THE CHARM – or in Sri Lankan “THE SOONIYAM”
***This is a excerpt from the novel “EMPIRES CHILDREN” by Patricia Weerakoon, published by Rhiza Press: http://rhizapress.com.au/empires-children
"The first rays of light crept through the old piece of cloth that hung across the door of the line room. Lakshmi rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Soon she and her mother would need to leave the line room and trudge to the weighing shed for muster before starting another days tea plucking.
She had to hurry. Lakshmi stepped over her sleeping sister and crept out of the room. If her mother got up before she returned, she would assume that Lakshmi had gone into the bushes to relieve herself. She pulled her skirt and blouse tight around her and scrambled up the path leading to the tea-maker’s house. Her bare feet slipped on the moss and wet mud. Cursing, she clung to the tea bushes, then hurried on.
There was not a moment to spare.
The house lay shrouded in darkness. She ran to the back of the house and tapped on the window of the store room where Raaken slept. She heard the hiss and rattle of his snores. ‘‘Raaken, Raaken,’ she called.
Raaken stopped snoring and groaned. The mat rustled as he got up. He opened the window. ‘Lakshmi? What are you doing here at this time of the morning?’
‘Big problem, Raakan! Come, come.’ The anxiety in her voice had the effect she hoped for. Opening the window, Raaken climbed through to join her in the garden.
‘Some of the coolies have done a soonyam, a death charm, and placed it under the mango tree,’ Lakshmi’s voice cracked as she stumbled out the words.
Raaken’s eyes widened. ‘Aiyoo, don’t even talk about such horrible things. Something bad will happen to you.’
Lakshmi’ trembled and grasped Raaken’s arm. ‘I heard my father talking about it. He is the leader of the group. It’s right in the path Tea-maker Aiya takes to the factory. It’s a death charm. He will step on it and die.’ She shook Raaken. ‘We have to do something.’
Raaken pulled the old blanket around his shoulders. He drew his brows together in puzzlement. ‘Who would want to kill Tea-maker Aiya?’ he scratched his head. ‘Everyone knows he’s the only staff person who looks after us.’
‘It’s something about him keeping part of our pay and giving it to us when we are old. They say it is Periadorai’s idea and Tea-maker Aiya is supporting him. They say we will get less money and that the estate will take the rest. There is a new man who talks to appa and his friends. They call him Union Aiya.’ She shook Raaken again. ‘I am frightened. One way or the other they want to kill Tea-maker Aiya and Periadorai.’
Raaken frowned. ‘Be quiet, Lakshmi! We don’t want to wake them.’
Lakshmi continued to tug on his arm. ‘Quick, hurry. Let’s find it first.’
Raaken pulled his arm from her grasp. ‘All right. We’ll go check under the mango tree and see if anything has actually been put there. Why frighten them for nothing?’
They walked round the house to the mango tree. Neither spoke. The wind picked up and whistled up from the valley. The early morning mist swirled around them. Carefully they examined the mud around the mango tree, their eyes straining in the dim pre-dawn light.
Lakshmi grabbed Raaken again. Her fingers clawed on his arm. ‘There!’ Her voice was a frightened mumble. ‘What is that?’
Lakshmi and Raaken stared in horror at a spot where the soil had been freshly dug up and covered over. On the surface lay a triangle of three twigs. The sign of a death charm – a soonyam.
‘What did they put in there?’ Lakshmi stuttered. She put her hand on the mango tree and then drew back as if stung.
‘Probably some of Tea-maker Aiya’s hair, a nail and charms bought from the old swami in Diyatalāwa,’ Raaken responded in a hushed voice. ‘You go home before your parents get up. We don’t want your father to be suspicious. I’ll look after this.’
‘Thank you, Raakan, thank you,’ Lakshmi ran from the tea-maker’s house and scrambled back down the path to the line rooms.
LATER THAT DAY
Lakshmi watched as Raaken mixed the rice flour to make the pittu for breakfast. Carefully he set the bamboo tube on the pot of boiling water and filled it with the soft while balls of rice flour. He didn’t always get this right, but today the texture looked perfect.
Periamma came into the kitchen.
