Untouchable

       Daya rubs her feet.  With a steel sponge, she grinds off the grime.  The heat loosens the black stuff and brings up smells of diesel, refuse, burnt wood.  When she is done, she turns to her hands.

       Her father Jawarlahal shifts in the bed and moans.  One of his arms is slung across the bed, useless where it lies numb.  Daya takes a glass and holds it against her father’s hand, so that he can feel its coolness.  Another moan escapes.

       When Daya is done cleaning herself, she empties the basin onto the street.  It is two hours before midnight.  She wonders if she should take food.  In a few hours, she will be in the street again.

       Some nights, like these, she knows that there is a question that eludes her.  At times, she finds the answer on the rooftop of a neighbour’s home; at others, it comes from a field whose stalks are brown and crisped by the sun.  Once, she saw it in the back of a rikshaw, dressed in foreign clothes and pointing a camera at the street.

       Daya removes her clothes.  She puts her back to the wall and allows herself a moment in the coolest place that she knows.  Instantly, it is winter in Jammu, the snow stuck in fissures as a wind looks for the hotlands where Daya was born.  Then she is back in the room and there is her father on the bed, breathing badly.  Hacking.  Daya wonders what he imagines in his drowsiness.  Probably, it is a railroad steaming its way to the south, over the old wooden bridges to an ocean that he has never seen.

*****

       Outside, the lights are working.  Daya is grateful.  There are people in doorways, smoking.  Others are drinking and reading from their poetry books.  The wagons and rikshaws are finished for the night, which makes it easier for Daya to trace her way along the street.  No one bothers her, not even the beggars who cling to the spots they’ve won in alleys and gutters.

       She is on Dhaku’s road, named for the merchant who owns many of the buildings upon it.  She knows every patch of the street: where the cobbles have come undone, where the children like to play, where the merchants choose to set up dhabas to boil their oil.

       “Oho Daya, why are you here?” comes a voice.  It is Pinder and his gang, smoking and passing around a bottle.  “This is not a safe place for a sweeper.”

       The men are wearing pyjamas, and the white fabric rustles as they surround her.

       A memory of her father comes to Daya.  He is sitting on the side of a hill and looping blades of grass together until they form all the creatures of the jungle.  Daya plays beyond him at the base of the hill, one eye looking for flowers, another for the holes where snakes would live.  The image blurs and reforms into that of an old man lying in his bed, diseased, parched by a thirst the river itself could not quench.

       Pinder takes her by the hair.  “Get on your knees.  If you look up, I will crack this bottle on your head.”  Daya abases herself, palms flat upon the cobbles.  The rest of Pinder’s gang is quiet.

       Daya waits.  Her head is spinning.  It takes her a moment to realize that Pinder is speaking.  “…take you there again?  Well, Daya?  Should we find that same place?  That night you certainly spoke, no?  Maybe you are not a mute after all.”  She remembers the night he speaks of, how they’d put their hands over her eyes as they’d crouched over her.  She remembers screaming, until yes, it might have sounded like words.  They’d left her naked in a pile of dogshit.  Two of them had urinated on her before they’d moved on with their clinking bottles.

       “You do not speak now, Daya?  Not even to spare yourself?”  Pinder is very close.  He is studying her back.  As his finger touches her, Daya forces herself to stay still.

       “Dirty bitch,” he says.  “You are not a mute.  You speak.  I have heard you.”  He turns his back on her.  “Get up and go.”

       Daya keeps her eyes on the ground as she scurries down the street.  Behind her, Pinder and his gang return to their drink.

*****

       Daya moves along a wall.  She is surrounded by a dark alleyway, but few people come here or know that the alleyway exists, so she is not worried.  She reaches a place where a brick has crumbled, creating a hole.  She puts her eye to it and looks into a large courtyard.  It is lit by bulbs of different colours.  There is a large tree in the middle; ropes and swings hang from its great branches.  It is an orange tree, and Daya can smell the ripened fruit.  At the house-end of the courtyard is a flat of marble tile.  A narrow path of the tile extends from it to a collection of chairs canopied by fabric swaying on poles.

       Beneath the canopy sit two girls.  They are the sisters who live in the house, and are always here during the night, talking and laughing.  They are dressed in saris, and often slide the fabric up to their knees so that they may receive relief from the warmth.  Tonight, the sisters are drinking from steel cups.  On a table under the canopy sits a flask of milk.

