The hole had been shielded by wheat husks and walnut shells. In winter, the covering would be removed so the snow could collect over the two ice blocks – a male, a female. After five winters, the couple would begin to creep downhill, growing into a natural glacier, free of the cultivating hands of men. Freshwater children would spring from her womb providing the village with water to drink and to irrigate their fields.
We’d come as witnesses, Farhana and I. She wanted to know how they were chosen. I told her. The female ice was picked from a village where women were especially beautiful and, because that wasn’t enough, talented. Talent meant knowledge of yak milk, butter, fertilizer and, of course, wool. From caps to sweaters and all the way down to socks, the questions were always the same. How delicately was the sheep’s wool spun? And what about the kubri embroidery on the caps – was it colourful and fine? Most importantly, did all the women cooperate?
‘And the male? I suppose beauty and cooperation aren’t high on that list?’
He was picked from another village. One where men were strong and, because that wasn’t enough, successful. Success meant knowledge of firewood, agriculture, trekking and herding. There was a fifth, bonus area, and this was yak hair. From this some men could spin sharma, a type of coarse rug. A glacier in a village with such men had to be male.
She laughed. ‘So who does the picking?’
‘Men like him.’ I pointed to an old man stooped inside a grey woollen jacket. Perhaps the ice-bride had spun it, I thought, envisioning fingers of ice melting into a warp and weft. In a whisper both soft and commanding, the old man directed two younger men on how to lower the ice-bride and ice-groom from off their backs without hurting them.
We’d followed, at a distance. The marital bed – the hole covered in shells and husk – had been dug into the side of a cliff as carefully selected as the bride and groom. Only this side of the mountain attracted the right length of shadow for the snow to hold for ten months, 14,000 feet above sea level. The porters had heaved the ice on their backs the entire way. We were brought in a jeep.
To participate in the marriage procession, we’d sworn an oath of silence. There was a belief in these mountains that words corrupted the balance between lovers-in-transit. But now we’d reached the marital bed, Farhana and I could speak again.
They tossed the male in first. Whooshoo! Whooshoo! A loop of air seemed to dance right back up the hole and circle around again, inside my chest. The female was released on top, falling without a sound.
‘So this is copulation,’ said Farhana, her gloved fingers far from mine.
They say it’s bad luck for other eyes to watch, I thought. Eyes from somewhere else. Karachi eyes. California eyes. I took out my camera and aimed.
Farhana was skipping down the hill, away from me.
She was not in our cabin that night.
I walked along the River Kunhar, thinking of Farhana. My way was lit by the moon and the rush of the current and the silhouettes of the trees and the hut down the way where we’d eaten trout before she left and I knew the others were asleep so I unlaced my boots and peeled off my jacket and stood buck-naked. I kneeled at the Kunhar’s edge and took a sip of her noxious water.
An owl soared across the river. Flapping twice before circling back toward me, she came to rest on a giant walnut tree. There, looking directly down at me, she spoke. ‘Shreet!’ The sour glacier water inside me froze and my fingers grew so stiff that when I reached for my clothes I simply poked at them, as though with sticks, under the gaze of those gleaming black eyes.
Before the owl swooped across the moon’s reflection, I’d been thinking about that word, Kunhar, how kun sounded like kus which sounded like a cross between cunt and kiss. I held the bitter taste of glacier melt in my mouth as the moon eased deep into the river’s skin and she scattered him in pieces. I gazed down the Kunhar’s length. She cut through the valley for 160 kilometres. I’d been thinking of a long labia.
The thought scattered like moonseed.
How long before the bird shot up into the sky and flew in the direction of my cabin? I couldn’t say. Eventually, I returned, still naked, and slid into bed. No Farhana. I would have been grateful for the heat she’d radiate under our sheets. I would have curled into her back and stroked her hair into a fan, a blanket to shelter in.
I met her soon after moving to the Bay Area from Tucson, two years ago, on my way to becoming a photographer. It was landscapes
I excelled at, or wanted to. I left Tucson and spent the next two months making my way up the West Coast, occasionally veering back into the desert after hitching a ride.
I still have photos of them in my portfolio, those who stopped for me: pickup trucks, scuffed boots, silver belts glistening in the sun. There was old man prickly pear cactus all around and of course the Joshua trees as the wind blew in from the north-west and purple clouds draped us. When I tired of the rides, I walked into the desert and did what I knew I could spend my life doing. I really looked at cactus. I really looked at triumph. Blossoming in shocking gimcrack hues of scarlet and gold in a world that watched with arms crossed, if it watched at all. It reminded me of the festive dresses worn by women in Pakistan’s desert borderlands and mountain valleys. The drier the land, the thirstier the spirit.
