Sunday, April 11, 2010

Angels in the Backyard

Dedicated to all the angels, seen and unseen,that the "Ridgewood Redskins" have enjoyed at 410 Albin Court

Saturday afternoon and it’s time to explore the backyard for bugs and alien life, as usual. You are armed with the brand new magnifying glass Amma let you buy with your pocket money. Suddenly the palette God uses to paint your garden produces rainbows that you have never noticed before. You admire nature through the thick lens: the grass, sometimes erect and alert, sometimes hunched over and brooding, flexes green-blue-purple-striped-spotted bodies at you. The soil is a chaos of multi-colored crumbs, a layer of soft chocolate cake covering the ground. The identical-looking daisies Amma planted now prove as different as the snowflakes you and your classmates once made in school, folding paper many times over and cutting out little triangles. You follow the curve of the petals—such a pure white!—to their source, a bristly yellow center that turns into a yellow carpet, velvet on your fingertips. You wonder if baby flowers can grow in those circular yellow fields, and you smile, picturing flowers inside flowers inside flowers. You are transfixed by infinity. Some people count sheep and some contemplate the expanding universe. You multiply flowers.

Having inspected Color with a quiet awe, you move onto Texture: fluffy furry scaly sticky brittle powdery smooth poky squishy interactions with your thorough hands amuse you. Then Movement—inevitable and alluring—reveals itself to you. Through your glass, you see the garden come alive! Sunlight sizzles before your eyes and hypnotizes the short grass and lanky stems into a synchronized dance. Petals look like they are breathing, the way they first unfurl towards the sun and then retreat ever so slightly when you touch them. Ants are no longer boring. They are bulbous, like three jellybeans joined delicately together with antenna jammed into the tips of their heads that unerringly point forward.

You are amazed at the crawling creeping swaying sprouting activity around you and feel grateful to your new instrument for your discoveries. Amma watches from the backdoor, her eyes following your delicate steps through the grass, the stripes on your favorite t-shirt undulating like a wave as you bend over to inspect a ladybug, then straighten to survey unexplored terrain. Your silky black hair reflects the sheen of the sun and flops softly over your forehead, stopping just above your eyebrows. Amma can hear you talking to yourself, and smiles when, every few minutes, you turn to her to jabber excitedly about your latest discovery. You couldn’t be happier.

You study a centipede trundle across your palm and observe wide-eyed, with your wide-eyed glass that he really does have one hundred legs! You are convinced you can see little shoes on all one hundred feet, too, which makes you gasp with pleasure—“Look Amma he has so many legs!” How long, you wonder, does it take the centipede to lace all his shoes up? You imagine the centipede’s Appa teaching him how to tie his shoelaces the way your Appa taught you when you started third grade and became a big boy. The song goes: Here’s a little rabbit, and here’s a great big tree. Watch the little rabbit run around the tree. Out pops his head, to see what he can see. How neat a knot he made around his great big tree!

But you pause, stuck on the impossible imagery. Aren’t rabbits really big, compared to centipedes? And wouldn’t trees be too gigantic for them to imagine? You concentrate with a rare frown as imagination battles with rationale; Amma hears your silence and anticipates imminent exclamation. Maybe centipedes use different objects instead of rabbits and trees. An ant and a blade of grass? Ants don’t run like rabbits and grass doesn’t stand unmoving like a tree, but they will do, you reason, patiently correcting the proportions in the song. You are eager to understand your surroundings and careful to treat its inhabitants with a courtesy commensurate to their abilities, not size. Any creature that can tie one hundred pairs of shoelaces and never trip deserves your admiration, and you happily lavish it upon the centipede. Eight-year-olds do not believe in being stingy with emotion and you are no exception. “Amma,” you shout, “I figured it out!” Like all mothers, Amma responds with a smile that is half-knowing, half-surprise, ever impressed by her child’s latest accomplishment. “Well done sweetie,” she calls. “I’m so proud of you, my son.” The sun beams.

