He heard her voice before he saw her, and it cut him. Sharp with insight, tightly structured, the severe accent of a woman raised in France by British parents. He sensed her wealth in that voice, her power. Corinne Hiver. One of those few writers who can buy the villa in Tuscany, one of the writers other people want to be.
Nevertheless, he didn't like her work. Or he had the impression he wouldn't, if he had read any. He'd never opened one of her books, just seen a movie based on one, but he had the impression of cruelty, of severe cruelty to her characters. She was unafraid to destroy them -- their hopes and dreams -- she could build them up with compassion and detail, with a heart finely tuned to their sensitivities, and then throw them to the fire of mistake and misdeed, and ruin them, so that all the critics cried, "Ah yes! That is life!" It was a skill he admired but couldn't replicate in his own writing. It seemed unfair that she should get a villa in Tuscany for being a tigress who ate her young.
He had come to hear a reading, any reading, at the large Barnes and Noble near NYU. He had come to escape his mother, a native of India whose nagging cough punctuated his studies like a reminder of doom. His mother was sweet and loving and utterly incapable of functioning even half a day without his assistance. He would drive her to appointments in her old maroon Chrysler while she leaned a cheek against the window and let her dreamy eye drift across the rooftops of buildings. That cough, that tubercular cough of death, sometimes soft, always just at the nagging edge of his awareness. He talked about getting his own place, but could never work the finances of it, nor have the courage to go. He had gone to hear any writer, hoping someone else's work would draw his attention away from his own.
He was pleased to know the tigress would be there, when he first saw her name on the placard, and he was pleased at the crowd, at the opportunity to hide anonymously in the seats and watch her vicious work. Maybe he'd absorb some of her toughness, her denial of pity.
But she was not content to hold a passive reading. Like the teacher of some college class, she wanted to discuss her work. To take questions. He arrived a little late, and missed most of the passage, but had the impression she was reading about a family of four, taking boats up a river in some tropical place, stopping to picnic. Hardly anything macabre.
Her eyes swept the room when she finished, and she asked, "Why do you think I set it in France?"
The novel was published -- no chance for analysis to spoil it now -- but still he was impressed by her daring, by her willingness to sink the claws of discussion into her own art.
Her eyes focused on his. "What do you think?"
He had barely heard a word, and desperately he pulled on past knowledge. "Because France is at the height of culture?"
"Thinks it is..." she hissed. "Remember, all of Europe drank the blood of other nations to prop it up in strength."
Even as an Indian man, he found that a bit of an oversimplification. But it clearly suited how she saw the world. She looked around the room, searching for anyone else worthy of her attention.
Then she graced him with a smile, again. "And why do you think the son is afraid to tell his father what he's planning to do?"
No idea, again. He lied. "Because he wants to prove himself?"
Her eyes lost interest. He had gotten the answer wrong. "Because he's afraid to cause damage.”
All around her, approving mutters from the other listeners. How right she is, they seemed to say. How true to life.
That night Kedar sits with his mother.
"Who are those names you're writing down?"
"Oh, it's a project for school," he says. He shows her. "It's a family tree."
"Our whole family." She is stunned. Coughing, gently, she looks for things he may have gotten wrong. But there is nothing. He's done his research well, taken good notes in his discussions with Auntie Niral.
He's not sure why he didn't tell his mother about it before. He doesn't want to cause her more anxiety. Her impression is that all his college coursework is just creative writing assignments -- his short story class -- his poetry. He doesn't talk about the other areas where he struggles, the math requirement, the history of the Middle East. Strangely, she never worries about his writing, which should worry her most of all.
"That's going to make you a lot of money someday," is all she says, and points to some Indian novelist, Sachet Bhattacharya, a gross producer of corny melodramas, who has just built the biggest house in the neighborhood in Hyderabad where his father's parents live.
Now she pores over his assignment, fascinated and confused.
"What's this?" she asks, at last arriving at the small pile of ziplock bags.
"That's hair," he says.
"From who?" though she should know. It is his cousins, each bag carefully labeled.
"It's a model for genetic testing," he says. "That's Niral and Sonali. And Oorjit. And Ravi."
"You collected these yourself?"
She nods, thoughtfully. "My grandmother used to say that tea made from the hair of an enemy could cure a curse."
His mother, unlike his father, was raised in a small village, and most of her stories involve monkeys causing problems, or people casting a curse on each other, and the clever ways the villagers restore things to rights again.
"Are these your enemies?" He is joking. He laughs. But his mother examines the family tree thoughtfully.
"Niral is my enemy."
"I came to borrow money from them once, right after their wedding, and she put a curse on me."
His mother eyes the hair. "Make me some tea with that. From Niral's hair."
"This is my project."
His mother begins to cough, and it is so severe she can not speak for several minutes, but always her eyes are scolding him, looking out at him over her mouth pinched tight, accusing.
