The Purgatory Water Underneath

Updated: May 11

Momina Mela



Right after my sister’s transcendence (deathliness), my mother summons mothers of other transcendent children all across Lahore. One of the aunties (Mother of Musa, 15, who went to bed after watching Game of Thrones and never woke up) is the only one to admit: “and when he left, I thought the world should probably… you know… wrap it up by now,” she circles her hands like loose canons (asteroids?) to indicate chaos. She looks lovely. I see her eyes change—what’s that? Did some spit creep out of my mouth just now (an apocalyptic fetish)? Did my parent’s dowry furniture finally lift up its bow-legged legs to say something to me? What’s all this about?

Aria asks me to write on grief during a pandemic (a pandemonium!) and texts the next day: my old friend Visar is dead. (The handsome one that visited? Yes that handsome, pretty boy) I wanted to write to her (write what? my fingernails hurt each day) and tell her that (say the thing): our parentheses (sweet Aria, said I) is precisely where your friend and my sister live. They’re both right there. Here, in the pretty little syntaxes that we carry around like Himalayan salt nuggets, taking a lick every now and then, paying little attention. The games we played and called them poems (a lick for grief, a lick for style). Look! They’re both playing their own parenthetical game as we speak (there’s your friend, here’s my sister)! Let’s just relax and for once, watch them become the moons. I will soon be letting go of my own physical time anyway, at least for the next few years.

*

Iman: hi guys

just wanted to tell you my corona test results are positive

i’m at mayo hospital

it’s closer to home than we think

no longer in wuhan

don’t worry no I have no symptoms

The year is 1923 and I’m the only to wear a mask to my cousin’s wedding (don’t touch me) and if you zoom into the video footage, you can see my small blue mouth disappear at the mention of “forces (yes) that threaten to ruin relations, diseases that break love,” says the Maulvi who has clearly begun an attempt to parenthesise marriage (disease) to match the ‘current climate’. What clerical love is this? There—you can see me leaving the room (is that a tear?). I don’t like this game when others play it. Whatever happened to Emily (Dickinson)? Meanwhile, somewhere else, a girl (a tad coked) yells at me about how humans are exactly like animals—that we (the two of us!) are animals too. I listen to her with curled ears and hear my ancestral cousins rattle their glassy femurs, shifting cool cool dirt.

*

Sister’s First Transcendence Anniversary Prayer Broadcast: Bismillah ar Rahman ar Rahim, first of all, God, I just want to say, great work

*

(Muslims be mad. Muslims be sad. God is angry. Mecca is empty). None circle the black square (you know the One) on live TV broadcasts and I for one am glad for the view. All that clean marble geography, glorious and soulless (no more crying in the bathrooms of Mecca, ladies!). I saw the Pope— waving at no one with a doughy little hand from a ribbed balcony (and I was glad for that too). I laughed a laugh that sounded like it came from thousands and thousands of years ago (a Homo sapien laugh). If there was a point to be made here, I’ve already lost it. Don’t worry (My Lord hath not abandoned me, nor is He displeased with me).

Iman: everybody’s calling me up saying I brought corona to pakistan

x called me and said my babies were on the flight my babies

are not vaccinated yet

and how was I supposed to know

that I had it?

*

Speaking of Resurrection, I’ve been thinking about breeding—cats and dogs mostly (I could never have saved her).

I see a blue British Shorthair cat with a white underbelly, white lightening across its face and paws, bred and birthed in the Netherlands. Later I find the same cat (on the Internet where we all belong) bird-caged and starved on a rooftop here in Lahore (“If this isn’t a sign from God I don’t know what is!”). Years ago, I decided that every time I saw a spotted beagle on the sick-boot streets of New York, I’d take it as a sign that I wasn’t dead yet. I saw tons of them, naturally—noble little things. They assaulted me at every corner (elegant pissers) and that’s when I decided to leave the city. Of course, there were dreams (they meant nothing) long after—the men in rescue motorboats steering through Manhattan with their sheer medicinal gadgets, leaving behind the bitten. The purgatory waters underneath.

My grandmothers are sisters and my grandfathers are brothers—I tell this to people I love, to see if they will love me back (really? but you look fine!). The irony of being an inbred breeder is not lost on me. If anything, let me delight in the dilemma. “It’s a miracle your children are normal”, a pitiful doctor once said to my mother, who probably nodded and thanked him in return.

‘What is it/to be so attracted to someone that you want to create a collection?’

- [Antigua, Dianelly]

The year is 2033 and I’m sitting across from a large man who could be my husband. His parents, my mother, my auntie and my auntie’s neighbour (!) sit adjacent, eating sandwiches. Someone offers a sandwich to my large could-be husband who says, “no thank you, I’ve been eating all my life” and then he asks me if I like to party. Later friends ask (laughing, tears) how I came to be in such a room (he was spinning a web at you!) and I declare: I don't care if he’s fat—he could have been my husband.

