by Jessica Faleiro
Flavia Rodrigues wanders into her sister’s garden and walks down the laterite path. Her footsteps are measured. She’s staring at the bit of the path in front of her as she propels herself forward. She tells herself she just needs to get to the back gate. She moves closer to the bounty of pink bougainvillea twisting around the back wall, farther away from the lively chatter drifting out of the house. She’s in search of her sanity while escaping the platitudes of mourners. The voice in her head says that this is a good thing, a much-needed thing. Fresh air. Footsteps. Movement forward.
She hears the fresh click of the latch as she passes through. Later, she cannot recall walking past the boundary.
She wanders onto the beach, stands on a stretch of sand, and stares out to sea. There’s a blue-grey sheen over everything. She shuts her eyes and waits for her heartbeat to match the pulse of the waves pouring froth on her feet. She looks up at the sky and lets its brightness hurt her eyes. The clouds cannot unite. The monsoon rains have been struggling to live up to their reputation. She notices this thought as it passes through her mind. It seems foreign to her. It shouldn’t be. After all, she’s made a living from this stretch of the coast.
A cool wind bears down on the beach and wraps itself around her. She hugs herself tightly, and then finds she can’t let go. No matter how still she is, the restlessness won’t let her be. She doesn’t move until she can’t take a breath, then releases herself and inhales deeply. Something unfamiliar is caught in the salt-smell. She tries to catch the thread of it in her nostrils again! There it is! A vein of rich chocolate entangled in the breeze. Why? How? There’s an irrepressible pleasure in the surprise of this sensual encounter. She turns her head around, looking for the source of the genesis of the scent. She smiles in wonder, then catches herself smiling and the tears start to fall.
She lets them come, lets the salt air sting the wet. She knows her kajal is running. She only wore it to draw away attention from the bags under her eyes. She hugs herself again, lightly this time.
A man walks past her, along the edge of the water, carefully dodging the waves, They’re teasing him. He’s wearing a collared, fitted shirt that rounds over his protruding pot belly. She notices his strong calf muscles defined by the knee-high white socks he’s wearing and his Adidas sneakers. He’s walking with the gait of a man determined to heed his doctor’s advice. She doesn’t try to hide her tearful face. He glances up at her with curiosity, then looks away quickly, discomfited by her show of emotion disturbing his early evening walk. She notices the momentary absence of feeling that comes upon her quite suddenly and relief floods her. There’s a soul-deep weariness underlying it all.
She stares out to sea again, watching the dark charcoal line forming on the horizon; a trick of the setting sun and the darkening clouds, both at play with each other. She looks down at the waves catching at her feet, watches the water swirl and pull away from her blue Payal slippers. The waves are forming light criss-cross shapes as they run over the sand. She sees the hermit crabs burrowing around her. She wonders if she’s outgrown her shell too; if this is the knowing that comes. Something in the light caught in the white foam of the waves makes her smile and the tears start to form again. She feels done with everything. The weight is suddenly unbearable.
There is silence all around her. Silence in the rhythm of constantly crashing waves. Silence in the wind whistling down the beach and whispering long-lost secrets to her. She lost Santan to these waters. She is used to the idea. Most of the people she knows are used to the idea of losing their persons to the sea. This small, tight-knit fishing community are her people, but this grief is hers alone to bear.
She sees the back gate from here. Her sister is waiting behind it. She is watching. Her arms are folded. As Flavia comes out of the water, the edges of her black dress drip bits of the Arabian Sea onto the sand, punctuating the beach with dark circles. She watches the expression on her sister’s face as she returns to the gate.
‘I was watching you,’ she says.
Flavia avoids her eyes when she asks, ‘Would you have been angry with me?’
‘Angry at what? What’s there to be angry about? You wanted to feel something different, that’s all.’
Is that what I was doing? Flavia asks herself. Trying to change how I feel? Her knowing adjusts itself within her.
‘You know what I was doing,’ says Flavia.
Her sister hesitates, then says quietly, ‘It’s understandable. First your husband to the water, now your children to the fire.’
Flavia is silent.
‘We were all on the beach, waiting for the boats to come in. There was nothing anyone could do in time.’
‘It should have been Agnelo. Why did he need a smoke so early in the morning?’
‘He said he couldn’t sleep. It was an accident. He didn’t know the cylinder pipe was leaking. No one did. When are you going to forgive him?’
‘Forgive him? He survived. Isn’t that enough?’
‘His legs were badly burnt. He’ll suffer for the rest of his life.’
Flavia’s breath catches. ‘I hear them calling for me when I fall asleep. Other times, I see their mouths moving in large hollows and feel the heat around them, but I can’t hear them. No one comes.’
‘Give it time.’
Flavia says nothing. She’s been hearing this all day from the others. She adds it to the collection. ‘Maybe it was their time.’ ‘This will only make you stronger.’ ‘They’re in a better place.’ ‘They’re with their father now.’
‘They’ve all gone,’ says her sister. ‘… And the plates are done.’
