The flames flap with a noise like laundry on a line. The fire is an orange column. A plastic bag pirouettes in mid-air. The camera, unsteady, lingers and lingers. And in the middle, the figure stands upright, stoic or suicidal. Pema thinks: she’s already dead.
There’s a blizzard. Jamal’s voice, through the phone, is in her left ear.
Pema looks away from the TV. In the waiting room people slump into the plastic chairs, turning the pages of the Toronto Sun or Today’s Parent. Outside the black window, snow whirls like a thousand dervishes. Here too, she says. Pearson is closed.
I can’t believe I’m going to miss it, Jamal says.
Pema wants to ask Jamal, Have you seen the news? But of course he hasn’t. He’s got other things to think about and now so does she. The intercom pages Dr. Patel to Maternity.
I have to go, Pema says. I’ll text you. Think of a name.
Karma’s room smells like blood and shit. There is a beeping machine and an impassive nurse in a hairnet and blue booties. Pema has never heard her sister make noises like this before. Urgent, animal sounds that roar out from some place deep inside that Pema had not known existed. She wants to call their mother but Karma says no in her big sister don’t-fuck-with-me-now voice.
Jamal sends impotent texts. Pema’s pocket buzzes. A little envelope lands on the screen.
He says he loves you. She holds up the phone so Karma can see that he has spelled out all the words.
I love you. I love you. What else is there to say? The wind howls and the ambulances scream as Karma bears down. And Pema is repulsed and terrified. Because the room is hot, damp. It is a jungle, raw and wild. And how could this be, no it could not be, Karma who, age sixteen, looked Amala and Pala straight in the eyes and said, I will do exactly as I like. Just you try to stop me. Battle cries, a warrior in the throes of death. The phone in Pema’s pocket, demanding attention. The nurse and now the doctor saying, One more push. And Karma sitting up, her body yawning open, reaching down, the crown of flattened jet-black hair. And the nurse asking, Can you see it? forcing Pema to look, even though she doesn’t want to, swallowing back bile. And the storm and the people in the hallway and the green line spiking up, diving down, running straight. And finally, finally, the small mewling cry. And Pema overcome with sobs that heave out of her mouth, joy bursting from every orifice, taking her by surprise.
Karma sleeps, deflated, defeated, and Pema takes photos of the baby, trying to forget what she has witnessed. Karma’s mouth contorting, her feet in the air, knees spread wide.
The baby has a cone for a head. She looks red and weary, battered from the ordeal of coming into existence. The nurse hands over the bundle and Pema is amazed by her lightness, the seven pounds and three ounces barely registering in her arms. She holds her niece awkwardly, terrified of snapping her neck.
What’s her name?
They haven’t decided. Pema doesn’t tell the nurse that the Dalai Lama has been asked to weigh in on the decision.
Instead, she hides in the bathroom and calls her mother.
Does the baby look like him? Amala asks.
She’s healthy, Pema says. And so cute. They speak in Tibetan.
We’ve received word from Kundun.
Ma, Pema says in English. Karma and Jamal are choosing a name.
She emerges from the bathroom to find her sister is awake, sitting up in bed with the baby.
Let me guess, Karma says. Tenzin? Figures.
Pema hadn’t told her about the call. She had tried her best to whisper into the phone. Karma knew all.
Karma holds the baby like a football. She opens the hospital gown and one breast flops out. The breast is engorged and veiny, the aureole like a dinner plate. Pema wants to avert her eyes. She suggests Maya. After Lord Buddha’s mother. Or Trinley? We could call her Trin.
But Karma says no. No Tibetan names. She frowns and jostles, struggling to line up an elongated nipple with the baby’s rosebud lips.
Pema has never met a Tibetan who didn’t have a Tib name. She says to her sister: Don’t shut them out.
The baby opens her mouth; milk dribbles down her chin. Karma mutters: Latch! Latch! The baby turns her head away. Karma says, They started it.
Karma works with rare books at the university library. Jamal makes documentaries. Their professions are nouns: librarian, filmmaker. Pema types numbers into columns. She has only a verb: data entry.
