Usha still lies in a brick and sand covered chamber of the unfinished multistoried building. Usha’s relatives have received the news. They will obtain the rights to the burnt remains of the girl once the requisite legal complexities have been dealt with. With the greatest care and tenderness they will bury her in the deep fastness of the earth. Usha will become a seed in the depths of the earth. Usha’s fire-scorched body will metamorphose into bio-fertilizer. Usha will fuse with the earth. Will evolve. God will create a woman from that earth. A tree will be born. A child will be born of that woman’s womb – a boy – a man from that boy – a lust-crazed animal from that man. The accursed messengers of God will pour invocations of assurance in the ears of fire-desirous men who are born of the wombs of women. Sandalwood oil and fragrance-irradiating women are the best fuel, not wood from the trees.-------------------------------- Usha had created a circle of defense.
The first day that Usha’s teacher had seen her enclosed by her circle, she had stared in wonder. Usha would arrive at her teacher’s house to study on a certain day of the week accompanied by her mother. Like a wax figurine, Usha’s bright, smooth body would constantly be recreated in new clothes: the chorus of the forests one day, the combined colors of the seasons the next, an explosion of violent hues or the radiance of fire on another.
The hands of Usha’s mother would be busy at embroidery during the leisure afforded by the daughter’s studies. New clothes for Usha. Gardens, gatherings of birds, the radiance of the sun, a river turning and flowers in colored threads. Flowers and leaves – leaves and flowers – a twining bower. Usha was a garden at daybreak. An arbor created and bedecked at dawn was Usha .-------------------------------- That day Usha was garbed in evening. No, not evening, but a night covered in darkness, as black as a coalmine. Usha was covered head to toe in black clothing. Before she began her lessons, Usha began to discard layer after layer of black clothes. The teacher felt that eternal night was being born within Usha’s body. These clothes of night were infinite, without end.
The teacher spoke in a hurt voice, “I didn’t recognize you at first.”
Usha laughed, “Why? Because of this?”
Hijab-Neqab-Purdah- Finale- layers and layers…
But Usha removed them. The blossoming of light pierced through the darkness of night. A smile on Usha’s face.
Had Usha smiled? The teacher gazed at Usha’s smiling face with beseeching eyes.
“Yes. I thought your mother had brought some upper-class lady to see me for some reason.”
Usha looked at her mother. A glittering dress in her mother’s hands. Shiny threads. Needlework on Usha’s clothes.
“Mother, there’s no need to embroider flowers-vines-designs on my dresses anymore. Do it on my burqahs instead. Or else this will seem like a black shroud. Those dresses will be hidden under this anyway. What good will it do to work designs on them?”
Usha’s mother bit through a colored thread with her teeth. A prick from the sharp needle. A deep red drop of blood on her fingertip. A drop of carmine liquid on Usha’s snow white dress. The snow sucked it away in a moment. Specks of life were etched in the near-dead silence under the layers of ice. Usha – her snow-maiden daughter. The passion of red blood beneath the shining smooth fair skin. Youth awakened!
Usha’s mother put her finger to her lips and sucked away the second drop of blood. Had she sucked on Usha’s blood-drops? Warm fluid in her eyes. She clasped her anchal to her face.
“Apa, this daughter of mine is not human. She’s fire. A flame. What should I do with her! Where should I go! I can’t sleep at night. The telephone calls that come. Threats. Evil proposals. Anonymous letters. Scares of acid throwing – kidnapping. She will burn all of us. Why wasn’t she ugly! Unattractive!”
At first Usha threw her book away. Fretful and angry for a moment.
Warm liquid coursed endlessly from her mother’s eyes.
Suddenly Usha laughed radiantly. She embraced her mother.
“Look and see whether you’re on fire!”
The mother’s teardrops fell on Usha’s avid forehead.
Usha laughed joyfully.
“One drop. Two drops. Three, four. These few drops won’t extinguish the fire. A river must be turned. Two rivers from two eyes.”
