The Austerities of Jatkin
In the fourth year of his austerities, Jatkin threw his back out picking a strawberry. He hobbled across his garden, barefoot squashing a potato blossom that had flowered just yesterday. Bees buzzed near the squash shoots, honey stomachs already sagging with nectar in Jatkin’s spring bonanza. They must have watched his thin body with amusement. Sticks legs, lean muscled arms, and hair matted to his head with sweat—how terrible to always be bound to the earth. Jatkin could have told them about planes and paragliders, or how his legs sailed through the air when he still went to the park swings. Would they have listened, or concluded Jatkin’s injury too inauspicious for such a fine day and buzzed away to another blossom.
With the potato blossom still adhered to his foot, he entered his house and lay down on the cool kitchen floor. His pallet was in the corner, but each time he tried to sit up, his back seized. He needed water and something for the pain. He should call Jenna, but she would ask where his sofa went, why his window didn’t have shades or curtains. He would try to explain, to make her understand he didn’t need a mattress or a lamp, but she would cry, beg him to come live with her in the air conditioning behind the gates you needed a password to open. She would take him to the parking lots with supermarkets and cafés that sold coffees with whipped cream on top.
Jatkin turned his head toward his pallet’s sole companion: a dusty and grease-smudged volume. Inside its pages, gods and goddesses cavorted in brilliant palaces and the lushest forests. Those twenty-four thousand verses had sustained him over the last four years. In the cracks and crevices of his days, in the small spaces he used for acts like stirring his tea, or letting cool water run over his dirty hands until the white porcelain sink was brown with garden dirt, he followed the chief hero, Rama, into his forest exile and war with Ravana. He meditated over Rama’s dharma and self-control and sought to be like him.
The muscles in Jatkin’s back start to soften. A line of grout traverses his elbow and leaves a bumpy red line down his arm. The hair matted to his head is a poor pillow, and Jatkin fantasizes about rolling over, like a child over thick grass, until he reaches the pallet. He’s still yearning for its lumpy cushions when he falls asleep in the lengthening shadows.
Four years ago, they brought armloads of flowers to the river. Delicate petals and hardier stocks were mélanged that morning outside the market in canvas tote bags. Jenna eyed the bags nervously, worried someone would complain about river pollution. Jatkin argued it was all organic matter and therefore not polluting. They never dropped anything manmade in the river, no plastic idols, or charms like some of their neighbors. Still, Jenna had argued, best to do it when no one’s looking. So, they waited until dusk. Little Mira played with the flowers all afternoon, sinking her hands into the bags, and throwing up clouds of pink and yellow. By the time the three of them left for the river, many of the flowers were trampled and tired-looking, deep transparent welts crisscrossing the petals. Mira was exhausted from playing and slept all the way there in her pink booster seat.
When they got to the river, the air was thick with humidity and the sky possessed the tint of dusk that made total darkness easier to see through. Between the three of them, they dropped handfuls of petals into the river, squinting to make out the receding dots of pink, yellow, and red. Jatkin’s thoughts were lost in the swift current. He stared at the black waters, willing his worries about work, Mira’s college tuition, and his aging parents to be borne downstream. His mind traveled back to a time when his burdens were light, to college exams and the one time he over drafted his account to buy a plane ticket to visit Jenna. He remembered his father’s grumbling assent when he explained how well-connected Jenna’s family was.
Feral shrieks spilt time in two that night and sent his heart leaping out of his chest.
“Miiirraa!” Jenna cried, taking a step forward, then back, pacing a square of trampled grass like a caged animal. “She was just here!” she wailed when he grabbed her shoulders.
Jatkin peered into the dark river. He knew before the bow that Mira had been wearing bobbed to the surface, before emergency services found her body floating near a fallen log three hundred feet downstream, that she was gone.
During the wake at his in-law’s house, Jatkin chaffed under everyone’s well-meaning sympathy. When the prayers were over, he retreated to the study, a room paneled in mahogany with a desk of the same make that took four grown men to lift. A Persian rug covered the floor, wall to wall, and a small cabinet held a collection of cigars. Determined to outdo the imperialists at their own game, Jenna had commented the first time he visited.
Jatkin lingered by the bookcase, finger trailing the spines of books whose titles he read out loud. The blue cloth book drew his attention because it was thicker and dirtier than the other embossed leather spines. With both hands he pulled it free.
Hours later, after the last guest left, Jenna found him sitting cross-legged, his attention absorbed by the ancient tale. With his American education, Jatkin had only heard of this epic in passing, usually by an older relative or one of his father’s hookah friends. He never expected he’d enjoy these stories, that he’d find solace as King Dasharatha mourned his own son, Rama, when he was exiled to the forest. In the proceeding months, while Jenna sublimated her own grief in the temple, or the shopping trips where she brought nothing back, Jatkin read how King Dasharatha crumpled under his grief. He even envied the king a little; at least Dasharatha had someone to blame. The idea to exile Rama had come from a jealous wife. A finger to point was small consolation, but it was something.
