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by Samodh Porawagamage

Excerpts from All the Salty Sand in Our Mouths



We’ve all grown up

and you are nowhere


close to schooling, so late

that, even I, the youngest


of the lot, know how babies

are born. I do have permission


to take you to the road, and help

you count the cars. Correct when


you get a color wrong. Yup, the sky

is blue, that lorry is also blue, your sand


castle beige or brown. More sand? No, I won’t

take you to the beach for sand


until you can run!




Hills loom larger when one nears them. Humans diminish in proximity.

_Sinhala proverb


As we looked on

the water trickled


far into the horizon,

the beach now an endless


black paddy prepared

for the ploughing.


So the fish bellydancing

for water glistened in the sun.


Villagers fought each other

to split the new land.


Tourists sipped on

the sight with their tea.


Let’s go get our dads

I said to cousin’s smirk,


he having helped thirty

fishies into puddles


versus my five. I shouted for help

from other kids chasing


the gulls away. Sapumal asked

for my water bottle


then spilled it. A wave

pounded on the horizon.


We shared one glance

and ran, zig


zagging over and above

the leaping fish.




I think I’m fine, and now that the parents

have arrived, the hospital can’t keep me

another night under observation.


My favorite nurse unstraps my hands.

Nobody asks why there were restraints

in the first place. She, then, whispering

something unhearable, shoves

a bag of my stuff into mum’s hands.


We can’t go home yet. Others, too,

need to be found. I’m very brave

for waiting a day like I did.


It seems only mum, dad, and Raja uncle

weren’t caught in the thing. Now that

I’m found, six more are still missing—


seven with the baby Nisha aunty

is carrying, I correct mum.

They agree and praise me for

my sharp memory, which is

no big deal when I can’t

remember enough of yesterday.


I ask for the bag of my things.

A silence the size

of ocean blows into the car.


So I ask again.


“It’s dirty, son,” dad says. “Let’s wait

till we get to the hotel. Oh, it’s a new

place we think you’d like to see.”


Once at the hotel

dad leaves to join the search party.

But it’s just him, Raja uncle, and a friend

of them living nearby. Mum busies

herself with a Southern province map.


I untie the blue polythene bag. The knot

beats my wits. So I tear it open

to the stench of stale vomit on what

used to be my favorite beach clothes.

Mum rushes to shield me from it all.


She can be fast, but not too fast.

My wristwatch falls out, too. As she

takes me back to bed, I cling on

to it for a clue, like it is the last

straw my past depends on.


You’re safe, everything’s fine!

I hide the watch under my pillow and wait.

Mum won’t leave me this time.


So I pretend sleep for long, and more long.

Mum finally leaves to hide

the bag somewhere in the bathroom.

I take out the watch. It, too,

hasn’t stopped breathing


like my morbid heart. Drops of water

have seethed inside, and a bubbly mist

blurs the hands and numbers.


But it’s dry. It’s so dry that when

I press the dial to my face

another sun begins to dawn.




Nobody knows to put a finger on his height
and then Uncle Two has the genius idea

“How tall are you?”: me, who made it, to serve
as the perfect model for his best friend’s

coffin. My mother insists I shouldn’t go
with them to the casket shop, but now

I fear no death. In the car I imagine living
in one for the rest of my life. People


bending over me in respect. A fine young
Cricketer. Hasn’t even matured

into shaving his face. Then somebody ruthless
shuts down the lid. The imaginary darkness comes

alive, slithers into my guts. I tremble, and yank
numbed feet to bump against the front seat.

Uncle keeps patting my head. Just one glass

these days assures him that I am the son

he hasn’t found for a month. I stroke the model
coffin outside the shop too much that my father

quietly growls a reminder. I follow them for a bit
and stop over a casket just enough to put me in

for display. Infinite curves like mouths of death
swallow my finger along the pillow box. My lowering

head snuggles against the soft silk. Everything

blackens and I freefall towards a vague


light in the tunnel. Somebody grabs me from the dark
in Uncle’s form. “Not dead! Sapumal, my son!

He’s alive. Look, here he is! Just like that!

No need for a coffin!” Then my father’s voice

wafts above my ear “Just a power cut. Don’t stare
into the torchlight.” It’s not real that I’m alive.



after the wave, the national flag

forgot to staff in half.

The school flag, somehow,

drooped to the wind. The prefect

who climbed the pole to fix it

fell down and wrung his arm.

We watched in the silence

of a covered distance: the beach


almost next door, and we’d never

be very safe, so my ears

had twitched to every sound, ready

to flee. A mate asked how to do

this curious thing

with the ears and I scowled.

Already at eleven


I’d mastered the art

of running while shouting

for others to join. I found

no shame to it.

For PT on the Cricket pitch,

I’d be running

even before the bat

would touch the ball.

The umpire warned me

as if he’d ever faced a wave

running amok, so I kept

my cool and smiled.

During the interval,


loudspeakers announced

another string of speeches

for the rest of the day.

A few hired workers

moved the flags

inside the stadium.

The lion roared to the breeze

in hurt pride, holding high

its tail. I thought how lonely

it must have been to hang

erect on a pole

and blow with every wind.

An alumnus minister

came hours late to deliver a speech

on voting in tough times.

He never glanced at us.

The opposition leader, too,

said something on disaster

and I realized the heaviness

attached to the school’s prestige

wasn’t weight. At practice


after school, the Cricket coach

rebuked me for having lost

a kilo and I wondered how

it drowned. Later, I slapped

my captain who was glad

we got an extra

month of holidays and still

couldn’t see in his eyes


wee bit of the terror I felt

when the wave lifted me

above the trees.




Too cooked to write more tsunami elegies,

I sleep for the ghosts to return with stories

I can’t find in research. They stab me in tiny

ripples. I practice lying in sleep, and pretend

I’m dead, too. Then, memory reconstructs

the oblivion of the beaches and beyond. Buddhism says

sudden death leaves a trail of suffering to wake. The sun rises,


I’m about to go on living another

dead life – wrapping my head around

its last moment. The mind plays many tricks. The sunlight

makes it look real: death smells are gone, no whispers

in the ear. I have been working for five hours. My pen

slips from my hand and rolls

into the purgatory under my bed. This precision

scares me. Once, I recorded me sleep:

I didn’t flinch at night, but my hair

moved out of my head, and returned at four.

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