The Winter Solstice 2015 Competition Winning Story

Magic Happens in the Dark* 

By Kriss Nichol

(*From The Tree of Knowledge by Eva Figes)

Evening is the time I like best, when the night’s darkness still feels clean. My flat overlooks broken-down shacks that operate as shops during the day. By night the shacks are illuminated with kerosene lamps and smells of cooking fraternize with those of dust and baked earth, licking my nostrils, tantalizingly evocative of closeness and companionship. I scald with longing.

            Some neighbours tether a goat or boar outside before they ceremoniously behead them, the meat sold to supplement family incomes. Each day I see animal carcasses dropped into a cauldron of boiling water then scraped to remove the hair. After, they’re displayed on their backs, legs open to reveal the testicles—only the male of a species is ever killed.

I ask Santosh why.

            ‘Females are sacred, Madam, they are givers of life.’

I almost laugh, but cultural sensitivity prevents me. I know how women are treated here.

            We are joined by Vishnu Kharki, who glares at us from the doorway and Santosh scuttles away. Kharki stands, arms folded, sour-faced, trying to project the impression that I’m his secretary; in reality I’m here to train him. I’ve seen him before, looking at me, his eyes brooding darkness. Each time I catch him he quickly looks away, his documents suddenly needing intense scrutiny.

            ‘The Minister requires a report on the data from the last field trip. I’m going out; have it on his desk in the morning.’ His smile is malignant.

             ‘The data you wouldn’t let me see? The report that you wanted to write?’

            He laughs. ‘You misunderstood me. It is imperative it is on his desk in the morning.’

            ‘Then you have a lot of work to do,’ I say to his retreating back, the buttoned brown jacket straining over his spare tyre, his trousers slightly too short, wafting with each step. He ignores me. I grab my bag and pashmina, leaving the building with fists balled tight.

After a couple of blocks I’m outside the Shangri-la Hotel and beauty parlour. Since I arrived in Kathmandu my hair has grown shaggy. It sticks to my brow in curls and wisps rise in the humidity. My leg, bikini line and armpit hair have also flourished in this new environment. Suddenly I feel indistinct, an undefined, amorphous blob in the shalwar kameeze I wear for ‘decency’. A sandwich board at the entrance boasts special offers for beauty treatments and, deciding on some pampering to re-connect with my feminine side, I go in.

            I’m taken to a screened-off area at the back of the salon where two other women, wives of American Embassy staff, are lying on beds having foot and leg massages. Pop music is playing as I strip down to bra and pants, acutely aware that my functional underwear is showing signs of repeated hand washing and compares unfavourably with the Americans’ sexy, satin Wonderbras and skimpy briefs. The women look away, treating me with all the courtesy of a slammed car door, as I’m led past and positioned on a table next to them. Then the waxing begins.

            After the first strip is wrenched, thousands of tiny red pinpricks appear on the surface of my skin. They sting and itch, and with each application the wax gets hotter and hotter. Afraid my legs will suffer first degree burns before they’re finished, I empathize with the poor beheaded animals in buckets of boiling water.

            When it’s finally over I’m massaged and oiled, small fingers rubbing and soothing my most intimate creases. I grow hot, chest tight, and have difficulty controlling breathing. Oh, God, no. On this table, with those movements, my body is responding, speaking to me in ways I’ve forced myself to forget. I check furtively, my cheeks burning; no-one seems to have noticed. Eventually I relax, surrendering to the wash of eroticism.

            As I’m ushered to a chair positioned beside a window overlooking the exquisite gardens at the rear of the hotel I feel myself floating, my body just a whisper in the draft from overhead fans. Banana trees stand side by side with persimmon, apple and pineapple. Water fountains are being cleared of leaves and the swishing sounds of twig brushes, called besoms back home, hang gauzily in the afternoon sun. Birds and fruit bats wheel in the sky, flirting with the air in their aerial acrobats, rifling fruit on branches. Beguiled by the scene I am only just aware of being asked what hairstyle I want. I reply in Nepali, then drift off, back to the beauty of the garden.

The following morning I arrive early, slipping the scarf from my head as I sit down.

‘So sorry, Madam; has family member died?’

Santosh has brought some lemon tea and he and the other peons are bunched in the doorway, staring at my head.

            ‘No. Why?’

            ‘Madam... your hair.’

            Static between us holds like a web, swaying precariously.

            I start to laugh. Santosh’s worried face only makes me worse. At the Shangri-la I used the Nepali word for ‘shaved’ instead of ‘short’ and the hairdresser used a number two razor. Giggles bubble up from my belly and out my mouth, popping in the sterile, male atmosphere where a shaved head is a sign of respect for the dead.

            At that moment Kharki pushes through to discover the source of hilarity. The sight of his face, simultaneously a picture of horror, disbelief and disgust, sends me off into more gales of laughter. The men in the doorway look at each other with consternation and I border on hysterical.

This is my epiphany, the decisive moment when perspective is finally restored. I feel lighter, more alive; a lot more than my hair has been shed. With new-found awareness I appreciate the privilege of living at the top of the world, in a country of beauty and contradictions, having the experience of a lifetime.

Magic happens in the dark, when you’re not looking.