On the day Ivy Auntie went missing, Sriya Polgoda wished, once again, for more help. Her husband, Dharmapala, was already doing much more than facility maintenance. In addition to shopping for the week’s supplies of rice, fruit and vegetables, he fed Joseph Uncle his morning rice broth spoon by spoon, mollified Miriam Auntie during her shouting spells, and coaxed Jit Uncle to use the bathroom regularly so he would not soil himself.
And of course, he kept an eye on Ivy Auntie. When she disappeared, Dharmapala tore down the lane in the Polgodas’ rusted motor scooter, teetering around the corner garbage dump with the tires screeching so loudly that Miriam Auntie ran into her room. He knew Ivy Auntie could have wandered onto the main road and been hit by a bus in the rush hour traffic. But he found her in the vegetable stall at the top of the lane, trying to pin a ripe tomato into her hair and asking to buy a wedding sari. Dharmapala settled her in a three-wheeler hailed from the main road, and followed the three-wheeler back to the house.
While Sriya was guiding Ivy Auntie into the house and toweling tomato juice from her hair, Dharmapala bathed three lotus flowers in filtered water and placed them before the Buddha statue in the foyer. He knelt in gratitude, chanting the five precepts. What motivated him was not the money they would have lost if Ivy Auntie had got lost or injured, or worse, killed. For Sriya, running a home for the aged was a way to make a living, but Dharmapala cared for Ivy Auntie and the other three mentally infirm patients as if they were his own family. When Miriam Auntie splattered her brinjal curry on the wall, or Joseph Uncle clamped his mouth shut during his feedings, Sriya sometimes had to retreat to keep her patience. But Dharmapala’s compassion never flagged.
After Ivy Auntie wandered off, Sriya cajoled Ivy Auntie’s brother, Mr. Peiris, into paying extra for a helper. She said they needed someone to watch Ivy Auntie in the daytime when the garden gate stood unlocked. Mr. Peiris found Sriya a helper. The helper was his cook’s cousin, a young woman named Anandhi. When Anandhi arrived two days later, Sriya noticed that her hands were broad and callused, that her neck was sturdy, and that she bore herself with confidence. She knew Anandhi would be capable. She did not pay much attention to the luxuriance of Anandhi’s hair, which fell to the bulge of her rump, or wonder why she left it untied. Anandhi’s eyes, which had whites as flawless as the inside of a coconut, looked sideways, but Sriya only noticed the determination in them. She was satisfied that Anandhi could handle Ivy Auntie’s recurrent tirades, and the tantrums Miriam Auntie threw when told to keep her feet off the dining table.
“We have been blessed,” Dharmapala said to Sriya at the end of Anandhi’s first week. Sriya, who was oiling her wiry hair after her bath, agreed, but she remembered what he’d said when she first mentioned wanting a helper.
“Craving ease is only going to get us in trouble, you said,” she reminded him, tying her petticoat strings around her stout waist.
“It is true, as the Buddha said, that craving leads to suffering,” Dharmapala said. “But our need was great. And now our burden is less.” He smiled at her in the mirror as he buttoned a clean shirt over his sarong. His teeth were still white in middle age.
Sriya secured the pleats of her cotton sari with a safety pin so they would not loosen when she lifted Jit Uncle’s feeble body off the toilet. “Take Anandhi to the market with you,” she said. “She can carry another basket.”
When she heard the scooter revving, she went to the front door. “Bring back a good hand of bananas and two papaws,” she called to Anandhi. She knew Anandhi could gauge when the papaws were ripe.
Anandhi closed the gate before looping the baskets over her arms and mounting the precarious passenger seat. She had to clasp Dharmapala’s waist to keep from falling. Her hair was still loose, a silk veil down her back. The wind would tangle it terribly, Sriya thought. She wanted to warn Anandhi to tie it up, but then the scooter burst away, scattering pebbles like confetti. Sriya pulled Ivy Auntie, grumbling, back into the house.
Soon, Anandhi offered to take the patients for a daily stroll down the lane. They could walk away from the main road, she said, to the temple at the Palwatte junction. They needed stimulation and fresh air. Dharmapala agreed. He would go along to help. Walking would strengthen Jit Uncle’s legs, he said. And Sriya would have a little time to herself, to rest.
The stillness in the house when they left each afternoon was bliss. One hour was all it took for them to wander, stroll and stumble to the temple and back. Sriya stood at the kitchen sink and watched the monkeys playing in the trees. There was no need to listen for crashes or shouts or falling bodies in the patients’ rooms. She took the vanilla bean from the tea tin, kept there to flavor the patients’ morning tea, and held it to her nostrils. She watered the crotons that were starving for the attention the patients sucked out of her. She listened to the breeze rustling the bougainvillea bushes. She rubbed coconut oil on her cracked skin. She stood outside in the failing light and admired the orange streaks in the clouds. One day, she looked for the American Godiva chocolates that Joseph Uncle’s nephew had brought when he visited Sri Lanka. Sriya unwrapped the silver foil on each and ate them all.
Then came the day when she noticed the flowers before the Buddha statue in the foyer. The edges of the araliya petals were brown, their sanctity spoiled. There was no moisture left on the pewter tray that bore them. It was Dharmapala’s task to wash fresh flowers every morning and proffer them on the tray. That had been his practice for two decades, since their marriage. Sriya threw the dead flowers away, leaving the tray empty.
That night, after the patients had been fed and put to bed, Sriya beckoned Anandhi. She noted the luster of Anandhi’s skin and the roundness of her hips. Anandhi’s hair gleamed. The daily strolls and weekly motorcycle rides had done her good. “We cannot keep you here any longer,” Sriya said. “You must leave in the morning.” Anandhi claimed innocence, but Sriya had nothing more to say.
In the Polgodas’ darkened bedroom, Dharmapala sat slumped on his side of the bed, his head in his hands. Sriya removed her sari and laid her head on the pillow. She hoped they would not lie awake too long; she knew Miriam Auntie’s shouts would wake them before dawn. Then there would be bodies to wash and heave and wrap in clean clothes, curries to concoct and tempers to soothe. There would be no time for rest.
Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer has fiction published or forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Quiddity, The Summerset Review, Notre Dame Review, Stand, Literary Mama, Epiphany: A Literary Journal, and other venues. In 2004, she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for a story that was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago, and teaches at Felician College in New Jersey. Her website is www.ruvaneeevilhauer.com.
Read an interview with Ruvanee here.