Ai and Kei liked to eat chocolate pudding.
The best kind came in packs of six, sealed with a plastic top. When Ai and Kei went grocery shopping with their mother, they would take packs of the chocolate pudding from the shelves and place them in the grocery basket.
"No, that's too much." the mother sometimes said. Other people in the aisle would turn and watch as the mother placed the chocolate pudding back on the shelf. Ai and Kei became sad. They would run off when the mother was in a different aisle and take the chocolate pudding again. The pudding packs were usually frosty from the shelf, but when Ai and Kei carried them, close to the chest, the frost disappeared and the packs became warmer.
Ai and Kei didn't wait until home to eat the chocolate pudding. The packs came with plastic spoons and Ai and Kei would tear them from the lid. They took a single pack each. The mother was left to carry the groceries.
Kei walked head down, staring into the pudding. The chocolate surface spread through the pack's gently curving cylinder. Kei took the lid flap between her thumb and forefinger.
Ai ran out and spun in circles. She stretched her arms and twirled across the parking lot. The mother watched her and carried the bags to the car.
Inside Ai and Kei opened the chocolate pudding. They pulled the flaps back slowly, stripping the plastic from the glue that sealed it to the lid. The packs croaked softly as they opened. A thin brown ring remained on the back of the flap and Kei licked it off. Ai saved hers for later. She scooped out the pudding with her red plastic spoon. As she ate, she felt a sweetness at the back of her mouth.
The mother leaned around and said "Don't eat too much."
When they arrived home the father came out. The father helped carry the bags inside. He tried to pat Ai and Kei on the head and they made faces at him, smiling. The father saw the chocolate pudding smeared around the edges of their mouths. When Ai and Kei finished, traces of pudding remained in the packs. Ai reached a finger in and scraped it off and sucked her finger.
At other times they would sit in the street, eating. The sun went down and they became silent.
The father watched their jaw bones moving. First their mouths opened to accept the spoon. Then their jaws closed. Sometimes a cheek would puff out. Sometimes their tiny mouths opened and closed, slowly. The father had seen fish breathing that way.
The father looked out into the street as the sun went down.
He saw people crossing at the corner. A man passed him wearing a shirt that said 'Punjab.' His daughters' mouths filled with pudding.
A tiny chain of lights opened in his mind. The father closed his eyes and the lights swirled in darkness. They gave off scattered grains, like pollen. The vast night of time opened before him. The father felt weightless.
The lights said, 'Punjab, Punjab, Punjab.' Gently, Punjab lifted itself out of space and floated behind his eyes. He could see it reflected upside down. A ripple passed across its surface, and the lights vanished. He had heard Punjab called "India's breadbasket state" before.
Stevens shifted at the podium. Kuldip Singh was twiddling his thumbs again. This peculiar habit of Mr. Singh, who always sat in the front row, had been a source of constant distraction throughout the semester.
"Farming of the kinnow, popularly called the stepbrother of the orange, has picked up considerably among farmers occupying some 5,000 hectares with an overall yield of 300,000 tonnes annually," Stevens said. But now it was impossible for him to concentrate, and he recited the rest of the lecture in a monotone, hardly hearing his own words.
He left Punjab Agriculture University at 6:30 and, after receiving a phone call, went to the post-office to pick up a package. Later, in his office, he opened it and found several photos of his family. In the first set, his nephews were playing in a garden, their feet covered in dirt.
He looked up as the bell rang. It was Amrik from his second-period class. Stevens motioned for him to come in.
"Here's my report," Amrik said, handing him a folder. "I'm sorry it's late. I needed to finish my research on crop rotation."
Stevens looked at him. He was carrying a grocery bag in his left hand. Through the plastic he could see the outline of a thick block of chocolate.
A tiny chain of lights opened in his mind. Stevens closed his eyes and the lights swirled in darkness. They gave off scattered grains, like pollen. The vast night of time opened before him. Stevens felt weightless.
The lights said, 'Chocolate pudding, chocolate pudding, chocolate pudding.' Gently, a plastic cup of chocolate pudding lifted itself out of space and floated behind his eyes. He could see it reflected upside down. A ripple passed across its surface, and the lights vanished. He had eaten chocolate pudding of this kind before.
Both men returned home at 9:30 PM and watched television for an hour while eating dinner. An hour later, when they went to bed, both pulled back the corner of the sheet from the left and then stopped suddenly. It seemed that they had pulled back the sheet in the same way before, and that something of great importance attached itself to the motion. Remembering it implied remembering something else, and for a moment an endless series seemed to shimmer out of reach. Then they forgot it, climbed into bed and slept facing the left, both their knees bent at the same slight angle.