• 13 Apr - 19 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The thread had been so bright and pretty, and so little of it was allowed on each hankie. It was a crying shame!

Latha had been sitting thee for weeks. The nuns had thought it would be good for her, after the baby had come and gone, leaving behind only stitches in her vagina, the sound of things ending, and the silence she would not vive up. She had not spoken in almost eight months; months during which the nuns had tried to shock her into speech, bringing her news of the world outside the convent, about new political parties and assassinations of one leader or another, of a peacekeeping force from India occupying the north and bombs going off everywhere. None of it had persuaded her to break her silence. What did any of it matter to her, locked up as she was, robbed of her past life and of her baby? But that day, looking at those brilliant and colourful threads, all bound together yet coming apart with such ease, the words had just fallen out of her.

“Why did you come?” she had asked.

“For the same reason you did,” Leela had said.

“I came from Colombo. That’s the big city,” Latha had told her and pulled in the corner of her mouth like she had seen Soma do when she returned to the house after the row with Mrs. Vithanage. It had made Soma look like she knew exactly what she was worth and not a rupee less. And now she, Latha, did too. She knew what she was worth and what fires she could play with and how much of a house she could burn down with her newfound skills. And she wasn’t going to forget that, even if she got covered with soot in the process or had nothing but ashes to look at afterward or even, yes, even if she had to burn down with it.

“I used to live in a house by the sea,” Leela had told her. “It had so many windows on the sea side, and a big rooftop with a balcony all around it. I used to love to go there at night and watch the lights in the harbour.’

“Were you near the harbour?” Latha had asked, though she wished she hadn’t as soon as the words were out of her mouth; the harbour seemed so much more important than even Colombo itself.

“No, but I could see the ships because the house had many stories. Sir and madam had a TV and a VCR, and they were the only people in the whole building with those things. We didn’t have a big garden, but the rooftop was filled with potted plants with fat leaves and few blooms, and a fountain with a naked baby with a bow and arrow on it, and there were benches and everything. The people had lots of parties there with music and dancing. When they had those parties they lit candles inside big glass bowls so they wouldn’t go out, from the sea breeze…” She had paused and looked at Latha, clearly assessing the extent of her experience, then decided to tell all. “They were posh. I heard their guests say that when the sir and madam were not nearby. Sometimes it sounded like an insult because they would nudge each other and laugh when they said it. But only sometimes.”

That was quite a long speech from Leela, whose unthreatening, unexpectant quietness had served to lessen Latha’s own, and Latha had been impressed. She’d thought about the Vithanage’s house and the one real celebration she had witnessed there; Thara’s coming–of–age party. The only other times they had parties were for Thara’s birthday, and even then only boring dinners with chicken curry and seeni sambol and fruit salad and ice cream afterward for relatives they never saw the rest of the year. There were never any young people and certainly no music and dancing like Leela said there had been at her house.

“Were there children?” Latha had asked, hoping to score at least one point for herself.

“No, only a madam and a sir who worked all day and had parties.”

“Still, must have been nice with all those parties,” Latha had said, charitably.

Leela had been silent, and Latha had understood. That’s what it did to you, being a woman, not a girl; it made you understand things that weren’t said. She’d picked up an orange skein and offered it to Leela. “I think you should put more orange in,” she had said, “orange is a happy color.”

Walking back to the dining room for breakfast now, Latha wondered who had brought Leela to the convent. Had it been the madam or the sir?

“Nobody,” Leela said when she asked. “I came by myself.”

Latha stopped midstride. “By yourself? How did you know where to go?”

“They drove me as far as a town where they had relatives, then they took me to the station and bought me a ticket, and told me where I was going, and said the nun would meet me when I got off in Hatton.”

They had reached the dining room, and Latha waited with Leela while the girl behind the counter served them their string hoppers with white potato curry and coconut sambol. They picked up their mugs of plain ginger tea and made their way to the table in the corner right near the entrance to the kitchen but overlooking the convent vegetable garden. The nuns at the center table watched her closely as she passed, and Latha took pains to look drawn and put upon. Since the delivery of her baby and her withdrawal, her silence, her fasting, her refusal to attend mass, all the things that had made them give her to Leela for care, Latha had been allowed all sorts of exceptions to the usual rules of the convent, and quiet frankly, she was enjoying them. Especially not having to look grateful for her food through each entire meal three times a day, when the meals weren’t really tasty enough to be grateful for in the first place. She often wished they would stop teaching people how to sew and perhaps teach some of the girls how to cook.

“Weren’t you scared to come by yourself?” she asked, when all danger of being mistaken for having recovered had passed. She looked searchingly at Leelam who was full of grace in a virginal sort of way: clear–skinned, tender, and quietly resigned. Certainly not the kind of girl Latha could picture travelling anywhere by herself.

“I was. They put me on a train, and I sat on my suitcase between the compartments by the door, because it was very crowded and I was nauseous and needed fresh air. But somewhere near Gampola, I made my way into a third–class carriage, and there I met a woman who gave me a seat. She was the kind of woman everyone body wants to be good to, you know, right? The kind even rowdy teenagers on the street corners call amme? Se called me duwa. That made me feel as though things would turn out all right, and they did.”

