It was because of the boy dragged behind the jeep that Vasuki gave Nadesan the money to buy the ticket. When she went to her brother with the bills tucked into her sari, she did not speak the language of the master countries, not did she know anyone who traveled there. She was aware that at some point the island had been occupied by foreign powers, but she was not sure which powers, or when. That the Portuguese had stayed until driven out by the Dutch; that the Dutch were driven out by the British; that the British had granted the island its independence when the Crown’s hand had been forced by its other coloniesthese were facts she had never been told by anyone. Or if she had been told these things by a teacher, or heard them referred to by a politician campaigning for a seat in Parliament, they were not facts which seemed important. What she knew about the master countries was that there was abundance in such a degree that even the few poor were well off. People lived together peacefully and moved about the streets of the cities and the roads between towns without fear. She’d watched her son’s face that same afternoon, how it had become lit when she gave him grain to feed the chickens. She’d taken pleasure in seeing Poniah’s pleasure, and then she had thought of the boy behind the jeep.
Vasuki had seen this boy on the school playground, a cricket bat in hand. Afterward, at the funeral, Vasuki approached the boy’s mother, touched her papery hand. It had become clear to Vasuki who she herself was: she was Mannika’s mother, Poniah’s mother. She had a girl, she had a boy, and her boy wold grow to the same age as the boy behind the jeep.
He had shy eyes and a smile like the flash of a parrot bursting from banana leaves. But the soldiers insisted this boy spied for the insurgents. She imagined the scene as a kind of haze, it’s outline vibratory in the way that memories of childhood simmer and ave no edge. The boy’s mother had had to watch the soldiers throw her son down. They’d tied one foot to the back fender of the jeep. One foot, tied at the ankle. Then they had climbed into the jeep and driven off, shouting in that language no one could understand.
When Vasuki thought of her childhood, she remembered herself inside a shimmering sphere, a globe of green air. Her body itself a small globe, tenuous and full and open, merging with air, foliage, the waters of the lagoon, and the other bodies moving with her through the green light. Her parents had rocked her the way a boat is rocked by water, and it had been as though the three of them and all that surrounded them were the body of a single animal, sliding from the bank into the water, moving with the lagoon’s lapping, which moved with the sea and the currents of the air.
Vasuki and Sri had run back and forth with their brothers in that green light. Nadesan was the second son. He was their clown, miming the ridiculous in adults. Sometimes he mimed Vasuki, her dreaminess and awe. Then she threw handfuls of sand at him. He ran, ducking, protesting. He would cover his head with his hands in mock distress, until she too was laughing.
She loved Nadesan for his merriment. With Sinniah, the eldest, she felt like his cherished child. She heard him shout her name: Vasuki! The timbre of his voice made it sound as if her name were made of gold. He took charge, planning expeditions to the flame trees’ shade, instructing them to pack food in banana leaves, bring their thermoses. When Vasuki and Sri quarreled, he calmed them. “Don’t pull your sisters hair. Be nice to each other.” He taught them the names of birds, the properties of the alari. They could gather the yellow blossoms, but they should never touch the poisonous seeds.
Vasuki observed Sinniah leaning over his books in an ardor of concentration. He would take care of them all, he said, when their parents were old. “I’ll find handsome husbands for you both,” he told his sisters. “I’ll work to make your dowries big.”
In school there were clear rules, a single language. Vasuki imagined it was the universal language spoken by people everywhere, and she went on imagining this until the army set up headquarters in the town. The army had come to protect people from the insurgents. Thought the soldiers spoke a language on one could understand, the mayor said they were friendly. Neither Vasuki’s mother nor father had actually seen the soldiers, though Sinniah had looked into the back of the lorry turning a corner. It held many men standing close, in dark green uniforms, each with his own rifle. Nadesan had run with his friends to the cricket field, watched the soldiers marching in formation. Or was this an exercise he’d seen on the TV at the electronics shop? Nadesan’s tales they didn’t always believe. Still, when he mimed the soldiers’ drilltheir abrupt, mechanical movementseven their mother and father laughed.
Evenings were a span of light in which the air softened, and blue sank toward black. Their father pulled Sri onto his lap, kissed her cheek. Sri laughed with pleasure of being at the center of his attentive affection. The smell of limes drifted into the heated dampness. Then there were soldiershow many?bunched in the doorway.
