The boy stands back and looks at them. Their orange robes swirl around their bony legs. The shaved heads bend forward. The right hand holds a wooden bowl, a begging bowl, his mother says. Slender fingers grasp the rim of the bowl while the other hand rests on the heavy gate, pushes it open, then closes it. He is not allowed inside, the boy. He stares at the gate, opening and closing and tries to see what lies beyond. He glimpses a patch of foliage and sky before the monk’s fingers release the door and the door closes shut, closes shut on his brother.
The boy stands on the hot sand in the square, now empty. His brother has gone where he can’t follow, and even his mind can’t rush through the heaviness of the gate. It can only run backwards, back to the beginning of the day when he crouched at the creek behind his house. He hid between the reeds, hoping if his mother didn’t find him then his brother wouldn’t leave. He squatted down and the slippery mud seeped up between his toes. Mosquitoes buzzed around his bare legs. He stayed still and wished he could take time in his hand, wrap it in a ball and squeeze it so it couldn’t go anywhere. He bit his lip hard so he wouldn’t cry. His brother came out of the house, sat down on the grassy bank nearby and lowered his feet in the water. The creek ran by in a babble from the dark middle of the forest– past the market where his mother sold papayas she grew in her garden, past wild bits of jungle where snakes slid between branches, past yellow grass buffaloes broke between their jaws. The boy tried not to look at the flowing creek nor at the water his brother splashed on his feet and instead he stared down at the mud between his toes; in the mud, time stood still.
Now the boy stands in the empty square and time weighs down like the heavy balls of dough his mother stretches into flat breads, pulling and flattening them between her hands. The boy’s eyelashes flutter against the glare of the midday sun. A small bird picks up a grain of rice which spilled from the meal they shared before the gate closed shut –closed shut on his brother. His mother touches his shoulder and the boy pulls away, breaks into a run. His feet pound the ground and the dirt flies up in hard clots against his calves but he keeps running. The hot air burns his lungs but he keeps running. A cold iron hand wrenches his heart from between his ribs, but he keeps running –past houses which lean forward with shutters closed, past vendors who sell glasses of mint tea, past men who sit in the shade murmuring prayers while their fingers touch the rough surface of beads. The world around him turns into a blur of yellow brown dust and sun, his blood pounds in his ears and tears stream down his face. The boy is ashamed of his abandonment to grief but he keeps running so the world won’t come to a standstill; so he won’t have to enter his house and see the empty chair his brother sat on, sorting the stones out of the rice, sifting the grains through his slender fingers; fingers which now hold the rim of a begging bowl.
‘The Begging Bowl’ first appeared in The New Quarterly, Issue 137, Winter, 2016; in print.
Stories and poems by Atma Frans have been published in The New Quarterly and Arc Poetry Magazine as well as long-listed for contests. In her writing Atma searches for the voice beneath her personas: woman, mother, immigrant, trauma survivor, Sikh, expressive arts therapist, queer, poet. She believes in the healing power of narrative, for the writer and reader. Atma lives in Gibsons, B.C. where she teaches classes in creativity, play and self-expression.