When I finally arrived in San Francisco, for no reason other than it was San Francisco, I had a stack of photographs of the Sonora Desert, the Petrified Forest and Canyon de Chelly. I mailed off the best and waited for offers to pour in while renting an apartment with three other men. I had two interviews. The first went something like this:
‘Why are you, Nadir Sheikh’ – he said Nader Shake – ‘wasting your time taking photographs of American landscapes when you have so much material at your own doorstep?’
‘This is a stock-photo agency. We sell photographs to magazines and sometimes directly to customers and sometimes for a lot of money. We might be interested in you, but not in your landscapes.’
‘In what then?’
‘Americans already know their trees.’
‘Do they know their cactus?’
‘Next time you go home, take some photographs.’ When it was obvious I still didn’t get it, he dumbed it down for me. ‘Show us the dirt. The misery. Don’t waste your time trying to be a nature photographer. Use your advantage.’
Back at the apartment, my housemate Matthew felt sorry for me. He said a former boyfriend knew a nice little Pakistani girl. I ate his nachos while he talked on the phone.
In the morning, my cabin was colder than the river last night. I lay under the sheets, listening for sounds next door. I registered Farhana’s absence with dull panic, the fingers of one hand switching off an alarm while the other reached for a dream. I could hear Irfan and Zulekha. I thought of the ghostly owl; anything to help tune out the laughter. The bitter taste of the Kunhar – the cunt, the kiss – the walk back in the dark. I’d knocked my toe against something. A carcass, a gun. Under the sheets, I picked at blood-crust.
I arranged to meet her the afternoon of my second interview. This time I included in my portfolio a series of photographs taken on a previous return to Pakistan. It was a series of my mother’s marble tabletop, which she’d inherited from her mother and which dated back to the 1800s. The swirling cream-and-rust pattern changed as I played with the light, sometimes slick as a sheet of silk, sometimes pillowing like a bowl of ice cream. A few frames were, if I say so myself, as sensuous as Linde Waidhofer’s stones.
The second interview didn’t go very differently from the first.
‘Your photographs lack authenticity.’
‘Where are the beggars or anything that resembles your culture?’
‘The marble is a real part of my family history. It’s old, from 1800 –’
He waved his hand. ‘It seems to me that when a war’s going on, a table is trivial.’ I wished for the courage – or desire – to ask what images of what war he was looking for.
He stood up. ‘I’m a busy man. Could’ve ignored you. Didn’t. You know why? There’s something there.’ He leaned forward expectantly, so I thanked him for thinking there was something there.
I left the office and walked down the corridor to the stairs, passing the photographs that hung on the walls, photographs I loved with an ardour that stung. I’d recognized them all on my way in, of course. There were prints by Linde Waidhofer to taunt me, including one from her Stone & Silence series. A Waidhofer can be a nature photographer of the Wild West but a Sheikh must be a war photographer of the Wild East! He must wow the world not with the assurance of grace. He must wow the world with the assurance of horror.
I wound my way slowly through prints from Ansel Adams’s Yosemite series – it was the wrong moment to view Bridalveil Fall, the sheer force of the torrent almost making me weep, and I found myself wishing, childishly, if only the drop weren’t so steep – before halting, finally, at Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach.
The coincidence hadn’t hit me on my way into the interview but it hit me now, as my eye swooped down from the whiteness of the clouds to admit the whiteness of the surf breaking on the shore. I was meeting Farhana on Baker Beach in one hour. It had been her idea, and she’d been very specific about where on the beach I’d find her. I stared at the photograph, surprised at the fluttering in my breast. It astonished me that I was hoping to find her on the exact same length of shore depicted in the frame. Worse, I believed that once there, perhaps without her knowing it, I’d look up and see the bridge from exactly the same perspective as I was seeing it now.
Did I want the picture to be a sign? Possibly. It happens this way when you have just been tossed down a roaring cataract. You grope for a raft, anywhere. You even tell yourself that you have found it.