Size enthralls you, which is why your magnifying glass is so special: it makes everything bigger and stronger, granting puny creatures volume and power and turning sand piles into veritable kingdoms run by giant insects. On Friday you chose to re-read Jack and the Beanstalk by yourself during Story Time. It is one of your favorite stories and feeds your fascination for transformation. Today in the garden, you pretend to be a hungry giant trolling the grounds for little boys to eat. You feel an ant crawling up your leg and you are thrilled to be the tall mysterious beanstalk that led Jack to his adventures. Because you are a cast of one, you turn into the giant at the top of the beanstalk. “Fee fi fo fum,” you proclaim to no one in particular—but Amma hears you; she always does—“I smell the blood of an English ant!” You hop about in a dance best befitting a happy hungry giant before releasing the ant to the ground. You were not enthused at the idea of eating an insect; Amma will have a much tastier dinner ready for you anyway.

Sunshine dulls into shadows that get in the way of your glasses, and by sundown it is getting harder to see the little creatures in the dark grass. Amma has turned on the lights that shine onto the backyard but something about the angular contours of the roof against the thick navy blue sky make you want to go inside, so you do, wiping your feet on the doormat and slipping into your comfortable slippers. Amma and Appa and your sister are moving about the kitchen with soft steps and vigorous conversation. Appa is talking about surgery that day—your sister wants to be a doctor just like him—and Amma is singing while she puts the finishing touches on dinner. White rice green spinach yellow dahl white yoghurt to draw in and mash together with your eager fingers before consuming with noisy slurps! Fee fi fo yummy!

The kitchen walls are painted yellow and remind you of being outside in the golden sunshine, which pleases you. Amma’s potted tulips, obediently lined up against the wall and leaning towards the dinner table to hear what you are about to say, remind you that you can study them with your magnifying glass as well. Joy rushes over as you as realize how many surfaces, objects, nooks and crannies are still to be explored!

Dinner is familiarly noisy—the sounds of being home and enjoying a delicious meal with Amma, Appa and Archana. Appa chews deliberately and asks everyone about their day, starting with yours. You are excited because you have much to report from the garden. You describe the ant hill you had prostrated before for some time, examining grain by sand grain. There were ant foot prints dotted all over the hill, pinpricks in the rigid sloping sand. Are they called ant foot prints? Ant prints? Do their feet have prints? You are focused with a faraway look in your eyes, like a philosopher trying to pinpoint the meaning of existence with a stare. Feedback emerges from around the dinner table. Appa agrees that they are called ant prints and pats you on the back, congratulating your discovery: “you are a scientist, man!” Amma suggests going to the library to read about ants. Archana says, “you should give them a name, since you noticed them. Maybe mix ‘foot’ with ‘ant’ and call them ‘fant’ prints! What about that, little boo?” You giggle at her comment. ‘Fant’ sounds like ‘pant’ and now you are imagining these tiny ants wearing pants—with tiny pockets! Appdiya? Isn’t that something!

Everyone laughs and you glow with growing confidence. Beyond the window lies darkness but you know that you are conquering the garden with your magnifying glass, one exploration at a time, befriending all green-blue-purple-striped-spotted grass and the yellow daisies. Amma reports on her day: “I watched Aravind crawl over each square foot of our backyard, studying every weed, seedling, pebble and burrow. He’s become the backyard expert!” Archana asks if you will teach her all the things you know about the garden. “Sure,” you offer, happy to share the revelations you have experienced about pollen and leaf pores and baby ants and all.

As always, day ends in night, you end in bed, under the covers, gazing up at your glow-in-the-dark stars. Amma, Appa and Archana have all tiptoed in and out of your room to whisper goodnight to you and lulled you into that limbo state between wakefulness and sleep. Your ceiling constellations grow dimmer and move farther from you as you become lost to sleep, lost to dreams, until it’s time to wake up again.

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