At lunchtime, the lowest rungs go down the street to the cafeteria in the Toronto Sun building where they bitch about their bosses and commiserate about being the working poor. The others are Amanda, Brenda, and Ling-Mei. Pema never feels comfortable around Ling-Mei, even though their desks are beside each other.
Brenda says the guy at the falafel shop is Tibetan.
Ling-Mei says, No! He’s like sixteen. Pema plays along, rolling her eyes and laughing. She wants to fast forward ten years, get to the part where she has a family and a house, a noun on a business card.
When Pema thinks about her life—straight As, failing beginner piano, eating sandwiches under the stairwell—all of it leading to this moment at four fifty five when her boss tells her that there is an urgent deliverable, she feels like she’s been tricked. But when Karma looks up, harried, from the squalling infant and asks, How was work? Pema always says: Fine. Same old.
Amala wants to know if she has made any new friends. What she means is, has Pema met any boys?
I’m busy with the baby, Pema says. She has lived in Toronto for a year but she has not yet been to the Tibetan Community Centre. Whenever she thinks of it, she imagines moon-faced FOBs. Wandering souls.
Just date whoever you like, Karma says. If they wanted us to marry Tibs, they shouldn’t have left Dharamsala.
The Chinese are taking over Tibet, moving in on state-sponsored programs to dilute the population. They run the businesses; they drive up inflation. And more and more Tibs dispersing into exile.
We are like the Jews. Pala, unchecked, is something else altogether. He could have been a Baptist preacher. Look at what they did to my parents, he says. The Chinese would exterminate us all if they could.
They had kidnapped the Panchen Lama. What kind of government steals a religion’s chosen one? China said they would be the ones to choose the Kundun’s replacement. Whenever Pala got on this tangent, spit started flying. The arrogance! What if Berlusconi announced he was going to choose the next pope? Impossible!
It is Pema’s duty to marry a Tibetan, to have sweet- faced almond-skinned children. She wants to do her part. But when she plays scrabble with Jamal and Karma she wants what they have too.
Find a Tibetan? Karma raises one eyebrow high on her forehead; the eyebrow says I’m above all this nonsense. Here? That’s like going into Starbucks and ordering butter tea.
Now, now, Karma says. That’s your heritage!
It takes the burning woman three days to die. Pema thinks of her children, now motherless, and her skin, charred like a drumstick forgotten on a barbecue. And what it all means, to become a human torch, a beacon for a cause.
It is March and the city has had enough of winter. Pema scratches at the frost on the window feeling the ice collect under her thumbnail. Behind her, Karma rocks the baby. But her soothing murmurs are drowned out by the tortured wail.
The dog is called Fatty Bolger. He sits in the narrow hallway, warming his nose between his paws, and looks up at Pema with big, mournful eyes. The baby’s cry could break your heart. Her head is flung back in abandon, her tiny lungs unequal to her despair. It’s not colic or hunger. It’s not a foul diaper.
Karma looks to Pema and begs, What should I do? Pema does not recognize this tearful, needy sister. Put her in the stroller, Pema suggests. She takes the dog’s leash off the hook by the door. Let’s try a walk.
But when it comes to the baby, Karma is afraid. No, she says. It’s too slippery. The ice. It’s not safe.
Pema takes the dog instead. He droops and sways low to the ground, his nose leading the way. There’s a whole world of smells, Karma had said once. We have no idea.
Pema keeps one hand on his leash and waves with the other to the neighbours, as she negotiates bump patches of ice. In Medicine Hat, where she grew up, they were the only Tibetan family. She still catches herself staring when she sees other Tibs. Their corner of the city is peppered with exiles. On Wednesdays the Tibetan shops and take-outs are always full.
Fatty Bolger is not a Lhasa Apso. He is not called Choden or Tsering like the other dogs on their street. But everyone knows they are Tibetan by the multi-coloured squares of the prayer flag that garland the front door.
