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THE FOLDED EARTH, an extract

My companion in the bus that morning reached her stop, still
chattering of Would-be. She said smiling, “Tomorrow I’ll bring you a
card; you must come for my wedding!” I got off two stops later, and
walked towards Father Joseph’s office, feeling disembodied, weakened
and sleepy, as if I would be compelled to sit on the pavement and then
not know how to get up again. I found myself outside a hotel painted
pink and yellow, and walked through its gates to a swimming pool at
the back. There was a sheltered staircase next to the pool. I sat on one
of its steps, before the shining blue emptiness of the water, the stretch of
green tiles around it, the damp towel discarded on a chair. There was
a line of plate-glass windows on the other side that produced mirror
images of everything I saw. A bird passed overhead, low enough for its
shadow to ripple across us. At the other end of the pool, a little girl was
being urged by a swimming coach to plunge from the diving board.
She shouted, as if in a movie: “Let me go! I want to live! I want to
live!” My eyes blurred and I began to see human skeletons and bones
at the edges of the pool, on the green tiles: skulls, clavicles, fibulas,
tibia and femurs. Mandibles and ribs, foot and hand phalanges with
ancient silver toe rings and gold finger rings on them still. Necklaces
of gold beads intertwined with vertebrae. I saw skulls at the bottom of
the pool, turning their blind gaze this way and that in the clear water,
magnified by it. They bobbed to the surface. One of them splashed
to the edge of the pool, next to my feet, and the face streaming away
from it in dissolving ribbons was Michael’s.

The windows, the towels, that screaming child, the green tiles, the
fire-blue sky with its shadow-birds, retreated. The step I was sitting on
crumbled and I began to fall dizzily through a vast sky, as you do in
dreams. It was only when a face rose from the water close to my feet
and in a French accent said, “Are you alright?” that I realised my face
was wet with tears, my nose was running, my hair was dishevelled, and
I was late for Michael’s priest.

I ran up the stairs to Father Joseph’s room and burst in without
knocking. I stopped and held the back of a chair to steady myself. A
house with a trident-shaped peak framed in its window, Michael had
said: a house that looked out at the Trishul, and at its base Roopkund,
the phantom-lake. He had seen such a house once, he had told me
where it was. He had dreamed we would live there and wake each
morning looking at the Trishul emboss itself on the sky as the sun lit
its three tips one by one.

“Father, find me work in Ranikhet. Please,” I said. “I can’t stay on
here a single day longer.”
* * *

Four months after Michael died, I climbed into the train that had taken
him away from me. It went from Hyderabad to Delhi, a northward
journey that took a day and a night. One more night on a different
train brought me further north, to Kathgodam, where the train lines
stopped and the hills began. It was another three hours by bus over
twisted, ever-steeper roads to Ranikhet, a little town deep in the
Himalaya. In my bag was the address of the school in which Father
Joseph had fixed me a job. I was going to be two thousand kilometres
from anything I knew, but that was just numbers. In truth the distance
was beyond measurement.

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