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The Boil

by Indira 

Posted: 23 February 2012
Word Count: 2432
Related Works: Abandoned Rooms • 

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We had to ask Girija to leave when the boil on her hand became as large as an amla, not the smaller, brighter green jungle varieties but one of those cultivated ones from Hyderabad or UP with their veined translucent skins and their generous circumferences. When the bump first appeared, we’d ignored it, thinking it was a somewhat aggressive insect bite, especially as it didn’t seem to stop her from chopping and stirring at her usual pace. Then we went through an awkward phase, when were discreet and pretended it wasn’t there. But as the days went by, it grew more prominent until its ripe glow suggested that a colony of bacteria was more than likely active beneath the stretched skin of the protuberance.

'You can't send me away when I am sick,' she protested. Her body sagged with pain and illness, a body that I had always admired for its dumpy, primitive, earth-mother look, vigorous despite the fact that her organs seemed to be compacted uncomfortably into a foreshortened abdominal volume. 'How will I manage if you dismiss me?' Her protest was weak, and our determination to avoid having her pustular secretions leak into our kitchen was steadfast. We gave her a month's bonus and said goodbye.

I was assigned kitchen duty and for the next few days I pretended to do the cooking. My efforts were an affront to the family culinary legacy but I was determined not to get sucked into a cycle of condiments and tamarind-based stews to accompany every meal. A dhal turned out by the maid formed the staple. I made sure that I garnished it just as people congregated at the table, so they assumed it was my cooking they were sampling, and I didn’t disillusion them. I also extricated various pickles and forgotten frozen items left by visiting cousins from North America, and managed to make the meals look more respectable than they were. But the inevitable happened: Kamakshi – why did it always have to be her – got a frozen piece of carrot in her stew. 'What is this ice? An ice carrot,' she exclaimed, her shrill voice rising. I was in disgrace.

There was little point in trying to convince the family that they were not violated by eating stale food. In reality the traditional taboos played a minimal role in our daily lives. All of us, including Kamakshi and my elderly grand-aunt enjoyed eating out in places where nobody kept track of who touched the food and how fresh it was. But having a daughter of the family blatantly and shamelessly disregard the rules in the home kitchen was unacceptable.

That afternoon I went to see Girija. Her hand looked like an inflated balloon. She sat cross-legged on a small stool, her hand resting palm down on her knee. The smooth, thickened, red bubble seemed almost to pulsate. I stared at it, fascinated. Girija looked resigned as if she were getting accustomed to being the object of curiosity. Ashamed of gawking I tore my eyes away and looked around to find a place to sit. There was no other furniture in the room. A small cloth rag rug lay against the wall next to the door. I couldn't make out if it was a foot wiper or a mat on which to sit. She indicated the floor with her good hand but didn't offer the stool, as she should have to a guest. I remained standing.

'My husband is at work. I cooked for him this morning,' she said. An aluminium pot sat on the kerosene stove in the blackened kitchen corner. 'I can stir the mudde with my left hand when it's still watery,' she explained. 'I have to stop when it thickens – he says he doesn't mind the lumps.' I knew her husband was probably intolerant of lumps and must have moved in next door with his other 'wife', a young niece of Girija's who was about sixteen. But I nodded. 'Have you eaten,' I asked?

'Ratni brings me something after he leaves. She's a good girl,' Girija was the one who had 'procured', as Kamakshi so unambiguously phrased it, her niece Ratna when, after a few years of marriage, no children had appeared.

'Have you seen a doctor,' I asked, pointing at her hand? Girija shook her head. 'Ratna brought some herb oil from the village. She applies it for me everyday.' The thick green-brown fluid in the re-used Old Monk bottle near the stove looked foul. 'Let me take you to Dr. Seshadri.' When Girija protested that the oil was good, I told her, 'You can use the oil too, he won't stop you.'

