A Ghost Among the Mangroves by Naru Sundar

They must have executed me while I waited in the mangrove shadows. Here, amidst the cicada trill, amidst the basso rumble of distant ships in the Trincomalee harbor. The Seiko at my feet, my brother Vasanthan’s parting gift, lies broken. Its broken hands mark my passage into this juddering, flickering, solitary awareness.  I am but one ghost, with not even Vasanthan for company, no matter how much I want him to be here.  But how can that be? Sri Lanka must throng with ghosts, hundreds and thousands of them, monsters and innocent both.

And which am I?

A question to flee from, so I think of other things.

Who was my executioner? Was it Kumarasamy himself? I told him, the leader of our cadre, that I was done.  Betraying him, just like that.

First he was understanding,

“Aiyyo, Shankar. How long have we known each other? You became a soldier that day in Colombo. You are still one now. In war, Shankar, people die.”

Then he was frustrated.

“Losses are inevitable, Shankar. Losses are necessary.”

In the end, there was nothing but his fury.

“Yes! It was more painful this time.  It was different this time. But, ah! You and I—we have lived with such pain. How can you just leave? How?”

I let Kumarasamy vent until he had no words left, and then I left. I walked away past my fellow cadres with their eyes of judgement, with nothing but a scrap of newspaper in my hand. A scrap with curlicued Tamil and Sinhalese names. A list of those necessary losses. I left amidst a stench of betrayal as pungent and revolting as the stench of my guilt.

He would have killed me himself.

Kumarasamy—cell captain of the Liberation Tamil Tigers, the man I had followed blindly for the past twelve years. He who once held my head as I vomited down the side of a heaving ferry, who listened to that child stranger’s story of Vasanthan’s death. As much my father as anyone could be.  Kumarasamy—burdened with the task of punishing deserters.

Where do I go now?

Chaos is my guide as I shift and slip from junction to junction, drawn by strange attractions. The world of the living passes by, flows around me. This excision is why I invited Kumarasamy’s punishment. But even so adrift from the world, I am not immune to the past. As I wander an unremarkable stretch of beach, so like the one Vasanthan and I walked on that day in July, an ugly memory seeps from a decade old wound, still unhealed.

***

I am ten, and we were all of us there in the capital, Colombo—my mother, her brother Ayngharan and of course, Vasanthan, in his crisp white Oxford shirt.  My brother had been home only two weeks, a brief sojourn in Lanka before returning to his graduate work overseas. I remembered his Marks & Spencers shirts, crisply ironed, neatly folded from wrist to elbow.

We spent the weekend walking along a thin stretch of sand bordered by stalls and rickshaws, munching on rambutan hearts and sweet English toffees. Vasanthan and I talked about his life at Oxford while we turned over seashells and peach-rimmed conch.

“It’s very different, Shankar.”

I nodded, not knowing or understanding how different England was.

“Are all Englishmen so pink, Vasanthan?”

“Pink?”

“Sometimes, anna, I see them on the beach, little white shorts and little pink faces all huffing and puffing.”

He leaned over to me conspiratorially,

“When they drink their liquor they can be very pink, Shankar.”

I giggled, imagining their rosy rum-puffed faces.

“Maybe next summer I could visit? We can drink tea and eat scones!”

I had child dreams of what England was like.

“And we can eat Cadburys for breakfast! And lunch! And dinner!”

I took a particular delight in that soft, milky-sweet chocolate melting in my mouth, so different from the saffron-laced kesari my mother made for special occasions.

“Of course, Shankar. Of course. Scones and Cadburys.”

When Ayngharan drove us back to our house that evening in his olive-green car, the radio was off. My uncle had long soured on the arguments of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists that filled the news in those days.

The familiar juxtaposed with the unfamiliar as we drove. On one corner a stall piled high with young coconut, and on another, uncommonly large groups of angry Sinhalese watching our passage. Through the slightly opened window I could hear them muttering and grumbling, the syllables so different from our own Tamil tongue. Some of their faces I knew, youths I had seen with my brother in his college days. Some were strangers, visitors from other parts of the capital. My uncle chided me,

“Sit back, Shankar. Don’t stare at them.”

