by Anniqua Rana


novel excerpt

We, the flies, were witness three times. We witnessed Tara’s desertion, and her death, and her rebirth through her daughter, Shahida.

On the train all those years ago. Her mother, dressed in a black burka, sat on the train, holding her baby close to her. She scanned the station platform from the window. We distracted her by hovering nearby and wanted her to look down at her baby on her lap. She brushed us aside with the corner of her burka. She leaned over Tara, searching the deep crowds, waiting for someone. Two women walked toward her railway carriage, but she was not waiting for them.

A whistle blew, and the train engine shunted, as if to begin its departure. Tara’s mother saw someone in the crowd. She waved from the window. She shouted. The baby looked up at her. Her mother had young hands, not yet scarred by years of kitchen work. Still soft like a child’s, like the hands of the baby she held. The dirt-encrusted fingernails were bitten to the quick. No rings on her fingers, nor gold wedding bangles.

The young mother waved and shouted again. Then she looked down at Baby Tara and placed her on the seat. She would come back; we could tell. She wanted the person she was calling to join her.

Two women entered the carriage. One was dressed in expensive clothes, and the other looked like her maidservant. And then the train started to move and Tara’s mother never returned. The women looked in our direction as we covered Tara, protecting her from the evil eyes of the passersby.

The women came close and swatted at us. They picked up the baby and gave her a piece of raw sugar to suck. The train moved faster, leaving the station, and from the window we saw the burka-clad figure, Tara’s mother, rush toward the carriage. She never made it, and her screams were muffled by the shrieks of the train picking up speed as it left the station and sped toward the countryside.

We witnessed Bhaggan and Saffiya rescuing Tara and naming her. We witnessed all of Tara’s short life.

We witnessed her death, and the birth of her daughter, Shahida, herself a witness to her mother’s death. But Tara never realized we were there for her. Her daughter knew from before she was born that we would protect her for all eternity.

Shahida, Tara’s only daughter, was born of two fathers at the canal bank. And then a third, the maulvi, came to love her like his own.

We saw what happened that night when Tara drifted into the eternal sleep after the baby came. Never knowing, her husband, Maalik, lay broken at the edge of the fields, having endured his own trauma concurrently with hers.

While Tara staggered toward the cane fields to tell her husband about Bhaggan, we observed Maalik on his charpoy near his hovel from all around—from our lowly perch on a dung pile near the buffalo, and from the heights of the neem trees planted to shade them in the summer heart. Maalik reacted to the howls of his two guard dogs and walked toward them. One lay near the border of the fields, and the other hovered around. They beckoned Maalik to help, but he didn’t know which direction to go in. Hyenas had begun their night call, too.

Somewhere between his dreams and the reality of the night, Maalik walked toward the edge of the fields. He knew something was amiss, but he didn’t know what. He would never have imagined that his wife would not return that night. He assumed she was safe in Saffiya’s house. He figured the dogs were barking to alert him that he needed to protect the buffalo. Tara would be sleeping in the same room as his mother, as she had done until a year earlier, when she had joined him in the hovel in the cane fields. She would eat a meal cooked by his loving mother. His baby would be safe with her.

He didn’t care whether or not the baby was his. He had a family. He had never thought he would be so lucky as to have Tara as his wife. She had wanted Sultan, and then she had slept with Taaj. His brother could have had her forever, but he had left, and Maalik now had a life he could never have imagined for himself. He recalled that early morning when he’d hidden behind the bushes to watch Sultan pinning the chameli garlands to Tara’s luscious braid,which swung erotically when she went to the handpump every morning.

Lost in the pleasure of his memories, Maalik picked up his gun and walked away from the buffalo toward the dogs. He entered farther into the darkness and saw a pair of beady eyes glinting from the fields. He pulled his gun closer to his side and moved toward the dogs. A baby boar lay next to his dog. It must have been pulled from its nest in the field. Its mother’s eyes glistened from beyond, and the cane around her stirred as she waited—for retribution for those responsible for killing her young.

Maalik looked at his faithful surviving dog and then at the one that the mother had attacked. The hyenas’ howls became louder. They smelled blood and were waiting for more. Maalik knew he would not be able to outrun the boar. He’d never shot the gun and wasn’t even sure how it worked. He had never thought he’d have to use it, and now he needed to protect himself and his dog.

We witnessed the horrific eruption of a mother’s fury and the helplessness of a man and a dog facing that rage. We watched the foolhardy loyalty of a dog for its master, and the disadvantages of a man with a gun that he had never learned to shoot. We watched the orgy of blood and guts as the hyena orchestra played in celebration of the feast that awaited them.

We, the flies,, observed the beloved of Tara lying near the buffalo chewing their cud, oblivious to the severity of their owner’s condition. We flew toward him to see if he still breathed. He was covered in blood. His life had been spared, but the horror of having been mauled by a boar emanated from his wide-open, hazel eyes. He had seen and experienced terror that erased all his loving memories of Bhaggan, Tara, and the baby whose birth he was awaiting.

We, the flies, witness to Tara’s death, protected Shahida, her daughter, until sunrise. Tara lay on the canal bank where she had given birth to her baby, and the baby lay beside her, covered by her mother’s dopatta. One after another, we flies joined to protect the baby.

The dawn sunlight reflected in the dead mother’s eyes, searching for the song of lost love.

Love will survive, but I will drown.

It came from a radio hanging from the handle of the milkman’s bicycle. The unoiled bike’s squeals competed with the blaring music. The bicycle was barely balanced between two large milk cans that wobbled as the milkman tried to avoid the last of the night’s hyenas crossing the road and disappearing into the cane fields.

