Ox-Tales: The Desert Torso

By Kamila Shamsie

A man walks through the desert carrying a stone torso. It is all ribs and a swooping concaveness of stomach, a network of veins running web-like across the taut skin.

A day earlier, when the one who had travelled with it on the previous leg of its journey handed it over in the darkened interior of a bicycle repair shop, all that the man – Bilal – cared about was the weight of the torso. It was not as heavy as he had feared, but not as light as he had hoped for, either. The miles he would need to walk with it once the road ended and his brother’s motorcycle could venture no further would only just be manageable.

Was it the weight of the thing which necessitated this multi-courier approach, he wondered? No single person had possession of it for more than a day, so the journey from Peshawar to the fringes of the Cholistan desert had already seen it pass through several sets of hands. But when the courier who preceded him handed it over to Bilal the former didnot stretch and exhale in relief to be free of the stone; instead he seemed almost reluctant to part with it, and when he had finally helped Bilal strap it onto his back the other courier said, ‘The longer you carry it, the lighter it gets.’

Bilal responded with a look that combined scepticism and disapproval. Such language was reserved for the meeting of the most sacred of relics and the most holy of men – such as the footprint of Hazrat Ali, embedded in a rock, which the Sufi Jahanian Jahangasht had carried on his back from Mecca to the town of Uch, which was just a few miles from this meeting place of the two couriers. When the great Sufi came upon the rock twenty men were trying, without success, to lift it. But to Jahanian Jahangasht – who performed Haj thirty-six times, with only his feet and camel to transport him – that rock weighed only one and a quarter kilograms.

‘Don’t forget,’ the other courier said. ‘Always keep it uncovered. If you try to hide it, people will know it’s valuable. This way, you’re just a crazy man carrying around a stone.’ He walked out into the bright sunlight, pausing to pull a long stickof sugar-cane from the overladen donkey cart moving slowly along the road towards the cane threshers of the neighbouring village.

The crazy men were the foreigners, Bilal decided as he sat astride the motorbike, leaning against his brother’s back so that the younger man, as he drove, could absorb some of the weight of the stone. Wasting all this money to have a stone transported halfway down and all the way across Pakistan from Peshawar to the Cholistan desert, from where it would enter India. What would happen to it once it got to India was something Bilal didn’t much care about, though the man who had engaged him on this leg of the journey had said something about a museum far away as the stone’s final destination.

Well, none of it mattered to Bilal except the cash he’d received in advance and the cash he’d receive on completion. In the last few years as visa regulations between India and Pakistan had relaxed it had become harder to find people so desperate to cross the border to see family on the other side that they’d pay for this desert route through no-man’s land. Though – thank god for blood-soaked mercies – after the recent Bombay carnage the visa flow had slowed to a trickle, and soon business would pick up again. But so would the landmines along the unpatrolled border. The nomad hepaid to keep him informed of such activity assured him that so far there had been no re-mining and his old maps would still see him safely across, but since the time of the Kargil crisis when he’d seen a camel and its rider burst into guts and flesh just fifty paces ahead of him in the sand, he’d known that even the nomads couldn’t always keep up with the mining activities of both India and Pakistan’s armies.

Regardless of border tensions, the stone was less trouble to transport than a human, plus he’d been able to charge double his normal amount for it. He rested his cheek on his brother’s back, watching mustard fields fly past – yellows and greens so bright they could make your eyes hurt – on the irrigated side of the road. The other side was desert and scrub.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to look more seriously into becoming a courier of relics. The Taliban’s influence was only going to spread, and there had to be many more such idols in Pakistan, and also many stoneworkers who could be paid a small amount to replicate them by the dozen. He fell asleep against his brother’s back, smiling to think of this new business venture.

When he woke up, a woman was pressed against him. It took a moment to realise there was only stone at his back. But what a moment that was.

When the motorcycle skidded to a stop at the end of the track, his brother untied the stone from Bilal’s back and for the first time Bilal paused to examine the thing. What kind of people revere a figure so horribly emaciated, was his first thought. It was something he’d never understood about other religions – how they turned images of suffering into objects of worship. As children he and his brother had once entered a church at night, through a broken window, and when Bilal had switched on the torch the beam swung across the little room and found a hand with a nail driven through the palm. He had dropped the torch in terror, and as it fell from his grasp it illuminated ribs, blood, nailed feet before mercifully shattering on the church floor. He had scrambled out of the broken window so fast he cut his own hands and feet on the jagged pane.

