Anjali Deshmukh
Pulses of Light

"Min and I met six years ago, just a few days before Aral was wiped from the map. We were very lucky. Aral is the reason that Min is pregnant."

I looked up from my notes and attempted to mask the painful skepticism that shot from my eyes. Before our divorce, she'd always said that that look drove her crazy. "I know you both have been through a lot, but I don't have time today to discuss any more of your superstitions. We need to get Min started on her treatment. She's not well, and the transport vehicle leaves Hoover in twenty minutes. We won't be back here for another 8 weeks."

"One and the same, they are."

"It's true," said Min, looking out the cutout window of the small tent jutting from the side of our transport vehicle. The two of them sat on a small cot, sunken in the middle. Their shoulders slumped into one another. "It's how we fell in love. It is the stream that made today what it is."

"What could be more relevant to our baby?" said Amir.

I hesitated, then put my pen down. It gleamed next to my right hand, bringing shade back to the spot that my wedding ring had fled from years ago. It flashed with a tint reflecting the wide streak of white in Amir's hair. He looked much older than he really was. I couldn't help but look up at my own reflection in the broken window of the transport. Hovering over Amir's right shoulder, the outline of my dim skull was splattered with sparks of dust and dead bugs that had skidded down the side of the transport. I was tired.

We had been wandering up and down this road for more than a year now, traveling from settlement to settlement, making periodic supply pick-ups at crossroads along the way. The transport was more than carrier. It was home. We stopped in the evenings and moved during the day; we slept while the transport did its automatic thing and woke to the reluctant retreat of the sun. Thousands of miles without stopping for more than a night or two when the weather was bad, and followed the whole way by a cloud of withered voices that were less and less able to eat away at my thickened skin. All right, I thought, I'll be patient. 

"It was August, right in the middle of summer," said Amir. "The sun made the sand surrounding us snake its way into the patch of green that anchored Aral to the earth. There was a hard heat silence skimming the surfaces of our roofs. Everyone was asleep in dark rooms, under air coolers run on sun."

"Really?" I'd heard their story so many times I'd lost count. But it's what they wanted to do, tell it again and again. "The entire village went to sleep?" I asked. "1,000 maybe?"

"That's right. well, almost everyone. Not the water guards, filtration managers, not the afternoon watchman, Sam. He was supposed to ring the silent alarm if he saw anyone coming down the board roads. It was rigged to flash lights in every home and building in Aral if the watchman believed there was a threat. We all knew that he was probably asleep up there, no soldier or government official had come here for maybe five years. Aral was far off the main roads, a dead end in the heart of the desert. But we were cautious."

"So 5 years without a single soldier passing through... that's a long time," I said. Unfamiliar. The details were a little different this time.

"The past isn't so easily forgotten out in the desert, doctor."

"It's not like it is for you in the city," said Min. "Bodies aren't so quickly replaced."

"Oh, don't be so hard on the city wallah," said Amir. "He can't help what he is."

"Thanks," I said. I wondered what they would think if they felt the pleasant, year-round 70-degree climate of my apartment up high. Would they cave under the pressure of comfort or release an army of guilt onto city wastes... I closed my eyes. No. Not anymore, I thought. Remember, it's not yours any more. You're just a replaced body, baking in the sun.

"I woke up with my heart racing when Sam's alarm went off, sending pulses of light into our eyes," said Amir. "Everyone emerged from their homes in terror, to watch the alert monitors throughout the village. But it wasn't soldiers. Sam pointed at the northern horizon, and we saw a vision of white splash. It wanted to be a mirage, inflating in our direction across the sand, but it was sending up dusty spatters that broke the smooth edges of illusion."

"We all stood on the border of the village, our feet softly planted in the rich greens of grass that ended where the fields of sand and the board roads began. We squinted in the glare of brightness," said Min. "It seemed as harmless as a white sheet caught on the desert wind."

