Originally published in “Whether Change: The Revolution Will Be Weird” by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski, 2021
Amudhini reached out to touch her husband’s hand, feeling guilty about disturbing his sleep, but needing the reassurance. Outside their window, the sun was climbing in the sky, and all seemed well, but Amu’s sleep had been troubled. A roiling mass of incoherent dreams, dark figures striding across a shadowed landscape, torches blazing. Stephen made a small, grumbly noise, but then his fingers curled around hers, squeezing.
“You okay?” he asked.
He tugged, and she shifted closer, into the shelter of his arms. She pressed her face against his smooth chest, inhaled the reassuring scent of him. “Me too,” he said. “All those torches…”
Amudhini took a quick, startled breath. It had been a long, long time since they’d walked in each others’ dreams. It happened so rarely once the children had arrived. She’d assumed the gift had mostly been smothered by the daily weight of meal planning, homework supervising, doctor’s appointments and clothes sorting. Their minds were so full, between the children and their own work, there wasn’t much room left for…well, whatever the dream-walking had been. They’d never really found a good word for it.
“Mom!” Roshan at the bedroom door, sounding vaguely irritated. “Your phone keeps buzzing and buzzing.” He held it out in one hand, his eyes still fixed on the device in his other hand, undoubtedly deep into whatever game he was currently playing.
“Thanks, sweetie.” She’d decided to try keeping the phone not in the bedroom, hoping to sleep better, but hadn’t factored in that some callers could be persistent. “It’s Shruthi; I’d better call her back.”
“You don’t want to talk about this?” Stephen frowned in concern.
“Later,” Amudhini said. She reluctantly left the shelter of his arms, sitting up in the bed. “Shruthi was on-call last night, and you know Darnell is slammed right now too. She can’t talk to him as much as she’d like. All the riots are bringing back bad memories from that time she got caught in one, back in Sri Lanka. I’m sure she got a lot less sleep than we did.”
Stephen nodded and settled back under the covers, closing his eyes – he was an owl, not a lark, and would be deep in sleep again shortly. Amudhini swung her legs out of the bed and got to her feet. Time to get to work.
The phone buzzed again, a few minutes after she finished the call with Shruthi. A group text: “We’ll be at the Cicero-290 bridge tonight, starting at 5. They’re shutting down the subway. If you’re walking over, don’t walk alone. Join us if you can.”
The sewing machine hummed along soothingly, until it didn’t, and Amudhini bit back a curse as it juddered to a halt. What now? She’d made hundreds of masks at this point, had gotten the rhythm down of turning the corners, avoiding getting fabric caught up as she backstitched, only needing to pause long enough to wind a new bobbin once in a while. If the machine cooperated, she could turn out four masks in an hour, and usually could find an hour or two each day to sew, in between work and the kids. But sometimes it seemed like the machine was possessed by some demon, and there was nothing to do but summon every ounce of patience and try to diagnose the problem.
Patience had never been one of her virtues. She wanted it all, she wanted it badly, and she wanted it now.
But at almost-fifty, Amudhini had had a few lessons ground into her. She was slow as she tugged at the fabric, pulling it away enough to snip the thread tangle free. She was careful undoing the screws, removing the throat plate, opening up the dark heart of her willful monster. Nothing obvious, but she blew out a few forceful breaths, hoping to free whatever dust or bits of thread might be clogging the mechanism. And then put it all back together, rethreaded bobbin and spool once again, inserted the fabric, sent a little prayer out into the universe. Please. And then foot down, steady and slow – thank you, universe. It was working again.
Stephen’s voice interrupted her moment of triumph and relief — “Are you going to help Roshan with his schoolwork? He’s barely done any in a month, the teachers want something to assess before the end of the year, and I have to be on a Zoom from 10-12.”
“Can you get him started? I’ll try to check in.” It had turned out that helping Roshan with schoolwork required every bit of patience that Amudhini had, and more. Mostly, she didn’t even try, leaving it to Stephen, who didn’t love it either, but handled it better. “I promised Shruthi that I’d get her a dozen more masks for her nurses by the weekend. They’re having a hard time breathing through the new yellow ones they’ve been issued.”
