• 22 Jun - 28 Jun, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I shiver a little, feeling the cold. I’m not a beggar, and I don’t need money from strangers. I say nothing. I pull the fall of my sari over my other shoulder and tuck it into my waistband, busying myself so as to avoid his eyes.

“Just something to buy Panadol or a sticking plaster for a wound or some pori… something if they need it,” he says, noticing my distress. “It’s only what I give my little girl once a month. Here, please take it.”

I take the money and hold it in my hand, wanting to hide it but not wanting to offend him. Besides, the notes are new, and if I fold them I’d have to use them. I have always liked to save new things, at least for a little while.Bright rupee coins, unopened bars of soap, and new money. Even though I do not want it, the smell of it tempts me. I look away.

“Can I smell the money, Amma?” Chooti Duwa asks, and her voice seems out of place in the midst of this adult interaction. I smile at the way she has picked up my habits, and he laughs, relieved, perhaps, of his embarrassment.

“Yes,” I say and give her one of the notes. She sniffs at it, her eyes shut. She does not open them even when he pats her head. He nods in my direction and gets off the train.

“He’s leaving!” my son says, turning around to me. “That gentleman who was talking to you has got off the train. Look!”

So I look just to please him. How strange it is that a man so young should look so tired even in such well-made attire, nice khaki trousers, and respectable dark brown shit, and with such a light bag to carry. I wonder what had made him want to offer me his help when, by the look of him, the stooped conduct of his life so apparent in his gait, it is I who am the stronger of us two strangers. Perhaps it was nothing more than chivalry: I am a woman with children, he is a man. When Loku Duwa announces that we are now all alone, it feels more frightening than it had before Thalawakele, when he had walked into our compartment and joined me. To comfort myself, I explain the station sign to Chooti Duwa, who has opened her eyes, drunk with the smell of new money, which she gives back to me for safekeeping. Pattipola is the highest station in the whole I country. I tell her, and its summit is at 6,226 feet. Of course she does not know what that means.

“As tall as the Colombo buildings?”

“Taller,” I say, holding her close as the train begins to move again, and frowning at my son, who, I an tell, is about to call her stupid. “So tall that they don’t need those big buildings up here. They just climb the mountains when they want to see far away.”

“What do they see in Colombo?” she asks me.

“More buildings,” her brother says, his voice full of condescension toward the city he has passed through only this once, all of a sudden sounding like he had always lived here, among these greens and brights and close skies. Before I can consider the change in my son, or my uncertainty about our safety now that my last adult companion has left us, we enter another tunnel and are plunged into darkness. The train seems to veer suddenly around a corner, and I feel terrified that we might crash into the side of the mountain. My children squeal with delight, and this time there are far fewer voices to echo theirs. Someone yells out that there are bats in the tunnel, and another voice, male, says that when we come out at the other end we will be in the dry zone of our country. I do not believe him, but when we emerge into daylight again, the air seems different, less cold, and the foliage is not as dense as it had been approaching Pattipola from the other side.

It feels like an omen to me, this darkness hat we have gone through only to arrive in a climate less refreshing than the one we had climbed toward from the moment we left Colombo. I shake these thoughts and try to reclaim my equanimity; it is foolish of me to give in to such imaginings simply because I have taken leave of a stranger. I give the other two children either two-rupee notes. Loku Duwa opens our bag and pus hers away inside a math textbook I hadn’t noticed she had tucked in thee. My son folds his in half and puts it into the pocket of his shirt, away from the other, contaminated, money in his trousers, and again I rejoice at the progress I have made since we left Matara.

But it is as if the train wishes to prove me wrong, or some deity is offended by my pride, because just as I reach forward to gather my three children to me in a embrace of gratitude, we are flung away from one another: they against the seat opposite mine, and I to the floor. Loku Duwa begins to cry, so quickly that it is almost as though her crying caused the train to pitch and stop. Her forehead has a small cut from where her head hit the edge of the window, and, when she brings her fingers to it and then sees the blood, she starts screaming. There are shouts up and down the train, loud from the adjoining carriages, fainter in the distant ones. I get up and tend to her; we have no more water, so I pour some thambili water from one of the bottles onto the edge of my sari pota and wipe the wound; I bunch up another corner of my sari and blow several times into it, then press the warm fabric to her head, soothing her, telling her that it is only a scratch. She continues to cry and I try to placate her further; I rub the tips of my middle and index fingers in the center of the palm of my other hand until I can feel the heat and press my fingers, too, to her forehead.

My son has his arms around the little one, who seems oddly at ease in the midst of the chaos around us. She smiles at her brother and snuggles deeper into his body, as if her thoughts are only on enjoying the rare pleasure of being in his good graces.

“Amma, what has happened?” he asks me.

“I don’t know,” I say, and then, because he is looking to me for further explanation, “but there must be someone around who can tell me. It won’t take long to find out. Can you look after your sisters until I go and see?”

He nods. I dislodge Loku Duwa from my body and settle her into the seat, her head to one side, resting on the outer edge of the windows. She pouts, and so I take one of my son’s banians from our bag, blow, again, on a corner several times so that it is warm and moist, and give it to her.

“Here,” I say, “hold this to your head, my pet, and it won’t feel so bad.” Then, with another glance at my boy to confirm that he is now in charge. I leave before she can plead with me to stay.

When I get to the steps we had been sitting on earlier, I see that we are between stations. There is no platform to stand on. There is a man about my age on the opposite set of steps. I decide to be safe and refer to him as a younger brother.

“Do you know what is going on, malli?” I ask.

