In her mouth, words slid up against each other like tenants in a crowded apartment block, knocking boots and more, cramped up and laid down and fighting, tangling, arguing, consonants and vowels, ends and beginnings, in perpetual war, slamming into teeth and sliding down tongues and pushing against lips to escape, expand, breathe a sigh of relief.
As in language, so in life: desperate for release. She shuddered away from the press of vermillion-coated fingers to her forehead, tugged at her clothes, scratched the skin, carefully, methodically, from her face, so the old layers fell from her in a flaky dust. Picked at hangnails until she drew blood. A happy girl, I said. Kept saying. I sit in the dark embrace of her bedroom, as if I could listen to her silence, and I think it, too. Still she slips from me each day, her peculiar, discordant voice and her long limbs she never quite meshed with and the brush of her hands along the top of my head. My happy girl—
She had an assignment when she was ten. One word to describe yourself. She chose the word “not.” Existentialist and intellectual, I thought, though the teacher disagreed. But he didn’t know her. I was her mother. Am.
I must go back to work someday soon and someday soon I will. Someday soon I will wash the dishes and someday soon I must pick up her things from the school. I must, and I will, but today I would rather sit at the kitchen table and let the unceasing grief pool at the back of my throat, let my hands unstick from the sweaty wooden surface and skip down to my sides, curl there and press the fingernails in. Close my eyes, and let the stars bloom behind them.
Her father stuck glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling in painstaking approximation of major constellations; she preferred to sneak out and look at the real thing, even when it rained, and even when it snowed. No amount of yelling could stop it from happening. She stared inexorably into the endlessness, as if she had no choice in the matter.
These are not real signs. No book and no doctor would claim it so. She was silly, she was romantic, she was thoughtful, she was at war with herself, she was a teenager, she was my daughter. The tangibles were hidden from us, from me, with measured calm. I couldn’t have seen them. Understand this: she wore long sleeves and kept her grades up. She is my daughter. I know these things.
On cold mornings I lie in bed and let the details of living work their way through my nerves. It starts at the tips, of toes but mostly fingers, where she can’t be touched; moves to the arms, the fold of which she hadn’t fit into for years, though I had tried. The face is the hardest, the complex individual muscles in controlled movement, pressing lips together in stillness and pulling them upwards, out of their perpetual frown. Eyes are worst of all. I’d rather they never opened, the effort to move them is so extensive. Open, twitch, then shift the body upright.
Day sixty-seven of grieving begins, as the other sixty-six did, with the body, my body, a body, convulsing in a sob that ends somewhere in the soft palate, on a bed in the middle of a clean-carpeted room, flooded with steel-tinged sunlight. Down the hall, past the withered tulasi and straight to the stairs, eyes on the floor, in the midst of life we are in death. We are in death. Relax the tendons at the knee, flex, and allow gravity to do the rest. Downstairs.
I pinch, daily, the soft, sopping wicks of diyas, push them into the cold, jagged metal rims with more force than devotion, and put a match to them. The prayers come to the tip of my tongue without effort, subsuming the pain by the power of rote recitation: Om, Om, Om, blanking the mind of all but the eternal sound, rising through the body, through the throat, the first vibration in the universe, now a device of forgetting. Pūrnamadah, pūrnamidam, the infinite Brahma and the infinite universe, the syllables flowing from me, in me, around me, thrumming through my hollowed frame, a reminder of the state of myself—that is, alive. I keep my eyes open, enfolded in empty space devoid of history; then I line the part of the scalp with vermillion, red dust falling down the back in a fine shower, floating onto the carpet and staining it. I stand up, knees, arms, spine, and retreat backwards and out of the prayer room, silent idols eying me with concern as smoke streaks the air between us.
Tagore’s portrait rests on the dusty violin stand in the sitting room now, though who moved it there I can’t be sure. It was once hers, sandwiched between piles of Plath and Eliot, never hung up. He gazes out the left end of the wooden frame, beard cloaking the surely downturned mouth and frothing away from his large nose with all the tidiness of a breaking wave. The push of life has swung her into death, she said one day, I like that.
The push of death has swung her into life, I corrected. Her shoulders spiked up towards her ears in a shrug.
I turn the portrait over, but the diya oil slicking my hands lets it drop, down to the hardwood, and with a loud cracking sound, the glass front splinters, serrated crevices running radially from the tip of Tagore’s long nose, spraying small shards out across the floor.
Broom, instinct commands me. Back to the kitchen, under the sink, I reach, reflexive, for the dustpan; my hands curl around the bristles. Legs bent at the knees, I press my forehead to the edge of the counter, the thin shattering of glass piercing my temple. I will open my eyes in just a minute. Just a minute. Fifteen more seconds. Thirty.
The heaviness of funeral clothes is the sort of detail best left untold to those who have escaped death’s jagged course. The way the white hangs off skeletal, fasting frames, thick and oppressive in the mosquito-ridden heat; the fold of the chuni across drooped shoulders. The heft of the cloth is particularly increased, a new burden to heap onto the rituals of mourning. I first learned their weight when I burned my mother.
My happy girl was thirteen when the call crackled across the Atlantic into the upstairs bedroom, sitting on the floor with me. And I reached for her hand, I regret it even now, I reached for her hand and I squeezed it, not as a mother, but as a daughter, tears streaming from between my closed eyelids. She took my hand and I wept for Mother, for the last rites I had missed and the calls I had not placed. Lord, for all that time back. For thirteen days I fought with God. Behind a crying baby on the airplane, in the cavernous belly of Chathrapati Shivaji Airport, in the cab to my childhood home, outside the temple, underneath the asoka tree where my brother touched the flaming torch to her entombed body. Thirteen days I pleaded, thirteen days I lost; thirteen days, and my daughter watched. Does it change a girl to watch her mother weep, I wondered, but she smiled and hugged me and I thought, she is stronger than I’ve ever been.
