dawn, and she hasn’t slept yet
under the mosquito net

rigged so many hours ago
reaching for water

she forces a sip
and air rushes down her throat

she stumbles to the bathroom
coughing catalysed

the light has begun
to sieve through frosted glass

enough to see the tangle
of braids, the dark of eyes

waiting for the morning
to arrive

Dawn, and electric lines slowly stamp themselves against the whitening sky. The dogs have awakened, and the air fills with their cries. After a particularly high-pitched yelp, the darwan shouts indistinctly. The barks die down for a moment, and the sound of his sweeping resumes, light and rough.

The season is cooling. A large woven basket by the kitchen door is filled with ivory heads of cauliflower, curved squash, and pale green string beans, all still muddy from their journey from Savar to Dhaka. Komola wakes to the sound of the sweeping. In the semi darkness, the blue flame of the pilot light is a familiar flicker. She rolls up her mat, sets the water to boil, and shuffles to the back door. The Kazan pierces the air in multiple conflicting streams of sound. She pulls her anchal over her head and bends to inspect the vegetables. A fat root of ginger falls to the floor. Where is the spinach, she wonders? Madam will surely ask.

She decides she will make a special fish for tonight. Her speciality. Ginger and lime sauce. The last time she made it, even Sir mentioned how good it was. She squats heavily, picks up the basket, and takes it inside.

After breakfast, she clears the table and wipes down the bamboo placemats. She wishes they would go back to the plastic placemats they used when Oyon and Tahsin were young. Those were much easier to clean as there were no slats for rice to get stuck between. Both boys are gone now, studying and working in America. She misses their presence in the house, especially Tahsin, whom she helped raise, she feels, practically on her own. The older son, Oyon, always frightened her with his tantrums, even though his anger was never directed towards her.

She knows Madam misses them too because sometimes, she will talk to Komola about things she doesn’t care about, like asking her what she’s feeding the turtles in the garden fountain. Komola feeds the little creatures meat secretly, though Madam said to give them only carrots and cucumbers. They’re not vegetarian, she’s sure of it. The tiny flavoured pieces of beef are always gone when she looks.

Madam sometimes picks fights about inconsequential or silly things, like this morning. She scolded Komola for forgetting to put the box of cereal out for her friend who has recently come from America. Her friend wasn’t even at the table, but Madam didn’t care. She just wanted things done exactly as she asked.

Walking painfully down the staircase to the kitchen, she adjusts her sari and feels a small lump in the corner of the fabric. She unties the corner and finds fifty take. It’s the change from the money that Madam’s friend gave her yesterday to buy medicine. She hurries to the guest room on the ground floor. Knocking, she hears a muffled answer and enters. The woman is standing by the mirror. She has obviously just woken up and her hair is slipping out of ill made braids. Despite her weight, she’s quite beautiful. The plumpness suits her, glosses her skin, proportions her large warm eyes to her face.

“Neeta Madam, here is the change from the money you gave me to get your medicine yesterday,” she says to her, holding out the folded brown note.

“I cannot take it.” The woman’s voice is hoarse from coughing.

“No, you must.”

“It is nothing. Please, keep the money.”

“No, take it.”

“Next time you need medicine or something else, you can use it then.”

“I will always need the medicine,” Komola says sighing.

“Then you know you can use it. Now, don’t mention it anymore.”

“Ok, thank you.” Komola says, with the few English words she

“You are welcome.’ Nita Madam responds in kind. She touches Komola’s sari and continues in Bangla, “I love this orange.”

Komola hesitates and then says, “I didn’t always wear colours. I used to wear white.”

“Why is that?”

“I got married when I was very young. My husband died only three months later.” She blinks as she remembers. “I wore white for a long time. People would say, why are you wearing white? So then I stopped.”

“I’m glad.”

“You are not married yourself?” Kamala asked despite the fear that she is overstepping her bounds. But the woman seems not to mind the question.

“I was, long ago. I have a beautiful daughter, Ila. You’ll meet her. She and I are moving to Dhaka. I’m here to find a place for us to live.”

“We have much in common.”

“Yes?” Nita Madam is rubbing the dark circles under her eyes.

