In Arms

The helicopter flew into our forests two days ago, chopping the air like a large dragonfly with gauze wings splayed, plastered in metal and broken. We heard it in the dawn and I wiped the dew wet inside my ears so that I could hear it again, chopping the air through our trees. The men jumped up, and so did he, hush-hushing the fear and surprise. I forgot to breathe.

We found it today, sunning itself, its shadow short in the high hours of noon, waiting. By the time I got to it, running, yelling, victory in my ears, the men had already gotten to the pilot. He drooped over the side of the rusted door with a small red hole on one side of his head and a large splash of black death yawning on the other, his army uniform scattered in green shaded shreds. A bullet can take away a lot with it; it comes in like a thief and leaves like a drunkard.

I climbed onto the top of the metal creature, beating its green head with my fists, thinking it would crush in like a tin cup, victory in my ears. But no, the enemy would be stronger, I hurt my hand, there was blood on metal oozing, I did not care. I had wrestled a beast and put it to its death. I broke my red glass bangle.

*  *  *

I used to wake up with the taste of his dreams in my mouth. They say that if you are in perfect silence, you can hear air beating inside your ears. I could hear his voice beating in my mind even if I were dead. I lost myself to him without knowing, and one day I panicked; I could not find myself. I could not remember what I used to be like before. But then I did not care. I was in him, he was my home, my soul. I could have heard him even if I were dead, but it was he who died. He took my heart with him warm in his mouth, and I never saw him again. Occasionally, I hear my heart beating in his mouth, and then I know he is near. I believe in ghosts.

There are dense trees on both sides, and we follow a narrow path cutting through the leafy heart. It runs straight ahead and ends in a burst of golden light. The sun is setting. We have been told that the path falls beyond that point, and down on the other side is the river. But to me, it seems like I am walking into the sun. It is warm, but Sita is coughing by my side, her thick hand banging her chest every time. The dew seeps into our skin as we sleep on mud and leaf grounds, and the cold has grasped her body. Her thick frame shakes with the rattle of her lungs. We know it is more than a problem of her health.

“The herbs are not working, Baini. I took both leaves and the root. I don’t know what more to do.”

“We will deal with it, Didi. If Comrade Ram does not let you go to the front, I will stay behind with you. We can tend the lights.” I say it even if I don’t want to. We don’t like to wait on each other here. We don’t like to feel. I want to be at the front of the line. I want to hear victory in my ears. But then again staying behind would be a greater sacrifice, a higher duty. If she coughed, the enemy would hear. I will not let them hear.

*  *  *

I miss her sometimes. She comes in my dreams, and while I am dreaming, I feel her weight in my arms. I believe in ghosts, but I know she is alive. I can feel her soft skin, her roundness, her light heaviness, my daughter. She suckles at my breast and I push her away. I must not feel. I have a higher duty.

She is what we had, me and him. I remember how I used to see sunlight in the cracks cutting through the door, my parents asleep in the next room, and I would pick my doko and head into the golden green hills, chopping firewood, cutting cattle grass, feeling the ground cold brittle fresh with my bare feet. I used to cut whole days, climb trees with my axe, enter bushes shoulder-high with my sickle. And at the end of the day, wherever I may be, on whichever hill or on whatever tree, he used to find me. And he would carry my doko for me all the way back every day so that my back would not tire and grow crooked like that sickle, he would say, you are already as mean as that sickle, now I don’t want you to be as ugly as it, pointing to the sickle tucked at my waist. And I laughed inside, but I pretended to be angry and I continued to be mean. He only smiled.

He loved to talk and his eyes would look far away, past the trees with sunlight playing among the leaves, reflecting off the leaves like water; he would look into the sky blue with clouds like ghosts, white ghosts in distorted shapes, and he would talk. He talked about the king who had forgotten us. He brings back the stories of our fathers, the story of the young king who walked these same paths and talked to the villagers and how grand a feeling that was, to know that the king thought of them all the way out here from Kathmandu, and thought about them and thought of them strongly enough to come all the way out here where the roads were mud, paved at the last minute, and the steps up the hill were broken, patched up for his purpose. The Queen lifted the chins of the little village girls offering her flower garlands and patted their heads, “but she never took off her gloves, see,” he would say, and I would say, “maybe she was cold, my father said it was nearing winter,” and then he would laugh, “no, no, I am sure she does not wear her gloves in Kathmandu .” And then he would be silent.

