Soft, Harmless Monsters
A few months after my parents died, they appeared at my bedroom door, wobbling as if trying to stand on their broken frames. All I could see was half a face, a bulging eye, an open mouth like a wet hollow in a fig, parts of skull shining white when the air from my ceiling fan hit their loosely held bones, a smoke rising through their vertebrae. I was startled and happy to see them even though Ma had a smell like char, smoke, a faint trace of sweet talcum powder she used to apply after her bath, dried lacto calamine lotion settled in her fingernails. Papa smelled like dirt—damp and fermenting. Ma was wearing lipstick, just like the one she had on her when the accident happened. Papa’s suit was torn in places with a bone sticking out of his elbow.
My fingernail grazed Ma’s arm. The first touch was a jolt. The nail was rounded and trimmed, but Ma said it felt like a knife on her ruptured skin. After all these months of loneliness in the house, I didn’t want to let go of the vertiginous tingling in my chest, but Ma pulled her hand, shooing me away. “It’s not safe for us, not yet,” she said.
I stepped back and my parents moved around, limping. The edges of their skin, pale, thin, blending into the air.
“Guddi, I’d like some tea,” Ma said.
I brought her hot water with an old, shriveled teabag crimped at the bottom of the cup.
“Never offer such a hot beverage to anyone,” Ma said, “might burn the lips.” Papa laughed. A tooth hung at the corner of his mouth—a white speck in a dark abyss.
“We missed you, Guddi,” Papa said.
“It took a while, but it’s good to be back,” Ma said and bared her front teeth, a stain of lipstick on one of them.
“Where have you been all this time?”
“We’re still in-betweens because you haven’t dispersed our ashes yet, Guddi.”
“Ma, I was supposed to go to Banaras with Viren uncle, but he backed out at the last minute. He said something about visiting the holy city later with his family, and I could join him then.”
“We begged Viren not to go with you,” Papa said, “so we could come back in some shape or form that you could recognize. Once the ashes were in the river Ganga, who knew where our limbs and heads would end up. They could be attached to different rocks, or in a fish’s stomach.”
“That’s the intention, isn’t it?” I said, “to start over?”
“Do you want us to leave you alone, Guddi?” Ma sneered, like I’d disappointed her again, not with poor grades or with the choice of boys I liked throughout high school, but with something more severe and unforgivable.
Weeks later, the monsoon rushed in after a long, dry summer, and the yard buzzed with rain, mosquitoes, and grumbling frogs. Ma, Papa, and I watched the lightning rip the sky––a bright, blinding buzz, the crack of thunder so loud it rattled the door and windows and the bones in my body. Ma and Papa rushed outside in the gray, jaundiced light, the wind slapping their silhouettes like prayer flags on a thin string. They screamed like excited kids.
“Come inside,” I yelled, worried about their dangling frames in the whipping air.
Ma stormed indoors, drenched, smelling of petrichor, her misted half-lip moving.
“You know, Guddi, the dead are eternally thirsty, and this rain feels magical,” she spoke with a breathy, babyish inflection.
“Last month, your Papa and I were on a train, and when we saw a bridge, we jumped, but got caught in between the trees, the river below us rushing and gushing like a mirage.”
“It was a struggle to come out of that tree,” Papa complained. He picked up a kitchen rag to dry his slightly wrung neck, his swollen chin.
“Why were you on a train?”
“I don’t remember,” she said.
One morning, in the bathroom, Ma was trying to remove the lipstick stain from her front tooth. Mean strokes and curses. “Where is the bleach?” she inquired.
“Under the sink.”
I heard a clink, followed by good riddance in Ma’s voice. She carried the tooth outside the bathroom and dropped it in the trash box in the kitchen.
“Please draw the curtains, Guddi. You know I can’t see when it’s so bright.”
She covered her eye with the edge of her shirt. Crows fluttered around in the yard, shrieking like djinns, early morning rain blazing on their feathers like oil.
“It’s a perfect day. I want the light to come in,” I argued.
“As you wish,” she said and climbed the stairs. She almost fell and instantly got up as if a disease was chasing her to a side bedroom where the sun’s sting could not reach at this hour.
At night, my parents stepped outside into the backyard. They traced the hollow in the mango tree, where they kept the house keys or used candles and incense sticks, old clips, and a pocket Gita. The trunk was etched with their initials. Running their fingers on the contours, they laughed and kissed like a window had opened in their hearts, the smoke through their rib cages was intense, dark like a rain cloud.
I picked up my purse.
“Where are you going, Guddi?” Ma asked as she entered from the patio door.
“To meet someone,” I said.
“It’s dark outside.” My father teetered, walking up to me.
I met Rohan for the first time in a café not far from my home. We’d been talking on social media for weeks. Something came up about families, and I abruptly brought up my parents.
“Yes, you said they live with you.”
“They do, except they died six months ago,” I whispered and then looked away to avoid any awkward stare from him.
