Ashwini Alli by Peter Vilbig

Ashwini Alli walks up the steps of the Jay Street station into winter light that falls colorless and chilly through the squared-off stone and brick buildings of downtown Brooklyn. My mind, she thinks, is filled with gold, spilled and spilling. Mom was strong this morning, her eyes fierce, and that makes me strong. She turns up Jay. A group of boys walk ahead but not from her school. Why are there so many high schools around here? Westinghouse, the charter school, her own school, Liberty, down Jay in an old warehouse building on the other side of Tillary. But mom would say you are not your surroundings. Buck up now. Face your world with sharp teeth, girl. Ashwini thinks: that’s right. So no worrying about Rohan. No worrying about yesterday and blurting his name out to Ms. James. Yet thinking of it is like a flag snapping in her, like the flags that hung from the poles along Tillary, saying what a fine place Brooklyn is. And if Rohan found out? Yes, he shouldn’t have jumped those boys in the hall, but if he found out what she had done? And she hadn’t meant to say anything. The name just slipped out, like a penny from her hand, A bad word just from the sound. and there it lays, a new one, bright and coppery, hard not to notice. Snitch. Snitch. Stitch. Bitch.



So maybe she doesn’t have sharp teeth, but she has rituals for all occasions—or maybe they are her sharp teeth. She can deal, always lose herself. When she wants to at school she has a way of standing in front of her locker and making everything else dissolve, except the green of her locker and those weird air fins. Why do lockers need to breathe anyway? They aren’t alive. Passing the handball court at Tillary and Jay, she sees boys even at this hour playing in t-shirts, though it must be 35 degrees. One of them in particular, a short little one with dense muscles in his chest and quick jerky legs attacks the ball, even if it means he misses the shot. She eyes him but so he won’t notice.



At the next corner, the next ritual: the coffee man opening up the sides of his wagon. She can smell the coffee, and the sharp whiff of cinnamon from the donuts. The man never smiles, but who can blame him? Ms. James forbid the students from buying from him, which means he has to depend on the crackheads and alkies and mental cases from the FEGS rehabilitation center that occupy the first four floors of Liberty’s building. A few of them are already gathered with their yellowing bulging eyes and their crooked off- center faces. She can’t understand that: how drugs break down the bones in your face, as though they were sliding off a mountain into some slagheap. And then her heart jumps, because she thinks of a slagheap she has seen when she was in Guyana last summer with her mom outside Georgetown. She turns and makes the final steps to Liberty, her heart bounding. Of anything, anything, anything, that can take her away from troubles, this is the best. She had only lived there till she was six, and her memories of that time were confused, a big jumble, but then came the trip to Georgetown last summer, and there she was, in a city of white wooden buildings so neat and clean they looked like paintings and broad streets and flat land stretching out, dotted with palms and flowering trees tall as light poles, all of it stirring the pot of those older memories and adding to them, so not like Brooklyn, and even the slagheap was beautiful!



Going into school is a swirl and rush, the ancient elevator groaning and creaking, then the quick slide into her locker hallway, kids milling. Boys slipping off do-rags and stuffing them in their pockets so the strings dangled out. Silliness: it reminds her of the Jewish men she sees on the subways into Manhattan with strings dangling from their clothing. She opens her locker, feeling nothing, feeling no need even to be prepared, her mother’s encouragement still buoying her up, and then, of course, she feels him. Rohan. Suddenly. A presence deranging the space around her that in the crush of students does not slide by like the rest. “Yo,” he says. He has a nice voice, too, smooth and deep, that rises up from his bathtub size chest, a shower echo coming out of his mouth even in a hallway at Liberty. He’s a foot taller than she is—she’s ninth grade; he’s tenth. His skin deep, almost reddish, reminding her of the manicheel trees that lined Water Street in Georgetown last summer.



“Yo,” Rohan says again. “You listening to me? What you telling them for?”



“I didn’t tell them,” she says, the lie blurted out and then trying to keep her eyes steady


. “Don’t give me that,” he says, his voice almost a whisper. “She told me you told.

She told me.”



Quick bits snapped in her: Yes. No. Did not. Made me. Be quick, mom would

say. Sharp teeth.



“She did not,” Ashwini says, her voice snatched from high in her throat. “Because I never told her anything.”



“Yeah? That’s not what she said.” Ashwini felt relieved; she can see Ms. James has told him nothing, his bluff is called, and then she sees among the crowd of students, those who are still and watchful. Rohan’s friends, and she suddenly feels angry that he needs his friends to pick on a girl.



