This short story ‘Black Smoke’ has been previously rejected by two platforms.
When Miriam Caldwell was a child, she did not have a name. Ripped out of her mother’s womb too early, she somehow survived. Her mother, however, was not as lucky. As the youngest of six siblings, Miriam grew up as Chhoti—Little One—and was paid no attention to. Looking back, Teresa is sure that the neglect which marked Miriam’s younger years is what now causes her to leave the house the minute she is called for, no matter the time or reason. It is her, Miriam, that they want, to bandage their wounds and cure their fevers. It is Miriam who is smiled at in narrow lanes, hugged by little children, thanked with glistening eyes and made promises to repay her in kindness. From the contentment on Miriam’s glowing face after, it’s clear that this is all she needs: to fill up the half empty glass that was her childhood.
The plague is first brought home by a ten year-old girl working at the docks. The evening is hot when her elder brother turns up at the door, begging Miriam to take a look at his sister. Teresa goes with her, and they find the girl—Radha, they learn—in a state of delirium, tossing and turning in her sweat. One hand on her forehead, and Miriam’s eyes are finding
Teresa’s. Radha’s body is burning with fever, yet shaking from a chill at the same time. The only time she pauses her incoherent raving, it is to turn her head to the side and produce a trail of vomit. With a purse of the lips, Miriam shakes her head: there is nothing that can be done. She leans forward to gently wipe away the vomit with a damp cloth. Two days later, Radha is gone, followed swiftly by a similarly hysterical mother.
By the chula, Teresa’s chest is filled with black smoke. When Miriam returns from the mother’s funeral, it takes Teresa some time to stop coughing and identify the scent of rotis and aloo mingled with the thick smoke.
“I thought you’d be gone longer,” she finally says, her voice creaking in protest, “How is the boy?”
“I took him to the church,” Miriam replies, with an absent glance at Teresa, “They’ll take care of him there.”
“None as of yet. I’m hoping this was just a stomach flu, something like that. A one-time thing.”
Teresa stares: “The girl was covered in blisters, Miriam. No flu does that to you. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The breath that Miriam releases is shaky. When her lips curve downwards, she looks much older than the forty years she has carefully stacked atop one another to bury her childhood below. She touches her hair, darkened by the moisture of the bath she took at the well. Finally, she reaches for a steel glass and the smallest pot in the kitchen.
“It could just be a rare case,” she says, defiant, “For now, there is no reason to worry ourselves to death.”
Miriam was fourteen when she first found the Church—an old, haggard stone building covered in ivy. Curiosity took her by the hand and led her inside, and there, in the middle of a deafening, cramped marketplace, she found a room full of silence that meant something. She never returned home. She couldn’t think of a single thing that would pull her back. Not the ragged clothes she shared with her elder sisters, not the aroma of the incense sticks burning every morning, not the slur of her father’s words on humid nights.
It was there, in the Church, that she transformed from Chhoti to Miriam; there, three years later, that she met Teresa, who was four years older than her. With a frail Sister Rose, she learnt how to cure fevers and disinfect wounds. Together, they would apply mixtures to scorpion bites, bandage sore ankles, and perform minor surgeries. Later in the night, Miriam’s feet would find Teresa’s mattress amongst the numerous converts sleeping in the room behind the main building. Her hand would find Teresa’s, and they would drift off without a word.
By the time Miriam turned nineteen, she, with Teresa, had gathered enough money to move out of the Church. Her intention was never to be a saint—it was the money from her visits to the sick that had slowly grown inside her pillowcase. Teresa, less fascinated by medicine, had found her way into an opium trade, selling imports of the drug to traders around the city.
The house was small and grubby, one amongst several congested rows. Miriam maintained that the milestone was not worthy of celebration, but Teresa insisted on at least inviting Sister Rose over for dinner. It was only later, several years after Sister Rose had moved on, that Teresa’s work became enough for the both of them—with that, Miriam’s visits to the sick became free of charge. She still didn’t want to be a saint.
Two nights after the funeral, Teresa awakens to someone stubbornly knocking at the door. Resisting the lure of another dream, she pushes herself up, pulls the door open to a white, scared face.
“It’s the Church,” the young girl says. In the queerly silent night, Miriam is shaken awake as the girl waits outside. “The boy has come down with a fever,” Teresa says solemnly.
Miriam pales as their eyes meet: “And?”
“Two others at the Church.”
