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“There are so many versions of my mother’s life, depending on who she’s telling it to. Now that she’s dying, the tales are so tall they cast backward shadows over the past.”
There are so many versions of my mother’s life, depending on who she’s telling it to. Now that she’s dying, the tales are so tall they cast backward shadows over the past.

Some things I know are fact. Newlywed, she arrived in England in 1968, with a husband who had a £10 note sewn into his coat lining, and a suitcase. In it was a biscuit tin, Mrs Bhaduri’s parting gift to her.

Customs opened it when they searched their things. It was empty.

They rented the attic room of a house on Blade Street, Lancaster. One of the few without a sign saying, No Blacks or Asians. The English landlady complained that my parents didn’t wish her Good Morning, until her Lithuanian husband pointed out that they always paid the rent on time and kept the room immaculate.

The first winter was cold. Frost flowers blossomed on the inside of the windows. We went to bed early, as much for warmth as pleasure. Darkness fell at four in the afternoon. Some of the angular slopes of the room didn’t see daylight during those months.

I’d grown up in the warm nights of Calcutta that teemed with life. Lovers on their way to the bazaar, families piled on mopeds, packs of scrawny dogs, and the beautiful hijra with thick kohl and lipstick.

English nights made people hide themselves away in rooms lit by the glow of the electric bars of heaters. Thick curtains kept out the fog.

I ached so much with missing India, and missing Mrs Bhaduri. One evening when Krishan was working late at the physics lab, I lay down on the floor and cried. Feeling empty, I took out the biscuit tin. The paint was scratched and the pink lotus flowers on the lid had lost their vibrancy in the grey gloom.

I opened it, and all the bright sunshine of India poured out and warmed me through and through.

Mr and Mrs Bhaduri were my parents’ neighbours in Delhi. Childless, they adopted her, the pale girl with thick-lensed spectacles, and him, the young man with a crooked face and unguarded manner.

The crooked face is important. It was the result of a parieto-frontal tumour buried in his brain. He fell in love with my mother before he even knew her name. He wrote about seeing her for the first time in a letter to his brother. He dubbed her Priya. Dearest. Beloved. Then he learnt that she was called Veronica.

I have that letter. My cousin sent it to me after his father died.

We came to Lancaster because Krishan had been accepted for a PhD in Physics. He worked as an assistant to the department head.

Yes Mum, Dad was a Physicist.

Don’t ever lose Mrs Bhaduri’s tin.

No, I won’t.

Did I tell you about it?

She gave it to you at the airport.

No, before that. It was a few weeks before we left India and it hadn’t rained for months. The monsoons were late. Everything was parched and dusty. I went over to Mrs Bhaduri’s.

‘Ronnie, come here.’

She put a saucer in the middle of floor. One from her best tea set, pale blue with a gold rim.

‘Here.’ She handed me a jug. ‘Fill it. Go on.’

I poured out the water from the jug. It was a thing of pure coolness in the middle of the day.

She put her biscuit tin down beside it and opened the lid. It was empty.

‘Wait. And don’t move.’

The cobra slid into the room. It was a drab coloured thing in olive green, brown and cream bands. A length of pure muscle. It reared up on its tail and growled. Its neck ribs expanded into a hood.

‘Hush now, darling. This is Ronnie.’

It looked at me with bottomless eyes. Then it bowed its head and drank. When it had its fill, it slid back into the biscuit tin. All five feet of it.

Mrs Bhaduri flicked the lid closed.

My father died before I was born. I look at the date of his death and the date of my birth and the nine months that stretch out between them.

I remember how I felt earlier that day. A lessening of homesickness. From the top deck of the bus I could see all the shades of green found in such a temperate clime.

I was a domestic cleaner. Tuesdays were at a big house outside the city. I was early so I got off and walked the rest of the way. The hedgerows buzzed, the hawthorns bursting with creamy flowers. I missed banyan trees, but the grand oaks were their equal. I felt something akin to contentment.

Everything changed when I got home. I knew it as soon as I opened the door to our room. The world rearranged itself because Krishan was no longer in it.

He’d fallen down the gap between the bed and the wall, so I didn’t see him at first. The ambulance seemed to take such a long time to arrive.

The doctor told me he’d had a fit and choked on his tongue. The scan showed a tumour large enough to put pressure on his brain and cause a seizure. He’d been named for Krishna, the blue god. His beautiful, crooked face was dusky, his lips purple.

The nurse at the hospital gave me money for a taxi home. The landlady was waiting up for me with a plate of potato salad and a cup of strong tea with lots of sugar in it.

