Dimpled folds of fat flow out from the blue jacket, surging over the armrest, edging closer as she watches in horror. Her seatbelt tightens and coils its way up her torso like a constrictor. She smells the meat and drink on his breath as he snores. Squeezed in the middle, knees pinned by the tray table, Parvati sits unable to move or stem the flood of lipids.
“Take your tray?” the steward asks the old lady.
“Can’t you do something?”
“About what ma’am?”
“Him,” she spits the word out despite an attempt to whisper, and points at her neighbour. “I can’t fall asleep, my legs died ten minutes ago, and his pipes are on full blast.”
“I can see if we have another seat,” the steward’s smile is strained.
“We need two. I’m not leaving him.” She points to her brother, already donning headphones over what’s left of his grey hair.
“The flight’s full,” the steward says, taking her tray and leaving a set of ear-plugs.
She tries deep breathing, visualising happy memories. Braiding her sisters’ hair with jasmine blossoms, the annual Lantern Festival, nights falling asleep all bundled together. As she starts to doze, her neighbour snores, gasping for air and gargling phlegm. Startled awake, her eyes widen as she sees his tongue swell, his cheeks balloon, head puff out like dough hitting hot oil. She prods, a particularly vicious stab, and he deflates, a burst puri wheezing again in peace.
Parvati knows the journey is a mistake. They’d left it too late. It was evident in the exorbitant travel insurance, the trekking poles, and their carry-ons full of medicine.
On landing, wheelchairs line up to carry them across the tarmac. Bored attendants watch the gaunt Parvati, grey hair tied into a tight bun, wave them away and stagger to the terminal. The humidity almost knocks her off her rheumatoid knees.
* * *
After the bombing raids, ears ringing and lungs coughing, they waited, while their father headed out each morning to gather information. Returning at night, he’d take Parvati into the study and tell her what he’d found. War was converging on the city from the east and south. Villages looted and burned, the rape and murder of women and children.
“If we head north,” he traced his finger along the road on the map, “we’ll reach the river bend. There’s a ferry there that sails upstream. Three days and we’ll be at the start of the western trail that goes over the mountain passes and across the border. We’ll go to my sister, I’ve written to her.”
“Papa, the children. It’s a week’s walk to the ferry, how long over the mountains?”
“Beti,” he took her hands. “We must do this for the little ones.”
They fled the city at dawn. It took them almost ten days to reach that river bend.
* * *
Once aboard the Nelumbo, Parvati sets to domesticating their cabin.
“Considering what we paid, I thought it would be bigger.”
“There’s no Wi-Fi, Didi,” Gautam says, checking his phone. “How am I going to upload pictures for back home?”
She pulls back curtains, raises windows, and slides balcony doors, opening anything she could. The room was bathed in light.
“I’ve signed up for all the Zodiac excursions,” Gautam says.
She sees a flash of the handsome young boy he’d been in his round smiling face. That child is now an old, balding man with diabetes.
“Don’t forget your blood sugar pills,” she says.
His smile fades.
A low humming signals the start of the boat’s journey up river as Parvati busies herself, avoiding the fact that she is physically incapable of any shore trips to burial sites or temples. This trip was for Gautam, she reasons.
“I’m going to catch up on some sleep,” she says, dropping her bag to lay claim to a bed.
“Didi, we’ve come all this way,” Gautam says. “You have to come. Remember what Papa used to say?” he checks the lenses and batteries in his camera bag again.
“The most difficult step of any journey is the first.”
Parvati slaps him on the cheek.
“Oh chhotabhai,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”
It had been a favourite saying of their father’s. He’d said it so many times that the younger children started mimicking him behind his back. The kids had gone wild after their mother died, climbing trees, and running around half-naked and barefoot. When they started wearing his favourite blue jacket and parroting his words, she saw it as disrespectful to the wisest man she knew. She smacked them when it got out of hand.
Gautam grabs his camera bag and pole and leaves in silence.
* * *
It was ten years after the war before she saw Gautam again.
He appeared on the doorstep of their home in the most isolated city on earth, in a country that had never seen war. Brother and sister embraced, held onto each other, laughing and crying. They hadn’t separated since.
