The boys cackled as Rathu approached, dropping their hoes to watch her run. They spread their legs and squatted down like wrestlers. They lifted imaginary bellies away from imaginary bodies. They howled, performing laughter. The taller one kicked a stone at her as she passed.
‘Budumbudum! Run, Little Elephant, your mother is calling to you!’
Physical exertion has a singular power. The lithe boys, lean and muscled, would usually have intimidated Rathu. But now, her vision red-tinged, she looked at the taunters, at their bodies. Their smooth skin and bright teeth. Full lips and the short hair falling over eyes. The hollow of their necks, curved and shining with sweat. She passed close by, her eyes on them, and the boys pulled back, retreating.
At the bottom of the hill around the bend, Rathu allowed herself to stop. A small sluiceway ran across the path home into the dark undergrowth.
Rathu spread her arms out from her body. She faced the sky and sweat suddenly gathered on her like dew.
In this moment she felt what a god would feel. No sound but her own ragged breath, no taste but her own blood-flecked saliva. Blood pulsing beneath shallow layers and all focus pointed towards herself. The others were in the periphery of her attention, important but small. Her breath jetted out of her, dry. She imagined it caused shimmering ripples in the air.
The exhilaration at the end of the run spread a smooth languor in her limbs. Her feet felt implacably ground into the ochre. The world was hers, the sky, the winds.
She looked down at the trickle of water, which snaked towards her toes, cupping each rounded protrusion.
But other gods waited for her on the high hill. Rathu only had command of the low places, the dark and musty places, the slack waters, the runnels and shifting light on shaking leaves.
She walked the hill slowly, through the stone ditch, alongside the elephant ears, which caressed and licked at her, soothing their Little Elephant.
Her mother was waiting on the porch; Rathu ran the last bend of the driveway.
‘Where have you been? Get cleaned up, quick. You have to go to grandmother’s. She’s ill. There will be visitors. I’ve bought you a dress.’
Rathu carefully bent away from the perimeter of her mother’s reach, but Ranjani Nona simply stepped forwards and landed a slap against her daughter’s face.
The cheek throbbed, and Rathu felt a face on top of her face; blood rushing over rushed blood. The Girl with the Expanding Face.
Rathu’s aunt Kalu waited at the lower well with soap and towels. She had recently bathed, her wiry body wrapped in a batik redthé and her steel-threaded hair in a wet knot.
‘Hurry, girl—we have to get to the Lady’s house before lunch.’
The lines around Kalu Nanda’s mouth had been formed by anger dark and lined.
Rathu jiggled her body to feel it move and watched Kalu Nanda’s stooped back recede, stepping gingerly across the yard, over the ditch full of fetid water, into the kitchen.
Watching the old woman, a reserve of compassion surfaced in Rathu. She was an emblem of how nothing was wasted—all the women were put to use, into little cages according to how they were needed. Kalu, unmarried and spiky, was now leashed to this house: dependent and subservient.
On the low shelves of the bookcase inside were Soviet books in English that valorised Lenin’s early life. And in the margins were notes of the geographies mentioned; crude maps connecting the known world. The distance between what Kalu had dreamed and what she now lived was a black hole.
Rathu had finally come to understand that for her family there wasn’t any space to love someone like her—her size had taken up all the room. The family moved in such restrictive spirals that someone they thought of as inherently wrong could be used to release the tension, like the stained shirt now used to clean up the spills.
No woman was wasted.
The puddle on the concrete skirt circling the well was warm. Rathu sent the bucket spinning down gently. It wallomped onto the surface of the water. Rathu pulled the full bucket up in smooth languid strokes, moving from the centre of her body, engaging herself, almost dancing. She looked above, through the canopy of kos trees and kaju palms to the broken blue sky, the turning clouds.
The metal pail clinked against the pulley, and Rathu eased it down low enough to reach. The rope had gathered around her, a noose for her feet. She carefully stepped out of the coil and brought the bucket to the sherbet orange basin. As the water flowed into the plastic, a displaced current of cool air kissed her face.
The water was sweet.
Smoke escaped from the kitchen in opalescent trapezoids in the sunlight. The blocks of colour, shifting in the air currents, made the thatched ceiling something new again, something wondrous.
Rathu moved quickly across the bright courtyard where the aunts were working at various tasks; the clove tree had finished flowering and Pixie Nanda was on the chipped floor picking the small green hips from the amputated branch. Nearby Loku Nanda and Renuka packaged soured black tuna into plastic bags, tenderly sealing them with the heat of a candle. Her cousin Malinda was returning to London, and the packages of food were for him.
He had taken his friends to the local beach to reminisce about their school days, to tell them about life in the city.
Rathu silently entered the house proper; its oxblood polished floors gleamed under the teak wood furniture. The centre of the house—the dining room and sitting room—was cool and dark, embraced by the various bedrooms. Light from the covered porch was caught glinting on the brass spittoons and oil lamps.
A new dress of red gingham was draped on her bed. Rathu went to the iron and pressed the dress sharp. She worried about the size.
