Snakes and Ladders
Grandma stood in the doorway, brandishing a rolling pin in her raised right arm. Her grey hair, normally trapped in a bun, hung raggedly over her shoulders. She wore, as always, a loosely draped white cotton sari, only this time it was disheveled, pleats and folds unraveled, and it seemed to be fluttering and billowing around her as though a gust of wind had swept in beneath it. She could have been floating, except that her brown shriveled feet were planted firmly on the stone floor.
My sister and I were lying on the floor, heads hunched over our board game. We were in our bedroom, with walls the color of sunshine. Our beds were pushed against the walls to leave space in the middle for us to read and play on the blood maroon Tibetan rug. In the middle of the wall to the right was a door connecting to grandmother’s room. It was always locked.
I can’t describe her room so well, since we rarely entered it. I remember that the curtains were always drawn, and that it smelt of wrinkles and memories. She had a big silver metal chest next to her bed, from which, on Easter and Christmas, she pulled out little treasures for us, hair clips, rings, glass bangles. On these two days, out of the 365 days in the year she was just like other people’s grandmothers, she held us on her lap, hugged and smiled, and told us stories while she brushed our long dark hair.
It was dusk. A storm had been teasing to cut the heat all day. It was dinner-time, but our little brother was burning with fever and our parents took him to the doctor. Before leaving, they checked that the door from our bedroom to Grandmother’s room was locked, even though no one ever opened it. “Make sure you lock the door to the hallway behind us,” they said. They never said why, that would have felt disloyal, but we understood. “We will, we will” we reassured. We were so immersed in our game of Snakes and Ladders, we forgot.
Just as they pulled the door shut behind them, the storm let loose. We could hear the wind bleating against the walls, and the rain hammering on the window pleading to be let in. Grandmother started to bang on the connecting door. As she often did. But this time the banging seemed different, it was louder and more insistent. “Open the door. Open the door!”
We stared at each other. She continued to bang on the door and shout. “Open the door. Let me in.” Her shouting turned angry. “You defy me. You ignore me. You laugh at me. I’ll get you, you’ll see. You think I’m crazy. You wish me dead I know you do.”
How did she know? I did wish her dead. Every day I wished her dead. I never told anyone since we don’t talk about death, doing so invites it in, they say. But I did wish it. So she wouldn’t bang, so we didn’t have to lock doors, so we didn’t have to be afraid of not knowing what she might do to us, and if she would really act out her threats, given a chance.
I’ll get you, you’ll see, you just wait…” she mumbled.
We held hands. We felt safe in our little sunshine room behind locked doors. Safe that soon our family would be home, that our father would calm her, and that she would stop. We resumed our game to wait her out.
Only our father could calm her. His presence was like a cool hand on a hot forehead. I could see her muscles stop twitching and her clenched fingers soften when he was around her. The few times we had been in her room, it was with him. He explained that it was because he was her first-born, but really because she was grateful that he remembered her as she was before. He recalled it happened after her second son died of polio. She didn’t speak for two years, and never recovered from her grief. Her seven children born subsequently never knew her otherwise.
It was my turn to roll the dice. The hallway door pushed open and I looked up thinking it was the wind. My sister had her back to the door, but she knew immediately from the look on my face that Grandma stood in the doorway. Her white sari billowed around her, she looked twice her size.
Then my sister, all of 12, stood up and turned to face her. She pushed me behind her and said, “Grandma, please don’t hurt her. She’s only eight. Hit me if you have to.” I swear she soared to become one hundred feet tall in that moment. Her voice was calm and steady and came from somewhere deep inside her. It sounded like our father’s voice when he spoke to his mother.
I scrunched my eyes to prepare for the wrath of the rolling pin, or for whatever was to come. I clung to my sister from behind, my head buried in her back.
Nothing happened. We waited. Nothing happened. I slowly looked up. I saw an expression of tenderness on Grandma’s face that I had never seen her wear before. Her raised hand slowly fell to her side. The rolling pin fell to the floor, it looked like a toy. Her sari stopped billowing. She shrunk back to her size with her arms limp and drooped. She stepped back and still watching us, pulled the door closed and shuffled to her room.
Years later, in my memory I hear crying from behind the locked door that I don’t remember hearing then. Maybe she had simply been afraid of the storm, and had wanted to be in the sunshine room with her two granddaughters, gift them a small treasure from her silver trunk, hold them on her lap, and brush their long dark hair.
Mohini Malhotra is from Kathmandu, Nepal and lives in Washington, D.C. She is a development economist, founder of a social enterprise (www.artbywomen.gallery), and a writer. She loves language and her fiction has appeared in Blink-Ink, Flash Frontier, 82 Star Review, a Quiet Courage, and The Writers’ Center, among other journals.