I look up at the godhead. The sand is white around my bare feet, a damp seal. There is no horizon. Where the sea should fall away into the distance, it curves up instead. A towering tidal wave so high it disappears like a cliff into the foaming clouds. Lightning bristles, caressing the infinite black monolith of water. The godhead looks still, but it is very slowly moving towards the shore. Just looking at its impossible height makes me dizzy. Above us, crows shear the wind, their beaks black razors.
“When it comes down on this shore,” my grandmother tells me, “that’s it. No more suffering. No more living. We transcend the human. Moksha.”
She scoops a ball of oily rice from her plate and pops it into her toothless mouth. The pale white pins of fish-bones stick to her desiccated fingers. She doesn’t look like my grandmother. Her body’s drawn tight against the bones, skin dim and grey like rat-skin. She looks mummified. The banquet table is scattered with the dark corpses of fried fish. They smell sharp, like cut garlic and simmered fat.
“So that’s it. God is a giant wave?” I ask grandmother.
“No, my dear. That’s one side of eternity. God is behind the wave, we can’t see them yet. Come on, girl, you know this. Five senses and all that—not enough.”
“Right. One side of eternity,” I say, feeling numb. “What about your regrets? Shouldn’t you have to be, you know. Reincarnated a few times before you leave the cycle?”
“Oh, I’ve done things I regret. Who hasn’t. But I never really believed in karma and all that. The world’s ending soon anyway. Yama doesn’t mind.”
“Come sit on my lap, dear. It’s so good to see you again.”
“It’s… strange, it’s good. To talk to you again. But I’m an adult—I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
“And I’m dead. You’re alive. Still a child in comparison. Come,” she pats her knees, which poke up through the yellowed night-gown. Her thin white tufts of hair whip out in the wind, revealing the pits of hollow eye-sockets. The cotton-soft light of this twilight reveals little of the guest at the other end of the long table. Yama is hard to look at, a hulking shape shrouded in what looks like a cloak of the night sky, sewn with stars a billion light-years distant.
Yama is lord of death, and my grandmother’s consort for this lonesome beach banquet.
She pats her knees again, dry knuckles clacking in parched hands.
I go to my grandmother and sit on her lap. Her thin arms wrap around me. I’m wearing a saree, something I do only on special occasions. It’s plain and white. I don’t actually have any like it. Something dawns on me, chilling me.
“Amma, I’m not dead. You said I’m not dead, right? I need to get back before it’s too late,” I say. I look across the endless white beach at the binary trail of my footsteps in the sand, each print a one, each gap a zero. They recede into a crest of sweeping dunes, beyond which a fog stretches up into the yawning wet. A limbo. If I look into that fog too long, I feel a synesthetic static begin to fill my vision, my body, and I have to look away.
Beyond that range is time and space. I can feel it. Time and space warped by the death throes of humanity, but still familiar to me.
“You might go back, yes,” says dead grandmother. “Kolkata’s right there beyond the bluff. The part of time and space you lived in before is. The everyday is. What we called the world is. But you’ll still die someday, Anu. These are the end times. Everyone has to choose how they meet moksha. Even as we speak, a new universe is about to open its eyes.”
“Amma, what are you talking about? Do you even remember who you are? You taught Bengali in high school, and talked to me about family and food and books and music. What are you? My grandmother never talked about space and time and new universes.”
“I know, dear,” she hisses. “Death does strange things to you. You’ll see.”
“Like making your adult granddaughter sit on your lap. Can I get up now?”
She laughs. It is not a mocking laugh, but a sad one. “I can’t, my little baby girl. I can’t.”
“Please. I need to get back before it’s too late. Why am I here, Amma?” I ask.
“You’re sick, dear. Like I was,” she says, softly. “And you don’t believe in that,” she points to the godhead.
“Well, that makes me feel better, Amma. Now that I’ve got a giant tsunami bearing down on me with judgment, you’re feeling vindicated at the fact that you stuck with god and I didn’t?”