There was something menacing in the way they looked back at me. I heard the undercurrent of panic in my uncle’s voice, the strain in his fingers as they tightened around the steering wheel.

At the Station Road junction a large group blocked the road. They wielded makeshift weapons—garden hoes, steel pipes and cricket bats. Their eyes bored down on us through the windshield. Ayngharan began to slow down, unsure of what to do, while my mother began to panic.

“Ayngharan, no! Don’t slow down. We can turn around and go another way.”

It was Vasanthan who defused the tension.

“Shh, mother. I know some of these people. I went to school with them. Let me talk to them, they’ll let us pass.”

I reached forward and touched my brother’s shoulder.

“Please, don’t go, anna. I’m scared.”

I felt his skin tremble as he looked at the mob, but by brother was a man of quiet courage, overfull of optimism. He turned to me then, flashing that infectious smile, stilling my fears. He unfastened his Seiko, a souvenir of his travels, and placed its oversized band around my wrist.

“Watch this for me, Shankar.”

I took the watch, my own panic briefly quelled. My mother tried again to dissuade him,

“Vasanthan, who knows what they are capable of! Don’t be foolish—we can go another way.”

“Mother, no matter what, we are all civilized people. Perhaps they are angry, but there’s always a way past anger, if you talk the right way, say the right things.”

My confident brother—a man of the stately halls of Oxford. He did not understand the mob that waited for him, the boiled-over resentment that only needed the death of a few Sinhalese soldiers at the hands of Tamil insurgents half a day prior to tip them out of the box of civilized behavior.  Innocent of that knowledge, Vasanthan stepped out of the car, and said something in Sinhala to the mob. As Vasanthan had known some of them, they in turn knew him. They knew his Tamil name, long as a river, and his Oxford educated tongue. But he was no longer their friend that day.

I never saw the first knife. I only saw him double over, clutching his belly. But I saw the second and the third, gleaming in the headlights.  Ayngharan tried to reach my brother, rushing the car forward. The crowd closed in on the car and blocked our way as hands and sticks and pipes dented the hood and shattered glass.  Through the fractured windshield, they seemed less individuals and more a single flowing mob of eyes and teeth and mouth, and yes, knives.

It was Ayngharan who saved us in that moment of horror, choosing to reel the car backward out of the crowd’s reach.  Perhaps my brother was already dead, or perhaps the crowd took their time with him. We would never know—he would not be the last unidentifiable mangled Tamil body found on the streets of Colombo that day. Ayngharan drove us for hours through back roads and narrow alleys, avoiding the rampaging crowds that looted and pillaged Tamil homes and Tamil shops.

Many hours later, my sobs dulled to a numbed whimper, my mother an empty shell, Ayngharan pulled the car slowly into the narrow driveway of our house. Smoke, black as charcoal, billowed out of the broken windows. On the doorstep, the English TV that my brother had bought us burned like a silent effigy.  Vasanthan was gone, a body abandoned on the Station Road junction. Our home was a pyre, burning the familiar into ash.

I was only ten, but a ten year old can still dream little child dreams of revenge.

And I did.

***

The herded us like so many other displaced tamils into a makeshift refugee camp, and it was there that Kumarasamy recruited me. The camp was a horror, an abandoned unmaintained school hastily repurposed. Dysentery and other ailments quickly ran rampant coloring the swimming pool turned latrine turmeric-yellow. Yet even in despair, old men passed the hours with card games and bottles of arrack, and children chased each other amidst the weed-choked courtyards.

The cadre leader sought me out. I, one of many would-be soldiers dreaming dreams of revenge.  When the government shipped us by ferry north to Trincomalee, trying to wash their hands of these victims, Kumarasamy followed.  When the ferry emptied us into the harbor at Trincomalee and my mother and I began to pick up the pieces of our lives, Kumarasamy watched over me, watering the seed that sprouted when Vasanthan died.

Over the next decade I became his message carrier and then his foot soldier, slowly wandering ever further down the path of monstrous violence. I traded the comforting odor of garlic in my mother’s kitchen for the bituminous reek of explosives in Kumarasamy’s workshop.  A secret vocation, first hidden from my mother, and later the subject of many painful conversations between us.

