Pilgrims (What Is Lost and You Cannot Regain)

August 15, 2010


Sunil Yapa is the winner 2010 Asian American Short Story Contest, a collaboration between Hyphen and The Asian American Writers' Workshop.

Asoka froze with her hands in her hair and a rubber hairband in her mouth. Just stood frozen like that in the act of tying back her hair as if caught in the flash of a photograph. She was staring at the back of his head where he sat slouched watching a football game. She had a strong urge to tell him he was going bald in a spot on top of his head that he couldn't see in the mirror.

"Then you’ll pull out a bunch of saris,” he went on. “And lay them on the bed like baskets of fruit. Apples, oranges, pears. You’ll look at them for god knows how long.”

He stuffed another pappadam in his mouth, crunching loudly.

“Then you’ll finally ask me if I think it’s terribly inappropriate to wear a sari to this party. To which I will reply, ‘Probably.’ “

She took the hairband from her mouth, sighed.

“I will also say that because we’re going to be the only Sri Lankans you would maybe feel more comfortable wearing jeans. Americans don’t wear saris to Thanksgiving dinners.”

“We’re not pilgrims, Sanjay,” she said. “You know this.”

He turned then, twisted in the chair, grinning at her like a boy, that grin she’d first fallen in love with.

“It’s America, baby. No one cares.”

He was often like this, relaxed and jokey around the same topics and the same groups of people that put her on guard. True, he’d been born here among these people, whereas she’d only arrived six months ago, but that didn’t exactly explain the unease she felt.

She turned from the room, the TV gurgling on like a baby.

• • •

“I’m going for a walk,” she said.

By the time Asoka got to the top of the hill, she was drenched. It wasn’t raining hard — just a steady, damp November drizzle — but she was sweating inside the yellow vinyl raincoat she’d taken from the closet.

She pulled back the hood and wiped damp strands away from her face. Her hair was dark and long. Her face, too, was dark. Much darker than other Asians, it was more the blue-black of an African face. It was dark enough, she had noticed, to cause people’s glances to linger uncomfortably when she went with Sanjay to the local supermarket or when they stopped for a cup of tea in the afternoon at the local coffee shop when she went by herself to mail a letter to her mother — any one of the million small tasks that required her to venture out into the pale and alien world in which she now lived.

Just this past week looking for a new tea kettle at Wal-Mart, she’d had to stop a man to ask for help — a heavy older man probably in his 60s. He’d pushed his glasses higher on his nose and looked her up and down, taking in her dark skin; the twisted braid that fell down her back; the gold bangles that climbed her wrist. He’d even paused for a moment to let his gaze roll smoothly over the swell of her breasts. She’d been wearing a thin cotton T-shirt and had wished for a sweater, something heavy to pull around her with an urgency so sharp it was like a knife in the chest.

• • •

 She had known life would be different here. She had known that if she chose Sanjay over any one of the suitors her mother had chosen for her back home that she was trading a known future for one unknown. Yet despite the repeated warnings, she was still sometimes struck dumb by their life together. The big, empty house in the country, his job as a professor, her shopping trips to the mall, the credit cards stacked six-high in her purse like a row of dead fish in the market — she had known life would be different here with this man, yes, but she hadn’t known it would be so American.  

At the top of the hill, she paused and checked the time — 6 in the evening, so 6 in the morning in Sri Lanka. She pulled a cell phone from her jacket and dialed a long string of numbers. Though she knew the number perfectly — it was the house she had grown up in and had spent all of her life in — she dialed slowly. 

Behind her, a gravel road ran down the hill. She and Sanjay lived in the country, 20 minutes from the university where he taught, and the road, unplowed, was crusted over in patchy snow that was now turning to slush beneath the drizzling rain. 

