Tessa Barkan graduated from Tulane University in May of 2015 in English and Psychology. She currently lives in a small town in rural Utah where she writes, hikes, works at a restaurant, and associate produces a mental health radio show. Her works of poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in the Tulane Review and in Hot Metal Bridge.
"First Night in Kashmir," by Tessa Barkan
First Night in Kashmir
The airport was all eyes and corners and scales. Coarse and abrasive but warily so, unsteady beneath all the stomping, rumbling below rock. Blurs of official motion, pushed through to the tourist station, printing intended whereabouts on thin paper. Briskly handed off to our houseboat host.
He was a loud man, beady man, slow and long talker. His hired jeep, open windows, his thick back twisted to face us. A hand behind the passenger seat, face too close. We stopped beside the loading dock to his bloated words, “Kashmir is paradise.”
It is: the dozing dust can’t hide the mountains sprouting from the city. The water holds faces, soft, smooth, painted. Shikara boats: technicolor gondolas, velvet cushions, tasseled drapes. The houseboats: royal refuges, stoic, ornamental. Unmoving. Held still over hushing water by sheer mass and wooden beams.
We stepped out of the car and lost sight of the mountains. Encased by roving, ranting solicitations, “Hashis, sir?” “Real sapphire.” “Silk saffron jasmine.” Urgency, untiring. “Yes sir? yes sir? yes sir? Gold.”
Our host warned us to move, we pushed through towards dock no. 7, a shikara boat waiting to ferry us across. Sunlight began to wilt orange, it was Ramadan and the streets were called to prayer. Bell-song wound from corners, pursuant peddlers faded into alleyways, their ears to the sound. Streets emptied out.
We floated across the water in ensuing stillness as chanting prayer began, faintly. Garish boats intercepted strewn sunlight, pinks melted into pigment on the drop-smitten oars.
We left our shoes at the door of the houseboat, our host asked us to sit on the carpeted floor. A briefcase of sullied maps was pulled out, and he pronounced all the suggested tours, Sonamarg, Gulmarg, gardens, floating markets. We sipped from hot glasses of tea and persistence, as he eyed our pockets through the steam. “Nineteen hundred rupees, once in a life time once in a life time once a life,” it was growing dark and I was growing anxious of his blue robes, his demonstrative hands, his bare feet treading through the thick carpet, soundless.
We finally entered our room, locked the old wooden door, lay in bed with the wheezing light on, the air too hot too sticky too groping, hot breath. And the fan roaring, too rattling, deafening, light strobing on the walls through its spinning blades. Senses blurred in palpitations.
Bursts of pointillistic dreams, me, lifted out of bed, wide eyed, blue robes quivering with beastly convulsant laughter. For hours, maybe, shifting and sweating and dreading. Occasional power outages, quick throat constriction, darkness, the fan grinding down. In those quieter moments: Ramadan chants heard from across the lake, rumbling rolling voices, thick, heavy, plodding echoes reaching from the mosques, reaching through the grim, pouring through the cracks in the window, pooling the floor. Interrupted by the sputter kick of power returning, strobe, potentiation.
And then the rain, sudden. Daunting, ravaging, bashing drops. Colossal. A guttural rain, wreaking rain, dead weight rain. The power out, fan still, longer this time, minutes, more, my eyes, too large.
Pounding drums, room purple with thunder, curtains heaving. Pounding, wrenching, stomping percussive drain, my eyes at the window, can’t tell lake level from teeming air.
Minutes, hours, more, finally subtle subsiding, still no light in the room. Rain taking breaths, somber pauses, subdued enough for chanting to seep through: hints of howling water-music, Ramadan voices spread thick over rattling wind and metronomic drips off the roof. Deep, fervent, discordant, tapestry sound. Weaving movement music, heartbeat music, soul summoning heat spreading cloying century-abiding blood stoking palpitating. Music. Jostled, punctuated yet accentuated by intermittent riotous rain.
Thick drips of primordial sunrise. Soaring gray dust music, fade to light music, pattering hand holding chest filling fading. Music. Alive with the sound of awakening sky.