Lessons from the Serpent King

The moon over the dam is brick red, and pockmarked with deep scarlet indentations by the sea of serenity. But as we make our way back towards to the main road, I look up during a conversational lull to find its color totally altered.

“Hey,” I say, turning from the window to Sasanka’s profile, “how’d the moon turn so yellow?”

If he notices the tone of my voice, like I’ve witnessed a glitch in the matrix, he gives no indication. He barely glances at the moon, swollen and gilded, like a medallion. Instead, he shrugs, unperturbed, as though nothing unusual has transpired. “You’ve never seen anything like that before?” he asks.

We continue driving by the river, which is visible only through the reflections of moonlight that pattern its surface in crenulations. In my mind, a familiar chord is being played, but, like a piece of music intended for one instrument but then rearranged for another, it is just unusual enough that it takes me a second to recognize it. When I finally do, it blossoms like thunder.

On a different evening, we are returning from a day at the lake and, as Sasanka pulls into the gas station to refuel, I notice a fire on the horizon. The dark silhouettes of palm trees are outlined against the growing blaze. The nighttime, like crushed velvet, or black lambskin, is nestled around it, soft, and eerie. Again, Sasanka is nowhere near as mesmerized as I. He coolly points out that, during this time of year, it is not unusual for farmers to burn their excess hay to fertilize the ground for next year.

Inside me, something between mourning and devotion swells.

I think back to a story Satya, whose name means “truth,” told me, featuring Lord Rama and his disciple, the monkey god, Hanuman. (The latter is my favorite character from the Hindu scriptures; fortunately, and unfortunately, I’ve always had a thing for mischievousness in men, mythological or otherwise.) Rama is approaching the natural end of his life, but the god of death will not come as long as Hanuman guards the lord. To distract him, Lord Rama drops his ring deep into the earth and sends Hanuman to recover it; Hanuman arrives at the tunnel’s end only to discover a whole mountain of rings identical to the one that was dropped. When he asks aloud which ring belongs to his Lord Rama, the voice of the serpent king materializes from the darkness to respond: “which Rama?”

The serpent king goes on to tell Hanuman that, in a sequence on constant loop, every generation a ring falls from above, and, when a monkey comes to retrieve it, on Earth, one Lord Rama dies. When I remember this story, I think of myself one week ago, and that mistaken state of mind that allowed me, capriciously, arrogantly, to trust in permanence. But the truth is, my memories of those ninety-degree noons, the peach and cherry-colored clouds casting jagged shadows over the hills, are already beginning to fade. Even the image of Sasanka, with whom I shared the kind of midnight intimacy that language cannot bear to capture, has started to wilt under the weight of an encroaching season of mangoes, oranges, and new obligations of emotion that no longer include my presence.

“Which Rama?” is meant to be a lesson on reincarnation, but, for me, it is most applicable as a lesson on letting go.

Killing the Demon

Moonlight, bruised, crests over the hills as Niharika, whose name means “morning dew,” pauses at a roadside stall to buy chicken pakora. Mangled blossoms of chicken breast, dense with bones thin as strands of hair, chickpea flour, and spices in dissolution are deep-fried in flaxen oil, and then adorned with circlets of lilac-white onion and lemon slices. The process is quickly and nimbly performed, and lit by a single buzzing fluorescent bulb. The street vendor, a devotee of Ayyappa by the smear of red between his eyes, pours the mixture into a newspaper cone with uncommon deftness and delicacy, as though arranging long-stemmed lilies. A laminated print-out affixed to the stall informs us that “PayTM,” a sort of Indian PayPal mobile app for micro-transactions, is accepted in lieu of cash. Across India I’ve been noticing this new millennium spin on everyday tradition: Facebook pages for temple sites, color televisions in remote villages fenced in by slim coconut trees. This union of the digital and the ordinary feels intentional, but natural, somehow: a marriage of wireless, and the wild. The father, the son, the holy spirit, and the semiconductor. I imagine an appearance of the goddess Durga, astride a collared lion, her many arms wielding a trident, thunderbolt, lotus, sword, and cellphone.