To her left, the hill fell away in a steep cliff covered in brambles. Far below her, beneath the low gray clouds, she saw the glimmer of a stream and beyond that a new housing development uncurling on a hillside. The subdivision wasn’t finished yet, surrounded by the stubble of fallow cornfields, and from this distance the new houses looked to Asoka like tiny paper matchboxes, fragile and somehow unreal in the gauzy gray light. She saw road construction equipment — a bulldozer, a dump truck, the long yellow blade of a gravel spreader — parked at the end of one of the unfinished roads like a cluster of toy trucks forgotten by a child and she bent and scooped a piece of gravel from the snow and tossed it over the cliff. She watched it fall and bounce and then lost it among the jumbles of rock.

Six months ago, just weeks before Asoka was to leave for the United States, her father had died of a heart attack. He’d been always a healthy man, boisterous and full of life, but he had worked too hard and drank too much. One morning while driving to work, his car had jumped the median and careened into the oncoming traffic.

A week after her father’s death, she had gone to the coroner’s office to sign some papers that her mother claimed she could not read. The coroner was a small man with round glasses and a brisk, professional air. That day, he had leaned back in his chair and, after polishing his glasses for a moment with the white sleeve of his lab coat, he had confided to Asoka that her father had been dead long before his car had leapt the median. Tapping his chest with one long brown finger, the coroner had said in a voice almost rueful as though discussing a wayward child, “His ticker just went. Massive heart failure, you see.”

She stood waiting for the call to go through. The rain fell gently around her as she listened to the clicks and hums of the island’s antiquated phone system.

At 6 in the morning in Colombo, her mother would be starting her day. The image of her mother sitting in the kitchen alone having the day’s first cup of tea, the steam rising from the cup, the right elbow tucked neatly into her left hand, aroused in Asoka a feeling of both loneliness and guilt. It was a strange, ambiguous mixture of emotion, one which she had hoped would dissipate as she settled into her life here with Sanjay, but as the months had passed, the feeling had only grown more acute. Why did she feel like such a traitor?

Over the sound of the rain and the fuzz of the international call, she heard something coming up the road. She turned her head, listening, distantly curious. It sounded like a truck, its engine loud and roaring, tires spitting gravel as it raced up the hill.

Before she could move, the truck appeared over the top of the rise, bearing down on her where she stood in the middle of the road. There was an instant of incredible surprise — she barely had time to register the two teenagers in the cab, hair the color of corn silk falling around their faces — before she did the unthinkable. She stepped back. 

The slope crumbled beneath her boots. The truck roared past her, both boys turning to watch her as they passed, their mouths round O’s of incomprehension.

And then she fell. 

Her scream followed her all the way down.

• • •

It seemed a miracle as she got to her feet, shaking, but she had injured nothing more than a banged-up wrist. She couldn’t believe it. She looked at her boots, her legs, her arms, her hands. Her phone was still there in one hand, clutched so tightly that she had to deliberately unfold her fist one finger at a time, the knuckles white with tension. She put the phone in her pocket and massaged the hand.

Finally, not really wanting to but unable to stop herself, she craned her neck and looked at the road high above her. 

She followed her way down the hillside, not daring to believe that she had survived. A long, dark smear of mud cut straight down through the rocks. She saw yellow fragments of her jacket strewn across her path, clinging to the thornbushes like pieces of torn flag.

She was alone now with the sound of the rain, the truck gone, the drops spattering quietly on the remains of her jacket. So quiet, she thought. No onlookers raced to her side. No crowd formed around her. No flood of questions pouring from their mouths as they helped her to her feet.  

How strange. 

She didn’t hear any of the birds whose names she didn’t know. The one that sounded like glass breaking. The harsh cough of a crow. That one she knew. The worst thing, she thought as she marveled at the long dark streak of mud, was that those boys didn’t even stop to see what happened. Were they drunk? High on something? Worse?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the slow grind of brakes. She saw twin tire tracks, two dark furrows that disappeared into the forest and now, idling beside her, a battered farm truck loaded with hay bales and what looked like the bloody carcass of some animal stretched out on top. Behind the wheel sat an old man in a green mesh hat. He was looking at her with concern, his gray eyebrows lifted over blue eyes.

