On the morning of my marriage day, my sisters come to me.
I have been expecting them, and have washed myself and laid out the garment in which I am to be married – a gown as grey as the dawn, as light and wispy as the clouds. I let them dress me in it, and when they are done, I stand back, and thank them briefly, in words as steeped in ritual as the visit and the dressing.
“Go well,” they say in response, in a chant they have rehearsed, the chant I have also used when sending our other sister out on her wedding day. “Go well, and come back in full bloom. Go out grey as ash and come back as red as a flower. Do you promise?”
“I promise,” I reply. Then each of them touches me, briefly, and leaves. Soon I am alone, and free to go.
But before I go, I have one more thing to do. One of my sisters has not visited me – it is she who was married the last time. Now she is great with child, and lies on her pallet in her room. Before leaving, I decide, I will go and see her.
She raises a tired head and smiles wanly when I enter. “I thought you would be gone by now.”
“I did not want to go without seeing you.” I look down at her. “It’s going to be in a day or two, right?”
“Maybe even today,” she says. “I can feel the movements.” She gestures invitingly towards her swollenness, inviting me to feel, too.
I do not want to touch. Her skin is pale, stretched so tight that it’s almost translucent. It reminds me of wax. But it was I who had come to see her, and she would be hurt if I didn’t do this simple thing. So I bend and touch, forcing myself not to flinch. Things seem to crawl and bump inside her. “Are you happy?” I ask curiously. It is a question I’m not really supposed to ask, but she and I were always close, closer than sisters really should be.
“Happy?” She shrugs tiredly. “It needs to happen, because the future must go on. How does it matter if I’m happy? But of course...” she smiles again. “Of course I’m not telling you not to be happy when your turn comes.”
I do not say anything for a moment. I want to go, but at the same time I do not want to leave her. Nor does she look as though she wants me to go. After all, there is still time. “Do you want male or female children?” she asks eventually.
I do not have to think about this. “Oh, female, definitely,” I respond immediately. “Males are such silly, useless things.”
“But we need them, don’t we?” she says, laughing breathlessly. “Need them for...” she points to the swollen mound of herself. “For this?”
“Perhaps someday we can do without them,” I tell her.
“Perhaps,” she agrees. “But not now, not in our lifetimes.” She looks very tired suddenly. “Go now. Your groom must be waiting for you. Go and come back red and in full bloom.”
I leave. On the way out I see none of my other sisters. They have work to do, all of them, as I had work until today. Only on our wedding day, and afterwards, do we not work.
At the entrance, one of my sisters has left a small sealed pot for me, tiny enough to hold in my fist. It is still warm. My sisters will have squeezed out the essence into the pot, drop by drop, for me. It is not necessary, but I feel a great surge of affection for them for taking the trouble.
The morning is heavy and grey, the air humid and pressing down with no breeze. It is not marrying weather. It is not the weather I would have chosen. Fortunately, I know the way I must go, where my groom will be waiting for me. Once, long ago, I would have had to trust to fortune. No longer.
The path is only a smudge in the ground, but easier to my feet than the ground around, strewn with thorn and stones. The trees hang heavily overhead, drooping almost to the ground under the weight of leaves and branches. I can see the river through them. It looks in this light like a stretch of grey mud.
From here, if I look back, I could see my home – mine and that of my sisters. It is the only home I have ever known, the only home I will ever know. With every step, I can feel its pull on me. I fight down the urge to look back, because if I do, I may be unable to resist the urge to turn around and go back. I cannot do that. It is my duty to marry, as it will be that of every one of my sisters in her turn.
The path turns to the left, towards the river. Here is the stone platform, worn by age, where I will wait. I do not know what it was built for, originally, or by whom; I have no idea how many marriages it has witnessed. The only one that will matter to me is my own.
The river is slow, and bears a smell with it, a smell of mud and rotting vegetation, and other things. I have heard that the river comes from a long way away, from the blue mountains on the distant horizon, which I will never visit. Perhaps my groom has. Males wander far, as they must.
Methodically, I prepare myself. There is no wind, so I do not have to orient myself towards it. Opening the pot, I take out the oily liquid within and smear myself with it. My sisters have made it for me – I would not want their efforts to go to waste. The smell of it hangs in the air, overpowering that of the river. If there was wind it would have carried it away, but there is not the slightest breath of a breeze. The smell is soporific; the pot slips from my grasp and shatters to fragments on the stone. No matter; the amount I have smeared on myself will more than suffice.
I can feel his presence now, in the rustling of branches, the light cracking of a twig. He is not here yet, but he is coming.
Kneeling on the stone, I bow my head, as I have been taught, and wait.
It is not right for a bride to look at her groom; I have been always told this, from the first moment I was old enough to know that someday I must marry. Why it should be so, I have never been told, and never asked; but now, listening to the noise of him coming through the bushes, faster now, faster and closer, I suddenly know.
A bride must not look upon her groom so that she does not take fright and run away.
A rush, a high pitched shriek, and he is upon me.
Even though I have prepared for this moment, he almost knocks me over with his weight. I can feel him on me, scraping and clawing away my filmy grey garment. He is so inflamed by my scent, and that of my sisters, that he cannot at first find the back of my neck, which I have bared to him. Then I feel his claws digging into my skin, sharp as knives, and the stinging pain as his organ cuts through the back of my neck and into me.
Crouching under his weight, bowed almost to the stone, I wait and feel him on me, inside me, hot and burning and throbbing.
The river eddies by, with its mud and leaves and its scents from places I will never see, which I will never know. I watch it pass, and endure.
At last it is over. With a final convulsive throb, he rolls off my back and on to the stone. I can feel him thrashing around, weakly, already in his death throes. Males are weak creatures. They are born for only one purpose, and once that is done, they do not live long.
I could look at him now, if I wanted. I could put him out of his misery, as my sister had done with her husband. But I do neither. I only want one thing, now, and that is to go home.
Discarding the tattered remnants of my grey wedding garment, I turn back along the path. The blood from my wounds runs down my body, dripping on the ground, painting it as I go. The blood will clot, soon enough. It will need to, to preserve what I carry within me now.
Yes, they are already squirming through my veins and pulsing arteries, the seed my already dying husband has planted within me. They are seeking out my seed, and merging with them, and soon they will settle down inside me, to feed. To feed and to grow, and grow, and grow.
And soon, soon, they will be ready to emerge into the world. They will be desperate to be born, and they will make their own way out, with teeth and claws, ripping through the swollen, translucent bag that will be my body. They will bear with them the only message that means anything in this world, or on any other.
Life is the only thing that matters. By any means possible, no matter what it has to do, life will go on.
I can see my home now, my home and my sisters’, which will be the home of my children. I left in grey, and I am coming back red in my blood, and in bloom, as I had promised to do. Soon, I will bear fruit, and bring life into the world.
My sisters must have seen me. Soon it will be their turn. I can hear their voices, raised in welcome.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2018