Years later, he felt something of the same terror as his brother ran his fingers along the net of veins that crisscrossed the stone torso.

‘Don’t,’ he said and, against instruction, draped his shawl over the torso before tucking it firmly under his arm.

In films the desert sands were always golden, and the desert was made for men’s desires – all swells and dips, one curve leading to the next. But here the land was flat and brown, thorny bushes breaking up the vista. The nomads swore you could still find shells dating back to the time when the Hakra River flowed through here, when their people had settled abodes and didn’t have to spread through Asia and Europe learning to treat mobility as the state in which they felt most at home. The Hakra had dried up centuries and centuries before the stone beneath his arm was carved into rib and vein, even though it was nearly two thousand years ago that this stone was stone and not just a breath away from breath.

Where had that thought come from?

He brought one end of his shawl over his head to protect it from the maddening influence of the sun. The other end continued to keep the unbreathing stone hidden from all eyes.

How he hated the desert! He placed one foot in front of the next, feeling the give of sand beneath his shoes. An hour of walking on such yielding ground with this thing nestled beneath his arm and he knew he’d start yearning for a camel. But the rising prices, the declining border crossings over the previous year, had left him deeply in debt; he couldn’t afford to hire a boy to carry the stone for him, let alone a camel.

Fifteen years ago he wouldn’t have believed anyone who told him he’d come to hate the desert. He first came here asa schoolboy, with an older cousin, who took him to the Derawar Fort with its forty ramparts and told him about Alexander’s treasure, which still remained hidden somewhere on the premises, despite all the attempts to find it. He had believed that, like the footprint of Hazrat Ali, the treasure required a specific person to lift it out and carry it away – and why shouldn’t he be that person? He even brushed aside the chance to join in a game of cricket in the forecourt of the fort complex, using an old cannon as the wicket, in favour of wandering through each crumbling room, each bat- and rat-infested cellar and dungeon, in the hope the treasure would recognise him and reveal itself. Later that day, his father had hit him – how dare he compare the treasure of a pagan to the footprint of Hazrat Ali? Bilal knew he should keep quiet but he couldn’t stop himself from repeating what he had earlier heard: Alexander – the great Sikandar – was mentioned in the Quran and Hazrat Ali was not.

That was the day he had the sacredness of the sacred beaten into him, not just skin deep, but deeper than that – as deep as cuts and bruises, deep as terror.

The thing beneath his arm grew heavier. He shifted it to the other arm.

By the time he reached the ancient, crumbling structure in which he was to stop for the night, both arms burned with soreness. He had never been so happy to see his resting place before, not even that time when the family he was transporting had all become sun-struck to the point of near delirium and he’d had to slap and kick them to keep them moving.

The roof had gone, and the stone walls of the one-room structure had half-collapsed over the centuries – or was it merely years? He had no way of knowing how long ago the foundations had been laid – but even so, there was some protection against the cold night air. He laid the torso on the ground and then, groaning with the effort of it, pushed aside the rubble at one end of the room which looked to the unknowing eye as though it were nothing but a collapsed wall rather than a carefully constructed hiding place, and pulled out the blankets, oil lantern and ropes of onion that were buried in a shallow hole in the sand beneath.

The light of the lantern, when he set it down, fell directly on the torso. He squatted next to it and rested his hand on the stone, the heel of his palm on the cage of ribs, the fingers touching the four folds of flesh right above the belly button which attested to a former sleekness. He picked up a stone from the scattered rubble, about the same size as the torso, and placed it beside the torso. Then he raised his kameez and looked down at his own stomach. There was loose skin, forming two neat folds, above his own belly button. Business had been very bad, food prices astronomical.

He looked from stone to stone torso to his own torso for a few seconds, then hurriedly – in the manner of a man shaking himself from a trance – lowered his kameez and turned his back on the torso, searching among the rubble for the smoothest stone.

Once found, the smooth stone became his pillow. He covered himself with the blankets and spread the ropes of onion around his sleeping area to ward off snakes before blowing out the lantern flame. Usually after this walk he’d be asleep in seconds, but today he was awake long enough to see all the stars come out, and the moon rise until it was right above the structure.

