The freshly turned earth soaks through my jeans to chill my knees and I sit back, pushing the hair from my eyes. A sticky wetness slicks over my forehead and too late I see the mud on my palm. This happens more and more lately, my mind waking up mid morning after my body has been going about its business for hours. It worries me.
A brilliant flash of light catches my eye and I turn to watch it climb the sky, like sunlight off a mirror, flickering but so bright. It glows too intensely for a star, more like the heat of a pinpoint sun. Lifegiving. But this sun goes up, trailing a long curve of white smoke behind it. I watch it shrink until it loses itself in its own smoky trail, far up into the blue.
Then the sound comes, the low rumble in my chest more startling than the boom in my ears, though I’ve felt this many times before.
I look down at my hands, past the dirt. Sun-darkened, wrinkled, but not loose skin on bone. I’m forty, maybe nearly fifty. This isn’t the rocket launch I dread, not yet. I sit on my heels, looking over my shoulder at the silent house behind me, perched between the road and where the mountain falls away, the back end on posts. There is a line of wash hung to dry, only my things. The children are gone. Forty-two at least, then.
A tray of plants sits beside me, a trowel stuck into the earth where I’d left it a moment before. Springtime, moving the plants from the greenhouse to the garden. I would finish this first, check the book later. On the days with no kids I don’t really need to check the book except to move the bookmark forward. Perhaps that doesn’t even matter.
I dig another hole in the earth and pop in a curling squash vine. I like the days of long, quiet work.
I wake up to the sound of nearly hysterical giggling and I’m already tired. Devi’s laughter comes in short bursts but Sita sounds like she will pass out from lightheadedness soon. I don’t need to check the book first thing this morning; it’s clear I’m in the five-six years. I pull on a robe and head for the kitchen. The children are at the table, each with a mountain of various cereals on the tabletop before them. Karan crams a fistful of his cereal mountain into his mouth, then follows it up with a long drink straight from the milk carton. Sita and Devi giggle again—well, in truth Sita never stopped but she does cycle up to a higher level as Karan, cheeks puffed full and lips pursed to hold it all in, chews. Both girls have spoons at least and dig daintily into their piles as Karan passes them the milk. Arjun never looks up from his reader.
“Hey, Ma!” Karan says, wiping the milk from his face on the sleeve of his kurta. “We couldn’t find the bowls.”
“They’re in the dishwasher,” I say, not even sure where I’ll start cleaning up. Apparently juice was had first; there is a sticky puddle running off my counter onto the floor. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Arjun said we should let you sleep,” Karan says. Arjun looks up from his reader as if just now noticing I’m there.
“I said we should wait to have breakfast. That’s what I told them,” Arjun says in his crisply perfect diction. At this age he seems like the one who will always look out for me, but I know that won’t be true. He will be the first to leave and the last to come to see me at the end.
Of course I worry if knowing that isn’t what makes it true. Knowing how he will abandon me makes me different around him, I’m sure. But I worry more about Karan. How do I fail Karan? The pieces of that puzzle keep hiding from me. I don’t get to pick the order of my days.
I take bowls from the dishwasher and set them on the table. Sita and Devi scoop up their cereal and put it in their bowls, Sita still having infrequent spasms of giggles like the hiccups. Arjun sets his reader aside and fills his own bowl. Karan puts the last two fistfuls of his cereal in his mouth and shakes his head when I offer him his bowl, determined to finish what he started.
“Don’t choke,” I say halfheartedly, then go out to the living room where the Din Ba Din book is kept to advance the page another day.
I’m too old to get out of bed. I had thought that would be restful but it isn’t. I prefer to be working. Not hard labor, just to have some meaningful task so at the end of the day I know I did something. I find the control for the bed and sit up enough to see out the window. Even though I was just there yesterday I miss my mountain home.
The nurse left my door ajar and my daughters are talking in the hall. They take turns watching over me, always one of them there, and this is a shift change.
“It was another bad one,” Devi says. She sounds exhausted and I feel bad, although I don’t remember the night before. “She was very upset.”
“Asking about Karan? Those are the worst. Why all this sudden grief over Karan?”
“Sita, I don’t think she remembers what happened to him. It’s like she suddenly realized he isn’t here.”
“After four decades?”
“She’s very confused.”