An hour later, I walked barefoot in the sand, expecting to see a girl of Farhana’s description – ‘Look for a long braid, the longest on the beach, black, of course’ – waiting at the edge of the sea as per her instructions, her back to me (showing off the braid), with Golden Gate Bridge looming to her right. Instead, I wound up in a volleyball game, with all the players entirely in the nude.
Was she among them? How was I to know?
There was a player with a dark braid, though she had two braids, not one, neither as long as I’d been led to believe. Leaping for the ball, she made a full-frontal turn, and my God, how astonishingly she was built! I gawked at the hair between her legs, wondering if this were a cruel joke. (Granted, not entirely cruel.) Matthew must have arranged it, getting ‘Farhana’ to lure me here. He was probably watching, laughing till he hurt. Nice little Pakistani girl. Funny, Matthew, funny. I stared at the volleyball player one last time – no, that couldn’t be Farhana, please let it not be Farhana! Please let it be Farhana! – and turned to my right to scan the bathers on the shore.
Almost all naked, mostly men. Obscenely overdressed, I jogged in mild panic toward a cluster of rocks on the far side of a thick cypress grove. Along the way, I tried to hunt discreetly for a long braid slithering down a shapely back, but many figures lay on their backs, some on their hair. I could see the rocks now. She wasn’t there. Two naked men were, one walking out to the water, hand on hip. Long cock, wide grin. I waded into the sea, my back safely to him, but the water was too cold for my taste. After a few minutes, I trundled closer to the boulders, trying to look-not-look.
She was sitting there, smiling. Her braid was pulled to the side, draping her left shoulder, and she waved it at me like a flag.
‘We must have just missed each other!’
‘I thought you told me to wait on the beach?’
‘I’m sorry. I got late.’
I was on the verge of asking how she got all the way here without my noticing when I saw how her eyes sparkled. So I clambered up without another word, crossing a series of tide pools and a snug sandy enclosure between the boulders that sprawled in a V. I crouched down beside her and looked to her right: there loomed Golden Gate Bridge.
‘Did you think you’d recognize me better with clothes on?’ she giggled.
‘Your clothes are on.’
‘Are you disappointed?’
So I learned this immediately about my Farhana. She was one of those people who liked to receive a reaction, and she didn’t like to wait very long for it.
We stayed till sunset. I took several shots of the bridge, but none of her. She wouldn’t let me photograph her that day. When we finally stood up to leave, I realized how tall she was. And how boyish.
She knew. ‘I would have gone topless if I had breasts.’ Again, she required a reaction.
I am not an eloquent man and am usually tongue-tied around directness, but directness attracts me. I looked at Farhana and took all of her in, all that she’d spent the afternoon telling me: her work with glaciers, her father in Berkeley, her mother’s death, leaving Pakistan as a young child, her life in this city where she grew up. I took that in while absorbing her height, her leanness, the paleness of her skin, and the way her braid now wrapped around her in a diagonal curve that extended from left shoulder to right hip. I said she looked more like a calla lily than any woman I’d ever met.
‘Not just any calla lily,’ I added. ‘Jeffrey Conley’s calla lily. Have you seen it?’
She bowed her head, suddenly self-conscious. Turning her back to me, she took off her T-shirt. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow then.’
I scrambled off the rocks, glancing up a final time before turning toward my apartment. She’d twisted to one side so her long, deep spine was now perfectly aligned with the braid and both encircled her like an embrace.
I walked to Farhana’s side of the bed. On her bedside table lay a map, with Kaghan Valley circled in red at the easternmost corner of the North West Frontier Province, on the edge of Kashmir. Before we’d left San Francisco, I told her that to see the Frontier, you had to imagine it as the profile of a buffalo’s bust, facing west, with the capital Peshawar the nose, Chitral Valley the backward tilting horn, Swat Valley the eye and Kaghan Valley the ear. The Frontier listened to Kashmir at its back while facing Afghanistan ahead, and it listened with Kaghan.
I opened the door, listened to Kaghan. Around me rose rounded hills, scoops of velvet green on a brick-red floor. Like the mossy moistness of rain-kissed tailorbirds. It was for this that I’d come, not to fall into myself in an abandoned cabin. Around me the valley undulated like the River Kunhar that gave it shape, cupping nine lakes in its curves, sprouting thick forests of deodar and pine, towering over 4,000 metres before halting abruptly at the temples of the Himalayas and the Karakoram. The only way through the mountainous block was by snaking along hair-thin passes, as if by witchery. I’d known the witchery once. Now I had to relearn it.