She, like some of my people, retreated into a treacherous neutrality, trapped between the turbulent violence of the Tamil insurgents and the repressive Sinhalese regime in the capital. She fled to the comforting mantras of religion, a sound increasingly bitter in my ears. What had the Gods—these creatures full of fury and petulance—done for us? When Kumarasamy whispered his oil-slick rhetoric into my ears, where were they? We daubed them in turmeric, venerated them with poems of sanskrit, and yet ultimately they were impotent against the terror perpetrated on us.

From a carrier of letters to a maker of bombs, the path was not so long, not so strange.  I shared Vasanthan’s gifts for patterns and mechanics, and Kumarasamy and his fellow liberation soldiers made use of it. They made use of my rage, my unhealed grief. They used me, until I learned in truth the price of that rage.

***

The rambutan seller’s eyes track me as I slip through a crowded street, his rheumy second sight glimpsing my ghost imprint on the veil that separates me from the living. It does not surprise me.  After my brother died, my mother began to see such apparitions.  I remember one conversation in particular. It was towards the end of that terrible year, after we had rebuilt a semblance of our lives in Trincomalee. The monsoon rains danced in waves across the window panes.  My mother beckoned me over and leaned in close, so much so that I could smell the garlic on her breath.

“Look there, Shankar.”

Her finger pointed to the wet wicker chair in our veranda.

“Don’t you see him?”

“Who, amma? There’s no one there.”

“No kunju, Look closer—look beyond the rain.  Don’t you see him?”

“Who amma? I don’t see anyone—who do you see.”

“Aiyyyo, Shankar. I see him. I see Vasanthan.”

“But… but anna is…”

“I know, Shankar. I know. But my own mother once told me death is as much a beginning as an end, and I think your brother’s story still crosses over into ours.”

A smile brightened her face.

“Before you were born—when Vasanthan was your age, we would come to Trinco to visit your uncle.  How I wish we could just go back to those days. So bookish, your brother—curled up in a chair with a book even on the brightest bluest day. That’s how I see him now—sitting in that wet wicker chair, reading.”

I tore myself away from her and ran out into the rain, feeling my clothes soaking. I wanted so much to know that he wasn’t forever lost to us. I scrunched my eyes, willing them to see. For a moment I saw the barest hint of an edge limned in light. A gauzy shimmer that could have been a face.  But the vision dissolved almost instantly, leaving me facing an empty wicker chair collecting swirling leaves.

I started to cry then, and my mother came and pulled me back inside. Her smile was already gone. She wrapped me in her arms and rocked my tears away.

“I thought I saw something amma, almost. But it went away.”

“I know, kunju, I know. Hush now. I was too cruel. Not everyone has the gift, and even when they do it does not always come easily.”

“I wanted to see him, amma. It’s not fair!”

“It isn’t fair, Shankar. But at least now you know that he’s not completely gone. His story is still being written, in some other place.”

And now? I am also one of these storied dead in some other place.

It offers me no comfort.

***

Before my final confrontation with Kumarasamy, I tried to see my mother.  I walked to our house and knocked on the door. I heard her footsteps and the swish of her sari against the floor, but the door remained closed. I tried to say something, but all I could expel was breath, the words frozen in my throat. She was my mother, and she must surely have known, hearing guilt in the pattern of my breath.  She must have read the newspaper too. She must have seen those same names that I clutched so tightly.  The two of us waited, silent on either side of the door. Eventually I gave up and I walked the verdant path that led me to the mangrove copse, to my separation from the weight of this world, to this aimless purgatory.

But a ghost cannot wander forever, and I find myself drawn towards the familiar. Could I go home? No—I could not face my mother then, and I cannot face my mother now. I fear her ghost-sight. I fear her unbearable judgement crossing the thin barrier between living and dead. So instead I go to Ayngharan’s old house on Vidyalayam Road, the one he still maintained from across the sea. I have not gone there in years, but it is a part of my past still. Though dust cakes its windows, the jacaranda with its lavender bloom still towers invitingly beside the porch.

