Kali stared ceaselessly at the stump on the portia tree where the branch had been cut down.
It looked very much like the sort of small stump that would stick out of the shoulder if an arm were severed from a body. He could still see the desiccated cuts left by the sickle on the bark. They looked like fish scales. It was he who had cut down the branch, having grown tired of his mother’s insistence to get it done. That particular branch of the tree had been a favourite of his. He used to see it as the tree kindly lowering an arm towards him, lovingly asking him to climb on to it. In moments of excitement, he would jump up and grab hold of that branch. And he would swing from it until he couldn’t bear the pain in his hands. At that point, he would heave himself to make a wide leap and land five or six feet away. The cow and oxen tethered in the tree’s shade would look at him in amazement.
Once, when his uncle’s children had come over for some festival, he set a swing on this very branch for them to play on. It took just a push for them to swing a great arc with nothing to hinder their movement. The branch held itself tight, much like the sturdy arms of a wrestler. No matter how hard the children swung from it, they never had to worry that the branch might break and fall. Kali was very sad that he eventually had to chop that branch off. But he had to—his mother was absolutely firm about that. In fact, she had wanted the entire tree to be felled. But since he had put up much resistance to that idea, she conceded to just severing that one branch.
When he looked at that branch in his beleaguered state that day, he felt as though it was calling out to him. He had already reached a point where he was considering death as the only way he could move past the impasse in his life. What an extraordinary situation it was. So many people had conspired to fool one man. His mother, mother-inlaw, father-in-law, brother-in-law, Ponna. All the others might have consented to that plan. But how could Ponna? Surely, she wouldn’t have agreed to the plan if she hadn’t secretly desired to sleep with another man? In his blinding rage, his first impulse was to hack her down with the sickle, severing her head from her body. But if he did that, she would shudder and suffer for just a little while, and then die. And Kali would have had to bear the lifelong stigma of having murdered his wife. No, that wouldn’t do. She needed to suffer for the rest of her life, agonizing constantly about what she had done. And he concluded that his death would be that perfect punishment for her.
He looked at the length of rope he had unravelled from the bundle of maize sheaths. It was an old rope, but it had several strong twining strands and it would never break. He picked up that rope and flung it over the branch, where it dangled like a snake. He pulled the other end and formed a noose
He also thought that dying would put an end to his own torment. ‘You should suffer for the rest of your life,’ he said out loud, thinking of Ponna. He kept chanting this like a mantra for a little while. As he gritted his teeth and repeated the incantation again and again, he felt invigorated. He looked at the length of rope he had unravelled from the bundle of maize sheaths. It was an old rope, but it had several strong twining strands and it would never break. He picked up that rope and flung it over the branch, where it dangled like a snake. He pulled the other end and formed a noose. Then, realizing that he would need some object to stand on—if he were to carry out his grim plan—Kali looked around for something suitable. He spotted the big upturned basket in which they enclosed the chickens. When he picked it up, the chickens scattered in all directions, clucking in panic.
The day had not fully dawned yet. The light was so dim it seemed as though you were looking at things through a sieve. The chickens continued to run around in the darkness. Kali dropped the basket under the dangling rope. The chickens clucked even louder. At this hour, his mother,Seerayi, was headed towards the barnyard from her house in the village. She thought she would take care of all the cleaning work in the cattle shed since Kali was away. She had woken up very early, as soon as she heard the crows cawing from the tamarind trees in the village. Now as she neared the barnyard, she heard the ruckus of the chicken clucking about. Assuming it was some wildcat trying to hunt the chickens, she ran towards the enclosure, making noises to chase away the intruder. Then she saw that the gate was wide open. ‘It must be a thief,’ she thought, and was annoyed with herself for not staying overnight in the barnyard and keeping an eye on things. As she ran in, she saw Kali. She could tell it was him even though everything was cloaked in shadow. And the moment she saw the basket and the rope, she understood.
She ran to him, beating herself on the chest, crying, ‘My god! My precious boy!’ and flung herself on the ground, firmly holding on to his legs to keep him from proceeding. Her grip was like iron shackles. Kali could not move even an inch. Angry that she had come at just that precise moment, he tried to kick himself free of her, shouting, ‘Let go of me!’ But she did not loosen her grip.
He was amazed that a scrawny woman like her possessed so much strength. He felt like a rat caught in a trap. He calmed down a bit and again said, ‘Let go of me.’
‘I have kept myself alive all these years just for your sake!’ Seerayi shouted. ‘Hang me on that rope! Witness me shudder and die before you decide to kill yourself. This tree has plenty of branches to hang from!’
Her desperate plea brought him to his senses. ‘All right, Amma,’ he said. ‘I won’t do anything to myself. Don’t worry. Let go of me.’ He was still trying to extricate himself from her hold.
‘Promise me you won’t,’ she said. ‘On my life.’‘On your life. I promise,’ he said.