Winter Garden

There were pigs in their neighbor’s garden one morning. Rukhsana needed little sleep at her age and woke before the crows. She watched the pigs root through the dirt, hunting for food. They ate her beans, her asparagus, her shallots, and young onions. The only other pigs she’d been so near were the pair of wild boars that surrounded her car near Islamabad. Her husband was a ranger in the army and travelled with a rifle under the car seat. He shot them down, and stayed battle ready until the last one stopped kicking its legs.

Those had been an epidemic while these were pets. Rukhsana felt a sense of danger watching the way they ate her winter garden. She hit one near its tail with a broom. They all fled to the nearby petting zoo. The petting zoo had dogs that dug up the flowers near her driveway and howled at night. The pet llama had washed up on the beach after Hurricane Irene. Chunks of its fur had floated near the house for a week. She smelt now the neighbor’s compost heap. She imagined diseases festering in the hides of animals.

The neighbor on the other side of the petting zoo made monstrous beasts with his hands. Aaus was an artist. Zal on meeting Rudabeh in the epic Shahnameh had known that together they excelled in beauty. Aaus excelled in beauty, but nothing else.

The outlandish metal sculptures loomed large and nightmarish from his backyard. Rukhsana could see them now—a whale heaving out of the soil, elephant tusks shifting in the wind, a goldfish in repose. The bronze and gold bodies worked like wind chimes and emitted a subsonic metallic humming. It was a premonition of disaster on the surface of her body. Aaus said he was communing with God.

Rukhsana recalled her mother at her own age—a shriveled woman, semi-conscious for months before her death, awake only when in pain or crying. She was confused, but full of smiles. The lament from her funeral had gone—O lady, beloved of your children and all who knew you. Why did you leave just as it came time to enjoy your rest? To throw away the bitterness you had swallowed whole?

There was a shortage of good times; some must have very little, just so the others could take the rest. Her mother had died unhappy but smiling as if to excuse herself from the crowded room. Rukhsana had thought the same would happen to her just a few years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had survived and moved to America. Now she lived with her pregnant daughter, Roha. Roha’s husband was run over by a car while crossing the street in a nearby city. They were surrounded here by rural farmland. There was an oceanside resort nearby and the mid-size city. She’d seen the city, visited the houses of her daughter’s friends, shopped at an outlet mall for china, walked along the coast, seen wild deer, sharks in an aquarium, been to a museum to sit tiredly under the thick behemothic bones of a dinosaur, to feel close to an embalmed child, took pictures of recognizable landmarks, but she didn’t really know that she lived here. That first drive out from the airport had left her disoriented. Roha drove to the city for work while Rukhsana stayed home. She fed the visiting birds and feared their grime and dirt.

She had spent her life in remote places with quiet and remote people. Her father and her mother, for example. The way they would do one thing, one task in the long day, and retire to bed at dusk. They would even—in a gathering—talk slow. They said few things. Rukhsana was always thinking she was the same as them. She felt it now like a nub of stone digging to her soul. It was reassuring in its fidelity. In the quiet of the farm came daily her connection with those who were gone.

Roha had never liked rural life. It did terrible things to her. It had made her strange, almost fey. It was the distant look in her dark, panoptic eyes. Her solitariness like a wadi known for its ephemeral water. It was the way Roha had of coming in through the door with her head raised proudly like a mare. Sit with me, she would say to her mother. Just sit. They’d sit together and not laugh nor cry nor fight or reminisce or eat or sleep or even touch.

Who knew what grief did in the womb? Could it transmit through the umbilical cord? It might pass from mother to son. Rukhsana worried about the unborn child. Would he carry his father’s eyes? She hoped he would laugh his mother’s laugh. That laugh had vanished to a dusty plain without water or vegetation.

Roha’s mother called her at work just a few hours after she left home. “The artist’s little girl is dead,” Rukhsana said. “They found the body in the back garden. I heard she jumped. Which, frankly, I don’t think is likely. It must have been an accident. Some horrible accident. Her parents are devastated. I feel it, too. It’s this choking feeling coming from their farmhouse. The land around the house is trampled by reporters, friends, and even tourists. The house heaving with too many bodies has melt the snow to slush. What will they do? What will they do when all these people have left and they’re alone? It would be frighting to be alone with that feeling.”

