Yeah, I’ll be changing the title on this one. 🙂 This week I completed the flash fiction challenge at Terrible Minds more than a day early. Go me. The challenge was to choose a title from two lists of words, then write up to 1500 words based on that. This is a little over 1300 words. I’m curious whether this steps into the realm of cultural appropriation. Obviously I don’t want to just write about white Canadian dudes, and I think I treated the characters and the cultural setting with respect, but I’d welcome commentary on that front.
He didn’t look like much when Lalan found him—a scrawny, squalling thing barely wrapped in a dirty rag—but she picked him up and took him in nonetheless. A childless widow, she had no baby bottles in her little room, so she soaked a cloth in goat’s milk and squeezed it into his screaming mouth. He settled down immediately. She wondered why someone would leave a helpless baby in an alley, but when she looked in his eyes she knew. There was an emptiness in his eyes…no, more like a window into a void. Then he started crying again and her heart opened up. She held him to her breast and rocked him until he settled, and knew that he was now her son.
She named him Daya, and raised him to be strong, and kind and good. He had no close friends, as the children seemed to sense that same darkness within him, but he still spent his afternoons playing cricket at the Parade Ground, or walking with friends past the Cheena vala on the waterfront. Once she caught him and two other boys throwing rocks at a pi dog they had cornered. She chased the boys away, let the dog run free, and pulled him home by the ear. She didn’t speak a word the entire way, but when they got home she sat him down and lowered herself to look into his eyes. They were still unsettling, but they were the eyes of her son, and she didn’t flinch.
“Daya, my love, why did you do that? Why were you hurting the dog? Why were you being cruel?”
“But Mama! Arun and Shashee said that dogs don’t matter, and there are so many of them!” He had trouble holding her gaze, and looked worried. She touched his cheek.
“My boy,” she said, “Everything, and everyone matters. Humans, animals, plants—we all have souls. The Divine is within all of us, and causing another creature to suffer doesn’t just hurt them, it hurts us. When you threw a rock and it hit the dog, do you think the dog was in pain?” He lowered his eyes and nodded briefly. A tear began to track down his cheek.
“If someone threw a rock at you, would it hurt you? What if someone did that to me?” He looked up and his nostrils flared.
“If someone did that to you, Mama, I would kill them.” She covered his mouth with her hand.
“No, sweetness, you would not, but it would hurt you as much as it hurt me. It is the same with the dog. You hurt the dog, and it hurt me, and it hurt you.” She sat on the floor and pulled him down onto her lap. He was almost too big, but he rested his head on her shoulder and sniffled.
“Daya,” she said, “there is something special about you, something different. I don’t know what this thing is, but I know it means you are special, and you will be important in some way. That is why I gave you your name, which means kindness, to remind you. You must be kind, gentle and good now, when you are a powerless child, so that when you grow to be a man you will still be kind and gentle and good.” She stroked his hair and wiped his tears with her sleeve.
“Mama, did I hurt my soul when I hurt the dog?” he asked.
“No, my love. We read in the Gita that the soul is a spirit that a sword cannot pierce, the fire cannot burn, the water cannot melt, and the air cannot dry. Your soul will not be damaged, but it is still your dharma to be kind and compassionate. Now have a cookie and go play.”
As Daya grew he became more solitary. He was no longer asked to join in the cricket, and he often walked by himself along the promenade, passing by the Dutch cemetery, or stopping to pet a dog who wasn’t there. He explored the town, and knew every path or short cut there was. Passersby or old schoolmates didn’t greet him if they passed and he wondered what he had done to be ignored. After some contemplation he realized it was not done out of unkindness, they were just unwilling to acknowledge him.
That’s when he knew what he was.
He rushed home to their little room, excited, but trepidatious, as he knew he had to leave Lalan. He ran in the door and gave her a hug and a kiss, then let her know about his revelation.
“Mama,” he said, “I am Death.” She blanched, but he moved to comfort her.
“No, no,” he smiled. “Not a bad, scary Death, but everyone dies, and I take them on their journey. But this means I have to leave you, and I don’t want to do that.”
“Nonsense, silly boy,” she smiled. “I always knew you were destined for something great. You are a grown man who has discovered your calling, and you must follow that and do what you were meant to do. Let me pack you a lunch.”
So he set out into the world wearing his best white lungi, with a change of clothes, some books and a packed lunch of dosas and idlis that his mother had made for him. He walked far beyond his town, and when it was time for someone to die he was the gentle presence who took their soul from their body. He would explain to them how their family would prepare and honour the body with puja and other rituals, then he would walk with them toward the next step on their journey, for he knew all the paths and short cuts to everywhere. He was always kind, and welcoming, and compassionate, and all the things his mother had taught him to be. And much like in his childhood, people always knew he was around, but often refused to acknowledge his presence.
One cool December morning Lalan died, as we all must. She died at a good old age, peacefully in her sleep, and Daya was there to greet her. He embraced his mother while her body lay sprawled on her little bed, then stepped back to look at her.
“Now, Mama,” he said, “your family shall cleanse, dress and adorn your body, and once they have lit the pyres and completed the rituals you will join me on your journey to the world of the ancestors, to await your rebirth.” She clucked and shook her head. She patted him on the chest.
“Daya, my little boy, you are my family. You are all that I have, you know that. You must do these things for me.” She looked up at him. “Please.” So Death took up his mother’s body and placed it on the table. He rubbed oil and seeka on her head, then bathed her in milk and honey. He dressed her in a white dress of her choosing, and marked her forehead with turmeric. He placed her body upon a pyre he had built, then lit a braid of grass and walked counter-clockwise around it. He stepped back and reached for her hand.
“We can go now, Mama.” She shook her head.
“No,” she said. “Now you must make offerings for eleven days, to protect my soul on its journey.” He grinned at her and took her hand.
“Your soul is a spirit that a sword cannot pierce, the fire cannot burn, the water cannot melt, and the air cannot dry.”
“Don’t you quote scripture to me, boy! I know what has to be done.” He held on to her hand and began walking out the door.
“It is not just scripture, it is the truth, Mama. People who need protection on their journey don’t have Death as a son. I will protect you. I am your son.” She rested her head on his shoulder, and they walked into the night.