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Tigers, Woman, Eels: A Family History
I. Vanishing Tigers
Sometimes in dreams I see tigers. Muscled shoulder blades, aching claws.
Kiran Kumar Sen Gupta, our thakurma's younger uncle, was a geologist who knew how to use a rifle. He had to, since he ventured through wooded areas and jungles for his job. Once upon a time, he found two tiger cubs. Kiran Kumar was afraid to touch or go near them because the mother might have been around. But a little ways away, they found her. She was dead. So they scooped up the two little cubs and brought them to Beadon Street, in Kolkata, to their large compound with its salmon-colored walls and sea green shutters, with its multiple flats where a few families lived together, including our dad, many years later, when he was a boy.
Every morning, Kiran Kumar and a servant would give the cubs milk, and the cubs would express their thanks by licking Kiran Kumar’s and the servant’s hands with their scratchy tiger-cub tongues.
As the tigers got bigger, the neighbors became scared to have tigers around.
One day, when the tigers were licking Kiran Kumar’s hand in thanks after their meal, Kiran Kumar saw that the tigers’ tongues were drawing little beads of blood. Their tongues had become that rough! He didn’t know what would happen when these carnivorous cats tasted blood for the first time.
So, he took them to the Alipore zoo, where he would visit them often. Each time Kiran Kumar came to the zoo, the cubs would come rushing to him, and he would pet them through the bars.
Eventually, one tiger died. The other grew up and, around 1929, gave birth to a cub. Kiran Kumar kept going to the zoo to visit the mother and cub there. He would keep putting his fingers through the bars to pet the mother each time. The mother would pick up the cub by the scruff of its neck and put the cub in Kiran Kumar’s hand. Onlookers would be watching.
“Strange!” they would exclaim.
“It is magic!” others said.
In the summer of that year, when our thakurma and her identical twin sister, Rani, heard this story about their uncle and his pet tigers, they shook their heads and crossed their arms, skeptical as they were already, even at just twelve years old. They said they wouldn’t believe this story of the tigers unless they were taken to the tiger and her cub and saw how the tigers acted with Kiran Kumar themselves. So, Kiran Kumar took them to the zoo, and they saw the tiger come up to the bars and put the cub in their uncle’s hand. They saw how the tiger let Kiran Kumar pet her.
When school reopened that fall, the twins were asked to write about their school vacations. They both wrote about the tigers. The teacher didn’t believe the story.
Years later, when he heard the mother tiger had died, Kiran Kumar was heartbroken. The zoo hadn’t even informed him.
“The tigers remembered him because of his smell,” Kuntala-pishi, our father’s cousin, told me.
Moni-kaka, the ninety-two-year-old keeper of all of our family stories, who has a mind as sharp as a fine blade and remembers every detail of life at the Beadon Street house and the lives of all of our relations, wasn't so sure when I asked him about tigers at the Beadon Street house. I did the math quickly. Moni-kaka would have been seven years old when the twins came home with the story of the tigers at the Alipore zoo. Old enough to remember big cats bounding around in our family lore. But Moni-kaka is from our father's father's side – not the same side as Kiran Kumar the geologist, who came from our father's mother's side. It was possible this was one story Moni-kaka never touched.
Still, we were alone together – Moni-kaka, Dad, cousin Ranabir-dada, and me – when Moni-kaka confessed he didn’t remember there ever being tigers.
“Will you banish us to dreams?” the tigers ask from the shadows.
I watch them pacing. I watch them, watching me.
Low bodies disappear in tall grass. They do not, perhaps, recognize me. Smell how I am of the geologist. I am distant kin, reeking of diaspora.
I see the bars are bent in the space between us. There is an open path from here to there. I watch them creep toward me with eyes flickering. I see no beloved cub in their mouths to show me. I notice my own sweating palms.
They part long green blades.
“Will you,” they ask, low-growling, the smell of their fur almost on me, “claim we never existed at all?”
II. Gray Woman
There were two doors, one on either side of the closet. One led to the kitchen. The other led to the bathroom and the back bedroom, where Mom and Dad used to sleep. I forget when Mom and Dad moved upstairs, before Mom moved out entirely, before Joya moved back there and took over nightmare duty when I called out in my sleep.
