A short story
On the first morning of her marriage Raisa woke up trapping sobs in her hand and rushed to the bathroom to keep them unheard by Omar. She muffled her mouth with a towel and blared through its filter into the toilet bowl. She stood at the sink and regarded her face, her married face, her face as a wife to a man whose child she was not carrying. She went to the bowl once again, with morning sickness.
Omar was rubbing his eyes when she returned to the bedroom, blinking in between, squeezing them tightly shut and opening them wide like an exercise. One side of his face had sleep wrinkles in the brocade pattern of the pillowcase, a wedding gift from Raisa’s father and stepmother, and his wiry puff of hair boxed into a helmet of bed-head. Raisa swallowed hard against another onslaught of sobs.
Omar checked his phone on the nightstand.
“It’s the middle of the night,” he said, so heavy with sleep that Raisa found it inviting, as she always had, to sleep in on December mornings in Bangladesh. “That sun out there is not the sun, it’s the moon, really bright. Come back.”
Dawn was framing the windows behind the bed with lines of gold light around the dark curtains. The world outside was still soundless. Across the street was the field where their wedding festivities had taken place. The decorations would start coming down in a few hours and new ones for a different wedding would go up by the next weekend. Dhaka in December was a festival of weddings.
“I can’t sleep,” said Raisa.
“Then don’t. Just keep your warm body here next to me.” He moaned with lazy abandon and turned on his side to face her. Raisa was standing leaning against the side of the bed. Omar fell asleep again. His face dug into the pillow, his jaw slack, and his lower lip quivering with each breath in and out.
Raisa knelt on the floor. She looked at him up close. Bad breath streamed out of him, stronger with each exhale. Last night’s rich dinner, and cigarettes and whiskey. It made her self-conscious of her own, even though she had brushed her teeth after throwing up.
Omar started awake. Eyes wide in shock, he stared through Raisa. She flinched.
“What are you doing?” he said. “What time is it?” And then he reconnected with his bearings. He fell on his back, stretched, yawned. “First morning as husband and wife, wife. What’s the word? Are you still in?”
“What do you mean by that?”
Omar yawned. “You know. Till death do us part.”
“Who says that in a Bengali wedding?”
“Married less than one day and already you’ve lost your sense of humor,” Omar chuckled. “Fine. Good morning, Mrs Chowdhury. Mr Chowdhury is going back to sleep without you.” He tucked a pillow between his knees and settled back into sleep.
The house was as silent as though it was empty. Every room was filled with sleeping bodies, most of them arrived from immigrant lives abroad for the wedding. There were her father and stepmother on the third floor. Omar’s parents, the owners of the house, were also up there, on the other end. The second floor contained in-laws and cousins and cousins’ spouses. On the first floor were children. Raisa, on the second floor, walked on the balls of her feet even though the floor was of cement. She felt hungry for something, she wasn’t sure what, but going to the kitchen meant rousing the servants, and thereby the house. Back in Chicago she’d be stepping out for her morning run at this hour, after a quick mouthful of granola washed down with water. Here, she would cause a small revolt if she did the same, and the day after her wedding at that.
She heard footsteps somewhere in the house. She was at the balcony overlooking the street and quickly stepped out onto it before being spotted. Fog veiled the morning. The day was still untouched by human activities. The tea stall across the road was closed. Shops up and down the street were shuttered. She was on the other end of the house from their bedroom, which meant – thankfully – that her view did not include the field of the wedding. She braced herself against the railing against a wave of nausea and tears.
“Hey, pretty madam, what is it?”
Raisa looked up, and then down. A young girl of eleven or twelve stood with her fists on her hips and one leg bashfully buckled at the knee.
“What’s the matter?”
Raisa saw no one else around that she could be addressing. The girl’s hair was stiff with grease and dirt. Her dress was filthy as the rest of her. Scabs covered her feet. It was her eyes that Raisa could not stop staring at. They were large and penetrating, the irises dark as a complete solar eclipse.
“Are you sad or what?”
Raisa didn’t know what to say.
“In that big house you can be sad? How are you sad in that palace?”
She was being loud and Raisa held a finger to her lip. The girl didn’t seem to understand the cue, because her volume stayed the same.
“What is it you’re sad about?”
Raisa made to gesture again for her to quiet down, but stopped herself.
“What’s your name?” Raisa asked.
The girl regarded her skeptically. She answered, “Tuli.”
“Tuli. It means paintbrush. How lovely. How old are you, Tuli?”
“Where do you live, Tuli?”
“Over there,” she pointed over and behind the house. “Behind that field where there was the wedding last night. There. You want to come see where I live?” Her face shone with a smile. She waved at Raisa to come down to her. “Don’t think. Just come.”