“Well, that’s nothing new,” Sita says, so low I can barely hear her.
“Sita,” Devi chides. “She still reads her book a page a day. I think that helps.”
“I think it makes it worse,” Sita says. “It’s an illusion masking just how confused she’s always been.”
“Oh, leave her alone,” Devi says. “She’s had a hard life.”
“It falls on a curve,” Sita says unkindly, but when she comes in the door she’s all warm smiles and words of comfort. I let her have her charade.
I remember what happened to Karan. I remember being told, more than once. My grief is scattered across my life. But I have yet to live that day.
Another rocket arcs across the sky. I always stop what I’m doing to watch, go outside even in the deepest of cold. I usually know it’s not the one. I know when it will happen, or when it has happened, and I can tell if I’m about that age. I’ve been through a few where I wasn’t sure, heart pounding long after the contrail faded from the blue sky. This is not one of those days. I can hear the kids in the house, Sita and Devi talking together as they do homework at the table, Arjun no doubt with them but silent. Karan could be anywhere.
The kids think I do this because of their father. They are teenagers before Sita works out that it doesn’t make sense. The returning shuttles can’t land at our space port, ringed by mountains as it is. They land hundreds of kilometers south of here and their father travels home by the mag-lev. And why would I be watching rockets launch when their father is already up in space? Sometimes older Sita seems to understand me so well I think I must have told her everything at some point, but she doesn’t let on.
The roar of the rocket fades into the drone of late summer insects and the scuff of feet and whir of bicycle tires on the road. Karan troops up the mountain, pushing a bike with a very bent front wheel, nose bleeding freely. Despite all this he greets me with a huge grin.
“I was watching the rocket, not the road,” he says, not at all ashamed. “Someday I’m going up there like Dad.”
Somehow, somehow I muster a smile in response. “You have to study hard if you want to be an astronaut. You have to do your own math homework, not trick your little sisters into doing it for you.”
“You don’t think that shows my teamwork skills?”
Then I do laugh, and bring him inside to help him clean up.
I spend a day alone, putting up preserves although the shelves are still half-full of last year’s jars. Then I spend another day old, this time very old; I nap a lot. Then comes one of the rarest days of all, days when my husband is home. I cherish those.
No matter when I am, each morning I take my cup of coffee to the living room and either gracefully or creakily settle on the carpet before the little nook I’ve set aside for the Din Ba Din book. It’s a single-file reader with an oversized screen in a decorative frame, designed to look like a large book always lying open on a stand. My father had gifted it to me the day I was born and every morning would spend a few minutes holding me and reading aloud my text for the day, later setting me on his lap and helping me read aloud. In the evening we would go back to the page and write what had happened that day in the space at the bottom using the elaborate stylus shaped like a silver plume. I rebelled as a teenager and refused to keep up the ritual but he turned the pages for me. When I married and moved away I fell back into the habit of reading the pages, missing my father so acutely, but not the writing. It was meant to be a participatory experience, but I no longer wanted to participate. I didn’t even heed what I read. I stopped trying to match my clothing and food choices to the dictates of the text when I was eight. But I always read the page and think of my father.
I’m not sure when I awake how old I am and head out to the kitchen to make coffee. There are textbooks ready for school, but only two stacks. The boys are at college already, the girls still a year away. I bring my coffee to the book and quickly do the math. Day 14278; I am thirty-nine. Devi takes the bus to school but Sita, on the school race team and always training, takes her bike. Devi carries both their books. The boys came out of the womb polar opposites but the girls work at finding things to distinguish them. When they were five they divided up the colors and neither girl from that day on wore any item of clothing in a color that belonged to her sister. They don’t seem unhappy.
Later, I watch a vid letter from their father and think carefully before recording and sending a response. I worry more about seeming odd to him. Perhaps because the kids have never known me any differently, I don’t worry about them. But sometimes Mohit looks at me like he knows something isn’t right but can’t put his finger on it. It is hard. Even if I could remember what I’d done the day before, I’d likely done it years ago and the memory has faded to just a few images, leached of all but the strongest of emotions.
Devi stays after school for drama rehearsals but Sita comes directly home, bringing another member of the team with her. The road to our house is one of the steepest and even the two of them in top athletic form are wiped out when they reach the doorway. I’m upstairs putting away laundry. Sita goes into the kitchen to fetch water, leaving her friend alone in the living room.
