Introduction by Bret Anthony Johnston
Recently I’ve noticed that when I choose to quit reading a book, even a big and/or important book, my decision has nothing to do with the writer’s strengths or prose or depths of characterization. Instead, I turn away because of an increasing tendency toward meanness. I’m all for characters acting in their own worst self-interest, but I cannot tolerate them being conscripted into situations that exist only to make the reader cringe. Stated another way: If characters want to swan-dive into a lake of emotional lava, count me in! It is, however, unethical for writers to blindfold them on a volcano’s rim, unforgivable to push them over the edge.
Thankfully, in the beautiful and beautifully wrenching “Nature Exchange,” Sindya Bhanoo takes great pains to spare her characters such indignities. In many ways, the story is a marvel of empathy, the surest antidote to both judgment and bullying. This is not to say “Nature Exchange” lacks complexity or consequence. If anything, Bhanoo raises the stakes so relentlessly that the devastating end of the story comes, for reader and characters alike, as something of a catharsis. The difference is how she treats the cast, especially the bereft and steadfast Veena, as the narrative and emotional pressure intensifies. Instead of forcing Veena into situations engineered to embarrass and scar, the writer seems to be following her deeper into the treacherous territory of grief, cautioning her against any sudden movements, begging her to step back from the hypothetical volcano’s edge. It’s a level of literary restraint, of artistic grace, that might well be called compassion. Or humility.
Whatever it is, “Nature Exchange” has it in abundance. Sindya Bhanoo’s characters choose their own paths toward and out of heartbreak, and their decisions emerge from individual hopes and losses rather than any self-serving authorial agenda. I’ve returned to the story often since I first encountered it, and with each new reading, I feel like I’ve been offered a precious gift—a call to attention, an invitation to participate in the holy act of witness—and that’s no small thing at all. In fact, it’s awfully big, profoundly important.
– Bret Anthony Johnston
Author of Remember Me Like This
A Rock Collection Only a Mother Could Love
“Nature Exchange” by Sindya Bhanoo
Behind the tennis courts, Veena finds the grassy clearing that has been fruitful for her. Since her move to the area a week and a half ago, she has found a dead monarch with its wings intact, and half a mouse skull.
Today, she has less luck. She picks up a handful of green-capped acorns and two pine cones. Then she spots something shiny in the grass. An iridescent abalone shell, surely dropped by a child who brought it back from a beach vacation in Florida or California.
She turns to find a boy, hardly four years in age, standing behind her. He has bright eyes. Brown eyes.
“What are you doing?” he asks. A sweatband made of blue terry cloth keeps his long blond hair out of his eyes.
A woman, her figure flat as a pancake, stands at his side.
“Sorry,” she says to Veena. The woman raises her eyebrows and offers Veena a knowing smile, at once both apologetic and proud. “He likes to talk.”
“I dropped something,” Veena says to the boy.
“I can help you find it,” the boy says. “I’m good at finding things.”
She thinks about giving him the shell. It is in her right fist, its edges pressed against her palm. With her other hand she massages her side. She has an ache in her hip that she notices only when she stops moving.
Finders, keepers, a voice in her head says.
“No, you can’t,” she says out loud. She massages her hip again. The boy watches her do this.
His mother takes hold of his hand.
“We should go,” she says. “Finish our walk and let this nice lady finish hers.”
The boy persists even after Veena turns to leave.
“What did you lose?”
Veena puts the morning’s haul into the tote hanging from the doorknob of her bedroom, a room she has all to herself. The tote contains a portion of her son Neel’s collection. The rest is still in her moving boxes. Before she and Mitchell separated, it had hung from their bedroom door and he frequently complained that it was too heavy, that the knob would fall off. But he never made her move it.
The last time they took Neel to the nature center was on a Sunday, two weeks before he died. Two years ago now. He was seven. The exchange is a single large room near the nature center’s entrance, a place where children can bring in found natural objects and trade them in for points towards prizes, all from nature. The shelves have bins and drawers and everything is neatly categorized. There are lotus pods, sand dollars, barnacles, sea beans, devil’s claws. Bark, pine cones, paper wasp nests. Dead, dried-up insects: butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, earwigs, houseflies. Tiny pins with slips of paper pierce insect bodies, identifying them by scientific name. Dermaptera. Musca domestica. Caelifera. Some items are local, others are most certainly ordered in bulk from a wholesaler.