The doors never stayed closed. They waved open and shut in the night. Tongues clicking out of latch, reaching for something more than a steady hold.
When I was about four years old, I watched the yellow wedge of the hallway nightlight get bigger and smaller as the house breathed in and out. I found rhythms in its flex, in the odd sounds of a steel-framed house that blocked the reception of cordless phones and held on to the top of a sometimes-windy hill with its poured concrete and steel beams that cut deep into the hillside. I listened to it creak like an old ship.
Protection, Dad told me once. The folks who built the house had lost their homes. One house burned down and another slid because of a mudslide in an earthquake, so they secured the house on top of a stone hill with concrete and steel.
Our house was protected. That felt like proof of something.
Maya and I slept in honey-colored wood bunk beds that Grandpa had built. The beds were stacked one on top of the other in the middle of a room with sealed cork floors. Mom stenciled butterflies on the walls because she said the old walls, bright yellow, woke us up too early in the morning. She liked for us to sleep. She painted the background of the walls periwinkle, her favorite color.
Maya was the best middle sister because in the night she let me crawl into her bed when I was scared (which was often) and when I was sick too (which was also often).
Maya! I’d whisper-yell.
What, she’d growl.
Can I come down? Sleep in your bed?
Silence. The house would creak in consent; the parquet flooring in the living room that Mom and Grandpa had refinished stretched its back like an old lady that relished cracking her knuckles.
Little feet finding dull wooden rungs, step by careful step.
Stay on your side, Maya would hiss, making a crease down the middle of the bed as serious as a wall.
I’d wake up with my little-sister hands on her shoulders, cold feet on her feet. She’d have her back turned to me. Maya snoring softly, and me, happy.
Maya! I called out to her one night.
What! she complained. I was already in her bed. What else could I want?
Can I throw up on your side of the room? I whimpered.
My stomach was twisting again, and I knew I couldn’t hold it for much longer, the bitter taste swimming higher in the back of my throat. But the bathroom, just beyond the ever-ajar door, was too far, and I was too scared to rustle the sheets to get to my side for fear of waking monsters. For fear of our talking house. For fear of what might happen if I let go of the comforter I had wrapped around my whole body that made me invisible and safe.
Fine! she hissed.
Good morning, girls! came Mom’s ever-sun-shiny voice the next morning. It’s time to get up ughhhhh! She stumbled onto the puddle of vomit. You girls! she said. Why can’t you make it to the bathroom??
I looked at the floor and watched Mom’s rounded back, push-push-pushing paper towels until my vomit was all gone.
Maya! I called out another night.
The door to the bathroom had swung wide open. The moon was big and rising. I knew that because I could see the trees outlined in white just outside the living room windows, fully in view beyond the wide-open door. But the trees weren’t what I was looking at. I was looking at the woman standing in the doorway with hair like smoke, her silver fingers holding onto the door frame carefully, hovering just there, true as day in the middle of the night and just as ready to disappear in smoke trails.
What, came Maya’s voice, a little more gently than I’d expected.
Do you see the gray woman? I asked shakily. In the doorway? My voice was muffled, my comforter over my mouth, pulled up to my eyes. The gray woman looked on. I waited for Maya to chastise me, to call me a baby, to tell me to go to sleep already.
Yes, she said softly, and I felt my heart fall flat as a dropped fish. She’s watching us.
I wanted to climb down to Maya’s bed. I wanted to be in her bed already. I wanted her to tell me to stay on my side and say it wasn’t real, that the gray woman wasn’t real, that there was no such thing as a gray woman, that I was just being a stupid baby, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t.
She’s got gray hair? I asked through tears, even though the woman wasn’t menacing, didn’t seem to be threatening us. She was just, well, looking at us.
Yes, Maya said again.
I don’t know how we fell asleep that night. This may have been when I learned to close my eyes to hide.
Do you remember that? I asked Maya once, decades later when we were in our twenties. That time with the gray woman?
I was sure memory had played a trick on me, had inserted Maya’s dialogue where she had said nothing, or where she had chastised me. The gray woman couldn’t have been real. It had been a dream.
