Mary Marbourg


WHEN I SCRUB a pot in the sink and hear, after a slight delay, water spewing out somewhere near the orange tree, or hang my laundry on the line in the papaya grove, or see a cobra slithering out of the compost when I toss in a banana peel, I feel an unearned sense of euphoria, a benign, low-grade psychosis. Pleasure at the world fills me. A young family of potters is digging red dirt out of the nearby ravine and putting it into burlap sacks for potting clay. They occasionally interrupt their work to laugh at a joke or take a chai break, but mostly their heads are down as they shovel. I too keep mine down, and alongside their clanking, I hang laundry and flip my mattress, which I have dragged into the sun. It has mildew and needs to be disinfected. I have arranged the wrought iron chairs so the mattress rests on them and not the ground. Tonight, I will go to an Iranian-French film, and tomorrow, I will go to the market and buy more vinegar to pour over the mattress to kill off the last of the mildew because even now, as I sniff it, the smell irritates and flattens my nostril hairs. Still. Still, I can’t believe how much joy life has to give when I am quiet and listen, when I am able to get inside the rattle and shush it, saying, “Let’s be in this silence a moment longer.”

As I stand in the kitchen, kneading millet flour for flatbread, I realize I’m not sure I will ever get married. That that way of living is one that I am finding myself letting go off here among the red chili plants, the ripening papayas and bananas, and the apricot poodle next door. She is blind but can easily navigate the world. “You just can’t move anything,” says the Tamil man who owns the guesthouse where I am staying. The surfaces of her eyes are cloudy. They have the same whitish film as a carp that has gone belly up. It is beginning to seem to me that not marrying is an act of protection, and I need to protect my imagination. To marry would be to bring a mortar into the life of a pestle and to have endless crushing and grating. I don’t want to start grinding my teeth at night with worry that my capacity for imagination is shrinking, that it is being filled up with something hard, like cement.

When I am in the kitchen and the wife of the Tamil man, my neighbor, is in her kitchen, we chat through the window. Its glass is opaque so we can see each other’s forms but little else. Propped in her window frame, further blocking our view of the other, is an oil painting of three women wearing mustard-colored saris with their pallus pulled over their heads. One is looking up shyly at the viewer; another is bent over, making dough for roti, the third is squatting, attending to a fire. I look at the painting sometimes, instead of her form, when we are speaking through the smoked glass. I ask about her brother’s upcoming marriage and what she plans on cooking for dinner. “Something with coconut,” she says. In this way, she and I have developed an intimacy. We can hear each other’s cooking sounds—the bangs of pots and tings of metal plates. We can smell each other’s cooking smells—the blooms of onion, coconut mixed with something sour, lemon or tamarind. And sometimes I murmur through the glass, “Oh, that smells good.” The vapor is so tangible that I feel a caramelized onion is being sent to me—I can reach up and pluck it whole from the air.

When I message Mom in response to something that she has written to me about my meditation friend, who is quickly seeing himself more as my teacher, I write that she shouldn’t be impressed by his resume. In fact, that isn’t what is impressive about him at all. What is impressive is that he’s curious and actually listens to some of what I say and often asks questions. Of course, he then bosses me around. He wants me to shed the mollusk shell of what he believes imagination to be: heavy, blinding, and cumbersome to carry around. However, right now, he is content enough with my meditation practice not to push this final shucking too much. Mom messages back immediately. Since finishing Haushofer’s The Wall—a novel in which a woman in a hunting lodge in the Australian Alps mistakenly believes she is the last living human—Mom says she has thought a lot about the stranger the narrator shot at the end. She has been debating whether or not she would have shot him if she had been in the narrator’s position. Even though he murdered both the bull and the narrator’s beloved dog with an axe, Mom hesitates. On the one hand, she could have finally had another human to talk with! But on the other hand, he would have taken over, become the one in charge, changed the patterns that the narrator had developed to survive, for example her clever system of moving the bull and heifer. He would have known what was best! even though she already had a successful plan in place. That Mom believes a friendship with such a man might be possible, well, she is either more forgiving, or more prone to loneliness, than I am.

After years of this not being the case, Mom says she is now the boss of her and Dad. There is no talking before lunch. She tires of him naming things so early in the day. During lunch, she allows him his favorite topics—the problem with the concept of free will or the fact that quantum mechanics is a mathematical structure and physicists are wrong to shove it into the casing of ordinary language. Today, she tells me, it was something about Leibniz’s monads. After lunch, only general topics of conversation are allowed—the weather, a television show’s plot, the new catalpa tree, or the morel mushrooms growing in the backyard.

