From Darjeeling, with Love
by Kiira Rhosair
April 1948, Happy Valley Estate, north Darjeeling.
Koyli teeters forward into the bush. It’s the thirst. So intense, that her tongue has dried into the roof and she’s afraid her throat will crack if she unpeels it. She snatches air through her nostrils instead. The verdure’s scent comes in, fouled with her own stench. She should have woken before the sun and walked to the spring but the fever had plastered her skin to the mat. By the time the morning horn had blared, it was too late. Now, the basket tugs on her forehead. Heavy on the neck, too light on the back. If it isn’t full to the brim, her son will not have rice tonight.
She hunches over.
Uphill, lush rows of foliage are speckled with faded cotton saris. Her sisters in suffering have moved on. She wonders if one might have a drop to spare. Neither her legs nor her voice will carry up. The country is free but she is not, trapped in the mazes of this place the sahibs call Heppi Balli.
Dense leaves close in, clamouring to be picked. Her heart flails. No matter how many she plucks, there will always be more. She pictures her son on the shack’s mud floor, re-reading his tattered book. She must keep at it; the reach, the pull, the twist, the backward throw, even when her muscles scream that they have forgotten all they have ever known.Twisting a stalk, she pulls twin leaves and a bud. She glances sidelong to each end. The row is deserted, no sahib to be seen. She brings the leaves to her lips.
A bellow slams into her ears.
The hiss and curl of a whip.
Her legs buckle with its bite. Head flung to the ground, her mouth cracks like baked earth and lets out a wail.
Voices echo from above. ‘Sahib, please. She has the fever!’
‘Send for the boy. He’ll take her place.’
Koyli’s eyes sting; no tears to draw up. ‘I will work, Sahib,’ she whispers. Not a bit of her moves. It is the weight on her back; a little heap of leaves that will one day quench a thirst, seven seas away.
Faber academy alumnus Kiira Rhosair is putting final touches to a YA mythological fantasy for submission to publishers. She writes micro-fiction in her spare time with pieces published by Flash Flood Journal, @cafeaphra, @Funny_PearlsUK, and shortlisted by @TSSPublishing (Spring 18). She is on Twitter @kiirawrites.
Image detail from photograph by Matt Stabile (cc-by-2.0) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Read by the author.