The house is like a supermodel—tall and skinny with brittle bones. On the top floor, in what used to be the attic, the slanted roof leaks. A white plastic rain gutter runs like a tunnel, flush with the ceiling. There is a bucket in the corner and a string that hangs down to it, anchored by a rock. An indoor waterfall, every time it rains.
Pema’s room is on this floor, across from an alcove where she and Karma kneel once a day. Lord Buddha sits cross-legged on a low wooden table. A flower floats in a shallow dish. Pema fills six bowls with water every morning and Karma empties them at night. Pema has forgotten the meaning of this ritual but she likes it anyway, just as she likes the silk embroidered thangka that hangs over the table. A monster devours the wheel of life. Concentric rings, each one circling the other like a trap, and the three poisons in the centre. Ignorance, hatred, and greed chasing their own tails.
There have been calls to boycott the Olympics. Controversy swirling and the Games only a few months away. In the end, Pema knows that none of it will matter. Skeletons turning to dust in the closet while the world oohs and aahs at the opening ceremonies. The dancing, the ribbons, the smoke and the mirrors. What Beijing excels at: putting on a show.
China has declared self-immolation a crime. The monks are banned from offering condolences or conducting prayers for the dead. When Karma chants, her voice rumbles deep and trance-like. Pema, in bed, cuddles up with a hot water bottle. She keeps the door open and listens to her sister. Once a day, Karma is herself again, reliable and constant.
Om mani peme hung. Karma intones with a slow and steady beat. Om mani peme hung. The syllables of the mantra fill up the room, seem to fill up the whole world. Coaxing one to sleep, another toward enlightenment. Urging them both, Step away from the light.
What had the woman thought of as she stood choking in the flames? A dream of homeland or her children. Or maybe the overwhelming agony had been everything. The seer and singe and the smoke. Maybe she was wishing she had not woken up that morning.
The pipes have burst. Jamal and Pema wear Wellingtons. Water steams around their ankles. Pema tries not to think about rats, long tails swishing around corners in the subterranean dark. Her steps are hesitant. She imagines water-logged fur, a hump of resistance, thin bones snapping under her rubber sole.
The copper pipes sputter and piss in streams. Towels wrapped around them bulge and drip. Pema wrings out her mop. The water in the bucket is slicked with grease. Jamal holds the baby monitor sideways across his mouth. Call the plumber, he says into the static.
Jamal is home for another weekend. Brunch was his idea, the baby’s first outing. Karma was resistant. Take her, she said. Go without me. Even though they all knew this was impossible. Karma is still trying to breast feed and the baby is permanently attached to her, a tiny, grasping marsupial. When the wet spots appeared on the front of Karma’s shirt, she had cried and said, I knew it. We shouldn’t have come.
Pema had never seen Karma cry before. She had raised a hand for the bill and locked the car seat into the stroller because those were the things she knew how to do. The heat wasn’t working when they got home and that’s when they realized about the pipes.
Through the monitor, they can hear the baby fussing. Karma doesn’t take her voice up an octave or call the baby baba or monchie when she consoles her. Pema thinks that if she did these things the baby would not cry so often. She thinks it but she does not say it.
Pema is relieved that Jamal is here, to take charge of her leaky sister and the weeping pipes. Jamal’s hair is clipped short. His teeth flash white against his dark skin.
We need more towels, he says to Pema.
There is a teddy-bear shaped scar on Jamal’s back. When Amala first met him, she had said, astonished: But Karma, he looks like a monkey.
Sometimes Pema takes the night shift and sleeps with the monitor. Fatty Bolger sits by her feet at the fire. Or paces with her as she coos and pats the baby’s rustling bum. Jamal made a cradle. Pema rocks it with her foot as she streams the news from Tibet.
Lhasa is a grey-brown blur, the shell of a city. Objects are flung at the Bank of China building. A woman points to an overturned truck: The Tibetans are not blameless; they have blood on their hands. A baby carriage tips dangerously off a curb. A man brings his fist down over and over. The camera watches from a rooftop, lens aimed like a sniper.
The images are grainy. They require translation. The Al-Jazeera reporter speaks in unaccented English: Beijing is blaming the Dalai Lama. She demonstrates how censors black out the international channels. China is a brat with his fingers in his ears. Pema wants to smack him.
