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Step 1: Wash the rice twice or you might bite into a thought.
Her distraught eyes scanned the shallow parapet beneath the ledge, seeking him among the discarded milk bottles and orange peels.
For twelve days, Mama rose before daybreak and stood under the blue steel faucet in the backyard, her tired body rebelling against the frigid spray in goose bump patches. Every day she dressed in the same wrinkled, maroon cotton saree, her unbound hair dripping curly patterns on her back as she boiled water for rice.
For twelve days, as soon as Mama placed the enormous rice ball on the jagged edge of the brick ledge in Big Uncle’s house, Raven swooped in to claim his bounty.
“Caaw, caaaw, caaaw,” she implored and waved, her frenzied arms reminding me of a damp-haired air dancer hiding a bruise.
“Thirteenth or never!” ChantingMan had pronounced an ultimatum yesterday in the gravelly voice of wearied millstones grinding down a thousand rice balls.
Just then, she spotted the familiar dark flash gliding towards her as Mama’s limbs melted in relief. From his perch on the ledge, Raven’s glassy gaze penetrated her guarded despair for a brief moment. In one fluid motion, he claimed his meal, flapped his wings and soared into the wind, liberating Mama.
Thatha visited us last year. Around her father, Mama's dimples deepened as sunshine spread under her skin and the gentle clinking of her toe rings on the wooden floor echoed the spring in her walk. Together, they unbraided memories of childhood tantrums, adolescent follies, how far she had come, and how far she had gone. She cradled his fragility as he slept, smoothing his wrinkles as if by stretching them taut, she could reverse time.
My father drove us to the airport and whispered to me. I prayed we would reach before his secret did.
Step 2: Bring water to a slow boil as bubbles rise to the surface and escape in a vapor trail of regret.
Mama's face splintered into countless unanswered questions as she eluded my grasp and surrendered to Mother’s outstretched arms. Since Thatha would arrive soon, Mama gathered the unruly tendrils of Mother’s long gray hair into a knot so Mother would hold it together. Blue veins drummed against Mother’s temples, impatient for Thatha. From the fringe, I watched as twin reeds braved a flood about to dislodge their roots. Around us, Words filled the room masticating and regurgitating memories that threatened to bury their tentacles into Mother. But Mama caught and flung them behind where they disappeared into the oil stained curtains of Big Uncle's room. The earthy aroma of fresh rice escaped the kitchen and without warning blended with the Words waiting for Thatha. The room smelled of hidden rice and broken promises.
Thatha came home to his broomed-and-mopped favorite spot in the family room. I reached for Mama's hand feeling the staccato pulse of her fracturing heart. They whispered to Thatha in tender breezes of soft mumbles building to a tempest until Mama could no longer contain Mother’s shrieks that bounced off the walls and flowed to the verandah outside where Words clicked and clacked in anticipation.
Thatha liked to eat his rice soaked in ghee. He partitioned it into shimmering white mounds against the crisp green of the plantain leaf he ate from, dark fingertips coaxing the rice into uniform balls. Mama looked away trembling under the weight of certainty.
Step 3: Stir the pot often since agitated grains tend to stick.
When Thatha needed to leave, Big Uncle and Small Uncle accompanied him along with ChantingMan who knew all the right verses. Words dissipated into wisps of dark clouds threatening to return, leaving Mama and Mother and a Thatha shaped hole following them. I tugged at the rough edges of Mama's cotton saree, calling her, but the sound reverberated in the barrenness before it crashed into their cocoon and bled. Something uncoiled in my belly and snaked its way up to my eyes, hissed, and stung.
Mama slept near Mother in the room that smelled of Thatha's Tiger balm and talcum powder. I lay alone, listening to the night meander through the open windows and hide in the blue-black crevices of the overstuffed room. Indignant frogs admonished the teasing rain in a synchronized chorus, an occasional scooter sped by, stammering an apology. Above, a rickety fan scratched the air in circles reminding me of the wheat flour pancakes Mama and I cooked on Sundays.
I missed our matching henna tattoos and cardamom tea evenings.
Heymomletmeinletmein... Thoughts squirmed and wiggled, thrusting against my palate struggling to leave.
Tomorrow would be thirteenth.
Step 4: Make sure you check the bottom for uncooked rice weeping in the hot gruel.
Words returned in the morning, bumping into each other and filling the cramped spaces before settling down a safe distance around Mama and Mother.
ChantingMan read from the Bound Volume of Sadness.
Thatha’s dentures jiggled when he told stories - a fake mouth inside his real one. Spellbound, I listened to him recite, his breathing laced with the ominous crackling and whistling of a winter’s gale.
“Have you seen a raven? It enjoys a special gift. When new souls linger, unwilling to leave and unable to stay, the raven carries them on his back for twelve days, nurturing them under his wings. On the thirteenth day, he releases them to the wind. The next time you hear the wind sing, pay close attention. Might be someone you know!"
“Thatha, ravens are…”I faltered, hesitant to shroud his faith with my logic.
“I know,” he chuckled. “But don’t tell your mother.”
As he squeezed my wise girl hands with his tremor, I noticed above the dark crescents under his eyes, the flickering flame of a candle running out.
I did not tell my mother.
Dusk’s lambent cloak enveloped the cabin as Mama retreated inside an oversized sweater and I contemplated if the wind’s songs carried across the ocean. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed her move in an erratic quivering that escalated into the convulsion of a tidal wave. Panicking, I reached across and snuck my hand inside her barricade.
I felt them first on my fingertips.
For twelve days, my mother tamed the beast of another turmoil that dragged, engulfed, and choked her own anguish. Now, in my shadow, I realized, her own demon thawed in the unbearable furnace of her ribcage, sprang to life, and thrashed around before disintegrating into a million shards of moist grieflets down her face, scalding my palm.
In the hierarchy of grief, it was my turn.
I held her close.