The woman was a mother, daughter, wife, a small-business owner, a fashion designer, a social maven, daughter-in-law, friend, employer, dog mother.
She was also a part-time bougainvillea tree which bloomed fuchsia and vermillion and white.
The only person in the world who knew her secret was the gardener. There was little point in hiding it from him, he was bound to have guessed soon after he started working in the garden. He was a tiny, wiry, reticent man, who had only recently arrived from the village to the city, carrying a bundle of worn clothes, memories, and an intimate friendship with the soil as his sole luggage. He would arrive at the house soon after the sun rose, swiftly making himself home in the garden. Before beginning the day’s work, he would first feed the birds, scattering seed on the ground and indulgently watching them swoop down from the sky and their tree perches to consume their breakfast. It did not take long for them to recognize him, impatiently twittering from their branches as soon as he would take out the seed, leaping onto his palms even before the seed touched the ground. He would speak to them in his earth tongue, as he liked to call it, as he did with the other animals who strayed into his path and of course, the plants. When she had confessed her secret to him, the words tumbling out of her mouth like dazed caged birds suddenly finding liberation, he had not seemed particularly surprised, as if he had heard and seen something like this before. He never made any mention of it afterward, their conversation limited to greetings or discussions about the plants – and the only concession he made to acknowledging and accepting her secret was being gentle with her while pruning or cutting.
The gardener left soon after breakfast, virtually unseen by the inhabitants of the house apart from her. She knew he would keep her secrets; he anyway looked like the keeper of many secrets, secreting them away in the intricate chest of wrinkles that was his face. Yet, the truth was that it was not the gardener of whom she was afraid would reveal her secret one day: it was herself she feared the most, that she would eventually give away what was becoming the core truth of her life.
Could you sew lips up to imprison a secret? Or did your eyes give you away?
At first, she became the tree for only for an hour or so a day; she would tell everyone that she was going shopping or would be in a meeting and her phone switched off. Nobody particularly cared or thought to suspect that she was lying. In fact, given that they saw her as a many-faced, many armed goddess, it was entirely plausible that she could be in two places at once. If they didn’t worship her, they certainly revered her; the house after all could not run without her beneficence or ministrations. She is the heartbeat of the house, the woman’s husband would grandly declare at parties, dramatically gesturing towards the cut-glass vases of enormous white lilies, the scented candles, the photogenic food, and jazz discreetly perfuming the air. Everybody would turn to look at her, awe and envy intermingling on their faces – and she simply wishing that they would look away.
She wondered if she had become a goddess because her house was a temple or vice versa? Did it matter? Magazines called her up to photograph it and those building their own aspirational temples would ask her for advice. “Where did you get those cut glass vases? What was the name of your architect? Darling, those paintings, you must tell me the artist’s details,” the messages endlessly poured into her phone and ears, demanding to be answered at once. When the children brought their friends to home, they all said they did not wish to leave; her relatives and her husband’s relatives gawked in admiration, reluctantly doling out praise, like spare change to a beggar.
So how she could tell any of them that she secretly hated the house? She hated being the goddess, she hated the house being the temple. During the night, as she lay in bed, watching the moonlight furtively creep in and paint shadow graffiti on the floor, she would be filled with an all consuming hatred for this house which she herself had created over the years. She had spent hours with the architect, stood in the burning sun supervising and arguing with the builders, endlessly leafing through paint palettes, consciously participating in each stage of its making, unlike that of her children, where she was simply a nest giving them refuge and nourishment. So how could she possibly hate this house? Could a mother hate her children, writer their books, an artist their paintings? Yet, with the passage of time, as the house became more and more exquisite, as she obsessively selected paintings and glass bowls and intricately woven rugs to adorn the house with, her hatred became deeper and richer until she did not know quite what to do with it. Love for the house had once made her sick; now hatred did.
The only part of the house that she could abide though was the garden – and which she began to furnish as lovingly as she had once done the rooms of the house. She no longer wished the garden to be the space of quietude and order, of regimented potted plants and pruned trees and mown grass. “I want to plant a forest,” she told everyone as they incredulously watched what had once been a sedate corner morph into a tropical mess, flamboyant flowers, attention-seeking trees, and sinuous, gossipy vines meshing togetheruntil there was scarcely any place to sit or play games or for the dog to run around and bark at nothing in particular. It was in this new brash garden that she found her home and acquired a new, alternate, second life: she, a part-time bougainvillea tree, twisting, curving, blooming, petals water-falling down her body and upon the lawn, fuchsia rain turning into a fuchsia cloud floating upon a jade green sky. She could not remember the last time she had been so happy, in her new home, having donned this new alter-ego. No one noticed her newly acquired happiness though as they might have her freshly styled hair or designer bag. Weren’t goddesses always supposed to be happy?
