Dinesh moved quickly at first through the darkness of the canopy, in spite of being unable to see the ground in front of him. It felt pleasant to use his legs vigorously after having sat down for so long, to feel the pressure in his feet and the strain in his calves as they lifted up the weight of his body with each step. He moved surely and without hesitation along his habitual path, and then as the trees gradually thinned and the darkness let up he found himself slowing down, not so much from fatigue as from a kind of nervousness about what would happen on his way through the camp. His movement became more tentative, and then finally, at the edge of the jungle, he came to a stop. The sky, immense and empty, opened out over him. The half-moon was brightly visible, except for brief interludes in which whorls of translucent cloud passed beneath, and it gave out a soft blue backlight that seemed wholly without source. Stretching out in front of him each tent in the vast settlement absorbed and reflected this light, like a nighttime gathering of wraiths with nowhere to hide. The dull thudding of artillery and gunfire could be heard in the distance, but the camp itself felt cocooned in silence, as though the fighting that was raging on nonstop to the north, west, and south was a blanket in which the camp was swaddled rather than something that could enter and destroy it at will, without warning, many times a day.
Careful not to disturb the pervasive stillness, Dinesh began walking quietly through the periphery of the camp. Most of the evacuees were inside their tents, together with their families and things, but many were sleeping under the open sky, on the ground and in uncovered trenches, individually and in groups of up to four or five. Observing them as he passed into the more populated sections of the camp Dinesh became filled, slowly, with the sacredness of being awake in a place in which everybody else was asleep. Those who had just fallen asleep he could tell apart easily, by their furrowed brows and curled lips, by the effort and struggle to block out the world that was imprinted still on their faces. Their muscles were taut, their bodies curled into tight balls, their closed eyes screwed up as if to prevent anything outside them from entering in, fighting to obtain or retain a state of sleep before it was made impossible by the next shelling in a way that was not so different, perhaps, from how long ago, if he woke up earlier than necessary in the morning, he would refuse to open his eyes and stubbornly pretend to still be sleeping, despite knowing full well that soon he’d have to get up and rejoin the world. The people who had been asleep longer, in contrast, let their bodies relax and their lips droop. Their faces were peaceful and unstrained, and no longer displayed any sign of a struggle to fend off the world. Most still had their bags under their heads like pillows, or their arms and legs slung around them like teddy bears, but they were no longer clutching them like the others or even holding on to them. They seemed to have mostly lost concern with the world immediately outside them, as though their gaze had turned more or less inwards, away from their eyes and ears and hands and feet. Most of them were dreaming, their lips twitching and their eyelids flickering like Ganga’s had in the clearing, their fingers and toes curling and uncurling, suspended in an uncertain realm of shifting things and obscure feelings, partly within the world still but mostly not, while a few of them, it seemed, had managed to let go fully. Their mouths open and their arms and legs sprawled out, the rising and falling of the chests so subtle it was hard to tell if they were still breathing, a small but increasing number had entirely ceased dreaming, it seemed, had become lost in a deeper, more timeless sleep. It was as though these sleepers had disengaged themselves from the world entirely, from not only its objects but also from the forms through which in ordinary life these objects were perceived, as though they had left their bodies lying unguarded in the camp and gone off to some other place, trusting meanwhile that they would be safe though in fact of course shards of metal could come raining down from the sky at any time.
It was these people especially, lost in this deeper, fuller sleep, that Dinesh did not want to disturb. He took care to avoid stepping too close to their heads as he moved, and looking at their calm, unknowing faces as he passed he sensed acutely how his body slowed down beside them, how carefully his feet arched and lowered themselves onto the earth, how silently his calves tensed as they lifted his body and shifted its weight onto the next foot. No sound he made would wake them up probably, but he was fearful of disturbing the silence that surrounded their sleep all the same, wary in the same way that upon entering an empty temple one was wary of making the slightest sound, as if in a sense there was no real difference between the silence demanded by the divine and the silence demanded by the sleep of other humans. It was as though having relinquished totally the world outside them these sleepers were in the presence now of something special, of something elusive and beautiful that had appeared or become visible inside them and which completely ensnared them, as when one peers into the bottom of a well that is momentarily unused, in which the movement of water has calmed and even the gentlest ripples on the surface have stilled, and looking down one can see the things that have remained silently unnoticed at the very bottom all the long years of its use. Unable to pull away one was drawn closer and closer inside, and just as even an insect skating lightly across the water’s surface might suffice to call back one’s attention from the depths, make one blink and turn away, Dinesh was afraid that even the slightest movement he made might take those people lost deep in sleep away from what they had found.
