I Never Saw My Mother Sleep
by Michael C. Keith
~No one saves us but ourselves.
Never in his young existence had Dilvan Corea seen his mother fully at rest. She was not in her bed when he went to sleep at night nor when he rose in the morning. He wondered what it was that kept her up. Was it the Frogmouth’s screechy song, the hurried scream of the Ashy-Headed Laughing Thrush, or the piping “tuh, tuh, tuh” of the Rufus Babbler that prevented her respite? Dilvan speculated. The sounds of Master Hasitha’s expansive garden never disturbed his sleep. His mother’s nocturnal absence remained a mystery to him throughout his early childhood.
“You never sleep, Amma. You are not in bed when I look, and you are not there in the morning.”
“There is always work to do, my sweet child,” replied his mother warmly. “When you are asleep, I am asleep. When you are awake, I am awake, so how can you see me when I slumber?”
It was not until he was eleven that he found out why his beloved parent was always missing from her mat.
“But why must you work all day and all night?” he asked.
“It is the master’s will,” offered his mother, growing solemn.
“But you are tired and must lay down,” protested Dilvan, concerned.
“The house must be kept purified to ward off the evil god, Mara. Master Hasitha fears he will not reach Tusita if it is present in his household.”
“But there are other servants to clean, Amma.”
“The master makes it my duty to keep the inhuman beings away. And that requires constant care,” replied Padma Corea.
“Why does he treat you so badly, Amma? He does not like me either. His face turns angry whenever he sees me.”
“He has many thoughts, Dilvan, and he is old and arthritic.”
“His children spit at me when they pass.”
“Do not let others make you sad, sweet boy. They are ignorant of those they scorn.”
“I do not like the Hasithas, and I will leave this house soon,” declared Dilvan, with an edge in his voice that surprised his mother.
“Where will you go? There is only the street. Do not be foolish. Here you eat and are safe. Master Hasitha gives us shelter, so he is not a bad man.”
“He treats Chaturi and Lakmini better, and they are servants, too,” objected Dilvan.
“Shush, my son. You are but a child and should not be making such statements.”
Dilvan obeyed his mother and remained silent, despite his growing resentment of the master of the household in which he was forced to dwell.
* * *
As Dilvan’s twelfth birthday approached, he could not help but notice a bulge in his mother’s abdomen. She looked drained, and he feared she was gravely sick. When he inquired about her appearance, to his great shock she replied that he would soon have a sibling.
“But there is no father. Was he also killed in the war as mine was?” he asked with great curiosity.
“I will tell you more when you are older, my son,” was his mother’s unsatisfying reply, and Dilvan protested.
“I am almost a dozen years, Amma, and I can understand now.”
“You are still a boy. Soon you will be a man, and then I will tell you things only a man should hear.”
That evening as Dilvan lay in bed unable to sleep because so many unanswered questions filled his head, he heard a scream from the courtyard. He knew at once it came from his mother. He ran up the stairs and to the balcony’s edge and saw Master Hasitha holding his mother as she strained to free herself.
“I do not want another of yours in my house,” growled Hasitha.
“It is your child, too,” sobbed Padma.
“You are whore!” bellowed Hasitha, tossing Dilvan’s mother to the hard ground.
Dilvan screamed, prompting the elderly man to look up at him contemptuously.
“Bastard boy!” he shouted and left the courtyard while Padma lay on the ground moaning.
Hearing the fracas, the other servants emerged and went to Padma’s aid. When Dilvan arrived on the scene, he saw that his mother’s frock was covered in blood.
“The baby!” whispered Chaturi to Lakmini.
Padma remained in the hospital for two days and during that time Dilvan feared for her life. In her absence his anger at Master Hasitha filled his mind with thoughts of revenge.
“No, my child. Do not be rash,” counseled his mother when he admitted his feelings to her. “You will go to jail, and your life will be ruined.”
It took everything in his being to comply with her request. So tormented was he by his need to avenge his mother’s mistreatment that he decided to leave the house of her abuser for a life on the streets. When Padma found his few belongings missing, she wept and prayed that he would not meet with harm.
* * *
Despite the odds against his survival as a homeless boy on the streets of Columbo, he managed to get through the next three years. It was a harsh existence, but he had quickly acquired the skills necessary to live independently of his mother’s tyrannical employer. His hatred for Master Hasitha grew as his mother’s health rapidly declined. It was during his last visit when she was confined to her mat, that he saw her asleep for the first time. He sat next to her diminished figure until her eyes finally opened.
“Dilvan, my sweet child,” she muttered raising her trembling hand to his face. “I was dreaming of you, and you were happy. Are you happy?”
“I will only be happy when Master Hasitha has left this world,” mumbled Dilvan.
