(published in Bodies in Motion, 2005)
Villa’s hand shakes like an old man’s as he crouches naked in the dark room, a tin bowl of water before him, a thin washcloth in his hand. It is miserably hot, the worst of the Jaffna summer heat, and he knows that by the time he walks from his house to where the Tigers are encamped, he will be drenched in sweat. Still, he must do what he can, and so Villa dips the cloth into cool well water, passes it over his thin body. He has always been thin, but the deprivations of the recent troubles have left him emaciated, his bones poking out, sharp against loose skin. He rubs the skin fiercely, to compensate for the lack of soap, to compensate for all that has happened — rubs until his skin feels scraped raw, flushed and swollen. When the cloth goes dry, he reaches for more water, and overbalances, falling sharply onto one bony knee, unable to catch himself with only one good arm. The other hangs limp at his side, useless since the bullet caught it. He resents it, and at the same time is grateful to it. Its obvious uselessness is all that saved his life the last time the army came through.
As he washes himself, he composes a letter to his cousin in America. It is a letter he can never send — so many factors conspire to keep him from speaking as frankly to her as he would like. But for long years, ever since his cousin first wrote to him expressing her condolences over the untimely death of his father, offering to take up the correspondence their parents, siblings, had shared, Villa has kept up a secret conversation with her, in his mind. For every line that he puts down on paper, that he shows his wife, that is undoubtedly read by the Tigers before it finally makes its way across the seas, Villa writes a dozen more in the cavern of his mind, lines that echo there, pulsing with truths that cannot be spoken.
If he could, he would say,
Kili, dear cousin, I do not know if this letter will reach you. Not because of the troubles — not yet. Letters are still going through; we are not yet to the days my father once spoke of, when he would send letters to his sister in Oxford, your mother, not knowing if they would ever be delivered. She left Colombo in an evil time, going to school in the midst of war. I was only a child, three or four, but I remember how appama, our grandmother, wept at the harbor. Did her father know what he sent her to, in 1942? Would he have kept her back, if he could have, safe, by his side?
But Samiksha Aunty survived, and married, and received at least a few of my father’s letters. She wrote back through the war, the end of the war, the move to America, the six children she bore. My father kept them all, you know. So many letters. I could write to your mother and ask her if she wants them back — but letters belong by rights to their recipients. It is dangerous, to try to hold onto your words. And I find a certain comfort in laying my fingers against the thin blue paper. I close my eyes and imagine America, imagine freedom, and prosperity, and peace. You have told me, over and over, that America has its own troubles, and I trust you are correct — but Kili, cousin, I must tell you that America does not know what trouble is.
Villa will not write that, of course. Can hardly bear to think of his own troubles, much less put them down on paper. As he rises from his body wash, he remembers the room he used to bathe in, as a boy in Colombo, in his grandfather’s house. Hot running water in the silver taps, a marble tub big enough to sail small fleets across — and he had those fleets too, light wood boats carved by that same doting grandfather. He had sailed his boats in the tub, in the small pond in the gardens behind the big house. He had played tennis in the tennis courts, had taken meals at his grandfather’s club, had enjoyed all the privileges of a young Tamil gentleman in Sri Lanka’s capital city, both while the British ruled, and after their departure.
He had been twenty-two in 1958, when the first riots erupted in the streets, Tamil and Sinhalese neighbors lifting hands and sticks and rocks to each other. Villa had not wanted to leave the capital, but his parents had insisted that they would all be safer in Jaffna — and besides, there was a girl there that they had heard about, a beautiful, respectable girl, a doctor’s daughter, a very good match for their son. If he would just come north with them and meet her…
In the end, Villa was a good son. He did as his parents wanted, and went north. He met the girl, and she was indeed most beautiful. Villa married her within a year, and settled in a nearby village. They worked, and talked, and sometimes laughed. They made plans to move back to Colombo in a few years, when things settled down. They were blessed with children.
It is photos of those children that Villa sees now, as he steps, naked, from one dark room to the next. A black and white photo on the dresser, two smiling faces. His daughter Munjula is seven in that photo; his son, Pugal, is only six. Their faces are so small.
Villa turns from the dresser to the bed where his clothes are laid out. His wife is not speaking to him, but she has pressed the clothes flat for him, as best she can. She knows he must look good today. A pillar of the community; a man of stature. Someone worth listening to.
If he only knew what to say.
Shall I hold on to these words? My wife does not want me to write to you. She has a myriad of reasons, and some of them are even good ones. She worries that this letter may fall into unsympathetic hands, that it might be used against the Movement. She is afraid that if the Tigers read it, our children might be put in further danger. She believes that it is better to keep your problems to yourself, and that distant family, in America, family we have never even met, are not really family at all.