Usha looked at her teacher pleadingly. “Why is mother so scared? I never go out anywhere without mother! I don’t go to the roof. Don’t go to the front yard. Don’t walk in the veranda. Don’t stand by the window. Mother, shall I cover myself even inside the house? I’m afraid of fire.”-------------------------------- A sudden gust of wind blew through the open window. The green comb of the wind and moonlight that filtered through the coconut fronds created an unearthly illusion through the window and kept the three women motionless for a few moments.
A moment’s silence. The silver shards of the full moon that fell amid the coconut leaves were suddenly stabbed.
Usha sobbed loudly.
“That moon is a lie. That moonlight is a lie. The wind, the coconut tree – all are from that ghostly land. Phantoms. Only the night is true. Darkness. The star-devouring black abyss.”
Usha aimed at the slivers of moonlight and threw her books, pens and pencils at them – the snow-maiden of her mother’s hands. Embroidered colored flowers glittery on white cloth. The entwining bower…
Usha entered night. Layer by layer. Step by step. Usha hid amid the thick sharp black skin of night.
The teacher laid hands of unspoken tenderness on Usha’s uncovered face.
Usha jerked her face away and pulled the neqab over it.
Two rivers in the eyes of the mother.
“Apa, this daughter of mine just can’t accept this garb. Please explain to her, this is the guardian of both this life and her afterlife. The girl is so willful. She likes dressing up too much, wants to roam around as she pleases. When the moon ascends the sky she shouts poems at it, she wants to run when she sees an open field. She leans over the veranda railing, laughs and hangs her hair downwards…Usha doesn’t want to understand that Usha has grown up.”
The teacher again laid her hand upon Usha’s head. The white light gleamed like a serpent on the slippery skin of the black silken cloth. The teacher saw what a good girl was the grown-up Usha. How silent she was as she turned within herself. Tiny Usha within her cave. A tiny kernel within the shell of a nut.
The teacher rocked the tiny kernel. The gentle rocking of tenderness.
“This is not your dress. This is just a time. A dark time. You will move beyond it. You are Dawn!” -------------------------------- Usha’s mother had wanted to move beyond.
A street impassively meditative in the solitude of night like a dervish.
The street went towards her home.
All her thoughts and her imagination flew swiftly towards a room. Usha’s room. Where Usha’s shining clothes, made unique by the needlework, her dresses so different from others’, lay scattered…lay tidy….lay drunk from the fragrance of Usha’s body…and the tools of beauty…perfume, sandalwood, lip colors, blue kohl…the snow-maiden girl in the long mirror…a wax idol…-------------------------------- The rickshaw raced forward. As if Usha’s mother was the driver. Faster.
At the speed of storms-tidal waves-meteors…a desperate moaning – humm humm – emerged from the throat of the rickshaw puller. What strength lay in his work-weary body! He was giving it all. Because he had recognized the ones who were behind them in an automated vehicle, even though their faces were covered in glasses and masks. They were terrifying.
Ten minutes more and Usha would be safe. Usha would be able to enter her beloved room. Ten minutes more and Usha – the terribly willful girl would pull off, rip off the layers of black covering. Would throw them under the bed. And she would stand in front of the mirror hugging the snow-maiden dress just completed by her mother’s hands to herself.
In ten more minutes they would move beyond the black tar road that lay in wait amid the solitude of night. Let the rickshaw move even faster. Usha…let Usha lie bundled within the burqah. If only mother could tie the girl up like a little bundle. She could be thrown to the side of the road…into a bush, evading the eyes of the young men in the automobile. Later – at a safe time, she would recover this gem of her breast.
Usha was terrified. She crumpled up and trembled. She clasped her mother strongly. The rickshaw lost speed. The driver rolled off into the gutter by the side of the road like a lump.
“Usha, darling, don’t be frightened. Usha, you have nothing to fear, child!”
Usha clasped her mother in arms as strong as iron shackles.
