The Water Girl

Father had promised to rip the skin of my sneaky hide if he ever saw me out of the house on the devil’s work. I was far too old and too big for my childish pursuits, and the sooner I learnt to grow up and do the right things, the better it was for everybody else.

But that was three days ago. Until I heard the water girl. With the song of the devil, as father would say.

When I heard the sweet melody, it was low and almost inaudible. But my ears were strong. I watched my mother in silent prayer, her white garb flowing in the fan-wind over her tightly closed eyes. My father was out on some affair related to the stupid horses or the farmland. It was the perfect moment. And I didn’t even have to leave the land for it. At least not technically.

To be honest, I’d minded my own business until then. But there was only so much business to be done in the house anyway. I had ploughed the land, trudging through the fields like the farmer father wanted me to be, washed the plates for my mother even after she shooed me away like a crow in the kitchen, watered the plants of no other house but mine, and fed father’s precious horses with more food than mud, and threw nothing more than garbage into the garbage pit.

Our house was a mansion with beautiful lawns and gigantic trees bearing fruit every season. There was even a giant pond. My father, Hussain, wanted the house to be the envy of the village. But he built giant walls to keep everyone out and mother and I in. The house was taller than the walls and the trees even, and at the call of the evening prayer, it was my job to turn on all the lights so that the villagers could marvel the beauty and wonder of Hussain’s house from afar.

I followed the sound into the garden and noted with some unease that it drifted to me from Qadar’s house, across the walls. Qadar, my neighbor, was a monster, and not a friend of father’s. Their rift, among many things, was the Alphons mango tree that drank our water and ate our manure but bore fruit onto Qadar’s land. Qadar pretended that God showered him with this fruit, and refused to give what was rightfully ours, even selling the precious mango to the villagers. So in our house, Qadar was Iblis (imp), Himar (donkey), and even Shaitan (Satan).

There was no way I could see the water girl. But I could hear her more clearly now, closer to the wall that separated us. Her voice covered me like a rippling river, and I wanted to swim deeper to the echoey timbre, to this mermaid that called to me from the depths of her being. Her voice was like the moan of a whale, singing a song of woe and loneliness, that it ripped my heart just to hear it.

I needed to see her. I looked at the mango tree. Technically, I wouldn’t even have left the land, I decided. I knew I could see her if I climbed the tree. In a second, I made my decision and heaved myself up. The branches of the tree welcomed me. Once on top, I crept on fours, following a horizontal branch into the air of Qadar’s house, that smelt so strong of ripening mangoes. Through a peephole of leaves, I saw her, this beautiful creature, the water swirling around her like a snake, like a dancing fountain, spraying and dancing to the music of her song. The sunlight dazzled with the water, creating a prism of colors for her to dance within.

I sighed and decided that I needed to get close, to the edge of the tree. But I felt a soft squish, and then a searing pain. A cursed wasp had given me a firm bite on my buttocks.

“Ouch” I screamed, and even worse, left the branch to swat the dreadful thing, and with a painful thump, I fell into Qadar’s wretched land.

The water girl swirled around to look at me. It was the first time we met each other. I knew she was Qadar’s prisoner, just like me, forbidden to leave the land, and even the house. But all I wanted was to be her friend. I must tell her that. But her face was wilting now; fear was creeping in. I must tell the girl to smile. Yes. Smile. But words were failing me. They were deserting me like rats in a drowning ship. And I said the first thing that came to my tongue.

“Tickle me?”

The girl looked at me curiously now, and not with friendliness. It was the wrong thing to say, I realized. Why was I so stupid? The word stupid came to me like a wisp of smoke and took the shape of an bloody mouth. STUPID, the red mouth screamed. The mouth grew bigger, louder, filling my brain with its cursed sound. STOP, I wanted to tell it. But it was too late. My mind had lost control of my body. In the mirror of her face, I could see my face twisting into a hideous scowl that threatened to gulp the girl and spit her out. Her giant eyes widened at the hundred convulsing tics on my face. And then the terror in her face, as my hands rose against my will, higher and higher, with an intention to strike her. “STOP,” my mind screamed as my hand began its descent to her face. In the final moments, it fell to the side, the girl unhurt by the monster I had become.

But that did not stop the scream. So different from the melody was the loud bawl that she emitted. If the tune was a ripple, this was hot scalding water sent to burn my very being. I held my ears, trembling at the pain she inflicted on me, emitting my moans and fears into the wind.