Walking by all the people sleeping in the camp Dinesh wondered whether perhaps he had been mistaken to not try harder to fall asleep in these last months, not merely because he was tired, but because perhaps in not sleeping he was missing out on something that he would not again have the chance to savor. For so many years he had tried to avoid sleep, to fend it off as yet another distraction from the central purpose of life, a purpose he could never identify but which he waited for nevertheless with yearning, hoping it would somehow show itself in the night sky. Even when he was tired and had to be up early he would stay up late, as if by staying up he was putting himself in position to have some long-awaited experience that life would not bestow if he fell asleep. Perhaps though this attitude had been mistaken, perhaps he should have been more willing to fall asleep in the past, perhaps he should have been more sensitive to what sleep could give, to what it gave everybody now. When you were asleep you always hated disturbances after all, when you were asleep you were always happy to stay that way for the rest of your life. Even now he was refusing to go to bed, refusing to sleep as if in staying awake something would happen to justify the difficulty of having stayed awake and struggled so long, though what reward could possibly be forthcoming, what good could possibly come of being awake now? He had wanted to bathe so that Ganga would accept him, but even if it helped he would still have to wait till she woke for her to notice, and he might just as well have tried to sleep now and bathe in the morning instead, at least then he could have let her know before leaving her all alone. If he wanted of course he could still go back, Ganga would still be quietly sleeping in the clearing, probably by now she would be lost deeply in sleep. He could go back and fall asleep beside her still, he could curl up his body and put his hands under his head and drop bit by bit into that deep, unknowing state himself. If he went back and lay down beside Ganga he could have all that, he knew, but he had come so far now, he was almost at the well. It would be good to clean his body he knew, and it would be nicer to fall asleep once he was clean. He wanted, for the time being at least, to stay awake.
The well he had planned to use was just behind the school buildings that housed the clinic, in a small backyard circumscribed by a patch of jungle to the south and west. As he approached the area Dinesh took the long way around, so he could avoid walking past the dozens of wounded evacuees who had been laid out on tarpaulins immediately in front of the clinic. Their bodies were thin and slit and ruptured, separated only by little strips of bloodstained ground, and he would rather avoid being in their proximity if he could. He still had to pass the many unclaimed bodies that had been laid out to the southeast of the clinic, though, and as he drew near them Dinesh became increasingly anxious about stepping on something dead. He took long, cautious steps and let only the front of his feet come into contact with the ground, so that he was walking more or less on tiptoe. If he stepped on anything that was soft but that seemed to have structure he would immediately stop, his body temporarily frozen, then nudging the object fearfully with the edge of his slippers would try to verify that it was just some normal, natural thing, a large plant or a twig under a pile of leaves. He had become accustomed it was true to lifeless bodies and body parts over the course of all the fighting, it wasn’t something that had bothered him greatly for a long time, but something about having been so near all the people sleeping in the camp, and also to Ganga’s quiet, delicately alive body in the clearing, made him anxious about being around them now. There were other pumps and wells in the camp that he might have used instead, but the problem was that they couldn’t provide any privacy. Bathing at the other wells or pumps meant being in plain sight of the other evacuees and potentially also the movement’s patrols. The area of the camp near the clinic on the other hand was for some reason usually avoided by the cadres, and the clinic well itself was perfectly enclosed between the back of the school buildings and the encircling brush and trees. None of the injured were kept near the well, and the only people who ever went there were nurses and volunteers who filled up buckets of water to clean wounds, wash instruments, and give to the injured, some of whom, especially those who’d been struck around the stomach, were insatiably thirsty. There was a chance one of them could be using the well now, but it was close to midnight, they were in that brief three- or four-hour span in which almost everybody in the camp was trying to sleep, even in the clinic, and the area therefore would most likely be unoccupied.
Dinesh shuffled through the narrow path between the outside wall of the staff room and the trees, the leaves brushing his face in the darkness till arriving at the corner of the building he stood completely still, and surveyed the school’s backyard. In its center the thick, circular wall of the well could be seen, three or four feet high, around it only bare earth, dotted here and there with patches of grass glowing dully in the moonlight. Nestled between the back walls of the two school buildings on one side and the ring of trees that formed the jungle’s boundary on the other, the area seemed strangely calm and peaceful. Except for the bucket beside the well and two stretchers improvised from sticks and sarongs that were lying on the ground, there was no sign that it had been visited by humans in many years. Dinesh stayed hidden behind the corner of the staff room for a minute or two longer, and only when he felt sure that nobody was around did he begin moving across the open yard towards the far side of the well. He tried to hush the sound of his heartbeat as he walked, as if by being silent he could compensate for the conspicuousness of his movements, and when he stepped up on the slightly raised concrete platform he stood perfectly motionless beside the wall of the well, as if to convince anybody watching that he was really just an inanimate object. Soundlessly he removed his slippers and lowered himself down, so that he was sitting cross-legged, his back against the smoothly cemented wall. A short distance before him the tangle of brush began, thickening for a few feet before becoming indistinguishable from the trees, and enclosed by the two buildings behind him and the semicircle of jungle in front of him and to his sides, he felt screened and barricaded from all directions, suitably protected. Nobody would be able to see him unless they came right up to the well, and if he didn’t make any noise nobody would have any reason to. He was sufficiently alone and enclosed he felt, not permanently or impenetrably, but enough at least to make himself vulnerable for a short period of time.
