HUNGRY GHOSTS OF THE BAMBOO GROVE
Ceremonial gongs stirred Pavi from her sleep. She turned to smile at her mother, only to discover that the corner where she slept was once again empty, the space vanishing and re-appearing between ribbons of mist that snaked through the metal shanty. Outside, chants of the Pirit ceremony greeted the pre-dawn hours for the seventh day. Harmonic words vibrated across the surface of the Mahaweli River, casting away evil spirits who lurk along the banks of the dark water.
The only eyes to meet Pavi’s were two red beads bulging from the face of an albino rat who had spent the night pilfering rice from the half-empty burlap bag resting on the table. He gave Pavi an indifferent glance and sauntered out the door when he could have at least given her a cheerful nod. After all, a ninth birthday is a fortuitous occasion. But she was familiar with the nature of the rat—first animal of the zodiac, symbol of good luck. Loyal friend, yet capable of deception and betrayal.
She rolled over on her sleeping mat to face the latched window that had been pieced together from scraps of wood and set into the wall where it meets the floor. Leaning closer to peek through slits between the boards, she searched for the first blush of morning. Only darkness crept into the room, softened by the dying glow of a coconut-oil lamp her mother must have lit before going out last night, as she did every night, cheap serpent pendants circling her arms, thick rings through her nose. And now, her oiled hair was split down the center in the manner pleasing to those strange foreign men. Crude, impious creatures, as far as Pavi could tell.
Trembling from the night’s lingering chill, Pavi hurried to the corner of the hut where the household shrine sat. She lit a candle and placed it before the statue of the river goddess—the one who protects fish, plants, and people whose homes balance on stilts just a few feet above water. Once back on her mat, she pulled a thin blanket to her neck and watched the candle’s smoke ribbon into the dark. A sliver of salmon-colored light peeked through a crack in the wall. Looking at her mother’s corner once more, Pavi thought it unchanged until she spotted a new yellow sari placed neatly across her mother’s blanket, evidence that the woman had come and gone, perhaps several times in the night, without saying a word.
Buying me a pastry. With honey. Yes, that must be where her mother had gone. This would be a double-auspicious event; not every girl got to celebrate her birthday on the very day the king and queen returned from their travels across the land. And her mother had told her that nine years old is a special age for girls who live along the river. For girls who live where celebrations draw men with money.
Pavi hadn’t understood that comment. But when she thought back to the ninth birthday of her best friend, Daksha, a shiver crept through her soul. She had watched the joy drain from her friend. Had detected the fading of a radiant spark that once filled the girl’s eyes. Now whenever Pavi asked about Daksha, her mother lowered her voice. Whispered to those nearby. Kept Pavi away from the one true friend she had ever made.
But Pavi’s situation was luckier. She had watched the omens; so many of them converging on one day—the Festival of the River Goddess, flower garlands waiting to be hung from the sacred Bodhi tree at the temple further up the bank. And now, the God-King about to float past her home. How could she not be spared from this darkening that had swallowed her friend? The God-King would save her for sure. If not him, then certainly Lord Buddha, seated in golden splendor beneath the Bodhi tree.
A shadow appeared in the door. The rat. Pavi watched him rise on his haunches and sniff the air. Another good sign.
As the morning awakened, the reek of dead fish oozed through the hut. Pavi rolled to her side again and unlatched the window. Rusted hinges along the top creaked as Pavi thrust the window out over the water and observed the world around her. Floating nearby was the white underbelly of a bloated fish, so close she could have poked it with a stick. With each wave, the fish bobbed in a silent dance of death. The king won’t like this. She covered her nose, surprised that something could die here, right where the monks had been sending forth blessings for a week, their holy songs on the other side of the river never ceasing.
On the opposite shore she could see the Incantation Pavilion where her mother had taken her two years ago to watch the Pirit ceremony. She remembered every detail, so she knew when to look out the window last night. The gongs and drums had awakened her in the dark, marking the moment when the invitations to the four gods were complete. Peeking across the river, she had watched the temple elephant, ornamented with silk and jewels, lumber away. Close behind it were the torchbearers, acrobats, drummers. What deity could resist such an invitation? Soon the good spirits would gather right outside her window, invisible, making their presence known by the way the space around them radiates with a divine energy that had once set her bones trembling with its magic.
