Matter in Water
Seeta hugs the heavy urn in her lap.
This is her mother. Her mother, whose last physical evidence of having lived will soon blend with the other materials that compose this world. Her mother, who loved, laughed, and hugged. Her mother, who left proof of her existence in framed pictures, in cross-stitch embroidery, in the mangoes she pickled, and in her stunning collection of saris.
Only things remain.
Three days after the cremation, their priest directed the family to scatter Amma’s ashes in the nearby Krishna river.
The neighbors, Lopa and her silent husband, offer to accompany her.
She should express gratitude.
“Thanks for driving me.”
“Of course,” Lopa says. “Your father is in a bad state, no?”
“Yes. I begged him to come. But he refused.” Seeta caresses the receptacle in her lap. “So, I must do this on my own.”
Instead of a quiet riverfront and serene surroundings, the clamor of voices from families holding urns greets them at the destination. Seeta wraps the container closer.
Turning to Lopa and her husband, she says, “Wait here, please. I must do this myself.”
She strides away from their startled expressions.
At the steps leading into the river, she removes her sandals and wades in, holding the urn high above her head. Standing hip-high in the water, she unties the piece of cloth covering the urn’s opening, and sets the fabric free.
A cloud obscures the sun. As a child, she believed her grandfather resided in the clouds.
Each morning, after prayers, he smeared ash on his forehead. She asked her mother why he did that. “It’s a custom,” Amma told her. “But why?” And Amma answered, “When you’re older, I’ll tell you.” Later, she explained, “It’s a reminder that we come from dust and we return to dust. But, dear, you’re too young to worry about death.”
Now, she has beheld and held death.
Taking a deep breath, she tips the receptacle.
The mortal remains of her mother will dissolve in this river’s waters and get carried out to the sea, eventually merging with all the waters of the world — indistinguishable, matter in water, water in matter.
She stands still after shaking the remnants from the urn, watching the specks float away in an eddy. The cold water laps against her body and dead flowers — souvenirs from other goodbyes, presumably — attach themselves to her tunic. Her trembling fingers cling to the now-lighter urn.
She isn’t ready to leave, yet.
“Leave the container,” somebody yells.
A man in a canoe waves and shouts again, “The urn must also go.”
She presses it to her chest for a heartbeat, then wading into the water until she’s standing waist-deep, she releases the receptacle, watches it bob on the surface. A rush of current angles the container, allows water to enter.
Soaking wet, she wades back one heavy step at a time, wilted fronds and faded flowers clinging to her salwar. The neighbors wait for her, brows knitting with concern.
At the top of the steps, she turns and scans the river.
There’s no sign of the urn.
She lifts her gaze to the clouds.
Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Bending Genres, and New World Writing among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. This story, Matter in Water, won the Soul Making Contest in 2017. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
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Image: Chris Zahniser Public Domain