This he knows: His name is Chandra. Is one of the things he knows. Many long days and nights ago he often heard the name spoken, and it was meant for him, that he knows. It was his name, and still is.
Many long days and nights ago his name was spoken by a person he remembers loving, remembers loving him, remembers leaving him. To fetch food, she said, stay here. Please, Chandra, stay here. That was the last thing he ever heard her say. Please, and then his name, and then, stay here. He stayed there and she never came back. But she left him his name. Chandra.
So this he knows: Chandra. That is his name. That is one of the things he knows.
Other things he knows: He knows what you can eat, and what you cannot eat. He knows what tastes good, what does not taste good. He knows what will make you sick if you eat it or drink it and what will not.
And he knows: The pain that comes from lack of food. The pain that now has made his stomach a home. The pain he knows is called hunger. He knows that word.
And he knows: His alley, the one that houses his shelter. And he knows dust, he knows heat, he knows the suspicious eyes of strangers, he knows the satisfaction of water.
And he knows: The sun rising is morning, is fresh hunger. He knows the sun sinking and sinking into dark is night, is sleep, is un-knowing, is freedom, where you can dream of food, no longer haunted by its painful shadow, though it never truly leaves prodding him from above or below—he never settles on which—just as a reminder that it is still there, not going anywhere.
The sun, the monster sun, orange and gigantic beyond the rim of roof-tops and hot already, bakes the dream of food away and prompts him awake with unfriendly beams. He was eating: Fish, fried fish, crisp and dripping with spicy oil, a mountain of rice in his hand and fried fish, always eating in his dream, and most of the time fried fish with rice, good to put in your mouth, to chew, to swallow, fried fish and a mountain or rice.
His eyes open upon the many brown strands above him crisscrossing into the jute sack that is ceiling and roof both. To keep the big sky out, to keep his sky in. To keep the sun out, or much of it, but it’s no good against rain. When the rains come he must find more cardboard, or even better some corrugated plastic or metal to keep it out. But the rains are far off, not of concern right now.
He sits up, feels his hair matted against his skull, stiff from dust and dried sweat. He runs small, bony, dirty fingers through it, pulls it out and back over his shoulders, then rubs his eyes.
He is hungry, he knows that word. He is also thirsty, another word he knows well. Opening his eyes again, his nose comes awake too, and with it the many smells stirring around him under the new sun. The smells are of urine and feces, of disease and of many sweaty and dirty bodies in their many sheds up and down the alley but he knows no names for these smells, is not bothered by them, is used to them, alley smells, morning smells.
He stretches, first arms then legs where he sits then lifts the jute flap that is door and peaks out at the yellow ground. He crawls out on hands and knees and stands up in the dusty dirt on bare feet on cracked soles. It has not rained for six weeks in Calcutta. The dust is everywhere, the heat too. He thinks of water, a greater pain even than hunger this morning, his thirst. He thinks of water and thinks of the river, of the river water, brown and warm. It burns the stomach, and always comes back up with the burning. He knows: that burning, but he also knows the sweet, brown liquid in his throat before the burning brings it back up and almost sets out for the river. But the memory of stomach pain is too fresh, it holds him. He stands motionless in the dusty heat. The sun has cleared the rim of the many buildings to the east now and peaks at him like a giant’s angry eye.
A foraging fly lands on his cheek. He either ignores it or does not notice until it climbs onto his eyelid when he drives it away with his hand. The fly leaves only long enough to avoid the brown fingers then lands again. He ignores it or does not notice, for now he thinks only of water, cool clear water, brown painful water, and turns and walks the alley away from the river to not be tempted by it, yet.
He walks up the alley of dry, trodden mud, of dirt and hovels on both sides, hugging larger walls. It is stirring, stretching, peeking out from under jute-laps, thirsting, hungering much like him, but he does not think of this, he thinks of long ago now, after the rains, when he saw women wash themselves in water, water, water everywhere, so much water. Women and their children splashing water on the ground, pouring water in their hair. Washing themselves, and not even drinking the water. No one is washing themselves now. Dirty bodies crawl out from their lean-tos and stand and stretch and eye him if not with suspicion then at least with dislike for he is a motherless thief too quick to catch but as hungry as they are so they don’t hate him, just dislike, distrust, keep an eye on.