*

Iman: guys is it raining?? i hear a whoosh whoosh sound

they finally let me open the window today!!!

now I know why prisoners write

“I can’t imagine what you must be going through” is like saying: I can’t imagine what your imagination must be doing to you. Most days, I feel like a mouldy teenager banging up against all her past lives (all her my ancestral cousins purse their lips at me). Most days I feel sad, smelly and dangerous. But let’s say I get over it. Let’s say I fall (unfashionably) into that free, pathetic feeling (that parenthetical feeling)—that raspy curl of language that cries: This is not the only language! There’s more but it’s hidden! Would I throw up my arms and go whoosh? Would I make a delirious mating call? What shape would my hands make (are you still there)?

The year is 2099 and I am fleeing America—Anne Carson emails to inquire about my immigration visa status with the subject title: ‘(?)’. I make a pulley out of the diaphanous question mark and watch for a water-well (Anne, I can only type with one hand since the other one works the pulley!) I’m now at Lou Reed’s apartment in the West Village. Anne Waldman (ex-beatnik, shaman) sits crosslegged on a sofa with her eyes closed like a visual signifier of finally. My undergraduate thesis subject, Sharon Olds (non-earthly) sits next to me along with Anne Carson (?) and a beautiful French actress who plays Antigone (The Carsonian Antigone). Antigone is the only one out of the group to ask me the question: so how deed you get ere? I say something about religion and my geodetic childhood (we used to measure the earth). Later, as I stand breathing next to Lou’s guitar, AC leans in: You probably don't even want to be here, do you? No no—I used to listen to his music all the time.

*

Iman: i have this weird strength from somewhere

It’s unreal

“Or one begins asking oneself that same question differently. Am I dead?… You tell him, I feel like I am already dead. When he makes no response, you add, I am in death’s position” (Rankine, Claudia).

I’ve been reading up on my predicament (no one asked for my opinion). That of the ‘untimely deceased (yuck) sibling condition’, and I have come to the conclusion that this is a pre-existing condition, one you are born with (who me?), all that childhood spent with all that impossible knowing, all those free Arabic pronunciation lessons (for what?). If I remain quiet enough, I could easily trick my sorrow into believing in its own solitude (now say that again, but this time from the throat).

‘Sibling grief is often misunderstood—by parents, families, friends, and counsellors, even by the siblings themselves. So much focus is given to the parents of the lost child, to the children of the lost parent, to the spouse of the lost adult sibling. And, rightly so. But, what about the siblings? What about the ones who, like me, have grown up with the deceased? Who believed they would have a lifetime with their sister or brother? Who now face that lifetime alone?’

- [10 Things You Need To Know About Siblings and Grief, Dr. Christina Hibbert]

What about the ones who, like me, don’t let wishfully reincarnated moths out of their windows anymore (only she would buzz like that)? I on the other hand, have been completely looked at— looked out of. Sometimes, from the corner of an oily eye, I catch mothers and daughters sibilate refrains of pity into each other’s ears. When I look back, they always look away. I thought the female gaze was intent on looking! I want to yell at them. The next funeral I go to, the widow asks: have you accepted the decision God made for you? Yes I have accepted the decision God made for me. Good—that means I can accept the decision God made for me… (Come here, Dr. Hibbert, let me take your eyes off for the day, you must be exhausted)

God: Have you taken out the life of her child?

Angels: We have.

God: Have you taken out the fruit of her heart?

Angels: We have.

God: Well? What did she say?

(audio: a racket of wings)

“Have you written to Oprah yet?” My mother asks from the doorway once I’m back home in my subterranean bedroom, a sister short. What shall I write to her? What do I even say? “Tell her about me, about how I’m a big fan.”

*

If I didn’t look like a hastily assembled mutant before, I do now. Air bubbles under my skin from exertion (I moved) that leave aphrodisiac bruises all over my most distinguished thighs. I take pictures of the disaster and text them to my adult-acne doctor (doctor, someone threw a horse at me!). Two women appear on my screen, offer rapid instructions and everybody tells me to calm down. I pinch open the bruise on my phone and switch it to black and white (look, I’m a robot). The bruise switches to a 70s theme which makes it look worse, bloody even. I send the image to Aria in California who thinks grief is strange (what grief?). I spend hours re-diagnosing myself (embolism… emphysema… enmeshment… ennui). Psychosomatically speaking, this, of course, is just another one of 10 Things mentioned by the infamous Dr. Hibbert (I’m so sorry) in her online sibling-grief manifesto—(doctor why does everything happen to me!).

