Her hands were pitch-black now, but they had not always been.
The bus lurched on the iron bridge crumbling apart. It stumbled on the bumps of the road like an infant learning to walk. She would have clutched the armrest to reassure herself that she would survive the journey, but between the residual dirt and sweat left like a legacy by previous passengers, and the old man subtly trying to shift closer to her, she remained indecisive.
“Going to work?” an old lady enquired, elbowing the old man as she spoke. He smiled sheepishly and shifted away to the gang of hooligans who were howling at girls on the street like wolves. He looked as if he wanted to join them.
Begging divine intervention to avoid over-friendly travelers, she began to shift her lips into a benevolent grin, then remembered that her front gum had been bleeding in the morning. To avoid looking like a vampire after a successful expedition, she gave the lady a close-lipped smile, then dabbed at her mouth with a certain amount of haste. The wind billowed in through the window, making the old lady clutch her shawl more carefully.
“Where is it that you work, exactly?”
They called her the beauty of the town. Every boy in her village was madly in love with her, but she could never love anyone except herself. Was that why her beauty faded like the sun at twilight, which would come back only with the dawn of humility?
People came and went out of her life like shadows. But there are shadows only where there is light. No one stayed where darkness was.
As the coldness engulfed her, she took her hands out of her pockets to shut the window. Dust dripped from her darkened hands like poison, making the lady cough and spit out mucus. The fine particles lingered for a long time in the lady’s mouth, stopping her from attempting to chat her up again. But maybe it was because she did not need to ask: the word ‘miner’ was wrapped across her lips, her eyes, and her hands, across each nail of her fingers, across the knuckles that she still cleaned at night, desperate to get back some of their initial fairness, the lines in her palm that she tried to scrub away. The same lines that a fortune-teller had read and predicted that she would be a breaker of hearts.
She had neglected to mention, however, that the heart would be her own.
The mine was coated with dust. The older workers were on leave today. Today was the government’s mandatory health check. They had all been practicing coughing the previous day, so that they could be diagnosed with respiratory diseases and get free wages for the rest of their lives.
Her father had not faked it when he had worked there. The medical examiner had adjusted his spectacles when he saw her clutching her father’s hand while waiting for the diagnosis, afraid of how this stranger could break a world of happiness with his instruments. But in the end, he gave back the report to her father, not caring that it was as good as gibberish for him. “Better get her that job before it kills you,” was all he said. Her father’s lung cancer had grown like a weed in his body, affected as much by cigarettes as by the specks of coal that he breathed in like oxygen.
All her sisters crowded her, like maidservants crowding a princess.
“Your hands are so pretty,” they said wistfully, their eyes burning with envy. Her mother came in to call her; being the eldest, she was the only one called to her father’s deathbed. He did not smile when he saw her or tell her his last wish. He gripped her pearl-like hands in a death grip, so that purple bruises formed in seconds. “Don’t let the rest of them starve to keep these safe,” he said, and coughed. When she nodded, he released her hands and coughed for minutes before his lungs collapsed in the maze of tumors that his body had become.
It is how each miner dies, she told herself. Coughing all the way to the afterlife. Hands blackened by coal, but the heart never tarnished by its darkness.
The mines suffocated her, as they did always, a black cloud of heavy dust engulfing her. There was no one today except the supervisor, his chair carefully balanced under the shade of the sun, a local novel in his hands and a smug smile on his face. The only thing he supervised was the amount of coal each worker dug. She remembered that smile, those soulless eyes-
Her mother stood behind her in the mirror, her hands fidgeting nervously in the absence of the bangles she had always worn. Her mother taught her that the husband is the light of a woman’s life, and his death is worse than her own, for after it, the living goes out of her life.
“Your hands look disgraceful,” her mother scolded. “Already we refused to give them your dowry before marriage, so making you look pretty is all we can do. Your hands are your only beauty; wear those wristlets and adorn them, or you’ll darken them working your life in the mines.” She wondered if that was a prediction, or the curse of not being able to find a husband.
She forced a smile and went outside, suppressing her horror at the man who stood before her. It was one of the boys who always stood outside her house, begging her to marry him. She felt his cold eyes running over her body and shrugged off his icy gaze, focusing only on the artificial silver of her ring. In her mind, she pretended that he stared because he really loved her, because he could see into her and see all her flaws. Not because he liked the shape of her waist, or the curve of her eyelashes, or the length of her hair, or the fairness of her hands. She shivered as she recalled his first wife, dead after the first month of her marriage. The bruises and bite marks on her arms and neck, which everybody wanted to believe was the work of an animal. Her dead body, gossiped about in the village as a warning to wives.
On the day of her marriage, she sat patiently in her room, waiting for him. No one from the groom’s side arrived. Not even the groom himself.
She remembered him coming into her room the previous night. The reek of alcohol and coal from his body had made her retch and gag. “I am your husband,” he had slurred. “I can do whatever I want.” She recalled herself pushing him away, and him slapping her in rage. He told her not to provoke him, and she fell silent, letting him do whatever he wanted. That was what her mother wanted, was it not, a lifetime of silence and suffering for retaining the whiteness of her hands?
She remembered feeling choked in his presence and deciding that she would rather suffocate in the dust of hard work like her father than choke in oppression.
She wondered what her mother would say if she knew that her dowry had been given away, after all. Not to encourage marriage, but to avoid it.
The supervisor, as if sensing her gaze, left his novel and stepped towards her. “Are you actually going to do any work with those useless hands of yours?”
As she descended into the mines, the familiar dust tingled in her nostrils like the smell of fire. For a moment, she immersed her hands in the coal all around her, rejoicing when the dark substance melded with the blackness of her palm. Maybe her hands were not as white as snow. But when she would die, she would not be remembered as the girl who got humiliated at her wedding. She would not be remembered as the girl with the white hands. The only thing that would remember her for years would be the coal, the black of it fused with her once-white fingers and leaving its mark upon everyone it touched.
For a moment, her hands looked beautiful.