Dr. Seshadri's waiting room was packed. I looked through an old Femina and read Maureen Wadia's advice to toned young beauty contestants as Girija dosed next to me, head drooped over her Willendorf Venus body. I sat on her left, on the far side, that is, from her boil. She rested her suffering hand in the good one, the both cushioned tenderly in her lap. The injured extremity looked like a small, hairless juvenile animal, alive yet vulnerable.

The doctor looked surprised when he saw me. 'I thought you weren't in town,' he said. He was referring to my recent attempt to get away from the family. It had been a reaction to the pressure to produce an heir. He must have been the only one who missed that I had been retrieved from the mountain resort where I had fled. The rest of the town consumed my return with scandalous pleasure. 'Well doctor, now, not only can I not bear children, but I also cannot feed the family. These are the only two duties that have been asked of me so far and I have failed. Do you think I should leave again?' He told me not be dramatic and asked Girija to show him her hand. She extended her arm towards him. 'She too hasn't had children and she's been married as long as I have. Did you know that,' I asked the doctor? He ignored me and gently pressed on Girija's wrist. She moaned and the balloon seemed to grow larger. I started back against the wall fearing it would burst. The nurse came in and they gave Girija a shot in the arm. Instantly she slumped over.

'Don't allow her to collapse, I can’t cook, I need her,' I said to Dr. Seshadri. He continued to minister to her. 'An embryotic,' he said to the nurse, who nodded and inserted a giant needle into the boil. Gummy stuff flowed into a steel basin. I could feel my tongue beginning to glue to the top of my mouth. I swallowed quickly and said, 'She can cook, even if she, like me, can't produce children.' Girija sat up and said, 'I can. I can produce children!' She tried to thrust her arm forward, became aware of the procedure it was going through and screamed, 'My baby, my baby.' Dr. Sheshadri clucked angrily and held her arm down, saying, 'Calm down you stupid woman, look what you’ve done – I am going to try and transfer it.' Over Girija's hysteria, I watched while the fluid level in the open lesion went down. It was quite magical: the skin on her hand crumpled and fell back like the petals of some exotic flower to reveal a miniscule creature curled up on a dew drop-like bubble of thick shimmering liquid. Even Girija fell still. 'I will have to work fast,' the doctor said. Within seconds the creature was scooped into a round, glass vessel that had been warming in an incubator to blood-temperature or so the flashing display indicated. The nurse gently syringed the viscous, harvested liquid down the sides of the bulb till the creature was floating in it. 'The safest would be a C-section insert,' the doctor said.

'You mean you are going to put it inside her,' I said. Dr. Seshadri knew my fascination with things medical and used to allow me to sit in on minor procedures in the days when I was contemplating becoming a doctor. 'It’s small enough, let's try it without incision,' he continued to the nurse. I felt as if my insides were being scraped by a rough scalpel and doubled over, clutching my stomach. 'Get her out of here,' he said. I fled to the waiting room but on the way I flicked a small drop of the embryotic gel onto my finger and stuck it in my mouth. It tasted oddly salty. Maybe it would seep into my system and line my uterus with nutritive layers so the next time I conceived, my baby would be able to feed from the earth-mother.

Seven months later Girija's baby was born. She brought it home to show it off. It was minute and dumpy looking. I could imagine it would grow up to be a compact male version of her. 'I can't come and cook in your house anymore,' she said with a grin. I wanted to stomp and throw cold water on the limpet that clung to her breast. 'Maybe now she (meaning me) will be convinced it's time to have a baby,' Kamakshi said. How was I to tell her that I was more than convinced, even if my body apparently wasn’t.

When I went to see Dr. Sheshadri again, I told him, 'I've given up on the cooking. Actually, I’ve been banished from the kitchen after my poor performance.’ He was used to me and once told my mother that he never knew which past conversation I was going to dive into when I went to see him. I was never sure if she was pleased or embarrassed by his comment. He waited. ‘I need to know how Girija achieved that baby,’ I asked. ‘Whatever it was, I think I’ll do it too.’

