It was still dark out when she stepped off the bus, and started dragging her suitcase up the hill. She was panting even before she was half way there. She sat on a boulder and lit a cigarette. Through the haze of her smoke, she saw light spread over the mountains, turning them from black to purple to navy blue. Maybe that’s why they called them the Nilgiris- the blue mountain.
She had chanced upon Yesu in an environmental journal she was suing. It said he had dedicated his life to restoring the natural landscape of the Nilgiris. There were pictures of him armed with shovel and machete, uprooting weed from the mountain ridges with his bare hands, bent over in the scorching sun sowing the parched earth. Intensive physical labour for a month, reaping the fruit of the soil- YES, it would be retribution enough, she had decided, enough atonement till her next sin.
And so, here she was, pushing her way inside the heavy metal gates to Yesu’s cottage. He was bent over, digging out rocks from his garden with a crow bar. Through his ochre linen shirt, she could see his back muscles bunch up into tight knots every time he flexed the crow bar.
He turned around and she saw his radiant smile for the first time- the smile that was to light up her midnight blue, frozen nights and grey, misty mornings in the Nilgiris.
“You can call me Iz, Izzie,” she shrugged.
“No, Isabel is beautiful,” he asserted. They were walking up the Ammagal Valley tea plantations, which used to once be covered with- he was bursting with excitement talking about the “emerald green Shola trees, the rains would polish the leaves to a shine, off which the sun would glint, like diamonds,” like his eyes as he flashed back to his childhood, she thought.
The British had started planting tea on the Ammagal slopes instead, and soon this cash crop had taken over the Sholas completely. Yesu and Isabel were to spend the day uprooting tea shrubs and planting Shola saplings in their place in an attempt to bring back the natural forests.
“We’ll start off with something easy,” Yesu had promised her.
“Something easy…SOMETHING EASY?” Isabel growled as she hacked and hacked and hacked away at a tea shrub stump and its roots still wouldn’t give away.
For the river I will contaminate- whack.
For the fish whose lungs will be scalded by pesticide- whack!
For the children whose stomach linings will burn- Whack!!
For the people I drive to hunger and death- WHACK! WHACK!! WHACK!!!
Yesu watched her- face scrunched up, as she pounded her axe. She was giving it everything she had. Her feathery hair all over her face, her nostrils flared, teeth bared as she groaned with each hit, she looked like a majestic dragon- so powerful, so gorgeous.
“Don’t smoke,” he said, it wasn’t an order, a plea, but strong.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot about forest fires,” Isabel said, stubbing out her cigarette on the large boulder by the river she was sitting on.
“No, not because it’ll light a forest fire. Because it is bad for you,” he said, so matter-of-factly. And it was a fact, she realized, such a simple one, but one that’s easy to forget in a world where everyone only raises their Zippos to light your cigarette for you, never to douse your fire.
“So how did you get into this work?” she asked, attempting to make light conversation.
He flashed her that sunshine smile, “Once I’m done, the Niglris will be so beautiful again.”
She smirked, “That’s all?” She was irritated by his simplistic understanding of the world and wanted to show him how complicated life really was outside the forests.“How come you’re the only one who cares then?”
“Because these are my mountains,” he replied, looking out to the mountain, growing into a dark blue silhouette as the sun set.
She couldn’t help but smile. She wished she could make her life that simple too- I did it for the money, for the power, to show my father that I could. No, it wasn’t at all that simple for her.
“Why did you come here?” Yesu asked her.
He was looking at her, into her eyes. He wasn’t making small talk. He wasn’t trying to be a social animal. He really wanted to know why. So she told him.
“I did something terrible. It’ll take many lives- people, animal, plants.”
“Will restoring the Nilgiris save their lives?”
She couldn’t help but laugh. How was everything so simple to him? “No,” she shook her head and chuckled, “No one can save those lives anymore.”
“I don’t understand. So why are you here?”
Isabel no longer knew. Maybe this wasn’t going to be atonement enough. She would never sleep again. She would never look at a mirror. Never have a baby. Never stop feeling like her chest was filled with molten iron.
They worked in silence, often on different sides of the mountain. But it was the walks through the dense jungles of the Nilgiris, where the silence was so eerie, that they spoke, in hushed tones. He would talk of his grandfather’s carpentry workshop, his wood chips his only Legos, wet sawdust his plasticine. She told him about her father, who had wanted a son, and her mother, who had died at childbirth, leaving him sonless.
