The first time Shejal turns to ice, her mother finds her coiled up after nap-time, blue and still while the pre-dusk heat is rising and her uneaten after-school roti curls at the edges. Mother freezes herself, stomach roiling, until the puffs of shimmery steam around her daughter's nose penetrate her horrified brain as breaths. Shejal is alive, trapped in the mask of frozen water. She can be thawed out.
Mother strokes Shejal's forehead, wanting to transfer her own warmth, the thump of her heartbeat, but the greyish skin burns against her fingertips. Her arms itch to hold her icy child. She'd been spending so much time at the bank, craving the promotion to assistant manager, and Shejal stayed in her room and spoilt her Maths book. Mother can't remember the last time she'd kissed her daughter and now their lips would painfully fuse.
Hot towels steam satisfyingly but turn tepid against Shejal's armour of cold. Mother switches off the AC, opens the windows to the stifling Kottayam heat, heedless of the early evening influx of hungry mosquitos. They leave parts on the icy mound that is Shejal, wings, legs, probing tongues. The room shimmers more but Shejal doesn't stir.
Mother collapses in a chair. She doesn't mean to but sleep washes over her anyway, fatigue numbing her limbs while her brain fights against it and loses. She dreams of cool breezes and a warm hand smoothing her hair.
Shejal thaws in the night while her mother smiles in her sleep. She wakes up ravenous, breaks off pieces of roti with deadened fingers. Shejal lies back down without waking the other occupant of the room, until the morning sun warms them both. Her mother hears the soft breathing of her daughter, hopes the hours before have been a heat-induced reverie.
The second time Shejal turns to ice, her mother waits for the evening, sends the maid away, doesn't sleep or eat until the creeping dawn brings a flush to her daughter's frosty skin. The third time, the fourth she repeats the routine, accepting the ebb and flow of her daughter's changes, hoping that they will pass.
The seventh time, Mother notices that Shejal is pale during the day, her hair is losing its sheen, she's yawning almost as soon as she wakes. The changes aren't dwindling, they're fading Shejal's strength. Watching and waiting isn't enough.
Vembanad lake is an impulse, a memory of family picnics and bird-watching when they were people who talked to each other. When her husband was still alive. She bundles Shejal into their ancient Maruthi van, swaddled head cradled in her lap as she drives down to the cool indigo water. The breezes brush through Mother's sweaty hair, Shejal hibernates in her glacial cocoon and the teeming life of the lake floats by.
Cormorants dive straight down, herons lie quietly in wait, darters stalk their prey. They take what they need. Tourists drop their rubbish into the reeds, the fish flee or choke, unless they bask in the bamboo sanctuaries the fisherfolk have made to protect them from harm.
Houseboats sail past, single decker and double decker, families and couples and lone travellers. Most hold a camera or phone between them and the scenery, capturing flying egrets and working fishermen with equal enthusiasm. Mother wonders if they've noticed the barriers they've put between themselves and the dazzling landscape, the gentle rocking of the water, the earthy smell of the reeds. Or the destruction they leave in their wake.
Her husband never brought a camera, but sometimes he'd draw on scraps of paper and Shejal would pose. Her face was open then, gleaming teeth and dimples emerging as she grinned. Mother sang songs from the Raj Kapoor movies she grew up with, and they would dance, all knock knees and swinging hair until one of them fell over and they giggled. Shejal told stories about school and guitar lessons and playdates and Mother and Father would try to keep up with the flood of names.
Shejal's barrier has manifested itself, with layers of frost and frazil. Mother put up the invisible obstacles between them, overtime and maids and Maths tutoring, things that seemed important in the recycled atmosphere of her office or the frigid silence of their apartment but are disappearing in the open air.
Mother sings snatches of the old songs now. Shejal stirs, they have only been there for an hour but her skin is flushed with pink. Her eyes half-open, and her cheek dimples as Mother strokes her damp brow.
'"What happened, ammi?'"
A woman by the lake edge waves as she turns away with her catch. Mother waves back.
'"We were frozen, beta, but now we have thawed.'"
is British-Asian, London-based, and fuelled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in The Ilanot Review
and Little Fiction
. She's on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction
, an editor at Mythic Picnic
's Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer
. Her debut flash collection, "Families and other natural disasters," is available from Reflex Press.