She nursed him back to health but couldn’t stop his nightmares. Going from clinic to clinic in search of cures, his mind never regained its calm. She felt stifled in airless consulting rooms, claustrophobic in tiny waiting areas with narrow seats. The sores and wounds of other patients enlarged in front of her eyes. She choked on the smell of ammonia and overboiled cabbage, limped the corridors to sit in anodyne, brightly-lit, cafeterias. Her father’s words forgotten, until she picked up a glossy brochure.
“The most difficult step of any journey is the first. Thought about going back? Going back to the battlefields of your youth can be a rewarding and settling experience.”
The brochure detailed several itineraries, including one that involved a cruise up the river of their childhood. She saw it as a final chance to help Gautam.
* * *
Parvati wakes to dancing light. Sunshine bounces off the water. It dazzles her as she looks out to shore. The boat is moored by the river’s muddy edge. Thick rainforest extends into the distance. Confused by the heat, the glare and the sharp smell of rotting vegetation coming off the water, she whispers “Papa.”
Laying back, she counts breaths to calm down. She pours iced-water, opens her pill box and swallows two aspirin.
Gautam’s excursion isn’t back until dinner. Restless, she gets up to browse the books left by past passengers. War literature fills the shelves, but a volume catches her eye. Kipling’s The Jungle Book. As the afternoon breeze blows in from the river, she walks to the window. A passing fishing boat’s engine splutters. Its sharp cough rings across the water like a gunshot, scattering a flock of cranes into the air. And there it is, the memory bursts through, insisting on light.
* * *
“Papa!” she cried out, unsure what the sound that cracked over the water was. A minute later another volley of rounds splintered the air and a flock of cranes rose upriver, dispelling any doubts. The birds weren’t close, weren’t far, and their flight meant trouble. If soldiers were marching to the capital from the north, they were right in their way. They had an hour at most.
When they arrived at the bend, her Father took off the road towards the river. He found a clearing and told them to wait. He’d go ahead to check the ferry schedule and arrange passage.
Turning to Parvati and seeing her uncertain look, “The most difficult step of any journey is the first,” he said. “And we’ve already taken that!”
Clapping Gautam on the back, “You, young man,” he said, “look after the women.”
“I don’t want to stay with the girls, Papa,” Gautam said. “They’ll just play silly games.”
“I’ve saved your favourite roti, chhotabhai,” Parvati said. “You can have it with the pickle you really like.”
“Chee, it stinks.”
Her Father whistled as he walked off.
Parvati settled the youngsters down while Gautam sulked. She was too busy to notice him disappear after their Father, preferring male company.
She watched the cranes and turned to her sisters. Three girls might outpace a platoon, but she wasn’t game to try. She walked over as they finished sucking their mango seeds.
“Lakshmi! Sarasvati! Do you want to play a game?”
They looked at her, wary after that day’s six-hour walk.
“You know where we are, right?”
They dropped the seeds and wiped the sticky juice from their mouths.
“We’re in the jungle,” she continued, extending her arms out wide. “So, let’s play the Jungle Book game eh?”
“Yeah,” they both shrieked in unison.
“OK, I’ll be Bagheera and you can both be Mowgli. But you know what would be fun? While Papa’s not here, let’s all cover ourselves in mud to look really wild. Pretend we’re the Bandar-log swinging through the trees!”
The girls squealed as she covered their faces in mud from the river bank. She looked at her handiwork. Turning them into dirty monkeys acted as both camouflage and deterrent.
She stiffened. Behind them, in the water, she saw a dozen bodies float by. She kept the girls’ attention until the last of them disappeared. As an afternoon breeze rustled the leaves of the trees, she picked the one they would climb in to hide.
* * *
Closing the window shuts the memory out. They couldn’t be at the same place. Parvati draws a shawl around her shoulders and climbs up on deck. She peers into the dining room. The kitchen is already active, and she watches the cooks stirring pots, rolling flat breads, the steam carrying spiced scents across the room. Such aromas once made her mouth water, but years of bringing up the girls, being their mother, cook and nanny, changed that. A relief to give it all up when they grew into women. She could at last attend to her knees. Then Gautam returned. Seeing him starved of home cooking, she set to it all again.
