Shiva’s Smile

When I remember those days with the swami, I think of the  orange color of his robe and the magnolia scent of his smooth brown skin when he reached out to me.  I used to complain to my mother that his beard scratched my cheek, not because I minded it so much, but because of the prim distaste that would pucker her lips at my disrespect.  Sometimes I'd draw my cheeks in and make a fish mouth at her, and then her pucker would unfold into a smile.  That's why I complained about the swami's scratchy beard, so I could see her smile.

Now, the smell is of alcohol and disinfectant, and the prevailing color is white.  My mother's lips are always set in a straight, quiet line; and when her eyes are open, she doesn't seem to recognize me.  The nurses who bustle in and out and the other patients in the room seem to know me better.  But I like to think that somewhere, her son is still complaining about the scratchiness, and she is smiling.

There were only five other kids besides me at the ashram, and only one other boy, Colin.  He was only five, the youngest and smallest, and must have been intimidated by the rest of us, although we never thought much about it at the time.  The swami knew, though, and would always sit Colin on his lap after the Saturday night meeting and give him bites of the sweet dessert of dates and honey everyone shared at the end of the evening's chanting and teaching. “See how special you are?” the swami would tell him.  “You're the only one special enough to fit on my lap.”  Colin would already be half asleep, but his stubby white fingers would close tightly around the gnarled, wrinkled ones.  My mother called him a holy child, but we thought he was shy, or maybe just stupid.

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