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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Story of a Brief Marriage

A Novel

Anuk Arudpragasam

Flatiron Books




MOST CHILDREN HAVE two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm. Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else. Three of the fingers had been fully detached, where they were now it was impossible to tell, and the two remaining still, the index finger and thumb, were dangling from the hand by very slender threads. They swayed uncertainly in the air, tapping each other quietly, till arriving at last in the operating area Dinesh knelt to the ground, and laid the boy out carefully on an empty tarpaulin. His chest, it seemed, was hardly moving. His eyes were closed, and his face was calm, unknowing. That he was not in the best of conditions there could be no doubt, but all that mattered for the time being was that the boy was safe. Soon the doctor would arrive and the operation would be done, and in no time at all the arm would be as nicely healed as the already amputated thigh. Dinesh turned towards this thigh and studied the smooth, strangely well-rounded stump. According to the boy’s sister the injury had come from a land mine explosion four months before, the same accident that killed their parents also. The amputation had been done at a nearby hospital, one of the few still functioning at the time, and there was hardly any scarring on the hairless skin, even the stitch marks were difficult to find. Dinesh had seen dozens of amputees with similar stumps in the last months, in different states of recovery depending on how much time had elapsed since each operation, but he was still somehow unable to believe in the reality of all the truncated limbs. They seemed, in some way, fake, or illusory. To dispel this thought of course he only needed to reach out now and touch the one in front of him, to learn once and for all if the skin around the stump was as smooth as it seemed or actually coarse, if the hardness of bone could be felt underneath, or if true to appearance the thing had the softness of spoiled fruit, but whether for fear of waking the child or something else, Dinesh did not move. He simply sat there with his face inches from the stump, completely still.

When the doctor arrived with one of the nurses close behind he knelt down next to the tarpaulin without a word and studied the mangled forearm. There were no surgical instruments in the clinic, no anesthetics, neither general nor local, no painkillers or antibiotics, but from the look on the doctor’s face it was clear that there was no choice but to go on. He motioned for the nurse to hold down the boy’s left arm and leg, for Dinesh to hold down the head and right shoulder. He raised up the kitchen knife they’d been using for amputations, checked to make sure it was properly clean, and then, nodding at his two assistants, placed its sharp point just below the right elbow. Dinesh readied himself. The doctor pressed down, the point pierced, and the boy, who had remained until then in a state of deep, silent sleep, came to life. His eyes opened, the veins along his neck and temples dilated, and he let out a tender shriek that continued without pause as the doctor, who had started slowly in the hope the boy would remain unconscious during the operation, sawed now firmly through the flesh, without hesitation. Blood trickled onto the tarpaulin and spilled out onto the soil. Dinesh cradled the boy’s little head in his lap, softly caressed his scalp. Whether it was a good thing or bad that he was losing his right arm and not his left, it was hard to tell. Having only a left arm and a left leg would not help the boy’s balance no doubt, but all things considered he might have been worse off with a right arm and a left leg, or a left arm and a right leg, for surely, if you thought about it, those combinations were less evenly weighted. Of course if his two good limbs had been on opposite sides the boy would have been able to use a crutch for walking, for then the crutch could have been held by his good arm, and could therefore have replaced the bad leg. In the end though it depended on what mode of transport the boy would have access to once healed, wheelchair, crutches, or just his single leg, and so whether or not he’d gotten lucky it was probably, at that point, premature to say.

The doctor continued cutting through the flesh, not with quick efficient strokes but with a jagged, sawlike motion. His face remained impassive, even as the knife began to grate against the bone, as if the eyes that looked on at the scene belonged to a different person from the hands that did the cutting. How the doctor kept going on this way, day after day, Dinesh had no idea. It was well known that as the front lines shifted east he had chosen to stay behind in the territory of his own volition, to help those trapped inside instead of moving to the safety of government-held areas. He’d moved from one hospital to another as they continued to be destroyed by the shelling, and when at last the divisional hospital he’d been working at in the camp had been shelled the previous week he’d decided, together with a small number of medical staff there, to convert the abandoned school building nearby into a makeshift clinic, hoping it would be inconspicuous enough to treat injured civilians in safety. They ran the clinic according to a kind of assembly line method: volunteers would first carry the injured to the operating area, where the nurses would clean their wounds, prepare each one so they were as ready as possible for their operation, then the doctor would come, perform the surgery, and move on immediately to the next person, leaving the nurses to stitch up the wounds and do the bandaging, unless a child was involved in which case the doctor insisted on doing everything himself. The injured person would then be moved to the area in front of the clinic, and accompanied there by relations and checked upon every so often by the nurses they either improved and were soon able to leave of their own accord, or died and had to be taken away by volunteers for burial. From morning to night each day the doctor moved in this way from patient to patient, showing no emotion whatsoever as he performed his operations, never wearying and hardly ever resting except when twice daily he stopped to eat, and then for a few hours each night when he tried to sleep. He was a great man Dinesh knew, deserving of endless praise, though looking at his face now it was impossible to tell what had allowed him to continue like this, and whether he was still in possession of any feelings.