One of the soldiers spoke to their father in that other language. He gestured for their father to follow. Their father moved Sri from his lap and stood. Vasuki understood that somehow he had made these men angry. She felt ashamed. Her father must have done something shameful. But she was afraid for him. It was as though something foreign had entered the compound, something dark and shifting that not even the soldiers could see. She tried to find its shape in the air, but the soldiers had burst through the green shimmering, ripping it. The soldier who’d spoken spat out an order. Two others had moved forward, taken hold of their father and swept him through the doorway, down the path to the jeep.
To have a person snatched away as though a slit had been cut in the green air and he had been pulled through! That same night two others who cut timber with Vasuki’s father were also arrested. No insurgents had appeared where they were cutting, and none of them had imagined that working in the forest where the insurgents were said to roam might cast suspicion on them. It was true that the insurgents, who had first built their camps in the north, had later built camps here, but these were inland, away from the town. They collected taxes, but after all they had to. They were fighting for Eelam, that heaven on earth. The fighters visited schools in the towns and surrounding villages, recruiting young boys. Sometimes they wanted your firewood or one of your bags of rice, but usually they paid. Once, three young men in spotted uniforms had come, asking for petrol. When Vaskui’s mother said they had none, the three had gone on.
“Who were they, in those funny clothes?” Vasuki had asked.
“Just some men needing petrol,” her mother said. “Bring me a bucket of water from the well.”
Each time Vasuki’s mother and the other wives inquired at the army camp, the sergeant was courteous. He spoke their language, and he invited them to sit down. He listened while they repeated their petitions. Then he said he was very sorry to tell them the army knew nothing about the whereabouts of their husbands. Still, he assured them, the army cared for their welfare. Inquiries would be made.
Vasuki’s mother had heard there were men in the north who, like her husband, had been taken away. Some had returned and some had not. But she had not credited these rumors. Even when her husband was taken, she continued to believe he was not one of those who would not be released. There had been some mistake, and she believed the sergeant would find it. While she waited, the army set up more camps south of the town.
Then the police arrested six fishermen. The next day four were released. The other two they gave to the army for questioning. When her husband’s cousin was arrested in a northern town, Vasuki’s mother did not tell her children. She told them this cousin had gone to the capital to take a plane to the Middle East where he had found work. Vasuki listened. Her mother did not seem especially pleased by this news but since her father had been arrested, a certain anxiousness had become the horizon note in her mother’s being.
One afternoon when her mother had gone to the sergeants office, Vasuki came home from school and began to eat a bowl of pittu. Her mother came through the gate. She picked an alari blossom, entered and placed it on the table. Slanted sunlight fell across the flower. Her mother’s face was as though fallen in.
“What is it?” Vasuki said. “Did someone hit you?”
“No,” her mother said. Vasuki thought of the Catholic priest who, though her family was not Catholic, had volunteered to intercede for them with the sergeant. He had used an expression Vasuki had not heard before: the disappeared.
Through the doorway Vasuki could see the lagoon, a single boat, bobbing. Though she could see nothing out of the ordinary, it seemed that this boat which sat innocently on the water was in danger. Something could rip the boat from the water, and, in a moment, splinter it. When Vasuki turned back, the light had moved. Now the blossom lay in shadow. Her mother’s face was an opening in the vast place where anyone might quickly be lost.
Vasuki lifted her new son Poniah from the bath and held him above her. Droplets shimmered from his skin. Her daughter Mannika sat in the tin tub of water and chattered. Vasuki could hear the clink of pans, her mother moving about the kitchen. Two Golden Shower trees across the road floated in yellow haze, and the flame trees in back sent up their red fires. The lagoon at midday burned too fiercely to look at. It would have been like looking into the suun.
