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Flash Fiction: Pebbles

By Sudha Balagopal Email By Sudha Balagopal
June 2021
Flash Fiction: Pebbles

A daughter visits India when one of her parents dies, leaving the other one alone. It’s a familiar theme for the diaspora,but every family’s story is different, including this one.

When Seeta’s phone rings in the United States with the message of Amma’s decline, she leaves for India carrying an assortment of useless things in her suitcase and a cluster of pebbles in her throat.

On the plane, she gears herself for outward expressions of deep, rending grief from Appa. Instead, after Amma’s body leaves the earthly plane to merge with the universe, he retreats into the hollowness of an inner cave. Her father doesn’t exchange a single word with her.

He sits in stony silence in the living room. His unkempt salt and pepper hair covers his ears; his beard is long. Clearly, he hasn’t seen a barber for weeks. He wears a dirty veshti with an angavastram draped over one shoulder.

Any moment, Seeta expects Amma’s voice to ring from the kitchen. “Seetu, come and get your coffee.”

Amma’s voice is gone.

Guilt cascades through Seeta and she yearns to apologize to Appa for not being around the last few months, for not being able to help take care of Amma.

He’s shuttered.

A jangle of glass bangles jars the quiet. Tall, thin Lopa, their neighbor, walks in with an irksome familiarity—no knock, no request to enter.

Her sari is wrapped around her angular frame, as precise as the sheet on a hotel room bed. Seeta wants to tell her some dishevelment would be appropriate in a house of mourning.

Yesterday, after Seeta agonized over the perfect clothing for Amma’s final journey—she chose a blue-and-maroon sari—she left the pile on the floor, each beautiful length a paean to fabric and workmanship.

“I told your Amma I like this one when she showed it to me.” Lopa holds up a sari in sunshine yellow, rectangular price tag glued to the silken material.

Seeta grabs the garment from her. “Please, don’t . . .” she says.

When she visited last year, Seeta went shopping with her parents for Amma’s seventy-fourth birthday. Her parents, as was their wont, argued in the store. Appa disliked the sunshine-yellow sari, urged Amma to buy a more expensive gray one. Amma laughed. “You think I’m too old to wear a bright color?” She took ill soon after.

Lopa presses her lips together. “Your Amma thought you lived too far away. She was such a nice person.”

Was. As in the past tense. After one day.

Like Appa, Seeta wants to wallow, to dwell, to curl up and sink into the comforting arms of retreat. But many things need attention. This house. Her eighty-three-year-old father’s care. He could move in with her family—a challenge since he hates air travel. He will also not be able to adjust to their suburban lifestyle. Yet, how can he live in this house without Amma, without the constant bickering to keep him going.

Lopa’s interference abrades like sandpaper against skin. “I told the priest to talk to you about the rituals,” she says.

“I want to simplify things,” Seeta says.

“But what would your mother want? And, your father? Think about that.”

Seeta puffs out her cheeks. She almost tells Lopa such decisions should be a private family matter, then remembers the neighbor made that last call to the United States as Amma’s life ebbed.

Appa is fastened to his chair. He appears to be asleep in a seated position.

Seeta settles on the sofa and rests her head in her hands. The pebbles sitting at the base of her aching throat, jostle, threaten.

Twelve days later, Appa continues to huddle inside his blanket of silence.

Oh, Amma, how should I take care of him?

As father and daughter, they are together, yet distant, in this sorrow.

Lopa bursts in, says, “Family members must wear new clothing on the thirteenth day after a demise.” She holds up the sunshine-yellow sari. “Your Amma said I could have this. I’ll wear the sari in her memory.”
Seeta looks away from the bold print on the fabric. Amma wouldn’t have parted with a favorite sari. Besides, Lopa is not family.

“It’s my mother’s,” she says.

“But she won’t need it anymore, right?”

Amma will not wear it. Ever.

The time has come to let go.

On day thirteen, loud voices from the living room splinter the silence. Seeta finds Lopa arguing with Appa.

“Listen to me,” Lopa yells as if Appa is hard
of hearing.

Appa, his face flushed, shouts, “This coffee burned my tongue.” He holds a cup and saucer in his hands.

“It’ll cool.”

“But first I have to burn my tongue?”

Appa has returned?

Lopa complains to Seeta, “He started this tirade. All I did is warm up the coffee in your kitchen.”

“You burn me. Every time.”

Every time? Lopa doesn’t brew his coffee.

But Amma did.

Seconds pulse. Lopa purses her lips and places the coffee on the table. The cup tilts, sloshing the beverage over the tablecloth. The flowery print of Amma’s sunshine-yellow sari softens Lopa’s sharp angles today.

Appa’s confused eyes blink rapidly. “That’s not her?” His voice shakes.

Lopa pivots, slams the door behind her.

Emotions shuffle through Appa’s face. He swallows, then swallows again. His mouth opens, but no words emerge.

He lifts an arm.

“Appa?” Seeta’s heart wobbles.

She takes his hand, settles next to him.

When he puts his arm around her, the pebbles at the base of her throat dislodge.


Sudha Balagopal’s short fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Matchbook, Smokelong Quarterly and Split Lip Magazine, among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her story published in The Dribble Drabble Review will appear in Best Microfiction 2021. She has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize and is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50. Go to www.sudhabalagopal.com for more. To comment on this story, please write to letters@khabar.com.


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