A subtle veil of white shimmered along the Mahaweli River as the breath of dawn hovered above its waters. Pavi started to pull the window back in when she caught a movement below. She searched until she saw a messenger only the gods could have sent—a carp, dressed in its flowing gown of silver and orange. It wove to the surface and opened its mouth as if to speak. With one hand still lifting the window above her head, Pavi nearly fell out as she leaned forward, trying to catch what that splendid fish had to say. The carp, barely visible in the breaking light, looked at her through filmy green water. Its lips moved in gaping, rhythmic circles, and she was sure that she heard a message, clear as the temple gongs: “May your birthday be blessed. May you find happiness.” The words clung to her hungry ears, but before she could say thank you, the carp lowered its eyes and disappeared into the seaweed undulating beneath the pier. Pavi remained there—looking, waiting, certain this fish would come back to her.
After latching the window again, she jumped from her mat and searched for the clothes she had tossed to the floor last night after giving her mother one final goodnight hug. Stepping into her dress, she wiggled it up her body but stopped when she recalled images that had hidden themselves while she slept: a single tear rolling down her mother’s cheek. The deep sorrow that had fluttered along her mother’s sigh and moved through Pavi like a wave until it settled somewhere secret, somewhere near the base of her spine. She pushed those memories away before placing a sari across her shoulders, an extra touch for the sake of the God-King who, with his beloved queen, would drift by soon, solemnly making his way along the river toward the Temple of the Sacred Relic.
Pavi’s feet thumped along the pier as she ran outside to watch the morning arrive. Living on the far edge of the Great City, she would be among the first to see the royal barge emerge from the fog. She had seen it only once before and her memories were filled with images so astonishing, so unimaginable—golden dragons, a dark-skinned man with such power, people are forbidden to touch him—she wondered if perhaps they had appeared in a dream. She reassured herself that the king and his wife wouldn’t drift by in silence this time. No king would allow a moment like this to pass without at least calling out a birthday greeting from behind the dawn-lit haze that always reveals the world in pieces.
Pavi sat at the edge of the pier, letting her toes drop into the cool water. Her mother had spoken of this day with hints of a special gift—a long-sleeved blouse. Pink, with two buttons at the neck, shaped like butterflies. While trying to imagine what such a thing would look like, Pavi almost missed the first sign, a white lotus floating by in the stillness. She blinked as she tried to draw in every detail of its pure beauty. Then another drifted into view. And another.
The chants from across the river grew louder, faster. She felt the space around her becoming sanctified, as if the Triple-Stranded Thread uniting the monks of the Incantation Pavilion had lifted into the clouds, crossed the Mahaweli, and encircled her with its blessings. From an invisible place, the muffled rhythm of a gong drew closer, marking the beat of wooden oars plunging into the river.
Pavi’s heart thundered when an apparition rose above the mist, and an enormous emerald eye looked straight at her. Then a dragon’s massive chest, covered with scales of gold and curved like a scimitar, sliced the boat through the water. Gliding majestically above her, the royal dragon-barge froze Pavi in its gaze.
Her breathing hushed as the king emerged, seated on a sparkling throne decorated with snakes coiling toward the Mother Cobra who spread her protective shield above his head. Everyone knew that this man was a descendent of Gajabahu, the ancient warrior who had once cleft the sea with his divine sword to rescue captives from the evil king of Soli. Pavi could tell, when she saw this God-King drifting past, that that victory had flowed across the centuries and straight into his blood.
Standing proudly next to the God-King was his queen, her tiara decorated with strands of silver Bo leaves that caught the first glimmer of daybreak and reflected it against the perfect swan-curve of her neck. Behind her was a fan of peacock feathers, their luminous blue eyes dotting a jade green background.
Pavi was sure this king would triumph against the pale foreigners, the ones who liked her mother’s hair best when parted in two. They had encroached upon the land with their white suits, straw hats, and their women who didn’t have the sense to go bare-breasted in the humid Asian heat. This king would devour them with seething fury, just as the brave Gajabahu had vanquished the enemies of olden days.
As the barge glided into view, the intonation of flutes cried out warnings to evil spirits, exorcizing them from the area. Pavi sensed a tremor in the air and heard the bamboo rustle. She stiffened, afraid to look at the specter, knowing that this is how Hungry Ghosts depart, hiding in bamboo groves, clinging to the canes until they become vapor and are banished into the sky by the sun as it awakens behind Mount Hantana.
She turned her attention back to the God-King, afraid he would dissolve from her sight as he floated by in a mystic hush. He had to know of her love for him. Of the double-auspiciousness of this day—her birthday, and his journey to the Temple of the Sacred Relic—that would unite them for eternity. Calling out to a god was unthinkable, yet all she wanted was for him to see her, to acknowledge her existence, if even for a second.
“I’m here,” she whispered.
The planks on the pier bent so softly she wasn’t aware of the footsteps approaching from behind. “Yes, there you are. Good girl.”