"The swaying white blob grew larger and larger until, finally, we saw the shape of an elephant coalesce, ears flapping and legs flailing," said Amir. "The sound of the breeze slowly turned into a rumble of thunder as the animal slammed into the boards road, sending ripples of vibrations into the heart of our village. A white elephant. Bright white, light absorbing, white velvet. Airavata."

We'd heard rumors about things like this, creatures born in the polluted deserts, but I don't believe them. Waterlessness was a story feeder. People of the villages have their own ways of getting by. "The elephant was aiming straight for the heart of the village," said Min. "Within minutes, our murmuring crowd became a rumbling mob. Panic prevailed over curiosity as people began backing away in chaos from the vibrating boards."

"Even in a small place like ours, you know, people can turn on one another when their survival is as stake," said Amir. "People in the front of the crowd were pushing each other to find some spot out of the elephant's tracks.

"I was at the back, standing on the lowest ledge of the village's main water tank. The tank was almost 40 feet tall, with a web of mechanized underground pipe veins spun out from its heart across the village. One of the safest places, I thought. Ten feet above the crowd, far away from the commotion. No one on the oasis would dream of damaging any water tank, especially that one. But when the vision of white materialized into a frenzied creature, the crowd was pressed up around the tank, and there was nowhere for me to go, no way to move.

"Suddenly, I felt the shock of ghosted vibrations shake through my skull as the elephant took its first step off the boards into our grass and shouted with rage. That moment, in that moment from the road to oasis, from outside to in, the elephant had found new purpose.

"The crowd had thinned, and before I could think, there I was, staring into the dark eyes of a blinding white elephant caught in sunlight, swinging toward me with a speed that I never realized such an unwieldy animal could have. I was paralyzed. Have you ever seen such an extraordinary creature like that, Doctor?"

"No, I don't think I have... You never told me before that you were on the water tank. Didn't you say that you were pushed together in the crowd last time?" I reached over to turn off one of the reserve lanterns hooked to the transport window. It was getting lighter, but our shadows still swam over the loose curves of the tent wall. One of the workers gestured at me from the door flap. I held up my hand, motioning for five minutes as the workers pulled the doorflap off and began dismantling the tent. Outside, the other doctors were spraying disinfectant on the transport vehicle and folding chairs. The sun was almost up, its first dim rays crawling towards a flat horizon that was broken by a traffic light on the road that curved north.

"No, no, you're mistaken. The water tank is where we met," said Min. Amir nodded.

"All of a sudden, my vision blurred in a warm streak of pain. And there she was. My love," Amir said, looking at Min with the warm glow of a gap-toothed smile.

"I saw Amir, standing up there, gawking mindlessly. I pulled at his pant cuff, I slapped his leg, I even tried pushing him off the ledge. But he was mesmerized," said Min. "Only a splash of sand in his eyes could break the hold. I grabbed Amir's hand just as the elephant came barreling into the tank, toppling over the supply of water we had worked to build for over 7 years... 7 years of deprivation, cooperation, thirst, burning eyes, rations, to protect our oasis and purify our water... We had no idea that one animal could unravel so many years of work. It was impossible. But fate is single-minded."

"It flooded over the elephant," said Amir, "bringing him stillness, it washed over bodies and dragged us to our knees, and spilled back into the earth in less than 12 hours. 12 hours and it was gone, not a sign of it left but in stems of grass that hoarded life in the shadows of their green ribs. Unsaveable and risen in steam to be carried out on the desert air.

Min and I fell grabbing at the water, holding one another's hands... The whole village emerged to crawl in the slimming pools and save what they could. And still Sam's alarm flickered, barreling into our memories." Flickered into memory.

"But the elephant, he, he just lay there in the pool he had laid claim to, poured water over his flanks, and fell asleep," Min said.

"Our fear of the elephant dissipated as quickly as he came, as quickly as the water left. With nearly no water remaining, some had gone home to pack and start moving on the roads. A dry oasis is not any more home than the endless stretch of the board roads... There were no hidden reservoirs, no secret stashes.

