I was with him- somewhere in Pakistan – for almost two years. I sat in that darkened hut, watching the pattern of the sunlight as it slithered from one end of the room to the other, and waited. In the beginning I was sure someone would come for me. That they would find me locked up in that hut and take me away from him. But no one came. The days crept by: he’d force himself on me every night, he’d sleep, I’d lie awake, he’d go away in the morning, I’d watch the light seep from the room, he’d return in the evening with four roti he’d bought for my dinner and my next day’s breakfast, and then he’d take me again. My days were quiet. I’d stopped crying after the first month or two. The dark of the hut, the frail shafts of light, became more familiar to me than even my parent’s faces.How could it not: every night he killed them again.
He told me, when he first brought me here, that no one would ever come for me. He’d say, with great confidence, “You’re probably assumed dead. All the Hindu girls in your village are, you know.”Then he’d padlock the door, force himself on me, and say, “You’re lucky I found you.” I don’t recall, for the first few months, having ever really looked at him. But then his pockmarked face began to slowly form itself in my mind; his breath on my neck was sometimes sweet and heavy with hashish, sometimes rancid with tobacco and rotten meat.His eyes were dark, with heavy eyelids and thick eyebrows, the whites of them clear in the mornings but smoky and yellowed in the evenings. He had a thin, straggling beard – perhaps from his face being scarred – and once, when he came home, a bit of food was stuck in the hairs. It startled me – in a way that nothing has startled me since – that I reached out and plucked it from his beard. It seemed to startle him, too. It’d been many months since he’d brought me to the hut and the tenderness of the act, the utter decency of it, was like a sudden spell of rain: I no longer knew whether I belonged inside or outside that hut.
A month later I was pregnant.
On the night I went into labor the pain was so intense that I woke him in the middle of night and asked him calmly to get some help. He looked at me suspiciously but then I must’ve paled because he returned a few minutes later with an old, wizened woman. She was bent with age, and half blind because she kept screaming for light. “How do you expect me to deliver this baby with this useless little wick?” she grumbled, pointing at the one candle he placed beside her.
“You couldn’t see if the sun dropped out of your wrinkled old choot,” he said.
She seemed not to hear him. “Light, more light,” she shrieked again, “And more water.”
The pain continued until early morning. I was delirious with it. The pallet on which I lay was awash in blood. And the old lady was foul-tempered. She’d wipe down my brow and scuttle away to check the bleeding then emerge again to complain about being woken up in the middle of the night. “When I was young we didn’t wake the others just for this,” she’d hiss, her gnarled, leathery hands coming up like rain-drenched tree bark when she dipped them in the basin of water.When I whimpered with pain she peered into my face and laughed. “It’ll die, anyway,” she said, “I had thirteen myself. Only three lived. All that trouble for nothing.”Towards dawn there were a series of large contractions. The old woman bent low and whispered again but the pain blurred her voice. Only her breath reached me, moist and smelling of horse manure and wide, green meadows. I nearly fainted from the pain when, from a great distance, I heard a tiny cry. Yours.
The old woman wrapped you in a blanket and rested you on my chest. “Your Noora is healthy.”
“Noora?” I asked.
“That’s her name.”
“Noora, Noora” I repeated. I liked the sound, but I’d never heard that name before. “What does it mean?” I asked her.
She smiled for the first time and it was then that I realized she only had two teeth in her mouth. All that time with her – as she held my hand and bent over my face – and I’d just noticed. “Noora,” she said, still smiling though the smile didn’t reach her eyes, “means light.”
She turned and opened the door and it was the first time, since I’d been in the hut, that it was unlocked. She swung it wide and something like apology swept over her face. “One of them only lived for a day. A girl.” She paused and I thought she might sigh but she didn’t; she wasn’t a woman who sighed. “Smart, too,” she said, “She knew a day of this was more than enough.”