“Think about how little you always cared about god or religion, and consider how unfair what you’re saying is to me,” she snaps right back at me. Literally, the one or two molars left in her jaws clacking behind receded lips.
“I cared very much about religion. I just didn’t believe in god, or using religion as a system of faith for myself. You’re punishing me. That’s why I’m sitting in your lap like a child.”
Perhaps it is guilt that silences her for a moment. The arms tighten further still, rubbing into me like withered cords of wood, as she hisses new words into my ear.
“Sweetheart, is it my fault you didn’t believe? Your parents didn’t want it. You didn’t want it. What do you think comes for you after the godhead comes down? Eternal ecstasy for me. Liberation. Moksha. For you? Just an eternity of nothing? You can’t be one with a god you don’t believe in, can you. What happens when your precious body rots away like mine?”
Dead grandmother stops talking abruptly. I long so very much to get up and off this chair of dead skin and bones and hair that was once her, or is an idea of what she once was and now isn’t. I hug my stomach to shield myself from the cold wind breaking against me.
“Tell me I don’t belong here. Let me get back,” I whisper.
“If I let you go now, you might never come to me again,” grandmother moans, a musical rattle in the wooden cage of her ribs. “I’m gone to you, on the other side. I wanted to show you. Death isn’t the end. It never was, never is.” Despite being thin as sticks, her arms cut into me with shocking strength, trapping me against her hollow, small form.
I see now that she’s afraid of what’s coming with that wave. Not afraid for herself, but for me.
Beyond the stillness of the tidal wave that negates the horizon, I sense something that makes me want to stop breathing. A slithering of forever folding into itself behind the three-dimensional curve of the wave.
“You’re not gone to me, Amma,” I say.
Before the plague days came to Kolkata, turned the crows and pigeons to small, reptile-footed angels of death, long before that is every afternoon I’ve spent with my Amma as a child, when my parents were off working. She’d pick me up from school and I’d have lunch she’d cooked for me (fried hilsa in mustard oil a favorite), and then it would be time for the Bengali siesta. I’d listen to her snoring (and snore she did, powerfully and unexpectedly for a woman of her slight frame) and look through the bars of the window by the bed, past the grills of the verandah, past its eternal clothesline. My gaze would stop just beyond those obstacles on the plants outside, sometimes glazed with rain, sometimes plastic-green with sunlight, as they moved gently to the slower time of the house and its garden. And in that moment I’d be in all times at once. I’d exist in every afternoon at that family house with my grandmother sleeping beside me. The garden shimmering outside, the rhythm of my grandmother’s snores keeping time from drifting to a complete standstill in that cool and shadowed bedroom. Not that time really was still. It moved and flowed even through those rooms, which grew emptier and emptier as grand-uncles and grand-aunts died, leaves crisping and falling off the branches of a family tree left bare. My grandfather died of a heart attack. I remember the moment it struck me that bodies decayed in that childhood sanctuary of mine, same as they did anywhere else. My grandmother holding his cold hand while a fly crawled over his forehead. I was fourteen. Somewhere beyond the infinite wave of the godhead, beyond this shore, is space and time. And within that spectrum, she’s not this revenant on a grey beach.
/ placing offerings of prasad before pictures of deities in their cheap metal frames; Lakshmi and Ganesh and Saraswati sitting next to a photograph of her departed husband, white pebbles of crystallized sugar and brown lumps of sandesh waiting on little tin plates. I pretend to pray by Amma’s side, and wait with clasped palms to eat the offerings after (someone has to) / muttering prayers under her breath and holding a plastic bucket under my chin to catch my vomit, while I writhe typhoid-ridden and swaddled in blankets, my parents at work. She tosses her hair behind her shoulder so it won’t fall in the bucket. The rope of her braid is thick and silver, her hair only beginning to thin above her forehead / waving a wicker hand-fan over her face as I scratch the papery dry soles of her feet (something she’s always asked me to do, over the years). Asking what the point of a philosophy degree is (to teach philosophy, of course, I answer). Asking, of course, what I eat all alone in my university apartment, unimpressed always by my lack of detailed menus /
I feel this place drawing spacetime into an osmotic fluid through me, draining into the lich who was and is my grandmother, this throne of living death I sit on.
