The Woodturner

Padma Prasad

In her mid-thirties, Fern, the sculptor, was about five feet tall, very bony and pale, her face long and elegant, with a strong pointed chin. Her hair was long and lustrous black and she usually twisted it into a knot at the back of her head. Her real name was Fenfang, which she changed to Fern.

Fern worked in wood and made abstract figures that were not recognizably human but possessed a strong tangible emotional presence. An American war veteran who bought one of Fern’s sculptures said that it restored his balance after the insanity of his war experience in Iraq.

Though her figures displayed so much emotion, Fern’s own face held a stillness, as if she had donated all her feelings to her figures. Over the years, her career had grown steadily; her sculptures were highly regarded in the Toronto art scene, in a largely male-dominated world. She had achieved this with single-minded focus on her work, she would allow no distraction in her life, nothing existed for her but her figures. This way of living her life completely satisfied Fern; and in her little studio apartment which had the Lake Ontario waterfront on one side and a park on the other, she had a sense of equilibrium which was different from what most people could expect in life. 

Fern had received several awards and participated in significant group exhibitions, but was yet to have her own solo show in a reputable gallery. So when Myra Gardiner, the gallery owner of Studio MG1, showed enthusiastic interest in her work, Fern knew her status as a sculptor had ripened to a new maturity.

Located on Dundas West, Studio MG1 was one of the best galleries in Toronto. It consisted of three very spacious rooms with high ceilings and excellent lighting. Myra Gardiner was a most resourceful and highly influential gallery owner and the art shows she curated had quite a reputation.

The two women met one afternoon in early March and discussed plans for a show to be scheduled in fall. This gave Fern a comfortable stretch of time. She shared the news with her parents, her Chinese father and Canadian mother, who lived in Winnipeg. Her father, who owned a construction company, would have preferred to hear that she was getting married, but this news was quite welcome too. He sent her an expensive set of wood carving tools—chisels, gouges, carving knives. Fern usually worked with pine or walnut, but now with great excitement she shopped for exotic wood, like Indian Ebony and African Blackwood, and started working for the show with happy confidence.

By April’s end, Fern sensed that something about her work had changed. Something was not quite right. She could not understand what it was. It couldn’t be the new wood, which was exceptionally malleable with its smooth surfaces and how it allowed her to shape it. She spoke to her friend Lilly, who was trying to be an actress. Lilly said that sometimes, when you are too excited, you lose your perspective. Fern thought that might be the issue, but after two more weeks, she knew it was not like that. She felt more and more exhausted, the sight of the wood tired her. Then the joints of her hands and knees felt inflamed and every part of her ached intolerably.

After trying to fight it out with her body, she finally went to the doctor, who diagnosed it as rheumatoid arthritis and gave her the required medications. Fern took the medicine mechanically and did her best to ignore the inconvenience of her painful joints. She went back to work with more spirit, but the wood seemed to sense the change in her and the shapes that emerged no longer had an expressive intensity, becoming more and more just wooden.

When Myra Gardiner checked in to see how the work was going, she began to have many doubts; she became vague about their plans and said a few unexpected events had happened, maybe they should push Fern’s show to next year instead of the fall. 

Fern listened to this suggestion without any outward sign of rebellion. It was just a problem, an inconvenience for which she was fully confident she would find a solution. Still, all this created its own bitterness in her thoughts. For some time after that, she completely stopped working on her sculptures. She read poetry and went to the one-act plays that were staged by an amateur group of actors in the nearby Foundation Theatre. Her friend Lilly was a supporting actress in this group, and after each show they would sit in a nearby café and have some soup or coffee. One day, Lilly said to Fern, “There is someone you have to meet, he does something that will definitely interest you.” And that was how Fern first saw Ling, whose full name was Linganathan Damodaran and who was the son of a butcher from Madurai and a secretary from Toronto.