“Okay,” Stephen said. A little irritation in his voice, but smothered down, and Amudhini wasn’t worried about it. Mostly. He supported her sewing masks; he even cut the filter fabric for her, to save her a little time. But he’d also asked, “Are you sure you need to be the one doing this? Is this the best use of your time?”
She didn’t know. Amudhini didn’t know what was the best use of her time, and so she tried to do a little of everything. At least everything that she was good at, hoping that somewhere in there, she was doing some good. The world was so broken, especially now. Her friend Shmuel had told her there was a Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. He’d repeated the words one rabbi had supposedly said: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Sometimes, it was hard not to be daunted. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Amudhini wasn’t actually religious; she wasn’t sure a God existed at all. But whatever she believed in, she believed in what they owed to each other as human beings. You are not free to abandon it.
Thread snapped. Dammit. Time to re-thread the machine. Again.
The last time she and Stephen had shared a dream was three years ago. They’d actually gone away for an anniversary, renting a room at the Drake for two nights, leaving the children with sitters. Meena thought that at ten, she was definitely old enough to babysit eight-year-old Roshan, but her parents didn’t agree. Amudhini hadn’t quite known what to do with Stephen once she had him to herself – they’d eaten a nice meal, gone to a movie. The second day, they’d tried playing a board game, which went well enough, and they’d finally ended up in bed, in the middle of the afternoon, enjoying slow, teasing sex, the kind of sex they hadn’t had in years.
In the dream afterwards, she was a lizard again, the way she’d been all those years before. It wasn’t the avatar she would have chosen. Amudhini would’ve liked to be a lion, or an elephant, something with substance. But no, a lizard sunning herself by the side of a pond, and Stephen a turtle, swimming placidly from side to side, thinking deep turtle thoughts. Nothing of consequence in the dream, but when they woke, he turned to her and smiled, and they were twenty-two again, when all of this had started. They’d had an entire summer living half in dream, and even now, Amudhini couldn’t say quite why it had all unraveled.
But oh, that hurt to think about, and besides, there was more work to do. There was always more work to do.
The mom groups were full of anxiety, pandemic fears now overlaid with the rising tide of protests, violence erupting. Everyone talking, analyzing – are they really agitators rather than protestors, attacking cop cars, breaking store windows? They’d all been wound so tight after months of sudden shelter-in-place, so many losing jobs, losing homes, afraid of losing everything. It didn’t seem surprising to her that the desperate might take an opportunity to take something back from an uncaring city.
Stephen thought the looters were actually agitators, but Amudhini wasn’t so sure. He’d never had to scramble for a job, never dodged a landlord in a street the way she had, months behind on the rent. He didn’t understand how terror gripped you, turning your stomach inside out as you stared at the bills, shunting money from one credit card to another, numbers just growing every time, threatening to eat you alive.
They’d argued last night, before bed. Analysis was one of Stephen’s strengths, and maybe this white man had a better handle on the situation than she did. She hoped he was right. But as she scrolled through the posts online, she couldn’t help noticing how different the tone was, between her Black friends and the rest. What was there that she didn’t understand either? Brown wasn’t the same as Black, even if they chose to stand shoulder to shoulder. Not in America.
In the progressive voter group, Shruthi had posted, again and again. A gory photo of a photojournalist who’d lost an eye to a rubber bullet. A medic tent, cops viciously stabbing their water bottles, bandages crumpled at their booted feet. Her latest repost was a resource guide for staying safe while protesting:
- Wear a mask and keep it on. You will be in close proximity to others and also potentially yelling / singing (which may increase risk through increased projection of viral droplets).
- Carry hand sanitizer. If you can’t get to a place where you can wash your hands, this is very important.