‘Raaken, you are up early today. And already made the pittu.’ She stood at the door to the kitchen, dressed for the morning. She looks so happy, thought Lakshmi. How will Raaken tell her that Tea-maker Aiya will die today? She will be so upset. Lakshmi was glad she was there.
Lakshmi slipped in through the back door into the kitchen. Periamma turned to her. ‘Lakshmi! What are you –’
They heard Tea-maker Aiya clear his throat as he brushed his teeth in the bathroom.
‘Periamma …’ Raaken cut in quickly. He shivered and swallowed. Lakshmi watched him. Soonyams were dangerous and powerful. To even talk about it was to invoke its power.
Maybe she should go forward and tell Periamma herself.
‘Periamma …’ Raaken repeated.
‘What is it, Raaken, what is happening? First thing in the morning, what are you looking so frightened about? And why is Lakshmi here at this time of the morning?’ She moved into the kitchen and stared at Raaken.
Raaken cleared his throat. He dropped his eyes and mumbled ‘I need to talk with Tea-maker Aiya.’ Sweat slithered down his trembling body.
Periamma stood in the kitchen staring from one to the other. ‘Why can’t you tell me?’
Raaken held on to the edge of the table and shook his head. The table shook with the shudders running through his body.
Periamma stared at him for a few more moments. ‘Oh, all right,’ she sighed. ‘Appa,’ she called out. ‘Can you stop and come here? Raaken has something he says he wants to tell you right now.’
Tea-maker Aiya walked into the kitchen. He was in his sarong and t-shirt with an old frayed jumper over it. Traces of shaving cream clung to his cheek.
He stared at Raaken and then gestured at him with the shaving razor. ‘Stop shaking, man. What the hell’s the matter?’
Raaken’s words tumbled out. ‘Aiya, I don’t know who did it, Aiya. Everyone knows you are a good man, no? No one should ever want to hurt you. But they have done a bad thing, Aiya. A very bad thing.’
‘Raaken,’ Tea-maker Aiya said shoved his finger in Raaken’s chest. ‘Slow down! Stop blathering! Who has done what bad thing?’
‘The coolies, Aiya! They have done a – a soonyam – a curse!’ Raaken stopped and gulped. The table he was leaning on fell over with a crash. ‘They have put it in the path, under the mango tree. You will step on it on your way to work this morning,’ he rushed on, ‘and then … you will die, no, Aiya. We must contact the devil dancers, the sorcerers. We must get them to come and cancel the curse, Aiya.’
Lakshmi watched round eyed. Maybe the soonyam was working on Raaken already?
She expected Tea-maker Aiya to shake in fear. Much to her surprise, he started laughing. Not a gentle polite laugh as he usually had, but a loud, happy laugh that echoed around the kitchen.
‘Is that all it is?’ Tea-maker Aiya said, wiping his eyes. ‘I know the troublemakers who did this. They don’t understand Periadorai’s proposal for a savings plan. The idiots will cut off their noses to spite their faces.’ He gestured a scissor movement to his nose and chuckled again. ‘Come, Raaken, let’s go find this soonyam.’
He looked at Lakshmi standing in the corner of the kitchen. ‘Ah, you’re the one who brought the bad news.’ He laughed again, ‘Come on, both of you.’ He strode out of the kitchen into the garden.
Still shivering, Raaken led the way out of the kitchen and round the house to the place where he and Lakshmi had seen the disturbed soil. Tea-maker Aiya and Periamma followed, both of them smiling. Lakshmi and Raaken exchanged looks. It was a madness spell, they were now sure of it. Why else would they be so happy at a time like this? Standing at a distance, Raaken pointed, and then looked away. ‘There, Aiya – that is the soonyam spot.’
Tea-maker Aiya hooted with laughter again. He went to the spot where the soonyam was. First he stamped his foot on the spot. Then he jumped up and down on it. ‘Raaken, Lakshmi,’ he called out as he leapt up and down. ‘My God is more powerful than all the devils and soonyams in this world and out of it! I am protected by the God who made the world and the stars! This curse can have no effect on me!’ Still laughing, he stepped away.
‘Aiyooo’ Raaken squealed. His eyes rolled up. He sagged and dropped to the ground in a faint.
Lakshmi felt her head spin. She turned and vomited at the gnarled old roots of the mango tree, right over the spot where the soonyam lay."