The grandmother stares in the direction of her foot where her big right toe is missing. The doctors have removed it, and in its place is a rounded stump. The past few mornings, she has woken up and pushed her foot against the bedpost, feeling for it—the missing toe—but then remembers the muted sense of knives cutting through her skin and bone. Since her daughter-in-law invited the foreign boarder into the house, the grandmother gets out of bed later. The English-speaking boarder must be fed first and only then does the daughter-in-law bring the old woman water and her tea.
Dhamika, the old woman’s daughter-in-law, always gentle, always efficient, wakes her at seven-thirty. Long after the children have moaned their complaints—It’s too early. I’m hungry. Where’s my uniform?—and dressed by the candle half light, Dhamika brings steaming water from the kitchen to bathe the old woman’s cold limbs. It is over ninety degrees, but she feels chilled each morning, stepping hesitantly into the warm bucket, seeking relief. Dhamika offers tea, hot and weak, bitter to her tongue. The doctors forbid her sugar, but occasionally, she will sneak to the sweet can in the kitchen and fight with the ants as she tongues a stolen spoonful.
At eight o’clock, she sits for breakfast—green graham and coconut, some chili on the side to combat the blandness. The food is heavy in her mouth, healthy and nothing more. It fills her belly with no satisfaction. Solid sturdy food mocking the weak blood and bone which is who she is now. A tired, sick old woman. She offers herself silent counsel—I mustn’t feel too sorry for myself. Her son has no patience for that. Her big, fat, unemployed son whom she named Ranjan after her father. Unemployed because of her—the old woman, his mother. Almost four years since he left his job to keep watch over her. Or, the old woman occasionally allows herself to wonder, is he unemployed because of that fight with his superior, and then the refusal to apologize for days, weeks, months? Pride. Then laziness. Though he does work hard in the garden with his young wife. In Dhamika’s garden.
At least Ranjan is close by. If she calls out loudly enough for him, he will come. He will adjust the radio if it begins to crackle around her; he cradles her foot each night to inspect her bandages and for signs of infection. But her daughter, less than two kilometers down the road, has not come to visit since the grandmother left the hospital. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, but her daughter’s coldness stings like a punishment.
Dhamika’s garden is filled with orchids, anthuriums, and a variety of herbs. Dhamika sells the anthuriums for weddings and funerals, and often strangers will stop by to admire the spider orchids, praising Dhamika for her hard work. The old woman hears these compliments drift in from the front yard, listening to Dhamika’s quiet thank-yous and Ranjan’s louder laughter. Inside, the house is colorless. The floor is packed brown and dusty with manure and clay, damp under the grandmother’s feet. Ants climb the walls in black marching streams, dark swimming lines against a crumbling plaster backdrop.
The old woman watches Dhamika bring tea to her children before they leave for school. Tea, almost white with powdered milk and three teaspoons of sugar. The girls like the drink sweet. Later, Dhamika and Ranjan will go to the garden. They will bend over the flowers and laugh together. Dhamika steals his presence from the house, his presence and his bustling comfort, his loud laugh and gently mocking reprimands once directed toward the old woman, his mother. She is seventy-two years old, but she guesses she looks older now that the illness has wrapped itself around her. First the half-blindness, her eyes covered with thick glass, making her frog-eyed and her face seem shrunken. Then the amputation last month. No circulation. The toe was dead. So, now she hobbles and limps, needs a cane or a hand under her arm.
Eight-fifteen on the clock. She pats the empty chair next to her where the foreign boarder sits every morning to finish her lesson plans. The two sit close, knees touching, though the table is long and fills up most of the narrow room. School supplies litter the opposite end, melted crayons stuck to the cracked wood. They sit in the formal part of the house, the place reserved for special guests. Here, the floor is glossy linoleum, and the walls are decorated with yellowed photographs of family weddings. The grandmother’s sisters are on the wall, ordered from oldest to youngest with the grandmother second from the last. The old woman is happy for the boarder’s company, though this young white girl with the ugly freckles can hardly speak her language. But, there are the friendly smiles, the simple ohs and naeas that fill the silences between simple questions.
“Do you like the school?”
“Are the teachers friendly?”
“Are you working with the older students?”
This foreign girl, because she is really just a girl, unmarried and twenty-three, doesn’t dress appropriately for teaching. The old woman wonders where the sari is, with its clean, neat folds and pleats, worn draped over the tight short blouse. No bangles, no gold necklace. Only large silver rings whose cheap stones shine like candy and don’t match the earrings that dance when she wiggles her head. When the old woman taught, she wore a different sari every day of the week for two weeks before she would repeat. Ten of the best quality saris—imported from India to Sri Lanka, in deep blues and purples, soft pinks and mossy greens. Some were laced with gold stitches, all richly beautiful.
