The man and the women arrived at the outskirts of the village just before dusk and pitched their tents. Three women and one man, two tents. They built a fire. It was a waning mountain summer and they wore sweaters and each a shawl which they looped around their head to keep the cold air from their ears. The women pressed dough flat between their palms and the man cut potatoes, singing a thin song to himself. When they ate it was with a hunger from a long day’s walking, they hardly let the food cool before they tore at it with their fingers and teeth. Far off, the white-headed peaks of the mountains blazed and grew dim. They went to their tents, the man to his, the women to theirs. As the man lay alone he imagined the women bundled warm, three tired bodies dozing in a pool of warmth. They were talking quietly, their voices too distant to make out what was said. When the wind picked up he could hear it slicing against his tent. Otherwise, it was a pure silence that was so unlike the stink and push of the city noise that it was still unnerving. Bunched under his blanket, he dreamt that he built a fire and tried to warm himself against it, but could not get warm. He stood nearer and nearer to the flame until, like Prahalaad he stood inside it, at the dead center. But the fire didn’t touch him, as though he were made of nothing so substantial that it could be burned or ever warmed. In the morning he woke early, before dawn, stiff, and made a fire for the women and brewed strong tea, no milk, but plenty of sugar. From his vantage he could see the village begin to stir awake, smoke rose from the tin-roofed houses as the women of the village began their morning preparations. He could imagine the faces of the villagers though he had never yet been to this village, the bright, clear eyes and crooked teeth. He could imagine the sallow faces of the sick, the dying children. They would be sluggish and unchildlike, as death had come and pinched their faces and made them old.
A woman came out of the tent and sat by the fire, Hema, and put her hands up to the fire as if examining her slender fingers. He poured tea into a tin cup and stirred sugar into it, she blew into the cup a few times and drank, his pulse becoming quick, and beating in his wrists. Though they had been travelling together for weeks, it was the first time they were alone together. And Hema, when he returned each day again and again to her face, he had brushed against the edge of her glance in return.
“I never told you this,” said Hema. “I have a brother.”
“You look so much like him. Even—the expression on your face.”
Feeling crushed, but he persisted. “And where is he?”
“Dead in the war,” said Hema.
He fumbled for something to say, looking still at the fire that hissed and sparked and spat ash.
“It’s alright,” she said, and smiled at him. She had a good smile that balanced her face, at rest it looked off-kilter, her forehead too wide, her nose too pointed, her round cheeks. Her skin was pale and was dry on the cheeks and her lips were chapped. He put his hands to his own cheeks and found them rough, he would need a shave. “Look,” he said. “The sun’s coming up.”
The other women came out of the tent, and together they went about making breakfast while the man shaved. Their movements wasted nothing and showed none of the clumsy slowness of morning. When they had eaten and dressed they put on their masks and climbed up the hill to the village. Chickens scratching in the village but it was empty, except for a child playing by an old oil drum, long empty and rusted, with a stick in each hand. His game was focused and serious. He handled the sticks like dolls and balanced them on the lip of the oil drum.
“Hello young man,” called Hema, waving and smiling at the child. He looked startled to be pulled out of his serious play, and startled to be confronted by the masked faces of strangers. But young enough to accept their faces as a matter of course, to add them to the long list of all he didn’t yet understand.
“Do you live here?”
He approached them with naked curiosity. She spoke his tongue in a way he had never heard before, there was a sharpness and precision to her speech.
“Is there sickness here?”
He found his voice. “Do you have a face?”
“Yes,” she said. She lifted her mask for a second and let him peek underneath. He could see her brown lips and cheeks and was satisfied. “Is there sickness here?”
“Yes,” said the boy.
