Night Watch

Bishnu and I were in the kitchen finishing dinner, one day after I’d moved in, when Bhim stuck his head through the door.

“Laura?” he inquired.  He asked me how I was doing.

Bhim seemed to have another world around him.  We’d been here as visitors less than two days earlier, and now I felt him observing me in my new habitat, going about my business, eating my food, interacting with the other family members.

I put two stools next to the sewing machine and we sat down. Bhim pointed to the low ceiling.  “Please be careful inside the house,” he said.  “You’ll have to stand up carefully and walk slowly to avoid hitting your head.”

This did appear to be true.

“And those straw mats on the bed must be uncomfortable.”  With the best of intentions, Bhim initiated an elaborate explanation of how I should put my inflatable camping mattress over the mats, and move my bag off the bed because the arrangement was cramped and unpleasant for sleeping.  When we’d dumped my things there, Didi had moved the rolled up camping mattress off the bed, not recognizing what it was, and I’d figured I didn’t need it.  I assured Bhim that the highly vocal chicken had overwhelmingly surpassed any disturbance caused by the straw mat.  But why hadn’t I used the mattress, Bhim insisted.  Later that evening I found everything on the bed reorganized.

I had arrived in the middle of the harvest, and the attic was full of rice.  For two nights, I slept downstairs because there was no room on the second floor, which was covered with baskets, tubs, homeless heaps and lost scatterings of unmilled pellets.  Downstairs I didn’t sleep very well.  Aamaa snored like a diesel engine.  Some new chicks were being housed in a box at the end of the bed, where they chirped and bustled around tirelessly.  But the real culprit was the chicken herself, who let loose at such a fearsome volume each morning that the mere sound was almost enough to send me through the ceiling and back up to the attic.

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After a few days, the attic was rearranged so I could sleep on the mats, and at night, it was absolutely, impenetrably dark.  When I woke at some unnamed hour, it was so dark that, for all I knew, I had actually woken in the middle of the day to find that someone had painted tar over my pupils. I had been dreaming about the lake where we used to row in New England.  Its dark smooth surface, the methodical sound of oarlocks turning.  Thunk.  Thunk.  Thunk.  I sat up and squinted out the slatted window and the other side was as dark and smooth as the lake.  A breeze blew softly through the bars.  I had to pee.

Cautiously I felt my way across the floor to the ladder.  Its smooth-worn wooden rungs creaked against their rope bindings while I climbed down as quietly as I could.  The darkness enhanced the gaping silence, and as one foot found the ground, I held my breath, clinging to my privacy, trying not to disturb Bishnu and Didi and Aamaa–or, God forbid, the chicken–in their sleep.  Their breathing ruffled the tranquil blackness.

One step, two steps toward the door, avoiding the wide wooden supports in the middle of the room.

A stirring on one of the cots.

BATTI!” Aamaa’s voice shattered the glassy stillness.  “BATTI!

If I had been able to see, I would have broken into a run.  What did batti mean?  In my dream-filled ears the incomprehensible sound reverberated cavernously.  Hand signals were useless, but there was not one suitable word—such as, “pee”—that I knew how to say.  I stretched out my palms, grasping for the door, willing an escape to come to my fingertips.

I heard Aamaa sitting up as my hands found the metal rod wedged across the inside of the door.  The rod provided our only nighttime security, and at the moment, it was securing me inside.  Slide the rod this way, then that way.  It was like trying to remain calm while diffusing a ticking bomb.

I was not fast enough.

BATTI KHULNU PARDAINA ESTO UNDERO MAA KASARI BAHIRA JANNEHOTANEEEE!”  It was a mystery how Aamaa could come out of a cold slumber and create that kind of volume.  The explosion of sound tore apart cobwebs of sleep and sections of my brain were impaled against flying knives of gibberish.  My hands fumbled as I tried to set myself free from the house.  The rod slid out of its hold and I pulled two wooden doors inward, ducked my chin, and fled outside into the night.

The toilet was at the other end of our terraced millet field, just below the hill leading up to the ridge.  I tottered along the edge of the field, which was almost invisible in the meager moonlight, and felt my way over to a rock that was sheltered by old mats and cut up rice sacks.  Inside, there was a bucket of water for washing, but I kept a plastic bag full of tissue that rustled with the slightest breeze, and even that disjointed noise seemed too loud.

After I came out of the toilet I stayed outside, halfway up the hill to the ridge.  The moon was upside down; it looked like a slender bowl, an offering.  I traced Orion and Cassiopeia.  About fifty yards away, the house slept under the expanse of sky, and the evening’s symphony of insect sounds had silenced.  The village stretched out like a frozen yawn to the base of the Kalika Hill, whose massive triangular silhouette thrust toward the stars.

I made my way back to the house, so blind under the clipping of moon that I had to crawl along the edge of the garden to avoid falling off into the cut millet stalks one terrace lower.  But this journey to the toilet was to become a nightly practice, and after a few weeks the moon fattened until it was full like a white balloon; then, the terraces and the path were so light that it looked like somebody had neglected to turn off the daytime.  Eventually, after watching the moon wax and wane and wax again, and the constellations rise and fall with the passing hours, I made a regular game out of emerging from a deep sleep and guessing the time with a quick look around.  I couldn’t have described what the sky actually looked like at each hour—sometimes I barely gave it a glance—but I was usually correct within five minutes.  The night possessed a quality of solitude so complete that, like the living house, nighttime was knowable in its own right.  Those sacred moments of nothingness were the only times I felt unwatched.

The next morning Aamaa waved her hands and exclaimed about batti.  I turned to Bishnu for help.  She picked up the flashlight by Aamaa’s cot.

Batti,” Bishnu said, “means light.

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