Online Exclusive: Wayang Colors by Shymala Dason

2011 Asian American Short Story Contest Honorable Mentions

May 21, 2012

By Shymala Dason

The wayang
singer's voice was a thin, high wail. Valli didn't really like wayang singing, but it was exciting. The
color, the costumes. High, painted head-dresses, long robes in rich flame
orange, midnight blue, and bright red. Gold paper pasted on everything, and the
Chinese opera singer-actors’ faces painted white with big pink circles on the
cheeks, big dark lines around the eyes, and bright, blood-red lips. Valli
enjoyed watching the way they walked, fluttering their sleeves across the
stage, prancing and exaggerating every movement. She didn't understand the
story – the singing was in Chinese – but it didn't matter. It was wonderful to
stand in the excited crowd, in the dark street, and look up at the lantern-lit

Valli had begged her father to bring her, at least for a
little while. The wayang would go on
all night, but she didn't need to stay all night. She couldn't listen to the
wailing voices or the clanging gongs for very long without getting a headache.
But for a little while it was like going into another world.

The wayang was
getting louder, the laughter and exclamations from the audience also getting
louder. It was the perfect start to the school holidays. And the following week
she and her parents would leave Kuala Lumpur and go away to the seaside. She
was just twelve-years old.

Valli and her father stopped at a hawker stall on the way
back home and bought a packet of pulut
rice to take home to her mother, full of palm sugar and coconut. Rich and
sweet. It was a happy night.

The day after the wayang,
December 8th, 1941, Valli’s world changed. Japanese forces landed in the north
of Malaya.

Overnight, the wayang
singer-actors disappeared, nothing left of them but a few bits of tattered
ribbons hanging from the stage. Gone outstation to fight the Japanese, people
said, nodding wisely. Chinese and Japanese were old enemies.

Valli had never heard that before.

Everything normal disappeared. Her father kept the radio
on the whole day. In-between programs there was only a dull crackling, which
got on Valli’s nerves. Her father said it was important to leave it on in case
there were special announcements or instructions from the authorities. But all
the radio seemed to say was, "War," and, "Japanese forces have
invaded." Valli didn't understand. War was in Germany, in Europe. Far away
from them. And Japanese was her father’s old friend who had gone to school with
him and was the gentlest dentist in the world. Valli tugged on her father’s
sleeve. “But Uncle Amafuji…” Her father understood the question. “This is a
different kind of Japanese. Nothing to do with Amafuji.”

Packed trains were coming from the north, where the
‘different Japanese’ had landed. But not everybody was on the trains. People
with relatives in the north were panicking. What was happening up there? That
day, and the next, garbled stories went round like wildfire. Japanese soldiers
were bicycling down the peninsula to Kuala Lumpur, killing as they went. Valli
tried to imagine soldiers riding a bicycle and shooting at the same time. It
sounded like something from a cowboy film.

The British were gone. Disappeared.

Her father’s friends came, in the evening after work, to
sit on the charpoys on the verandah and talk politics and smoke. Nobody seemed
to understand what was happening. Valli sat and listened to them, in-between
helping her mother. There was pharuphu
– yellow lentils – boiling on their stove. And marigolds and pink roses from
her mother’s bushes on their altar.

War didn’t seem any more real than the wayang.

Her mother rubbed rose oil into Valli's hair and combed
it. Valli sat quietly, enjoying the sensation, the small tugs to her head from
the comb. Her mother plaited her hair into two long braids, both of them
sitting silently outside the circle of the men. Valli eventually fell asleep,
head in her mother’s lap, to the crackling sound of the radio and the low
murmur of the men’s talk, and had bad dreams.

The refugee trains from the north, the wildfire rumors,
the evening talks about politics, and the constant radio went on during the
next days.

Valli and her parents should have been in Port Dickson, in
the small Chinese hotel they always stayed at when they went to the seaside.
But the world was upside down. The voices in the radio went on from morning
till night, every day, saying the same things over and over. BBC voices.
"War has been declared," and "...the population should prepare

A week went by. Air Raid sirens screamed several times a
day. It was a terrible noise. Valli’s father and most of the men like him
joined the ARP – the Air Raid Patrol – or the Red Cross or the St. John’s
Ambulance Brigade, and went off to do training. When Valli asked, "Train
for what?" she was told, "Train to help people when bombs come."
And she looked at her father's face and thought, for the first time in her
life, that he looked as if he didn't know any more than she did, he was just
talking. Just words.

