Bird Bones

A Short Story

By Suvania-Thrishnum Subroyen

I

I asked him what he was afraid of and he replied that it was probably the thought of his parents dying. It is a familiar fear, I suppose. My dreams have made me live through moments of premature grief. Of my mother dying and not knowing how to find her afterwards. It feels like a shadow coming closer as she gets older and I begin to see clearly.

I keep the shadowed moments tucked away. Seeking her out in the morning light until I can hold her and sob with relief because she is still there. But one day I will wake up and she will not be there, smelling sweet like talcum powder and flowers. Even when she perspires, it is a dew of blossoms that settles across my mother’s skin.

As I was growing into my skin, I saw the lines in hers. The glimmers of realising she was human and marbled with faults, just like me. Too young to be harbouring sadness and anger, it was easier for me to ignore the drops of acid in the honey. If I entertained these glimmers, they would have turned into a mirror and I would have found myself where she is now.

I am seven and cannot form letters that look beautiful. I have not started to run. She loves me, ferociously, and I don’t realise it and I won’t for a long time. I don’t realise that the lack of softness in her voice (which haunted me for years) was not about me at all. Between terracotta tiles and a sunbeam that was too hot to forget, she chastised and I could not find the words or actions to be better. I do not know if it is time that has made her seem softer or if I have grown a shell.

I am twenty-two and the letters are now a maze of twisted swirls where my mind speaks too fast for my hands to be a beautiful scribe. My hands cannot be fixed to draw the lines the way they wanted me to. I cannot be trusted to walk along the path drawn for me. I used to lie on her belly, with my head against her sternum and it felt like shelter then. It does not anymore.

II

She was a reed before us. Tinier than I have ever been and tinier than I would want to be. She does not know how to tread lightly when she talks about my hips which are darned in silver lines and she does not see the knife that slices when she says it is for my own good. To be cruel is to be kind. I became beautiful when I became less than. To disappear was to be gorgeous and glorious.

It would be simple to colour within the lines people feel comfortable with and starve to slip into the dresses they hold out. Wholly too brazen and bold and unwilling to change, I am my mother’s child and she does not seem to realise we are made of the same metal. Unable to bend and prone to shattering when pulled too far. The places that have become brittle, I repaired with seams of gold.

The rejection of my beauty had demanded a careful study of my body to barricade my soul. It is not her rejection but her failure to reassure me where she should have. To tell me all those things I must know. It was a horizon of perfection that I stretched my arms out toward. A horizon I thought I had reached when I found myself in arms that smelled like home. They were temporary shelters that had left splinters in my fingertips and barbs where I brushed too close. They never said the words I needed to hear. She never did either.

Tell me that the way the sun wraps itself around my shoulders and dusted freckles on the bridge of my nose is magnificent. There may have been a time when I cared that the hours in pools have left my legs encased in burnt caramel but I don’t anymore. Tell me about the glory of my lips when they are filled in with red and my eyes rimmed with black kohl. A hothouse flower but not to be housed in their hallways or gardens. He says the most beautiful thing about me is when my nose crinkles up when I laugh but I only beam when she smiles as I leave the house.

I want to ask my mother so many questions but I cannot. Now is not the time.

I remember that this is a generational divide. Her friends asking each other how to respond to their mothers, aunts and daughters. They all have little wars waged in households that remain still and ceasefires drawn from the day they are married to the day they die. There are clear boundaries to be drawn down bloodlines and my mother can never be my friend.

I worry that in twenty years I will find myself becoming a mother who cannot speak to her daughters.  Conflicted in my memory of youth, what if I forget how it felt to be young? Will my daughter live a divided life the way her mother has, the way my mother before me did?

Sometimes when I chop the name my mother gave me down (the way she did to her hair when I was too young to see that it was beautiful too) it is a matter of comfort and not shame… I like the ones close to me to say my name the way my grandmother does when she calls for me. In one heavy syllable.

My mother may have birthed me but it was her mother that planted me in soil and tended to me between rows of curling pea tendrils and tall mustard. I was sown and pruned beside rivers of affection.

I am in a school play, in a long nightgown reciting a poem about being too tired- I will not know for many years that it nearly killed my mother not to see me in that white gown, fake yawning to a crowd of someone else’s parents. It was her mother and my father’s mother who could watch and send a delighted report back about my elocution. She worked, you see. It was always something I was immensely proud of.

I did not know she longed to watch the sports fixtures on school pavilions. To spend her afternoons with us as we came home, as she had for the first year of my life. She didn’t tell me, not directly but mentioned it to someone in passing. I did not know until I was far too old to run around on muddy fields that both of us missed each other and could not say so, impossibilities being what they were.

If my mother could find more to say to me than she could say to her own mother, surely it is a victory. That is enough for the women before me and their small rebellions.

III

My mother laughs that madness runs in the family and it trickled from the veins of women before us. If she wasn’t careful it may have dripped into her veins and mine. Madness runs and so I run faster, away from the parallels that could form and from the ones that are already etched into my skin. Running from the hands of my maker who sewed my seams and filled me with oceans.