At last, when she can speak again, she says nothing, but sits like a stone.
"You are crazy. You know this. Anyway," he adds, "I have to get to my writing."
But he writes nothing that night. He has purchased a book by Corinne Hiver, and he dives into that instead.
It isn't bad, he has to confess. But his estimate of the body count in her books was far too shy. It wasn't just mistakes that doomed her characters, but rotten luck. Fate, like a hand, reaching down from the sky to lift them high and then drop them (sometimes out of crashing planes) to their doom, where the narrator would linger, for hours, while her dying men and women pondered every fearful step that had led them to the vicious end, the lungs filled with blood, or slow, half-botched suicide.
As he completes the fourth chapter, he hears his mother cough again. He can imagine it, clearly -- the ache, the violence of his mother's breathing welling up against her, the wailing, rattling ribs, refusing the slightest intake of the air. Her illness is a rebellion against New York, he can see that now, for the first time. A refusal to see the reality here. Dead husband, unsuccessful son. She survives -- they both do -- on the charity of his father's brother Ravi, which brings the polite resentment of his Auntie Niral. How much he must cost his cousins, when his poor uncle is forced to care for them as well, but still his uncle pays their rent each month. And his mother's lungs fight her, every minute refusing to drink in the bitter atmosphere of despair.
He walks into the kitchen and starts the kettle, almost in a dream himself. He stands with one hand on the counter until the kettle screams.
The road to the airport was filled with traffic. The left-hand lane was closed for construction, and his Uncle Ravi sat in the front seat swearing. Normally, Kedar would be seated in the middle row with his mother, ahead of his cousins but behind his uncle and aunt, a physical demonstration of their second-tier rank in the family hierarchy. But Niral had been feeling sick today, and for once, his mother had the seat of honor next to her brother-in-law, who had offered to deliver them both to JFK before he dropped his daughter off at soccer, and his son at SAT practice in Jackson Heights.
"So," Ravi said jovially. "How's the cough doing?" The cough was an old friend of the family, a metaphor for his mother's half-suppressed tone of complaint and sorrow.
"It's gone," his mother replied.
A silence fell over the car. Even his little cousin Oorjit was impressed. He could feel the gap in conversation. No one knew his mother beyond that.
"Praise Shiva," said his uncle.
His mother nodded, but a flicker of darkness crossed her eyes as she looked outside the car.
"I haven't been back to the village where I was born for twenty-five years," she said, to fill the quiet. Kedar looked out the window at the planes approaching low overhead. His father had died near here -- one of those great metallic beasts had fallen from the sky and crushed his car. No one else was even injured. Kedar always felt his father would have understood him better than anyone, had he lived. He'd been the reader, the intellectual of the family. Kedar had tried to write about his death once, but it was useless. The great tragedy of his own life did not even belong to him to tell.
On the plane, his mother explained to him the reason she was finally going home.
"Sharipur is a cursed village. It was not safe for me to return before today. But now that I have made my cough go away, I have broken my curse. It is safe for me to go home."
"What about me?" he asked. "Is it safe for me?"
"It's safe for you because you were born in America."
Later on, while his mother slept, he passed the time by reading another Corinne Hiver novel. Her fifth one, written in 2001. Corinne produced a novel every three years, like clockwork, and a short story collection somewhere in between. He had read six of her seven novels now, and one of the collection of stories, too. He hated them and loved them, as he hated and admired the slender silver-haired woman with the vicious eyes.
That night he stayed with his father's parents in Hyderabad. He couldn't sleep, and gazed out the window at a stretch of highway. For his grandparents, his father's death was still an unhealed wound. They spoke of his father repeatedly, with urgency, as if they were suggesting that Kedar and his mother bring him back to life.
"If he had lived," they said, "you would have a nice big house by now, wouldn't you?" Kedar's father had worked for Air India's corporate offices, and Kedar knew they would have done quite well. Then to Kedar, they added, "It is your responsibility to take care of your mother, now." He thought of his writing, and felt foolish. These were his uncle's parents, too. They knew what he was costing the family, with his dreams.
He tried again that night to craft a story, but always the waves of his own impulses brought him to the same shores. The characters were too clever to take any great risks. And those who failed were too stupid to feel the full implications of their failure. In one attempt, a man in a grocery store parking lot tried to steal a car, but then returned it, and the moral implications were too weakly felt even to be heartwarming. Each story dodged the bullet of brutality, and he could not steer his narrator's speeding car into a brick wall of truth without feeling guilty and embarrassed.
They visited the cursed village three days later. It was a four hour drive to his mother's home, and Kedar was surprised to find, on their arrival, that it looked no different than any other town. No primitive voodoo stood above the entry road to mark it out. The televisions were on in upper-story windows. The shops were open, and the young men sat outside and laughed with each other, like they did everywhere else.
