I N A U S P I C I O U S
R. L. K. Eastabrooks
BEAUTY DENIES THE WHEEL
The gruesome day.
Her day of sati:
Angry men shouting.
Wailing women chanting.
Moaning conflagration ghosts,
stench of flesh and corpse aflame,
her crumbling widow’s pyre.
Then Durga Maa’s weeping -
The sudden monsoon deliverance!
Shrouded by violet haze,
singed hair trailing,
charred feet flying -
The innocent child bride
breaks the rough bonds
of ancient cruel sorority -
Runs through tangled forest,
the whipping sands of Thar.
Runs toward the promise
of a life of little mercies.
All exquisite ones
sati (su te’, sut’e), n. 1. a Hindu practice whereby a widow immolates herself on the funeral pyre of her husband: now abolished by law.
O N E
Central Rajasthan, India
HER LEGS BEGIN to fail her, yet she pushes on. Slashing through the scrub forest’s underbrush, the terrain torturing her burnt feet, the girl slows just enough for the stench of seared flesh to catapult her back to the horror: pinned beneath a crushing weight; white-blue flames erupting all around; his head lolling on her thighs; her own screams as the wooden platform collapses and she plummets, flailing beneath the roaring blaze.
Adrenaline jolts the girl back into her body, into the running. Her overnight sprint exacts a cruel toll. Every breath she draws now is a stab to her lungs. Her heart pounds within her rain-soaked chest, rattling her ribs with every beat. Dehydration forces her to pause frequently to lick raindrops from her arms; the salt and ash bitter on her tongue. She tries to hug herself, but the agony in her palms stops her. Moaning low, she uses her unscathed forearms to assesses her body: face, throat, breasts, hips, legs, nearly the whole of her is charred. The angry wounds on her feet and hands throb with rage.
The girl longs to cry out for help, but who would hear her? Even if the winds did not swallow her plea, who would come?
“Not them!” Panic clamps shut her throat mid cry.
Despair tempts her to surrender, but she will not submit. Nothing would stop her escape. From the angle of her tread and the speed she gains, she realizes that she is descending out of the low-sloping Aravalli foothills. The girl plods on, shivering in silence toward a faint, distant light hovering just at the edge of the great Thar Desert.
The last of the thunderstorms passes by her, leaving an eerily quiet night. The girl shakes her head in a vain effort to clear it as a light wind tosses her long black hair, singed and stuck through with twigs and leaves. She is feral now, crouching low as she scrabbles down the mountain. Her eyes flicker side-to-side, alert to the slightest quivers of branches’ silhouettes.
A gravelly bark suddenly breaks the heavy silence. She drops to the ground, believing her own voice a predator’s. Petrified, she waits until the rockslide beneath her ruined feet caroms its last echoes off the hillside before rising to run again. Slipping into shock, she fights the urge to close her eyes.
“No… must stay awake.”
Stars twinkle out from beyond the distant band of monsoon clouds that saved her life and sail high on the northeast winds toward Delhi. The air sweetens. Dawn is coming. Something inside her knows that should she fail to cross the last fifty meters of stones and sand, the unforgiving Rajasthan sun will claim her spent body where she drops.
In the waning darkness the girl stumbles badly, landing hard on her knees. Acacia thorns have shredded the blackened remains of her arches and sliced her ankles into red ribbons. Leaning on her forehead and elbows, she manages to stand again. She bites her swollen bottom lip. Swallowing her warm blood reawakens a terrible thirst. A quick clamp of her jaw and she opens three more bidi-sized holes in her mouth.
Her salvation glows before her. From the window of a spare, wooden structure wedged between two rock crags shines the beacon that has guided her flight. She wills her legs to run but they buckle and she crumples again to the ground. Stunned, she sits awkwardly, tilting her head at the light. Her vision blurs into a golden kaleidoscope. Minutes are born, only to fade away.
Beyond language, past thought, she forces her blistered fingers onward across the rocks, dragging her wasted body behind her. Reaching the back door of the shack, the girl collapses against its rough boards and slumps face down in the cool, wet sand. Her eyes close and she is still; a slight mound of tattered red and gold silk.