When I opened my eyes, the screaming had stopped. And before me stood Qadar, with his twirling mustache and hairy naked belly. “Satan,” said Qadar, his voice a dirty snarl, “Son of the Devil. You pluck from the wrong house. Hussain should know better than to let this madman loose.”

I was shaking, angry trembles through my body. Mad Man? I was no mad man, and the thought sent my hand high again, to strike the mouth that had said the cursed words. But I stopped my hands, the painful sweat of the exertion sending tears to my eyes.

Qadar’s mustache bristled like a goon’s. “You dare think of striking?” he hissed. His hand fell to the belt that tied his loincloth, releasing it with a greedy relish. “Perhaps I can teach you what your father cannot.”

But I hadn’t struck him even once. And his belt coursed my body greedily, burning it without mercy. Not even the water girl’s terrified screams stopped it. When I returned home, I was bruised and bleeding. But that did not stop my father’s anger at Qadar’s jeers. My weeping mother fell at his feet, begging him in high shrieks. “He’s been punished enough. Are you a monster?”

But my father did not heed. His punishment was clear. He would not strike me. He had no harsh words. I was to go to hell. With the devil himself.

**

The devil’s lair was in the basement of our house. In the dusty darkness, lay the discarded paintings of humans and animals, and other effects of the devil. I was to live here now, without bed or light. The cook, Fathima, was to give food through the door. Even mother was not to come to comfort me or stop the tears and loud sobs that broke from my wretched body.

Days and nights were the same in the devil’s home. Sometimes, I sang dreary songs, my body rocking to a deathly tune. Sometimes, my body flung to the floor; my head banged the walls, loud screams and retching ripped through the basement. My head turned cold with the blood on my hair, but nobody came for me. Not even the devil.

I wanted to return to the day. To the farm, to my work, to the water, even to the horses. I heard mother begging father. “This is cruelty. He will go mad without his routine.”

Father growled, “He is mad already. It is not my doing.”

Mother’s shocked voice was clear, “How can you say that. He is your son!”

But father bellowed back,“What son humiliates his father? What son behaves like a child when he is a man?”

I buried my head in my dusty hands. My teeth bit into my fingers; my nails scraped down my cheeks. I was a humiliation. I was a child. I looked up in despair, and my eyes widened in terror.

The Devil was there. I saw him. And I tried to shriek and cry, “Mother, father save me!” But nobody cared. I saw only the gigantic mouth. A hundred rotten white teeth, each tooth as large as an elephant’s. I trembled like a chicken before wolves. If the mouth was as big as me, how big must be the body? My body was twitching with tics. My pant was shamefully wet. I shut my eyes, waiting for the devil to take me. But it came no closer. And I stayed in my corner, beseeching it to leave me alone.

After a while, I fell asleep and woke up again with a start. I saw the devil still in position, so I let out a loud warning scream, telling it to keep away. A thin light streaked into the basement now, from a hole in the ceiling. The devil is more visible now in this faint light. A lot less menacing, I decided, although its hundred teeth were still white and bare. I decided to move closer to an inspection, emboldened by its silence. I gave it a strong strike on its ugly white teeth and staggered back at its reply. An angry song?

I read the words on the devil’s chest. Yamaha Piano, the name says. I struck it again. This devil was a singer, though not a good one, I decided, smiling. I struck it, one tooth at a time, softly, then hard, then fast and slow, jumping keys.

Perhaps I could teach the devil to sing songs of the light. The idea sent a tingle through my tired body.

I did not remember anything much after that. I was playing all the time, stopping only for the food that the cook slips in for me, who looked curiously at my doings. I did not care or stop to talk. I was busy. Very busy.

Then one day the darkness of the basement shimmered, the stuffy air breathed. It was like the devil’s music was clearing the very air. Slowly, eagerly, my fingers ordered the devil to sing the song of the water girl.

And then it happened. Though I do not know how. Perhaps it was the melody of the devil’s teeth. Perhaps it was the work of the devil himself. But as the devil sang the water song, I heard too, the words of the song. It was just as the girl sang it, clear as a bird in the morning sky. And then the darkness of the basement washed away, and I saw the girl, smiling, standing before me. I stared at her with my mouth agape at this miracle, though not leaving my fingers from the keys.

The song ended. The girl’s fingers came to my face, cold, trembling, to my cheek, to my lips. I flinched painfully. The girl looked unhappy at this. I picked the small toy car my mother had left for me and started to spin its wheels vigorously, round and round, unable to find the words to make her stay.

