Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crackling Silk

I try not to think of it because it's such a small thing, after all, and long gone. But sometimes when I'm not thinking of Sri Lanka--not Rajah, not war, not even grief, of nothing in particular--I'm suddenly there.

          I've just fished out some rupees for a shirt I spotted, hanging high on a branch behind a vendor's stall, where I can't reach it myself. A shirt only a tourist would buy. A young boy in a sarong uses a pole to take it down and the vendor folds it several times before slipping it into an old paper bag. I don't like the touch of his hands on it.

          Up close, the colors are opalescent. It's made from the transparent pale green silk of an old sari, a swirling paisley pattern embellished with pearl gray and dove white. Something I imagine a new bride might have worn after her wedding.

          The shirt is weightless as a ghost; I must have sensed it then. I'm possessive, secretive, and passionate about this piece of clothing. I want it with the kind of doomed, ferocious, sorrowful greed reserved for illicit love.

          That moment of remembering is nothing more than this: my hand grasping a small brown bag. The paper crackling against the silk and the palm of my hand. It's this sound, this tiny aural seed that contains a blueprint for the future.

          Rajah and I will say good-bye; when no one looks his thumb will push aside my tears. It stings. The only time he touches me his callused finger chafes my sunburn. I will return to America to finish my studies and he will remain in Sri Lanka to be a houseboy. We write to each other for many years.

          The shirt will tear when I try to put it on for the first time. The silk is light as a whisper and tears at the slightest tug. Hanging in shreds, it's still gorgeous. The colors look beautiful against my skin. I'll never wear it.

          I will marry and have two children. My daughter says her first word; my son learns how to walk.  A tsunami will kill 40,000 people. Jaffna's library will be burned down by the Sinhalese army, its blackened window frames agape as empty eye sockets. The cemetery is razed, memory blasted clean, again and again. An odor of smoke, sweat, gunpowder, blood, sandalwood, cinnamon, jasmine.

          I divorce. Thousands of civilians herded onto a narrow strip of sand are trapped between the jungle and the Indian Ocean. The soldiers who tell them they will be safe here are the ones who kill them. There will be screaming, and silence. The sound of waves lapping the shore. Tourists sunbathe and barter, bring home silk and gemstones.

          The war is over. The kidnapping, torture, and gang-rape continue, murder and disappearance, again and again. Intimidation and terror; mulligatwny soup and dal, milk hoppers and rice idli.

          I order a venti latte at Starbucks and pay with a credit card. Silk disintegrates and embers flare. Memory crackles.

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