Vasuki seldom thought of her father. This was the house where her father had lived with them, even her mother rarely spoke of him. The army had pulled out, moving its troops north. Then Raj. He was tall. Height singled him out. People turned their bodies toward him. Because he inspired trust, he’d been asked to join the citizens’ committee. Though he left for the pharmacy each morning, the effect of his height lingered in the compound. He was there, or nearby. He was going, or coming. The sun climbed its arc, leveled, slid down the sky. At twilight he returned. Vasuki stood in the doorway. She was the color red, its heated pulse. When Mannika was born, Vasuki assumed the mother’s place in the ancestral house. Now the family had a man to tend its flame, and Raj was the priest, holding aloft the burning camphor, approaching the inner room of the temple. At the center stood Vasuki, the flaming mouth.
Now the army had appeared again. Soldiers had set up camp. They ‘d set up checkpoints with bunkers at either end of the bridge leading into the town. When women went to the market, the soldiers made them line up, show their identification cards, open their bags.
The soldiers had been sent to protect the people from the fighters, but this was the insurgent’s home turf, and they spoke the language, and the soldiers didn’t. You could see how nervous the soldiers were. At night a few insurgents might enter the town to get food, or petrol. Once in a while one of them threw a grenade into an army bunker. Among the civilians the soldiers were supposed to protect some were bound to sympathize with the fighters. The soldiers were especially suspicious of young men. Young men might be fighters out of uniform, come into the town to buy food. Even if they weren’t they might help the fighters get petrol or repair a vehicle.
Sometimes the soldiers let the young man go the next morning. Sometimes they kept him a few days, then transferred him to the civil prison. It was thought important that the young man’s family go to the army camp as quickly after an arrest as possible. Getting there quickly might make a difference. Once a father and two uncles had gone immediately, taking a lawyer with them, and the son had been released. People tried to find someone of stature to speak for them. They offered the sergeant what money they had.
One young man who’d been kept almost a year had come back. His story was not a good one. Things had been done to him, things with electricity. Things with water. And yet the moon rose and set, moving the ocean’s ablutions. The green curtain rippled when a breeze blew over the lagoon. Birds sang out their vibratory calls before dawn, urging the sun onto its arc. The air tasted sweet. Light laid on its hands.
Poniah made the soft sounds of a baby. Vasuki kissed him on both cheeks, blew air against the skin of his belly. His arms waved. He reminded her of a fat insect turned onto its back. Each morning she watched Raj ride toward the bridge on his bicycle, heading for the pharmacy his family owned. She’d heard Nadesan and Sinniah leave early. For three weeks they’d worked a construction job Raj had helped them get by speaking to the foreman. The pay was good, and they gave their wages for household expenses. Sinniah wanted to go to University, but hadn’t qualified. Today he was excused from work to take entrance exam again. She’d recognized Nadesan’s voice wishing Sinniah good luck.
She kissed Mannika’s shoulder, then eased the dress over her daughter’s head. While Mannika ate, Vasuki fed Poniah bites of milkrice. Her mother went into the yard to take down laundry. Mannika examined her plastic wristwatch, playing at telling time. Now Poniah closed his lips against the bite she offered. He blew air through pursed lips and arched his back. He wanted down.
Her mother stood beside the gate, speaking to someone. Vasuki recognized Nadesan’s voice. Then her mother’s cry. Her mother lurched across the sand, arms around a sheaf of clothes.
“Sinniah!” Their mother sank to her knees, threw herself over the heap of laundry. “Get Raj to come with us. Vasuki! Go ask him!”
Nandesan knelt beside his mother. “I’ll go for Raj,” he said. He looked at Vasuki. “Four soldiers were shot. In a jeep, not far from the University, where the coconut trees are. The army closed the campus. They rounded up the men studentsseventy of them. Seventy, Vasuki. They made them stand against a wall. Then they took them away in lorries.”
“They’ll let some of them go,” their mother said. “There’s no reason to keep Sinniah. He’s not a student.”
“When has reason mattered?” Nadesan said. “Four soldiers were shot.”
Poniah had been wiggling in his chair. Now he sat, watching them, sensing urgency. The color of his eyes reminded Vasuki of the polished stones along the lagoon’s edge, if these stones were to come alive.
Poniah learned to walk. Mornings, he toddled after his father, stood at the gate and watched him wheel away. He picked alari flowers and took them to Mannika. He liked Mannika to sing to him. They played in the sand, molding mounds and basins. Sometimes Sri brought her baby girl and sat in the shade with the children while Vasuki took their mother to the market.