Others have yet to rise and he hears stirrings, sighs, coughs, moans and the soft cries of some babies too weak to cry properly. Some glances land on his feet as he passes their shelter, other eyes have yet to take an interest but still look up into their personal skies and see nothing else, ears ignoring his passing as he makes for the end of the ally and the street beyond.
Yet other eyes see nothing at all. Never will.
Those with no eyes.
Some hands that he passes are folding cloth and or searching the ground for dropped or missing things, other hands are combing dirt out of hair, while yet other hands prepare for a fresh day of begging by the train station or along the river. He pays these hands no mind as he moves farther and farther up the alley and away from the river, the Hooghly, the brown, constant watery whisper behind him, the soft din canvas upon which the traffic on Brabourne Road ahead now begins to paint.
This he knows: Hooghly river water burns.
But all he can think about is water. He knows he must not think about Hooghly water, not about brown, warm water that sears your belly but of clear, cool water that fills a new day with hope.
This is the kind of water he thinks about as he steps onto Brabourne Road.
He is barely five feet tall. He is twelve years old and very thin. He knows: I am thin. He does not know his age.
His high, brown cheeks jut out from under dark eyes that now wander in search of water. He weaves between taller things, bodies, carts, bicycles. Shop keepers see him come and step out in front of their wares. They know him, dislike him, distrust him, have seen him steal their fruit, their bread, their trinkets, have seen him outrun them, have seen him vanish in the labyrinth of shacks and hovels his kind call home. They see him come and they move to protect.
He knows: They will not give him water. Then he remembers, turns, weaves closer to the wall and makes for the Howrah Bridge. He remembers water.
Now he knows: Where he is going.
He steps onto the bridge. Already, the broad metal river of cars growls and honks, the taller buses moan and strain under their loads and they honk as well, louder. Fresh heat hangs above the bridge like a brown mist, like his jute sack roof. The bridge is long. So long he cannot see the other end through the haze. He looks down at the river below and from this high up he feels safe from it and its burning water. But he can still hear it whisper and mid-bridge, where it crests, he stops to listen and to look.
The Hooghly moves slowly below him. He knows: Swirls mean rocks below the surface. Or sunken boats. Or trunks of trees. Here and there the river gurgles, sighs, sparkles. He listens. He hears it well despite the traffic behind him and for a breath, maybe two, the river talks to him, invites him, and he forgets his thirst. He leans over the railing and lets his arms fall down, hangs like an empty sack on the metal railing, lets his arms grow heavy and wonder at how heavy they feel. His hair, too, falls forward and down and long strands surround his arms as he watches the brown river through the many tiny trunks of hair between eyes and water. Should he fall, would the river know?
Then he almost does. A fat woman in a hurry brushes up against him and almost pushes him over. He stands up, startled at his almost fall and watches the monstrous rump waddle, waddle, waddle down the bridge away from him as fast as it can waddle. He runs after her and gives the woman a hard shove. She topples over and he turns and runs back up the bridge. He does not stop and turn to see the result of his vengeance, not until he is safely away but then there are too many people between him and the rump and he sees nothing. He slows down and walks, right hand on the metal railing. He can see the other end of the bridge now.
He knows: Where he is going. To Howrah Station with its many travelers and wash rooms. He will find water there, and perhaps food. Water, if he can get past the attendants, food if he can beg it or steal it.
He does not know: Steal as different from take as different from eat.
But this he does know: They hate him. The uniformed attendants, some not much older than he is in their polished shoes and white trousers, their unfriendly smiles and hostile eyes. In their brown shirts and clean hair. In their after shave which smells like fat-rumped women do. With their quick glances, quick to spot him, quick to get in his way, quick to call the guards or even the police if needed. They know him and hate him and they stand guard between him and his water.
He crosses the street in front of the station and steps into the domed shadow. For a moment he stands still just inside while his eyes adjust to the lesser light. He hears the noise of many trains arriving and thousands of feet moving.