The artist and his wife, Shirin, took walks together on warmer days in the fall and the start of the winter months. They could walk for miles without tiring or saying much. A deer, a glimpse of the glinting ocean. It was between them. They were not alone. It had been weeks of frost and frozen roads and paths. It was an icy winter. A murmuration of starlings fell from the sky. They had icicles for beaks. They nicknamed them snowpeckers and laughed. They could only laugh at death now. They knew it was in the minerals, in the centers of stones, in the pricks in bushes. They didn’t know any place where it wasn’t.

Late one evening, an old Cuban woman with rollers in her hair shuffled and shuffled to get across to the mailbox. What might be worth this effort? They watched from inside our warm home. Should someone help her? She was somersaults in the white snow.

Aaus and Shirin stood on an outcropping of rock leading into the water. They had not forgotten what had happened to their daughter, but it was suddenly like being in a boat full of salt. Their eyes were full of salt. They bent down to the edge of the water and leaned into the wind. Aaus shook as he whispered into Shirin’s ear. They jumped in like young dragonflies scared to literal death of being eaten.

They emerged from the water soaking wet, still clutching hands and laughing loudly. The tress were panting, sweating and almost joyous from the shock of watching them rise out of the ocean, magical like prehistoric fish evolving into tetrapods and walking the land.

“It was my idea,” Aaus said to Roha. She had seen them jump into the water while on her evening walk. She stopped to see if they were all right. “Shirin didn’t want to get up. I let her sleep for days. She didn’t want to eat. Today she said she couldn’t feel anything. Her legs and feet have ballooned into larva. I wonder what will come out. Something good, I hope. She needs help getting up these days but refuses it. Right in the bathroom door, she falls back without hesitation. I catch her each time and lower her to the ground. I pour spoonfuls of sugar into her mouth. I rub her hands and feet. Her burning forehead. I tell her body that it eats too little. But did you hear her laughing? She can really laugh, can’t she?”

“I lived in Karachi for three years after I left Iran. I met Shirin in the city. We used your country as a stepping stone on our way to Germany. My daughter was born deep in my exile. She housed pieces of the past, minarets peaking behind new apartment buildings, a caravanserai where we could come and rest and so many voices tripping over each other. Karachi transformed when I arrived. It was a new city when we left. A city, more than ever, of immigrants and their trauma. We were like frightened insects crowded into trees and drowning in new waters. It was on the walls. It was burning in the streets. I still have dreams where I cook eggs to the smell of melting rubber, hot asphalt, and gunpowder. I worked construction with the Pashtuns and walked home each day to save money instead of taking a bus. I would fight by the roadside. When Shirin scolded me or refused to even speak to me, she threatened to leave me, I asked her—and just where will you go?

“‘I will walk into the ocean,’ she said.

“I grabbed a cyclist by his sleeve and dragged him to the ground, but mostly I fought men like myself walking alone in the night. Loiterers. Losers. They always fought back. We only stopped when some passerby ripped us apart.”

“In Dhofar, Oman, people from the mountains or those living in the mountains are called the Jebali. These nomads raise goats, camels, and cattle. They roof their seasonal houses with timber and limb from olive and acacia trees as shelter from the monsoon rains which have been falling since 10,000 BC. This rain splits up families. Camels have thin bones that break if they slip in mud and fall. When the wadis flood someone must take these big, fragile creatures to the coastal plains. Someone must stay with the cattle. I wonder how long the rainy season lasts and if the Jebali wish it would not come the next year. It’s the Jebali who know the tamarind tree well as it grows facing the Arabian sea from its perch on the slope of the plateau. It’s called imlee in Urdu, while in Bengali and Sindhi it’s giddamrii. In Vietnamese it is me. I don’t know what it’s called in Hindko or Swati, only that it has stopped growing in Karachi. It doesn’t grow near people from the mountains or people from the deserts or people who have lived in the city since before 1947. It just doesn’t grow.”

“Recently a small island rose in the Arabian Sea just off the coast of Gwadar port near Karachi. It emerged near Ormara a couple years before and within sight of the fishermen of Pasni in November 1945. It is Zalzala Koh. I hear it appears in turbulent times, near fault lines. It is viscous mud rising out of the fissuring sea, bringing with it dead fish, fragments of oyster shells and fossils. It has appeared three times in the past fifteen years off the Makran coast. It’s really a secret volcano. I worry that it will spew mud down to the coast and break all the camels’ bones.”

