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Authors: Nayomi Munaweera

What Lies Between Us

BOOK: What Lies Between Us
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To Whit.

You and I have always shared a love of words.

But (always) there are only three words that matter.


You will leave behind everything you love

most dearly, and this is the arrow

the bow of exile first lets fly.

The Divine Comedy



A child is nourished upon her mother's blood. If it is a time of starvation in the village, the crops lean, the riverbed dry, a mother takes what food there is and gives it to her child. She denies herself, mortifies her flesh, suffers in silence rather than let her child feel the smallest discomfort. All creatures abide by this law. This is the way of nature. To be otherwise is to be unnatural, to be a monster, outside the pale.

In a region stretching from the Himalayas to Japan lives an animal called the moon bear. It is named for the luminous sickle moon glowing in the midst of its midnight chest. The moon bear is the genetic originator of every bear on the planet; it is the great ursine ancestor, content to wander within its secret realms. It lives in the treetops, climbing high to huff at that celestial orb by which it is claimed. It lives on a fairy diet of acorns, honey, termites, cherries, and mushrooms; it is a peaceable citizen of these wild and lonely places.

The moon bear is not just ancient and magnificent, it is also in possession of something treasured by humans. In Chinese medicine the moon bear's bile is believed to remove heat from the body, curing tragic ailments of the liver and the eye. A kilogram of bear bile is valued at half the price of that other, shinier human obsession: gold.

Thousands of moon bears are captured and stuffed into small “crush cages.” In these devices they are unable to stand upright or turn around. They may be kept in this condition for decades. Periodically each bear's stomach is slit and into the incision is inserted a tube that drains the precious health-giving liquid. Human beings ingest the bile and swear by this tonic for their various and painful afflictions.

Some years ago, at a Chinese bile farm, a mother moon bear did something thought to be outside the realm of her animal nature. Hearing her cub crying from inside a nearby crush cage, she broke through her own iron bars. The terrified men cowered, but she did not maul them. Instead, she reached for her cub, pulled it to her, and strangled it. Then she smashed her head against the wall until she died.

Why do I tell this story? Only because it tells us everything we need to know about the nature of love between a mother and a child.


Part One



The walls of my cell are painted an industrial white. They must think the color is soothing. Where I come from, it connotes absence, death, and loneliness.

People write to me. Mothers, mostly; they spew venom. That's not surprising. I have done the unthinkable. I have parted the veil and crossed into that other unseen country. They hate me because I am the worst thing possible. I am the bad mother.

But here's a secret: in America there are no good mothers. They simply don't exist. Always, there are a thousand ways to fail at this singularly important job. There are failures of the body and failures of the heart. The woman who is unable to breastfeed is a failure. The woman who screams for the epidural is a failure. The woman who picks her child up late knows from the teacher's cutting glance that she is a failure. The woman who shares her bed with her baby has failed. The woman who steels herself and puts on noise-canceling earphones to erase the screaming of her child in the next room has failed just as spectacularly. They must all hang their heads in guilt and shame because they haven't done it perfectly, and motherhood is, if anything, the assumption of perfection.

Then too, motherhood is broken because in this place, to be a good mother is to give yourself completely. It is to erase yourself. This is what I refused to do. So they shudder when they hear my name, but inwardly they smile because they have not failed in the way I have.

There are others who write. Men who find the grotesque act I have committed titillating. They send propositions and proposals of marriage that I tear up into scraps of white that match the walls of my cell. I hate their unknown, unseen faces. They remind me that in this country, celebrity is courted no matter the cause. The fact that strangers have heard your name and know the secrets of your life is supposed to be pleasing.

I never wanted this macabre interest, this unsettling notoriety. I never asked for it. I would have preferred to have been locked up and forgotten. Instead, I have become a known thing. My name, the one I had before, is gone. Instead I am named by the act I have committed. To be named thus is to be pinned down onto the corkboard with a needle piercing one's abdomen and a curl of paper underneath with one's genus and species on it in slanted writing. I have been named, and therefore you think you know my story, why I did what I did. To this I object. Perhaps this narrative is a way to undo your knowing, to say the truth is somewhere else entirely, and I will tell it in my own voice, in my own time.