One of her father’s friends was angry with the British for
"deserting like rats," as he put it. Another man said, “If the Union
Jack isn’t strong enough, what are we
all supposed to do?” Several of the men were excited about the Japanese, who
were supposed to change things wonderfully, and “give India back to the
Indians,” though they weren’t very clear what that was supposed to mean. Valli
decided they probably didn't really know anything either.

She thought perhaps that she must still be dreaming. It
wasn't just one dream she had had after hearing the radio that first day after
war came, the whole thing was a dream. She had fallen asleep after the
excitement of the wayang and was
still asleep; or perhaps she would wake up in PD, her mother shaking her awake,
calling her lazybones, and saying, "Falling asleep in the sun like that
you'll have terrible dreams and your skin will get even blacker and then how am
I going to get a bridegroom for you?" And then her mother would laugh and
rub sandalwood paste on her skin. And Valli would laugh too. She hugged that to
herself. This was one of those funny dreams, too much wayang, or too much chili hot fish dishes and rich food and
swimming. Too much excitement. She would wake up soon.

Nobody was going to work, which was another proof that it
was all a dream. In dreams, people never went to their office like in ordinary

And the dream kept going on, and getting stranger.

*   *   *

Her father’s friends arrived to collect her father, early
in the morning. They were all excited as usual, but whispering instead of
talking in their normal voices. Valli overheard one of them tell her father,
"Kumar you have to..." But then he dropped his voice; Valli wondered:
have to what. Usually she would have
just asked, but something in the men’s hushed voices warned off her usual
innocent inquisitiveness.

The men – and her father – went out the front door.
Valli's mother was in the backyard picking vegetables and talking to the
back-house neighbor. Valli ran to her mother, said, "I'm going out with
Appa!" and ran off again before her mother could ask questions.

Valli followed her father and his friends through the
streets. It was a bit tricky not to get spotted. Not that she was noticeable,
just another skinny schoolgirl, thin and dark with untidy long braids hanging
down her back. Actually, if not for her pahvadeh
, the tunic and long skirt that was always six inches above her
ankles because her mother couldn't sew as fast as she could get taller, she
could have passed for a boy.

But that day the streets were empty. Valli looked around
out of the corners of her quick, round eyes as she walked. People weren’t going
about. She passed deserted stalls and shuttered and padlocked shop-houses. The
few shops that were open had the shopkeepers standing in front, the grills
half-shut, and chains and padlocks dangling ready. They were trying to get the most
out of the money they could make in all the chaos, but ready to close shop at a
moment's notice: the first sign of trouble, the first shout, the first noise.
So far that day there had been no noise.

Actually there was practically no sound, the hush was so
intense it pushed on Valli’s ears and hurt them. As if nobody and nothing, not
even the wandering dogs, was breathing. The air was blazing hot and dry, the
sun bright and burning. In the afternoon perhaps there might be heavy rain. It
hadn’t rained, it seemed to Valli, since the day the radio started saying

There were no chickens or ducks running about, no
wandering cows. Drying piles of dung lay about here and there, as if to say,
‘look, there were cows here.’ It was
an area with a lot of Indians. The cows, a nuisance but sacred, were usually
allowed to wander at will. But now, along with everything else, they seemed to
have been rounded up and hidden away somewhere.

Occasionally Valli saw another person hurrying along, head
down and fully loaded, dashing out of one of the open shops or bringing bundles
from God knows where.

She was afraid somebody would stop her and ask what she
was doing, a school-girl wandering around in a world that had stopped, but
nobody did. They were all too busy.

Her father and his friends walked more than three miles,
and then turned into the gates of a big, old Colonial house. Valli’s mother –
and sometimes Valli – had been in and out of that house. Valli's mother did
very good hand sewing, smocking or sewing on expensive lace or doing repairs on
party dresses for a few British families, including this one. But her father had no business in that house.

Valli followed the men at a slight distance.

As she passed through the gates, she saw that the lock was
broken and twisted. And then she was inside the walls.

The garden looked different than she remembered. She had
always thought it was a fairy-tale place, full of roses, frangipani, lilies,
bougainvillea – layers of colors and scents – and very well-kept by two
gardeners. It was a shock to Valli to enter it and find the scent gone, and the
color faded. Everything was drying up. It was untidy. She had never before seen dead roses left on those bushes,
or dead leaves on that grass.