“What’s this?” she asks, shouting to Sita in the kitchen.
“That’s a Din Ba Din book,” Sita shouts back with perfect teenaged disgust.
“Oh. That’s that cult thing?”
“Nice,” Sita chides. She goes back into the living room but doesn’t lower her voice much. She, like Karan, never quite mastered speaking at an appropriate volume. “Out of all of the religions in the universe this one is unique to our planet, and you call it a cult.”
“Sorry,” her friend says. “My parents say it’s not a proper religion, just a hodge-podge of nonsense the first settlers brought with them.”
“They would say that,” Sita says and the friend gives a nervous laugh. “I guess they’re not entirely wrong. It’s a lot of numerology, astrology, and other fortune telling nonsense. It’s my mom’s book, none of us kids have one.”
“So every day of your life is a page in that book? And you read them in order? How does the book know when you’re going to die?”
“When my granddad died he had pages left over. So I guess it doesn’t, or when you die you still have to do what the book tells you.”
“And your mom believes in this?” her friend asks in a ‘she seems so normal’ tone of voice.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“If you get a Din Ba Din book the day you’re born and turn a page every day, then wouldn’t every follower be having the same pattern of days? That makes no sense.”
“No, when they create a new book it’s unique to one person and the numbers and colors and messages are randomly generated by a computer. There’s supposed to be some sort of ghost in the machine that guides the process, although I don’t think my mom was ever that much of a believer.”
“That’s really weird.”
“It’s a dying tradition. Like I said, she never got one for any of us kids.”
I put the last shirt away in my husband’s drawer and shut it, my hands lingering for a moment before falling to my lap where I am kneeling between dresser and clothes basket. Sita is right; that is how the books are made, randomly arranging predetermined bits of information. It suddenly sounds so much like my life in a way I’d never noticed before. And I’d never talked to my kids about the book, always reading the page in the morning when I was alone. Where had Sita learned about it all?
For that matter, I don’t remember taking her with me when my father died. Those are the last of my memories when my days came in order. The boys were not quite two, the girls just infants. Sita must be spinning tales for her friend.
Yet I am uneasy. Something happened after my father died, when my husband had hired a nanny for a week so I could go alone, a blessed baby-free seven days, to settle my father’s affairs and sell his house. I close my eyes. I remember going to my childhood home, I remember the trip on the mag-lev, but everything else is a blank of days I haven’t lived yet.
I awake on my bed but on top of my covers, dressed in the white gown of mourning. I go downstairs and the girls are already awake, or still awake. Their eyes are red, their hair uncombed. They don’t have white gowns yet; mine is left over from my father’s passing. They don’t hear me come down the stairs, engrossed as they are with the news on the vid screen. Endless coverage of the disaster but no real information yet. They are still debating accident or sabotage. Even decades later the sabotage theory will still hold many minds. I didn’t really care why, I just knew my son was gone.
“Arjun called,” Sita says when she does notice me. Devi heads to the kitchen to bring me some of the coffee they’ve already made. “He will try to get away but the hospital is very busy and he might have trouble getting coverage.”
“That’s all right,” I say. I already know he doesn’t come, not even for the service. He sends flowers. I assume he mourns alone; a twin is supposed to be a doubly strong bond of brotherhood, isn’t it?
“Until they know what happened, all the spaceports are closed,” Sita says. “So Dad is stuck up there as well.”
“No vid letter?”
“Not yet. Maybe they have rules about that too,” Sita says.
“They must or he would’ve sent something,” I say. Mohit was often away, but when he was home he was every minute with his children. Somewhere up beyond the sky he feels every bit of what I am feeling, but how I wish we could feel it together.
I think wishing is what started it all.
It seems cruel, following that day of heartbreak with one of the really bad days, the girls just weeks old and the boys barely more than a year, walking some but not talking yet. All four sick and Mohit up in space. I think I’m probably sick too but don’t have time to dwell on it, constantly soothing one child or another, more often two at once. Waves of heat shimmer down in the valley; as hot as it is up here it must be intolerable down there. Perhaps it’s the heat at midday or perhaps it’s the medicine but for a brief lull all of the babies are sleeping and I sit down, too exhausted to even cry.