An American pundit with an earpiece: If we in the free world don’t speak out, we have lost all moral authority. And Kundun with his massive glasses, old grandfather’s face like a creased pillow, leaning down, whispering into the bandages. Do not pass over with hatred in your heart.
The young mother burns again and again. Every time Pema watches the footage, she hits replay on her suffering.
When Jamal calls from Halifax, they put him on speaker. There is a snow plow in the background. He opens a beer and they hear that too—the fizz of the steam when he twists off the cap.
Tell me, he says and Pema gives him a rundown of the vitals. Up every three hours. Another pound gained. No sign of colic.
She hates my breasts, Karma wails into the phone. Formula, Jamal says. It didn’t hurt me.
Pema touches the baby’s cheek with the back of her finger. The baby is sleeping but she can’t help herself. Her skin is impossibly soft. She holds the phone so Jamal can hear her breathing. Jamal says: Alpha Bravo Charlie. Sleep through the night. That’s an order. Do you copy?
Pema does not tell him that she had found Karma standing, stiff over the crib while the baby bawled in a rage. Toothless red gums, each cry forced out with a great panting effort. She does not tell him how Karma had turned to her and said: Sometimes I fantasize about being in an accident. Just so someone else would take care of her.
Pema had replaced the sodden diaper, her fingers fumbling with the tape, while the baby fell asleep, exhausted, on the change table. Pema knows her sister didn’t mean it. No one can be held accountable for the words that break ranks at three in the morning.
Amala and Pala leave message after message. They want to see the baby. Karma paces in front of the oven, clenching and unclenching her fists at her sides. A herd of elephants live next door. Their domestic battles seep through the walls in muffled surround sound.
Karma, Pema says. Maybe you could—
It’s nothing to do with you, Karma snaps. Stay out of it.
But when the phone rings, Karma answers and hands Pema the other extension.
You can’t come here, Karma says immediately, before their parents can say hello. Not yet.
But Karma, Amala says. We want to help.
He doesn’t want us there, Pala says. Is that the problem?
He. Pema is warming a bottle for the baby. She tests the milk against her wrist and winces.
My husband has a name.
Pema’s parents and her sister are like warring nations, old foes skirmishing over a boundary line that shifts imperceptibly, never gaining any ground. What they need is a mediator, someone to broker a peace agreement.
Pema unscrews the nipple off the bottle and tries to think of a neutral topic. For a decade, it was just the three of them. By the time Pema arrived, the unexpected child, there was no place for a fourth party in the fray.
Amala asks about the baby. She calls her Tenzin Dolma.
Her name is Sophia, Karma says.
Pema is surprised. When had this been decided? Tenzin Dolma. Pala speaks with authority. This name will bring her good fortune.
Were you in labour for sixteen hours? Karma’s voice jumps up. Her name is Sophia Naomi Wilson.
Naomi is Jamal’s mother’s name. Pema puts the open bottle in the fridge and keeps quiet. She is not Ban Ki-moon. She’s just the babysitter.
It’s bad luck, Karma, Amala says. To reject the name Kundun has given.
Karma has no patience for superstition. I’ll risk it. Don’t you want… we just want the baby to have the best possible chance.
Pema thinks her mother sounds frightened. She is about to speak up but her father gets there first. Your daughter must have a Tibetan name or she will have no identity. She will be confused all her life.
She’s only half Tibetan anyway, Karma says. Half Tib. Half bonobo.
Pema wants to say to her parents: Karma is having a bad day. But loyalty holds her tongue. When the call ends, Karma cries, inconsolable. Pema feels like the last sane person on earth.
A march is planned. From Queen Street to the Chinese consulate.
Karma says she is wasting her time. What’s the point? Of any of this? China has won. We need to move on.
How can you say that?
If China frees Tibet, will you move there? That’s our homeland, Pema says.
On the screen Lhasa looks ravaged and desolate. An old film set, abandoned.
Some homeland, Karma says and leaves the room. The baby tries to suckle at Pema’s chest. Her shirt is damp.