Ling was a woodturner. He was a short, dark man with strongly defined Dravidian features, thick eyebrows, and thick unruly hair. He had a luxuriant moustache that had obviously been cultivated with great care, though his beard was another matter altogether—it came and went depending on how busy or lazy he was. The woodturning had given him powerful shoulders and biceps. The pupils of his eyes were larger than normal and somehow this made his face always look as if he had just finished laughing. 

“Ling? Your name is Ling?” Fern asked, as he sat down beside her, her long face lengthened even more by a stiffened chin and acid eyebrows. She felt his presence to be unnecessarily happy.

Ling nodded, smiled widely at her, and said, “Yes, Madam, yes. Ling, short for Linganathan.”

“Ling … a … nath … an? What does it mean, this Linganathan?”

Ling was about to tell her how his name was connected with Lord Shiva, but he looked at her distrustfully curious face.

It was not necessary to educate her on the mysticism of his name; he saw the flowers on her skirt and said, “Hibiscus. Shoeflower. Shoeflower’s what it means.”

There was no answering smile on Fern’s face. She had made a decision that he was of no consequence. She ignored him, though Lilly tried her best to include him in the conversation. 

Linganathan left soon after, his whole body hot with restlessness. This woman, Fern, why was she like that, she was not normal, or maybe Lilly would explain later what was wrong with her, explain what she saw in him that made her like that. Or really, it was not something for him to be concerned about. By the time he reached the apartment he shared with another South Indian man from Madurai, Ling was only thinking about the theatre group and how they were dedicated to their play.

Meanwhile, on their way home, Lilly spoke to Fern about woodturning and what a great woodturner Ling was, and how the theatre group had found him because they were doing a play about a blind woodturner.

Listening to all this information, the fingers of her left hand massaging the swollen knuckles of her right hand, Fern felt uplifted that the solution for her sculptures was now visible. She took Ling’s number from Lilly, and as soon as she reached her apartment she called him. She did not remember how unfriendly she had been to him, face to face, just a while ago. Instead, as if he would immediately understand how valuable her work was, she explained quickly what the rheumatoid arthritis was doing to her and that he could help her make her sculptures. She would pay him generously for his trouble and there was no time to be lost.

At the other end of the call, Ling listened with amazement. He had been so fully convinced that he would never see or have anything to do with this surly woman. All his life, the women he had known, his mother, his sisters, his aunts, his grandmother, all of them spoke so gently, with such concern about his welfare; they worried about him and his activities and he was nurtured by their sweet concern. But this woman, was she even a woman, he wondered. Still, he was a generous man, and flexible. Also, he was happy that though he was short, about five feet and two inches, Fern was shorter.

“You do realize that woodturning is quite different from woodworking, don’t you?” he said.

“Of course, of course,” said Fern’s gushing voice on the phone. “I totally see that. But it’s the same material, and I am fully confident that your skills can extend into my wood sculptures. I have full faith in Lilly’s judgment and she has endorsed you completely.”

Ling agreed to go to Fern’s studio the next day.

The next day was a day of cloudless blue sky, light breezes, and lilacs in heady bloom. The morning light in Fern’s apartment made it cozy and inviting. Ling felt this coziness all around him. He looked appreciatively at the view of the lake, and felt that it was a good setting. Fern took him into her workspace straight away. She was a smiling, joyful woman today, and Ling watched her all the time without even realizing it.

There were eight wooden figures, each about four feet. The moment Ling saw them, he felt engulfed by the intense mournfulness they exuded. Their unhappiness was so strong, he stopped for a minute, leaning against the doorway, his head dizzy.

The style was unique; they were almost abstract in concept, the lines of their shapes strongly pronounced. He could not tell if they were male or female and he thought at once, that is where the suffering is coming from; these figures don’t know who they are. They had an ageless look about them as well, they could have been ten years old or a hundred years old. This Fern woman is too clever, he thought again; she has given form to something human but has removed all resemblance to what we know as human; she is too, too clever. But her cleverness is not working. This final understanding gave Ling a strong, secret pleasure. He strutted around the figures, peering at them with exaggerated poses that quite irritated Fern. She clicked her tongue, undid her knot of hair, so that it lay around her shoulders, and shook her head as if she regretted the decision to ask Ling’s help.

