Arthritic trees, spaded fingertips, wild compasses, ochre seas, menacing camels, xeric voids, slippery water, wolfish eyes & India.
A memory: We were somewhere west of Jaisalmer. We had no map, but that was just as well. There was nothing against which I could have placed myself. A few arthritic trees dotted the landscape, their shadows a barometer of our movement. Beyond these gnarled monuments to life, there was nothing but mounds beyond mounds of sand, like waves of an ochre sea: the Thar Desert.
There were three of us: young Udai, old Hariram and myself. For Udai and Hariram, there was no need for a map; this was their territory. Every few weeks, they carved a path into the hinterland to trade, sell and visit family. Their three camels were laden with bags of rice, lentils and chapati flour meant for trading, and jugs of warm, slippery water for us. The third jangled under an awkward load of clattering pots and pans.
At first, I had insisted on walking alongside the two—the surest way to prove my fraternity. After two days, I relented to their insistence that I ride. Outwardly I protested, but I was secretly pleased. My feet and legs were not as capable as theirs, my sight made blurry by the salt-sting of my sweat. Perched cross-legged on the tilting load of the third camel, I fixated at the turbaned heads of the two men. I suspected they resented me, my sudden intrusion into their lives, my insistence on going with them out on their business in the desert, my weakness for water. If these were their thoughts, they kept them from me.
When his heavy browed tracker’s gaze fell upon me, it burned through folds of my tunic, searching for any trace of whatever else I carried.
The heat was extreme, and images in the distance appeared and disappeared at random. I understood we were bound for some somewhere, to sell off the camels’ burden, then return to Jaisalmer. Everything else fell under the obscurity of the shimmering horizon. I attempted to keep my bearings by referring to my compass, but it was a cheap model, more dangerous than useful. It spun wildly, pointing in all directions, never holding on a bearing for long. Whenever I brought it out from the folds of my tunic, Hariram fixed it with a wolfish eye. He coveted the device, I knew. He didn’t know how useless it was, or perhaps knew and didn’t care. What was clear was the spark of desire had lit inside him; I felt the heat of its flame. When his heavy browed tracker’s gaze fell upon me, it burned through folds of my tunic, searching for any trace of whatever else I carried. Selfishly, I hardened against him. I would not give up the compass, or anything else. Useless or not, in the expanse of sameness that was the Thar, I felt lost without it.
We moved through the desert as a pocket of sound. Into the thrum of the desert’s ancient silence we plodded, with our clattering of the pots and pans, the bearish roar of an obstinate camel announcing us over the drifts. Nearer was the soft atonal singing of Udai, which caught on the wind and died over the xeric void. On the long days jostling atop the camel, my mind stretched out over the sand. Under that hellish microscope of heat, my memories began to melt into one another, broadening to fill the landscape, where they hardened like sheets of chestnut caramel. Thoughts of childhood moments, school days, relatives—each lasted as long as a chip of ice beneath the sun, soon melting through my grasp and slipping into the sand.
We walked and rode all day, stopping whenever we came to circular stone wells plumbed deep into the earth. Udai enthusiastically levered the wooden hand pump, smiling as he swung from the smoothed handle while brown water gargled from the faucet. Pulled up through ancient iron pipes, the water was brackish and slick. Nonetheless, we drank and filled our jugs, and waited for the camels to quench themselves with long sucking gulps.
Sometime in the waning afternoon of the second day, Hariram, who walked ahead of my camel, its bridle reins tucked into his belt, raised his hand to the skyline. He held his fingers parallel to the horizon and, squinting against the light, touched each finger. Each digit was like a dried bean pod, dark brown and swollen at the joints. The fingertips were spaded and rough from decades of grit and ropes. When his fingers once grazed my sun-poisoned skin, I felt their saw-blade edges, as though the whorls of his fingerprints were scored deep into the skin. Held to the horizon at arm’s length, those same fingers became a clock, the width of each one worth fifteen minutes of sunlight. One, two, three, four, he counted, marking an hour. Later, when the sun’s bottommost arc glanced his index finger, it was time to stop for the day.
There was nothing against which I could have placed myself.
While Hariram made camp, Udai and I unsaddled and hobbled the camels. They were lanky beasts, doe-eyed but menacing. They trusted the waifish Udai, who was unafraid of their powerful, elephantine feet as he slipped short links of rope around their legs. For me, they only threw their heads and spat. Being hobbled didn’t stop the camels from moving—only from moving quickly. As soon as the braided handcuffs were fit, they began inching away, scouring the sand for sprigs of green. Over the years, the chafing of their nightly bindings had worn away the hair of their lower forelegs, leaving two thick rings of hairless, chapped skin.