When he rolled down the window and asked if she needed help, she heard the kindness in his voice and was so surprised at the sudden rush of gratitude that she felt herself begin to cry. Sobs shook her body softly like thunder rattling windowpanes.

The old man got out of the truck and wrapped her in a blanket. He helped her into the passenger seat. If he thought it strange to find a dark-skinned woman alone in the rain, he didn’t mention it.

• • •

 In the truck’s warm cab, her crying subsided. She told him where she lived and he nodded. The ancient truck creaked forward into the forest.

“You had quite a tumble,” the old man said. 

He held up a small, silver flask then unscrewed the cap and took a drink. He offered it to her. 

Lying at her feet on the worn boards of the truck’s floor were a toolbox and a rifle. Below them were newspapers stained a dark red.

She pulled the blanket more firmly around her shoulders, noticing as she did that it smelled of something familiar, dusty like hay and horses or like the barn behind their house that she had gone into only once looking for a rake or something sometime back in September, or was it October, feeling aimless and bored one day while Sanjay was at the university teaching. She had shivered as she entered the shade of it for no reason that she knew and had never gone back in.

“No, thank you,” she said.
• • • 

They drove for a while in silence, winding their way in curves up out of the narrow valley. The only sounds were the rattling of the heater blowing oily air into the cabin of the truck, the rain tapping on the windshield. At the top of the road, they came out into a flat plain where the last of the daylight lingered, gathering in muddy puddles and in the water running along the road.

Finally she said, “Do you live around here?”

He shook his head.

“Used to. But that was years ago.” 

He took off his green hat and ran a hand across his head as if there were more to say. “Matter of fact, this whole valley used to be ours.”

He took another quick drink and she remembered something then that the real estate agent had told them the second time she and Sanjay had looked at their house. Asoka had asked what was here before the houses and the real estate agent, a woman in a gray skirt and suit jacket, had said the man who used to live there sold the entire thing to the developer. All 250 acres. 

“He used to farm all this,” the woman had said looking around, an odd expression on her face as though she couldn’t really believe that anyone had ever farmed the ground where these houses now stood. “But his son and daughter-in-law got killed in a car accident in front of the mall. The old man was so heartbroken he sold the whole thing practically overnight. They never did find who hit those kids.”

Asoka looked more closely at him. The weathered face. Dark creases and shadows in the hollows of his eyes.

“Were you a farmer back then?” Asoka asked.

Well,” he said, “we did all sorts of things. Land didn’t pay you much. Not in money anyways.” He paused. “Of course all that’s changing now with people like you moving in and all.” 

She didn’t say anything, suddenly regretting accepting his offer of a ride.

He took off his hat, rubbing fiercely at his gray stubbly hair as if embarrassed by what he had said. He took another drink.

“Listen,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I want to show you something.”  

“I really need to get back home.”

He took another drink. “I’m sorry about what I said,” he said. “It won’t take but five minutes. Do you mind?”

Asoka looked at him and looked out the window and then looked back at him. He was watching her with those pale blue eyes, the flask sitting between his legs.

“Fine,” she said.
• • • 

At a faded stop sign, they turned left onto the main road merging with the flow of after-work traffic heading out of town. They continued for a few minutes, the car silent, the sun setting behind them reflecting a dull red off the tall glass buildings of the mall, more brightly in the windshields of the new cars gleaming in the dealership lots, row after row. 

She recognized the mall from trips there with Sanjay and thought she recognized that car dealership — they all looked the same, didn’t they? — but as the sun dropped below the horizon, they went past a huge gas station that she didn’t recognize at all. The station was at the entrance to a four-lane highway and Asoka thought they might enter the highway, but they continued past. A few minutes later, they turned off the road at an unmarked entrance to an abandoned factory. 

In the last of the remaining light, she saw a huge, hulking earthmover sitting in the darkness below two tall towers. There were weeds reaching as high as its trackless wheels and its yellow paint was pitted with rust. She shivered and pulled the blanket more tightly around her as they drove on past the earthmover, past the empty towers with all the glass windows broken, past the dilapidated, ramshackle wooden buildings that might have once been the factory office and began to descend back into the valley.