Roha heard the artist out even though he sounded crazy. Sometimes you need to rant out loud. Roha could tell when someone was ranting in a subway car or walking home in the sleet, going slowly through an underpass, staring blankly at the woman who stared back. She was somehow always that lonesome woman. Why was she passing through that sleet? That underpass?

Roha came back later with Rukhsana to ask if Aaus and Shirin needed help, but in fact she knew they were beyond help. Their tongues were too thick in their mouths. They walked away to the next room and sometimes walked out in violent rages. Their eyes were skinned.

Aaus had a wet cat face, too thin under the unusually heavy fur. Variegated, skewbald, spotted near the mouth. It’s true that once you drown the animal, something almost human appears. Shivering, sneezing, and unbearably awkward. Curled up in the only patch of sunlight in the room.

Roha had once been to meet Gulgee the painter in his witch’s house in Nathiagali. The house had a single eye set in its forehead like the cyclops, and its interior was magically vast when compared to the exterior. The painter was a small statured man, which was why she didn’t remember him well, but she couldn’t forget his wife after catching only a glimpse of her through a partially open door.

Mrs. Gulgee’s large body lay on the bed. Her dark eyes stared back as a maid messaged her arms and legs. Roha didn’t know this, but it wouldn’t be Shirin that she remembered in the future or Aaus or even their two handsome sons or the ghost of their young daughter hovering over their heads. She wouldn’t forget their winter garden.

The front garden not the back one in which the girl had died. It brought to mind rock climbing—the bare-handed human grappling of rock—in its spareness. There were no flowers or even leaves. The branches of trees were covered in birdlime. The use of birdlime was illegal in their state to trap local birds, but Shirin hoarded them in a small room filled with metal cages. She had collected—the laughing gull, the common grackle, Wilson’s phalarope, eastern whip poor-will, the sage thrasher, lazuli bunting, killdeer, and others. She demanded faithfulness like a possessive lover and watched her neighbor’s birdhouses—the transgressiveness of the local flock—with anger and humiliation.

It was the poor girl in her. The third daughter of a man who married thrice for just one son. She felt mottled when others got the things she wanted. There was something comforting about her hobby. It reminded her of the way her mother would dry red peppers in the sun. They would burn incandescent in the afternoon light, all that wealth for the coming months, and she was shoring her own store for the year against the blight of ugliness. She was putting an effort to fight the famine of beauty.

Shirin was vain. She covered all the mirrors in the house, not from grief or under the influence of superstition, but because she abhorred the way bereavement made her skin crinkle. She disliked the red color of her swollen eyes and her fat thighs from overeating. She hated that she still cared about such things. Her back was very slightly curved from osteoporosis. It was noticeable only in the mornings when she walked around in her thin sleepwear. Her husband felt tenderness watching the gentle stoop bend over the stove.

Aaus followed his visitors out the door and chatted in his careless way. “You’re our ascetic in the woods,” he said to Roha. “We see you out walking with your hair covered in snow. Our wise woman of the forest. I think you remind me of those mystics who showed their trust in Allah by traveling through the desert without provisions and were unafraid of lions sleeping on the top of mountains.”

“I won’t let the beasts get me,” Roha said.

The ghost felt shy. She folded herself to a small square and hid herself in her father’s shirt pocket. He torched and welded metal with her lying very close to his rhythmic heart and his blunt speech. His strong arms hammered out gnarled shapes. She yelled her joy into his ear. He would wipe his sweat onto her hair, face, arms, and legs. She got washed along with laundry. She got thinner and thinner in the water and faded with the colors. She was lint in the pocket of her mother’s trousers. It seems grey, but in fact it is many color—also skin cells, pollen and shredded tissues—and not just fluff floating away from solid matter. She rustled with the coins and keys.

She didn’t live in any city, the sea, or near the desert. She didn’t live in Saba or the Staked Plains. She was a deciduous tamarisk transplanted on saline soil. She provided shade, was an expert windbreaker and prevented soil erosion. She mined nearby eyes for salt. They had been ruthlessly exploited in the early years and had no reserve of water for the drought. She prevented black blizzards. She grew like spring flowers from her brothers’ shoulders. She was cherry blossom pink and achromatic white. They were sturdy trees that had withstood the winter months.

Roha gave birth in February. It was not yet spring. Aaus built her son a metal cradle. Aaus and Shirin came to visit with fruit from their garden. They talked of the chill leaving them soon.  

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