When Mother Lay Dying
The day before she died, mother called all of us home. They were already there, in the lounge warming their hands, when I arrived. They looked at me accusingly and said, 'You are late.' I nodded curtly and walked on to the mother's room. The middle sister followed me, whispering. 'She is in a bad way. Do not excite her.'
Mother lay there covered with thick blankets. Her pale face and sharp features were shrouded in white mist. She was snoring softly.
'Mother, look who is here,' she cooed in mother's ears. She acted as though by preceding me by few hours, she had more claim on her than me. I glared at her. 'I will see you, you all.'
Mother stirred gently and opened her eyes. She smiled and beckoned me over. I bent over her and let her kiss my forehead and comb my hair with her thin, knotty fingers.
'It must be freezing out. You are cold all over.'
The room had a medicinal, herbal smell, and the stool beside the bed had water bottle, cotton, vials, spectacles. A beautiful fire warmed it and made it cosy. I rubbed her hands, quietly watching her breathe unevenly. Her eyes had closed over with fatigue, and her lips twitched with nervousness.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and said, 'Listen, I want to ask you something....'
Then they all trooped in, in a single file. My brothers and sisters with their wives and husbands, and a lot of children. The children stamped their feet and made noises. Their mothers scolded them and their fathers scolded their mothers. I scolded all of them. Mother wants rest, you fools. Let her sleep, now. Children huffed at me, while their mothers dragged them out to other rooms. They did not want to sleep, yet.
Now there were only brothers and husbands left in the room, scattered around the fireplace. They looked gloomy but OK, now that children and wives were gone, and asked if mother was fine, mother said she was. They said tea would not be bad, if someone would only get it. 'Yes,' I said, 'if only someone would get it.' It shut them up.
Mother lay there, looking more scared than ever. It broke my heart to see her like that. I began reciting verses. Everyone became uneasy. I wanted it like that. Uneasy and mournful. Mother deserved that, at least. They pretended to look into phones. I said they should go and rest. 'Why?' they asked, sharply. 'Someone needs to keep vigil over her.' 'And you are keeping a vigil over her?' They slinked off, then.
I tiptoed to the door and stood indecisively. I could feel mother looking at me through narrowed eyes. She called me, and I was surprised at the resolution in her voice. I went to her and she patted her left side. I snuggled up into her and held her hands under the blankets. She was cold, but like her body had exhausted the warmth, the breath, the life given it.
She said, 'After father went to work, and your brothers and sisters to school, we would go up to the rooftops to read. You were four and a half, then. The wind would get into our hair and mild sunshine into our pores.'
Once, I looked up and saw the whole sky was packed with snakes. There was no sun, no cloud, no soaring eagle. Just millions of snakes, flying. I cried out, 'Look at the sky. It is full of snakes.' And you said mildly, 'Yes, Mom.' Like that. 'Yes, Mom.' Then they all disappeared in an instant. I was numbed with dread and incomprehension. Perhaps you did not see what I had seen. I wanted to be sure and said, to make you talk, 'What do you think it was, dear, the sky full of snakes?' And you said angrily, 'What is it to me, Mom, if the sky is full of snakes or full of stars?'
You were a quiet, moody kid, and I was afraid of you in a way. I could not bring myself again to talk about it. And strangely even you did not mention it to your father and siblings when they returned. I would search your face. You never let out if you had seen it or not, not even when we were alone. And ever since, I have been obliged to you as if you were keeping some kind of my secret.
'Now, please, I ask you....'
She was breathless, and looked like a sodden sparrow, shivering. Something melted inside me. I got out and threw wood chips into the fire. I could feel her gaze at my back. Did I remember that sunny, breezy day? I turned to her and fixed my eyes on her face, 'Mom, please do not be scared. You have always been good and kind.'
And I thought, Mom, it is your funeral, tomorrow. It is not mine, yet.
Sobia Ali is from India and has Master's degree in English Literatur. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, The Punch Magazine, The Indian Quarterly, The Bosphorus Review of Books, trampset, Kitaab, ActiveMuse, Ombak Magazine, Literary Yard and is forthcoming in Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature and elsewhere. She is currently working on her novel.