Swesha showed up without warning to my short story class. She came straight from school, still in her uniform, and wrote feverishly and without glancing up as I lectured on creating empathy to a near empty classroom. Hardly anyone came, so there seemed no point in telling her it was supposed to be a class for adults. At the end, she handed me a finished story and lingered, shuffling her feet, keen for me to read it. I skimmed it short-temperedly, tired, having been woken before dawn by the dog, who I’d recently realised was dying, who needed to be carried into the yard to relieve himself. The story was about a peacock farm that caught fire so the farmer was forced to save the birds by opening the barn doors and setting them free. It was a good story until the end, when the farmer described the beautiful sight of dozens of peacocks, each a different colour, lined up along the telephone wires.
“You failed to prepare the reader for such an unlikely ending,” I told Swesha. “Peacocks are blue. They don’t come in all different colours.”
“I saw a pink one. In Lumbini Park,” she countered, twisting her fingers together.
I’d seen that peacock too, some years before. Ugly and flesh coloured with a tail like a ballgown. My dog, then unencumbered by the tics and twitches of distemper, had delighted in chasing it around the pristine lawns of Lord Buddha’s birthplace in a flurry of feathers and grotesque screams. Blood flecked his white face and his black body was quilted with rosy down. I’d picked up one of the torn-out tail feathers to take home until I realised I would have to carry it on the bus, and threw it away.
“Truth is no excuse for fiction,” I recited. “And don’t describe things as beautiful. It’s not interesting,” I added, folding the story and handing it back to her.
“I’ll re-write it when I get home. When can I show it to you?” she asked, “I know your house.” Her mama had delivered a chicken to us for Tihar. The curse of a small village.
I imagined arriving home, shoving the front door against the body of the dog who would either be pulsating weakly or cold and unmoving. I’d still be cradling him on the floor, deciding what to do with him, when Swesha would bang on the door.
My imagination was ugly as usual and my mind tripped through these thoughts; the dog biting Swesha, Swesha’s blood flecking his white face, Swesha choking and stumbling with distemper, crumpling her freshly-written story. A spectrum of peacocks burning away beautifully in a barn. Her soft-spoken mama, unaware, slaughtering chickens at home.
I startled as Swesha tried to push a twenty rupee note into my hand.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Oh, no. Only the men have to pay,” I said, and handed it back. “What did you think of the Lumbini peacock?”
“It was weird,” she wrinkled her nose and added, “Lousey hasn’t come around for ages.”
“Does he come around?”
“He likes to chase our chickens.”
“It’s ok. He doesn’t catch them. And if he does, I tell mama it’s a dog from the street.”
She’d stopped shuffling and twisted her fingers.
“You can bring your story round later,” I said, realizing I had left the dog for over an hour. “I need to lock up now.”
I wondered whether he had particularly relished in scaring the pink peacock half to death or whether he was just as happy ripping apart ordinary chickens. I watched Swesha break into a jog on the dust track, one hand hoisting her satchel over her shoulder, beneath telephone wires that swayed with rows of peacocks with black bodies and white faces.