The damp sound of the knife through flesh gave way to the scrape of its teeth against the tarpaulin, and at last the cutting stopped. The child’s head was limp on Dinesh’s lap, his face again unknowing. The doctor lifted up what remained of the arm, which terminated now just past the elbow, and used a piece of cloth to absorb the blood still dripping. He dabbed the wound with another cloth, this one boiled in water and soaked in iodine, carefully sutured it shut with the thin flaps of excess skin, then dressed it neatly with one of their last bandages. When everything was done the doctor bore the boy up in his arms and went away with the nurse in search of a quiet place for him to rest. Dinesh, on whom the job of disposal fell, sat staring at the bloody little hand and forearm, wondering what he should do. There were plenty of other naked body parts scattered around the camp of course, fingers and toes, elbows and thighs, so many that nobody would say a thing if he just left the arm under a bush or beside a tree. But while those body parts were anonymous this one had an owner, which meant, he felt, that it had to be disposed of properly. He could bury it perhaps, or burn it, but he was apprehensive of touching it. Not because of the blood, for the child’s blood had already stained his sarong and his hands, but because he didn’t want to feel the softness of freshly amputated flesh between his fingers, the warmth of a limb just recently alive. He would much rather just wait till the blood had drained and the flesh had hardened, when picking the severed arm up would be more like picking up a stick or small branch, not much more perhaps but more so all the same. He was mulling over the issue when a girl with very thin ankles and long, broad feet came walking towards where he sat, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest and her fingers clutching the sides of her dress. She was the boy’s older sister, his only living relative, coming from outside the clinic where she had been made to wait during the operation. Without a word to Dinesh or even a glance, no longer crying but her eyes still swollen and wet, she knelt down in front of the bloody tarpaulin and spread out a torn square of sari fabric over where her brother had just been lying. Picking up the remains carefully, so the hand didn’t fall away from the forearm and the fingers didn’t fall away from the hand, she placed them delicately on one edge of the cloth. She began very gently to roll the flesh up in the fabric, veiling it reverently in several soft layers as though it was a piece of supple gold jewelry, or something perishable that must be preserved for a long journey, and when it was wrapped so fully that nothing could be seen except the sari she stood up slowly, cradling the thing to her breast, and without saying a thing turned and walked away.

*   *   *

It was late afternoon and the day was overcast, devoid of movement. Shifting his weight onto his legs, Dinesh raised himself up. He stood still for a while till the dizziness from standing up dissipated, then fixing his eyes on the ground before him, began to walk east from the clinic. It had rained only a little the night before but the ochre soil between the tarpaulins had been stained maroon, glazed by a layer of smooth red slime. Wary of slipping in the mush or stepping on any of the splayed hands and feet, Dinesh took long, loping strides over the bodies, making sure with each step to set his front foot down properly before raising his back foot up from the ground. He felt slightly bad for leaving, but the urgent operations had more or less been finished, and for the time being at least there wasn’t much work to be done. All day since the shelling he had been helping out around the clinic, the cries of the wounded and grieving flooding every space between his ears, and all he wanted now was a quiet place in which to sit, rest, and think, somewhere he could contemplate in peace the proposal he had received earlier that morning. He had been digging a grave just north of the clinic when a tall, slightly stooped man he recognized from somewhere but was unable to place had grabbed him by the hand, introduced himself as Somasundaram, and pulled him away hurriedly to a corner. The slow and easy rhythm of his shoveling suddenly interrupted, Dinesh had done his best to come out of his daze and make sense of what was happening. He had seen him working in the clinic the day before, the man was saying, and it was obvious he was a good boy, that he’d had some education, that he was responsible, and of the right age. Ganga, his daughter, his only child after her brother had been killed two weeks before, was a good girl too. She was pretty, and smart, and responsible, but most of all, most importantly, she was a good girl. He looked at Dinesh as he said this, his eyes yellow and his hair unkempt, a gray scruff all over his haggard face and neck, then lowered his gaze to the ground. In truth he didn’t want to get her married, he only wanted to keep her safe and close beside him, for now that the rest of his family was gone he could hardly bear to lose her too. He hadn’t given marriage even a moment’s thought till the day before, he said wiping a tear from his cheek with a dirty thumb, but as soon as he’d seen Dinesh in the clinic he’d known it was his responsibility, that it was something he had to do for the sake of his daughter. He was an old man, he was going to die soon, and it was his duty to find someone to take care of her once he’d gone. It didn’t matter whether their horoscopes were compatible, or what day or time was most auspicious, for obviously it was impossible to follow all the customs all the time. Dinesh had some education and he was a good, responsible boy, he said looking up again, and that was all that mattered. There was an Iyer in the camp who could perform the rites, and if he said yes then the Iyer would get them married immediately.

