Published in Issue 62.4: Fall 2023
“When demons take your soul,” my grandmother told me, “they don’t take all of it away.” That was how my evenings began, sitting before my declining grandmother, listening to stories of her time as a witch. She sat on the bed, legs sprawled, pillows under her ankles and knees. “It’s more of a pull rather than a suck.”
She said she remembered the days of witch hunting, despite being born almost a century after; she said she was centuries old. She’d had her fifth stroke the week before, her body paralyzed from the waist down. She gasped for air after each sentence, and the air that left her mouth smelled of sour milk and stale whole wheat bread. Her lungs were failing. She was not on life support, said she didn’t need it, and we didn’t push. It was like we had surrendered, letting her body slowly ease into death, listening to her and never correcting her. Mother said getting accustomed to the idea of death takes time for the dying, but Grandmother didn’t know she was dying. She would never be told of the possibility of her impending death. I wondered when she’d die. In any case, how could one ever get accustomed to something they never knew could happen to them?
“These demons—never call them ghosts or evil spirits, those are different—they don’t try to take over your body at first.”
I listened, my head on her unfeeling knees, looking up at her smiling face, yellowed teeth chipped at the edges like porcelain, the gaps between her words growing wider with every breath. I asked her how she knew, like I always did, and she answered the same every time, presumably without a trace of the memory from the times I’d asked before. “I am a witch, remember? I was even an exorcist once, saving pregnant widows from those demons.” I couldn’t bring myself to believe in the supernatural. It seemed like the stuff of fairy tales printed in books with gilded edges. God, I felt, was an entity without much basis in reality, much like demons.
But I asked, “How do they choose their prey?” And she corrected me, “Not prey, love, no, no.” A pause, hand propped under her chin like she was thinking. Thin black hair sprouted across the skin under her fingers. “They smell fear, and I was born during the war, so I know fear.”
“Where did you learn all this?” I asked.
She said, proud as a talking bird, “I was trained at a school for it, the only woman there, the first one they accepted.”
I smiled, and she kissed my cheek, sour milk and stale whole wheat bread plastered across my skin in a wet sheen of saliva. She was a doctor before being a witch. She helped deliver babies and treat incurable illnesses. “I saved many women during the war, pregnant or otherwise, while my husband was out there fighting at the borders.”
Grandmother was the only one I still talked to in my paternal family; the rest of them left me when I came out. Or did I leave them? I did not remember. At times, I could barely conjure up their faces in my mind. Like watercolor splashed with rain, they bled around the edges, dripped beyond the canvas. I forgot them because otherwise, I’d still be mourning their departure.
I pressed my finger to my grandmother’s forehead, and she said, “You are a handsome young man, you’ll be settled with a wife in no time.” My finger slick with her sweat, I said, “Thank you, I love you.” I feared that soon I wouldn’t be able to tell her I loved her again. I feared the loss of her body. I wished for souls to exist just to quench my guilt that I might be a bad grandson.
Despite my lack of belief, I often imagined her soul dressed in her white nightgown, sitting on clouds cross-legged and reciting her stories like they were verses of an old song she had memorized as a child. Floating flutes would play behind her, a soundtrack to her life. If she could gain some relief, a bit of joy, as a soul in the afterlife, she’d forget all the bad I was.
“I grew up close to the Ganga River, you know? And I married your grandfather at twelve, months before his fifteenth birthday, and weeks before he went to the military,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, like it was all normal to her. I imagined her twelve-year-old body in a wedding saree and felt the sickness wash over me like the tide in the sea. Blue and green like floating seaweed.
The first time I met Grandmother, we went boating with Mother and Father in the backwaters of Bay of Bengal in Muttukadu, Mother in her red silk saree with gold borders, and Father in his white veshti with silk borders. Grandmother was dressed in a white saree without any adornments, for she was a widow and a firm believer that the death of the husband kills the life of the wife. It was a day after my parents’ fifth anniversary, and I was turning four that summer. I had only heard of Grandmother in stories from Father’s childhood, not yet seen her except in old photographs that had barely retained their color over the years. Her skin was paper to me. Her eyes always without color. My parents had left India a few days after their marriage, and Grandmother continued to live in a large house that overlooked the backwaters until Father brought her to our house, with a failing heart and paralyzed legs. She was too weak to live alone anymore.
Father hadn’t been close to Grandmother growing up, but he’d come to love her in her absence. A version of her, at least. Then, as her health deteriorated, he felt an obligation to care for her, being her only child. He decided he could love his own version of her until her death. I wondered about the care I would need to provide for my parents when they were dying, being their only child.
That day, as the water sprinkled into my eyes and the sun burned my brown cheeks, Grandmother plucked a floating blue-green mass from the water and put the stringy, spongy thing in my palm. My first time seeing seaweed. I kept that seaweed in a water jar in my room, with others like it in smaller jars. The jar smelled like a flood in a wooden house and reminded me of how we hunched over a box television set and looked at the weather forecast the night after returning from the backwaters. We sat on the floor of Grandmother’s living room, blanketed in warm clothes, the house surrounded only by trees and no people, as rain battled the glass of the windows. The blue-green mass continued to float inside the glass jar. Grandmother didn’t know I still kept that seaweed from our first time together. I didn’t plan on telling her.
She was now only a sponge, unable to bathe herself, or put clothes on her frail body. There was something strange about caring for a declining person. A sort of longing for their death and simultaneously loving them through stinky vomit on button-downs, green and orange swirls floating in half-chewed rice, and white gloves covered in thick, yellow urine that seeped past the gloves into your hands. I was supposed to stay with her in the evenings after the nurse left, and although I enjoyed the stories at the beginning, I only felt used now. I felt like the peel of a fruit that was about to be thrown in the garbage bin. I felt purposeless, watching a dying woman die. I wanted this to end soon.
“That yucky boy calling you a girl, do you remember?”
Grandmother recalled only a few stories from my childhood, as she wasn’t around for most of it, looking over water and floating boats in a house nestled between groves of trees while I spent my days in school and afternoon music lessons. The days she had come to visit us were fading photographs in her mind, sepia coated and blank at some spots. Her memory of me fractured and mended with leaking bandages.
The last story was forgotten on her pale pink tongue, a familiar tone bristling her voice, a fondness that wove through her words like thick threads braided into cloth. There were stories she repeated every evening, but I hadn’t heard her mention this one much. The sun was still aching against the framed portrait of the window, pink and swollen.
With my head still on her knee, I nodded. The breath held in my chest. Silence housed between my lips.
When I was in kindergarten, for weeks a boy kept calling me girl, despite knowing my name. At that time there weren’t many problems in my life, only mild inconveniences, like my books torn by the cat or broken prescription glasses under my pink pillow, but being called girl felt as uncomfortable as my mother giving me Barbies or calling me a princess. It was like sitting in a group with no one noticing your existence.
One day he came close to me at lunch, smelled the food Grandmother cooked for me—ghee rice and potato curry—and he said, “Did your mother cook this thing? Looks like she put her blood into that curry.” He leaned towards me and hissed, “Girl?”
I punched him in the nose. A sliver of blood peeked out, and I screamed, “Stop calling me a girl,” before stomping off. I was suspended for two weeks, and grandmother said she was proud of me.
Mrityunjay Mohan is a queer, trans, disabled writer of color. His work has appeared in Indianapolis Review, The Masters Review, Oyster River Pages, and elsewhere, and has been supported or recognized by Frontier Poetry, The Common, and the Sundance Institute. He edits a column featuring queer, trans, disabled authors of color for the online magazine ANMLY, and is a reader for the Harvard Review and The Masters Review.