And so, as all stories must open, in the beginning, when I was the child and not yet the mother …

*   *   *

Birth. My face was pressed against the bones of Amma's pelvis, stuck there, so that instead of slipping out, I was bound like a lost fish in a too-narrow stream. It wasn't until the midwife, tiring of my mother's screams, reached in with her forceps, grabbed the side of my head, and wrenched me out that I was born and Amma was born into motherhood, both of us gasping from the effort of transformation.

For three months after, there was a hornlike protrusion on the left side of my head. It subsided eventually, but for those months my parents were alarmed. “We didn't know if it would ever go away. I didn't know what sort of child I had given birth to. You were the strangest creature. A little monster,” Amma admitted. “But then the swelling went down and you were our perfect little girl.”

After that, the doctor looked at my mother's slimness, her girlish frame, and said, “No more. Only this one. Any more will wreck you.” She had wanted scores of children filling the grand old house. She had wanted so many to love her. The love of an entire army she had created herself. She rubbed her nose against mine and said, “Only you to love me. So you must love me double, triple, quadruple hard. Do you see?” I nodded. She kissed me on the forehead, searched my eyes. I was blissful in the sun of her love, my entire being turned like a flower toward her heat.

Yes, I could love her more. I could love her enough to fill up the hole all those brothers and sisters had left by never coming.

*   *   *

I was born in Sri Lanka, a green island in the midst of the endless Indian Ocean. I grew up in Kandy, the hill city of the Buddhists. A city held high like a gem in the setting of the island. Maha Nuwara, meaning the great city, is the name of Kandy in Sinhala. Or even Kande Ude Rata, the land on top of the mountain. It is the last capital of the Lankan kings before the British came to “domesticate and civilize,” to build railroads and scallop the hills into acres of fragrant tea. In their un-sinuous tongue, Kande Ude Rata collapses, folds into itself, and emerges as Kandy. But not candy sweet in the mouth, because this place has a certain history.

In the capital Colombo's National Museum in a dusty glass case lies the sari blouse of one of the last noblewomen of the Kandyan Kingdom. Splotches of faded red stain the moldering fabric of each shoulder. The last Kandyan king was fighting the British when his trusted adviser too turned against him. Enraged, the king summoned his adviser's wife. His men ripped her golden earrings out of her flesh, so she bled down onto this blouse. They beheaded her children and placed the heads into a giant mortar. They gave her a huge pestle, the kind village women use to pound rice, and forced her to smash the heads of her children. Then they tied her to a rock and threw her into Kandy Lake as the king watched in triumph from the balcony of the temple palace. Soon after, the British conquered Kandy and took over the island for centuries.

This is the history of what we do to one another. This is the story of what it means to be both a child of a mother and a child of history.

*   *   *

The house I grow up in is big and old. It has belonged to my father's family for generations. It has rooms full of ebony furniture, waxed, polished red floors, white latticework that drips from the eaves like lace, and dark wooden steps that lead to my little bedroom upstairs. A wrought-iron balcony hangs outside my window under a tumble of creeping plants. If I stand on its tiny platform just over the red-tiled roof of the first floor, I can see our sweeping emerald lawns leading down to the rushing river. Along the bank a line of massive trees stretches upward toward the monsoon clouds.

*   *   *

In the living room is a small, slightly moldy taxidermied leopard. There are very much alive dogs in the house, but the leopard is my infant obsession. This is because the leopard lets me ride him, while the dogs do not. Amma says I should call him Bagheera, for Kipling's black leopard, but the name Kaa, for Kipling's Indian rock python, is what I choose. The sound is easier and there is something slithery in his yellow marble eyes. Exactly between these eyes is the neat bullet hole that my father's father put there. The hunting guns are locked away in a chest in my father's study, but the leopard is here as evidence of their presence.

A formal portrait of my grandparents hangs above the leopard. My mustachioed grandfather is in a three-piece suit, my grandmother in a Kandyan osari over a Victorian blouse, ruffled and buttoned against the tropical heat. My father is a boy in short trousers, the only child of the five my grandmother gave birth to to have survived the ravages of malaria.

*   *   *

The house is a kingdom divided into dominions, inside and outside, and ruled over by the keepers of my childhood, Samson and Sita. In the kitchen, Sita shuffles about in her cotton sari, her feet bare. She has been with my father's family since he was a baby. She and her sister came as young girls. Her sister was my father's ayah, while Sita set up court in this kitchen, which she has never left.

BOOK: What Lies Between Us
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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