It was the first time I’d sworn in front of my daughter, a loud clear invective followed by a long sigh. Muskan, busy peeling layers of thoughts, didn’t appear to have heard. Her eyes, like mine, were fixed on the pitch dark road of the desert, lit only for a few meters by the headlights of our car. Millions of tiny white particles floated inside the two horizontal pillars of the light. Each fleck had a different width of its mouth, a unique curl of its tail, and an ego in their movement. Like tadpoles. Apart from silence, they were the ones I found having evil intent toward us.
Muskan folded her hands above her flat chest where they lay quite comfortably without having to carry any burden of breasts yet. As usual, she opened her lips and exercised her jaw before speaking. “Mamma, try once more.”
I mechanically turned the key again. Already I had tried countless times and every time the engine had coughed weakly. Just like an old man nearing his death. This time it didn’t respond at all.
“No use,” I said, trying to sound casual. “We should have listened to your father. Your granny has just suffered a minor fracture. It was not necessary rushing to her house in the middle of the night.”
I turned off the headlights. The tiny white fairies disappeared. Muskan restlessly wriggled her fingers under her armpits, like she didn’t want their dance to end. Darkness enveloped itself meticulously around the shape of the car. We could not see more than each other’s silhouette. The stars appeared so close, shining like glitters on a bedspread. We could hold them on our fingertips and arrange them according to our liking.
Muskan stayed still. Her passivity disturbed me more than anything else. She had this disturbing quality of staying unperturbed in any situation. She assumed a meditative repose that convinced me something evil was lurking inside her. That soon she would change into a monster and bite me to death, or would grow tendrils and choke my throat. Whenever I had been alone with her, I had this feeling she could hurt me. Today, I was waiting for her to turn towards me, smiling, and give up her human form. I was fully ready to confront her reality. Whatever was it? A ten-legged monster? A devil with large horns? These thoughts left me perplexed. I could not approve of a reason behind them. Was it her stubbornness against dark? Her lack of affection for me? Or the fact that once past her babyhood, I had never seen her shed a single tear?
“What should we do now?” I asked meekly. She continued staring straight ahead and shrugged. “Aren’t you afraid?”
I switched on the headlight, which, ironically, only stressed the dark surrounding us. A mosquito immediately came hovering from somewhere to inspect the light and, disgruntled at its sharpness, went away. “Aren’t you afraid of the dark?”
“What is there to be afraid of?”
She was right. Why would she be afraid of anything? It was me who was afraid of her. I fetched a flashlight, praying for it to work. It did. And the first place it lit was Muskan’s face. Her eyebrows came closer together but the eyes didn’t reveal any annoyance. She turned her face away, and I got a chance to check the length of her nails, her ears, orientation of her feet. If there was any change happening to her body. Had the metamorphosis started? It was a relief to find her normal. A little disappointing, too, as I wasn’t sure if ever again I would be so much prepared for the worse.
“We can’t stay sitting here all night,” I said. “Let’s go out. We might find a village perhaps, or someone. Be careful, there might be snakes here.”
I deliberately said the last line with extra emphasis on “snakes.” I once again focused light over her face. Even the thought of snakes didn’t bring what I wanted to see coloring her face. Fear. She stepped out. We didn’t hold each other’s hands as we started following the patch of light that the flashlight focused on the road ahead. Road that badly needed repair. In spite of the chill, we couldn’t walk together. One foot always in a pit and the other struggling to find solid ground. Just a few meters and the walk was already tormenting. But the unemotional beast by my side was enjoying herself. She took the flashlight from me and carefully pointed it at every insect happening to cross our path. Stunning the creatures, forcing them to change their course, or scuttle away leaving the viand they were carrying. She picked some sand and walked while spilling it behind her, marking her way because she didn’t trust my navigation skills. When her hand was empty, she rubbed it with the cuff of her T-shirt before picking some more.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked.
“No reason,” she snapped.
I detested her answers. There was enough sand all around, and I could have buried her beneath a huge dome to teach her not all things are without reason.
“Stop it,” I scolded. “We are in the middle of a crisis.”
She morosely spilled the sand between her feet and the wind swept it towards me. We walked silently, feeling the wind lashing at us from a new direction every five minutes. My dupatta fluttered uncontrollably. I stopped to tie it in a knot around me. Muskan didn’t slacken her pace and walked ahead without me, swiveling her torch in a carefree way. Darkness immediately filled the space between us, swallowing first her ponytail, then the pleats of her skirt, and soon the sky blue color of the dress started to blur. I bent down a little and hurried to the side of the road. As soon I found the sand, I started to crawl over it. My hands left imprints over the sand that my knees were rubbing. After a certain distance when I was sure she could not spot me, I threw myself flat. I could feel distinctly each grain slipping under my weight to give my body a nice warm crevice to rest.
“Mamma,” I heard Muskan’s voice. “Where are you?’
I stopped breathing. From this distance, I could only see the flashlight and ascertain her movement from it. It turned back and started to turn in circles. There was no sense of urgency in its movement. Impossible little beast she was. Even my sudden disappearance didn’t make her panic. The light leisurely strolled to and fro on the road and only once pointed at me. It was like looking into the eyes of a wolf, only to find it was blind and couldn’t spot me.
The sand beneath me had turned still. Another me had been imprinted on it, and held me safely in its delicate cradle. The way I had always wanted to hold my daughter, inside me. Just like before her birth. Therefore, I was hiding from her, in the hope being stranded alone would bring out the dormant emotional side of her. She would come running towards me, hug me tight and shower slaps on my breasts, demanding an explanation.
“Mamma,” I heard her call once again. The voice was so weak, not with fear, I was sure, but because of cold. Light started to walk back towards the car. A little while later I heard the door slam. So the whole exercise had proved futile. She had gone back to the car, no more interested in looking for me. Many minutes passed. When I again looked up, the sky was no longer the same. Even if I could not ascertain how all the stars had changed place, I could feel a different eye staring at me from above.
The sand was cold, and it was getting colder. It was quite a sensation to think how each particle of it would start to burn with the first rays of the sun in the morning. There would be no respite to it except an occasional shadow of an eagle. Looking for snakes. I sprang up, wildly looking around, effacing the art my body had sketched on the sand. I quietly walked to the car. The cuffs of my Salwaar had turned heavy with sand, and so moved a little erratically around my ankles. I reached the road with faltering steps. Muskan saw me coming before I could see the car and lit the headlights. After the dim soothing twinkling of stars, the lights were painful, making me screen my face with my hands. I slowly strolled to the car, the weight of leftover sand pricking under my feet, a little relieved that at least she’d looked for me for some time.
I knocked on her side of the window and she rolled it down, slowly. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I was waiting for you.”
I could see she was making something with a tissue paper, a bird as far as I could guess.
“You were calling me?” I said, bending over the window and peering closely at her hands.
She crumpled the paper and looked away from me. She never looked at my face for more than a few seconds.
“What’s the matter? Were you missing me?”
She turned her neck so sharply that the hair came over half of her face, veiling her one eye. The other one devoured me with an inscrutable glint. Was it the trick of the dark, or did it really happen? I saw some movement of skin around her lips. It could only be a smile, but impossible to confirm in such dark. “I only wanted to ask where can I pee. There isn’t any toilet here.”