The Terror of the Night
It seems to him that his mother’s struggle nowadays
is simply to pass the night peacefully.
Every morning, she complains about the terror of the night
and compels him to go to the praying elders.
“I have nightmares every night . . . I cannot sleep . . .”
The praying elder looks at him knowingly and asks her:
“What are these nightmares about?”
“I dream of death, of nongshohnohs and hired killers,
hunting me down . . . someone is wishing me evil . . .
I’m always dreaming of the dead calling to me . . .
plead for me, so it may all end, I cannot go on like this.”
The praying elder prays and breaks the eggs,
three of them, one by one, and says:
“An evil-wisher has used his black art
to complain about you to the dead . . .
he has tied your rngiew, the essence of your being
to the damned.”
He gives her a handful of rice grains,
and asks her to put them under her pillow
and to eat a few every night.
Placebos and mountebanks!
He alone, her son, knows the answer:
his old mother fears the nightmare that haunts all life.
She is obsessed with it . . . terrified of it.
Old and alone, she fears dying with no one by her side:
it gnaws at her like a monstrous bug.
And he alone knows how to alleviate her suffering.
Unlike his playful brother, he doesn’t say:
“Whoever dies with a friend, Mei?”
And yet, still, he dithers:
he will go, sleep in her house . . . he has to . . .
but not right now . . . he has too much to do.
Forgive me, Mei!
I did not know I could be so rotten.
Let the flame that feasts on your body
feast on my soul.
after Robert Frost
He wants the wall to be taller:
this height, he says, even by Khasi norms,
can never stop prying eyes.
The builder, also the village headman, replies,
“How can a house look like a jail?”
To this, he quotes:
“Good fences make good neighbours.”
But they have never heard of “Mending Wall”,
and they all say, “That’s foolish; the house is in
the middle of the village street,
there are people all day long,
there are neighbours on both sides,
why would you need a wall to make you safe?”
Yielding to their pressure, he lets the matter be.
His flowers bloom,
his pines grow tall,
his oranges are heavy with their winter crop.
One day, returning from somewhere,
he finds not a single orange on the trees.
The people all day long,
the neighbours on both sides of the street,
no one has seen a thing.
He contemplates the police,
but his mother says
he would only make a bad neighbour.
In his frustration, he calls the grille maker,
extends the railing by three feet
and places sharp hooks at the top.
Since then, his oranges have been safe,
his mind has been at peace,
and his neighbours have truly become good.
But that is the pity of it all:
good neighbours are made with extended walls.
Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih is an award-winning Khasi poet and writer. His latest works include the epic-length novel Funeral Nights, The Yearning of Seeds and Time’s Barter: Haiku and Senryu. He is the author of Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends and the co-editor of Dancing Earth: An Anthology of Poetry from Northeast India. His new novel, The Distaste of the Earth, is forthcoming. He teaches literature at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.