We’ve been in the hut by Arun’s Restaurant and Bar for five weeks now. I’ve grown almost fond of the low shack, hung with faded film posters and braided ropes of drying chillies. Sometimes I sit outside and order chai. I drink it slowly, under a khejri tree barely taller than me, watching the lorries come and go on the highway. The spattering of plastic orange chairs and tables in the courtyard – dusty and yellowed with sand – along with the withered grasses lining the road, are somehow comforting. They are familiar to me in a way that nothing else is; even the desert, though I’ve spent my whole life in its midst, has become a strange place. Its immensity aggravates everything, even the milk in my tea; the khejri tree, and the thin distant line of the horizon, convulse with each passing lorry.
Still I wait, the afternoons drifting through my fingers like sand.
“Let’s stay here,” Arya had said, “just until we have enough money to hire a bullock cart.” We’ve had enough money to do that for some time now. Then we decided to stay just long enough to have money to take the bus. Safer and quicker than the bullock cart, Arya had reasoned. They wouldn’t torch a bus full of people, she’d said. But now we’ve decided to stay until we have just enough money for a few nights lodging in Mirpur Khas. Just enough money, she keeps saying, just enough. I sometimes wonder – during the long hours alone in this hut or in the courtyard of Arun’s – how much, exactly, that is. And how much it’s already been.
She has a routine. She’ll go out towards twilight, when the lorry drivers begin to pull into Arun’s for the night. From the hut I can hear the rumble of their engines, the squeal of their brakes. I hear the slam of their carriage doors and I get that same gnawing in my stomach. It is a tightening so severe that my eyes water. I vomit bile. On some nights the pain is so bad that I sit near the latrines, out behind Arun’s – the stench of urine combats the pain – and listen for the quacking of the ducks. That’s the direction the sound had come from that first night. I’ve never heard it again but I’ve grown used to the scent of urine, so thick I can practically chew it like cud.
She comes back at daybreak and sleeps. She sleeps so long sometimes I think she’ll never wake up.
That’s when I watch her. Her breath steams the air between us. And her hips rise and fall, rise and fall. This morning I leave the wad of bills on the table and go towards her. But before I even reach her I smell the stink of other men. It’s in her hair, under her fingernails. It is a wall, an ocean; it is a country I cannot cross. I want her more in that moment than I ever have before.
A week or so ago a car came along with two women and a driver. It was late in the evening. The desert around us lost in darkness. I was in the latrine behind Arun’s. They stopped for tea and one of the women – short, with a slight limp, I could only see her silhouette in the dim starlight – began talking to someone wedged deeper in the darkness. It was Arya.
They talked in muffled tones for a few minutes until the limping woman coaxed Arya towards their table. “How long?” she asked.
“A few weeks.”
The two women looked at each other. “You know he’s not coming back.”
“We have a camp,” the other woman said slowly, taller, her voice more tender, “It’s for women like you, refugees, whose husbands have left them. They’ll help you find your people.”
“Besides, how long can you do this,” the stout woman said, waving her hands vaguely towards the desert.
Arya turned her face. I saw it then in the half-light, angled towards a lorry that was pulling in. She looked at that lorry with such longing that even I thought she might be waiting for her husband to step down from it – hers, the one who’d once been brave, who’d once have stormed out from behind the latrines and called those women and their camp bukwaas.
There was a long silence. The khejri tree under which they sat swayed as if to speak.
“No, I’m staying here,” she finally said.
“But, beti,” the taller one began, “What’s left for you here? How long will you wait?”
Arya shrugged again. “As long as it takes,” she said. Then she rose and trailed off after the lorry that had just pulled in. The women watched her go, clucking their disapproval. The tall one said, with a sigh, “These girls. They think their men will save them.”
The short one laughed and the laugh rang through the desert quiet. “Pagals. They won’t ever come back for them.”
“Why didn’t you go to the camp?” I asked her the next morning.
I’d woken her up. I’d slammed pots and pans on the table. Pushed open the door of the hut. Sunlight streamed in and she blinked her eyes open, the irritation rising to her face after a moment of confusion.
“Close the door.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
“The door, you animal.” She threw her pillow towards it, trying to catch its side and swing it shut. She missed.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Go. With those women.”