Hariram had dug a small fire into the sand, and the crackle and sweet scent of onion and curried bhindi rose with the smoke. I watched the tapered shooting stars of green okra soften in the ghee and turmeric while Hariram flicked small splashes of water onto another frying pan. When the droplets began to dance and jump, he added chapatis he had pressed to life from water and flour. Udai, humming tunelessly, prepared chai, placed three small plastic cups on the sand. The cups stirred a memory of my youth, of school mornings when my classmates and I were forced to drink shots of aquamarine fluoride—an archaic practice preceding a recital of the Lord’s Prayer. Our teacher brushed off our daily protests with some long-forgotten aphorism about white teeth, good citizenry, the future. While she counted to twenty in a booming voice, we swirled the caustic mint in our mouths, holing back against the painfully distant count of one, when we could spit into a collective plastic bucket and breathe free again.
I recounted this memory to Udai, who was my age, but he was busy handling the kettle, and barely listened. What did he care anyway? His world was one of heat and sand and thirst. What was any good about stories complaining about mouthwash and teachers? The heat had clearly fried my brain—another memory burnt to a crisp.
I suspected they resented me, my sudden intrusion into their lives, my insistence on going with them out on their business in the desert, my weakness for water.
He poured the tea, which was so hot my little plastic cup melted, twisting with a crinkle like a salted slug. I dropped the scalding cup and we watched the sweet, sticky chai melt into the sand.
As we squatted around the fire, a silhouette came over a dune. Over what felt like hours we watched the figure approach, noting its change from a weak quiver of colour on the horizon, like a patch of bluish oil wavering on a clear stream, into its final melding into the form of a man. He was bearded and swathed in a long blue dhoti, his hair tucked under a dirty turban. Slung over his back was a large sack that clinked loudly with each step. He swung it over his shoulder and opened it, revealing a collection of sweating bottles of Fanta and Coke. Their coldness was a mystery; we had been going for two days and had seen no sign of electricity, let alone a town. I asked Hariram how it was possible. From his wrinkled face, the look of frustrated bewilderment was obvious. “Ice, isn’t it?” he said.
“I would like a Fanta,” said Udai. “And Hariram would also be liking one.”
I realized he was speaking to me. I hesitated. Was this why I had come, to act as a patron? Perhaps sensing my uncertainty, Hariram waved Udai away. The young man’s eyes implored, and I relented. I withdrew my purse from its hiding place and bought three bottles, then one for the merchant, so no one had to watch anyone drink. The sharp liquid stung my throat, but its coolness was ambrosial. I wanted to drown within it. I bought four more, and Udai smiled at me, his yellow, beedi-stained teeth now touched with orange. “Better than fluoride?” he laughed. Hariram glared into the fire, ignoring us, these foolish children he’d been tasked to protect.
Under that hellish microscope of heat, my memories began to melt into one another, broadening to fill the landscape, where they hardened like sheets of chestnut caramel.
We drank four more, and four again, downing the coldness in long, camel-like swallows. When we’d finished, the man collected the empty bottles and placed them into his sack. He stayed until dark and camped with us on a large bolt of cloth pinned at the corners with saddles. Udai hummed into the night, his voice keeping me maddeningly awake under the clear sky.
The breaking dawn pulled the thin slip of shadow off the sand. When it crested the distant dunes and hit my face, the sun was already warm. I opened them to see that the soda man was gone. Udai and Hariram, too, were gone.
I was alone.
I bolted upright and instinctively fumbled for my bag, searching out my purse, my compass. They were all there, but where was I? I flipped open the compass and stared at the spinning needle. What was it pointing to, I wondered. Where was I? Where would I go, now that I was alone? I didn’t move, but simply sat in the rising heat, straining my ears until my head ached, laboring to hear above the hammering of my heart. Our bubble of sound had burst, and I was left alone under the sun.
We moved through the desert as a pocket of sound.
Then, from over a dune came Hariram, the camels trailing behind him. He brought the camels to heel and began restacking their loads. Before I could protest, he snatched at my bag and lashed it to a saddle. Udai came from somewhere and squatted beside my bedroll, rocking to the beat of another wordless tune. His humming was a new comfort, a sign of life and safety I’d never known before. As he rocked, the heel of his sandal lifted, and I saw it was worn through to the hard callous of his foot.
Before mounting, I pressed the compass into Udai’s hand. He looked at me strangely and turned over the disk in his hands. I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to apologize for thinking I could blend in, that I wouldn’t be a burden. Also, that the tool was useless, but it was all I could think to give him. More than anything, I didn’t know how to explain wanting him to not grow into the wolfish look I’d seen in Hariram.
“What is it for?” he said.
“It’s for later,” I said, finally remembering our teacher’s excuse as she handed around the cups of fluoride, and began the countdown from twenty.
J. R. Patterson was born in Manitoba, Canada, in 1989, and raised on a beef and grain farm outside of Gladstone. His experiences as a farm laborer, factory worker and musician inform much of his writing, which appears regularly in a variety of international publications. He divides his time between Canada and Portugal. Visit him at jrpatterson.ca or on Twitter: @JRPatterson9. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Sergey Pesterev