Yes, she said. And I felt my heart fall out of my chest all over again.
I asked Maya once more, this time in our thirties, about the gray woman.
Wait, she said. In the doorway? I think I thought you were talking about the family pictures in the computer room. How they looked like they would move sometimes, she said.
She didn’t remember the gray woman at all.
III. Heads On
Why does the hidden feel more real than what already writhes, blotting, on the surface? A grandmother’s hands in your hands. The bow of grandpa’s fishing skiff, slicing the water wide open. The stories that white, papery fingers braid into ratty brown-girl hair before bed: neat square patches partitioned off with a long-handled, pointed comb. Fine-toothed plastic, tracing scalp. What memories must we store, cool and tight, in dark places?
“Great Grandma Kullman would send them to Grandpa.”
Ginger, our mom’s sister whom we call Gigi, who lived with Grandma and Grandpa until they passed away, one by one, is talking about the jars of eels in the crawl space under the house.
“It was his favorite,” she says. “Nobody fought him for them.” She laughs at this, like only a crazy person would want them anyway.
Pickled eels. Lined up with our grandma’s other preserves – the jams and jellies and canned goods she banked, as any smart survivor of the Great Depression would.
The pickled eels glow in my memory. Teeth bared. Heads on. Eyes tracking little girls who snuck in dust around them. Mouths gaping in horror.
But, of course, I’ve made that memory up. I never went into the crawl space under the house at our grandparents’ in Escondido, let alone saw the glowing faces of eels trapped in brine.
Once when Maya and I stayed over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, sleeping in the basement, I waited for Grandma to finish her goodnight prayer with us.
“Grandma,” I said from behind Grandpa’s thin wool blanket. “I’m scared.”
I told her I was worried about a demon coming to get me. A story from Sunday school about possession and pigs was wrapping around my sleepy throat. The black dots in the white ceiling tiles bared their teeth in the shadows, warned me not to continue.
“If you’re scared,” Grandma said, “then say, ‘In the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, leave me alone.’”
She may as well have told me that all the monsters I knew with their knife long teeth and slippery bodies were real. Enfleshed and able to get me. That I would have to battle them all, and battle them all alone.
I felt Maya clutch the bedsheet beside me.
Grandma kissed us both on the forehead and ascended the stairs just like that, leaving behind all things basement-demon, with her grandma shoulders chucked back, like she’d given her granddaughters all the weapons they needed.
I hugged a blunt pillow to my chest, pulled my head under the covers. If I couldn’t see the demon, it couldn’t see me. And if it couldn’t see me, it couldn’t get me. (This, the logic of a six-year-old who’d learned to play hide-and-go-seek by closing her eyes.)
So, no. I was never attracted to the mystery of the crawl space, with the long dead body of the deep freezer and the serpentine preserves in cold underground jars.
And I don’t remember seeing Grandpa eat those eels when he was still alive, or what the jars even looked like. Thinking on it now, though, it must’ve been nice to get this favorite thing, sent across the continent to him from his momma.
Great Grandma Kullman, Grandpa’s mom, was a German from the Black Forest who was born in what was then Austria Hungary, now Romania. She was spared being sent back to Romania because she had eloped with an alcoholic fisherman named Albert. Albert was known for the catches of mussels that he’d tuck away in the Long Island Sound until well after the other local fisherman had flooded the market and the mussel catch was all but gone, only to sell them at a premium once no one else had any mussels left. Family lore said he was a drunk and cruel in some unspecific way that Grandpa never expanded on. He gave our grandpa his love of fishing and his lifelong reason for abstaining from alcohol.
Great Grandma Kullman gave birth to an eight-pound “preemie” – our grandfather – just seven and a half months after her wedding day. Her father, the man who’d forced her to work in factories and kept every penny of the insurance money Great Grandma was awarded when she lost a finger at work, went back to Romania around this time. He’d made all the money he thought he needed, the family lore continues, to be a big man back in the old country. But just as he changed US dollars for local currency after World War I, the market crashed.
You needed a wheelbarrow of local money to buy a loaf of bread, Mom would say at this point in the story.
He was poor again.