- Plan for possible exposure to chemical irritants…
Plan for possible exposure to chemical irritants. There were a dozen more items on the list, but Amudhini didn’t want to read them. Reading Shruthi’s posts were often guilt-inducing on multiple fronts. They’d had a dream of a summer, but when fall came, the cooler air brought tensions with it. September was a time for making plans, setting goals, and it turned out they didn’t want the same things. Hard enough to merge two people’s dreams – adding a third and fourth made it exponentially more difficult. In the end, Darnell had gone off to med school in Connecticut, and though they tried to keep things going for a few months, long distance was never easy. Shruthi had followed him, in the end; Amudhini and Stephen moved out west for grad school.
But Amu often wondered if the four of them might have survived, if Amudhini had tried harder. They’d heard it often enough back then, it had become a mantra: communication is rule number one in a poly relationship. That applied to a monogamous marriage too, of course. You had to open your mouth and talk about what was bothering you, hurting you. Shine a little sunlight on the wound, give it a chance to heal. But it was so much easier to stay silent.
Shruthi was always a deer, dipping a graceful head to drink from the clear spring at the rocky edge of the pond. And Darnell, a monarch butterfly. Not the creature Amudhini would have picked for him, but somehow perfect – beautiful and fragile and rare. They’d spent weekends cooking ridiculously elaborate food, feeding it to each other. Then falling asleep a sweaty tangle in the bed, eight arms and eight legs finding space to coexist, to live a second life in shared forest dreams.
Shruthi had just started training to become a psychiatrist then; sometimes she would start talking about Jungian archetypes, a collective unconsciousness. But all they really knew was that together, they were magic, living outside the rules of space and time and society. Twenty-five years later, Amudhini still ached at the loss.
She closed Shruthi’s posts and shifted attention to the garden club group, a refuge.
Amudhini still had a dozen tomatoes to get in the ground, and not enough sunlit space for them. She tried to remember to water all her seedlings daily, but the day slipped by faster than seemed possible, and sometimes she forgot, only to be confronted with a withered leaf, seed mix gone dry and hard. She hated the waste of all that initial time and care, a living thing starved of what it needed to survive.
After somewhat frenetically starting thousands of seeds two months ago, Amudhini had mostly managed to accomplish the deaths of many seedlings. You could skip watering them for a few days, if you’d spent the extra money for a self-watering tray, but eventually, seedlings needed care. One proverb claimed the best fertilizer is the footsteps of the gardener – you had to actually walk through your garden regularly, or in this case, walk down to the basement with its grow lights, so you’d notice which plants had started to droop.
She’d tried to get the children to take over that duty, but they seemed to need prodding for everything these days. Roshan grumbled at every additional task added to his chore board, heaving heavy sighs which made Amudhini want to scream. Meena mostly hid up in her room in the attic. Amudhini fretted that her teenage daughter might be slipping into depression up there, all alone for hours, but Meena insisted that she was fine. She was mostly keeping up with her schoolwork, and if she actually spent most of her time FaceTiming with her friends and watching TV, Amudhini didn’t have the heart to yank her away from that comfort.
Someone had posted a method for string-growing tomatoes, which was more compact than using cages, but you needed tomato twine, which she didn’t have. These days every purchase came with the question of whether it was better to order online (more cardboard to smother the planet, more time saved) or go to a store (more health risk to them all, more support for a local business). Exhausting calculations, and often, she chose the easiest path, pushing down the guilt. She’d wait to make a decision about the tomatoes, giving them a little more water to get them through the day. Maybe tomorrow things would be clearer.
Stephen and Amudhini converged in the kitchen, assembling lunches of leftovers. Amudhini said, “We need milk – I can walk to the store…” Her heart already lifting at the thought, a few blocks’ walk down the street, perhaps waving hello to neighbors from six feet away.
He frowned. “Can we manage ‘til tomorrow? I can put it on a delivery order for the morning.”
Amudhini took a quick breath, biting back annoyance, and said, “Yes, we can manage.” There was some powdered milk buried on a shelf still. It wasn’t good, but it would do.
If it were up to Stephen, they’d huddle together in this house for months on end. When Amudhini had brought up the possibility of renting a few weeks at a lake house for the summer, he’d immediately said those beaches were too crowded, didn’t she remember the last time they’d gone? And he’d been reading about the disease more, the long-term consequences for even asymptomatic children –
— Amudhini had cut him off, not needing to hear any more. Fine, that’s fine. Never mind.
