They’ve been arguing all evening. Over how she ties the garbage bags, why his father is always cold to her, whether they should have bought that apartment in San Francisco instead of this house in Mill Valley. Finally they stop talking, exhausted. It’s been like this ever since she returned from India three weeks ago. Her husband goes downstairs to revise the conference paper he’s giving on the 17th-century Japanese pilgrim-poet Basho; she sits at the kitchen laptop, stares unseeing at the keyboard for a few minutes—longer?—then checks her email. There’s a condolence note from an American filmmaker who met her grandmother in Darjeeling while making a documentary on Tibetan lama dances, and some old family friends have sent a photo: she’s about three, sitting on a pony with the snowy peaks of Kanchenjunga in the background, her grandmother standing by her side in the long Tibetan dress, black sunglasses, a headscarf.
The wind picks up and tree branches scratch against the window. Beyond the silhouettes of the houses, cars and trucks idle in a traffic jam down on the freeway as if awaiting admittance to a ferry that will convey them to an alien land. It starts to rain with apocalyptic force, the water coursing through the winter darkness, soon to send their house sliding down the hill, tumbling into the Bay and out to sea.
She climbs the narrow stairs to the third floor to check on their son in his room off the landing. Sleeping on his side with his hands clasped in front of his mouth, he’s a cherub blowing an invisible trumpet, aloft amidst the clouds painted on the walls. In the dim light, the glittery elephants, birds, and horses of the mobile she brought him from Darjeeling appear to be flying free, no longer tethered by their strings. The radio is on by the window, volume low. Tonight the seamless patter of the deejay on her usual jazz station sounds phony, like the false tones of a parent reassuring a child as the ship is sinking.
She stands and listens to the rain, her mind traveling back to the funeral high up in the Himalayas. Again she’s sitting in the altar room as the lamas chant from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, guiding her grandmother through the journey between death and rebirth, a passage filled with hallucinations, the rushing of wind and water. What was it one lama had told her? That there are a number of journeys like this, like between birth and death, or between when we go to sleep at night and when we wake. That the Book of the Dead is for the living, too. By listening to the prayers, you can set yourself free. Yet since returning from the funeral, she’s felt anything but free. Like Gautama Buddha leaving his palace and discovering human suffering, she sees aging and death everywhere. In the grocery store, the post office, the bank, there are neck wattles, varicose veins, yellowing teeth, receding hairlines, sagging breasts. A neighbor in his late 40s is showing signs of Alzheimer’s—getting lost on the way to the art school in Berkeley where he’s taught for years, asking her every day if it’s spring yet. Then last week, one of her colleagues at the magazine had a stroke and died on the BART train, the other passengers thinking he was taking a nap.
The sound of silverware clinking against china floats up from the kitchen. Her husband’s having his usual evening bowl of cereal. She hears his voice—he’s talking to the dog, giving him a treat. Though she knows she’s being unfair, she feels like screaming: he’s one of the children inside the burning house of the Buddhist parable, unwilling to stop playing with his toys and flee. She strides over and closes the bedroom door, comes back and sits in the rocking chair by the window. The problem is that it all feels pointless: the once-delightful round of work, shopping for dinner, coffee with friends, taking her son for playdates, jogs along the bike path. The last few days she’s called in sick and, in the morning after dropping her son at school, driven out to Point Reyes to watch old men fish at a lake during the short daylight hours. Wind-twisted cypresses edge the freezing gray water; crows perch on rocks and branches. She sits in her car and watches the men cast their lines into the dark world below: how patiently they wait, hunched on the shore like an odd species of winter fowl.
Sadao Watanabe’s Earth Step is playing on the radio, sounding slow and dreamy. Her son shifts in his sleep and throws one arm out to the side, his mouth a tiny “o.” She should have taken him to India to meet her grandmother, let her spoil him with pony rides around the Mall and roller skating at the Gymkhana Club. But now it’s too late. She tilts her head back and gazes at the mobile, watches a horse caparisoned with shiny beads glide past. A few months ago, her son asked if he could have her horse-shaped sandalwood letter opener when she died. She and her husband had laughed over it: how innocent children were, so unaware of what death really meant! It sickens her now to realize she’s been no different. In her tidy little palace she herself has been a child, with a little girl’s desires: a handsome scholar husband, her own house, a baby, a dog. The same girl who on school breaks used to fly to visit her mother’s parents at the farm in New Hampshire, her father’s parents in Darjeeling. Going down the dirt road to the farm, taking the train up into the Himalayas, she’d never doubted that her grandparents would be there waiting for her. Absurdly, her grandmother’s funeral has caught her unawares, the sight of the body laid out in the altar room, butter lamps and incense burning, bringing home for the first time the inevitability—and finality—of death. Her husband doesn’t understand because no one he’s close to has died. She’s tried to explain to him but it’s like trying to explain what it feels like to make love.
Hours later, she’s startled awake by the radio broadcasting a flood warning, the slow, controlled voice at odds with the threat of disaster. How long has she been sleeping? Her stomach lurches at the sight of her hands, wrinkled claws, on her lap. She is alone, an ancient woman in a rocking chair. But here’s her son slumbering in his bed, and she sees that her husband is asleep on the floor next to her, glasses pushed up on his forehead, Basho manuscript on his chest, the dog curled at his feet. They are all together in this tiny room, sheltering in a hermit’s hut as the rain beats down.
Outside in the dark night, a figure holding a black umbrella emerges from the house next door. It’s the neighbor with Alzheimer’s—he’s started coming and going at all hours. The poor man shuffles across his yard, then wanders into the labyrinth of manzanita trees bordering his property. Down on the freeway, the traffic has thinned but is still passing in an unending stream, everyone on their way to somewhere, just like her neighbor, her grandmother, her husband and son in sleep, she herself. The night is alive with travelers, this, then, the intrinsic truth of things.