Spring 2009

Table of Contents - Vol. V, No. 1


Poetry     Interview     Translations     Fiction     Book Reviews

Al Mahmud


The Cormorant's Blood

I did not notice the black bird at first. I was intently looking at a big white heron, gaily bending its neck, ready to peck into the clear water. My steps were light, I knew I would be able to knock that strange bird over from a great distance; there was another reason for not hurrying too much: birds like emerald dove or pygmy-geese, a great find for any hunter, were hard to come by in this area. Strewn all over the field were a few ashen-black and white cranes and a flock of mynahs. The latter were fluttering over the swamp; whenever I walked past them they squeaked and moved away; the noise was a pain, how Jibanananda Das wrote poems about these blighted creatures I never understood. Softly holding the gun in my left hand I carefully crossed the field and stepped into the bog; even though there was a pothole or two filled with water, the swamp was dry. As it was the middle of winter, the swamp had dried, becoming soft and heavy like the hide of wild swine. In the last few days a tuft of grass grew on the dried mud; from a distance it looked like a bed of some strange heavy-petalled flower. This kind of grass did not cluster around each other much, thank god for that. And because of this, because the grass did not come out in a bunch, the bog, though it looked like a mass of green at the beginning, later, as I got closer, resembled more and more a bush of some unknown wild flower, floating in a wave of soft wet earth.
Casting a sharp quick glance at the white heron I got down to the marsh. Though my trousers were rolled up to the knee, perhaps because I was extremely cautious, only my ankles plunged into the mud, where I dragged myself. The bird could be seen clearly now; I looked for the right place to ready myself and shoot.
Before me, on a big blade of grass, was a wide-petalled flower. It should not be bad to stand there to shoot; careful so as not to stamp the petals, I stood on the ground barefooted and widened my legs. As I did so the grass under my feet flattened; it would have been better if I could widen my legs more, then I would have been able to hold the gun properly. But the patch of grass here was too small to do that. I looked around myself: at my back, about a quarter of a mile away was my father-in-law's house, the great mango tree beside it and at the front, in the yard, amidst a stack of hay two calves were chewing. When I was leaving the house with the gun, my wife Adina said, "You have to bring me a hornbill's beak, I will wait for you here under this tree."
"Please do. Why only a hornbill's beak? If you wish, I can bring the air's feather for you."
Hiding her face with the corner of her sari Adina started laughing, and in that bout of mirth and happiness her back bent, then she stole quick glances around, careful not to attract the attention of the elders. We had got married seven days ago, and still Adina thought it would be a matter of shame if our elders found us flirting. But Adina was not really from the country, her parents had settled in Comilla town, their house was beside ours; for the last fifteen years we had been neighbours. Her father was the Third Supervisor at the Gomati Dam project; a hard-working family, with five children. Adina's two brothers ran a shop that dealt in, with great difficulty, spare parts of motorcycles and bi-cycles and tri-shaws. Her two sisters went to school, and Adina had just enrolled into the college after passing her entrance exams. After that, after she entered the college, we got married; she became my wife.
I noticed that she was not standing at the foot of the tree for the hornbill's beak. Turning round, I looked at the heron, which, when it sensed my presence at a distance, bent its neck and looked back. I saw fear in the bird's eye. I must not wait any more. I raised my single-barrelled gun and pointed it at the bird, which, I knew not why, shed the fear that was hovering in its eye, and concentrated on the water. I pulled the trigger and, like a pack of cards, the great white wings spread open and slowly fell to the ground. The bird did not move after that.
The sound of the gun was not loud, or perhaps it was, I could not tell. Because their nerves remain raw at the time of shooting, the eardrum of hunters, all hunters in general, do not register the sound of the gun. I snapped open the breech of the gun to clean the barrel and threw the used cartridge away. Hearing the gunshot Adina appeared near the mango tree with my sisters-in-law, who were waving their hands. I waved back.