Everything has a price in points.
Small, standard shells such as scallops, clams, and cockles cost twenty points. Shark-eye shells are twenty-five. Big or unusual shells cost up to two hundred apiece. A large conch, of which there is only one on display at a time, is one thousand. Little polished stones, fifty. Small geodes, five hundred. Mid-sized geodes, two thousand. Big geodes, four thousand. And the elk antlers, up on the highest shelf in the back corner of the room, unreachable by any human under seven feet tall without aid of a step stool, are ten thousand points. They are gleaming and polished, each side with four spiky branches. A donation from a hunting family that loves nature.
“The young man with his eye on the antlers,” the white-haired woman behind the desk said when Neel walked in on that final Sunday. The woman’s name was Rosemary.
She looked at Veena and Mitchell. “I love him,” she mouthed, her lips, colored raspberry, moving deliberately. She wore a seashell-patterned blouse. She was typical of the center’s employees: patient, older, a lover of nature, eager to share that love with the next generation. She was always there on Sundays, and Veena knew her blouses well—the one with planets, the one with dinosaurs, the one with microscopic organisms, the one with mammals of the savanna.
Neel surveyed all the objects in the room, moving from shelf to shelf. He opened drawers, ran his small fingers across the edge of a prickly pine cone, peered through the mouth of a sand dollar with one eye. He blew air up towards the strands of hair that fell across his eyes. He needed a haircut.
Then, abruptly, wordlessly, the moment marked, as always, by a satisfied sigh, he was done. He took his canvas bag to Rosemary, and carefully placed his three rocks for trade on the desk, leaving a gap between each one. Up to three items could be traded in per day.
He watched as Rosemary picked up the rock with lustrous flakes.
“Tell me about it,” she said.
Neel took a small notebook out of his bag and flipped through it until he found what he was looking for.
notebook itself had little written in it, just a drawing and a word or two, but his oral report was thorough.
“A gift from Toby, found in his grandmother’s backyard. Likely to be igneous with mica.”
Rosemary nodded. “I believe you’re right.”
When she set it down in a different spot, Neel moved it back to where he had first set it.
“Sorry,” Rosemary said. Veena could hear the kindness in her voice. She understood Neel. So many people did not.
Rosemary picked up another rock. “And this?”
“Discovered last Friday at four p.m. in my backyard. Fossil seashell. Cretaceous.”
“A mold, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Neel said. “Not a cast.”
Rosemary leaned in.
Still holding the fossil mold, she pointed to the third rock.
“Parking lot of Publix, while Mommy was putting groceries in the car. Ordinary gravel, but shaped like a blue whale.”
“Wonder can be as ordinary as a piece of gravel,” Rosemary said.
For Rosemary, the questions were protocol. The mission of the exchange was to help children observe the natural world around them, to be curious and respectful, and also have fun. Asking questions was also a way for her to confirm that they did not disrupt anything alive in their pursuit.
“All nonliving today, Neel?”
A simple question, but Neel had a long answer. He explained the scientific definition of nonliving: things that cannot grow, move or breathe. And of the living: anything that has ever needed food and water and produced waste.
Rosemary’s eyes did not glaze over when Neel spoke. There was no smirk. Instead, she looked at Veena and seemed to silently acknowledge Neel’s brilliance.
“So, a dead thing is living,” Neel concluded. “Because it was once alive.”
“That’s right. Let’s add it up, shall we?” she said.
Neel moved close to Rosemary as she input his points, as if supervising her work. He did not understand the concept of personal space, according to the school counselor who was trying to help him with it.
“Move back,” Veena said. He was so close that Rosemary could probably feel his warm breath on her neck.
“He’s fine,” Rosemary said.
Neel spent a few of his points on an extra-large sand dollar, a polished tiger’s eye with silky shades of yellow and brown, and a white wolf tooth shaped like a crescent moon. He was always careful not to spend too much.
“What’s my current total?” he asked.
“After today’s purchases, you’re at three thousand, four hundred and ninety-eight,” Rosemary said.