Morning dew and I, chicken pakora in hand, make our way up the hillside. The change in topography does not seem to daunt the locals, who have built, along the incline, what I imagine most closely resembles a labyrinth from the playbook of darker Grecian myths. That mood particular to twilight, sulky and foreboding, has descended. Add in a few gray clouds, a scattering of English wildflowers, and this could be King Lear’s cliffs of Dover. But, for me, this is a journey through memory rather than sentiment. I peer briefly through alleyways and am reminded of Gion, in Kyoto, where slim, forest green wood-paneled streets would terminate in urns of veined marble, or with a sliding door, opening noiselessly with the emergence of a geisha. Here, the gaps between houses are lit by ochre-toned bulbs, and feature pools of filthy, yet luminous, water encircling sleeping dogs. The occasional woman, barefoot and wearing a sari of patterned cotton that reveals the midriff but conceals the shoulders (a contradiction in modesty that I like to call “the paradox of the Indian crop top”) leans out of a window to look at me with a blend of curiosity, restraint, and a third quality I have not yet been able to name.

Strange, to think I came to this country, at least partially, to understand my Rajasthani father and have found so little here that reminds me of him. Sometimes I do think I notice him, in the taste of raw tamarind, which is midway between citrus and brine, or in the expression of a child who could have been him half a century ago. My mind suddenly travels to the poem by Li-Young Lee, “Visions and Interpretations,” which starts: “Because this graveyard is a hill / I must climb to see my dead, / stopping once midway to rest / beside this tree. / It was here, between the anticipation / of exhaustion, and exhaustion / between vale and peak, / my father came down to me / and we climbed arm in arm to the top.” But if my own father were here, I know he’d be two steps ahead of me, walking in short but quick, unflagging strides; he always did move at a pace that was difficult to match.

The color palette of the houses is dilapidated peaches-and-cream: exterior walls in coral pink, white-hued green, with the paint blistered in several places from floor to roof. But it is the brand of decay that suggests not death but the necessary experience of life, that asymptote approaching, but never equal to, immortality. I feel an expansiveness, as I stand atop the cascade of stairs, that brings to mind the soft yellow Ohioan wheat fields at dusk, a recollection from early childhood I’ve not had in years but that emerges now, fully formed: that same sense of distance being eclipsed, and of time acquiring the viscosity of a gelatinous physical solid. The glimpse of not precisely forever, but maybe a coarser, less pure form, a forever-ness, contained within the unctuous, sensuous waves of nighttime overwhelming the earth.

Halfway up the hill, we come across a tiny temple, shuttered closed for the night. To the immediate right is a mural of Durga, killing the demon and sticking her tongue out. The temple is labeled on Google Maps, a revelation which does not faze Niharika in the slightest but leaves me feeling intensely incredulous. But, then again, if Notre Dame, Giza’s pyramids, and Mount Everest are on the web, then why not this? Perhaps it is only appropriate that this be the way to achieve modern godhood.

Chili Chicken

A continued panorama of odors. Mango, goatskin, flower garlands. Smoke, vanilla, dog feces. Guava, gasoline. Human sweat, chili chicken. One-hundred percent pure coconut oil, which to me smells like a blend of sex and soulmates.

Every so often, we lose power in the hostel. I lie supine, in the dark, my arms folded over my head. In only my sweaty bra and churidars, my roommates would be embarrassed by this state of undress. They themselves change only in total darkness, and hide everything but face, hands, and feet. Somehow I don’t think the boys in the hostel next door do the same. Here, I’ve encountered an aversion for the female form that manifests itself in conservatism of speech, behavior, and clothing; while this attitude is not unfamiliar to me, the woman I have grown into cannot help but find it unacceptable.

My childish heart has seized upon perceived censure by developing a type of perversion that enjoys provoking reactions to immodesty. I casually bare the sections of my body that straddle the line of acceptability — the twin shallow dips at either hip, the plumpness of the breast visible underneath a tank top. Maybe I should know better than to play around like this, goading the girls into confronting what they think is depraved. But, truthfully, I no longer associate shame, as I once did, to these parts, which I now recognize form a whole that is as natural as the moon rising. Does that sound conceited, and hollow, in its extravagance? To be a woman — and not even cute enough for mauve-toned, soft-focus Instagram — comparing herself to the moon. Fortunately, I never claimed not to be self-obsessed.

