The dogs know first, their high-pitched keening echoing off the stone walls marking the outskirts of the nearby town. A chorus of strays proceeds up the dirt path to the site and settles in a semi-circle framing Anika’s ankles. Shoo, she says half-heartedly. The nearest dog cocks its head and regards her quizzically, sensing her ambivalence.
Her hands are wrist-deep in the red soil. The constant breeze covers everything with ochre dust — skin, clothes, nostrils — until she looks in her pocket mirror at the end of the day and wonders whether she, too, has been unearthed here. Her fingers reach for the solid object she previously brushed against. Larger than a pebble, firmer than a twig: the faint, chalky texture of bone.
She holds her hands still while her colleague, Carine, gently scoops out the surrounding dirt. Carine stops to smooth an errant black curl behind her ear and leaves a vivid smudge on her forehead. There is a reverent hush and a sharp intake of breath as the contents of the test pit become visible. The two women stare at three thin bones arrayed next to a clay tablet covered in unfamiliar script. The tablet lies to the left of the bones, near where a human heart would be if the rib cage were complete. The women hold their breaths deep in the closed fists of their chests. For several minutes no one, not even the dogs, makes a sound.
Do you know how to identify a ghost? Its feet are turned backwards. Every few seconds we glanced at our toes, checking to see where they were pointed. Every night we dreamt we were walking in circles. Every morning we opened our eyes, expecting to see ourselves in [ ], the low valley of our birthplace. In other words, the beginning.
Anika agrees to a quiet celebration for the discovery, which means Carine cooks mutton biriyani instead of the usual chana dal. Initially, they took turns cooking, but after Anika’s first charred dinner they both deemed the rotation needlessly punitive. Particularly since Carine sings while she cooks — old Hindi songs she learned from her mother, a famed Bollywood playback singer from the years when the lyrics read like secular hymns. Carine has a narrow nose and deep-set eyes and she tells Anika that when she was younger, her parents called her little bird. As Anika files away her notes and equipment each evening, Carine’s melancholy voice rings out like a nightingale’s paean to dusk, keeping the two women company even as they go about their solitary close-of-day tasks.
They make quick work of the meal. Feeling generous, Anika flicks a piece of gristle at a dog salivating in the shadows behind her. Her own childhood dog — shaggy, loving, codependent — buried every bone offered to him instead of gnawing on a single one. The possibility of retrieval seemed incidental to him; he appeared far more interested in the fact that the bones had been saved, that he could roam the small plot of lawn under his watch knowing they were stored somewhere just beneath his paws.
Anika plucks a whole black clove out of the mound of rice on her plate and pockets it in her cheek, chewing it from time to time, allowing her tongue to approach a warm, familiar numbness. The copper serving pots and stainless steel plates shine empty in the moonlight. That went quick, Carine says. When I went into the butcher’s shop he laughed and said he and the grocer were betting on when the strange visitors would get sick of chickpeas.
Anika laughs. I wonder who won that bet, she says. There is not much money or time for their project. No allowance for efficient ground-penetrating radars or radiocarbon dating facilities, or even meals outside the legume family. They have been granted only the briefest of grace periods to conduct an excavation by the most basic means of survey: eyes and hands and feet. In a way, she finds their barebones set-up its own form of grace.
There has to be more, Carine says. Right? She collects the plates and serving vessels, producing a metallic clamor that sends the dogs into the shadows. Anika nods, follows Carine to the makeshift sink. She hadn’t even considered that the tablet they’d unearthed could be the extent of the find.
If you’re buried with a text rather than under it, Anika says, it usually tells a story longer than here lies X.
Manifestos, maybe? Last wills and testaments?
Proof of life or lives, Anika muses. She scrubs at a stubborn crust of rice coating the bottom of a pot until it dislodges. In their field, initial evidence of human habitation almost always led to more. Whole cities had been uncovered after a child tripped over a single shard of pottery protruding from the soil.
Later, we were reborn, but so was the world. We used our tongues to create it. The river doesn’t have to be a river, we said; the rock doesn’t have to be a rock. The womb is a birthplace. The heart is nothing but a necessary organ.
Sati was punishment for living, for living beyond a husband, for a body cannot outlive its master. But we are still living — so what can we call life but a boon, the unexpected compensation for each of our inevitable deaths?
