India. May 24th, 1857. My husband vanished in the tall grass. Oppressive heat. The ghost of a tiger paced. Our baby daughter smiled at the officer of the day who came to tell me. “He was sinking fast,” the man said, as if George might have drowned. George was twenty-seven, vigilant, a man whose duty was to communicate orders to everyone, including me.
Bullet to the chest, the trigger hidden in the grass. He was searching for the gun that had escaped from him. The officer saw it happen. The same day George found me with Mr. Ali in the library. Behind our bungalow, my husband pushed me, hands firm, across my small garden. I smelled his perspiration, acrid, saw the spittle, dry and white on his lips. He turned his back and went to rejoin his regiment, walking into the tall grass. He would have blamed me for his preoccupation. It wasn’t like him to drop his gun.
Next day. Funeral arrangements cut short. In the early afternoon, all the British in the cantonment were ordered to move at once to the Lucknow Residency, our official government building, now a garrison prepared for a siege. British commanders had given their Indian troops new cartridges greased, it was rumoured, with pig and cow fat. There was trouble in regiment after regiment and the weather grew hotter. The mutiny took hold like brush fire. Indian soldiers shot British commanders. British reprisals meant shooting Indian prisoners out of hand or blowing them to pieces at the mouths of cannon. Men killed men. Lives evaporated.
Two hundred women and children were packed into one portion of the Residency, the officers on duty in another. In the women’s quarters, we each carved out a small space to occupy. The sun scorched through bare windows. Our loose cotton dresses looked like bed gowns. I longed to get out of my skin and sit in my bones.
Downstairs, the governor’s bedroom had been converted to a hospital for the wounded, and the ill who shivered in the ninety-eight-degree heat. Upstairs in a centre room, I sat with our baby. Sweet Mary, twenty months, drew her soft lips across my face. She was bright and healthy, oblivious to the danger surrounding us. The walls of the room were covered with English watercolours. There were tiger skins on the tiled floor. George had shot the mounted tiger above the fireplace, its mouth open in a silent roar.
Soon after we arrived, my sister Anne reached the Residency from her post as a music teacher outside the cantonment. She made herself busy setting the long table in the dining room. She put out silver gravy urns with coats of arms, as if we would all sit down to a feast and not to rations: a lump of tough beef and rice, water from the well. My sister wanted to preserve decorum. “We must, Eva,” she said. There were cobwebs between the table legs, and dust hung in the air.
Those first days, Mary stared at the other women and children huddled with visiting husbands, unsure of the absence, of what it was she was missing. Those first days, Mary still smelled of the lavender I’d bathed her in.
From the balcony, we saw buildings pulled down to avoid giving the native troops commanding positions from which to fire on us. Trees and shrubs were dug up and gardens destroyed. Where were the Indian women? The children? Hidden away, unseen, like us. The mutineers kept up a steady bombardment from early dawn to nightfall, with an hour break at midday. Earth and sky blended into one lurid blaze of light. Bullets whizzed over our heads and dropped on the ground. A cannonball blew a hole in the dining room wall and smashed a row of wine bottles. Yet children played, untouched. They picked up bullets hot from the gun.
At night, we slept in our clothes. The most frightening hours were the darkest hours. Despair became easier than hope. I felt I was suffocating. I longed to see in the gloom, like the tiger with its yellow topaz eyes. I slept fitfully, dreaming I was prowling in a prison garden. The cicadas kept up a ceaseless whirring. Mosquitoes whined, maddening in the still of night. I heard the prayers, and widows crying. Still, my eyes were dry.
We saw opposite sides of the coin, my husband and I. He saw justice and prosperity for everyone. I saw occupation and intrusion. There were office jobs he could take at home. Always I wanted to go home. I wanted to study, as my sister had done. It takes courage to leave, I’d say. It takes courage to stay, he’d retort. He looked beyond me. As an army wife, I was expected to create menus, arrange social occasions, and not much more. He asked me not to let him down by making outrageous remarks at the dinner table. He ordered me not to speak to Indians. Divide. Conquer. Day in, day out at our bungalow there was no one to talk to. I was alone with and without him. Heads, he won. Tails, I lost.
