Two decades after my mother found me hiding in the cowshed, I saw my cousin, Francis, at our church’s family wedding, where he was a priest. Francis-Anna. That’s what I used to call him when I was young— Anna, a term of endearment and respect, duly assigned to him by my parents, the title offering me the protection of an older brother. I suppose he was my first love, at age two, second only to my mother. Francis was seventeen then. He had a charming smile, with eyes wide and deep like an ocean, full of promise. I loved his broad shoulders as he carried and lifted me like I was on a roller coaster ride.
My mother found me late that night as I, a girl of twelve, sat cowered inside the shed, inhaling the smell of urine and dung. That aroma, acrid and sour, was better than the smell of body on body.
That morning I heard the vroom-vroom of Francis’s motorcycle roaring up the driveway. The motorcycle’s roars pounded the air in sync with the beats of my heart. I ran to the cowshed, my new hiding spot where he hadn’t found me yet.
“Ma-ree-aa, where are you my doll?” Francis used to call. “Oh, look what you found for us- good girl, good girl” he said, finding me as if it was I who found secluded spots just for us. Every time I hid, he found me.
I stroked one of my favorite cows in the cowshed to prevent her from mooing and outing me. She released her muscles, yielding, just as I yielded to Francis in the past. The milk I drank eased my hunger while I waited for those long hours, hiding. It tasted better than the lingering, crapulous taste of his mouth on mine.
I remember when I was three, how he hid his face behind the pallu of my mother’s saree, as I sat on her hip, or clung to her bosom, how I loved discovering his face, like it was a mystery behind walls and veils, his black eyes twinkling with love. Peek-a-Boo, he said, and I giggled, wanting more. As I grew to be five and six, seven and eight and nine, Peek-a-Boo became Hide-and-Seek— the two of us hiding in places where no one else could find us. The longer we hid together, the better my reward was. At first, it was something small like a Cadbury-Five-Star or a seashell. Then, as I grew older, he gave me bigger things; a tea-set, a doll, or he took me to the local fair as a special treat meant only for the well-behaved, compliant cousin.
“Only Francis can manage these young pre-teens” maintained the adults who asked him to watch over my cousins and me. “Especially this child Maria- so rebellious” my mother said. And true to his word, he never let me out of his sight.
When I turned ten, eleven, and twelve, I learned to run faster than the dogs in the yard, stay quieter than the snakes that hissed, stay awake, silent, and alert, and find darker and deeper places to hide. I became Maria, The Quiet One.
I’d grown up and didn’t rebel anymore. Instead, my body did— with headaches, stomach aches, fainting spells, speech impairment, and finally, the periodic flow of blood. Even my body rejected me as though the right to express itself in this continuous way only belonged to the blood that flowed, as if truth, no matter the shame or secrecy, would reveal itself. Then, one month, the blood stopped.
After the wedding, as I left the church, I felt a pat on my shoulder. “Ma-ree-aa, you forgot your Anna? And your manners too, my dear? Leaving without saying hello to me, huh?”
I slid away from Francis’s touch, unable to let a word out, mumbling as I used to when I was younger, a time when his keen eyes focused on my words, when his observations overpowered mine. At fifty, he was a shell of his younger self, a ghost whose face had embossed itself on every male face I’ve lain in bed with; every man who left me because I couldn’t bear a child.
I noticed his lips moving as he spoke; their alkaline taste still lingered in my memory. I felt the earth cave under my feet, my knees going weak.
“She has a train to catch” my mother said, gritting her teeth, appearing out of nowhere, not making eye contact, not addressing Francis with affection as she used to when I was younger. Her voice was high-pitched like she had seen a wild animal let loose. She grabbed my arm and pulled me away from him as if he were a prowling dog, as if I were eight-years-old.
In that instant, I understood that my mother had known. I understood why I was sent away to boarding school in Kodaikanal when I was barely thirteen, why I wasn’t welcome back home to the compound with coconut orchards and the sweet smell of the river close by- the place that housed my brothers and sisters, cousins and friends, uncles, and aunts, and my hiding body- and why I was rushed to the hospital a month after she found me in the cowshed. Then I remembered a man’s voice echoing back from a land far away, from eons ago. “Sorry, she can’t have children” he said. I saw his scrubs fading beneath the lights as I went under.