Potholes in the Sky

My father cleaned the Mumbai city gutters during the day and dug our backyard at night. He said he was looking for a treasure that my grandfather buried before he died. On his breaks, my father sat under the banyan wiping his sweat with the edge of his undershirt, worms curled around his wrists, mud stuck to his fingers. I brought him snacks and water from the house. When he got up, he pinched my ninth-grade, calcium-deficient cheeks and went back to digging with the confidence of someone not risking anything, not even his sleep.

“After you dig out something, you cleanse it of its previous life. Those are the rules of excavating,” my father said. He pulled a doll, naked, a magenta pout, her hair golden or what was left of it. Her eyes staring as if widened by the thin tint of the night. After washing the doll from a garden hose, I draped her in an old kitchen rag and named her Janaki–she birthed from the earth like Sita, wife of Lord Rama.

Inside our home, my mother binge-watched an old soap on the TV. In between, she pulled the curtain to check on father and frowned that he didn’t look at her. The idea of digging appealed to her because everything existed in duality–wealth and misfortune, life and death. Often, she ran her fingers on the white, untanned bands on her left arm from her gold bangles, the ones she sold at a pawn shop to buy one month’s ration when father was laid off from his job at the municipality.

During his breaks, my father talked about the shit he cleaned during the day–the underbelly of a metropolis lined with rats, cockroaches. How he saw specks of gold amidst the dust and grime of Zaveri Bazar. How he was a part of a rescue operation when a two-year-old fell in one of the open potholes in Dadar, a suburb.

“To dig is to locate a past,” he said. “To dig is to connect with its suffering.”

“Did the kid survive?” I asked.

He got up as if startled by the hanging roots of the banyan, swaying like ghosts in a pre-monsoon breeze. “If someone dug the sky–moons, galaxies, suns would fall out,” he said, pointing at the smog-thickened ceiling. “The stars are the potholes of the sky.”

I bit on the hard candy I’d carried in my pocket for weeks, the citrus sugar coating my tongue, before falling into the pit of my gut and wondered what passed down from my father to me, his hands, his urge to dig and how he fitted into this ping-pong of life and death. We were all in a hole of night, trying to come out clean from our past lives, our history dense around us like mud. Around us, whirls of humid air climbed like a ladder. Something in the banyan moved, possibly a bird.

On Diwali night, my father took a break from digging. He washed the copper idols of Laxmi and Ganesh, lit two ghee lamps. Ma smelled of kerosene and spices, frying puris and fluffing the boiled rice with her long hairpin. The front door was kept open to welcome Laxmi. We took turns watching the door, the chilled breeze waking me up when I dozed off. The lamps burned to the last drop of ghee, illuminating our hopes and finally dying out, wicks charred like the new moon night.

The more my father dug, the deeper he wanted to be, as if he was like a man who just broke a lifelong fast and didn’t know when to stop eating. He stopped going to work and started on a different patch, his bare feet pressing on the loose soil, pushing him in. He rarely came inside the house, the night hollow around him. He said he could put his ear to the ground and hear voices, whispering, guiding him. The mounds rose–hills decorated with splayed weeds and exposed earthworms–little flags on the dirt as soft as a newborn’s skin. I kept Janaki on the side of the fence watching him.

“How long until you stop?” my mother asked him.

“Until the earth has returned everything it took from me.” He laughed, his loamy breath escaping, his yellow-stained teeth shining like gold from the darkness they were rooted in.

Artist’s Statement

I wrote “Potholes in the Sky” after reading an article on the sewage and gutter cleaners of a metropolitan. The article gave me a setting in which I developed the characters of a father, a mother, and a child who watches the father dig into their backyard in the hope of finding a treasure and later, something that’d connect him with the earth that he has been cleaning throughout his life.

Tara Isabel Zambrano is the author of Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, a full-length flash collection by OKAY Donkey Press. Her work has won the first prize in The Southampton Review Short Short Fiction Contest 2019, a second prize in Bath Flash Award 2020, been a Finalist in Bat City Review 2018 Short Prose Contest, and Mid-American Review Fineline 2018 Contest. Her flash fiction has been published in The Best Small Fictions 2019 and The Best Micro Fiction Anthology for 2019 & 2020. She lives in Texas and is the Fiction Editor for Waxwing Literary Journal.