Valli walked from bush to bush, remembering hours spent,
when she was younger, hanging about in that garden while waiting for her
mother, following the friendly gardeners about and asking them questions as
they manured with cow-dung or weeded or sat and smoke their cheroots in the
shade of the big trees. And where had the gardeners
gone? British families were gone off to Singapore, people said. Valli could
believe they might have taken their house servants as well. But surely not the
gardeners. And yet the gardeners – Indians like herself – were gone. That upset
her more than anything.

She plucked the dead roses off one bush, and then another,
making neat piles beneath each bush. But the garden was full of bushes. And
meanwhile her father and his friends had disappeared inside the house.

 It was a big
mansion with whitewashed walls and dark-red tiles on the roof. The deep
verandahs were lined with rows of fat, round columns and painted wooden benches
and tables. As Valli crossed the dried grass towards it she started hearing
signs of movement, and saw men going in and out through the French windows and
the front entrance. The big wooden doors were hanging crooked and there were
broken panes in the windows. Nobody seemed to notice her; they were all busy
about their own business.

There was glass all over the verandah floors. Some of the
benches, Valli saw as she crept closer, were missing.

Three men came out, awkwardly carrying a big, black piano.
Valli hid behind a tree. One of the men dropped his side of the piano. It
tilted, fell, and banged on the cement steps all the way down to the grass. The
man laughed and shouted, "Bugger it!" The men came down the steps and
bent over the piano again. Valli moved farther back behind the tree as the men
passed her, going towards the road.

Thieves. The men were thieves. She had never seen thieves
before, not in real life.

Her father had also gone into the house. Valli’s mind
started spinning, trying to make sense of that. Her father wasn’t a thief.

And then the air-raid siren came.

Men came pouring out of the house in all directions,
shouting. It was as if somebody had disturbed an ant-heap. Some of them were
singing. Valli knew the kind of singing, it was toddy-shop singing. They had
been drinking.

Valli couldn’t believe her father would do that, would
walk three miles just to get drunk. And why inside an empty British house, of
all places? The noise of the siren, the men's shouting, the singing, the noise
of the broken glass breaking again as the men ran over it, all mixed together
in her ears, pushing inside her head until she wanted to scream.

It came to her that her father had told her always to get
underneath something when she heard the sirens – but then why were the men
running out of the house?

She ran, half-climbed, and half-fell over the edge of the
monsoon drain, and crouched down.

A new sound started and grew louder, competing with the
air-raid sirens. A sound like an angry mosquito. Valli  opened her eyes wide and looked up at the sky
from inside the drain. The sound came closer and closer.

Spots appeared in the sky: tiny spots.

The mosquito noise got loud.

Valli saw the airplanes. They looked like toys.

They were so high up. She was getting a pain in her neck
from craning to look up. Valli looked away for a moment, at the house, the
roof-tiles all bright in the sun; at the trees, standing as they had stood her
whole life.

The noise changed. A whistling note came into it. She
looked up again. There were strings of beads coming out of the airplanes,
strings of tiny beads falling out of the sky. This was what everybody was
talking about, beads falling out of the sky?

The beads went slanting off to one side.

Valli couldn't tell what she felt, not even if she was hot
or cold.

A sound came from far away, like bad thunder, the kind of
thunder that knocked down trees. She felt a vibration in the air. The air was

The men began shouting again.

Suddenly – as suddenly as they had come – the airplanes
were gone. The mosquito sound disappeared into the distance. Valli leaned her
head on the side of the drain. Her legs were shaking.

It felt like a long time before she was able to climb out
of the drain and go and look for her father.

She found him with two of his friends in the store-room
behind the kitchen. They were stripping the shelves. There were gunny-sacks on
the floor in front of them, stacked in piles. Valli, looking from the doorway,
saw flour, sugar, salt, oil, and rice. Every provision.

She stepped into the store-room. They heard her and looked
up. For a moment she was scared at their expressions. Even her father looked
stern and angry, like a stranger. But then his face changed. He looked like her
father again. He told his friends, proudly, "My son!" shook his head,
and started laughing. Then he hugged her.

His friends looked at him, at her, at her skirt. Her
father repeated, "My son. My only child. My daughter and my son also. All
in one!" His friends shook their heads at him. One of them said, “You
spoil her.” Their eyes, as they looked at Valli, weren’t friendly.

But they were happy enough when she was able to take them
straight to the shed where the gardeners’ wheelbarrows were kept.

Later, as they walked home behind one of the wheelbarrows,
Valli asked her father about the singing. He told her that some of the men had
gone straight for the cases of brandy and whisky. "Cases and cases, there
were.” He shook his head. “I always respected the British. But how can anybody
need so much whisky and brandy in the house?"