At first Dinesh had just looked back at Mr. Somasundaram blankly, not knowing how to respond. He wasn’t quite sure he’d followed everything that had been said and didn’t really have time to think on it in any case, for the pit he was digging needed to be finished as quickly as possible, in order to free up space in the clinic for all the new arrivals from the morning’s shelling. Seeing his hesitation, Mr. Somasundaram added that there was no hurry, that it was important Dinesh spend some time thinking about his decision. The Iyer had been wounded the day before, it was true, but he was doing well so far, and as long as Dinesh said yes by the afternoon there was no reason the Iyer wouldn’t be fit enough to get them married. Dinesh was silent a little longer, then indicated that he understood. He remained standing where he was for a while after Mr. Somasundaram had gone, then turned back to the grave in order to resume digging. He thrust his spade into the earth, leaned his meager weight into the handle, and lifted out the soil he had loosened, tried to fall back into the rhythm of the shoveling. In a way he shouldn’t really have been surprised by what had happened, of course, for it was obvious why Mr. Somasundaram was trying to marry his daughter, if not to him in particular then to any male of marriageable age he could find. Parents had been trying desperately to get their children married in the past two years, their daughters especially, hoping that once married they’d be less likely conscripted into the movement. By this point the married were just as likely to be recruited for the fighting as the unmarried it was true, but many continued trying to marry their daughters even so, believing that if they ended up in the hands of the government the girls that were married were less likely to be defiled, more likely to be passed over by the soldiers for other spoils. Why the proposal had been made was obvious, therefore, though what exactly it meant for him, and how he should respond to it, Dinesh found much more difficult to say. He should probably have made an effort to think about it sooner, to concentrate his mind on the issue while he was still digging, but perhaps because the work before him was too distracting, or because he didn’t yet know how to approach the matter, or because it was pleasing in some way to postpone dealing with it, he’d resigned himself to waiting until the grave was finished. As soon as the digging was over though he’d been told to begin moving bodies to the grave from the clinic, and then to help carry the injured to the clinic from the camp. In the midst of all the chaos and screaming he’d stopped thinking about the proposal completely and now, having finally been released from his duties, he found his initial lack of comprehension replaced by a quiet, sweeping astonishment. It was as though he’d been moving around, all this time, in a heavy fog, doing whatever he needed to do mindlessly, refusing to register the world outside him, and refusing to let it have any effect on him, so that having been caught off guard by the unexpected proposal, forced to wake up suddenly after how many months of being like this he didn’t know, he was seeing his situation for the very first time now, keenly aware of the multitudes of people around him, and of himself as he navigated uncertainly through the camp.

They had accrued there, many tens of thousands of them, over a period of a few weeks. A few of them had been displaced recently from nearby villages, but most of them were refugees from villages to the north, south and west who had abandoned their homes long before and been on the move for many months, some, like Dinesh, for almost a year. Each time they set up camp somewhere they had hoped it would be the last time before the movement finally pushed back the government, and each time they were forced again by the advancing shelling to pack up and move further east. Stopping and starting they had traveled like this across the breadth of the northern province, herded by the shelling into the increasingly small pocket of territory remaining in the northeast, till hearing about the still-functioning divisional hospital and the camp that had started to form around it, assured by the movement that the area was safe and that the army would never be able to take it, they had come in desperation at last to the camp, followed by more and more every day, each party adding to the settlement of tents around the hospital like a massive temple that was being erected around a small, golden shrine. The first shells had fallen on the camp only two weeks earlier, on the hospital just the week before, and every day since then the shelling had gotten heavier and more sustained. Each bout dotted the densely populated area with dozens of circles of scorched black earth, most of which remained empty for only a while before being taken over by new tenants. Every part of the camp was bombed, even one of the school buildings that housed the makeshift clinic had been hit, despite its small size, and in the last few days probably a seventh or eighth of those living there had been killed. There was talk that the final assault on the area would be made in the next few days, that the divisional hospital would soon stop functioning, that even the doctor and his staff were making plans to abandon the clinic and set up further east, and in response some people had already begun to pack up and leave. A few were trying to cross over to the government side in the hope they would be taken in, though the fighting on the front lines was almost certainly too fierce to get through alive. The movement would shoot if they caught anyone escaping, and even if they made it to the other side, nobody could tell what the soldiers would do to them when they arrived. Most were planning to move further east instead, closer towards the coast and further away from the front lines, though the ones who wanted to stay behind claimed the shelling there was probably just as bad. There was no point moving further east just out of habit, they said, there was only a little bit of land left now, in less than two kilometers they would reach the sea and there would be nowhere left to go. A story had circulated about a week before about a group of twenty-five or thirty who had taken an abandoned fishing boat out in the hope of making it somehow to India. Two days later the boat had washed back up on shore, carrying inside it the bodies of a few adults and several children, riddled with bullets, pale blue and bloated. The best option therefore was just to stay in the camp till the fighting ended, they argued, to stay put in the dugouts whenever the shells fell and hope they would survive unscathed till the end.