He knows: Unfriendly travelers who have not traveled far and have no bags, just their purses or briefcases, and not as unfriendly travelers who have traveled far and who have many bags and who stand on the platform and look up at the ceiling and who point and tell each other what they see with big eyes.
Those all come. Others go. He watches children with quick eyes and clean clothes as they run to keep up with parents. They carry little satchels and their parents lug on large bags. He has wondered where they go, what could lie down those two steel rails where the black engine sits, wheels for feet, snorting steam and impatient to get going. Today he does not wonder. Today he thinks only of water.
He can see the many tracks snake away out of the shadowed dome and into the sun where they light up and rush out of sight for somewhere else but here where they have water and food. The tracks look like long lines of silver in the sun, watery lines of silver. The heat makes them wave before they all bend left and are gone.
Yes, he knows: Where they are going. Into the heat, is where they are going. Into sunlight for somewhere far away where they have water, and many, many bags.
Now he sees the washing room attendants, and sees that they see him, and he sees that they mean to keep him away from his water.
A parent, a very large and loud one, buys a bottle of juice for his child. The child shifts impatiently and holds his hands up for the bottle. The vendor hands the bottle to the parent who in turn hands it to the child who in turn clutches it, not ten feet from where he stands.
Now the parent looks for coins in his pocket to pay the vendor. He sees the large hand dive into the side of the trousers and rummage around. He hears the tinkle of metal, and sees the parent scoop up a handful of coins to now look them over in his open hand. Now he chooses some with his fingers and hands them to the vendor. The child has not begun drinking yet, he does not understand why, then sees why. The child tries to open the cap and cannot. The child is waiting for the parent to open it for him, but the parent is not quite finished with the vendor yet and is now waiting for some coins in return.
Chandra steps up to the child, seizes the bottle with both of his hands, yanks hard and runs.
The child is too stunned to scream. The parent is too busy to notice. The vendor is looking for the right coins to give back and doesn’t notice either. But the attendant closest to him has seen, and with excitement shining in his eyes points at him and screams and screams, “Thief! Thief!”
This he knows: The heat and the cold of the jail cell. The mice and sometimes rats that scurry around him in the darkness and sometimes across. The many insects that have made the jail their home and which sometimes cover the floor so you cannot help but step on them with a squish and your sole gets wet and you have to scrape it off, sometimes to eat it if they have not fed you for a while. He does not want to go there, but he knows: He will see jail again if he is caught.
His legs know: Where to go, where to run. He is already past those whose heads turn at the attendant’s cry. He is past the guards, he is past the portieres, he is past the two policemen outside and still he runs, the bottle, slippery and cold but tucked safely under his arm. He runs back toward the bridge, then down the bank to the river. He runs past many hovels, through a small copse of palms across sand and pebble and back upon dry grass to his right into the shadow of more trees before he stops. He turns to make sure no one follows. No one does.
He knows: The sweetness of juice. He has stolen this before, more than once. Bottles, half drunk and sitting on the floor beside sweaty travelers, almost empty bottles in children’s hands, unopened bottles from the vendors’ counters.
He knows: The sweetness of cold juice. He brings his treasure out from under his arm and holds the cold glass against his chin. He does not open the bottle right away. He wants to feel the chilled glass; he wants to dream a while before he brings the real liquid to his real throat to quench his real thirst.
But now his ears know: Feet crushing grass behind him.
His dream is too busy dreaming about cold, sweet juice to hear what his ears know in time to run again, and here strikes a strong, dirty arm around his throat squeezing the air away. Two more arms, both with hands seize the bottle and tear it away. “It is mine!” he tries to scream, but no sound leaves him. There is no breath, no air, no sound.
The snake arm around his throat lets up and he falls, gasping, to the ground, tears in his eyes—from pain, from humiliation. And from there he can only watch as the two older, larger boys share the cold juice between them, white teeth flashing in the sun, dark eyes casting glances at him, voices laughing at him between loud swallows.