If my wife were writing to you, she would only tell you good things. Oh, she might go on at length about the injustices Tamils have been subjected to, here on this island where we, the minority, once ruled like kings. She would bemoan the loss of my grandfather’s fine house in Colombo, with its cars and chauffeurs, its marble floors, its Sinhalese servants, though she never lived there herself. She would speak of those few Sinhalese who were once our neighbors, our friends, in such language that makes me embarrassed to call her my wife. But she would not say one word against the LTTE, the Tigers, despite what they have now done to us.
Villa sits down on the bed, which creaks under his slight, sudden weight. He shrugs the shirt over his arms, pulls it closed against his sunken chest. He does not think about his limp arm; it has been years since the incident, and he has long since learned to cope, uncomplaining, with everyday life. Others may have praised his courage, his fortitude, in dealing with the injury, but Villa never saw much worthy of praise in his actions. In the end, it was not so big a thing, to lose the use of an arm. It was bearable. It would not break him.
It made life harder for his wife, though. Villa had rarely made love to her before, and after the incident, he had an even better excuse for avoiding such activity. She was too proud to ask, and so he became celibate. It was easier.
And of course, cousin Kili, my wife also does not want me to write to you because she is jealous. She has resented you since that first letter you sent. Although you and I have never met, I have enjoyed an intimacy within our letters that I have never found with my wife. When my marriage was arranged, I was pleased; she was a beautiful girl. And in many ways she has been a good wife, has taken care of me and of our children as well as she could, given the circumstances. But we have never learned how to talk together. We do not share the same beliefs.
She is bitter, my wife. She mourns the loss of our fine things; she grieves for the house that was promised her, the beautiful home she will never have. I decided my father was right to bring his family to Jaffna, to this northern Tamil stronghold. I thought that we were surrounded by our own people, we would be safer, and so I did not take her to Colombo when I could. And now, see — we are trapped. The fighting comes to us, and we have no resources to escape it.
Villa looks up from his shirt buttons to see her standing there, in the doorway. She is still beautiful, his wife. Her hair falls past her waist, dark and rich as a girl’s. But he feels no pang of desire when he sees her — he is only reminded of their daughter, their Munjula, who has chopped her hair short. All that beautiful hair, which should by rights have helped win her a perfect husband. Villa hadn’t asked for a rich man for his daughter — he had never cared for that. He had only wanted someone kind, someone patient enough to put up with her high spirits, her passionate ways. A husband who would cherish his daughter’s fierce soul, would train it to worthy tasks.
There might have been a time when we could have left for America. You so kindly offered to send us money for the trip — it would have shamed me to accept it, but I would have, for the sake of my family. Since moving to Jaffna, I have tried one business after another, to support my wife and children, but I have not had much luck. I was never meant to be a businessman, you know. I was bred to be a gentleman of leisure, to read Shakespeare and the Ramayana, to argue about the relative merits of each. I was once a fine batsman, the pride of our cricket team. I ate roast beef with horseradish for lunch, and an array of breads and rich curries for dinner. And now — now my wife eats plain rice for her single meal. She has grown so thin, my wife. Yet she always set some of her portion aside for the children.
They are so beautiful, my children. You should see them, Kili.
I would have gone to America, would have tried my luck there. But my wife did not want to leave her home. Her friends are here, her relatives. Having made one mistake, having kept her from comfort and relative safety, kept her here, trapped in this disaster, how could I have forced her again?
I should have. I know. It is a man’s responsibility to make such decisions for his family. I can hear you now, cousin, chiding me for my old-fashioned attitudes. Things are different in America. You yourself married a white boy, without even telling your own father — and when he found out, he didn’t even beat you for it. If my own daughter, my Munju, had done such a thing, I would have considered myself within my rights to beat her to within an inch of her life. It would have been for her own good. I know, I know what you will say. You don’t need to say it. I would never have been able to do it, even if I knew it to be the right course of action. I have always been helpless where my daughter was concerned. I have spoiled her terribly; she has grown impossibly willful. You warned me.
His wife says nothing from the doorway, only stares, scornful, as Villa slowly stands, pulls on his pants. The pants and shirt have lain in a suitcase for years; he has become accustomed to wear only a sarong, has grown dark-skinned as a field worker here. But today he will wear pants, and socks, and shoes, despite the parching heat. He buttons the pants, then sits down again, pulls on the socks. The shoes are more difficult — they have laces, and he has never needed to tie laces with one hand. She watches him fumble for endless minutes, then, with quick impatient steps, comes to kneel in front of him.
Villa leans back while his wife ties the laces on his shoes. He is surprised when, finished, she does not immediately get up. She leans her forehead against his knee instead, her face hidden in a darkness of falling hair. Villa tentatively rests one hand on her shoulder and finds it shaking. His wife, his proud, unloved wife is weeping. In sixteen years of marriage, Villa has never seen her cry. It is this that comes closest to breaking him, in the end.