The huts were warm and close and each had at least one cot where a person lay sweating, sleeping shallowly or dimly awake, hallucinating in the dark room and speaking to these ghosts, pleading with them, to be left in peace. In some huts there were more than one felled by the disease and they had to share the cot or one was put on a rug on the floor. If they ate or drank anything they would vomit, but if they were denied they begged and begged for a taste—just a taste of water. When the water was given they would greedily drink from the plastic cup, and for a moment the face would hold a look of radiant satisfaction before the vomiting began. In this village there was only one child who was not sick. The others were dying, or dead, like the elderly, who had died quickly. Adults, too, though the illness passed over most of them, and left them alive, but weak, yellowed like old newspaper.
Hema drew blood from the child who had been spared. There was a prick in his arm and then the empty tube filled with red. She let him hold the tube in his hands after she had sealed it—it was warm. His head felt untethered, as though it might float away. He wanted to run and show his mother the little tube, his mother who had been so sad, even his sister who lay sweating on the bed. But the woman made him sit down and gave him a biscuit, and took away the tube.
“How old are you?”
“Seven,” he said, though he was only six, and looked closely at her face—her eyes— to see if she believed him. Her eyes were smiling. But he wondered if she would be able to tell, like his mother, that he had been eating mud. Perhaps there was some invisible and telling mark on him, that his mother received even when he rinsed his mouth before he returned home to her. In earlier days he ate mud for the mystery of it: the cool, secret taste, wet and spiked with mineral, something like salt in the dirt, clayish and dark brown, almost black. The mystery was the mud and his mother, who saw the crime, somehow, the moment it was committed, as she worked in the fields or at home preparing supper, her unerring eye always fixed on her son, dismissing his protestations of innocence outright, acting on something more certain than instinct: pure fact gleaned from a mother’s secret source. As humiliated as he was at his punishment—often supper eaten alone after everyone else had finished—he felt the wideness of his afternoons comfortingly narrowed by her watchfulness, the world ordered by the rules she set for him.
Now he ate mud so his mother would look at him, even if it were to scold him. He ate mud freely, at first relishing his freedom, then, anxious in it. The channels he took to reach his mother had been blocked, his goodness and his evil. Was it that she had lost the ability to see his crimes as they happened? Or was it that they no longer mattered? He wanted to see it come over her face when she looked at him, just once, and just for a second. To wince under the shadow of her upraised hand; poised, and fully intending to strike, but able to communicate enough menace without ever touching his cheek.
He could think of his mother laughing. Her lip pulled up to show her disordered teeth. She cupped his face in her hands, not angry, or sad, but laughing in some mischief he had accomplished. Not mud, nothing would bring it. His mother.
His mother was with the man in the hut as he examined the sick girl. She watched as he put cold metal to the chest and listened to her heartbeat, and pulled open her eyes with his gloved fingertips. His movements were neither rough nor gentle, but they were calm and seemed practiced. She asked him again and again what had happened to her girl, but he wouldn’t tell her, he didn’t know. He could do nothing more than ease her suffering. She was just four, willful thing, talkative and boyish, curious about lizards and little snakes, stubborn with her mother. She would hardly sit still to let her comb her hair. But with her brother she showed an absolute fidelity to his word and command. Once the mother had found the girl readying herself to jump off the roof of the schoolhouse, where the children had their lessons on sunny days, convinced by her brother she would fly. Disaster averted, as she slapped the girl and her brother and then held them both in her arms, but a new disaster had come, nuclear and sparing no one, no one except her own son. Her girl was dying, and her boy would live. Was she supposed to feel gratitude? Her parents far-off in another village, her husband gone to work in the city, her in-laws senile, needing the same care as children, her neighbors absorbed in the task of grief, or the preparations of it, funerals daily blacking the air of the village.