I’m getting to know my body better, now that it has assumed its adult form. In the summer, my nakedness was called “doll-like,” in reference, maybe, to my tiny hands and feet, strawberry mouth, baby fat. When I myself look in the mirror, I usually fixate on the leftovers from my fulgent, brutal adolescence: the acne scars, puckered like kisses, the misaligned shoulders, the eternally dry and messy hair. My left breast, which is visibly smaller than the right. The face that has no shadow of Helen about it. In the still, lightless room, I touch, mostly exploratively, a bit licentiously (can you blame a twenty-two year old in the throes of spring awakening?), but always with the flavor of an innocence that is still learning. This body, its textures, its scent and salinity. Its avoidance of death, its instinct for love. In growing to care for it, I have brushed up against the body’s easy naturalness, that quality that is unassuming, simple, and — no matter what you have been told about shame — fundamentally incorruptible.

From the back of a two-wheeler, I spot a wall mural of a many-faced Hindu goddess done in matte, unshaded colors: Pepto pink, mustard yellow, a blue that recalls the intimacy of the ocean. She sits atop a fleshy lotus that looks like a triple labia, which is either a purposeful artistic choice or further proof that the only parts of my mind that are constantly online are the erogenous zones.

You and Us

The love in my body doesn’t understand the white bees, dark stars, and ships of hyacinths that Neruda knew. My love doesn’t understand his metaphors of twilight shadows, lavender kisses, and sea foam. My love has chosen, instead, the bloodied half of the moon. The visceral side of the soul: bile, breath, bowels. Very occasionally, emanating from the breast: blossoms.

There’s no beauty here, in these feelings for you, trapped and droning like house flies. I think of how little I deserve your virtue, your hands that are as guileless as the wind moving over fields. Forgive me. My love doesn’t live in the real world. Honestly, it builds nothing of purpose. The perversion of the empire of my love by the coast, made from mist, muscle, and magnolias. It exists half a mirage away from collapsing into the saltwater.

Did you ever suspect that I hid so much dominating energy within this body? Neruda would have recoiled at how much I desire–so shamefully–to see you sob each time I leave. He would have warned me against this decadence. This gambling of suffering, paid for with your purity. But there is still time, isn’t there? So much time, yet, to dream thoughtlessly, and to inflict those wounds that can be cured only by nakedness.

Quick Impressions from One Month in South India

When it rains, the tall, thin palm trees blur into the horizon. At five in the morning, the single florescent rod in the hostel room flickers on, so abruptly I mistake it for lightning. An ant crawls across my laptop screen. Mosquitos bite my little toe, buttocks, chest, and wrists. A cat with eyes so yellow I’m half-convinced it’s not a cat at all, but some supernatural creation, roams the hostel grounds, scaling the wall in a single, fluid leap. A white cow, ears like a puppy dog, trots languidly beside the road. “It belongs to the city,” Manasa says, patting its side with a tenderness both casual and profound. Pastel pink walls in the office of a politician, the paint peeling and migrating onto the door frame. A baby like a tiny God, his eyes lined with black, a burgundy dot smudged on his forehead. Hundreds of dragonflies in the air above the fruit, vegetable, and flower market.

I learn how to scrub laundry against a stone, how to take showers with a bucket, and how to eat with my right hand. Looking shyly back at the girls that stare. Bat swarms in the purple evening. Machetes. Motorcycles. Pools of urine. Sellers of diamonds, silver, and pearls. Cane sugar, sweet corn, coconuts. A rat half the size of my forearm, jumping in a bucket on the roadside. The auto-rickshaw, that bedazzled contraption with the horse power of a souped-up go-cart, which I ride every day for ten rupees per kilometer. Inside: glossy photographs of 80’s Bollywood actors in opaque, squareish sunglasses, baby blue, glittery images of Ganesha, decals with Saibaba, Bob Marley, and “Jesus saves.” Bhavani covers the tips of my fingers in lumps of black, muddy henna. The smell is fruity and earthy, red-orange when dry–a human caressing of the sunset–and it alters the look and feel of my hand, my body, entirely.