Dinesh took out of his shirt pocket the bar of soap and the pair of scissors that he’d taken from Ganga’s bag. He’d picked up an old newspaper that he noticed on the ground while walking through the camp, and unfolding one of the sheets he spread it out on the concrete before him and placed the soap over its center to weigh it down. Taking the scissors in his right hand and plucking out a lengthy tuft of hair from the top of his head with his left, he hesitated for a moment, as if he was about to do something of significance, then snipped it off. He cut more off the crown, moved to the hair on the back of his head, then jumped to the front, depositing each of the cut tufts carefully on the newspaper. The scissor blades were slightly rusted and his thumb snagged uncomfortably in the small lower handle, but the cutting itself was easy because of the way his hair had congealed into discrete oily clumps. Both shoulders began to ache slightly from the strain of keeping his arms elevated but he continued patiently along the sides, carefully around his ears, and then again to the back of his head, down to his neck. He kept going till all over his head his hair felt of roughly the same length, no more than an inch or so long, then put the scissors down and let his arms fall to his sides. On the newspaper in front of him lay a large creature-like mound of black hair, more than enough to cover the scalp of someone who’d gone bald. It was hard to believe he’d carried so much on his head for so long, and that despite its volume he’d hardly been able to feel its weight. He removed the bar of soap and swept all the individual strands and clumps from the edges of the newspaper into its center. Cupping the mound so it stayed in place he leaned forward and submerged the tip of his nose into its peak. He breathed in deeply, as if through its scent he could glean the significance of what he’d removed from his body, of all that had happened during the period in which what he’d cut had grown, but his hair smelled, despite how deeply he inhaled, of nothing.
Dinesh leaned back up against the wall and for a moment was still. He looked at his thumb, which was hurting still from holding the scissors, and noticed for the first time the state of his fingernails. For most of the evacuation he’d bitten them, more in order to have something to do than out of a desire to keep himself presentable, but though the biting had slowed the lengthening of his nails it had not stopped it altogether. They had grown now to almost half an inch long, almost as long on his toes as well, and their undersides were encrusted with thick, black-brown grime. He tried scraping at the dirt under the nail of his left index finger with the thumb of his opposite hand, but the dirt was far too densely packed to be removed this way. Picking up the scissors again he brought his left index finger close to his face, and tried to cut the nail. He took care to work the scissor slowly around the curve of the fingertip, so that the nail came off all at once and without shooting away, then deposited the clipping in a corner of the newspaper and began to work on the next finger. When he was ten or maybe eleven years old his father had once smacked him hard, he remembered, for cutting his nails after dark. He had been told he shouldn’t once before that, that if it was past six o’clock he should wait until the next morning, but his father hadn’t seemed so angry that first time, perhaps because he hadn’t actually started to cut his nails. This second time he was ordered to get on his knees and search the floor till all twenty clippings were found, and once gathered his father had taken them to the uncultivated area behind their house and flung them as far as he could into the brush. Where the rule had come from and what its rationale had been he hadn’t known, but after that it had never been transgressed. His first instinct thereafter had been to check what time of day it was each time he felt the urge to cut his nails, and the practice had remained even after his father died two years after the event. Today, however, he’d remembered the rule only once he’d already started cutting his nails, as if the memory of his father, who he was thinking of now for the first time in so long, was so far away that even his firmest injunctions no longer influenced him. It wasn’t too late yet to stop cutting of course, he’d not even completed his left hand, but now that he’d started there was no point in stopping Dinesh felt, since the rule had already been broken. Even if he could save himself from its consequences by disposing of the nails in the appropriate way, as his father had done, he wasn’t quite sure how to do so, whether he would have to move them away from the place they’d been cut, whether what mattered was that they were put in a place where other people wouldn’t see or step on them, or whether it was fine so long as they didn’t remain in one’s home. In any case he wasn’t sure he wanted to get rid of his nails at all, for there would be something satisfying about packing them away carefully with his hair. Maybe the prohibition on cutting nails after dark lasted only until midnight. After midnight a new day began after all, in a sense in fact it was already morning, and maybe therefore the rule hadn’t even been violated.
From THE STORY OF A BRIEF MARRIAGE. Used with permission of Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2016 by Anuk Arudpragasam.