Who Sees Colour First by Shebana Coelho
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Lying in bed one night, Sebastian Martin looks up and swears something just moved. ‘Did you see that?’ he whispers, nudging his wife. Sushila is drowsy in the curve of his arm but opens her eyes and reminds him that he was born with a caul over his face, a thin, clear membrane that the doctors brushed aside so he could wail his way into the world.

 

‘So what?’ he asks, confused.

 

‘Didn't anyone ever tell you,’ she says, her lips tickling his skin, ‘that it means you can see bhooths, djinns, ghosts, souls wandering in limbo?’

 

‘Oh come on,’ he says.

 

She smiles into his shoulder. ‘Have a little faith,’ she murmurs.

 

‘That's not faith,’ he replies, his body tense, ‘it’s nonsense.’ But she's asleep again, a shadow against white sheets.

 

The next day, he goes to the optometrist to see if his pupils are as they should be – perhaps there's a minuscule tear in his cornea, some anomaly that gives the illusion of flight when there is none. His doctor, a beefy man with pale hands, says no. ‘It all checks out,’ he says and beams down at Sebastian. Sebastian blinks back. He considers getting a second opinion but changes his mind when he stops at a pharmacy and sees rows of reading glasses, no prescription necessary. ‘Can I wear these outdoors?’ he asks the saleswoman who nods, peels the bar code sticker off and checks him out right there – $10.99 and he's all set.

 

*

 

That evening, when he walks in, the house is steaming with cauliflower and cheese. A casserole with a burnished golden top rests on the counter. Sushila is on the couch, sipping wine. She's washed her hair, he can tell, by the way it coils neatly around her ears. ‘Hello,’ he says, startling her. Her head rises abruptly and her eyes widen. A little frisson goes through him – even though they've been married four months, the routine of coming home to her is still new.

 

She points to the glasses. ‘How come?’ she asks.

 

‘Oh,’ he shrugs, ‘these are just to help with the strain on my eyes.’

 

‘Hmm....’ She tilts her head to the side and smiles, ‘you look very handsome.’

 

Peering into the mirror above the couch, he sees how the dark frames carve his cheekbones into angles. Her reflection joins his. A hand reaches up to jostle the glasses lightly against his nose.

 

‘Don't do that,’ he says softly. When she lifts a hand again, he stops it with his.

 

‘But you're tense,’ she whispers, and kisses the clenched muscles of his wrist.

 

‘I'm not.’ He wraps his arms around her, lowers her to the floor.

 

‘For god’s sake,’ she giggles into his cheek, ‘take the glasses off.’

 

He keeps them on.

 

*

 

Afterwards, he helps her wind into a gold sari, holding the edges as she turns into it, and drapes it over her shoulders.

 

‘Sure you won't come?’ she applies kohl in thick sure lines.

 

‘No,’ he says. The shimmering fabric makes her a stranger. Her eyes bear down on him. He shifts and the glasses send a slight shock through his nose. ‘Don't quite feel like a wedding.’

 

She rustles out the door. The silence is a living thing, an animal panting. He eats the casserole slowly, listens instead to the motions of chewing and swallowing. As he rinses off the dish, he lets the water run, watching the rush of white splatter against the sink. He remembers her parents' toothy smiles, blinding against their wrinkled skin. They say his name with difficulty, trip over vowels, accentuate wrong syllables. But at least they try, she says, not mentioning his mother who has given up trying and calls her Susan.

 

When she returns, she kisses him lightly and taps his glasses.

 

‘Did we see anything tonight?’ she asks.

 

‘We did not,’ he enunciates the words. The smells of food dipped in ghee, deep fried, rise from her sari. He grimaces and walks out to the porch. She watches him meditatively then goes into the bedroom.

 

Outside, he stands in darkness lit by a watermelon moon. The corners of his eyes are twitching. He hears the low steady humming of invisible things, like a collective indrawn breath that, when released, will crack the earth open. Then she slips beside him. Her arm nudges his. He relents and shifts to fit her into the hollow of his neck. She seems to breathe into the humming and before he knows it, he is breathing in rhythm.

 

When she walks onto the lawn, the moon tints her skin blue and pale, like his. He takes off the glasses and follows her into the night.

 

*


Shebana Coelho is a writer and director, originally from India, now living in New Mexico. She received a Fiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Fulbright grant to Mongolia. Her poems, stories and articles have appeared in Chronogram, Slice, Juked, Malpais Review, Word Riot, Vela, Al Jazeera America, and Best Women's Travel Writing, vol. 10, among others. She has recently completed a short story collection, beyond the end of the world. Her website is www.shebanacoelho.com