The year the war came closer I was six or seven and it did not matter to me. I lived with my brother, father and mother and our hut had two rooms with mats on the floor and a line of wooden pegs from which our clothes hung and in the evening we sat in the yard outside, watching our mother cook on the fire by the grapefruit tree. When the tree flowered I opened my mouth wide to swallow the scent. Little green beads of fruit appeared when the flowers fell off. One day, when some of the fruit had turned as round and yellow as full moons, my brother climbed the tree. He looked tall and strong clambering from branch to branch, my older brother. I stood holding the trunk, waiting for the fruit to come down. He snapped them off the stem, the branch shook hard, and I was showered with dust and dry leaves.
The grapefruits were pale yellow outside, with stippled skin. They were as big as melons and heavy with juice. My mother slid a knife into one and cut it in half and the flesh was pink and the smell of its juice was tart and fresh.
Our hut was all we knew, the four of us. I remember a fence around it, made of branches my father cut and brought home on his shoulders a few at a time, every day. The jungle was thick, the leaves of the tall trees were broad and green. I have tried to remember which trees they were, but I can only bring back the ones that gave me things to eat: mangoes, grapefruit, jackfruit and lime. We had hens that went mad cackling and crowing when they were laying eggs. Their eggs were brown. We had a cow, a few goats, and three pigs.
When the pigs were slaughtered for their meat they shrieked with a sound that made my teeth fall off and this was the sound I heard soon after my mother cut the grapefruit, and the men came in with axes. Their faces were wrapped in cloth. They shoved my brother outside, they pushed my mother and me to a corner of the room and then they flung my father at a wall. They slammed his face at the wall again and again. The whitewashed wall streamed red, they threw him to the floor and kicked him with their booted feet. Each time the boots hit him it was as if a limp bundle of clothes was being tossed this way and that. One of the men lifted an axe and brought it down on my father’s forehead.
When they left they wrote something on the wall in his blood. They did not look at us.
In my sleep I hear the sound of pigs at slaughter, the sound my father made.
The next thing was a clump of bushes by a ditch. My mother was hiding me in the bushes. Smoke rose from the place our village was – not the smoke of cooking fires but a kind I had never seen before. It made the blue sky black and stilled the birds. There was not a sound. I started to shout for my brother, but my mother put her palm over my mouth. If only she hadn’t stopped me. He always came when I called and he always knew what to do.
I was walking after that, as fast as I could, but still my mother kept pulling at my hand and dragging me, saying, “Faster, faster.” Then she picked me up and I was on her back and my arms were wrapped around her. She ran through the jungle. My legs straddled her waist, my head reached her shoulders, but I could not look beyond. Her hair pricked my eyes, it was sticky with sweat and dirt. Her feet were bare. She stopped to pluck thorns from them and once she stopped to tear off a strip from her sari and wrap it around her foot when a stone gashed it. If I asked for my brother she said, “Quiet, not a word.”
My mother’s face was fierce. She had thick, straight eyebrows and she wore a nose pin that sparkled like a star. Her palm felt rough and hard when it slapped my cheek and when it rubbed oil into me before a bath. Although I scrape and scrape at my mind, there is not much else I can bring back.
We rested, we slept once or twice, then she hoisted me onto her back and walked again. It was for a day or maybe it was for two, and all of a sudden the leaves fell away, the ground grew soft, everything opened out and the ocean was before us. I had never seen the sea or sand. I ran towards the water. My mother came after me and held me back, but she let me paddle at the edge of the water. Then I saw a man. He came up to her and said something.
My mother drew me away from the water and made me sit in the shadow of a boat. Her sari was wet to her knees. She bent down and wrung it out at the bottom. They moved away from me, they spoke softly to each other. She came back. “Wait here,” she said, “don’t move.” She returned to the man. Her voice thinned and flew in the breeze. And then she was gone.
The sun hung over the sea, looking as if it would fall into it anytime. The water was high, there was too much of it. Waves came like white-toothed monsters and bit off the sand. They came closer and closer. I kept looking at the place where my mother had stood with the man. I was hungry. I called for her. My stomach ached with hunger. I stood up and opened my mouth as wide as I could and I shouted for my brother. Nobody.
When it was almost dark, two women appeared. They tried to take me away from the boat. I kept telling them my mother had told me to wait. One woman tugged at me. I shouted and struggled, my feet dragged in the sand, and she said, “Quiet!” She picked me up. The other woman forced water from a bottle into my mouth. They were taking me to my mother, she said. It would not be long.
I think it was the next morning that they put me into a van. There were other girls in the van, some smaller than me, some bigger. The van drove until it reached a town. There was a house in the town, painted pink and blue. It had a room with straw mats on the floor where we slept. We were given boiled rice to eat. The rice was red in colour instead of white. The grains were fat and chewy. I had never eaten rice like that. There was one girl who would not eat and she cried all the time. After a few days the women who fed us put that girl and her bedding out in the verandah for the night. Her wailing could still be heard inside, but not so loud, and we could all sleep. The next morning when the women went to get her from the verandah she was no longer there.