Eventually, we returned home, arm in arm, quieter. Classes start tomorrow, I reminded her at the luggage carousel, and she smiled, nervously. I don’t see the point of all that, she said, struggling with the handle of her bag. We’ll all end up in the same place.
Her hand left mine as she strode ahead of me through the sliding doors, disappearing into the sun. I thought of my mother’s pyre, of the acrid sting of her encasing me, sticking to the clothes now shoved at the bottom of my suitcase, and perhaps it was my job to say, but life is beautiful, but life is worth experiencing, though we may all end up dead; perhaps. But I remembered the ashes, encased in a copper urn, the only remnant of a full and beautiful life, and I followed her in silence.
There is a piece of paper stuck inside of the cabinet. I run my fingers along the ripped edge, pinch it, pull it out from its position, wedged between pipes. The dustpan lays at my feet. The paper is hers. The writing is hers. Name across the fold, spidery, the top of letters jutting upward in imprecise strokes. Breath stops and the heart, my heart, it pulses through the skin, throbs through its cage of flesh and bone to be visible, surely, from the outside.
No amount of practice could alter the course of her writing; it ran helter-skelter, freed from the restrictions of lines and careful sizing and even consistency. It defied analysis. Bold, thoughtful, beautiful, artless, can you please write a little neater darling so the teacher can at least read this? Can you please? She never did like it when I said that. She filled every inch of every paper with her careless pen-strokes, red and green and black inks running together.
I don’t need to open the paper to know what it says. It’s meant for me. No one else could ever find it. And my girl, my happy girl, she would only ever leave me one thing. She only ever loved me. She would absolve—she would let me know. It is selfish, but I am only human. I cannot have her back, but I can have her forgiveness. That, at least, is owed to me. My happy girl owes me some pardon, does she not? Some atonement for the vast unending darkness of a life without her.
Heart loud, I open the paper. Skim the lines, let the bitterness of it sink into my mouth, feel the weight of the funeral clothes again. Set the paper down, pick it back up again, the last message, the last letter, the last, the end of mourning, and it cannot be discarded. Instead, preserved. Out of the kitchen, the shards of Tagore forgotten, down the hall, up the carpeted stairs, soft footfalls at an increasing speed until I gasp for breath at the top, bent in half, sharp exhales in the echoing quiet. In the end, we all go the same way, bodies condensed to urns and names forgotten, nothing but our words left to absolve the ones left behind for the fact of our deaths. I am certain that is what she would have said.
Was certain. I push open the door to her bedroom.
Something for somebody somewhere, the note said, for it was a note, a last note, not a poem or forgiveness, but a desperate scrawl, a message not for me but for someone. Somewhere. Anybody. Something for somebody somewhere, there is nothing but this life and it is a fucking miserable one. Every day I wake up and I lay in my bed and I think, there is no point. I hate me, I hate this skin, I hate the motions of my life. What I do means nothing in the face of anything and the hugeness of the universe and the smallness of my existence, it consumes me. It eats me alive. A chemical imbalance, or maybe we all just mean so little. It makes no difference what I do, and so why should I do anything?
I crumble into the bed, her bed, the paper crumbles against me, the room crumbles against the earth, the room where my daughter breathed. For somebody, anybody, do you hear me, the note whispered, am I alone in this, am I alone in the universe? Her awkward limbs pressed against mine in the bed, holding me to stave off the darkness, and I left before she ever fell asleep.
The answer, so resounding, so wrong: yes, daughter.
It was a Saturday in October that the universe stopped expanding. She had violin lessons and she was late. I yelled, the last words before everything ended those of anger, and I believe, sometimes, at four in the morning when my thoughts are small and mean, that they were the last words she heard. A mother knows when something is wrong, a woman’s instinct, a maternal touch, but I strode down the hall and pushed open the door guided by nothing but anger.
The sheets of the bed were the way they are now, curled up and unmade and twisted together, and the shades were down. She was off to the side, in the closet; it took me some time to see. I still avert my eyes from it, as if her phantom haunts it. I tried to scream then, but no sound would leave me. Just her, necklaced with bruises, in that darkened room; just her, swinging gently now.
Sloppy in life, and in death, the doctors intimated; I close ever inward like blinds, the note crumpled in one fist and the body dangling in the closet, daughter, pleading with the world for a listening ear, for a single moment of shared understanding, for someone to come and please take her down from the twine she had stolen from our garage. I wonder at the crease of her pink shirt, of the care with which she had ironed it. Alone in the universe, preparing for death. Pinching dead skin off of herself, standing up on the chair. Did she take a final breath before she kicked? Did she take her time, and remember the mother waiting beyond the door? Did she gasp for air?
Now and always: we are all already condemned to our pyres, a fixed point in a wide world where all lines end and the ashes of our selves settle on the palms of our families. She knew it was inescapable, and I know it now, too, as the walls close in and center on her last words, crumpled into my palm. Though we wander, she knew, I know, we all come to the same place, the same truth—silent bedrooms and secondhand clothes; a note in a cupboard and some stolen twine; an autopsy report for a happy girl.
Neha is a law student, somehow. When she’s not doing law school stuff, or talking too much about her law school stuff, her primary activity is laying in bed and pressing the snooze button on her alarm until it’s too late to go for a run. Find her on Twitter at @_ncrao.