The Thin PlaceKeya Mitra
Years later, Kat and David still couldn’t pinpoint what attracted them to Overtoun Bridge that day. They were aware of the bridge’s reputation after all—dogs had been committing suicide there since the 1950s. The ill-fated canines, usually retrievers like their dog, Marilyn (a golden), leapt from a spot between two parapets. Strangely enough, the dogs usually jumped on one of the few sunny days there in Dumbarton. So Kat and David had usually avoided the bridge during their strolls with Marilyn.
Earlier that week, during a regular checkup, their vet had told them about yet another suicide. As Dr. Gray took Marilyn’s temperature, he described the mangled dog, a black lab, brought in by his owner. Euthanasia had been the only humane option.
Dr. Gray usually had to put down at least one suicidal dog a month, although in some cases the poor animal had already succumbed to injuries from the fall. “Usually long-nosed dogs take the leap, so maybe they’re just going after the minks living underneath the bridge’s arch—or the smell of urine the minks use to mark their territory.”
Or maybe the explanation was less simple. “Overtoun,” Dr. Gray said, running a brush over Marilyn’s golden coat and diligently picking out fuzz, “is Celtic and means the thin place, the meeting place between Heaven and Earth. Personally, I don’t believe in all that. But some do.”
Kat placed her hand near Dr. Gray’s on Marilyn’s coat and felt the rise and fall of her breath. David raised an eyebrow at her. She put her hand in her pocket.
Dr. Gray passed his hand over Marilyn’s body, as though healing her. He pressed on Marilyn’s stomach and bladder. Dr. Gray was pasty and frail. In conventional terms David was far better looking—lean, tall, and so dark that strangers occasionally confused him for Kat’s brother, even though he was white, not Indian.
But Kat loved Dr. Gray’s ability to inhabit each moment fully. His movements as he took Marilyn’s pulse and opened her mouth to check her teeth were deliberate and gentle. Nothing stood between him and his patients, the earth, the now. Marilyn felt it too; after the exam she rested her mud-stained paw on his wrist, soiling the sleeve of his white button-down shirt. When pried away from him and driven home, Marilyn always howled for hours.
Dr. Gray traced the white star on Marilyn’s forehead. “Your head contains the heavens, my girl,” he said. His touch, at that moment, was only for Marilyn.
He gave the dog a final pat. “Maybe the jumping has to do with their sensitivity—always absorbing the emotions of their owners. In other words,” he said, winking at the two of them as he exited the room, “don’t take her to the bridge when you’re feeling grumpy.”
The Saturday after that appointment, David and Kat veered from their usual course. They weaved through the streets of Dumbarton, hand in hand, with an urgency they hadn’t experienced since they fell in love. They tramped through the streets as though possessed. Kat felt the acceleration of David’s pulse in his palm. Her fingers trembled in his.
Then there they were, standing on the Overtoun Bridge. The sun, given the rare opportunity to show itself, blazed with fortitude. The trees and vegetation surrounding the bridge had acquired shades so lustrous that they defied classification. The granite walls surrounding the bridge were sheathed with ivy and blended in with the surrounding foliage. Kat presumed the vegetation made it impossible for most dogs to gauge the height of the bridge.
Kat, hypnotized by the sound of the water trickling through the boulders below, was blind to the 50-foot drop. Oak and aspen trees dominated both sides of the pathway and stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. The sun almost never penetrated the dense crown of leaves, but today it shone through them so they, too, were illuminated.
The shadows on the pavement swayed in rhythm to the subtle tremor of the leaves and the movement of birds hopping from branch to branch. This is what it means to step outside yourself, Kat thought. This is what it means to merge. It was a sensation more powerful than sex, the force pulling her forward into the union of sun, leaves, and shadow. Her hand was warm inside David’s. He, too, was transfixed. Kat stepped forward.
“Maybe we should head home,” David said, but Kat barely heard him. Her left hand clutched the leash. Then Marilyn yanked her towards the parapet so swiftly that Kat stumbled over herself, skinning her knee.
She would relive this moment again and again. Had she, distracted by the splendor of the world ahead, slackened her grip on the leash? Did she linger too long on the bridge, long enough for the spirits haunting Overtoun to possess Marilyn?
