‘The Jungle Crow’s Song’ by Samantha Sirimanne Hyde

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

The months of drought had finally broken, the belting tropical rain bringing with it the pleasing scent of rich earth and fresh water fused with a trace of cedar. From the back door of the house, Piyal absorbed it crashing onto the corrugated iron sheets of the roof above him and observed how it dribbled off the grooves of the gable on to the row of croton plants beyond the back veranda.

Through the din of the storm, Piyal picked up on the sound of caaa-caaa-caaa emanating from the bird sanctuary on the other side of the fencing where he spied on a jungle crow roosting on a nest built in the lower cleft of a teak tree. He recalled how just a week ago as he was repairing some of the wobbly fence posts, he’d witnessed a black cuckoo bird approaching that nest and how the crow had pursued him in attack. He’d then been astounded to see a white-spotted brown cuckoo swoop in to deposit an egg while the nest was unattended. Afterwards he’d hung around awhile to learn what happened when the crow returned to its dwelling. It reappeared after chasing the other bird away, settling down on its home of twigs as if nothing was amiss.

The loud buzz of the telephone startled Piyal’s reverie and he made his way to the sitting room to see who it was. The caller, a woman whose voice he hadn’t recognised, tersely informed him that Chintha, his wife was having an affair with the manager at the supermarket she worked for at nearby Ambalangoda, a beach town in southern Sri Lanka.

Piyal placed the phone aside, his mouth dry. The message had rattled his equilibrium as if he’d just stepped out of a spine-chilling rollercoaster ride. Feeling light-headed, he’d sat on the edge of a nearby rattan chair, gripping its wooden arm rests hard and closing his eyes. Somewhere in his psyche, sparks of lush colour burst out and through a halo of smoke, a dancer emerged, adorned in a sarong of gleaming white, russet and ochre. While in circular motion, he transformed into a drummer, beating his musical instrument which then disappeared with a poof and then with a raucous bang bang, the drum sticks turned into smoking guns.  In his mind’s eye, he shot Ranwella, the supermarket manager, the pariah dog.

Microscopic daydreams had been part and parcel of Piyal’s life from the time he could recollect. Growing up, they were always vivid: an image of himself would flash across his brain – he was a marionette in Vijay Māmā’s entourage wearing an outfit of a pink taffeta tutu with an attached laced-up top worked in dazzling sequins and worn over a violet blouse; somewhat gaudy yet alluring; his face delicately painted and rouged, lips the colour of ruby red; his neck adorned with white shimmering translucent moonstones.

Piyal’s fantasies still continued though they became more complex in nature. Time and again he allowed himself to hover between real and unreal worlds whenever faced with any dilemma, however big or small. For the past couple of decades, the images had helped him to cope with day to day life in this homeland shattered by the craziness of war.

And now this− this horrible business with Chintha. It was true that they’d drifted apart ever since he’d lost his job at the munitions factory at Dombagoda about four years ago. Piyal wasn’t sure if he’d ever really loved her or she him anyway but with time they’d learned to get along well enough. It was almost eight years ago that he’d succumbed to pressure from his mother and said yes to Chintha, a second cousin of sorts. The fact that this house, the ancestral home had been thrown into the bargain had also been an incentive.

Piyal thought of his mother. She’d been a woman with uncomplicated beliefs. After being cajoled for years on end, just before his marriage he’d told her that he didn’t really like women that much. He reminisced how she’d stood in front of him resplendent in her pink hakobasari with the elaborate needlework weaving white tendrils throughout the cloth: one hand on her stout hip, the other at her chin, the thumb rubbing the dark mole embossed on the jowl like a miniature map of Madagascar.

Putha, things will sort themselves out.  Love will come later, no?     

            Piyal’s musings were disturbed by a piercing cry from the adjoining room. That’s when he remembered that he’d been warming some milk for his boy when the telephone distracted him. He got up from his chair and moved to the bedroom where the six-month old baby was bawling in his cot near the window. Reaching down and lifting him towards him, Piyal created soothing noises and started to rock him to and fro. Then, like an unexpected flash of lightning on a clear blue day, a sudden idea grabbed his attention and he returned the infant to the cot. Circling around its wooden frame cautiously, with fresh eyes he gawked at the crying baby’s features. After some time, with his head bowed, he’d stepped towards the kitchen to pick up the bottle of milk.

