Unsung Sorrow

by Brandi Dawn Henderson

Idon’t know what your face looks like – I didn’t look.
You are wearing no pants. No underwear. Your knees are pulled up towards your chin. Your concave chest, brown skin too tight against xylophone ribs, has upon it the remaining scraps of a dirty flannel shirt. Your testicles are limp balloons resting on your naked thighs. There is diarrhea drying on your backside, and on the ground where you stopped. Breathing. Where you stopped breathing.One fly told his buddies about you, and they told more, and a whole fleet swarms about you, drunk from the heat and humidity. They are the only living beings who acknowledge you. They land in your hair – black, matted, long – and in your beard, too, resting their light legs before looping lazily towards your excretion, which is probably just bile and skin cells, given your emaciated form.

The smells of cardamom, dirt, jasmine, urine, bus fumes, cannabis, spiced tea, smoke, and sandalwood hang heavy in the break between monsoon rains. Your scent is powerless against the bustling aroma of life going on without you.

Your shoulder blades are just that – blades of shoulder – distinct even underneath your scraps of flannel. The bottoms of your feet are thick, still, stiffening. Unlike many other hopeless souls, you don’t appear to have been hunted by heroin. You just seem hungry.

I don’t know what will happen to you. If you were in the woods, nature might take care of things – vultures, tigers, the fiery Indian sky sun-bleaching your skeleton. If you were in a home, or anywhere near one, your family might perform a ceremony – a pyre, your body wrapped in a glittery cloth, turning your death into a celebration, an opportunity for you to expand, to live better, or (your God willing) be released for good.

Here, though, there is not one eye filled with sorrow, nor exultation. No one to shoo the flies out of your beard or to shake a fist at the sky.

Oh, and, you are in a crowded train station.

In a train station filled with people who care more about their seat numbers and samosas than they do about you. Even the natural curiosities of children aren’t piqued by your lifeless form. Families, businessmen, scam artists, porters with suitcases balanced on their heads – they stride past you, another casualty in the circle of life. Amongst a billion people, there’ll be some hungry ones. Some sick ones. Some disposable ones. Better luck next life.

Colorful sheets are laid down in between chai and samosa stands, where circles of women with pear-bottoms and glistening black braids prepare snacks for their children, their musical laughter echoing off the tin overhang shading them, and you, from the intense sun. Old men with mustaches wear spectacles and snap open newspapers while drinking tiny, disposable cups of strong coffee.

The platform is a concrete slab, with benches full of heavy-set grandmothers in ironed saris. The porters wear red, short-sleeved jackets and desperate eyes. A population of young businessmen are scattered, speak on mobile phones, wear pressed slacks and button-up shirts with the collars folded high around their ears. A legless leper drags himself on half a skateboard, holding his mangled palm upwards to receive any coins one would care to drop from a safe distance.

Your feet are pointed towards a train headed for Varanasi, India’s holy city of death. A train you missed. Maybe you weren’t trying. Maybe you were chased away by the ticket checker, even if you tried to blend in with all the others jammed together like (in)human puzzles in the third class car. Maybe my faraway feet on the platform, covered with tattoos and silver flip flops, were the last thing you saw before you closed your eyes forever.

I am dressed in white. Fresh from two weeks of spiritual practice in a space with fruit trees and swamis, and swans in courtyard pools of rippling glasswater. I walk with my hair pulled back in a conservative ponytail, a stiff white shawl draped modestly around my chest – a habit I will forget quickly back in my own country, where I’ll open drawers of padded bras without remembering the delicacy of my own naked skin.

As I walk along the platform, shuffling my heavy bag from shoulder to shoulder, I speak with a French man, a child psychologist I’d met at the yoga ashram. His name is Timothe, and we are both valid ticket holders on the train to Varanasi.

Timothe is tall and white, in his early thirties, with blonde receding hair and a charming gap in his front teeth, just like my father. He is lean, but solid, and has a weakness for Spanish Tomato Tango potato chips (spicy ketchup-flavored) and coconut lassis. He, too, is modestly dressed in all white.

