A clothed woman carries a vase of flowers up and down steps.
Collotype after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Image via Wellcome Collection.

There is an old lady who hangs around my apartment. I don’t know where she comes from, or where she actually lives. She just shows up whenever she wants.

“It’s really not appropriate,” I have told her many times. “This is America. We have boundaries.”

“Oh you think you’re so special,” she says, as she fills her plate with food from my kitchen. Not the nutritious food I buy to show that I am a healthy person — yams and cucumbers, kimchee and kale — but the things I really eat. Chocolate chips and potato chips and croissants with butter and jam.

“What do you want?” I ask, as she follows me around the apartment and into my kitchen, watching how I make coffee, noting that I don’t clean up, that I leave the soggy filter to drip on the counter.

“If you don’t know by now,” she says.

I wait, but that’s the end of her statement.

I tell her I’m going to read my book and to please shut up so I can focus.

The book I’m reading is about delight and the author’s compulsion to share it. Paging through all his delight makes me tired and I fall into a deep sleep. In my sleep, I feel someone settle on the couch next to me and stroke my hair. I sense it is my father, and I don’t want him to leave. Hold on, I mumble. With effort I swim through layers of sleep, as if I’m at the bottom of a lake grasping tree-roots to pull myself up. I know that my father cannot actually be here, but I also know that he is: he had visited before, a few days after he died. He had turned his back to me; he was hurt that I had come home to India and not even said hello, and I had to tell him he was dead.

* * *

I learned this from an email. I woke up at 6 a.m. in Iowa and saw a notice from a club my father belonged to. My father’s name and membership number, and: passed away this morning. I was angry, as mad as you can be at 6 a.m., that they’d send this nonsense, that they’d make a mistake so huge as to take someone alive and make him dead. I will write them a letter, I thought. How can they be so careless? My father was sitting in bed in India, watching cricket, drinking his tea. I will call him right now. We can be angry together.

“Idiots,” he would say. “I’m going to fire them up.” Or maybe he’d just laugh and shrug. “Maybe they know something I don’t know.”

I dug through blankets and found my phone, woke it up. Twenty-three missed calls. Behind that, a scroll of messages rolling back in time. Call immediately. Where are you? Messages from random people: I’m so sorry for your loss. WhatsApp attachments from a nephew — forms to fill out before flying back to India. India? I was confused. Then my mother’s crying voice on the phone. He’s gone.

* * *

I sit on the couch and fire up Netflix.

“It’s ten in the morning,” the old woman says, coming out of my bedroom. “Turn it down, turn it off. Go to work right this minute.”

“You’re not the boss of me,” I tell her, turning up the volume. “I’m allowed to grieve.”

“Grief doesn’t mean you do whatever the hell you want,” she says, hands on hips.

“It literally means exactly that,” I tell her. “Now mute yourself. Carey Mulligan is speaking directly to me through this show. She’s telling me to start smoking again.”

* * *

When they brought my father back from the morgue, he was very dead. His body, wrapped in sheets, exuded a deep chill. I could have hugged him for a day and he’d still have been cold. They had unwrapped the gauze around his face. His nose was slightly flattened by the pressure. I wanted to reach out and mold it back into shape.

The bhaijis set up the harmonium. The Buddhist lama I’d called effaced himself into a corner.

Then the bhaijis sang kirtan, the lama chanted prayers, and my family condoled. I sat on my hands to prevent myself from reaching out and fixing my father’s nose.

Riding in the back of the ambulance to the crematorium, I took a picture of my father as he lay on a bamboo ladder, his woolen cap lopsided on his head. I tried to push it down, but his head was a block of ice. The ice traveled up my arm, threatening to shatter it.

Daylight gleamed from behind dingy yellow curtains drawn across the windows of the ambulance. It felt like I was looking at my frozen father through golden-colored lenses. His head nodded and shook as we jolted through the congested streets of Delhi. I thought about how Indians are lampooned for the way we bobble our heads when the answer to a question is both yes and no. Nuance isn’t allowed in the West; life there is either/or, yes/no, the world cut up into minutes and hours and days, each unit given an unchanging value, which denies me my reality, which is this: the plane ride from Iowa to India lasted a lifetime, and my father’s lifetime lasted a second.

* * *

“Did you eat all the crackers again?” the old woman asks, holding up an empty box. The Iowa humidity has made her hair frizz out around her face. She looks like a vengeful dandelion. “Why don’t you buy a proper mattress?” she says. “Yours sags in the middle. Did you know your bathroom door squeaks? Why don’t you oil the hinges?”