‘No, I don’t think you will,’ he said.

‘But you know I can make the baby. The ones my husband fathered simply didn’t want to stay in my stomach. Maybe because my sense of food isn’t up to family standards.

‘Just wait, you are young yet. It will happen,’ he said, calling for the next patient who appeared at the door looking contorted and miserable. I paused, wondering what her problem was and why she was more deserving of the doctor’s attention, but the receptionist led me out saying, ‘Come, come. It’s nothing interesting – just constipation.’

Well if Dr. Sheshadri wasn’t going to help me, I’d have to find someone who would. I went to see Girija but she had no time for me. My mother told me not to be silly, when I told her how Girija had come about her child. ‘You behave yourself, now,’ she said, laying out a crustily embroidered chiffon kurta and shiny satin pants, lime-green and baby pink like Oprah’s Jaipur outfit that I’d seen on television. ‘Wear this. Your mother-in-law will be there.’

At dinner everyone discussed my brother’s and sisters’ children. My mother-in-law, who was present because the complexities in our families meant she was a cousin of my mother’s sister’s husband and had a right to be there even though my husband was gone and the connection between our families should have been severed, stared at me significantly. Unless I attracted another man in marriage, as my mother hoped I would by parading me in this ridiculous outfit, any child I produced would carry my husband’s family name. I was the last hope for them – without my child their name was lost from the world forever – so they were willing to ignore the question of who the father was. There were rules there too, of course, rules I was not willing to accept. Kamakshi said I was a stubborn girl and that I should think of all the wealth my child would inherit from my husband’s side, and simply wouldn’t accept that the lecherous old men in the family hoping to live forever through me, made me sick. I slipped out of the house. As I began to walk towards the gate, trying to decide where on my body I would grow my baby and recognising that nature had been wise in choosing the stomach as the repository, my husband called out to me. What was he doing standing behind a tree on the driveway? There was a woman with him – a short dumpy woman. Had he brought a new bride back from some other world? Maybe she was pregnant and the family would finally leave me alone and I could learn to cook or to sustain a baby that I had made from love, or learn to stop thinking about it and become a doctor or a scientist.

The balcony doors opened and I could hear Kamakshi saying, ‘Where’s she gone, now,’ and my mother saying, ‘Let her be....’ The voices faded as the doors closed. Night surrounded us, quiet and warm. My husband smiled. As I moved towards him, I realised the woman with him was Girija. She held a ceramic pot in her hand, one of those dark, gritty ones that bonsai growers favour. In it was a plant, a succulent. Sprouting directly from its woody stem were dark, purplish-black flowers, their petals shiny and vigorous, ready to extend and reveal their centres. ‘For you,’ she said, thrusting it into my arms. ‘He wanted me to give it to you. I have to go now – you think now that I have a baby I can take off whenever I want.’ Her teeth gleamed as she added, shaking her head, ‘So much work, you don’t know what it’s like.’

I carried the plant back to my room. As I walked through the front hall, it seemed as if the world had begun to change already. My relatives stepped back and Kamakshi thrust a bottle of oily green fluid at me. I ignored them all and went up the stairs to my room. When I had changed out of the despicable clothes, I looked at the plant. I had to find the right soil to plant it in. And it wasn’t going to be on my body. For even if now I was someone in everyone else’s eyes, I knew I had to be myself. I lifted the pot to take it down to the garden and it seemed the whorl of petals in the centre of the topmost flower shifted and unfurled ever so slightly, as if to reveal its centre.


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Comments by other Members

Becca at 09:01 on 24 February 2012  Report this post
Hi Indira,
what a wonderfully strange story ... how droll it is. I loved the Willendorf Venus body. There was nothing in it that I was tempted to suggest you might have done in a different way. The boil was wonderfully and hideously described. There's a missing 'we' at '...when [we]were discreet...' and a question mark needed after why did it always have to be her.
The tradition of strange stories goes way back and this story is right in that tradition, one of my favourite writer in it being Robert Aickman. I think you could even call this story Gothic, or maybe you've created the new gothic?
Thank you for the read, I'm still smiling. Where will you submit it too? It would be good if it went to a publisher who is specifically looking for stories of this special strangeness.

