• 03 Feb - 09 Feb, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Suddenly, she grinned.
“How about this? The flower must remain unmoved by being stolen or being picked with permission, or even by dying! We can remember that as we recite our prayers this evening if you like,” she said, her cajoling beginning to wear Latha down. “Besides, it would be quicker.”

Thara was right about that bit at least.

Half the time when they went flower gathering, they would have to leave because nobody was home to ask, even when there were so many blooms on some bushes that the owners would never have noticed it if they had picked a few on their way out. Besides, wouldn’t they be creating merit for the owners by using their flowers for prayers? Latha squared her shoulders and nodded.

“Hanh ehenang,” she said, relenting.

The first three houses were easy. There were no gates and, more important, no dogs. But the fourth presented a series of problems, the largest of which was a grandmother moving around, albeit slowly, in the house. They watched her for a few minutes, hidden from view behind a short and somewhat prickly hedge.

“Hopefully she’s deaf,” Thara said. Latha suppressed a giggle. She felt a warm, pleasant excitement gather between her legs, like wanting to pee and never being able to pee again, both at the same time. She clutched Thara’s arm.

“I’ll keep watch, baba, you get the flowers,” Latha said, warming to this new sensation brought on by good intentions and bad behaviour.

“No, you pick them and I’ll keep an eye on the old cow.” Thara shoved Latha away from he and onto the gravel driveway. Latha scurried across it and pasted herself against the trunk of the araliya tree. But the very characteristics that made it so lovely to have in a garden the low, spread-apart branches; the thick, large, moisturerich leaves; the bunches of waxy yellow blossoms all these ensured that it provided very little cover for an eleven-year-old girl in a bright blue, puff-sleeved dress. It was a tree meant for lovemaking, a leaning tree, no a tree for hiding from grandmothers.

“Kawda?” The voice was at once beseeching and nasty. The old lady, dressed in a housecoat of indefinite hue and cut, was at the window, shading her eyes and peering into the garden. The pee began to leak into Latha’s underwear. Tears threatened to start up top. Thara was gesticulating wildly from behind the hedge, mouthing a word Latha could not understand. Run? Come? Maybe she was just gaping. After one last and somewhat manic series of gesticulations, Thara grimaced at Latha and stepped out from behind the bushes. She walked boldly to the front door and rang the bell. It had a tinny, high-pitched sound, entirely at odds with the dimensions of the soaring pillars and beams that made up the house, built in the style of a Walauwwa. The Boy opened the door before the bell stopped ringing and grinned at her.

Latha was just about to step out from her ineffectual hiding place when she heard the sly, teasing hiss behind her. And that was how she met Gehan.

“So how many of those flowers are stolen?”

“Naa… api…,” she said, looking somewhere off to the right of his left shoulder but instantly aware of everything about him: that his blue-checked shirt was the same color as her dress; that he wore khaki shorts and Bata slippers, like hers; that his hair stood up on end along the path where he had just run his hand through it, like a sculpture; that he was very brown, browner even than she became during cricket season, when she and Thara climbed the roof of their house to watch the games. One more thing: he was wiry and elongated, like a reedy plant reaching for sunlight through dense shrubs; everything concentrated on the upward journey, just the barest of threads for roots.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell. I’ll even pick a few more for you. Look. Here, take these.”

Why did he have to pick the entire bunch? She always made it a point to pick only the blooms. She couldn’t stop herself: “Aiyyo! Don’t pick the buds! You’re wasting the flowers!”

“You’re wasting the flowers!” he mimicked. “So what? There are at least two hundred on this tree, and tomorrow, two hundred more!”

Latha frowned at the bunch he had picked in its entirety off the tree: her favourite flowers, in all their golden sun-and-moon beauty. He wouldn’t put them down but continued to hold them in his out-stretched hand. He looked ridiculous: a romantic hero without the face or manner for it. Milky white sap was dripping onto his dusty slippers. There was dirt under his toenails. He shuffled his feet under her stare. She sighed and took the offering, stooping to rub the stem in the dirt to stop the bleeding.

She turned to go, then paused. “Thank you,” she said, over her shoulder, pouting her mouth as she said it. He smiled and she felt happy; perhaps he had not guessed that she was a servant. She tried to ape Thara’s confidence as she walked over to join her at the door.

Thara’s voice brought her back to the present.

“Come, Latha! Let’s go before Amma gets home!” Thara shouted as she ran to get their bags for the day’s picking.

“Just give me a minute to change my dress. I’ll meet you by the gate.”

Thara stopped running and turned around. “Change your dress? What are you changing your dress for? That one looks fine.”

“But I’ve been helping Soma nenda in the kitchen and it smells like curries and anyway it’s wet now,” she said.

“It’ll dry as we walk and nobody’s going to smell you after all so what’s the point of changing?”

“I’ll meet you by the gate,” she said, and ran away before Thara could argue. She went into the storeroom where she slept, between the padlocked haal pettiya full of dry goods and spices and the barrel full of unhusked rice, and she put her soap away on the wooden shelf next to her mat, hiding it carefully behind an old Vesak card with a picture of the Sri Maha Bodhiya on the front. She spread her towel and wet clothes on the rack near the door. Then she climbed on a low bench and took her blue dress off the coir rope where she had hung it to air after the last time. If she was going to get in trouble, she wasn’t about to let Thara bully her about her dress.