I was pregnant when Mohit and I married. I went from being an admittedly spoiled only child of a doting father to a mother in charge of two demanding baby boys way too fast. Mohit already spent most of his time in space and so when we married he brought me to his childhood home on the mountain, where his mother still lived.
At first I loved it. I still do love the mountain. But the babies were born while Mohit was away and his mother wasn’t much help.
“I already did this once,” she told me the last time I asked her to watch the babies so I could take a shower. “Seven babies one after another, two decades of my life went by in a blur. I’m old now, I’ve earned my rest.”
I was angry with her at the time, as she wasn’t all that old. But then she died suddenly just months later. Perhaps she had known something I hadn’t.
I think that’s what started it all. Her saying she’d earned her rest, me only beginning to realize that part of why I was so tired was that I was already pregnant again from the week my husband had spent at home when the boys were a month old. I remember wishing a lot that I could have some of the rest I was earning at the time I really needed it. I wished a lot.
Then my father died and I went to my own childhood home. I remember a train ride. I have images, memories of a dream, or maybe things that feel like memories now but are just fragments of that wishing.
I think I did something that made my life like this. I can’t remember. I don’t think I’ve done it yet.
I wake with my husband warm beside me. I watch him sleep. A few silver hairs shine in his tight curls and even sleeping he looks exhausted. I slip out of bed and tiptoe downstairs to make my coffee and his morning cup of chai. I stop on the way to the kitchen to check the book, uncertain if I am at a moment before or after he retired, if he’s worn out from his latest mission or if he is fighting the cancer already.
I haven’t even touched the screen to wake the display when anger invades me, not part of me but filling me, making my skin tingle then burn. I don’t even pause to ask myself if it’s of any use to blame the book, I just gather it up in my arms and march outside, barely feeling the cold wind that blows through my warmest robe as if it were the thinnest of negligees. My slippers skim and slide over frosted leaves and I stumble across the yard, finally reaching the fire pit already half-filled with sticks and branches. We must have had a wind storm recently; the fact that I can’t recall such a thing just makes the anger inside of me growl the louder.
The book doesn’t want to burn. It sits stoically as the branches around it dance with flame, dried leaves flaring up with a heat that strives to push me back. I stay where I am, although it feels like my eyebrows are getting singed. The leaves break free, burning fragments riding currents of hot air up into the sky to fall back down as ashy snow.
The thicker branches settle down for a long, slow burn and the book finally succumbs. The smell is toxic, melting circuitry and plastic. A few loud pops startle me. In the end all that is left is a misshapen lump and the anger drains out of me. I am exhausted but free.
In the morning I wake to four cranky babies, my own throat hot and itchy with a coming flu, my eyes burning hot in my head. Nothing has changed.
I pass several more days frightening my children at different ages with my unspoken despair. Sita and Devi fret over old me in the hospital, girls too young for school are carefully good until their brothers come home in the afternoon to take care of them.
Each morning I find the book and destroy it all over again. There is nothing else I can try.
I wake to the sound of the vid phone ringing in the dark before dawn. I sit up and turn on the screen, pushing hair from my eyes to see adult Karan smiling at me.
“Good morning, Ma. Did you forget I was going to call early?”
“It’s launch day,” I say, my heart sinking. The secret hope that I would never live this day dies.
“Yes, so I’ve only got a minute to talk.”
I can’t speak. I want to beg him not to go, but I don’t have words he would believe.
“Ma?” There is a note of alarm in his voice and I realize I am weeping. “Ma, I know you’re scared and you don’t want me to go. But Dad has done this more than a hundred times, it’s perfectly safe.”
I’ve already tried to warn him, probably more than once. “A lot of things can go wrong,” I say.
“Like the cooling system,” Karan jokes, but he’s naming the exact system that fails catastrophically. So I really have tried to warn him; there really aren’t words that will convince him. I wipe at my face. This is the last time I will see him; I don’t want to say goodbye like this.
“I was going to wait to make a big announcement after the mission, but I do have some news that might cheer you up. Since you look like you need it.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“You’re going to think this is too sudden, so I’ll remind you that you and Dad only dated for a month before marrying.”
“You’re engaged? I didn’t even know you were seeing anyone.”