That things would work out this way Dinesh was, needless to say, a little skeptical. He didn’t have conclusive evidence that he would die rather than survive, but perhaps because in such conditions it was easier to believe something than to remain unsure, he felt himself tending towards the former possibility. The fighting showed no signs of abating, and it was only a matter of time he felt before he would either be killed in the shelling, or conscripted and then killed in the fighting. And if that was indeed the case, if in fact he had only a few days or weeks left to his credit, a month at most if he was lucky, his guiding consideration in deciding what to do must be to make use of the time remaining as best he could, in which case perhaps it made sense for him to get married. Perhaps it would be good for him to spend the time he had left in the company of another human being. In spite of having been surrounded for most of the past year by countless numbers of people, he couldn’t tell when the last time was that he’d really felt connected to somebody else. He couldn’t even remember what it was like to spend time with another person, to simply be in someone else’s company, and perhaps it would be worthwhile to do so if he could. Didn’t dying in the end mean being separated from other humans, after all, from the sea of human gaits, gestures, noises, and gazes in which for so many years one had floated, didn’t it mean abandoning the possibility of connecting with another human that being among others always afforded? Unless, on the other hand, dying meant being separated from oneself above all, being separated from all the intimate personal details that had come to constitute one’s life. If that was the case then surely he should try instead to be alone, should spend his remaining time committing to memory the shape of his hands and feet, the texture of his hair, fingernails and teeth, appreciating for a last time the sound of his own breathing, the sensation of his chest expanding and contracting. What dying meant there was no way he could really know of course, it was a subject he was not in a position to think about clearly. It depended probably on what living meant, and though he had been alive for some time it was difficult to remember whether it had meant being together with other humans, or being alone with himself above all.

Dinesh noticed that the ground was no longer passing by beneath him. He had come to a stop apparently, though how long he’d been standing there motionless he didn’t know. From the dusty barrenness of the area he could tell he was near the northeastern end of the camp, quite far now from the clinic. Spread out around him and bounded in the distance by dusty brush and tired, drooping trees were a few white tents, the most recent additions to the camp, propped up by sticks no more than three or four feet high. The area around them was scattered with things, with bags, bundles, pots, pans, and cycles, and lying or crouching on the ground beside them were people in groups of three and four, some sleeping, others merely waiting, as far as he could see not a single one of them speaking. Passing a woman who was sitting by herself and eating sand compulsively from the ground—handful after handful, not chewing, since sand can’t be chewed, but mixing the sand with saliva and then simply swallowing—Dinesh walked towards a thin, leafless tree. He fell wearily against its base, let the bark press pleasantly against his back, and stretched out his legs so that the muscles in his thighs, exhausted from all the digging, could finally relax. Leaning forward he buried his face between his hands. He hadn’t slept at all that night, hardly at all that whole week. There was a throbbing deep in the back of his head and his eyes were heavy, as if lead had accumulated along the bottom of his eyelids, stretching them out so much that soon they would become translucent. He let them close and massaged his eyelids thickly with his thumbs, listened to the blood pulse softly through the slender sieves of skin, beating heavily upon his tired eyes. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to go to bed, but no matter how tired he was and how much he tried, he could never sleep very long or fully. It was a light sleep he always had, superficial and easily interrupted. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was difficult to sleep in an unfamiliar place, as when taking a new bus or train route you would always be slightly afraid that something bad would happen if you dozed off, that your bag might be stolen or that you might miss your stop. Dinesh had been in the camp for almost three weeks though, and if he didn’t feel at home there he was in any case no longer a complete stranger, the little space he had made for himself in the jungle just northeast of the clinic was quiet and comfortable, a place he could rest whenever he liked as if in the safety of his own room. He would go there each night to lie down, but as soon as he closed his eyes and began drifting towards sleep, his consciousness rocking softly back and forth in the direction of dream, he would feel a hesitation or foreboding growing suddenly inside him. It was as if in falling asleep he was exposing himself to a danger that could only be avoided by staying awake, as though upon fully losing awareness the ground would give way beneath him and he would drop backwards through the darkness towards an impact he did not want to face.

