There is nothing stronger than the urge to be alone. As she sat in the dark of the wardrobe, the slightly rough wood stroking against her bare feet and her elbows, she could feel her muscles slowly relax from the clenched state they were in before. The clenching that was natural in the presence of others, in the misery that the presence of others brought.
After the house had figured out that this was her habit, she had tried other places; the corner of the roof, the cement gardener’s shed outside, the trunk in the second-floor spare room. She would disappear from their midst, so quietly it was impossible to miss her until a good time had passed. Or maybe her presence was such a surfeit that they never did feel the need for her to be around. But anyhow, at some point, someone would ask about the new daughter-in-law. Someone would be sent to look for her and fetch her. In the beginning it was Shahrukh, but when relations became strained between them, it was often his nephew who went searching.
Ramla preferred it when Asim found her. Even though being pulled out by Shahrukh after she’d been hiding, her clothes crumpled, her mind lost in daydreams, always reminded her of their wedding night. She’d hid in the wardrobe, covered in two tonnes of paint and jewellery and clothes, and he’d pulled her out and into his embrace, laughing like a maniac at the silliness of his brand new wife.
These days he did not laugh. More and more the frown of thunder that made her tremble to her bones would be on his face when he brought her out. Sometimes his jaw would be set in a not-so-subtle display of control against the anger her stupid habit produced.
But Asim was always nice and polite. He was the teenage son of the eldest sister, and Sharukh had always felt rather paternal towards him. Since she had moved in, he had treated his uncle’s wife like a new and peculiar oddity. He was deeply impressed by her accomplishments, but her personal foibles produced in him an almost scientific interest. They didn’t get along wholly well, but he was kind and respectful.
The rest of the house treated her with a sort of disdainful patience. She was the anomalous choice of the youngest son at a point where they’d all given up hope of his ever settling. On the surface perfect: well-educated, well brought up, well off, they only learnt of her essential weirdness when their son and brother brought her home. By then it was too late. Shahrukh refused to chuck her out, however much she tried his patience.
For her own part, Ramla could not understand her compulsive need to lock herself away any more than her husband, who was claustrophobic, and sometimes shuddered when he found her in an especially small, tight place. All she knew was that it was so strong, and overcame her so completely every time, that if she did not do it she would veritably die.
Other than that, Ramla tried to be happy. She had married Shahrukh out of love, and quickly learnt that love was not the eternal, transforming and powerful force she had believed it to be. Certainly it wasn’t enough to sustain a marriage that was an essential mismatch from the start. She tried to ignore this truth, however, and make the best of a bad deal.
Once, in the second floor trunk, she had gotten locked in. The clasps, although she had been careful to fix them in an open position, had moved back down when the lid shut, and when she checked the lid she found it would not move.
It was at this point that she realised the extent of her deep-seated misery. Instead of the panic and claustrophobia such an episode would have provoked earlier, she felt only a sheer sense of peace. Maybe if they never found her, she could die here. And then she’d never have to feel bad again.
When Asim found her, five hours later, she was sound asleep, a smile of such profound calm on her face that he hated himself for having to wake her and take her back down.