The grandmother sees the boarder wince when Dhamika delivers the grandmother’s morning injection. The refrigerated medicine enters her blood stream with a shock and a pinch, and leaves a dull pain all day long in the old woman’s arm. Dhamika decided a few months ago that her daughters would benefit from living with an American girl. The foreigner could improve the daughters’ English and teach them about distant places. She hadn’t asked the grandmother what she thought about this plan. She merely mentioned it the week before the stranger arrived. As she shoveled plain rice onto the grandmother’s plate, Dhamika had said, “We’re to have a boarder. She is American and will take the front room of the house.”
The foreign girl leaves the table at eight-thirty to begin her day outside of the house, up at the boys’ school where the old woman used to teach. The school, with its whitewashed buildings and cramped classrooms, overlooks the town. From one side, tea fields stretch out, lushly green during the monsoon season and dulled yellow during the droughts. From another angle, there is the river bending towards Galle and the coast. If you squint and focus, it is possible to see the grandmother’s house from this angle, a flash of faded pink buried under heavy trees with flat smothering leaves. A dusty, winding path connects the back end of the school with the town center. The grandmother’s husband’s store used to sit at the base of this road, and she would often take her tea breaks there, sitting in the shade and fanning herself with an old newspaper. She would watch the thick dust blow up from the street as the buses zigzagged between cows and bicycles and groups of women heading toward the market, arms heavy with bags of curd, bananas, lentils, and fish.
The grandmother would like to ask the girl if anyone up the hill asks about her. She’s sure some of the teachers would remember her. She probably taught many of them. But she doesn’t ask because she can’t be certain of their names. And if she cannot remember all of their names, it is just as possible she has gone unremembered. She doesn’t need any more reminders of her disappearance. The old woman pats the girl’s arm as she leaves for school and waits for Dhamika to help her to the bathroom. Some mornings she feels too weak to do it herself.
Dhamika is eating in the kitchen with her two girls. Amali and Malsha. No sons. Two daughters for the old woman’s only son. A disappointment. The girls are more comfortable eating in the kitchen away from their grandmother. The old woman fears that the children are a bit frightened to be close to her. Since she has stopped being able to bathe herself, she sometimes notices a musty odor coming from her skin and she guesses that the girls are afraid of her old woman smells. The grandmother wonders if they think old age spreads like a disease, ready to trample and take hold of their youth if they come too close.
The girls bend guiltily at her feet each morning before leaving for school, waiting for her blessing, a slight touch to their heads by an old woman’s hand. The old woman has noticed the younger one, Malsha, grimace as she puts her hand down, maybe too heavily on the girl’s neatly combed head. The children are well kept, their hair parted and smoothed with coconut oil. Clean white frocks, school ties, buffed shoes. They wear and eat the old woman’s teacher’s pension, but that is for the best. Her pension means that her son can be unemployed, be near her, and still keep his children fed and presentable. The girls rise from their feet, smooth their dresses, and in a blur of easy motion, disappear, the older one leading the younger with only slight impatience.
And then the house grows quiet. Ranjan leaves the radio on for the old woman, but its loud echoing through the empty house only emphasizes her aloneness. Her son spends the mornings helping Dhamika in the garden or he hides himself under the hood of his dead father’s car. At times she hears him riding his bicycle out of the driveway toward the village where she imagines him drinking tea with a shopkeeper or reading the newspaper. Sometimes the old woman catches herself humming an old song, a melody different from the one playing on the radio. She thinks perhaps she is trying to separate herself from the blaring loneliness; she is trying to keep herself from drifting into the sounds of the radio, from ceasing to exist altogether, merely an old body whose mind has wandered off, bored and tired.
She has to remind herself to concentrate. She thinks about her husband, dead six years, a drinker. He stormed and raged, and when sober, led the life of a shopkeeper. He sold breads and soaps, pens and jam, school supplies and cigarettes. He knew how to tell a joke, all hesitation and suspense. Men would gather on his stoop, smoking single cigarettes for one rupee, and then buy one or two more while they listened to her husband talk. He kept bottles of arrack under his bookkeeping desk and took a sip or two during quiet moments. He enjoyed entertaining and had encouraged the old woman to be lively and clever when his friends came to visit the house. He liked having an intelligent wife, a science teacher at the boys’ school on the hill. She could have been doctor, he told his friends, if she had been born in a different time. His praise unsettled her. It only came in the presence of company. When they were alone, he scolded her. With spit collecting in the corners of his mouth, he attacked. She hadn’t laughed at his joke about boar hunting. She acted too proud and aloof. She made people uncomfortable. He would ask, “How difficult is it to make tea properly? Always too cold or too sweet.” After he returned to the shop, the silence of the house had enclosed her.
