It was late noon in the heart of the city, and the girl I was supposed to meet was early once again. She was picking her way through clumps of ragged grass, weaving in and out of shadows cast by elderly gulmohar. Khaki chappal-ed feet finding their own way. Stepping off the edge of the map. She smiled, perhaps amused by her own visual metaphors. She was another day old today, and this was her present. An hour alone with ghosts from another century. The gravestones were crumbly granite beneath her touch; the monuments expelled dusty sighs. A landscape of marble and aged wood, fit easel for any modern artist. A patch of earth where the satiated dead could rest.
In China, she said to herself in a vaguely schoolteacher-ish tone, a coffin tree is selected for each child at birth, so that when he is older and feels time closing in, he can have it cut down and made to order. A fitting way to prepare oneself.
A young mongrel followed her, tail wagging gratefully as she scratched behind its ears. Maybe it slept in one of the larger family vaults when night descended. Maybe it had learned to live with permanent, though incorporeal, tenants. Nevertheless, it seemed glad for human company.
The girl slipped off her shoes and settled down on her knees beneath a barren guava tree. Another day older, another day closer... to what? Thoughts fled smoothly from her consciousness like a flight of pigeons as the sound of silence rebounded among the trees. Slender fingers buried themselves in the rich, damp soil. Letting out roots. Tapping into the pulse of the earth. Cool arms clasped around her waist, cradling her, rocking slightly to an imperceptible rhythm. The giant breathing of a thousand strangers. A muffled heartbeat of aeons past.
A crow perched on a headstone nearby forgot to crow. The sun slipped behind opaque grey clouds, casting a brief halo in the sky as the girl smiled for the second time that day. She was a traveller, you see, a traveller and a seer, a pilgrim and an alchemist, and she inhabited worlds where empty pages could speak. Today was her birthday, and she was still very young.
That night it rained. Taut raindrops drummed gently against the window as we lay together like two stacked spoons, and she told me about her day. I listened to her voice more than her words- low, crystalline, tumbling out of her like the downpour outside. Held both her wrists close and shut my eyes. Thunder rumbled in a distant sky, but her voice, warm under my skin, distorted it into a safe degree of white noise.
Already, she was telling the story. I lay back and listened and didn't interrupt. The glow-in-the-dark bedside clock was still ticking. But now she was measuring out her own time. And I steadied myself to the flow of her breathing in the darkness beside me, and, just this once, I let her lead the way.