One of his friends, pushing the next wheelbarrow, said, “It
just goes to show what they really came to the Far East for. Just after an easy
life. Now there’s trouble, you see, they’ve buggered off and left us to face
the music. They care a damn what happens to us.”

Valli’s father said, “I don’t know about the whisky and
brandy. But they aren’t shirking their responsibilities, you’ll see. They’ll
have gone off to fight, somewhere.”

Valli, walking between them, looked from her father to his
friend and back. “Like the Chinese wayang

Her father’s friend laughed. Her father said, “The British
will come back, you wait and see. They’re biding their time, that’s all. Any
day now.”

But they didn’t come. Valli’s thirteenth birthday and then
her fourteenth came and went, and the British didn’t come back.

Instead of British soldiers marching back in triumph there
were Malaysian heads cut off and laid in the middle of the road, a warning to
locals of what happened to those who got out of line. Instead of birthday cakes
Valli had some concoction of tapioca starch and food coloring, made to look
like a cake.

The Occupation went on and on. Nothing was changing.
Nothing felt as if it could be real, and yet it was real.

The radios had to be hidden. Japanese killed people for
having radios and listening to European news. They took people away: men to the
death railway, women to something worse. Valli wasn’t allowed to wander about
freely any more. And she didn’t want to.

She just wanted to wake up so the dream could end.

Meanwhile some of the men who came to her house in the
evenings still said the Japanese were friends to the Indians; and Valli’s
father kept his radio, though he hid it.

*   *   *

One day the Chinese dhobi
lady came with their washing – the big clothes, bed-sheets and towels and
Valli’s father’s pants and mother’s saris that were a bit difficult to wash at
home. The dhobi lady was in an
unusually bad mood. “They made my son kneel down in the hot sun one whole hour.
Said not showing proper respect. Only children running, what. No harm. It’s
Japanese don’t have proper respect. After all, everything they are they learned
from the Chinese, only. Now they come here and treat us worse than slaves.”

Silently, while the woman talked to her mother, Valli took
the sheets and peeped under them. There were fish pieces under the bed-sheets.
Two big slices of ikan kurau
threadfin – wrapped in a banana leaf.

Underneath that would be the newspaper. The illegal newspaper, as dangerous to have
in the house as her father’s radio.

Valli picked up the bed-sheets. There was a fish smell; it
wasn't a strong smell, the fish was very fresh, but in three days when the fish
was all gone and she was trying to go to sleep after eating plain, boiled
tapioca, it would be enough to torture her.

Valli felt as if she was living inside a bubble of time,
an unreality of hunger sleeping in fish-smelling bed-sheets and walking down
streets studded with human heads into gardens of dead roses.

*   *   *

Valli went through the back gardens, in-between the trees,
to the neighbor’s house on the next street, to run an errand for her mother. So
far, no soldiers had come into their lane. But Valli’s father didn't want her
showing herself on the street, in case, except when she was going to and from
school – and then he traveled with her.

She was almost fifteen-years old.

When she came back from the errand, she heard voices
coming from inside the house. Her parents' voices, and other voices she didn't
recognize. Strange, Japanese voices.

Japanese by then meant only invading Japanese. Her
father’s friend and other local Japanese were mostly gone. Rounded up and taken
away by the British, or else rounded up by the invading Japanese, she’d never
been clear. Anyway it didn’t matter. They were gone.

This was Japanese soldiers in her house.

Valli’s heart suddenly started beating very fast.

Her parents had drilled her to hide in case soldiers came
to the house. But they themselves, her parents, were in the house with the
soldiers. They might be in trouble.

She heard her father’s voice, suddenly raised. Shouting.

Her father never shouted.

Valli crept to the back door, and peeped into the kitchen.
There was nobody there, only a pot boiling away on the fire.

Her mother never let things boil and boil.

She could hear clearly now. She wanted to not be hearing:
wanted to be dreaming. She had had so many bad dreams since the Japanese came,
it was all one long bad dream.

This would be a dream, as well.

She breathed as softly as she could, tip-toed through the
kitchen, and peeped into the sitting room.

Her father was struggling with two Japanese soldiers,
trying to get away from them. Another two soldiers had her mother down on the

Valli finally understood the meaning of rape. The soldiers
were raping her mother. She hadn't been able to imagine, when they told her
what rape was.

She wanted to scream, to stop them.

She didn't want to see this, didn't want to know.

She couldn't scream. Her throat didn't work. Her mouth was
open and nothing came out.