He looks back and down at me, taking in my age, verifying that I am indeed older than he is or, perhaps, my status; I am better dressed than he is; we are clearly not of the same class. My feet are clean, shod; his are cracked and bare of coverings. “No,” he says, slowly, drawing his lips down and shaking his head, disappointed that he lacks the necessary information. “I was just wondering if I should get down and see.”

“Is there room to walk on this side?” I ask, not wanting to get any closer to him but just as curious about our derailment.

He peers down. “Yes, there’s a little bit of space to walk on.”

“I will come with you,” I say, then I add, “I told my children that I would find out what is going on.” This seems to reassure him, that I have children, for he agrees.

“All right then, let’s go and see.”

He steps down and respectfully holds on to my upper arm to help me navigate the steps. We walk, one behind the other, clinging to bushes in places so that we don’t have to step on the tracks, which seem somehow more dangerous than they do when hidden by the steep sides of a station platform. A couple of people join us, stepping down from their carriages when they see that it is possible to walk. I am the only woman in the group. Once or twice I look back and see my son watching us from the window, the front half of his body starkly bright with the red of his shirt against the dull brown and black of the train, and I wave to reassure him. The front of the train is around a corner, and I wonder if, when I cannot see my Loku Putha anymore, I should go back. But I tell myself that the train is almost empty, that my children are safe. I can always step back into one of the carriages near me should the train begin to move.

“Sometimes these factory workers tie things to the tracks,” someone says.

“For a strike,” says another.

“I thought the strike was in Thalawakele,” I say. “How many strikes do they have?”

They all laugh, and the young man in front of me says, “No, Akka, it’s all tea country here. When they strike, they strike up and down this whole area.”

“How long do you think the delay will be, then?” I ask, feeling a little ashamed of my lack of worldliness, yet not wanting to add that I haven’t seem any tea plantations for a while and that perhaps it is they who are misinformed.

“An hour or two maybe,” a man says behind me.

Two hours. That means that it will be late morning when we get to Ohiya. I sigh. If we begin walking right away when we get off the train in Ohiya, and making allowance for my little one, who I know will need many rests, we will not be at my aunt’s house until long after lunch. Maybe there’s a bus now. I am still dwelling on these calculations when I make the turn, and at first I don’t realize that what I am seeing is what it is. There are still several carriages ahead of us, but right next to where we stand are four bodies lying on the tracks. A woman, a man, and two children. I feel my body grow cold and weak, and the man I had spoken to, who had been walking in front of me, turns and catches me as I sink to the ground. There are voices all around. The engine driver I assume it is the engine driver shouts at us to leave the scene, but he does so half-distractedly and none of us move.

“Let’s go back to your carriage,” the man says next to me, half-carrying me now.

I am on my knees, and I cannot tear my eyes away from them. There are ropes mixed up with the bodies, and the woman and her children have mangled middles. I can see where the train wheels ran over them. The fabric on their clothes is ground into the train tracks, and pulled away from the tops and bottoms of their bodies. Their forearms and wrists lie on the tops of their thighs as though their hands had been clawing at their own flesh. I cannot see their faces, which are beyond my line of vision, there under the train. The boy wears shorts, and his thin legs are bent at the knees and spread apart as if he had been flailing. The girl’s legs are straight out and together as though she had been asleep. They must be seven or eight years old. The woman’s sari is white and her feet are bare, like her children’s. She wears it the Kandyan way, the osariya, the respectable way. A good woman. I realize they are all wearing white, as though they had been at or were going to a funeral, or to temple. I cannot see their faces. Yes, I can, I can. Just one face, only the man’s.

The man’s body is untouched. It lies on its belly. It rests between two cross planks as though it were on a bed. It is well dressed, also in white: starched, pressed trousers, and a white shirt. The shirt has been pulled out of his trousers, and, above his shoulders, the white collar is soaked in blood. The tracks and line are rust red between his torso and his head, which lies, faceup and close to the steel rail, as if it just fell off him, like a dead, dried flower without the energy to scatter. His hair is parted on the side, and it is smooth and oiled. He has clear skin and a thin mustache. His eyes are shut, his mouth open, as though he were breathing through it as he waited for our train. His head, his body, these things look peaceful, and suddenly I know that he did this to his family. He tied them to these tracks. But why had they not struggled? Why had they not run? Did he trick them? Did he tell them it was just a game? How could she not have known? How could she have let him? I turn my face a little, and I see four sets of shoes arranged in a row by the grass near the track. There are four half-drunk bottles of Portello there, and the remains of some meal. He poisoned them. He poisoned them first. I feel relief wash over me, the blood return to my limbs. As if it matters that they were already dying, unable to fight, or if they were already dead, or anything.

I cannot stop myself from swaying and murmuring prayers, asking the gods what has happened here, talking to the dead woman, calling her nangi, sister, younger sister, talking to all of them as though they can hear me. I must have aged right there on my knees before those bodies, because the man calls me mother. “Amme,” he says, “Amme, let me help you back to the carriage. Your children will be worried.”

My children. I get up and shake his arm off me. I start to run, tripping and crying as I fight through the bushes that helped my walk before but now seem to pull and tear at my hair and skin and hold me back. The man catches up with me and grabs my arm.

“Let me go!” I yell, again and again. “Let me go! Let me go! I must get back to my children!”

“Amme, get into the train and you can walk through it safely,” he says. He has to say it twice before I even understand. “Amme, get into the trains.

It’s safer to walk through the train.”

Up ahead I see my son again, still looking out the window, waiting for me to return.

to be continued...