After Carine goes to bed, Anika stays by the fire’s faintly smoldering embers. She thinks about how days like this seem to shift time. How the days leading up to today had felt interminable. She’d first seen the newspaper article two years ago, a tiny item buried on a back page: Pipeline Extension Halted Due to Discovery of Human Remains. On reading this, she felt a tingling in the back of her skull, like a voice clearing its throat to speak. Her parents had long ago taught her to fear any detour off a prescribed path, so she resolved not to hear the voice. But it remained insistent, amassing force like a gradual change in weather — the faint inkling of a thunderstorm, clouds gathering in audience for a reckoning.
A truth is undeniable and time inexorable, Anika’s grandmother used to say, though not in so many words. One morning Anika woke up in a desolate spot on the Deccan Plateau, just fifty miles from where her maternal grandmother had been born. Where there should have been no bones, where nearly everyone was cremated. She found she’d taken all the necessary steps to get there, down to securing a sabbatical and enlisting Carine to help with her strange, half-formed project. All because when she finally silenced the competing clamor, the voice had said only: listen.
In the space of a week, Anika and Carine discover five more clay tablets and dozens of skeletal shards. An abandoned yellow bulldozer observes their excavations from several hundred feet away. They remain acutely aware of its presence, extracting objects from the earth gingerly, as if straight from its rusted jaws. Somewhere, in the distant headquarters of a multinational construction company, there must be a boardroom full of men that want desperately for the bulldozer to continue its unearthing — to put something in the soil rather than take anything out of it — and this only spurs Anika and Carine’s efforts. Their muscles ache from hours spent crouching over the ground, sifting dust in cordoned-off quadrants again and again to be sure they haven’t missed anything. In the evenings Carine retrieves the jar of Amrutanjan that lives in the bottom of her purse and they slather it on each other’s backs. Heading to bed with the smell of menthol thick in her nostrils, Anika isn’t sure whether it’s the balm or the prospect of sleep that provides her the welcome sense of relief.
When they’re confident they’ve fine-tooth-combed the entire area, they lay out the findings, sit and whisper over them as if expecting the slow roil of a diamond birthing itself from coal. Displayed on a table covered with Carine’s linen scarf, the array looks like an exhibit in a natural history museum — a collection of fragments awaiting the correct syntax, a lengthy placard spelling out significance. Anika feels strongly that any reconstruction amounts to an educated guess, that for this, patience is required. She is attempting to form a bone-deep sense of the place, somewhere between intuition and premonition, where she assumes the voice speaks from.
Carine goes over to the table, gently touches each of the tablets. Heart, she says, almost inaudibly. Then jaw, then pelvis —
Where we found them? Anika says, catching on.
We need some way to refer to each of them. You finally going to use that extra linguistics degree?
In the beginning, the priests told us of [ ], who so loved [ ] that after he died she threw herself onto his funeral pyre. The gods cut her body into fifty-two pieces, as if this might minimize the impact of her untimely demise. She was scattered over the earth: her left breast near [ ], her toe in [ ], her ringlets of hair near [ ], her wrists near [ ]. Later, we drank from a churning river and traced its source to a tranquil, green hollow. No one told us this was where her womb fell, but we recognized the place immediately.
In the afternoons, Anika studies the tablets while Carine examines the bones. When Anika takes a break, she tries to help her friend work: measuring and re-measuring circumferences, comparing lengths and scribbling corresponding numbers in a thick, leather-bound notebook. Catching Carine murmuring calculations like incantations, Anika is reminded of how she first met her, in the antiquities wing of a museum attached to the university they both attended. In the museum, she had slowly approached Carine, who was dressed in a close-tailored yellow kurta and whose curls were tied back in a zari border headband. She envied the ease with which Carine wore her background; Anika had been trying for years to cover herself up, never acknowledging the futility of this effort. Carine was looking intently at a broken portion of a hammered gold necklace. When Anika stood next to her, Carine said, unprompted: this belonged to that woman over there, pointing to an unrelated partial skeleton in the corner of the room. She offered no explanation, but said it with such certainty that Anika didn’t ask how she knew this. When Anika came back a week later, she understood that the lines of the necklace matched the shape of the skeleton’s collarbone exactly. She remembered being surprised, once she saw it, that no one else had noticed it before.