Iman: I’ve started getting symptoms

there’s a heaviness in my chest, fever

a 19 year old girl got here today, screaming her head off

yeah yeah

i’m fine but at night I hear people scream and it gets morbid

*

Elizabeth was a heroin addict whom I administered methadone to while working at a pharmacy in London from the year 1997 to 2037. She’d chug the green liquid quickly, open her mouth wide and stick her tongue out and my job was to administer the inside of it (methadone sells fast and good on the streets). Okay see you tomorrow. Yeah yeah see ya tumarraw girly, she says, leaning on the glass with her bare elbows. This routine continues for decades until one day, Elizabeth (cumpleetlee hammered innit!) asks: I gow a pregnencee tess frum da pound shop and it says I’m pregenan, twice. Wha am I gunna do? I got two kids already ya know, and for the first time in my life, I don’t have an opinion. I ask her where her kids are (a scallop of spit on her lips like white lace), and she makes a drowning noise. Years later, a distressed woman charges through the glass doors of the pharmacy and demands to know: which ole is the right ole? What’s that now? Which ole makes baby? This ole, that ole—which ole? (Ma’am, I’m a virgin). I point her to the direction of the right hole and she is grateful (flushed). If I had held my hand out to her right then, she would have probably kissed it.

*

If hand x is clasped in hand y, is hand x still (a) a hand, or (b) a commendable imitation of a hand?

In 1929 I write a poem about a bad handshake called ‘Fitnah’ and read it aloud in front of a judging panel selecting the first ever ‘Young Poet Laureate of London’. I make the shortlist (but I’m not even from here!) and subsequently receive the following letter in the mail:

The Master of the Household

has received Her Majesty’s command to invite

Ms Monima Mela

to a Reception to be given at Buckingham Palace

by The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh

to celebrate Contemporary British Poetry

on Tuesday, 19th November 2032

I borrow a fur coat from my roommate and buy a mustard dress (soon to be returned) that clashes atrociously with the velveteen garb of ancient-terrestrials lining the walls of the palace. What more, the bathrooms are carpeted (flesh coloured, wet). I buy pins to put in my hair outside Green Park and pay with money that has Her face on it.

The Master of Scrolls: Presenting Miss Mo-nee-ma Meela

‘Pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty’ (I press her fabric hand)

Queen Elizabeth II: Ye-es

‘I think there’s been a mistake, actually. My name is Mo-mina— like moment’

Queen Elizabeth II: o (this is the shape her mouth makes) ah!

She laughs, almost hysterically (like a flit of Pomeranians)—as does The Master of Scrolls, as do I. The three of us inbreds are, of course, laughing at something entirely different. Later, the poet John Agard (wearing the Queen’s Gold Medal around his neck) reads a poem and asks the crowd of poets (300 of us!) to chant the penultimate line thrice: ‘may the sun set on the empire, may the sun set on the empire, may the sun set on the empire’. I chant the words and watch the back of Her head. Later I ask John Agard why he did that—he takes out a receipt and a green crayon from his front pocket, writes down his email address and shoves it into my fist. The receipt gets taken by the wind on my commute back home.

Iman: I’m finally out guys! i’m negative! just got home

bats are a ducker !!

My sister’s funeral was a complete sham (sheepherders in sheepskin). I speak from the liver, of course, when I say that everyone wore this dumb, nebulous look on their face as if they had just been born (she had just gotten married). When pre-existing depression mingles with sudden grief, it results in a failure of prognosis and the mind splays into a more parenthetical place, (a splatter) free from the assault of diagnoses (doctor why are my insides out?)

Iman: guys what is this routine

I hate it

I miss the hospital

A defence of death: it only happens once—all else remains unspiritual (telluric). The year is 2076 and I’m feeling floppy. I Google sensory deprivation tanks near me and come up dry. Lately, everything I touch interrupts itself like a frog mid-ribbet and that’s how I prefer it (reader, I ran out of the grocery store). I like to dip my feet in the swampy waters of parentheses and knock them around every now and then, just to see if they turn green. But nothing ever happens (in poetry) without pain, consequence and an innately noble figure symbolic of the tragic human condition. For years, I assumed the role of the noble figure which is why my toenails are hungry (even my side-table is hungry) for evidence in regard to the extinction of rabid bears against which we both (the bears and I) are utterly useless.

‘Your application for the Coronavirus Relief Fund has been accepted, kindly send your bank details to receive the 12,000 rupees owed to you by the Government of Pakistan.’

This, of course, is a scam I almost fall for (his voice was kind) but my taste for free money is hardly exceptional. I call up the big men (police/society), file my first ever police report (yessur yessur) and fantasise about the scammer’s arrest. A blue policeman outside a blue door, spitting blue tobacco. My usefulness is all in my head, of course, (where it belongs) making fevers out of cabins. I thank the Lord for enemies, (even bats) thank Him for thoughts both good and evil and wish for the sleep of addicts and secondary angels to bedew me.




Momina Mela is a writer from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine and elsewhere.