1975. Clouds hung low and brooding over a village with a church spire in the centre, huddled on a plain under the weight of a colossal night sky. Snow lay thick on the roofs of the houses. The ground was barren and ashen and frozen into an element as hard as iron. No one wandered the plain. For the plain plodded far, far beyond the edges of the fields, and stretched on into nothingness, frosted over by time and ice. And so, the people looked to the spire for comfort, for there was no one else to converse with but the charcoal sky that hovered over them all. No figure to appeal to but the giant, leafless trees that rose so thin and tall into the gloom that the people shivered in horror to think what lonely wraiths must wail and whip through the broken twigs on the top-most arboreal extremities. Better to be small and fearful and wait, for a long winter lay behind and a longer winter lay coiled ahead.
In some houses large-aproned women baked bread and stirred pots of soup. In others sat gruff woodcutters smoking their pipes at the fire. And some of the dwellings were threadbare and worn. In one of these, on the upper floor of an aged cottage, sat a man fondly remembering a breakfast. He sat on a low wooden chair, old and wiry, in a checked brown coat. He leaned forward as he spoke, to emphasise his words.
“In my youth,” said the man, “I could eat like a horse. I remember a breakfast I had.”
“You remember a breakfast, do you?” said his wife, “Try remembering my birthday.”
“But I want to remember this breakfast,” he said, “I couldn’t forget it even if I wanted to. The way I ate that day—”
“For God’s sake,” said his wife, “40 years of your eternal stories.”
“But you don’t know the story about this breakfast,” he said. “It’s something I ought to have told you a long time ago. At this breakfast, the sun hadn’t even risen yet, and the table was groaning with food. Now—tell me—where do you think all that food came from?”
“I don’t want to think,” she said.
“Do you want to hear about the breakfast or not?” he interrupted.
“No, you fool, I don’t,” she said.
“Well, listen, there were hot rolls, fresh from the oven, a large ham, honey to pour over the porridge, and the porridge mixed with full cream. There was a bowl of apples, a quarter of a wheel of goat’s cheese, also cream cheese in a small pot, and all that to be washed down with steaming black coffee. And the sound of the sausage skins crackling and popping near the fire. It was cold that morning, and —”
“I’m cold now,” she said, tugging her shawl tighter about her hunched shoulders. She sat under a bare bulb, peeling potatoes, at a rough, wooden table. A scarf held down tight, white curls on her head. It was a small, poor affair, their dwelling—two rooms separated by a tattered curtain, flaking grey walls, and a counter that served as a kitchen. The lower floor of the house was empty, too decrepit and cold to be of any use.
There was a single ornament in the room. It was a silvery disc, hanging at the window, its middle cut into the shape of a faceless angel. Hair flowing, trumpet in hand, she balanced, paper-thin, in the middle of the circlet of silver.
“Do you think, Kurt, that some people feel cold all their lives, always and always?”
“Are you trying to tell me that you have always been cold, never warm for a second?” he said.
She shook her head in a mild fashion. “No, of course not, I —”
“Then why are you talking about it?” he said.
“I’m not talking about me,” she said, her fingers shaking, coring out the eyes of a knurled potato. “I am asking you whether you think there are people who have felt cold all their lives. Sometimes on a cold night, like tonight, I feel I cannot remember what it was like to have been warm, ever.”
“Listen to my story,” he said, “and you’ll feel warm. It is amazing and shocking and rather beautiful, don’t you think, that after 40 years I still have something new to tell you, about me?”
In reply, she merely raised her head to look out of the window at the night. The snowflakes came down like bolts of thick, silent ermine. It was very late. The small houses, black cubes in the night, ran the length of the narrow street. A single street light was on, but there was not a soul down there to profit from its dim glow. The street itself, a sugar ribbon of white. Now the snow was like the breathing of a baby, now like a rustle of fabric on the stairs, or a murmuring mouth against the window pane. It made the stairs creak, and the naked trees too.