My neurons spark as I unspool all the time I’ve spent with her. My memories a ghostly code that approximates and replicates time and space, rereading the microscopic fraction of eternity that I’ve spent with Sunita, mother of my mother. Lightning sears the sky, glistening off the godhead, and behind the tide something twists again, glitches across dimensions to swell against the curved membrane that seals this place from what dreams behind its ocean.
Somewhere else my body hitches, lips moving to speak Amma’s name. Hands stroke my hair, my forehead. The wind shaves a haze of grit from the beach, rustling against me and the dead flesh that wraps around me. I hear my parents’ voices, but not their words. I wonder why my grandfather isn’t here on this beach. I wonder whether it’s because he didn’t really believe either, or whether he’s gone somewhere else beyond life, and not this dismal shore, because he died a long time ago. Dead grandmother’s arms tighten, a snare.
My eyelids flutter across barriers. Recorded samsara playing back at lightspeed. I
catch a glimpse of the mildewed ceiling of a hospice room before plunging back by my grandmother’s side across time, but she’s not on the beach she’s
/ dismissing her plague-distended belly and aching, infected bones with a placid shrug, sitting in her favorite easy-chair by the bed. She always did resist her body’s response to time, even when that time was sped up by the disease. Incense is lit in the corner to dispel the musty smell of the room. A chilled monsoon breeze billows the curtain hanging in the doorway. I have to speak loudly, because of the mask over my nose and mouth, a precaution. Amma changes the subject from the plague by asking if I’m going to marry a good, devout Bengali boy before the world ends, if not before she dies. Passive-aggressive, as ever. I bite down barely stifled rage at this, using her sickness, her impending death, to make me feel bad about my choices—my disinterest in marriage and her religion, in giving her grandchildren that, in her ideal life for me, should have been at least toddlers by now. She points to the framed photos of me on the bulky old TV and reminds me how little I once was, or even better, points out the photos of her daughter, reminding me how little she was too. She does all this in the same glossolalia of affection, remarking “oleymaleyma” as if those babies her daughter and granddaughter once were, are still right there. As if we didn’t live in the end times. I feel my anger melt away. I say nothing. I leave, with a goodbye, promising to visit again soon. She dies the next week, in a dingy hospice room. Just half an hour before she took her last breath, she said to me, “I want you to have the saree I wore during my wedding,” completely lucid despite her body being on the verge of shutting down. My mother’s hand on my shoulder. What could I say to that? I hear the hitch of my mother’s body caught in a sob. I want to scream, at my grandmother, for saying this, for making my mother cry (and why wouldn’t she, no matter what my grandmother said, at that moment, I didn’t think), for caring about whether I would marry a good fucking Bengali boy at the end of the world. It’s the end of the fucking world, I wanted to scream at her. No one cares. We’re in a plague hospice. You’re dying.
I said nothing.
A rumble of distant thunder, barely heard, makes me turn.
I twist in dead grandmother’s grasp, trying to look into her face, at the pits of her eyes and the pocked waxen gums ridging that dry mouth. I can feel the godhead’s hum in the sand under my feet. I focus on the here, the now, the feel of wind against my prickling skin, the coarse bark-like scratch of grandmother’s dead arms against mine. She shivers under me, cut off from my memories, the last one I showed her still fresh inside her.
“You’re scared that whatever’s behind that wave is going to judge me for not being a good, devout Hindu,” I tell her.
She says nothing. “Not a Hindu. A believer.”
