It had started raining in the afternoon. Water fell straight down – buckets upended in the sky, lathing the red earth of the exercise yard, churning it into runnels, rods of rain distorting as they passed behind the invisible bars. The yard was a swirling muddy turmoil: the back of a great red-furred beast trying to shake off the wet.
Five hours later and the rain was coming down as hard as ever. The yard was a memory, drowned at the bottom of a shallow, square lake.
The mag bars were used throughout Nimrat 4 – simple, transparent, unbreakable. Charged pads embedded in the upper and lower sills of the windows were powered directly from the planet’s magnetic core: you could fire a titanium-tipped rocket at those fuckers, Jenna thought bitterly, and they wouldn’t even dent. She rubbed her left wrist unconsciously, the flesh white-scarred from where, as a rookie – oh, the days when she still seethed with the injustice of it all, before she had learned the hard lessons called Accept and Endure – she had flung a chair at the shimmering window: the ricochet had almost taken her hand off.
Nolam, her cellmate, had been taken this morning.
None of the inmates knew how they knew, but they had sensed some disturbance – in the hollows of their ears, in the palms of their hands – and the many-mouthed howl as she was marched past the cells echoed throughout the East Wing. Even the rain, the ceaseless rain, had failed to entirely beat it out of the air.
At first, Jenna had resented her presence: the intolerable imprisonment might have been bearable, she’d thought, if she had been alone: alone to think, to work, to imagine. But there, on the other side of their small room was Nolam, her largeness and her silence seeming to squeeze the air from this already cramped space. Nolam did not talk. As far as Jenna knew, she could not. Perhaps she was in here for refusing to talk. Perhaps her muteness had resulted from her punishment. Perhaps her muteness was her punishment. Jenna didn’t know – and, in those early days, didn’t care.
Nolam spent the nights, face to the wall, as Jenna paced, unceasingly, in the fitful starlight that filtered into the holding cell. When they were prodded out of bed by the guards and marched down to the canteen, Nolam heaved her bulk over and kept her eyes lowered and lids half-closed. Jenna had concluded that she was a stump – one of the genetic dead-ends – and thanked her lucky stars that she herself was a ‘live’ one: born of a sperm and egg, incubated properly in a warm human womb, and not grown in a hatchette like the others.
In the first few days, Jenna had ignored Nolam’s snoozing bulk, but after a while she began to feel irritated, annoyed, angry. The sheer inertness of this mass of flesh seemed like an insult, a splinter that worked its way under her skin. Nolam’s heavy tread as she made her way to the excretarium. Nolam’s fat fingers engulfing a spoon handle. The way her lips flapped with each snore. Every single thing about her irritated Jenna to the point of screaming.
That was when she’d flung the chair.
The spark and bang – apart from Jenna’s own cry of pain, and the blood, oh so much blood – had brought the guards running, clicking their mandibles, stun-guns out. When she returned from the hospital wing, face the same mottled off-white as the bandage on her arm, she found Nolam sitting up on her bunk. Not lying: sitting. As Jenna came in, she looked up.
The corner of the blanket on Jenna’s bunk had been folded into a perfect isosceles triangle.
That night, she lay with one arm crooked above the blanket, her bandaged wrist throbbing with pain, staring up. At this angle she could see a sliver of sky through the window. The subtle ripples in the blackness between the stars were the only hint that the window was not simply open to the outside world. You couldn’t even trip the switch, she thought – fantasising bolt-cutters, screwdrivers, hacksaws and clamps. You might as well switch off size, or depth, or time. The fact that the bars were invisible seemed particularly cruel to Jenna. She closed her eyes, imagining no window at all. A body in a box. Then opened her eyes quickly, focusing on the window again until her heartbeat slowed, and she lay, still, listening to Nolam’s heavy snores.
But now Nolam had gone. Jenna’s eyes seem to slide away from the sight of the stripped mattress, the absence felt abominable, sharpened by the hiss of the rain like a blade whetted on stone.
She stood on the bunk and looked out at the water falling, rippling through the light-distorting bars, and felt a cry knocking at her diaphragm, pleading to be let out. She looked through the window at the storm and wondered where they had taken her.
Over the past few months, Jenna and Nolam had become friends. The word tasted strange in her mouth – ‘friends’ – an incantation uttered in a dead language. Jenna’s initial rage had subsided to be replaced with a grudging tolerance, then gradual acceptance, and finally… something else. Nolam – well, who could say what Nolam felt, really? Her inertia was almost total, but occasionally she would seem to wake from a deep slumber and then she would perform acts of shy kindness – turning down the blanket, pouring water into Jenna’s cup before her own, pretending sleep while Jenna used the excretarium.
Jenna discovered Nolam’s voice one night. Used to the soothing sound of her snores, Jenna had awoken to a different rhythm in the still air of their cell. Nolam was humming. Jenna swung her feet down and stepped quietly closer to the mountainous bulk, tilting her ear to the flaccid lips. She pulled away suddenly as a surprisingly small, little-girl voice issued from Nolam’s mouth. ‘Putta ba,’ it seemed to say. Put it back? Jenna leaned forward again, but Nolam shifted slightly and fell back to snoring wordlessly.