In colonial times, the British considered it a pretty sort of wedge, this ear called Kaghan, nicely if incidentally squeezed between the more considerable Kashmir and the more incomprehensible, and feared, hill tribes of the west. And so they mostly left the valley alone. Today, nearly all of the hotels, restaurants and shops were run, though not owned, by Kashmiris and Sawatis. Even those who couldn’t read, or didn’t own a television, were keenly aware of what was going on, and where. They liked to say that the buffalo is as attuned to what lies behind as what lies ahead. Why else did shivers keep running up and down its spine? Why else did it keep sweeping its hide with the smack of a tail?
I’d noticed military convoys on our way to the valley. It was unusual here. I’d been too preoccupied to give this much thought. The trucks were as twitchy as buffalo tails, creeping up and down the valley’s spine, seeing nothing, fearing the worst. The whole country was teeming with convoys of one kind or another. So what? We were here to enjoy the place, even if we couldn’t enjoy the time.
A shadow flickered on the door frame. A lizard, sidling for a mate.
I courted Farhana with calla lilies. Nothing delighted me more than descending the hill into the Mission District where she lived with a potted plant in my arms. I knew the flower shops with the widest varieties, from white to mauve to yellow, some with funnels as long and slender as her wrists, slanting in the same way her braid embraced her spine that first time we met, and still embraced her each night as she torqued her body to undress. I longed to photograph that spine but she wouldn’t let me. So instead, with my naked eye, I watched her fingers undo the knots of her braid.
Sometimes, she pulled me out of bed, to recline at her five-sided bay window. It pitched so far out into the street she claimed it was the one that caused the city to pass an ordinance limiting the projection of all bay windows. We’d sit there, nestled in glass in a purple house. Even by San Francisco’s standards, the house was spectacular. Slender spiralling columns at the alcove, each with gold rings, like cufflinks on a white and crinkly sleeve. Halfway down the door of unfinished wood ran a tinted oval glass. Mirror, mirror, she’d giggle, the first few times I kissed her there. The bedroom balcony – with little gold-tipped minarets – is where I left her calla lilies, like an offering to the god of extravagance. Art-glass windowpanes under the roof.
At the window, we watched others on the street.
At the window, she asked, ‘What’s the most beautiful thing you ever witnessed? I mean, a moment.’
At the window, we played opposites. The Mission was once moist, fecund. In contrast, the stark, wind-swept Richmond where I lived was once a desolate bank of sand. We said she sprang from marsh, I from desert. She loved the damp closeness of curves, the rich debris of glaciers and deltas. She loved her gloves and her socks. I, though always cold, hated to cover my extremities. I preferred the exposed, violent beauty of the Pacific coast to the secret tides of the protected bays. We said ‘opposites attract’ and we were right. Converging is what divided us.
On her first birthday after we met, in one hand I held a calla lily with a lip pinker than hers, in the other, a bottle of champagne. She kissed me and said she knew what she wanted instead.
‘Let me show you.’
I shut my eyes, counted to ten, opened them. ‘So where is it?’
‘Not here, silly. Let’s go for a walk. To your neighbourhood, the one you love to photograph, with all the cliffs and the cypresses.’ She rolled her eyes as though cliffs and cypresses were toys for men.
It was an especially cold day in May and though I did love the bluffs, I’d been hoping for a more close-fitting day. Call it role reversal. I chilled the champagne and headed for the bay window to, well, anticipate some tidal advances. The last time we’d made love I’d teased that her needs were growing as strong as the tides rushing up the channels of a salt marsh, and inshallah they’d also be twice daily.
Well, it was not to be.
She’d planned the route. First, the Sutro Baths, which looked especially green and scummy that day, thick as a Karachi sewer. We watched the pelicans. Dark hunkered shadows, sometimes in gangs of twenty or more, closing in on the fecund orgy at the microbe-gilded pools like evil clouds, like missiles. They launched headlong, scattering the seagulls and the swifts, dropping one after the other in a heavy, gut-wrenching fall. A rain of bombshells. The invasion mesmerized us.
From the pelicans I moved my camera to the austere silhouette of a cormorant. He seemed to be watching the assault of the pelicans with as little interest as God.
‘Nadir, talk to me for a minute, without that.’
I didn’t have to see through the lens to see her point to it. ‘In a minute.’