When the ferry brought us to Trincomalee in 1983 with nothing but a handful of salvaged belongings and the memory of terror, this house was where we lived for a time. Ayngharam did not stay long though, eventually abandoning us for the safety of foreign shores.  He had begged my mother to come, but she was still too rooted to Lanka’s soil. So it was only the two of us, alone in the house with the specter of our sorrows. I remember slipping myself into the too-long arms of one of Vasanthan’s Oxford shirts. The wound of his death still gaped raw within me, my heart split open like the halves of a rambutan. Wearing his shirt then, the weight of it, was comforting—an embrace from the past.  But for my mother every sign of him was agony, and the house carried too many old stories for her.  Ayngharan’s Canadian money bought us another home in the city and we relegated the house on Vidyalayam Road to memories of happier times instead of staining it with our newly minted grief.

Now, the jacaranda bloom reminds me of laughter and unburdened days. Did ghosts not haunt things? Did they not attend to places most familiar to them, places that gave them succor when the worlds beyond denied them entry? Why not this house then? Here I could remain, amongst the moth-eaten shirts and the dusty stacks of papers, away from my mother’s sight. In my hand the piece of newsprint still clings, refusing stubbornly to part. I could live with that. The barb of it lodges in deep places, and I have a surfeit of time to unhook its thorns.

***

It is morning in the house on Vidyalayam Road. How many days have I been here? Time is gauzy in this purgatory. As the world rises out of gloom, there is a smell in the air, a particular blend of cardamom and fenugreek that I know well.

My mother is here.

I can hear the clink of her bangles on her feet as she drags herself from room to room.

“Shankar…”

She calls my name, her voice muffled and distant. Why is she here? Did she come often unbeknownst to me, reveling in old memories of Vasanthan as a boy?

“I know you’re here Shankar. I know.”

I do not dare show myself, for fear that her eyes that see beyond sight could see me as well, could see the anchor weight of the paper in my hand.

“I just want to see you Shankar. Just once. Please.”

Her voice pleads with the trembling lilt of blockaded tears.

“Just once, Shankar. Just once.”

No, not yet. Perhaps later, much later, when the weight of karma bowing my shoulders has eroded away, then and only then would I be ready to let her see me. But not yet. I curse yet again the Gods for immuring me in this half-existence, trapped between the earth and the ethereal.  Would that I could simply disappear, but instead I veer out of the house and into jacaranda shadow. Under the lavender shade of its blossoms, I wait for my mother to leave.

 

***

I thought about Kumarasamy, teaching me to wire a bomb. As I memorized the thousand myths Vasanthan once told me, I memorized the principles the cadre leader taught me.  At first I didn’t think about it at all. We were at war, and I was only assisting. I was not a soldier in the jungle with a rifle. I was just connecting wires.

Naive, foolish thoughts.

I was only a maker of bombs. I was not the wielder.  And on those nights when my banished conscience asserted itself, I contented myself with the thought that if the bombs were used for rending flesh instead of buildings, then that flesh was part of the war, a casualty like my brother.

Just another lie I told myself, the first among many.

The truth was not so crisp. My mother knew those who had only survived because Sinhalese neighbors had hidden them from the mobs. There were voices on both sides who preached other paths than the ones that the government and the Tigers had settled on. But the light of Vasanthan’s death filtered out all gray, leaving nothing but black and white.

Something ugly had been born within me on that day, in that car at the Station Road junction. The list in my fist put a mirror to that ugliness. Not a list of generals or politicians, but a list of unremarkable citizens going about their business.

All of us, Kumarasamy, my cadre brothers and sisters—we were all still children, falling into the trap of uncomplicated narratives. We had not yet learned the lesson of our own myths, that there was not one story but a thousand, not one truth but a thousand all at odds with each other. Instead these cadre leaders lured us with simple, pleasantly-shaped truths, with the lie that such revenge could be achieved with no price paid.

***

In the jacaranda shadow, my thoughts spin. I am finally able to see the gray that swims between black and white, at last able to piece together the thread of mistakes from the camp in Colombo to Kumarasamy’s workshop in Trincomalee. But I underestimate my mother’s second sight, which sees even ghost-thoughts. From within Ayngharan’s house, her voice speaks to me.

