Lakshmi sat beside the social worker in the central court’s waiting room, while the gods of Canada’s justice system divined her fate. The social worker tapping away on her iPhone paid little attention to her eight year old charge. Lakshmi sat there, disconsolate, drowning in waves of sadness, her mother’s screams continuing to echo through her head. She wondered how it was possible, that her mother had died in the car crash while she had not received even a single scratch. Lakshmi’s future was now up in the air, under negotiation with the judge, a choice of foster care or auntie.
The social worker pocketed her iPhone as auntie accompanied by a lawyer entered the waiting room. Auntie embraced Lakshmi with a glowing smile, ” You will live with me now my little dove, we will be so happy together “. They exited the courtroom and auntie hailed a taxi.
The taxi dropped them off in front of a run down apartment and they negotiated the elevator to the fifth floor. Upon entering the apartment auntie poured herself a generous portion of gin, lit a cigarette, settled herself on the couch with a weary sigh and pronounced, ” We will be good company for each other, you will see. Sit child, sit”. Lakshmi cleared the remaining chair of its papers, plastic bottles and slightly used paper plates, sitting tentatively on the edge of her seat. Auntie, stared vacantly into space, sipped her gin, puffed on her cigarette and Lakshmi, apprehensive, weeping silently, drifted off to sleep. Auntie occupied the apartments one bedroom and Lakshmi made her bed on the couch.
The next morning auntie accompanied Lakshmi on the ten minute walk to her new school. Lakshmi was introduced to the Principal and shown her classroom. She was asked if she wanted to share anything with the classroom, but shyly declined. When the final school bell rang, Lakshmi waited outside the school for auntie, but auntie never showed. Eventually Lakshmi made her own way to the apartment building. The elevator was out of order so she ascended the stairs to the 5th floor. The stairs were filthy, strewn with garbage, interspersed with empty beer and wine bottles. On the third floor she tentatively squeezed by a decrepit man, hunched over on the steps, eyes closed, clutching a bottle. She ran the rest of the way to the fifth floor. She knocked on the door of auntie’s apartment and entered.
The smell of incense was strong within the apartment, overriding the stench of cigarettes and alcohol. Auntie was fast asleep on the couch. Lakshmi sat in her chair and stared at auntie, she missed her mother. After a while auntie awoke and stared uncomprehendingly at Lakshmi. As recognition dawned she gave a smile, offering to make Lakshmi supper. She reached in the cupboard for a can of baked beans, heating it on the stove. She then acquired two paper plates and divided the can between Lakshmi and herself, topping it off with two slices of bread. Having finished supper auntie retreated to her bottle of gin, leaving Lakshmi to dream of her mother.
Three months later Lakshmi asked auntie for permission to go to her classroom friend’s birthday party. “Do you think I am made of money. Does money grow on trees”, intoned auntie. ” I cannot afford to buy birthday presents. You are costing me too much money for food and clothes as it is.” Lakshmi devastated, retreated to her chair crying, hating auntie with every fibre of her being.
Six months later auntie and Lakshmi were sitting at the tiny kitchen table eating supper when Lakshmi, reaching across for the salt, knocked aunties glass of gin, spilling its contents over the table. Auntie immediately reacted with a vicious smack across Lakshmi’s face sending her tumbling off the seat. ” You stupid girl. What a waste. You are so clumsy” auntie raged as she reached for the bottle to refill her glass. Lakshmi buried her face in the armchair, crying uncontrollably, her hate for auntie increasing with every sob. And so life went on for the next two years.
Lakshmi’s tenth birthday came and went without acknowledgment by auntie. As Lakshmi became older and more independent life had settled down to a listless routine of cleaning the house and trying to avoid aunties bad moods. Auntie was becoming increasingly irrational, mostly scolding Lakshmi for some perceived slight. Other times she would enfold Lakshmi in a vice like embrace, intoning prayers to Vishnu for a better life.
One night Lakshmi was awakened with auntie’s screams from the bedroom, she tumbled off the couch, stumbling in a daze towards auntie’s bed. Auntie clutched Lakshmi pulling her onto the bed, her fingernails digging deep. Auntie wouldn’t let go and kept screaming, ” Vishnu, save me. Save me from my nightmares, my terrors.” Lakshmi was suffocating under aunties embrace, but auntie clung to her, her grip becoming tighter and tighter. Lakshmi screamed out in pain, desperately trying to escape. ” Auntie, auntie let me light some incense to honour Vishnu. It will lesson your dreams “. These repeated words finally made their way into aunties befuddled brain and she gradually released her grip on Lakshmi.
Lakshmi returned to auntie with a glass of gin and five incense tapers. She placed the tapers in a jar and lit them. Auntie reached for her cigarettes, sipping her gin, beginning to quieten down, the nightmares receding. Lakshmi stood in the corner of the room, watching auntie. Watching as auntie drifted off to sleep. She waited five minutes to ensure that auntie was truly asleep and then she reached for the incense tapers. She placed two of the lighted tapers on the pillow, either side of aunties head and two at her feet. The fifth she placed over her heart. She then retreated to her couch to sleep.
Lakshmi awoke to the frenzied ringing of the fire alarm. Seeing smoke coming from auntie’s bedroom she walked over and opened the door. Lakshmi watched in fascination as the flames engulfed the bed. Watched the vivid colours with its hues of yellow, orange and red. Watched the flames spitting at her, like aunties wrath, forcing her back from the room. She witnessed aunties funeral pyre grow ever more colourful, hypnotized, in awe of its majesty. She consigned all her hate, anguish, grief and fears into that brightly coloured fire and the flames obligingly consumed them. Releasing her. Lakshmi was born anew.