       A moment later, two more girls come into the courtyard.  Daya strains to see their faces.  They sit with the sisters and take milk.  Daya has seen paintings of things like this, where everyone is at home and at ease.  In the paintings, someone must always be smiling and someone must always be teasing; and there must always be the serious one who holds their head to the side.  One of the sisters, the one in the green sari, stares at the wall.  The other three talk and drink.

       More girls arrive, until all the chairs underneath the canopy are taken and some of the visitors are sitting on the ground.  A few listen to a girl who is reading from a book.

       Later, Daya picks out the movement of another girl who has entered the courtyard.  Her feet are bare, toes curled against the heat that is still in the marble.  Her hair is loose over her red sari.

       Daya has seen her before.  She saw her the first time she came here, when this girl was alone in the courtyard.  She had decided to dance.  Something about her movements had said to Daya that the girl had never tried it before.  She had danced for an hour, laughing at her own audacity and pleased by the suddenness of her success.  And then she had fallen into one of the chairs, exhausted.  There had been no breeze that day, nothing to ruin the image of her lying there.

       Several times since, Daya has seen her, for the girl is a common visitor at the house, a friend to the sisters.  She is the same age as Daya, perhaps a little younger.  Her skin is lighter, arms thinner.

       The girl walks to the sisters.  The quiet sister in the green sari looks at her and smiles.  The girl kneels before her and takes her hands in her own.  They say something to each other which Daya cannot hear.  The girl moves her face towards that of the other; one arm reaches into the sister’s black hair and pulls her closer.  Lips meet.  Around them, there is poetry and laughter, and a night so heavy with heat that the monsoon could not wash it away.  But Daya…  Daya can hear the ocean.  Daya can feel the sea.  She tries to speak, but no words come out.  No words have ever come out.  She presses herself against the brick as though she could squeeze through the small opening and appear in the courtyard, a shade in the corner that someone would eventually see and invite into the circle of light, to a place under the tree.  When the kiss ends, the new girl takes a place at the feet of her lover.  The sister is smiling as she plays with the hair of the creature before her.

       Daya finds that her fingers are bent.  There is a pain in some part of her, but she does not know what limb she has inconvenienced.  Eventually, the girl in the red sari rises, moves out of Daya’s sight.  The other girls clap softly, urging her on.

       Daya moves back from the hole and looks up at the sky above the wall.  It is not so high to the top.  She starts with the foothold of the missing brick; up, up she rises, until she feels the ledge.  She has an instant to find a handhold that will support her weight – it is there, a place where the glass is not so sharp.  Shards cut her, and as she pulls herself up, glass breaks under her weight.  Her hands bleed into the glue.  Her other hand searches in vain for a place clean of glass, but there is none.  She feels the glass impale this hand, too.

       She pulls herself up.

       Daya can see into the courtyard.  The girl in the red sari is there, dancing.  She moves, sways, the same thing as the wind, no different from the tree in the courtyard.  If there had been music, she would have been better than it; if there had been the sea to be a shawl about her shoulders, she would have risen and fallen with the waves.  Daya watches the steps, the places where those bare feet go, the way the silk enslaves itself to motions that were not born in this world.  It is the same dance that Daya has seen before, but she watches until it is finished.  The girl in the red sari bows to the others, and laughs as she did the first time Daya saw her dancing in the courtyard.

       When the pain in Daya’s hands becomes unbearable, she lets go of the wall.  The fall is not so far.  As she lays in the alleyway, she feels cold for the first time in months.

       On the way home, the drunks are sleeping with their books of poetry upon their chests, the only possession that will not be stolen from them.  Their money purses are empty; even their shoes are gone.  Chaiwalas are pushing carts down the street, their sandals slapping the cobbles.

       When Daya reaches her home, she looks to her father.  He lays there, a used, broken old man wheezing in his sleep.  He has not drank his water.

       Daya fills a basin and washes her hands.  There are shards of glass in her palms.  When the glass has been removed, she cleans the wounds and bandages them with rags.

       In a corner of the room, she puts her arms around her knees.  After a while, the ache in her back asserts itself, and she thinks to herself that this is a good sign.  Sleep pulls for her.  She thinks about what it will be like to be in the streets with her broom tomorrow, with her hands cut as they are.

