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Crossing 29 January 2009

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, Travel.
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I lay three fatted twigs along the fireplace’s grate, and stretch an Ossipee log across them. I have loosened handfuls of splinters along its face, in the hope of encouraging flames. It is a dark morning; new snow has fallen. There is precious little paper, and no real kindling. I tear strips from a brown bag, and twist them into chords. These I stuff into the gaps between the log, the grate and the twigs.

The match in my right hand resembles blond hair, rigidly shellacked. It flares easily; no more force is required to ignite it against a sandpaper square than one might exert on a pencil’s lead, when signing one’s name to a page. I touch the matchhead’s flame to the tip of each twig. For a moment, they sweat grease. Then a sound like breath through gritted teeth, and one by one they ignite.

An inch and a half of each must be burned before the log will be met. My three small fires suck sap from these twigs like children emptying bones. A few of my paper twists start to burn; they are slow in unfurling. I grow tired of watching, and rise to make tea. My feet are cold along the floor, and in their stiffness I think of Abbu. He is the only member of the immediate family whom I have yet to meet. I ask my husband to describe his father, and comb his answers for clues. Abbu is the shyest, the most imaginative. He is a day-dreamer for all that I know; or perhaps like Baji, artistic? There is little satisfaction in guessing. I seek similarities between us in history. In railways, in camels, in poetry; in dua, migration, tea.

At the time of Partition, the railroad stretched already to Pakistan. Up along the coast from Bombay, along the curve of the Arabian Sea, it turned inward there and ran northeast to Delhi. There the lines forked, and from one of its branches, sloping southwest, a line stretched down to Karachi. Through Jaipur, Jodphur, across the Indus, and again to the Arabian Sea.

I remember my own journey, up from Bangalore, north to Delhi, and west through Rajasthan. Sari dyers stretched saffron silk between twin poles to dry. Mustard fields, exploding yellow, losing detail as we picked up speed. At times we rushed past fields of rice, and I could pick out marigolds. I remember flashes of light, the scurry of hands. Villages with white buildings, and hand-painted Fanta signs. Boys absorbed in cricket games. Lumpurs chattering. At every station, men behind coals stirred pots of sweet, milk-perfumed tea.

As we pressed on in the direction of the Thar, the landscape grew more brittle. Cities gave way to hills, away from which stretched scrubland. At the end of the scrubland, where the loong trees stopped, the desert proper began.

One afternoon passing fortresses, I saw a shape in the distance running. It moved, so it seemed, like a long-legged hare, with a rocking to its gait. The creature, weaving in and out of acacia shrubs, eventually turned away north. I waited for another glimpse, and was soon rewarded: a smaller animal, with less daring, careened between rocks and trees. The trader to my right smiled. “Camels,” he supplied.

The moment of knowing you are far from home should be given a special name. I turn down the flame. Abbu, my heart asks, did you go by train too? Were there pale blue beds against the walls? Vapors drift up from the milk, its foam on the verge of scalding. How did you sleep, and how long did it take to get where you were going? I think of the first graders in my class, of their vague notions of place. I would like to know when you realized that you were gone for good. I open my mouth to breathe steam. Abbu, when you were six years old, were you too small for tea?

I whisk the milk a final time, and turn the burner off. Returning to the hearth, I am pleased. The flames I have started are taking hold. Thick whorls of smoke move in spirals, like ever so many sea snails. I settle myself against stone. There are no bellows to send air into the heart of the flames; I flatten my hands against tiles, and carefully, carefully blow.

A flash of blue crawls along the slowly charring bark. I am hypnotized by my success. What else do we have in common, my father-in-law and I?

I think of my prayers, whispered in prostration, with my forehead and nose to the floor. For my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law. For visas, for time-off, for health. I pray for our mother’s strength to return, for my grandmother’s comfortable sleep. Surely, Abbu, you pray for these too. I imagine those days of the year, be they fleeting, when my sunset is your dawn. I pretend that we hear the iqama, that we straighten our lines to pray.