She had found it funny the first few times, she the bougainvillea tree, her family walking around her, not recognizing her, utterly unaware of her plant disguise. Even though the garden was now densely overgrown, they would nevertheless endeavor to find a patch of ground as yet still bare, sitting down on the earth, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs. She saw her daughter ignore the green around her, her eyes affixed to the cold white glare of her phone; she saw her son and her husband’s mother tentatively walk into the garden before leaving, complaining about the insects, the heat, the humidity, fearful of what lay within that thrumming nest of plants. Her husband would simply stare at the foliage as if it was an unfamiliar beast that they had adopted and were raising in their home. Sometimes, she heard them talk about her, naturally assuming that she was absent. Her daughter would complain to her friends about her mother becoming annoyingly distracted these days; her mother in law would complain about the woman to her son, wishing that his mother did not stay out so often, she should be there to manage the house. “And why do we pay the gardener so much if the garden is in such a mess? My friends’ gardens are so neat and clean – and look at us! He should cut more, the whole house is in shadow because of these big leaves,” she would whine. The woman would listen unflinchingly, only wincing when her mother in law would bend down and pluck a rose that had yet to bloom from the flowerbed. She could hear its cries, the traumatic severing of the bud and plant, the helplessness of the plant at having to renounce when it was not ready to do so.
In the evening, when the woman saw the bud lying abandoned on the immaculately shiny marble floor, she asked the mother-in-law why she had so peremptorily thrown it away.
“There was no scent, it was unopened,” the mother in law said, narrowing her eyes.
“So why did you pluck it? I do not like anyone plucking flowers until they are not ready to be plucked,” the woman snapped.
Her mother-in-law continued to study her with slit eyes. “How did you know that it was me who plucked the bud? Have you installed a CCTV camera in the garden just like you have done in all the other rooms of this house?”
“I just know,” the woman had responded, walking away, clasping the bud tenderly in her hand. She placed it in a bowl of water sitting on her bedside table, letting it slumber inside it the entire night. The morning after, she gently lifted it out of its temporary water home and offered it to the gods inside the temple. The mother-in-law was there too, presumably praying, her eyes closed in piety; yet, when she heard the woman come in, she opened them and frowned at seeing the bud. But it already lay at the feet of the gods and she could say nothing more after that.
After an exhausting week of entertaining house guests, managing sulky teenagers, sulkier in-laws, and the absence of a globe-trotting husband, the woman told the family at dinner that she would have to travel out of the city for one night. Maybe even two, she hurriedly added. She outlined the instructions she has dispensed to the staff: the meals to be made, the laundry to be washed, the clothes to be ironed-
“Where will you be going?” The daughter cut in.
“It’s an obscure village, there will be limited reception or connectivity there,” she replied. “I will text, if I can.”
“Why are you going?” The son asked, sounding a bit wistful.
“I need to meet some block-printers and artisans for my new collection. But it is only for a day.”
“Does Arvind know?” The father-in-law asked.
“Does he ask me if he has to go out of town for business? I will be back the day after, if not tomorrow night.”
“I had called all my friends over for lunch tomorrow,” her mother-in-law said. “How will I manage on my own?”
“You always complain about the food I order or get prepared. You have full freedom this time to do what you want,” she responded. “Now I must go up and pack.”
Later, alone in the vastness of her bedroom, she lay on her bed, her suitcase open on the floor besides her, stuffed with the imaginary clothes and accessories she would supposedly need for that fake work trip to the fictitious village. Oh, what blessed relief to be away for a full twenty four hours, absolved of all responsibilities. She would have little to do apart from growing silently and stolidly, drinking in the sun, learning to just be, still and rooted in and to one place. She examined the mauve and conifer veins branching below her wrists, those hidden rivers that irrigated her body; she thought of the roots that sprouted from below her feet, traveling far and wide, pushing through layers of soil to find water and food. The surface is but cosmetic: what lies beneath is what truly matters. But once you become a goddess, no one cares about what lives and lies within. They revere you, they deposit flowers at your feet, they sulk when you do not meet their shopping list of demands, they even renounce their belief in you. They drape you in expensive saris and decorate you in jewelry and subject you to plastic surgeries – and all this while, you are breaking inside until you are but a shell of what you once used to be. But nobody notices, nobody cares – and you are locked inside the temple, smiling, smiling until one day your cheeks will surely crack and burst from the constant subterfuge.
