Grains by Niven Govinden

The sleeping pill she'd taken to escape the worst of the driving was a dud; the jolts and starts that had shaken her bones for the past four hours continued with no let-up as the jeep drove across the plains.


She had travelled to this country for the same reason she had crossed continents before, for the sake of her camera. It meant that she both noticed and was immune to everything: the thick musk of the man who drove the jeep and of the other two riders; how manners existed in their rough ways.


She was the only woman with them as they headed to the job, but their nods to her as the bumps across the terrain became more severe, or later, when the aroma from the cooking pot was followed by a bowl being shoved into her hand, indicated a care or respect of sorts. They would never welcome her fully, but understood why she was there.


In the glove compartment she found two cassettes, one unmarked, the other, a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed left behind by a previous traveller. Neither had been played in years. Ants ran amok through the spools of the radio-cassette, and a short length of tape streamed from the open mouth of the machine, knotted and discoloured. A wooden box contained the horse teeth they were saving to trade during winter. There was money too, coins chinking through the thin mattress in the trunk rolled out a short distance from the nightly camp-fire, but the teeth were more readily used.


She would never comment about the musk or the food, nor the condition they lived in, absent of female care. But when she asked how they could survive without music, even a radio for so long; why they didn't use the teeth to buy a replacement, she felt amateur and naïve. She prided herself on her empathy, but mistakes like this made her feel at her most alone. By now hundreds of miles inside the plains with nothing in sight, every hectare felt like their hometown, a place unknown to her. The men’s laughter held all the way past the mountains.


It was not so much a destination they reached; more that they found what they were looking for: animals drinking from a muddy steam.


The wild horses matched their new riders, gnarled and ugly. Energy depleted once an epic resistance against tethering had been lost, their faces were terrifying: broken teeth bared, and nostrils dripping with sweat.


At the crucial moment, when they finally accepted the weight on their backs and understood they were being ridden, their muted cries for mercy were devastatingly human, and she closed her ears to it, knowing she had no power to stop anything.


The men were serious now, the laughter long since abandoned as they shouted to each other over the careering horses, their hands coiling the rope back and forth and then pulling hard.


The air around both horse and rider was fetid. Breeze or no breeze made little difference. It lodged thickly in her throat making her gag as one horse after another was brought to the ground. Enveloped by animal heat, close to passing out, to puking, she moved away from the jeep door and took her photographs.



Niven Govinden is the author of three novels, most recently Black Bread White Beer, Fourth Estate/HarperCollins India, which was longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications internationally.