Valli’s eyes lifted from her mother. Why didn't somebody
see her standing there in the kitchen? If the soldiers saw her, she'd have no
choice. She'd be able to die with her parents.

The soldiers didn't see her.

Their eyes were all on her mother. Valli waited, willing them to look at her. She reached
back with her hand, fumbled on the edge of the sink, and found her mother's big
knife. She was ready.

But it was her father whose senses felt her presence. He
looked up, straight at her. Valli started to shake as their eyes locked.

Her father was still struggling with the soldiers. He
didn't stop, didn't change expression, didn't do anything to let them see that
something had happened. Only his eyes widened. Valli felt the force of him, the
love, the fear, and the message he was sending her with his eyes:

Valli clenched her hand around the knife and didn’t move.

Her father held her eye, all the while pulling against the
soldiers who held him. He shouted out loud, as if he were angry at the
soldiers, "Get out of my house!" And Valli knew he was talking to

His eyes asked forgiveness for the anger in his voice, and
sent a blessing.

Her own eyes filled with tears. She made herself nod, made
herself step back from the doorway.

Once away from the door, cut off from the sight of what
was happening, it was easier. She crept back outside the house, and hid under
the bushes in the backyard, her body pressed against the grass and dirt,
trembling from the effort to keep herself still. If she were older, if she were
stronger, she would run back inside the house and kill the soldiers. She would
kill all evil people.

The knife was in her hand.

Her father’s voice, in her head, said, “I don’t believe in
killing.” But the noises from the house, the shouts and laughter of the
Japanese soldiers, drowned it out.

Valli saw one of the soldiers come to the back door and
look out. That gave her a fright, and woke her from her daydreams of being able
to kill soldiers. As soon as the soldier went back inside she ran and climbed
up into a breadfruit tree, up high, where most fully grownup people couldn’t
climb. She stayed there, curled up into herself, clinging to the trunk; the
knife was still in her hand, she had managed to climb the tree without dropping
it. If the soldiers saw her, and came for her, she could kill herself.

Valli waited.

It was a long time before the noises from the house stopped.

It was beginning to get dark. Valli let herself down from
the tree. As quietly as she could, she crept back into the house.

Her muscles were weak from prolonged stillness. Her mouth
tasted bitter and dry.

Her father looked peaceful, lying on the floor, his face
relaxed from that terrible look he had had when she'd seen him from the kitchen
door. There was blood on his hand, and a knife just under it. As if it had
dropped out of his hand when he fell. There was blood on the knife. Had he used
it? Her peaceful father?

It was the knife he had hidden under his mattress roll
when the Japanese came. The knife her mother had teased him about. Valli hadn't
been able to imagine her father ever using a knife. She wondered how he had
gotten to it, with the soldiers there.

Her mother's naked body was surrounded by torn pieces of

There was a puddle under her mother's head, and around her
mother’s belly. The soldiers had cut her mother's throat, and slit her open
like an animal being slaughtered.

Valli bent, and knelt down on the floor between her
parents' bodies. She had to make their bodies decent somehow.

She leaned over and brushed her hand over her mother's
hair, trying to tidy it. Dead people should be tidy. How was she going to clean
the bodies?

She wished she could cry. Her eyes were dry and burning.
But she had no tears.

Valli bent and kissed her mother's cheek. It felt funny.
Like rubber.

She turned and crawled a few feet, to her father. She
picked up his hand, the bloody hand. She held it as she always held his hand
when they talked: long, long talks. There weren't ever going to be any more

Everything was strangely quiet. Only the frogs were
singing outside. There were no sounds from any neighbor houses. And none of her
father’s friends had come that evening.

Or they had come, and realized something was wrong, and
gone away again.

She had to care for the bodies herself.

Valli was wiry and strong, but her parents’ bodies were
lifeless and heavy. She felt as if she was handling giant, soft dolls. The
texture of their flesh was completely strange; her fingers touched, and drew
back. It was more like touching a soaking wet sponge than anything human. It
didn’t seem possible that these things
really were her parents. The eyes were vacant. Where had her parents gone?

She felt tired. She would close her eyes for a minute, and
then when she was rested she would get water and cloths and soap and clean the
blood off the bodies, at least.

Valli put her head down on her hand, the one that lay over
her father's. Who was going to light her parents' funeral fire? There were no
sons. She had no brothers.

She was so tired.