“I failed you, Shankar.  Vasanthan’s death hit us both hard, but I had a duty—I was a mother to you still! Instead I just prayed and prayed and watched you slowly fall into terrible company. I should have confronted you, but I wasn’t strong enough—and then it was too late—you stopped listening.”

No. That isn’t right.  I heard her her pleas to chose a different path. It was not her fault that I chose instead to turn toward the uncompromising fury of the separatists.

“You can hate yourself, Shankar. But you cannot absolve me. Our sins are always our own. Yours, and mine. I should have sent you to your uncle in Toronto. There are ways to escape the Tigers, Shankar. You know Ayngharan still has connections here. He knows how to get someone off the island. Why didn’t you come to me, my son?”

Because I did not see the price of the path I had chosen, Amma. I did not see it then, but I see it now, and it is too late for Ayngahran to help me. The time for that choice has passed.

“No Shankar, you don’t understand. The choice is still here.”

The living have choices, Amma. The living bear the weight of their mistakes and divine the path to redemption.  I stepped out of a mangrove copse and removed myself from such things.  In my hand, the crumpled list pulses with a smoldering fire but I am now beyond its reach.

“Listen to me, Shankar. No sin is beyond forgiveness, not even yours. There is always a path to redemption, painful though it may be. That is the duty the Gods impose on us!”

What does she know of my sins? And then I realize—with her second sight she is seeing deeper across the boundary than I thought possible. She is seeing into me, following the stain from my ghost-heart, along my arm, to the list of names clutched in my hand. This house is no longer safe for me, so I slip away, following the muddied back roads away from the house and my mother’s eyes. Let her have the house on Vidyalalam Road.

I could haunt elsewhere.

***

I flit back to my mother’s house, because it is familiar, because my mother isn’t there. The interior still housed too many burning threads of memory and guilt and shame, so I wander the outside, skirting the blue painted walls.

The house is not empty.

I hear the clatter of tumblers and plates falling onto the concrete floor. Through the window pane, painted in shadow, I see his face.  Kumarasamy is here. My cadre brothers and sisters are here, laying waste to my mother’s home.

I recalled a story my mother had told me once over plates of dosa, back when we still shared meals with some regularity.

“Did you hear of Sakunthala aunty’s sister?”

Sakunthala was a friend of my mother’s, just another aunty among many.

“Her nephew tried to leave the tigers. He fled the north to her sister’s house here. Sakunthala found both their heads on the veranda. Two deaths, just to send a message. Is this what you belong to now?”

This was a time when she still tried to wound me into leaving the cause I had claimed, or if not the cause, the movement and its increasingly vicious methods.  What could I have said? Many things, bitter and angry things. Instead all I said was,

“I won’t leave them.”

But I have now. Their violent retribution, visited first on me for my desertion, now overflows to to my mother. I creep back into the sedge, stepping back towards the muddied path that winds behind the house. I realize then the house is full of legal papers, including the deed to the house on Vidyalayam Road. They are persistent, these cadre soldiers.  They will find all the boltholes my mother could escape to. I hurry back along the road as much as my half-there state allows. How long did I have before they find the deed? Before the house on Vidyalayam Road becomes their next stop on their path of vengeance. My death isn’t warning enough.

Now they seek my mother’s.

 

***

My mother stands stoop-backed against the rear window, looking at the swaying jacaranda. Shame still numbs my ghost-tongue but I focus my thoughts, willing her to leave.  Is that the scrape of a machete I hear coming up the road? Run, mother, run.

She turns.

I see myself reflected in her gleaming silvery eyes—a dappled ghostly shadow. Her lips tremble, and her whole frame heaves, a sob wracking through her from ankle to neck.

“Shankar.”

And then she flees through the worn wooden door that leads to the dead garden in the back.  I follow through the withered magnolias and tangled weeds. I hope she heads west up the path, towards the police stations, the army barracks, all those places relatively safe from Kumarasamy. As she said, her brother still had connections she could leverage. He could get her out, away from the island and its woes. She would hate living in that foreign city, so far from the comfort of palm and sand—but she would be safe.