At other times he would think of his sister, and I could hear his thoughts, and there would be ghosts and darkness around us in the golden light of afternoon. He would think of the big man with the blue cap and black boots, in charge of the largest building within four valleys. The big man either sat in his office with a grimy towel hung on the back of his chair, dictating, ordering, farting; or he sunned himself in the yard outside the police station, boasting, belittling, laughing; sounds of the tortured floating in from the overcrowded jail. He had a villager flogged once for making love to a goat. But then he went ahead and made love to my husband’s sister while she cried and screamed in a faraway field, wishing for the God on the buffalo to come charging by and take her to Death. When my husband marched up to him and spat on his face, he had him flogged too, all the while laughing at the sounds of the tortured floating up the hill. They found my husband’s sister two weeks later, her skirts soaked to the hem, swaying from the highest branch of a handsome tree, crows caw cawing in her hair.

When they came one night, infiltrating minds with their red flags and slogans, he left with them.

“Wife,” he addressed me, and it sounded like a coronation, “I cannot forget.” He took my hand and squeezed it into a red glass bangle. He felt our daughter’s cheek with the back of his hand. And then he was gone. Gone to address the ghost of his sister in the sky, gone to undo all the injustices in the land, to flog the enemy, the politicians with pregnant bellies and constipated faces in Kathmandu, the King, the crown. He went with his eyes dreaming and left me with a raw nipple, daughter in arms.

*  *  *

They did not miss out the details of his death. They laid them down, mouth to mouth, ear to ear, spreading through the village, spreading up to me with daughter in arms, he was shot in one leg first and then when he was crawling they shot him in the other and then in the head all from the air you see the enemy was in the air and of course who can outrun wings though he was fast so fast he was our best our hero. My husband became the village hero, and they came with flowers strung in hands, silent yet proud, knowing yet not knowing, telling me bless you your husband was a great man , telling my daughter in her cloths with her small oiled head shaping the mustard-seed pillow, your father was a great man a man of honor let him live forever. And then they returned, the ones in the green camouflage, with guns slung over stiff shoulders, red stars in their eyes and slogans in their mouths. One of them marched straight up to me sitting on the steps before my empty hut with my daughter in my laps, and he marched so sudden and violent I thought he was going to strike me. I drew my daughter to my breast. But then he stopped in sudden break just before my knees, stamped his foot hard on the dust ground, one hand rising to salute me the other raising his gun shooting in the air may your husband live forever. My daughter started shrieking in my arms.

Then there was emptiness and silence. I could not hear my heart beat, and so I replaced it with the heart of my daughter. Where are you with my heart in your mouth , and I looked up to the skies and searched for him among the white figures slipping through blue. I searched whole days away, but the silence nibbled at my mind, and I could not hear him and I could not hear my own heart and with nothingness in my ribs I went back and put my ear to my daughter’s small chest. I listened to my daughter’s heart with the widow’s sari cold and white over my breast.

I hid the red glass bangle. I was supposed to break it, actually, supposed to fall to my knees upon hearing the news, crying, wailing, tear at my hair, then grab a handful of soil and rub it into my hair, rub out the red powder of marriage lining my scalp, tear away the red beads of marriage around my neck, break the red bangle of love around my wrist. I did everything but break the bangle. I kept it under my daughter’s mustard-seed pillow, her head just nestling within the circle. What future do you have here, I asked, what future with your father dead your mother out of her mind your village torn and shredded, meat to the dogs?

*  *  *

I was not alone. The husbands of others died, the brother the fathers the sons. Weeping wailing why why why then silence, the birds dead in the trees, the cattle asleep on their hind-quarters, the wind motionless numb. Only the infants cried out in their sleep.