“I also had a daughter, from my first marriage. But she died when she was only a little girl.”

“God help me,” Nita Madam says, her voice cracking. “I don’t know what I would do if I did not have my Ila.”

“I left my village when it happened. I took a train to Dhaka. I left everyone, my little brother, Mintu, my older sister, July, my parents. I took nothing with me, only sticks of sugar cane to eat on the way.”

“It must have been very difficult.”

“It was. I lived with a family who beat me. The neighbours would hear me crying, and tell me to flee. But I was too afraid, so I stayed.”

“Five years? Eight years? Then I came here. I’ve been here twenty years. All this time, I have worked so hard. I have lived so long with so little.” Tears come to Komola’s eyes. “I am tired.”

Nita Madam couches her hand in sympathy.

“But one can always get married again,” Komola says, wiping her eyes with her anchal. “My second husband is a very handsome man.”

“Ah, we have that in common too. My ex-husband is also handsome, but removed.” Nita Madam laughs bitterly. “Besides, all the men my age are looking for much younger wives. What is there to do?”

Komola thinks the answer is clear, but she says it anyway. “Don’t give up hope.”

It is mid-afternoon by the time Komola finishes cooking the fish, and she is exhausted. She has outdone herself this time. Three whole fish, evenly blackened and sprinkled with corainder leaf and ginger shreds, and arranged on plates. The largest, the one she’s most proud of, is lying on a cut glass plate shaped like a fish that she found in the back of the cupboard. Each plate is ringed with round slices of cucumber alternating with red crescent wedges of tomato.

Her left knee won’t bend now, after the hours of standing. Last week, it kept her awake the entire night. She tried the salve that someone had told her about. She had soaked a gamcha in a mysterious sticky paste mixed with kerosene and hot water and wrapped her leg in it. Last time, the concoction had made the pain go away, but this time, it turned her leg black and even stiffer. So she had to get tablets. The pain is getting worse each year. Sometimes, nothing works, not even the tablets. Madam made her go to a doctor last year, even though she didn’t want to. The doctor said she had to stop eating sweets and lose weight. She doesn’t understand what eating sweets has to do with her knees. She doesn’t understand doctors.

The first time Komola visited a hospital was just after she had got married. After the monsoon rains had tapered, she had gone to her village to visit her parents. While washing clothes one morning, she ran out of water. The water in the pond was so dirty that no one used it anymore although Komola still liked to wash her clothes on its banks. Leaving everything all twisted up on a flat black rock, she carried the bucket back to the well.

The tube well was the deepest in the village. The water was hard, clean, and cold. She took hold of the long smooth handle and pulled it up and then pushed it down. A second later, water started gushing into the bucket. It was not as much effort as she remembered but she had much more than childhood strength now. The rhythm was immediately familiar and she watched the reflection of the sky bounce and break on the surface of the water. But her hands were slippery with soap and in a moment of carelessness, the swinging handle of the pump flew out of her arms and hit her face. Her face swelled up immediately, distorting her features, and making it impossible to see out of one eye. A ringing in her ears.

When the swelling didn’t reduce after four days, she finally went to see the doctor in the nearby town. He bitterly rebuked her for not coming earlier and instructed her to buy some very costly medicine. What if the medicine didn’t work? How was she to go back to the city like this? How would she work? And most urgently, what about when her husband was to visit next week? She couldn’t see him like this.

The pain was excruciating. It radiated from her cheek sideways, all the way to the back of her head. A cousin told her to pack a bag of ice and press it on her face continuously. It was only after doing this for a few days that the swelling started to go down. Sometimes, she feels as if she can still feel the distension almost two years later. She can still hear the ringing.

The late afternoon light is stealing out through the windows of the kitchen. This house, full of its comforts and amenities, feels like a place from which all sound has vanished. And here she is, standing in a dirty kitchen she now has to clean, tired and alone.

When the phone rings just then, it is as startling as a slap. It’s her husband, calling from his mobile phone shop in Mymensingh. He lives there with his first wife and his children. Komola is his second wife, the one he married for love.