The pelicans gone, the seagulls multiplied. I watched a pair land softly on the boulders along the shore. And the hummingbirds – how did they survive in this wind, and at this height? And the purple flowers with the bright white hearts! Here it was again: the tenacity of the small. What I’d seen in the Sonoran Desert and the valleys of the Himalayas.
‘It’s over a minute.’ Her voice trembled. I put the camera in its case. She cleared her throat. ‘Nadir, are you as happy with me as you are alone on your nightly walks?’
‘I’m much happier.’
She looked away. I took my camera out again. She sometimes let me photograph her now, though still not often enough, and only when dressed. I got a beautiful profile of her gazing at the ruins as the mist rolled across the steps in the background.
‘Happier than in the mountains of Pakistan?’
Perhaps I hesitated. ‘Well, yes.’
‘I’m happy anywhere with you.’
I was still photographing her. From behind the lens, I replied, ‘Because you don’t remind me of my past.’ And as I stepped on to a lower wall to get more of the ruins behind her, I realized that this was exactly so. She wasn’t like any of the women I knew in Karachi. Her energy was – different. It wasn’t sultry, wasn’t Eastern. She was walking away from me now, walking away from my lens, and I noticed that her walk was determined and – how can I put it? – unstudied. As if no aunt had ever told her that women walk with one foot before the other. It wasn’t graceful but it was vigorous. There are men on the Pakistan Afghanistan border who can spot a foreign journalist hiding in a burqa by the way she moves. Farhana would never pass. She could, however, keep up with them on the mountains. Not many women from Karachi could. And yet – of course I didn’t tell her this – they had more patience in bed. Farhana didn’t like to linger, not over food, shopping or sex. The only thing I’d ever seen her linger over was her hair, and that was not with pleasure. All the languor was in her spine, the part she never let me put behind my lens. Everything else about her had the slightly lunatic energy of Nor Cal, uncomplicated and nervy. I mean, for heaven’s sake, she was passionate about glaciers. How many Pakistani women know two things about them? It was Farhana who told me that Pakistan has more glaciers than anywhere outside the poles. And I’ve seen them! I’ve even seen them fuck!
She was sobbing. I saw it first through the lens. I saw it too late, after I’d taken the photograph of her wiping her nose with the back of her hand. She said it was the worst thing I could have said.
The seagulls hovered, teetering in the breeze. Before they touched the rock it was beginning to sink in, yet each time I approached a landing, the wind pulled me away again. We loved each other, Farhana and I, for precisely opposite reasons. If I loved her because she did not remind me of my past, Farhana loved me because she believed I was her past. That day I came close to understanding; by the time I fully understood, we were already in transit, immersed in separate rituals of silence.
I expected to keep to the coast to Point Lobos, but, taking a detour, she began following the signs for Fort Miley. I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say. How could I apologize for all that drew me to her?
There were picnickers in the grass between the gun emplacements dating to before the First World War. A plaque read: Although they never fired on an enemy, coastal batteries here and throughout the Bay Area stood ready – a strong deterrent to attack.
‘You had enemies back then, too?’ I muttered, before catching myself. ‘I didn’t mean you you.’
She cut me a furious look. I bounced foolishly on my toes. She climbed the hill to where enormous guns had once pointed out to the Pacific, guarding all three approaches to Golden Gate. There was a sublime view of Ocean Beach, but I knew it wasn’t for the view that she’d brought me here.
Without looking at me, she said, ‘Take me back.’
I assumed she meant to her warm purple house in the Mission. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Take me back to the places in Pakistan that you love.’
I was stunned. If she’d never seen them, why did she say back? And why now? And why ever?
When she said it a third time I understood that she presented her idea as a condition: take me back and I will keep loving you.
For always? I wanted to ask. No matter where?
I glanced at her boldly now, and she returned my stare. I was hoping she’d understand that this is what my eyes said. It was here that a man loved her, a man with whom she could spend an unknowable quantity of time doing just about anything: walking, fucking, going to the movies, eating sushi and Guatemalan tamales on the same day, gossiping about a father in Berkeley, a father I’d still not met – I didn’t know whom she was protecting more, him or me – but who’d brought her to this country when she was three and stayed. I didn’t understand why she didn’t feel this was home. All I understood was that she didn’t. She was at a time in her life when other women long for a child. Farhana longed for a country.
‘You’re going home this summer. I’m coming with you. That’s what I want you to show me, for my birthday.’
