An excerpt from Bangladeshi-born Arif Anwar’s debut novel
The sound and light conspire to open her gray eyes late this morning, in a hut whose dirt floor is tattooed with the light of a November dawn, rumbling from the surf.
Honufa sits up. On her windowsill is a house crow. Its black wings are flared, rising from a charcoal body. The curving bill half-open, as though it intends to call out. The onyx eyes focused solely on her.
It does not move as she surreptitiously leaves her bed – never taking her eyes off it – and approaches in slow measured steps.
Only when she reaches out – her hand only inches from its head – does the crow fly away, its parting caws shatteringly loud in the confines of her hut.
As if she were still a child, Honufa spits on her chest to calm her racing heart. A foreboding pads toward her like a hungry and silent predator.
The hardwood cot they sleep on was built by her father, bequeathed to her as a parting concession upon her marriage to Jamir, so many years before. Her three-year-old son sleeps on it right now. Warm and full of dreams. The side where Jamir would lie is empty. This is the first time her husband has left for the sea without saying good-bye. Gone for how long to the heart of the bay.
She splashes water on her face from a clay jar and begins her chores – first laundering a stack of clothes that has never reached more than a hand high in their married life, she then tosses the fish bones left from the previous day’s meals to the sleepy-eyed cat that often visits their hearth, and steps out to pick firewood from the branches littering the grounds of a nearby woods. From the edges of a pond whose black upward stare reminds her of the eyes of the crow that visited her, she rips dandelion leaves for the midday meal.
She does all this before the dawn can grow to morning, and the pale blue glow that floods the world can give way to violet, orange and finally the nothing-colour of pure sunshine.
Her son stirs in bed.
Her morning’s wares tied with a jute rope and perched on her head, Honufa walks back to her hut.
Three decades of hard living have whittled away feminine softness from her face, deep-etched the lines around her eyes, thinned her lips to less than ideal for a woman of Bengal, given her jaw a square and mannish cast; Honufa is not beautiful, but she is strong, and at five and a half feet, taller than any other woman in the seaside village she calls home. Her shoulders are wide, her hands calloused from the miles of ropes and nets that have passed through them over the years, from the hills of coconuts she has husked.
The length of tree shadows and the height of the sun reckon the hour for her, tell her that it is time to visit the communal well to draw water, an act she is resigned to complete in solitude.
In the first years, she held hope that the weight of others’ scrutiny, the sting of their judgment, would become easier to bear. But it never did.
On her way, she stops. At an hour in which the beach should be barren, it instead boils with activity. The entire village is gathered here – the gray sand churned to peaks and troughs by more than a hundred feet. Men and women, sinewy – dark from the sun – pull in boats and tie them with sturdy knots to the trees, drag back and fold nets. Children carry back fish caught in cylindrical traps. Through it all, contributions are made as needed, the bright lines of sex, age and size erased for the occasion.
A storm is coming.
She swivels her head from east to west to south, the cardinal directions from which a storm might approach, but there is nothing: The strands of thatch that hang from the hut roofs are still, the sun bright and unoccluded above, yet the village scrambles.
Honufa scans the groups heaving with effort for a friendly face, even one that does not look away.
She finds Rina among a larger group of women folding nets, rolling up one end of an especially long one with the mindless efficiency that comes from years of practice. Honufa takes up the other end and mimics the older woman’s actions until the two meet in the middle.
Rina nods. Diminutive and wiry next to Honufa, she is like a strip of meat left in the sun.
“How do they know?”
“They saw the Boatman this morning.”
The net drops from Honufa’s hands.
She rushes home. This will not be the first storm she has had to prepare for – such is life on the bay. While her son (now awake) is focused on the pursuit and innocent harassment of chickens in the courtyard, Honufa tightens the loose edges of her sari around herself and gets to work.
Their list of possessions is small, their whereabouts ascertained in minutes. On one of the two large kantha cloth bedsheets that she spreads on their floor, she places their cooking utensils – a boti (its blade wrapped) for cutting, a nora for crushing, pots and pans that have boiled rice, lentils, fish and spinach in their lifetimes. Above the second kantha, she gathers their bedding, their clothing, still damp from their morning wash. A rough burlap sack inherits their dry foods.
She steps outside. The chickens, one black with white speckles, the other a deep burnt-orange, possess a beauty that borders on the spectacular. But they are dutiful also, daily producing eggs in some corner of their home, a treasure hunt for her son that ends with him holding a prize – the shell still soft and warm from the hen’s body – in his hands.
She looks at the birds now and sighs. Her son’s love for them will make difficult what must come next.
She picks up a knife and begins to shine it against a stone.
Rina arrives to find her digging in the courtyard, the hole half-a-man deep already. The older woman retrieves a second shovel from the cow pen and begins to dig alongside, falling into the wordless rhythm of work. Between the two, the hole grows at a fast clip.
The two women stand side by side for a moment, sweating, breathing hard, admiring the work done.
“You really think a storm is coming?”
“The Boatman has not been wrong so far.”
Across a quarter century, thrice has a lone boatman been seen sailing under black sails on the bay, always headed south, his back facing those standing on the beach or on the craggy green hills beyond.
Each time he has appeared, a great storm has followed.
“Who do you think he is?”
Rina looks at her meaningfully. “We have our guesses. But all I know is that it is no man that stands below those black sails.”
Honufa shivers from the uncanny romance of the image.
Reprinted with permission from The Storm by Arif Anwar, Aleph Book Company.