“Where were you?” she asked during the first years. Her brother would go quiet.
“What happened that day?” she pressed further. She learned to stop asking.
She turns to watch the sun lower over the river. A waiter appears with a cocktail. She sips it leisurely in a deck chair as scans the river bank again. In the clarity of the late afternoon light, she sees Star Jasmines, blooming in abundance, twined along the bushes of the river bank. Tall Ingyin trees extend above, their trunks wrapped in snaking vines. She is too far away to break off a piece of branch or bark. Folklore said the wood promoted longevity, prosperity and health. In her experience, it had proved more than superstition.
* * *
Those trees were all gnarls and knots, hard as brick. Climbing them should have been impossible, but she found one with creepers wrapping its trunk like a ladder. The girls complained, wanting to rest at each crook they found, but she forced them higher. High enough to be out of sight, but not too high that the branches couldn’t support them. Two large boughs forked out close to one another. She pulled some young vines off and tied them to create a makeshift hammock. As she finished setting up their airborne camp, the sun sank below the canopy and forest shadows grew.
“I’m hungry,” Lakshmi said, trying to find her balance.
“Something’s biting me,” Sarasvati said, one hand brushing an insect away while the other hung on tight.
Parvati thought of the long night ahead and wondered how they would get through it. Surely, they’d sleep? She’d have to take it hour by hour. She decided the first was for eating and shared out what they had.
“Aloo for me!”
“Gobhi please Didi.”
She watched their faces as they ate the potato and cauliflower stuffed breads. The river mud she streaked across their faces was dry. Some had dripped onto their kameez and the climb added more dirt. In the falling light, it did the trick, hiding them in the foliage.
* * *
The whine of the outboard motor cuts through the air. She realises the waiter is back at her side.
“Madam, there’s been an incident,” he says.
“What?”, pain shoots through her knees as she pushes herself off the chair. “My brother?”
They arrive at the stern as the Zodiac moors. Sailors harness a stretcher to the hoist.
She shoves curious passengers out of her way and watches, gripping the rail and straining forward. Frustrated at how long it is taking, she calls out instructions.
“Is he secure? Make sure before you hoist. Don’t bang it against the side you idiot!”
Once they lower Gautam onto the deck, she bends over him, unable to kneel. He is breathing thank God, but the dread that had been building all day threatens to engulf her.
“What the hell happened?”
“He ran off from the group,” the tour guide says.
“It’s your job to look after him.”
“We found him passed out in the forest.”
“Blood sugar,” she knows instantly. “Someone, get his pills!”
The crew looks at her confused. “Which ones ma’am?”
“For God’s sake, bring the whole bag of them.”
“We’re not supposed to offer medication.”
She is about to lash out when Gautam speaks.
“Paro, stop. It’s OK. Don’t worry, just take me to bed.”
Four men carry him to their suite and lay him down while she finds the right medicine. She sits by the bed, lifts his head and places the pill in his mouth.
“Didi,” Gautam says. “I’m sorry. Caused a bit of trouble eh?”
“Take this chhotabhai.”
After he swallows, she places a second pill on his tongue.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” she asks, looking at his darting eyes.
“We were trekking along the river. We arrived… there. There.”
“That place, where I left Papa. When I realised where I was, all I wanted to do was run. I didn’t think and bolted into the forest. The trees had other ideas, clawing and scratching at me, making me stay. I passed out.”
Parvati watches his wild eyes slowly fix on an image she can’t see. She realises this is where his nightmares play out.
“I wanted to prove to Papa I was a man, but there. There with him. I was just a boy, piss-in-pants scared.”
She wants to ask questions but lets him go on.
“After I caught up with Papa, we realised we’d walked into hell. Papa’s information was wrong. There was a detachment at the ferry, scouting for men to extend the rail heading back east. They rounded us up. The older men were of no use to them, the younger chained with other able bodies. I cried out to Papa when they shoved us to move. He calmly shook his head, mouthing your name. He was thinking of you, telling me to find you. I saw them force him to kneel at the water’s edge before we marched off.”
