The wind grew chilly. Perhaps because your breath had mingled in it. The leaves of the trees facing the wind started to tremble… I, a structure of flesh and bone, stood still for a long time. And then, suddenly, I seemed to step out of my own stillness. I looked out on the street. You were passing by. Many people walk this street, but there was something different about your stride.
When you walked, or stopped for a moment, your feet seemed to be in conversation with the street. God knows what you said, but the dust beneath your feet blushed pink. I looked at the pink dust for days.
One day, I saw you standing beneath the tree outside my front door. At that precise moment, the tree seemed to blossom for the very first time. I watched the flowers for many days.
Then one hot afternoon, you came and stood at my front door, as though asking the way to a well full of water. Startled, the door looked at you and then at me. Beyond the door were the walls of the house. You looked at the entrance and it suddenly came alive. I went indoors and filled a bowl of water from the earthen pitcher. You came in silently, and drank.
I never learned where you came from or where you were going. I only knew that you had to pass by my house. You would be thirsty each time, and each time I would put a bowl full of water before you.
"My name is Uranus," you said one day, before drinking the water. "I am Gaea," I said, taking the empty bowl from you.
You had seen only the ground floor of my house, not the first floor. But one day, you looked up the staircase and my gaze followed yours. Climbing the stairs, you put your hand on the wall and a tremor went through me.
At the top of the staircase is an arch covered with green creepers, which leads into the bedroom.
You stood for a while beneath the arch of creepers and I turned to light the fire. I wanted to warm up the food before serving it to you. But then I looked at your face — Oh God! Your face was hot. Perhaps the flame was reflected in your face… A few sparks flew out of the fire and fell at my feet. I ground them out beneath my bare feet.
With trembling hands, I served you the warm food. And I saw that as you broke bread, your fingers were trembling too… I hid my tremors in my body. You gazed at me, as though to seek them out. You put your arms around me and held me close. The trembling of your body found the trembling of mine. The fire was still glowing in the corner and the flames were reflected in our faces.
Beneath the three-storey house in which I live is a cellar that no one can see. That night, after you left, I took my twentieth year off my body and carefully put it in that cellar. I thought I would show it to you when you wanted — it was your keepsake.
A cry would rise from my chest to my throat, turning into small sculptures of speech as it left my lips — U…RA…NUS… filling my ears.
My nights and days revolved around the sound of your name. One day, you came again after a long time. That day, your feet knew where to go, moving without their former hesitation on the ground and first floors. You hastened to the second floor, scattered with my days of waiting and hundreds of silent, unopened books.
You stood there silently for a very long time. It seemed as if one more book had been added to the collection. Then I went to you and touched your hand, like one tenderly opens a book and glances at the first page. You laughed and your eyes drank in all the pages and your lips all the knowledge. You kissed me as though to read the whole story of my lips with yours.
With the same assurance, you took my hand and drew me down to the middle floor. We passed under the arch of green creepers and entered my room. You caressed the velvet bedspread with your strong, muscular arms. The past was full of long, lonely days and I did not know what lay ahead, but from the present a moment arose and covered the past with one arm and the future with the other. That moment had spread itself over past, present and future.
Before that, you were encompassed by a wall of flesh, just as I was. I don’t know how the walls of flesh and mud just crumbled — and you met me like a river merging with another. And many swans glided across the waters.
When rivers dry up, they turn to earth again. I felt like a stream when you were with me, turning into earth after you left. I was dust — a woman of flesh and dust. That night, and every night after that, I would hear a cry in my womb.
Then you forgot this place for a very long time. One night, when I heard the wails in my womb, I went down to the cellar and put the womb and its cries in it. Yes, in the same cellar where I had once placed my twentieth year.
Sometimes, I would light a candle and go down into the cellar. I would stare at my twentieth year or listen to the wailing womb. I thought, when you came by again, I would take you by the hand and bring you to this cellar.
After many years, you came again. But you were not alone this time. You had things to do and places to go to. You came in for a moment and hurriedly drank a bowl of water. I pointed to the cellar, but you left, promising to come again.
I held your promise like a flower and planted it in the palm of my hand. For many years, it bloomed in my palm.
But a palm of flesh is, after all, a palm of flesh. It does not stay young forever, like the earth. It wrinkles with time and when it turns barren, every leaf on it wilts. The flower of your promise, too, withered. With trembling hands, I went one day and put that wilted flower in the cellar.
There are many books on the second floor. But one book is missing — the book that can tell the story of my cellar. Those who like to recall old stories and myths would know the tale of a man called Uranus and a woman called Gaea, who lived in a Greek myth. Uranus would bury the children born of Gaea’s womb in the earth. Gaea would forever hear the wails of her children, from the earth.
But no one knows that Gaea lives even today. She loved Uranus and put her womb in the cellar. And she hears a child weeping in the womb. For it is not only the child who is born that weeps. Sometimes, even the unborn child can cry.
Translated from the Punjabi
story ‘Tehkhana’ by
Amrita Pritam is a Jnanpith Award-winning poet. Also widely known as a fiction-writer, she lives in Delhi and writes in Punjabi