Tall pines were silhouetted against the disappearing sky and Asoka felt an uneasy sense of foreboding come over her. Just as she was about to say something to brighten the mood, the old man broke the silence.

“Used to be there was a mill in this valley,” he said clearing his throat. “Paper mill. We just drove by some of what remains of it.”

“I thought you were a farmer,” she said.

“Well, we never owned up here,” he went on. “But my father worked off and on at the mill for about 40 years, and when I was a younger man, I was up here some, too. Work was good, supported most of the people in this valley, but the thing was that mill put out an ungodly stench. Like they were killing animals in there and burning the flesh. Just terrible. Used to peel the paint right off the houses.” 

He went on, telling her how when you lived in the valley, you just got used to the smell after awhile, got to be so you didn’t even notice it.

He told her how every house up this side of the valley had to be repainted every three or four years. You’d repaint it and whatever was coming out of that mill would just peel it right off again. Still everybody repainted. 

“You see?” he said.

She nodded.

“You just got used to some things,” he said. “Whether you liked it or not.”

“A ways back there was a leak from the mill,” he said. “Spilled near half a ton of industrial metals into the creek and ruined the fish. Didn’t kill them, you just couldn’t eat them anymore. Those poisons had got into them. Still that didn’t stop us from pulling trout out of there.”

That was their God-given right, he told her and in his voice now there was something new, a quality of nostalgia or wistfulness maybe, she thought, that reminded her of her father sitting on their back porch telling stories of his childhood. Back when his son was around, the old man told her, they had spent many an evening up there on the stream fishing for brook trout. They’d get their flies and their lines and pull on their hip boots and they’d walk up past the empty concrete tanks of the old abandoned fish hatchery, him and his son, past that old steel bridge that’d been damaged in the flood, passing on up into the state land beyond that, crossing the stream, fishing back and forth as they pleased, the water running cold and clear around their boots. 
But after the spill, you couldn’t eat the fish anymore. They still went up there and caught them, that didn’t stop them, but now you had to take the hook out and put the fish back in the water, holding it there in the running stream until it regained its senses and knew where it was. Then with a flick of a tail, it would disappear back into the darkness of the deep pools. 

“Seemed kind of funny at first,” he said, “to put a fish back in the water after you caught it, but you got used to it. After a time, it got to be normal.” 

Got to be so that you almost enjoyed putting a big one back, he told her, your son watching with a grin and you thinking, I’ll see you another day, old fish. It was possible to get used to a great many things.

In the weeks following her father’s death, Asoka had offered to stay in Sri Lanka with her mother-. She had even offered one last time in the faux leather chairs of the Colombo Airport International Departure Lounge, stomping her foot as she spoke as if her mother were a stubborn animal, insisting that she would stop this marriage and move back home. But her mother declined in her usual way, clutching her sari with one wrinkled brown hand and waving her daughter away dismissively with the other as if to say,

“Oh, Asoka, you are silly to think an old woman like me needs you for company.”

Still, Asoka had wondered at the tremble in her mother’s chin, wondered as she lay in bed with Sanjay snoring beside her if her mother had some premonition of the long years of loneliness that lay ahead. Or did her mother turn from her because she somehow suspected what Asoka could not say — what she would never say, not to her mother, not to Sanjay, not to anyone — that even with her father just weeks in the ground, every beat of her heart had whispered of escape, begged her to leave that island, told her to flee and never turn back.

The man had stopped talking. Asoka watched as they passed a few small houses, the pale flickering light of TV sets spilling from the windows. 

“I’m sorry your son died,” she said.

She knew. Even as she said it, she knew that it wasn’t at all what she meant to say. The old man just shook his head from side to side. He pulled the truck off the road.