And then I saw the black bird, perched on a thin shoot of bamboo that grew near the shallow water of a haff, the one that merged into the river Meghna, past the Chandhol bog. A big black cormorant it was, not even 20 yards away from where I had been. It twittered and fluttered its wet wings.
Its roosting, its movement, the dark black colour--everything emanated an aura of gracefulness, a sublime sense of pride. With a stare that spoke of circumspection, so natural in wild birds, it looked at me, and then removed its gaze to the haff. Forgetting Adina, who was standing far away, I started observing the bird. I liked the bird; its beauty; the spontaneity of its movement, perhaps, was like Adina's. I shifted my gaze from the corpse of the white heron floating in the water. I could not really fathom what resemblance the cormorant had with Adina. And at the same time, the more the bird dried its feathers, softly moving its neck from one side to the other, the more this idea grew on me that I had seen Adina move with such elegance and wonder. But wait, I told myself, Adina does not have a beak. At the same time, Adina was dark; soft black was the colour of my wife's skin. Only in their colour did I find a similarity between my wife and the bird. That gleam and freshness. Even though Adina was black, her skin had always glistened; that shine I now noticed in the dark shiny feathers of the bird, as sometimes the bright beauty of early morning dewdrops on the grass made me think of my wife.
When I got into Comilla Victoria College, a girl in a frock, affectionately chatting with my widowed mother in our front veranda, caught my attention. That girl was Adina, our neighbour Akil sahib's daughter; every Sunday she would come to our house to help Ma with household chores, or to pick lice from my mother's hair while licking a bar of pickles. Adina was at an age where girls have no inhibition about their body; how old was she then? At best ten or twelve. Or twelve or thirteen maybe, I was not sure. Though she looked awkwardly tall and thin, her arms and breasts were growing in bulk. So what, I thought when one day I caught a glimpse of her thigh through that short orange skirt: she was about to kneel to comb ma's hair, but my mother, seeing a crow hovering over some pickle that she had left to dry, ran to it in a hurry, and, I, sitting in the study, could clearly see the round mounds of her thighs, like two ornate pillars of some great building. I remembered being able to see them because Adina, while working, always pulled the short skirt up and knotted it before her navel like the way women wear saris.
She used to come to the study too; many a time, when I asked for a light to smoke, ma sent her with a match or a stick of burning sponge wood to my room. And after giving me the light, when she wiped beads of perspiration from her forehead with the frills of her skirt, I got a glimpse of her navel. It was like a chinarose in full bloom. Seeing it, seeing her navel exposed for the flicker of a moment, it occurred to me that it was necessary for her to have such a deep, thick navel to strike a balance with the awakening raw muscles of her stomach.
In its movement the black wet-winged cormorant resembled Adina so much that I could not take my eyes off it. Then it occurred to me that to shoot I had to get to the edge of the pond.
The bird was blissfully running its beak through its moist feathers; careful though I had been while getting down to the end of the canal, my feet got stuck in the mud; I pulled myself along to halt near the edge of the water. Here I could load the gun. I felt relieved when rubbing my feet with a tuft of grass I wiped my feet off the sticky black mud, which was as thick as the outer skin of some animals. Before loading the gun I had a last look at the mango tree in my father-in-law's courtyard. Adina was still standing still under the tree in a pink sari, the one that had a black border; and Madina and Shakina, her two sisters, my sisters-in-law, hearing the gun, were running towards me. At first I thought I should let them come to me, but afraid that it would surprise the bird, I waved at them so that I did not have to get closer. My sisters-in-law stopped in the middle of the bog, they had understood that I was about to open fire.