As Miriam scrambles out of bed, Teresa feels a strange restlessness. She runs a hand through her hopelessly knotted hair, then scratches her left arm. She tries to stop the words that threaten to leave her mouth, but in the end, they spill out anyway. Right as Miriam opens the door, she speaks: “I don’t think you should go.” Miriam turns around, baffled, and gapes.
“What do you mean?” she asks, as if unable to comprehend that words can be strung together.
“I think it’s dangerous, Miriam. The blisters—don’t you see them in your nightmares?” Miriam frowns, still confused, “No. I see the little girl’s face.”
The door shuts with a bang before Teresa can think of another word to say. Miriam is gone, leaving behind a sleepless night.
On Miriam’s forty-first birthday, the boy is found dead, with one other person who had fallen sick at the Church. Their deaths keep Miriam occupied for hours on end. She returns home late in the evening, and Teresa, as always, does not acknowledge the date—it only brings back sour memories, representing everything Miriam has tried to push back into the past.
Years ago, when they were still getting to know each other, Teresa had asked Miriam when her birthday was. They were young and enamoured, and Teresa was eager for a reason to do something special for the girl she loved.
“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Miriam had said, skin marble smooth under the yellow candlelight.
“Is that good or bad?”
“Both,” Miriam had shrugged, “I don’t particularly want to remember, but maybe I wish someone had cared enough.”
“I care enough.”
Miriam had smiled, dismissive, “It’s the 14th of May. But I’d rather not answer that again.”
Once it has made itself at home, the plague is quick to gain confidence. Like the sound of hymns reverberating inside the Church building, it spreads to every corner of the mohalla. People begin to collapse frequently—on the streets, in their homes, at the docks. A mother of two, in her thirties, flings herself onto the pyre at the first sign of a pustule. Teary and wild eyed, she mumbles words that make no sense until the fire swallows her up. Her hair, usually tied up in a neat braid and adorned with a string of jasmines, is untameable and windblown as she turns to ash. With her death, the rumours gain ferocity: the plague means possession by evil forces; it is the wrath of angry Gods as people begin to move towards Christianity. Amongst the hysteria, Miriam finds herself growing more and more frenzied. She cannot figure out where the sickness comes from or how to stop it. For every person she tends to, many more fall sick, until Miriam realises she hasn’t been home in days.
When, at the end of the week, Teresa finds her drinking water by the well, Miriam bursts into tears. She cries until her eyes are red, until her skin flares up and her breaths slow down again.
It’s only then that Teresa speaks, grave. “The plague is from Europe,” she says, and Miriam looks up, “It killed half of their people a few hundred years ago.”
At the docks that morning, Teresa had run into a sailor. As their conversation floated in seven different directions, Teresa mentioned the sick people. In turn, the sailor had told her about the black death. By the well, Teresa recognizes the way Miriam pales, in the same way that she had earlier.
“I can’t let that happen here,” Miriam says, and Teresa’s heart drops at the hollowness in her voice, “There must be something I can do to make it stop.”
When Miriam tries to stand up, her legs falter. Teresa grabs her arm, accustomed to her haste and the way her head spins after.
“You can’t let this fall onto you, Miriam,” she says, pleading, “It’s a miracle you’re still here.”
Miriam’s eyes are glassy, mouth tight.
“I can’t let that happen here,” she whispers again, softer.
Teresa sighs, dropping her hand from Miriam’s arm. The years have taught her that sometimes, there is nothing she can do.
Ten years ago, Miriam found herself standing in front of her father’s house again. This time, Teresa was next to her, their rough hands entwined.
“You’re not Chhoti anymore,” she had been reminded gently, more than once.
The house smells exactly like it did all those years ago, the incense of Miriam’s childhood still burning. Miriam doesn’t know why she expected her father to be alive. It was only normal, Teresa had told her afterwards, to imagine him as the same powerful man she had left behind. The truth of it, however, was that he had died frail and white-haired, too sick to even walk across the room. Miriam’s eldest brother Kishore had inherited the house, and lived there with his wife and married son.
“Chhoti?” he had said, only slightly amazed when Miriam introduced herself, “We always wondered where you went.”
“I go by Miriam now.”
There had been no hot tears, no warm embraces. They had stood awkwardly, with no idea of what to say or do. Teresa remained quiet at Miriam’s side, Kishore’s wife at his. Finally, they had been invited to lunch, and it was between ghee-covered rotis and tangy sabzi that the siblings had finally opened up.