He was gentle with the children, though, always offering smiles and hugs. He prized Ranjan and spoiled him with toffees and sweet cakes while he was shy with his daughter, gently patting her plaited head. From the store, he would bring her dolls and lacey dresses and shiny shoes. He had been a handsome man, broad-shouldered with big hands. He wore a pencil-thin moustache that seemed almost like it wasn’t there—a moustache you had to look at twice, the first time thinking it might be a streak of dirt.
He had been gentle with Dhamika, too, when Ranjan brought his bride home, thin and pretty with nervous smiles. Dhamika’s youth and grace seemed to mock the older woman whose eyes were tired and beginning to sag. The old woman had worried that the bride would charm her men away from her, so she’d given Dhamika jobs to do that kept her from them. Dhamika cooked and did the laundry as was a daughter-in-law’s responsibility. She did these things quietly and dutifully, but with impatience in her shoulders. Ranjan, a few weeks after bringing his wife home, had mentioned that Dhamika wanted to work outside of the house. She had taken courses in typing and stenography and had done well at school. But the old woman hadn’t waited this long for a daughter-in-law just to have her ignore her household duties. What about giving her son children? What about learning the rituals of keeping her husband’s house? The old woman wasn’t going to be around forever. Plus, she worked every day at school. She had looked forward to gaining some rest, to letting someone else do the cooking. And when the grandchildren came, Dhamika would not be able to just throw them into the older woman’s lap. She was done with caring for children. Hers had grown up and she wasn’t about to start all over again. No, Dhamika would stay at home and look after things. It should be enough for her, the old woman remembers thinking.
The year Ranjan’s second daughter was born, the old woman’s husband had bought a car. It was a used Ford with gentle waves of sleek black metal. On weekends the family would drive to the ocean. The old woman was proud in the front seat, watching her husband wave to his friends on the dusty road. Not many families in the village owned cars. They traveled by bicycle or on crowded buses. The old woman would nod occasionally at a fellow staff member in the midst of her shopping, or sometimes lift her index finger slightly from the open window frame as she spotted an acquaintance walking by. The road was paved in some places and only dirt in others, so narrow that when another car or bus approached, her husband would have to angle the car off to the side. As they neared the coast, the road became wider and the buildings taller with little space between them. The air would feel heavy with salt and moisture and the heavy trees thinned to palm trees and dried out bushes. And then, suddenly, there was turquoise sea against white sand and the muted sounds of water slapping land.
Dhamika had stayed home during these drives. The old woman would watch her daughter-in-law’s half-smile and impatient wave from the doorway as the car pulled out of the dirt driveway. The young wife rested the baby on her thin hip, adjusting the child slightly as she turned toward the house. The old woman remembers thinking that this was the way it should be—Dhamika at home. The old woman sat in her Ford, her rightful place, surrounded by her family—her husband, her son, and her older granddaughter. She had felt full and complete. No one mentioned Dhamika’s absence; she had to look after the baby. It was understood. She had cooking to do. Laundry. Cleaning. The reasons and excuses piled up around the old woman, protecting her from her son’s guilty shoulders and her husband’s repeated glances into the rearview mirror as Dhamika stepped back into the house.
They would return in time for lunch at two o’clock, bringing the sea air with them in their clothes and tangled, sticky hair. Lunch was always waiting, under the wicker cover, still warm and steaming. The kitchen smelled of burnt wood. They ate noisily with laughter and the old woman’s husband’s jokes while Dhamika quieted the baby in the bedroom. After lunch, Ranjan would leave the table to be with his wife. The old woman listened to their conversations.
“Did you enjoy the beach?”
“Yes, but the sea was too rough for swimming.”
“Amali didn’t eat much of her lunch.”
“Father bought her an ice cream.”
These still conversations made the old woman nervous. She heard accusation in Dhamika’s remarks, and she was disappointed in Ranjan for the apology in his voice. There was no need to feel guilty for enjoying a nice drive to the coast. Her son seemed far away in that bedroom, lost to her, when he was with his pretty wife who still looked like a girl.