“Either way. You want to make a deal with whatever’s coming. For me, for my soul, for whatever it is that you’re holding. It’s why you can’t let me go?” I ask, looking at my own body, this aspect of me.
“I don’t know,” says grandmother, sounding desolate. “I don’t know anything. I’m dead. Yama let me be here. Maybe this is Naraka, Yama’s land. Maybe he’s waiting with us until we’ve been punished enough for our wrongdoings, and then he’ll guide us to the wave.”
“Yes, for god’s sake. Yes, purgatory, or hell. Always these western notions.”
“Can Yama speak?”
“Yama is a tiny part of what’s behind the wave. Of the universe—god. If Yama uttered a sound in front of us, I think we’d just stop existing, dead or not.”
“How did he tell you to be here, then?” I ask with a smile.
“Yama didn’t literally tell me. Yama let me know. Right before I died, when time stopped being just the present.”
“Okay, well, it sounds to me like you’re my guide here, Amma. In case I die.”
“I don’t know. Yama is supposed to be the guide for the dead. Not me,” she says. “I’m not doing a very good job of whatever I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Hey, don’t. Say that. It’s fine, Yama’s—there, maybe he’s the guide for the next step,” I take a deep breath. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m just, you know. Scared.”
Dead grandmother’s throat creaks.
There is a long silence before she says, “I’m scared too, dear.”
“You can do this. You can be my guide better than anyone. I think you’re looking at that wave wrong, Amma. You and me, I think we’re like germs to it. Good germs. An infection that doesn’t hurt it. I don’t think it can even notice us, let alone judge us. So don’t worry about me,” I say. I’m not sure at all about this, but I say it all for her. “What else did Yama tell—let you know?” I ask.
“I can tell that… a new universe is about to open its eyes. It’ll swallow this one and replace it. The omens, the plague, they’re just ways in which reality’s telling us to prepare. Why do you think we can’t even come close to curing this plague? It’s tied to everything. It’s making us see time in different ways. I saw it, in bits and pieces, before I died. You’re seeing time differently too. And now we’re here.”
I shake my head. “That’s, um, big news. I thought there were supposed to be billions of years left before this one went out.”
“I don’t think Brahman sees it as a bad thing. They’re probably tired. Or lonely. Decided it was time to up and let a newborn universe take over.” I’m surprised by the fact that she isn’t referring to Brahman as male, which she almost certainly would have done when alive. We didn’t often chat about what gender to assign the divinity of the cosmos, which is why I’m not sure.
“Is that what the god, the universe, really calls itself? Brahman? The Hindus got it right?”
“Don’t be silly, dear, of course not. I haven’t talked to god. Brahman is just one of the names I grew up calling them, that’s all.”
“I. My god—I mean, fuck. This really is it.” Despite the fact that she’s dead, I feel strange swearing in front of my grandmother.
“Yes, it is. And Anu, do you really need to—never mind. I think maybe it’ll all exist still, in some way. Through us.”
“A memory. A backup,” I breathe out, looking at the godhead, the way it disappears into the sky.
Somewhere out there, back in Kolkata, candles are lit for the plague dead. Incense for the infected. My parents wipe my scorching cheek, my damp forehead, and whisper prayers to a god I don’t believe in, that they barely believe in. Brahman. Allah. Yahweh. HaShem. A billion names. The expanding fluid in my belly churns, a storm like the one miles above me now, the one that merges with the godhead. My father’s hand wrapped around my arm. My mother wears Amma’s ashes in a small vial that dangles off her neck. She whispers to me, telling me to come back. She can’t lose both her mother and her daughter. But she can. The world is ending. Above Kolkata, shards of the cracking moon flare in the atmosphere. The plague dead are piled in limb-knotted mountains by the Ganges. A drizzle of flies, battering at mouths covered in flimsy cotton masks.
For a moment, Yama is a giant crow hunched over the banquet table, strobing pulsars for eyes, long curved nose beak-black as slate.
I try and relax.