He cleared his throat. We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“I know someone in our family who travels with his dead wife everywhere,” he said and sipped his coffee.
“It’s a strange thing,” I replied. My cheeks flushed, my heartbeat loud in my chest as if I was confessing to a crime.
“My relative claims you get used to it,” he said. “Now we’ve accepted it too. We serve him with double entrées and appetizers. Gifts for both of them.” He chuckled like it was a common, amusing thing.
“Though the food stays as uneaten, he insists she tasted everything.” Rohan cleared his throat again as if talking of the dead caught words.
“Perhaps they’ll be released if I’m able to disperse their ashes.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Ma has hidden the urns.”
“They don’t want to leave you.”
It felt like a psychic moment between us with permission to divulge more. Rohan drank his coffee calmly. His patient, round eyes behind his black-rimmed glasses made me briefly wonder if he saw other worlds too. Outside, the sun had bent down on the road, in shopping malls, on the cars to read faces.
“Ma gets worried when out in light,” I said. “She claims it dismantles her thoughts. So, she ends up cleaning daily, her vigilant search for the dirt, impure. The green gloves on her skeletal fingers. Her rag picking up dust and scattering on the floor. Then she gets sick as a dog, squatting over the toilet, puking, shitting, shivering.”
“And your father?” Rohan asked, looking interested.
“Papa is friendlier and lazy, following Ma and telling her jokes,” I continued. “He goes on all fours to cheer her up, and she laughs and laughs and laughs, the sound bouncing off her bones and air, absorbed by the walls. At night, they stroll outside, or rather float—I hardly see their legs. Then they come in and play records on an old player. Papa acts like a hero from a black-and-white Bollywood movie, Waqt, syncing his lips to the lyrics—Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen—the needle dipping on the vinyl like the notes of music touching their delicate frames.”
Rohan placed his hand on mine as if he understood.
“Somedays, Ma is angry because she wants to go out and feel the sun. She gets worked up when near a stove or a fireplace because it reminds her of the crematorium. The relatives and friends kept looking at her, their hands on their mouths as if keeping their souls in. She kept screaming but no one listened.”
I leaned into the chair, breathless, feeling the sweet influx of air. Rohan tipped his head back and sucked on his lower lip as if it were a teat.
When I entered the house, it was quiet. I turned on the flashlight to locate the switch. The living room and kitchen were empty. In my parents’ room, Ma was weeping. “We thought you ran away,” she sobbed, her half-face frightened, helpless.
“It was just a date.”
“Is he a nice boy?”
I sat for a while with my parents. Ma brought coconut hair oil to the bedroom.
“Do you want to marry this boy, Guddi?” Papa eased into his aaram kursi by the window, raising his wiry arm, donning the side of his face with his moustache. You could see from his sad, reckless gaze that he never grew up with affection from his mother. And Ma never gave him much.
“What’s marriage good for anyway?” breathed Ma near my neck as she massaged her skeletal fingers slowly into my scalp. They were small and sharp like fangs of a vampire I’d seen in movies. “You still hunger for something else, someone else,” she said, and sighed.
“But you keep your eyes only on each other,” Papa asserted.
“The only solace is that you starve together.” Ma’s fingers combed out a few strands of my hair, smeared them with oil. “There’s something intimate about that.”
“Even death couldn’t part you both,” I said. My eyes closed; my head was euphoric with the massage. “Now that’s love.”
Ma laughed. “Guddi, the only true love in this life is for your child. Biological. Anything or everything pales in comparison.” She pressed my head with her small fist and hummed a lullaby I used to love listening to as a kid.
It was about one in the morning, and outside the window the moon was milking the clouds. My back was hurting after sitting for a few hours in the same position on the floor. Papa began dozing, Ma’s hands were circling slower, her head jerking in and out of sleep. Noisesome siesta filled the room, and, driven by discomfort, I moved out onto the stairs, grasping my phone—shining its flashlight. In my bed, rushed by thankfulness, I almost gave up the idea of finding their ashes and dispersing them.
A few weeks later, I invited Rohan to meet Ma and Papa. Inside the kitchen, he mistook Ma for a barstool on which he put his raincoat. Then, realizing his mistake, he apologized. In response, Ma’s leftover muscles twitched. The thin membranes glowed red like a new bruise.
“Ouch. Can we have more light in here, please?” Rohan stumbled, hitting his big toe on the dinner table leg.
“The light ruins by revealing everything.” Ma started a philosophical discourse. “The dark is discreet, merciful. It lets you be.”
“Or indifferent,” Rohan said, his pupils expanded, his mouth open, staring at the outline of Papa’s bones splintered through his flesh, his rotting head. Then he closed his eyes as if swallowing all the violence in their bodies. “I feel hot,” he said. I turned the table fan on.
“I’d like to believe the dark is forgiving, all encompassing.” Ma walked back and forth like rewound footage. Papa drooled; his saliva collected at the edge of his lip like a slobbering dog.