Ling stopped his posturing and said, “So where shall I start?”

Fern opened a drawer and took out a binder of photographs. “See, this is how they were before. Before I was sick.”

She unclasped the binder, took out a page and went to the nearest wooden figure. “Take a look at the shoulder, see in the picture, how smooth and how professional it is. And here,” she touched the shoulder of the wooden figure, “see, see, do you see the difference, so unfinished, so rough, this is not how it should be.”

Ling tried hard to see what she was saying; his eyes moved rapidly back and forth from the page to the figure. Fern stood expectantly, impatient that his face continued to express confusion.

“Oh, wait a minute,” she said finally. She opened a closet and pulled out a much smaller wooden figure. “See, this is one of the older ones, I had done it a while ago, see what I am saying?”

Though he couldn’t quite get the whole picture, Ling could see this piece was not mournful. It had highly polished curves and an almost woman-like shape, which he complemented with his imagination. He sighed. “I see,” he said.

“So can you do the same for the other eight?” Fern asked anxiously. “You can start now. Can you start now?”

Ling nodded slowly. “I can try.” He opened his bag and rummaged inside.

Immediately Fern went to a cupboard and opened the doors. “Every kind of tool is here, anything you need. If there’s any other thing you need, I will get it for you.”

Ling studied her thoughtfully. She was so lost, so desperate. She really was shorter than him, he had not imagined it. And so thin. How could she work with wood with such thin fingers? He ran his hand down the back of the wooden figure nearest him and was surprised again at how sad it made him feel.

He proceeded to clear some space, and got ready to work. Fern hovered around him, like a mother on the first day of school; she gave directions on the parts of the figure he needed to work. She did not want the section of the face to be touched. She was concerned about the angle of the neck, the hands and fingers needed fine details that she was now quite unable to create, but they were not really fingers like human fingers, the most important part was to preserve their abstractness, to convey humanness without the human form. Ling paid very little attention to all she said. He took his scraper and worked on the neck. That silenced Fern, and she watched his supple fingers create planes and angles on the neck area with effortless grace. She felt envy as much as relief as the minutes went by.

It was now nearly ten o’ clock. Except for an occasional car that went by, the world was quiet around the apartment. Ling worked steadily, deeply absorbed in the neck of the figure.

“I have to go for my acupuncture appointment,” Fern said in a very low voice, when he paused to stand back and see the effect of his work. “I hope it’s all right. Is it okay with you? I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

“Okay, you can go,” Ling said. “I think I’ll be done with this one by the time you get back.”

“Don’t touch the face, remember.”

“Go, go,” Ling said, as he smoothed his moustache.

As soon as Fern had left, Ling pulled up a stool and sat down beside the little figure. He felt himself immerse in the sorrow that gushed out of it, that entered deep into his soul, causing an active pain in his heart. “This is not possible,” he whispered, and tried to shake his head which was now slipping into a trance.

“Look at me properly, Linganathan, don’t you know me?” the figure said to him. “Look at me, I am a woman, the woman you saw two years ago, don’t you remember, Linganatha? She took away my figure, Linganathan,” and a terrible wailing filled the apartment.

Ling tried to think who it could be. A woman he saw two years ago—that was too general a description. “There is no justice in this world,” Ling said, “but I will take care of that, I will take care of you.”

He got up decisively and, sitting on the floor, proceeded to work on the feet. He began to carve the toes; he provided nails for the toes. He was no longer thinking about what he was doing, each action on the wood was complete in itself, it happened independently of him; he was just a tool, wielding other tools. The toes wanted rings, so he made the toe rings; the ankles wanted anklets, so he made delicate anklets. His skill was so great that those wooden anklets were as fluid as silver ones, and lay around the ankles like real anklets. Already he sensed a shift in the mood of the figure. She looked ready to dance with her arched feet.