“There was death everywhere at the camps. I’d have done anything to get out. I didn’t have the courage to escape. But each day, I learned another of their words, practised another phrase. Then, I got lucky. An engineer was trying to explain something technical. He got more and more frustrated when we didn’t understand. I took a risk, stepped out and translated. The engineer looked at me and smiled.”
He struggles with his memories.
“I got a beating, but the engineer took me with him the next day. I hoped to become his translator. Then, I found out he hadn’t taken me because of my language skills…”
He pauses, trying to find the words.
“I thought I’d seen horror in the camps,” he starts to sob. “I was wrong.”
“Bhai, you were, what, fourteen? It’s him who should be ashamed,” she says, holding his face in her hands.
“His work took us near the border once. Our car broke down on the way. The driver walked back to town to get a part, the Engineer wandered off to smoke. He’d left his gun on the seat. I picked it up and aimed. When he turned, he just smiled. I felt like I’d betrayed him. Me, betray him? After all he did to me. I couldn’t do it. I dropped the gun and ran into the forest. I didn’t stop, spent weeks lost in the jungle before I stumbled delirious into a village. I looked up and saw that it flew another flag.”
“Why didn’t you find us sooner?” she asks.
“I… I… I couldn’t face any of you and kept running. Then when I ran out of places, I remembered Papa’s last word. I started looking for you.”
His eyes flicker as the sleeping pill takes effect.
“I saw my hell again. We can’t keep living for ghosts.”
She sits beside him all night and for the first time since he returned, watches him in untroubled sleep.
He is still in bed the next morning when Parvati makes her decision. She had to be sure. At first light, she asks a crew member to take her to the clearing that had haunted her since they moored. The rheumatoid is worst at this time of day. On the bank, she staggers from tree to tree with her pole until she comes to one tightly wrapped in vines. She traces the marks on the wood she’d made fifty years ago, embraces the trunk with her arms and cries.
* * *
The night was long in that tree. She played games with them, pretending to be monkeys, until they fell asleep. She tried to stay awake, keep watch, but failed.
Voices woke her early. Peering through the leaves she saw two soldiers relieving themselves by the river. She heard others up on the road as her sisters stirred. She shook them awake with a finger to her lips.
“Shhhh, Kaa’s hunting! We must be quiet.”
Blinking away the sleep their eyes widened.
“How do you know Didi?” Lakshmi asked in a whisper.
“I can smell him!” Sarasvati replied as the soldiers’ stench rose into the tree.
“We can’t let him see us,” Parvati said. “Come, let’s wrap ourselves together to confuse him!”
She drew the girls into her arms and cloaked them with her shawl. Below, she saw the soldiers light cigarettes and settle down with their packs.
Pulling her sisters in tighter she hummed the Road Song of the Bandar-Log. The words rang over and over in her head, as she remembered more of the verses each time.
“Here we sit in a branchy row,
Thinking of beautiful things we know;
Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do,
All complete, in a minute or two – “
Stuck in the tree, unable to move, she grew stiff and sore. The branches pressed against her. The talk of the soldiers, even the sound of them puffing smoke, grew louder in her ears. Dried sweat brought ants crawling over her body. She gritted her teeth and endured their bites. Coldness gripped her, and she couldn’t stop trembling. Remembering the floating bodies, she squeezed her eyes shut to block the image out as she rocked them back and forth.
Thick ropes slid over her body, stopping her motion.
“Unfair, isn’t it?” a voice hissed.
She opened her eyes in alarm.
A large brown and yellow python coiled on a nearby branch was talking to her. Kaa. Its tail pinned her arms.
“Yes, so unfair,” he continued, yawning to expose the largest set of fangs she’d ever seen. “Feeding the girls, making sure they wash their teeth, helping your brother with homework when you had to leave school.”
“And you. Sweet sixteen, meant to be enjoying life. Finding a boyfriend. Still a virgin, aren’t you? That’s right. And now this, it’s too much.”
His body began spiralling across the branch like oiled cogs as he began a dance, the yellow and brown diamonds making soft, oozy patterns. Parvati sat mesmerised.
