Valley of Saints
BY YASMEEN KHAN
Recipient of the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose
Selected by Kristen Arnett
Dadi; Urdu meaning paternal grandmother
Dadi came to America to die. “I wouldn’t let myself go until my sister in-law had passed,” she tells me, spit flying from her mouth, “that bitch.”
Dadi’s pink dupatta dyes the blank hospital room, the color bleeding onto the ghost white sheets. I hold her scarred, wrinkled hand in mine. Her nails press moons into my skin.
Dadi was born the ninth daughter of a rice farmer in Baramulla, Kashmir. She kicked and screamed and killed her mother on the way out of the womb. As a child she stood in the flooded rice paddy for hours, expecting her guilty, bloodstained body to wash the water red. In her muddied reflection she thought she could see her mother’s floating braids, but when she reached down she found only fistfuls of uprooted, unbloomed crop. She hid the dead plants in a pile beneath her bed, prayed her father wouldn’t notice. Dadi began to believe she was a harbinger of death. When she was ten, she hid and watched as a woman knelt by the Jhelum River, cradling her newborn daughter in her arms. Watched as the woman pulled grass from the ground, threw it to the wind. Watched even when she tasted rain on her skin. Watched as the woman set her daughter’s rosy, reddened body onto the river’s smooth surface. Watched as she caressed her baby’s shoulders, then smashed her skull beneath the blue.
I wasn’t born in Kashmir, the valley of saints. I was born in the same hospital Dadi will die in, encircled by veins of grey highways. I didn’t scream. I didn’t cry. On my mother’s laptop there are fuzzy, yellow-lit videos of a tiny me in Dadi’s arms. In one video I am imitating her laughter: keykeykeykeykey. Like an answer but hidden. In another I am at the park as she pushes me on a wooden swing. The sky is blustery and bloodless. The wind passes through our bodies like a memory.
Dadi’s father married her off when she was sixteen. She learned quickly, the work of being a wife. She learned to stitch saffron into trays of rice, learned to sweeten kava chai until it sweetened her husband’s temperament. When her husband touched her, Dadi vacated her body, imagined herself buying flowers from the floating market in Srinagar. Dadi bled her first baby into a metal bucket. Her second dripped between her legs in the rice paddy, the third flaked off in black clots on her starchy bedsheets. Dadi carved the names of her unborn children into the kitchen cabinet: Salma, Reza, Hasan. Her sister-in-law accused her of black magic, of killing her children through a secret, violent power. She urged her brother to take on a second wife. Someone younger. Purer. She watched Dadi at all times, convinced she would catch her dreaming with the devil. When she found nothing, she pressed Dadi’s hand onto her hot pan as she cooked breakfast, smiling at the buzz of Dadi’s flesh going buttery, going burnt.
At sixteen, I have a skinny boy who buys me peach gummies and cigarettes. He comes over only when the house is empty. We smoke in the backyard. Cigarette between my lips like a dirty valentine. His nails tracing white circles onto the skin of my knee. On my couch, he slides his fingers inside of me and it feels like he’s touching my sloppy bubblegum guts. Sometimes I think he could fit his whole body inside of mine. His fingers pressing down in the spaces between my ribs. His eyelashes tickling the back of my throat. When he peels his body off mine it sounds like an exhale, a rush of blood. Half-naked, I turn on the news while he makes me coffee. Slides of sooty, starving children cut to candy-bright ads. Shivering, I hide in the warm static of a perfume commercial, making a blanket of the model’s bronzed shoulders. My boyfriend brings me my coffee, but I’ve already fallen asleep. He sets the mug on the counter, drapes my head into his lap. In my dreams I feel his hands run over my scalp like waves.
Dadi wants to watch a documentary about SeaWorld. “No,” I say in the little language we share, “let’s watch something happy.”
She swats my hand holding the remote. “I am too old for comedies. Let a dying woman watch what she wants, no?”
We watch the killer whales rot in tiny pools, cement coffins cradling their sad little lives. They miscarry, they fly, their bodies arcing into rings as they leap from the water. When one whale has her daughter taken from her, she throws herself to the corner of her tank and howls. For days, grief wracks her body. She shakes and screams late into the night. Her tiny teeth glint like pearls in her mouth.
“Did you know they take boys away like that in Kashmir, nowadays?” Dadi asks.
“Yes.” I am braiding her hair, trying not to think of the lumps in her head that graze my knuckles. When she speaks, she looks not at me but at the fuzzy TV screen, seedy black eyes on wailing black whale. “Yes, Dadi, I saw it on the news.”
“The mothers scream like that. In the middle of the street, too. Crazy bitches.”
“I think they’re just sad, Dadi.”
The silence is so thick we could swim through it. The orca slams her body again and again against the side of the tank. The water reverberates with her grief, light moving through the pool like powder. Exhausted, the orca collapses against the concrete wall. The markings around her eyes are thin and white like eggshells. I tie Dadi’s braid with a skinny green band and pull out my phone. Google Search: can killer whales cry. Decide I don’t want to know. Close my screen before the answer loads. A wink of white light, then darkness.
“Dadi, did you know one of these whales killed their trainer? It dragged her around the pool until she drowned.”
Dadi smacks her gums. “It makes you crazy, sometimes,” she says, “living in a little box like that, everyone screaming at you all the time. I would’ve killed her too. Put my teeth to use.”
She pulls her lips back in a pretend snarl. Specks of rot twitch on her yellow teeth like ants. Her lips snap back into place, and she laughs. Keykeykeykeykey.
Kashmir was the ancient hub of Sufi saints, mystics who levitated lanterns and sang prayers to the breaking dawn. When Dadi bore blood instead of a baby boy, she traveled to the tomb of a saint believed to converse with angels, deep in a snow-ringed cave. Dadi’s husband told her that if she scrubbed the floors of the temple, her suffering would soak into the saint’s grave and emerge as a son. Dadi scrubbed the marble floors for hours, scrubbed until her rags tore and her knees bruised. The soapy water collected in puddles, reflecting the bright blue sky like a pool of ancient diamonds. Dadi didn’t believe in divinity, but when she pressed her ear to pillars of the tomb, she heard the ghost of a man’s laugh, deep and booming like a flood. She smacked the pillar with the back of her hand. Kept scrubbing.
Dadi’s braiding requests grow more complicated: French braids, Dutch braids, braids that encircle her head like a crown of leaves. I spend hours with my hands enmeshed in her thinning hair, the strands dry and coarse like burnt wire.
The TV tells us stories about Kashmir. Radio silence. Cut landlines. Detention camps being built in Assam. Ghost towns full of women. Nationalism as the great magician, a disappearing act of young boys. Rice run red with blood.
“The valley has been full of violence for so long,” Dadi says. “It is better to die here, to die somewhere clean.”
Her braids dissolve in my fingers, ink burrowing into the lines of my palms. I comb through her hair with my nails. On TV the Indian Prime Minister shouts to a thrashing audience; a mother screams in the center of a dirt road. Dadi’s eyes glaze over like pools of milk. Beneath my hands her breathing is slow, tectonic. Dadi is silent under the orange wash of the TV screen. Sometimes I forget she isn’t already gone.