As Rama plunged further into the forest of his exile, meeting ascetics whose discipline made the yogi Jatkin walked by on his way to the market look indulgent with their colorful rugs and brass begging pots, Jatkin morphed into a smaller version of himself. He lost weight (the depression according to his doctor) and the vertebrate in his spine compressed making him shorter. His spoke less—Jack and Jill never went up any hills, and there were no moon money pouches to buy elephants. With Mira gone there was no one to appreciate those lilting songs and rhymes, warbled, arms helicoptering down the hallway.
Rama’s forest ascetics had given him something akin to hope. Through long periods of self-imposed austerities—often thousands of years—they obtained a boon from one god or another. Jatkin didn’t have a thousand years, but if he preserved, if he emptied his life of all that was unnecessary, if he was controlled in his thoughts and actions, surely someone in the pantheon would take pity on him.
Jatkin wakes up to an owl hooting. From where he lies on the cold stone, he can see it perched on a swaying branch of the largest tree in the garden. When the owl makes eye contact, Jatkin’s feels as if his heart will stop. The owl is watching him keenly, eyes responding to every movement Jatkin makes. Jatkin watches the yellow-rimed eyes, the convex beak partially covered with tufts of copper fur, as it twitches. After minutes spent watching the owl in his rigid posture on the kitchen floor, Jatkin rises, and the owl responds by stretching his wings to their full span and flying away. The dawn light in the kitchen flickers as the owl flies between Jatkin and the sun.
Jatkin’s stomach growls, reminding him he forgot to eat dinner. He plods to the counter and tears a piece of roti from the batch he made two days ago. It is tough and requires several passes along Jatkin’s gums before he can swallow. He grabs a whole round, only mildly guilty at his lack of self-control. Rama lived off forest faire for fourteen years; Jatkin bought the flour for this roti, finely ground in a sack.
A notification blinks on his phone. He stares at the black rectangle in frustration. Last year he tried to get rid of it, but the fit Jenna had thrown—calling him a wannabe sadhu and threatening to phone his mother—stopped him. There are two missed calls from Jenna, and one voicemail. Jatkin leaves the phone on the counter; if she really wants him, she knows where to find him. He fills the tub of the upstairs master bathroom. Even though he sleeps in the kitchen, he can’t bring himself to use the downstairs bath. That was where they bathed Mira. He hasn’t been in there since that day. For all he knows, the rubber ducks and bamboo toy boats she used to play with are still there, though Jenna may have taken them when she moved out.
Jatkin sinks into the warm water, the muscles in his back twitching. Tendrils of steam rise all around him, making the humidity in the bathroom almost unbearable. The air is heavy in his lungs and breathing becomes a conscious act. Even though he’s lost two inches in the last four years, Jatkin’s legs are still too long for the tub, and he rests his feet on the opposite lip, flexing his toes until the bunion on his left foot pops. He wishes the tub was large enough to swim in, has often fantasized about digging a small pool in the garden. Perhaps that was why he had taught Mira how to float on her back in the bathtub, testing her to see if she shared his fascination. Maybe she had.
The pit in his stomach, the one he thought he’d filled with meditation and gardening, opens and leaves him gasping in the dense air.
From the unreal lead me to the real!
From the darkness lead me to the light!
From death lead me to immortality!
Jatkin repeats the mantra until the words lose their meaning, until they relax at the edges, start to lose their shape like a runny cheese. The mantra mingles with the steam until it is written on the fogged mirror above the sink. Until the steam forms droplets, until their weight burgeons, and they drop towards the counter, the mantra shines out to him. Jatkin’s stomach settles; he rests his head.
Like hunger, dreams are one of the few things Jatkin hasn’t learned to control. If he could, he would dream of the first time he met Jenna, the day they bought this house, or the race to the hospital when Jenna started having contractions one month before Mira’s due date. But it’s always the same dream, only the sequence and the minor details change.
He comes home from work. It is summer and his button-up is sticking to his back. Sweat drops off his forehead into his eyes, blurring the picture on the wall of Mira on her first Holi, her wispy baby hairs caked with blue gulal. The only thing he wants to do is sit outside under the cork tree with a large glass of iced tea and try to forget the cramped train ride home, or how the university wants him to teach three more classes next semester. But the moment he tosses his briefcase into the corner, Jenna yells at him from upstairs.
Mira needs a bath. Make sure to wash her hair well; she was caught sitting in the sandbox, pouring handfuls of sand on her head. Why? Who knows? Jatkin climbs the stairs to tell her he’ll bath Mira after he’s had a chance to relax but when he sees Jenna sitting on the floor folding a large pile of laundry, still dressed in her work clothes, he changes into an old t-shirt and jeans, and grabs Mira’s princess shampoo.
He drags Mira away from a teddy bear tea party, promising to make an appearance at the next one. When the tub is filled, and the toy boats are bobbing, he lowers Mira in. Her legs and arms beat frantic, but happy patterns on the surface. Soon Jatkin’s t-shirt is soaked, and small puddles gather on the uneven tiled floor. He squirts pink shampoo into her hair, longing for the day when she can bathe herself.
