The Path to the Well by Susmita Srivastava

It should be the easiest thing in the world to get up and go. All he needs to do is to stop looking out of the window, push his chair back and just leave. It isn't as if she ever looks up at him. She doesn't even know he's there, half hidden behind the faded blue curtains which frame the world for him so much of the time. She will keep on sitting on the smooth stone ledge of that well even if he does get up and go. Nothing will change.

The path to the well is grassy, and lined with secret, dark green orange jasmine, in flower now because it is July. There is so much of it that the heady sweet smell floats up to him even though he is far from it. Or is he imagining it? The starry white flowers hidden amongst the waxy, well-shaped leaves are so small, he must be imagining it. But the wind is blowing from them towards his window, so maybe the smell is real. It is never easy to tell the real from the unreal, that's the way things are. Who knows for sure, who can say with absolute certitude, that his brown hand held against the lamp, glowing translucently orange, is actually there? Looked at from a certain angle, it doesn't feel linked to him at all. He slowly curves his fingers inwards and outwards, turning his hand into a menacing five-petalled flower readying for a kill, and it looks even more independent. Maybe he is dreaming it, this hand. Maybe someone else is dreaming him. Maybe it's all a joke, a cartoon strip, a really corny cartoon strip. That would explain a lot.

He looks at the girl again. She, completely unconscious of the watcher, absent-mindedly settles the hem of the white cotton skirt which blows about her knees in the sudden gust and concentrates on the page in her hand, smiling slightly.


Stupid girl, absorbed in that letter! Doesn’t she realise how risky sitting on that ledge is? Anyway, why should it matter to him? She is just a stupid girl in a white skirt reading a letter.


He lights a cigarette and stares at her. How beautiful she has grown, the way her hair curls damply behind her ear, the way the curve of her cheek is like a ripe fruit, delicately etched and blooming with a fine down. A golden fruit, juicy, spilling. He can’t see her in such fine detail from up here, but he knows. Not a mango, something more exotic. A slice of peach, perhaps. A thick slice of peach, completely flat on the side where a very sharp knife has sliced cleanly through the fruit, dripping on the palm, and on the other, smooth and gently rounded, velvety and thin-skinned. Not the least like him or anything his, something completely external to him, laden with its own secret scent, heavy with it.


She hadn’t always been like this. When they’d played cricket in her garden, what, three years ago? Three years, was that all? Sometimes it seemed too short a span for so much to have changed. She’d been just a girl then, not remotely fruit-like. Her hair had always curled behind her ears, though, even then, but he’d never felt the desire to put his hand on the nape of her neck and squeeze the essence of it out in a fine black stream over his taut fingers. God, he couldn’t even begin to imagine how that would feel. Dizzying. She would have to raise her eyes to his, then, and he’d look at the rim, the very rim of the brown pupils, which no one had ever looked at before because it probably had never occurred to anyone. The best way of seeing someone so as to take something away is to look closely at a part of them never seen by anyone before, of course. That’s yours then, isn’t it? That part of them? A bit of reality that is yours alone.


But he can never bring himself to accost her these days. The easy familiarity of childhood has vanished without trace, because he can no longer look directly at her face, he has to slink past her with a mumbled greeting, like a furtive fox or a hyena. He doesn't know why he does that. He just knows that walking by her creates such a noise in his mind that he cannot hear himself think. Sometimes he wonders what she thinks about it all, the way they stopped playing cricket together and the way he slowly stopped looking at her. She must have thought something about it. The idea of her thinking about his changed behaviour creates a moment of gentleness in him, as if he has discovered a bond between them. Maybe she misses him? Probably not, because of that bastard whose letter she is reading now. Not that he can see whose letter it is. He can't even make out that it is a letter. Who even writes letters now, except the prissy bastard. But from the way she's smiling, and something about the swell of her, like a rising tide, the way her hair seems to lift softly as if against the force of gravity, the way her hands position themselves with fluid grace, he knows it is a letter from him. God damn him. He stubs his cigarette violently, crushing it, flattening the tip.

From his vantage point he can see right down the street. And turning the corner is the prissy bastard. Again! Should he light another cigarette and watch him come down the street and then up the path to the well? No! He has watched this scene through so many times. This time he will not! He can get up and go, can't he? He can get up and walk out of the room and make himself a cup of coffee. He can take his motorcycle and go watch a movie, picking up a friend on the way. He can even go to the panwallah's and organise a joint. Life has options. There are options. He realises he has been holding the edge of the window-sill so hard that his fingertips are hurting. He lets go and flexes his fingers. Enough of this! He gets up with a sudden movement that knocks his chair over behind him, but he does not stay because there is a sudden sense of urgency in him. He flies down the stairs, intending to turn right and walk away, away from the direction from which the prissy bastard is approaching, away towards the panwallah's perhaps, or further to Gopal's, go to the lake maybe. That would be a good idea, grass at the edge of the lake and the smooth acridness of the joint, and the feeling of soft haziness settling into the mind. But his legs don't obey him and he finds himself turning down the garden path that leads to the well, right down to where the peach-girl is sitting. He doesn't want to, but his mind goes numb with noise and he has to, and now he is running down to her and she turns around to look at him with a half-smile that dies the instance she sees who it is. God, he hates that dying smile, that curl on the nape, the fine stream of blackness that will never run down his taut fingers, or will it, will it? He lifts up his hands in a posture that looks for the briefest second ridiculously like benediction, and pushes.


For a frozen moment he watches as she seems to him to slowly tip over backwards, an expression of utter terror in the brown eyes that are, after all, for a nanosecond completely his, the mouth a screaming O, and then he turns and runs blindly back up the scented dark-green jasmine path, the anguish and the frightening raw attractiveness of his private moment twining like twin snakes inside him, making his heart hammer like a vicious engine within his chest and his mind explode into colour and a heat haze, red and orange. He can't bear it, he can't, he can't, he must get away from the path to the well, but even as he thinks this, the realisation dawns upon him with a sudden burst of vivid clarity that that is no longer an option. And as he knows it will, the path again takes him running breathlessly down to where the peach-girl is sitting, and she looks at him with the half-smile that dies and he lifts his hand in a ridiculous gesture of benediction and pushes, caught in the loop that he has created for himself, from which he can never escape, his own hell where she is always his and never his.



Susmita Srivastava now lives in Jaipur with her husband and three daughters, but was born and brought up in Allahabad. In addition to fiction, which has appeared previously in Out of Print, she writes poetry, some of which has appeared in Muse India.