Heaven's Edge

Acclaimed Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera's new book 'Heaven's Edge' has just been released in the UK by Bloomesbury, (hardcover edition UK pounds 16.99). Gunesekera's earlier books 'Monkfish Moon', 'Reef', the Booker Prize shortlisted novel and 'The Sandglass' are all woven around the island where he grew up. He now makes his home in London.

'Heaven's Edge' is the poignant story of Marc, a young man in search of his identity. He leaves his home in London for the island where his grandfather grew up and where his father's plane was shot down in flames.

In the war-ravaged land Marc meets the enigmatic Uva and their troubled love story unfolds amidst a trail of death and destruction.....

Today, The Sunday Times publishes an extract of 'Heaven's Edge' by special arrangement with Bloomesbury. The book is available at a special price of Rs. 899/- at Vijitha Yapa Bookshop.

"The next day I was impatient to get back to the duckweed pond. I wanted to hear what else she could tell me. Or already, perhaps, I just wanted to be with her. I couldn't be sure she'd return; my only hope was to be there at the same time as before.

After the usual bland lunch at the hotel, I set off back into a world of field glasses and feathers. The sun was piercing, but I didn't care.

When I reached the pond, I noticed the water was rimmed with scum. A small lily had opened near where we had stood the day before. It had some colour: a tinge of red on the lower petals. The weeds on the bank also seemed a little darker. I tried to locate the tree that her birds had flown to, but there were no fruits to be seen anywhere.
There were no clouds, no wind. The heat seemed more severe than before. I sat in the shade to wait. I had a flask of drinking water with me this time, but it didn't help. There was not much I could do to relieve the burning I felt inside.

I tried again to meditate; to balance the heat inside and outside my body. I was close to a kind of equilibrium, when the thrashing of wings startled me. I twisted around. She stood there just as I had remembered her. A radiant face, her whole body held taut. Only her hair seemed a little more tousled. She had the same cage open; another dove was flapping in her hand. This time she was not surprised to see me.
'You disappeared,' I complained, rising up to my feet.

She lifted the bird up to her face and came close to me. 'So? You are back, no?' I wanted her to talk some more, yet I could say nothing to encourage her. I was worried I might blurt out something stupid again. I felt she was looking at me, assessing me, even while she soothed the bird. In her hair I noticed a scrap of yellow. As I reached to remove the leaf, it unfolded into a small butterfly and fluttered towards the water.

She shrank back. 'What are you doing?'
'Nothing,' I said. 'I thought there was something stuck.' My hand felt detached. It floated between us. A stick in limbo. I pictured my father meeting my mother somewhere on the coast of this same island. What did he say standing in the sand?
'Why have you come?' she asked.
I couldn't tell her it was because of some old home video. I couldn't even say that it was because I wanted to see her again.
"There's nothing left here, you know?"
'What about those?' I nodded at her cage.
She sighed and seemed to relax a little. 'The birds?'
'Where are they from?'
'My ashram.' She paused.
I told her that there were ashrams where I came from too, but they were meant for people stressed out by city life.
'Your city?'
'London.' I hesitated.

She nodded with a small grimace as though I had said enough for her to imagine the rest. She then told me how her mother had wanted to create an ashram for all the birds of the air because she believed they were the souls of us all. Emerald doves were her favourites. 'Come, I'll show you a nest.' She took my hand in hers and led me towards the trees as though it was the most natural thing in the world to do.

I had never felt a touch like hers. Her skin was soft, yet the grip firm. I looked at her small hand; her fingers wrapped around the ends of mine. The knuckles were smooth. A greenish vein swelled on the back of her hand; her wrist was chafed where her bracelet had rubbed it. I could feel the life in her.

I curled my fingers to let the blood in them flow closer to hers. All along the forest path dark ferns genuflected as she brushed past. Noli-me-tangere, she said they were called. By an old mudbank she pointed out a litter of pigs she said she had released to the wild and, in the distance, her favourite trees. 'Over there, in the older jungle where nobody goes, is my farm.' She pressed her finger to my lips leaving me a crystalline trace to savour from the giddy whorls on her skin. 'Illegal. Nobody knows.' She nearly smiled again.

I was intrigued. She didn't say any more about it; I could see she wasn't ready to take me there yet.

She let go of me and used both her hands to clear a way through the bushes. I smothered her small sandal marks with my larger treads, watching the curve of her neck as she bent her head to go under some branches. I had to stoop lower to follow her. Her bare foot straightened, ahead of me, as she stood on tiptoe to climb over a fallen tree trunk. The bone of her brown ankle peeped from under the denim as she lifted her leg over. 'Come on, this way,' she urged.

Then, in a clump of straw saplings, she uncovered a secret woven nest for me. 'This is one of the halfway houses.' She blew a small blue fluffy feather up into the air; there was nothing else in it. She explained that it was where she nursed the birds who were slow to regain their foraging instincts. Pulling the branches back over the nest, she concealed it as before. Further on, underneath the ironwood tree, she found the corpse of one which had come to grief. She picked up the little sunbird and folded in its wings. Her face dipped, solemn but not tearful. 'Oh-oh,' she clucked like someone who had grown too fast into the world. 'It is not easy for them, you know, to learn to be free.'

I felt a tingle run down my spine. I had come to learn too. Perhaps the eroded coast I had reached was, after all, the right place to start on this island. Watching her bury the bird under a small mound of leaves I wondered, was this the person who could show me what I really needed to know?

She covered our tracks and dusted her hands, looking around thoughtfully. Then she turned to me and said it was time to take me back. 'The path can be tricky, you know, when it gets dark. Sometimes the night patrols are trigger-happy.'

I wasn't sure whether I should hold her hand again. I swung mine close as we sauntered out into the open, but she seemed too busy thinking about military manoeuvres to notice.

When we reached the edge of the village, she said, 'I must go now.' 'When can I see you again?' I asked.

'Tomorrow. Same place, the same time again. I have lots more birds to bring.' She looked up at the darkened sky above me, filling it with wings. A nervous quiver ran down her throat. In my mind I turned it to that laugh from the previous day, still hovering inside her, waiting to break free."

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