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FICTION


Axolotl

By Atreyee Gupta in Issue Four, May 2022

At the Table

I eat silence. It tastes lonely and bitter alongside ma’s watery yam casserole as it serrates speech from my tongue. In thirty years I haven’t learned how to digest this aching abyss. I turtle into my eight-year-old self, wondering: what aren’t ma and baba saying? Is the silence punishment for my inadequacy? No matter how I iterate myself, the recipe fails. Untethering from home, I’ve discarded my native language, abandoned the gods, adopted cutlery. Yet the minute I cross their threshold, artifice, concealment, and placation cloak my intentions.

“We called last week. You didn’t answer.”

“I was busy, baba.”

“Even to return a call? To let us know you’re safe?” He turns to ma. “Is this the modern girl?”

“Don’t blame me. I wanted her securely settled. You insisted on graduate school, internship, certification.”

I swallow down their disappointments. I don’t reveal that I lost my job last month—How did this happen, Paloma? Did you not work hard enough? And I don’t tell them I’m traveling to Venice tomorrow—On your own? What’s this costing? Nothing there you can’t see here. Instead, I flavor my limp green beans with the same-same prayer: gods, cook me another family.


On the Street

Rain swamps my mouth. Venice smells of salted wood, Buildings leaning inward to avoid drowning. I quiz pontes and pester lanes in search of gondolas as a peddler peels from a lamppost, basket fermented in flowers.

“Da che parte per le gondole?” I ask, and the hawker spits, “stronzo turista!” But I’m no threat, I imagine shouting back. I too am a body outcast. The words flap uselessly in my throat, never taking flight.

Instead, as I slink into the fog, a clamminess fattens upon my arm. I knead it until it loosens underneath my coat sleeve, puddling at my feet, a gelatinous limb jiggling like a suffocating eel. I recognize the knobby protuberance at its bend as the whorls of my elbow, the meshing phosphorescent threads as the splay of my brachial veins. I back away, let the appendage lie there, softly sulking. But when I leave the alley, I can feel it shadowing me, slithering in my wake. I hurry towards an algal aroma promising water’s edge and end at a decaying pier where gondolas wobble like tired ducks. The fading sun winks from a thousand glazed panes, igniting the city. At my ankle the phantom arm heaves in exhaustion. I wish I had a stick to prod it into the canal. Instead, I withdraw my feet and choose to ignore the l-shaped lump.


Between the Houses

My gondolier is taciturn, back as rigid as the pole he spoons into the inked canal. The channel narrows past entrances masticated by damp. Above the boggy deserted ground floors I hear the warm clink of dishes, crooning conversation. I reach out, like the forgotten plastic-jacketed furniture, longing for companionship. I cannot anchor into this slipping urbanity.

Baroque chandeliers and crimson drapery garnish the palazzo, and a woman steps out in carnival mask and bouffant gown, collar gleaming like a bitten apple as she laughs. My lungs cramp with envy. I devour every detail of the jeweled lady against her glittering backdrop as the distance between us expands into an unbridgeable gulf and I lose the view. Wet slaps my heel and I find the duplicate arm flopping inside the skiff. It’s grown a hand and shoulder.

I gasp, turning to the oarsman, who only looks ahead as our boat snakes into another duct.

A second gondola ghosts out of the darkness cradling a couple. I stare at the man’s pleated shirt front saddling the night of his tuxedo, and he smiles, salutes with his champagne flute, startling me.

Is it a gesture of mockery? Is it meant for me? Does he…? No, I can’t believe such a fantasy about myself. Still, I preen, sucking on the memory like a candied lemon, sweetening the smile, zesting the twinkle in his eye, until I notice my spectral appendage has ballooned a torso beside me. It wriggles onto the seat, spinelessly quivering while two legs and feet bulge into being. I gulp in frustration, horrified by its tumescence.

I eye the reeds where refugees once hid, before the wealth of silk and spice leeched the marshes. How many bones mattress this metropolis and what would happen to me if I shoved my doughy double into that mix? Would I vanish too? Would my life rust into salvage? Would I merge into the ocean, kinless?

My twin mushrooms into its other arm, clasps my shoulder with its gummy digits. I wince. I cannot allow it to birth a face.


Under the Weight

I stumble-run towards my lodging, body-double skinning the pavement beside me. In my jungled state, I can’t remember if I paid the gondolier. I wrench from the duplicate at my side, but its grip only lowers, hooking into my arm crook, then palming my hand. I shudder, energy ebbing. Against the obscure passages of Venice, my shoes tattoo a dirge until I pause, panting.

Voices bruise out of an alcove. A couple whose faces I cannot see.

“Tell me something truthful,” a woman’s rasp demands.

“Okay,” a man answers meekly. “You were great in bed.”

“Tell me a truth I don’t know.”

“You’re my other half?”

“You’re such a liar. The entire time we were together you lied, and you’re lying now.”

“No, really, you and I belong together. I miss you.”

“What about—? Do you miss her?”

I stop breathing to hear the answer, but only the canal carrying absence on its back replies. I unkink my muscles from the viscous facsimile. Do you miss her. Do you miss her. I long to be like the smudged and swiftly flowing water below, belonging to no one, not even itself—Unwanted.

The second Paloma vibrates through me, gorging on my thoughts, and I slurp the moist air between my teeth. I know what will happen. This desire will leech into my marrow, poisoning me cell by single cell until all that’s left of me is stained flesh.

I know what I must do.

I lock the door to my hotel room, fill a glass with tap water, and lie on the white bed. I pretend the mannequin—me is a lover as I nibble on the wax-melted thumbs caked around my wrists, working up the jellied forearms, the pressed curd elbow, the mushy biceps, until I’m biting morsels so large they skid painfully down my esophagus. I gag but persist to the shoulder. If I stop now, I won’t be able to finish. My stomach gurgles and twists with the weight of fears, bile swelling, replicating upwards. I coil over my gnawed corpse, moaning. To acknowledge all my insecurities at once is excruciating.

I lurch to the bathroom and retch over and over again until only air expels from my gut. The vinegary strands orbit in their bleach pond as I flush repeatedly, hoping the bobbing bits of angst will depart. On the tousled sheets the leftover body trembles, congealing around its shrunken self. I shift the weight on my knees, hugging the porcelain bowl, and wait for the fizzing relief of an unburdened belly.

I am what the world sees: a boundless hunger. My ribs a tunnel towards doubt. My liver a lake of apologies. My heart never good enough for the acceptance I crave.

Huddled over the hotel toilet, above its floating shreds of misery, I dream of a cleansing river to flood me. Purified, mythic waters, far from these stagnant canals to cover me in compassion so that I might regenerate.

© 2022 Atreyee Gupta


Atreyee Gupta

Atreyee Gupta’s work has appeared in numerous venues including Apparition Lit, Arc Poetry, Bacopa Literary Review, Fireside, Jaggery, and Shooter Literary Magazine. Atreyee is a Pushcart nominee and has been published in several anthologies, such as Wayfinding from Finishing Line Press. Atreyee is the creator of Bespoke Traveler (www.bespoketraveler.com), a digital alcove for curious explorers.

Fiction by Atreyee Gupta
  • Axolotl