Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer


David tripped on Sonia Aunty’s verandah steps and hit his face on our third day in Colombo. I worried that his bloody nose would affect his reception at the party that evening. I had persuaded Sonia Aunty to invite all the relatives, even the Matara crowd that had been blackballed for missing my grandmother’s funeral five years ago. Persuading Sonia Aunty that the party would not offend my parents was harder, but I had managed that too.

“It’s been months,” I reminded Sonia Aunty. “Old news now. No one is going to be shocked.”

The blood that dripped from David’s nose was as dark and viscous as the molasses his mother had drizzled on cornbread while I sat stiffly at her dinner table, the time we visited her in Dallas. Drops oozed through David’s fingers as he clutched his nose, and coagulated on the red stone of Sonia Aunty’s steps. He was grinning as if this were just another fraternity prank. It was the same grin he had had the first time I had seen him, when he had been in a track suit plastered with blue feathers and I had been wearing a bicycle helmet and filmy fins constructed from an old voile sari my mother had given me. That seemed eons ago now, although not much more than eighteen months had passed.

Aiyo, aiyo, get him to the hospital now,” Sonia Aunty said, as I pulled David to his feet. She tucked her sari pota around her plump middle and tried to steady David, which was difficult because she was easily a foot shorter than him.

“I still want to see the golden carp,” David said, stumbling against the clay bird bath that Pedris, Sonia Aunty’s gardener, had filled with fresh araliya flowers for the evening’s festivities.

“Yes, yes, you can see after you get back from the hospital,” Jith Uncle said. His words were slurred. They had been drinking Jith Uncle’s whiskey for two hours by then. Jith Uncle had taken the day off from work to help with the party, but all afternoon he had been watching movies with David. First it had been a World War II documentary, and then, after they started drinking and laughing, a flickering film of the Marx brothers.

I led David to the car. Sonia Aunty hurried into the house and reappeared with a frayed towel, which she spread across David’s lap and the back seat. “To catch the blood,” she said. The tone of her voice reminded me of the way my mother had sounded on the Friday evening she had seen David on TV, high-fiving his frat brothers in front of a smoking house.

Sonia Aunty looked at my dress, one of the comfortably high-waisted shifts I had been wearing to lounge around her house since we had arrived in Colombo. The dress stopped several inches above my knees. “Go and change, Dilini. You can’t wear that to the hospital.” I knew from the way her eyebrows were twitching that she was irritated about the whole situation. She looked very much like my mother in that moment, although Sonia Aunty was much more rotund than my mother, a fact my mother attributed, illogically it seemed to me, to Sonia Aunty’s childlessness.

“Never mind that,” Jith Uncle said. “For an emergency, it’s okay to wear.”

On Jaya Road, Jith Uncle swerved to avoid a black cat that darted out of a lantana bush, and nearly crashed into a parked van. When he accelerated too quickly off Circular Road, I realized his judgment was impaired.

I wondered if I should ask him to pull over. But he still thought of me as a child, and anyway, I didn’t have a license to drive in Sri Lanka.

“Maybe we should go back and get Sonia Aunty to drive,” I said.

Jith Uncle laughed. “Why, you think I am drunk after a couple of whiskeys?”

At the Pannipitiya junction, a woman stepped onto the road and Jith Uncle braked too slowly. One minute she was standing open-mouthed in her starched dress, holding a polka-dotted umbrella against the afternoon sun, and the next she had disappeared. The umbrella stood in the roadside grass like an oversized poisonous mushroom.

I jumped out with my heart pounding while Jith Uncle was still fumbling at his door handle, and David was saying, “Wh