*****

       Jawarlahal awakes and discovers how great is his thirst.  He casts about him for the cup and nearly knocks it over.  At first, the water tastes fiery.  For a moment, his breathing eases.  For a moment, he need not concentrate on the small act of drawing breath.  Jawarlahal swings his legs off the bed.

       It is still dark outside, dark as when he first went to sleep.  He seldom sees the day anymore.  In the day, dust stirs, and he finds it the most difficult to breathe.

       Soon, the temple and the mosque will turn up their loudspeakers for prayer.  The noise is one which is easily borne.  His eyes adjust to the darkness.  In the corner of the room, far from her bed, is his daughter.  Her arms are huddled around herself.  Silent, barely perceptible sounds of breathing and sleep come from her.  It is the only sound she makes, for Daya has never spoken a word.  She is thin, dark with the sun, and has yet to see the things that Jawarlahal does in his sleep.  But he will show them to her one day, and he will take her to those places.  It might be tomorrow, the day after that.  It might be more time than he can bear, or she can.  But it will be, for she is his daughter, and she is pure.  The sun and stars are not so grand as she is.  It will be, he tells himself, as he falls asleep again.  As sure as the ocean and the smell of it that is with him all the time, it will be.

 

154 thoughts on “Untouchable

  1. Trent,
    This is a sadly beautiful story. Your ability to make me see, feel and taste everything that your characters do catches me off guard. Before I know it my eyes are watering from the air (among other things). You have immersed me in a world I could not have imagined. Perhaps I did not want to imagine, but, then you show me the beauty in it.

    • Michelle, that is a great comment, and quite moves me. Thank you for staying with the story, I know it was long. Thank you for seeing the beauty, because that’s what it’s about, amidst all the grime.

  2. This is a triumph NB. Every smell, every motion, every E-motion…were as real as the tracks of tears left on a dust covered face in the dark. I loved it.

  3. Maybe it’s because we were talking about Gabriel Garcia Marquez the other day, but this reminded me of him – not in the words or the style, but in the rich description of ordinary lives being lived.
    Fantastic piece.

    • I too have joined the ladies Trent. And not just because I hope to get them drunk and take advantage of them… By the way, if this isn’t the Julie I think it is, I am SO sorry. I’m not normally a complete dick like this to strangers.

      Seriously, this was fantastic. Tell me, was this based on a previous visit(s) or just on your imagination / observations..?

      I can’t remember who said it earlier in the comments, but you really do have the ability to make the reader feel as if he/she was there. Those guys from Canada Writes got it wrong man.

      Julie/Spacurious (Fay), call me!

      • I think it’s probably the right Julie… maybe. There’s definitely only one spacurious/Fay. I’ve been to India, but long time ago now, this was based on some vague foggy recollection of something, just whatever feeling remains of the visit.

        You’re such a dog, dude… you gotta write us something, man.

  4. You leave comment after comment on my blog, Lewin, praising my work, and lamenting yours not being ‘as good’ and then you post something like this. Holy fuck, you bastard.

    Not sure if you take requests, but I would read more of this in a heartbeat.

    I hope you understand this next statement as the compliment I intend it to be: the photo doesn’t do the piece justice. Your words painted a more real, more vivid, more alive and pulsing picture in my head.

    This one’s incredible, Lewin. One of the best to date — blows my shit right out of the water.

    • I call shenanigans and bullshit on you, Jones. I know whereof I speak. If I see good writing, I know it. I am that good. But rather, you are that good. I won’t accept you arguing with me. Unless you want to fight.

      The photo thing… I think that’s an incredible compliment, and that means a hell of a lot. Thank you for that. Really, thank you.

  5. Beautiful, haunting piece, Trent. It was riveting. Your writing is poetic, so vivid I could feel the glass in my hands. The image of the women in the courtyard under the orange tree will stay with me. Standing ovation from me, too.

    • I can figure where exactly. Sorry Mark. I don’t judge you at all, one way or the other. I have a hard time writing my own stuff let alone reading it. I don’t know why I go where I go, but it’s where the words take me.

      • Well, the last thing you want to do is start censoring yourself so, audience be damned, you have to write what you write and not allow the words to pass through a filter on their way to your fingertips.