“You should know your facts before you make an accusation,” she says primly, then turns and starts down the hall.



“Hey,” Rohan called out after her. “I gotta meet with her 4th period. I’ m gonna ask. I’m gonna ask how can she know what happened.”



Math class. The heat on this floor is kept way too high, and Mr. Awolusi is talking about trinomials. She writes one on the page: x + 6x – 8 = (x + ?) (x – ?). Math equations look like ladybugs crawling across the page. Awolusi is saying: “Factoring the first term is easy. The hard part is figuring the middle term. Mom and dad, she thinks. I’m the middle term. Mom’s the easy part, and then she feels her insides the way they were when she went to those waterfalls outside Linden, hollow inside, as she imagined slipping on the wet stones and going over. “You’re father is a proud man, and he has not always done right.” Mom has a way of talking about dad as though she’s talking about somebody in the Bible. But his saintly phase seems to have ended when they left Guyana. “My, if you had known him in Georgetown,” she would say. “The kind of man who would put on a tie to take a bath.” And Ashwini thought: Right, mom. Who would do that?



And Awolusi says to the boy next to Ashwini, who’s been asleep almost since class began: “Antoine, wake up.” And Antoine’s head pops up like a string has jerked it up, and he’s saying almost before his eyes are open, “Plus two and minus four.” Wow, Antoine figures out math problems in his sleep. Does he dream in numbers the way she dreams in nightmares where she can’t breathe? And her mom would say: “He expected more. That is what. More of himself. More of the world maybe. Just more. And now he blame himself for dreaming big and finding out it isn’t always like that.” And Ashwini thinks: Big dreams. If you are little in a big dream, it’s like being an ant in a barrel or a tub. Even a splash of rain will drown you. Dad’s daydreams. Who knew what he dreamed at night? At night lying in bed, the building is quieter most of the time, and this sadness comes into her room. That’s the way it is for her. Daydreams are best: ladybugs and gold spilled and spilling, and confectioner’s sugar ladled on. But at night, it’s the sadness, she can feel it, it is so deep, and she feels her legs begin to sweat, her belly hurts, deep down, and looking out from her pillow, the doorknob seems to recede, until it is far away, almost out of sight, as though her little room, small as a ship’s cabin, has grown immense, or she has grown tiny. Her dreams are messed up, but she knows there’s something wrong in how her father dreams. Or maybe he never even dreams at all.



Fifth period. American studies. An aide shows up asking for Ashwini, and the class erupts:



“Trouble, she in trouble,” says Dennis. “You done it now.” Thaddeus saying that. She follows the girl, leaving behind the voice of Ms. Perry hushing them up. She knows she’s being called to Ms. James office to confront Rohan. Her bad luck. The girl’s a senior and seems uninterested in talking with her, as they move through the halls and downstairs, where she simply points at Ms. DiFranco’s office. Ms. DiFranco, the school secretary, is on the phone, but when she sees Ashwini she says, “Here. Take the phone. It’s your mom.



For an instant she doesn’t know what’s being said to her, and then she reaches mechanically.


“Hello,” she says into the receiver, yet the world has split in two: the part of her talking to her mother on the phone, and the part of her trying frantically to understand why she’s talking to her.



“Ashwini, that you?”


“Yes. Mom?”



“Ashwini. That lady say I can’t talk with my own daughter. I said oh yes I can. The man from that agency call here again, and he filed his report. There going to be a court case. Real trouble.”


“Mom, what? What are you saying



“No, don’t get upset. I don’t want that lady knowing you upset. Listen, girl, I’ m telling you the pure truth, and if I could I’ d knock that man a hole in his head and stuff him in behind it. His report. What right he have with his report? They could take you from us. Now don’t get all upset in front of that lady.”



Ashwini doesn’t say anything. Her heart doesn’t even start to beat the way it did when the man first came to the house. From social services. He spoke as if he polished each word in his mouth before he said it. “There has been a report of an incident in the home, and I’ ve been assigned to investigate it.” But that had been last semester, forever ago.



“Take me where?” she finally says.


“Snatch you up like a bundle from a flower cart, girl. The complaint’s on you, and where that come from I’ ll never know.”



There’s an unearthly silence on the line, and Ashwini feels herself going small, because she knows where the report came from, and it’s deepest fear in life that her mom will find out. “I don’t know mom,” she says, the lie making her go small the way she does at night. It’s never happened in the daytime before. “But that was weeks ago,” she says, and she can hear the whine in her voice.



“It’s not weeks ago now,” her mom says.



