Parvati’s eyes, unlike my own, are wide like saucers, taking in everything and nothing at once, bearing a striking similarity to the eyes of the western girls visiting from abroad, the ones that often bring their husbands around our block, looking for fresh fruit, vegetables, or authentic Thai souvenirs. From time to time I notice tiny scars, no thicker than the edge of a fingernail, stretching across her eyelids, especially when she blushes. Though her eyes are reminiscent of ‘back home’, her almond-brown body and ink-black hair possess the air of exoticism that, paired with ample breasts that have always seemed excessive for her still-girlish body of fourteen years, consistently proves irresistible to the foreign men who venture out into the night, looking to pay for pleasure and eager to see whether or not Thai girls live up to their reputation.
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My sister’s beauty has always been our mother’s chief concern and the family's source of income; it is not out of the ordinary for the two of them to spend entire afternoons readying my sister for a night’s work, while I earn enough money for dinner by polishing shoes and running small errands for the grocer. With no father to contribute to the family income, all of us must do our part to make rent, an exorbitant sum given the quality of our ramshack hut – four concrete walls separated into three rooms by wooden planks stacked end to end and nailed together.
Mother had been in the business of sex herself for years and years, until varicose veins and hairy moles rendered her unappealing to visiting American men. She dictates prices to my sister while I make a game of swatting at the flies. One night, five dollars American, with condom. One night, seven dollars American, no condom. Most choose the latter, the authenticity of gruff sexual encounters with young foreign girls willing to please trumping respect for the gamut of health concerns accompanying unprotected sex. Sometimes I fall asleep listening to my sister moaning in the back of our hut, the only room in the place furnished with a boxspring bed. The rusty coiled metal makes a haunting lullaby as mother sits calmly, legs crossed and content, waiting for the man to leave.
Months and months ago, Parvati, tears crawling zig-zag like ticks down her cheeks, shows mother her belly, who pokes and prods with nimble fingers, soft as gravel. My sister Parvati is pregnant.
“S’okay, these things happen,” mother tells her, rubbing her fuzzy chin. “Come come,” she pulls me by the hand from my spot in the corner. “Come help your sister.”
Helping my sister involves pinned her arms and legs down by wrists and ankles while mother stands on her belly, hoping to kill the baby growing inside. Then she kicks. Then stomps. Parvati groans, struggles, then goes limp when it is over. Mother wipes the sweat from her brow onto her black gown and turns to me. “Now go ask the grocer if you can run errands for him today. Go go, we have to eat, you know.”
Parvati continued making money for weeks until one day, when mother was out, she began to feel the contents of her stomach churning.
“Brother,” she cries out and at once I am at her side. “It’s coming!”
Though I am only seven at the time, I assist in my nephew’s birth, easing him out of my sister's convulsing body as she bites down upon the dirty rag that she has instructed me to wrap around her face to muffle her cries. We are fortunate that mother has business elsewhere for the day; her hands are less patient in matters such as these. Hours pass quickly, as in a dream, and Parvati's long and stylized fingernails reduce the skin on my forearms to a pink, twisted rubber. Then it happens. First a head, the size of a fist, then a neck, four limp appendages and the umbilical cord, which must be cut with a stone. The mess spills into my hands. Relief firecrackers inside as it takes its first weak, but still wonderfully hope-instilling breath.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” she gasps, spitting out a mouthful of cloth.
I use my thumbs to spread its tiny legs. “A boy,” I say, smiling. “A beautiful baby boy.”
She’s laughing now, softly with whatever breath is left in her body, and I pass her newborn son into her arms. She brings him tightly into the sweaty crevice between her swollen breasts, cooing, “baby-ji, baby-ji,” into his little ears.
She instructs me to make ready the washing chest, jammed full of tattered cotton, and I do so, digging a small cloth hole with my hands for the baby. Too exhausted to stand, she hands him to me, and I in turn transfer him to the chest just as the footsteps of our mother are heard stomping into the hut. I gently shut the washing chest’s lid, leaving a small space for air to get through. The baby, evidently sensing the impending danger, remains quiet.
“New dress,” mother says, bursting through the door with a lime green length of linen draped over her arm. “Still sick? Has it come?” She notices the sticky dampness of the expelled placenta on the bed sheets and mistakes it for the aborted baby. The heavy lines of her face crease like cured leather, dried lips forming into a smile as she nonchalantly pulls the sheets off of the bed in one strong motion, nearly pulling my sister off with them, and bundles them together. “Good good, back to supporting your family soon,” mother exclaims, tossing the soiled-sheet bundle absently into the washing-chest, not bothering to look down. “Ramdeep,” she turns to me, “run to the grocers and buy some bread and chutney for your sister. She’ll need energy these next few days. After that, busy busy.”
Wrinkled red paper is stuffed into my hand and I leave hesitantly, glancing back at my sister, who despite it all is smiling, thin lips stretching from western eye to western eye. When I return mother is gone out on business and Parvati is holding her child and rocking it back and forth, its bald brown head tucked under her chin and smile-dimpled cheeks. She wears the same expression as before, one of contentment hope.
“When I hold him in my hands, brother, nothing matters, nothing at all.”
The words carry the weight of a thousand paper cuts, floating first to my ears then making its way to slice the lining of my stomach, but I return her smile and gently touch her thigh, noting, but afraid to tell her, that her child hasn’t moved since I entered the room.
"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen... there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."
From his Last Will & Testament, Marquis de Sade