Out Past Where the Mangroves End

By Laura Baber

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My name is Sunditi Desai and I am dead. I did not know it, not at first, when I woke to the natural up and down rhythm of the boat on the river. I am the daughter and grand-daughter of fishermen; the neighbor, wife and mother of fishermen. Waking up out here alone didn’t seem so strange to me. It was only when I lifted myself up on the red edged corners of the canoe, and the fancy jewelry we saved for death and marriages bobbed against my earlobes and wrists, did I begin to know the truth of it. I’m 86 years old. I wasn’t getting married.

I rubbed my thumb against the gold bracelets that wrapped around my arms; followed the silver embroidery of a bright white sari I’d never owned; traced the dark spray of moles on the skin of my forearm. Skin that was lusher, plumper, more lovely than any that had been mine for 50 years at least. This is how I knew.

“You’re dead Suniti Desai,” my own voice whispered to me, come up from deep within my bowels. I wondered how it had come to pass, my death. Had it been sudden and violent? Crushed under oxen hooves or fallen from that slat bridge over the gorge? Or was it a slow creep, disease snuck in through an ear canal or an eyelid fluttered open in a dream. I wouldn’t know. Couldn’t. But I could still smell the jasmine garlands they were—my family, friends and neighbors—even now dropping into the river behind me.

I turned back to the shoreline to watch them set the paper boats into the water, each ship burning with a single, lit tea candle. The only light in a night without the sliver of a moon, without even a star to guide me. I could hear them chanting, their voices rising up in unison. Crying and wailing. I did not try to grasp their sounds into my heart. Instead I let their voices carry over the water and break against the wake of my boat, float away on its rippled waves. The life I had lived was already distant and hazy; a childhood dream long since left unattended.

My canoe gained speed. Out past the salt marshes now, past where the mangroves end. I could see their twisted roots rising up from the water, lit by the tea candles. A single flower passed me by, and I reached out for it, trying to press its waterlogged petals deep beneath the river’s surface. I could not budge it. I had lost even this now, even touch.

Egret Island was up a head of me, a dark mass against the darker horizon. I’d known it well in life. Come here as a girl to poke sharp sticks at baby crocodiles with wide, pupiless eyes. Come here as a young woman, to be kissed by boys fresh out of short pants. Come here as a newlywed, to let my husband touch me away from the prying eyes of mothers and aunties. Let him give me my children here.

The boat moored against the pebbled shoreline, and I hopped out. Bare feet spry on smooth, waterworn rocks. I could see the faint white outlines of the birds in the trees. I’d always liked how they slept, with their heads just tucked under their wings. Asleep but alert, ready for what comes next.

“You’re here,” she said to me and I was glad it was Padma, my favorite Goddess. She of the lotus flower and the dung, towering high above me. I got down on my knees, the action instinctual. Easy. She reached out her fingertips toward the top of my head.

“Are you ready?” she asked and I nodded. She lifted her great big foot and slammed it down. The tremors travelled all the way to the center of the world, and then back again. The earth shook underneath my knees and pressed the pebbles into my soft, babylike skin. The ground rolled, almost like a boat, long enough that I could conceive of the earthquake while it was happening. Padma held onto my head, her grip strong and secure. Not letting me go sailing out into this other, unknown world. Not yet.

When the tidal wave came, she still did not let go of me. The wave bore down on us so tall that even Padma was dwarfed by it. She crouched down beside me, each of her powerful thighs as big as my whole body. And then she jumped, riding high on the water and holding me secure in her arms.

I couldn’t see or hear anything. My only sense was that of her hand on my head. Pulling me. And then there was light and I was somewhere new and bright. I gasped and then I cried. The lights too bright. The world too new. I could no longer feel her fingertips on my skin, and I was afraid. Alone there. Vulnerable and cold.

“Help me!” I cried. “Help me.”

“Shhhh. Hush now baby boy.” A voice I did not now. “Asif,” she said. “We’ll call you Asif.”

A cloth wiped me clean and someone laid me against a bare breast.

“Nice to meet you, Asif.” A fingertip placed on my forearm, tracing a dark spray of moles. “Look at you. Like a sprinkle of stars. Something to guide you, my son.”

Laura Baber