But she didn’t leave. “I’m Afreen,” she said.

I was spinning the car wheels again faster. I did not dare to look into her giant black eyes.

“Will you play me the piano?” she asks, pointing to the keys.

My hands tingled, my heart sang, and my fingers rushed to the keys. “Yes,” I whispered. And she sang with me, her strong voice soared, and my fingers danced to her song. The tune we made together was a joyous tale, of lands we hadn’t seen, rivers, mountains, and rain, of friends and laughter, and hearty meals, of wars and kings, and dragons to slay; hand in hand, we ran through these lands, like a merry stream through villages and towns, forests and deserts, all the way to the giant blue sea. I felt the need to touch her eyebrows. I wondered if they are like orange peels or cat fur. I wished they weren’t like socks. But I was scared, and I did not touch her eyebrows.

Then I heard a loud boom. And a slamming door. “WHAT THE DEVIL IS THIS?” It was father, in all his wrath.

“Father!” I screamed. Father’s face was that of a mad bull’s, charging, ready to kill everything. But then it was shrunk, hardened, as he saw Afreen. And a smile enveloped his face. A cruel one.

 

**

I heard the old cook Fathima tell the mother that Afreen was to be married to the next town.

“A man of 65, with three more wives,” says Fathima, throwing a morsel at the cat that arrived at her feet.

“Poor girl,” my mother said, wringing her hands, “Such a happy child she was. Qadar must have found the first man that agreed.” Mother paused, her voice uncertain, “She was kind to my son, Fathima. Tell me, how is the girl?”

“Not happy anymore, I can say,” says the cook, her voice a loud cackle, “It’s what comes from showing kindness to your son!”

I too was invited to the wedding. Qadar arrived with Afreen to our house to tell us the great news.

Qadar is dressed in finery, his naked belly was covered in a silk shirt, and his loin cloth exchanged for a pant. His belt, so familiar with my wounds, glared at me. Afreen was dressed in a blue suit, a veil covering her bowed hidden face.

“Hussain, we have been at each other’s throats,” said Qadar, grandly to my father. “Let us end this ill will between neighbors. You must come. With your son. To my daughter’s wedding.” He smiled at me like a king, happy at his benevolence.

My face broke into a wide grin. I clapped my hands, and my heart raced. A wedding! I had never been to a wedding. Qadar said he had invited the whole village. I imagined the fine food, the music, the laughter, thousands of people. I imagined a fair. A festival.

Then Afreen’s head rose slowly; her lips were trembling, her eyes were bleeding tears. My heart burst like a bubble, and I understood. She was going away. To another town. She would no longer be my neighbor. No longer sing for me. No longer be my friend.

I rushed out of the room, and down to the basement. The world seemed to be spinning around me, without me. My lips broke into sobs. My head hit the wall, one loud bang after the other. I couldn’t bear this burning in my chest. And my mouth broke into a monotonous song, and my body rocked to its dreary rhythm. I struck the piano and its hundred teeth. It was the devil. The devil had done this to me.

The day of the wedding arrived. I was dressed in a silver-white Kurta and a silken shawl. But it was nothing as I imagined. There were a thousand people, and also a thousand sounds, talking, shouting, loud, ugly music, drums, horns like the world was singing a terrible tune. There was no air to breathe. Father was talking to a friend. “It is my fate,” Father says, “My son can never marry like this. That is what Qadar wants me to see.” I shrank into a chair, trying to still my frantic heart. The heat was melting me; the loud drums shuddered at my ears, the flash lights blind me, the smell of sweat is a blanket on my face. I bit down my lips and stifled the scream that threatened from within. There was no escape.

Then the music shifted to a softer rhythm, and I felt the wind on my face. It cooled me. Then I saw it was Afreen, but her face was behind a white net. She sat on a throne, with many girls and flowers around her. At first, she looked like a blooming flower of pink petals. But then I stared harder. The tears were hidden with paint. The sadness was harder now, her eyes were of glass, frozen like a plastic doll’s.

I wanted her to smile again. And this time I knew how. I wouldn’t make the same stupid mistake. I did not trust my mouth but my heart. I remembered the flower garland she wore in the garden. She had been so happy that day, the water dancing around her with the sun. I rushed to her, I grabbed the giant flower garland beside her, and wrapped it around her neck. Her face jerked up at me, and she stared with her mouth wide open, the flower garland around her neck. She was the water girl now. Strong and brave. With real flowers around her. She smiled.

