Like a camphor box closed with a cracked lid. That’s how I feel right now. An amorphous lump at the core.
There are strangers in the living room. They have not stopped coming since morning. Brother is dealing with them. All I care about is our baby in my arms.
“Men from the plains are nothing but trouble,” Ma had warned me while she combed my hair.
“Even the ones in uniform, like Brother?” I had countered.
“Especially the ones in uniform,” she had pulled my hair tight and tied it into a bun.
It didn’t stop me from offering you red tea when my brother brought you home. He said you were posted to Daporijo with him. I knew you were classmates at school and coursemates at the academy.
You looked nothing like trouble.
Ma and Pa will not be able to make it. Your parents are long gone. Thank God.
My brother comes in. Your commanding officer’s wife who is sitting next to me moves out. Kind lady. But I don’t need kindness now. All I need are answers.
“It’s time,” he says. His eyes are red-rimmed; His shoulders a downward arc.
I pick up our three-month-old girl, swaddled like a bunny, too young to ask questions. I should be brave, for her sake, I tell myself, again.
I come to the living room of this 2-bedroom captain’s quarters. From the corner of my swollen eyes, I can see it is packed with people. My other senses have stopped working.
It was not a bullet. It was a motor bike.
A single blow of fate that sends me back to the hills.
I came to the plains in your arms with our daughter in my womb. I return with our daughter in my arms with you in my spirit.
There are grounds sheltered by bamboo near my village. That is where my ancestors lie. Their life energies, once walking on this soil are the ones that feed the bountiful crops now.
I work in the paddy fields with our daughter tied to my jig-jiro. I sing lullabies to her as the streams gurgle through the irrigation canal.
She grows, with the milk from me and my sisters. She has your eyes and smile. Her feet toddle along the length and breadth of the beaten bamboo floor; In a zig-zag, like the patterns my mother weaves into her shawls.
And soon, she runs with the strong lungs of my people and the long stride of yours. The hills have everything to give, but they challenge the ones taking without giving. Too many from the plains don’t know that. I wonder if our daughter knows.
Brother comes home during holidays. Without his city wife. Thin air doesn’t suit her. Ma and Pa say both their children have lost their way. They rue the day they sent him to boarding school. I don’t.
Our daughter plays at his knees and laughs. He looks into her eyes and cries.
“She needs more than hills,” he says as I fetch him a mugful of rice beer. The sun bleeds down on Kile Pakho.
“She grows up where I stay,” I rebut.
“Have you found no one yet?”
“She is all I need.”
He looks into my eyes, dreading the tears. There are none. Why should there be? It may be my ancestors’ energies that keep the food on the table, but it is yours that keep me alive.
My brother takes me and our daughter to his cantonment quarters. He enrolls her in a playschool and me in a baking school.
I wish Ma and Pa made an effort to meet their daughter-in-law. She adores the weaves I wear, puts them on the designs she makes, and speaks a smattering of tani that makes my brother blush.
The way you made me blush when you went down on your knee, took my hand, and asked, “Will you make me a hungry man?”
Dawn-Lit has made a name for itself in this part of the town. It took me years to make this patisserie what it is today. The years that threw me in a whirlwind of peoples, languages, failures, and betrayals.
You will be happy to know we made it. Our daughter will be home on her winter break from college today.
I leave the shop early to my young assistants. They hand me a chocolate-orange stollen on my way out. Her favourite. See, I have learned to pick my people well.
Popcorn runs to the porch even before the car reaches the kerb. Brother doesn’t come in; he has to go someplace. She gets down and lets out a peal of laughter as Popcorn jumps at her. Do you hear that?
Throughout the years she has brought you alive in a million ways. But her laughter is the one that used to be mine, so loved by you. I could never laugh the same way after that day.
She polishes off the stollen after a hearty dinner of bamboo rice and fish with a dash of tapyo. Brother says she got the best of both of us. I couldn’t agree more.
However, I find her slipping through my fingers; not alarmingly, but in the most natural way. She is at least ten times smarter than I was at her age and twice as charming as you were. Well, I just said that to make you sit up. No one can be as charming as you.
After watching our favourite rerun of Tom and Jerry, she doesn’t stay back on the couch to browse through the old albums. She thumbs through her cell instead. Her eyes twinkle and the corners of her mouth spread in a smile.
I fear she has met her trouble.
She kisses me goodnight early and goes into her room.
I try to watch television for some more time, then turn it off.
I reach for the light switch, stop and pull out an album. I flip through it backward and stop at the first picture. My favourite one, shot by Brother on the day of Myko. My cheeks look redder than my skirt and your eyes hold the sky reflected by my blue beads. I close my eyes.
My mind throws up images held together like slats of a freshly woven cane basket. Me leaving Ma and Pa seething behind to be with you- You making me feel like a queen when I carried our baby in me- Our little fights when our girl kept us up at nights-and me crying over the news you gave me on the night of our first anniversary.
You had to go to the hills the next day. Not to my parents’ home. But to the outpost close to the border.
It was nearly midnight. You said it will be all right. You will be back soon. Your palms cupped my face as you looked into my watery eyes.
I was upset. I don’t remember the kiss.
I wish I did. It was our first anniversary.