My Youths in Religion
by Adam Ortman
In my youth our temple received just a single visitor of note. His eyes bright with fever and his bag without comforts, he gave the impression of an officiant or a priest. He made his bed in a blasted old hut and spent a week receiving the dogs that lingered on the grounds. The dogs were massive creatures with matted hair and I had never seen the monk or nuns pay them any attention. They mostly congregated under trees or in the shade of rocks. When they moved it was with the tethered bob of boats on water, and when they ate their hacking slurps made me shudder and clutch my throat.
At the end of the week, I watched them enter the visitor’s hut. Through the gaps in the walls I could see what they were doing.
“The dogs,” I said to the monk when I found him by the well.
He followed me up to the hut, his own face unchanged, and nodded when he heard the awful noises. The visitor had brought the dogs nearly two years earlier, he explained. At that time the dogs were hungry and unkempt and the man had promised to return to feed them when he was able. I asked if we should intervene, but the monk returned to the well without answering.
I stayed behind and watched. This did not seem like a way to feed dogs; soon there would be none of him left.
I was seven when my uncles took me to the mountain temple to be raised. My parents had died the previous year, and my uncles agreed that they had satisfied their responsibilities. They escaped before the old monk could steep their tea a second time, leaving me and a small radio behind. The radio was not for our personal use, but it gave me an ear on the world at large. It was silver and thin with popping knobs and sickly, sagging antennae. Whatever it caught from the valleys it confided: the stories of Heinous Day; a man from the coast with a beard like birds and violent manners; stories of strikers who marched through hovering dust and were shot; the songs of the militants torching buses.
I had no context for these stories and so they took shape in me like reflections in glass. The meaning in the radio was not to be penetrated, like the flowering and dying of bushes, like the speech of rain.
“What is the matter?” the monk asked when he saw my tears.
I could never answer, even in those days, with the clarity of grief.
Evenings I crept among the rocks and dogs. Sometimes I carried the little radio along. The voices inhabited it like ghosts when the wind died, telling other people’s dramas as they disappeared from the earth.
The day’s price for barley. The day’s price for butter. Umila, who had worked in bonded labor for eight years to pay for her father’s shovel. The day’s price for yams.
All this took easily to the air, rising, unreturning. I learned to keep close to my body.
My uncles entrusted me to the monk and for good reason. Few among the nuns were fit for a child. They beckoned me with whistles, pressed my hands into their legs for a massage. They told of agonized pasts, the men they had escaped on the way to their vows. Soon they were teaching me reincarnation, recounting my prior lives to make it stick.
“You were a horrible king who showed no mercy. You killed your cousins along with their hogs and left their widows to walk the fields. For many lives you were ghosts only. You fed on odors and were always hungry. The wind sucked your breath, the grass pierced your feet. You were an ant and birds stabbed your body. You were ants for many lives, then birds with mean beaks. You were women who bore children and the children died before they learned speech and you shouted for the soil to return them.”
“I don’t remember any of those things,” I said, afraid they would make me trade my own pain for someone else’s.
One thrust a finger at my chest. “It’s all still there.”
“So what do I do?”
She guided my hands to her calves.
Another nun named Su delivered me from their attentions. She led me out to the low stone fence where the dogs sometimes gathered. High grass thick on the hills, rot-whorled mangos in trees, skreel of leggy bugs, and the green peaks beyond. Su and I sat below the trees as the sun banked through its gates. She hummed the tunes to which she imagined her scriptures were composed.
“You worry too much about your life. You have had many mothers,” Su said.
“That isn’t comforting,” I said.
Once, when the wind warped the trees, Su drew forth a cigarette she’d rolled and sucked fire into the skinny leaves that stuck from the end. Orange flared from the tip and strands of hair blew loose around her face. She looked over the dry grass as I stared into her slouching eyes, her soft face.
“All the crimes I could have committed,” she sighed, “had I been someone else.”
My uncles retrieved me and the radio the month before I turned eighteen. They’d soused themselves in the valley and lost the hunt of their old designs, so when they returned to the temple they were ready for mine. The intervening years had picked a feature on each of their faces to disfigure. The right eye of one looked squalid and yellow; the nose of the other had grown asymmetrical.