“Still a lot left to go,” he said.
After the visit to the exchange, Veena, Mitchell, and Neel had plans to visit Veena’s parents, who lived farther north, in Roswell. But first, they went to Taco Planet, for a late breakfast, the three of them each ordering the same migas tacos.
“Do we have to go to Ammamma and Thatha’s house today?” Neel asked. “I wanted to play with Toby.”
“You can play with Toby tomorrow,” Veena said. “You know, I only met my grandparents a few times. We didn’t go to India often.”
“I know,” Neel said. Mitchell patted his back.
“You’re lucky we live so close to them,” Veena said.
“So lucky,” Neel said. He rolled his eyes. He had just started doing that.
In the shower, hot water streams over Veena’s body and she turns the handle to make it hotter, allowing the jets to scald her back.
She wanted to make time for the nature center today. The daily three-item limit meant it was important that she went frequently. If Mitchell helped, if he added points to Neel’s account too, it would be so much easier. But he would not help.
“Veena,” he said, when she told him the address of the house she was moving into, how close it was to the center. “You need to stop.”
For the first two months after Neel died, Veena and Mitchell had sex every night, starting from the night Neel’s body was taken to the morgue at Emory University Hospital. It was she who sought him out under the cool sheets, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, tearless but full of sorrow, hopeful that she could lose herself in his hair and scent. Everything else was impossible—walking, smiling, opening mail, eating—but the sex was addictive, a temporary relief, as dismal as it was necessary.
Then, after those two months, it stopped—the relief, the need, the desire. She jumped when Mitchell touched her, pulled away if he tried to kiss her. His proximity was intolerable.
Veena works in supply chain. She has for years. She quit at twenty-nine when Neel was born, and then returned to the same job five years later, when he started kindergarten. Her company’s software follows the life of a product, from its birth to its death. The orange: from the tree, to the truck, to Publix, to the brown bag. A bottle of shampoo: from the supplier, to warehouses, to salons around the country.
Her job is to make sure that the company’s clients are happy, that the software is properly tracking their oranges and shampoo and books and purses and battery-operated puppies that somersault. If there are any problems, she is there to help.
At the client site today, the corporate offices of a major retail chain, she does what the in-house analysts should be able to do themselves. Inwardly rolling her eyes, she adjusts the system so that it sends a remote-control car to a warehouse in Tucson instead of Omaha. She doubles the shipments of a face cream to Kansas City and cuts in half what is being sent to Dayton, realizing by the end of the process that it is her company’s software that is faulty, not the in-house analysts.
She finishes by noon and phones her office to say she is sick, unable to attend her afternoon meeting. Then she drives home and crawls into bed, choosing to skip lunch altogether, though her stomach is hollow with hunger. She skips lunch often. She will be thirty-eight in a month and her metabolism is waning.
When she wakes up from her nap she has a headache, and takes an ibuprofen. If she hurries, she might make it to the nature center before it closes. She pulls on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and her Tulane hoodie, and heads to the car.
At the exchange, Rosemary greets her.
“I’ve missed you. It’s been months,” she says. Her thick, long white hair is loose around her shoulders. Her blouse is covered with marsupials of all sorts, some that Veena recognizes, some that she does not, all with babies in their pouches.
“I just moved to the neighborhood,” Veena says. “I’ll be coming more often.” She says nothing about Mitchell or the separation. She takes the items out of the bag and sets them on Rosemary’s desk. Veena looks up and checks, as she always does, for the antlers. There they are. Still gleaming.
“Don’t worry, they’re still available,” Rosemary says. She looks down at what Veena has brought. The abalone shell, the mouse skull, the dead butterfly.
Rosemary does not ask questions about the objects. She enters points into Neel’s account that Veena knows are too high. It is a silent transaction, a compassionate one, and one that breaks the rules. Only children are supposed to trade.
Veena does not thank Rosemary, though her gratitude is immense. She must leave as little room as possible for either of them to be implicated.
It was a school shooting. Neel was the only one who died. Two shots went into his body. One in his abdomen, one in his leg. Only one other person—the art teacher—was shot, but she escaped with minor injuries. An officer from the scene called them with the news. Neel was rushed to the hospital. Veena cannot remember the officer’s name, only that he had lied. “He didn’t tell us how bad it was,” Veena later said to Mitchell. “He just said to come to the hospital.”