In midday heat Poniah fell asleep against Vasuki’s breast. Above the cadjun fence she could see the lagoon. The water seemed a thing alive, part of the sea’s body that had flowed inland, shimmering like thousands of floating coins. People had got together a citizens’ committee. This committee kept records of those who were arrested and passed this information to the member of Parliament from their district. Sinniah hadn’t been released. Nor did the army admit to having taken him.
At night they heard firing in the distance. Biking home, Raj saw the faint flash of mortars. The papers reported good things and bad things. A new five-star hotel had opened in the capital. Nine village boys were picked up by soldiers, kept for a day, then delivered to the civil prison. There was a new TV program in which the women looked like women from the master countries. Nineteen boys were lured away by videos the fighters had shown at the high school. A new fertilizer plant opened in a city to the south which would employ three thousand people. The fighters blew up two oil storage tanks on the outskirts of the capital, the police rounded up young men for questioning, and ten days later twenty-three bodies were found floating in a lake twenty miles away. The young men’s hands had been tied behind their backs.
People talked about the thing around themhow you couldn’t see how big it might be, how you couldn’t tell when it would come. Even the son of the barrister, on the train to the capital, had been caught in the insurgents’ ambush. The doctor’s daughter walked partway home from school with her friends, waved to them, went on alone. The girls had followed this pattern every day. One day this daughter hadn’t come home.
A lime green parrot squawked and flew across the compound. Vasuki carried Poniah inside, lay besided him on the mat. No one said much about the fighters. Their struggle was for the people, but though they usually paid for what they took, their taxes were in addition to the government’s taxes. The sons of some fishermen and shopkeepers had joined them. Some girls had joined too. Some of these children had been killed in scrimmages with the army. One girl from the town who’d joined and then died in a battle with the soldiers was hailed by the insurgents as a martyr hero. Raj and Vasuki had seen her photograph tacked to a lamp post.
There were also boys in the town who’d trained with the fighters, then become disillusioned. Once they’d deserted, they wanted to go abroad. Some went from house to house, demanding money. They threatened to identify a son or daughter to the army as a supporter of the fighters. When one of them agreed to act as an informer, the soldiers took him to the check point beside the bridge. They covered his head with a black hood. He watched the people passing the checkpoint. The ones he pointed to were taken away.
Vasuki turned onto her side. She liked to look at Poniah while he slept. His breath was sweet. She had learned that most people on the island spoke the army’s language. It was the language of the group from which the Prime Minister and most members of Parliament had been elected. It was not her language, but it hadn’t mattered. There was a member of Parliament from her district, and there were TV programs in her language. Just last week a policeman from the group whose language Vasuki spoke and a policewoman from the larger group had celebrated their wedding at a local hotel.
Some people also spoke the language of the master countries. Raj had told Vasuki that when the British left, larger group on the island had dominated Parliament. They’d declared their language the official language. Suddenly people who spoke Vasuki’s language couldn’t do business, couldn’t get a job. In the next generation the two groups had managed to renegotiate the issue of language. For a while both languages on the island and the master language were taught in schools. Then the government began to promote the idea that native languages were superior, and the master language was dropped from the curriculum. Lately it had been reinstated. Mannika was learning songs in this language.
Vasuki had heard there was war in the master countries too, small bits of fighting that took place in fragments: groups of boys in gangs, policemen attacking a man with dark skin, a crowd burning shops owned by Koreans. And war within families: sons killing a father, a father raping a daughter, a husband killing his adulterous wife. She thought these stories were probably exaggerated. Anyway, those things were not war. Besides, people said that most of those who went there became wealthy. It would be to their son’s advantage, she told Raj, if he could learn the language of the larger group and a bit of the master language too.
On the afternoon Raj was stopped on the bridge, Mannika had some out of school carrying the drawing she’d made of an umbrella. Though she was seven and could walk to school by herself, Vasuki had begun to accompany her. She left Poniah at Sri’s house and picked him up on the way back. There was in that day, and Vasuki put her arm around Mannika to shield her. Mannika explained how first she’d chosen red for the umbrella, then blue, then changed her mind a third time to yellow. Finally she’d decided to make each panel of the umbrella a different color. When she’d done that, they were still colors she hadn’t used. So many colors, and they all deserved to be seen. What was one to do?