Instead, Amma turns north, feet bouncing swiftly across the muddied path. I have never seen her aging body so lithe. Perhaps seeing my ghost had enlivened her in ways I did not understand. Still, what was north but more houses. Gate after gate she passes, flying along the puddled muddy path. I wonder how my mother’s body can withstand this long sprint.

She turns abruptly, slipping through a garden with bitter gourd and bean trellises, into a door half-ajar in a white painted house. A package on the steps bears the name Ratnarajan Sakunthala.  I visited this place once long ago, but the memories are dim now, locked away past the impenetrable wall of Vasanthan’s death. I follow her in, noticing as I enter the small shrine in the entryway, a statue of Pillayar—guardian of doors.

A fury surges within me.  These Gods. These caricatures of heroism and benevolence. What have they done for my people? For us? For me? For my mother? Nothing. They are as absent as Vasanthan has been from my life since that day in 1983. My ghost hand flings out, knowing full well that the stone was impervious to my ghost flesh.

There is a connection, something sharp and painful at my wrist, and then the statue crashes to the floor, lotus petals scattering into the wind. An oddity, but I ignore it, focusing instead on my mother looking at me, a grimace of pain on her face.

Her hand beckons, as I try to unstill my ghost-tongue.

Run, amma, please.

She does not, instead walking deeper into the house.  I hear the dial of a rotary phone turning. Has my mother realized finally what is happening? Has she seen the danger I paint with my thoughts? Perhaps she is finally calling her brother, reaching out for aid. I turn the corner.

My mother is looking at me from the end of the hall, and her tears mirror my own.  The phone is ringing as she cradles it against her face.  There is a vacuum in my ears, like the aftershock of a bomb’s blast. With a noisy click, I hear someone pick up on the other end. I see my mother lean into the receiver, her mouth opening but the words eaten by the vacuum.

I hear her brother’s muffled response, as if he spoke through cotton gauze.

“Hello? Lalitha? Oh God. Lalitha? Oh God. Oh God.”

He keeps repeating the words, and I don’t understand them. My mother has always been amma to me, always far removed from her own name. It has been many years since I was last in social company with her, since I had heard her actual name spoken.

Lalitha.

The hallway seems both impossibly short and impossibly long.  The light leaches out until the only thing that gleams are my own hands and my mother. The crumpled of paper in my fist pulses, like some heart made of paper flesh, shards of light shooting out against the black darkness of the walls.

My uncle’s voice is now a whisper, still uttering those words.

“Oh God, oh God. Lalitha.”

Why does my mother not say anything? The time is running out. Kumarasamy will be here soon.

“It’s all right Shankar.  It’s all right.”

Her words reverberate in my ears. The hall is not there anymore, there is nothing but a featureless black in which my mother and I stand.  From some hidden place, a temple bell is ringing, and my nose wrinkles against the pungent smell of wet turmeric. There is a murmuring of prayer somewhere in this strange crossing point between the ghostly and the real.

“It’s all right Shankar. Come here.”

I step forward. The heart pulse of the paper in my hand is faster now, pattering like a mridangam solo. Lalitha. I roll the syllables of her name on my tongue. Has it been so long since I have heard that name? Since I have seen its Tamil curls written on paper.

The newsprint in my hand pulses, like something waiting to hatch.

“It’s all right Shankar. Come, kunju, come.”

How long since she has called me by that term of endearment.

“Come, Shankar.”

We are close now, nothing but inches separate me from her outstretched arms, from the smell of cardamom on her sari. Nothing but inches and worlds apart. The paper in my hand sits between us, and like a lotus unfolding I unclench my fingers, letting the crumpled paper curl free. I have not looked at it since that first time, since I heard the news from Kumarasamy myself.

“You did well Shankar. We achieved our goal.”

What was that goal? Some nameless army general’s death? Some enemy on a chart, a target who was nothing more than a string of Sinhalese characters to me?

“But there were complications, Shankar. I wanted to be the one to tell you. Remember Shankar, there are always necessary casualties in this war. Our strength is enduring past that sacrifice.”

