A Soldier Comes Home

Saturday mornings are a busy time at the astrologer’s down the road from our house. That Saturday morning I saw the umbrellas leaning tiredly against the front door and fat clumsy slippers on the door mat, as I went in.

He is our Vedamahaththaya too, the astrologer. On occasion he doubles up as our physician.

All our neighbours will tell you he is a good man, so clever with horoscopes which he casts in double quick time. His readings are excellent, and so accurate

I took my turn and went in, my heart thudding with fear and dread. He looked at the horoscope, gently peering at the signs through his rimless glasses and then at my face dark with foreboding. And he smiled.

‘There is nothing to fear, he is safe and will be home soon, very soon….oh, let me see here is something.’

I waited the breath catching n my throat.

‘Yes, yes, he will be decorated…..here I can see the shining medals and the Lion flag…good, good. Go home, girl, and don’t worry.

I did not worry when I tripped on the door mat as I went into the lonely house. I did not worry that night when lying sleepless, I heard the kerala on the tamarind tree cry its heart out and fly over the house. But the bitter lump stayed in my throat as it had since he packed his kit bag and smiled at me from the doorway as he was leaving.

Was it only three days ago?

Was it only last Sunday we bathed in the river together, your strong slim limbs glinting in the sun? The water washed over your head flattening your curls on your scalp.  You looked so funny and I laughed. But I didn’t tell you why. You were so proud of those locks!

You watched me, leaning against the kitchen door, as I cooked that last meal. You sniffed the familiar smell of the fish curry and said something about your mother’s curries having the same smell!

You tossed some shirts to me and said to keep them washed  till you came home the next time.

Next time? When will that be, I wondered. And you packed so neatly, brushed your uniform and all those brass things. Your shaving kit you put on top.  Your comb you slipped into your shirt pocket. Did you take your money? Ah, here’s your purse. You tucked it into your uniform pocket, while this time I leaned against the door post and watched you getting ready to leave.

You stood up when everything was ready, and smiled at me, touched my hair as you stepped out of the door.

No, don’t come to the bus stand, you said, you’ll have to come back alone…’ Then you walked out into the garden and out through the gate, without looking back.

I leaned against the door post and waited a long, long time….

Alone from the bus stand? Can’t come alone from the bus stand?

Here I am alone for endless years.

They bore you home two days later, the brave Lion flag decorating your bier. The soldiers were so smart, all spit and polish and they carried you aloft stepping smartly to time.

The  Commanding Officer was there too, standing at attention at the head of the bier, the elephant tusks forming a gracious archway for you to lie under. The coffin shone brown and your belt and cap were on top, the buckles shining like gold. The medals were there too, all  gleaming.

The astrologer was so right.

I waited wondering if they would open the coffin…but would I want to see your face – the vengeance of a landmine or was it a bomb?

In the noonday sun I followed the bier…walking ,walking a long white stretch of road, just like the one that stretches before me now, a long lonely road I must travel alone.

The CO  held my hand, wiped away a tear from my face with his own starched  white handkerchief. He was apologetic.  He had to hurry away. There was another funeral at three and still another at five the same day. It was his duty to be at all three.

To wipe the tears of other widows and hold their hands?

Three deaths for one landmine. Or was it a bomb?

Anyway he was lucky, the CO. He could do the honours at all thee in one fell swoop and get back to his command by nightfall.

Saturday mornings  have come once again and the astrologer’s house is still full. The umbrellas leaning against the door post have increased. There are more fat slippers than ever before. He is very good, our astrologer. Everyone knows that he always forecasts the truth. He is good with horoscopes, palms and even numbers.

Lots of our boys are going up north to fight. So his business is very successful. He is a very successful astrologer, our Vedamahaththaya. He always forecasts the truth.

(From ‘Once, On a Mountainside” published in 1995, reprinted in 2005 and 2008, Tharanji Printers)