One Day, There Was Mother and Radian

Translated by: 
Joan Suyenaga

The sky is red. A naga swoops down, sweeping the stars and the sun. Sparks illuminate the tips of its wings. Fire spreads. Wind swirls. Fear shoots into the air like octopus’ ink. Armour-clad warriors lie sprawled on the ground. Screams of desperation fill the air. The creature is incensed. Houses, trees, distant mountaintops: everything disintegrates into unrecog­nisable rubble. Razed to the ground. Everything. Except for one child standing upright, motionless. He holds a tautly strung bow in his hand. His face is as dark as stone, but his eyes are as bright as lightning. It is from his bow that a great arrow was shot and has penetrated the naga’s chest.


The naga will surely die, Mother, he whispers. Then he closes his eyes. Perhaps he is sleeping. Or trying to sleep. He holds the picture, drawn on a big piece of paper, tightly to his chest. The picture, drawn with just three colours – red, black and grey – is covered in scratches and thick broken lines, marks full of emotion. 


I am floating. Sleeping perhaps. No dreams. It’s dark – I’m woken by the silence. This is very strange: dawn is usually noisy. But there is no call to prayer. There are no roosters crowing or calls of vegetable vendors or the milkman’s radio. Radian’s place is empty, but still warm. He must have just woken up. I stumble out of the room and meet the child in front of the half-open bathroom door. He stands rigidly, as if frozen in mid-air. A soft light caresses his little face. 


A sudden chill creeps up my back. His face is too pale, even for the dark morning. I approach him quickly. And there, behind the partly open door, lies the body of my husband sprawled on the ground. A knife plunged into his chest. Blood pours out of the wound. The white floor is stained red. My world instantly blackens. 


The creature was alive once. It still appears very much alive, even now, though it’s cold to the touch. The hamster’s death caused an uproar in the class. Radian killed it. He strangled the creature until it stopped breathing, in front of his friends who were screaming with fear. The child could be trusted now; he refused to sit down. He leaned back against the wall in the corner of the teachers’ room. There were just three of us: Bu Tina – the school principal – Radian and me. Slowly, he approached me, hugged me, then he returned to lean against the wall. He appeared calm – unafraid, but sombre. Bu Tina and I looked at him, then returned to consider the hamster’s carcass on the table. 


If our fates had been different that morning, it would have been me sprawled dead on the floor. I could still feel my husband’s hands strangling my throat. Like the hamster, I struggled. I fought. But men are stronger. I could smell anger in his drunken breath. Death crept slowly up my spine. My neck trembled. My head almost exploded. Just when I had almost lost consciousness, he suddenly cast me aside – tossed me to the floor, gasping desperately for air. Then he left. And when I regained my sight, my heart had shattered. Radian peered from a dark corner, speechless. His face darkened with fear. Tears streamed down his cheeks. I looked at him again. Perhaps he had just wanted to know what would happen if he strangled something with all his strength. That hamster had shown him how close his mother had been to death. 


That night, we slept next to each other. We didn’t hug; it was enough just to be close. It was never more than that. The twenty-five-watt bulb was dim, but it was enough light to see the picture that Radian had drawn before he lay down. 


A tall tree. A large house. Everything black. A man in black clothes hanging in the tree. A thick rope wound around his neck. His head hangs awkwardly off to one side as if it is broken. There are two large black nails where his eyes should be. When I ask Radian who it is, he says: A bad person. A boy carrying a large bag stands under the man. Popcorn, he says, pointing to the little clumps that look like cotton piled up inside the bag. Under a shower of falling leaves, the child watches the man’s body sway in the wind. His cheeks are puffed; perhaps he is eating his popcorn. Lamplight penetrates the paper that Radian holds, forming a circle of light both around the head of the boy in the picture, and around the head of my son. He smiles, but his eyes are dull. 


The night feels heavy, but the moon dimly lights the room. Although the woman in the mirror is silent, the years that are incised on her face, on her body, speak. I do not know her. That is not my face. Those are not my eyes. The body is too parched. She is swollen and blue. Exhausted perhaps. Or drained of hope. But clearly, she is angry. Anger appears like a crow’s black wings, flashing and scratching the face, leaving deep creases. 


A small hand touches my back. The woman in the mirror tries to smile. She whispers softly, Are you hungry? The boy nods. They walk to the kitchen holding hands. She opens the refrigerator door, peers inside, then begins to take out the contents one by one: eggs, mushrooms, sausages, meat, onions, cheese, chilies, lettuce, spaghetti, milk. . . . She places everything neatly on the table. Without speaking, she takes a pan, fills it with water, places it on the stove, then lights a big flame. She cracks an egg and drops it, including the shell, into the pan. She breaks the raw spaghetti into short sticks and places them in the pan. She opens the milk carton and pours the contents into the pan. She takes a twenty-five-centimetre knife, dices the onion finely, slices the lettuce into small pieces and chops the sausages into small chunks. Steam begins to fill the kitchen. She slices the mushrooms, tofu, meat, chilies. She works increasingly quickly. Drops of sweat form on her forehead. Tears stream from her eyes. It is not long before everything is mixed together. There is nothing left that can be chopped. There is nothing left that can be identified. 