Vasuki had thought ahead to Raj’s arrival. She would repeat Mannika’s story. He would be amused. When they’d picked up Poniah, Vasuki carried him, trying to protect him from the wind’s whipping. Mannika complained that she too needed to be carried. At their gate the wind had blown down a scatter of alari blossoms. Vasuki brought the children inside to play.
Later the wind stopped. The quiet seemed pristine. Like a god stepping down, it announced itself. Then Nadesan came through the gate, calling her, her name and her husband’s name in his mouth. It was not until after she and Nadesan had left the sergeant’s office that she remembered a thing she’d noticed that afternoon. While Mannika and Poniah played on the floor, wind had roughened up the lagoon’s surface. The ripples had seemed as though beaten with a whip, as though the wind were flaying a skin.
For the second year the rains had not come. People had to carry water from the few wells in the town deep enough to reach what was left. Drought leached color from leaves. The sky was dun. Sometimes wind picked up a sheet of sand and blew it against houses.
Inside herself Vasuki constructed a pyre like the one on which the family would have cremated Raj’s body. She would not be like those other women, helplessly waiting. She would not wait. She would not hope. She was the mother. She stood up inside that space Raj had attended. She would become even more fiercely the mother.
She lit the pyre. The sticks caught. Flame after flame rose up in conflagration. She imagined this heat destroying all hurt, redeeming Raj from the pain he had surely suffered. Each time she felt herself beginning to long for him, she wne t back to the pyre and stood there. She fed the flame sticks. She brought it food. She gave it flowers. She stood watch over this burning.
Vasuki was preparing to take the children with her for water. When Poniah saw Nadesan at the gate, he came running. His uncle picked Poniah up and lifted him high.
“You are a bird!” Nadesan said. “Now you will fly!”
Poniah laughed and wriggled. Nadesan set him down and he ran back to Mannika. She took him by the hand and drew him toward the gate. She was at the top of her class. At home she flitted from one part of the house to another, and in these quick movements she seemed to be sparkling. She liked teaching Poniah songs, and she sat him on her lap and read to him in the master language. He gazed in the distance, eagerly and with a small frown, imagining the events Mannika described.
“Give me those two jars,” Nadesan said. “I’ll walk with you to the queue.” The four of them stepped out into the lane and the children ran ahead.
“You see how quickly she’s learning,” Vasuki said. “Poniah too.”
“Smart kids,” Nadsan said. “But is this language fad really for the best?”
Nadesan had been approached with marriage proposals from four families. There were fewer young men now, and more women had to go without husbands. Nadesan was handsome, and his mischievousness had matured into an attractive cheerfulness. He chose a girl whose family was cashew growers. Now that he was married and his wife pregnant, he liked to instruct, to make pronouncements.
“In one of those places you’re so crazy about, things aren’t so good for people like us,” he said. “Last week some Turks there got beaten up.”
Vasuki swung the water jar impatiently. “There may have been some incident or other, but everyone knows people there are rich.”
“The Turks were sleeping, and their hostel got set on fire by a crowd. People watched the fire raise up, and they cheered. Can you imagine?”
“Mannika! Don’t get so far ahead!” Vasuki called.
“Then the Turks who ran out of the burning building were caught and beaten.”
Poniah fell back and skipped beside his uncle. Mannika took her mother’s free hand.
“People there want to adopt foreign children,” Vasuki said, “so why do they beat up foreigners? While here the army bans fishing because those fighters threw grenades over the fence near the brigadier’s headquarters.
There was not much fish in the market, and vegetables were expensive. You couldn’t get widow’s compensation without a death certificate, and you couldn’t get a death certificate for a person unless you could prove they had died. The army sergeant continued to insist that the army did not have Raj in custody, nor did they know of his whereabouts.
When Nadesan moved into his wife’s ancestral house, he’d continued to give Vasuki money. Raj’s younger brother took over the pharmacy, and he was able to give Vasuki a little each week. Raj had put away money against emergencies, and now Vasuki added this to his brother’s gifts and the money from Nadesan.