“This is the longest conversation I’ve ever had in someone’s lap,” I say under my breath. “Listen, Amma. You don’t have to look like a zombie. Your body’s gone. We cremated it like you wanted. We still had that privilege, unlike so many others in the city. I don’t know if my body’s going to be burned. Too crowded now at the ghats. Too expensive. Not that it really matters to me. Or to anyone, if the universe itself is ending.”
Dead grandmother is silent.
I realize grandmother’s a young woman now, warm and yielding, the weight of organs and water a sudden heavy shock against me. I sit now on fleshy thighs once skinny, firmed by childbirth, by years of eating rice and daal. Newly moist lips sigh as her tongue tastes the burden of existence again, even if it is a mimicked existence, a remembrance. Her sockets fill with brown-irised eyes, the crimson filaments of capillaries, an overabundance of tears that spills down her cheeks. Her jet black hair wraps itself in a soft sheath across my face, tough between my teeth. I spit it out, breathe in. The godhead inches towards the shore. The arms around me are smooth and brown now, touched with a feathery rime of hair. Laden now with the flesh of life, those arms should be stronger, but their rigid grasp loosens, and they let me go.
I get up off her lap and look at her, as she looks at herself, looks at the arms and legs and body of a woman fifty years younger than she is, a woman she once was. She smiles. An alien sight in this place. Her teeth strong, untouched by decay. It grows, that smile, and she laughs, lungs now rich with air convulsing behind her chest, the tears dripping off her chin. It’s a sound that reminds me of my life, her life. A sound that is not dead. My eyes ache, and I blink against the wind. I miss my parents. Grandmother’s hands grasp her ache-less knees, squeeze her thighs to leave bruises like berry-smears on her skin. She gets up, to stand with me. I feel a bubble of laughter escape me, but it is soft.
For a while she stands in silence. I do too. Yama makes no sound.
“I’m sorry,” she says in a voice that sounds so much like my mother’s it makes my throat tighten. She starts to breathe out of habit, and hiccoughs, filling her fresh lungs. “That I made you sit on my lap. I’m not feeling right, here.”
I can’t help but laugh. “This is so crazy. Don’t be sorry, that’s ridiculous. You came and found me at the end of the universe. I couldn’t really ask for a better person to be here with me in this place, whatever it is. Except grandfather.”
She nods, the tears still streaming down her cheeks, though she doesn’t seem to be crying at all. “I think he’s already behind that wave. Maybe.”
“Can I ask you something, sweetheart?”
“Do you believe now?” she asks so soft that I almost don’t hear her. I’m dizzy from the cognitive dissonance of seeing this woman who’s basically my age beside me, and knowing it is my grandmother.
“Have I turned religious in these few moments, looking at where I am? No, Amma, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t believe in what you believed in when you were alive.”
“You’re not a stupid girl. Never were. But so arrogant,” she says, smiling.
“Not a girl at all. Bit too old.”
“You’re right. But like I said, you have to understand, I’m dead, you’re not. From where I am in all of this, you’re a little baby. My fragile blood.”
“Thank you. For the concern.”
“I don’t know what’s behind that wave, Amma. It could be bullshit. Could be god. Could be water. Could be an annoying allegory. Or is that metaphor. Doesn’t stop me from being fu—really scared of it, but no, I’m not a believer. Yet? But…”
She looks at me with her new brown eyes. They are astonishing to me in that moment, in this sunless light. She waits.
“… I’m sorry I couldn’t give you what you wanted from a granddaughter. Like children, a grandson-in-law, some kind of obeisance to your beliefs. I’m sorry I didn’t visit more often once I grew up, if you can call it that. I’m sorry you had to die.”
Amma nods to herself and looks out to the curving sea. She raises her hands to her face, letting her windblown hair cover it.
“Promise me,” she says.
