A story by Prawin Adhikari
First published in Kurakani.com, October 2002
The sun was sharp and stinging. The shadows were dark and crisply outlined. The pale grass was burning in the afternoon sun and strained the eyes. The breeze was lazy, playing with the ripples on the still river with disdain. Nature was soporific and Masale was tired after the long walk. He was not young anymore, he concluded. The sour fish soup his wife had made for the morning meal made his stomach rumble and a pleasant belch escaped him. If he will oversleep, he thought, the storm would catch him. But the nets were in position. This calm was deceptive. Or not deceptive, he thought, for this time of the year. A storm was being brewed behind the curtain of dark clouds that evaded the sun yet but would envelop the sky within the next hour. The storm brought more water in the river. Landslides up river made the flow murky and brought the fishes out.
Masale stood on the threshold of Mankaune’s field, freshly rid of the corn plants, dotted with the remains of a paltry harvest. The storm would surely come and disturb the dead calm by the river. The hill across the river was sullen and gashed, as ever. The mighty river caressed the river there, right along the long curve that made it wider and slower and pushed it against the hill. Unlike the hills further downriver, the hill of Deurali was red clay, not the regular layered granite obstacles. Every year the floods pushed the rage of the river further into the hill, and every year the hill gave away a little. The hill of Deurali was mutilated, like a hunched giant with a slashed back, the gash filling the good part of the hill. It looked ridiculous, with its dark crown of sturdy Saal trees that appeared to have aged over a million years, giving it a false sense of regality. Masale stood with the sun stinging his back and surveyed the stretch of riverbank. Ramghali Maila’s dumb son was tending to his cattle in his own speechless retarded way. His brother, barely seven, was shying at the meditative cranes perched on the stones by the river. The cattle roamed the stump-studded fields and the bank trying to forage on the dry grass and thorn-berry bushes. Masale found himself a dry and comfortable spot in the shades of the half-standing Bar tree. He lied down and looked at the tree and adjusted his hands behind his head. The tree, split right down the trunk by an erratic lightning a couple of years ago, had served a strange fate. The limb that protruded towards Masale’s little hut further down to the river had survived and grown thick with dark leaves. The other half of the trunk had perished, part of it burnt to charcoal by the lightning, and part submitting to the erratic fate by withering over the next few weeks of the incident. It stood like a lovers’ embrace forcefully broken by a cruel game of fate; the beautiful union laid asunder, one of the couples laid waste and the other eternally pining.
A fat wet drop hit his calf, and Masale jerked awake. The narrative of the recent dream was still dancing about in his head, and the sudden wetness on his calf confused him. For a bewildered moment, asleep with his eyes wide open, he tried to recall the narrative of his dream and failed. His open eyes began to see. He searched his calf, fearing an injury, fuelled perhaps by the obscure dream he had just had. It was a single wet spot on his dark sunburnt limb. Suddenly the growing patter hit his ears. The rain had come, without the storm to herald it. The raindrops, sparse yet, hit the dry Bar leaves and drummed. The approaching from the direction of the hills, and had been soaked by the dry earth, muffling its arrival. Masale stood up and watched the earth let out a sweet-smelling breath, vapour rising from the thirsty earth freshly quenched. The familiar aroma of the fertile earth engulfed him in an ecstasy that was the bond between him and the earth he had tilled and tended to, raised a family on, lived his life for. He huddled back into the shade of the tree, and sheltered under its thick leaves, watched the rain build up. His wife ran frantically about the house, collecting the clothes on the thorn-berry bushes, the gundri upon which she had fish left out in the sun to dry and other household articles she ought not to leave in the rain. From the distance where Masale watched her, her frantic rushes about looked comical, like an ant dressed in dirty red scurrying about an errand. Masale laughed with a fondness that had come with forty-three years of living together.
The raindrops fell thicker and threatened to swallow the tiny hut into the obscure bosom of the rain. The earth began to run in muddy little streams to the river, flooding the path. Where the rain had formed small puddles raindrops fell hard and created ripples and bubbles that danced for a while and died without any pretence. No one can make rain, Masale thought, and no one can make anything as beautiful as rain. The shower thinned in a while, as abruptly as it had begun. Suddenly, The streaks of rain in the east slanted and tried to displace the straight unpretentious rain. In a matter of seconds, all the rain before his eyes started to slant in a particular direction. The storm had come. The storm, yet an infant, promising with its roar a mighty presence soon, shook the thick foliage over Masale’s head, sending trickles of cold rainwater down his spines. Masale looked about for a leaf broad enough to cover his head but found none. He jumped up and broke a leafy branch, sprinkling a fresh shower on himself, bunched the leaves together to shield his head and ran with all his might towards his home.
