorter? Do you mind if we knock on Derik’’s house before we go home? Just for five minutes?”
Arya thought of his mother waiting for him and tugged at the thread. His mother tugged back.
“Please please please please please,” Maya said. “Only five minutes. And don’t tell your mother,” and she pulled him to the white lines on the road. Mamma had told Arya they were called zebra crossings. If Mamma could sit inside Arya’s eyes and ears, she would know zebras did not cross roads. And one time she had told Arya about a pigeon crossing a street and he had stepped inside his mother and seen a pigeon cross the street.
When they got to the other side of the street Maya said, “Derik is getting a Masters in mathematics. Have you ever heard of anyone getting a Masters in mathematics? Seriously! Not even in books and in movies. Do you think I should take off my watch?” she asked, but they had already climbed a short flight of stairs and were already at Derik’s door, and Maya had already knocked on the panel, so there was no time to remove the watch.
Arya leaned against the railing and looked at the grass under his feet. Worms never drowned, but in the sunlight they died and dried up like twigs.
Derik opened the door and Arya heard Derik and Maya talk about mathematics. Inside the house was a white fan with blue dots on its blade. Arya had never seen a fan with dots on it.
On the way back, Maya was too quiet and Arya knew something had gone wrong and she was sad. She held his hand but did not squeeze. She did not tell him interesting things about animals, the way she usually did. “Do you want to play with me at home?” Arya asked and she said she did not. She was not in the mood, she said, so Arya held her hand and tried not to disturb her. He did not count the poles and the houses. He did not kick pine cones. He did not stop to name the colours of cars.
When the sidewalk went down and then up, when they got home, Arya stood outside the door he had painted with his mother and waited for the magic. He stood a long time, and for the first time ever Mamma did not open the door. He knocked. After the second knock his fingers were like dry worms on the wood. His chest filled again, the way it had at Kristy’s. He looked at Maya, but she was drawing lines on the sidewalk with her feet, waiting without really waiting. He knocked again and finally Mamma opened the door. She was wearing a hairband on her head. She was holding a loaf of bread. When Arya was born, he smelled like butter and was soft and warm like a loaf of bread. He knew because Mamma had told him many times and yet now she bent her head this way and frowned.
“Yes?” she asked. She looked at Maya and said, “Yes?”
“Aunty,” Maya said and Mamma smiled.
“Oh, it is you,” she said. “Who is this boy?”
“Aunty,” Maya said again.
“I told you to bring my boy home. Why have you brought this one? Where is my boy?”
Arya tugged at the transparent thread between them, but Mamma did not stop frowning. Perhaps the thread was broken at her end. “It’s me, Mamma, Arya, your boy,” he said.
“Who Arya?” Mamma asked. “I don’t know anyone named Arya. My son’s name is Ravi.”
Arya smiled, suddenly shy and awkward before his mother’s new game. “Ravi is Daddy’s name,” he said.
“What daddy? Maya, take this boy back where you got him. I have work to do and he is wasting my time.”
Arya tugged harder, but the thread hung limp from his body. But his mother was Mamma still, though she wore a hairband on her head. If she wore five hairbands she would still be Arya’s mother. If she wore a gazillion, she would still be. “It’s me, Mamma, your son,” he said again.
Mamma shook her head. “No, you are not. You are some person this Maya has just picked because she lost my boy.”
Arya was quiet after that. The house was the same. The same sidewalk and the same lawn where they played badminton. The door was the same, marked with a line where Arya had run it with a pencil. The carpet under Mamma’s feet was grey and silver with a dot of coffee on it. Mamma’s feet were the same, decorated with toe-rings. Arya was scared after that. If he was not Arya, who was he? And without being Arya, how would he make Mamma his mother again? How could he go into the house and how would he take a bath? If he got hungry and if he was no longer Arya, how would he eat? If Mamma was not his mother and Arya got tired at night, what would happen?
“It’s me, Mamma,” he tried again. “Look, my teeth, they are canines, like you showed me.” He showed his teeth. Mamma continued to frown. “And see, you painted my little nail blue yesterday,” but when he put his finger out, the nail was not all blue. It had scraped off at too many places. “My hair is too long and needs cutting and this time I won’t cry at the barber’s.” His eyes began to sting. “My Spiderman shoes, your favourite ones,” he started to cry. “I am your son. I am your son.”
Mamma came to him then, quick like when she was still a spider and the thread had not hung limp. She lifted Arya off the ground and kissed him first five times, then a gazillion. She laughed as she kissed. “Of course, of course,” she said. “You have the canines and the blue nails and the hair and the shoes. Of course, you are my baby, my boy. I was only teasing you, my silly goose. I was only pulling your leg.”
Arya cried in Mamma’s neck and felt her skin get wet. “You are my moon and my sun and my flower and my car and my bus and my bread and my table and my chair and my rice and my potato and my egg,” Mamma said, laughing the entire time, until Arya did not want to cry anymore, until the hiccups stopped, until Maya, who was laughing too, said she had to go. Arya remembered then that Maya was sad and he wondered why. Perhaps Derik was her spider and he had pulled her leg and perhaps their thread was broken too. And Arya felt sad for her.
When at night Arya lay on Mamma’s arm, staring at the three winged fan on the ceiling, while Mamma played with his hair that was too long, Arya thought about how he could not cry at the barber’s now. He would have to sit still and not complain though the barber’s nails were long and the scissors were scary. He thought too of the canines that would fall off and the nail paint that would be all scraped out. He outgrew shoes. He wanted to ask Mamma what would happen after that, but Mamma hummed and sang her songs and when it was nearer bedtime, she told Arya about Antarctica where it was morning for half a year and night for another half and at night the stars were more than a gazillion, and some nights there were strange rainbows that were like fuzzy green snakes over the stars and they shone over the thick snow on the ground where penguins and seals knew nothing about human beings. Arya stepped into his mother’s eyes and leaned on her pupils to look at the penguins flying under the fuzzy green snake. They hummed songs about trains and flat-roofed houses into his ears.
Smriti Ravindra’s full length book, co-authored with Annie Zaidi, A Bad Boy’s Guide to a Good Indian Girl was published by Zubaan, New Delhi, India in 2010. His works have appeared in, or will soon appear in, 42 Magazine (USA), Pratilipi (India), Annalemma (USA), Out of Print (India), Westerly Magazine (Australia), Asia Writes (Singapore), New Voices New Nepal (Nepal), and Telling a Tale (Nepal). He is a regular contributor to a column in “The Kathmandu Post,” an English newspaper in Kathmandu, Nepal.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH SPIDER WEBS:
The quiet beauty of this piece, anchored both in the real world and in the imagination of young Arya, wraps itself around the us. It had an irresistible, magical quality that begged us to publish it. We stepped into the eyes and ears of author Smriti Ravindra and imagined what it was like to be Arya, and to live in the magical and sometimes frustrating world of a child again. And as such, it left an indelible impression upon us.