“It’s okay,” he said. “No more responsibility. After all you’ve done to save them, I’m going to set you free. Your sisters will keep me sated for weeks.”
As she watched the snake, his neck telescoped, head extending, the vertical slits of his eyes coming right up to hers. Emerging from the rapidly enlarging mouth, she felt its tongue flicker on her face, and smelt the cold certainty of death on his breath.
“I’ll start with the younger one,” he said, drawing his head back. “The most tender and delicious flesh first.”
The branch hummed with the gliding of Kaa’s scales as he slithered into the shawl. She tried to scream but nothing came out except dry retching. She held her sisters close, trying to block him.
“Didi, I can’t breathe,” a muffled voice whispered.
Her sister’s voice broke through Kaa’s trance. She opened the shawl. He was gone. Freed from his voice, she sat shaking, the determination that would last the rest of her life building in her.
There were shouts from the road. She saw the two soldiers gather their packs and walk off. She willed them all to disappear.
“Paro, I’m tired of this game,” another voice said. “I need to susu.”
She helped them climb down. While the girls washed, she decided what to do. The soldiers were headed south to the capital. She had to take the risk it was safe to follow the road north. Picking up a sharp stone, she marked the tree with a message for her brother.
She took them to the ferry, up the river and across the mountains. Fellow refugees meeting the three dirt-encrusted girls shared food and shelter. When the girls complained, she carried one at a time. Fever, anaemia and the constant grind took their toll on her knees. A week after they crossed the border, she found the house they sought. Once the door opened, Parvati pushed the girls in.
“Here they are. Safe,” she said, then collapsed in the hallway as her legs gave way.
* * *
Parvati pulls strands of jasmine off a bush and circles them into a makeshift garland. She turns to the river, remembering the bodies. She’d known when she heard the shots, when she saw his blue jacket float by.
She walks to the riverbank and steps into the mud. The sailor offers to help, but she waves him away, lowering herself despite the pain. The beauty of the scene laid out before her is breathtaking. Kneeling at the same river’s edge, with a soldier aiming a rifle at the back of his head, it was the last thing her father saw. She hoped it gave him as much pleasure in the last moments of his life.
The riotous jasmine, which grew with such wild abandon, would have reminded him of his daughters. Of those times they braided their hair for the Lantern Festival. He’d stand there laughing at the way they jostled each other, each trying to see more of their own reflection as they threaded the tiny flower buds. Gautam would look on jealously. Hiding the hurt of their mother’s loss and on his way to manhood, he searched for ways to win his father’s approval.
At night, bathed and dressed in their flannel pyjamas, they’d all climb onto him to plead for a bedtime story. They sat in his lap, or on the armrest, limbs askew, the girls’ hair radiant with jasmine oil, warm brown bodies pressing into him like little gulab jamuns. He’d smile and put aside his newspaper, pretend to choose a different book, before selecting the Kipling collection. They loved the Mowgli stories best, though they couldn’t always understand the English he read. But enough to know they were riding on the back of Baloo when he carried them to bed, or to run screaming with laughter when he pounced like Bagheera, and to murmur restlessly in their sleep dreaming of Kaa’s dance. She saw her father bent over, tucking them in, before gently closing the bedroom door.
She slides the garland into the river and watches it flow downstream.
* * *
A waiting room again. Alone this time. No patients with expanding sores or strange smells. When her name is called, she wheels herself into a low-lit office. A young woman sits opposite her in a comfortable chair. Parvati looks around, glances at the clock, remembers that Gautam would collect her in an hour’s time. The woman smiles.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “The first step’s always the hardest.”
Atul Joshi is a student of Creative Writing at the University of Technology in Sydney. Born to Indian parents in Myanmar his family emigrated to Australia when he was aged 8. Atul studied music and currently works as an arts administrator while developing his creative writing.
Zixi Mu is a freelance illustrator from China. She is living in Hangzhou. She hopes that one day her illustrations could warm you up and support herself as well.
Patrick Hernandez is a Filipino artist who is now working and living in Regina, Saskatchewan. His art combines a surreal sensibility and subjects of subtle satire, political statements and cultural critique with mordant reflection.