Oh, Kili, Kili — in this letter I will not send, may I finally tell you how I have sorrowed for your childless state. Your words, so terse, when you told me that you had lost another baby, that you did not think you would be able to bear a child… I went to church that very day and prayed for you. I have kept you in my prayers ever since, though perhaps God does not listen to those who are angry at Him.
I have been angry, I admit it. You have given me so much wise counsel over the years regarding my own children — you deserved to have children of your own. I could hear in your words, when you asked after my son and daughter, the hunger you held. I could hear the grief mixed in with joy, when you sent letters announcing the birth of your sisters’ children. It is a pleasure, I am certain, to be their favorite Aunty, but it is not the same. To know that a child looks to you as their parent, that in your hands you hold all their hope and trust — that knowledge is a terror and a delight beyond anything I have ever known. I would that you had known it too, cousin.
If I had over-ridden my wife’s objections, and at least sent the children to you, to study in America, how things would be different now! My wife was jealous at the thought of you raising our daughter and son; she selfishly wanted to keep them close to her. And now see — see what has happened.
I cannot tell you what has happened. I cannot send this letter with that news. I am thinking it only, imagining that I am writing to my beloved cousin, the friend of my heart. In this way I may tell you all I never dared to write down. I may admit that I have loved you for years, your courage, your strength, though I know you do not love me. I may tell you that I do not blame you for not loving me, considering what a failure of a life I have lived. I have not provided for my family; I have not managed to love my wife; I have not even protected my children. I am the most futile, ineffectual man I have ever known. Perhaps it is better not to have children, than to fail them so. Perhaps you are the lucky one after all — though I am certain that if you had been in my place, you, even as a woman, would have done far better than I have done.
Villa stands, pulls his wife up into his arms, holding her close. She is stiff against him, but does not pull away. They stand there for long moments, taking what comfort they can in each other. It is meager sustenance, but they have been starving for months. They have learned to live on crumbs.
His wife is angry with him, he knows. Villa is angry with her too. They both blame each other for what has happened, and he does not know, at this point, who has the truth of it. Perhaps it is both their faults, or neither’s. In some ways, it is easier, having someone safe to blame.
Others are not safe to blame. Others can destroy you in a single moment, at night, with loud knocking at your flimsy door.
Kili, my son has been taken. The army came and took him away on suspicion of being a Tiger. Can you imagine it? My gentle boy, always dreamy, always with his nose in a book. Can you imagine Pugal in the jungle, training as a guerrilla fighter? They wear suicide capsules on a cord around their necks, Prabhakaran’s fighters, so that if they are taken, they may die before giving any information. They are a most perfect young army — they are not allowed to drink, or smoke, or have sex, or marry. They are united in their cause, to fight for a separate Tamil country, a Tamil Eelam, as they call it, to fight against the injustices.
There have been injustices, many of them. There have been tortures of Tamils, and rapes, and deaths. I could tell you stories — not rumors, but incidents which have happened to people I know — stories that would drive you from your comfortable Chicago home to cry out into the night. Young Tamil men with burning tires around their neck. Young women and old, raped, ruined, killed and raped again. Aged fathers forced to watch while their children are beaten, shot, thrown from high windows.
It has been months now since they took him to Colombo, to that fourth floor room we have heard of, from which none return. I have heard him screaming, every night since then, in my dreams.
He was only fifteen years of age, my son. So beautiful, so bright. Pugal wanted to be a doctor, like you, his admired Aunty. Kili, I would have sent him to you, oh soon, soon. I would have told my wife to be quiet, would have taken your money and bought him a ticket, smuggled him out to the capital, to the airport, somehow. You must believe — I would have sent my boy to you.
It would soon be dark — Villa needed to go now, before it got too dark, too late. Before he lost his nerve. He released his wife, and she stepped back. She followed him as he walked to the door, handed him a walking stick as he stepped out. Stood in the doorway, watching, as he walked down the path with strong steps, heading towards the road, then to the jungle.
In this, if nothing else, she would support him. Finally, they were united.
My wife has been a fervent supporter of the Tigers, as are the majority of our neighbors, our friends. If she were younger, I think my wife would have gone and joined the Tigers herself. Would have lived in the jungle, would have learned to use a rifle, would, without compunction, have shot to kill. Perhaps she would have been happier with them.
But even she cannot be glad that our little girl, our Munjula, has ignored our every protest, has snuck off in the middle of the night and gone to join the Movement. Munju is mad with grief for her brother. She is sure we will not see him again.
Now I must do what I can for my daughter. I must go to the fighters, must plead with Prabhakaran himself. She is only sixteen, our Munju. She is underage, so perhaps he will let her go, will send her back to her grieving parents.
If he does, then I will do one thing right, at least. I will beg and borrow, threaten and cajole — whatever I must to find her a ticket, to put her on a plane and send her to you. If I can only succeed in getting her back, then I will write to you, my dear cousin, will beg you to take her in, as I know you will.
I will send my remaining child away, that I might not fail her too.
I will write you a letter.