The clock tower of the church down the street struck the noon hour. Linganathan stood up with a deep satisfaction. He went to the window and gazed unseeing at the street below, conscious of how relaxed and peaceful he felt. He stood there until he heard the door open and Fern came in, bringing a bag of Chinese takeout. The acupuncture had been good, she too looked comfortable and relaxed.

She put the bag on the little round table near the kitchenette, humming a little, and came to see Ling’s progress. At first, she thought he hadn’t done anything and then she saw those feet, the toe rings, the anklets, and a rage went through her entire body.

“No, no,” she moaned. “That’s not what I wanted to see.” She grabbed a drill and was going to stab it into the figure with all her might. Though he was completely unprepared for her violence, Ling instinctively put out his arm; her hand crashed against his and she strained to force him away. They stood there sealed for a minute, until she put out her other hand to push him. Ling responded with equal force to quell her.

They began to wrestle with great intensity. Ling was surprised at Fern’s strength. Those bones were powerful, he felt their hurtful capacity. Fern was like a warrior, concentrating with all her might to vanquish him. They grunted and breathed heavily as they tried to force each other down. Ling had the strangest sensation that Fern was actually enjoying this fight; once in a while, he stared straight into her eyes, into the maniacal pupils, hypnotic in their effect. He had to use all his muscle power to gain any advantage. After about ten minutes, Fern knew she was beginning to weaken, still she would not give in, until she was quite immovably caught under Ling. They lay for a few seconds, panting, and then Ling rolled over. He stayed there looking at the ceiling and started laughing.

He was terribly amused that he had fought a woman, even more amused that it was a bony, flat-chested woman. This was the most impossible moment in the story of his life, he thought.

Ling was born in Toronto. His father, a successful butcher from the South Indian city of Madurai, had made his way to Toronto through Yemen and met and married a demure Canadian woman who gave birth to Ling two years after the marriage. Ling did not go to India, to Madurai, until he was about twenty-two years old. Then, when he saw the ancient sculptures in the temples, he felt a joy that filled him with a creative spirit. One day, he stood in the courtyard of a temple built in the seventh century. He was filled with emptiness as he stood there, absorbed with this emptiness, trying to make some sense of it, with several pillars of carved figures all around him. Suddenly, he had a strong sensation of someone watching him. He looked up directly into the face of a female form, carved into the stone pillar opposite him. She was looking at him with a most intense gaze, more intense than any human being had ever looked at him with. He saw how full-breasted she was and yet slim in her shoulders, how her thighs curved like great pieces of fruit. She became for him the only figure of beauty worth pursuing. And here was this Fern, this completely flat-chested, square-shouldered Fern who had wrestled with him like a man, even better than a man. The strangeness of their fight struck him again and again. He laughed some more. It was too, too impossible. 

For Fern, it was more than strange. She felt entangled in several strands of confusion. She was completely surprised by how much the physical contact had aroused and stimulated her and this brought fear to her mind. What was happening to her, first her figures had deserted her, and now her body, too, was out of control.

Determined to focus, she stood above Ling, distorted and disproportionate with the ceiling behind her. “Laugh all you want, Ling, I will not have it. These are my figures, my concept, and you are ruining it. I told you specifically, no human details. You do only what I tell you. I won’t have anything else.”

Ling sat up and shook his head. He looked at the wooden figure, the feet he had made, he saw the possibility of happiness in that wood. He shook his head some more. “She told me as clearly as you are telling me, she wants the toes, the toe nails, the toe rings. She, she wanted it all, this is the truth. Even the anklets, see how perfectly they have come out, I was not even thinking of making them.”

Fern crossed over his legs and went to the kitchenette. Her mind began to tackle these new complications. She was trembling with all her exertions. Looking at the peacefully shimmering water, she realized she would have to readjust her ideas.

When she left her parents in Winnipeg, Fern was just sixteen years old. She had been so sure of her self, and her goals. She had never once regretted it, not even now, when she found out about her illness. Yet, dealing with this Ling, this woodturner, she was confused; he was a workman, she had a specific task for him to do, that was all. But now he had stepped out of his role and she had not yet found her script for how she was supposed to react.

