He took the long road home. From the bus stop in front of the little kadey, over the stream and through paddy fields. He took the long way home because a few minutes more spent away wouldn’t hurt anyone. He needed to see it all before he was forced to relive his past, remembering for others. The grounds carpeted with blood and bodies unrecognizable. Dogs, cats, men, women all lay together dead. He shut his eyes at the memory and tripped over a half hidden root. He remembered this place. As a kid too he had tripped over that very root so many times. He smiled as he sat by it, on the still damp clay soil. A bird who had been happily singing from a high branch shat without warning. The liquid shit landed with a plop a few inches away from his feet. “So this is the respect we get. By the birds and by the fucking people.”
He stood up and spat at the root. He had a lot of crude habits to do away with. The swearing and spitting were only a few the habits he knew would shock his mother. Ah! Amma. He wondered how she was. When he left, their relationship had been stressed. Years apart had in a way brought them together. He loved her, but she had always been too interfering, thus making him rarely come home for holidays. When they had parted ways during the past not knowing if they would see each other again, a lot of unsaid things had been understood. When he would worship her, touching her toes in respect, it had taken all he had to not cry.
In a few minutes though he would be seeing her. She had been plump when he had left nearly a decade ago. Her cloth and jacket had smelled of spices and smoke, having spent hours cooking in the dark yet spacious kitchen. Her hair was dark, parted in the middle and tied into a bun at the back. It was long and thick, well oiled. He knew she had changed, but how much of a change this was he was soon to know.
He picked up his bag, heavy with clothes and a few treasured items. Letters and trinkets. The small treasures his life allowed him. He felt his trouser pockets, looking for the carton of cigarettes he had bought during the journey back. Lighting a match, he looked through the flame for a second or two before lighting the cigarette. He took a long pull and exhaled. The familiar smell, and feeling. Ah! He already felt calm. He stood smoking, already missing his buddies. Late in the night, as the cold would make them shiver, the young men would sit on the ground smoking.
At first the stale smell of tobacco had made him nauseous. So much that he had avoided talking to his friends who smoked. Then one night, when things had been too painful to bear, he had put a cigarette between his lips. Since then, it had been a thing of comfort. Somehow chasing the nightmares away.
He threw away the cigarette butt and started to walk towards home. He couldn’t call it that though. The camp was his home now. How easily had his home become just another house? He sighed.
“Amma!” he called out. The house looked deserted. Not a sound came from the inside and the garden was utterly neglected. Weeds had taken over and the plants were over grown. Leaves, dried to a crisp, scattered the ground. Much like a carpet. Somehow the dry brown of the leaves reminded him of that church his unit had come across. Abandoned, the pews resembled shattered glass. A large cross had fallen over, taking down an angel statue with it. Bullet holes had pierced through the walls and parts of the roof were missing. Beams of sunlight fell on torn bibles and prayer books. The polished floor was carpeted with a thick rust color. Blood and body parts were scattered everywhere. It was the site of the great massacre.
The memory made his legs weak, and a coldness spread through his body. He leaned on a wall in the veranda and closed his eyes. “So many bloody years ago and the sight still haunts me,” he mumbled. His eyes shut, he took slow and deep breaths. He felt a warm hand on his arm.
“My son,” a quiet and trembling voice said. He wasn’t ready to let the light in yet, and so kept his eyes shut.
“Why are you sweating? Your entire body is cold. My son, are you okay? Ranju?”
His mother guided him to an old and unpolished chair. A few minutes later he felt the comforting coolness of water on his forehead.
“Now there. Must be this heat. You look tired, Puthey.”
He finally opened his eyes, and looked at his mother.