Mum – grief-shocked and frightened, in a new country less than a year. Not knowing at that moment that a new life was growing inside her.

Me, in case you weren’t sure.

I couldn’t eat Elizabeth’s potato salad but I was grateful for the tea. When I went upstairs, Krishan’s jacket hung on the back of the door. His book open at the page he’d been reading. He wasn’t there and never would be again.

I got a saucer from the cupboard. The water pipe groaned and shuddered as I turned the tap on to fill it. I put it on the floor and the biscuit tin beside it. I opened the lid and waited.

Nothing happened. It was cold, colder than in the middle of winter. I lay back on the bed.

The cobra tipped over the biscuit tin as it slid out – a silver ghost in the moonlight.

I felt its dry warmth against my foot, then my calf. Its flicking tongue caught my thigh. It settled on my belly. Heavier than I thought it would be, but strangely comforting. It sank into me with every breath. When I put my hand there, it was under my skin.

Another breath and it was deep within me.

Mum is Anglo-Indian. Her family ties were tenuous. She was turfed out to a boarding school at a young age. It explains the dichotomy she is. Raised by Catholic nuns in a Hindu country. Not one thing or another. In India her fair skin and name prompted the question, When are you going home? She got the same question in England for her accent and wearing a sari at the weekends. The only question it raised for Mum was, Where IS home?

I hated being in the room on Blade Street after your father died. I wanted to be outside in fields and woods. Even before I learnt the names for things from library books, I loved them with my eyes.

The drops of water falling from the curling ferns. The springing softness of moss. The thick meaty fungi wedged into the body of the trees. The damp smell of leaf mold, heady bluebells, and fox spoor.

I sat on a fallen trunk, one end revealing its rotten core. New life inserted itself under the peeling bark. Birds sang above me.

Twigs snapped underfoot. It was a dirty, gaunt man. An English sadhu. An ascetic. His belt on its tightest notch, the fabric of his trousers gathered under the leather. I didn’t know if they fitted him once or he’d found them.

He took off his hat. His hair was a thatch of russet oak leaves. When he opened his stained jacket there were a multitude of living things within. Deathwatch beetles. Slugs with purple tentacles. Snails with their spiral shells. Fat spiders. The man sat beside me on the dead tree. Snakes flowed out of his sleeves, one after another.

And there were dozens of them. Large heads. Blunt snouts. Some were dark, some plain. Zig-zagged, diamond-backed. A symphony of browns and creams. They surrounded me in a ring. Fate eating its own tail.

I felt you quickening inside me, right then and there.

‘Hello, little sister.’ The man smiled at me. Brown teeth, not from tar or tannin, but pegs of wood.

There are so many gods in the world. I sat with Him in silence for a long time. It was nice.

Mum wants to die at home, in her own bed. I’ve brought her favourite things into the bedroom.

Her puja tray for worship is on the chest of drawers. It’s a functional thing of stainless steel that you can get in any Indian supermarket. On it there’s a picture of the Virgin Mary, miraculous-holy-mother, in blue. A small bronze statue of Shiva, the Virgin’s antithesis, death-bringer most handsome. A rockstar god with a cobra draped around his neck, and a crescent moon over his brow. There’s a rose bowl filled with yellow tea roses and Aunty Bhaduri’s biscuit tin.

Mum’s breathing goes in and out. Waiting is the hardest part. I hope she knows I’m here.

Naga, you were born in the room on Blade Street. The rain hit the attic window in great gusts. You were so impatient to be in the world. You slipped into Elizabeth’s waiting arms. She swaddled you in a towel.

‘Ronnie, you have a baby girl.’

I held out my arms. I don’t remember if I was crying or laughing.

‘She has a-’ Elizabeth struggled to find the words.

‘Give her to me.’

She laid you in my hungry arms. I thought it was a caul at first, dirty with birthing blood – but no, it was a sheath of scales.

Then you cried with gusty mammalian rage. As I wiped you down your snakeskin shed on the towel.

And under that you were perfect. Unblemished. Undefined and utterly yourself.

Priya Sharma

Priya Sharma’s fiction has appeared venues such as Interzone, Black Static, Nightmare, The Dark and Tor. She’s been anthologised in several of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series and Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror series, among others. Her short story ‘Fabulous Beasts’ was a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and won a British Fantasy Award. All the Fabulous Beasts, a collection of her some of her work, available from Undertow Publications, was a Locus Award Finalist, and won a British Fantasy Award and Shirley Jackson Award. Ormeshadow, her first novella (available from Tor), won a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award.

© Priya Sharma