It was not possible to ignore the strange, audible silence of the snow, for it lived, it had a beating heart in its crumbly depths.
“No, no,” she said aloud, her thoughts moving into speech, “I don’t want to say that it sounds like a heartbeat. That is too human. Too animal.”
“Yes,” he replied, his gaze, too, resting on the window, “It is simply ice descending from the sky.”
“No,” she said, afraid. “Don’t say that, it is too frightening. Not ice, not ice. Snow.”
“Alright then, snow,” he said, looking at her with compassion. “It’s a soft word alright. Though ice is a truer word. And I’ll tell you another thing that’s true—the breakfast that was just waiting to be eaten. You know very well that it was not a time of plenty. So where do you think all that food came from? I’ll tell you, and it will knock you off your seat.”
“The trouble with you, Kurt, is that you always want to advertise your story before you tell it. Why not just tell it and save everyone’s time?”
“I’m getting there, aren’t I, but you won’t let me. You won’t let me speak. Why won’t you let me speak, Gisela?” His eyes turned wet, and he rubbed the tears away with the knuckles of his thumbs.
“Don’t cry, Kurt,” she said, troubled, looking at him. “Look, look, I’m just going to put these potatoes on to boil, and then we can eat, alright?” Her knee made a popping sound as she hauled herself up. Kurt watched her, moist-eyed, as she picked up the potato pot and hobbled the few steps to the stove and sink.
A thin draft forced itself steadily through the rotting edges of the window frame. It made the silver angel’s disc move this way and that. The disc caught the glow of the street light and reflected a small shimmer of silver on to the walls. The shimmer darted over the walls whenever the angel turned, its blank face surveying the room. Like a silvery sprite the light flitted about, now resting in a corner, now moving to explore a musty shelf. Kurt followed it with his eyes. He was dry-eyed now; he always felt a kind of fortitude enter his heart once he had wrung it dry of a few tears. A leafy optimism took hold of him and he said, “How long for the potatoes, Gisela?”
She didn’t reply, just muttered something into her pot. The blankness of her back pressed him further back into his chair. He prepared to wait. There was nothing else to do, really.
It began to snow harder, and because it was so quiet in the room, they could hear the snow’s cunning pretence at silence. It made sounds like soft baby steps, like a rabbit breathing, like a feather pillow being pummelled, like mittens clapping. But only if you listened carefully.
The old woman must have been listening very carefully because suddenly she turned towards the door with big eyes. Her hands were frozen before her, potato in one hand, a potato peeler in the other. Her wrinkled cheeks sagged, her mouth had fallen open. Her neck craned forward as if she were pushing her head through the solid wood to look beyond the door.
“Did you hear that, Kurt? There is someone on the stairs. I heard a creaking.”
“It is the snow, Gisela. The snow is cunning. It makes the wood creak.”
“Go and see,” she commanded, “There is someone on the stairs. A wail! A wail! I heard a child wailing just now! I am sure of it! Open the door!”
He did not budge. “There is no one there,” he said, looking steadily at his wife. “No one.”
When she did not move, he said in a harsh tone, “Boil the potatoes, woman.”
But still her eyes were frozen in the direction of the door. The door was made of old wood, thick and sturdy, unnaturally tall, with ancient iron nails hammered into it. But there was a large cold slit at the bottom where the wood failed to meet the floor. She looked intently at this dark slit and narrowed her eyes. “There is someone out there,” she repeated. “It is a child. Open the door before it knocks. Don’t let it knock! Bring it in.”
“Boil the potatoes,” he said, looking hard at her.
“No!” she shrieked, “I will not boil the potatoes! Open the door, Kurt! See who it is outside! It might be her! I know it is her!”
The silence settled on them when she stopped her shouting. Again, that small sigh from behind the door. Something small seemed to lean against the wood, because there was a soft bump and a creak about a foot from the floor. The dark slit under the door looked back at them.
“Open the door, Kurt,” said the woman, a tremulous smile appearing on her lips. It looked ghastly to him. He did not move.