She took out a couple of plates and glasses and set them on the table. She unpacked the food she had brought.

“Eat first,” she said. “I have to think a bit.”

They had a silent meal; the only sound was of their mouths chewing food. When they finished, they deftly cleared the table together, as if they had done this several times before. After that, they went back to the workspace.

Before Fern could start, Ling held up his hand. “Just this one figure, let me do it as it comes,” he said. “You don’t have to pay me anything, if you don’t like it in the end. Not one cent.”

Fern calculated the value of this offer. She shook her head impatiently. “If you are that keen, why don’t you get some wood for yourself and do whatever figure you want with it,” she said, restlessly walking about the room.

Ling could not answer her and it was for a reason. After returning from his first visit to Madurai, he had decided firmly that he would be a sculptor. It was those stone images, the stone images in the temples that filled his head so strongly, he was unable to think of anything else. They filled his dreams, they filled all his actions, and for some time he was confused whether he was real or whether they were real. Sometimes, he met them walking on the streets of Toronto and he greeted them with exhilaration. Ling’s father saw the way his son’s future was going and was very generous and supportive; he financed his art education; Ling interned at the Art Gallery of Ontario for three summers; and just before the end of the last semester, he realized he was a poor sculptor, his sculptures disappointed him. This was a terribly depressing realization and he felt himself betrayed by the stone images in the temples. Somehow, he had failed to sculpt them the way he had wanted to. He was unable to live with the failure. Fortunately, about this time one of his professors introduced him to woodturning and he attended a woodturning workshop. This saved him. Wood, not stone, was his material. And in woodturning he enjoyed the partnership with the wood; the wood and he, they made decisions about the final shape together; in every work, the wood was as much the creator as the created thing. He was joyous and peaceful at last. The dream of the stone images in the temples was thrown away into some dim corner of his mind.

But now with Fern’s wooden figures, they had woken up from that dim corner, creating an unbearable yearning and urgency in his thinking.

“Why don’t you, Ling?” Fern was saying. “Shoeflower, right, that’s what you said your name means, right?” She taunted him as if she was singing a rhyme, “Shoeflower, Shoeflower, why don’t you get your own wood?” That first day at the café, after Ling left, Lilly had told her that Linganathan was the phallic form of Lord Shiva; that he had been flippant with her ignorance: that was another thing Fern could not forgive him about.

Ling stood there unable to answer Fern, watching her gathering impatience. Somehow he had to make an acceptable proposition to her.

He began, “It’s not Shoeflower …” But Fern cut him off. “Don’t worry about it,” she said sarcastically. “I know exactly what it is, thanks to Lilly.”

Ling said, “Never mind that. Fern, only for this one figure, let me do as I wish. For all the others, I will listen to whatever you say, no questions asked. Just this one.”

Fern felt his urgency and calculated again. “Why should I care for what you say? Give me a good reason, one good reason,” she said.

“You want a good reason? I have a good reason. A very good reason. She speaks to me. That’s the reason. She speaks so clearly, I can hear all her feelings, all her longings, I know how she dreams of being.”

Fern was completely attentive now. This she understood. Very often, before her illness, she had felt the same way. Her figures had spoken to her. But now they were speaking to this woodturner. This was something she cared deeply about. “I see, I get it,” she said in a subdued voice. “Okay then, only this one time.”

Ling came every day after that. There was no other life for him. He worked continuously. Since she knew she would be disturbed by his work, Fern never once watched him, nor did she go near the workspace. A week passed by. Ling had completed his figure. With great excitement, he told Fern that she could see his creation.

Fern was familiar with the styles of South Indian sculptures and she grimaced with the thought of what she was going to see, just another curvaceous “fat” form. When Ling removed the cloth that covered his work, she stared in shocked excitement. It was lavishly curved around the head and shoulders, exuding a powerful feminine presence; her chest was strong, her breasts square; her hips and waist were a series of exquisite angles that flowed into one another as if she was on the verge of moving. The face was motherly and seductive, all at the same time. “The female supreme,” Ling said, with pride. The figure had grown much, much larger than its original dimensions, and Fern shivered as she sensed the energy emanating from it. She touched the stomach, and through the wood life reached out towards her as if waiting to be birthed, and again she shivered.