“This is what I wanted to show you,” he said. 
• • • 

Night now and an expanse of concrete stretched out before them bathed in the orange light of sodium arc lamps. He got out and walked across the front of the truck, stopping at a low concrete wall. He walked with a limp and

Asoka sat for a moment watching him in that odd orange light. Then she followed him, leaving the blanket behind in the truck.

She stepped to the edge of the concrete wall and with a sudden rush of vertigo realized that they were standing on a bridge that stretched high across the valley. 

The old man steadied her with a hand on her shoulder, then pointed to a group of lights far below them, so small they looked like a handful of stars. 

“That’s yours,” he said with a funny grin. “Your home.”

She stood for a moment just looking. Her home. She wanted to tell him that she understood loss. Understood the way it pulled at your chest like something being torn out by the roots, how you were never really free of it no matter how far you went, but she didn’t have to words to explain and then he said, “Grab that toolbox from the floor.” And motioned to the truck. 

She went back and found it. A gray toolbox sitting on the floor of the truck where her feet had been. She picked it up, groaning with effort.

“What’s in here?” she said.

“When my son died,” he said. “Well.”

He shook his head, not making any move to help her. 

“You want to know the real reason I sold all this land? This land that was my father’s and his father’s before that.”

She set the toolbox down on the concrete retaining wall of the bridge.
“I sold it because some slick developer gave me a boatload of money for it. That’s why. And I didn’t see any reason at the time to say no.”

He flipped open the lid of the toolbox. Asoka gasped. The thing was stuffed with green bills.

“That’s not even half of it,” the old man said. “Those fools gave me nearly a quarter of a million dollars.” 

She took one out and held it up between her fingers. A hundred dollar bill.

Without warning, he leaned over her and grabbed a handful and tossed them up and over the side.

The bills hung in the still air before them nearly motionless, bright and unreal in the waxy yellow light from the lamps above them.

“For what?” he said. “I don’t know what the hell to do with it all. Worth about as much to me as those dumb, sad fish we used to pull out of the creek.”

She stood on tiptoe and leaned over the retaining wall. 

“Not worth a damn,” he said.

The bills dropped slowly, spinning and twirling their way down like confetti before they disappeared altogether into the darkness below the bridge, still falling. She was shocked and then moved and although she couldn’t have explained why exactly, she thought of her father, how he had died alone driving to work; she thought of the sudden spike in his chest, surprise and pain running across his face like a shadow; what had he thought of in that moment? Did he think of work, the tasks of the day he would never finish? Did he think of her mother? Did he think of her and the long journey she was about to make? She thought of how his car had leapt the median, sparks flying from beneath the carriage, she thought of how he died, his car crushed like an empty can; she thought of how he used to laugh in the evenings, sitting on the patio, his shirt and shoes off, telling stories with her uncle. How they would laugh!

Bills fluttered up and out of his hands like birds. 

Then his hand came to rest on her shoulder. And though she felt her phone vibrating in her jacket, heard it ringing, had been feeling and hearing it, she realized, the entire time they’d been standing on the bridge; though she knew that in moment she would answer it, that they would then follow the curving road back down to her house, that she would tell Sanjay nothing of accident only that she would be ready for the Thanksgiving dinner in a few minutes; knew, too, that it would be the first of many, the life she had chosen here in this new country laying claim to her; though she knew all of this, saw the inevitability of it — for now she let it ring.

And though she couldn’t have explained it, she thought, I want to stay like this forever. This moment of time stretching out forever. Here on this bridge, above the darkness with this man’s hand on my shoulder.

How strange. 

Then the moment passed and she reached into the toolbox and grabbed bills with both her hands and let them fly. 

Sunil Yapa received his Master of Fine Art in fiction from Hunter College in New York City. He is currently working on a novel set during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.


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Sunil Yapa

Sunil Yapa holds a bachelor’s degree in economic geography from Penn State University and an MFA from Hunter College. The biracial son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, Yapa has lived around the world, in Greece, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, China, and India, as well as London, Montreal, and New York City. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is his first novel.