Confession: I stole three plastic skulls from the corner store. It was easier than I thought it would be. I waited until the cashier was helping a third grader with skinned knees and then I turned to the discount bin, reached to the bottom and tucked the skulls into the largest section of my lavender backpack. I made it ten steps from the corner store until an alarm started blaring and then I ran for it, weaving between the crowd of tourists, hopping to avoid stepping on pigeon shit.
It had rained thirty minutes ago. Storm clouds still marbled the sky. My feet slapped the pavement, and I knew that if I fell, the water-hardened concrete would bruise me all over. As I ran, I passed puddles broiling with rainbows. Above me, an eerie halo of pigeons fled the area.
After I got home, I took out the skulls and looked at them. They were cracked with yellowing teeth, mouth carved into crescent moon smiles. You could fit a crescent moon into those gaping jaws.
I braided the skulls onto a thin white skein and hung them around my neck. Amma didn't like me stealing but I wanted a garland of skulls like the goddess Kali and I figured plastic was close enough to real.
I needed more skulls to make a full garland, like the ones Amma wears in her sepia-toned wedding pictures. Seven years ago I buried a doll. I went out to my backyard to dig up the dolls I had buried and found that her head had already bloomed into a papaya tree. Papayas hung off the tree, gnawed open by squirrels.
I reached up to shake the branches and dust rose from the ground and cloaked my throat. I backed away slowly from the tree, grabbed fistfuls of the dirt to keep myself standing. Around me, a half-open papaya convulsed open — I looked over to see a dormouse perched on top of the fruit, carving away with rows of tiny teeth. I decided I didn’t need that extra skull. Three plastic skulls were enough.
Amma had died a month ago. After her funeral she moved into an oak tree down the street. She wore all white. Her feet slanted backwards. When she laughed, the light decayed in her eyes.
In one universe she was a traveling musician and played soft music on her flute. In another, she reincarnated as a hummingbird and followed men around to pluck their eyes out like cherries. When she was alive, Amma claimed to have been a tigress in her past life.
“Not one of those tiny cubs,” she would specify. “A full-grown tigress. The kind you should be afraid of. When I was a tigress I never let a deer get away. That’s a lesson for you: never get too close to tigers. You never know when they might bite!”
She formed her hand into a claw and lunged for my arm. I screamed and laughed. She grabbed my arm and pretended to chew it by scissoring her fingers.
“What if the tiger is only a little cub?” I had asked Amma when I was eleven. At the time, I was planning to steal Kelloggs, the pet Siberian tiger, from the San Francisco Zoo. I didn’t know how to get him out but I daydreamed about keeping him under my bed and hugging him every night before I turned off the light. And when I got scared of the dark I could put my hand under the bed, feel his fur and run my fingers over his sharp teeth.
Amma wound my hair up in her hand and said that even tiger cubs would change as they grew and that Kelloggs would become fierce and brutal. That’s what Amma was, an altered version of herself that had morphed into something fierce. Her memories seethed with fast river currents. At night she slept under a trellis of stars.
Before Amma reincarnated as a hummingbird, though, I had to pass my exams. Seema Aunty said that Amma’s healthy passage to the afterlife depended on my grade in physics, which was currently hovering around a C-, so I chose to place my faith in the goddess Kali instead.
If I met Kali, she would invert half of me into a river, maybe, or take my body and dance it around like a marionette. I wanted to marry myself to destruction like she did. I wanted to hold a bleeding demon’s head in my hands so everyone knew to always stay a little bit away from me. That way I could be fierce, like Kelloggs, like Amma.
So I cut my fingernails by sticking my fingers in pencil sharpeners. I made tiny waterfalls in the bathtub. I stole skulls from the corner store. I started a garden on the roof and went up to water it by peeling open my window and edging out, while the shingles bit into my bare legs.
When my sister Jaina asked me what I was doing with a garland of skulls, I told her I was making friendship bracelets.
“What friends?” She asked, and I said, “You just haven’t met her yet.”
Amma named me Maya because that means illusion. I live up to my name. I even taught myself how to lucid dream. When I closed my mouth and stopped breathing and plugged my nose in real life, I felt dead, briefly.
Amma’s hands resemble twin canyons from washing everyone’s dishes for thirty years.
She drowned when we were boating in the river. The details carpet my brain like tiny volcanoes.
She was there one moment and then gone. Even when she was under, she couldn’t stop moving. She didn’t wear a life jacket.
I felt it again, that yearning for the moments of quiet before the boat capsized: we trailed our fingers through the water, the sinewy river stretching out before us.