The temple and its combined odors of incense, manure, and blossoms. Mounted ceiling fans rotating over the framed family portrait of Shiva, Parvati, and their infant with the elephant head. Barefoot, in the half-dark of a twilight sweating through the open windows, I walk through the rooms: a ceremonial fire burning, a pair of shirtless Brahmin building a small mountain of chrysanthemums. The lap of a cobra, a mechanical drum, a handful of fragrant lemon rice. A shrine hidden by thick magenta curtains, plunged in lime green lighting, a pewter bowl filled with camphor, a man singing along to an electronic recording of a Telugu mantra. Two miniature orange buses with license plates from Tamil Nadu. Durga lying in oleander, her face black, eyes spots of ochre, and along her tarred neck, a garland of raw, whole carrots. On the road immediately outside the temple, a dead cat lies splayed, blood and brain matter emerging from a wound along its face.


The perfect plum sits in the palm of the hand like a flushed cloud
during sunrise, or a bowling ball of decadent purple hardwood.
Sliced into half-moons, the meat, fibrous and dense like pork,
starts a deep red, lightening into a blend of rose, orange, and bronze,
before finally pooling into a core of soft blonde. The skin pulls off easily
with teeth, thin as lily petals but firm, and its taste fills the mouth
with brine that recalls the sea, with the final promise of sweetness.

The perfect boy drags me into the intimacy of a dark place, and his hips move
over me like the revving of a engine running on blood. In a blazing corner
of my mind, a rifle goes off. The shot strikes Eve in the heart and returns
her, instantly, to dust. Later, he tells me I touched him as though begging.
Both too tender and too calloused, this body, both too ashamed and too
proud; how to describe the violet shadow that’s beaded over me, like sweat, seeds
of pearl, the reminder that summer’s heat will make maggots of chopped plums?

Biking Across the Pacific Ocean

Every morning, from Monday through Friday, I stagger along on a borrowed bicycle through the pale green pearl of the rice paddies. The commute to school takes me past the local bait and tackle, a Yamaha dealer, and a luminous river that leads into the largest lake in Japan. Before this month, the last time I rode a bicycle I was fourteen, and though I am older now I am just as ungainly, and more distracted than ever.

Danger tracks me, as always, through the trees, in the moonlight, but her manner here feels unusually, charitably benevolent. I pass her on my bicycle, resting on her haunches by the red gates of the neighborhood Shinto (神道) shrine, and yell out, foolishly, daringly: Can I assume I am immortal until proven wrong? She rolls her eyes but it’s a lenient gesture, like she understands, and forgives, the cockiness of girls like me. In a parallel universe half a degree away, she knows, I collide with a chrome Honda, slide off the slim country road and tumble, head over heels, through the fragrant grass. The clouds, massive and supernatural, continue to cast their shadows of dark lilac over the water.

Adult life–or, rather, the expectation of living a convincing adult life–arouses the bitterest courage in me; like all emotions revealed when dislodged by weakness, it starts behind clenched teeth, moves to the soul, and erupts there. Self-assurance still doesn’t come easily to me. I don’t know how it’s possible to be simultaneously so afraid and so determined to never be afraid. Was there a young adult seminar on this topic that I missed? “Fear, fearlessness, and the twenty-two-year-old who isn’t a child anymore”?

Thank goodness for this landscape, its green-blues, and especially for the mountains. Even while inside the classroom, I think of them constantly, and their vision in my mind expands and pools behind my eyes, thick as slick gore. During a field trip to a Buddhist monastery, we practice zazen (座禅) and I imagine the mountains emerging, painlessly, from my chest, ribbed and gray-gold, and my breath traveling, zig-zag, over them. Where these images come from, I cannot say, but somehow they don’t belong to me, and never did.

