By Minoli Salgado
It had taken just two days for Sumana to master the art of flattening her body against the wall of the bund so that she was thin as could be, just a fine leaf of bone. Above and behind lay the danger. The sky sawn open by planes dropping huge exploding eggs, bullets lashed into screams, shells breaking the earth. The scramble and press of bodies. In front only the earth wall offered the possibility of protection.
Sumana thinned herself against it and kept her breath slow as another blast shook the ground and thrust more people upon her. A collective wave of panic added to her own fear. She absorbed it into the silence of an open mouth, her arms trembling down the length of her as if the earth itself had grown cold.
Cries erupted from further down the bund marking the place where a shell had hit.
‘Ammaa,’ a man groaned. ‘Mother.’ And Sumana knew he would die.
For the dying always cried mother when about to be released, as if in sudden anticipation of the life yet to come. They never cried out for god, for water or help, for things that might offer a return to the world, but for mother: the first refuge and the last. And two days and nights before, her own mother had done the same.
‘Here,’ her mother said, drawing something from the fold of her sari. ‘Here eat.’
And Sumana had broken the unleavened bread and placed a piece in her mouth. She did not recognise the contact, the dry wood of her mouth against the cardboard of bread, and had chewed until the saliva came. It was the only food she had eaten that day. They’d finished the small packet of biscuits distributed on a day of bounty when aid supplies got through. Ever since then aid supplies were confiscated by the men with guns.
‘We are fighting for you,’ they said, carrying away the bottles of water, food packets and rolls of gauze delivered by the Red Cross. ‘We need the food to fight for you.’
And Sumana had looked up to see the edge of her world marked by their guns.
‘Tonight,’ her mother said, ‘we will leave this place. We will leave for the other side where there are quiet camps. Till then, stay inside, and stay against the wall.’
It had been still for many hours. Her mother consulted the sky. Someone stirred.
‘You should’ve gone earlier.’ A woman lay slouched with a boy on her lap. She was old, or had turned old. The wrinkles on her skin rippled into the whiteness of her hair.
‘Why didn’t you go?’
‘I will wait. I can’t walk. The fighting will stop. There are only so many bullets the sky can contain.’
‘We can leave together. I will help.’
‘No. But you can take him if you like.’
She motioned to the boy who looked at them with moons in his eyes.
Her mother lifted the child. He scrambled up and disappeared over the top as a flare opened up the sky, catching her mother in its bright star. A gust of gunfire threw her mother back so she fell warm and bleeding, pressing Sumana against the earth.
Sumana opened her mouth for words and heard her mother’s fall into it. Ammaa.
Two days later, after her mother’s body had been removed, Sumana stayed close, pressed against the earth, opening her mouth for the words that would never come.
Minoli Salgado is a writer and academic who teaches English Literature at the University of Sussex, England. She represented Sri Lanka at Poetry Parnassus in 2012, and won the inaugural SI Leeds Literary Prize for her forthcoming novel, ‘A Little Dust on the Eyes’.
‘The Breach’ originally appeared in ‘Bridges: A Global Anthology of Short Stories’, ed. Maurice A.Lee (Temenos, 2012), and is republished here with permission from the author.