Some memories have the power to shape a life forever. Dim as shadows behind a curtain, shifting and uncertain, they are all the more menacing for that. When later in her life she remembered that day Sita was unsure of the details, she was only certain of the outcome. She still recalled the muddy skin of the water reflecting the sky above, hiding the darkness below.
She had been five or maybe six years old. She remembered walking with her mother beside the river gathering wild herbs to make a poultice for grandmother’s aching knee. That day, as she ran about the riverbank her mother stopped and begun to groan, low at first and then louder. Stumbling into the long grass they usually avoided because of snakes, she squatted down, partly hidden by the scrub, pulling up her sari as all the women did when answering the call of nature, out in the fields. As her mother’s cries grew intense, Sita ran forward. The vegetation screened but did not completely obscure a view of her mother, who was now moaning and panting like an animal. As Sita watched, she reached down and lifted up a bloodied mass from between her legs. Sita shrank back in shock; her mother’s insides appeared to be pushing out unstoppably from her body.
‘Amma!’ Sita shouted, distress leaping through her.
Then, something moved and twisted and began to scream, and she saw that her mother held in her hands a creature with life and voice. Pulling a handful of soft leaves from a nearby bush, her mother wiped the child and, lifting the small curved knife she carried at her waist when they collected herbs, cut the cord that tied the baby to her. Eventually, holding the child in the crook of her arm, her mother stood up and walked towards the river.
‘Where are you going?’ Sita yelled, filled by new confusion.
‘I must wash her clean,’ her mother replied.
Wading knee deep into the water, she lowered the child to the soft lapping swell, holding her there, caressing her tenderly all the while with her one free hand. For a moment Sita saw the child in her mother’s arms and the next she was gone, the tide lifting her free. Sita watched her float away, held briefly upon the rippling surface of the river before she sank slowly from sight, eyes open, a startled expression on her small face, uttering no cry of protest.
‘Amma!’ Sita screamed.
Her mother continued to stand in the water, her back towards Sita, unmoving. At last she turned and Sita remembered her body, slack and flat beneath the old sari, emptied of its burden. She turned to look up at the sky and the sinking sun, and Sita saw the anguish in her face.
She called out again, unable to understand what was happening. Then her mother was beside her, taking her hand, pulling her homewards.
‘She was just a girl.’ Her mother spoke softly, her voice thick and strange.
‘The current is strong, it lifted her from my arms,’ her mother explained in a more normal voice as they began the walk back to the village.
Sita stared at the river, awash with the light of the sky, the soft lap of waves cuffing the bank. The murky water had closed over her sister as if she had never been. It was a swift flowing river with a treacherous current, used by those too poor to properly cremate their dead. The fish in the river were large and plump from an excess of pickings on half-burned bodies.
‘The devi will protect her.’ Her mother whispered.
In the house they kept a picture of the goddess Durga, riding upon a tiger. Sita liked this picture, as much for the tawny tiger as the radiant goddess. The creature’s amber eyes held her own, as if something special passed between them. Although Sita’s heart beat fast from all she had just witnessed, it was comforting to think the goddess and her tiger protected her sister.
Releasing Sita’s hand her mother walked ahead, not once looking back at the river. In the distance the sky cracked open upon the dying sun, gold and crimson and purple. Near the village, the silhouette of a dead tree, struck by lightning long before, stood against the burning sky like a gnarled hand pushing up from the earth. Sita paused for a moment before the image, seeing it anew, then hurried after her mother.