The boy's parents, like all Bangali parents, had repeatedly warned him about this. It is a common fable told to children who are old enough to start eating on their own, but not old enough to understand the complexities of the digestive process. Bangali parents have a stock of such stories to explain physiological change. Thus, mice steal away babies' milk teeth when they aren't looking, and swallowing fruit seeds will make a tree grow inside you.
The boy looked thoughtfully at the orange segment. He sucked thoughtfully at the soft, sweetsour pulp. His tongue located the bed of seeds secreted in the flesh, and he swallowed them, deliberately, one by one, chasing them down with a gulp of water. He was nearly five years old, and quite a curious boy.
It became a habit almost without his knowing it. Biting into a cool chunk of watermelon on a hot day, he forgot to spit out some of the smooth black seeds. He learnt how to tear open the skin of a taut pomegranate with his teeth and swallow each of the ruby grains whole. He reduced green apples to slender cores supporting nothing but the stalk and a few slivers of peel. He consumed indiscriminately the pips of summer grapes, strawberries, kaalo jaam, and caused his mother an anxious hour after innocently swallowing a couple of cherry stones and refusing to display any adverse symptoms. Often the maid would find him in the tyre swing with the season's first mango, sucking the last dribble of sweetness from the seed with a doggedness almost unbecoming in a child of his age.
The trees grew as promised. In the depths of moist bowels, seedlings took root. As the boy slept, moonlight coaxed up young shoots from the dark, mysterious places between muscle and bone. Paper-thin tendrils clung to arteries like vines. A wilderness flourished in the hollows of stomach, liver and spleen, covering their nakedness with moss. A garden grew, sheltered from the sun, in the fresh swampy wetness of the human core. Air, water and the pale light of the moon which always shone brought forth tender bark on stems and dark, glossy leaves. In a dream that he could not remember later, the boy clearly saw the blossoming of the first fruit on the first tree. A green-gold, perfect orange.
The boy was a strange boy, given to mellow silences and long aimless wanderings. He persisted in remaining as thin as a young sapling despite the 'nutritious' diets his grandmother tried to enforce. He grew a little taller every year until he was sixteen, reluctantly surpassing almost every boy in his class. His favourite time of the year was the last leg of the monsoons. During this month he would go out walking every day and never carry an umbrella. The family grew used to it after a while, if never fully satisfied. He had clear earthbrown skin, and a smile like sudden summer. At certain times, a branching network of veins formed ridges on both his forearms, like a tree growing from elbow to fingertips. The first girl he ever kissed confided to her girlfriends that his breath smelled of fresh apples.
He was seventeen. A pulse in his forehead was pounding in time to the heavy music. The only light in the room came from the dimly glowing cigarette butts overflowing the ashtray. It was a new moon night. On the dark terrace someone was whooping with laughter; he heard the sounds of glass breaking and slurred cursing. Tightly entwined couples had claimed most available sofa surfaces. His date was looking at him with narrowed eyes, one leg crossed over the other, arms folded.
Sour liquid churned in his belly. He tried to hold it back but it was rushing up his windpipe, forcing itself out between his lips and spattering on his lap, on the floor. Someone was shouting again. His head hurt. The song on the stereo changed, although he couldn't be certain. A door was slamming, he was being pulled to his feet. Then cold water was being flushed through his mouth, rinsing like a flood. His stomach felt empty. He coughed into the porcelain bowl, gasped and coughed without stopping. With the torrent of sick came ancient groves that had been splintered into matchsticks, and a mash of rotten fruit. The boy looked at the unfamiliar face weaving at him from the bathroom mirror and, like Adam before him, wished he could cover its nakedness.