She pushed herself up to her knees and pulled her father’s
body towards her mother’s – somehow it was important that they weren’t far
apart – and lay down in-between them, one of their hands in either of hers.
Valli closed her eyes and tried to imagine they were still there with her; but
the flesh she was touching got colder. She
was getting colder. She realized she was shivering.

Exhaustion put her to sleep.

But it wasn’t long before she woke up again. The smell,
the place, the sense of urgency in the back of her mind, that the soldiers
might come back, all woke her.

The moon was full, its light coming in all the windows and
open doors.

No one had drawn the curtains that night. No one ever
would draw those curtains again.

Valli sat up and looked at herself. She had blood on her
clothes. There was dried blood on her hands. In the moonlight, her hands looked
gray, the blood a darker shade of gray, almost black, against it. The blood was
flaking and smearing. Valli didn’t want it to flake off. It was her parents’
blood. They were with her, in the blood. She didn’t want them to fall off.

She came fully awake, and realized, the cold fingers
holding hers were colder – and less soft. She remembered, then. Dead people’s
bodies got hard and stiff. She had heard that. There wasn’t time to go and get help, even if she had
wanted to; and somehow she didn’t.

She looked around the house, at the mess the Japanese had
made. No more people should come through and poke into her family’s things. No
more. Not anybody.

Anyway by that point somebody should have come, and could have come, if they’d wanted to.

It was up to her.

Carefully she freed herself of the dead grips.

 Her parents were
gone. She herself seemed to be gone, she didn’t know where; it was a funny
feeling, to be inside her own body and watching herself as if she was a

She cleaned her mother’s body first, with water and wet
cloths. Nothing she could do about the gaping wound down the front of the body,
or the slit throat. She used a few towels, wrapped and tied, to hold everything
more or less together in the right place.

It was impossible to get a clean sari properly on the
body, in those circumstances. Valli compromised by wrapping the material around
and around her mother like a shroud. It was hard work, lifting and tilting the
body from side to side.

She hesitated, then, and turned her head away, even looked
hopefully at the door. If her father’s friends had walked in at that minute,
she would have welcomed them. But nobody came.

Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. That was all. Even
the frogs had fallen silent.

Valli was a fifteen-year old girl; to see her father’s
nakedness seemed more of a violation than what the soldiers had done.

Her father had said, she was son and daughter, both. Valli
took a long, shaky breath. She spoke to the air: to her father. “You told
everybody, isn’t it, I’m your son and your daughter? Now I have to be the son
for a little while.” Suddenly she started crying, and shouting. “I have to take
your clothes off. I have to wash your body. You think I like doing it? War came. I didn’t bring it.”

She felt her father’s presence then. But not coming from
his body. It was as if his voice was inside her
body. Valli heard him say, “You don’t have to do this.”

But she did. “If not me, then who, Appa?”

She felt him again, and felt her mother, also: both urging
her away, out of the house. Valli shook her head to still the voices, and
started unbuttoning her father’s shirt.

She looked away as much as she could while cleaning his

Finally it was done. He was clean, and in fresh clothes.

Valli went outside and cut flowers from her mother’s
bushes to put on both the bodies. She lay them side by side, the hands
in-between their bodies touching, the other hands holding flowers.

There was clean oil to pour on their bodies, and kerosene
to put all over the house so it would burn.

She went and fetched the clean oil, and put it down next
to them.

She wasn’t a priest.

But she was the son. Her father had said so. A son could
light the funeral fire.

Valli went for her mother’s sewing scissors. Her hands
shook as she cut her hair; her whole body shook as she took off her clothes,
quickly sponged herself to get all the blood off, and put on some of her
father’s clothes.

Luckily she hadn’t developed yet, though she was tall for
a girl, as tall as her father. In his clothes, and with her hair cut, she looked like a son.

Valli went to the bodies, and bent and touched her
parents’ feet one last time; and then she busied herself with oil and kerosene.

*   *   *

The house was burning. Valli stood outside at the end of
the garden, watching her parents’ cremation fire and listening to the flames
crackling. In-between the noise of the fire she thought she could hear the
sound of her father’s laughter coming from the house, and her mother’s simple,
practical talk.

Valli took a deep breath with her eyes closed, as her
father had taught her, and then opened them as she exhaled. She did it over and
over; trying to let light and wind and everything alive around her fill her up,
"...all the way into the stomach," her father had used to say,
"...deep down, everybody thinks with their stomachs first." And then
he would laugh.

In front of her the house burned, flames orange and bright
red against the dark blue midnight sky; colors just like the wayang.

Valli’s stomach filled with flame.



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