And Ashwini sees now all at once that this had been waiting for her all along, that it was like a bullet that had been following her for months, and only now catching up with her, and she pretending all along it was over. “Mom,” she says, frantically casting for a way to change the subject, “Can I talk to you about this when I get home from school?”



“Sure. I’ ll be here.”



When she hangs up the phone, she feels almost dizzy, and then Ms. DiFranco is saying, “Everything alright, dear?”


“Fine,” she says, and leaves the office. And yet she whispers to herself in the hallway: “don’t

let it be so. Please God, don’t let it be so.”



On the sixth floor heading for English she turns the corner and there’s Rohan. He grins his evil grin and says, “You think I don’t know. Just met with Ms. James. Why don’t you just fess up now, cause I know.”



She veers to pass him, he jerks to block her way. “Leave me alone, Rohan,” she says softly, and then she doesn’t care, ducking, slamming herself against the lockers and skittering by, and shoving at him as she does, he grabs, but she twists free, screaming this time: “Leave me alone!” And then runs, not even looking back. She doesn’t need to. Her shove had caught him off-guard, and he stumbled, and then she was down the hall and sliding into English.



English. The class that got her in trouble in the first place. Mr. Vale’s moving among the desks. She slips into her seat, her heart pounding. Everything’s turning in her, like long columns of green glass breaking, like the waterfall in Linden, only made of green glass breaking. Inside and continuing. Mr. Vale is moving in her direction. He’s old and funny at times. He liked her essay. He says she could be a writer. She’s a few minutes late to class and students have already settled into independent reading. She pulls out her copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Yesterday she wanted to ask Mr. Vale if Scout was white. She wasn’t sure, but today she could care less. Something bad happened to Boo Radley. Mr. Vale is almost to her, but then he skims away toward Thaddeus. “Thaddeus, you’ ve read twelve pages all week,” he lectures sternly. And then Thaddeus summoning this look that involves every muscle in his face and many-faceted glintings in his eyes, of indignation and aggrievement, and, most of all, lamb-like innocence, says: “My God, how can you say that. I’ m reading constantly.” And for a moment she feels the breaking columns of green glass inside her hold still, and Thaddeus, good old Thaddeus, gives her a gift without even knowing it. But then it starts up again, and then when she least expects it, there’s Mr. Vale leaning toward her, with his garlicky smell. “Ashwini,” he is talking now in his low voice, his Mr.-Vale-is-concerned voice, as opposed to his Mr.-Vale-is-old-and-out-of-steam voice. He dropped a piece of chalk the other day, and when he leaned to pick it up, a grunting sound came out of him. “Are you okay?” he says.



“No,” she says. And thinks again: make it not be so.


“What’s up?” he says. “Are you feeling sick?”


“I have some personal issues at home.”


“Are you okay? Are things at home okay?” he says, and she can feel him tense. All she has

to do is say home, and he tenses.


“They’ re not great, but they’ re alright. I just found out that there’s this court hearing and I might get taken from my family, and I want to know”—and here she screwed up her courage, thinking, I don’t care, I don’t care, I have to know—“does that lady have the paper I wrote?” And, the first little creep of anger slides in, for it was the paper she wrote for Mr. Vale that led to all this trouble, and she wonders if he’ ll pretend he doesn’t know. The paper where I talked about what my father did, she would say, if he did.



But Mr. Vale isn’t playing any games. “You mean the social worker?” he says.



And Ashwini nods, and he says: “I think she may have a copy.”



“But that means I could get in a lot of trouble,” she says, frantically but trying to keep her voice down. “They could take me away, because the judge will see. I think that’s going to happen.”



She can see Mr. Vale start to panic now—which just makes her more certain that they’ re going to take her. They know already. And she thinks: make it so they don’t know. The essay won the contest too. Everyone was telling her how great it was—but nobody read it, except Mr. Vale and the people at the contest. Mom’s never read it. She’s afraid to.



“Listen, Ashwini,” Mr. Vale is saying. “I’ ll look into this. But I think you need to talk to Ms. Henderson. She’s the social worker. She’ ll know more about this than I possibly can.”



She turns away then, back to her book, a rush of anger at him for saying how she should write the truth, and then giving her paper to the social worker. She’s in this class on the sixth floor, the windows looking out into the cold air in which the cubes of pale buildings are stuck like ice cubes in a milky drink, where the only color breaking the dead gray comes from the steeple of a church down Jay Street poking up its long green column, and she feels alone, unreachable, a million miles from anyone, in a deepening chamber of herself that keeps giving way to someplace deeper, as though she’s stuck at the bottom of a well whose bottom keeps falling out and she sliding down deeper, and she looking up, and seeing the students bent over and peering down, except they aren’t people, they’ re just plant stalks with tufts at the top, yet peering down, and the message that comes from them, as if the tufts could talk, saying: what are doing down there, don’t you want to be a stalk with a tuft on the end up here like the rest of us? Don’t you want to sway in this marvelous heat?



