A bit of a departure from my regular genre fiction, but here’s hoping someone out there likes it.
A quick shoutout to K.C. Wise of Writing While Black, from whom I borrowed the last two lines. I’m hopeful she won’t be angry with me (or for changing it a bit), but I did really love this line and wanted to use it.
Her Morning Routine
by Rick Cook Jr
Lilavati did not sleep last night. She lay awake, running her morning routine over and over. Wake before the sun rises, wash her face, brush her teeth, wrap her mundum neriyathum about her body, milk the goat, gather vegetables and herbs from the garden, strike the fire for breakfast, walk along the white sands, pray. Her morning routine never changes, and it cannot change this morning.
The rare drought has come to seaside Kerala, and her morning prayer yesterday should have asked for rain. But she does not wish for rain.
The night is filled with the baying of wild dogs in the distance, the soft sigh of the ocean scraping the shore, the cacophonous din of a faraway marriage celebration lasting to morning. Her husband ratchets and snores next to her, drunk on fancy wines and reeking of perfume Lilavati does not own. He rolls over and traps her on the bed they share, crushing her beneath his powerful form until he shifts again. She resists the urge to flee. Her morning routine is too important.
She sees only the vague outline of his slumped and breathing form through pale moonlight in the window, and she imagines him a beast, the rompo with its odd mix of human and animal parts.
There is a dagger in the room. It would be so easy.
Wake, wash, brush, wrap, milk, gather, strike, walk, pray. It becomes a mantra she whispers to her sleeping husband, who is so awash in drink he might well sleep through having his throat cut. But she cannot. She rubs her swollen belly. If not for you, my little beti, if not for you.
She lies in a rigid posture, waiting for the first rose of dawn to bloom. Watching the horizon only makes the time pass slower, and the metronomic snores of her husband lull her so that she almost sleeps. But a small halo of purple bleeds into the outermost edge of the horizon. She rises from her place next to her besotted husband and kisses his forehead, surprised to find tears dripping down her face. He stirs and she sucks in a breath, holds it. But he scratches at the place she kissed, rolls over, and his snores continue.
Lilavati splashes water from the basin onto her face, relishes the cool drops as they bead down her cheeks, replacing the tears she can’t stop. She has read about baptism, and this morning she believes in its cleansing power.
She scrubs at her teeth in the dark, chews a sprig of mint. She realizes she will miss the mint.
Her mundum neriyathum is waiting, and she wraps the pristine white cloth around her in the tradition of her mother’s family, covering her chest and upper arms. Her husband likes it when she displays her bosom in the style of just the lower mundu and she has ever fought his desires. This morning he has no say in her choice. But then she remembers her routine. She must not deviate. She unwraps the top and rearranges the lower mundu.
Lilavati steps outside into the small fenced-in yard her husband owns. The night still rules, but she draws in a deep breath of the clean, dry air. It is so dry that her nostrils ache, but this dryness is good. She pats the goat tethered close by. It bleats but does not chew at her hem as she knows it loves to do. Lilavati hums as she milks the goat, pulling on its teats, enjoying the sound it makes in the metal pail at each squeeze and pull.
She sets the pail aside and turns on the electric lantern to go into the garden. Small rodents scurry away at her approach, and she gathers a few choice bits for breakfast, a sprig of herbs. She thinks she could skip this; no one will check if she gathered food, surely. But better to follow her routine. Even the night has eyes sometimes. She wonders how long until she has a garden this lovely again.
She douses the lantern with a switch and leaves it in its proper place next to the door. With the milk pail, vegetables, and herbs she goes back inside, where her husband still snores. The moment has come, and she hesitates. It seems far more cruel and unjust now that she has to actually do it.
She places a hand on her stomach again. Lilavati knows it will be best for her beti. She just knows it will be.
She arranges the coals for the oven, strikes a fire into their heart so that they glow in the darkness of her home. They flare so bright, so fast, that for a moment she thinks it is a vision of where her actions will take her. A roiling inferno of heat and death, a place of suffering until she passes through that life into a new one.
She thinks she can endure that life, if only to escape this one.
The fire settles into its occasional crackling, popping, hissing, and she stages flammable items near enough, but not too close as to seem obvious. It has to be the drought’s fault.
She sighs. The tears return. Already sparks are fetching at the cloth nearby. She cannot bear to watch it burn. She runs from the house and brings herself up short only when she remembers her morning routine. She walks to the beach as the purple glow of sunrise spreads, creeping orange and blue as it glides across the heavens. They have a home near to the ocean. Her front door is within sight of the white sands.
Orange flickers at her window, as if dawn’s first light has crept into her home, like a playful imp making mischief. She turns away, the sight of it makes her ill.
But something has gone wrong. A shout comes from back near her home. The fire is spreading too fast. It catches neighboring homes. The drought worked too well. She stares at the spreading flames. What has she done?
But she has to go through with it. She’s committed to a better life for her beti. She can run back soon and help her neighbors fight the flames. First she must finish her routine.
She looks back at the fire, then out toward the twinkling sea. Lilavati drops to her knees and begins her morning prayers.