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Smoke Trails on a Burning River

by Melissa Wozniak 9 months ago in Short Story · updated 3 months ago

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Melissa Wozniak, “Puja”

The truth is, I don’t know how to pray. The words, they just don’t come. If you can feel me like I feel you, you know my heart, and maybe you can see it, too. I’d imagine it’s burnt black, because there is a scalding vat of iron in my chest, and I haven’t slept, Ma, I haven’t slept for eight days.

I know he came here with her. I know he liked the ghat in the middle of town where the light from the bridge reflects like a sparkling nightscape in a painting etched with shale, the one where the boys whose words are the warble of bush larks sell offerings made of banana leaves and petals. I know he lit his wishes afire and sent them bobbing down this river and maybe he held her hand and wished to be free. And now here I am, Ma, holy mighty Ma Ganga, chest-deep with my own offering in hand, and I do not know what to wish for

please bring him back

please help me be OK

because I do not know how to pray. When I was little, before my mother took up religion full time, there was a book of stories about Jesus. Over and over I read the one where he healed the sick girl and the blind man and Jesus was alive in my imagination, a constant friend. A teacher once said imagination and spirit are one, and I don’t know whether that’s true, but when I was four I knew how to pray. It was as the same as being. That was before Those Who Know told me it isn’t the way it’s done

please tell me it’s going to be OK

and now I am in India with Jesus and Shiva and Vishnu and Saraswati and the saints and the swamis and the stories that weave a tapestry where the common thread is faith. You are a river and you are a goddess, and I know you are alive, because you talk back to me, but not through visions or hearing. It is an understanding that fills my body and can’t be put into words. It is movement beneath the surface that flows in a way that a river does not flow, the ripples and gurgles that tug at my legs and circle my arms and send a supernatural warmth deep into my spine

please, Ma, hold me and tell me I’m going to be OK

and even though there is a higher power in me that understands, the very fragile, very human part of me wants the clouds to part and a booming voice to tell me what to do. All I know how to do is to come to you, wade in and wait, close my eyes and feel the existence of my body, hold my breath and go under, and talk to you until my cold hands burn. It is windy today, and the bull that always tries to sit in my lap is not here. Kamne and Nika came running from their perch on the hill as they always do, their dresses stained and their faces bright and transparent, while their mother with one eye watched in the shade. I’ve lost track of how many offerings I’ve bought from Kamne and Nika, but we always make a big show of it, me pretending that I’m fine and have nothing to ask of the holy river, and them pretending that fifty rupees is the going price for their wares. I hand them whatever crumpled bills are in my pocket and we crouch on the ground next to their dirty pink basket filled with flowers to construct the offering: a tiny boat made of dried banana leaves, a pinch of marigolds, three or four rose petals, a dab of wax nestled in oil-doused cotton, and two sticks of incense, lit to carry the prayers to heaven. It is windy, so the little girls struck many matches, the three of us huddled to protect the fragile flame on its journey to your banks. Sometimes the sisters forget I’m a customer and greet me as an auntie, their gentle fingers moving in caterpillar caresses that banish all darkness from my world. There is calm in their hardscrabble life of hauling flower baskets in the sun, and their mother’s face is proud

please bless Kamne and Nika and their mama and their family

please bless the grandma who is cooking for me

because they spend all day and night in your presence. The man who paints beneath the tree who moved here from the big city, he gave up everything to spend his life with you, and he sleeps undisturbed. Yesterday you told me the meaning of my teacher’s mantra, and now I know, even though I cannot explain it outright. I am them and they are me and we are you, all that is. Legend says that the goddess Ganga flowed over Vishnu’s feet down to earth into the waters of the Ganges when he pierced a hole in the universe with his toe. But who created whom? Who was the first to think of Vishnu and give him a name? Your form came from nature, out of a glacier in Gangotri, and you spring anew with each second. But where do the rocks come from? And the light in a baby’s eyes? We co-create each other, you and nine hundred miles of humanity, millions and millions of people who spill into your water, infusing it with prayers and intentions and offerings and the sacred profaneness of everyday life. The power is the collective. This is the charge. This, the fervent belief, is what purifies you, and in turn, what purifies us. I’m contributing to it too, in my own rambling way, this dumb girl with a broken heart, chest-deep in a foreign river, clutching an offering like it is a life raft in a hurricane. How many offerings of heartbreak and redemption have joined mine, and in how many languages?

please bless these people

Ravi says the only way to be free is to embrace the mother. To find sweetness through giving sweetness back to the earth. He told me to go buy a handful of rice and make offerings every day to the birds and the trees and the land, to make a ritual out of it. He also told me to give sweets to little girls, that the act of being a mother, of being nurturing and kind, will soften my own heart. I’ve done these things for a few days, and in truth it is the only time I feel a moment of light, slipping a bit of chocolate to Kamne and Nika with my crumpled-up rupees. But my Western mind wants something more powerful than faith. It wants a drug to take away the pain, a pill to knock me out. It wants a solution. It wants to fix this. It wants to know what’s next, wants to know that it’s in control. But there is no such thing as control, and you’re the first one to show it, because every year you flood, and you send thousands of people to their deaths and from their homes. There’s a certain understanding in India of what is, an acceptance of change that we in the West don’t have, and it causes us to lose our damn minds.

please help me let go

It feels like I am bathing in fire. Maybe it is my karma to be here and this is a great blessing. If you told anyone who has scrimped and saved a few rupees at a time for the long rail journey across their country just to take a single sacred dip in the Ganges how I came all the way from America on a big plane and lost everything to find myself suspended in this water while lifetimes turn into smoke trails on a burning river, they would say that I am blessed.

And so I am. I may not know how to pray, but I am remembering how to be, and all I can think to wish for is peace

shanti shanti shanti shanti shanti shanti shanti shanti shanti

for all beings everywhere, in all forms, broken or whole, lost or found

shanti shanti

peace.

Short Story

About the author

Melissa Wozniak

I spent my life looking for the map until I realized I had to draw my own.

www.worldwidewoz.com

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