There was, always, before the shelling, for the slenderest moment before the earth began shaking, a faraway whispering, as of air hurtling at high speed through a thin tube, a whooshing, which turned, indiscernibly, into a whistling. This whistling lasted for a while, and then, no matter where you stood, there was a tremulous vibration, the trembling of the earth underfoot, followed by a blast of hot air against the skin, and then finally the deafening explosion. It was a loud, unbearably loud explosion, followed immediately by others, so loud that as soon as the first one came the rest could no longer be heard. They could be registered only as the pervasive absence of sound, as a series of voids or vacuums in the sound sphere so great that not even the sound of thinking could be heard. The world became mute, like a silent film, and as a result the bombing often brought about in Dinesh a sense of calm. He wouldn’t jump up or rush to shelter but would first stand still and take a deep breath, look around with amazement and also slight confusion, as though the thread that had guided his movements in the quiet before the shelling had suddenly been cut. He would try to gather his bearings, and would only then begin walking, slowly, and calmly, not to any of the dugouts that had been built throughout the camp but towards the stretch of jungle that separated the camp’s northeast boundary from the coast. Wandering around one day he had found a small wooden fishing boat that someone had hauled inland and turned over, the owner probably, in the hope that it would be safer there than on the beach. Moss had begun to spread over its painted surface but the name, Sahotharaa, was still visible, upside down near the front. The boat’s rim curved upwards towards the bow and stern, and he found that he could squeeze in through the middle section into its shelter, dark and cool and private. The air was slightly stale but the boat was long and there was room inside to stretch out, even to sleep, though for some reason Dinesh couldn’t lie flat while the bombs fell. Instead he sat upright, hunched forward to avoid the low ceiling, legs bent in front of him and arms drawn around his knees. He would sit there for what seemed like hours staring at the ground before him, the wood creaking with each new explosion, gusts of hot air rushing in and then receding through the gaps between boat and ground, slackening his body instead of tightening it so he could feel himself tremble as the earth shook. He felt at such times always strangely disembodied, as though observing himself from the outside, watching as his two hands clasped each other tightly and as his fingers intertwined of their own accord. He listened passively as his chest expanded and contracted, as air went in and out of his mouth, and he stayed that way, breathing in and out, long after the shelling had stopped.

Not everyone reacted this way naturally and neither did Dinesh in the beginning, when his mother was alive still and he was less resigned to all that was happening around him. In the beginning he was inseparable from the general clambering, from the shouting and screaming and the frantic attempts to find friends and relatives before the shelling grew so fierce that everyone had to stop moving. Using wooden boards and bricks from nearby buildings and working together, people in the camp had managed to construct hundreds of dugouts in which to hide during the bombings, some of them as deep as six feet, though most of them were only about four feet deep and just large enough for nine or ten people to sit crouching with their bodies tightly packed together. Coconut and palmyra leaves were kept beside the openings, sheets of corrugated steel if they were lucky, and when it was time to get under they would climb down and draw these covers over their heads. The dugouts didn’t provide protection if a shell landed in the immediate vicinity, and though they did help against the shrapnel, by far the greatest source of injury and death, the most significant benefit they gave their occupants was the comfort of being surrounded by four close walls, a floor, and a ceiling, like ostriches that, in times of great danger, choose not to run away but rather to dig into the earth and bury their heads inside, regardless of how exposed their bodies are. The ground beneath them reverberating with the force of each explosion, the clay soil crumbling bit by bit from the earthen walls, they would sit in the darkness of these dugouts with their bodies tensely still while inside their heads their thoughts raced like gas particles in a heated container, estimating where each shell had fallen relative to their location, speculating whether known people might have been hurt in a particular explosion, predicting where subsequent shells would fall based on various patterns, and revising their models when mistaken, comforted, all the while, only by the smallness of the space and the breathing, tight or loose, fast or slow, of the others squeezed in around them.

If they learned somehow that someone they knew was killed in the bombing outside, the women would begin to hit themselves and scream. They beat their heads against the dugout walls and pulled wildly at their hair till it tore from the roots, so that at the end of each spell of shelling many of the dugouts were full of clumps of long, dirty hair. If a relative was hurt out in the open they would run out from their shelters screaming and crying, and raising their pleading faces to the sky they would try to drag the wounded body back to safety, hauling it by a shirt or trouser leg, by a hand or foot or even a few strands of hair, even if it became clear the person had died. The men on the other hand were generally quieter, sometimes almost impassive. Perhaps a single tear streaming mutely down their faces, slowly and wordlessly they would walk out to the dead bodies of their kinsmen and kneel down in front of them, even as the ground shook and shells exploded around them. They sat down beside the bodies of their beloveds and sobbed in silence, rocking back and forth, oblivious to everything happening around them. Lovingly they stroked the body’s face and chest. Gently they kneaded the eyelids, massaged the arms and kissed the hands. Bending down they buried their faces in the dead person’s neck and inhaled deeply, as though to commit to memory the person’s distinctive smell. Whereas the women reminded Dinesh of the severed tails of geckos, which thrash about for a long time after the body that has supported them for so long has gone, bravely refusing to give up hope even after the source of all life and meaning has been destroyed, the men reminded him of the frogs he’d learned about long ago in school, whose spinal cords were cut by scientists to study the difference between the higher and lower brains. Unlike the frogs you saw in ponds and puddles, whose wet skin was always expanding and contracting and whose deep, satisfied voices were always rising and falling, the embodiment of organic flourishing, these mutilated frogs were completely still and silent, oblivious to all stimuli, passive even when poked or prodded. Whether they were hungry or thirsty, calm or scared, it was impossible to tell for the only movement they made was when they were pushed over, in response to which they merely righted themselves and resumed their blankness, a blankness they kept till they died.