You were supposed to compromise in a marriage. If her husband lived at 1 on the caution scale, and she lived at 3, then they’d have to try to meet somewhere, and closer to his side than to hers. 1.5. 1.2. That was only fair, since he was the one who thought the risk was greater, but sometimes it was hard to bear.
Amudhini could’ve asked Stephen to help with the weeding, but they’d survived the last three months by giving each other as much space in the house as possible, so she was working alone, with a podcast to distract her. She should’ve gotten up earlier, done an hour before the heat of the day descended. Now Amudhini suffered for her sloth, sweat trickling down her back, breath coming hot and miserable under the mask. Sometimes she didn’t wear the mask when working in her own garden, but that carried its own penalty; inevitably, Amudhini was stabbed with guilt whenever someone stepped into the street to get a little further away.
She pulled up nutsedge and quackgrass, chickweed and lambsquarters, listening to an interview with chef Alice Waters. Waters said that we’d been lied to, that beauty wasn’t about spending money. She said, “beauty is the language of care.”
Wasn’t that why Amudhini’s father had cut mangoes for them, peeling the fruit carefully, why she did the same now for her family? Every day for the last few weeks, now that mangoes were in season, Amudhini had peeled mangoes for her children, leaving a full plate on the counter. She’d remind Roshan to leave half for his sister, and would keep only the seed for herself, the parents’ lot. A small note of joy and grace, a gift to the little ones in a hard time, when they’d lost so much, more than they realized.
Waters would surely know which of these weeds were edible. When so many were enduring economic hardship, it felt particularly terrible to waste food. The dandelions Amudhini had pulled a month ago had made a tasty ice cream. Flowers rinsed, petals removed and steeped in boiling water, petals strained out, and the dandelion water blended with honey. It tasted like herbs and sunshine, like summer around the corner. Dandelion root was supposed to make a good ice cream too, reminiscent of coffee.
They’d often cooked together, the four of them. That was one of their particular joys, the pleasure of quibbling over just how much cayenne to add to the curry, endless attempts to bake the perfect sourdough loaf. The boys took up brewing that summer, hauling vats of boiling water up and down the apartment’s back deck stairs to the shared backyard, and while Amudhini couldn’t make herself like beer, Darnell and Stephen had brewed her a beautiful honey mead.
One night, they all ended up on the back porch late at night, huddled under sleeping bags, well past tipsy and not caring that they were being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Shushing each other – you’ll wake the neighbors – but Shruthi was a screamer. Amudhini covered Shruthi’s mouth with her own, swallowing down Shurthi’s pleasure while the boys took care of business, trying not to laugh out loud with the sheer joy of it all.
They’d fallen asleep out there eventually, exhausted from their efforts, and met again in dream. That night, the two girls explored the forest, Amudhini riding on Shruthi’s haunch, discovering a waterfall, a starlit meadow, a cave – and then fleeing an angry bear. They’d woken up laughing, then, consumed by itching, rushed inside to slather calamine lotion on each others’ backs, which inevitably led them back to bed.
Two podcasts done; time to switch tasks. Amudhini dumped the weeds in a trug and hauled them to the backyard compost bin. She didn’t have time or energy to turn them into something delicious today – Amudhini had back-to-back Zoom meetings for the next six hours, and the family would have to fend for themselves. Some days all they ate were peanut butter sandwiches and cereal.
To get to the compost bin, she had to pass the big burdock she’d asked Stephen to dig out. It still stood, getting taller every day, that nasty taproot getting longer, and threatening to send up its gorgeous spiky flower. It was tempting to leave it – that would be easier. But the problem was that it’d soon set seed; you’d end up with a garden full of burdock and not much else, prickly thistles tearing at your clothes, shredding skin. Some plants needed digging out, if you wanted a garden instead of wilderness.