After that we were very quiet.
One of the women looked fat and kind and she held me tight every time I asked her when I could go back home. Her chest was as soft as a pillow. She rocked me back and forth saying, “My child, my child.”
“I want my mother. I want my brother.”
She said, “Your mother and your father and your brother have become stars. Whenever you want to be with them, look up at the sky and there they are.” I thought of my mother’s nose pin. The woman pointed upward and I followed her finger with my eyes. But although it was night, the sky was red from distant fi res, and there was not a glimmer in it. “The stars are there,” she said. “You can’t see them, but they are there.”
Then she held me close and wept. I had never seen a grown-up weep. My mother scolded us all the time, but when she was not scolding she joked and sang songs. This woman groaned and sighed. Each time she got up or sat down the woman held her knee and said, “Chuni, if only you would rub that oil in again.” There was nobody called Chuni in that place.
One afternoon when I was sitting with the fat woman on the steps to the house, looking at the dust clouds in the street, she pulled out a pouch from inside her blouse. She had a needle that she held to a lit match until it went blue and black. She looked at my face as if she had not seen it before, and with a pen she made marks on both my ears. Before I knew what she was doing, she was pulling at one of my ears and I felt a sharp pain. Her face looked huge and ugly when it was so close. Her skin shone with sweat. Her nose had tiny pin-sized holes and black hair sprouted from some of them. I could smell her rotting breath. I tried to push her away, but she held me by the ear and kept pushing the burnt needle into the place that hurt.
She stopped. She turned my face towards the left and said, “Keep still, don’t shout so much, or it will hurt more.”
Again that terrible pinprick, then a burning pain. She looked at my ears and I heard her exclaim, “Jaah! They are up and down from each other. The things I do!” She picked something out of, her pouch and prised it into my bleeding ear lobe. “Never mind, there it is. Up down or not.”
My ears were still oozing blood when I looked at myself. Two loops of wire went through them now. One of them was higher than the other. The woman stood behind me, dark as a hill in the mirror that held us both. With the earrings on, I was different: I looked dressed up. I looked like a girl. The woman stroked my face and my hair and she kept saying, “Chuni, my Chuni, see how pretty they look, your rings.” Another of the house’s women came in at that moment and peered into the mirror. “That’s gold! You gave her your gold rings?”
The fat woman said, “Better that a girl wears them.”
Later, when we were alone and she was dabbing my earlobes with a stinging solution she said, “They are my daughter’s. They are gold. I saved for many months to get them made. Chuni wore them all the time. You look after them. Keep them safe. Never take them off.”
That night my ears swelled up and pus oozed from the holes. By morning the rings were stuck in the drying pus. The pain and later the itch made me want to tear the rings off my ears. It was worse the day after. Still, I looked at myself in the mirror and said in a whisper, “Chuni, Chuni, I’m wearing your rings. I will never take them off.” The woman cleaned the wounds with her solution. “They really look as if they were made for your face, my child.
They do. You are my girl reborn.” She tapped the rings with her fingers to make them swing back and forth. The other women in the house gaped at her.
I stayed in that house a few weeks, maybe a few months, until more men came with cloth wrapped around their faces. One of them stood holding a gun. He shouted, “This is for your own good, this is for our motherland, this is for our mother tongue.” A second man clapped his hands and told us to hold each other’s shoulders and chug out of the house in a line as if we were a train. Outside, we had to keep chugging and whistling around the courtyard. It felt like a game. The man making us play seemed to be smiling under the cloth wrapped around his face. He was lanky and loose-limbed like my brother. He had that same kind of hair, scruffy and short. My brother. I broke the line to run towards him. The man stopped smiling and lifted his rifle butt towards me. I went back to the line of girls, but I no longer felt like a coach in a train.
The two other men took pots and pans, chairs, blankets and stoves from the house and loaded them into their jeep. The women stood by. Then the men sprinkled something all over the rooms and threw lit torches into the house. Flames leaped from the windows.
We spent that night in the open. We were twelve girls and the four women who looked after us. There was nowhere to go. In the morning we were put in another van and we left the buildings behind, we went through rough countryside, on and on, until the trees were behind us as well, the sky opened up, the sand stretched hot and bare, and there again was the sea. Again there was a boat. This time it was in the water. I ran towards it – my mother – I thought my mother would be there. All twelve of us were made to climb in. One of the women got in as well, but it was not the fat one. She stayed on the shore. The motor thudded to a start. Two men climbed into it and the boat rocked and swayed. Then it moved out into the ocean.
Until the sun whited out my eyes I kept them on the fat woman. The shore went further and further away from us and then there was nothing but water and sky. One of the girls vomited all over and the men threatened to throw the next one who did that into the sea. I touched my earrings.
From SLEEPING ON JUPITER. Used with permission of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2016 by Anuradha Roy.