A Fly in the Ointment

A single bead of sweat trickled down Raj’s forehead, navigating its way past the flies playing kiss chase around his eyes. It quickly discovered his smooth cheek, growing smaller with every inch, before finding its way to the tip of his pointed chin. It paused there as if to survey the descent ahead of it, before leaping freely into the warm Indian air. He examined the dark stain left on the floor, which vanished almost instantly, taken hostage by the unforgiving heat that had caused it. The house was particularly warm. An invading cylinder of light seeping through a gap in the straw roof told Raj it was morning.

            Raj began his morning routine, dressing in a dull grey t-shirt which once belonged to someone much wealthier than he could ever hope to be. It had become frayed at its edge, and holes were beginning to develop under each armpit. His loose fitting lungi was a vibrant yellow and after knotting it at his waist the contrast between the two items could not have been starker. Shoes were a commodity his family could not afford, and stepping out into the already blistering heat, the soles of his feet grew rapidly hot resulting in Raj doing a quick dance, hopping from one foot to the other with frequent alternation until they had become accustom to the warm floor. His mother was already awake, and had begun milking their goat for the first time today. The sound of the desert flooded Raj’s ears, the heat causing the various insects to sing their consistent high pitched drone, he quickly ignored it, leaving it to become little more than white noise in the inner most depth of his mind.

Raj’s eye was caught by a flash of movement just outside the gate. He tried to focus, but could not see what had at first caught his attention. It moved again, rapidly darting and sending a spray of sand in a semi circle behind it. A lizard. Raj’s mouth turned into a toothy smile, and a small giggle exposed itself to the world. His mother, upon hearing the sound arched her neck away from the goat she was milking. Watching what her son would do next. “Raj, behave yourself, it’s just a lizard, it will do you no harm”

“But Mum!” he started, jumping to face her in an overzealous show of excitement “I just want to see what it does.”

“Ok, but be careful” her warm tone indicated her inability to resist her son’s cheeky grin.

The lizard darted forward again, this time heading for a small bush a few meters to its right. Raj made an advance towards its position, crouched and on tiptoes. His eyes were fixated on its ash grey tail, trying to anticipate its next movement. He edged closer still, the heat from the sun beating heavily on his arms and legs. He was only a few meters away now, and could see its rotating yellow eye. He lowered himself closer to the floor, trying to examine the creature from a better angle. Before he could make any further movement, the lizard made a dart for the safety of the bush. Raj let out a sigh, and stomped his foot hard against the sand. He turned back to face his mother.

            “It got away mum, it was really fast, I couldn’t get close enough” his voice was full of disappointment.

            “It’s ok dear, there will be plenty more. Why don’t you come see if you can help me with this goat, its time you learnt, and I think your little hands will come in useful here” She replied, becoming her son towards her.

            Raj looked down at the pale palms of his hands, opening and closing them a few times, as if checking they still worked. He never thought of his hands as small, but he supposed in comparison they were. Moving towards where his mother sat on her stool, he noticed a bit of the floor had cracked, needing repair before it got worse. He would do that later.

“Come here dear” his mother said as she lifted him off the ground and placed him gently onto her bony knee. “The key Raj, is to be gentle. Remember the goat can feel what you’re doing, so if you hurt her, she will try and run, and we don’t want that do we? So if you place finger here…” as she spoke she guided Raj’s forefinger to the top of one of the goats teats. “…And then your thumb here” she said placing his thumb lightly gripping the other side. “Then gently, move your hand downwards” she guided his hand in a gentle downwards motion, and as his hand reached the tip, a drop of milk splashed into the silver can. “That’s right, very good Raj. Now you try on your own.” she released his hand, and allowed him to make his own downward tug. It was successful. Before long Raj was carefully filling the can.  

Gamaar, Raj’s younger brother, was crouched by the edge of the wooden fence which separated their world from the sandy desert beyond. Raj could see that he was concentrating hard, and his hands were swiping sporadically at the ground in front of him. Raj wondered towards him, captured by curiosity and lack of any interesting alternative. As Raj neared he could see that he ground in front of his brother seemed to be alive. It was at that moment he saw his brother’s right hand reach down and pick up a part of this moving floor and place it most defiantly into his mouth.

“Gam, what you doing?” Raj started. Gamaar jumped, a clear indication that he was not prepared to be interrupted, and that he was most certainly not supposed to be doing what he was. Gamaar did not grace his brother with a response, but stayed frozen, his brown eyes fixed on Raj’s in a beckoning gesture for his older brother to pass a ruling as to the acceptability of his activity. Raj crouched by his brother and examined the dancing ground, a platoon of ants had formed a regimented line from the remains of a two day old apple core, out under the fence and into the desert beyond. Gamaar again lowered his hand and picked up a single ant, but as he moved it to his mouth the swat of his older brother’s hand connecting with his own forced him to drop it.