They finish the bottle and tell him how good it tasted and how thirsty they were and how nice it was of him to bring it to them, then the taller of the two takes the empty bottle to the river’s edge where he fills it with brown water. This he carries back and gives to Chandra. Then they walk away, laughing loudly at this splendid, splendid joke.
This he knows: He would kill them both if he could.
The two boys, talking loudly between laughs, look back at Chandra now and then, then reach the bank, climb it and vanish. Chandra is left with his bottle, warm now with brown river water.
This he knows: He must not drink.
But he does drink. He cannot find the strength to refuse the clamor of his throat, so recently promised so much by the cold bottle against his chin. He puts the warm bottle to his lips and he drinks and for a wonderful moment he feels only liquid against his tongue, now falling back into his throat, now heading down into his belly, which first receives it gratefully, but only for a heartbeat. His stomach then realizes what arrives, then revolts.
First by burning. Then by ejection.
There is nothing but brown water to vomit and it hurts.
He coughs and heaves until he is all empty. His stomach still burns but there is no place to scratch, he can do nothing to still the burning. Tears find his eyes again, this time from the pain. He hates himself for crying. He waits for the pain to stop. He looks at the grass by his feet. Looks hard, looks so hard he does not feel his stomach, looks so hard at each single yellow strand that each furrow, each crack in each blade stands out, looks so hard that the dead grass comes alive and he wonders if grass feels any pain from all the being stepped on.
This he knows: What he must do: Return to the station. He must slink past the attendants, he must drink some water to still the burning with cold, clear water. He makes his way up the bank and reaches once again the street and heads back for the station. Approaching the large building, he looks around for travelers to melt in with, to hide among, but the rush hour is over and the sidewalk is now less peopled than before and he can easily be seen. Too easily. He waits for a group of school children coming up behind him, hoping.
“There he is!”
He spins toward the cry and sees the washing room attendant pointing at him: “There he is!”
At first, the two policemen do nothing. They just stare at the attendant and then at him. “Thief! Thief!” cries the attendant again and the policemen now look at each other and now decide to give chase. Chandra turns and runs.
These policemen are young and now that they have made up their minds to catch him they are very fast, and even though Chandra is quick, they gain on him. Chandra reaches the bridge again, and darts again down the slope toward the river. By the time he reaches the water he looks back and one of the policemen is already charging down the slope, spilling stones with each step: little avalanches of rock heading for the river, little clouds of dust marking their path.
And now, the only thing he knows is this: Running.
Empty, burning, hot, he runs. Longer legs, booted feet are catching up from behind. The other policeman, the one still at the top of the bank, runs too, and on even and paved ground he runs much faster than Chandra does, to cut him off.
His feet race through sand and then onto small rocks and stones that sting and hurt them from many sharp edges. His feet want to but cannot stop, they must ignore the many little cuts they suffer for this he knows: He must not go back to jail.
The second policeman is now half running half sliding down the bank ahead of him and the one behind is closer still and Chandra is in their vice. There is only the river and he cannot swim.
But this he knows: He must not go back to jail.
Bleeding feet follow his command and they veer left to carry him into the yellow water. Soft, cool mud at first, a pleasure to his feet. Slippery. He almost falls but doesn’t. The two policemen have met up by the river’s edge and are yelling something to him. He cannot make out what they say. He almost falls again, but again doesn’t. He pushes on out into the river.
Suddenly upon deep, no bottom for feet to find. He flails now, tries to turn but cannot, then sinks. He sees nothing but yellow. He must breathe and does. He fills his lungs with warm water. He fills them with burning and must cough. But there is no air for coughing and all he finds to cough with is more water.
A strong eddy finds and carries him back to the surface and for a breath, for two, there is air which he coughs water into then gulps with hurting lungs before the eddy deserts him and he sinks back into a determined river and feels himself carried away.
This he suddenly knows, with certainty: He must not breathe. Breathing now will kill him, and so he refuses to breathe, refuses to breathe, refuses to die. He becomes the not breathing, hears his heart in his ears, pounding fast and loud, a panic in his chest. He must breathe but has become the non-breathing. Then his lungs cease to comply, take over, and he breathes a chestful of warm, murky water void of usable oxygen. He slips across an unseen boundary and into darkness.