I waited no further and went up to the canal, to the back of the cormorant, which was still combing its feather with its long slender beak. As the plumage of its tail had grown heavy the bird had blown its tail to dry; the swollen tail made it difficult for me to see the bird properly. Through the foresight of the gun I levelled my right eyeball with the bird while it embellished itself, and tried to steady my hands and hip to get a bull's eye, but was it possible to make the human body as numb as a slab or stone or a piece of metal? My single-barrelled gun, like my hands, was shivering. By then the bird had stopped combing itself, spreading its wing, it was contentedly staring into a school of small fish. It was about to fly off; this was the way widening both her hands Adina embraced me; only once; that, too, was six days ago. When our wedding night was about to turn into dawn, before my mother woke up to say her morning payers, I got up from the bed to open the door to go to the pond. Adina hugged my back and said, "Let us lie down for a while; I know you are annoyed with me, but believe me, it's the first day's blood, you would have been disgusted."
The way I had felt then-- the shiver that ran through my body when I held her hands stretched open--that was what I was feeling now, seeing the wide wings of the cormorant through the foresight of the gun.
Then I put the gun down; no, not from any sense of affection, nor because of any stab of memory or moments of insight did I do so. I removed my aim from the bird because I was about to shoot it from the back, which no good hunter would do. I could not recall doing it myself before. Maybe those who rained fire saw no pleasure in not confronting their prey. Like the way men who spray semen into their women feel; what pleasure would have been there if one had not been able to see the bare face, naked arms, swelling breasts of the woman he was making love to? This, the spontaneity, the sight, the touch, leads to a sensation, a tightness in the body of the man till a part of his being, the one that solely devotes itself to pleasure, leaks out of him. He doesn't care whether or not this spray of pleasure will hit the reproductive tract of his woman. Those who spray gunpowder follow the same regulation-- they stare at the visage; the breast; the wings; and the soft delicate curve of the neck. Besides, the cormorant had overwhelmed me; the bird was beautiful and that was why I wanted it. My fear was that if I shot at it from the back, the bullet would just brush past its wings, that I would miss the target. I stood still and saw the bird fold its wings and rub both sides with its beak.
When I turned round I saw that Madina and Shakina had started walking towards me. Probably after seeing me put down the gun they thought I had abandoned the target. Now if I waved at them to stop, it would startle the bird, and if I stood still like this, the two sisters' incautious presence would scare it away. Within a split second I decided to shoot; taking two light steps forward, I widened my legs: only eight feet away the bird was roosting on a young bamboo; even though I was still at its back, blurry though it was, I could see the bird. I raised the barrel of the gun again and opened fire. The sound of the bullet deflected by the bamboo hit my ear; right in front of my eyes the bird was flying away. Startled at first by the sound of the gun, the bird was now floating in the air, without any inhibition; and it dipped towards the canal, its wings fluttered for a while before they touched the waves of the canal. It flapped its wings, as though to get more strength from the action itself, and looked hither and thither. It spared me a casual glance, and then bending its neck like the curve we make with a needle while sewing, the bird entered into a wave of water. Left without words, I sat down on the bank of the canal, jealous of the place this wet black feathery bird had in nature, jealous of its beauty, elegance, grace, splendour; above all, its free spirit had left me in a state of wonder; I sat there with the warm steely touch of the barrel on my cheek.
On this side, on the green carpet of grass that sloped to the canal, Madina and Shakina were cleaning their feet of the mud. They ran towards the white heron when I showed the bird to them, floating on the knee-deep water of the bog. I smiled at these two girls' gaiety. They never immersed themselves in the wide overwhelming green of nature, neither had they ever drowned themselves in the ever-engulfing beauty of its vastness-- the river, with a curve in its hip…the bog which was as wonderful and enchanting as a lake. On this green delta of flora and fauna, which on the map of the world looked like the womb of Asia, where, taking in watery air, girls blossomed into womanhood at the early age of nine, where women drew thick black lines around their deer-like eyes with kohl, where girls wore a round tip in the middle of their eye-brows, where girls walked free, their hair falling down their back like the frills of a tamarisk tree-- in a place like this, why these girls' parents would spend their savings on building bricks or would go bankrupt while competing to make a city of concrete I did not quite fathom.
