The words are back!
High summer, it’s time to chirp again.
Yes, I’ve been silent. Blame it on the new thriller (which is proving difficult), or the fact I’ve to take care of the house now after leaving it to an excellent helper for nearly 18 years, or too much time on airplanes and cruise-ships, or just a lack of words.
A few weeks ago though, they came back: a story, whole. As usual, I heard it in the silence. It was a Wednesday. I was at my Women’s Prayer Group. We were reflecting on Luke 7:11-17, the raising of the child of the widow of Nain.
“What strikes you most about the passage?” Sister Fran asked.
“And he who was dead, sat up and began to talk,”I read aloud. “It doesn’t mention what he talked about. I want to know what he said,” I tell my friends.
“Why don’t you see if he’ll tell you,” Sister suggested.
We went off to meditate.
Here’s what I heard. I finished writing the story 2 hours before the deadline for the Asian Women Writers Festival Short Story Competition.
I submitted and it won!
Have a read:
It takes 38,000 mgs of ibuprofen to kill yourself. That’s seventy-six pills. Two nights ago, I swallowed eighty.
They’ve worked, I think…
When I woke the next morning, the first thing I overheard was my uncles dickering over my funeral expenses. My senses, wide open and receiving, told me I was attending a passing. The air around me was sodden with incense and beeswax. Amma and her sisters were winding a sari pungent with winter-green and camphor around my body. I felt them draping it over my stomach, then lifting my hips and passing its length under me. They pulled. My flesh thudded against wood. Wonder of wonders, I felt pain.
More surprises: I felt their fingers scratching traditional crosses on my forehead, my throat, my chest. And then I felt their hands on my numbed face, their palms cupping my cheeks, their thumbs brushing my lips. The end of a fingernail, amma’s, traced my hairline with coconut oil, warm and smooth. Fingertips, my aunts’, ran through my hair and combed out the tangles. My body was being touched, loved…
If I’d known I could recover these sensations simply by killing myself, I would have done it sooner.
I want to tell amma all about this so she’ll stop crying. She’s been hoping for this since I woke up in the hospital three years ago, for the nerves under my burnt-skin to re-generate.
All this time, she’s been chanting, “It’ll all come back Megha mol. It will. If only you’d pray.”
She said it again on my birthday two days ago, once in the morning when she heaved me into my wheelchair, once again at our last supper. I ignored her both times.
I’d let her wheel me out to the dinner table out of guilt. All afternoon she’d been making moolie, a special from some fish she scavenged off the fishmonger. But you get what you pay for. No amount of onion, mustard seed or pepper powder can disguise the fact my birthday mackerel was a give-away too old to sell. I bit my lips to stop her shovelling more of it into my mouth. Her goiter rose then fell. She folded her hands on the table, one over the other and closed her eyes.
“You know Megha mol, God has a special spot for widows and their children. I’m sure of it,” she said. “He answers even their unsaid prayers.”
If the nerves on my forehead weren’t burnt to a crisp, I would have raised one of my eyebrows. Instead I mumbled, “Really?”
“Yes. So much compassion he has. And so, in your case…”
It would have been cruel for her to say. Both of us knew what I wanted: to go back to how it was before – when I was earning, when my hands could do good healing work, when my body could give and receive love. It was beyond miracles.
“I’m tired,” I told her.
My body isn’t entirely useless. I can use my arms and hands a little. Not the way a masseuse should. Not enough to hold a fork or lift a spoon. But enough to close my fingers around the painkillers I spat out three times a day for nearly a month. Enough to poke the pills into the hole I dug in the cushion of my wheelchair. And enough to ferret them out again. Which is precisely what I did after amma wheeled me back to my room and left me.
“Happy Birthday Megha,” I said to myself, as I began to pop the bitter triangles between my lips, one at a time.
