In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Submitted into Contest #92 in response to: Write a story that begins in the light and ends in darkness, or the other way around.... view prompt


Desi Sad People of Color

Author’s note: ‘Ammachy’ is a term of address meaning ‘mother’ in the state of Kerala in India. In this story and in real life, it is used to address a grandmother. Malayalam is the state language (and a palindrome). 

Day 90


She is bombarded by the light reflecting off the whiteness of the hospital’s ICU, as though her grandmother has already left this earth and they have followed her to Heaven. It is not a comforting, warm light that makes her want to take the type of impeccably-lit pictures that flood her Instagram feed. No, it’s the type of stark white that people associate with this place of sickness and death and her eyes are forced shut for a moment. 

When they open, her mom stands much closer than she did a second ago and, probing her face, asks, “Maya, have you been using that scrub I got you? You know how your grandmother can be about skincare.” 

“I can imagine Ammachy has enough on her plate right now without adding my acne to it,” she sighs. She is less exasperated with her mother than with herself. She still hasn’t decided what she should say to her grandmom. More than once, she settled on talking about university but didn’t know how to avoid mentioning that she failed a class. Once that secret was out, how much longer till she admitted the entire semester was awful because she hated being on the other side of the planet while her grandmother was left partially paralyzed by a brain bleed? Does a bedridden person want to hear about the growing list of strangers she’s cried in front of as she explained the tardiness of her assignment or herself? It would probably be better if she simply contorted her face into a smile like she did with her uni friends and guffawed at jokes and pretended she was just tired the way college students are meant to be. 

They were paused at the entrance of a large corner room filled with equipment, nurses and sun. For the second time that morning, she was immersed in light; but this was a much more pleasant, natural glow that waltzed in through the windows. One of the only joys allowed the long-term patients trapped in the beds lining the walls. Her grandmother’s cell was the second from the left. Before she saw her face, she recognized her slender frame - her Ammachy was the rare sort that remained dangerously thin even while bedridden. The sunlight painted her gray and brown mane into a golden halo that shone ever brighter as they approached. The paralysis hadn’t crept into her grandmom’s face but when the elderly lady attempted to smile, the left corner of her lips barely rose. Her own lips lifted effortlessly and reflexively like they haven’t been able to for months. 


She knows her granddaughter is weary before a word is spoken between them. With the sunlight dancing off her umber skin, the young girl resembles the angels she anticipates she will meet soon. But under the glow of her skin and eyes and smile lies a dark sorrow. It bites away at the long nails she used to love shaping. It mosses the back of her neck into a deep hunch, truncating her tall granddaughter into a stump of her former self. It weighs like an anchor at the bottom of her eyes, forcing them open even as she tries to smile them shut.

She knows her granddaughter is stressed from how her mouth forms her greeting. A casual observer might just remark that their setting and present circumstances tend to nip happiness in the bud. She herself didn’t know if it was right to smile in a room that just a few days ago housed another person who believed they’d leave in a wheelchair instead of a bodybag. When she hears the birds perched on the branches caressing her window, she likes to imagine Maya’s stress was not for her sake. But when she overhears the doctor apologize yet another time to her patient daughter she can no longer pretend she wasn’t shackled at the root of their tree of worry. 

She knows her granddaughter is strong enough to motor her boat and her mother’s out of the range of this tempest. Was this all the time she had to teach her how to steer? Will she know how to stay clear of the bad men like her father and grandfather but not the good men? Or will she, like her Ammachy, realize too late that choosing to be alone doesn’t mean you’re spared from being lonely? She wished moving her tongue didn’t feel like swimming in tar so she could tell her granddaughter about the lovely man from church. The one who had the knack for jumping in just when the women were getting gossipy about her separation and the men were taking it as a good reason to swoop in like the vultures their widowhood sometimes transformed them into. 

The girl sat at her right side and wove her pillowy fingers into her arid, veiny hand before retrieving a familiar book from her bag. “Sudoku?”

She nods. 

Day 56


“Ms. Thomas, I heard they’re having excellent biryani in the canteen for today’s lunch. Why don’t you go try?” the shorter, sterner nurse offers as she gently places her patient in another position. Without a moment’s thought, she declines. She’s hardly left her mother’s side except to pick up her daughter at the airport. 

“Anita.” Her mom’s voice sounds like water breaking through a dry desert rock. The older woman’s throat has felt more sore of late and she hadn’t spoken for the last two days. If she felt this was occasion to break that, how could her daughter still say no? 

When she gets to the canteen, lunch is nearly over. She fills a steel plate with rice - the meat was long gone - and takes a seat in the corner although almost every other table was empty. She is halfway through the repeating cycle of slowly elevating her cupped hand to her mouth and back down when the room went dark. In her exhausted stillness, she was cloaked from the floor’s custodian who likely felt the hospital’s electricity was more usefully spent on other avenues. The light was extinguished along with her energy and a last-moment push prevented her food from becoming her pillow. She didn’t know how many reserves she had left to call on. 

