A photograph of a piece of shiny red fabric on a black background, appearing to be in mid-motion.

Breathing Parody

by Vedanshi Bhalodia

Content warnings: rape, child abuse, gore, PTSD, smoking.
This piece engages directly with the above content. If these issues bring up anything difficult for you, please take care, consider skipping this piece, and find support resources below.

Lifeline: 13 11 41
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 | Beyond Blue Web Chat: https://online.beyondblue.org.au/
1800 Respect: 1800 737 732
Blue Knot Foundation: 1300 657 380 (Telephone counseling for adult survivors of childhood trauma)


My eyes were narrowed down to slits as I kept gazing at the ink stain on our couch. My father threw the ink pot across the hall. It bashed right into the wall and the splattered ink rolled down the couch in branches. The more I looked, the wider it seemed to spread. I was pulled back to reality as a bat – black sovereigns of the night, I had heard them called – soared right into my living room from a half-open window in the backyard. I remember looking up in awe as it stumbled across the ceiling. Is it even possible to stumble as one flies? How was I to fathom that when I was six? Nevertheless, as I grew up, I knew, no matter how high one is soaring, they stumble, they stumble hard. Sometimes, they even float down numbly like a feather, with no control over their fall. 

The black creature kept circling around the living room. It was a hot summer evening and the fans were running fast. The creature was hitting the walls incessantly. It brushed over and over against my mother’s red scarf hanging on the edge of the door. I liked the colour red. It was a fascinating colour. I took an uncanny comfort in knowing that my body was filled with that crimson red of the scarf. I have often seen my mother’s fat lip lose a few precious beads. I imagined the bat’s wings oozing blood. I imagined the blood dripping, getting soaked into the smoky grey carpet and glaring at me before losing itself in the cotton. I was just a child. Nevertheless, what child could hold such a fervent fascination for blood? Time divulged to me: a wrecked one. 

Thud. I heard the bat hit the fan for a millisecond and watched it circle down and fall flat on the carpet. The little creature fluttered ceaselessly. Its black was so vivid in the light that it looked like a silhouette, flapping in desperation. I inched closer, clutching my sweaty palms onto my crumpled dress. 

I was scared of the hideous little thing. It lay there trembling and writhing in pain. One of its wings seemed to have come undone, unhinged like a door half out of its frame. The poor brute looked like a lacerated Halloween mask, discarded once toyed around with, a shadow cut out. Abjectly unreal. 

I could tell when humans were in pain. I had heard them scream in agony. I had heard them weep with despair. I did not trust that creature, though. If it was really hurt, then why couldn’t I hear its screams? What if it was all a ruse to lure me into its trap, until it could unfurl its obscured colossal wings, velvety dark in the shimmer of daylight, and then devour me in one quick guzzle? 

The image petrified me. I staggered across the hallway and went towards my mother’s room. She was good at fixing things. She had an effortless way of slithering out of situations that failed to keep up to her expectations. She seemed to be sound asleep that day. Her left hand was limply hanging down the cot and the right one neatly folded over her chest. I couldn’t see her face, as it was slightly tilted towards the wall. She was wearing her mother’s worn out yellow floral dress with orange frills. My father despised that dress. My father hunted down a plethora of things to abhor. He loathed my captain doll, the brown stain on the carpet, slightly undercooked cooked rice, unaligned belts – the inventory was ceaseless. That morning I had heard him say some ungrateful things (as Mrs. Randall liked to call them), to my mother, about her taking some pills. I did not hear a squeak from her. Maybe my mum needed the medicine for her grief! 

I used to find adults queer. It took me a long time to realize that what grown-ups in reality were the most fundamental figments of the myth of normalcy, and that all the preciousness one shelters is tarnished as they grow up. 

I dragged my feet out of her room as I decided to let her rest. I went out only to see the creature lying in the same position. Whenever I was sick, my mother would give me a glass of warm milk. I ran into the kitchen on my tiny feet and came back rushing with my palms full of milk. The warmth of the milk started settling in my supple palms as the white camouflaged with my pale skin. Droplets of milk carpeted the trail leading me to the little creature. Most of the milk had already slipped through my fingers, but I let all that remained splatter near the creature’s mouth. 

I kneeled down slowly to get a closer look at the little creature. Its face looked like crumpled black paper, wrinkled just in the right places to not be able to identify whether it was scrunching or not. It tried to inch forward, using its wings as if legs, but the unhinged wing slipped over the splattered milk and tore a little further. I gasped in horror and fell back on my bottom. The creature stretched its little mouth wide open, revealing tiny fangs nestled in the murky pit and craned its neck up and above as if releasing a scream but I couldn’t hear a thing. It was as if it was calling for help, but all its pleas were falling on deaf ears. Such a poor little thing, I thought. I imagined its kind could understand its pain but, in my abode, it was alone. 