She was unable to identify her feelings any more. There was nothing of her in the figure, and that gave her an enormous sense of loss. But she could see that it was now at a whole new level. “This is no longer my work, is it?” she said, almost a statement.

“Yes, I know you will feel this way, Fern. But it was your figure that spoke to me and made me do this. How many times before I tried and failed. You are the source, don’t you see?”

Fern walked around the figure. She recognized the neck and back, those were her marks on the wood there. She touched the back area and felt her fingers remember the surface there; that gave her a little relief.

Suddenly it did not matter anymore, they were both in love with the wood, with how the wood worked with them. Over the next few weeks, the two of them worked together; there were some times when they still fought quite violently. Once Fern scratched Ling with a screwdriver. It was of course a strange partnership. They even felt a comforting kinship that both their mothers were Canadian, that their fathers were so supportive and so removed from the fine arts. 

Fern gave Ling a key to her apartment. Sometimes, he was there till midnight; and sometimes he came in at midnight and worked till dawn. He liked to do the most intricate work at this time. When he took off his shirt and muscled into the wood with his chisel, Fern watched with yearning, promising herself that her next project would be to render with utmost faithfulness his human material in her wood forms.

During the day, they discussed and fought over every mark on the wood. For Fern, the partnership was filled with danger. There were some moments when she thought that she had never existed or known what it was to be a sculptor until that moment. Then there were others when every bone in her body vibrated with a tremendous jealousy. She worried all the time about where it was all going to lead; she worried about getting sicker than she was. Still, in working with Ling, she forgot her worries temporarily and made a conscious decision to stay focused on the sculptures. This focus helped her with her illness too, and she was better able to deal with her fevers and her aches.

When all the figures were made, they lined them up and gloated over them. Fern made little purring sounds deep in her throat, and touched the figures with love. Seeing them complete like that, she didn’t mind at that particular moment that they spoke to him, not to her. There was a lot of love in the room, the love that comes with a sense of fulfillment. Ling felt it strongly in his heart, there was no more mourning now, the figures were peaceful and radiant, his face reflected their radiance. 

The sunlight came into the room, turning the wood into some mystic life-like material. As they stood side by side, the church bells rang, probably for a wedding or something like that. It added to the holiness of the moment; these figures could be worshipped, thought Ling, at one with their presence.

Fern sniffed and rustled near him; understanding fully that she might not forgive herself for changing the whole mood or that Ling might never forgive her, she said decisively, “So can I give you your payment as a check, you don’t mind a check, do you, Ling?”

Dazzled as he was, Ling slowly turned to look at Fern. He saw again her paleness, the dark of her hair contrasting strongly with that paleness. It reminded him of how her wooden figures were when he first saw them. How had he forgotten who she was, how she had dismissed him, the first time he saw her. “Check is good,” he said.

He waited at the window, looking at the glittering expanse of Lake Ontario, as she wrote out the check.

When Ling left Fern’s apartment, he saw the whole world around him had lost an important dimension. After working with Fern’s sculptures, Ling felt unsatisfied with everything else. All the pleasure that he had earlier gotten from watching an object—a bowl, a vase, or an interesting abstract shape—emerge from the woodturning lathe was gone. All he could feel now was impatience and an urgent restlessness. He spoke briefly with Lilly but could not confide in her. So engrossed had he and Fern been with their figures, that they had completely neglected Lilly. When he went home on the weekends, his parents were concerned that he appeared so listless, as if he was going to fall sick. His mother was especially attuned to his moodiness. She made a thick chicken soup with lots of garlic, pepper, and turmeric, a recipe that her Indian mother-in-law had given her. It was no use.