My mother mentions madness while we wait for the kettle to boil and it is a matter of fact. Because she is worried for herself, for the aunts who look for villains in gatherings and for me, when I lapse into long silences like this. Her eyes are reddened but there are cups of tea to be made. She cannot understand the sadness when it is laid out against the joy of my upbringing and the comfort of my existence. But she does not know that it is a natural end to things.

We are freefalling into an expected oblivion, my mother and me. We know we are, it is unspoken that we will reach out to each other when the darkness seems all-encompassing.

In this dark maze, I can only hear the warbled echoes of what love should be, as they are whispered by other lost souls. The minotaur that growls is made of shadows and of the sadness that grips my sides. There was a time when it followed me, claws dug into my shoulder blades. I could not run. I could only scream when it became convenient to do so, between the tasks I was dutybound to complete. The darkness hides the unknown decay of our minds that waits. For now, I have run far from it, but my mother may have begun her descent. I can hear the wail of grief when she forgets to stifle them.

All I have inherited; all my children will inherit from me and all that my mother has inherited have been shadows.

I digress. There are cups of tea, so many cups of tea to be made.

IV

We are in a café. Him and I, our hands tangled between cups of coffee and orange juice. He loves this kind of place. The kind that has exposed copper piping and dim light bulbs. The rim of my cup is stained with mauve, no doubt the same mauve that will colour his cheek and lips later on. My beloved.

He leans over and casually mentions his ancestry. He laughs about his inability to eat certain foods and blushes when I tease him about paprika. He talks about how he can’t quite speak the languages of his forefathers, those long lines of exploration and a cocktail of colonisers…They always seem to let me know this. A tenth of this and a sprinkle of that, history spilt on the floor when he bleeds. A massacre in a papercut.

Oh, it used to be very charming when I was younger. But not anymore.

When last was it that someone like him asked if you knew which peninsula your nose came from or if you could trace your blood back to the village where your almond eyes were commonplace? They wanted English translations of your name and your best bet was something akin to the sun and a splash of vermillion powder. Well, it was my best bet.

When he asks about my roots and history, I can only offer stories. Stories of other people’s misery and laughter. I do not have more than speculation because the way genealogy works require papers and archives and there’s a certainty in me that they didn’t keep those names I didn’t even know I needed to look for. There’s a record of a ship, scrawled on a page somewhere, but it is a hope beyond hoping that anyone would ever find more. My name wouldn’t yield answers either because it only goes back to my father and the name of his father.  It doesn’t make the sound less beautiful when people call out my whole name, letting it fill a room.

When he juggles my name on his tongue, he seems to dance in the melody of it. Only faltering in the middle. But don’t let him know just yet that he spoke too quickly, names like mine should melt slowly. He should savour it and he will learn to as he sighs my name when I say something charming, I suppose. I like to let him dance in the mellifluence of my name when he says hello.

There are things I think of when I am in close proximity to him. He holds my soft gaze sacred, it seemed, when he didn’t hold much else in high regard. But I am only his lover, not his beloved.

He whispered that love was a fiction that people kept trying to sell each other for millennia and his belief in God was non-existent. All this was established long before he found me kissing belief into his collarbones and pouring my fragile soul into his pores, hoping for something (anything would do). I believed earnestly in the possibility of fate and that love could be more than just two bodies pressed together.

It is easy to forget about his skin and the absence of his soul when you lose yourself in the syrupy caramel of his hair that has been spun so softly. In an ideal world, it would only matter that his hands lined up against mine in a way that was almost comical, because my fingers looked tiny in comparison.

He is a volume of mythology, stories of vast seas and the dangers that lurk. I am kept ashore. Too far off to see his depths, but he swims laps in my eyes, filters into my lungs. The thought of losing him made me cough up bitterness as if I had swallowed the salt of many oceans or cried until I became the ocean. I am lost, surely. I shall drown if I haven’t already. The people we love are often riddled with mythologies that we are not prepared to read.

He knew I believed in so much but he could not root himself in love or God. Or me.

V

It would be moments like this that I need to unpack with her, ask her what she thought about his ramblings and if it was worth my time. But we are not friends. I am still separated by a sac of amniotic fluid, untouched by her blood but surrounded by it. I was part of the ocean under her ribs and for nine months, swam to the tune of her heart. But I can’t hear her heart anymore and I cannot ask if she ever heard mine. He is only secret because it would cross the Rubicon of things she and I may share.

I know that my mind is a wild tangle of far too many things at once, and he shouldn’t feel burdened with the task of untangling them to lay in straight lines. It is not his job to leave a golden thread at my feet so I may escape myself. Leave the rope in knots and twists that I enjoy running my fingertips over.

There is solace in the way he doesn’t mind the curls that frame my eyes softly. Running his hands through them, tracing the taut muscles of my neck. My mother prefers when my hair hangs in straight lines, forgetting that I was born crowned in dark curls.

I am not entirely lost in myself in these moments. Of course, I know how it comes across, it can seem that I have spread my heart out far and wide.  That the embers of my soul have dappled many faces with soft light. That the space between my ribs is a waiting room that he might soon be asked to vacate.

