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.

Chapter One:

K— sits up in bed and lights a cigarette.

He is 5’10”. He has too-dark eyes, sun-kissed skin and longish black hair. My very own Heathcliff, I think. His lips quirk upwards as if to suggest a smile. He continues to puff at his cigarette. The smoke rises to the ceiling where it is disturbed by the slowly rotating blades of the fan. The rest of the room is quiet, quite still, as if in anticipation of something.

The weather is unbearable. I can feel the sweat trickling slowly down my back. It hurts like the blade of a knife. I run my hand over it, in the hope that this will quell the feeling. It helps a little.

Neither of us has made a sound, but now K—speaks:

“You need to get out of this apartment. A little fresh air will do you good.”

“Will you be here later tonight?” I ask, afraid of the answer.

“I will,” he says simply, and immediately my shoulders relax and I smile to myself.

“Good,” I say.

 

-x-

 

Later than afternoon, I keep my appointment.

The room is a cool grey one. It calms me as soon as I enter it. The fan is moving vigorously overhead and the heat of the day has dissipated a little. K—was right, I needed fresh air, I needed to clear my head. It seems to be working.

I sit down on the long, blood-red couch as she bustles around me. She offers to make me some tea. I accept.

“I’m just crazy about tea these days!” she says, animatedly. “I’m taking a course on it. You wouldn’t believe how many different kinds there are! I’m on ten different cups a day!” She laughs and I smile indulgently.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” I say.

Suddenly, she stops speaking, and stares.

“There’s something different about you today. You look pale.”

Reflexively, my hand moves to rest on my belly. There is a quick tightening of my stomach muscles. A flutter like a sigh in secret spaces.

I shrug, smile, say “I’m just tired” and we move on from there.

She asks me no further questions about my health.

 

-x-

 

K—comes by later that evening like he promised he would. Over a simple supper of sautéed spinach and pasta, I ask him about his day.

He is cagey, like he always is. He tells me that he has a new assignment coming up at work, but doesn’t elaborate. I prompt him and he gives away a few details, though so sparse I can’t make head or tail of them. I simply nod and look down at my plate again.

“No appetite,” he observes.

I look up. “Not really,” I reply. “To tell you the truth, I’m not feeling too well. Sort of queasy, though I’m not sure that’s the right word for it.”

“I have some pills you can take,” he offers.

I shake my head and push the plate away. Sitting back in my chair, I light a cigarette and smile across the table at him.

“Hey,” I say softly, “thanks for keeping me company tonight.”

“Anytime,” he grins.

Two hours later we head to bed. The fan rotates slowly above our heads; the only other sounds are those of deep, relaxed breathing. All else is quiet, quite still.

 

-x-

 

K—and I met at a retreat that wasn’t a retreat. It advertised itself as a place where people could go to get out of the city, to relax, do yoga, read books—but its residents knew that it was much, much more. The ‘attendees’ weren’t attendees, the ‘health supervisors’ weren’t supervisors, and the ‘clients’ weren’t clients.

At dinner most nights I sat alone, quite content to push the food around my plate. There were only two things that were mandatory here, and one of those would come later at night, in the shape of thimble full of the vilest tasting tonic known to man. I always took that without complaining—complaining could have dire consequences, I’d heard, though no one I asked knew exactly what those consequences were— of, if they did know, didn’t want to tell me.

At dinner that particular night, most of the clients looked listless. It was a very hot evening (as most evenings in Bangalore at that time of year seem to be), the mosquitoes would leave no one alone— no matter how much repellent was sprayed in the air or on skin—and the food was worse than usual. Still, no one was complaining and neither was I.

And it was then, looking up from the plate of food I had finally pushed away for good, that I saw him sitting opposite me, smiling in that peculiar way he has and smoking a cigarette. Silent like a cat. Startlingly, strangely intense.

He offered me a cigarette and that was it.

And so it begins, I thought to myself, and lit the cigarette.

 

-x-

 

I come awake at 3 am. K—is still asleep beside me, breathing quite contentedly. But I have had a restless night, the nausea is coming on like waves, and I am finding it hard to break through the surface. Moving as silently as I can, I stumble to the bathroom, fall to my knees, and retch quietly into the toilet bowl.

K—is a deep sleeper, but I don’t want to take any chances.

When I look down before flushing it all away, I see blood.

The evidence will all be gone in a minute, I tell myself with resolve.

I climb back into bed.

In the morning, K—leaves for work. He suspects nothing.

After he has left, I walk silently through to the kitchen and grope around in the darkness of a drawer. I find what I am looking for and swallow a thimble full of the vilest liquid known to man. Uncomplainingly.

In a minute there will be a quick tightening of my stomach muscles. A flutter like a sigh in secret spaces.

I smile and wait.

 Read chapter two here.