My grandmother died while squatting over a toilet hole dug in the vegetable garden behind our house. People say she deserved it. They say the way of her death shows what a sinful life she lead. God punished her and killed her amidst her own wastes. When they took her body out and wrapped it in a yellow sheet, I did not cry. They laid her in the courtyard out front and her white hair spilled like milk onto the red mud. They say she was very light, wrapped in that yellow sheet. Her soul had left her body and taken all her sinful heaviness away. I could see hints of her withered naked body under that sheet. She was washed clean by her own death, and like a piece of paper that is wetted and left out to dry, I thought she would soon crumble. I did not cry when I looked at the blue hollowness underneath her eyes, or the red puffiness of her cheeks when the rest of her body was a leathery yellow. I did not cry as I circled her body twice in respect. They carried her away on green bamboo sticks that sagged under her light weight. Nothing in her life has ever been stable.
Maybe that’s why I did not cry. I wanted to be the one thing she could count upon as stable. I wanted her withered body under that sheet to know that I was her one success. I wanted to thank her and say yes, yes grandmother, yes; I am strong enough and I will survive.
There was a girl who used to wake up before dawn, and after starting the kitchen fire, she would run to her favorite hilltop and flap her arms like a crazed bird at the rising sun. She always wanted to fly. She would scream and flap arms and send low clouds skittering around her brown ankles like snakes slipping on wet mud. Her silhouette is pinned before a rising golden orb forever. She screams and flaps her arms into eternity.
They say her father favored her since she was the youngest. She was allowed to fly kites with the little village boys. She fought them over defeated kites that floated by from a neighboring kite flight. She climbed trees in her short skirt and bared her bottom to boys who had just discovered fantasizing. Then she picked the ripest fruits—either guavas or oranges or mangoes—and threw them at those boys who were too numbed by their dreams to dodge fast enough. They all punched her arm like they would any other boy, but each one was convinced she was his princess.
She fell in love before she learned how to keep her skirt down. But nobody noticed. They started talking much later—after her mother had given her her first full-sleeved choli and long wraparound dhoti. You could no longer see the clumsy clouds slipping about her bare ankles. They, along with her bare bottom, were hidden from the world. She couldn’t flap her arms as effectively in her stiff choli either. Anyone looking up at her black silhouette against yellow would have blinked once and thought he was seeing a bandaged bird. A bird bound by the cloth of fate. A bird which could never fly. All those who saw her would then click their thick tongues and say, “Poor thing—beechara.” Then they would forget all about her and she would be left flapping for a million other suns.
They married her immediately after she learned that flapping her arms in a stiff cotton choli is never effective. Her father cried as he carried his youngest daughter on his back in the traditional farewell. “Even if she was the fattest thing in the world, her weight could never break my back,” he wept, “but the lightness of her absence will kill me.” He died two days later from a broken back after he fell off a tree while chopping branches for firewood.
She was married into a wealthy house—it had two fields—near the capital, Kathmandu. Her father had made sure that his daughter would never have to climb trees to collect fuel for her next meal.
Her husband, at seventeen, was five years older than she and was growing a beard. Her mother-in-law, who had just touched thirty, looked twenty years older and had a voice like a butcher’s knife. She cut flesh left and right and kept her son under her protective wing. But even she was challenged when her young daughter-in-law refused to sleep with her son. The young thing would flap her stiff arms and scream whenever her goateed husband entered her room. Every night would be a relay of yells with a young fledgling flapping her wings and a horrified mother-in-law chopping feathers with her sharp words. The neighbors complained, family shame started to rattle its old bones, and the mother-in-law said that the worst thing a girl can do is to dirty the honor of her father. My grandmother conceived that night with tears choking her like a mouthful of feathers.
Two days after her son was born, her husband died in his sleep with no apparent cause. His mother decided to blame her daughter-in-law for the misfortune. She banged her head against the wall until it bled, and when her daughter-in-law came to hold her away, she attacked her. She slapped my grandmother on and on while the baby cried in its wicker basket.
Everyone was convinced that my grandmother was a witch. “She hated him, so she killed him,” they said. And anyway, in order to enter the rights of witchcraft, a woman has to sacrifice either her newborn or her husband. She chose the flesh that did not belong to her. Nobody tried to take the other piece of flesh away from her. The baby’s grandmother knew that someone would have to breastfeed the boy, and then someone would have to care for him when she—his grandmother—was gone. Besides, it is always too dangerous to play around with a witch.
Later, my grandmother would throw away the fruits her son gave her for Mother’s Day, with a disgusted expression on her face. “But they are so nice and fresh, look,” I would point with my pudgy finger, and she would say, “I know, but that’s the only way to keep him coming back. You have to be very demanding.” And my father kept on coming, because he believed he was not worthy of his mother’s love.
She showed me a stone, once. It was small and black and extremely heavy. “It fell out of the sky,” she said, “I was sitting on the very top of my favorite hill at home. It was so beautiful from up there. All you could see was blue sky stretching ahead and greenery below. Only eagles soar at that height, and when you are up there, you feel like a bird. The sky was blue, but there was lightning. I knew a storm was coming, but I did not care. I did not care because that was my last day on my hill. So I was just sitting there with folded legs, when suddenly this stone fell out of the sky and onto my lap. Just like that.”
She placed the stone in the center of my palm and I shivered. “That stone holds all my troubles,” she said. “It’s a little packet that represents my life. God tells me that I can hold it in my palm. I tell you that you can, too. Just hold it in your palm, and then you can look at it from a bird’s-eye view—just like an eagle. It is the only way to survive. Look at how small it is, so irrelevant. But feel how heavy it is. It can weigh you down. Amazing, isn’t it?” She kept that stone because her only purpose was I, and my only purpose is the stone of life.
Just before my grandmother died, she had taken to walking out into the fields at night with withered arms flapping and cracking at her sides. No one came to her funeral. They were scared by her lightness. But she was always light, I tell them; all her heaviness is in the stone. They just wrinkled their noses at me and said that I had gotten too much under her influence. Only my father cried like a baby at her funeral. She has made him weak with her fear of losing him.
My grandmother died five years ago, and tomorrow I am getting married to the man I love. I am walking up a steep hill and there are silver hints of lightning where the hilltop breaks into the sky. I know this is the greatest purpose of my life.
I hurl a small black stone into blueness. There is lightness in my open palm. I open my arms up to my shoulders and feel the wind, hot with sparks of lightning, sweep up my face. I wonder what happened to my grandmother’s one true love. Where is he? Although there is a strong temptation, I resist flapping my arms. Let all the people looking up at my silhouette mistake me for a soaring eagle, soaring above a million more storms to come. The ghost of a flightless bird takes the first drop of rain into her mouth and soars. Soars; just like that.