Collage by Briana Finegan

Rumpus Original Fiction: White Ash

By

My wife, Ritu, a receptionist at a motel, works four nights a week. In the morning, I pick her up in our used Honda and drive her home. After she showers, I bring her a cup of fresh ginger and cardamom tea. She smells of lavender, her hair glowing with water beads, her eyelashes stuck together. In bed, she sips the tea without speaking and I have the urge to ask how she is. I place my hand on her knee. She doesn’t push my hand away like she used to, but I know she isn’t fine. I am not fine. The silence between us has become intolerable.

 

Six months ago, our four-year-old daughter went missing from her pre-K school playground. According to her teacher, she was playing with a doll, behind the slide. When the kids lined up to go back to the lunchroom, the teacher realized our daughter wasn’t on the playground. The doll was lying face down in the wood chips. Since that day, each dawn cried her name: on local TV and radio, posters on the walls, trees, and poles. MISSING printed on our foreheads, on our tongues, on our outstretched arms and running legs. We rushed into every shadow that approximated her size, drove around the city several times a day, very fast and then slammed the brakes until we were out of breath. Until we couldn’t.

 

“Did you find a new place for our posters?” Ritu asks, lying in bed, her eyes closed, trying to sleep.

“Yeah,” I say, though I don’t know of any.

“We need to keep trying.”

“Do you want me to heat the rotis and cauliflower sabzi?” I ask, remembering she must be starving.

“I’m not hungry,” she answers and brings the blanket up to her chin.

A few weeks back, I watched a program on The Discovery Channel about how long camels can go on without food or water while roaming in deserts. Forty days. After our daughter was gone, we could go on only for two and a half days without meals. A few weeks later sleep returned with bursts of nightmares. Screaming in attics, basements, abandoned warehouses, woods, dirt under my nails digging up graves, finding a pair of old socks, a broken shoe, a torn piece of cloth from her dress. The doll lying face down in dirt, sometimes with our daughter’s head.

I watch the slow rhythm of Ritu’s body sinking into sleep, the slight tilt of her neck on the pillow she brought from her home before we got married, the ambush speed of the hot air from the vent above my head. Everything is so quiet, it feels like an avalanche has buried us under it and I can still breathe but I don’t know for how long.

Collage by Briana Finegan images of human forms cut out
In the living room, I settle in my brown recliner and start the TV, keep it on mute. A feature on Chile’s Miner Miracle. Sixty-eight days trapped half a mile underground, the news ticker says. On the screen, reporters speak intensely; some people sob. My eyes mist and the images blur. I get up for a tissue. When my phone rings, I realize I am standing in the kitchen, staring at the cabinets, holes where the handles used to be. I don’t remember opening them for a while now. They have rows of plastic bottles with red pepper flakes, cumin, ajwain, fennel, and mustard seeds. Turmeric and garam masala. Whatever brings taste to our food as we remember it from our home in India. The phone rings again. In a video call, my mother is staring at me. I walk out and close the apartment door behind me. Outside, it’s freezing but I don’t want to wake up Ritu.

“Hello,” my mother says twice, her voice overlapping the sound of a Hindi film song from the TV behind her.

“Namaste, Ma,” I say in the most distant voice possible, as if reminding her I am far away—past the oceans, the continents.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, intently looking at me, her eyes looking darker than they are in the grainy video. “Did you hear anything from the police?”

“No,” I answer.

“Where’s Ritu?” she asks.

“Sleeping.” A white puff of air releases. On the street, three elementary school kids are walking to the bus stop, their mittened hands holding on to the straps of the bright backpacks.

“It has been two years since you left for America, son. You should come back now,” she says, the sound of her words insensitive.

“I cannot come back to India, not right now. I don’t know why you keep saying that.” Something in my voice sparks panic in her eyes. She clears her throat.

“Today is Shivaratri.” She pauses. “Are you planning to fast?”

“I don’t feel like it,” I say, my finger hovering over the oval red END at the corner of my phone screen.

“Last year, Ritu made all the preparations for the fast, saboodana cutlets, potatoes in a curry of coriander and cumin. She sent pictures of the decorated temple in your home, and now I don’t even see her,” she complains.

“Ma, I have to go.”

“It’s because of this non-religious attitude, you have so much sufferi—” I disconnect the call. My eyes stray upwards to a rectangle of sky, visible from where I stand, hoping to catch some colors of the morning. Instead, there is a thick ceiling of gray.

 

In the office, I pull out my laptop. It powers up, with notifications of fifty unread emails. Mostly for the servers that went down last evening for maintenance. I start the diagnostic tests that should have been run yesterday. When I open my drawer for my notebook, I see a stack of posters of my daughter—her grainy black and white face, her dress with a bow from Macy’s, a missing lower tooth. I cover them with other papers. One of my colleagues hollers my name from the corridor. A snoozed reminder on my computer goes off. These days, I am late for everything. Late coming into work, late to meetings and deadlines, late in leaving from work, late to sleep. In the conference room, while everyone is discussing the status of the shutdown last night, I am looking at the tall windows. The snowfall has begun. Arcs of wind and flakes. Another day of reduced visibility, slow driving, tire marks stacked on the roads, some cars pushed to the side of the Schuylkill Expressway at odd angles. The world looks huge, infinite. I am never going to find my daughter. The same thought, every hour, minute, moment. Unrelenting. Her face hangs at the center of everything I look at. Even after I close my eyes. It covers every pixel my mind touches. I wonder if I will ever see things as they are.

Someone says my name and I return to myself, spooked.