In the floor-length mirror Rathu looked at herself: its too-tight bodice and flouncy skirt gave the appearance of allure. The curves of her breasts and hips were caught and emphasised by the dress. Bigger was both ugly and somehow a caricature of pretty.
The redthé and hatte she usually wore bared her abdomen, her neck and her upper arms and although the bubble and jiggle of her flesh made her pink-shy, she was realising that her ungainliness was a place to hide. She felt more exposed in this dress with its high neck and long sleeves, its knee-length and gathered skirt.
It’s just shape, it’s just cloth, she thought. She tied her hair in two bunches across each shoulder and over each breast and closed her eyes. When she opened them she saw a fat woman in a scarlet dress, who looked younger than she expected.
She left the room, the mirror.
‘Look at this, the fat is pouring from her back.’ Ranjani turned Rathu to face the gallery of women, who all turned from their work to look. All except Kalu.
Rathu looked away at the smoke curling towards the vents high in the walls, which proved that getting out was possible.
Under the chatter of the aunts, Rathu could hear Kalu grinding at the stone, the heavy pestle moving backwards and forwards, wringing the disparate onion, chilli and lime into one sambal. Rathu imagined Kalu’s lowered gaze, the concentration on her face lit by the window.
‘I sent you to temple with dhané at 7 am and Bosun doesn’t find you until 11. Barefoot like a savage, feet in the river. Playing in the trees like a girl when you are not. Who’s going to wash your clothes? What sari will you wear to work? You’ll go to the bank in your T-shirts and skirts?’
Rathu felt the anger rising inside her when she saw Kalu’s raised head over Ranjani’s shoulder. Her eyes, like dark holes, were a reminder that reactionary anger only entrenched the powerless in their powerlessness.
‘Make Achchi some lemonade—I put limes in the bag. She says her throat is hurting.’
Rathu lifted the heavy straw market bag of clay pots. She held the bag close to her body to stop the dishes jostling; her arms came together, her hands, a dysplastic prayer.
‘Don’t be late. Don’t dawdle off the path. Be quick going there. Let Kalu Nanda carry the bag—you’ll crease your dress.’
Ranjani swept her hands across Rathu’s shoulders and smoothed out the skirt of the dress. She gathered the two bunches of hair into her hands and polished them downwards. She skimmed her fingers along the dress’s neckline, her rough fingertips grazing Rathu’s skin. For a moment Ranjani rested her open palm against her daughter’s chest. Rathu felt the hardness of the hand and looked her mother in the eye. Ranjani brushed down the bodice harder than necessary and turned away, back to the chores on the table.
It was midday, so the streets were empty. Rathu lifted her black umbrella to hide from the sharp heat of the sun. The Matara Road was the main arterial into the town and it was the hottest and most exposed part of the walk to her grandmother’s. The bitumen radiated heat, and the gravel footpaths, unshaded, glared hot and white.
Kalu walked beside her, lopsided from the heavy bag, head bowed. Rathu felt awkward with an attendant.
‘Malinda baby says London is beautiful. Cold but. So many shops and all different kinds of people—he says next door to his house is a black family. There are even restaurants that make black food. Can you imagine?’
Rathu looked up in surprise. Kalu was not one for small talk.
‘Yes, Nanda, I can imagine. It must be nice to live there. No-one knows who you are.’
‘And he’s been to Buckingham Palace—did you see the photos? Not inside but. In Madame Tussaud’s they have the dolls of the murdered kings and queens. It makes me laugh! Also, he’s saving for a trip to Paris, he said. With Nilanthi for the honeymoon. It’s not far. Expensive but not far.’
Rathu looked at her aunt. Kalu saw her look and nodded, deciding. She slowed her pace and waited for Rathu to match it.
‘When I was a girl I thought life was like clay, to make into what shape I wanted. I thought too much about “perfect”. I think now … Sometimes to get one thing we must take another. I think now, what I would have taken to also get to London.’
Kalu stopped walking and Rathu turned to face her. That known face was still implacable, but now her eyes weren’t dark shadows—instead, they were sharp and intent on her.
‘My father, your Loku Seeia, is buried there.’ Kalu nodded at the grove of trees to her left. ‘His family from 200 years are all there. He was born just over there behind the graveyard. Not far, yes? He taught me English and maths and made me read.’
Rathu peered into the dark grove and could see the gravestones, dark with lichen. ‘We should go. Remember, Amma said not to be late.’
Kalu dropped her head and picked up her pace.
As they walked along, an occasional niyangala vine would curl onto the path, its deadly flame flower dancing under the sun, full of colchicine. The bright flower seemed elegant to Rathu.
Despite the umbrella, the sweat had begun to slick down Rathu’s legs. It was a relief to turn into her grandmother’s driveway, a cool yellow line cutting through a green room of rubber. Ginger shrubs with their red cones edged the driveway. The trees were planted in rows that twitched into and out of alignment as Rathu walked by. She could see the black tapping scars on the trees closest to her. The house winked brightly at the end of the green tunnel.