Was Adina still there? I shifted my gaze to the tree: yes, she was reclining at the foot of it. We had been married for seven days, so far no relationship--neither physical nor physiological-- had developed between us two. On her first day at college she came to our house to touch ma's feet to seek her blessings. I was getting ready for work; after passing the BA exams I took up a situation in the local municipal office; my salary was 400 taka a month. Some said that it was easy for me to get the job because of my father, because, as he spent his life in the scavengers' department of that office, the mayor had taken a special interest in my case. After having breakfast I was shining my shoes when Ma brought her to my room.
"From today Adina is going to college, Anwar."
I looked up: Adina was wearing a light sky-blue sari with a deep white border. She bent down and touched my feet. She wore her hair in braids, and at the end of them there were two white roses.
I feigned surprise: "So Adina has grown up!"
Ma laughed and said, "You think girls grow up as soon as they wear a sari? Only a few days ago she was in a frock."
"Yeah, how mature she looks now, look at her!" I said. Startled at what I said, my mother looked at Adina, who, seeing both of us examining her so closely, ran away, hiding her face in a handkerchief.
We started laughing, my mother and I. After Adina left, my mother said, "Such a good-natured girl, so lovely."
This was one bad habit that my mother had. Everything that pleased her mind ma would call good-natured; she did not mean the colour of Adina's skin, she meant her beauty. I did not dare to tell her that Adina was dark. And there was no point in telling her because I liked Adina too. I would observe her closely whenever she came to our house to see my mother, and every time she seemed to exude an aura of unquenched allure.
I said, "You would not like her if she was not good-natured."
Hearing this ma looked happy; turning round, she said, "What do you think of Adina, Anu, do you like her?"
Her question took me by surprise: what kind of liking is she talking about? I said, "Why, I like her, she is a good girl. She comes to see you; you love her dearly."
"Will you marry her, Anu?" she asked. I realised that ma's voice was soaked with pleading and happiness. I smiled and said, "I know it will be good for you ma, she will help you with the household chores."
Ma could not hide her emotion; she held my cold hand with her warm fingers in a fist. I said, "All right ma, talk with Akil sahib about it."
The cormorant was playing in the water: it kept floating up to the surface only to hide itself in the wave again. I looked into the wave that the bird was creating. Meantime, holding the bird's wings, Madina and Shakina brought the white heron to me. Their feet were again caked with mud, black like two pairs of gumboots. I did not realise that the bird was so big; when a flock of herons flew away from one bog to the other, birds as big as this one led them on. Madina and Shakina straightened its wings and laid it on its breast, both its green legs flattened like sheaves of young paddy in monsoon rain, blobs of red in its beak and neck.
Madina said, "You did not kill it in the right way. How will we have it if it is not halal?"
I laughed, "There is no problem: game and sea-water are always halal."
Bending her neck Shakina asked, "So there is no need to slaughter it?"
To assure the girls I said, "I fired in the name of Allah. Now it is up to you if you will have its flesh or not."
"We will, if only you have it," Madina said.
"There you talk like a Muslim," I smirked in reply.
The cormorant floated up again, this time near us. The girls went silent when I pointed my finger at the bird, and sat in the grass putting their hands on my back. They were hushing each other up; the touch of their betel-nut like unripe breasts and chin was on my back, the sweet smell of their hair in my nose. Embarrassed though I was, I realised their girl-like wonder at the pleasure of waiting. Resting their chins on my neck they were staring at the bird; it would have been better if they had left us, the bird and me, alone. I wanted to relish every bit of this moment-- the movement of the bird, the flapping of its wings, its intent gaze. The bird did not let me do this-- it covered itself with the wave again. Telling the girls to stay away from me, I fished into the pocket of my trousers and took out a cartridge. Both the girls, wide-eyed, saw me load the gun with equal enthusiasm; they looked round to see if the cormorant had floated up or not. The sun was striking down hard on us, the atmosphere of a dew-drenched morning was no longer there. I was feeling warm, though it was winter; drops of sweat were streaming down my forehead, which I wiped with a handkerchief, and cleaned the barrel, which, after this little attention was paid to it, was all brightened-up. The bird was visible again by the time I loaded the gun.