Maybe the imagination isn’t some proliferation of my jellied neocortex, but a thousand-armed body, loaned to me only temporarily, accompanying me everywhere, and eternally sick of my shit. I hound after it until it sighs: God, what do you want now, Emma? Well. I want a great many things, but right now I want you to open that hand that houses my memory of that night. You know which one. When the rain chopped through my teflon jacket, soaking everything–from scalp, to nape, to the elastic band of my underwear–until the coral-red fever of my own breath and the smoke of his eyes on me were all I could feel, and we were both lit only by the bloodless duo of Venus and the moon shredded by clouds and the sudden flashes of snowy cranes in flight.

Recently, I was passed at an intersection by a young man in sportswear and muddied white-orange sneakers. His forearms were resting atop the handlebars, neatly folded, his hands cupping his elbows. His weight was shifted forward in a way that seemed to elevate him a foot off the asphalt, like an angel, exiled to Japanese suburbia. I can still picture his total stillness, broken only by the circular movements of his exposed calves, pushing against the pedals in a constant, gentle motion.

The Lost Paradise of the Eleusinian Mystery

I watch the night approach us through the sliding glass doors. Thinned into bloodied violet, it descends with the same preternatural inevitability as a vow of love. Inside my body, a similar sun, no less red, is setting.

There’s a tender (soft/sore) intimacy to the emergency room, in its small dimensions bathed in desert tones. Dun, milk-white, olive-yellow, carmine. Emotion has receded into my hands, but I don’t have any physical contact with the world; I feel as though I am interacting with shadows, or mirages. Only tiny images remain: the burst blood vessels in her eyes.

She is at the age now where Death comes with us everywhere: I watch him, through the rear view mirror, sweat jeweling over his brow, leaning against the palm trees. His smile is more apologetic, and comforting, than I would have anticipated. In the heat shimmer of early summer, the distance between us is like the space between me and God. Natural, and unnatural, in equal measure.

The closer she sways towards the edge the more fiercely I believe she will live forever. I won’t pretend to understand the logic of this. It is something I have long since chalked up to the useless beliefs of suicidal women and their failed daughters.

Symphonie Fantastique (10 Minute Pseudo-Sonnets)

Every three hundred years a wolf is born
half hologram, limned in that breed of light
that is searing, and shameless, and adorned
with blood; a wolf with hands, and nails, and bite.

The king’s daughters wasted the finest days
of youth in the hunt, training bionic
eyes and moon faces from castle to highway,
but they caught not a stitch of furred onyx.

Sebas, the youngest, and our heroine,
knew the proof of value lay in killing,
but she loved that wolf, the adrenaline
in preternatural night. Not willing

to expose to malice something so rare —
She lived obscuring its scent in the air.

Nelumbo, goddess of cybernetics
is at her laptop, furrowing her brow.
She’s lambasting the Internet critics
who poison the good-natured Wikihow.

Meanwhile, in the data stream, binary
code is working to mediate between
the heirs of the digital dynasty.
The cyberspace sea, blue and bottle green,

cries out in glum mourning at their quarrel.
Why fight like this when information lies
at their fingertips, tactile as coral?
Nelumbo answers: humans agonize

as easily, tenderly, as they love.
Been this way since from the ship left the dove.

Body natural, body politic, body electric

Five hundred million years ago nature could only dream
of the kind of life that you are. Back then love existed in
dissolution. Smokestacks of ozone. Topaz trilobites squatted

in prayer. A generation of gods later, you appear. In hands,
and a voice wanton as deserts in spate. In eyes that own
all that they touch. A personal punishment for the planet

that bred original sin. My dearest killing blow, you are so
far but it’s inconsequential: I notice you imbued in
the deepest sinews of atoms. A presence as permanent

as this flesh is delicate. Did you know the full moon sweats
in terror at your beauty? To adore you is to challenge
every single eternal, universal falsehood. Every syndrome

of creation. I don’t wonder, anymore, if cloud forests long
for dust storms. I know they do, and I know you do. Please
know there is strength here that could devour the divine.