“Mother, cover me. Give me more cover. Millions of burqahs. I’m scared of fire, mother. Cover the fire, mother. Let them leave within the darkness.”
Why was Usha afraid! She gasped and breathed out in desperate fear. The sound of fear in Usha’s teeth! Usha bit down.
Why was Usha afraid!
Usha’s mother encircled Usha with her arms, shielding her close to her breast. She had brought Usha into the light from the darkness of the womb. Now she would take Usha from this darkness to a kingdom of light. Inside her breast. The love-filled moon that shone within her heart – Usha would enter that full moon and shout out her nursery rhymes. -------------------------------- Different shaped pieces of metal in their hands. A hissing arose in that ghostly light and darkness in that street that lay in wait. It rocked this way and that, with its slathering tongue hanging out. They were angry.
Let Usha be handed over to them.
Let Usha’s mother return home and spend the night in silence. Usha would return home when dawn came.
The strength of iron in the wax arms of Usha.
“I’m afraid, mother. Don’t let me go. Hold me mother.”-------------------------------- Suddenly a tail of fire. A fire-tongued scorpion on Usha’s mother’s arm.
A fountain of blood in the hypocrite ghostly street that lay in wait. The snow-maiden dress in her handbag.
It surged with blood. The mother’s hands were loosened.-------------------------------- The pieces of metal swayed in a strange dance.
Let mother take off the neqab and other covers from her daughter’s body. Let the girl breathe now. Let her become refreshed. Usha renewed. Alluring in her beauty and her loveliness. And mystery! Endless! Let mother uncover her for now. A moment’s delay and she will have to leave pieces of her arms on the road. Instead let Usha’s mother take these covers off Usha – these strange, silly clothes in her hands and return home.-------------------------------- The mother’s hands were drenched in blood. The mother uncovered Usha. “Cover me mother.”
Their metal weapons stung the hands of Usha’s mother again and again. Mother revealed Usha.
“Throw me into a pit mother.”
Mother collapsed onto the road.
“Kill me mother.”
A thin voice still remained in mother’s throat.
“Usha, there is an open field ahead. My darling daughter, run. With all your strength, run…Move beyond this…”-------------------------------- There were five of them.
The gaping of hyenas – of the darkness of hell within the under-construction building.
There were five of them. Paws of yellow light attacked like ravening cheetahs from their hands.
Usha’s moon…the full moon…silver moonlight…Usha’s rhymes…
Usha’s forests…coconut leaf combs…
A drop of red blood amid the whiteness of snow…
There were five of them…the bundle of shining clothes in their hands.
Shining clothes…the filth of hell amid the twining bower of colored threads…
There were five of them.
“Cover me, Mother. The black covering…”-------------------------------- Paws of yellow light on Usha’s face.
What words within the parted lips…
The girl was calling for her mother.
The mother was saying, “The girl is a child. A little girl.”
“Yes. The girl. Soft and gentle. She melted to the touch.”
Air in their ten hands. Churned butter. Molten wax.
“The girl was at school. College…studying at university…dreams…”
But the girl was a child. Oh! A little girl!
The little girl plays hide and seek behind the ravening tongues.
The little girl’s books, the little girl’s lessons…the girl’s school…
They study. Indecipherable. Impenetrable. Stones have begun to coalesce within the still silent girl.
It will be difficult to carry her if she grows too heavy. It will be a problem to dump her somewhere or hide her…
A wax figurine. She won’t take too long to melt.
Five pairs of hands are busily active.
The masks. Unnecessary. Let the stone goddess accept them.
The bundle of shining clothes. Poisoned by the malodorous filth. Fossilized…
A splash of liquid combustible is enough. Oh the girl! The little girl!
A small device. A small spark.
A devouring flame in the forest and the full moon.
The girl is no longer afraid of fire. Because the darkness of the moonless night had covered her.
Published in Parabaas, December 20, 2007
The original story "Krishnapakkher Usha" by Jharna Rahman is included in the collection with the same title.