In the moment she felt only a force, too overpowering to resist, dragging her across concrete. Her face scraping against the pavement. Her body being pulled halfway over the bridge. The glimpse of water threading through moss-covered boulders. Then, David’s voice. Desperate. “You have to let go.” His arms around her waist. Marilyn’s careening to the river below in a stream of brilliant gold. Kat’s certainty that she too was falling before David yanked her upright, his arms tight around her stomach.
It was only after she was standing, trying to steady herself, that Kat saw the sickening stillness of Marilyn’s crumpled body on the rocks below. “Wait here,” David said faintly, as though speaking to her from a great distance. Kat’s blood trickled steadily to the ground. The skin had been scraped off her knees, hands, chin, forehead. The blood she’d shed comforted her; at least she’d suffered with Marilyn.
David made his way down to the stream. Kat had no idea how he retrieved the body. But moments later he was standing at her side, holding Marilyn. Kat squealed as Marilyn’s eyes flickered open. She embraced her girl. When she finally let go, Marilyn’s fur was matted with blood: Kat’s, or her own.
Kat followed David as he carried Marilyn the two miles from the bridge to their home. His back was muscled and broad. The illusion of strength it conveyed had made her fall in love with him, just as David had fallen for her waiflike body, and the false frailty it conveyed. “One hand,” he marveled the first week of their relationship. “All it takes is one hand for me to pick you up.” They clung to these illusions to keep their bond alive.
By the time they arrived home, David’s coat was covered with Marilyn’s fur. It had fallen out from the shock to her system.
Their four-year-old daughter, Maya, wept for hours. “Her eyes are gray now,” she sobbed. She combed through Marilyn’s remaining fur. “So is her skin.”
“Her skin was always gray, baby,” Kat whispered.
“But her fur hid it. It was better when it was hidded.” Maya held the loose tufts of fur with her fists and commanded: “Stop falling out!” She inspected the bald spots. “Will her hair grow back?”
Kat rushed to her side and buried her nose in Maya’s downy bed of curly brown hair. “Of course it will, baby girl,” Kat murmured, pulling Maya onto her lap.
“She’ll be just fine,” David chimed in, placing a hand on his daughter’s shoulder.
But it wouldn’t grow back, Kat knew, just as she knew that Marilyn, despite their best efforts, would never be the same.
After a grueling night at the emergency vet, David reached for Kat in bed, and they made love. Usually Marilyn, who always slept between them, was so offended by their love making that she’d punish them with barking and pawing during the climactic moment. But this time she barely stirred.
They’d adopted her for the same reason they’d conceived Maya. Against all reason they believed that the dog, then the child, would solidify their love. But then, over time, Marilyn seemed to replace Kat as David’s dream woman. She was fixed. She never menstruated; she took her shits outside. And she accepted his stretches of silence.
How could Kat compare? Marilyn was the most docile bitch a man could ask for.
What sustained their marriage was what had come years earlier. The first time they’d made love, ten years ago, their foreplay consisted of laughter.
“I have to shake the bananas out of you,” David said. He was her only lover.
“I’m a monkey,” he said, “and you’re a banana tree, and I’m gonna shake all the bananas out of you.”
Kat hadn’t understood entirely, but she lay still as he climbed her like a monkey. His body rattled against hers wildly, and she laughed into his hair, clutching his back.
What stuck with her wasn’t the lovemaking that followed, but the fact that he’d sensed that she needed to be shaken free of her burdens. With the primal shaking of the bananas, something in her became dislodged. As she laughed in his arms she recalled what her mother said when Kat asked, as a teenager, why her mother stayed married to a man who’d been depressed since moving to the States from India 20 years earlier.
“It’s never the now that sustains a marriage,” her mother said. “It’s the recollection of the magic that came before.”
This moment, Kat thought as David shook her free of her bananas (or the bananas free of her), will last us forever.
“I’ll always shake you free of your bananas,” he whispered.
How did he know? Kat wondered. She’d hadn’t yet told him about finding her father dead when she was fifteen, then searching for her mother, only to find her huddled in the jet tub in the master bathroom. She’d never talked about her mother’s childhood, either—the afternoons she spent playing with cloth dolls in her closet because she was the youngest of twelve and her own mother, too harried to treat her children as separate people, instead herded them from one room to the next as she completed chores, tying down the most mischievous kids to chairs to keep the household under control. Kat hadn’t confessed to David that not one but two of her aunts committed suicide. Or revealed her mother’s breakdown after a third died from alcohol-induced liver failure. We are cursed, her mother had sobbed, and the words never left Kat’s mind.