Fortunately he was soon busy with the blind woodturner play. The opening night was still a few weeks away; his time was completely occupied by the rehearsals. He was helping the lead actor to be an authentic woodturner and also providing some of his pieces for the sets.

There were many times when he was unbearably tempted to go to Fern’s apartment, to see the sculptures again. He yielded only a little: he would walk up to her street end and turn back before he could completely give in.

Then one day, about four months later, he was on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway. At King Station, a poster was in front of him, the picture sending a shock into his skull. It was the picture of the first sculpture he had made, the one he had laughingly called “Female Supreme”; she seemed to stare at him mockingly, her seductive face taunting him. Beneath the picture, he read the blurry details of the exhibit at Studio MG1 as the train moved on. All through the rest of his journey, Ling sat as if he was stone.

When the train stopped and he had to get out, he looked briefly at the rail tracks. He could hear people talking, laughing around him, and he jerked his head to see if they were laughing at him. Outside the station, he stood for a long time on the pavement, his mind in layers of indecision. He was conscious of a wild hunger. He crossed over to a bakery and got himself a huge slice of Black Forest cake, two chocolate croissants, and a large cup of coffee. He ate everything, every last bit, and realized that his hunger could not be stopped so easily. He walked home. To be toppled by a woman shorter than himself—he could not let that happen. No, no, no, that was not something to be tolerated. When he reached home, he sifted through all the experiences of his life that were important, how one thing led to another, and how if it did not, there was a good reason for it. He returned to the beginning that he had forgotten about, the real beginning, the beginning before Fern.

In a way, he said to himself, as he walked around the apartment, from the kitchen to his room, I have been waiting for just such an event. You are not surprised, are you? Why should you be surprised? She has been consistent from the beginning in everything she did. I have been stupid at first, and stupid in the end. But now, it is very clear, what I have to do now. So clear. I know what I have to do now. I have to go back to Madurai, I have to go to that temple, I have to see that figure in the pillar there, I have to stand in front of her and look into myself and see what she saw in me.

On her opening night, Fern looked around the gathering, dense with fulfillment. It was a sizable number, almost two hundred people walked whisperingly about, striking poses of absorption and keen raptness. Her parents were there, proud and pleased; Lilly, too, had graciously come; Fern had remembered to invite her. Fern wore a black diaphanous skirt and a sequined grey top with a deep neckline that accentuated the delicacy of her neck and shoulder bones. As she engaged in conversations and discussions, a little discontent wriggled itself into her mind, something she had managed to suppress in all the previous days of hectic activity. It corroded her sense of fulfillment. Then, what’s next, what’s next, went her brain, had she been too hasty in dismissing Ling, and most, most irritating of all, shouldn’t he have been here too. But she just didn’t have it in her to invite him. All these thoughts made her extremely tired, her body dissipated into weary fragments. She wanted to get away from the room and looked several times at the door.

“This is a radical departure from your earlier work,” a lady with thick glasses and a notebook said. And then the question that Fern had been expecting finally got asked, “How do you explain it? What inspired you in this direction?”

Fern heard herself answering as if the words had been sitting in a container inside her brain all this while. “I don’t think that can be explained,” she said. “The how or why of a work is of no value, really. If the work speaks, that’s all that matters. I just help it along.” That sounded so trite. How many times had she heard that: if the work speaks, if the work speaks, if the work speaks …

“She says, ‘if the work speaks,’” Fern heard a voice and then there was laughter. She stared slowly at her figures. “Is that what Fenfang thinks, that we can speak?” said another. More laughter.


Padma Prasad is a writer and painter who writes pictures and paints narratives. Her fiction has appeared in Eclectica, The Looseleaf Tea, Reading Hour, ETA, The Boiler Journal, Bindweed Magazine, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Fine Flu Journal. She blogs her poem drawings at padhma.wordpress.com. Her poem received Honorable Mention in the Palm Beach Ekphrastic Poetry competition, 2016. Her art is mostly figurative and can be viewed at fineartamerica.com. Issue 5 of Your Impossible Voice features her artwork on the cover.