At the rally, Pema is part of the crowd streaming four abreast down the street. Everything is grey and drippy. A river of melted snow runs into the gutter. Last season’s rubbish—candy wrappers, cigarette butts, float past. The monks lead the way, their robes wrapped around them like burgundy bed sheets. There are signs and placards. Pema is surrounded by Tibetans. Her earliest memory: weaving in and out through a forest of legs, flitting a paper flag over her head.
The older women wear multi-coloured chubas and white silk scarves. A woman in a fur-lined hat reminds Pema of her mother. The young people have painted faces. Before leaving for the rally, she had pulled down the flag that hangs in her window and now it is draped over her shoulders. There is a guy in a tricolour sweater vest with chains across his chest. She sizes him up. He’s about her age and not bad looking but there’s too much gel in his hair.
A man with a bullhorn leads the chants. China lies, people die, they yell. And: One dream, one world, free Tibet! Pema walks beside an old man. He grabs her hand and squeezes as they shout together. Pema squeezes back. She wants to hug him. She feels elation and shared purpose, a sense of belonging surrounded by all these people who look just like her. She should have talked Karma into coming. They could have brought Sophia. Pema can’t think of the last time Karma left the house. She must be going stir-crazy; that’s her problem.
Brenda doesn’t think self-immolation is an effective form of protest.
Amanda says it’s better than suicide bombing. What other choice do they have?
It’s Jamaican-me-crazy day in the cafeteria. The whole place smells like deep frying and jerk spice. Ling-Mei pulls the crust off her sandwich in one long peel.
When Pema thinks of the woman she imagines a Fanta bottle. Liquid pouring over her head, pooling like rain water in her shoes. Her teeth are barred. She lights up like a match.
Brenda is a cynic. Nothing will change.
Pema is only half-listening to the conversation. It’s in the background with the cutlery and the steel pan. A thought, unguarded, makes its escape. I hate the Chinese!
Ling-Mei puts down her sandwich. Excuse me? Amanda is sitting beside Pema. She shifts away.
Pema’s heart beats a little faster. She has turned the corner and stumbled upon this conversation by accident and now it is too late to back away unnoticed. Her face feels hot. The Chinese government, she says.
Ling-Mei leans across the table. There is dirt under her nail. You hate the Chinese?
That’s not what I meant, Pema says. Was it? Was it what she meant? She tries to explain: If they would just give us back our homeland…the censorship…
You hate the Chinese. You said it. Now stand by it. Ling-Mei looks ready to launch herself across the table. Pema leans back. A group of old white men in crocheted rasta caps turn to watch.
Brenda puts a hand on Ling-Mei’s shoulder. Pema, she says. I think you should apologize.
Amanda looks at her watch. It’s time to go back. Pema works quietly at her desk and tries not to look at Ling-Mei who shares her cubicle. They sit with their backs to each other, clacking at their keyboards. Pema tells herself she does not hate Ling-Mei. Ling-Mei has nothing to do with inflation in Lhasa. Ling-Mei wasn’t the one who beat Pala’s parents to death. Ling-Mei does not know where the Panchen Lama is hidden. Pema wants to go home and hold Sophia.
At four ten the elevator doors split open. The manager of human resources is so big she needs a cane to walk. Pema has never seen her on the first floor before. She pretends to work, typing nonsense numbers into cells and staring at the computer. Has Ling-Mei said something?
The HR manager passes by Pema but stops in their cubicle. Pema tries to eavesdrop but hears only sibilant esses. Chair wheels drag backward across the carpet and then Ling-Mei and two others are following the cane to the elevator.
Pema deletes the row of numbers she has just typed and starts again. Her Dilbert calendar, the carpet-like texture of the half-wall where it hangs. Filing cabinets, inter-office envelopes, the rough shine of the key that sticks out of the drawer under her desk. All the drab grey things that surround her every day have been made unfamiliar. Pema waits and waits but Ling-Mei does not come back.
