The Rusty Toque | Fiction | Issue 2 | February 27, 2012
If I hadn’t drawn a tiger at the end of the school year, the summer would have been more peaceful. The tiger I’d drawn was very good, and for my parents it wasn’t enough to hang it up in the playroom with the other paintings and crafts. It wasn’t a playroom, really. It was the cold storage room in the basement, where my mother lodged ten-kilo rice sacks and whole-wheat flour and other staples from the Indian grocery store. Even after some of the stockpile was hauled up to the kitchen cupboards, only part of the room was set aside for play. Between the lines of canned tomatoes and chickpeas and lima beans, I squeezed origami boats and jars full of marbles and a bunch of old clothes for theatre nights. My wigs took on the faint scent of mustard seeds. On a lonely afternoon, I’d snap a bag of lentils into a faded pink onesie and soothe it to sleep, shifting the pulses back and forth in my lap.
For the tiger, I’d used vegetable oil and turmeric as a base (my mother had snatched the saffron off my desk, it was too precious). I shaded in the stripes with ground cloves and pasted coriander stalks in the backdrop, for jungle ferns. The project smelled like an uncooked soup, and I suspected I’d be asked to chuck it within the month, but it earned me a 9/10 in visual arts, my older sister’s envy, and a final unforeseen return: two weeks at summer arts camp.
My mother was clearing a featured spot on the fridge when my father presented me with the treat, a phony camp coupon he’d printed up on the new bubble-jet at work. “You’re going places!” it read. I couldn’t tell them how I hated their sacrifice, or that I would have much rather spent the summer like all the ones before, deep in the store room, crafting ransom note collages out of magazine scraps, or hiding fresh poems in a shoebox behind the broken down pressure cooker. I’d taped the box shut and cut a thin slit on the lid, so poems could go in but not out, and I imagined the collection would be discovered after my death.
The camp was a short sentence, which also meant that there was no time for me to slowly flower, or for people to change their minds about what I might be. Whatever impression I made climbing off the bus in my hand-me-down Bermuda shorts and banana clip, my patchy brown skin and buck teeth, that’s what stuck for good.
Over the school year, there were months to nurture solidarities. My partners were unpopular too and had ripe imaginations. At recess, we occupied the wide ditch at the edge of school yard. Once we devoted a full week to staging Fruit of the Loom commercials. Cecily as the grapes and Nadine as the apple and myself as the pear, and each time Saleena ambled over with a fake laundry basket in hand, we’d jump out of the trench with a new jingle. On clear days, we played hot air balloons, fanning an imagined burner, dropping the sandbags and drifting very far away over the hills.
At the camp, my group was Cézanne, which I learned when the counsellor, Amanda, mispronounced my name from behind a checklist and waved me into the cluster of kids beside her. Amanda had long blond hair, which she wore half up. She’d cut off the sleeves of her uniform and a small fanged tattoo peeked over her shoulder. I hoped that she’d like me the way my teachers did, because I was more than meets the eye.
We sank onto the lawn by a thin maple tree. Sprawled out next to Amanda was Sarah, who had red hair and freckles and a nose that pointed up, who wore jean shorts and a baby Tee that slid up her tanned belly, and who glanced across the circle and with a low hiss dubbed me “miss ugly face, the peanut butter face” before I’d even flattened the weeds in my spot.
We knotted in close for an icebreaker. The rule was to choose a word to describe yourself so the others would have something to call on, even if they forgot your name. First came Sarah, Sassy Sarah, lounging on her stomach in the grass, her bare feet kicking up at the sky. Next to her was Jazzy Jessica, with a single dimple and blue-white skin. Then Amazing Alex, Crazy Clement and Perfect Patricia. Incredible Ian, Radical Ryan, Happy Heather. I quickly learned them all by heart. I might have taken the cue and called myself Majestic, or Marvellous or Magnificent, but as I knelt there in the half shade, the words for me kept rolling down: medium moody mousy moaning mental.
“Missing,” I croaked, pulling up a patch of grass behind me. “Malini.”
There was only one girl left after me. She stumbled through the list of names, paused at mine and then squashed it with a sigh: “Melanie.”
I rocked back on my heels and let go of the sweaty turf. She was Joyful Joy.
We were herded out of the morning light and into the drama room, a musty space with high, narrow windows and a small curtained riser at the far end. Our first activity was to choose a partner and come up with a short skit. It could be anything we wanted, Amanda said. “The only rule is that there are no rules.” I stared across the empty hall. Two sets of hanging white masks glowed at the edges of the stage, laughing and weeping, angry and scared.
I sized up Joyful Joy and settled on an alliance. Not because she looked at me kindly, but because there was something about her that I hated as much as I imagined people hated me. I was quiet and nervous and the only Indian kid at the camp, and I pursed my lips a lot to hide my crooked teeth. But Joy was worse than I was. She had a stark, unfriendly face and oily hair that clung to her scalp and frizzed out at her ears. She wore an oversized purple flowered shirt, tucked into what looked like boys’ overalls. I didn’t want to be her partner, but I was certain she couldn’t do any better than me.
When I asked her, she shrugged, and I chose a corner for us to rehearse.
Joy parked herself down while I did a tight orbit, surveying her bulky form. We couldn’t do a fairy tale excerpt. Neither of us would pass as a princess. Escape from an orphanage? We could be scrappy, down on our luck kids who’d had enough of the gruel and dingy cots and scrubbing wooden floors. No, Joy mumbled, that sounded stupid. I tightened my lips around my teeth. The others were practicing their scenes. We could try for melodrama, where a young girl mourns the loss of a blind old cat.
Joy stared off at the double doors, her face like a lump of clay. Sarah and Jessica and Ian and Ryan had merged their troupes. They leapt around with fake microphones at their chins, belting out “Grease Lightning.” There were the Fruit of the Loom commercials that I could resurrect from the ditch. These were easy to do, but I didn’t trust Joy with a tune.
Amanda was starting to circle. “Two minutes everyone!”
I spun around to face Joy. We would be kids who discover a unicorn in the dungeon and help to set it free. “I’ll spot it first,” I said, steering her toward the rest of the group. “Just do what I do.”
When our team was called up, I led the way onto the scaffold, suddenly excited. I went to the wing for our entrance and assumed that Joy would follow, but she froze inches from the masking tape cross in the centre of the stage. I waited for her, a warm rush of pity swelling in my gut. Our audience was fidgety but quiet. The hollow-eyed masks dangled overhead.
By now we should have been creeping through the dungeon, drawn by a faint, magical light. I cleared my throat once, then again, louder. When Joy turned, I stepped forward, offered a tender smile and waved her over to my side.
“Stick ‘em up,” she barked, pointing a finger at me. “Stay right there, unicorn, or I’ll shoot.”
Joy fixed me with a red-hot glare. I felt it pass over me, from my scuffed jelly shoes to my dry, ashy knees, up to the halo of baby hairs loose from my clip. The lights should have gone down on that statue by the wing, rearing like a startled beast, its jutting teeth casting a shadow over the stage.
DEEPA SHANKARAN is a Toronto based writer and editor. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, and is currently at work on a collection of short stories.