Some ideas were equally pernicious, embedded in the fabric of their lives. That’s what Shruthi was doing, posting and posting and posting, somehow finding the time in between her telemedicine calls with patients, trying to counter the messages, change people’s minds. Sometimes Amudhini tried too, but there were days where the effort felt overwhelming. How did you fight state-sanctioned violence, embedded in hundreds of years of bitter history, emboldened by the tacit support of so many who benefited from the disparities? Was a social media post really going to make a difference, or was she just avoiding any real effort in the battle? Their enemies were entrenched, overwhelming.
Stupid burdock. Amudhini stared at it, trying to assess if she was strong enough to dig it out. She did most of the gardening, and her arms had some muscle, under their layer of fat, but Stephen was still stronger. Stupid biology. He’d probably forgotten about digging out the burdock – yesterday he’d been swamped in union meetings, trying to find the language to convince administration to hold onto jobs for the non-tenured faculty. Important work, and it certainly helped that he was a tenured white man math professor pushing fifty – they needed him in that room. But it still grated, that Amudhini would have to remind him about the digging. In a long marriage, you learned to let such things go, but it was harder now, trapped in close quarters for so long.
The Japanese considered burdock root a delicacy. Maybe Amudhini would ask Stephen to try to save this root when he dug it out – she could probably make a little time to cook it tomorrow. It would be satisfying to eat an enemy.
Another group text: Reminder: Bridge at 5; wear masks. Just a few hours away.
Darnell had posted to his Facebook story: Yesterday was like walking into fire. Today, there are flames on the side of my face. The story posts were like the kids’ Snapchat – they went live and then disappeared in twenty-four hours. Darnell rarely posted anything permanent, too wary of possible blowback at work. Walking into fire. He might be talking about the disease, or about the protests, or more probably both. Amudhini ached for him, wishing there was more she could do to help. She couldn’t sew masks for more than two hours a day; her back started to ache. Her body had limits.
Waters was right about the importance of care. But the problem was that so often, care took both energy and time. It took time to stand at the counter, peeling mangoes for the children. It took time to make a nice dinner out of garden weeds, instead of leaving the kids to assemble their own sandwiches.
You could sometimes buy extra time with money – they’d hired a biweekly cleaner for their home, and that might have been the best thing they ever did for their marriage. But they’d been paying the cleaner for three months now not to come, not wanting to put her and her children at risk. Roshan had learned to clean the toilets, true, but half the time, Amudhini ended up asking Stephen to redo them, because at ten, Roshan just wasn’t very careful.
What did you do when money couldn’t buy you time, when the world was on fire and everything needed care? Eventually, you ran out of both time and money and were forced to triage. Yet there was no ethical way to triage human lives; a disabled person’s life was not worth less than the able-bodied. The elderly had so much more weight to them than a child, so much knowledge and experience that might be lost too soon. And yet who could bear to let a child be at risk?
It hurt her heart, knowing that Darnell fought his way through that morass, every day, writing up plans for how his intensive care unit would handle triage, praying that his staff wouldn’t be faced with those choices. It never should have come to this – one full riot suit for a militarized policeman cost as much as fifty-five suits of PPE for healthcare workers. Darnell even had to decide who needed the scant PPE more, the nurses or the doctors or the front office staff. Impossible decisions, and yet someone had to make them. It had fallen to their butterfly, fragile and beautiful and rare, trying to weigh the value of human lives, in a world that seemed to count his own Black life as worthless. And then he came home exhausted to Shruthi and their boys.
A few years ago, Darnell and Shruthi had moved to the same town as Amudhini and Stephen, settling just six blocks away from Amudhini’s house. Yet the gap between them felt impassable.
Before dinner, Amudhini and Stephen chivved the children into a walk. She was grateful they were old enough not to complain at the need for masks, despite the heat. They were all getting plumper, losing condition, trapped within the confines of house and garden. Though it was churlish to complain, given how much space they had, compared to the neighbors in the apartment building next door.
The children skipped ahead, arguing amiably about some project in Minecraft, and Amudhini reached out, took Stephen’s hand in hers. He curled his fingers around hers, squeezing lightly. The tensions of the day had built up, but thankfully they dissipated in this, the touch of skin-to-skin.