Then he killed himself.
I imagine Great Grandma Kullman’s father, back in Romania, walking along the flood plains of the Mures River, rushing with water. Did he open his arteries there? Hang himself at home? Did he point a handgun at his head?
Great Grandma Kullman with her nine full fingers, the only one of her family left behind. Married to a drunk and pickling eels for her only son.
I like to think of Great Grandma culling flesh from bone, but Albert’s capture of the eels haunts me.
Were they young? Still looking like glass, their organs visible in the cavities of their defenseless bodies when Albert grabbed them up by the handful? Or had they turned yellow as fall leaves, their pigmentation darkened from the bloody crush of crustaceans in their mouths, of the worms and insects they hunted, in what could be a thirty-year run upstream crossing lakes and wetlands on their menacing wet bellies? Did these eels know the sacrifice of leaving brackish water? That while some females would grow to five feet long, the length of our sleeping grandmother, those who stayed in murky water would find their lifecycle ending faster than those who ventured out to the fresh? Or, would Albert catch them when they’d lost their urge to feed, when they’d darkened from yellow to a shadow brown, their bellies gone silver as aged hair, and they were heading back to sea to spawn, their descendants brimming their vision and aching their sex organs? Would he catch them with nets, night crawlers? Did he pummel them with drunken fists? Would he stumble home, dragging them into the house, slung across his shoulders, slithering and not yet dead, flanking his sloshed fisherman’s back, his one son cowering unseen in the shadows?
A quick search online connected me to a book from 1899 titled The Preservation of Fishery Products for Food; an entry on pickled eels. The author, Charles Hugh Stevenson, says, “Notwithstanding the abundance of eels in the United States, comparatively few are marketed except in a fresh condition, and even the demand in the fresh-fish markets is rather small in many localities, owing to their snake-like appearance. In New York City and a few other points some are pickled, and at various places they are smoked.”
Who taught Great Grandma to pickle eels? Was this a recipe her mother closed into her hands before she turned her back and disappeared to Romania forever with her husband? Was this a recipe from Europe, from back home, or one they learned as immigrants in Long Island? Were these eels their own prayer? Against the whitewashing that would bleach them in the US like bones left to break apart under the press of an unrelenting American sun? Who put this taste in Great Grandma’s mouth?
Below the description in Stevenson’s book is a recipe that curls in memory.
Dress and clean, well, with a brush. Submerge in salt brine for 120 to 180 minutes. Remove from brine. Blot with a towel like you’re terrified of forgetting. Cut in pieces of suitable length. Submerge in old world oil. Fry in a pan. Cool and blot lovingly, patiently, like this is your own body. Reserve oil, because this is for your great grandchildren. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes white peppercorn, whole mace, bay leaves, lemon. Add weakened vinegar for a bad memory. Add the reserved oil. Let all the memories cool, because granddaughters may know nothing. Lay the eel to rest in glass jar tombs, stone jugs, and pour the alcoholic teeth, the swollen fisherman fingers, over the fresh-water meat, coiled like a hot day in bright white light. Seal the knowledge tight and way back in the recess of what you’ll remember, of what your descendants will wish they knew but have never tasted.
My pointer finger hovers over my laptop’s trackpad while Gigi’s voice falters on speakerphone. I watch a mynah bird hop hop hop outside a window that faces the ocean. A blast of wind rushes across my cheek on its way to Wai‘alae.
I imagine Gigi hidden at home, alone. I feel her as a child, shuddering while watching her dad pulling out long strips of the pickled snake-like fish and dropping them straight into his mouth, his head tilted back like a baby bird accepting food from his transcontinental mother. I wonder if Great Grandma Kullman decapitated the eels, or if she wound them with their flesh into those jars, heads on.
For a moment I feel that if I don’t know this, even though this is the family I grew up with, spent birthdays with, holidays with, and knew in ways I haven’t known my Indian side of the family, I actually might not know anything about these people at all.
"Not only is Anjoli Roy's 'Tigers, Woman, Eels: A Family History' a moving piece with a clear emotional arc, it features the sort of vivid scenes and quirky detail that could make for a fabulous short."
– Gish Jen