The Time of Birds
by Torsa Ghosal
2019 Flash Contest Honorable Mention
The uncle who did me wrong fell. I had to come for the deed to our old house. At the end of his life, my uncle had no other relations.
The priest drains ghee from a shallow brass bowl into a fire pit. Flames, slender but virile, reach for the portico’s vaulted brick ceiling. Father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and on from them, the priest summons seven generations that have dematerialized. My uncle’s soul must find its way to them while my body, a period, ends the long run of family names.
Ash bits begin to snow on the floor causing the priest to turn away from the fire. I am cross-legged at his side. Blinking rapidly under the attack of embers, he asks me perfunctory questions: how long my uncle lay unconscious in the bathroom after he fell, did someone have to break open the bathroom door, for how long am I home.
At this time of the year, birds flock to our tropical city. From cold northern countries, forest snipes and long-necked ducks come to whip the still waters of this neighborhood. Chatty warblers vie with crows to lord over the fallen trees and the dumping grounds that overrun the city’s heart. Wandering birds don’t breed here. When I first came to live with my uncle many years ago, we used to hear them at dawn, but now they will call at night even when the windows are bolted.
Your uncle was kind to you, the priest reminds me, before advising me not to surrender everything I have inherited. There is a wolfish promoter razing old family mansions in the area to build high-rise apartments. I know the priest from another time, when he granted the rite of passage to my parents. He had cupped my little palms back then, so I could offer a handful of muddy river water, areca nuts, and marigold to the deceased, and pray for their souls to be relieved of worldly yearnings.
How birds navigate the skies year after year, how the tiniest of the yellow warblers fall in line with the waves and the winds to reach us, is a wonder. Yes, said my uncle as he pulled me to his lap one day. I was twelve or so. My bones pressed the flesh of his thighs. We watched the birds together for a while and then he asked me to go, bathe in the pond. He followed me as I lolloped onward, knowing neither to swim nor to disobey.
With a sacred thread pressed between his index finger and thumb, the priest taps an orb-shaped grinding stone, a stand-in for the cosmic egg. Repeat what I say, he instructs me, before he starts chanting, tasmai svadhā namah, tasmai svadhā namah, to appease the gods of birth and death.
Souls of the good can be freed. The ones who do wrong are reborn as animals. A small, brown, buff snipe perches on the steps and I wonder if I will know my uncle when I see him.
He was not that old, quite strong in fact, and didn’t even use a walking cane, the priest mumbles when I touch his feet at the end of the votive rituals. He and my uncle were gossips, old-timers at a tea shack in the neighborhood. How could a healthy man fall and die like that, the priest demands to know but not from me, although to all intents and purposes the two of us are alone on the portico.
The bathroom was slippery, I tell the priest who is asking questions of the universe, and I am not lying. Attached to the rear end of the mansion, the even-sided bathroom never dries. My uncle could have fallen easily, with no help.
As the priest gathers sliced apples, ripe bananas, and rice grains from the ritual offerings into a cotton pouch, the brown snipe observing us lets out a strident cry. The noise stupefies the priest. I know I must join the bird someday, fly back and forth over oceans and mountains, chasing seasons. So I wear the grin I learned to master when my uncle used to admit himself into my room.
Perhaps my uncle’s death means something more to the priest than those of his other clients. On the way out he says, good thing you were visiting this year—you saw your uncle alive a last time, didn’t you? What good fortune.
Published September 22nd, 2019
Torsa Ghosal is the author of an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India). Her shorter writings have appeared in Catapult, Bustle, Entropy, Himal Southasian, and elsewhere. A writer and professor of literature based in California, Torsa grew up in Calcutta, India.
Siona Benjamin has an MFA in painting from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Ill., and an MFA in theater set design from the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. She has exhibited in the United States, Europe, and Asia. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 2011 to India and a second Fulbright fellowship in 2016-17 to Israel. Siona’s work has been in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Financial Times, The Jewish Week in New York City and New Jersey, The Boston Globe, Art in America, Art New England, Art and Antiques, ArtNews, Moment magazine, The Times of India, The Mumbai Mirror, Marg Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel and other publications.