But though the river is hungry, it finds the boy too scrawny and soon tires of him and pushes him up to the surface and up against the wooded side of the boat. The man in the boat, his face glistening with sweat for he is too thickly dressed for this heat, and definitely too thickly dressed for working a boat in this sun, this man, first he hears the surfacing body bump into the bottom of the boat, thinks it’s a large fish or some driftwood, something, then hears it again, no, not a fish, not twice, and not wood, the sound is softer than that.
The woman in the boat hears it too, looks over the side of the little boat, sees what makes the sound and points it out to her husband with a little yelp that is not quite her husband’s name. Now he looks too and sees it and reaches for it and finds long, black hair and pulls and pulls, and finds arms and pulls on them and then the rest of the boy and pulls and with some effort and with the help of his wife brings him aboard.
The wet body slips into the bottom of the boat where it settles in a small pile and looks dead, but then it begins to cough violently, coughing yellow water that splashes the man’s clean shoes and trousers, and that splashes the bottom of his wife’s sari, white and shining in the sun, as she moves closer to look at him and see how she can help him all the while forgetting about her best white sari.
The boy opens his eyes.
This he knows: He is still alive.
He looks up at and into the directly-above sun. He is one big burning: stomach, lungs, feet, and eyes. He tries to move but cannot. He cannot even find his arms, nor his legs, nor his head, only his eyelids comply, which he now blinks to shut the sun out. He feels the hard boards of the boat against his back. He smells the water all around. He opens his eyes again.
The man moves between his eyes and the sun and becomes a towering darkness with what could be a smile. Chandra sees him but does not see him.
The man says to his wife, “I think he sees me.”
He tries to understand what the voice sees but cannot. Then the man moves just enough to allow the boy a glimpse of the man’s face which now smiles and then the boy knows: The blackness is a man standing and the hardness in his back is a boat. He hears the river in all directions, under him as well, barely a fingers width from his back—no more the canvas of sound upon which the rest of the world is painted but the river has become the only sound and the world itself.
This he knows: He is on the river, floating on top of it and moving. He is in a boat with a man and he is alive.
The man then turns to his wife and out of the sun and Chandra has to shut his eyes again to shield them. The burning returns and he begins to cough again. More water is coming from his lungs and from his stomach and he feels as if the water is being torn from him against its will it is holding so fast to the inside of him, so refusing to let go of him that every drop leaves a fresh wound as it is ripped away.
The man says something to his wife that the boy does not hear and she nods in agreement. The man then moves Chandra and the boy moans as he is arranged at the feet of the wife.
The man picks up old and whitened oars and works hard to bring the boat around, then back up-river all the way to his landing, their journey now abandoned. The man brings the boy up to his house, carries him upstairs to a spare bedroom, and gently places him on a bed. The boy moans all the while.
A day later the boy knows this: Fire will kill him.
The burning will not leave his lungs nor his stomach. His hands have begun to swell and his arms and now legs burn too. He cannot be touched. He sees the man and his wife, hears them talk to each other, but does not understand what he sees nor what he hears.
He sees the servants and feels the cool of water-dipped cloth against his skin, cool that almost instantly turns painful for his skin is that tender, but he does not understand what it is he feels, only the burning.
He sees the doctor, an old man in a long white frock with a long white beard but almost no hair that listens to his heart and measures his pulse and shakes his head, but does not understand why. He moans and turns often as if he could turn away from the fires burning. He falls away into blackness again, and surfaces later. Hours, perhaps days.
The room is small and simple. The linen is clean. The curtains are fine and white and they shiver in the soft wind. The shadow in the room is soft and cool. The bed too is soft, but it burns his skin. He shifts again to escape the pain, only to discover fresh pain. The water is cool and sweet, but it burns his throat. Sometimes the wife, sometimes a servant, sometimes the man himself dabs his forehead and lips with the cool water and sometimes they feed him small mouthfuls with a spoon. Sometimes juice, sometimes tea, sometimes some soft bread soaked in tea.