I try to look contrite, because I know something the old woman doesn’t — I’ve decided it’s time to kill her. I tune her out while I dream of what I’ll do when she’s gone. Watch TV all day. Eat all the chocolate chips. Maybe I’ll even get ice cream! Sleep till noon! Never do laundry!

“What are you thinking?” The old woman’s eyes are narrowed.


“Don’t you think you should shower?” she says. “The floor is covered with tiny bits of grit. Your yoga mat has holes in it. I need a squeezy stress ball for my arthritis. I would like French fries for dinner.”

I go into the bathroom and close the door and plot how I’ll do it. I could take her for a walk and push her over a cliff. But Iowa City is flat as a board. I could take her for a drive, far into the prairie. Find a cornfield and leave her there. I can see her standing at the edge of the field, her back to the stalks as I drive off. I can see her building a little wooden house. She’d become a legend, terrorizing kids up and down the Midwest. They would call her the Witch of the Cornfields. No, I can’t do that to them, the unsuspecting children. Better to do it in my apartment. Clean, safe, permanent. The writer. In the kitchen. With a knife.

* * *

There were insects in the logs of wood my sister and I carried to frame my father’s body where it lay on a pyre. They shouldn’t have to die, I thought. We poured ghee over the wood. We scattered the sandalwood powder, lit the torches, watched the yellow flame lick the wood. My limbs felt congealed. This is not okay, I said.

Before me, my father the mountain climber, who named his dogs in dynastic succession: Akela the First, Akela the Second. My father, whose dream it was to distill rose oil, and so for two years we all smelled like petals. My father, who brought me an apple every evening from work. My father, who recited Shakespeare from memory, from whom I learned the meaning of the word “incarnadine” before I was ten. My father the dreamer, the depressive, the visionary.

A big log fell away from one side of the pyre, revealing the shocking whiteness of a skull. I felt the collective intake of breath. We aren’t supposed to see what the wood takes away. A cousin tried to turn me from the sight.

“I’m fine,” I told him. The whiteness reassured me. This was not my father; this was just bone. As a Buddhist, I had contemplated impermanence for years. I had meditated in a charnel ground in the mountains of Sikkim, with Kanchenjunga glowing in the night behind me. Bones I could handle.

* * *

Now that the time has come to kill the old lady, I hesitate. She’s sitting in my rocking chair, the one I bought off Craigslist, and she’s rocking on it even though the wood is cracked. She’s eating pistachios and dropping the shells all around her. I start to get annoyed.

“Look at your puss-face,” she says.

“You’re making a mess. Look at all the shells scattered everywhere.”

“So clean them up,” she says. “Get moving. Nobody likes a crybaby.”

“I’m allowed to grieve,” I say. “I shouldn’t have to clean up.”

She looks at me with her judgy owl eyes.

“I did a lot for him,” I say.

“I felt responsible for his happiness,” I say, louder.

“You couldn’t hold his unhappiness because you can’t hold your own,” she says.

“You’re wrong,” I say.

“You never forgave him for being unhappy.”

“His unhappiness was fixable,” I tell her.

“Oh, people love hearing that.” She picks up her knitting.

I walk into the kitchen, open the drawer, rummage around for the big knife, the one I use to cut the skin off salmon. Where is it?

“Looking for this?”

I turn. She’s standing behind me holding the knife. My stomach seizes.

“I was just going to cut some squash,” I tell her. “Roast it, smash it up.”

She looks at me like I am an ugly worm. Then she throws the knife out the window.

“I can tell you’re upset,” she says. She lays a hand on my arm. “Let’s go for a drive. It’s a lovely day. We’ll pick wildflowers.”

* * *

I raked my fingers through my father’s ashes, still warm on the stone floor where the pyre had burned two days ago. I discarded wood and picked up bone — “choosing the flowers,” they call it. I put the ash into printed cloth bags provided by a cousin who owns a shop where things like printed cloth bags are sold. The bones went into a copper matka.

The priest in the boat in the middle of the Ganges, where we traveled with the ashes and bones, barked orders at my sister and me as we held up a bowl that he poured milk and ghee into.

He pointed to a pile of flour on a plate. “Knead this.”

I plunged my fingers in as he poured on water. I remembered my father telling me he once held Mother Teresa’s hand.

“It felt like warm dough,” he said.

I was not making any headway turning this flour into dough.

“Like you’re making roti,” the priest said. “It shouldn’t crack.”