Now that the war was over, Piyal spent a lot of time at home. He had tried to find another job but hadn’t been successful. Even with Chintha’s wages and his provident fund, money was tight. Some of his ex-workmates from the munitions factory occasionally got called up to work in some government funded building project or other. While he’d been recruited to help repair some stone steps leading to the sacred Adam’s Peakover a year ago, he hadn’t been hired for any other job since. He lounged around at home, feeling either restlessor lethargic and disjointed. Either way, Gayan’s arrival had brought some happiness, purpose and structure to his life.

Also, ever since his son’s birth, Piyal often reflected on the life of the Buddha. He tried to imagine him as a young man, as Prince Siddhartha, brimming with health, wealth and vitality. He’d visualise him with his entourage of kinsmen, appearing to all intents and purposes relaxed and untroubled, galloping around his palace’s stunning gardens, amongst august andsal trees pregnant with scented blossoms. Then on returning home and being informed that his wife Yasodharā had given birth to a son, he’d decided that that was the opportune moment to renounce the world. According to legend, when the birth was announced to the prince, he’d uttered, “Rāhulahas been born”– a fetter or bondage has been born. This was one of the theories on how his son got his name. Either way, after ten years of marriage, the birth of his only son could have only rendered the prince’s yearning to escape from what had become for him an existence in a golden cage, even more difficult. The evening he’d decided to leave, it is said that the prince had peered into the royal bedchamber to take one last peek at Yasodharā and Rāhula but that her arm had obscured the infant’s face and he’d left without even seeing what he looked like. Perhaps that was the way it had to be for had he seen what he’d created and ventured to take a moment to hold the baby in his arms, then the moment may have passed. That perhaps meant that yet another lifetime might’ve had to pass before he could disentangle himself from the web of life and suffering and that would have postponed his search for the truth and final enlightenment.

After drinking his milk, Gayan had quickly fallen asleep again and Piyal arranged a soft blanket over him. As he watched him, he wondered how Prince Siddhartha had abandoned his son, his own flesh and blood. He wondered how many lifetimes would’ve ensued before he’d become capable, before he’d developed a strong enough character to make that heartbreaking decision.

For Piyal, there’d always been that pull, that undercurrent of craving to run away from all this and now that lure was even greater. Of course, he was no Prince Siddhartha with lofty motives to propel himself to flee home life, no burning quest to sustain his desire to escape except for purely self-centred reasons of humiliation and personal freedom.

The downpour still continued at a steady rate. Piyal began pacing around, his head throbbing to a strange beat. Occasionally, he paused to survey the water pelting the pots of anthuriums and bougainvilleas on the front porch, making the vibrant flowers quiver this way and that. Staring beyond the gate, he caught sight of Chintha striding along the footpath of their lane; her yellow and green striped umbrella covering her face as she tried to protect herself from the slanting rain.

Aiyo! Finally, what a deluge, ah!” uttered Chintha as she closed the dripping wet umbrella and positioned it against the bench on the veranda. She slipped out of her sandals, wiped her feet on the damp doormat and rushed inside.

“How’s my baby doing?” she’d asked while throwing her handbag on a chair and walking towards the bedroom, with hardly a glance at her husband.

Slowly, Piyal followed her down the corridor to their room. His head hurt and he felt a churning in his stomach.

“Hmm yes, your baby…not our baby, right?” Piyal’s attempt to keep his voice sedate had failed.

Leaning over the baby, Chintha froze. She steadied herself, grasping a timber panel of the cot. She stared at her husband but when she opened her mouth, she couldn’t think of what words to use. She felt worn-out. Shuffling across to their bed, she sat down and gazed at the floor in front of her feet.

“Who told you?”murmured Chintha under her breath.

“It doesn’t matter. So, the baby’s Hanwella’s?”

Chintha closed her eyes and lowered her head. When she opened them, Piyalwas no longer in the room. On the cool cement floor, she drew circles withher big toes. She didn’t know how to cope with this stuff but she knew it was time to face the storm. She found Piyal at the kitchen window with a faraway look. He didn’t turn around.