The woman stops. Gasping. Heaving. She looks at the knife in her hand. She looks at the boy standing quietly beside her. The child shifts slightly, then takes a handful of the mixture on the table and eats it slowly. His eyes remain fixed on his mother. His heart-breaking eyes. 


The knife falls away from her hand. The woman sinks down to the kitchen floor, her energy expired. Exhausted. Empty of tears. Ended. She is stunned, barren. The boy approaches, then sits next to her. He leans his head on her shoulder. Mother, he whispers. 


Where do we go when we die? I shrug my shoulders. I don’t know. Radian looks down at his picture again. Do you love Daddy? I shrug my shoulders again. I don’t know. What I do know is that I love you. Radian smiles without raising his head. Do I love him? I don’t remember. 


What I do remember is that we were a happy young couple. I was happy. He was happy. We were happy in each other’s presence. Joyfully, we went to an island where the sky and the ocean competed in blueness. Blissfully, we explored each others’ bodies on the beach. I don’t know why we did it – we made love on the beach; it made us sticky with the smell of the ocean and the scent of sin – that will not easily disappear. 


He never said I love you. I never said I love you. But I became pregnant with his seed. We had to get married, no matter what. His parents wanted to save face. My parents wanted to save face. I wanted to run. He wanted to run. Our parents forbade us to separate. God forbade us to separate. But why didn’t God forbid him to hit me whenever he wanted to? I fought back once. I hit his nose until it bled. But that animal hurt my child. I ran from the house. A heart attack crippled my father and he returned me to my husband. It appeared that God wanted me to endure. This is my body, this is my blood, eat it and drink it. I am the sacrificial lamb; I do not know what I am to be sacrificed for. Do I love him? 


Evening light falls on the table. Radian finishes drawing. He turns the paper over and shows it to me. 


A small island in the middle of the ocean and a small boat leaving the island. There are two people on the boat: a woman and a boy. They are smiling. There is a house on the island; it is square with square windows. In the distance, there is a person with arms in the air. Twelve black birds fly over the house. The house is encircled with red flames. It’s burning, Radian says. The person is surrounded. His screams are caught in a small bubble with many exclamation points: Help!!!! When he dies, the birds will take him away, Radian says. Why was he left behind? I ask. Because he is evil, he replies. 


It is as if I live in a soap opera in which a woman sobs because she is continuously tortured. The difference is that this woman is not crying. 


It begins simply. A barbecue party. Green sky. Large umbrella butterflies flitting about. Green grass. A big house in the clouds. Girls with wings on their backs and flowers in their hair. Boys with colourful horns, hovering around the grill. One of them holds a plate, one holds a fork; there are glasses of purple lemonade. Everything is normal, except for the barbecue. There are four eyeballs. Two ears and three noses. Feet and hands, complete with toes and fingers. A large chunk of red meat with an arrow pointing at it: the heart. Also, the head of the creature with its eyes still wide open and the tongue hanging out. That’s the naga’s head, Radian says. 


The woman shows the picture to her husband when they are eating dinner. The school principal showed this picture to me this morning. Radian drew it. The man does not say a single word. He just pounds the table, grabs a plate and throws it. Directly at her face. Direct hit. Her head almost explodes with pain. She swallows. Anger flares instantly. She swallows. The sound of the plate shattering splits her ears. The boy comes out of his room and stands silently at the door; he is not surprised when his father leaves. 


The window reflects grim images. A battered woman and a fragile child. The boy goes to his room and returns with a towel. Slowly he drags a chair over to his mother. Gently, he wipes the wounds on the woman’s face. 


I stand in a dark corner, pouring anger over hate. I can feel the seeds take root. Strong branches search for a way out through every artery. Growing increasingly strong. No, I cannot swallow it. 


I’m hungry, Mother. The boy is afraid. But the woman walks to the kitchen. She does not open the refrigerator door; she does not place the pan on the fire. She just takes the knife and stands at the table. Just that. For a long time. Her eyes gaze forward. Empty. Then her hand begins to move, chopping something unseen. Something that perhaps exists only in her head. Slowly at first. Then increasingly quickly. Beads of sweat drop from her forehead. Tears run down from her eyes. The boy is afraid to approach her. He stares at his mother’s heaving back. Something inside has destroyed the woman, little by little. He doesn’t know her anymore. I don’t know her anymore. 


That day, we lay next to each other on the floor, in front of the bathroom that was then stained red, blood encircling the body of a man who once had been alive. The yellow sun flooded in. Blinding. Too bright to see the picture Radian drew within minutes – I don’t know how long – I was silent in darkness. I looked into his eyes, but he avoided me. He extended his arm to show me his picture. I blinked. 


Rain. A woman and a boy walk hand in hand. Their eyes sparkle. There are smiles on their grey faces. There is no sun. Just dark clouds gathering overhead. One of the largest clouds hovers over the boy. A bird is perched on his shoulder. Its wings stretch out, ready to fly. The woman holds a knife. A large one. Something red drips from the tip. They hold hands in the street that originates in a single dot and grows wider as it reaches the opposite edge of the paper. To the left and right, a line of giant trees bows towards the middle, forming a canopy that creates a calming cover over the road. There are black birds perched on the branches. Crows, says Radian. At the bottom of the paper, written in large twisted letters: 




Just the two of us, Mother. 

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