She holds my arm, turning to me. “Listen. Look at me. If you end up walking back up this beach and past those mountains, and returning to the Everyday. Please. I know things are bad back there. I want you to keep living. Don’t just give up. The universe might be ending, but it might take thousands of years, who knows. That’s nothing on a cosmic scale. There’s always time.”
“I don’t know if I’m going back, Amma,” I swallow against a helpless quiver in my throat.
“You still might. And if you do,” she says, suddenly urgent. “Share what’s left of the world with your parents, your friends. So you have more to remember when your time comes, or theirs. You’ll have them to bring with you after death. And if you don’t go back to the Everyday, well, then I’m right here. I’m going to wait with you. However long it takes for that wave to get here. We’ll fish from the sea to eat, and we’ll talk, and we’ll write. You liked to write. I remember, in school, for homework, you wrote essays as if no one was asking. We’ll write here, write down our lives for whatever’s coming. Whenever your parents were away, I took care of you. Didn’t I always? They’re not here now. My baby daughter’s not here. But I’ll take care of you till they get here. Maybe they won’t get here, but don’t you worry. Maybe we’ll live whole new lives here, and walk along the beach. Maybe it leads to the new universe. Maybe this is the new universe, starting. Whatever it is, I’m here.”
“Do you,” I clear my throat. “Do you want me to remember more. Of you. I didn’t mean to cut you off, before.”
Her ears redden under the lashing of her hair, as if she’s embarrassed. “No. Thank you, dear. What you gave me helped. I feel—more human.”
She walks up to me, and kisses me on the cheek. Goosebumps run across me from neck to ankles. Yama’s shroud flutters, clothing the multitude of dimensions I hold in myself. The fish on the banquet table have grown squirming cities of maggots. I wonder if my parents will join us at the table in weeks, years, centuries. I tell myself that the absence of all the dead of the world on this shore tells me something, tells me that I have nothing to worry. This is personal, not infinite. Time and space mean nothing here. This is a buffer, however miniscule or endless.
I’m keeping my grandmother alive here. Some day, she’ll understand that. This is what I tell myself. She looks at me, and extends her hand. I take it. It’s small in mine. Both our palms are clammy with sweat. “Whatever makes you feel better about this, dear,” she whispers. I’ve said nothing.
Maybe I’m about to write these words down, right there on that banquet table, not so far in the future, if there is a future here. Time is ceasing to move in any one way. I trust these words are being recorded somewhere, if only on the star-gritted walls of the universe itself as it gives way, as it prepares its death rites, in part through a tiny blue sphere of life it engendered within its vastness. I wonder for a moment about the other worlds, the other species and civilizations it fostered, and how they react right now to its impending death. I know nothing. I never have. But maybe I will. As my grandmother is my waiting psychopomp, I too am the psychopomp of this dying universe, which only I can see with my eyes.
Behind the wave, infinity waits. If it is in the spasms of death or birth, the calm of that vast wave tells us nothing, even as it moves towards us. The wave and the storm clouds stretch up into a cosmos we can’t see from here, lightning above us the glow of distant nebulae as they blossom out of existence, refracted through cascading, n-dimensional configurations of spacetime.
We begin walking down the beach (how long will we walk? Not long, forever, a moment), my grandmother and I, two young women, but without age in the shadow of the approaching wave. Yama watches, light-years between us and his burning eyes. But I am Yama. I am the godhead. I begin this place. I end this place. Even if I don’t, I do. I wait. We wait.
The universe stretches forward and back, closer and further from the end of all things we know and don’t know. The godhead inches closer to the shore.
Indrapramit Das (aka Indra Das) is a writer from Kolkata, India. His debut novel The Devourers (Penguin Books India) was nominated for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India, and is slated for a summer 2016 release in North America from Ballantine Del Rey. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies, including Clarkesworld, Asimov’s and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He is a 2012 Octavia E. Butler Scholar, and a grateful graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. He divides his time between India and Canada, immigration-willing. For more visit his website www.indradas.com or follow him on Twitter @IndrapramitDas.