The Saffron Wars
“Pitiful, foolish son! Why have I been cursed with such a child?” I close my eyes to shut out the sound of her voice. My father’s sunken face sits behind my eyelids.
“More flower! Do not shame my esteemed husband with your laziness!” I rise from where I squat beside the funeral pyre, set and ready for the torch I have yet to light. I walk up the hill and find the vendors selling their necklaces of fresh flowers. I wearily pay for another armful and return to cover the body of my deceased father with even more flowers. Already it is hard to see that there is the body of a man under the mountain of flowers, but at this time I do not wish to worry my mother with impotent arguments.
“Leave it be, Amrit. She will make her noise.” My father’s voice sounds in my mind as I lay the stringed flowers upon him. I have no idea how I am to survive the chaos of these women now that he has gone.
“You waste good money!” My wife now must be heard. “Your father would not approve of you throwing away his hard earned money on such frivolity. Flowers, indeed! Just light the damn fire.”
I wipe a fly from my father’s forehead. Whether it is attracted by the flowers, or the day old corpse I cannot be certain but feel it best not to ponder too long on this.
“Witch! Thankless whore of uncertain parentage! Do not speak of my husband in such a way or I will have my son burn you today as well!”
“He is not your son! He is my husband! Useless widow, you are lucky we do not cast you out to beg.”
Others arrive, merchants and men of business gathering to pay respects, their wives and mothers joining them to add their voices to the mourning. Thankfully their presence stills the sharp tongues.
The sun sits hot in the sky and I know. It is time.
I have dreaded this moment and now I must see it through. I climb the hill and take a rag wrapped torch from the pile. I breathe a moment or two. It has become silent of voice and now only the buzzing of flies and the rushing of the river are heard. I steel myself for what must be and finally dip my torch into the common fire. It catches.
I walk back to the pyre. Both wife and mother watch closely, judging my every move. I raise the torch up high, whisper a silent prayer for strength to do this unthinkable thing. I look to my father, a mountain of white blossoms with just his gray drawn face appearing uncovered. This man who raised me, shielding me from the harsh tongue and quick lash of my mother, who taught me his trade and gave me his business, and his home. This man who I esteem more than any other, my father, and now I must turn him to ash.
“This must be done, Amrit. Do not think on it, just do what you must. Say what you have come to say. Speak, son.” His voice is a warm hum in my head guiding me even in his death to do this terrible thing.
“Priests and Brahmin tell us that we are immortal.” My voice cracks. I cough and waver. I am made of holes and gaps. Smoke fills them and I begin again to speak.
“These wise sayers tell us that death merely separates the astral body from the physical body.” Sweat gathers on my brow and stings my eyes. I swipe at the drops with my free hand. I see the crowd shifting from foot to foot, uncomfortable with my stammers.
“We unite together in this world, father and son, brother and sister, husband and wife and then must separate. To understand the nature of the body and of all human relationships will bring great comfort to bear the loss of our dear ones. As each union ends with separation, so must each union reunite at the end of this life.” These words I have heard hundreds of times and now repeat by rote, simply to have something to say. My throat closes. I cough. Blink sweat from my eyes.
” As only son of my esteemed father,” voice cracks and I take a moment to still the quivering of my chin. “I will eagerly anticipate that reunion.”
I lower the torch and touch it to the dry tinder beneath the corpse of my father. It lights with a fury.
“There it is well begun, Amrit.” His whisper. For a dead man he has much enthusiasm. This fortifies me enough to continue.
“The soul is a spirit that a sword cannot pierce, the fire cannot burn, the water cannot melt, and the air cannot dry. The soul is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect.” With each touch of fire that I set along the pyre my voice grows stronger. Soon my father is engulfed in the flames. I choke on smoke and tears. In a distant echo I hear him cheer and then his voice fades. Flames crawl up the side of the stacked wood. His skin begins to blacken and curl.
I am only son, chief mourner and I am duty bound to keep the fire burning hot all day. At first the deep, thick smoke, black with grease and redolent of cooked meat, gags me so that I must vomit. I wipe the bile from my chin and kick sand to cover the mess, then continue with the tending of the flames. The day grows long of shadow and many come to pay respects, singing hymns and offering prayers. My mother and my wife sit side by side, stony and silent to receive their condolences.
It is late in the afternoon when the stranger appears. He is unknown to this village and wears the shiny clothes of a foreigner. His features are rounded and his skin is pasty. His eyes are pale and blue like the sky. He watches me for awhile as I chant and pray over the glowing embers of my father. He has tears, fat and slick on his face. After a time he approaches me.
I stare at him, mesmerized by eyes so foreign and yet so familiar, sinking into the strange comfort the blue. Who is he? Has he risen from a dream?
Finally he pulls his eyes away, shakes himself then pulls a pouch from his pocket and hands it to me. I take it, confused by this gesture. He speaks, and while his language is one I do not know, his compassion is easily recognized. He bows to me and turns, walking away, trailing the tattered shreds of his own grief.
I tuck the pouch in my belt. I give it no thought until much later.
My mother and my wife give it very much thought. The embers still glow hot in the dusk when the bickering starts.
“What is in this pouch? Is it gold? Is it jewels?”
“Open this pouch, Amrit! Open it now. We must see what this stranger has gifted us.”
“This is not a gift for you, lazy, fat woman. I am widow of a great man and the stranger brings this gift for me. It is obvious.”
“My husband shares all of his wealth with me. Be grateful we allow you to share out food and sleep in our shelter. Useless, wretched old fool.”
And so it goes.
I gather the ashes into a fine clay pot and say a silent lament to the man who was my father. All the while I hear them spitting their venom toward each other. It is the sound of normal life and I find vague comfort in it.