She straddled him. “Keep talking dirty to me.”
“I’m not kidding,” he said, wrapping his arms around her slender back. “If I can make you laugh for the rest of your life, I’ll be content.”
Long after David had fallen asleep, Kat stayed awake, lying on her back and stroking what was left of Marilyn’s fur. Kat wrapped her body around Marilyn’s and shook gently. Marilyn moaned, and Kat wept into her patchy skin. Marilyn would never be shaken free. Not on this earth.
They got Marilyn from the shelter days before Maya was conceived. Marilyn was blonde and voluptuous, with a wobbly walk—both innocent and sensual. “She’s Norma Jean reincarnated,” Kat said to David when they adopted her. Whenever Marilyn, as a puppy, transitioned from the usual canine panting and lunging to that slow, ass-wagging, sultry strut, Kat said to David, “Do you want to see her?”—just like Marilyn Monroe.
After the incident on the bridge, Marilyn never strutted again. Her steps were timid. She’d discovered that you could stop living while you were still alive.
“When will she start being Marilyn again?” Maya cried. “Why is she so tired?”
Kat knelt by Maya. Her daughter’s hair was sleek—not rough and textured like hers—and slipped through her fingers. Kat marveled that hair so fluid had been, in part, her creation. Her own mother’s hair had been as untenably thick as her own. “She’s still Marilyn. But she might be tired forever, my baby.”
Kat insisted on a fifth canine acupuncture session, though David had grown weary of their trips to the vet after his work. He stared straight ahead on the drive home and placed his hand over Kat’s. Kat imagined him counting the seconds before he could let go: One Mississippi, two Mississippi...
They had left Maya with a sitter, not wanting to upset her further.
At home Kat’s fingers were usually buried in Maya’s hair or clasped around her belly. Without her hands resting on her daughter now, Kat felt unmoored.
“It’s just no way to live,” David said. Kat turned to face him, waiting for him to elaborate. He didn’t.
There had been a time when David’s smile was both devastatingly familiar and enigmatic. She met him on a plane from Cali, Colombia to Cartagena.
He spent nearly ten minutes gaping at an advertisement in the airline magazine for plastic surgery in Cali, one of the plastic surgery capitals of the world. The ad consisted of a woman broken apart into fragments, each of which could be manipulated into more perfect body parts.
“It’s assuming that people want to be broken,” David said, as he noticed her glancing at the advertisement.
“They must want to be broken,” Kat said matter-of-factly, “or else the ad wouldn’t sell.”
“Would you pay to get yourself cut into a hundred pieces and made into some perfect being?”
“I got lucky,” Kat said. “I’m broken, and I never had to pay a dime for it.”
There had been a time when Kat could make love to David and feel the shiver of completion. She believed that he could bring her to completion in every area of life, that she could forgo her need to study history and pursue a doctorate. Self-discovery felt overrated when she was with him. But he—they—hadn’t been able to obliterate her emptiness.
“Do you think her fur is gone for good?” Kat asked on the way home.
David nodded sadly. He patted her thigh. Stay here, something in her cried. Then maybe we can save this. He removed his hand.
“Why did we move here, David?”
It had been for his job, of course—the pay he was receiving as a financial analyst in Scotland far exceeded the salaries he’d earned in Colombia, Japan, and the U.S. But even when he got the offer, she’d shuddered at the thought of moving somewhere known for its fog and persistent drizzle.
Perhaps the real question was not why they’d moved, but why they stayed. At first they laughed for hours at the name of their new city: Dumbarton. Dumb-ur-ton. Dumb-arton. Dum-bar-raton? We’ll be out of here before we know it, they convinced each other.
“It was the path we chose, Kat,” he said. She hated it now when he used her name. It accentuated their estrangement.
Kat glanced out the window. The lush greenness and the lifeless gray of the landscape coexisted in placid passivity. Why had she stayed here, with David? Why had she never ventured out from the safety of his cover?
