1970 - Sriharikota Island
“Guna, come quick, I found some,” Jayamma said to her brother.
Five-year-old Jayamma knelt in the salty lagoon and her fingers searched for pointed snails.
“Hurry.” She squealed with delight.
The water felt good where it lapped against her skin, hot from the sunshine.
Guna folded his undershirt then laid it on a bush. Jayamma knew why he was so careful. Mama would scold him if he got another hole in his only shirt. Finally, he waded out.
“See, lots.” A half-dozen tiny shells lay on her palm.
Guna smiled. Jayamma liked to see the dimples that popped out next to his mouth.
His eyes focused on something behind her. She turned, saw fish baskets, and knew why he was worried. Last time, she’d played with the traps and the man yelled at Mama. Guna got spanked because he was in charge. She felt bad because it was her fault and Guna had been punished.
“I won’t touch them. I promise.”
As Guna splashed water over his shoulders, Jayamma lay on her belly, pulled herself forward, and checked each lump in the sand. A children’s song filled her heart and she sang it for Guna. He liked her songs.
Jayamma felt protected. Her brother was two years older than her. She loved exploring together. They called this, Snail Island, but it was only a sandbar with bushes. Guna could throw a rock from one beach to the other. It was far enough from their huts that they were alone. If Mama needed them she blew a shell horn from the big island.
“Guna, are you Yanadi tribe, like Papa?”
“Yes, silly, of course.”
“Am I Yanadi tribe too?”
“Yes, our whole family is from the same tribe. Everybody on Sriharikota Island.”
“Everybody? What about Adah?”
Guna laughed, his dimples showing. “I don’t think dogs can be Yanadi. It’s only for people.”
Jayamma was silent. “But my eyes? Maybe I’m not Yanadi tribe.” No one else had blue eyes like hers.
“Your eyes are gifts from the gods but you’re still Yanadi.”
Jayamma shivered. Guna was the only person she let stare at her eyes. She floated herself to him and dumped shells into his hands. Maybe Mama would cook them.
“You know when we sold Papa’s catch?”
“Yeah.” Guna threw a handful of sand that splashed like jumping minnows.
“Those people look different. They’re big and their hair is all black.”
“That’s the mainland.”
Jayamma pretended to understand what that meant.
“Are they Yanadi tribe?”
“No, baby sister, the Yanadis are on Sriharikota.”
Jayamma continued her search, walking her hands on the seafloor. She licked the salt on her lips and hummed.
Guna smiled at her. He stayed close today, maybe Mama told him to because of the fish traps. No matter, she was happy he was near and a giggle leaked from inside.
A breeze made ripples on the water. Jayamma sunk to her neck to stay warm.
Noisy pelican squawks made her jump. Nearby, the clumsy birds struggled to fly out of the sea.
Guna rose and stared toward the village. He froze. “Jay, I hear something.”
One look at her brother’s face and Jayamma stood also.
“Boats,” he whispered.
Her big brother could always see and hear things before Jayamma. A far-off buzzing carried on the breeze.
“I hear them too.”
Guna leaned toward Sriharikota. “There.” He pointed at a line of white boats headed from the mainland toward their home.
“What is it?” She slipped behind him.
Guna didn’t answer. He watched as more boats came into view. They’d never seen so many.
“Let’s go, Jay.” He headed for his shirt.
The water slowed her legs as Jayamma tried to run.
“I’m scared, Guna.”
Guna shoved a bamboo pole and the canoe lurched toward their family. Jayamma watched his wrinkled forehead and wished the dimples would come back.
The motorboats crossed the lagoon, then landed at the village. There were lots of men and it looked like they had guns.
“Who are they?” Her voice cracked. Tears ran down her cheeks and she pulled in a sob.
“Soldiers.” He worked at the pole.
About halfway to the village, Guna stopped. “Get down.” He let the pole drag in the water. “Hide, Jayamma.”
Jayamma lay on the rough wood and whimpered. “I want to go to Mama.”
“I know but wait.” He squatted next to her and kept his sights on the village.
Small waves smacked the side of the canoe and rocked them too fast to be a comfort. Guna watched the soldiers.
Jayamma tried to stop crying. What about Mama and Papa? And Adah?
“They’re making them get into the boats.”
Jayamma peaked over the side. Men in uniforms sent villagers to the boats. Women and children cried while the soldiers yelled orders. Jayamma trembled and melted to the bottom of the bark canoe.
“We have to go away. Your eyes, Jay. We have to hide.” Guna turned the canoe back toward Snail Island.
“Why do they want my eyes?”
He didn’t answer.
“The soldiers might want to sell you because you have beautiful eyes.” Guna’s breath came in gasps.
Jayamma let out a wail. “I want Mama.” She covered her eyes as if any light would melt them away.
Guna worked and panted.
He stopped again and the tiny boat drifted. Jayamma couldn’t help crying like a hurt puppy.
“Yes, Jay, maybe you’re right. We can’t stay out here by ourselves.”
Guna’s shoulders slumped. He worked the canoe back toward the shouting at the village.
Jayamma got control of her wailing but not the shaking. Her heart pounded like the soothsayer’s drum. The terrible things got closer—people running, guns pointing at boats. Some villagers carried baskets, others held live chickens upside down by the feet.
An argument broke out on the beach. A woman, it was Mama running toward their canoe.
A soldier caught Mama by the waist and roughly put her into the closest boat.
“My children, my babies,” Mama shrieked at the top her lungs, her arms reaching.
Jayamma had never been so scared. She needed Mama but the army men and the screaming made her want to run away.
Guna continued poling and tears carved a path through the salt on his cheeks.
The soldier shouted at Mama then marched to the place where Guna landed the canoe.
He shouldered his black gun, caught Jayamma in one arm, and carried her. She kicked and covered her eyes, too scared to scream.
He’s going to sell my eyes.
Fear took over her body. She couldn’t listen to the soldier as he passed her into the arms of her crying mother.
“Thank you, thank you. May the gods bless you.” Mama said between sobs. “Oh, my baby.” She squeezed Jayamma and wouldn’t let go. Blood dripped from Mama’s hand.
Guna climbed into the boat and wrapped his arms around his sister and mother.
Orders were shouted and the tall men pushed the boats into deeper water. The village was empty except for barking dogs and smashed huts. One by one, cords were pulled, the engines growled to life, and they left white trails behind the boats.
The roar of the motor was the loudest, scariest sound Jayamma had ever heard. She pulled herself into a ball.
A soldier with a long mustache held his dark-red hat against his head as he drove. Jayamma buried her eyes in Mama’s sari.
Where is Papa? and Adah?
After a while, the sobs finally left her empty. “Where are we going?” she shouted through her flying hair.
Maybe Mama couldn’t hear over the motor because she only pulled Jayamma’s head against her lap again.
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