When the shelling was over a deep silence pervaded the camp. That it was over always took a while to dawn, for all had their eyes closed, their hands clasped over their ears, and their faces pressed tight to the earth. Nobody in the camp could tell with certainty when the loud silence of the bombing was replaced by the soft silence of the stillness, and it was always better safe than sorry anyway, for sometimes the barrage of shelling would cease for ten or fifteen minutes only to suddenly start up again, as if to trick them into thinking that everything was over so they would come out into the open to help the injured. Only much later, once their senses had finally returned, when they began to smell the burned flesh and hear the crying of the wounded, could any of them be sure the bombing was over. Even then most remained motionless where they were, their features expressionless. A small number, a few more every time, would have distorted, inhuman smiles twisted across their faces. They rubbed the fabrics of their sarongs and dresses, rolled bits of earth around in their hands and laughed strangely, whispered to themselves. Dinesh had once seen a man with an amputated arm wandering around after the shelling as if in search of his missing body part; he picked up the different forearms he found on the ground and tried each one on like he was shopping for new clothes, pursing his lips with dissatisfaction at each mismatch of size or complexion. Those who were able to do so collected themselves and began the work of tending to the wounded and gathering together the dead. There wasn’t enough kerosene to burn all the bodies and so instead they simply buried them, wrapping each body in swathes of cloth or tarpaulin and then depositing them in pits dug at sites near the edges of the camp, unless a shell had fallen on a dugout in which case the dugout was simply filled back up with earth. In the last few days the work that digging graves required had become too great and most of the corpses that weren’t claimed by relatives were just covered up with tarpaulin sheets or leaves, sometimes even left uncovered in the same place they’d been found. Many of the bodies weren’t fully whole anyway, and somehow it seemed more appropriate to let them be as they were than to bury only the largest pieces they could find.

A strange feeling always came over Dinesh as he wandered around in the silence after the bombing. Even if he had some specific task to do, if he was digging a grave for the dead, or helping transport the wounded to the hospital or clinic, still he felt he didn’t quite know what he was doing or where he was going. For a long time he would wander around the burned and disturbed camp lost, disoriented, like a leaf detached from its tree and blown haphazardly over barren land, without link to any living thing. It was similar perhaps to the feeling he used to have when he was left alone at home as a young child, worrying at first that his mother and father had taken too long returning and then believing they had somehow died, crying with the certainty of being left alone for the rest of his life in a vast, unknown world. It was similar to this feeling but different, for how could he be expected to feel the loss of things he could no longer even remember? He’d been isolated from his home, family, friends, and possessions so long that such a separation could no longer feel painful or even unusual. It was more than just disconnection from once familiar people and things that he felt, more than just a sense of being isolated; above all it was the disintegration of his body that came to mind at such times, the disintegration of his hair, his teeth, his skin. His nails no longer growing, his skin no longer sweating. He sensed acutely the fact that soon his body would begin breaking down, sensed in fact that the process of becoming permanently separate from it had already begun. All his life he had used his hands and feet, his fingers and toes, and knowing that soon he’d no longer be able to rely on them made him feel abandoned suddenly and alone, as when at a train station or the seaside, about to emigrate far away, you must say good-bye to the friends and family you thought would be present all through your life. Similarly too he felt when he thought about the hair that grew all over his body, the hair on his head, the curly hair of his calves, thighs, and groin, the fine golden-black hair of his arms, and so too with the hair of his eyelashes and eyebrows. All his life he’d been indifferent to these things but it was impossible now to feel this way, for they had been there with him through everything, through his whole life, and were now about to leave for good. His eyes and ears, his knuckles and knees, and also the organs inside him, which he’d never seen nor thought to thank but which had worked tirelessly for him all his life, selflessly. What it would be like to be separated from all these things he did not know, he could not envision, but the more he dwelled on it the more he understood that it was not so much fear of being separated that he felt as sadness at the idea of parting.

Dinesh opened his eyes onto the brightness of the world before him. He stretched his arms out and shuffled further back up against the tree he was leaning on. He felt an urge, suddenly, to empty his bowels. Not so much a bodily urge, for he’d hardly eaten anything in the last few days, hardly enough for there to be any excess, but more of a psychological urge, an urge he might nevertheless satisfy physically, he felt, since after all it was only a matter of pushing hard enough. The nearest place he could go was the outhouse not far from the clinic, but in addition to shit it was filled with blood and vomit, on the walls and all over the ground, and he wouldn’t be able to take his time there. He wanted somewhere quiet, somewhere comfortable, somewhere he could take his time. There was a secluded section of coastline he could use, though there was some danger now in venturing too far out from the camp, especially towards the coast, where the movement ran patrols and there was a chance he could be caught and recruited. There was also the fact of its being too wide and exposed an area, too open a place for the privacy needed for a long and peaceful shit. He wanted to take it slow, to be alone somewhere he could listen in comfort to the sound of his bowels for a last time, listen for clues as to his origin and destination. The beach was quiet but it was too open, and he would feel watched by some distant eye, not fully at ease. The only alternative however was the jungle that bounded the camp to the north and east, and in the daytime especially other camp residents would be coming and going there, wanting to relieve themselves likewise. He had grown used to shitting in view of other people of course, or at least to shitting with the possibility of others walking by, and he could do that if the situation demanded but it meant he wouldn’t be able to take his time. The jungle was full of undergrowth too and he would have to shit while crouching on the uneven ground. The earth there would be wet, or moist at least, the bark and leaves also, whereas he wanted to be somewhere dry. Maybe he would go to the seaside then, where there would also be water with which he could wash. He would find a quiet spot where he could feel alone and unwatched, where he’d be able to hear the sound of waves washing over the sand, of birds calling in the distance through the salty air.