Raisa went down the main stairwell, and toward the back of the house to the side door next to the kitchen, which remained unlocked for the night guard. He was an old man, a family relic, and spent most of his shift sleeping, until the cook or someone else woke him in the morning. Raisa saw him in his chair, wrapped in a thin blanket, perfectly asleep with his ring of keys on the ground like a companion pet. She used them to unlock the gate. She feared the girl would be gone, but she was there, arms now crossed, the crossed arms of a cross parent, with eyes to match. Tuli grabbed Raisa’s wrist before she could speak. Next Raisa knew she was having a hard time keeping her balance, and her pace with Tuli.
“There,” Tuli said at last. “That’s my home.”
Once more Raisa was tugged by her wrist into motion.
They were in an open sitting area for about a dozen people. The tables were covered with plastic that had the stains of countless tea spills and dropped food. A partition made of an old blanket hung at the back. Behind it there were voices, and the sporadic revolts of a newborn baby. Tuli’s hand slid into Raisa’s.
“Come,” she said, using the informal you Aai. She moved aside a section of the blanket. “Look. Ma, little brother, and that one was just born few months ago.”
A young woman, not much older than seventeen, was breastfeeding the newborn. Her back was stooped in almost a perfect half-circle. In the foggy morning light Raisa could also make out that she had the thinness of malnourishment, her breasts little more than sags. The baby was sucking furiously, a large, healthy child with a face as robust as a grapefruit. Its cheeks puffed frantically for every drop of milk. The mother did not seem in pain or distressed. She rocked back and forth with a hand under the baby’s head, patiently awaiting the complete fulfillment of her child. Next to her the boy was playing with a torn piece of packaging, tearing it into smaller parts with great effort.
Tuli dragged one of the chairs from the sitting area and placed it where she’d parted the blanket.
Raisa said, “I can’t stay long.”
“What do you have to do? Go back to your huge old house and cry some more?” Tuli said, speaking as if no one else was in the vicinity. “It was your wedding!” she added, startling Raisa and her family.
“Stupid girl, keep quiet,” said the mother, without conviction.
Tuli was looking at Raisa’s feet. The henna on them had given her away.
“You got married?” said Tuli. “It was a huge wedding. I would have gone if you invited me.”
Raisa said on an impulse, “Next time I’ll make sure you’re invited.”
“Next time?” Tuli frowned.
“No, I mean – when there’s another wedding I know about, then.”
Tuli’s stare forced Raisa to break eye contact. On the other side she also couldn’t bear looking at the family. The morning sun had crept above the buildings across the street, shining on her, making her self-conscious.
“They won’t let me in,” said Tuli.
“I tried looking inside last night. The guard waved his stick at me and the other children. He beat two of them.”
“You will come as my special guest,” said Raisa.
“You have to go now,” said Tuli.
“I can stay. I want to stay.”
Tuli closed the blanket.
“I have to go beg,” she said.
“Where is your father?” Raisa asked.
“I don’t know. He went looking for work a while ago. Right after the baby was born. Let’s go.” She took Raisa’s hand, urgently, and led her out. Raisa wished she had some money with her, wondering, at the same time, if Tuli would accept it from her.
“Where have you been?” asked Omar. The rest of the house was up. Raisa heard sounds, voices, and awake, excited people behind walls, above her, all around her. “I was about to go looking … where were you?”
“Out for a walk, since I can’t go for a run,” said Raisa.
“Like that? In your nightgown and bare feet?”
Raisa saw her reflection in the hallway mirror, in nightdress, hair still retaining the shape it had been molded into as part of her bridal getup. Streaks of mascara ran down her cheeks. She swiped at them.
“What’s the matter, Raisa? Are you okay? Abbu, Ammu, your father, everyone has been looking for you. Where did you go?”
“I went out, Omar. I wasn’t feeling well. I needed fresh air.”
“Then go to the roof. Go out on the balcony. You don’t just disappear and go for a walk whenever you want. This is Dhaka. Not Chicago.”
“I have to … ” she rushed past him.
“Raisa?” Omar knocked on the bathroom door. “Raisa?”
He had a right to know.
Other voices joined Omar. Inquiries erupted one on the heels of the other. Raisa heard her father, her stepmother, her in-laws, even a few of the children. The entire house had converged on her. She wished she could sneak off, behind a partition made of blanket, behind which was a field that was just a field when there were no weddings transforming it into a house of wishes. A field one could enter on one side and exit on the other, and in the crossing of it have no reason to be held back from walking on.
Nadeem Zaman is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. His first collection of short stories is forthcoming from Bengal Lights Books and his debut novel, In the Time of the Others, from Picador.