"It's there," Madina whispered in my ear. "I have seen it, now do not make any noise, the bird might fly away," I replied. But who would listen to this! My youngest sister-in-law, obtuse as she was, shrieked, "There it is, having a fish."
At the sound of Shakina's shouted words, the cormorant, which was probably eating a snail, went back to the water again. I was annoyed, "Look, what you have done!" Full of regret, both the sisters started picking their nails. I could not but smile and said, "It's okay, now you two shall sit here silently. Do not talk. I will go forward now and shoot." They nodded and kneeled beside the white crane.
I went down towards the northern side of the bog, to the tilled land. A strange idea came to me, it had occurred to me that to kill the bird with one shot I just needed to point my gun and wait for the bird to resurface; I would open fire at the very sight of it. And that was what I did; resting one knee on the grass, and leaning the gun on the free knee like an expert hunter, I pointed the gun at the bank of the canal, where the bird was last seen and where it might reappear. I did not have to wait any further: like a black-carp, it floated back with a few slimy bubbles, and then I pulled the trigger. As I was dispassionate this time round, the sound of the gun hit my ears hard. I fell flat in the grass as the back of the gun struck me like a police stick in the collarbone. A plume of smoke sent out from the barrel could be trailed back from the bank.
At first, like a bullet-struck civet-cat, it moved in a circular motion over the edge of the water, then, its neck, levelled with the wave, thudded into the water; where the bird was fluttering now, it seemed, someone had poured a bucket of blood. I never knew that a huge swathe of the canal could become so thick and red with blood; I never thought that a cormorant would have such a huge quantity of blood to make it look that way. Oh the pain that the bird's red blood, its black feathers and the green water gave me! All of a sudden I realised that I had a headache; I held my eyes with the palms of my hands so as to spare my strained-filled eyes of this scene of suffering. If I had another hand I would have hidden my ears with it; as I had none, I surrendered myself and remained enchanted by the silent shabby squeaks of bleeding of this great black bird, so full of life, so rightly filled with a soul.
How long I had been hiding my eyes like this I did not know. Hearing Madina and Shakina's scamper I opened my eyes: Madina was hurrying her sister, "Go and fetch the bird, it might drown."
Shakina was worried that the bird might be lost in the water; I stood by her side and saw Madina hold the bird by a wing. The cormorant stirred, gentle though the movement was. Life was drained out of the bird; holding it gently to her breasts, Madina went up to the bank. She was wearing a pink frock, which was of the same pale pink as Adina's sari. She was drenched with water: the frock got stuck to her skin, and when she put the black bird down I noticed that, like some unripened exotic fruit, there were spots of blood on her black breast, as though two budding lotuses had been shivering at the chilly touch of an early winter dew-drop. Madina was shivering too; I said to her, "Take it off and wring it out. You might get a cold." She gave an embarrassed smile at first, and, turning round, took the frock off and squeezed it dry.
Spreading both its wings, the bird lay at our feet; the blood on its beak and breast had not thickened yet, lifeless though it was, because its eyes were opened, it seemed as though it would open its wings and fly away. Without batting my eyelids, I stared at the bird, my head and eyes ached. I could not keep my eyes open for long. Holding the gun in one hand, I slumped beside the cormorant; then, resting the gun in the grass, I hid my eyes with both my hands and in my mind's eye saw a circle, recreated that scene where the cormorant, so full of life and energy, was fluttering in agony over a wave of its own blood.
When I opened my eyes again I noticed that Shakina had laid the white heron beside the cormorant. Perhaps because of the contrast its colour had produced, the site of the tall white feathers gave my eyes a sense of relief. I told my youngest sister-in-law, "No more hunting today, let's go back."