“You can’t eat that you idiot!” Raj exclaimed, with his hand now firmly around the wrist of his younger brother.

“Why not?” Came the reply. Gamaar seemed to hold genuine shock and surprise in his voice.

“Because they are bad for you, Maataa said so!” Raj pointed towards his mother threateningly.

“So! I’m hungry and it’s better than eating sand, or the dung of our goat”

“No Gam, you can’t eat any of those, Bapa will be back this evening, he will bring some food then. If you’re really hungry ask Maataa for some chai.”

Gamaar looked down at the ants again, then back up to his brother’s face.

“Raj, I want to be an ant. They get full so easily, I would never be hungry if I was an ant.”

“Yes Gam, that would be good. Let’s take your mind off food. It’s not good to think about it. Shall we play some chess?”

“OK. I’ll get the pieces!” Gamaar’s response was filled with excitement as he ran into the house, making loud slapping noises as his feet connected with the floor, startling their goat, which let out a bleat of surprise. Raj trusted his brother to find the appropriate pieces, and so set about making the board. He walked over to the outhouse, which, due to its smell, was set several meters outside the fence. Raj opened the gate and stepped out into the desert beyond, sand instantly engulfing his feet. The sun was at its highest point in the sky, his shadow barely formed in front of him. The walk to the outhouse was short, and uneventful, he kept an eye out to make sure there were no snakes, which there never were, and reached the outhouse in less than a minute. As he opened the door a pungent smell crept slowly into his nostrils, one which he was used too and so did not flinch.

He remembered when his family from the city had come to stay. They had commented on how much it smelt and how they should wish Raj and his family moved to a city so they could have western toilets and live like the rest of the civilized country. Raj’s father was a proud man, and largely ignored such comments, simply blaming their weak stomachs and sensitive stature. “A toilet is a toilet, it is where we expel our waste, it need not be fancy or expensive. I for one tend not to spend more time than needed. I suppose you show your guests to your expensive toilet, so they can marvel at its perfection? You don’t? So why have it then? We have made use without them for so many years.” Raj had hidden a giggle when his father had made this statement. His brother however was not so controlled. Their family had not stayed long that trip, and they had not returned since. Raj had often dreamed of the city. He would go when he went on his pilgrimage in a few years time.

            Raj entered the outhouse and removed a small bucket of water collected from the well a few miles away. He returned back to their home, walking over to the crack in the ground he had spotted earlier. He poured the water onto  the floor until it became soft, closing the gap with some of the goats droppings. Using a stick he carefully drew out an eight by eight square forming, as his father had taught him, the chess board. Gamaar had just come out of the hut as Raj finished making the board, he had clutched in his arms the thirty-two pieces needed to play. The pieces comprised of carved bits of wood his father had brought back from the camel market years previous. They weren’t as complex as some of the bits Raj had read about, with horses and elephants, but just blocks of wood with little nicks chipped into them. One for the Padah the least important piece, two for the Ratha, three for a Ashwa, four for a Hasty, five for the Mantri and six for the most important piece, the Raja. One set of the pieces had been left in a jug of water and cinnamon to give it a slightly darker appearance. Gamaar and Raj set up their opposing pieces and began to play, squatting above the board, surveying every move.

            Although Raj was three years older than his brother, their ability in chess was quite even, and would result in some intense games. When he had first started to play Gamaar, Raj had seen his pieces being thrown across the floor in frustration, this however had passed, and it would often be Raj left surveying an empty battle field wondering how his younger brother had beaten him. Again the first time this happened Raj reacted in a less than amicable manner, refusing to speak to his brother for a day. This however was behind them, and they now complemented each other on good strategy, and quick thinking. Raj won the first two games on this occasion, managing to trap his brother’s Raja behind a row of his own Padah, making it impossible to get out. As the afternoon drew on however Gamaar started to rack up the wins until just before the sun started to set, they were nine games a piece and just about to start the final game. There was more of a competitive edge to the game than usual, and when the end drew near Raj could see that he would be on the receiving end of a loss. He only had his Raja, Mantri and two Padah’s left, and it wasn’t soon until he was left with just his Raja. There was a few rounds of moving his Raja just out of harm’s way, but eventually Gamaar trapped him, forcing Raja to flick his final piece on its side as a show of submission and defeat. Raja raised his head from the board and looked at his brother’s face; it had a smile spread from cheek to cheek. Raja forced a smile in return. Gamaar picked up the pieces and took them back to the hut. Raj poured more water over the board and smoothed it over with his hand, leaving the final heat of the day to harden it back into its original shape.