His mother's mother greeted them in a long silver-grey sari. She had the same air of muted fatalism that his mother did, the same sighing voice that hovered in the air and then sank in register as each sentence proceeded to its tragic end.
"We wanted chai to offer, but there's none today." They gathered in her little yellow kitchen, around a table ringed with metal chairs. His Auntie Panna, whom he'd never met, came over with a daughter about nine years, old, and they all chatted over deep-fried bread, and the women passed around the name of his university like a vase to be admired, and then put it aside to get down to the real business of their conversation, which was local gossip.
Kedar let his attention drift, his eyes gazing out the window at a stretch of crooked patios patched together by laundry like people in various states of undress. Then his attention was drawn by a little detail from a story that his aunt was telling.
"I'm sorry, did you say he accidentally hung himself?"
His aunt nodded. "It was with the fishing line that he was going to use to get the fish for his father's funeral."
"Oh," he said. "Really? That's strange."
"It is," agreed his Auntie Panna.
"No, but that happened in a book once. That exact thing." His aunt shrugged, and went on with her story.
But it was not just any book. It had happened in The Iron Gardener, the book by Corinne Hiver he had just been reading on the plane.
His aunt went on with her story, while he felt a quiet wave of anger start to rise. It made him angry to think that her brutal fatalism had more than just a ring of truth. It had happened. Here in the backwaters of the earth, in a small town, fate had laid its heavy finger after all. Life was dictated not by rationality but by the curse of destiny. How proud Corinne would be to hear of this misery! To know she had gotten it right! He stood up and examined the little elephant his grandmother kept on her shelf.
Then his grandmother spoke. She started to tell a story that was stranger still. A girl who'd fallen in love with her husband's father. How she had gone to meet him in the night, and offered herself, but he had cast her out, and in her haste to flee, she had fallen from a rooftop onto the supper table of another family celebrating their daughter's wedding. She had died by crushing the family feast, a candlestick through her shoulder.
This was the plot of A Hidden Portrait. He had read that one, too.
Then he knew. Corinne had been here. Must have. He searched his instincts, trying to sense her presence, how she had emerged from her life of beaches and chianti to travel to India, to gather material. Or perhaps she just knew someone here. She had a source.
"Corinne Hiver," he said, testing the waters with her name.
"Is that a person?"
"It's a novelist. A British novelist. Do you know of her? Does anyone here read her?"
"We don't read many non-Indian novelists here," said his grandmother. His aunt listed the exceptions: Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. Danielle Steele at the airport, sometimes.
"No, no, no," and he tried to explain. But then the date. The date. That was what the whole thing hinged upon.
"When did the girl die, the one who crashed into the wedding feast?"
"Three years ago, maybe."
It seemed too late. After the publication of the book -- as if some foolish fan had manufactured life to imitate art.
The next day at breakfast, the stories went on. Two months ago, a family in town took some boats up a tropical river on the coast and stopped for an outdoor lunch. The son of the family, who had caused great shame by failing out of school, decided he would disappear into the woods and kill himself, but he didn't realize his little sister had followed him. The boy told his sister to return to the family, but she slipped down a ravine and died. The boy returned, and he at first denied what had happened to her, and then killed himself by jumping out of their boat into the rushing river. He could not swim.
Two months ago. It was just like the book from the reading -- the very same plot. But it made no sense. The boy -- he must have died the very week the book was published.
A cursed village. Knowledge rose up in him like a wave. He didn’t know what he knew, but he knew it completely. He went to wash for dinner and saw his own face reflected in the mirror light. He remembered how, at the reading, he had mistakenly imagined that Corinne was reading about a family in India, not France.
His mother was cheerful for the seven days they spent there. She cooked. She cleaned. They visited with cousins. And always, in every house, he searched for novels by the wicked woman, looked for some sign that someone knew of her, here. But there was no sign of her. No knowledge. While he was staying in town, a boy drowned in a creek trying to save a baby cow. His mother sighed, and fury rose in Kedar's heart -- the stupid, wicked tragedy. They saw the body. It was simple, matter-of-fact. The mother’s jaw wide open with wailing. It reminded him of a photo in a magazine.
He and his mother departed the next day.
"You are quiet," said his mother, as he drove the car through the madness of the little winding highway -- white cars and black taxis zipping in and out of his flat window.
"I'm thinking of a story," he said.
"You'll see," said his mother. "You'll be as big as Sachet Bhattacharya someday."
He had learned a lot about Bhattacharya during his stay. While Corinne Hiver was entirely unknown, Bhattacharya's books graced the nightstand of every lusty housewife and lonely teenage girl. They were soap operas. Melodramas. Every book had been turned into a musical, and their sequels too. Sachet Bhattacharya owned a house in the city and a house on the beach, and was a frequent guest on talk shows.
"If I'm lucky," said Kedar. He thought his mother was a fool.
