The night Surya decides he will go to his death, his wife goes into labor. His son arrives with an air of practicality, eliciting one loud wail to announce his presence before knotting his eyebrows together and squinting to make out the blurry shapes around him that belong to voices he already knows. He stares us down – his one living grandmother, his three aunts. Me, the midwife, with my hands covered in blood and discharge. The room, lit by a single bulb into which a moth flies over and over, feels even more stifling under his gaze.
Where is my suicidal father, he seems to say, I demand to see him at once.
I see a flicker of something in Surya’s face when I place this baby in his hands, but as quickly as it comes, he slips back into the stony expression he has been wearing for the past week. Perhaps longer, because no one can know for certain how long he has thought of it. His silent rituals and his dependability have made him invisible. I wonder how often he went to the edge of that cliff before he made up his mind. What it took to work up the courage to leap off the side of it.
Good, I think, as the boy directs his scrutiny towards his father, face him now.
In the back room, the wife continues to sob, screaming and beating her chest. The sound bounces off the corrugated tin roofing, amplifying the noise. It is unbearable. For a fleeting moment, I wish for a natural conclusion to today’s events because I am old, and I am tired. I have been awake by her side for hours, making sure she doesn’t harm herself or the baby in her grief, pressing a rag soaked in cool water and herbal unguents to her forehead when she succumbs to exhaustion. The grandmother has been useless throughout, sitting in the corner with a nameless expression to rival that of the man sitting just outside, stunned that the daughter she has just married off in the last year is to be made a widow.
The aunts on the other hand, all Surya’s elder sisters, form a bizarre tableau. The oldest, with a diffused, far-off look in her eyes pretends to read a book, of which she hasn’t turned the page in hours. The middle sister pulls her phone out of her blouse every few minutes to send a text message vigorously and gives into hysterics just as frequently, which only encourages Surya’s wife to do the same, and with more intensity. The youngest, closest to Surya in age and perhaps the strangest, looks almost bored as she makes sure we are well fed and dutifully assists me when needed. She seems completely unsurprised by everything that has happened. I have presided over several births, even that of Surya himself, but none quite as unusual as this one.
Of all days, you chose today? I want to ask him.
I am not sure that it is even a choice. As the story goes, there is a demon that lives right under the edge of the cliff. That the clouds below are merely an illusion of depth. That it speaks in honeyed, mellow tones to those who venture too close to the precipice, looking into their soul and plucking out only the deepest sorrows to paint pictures so vivid, so beautiful and terrible, that one could not help but stay a little longer, listen a little further. That even when one pries themselves away, its voice has already slipped into the recesses of their mind. That finally, when the day begins to give way to night, it says just over the ledge, that is where you will be free. And when they fall, it reaches out to catch them in its claws, tears their body to pieces, and eats their heart.
I have been to this cliff once as a young girl, having taken a wrong turn off the path picking herbs for my mother. For a long moment, I marveled at the way the sunset skimmed the cloud bank that stretched for miles before me – the orange and pink hues so potent it hurt my eyes, the steadily sinking sun that looked like a ripe fruit. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. When I realized my mistake and finally recognized where I was standing, I stuffed my fingers into my ears in case whatever lurked below had sensed my presence and called out to me, and ran home. I turned only once to see the sun, now a deep, blood red, slip under the horizon. It was this image that entered my mind on the day of Surya’s birth, the moment his mother first whispered his name in his ear. Surya, Sun god, lord of all planets.
I think of this now with a sudden lurch. Had I somehow sentenced this man on the day of his birth? Had I cheated the demon out of a life when I’d run away? Was I just having these thoughts to needlessly center myself to make sense of this tragedy? I had, after all, remembered that summer sun many times since that evening on the cliff, and in the presence of many babies who were, to my knowledge, healthy and well.
The memory is fresh in my mind. Surya standing abruptly, opening his mouth as if to speak, before sitting down again. Us, barely glancing at him before turning our attention back to his wife and the puddle of amniotic fluid at her feet. Surya rising again, this time having worked up the confidence to say “I am going to the cliff today”, in a voice thick with unuse. Nobody daring to breathe. There wasn’t a person in this room, or even the village for that matter, who could misinterpret him. The wife, reaching forward to deliver a sharp, swift slap to his face before dissolving into tears.
He stands for a third time now, not having left his seat in the thirty hours it took to deliver his son. Perhaps if he’d stood again, his feet would have carried him out of the door and toward the cliff. But now he has seen his child, held him, smelled his sweet newborn breath. It is time to cut the tether. The news has already spread to the neighbors, likely the work of the middle sister. When Surya throws the door open, they are outside wearing somber expressions. Some hold funeral lanterns in their hands. To them, the future is set in stone, already past. No one says a word.
