Binu’s left foot hurt but his mother was on it. She prodded his heel with fingers like pliers. “Does it hurt here?” she said. Her nails were yellow with turmeric and she smelled of cabbage, which was what they were having for dinner.
“It’s only a stone stuck in my shoe,” said Binu, but his mother pinned him down with a leathery palm and phoned his father.
“He limped all the way from school,” she sniffled. Within minutes his father was kneeling by his side and stroking the pudgy sole of his foot, back and forth, back and forth, like it was a magic lamp. Binu’s foot was large. He was eleven.
“Does it hurt here?” his father said. His glasses were thick and his eyes shone like beetles. Binu didn’t know how old his parents were but thought they must be very old because they looked very old, especially now, crouched on the floor, their round brown faces squashed together like gourds. Binu was a late arrival, a miracle baby, born after many who’d died.
“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” said Binu. He tried to wriggle his foot away but, strong for their age, they restrained it.
“His toenail’s red,” said his mother.
“The other one too,” said his father. They each grabbed a toe and squeezed them like they were lemons. They rubbed their cheeks on his feet like they were cashmere shawls.
A tear oozed from his mother’s right eye, a coordinating one from his father’s left.
“It’s his shoes,” they sobbed. “They’re ruining his feet!”
“Walk from here to there, Binu,” said his father. “I want to see you walk.”
Binu walked from here to there, four eyes burning into the backs of his legs. At least this pushed back homework, he thought. Binu didn’t like homework.
Seized with inspiration he set his left foot rolling in a motion he’d seen on a boy with a sprained ankle. Right foot normal, left foot inward roll, normal, inward roll. Binu reached the end of the room and turned.
His mother had gone white. “Oh my God,” she squeaked. “Look at him limp!”
“The shoes! Throw them out!”
They grabbed his shoes and dumped them in the dump. They half-carried Binu to the couch. “When did you get so big?” said his mother and went smooch, smooch on his face.
His father got out the nail cutter and trimmed Binu’s toenails.
His mother placed a blanket on his knees and one around his shoulders.
His father brought him a glass of hot milk.
His mother brought him his dinner: rotis, cabbage, curd, kheer.
His father brought some Vicks VapoRub, just in case.
His mother put a Band-Aid on his toe, just in case.
His father applied a cold pack. Binu was too cold.
His mother applied a hot pack. Binu was too hot.
They didn’t call the doctor. They didn’t call a nurse. They didn’t look up the Internet to see what to do.
Homework sounded good now, history lovely, math magnificent. Binu wished his father would go back to work. He wished his mother would go do her work. He wished they would disappear, he wished they were other people, he wished he could have pizza.
His mother wouldn’t let him do his homework. She wouldn’t have let him go to school the next day, but his father said he had to study and grow big and get a job and light their pyres when they died.
“I’ll carry him to bed,” said his father.
“I’ll sleep in his room,” said his mother. She made good her threat and woke up several times to look at Binu’s foot, her breath misting like a geyser on his ankles.
The next morning, Binu got ready for school. Not wanting to disappoint, he limped the whole time. He put on his spare pair of shoes and limped out of the house.
The limp came easily. Normal, inward roll, normal, inward roll. Binu did it down the steps and down the street. Halfway, he wondered, could he maybe? Something moved nearby. It was his mother, hiding behind a tree too small to hide her, her gaze trained on his left foot.
Binu limped all the way to school and all the way back. He limped for weeks and weeks and never walked properly again. Some months later he got a paper cut on his finger, and it somehow wound up so he could never write again. And when he got a stomachache a year later it ended up so he could never eat again.
It became too impractical to go to school, so he stayed home. His mother cared for him and made sure he was never too cold, which was the only important thing. But Binu got a headache from the heat of the heavy lambswool blankets she put on him and could never think again. And as he lay in bed, gibbering and twitching and trying to kick off the blankets, his parents watched and wept and wondered, their mouths little dots of worry.