 

My friend Salil, who lives in a neighboring town, calls me on my lunch break. “We have satsang tonight, the priest from the Krishna temple in downtown Philly will be giving sermon. Why don’t you and Ritu join us?”

“Ritu has a shift, I can’t,” I lie, knowing Ritu is off from work tonight.

“Ah, then you can come, na, after dropping her?”

“This weather is not great for driving, and you know I still get confused at night with exits.”

“Hmm,” he pauses. “I thought it might be good since you are…you know what I mean, right?”

“Sorry Salil, maybe next time.”

“Sure, sure. I have sent you an email, in case you change your mind. You should Google this priest, he is a renowned man, great knowledge of scriptures. He also has a YouTube channel. Preeti and I listen to him every day.”

“How is Preeti?”

“Recovering. You know how these things are. Sometimes, I think we’re in the same boat,” he says.

“How so?”

“I mean, you lost your child, we keep going through these miscarriages.”

“It’s not the same.” The words fall out of my mouth like loose coins. In that moment, I imagine Salil’s soft, cheerful face, a head full of hair, and a tendency to argue, and I want to prove that my grief is deeper, is stronger, because it’s simply mine.

“I understand, but sadness is sadness, you know what I mean?” Salil wants to continue talking.

“Hey, I’ve to go, am late for a meeting.”

I stare at the blank screen of my phone for a few minutes. Even though I have been sitting on this chair for the past hour, I feel suddenly displaced.

 

When I reach home at 6:00 p.m., Ritu walks out of the bedroom like a ghost, her hair tangled, her eyes red. I drop a sheaf of mail on the kitchen counter without a glance.

“Why aren’t you distributing her pictures somewhere?” Her voice is sharp with anger, since she knows my office day usually ends at 5:30 p.m. and I must have driven straight home, given the inclement weather and the traffic at this time on US-30.

“There’s nowhere else.” I try to stay calm and let the strap of my laptop bag slide from my shoulders and leave it on the dining room chair.

She puts her palms on her face and starts to cry. My hand reaches out to the small of her back. She walks away.

My phone chimes. It’s a WhatsApp message from Salil: Here is the discourse for tonight’s satsang. I scroll to the bottom of the long message to send a thumbs up and pause at the last line.

In the end, somehow, you get through everything. Anything.

 

At night, Ritu is dressed in a two-sizes-large sweater with skinny jeans and snow boots, her powder blue purse hung on her shoulder, ready for her shift. Her hair is up in a bun, uneven gloss on her lips. Standing next to the kitchen wall, she looks like a house fixture, an absence.

“Did you know today’s Shivaratri?” Her tone sharp, accusing. She leans against the wall as if out of breath from her words. “We should have prayed, we should have made offerings, we should have—”

“I thought you are off from work today.” I cut her off, unintentionally.

For a moment, Ritu looks around as if trying to find a place to bury her forgetfulness and anger. Then she goes back to the bedroom and locks it from inside. In the kitchen, I heat up a naan. The butter melts quickly on the naan’s uneven surface and collects in the ridges on the bread. Cauliflower tastes undercooked, so I slice a leftover peeled onion, mince two cloves of garlic and add some oil in a pan. As the cumin seeds scatter and fry in the hot oil, I add onion slices and garlic, toss the florets in it. Through the kitchen window, the sky looks like a mushy pillow. From the corner of my eye, I catch a little wooden pony moving due to heat blowing from a nearby vent at the edge of the dining room wall. The toy wasn’t there in the morning when I left. Maybe Ritu took it out from the toy chest where I kept all our daughter’s toys. The pony moves back and forth and my appetite fades alongside its slowing movements. I pick it up and shove it to the bottom of the trash can and stare at the garbage—stale onion peels, used paper napkins. A few minutes later, I take the pony out and wash it. Then I wipe it and put it back where I found it, tears streaming down my cheeks. By the time I return to the cauliflower sabzi, it has burnt dark, a waft of smoke rising from the pan.

 

It’s past 11:00 p.m. when Detective Roberts calls. “We want you to come down to the station and look at something.”

“Yes, of course,” I say, instead of asking him, Did you find her? A part of her? Anything? I sit at the edge of my bed, my blanket lumped in my lap.

“Who was that?” Ritu asks, her eyes struck with ache and sleep.

“We need to go to the station.”

On our way, the snow has turned thick, white ash from the sky. Large flakes stick to the windshield and slip with nothing to hold on to. Mounds of snow on the sidewalk.

When we reach the parking lot of the station, Ritu says, “I want to stay here for a few minutes.”

I put the car in park, engine running, headlights off. A part of me wants to rush inside, a part of me never wants to go in. Ritu takes my hand and presses it affectionately.

Collage by Briana Finegan figure made of ice on the background of a city avenue
“I never saw a snowfall before I came to the US,” she says.

“Me neither.”

“It’s like flowers falling from the sky until they hit the ground and become dirt. Some slow, some too fast.”

I watch her face: it looks round but not so full anymore, the mole on her upper lip prominent under the fluorescent streetlight, her eyes narrowing at the dark extending past the windshield of our car. I’m ready to step out when she places her hand over mine, a soft sound slicing the snow-lit silence. We are looking at the night’s eye and it’s not gone but less likely to swallow us whole.

Face down, the sky continues to shred as if it understands the grief and rage of losing. Of living.

 

 

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Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan

 


Tara Isabel Zambrano is a writer of color and the author of a full-length flash collection, Death, Desire, And Other Destinations by Okay Donkey Press in 2020. More from this author →