Shifa’s love of experimental fiction and feminist theory have contributed to the conception of ‘Womb’, a serialized novel to be featured here once every two weeks week. Here’s chapter onetwothree and four. Reader discretion is advised, the following story contains strong language and mature themes.

Chapter Five:

K— and I lie in bed together. I am reading a book, but I put it aside for a minute and look over at him.

“What are you reading?” he asks.

I smile. ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James—I figure I need to catch up on the classics.”

“Good idea,” he nods. He leans over and kisses my forehead; he puts his hand on my stomach and smiles. “How are you feeling?”

I am immediately nervous. “Good,” I say, quietly. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” he shrugs, “you just look a little pale.”

“I’m just tired, I think.”

“How’s your thesis coming along?”

“I’m stuck. I spoke to Lakshmi about it yesterday, but all she could talk about was tea—not that I have anything against tea.”

He laughs, turns back to his laptop.

I’m curious. “What are you doing?” I ask.

“Oh nothing—this and that.”

“What’s this and that?”

“Just checking emails—work stuff, it would bore you.”

“Try me.”

He remains quiet.

“K—do you remember the first serious conversation we had about ourselves at the retreat?”

He snorts. “The one where you told me you were cute right from the zygote stage?”

I remain serious. “Yeah, that’s the one.”

He turns to face me again.

“What about it?”

“Do you remember it?”

“It was so long ago—vaguely, I guess.”

“I told you the reason I was at that place was because my head was stuck in a groove.”

“I remember that.”

“Do you remember what you told me about yourself?”

He hesitates, and then says simply: “No.”

“You do.”

“Maybe—I don’t know. Like I said, it was a long time ago.”

“But you do remember.”

“Refresh my memory.”

“Well…” I start, gathering my thoughts, recalling the sunshine. “You said it had something to do with work stress.”

“I recall something of that sort.”

“You said that what you did was very stressful, that you had immense amounts of responsibility and that it had all gotten a little too much for you to handle.”

He remains quiet and I go on.

“You said that you had been at the retreat for some time now and you still woke up sweating and shaking at night because there was this dark weight of responsibility that just keep pushing at your chest, feeling like it was about to break your rib-cage.”

He clears his throat.

“Our problems were almost the opposite of each other’s, I thought then. You were so scared of doing too much—of having too much to do and I was terrified of having too little to do, of wasting away—or not even wasting away, of having been wasted already.

You said that you had been having a rough couple of months. You said that you woke up one morning and couldn’t find a purpose any longer—it sounded like an existential crisis. Work was getting to you, you said. You had all this data to analyze—you wouldn’t say exactly what—and it wasn’t making any sense to you, you couldn’t find a pattern any longer. You said that this was dangerous; you said that a lot of things depended on you finding a pattern, you said that a lot of people depended on you finding a pattern. You were terrified that you were going to let them all down—that you were going to be the cog that stopped functioning, bringing the whole machine to a halt.

That morning, you told me, you got into work early because you couldn’t sleep. You got yourself a cup of coffee and sat down at your desk. You spent a few minutes arranging the papers on it, glancing at the writing on them occasionally. You then turned on your computer. You opened the files and the words and numbers were just what they had been the night before but they no longer made any sense to you. You knew what you were supposed to do with them, you knew what you were expected to achieve, but those methods didn’t make sense to you either. It wasn’t like you’d forgotten how to do them, it was that you realized you didn’t know why they existed in the first place—do you remember?”

“I remember,” he says quietly.

“You said that you spent at eternity just starting at the screen and your vision got blurry and the numbers and words on the screen started to dance around in patters and you couldn’t even understand those patterns. You said that you went in to see you boss and that he remarked that your eyes were bloodshot. You said he asked you what was wrong and that you spend an eternity hunched over in his chair, not speaking.

Your boss was—is—a powerful man, you told me. He got you to explain the problem. He took you seriously, rather than just brushing you off. He seemed to understand, you said, and he seemed to realize the seriousness of your crisis. What his company did was important to the world, it was essential to the smooth functioning of society, you said (though you never revealed anything more specific), and you were an essential component of this company, one of the best they’d ever seen. Once upon a time, you could find the pattern in things almost instantly— there was nothing you couldn’t do, no code you couldn’t crack.

Your boss understood how important you were, he understood how broken you had become and so he got his people to take care of things. And you landed up at the retreat that wasn’t a retreat, where the attendees weren’t attendees and the wellness supervisors weren’t supervisors.

They prescribed you a number of psychoparmacological pills at the retreat—you weren’t aware of it at the time and neither was I. They didn’t have the proper licenses so they mixed them in with that awful ayurvedic tonic they’d insist we choke down every night—remember?”

“I remember,” he says quietly.

“When you got better, and you did get better, slowly but steadily, you said that you had come to the realization that you had worked—in your words—to further the purpose of terrible evil. You said that the work that you had been doing at The Company would lead to no good. You said that you could no longer allow yourself to work for them any longer. You said that when you got out of the retreat, you’d quit. You’d give them a piece of your mind and explain your point of view. Whether they agreed to it or not was irrelevant. You were done.”

He is looking at me steadily. His too-dark eyes burn my skin where they gaze at it. He is startlingly, strangely intense.

“You never did quit, did you?”

He turns back to his laptop.

“You shouldn’t trouble yourself. It’s bad for the baby.”

At his words, there is a quick tightening of my stomach muscles. A flutter like a sigh in secret spaces. Reflexively, my hands move to rest on my belly.

I turn away from him. I pick up my book and continue reading.