On the road that Tara had walked the night before, two figures traveled in opposite directions. The milkman, on his bicycle, rode toward the village. The maulvi, after making the call for the early-morning prayers, was walking hurriedly toward the main road. He would take the bus to the shrine. The morning sun shone directly into the maulvi’s eyes, blinding him in the moment when he turned the corner to face the milkman.

From our perch, we could see the road, but to protect her, we flew over to Baby Shahida’s hand, still covered in fluids of her afterbirth, eyes blinking at the morning star as it faded in the sunlight. She called out to it.

“Who’s there?” the milkman shouted.

The milkman and the maulvi heard the baby’s cry at the point where their paths met.

The milkman swerved left and then right to balance the two sloshing milk cans. He wobbled for a second and then landed on his right knee, tearing his shalwar and losing the top layer of kneeskin. He was too distracted to notice the watery milk turning a light shade of pink and then a sloshy brown as it mixed with the blood and then with the surrounding mud.

“Son of an owl! Bastard! Sister fucker!” the milkman shouted. But the maulvi was already climbing up the canal bank, following the sound, a whimper—a baby?

And then there was silence.

The milkman followed the maulvi up the embankment. He was a crude man made cruder in his pain. He shouted to the maulvi, “Your mother’s milk is all over the road. Will she replace it, or will your wife?”

The sun lifted itself from behind the mist-laden canal just enough for both of them to see the bloodied bodies.

We, the flies, disentangled ourselves from the bodies and disappeared behind the bushes. Both men looked disbelievingly at what lay before them: Tara dead, and her baby still sucking at her mother, while we protected them both.

For that moment, the milkman forgot his pain and cussed as he exulted in what he saw: “Your mother—it’s a miracle! The baby was born of a dead woman.”

The maulvi, seeing the truth of what lay before him, shouted back, “Son of an owl! Run to the village and call for help. Tell Bibi Saffiya that Tara is dead and the baby is alive! Go now!”

The milkman nearly rolled down the embankment and limped as quickly as he could in the direction of the village.

The maulvi sat down next to Tara and placed his hand on her face. His body shuddered with mournful, soundless sobs.

After a while, we flew toward him and landed on his hand. He looked up at us and thrust us away, so we flew back onto the baby, who had now begun to whimper.

The maulvi then turned around to pick up the baby. He had seen new babies before, but only those who’d been cleaned and wrapped tightly in a sheet. How he’d longed for a baby all these years, and Zakia had had only miscarriage after miscarriage.

The fifth time she got pregnant, the baby stayed for eight months in the comfort of the mother’s womb, and then he took his wife, Zakia, to the hospital for a cesarean. The baby never returned home with Zakia.

To Zakia, the maulvi said, “It’s the will of Allah.”

After that, the maulvi’s mother tried to find him another wife. But each time she mentioned it, he looked at her in disgust, and, knowing her eldest son, she backed off.

Then Zakia, broken, suggested another wife, too, and he threw the dinner tray across the room, not caring that the aloo baingan splattered everywhere. He left and didn’t return for two weeks.

Zakia cleaned the bits of potato and eggplant strewn all over the floor after he left, but the stain remained on the wall and she lay staring at it in the afternoons, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. If she looked at it from a distance, it looked like a mustache, but if she looked more closely, it looked like the name of Allah. It even had the small connector on top, which in the loneliness of the afternoon was a stronger message that she was not alone. A more powerful being was giving her peace, telling her to stay silent during this ordeal. To keep praying five times a day, and then to add more time during each prayer, and then to wake up before the morning prayer to pray before the prayers of others could be heard.

For two weeks, Zakia prayed for her husband to return, and she made a deal that if he returned, she would stay silent and would not ask for more.

For those two weeks, we witnessed the maulvi sitting at the shrine, praying for peace. Praying for patience. Most of all, he prayed for a baby, in whatever form that might come in. It needn’t be his own. It could be a child of the village. He would no longer settle for a child of his own but would become a father to all children. Even if they had their own fathers, he would care for them and then add a layer of comfort to protect them further. He slept on the prayer mats and ate the free food from those who needed to reward the people who prayed for them.

He listened to the holy men sing:

My beloved has returned.
Allah has united us.

And the supplicants moved their heads to the beat of the dhol. Some came with boxes of sweets, chicken, and goats covered with henna;others came with garlands of hundreds of rupee notes, a whole year’s income. Anything to get their prayers heard. The maulvi sat and prayed for two long weeks, not wanting to return to the comfort of his wife until his own prayer was acknowledged.

Now, miracle of miracles, his prayers from those twenty years earlier had been answered that morning. With both hands, he picked up the baby. Covered with afterbirth, she was still connected to Tara, and he held her close to his heart. He dipped his right hand in the canal and very gently wiped her face. He took his turban off his head with the same damp hand and struggled to wrap it around the baby. He could see her heart pumping in her tiny body. He would make sure she survived.

Enraptured, he spoke to Shahida. “You’re late, but you’re here. You should have told us you were coming. I would have done some preparation. I’ll get you a doll, a plastic one from the stalls at the shrine, one that looks just like you.”

She no longer called to the disappearing star as he continued to talk to her.

“I’ll cook two cauldrons of goat meat for the whole village. I’ll announce to everyone that my princess has arrived. Your mother is waiting for you at home. You’re a sly one, aren’t you? Coming without an announcement.”

The baby started to whimper again as they sat waiting for help to arrive. Her tiny hand reached out to us, asking us to continue to protect her, as we had done all that night. We were assured she would live.

This story is an extract from the novel Wild Boar in the Cane Field, to be published September 2019 by She Writes Press.