When she wrote the essay it was a day like this, these same students around her, the pen dancing on its own, as though she was chasing the spill of the words out of her head, the pen trying to sweep them onto the page before they disappeared into dust motes. She wrote in the essay. “My life has had a lot of violence, just violence and more violence.” She told about living in the first building, when she was seven and her family had just moved from Guyana, about the crackheads in the hallways and the dirty floor tiles, and the girl being raped in the elevator, and the gunshots in the street. She wrote about moving to the newer, better apartment, about the fights in junior high, about the trip to Guyana with her mother. But then: “I don’t know what they were fighting about. It was near Christmas last year and maybe it was money. I ran into their bedroom. They have a huge bed from when my father was selling at the mattress place. They were on the bed, and he was hitting her, slapping her face again and again. His eyes were unfocused as though he really wasn’t even seeing her. I screamed for him to stop, but he couldn’t hear. Somehow a kitchen knife was lying on the bed, I don’t know why. I was screaming, stop, stop. But he kept on. That was when I jumped on his back and tried to pull him o f. He knocked me off and I went flying back onto the floor. I could feel my breath knocked out, but before I could get it back, he came at me. I rolled and tried to crawl away, but he put his knee on my back and grabbed my hair and bent my head back. I could hear him saying over and over: You stay out my business, little girl, you hear me. His knee was on my back, I couldn’t breathe, my breath was being crushed out of me. I remember thinking that I was going to die, knowing that I was going to, and wondering what it would be like to meet God, but then my mother’s screaming at him must have worked, because he let me go, and I lay there, and I remember little black chips swimming in my eyes, and I couldn’t move.”



She’s of somewhere, drifting, far from English, when at last the bell sounds, and she gathers her things and almost makes it out the door before Mr. Vale corners her. “Look,” he’s saying, and his eyes look wild to her, and she wonders if she should tell him to get a grip. “I want you to know,” he says. “I had no choice but to give your essay to the social worker.” He lowers his voice further. “You could have been in great danger.”



“I wasn’t.”



“You just said things are not that great.” “But I’ ll be okay.”



“You don’t know that. Look, I’ ll check into this. I can’t believe they’ re going to take you from your family unless there’s a reason to.”



“My mom says it happens all the time.”



“I’ ll look into it,” he says again, and she can see the conversation is over, because he has nothing else to say. Empty out a teacher of words, she thinks angrily, and that’s pretty spectacular. Then she’s in the hall and doesn’t even look out for Rohan. He’s nowhere to be found anyway.



Anger has a way of making you feel whole. In art class she mixes three bottles of paint, orange, purple, and green, in which she swirls her brush until Ms. Browne notices and takes away her paints and gives her a zero for the day. But anger also doesn’t last—at least it doesn’t for her. By eighth period, she’s back to being scared, back to empty, back to the breaking glass, but slower, a steady breaking, glittering all around her, encasing her in the long column of breaking glass, which at least has the advantage that no one can reach through to get at her. The final bell sounds and she heads for her locker, gathers up her things and walks to the central stairwell. She’s about to step o f the landing, when Mr. Vale bounds down from the sixth floor. They’re standing there, students milling by them, next to the iron link fencing that cages the center of the stairwell so no one can fall or jump down.



“Did you ever speak with Ms. Henderson?” Mr. Vale says without prelude.



Ashwini shakes her head.

“You need to speak with her.”




“Because she can help you understand what’s happening with your case.”



“It’s a case now?”



“Whatever it is. Ashwini, you need to talk to her. I don’t understand all of this.” “Neither do I.”



“But I may understand less than you do.”



She shrugs. It’s funny to realize that Mr. Vale is afraid of her. Her father is afraid of her too. She knows that, even though she knows she’s not supposed to. Yet it’s true. And true too: she’s not afraid of either of them. But then she realizes something she must have known all along, but now sees with perfect clarity. What she is afraid of: her mom, how she might snap the part of her that runs in strong threads to Ashwini, that helps her daughter have sharp teeth where she has none. She fears her mom will stop loving her if she finds out what she’s done. Knowing this she almost breaks into a sob right in front of Mr. Vale.



“Listen to me, Ashwini,” Mr. Vale is saying. “Go down the hall right now and ask Ms. Henderson what she knows. I don’t know the answer. You have to ask her.”