“That’s nice,” Latha said. “I remember going on a train once when I was a child.”

“Where did you go,” Leela asked, smiling a little, “when you were a child?”

“I think I went to the hill country. It was like this,” Latha looked out of the window to confirm this assertion, then nodded at Leela. “That’s why I don’t mind it too much here.”

“Why didn’t you stay?”

“In the hills? I couldn’t stay by myself, could I? The Vithanages brought me, and we went to those gardens with the big roses in all colors. The whole garden smelled wonderful then. I had never seen so many flowers in one place, not even on calendar pictures. I had one picture hat came close, but they were tulips from a place called Holland, abroad–flowers, not from our country.”

She tried to like those flowers again, the way they had dug them–selves a little hole under her skin and made her yearn for their scent as a child, the way she had stolen those bars of soap just to bury her face in them again. She tried, but she couldn’t. Roses now reminded her of her body, the way it had been used and twisted and turned inside out and abandoned afterward; they smelled of the bile she had emptied along the paths planted with the thorny bushes at the convent.

“What are you thinking about?” Leela asked.

“Nothing,” Latha said and sighed. She looked up at Leela and wished she could add something more to her story, now that her up–country trip had petered out into a mere visit, and one leached of its magic. “Can you get me more tea?” she asked. More tea was also a perk of ailing, and Latha felt as though she was ailing right then, and honestly this time. But Leela didn’t get up.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Seventeen I think.”

“You don’t look seventeen. You look younger; fifteen maybe.”

“No. I’m definitely seventeen,” Latha said, using her pursed mouth as added evidence of maturity.

“How would you know?” Leela asked, swirling the tea in her cup, round and round and round like she was agitated.

“I counted,” Latha said, majestically.

“From when?”

“I counted my birthdays.”

“Birthdays?” Leela asked, real awe in her voice. “Did your family celebrate your birthdays?”

“No,” Latha said, thoughtfully, “but I did. I didn’t know when I was born, so I just picked a date. I chose the first of May because the school principal told us that it was the most important day of the year and he was right because it was always a boliday and we sometimes watched the JVP parades with all the red flags, because that one almost always went by our house, but when I was bigger they stopped marching in the parades and so I changed it to the first of July because I read that the princess of England, Diana, was born on that date, and I felt that suited me better because she used to be poor before she became a princess. And Thara agreed too, and she gave me old things wrapped in newspaper sometimes. Her old books and pictures torn from magazines that I would like, pictures of food, mostly, but sometimes clothes and even houses in foreign countries with big gardens full of hedges and berries and even snow!” Latha warmed to her topic and continued with pride. “Once, Thara gave me a chocolate! That’s how I know.”

Leela put her palm on the side of Latha’s cheek and smiled. It was a smile of pity, and it irked Latha. She was about to say something irritable, but just then Leela poured her own tea into Latha’s empty cup. Latha tasted it. It was not hot, but she didn’t feel like pressing for a new cup; it would have been rude.

“When is your birthday?” Latha asked, hoping for the right answer, that Leela would not know either, for sure anyway.

“I don’t know. I know the years pass, that is all. My people told me they got me from this convent and that’s why they were sending me back. They told the nuns that I was the wrong kind for them. Odd how they didn’t think that for all those years when I was doing all their work for them, cooking for their parties, washing their clothes, polishing their floors.”

Latha considered this revelation and tried to imagine Leela being born at the convent and living the rest of her life here. She looked around her and took in her new home for the first time with an open heart, searching for the best of it, making it perfect for Leela.

The rooms were spare, yes, but they were clean and decent. She liked the high roofs with the immense exposed beams and, come to think of it, she even liked the chapel. It was full of colors, all over the windows, and there was something comforting about that and the sonorous sound of the masses they held there once a day and twice on Sundays. The pews, those too were not so bad when she gave it some thought. It was good, wasn’t it, to slip forward from them onto the cushioned knee rest below, to feel that smooth wood beneath her elbows? Yes, she enjoyed that; it felt like sleep, the seated prayers and then the languorous slide into the kneeling prayers, when she could give herself over to all her longings while the music rose around her. Most of the nuns had good voices, and they pitched them toward heaven together, one voice rising and falling like a velvety sheet whipped over a bed. Or like the hills themselves, dipping and climbing around the convent, they sounded like that, those nuns. True, Latha didn’t much like singing herself, but it was good to be at the center of it, buffeted and buoyed by the nun’s fervor. She nodded to herself; yes, Leela was fortunate to have a life unfold to the accompaniment of those voices.

Besides, the nuns kept very neat gardens, which produced sensuously corpulent vegetables that begged to be eaten: giant orange carrots, voluptuous red beets, and the long white leeks, with their masses of pale green leaves, and what about the radishes? After Latha gave up the roses, she had taken to walking there, something that only the cooks did, fondling and sniffing at the produce in silence. It had calmed he to do that, to wander within such fertility, some of the plants almost as tall as herself.