"I am so glad I was able to visit again," said his mother. "The curse is gone. I can feel it in my bones."
When they arrived back in New York, his Aunt Niral was dead.
Corinne Hiver must have been bitten by the teaching bug, after all her readings, because when he returned to school in the fall, he found her name listed above an advanced writing class in the course catalogue. He wasn't tempted to take her class, but he saw at last a window of opportunity. She had made the novice's mistake of agreeing to meet with anyone who wished to take her class, to judge their claims.
He stands outside her hallway, part of a long line of the young and eager, awaiting his moment. He would have sought her out in her villa in Italy, but she has come to him.
When he enters her office, he sees how she keeps the meetings short.
"Do you have a sample?" she asks.
"No." He sits down on the long, low sofa.
"I need a sample." Her eyes cast away from him to her computer.
"Do you know --" he says "--that there is a little village in India...."
Her sharp eyes turn upon him, sparkling brightly in her small round face. Her lips are ruby-red, the influence of Paris in her youth stained upon them.
"A little village?"
He feels absurd, but presses on. "Anything you write about takes place there, after you write it. Did you know this? From every single book."
Her eyes dart away to the floor. She sits as if pinned to the wooden swivel chair, her sharp nails digging into a pile of earnest short stories which are piled on her desk.
"I had heard something."
This shocks him. "When?"
"Twenty years ago," she says, "right after I published my first novel, a man wrote to me. A nice Indian man, but living in the States. He told me that he had read my novel, and that shortly after it was written, everything I described had taken place. Exactly as I wrote it. In his wife's village in India. A tiny little village. He said it was cursed. And I knew. When he told me. Always I had an instinct. In my gut, as I wrote. I felt like a murderer. I knew that if I wrote them, then these things would happen, somewhere. And so I picked up my pen, to write him back. But I never sent the letter."
"Because I got an idea for a story. A gorgeous story. About a nice Indian man from Jackson Heights got into a car to go home from work, when a plane dipped out of the sky and crushed him while he was driving on a bridge over the expressway."
The details of Kedar's father's death drop into his ears like stones. Emotion, comprehension, ready to overflow at last. He cannot speak.
"And every day, since then, I've wondered if what it really happened. But I had to, you know?"
"You had to."
"It was a good story. Good logic, you know? He works for the airline, his life is built on planes, but a plane destroys him just when his baby son is born. It felt honest. You know? Like life."
She stands up, picks up a tiny espresso cup from beside her chair, takes a sip.
But Kedar cannot speak a word. His hands feel numb and cold. He nods, once. Here is the great writer. Here. Draining his people's blood.
"Every book," she whispers. "I knew. It's strange. I wonder -- do you think it's me causing these things, or can I just feel the future? Perhaps it's just that."
But here she's overstepped herself, and seems to know it. She puts down the cup. He rises. Turns. And there, on the arm of the chair where she's been sitting, is a single silver hair. He can just reach it with his hand, as he leaves.
Writer's block, they called it, when Corinne Hiver did not publish her next book on schedule, nor even a short story, as the months stretched into years. Writer's block. It was certainly what Kedar had. He finished college, not a writer, but with a degree in biology. He talked of going to grad school in genetics, was studying for the MCAT now, thought he might be a doctor, too. It seemed appropriate that if magic had cursed his life, it would be science that would save him, him and his mother. Give them a chance again. A new start.
For months after his visit with Corinne, he wrote nothing. He barely read, except for Sachet Bhattacharya, whose books he found at neighborhood grocery stores. He liked the cheerful stories of lovers parted, then returned. He let the paltry world of soap opera wash over him, a soothing wave, and mute his desire to be an artist. These were the successful ones, he told himself. The liars like Bhattacharya. The dreamers who could still believe the world was built on love.
But then one night the idea came. From nowhere, as if from a dream. A perfect story. Beginning, middle, end. But brutal. Gorgeously so. The sheer perfection of a character wrecked by destiny, by the vast human desires that stand like giants in a forest of human pettiness and mundane routine.
The cruelty of it stayed his hand at first. He had the thought -- ironically, a little -- what if some tiny village somewhere -- maybe some little corner of France -- should suffer from the very fates he gave his characters? What if by putting brutal words to page, he doomed some victim to live them, somewhere he might never hear about or know?
But the draw was too much to resist for long. The idea was just too good. It had a novel in it. It would sell, he knew, and maybe he could buy -- not a mansion perhaps -- but an apartment in Queens -- or a little place, back in Sharipur, where his mother could retire if she wished.
But it was more than that. It was the perfect wholeness of the idea. The perfect simplicity, the beauty that came from pain, from blood spreading out across a floor. Or fate, running like a silver river through the ragged jungle of human life. He wrote the river, breathing a silent apology to all those he would cut down in its wake. It was so cruel. So cruel, and true. So very much like life.