George appeared, a sturdy ghost, lounging against one of the crumbling walls, standing in a doorless doorway watching Mary. Sometimes he greased his gun, the smell of metal sharp in the heavy air. Sometimes he tossed a coin. He sat at the dining table with us. Since he was dead, it didn’t matter if the flies covered his marrowbone, as they did ours. It didn’t matter that his rations grew meagre. For five months, he watched Mary play on the tiled floor, her bare feet in the red dust that lifted and settled around us.
New orders. The outer rooms had become shells. No one was allowed onto the balcony. We were moved into closer quarters, to inner rooms not yet skeletal. I found a place in the centre room against the wall, opposite the mounted tiger.
And still my husband stayed. He needed to have the last word, that’s how I saw it.
But in the end, he lost the battle. Mary had long stopped looking for him; his absence left her. Mary sang to Dr. Wilson who held her when he visited. She was the youngest in the Residency. He brought her sago and arrowroot from a treasured reserve.
Dear Dr. Wilson, protector of the body. I found him at my sister’s side. On the bed, Anne screamed. There’d been a fearful crash. A nine-pounder had flown through the window of the dining room while she was taking a teacup out of a cupboard, and shot her through the leg. Dr. Wilson pressed the arteries to quench the flow of blood, and bound the wound. Swiftly, he administered chloroform and amputated. He said Anne might recover and ordered continual doses of ammonia to be given. Women sat on couches and chairs or crouched in the corners, dazed with fright. Dr. Wilson touched Anne’s burning cheek. She writhed, trying to get out of her body.
Later, in the night, I cooled my sister’s face with a wet cloth. Her eyes opened.
“Good news. No infection,” I said.
“Good news?” She turned her face from me, whispered, “I’m in no need of this.”
“The cloth?” I asked, not knowing if she meant her circumstance.
“I can withstand the heat.”
Anne, four years older than I, now twenty-nine. Pull-your-socks-up Anne, even with her face and dress soaked in sweat, stained with blood.
What did I need?
I needed my older sister. I wanted her to walk barefoot with me again, showing me fields with no fences, sure of our steps. When we were young, we didn’t understand confinement.
Here was what I remembered as a child: a picnic with Anne, the air brimming with warmth, the sweet smell of bracken. She made cakes for me. Anne laughed as I did handstands in the soft grass. She said, “Dear Eva.”
Years later, when George came to visit, he also laughed at my handstands in the grass. He urged me to make a life together. He wanted a child.
What happened next?
Our home in India, dim to keep out the heat. It was a lady’s job to use the library, or so George said. The room smelled of tea and dust. Mr. Ali, the librarian, discussed the English landscapes hanging on the walls. In the silence, we spoke about myths: English myths and Indian myths. In his office, Mr. Ali kept books aside for me. He’d take one up and say, “Here’s one you might like.” His hands were slim. Kind. When he recorded the book I’d chosen, he took great care writing out my name. He laughed as if I delighted him. That was all. That was everything.
Doesn’t this make sense?
We didn’t hear my husband open the door. I didn’t expect the quiet in his voice to dress and follow him. I did expect the rage that followed.
In the hospital, Mary played beside Anne’s bed. My baby had started to speak—short words that were hard to make out. I praised her, pushing back her damp, dark hair.
“What agony,” Anne said.
How awful the pain must be, I thought.
But she didn’t refer to herself.
“George must have been tormented by you.”
I’d confided to her about Mr. Ali while she set the dining room table. I had thought telling her might bring us closer, but it did the opposite. My husband was dead. It seemed evident to her that I’d caused the accident.
I was speechless. On the ground, Mary sang quietly. I searched for myself in Anne’s eyes.
There was a time when my sister looked at me with love. What happened? We grew up. We grew apart. God showed himself as coldness. Anne thought me silly for wanting to walk barefoot in the grass. The way was full of stones, sharp and grey. She covered her feet with leather shoes. I wanted to tell her we are all we have, made in the same womb. The sister I loved had vanished.
Anne lay on the bed, her face strained, a wisp of grey hair. “I need to sleep,” she said.
At home, Anne studied music. She didn’t see herself as gifted, but that she had no alternative. There were no suitors. “I hate being surrounded by books,” she said. Anne came to India to take the post of music teacher for Prince Omar’s two sons. Together, she and the boys sang, “Bye, baby bunting, Daddy’s gone a-hunting.” Once, I watched them draw maps of India with chalk on the beaten earth. I told her how unhappy I was. I knew she wasn’t happy. My sister really came to India hoping to find an army husband. I told her I wanted to leave. She thought me ungrateful and self-absorbed. She would do anything to marry, to have a child. I wanted to say, “It doesn’t matter what we do.”
