It was then that I heard it. A sound I will never forget: the quacking of ducks. We were in the desert – Arya beside me, the owner chewing on a gob of betel nut – and yet the sound was as clear as if I were standing on the edge of a lake. I’d heard of inland seas, and pools that spring silently in secret, forgotten ways. And even in my weakness I imagined standing on its shore. The ducks rising, the flap of their wings. I imagined them gliding along on the unruffled waters. And yet it was the sound – their quacking – that gave me hope. That stilled my sorrow. And I knew then that this suffering – this dumb and gleaming suffering – wouldn’t be the only language with which we’d speak.
Arya had moved quickly in front of me, her face defiant with hunger, and said, “Anything.”
They’d disappeared behind the screen, to the back of the restaurant. It was strange, how intently I watched that screen. I don’t know why; it was so ordinary. Just woven jute that was quite battered and faded from the sun. And yet it held my attention with such force that I nearly knelt in front of it with a keen and baffled reverence. A small hole, punched into the top right hand corner and no larger than a mango, was particularly captivating. How did it get there? Maybe rats had chewed through it, but how could they have climbed so high? And to what end? The streaks of light that passed through it: was it the sun or an interior lamp? And how focused, that light, almost as if it were trying to indicate some truth, some error. But then I blinked, or something essential calmly passed before me, and the effect was gone. I couldn’t understand it. It was a plain old jute screen again, as it had always been, but I was so bereft I could’ve wept.
I stood there, unable to move, staring at that awful hole in the jute screen – the light now sickly, and quailed – when Arya returned. She held out four roti and some day-old cactus curry to me. Her hands were steady but mine, when I reached for the food, were trembling.
We lost the rest of the money soon after the bundle. We’d kept moving. We heard from others on the road to Mirpur Khas that riots had destroyed most of Jaisalmer, and very likely our hut on the outskirts of town had been burned to the ground. I cried when I heard this; Arya didn’t even wince. At a crossing I suggested buying chapals but she said no. “What will we eat if we waste money on chapals?” she’d asked, picking out the tiny grains of sand and pebbles lodged in the cracks of her heels. So we kept walking.
On the morning of the third day a lorry pulled over on the side of the road in front of us. The driver, thin, wiry, eyes bloodshot from driving through the night, face and hair gritty and browned by the sun, slid his eyes over Arya and offered us a ride to the border, still a week’s walk away. His name was Mohammed. “No, no, no,” he protested when we declined, his mouth red and seeping with betel nut, “How can I allow my sister to walk all that way. She is too delicate, nah?” He nudged me, smiling, and I smiled back though I knew he was mocking me. Arya glanced at me nervously. When we had a moment alone she whispered, “But we don’t even know him. What if he leaves us at the side of the road?”
“We won’t be any worse off than we are now. Besides,” I said, “I’ll protect you.” She bent her head and I knew she was thinking of the forty rupees. We could’ve taken a bus with that money – neither one of us had ever been on one – or maybe even a train. I squeezed her hand as Mohammed urged us onto the seat beside him, smacking my shoulder jovially and chattering about the hordes of other refugees he’d seen crossing into Pakistan. “But none as unblemished as your fruit,” he said, winking.
I helped Arya into the cab of the lorry even as my stomach tightened with a strange and gnawing hunger. I ignored it and for the first few hours we bumped along, the desert scrubs and sangri trees whizzing by. I’d never seen the desert in this way – seated high up in a lorry, the glass windshield between us. How different it looked. When we walked the desert seemed to unfold endlessly, and devouringly, like a bolt of cloth unfurling in all directions that the slightest wind raised and flapped like the sides of a tent. And though it was overwhelming it was also oddly intimate. As if – even as we walked – we were a set of pins holding down the sides of this tent. But in the lorry it was merely a painting. It passed before us, and along us, and though the speed was exhilarating, I hardly recognized it. I tried to focus on something specific – a jojoba or khejri tree, a distant camel – but we were going so fast that it was instantly lost.
Once, when we slowed, I saw a red fox with a hare hanging limp in its mouth, drops of blood like a necklace on the sand. I pointed to it but Arya’s eyes were closed. Occasionally we passed clumps of people on the road, bundles and small children balanced atop their heads or tucked under their arms. I was watching a crowd of a dozen or so villagers, heading deeper into the Indian side, when Mohammed pulled over. It was nearing twilight. A blue and steady darkness crept behind us, blanketing the dunes and the sprinkle of shrubs and a distant clump of trees in shadow. I felt envy for that shadowed stillness, rooted as it was, and always would be, unaware of our passing.
The lorry came to a complete stop. Arya blinked her eyes open. We got out to stretch our legs. Mohammed took me aside. “Listen, bhai,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Arya. “We’re running low on petrol. Maybe you could help out, seeing as I’m driving you all that way for free.” He seemed to be studying the horizon as he spoke, as if he were reading something that was written there. I watched him, felt the eighteen rupees hidden in my dhoti; the gnawing in my stomach returned. Arya had gone off into the bushes, the top of her head darker than the darkening shrub. The desert stretched in every direction, shivering and forlorn under the deepening sky.
We both looked down the length of road, barely visible now except a thin white mist that crept silently along its edges. He shuffled his feet. “Fifteen will do,” he said finally.
“Where will we get petrol this time of night?”
“There’s a station not far from here.” He climbed into the lorry and pulled out a bag of stunted potatoes pocked and nibbled through by rats. “Here,” he said, holding them out to me, “Have her make these. I’ll be back with roti.”
I handed him the fifteen rupees, thinking if we could just get to the border I’d be certain to find work; we were Muslim, and we’d be in Pakistan, after all. He stuffed the notes into his shirt pocket, started up the lorry, and kicked up a cloud of dust in his wake. As soon as Mohammed started the engine Arya ran over to me from where she’d been waiting, in the dark beyond the headlights, too far for her to hear. “Where’s he going?” she cried.
“To get petrol. Look what he gave us,” I said, holding out the bag of rotting potatoes.
Her mouth twisted then in an ugly way. “You fool,” she said coldly, turning her back to me, “He’s never coming back.”
She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night. And though I laughed at her pout, in the end she was right: he never did.