When she first accompanied her mother to the hospital all those months ago, they were promised a simple surgery and a quick recovery. They were certainly not assured the gift of a stroke. Or a hospital stay long enough to make her question where her daughter’s next semester fees would come from. She had never longed for her ex-husband after their divorce (to be honest, not much before either) but she even preferred his company to the pervasive, bottomless abyss of loneliness and fear she had been unknowingly kicked into. 

It was then she decided to take her daughter up on her offer. 

Day 51 


Her grandmother’s fingers braiding through her scalp was always a precursor to her best sleep but now, that only meant better sleep than usual. Still, five hours wasn’t enough to ballast her through the news she was about to receive. 

“Is your mother here, Maya?” asks the bad-news doctor. Not that he had a good-news equivalent. 

“She isn’t. I’ll be here till the weekend.” Three more days. 

“Oh, that’s too long. Shall I call her or just give you the update?” She opts for the latter. 

She has to look up what a ‘bedsore’ is and instantly regrets doing so when she spies the accompanying images. She can’t understand how that alien creature colonized the left half of her grandmother’s lower back. She can’t understand how her grandmother, as frail as the last leaf on decayed ivy, is supposed to withstand another surgery. She certainly can’t understand how she is going to convey as much to her mother. 

When she gets up to shake his hand, he is shakily framed in fuzzy darkness. She hears her grandmother call out to her before she hears nothing at all.  

Day 23 


When she nears the bed, her mother’s eyes fall to the artificially-entwined hands resting on her stomach as she realizes the youngest of their tribe has once again not accompanied her. Not for lack of trying. Maya has pleaded with her mother everyday after the fainting debacle to no avail. She wasn’t intending to punish her daughter but herself. She decided she wasn’t deserving of the rest she had craved and her daughter took the fall. Quite literally. 

She resumes the permanently depressed spot on the chair at the side of the bed. A half-metre from where her feet rap the floor, the sun spotlights the tile intersection where her daughter’s blood had collected as if to remind her of her mistake. She hasn’t stopped replaying that morning - the reckless rush to the hospital, the sight of her daughter cross-legged on the chair with her head in her hands, the gash that crowned her left temple through which her body contents had started to leak on the stainless floor. 

Each time she thinks back, she is consumed with unabating anger. With herself for letting her exhaustion convince her that a 19-year-old could bear the responsibility of a 77-year-old. With God for not answering her mother’s one prayer to not die painfully in a hospital but gracefully doing something she loved. And even sometimes, with her mother for having enough strength to hold on but not enough to pull through. The older woman had been on that bed for so long that wires were growing out of her like weeds from an abandoned house and she could no longer tell where the machines ended and her mother began. This is a shadow of the woman who single-handedly raised her and her anger gives way to sorrow and pity. 

Day 0 


She watches the early morning light peek daintily through the fog and thinks today is as good a day as she’ll get. Her physio will start soon so she can give recovery her best effort before the day wears her down. Something is different about the way she takes in her surroundings. She looks at her roommates and doesn’t identify them by their afflictions but rather their joys. The man at the corner has transformed his prime wall real estate into a gallery of his grandchildren’s drawings. She can’t recognize their scribbles but she can recognize the pride with which he points them out to the nurses. The woman next to her nuzzles under the warmth of her son’s latest crochet project. She smiles at her own guardian angel, who snores gently as her neck uncomfortably cranes out of the chair. This is a morning for appreciation. She knows she won’t get another chance.  

As her physiotherapist carefully guides her arm across her chest, the pain is greater and the cough more guttural than usual. Her breath quickens out of necessity - her lungs suddenly feel smaller - and panic - her daughter has not yet returned from her daily visit to the coffee machine. Morbidly, she’s relieved their pain has come to an end one way or the other but has she said everything she needed to say. She was never one to verbalize love but surely they knew how much she held for them, right? 

The air in her lungs is defeated by the blood rushing in and she can’t bring her mind to focus on her daughter’s panic. But she can feel the warmth of her hand clutching hers and can smell the coffee aroma that whooshes out with every choked question. It is the type of death she spent her life being afraid of but in that moment she knew no fear. 

Day -3 


The funeral was beautiful and unostentatious like her grandmother. She didn’t understand a word of what was said as she’d never really reached fluency in Malayalam. Even if she had, the speeches were lost in the sea of her memories and tears. As the attendees queued to kiss the body (she was the third to bring her lips to the clammy forehead), the sky clouded and the rain washed away their tears and flowers like God Himself was joining in their mourning. So full was His sorrow that the sunlight found no chink. They sat on the miry grave until the darkness chased away the sun and dimly illuminated the sky with a narrow path of stars, lighting her grandmother’s way home.

May 07, 2021 17:05

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