The subway chime announces the stops in three dull tones like an unfinished melody. Pema wonders how Ling-Mei can afford to live in the Annex. When she had asked her boss, her fingers tangling and untangling, if she should be worried about the cut-backs, he’d said: You? You don’t make enough money to worry. Then he’d given her Ling-Mei’s files and told her: These are priority.
The balconies on the fifth floor of Ling-Mei’s building jut out several inches, like a pouting lower lip. Pema has not told anyone about this visit. Something could happen and no one would know.
The wind turns her umbrella inside out. She struggles with it and follows a man with a stroller through the front door. At apartment 507 she knocks, feeling nervous. The elevator door is still open. She could jump back in, frantically press at all the buttons.
Ling-Mei wears jeans and a sweater. It’s a quarter to six. If Pema was unemployed she’d still be in her pajamas.
What are you doing here? The question is more bewildered than accusatory.
It occurs to Pema that she should have prepared a statement. What is she doing here?
Come in, Ling-Mei says, finally.
She does not offer Pema a drink or a seat. Pema doesn’t unbutton her raincoat.
The office is a gong show, Pema says. I can’t believe they let you go.
Ling-Mei stands with her arms crossed in front of her, all her weight cocked on one hip. She doesn’t say anything and Pema feels compelled to throw a blanket over the silence: I wanted to explain about the other day, about what I said at lunch.
Ling-Mei, so confident and sure of herself. Can she see that Pema’s hands are trembling?
Pema says: The thing is…I’m sensitive about China.
You’re sensitive about China?
I’m not explaining properly. Pema begins to sweat. Look, China…the Chinese government has done terrible things to us.
Ling-Mei has an underbite that gives her the look of a piranha. She says, You know I don’t have anything to do with that, right? I haven’t even given it much thought. China and Tibet. Who’s right or wrong.
It seems to Pema a privileged position to be in— the luxury of ignorance. She says: You’d be angry too if it was your culture under threat, your family. My grandparents were beaten to death for nothing. For being in the wrong place.
It’s pretty unfair of you to lump us all in together. Ling-Mei puts her hands on her hips. I wasn’t even born there.
Pema is flustered. The armpits of her white button up shirt are uncomfortably wet.
I meant the Chinese government, not the people. Not you.
Right. That’s why you put those Free Tibet stickers on my side of the cubicle.
Pema’s voice comes out louder than she intended. Are you kidding me? What about Ying Ying?
The Olympic mascot? Ling-Mei’s arms turn cartwheels. So now I’m not allowed to keep a stuffed toy?
It’s a Tibetan antelope. Pema uses her finger as an exclamation point, jabbing at Ling-Mei’s nose. Which China appropriated. Because that’s what you Chinese are good at—
You Chinese, you Chinese. Ling-Mei is a high-pitched parrot. We’re all the same to you, aren’t we, Pema?
Their voices rise, arguments clambering over each other to come out on top. Sheets of rain slam sideways against the windows. Pema’s heart is a percussionist beating in her ears.
Take responsibility for your actions! Ling-Mei stamps her foot. It’s so easy to play the victim!
Ling-Mei’s face grows large in Pema’s vision: her dark slitted eyes, the snub petulant nose. The flat of Pema’s hand winds back and swings forward, landing with a crack on Ling-Mei’s cheek. Nails graze eyelash. Ling-Mei yelps and cowers, hands over her face.
Pema realizes she is breathing hard. The room comes back into focus. Ling-Mei’s shoulders jerk up and for a split second, Pema thinks she’s about to laugh. The piranha lip trembles. Ling-Mei wails, Why did you come here?
The sight of Ling-Mei, shattered and sobbing, is so foreign that Pema doesn’t know what to make of it. She starts to cry too.
Ling-Mei presses her hands, hot and hard, into Pema’s forearms and screams: GET OUT.
Pema stumbles back and somehow out the door. In the hallway, the elevator is waiting. She jabs L for lobby again and again and again.
At home, Pema is still thinking about Ling-Mei. She leaves the mangled umbrella on the rubber mat and recalls everything they said to each other, cringing at the memories. The way Ling-Mei’s face had crumpled, her vulnerability. Pema has never raised a hand to anyone in her life. She can still hear the startling sound of the smack.