The head priest of the temple, a portly man with sagging jowls, has positioned himself front and center. Rheumy eyes glitter sanctimoniously. I have known him since he was a child; this careful composite of altruism and self-righteous belittlement is one that he has painstakingly curated throughout his life. I fight the urge to roll my eyes at the sight of him now, blessing plate in hand, chapped lips pursed before the beginning of a rousing speech that was sure to energize the gathering crowd, whip them into a frenzy, and then just mere hours later, make them wonder what it was he’d even said that had moved them so.
“My child,” he begins, brushing past Surya and grasping his brother-in-law by the arm. The lesser priest behind him hisses that he has gotten the wrong man. Surya hasn’t even noticed. His expression is focused, staring off into the distance. He is looking at the path, I realize, picturing placing step after step in front of himself until he has fulfilled his objective.
“Your wife has just given birth,” he says, “what will happen to her once you are gone? To your son? They will be ruined.” (In truth, they would be well provided for. Surya is the son of the man who owns the only grocery shop for miles.)
Nonetheless, the people murmur in assent, some in the far back even shouting in agreement. The priest has an entirely inappropriate smile on his face at this reaction. He opens his mouth to continue, turning to his audience to give a sermon on the responsibilities of a good, god-fearing man I am sure, but a clear, unwavering voice addresses the gathering before he can.
It is the wife. She has her son in her arms, latched to her breast. Her sari is bloodstained, and her hair falls loose from her braid and curls around her face, some of it plastered to her forehead. She looks so young, so lovely, with tears stuck on long, perfect eyelashes like small diamonds. My heart aches.
“Let him pass,” she says, grasping Surya by the hand. The baby coos. He barely registers their presence, but relief floods his face as the crowd parts to make way. They are silent again. I am right behind her with my hands poised at her waist, to catch her in case she falls. He takes the first step out of the threshold. Nobody will stop him now.
An indescribable feeling rises in my chest. This has never happened in my lifetime, yet we all, even the oldest too young to have known those who remember the last time, seem to automatically know exactly what to do. The closest I can come to understanding it is a mixture of helplessness, and being a part of something much bigger than I could fathom. Was there truth to this demon? Was it really lying in wait to eat Surya’s heart?
“Are you sure about this?” I voice my concern. My blouse sticks to my back as I hobble to keep up with them. The crowd follows. The priest has taken to sulking in the back, his theatrics cut short. We are mourners in a funeral procession, but we don’t carry the body. It walks ahead of us.
Almost every person holds a lantern in their hands now. Someone tries to thrust one towards me, but I don’t take it. The streetlights glow brighter than usual, blurring around the edges in the humidity. The only sound is the steady shuffling of feet, and the pleasant breeze in the air that rustles through the shivering branches and blows the damp warmth away as soon as it threatens to settle. I sense a general anticipation among the people, despite everything, for a chance to safely lay eyes on this enigmatic danger that lies just on the outskirts of our community.
“He will be saved,” she whispers back.
I know of what she speaks, but it is shot in the dark. I was, after all, perhaps the only person who had been there alone and survived, but I don’t recall seeing the chaiwala by the ledge. The girl’s faith in its existence makes me nervous, but it is far too late for me to stop her. Whether or not it is there, we are already on the path. This iteration of the story, of the tea stall and the benevolent beings who oversee it, is not as popular. Tragedy is far more interesting, and cautionary tales far more useful.
Then we reach the thicket of giant calotrope where the path seemingly ends. I am stuck wondering how I’d slipped through it as a child, until I see Surya simply step into the foliage. It parts for him like a knife through butter. Only his left hand can be seen now, with his wife holding onto it so tightly it appears devoid of blood. She turns to me with a resigned look on her face, before going after him.
Inside the thicket, I can’t hear the footfalls anymore. I am entirely alone but I know, logically, that there are three people in front of me and at least a hundred behind me. I can no longer feel the branches against my skin. It is as though I am in a large room with the walls painted black; each step ahead is sure to land, but I feel like I’m about to fall nonetheless. As my eyes adjust, the old-growth forest appears around me. It hurts to crane my neck up to gauge the immense height of its trees. Some even seem to have darker patches against the trunk, likely touched by forest fires eons ago and yet here they still stand, resilient. The only sounds I hear are my own, until an owl hoots in the distance and a small woodland animal scurries into a fern beside me. Both are a welcome and comforting presence, because I don’t remember coming through here before.