On our way home, Shakina carried the white bird, and Madina the black one. I followed them. As happened to me often, the vein in my temple had swollen, I could not stand the sight of anything. I had seen my mother cry with such headaches, no tablet could heal it. When the pain became unbearable, I had seen her grind a kind of leaf, probably aloe vera, paste it to her temple and sleep. I had the urge to lie down now, there must have been an aloe tree in this village; I should tell Adina to pluck a handful of leaves for me.
Thinking of Adina I stared at the tree. No, she was not waiting, let alone for the beak of the hornbill; no one would wait for so long even for Hiramon, the mythical parrot of the fairytale.
Our wedding took place without any hindrance; my father-in-law set only one pre-condition before me, he wanted the wedding to be held in the village, his relatives would be present there, and after the engagement and wedding party there would be a reception, after which we, along with the elders, would go back to Comilla. Only yesterday I came to my father-in-law's house for the reception, which we call "Firjatra" here.
Adina knew that I had bouts of severe headache, and seeing me return with swollen red eyes she asked, "Why are your eyes so red?" "I have such a splitting headache, I must lie down." I replied.
"Let me wash your head..."
"Nah, I can't even stand still," I said and handing the gun over to her I went to the bedroom and fell flat on the bed with both my feet caked with mud. I felt as though I had entered a world of illusion. I could hear Madina and Shakina say something about the birds in the yard, where probably people had flocked together. I said people came to see the birds because I could hear them talk about the great size of the cormorant and make comments on how tasty its legs would be. Adina turned up in a short while and made me take two tablets for the headache, and I clutched at the pillow when she put my head on it. I could not tell her about the paste of aloe leaves for I knew she would laugh at such a remedy. While washing my feet with a strip of wet cloth she said, "There is a village-doctor's chamber nearby, should I send for him?"
"No," I said, "it will last a day anyway."
Before my words slipped out of my mouth my wife's father and mother entered the room. "Why do you not want to see a doctor?" he asked, "let the quack come and treat you. You went out in the morning with that gun in hand; I think you got a head cold. Being a townie you should not have walked in the wet grass barefoot. And you waded through mud and water..."
He put the back of his hand on my forehead. My mother-in-law suggested to Adina to put a strip of cloth with several folds soaked in water on my forehead to relieve the pain. I said, "Don't you worry, I often have this kind of ache. There is no need to call a doctor; I just need to get some sleep."
Before they left Adina's parents told her to make sure that I could sleep properly. Adina latched the door and while applying a strip of cloth on my forehead as her mother had suggested, she bent and took her mouth near my ear and said, "It's possible today. The thing has stopped."
I told her to sit in the bed and massage my head. Adina smiled and said, "You want it now?"
I held her in a tight embrace. There was no remedy to the pain, but when Adina hid my face with her breasts, in that immense darkness, which was as black as the cormorant's feathers, in the darkness of her breasts, I immersed my burning eyes to attain gratification. The feather-like darkness lifted slowly, as it happened after drops of milk were poured in a cupful of raw tea. Or the dawn-like radiance that one sometimes saw in a wide-opened pangash fish. I felt as though I could smell the birds that fly over the bog, as though I was enveloped by a soft comfortable gush of air.
Again I walked, armed with that single-barrelled gun, into the triangular bog, carefully stepping on the tender weeds. At the bend of the river I bent my legs and kneeled to shoot like a seasoned hunter. As soon as I sat, a cormorant, like a black balloon, floated in the water. I fired. The sound it made and the kick of the gun broke my vision of the beautiful landscape, in the blue background I saw a dark woman shaking violently in her own blood. It seemed this was a body--the luminous face, the arms, the breast, this pair of thighs-- I had known for a long time. When I was about to call Adina, I realised, this body, so beautiful, so elegant, was slowly drowning in these giant waves. Pressing the warm barrel of the gun on my face I stood still, helpless, and my nostrils filled with the smell of gunpowder.

-- Translated from the Bengali by Ahmede Hussain


© Ahmede Hussain



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