All the Terrible Things by Kuzhali Manickavel
All the terrible things were the same size. They were furred over with dust and seemed to slouch in the heavy sunlight. Two of them had collapsed into each other—one was Being Caught in a Hurricane in the Middle of the Ocean and the other was Rape. Murali, who kept asking what I was doing now, who said he had something growing on his spinal column that would probably kill him in a year, looked down at the terrible things. He seemed disappointed in them.
“This should have been yours,” he said, poking at Rape with his toe, because he didn’t like to bend if he could help it, his whole body hurt like a motherfucker now.
“I don’t mean—” he said quickly. “Not like—”
“Yeahyeah,” I said. “No, I get it.”
We didn’t know how to talk to each other anymore. Back then, it had always been in Tamil—get lost you donkey, you water buffalo, look at your face, stupid monkey face. Now everything was in English. Now it was usually about money, it was fuck and motherfucking assholes, it was I’m sick, I don’t know what to do, I’m tired, I’m so fucking tired all the time.
“You sure you can make it back down?” I asked, looking at the attic stairs, picturing him falling, then him pulling me down with him because he would be scared and anyway that’s just how he was, he was always grabbing at things without thinking. I pictured us both lying at the bottom of the stairs and the thought of pain, and possibly blood, made me overwhelmingly tired.
“When did we do all this?” he asked. He was standing among the terrible things. Cancer was leaning gently against his leg.
I shrugged. I couldn’t remember much about that summer except that I was not afraid of rape yet and we had spent most of our days collecting empty toothpaste boxes to make the terrible things. Mine had been Getting Lost in Madurai, Having Loose Motion on Bus and Cancer. We had sat in front of the television, sometimes stopping to watch the UGC programming with half-open mouths as we turned the toothpaste boxes into towers labelled Losing Hall Ticket, Cholera and Black Pig Caught in My Cycle Tire. Rape had been one of Murali’s terrible things. He used up all of the red marker writing the word in huge lightning bolts, surrounding it with dead women in enormous triangle dresses. You should learn karate, he told me. Yennaku I mean like I don’t know so much about karate, ok? His Tamil was already starting to unravel. But I will teach what I know. Seriya? Daily practice. Neeyum naanum. Ok-vah?
“You’re right,” said Murali. He was by the attic stairs now. The terrible things seemed to be watching him under their thick cloaks of dust and black mold.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well how the fuck am I supposed to get back down?”
In the end, we climbed down together. We took it one step at a time, braced for the fall that was about to come.
Kuzhali Manickavel’s collections Things We Found During the Autopsy; Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings; and e-chapbook Eating Sugar, Telling Lies are available from Blaft Publications, Chennai. Her work has also appeared in Granta, Agni, Subtropics, Michigan Quarterly Review and DIAGRAM.