It was small, with rough earthen walls and a low roofline. But the garden around it was majestic. The gravel grounds were brushed into concentric patterns, the flowerbeds full of disciplined plants, all managed with the authority of a teacher towards their students. The elegant shape of the namal tree by the side of the house drew Rathu’s focus towards it, its scent growing stronger the closer they got to the house.
In the heat, the spent white flowers had stewed, giving off a decaying undertone to the bright fragrance of the living flowers. Rathu noticed that one of its interior branches had been cut away recently; the guava tree had also been trimmed. By the door she saw a machete leaning against the door and two pairs of black rubber slippers.
Stepping into the house, alone, her bare feet on the cool floors, she blinked at the dimness of the room. Three figures developed in her vision from the red gloom; first, her grandmother, sitting in the teak charger facing her. On the table behind her grandmother’s head was a bowl of guavas, fragrant, and three cups of tea steaming on a brass tray. Two men sat facing each other, in profile. The older one turned and smiled at her, while the bigger, darker man stared at his hands.
‘How do you do, daughter? Hasan cut the branches of tree always banging on the house at night. Now no problem. Now only guavas.’ He gestured towards the bowl, laughingly.
‘How do you do, Uncle? Hasan?’ Rathu looked into Doña’s face. ‘Achchi, Amma has made lunch for you because she knew you weren’t feeling well.’
Kalu and the bag of food had entered the house through the kitchen, and she was already heating the curries on the coals in the large hearth. Rathu moved to help, and the two women worked together in silence.
At the table in the dining room, Rathu waited with finger bowls and towels for everyone to wash their hands. The men sat down and indicated that her grandmother should sit as well. Rathu served the men first, while Hasan’s father talked with Doña Aldonzia about the state of the coconut harvest. Without looking at Rathu, he showed when he had been served enough by moving his hand over his plate. Hasan simply shook his head. When the men had been served, Rathu plated her grandmother’s meal, and Doña Aldonzia gestured for her to sit and serve herself.
Throughout the meal Rathu moved languidly, spine firm and straight. She kept her chin low and her eyes lower. She moved the dishes, anticipating Hasan or his father’s needs before they asked. She spoke only to answer questions—mostly questions about her job at the bank, about her boss Mr DeSilva with whom Hasan’s father was friends. Occasionally her grandmother would catch Rathu looking at her; a blank look that wouldn’t drop. Doña Aldonzia always looked away first.
‘It’s not like the olden days now, Nona. Hasan has to cook for himself in Sydney. No servants there! And no-one to wash his clothes—they have laundromats. A big room full of washing machines, you pay money and you wash and dry the clothes! Not like here!’
Hasan seemed to colour under his dark skin. ‘It’s not that bad. Everyone there does it.’ He looked up quickly at Rathu.
‘Sydney is not like London—it’s warm, isn’t it, son?’
Hasan nodded slowly. ‘It’s not like London. It’s smaller. Nice buildings. In the centre.’ His voice was quiet, he spoke to the table. ‘There are museums, also.’
Rathu looked down at the table too.
When the men had finished eating, Rathu cleared the table and left to wash the dishes. Doña came in while she was drying the last plate.
‘The boy is good, and his family is good. You don’t have any offers—the boy is good. He’s an engineer in Sydney. You can go and be happy. You will have a fridge, nice ovens.’
Rathu turned sharply away from her grandmother.
‘You aren’t special? You’ll learn how to be a good wife there, no-one to help. Sometimes that’s good. He’s a good path.’ Doña waited for Rathu’s agreement.
‘They’ll come by later. To ask.’ Doña slowly walked towards the door, coughing gently. ‘Make me a hot lime drink, Kalu, Ranjani sent some limes.’
Kalu stood beside Rathu, both of them looking through the barred kitchen window at the compost heap.
All the dishes dried, Rathu walked out of the house, barefoot. The gravel was cool to the touch. She walked to the edges of the garden and crossed into the rubber tree plantation; the undergrowth was soft. Soon she came to the end of the field, a border of plurality: the cinnamon grew next to the rambutan, next to the jumbola. Weeds grew there too; sleepy nettles that folded when touched, and various climbers curled around the tree trunks.
Rathu picked fragrant sprigs of cinnamon and pushed them through the white squares in the gingham of her dress. The leaves fluttered like butterflies as she walked. She fell down an embankment, skidded on the orange clay; her dress became covered in it. She slid the mud off with a flat hand. The stain remained.
Suddenly she wasn’t wearing red any more, but the earth and trees. Suddenly she wasn’t in the grove any more but in a jungle. Birds called to each other from the canopy. The wind picked up, then died down. She could hear the rushing of a river and feel the cool current of air surrounding it.
A red, yellow-lipped flower danced on its vine across the river rocks. Rathu crushed it with her foot.
When she passed, all that was left was a formless imprint of mud and leaves upon the grey rock.
Sumudu Samarawickrama has work in Boston Review and the Lifted Brow and is part of FCAC’s West Writers Group. Her chapbook Utter the Thing (2018) is available from Vagabond Press. @olaf78