The fire has spread to both sides of the log. My feet begin to relax. As my toes warm to pink, my ankles remain whitish blue. What was merely cool now feels cold. I am thirstier for heat than I am for tea. Perhaps my fire could stand another log. I sort through the pieces of wood which remain. One medium-large, triangularly cut, feels dry enough to the touch. I rest it across my knees for a moment, while I look for the perfect place. On the back of grill, between two small twists of paper, there is room enough for more. I push back my sleeves and settle the log into place between coals.

Alas for impatience. The fire sheds embers under the new log’s weight. Man is created of haste… I blow a long stream of air against the charring block. Please, my darling, ignite. Thin yellow threads flare up and die. There is nothing to do but wait.

All I have learned from the fire this morning is that I am a poor judge of time. I push my knees against the grill, where ash blows sideways like snow. Outside and inside, there is drifting. I listen to the white clock’s secondhand and wonder. Does its every movement brings me closer to our eventual meeting? And where shall we go, my husband and I, to make our next home? Where would a mixed family be welcomed, and where might our practice fit in?

Flakes of snow drift down the chimney, where melting with ash they form streaks of blackish, whitish clay. I am reminded of the seeds which Allah shaped; angels from light, jinn from fire, Adam and his sons from clay. I pick a dead twig from the hearth’s edge, and build a dam across the swell of clay. In its swirl of dirty water, I remember Leticia.

The city tumbles down through clay to the Amazon. It is surrounded on three sides by a river so vast that from its bank one cannot see the other side. The points where earth becomes water are, all of them, undefined. At a certain point, the houses cease, and the houseboats begin. There are floating docks which stretch from drier land out onto a soup of yellow-brown clay; it is from one of these that we stepped, one, two, three, into an A-shaped boat.

The traffic on the river went every which way. There as in India, speeding by train, colors dripped down the world’s chin. The exhaust of engines and the smoke of trash fires drifted toward the sky. At the river’s banks, people in shorts and blue jeans walked with buckets to their motorbikes. Along its face, a confusion of motors, and boats covered and open, people hunkered down under tarps, men fishing. I imagined, beneath the boat, the motion of manatees.

First to Brazil, for gasoline. We crossed in fits and starts, pausing with the swell of the current, moving between wakes. I wondered how far beneath the surface of the water I would need to put my hand before I could no longer distinguish its shape. To our right, the snout of a fish broke through to the surface of air. For a moment, a black mouth opened, swallowing water, gaping.

Colombia could not have been more than a mile gone when we shuffled our way up the river’s far bank, entering Brazil. The swell of the dock under my feet held in its motion the same pitch as the other across the river, yet everything had changed. My arm brushed a man walking sideways; in Spanish, I apologized. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

But he only looked at me, and after a moment offered his own stream of words, which I could not understand. They were simultaneously soft and hard, like Yiddish mixed with Italian. It took a moment for my brain to register, and then – Portuguese. We smiled and shrugged, and I began to press on. This time, I kept my gaze down. Watch where you are going, I told myself, so you won’t have to apologize. I didn’t expect, I reflected, for the language to change so soon. The land was scarcely different; how could people on opposite riverbank sides fail to understand each other?

There, at the end of the dock, another man waited, bucket in hand. This time, approaching, I sidestepped. Passing up the hill, I stole a glance at his bounty. Fish with yellow fins and bright orange spikes, their wide eyes huge, sat stacked in rows. Like Australian puffers, they seemed alive while dead; it took no time to look away. The fish, like the camel, spoke of distance. The river, before merely huge, had also become far away.

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Comments»

1. أنا ﻟﻮﻍ » Blog Archive » Crossing - 29 January 2009

[…] The rest of this post is online here… […]

2. Anon - 4 February 2009

Your work is so very beautiful. I wish I could read and read, yet you leave us hanging, waiting…Please be kind and post more. Such beauty can’t be forgotten easily.


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