I slept all day and when I awoke, it seemed as though my bed tilted itself, dipping up and down in my room like a little boat, and I was awash in the river of evening. I could hardly sit up. There was a burning in my body, and a fuzziness of vision, a blur at the corners of things, and bright shapes of light and color I had never seen before and which I spent some time studying. All through it was the feeling of a heaviness of air, in my chest, as though some invisible thing had crouched on me, like a jackal with the weight of an elephant, or an incredibly heavy cat.
Yet, I had no idea of death, and no fear of it either. My mother’s brother, my uncle had died last summer, but he was in India, the idea that he was gone doubly abstracted; he was already gone, most of the time. He was my favorite uncle. He had taken me and my cousin to the beach on his motorcycle, we gripped onto him like monkeys, I was balanced on the lip of terror and excitement the entire ride. I had to pull my legs up, so my feet would not brush the tube of burning metal fastened to the side of the beast—once, my toe dipped down, sheathed in sock and sandal, and it had burned a hole clear through the fabric. We rode elephants—real elephants—on the beach. Their foreheads were painted, their tails batted away flies, and to sit up on their backs you felt enormous in a way that was unparalleled, taller than grownups, riding a creature as big a ship, who walked in a rolling motion from side to side.
My dad sat in the room with me and his face was gloomy. He read me a story. I wondered if he ever cried. I had never seen him cry. I could hear my mom talking on the phone downstairs in Gujarati, which held the comforting sound of nonsense, the nonsense of my nursery rhymes. Poor dad was bobbing in the ocean, it pooled around him and I felt lonely for him.
“Will you come on the boat with me?”
“This one,” I said. He climbed up. He put a hand on my head. Then downstairs the nonsense stopped, and I could hear my mother singing. She didn’t sing very much, and her voice rose and fell with the strange words she was singing as though she was casting a spell.
“You’re boiling,” my dad said, and wiped the sweat away on his pant.
“You’re a monkey’s uncle,” I said.
“You’re the monkey, little lobster,” said my dad.
“What is that sound? Is mom singing?”
“She’s praying,” he said.
“Talking to God,” I said. “Is that what you mean?”
We sat on the boat. I could hear the sound of the water all around us, running water, and my dad began to row, using his arms to cut through the water. It was a black night when all the stars were drowned twice, in the sky that looked like the water, and the water that looked like the sky.
“What is she saying to God?”
“I don’t know,” said my dad. We were cold, and hot, the winds blew on us, the boat tilted, we were filled with the white heat. The heat moved up inside us and stood right between our eyes. I wanted to claw back inside my father, where I curled for months in a star shape before I was born, and which I remembered, his heartbeat, his hunger, his fear.
“I know what God looks like,” I whispered. I had seen It at night. It was larger than an elephant and it kissed me with its cool mouth. A funny creature, both familiar and strange, and it felt sort of warm to be close to it, to smell it and you always wanted to touch it when it was near. But I heard my grandma talk about God once and in her mind God was a terrible meanie, who saw everything, who knew everything, and didn’t like Muslims. I asked her why God made Muslims if It didn’t like them but she told me to stop bothering her with questions because she was feeling tired because of jet-lag and went to go lie down. I wonder who my grandmother met, but I was sure it wasn’t God.
“What does God look like?” my dad said.
“Big, big, big,” I said. I was panting. We had come to a storm and the boat wheeled around in the water. I held on to the sides of the boat and closed my eyes in case there would be lightening. I was dizzy and the turbulence of the water began to make me feel like barfing.
Then I died. It was falling down a tube. My uncle was sitting on the beach and smoking a cigarette. The elephant came thundering, and there was Yama. “You’re tiny,” he said, and his voice smelled of honey, “no bigger than a napkin,” he said. “Are you also God?” I said.
“Sort of,” said Yama.
“Where are we going?” I asked my uncle. He smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. I thought I would miss my mother and father very much and said so. “Of course you will,” said my uncle. It was nice to hear the waves moving against the shore and against each other. Yama lifted me onto the elephant, but it was a bull this time. We had to be careful not to touch the burning metal fastened on the sides. I held on to Yama, my uncle held on to me. We four thundered into the ocean. It was a good time, like a party. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more, I closed them.
About the Author: Shruti Swamy lives and writes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Her work has been published in AGNI, Black Warrior Review, PANK, and is forthcoming from Prairie Schooner. In 2012, she was named Vassar College’s 50th W.K. Rose Fellow in the Creative Arts, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts and Hedgebrook. She holds an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State and is a Kundiman fiction fellow.