“You must not harm him, my son. It would be wrong for you to do so.”
“No, I will punish him for treating you so poorly.”
“You cannot act against him, Dilvan. God says ‘Fathers should be spared their son’s enmity,’” asserted his mother, trying to raise her head.
“What? Father . . .?”
“Yes . . . he is your father,” choked Padma, her chest heaving.
“But you told me my father died in the war.”
“I lied to keep you from being hurt. It was better that you did not know the truth,” said Padma, her breathing strained.
“That can’t be, Amma,” said Dilvan deeply stunned by the revelation. “Why then would he treat us so cruelly?”
“Forgive me . . .” muttered Padma, the light in her eyes dimming as she succumbed to her lifelong exhaustion.
Dilvan clutched her hand until the warmth drained from it.
“Amma, Amma,” he wept as the day turned into deep night.
Eventually he left her still body and quietly climbed the stairs to Master Hasitha’s large chamber. As he approached the door, he removed a small metal pipe from his tattered sherwani and attempted to push his long wild hair from his face. The room was lit by bright moonlight allowing Dilvan to see the master lying atop his high luxurious bed. He quietly moved to his side, and as he did his mother’s tormenter awoke and looked at him in horror.
“No, no Mara!” he pleaded.
All the sorrow and pain Dilvan felt for his cherished mother flooded his being. As he raised the pipe high in the air preparing to strike, Master Hasitha’s eyes bulged and then quickly rolled back into his head. His rotund body appeared to deflate, all the air in his lungs escaping through his thin, crooked lips. Dilvan knew he was dead, and the realization transformed his expression from hatred to one of profound melancholy and relief.
“Amma,” he uttered and dropped the pipe to the floor.
Until the sun’s rays peaked over the garden’s cinnamon and papaya trees, he watched the progenitor of his abject existence sleep the sleep of the dead.
Bio: Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, three story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books. www.michaelckeith.com
by David Francis
The couple, on their third anniversary, ended up at The Inn.
They had gone there once for a late-night breakfast and were charmed. The white two-storied motel and adjoining restaurant dated back to the ‘sixties.
Almost hidden by foliage from the traffic on the parkway, then looming suddenly, its free-standing marquee usually welcomed business conventions and this had put the couple off—until they discovered the restaurant was open twenty-four hours.
Between colonial columns they entered the glass front of the lobby with its white spiral staircase, sumptuous check-in counter, and desk table for perusing the display of chamber of commerce brochures. Through the short carpeted hallway, businessmen clamored from the cocktail lounge on their right, then, cater-corner, a step-down led them into the dining room.
Surprisingly, for a Saturday night, no one was dining, which made the lighting seem excessively dim. To their left, a thin middle-aged woman hovered around the cash register in front of a wall covered with signed photographs, mostly of stand-up comics. She scurried away and disappeared. Their gaze was drawn to the fake fireplace in the center of the wainscoting. On the back wall, above red vinyl booths, a gilt-framed mirror reflected—at a slightly upward angle—the dusky interior of a dozen tables with cutlery, serviettes and tablecloths delustered by yellow sconces and a chandelier. A gap in the line of booths on their right gave access to the kitchen.
Out that door soon came a soft-spoken young black waiter who seated them in a booth as requested. The hushfulness—there was no piped-in music—and his formal attentiveness underscored the intimacy of the occasion. Sconce-lighted prints of a watermill, a main street, a railroad terminal hung above them. The motif was Deep-Southern and their waiter’s pouring clanking ice cubes out of a glass pitcher and setting down a bowl of real butter pieces embodied an almost forgotten style of service. Even his muttering to himself seemed courteous: it was like the cooing of doves, an antidote to the brusqueness and the artificial glare outside.
They asked for coffee and a slice of New York cheesecake which they would share. The suave waiter vanished into the
portholed door for what seemed a long time, but when he eventually placed the mountainous wedge of creamy pie—and two dessert forks—before them and brought the pot to their Sheffield cups, it was worth the wait. They sniffed the fragrance like a wine. It was a deep, mutual pleasure.
Steadied by her left hand and his right, they looked at the menu. To them the embossed booklet was like an invitation to a moneyed wedding, because they had little money. If one actually examined it, one saw a standard American breakfast of eggs, ham, bacon or sausage, hash browns or grits, and toast, biscuit or muffin, choice of juice included, for the modest price of about two dollars more than a greasy-spoon diner.
From their first visit they recalled that the scrambled eggs were fine yet firm, the bacon cooked just right, the hash browns crisp and flavorful, and the bread fresh-baked: delicious food that settled the stomach.
