There’s a cemetery on a mountainside in Kabul that’s running out of space. I read a New York Times piece about it years ago. A group of boys run grave maintenance, for a price, and one girl, six years old, works the mountainside with them. She brags like the boys about taking in mourners—too young to appreciate how much we mourners want to be taken in. She brags about what her father in Iran will bring her when he returns home. She prays for a Galaxy phone. I still think about her prayers and the power of prayer, which is something I grew up hearing a lot about.
The graves with poems and elaborate portraits belong to men. The cemetery is a big attraction in part because women, the wives and mothers, are not permitted to attend burials, so they show up the next morning and families picnic. There’s cotton candy for sale. It’s for the best—I grew up hearing that one a lot too.
“He’s never coming home,” the boys taunt the girl. “He’s not even in Iran.” She lets them say it because she’s made enough in tips to keep her family in bread for days. She says she prays for a Galaxy, but really it’s the moment she wants, when her father hands her the phone and proves he exists and exists with her in mind, that’s the prayer.
A line from that article, which I copied into my phone: “If the bird’s body doesn’t hurt, it won’t learn how to fight.” That’s just one man’s graveside theory on how to train good cockfighters.
My husband made a list of goals for the year. He wrote: Start a family? We’ve already made an effort of it. My doctor assures me loss is common enough, normal enough, at my age, and I can appreciate that this is true, a fact of science, but I assure you the experience feels deeply abnormal.
By all accounts, a mother’s body hurts. After giving birth to twins, my mom’s uterus swung inside her by a thread of tissue. For six years, she held her stomach, hand cradling organs, to flip over in bed. She did this while sleeping! For six years! She said she noticed the difference only after having surgery to prevent her uterus from falling out of her. She said she’d simply made a habit of holding herself together.
An Afghani mother whose teenage son died by suicide (unrequited love) said she dreams of the boy’s grave in twisting flames, so she sprinkles water on his headstone, where he’s depicted in jacket and tie, to keep the flames at bay, to absolve him, to restore him. This, to me, is one of the scariest things about motherhood: the lifelong multitasking.
In her nightmares, she carries with her buckets of well water. She heaves water on the fire, but it doesn’t die, and this is when she knows she’s dreaming. On Thursdays with her son, she drinks water from a plastic bottle and stays as long as it takes to drink. Then she wets her hands and absolves her son. She knows it’s a nightmare when the flames don’t die; she knows it’s real-life when she sees no flames. I wonder what she does with the plastic bottle. Are there recycling bins on the crowded mountainside?
I feel something like relief for that mother because she’s received one paltry reprieve: in her dreams, she doesn’t believe fires can burn on, but of course they can. The hottest, most expansive wildfires can’t be extinguished with water or retardant; they can be managed, but they can’t be drowned. Now I can’t be certain I read that part about the dream. It doesn’t sound like something a newspaper would report.
A mother’s love is forever, but so are plastic bottles. A late-night talk-show host, who lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was ten, said he had to learn to love the crash, the very worst of his life. I would like to share a lasagna with his mother. It seems dangerous to me to have to multitask as mothers do.
I have a dear dead friend whose grave I don’t visit. She died after childbirth; it’s more common than you think. I visited our hometown, in California, a few times last year—for weddings, holidays, when my parents moved from one suburb to another to escape wildfires—but I haven’t set eyes on her since the day we shoveled dirt into the hole. I don’t speak to her mother much, but when I do she’s grateful to tears that I still celebrate my friend’s birthday.
The thing about my hometown is that there’s no avoiding the wildfires, which I know my mom knows.
The Italian essayist Natalia Ginzburg wrote about her own dead friend; she mentions seeing him, after his death, out walking the streets of their city. She said she was almost sure it wasn’t him. I remember reading that and thinking, “I don’t relate.” Of course I can’t find the passage anymore.
My goal for the year is to know the names of the birds in Central Park and to watch them. It turns out that I want to see hooded mergansers and I don’t want to see my dead friend on a walk. I do want to see geese.
Yesterday, my husband met me halfway through a guided tour of the park’s waterfowl. I pointed to the birds on the Reservoir and said, “Bufflehead, ruddy-something, shoveler, mallard,” repeating the park ranger. My husband pointed to a shoveler and said, “Mallard?” And the ranger pointed at an American kestrel overhead—not a colorful songbird, she said, but a colorful falcon that flies against the wind, hovering, scanning the landscape for a real songbird, which it snatches in its talons. They sink into the songbird’s ribcage as its hooked beak severs the songbird’s spine. “It’s a mercy, really,” the ranger said.
My mom watches church on Sunday morning TV and talks about being surprised by “the best,” how it creeps up on you, the misfortune that turned out years later to be, wow, for the best. “The best for whom?” I’ve begun asking. “Who could this be the best for?”
In housing the dead, the entire city of Kabul is exhausted. They must’ve run out of mountainside by now.
Jennifer Blackman lives in New York City with her husband and bloodthirsty cat. Her fiction has appeared with McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Epiphany Magazine.