In my house, women shred words like ginger, grating till flaky flesh meets raw bone. Amma’s words are calloused and rough, a subtle infusion of nighttime, waning moons, and rolling tides etched into each phrase she whispers.
“Stay home. Don’t go outside.” Her tongue ejects sound at me. The sounds are slit and restitched behind vowels; it’s far too aggressive. She shreds the ginger faster into the boiling pot of chai tea. Her damp words are slicing my skin and biting into my neck. “Inside is safer.” Her words are lodged in my scratched throat — a silent bullet that rings alarmingly inside of me.
Today, I’m responsible for the ginger shredding ritual Amma does each morning. She left early for work, leaving me with a metal pot in one hand and precise directions for making chai in the other. I think that Baba is up now — his quick feet abruptly beat the ceiling above me as he paces towards the bathroom to rinse his face. I take the cue to pick up the pace and get the water boiling on the stove. My flakes of ginger are more like thin, rolled sheets rather than jagged shards. I watch them roll off the metal grater and curl up as they hit the water.
Baba brings his pouted lips closer to the rim of the mug cautiously. I stand in front of him with my tray, squinting to read his slightly grim expression as he slurps the chai. A weak smile takes over his face, but it’s only temporary, I know. It’s not Amma’s chai, but it’s all he will taste for an indefinite number of days while she’s working longer hours at the hospital.
Staying at home all day, I become a stranger among those of my own blood. Baba’s glossy eyes stare back at me, anxious and hungry to know about Amma’s whereabouts. He doesn’t notice my fingers tapping against our granite counter at seven o’clock — when she’s expected to come home. He doesn’t budge when I neatly fold what’s left of our facemasks next to him. His gaze is fixed and transfixed on something beyond my fingers, our house, and our stagnant town.
“Don’t close curr-tains.” Baba finally says to me at eight o’clock. His words are a kind of messy which comforts me. His tongue is intertwined with his vines which lay rooted in his homeland; his words are bathed in India’s blazing sun alongside men whose charcoal faces remind me of purity. They radiate warmth even in the emptiness of a March evening in the land of the free.
It is eleven o’clock when Amma returns. Baba is the first to notice her petite structure scramble towards the front door. His faded grin slowly returns as he paces towards the door. I grab her coat and disinfect my hands right after. She rushes towards the sink and holds her crumbling hands under the stream of warm water. As I see the way her eyes light up when she stares at Baba and me, I realize the plight of this global pandemic that we are facing. I understand that she’s venturing into white America to be the nurse who puts patients before herself, who sacrifices in the name of health. Each day she hurriedly rushes through New York’s flea markets and Koreatown, where hunchbacked men butcher the remains of meat, and whitened knuckles pull garage doors down, unsure of whether she’ll be back that evening. Her body sways rhythmically through the city’s hazy pulse while her mouth is sealed shut by the mask.
She gently peels her mask off and places it on the counter to clean for the next morning.
“Did you stay inside?” Her words are still rough — unbudging and gnawing at my skin. They’re spiked at the edges, though her face and lips are round and pillowed. Her jagged, messy language is a soothing sound I yearn to hear each night. I think that a sound becomes more savoured by the ear; more treasured by the senses when one realizes that it’s fleeting. There’s no telling when it will play its tunes again.