She would tell tales of her life marketing the world’s leading aerated drink, devils in pinstripes, sex, lies and videotape, interrupted ever so often by him pointing to a flower, a shrub, a grass, and telling her their names and stories, “They use this to make Iodex!”, “My mother got married with this orchid in her hair,” and he would tell the story with such joy, that for those minutes, she would forget the lies she put up on billboards everyday to trick people, and she would, for a few moments, smile too. He would run to her, sometimes, panting. He would open up his fist to her, dripping red blood with the juice of the wild raspberries he was clenching.
Huddling under the same blanket in front of a tiny crackling fire to survive the -13OC degree forest nights, he would ask her what she had done that was so terrible that she smiled so less. And when she silently stared into the fire, he would put his arms around her shoulder and say, “It couldn’t have been that terrible.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’re not a terrible person at all.” And his smile would light up the black night brighter than the fire, and as long as he had his arms around her, she believed him. Maybe she wasn’t such a terrible person after all, not a terrible person at all.
Isabel was bleeding elbow downward, thoroughly scratched by the stubborn Rubus thorns she was trying to clear with her machete. He heard her hiss under her breath, looked up and asked, “Are you alright?”
“Am I alright? You’re always asking that! Is the food alright, is the climb too steep, are you cold, should I light a fire, is your ankle alright, is your back alright? Look at my arms? Does it look like I’m alright?” she lashed out. She was in pain
“Just lick the scratches,” he replied, softly.
She was still yelling, “Lick them? Look at my arms! They’re covered with sweat and grime and mud!”
Yesu held her by her elbows and jerked her into his arms. One hand tightly holding her around her waist, with his other hand he lifted her arm to his mouth and licked her first wound. It stung and she pulled away and screamed out, “Stop! You’re hurting me!” But he pulled her into himself even tighter. He licked her second gash and she yelped. Another one, she hissed, then she bit her lip. As his warm tongue slid over her open wounds, she stopped pulling away and let her body fall into his tight grasp. She was burning and tingling all over as his wet lips pressed down on her skin, over and over and over, and hot tears slid down her cheeks.
“There’s pesticide in every bottle of it, every can, enough to kill a small sapling,” Isabel whispered “And I made sure the health department passed it as healthy. Our factories will leak it out into rivers, and the fish, the frogs, the babies, the people…they’re all drinking it, Yesu. And I’m pouring it into their throats.”
That last night, they documented, under lanterns, what they had done all these days. As Yesu scribbled intently, Isabel stared at his face- unabashed, unashamed, like she had the sole right to stare at him. Yesu could feel her stare, and he continued to write furiously, afraid he would char under her fiery gaze.
His eye lashes fluttered, so long, like a screen protecting him from the world. His face so gentle, serene, like the moon.The underneath of his nails caked with earth- he was pure. She wanted to reach out and hold his hand. But she was dirty and she would pollute him. She couldn’t contaminate him, not him too.
He slowly looked up from his book, but could only manage to look at her hands resting on the maroon wood. The skin dry and peeling from the cold, thorn cragged, barbed wire- he wanted to kiss them, caress them. Like Jesus had touched Saul, he wanted to wash her wounds and clean them and heal them. Like Jesus made a miser like Zaccheus into a generous man, like he transformed Levi to St. Matthew, Saul to St. Paul, he wanted to hold her hand and take her away from her summers that lit her cigarettes, her winters that blew cocaine into her nostrils till they bled, her monsoons that drowned all the goodness inside her. He wanted to be her Spring where she blossomed a new green life.
But she was the wretched Isabel and would have to be stoned to death in public. And Jesus could try to save her all he wanted, but there was no atoning for her sins.
He slid his hands across the table towards her. She pulled away. She would only break his heart. “Break my heart. I want you to break my heart!” he wanted to scream out to her.
She got up from the table. “I should pack. I leave early tomorrow.”
“No,” he pleaded.
She turned her face away from the lantern, so he couldn’t see how it contorted. “Do you know how I got the health inspector to clear us?”
He held his breath.
“I fucked him.” She walked out of the room.
He rushed after her, “You can’t say all this and just leave.” He held her back by her arm.
She freed her arm from his grip, looked right into his eyes, and said, “Watch me.”
And so he watched- the next morning from atop the Nilgiris, as her bus grew smaller and smaller and ultimately disappeared into the blue mountains.