I bathed myself three times a day. Seema Aunty said that we were in a drought and I couldn’t waste water but I loved the dense feeling of it against my skin. As soon as I stepped out of the shower the cold hit me. Wherever I went, water lilies braided themselves over the window.
I asked my sister Jaina to help me find Kali. She said she wasn’t not interested, but then I bribed her with free homework help on their geometry sheets. She stabbed her pencil into her paper sheet so hard the tip almost broke off.
“Fine,” she said. “Just this once. We’ll take you.”
That day it was an acid rain, so I jumped out of the way of any raindrop that came down on my head. I thought about saving the acid to use for later, until Jaina told me that the rain wasn’t actually acidic and won’t dissolve my bones, and that it was only polluted.
We walked down the roads towards the cemetery, an altar of rainwater simmering at our feet.
Jaina told me the cemetery was where Kali lived.
“I saw her there,” she said, and then her eyes stopped and fell on the cemetery. “What the hell? It wasn’t like this before.”
In the cemetery, graves opened and closed like mouths. This was too much pulsing for my eyes to handle. I slip my hand into one like it's a jug of forbidden candy.
My sisters and I walked towards the cemetery, hands locked together like one of us was dangling off of a cliff. The cemetery is full of white headstones. Amma isn’t here — Hindus don’t bury, we cremate. Her ashes lie inside an urn atop Appa’s desk.
There was no sign of Kali. Looking through her, I can see as far as the mountains purpled with distance, the blue moon. Beyond us bulldozers take apart a church, carefully disassembling it like a stack of Legos.
In the morning Amma waited beside the urn, her eyes crossed, like she was meditating. This was the way she’d look in the mornings, when I’d wake up early and come out and she’d be doing her breathing exercises. It was almost like that now, except her body has melded with the oak tree so it looks like berries are unfurling themselves all over her torso.
The Parsis leave their dead out for months. Their religion has a cool name — Zo-ro-ast-ria-nism — and the theory behind is that it’s more natural that way, to just let things decompose, like how they do in the animal kingdom.
We cremate our dead. Seema Aunty says that it’s easier to know that they won’t come back that way, if we don’t see their faces everywhere she goes. I don’t tell her that Amma’s moved into the banyan tree down the street. I don’t think she’d like it if I told her.
Amma told me about the little boy who ate dirt. Then his mother Yashoda made him open his mouth. Then when he opened his mouth the universe was in it, lolling around near his tonsils, brimming with stars and galaxies and crab nebulas. But the universe wasn’t just outer space. In his mouth there were also squirrels with grey bottlebrush cemeteries, Kali, and everyone who had ever existed or was going to exist.
Now, as she dragged me away, I imagine holding the universe clasped in my mouth like a sour lemon drop. And then inside that universe there would be another Maya with the lemon drop universe, and it would continue until infinity ran out.
Seema Aunty knocked on my bedroom door and said a person wanted to talk to me. When I came out to the living room I saw the store owner. She wore gold glasses and the glasses seemed to cleave her face in half. The store owner licked her lips before speaking.
“Your daughter was caught on video stealing,” she said.
Seema Aunty clarifies: “She’s not my daughter.”
“I don’t mean you any harm,” the store owner continued. “I just want you to either pay for them or give the skulls back.”
Seema Aunty made excuses for me and said I was blinded by my grief. I apologized and said I’d lost my head.
I went to my room and disconnected the skulls from the garland, unstringing each skull. By this time I had almost fooled myself into thinking they were real. By the end the garland is just a skinny piece of white thread. I walked back into the living room to return the plastic skulls to the store owner. She gave me a wary smile and asked me politely to never come back to the corner store.
“Of course there was a camera. Of course they caught you,” Seema Aunty said to me later. “Really, what were you thinking, kanna?”
Seema Aunty came to me and said that my illusions needed to stop and I needed to focus. I was dooming Amma and stopping her from moving on to her future life as a hummingbird.
I said I was named after illusions. She suggested I change my name, so I changed my name to Kali. I figured if I couldn’t find her outside, I could find her within myself.
Later that day I went to the oak tree and found that Amma’s ghost had welded itself to the branches. I tried to pull her out but she kept opening her mouth in a voiceless scream. Eventually the wind came and blew her away, so I had to pass my physics final without Amma steadying me, her fingers sticky with blackberry juice.
But nothing was steady anymore. It was all turbulent. In my past life I could have been a dryer in the ten-cent laundromat down the corner, tumbling through morning after luminous morning.
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