        • I agree, wholeheartedly. I don’t compromise with my writing. It’s not made for an audience other than whatever voices push me into it. People may like or not. I never know which way things will turn.

          • Yeah, but admit it, it’s tempting, right? I’d tailor ALL my posts with a view towards a bigger audience if I didn’t keep myself in check. It’s bad enough I censor what I post because of family eyes, but that can’t be helped.

            • I don’t know what’s tempting anymore. At first the blog world sucked me in with accumulation and collectibles, but then it all felt kind of empty and pointless. Do I want a bigger audience? Yes, I do. Do I particuarly envision that in the blogosphere? Not really. I think this is a bad place for fiction, as that format is not very compatible with the medium.

              Anyway, your posts are hands above conventional blog posts meant to generate attention and traffic, as I’m sure you know. And don’t get all modest on me. I hate that.

          • My wants/needs change all the time. When I migrated over to WP several months ago I was obsessed with being Fresh Pressed. Now? Not so much. It wore off. My new obsession: Clean, readable posts. Edit! Edit! Edit! After I’m satisfied with that I’ll attack my terrible punctuation.

            • I think the max audience in the blogosphere is what – 10,000 views a post or something? Maybe twice or three times that number of followers? I don’t know, I have to explain things with math or they don’t make sense to me. In essence, the blogging audience and involvement is pretty limited, except for the limited group that interacts.

              Your posts are always clean. For what it’s worth, I figure you’ll be FP’d at some point. Seems inevitable. I don’t really check out the FP’d page, I did for a while, but not much there really does it for me.

          • And I cannot help but join in on another observation about the blogosphere. Yes, there is amount of censoring I do also. Yes, there are still a couple of times I just let it rip. Yes, I most times write with a bigger audience in mind. No, I am no crazy about being freshly pressed (though it’d be nice to be) or about having a huge statistic on my blog without any sensible comment(er)s. Yes, sadly, blogging tends to end up being about the people who come and really enjoy the writing (and then, probably, the writer).
            i am yet to take time figuring out what proportion of Trent’s commenters are really part of his active community, but I’d say I see quite common names at each post comments.

  6. As others have already said … A masterful job of painting pictures, not just of physical spaces. But also of emotions and feelings and dreams. Beautifully done.

      • Among many things you can do that I can’t, is write about different cultures incredibly well. I kept thinking as I read it “how is he doing this?”

        • I don’t know how that happens, Mark. I don’t really read much, or learn about things. I listen to the radio a lot, CBC up here… they talk about the world. Some of it sinks in, I guess.

          I listened to a story about Guatemala the other day… the foreign correspondents tell stories so vividly, I instantly started putting together things. I never dreamed that I would be inspired by the Canadian version of NPR…

          • What we hear and see and read and feel is what informs us as writers. It is why one of the few “rules” of writing that I actually believe in as that you can’t write if you don’t read. The corollary is that you can’t write if you don’t open yourself up to new and different things. Even if it is simply a story on Canadian NPR.

  7. hiya trentle my friend, well my friend this one I liked, I admit it is not the sort of story I would usually go for but it was written by you so I read it through to the end and it is good, very good, I liked this style of writing, I liked the descriptive and emotional sense, very well delivered and one I would recommend, jolly good show trentle, hope you and yours have a fine day take care ^_^

    • My friend Kizzy, thank you. Tell me, what kind of stories do you go for, generally? I am very curious. I always like to push myself to write things that are different.

      • ^_^ horror but not gory spooky, futuristic, the sort of stuff i write ^_^ i basically took to writing because there wasn’t many writing the sort of stuff i like, saki is one i love i put one his stories in my blog under the ghost stories section its one of his best, so dark thrilling with a twist ^_^ but don’t worry i like to read your stuff because it helps me see in your mind and that i am interested in i find it quite fascinating so write and write again i shall read it all hope you and your family have a lovely day x

        • All right my friend. Do you often post your stuff? I don’t see much fiction from you – I’d love to read it. Can you point me to something you really like?

          Horror and futuristic, eh. I am ever obliging. I will sit down tonight and write something with a horror angle. I don’t often write in that style, but I love stretching and pulling and grabbing something new. I will try, stay tuned my Kizzy friend, I will have something for you in the morning.