The old woman’s husband had died the next year. Liver problems. Over the long months of his illness, her husband’s face lost its upturned smile. His skin grayed and his eyes watered. He joked less and less. His friends slowly stopped coming, and criticisms replaced his previous bragging. He resented his wife for being healthy, and quietly, he bullied her, wearing the old woman out. He would push her tea away and say, “You walk like a land monitor.” He asked Dhamika to make it for him instead. “Daughter,” he said, “after all these years, my wife still can’t get my tea right.” He asked Dhamika to rub coconut oil into his hair. Dhamika carried out these duties as she had done all of her previous ones—with a slight smile and quick hands, a briskness that remained gentle and graceful. Her voice was soft and her fingers were strong. Her hair always in a long, thick braid. It tickled her father-in-law’s face while she rubbed his hair. Dhamika pushed past the old woman when she brought the tea. She remembers feeling the breeze of her daughter-in-law’s motion, catching the faint smell of laundry soap and curry. Her own hands were dry and cracked from years of using chalk. Her own hair, thinning and gray, was tied into a small bun at the nape of her neck. When she caught her reflection in the mirror, she cringed at how her glasses magnified her eyes, big and bulgy. She watched Dhamika’s cool hand wipe the stray hairs from her husband’s forehead. When he smiled and sighed, the old woman’s shoulders dipped and sank.
When her husband died, what did the old woman feel? Relief? Somewhat. Mostly, she felt old. No longer a wife. Only a mother and grandmother. The man who had connected her with her youth was gone. Ranjan took his father’s car to work with him every day. The old woman retired from school. Her eyesight was failing and her limbs felt stiff. The doctor prescribed rest and no sugar, weak tea, and bland foods. No meat. Now her days were spent with her daughter-in-law. Dhamika acknowledged her in passing. A nod or an “anything you need?” in the midst, of what seemed to the old woman, a blur of rustling clothes. Her daughter-in-law’s speed and quickness, a balanced child under an arm while she gathered clothes, made the old woman feel even older. Sometimes, she would think she saw a fleeting look in Dhamika’s eyes, pride coupled with a slight expansion of her chest. A look that seemed to accuse or to remind or to pinch. And then it was gone, as fast as it had appeared, and the old woman was troubled by the calm that replaced it.
As the old woman grew weaker, as her feet and hands grew cold while her vision grayed, she felt her son’s wife reach in and start taking things for herself. The old woman sensed Dhamika laying claim to the house, to Ranjan, to the old woman’s world. She placed a framed picture of her two daughters next to a picture of the old woman’s husband. She lured Ranjan into the garden when she should have been cooking. She sold flowers and welcomed her friends into the house. Friends from some garden club she had begun attending on Tuesdays. And then she had invited a foreigner into the house. The old woman felt her world shrinking as Dhamika’s expanded, until she only inhabited a shady place among the furniture, so small, so inconsequential, she feared she could be swept up and away by Dhamika’s fierce broom.
The postman’s bicycle ring startles the old woman. She hears Dhamika meet him in the driveway. Lately, most of the letters that come are for the foreign girl. Looking down, the old woman notices that her housedress is unbuttoned. She is embarrassed for a moment, fumbling the buttons closed, but she soon realizes that no one has seen her exposed breast.
Now she will wait for the foreign girl’s return. Home at noon. A quick lunch before she heads to her afternoon classes. Then the granddaughters at two, back from school. They will walk around her. They will bring her watery tea with a plain cracker. They will bring these offerings without really noticing the old woman—a lump on the couch that eats and sleeps, who smells sour and wasted. They do not know how to talk with her, so they don’t. The older girl, Amali, is fiercely loyal to her mother. She punishes the old woman with her disinterest. Malsha follows her sister’s lead, but with less assurance, plagued with a child’s guilt. She offers brief smiles and sometimes a pillow for the old woman’s back. The foreign girl will sit with her because she is separated from this family’s past. Her gestures are amiable because she is a kind girl, but they don’t mean anything. They aren’t a substitute for real affection.
When the girl returns, the grandmother will ask her, “How was school?”
“It was good,” she’ll answer. “But the boys behaved badly.”
“You must discipline them. Haven’t the others given you a caning stick?”
And then there will be a look of confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Dhamika’s English is good and she will translate for the girl. The boarder will nod her head. “Yes. But I’d rather not use it.” Dhamika will then take the girl into the kitchen with her to shave coconut and boil rice. Their muffled words will travel toward the old woman, distant and unfamiliar. And slowly, the evening will come, its darkness bringing comfort, an end to the day.
At night, as she waits for sleep, the old woman counts the things she once had, but has lost. She gathers her memories around her like her useless bedsheet that never completely wards off the chill. She starts with people, those lost or almost forgotten. Her husband, the shopkeeper, the drinker, the joker. Her daughter, married and moved away, too busy or lazy to visit. Her school staff, some dead, some just old and doing their own counting. Her son, slowly slipping away from her, right in her own home under her blurry gaze. More and more impatient, his large body leaning over his wife’s garden. Then the old woman counts her things, her former possessions. Her house, the Ford, the store, her sight, her right toe, her independence, her cleverness. The old woman counts until she is tired of counting, until the radio floods her ears. And then she is asleep.