A little background. I wrote this story for my creative writing class. The guidelines required us to write a creative non-fiction polyphonic piece (two independent voices that work on their own, but have greater meaning in conjunction). The story I chose was based on a journal entry from my year of service in Sri Lanka sometime in 2001. The details I had to work with were scant, so I tried to stick to what I could recall. Also, out of respect for my friend (Maru), I chose a fictional name to keep his identity anonymous (the same goes for his girlfriend). Maru, if you’re reading this – I apologize if I’ve misrepresented your story.
We dodged the bumper cars as we raced towards the train station, enveloped in the equatorial sleeping bags of Sri Lankan humidity. Vendors and beggars reached out their starved hands like zombies, hungry for my Rupees, my Dollars, my western opulence.
Two minutes to boarding, but what did that matter? In south Asia, time is more like a bargaining chip.
Plumes of dirty smoke burst out of the cab as the conductor made his last call in Sinhala, a Rooster’s crow. The trains looked like submarines submerged in smoggy water as they radiated fierce rippling heat. Maru and I boarded the banged-up diesel to make the half-day journey north, to the front lines of Vavuniya – Tiger country.
“Avoid the Tigers,” they said. I imagined the rebels, prowling the streets on four wheels with black teeth strapped over their shoulders ready to bite into your flesh if you dared provoke them. But Maru was raised by Tigers; he could stare into their eyes.
I imagined the piercing sun marrying their bodies together as her blood dried
into the pores of his skin.
Curled up, rocking over her pieces,
Vedic prayers amplifying the silence of her absence.
The loco was bursting with bodies hanging off the cars like bees clumped against the frame of a hive. Orphaned children nestled behind large stacks of hay and blocks of rancid grain wrapped in weathered jute. Worried parents cuddled around languid infants. The walls smelled of the pepper-sweet Betel leaf juices spat from cheeks of travelling labourers. Every now and then, I’d catch a whiff of shit or piss, maybe animal, maybe man. We found some space on the edge of an open door where we could waft the country breeze, and avoid the putrid aromas from inside.
train beat began as the dilapidated locomotive dragged its rusty tail through the sloping tea fields of central Sri Lanka. Maru was looking at me, smiling. The whole event of boarding a train to his hometown clearly brought him pleasure. He looked out onto the Tetley terrain. A woman working in the fields was hunched over picking pekoe with chafed fingers while her baby stared at the train from its sling. The cozy smell of English Breakfast concealed the industrial fumes. I caught him playing with it again.
I imagined him, sitting there.
The agony of loss churning under his skin and the moonlight
shining off of the stainless razorblade as he drew it from
its paper sheath.
Gently, piercing the skin and pushing the blade deep – cold madness
spilling from the wound and trickling around his leg
like a rose vine.
“Maru, What is this?”
I gestured at the smooth white initials, M.T., carved into the coffee bean skin tightly stretched over his patella. Maru’s smile lingered, but now it was hiding something. He adjusted himself like he always did before laboring through English.
I imagined him whispering regrets into the passing breeze that perchance
it might deliver secrets to her.
Slowly carving an M—watching closely as the blade parted his skin.
Cleaning the blade’s crimson stain onto his sleeve.
He pointed at the M and then at his chest, “Me, Maru.”
He pointed at the T and then laid the white palm of his hand on his heart, “This, love, me, Thilini.”
“Oh, your girlfriend!” Maru’s smile widened. We understood each other.
“Yes, Maru, girlfriend, Thilini.”
I imagined his body trembling in anticipation. Thilini.
He meant to engrave her very being into his flesh.
Cupping a coconut shell bowl of creamy Toddy with two hands and raising it up
to his lips.
Warm, sweet, fermented palm sap—
numbing the throbs of pain.
We smiled through the silence together.
“Is Thilini in Vavuniya?” I pointed ahead of the train indicating our destination. Maru’s smile disappeared. He shook his head and looked down. Again, he adjusted himself.
“Thilini, umm, running,” Maru’s eyes narrowed as he rocked his elbows alongside his ribs, “Maru say, stop!!” he threw up both hands, “Thilini! Mine, bomb!” Maru was looking at something right in front of him, but distant—I could almost see it. He pointed at the ground in distress, his eyes widened, “Thilini—running—mine bomb” he pressed his fingertips together to form a sphere, and then his hands slowly expanded away from each other as he pushed out, from between his lips, “Boom.”
I imagined the blade quivering between his fingers as he lowered its tip to his
knee driving the sharp point deep into bone –
his body contracting,
his head whipping backwards, roaring.
The echo haunting the night.
The hairs on my skin stood in solemn silence. My heart paused reverently. My bones dangled hopelessly beneath the weight of spine-fracturing grief. I surveyed Maru’s face, trying to find him. He was there, picking up her remains – trying to piece together her memory. Maru squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them and looked out at the passing landscape. He smiled at the sleeping fruit bats hanging from the trees in Kurunegala.
“Emad look, bats, very big.”
The white scar, ever-reminding him of pure, unfulfilled, love –
reflecting the vacancy of his heart.