The TV has been left on. Victor Newman’s cratered face dominates the screen. In the kitchen, two pieces of toast stand upright, golden brown. The marmalade jar is open, a knife balanced on top. When Pema touches the toaster, the stainless steel is cold.
Moving through the still, empty rooms, Pema has the sensation of being an intruder. The unwitting neighbour who discovers the bodies.
Karm? Pema calls her sister’s name quietly. Fear is a tiny seed in her stomach. It might still blow away, without taking root. From above, an odd sound, not quite like the dripping of a forgotten tap. She holds on to the banister and tells herself: Nothing is wrong. Nothing is wrong. Nothing is wrong.
The staircase is a battle field. Soothers and burp cloths and a plush menagerie of fallen heroes. On the second floor, the bathroom sits quiet and innocent. She takes the stairs to the attic two at a time, listening hard for a cry. Instead there is singing.
She turns the corner and there’s her big sister. Water slicks her hair. At her feet, the carpet darkens in a widening circle. Sophia is in her arms. The dog is close by, out of the spray, paws around his nose. When he sees Pema, he stands and barks.
Karma! What are you doing? She holds her arms out but Karma keeps Sophia to herself.
Karma sings: Just singing in the rain!
Jamal’s contraption has failed. The leaky patch of ceiling has spread and the make-shift indoor plumbing cannot contain it. Pudgy bare feet hang from the bottom of a yellow rain coat. Sophia’s hood is pulled up and Pema cannot see her face. The dog thumps his tail against the floor as Karma belts it out.
Drops of water dot the wall. They fleck the prayer table and fall into the bowls, rippling like rain on a still pond.
Where’s the bucket? Pema asks, looking around. We need towels and the roofer and…shut up, Fatty!
A thought stops her cold: There’s no way Sophia is asleep. Not with this racket.
Karma, Pema says. What did you do?
Karma does a body sway, bobbing the baby and her shoulders. Her eyes are closed. She hums a bar wordlessly. How does the rest of the song go?
There is a little sock on the ground, pink with white frills. In the drama with Ling-Mei, Pema has forgotten her sister. Pema starts to cry. This is all her fault.
Pema says, I’ve done something bad.
Karma opens her eyes. She becomes still. Has something happened? Is someone hurt?
The dog begins to whine, a plaintive sound. The baby hangs in Karma’s arms, unmoving.
A girl I used to…Pema cries harder, gasping out the words between her sobs. We got into a fight and I just…I slapped her.
Karma bursts out laughing. That’s it? she says, between guffaws. You bitch slapped some chick and that’s why you’re crying? She puts a hand on Pema’s shoulder. Pema. Relax. You’ll apologize. I’ll call the roofer. Your friend will live. The carpet will survive. Now do you know the words to this song or what?
Karma’s laugh—loud, almost masculine—Pema hasn’t heard it in weeks. She shakes her head. Or what, she says.
My god! Karma says. The look on your face…I thought someone had…Come here. Karma pulls her under the leak. Feel this. It’s not cold.
Pema sees that Karma is smiling, for the first time in a long time. And closer now, she sees that, incredibly, Sophia is asleep, snuffly breaths puffing out. The carpet is a sponge and then so are Pema’s socks.
Here’s a song I know. Pema thinks for a second, recalling the right key. It’s raining men!
Pema puts her arms around Karma and with Sophia a sleeping bundle between them, they sing, dancing in a circle. Hair glues itself to Pema’s cheek. Water anoints her head, tickling down the back of her neck, under her shirt. The warmth of Karma’s body. The sour odour of sweat and breast milk. But none of it matters. Because they are both singing. Madly, joyously. Elephants stamping down the stairs. Turning and turning. Faster, faster. A trinity spinning like a prayer wheel. The walls, the colours of the thangka, everything blurring. Rain pelts the roof. Fatty howls. Pema and her sister shout: Amen! Karma laughs and the baby wakes up with a yawn.
Photo by Flickr User James Mann