Flapping Wings and a Shoeless Walk by Sudha Balagopal
Sudha Balagopal’s “Flapping Wings and a Shoeless Walk” is one of three winners of the 2022 CRAFT Amelia Gray 2K Contest, guest judged by Amelia Gray.
“Flapping Wings and a Shoeless Walk” rewards the close reader; within this story of a mother and her disapproving daughter lie the many mysteries of the protagonist’s heart. Framed by a pair of illustrative accidents, the writer employs a dextrous, subtle prose to the complicated memory of a late husband and the imminent flight an only child intends to make from her mother’s two-person nest. The melancholy here feels real and recognizable, the story thoughtfully told. —Amelia Gray
My daughter, Savi, instructs me to wear shoes when I go for my morning walk. She says it’s not considered exercise otherwise. I tell her my toes feel imprisoned in shoes and slide my feet into chappals before I step out. On our small-town street, tiny pebbles grind underfoot. My chappals have a loop around the big toe and a strap across the instep. I think of the disapproving, embarrassed movement Savi makes with her mouth—a moue, a disdainful grimace—when I explain I can’t wear shoes because my soles get sweaty. After almost a decade on this street we’re still waiting for the open drains to be closed, for the road to be paved, some of the pebbles worn so smooth, I tripped and fell last week. Neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Rao, hurried down from their apartment and helped me up. Savi flashed that moue then, and chanted, Shoes, shoes, shoes.
Some days, Savi is incandescent, her anger welling and contained with difficulty—like our heaving Ganges so burdened by the monsoons, volunteers must line her banks with sandbags to control the churning, roiling river. I’ve seen the emotion flare in Savi’s eyes, before she lowers her lined lids, little black flicks extending beyond the outer edges like the tail of a fish, when I tell her she’s too young to use eyeliner and makeup. I’ve studied the way she chews on her crimson-painted fingernails, the way she force-spits the bitten-off red polish when I say the color’s inappropriate for a schoolgirl. I’ve noticed the grind-clench of her jaw when I tell her she shouldn’t borrow Femina and Eve’s Weekly from the circulating library, that she shouldn’t be reading adult material.
Savi’s slithering away from my grip like a soggy bar of soap; she slips from school to tutoring, from one friend’s house to another. At work, I’m the headmistress, managing a school with five hundred girls. At home, I’m a confused, anxious mother searching for answers and direction. I imbibe essays and articles on adolescent psychology; I enforce boundaries even as I yearn for closeness with my child. In the bazaar yesterday, I watched the street entertainers on their wobbly tightrope. The scraggly-haired children kept their balance, toes clawing into the rope for a foothold as they listened to their father, his trusted voice guiding them across. Savi might have heeded her father.
Savi likes Mr. and Mrs. Rao. I can see the couple now, on their third-floor balcony. Mrs. Rao sits on a chair while her husband paints her hair with a brush. I’ve observed this monthly ritual for a while. When I first told Savi about this, she scoffed, God, Ma, it’s not paint. It’s hair dye! She bought me one of those Godrej hair dyes so I, too, could color my hair. When I explained, It’s awkward to go raven-haired at my age, she flounced out of the apartment, visited the Raos and partook of samosas and chai with them. My first gray hair appeared at twenty-six. I remember pulling it out and staring at the strand, convinced a wife’s hair goes gray when the husband dies. By thirty my hair had dulled to salt. Mr. Rao has colored Mrs. Rao’s hair for the past year. She might never go gray in this lifetime. I can’t imagine my husband, had he been alive, offering to color my hair.
Savi visits Mr. and Mrs. Rao two-three times a week. I’ve heard them laughing on the balcony. It pierces that Savi doesn’t laugh with me. With me, her tone is a combination of annoyance and brusqueness, straddling impatience and irritation. When she mentioned Mrs. Rao wants her to meet their son who’s studying in the US, my shocked For heaven’s sake, he’s twenty-two! tumbled out. Savi sucked in her cheeks, said, That’s rich, coming from someone who was married at eighteen. And you didn’t even know who you were marrying. Her words sliced into my chest, cutting, painful, because I couldn’t, in all honesty, respond that I missed her father, or that I’d cared for him.
The Raos feed her notions with biscuits and tea. They’ve advised her to go to New Delhi for college, broaden her horizons. I’ve answered, Perhaps. Fortunately, Savi hasn’t asked, Perhaps, what?, because then I might have to tell her perhaps she shouldn’t be spending so much time with the Raos, perhaps I may not have the funds for an out-of-town college, perhaps she must accept a scholarship at the local university, stay closer to home. I’ll tell her anything but the truth―that I’m terrified of bungling motherhood, that I’m petrified of letting her go, my only child, that I’m afraid of losing this one person who makes the two of us a family, that I’m alarmed at how hard, how fast, she flaps her wings.
My foot rolls on a pebble, and an undignified shout escapes. I spread my arms, teeter, then fall. I scramble to stand, throbbing knees notwithstanding, before the Raos can come running. It’s time to call the municipality, give them a piece of my mind and ask when they intend to pave the road. Perhaps it’s also time to listen to Savi, perhaps it’s time to lace up those shoes.
SUDHA BALAGOPAL is honored to have her writing in many fine journals including CRAFT, Split Lip Magazine, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2021. She has work selected for Best Microfiction 2022 and The Best Small Fictions 2022. Find her on Twitter @authorsudha.
Featured image by Amit Rana, courtesy of Unsplash.