Indira at 14:01 on 24 February 2012  Report this post

Thank you - I was afraid it was too ghastly and strange. Glad it came through and made you laugh.
Good suggestion, to look for a journal that specialises. Shall explore.
Robert Aickman - don't know his work at all. Thank you for that.


Becca at 14:19 on 24 February 2012  Report this post
I hesitate to suggest anywhere because 'Weird Tales'is full of stereotypical creepy stuff, very unimaginative and boring. You've got something fresh here, so you wouldn't want to sub it to people like that.... and Steampunk is Steampunk, but it is a kind of spec fic... Perhaps you have to lead the way.

euclid at 09:42 on 25 February 2012  Report this post
I spotted a couple of misplaced question marks

'Have you seen a doctor,' I asked, pointing at her hand?

'She too hasn't had children and she's been married as long as I have. Did you know that,' I asked the doctor?

Also, a word missing here:

He told me not [to] be dramatic and asked Girija to show him her hand.

and a quotation mark missing at the end here:

‘But you know I can make the baby. The ones my husband fathered simply didn’t want to stay in my stomach. Maybe because my sense of food isn’t up to family standards.

Girija dosed next to me

This should be dozed, not dosed.

Interesting piece.


Indira at 05:09 on 26 February 2012  Report this post
Thank you, JJ.
Am especially grateful for the dosed vs dozed!

Shika at 09:59 on 27 February 2012  Report this post
Hi Indira,
I read this over the weekend and it has stayed with me for quite a bit. It is a very strange story indeed and my as Becca said be a departure from the norm if you see what I mean. I like the female/feminist take on the genre (if there is one) and I like the use of the infertility juxtaposed with cooking and the boil. That said, I think you could sharpen this up quite a bit. Although a first person voice is necessarily telling, after the first fantastic sentence, the voice falls a bit for me and seems veer into quite a lot of exposition around the family circumstances, why she can't cook etc. This is necessary I know but could you employ more dialogue to bring this across so that we can experience your MC's life rather than hear her version of it? That said, I do think this is a very interesting story with less detail and more showing it could be really special. I hope this is helpful. S

Findy at 10:22 on 27 February 2012  Report this post
Hi Indira

Enjoyed this story, I like how you've woven a story around the boil, bringing attention to the insecurities of the main character and all the commotion in the household.

I was just thinking maybe you could bring in a little of the fantasy element in the initial paras, I felt a disconnect when it happened suddenly and I went back and checked if I've missed something. After that confusion, it went on without a break.

A nice read, thanks.


Indira at 19:07 on 27 February 2012  Report this post
Hi Emmanuella.

I see your point about exposition, but felt comfortable this time with more exposition and less dialogue because I hoped it carried the narrative forward.
It was a somewhat deliberate stylistic choice, my intention being to convey a sense of her character, and her response to her circumstances through her 'dialogue' with the reader, if that makes sense.

But, I shall keep your comments in mind when I next revise.

many thanks for reading,


Indira at 19:14 on 27 February 2012  Report this post
Hi Findy,

Thank you for commenting.

A good point about the fantasy. Actually, I am glad I startled you with it. I was recently in a discussion where the sense was that women often write 'domestic' fiction, centred around the household and children. Which seemed like a silly characterisation to me. Had to give it a good Boil!


Findy at 17:33 on 28 February 2012  Report this post
I know, I've heard that one too

Maybe you can have the MC fantasizing about the boil earlier on - seeing an embryo shape inside the boil, just thinking aloud.

Indira at 10:29 on 29 February 2012  Report this post
oh that might be too much of a give away, Findy. Lets see.Have to think of something.

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