He had handed me the folded newspaper, and I skimmed the ministry authorized text of the report. The descriptions didn’t matter. What mattered was the list. The names of those on the small eight-seater bus that had happened by nothing more than a quirk of luck to be passing by the army jeep when the roadside bomb had exploded. The bomb I made, the wires I soldered. The engine of my long-gestated revenge.

On the scrap of paper in my hand—eight individual names. Sinhalese names. Tamil names. I look down at the neatly printed letters, with eyes that wished to be ghostly, with eyes that wished to unsee.

Ramakrishnan Lalitha.

My mother’s name.

“It’s all right, Shankar.”

Why on that day of all days had she chosen to to take the bus instead of walking? Age and arthritis were slowly weakening her bones, she had told me once. If I had been a dutiful son, I could have been there, could have taken her on my bike. But no, I followed a different bloodied sense of duty. I soldered the wires to the detonator. I was the bomb viciously tearing apart the flesh of generals and soldiers and innocents.

My mother’s flesh.

“It’s all right, Shankar.”

I am in her arms now, her ghost skin enveloping my own, my too-real eyes wet with tears burning salt tracks down my cheek. Her ghost sari, smelling of fenugreek and garlic, muffles my wail. A kitchen’s smells. The smell of the past, of days forever entombed by the weight of history.  How could she forgive? How? How does a heart encompass the enormity of such terrible mistakes and find its way to forgiveness?

“Because I am your mother. For you kunju, there will always be mercy.”

She takes bony silvered fingers and plucks the paper from my hand, quenching its pulsing fire-bright heart, letting it fall inert to the floor. She washes me in the absolution of tears, hers and mine. My heart still constricts and clenches around a knot of pain. She cradles my head against her chest and whispers,

“Oh Shankar. That is your own knot to untie. I can only grant you my forgiveness, but to forgive yourself, to redeem yourself, that is your long and terrible road. Answer the phone, Shankar. Find your way.”

The muted voice of her brother still mutters from the phone. He must hear her ghost voice whispering on the line. A visitation. An exhortation. I press its cold plastic to my lips and ear. Already the blackened walls are gaining color, and the silver iridescence of my mother is waning. My own voice is a rasp.

“Uncle?”

How long since I have spoke to him.

“Shankar? Oh God, Shankar. I heard her. Shankar. I heard her.”

“I know, Uncle. I know.”

“Shankar, where are you? Tell me.”

My mother’s words give me hope. If only for this moment.

“I’ve… I’ve done something terrible, Uncle. Terrible.”

“It’s.. It’s all right Shankar. You have to leave there Shankar. You have to leave that place. I… I…”

I can hear his doubt warring against his ghost-sister’s request. But for long as I can remember my uncle has been a man of duty and family.

“I can help you Shankar. Let me help you.”

My mother’s ghost words prepared the way for me, but could Ayngharan forgive me as my mother had?

“He will, Shankar. He will. You must go to him. There is nothing here but pain now.”

No, Amma. Here, in this hall, there is something else. Afterward there will be mundane flights and ministry connections. Afterward there will be strange steps in a snowbound city of steel and glass, a lifetime toiling away the weight of karma.  Here in this hall, there is something far greater.

I can feel the worlds beyond pulling at her, the light of her forgiveness fading. I cling to it, cling to the warmth of her arms, the shape of her shoulders, the paper thin skin of her cheek. I cling to it as desperately and painfully as I once clung to the guilt-stained record of my sins—the paper which now litters the floor, bound to the world of flesh, blood and bone. My mother’s shade seeps back into a place I cannot yet touch no matter how much in these past few days I had hoped to. That was the easier road—this path now before me is terrifying. But for her, I will endure the weight of truth.

Lalitha. Mother. Amma.

She is already slipping back into myth, into the stories I may one day tell my sons and daughters. My soul still withers under the imprint of sins I will never fully expunge, but my mother’s forgiveness is a beginning, an anchor keeping me from washing away into despair. There will be a time for reckoning, and a time later for redemption, but here, now, in this too-brief moment, I watch my fingers slip through hers.  Her light limned shade steps away from this world, leaving me in this strange house, with my uncle’s voice on the phone, and the cardamom scented smell of her forgiveness still lingering on my skin.

 

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