I squished and squashed and pressed, the powdery mess separating under my hands. I didn’t want to ask for more water, to tip him off that I had no idea how to make roti.

Finally, the dough cooperated into a lumpy ball. I hoped it wasn’t meant to symbolize my father. My father was over six feet tall, with a neatly trimmed beard and filed nails, always in a button-down shirt and ironed pants, Brylcreem combed into his hair. This dough-ball was lumpy, cracked, barely holding together. The priest prayed over it regardless, and then we put it in the river. We washed my father’s bones with milk, shook the ashes over the side of the boat, and threw the copper matka in after them. In no time at all it was just a speck floating down the river.

* * *

The old woman was right. I start to feel better as we drive past tallgrass prairie, looking out into the blue sky, the sun shining down on fuzzy green buds. Everything is as it should be. The colors around me are correct and apt. The wind is variable, which is also correct and apt. This day is true, and we are in my car, and my car is correct and apt and true.

We pull over by a cornfield. The old woman wants to take a photograph.

That’s nice, I think. She is making an effort.

I walk into the cornfield, careful not to stumble on the uneven soil. The stalks of corn are green and straight and correct and apt and true. I turn around. The old woman is still by the car. She is pulling open the driver’s seat door, pushing my seat forward.

“Hey,” I say. “What are you doing?”

She slams the door, guns the engine, twists the car into a U-turn.

I smell burnt rubber and run back to the road. My car vanishes into the haze. I stand there for a while: half an hour, one hour. The old woman doesn’t return. What a way to treat someone, I think.

I turn and walk back into the corn. The sun is setting and the breeze smells of manure. The smell of soured dreams, I think. At the end of the cornfield there is a little house. It looks like the house-shaped cake my mother made me for a childhood birthday party, with M&Ms pressed into a roof of chocolate frosting. My mother set the cake-house on a table, next to jam tarts and sandwiches and potato chips and lemon curd, lighting a row of candles along its roof. “Happy birthday to you,” she sang.

The colorful roof of the house winks in the waning light. I walk inside to the fading chorus of a birthday memory. Children play ring-a-ring-a-rosies, their footfalls echoing in the twilight. My father talks to the other fathers, my mother to the other mothers. A girl dances around the table, pointing her toes and holding a balloon. “She should learn ballet,” my father says to her father. I can tell he doesn’t really mean it; he does this sometimes, he says things he doesn’t mean to make other parents proud of their children. He enjoys seeing them puff up with pride. But deep down he is thinking, My daughter is better.

* * *

The sun slipped behind the mountains bordering the river. The boatman started the engine and we curved back to shore where the little boy who had followed me earlier all the way down to the river bank asking for a handout looked at me reproachfully — as though I had no respect for his time, as though I didn’t realize he was busy, there were other people to ask for money, and he’d waited all this time by the steps of the Ganges just for me.

“You promised,” he said, as I walked up the steps.

“I promised you nothing,” I said. But I knew I’d give him something; he had waited for me, even though that’s just a line designed to work on marks like me, people whose eyes give away everything. And perhaps I had promised, perhaps I owed him something from a past life, a life that might have ended just like this one, as milk-soaked bones and ashes scattered into this very river, and as I handed him money I thought of all the promises we make to each other going back eons, as if the past did in fact unfurl like a black carpet into infinity, and how we were all here because we owed something, some promise not fulfilled before we died, and on and on and only the river knew, the river that laughed and cried and snatched our bones and kept count of all our broken promises.

* * *

I sit at the table. I know the old lady will be back for me. Sooner or later, she’ll walk in and tell me to get moving, she’ll find a million things for me to do. But for now, she’s gone. I don’t feel the weight of her feet treading the passages of my mind, bent and abraded by her relentless energy. I pick up The Book of Delights. Ross Gay writes about a flower bud, “Shining in the breeze, on the verge, I imagine, of exploding.”⁠ I remember choosing the flowers, the way I pressed each bone into my palm. The way the bones cut into my flesh.

Across the cornfields, the sun melts into the horizon and lights the fields on fire.

Sanjna Singh

Sanjna N. Singh has worked in New York City for over fifteen years, at HBO and as director or producer on shows like Mob Wives, Storm Chasers, and Dual Survival. She has been awarded fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, Yaddo, and Ucross for her writing, which has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bitch Media, and Zora. Her documentary feature Out of Status, which follows Muslim families detained or deported after 9/11, was nominated for Amnesty’s Human Rights Award. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, where she is currently a screenwriting fellow.

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