Beloved (part 4 of 7)

He will carry the bus rides inside his bones even after he exits the deathtrap buses: the ache in his head from machine-gun barrages of squalling brakes and babies, omni-present livestock, the choked roar of the engine. The cramping in his legs from sharing the seat with an old woman and her hens, the pain in his back from spending a day, a night, a day, rattling against the wall. Sleeping in snatches.

The latest postcard shows white sand dunes by the river, before dawn, as a boat filled with pilgrims drifts like a prayer toward the shore. A woman in a white sari and shawl balances on the prow. Her face an enigma. Green letters above her head: Asra. On the back: Ahmedabad Flea Market. The Elephant Room.

Day, night, day. He eats his second orange the morning they arrive at the Asra station and drops the peels on top of the small pile of lemon peels in the floor beneath his seat, recently discarded. He imagines the scent of bitterness and tears. He carries this scent into the disorder of the market: a table of pet fish swimming in empty liquor bottles, a door and its frame propped against the stack of other furniture prosthetics. A lawn chair in the middle of the pile, its blue-white awning peeling like a sunburn. The boy who sells the pet fish and chain smokes cigarettes from the pack on his hip, leads him to another of the anonymous, bland tea stalls he has grown accustomed to visiting. One that rents rooms upstairs. The owner of the joint shows no surprise at his American face.

“She said you come.”

Two days ago this would have left him hollowed out as by electricity, but he has no energy for expectations. He’s worn threadbare, exhausted. He’s running out of clean underwear. The bed threatens collapse under his weight; let it. He’ll sleep on a mattress and bare boards. But at that moment before he surrenders to the united protest of every muscle, every bone, he notices the table beside the bed. A small black bowl, filled with raisins, and the dried petals of a red flower, newly lit against the black fruit.

Her habit, once, to vanish before dawn and return bearing food to place beside his bed, to pass it from her hands into his mouth. And then it was inverted, after the rumors of the Other Woman, when she refused to eat at all, unless he broke the bread with his own two hands and pressed it to her own two hands. She hoped to tie him to her with the threat of her emerging rib cage.

Now it has been inverted again. And what does he have left with which to tie her to himself?

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