The monk gave me up with a riddle. “The boy knows all that I know,” he declared, handing them cups of cold tea, the dregs of an abandoned kitchen. Each downed his drink with a nod.
Back in the valley I was terrified. They asked for a revelation but I was mum.
“He needs the proper stage,” they said to each other, imagining I’d been reared in the wisdom that sprouts from death. “Big ideas grow with light.” They shopped me around to audiences, a boy guru, but I only cussed into the microphone and offended the crowd.
Loosed of expectations, I traveled in their care. We visited menu-less kitchens, sun-choked plazas with faded signs. We let huge and mysterious incidents go unremarked: parades and riots, colossal sounds overhead. My uncles took scriptural cues from the newspapers and traveled accordingly, hauling us and our few things onto buses or cargo-bearing boats. They offered the world to my eyes and awaited a benediction. The only talent my uncles possessed was a vast and ridiculous patience.
I can hardly remember this time, though I will tell you how it ended.
My uncles discovered a girl in the streets whose parents were dead. She was raised in war not religion, and though most of the dying had taken place on the far edge of her country, she still looked luminously ground down. Her massive eyes. Her bit and shaking fingers. We did not leave each other’s sides.
We took to walking the city in orbits, wider and wider loops, and slept like rabbits in the outermost parks. I pressed myself to her body like it was the first living thing. A new blood rang in my veins, a warm and golden egg shattered in my chest. I forsook my uncles, along with the gray comfort of the radio, and found myself in the streets with her body sweating against mine.
Her name was Tashi. She felt all the acts of the city. She looked into the faces of everyone, even animals. Our walks were propelled by an excitement I could not parse, the enthralling danger of everything happening once only. Tashi wove her fingers through mine and showed me to whatever she saw.
“See her,” she said, gesturing our hands to a crowd.
“Careful, Dad,” she said to a shoeless man on a motorbike.
“You, you, you, you, you,” she said to a cow nuzzling ash on the sidewalk.
She waved at the haze in certain districts and told me there were factory cities where the air tore through noses. “The people can no longer smell their food to tell if it is bad.”
She raised our hands, bit circles around our nails. We begged our meals and walked until the streets petered out. She insisted we have sex in the park. We lay under a bridge and she said to me, “You, you, you, you, you,” until, in a quick pitch of shock, I came. We nestled in the dark, listening to park sounds until we fell asleep. I woke smelling Tashi’s breath in the grass, vowing myself to all that it touched.
Tashi lived with a sense of populations risen and present in the air around her. For a time I considered this her special affliction. She gazed up with heavy eyes and was, I believed, commiserating with spirits. Then I looked with her and saw all the windows that faced the street. There were hundreds for anyone to notice, just by looking up: lives floating above us.
“There are girls trapped as slaves in this city,” she told me. “They live for years in one room. They are made to squat over a bucket. Their beds are never cleaned. If they bear a child it is taken and made a slave, too.”
I thought fondly of the radio I’d clutched in the trees near the temple, its whispers disappearing among leaves.
“There are locks on their doors and men they do not know carry the keys. I am not telling a rumor.”
I did not argue. I felt relieved when we entered markets and the tents obstructed the windows.
Soon Tashi made it clear why she’d latched onto me. My uncles had fed her a story. All along, as she pointed to the suffering city, she had been asking for religious amelioration. She wanted me to say the words, real as rain, that would make everything good.
I tried but in the streets nothing worked. Every corner we rounded, we fell upon a new catastrophe and I fell dumb. A stricken dog or a grandmother wailing in blankets. Smashed fruit, children huffing paint. We were not in the mountains. We were in the ground of it and there was no long view. Tashi seemed unsurprised when I had no magic to offer.
“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “There’s only one thing we can do.”
She left the details undisclosed, but the first steps were clear. I would take her and sell her to a dalal for the best price. She led the way to an awful part of the city, which in most ways was like the rest of the city. A ten-year-old girl approached us and patted between her legs, gesturing for me to follow. I gripped Tashi’s arm.