It seemed as if the creature was slowly dwindling into thin air. It was physically just as solid but there was something inside the creature fading that somehow affected its appearance as well. I couldn’t understand what had changed, but it looked hollower and a little less in pain. It wasn’t vivid anymore. It was nothing but a  vestige, like when whites of rushing water chase the tops of the shores and fade to blue. It is not that the whites disappear or that the blues become non-existent, they are there and not there at the same time. 

It is how I used to feel when he used to take me from the back. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand what was happening to me, but I knew that it got over quicker if I stopped kicking my arms and legs in vain. I’d rest my cheeks on the cold marble and tighten my fingers around the curve of the table until my knuckles went white. I had seen my mother do the same, nought but a whisper. She was a wise woman and I knew I just had to follow her lead. 

“My lil’ one,” he would breathe out, “Just stay still. It won’t hurt as much then.” I would think of the blue ink spreading over my white bedsheet, starting with a dot and proliferating as each thread of cotton absorbed the blue, the circle bigger and bigger and bigger until he is done and I am sleeping in the damp blue pool, inhaling the ink. 

The creature was craning and dipping as if it were a bobblehead. I didn’t know what to do. Who ever knows what to do with a creature in pain? We seldom realise when someone needs help.I decided to just sit cross legged and quench my curiosity instead. I moved closer to look at the injury. I could see a chipped, white, branch-like structure peeking out of the velvet. It had pierced its way out, like my grandma’s needles through quilts. I inched my crooked finger towards the white stick, shivering with fear, and snapped my hand back with a jolt as soon as the bone pricked my soft skin. 

The creature looked defeated. I could have harmed it so easily, but it made no attempt to escape. Its eyes were just  blank pools of darkness with nothing beyond them, no depth. 

Its eyes appeared to be meeting the huge portrait that adorned the wall. It was an oil painting of a dim spotlight shrouding my parents, everything around them pitch black. The ends of the portrait bore vestiges of red. It was as if they were manoeuvring in the darkness of Lucifer’s insides. My dad was in a crisp black suit with his arms etched firmly around my mother’s slender waist. She was clad in a sapphire blue Victorian gown with one palm cupping his right shoulder and the other wrapped around his neck. It was motionless, but it seemed to show  them slowly swinging in each other’s arms, with the entire world taking humble seats in the audience. 

My mother would tell me how it was one of their favourite memories from university. They met in a theatre course. “Our love used to reverberate in the auditorium,” she would say. When my father was away for months at a time, she would picture the two of them swaying back and forth and all the thoughts that encumbered her would slowly sink into his imagined shoulder. They would keep oscillating in her mind’s eye with Radiohead playing faintly in the background. I couldn’t help but wonder why she always spoke about it as if she were reading out from a memoir; as if it was ephemeral, too good to be true even in that moment. 

I directed my attention back to the creature. There was something about its vulnerability that drew me towards it. I felt powerful. I was bigger than it and I could have done whatever I deemed fit. I could have torn off the rest of the wing just to see some of those red droplets, or I could have prodded it with a fork to sense how supple and fuzzy its skin actually was. 

I had always felt that everyone around me was enormous and that I was merely a shadow. To this day, I have been following them, and looking back. I know I haven’t left any steps of my own , because they were covered by someone even smaller than me. I could make peace with it easily only if I was not reminded of it every breathing second of my life by those whom I was shepherded by. The echo of the tiny footsteps in my secluded wooden house pulled me back to the present, to what I had become. 

“Mother! Mother! Look what Mrs. G. gave me! Such a beautiful red scarf and she knit it herself!” My eyes caught the glimpse of the crimson in my daughter’s hands and my vision started to give form to the past in the present. 

“Oh, my lil’ one that is amazing! Go have some bread from the table. I have to go, I’ve got some errands to run.” 

My arms were prickly and shivers ran down my spine. I pulled on a trench coat and rushed out of the house. I slammed the door  behind me, but couldn’t hear it over the loud pounding of my heart in my ears. It was a constant rhythm, with every beat, an image flashed in my head, like my very own scrapbook of shame. The stain on the carpet, the creature, the ink smudging into my skin, blue, blue and a little bit bluer. My vision started to blur. I leaned over the railing off the steps, hyperventilating. 