The dusty path had flooded and was slippery with mud. Masale grabbed onto the low stone wall along the path with his free hand as his foot slipped and he lurched forward. The branch did no good, and the rain beat down on him like wet stings, with the ferocity of the storm slanting it at an angle, making it even more uncomfortable as it left him with one very wet side. The water ran into his eyes and fogged his eyesight. Masale looked about for his hut. It was still a good struggle away. He took a long breath to strengthen his zeal and took off again with a fresh determination, telling himself that he would be comfortable by the fire in the hut. Surely, his wife had prepared a fire by now and was cooking something warm. The fish was in plenty, and there was no need to be greedy as yet for the winter. He would make her prepare some fish soup again, to be sipped by the door of the hut, looking out at the river swell up and the hill across and the streams of rainwater rushing down towards the river. She must still have some of the tomatoes the blacksmith’s wife had bartered for half a fish in the morning. Tomato makes fish taste good, he thought, before he fell flat on the face, his brow hitting a small pebble and instantly swelling, an appendix butted into his field of vision. A paralyzing pain shot up through his legs. He thought he must have broken his shin. He tried to get up and stand on the injured leg. He could step on it and hop. No broken shin, he thought. The pain that had been so intense suddenly subsided and his upper leg got its life back. The rain was still beating down on him, and the storm was now an adolescent, rowdy and noisy, but still not it’s prime. Masale tried to hop again. He abandoned his desire to be by the fire. If he could get to his hut without further injuries, he was satisfied. He even paused to look about at the storm around him. He looked back along the path he had taken and discovered small pools of water tainted in red, the red dissolving instantly into the torrent that was hurrying down to the river. He looked down at his injured foot. A sharp jutting stone had cut into his foot, just below the ankle, and it was bleeding profusely. With a grimace on his old and weathered face, he wobbled on to the hut.
‘Stupid woman!’ he shouted, banging at the bamboo door of the hut. ‘Your husband is freezing in the rain and you are sleeping with the door closed!’ The rain was expected, but he had not expected it to catch him sleeping. The storm was expected, but he had not expected it to bring him down on his face and hurt his leg when he was already old and had to catch his own food in the river every day of the year. It was not a friendly welcome to find the door of his hut shut when he pined for the hearth and the care of a good wife who would see her husband shivering in the cold rain and get him something hot to eat. He expected the door of the hut to be open when he returned. He expected his wife to expect him. He was tired and cold and sleepy and injured. The storm had caught him off guard and injured his spirit too. He had not been alert enough to know when the rain was coming, and when the storm was upon him. He was getting old. He shook the bamboo door again and shouted a couple more abuses at his wife.
‘I thought you had gone to the village,’ said his wife, opening the door.
‘And what if I had? Did you think I would never return?’ Masale was still angry. His wife brought him her dry dhoti. Masale took the cloth and wiped his wet body.
‘Take off your clothes before you get a fever,’ said his wife, ‘I am making some hot fish soup.’ Masale took off his clothes and threw them down in a heap on the floor. His wife pushed them to a corner and gave him fresh clothes. ‘Here,’ she said, pointing to the hearth, ‘sit by the fire.’ Masale went to the fire and sat quietly. He has shouted at her barely a minute ago. But as loving wives are, and especially one that he had lived with for over forty years now, and lived alone with for past couple of years, she had a command over him, the kind that a man experiences from his mother as a child, his beloved as a man and his daughter as an aged father. Masale, orphaned at an early age and not blessed with a girl child, had known only one woman in his life.
Masale’s wife prepared the bed for him by the fire and set the steaming bowl of fish soup before him, red with the tomato he had been thinking of. ‘Wake me when the storm dies,’ he told his wife and tried to call back the sleep that had been broken by the rain. His wife looked at his clothes in the corner and saw the blood on one of the garments. ‘What did you do to yourself?’ she asked, rushing to him and putting a copper owl over the fire to warm some water.
‘It is just a small cut,’ he replied, lifting his injured leg into the light of the fire. His wife kneeled by his side, took his injured leg on her lap and pressed the wound as if to teach him a lesson. She took the warm water from the fire and washed his foot. Masale winched whenever she pained him, and whined when she treated him with a fond roughness. His wife prepared a paste of turmeric powder and applied it over his wound. She looked at his face closely, peering at it in the warm glow of the fire in the hearth. She saw the bump over his brow and showed disapproval as if abandoning her mischievous husband to his own mindless follies. He looked at her fondly and settled back. Sleep did not come instantly as it had come under the split tree. He lulled himself on the sound of the rain falling down the thatch and the river rushing by and the mild yet persistent pain that appeared to be emanating from his bone on the injured foot and spreading out along the veins body.
The sun had set, but the high-flying clouds, freshly rid of their grey burden, reflected the sun hiding beyond the hills. The world looked newborn and glistened with the cleansing the rain had given it. The rocks were shiny, the bushes shined with the same reflected glow. The air carried with it the freshness of the newborn atmosphere. The air hung crisp and chilly. Masale inspected the nets. He found one missing and cursed his rotten luck and the blacksmith by the well whom he had seen the first in the morning. But then he recalled he had seen his wife the first in the morning because she had awakened him. He cursed the blacksmith again and said aloud to himself that his wife did not count. Seeing your wife’s face could not ruin your day! That would be absurd, and the forefathers who found the truth about an uncouth and jinxed face ruining your day if that face was the first you saw in the morning couldn’t have all been widowers or brahmacharis. He poked under the rocks with a long bamboo pole and scooped out the missing net. It had not been lost, after all. Merely swept to a nook under the rocks. But that meant there would be no catch in it. Next, he sought out the bamboo trap for the fishes and crabs. His wife hated crabs and called him an uncivilized man for eating crabs. He called her a descendant of the baboons from the hills, and said she had no taste for fine cuisine.