“I don’t know why we got together,” said Chintha softly. “I guess we were just pushed in to it. You don’t really like me. You don’t like…like women,” she stuttered, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. “I didn’t mean for this to happen but it happened and Gayan means everything to me.”

Piyal felt sick but his anger had faded but in his head, he felt sharper than he had ever been before.

“I know. So, you should take him and leave. Talk to Hanwella. Say that I know. I’ll give you a divorce. Go and marry him.”

The shower had abated. Chintha stood at the rear door taking in the blueness of the unblemished skieswhich however gave her no solace.

“I can’t. He’s already married with children. I have nowhere to go. I’ve asked Amma.  She won’t take me back.”

In a surreal haze, Piyal had sneaked out to the shed in the back yard. There he’d crouched on a pile of yellowing newspapers, hugging himself and rocking to and fro.

Having heard the truth from someone else for the first time, Piyal understood the gravity of his decision to marry all those years ago. Things always had a way of unravelling but he hadn’t seen this coming. He’d pretended to himself for so long that his life was alright as it was, he’d believed it. As he closed his eyes and rested his head on his hands, the truth which Chintha had calmly spread out in to the daylight consumed him – it did not appear to set him free. He only felt like an impostor.

Then one dark consideration slinked in unawares into his consciousness like a furtive taipan entering a patch of untamed bushland. He could end it – one’s life is in one’s own hands. One could switch the light off any time one wanted, snuff out that flickering flame from the clay lamp, the way he and his cousins used to as children when they visited the temple on pōya days, their roguish faces flushed with the rays of the full moon.

Above the low roof of the shed, Piyal had stared at the wooden beams criss-crossing to support the coconut leaf thatched roofing. As he lowered his eyes, he’d taken in the small bamboo ladder resting against the wall and the coils of rope hanging on a nail. Ending the suffering and the lies: it was not just a possibility, it would be a done deal so to speak.

And what of Gayan? He was created by another man. Yet Piyal loved him. His shoulders sagged as he reflected on the horrible karmic cycle he would set in motion for many lifetimes to come. Like circles of ripples generated by a pebble tossed into the centre of a pond, the action of taking one’s life now would only perpetuate the anguish in the passageway of samsara, continuing the tortured nature of his parent-child relationships yet to come. He called to mind a monk, venerable Seelaratana who he’d met at a forest monastery in Mithirigala. He’d counselled him concerning the splintered and tormented quality of his attachment with his family and had advised that he should strive to mend the rift and sort out any problems, especially his mother-issues before he died for they were the ones which would continue time and again, birth after birth.

Piyal’s mind had felt clogged, clamped with myriad theories on life and death. He’d learnt that the final perception at the last breath was very important. How could he compose himself to think good thoughts as he was about to end it all? His Buddhist belief system which did not support the taking of life, any life even if it was his own, prevailed in the end.

Staring at the exposed roof beams of the shed, Piyal knew the answer to the quandary. However miserable he might get and whatever lay in store for him and Chintha – this new bond needed to breathe, to flourish and to be given a fighting chance to make it in the world without a tragic cloud hanging over it.

The caaa-caaa-caaa mating call of the jungle crow jolted Piyal from his trance. He’d lost all track of time –dusk had crept in and shafts of light from the rear veranda cut through part of the latticed partition of the shed. The backyard was now soaked with artificial radiance from the exposed light bulb hanging in the porch.

In a heavy but more composed mood, Piyal stepped out of the shed and gradually paced towards the back door. As he reached it, he heard the sound of pots and pans banging against each other in the kitchen and the luscious aroma of frying onion and spices.

 

***

 

 

 

Author Bio: Samantha Sirimanne Hyde, born 1960, is a Sri Lankan Australian.  She has published a collection of short fiction and her work has appeared in several anthologies.

 

Glossary:

Aiyo: an exclamation conveying disappointment

Hakoba: type of embroidered sari

Māmā: uncle

nāand sal: types of evergreen trees with large fragrant flowers, found mainly in the Indian subcontinent

pōya: full moon day, religious importance to Buddhists

Putha: son

samsara:cycle of birth

 

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

 

 

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