“Would that have been the right thing to do?” Mitchell replied. “To tell us on the phone?”
Within ten minutes of the call, Veena and Mitchell were at Neel’s side, his eyes closed, unconscious, his broken leg in a brace. He yawned a few times, his mouth in an O like an infant’s, his lungs hungry for air. Then there was a terrible, soft gurgling sound. That was it.
His backpack had made it to the hospital somehow. In it was his lunchbox, and a brownie, half-eaten, that Veena had packed that morning. Before the staff wheeled him away, Veena sat and ate the rest of the brownie, turning the mushy bits in her mouth as she looked at Neel’s shut eyes, the hair that would never be cut. She didn’t offer any to Mitchell.
The man who killed Neel was forty-two years old, father to a five-year-old boy himself. Six months later, he was sentenced to life in prison. The night of the sentencing, neither Veena nor Mitchell could sleep. Mitchell because he thought it was not enough, Veena because she knew that nothing ever would be.
Days, weeks, and months go by. Spring turns to summer.
Veena’s parents go to India, to visit her sick grandmother in Coimbatore.
“Can you take care of the plants while we’re away?” her mother asks.
“I don’t know,” Veena says. It is an honest answer.
“Veena,” her mother says. “Ammamma is dying, and the plants need water.”
“Okay,” Veena says.
“Please take care of yourself while we are gone.” Fall approaches. Veena runs, collects objects, goes to the nature center, eats takeout and prepared items she buys at Whole Foods. Her hip pain is persistent, but she gets used to it. Rosemary gets her up to 7,438 points.
Veena begins to order objects online to take into the nature center. Shells, coyote claws, and, for $24.99, a raccoon skull. One day, unable to control the impulse, she orders three mid-sized geodes from Arizona for $150.
Every other Sunday, she goes to her childhood home to water her mother’s plants, pinching off dead leaves, as her mother instructed her to. “The way to promote new growth is to get rid of the old,” her mother said.
Her mother had wanted Neel to be cremated, as per Hindu tradition, but Veena and Mitchell buried him in Mitchell’s family cemetery in Dallas.
“We only bury children who still have their milk teeth,” her mother said. “Children of Neel’s age should be cremated. We do not preserve the body, Veena. He will not be able to rest peacefully.”
That was what she and her mother had fought about, that two years later they still had not fully recovered from. Baby teeth. What would Neel say about baby teeth? Living.
One day in late September, Veena goes to the nature exchange and finds a college student behind the desk instead of Rosemary. The girl is toying with a scallop shell, carelessly bending it at its edge as she chews her gum.
“So your son isn’t here? Is he sick?” the girl asks. Her jaw moves vigorously as she chews.
“Yes,” Veena says.
“He’s sick and he broke his foot? Poor kid.”
Veena nods. She takes out the objects she has brought: a flat, polished rock; an unusually large pine cone, and three inches of snake skin.
The girl writes a number down on a piece of paper and hands it to Veena.
“I’ll enter it later,” she says. “Computer’s down, but give me your son’s name.”
“That’s it?” Veena says. “Twenty-five points for all this?”
The girl blows a bubble and pops it with her tongue. “This is how we do it,” she says. “I went by the books.”
Veena writes Neel’s name down on the piece of paper and slides it towards the girl.
“Here’s the account holder’s name.”
“You mean your son?” the girl says. “So you wanna pick something out? Poor kid might want something.”
“He wants the antlers.”
“Ten thousand points.”
“I know. We’re saving up.”
“That’s nice. He’ll have to come in and get them himself though. That’s the rule when it’s a big prize like that,” the girl says, an air of authority about her.
“He might not be better for months,” Veena says.
“It might take months to get the points anyway.”
“I don’t know if he can come in.”
“I mean, we can hold it for him if y’all decide on it,” the girl says, her eyebrows furrowed.
“He’s dead,” Veena says. “He’s been dead for two years.”
The girl stops chewing her gum.
“But he did break his leg,” Veena says, wishing she had left it at this in the first place. “He died with a broken leg.”