I didn’t want to return. With her, that is. Nor did I want to explain that for me it was a return, but I didn’t think it was for her. Nor that, just as she took joy in showing me this corner of the world because I was new to it, I could only take joy in showing her mine if she acknowledged it was new to her. Not if she claimed it as her own. I’d spent months lingering over northern California and I’d freely admit there was much I didn’t grasp. How many months was she prepared to linger over Pakistan? How many years? Would she have the patience to wait and yield till the geography really did begin to construct the person, the way the breakers beneath us construct the shore? Did she want to yield to it? Of course not. It was a country practically under siege. We might be interested in you but not in your landscapes. What images did she want to see and to which land did she want to return?
We’d been happy. I wanted to stay happy. ‘I’m going for work.’
It wasn’t a lie. I was going to travel to the Frontier and the Northern Areas with my old friends from school, Irfan and Zulekha, to take pictures. Was I hoping to sell them here? Hoping, yes. Expecting, no. I’d started working long hours at a brew pub a few blocks from my apartment and took whatever other work I could find, usually as a wedding photographer. I anticipated doing the same no matter how many rolls I shot of the Pakistani Himalayas or the American South-west. Yet her reply stunned me.
‘What’s the point? You’ll never sell any. At least I know glaciers.’
I stopped rolling on my toes.
‘Perhaps you’re going back for the wrong reason,’ she kept on.
‘And being your tour guide is the right reason?’
She bestowed me with an ice-black stare, the kind I was to receive soon enough from a very different creature, in a very different place. Behind Farhana, I could see the guns that once pointed to the minefields outside Golden Gate. How easy it is to envision enemies lurking in the tide. As I looked over her shoulder, imagining what shapes those phantoms had once taken, I couldn’t have guessed that within two months she and I would be posted at our own separate lookouts, not on a headland overlooking the Pacific, but near a glacier overlooking Kashmir.
The bathroom sink in my cabin was clogged. I moved to the kitchen, cracking the window as I shaved. I heard voices. It was Irfan, Zulekha and a third voice, perhaps the restaurant cook, discussing the reasons for the heightened security in the valley. Shia–Sunni riots had erupted in Gilgit District to the north and Mansehra district to the south, particularly near the town of Balakot, where the martyr Syed Ahmad Barelvi lay buried. Barelvi had once called for jihad against the British and dreamed of an Islamic state ruled by Islamic laws. Nearly two hundred years later, his followers were still dreaming his dream. They had training camps and, according to the third voice, men from the camps had started harassing the villagers here, trying to recruit their sons.
On our way to the valley, Irfan had whispered, ‘We carry a heavy responsibility, travelling with them.’ He’d nudged his chin in the direction of Farhana and Wes.
‘She wants to return,’ I’d declared, refusing to say more, while he stared at me in disbelief.
‘We’ll need an armed guard,’ he said at last.
‘This isn’t what we’d planned.’
‘Something happens to them, international fiasco.’
‘Something happens to us, so what.’
Never was a wind between teeth more exasperated.
In the weeks following our fight at the Fort, I returned to the coast often, always alone. A small part of me knew it was to cleanse my palate, as if to revive something that had been lost on that wild stretch of land when it included Farhana.
My eye was hungry. I photographed the Monterey pines and the valley Quercus. The agave that bloomed before death. The pups that replaced them. California buckeye. Desert five-spots. Star tulips, and bell-shaped pussy ears with stems as thin as saliva. Diogenes’ lantern, the sweetest of flowers, yellow as the yawning sun.
I crawled back to her house. Mirror, mirror, I bayed at her glass. Forgive the ugliest of them all!
When she flung the door open there was a man behind her. Farhana introduced him as Wesley.
‘Call me Wes,’ he said.
‘You’re not a Wes,’ she gazed at him.
I stepped inside.
‘I think I’ll leave you with your beau.’
‘Oh, stay. You guys should talk.’
‘Nadir, I can arrange for us to go!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We’ve applied for funding. We’ll get it.’
‘A month to study glaciers in the western Himalayas!’
Wes smacked my shoulder. ‘I want to know how those locals manage their water supply. You know, through seeding ice.’
I glared at Farhana. ‘You will get it or already have?’
She soared into my arms, flinging all three of us side to side.
Later that night, when we were alone, she let me photograph her naked spine for the first time.
‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why today?’