"After two days, I realized that the elephant had not moved from his spot," said Min, "except to stretch occasionally between yawns. Isn't that strange?"

"Sure..." I said.

"Amir thought so too, so we visited the elephant again and realized that, while the entire village's water supply seemed to have evaporated, the elephant still sat in a small, barely noticeable pool."

"Min and I visited the elephant every day, and still the little pool remained. And still, the elephant slept. So we began collecting water from the pool. Three times a night for five nights, we visited the elephant with a pale big enough for three days' ration, and each time, without explanation, we were able to fill our pale. Still he slept.

"After we were sure that the water was not going anywhere, we told the governors. It did not take long for them to decide that the elephant must be moved. We couldn't convince them that it was the wrong thing to do."

"And they couldn't convince you that it was the right thing to do..." I murmured. They didn't hear me.

"That evening, we got married. We packed up our belongings and the water we collected in Amir's sun-run rickshaw and jumped off the sinking ship."

"You were that confident that they were making the wrong decision?"

"Just fate, doctor," said Amir.

"OK, moving on..." Sweat was dripping down my spine. The tent was gone, and the first rays of sun were already piercing my back. But I made myself stay still as the workers dismantled around us.

"The next morning, as we were leaving the village, we saw a large group of workers tying Airavata's sleeping limbs and neck with thick ropes," said Amir. "When the pulling began, so did the rage. From the distance, we saw a cloud of dust and sand balloon above the village. That was the last we, or anyone, saw of Aral."

I could feel the engine of the transport vibrating the boards under our feet.


8 weeks later, we came back to the Hoover settlement camp with more supplies. This would be our last stop, and as the sun declined, the whole crew celebrated with a dusty bottle of whiskey picked up at one of the roadside pubs several months ago.

It had been a long year of traveling up and down the same long stretch of road, and we were finally heading back to the city. Hundreds of miles of stopping and starting and punctuated glimpse into loose webs of fragile lives. Part-time nomads chasing after the vulnerabilities of perpetual nomads backed into desert corners.

I smiled and clinked my glass with its puddle of amber juice, but I was secretly dreading the return. There was nothing for me to return to. No wife, no child, no home, only an organized factory of other people's children waiting, a funhouse mirror of hundreds of tiny shut eyes squinting under the glare of life.


When the sun was near-gone, we emerged from the transport to set up the help stations. Thousands of faces peered at us from organized lines. Hoover had grown in the last 8 weeks.

Amir was near the beginning of the line, squatting on a clear plastic barrel that was waiting indefinitely to be filled with something more meaningful than air. Huddled under a white tarp, perched above the crowd, he surveyed the landscape with his eyes half shut, inching forward with the lines.

"Where's Min?" I asked him when he'd reached the front. "Did she follow my instructions? She's nearly due."

"Min isn't here any more," said Amir.

"What do you mean? Where would she go? Did something happen?"

"No, nothing happened."

"Then how could you let her go anywhere, she was in no condition to travel with the baby so near its due date. Where did she go?"

"What baby? She went back to Aral," said Amir. His eyes, glazed with absence, wandered up and down the length of the transport. "She said it was time to go home. I told her that Aral no longer existed, but she wouldn't listen. She wanted you to have this." He handed me a thick book and shuffled away into the crowd, leaving the barrel behind for me to fill.


Yesterday, I delivered baby number 400. It's probably more than that, but when I took to recording their names, many years ago, I decided to start at zero. The beginning. Everyone gets their own page, even though I rarely see any of them ever again. I'm at a loss, really, because I'm near the last page and I'm not sure what to do. Do I start again, let it go, or replace history with the ever-present? I write their names and whatever else comes to mind-- where I was, what their parents were like, maybe-- in a journal gridded with light grey hand-drawn lines. It is bound in sharply cut, bright white leather, velvety white, worn down at the corners from bumps and falls over the years. I really am a blunt instrument, shaping these children's paths from point A to B. I am the road.