I’m feeling much better dead than alive. Alive, my skin had frozen. Underneath though, I still roiled. Now, those imagined nails through my ankles and those whip burns between my thighs are gone. My back is un-knotted. My chest is loose and expanded. I feel like I’ve just been worked over by a top class masseuse. And my skin, how it’s woken. There is amma’s breath wet and heavy against my cheek bones. There are the drops of holy water sprinkled by the priest, splattering over my arms. There’s the slide of oil again, sandalwood this time, on my brows, my temples, my throat, the bottoms of my feet. A man’s hand stroking my soles… O Joy!
If only amma will stop weeping. But she won’t. For an hour now, she’s been bathing my shroud with tears as she recalls our times together.
“Do you remember?” she asks in between sobs.
And because I can’t answer, she reminds me.
About the bee-sting that nearly killed me, but for her… And the fever that would have stunted me, but for her… And the school I attended, because she worked so hard as a masseuse… And those skills she shared with me… And the massage studio she helped me start… And how we worked so well together… Weren’t we meant to do it always? Why have I left her alone? What did she do to deserve this? Her voice rises into a mosquito’s whine.
God! Why can’t I have peace and quiet, the way the dead are meant to have?
Quiet does descend. Amma stops crying. I can still feel her presence. But everyone else is gone. It’s just me and amma, the way it’s been most of our lives. Except that I’m dead now. And by tomorrow, I’ll be gone. And then, who’ll be there for amma to take care of? Whose insect stings will she sooth with her poultices of turmeric and honey? Whose fingers will she push backwards, to keep them pliant? Who will she wake up for? What will she wake up for, a widow without a wreck of a daughter to worry over? And without me, who’ll keep away those light-fingered right-reverend priests she’s so partial to? A widow with her wreck of a daughter gone will have spare. They’ll be flocking to her door.
Christ! I should’ve thought about it, should’ve persuaded her to come along with me.
It’s too late to change anything now. Whether I believe in Him or not, I’ll have to leave her to that power she so trusts.
It’s nice, actually, to be able to leave it all to someone else; all my cares and worries, all the disappointments of my nearly-there life. I was nearly a physio-, nearly married, the owner of a nearly successful business. Everything, half-full. Not even amma’s love has been satisfactory. True, she loved me beyond nearly. But that love came dear, paid for with prayer candles every day, candles that one day toppled over onto my oils and set them alight. So our salon caught fire. And then my skin.
Thank Heaven I’ve broken free!
I feel myself being lifted. I am being taken by the pall-bearers, my uncles, from the darkness of the church into the morning. Another hour and I’ll be underground with the worms and centipedes. Another year and this body which has so failed me will be gone. I will be returned to nothingness, become a part of the great all, God…
It’s not like me to be thinking in such a spiritual way. It must be the change of life. Yes, that’s a bad joke. But I’m rusty. With the accident and everything else, I really didn’t have reasons to jest. Now it will be different.
Our prayers are answered before we’ve prayed them, amma said that night. She might have a point. I hadn’t believed in heaven. But encased in this padded box bouncing gently with each step my uncles take, it looks like I’m heading there,
Amma should be happy. Isn’t this what she prayed for most of my sceptical life, my confession of belief? But she isn’t happy. She continues to weep piteous mewls that pierce the skin of my cocooned casket. She’s weeping, unaware what she wants. I know though… It’s too ridiculous. Even if I were to say yes, it can’t be done.
“What if?” the question arises from somewhere deep inside me.
I see a corridor of years with amma cooking for me, feeding me, washing me, praying for me, offering her daily korbana of love for me. Who am I to grudge her this sacrifice?
I suspend disbelief.
“If it can be done,” I say.
My uncles trip. My coffin slides off the bier. Its lid cracks. Noon light punctures my eyelids.
I open my eyes to sandals and the hems of robes. A group of deacons are clustered around amma, praying. Their leader looks down, sees me and touches amma’s sleeve.
“Do not weep. Look!” he says.
“It’s a miracle,” she whispers, her face alight.
Later, I know, they will ask me if I actually died. If I’ve indeed come back to life. And I know, I will be at a loss to answer. Life after death? Death in life? Where’s the line?
What’s the greater love, to die for someone, or to live for someone?
What do you think?