Earlier in the night they had supped decadently on drive-through tacos, then shared a large buttered popcorn during “La Dolce Vita,” and now were ready to drink coffee and discuss the movie. First they moved from the booth to a small table near the fake fireplace, it was more romantic. Their New Orleans waiter was not in sight. Instead, a portly young blonde, a small-town Texas
girl, waded over and gave them a refill. It was past midnight: “La Dolce Vita” is a long film.
Both had seen several Fellinis, were fans before they met, so there were layers to their conversation and soon they were deep in criticism, wide awake, helped by the coffee. They were snug in their couple world that included the waitress topping them off, then absconding through the mysterious swinging door and later accompanying the cashier into the wee hours.
The husband didn’t notice when the comedian sat down some tables behind them. But turning around to the distinctive voice, he knew him instantly. In a lowered tone he said, “See that guy over there? He’s a TV star.” His wife craned over his shoulder, looked back at him and nodded. She knew the type. One would spot him as theatrical anywhere; he had that charismatic presence. Her husband turned around again and the guy met his stare so that he wondered if he knew that he knew.
Meanwhile an entourage had formed comprising two cocktail waitresses from across the hall and their own waitress; the seated comedian held court, with them standing. “He’s on tonight,” the young man whispered to his wife. It was the quickness of his delivery, his wit, his bag of tricks he held like Santa Claus in front of the simple awed women. The husband moved his chair to see better, to compare the TV image with the actual person.
There was something satyr-like about the loudmouth. From the nightclub where he had just performed he brought his brassy stage patter and it clashed with this demure Southern interior; he had intruded on their anniversary celebration. Though aware that his attention had wandered from his wife, the husband couldn’t help himself: their life was uneventful, as things went, and his stomach had butterflies from the fact that the other surely knew that he knew and as far as they were concerned there was really no one else in the restaurant. Yes, this was an event.
“Ha ha ha!” the female audience roared and giggled. The punch lines came so fast that they overlapped. But the couple were in a serious mood after the film and determined to hold their ground. This seemed to annoy the comedian.
His jokes waxed increasingly sexual, he was drunk and stimulated by contact with some attractive women back at the club. Here he had a captive mini-audience to help him wind down, but he kept casting his large woolly head at the couple, absurdly, as if they were heckling or personally insulting him.
They had pointedly ignored him, but it was like Marcello Mastroianni trying not to watch Anita Ekberg in the fountain, or like Anthony Quinn trying to keep his cool while being teased by Richard Basehart, or maybe, the wife suggested, putting a feminine emphasis on it, like the shy and good-hearted Giulietta Massina being brutalized by Anthony Quinn. If only their urbane waiter were here to give him a withering look, to redress the lack of balance, to defend the proper ambiance!
“You know,” the husband said, “I think this guy’s really a freak and he became a comedian but his personality was
already like that. He’s hyperactive.”
His wife agreed.
He glanced over. The bright glazed alcoholic face, the glib mouth running on batteries met his deliberately sober stoic face as if to say, “You are you, and I am I, but I am bigger than life. Regard me!”
In the informational tone people adopt when repeating celebrity gossip, he said, “I saw on an interview where he said that he was a prodigy in math when he was a kid. He was a big mouth and one day he decided to go into comedy.”
She nodded. “Hector—you never met him, this friend of mine from high school—was like that. Even funnier. The kind of guy who can entertain people at parties. You know, do charades, impressions, and crack people up.”
“I can’t tell a joke. I can’t remember them. People tell me jokes all the time at work—I can’t even remember a single one….”
“It’s a talent. Some people can make you laugh by their inflection, just by their face when they deliver the punch.”
“I always forget the punch line. You can’t explain a joke. That kills it.”
“But when you see one of these natural comedians, you realize it’s no use to even try.”
Behind them, the acid tones of his voice filling, corroding the room, the comedian showed no sign of letting up. It was a slew of one-liners that careened off on surrealistic tangents because he was drunk, he was wired, exhausted. One of the barmaids drifted away, her circuitry overloaded. To the two remaining he said: “See that couple over there? Completely ignoring me. They’re in their own world. Oblivious! Look at them in the ivory tower of their oblivion, they’re like those little plastic lovebirds that you wind up and they kiss. Mmmpuuch! They’re in love. They gotta be newlyweds.”
The subjects of this last-ditch attempt smiled at each other. And for the first time, they looked at the taunting lonely man, together.
Bio: David Francis has produced three albums of songs and one of poems. In 2008 NYCBigCityLit published his article
"Utterance and Hum: The Difference Between Poem and Song." Oilcan Press brought out ALWAYS/FAR, a chapbook of song
lyrics and drawings, in 2010. David's poems and stories have appeared in a number of US and UK magazines.