Once she had walked to the field from her father’s village, alone, early in the morning, with a song bursting out of her, cooling as it left her lips in the bright, cold air. She had thought of nothing: not her future marriage, the fate of her unborn children, her own boredom in the evenings of her impending life, as she prepared the family’s dinner. Thought of only the small dirt path and the hills and trees and her own aloneness, felt herself moving in the landscape as though she were an integral part, felt the pleasure of the earth to have her move upon it, felt the pleasure of her body’s own untrammeled energy, the joy of its own movement. Where was she—that girl? With grief for the girl who marched to her work singing in the cold, though not yet for the girl who lay dying on the bed. Looking at the sick girl was like standing at a precipice and looking down with both feet still standing solidly on earth. The height, the vertiginous drop, the sharp rocks softened by green. What would it be like to fall? The body doesn’t know until it falls.
The girl saw colors. They blurred together, as if someone had picked her and spun, spun, spun. A man with a mouth stopped up by the moon, who frightened her, prying her eyes open with plastic hands. Then she was rocked in the topmost boughs of a tree. There was a meal spread on the ground which she could smell from the tree: sweets and cakes she had only seen on TV, and fritters and bread and cheese curry, and a bowl of sweet cream and another of cool water. She beat against the tree, her arms and legs against it because she couldn’t bear her hunger and her thirst, desperately, with a wild animal energy she never knew she had. But the tree held fast, like a person would, holding her tight around the waist. She was snarling and pleading with the tree to let go, cruel tree, evil tree. Then it loosed her, she slipping from the tangled branches, and falling, falling, buffeted by gentle wind, never touching ground.
The man could see the rapid movement of her eyes inside the lids and knew that the end was coming. Her limbs twitched. He held her wrist in his hand, helpless. But it was too everyday, and by now, he could not manage to mourn her. He set her arm down gently excused himself and left the hut, stepping out into the expanding morning. The sky was white, the light diffuse and blinding as it fell against the pale surfaces of the huts, and far off the vast snow-drowned peaks. In the loose cold air he realized that he had been sweating, and felt chilled at the places where his clothes were damp. Where was Hema? He had the desire to see her face. Often in the weeks he had glanced at it, not daring to look full at it all at once, collecting the little scraps of detail that he assembled in private—a mole on her cheek, narrow shoulders, a delicate ear. He would have liked to watch the thoughts form in her eyes and wait until she gave voice to them, those cold evenings by the fire when they all ate in silence, and the women talked quietly amongst themselves before bed. Not to touch her body—not yet—but to coil a stand of her hair around his finger, feeling his palm so close to her face, her neck. It seemed unlikely that she would ever love him. Yet, stupidly, hope persisted. He could see her stooped in her blue uniform, talking quietly to the boy as she gathered soil samples, marking them with her diligent hand.
She had a strange feeling of happiness this morning. It had come suddenly and for no reason at all. She mourned her brother for months and sometimes, for a moment—just for a moment—the weight of it left her, and she was filled with a dizzying lightness. It was like this. She knew the man looked at her and she did not mind. She did not love him but did not mind him, the kindness of his hands equally as he handled the sick or made a fire. She saw the tin roofs of the villages polished by the sun. She saw the slim trees beyond that let the sun in between them, and stood somehow sagely in the morning air. She saw the boy who crouched close to her, looking up at her with a smile, saw the traces of mud on his plump cheeks and dark under his nails. She did not see the sick, or the dead, and was not, for the moment troubled by them. She did not see the fields beyond the trees where the crop stood ripe in the dirt, waiting to be harvested.
The village saw the fields. Without the grain, they would not eat all winter. Under the roar of grief that was like a furious engine, buzzed this tiny, awful knowledge: they must complete the late-summer harvest. With the men gone to the city for work, the task fell to the women. The visitors would leave with blood on ice and soil and water and chicken dung, walk to the next village and administer to their sick, and the next, and the next. The women of this village would wake early one morning and stride out to the fields with their scythes, red-eyed and numb in the strange new day. They would walk silent to the crop, silent but linked, each, by her loss, as though immersed in the same pool of water. The hair of the mothers, uncombed for days, the weariness of a body held too long away from sleep. They would climb the hillside like soldiers arrived a second time to the battlefield. They would reap the harvest, all of it, before they returned home.