‘Why are you here?’ Jenna had asked her as they sat across from each other the next morning. ‘What did you do?’
Nolam’s eyes filled with distress – and Jenna knew she had been understood.
Nimrat 4’s East Wing was only for those accused of reproductive crimes: the exact nature of Nolam’s transgression didn’t really matter. Jenna simply wondered how it was possible that a stump – if that’s what Nolam really was – could have ended up here. She knew as well as anyone that stumps could not reproduce: it was not physically possible. She reached out and put her hands over Nolam’s as they rested on her large, unwieldy knees, and they stayed like that for a long time.
They were startled apart by the door sliding open. A guard stood in the narrow opening. ‘Out!’ she commanded, vibrating her wing-cases impatiently. The sound, like dry leaves rustling, sent a shiver of revulsion down Jenna’s spine. It was exercise hour, and she and Nolam stood and trooped out to join the others on their way to the yard.
In the empty cell filled with the sound of falling rain, Jenna slipped into an uneasy sleep. Behind her closed lids, she opens her eyes on a hillside. A track leads upwards, winding its way though short trees and verdant undergrowth. She is somewhere high up – she knows this, for only is mountain air so clear, a breath-taking blue that arcs over and drops down to the low horizons – the colour of beckoning, a blue radiant with prophecy. She looks down at her feet: they are clad in soft leather and twine. A step forward and the scent of crushed grass and wild mint, a sharp herbal tang, rises like a vapour: and then she knows she is not dreaming, for smells cannot lie or dissemble, but only appear whole, unaffected by age or distance.
She makes her way upwards along the path, the air bright around her and the sunlight, like a warm hand cupping her cheek, until she crests the summit and comes out on to a table-top plateau. A small, flat moutaintop – almost square – edged with carefully trimmed hedges and dog rose clambering up arches, ancient twisted mulberry trees. At the centre is a jasmine, trained up in a dense dark-leaved column whose intertwined stems have overflowed their support and come cascading down on each side as water rises and pours from a fountain. The scent of the flowers; the high, grand, arc of blue; the warm hand of sunshine on her cheek. She feels a great peace come upon her, a wordless benediction that says, as clearly as lover’s whisper in her ear, ‘Your place is here.’ Her body sings with an answering surge of recognition: it is her heaven.
In a heartbeat, it is gone. She knows she is sleeping, the exact position of her limbs, the way her hair has fallen on the wadded up blanket she uses as a pillow. She can see a patch of lightness on the wall behind her, a bright stain where the starlight falls. She watches the steady rise and fall of her body, breathing. She feels she would like to move a limb: she can no more move the building or the planet itself. Her body is cast out of iron, but her agile mind is seized with the realisation that there is something coming – on powerful hooves, huge and heavy – heading for her cell with an implacable tread. She tries to scream but the scream is trapped in her body, drowned on the sea-bed of her flesh.
Closer, closer. The footfalls shake the ground. She can feel them rise up through the floor. She is immobile – floating helpless, lying helpless – waiting.
A head appears at the open door: huge, horned, its downward pointing lip is a rough triangle. The rhino lifts its head, pausing for a moment to test the air, snuffling with dilated nostrils, swings its head left and right. She sees its gimlet eyes. Then it comes for her, crossing the room towards the bed in two colossal strides. The bed shakes with its heavy tread: an earthquake of an animal, a sharp alien stink emanating from its white armoured bulk. Jenna lies paralysed. Jenna floats buoyed by a hammering heart. With a terrific struggle she swoops down, down, into the inert body on the bed – screaming it awake – the rhino’s mouth an inch from her own, close enough to feel the heat of it, the aliveness, the warm ringing blood beneath the armoured skin. It opens its mouth and expels a short breath – hfff – into her face. She bursts awake, bolt upright and casting around the empty cell wildly, unable to register the closed door, the silent room, the shocking absence. The surge of adrenalin has made her ears sing and her fingers tingle.
She gets up, drinks some water. Walks three paces to the wall with the window and looks out. The sky is dark, but it is the veiled darkness that comes before the beginnings of dawn. It has stopped raining. She stands like that for a long time, watching the darkness thin. She turns and looks at her bunk, then lies down on the other bed. She holds herself as she would hold her child, and sleeps.
Dreaming, her child looks back up at her with Jenna’s eyes staring from Nolam’s large-boned, sweet face. ‘Put it back,’ it says in a small, happy voice.
Beneath the yard, below the compound, at the base of the columns planted deep underground, and across the silent plains to where the highlands crumple the horizon, the wet red earth endures beneath the fading light of a million tiny suns.
Anita Roy is senior editor with Zubaan books. She is the editor of 21 Under 40, a collection of short stories, and co-editor, with Urvashi Butalia, of Women Changing India. Her work has been anthologised in various non-fiction collections, and she has contributed a children's short story to Superhero published by Scholastic India. She lives and works in New Delhi.