By Tara Isabel Zambrano
The stare of the gypsy girl, taut as a cable. She sits opposite to me, next to an older woman, probably her mother, in an open truck. Because of the bus drivers’ strike, I have hitched a ride from Jaipur to Jaisalmer. The girl’s tattoos shine in the air, purple ink on sunburned skin, a small nose, a slight overbite. I don’t know if she’s looking at me or past me. The wind is making puffy noises in our ears, pouring the desert. The tire marks follow us until we are on a tar road. The truck jerks and the girl lets out a sharp cry. She has thin lips. It’s hard to imagine the sharp sound that came from her throat.
When my mother committed suicide, I was ten, and at the time was playing in my room with a Barbie she got for my birthday. My father did not cry. He adjusted his spectacles, called her a hungry shadow and carried on with his life. Some relatives claimed my mother often talked about a sacred river where spirits slept, a forest where every tree was an animal in its previous life. She drew illustrations of foxes and snakes with human faces: about how we borrowed bodies and faces from hell and heaven, demons and saints.
We pass by small tea stalls and repair shops, the bicyclists who prefer to ride off-road, shouting crudest insults. A sparrow sits on the side of the truck, just a strange rush of wind between us. I look at the gypsy girl, a slight reflection of light at the edge of her face. I can smell her sweat and a warm, serpentine feeling grows in my abdomen. Maybe she’s thinking magic between her sun-squinted eyes, while she continues to twist the edge of her dupatta around her finger.
I’m wearing my mother’s kurta. I’m carrying her dresses, her scarves, her socks in my backpack. Her kajal. I am carrying her ashes. Before her demise, I didn’t know how much space a life required: beyond a house, beyond a glance or a touch, the whole world. Now I know how much space the dead need.
There is a dead baby alligator blocking the road. The truck stops and we all get down wondering how it got there. The old woman asks us to pick it up. Her voice has an authority none of us can challenge. Her arms are covered with thick silver bangles and her fingers are filled with rings. On her forehead: a tattoo of a snake eating its tail. She says it’s a bad omen if we leave the animal behind. Her words cut through the air. It will bring a long-drawn illness on all of us, a shame, a curse, she adds and stares at the horizon. The driver lifts the beast and wedges it between the rows of passengers: its thick armor, weighing the air down. It smells like sewage and burnt rubber.
The girl looks at me, licks her lips, her eyes pink with dust and exhaust. I clear my throat and tie my hair up in a bun. The day’s heat burns at my nape. Between us, an occasional breeze, the rattling doors of the truck. We pass the railway crossing and the kids playing near the railway tracks yell and whistle. The boys on the truck, yell back. Rubbing against our feet like coarse sugar, the animal’s body wobbles, blood and slime out of its mouth pooling in the corners as the vehicle steers into the dissolving light and the keen euphoria of birds at this hour.
I must have been about twelve when I started locking my bedroom door at night and in the morning, would find it unlatched. Unable to sleep for days, weeks, I sat by the window, suspecting my mother would enter my room any moment. But nothing ever happened. Perhaps my mother was watching me while I was awake, and only left the room when I fell asleep.
The gypsy girl follows me to the bathroom and in a dark corner pulls out a cigarette and lights a match. The burning butt looks like a laser dot. To extinguish the match, she runs her tongue over it. Then she hands the cigarette and asks me to keep the heat in a bit longer before letting the smoke out. It keeps the warmth in your words, she says. Her voice sticks to my skin, our outlines coalesced in vapor. She caresses the fabric of my kurta, smells it and lifts it. Prickles of dry skin grow wet. Her gaze cleaves me open. She unbuttons my jeans, pushes her fingers down, the cold surfaces of her rings maneuver inside my body, one by one. The sun is long gone. The weight of her one hand rests on my waist, the reek of urine in the air, makes me squirm. I push her against the wall, and we are a tangle of tongues. A lone bulb with sickly yellow light shines on the other side of the bathroom. Her tattoos rise and fall with every breath, until I let out a muffled moan and it seems her eyes move all the way up to where her head begins. Slick everywhere, I blink. They return to where they are meant to be.
