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Lanka Liyanapathiranage


Photo of reading at celebrationPaper Boats

When my grandmother first taught me how to fold paper she probably didn’t know it would amount to box after cardboard box of colorful and different sized paper boats. I mean, keeping two young kids busy when the weather was a mix between frustrated and angry led to this and many other indoor adventures at my house. When thunder roared and lightning struck, my grandmother’s voice shared countless stories of her childhood, her hand of fanned hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds, challenged us to a variety of card games and when her ideas were exhausted, which was rare, PBS (as well as Days of our Lives) was our entertainment. All throughout my childhood her inventive undertakings to keep us occupied were endless, but making paper boats, folding, creasing and folding again, was my favorite protection from the storms.

However, on days when the rays of sun woke me up and lasted all day I had no choice but to play outside. And even if I did have a choice I would have chosen the insects, the bushes, the jungle gym, the tire swing, the roller skates and the tree branches that filled my backyard. I loved being outside.

My white house, being on the corner, meant that while I was outside there was forever a parade. There were people walking to the mailbox, kids bicycling by in small groups, and people exercising their pets and in some cases vice versa. On school days, kids coming home from the Catholic school would parade by too. I knew they were from the Catholic school because they wore their identity. They weren’t just normal neighborhood boys, indiscernible by their jeans and t­shirts, they were good, wholesome Catholic schoolboys–gray pants, light blue oxfords, striped ties and black dress shoes.

Most days while climbing our maple tree or sitting in my tire swing I was a spy. Whether my hands grasped the ridges of the bark or the yellow rope that swung me back and forth I investigated those schoolboys, looking for clues into their world. Did they learn the same things I did? Why did they have to wear uniforms? Was everyone nice to each other? Did they like looking like copies of one another? I was intrigued by these uniformed youth: uniformed not only in clothing, but also in behavior.

This day was different though, this day they were not uniform.

This day I was playing on our upside down badminton birdie jungle gym. My sister and I would race to the top and claim king of the jungle gym. As king, we could decide what to play, a task that both of us fought for in speed and maybe a little bit of sweat. We flipped upside down and hung from our knees, we flipped back and hung from our hands, we tried to pull each other down using our legs, and with our fingers grasped tightly around the top bar we tried to tickle the other one down. And when we fell down, or rather “were conquered,” the other would free their grasp, and we would start all over again until one of us got bored of beating the other to the top. This day my sister got bored quickly and went to garden with my grandmother, leaving me alone to hang upside down by my knees. With blood snaking to my head, my body swinging slowly, something stole my attention.

Something out of the ordinary.

Something between the Catholic schoolboys.

Resuming my covert operation, I flipped back around and quietly landed on my feet evading the usual cloud of dust that hovered around my high tops. Poorly camouflaging myself behind the bars, I noticed their normal jovial banter and horseplay was weathering into something stronger. Something coarse. I caught myself staring, but I was too engulfed to avert my eyes. I knew something was happening. And so I stared. Not only with my eyes, but my ears as well. Their voices, which never traveled to my side of the street, were faint rolls of thunder, a definite storm approaching.
I watched, transfixed, as these schoolboys created an unfair order: a pack encircling with two enemies in the middle, compelled. I scanned the street to see if any other witnesses were there. But I could detect no one. I was alone, witnessing something I didn’t want to see.

This wasn’t the first time I witnessed something I didn’t want to see or had this feeling I didn’t want to feel. I had felt this way before: injustice slowly churned and then quickly rising to trepidation. My mother was good at making me feel that way. In fact she was an expert at being malevolent, a skill that wasn’t new to her, but passed down from generation to generation. My father and she would fight often, her screaming, her throwing and her acting irrationally while he tried to maintain peace. But this fighting was different. This wasn’t between adults; this was between children. They were supposed to be innocent. They weren’t supposed to be blemished.

And then it happened.

In seconds, they created disorder.

In seconds, the boys in the middle attacked.

In seconds, their banter became a barrage of obscenities.

And in seconds, my heart hurt, but I continued to stare and stare and stare.

Tearing me away from my trance, my grandmother’s hands, fastened to my upper arm, quickly dragged my sister and me to safety, my feet battling her perseverance. In a downpour of action, I haphazardly stole glances again and again, hoping that someone would save the boys.

But no one did.

Before I knew it, I was in my house, door barricaded, grandmother outside guarding our house, a Sri Lankan tradition in the face of perceived danger. I tried peeking out of our curtains, hoping to see kindness in action, but my grandmother caught my curiosity and the consternation in my face. She came to the door, walked in and veiled the malice from my eyes. She then took my hand, didn’t acknowledge the past few minutes, and brought me to the dining room table. Thoughts flooded my mind. Feelings struck my heart, bolt after lightning bolt. I wanted to run back to the curtains. I wanted to look outside. I wanted to see if anyone was helping. But I didn’t.

Or actually, I couldn’t.

Silent at the table with paper in front of her, my grandmother slid it towards my sister and me. We quietly began folding boats, crease by crease.

Sensing my uneasiness my grandmother picked me up, brought me to our bathtub, set me next to it, and started filling it up with water. As a sea slowly formed she brought me the box of freshly folded boats and held it towards me. I looked at her sad smile as she nodded towards the box, feigned my own, and picked an underdog. She grabbed my hand as I slowly placed the boat in the water and prayed for it to float.

In a short while the paper soaked up the water and my boat sank slowly, unable to withstand the calm. Watching it sink, the grip of my grandmother’s hand tightened, trying to assure me that there was no storm inside our house. As tears welled up in my eyes, I looked from her to the boat and in that fragile moment I realized that a little piece of my faith in humanity was sinking as well.