She peeled off her sweater, shirt, bra, still delirious with the joy of having skilfully engineered her return. And all this time I’d believed she was waiting for me to say yes. There was no consent involved. We were going.
‘Why today?’ I insisted.
She giggled. It was as if she were drunk and wanting to have sex with me after refusing when sober. It was her choice, yet I was having to make it.
‘Come on, Nadir. Pick up your camera. I know you’re dying to.’
‘Actually, I’m not.’
‘Sure about that?’
I hesitated. To say yes would mean choosing no. I said no.
I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t want Farhana, neither behind my lens nor in the flesh. Even when she wound her braid around her, I couldn’t see the calla lily. It was all too conscious, too rehearsed. And yet, and yet. As I put her through my lens and captured that twisting torso, her ribs protruding, a thought flickered in my mind. Was it her pleasure that was dulling mine? I shook the thought away. It wasn’t even pleasure. More like victory. I could see it in her gaze. It had killed the wonder this moment was always meant to hold. As she adjusted her hips and I kept on snapping, I tried to conjure it up, this wonder, this thing which cannot always be there, which is entirely fleeting and numinous, which, like luck, or talent, or wealth, cannot be equally distributed between those who love, between those who mate. Snap! She was raising her chin so high. She was rising from the bed. She was turning off all the lights.
What’s the most beautiful thing you ever witnessed?’ she used to ask, when we lay curled together in her bay window, playing opposites. ‘I mean, a moment.’
I always said it was the mating of glaciers. ‘And you, what’s yours?’
She never hesitated. ‘The way you looked at me, the first time, standing down in the sand on Baker Beach in your trousers while I sat sunning myself on the rocks. You compared me to a calla lily. That was the moment.’
We played differently now.
The month before we left, I heard her on the phone. I seemed to have come in at the end.
‘. . . it boils down to. One person in the mood when the other isn’t?’
There was a pause while, I assumed, the listener spoke. Farhana shook her head. ‘I’m not only talking about sex. Sex is just a metaphor.’
I expected her to elaborate. A long silence instead.
Finally, she exhaled. ‘Yep, that’s what I mean. Uh-huh.’
What did she mean?
‘I mean, that day on the beach.’
Now I feared I could guess.
It had happened the other way more. I mean, my wanting sex while she didn’t. It had happened the other way most of my life. Like a forgiving puppy, I bounced back up again at the merest hint of encouragement. Until recently.
She was saying, ‘Women still suppress it, I know, nothing worse than letting go just to fall on your face. Though letting him decide, you know, what’s hot, maybe that’s worse.’ Silence. ‘Sure, I have, many times.’ Silence. ‘Uh-uh.’ Silence. ‘No. He doesn’t.’
I don’t what? And then panic: it was me she was talking about?
‘Wes? Oh sure, yeah. It bothers him a lot.’
I slammed the door. The door to the house with the five-sided bay window where she now spent more time with her phone. The door in the alcove where the gold rings of the columns now looked prosthetic, like gold teeth on a poor man from Tajikistan.
Why wasn’t I aroused by her lately?
Was it our departure? Ours. I told myself I was at peace with her coming too. More importantly, I was excited about what I’d do there, with or without her, and this had renewed interest in my work. I’d bought a Nikon digital camera to go with my beloved F4, bought a 300mm lens and 20mm extension tube. I spent my free time photographing small fry. A California poppy. Farhana’s nipple. The rainbow in a dragonfly’s wing.
I suppose the image of the magnified nipple and the blurred contours of the breast preoccupied me more than she did, but then, she wasn’t in a very preoccupying state of mind. Always on the phone, always talking about him, her work, her return. Her breasts. She liked me photographing them. Breasts that had begun to stir me only in the frame. At least I didn’t get off on images of other women.
That day on the beach? It excited her, seeing herself magnified. And colour-filtered. Image pre-processing, not to be confused with post-processing, to enhance maximum photorealism. To make the infeasible feasible. She lay on her stomach; I drizzled sand on the mound of her buttocks. It cascaded down her curves, featherlike, matching her skin tone. When we viewed the images together, the texture of the sandspill on her flesh made her wet. We were nestled between the same cluster of rocks where I’d found her the first time, on the far side of the cypress grove. There were others around, though none in our nest, or so we thought. She rolled back onto her stomach, raised her hips high into my groin. The sand scrubbed my erection. I heard the figure behind me, his breathing. I could feel it on my neck. I assumed she mistook it for mine or would have stopped. There was no way she could have seen his shadow on her spine.