Don’t misinterpret this seat you have, my love, it is not a proposal of continuity. It is merely where you are. You don’t owe me a seat between your sternum and your lungs.

Because people like me give out that sort of affection, it seems. The kind that seems to wash over you. I pour out my soul in the way that the metered measures of affection I was raised on would not approve of. It is too familiar and too overwhelming. She worries that I will not find love because I tend to be too loud, too intense and boys want someone soft and dainty. I am neither.

This is how I am with everyone. Where my heart overflows with buckets of empathy and nostalgia and that the cool relief of practicality does not often grace me with its presence. It does, sometimes. But people have needed me to be the kind of refuge that is soft, kind and open.

VI

My mother does not seem to know how deeply I love her. She doubts it when she imagines I resent the faults in our relationship. It is not resentment when I make observations about our reality. Of all that I have loved, it is my love for her that came before. It will be the love that endures if we manage to find a common language.

She does not know it but she has needed my capacity to love and forgive. She has needed me to be the kind of daughter that knows how to rub balm into the angry scars and to listen as she pours bottled anger down shower drains and sometimes onto my soul. It rolls off me. We forgive our mothers because they need to be forgiven more than we need to be right. We forgive them for the things they don’t know, as they once forgave us for mistakes we didn’t know how to undo alone. My mother must make peace with hers, now at least.

I cannot ask the questions that need to be asked, of her and of him. I cannot ask them to love me the way I love them.

VII

I was wearing the terrycloth robe, off-white with shiny cuffs- too big for me but it smelled like old clothes and my grandmother. It was a Sunday and I remember because Sunday afternoons dragged and the afternoon light made the back rooms heat up in a way that still makes me feel uncomfortable. It is the first time I remember seeing my mother cry. She never cries, you see. It isn’t stoicism so much as she has put up a wall that very few things get to her in that way.

I cry at everything. It is the mechanism that gets me to deal with the bottles of emotion I keep shelved and she doesn’t understand. The only way my tears feel palatable and justified is when I weep at expected miseries, films and books that make me grieve for lives I have not lived. She does not cry often. When she cries it hurts me more than she will know. It scratches at my sides and punches my throat. It is plastered on the walls of my memory.

Surely it is love to feel such visceral pain when they are hurt?

She cried that afternoon I wore the terrycloth robe. She was inconsolable on a rainy afternoon in the car when I was twelve and she could barely drive through tears and rain. Once she cried with deep dismay at something I had done. I would never do it again. When her favourite aunt died, she screamed. Now when I hear her shriek with laughter when on the phone, my chest tightens in case it is a wail of mourning.  She becomes tiny in my arms. Women like my mother should never seem tiny.

We will restrain each other, should the time come where we cannot run away from it all. Her cries now are terrifying because they are quieter. I was not ready for her wails to be whimpers.

It is that cusp on the edge of not knowing and knowing everything that intrigues me, despite my tendency to ramble down long paths of navel-gazing.  I want to know, although I seem to forget to ask the questions that need asking. I know I can be a thunderstorm of words, baring my soul in that casual way. None of it requires reciprocal action. I am surprised at how content I am with this, as it is. I funnel myself into the arms of friends who try to understand and homes that are carved in memories. They are faded lines that demarcate the places I shall settle. I leave my skeleton with people who are not filled with my blood. It is better this way.

My mother has never seen the marrow hidden in my bones. She has never asked to and she could not handle the task of a soul split open at the bones. The richness, the meatiness and gristle will remain unknown. Hers are bird bones, the work of miracles and wonder but different from mine. Lighter, hollower but stronger.  She comes from women who have taken flight.

When I die, there will be bones left to whiten in the hearts of people my family would never have seen or heard of.  Loves I have hidden and bonds that I never mentioned. There are those who owe me debts of kindness that I could never call on to be credited within life and in death. I am a debtor heavy with ledgers of other people’s secrets, those too will be buried with my bones.

Those that I knew will come to our door, I hope. They will not always be familiar faces. There will be stories that are unfolded and whispers that become amplified.  When you die, your core unravels and those things held close will tumble onto the floor. When my mother dies, there will be bones left at our doorstep, with stories we probably will not fathom. But I cannot ask for those stories just yet. The time would not be right.

I am suspended between child and woman. She has mythologies too, even if it seems unbelievable. We often believe our mothers to have simple motivations for their actions. Belittling their mistakes and the lessons they have not learned. My mother has been forged in distant fires, folded inwards hundreds of times and cast in a form of her own making. Perhaps she poured the things she was short of into me, perhaps my making served to build a bridge between the love she received and the love she could express? Maybe it was the way she was loved, from a distance by her mother.

The mystery leaves so much open to misunderstanding. With my lover who does not let me in. And my mother who cannot know me, for now. The agony of the shadows in the lacuna of my bones and the agony of my mother, half-orphaned now and making cups of tea. Mothers die, grateful that they never had to bury a child. It is heavy to lower her mother’s body into a casket, heavier still to remain composed.

I could run from it all. But then who will carry the tray to the mourners in our lounge?