The girl goes to a bin full of shells, sticks her hand in and fills Veena’s paper bag.
“Take them,” she says. “I won’t tell my manager.”
If Neel were alive, he would be nine, almost ten. Maybe reading Harry Potter, or having sleepovers. He would be moving towards adolescence, but he would still be sweet. Still collecting his treasures and playing Lego with his best friend, Toby.
In the initial months after Neel’s death, Veena tried many things. She took up yoga. She let an artist paint grief on her naked body. The artist had lost a child too, years ago. The artist wore loose, flowing skirts, and big hoop earrings. Her coppery hair was long and wild.
“I don’t understand those mothers who don’t want their babies to get bigger. The ones who want to freeze them in time,” the artist said, as she painted a green line from Veena’s belly button down to the top of her pelvis, just above the mound of hair.
“You hardly have scars,” she said to Veena.
“I used stretch mark cream every day,” Veena said. “I wish I hadn’t.”
Afterwards, Veena looked at herself in the full-length mirror mounted to the wall. It was a cheap mirror, and it made her look thinner than she was. She studied the art and ran her fingers over the dry paint. It would be photographed for her memory and then washed away in the shower the following day. Grief was an elongated lavender foxglove, its small bulbs alive but drooping. It was a cluster of rocks. Igneous, Neel would say. Red tulips. A small fountain of water. There were two brown lines on the rocks. Two squirrels in abstraction, maybe? And three streaks in the air. Butterflies?
“Why so many flowers?” Veena asked.
“Grief is alive,” the artist said. “It’s everywhere.” Her eyes were anxious. “You don’t like it?”
“It’s beautiful,” Veena said. “I wish I could see the beauty without the pain. Just for a moment.”
When she showed Mitchell the art that evening, he looked away from her naked body, as if she were blinding him.
“Do what you need to do,” he said.
“Isn’t this hard for you?” she asked.
When he looked back at her his eyes were full and glistening. “You’re making it harder.”
Neither of them had any interest in activism, in fighting publicly against gun violence or school shootings. Time did nothing to change this. People called now and then: a father from Sandy Hook, a brother from Red Lake, a mother from Columbine, inviting them to join the cause, to campaign.
Instead, they sent generous checks. “This is all we can do right now,” Mitchell said, speaking for both of them.
Six months after Neel died, right after the sentencing, Veena had a bench installed at his elementary school, with an ocean scene painted on it, a beach, waves, birds above. They shared a love for nature, mother and son. She had once worked at the aquarium, right after college.
Neel’s class was there for the unveiling. There were still twenty-three children in the class, Neel’s spot replaced by a brown-haired girl who moved from Michigan just weeks after the shooting.
The children planted an oak sapling next to the bench. Neel’s teacher, Ms. Hackbarth, started the digging, and each child in the class took a turn. Two children placed the sapling in the ground and all the children took turns patting dirt around it, their small hands frantic and eager. Mitchell was out of town for a business trip. Veena had offered to reschedule the event.
“I’ll see it soon enough,” he promised.
After the planting was done, Ms. Hackbarth gave Veena a hug and sent each child in the class up to Veena to do the same. When Toby hugged her, Veena held him extra-long, sniffing him for any essence of her son that he might have retained. Then, single file, the children and their teacher went back into the school. Veena stayed in the playground alone, sitting on the bench.
Once a month, she still goes to the school and sits on the bench. She invited the artist who painted her body to join, but she never came. Mitchell came once or twice, but not after that.
“There are people who let their wounds heal and there are those who pick at them and pick at them,” he said. “I can’t be picking.”
This month, she spends some time cleaning the bench, using wet wipes on the legs and on the seat. Then she sits and waits. Nobody comes.
The gum-chewing girl is there the next time Veena goes to the nature center, in early October.
“Hey,” the girl says.
“I’ve got some good stuff,” Veena says enthusiastically. She opens her brown paper bag and takes out the three geodes she ordered from Arizona.
“Look, I’m really sorry about this,” the girl says. “But your son’s account has been deactivated.”
“What do you mean?”
“The points belonged to him. Since he’s gone, the account had to be deactivated.”
Veena can’t tell whether the girl is lying. She hears the words as if she, Veena, is reading them to herself, as if they were typed out and handed to her.