Even across the dimly-lit hall, Anika had recognized Carine as kin. She was relieved, over the years of their friendship, to find that they shared much more in common than the same shade of brown skin and black hair in a familiar milieu of no-one-else-who-looked-like-them. On first glimpsing Carine, Anika understood what must have been the swelling of relief in her own parents’ bellies whenever they spotted a fellow Indian in their majority-white suburb: the solace in finding a single other face that affirms that you are not an anomaly.
The tablets they found are all inscribed in a fluid, unknown script. Whereas Sanskrit script is tethered to a flat bar, this one is unmoored, rolling across the page in a loose, sinuous scrawl. Anika searches for hours online — enduring the site’s spotty, painfully slow connection — but cannot locate a single reference to such a language. She falls down an infinite number of internet rabbit holes, but none leads to the text she is holding in her hands.
And in her palms, usually slick with sweat but now bone-dry: a pound of clay crawling with calligraphy, words to be stared at, words to be stared at long enough to be understood. If you stare at a thing long enough, you begin to notice patterns. Perhaps you invent or impose patterns, dream a palace out of ruins.
Years ago, on a trip to the Acropolis — feeling out the first contours of a future career — a harried father had asked Anika where he could find a particular forum labelled on his map. Anika had been sitting on a bench sketching that exact structure, as it had once looked, superimposed on the current landscape. You’re standing on it, she said. The man scanned the space around him, a wide field with a few column-stumps peeking through the sea of tall grass studded with blood-red poppies, then glanced pointedly at her sketch. You have to use your imagination, she added, seeing the man’s evident confusion, his rising disappointment. He walked away with his two bored, ear-budded teenagers, shaking his head.
Laid out side-by-side on her cheap folding table, the tablets form an uncharted, self-contained topography. For several days Anika merely lives with them, the tablets lurking in the wings of her vision, gaining the hushed intimacy of an underwater landscape. Then she grabs thin paper and wax crayons, and ever so carefully, as if she is making a gravestone rubbing, transfers the etched text on each tablet to a new sheet. She traces the script over and over, until she has to make new rubbings because she’s ripped straight through the paper. On the third transfer, she realizes the peripheral drawings she took for decoration are a key. The shapes she’s tracing resolve themselves into letters, words and phrases. She learns to distinguish the blank spaces indicating the end of a sentence from a proper noun omitted, intentionally, for anonymity; she comes to understand that both pauses signify, in their own way, a quiet desire to continue.
When enough of the strokes are identifiable, she attempts to speak the language aloud. Without meaning to, she falls into the flat cadences of English, her own native tongue. But the words seem to want to be chanted; they crave elision and lilt.
To build the world we summoned [ ], the goddess of speech. In the beginning, they told us she was a cosmic sound, a muse that inspired men to write inspired texts. They said she created the sacred language. But we listened more carefully: we understood that she was not the energy but the words; she was a hymn only we could hear. Our fingers described the sounds and inscribed them in shapes the men never could have imagined. Yes, we wrote everything down, what happened to us, the beginning, the end, no seamless transition between the two. But do not call us the authors of this history. We were a vessel for an ancient voice — we spoke the true names of what had always existed.
The red numbers on Anika’s battery-powered alarm clock flip over to 0:00. The first pattering of rain, the dull plopping of droplets against canvas. The rhythm of the shower picks up and she recites the words on the tablets again, matching the swelling intensity. The words no longer seem to catch in her throat; they flow, unencumbered. She admires the way the texts are strung together — a new vocabulary pieced together from an ancient one, freed from the constraints of rigid grammatical structure. She begins to write out her translations, piecing together a story of the tablet authors’ beginning and ending, a before and after for their creation of the language.
As the deluge peters out she sinks — wrung out, breathless — to the threadbare rug that serves as the floor of her tent. She hears, suddenly, a loud yell from Carine’s tent. Anika runs out in bare feet, forgetting that the uneven ground will be littered with puddles. Inside her tent, Carine is hopping around as if the ground is strewn with flaming coals. When she sees Anika’s face emerging between the canvas flaps, she freezes.
I figured it out, they each say in unison.
The bones, Carine says. I heard you muttering in your tent earlier about the tablets and it made me think of the jawbone. I re-measured. From the size, it definitely came from a woman.