She slipped on the thin leather slippers that had once belonged to somebody, a relative of Thara’s who was a schoolteacher, she imagined; they were that kind flat, unflattering, and noisy. They were a size too big for her, and she had to grip them with her toes when she walked, but at least they were not her old rubber slippers, at least they made her feel dressed up. She checked the picture of the English princess that she had cut out of the newspaper and pasted inside one of her exercise books. Latha had taken to the princess afresh since she’d read in the accompanying article that she had been a nobody and a nanny who looked after other people’s children before she decided to become a princess instead. Having confirmed that, indeed, the look she had been practicing, peering out with her chin tucked but her eyes uplifted, had been properly copied, Latha stepped out. Then she went back into the storeroom and lightly stroked the still-moist surface of her soap. She rubbed the tips of her fingers on her wrist, then rubbed her wrists together like she had seen Thara do when she wore her mother’s perfume.

Now she was ready.

Biso I have mended his slippers. Frayed, old, pinned together between the toes. This is the most that is possible. The temple bells are ringing. I pay heed, though their sweetness has been lost to me for years. I see him before the last chimes fade, picking his way through the mangrove swamps. Beyond him the sea. I would go to the water if I knew it would not humble me. Twice I tried, walking into the blue, two in one hand, one in the other, singing. But when the waves broke over us I half-drowned to save them. Dragging their confused bodies to shore until that, too, became mere play. No. No more of the hot, brined sand under our feet, no more rituals to stave off my madness. We will go to the cold green hills, to the slopes of tea and the music of waterfalls. I will make them forget.

There is a full moon tonight and the children wait, just out of sight in the kitchen behind me, still dressed in their white school uniforms, waiting to light lamps and incense around the Bo tree. I press into the splintered frame of the door as he pushes past me.

“Move, vesi!”

I cast my eyes down at my feet, but I stay where I am. Whore, bitch, cunt. Words that came calling with such fury the first time but lost their effect so soon. He looks confused but staggers indoors. I wipe his spit off the front of my blouse with the edge of my sari and raise my eyes to my children. They scamper to my side, little mice.

Outside, the air is moist, and Loku Putha leads the way. He has his father’s walk, his face, his movements, the same quick eyes, the same rare smile, but he is still only nine years old. Give me two years, and with the grace of the gods he shall not become his father. My firstborn daughter stumbles over some hidden root, and he turns to catch her. Her grabs her hand, steadies her, then shakes it off. He clips the side of her head with his knuckles and wipes his hand on his shirt as though she were tainted.

“Watch where you’re going! Pissi!” he adds and looks defiantly at me.

Her face wrinkles. “Aiyya called me an idiot…”

“It’s okay, Loku Duwa. Stay here next to me,” I say, and take her hand in mine. My youngest, the baby, glances at us, then runs ahead to join her brother.

“She’ll fall before we reach the temple.” She sounds as if she wishes that upon her younger sister: a fall, a scream, tears, a bloody knee, a ruined evening, blame. I sigh and stroke my daughter’s hair, trying to ease her older-sister conundrums, jealousies and concerns twisting together, inseparable.

The chanting of the priests floats over the sound of the sea. The smells of oil, incense, frangipani, jasmine, and lotus mix with the taste of sea salt on my tongue. It calms me. I heave another sigh, audible and long, and feel my anxieties rise up out of my body and drift away.

A boy about my son’s age accosts us; he wears a banian and a pair of shorts that are too small for him. “Five cents to look after all your slippers,” he says.

“That’s alright, putha, we’ll leave them here,” I say, and stroke his head. He smiles but ducks from under my palm, moving on to other potential customers. Nobody steals slippers at temples, and yet there are people who pay to have them watched, as if they had not come to temple to meditate on the transience of their lives, on the irrationality of clinging to their possessions. We leave our slippers in a dark corner outside the temple walls and climb the thirty-three worn steps to the top. Once there, I wiggle my toes in the liquid sea sand and smile.

Despite all that has happened to me in this town, I have always loved this temple. Each full moon I have come here, alone at first, then withmy firstborn, my Loku Putha, to watch him crawl on all fours at the roots of the holy Bo tree, then with both of them, my son and daughter, and now with all my children. I used to come here with Siri when the moon was not full, when the temple was likely to be empty. We would come here to light a lamp, and to reflect upon how insignificant we were, when alone, in the scheme of things, in the same way that our flowers lay, dying before our eyes at the clean, empty shrines: two flowers, two sticks of incense, two people, and all o the Buddha’s teachings surrounding us in the quiet. But on Poya days like this, the moon full and low over the ocean like a lantern we ourselves had reached up to light, I came with my children to forget that lesson, to do what a mother must, to take heart in the crowds of people, in their essential goodness, in the arrays of flowers piled high and seemingly abundant with life and hope. That is how it is when people gather together, Siri used to tell me; we can convince ourselves of immortality, even in a temple. How prescient he had been, though he hadn’t known it then. I have never come to temple with my husband, not even when we were first married and I asked him to accompany me. He was always uncomfortable with tranquil pursuits.

“Amma, I want to light the first lamp,” Chooti Duwa says beside me, pouting in anticipation of my answer, waiting for her older siblings to pre-empt her with their usual cautionary words. When I say yes, her mouth and eyes open wide, letting in as much delight as her slender body can hold.

I stand aside and watch them. My son cleans out

five lamps, one for each member of our family, while his sisters take note of his every movement. Chooti Duwa holds our basket of flowers, her older sister clutches our incense and candle.