His first wife knows of Komola. She’s known since their love began, but she doesn’t say anything. Only in the beginning, the wife told him that he must not leave her, that it would malign her. So he only comes to Dhaka every few months. Mymensingh is far, half a day by bus.

Her startlement at the phone call is overcome by joy and then replaced by resentment, all in the seconds it takes to answer. He doesn’t notice her mood for a few minutes, and then finally asks her what the matter is. Her husband is a happy man. She knows she’s lucky for having found love and laughter so late in life. He laughs all the time, sometimes even when she’s upset. This time though, he doesn’t laugh.

“Jaan, my heart, are you crying?” he asks in surprise.

“It’s because you’re not here,” she says.

“I don’t know what to tell you…” he says gently.

She hears something else in his voice. Irritation? Defensiveness? She doesn’t know but it only upsets her further.
“Why is that you can call me any time?” she asks plaintively. “A time like this, like today, when I am so busy. But I can always talk. But when I call you sometimes, it’s not the right time.”

“If you are too busy to talk, then just tell me. I can go,” he says easily.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“All I want is for you to come here. Then I’d be at peace.”

“At peace, my love? You are not at war, are you!” He is laughing again.

“I don’t know,” she says petulantly although she’s feeling better in spite of herself.

“Anyway, if you must know, I am coming tonight. I was going to surprise you, but since you are in such a state, I am telling you now.”

She is so happy she can barely breathe. Instead she finds herself admonishing him, “You cannot laugh as loud as last time. I am sure Madam and Sir heard something.”

“What? Married people can’t laugh?” he says teasingly.

“Yes, but they don’t know about your visits. I know they would not like such a thing.”

Sometimes, she feels worse after she talks with him on the phone, even though the phone brings his voice so close. There is something wrong with the sound, something flat and electric, something that reminds her, even if she closes her eyes, that it’s not real, that he’s not there. All she wants is for her beloved to be near. It’s not about jewellery, or sweets at a wedding feast, or flowers in her hair. It’s just the feeling of standing beside someone you love.

Unlike her first wedding, her second wedding ceremony had not been much of an affair. She had gone to her village only to see her parents, and he had come to visit two days later. The people in her village had said that it was not right that they stay together and not be married. So they got married. She wore a pink sari, and as much adornment as her family owned. Much to her chagrin, they had not fed anyone as per tradition. He had said that they didn’t have enough money. Perhaps when she saves up a little more money, she can still do it.

At dusk, she bathes and dresses in her best sari, a bright printed cotton with blue and yellow flowers. She carefully applies kohl around the edges of her eyes, and combs her hair. Though not so thick anymore, her hair is still long and dyed a jet black. He will be here very late, but she wants to be ready, even though she knows she has work yet to do. The bulk of it is done. She only has to clear and clean. Then she can wait for him.

Her conversation with Nita Madam earlier that day echoes in her head. It has been so long since she had spoken with someone other than her husband.

“It’s love,” Komola had told her. “We have love.”

Nita Madam had smiled.

“You know when you’re hungry?” Camilla cupped her right hand in a habitual motion, “You want to eat some rice.”


“Well, before you eat, there is love. It comes even before your hunger.”

“It’s true,” Nita Madam had said, still smiling. “God forgive us, but its true.”

“Isn’t that true?” she had asked again.

“Akdom.” Absolutely.

In the night, her husband will call her from his phone, as he always does, from outside the gate, even though the darwan knows him and would let him in. She will ask him to enter, and he will meet her in darkness to the side of the garden. She will take him round to the back of the house, inside and up the stairs to her room. Before she locks the door, she will ask him if he’s hungry. If he is, she will bring him leftovers. If not, she will swing the heavy metal loop of the padlock into place and press it closed, so no one can come in and find them. She will switch off the electric light to save power, and light the candle. Only then, sitting next to him, on the woven mat from her childhood home, will she feel her insides unwind.

The candle will eventually gutter, long after their breath turns from laughter to sleep. The white bougainvillea she picked from the garden at dusk will drape its leaves around the sides of the cracked drinking glass. The pilot light of the oven will remain lit, slowly spreading into the light of the morning.

Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. See more at olivewitch.com.