Well, Anika says. I finally deciphered the tablets. You’ll want to hear what was written there.
Carine continues re-measuring while listening to Anika’s translations. She confirms what Anika already suspects: every one of the bones they’ve found belonged to a woman.
A period of hot winds comes like an airborne plague of stinging nettles. Anika and Carine tie handkerchiefs around the lower halves of their faces while they work, tightly zipped in either one of their tents. To pass the time they aren’t immersed in the tablet women’s world they take to pretending they live in another, as in: what if we excavated our current civilization ten thousand years in the future; what if we had the power to change a single event of the historical past; what if we were the last two women on earth; what if the earth had only ever been women.
I wonder how long we’ll have to hide out here, Anika says, starting the game.
Until that railroad baron makes enough money to forget about the crores we took. So, like ten more minutes.
Anika giggles. What then?
We go to the market. Find any women picking out coins from their palms like each coin has to count. Slip a thick wad of rupees in all of their purses. Disappear into the hills.
Will they write songs about our names? Are we infamous?
Nah, Carine says. In deed only.
Better that way. Only one of us could give the songs their due anyway.
Maybe you can sing in this universe, Carine says. In fact, maybe you learnt to from the birds that bring us news of all the earth’s other women. So how long should I tell the birds we’re staying here, she says, restarting.
I hope forever, Anika responds. It’s quieter than any place I’ve ever been.
She means quiet in the sense of peaceful, because there is never any shortage of noise — dogs barking, truck horns from the distant road, various insects playing their legs like string instruments. She means that when dark falls, the lull takes the shape of a gently rocking cradle and when the sun rises, a single yawn can soften the lengthening shadows.
Over dinner Anika and Carine point their headlamps at the objects around them and call out their names in the tablet women’s language. The words are rapidly becoming second nature. Anika is reminded of the annual visits she made to her grandmother’s flat in childhood, its light-filled rooms echoing with the headlong sound of Telugu. While there, the language came easily to her, though she’d never learnt it. She understood large portions of conversations and answered tentatively but correctly when spoken to. Still, her grandmother always looked at her sadly when it came time for Anika to go home to her parents. You’ll forget all about this when you leave, she said. And indeed, back in the effortless embrace of English, Anika had no desire to use different names for things, and her parents never forced her; the shame of losing a language remained an unspoken but necessary sacrifice between them. Yet Anika suspected that the roots of the words remained somehow embedded in her — how else did they so easily sprout when she returned to the light-filled flat, her own voice blending comfortably into her relatives’ chorus?
The physical landscape of the area has shifted dramatically in the centuries since the runaway widows set up their collective in this space. Mountains have been whittled into plateaus, coursing rivers reduced to trickling streams, a fertile hollow dried out into an arid, bouldered plain. Anika and Carine call out the words for pots and rocks and a few scattered trees, sweeping the site in concentric circles of naming until at last they come to the embers by their feet. There is no word for fire in the tablet women’s language — not since, they’ve surmised, those widows escaped sati and fashioned a new world from the ashes of a ritual burning.
In the beginning, the men told us stories of how [ ] tried to seduce [ ] with her beauty. But he resisted, so she turned instead to religious austerity. She fasted and starved; she meditated in icy pools and froze nearly to death; she slept and hardened herself to the unforgiving mountain. After years, a priest approached and asked why she had destroyed her once-lovely body with such deprivation. My love for [ ], she said. The priest scoffed. [ ]? he said. You did all this for that crazy hermit [ ]? What a terrible waste.
On the day the winds abruptly cease, a man arrives at the site. The cloud his jeep kicks up is similar to the ones that have been harassing the site for days. Anika recognizes the logo on the jeep as that of the small, European institute that provided her funding. She guesses the man is about her age, or possibly a few years younger. He is dressed as if ready to star in a film adaptation of an academic discipline, wearing a shirt and pants covered in miniature pockets of questionable utility. Anika knows the man only from his online institute biography — she scanned every one in preparation for her grant application — and as a name copied on emails she sends with updates on her work. She notices he has grown a thick, reddish beard since his website headshot was taken.
The man walks directly to where Anika and Carine are standing, hands to their foreheads shielding their eyes from the harsh midday sunlight. He offers a damp palm to both of them and introduces himself, explaining that he has been sent by the institute to oversee the project.