She tossed away the blanket and gathered her hair in her hands. Then she pulled it into a knot at the top of her head. She stood up, shook out her clothes. I could see the rain of sand in the sunlight. She looked at the empty pots. “Didn’t you make tea?”
“You could’ve gotten away.”
She scoffed. She lifted a cup of water out of the vessel and drank it. “The least you could do is make tea,” she said.
“Maybe even make a new life for yourself.”
She threw the cup across the room. It struck the mud wall with a dull thud. Water streaked across the dirt floor; the steel cup gouged the opposite wall before clanging to the ground. Then it rolled towards me. I moved to pick it up. Arya turned and slumped into a chair. She bent her head, and I thought maybe she’d fallen asleep again, but after a long while she said, “Why bother? This one’s lonely enough.”
She’d cooked the rotting bag of potatoes and we’d eaten them. Then we’d slept together, huddled against the cold night air. When we woke, all those weeks ago, she’d looked at me sorrowfully and said, “Let’s go back home.”
“But why?” she’d asked, as if the answer would change.
I’d reached over and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. I smiled; at least she was talking to me. “How much do we have left?”
I untied the end of my dhoti. I held the coins out to show her. “Three rupees.”
“Let me have them.”
“Why?” I said, looking at the empty dunes around us, “There’s nothing to buy.”
“You’ll see,” she said, and walked off in the direction we’d come.
I waited for a few minutes. When she emerged again on the crest of a near sand dune she had a milkweed flower in her braid.
“Where’s the money?” I asked.
“I buried it,” she laughed. “We’ll dig it up on our way back.”
Our way back: how beautiful, that simple string of words. I looked past her; the honeyed scent of the milkweed drifting between us. I thought then that perhaps life would never again be as exquisite as it was in that moment. With that cool early morning breeze. Sunlight, shy and tremulous, reaching for the curved body before it. And my Arya, my nymph, her eyes so hopeful and alive, raised to my own. And not a paisa between us. As if – in the burying – she’d said, what need do we have for it? When we have each other?
For now I wander out towards Arun’s. It’s midday. The previous night’s lorries have gone. New ones will stop here tonight. Everyone is asleep. There’s no wind. I can almost hear the desert breathe. The rise and fall of its bosom. I can only walk in the shade and even then – even with the new chapals Arya bought for me – my feet burn from the heat of the sand. I settle against the side of the latrines, in an alcove protected from the sun.
I haven’t eaten in two days. I haven’t had a drop of water in over one. The sky above me twirls and spins. It is red and green and lilac and splinters like sparrows. I shut my eyes against its beauty.
I know the road to Mirpur Khas goes on for another 200 kilometers, and beyond that is Karachi, and beyond even that is the Arabian Sea. In Jaisalmer, they’d said, Go, they’ve made a new country for you. But all I can see is sand. And the only borders I know are the ones between our hearts.
I want to be hungry again. I want to arrive again at Arun’s, like we did all those weeks ago. I want to be just as hungry, just as thirsty. I want to look into his indifferent face and I want him to ask again, “Anything?”
And this time I will step forward. Me. Not Arya. And this time, I will say, “Anything, except her.”
The alcove too is now filled with light. My eyes blur with heat and tears. I see Arya, though how could it be? She’s asleep. And yet she’s bending over me and asking, over and over again, “Why? Why are you sitting here?” And then she draws her hand towards me and cries, “You’re burning up, you fool. You’re raging with fever. Come inside.”
But I catch her arm. It’s smooth and cool like alabaster. I want to cry into it, I want it to carry me, but instead I say, “Don’t you hear them?”
She tugs. “Come inside.”
I tilt my head towards the sky. “The ducks, of course.”
She listens for a moment. Her eyes brim with tears, or maybe mine do. She lifts my chin as I’d once lifted hers. “Yes,” she says finally, almost in a whisper, “Yes. I hear them.”
Shobha Rao is currently a student of fiction in the Master of Fine Arts program at San Francisco State University. Her work has been published by Gorilla Press and in the anthology Building Bridges. In 2013, she was awarded the Gita Specker First Place Award for Best Dramatic Monologue by the San Francisco Browning Society.
This piece also appears in the second issue of the Australia-based literary magazine Tincture Journal, published on May 15.
Artwork by Aiez Mirza.