Lara Palmqvist has been honored with grants and awards from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), Anderson Center at Tower View, Marble House Residency Program, Ox-Bow, Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center, and the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. She is also the recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, Rotary International, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission, through which she taught creative writing at the Ivan Franko National University in Ukraine. A native of New Mexico, she currently lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota.
Beneath New Skies
Winner of the October Prize for Fiction
The foresters dug up the skeleton on the day of the homecoming formal. I was alerted to the incident by an all-staff email, though the message contained few details, only the bald facts of the matter and an imperative in the headmaster’s preferred British English to KEEP A KEEN EYE on the students. By then, they were already arriving. They came polished and pressed into formal wear, eyes widening as they entered the gymnasium of Kodaikanal International School, which for that evening had been transformed into a dance floor. Gauzy fabric hung from the netted hoops in low-slung crescents. Long tables hunched beneath silvered platters of tandoori chicken. A tiered dessert tray gleamed beside the bleachers, bearing chocolate sandwich cookies and gulab jamun slicked in a patina of syrup. Beyond all this, the rainforest heaved and sighed, rustling with ceaseless movement. Dense humidity peeled off from the opaque wall of trees, forming white fingers of mist that reached toward the darkening sky.
I was chaperoning the dance along with nine other staff members of the boarding school, located in the Western Ghats Mountain Range, an overnight bus ride south from Chennai involving a series of switchbacks that could make your heart stop. We were isolated with little company except ourselves, the kids we taught, and the wild gaur that roamed the forests and trammeled the vegetable gardens at night. We were hungry for gossip, and gathered close as S.P.V. Murthy, the economics teacher, spoke of the death in hushed tones while the high schoolers swayed around us, furtively groping below the ropes of yellow fairy lights.
Murthy’s silk bow tie flapped against his starched white shirt as he gesticulated, offering up the grisly details. He said she was three years old, likely killed by poison. He said this was how most meet their end, these days. From Murthy we learned she was seven feet in length from head to tail, the 25th death reported in Tamil Nadu that year. “The cost of rising demand,” he said, head bowed. According to Murthy, the tigress was one of many, part of a series of killings linked to a syndicate run by the “Veerappan of the North.” The poachers were coming up the mountain to escape arrest, he said. He said there would be worse to come.
Ms. Yadev drew a circle on the gym floor with the toe of her rubber sandal, then raised her round face to look out at the students: the boys with corsages clipped to lapels, the girls with hair piled high above taffeta dresses. “How disgraceful,” she said, fingers pressed against her cheek. “To have such a party in our midst.”
Later that night I lay awake in my twin-sized bed, kicking at my tangled sheets, trying not to interpret the susurrus of wind through the trees as a warning. Worries rippled through my mind, competing for attention. I could no longer blame my sleeplessness on jet lag; I’d arrived in Kodaikanal three weeks ago. Ray, one of the school’s art teachers, had laughed at my grimace after he asked about the long journey, bending his lanky frame to steer my rolling suitcase down the gravel path toward staff housing. Ray had expressed surprise at how little I’d packed—had in fact seemed impressed by this—and I’d willed him to maintain whatever assumptions he was making; surely they were preferable to the truth, itself still so unbelievable.
At the International School I taught biology as a temporary replacement for my predecessor, who’d abruptly quit just before the start of fall semester. I’d agreed to the position at a moment’s notice, having already accepted such sudden turns as a fact of my existence. Not two months prior my husband, Hollis, had confessed a secret, one he said he’d been carrying his entire life. We’d been at home in Pittsburgh, the city lights spread beyond the windows of our tenth-floor apartment, when he took my hands, sat me down on our blue-patterned couch and started talking, even though I told him to stop, even though I wished I could turn his words into something tangible, pull them from the air and bury them. Destroy the evidence and carry onward despite everything. But there was no turning back; the words had been spoken aloud, and I couldn’t shake their haunting presence—Hollis’ trembling, pleading voice rising unbidden in my mind.
After that night, I said I needed time to think things over. Then I realized time wouldn’t be enough; I also needed space. I left Hollis a letter saying as much. I was ending a fellowship with the Smithsonian, anyway, and already looking for work—I simply widened my search, willing to go anywhere. On the flight to India I read tourist blogs about Kodaikanal: tips to avoid the grasping hands of rhesus macaques, how to eat a lychee with a spoon, where to remove my shoes while visiting the nearby Kurinji Andavar temple. The remote mountain town seemed like a place where I might escape impossible problems, the past. Become someone else entirely. No one had mentioned the tigers: only 3,000 left in the wild and more disappearing by the day.
A light rain started up, tapping against the corrugated roof of my small apartment. The bedroom’s single window opened toward the forest, which seemed to throb and creep closer by the minute; every time I glanced outside, I swore my sparse lawn had shrunk another few inches. The plaster walls were bare save for three hanging masks depicting the features of animals—a tiger with thick jowls, a slant-eyed elephant, a baboon with teeth bared. Their empty eyeholes seemed to pull at whatever glimmers of light remained in the murky room.
My throat was dry, stinging. I felt the latest threat of the poachers as a pressure in my chest; according to the headmaster, the criminals operated only at night. I wondered whether I should check on the students, who liked to skirt the edges of campus after curfew, traversing between the gendered dormitories. Hollis and I had not been much older ourselves when we first met: two juniors at the Amherst Science Department Honors Symposium, names pinned in plastic envelopes to our blazers, respective research posters perched behind us on wooden easels in the open conference hall. Scientists had circulated past, their stern frowns all seeming to suggest I wasn’t cut out for a crowd that consisted of so few women. I’d stumbled through my presentation, faltering over my data and forgetting to breathe properly. When I reached out to steady myself, my hand landed on Hollis’ shoulder. He had the sort of cheeks that looked as though a kid had colored them in, broad streaks of pink that never fully faded. His dark hair covered one hazel eye. Beneath his too-short slacks, above his polished shoes, I glimpsed a sliver of vivid yellow sock.
On our first date Hollis showed me the sky. I’d never really seen it before, not the way he did: rich with detail and significance, systems and disorder, chaos and questions and illumination. Just take a long look around, he whispered, lying back on a fleece blanket, the lights of Old Main glinting in the distance. I’d worn the wrong clothing, too thin for the crisp fall night, and shifted closer to Hollis, happy to be with him. He pointed out Merak, Capella, Polaris, explaining how the bright flecks burned hotter than the Sun and had held steady for untold centuries. Those stars were the allies of our ancestors, Hollis said. They used them to determine where they stood, and where they were going. That night the sky came down to us, surrounded us. Grainy, flickering, volatile, the stars had heaped around us in great gusts until there was no longer any division between the dew-slick grass and gassy flares of the far-off unknown.
A sudden draft of wind beat against the apartment’s metal roof, amplifying the rain’s intensity. I pulled the woolen blanket up to my chin, the dense fabric smelling faintly of mildew. According to Hollis, it had been true even then [. . .]