I am happy to be away from such strictures. I have realized to save yourself you have to save yourself. Save yourself far away from others. In my case, anyway. Leave and then go back, not to save anyone, but to be part of something—something human, I mean. But for now, I listen to the unending burble of the jungle babblers. One is usually perched up high in the orange tree, acting as a sentinel, prattling out warning cries at the palm squirrels and garden lizards. Sharply cutting through the babblers’ gregariousness is the shrill, persistent pee-pee-ahs of the brainfever birds and the howling miaows of the blue-necked peacocks. I can hear the occasional, slight laments of the poodle. Perhaps blindness has affected the tone of her wailing. Later today, when I take her for a walk, I will pick her up and carry her over the cattle guards installed on the paths. The gaps between the bars are supposedly wide enough that a cow can’t navigate them with her hoofs, but I have seen several do just this rather skillfully and enter areas normally forbidden to them, with their delicious grasses and flowers. The woman next door, the owner of the poodle, has torn her tendon after standing for three days straight at her brother’s wedding. She is immobile, resting upstairs, and now when she smells my cooking, she quietly calls my name and asks me to bring her water or rearrange the pillows so that her ankle is elevated and the swelling goes down. Sometimes I help the husband as well. Yesterday, we laid chunks of charcoal over the potted plants’ topsoil, so when the gardener waters them, the soil retains moisture longer, needed in this heat. And last week, we took the soapnut fruits that had been drying in the sun and ground them into a shampoo powder.

Nowadays, Dad writes me long emails about his perceived physical deterioration. As if to counteract this demise, he tells me that he is changing his will. He worries that he might survive both me and Mom. If he does, he wants me to know that he has written a provision into his will. If he survives us, he is making an abbey he visited many years ago his beneficiary. He believes that ongoing meditation is the best humans can achieve, and though it is not a life he recommends nor thinks particularly commendable, he likes that there are still people organizing their lives around it. “Anyway,” he writes, “it doesn’t matter. It is not enough money to make much of a difference to anyone.”

The Tamil couple has let the poodle out early. I see her expectantly sitting in front of the laundry line, sniffing and whining at my flapping clothes. She is waiting for me to materialize. I grab her leash from the table and call her name. For a second, she is confused as to where I am but then she’s delighted, thumping her tail on the gravel. I understand. I, too, have learned to delight at what reveals itself in the unexpected.


I COLLECT STONES from the banks of the Ganga and put them in the pockets of my salwar. Not to drown myself, of course. I wouldn’t need them to do that. I could just throw myself in. The current is so strong that, every hour, loudspeakers issue instructions on how not to drown. Already this week, two men have. By the end of monsoon, it will be twenty or thirty, mostly young men, showy, letting go of the iron chains bolted to the ghat.

Recently, the police eased into the water a man who was dying underneath the Sivananda arch. None of the hospitals would take him, not even the ones associated with ashrams. Older people sometimes decide to go this way. They check into rooms in the guesthouses along the Ganga, and in the early dawn when mist covers the water and a swami somewhere is chanting, they wade in. This method of suicide has become so prevalent that now the guesthouses refuse to rent rooms to single, older guests, even when younger relatives vouch for their vitality and desire to live. I have stood sometimes on the balcony outside my room at that time of morning, looking for them. I saw an older woman wade out quite far, but then, in the last moment, she turned around and walked back. But she might have just been bathing, and once out there in the frigid water, spontaneously decided to test some limit.

As for the stones, I am collecting them to add to the pile on my nightstand, so when the barking dogs wake me at night, I can hurl some in their direction.

Sometimes, when I am walking with those stones in my pockets, I pretend that I am actually going to wade into the Ganga. I remember standing nearby a woman in a bookstore once. She had pulled a Plath book down from the shelf and almost triumphantly announced to the man she was with that Plath had killed herself by filling her pockets with stones, wading into the Thames, and drowning. What did it matter, I thought, if she got the writer and river wrong? It is just a story, the main point of which is to convey how much pain women live with. The antidote, however inaccurate, was ultimately correct.

The story I tell to illustrate how women have to be vigilant about asking those around them to believe their pain is one in which a woman visits her family’s gravesite to perform ancestor worship. Afterward, her eyes became irritated. She tells the doctor she feels like something is inside them. She is given eyedrops and dismissed as overly sensitive. The pain worsens. It is only after her eyes swell shut and she can no longer open them that the doctor believes her and she is given a thorough examination by an ophthalmologist. After which, it is discovered that sweat bees have been living under her eyelids, feeding off her tears.

With this in mind, when I see that one of the dogs who barks all night has a large cut on her forehead, I feed her pieces of paneer with antibiotics shoved inside. I whisper, “I will help you, even though you are the bitch who keeps me awake at night.”

MARY MARBOURG‘s work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Conjunctions online, and elsewhere. She has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona and written children’s books for a publishing house in Seoul. She currently lives in India.