That twenty-four hour disappearance marks the first of many more. She recalled that day with such affection, stretching out languorously in the sunlight, feeling the rays course through the leaves and bark and swim down to the very bottom of the roots. Once he realized that she was there, the gardener affectionately greeted her as he did to all of the other trees and animals. She could now understand his earth tongue, how loquacious he was in it unlike that of the one he used to communicate with her in her goddess avatar. The other trees had started to befriend her, becoming familiar with having her in their midst. They had little interest in her other incarnation and chatted to her about their lives. Some were reticent, others more chatty: others spoke through their leaves, others’ roots whispered secrets to one another. They were becoming her family and she did not even realize how much she missed them until she saw strangers in those who had once been her own.
Her freedom could last only for so long although she was surprised that it lasted as it did. After she returned home after a three-day absence, her husband told her that he needed to talk to her after dinner. No one had spoken much during the meal, the whole house cloaked in a wintry silence, making the air impenetrable, thick and heavy. She felt suffocated, unable to breathe. She knew what everybody was thinking: the questions lay suspended in the air but she was loath to acknowledge their existence, let alone address them.
She went up to her room immediately after the servants cleared the table and her husband followed her, cradling his customary night-cap in his hand, as if for sustenance and support.
“I just need to ask you one thing,” he had said, sitting down on the edge of the bed, staring at her reflection in the mirrored wardrobe. “Are you having an affair?”
The woman had wanted to laugh: Affair? A goddess having an affair? She found herself responding to his reflection. “What?”
“Your frequent trips, your absences, your lack of interest in the house, the family, the kids…us,” he murmured as if by way of explanation, his mirrored self gesturing towards the empty, vast expanse of the king-sized bed.
“Have I ever asked you this question when you have been traveling for months at a time for your business trips?”
“But that’s my job,” he retorted.
“And my business is my job too. What’s the problem? The kids are grown up, they don’t need me as much as they did earlier. In fact, they take pains to state that they don’t need me. We have a staff which takes care of all your parents’ needs. And you are hardly around. When you are here, I am here.”
“No, you aren’t. I got back from New Zealand last night after a month and they said you were in some godforsaken village to – work on your new collection. They didn’t know which village because you hadn’t told them. So I called your office and they said they had no idea either. In fact, they didn’t even know that you were traveling.”
“So you are spying on me? And that made you think that I was having an affair?”
The woman’s husband then walked towards her, detaching himself from the mirror. He took his hands in hers, examining her many rings, the glossy nails, tracing the tributary of veins below her wrist as he once used to do when they were young and she was not a goddess and they had been happy.
“Is there something wrong?” he whispered. “Where do you go then? What do you do?”
She shut her eyes again, conjuring up the garden in the dark, the air thick with sleepy chatter, the night plants noisily crowding the air with their glorious intoxicating library of scents. I wish I had scent, she had once told the white plumeria. But you have color, we do not, so the plumeria had consoled her. She could see the moon floating in the sky from the bedroom window and she thought of the plumeria, remembering to tell it the next time that it was the color of the moon and how many could say that? But when would there be a next time? Would there be a next time? She would have to decide.
“I go somewhere very close to home. You would be surprised at how close it is,” she finally remarked but the husband did not believe her, she could see it in his eyes.
The following morning, she awakened even before the gardener arrived at the house. She draped herself in a shawl, silently descended the stairs, and went out into the garden. She watched the dawn come into being, the pale watercolor blue sky explode into a supernova of color, as if the handiwork of an invisible sky artist. The gardener slowly walked in, his neck swaddled in a muffler, coughing for winter was now beginning to set in and the early mornings and late nights were chilly. In a few days, they would switch off ceiling fans, the servants would unearth blankets from their neem-enveloped tin homes, and everybody’s sweaters and coats would smell of mothballs for days.
“They are starting to get angry with my absences,” she said, as the gardener prepared the seed and lay it out on the ground. He had never missed performing this ritual, not even once since the day he began working here. Yet, even the birds were awakening later than usual and no one snatched the seed away from his palm today.
“They are starting to suspect?”
“They suspect that I am lying to them. Which I am.”
“I need to decide between this life and – that life.”
“Which one is more dear to you?”