          • ermm well trentle my friend there is a good reason for that this blog existed long before my writing it was through my blog i found writing i couldn’t think of a post one day so wrote a little story instead the wonderful rhinda and darling mims ushered me gently toward writing their confidence in me ave me the courage to write , which i have only been doing so from erm last summer i think it was, god how time flies ^_^ i have now written erm six books i think but i won’t feature any of them on my blog because the blog is my head space if you follow me, i am no good at self promotion anyway, it feels wrong to me and i prefer people find their own way to my stories i have them under a section at the top so anyone who wants to can go find them and sometimes when i finish a book i will maybe pop a little post up but that’s it, if you really want to read any my first two books are free on smashwords but no pressure i hate anyone feeling under pressure to read what i write i prefer being discovered ^_^ but to be honest i am still so new i don’t really feel i have earned the title author yet ^_^ have a great day trentle ^_^

    • You know, I’ve not read Sebastian Faulks, but I should. He’s on a long list of to-reads. I heard he wrote a Bond novel, actually, that would be interesting.

      Thanks much, Janey.

  8. Well, as so many others have said – breath-taking — in my case, quite literally Trent. At one point, I won’t mention particularly where – my breath literally caught in my chest – and I sensed fear – quite a visceral reaction – and I *knew* this was the work of a gifted writer – someone I would choose to read again and again – and in my own way, aspire to the details, precision and concise images you weave with your words.

    Totally impressive.

    • Thank you Pat, that means a great deal to me – that I could actually inspire that kind of reaction (not that I want you to stop breathing, though). Thanks for jumping into one of my worlds for a bit.

      • Well the not breathing bit – well that was okay too – sometimes the best in writing takes one’s breath away – for whatever reasons 🙂

    • And… this is a great comment. Anytime someone can call me bugnuts, I know that I have achieved appropriate bugnuttery. Although in honesty, I have been known to engage in higher levels of bugnutitude before.

      There, I have created a new language of the bugnuts. Tell your kids you were here when this happened, Matticus.

      Thanks for the words. I like this story. I seldom say that, but I like this girl and her dad, lost and hopeless but hopeful as they are.

      • I told the Prince I was there when the new bugnuts language was created. He looked at me with his huge baby blues, blinked a couple times, and then said, “Ba!” I’m pretty sure that means, “Awesome, father, that’s completely bugnuts that you were there when such a bugnutastic evolutionary leap occurred in our language.”

  9. What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said by your fabulous fans, Trent?
    It’s always a treat to find you in my feedly dear sir. and you never disappoint.

  10. Trent, I love this. I could feel every word of it like tension in the back of my throat because I was so worried and so sad for her. This is absolutely beautiful. What do you plan on doing with it?

  11. how is it you do heartbreakingly beautiful? huh? only you, Trentster, I swear you should be in a Thesaurus somewhere. I went from FEELING a reality of extremely poor and sad, to fearful, to curiosity, to almost joy, to sadness, to hope! that was a great one. loved the ENDING…. and I NEVER get to say that to you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! that was 15 exclamation points! enter this one in the next context… especially if it includes India, or anywhere remotely like it! 🙂

  12. A doff of the hat to you Trent.
    It has the power of poignancy and humour. I particularly enjoyed the line, the only possession that won’t be stolen.Unlike Daya. Here there is irony of implied betterment and juxtaposition of street culture. Poetry does not equate to food. .

  13. Oh Trent. What a beautifully written story. It feels like you somehow got inside Daya’s head. “Sleep pulls for her.” God that’s a good way to say she fell asleep and yet nothing you write comes across as “trying” — oh this is so haunting! I love that I had no I had no idea where it was going lead, and it went places that were so completely unexpected. And that glass! You somehow are able to ride the wave of the subconscious mind without and you never wipe out!!

  14. Hello friend. Pardon me, please; but, anyway, I doubt I shall ever forget you soon as long as I am in this sphere.
    As for the piece, I somewhat feel this one came close to hitting something better yet. It went very far, doubtless. Anyway, don’t works of art generally strive to reach even higher climaxes -like they could be slightly better yet? Maybe it then depends on the observer at a point in life to make of that work what he wants. So, maybe this is me wanting something more of this piece from a fellow like Trent, at this point in my life.
    I’d definitely say you are moving me in the right direction and showing me the livings of the characters in these sad and beautiful lights all at once.

  15. Pingback: The Two Years of Trent Lewin | Trent Lewin

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