Later, days, perhaps weeks, the water stops hurting. It remains cool in his throat and he can swallow without pain. His hands are their normal size again and his skin no longer burns, not even when he moves, and he sees that the man and the wife and the doctor no longer frown when they look at him but they smile, as do the servants, and he understands now.
This he knows: He will live.
The woman is a stranger in a clean sari. The man is a stranger in a clean suit. The servants are strangers in their working clothes. The man and the woman speak to him. He does not answer. But they see that he can see them now and they ask questions of him. What is his name? Where does he live? Does he have parents?
“Chandra,” he says finally.
“Chandra,” they repeat with smiles. “Chandra.”
He wakes up early to see the woman asleep in a chair by his bed. The city is still; it is barely light outside. A slight breeze moves the curtains in the open window and he slips silently out of the soft bed and onto the carpeted floor. He finds himself clothed in clean, light cotton. He looks down at his legs and then at his arms as he holds them out from his sides, and this he knows: He has never worn such clean clothes.
Then he looks again at the sleeping wife and steals out of the bedroom.
He finds water in the kitchen and finds bread in the earthen pantry. He listens for but hears nobody. None of the servants are up yet. He folds the thin bread and looks around for something to carry it in. He sees a cloth purse on the table. He opens it and sees a small mirror, a comb, some napkins, a wallet with papers and money. He stuffs the bread into the purse and shoulders it. He looks around for what else can be easily carried.
There’s nothing else of value in the kitchen. He steals into the man’s and woman’s bedroom and sees the sleeping man. He sees his gold watch on the bedside table. He takes it and puts it in the purse. He feels the man’s trousers for money, finds and takes several bills. He takes a gold chain from the table on the other side of the bed. The man stirs but does not waken. He leaves the house and walks into the now-waking-up city.
This he knows: He is rich.
This he does not know: Where he is.
There are none of his kind here, not yet anyway. He sees a street cleaner with a tired broom, he sees a baker working in his shop. He sees other vendors unlocking their screens, setting up tables. He hurries down the street. He sees none of his kind and does not know: Which way to go.
Then he hears the river. He walks toward it, finds it and onto a smaller bridge. He crosses and sees Howrah bridge far, far down-river.
Now he knows this: Where to go.
As he follows the river bank the sun rises, huge and hot. He clutches the purse under his arm and knows: He can buy juice and food with the money. A soft hunger stirs in his belly. Not as pain, for he has eaten recently; no, this hunger is almost pleasant, along with the pleasant knowing that he can easily still it. He looks around for a vendor, fruit or bread or juice. He sees one.
He walks up to the stand where the vendor, who does not recognize him and who does not step in front of his wares to protect them, is placing fruit and bread onto a large white cloth for sale. He opens the purse and looks for money. There are no coins, only paper money and he does not understand their worth. He finds a large blue and green note with a picture of an old man with glasses on it and hands it to the vendor. “Juice,” he says.
The old man, a large face of leathery wrinkles and slow, watery eyes stops his arranging and takes the note. He then looks at him and at the note he has been handed. “Where did you get this?” he asks, and shows it to Chandra.
“Juice,” says Chandra again.
The old man turns to walk into the store. Chandra sees that he is about to walk away with his money and snatches the note back from the man’s hand. The old man looks back at him. “I’m not taking your money. I’m getting your juice,” he says. Chandra does not hand him the bill, but waits for the man to fetch his juice. He waits.
The man is slow in returning. Chandra thinks of cold juice and is thirsty now. He does not understand why the man is taking such a long time to fetch the juice. The beaded door where the man entered his shop swayed for a while from letting him through, then stopped swaying, and remains still. What could take such a long time?
Chandra waits. Clutches the note in his hand and waits.
“Here he is,” says the old vendor who arrives from behind him—not from the beaded door—along with the policeman. Chandra is too surprised to escape. The policeman has a quick and strong hold on him and his purse. The grip hurts his shoulder. The old vendor looks very pleased, standing back, arms folded. Chandra looks up at the policeman and sees dark, hostile eyes.