“No,” he said.
“But it’s her,” she said, staring at him, still with that ghastly smile on her face.
“If you think it is her,” he said, “open the door yourself.”
She blinked, as if she couldn’t quite believe what he had said. She gazed in horror at the iron-nailed door. She made no move towards it. Then slowly she turned her face to the wall and began peeling potatoes again, dropping them into a pot of water one by one.
They ate their potatoes at the table and slept, making a large, soft mound on the low bed in the adjoining room. As he lay there, Kurt thought of the spinning silver angel in the kitchen. Then it stopped snowing. He knew this because suddenly there was a deep quiet. It must have created a ripple in the old woman’s dreams, for she began moaning. She rolled and muttered in her sleep. He took a deep breath and looked at her, waiting. And she cried out, “Kurt, Kurt, why did we give our child away? Bring her back to me, Kurt.”
He heaved himself out of bed and went to stand at the window, looking at the scene outside, shadowy roofs and windows covered in snow. The street light had been extinguished.
“It’s done now,” he said. “It was a long time ago, Gisela.” He hoped that the words would reach her through the mumbling of her half-sleep.
She sat up in bed, her eyes wild and wide. “I can’t remember why we did it! But it was me, I was her mother, it was my decision in the end.”
“No,” he said, “it was our decision.”
“But why did we do it? Was it because I did not have enough milk? But I could have given her a bottle, a bottle, what was so hard about giving her a bottle?” she wailed.
“It wasn’t that,” he said. “She was already too old for a bottle.”
“When exactly was it that we gave her away?” said the old woman, “I can’t remember. Oh, I can’t remember.” She began to cry with cracked sobs, wiping her tears away with the heel of her hand like a child, looking up at him for an answer. He looked back at her, about to cry himself.
“Go and look for her, Kurt,” she said, sobbing.
“Alright. I will go and look for her. But mind, don’t cry if I don’t find her.”
He went into the dark kitchen and began pulling on his boots and coat. He walked down the creaking old stairs and went out into the black night. The chill enveloped him instantly, numbing the skin on his face. He pushed his hands deep into his pockets and began walking through the night, as he had done often before, his breath misting in front of his face. There was no other way to placate her on nights like this one. It was quiet. He hoped it wouldn’t start snowing again. With every step he sank ankle-deep into the soft snow with a muted crunch. The snowfall had smothered all other footprints. Now the wind began a low wailing. It seemed to come from the thicket of tall, bare trees across a snowy field behind the houses, as if the wind had rested there awhile, among the tree trunks, and was now readying to roam the plain once more. He gazed at the dark mass of the thicket and at the expanse of snow, and he hesitated. A stray snowflake brushed past his cheek, and another swirled into his eye, making him blink it away. He took a deep breath and began walking rapidly across the field towards the trees. They loomed ever larger as he approached, black trunks widening and rising high into the depths of the night sky. He expected to see dark shapes flitting amongst the trees, for the snow was cunning and so were the shadows. But though he peered hard into the gloom, everything was still, and the sole sound was the low hum of the wind that emanated from the trees. The wind hummed higher and higher as he approached the trees, till he was in their midst and squinted up at the sky, quaking with cold, for the wind now whipped wildly around him. It wailed and moaned, making layers of snow slip off the swaying branches and descend in hard chunks, barely missing his shoulders. And then, his eyes wet, he began walking home. He tried not to look at the small, childish footsteps in the snow that had accompanied his own into the thicket. When he reached the cottage, he turned to look at his footprints, and saw that he had returned alone.
He sat down quietly on the hard wooden chair in the kitchen, his coat and boots still on. He didn’t want to wake his wife. But she called out to him.
“Did you find her? Did you find her, Kurt?”
“No, Gisela,” he said, wiping his eyes. “No, I did not.”
Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s novel, The Secret Of More, set in colonial Bombay, won the 2023 Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award—Fiction, and was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature