By Shobha Rao
My wife comes into the room, shutting out the sun as she closes the door, and lays the wad of bills on the table in front of me. I can’t look at her. I want to feel shame but I only feel a thin pleasure, like a fine layer of skin, puckered and white and soulless, floating on cooling milk. On another shore, perhaps, the desert has an ashen end; forests grow without fuss. On that shore poverty doesn’t have an animal stink. And when we touch the face of another, we draw onto their skin a moonlit path, and not the metallic rust of our weakness and our fear. But on this shore, on this morning, there is only money.
If someone had told me the story of my life, when I was a child, I wouldn’t have believed them.
She walks to the other end of the hut and lies down on the reed pallet, turned to the wall and silent, not even bothering with the blanket, as if she means to die like a wild animal. But at the sight of her hips desire floods me – not love, not any longer; that is simply a feeling that we walk off and forget at the side of the road, remembering it only hours later, and wondering – because we have come too far – at the lightness of our load.
The first of our money was stolen just after we left Jaisalmer. We were barely two days out but I could already see the row after row of mango trees waiting for us in Mirpur Khas, heavy and sagging with fruit. “It’s harvest time,” Ram had said, “They’ll need workers bad, no telling how much they’ll pay per bushel.” But even as he’d said it he’d looked sidelong at Arya, bent low over the cooking fire, and I knew he was no longer thinking of the kind of mangoes that grow on trees. Still he was kind enough: he gave me a month’s wages for the journey, along with the name of a friend of his who owned an orchard. I’d tucked the money into a rusted Bournvita tin, forty rupees in all, along with the name of the orchard owner, and then wrapped it tightly in Arya’s red woolen shawl. The first night I slept with the bundle under my head; the jasmine-scented coconut oil Arya used in her hair was a lullaby, and I dreamt the most beautiful dreams. In one I was standing under a waterfall, laughing, my eyes narrowed, trying to distinguish between the water and the tiny sparrows that fluttered everywhere. It was almost as if the water, as soon as it hit my body, was turning into birds, their wings warm and quivering and soundless.
Then I woke and the money was gone. We’d gotten off the main road at nightfall and had found a sheltered spot under a grove of sangri trees. I’d lain awake most of the night listening to the desert sounds – the slither of lizards and snakes and the scurry of a few roaming gazelles – but I must’ve fallen into a deep sleep in the early morning hours. When I woke at daybreak the entire bundle was gone along with the chapals I’d placed in the hollow of a nearby tree. We had nothing left except the eighteen rupees I’d folded into the tail of my dhoti. And we had at least two or three weeks’ journey remaining to get to Mirpur Khas; now we’d have to do it barefoot.
I’d searched for the bundle: I’d left Arya crying as I climbed and slipped across the endless sand dunes. I knew the forty rupees would be gone, certainly, but maybe they’d thrown off the shawl or the chapals, cracked as they were, the soles full of holes. I walked for a kilometer or two in either direction, scanning the dunes. I even looked inside foxholes and in the branches of scrubs. Nothing.
It was when I returned later that morning that Arya had pointed at the ground. “Look,” she’d said, indicating a scatter of footprints near the area where we’d slept. “We know they’re not ours. These people had shoes.”
I looked at her. It was the first time since we’d been married – barely six months ago – that she’d spoken to me with such distaste. We’d not once quarreled in all that time. Nor had she ever looked at me like she looked at me then: her eyes shadowed, disappointed, full of fire and sadness, and something I cannot describe, maybe the ache of being without shoes, in the desert, her husband poor and useless, drawn by the jasmine-scented dream she did not have.
She turned and walked away from me. Towards what, I wondered. Yet I didn’t call out. The wind pushed the lilac fabric of her shalwar tight against her body. The round of her hips, the gentle curve of her back made me shudder. I watched as she scrambled up a particularly steep sand dune, her chunni fluttering behind her like a torn sail, her arms outstretched to keep balance. And it was these arms; I seemed to be seeing them for the first time. Thin, almost twigs, balancing so bravely against the force of wind and sand and steepness. Angling to right themselves, pushing forward. The sleeve of her shalwar reaching just past her elbows and the brown of her forearm emerging as smooth as a new branch. Flowers have sprouted from less.
But then she fell. Arms first. She rolled down a ways, stopped, gathered her chunni around her shoulders, pulled her knees to her chest in the trampled sand and simply sat there, with no expression on her face. I watched her for a moment but she didn’t move, as if she was determined to be as indelible and piercing as the line of ridge above her.
I thought then of our wedding night and how, when she’d entered the hut, she’d stood shyly in the shadows until I’d coaxed her into the candlelight. She hadn’t looked up until I took her chin in my hand and only then had she raised her eyes to me. She’d seemed a wisp of a girl, no more than a fledgling bird, and I’d been overcome with the thought that she was mine – this golden, candlelit face, these firm, ample breasts, and this dizzying fragility, so sweet and untouched.
She’s lying on the reed pallet. The hut is dark though the sun must’ve crept higher, no doubt slithering past the thatched roof. We’d found it abandoned a few days ago – one of so many huts abandoned during the riots, left for fear of being trapped inside, the smell of burning flesh always in the air, a reminder to keep moving – all the pots and pans and mats and even some clothes were left behind. But we have decided to stay. The location is ideal: the lorries stop just a few yards away. It is a way station for the drivers. They sleep in the cabs of their lorries and eat and wash at the collapsing shack nearby called Arun’s Restaurant and Bar; a clearing of littered and drifting dirt with a few orange plastic tables scattered here and there. When we reached Arun’s we could barely walk. We hadn’t eaten for three days. Hadn’t drunk a drop of water in two. I had none left for sweat, my feet dragged along the dirt. I begged the owner for some water, food. A morsel. Anything. He’d looked at Arya – his eyes indifferent, his teeth rotting and green near the gum line, the hairs on his ears thick as wiring – and said, “Anything?”
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.
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.