“I always imagined things would be different if someone had saved mother,” Miriam had admitted, “We’d be more loved, more seen. I hoped I could give other families that, when I saved someone’s life.”
Kishore had stared, baffled, for so long that Teresa had to look away.
“Chhoti, I knew our mother,” he finally said, “She’d pushed six children out in seven years, waited on father day and night—she was tired and angry. Someone could’ve saved her, but no one could’ve fixed that anger. If she’d been with us, you would’ve still run away, nameless, at fourteen.”
In the days after Miriam weeping at the well, Teresa opens the door countless times to frantic knocks. She always half expects to find Miriam outside, but it’s always someone looking for her. All the years of dealing with how unwanted she is in comparison to Miriam should
have familiarised Teresa with the feeling, but they haven’t. It still stings to see faces crumple with disappointment when they realise the woman opening the door is not the one they came looking for. Kishore comes one day, too, face worn out with gentle wrinkles, hands folded.
“My wife is sick,” he says, simply, and Teresa hates to give him the same answer she gives everyone else.
“Miriam hasn’t been home for days,” she says, apologetic, “She’s been chasing the plague.”
The strangest part of it all is that Teresa is not used to missing Miriam. They both pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, love how their love doesn’t stem from needing the other person around. It is enough to simply exist together, and they haven’t done that for some time now. Teresa hasn’t cooked for two in weeks while Miriam rambles about her day. Miriam hasn’t fixed the hole-filled mats they sleep on as Teresa sits next to her, watching in silence. They haven’t walked to the noisy market by the Church, and stopped to light a candle on their way back. It’s Miriam’s presence that Teresa misses more than Miriam herself: the sound of her moving around in the kitchen, the trail of water droplets her hair leaves behind after a bath, the shuffling of her body on the mattress at night.
“Don’t you ever worry?” Teresa is asked, more times than she can count. She shrugs, not mentioning that she had learnt to tuck away the worry in unreachable corners of her mind the moment she fell in love with Miriam.
A December night some years ago had seen two women stumble into the house, cheeks flushed from drinking too much wine.
“My hands are cold,” Miriam whispered, voice filled with laughter. Outside, the moon was full, a concoction of silver and golden. They had argued about its colour all the way home—Miriam thought it was silver, Teresa was firmly settled on golden.
“Let me heat up the chula,” Teresa had said, blinking slowly.
“Don’t do that,” she said, “That’s not what you’re supposed to do.”
Teresa had grinned, unaccustomed to seeing this side of Miriam despite all the years they held together.
“What am I supposed to do, then?”
In the early hours of the morning, they had been interrupted by a knock on the door. It was the only time Miriam had asked someone to wait until the sun rose as the moon hung over them all, silver.
News of the plague begins to reach the city. The deaths of so many cannot be ignored any longer, and there are plans to redesign the mohalla, making it more resistant to epidemics. Teresa imagines Miriam’s sigh of relief when this is over—momentary, before the next knock on the door. Maybe a twisted ankle or a broken arm, something blissfully unrelated to the plague.
Two weeks after Miriam wept by the well, Teresa opens the door in the middle of the night to three wide-eyed faces. There is no “Is Miriam here?” and that in itself, is enough to wake her up. In the silence that follows, Teresa’s stomach plummets.
“Where’s Miriam?” she asks, fists clenching.
In response, three faces flinch.
From the state of Miriam’s body when she is found behind the Church, it has already been a few days since she collapsed. A few days of Teresa humming in the kitchen, bathing in the well, and watching the children play cricket outside on the street. A few days of Teresa waiting for Miriam to finally come back home.
Vaguely, she wonders how Miriam would’ve wiped her own body clean, as it lies amongst the dead leaves, red with open sores as flies buzz around enthusiastically. Feeling her breathing turn hollow, Teresa almost screams. At the humid night, at the people who found the woman she loves, at Miriam herself. At the thought of going back to a house that will remain empty forever. Teresa wants her knees to give way, she wants to lie here forever, next to the only woman who would have cured her.
Instead, she lets out a broken breath. She kneels by Miriam’s side to carefully push her eyes shut, and asks for a cremation. When all of this is over, she promises her lover, she will light a candle in the Church.
Raised in Mumbai, Saachi Gupta is a student and writer. Her works have been published by Malala Fund, Adolescent Content, and Perennial Press’ force/fields anthology. She is a blahcksheep because she still feels lost in the literary and academic worlds, and also dislikes chocolate cake.