I stay in the same spot after the girl withdraws. The space between us thickens as she licks her fingers.
Afterwards, she tells me that the old woman is not her mother.
Walking back to the truck, I feel heavy and out of breath, as if I’m climbing a hill.
I needed someone to pull out my nightmares, the gypsy girl says.
I see dead alligators in my dreams, she whispers and runs her bronze, still-wet finger on my lips.
In the distance, Jaisalmer looks monstrous, with its twinkling incandescent eyes.
I recall the gloomy bedrooms: my mother on the bed, a black scarf tied around her head, dad sleeping on his solitary bed in a separate room. In the morning, he wouldn’t look at her or talk to her and she’d hover around him like a ghost begging for life. Later, unable to say anything, I’d oil and braid her hair and the rose tattoo on the back of her neck would deepen in color with every breath of mine.
The alligator has started to rot. Its suffocating odor pervades the air. The gypsy mother urges us to carry it a little longer. The girl sits next to me, our thighs rubbing, our nostrils burnt under a common stench. The boys on the opposite row are staring at us. The wind brushes her long locks on my face. For one fleeting moment, I want to tell her that she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t need to be told that. There’s no before or after for her. She knows who she is; she hasn’t curled up after sex, like I have.
I open the backpack: it’s all in there, the clothes, the kajal and the ashes. Her smell. I wonder if there’s a way for someone to pull out the loss from me.
The gypsy girl holds my hand: her rough, scaly skin lunges and lurks under the passing streetlamps, a sensation like rolling marbles up and down my spine. The old woman pushes the beads of a rosary, her eyes roll back, her lips mumble. She says something to the girl and the girl responds with a nod. Suddenly weary, I place my head on her shoulder: a dark muscled trunk.
I dream that my father and the old woman from the truck are rubbing my mother’s body raw with turmeric and sandalwood until all that is left is sand, a desert. Then they open my legs and empty it inside me. My chest is prickly: a cactus filled with sap. An alligator grows in my womb. When it’s born, it devours me whole.
I wake up and we’re crossing a river, its water dark as oil, my teeth dug into the gypsy girl’s shoulders: a sharp, metallic taste of blood filling my mouth, unspooling warmth in my breath. The girl pats my face, asks me to go back to sleep. The boys are snoring and drooling, they whisper indecipherable phrases like prophecies. Far away, dogs howl, a pack of hyenas scream.
The moon is swallowed behind a row of clouds. When it emerges like a half-illuminated hip, the mother gypsy lets out a wail, says it is time for them to get down. The driver asks her if we can get rid of the alligator. She shrugs her shoulders as the girl helps her down. Two boys pick the animal and throw it by the roadside. Under a faint streetlight, the beast looks like a mound of dirt. Finite, done. The girl and the old woman walk into the night, the jingle of their ornaments audible for a bit, then lost. Abandoned, I hold on to the shape her body has left behind in me: part home, part grave. The engine revs and I turn around to a sound. The alligator shudders, its bulging eyes shining near the edge of its head. I let out a cry and keep looking at it, blinking. Until it goes back to being dead. Until it disappears into the night.
Devi Laskar talks to Tara Isabel Zambrano about “Alligators.”
Tara Isabel Zambrano moved from India to the United States two decades ago. She works as a semiconductor design engineer. Her work has won the first prize in The Southampton Review Short Short Fiction Contest 2019, been a Finalist in the Bat City Review 2018 Short Prose Contest and the Mid-American Review Fineline 2018 Contest, been selected to be published in the Best Micro Fiction 2019 and the Best Small Fictions 2019 anthology. For more information, visit her website. You can find her on Twitter @theinnerzone.
Nahal Hashir is a poet and an artist from Islamabad, Pakistan. While currently pursuing a Bachelors in Dental Surgery, she also works in a non-profit organization that helps to educate underprivileged children. Her art has a strong focus on social issues such as women's rights, body positivity and rape culture. Her spoken word poetry was featured at the Women International Film Festival and her artwork is forthcoming in Young Activists Republic Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @NahalHashir.