A stranger spoke to her in Sinhala, polluting her sonorous language with a repugnant accent she had heard many times among these shanties. One of those hideous men from another part of the world who wore skin the color of death. When he touched her shoulder, an icy chill grasped her lungs and ripped her breath apart. Pavi looked up at the narrow face, centered with a hawk-like nose. His eyes had the intensity of insatiable desire that she had seen in other men who wander the river’s edge. In his hand was a pair of shoes, the type worn only by foreigners, sewn from the forbidden hide of a cow. She looked at his bare feet, the long nails, yellow, and curled against his toes like claws.
What demon from the underworld is this, she wondered. This wickedness in the form of a human. Was he Kola Sanni who rules over the eighteen yakku he created from poison? Or worse yet, Bahirawa, terror of the Evil Forest, looking for another human sacrifice to tear apart? As one hundred oars swished by, carrying the God-King forward, Pavi’s cry for help came out in a frightened croak that even the carp failed to heed.
The white-skinned demon-man took her hand and led the way back to the hut. Within minutes Pavi’s clothes were off and an unspeakable pain was ripping through her body. Clenching the pillow with her teeth, she wondered if this creature would even notice if she suffocated while he was busy making those monstrous grunting noises, blowing his fiery breath against her neck.
When the horror ended Pavi waited for the demon-man to kill her, but instead, he patted her on the back, giving her the kind of touch Pavi had always imagined fathers must give to their little girls.
“The more it happens, the less it will hurt,” he said. Before walking away, he reached for a package that Pavi hadn’t noticed until now. With an expectant glint in his eyes, he unraveled the twine and pulled out a pink, long-sleeved blouse, its collar clasped with two butterfly buttons. The man seemed surprised, even hurt, when Pavi’s eyes failed to light up. Instead, she moaned at the sharp stab that moved up her spine. A warm liquid flowed from between her legs and a sweet-sick odor mingled with the scent of blood.
The rat looked into the hut once more and scurried away.
“You’ll get used to it. Like all the other girls who live here.” The white demon set his gift on the table and walked toward the door, unaware of Pavi’s glare that burned with a hatred strong enough to fill the dim space between them.
Blazing through cracks in the hut, the full sun rose, blood-red along the horizon. Pavi curled into a corner of the mat, arms wrapped around her legs, hair falling across the pillow. She stared at her mother’s new sari folded across her bed and thought back to the one tear that had fallen from the woman’s eyes last night.
Outside, the first barge of the procession had passed. The follow-up boats moved by so quietly she could hear the soft chants of oarsmen alternating with the splash of wood into water. The God-King had moved on.
A familiar sound echoed along the planks of the pier—the jingle of ankle-bells that adorned her mother’s right leg. Pavi imagined her mother walking toward their hut, hips swinging seductively, eyes searching for signs that her precious daughter had made it through the first morning of her new life without too much damage. In her hand would be a small box carrying a birthday sweet, expensive for them, filled with honey. Other women, making their way to the pier by now, would look upon her beauty with envy as they anticipated working the festival, earning enough money to feed their children meat for a change.
Pavi drew the hut’s suffocating air into her lungs while another image raced through her imagination— her mother’s arms wrapped around her, reassuring her that all would be well. That this life isn’t so bad, after all. And some day, Pavi might bring forth a little girl just like herself to once again fill the hut with joy. Then Pavi remembered how the laughter of her friend Daksha had been stolen.
The candle at the shrine flickered and released its final breath, its wax puddling at the feet of the river goddess. With trembling fingers, Pavi struggled to open the window latch, then gazed along the gray-green water at the last boat, this one decorated with a smaller dragon, but no less magical than the others. Her breath quickened when she realized how far the first barge had gone. With frightened eyes, she searched the water for her new friend, the silver-orange carp who seemed far more sympathetic than the rat.
How many times had her mother told her tales of benevolent spirits who take the form of a fish? Spirits with the power to vanquish sorrow and fling open the gates of celestial happiness. People would think she’s silly for believing these tales, but she’d point out that everyone believes in ghosts hiding in the bamboo groves, so what’s wrong with her believing in the carp? She would follow this fish along the current until the God King could lift her into his Dragon Boat and take her to the sacred tree where the Lord Buddha was sure to be waiting for her. At that exact moment, when she crossed the threshold to the temple, these foreign demons would lose all power over her. And even better, the grief that had fluttered along her mother’s sigh last night would disappear forever because she too, would be saved.
Then she heard her name rise from the river. Looking down at the seaweed, she saw the carp waiting, its eyes fixed on her, its mouth gaping, swallowing air with an urgency she hadn’t noticed before.
She listened harder, wanting so badly to believe that she had heard her name.
The call rose one last time before the fish swam away.
“I’m here,” she whispered.
With a barely detectable splash, she rolled out the window and into the water below.