Dinesh struggled to lift himself up from his place against the tree, but as soon as he was on his feet his body began to move as though it knew where to go of its own accord. He floated through the desolation of the camp towards its northern boundary, past the last remaining tents and the silent groups of two and three, into the dusty, browning brush. Effortlessly his feet negotiated the tangle of roots and shrubs, skirted the occasional body parts and little mounds of shit, leaving him free to watch as the brush gave way to denser vegetation and trees, to finely veined leaves and gray and brown barks. To some degree it was foolish of him to be going to the beach he knew, where he could be spotted from many miles away if he were not careful. He was of fighting age after all, of good height although a little thin. If he was seen by army gunboats there was no doubt he would be shot at, and if he was seen by the movement’s patrols he’d be conscripted, and probably beaten too for having avoided recruitment so long. How in fact he’d managed to escape till then it was difficult to say, for there were hardly any boys his age left now in the camp. He’d taken care not to use crowded routes during the displacements naturally, and to avoid the areas where other civilians set up their tents. Now that the retreating had come to an end he stayed hidden in the jungle most of the day, and if he went to the camp it was only in the hours immediately after the shelling, when the disarray was too great for anyone to notice him. He never let himself hang around too long but in truth he’d taken his chances plenty of times, and it could only have been by luck that he hadn’t yet been seen. In a sense he probably wouldn’t have cared that much earlier, if he actually had been recruited, since between the two ways of dying there hadn’t seemed very much to choose, though thinking on the issue now, it was clear that his attitude had changed. Apart from the question of marriage it suddenly seemed obvious that he was better off not conscripted, for compared to the cadres, who spent every waking moment defending the movement’s remaining land, even civilians had some peace of mind. As a civilian at least he had time to think, whereas as a cadre he would have to fight on the front lines, his ears full of the deafening pounding of guns, right until he was killed. All things considered, therefore, it was best he avoid being seen. Never mind his plan about shitting, he told himself as he continued making his way through the jungle, if there was any sign of trouble he would turn back immediately and run. Dinesh noticed that the vegetation around him was becoming drier and less dense, the soil lighter and a little sandier. Looking up he realized that he could make out the horizon ahead, then soon after, beyond the short bushes and a few solitary coconut trees, the sea. He took off his slippers and held them in his hands, felt the fine grains of sand bristling under the arches of his feet and between his toes. From behind the cover of a tree he looked cautiously from left to right and from right to left, and then walked, for the first time in how long he could not say, onto the beach.

It was late January or early February but the water was calm, extending endlessly from the sand like an untarnished blue sheet of steel, devoid of waveforms and fishing boats. Dinesh’s feet sank into the soft white sand, and his thin, tired calves strained with each step to lift up his body, which was heavy now, no longer light or ghostlike. He went down to where the beach sloped gently towards the sea, where land and water met and the moist white sand was smooth and polished, easy to walk upon. Half circles of water lapped softly at his feet. A last little bit of sun was visible through the knot of heavy clouds, a funnel of white light that fell through the sky, illuminating a silver square of sea far across the horizon. Soon the sun would sink and the sky would darken Dinesh knew; he had to make use of his time as best he could. He walked north along the soft wet sand to where the coast melted into the outlying dunes of a kind of desert from further inland. The beach rose gently from the sea for a few feet and then the sand began to collect in quiet swellings, rising and falling, forming large hills of sparkling white sea sand that became indistinguishable from the dunes. Dinesh trudged towards a section of the coastline that was enclosed by a circle of these hills, forming a kind of private, isolated beach. With some effort he climbed up onto one of them, looked around to make sure the area was deserted, then wearily let himself jog back down to the enclosed area of beach, not far from the water. The sand wasn’t fully wet but was moist enough still to form clumps, and kneeling down he began to dig a small pit in the sand, carefully scooping out a hemisphere of six-inch radius. Not far away, in the camp and scattered beyond, there were hundreds of rotting bodies, their parts strewn across the ground, men, women, and children with festering wounds, mosquitoes buzzing over the living and flies over the dead, but in spite of this freely spilling blood and flesh it was still important, Dinesh felt, that his excreta be properly disposed of. It was vital he dig a good hole in which to bury his shit, he felt, for the offering he was making to the earth would be void if not properly presented.

