Chennai Afternoon

by Meena Alexander

Flinty hot, two stones could have raised a fire. Three of us, Anandi, the little one, and I, worked our way across a gravel path to a tongue of rock spat out by the sea. My chappals off, I hitched my sari to my knees. The little one was straining at my thighs, I gripped her tight, pointed out a speck streaming on the horizon: Noke! Noke! She bit me like a wildcat might, leaving tooth marks, yelling from that sweet dark throat: I’m going amma into the blue never coming back to you! The seawind hit me tight, I was a jamun splashed on rock no breath, no fight. Anandi rushed out, sari dripping salt, grabbed by child who had water streaming from her eyes, so black and beautiful. That night they called from Tiruvella, appa had been ill, heart stopped. The doctors struck him in his ribs, pounded his chest till it hummed again, that slow sad breath which keeps one afloat. It’s election time, amma said, just stay home. There are bombs in Chennai. Just last week in the marketplace by the grape stall, a few feet from her mother, a child was blown up, scrap of her pink frock, all that was left. Why must they scare me so? Is it love that makes fear start? As I thrust the little one apart something burst in me, slow and terrible like the sea.

-from Illiterate Heart, Triquarterly Books, 2002