The girl sighs. She is not chewing gum today. “I feel really bad about this, but I don’t make the rules.”
“She’s on vacation, visiting her grandchildren. This has nothing to do with her.”
This girl was too young to understand. Veena had renewed her nature center membership on the phone for two years, keeping it at the family level, never taking Neel off.
“If you have other children, I could transfer the points,” the girl offers.
“I don’t have other children,” Veena says.
At home, Veena feels sick. She takes a box of day-old cucumber sushi out of the fridge. She eats with her fingers, lifting each piece to her mouth, eating it dry, letting the rice and sesame scrape against her tongue, not bothering to open the soy sauce packet. It’s a sign, she tells herself. She must not go back. Mitchell was right. She had to move on.
But the next day, she skips work and drives to the nature center. She bypasses the exchange and walks into the presentation hall, where she sits in the front row. A few families are there with young children, though the room is mostly empty. She has seen this same turtle presentation many times, with Neel.
The captive turtle’s name is Felix. A woman named Barbara with a polo shirt and khakis and a white plastic name tag pinned to her chest takes Felix out of a deep wooden crate. The turtle inches forward.
Barbara explains that Felix has a friend, another captive turtle, named Felicia. They’ve been together for ten years.
A kid around nine or so raises a hand. “Do they have babies?” he asks.
Barbara shakes her head. “Good question.” She reaches forward to pull Felix back. He’s getting away.
“Even though we take care of them really well, in captivity they are under stress,” Barbara says. Veena feels like Barbara is looking at her. “It is very hard to reproduce under stress.”
The kid’s hand shoots up into the air again.
“Are they happy?” he asks.
“Well,” Barbara says, “They are comfortable.”
After Neel’s death, Veena and Mitchell became like other childless adults who had no reason to be home early in the evenings, whose post-work hours were leisurely, a time to relax and read a book, to go for a quick run, or to even sneak in a short nap. Mitchell found some peace in all this, Veena did not.
Some times of the year were harder than others. Neither she nor Mitchell grew up celebrating Christmas—he was Jewish—and they never made a fuss over Santa or presents. It was actually Halloween, not Christmas, that was difficult for Veena now. What a cruel holiday it was, to make light of death and caskets, of bloody wounds, to bring packs of eager children to her doorstep.
Perhaps that is why, this year, Mitchell calls her on Halloween morning. It is the first call from him since she moved into the new house. She invites him to come over in the evening. When he says yes, she is surprised.
They drink cream soda mixed with Kahlúa in tall glasses and sit on the living room couch waiting for kids to come. It is cool and breezy, the windows are open, the air brittle and fragrant with burning hickory from a neighbor’s fire, a perfect night for trick-or-treating. At first, no one knocks, and Veena is anxious, but then dozens come, little ones with their parents, older ones in groups of five or six. Goldilocks. Annie. A decapitated ant holding its own head. A gaggle of geese. A pencil. Storm troopers.
When Veena runs out of candy and the doorbell rings again, she panics. Then she tells Mitchell to open the door and keep the kids waiting. She goes upstairs and comes back with Neel’s tote.
At the door, she opens the tote for the costumed children: a spooky potato growing sprouts, a zombie rockstar, Harry Potter with a scar on the wrong side. They reach into the bag and retrieve a rock, a shell, a pine cone. “Cool!” the potato says. “Accio!” Harry Potter says.
After 8 p.m., the younger children stop coming and high schoolers show up. The big kids have put little effort into their costumes: a hobo, a girl in yellow sweats holding a sign that says “banana,” a boy wearing a T-shirt that says “Too Cool for a Costume.”
“They’re too old to be here,” Veena whispers to Mitchell, who is standing behind her with his glass. “I don’t have anything for you,” she says to them. She tries to shut the door, but Mitchell stops her, and presents Neel’s tote to them.
“Take something,” he orders.
The teenagers reach in and pull objects out, a piece of sea glass, an arrowhead, a lotus seed pod, dry and hard, the color of rust.
The banana girl throws the pod to the ground and crushes it with the tip of her yellow sneakers.
“Let’s go,” she says. “There’s nothing for us here.”