Dinesh set down his slippers on the sand. He took off his shirt, laid it out neatly upon the slippers, untied his sarong and placed it carefully over the shirt. He stood there in silence, unclothed upon the still-warm evening sand, staring up at the waveless blue body of water that stretched out in front of him. There was nobody nearby but all the same he was nervous to be there, entirely unclothed, about to assume so vulnerable a position. There weren’t many skirmishes at this time of day but it was impossible of course to say with certainty. Even if there was no danger of fighting there was still a chance an army gunboat might pass by, and if one did there was little doubt that he would be shot at. Dinesh looked out over the water for a while, watching as little ripples disturbed the surface briefly and then disappeared as gentle gusts of wind blew by and then died. He bent his legs slowly, then crouched down with his bottom over the pit. Leaning all his weight onto the balls of his feet and adjusting his body so he was comfortable, he got himself ready, then hesitated slightly. As defenseless as he already was in that position, there was something even more vulnerable about actually tightening his insides and trying to push. Once he started though the discomfort would most probably go away he knew, and so looking up at the funnel of light falling over the sea he strained, once, and then again. It felt strange to strain so hard while looking over the endless sky and the endless sea, to crouch down over his little pit in full view of the earth’s enormous face. Averting his gaze from the horizon, he concentrated instead on the clothes laid out neatly next to where he crouched, and strained again. He tightened the muscles deep and low inside his body and pushed till he could feel his bowels moving within, shifting and sliding, the whole of his thin, weak body struggling to send out one final offering into the world. It was hard to excrete any bodily waste when he’d hardly eaten in two days and had had nothing but soggy rice for days before that, but his nervousness at being seen slowly began to leave him, and he tried to relax, to take his time. He built up a strong exertion inside his bowels and then strained, hard, repeated this cycle till finally he felt a light, tingling wetness in his backside. Encouraged, he relaxed, then strained, relaxed, and strained, did his best to eke out from his body as much as possible. He had hoped to fill the pit at least halfway but realized now that there was no chance, the delicate brown substance he was squeezing out would not even cover its floor. He gave one last strain, then moved aside and brought his face down to the pit to examine his production. It was soft and airy, a creamy beige froth over a watery brown liquid, like the foam the sea sometimes deposits on the shore. It was a paltry offering no doubt, but it had come from him at least. It smelled familiar, at least. It was not rich and heavy and rounded, but he had made it himself, with his thin, weak body, and the earth, he knew, would be grateful.

Slowly he began to refill the pit. He filled his fists with sand and let the sand trickle down from between his fingers, so it sprinkled evenly upon the shit. When the foam’s surface was entirely covered he filled the rest of the pit with a few large handfuls, then smoothed over its surface so its location on the beach couldn’t be discovered merely by examination. He lay down prostrate beside it so that his elbows and knees pressed against the sand, so that the sand tingled his naked limbs. Closing his eyes he listened to the waves as they washed gently across the coast, to the sound of the water rolling and unrolling itself out over the shore. He felt his chest expand and contract, felt the air enter him and leave, and lowering his head down Dinesh let himself fill up with the lightly sulfurous odor that still emanated from inside the covered pit, all that was left of his final shit. With his index and middle fingers he caressed the sand in front of him, traced light lines over the surface of the generous earth that for so many years had provided him with space on which to sleep and stand. He dug his hand deep inside the sand and squeezed hard, so he could feel the grainy edges sharp against his skin, brought a handful to his face and inhaled, to commit to memory that strange dry smell of moist salt and dust that he would probably not smell again. He brought his face close to the warm sand over the pit once more and breathed in, but already he was unable to smell the faint presence of his shit.

Dinesh stood up, walked to the water, and washed himself, splashed the cool water over his legs and bottom. The water was clean, clear, and he felt the urge suddenly to wash himself, to clean his body of the blood and grime he had carried on his skin for so many weeks. The water was inviting but he should probably wait he knew, for he had spent enough time already on the beach and there was no point pushing his luck. He could bathe later in one of the wells around the camp, if he wanted, the water there would be less salty and he might even be able to find soap. He straightened out his naked body, and looked out over the still and silent surface of the sea, no longer illuminated now by the column of light. The clouds, backlit weakly in places by the sun, had thickened over, and the horizon as a whole had darkened. Without warning, the sky lit up in silvery incandescence. A great bellow sounded from down the coast and Dinesh flinched, ducked down into the water. He stayed squat with his hands over his head, his eyes shut, his heart pounding. There was a tense, heavy silence, followed, after a moment, by a light pattering, as of tiny glass beads being poured over the surface of the earth. As he opened his eyes cautiously Dinesh felt weightless spots of moisture on his skin, and raising his head he saw rain sweeping across the great and silent sea, falling across the horizon, thinly at first like fine spray, then more heavily. They fell like pins from the sky, gathering speed as they fell, coalescing as they dropped down through the atmosphere, each one collecting mass and momentum as it joined others on its journey, becoming fuller and denser till they fell to the earth finally and disintegrated upon its solid and liquid surfaces. The waveless surface of the sea was perforated by a thousand tiny pellets and then, just as softly, the rain ceased.


Copyright © 2016 by Anuk Arudpragasam