Anita Vijayakumar

Red Dust

I slipped my hand into my grandmother’s at the village market
just to feel her skin,
thinning and softening as
the years of holding up the sky rolled by.

Into a stained cloth satchel, Ma packed my schoolwork
that she couldn’t read.
My breakfast already devoured, she
slid me her plate, insisted she was full.

A lunch tiffin—rotis and eggplant curry—teetered as
Baba jump-started the scooter.
I clung to him that monsoon morning,
our wake of red dust layering her faded sari.

She smiled when I came home laughing:
bags in her hands, bags under her eyes.
Hummed as I slept on the floor mattress,
dotted jasmine flowers in my hair.

My baby feet pressed against her cracked heels,
my toddler feet cut by roadside bottles,
my childhood feet: dirty, unpainted, bare.
In Ma’s nightly foot massages, the years unknotted.

Five decades sat between us, buffering a
missing generation, an arranged
marriage, a sudden departure.
A longing for her own daughter’s face eight thousand miles away.

Ma’s first flight: to reunite me with parents
I no longer knew, now settled in America.
For months I pressed my face into her
lap, absorbed her shy giggles at American TV.

And when a plane stole her back to India, my body laid down
in protest, overwhelmed.
My parents pulled me from daycare,
scrutinized my bruises for the shape of handprints,

not knowing daycare doesn’t steal healthy platelets or
puncture slackened hearts.
Long needles pierced my
spinal cord daily, but cerebrospinal fluid isn’t measured in loss.

Then, as if my Americanhood was approved, my
infirm and scanty platelets charged back,
resumed their place in the hierarchy of
my immune system, foregoing any answers.

Years passed slowly but in a rush, as they do when
you’re a child raising yourself.
At 25 cents a minute, calls to Ma were
only “Hello—I miss you—I promise I’ll behave.”

High school half over, summer itching to bloom. Thirteen days till
I saw Ma again. It’d been seven years.
I yearned to smell jasmine in
her white hair. Feel how much thinner her skin had grown.

Air India tickets bought, dozens of presents packed:
KitKats for the little cousins,
220 volt irons for the aunts.
Me waiting, lounging on my bed, licking ice cream at 10 AM.

Ring ring. Ma is gone, my uncle whispered in India.
Gone where? We’re coming soon.
A heart attack. So sorry. Tell your mum.
Not possible. Please recheck. Go recheck.

My mother: so happy for the surprise work visit.
Me: smiling back, an auto-response.
She collapsed on the bank floor.
The boss who’d mocked her accent now dried her eyes.

Two days later we boarded the plane, the colorful saris now
exchanged for white. The KitKats
tossed in, the irons unwrapped.
Nobody remembered the toiletries.

It’s awful how it happened, an aunt said. We nodded.
She was old. God wanted her back.
Her eyes grew wide, so awfully wide.
No one told you. You don’t know.

Ma did it to herself. Slid off her gold bangles, said a prayer,
pulled her sari tight.
Life’s daily struggles finally
layered her with too much red dust.

Impossible. Indian women don’t die by their own hand.
No matter how much life beats them.
No matter how broken they feel.
We surrender and swallow and decay and disappear.

At first, my anger. She couldn’t wait just
thirteen more days?
Then, much too late, my
comprehension: How great must her pain have been?

The family’s needs made Ma’s invisible—
thick butter clarified into ghee—
until the accumulating sadnesses
became too heavy to shrug away, too thick to bear.

Ma was not my grandmother. Correction:
not JUST my grandmother. She was
sacrifice. The red of our blood.
She held her breath so the family could breathe.

She is here, in me, but she is gone. And
sometimes I still think:
Go recheck. Please recheck.
I’m on my knees. Begging you. To just