“I should get going,” Rohan said and got up. I followed him outside almost saying sorry for Ma and Papa’s cold attitude toward him, but he stepped ahead of me, signaling to an autorickshaw at the corner of the street. As the rickshaw revved, he waved at me with a look in his eyes of diminishing hope for something true between us.
When I got back, Pa was on top of Ma on the kitchen floor, her spidery limbs around him, their sounds whispery, weird. The kitchen pulsed with the smell of roadkill, sweat and sex, a morgue with no airflow. After being around my dead parents for a while, I’d started to recognize each of these smells, but I still gasped, awestruck with disgust.
In my room, I crawled into my bed and texted Rohan.
“Have you reached home?”
He replied after an hour. “You need to let them go.”
“Is it because of how they look and smell?”
“Because how they’ve dragged you to a gloomy, dark cave and you have every intention of jumping in.”
“Did you hear back from Rohan?” Ma asked one morning.
“No,” I said and realized she was wearing the nose ring I thought I lost a month ago.
“He is no good, then,” she said and caught me looking at her face. “Looks nice on me.”
“Please put it back, Ma.”
The next day I found the nose ring swimming in my toilet bowl, the crystal like an eye judgmentally and critically staring at me. It looked just like Ma’s eyes when she used to hide the jewelry that I’d get as a gift on my birthday. She said she was worried I might misplace it, but I knew she was jealous that I looked better wearing the choker or the dangling earrings than she would.
I glanced at the floating nose ring. Then I flushed it away.
A squirrel had been digging around the yard, and the exposed rim of the copper urn reflected a light into my eyes. I was picking up the mango tree’s broken branches from a rainstorm two weeks ago. When I dug them up and looked inside the first urn, I saw my father beneath his skin, way back, back into his childhood, desperate to grow a mustache, the movement in his feet even as he slept, then through a hole in his back, from where I could witness his life as it happened to him, all stuffed into his chest and his heart stretched so thin it was nearly transparent. In the other urn, I witnessed my mother’s body, bits of her nails and hair, growing and falling, her mouth’s hollow when she had her first orgasm, the little openings in her womb through which the blood oozed when she delivered me—the hope frantic in her muscles. She wanted to be a wife, a mother with the illusion of happiness. I brought the urns inside the house, stacked one over other, and placed them on the floor in my room. Then I knelt down in front of them, while my parents, upstairs, drifted in their dark room, like negatives of photos they once were, ribbons of their voices reaching me. Ma shrieked like she was burned alive. Papa groaned like he was beaten, shot, a whistle dying down and rising again. More than their sounds, I heard their misery of neither being dead nor alive, my dread stuck in the same place as theirs. Outside, the monsoon had faded, and the sun continued to drink water from lakes, rivers, dried up our wet soil in the backyard a little. I longed to feel its crackling fire in me.
That morning, I locked the house from outside. After Rohan and I emptied the urns in a nearby unnamed creek, the ashes whirled in the wind. My parents’ faces flashed in front of my eyes; their skin luminous, beautiful before they disappeared. I sat on the riverbank, telling Rohan of my last joyous memory with them:
Ma lathering my hair with her favorite Lakme shampoo while Papa ran water in a blue plastic bucket, touching it, making sure it was warm. Ma continuing to slowly rub my head, foam collecting on the bathroom floor like snow, rainbows in the bubbles. It was the only time, besides the oiling of my hair, I felt their touch for so long, so astonishingly loving. Papa ducking my head under the tap, laughing, and when I came up catching my breath, Ma pushing me down, playfully trying to drown me. And I knew we were happy, the best we’d ever been.
Rohan dropped me back home, promising that he’d come back in the evening to check in. “It’s going to be okay,” he said, before he left.
The house still smelled morbid, so I pulled the curtains and opened the windows. Light rushed in and filled the space like a prisoner set free. Realizing my parents were really gone, I sank to my knees and wept until my voice was hoarse, then a series of hiccups, until I no longer could speak. When I looked up, I saw their silhouettes—bright and luminous, as I saw them in my last vision, a satisfied expression smeared across them, meandering back to their room. Papa’s arm was around Ma, and hers was around him, soft and harmless monsters they’d always been.
“Isn’t this what you wanted, Guddi?” Ma said, turning around.
“We couldn’t leave you behind,” Papa said, twisting his neck.
And something inside me told me I should look away, that they might be just voices in my head, but how could I have known that? Hypnotized, I kept watching them because their eyes were miraculous balls of liquid fire—blue and orange, golden and a hue I couldn’t name—every inch of their broken frames rippling with strength, like they belonged to a whole other existence, without suffering. I saw them, then myself in them, inseparable, and a thirst rose in my chest, unquenchable, until the rest of the world dropped away.
TARA ISABEL ZAMBRANO is a South Asian author of a full-length flash collection Death, Desire, And Other Destinations by OKAY Donkey Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, Electric Literature, The Southampton Review, Tin House Online, The Rumpus, and others. She is an electrical engineer by profession and lives in Texas.