The canopy is dense, but parts every so often to reveal a sliver of stars so brilliant and plentiful I hurry down the winding path in hopes of finding the clearing to view them in entirety. A youthful vigor that I have not felt in years returns to me. I walk for hours before the trees finally begin to thin, the air smells more open and less of chlorophyll and dirt, until finally, I step out into the warm night. I turn to part ways with the forest that has kept me company, but only find giant calotrope. From this angle I can see the lights of the village in the distance. It was as if it had never even been there. Already it fades from memory. One by one, the villagers emerge from the thicket, disoriented.
Just ahead of me, Surya picks up his pace, the most determined he has been. The strength that filled me as I walked the forest path has not yet left me and I catch up to them with ease. I turn now to the stars. They are far more breathtaking than I’d imagined. I can see hazy clouds of them that run up the sky in a lilac-tinged streak. The milky way itself, before my eyes. I long to reach up and gather it into my arms.
This is what you would have seen if you had stayed a little longer that day, I tell myself. It is a welcome answer to a puzzle I didn’t know I longed to solve.
I can barely stand to tear my eyes away from it, but the wife lets out a shrill cry. Has Surya run ahead of her? No – just short of the cliff face is the chaiwala, lit by oil lamps. It is a night of miracles. Had it always been here, on the edge of the earth? It inserts itself into my memory now, the rickety wooden columns of the stall a deep persimmon in the rays of the setting sun. The packets of wheel shaped chips covered in salt and chili powder hanging from the low ceiling in bunches, the graceful figure in a cotton summer sari with a shiny, well-oiled plait down her back grinding spices in a large stone mortar. The smell of jasmine shrubs and cardamom in the air, the light hitting the steam as a man in a singlet pulls tea. I cannot seem to remember the cliff without it.
When we draw closer, they turn toward us. Their faces, perfectly circular and chalky white, are pockmarked with craters. They are luminescent. Even the skin of their bodies, that is nut-brown like the rest of us, seems to emit a shine like a piece of silver in a stream under the noontide sun. Their features are human-like, but they do not seem out of place in the inhuman faces.
The woman smiles in welcome, dazzling and radiant, revealing two rows of perfect teeth, before she presses her delicate pink lips together and begins to sing. The sound is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, but the song is a familiar one. It is a lullaby that was sung to me as a child by my mother. A story of two ill-fated lovers, the moon and the tide. I wonder if she is singing her own story. Some of the crowd is weeping, some laugh gaily, even at the sad parts, and I suspect we aren’t hearing the same song. The music enters my ears and melts into the place in the center of my chest where my soul lies, loosening something long forgotten within me. My edges, frayed with time and mortality, are stitched into the very fabric of being. Many times I’d helped bring people into this world, but for the first time it felt as though I was bringing myself.
What was life before this moment?
The cloud bank below roils menacingly, stirring despite the lack of wind, but it’s hard to take its bloodthirst seriously when there is such delight and magic in the air. Surya cradles his son now, wide eyes flickering between the baby that sleeps through the noise, the cliff and the singing lady. I have hope for him. We hold one another up late into the night as she sings, until the first light arrives to subdue the clouds.
At dawn, after we have drunk the tea that tastes surprisingly similar to our own chaiwala’s, we gather the lanterns and stand to leave. Surya is the first to go, arm wrapped around his wife, who is rightfully pleased with herself for having facilitated the impossible.
I will never be the same, I think, with a pang of despair.
“Stay a little longer,” the lady says, wiping the clean glasses. I am the only one who has heard her. More than half have disappeared through the thicket already. At first, a weak frisson of fear runs through me, but it is quieted by how wrong it feels to follow them, to return to my life before this night so indifferently. The exhaustion from the walk here and the lack of sleep catch up to me.
“Only if you sing me a song,” I say, smiling back at her.
They are all gone now. I curl up on the grass and listen to her sing, this time, a humorous ballad, something about a monkey and a garland, my chin resting on the backs of my hands as I watch the sun make its way across the sky to the sea of clouds, gentle and crimson. I think I’ve seen it before, like this. A soft breeze ruffles my hair every so often, carrying with it the smell of the forest. I remember it clearly now – the creatures that come to nose at my hands, the glittering pockets of sun dappled leaves, the divine breath that transforms me into an infinite well. I long to feel the moss of the path between my toes now, but I find that I am too tired to stand.
No matter, I will go tomorrow.
The stars return, again and again. I don’t know how long I lay there. It could be days or centuries; half awake, half dreaming, my sun-warmed bones disintegrating and sweet smelling grass growing over them.
Kavinila Rengaraju (they/she) is an Indian writer based in Singapore. They enjoy the simple things – a good cup of tea, making playlists and writing short stories based on weird dreams they’ve had. https://milktwosugars.tumblr.com/