“Anyone there can become a doctor or scientist or the head of a manufacturing firm,” she said. “They have washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Everyone has a VCR and a car.”
“Maybe,” Nadesan said. “Anyway, we’re not going there. Except for Poniah.” He picked up Poniah again and flew him above their heads. “Poniah will fly through the air right out of the country!”
“I’m going to fly!” Poniah said. He laughed.
Nadesan was proud in that strutting way of a rooster. But he’d said it, spontaneously, as though it were true: Poniah, flying out of the country. The day before, Vasuki had stood in the queue for water. The women waiting talked. America had sent Green Berets to help train the soldiers. The generals had expected that with the Americans would come better, more expensive equipment witch would enable them to rout the insurgents. Young men who had previously shunned the army’s ranks signed up. They wanted to be near these foreign soldiers who wore their tall, powerful bodies like uniforms and looked as though nothing could stand against them.
Soon after the Green Berets arrived, the army announced that north had been “cleared.” This freed troops for the east. Suddenly there were many more soldiers in the town. When their lorries weren’t enough, they commandeered public busses. One woman in the queue said she’d set off to attend a funeral but there had been no bus.
Many of the soldiers were nervous new recruits. And the fighters were known to have suicide squads. A village woman’s bag of vegetables might hide a bomb. Or one of the army lorries might hit a mine. One way or another, the women agreed, it was only a matter of time before more soldiers or even a brigadier got killed. Then there would be a very bad incident. Young men would be rounded up, or the soldiers might set a village afire, or arrest fishermen because their work in the sun made their skins very dark, like the skins of the fighters who lived in the open.
“The best thing,” one of the women said, “would be if a big bomb came an dkilled all of us at once.”
She though of Nadesan’s joking pronouncement: Poniah flying. She imagined her son as a cherub, with little wings. Nadesan turned to his sister. He would become a father. Ensconced in this dispensation, she spoke with confidence.
“It may be that people there have cars,” he said, “but things are going to get better here. You’ll see.”
Nadesan’s head was filled with dreams, Vasuki thought, all because his wife had a big belly. Vasuki went regularly to the temple to pray for her children’s safety. She had taken a vow, asked the goddess to protect them. To perform the vow she had walked the fire with the other women, carrying Poniah in her arms.
Still, at times, a searing fear shot through her. A slit in the airyou couldn’t see it, but suddenly someone who’d been right beside you was pulled out. Sons more than daughters. Though more and more it seemed what was around them might devour a daughter as easily as a son. The soldiers picked up girls at random, kept them a few days, dropped them by the side of the road. Some lay in the ditch and did not move. Others managed to walk back to their houses. One lay in bed two months, then died. Some came back to their parents’ houses, then swallowed the poisonous seeds of the alari.
Something happened that had never happened because no soldier or general had thought of it. It began when fighters attacked an army camp near the town, killed fifty-two soldiers and set three tents on fire. Soldiers shot farmers in their fields. They burned houses. In the town no queues were formed. No buses ran. Shops closed. People went into their houses and shut the doors.
A day and a night passed. Then the news came. Soldiers had cut the coconut trees. They said it was to use the trunks for bunkers, but they’d cut every tree. Orchard after orchard, all the way back to that first generation fell in this cutting. Even the orchards which belonged to the Catholic priests were cut without a single piece of pepar granting dispensation.
Vasuki left the children with Sri and went to where the orchards had been. It felt as though angry speech had shot across the air, cursing whatever lovely thing was in its path. The stumps were white, shocking. You didn’t want to walk there. There was too much sadness in that place.
At the end of the third day of the army’s assault, Nadesan’s wife went into labor. The labor went on longer than it should have. When the midwife pulled the baby out, the little boy was dead.
That was the day soldiers tied the boy’s foot to the bumber of their jeep. Afterward the jeep had come back. The driver had halted on the main street. The boy’s mother hurried to meet it, then stood a little away, watching one of the soldiers step down. If he noticed her, he paid no attention. He’d taken a knife from his belt and cut the rope.
The next day Vasuki gave Nadesan the money. She asked him to buy the ticket. He agreed. The baby’s death had sealed off his cheerfulness. Afterward she took the children to the lagoon. Poniah squatted and set his paper boat onto the swaying water. He watched the boat rocking on the waves and sang one of the songs Mannika had taught him. He reminded Vasuki of one of the tiny chittering frogs that appeared in the mud after a rain.
