leaves beneath my feet

have you ever seen a tiger here? i ask our guide, who belongs to a tribe in kerela, who grew up surrounded by trees and breezes. in the early morning light, he nods conspiratorially and tells a story that involves baby bears, lions, elephants and tigers all at once, and i don’t care if it’s a true story, only that i am walking through a beautiful place reserved for shy and elusive animals i get to imagine hiding just out of sight.

i love when our guide, during this trek through the jungle, turns around on his heels and motions urgently for us to join him in running back the way we came. i had been last in line, savoring the anticipatory silence. walk quietly if you hope to see any wildlife, he had said, and i had been busy placing each foot softly in front of the next, making myself invisible. so when we were told to go back! go back! go back! I was suddenly first, the first to charge crashing absurdly off the trail up the hill through the vines and brambles, out of the path of what we soon learned was a wild elephant, recently awakened from his slumber by the snapping of twigs beneath our feet. we stand silently, shivering, nearly-giggling, as a small tree goes down and the trees rustle with a shadowy elephant silhouette. look. shh. when he is gone we walk back peacefully, thinking what a good story this will make.

at what seems like the only Italian restaurant in india with cheese that is strong and aged, a waitress named Sharon who is now female in presentation compliments my hair and asks me why i am so silent. is everything ok? she asks, concerned, placing her hand on my shoulder. i nod, chest tightening suddenly, and everyone at the table busies themselves with their forks – utensils that feel heavy, burdensome in our hands. for tonight, we are eating with forks, and paying four times what we would pay for the spicy, rich fish curry the locals eat just across the street, scooping steaming rice with their fingers. i bite into the beef lasagna and something crunches unpleasantly; the familiar tomato-y meaty tang feels unwelcome and familiar at the same time. i eat quickly, and don’t discuss the dance performance we watched earlier much, the way the men and women danced with their eyes and twirled fire rings and played drums so loud and fast that i almost covered my ears.  i don’t talk about the homesick shopowner from kashmir who asked us where we were from with such desolation that i almost said “nowhere,” or the elephants i couldn’t bear to pay to ride because i watched her stand in her stall, her mouth open and trunk hanging limply, eyes turned toward the sky, chains around her leg. here in this candlelit restaurant called “upstairs,” i don’t talk about how i can’t really talk anymore, how i would love to be silent for a long time. but the lasagna is pretty good – real cheese! – and the dance was pretty cool but a little tacky, very much performed for tourists, and elephants are the best.

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