Two Flash Essays | Lalini Shanela Ranaraja
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
They leave at 3PM on a Sunday. Four hours after the taxi braves the plummeting jackfruits
and cavernous potholes to disappear down the lane, you find your sister’s sandal waiting upright by her bed. It’s a silver plastic T-strap kitten heel, the kind you stopped wearing
because you contracted contact dermatitis. The twin shoe is crouched in the corner,
your body a dubious blur in the reflective footbed, yawning open like an empty spoon.
Your mother must have told her to choose something sturdier for the plane. Your father
has left a tea mug perched on the headboard of your parents’ bed. You find the second one
on the fifteenth stair, the third on the guest room windowsill. All of them three-quarters empty
and stubbled with scum, handles already sprouting cobwebs. Your brother’s room is too loud,
azaan roar and pirith drone slapping you in the face; you think he’s left the window open until you remember the toque macaques stole a pane of his glass last week.
Through the replacement cellophane that foiled returning troops you watch a hornbill land
in the nutmeg tree, tossing some small reptile from beak to air and air to beak, over and over against the bat-studded sunset. Then you drift downstairs to binge Criminal Minds reruns
that your mother still believes are too violent for you. The men in suits and women in ankle-holsters have captured three unsubs by the time you realize the Airbus carrying your family
must have taken off from the capital. The eight soles of those with whom you’ve shared this house now physically removed from the same earth as you, the Indian Ocean widening the gap with every second of fuel. Until now you’ve been the one boarding the flight, and if you’d died someone else would have had to deal with it. Twenty minutes before they left,
your father stood in the hall wearing one sock and one Sketcher and said everything
you’d need if something happened was in his office cabinet. You stand there now and watch
your reflection in the handle, think about fishing the key from the yellow DHL mug on his table. Then you climb the stairs and lock yourself inside your childhood bedroom,
drag your dresser against the door. Fluorescents climb your closed curtains; you lie
diagonally across the floor tiles and try to remember if you’d turned on the motion sensors.
Your cellphone flashes. Just landed. You watch your mother typing from the furthest she’s ever journeyed away from you.
Stuck in Customs. Dad already looking for toilet.
Our next-door neighbor wields incense to ward off mosquitoes. Every evening she circles her yard carrying a copper saucer of benzoin, boiled down to the consistency of treacle. The smell stays with us forever after the first inhalation; it clings to clothes, hair, sinuses. In India they call it sambrani, not to be confused with frankincense or myrrh but adjacent to both; my father insists that the sambrani woman is chanting as she walks, bending the property line with her mind until it mystically conflates her land with ours.
My mother doesn’t say sambrani; she says kattakumanjal. I don’t speak either of my country’s languages well enough to perform a complete dissection, but I know that katta in Sinhala can mean thorn or pin or twig, while manjal in Tamil means yellow. Threaded through the letters is an echo of something else - kajal, not your generic Walgreens variety but soot-dark and dirtied, like Deepika Padukone’s eyes in Padmaavat, in the scene where she plays a Rajput queen who immolates herself and her retinue to spite the invaders who’d like to conquer them.
Our property has its own share of mosquitoes and my mother’s favored weapons are the citronella sticks she buys by the box and sticks in the cactus pots on the porch, because we are not and never will be the kind of Sri Lankan family who have home altars and incense holders. I carry quivers of fragrant quills into the jungle and leave them simmering along the path to save me from dengue and light my way home. Their territorial perfume coats my palms like splinters from the ekel broom my grandfather preferred before he died. Every evening grey wisps would rise from the green mosquito coil under his chair, so that his sarong seemed to be perpetually smoldering. Between his feet, still loamy from the garden, coils of pressed pyrethrum glowed like gecko's eyes, burning and distending almost but not quite to the point of a Fibonacci spiral. Safe from dengue, my grandfather turned the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, batting away the flying termites that flickered down from the hallway light. Outside, the whirl of cicadas and bats, the croaking of toads in the umbrella stand.
My mother knows by the time I turn thirteen that she needs to get me to America. I make it to America, but I don’t return home in time to say goodbye to my grandfather. When the pandemic arrives I spend the evenings dancing on tennis court tarmac in the corn-green town where I need to remain until issued a work permit. Before I leave the house I slather myself with Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent that I bought discounted at Hy-Vee last summer; I’m haunted by the story a Japanese-American poet from Evanston once told me about Lyme disease and the neurological defects you might already suffer by the time you get a diagnosis. As opposed to contracting dengue, where a diagnosis brings no comfort because there is no cure, only the possibility of being fined for failing to destroy the larvae that grew up to sicken you. The back of the Cutter bottle dismisses 93 percent of its ingredients as Other but mentions the Poison Control Center five times; I still offer it to anyone I meet, recall my mother asking relatives in America to bring bottles over when they visited, along with the dried mandarins, the Hershey’s Kisses, the good sunscreen. Everything now strewn unused across my bathroom and kitchen. I smear my skin with unnamed chemicals, walk to Walgreens and buy more ways to ring my eyes raccoon-dark, wishing all the while for saucers of incense and thorns dripping tar.
Lalini Shanela Ranaraja is a multi-genre writer from Kandy, Sri Lanka. She holds a BA in anthropology and creative writing from Augustana College in Illinois. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Transition Magazine, Sky Island Journal, Entropy, Club Plum Literary Journal, and ANGLES Magazine. More of her work can be found at www.shanelaranaraja.com.