It was not hard to find the dalal. He was short and muscular. He had a rash of acne on his throat, and hair that was shining and beautiful. Tashi led the negotiations, though the dalal looked to me for most of the conversation. I did not know how to look. I made no face. Tashi’s eyes were feverish as she made her case, gesturing the length of her body, holding her hair out to him like fabric.
The dalal stood and entered the building behind him. Tashi told me she would go to a house that afternoon, and in a few days I could ask the dalal where to find her. I would not need to buy her back. She could be rented, just as I would do with as many other girls as I had money for, and then we could all escape, a great liberation in the night. The dalal returned with an envelope and a bill of sale which he had scrawled on the back of a laundry receipt. He handed these to me, and then directed Tashi to sit on the curb. I reached to embrace her but she turned away. I took the money and left.
The morning was stinking from beneath the streets. I asked around until I located an apartment I could rent for a week. It had a bed, but the toilet was in a hallway downstairs. I paid the landlord and then recounted my rupees. They added up to 29,050, a cryptic number, resounding with significance.
I carried the envelope of money to the places Tashi had shown me that morning—a massage parlor, a street of girls, closet-sized rooms in an alley where dust spun through the air. All along I feared I might run into my uncles. At the massage parlor, two men asked me what kind of massage I wanted.
“I want my stomach massaged,” I said.
“We do not do that kind of massage here,” one of the men said, sneering down at my stomach. There were magazine pictures of women in bikinis on the walls.
“Then my legs,” I said.
“We do not massage legs,” the other man said.
The magazine pictures of women in bikinis were cut off at the necks.
I patted between my legs, causing the men to nod and demand 200 rupees. I handed them the money and they led me into the next room, where five girls were brought to stand before me. I asked for the youngest. They took her hand and placed it in mine and directed me to follow her down the hallway, but I asked for her to come home with me instead. She would give me massages at my place for three days. Then I would return her.
The men discussed this. They said no, only for one day. The price was 4,000 rupees. I handed them the money without any bashfulness, and they followed us like chaperones to the door of my apartment.
Her name was Eka and her teeth displayed like a hand of cards when she told me. When she unclasped her skirt I clutched the envelope and told her that wouldn’t be necessary.
For the rest of the day I ventured the city seeking the same deal. Some men chased me off, but others handed over their girls. I brought them back to my room and instructed them to stay put. When around 7,000 rupees remained I went back to the dalal with the shining hair and the beard of acne.
“She is not here,” he said to me. “She is gone.”
“Away,” he said. “To Chittagong.”
This was across the border, unfathomably far away. I shoved past the man and entered the building behind him. My eyes adjusted to a world of boys weaving rugs. I hurried among them, looking into their eyes but recognizing nothing. I shouted Tashi’s name, and a boy looked up, a violet sleep in his expression. Dooming odors prevailed, woolen and sour.
The dalal was untroubled that I had shoved past him. He said, “You bring me another girl. I will give you a good price.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “We will trade. I will bring you another to get back the first.”
He shook his head.
“I will bring you two girls,” I said. “Five.”
He smiled and told me: “She is in Gorhiya.”
He looked annoyed. “Chittagong, then Gorhiya, then Varanasi, then Krungthep, then London, then Los Angeles.” He flashed his neck, and I turned to go.
There were waves of smoke in the streets, and the scents overlapped like voices: carts of grilled corn, heaps of smoldering plastic, delicate strands of incense in offering. I bought several orders of sticky rice and curry in palm-sized baggies. Redolent of garlic, they appeared to contain small crushed animals.
It was evening. I found the girls in my apartment, swapping clothing. They took the food and spoke harshly amongst themselves. They prodded Eka, who was the smallest, to stand. She unclasped her skirt and lay nude upon the mattress. Her legs were limp. The flesh on her thighs was striped and raised; further up winked the red eyes of cigarette burns. Eka’s gaze was elsewhere, and she did not respond when I protested. The girls ate the curry and rice. I crawled onto the mattress and lay beside Eka, arm to arm. Like this I fell through a hazard of sleep until morning.
