The fall of an eyelash

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An excerpt published in Scroll.in from the short story “The fall of an eyelash” in my collection Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories (available in India from January 2016, elsewhere in 2017)

As both a refugee and a wife, Forough learnt new customs. One of them had to do with wishes. Every time Jonas spotted a stray eyelash on her face, he would rush to place it on the tip of a finger. A wish, he’d say, any wish. Then he’d make her blow it off. If, for whatever reason, she failed – sometimes, still damp after a shower the rogue eyelash clung more desperately to the skin – he would laugh and make her keep blowing until the eyelash vanished. See, it’s gone… the fates will never deny you, he’d promise her.

Forough, who was a quick study, didn’t believe him. A resilient eyelash was as good as a curse, or whatever was the opposite of a wish. She dreaded those moments when he’d make her wish on an eyelash. There was, after all, only one wish inside her, one overwhelming desire whose fulfilment seemed so large and improbable that it could hardly rest on the delicate balance of an eyelash. Her family remained far away, her country was still closed to her. She saw no prospect of reunion and no reason for its hope. Why mock the unbridgeable distance between her and them? And why drain, with every unanswered wish, what little magic there was in the fall of an eyelash?

So she began wishing for small things. A good breakfast. Students who did their reading. An orgasm. Occasionally, she wished a victory for Djurgårdens, Jonas’ favourite football team. More often than not, these little wishes came true. Jonas would come home on a Saturday, red-cheeked and burping from the beer, and spin her around in triumph. Be grateful, she’d say to him, my eyelash scored your goals.

One day in the shower together, Jonas found an eyelash that had slid into the lee of her nose. Make a wish, he said. Forough held him close and contemplated the eyelash on his outstretched finger. No obvious wish came to her. In this sedate country she was becoming increasingly sedate herself, untroubled by life’s little infelicities. Djurgårdens had won its games this season, sex with Jonas was pleasing, her students were sharper than she expected. She cleared her head. I wish to see my brother soon, she thought. She blew with the force of a thousand wishes. The eyelash, though still damp, disappeared from Jonas’ finger.

The next day the house phone rang. It was her relative. Peace be upon you, he said. And you, she replied. Your parents transmitted a message through my family, he told her, they feared it would be intercepted otherwise…this is what it says:

We are sending your brother over the desert route… He’ll cross the border by the end of the week and then make his way to you… God bless you both.

Forough was so shaken that she offered her relative a cup of tea, as if he were standing right in front of her.

Jonas helped set up consultations with asylum seekers’ networks and a meeting with government officials. They assured Forough that once her brother arrived, his application for asylum would be expedited. He would receive the same benefits she had received. Her new country would become his, too.

The furniture in their living room had to be rearranged. She bought a sofa bed, ingenious little storage units disguised as footstools, a small TV so that he could watch what he pleased like he was used to doing at home. Jonas left a Djurgårdens scarf folded on the sofa, ready for her brother’s arrival. Unable to sleep at night, Forough sat in the dim living room longing for her brother to fill it with his snores. She remembered the loneliness of the desert crossing, the menacing moon. She imagined him bundled in the back of a jeep, watching the dunes slouch away.

In the shower, she pulled Jonas’ face close. Her fingers searched its every bump and slope. But she was disappointed. After drying her hair and putting it up, she turned to him. Do you see one? she asked. See what? An eyelash, do you see a stray eyelash? Jonas moved her face in and out of the light and shook his head.

Forough’s quest for an eyelash consumed her. In between classes, she’d stand before the mirror in the WC for minutes, alternately looking up close and from a distance. No fallen eyelash revealed itself. She thought she found one – spotting a hair on the crest of the cheekbone – only to realise that it was too thick and blunt. It had descended from an eyebrow. She pondered for a moment the metaphysical qualities of brow-hairs, those shingles of the eye, and decided that they would not do as substitutes. When being gracious, people in her country sometimes said, Please, walk on my eyelashes. Nobody ever invited you to walk on their eyebrows.

Jonas understood the urgency of her search, obliging her with frequent scans that yielded nothing. His own face offered few wishes. Now more than ever, Forough resented the stubbornness of his eyelashes, which were short and fair to the point of being invisible, with none of her dark abundance. He was sorry for their austerity, blinking over and over again in attempts to make an eyelash drop.

With no lash falling from her eyelids, Forough remembered all the times she had blown an eyelash away indifferently. She had grown accustomed to making little wishes without too much thought or even desire for their fulfilment: wishes for a cloudless sky, for ripe tomatoes, for a worthy councillor to win a local election, for publication in an academic journal, for the mastery of foreign languages, for a glimpse of the northern lights, for flatbread and cheese and mint and walnuts. What a waste, she thought. Her brother was about to reach the border. The breadth of a single vanished eyelash might be enough to push him across. But when she needed it most, her eyes refused to surrender a single wish.

The night before her brother was due to cross, Jonas volunteered to pull out one of her eyelashes. She gasped. Are you crazy? What kind of idea is that? He shrugged optimistically, An eyelash is an eyelash, no? She shook her head with a smile. Only if the eyelash fell on its own upon the cheek would it have any power. To force a wish would be to violate the natural order of wishes. They laughed at themselves and Jonas held her against his chest, kissing the top of her head. He felt an unspeakable guilt for bringing his wife into a tradition that might betray her.

Without waking Jonas, Forough climbed out of bed in the middle of the night and went to the bathroom. She found a pair of tweezers and brought it close to her eyes. The steel hovered over her vision like a fighter jet. She thought of her brother alone on his journey, clutching all his papers to his chest, the letters and documents and proofs of being that at once imprisoned him and promised him a future with her. The tweezers pinched and an eyelash soon lay on her palm. She blew it away.

Excerpted with permission from the story ‘The Fall of an Eyelash’, Swimmer Among the Stars, Kanishk Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.

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