By LD Nicotera
Tara photographed the impoverished landscape made of sand and clay. A fierce sun raked the shadows at hard angles with no clouds in the sky to soften the light. The driver concentrated on getting the expensive air-conditioned car through the narrow path while Jaa, her interpreter, talked about the town’s history. Half-naked children weaved between the slow-moving cars and carts, using everything from rocks to preoccupied chickens as playthings. A volley of voices from street vendors rang out in friendly fire.
As the car passed a concrete bridge, Tara squinted into the jarring darkness. Just as Jaa touched her arm, an unexpected movement in the darkness startled her. She shrieked, and jumped back in her seat. The car lurched forward, crashing into a pole.
Moments later, Tara, the driver, and Jaa stood outside the car, inspecting the damage. Tara apologized for the incident, not noticing a local man who approached and knelt at her feet in prayer. She stumbled backwards, confused by the man’s odd behavior.
When he finished, she thanked him, more for leaving her in peace than for the prayer, but soon another local approached and began to pray. Other locals prayed at the feet of both her driver and Jaa. Waiting for the impromptu prayer session to end, and hoping no more would follow, she scanned her surroundings, which moments ago were so welcoming, but now felt alien.
The second man rose as a semi-deflated, discolored plastic ball rolled towards her. Grateful for the distraction, she tossed it to one of the nearby children. The boy watched her as the ball bounced down at his feet and rolled away.
She took a step and almost tumbled over a third man kneeling at her feet. Too embarrassed to endure more prayers, she walked away, but glimpsed the man following behind, doggedly continuing to pray.
The child stared at them as if watching a dance with death. All movement on the potholed street ceased, taken over by the cicadas’ incessant buzzing as the residents turned to observe the blundering outsider.
In the following weeks, Tara became ever more enchanted with the colorful markets which offered textiles, spices, and leather-ware. The smell of frying meat, cooking beans, and fresh fruit drifted between the stalls making her mouth water. Jaa led her through the maze of alleyways draped with dangling garments, and creeping vines that, dying to live, locked away every last drop of water until the next rain.
Praying in threes was an ongoing occurrence, but Tara managed to escape the devotees. Jaa explained that when someone was hurt or sick, the first three people of the community who became aware of the circumstance came to pray at their feet. Everyone prayed for everyone else. Tara continued to find the custom uncomfortable and convinced Jaa to tell the locals to cease praying for her.
The market stalls had been emptied for the day, but the usual mixture of young, middle-aged, and old went about the daily business of life. Free from the shadow of prayer, Tara viewed her surroundings in a new light. As she sauntered among the locals, a sheet of rain rushed up from the alleyways in a sudden rainstorm. She ran for shelter, but caught her foot in a pothole, breaking her ankle. Howling in agony, she begged for help, but the inhabitants rushed past, throwing askance glances of pity at her. Overwhelmed by pain and fear, she fell unconscious.
She awoke in the darkness of the concrete bridge. As her eyes adjusted to the poor light, she was struck with horror. Broken and diseased people surrounded her. The closest one wore a discolored tunic with a cowl shading most of their face, accentuating big olive eyes and hollowed cheeks. Their skin was sallow, and their breath smelled of sewage. Another two limped closer to Tara as if sniffing out fresh meat. The one with a broken leg covered in gangrene teemed with fleas, and the other was wrapped like a leper. The cumulative smells mixed into a confluence of blood, rot, and sweat.
Tara sat at the edge of the shadow of the bridge. She wept with soundless convulsions, not wanting their attention. When the sun returned and the village came back to life, the hum of a car drew her focus. A little boy peered out from the backseat, and Tara waved, but stopped short when the full weight of what she had become hit her. In this place, the pain and sorrow that befell a community member was caught by the prayers of their fellow citizens and diverted to the ones who had expelled themselves to bear the burden.
The exiled pray for no one and no one prays for them, but as vessels of the town’s misfortunes, they are equally reviled and revered.