But it lasted only for a second. I was pulled and pushed by the wave of humans around me, tossed into a sea of people. “He has married her!” someone announced. And the crowd began to shout like angry dogs. I saw from afar, Qadar’s rage coming at me like a storm as his hands unsheathed his belt. I saw the old man, the one that was to be Afreen’s husband. His mouth was frothing like a rabid dog. The world was readying to attack me. And I thought to myself. I am a man.

When Qadar reached to strike, Father stepped in between us. His shoulders were large and wide over Qadar’s. “Come, come, Qadar,” Father said grandly. “Will you strike your son-in-law in front of all these people.” Qadar’s eyes grew small as a mouse’s, as he looked at the thousand guests before him. The old man joined Qadar, spitting his words at me, “She is to be my wife. What does a mad man want with a girl?”

I felt a pounding roar at his words, his insults. My hand itched to strike but stayed by my side like a loyal dog. I saw Afreen rise and walks towards me. She took my hand, and we stood, the three of us against the two of them. The old man spat. The cloud cheered.

It seems the world had changed its ugly tune. At least for a moment.

 

**

The house of Hussein was on heavenly fire!

All the lights were turned on, and the gates had swung open. It seemed like the sun had decided to stay awake longer just for the day. The guests poured in bearing presents and gold. The villagers were telling Father that he was not getting away without giving them a feast, but hadn’t his son turned out surprisingly! They thumped my back and told me I had done my father proud, that I had won a girl despite everything. For some time, the sounds and touches seemed bearable.

Qadar came too, with Afreen’s hateful cousins who lived in the town. These boys, they were always ready with their jokes and ugly laughs. But that day, they took me outside and gave me sweets, and they didn’t punch me or call me names. Instead, they called me brother. “Brother, what do you plan to do tonight?” they asked, with crooked grins. “Do you even know what to do with a girl?” They punched me, but softly, like they wanted to play, but I did not like it.

When I went back inside, I looked at Afreen. She was dressed in the blue of the ocean. She looked at me, and the waves on her face turned restless. A flurry of tics had captured my face, and it was twisting now as if licked by a hundred flies. My hands itched for my toy car. I wanted to spin its wheels forever and ever. My hands were flapping now. The guests stood around me, some confused, some laughing at the way my face moved. I wanted everyone to leave, to stop the clucking and the cackling that were burning my ears. I could hear my mouth moving, “I don’t think so I am a good man,” I said loudly. It made people laugh louder. I wished my mouth would stop saying things. At least I didn’t scream.

When I went into the room later, I saw Afreen on my bed. I left the room and told mother I did not want to sleep in my bed. Mother told me I was a man now. I had a wife. So I had to sleep on the bed with Afreen.

I went into the kitchen and began to wash the plates. There were too many plates. I washed all the plates. It took a while. But in a minute, it all got dirty again. I took all the plates out of the plates rack. And washed them again. But then I looked at it, and it seemed the dirt had returned. I did not understand this. I washed it again. And again. Then father arrived and started to shout. “Stop this woman’s work and go to bed, boy,” he said. But I did not listen. I washed the plates again. Father pushed me away from the plates. “Do you plan to shame me again. Do you want the villagers to whisper about you?” I ran to the basement. But father followed, taking his belt out, ready to “rip my worthless hide.” I fell before the devil as fathers strikes rain on me like rocks. Afreen and mother heard the shouting and came down. Afreen shrieked at the sight and tried to stop father when the belt struck her face.

I looked up, and the single streak of light from the ceiling showed the long red mark on Afreen’s face. Afreen let out a breathless cry, like a helpless baby bird falling off its nest from high above a tree, unable to fly. Qadar’s words came to me, and I yelled them perfectly, “You dare think of striking?” I picked myself up from the floor, my back aching from the pains, and moved towards father. My hand rose now, but I did not stop it, I let it fall, hard and strong, onto my father’s back. Father stumbled and sagged onto the devil, who hurled at him a loud, angry note. Father sprung at the sound, and ran out of the basement like a rabbit, his eyes wild with terror and confusion. Mother followed.

Afreen held my hand, and we lay together in the dirty basement. It felt safe here, away from everything, the darkness protecting us. Afreen did not touch me or hold me. But I could hear her sing softly, and I snuggle close to listen, her skin warm against me. I did not understand the words of her song. But I thought it was like a baby bird that learned to fly. I touched her eyebrows. It was velvet, like a feather.

–END__

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