Would she blame me for Mary’s illness too?
My sweet baby, swaddled in perspiration, attacked by dysentery. I kissed her bare feet, her hot cheek. I sponged her dry lips, letting the water trickle in. At first, she clung to me when her body seized her, wracked by pain, urging me to put her right. She grew weaker, thin and bony like a baby bird. Her cries grew faint and she lay in my arms, listless. On the balcony, George’s mouth moved but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. The tiger stared. For two days, Dr. Wilson came as often as he could. I watched for any brightness in his face when he examined her.
In the night, Mary and I were alone in a corner, away from all those who squeezed their eyes shut, hoping for sleep. I had a candle. My baby, pinned by illness, seemed far away. I stroked her hair. “It’s your mama,” I whispered.
Dr. Wilson came with ice water. The cicadas whirred. He looked exhausted and sad. All the lives he’d tried to reach.
Dawn. Death-dealing sun burned my eyes. The skies grew paler with the dust. Mary’s mouth opened but there was no sound. Dr. Wilson touched my arm. A change had come over her face; she was sinking fast.
There were no coffins. Downstairs, a piece of ground had been put aside for burials. Bodies were wrapped in blankets and laid beneath the sod. The blankets had run out, so the chaplain, Mr. Greene, wrapped her in a tiger skin. He read the service lying full-length on the ground to avoid the mutineers’ shots. “She was removed before sin could blight her,” he said.
Removed before sorrow could fade her.
A daughter dies and a mother’s heart leaves the body. The doctor wept, his neck covered in prickly rash. Upstairs, I sat for days against the wall, staring out at the balcony, not speaking. The air was humid, wretched. I had no looking glass; I couldn’t see myself.
And then. The officer of the day was new, young, had seen too much. He came to list our names so the records would show who lived after five months of mutiny. He brought water. Something in his eyes: frankness, sadness, a spark of heat. He wrote my name down carefully. Mrs. Eva Parsons. Widow. No children. That night, offering more water, he found me against the wall.
My husband stood against the fireplace. He wouldn’t look at me.
Look, I whispered. I wanted you. Fiercely.
He wouldn’t let me tell him this.
I put my shoulders back against the wall, searching for coolness that wasn’t there. I smelled hide, pungent. I closed my eyes and shut George out. I imagined my old garden.
The darkest hour. The tiger watched. The officer brushed red dust from my hair. Side by side, his clothes, my dress, we moved in fervent silence. Our instincts renewed and heightened, we started again. Why did this happen? His shirt smelled of bracken. His cheek was like lavender.
We shuddered with energy despite the heat. It happened to others in the night, a desperate need to hold on to life itself. I thought I could see Mr. Ali in the darkness. A door opened. The soldier clutched me. His eyes shone, as if we’d done handstands in the night. He whispered that reinforcements were five or six days away; tomorrow, the report would spread like wildfire. He’d had a premonition that he wouldn’t live to see them.
By morning, he was gone.
Dr. Wilson found me. “Your sister. Come.”
She’d been sleeping heavily and I’d thought she was mending. In the hospital, I put my hand on Anne’s dry brow. Skin stretched over bone. My hand rested there. Then I bathed her face and brushed her hair.
I go to the centre room where, above the fireplace, the tiger roars in silence. It’s the day my husband dies. It’s the morning my child is dying. The temperature climbs higher and I hear the cry of peacocks. Through the breaches in the roof, pewter-grey light steals over the earth. I glimpse countryside and feel stones underfoot. Shells fall around me. I cry out in a dim room in the afternoon but no one hears me.
And then they appear. George is in full uniform, beads of sweat along the border of his cap. He carries Mary, the small figure wrapped in tiger hide. He takes her through the window. On the balcony, he looks out, vigilant. The clouds are tall grasses, parting. I try to call but my voice is parched. Thunder rumbles, blocking the sound of cannon.
My husband doesn’t turn to say goodbye. They walk across the balcony and fade away. I stand in the doorway and no one orders me back inside. The rain begins. The water pelts the red dust and runs in rivers along the floor. I can walk out on the balcony and scale the wall, vanish. Or I can sit down and wait, watching the rains come crashing down, the smell of a wet garden, my feet streaked red.
I am a widow. Today, these are my choices.