One of the boys throws the arrowhead into the bushes.
“Weirdos,” the other one says.
“Give them back if you don’t want them,” Veena shouts as they walk away.
A rock comes flying towards her and hits the side of her bad hip.
“Hey!” she shouts, but the kids run off, and Mitchell leads her inside, to the couch.
She does not protest.
He pulls back the edge of her jeans and inspects her. There’s a small red bruise. He touches it and she winces.
Her head on his chest, she tells him about the canceled nature exchange account. How she feels like she cannot go on without the antlers. There is nothing she wants more. She sobs.
“I’ll get you antlers,” he says. He kisses her, first on each of her eyes, and then on her lips. Now he is crying too. “I’ll buy some. I’ll order some.”
“I want those antlers,” she says. “Neel’s antlers.”
“Okay, I’ll get them for you,” he says.
They are careless, his words, but they give her hope.
She licks the salt of her own tears and then, her voice a heavy hush, says, “Come upstairs.”
She goes to the nature center one final time, with Mitchell. It is a Sunday. The plan is his: walk in, make a large donation, ask for the antlers.
“Whatever they want,” he says, “I’ll give it to them.”
A sense of adventure fills her as they drive, a sense of pursuit. But when they get to the center, there are no antlers, just the gum-chewing girl at the desk whose name Veena still cannot remember. Since they last met, the girl has pierced her earlobes, Veena notices.
“Someone claimed them,” the girl says. “Just this week.”
“You have them in the back!” Veena says accusingly. “I know you do.”
“No,” the girl says.
Veena strides past the girl’s desk, opening a door that says “Staff Only,” shouting, “I’ll find them. You’re keeping them away from me.”
How could she come so close and have it end like this? She feels that she is two Veenas now, one version of her unable to control the other.
“Hey, what are you doing?” the girl says. “Hey.” She looks at Mitchell. “You need to stop her.”
“Veena, honey,” Mitchell says, following her in.
“Help me,” Veena says. “Or stay away.”
The girl is on her phone, calling for help.
The backroom is full of shelves, like a warehouse. Veena walks up and down the four aisles, opening the largest of the plastic bins she can reach in search of the antlers. She moves quickly. Mitchell catches up. He puts his arms around her, his grasp tight. She fights it.
“Stop, Veena. Stop.”
“I need to find them.”
The girl is in the back room now too. And Rosemary is there. Veena stops trying to escape Mitchell’s grasp, and studies Rosemary’s blouse. It is covered with acorns. Neel hated acorns. He hated them because they were so plentiful, so easy to find. So boring.
Veena wriggles out of Mitchell’s arms and starts opening bins again, throwing things to the ground in fury, surprised by her own recklessness.
“Tell me where they are,” she shouts at the girl, who has stopped chewing her gum. “Tell me!”
Rosemary walks up to Veena, coming closer until they are nose to nose. Veena has never been this close to her, close enough to smell her. Lavender perfume, and under that, a trace of staleness, something musty. Raspberry-colored lipstick, breath like oranges. And one long white hair sprouting from her chin. Living, Veena can’t help but think.
“The antlers exist,” Rosemary says. “Just because they aren’t here anymore, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Veena cannot stand any longer. She collapses to the floor, draws her knees to her chest, and rocks back and forth. The rocks, the shells, the pine cones, the antlers, everything belonged to those who were alive. That’s what Rosemary was saying, wasn’t it?
She feels light-headed, a little dizzy. She looks up and knows how it seems to them. Their faces, all their faces, are twisted with pity. The older woman understands her pain, the younger one is alarmed. Mitchell is alive and present, but too long in her company and he would decay.
For now, she has no choice but to stay where she is. In order to exist, she cannot choose life, just as she did not choose death.
“Why?” Veena says. “Why does someone else get to have them?”
If one of them answers her, she does not hear it. Instead, it is her own voice that speaks to her. In her hands, the antlers had no future. They belonged in the home of the boy from the park, or Toby’s, in the hands of the active, curious, living child who had carefully collected points, and proudly claimed it for his bookshelf.
Mitchell offers her his hand. “Come,” he says, his voice gentle, and patient. They walk to the parking lot hand in hand. She knows that when they get home, he will not come inside.