“Look!” he said. Five gulls wheeled over the water.
“You’re going to fly like one of those gulls,” Vasuki said. She explained that he would travel in a very big airplane to a new country where there were no soldiers. On the plane there would be a kind auntie who would give him sweets and a toy airplane to play with while the big plane flew through the sky.
The gulls flew toward the sea. She wxplained that she and Mannika would come a little later. Mannika frowned. Would Sri and their cousins come too? Their uncle Nadesasn? Their grandmother? Vasuki nodded.
“Poniah’s too little to go alone,” Mannika said. “I should go with him.”
“You would leave your mother alone?” Vasuki teased.
“Of course not,” Mannika said. “We would send for you as soon as we got there.”
The neighbor’s bitch, a small terrier, had come in heat. Her suitors came, baying in the moonlight, sprinting up and down the fence. Vasuki got up, filled a bucket with the bad wel water and threw it on them. In the ensuing quiet she slept without dreams. She woke early and went through the gate into the lane. To the west the full moon stood just above the horizon. To the east the sun was appearing over the water. She stood exactly between these poles. Encompassed by the timed motion of these bodies, she felt her decision confirmed.
That morning she got a small suitcase ready. In it she put new clothes, small toys. A statue of the goddess. She’d brought the book Mannika was reading to Poniah. She pictured Poniah stepping down from the plane, holding his book. There below, the kind parents, ready to love him, the mother bending over, taking his miniature body into her arms. His mother would be blond. Vasuki imagined the little ways in which this woman would cherish his perfect body. And the father, a tall man, like one of those Green Berets, would be kind. She imagined his approval, his head nodding. He would be proud of this good son.
Green parrots squawked and dove in and out of the banana leaves. The flame trees put forth their fiery petals. When she’d finished her morning chores, she took Poniah to the lagoon. Two butterflies near a margosa swooped in elliptical arcs around each other. A fisherman repairing his boat agreed to give Poniah a ride. They stayed close to the shore, and when the fisherman steered the boat in, Poniah climbed out, splashing and smiling.
“Has Mannika been in a boat? he said. “I don’t think so.”
At dusk Vasuki let him feed the chickens. They clucked excitedly, running wherever his arm flung the grain. The moon rose over the lagoon. Mannika helped Poniah finish filling the suitcase. He put in a toy truck and a small doll Mannika had given him. Then he brought his favorite sheet from the clothesline.
“It has dried in the moonlight,” he announced. He laid the sheet across the doll. Then he ran outside, plucked three alari blossoms and laid them on top.
Earth and air conspired in the darkness, and sweet rain fell in abundance. The Golden Shower trees across the lane and the flame trees in back were drunk with it. Tiny birds perched, ruffling their feathers. Rain dripped from their tails. The sand was pounded, washed clean.
Vasuki lay beside Poniah. When the alarm woke her, rain had ceased. The moon was just going down. She woke Poniah, bathed and dressed him. While Poniah ate, Nadesan arrived, hearty and joking. He would take Poniah to the capital. He’d arranged for another passenger, a distant cousin of his wife’s, to look out for Poniah on the flight. He admired his nephew’s suitcase. He tapped Poniah on the shoulder and winked.
“You and I are going off to adventure,” he said. “The others are not brave enough, and so must stay here where nothing happens.”
Mannika still slept, and Poniah went to her and kissed her cheek. He walked with his mother and uncle to the gate. Vasuki kissed him, then stood back. She watched Poniah take his uncle’s hand. They stepped through the gate. Poniah turned and waved. She stood in the lane until they turned the corner.
She walked to the house through the cries of parrots. Each morning she heard their raucous calls, like bolts of color shot through the highest branches. This morning each cry sounded like the glint of a blade.
Mannika was gay, getting dressed. She chattered about what Poniah might be doing at that moment. On the walk to school she made up a list of things she and her mother would do together. A lark swooped down before them, it’s glide a soft whistle, then turned it’s trajectory up and away. Vasuki was relieved that Mannika didn’t seem to miss Poniah too much, at least not yet. The lilt of excitement in Mannika’s good-bye seemed to Vasuki a new language the universe was just now creating, language she was barely beginning to hear.