Though she hasn’t checked her email for several days, Anika senses there will be no mention in there of Robert’s impending arrival. She feels altogether unprepared to react to the situation, unprepared even for the long shadow his presence casts on the ground she and Carine have crawled over and scoured, inch by inch, for weeks. In lieu of a more considered response, she reverts to default politeness.
She leads Robert to the kitchen nook and hands him a plastic bottle of water from the loudly-humming mini-fridge. The label on the bottle depicts a gilded Lakshmi, goddess of good fortune, her arms outstretched toward the pink cap. She asks Robert his research specialty though she already knows it from the short list of his publications available on the institute’s website.
I’m an Ashtadhyayi expert, he says. That’s a 2,600 year old treatise on Sanskrit grammar, he adds, though more than a passing knowledge of this text was necessary for Anika to even enter her linguistics program. She remembers that the treatise’s author, legend has it, was killed by a lion — beasts cared not for intellectual virtues, went the tale. She wants to ask Robert whether he believes this story to be true, but senses he might not have a sense of humor about the subject.
Carine joins them as Robert finishes speaking, having probably stopped first to check the jeep for useful supplies. I don’t understand, she says, continuing a conversation aloud that she has clearly been having with herself. She has pulled her hair loose and Anika feels, suddenly, how tightly her own braid is wound, how it pulls at her temples. We’ve already determined this language is a unique dialect created by women, for women.
Robert scratches an inflamed mosquito bite on the side of his neck. Anika wonders how he could have been bitten in the space of the few hours’ air conditioned drive from Hyderabad airport to the site. Yes, I am aware of that, he says. But I was the closest expert the institute had available, so they sent me.
He lobs his empty bottle into the trash bin, the plastic ringing against the metal with a finality that suggests an end to this particular subject. He asks them to show him the tablets. As Anika directs Robert to her tent she sees that Carine’s face has taken on a strange frown, her lips frozen around a word she cannot, for once, bring herself to say.
Not a waste, [ ] said to the priest, and he’s not crazy, I love him. No matter what further harsh remarks the priest made, [ ] did not budge in her devotion. The priest transformed, then, into [ ], the beloved god, the object of her affection. You stayed true, he said, embracing her, and for this I must admit I love you too.
What were we to make of this story? By the time we reached the end, we learned we did not need to pass a test to become deserving.
That evening, Anika and Robert sit by the fire and pick at their food. The way they have seated themselves — diametrically opposed — is not conducive to conversation, but Robert still attempts occasional small talk. Anika silently curses Carine, who retreated to her tent once she presented them with dinner. After a particularly long lull Robert excuses himself, saying he should call his wife and say goodnight to his kids. He walks over to the tent he set up a short distance away from Anika’s and Carine’s. Anika listens to the low murmur of his conversation, the individual words indistinguishable but the tone clearly warm and gentle. Now and then his voice erupts in eager laughter, and she has trouble reconciling this version of him with the serious-faced man she encountered earlier.
Later, in her own tent, sitting on a wobbly string cot, she thinks of how she hasn’t called anyone since arriving. The only person she might have wanted to call would have been Carine. Perhaps her mother, also, but that woman’s powers of observation are too keen for Anika to confront in her current state. How are you doing, her mother would say, and Anika would say fine, in a completely normal voice. Then her mother would say: you chose this, you know — you wanted to study the fruits of everyone else’s posterity instead of creating your own. And then Anika would hear her own voice crack as she denied this and have to lie awake all night with that wavering.
There is not much for them to do, Anika realizes, once Robert takes charge of the tablets. Following the dust storms, the sky clears to a cloudless, smogless blue, with a depth that seems capable of storing any number of secrets. The sun marches around the sky with a new sweltering swagger. Still, Robert remains holed up in his tent, giving no direction other than that the women should wait for him to get up to speed.
For Anika and Carine, waiting entails sitting on two squat boulders, drinking cup after cup of cardamom coffee and talking of the nameless widows as if they’d known them personally. Their heads incline towards each other when they speak, and they notice how their combined shadows form an unbroken wishbone. The pack of dogs assembles, tongues lolling, beneath a nearby neem tree offering a fat patch of shade.