I awoke with clear decisions. The girls had all fallen asleep on the mattress, and I roused them by standing upon it. As they wiped their eyes I explained to them with great solemnity that they were free. I would not return them to the men from whom they came. They could return to their families or find a job in another city. They could claim new lives. When I finished they looked at me with prolonged disappointment.
Priti said she would have to keep sending money to her family.
Nidhi, whom I had found sleepy and drugged in the alley, was now gritting her teeth with such aggravation that she had split her cheeks. “Which lives?” she said. “Who will offer them? You?”
I reached beneath the mattress to gather the rupees that remained from Tashi’s sale and held them out. Priti took all of it, limp like a sock in her hand, and no one protested. They turned away, or left to use the toilet, and did not come back.
Only Eka remained, prodding her tongue through the iridescent baggies of last night’s dinner. We left the apartment, watching for the two men from the massage parlor, and boarded a bus for Chittagong.
I stared from the windows, through the dismembered flora of roadside ditches, into landscapes where numberless lives were hid. Eka drew her mouth to my ear and murmured stories about the girls she’d known at the massage parlor. The one whose husband was in debt from their marriage and, to pay the debt, was sold. The one accused by a stranger of being a witch and so, by her family, was sold. Who was raped by an old man and was, therefore, sold. Who, to lift a curse, was sold. Who, for two good bulls, was sold. She spoke endlessly and did not repeat herself.
Chittagong was a city in the face of the sea, marked by a mood of fish. Straight off the bus we stepped past them: muscles with moony eyes upon tables. Above, ropes and windows with salt-battered awnings. Taxi drivers pointed the direction. Eka took my hand in hers, which turned cold when we approached the street of girls and women. Here, against the water, their clothes were bright but their bodies looked beaten. Grasping a balking girl, I was not an uncommon sight.
We walked the street and searched every face, then turned around and retraced our steps. We did this several times. Eka watched the curb. Women called out and we stopped to talk. I described Tashi, and a girl was brought out. She looked at Eka’s ankles, and Eka looked at hers. It wasn’t Tashi. Finally, a woman arrived to settle the confusion. Her floral dress was clean and she was so large that it did not flap in the wind. I described Tashi to her.
“She may have just arrived,” I said.
“We have many girls like that.” The woman tipped her chin back as though with this gesture she could view them all. She took the arm of a girl nearby. “This is a girl like that.”
I did not look at the girl. “I am searching for a girl named Tashi.”
“Where did you get this girl?” she said, reaching out and pinching Eka’s side.
Eka gripped my hand as though she were hanging from it. I made a vague wave with my other hand, feeling exposed by the woman’s stare. I lost confidence in my innocence and remembered Tashi with a yearning that felt shameful in this place.
“What do you want with these girls? You want to fuck?” Her toes had no nails, only a smoothness. “What will you do with this girl?”
“I am giving her a different life,” I said. We were the street’s main attraction. Children and elderly around us. Food carts parking closely.
“Which life will you give her? Yours?” The woman smiled, but was angry.
“A better life than she can have here.”
“Life is just life,” she said. “It is the same everywhere. What special power do you have?”
“We will come back tomorrow,” I said. “Maybe she will be here then.”
“Nothing will change tomorrow. I will not give any of my girls to you. If you come back, I will take that girl,” and again she reached for Eka, but we fled.
We left Chittagong for the coast, slurping brackish fruits we picked from the roadside, breathing the fumes of buses. We left the road once we could hear the tide. Eka led the way up a dune so we could look at the waves. The gulls were shouting. The sun was caught in some clouds like a strung-up animal, and the barnacled scent of the sea changed my thoughts.
Eka was again recounting stories. How when her cousin was bitten on the neck by a pig, his head turned black from infection, and he died. How her other cousin was given drugs in the army so that he would do anything, and he came back to his own village and raped his cousin, who was therefore sold. Eka had a noble forehead and the shortest hair and those teeth; she was looking me in the face. “But all of that is over,” she said. “I will be your bride. You will take me back to your home. We will spend our lives together.”