How thrilling it had been when he was a child – the news that Alexander was mentioned in the Quran. It made him part of Islamic history, made him someone Bilal could claim. In history classes in school there was always this lingering sense of loss when the teacher talked about Pakistan’s history before 1947 – it seemed most of the most important locations of the history of Muslims in the subcontinent had stayed in India: Agra, Delhi, Panipat. But when he told his history teacher about Alexander and the Quran, the old man said that was only one interpretation of the verse in question, and he was personally not inclined to believe that the reference was to Alexander. And so Alexander shifted back into that grey area – along with the Indus Valley Civilisation, and stones such as the one now lying just feet away from him – where the history of the nation of Pakistan and the history of the territory that constituted Pakistan separated.

A cloud passed over the moon; the light falling around Bilal wavered; he thought he saw the torso move. He closed his eyes and recited Ayat-ul-Kursi until the world became dreamlike.

Afterwards, he would always struggle to remember the noise which awoke him. It wasn’t a hissing, or a slithering across sand – of that he was sure. But his eyes opened to the sight of a snake twisting sideways along the stone torso. He had never seen the breath-drinking snake of the desert – but he’d heard from the nomads that it crawled onto men’s chests and poisoned their breath. He sat up slowly. The snake raised its head, and he wondered if it was confused to find a chest with no head attached. But then it lowered its head, its tongue flickering out into the space between one fragile rib and the next ...

And somehow Bilal found himself swinging the lantern, his movements so measured that the base of the lantern clipped the snake’s body and lifted it off the torso with enough momentum to send it flying through the air. When it landed, just outside the stone structure, it disappeared into the sand and darkness.

The sound of heartbeats was so loud it couldn’t be Bilal’s heart alone. He lay down and drew the torso close to him, draping one onion-rope over the chest like a garland, his fingers gently prodding the space between ribs where the snake’s tongue had flickered. His finger came away moist. Whispering apologies, he bent his head towards the ancient chest and kissed away what venom remained.

When he rested his head on the chest, he felt those veins, those ribs pressing against his cheek, the slow thud of a heart beneath.

He understood them now, the ones who would destroy such things. They knew, as he never had, how these figures could inspire worshipfulness. They knew that to look too long at even a fold of skin above the figure’s belly button might make them pause in the midst of battle to search among rubble for a stone with a beating heart.

They were right to be terrified. They were right to think their world would be safer it if were destroyed. Life could be controlled so long as this was destroyed. Stone could return to being stone, cargo transported across the border could be cargo once more. A man could ignore every heartbeat, even his own. The ones who wanted to destroy the figure understood all this; perhaps the ones who wanted to encase it in glass away from searching fingers and worshipping mouths understood it, too.
In the morning he felt refreshed. The stiff neck he always woke with after a night on a stone pillow was entirely absent after his many hours of resting against the hollow stomach of his travelling companion.

He lifted him gently off the sand, cradling him. The world had never been so clear before, the desert never so beautiful. He would walk through the desert with this life in his arms. He would walk until he could walk no more, and when he stopped the desert sands would cover him, and they would cover the Buddha, and one of them would die, and one of them would wait until the world was ready to uncover him.

KAMILA SHAMSIE was born in 1973 in Karachi, Pakistan. She is the author of five novels: In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography, Broken Verses, and most recently Burnt Shadows (2009), which has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She is also a reviewer and columnist, primarily for the Guardian

©  Kamila Shamsie, 2009

This story is taken from the Air volume of Ox-Tales, one of four anthologies to be published by Profile Books priced £5 each. Ox-Tales brings together original stories by extraordinary writers, from Kate Atkinson to John Le Carré. Published to coincide with the first Oxfam Bookfest, every copy sold raises at least 50p for Oxfam. Bookfest is Oxfam's festival celebrating books and reading, with more than 250 events nationwide from 4 to 18 July. For more information, visit www.oxfam.org.uk/books

The full list of 'Ox-Tales' contributors: Diran Adebayo, Kate Atkinson, Berly Bainbridge, William Boyd, Jonathan Buckley, Jonathan Coe, Geoff Dyer, Michael Faber, Sebastian Faulks, Helen Fielding, Giles Foden, Esther Freud, Xialou Guo, Mark Haddon, Zoe Heller, Victoria Hislop, Al Kennedy, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, John Le Carre, Marti Leimbach, Marina Lewycka, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Morpurgo, David Park, DBC Pierre, Ian Rankin, Vikram Seth, Nicholas Shakespeare, Kamila Shamsie, Lionel Shriver, Helen Simpson, Ali Smith, Will Sutcliffe, Rose Tremain, Joanna Trollope, Louise Welsh, Jeanette Winterson

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