Later that night I jam dried beans into my ears against their nattering, so that I can sleep. I turn to ash and drift along the river, gently. My father holds me in his regard. It is still dark when I awake with tears on my face. Both women still sleep so I leave on cat feet. When I am out of the house and after relieving myself against the bodhi tree, I finally untie the cord on the mysterious pouch.
The smell announces the contents before my eyes can make out the red strands within. Saffron. Precious, beautiful strands of it, packed high and tight in the thick oily cloth. I pull one out and rub it gently between my fingers. The red stains my fingers and I breathe deeply of the heady fragrance. Not gold, but just as precious. What might have possessed the blue eyed stranger to share such riches?
“What is it you have there, Amrit? Give that to me!” My wife.
“No! It is mine! You must give this to me.” My mother.
“…mine, you must…” “…. for me, obviously…” “… daughter of dog vomit…” “…remember who warms your bed…” “…whorish chattel…” “….wrinkled sagging slattern…” “…breath like goat farts…” “….sweat of a lizard’s pubic hair…” “….pig licker…”
They chuck words like monkeys throwing feces. I tie the pouch and stuff it into my pants. As their words grow in volume I grow more silent. As they shout, I sink into silence. I refuse their battle calls and slip into a fast of speech that lasts for as long as their saffron war.
14 days and 14 nights.
My wife demands the spice for the funeral feast that we may flavor the rice. “The whole village must see how wealthy we are. While the rice cooks the aroma will announce our importance to everyone.” My mother disagrees most vehemently. Why indeed must we share this fabulous abundance with the peasants of the village?
My mother demands to use the saffron to dye her robe. “I am the honored widow of your esteemed father and must have robes befitting of this station.” Ludicrous! My wife defames. Dressing an old, useless woman in red stained robes would be like putting gold bracelets on a shit covered pig.
I do not tend their cries, but continue my silence. My father’s distant laughter keeps company with my thoughts.
The morning of the feast I awaken to the delicious and unmistakable aroma of saffron rice. My wife stands over the cauldron, victory upon her face. The pouch sits beside the cooking fire and I see that the contents have been depleted by more than half. Dread falls to the pit of my stomach. This will mean war, of course.
When my mother arises she comes to the cooking fires, face screwed tight, breathing like a bull. She does not speak but stares into the pot of steaming yellow rice with an anger beyond the service of words. I expect shouting but she surprises me, remaining silent.
“Softly now, son. Tread softly.” My father’s warning.
An hour or two passes as the sun climbs the sky. I prepare myself for this final ceremony to release my father’s ashes into the river. It will be a relief and an anguish, this final goodbye, but I am stoic. My duty as only son of this great man must be fulfilled. I silently pray that peace prevails.
My wife slowly stirs her victory pot.
My mother squats near the fire, black eyes shining.
I pace. And sit. And pace.
Guests begin to arrive.
When the time arrives, I carry the urn into the brown river. Singing quietly to my father, a private farewell I remember his kindness and wisdom. I remember his warm hand atop my head. I scatter these memories along with his remains and watch the river take him from me forever. I wash my tears down the river, longing to join him on his final journey. My grief is a stone upon my chest.
I am dry upon the river’s bank when the feast begins. My wife and my mother do not shout or squabble and the silence is a blessed gift on this day of final farewells. My relief is a thing in my hand I hold tenderly like a fragile egg. Perhaps this day will see peace afterall.
The guests comment and rave about the smell of the saffron cooking. Surely a rich man’s feast, befitting the funeral feast of such a man as my father. I see my wife has a puffed up chest filled with boasting. I see my mother’s eyes twist tight in her face. Perhaps a tenuous peace?
The feast is laid for the guests and my mother takes her place of honor, as widow, to be served first. She walks with dignity up to the pot of saffron rice, the jewel in the crown of this day. The rice steams fragrant and beautiful, strands of red gleaming within the perfect yellow silken depths. The crowd of mourners waits with anticipation to finally be allowed to partake in this delicacy. My mother sets her plate down and with a flourish, lifts her sari, squats and relieves herself into the rice, her piss sizzling as it hits the sides of the hot pot, befouling the rice within.
Time stops. We are frozen with shock.
My wife moves first. She grabs my mother by the hair and yanks her backwards and off her feet. The pot of piss rice is upset and spills all over the ground. Hot rice and mud plaster my mother’s legs and she cries out in pain, in victory. There is the sounds of shouting and of flesh slapping flesh. Guests move in to separate these two women and all of their white funeral clothes become spoiled and muddied.
I do not move. I see my wife pull a large amount of silver hair from my mother’s head who then retaliates by clawing her sharp nails down my wife’s cheek. The site of three long red streaks bubbling with blood finally shakes me from my inertia.
“Stop!” My voice, booming loud over top of the cacophony shocks the crowd into silence. Though I have not spoken in 14 days, the voice remembers and sounds sharp and clear. The two women release each other and stare at me, vicious, defying. The guests drop their hands from the women and look to themselves, aware at once of the drying mud and urine that covers their fine funeral garments.
I push my way past them all and go into the hut, retrieving what is left of the saffron. I hear my mother cry out but I ignore her. I walk toward the riverbank aware that I am followed.
“Son, my son, I beg of you!” I swat her words away with a flick of my head. Not bothering to remove my sandals I walk into the water. I open the pouch of saffron. Inhaling the sweet odor one last time I turn the pouch upside down and scatter red threads into the muddy waves, floating garbage, cow shit and holy precious water of the river. I watch as they float and then sink into the murky depths.
The sun catches my reflection and I look into my own face, liquid and deep. My eyes reflect blue, the eyes of the stranger.
I remain Amrit, cast upon the water, impatiently waiting to be ash.