You know, Carine says, all the bones are of average mortality-aged adults.
I know, Anika says, they must have lived here for years without ever being found. There is no need to add that she doubts anyone ever came looking.
On her first day of university, Anika’s anthropology professor had opened his lecture by saying, portentously, that prehistory was ninety-nine percent of the past. She understood, later, that he took the invention of writing as the great dividing line, that the desire to record was inextricably wrapped up in the recording. Over time, Anika grew to agree: the bulk of the past seemed to lay long before the telling. At the very least, a long and buried detour outside the common telling.
In the beginning, we were not allowed literacy, but we were always watching, always listening. The priest told us many stories, but years passed before the words rearranged themselves into a moral we could put down in writing. For instance: one night, [ ] was reciting scripture to his wife, but she fell asleep while he was reading. The god was enraged, and cursed her to be reborn a mortal. And so she was, as the most beautiful woman in a small coastal fishing village. After his wife was gone, the god found that he missed her terribly. So the god transformed his bull into a shark and sent it to terrorize the fishing village.
At mealtimes Robert emerges, squinting and rubbing his eyes. He offered to take over cooking upon arriving but Carine refused, muttering that there wasn’t much else for her to do otherwise. There are days Anika feels Carine could stew the chickpeas in simmering resentment alone. Though they eat together, conversation is sparse and Robert never mentions the tablets or the project. She thinks it would be difficult for an outside observer to discern the relationship between the three of them; it is difficult, at times, for Anika to remember why she herself is there. She begins carrying her translations of the tablets in her pocket as a reminder, fingering the folded paper like a worry doll until it softens into a fabric-like consistency.
One afternoon, Robert receives a phone call in his tent. Just a minute, he says, and walks away from the camp until he is a khaki speck in the similarly-colored landscape. He returns after fifteen minutes, making his way to where Anika and Carine are sitting by the fire, watching a pot of water until it gives in and boils.
Robert’s face has turned a bright, purplish shade of red. His mouth opens and closes several times without words escaping his lips. Anika senses immediately that the news is bad.
Did you need something, Carine says, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
Oh, he says, looking up as if she had interrupted him. Well, that was the institute that just called. We discussed some thoughts on the — on the, uh, organization of this project.
Anika waits for him to continue until it’s clear that he won’t. Well? she says.
Well — we determined that the, uh, language is the significant discovery here. So, that means — that necessitates that we no longer devote any resources to studying the human remains.
I’m sorry, Carine, he adds, but she has already gotten up and started walking to her tent. Anika stares at Robert’s face, but he will not meet her eyes. He sits down next to her with a dramatic sigh and puts his head in his hands. Anika stands to go after Carine but her feet do not follow. She feels paralyzed by the burden of expectation — Robert expecting some invective, Carine expecting more than platitudes. Her mind empties and she remains where she is standing. Carine is packing, and singing. It is a new melody that Anika has not heard before.
A logoed jeep arrives for Carine the next morning, and she leaves after an unemotional goodbye.
I’ll see you back there, she says, though Anika is not sure yet where that would be. She hopes Carine is heartened by the fact that Anika remains at the site, that from this, something may still be salvaged to make their work worthwhile. Their work has always been paramount; this principle had bonded them at university when it seemed any number of other competing demands might get in the way. As the jeep crawls toward the horizon, Anika thinks of how Carine had squared her shoulders before climbing into its passenger seat.
Robert avoids Anika for the rest of the day. He offers no further thoughts on the project or her status with it. She sits in her tent, guessing the hour by the diminishing light and wondering if Robert, too, has left. Dinnertime comes and goes. Towards midnight, when her stomach’s growls grow so insistent as to prevent sleeping, she nibbles at a rock-hard granola bar that she finds wedged between folders in her backpack. The mosquito coil in the corner has almost burned out and the heady citronella fog in the tent makes her feel contemplative.
It has been hours, not days, since Carine left. Still, Anika feels the debt of borrowed time accruing, the anxiety brought on by uncertainty. She could be sitting in her tent for weeks waiting for Robert to receive another inevitable phone call, a comfortable space morphing gradually into a claustrophobic one.
Though the voice does not interject, Anika feels that it is present, angling for a particular decision.