‘I wanted to help you.’
‘It’s fine. There’s nothing left to be done.’
They enter the sitting room together. The sun is setting and Flavia notes the shadows cosying up to each other in dusty corners of the room.
‘Will you sit with me, like we did when were children?’
Her sister nods and sits next to her on the threadbare, reused sofa that is the most expensive piece of furniture she owns, and lets Flavia lay her head on her lap. Her eyes fall on the figurine of Our Lady of Succour sitting on the small altar her sister’s husband built for their family. There’s a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus mounted next to it on the wall. Flavia stares at the crown of flames hovering over the heart for a moment, then shuts her eyes, turns towards her sister’s body, and lets herself feel the warmth of sanctuary on her skin.
Her sister strokes her face gently and runs her hand through her hair until she falls asleep and the nightmares come.
She dreams she is sleeping on the beach, writing something in the sand. The light of the full moon reveals the words Ria, Pedru, Santan. She is writing their names repeatedly. Fine grains bite into her knees, but she cannot stop. She glances up only once to take in the silver-tipped wave crests roiling towards her. She notices that oddly, everything is silent. The waves make no sound when they break. She can’t even hear the rasp of sand as she moves her fingers over and over the beach. She realises then that this is an incantation. She’s invoking the names of the dead.
She realises that it has worked when she senses another presence. She stands up. Her hair is longer now and has formed a sort of cape around her. She sees Ria and Pedru holding hands and walking towards her. Santan is gently pushing their children in front of him. The afterlife doesn’t seem to have softened him; his face bears a serious expression. Flavia is suddenly anxious when she remembers that face. He’s going to scold her. Probably for letting their children die. It’s the same face he wore during their first year of marriage, when they had calmed from the euphoria of frequent sex and the rose-coloured lenses had fallen away from their eyes.
She’d forgotten to take the spare house keys and had to call him. He drove his scooter right up to the gate, nearly running her over as she waited for him. He was annoyed at the inconvenience of missing a lunch-time tipple with his friends at their usual beach haunt. He threw the house keys on the ground and told her to pick them up. She refused and stood there, arms folded. He started the scooter, determined to drive away and leave her like that until she said: ‘If you leave now, you can eat and sleep somewhere else because I will be at my sister’s place.’
He turned off the scooter, picked up the keys, and unlocked the front door. The he walked past her, got on his scooter, and drove off. But he had that look on his face the whole time. She learned later that it was the look he wore when a mistake was made. A mistake he could not forgive.
She cannot see Ria and Pedru anymore, only Santan’s face, wearing that look.
Flavia is being shaken awake now. She resists–the urge to stay in the dream is strong. She opens her eyes and everything evaporates.
She’s in her bed at her sister’s house. She doesn’t remember how she got there from the living room sofa.
‘You were cursing,’ says her sister.
‘It was Santan.’
‘Oh.’ Her sister’s eyes are wide. ‘It’s been a while.’
‘No, this was different. He’ll never forgive me for what happened.’
Flavia turns over in bed and away from her sister. Her sister sighs deeply, glances at the wall clock, and then crawls into the small single bed next to her and puts one hand on Flavia’s arm. Flavia stares at the wall until sleep overcomes her. She braces herself.
She’s washing off the stench of the fish market from her body. A cold water bath to jolt her to the present and distract her from her thoughts. Her sister is in the kitchen. She sneaks out of the house and down to the beach to watch the sunset. She used to be struck by how each one of was different from the next. Now, she barely notices when it has turned dark. She knows she is being watched.
She walks all the way to the broken shed at the other end of the beach. It’s away from prying eyes. she hasn’t been there since her children passed. She sits cross-legged next to it and draws spirals in the coarse sand. Just before the sun’s edge touches the horizon, she hears a deep sigh.
‘I’ve been waiting for you to come here for weeks.’
‘I’m here now,’ she says.
Agnelo sits down next to her, but at a distance still. She sees him wince and realises what her heart has become.
‘Why now?’ he asks.
She watches the sun drop into the sea and frowns slightly. ‘Santan,’ she says. ‘He blames me. It’s a curse.’
Agnelo snorts. ‘I thought you didn’t believe in that stuff.’
‘First Santan, then my children, my home, your legs. What should I believe?’
He stares into the distance.
‘I don’t believe in coincidence. I stopped praying and now…’
‘So you regret it?’
‘I didn’t for a very long time, but now… yes, I do.’
‘Do you think Santan knew about us?’
‘No.’ She stops drawing. ‘I don’t know.’ She tries to recall her dream, looking for any detail that suggested he knew.
‘Maybe he knows now.’
‘He wasn’t real.’
‘He was real to me.’
Agnelo traces over the spirals she has drawn.
‘I’m going to go.’
He struggles to stand up. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes.
‘When will you forgive me?’
She knows that he is suffering, too. But her grief seems more than one lifetime’s worth. ‘Ask me again tomorrow.’
As he limps away from her, she spots the pot-bellied walker in the distance, hurrying back before it gets too dark.