By TANISHA MOHAPATRA
A piece of short fiction
You always walked me to the playground – not too many times, but in my mind, those few times constitute “always.” I don’t quite remember how many counts “always” comprises, and most of the times we spent together are hazy anyway. But I remember you always walked me to the playground because that’s what I conditioned myself to remember. Through human haziness, however, that rusty swing set stands out in all its cold metal glory, just as I remember it from back when I was too scared to approach it. I built my muddy temples at the summit of the four reddish-brown posts, carefully avoiding the oscillating masses and the odor of oxidized iron. You always looked at me from afar, and when dusk turned too dark to tell my silhouette apart from the bushes and the ivy, you’d walk over and ask just one time if I wanted to try. In the darkness, mistakes are easier to make but harder for others to spot. I’d say I didn’t want to smell of oxidized iron, but you knew me too well and reminded me that there’s always another time.
We buried my mud temples in the sand so no one could raid them at night, and eventually, after some fraction of always, I agreed to have my palms smell of oxidized iron because Mom got some lavender scented hand-soap that I really wanted to use. You chuckled — “another time” was finally here, and after you promised to walk along as I went back and forth in my madness, I agreed to have smelly reddish brown hands. You did not go through with that promise, but I did not have any complaints after my initial outcry or two. I wanted to go higher, high above and around the uneven horizontal metal bar from which the chains that could not tie me down hung. You laughed at my ridiculous idea and taught me to put my legs up when I swing forward, and fold them back down when time came. It helps to go with the flow.
They rebuilt the playground in the many years that I spent away because it was overgrown with too many weeds that dispersed from there to never return. The swing had broken down and the slide was creaky and the weeds made everyone trip. That shiny new swing-set is like a beacon of hope for several other seven year old girls in their floral frocks, who will now pretend and believe that if they throw themselves high enough, they can kiss heaven. The paint is chipping in places, and I can still see patches of the oxidized iron from where I learnt to feel the wind in my hair. I don’t know if you remember always taking me to the playground, but it was heaven for me. And this is how I overcame my obsession with little mud huts and eating the grains that stuck to my fingernails.
Yesterday, I saw you break down for the first time in all these years, and all I could remember was that one evening in our small town when you told me it helps to go with the flow. I had my heart in my throat when the news of this loss bore a name I confused with yours. I addressed you both just the same; Grandfather had too many syllables in it. The ache of a loved one’s demise gnaws at me as much as the guilt about being partially relieved that it wasn’t you. It is hard to lose whoever taught you to teach me and that loss bears upon me too, but it is harder for me to see you entangled in the weeds. But maybe when they redid the playground, the heavens readjusted their angle. Before it was a playground, I am sure it was something else, and after it is done being a playground, it will be something else. We’ll have to ask someone what it was, and someday, someone will have to ask us what it was, and we’ll tell them all about the rusty swing set to heaven and the little pink flowers whose name I cannot remember. At times, we have to bend our legs back in order to keep the momentum.