Then they came back, a whole army of them, red banners sailing in the sunset like clouds in the sky, ghosts of victory, slogans warm in their mouths, the throb of blood in their ears. There were gunshots and the infants in the village screamed and the dogs barked whined tails hiding assholes, scampering into the hills. And then for the first time, I noticed the women among the numbers, young girls of fifteen looking smart and in control, and I realized it was them with the world in their hands. One of them came up to me, daughter-in-arms, and I looked curiously into her glazed eyes, thinking she was blind, wondering how she could have walked so straight and with purpose up to my knees.

“Comrade,” she addressed me, and I thought women looked like fools in men’s pants, and the newness of the word made me giggle. There is a rumor stringing through the village, a rumor that these makeshift uniformed people call each other “Comrade,” an English word, Angrezi. They say that you can call anyone Comrade, a friend or brother or father. This girl, a green cap with red star above her eyes, her gun so comfortably crossing her back between stiff shoulder blades, her legs in men’s pants, was addressing me as an equal. I blushed, shifted my daughter’s weight from one arm to the other, blinked up at her shaded face with the sun like a golden crown behind her head.

“Comrade, you are a widow. This is what the corruption of Kathmandu has gifted you. A newborn fatherless child. We are not dogs, Comrade, we are not dogs, what do these people think? How long can we be oppressed? How long are they going to steal from us, steal from us with so little, steal the earnings of our sweat and blood? They murdered your husband, Comrade, they murdered his sister. They will murder you and then they will murder your daughter. Rise, Comrade, Rise!”

She raised her voice with every word. I thought she was mad, her eyes looking glazed, blind, unfocused, like something polished. My daughter awoke with a whimper.

“Rise, Comrade !”

I did not know if she wanted me to get up to my feet or join the ranks. I looked up at her again with the sun behind her red star, and I felt fear, felt the power of this young girl with slogans warm in her mouth, her ease with the gun, the confidence lining her back.

She was younger than me, but her presence made her older.

I should have addressed her as Baini, but I said Didi instead.

“Didi, what of my daughter?”

“What of her?”

And then I knew. Nothing of her, nothing for her, not here, not now. I saw myself and the bundle in my laps in two polished mirrors, my image in white, white on polished black, tattered white thinking where to get the next meal from daughter-in-arms, the failed potato crop rotting in the fields behind, where are you with my heart in your mouth?

I left my daughter at a neighbor’s house, and there were young tears on the old woman’s dried up face as she took my child into her bony arms caked in mud. May victory be yours, she said, and I walked away without turning around, the green men’s pants falling from my waist, the sound of my crying child falling away from my ears. Then there was no sound at all.

*  *  *

The women were worse than the men. They all had polished eyes, and in the beginning, I could not tell why. Some would train whole days, decapitating sandbags with sickles, and the sand would burst in a white fountain shooting up to the sky, and I would remember his words, you are already as mean as a sickle, I don’t want you to be as ugly as one. The others would be quiet, listless, weeping secretly, their tears washing into dew in the cold nights, but red stars rising in their eyes in the morning. Some of them were too young, just wrenched out of their mother’s arms, because when those in the green camouflage came to recruit with their unbargaining demands, parents decided that sons were too valuable, and sent their daughters instead. Let our sons work our fields, let our daughters fight the war. But there was more in this war for a woman.

The first night I was passed around five men, meat to the dogs. All the time I thought of him, never doubting that he had not enjoyed some female Comrade, imagining all five men to be him, to be his purpose. And then I landed up in the arms of Comrade Ram, and he decided to keep me. I became exclusively his, and the others fell behind, left me alone. I was content. I knew things would be worse at the front.

I have heard stories of the front, heard how they throw in the youngest girls first, how they are torn up by the bullets, their braids in the air like falling leaves. I have heard how the men get crazy sometimes, how the hunger and pain make them lose their minds, how one girl was attacked by twenty and how she died stars in her eyes. But I push the thoughts away. I live for the purpose.

