Lasya Gundlapudi

What Cleanses Us

Peeling petals from a magnolia before it blooms.  

Cartoons flickering on the screen. Sandalwood smoke begins to burn our lungs. Mama pacing the kitchen, swearing under her breath. “Ayyo, I forgot to light the incense in time.”

Brother forcing open the prayer book, as if cracking the shell of a nut.

Waves of snow like static as we walk to the corner store for Brother’s cigarette. Flinching as he sparks the end of it. “In the snow, tobacco can’t burn you.”

Papa cross-legged and eyes shut tight, unyielding, heedless to Brother’s prayer book flung in corner. Mama’s hand cradling Brother’s soft head, her murmurs. “Do not get irritated, nanna. Let the words float gently to the top of your mind, like water lilies.”

Yanking off my dirt-speckled boots and laying them with care beside the front door. Remembering Mama’s voice. “There are gods in this house, and we invite misery to remind them of the things we walk upon.”

Papa polishing my boots at night, hunched among deep blue shadows. Whispering Thank You only after he falls asleep. 

Crush of pine needles as we follow the pale neighbor boy to a woodland clearing.  “There is still time,” he says, dirt on his elbows, burying a gold-leaf book. “Accept the one true God, and repent.” 

Counting when to stop holding our breath as Mama scrubs the floors with peroxide.

Scratch of Papa’s oil-stained sweater as he carries me, in violet sleep, to bed.

Counting when to stop covering my ears when Papa finds cigarettes flowering in Brother’s laundry basket.

Outside, the faint scent of lavender as Mama calls to the goddess from the open door. Her slender fingers, lights flickering on in the veranda. “Dusk is a time of prayer. We must invite the goddess in like a tea-time guest, into a clean home.”

Mama pointing up to the celestial blue-black. “Do not look when it is new. It will catch your soul on fire.”

Forbiddance from the woodland clearing when Brother looks at the moon. “The neighbor says our souls are already on fire, anyways.” 

Crush of pine needles as I follow Brother to the woodland clearing. His fingernails hitting the dirt, moonlight in his hair, hands straining for the gold-leaf book. “There was something in here about forgiveness, I swear.”

Wiping condensation off dark window glass with my fingertips. Outside in the early frost, Papa turns the key in the ignition for me, his hands chapped.

Waves of snow like static as Brother turns to me, his cigarette extinguished by the falling ice. “Dad’s a dick.” 

Wiping condensation off gold window glass with my fingertips. Outside in the daylight, smoke tumbles out of the Honda, now warm in its belly. Inside, Papa slips back under the blankets. Forgetting to say Thank You.

Brother’s tooth knocked out by Papa’s red slap. My advice to him, to slip it under a clean pillowcase and use the change for fifty-cent candy.

The small dove we squeeze as we bundle magnolias in our hands. Brother says he knows he is troubled but that he is like that crush of petals, soft at the heart of it. 

Sweet burst of fifty-cent candy we buy in violet dusk. Giving what’s left of mine to Brother, who says he never knew the scent of Papa’s sweater.

Angry clink of porcelain over the evening news. Papa silhouetted against golden lamplight, hunched over the sink, washing silently. Mama sobbing in the corner. Thinking of Brother and wanting to remind Papa to be gentle, of how easily these things break. 

“Why does it have to matter to you, any of the shit I’ve done, when all I need to do is repent?” Brother’s crashing voice. Dishes quivering on the counter, bone white and breakable.

Mama finally whispering that things are easier in this land, with its last minute acts of grace. Back home we must face our sins head-on like bulls. “This is why I pray for us. Each of your acts is a weight and each misstep marks you grave bound, in this life and the next.” 

Burning my thumbs on the flame of an oil-soaked lamp Mama says will cleanse our souls.

In the dusty core of a village, past the white schoolhouse and mango groves, a statue wrapped in sandalwood smoke. This is what I glimpse in Mama’s photograph near the altar. “Your grandfather’s love built cities, but he could not always show it to his son.”

Like Papa.

These characters Mama and I have written into our memories, mythic, unbreakable.

Sinking into a steaming bath after the snowstorm, trying to cleanse my memories. But on my eyelids only Brother, standing still in the rustle of snow, flakes on his eyelashes, small against the vast white ocean around us.

“Why won’t you tell him to forgive me the way he forgives you?”    

Sinking deeper, my body a statue wrapped in steaming smoke, holding the power to rewrite everything.

Crush of pine needles. I break dirt under moonlight, and repent.

   

Lasya Gundlapudi is a Bioinformatics and Creative Writing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is the Editor in Chief of Le Monde, VCU’s Honors College magazine that profiles local artists/bands and surveys student opinion on the best cookies in Richmond. When she’s not writing she’s probably curled up with a cup of chai while watching a particularly intense episode of Jeopardy.