It is only when the sun goes down that the house feels alive. Even her solitude glows like the lamp high on a plank on the wall, its light teasing a crisscross of twigs yearning for a spark in the fire pit. And when that yearning approaches fulfilment, suffusing loneliness with apprehension, cornstalks crackle in protest, their husks double up in pain and the singed tips bloody the rim – the fire gets lit, the smoke swirls around the rice pot and a cold breeze drifts in.
If his gaze so desires, it too can wander in through the window dotted with rectangular slits. The bottom half of the window, taken apart years ago to let more light in, would easily allow his hand in, proposing a touch, a caress that might render the bottle on the sill redundant, the bottle that brings her alcohol, batare, wringing away monotony, like him.
He sits on the deck, facing away. The evening is generous, radiating from his thin body as if he embodies it. Now and then he gets up, crouches under the eaves, walks to the edge of the courtyard and stares into the fog below. Things have been quiet for a long while now, but even silhouettes can be threatening, deceptive. He remains alert – or is just impatient, as he claimed to her. He is early.
‘We brought you these.’ He lifts up a black polythene bag as she appears on the doorstep. A pair of maroon slippers. ‘For your delicious cooking,’ he adds.
In the last three days as he dined at her house, he never once commented on her cooking. He did not have to; she knows he likes it. But what she would really like to know is why he’s giving her the slippers, even though he knows that she prefers walking barefoot, sure of the earth beneath. Is this then a gift disguised as a reward for her culinary skills? An attempt to cross the line, test the murky waters of their relationship? How long should they continue the pretence that nothing is going on?
‘What I’m doing is my part,’ she says, sitting down at the stoop with a plate of mustard greens and the slippers between them. She keeps the divide thin but clear, prolonging the pretence.
‘We don’t have to talk about the war,’ he says.
‘What else can we talk about? The slippers?’
‘Yes, why not?’ he asks. This will not be the last time they will talk about not talking about the war. They both know it. The war is what brought them together, the war he fights and she cooks for.
She begins to chop the greens. ‘Because I don’t understand the war.’
‘Do you understand inequality?’
‘What do you lack?’
This was meant to be an innocent question, just something to keep the conversation going, but he leaps up in response, his hands shaking in disbelief. It is unbelievable how young and vulnerable he looks right now. The light from behind her, weak as if from fighting the walls to reach him, dampens any sign of his ageing. Far behind the outline of the hills curves on either side of him. As if knowing that these twilight-sketched wings will never take off, a strand of grass dangling from the eaves gently touches him, and he brushes it aside.
She wants to comfort him, show him that she cares. Perhaps, she could find him a clean t-shirt, or wash the one that he has been wearing for the last three days. But would not that be crossing the line of pretence? A bit too intimate? Or would it be offensive, as if a used, clean t-shirt were in exchange for the pair of new slippers? A pair, she realises, for the first time, of the same kind he has on at the moment. Her heart warms at the sight. This is what she admires in him: the transparency of his feelings, the overreaction at the suspicion that she would not know what he desires. But she does know: Freedom is the state he wants to build. Freedom not to have to run away.
She would like to hold him, ask him why not the freedom to enjoy conversations on subjects other than these abstractions. Instead, she continues, ‘Why risk life over something you cannot control?’ and he immediately shoots back, ‘Why pray?’
She turns away, unable to face him anymore, especially when he keeps failing to read her. At least this way they can be one in the object they both now stare at: a picture of a god on the lower plank. But the red powder flecks on the glass frame and the reflection of the prayer lamp aside, with him behind her she cannot focus. She feels weak, imagining him staring at her, without her being able to counter that look and diffuse it. Instead, her eyes dart around. Everything is tilted: the plank the god rests on, the oil in a bottle, the basket on the table, the stone legs of the table, the pitcher on the floor, the floor in dim red all the way up to her … And he still agitated and now pacing the length of the courtyard, as always.
Perhaps she should have talked about the slippers. Maybe they are too tight and he will try to force her feet through, stroking, as he does so, the dales on her heels, tracing the lands he has missed. She too would like to change fate but a wish is all she wants it to remain, never a torment. Why wish and let the wish dominate you? Why torture yourself over ‘what if’? What if she had not been born in the hills? If she wants ainselu berries and the sprig sways with the wind, she has to sway along.
The greens that she’s chopping fall and unfurl like dying caterpillars. The rice from inside the kitchen hiccups: Remember me. Bhukluk, bhuk luk. Hide, hunger, hide.
The hunger will retreat, eventually, but what about the turmoil in their hearts? Will pacing the courtyard or chopping greens so meticulously help?
They both know neither will. Yet, she is back beside the hearth, trying to concentrate on the curry while he passes in and out of the window frame. Soon, the fenugreek seeds scorch and replace the smell of the oil with their own. And as he walks up to the tap, he knocks a bowl on the way, sending it clanging as it swivels around on the stone slab. She drowns out this sound with the protest of the mustard greens sizzling in the oil. A little stirring and the greenness settles into the oil. The oil reciprocates, softening the leaves, wilting the stalks. Outside, water flows from the unscrewed pipe and she hears him washing his face: the splashes of a pacified heart.
One of them has to be stronger. Sharing spaces and evenings are not enough. Soon, he will leave too, in search of his freedom. She cannot wait if she wants more than she has now. She must not be scared; incredible events are taking place, so incredible they humble her. Like the end of war. Like her friend, Kanchhi’s return. Let that be the excuse. At just 27, she feels parched. Why should she stay so? Her mother-in-law will understand; the friend has to. One does not stop loving; one conveniently forgets. What harm can come of appreciating a gift, or being desired by a guest?
The mustard green is done. Let him in.
Yes, why be scared? Let him in.
This is an excerpt from a novel in progress.
~ Weena Pun is an assistant editor at Himal Southasian.