“Here, I am – just a tree. There, I am a goddess who cannot make any mistakes, who cannot have her life. She must sit in her temple – and be worshiped. I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it anymore -” She was weeping now, hot tears tumbling down her face and splattering her shawl.“I do not know what to do.”
He gazed at her, offering no sympathy or consolation. “Once you decide, you can never go back to your other life.”
All of a sudden, as if seemingly out of nowhere, the birds began to appear, in ones and twos, threes and fours until the air was clogged with the sound of fluttering birds and shrill twittering and naked hunger. There were so many that she could not identify them beyond a vibrating brown, beige, gray, black, red, green blur. She watched the gardener lovingly welcome them, his voice a sanctuary until they were finally sated and ready to return to the air to begin their day.
“Some of them are guests to this land. They have flown many days to escape the cold,” he said, watching them depart. “They all have their special way of saying goodbye.” They stood together for some more time, the sun ascending higher into the sky, angling its apricot beams towards their skin, bones, hair. “Choose well and wisely, Memsahib. Saying goodbye is difficult but knowing that you can never return is even more.”
She thought about it all the time. And then, she finally chose: whether well or not, she did not know. In fact, truth be told, she did not even know why she made the choice that she had. Three nights later, while preparing to fall into a wordless sleep as they had so for many nights, she suddenly told the husband that she wished for him to sell the house and that they move elsewhere.
“I am not happy living in this house. I can’t live here anymore. If I continue living here, I will – lose myself.”
They were lying on the bed, their faces turned away from each other: the street light the sole source of light in an otherwise lightless room.
“But you made this house,” he had said, incredulously. “You -”
“I know what I made. But what I am telling you is that I don’t want to live here anymore.” She bit her lip. “I know, it is an outrageous and terribly selfish demand. But this house is consuming me-”
“But what – what will we tell everyone?”
“We will think of something,” she said. “Feng Shui or bad energies or something. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I want to leave.”
The husband was silent and even though she could not see his face, she knew that he was staring up into the ceiling, as intently as he once used to gaze up into moonless skies to star-watch on empty beaches. She recalled him translating the language of constellations, star by star, alphabet by alphabet, teaching her to read what had otherwise so far been an exquisite yet meaningless code. She could still read the sky, still decode the constellations floating in the sky although it had been so very long since he had interpreted or explained anything for her. She did not even remember when and how it had happened, why she had never once said anything to him about it.
“And your garden? What will you do without that?”
It was the woman’s turn to be silent now for she had not expected him to realize how important the garden had become to her. In an earlier time, she would have even confessed her secret to him, as she had revealed many others in similarly lightless rooms, where they could scarcely make out each other’s faces, never fearing the darkness as long as they were together to face it. But those days had long gone and she did not even trust herself with her secrets, let alone anybody else.
She felt a not unfamiliar pain ascend in her throat, turning into a sob somewhere near her mouth. “I will only hope that whoever moves in here after us will love and take care of it as I once did.”
They did not say anything else to each other for the remainder of the night; yet, she knew that he slept badly and that he too was awake when she slipped out of the room at dawn to meet the gardener.
When she told the gardener her decision and that the house would soon be put on sale, he simply nodded, as if he had known all along what she had meant to do.
“I have to ask you one thing though, Memsahib,” he asked. “Why did you become -?”
He gestured towards the bougainvillea tree, which they both know would die soon, its soul have been ripped out of it. She lovingly and sadly touched its wrinkled, bending, twisting limbs, the fuchsia paper flowers, all which she had once called her own and would never be hers again. “Everybody wanted me to a goddess but here, I wasn’t one,” she said. “Now they – in the house – also no longer think of me as one – and I can be just a woman again.”
As she spoke, she could feel the other trees silently staring at her, some in anger, others in sorrow: she could not offer any words in return because she had lost the right to say goodbye. And so, with nothing more to say anymore, she walked away, the woman who was no longer the goddess, no longer the bougainvillea tree. And what she would become afterward was anybody’s guess.
Priyanka Sacheti is an Indian writer based in Bangalore, India. Priyanka previously lived in Sultanate of Oman, United Kingdom, and United States. She has been published in numerous publications with a special focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity and is presently an editor at Mashallah News. Her literary work has appeared in Porridge, Berfrois, The Lunchticket, and Jaggery Lit and two of her short stories were featured in international anthologies. She’s currently working on a short story and a poetry collection. An avid phone-photographer, she explores the intersection of her writing and photography at Instagram: @iamjustavisualperson. She tweets @priyankasacheti1.