This he knows: He is not going to jail, and he lunges with all his strength away from the hand, away from jail. The strap of the purse breaks and leaves the policeman holding all his money and his gold while Chandra runs as fast as he can, again toward the river, toward the alleys of his kind where he can vanish.
This he knows: He is too quick for this policeman to catch.
He reaches Howrah Bridge by noon and a little later his own alley. He finds his nook between the two cardboard walls. It is still his, the sack is still his roof. They would not let someone else take his home, not his kind. They don’t like him but they will protect his home, it’s an unspoken law in this alley.
He lies down on the cardboard that serves as mattress and looks up at the jute crisscrossing above him and through it at the sky above.
Someone is cooking food, not close, the smell is only faint. His hunger is not bad. His thirst is not bad. He falls asleep.
His sleep is deep and dreamless.
He is woken by the quiet. He has slept later than usual by the sun, but the alley is quiet. All quiet. Too quiet.
They have found him. They stand outside his shelter when he crawls out to see about the quiet. He sees many eyes hiding behind burlaps and boards. They will not let him escape. Two men lift him up and this he knows: He cannot escape.
The cell is small and very hot. There is only Chandra and the stone walls. Only Chandra and the high, barred opening which shows the ground. If he stands as tall as he can he can see feet move across the courtyard, yellow and dusty feet. Little clouds follow the shuffling feet. Two days and two nights. They give him some water and mouthfuls of dark bread. On the third day they bring him out of the cell and into a larger room. The vendor is there, the one who didn’t give him his juice. The man and his wife from the boat are there, too, and they look at him and the man nods. The wife begins to cry. They bring him back to the cell and turn the lock. Iron echoes against iron.
The water he gets is warm and brown. The burning returns. He burns at night and cannot sleep. He burns during the day and sometimes cries from the pain. Every day just a mouthful or two of brown bread and brown water. He sees the river and the boat that saved him. But there is no river here, and no boat.
He is brought into a large, light room. There are two large brown fans in the high ceiling spinning slowly and stirring the air all the way down onto his head. He looks up at the fans, then up at an old man with long white hair and a wooden hammer who sits behind a high bench. He burns too much to understand what is said or why he is there.
The man with the long white hair raises the hammer and brings it down again with a small explosion. Then he rises and he is made to rise, too.
Unfriendly hands bring him back to the cell where they secure his hands and feet to the cell door with leather straps and then begin to beat him with their belts.
They do not stop. After a while he no longer feels the pain. And he does not feel them untie him, nor does he feel them carrying him out into the night and down to the edge of the river where they leave him to die.
The sun climbs over the water and lights the many flies that feast on the small pile of sores by the river’s edge. The boy does not notice, nor does he stir although an attentive eye would detect shallow breathing.
The evening brings relief from the sun. He shifts slightly but is told by the pain to stop.
This he knows: If he stays here he will die.
He thinks about the boat that saved him from the river and fights his way first onto his knees and then onto his feet to stand on bleeding legs—that soon betray him, buckle and heap him again.
This he knows: If he stays here he will die.
Again, he fights his way onto bleeding legs. Eyes follow his effort and ears catch his moaning but no one helps him. Not when the police has put him there to die. They know better than to get involved.
Again his legs betray him and again he fights his way up on his feet, refusing to let his legs betray him for a third time.
He thinks of the boat and looks around to find it. It is not there. He begins to walk. Upriver. Toward it. Each step is painful and now and then he stumbles and falls. But he does not want to die. His mind sees the boat and sees the woman and this he knows: Kindness.
He feels the cool water on his lips and sees the woman smiling and he takes another step in her direction. He sees the man in the boat smiling down at him against the sun and takes another step in his direction.
Evening people see him but shy from him. Some take him for a leper child, sores bleeding. No one wants anything to do with death.
He staggers on into the night, determined not to die.
It is nearly light again when he sees the boat at last, where it lies, tied to the little dock by the river’s edge. He sees the path that leads from it up to their house, and this he knows: Where he is.
He staggers up the path, tries to knock on the door but is too weak to make a sound. Instead he lies down, curls like a bony dog on the man’s and woman’s doorstep and this he knows: He will be found by their kindness.