When the sun reemerged, it was booming. Eka kept on, telling stories of our future as I stared hard at the water ahead, where the tide and the wind and the sun had momentum there was no power against. Down the shore a fishing boat bobbed in the big rocks. Its men pulled ropes from the water and lifted weedy traps reeking with lobsters into the boat. Their claws wagged through the cage-gaps, and the men pried them from their traps with boards. They noticed us with the same eyes they had for the lobsters and steered into the sand. One of the men addressed us, though we did not know his language. His head was squat and his features shared the space unhappily, whiskers and eyelashes and nostrils all together.
Another, wearing only a belt made of sea ropes, explained so we understood: “He knows you.”
Eka pressed against me, responding with a slapping voice, “You do not know me. You are thinking of some other girl.”
The men conferred. The man wearing only ropes called from the prow. “That is too bad. We all want to know you.”
There were three of them, filthy and strong.
“You stink like fish,” Eka said.
“Who is that?” the man said, gesturing with his nose.
“He is my husband,” Eka boasted.
The third man had been poking the roped man’s back with the handle of a net, and the roped man turned and raised a hand as if to strike him.
“We could get to know him, too.” As he said this, the man looked at his belt of ropes, from which he’d emerged erect. Now all three men were climbing from the boat. I felt Eka’s tiny hand on my side like an animal’s bite.
“Are you her husband?” the man asked.
“He is my husband,” Eka said.
What must it be like to be a fish, your eyeballs wet with the water everything shits in? You see them sometimes, hurling themselves through the surface but then falling back in.
“Let him say it.”
I didn’t say a thing because the men were standing all around us. Their stink was the offal of the ocean itself, and it took all of my concentration to keep my skin sealed against it. I could feel the strength go out of Eka’s hand.
“I don’t think he is your husband,” the man said. “A husband would be in a lot of trouble here because he had a beautiful young wife he couldn’t share. I think you both can share.”
I was considering how the story would go when it was over. I was considering how a stranger would hear of it. How neither of us shouted because sand was in our teeth and tongues. How when they were finished, they carried Eka to their boat but left me howling behind. How the boat was slow to leave because the men still had more traps to check. How as the sun burned down, the rocks threw shadows like bruises on the water.
How the wind sucked up the sun and fed Eka to the waves.
How I lay back into the dune grass and listened to the sea’s static.
I lingered at the coast until I found work at a restaurant. Sea-grime and soot have degraded its original vision, so that now the building slumps like a rotting tooth in the sand. Fishermen come to us daily, friendly with their carts of fish. The restaurant attracts tourists and foreign workers who bring their own bottles of liquor and leave cigarette butts mashed like worms along the beach. Patrons beckon me in their accents, asking do I know where horses are rented, do I know where is the best price on jet skis, do I know where the most beautiful girls are kept, the ones too young to have caught diseases.
A thin and bald Australian asks me this one night and I tell him he will not find any girls too young for diseases, though the next night he is back in the restaurant with a glossy-haired girl of around sixteen. When I take their order she speaks loudly, telling me to bring a large plate of biryani and three of the day’s catch. It is enough food for a group, but she informs the man he should place his own order. I ask her if she knows a girl named Tashi, or a girl named Eka, and she says yes, yes, she knows all of the girls, with a confidence I understand means no.
After they leave, I find her huge order untouched, the three fish laid out atop a mound of vegetables and rice, their charred skins unbroken. I take her plate back to the kitchen, where it will be reheated and served to another customer.
At closing time I eat my fill from the leftovers and toss the rest to the dogs. Then I take my straw mat and go down to the beach. I unroll the mat beside the water and lie down to rest. There are others who spend their nights this way with me, spaced along the sand, mulling their lives in the dark. Tide sounds stretch between us like the gaps between radio stations, some ageless band of transmissions from which we take and surrender shape. I lie and listen as my own life loses the bones of its articulation, washing out as loess to the bay. Tremendous stories, not my own, pass through me, and a warmth I cannot claim receives them.
The waves play in long repetition. They tell how life goes in Chittagong. How life goes in Gorhiya, Varanasi, Krungthep, London, Los Angeles. They tell how it is neither my own life nor my disappearance when I become the song of all you ghosts.
Published on November 13, 2017