*  *  *

We walk into the sun. The forest parts, the river bursts forth below. It is blue like a piece of sky that lost its way and I think this water must be the only thing that I compare in beauty to my daughter’s eyes. The line stops. Everyone starts pointing, fingers shooting in the air from the person in front to the person behind, and I can imagine Comrade Ram in the very front of the row being the first to lift his finger. “That hill, there, and then there, see?” The towering Comrade in front of me turns and points and his black bandana with the red star blocks out the sun.

The two hills rise like breasts and the river flows in between, a little to the left after the monsoon. The villagers say they woke one night after the rain and found that the river had shifted, lifted up and moved by the wind as if it were a young girl’s ribbon, blue, curling, whispering. It left behind ugly rocks like giant teeth grey and broken. Some ways down, where it grows fat with water and gets wider, rests the town, rests another police station with its building the largest in seven valleys except for the cinema hall. We are going to burn that station tonight, run at it from both sides, across the river, down the hill, gaining momentum, faster, faster, break through doors windows roofs slicing the blue men inside with our sickles our drunkard’s guns firing staccato under the stars, his purpose.

I readjust the gun between my shoulder blades, looking at the hills.

*  *  *

I remember the first time I held my gun. They had wiped the police station five villages away clean of life, leaving behind smears of blood in patterned designs on soil and cement, animal designs and pictures of birds, and they looted the guns from the storerooms and they stole the bullets in sacks. They had a bonfire that night with laughter, victory in ears, and all the guns were thrown into a pile like a construction of sticks. They ushered us in, the new recruits, wide-eyed and wondering, throbbing in my guts, and we stood single file, a stringed necklace around the pile, eyes blinking, ghost breaths escaping white in the cold.

“These are your arms,” Comrade Ram announced and it sounded like a coronation, “These are the weapons that belonged to the other side. Now they are ours. We have taken them, and now we shall use them to wipe out the evil tightening its grip about our throats. Rise, Comrades, Rise!”

He picked the guns up, one by one extending them firmly to our faces.

“Long live the Republic! Long live our Brother!”

I took the stick in my arms, arm in arm, and was surprised at its weight. I cradled my weapon, feeling its corners, feeling the newness, the coldness, my daughter of wood and metal. It was one-eyed and when I looked at it, it looked back long and hard at me with its circle of darkness. When I let it rest by a tree and turned around, I felt its eye on my back, its single black eye unmoving, unforgiving, watching, waiting, daughter-in-arms.

*  *  *

The line splits in two, Comrade Ram shouting out orders in front, and one split end extends towards one hill, the other towards the other. I follow Comrade Ram, close by his heel, down towards the river. The water is high, moving in waves like white muscles and blue veins, and we step into the wetness, the cold slicing my feet till I forget they are mine. I slip my gun off my shoulder, raising it high in the air above my head. The men’s pants get soaked, put on weight, and my legs are dragging against the power of the water. We move slowly, single file, taking in sharp breaths as the numbness moves above our knees. I enter a current and the force is too great, I fall on my knees, the water forcing its tongue down my throat, lapping around inside, feeling for my heart, retreating from the emptiness. The gun is held like a trophy, untouched, untouchable. I remember the story of how the Lord Krishna was carried as a baby across an expanse of water, and how the waves leaped up to his feet dangling off the edge of the basket, how even the water wanted to touch the Holiness in the flesh, how that almost drowned the one carrying the basket below. I think of my daughter. Her feet are pink underneath like spring blossoms.

I pull myself up, my purpose in my guts rising upwards, moving along my spine. I reach the other side and lower my gun slowly to the ground. My arms are sore and I am breathing hard, knees bleeding, blood sticking thick and black to pants, shivering in the black blue mist of dusk. Comrade Ram looks at me in the growing dark, and I cannot tell what is in his eyes. He shouts hoarsely at the others still in the water we are fighting a war here, not taking a swim. Long live the Republic!

Comrade Ram thinks of our Brother while he makes love to me. Our Brother, who gave up his position as a respectable man in Kathmandu to live underground, fighting for change, for rebirth, our purpose. Our leader. Our protector. Our war. I don’t know what our Brother looks like, but I am thinking he must look like Comrade Ram, shadows in his eyes.