The coastal villagers beseeched the gods for help, saying they would give the hand of [ ], their most beautiful maiden, to anyone who could rid the village of the menace. The god appeared after a few days, disguised as a fisherman and carrying the body of the dead shark over his shoulders. The villagers rejoiced. Here is your maiden, they said, and the god was grateful. For in reality, the villagers were returning his wife to him, whom he brought, happily, back to his mountain.
In the end, we understood the moral immediately: look what violence they wreak, to mend what they themselves have wrought.
The next evening, Anika assembles her belongings. Everything still fits into the featherlight, nylon backpack she came with; she has accumulated nothing beyond stacks of paper, copious pages of notes and translations. And the bones and tablets, of course, though for these she feels a temporary guardianship rather than entitlement or ownership.
Outside, the sky has thrown down a carpet of black velvet and the new moon night feels like an auspicious sign. She changes into the one salwar kameez she packed, knowing she cannot show up suddenly in the nearby village in the shorts and t-shirts she wears daily at the site, no matter how local her face looks. The cotton top and pants give off a strong odor of camphor, one she associates with deep armoire shelves and rarely-worn clothes. She ties the chiffon dupatta over her flashlight, lessening its beam into a hazy green glow.
Anika pauses at the entrance to Robert’s tent until she hears the faint rumble of a snore. She unzips the opening one tooth at a time. The tablets are laid out on a plastic folding table identical to hers, set against one canvas wall of the tent, parallel to his cot. She makes sure Robert’s eyes remain closed as she takes the tablets, one by one, and wraps them loosely in a jute bag that once held basmati rice. She tucks the bundle in the outer pocket of her backpack.
As she re-zips the opening, she feels a pang of regret at leaving the bones behind. They are still in Carine’s tent, lying naked on a similar folding table. There is the embodiment of the community, Carine would say; that these widows lived, that they once lived here.
But Anika knows she can’t carry everything. It has to be enough, she thinks, to have only the body of words; it has to be enough to have left with the women’s language. The final tooth of the zipper locks into place and Anika exhales with relief, her breath releasing, finally, at a volume just below a contented sigh.
Anika picks her way carefully along the path, worried about tripping but even more worried about stopping. She reaches the nearby village at about ten o’clock.
The owner of the grocery store is standing outside his darkened shop smoking a beedi. He recognizes Anika and smiles, motioning that he can reopen the shop if she needs. She shakes her head no and keeps walking, conscious suddenly of the hour, the empty streets.
She passes a tailoring shop with its lights still on. She can see several women inside, seated under glaring fluorescents, nimbly feeding material to chattering sewing machines. As she opens the door, an attached bell clangs loudly. The women all look up, expectantly. Anika tells them that she needs to leave the village, that she needs help. They point to the back of the room where a woman wearing reading glasses is seated at a solid teak desk, violently punching numbers into a calculator.
The head tailor turns out to have a daughter who attends college in the nearby city. She insists Anika stay with her until dawn, when the tailor’s daughter leaves on her daily commute. Anika accompanies the woman back to her house, which is quiet but full with the breathing of sleeping bodies. Though it is late and Anika protests, the woman retrieves a plastic container of cauliflower curry from the fridge and heats it in the microwave. She pulls out a chair for Anika at the dining table, which is draped with a spotless white tablecloth embroidered with blue flowers. She brings her a cold glass of buttermilk and waits while she eats, not going to bed until Anika has wiped her plate clean with a third chapati.
In the end, we plucked the one harmonious chord in the universe and lived for years in its continued vibration. We hid ourselves in plain sight where we could not be found. They thought we would be dressed in white, forever condemned to half-life by [ ] and all the rest of the gods. But we clothed ourselves in all the colors of the earth, our bodies holied by our own sacred utterances, invisible only to those who stopped seeing us.
Anika wakes to what she assumes is the head tailor’s daughter. In the weak light she can make out only a girl in her late teens, her eyes heavily lined with kohl. Time to go, the girl hisses, poking Anika’s shoulder. By the way, I’m Parvati.
Parvati has a new-looking Bajaj scooter in a sickly shade of bubblegum pink. It boasts a sheen that can only be maintained with frequent washings, and Anika senses that to Parvati, the scooter represents more than a simple means of transport. Parvati hands Anika a helmet stickered with cartoon animals. My old one, she explains, as she fastens a plain black one under her own chin. She cautions Anika to hold tight, though Parvati turns out to be an exceedingly careful driver, following traffic laws though no one else around her appears to do so. As she weaves expertly onto a main street, into the growing rush of morning traffic, Anika loosens her hug around Parvati’s waist but does not let go entirely.