She nods and walks from him, feeling numb, and with no intention of doing what he said. She will turn at the end of the corridor and wait long enough for him to disappear, then back for the stairwell. Strange how she’s dodging people at school: Rohan, now Mr. Vale. But things work out differently. She makes the end of the hall, and there looms the hulking impossible-to-dodge form of the social worker,


Ms. Henderson. “Oh,” she says. “Were you looking for me?”



Ashwini blurts without meaning to: “They’ re going to take me away from my parents.” Ms. Henderson gives a quick nod. “Come into my office for a moment, and we can talk.”



On the C train home, a band climbs into the car at Jay Street, two trumpets, a trombone and a clarinet, and begin playing wildly, the instruments threading into a dazzling weave, everything blaring at once, the melodies crosscutting and yet able to stand alone, each instant clean and bright as glass beads tossed in the air. Before the music, she couldn’t have said what she was feeling exactly—not good, but not bad either. Better than she had been. Ms. Henderson’s words had come into her like something sweet when you’re sick, or like salve on a burn. But also knowing the hurt wasn’t gone entirely. Yet that music! It sends her mind spinning out gold threads despite herself, as though the gold-spinning is part of her body, like breath, as though the threads reach out to meet the music and tangle there, and how wonderful is it that this always seems to happen, when she’s feeling not the best, a little afraid, not sure of what’s coming next, yet trying to live by faith, trying to believe in something good, as though she herself were hanging by little threads of faith and hope, something outside her suddenly comes and meets her halfway, tangles her up in the gold thread. The world meets her halfway, or maybe even more than halfway, except maybe it’s not exactly the world, she’s not willing to give Brooklyn that much, a lousy train, burrowing under the ground, a place where the bullets of her own invention have pursued her, maybe it’s something from the other side of the world, maybe it’s God, the God who made her mother and Guyana, and she finds herself lifted on the music, carried away—lifted into the presence of the God who watched over an early evening when she stayed with her mother in Georgetown and they watched boats in the evening sunshine bobbing like filaments of black and yellow thread out in the harbor. The God of all that sent her these crazy musicians too. And all the more amazing, she hadn’t seen Rohan on the way out of school. Somebody said he was suspended for a week for fighting in the halls. Somebody else said, “Hey, I heard you punched Rohan. That crunky bastard.” And then the talk with Ms. Henderson and what Ms. Henderson said: “You’ re not going to be taken away from your family. It’s ridiculous. The hearing officer doesn’t have any place to put you. Whoever told you this could happen…”


“My mother.”


“Well, your mother doesn’t know, Ashwini. No disrespect.”


“But how do you know?”


“I just know.” Ms. Henderson glanced at the laptop on her desk, and Ashwini thought: she’s bored with me. The lack of interest made her think that maybe she was telling the truth.


“But what about my essay?” Ashwini said and at first Ms. Henderson just stared at her. Then she understood. “No one’s bringing up your essay unless you do, Ashwini. At the hearing, the officer will probably have a talk with your father. Most likely. But what I can promise is that your parents won’t be told about your essay, and you won’t be taken out of your house. Even if you needed to be.”



And just like that, the meeting was over. And now Ashwini stands in the swaying, the terrible hurt feeling lifting out of her. For now it only matters that the train is on time, the band is playing. The worst isn’t happening. The bullets, all the bullets, lie quiet on the streets, dull and still and undangerous. The train roars into that curve after Hoyt Street and she feels herself flung, happy to be flung, the music making it almost seem like dance, the train dancing, the people in it, even all the old sour people in it. She’ ll be fine, even though she’s going home. It doesn’t matter. Even before this latest phase, before her father became a ghost in the house, she had learned to read his moods, to know what days the machine had started in him and then eaten up all his flesh and blood. When she was old enough she would go back to Guyana, back to her real family, and the only place she had ever felt right with herself. She took a boat last summer with her relatives to the Essequibo River to a spot where nobody ever went, a tributary, under jungle canopy, the river splashing and dancing and these long-necked birds with the most gorgeous red feathers stretching their long wings in the trees, not even afraid of them.



Ah, ah. Her cousins took their clothes off and stood under the rush of water from a little waterfall, and finally she did too, embarrassed, but feeling great too. And nobody laughed at her. The train jerks straight and picks up speed in the tunnel, heading for the Lafayette stop. Ashwini relaxes, feels the speed of the train transfer to her body. In that moment, remembering everything, and seeing her future straight as the tunnel to East New York, she feels as strong as mom.



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