We trek up the hill in the dark, black branches reaching to me like snakes and fingers, shadows taking the shapes of trees and bushes and death. The bora sack, wet and heavy strapped to my back is icy in the wind. My lower back is hurting, and I can feel the blood double-gush out of my uterus. The bora is slowing me down, but I do not dream of taking it off. It will be needed later to carry heads like melons, bouncing against the back of my knees as I run.

We set up our positions behind the trees feeling in the dark, listening for animals and ambushers, hearing insects surprised, touching snakes and wet frogs on rough bark like chapped lips frozen. Sita is coughing behind the tree next to me, and I can hear her muffle her sounds from the ears of Comrade Ram and the enemy, banging her chest, covering her mouth, choking herself in the cold darkness. We wait, motionless, soundless, in position, the river roaring far away below, the sound lifting up, and I am thinking the river covers the sounds of Sita. The enemy will not hear.

After a time so long, my legs numb in their wetness below me, the lanterns are turned on. I see them first on the other hill, someone from the other group turning the light off and on, blink, blink, blink. Then Comrade Ram turns on our lantern from the top of a tree, the light replying, blink blink blink. Other lights go up. Five lanterns talk to each other on two hills, across growling river and yawning space. The conversation ends, Comrade Ram jumps like a cat off the tree in the darkness; we are ready to move.

*  *  *

My feet rush beneath me, swift, soundless, sure even in the dark, my lungs screaming, branches rushing at me, leaves grabbing at my hair, the wind stinging my eyes. We clear the forest, the hill. I hear the others, and the sparse lights of the village grow in size on this side of the river, I can see shuttered shops and quiet houses as we enter, street dogs waking in fright, barking, growling, whining, tails covering assholes scampering into the hills. People wake up in their houses but they do not move, remaining lights going off, eyes waiting, watching. We run at the police station, and they are ready for us; their guns go off first. There are drunken bullets in darkness and screams of the dying, but we break through, into the largest building in seven valleys except for the cinema hall, my gun jumping staccato in my arms, dislocating my shoulder, my sickle slashing, feeling warm blood and it is almost comforting in the cold. I cover for the others, and Comrade Ram is ordering all the while from the front. On the way out, I see our dead, red stars in disarray in the blue blackness, and I pick up after the Comrade in front chopping heads with his khukuri. It reminds me of Dashain, how my father would tether the goat and clear its head in one quick fall of arms. The Comrade in front sacrifices our red stars for victory, his khukuri falling heavy in the darkness. We do not let the enemy enjoy the dead of our numbers, so we take them with us, take their heads because their bodies are too heavy, take their heads so we can never be recognized. We are ghosts fighting in the blue blackness, and like a strong wind, we bring change, lift things up and leave them someplace else, shifting things, twisting directions; nameless, faceless. I run downriver and then up the hill, blood warm in my hands, heads in the bora bouncing like melons against the back of my knees.

I reach our base behind the trees, my feet sure, my directions perfectly mapped out even in the darkness. There are voices of survivors around me, rising and falling, weeping, laughing, whispering, the river gushing in the background. I see the familiar shape of a body slumped against a tree and I go to Sita. As I approach, I see the whites of her eyes, rolled up and backwards in her dark face. Her cheeks are puffed out and I realize someone has stuffed cloth in her mouth and taped it in. Her hands are extended behind her body, tied in a backward embrace to the trunk of the tree. I am trying to decide whether she was too loud or whether the men lost their minds, lost control of their bodies, lost their senses and decided to take it out on her. I don’t know. We don’t question here. We don’t feel.

I sit against a tree, the bora by my side. I feel my wrist, feel the emptiness where the red glass bangle had been. I think of my daughter, feel her light weight in my arms. She must be sleeping right now, her breath coming slow and peaceful. I lift the gun off my shoulders and fling it some distance away. It falls with a metallic thud. I feel lightness, my shoulders relaxed, my breath steady. I hear a sound and I realize it is my heart, beating close to my ear, thud thudding in the blue blackness. I believe in ghosts.