After the foursome shattered, dissolved into two pairs, after they’d all hopscotched around the country for grad school and jobs, there had been a bad year. She and Stephen had broken up. Amudhini had lived all alone for months, alternately weeping and writing; at times, she’d felt like she was going mad from skin hunger. How many were suffering that now, trapped alone in apartments, dutifully following the rules? Sometimes Amudhini saw a friend walking across the street, and the urge to run over and hug them broke over her like an immense and brutal wave.
She and Stephen had found each other again, and somehow, a small miracle, managed to get jobs in the same city, the same university. And then Darnell got his job at Rush, and he and Shruthi had moved back from the East Coast, settling in this small suburban town. Two decades gone by, and they’d all finally wanted the same things: good schools, restaurants and theater. A queer-friendly town, which wasn’t directly relevant to their lives these days, but still mattering to them all. And what if the children didn’t end up straight? Too early to tell, but wise parents planned for the future.
Ethnically diverse, too. It certainly wasn’t perfect on the racial front, but this town had a strong history of fighting against discrimination, enacting legislation to resist white flight, welcoming immigrants. The children’s public schools were full of biracial and multiracial kids. There weren’t so many places where you could raise mixed-race children in relative safety in America; it wasn’t such a surprise that the four of them had all ended up here.
They’d invited Shruthi and Darnell over for dinner when they first arrived in town, the children sent to share pizza and video games in the basement. Darnell insisted on bringing fried chicken, the recipe he and Amudhini had developed together, the one she’d never managed to make properly on her own. The first bite of spicy, crispy skin brought tears to her eyes. It was too late now to go back; they’d chosen different paths, settled into safe, conventional, domesticity. Had they really wanted such different things, back then? Or was it just hard, being four instead of two? Life was easier when you stopped fighting the current.
The younger kids rattled back up the stairs, interrupting their coffee and reminiscing. Roshan ran over to tug at her sleeve. “Mom, can we walk to the park? Mali plays Pokemon too – there’s a gym I’ve been trying to take down, and I bet I can do it with him to help.”
Mali was a few years older than Roshan, tall for his age, though still skinny. Amudhini said, “You’re done eating already? Well, it’s okay with me if it’s okay with his parents.”
Shruthi frowned at the pair of boys. “Mali, only if your big brother goes too. You don’t pay enough attention when you’re caught up in that game.” She glanced outside, then added, “It’ll be dark soon. I want you boys back in thirty minutes.”
Darnell added, “Hey, Mali. See if Roshan has a jacket you can borrow, something brighter.” Roshan was in his customary bright red, but Mali wore a black Star Wars sweatshirt, hood hanging down. In that moment, her vision blurred, and Amudhini saw what Darnell and Shruthi must always see – how dark their younger son’s skin was. Her Roshan was so much lighter, with Stephen’s genes in the mix. Stephen saw it too – across the table, his eyes widened.
“Sure!” Roshan said. “He can wear my yellow Pikachu jacket.”
“Perfect,” Darnell said, smiling. A little tension going out of him, invisible to the boys, but even all these years later, Amudhini could see it. If she could, she would have reached out to take Darnell’s hand, pull him close, hold him tight until their breathing matched and he was calm, at peace. But that wasn’t her place anymore.
“Tell your sister to go along too,” Amudhini added. It was all she could think to do. Meena would sigh and barely repress a complaint out of respect for the visitors, but with her along, the boys should be even safer. If Amudhini had married another Sri Lankan, the way her parents had wanted, would she make these calculations every night? Every day, every night, she took their light skin for granted.
There had been a few meals together after that one, promises to get together more often, soon. It was hard, though, so busy with work and the children, all of them. Legitimately hard, which conveniently let them avoid too much awkwardness. The past was long ago, and difficult to discuss, and after all, they’d settled into their marriages over the last few decades. Easier to bury it all.
They were solidly together now, she and Stephen, even if shelter-in-place had added a light layer of tension. Solidly middle-aged too. Her friend Angeli had written online: We are middle-aged now. These protests are often violent, and if you can’t run fast, don’t go. You’ll be a burden on those already there. But it’s also true that since we are middle-aged now, some of us have resources. We have money. We have access to the system. We have the ability to follow up this season of protest with political organizing.