“Arjun has met her once. He teased me no end; her name is also Sohaila.”
“She’s from the city? Like me?”
“She even has a book like yours. But there’s more. She’s pregnant. Two heartbeats, Ma.”
“Why have I never met her?” I wonder aloud, but don’t really listen to Karan’s stammering answer. Why have I never even heard of her or her children in any of my future days?
Did I actually start changing things when I burned the book?
My heart starts to leap but my brain charges on. More likely he had never told anyone else, and Arjun knew her only as a girl Karan dated once. If I didn’t tell anyone else today, and the other Sohaila never approached us, no one would ever know.
“You’ll meet when I get back,” Karan promises but he’s already distracted; someone is calling him away. The call ends.
I take the book outside and burn it yet again. I’m wearing white even before the rocket climbs the sky, reaching the point where I nearly can’t pick it out, lost in its own contrail, then exploding, a bright flair with pieces arcing off, their own trails making a weeping bouquet across the sky.
I grieve, but it’s distant now. Not like the first day I knew he would die. I weep, but I also know something I didn’t know before. I have grandchildren.
Days pass. I dutifully burn the book as before I used to turn the pages. I wait, I hope patiently, for a day I once more wake clad in the white of mourning.
When it happens, my daughters are still with me but I say nothing to them. I just slip out the door and head to the train station. I’ve not been back to the city since my father’s death, though it’s only an hour away on the mag lev. I miss him, but not this place. Crowds jostle me as I make my way to Karan’s apartment near the space port and I long for my mountain home. The landlord lets me in and I find what I need in his desk computer: her address. A few more blocks through pressing people and I am at her door.
She’s not showing yet. Her eyes are red-tinged, her hair a bedraggled mess. She is beautiful.
She has no family, was uncertain when to try to call me. Karan had wanted to make a big announcement; she had thought herself still a secret. I don’t know what would have kept her apart from us, perhaps her shyness, but my being here has changed things, I can feel it. It isn’t hard to persuade her to leave the city with me—she likes it as little as I.
We talk and talk on the train, me drawing the words out of her until she feels comfortable enough to speak on her own, and by the time I introduce her to my two daughters I feel she is already my third. She moves into the room that Karan and Arjun used to share. I leave her alone to unpack the few things she had brought with her, but she comes downstairs just as the sun is setting, her Din Ba Din book in her arms.
“May I set mine next to yours?” she asks with a blush moving from pink to crimson, and I realize I haven’t burned mine yet today.
“Follow me,” I say, taking up my book and leading the way out to the fire pit. She hesitates to place hers in the flames once the fire is going.
“This book is a tyranny,” I say as mine hisses and pops.
“I don’t really follow the directives,” young Sohaila admits. “I just go through the motions for my mom’s sake.”
“Then what’s stopping you now?”
She hugs her book, clearly debating with herself if I’m a crazy person. I realize she is the first new person in my life since this all began. I don’t know her past or future selves. I feel the beginnings of a deep bond with her, but eight hours together has not been enough for me to know what words would sway her. I can only say what swayed me.
“I want to tell the stories of my life myself, not warp memories to fit what the book tells me would unfold.” The book, as if in reply, snaps loudly and falls in two smoldering pieces.
Sohaila strokes the binding of her book. “It’s just a metaphor,” she says. “A symbol.”
“Symbols have power in our minds. Trust me, this one is a bad symbol.” She still hesitates and I sigh, not sure how to convince her. “Life is a collection of days greater than the sum of its parts,” I say.
Young Sohaila smiles at that and her book joins mine.
We sit together, watching the flames sink to burning embers and finally to cold ash. We cry together, missing Karan, but we don’t speak.
Dawn finds me still outside, my whites wrinkled and dirty, Sohaila’s head on my shoulder. The melted slag of our books is still there in the bottom of the pit.
My days have fallen in order ever since. The twins came, a boy and a girl. There are two of us caring for them, and sometimes a third or even a fourth as my daughters live close enough to visit often.
The book still controls me a bit. I rush downstairs first thing every morning to make sure it hasn’t returned. I cannot count the days I lived, can’t calculate if the future days I’ve already had balance out the ones I never got to in the past. Perhaps it doesn’t balance, perhaps I owe days for stopping when I did.
I’ll pay that debt happily.