The moment Jatkin turns his back to grab Mira’s towel, waves begin rocking the sides of the bathtub. They grow higher and higher, until Mira leaps up, standing in the middle of the torrent, looking at him with a mixture of concern and accusation. He tries to block the waves with his hands as they slam into Mira’s trembling body. He unstops the drain, but the height of the water grows, spills out of the tub onto the floor and steadily rises. Now the water reaches Mira’s chin, and the stronger waves pelt her face until she’s coughing up water and soap. Jatkin reaches out to her, tries to wade through the water that’s hip-high and the waves that have pushed him toward the door, but his legs are rooted to the floor. Mira screams and takes one last gurgling breath before the water sloshes above her head. The water turns black, Jatkin can’t see Mira, wonders why she doesn’t float on her back like her taught her. He tries to scream, but it sticks in his throat.
Jatkin wakes up, heart pounding, his neck aching from his head lolling against his shoulder. He wonders how long he’s been asleep in the bathtub, and frantically looks for a clock on the wall before remembering this room has never had one and he would have removed by it now if it had. His mother always warned him about bathing when he was tired. As a teenager, when he came home from his cricket league stinking and tired, he couldn’t be in the family’s bathtub for more than fifteen minutes before she was pounding on the door making sure he was still awake. He looks around the spartan room, expecting similar censure from the scratched sink lever, or the shelf above the toilet.
He wraps his skinny body in one of the towels Jenna left, faded ponies prancing across his nipples and neighing down his legs. Cross-legged he sits on the kitchen floor eating cold rice and saag until his belly stops raging and his fingers are green from the spinach. He leaves the plates and the towel on the stone floor and grabs the dirty blue volume. The garden is well shrouded and it’s not the first time he’s depended on the trees and trellised tomatoes to hide his indecency. He savors the vibration in his throat as he reads.
Life ends in death. A ripened fruit has no other fear other than that of falling down. In that way, a man who is born, has no other fear other than that of death. A house built on a firm foundation is eventually dilapidated and destroyed. Like that, a man comes under the subjugation of old age and death and is destroyed.
Jatkin’s voice catches, he forces down a sob. He feels too exposed and sits down between the tomato trellises. The top layer of dirt crumbles underneath his flat cheeks, sinking into the damp, underlying soil.
Old age and death are fine, it’s the proper cycle of things. When his father died shortly after he married Jenna, he was sad, but he didn’t feel as if he’d been robbed. His father had lived a full life before he succumbed to lung cancer. He had education, a wife he stayed married to, children, and a career. Jatkin grieved for his father, but he came out the other side with acceptance. With Mira, Jatkin has only ever made it to bargaining. He’s caught in a loop, still fantasizing about what career she would’ve picked, how annoying her husband would be, the grandchildren he would read to.
Beads of sweat drips down his back and Jatkin wishes he’d brought the towel with him, though he likes the idea of watering the garden with his own body. He wonders, if he laid out here long enough, would his body liquify? What sorts of plants would sprout from the ground, nurtured by that miasma of watery tissue? For some time, Jatkin has fantasized about doing just that, of coming out to garden, sitting here in his favorite spot, and never getting up. Like the apes when they failed to find Rama’s beloved wife, Sita, after her abduction, he would commit praya. He would take neither food nor drink; he would give his life for his negligence that night on the river.
Jatkin had tried once. A year after Mira died, he had sat cross-legged under the cork tree until the sun set and the frogs were a cacophony. But as soon as he started shivering, his t-shirt little protection against the night chill, he retreated indoors. Looking back, he wasn’t surprised. How could he be successful at praya when he still watched television and bought samosas in the street every other day? He was better prepared now; he had a store of austerities to bolster him.
Jatkin closes his eyes. He can feel the warm air separating the hairs at the back of his head as it dries. He hears the leaves as they crackle and sway. The bees are back, ever hopeful. One buzzes near his ear, perhaps asking itself what manner of plant Jatkin is. Satisfied he contains no pollen, it flies away. Ants meander across the dirt, up the trellis, drawn by the scent of a too-ripe tomato. One climbs the boulder that is Jatkin’s toe, but Jatkin doesn’t notice.
In the kitchen, someone wearing trousers and high heels shakes her head and picks his discarded bowl and plate up off the floor. She washes them in the sink, washcloth rubbing circles even though the bowl is clean. She watches Jatkin from the window, thinking of what to say to him this time. Before she walks into the garden, she removes her heels and leaves them by the door.
Jatkin is smiling, remembering everything he can about Mira. The way her hair curled around her temples and her warm brown eyes. How she would rip a piece of roti with her teeth, dip it in curry, leaving a trail across the table. Her high-pitched warble, sprinkling nursery rhymes throughout the house like garden seeds. A tear rolls down his face and when he opens his eyes, just for a moment, he thinks his mind has manifested Mira. The same brown eyes and curling hair stare down at him. But the hands that reach out to him are larger, one of the fingers wears a gold ring.
“Jatkin,’ she says, wiping the tear off his chin.
© Jordan Dilley
Jordan Dilley lives and writes in Washington. She has an MA in literature from the University of Utah. Her work has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, JMWW, the Heavy Feather Review, the Vassar Review, Barnstorm Journal, and other publications.