Glancing into the setting sun, he could see a dark figure in its foreground, heading towards them. His father was on his way home, making his way through the now cool sand dunes. Raj and his mother set about hopefully, preparing a new fire. The exertions of the day spent in the heat not stealing all of their energy, saving in reserve for the arrival of his father, her husband. Raj fished around in the hut until he found the stained can used to milk their goats. He inspected it, giving in a quick brush round the inside to remove as much dust as he could. His father was still someway in the distance, with the sun slowly submitting to its fate behind. Raj grabbed a goat by the woven red string tied around hits neck, and gently encouraged its cooperation. Having led it safely to the stool, he squatted, lowering himself several inches beneath the stools height. His agile legs and hips allowed him this position, one which his mother many years previous would to have been able to imitate. Raj placed the dust free can beneath the pale pink udders. He expertly used his thumb and forefingers on each hand to simultaneously draw milk from two separate teats. He glanced towards his mother, seeking an approving nod, which she duly gave.

Raj’s father opened the splintered wooden gate and stepped into their home. He was wearing a shirt stained yellow with sweat, and the dry lips of a man who had spent the entire day in the desert. His beard was peppered with grey and hung low from his chin. Wiry legs and a large brown stick supported his stature as he leaned against the now closed gate. Raj’s mother stopped playing with the fire and greeted her husband with a warm kiss on the cheek. A smile spread across her face.

“Do we eat today?” She asked

“I’m sorry dear, but tonight we will live on goats milk and God’s love” He replied, disappointment all but hidden in his voice.

“Never mind my love, maybe tomorrow eh? Anyway, please come sit down. Raj has learnt how to milk the goats, and is going to treat us to some warm chai…isn’t that right Raj?” She turned and looked at him.

“Yes Mama” he replied.

Raj turned away and looked defeated towards the floor, his stomach hurt with hunger. Raj ignored the ache and set about preparing the fresh goat’s milk. He placed the milk in a pot over the fire, flames instantly tickling the bottom and sizzling as they touched the milk that had strayed over the sides. He stirred the milk gently until it began to bubble. Raj added sugar, cinnamon and ginger into the milk so that its colour now resembled a golden brown. The steam from the chai teased Raj’s nose with its incredible smell, causing his mouth to water and his stomach to groan ever harder. Only a sliver of sun could be seen, flirting with the top of the hills, leaving a trace of orange over the desert. Although it still looked warm, and the sand still retained some of its heat, the temperature had dropped considerably and Raj’s body shivered without restraint. The fire provided little solace, keeping only the palms of his hands and the tip of his nose warm. Pouring the chai into four glasses, and handing them to each of his family members felt like a real achievement, and although he knew he was cold, the warm feeling that comes with success still ran through his body.

Whilst Raj had been preparing the chai Gamaar had be busy collecting wood from the shed, placing the slim sticks onto the fire to provide a comfortable environment for all. The sun had now left Raj and his family behind, staying hidden for another nine hours before providing them with its talent again. The desert had become a completely different place to the one which Raj had woken up to earlier that morning. Now a small crescent of the moon provided the only natural light, reflecting onto the desert to create a cold blue that spread as soon as the sun left. The family sipped their chai and talked about the day that was almost wholly behind them. Raj’s father chose to speak first.

“So my boys, what have you been up to today? No trouble for your mother I hope?”  

“I learned how to milk the goat!” Raj answered enthusiastically

            “I know, son, well done, this chai is very nice, best I’ve had all day...”

Raj was pleased by this, he wanted to impress his father, so that one day he would take him to the desert with him. He wanted to help his father, but he was too young, and not strong enough to cope with the physically demands of walking through the desert all day.

            “...Well I beat Raj at chess!” Interrupted Gamaar “It was really close, but I just got him in the last game!”

            Raj tried his best to hide any annoyance at the comment, and thought he did rather well. The rest of the evening was spent round the fire, keeping warm before they went into the hut. As the fire started to dim the moved out from their courtyard and into the hut. The wished each other a good nights sleep and settled on the floor. Raj stared blankly at the wall, wishing that he had eaten. He closed his eyes slowly, allowing the darkness to null his pain. His mind soon became blank, and he drifted off to sleep resting, waiting, willing for tomorrow to bring food.


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