I looked across the street. I needed to smoke. Just a drag to calm my anxious blood from gushing and mayhap bursting from my chest. I dragged my heavy feet, reminding myself with every breath that it will be over soon. I felt my memory corroding everything alive that breathed within me. I felt acid burn through my flesh, leaving behind hollows and releasing a pungence so strong it would magnetise the vultures to come and devour. Lumbering, I finally reached the convenience store. 

As the salesman foraged through the wooden racks, desperation seeped through my lungs. I kept tugging at the frills of my dress. My breathing was that of a raging beast. I was leering at the splashed ink branching out on the wall opposite to me. I blinked twice and saw the ink rolling down fiercely, aimlessly, ‘til it ran itself dry. I started frantically wiping it clean. The stains refused to fade. 

“Ma’am, ma’am, did you hear me? I said it would be forty two dollars,” gushed the man behind the counter. I tapped my card, grabbed my only consolation, and tottered out of the store to the nearest bench. My fidgety fingers took ages to light the cigarette. A long, fiery puff and my thoughts went placid. A sense of relief coursed through my entire body as the nicotine washed through my bloodstream. Everything was going to be okay. I just had to be still. Soon the shivering stopped and my breathing plunged down to normal. My head was filled with fog. I rested my head on the wall behind me and floated back to the creature. 

The white chipped stick was streaked in red. The bat’s neck was resting on its uninjured folded wing like a child marvelling at the rain rolling down the window, with his chin resting on the back of his palm. I thought everyone had to go through their own grievances. There is not much others could do about it. I hated the thought of having bread every day for lunch and dinner. Nevertheless, I dealt with it on my own, did I not? The creature had to have some milk, heal, and beat the air on its own. Its silent whines began to tire me. I got up and left for my room. 

I took the last drag and I wished that I hadn’t just left it there. My nerves had attained peace by now. The memories did not daunt me anymore. They just felt like a nightmare. I remember every little thing  from that day. There is only the paucity of this sense of time. It was just a few hours, but it somehow feels like my entire life has been wrapped and cocooned in that spit of time. It refuses to break no matter how hard I kick inside or no matter how hard I scratch my nails against it. I was stuck in a mirror maze, entrapped by ceaseless reflections at every end. What surprised me though was that every reflection was different from the other. If I take a left, I bump into a me that is encrusted in blood, and if I take a right, covered in threadbare filthy clothes. All the personalities vacillated between the pursuit of fantasy and the encumbering reality. I held the hand of the little me from that evening and pulled her into an embrace. 

I crush the cigarette butt with my boots till it loses the last of its sparks. I stand up, more confident and poised than ever, and hike back towards my house. A fly kept buzzing in my ear and I swatted it away. It kept returning to plague me. I stuffed my ears with my ear buds, let Radiohead slowly murmur in the background and built my obliviousness to it. The fly had gone adrift. I am a strong mother. I am the stronger one. 

I clicked the door open and saw my daughter biting into a sandwich, listlessness plastered on her face. I took a deep breath and walked over to the kitchen counter. “Baby, your scarf looks beautiful! Did we express our gratitude to Mrs. G.? Let’s have something scrumptious today, shall we? Get yourself prepared for an appetising meal,” I exclaimed. 

The glimmer on her face was worth it all; it would always be; it should always be. 

As I was lying on my cot that evening, the fan ferociously circling above, my thoughts kept retreating to that creature. If it needed help, why wasn’t it louder? I thought of checking on my mother again. 

She was still asleep. She had succumbed to a deep slumber. I was famished but it was seldom that she found peace when asleep – or awake, for that matter. I dragged my feet out to the creature again. Its eyes were unmoving and aimed at the portrait. Its wings were flat against the carpet, as if they could never beat the air again. The poor creature looked like a ragged cloth growing grey mould over; used, unwanted, and pitiful. I mustered the courage to feel it. I dipped my cupped palms, scooping it in as I joined my palms. The creature nestled in the canopy and warmth of my palms. I blew some warm air into its fur, rustling its tiny hairs into chaos. “Just be still. It won’t hurt as much then,” I whispered into its ear. It twitched once, twice and thrice in my palms before going completely still. The creature fell deep into a slumber, just like my mother had. They both slept well that evening.

 

Lifeline: 13 11 41
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 | Beyond Blue Web Chat: https://online.beyondblue.org.au/
1800 Respect: 1800 737 732
Blue Knot Foundation: 1300 657 380 (Telephone counseling for adult survivors of childhood trauma)

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