Later, we both lay on our stomachs a long time. When we eventually got dressed, we didn’t speak of it. He came when I did. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed.
We still call it a fault line, here where the subcontinent conjoins with Asia. I told Farhana I’d seen glaciers mate once before, and I had. The first time, I’d been in love with a girl called Rida, which means inner peace. I gave her purple roses that left blood marks on our lips. By the end of the year, I’d no idea where she was, or what she was doing. By the following summer, I was thinking of her less, and the memory kept on receding, creeping downhill, like a carefully constructed secret.
I knew where Farhana was and what she was doing. She was in Wes’s cabin and they were eating breakfast. It was their laughter I could hear. My cabin was only growing colder. Soon Irfan and Zulekha would knock on my door. It would be time to return to the ice-bride and ice-groom, to see how they were settling in their new home.
The night she left. She lay sprawled across the bed, her legs bare before me. I didn’t stir. ‘I hoped that might change,’ she whispered. ‘Here.’
Now I saw her draped across a different set of sheets. The memory was an extraordinarily happy one. It was a memory from before our troubles and it took place in a purple house and it began with legs. Hers were steep legs built by steepness. Mountain legs; San Francisco legs. The white, tennis-ball calves tapering tidily to the ankles against dark sheets. I traced their stocky slant with a fingertip and moved higher, to where her sartorius cut a ribbony dialogue on her flesh, snaking across a taut inner thigh. I called her my ice queen, whom I alone could melt. And we’d heard our ascent – the rush of wings, higher, higher, through a smooth, silvery sky! And our fall – deeper, deeper, down a silky, slippery skein. Whooshoo! Whooshoo!
Months later in a cabin in Kaghan it was the sheets, not her calves, that shone. Her legs receded in the dark.
When we got to a place from where we could look across the valley, Irfan asked the driver to stop. We walked to the edge of the road and climbed up a set of rocks. Our armed escort stayed in the jeep.
‘Does this look familiar?’ asked Zulekha.
I nodded. We were facing the hill we’d climbed seven years earlier, the first time I saw the mating of glaciers, that time with Rida. The two ice blocks we’d seen then were now one white smudge of triangle in a fountain of black gravel.
How quickly they grow, I thought. Seven years ago was five years before I met San Francisco, or Farhana.
On the slopes were scattered a few sheep and goats, and closer, juniper trees whose leaves were still burned by shamans on special occasions. The afternoon sun fell just at the lip of the glacier. As I photographed it, I thought of one of the first things I’d learned about seeing through the lens: normalize the view. Which meant the right exposure on the area the human eye is most inclined to drift toward, which, at this moment, was that sliver of bright light at the edge of the white smudge.
‘It looks young,’ said Wes. ‘It has to be sixty feet thick to be called a glacier.’
‘It doesn’t matter what you call it,’ muttered Irfan. ‘I’m glad the tradition of marrying glaciers is coming back.’
‘Here winter temperatures are rising,’ said Farhana. ‘More snowfall, less melt. So, after seven years, that could be sixty feet.’
So she’d guessed that was the one.
‘Seven years?’ said Wes. ‘Doubt it.’
‘They’ve always made do without science,’ said Zulekha.
Wes shrugged. ‘How far are we from ours?’
‘Not far. But if we want to return before dark, we should leave.’
Farhana and I were left alone. I lowered my camera.
‘That is the one, isn’t it?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said.
Below us, a row of military trucks raced up the highway, slowing to examine our group. I could hear them call out to Irfan, asking questions, waving their guns as casually as cigarettes. I let Irfan tackle them.
Ahead, a farmer was watering his wheat field. The sun was creeping off the glacier’s lip and onto the dark gravel. He stopped to enjoy the light, just as we did. A goat grazed at his feet, her bells chiming through the valley. Gradually, the black earth immediately before them ignited, as if the sun had chosen that precise point upon which to rest its fingers, enfolding the man and the goat. We kept at our lookouts, squinting into the glare, waiting for the sun to release the captives. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a rolling, as of a rain cloud. It was the glacier, sliding into shadow.
Artwork © Naiza Khan, Iron Clouds, 2008, Charcoal conte and acrylic on Fabriano paper, 150 x 124cm.
Courtesy of the artist and gallery Davide Gallo, Berlin, Fabrizio and Marina Colonna Collection, Milan.