As we move along, we talk about what we learned at the ashram, feeling authentic, simple, real.

We speak of universality, of lessons that we are sure will present themselves to us as we need them, of transcendental harmony.

We nod emphatically.

We believe in oneness, in our intrinsic understanding of humanity, of nature, of love.

And then we see you.

From a distance, you aren’t unlike other hungry, worn out men I’ve seen sleeping on the platforms. Strange that you are naked, though. As we get closer, I can’t take my eyes off you. Something is wrong. Or, more wrong, with this picture. My eyes lock on your ribs, unmoving, fresh out of the rise and fall they’ve known for all your days, and my heart pounds wildly as yours does not.

At this moment, I find myself able to think little more than woah, as I follow Timothe onto our train car. But, each step I take, over the metal insides of the machine that will leave you behind, echoes the emptiness where the charade of mental harmony and order had been only moments before. We are just two foreigners in costumes, walking through a borrowed train station, trying to be what we will never be, to know what we can never fully understand. We are consumers of nirvana, and everyone knows that but us.

On my train to your holy city of death, I drink more tea than I need and I think about you as an infant. About your mother warming you with arms and breast and belly. I wonder if you’d ever been in love, if the air would go out of her lungs if she could see you now, if you had children who would fall to their knees to see their father this way. Then, I stop thinking about you and start wondering about myself – why I hadn’t considered using the shawl of decency draped over my shoulders to cover your bareness, what that means about me.

I want you to know that, as I laid on your train with my scratchy blanket and wafer pillow, I noticed every breath I took. That I filled my lungs up as completely as they would fill, and I held my breath, my life, there with gratitude.

Until I forgot to.

Author Bio
Brandi Dawn Henderson is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, pursuing her MA in Creative Nonfiction. She spends free time collecting cowboy boots and stories, living with lizards in cabins in the Himalayas, taking Greyhound buses from coast to coast, and trying her very best to make at least one life immeasurably better. More >

11 thoughts on “Unsung Sorrow

  1. Andy says:

    I dont usually post responses – correction, never post responses. But this story is different. Yes, it’s well written; yes, it’s imaginative and evocative. But it more, much more than just the sum of it’s technical merits.
    The way the story progresses, it does more than just develop, it opens up. It would not be too far short of the truth to say that it blossoms. It’s vista, initially focussed on the storyteller, and initially rooted on just one level – the voyeur (for want of a better word) coming upon a corpse – exponentially develops into national, international, universal themes; blossoms (again I use that word carefully) from a physical plane into a physical and spiritual plane. The ending, where life is fully appreciated because we are all rooted in this physical world is sublime: and because we are all rooted in this physical world, the last sentence is the shock of truth.
    Brilliant writing, it’s the best short story I’ve read in a long time, thanks.


  2. Brandi Dawn Henderson says:

    Oh my goodness, you guys! Thank you SO much for your feedback. I hadn’t seen it until just now, and it means the world to me. Seriously. Wow. Wow. Thank you.


  3. Eric Vesper says:

    Brandi — I agree completely with Andy — I’m an ex-academic and published poet and I am blown away by not only the quality of the writing but brilliance of the perspective and the amazing compassion it evinces. And forgive me but from someone so young this is just magical I too never comment about most of these writings — but your piece moved me to pick up my keyboard and say “Awesome job sister — well-done.” You are an amazing incarnation of the goddess — I will be following your career with great hope and interest. Peace.


  4. Jenny blue rose pierson says:

    Your piece brought me down into that ground-world where so many of us live…so many I have witnessed but never stayed with. Beautiful in all its heart-rocking visions. Thanks, Brandi. You have enriched me. Keep on with it, please. We all look forward to catching more of your voice.


  5. Susan W says:

    This piece gave me shivers the first time I read it, and it gives me shivers each time I read it again. The first time I read it, I didn’t really know you yet, Brandi. Now that I know you better, I really see you and your big heart come through. You’re a very gifted writer and storyteller.


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