She walked home through the pattern of light and shade spread on the sand. In the compound a yellow bird flitted down to peck grain the chickens missed. It was necessary to boil more drinking water. She wept, and the heat built its esplanade across the day. Geckos slid off into shade. She sat to drink a glass of water. The heat felt like a familiar body, someone she slept next to, and at the same time strange. It was as though a strange new color had been loosed into the world. She could not decide whether this color was beautiful.
A haze of yellow butterflies fluttered above the alari, and on the fence perched two tiny birds, their heads azure. Usually the lane was empty. Five soldiers came striding toward her. Vasuki stepped aside to let them pass. Soldiers did not come here. They stayed on the other side of the bridge. She walked to where the lane met the main road. Now there were many soldiers, spreading out from lorries. Four and five at a time were going door to door, knocking, shouting for the occupants. In one doorway a young man appeared in sarong, his eyes darting from face to face.
What has happened to make soldiers come here? Must have been something bigger than a mine. There was the smell of someone’s cooking fire. Or was it a cooking fire kicked apart by a soldier? Lucky that Nadesan had gone to the capital, lucky that Sri’s husband wouldn’t have come home yet. The lagoon water was smooth and perfect as a mirror. She tried to become still, swaying only a little, like water. How slow and soft the air around her, how nervously she was rushing through it.
Then the school was before her, two hibiscus at the gate, their flowers hot orange. The playground was deserted. The principal, a stately woman who always wore sari, let Vasuki in.
“What’s happened?” Vasuki asked. Other mothers were gathered just inside the entrance. The principal shook her head.
“Who can say? Best to wait here until the soldiers go back across the bridge. We’ll wait together.”
Mannika ran to her mother, waving a piece of paper.
“This is our house, at night. You can’t see us, because you and Daddy and I and Poniah are sleeping, but here are the trees, and I’ve put in a moon.”
“Soldiers!” a boy called. Through the open casement she saw them. Seven soldiers had come through the gate. Behind them, one at a time, came more soldiers. They spread out in a line facing the school’s entrance. In the quiet the children’s white uniforms seemed very bright. Vasuki closed her eyes, let them rest for a moment on blankness. When she opened them she saw a child tugging his mother’s sari. His mother lifted him, and he clutched her waist with his legs.
Vasuki looked at the soldiers’ faces. How different each face wasone handsome, the next with pocked skin, one fierce, another bewildered, nervous. They were hardly more than school boys. Beyond them the hibiscus put forth its bright blooms, and Vasuki wanted to call out to ask their names, the names of their parents. But none of the soldiers looked at her. The line kept curving until it circled the school.
“Out!” A soldier shouted. He spoke Vasuki’s language. “Everyone out.”
The principal stepped forward.
“Don’t go,” one mother said. “Don’t open the door.”
The principal shook her head. “I’ll talk to them. It may be that they only want the building.”
Mannika tugged at Vasuki’s skirt. Vasuki spoke the appropriate calming words, but as soon as she’d spoken, she could not remember what she’d said. She thought how the green globe held in some places. So many rips, so much tearing, and yet a mango was still perfectly what it was. No matter how many soldiers died, you could take a bath, feel the water’s sacral pouring. And children kept coming into the world, running from shade to sunlit sand, their voices calling the way gulls call out from their wheeling.
She was glad. Poniah was on his way to a country where kind and wealthy people wanted foreign children. She’d thought ahead, she’d done the right thing. She’d sent her son out of this country of death to another country where he would be safe.
Mannika’s body pressed against her hip. In her hand, the drawing. Such a small hand, a hand that gripped a green crayon, moved it decisively across paper. Vasuki saw her own hand, gathering in Mannika’s shoulder. She looked at her own long fingers. This was not a hand that could save anyone. It was good only for brushing away flies, for mixing pittu. For a moment, this hand seemed not her own, but the hand of a stranger. Then it occurred to her that there was a thing this hand might do. If the soldiers let them go home, this hand could do it. She imagined this hand pushing open the gate to their compound. She imagined reaching out to the alari, gathering the alari seeds.