Anika wonders whether she would ever so readily aid a complete stranger. What inspired such generosity, the kind that sped along like this, carefree, secure in the fact of its necessity, requiring no reciprocation? If she ever had her own daughter, Anika wonders whether this girl would be able to address the world with ease; whether the world might one day change and become easier for a girl to address. The streets blur to a rushing stream of colors, the sounds to a low-level hum. Anika ducks her head into the protected space behind Parvati’s back and wonders, not for the first time, whether the future would ever become as readily imaginable for her as the past.
Several times at traffic lights Anika thinks she sees Robert — crossing the street, riding a motorcycle, sitting in an auto-rickshaw. But it is only a trick of the light, the sunlight reddening a beard at a certain angle. Nonetheless, each time it causes a fleeting rush of fear to pierce the bravery Anika feels she is wearing as armor. It takes time, the voice says, for steel to weld itself to bones; much longer for it to remain legible in your marrow, decades after your demise.
A few years earlier, Anika came across a retelling by Plato of a Socratic dialogue between two Egyptian gods, Thamus and Theuth, the latter the god of writing. In response to Theuth’s exaltation of writing as a winning potion for humanity, Thamus argued that writing was dangerous for it would slowly replace memory, rendering humans beholden to external texts that could speak only the word as written and thus give only an appearance of truth. Anika remembers laughing upon reading this, imagining these men in a room speaking of truth as if they desired all forms of it to be preserved, speaking of dead texts as if they strained to hear the voices between the lines. What was memory, after all, but an act of memorialization; what was a person’s existence — their experience, written down, un-erased — but a truth in and of itself? So what if a truth from a fervently-imagined dream was written down and called a memory?
In the beginning, there was to be a burning. There were to be two bodies reduced to ash, one dead, one living. Instead, we are proof that there was a living: that there were no burnings so there would be something left for you to find. In the end, there were no children — there were only these lives, this tale, this desire for preservation. In the end, what else can this language say? Other than: listen; other than: hear all of this; other than: tell all of it it, every word, to your daughters.
The outskirts of the city materialize after about twenty minutes. Buildings grow denser and taller until they become reef-life structures, layers upon layers arranged in a complex, resilient ecosystem.
That’s my college, Parvati yells, pointing at what appears to be a storefront with a peeling sign on the second level of a building.
They continue on for several more minutes. Anika spots a board for the train station, and Parvati pulls into the entrance drive. She slows smoothly to a halt behind a line of idling Ambassador taxis.
Here you go, she says. Train station.
Anika pulls off her helmet and hands it to Parvati, who hangs it by its strap in the narrow crook of her elbow. Standing there, Anika feels like the words “thank you” are woefully insufficient, that there is much more she wishes to say. She asks if she can buy Parvati a cup of tea. Parvati checks her watch and, satisfied with the time she sees there, agrees.
Inside the station, still in the midst of awaking from its overnight slumber, there are pockets of concerted activity: a bearded man mopping up an unidentified liquid in a corner, a newsstand owner barking headlines, a uniformed railway agent sprinting toward a belching train, hat clutched in his hand. The departures board reanimates at regular intervals, clicking out delays and platform numbers. She watches it for several minutes, and hears the voice say a word that seems to mean both go and stay at once.
She buys a one-way ticket with a stack of her remaining rupees, and a chai for Parvati, admiring the practiced way the chaiwalla threads the liquid in a thin strand between two steel cups to cool it. On a whim, she buys a Thums Up for herself, having not had the soda for years, decades even. The first sip tastes exactly as she remembers, a sweet and heavily carbonated artifact of childhood straight from her grandmother’s flat.
When she returns outside, Parvati is waiting in the exact spot Anika left her, leaning protectively against her scooter. The city grit and smog has already clouded the scooter’s careful detailing, but the pink still draws the eye immediately, like a beacon. Parvati is carefully scanning the faces in the unbroken stream of people coming out of the station’s entrance. As she spots Anika she smiles, her face alight with recognition.