All true, and no one would chastise Amudhini for staying home today. Shruthi would never call her up and demand that she go.
Yet here they were – she’d taken them walking towards Shruthi’s house, turning right and left under the leafy trees. Six blocks, and as they’d come closer, Amudhini could feel herself slowing, as if she were wading through tar. She could still turn back; no one would know. And even saying the words to Stephen was hard – silence was easier. Silence equals death.
They’d protested together almost thirty years ago, when there’d been a gay-bashing incident just off campus. Cut pink triangles out of cloth, asked students and faculty passing by to pin them to their clothes, hosted a sit-in outside the administration offices, pressuring them to extend domestic partner benefits to LGBT students and staff. Shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand. They’d won that fight. Stephen had been with her then, unhesitating, but now, everything was different, everything was harder. They had so much more to lose.
The kids, a few steps ahead, stopped outside Shruthi’s house. “Hey, Daddy,” Roshan called back. “Isn’t this where Malik lives? Do you think we could go for a Pokemon walk?”
“Not a good idea,” Stephen said. “We need to give it a few more weeks, at least, make sure we’re well past peak. Sorry, kiddo.”
“That’s okay,” Roshan said, shrugging. “Hey, Meena – race you to the corner!” And they were off, young and vital and full of life, impossibly beautiful. How could she risk them?
If things had gone differently, though – it would be her children with ebony skin, carrying all the weight of what that meant in America.
“I want to go to the protest tonight,” Amudhini said, pushing the words up out of her dry throat, bracing for Stephen’s resistance. She’d argue him into it – and if she couldn’t persuade him, well, she’d go anyway. She had to, no matter how upset he became. Amudhini thought they were solid enough to survive that.
But Stephen surprised her. “That’s important too. Just — be careful.”
She nodded, squeezed his hand, released it. He called to the children, “C’mon kids – time to head home.” Amudhini turned away from them, walked up the path to Shruthi’s door, pressed the doorbell with her elbow.
Shruthi opened the door, surprise evident in the arch of eyebrows. “Amudhini?”
Amudhini said, “Are you walking to the bridge? Can I walk with you?”
“Of course.” A smile on her face and a spark between them; connection re-established. “Here – you can carry this sign.” Shruthi held it out – No justice, no peace. Any peace in this country was an illusion, built on others’ pain.
Amudhini stepped forward, holding her breath – close enough to hug, and oh, not hugging hurt – took the sign in hand, stepped back. Six feet. It seemed impossible that they could maintain distance while protesting, but she would try her best. Maybe being outside would protect them enough.
Shruthi locked the door, and then they started walking in the street, the only way to walk together and maintain distance. Others came out and joined them, more and more as they approached the bridge, a flood of black t-shirts, hand-sewn masks, homemade signs. One young girl held a sign up high, a sign plastered with the dark faces of the murdered, and Amudhini’s heart broke all over again. Then they were at the bridge, hundreds at least, pressed close, pressed together, shoulder-to-shoulder. She should be worrying about pandemic, but she had no space left for that in her heart.
Amudhini turned to Shruthi, and the world shimmered around her, the heat of the day blurring the borders. Yet this was no dream; their magic had entered the waking world. And Shruthi was no gentle fawn – no, she’d grown to a stag over the last two decades, mighty and many-antlered, fire in her eyes. Ready to defend, or if needed, attack. Her voice roared over the crowd, fiercely leading them in call and response:
Whose streets? Our streets! Whose streets? Our streets!
No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!
If we don’t get it…shut it down!
If we don’t get it…shut it down!
Show me what democracy looks like!
This is what democracy looks like!
Amudhini uncoiled herself, scales slithering, and threw back her dragon head, roaring with the motley crowd of furious creatures. There was magic here, and power too, even if she didn’t understand it. For her children, for Shruthi’s children, for the dark-skinned children Amudhini might have had, if she’d made different choices, all those years ago, she had to take the risk.
If they stood together, they could change everything.