They passed a spaniel crouching on a verdant patch of green. His owner had turned away in deference as the dog defecated. The spaniel’s body was taut. His head was arched solemnly to his sky. A bird? Kat wondered. A cloud? Did he want to escape into the sky, and how far could he peer into it before he became aware of all that was unseen?
“It wasn’t my fault,” Kat said to David in their couples’ counseling session, a few months after Marilyn’s first fall. “I wasn’t leading the walk. I had no idea where we were.”
“The poor dog” David said. "She’s miserable."
Their therapist, George, met her gaze. He was wrinkled, pale, reserved. He ran a callused finger over his chapped lower lip, as though his recognition of the slight injury, and his ability to resist healing it with balm, was proof of his enlightenment.
“Not your fault,” George repeated. “Can you expand on this, Kat?”
Kat turned to David. “Why are we here?” She asked quietly. “It’s already over.” He’d insisted on the couples’ counseling.
David said nothing. Kat sighed, then said to George: “At first I thought that it was coming so close to death that traumatized Marilyn.”
Ever since she found her father’s body, death, to her, was horror. They’d had time to prepare for the inevitable—she and her mother—but nothing could prepare her for the expression on her father’s face when she found him in bed, staring at the ceiling mid-gape. He’d never had the chance to complete the expression.
Shortly after her mother had died—mercifully, six months after her dad—and Kat had graduated from college, she moved to Latin America for three years. She married David. But the horror never ceased.
“And now?” George asked. His eyes, she realized, were not unkind. “What do you believe now?”
She paused. “It’s being brought back that killed her spirit. From a place where she could cross over,” she whispered. “The beyond.”
When she glanced over at David he wept freely, his head trembling in his hands.
“You can leave now, my love,” Kat said gently. “We both can.”
Her father had told her about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre when they visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar with her mother after the third grade. They spent six weeks in India every summer in spite of the unrelenting heat. India brought her father back to life.
They stood in front of the gold-plated temple floating atop the pond of nectar, a man-made pool, at 4 a.m. Half-awake, Kat followed the streams of people entering the temple in silence. She began to sway to the rhythm of the chanting inside the temple by the Sikh gurus. It began each day at the break of dawn and continued late into the evening.
“The name of the city,” her father whispered as they merged into the line to enter the temple, “comes from Amrit, which means ‘drink of the Gods.’ A magical drink, that has the capacity to induce hypnotic states and deep spiritual enlightenment.”
The line moved, steadily. The temple was mirrored by the water so it seemed twice as grand. The gold gleamed so brightly that it seemed for moment that Kat was encased in it. She was undisturbed by the bare feet and black nails of the elderly couple standing in front of her as she stepped through the gateway and into the temple. An emaciated woman with grubby hands offered her a morsel of food. She ate it, despite her fear of germs.
The chanting grew louder. Kat’s brain was coated with gold; flecks of it passed before her even when she closed her eyes. For a moment as she stood inside in the midst of gold walls, floors, ceilings, she wondered if she herself was emanating the golden light. Following the others, she touched her forehead to the coolness of the marble and prayed.
Her mother did the same, and afterwards they sat on the embankment outside by the pond surrounding the building. In India she tied her hair back into a wifely braid though she wore it straight in Texas, where she worked as a receptionist at a psychiatrist’s office.
“Such spirituality surrounded by violence,” her father mused. Even then he must have been dying. He’d been pale during that visit, though they’d thought nothing of it.
“How do you mean?” Kat asked, peering into the water of the pond.
He placed a hand on top of Kat’s head, as though blessing her. He was one of a few cardiologists at the time who believed in natural healing. “Just five minutes away, at Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919, the British General Dyer opened fire on 20,000 Indians who were protesting peacefully at the park. Many of them were coming here, to the Golden Temple.”
The order was given, he explained, and General Dyer’s troops stooped to fire. Their boots crunched on the grass.
Then, the medley of shots. Women and children colliding in a futile attempt to escape. In the midst of the chaos, a well. Women peering into the abyss. Then jumping.
“2,000 were killed,” her father said, “and over 100 others died in the well.”
“But why would they jump if they knew they would die?” Kat asked.
The goldfish in the pond were abnormally large, with buggy eyes that fixated on her.
“Maybe they knew that if they leapt they’d be victims of no one but themselves.”
“Really?” her mother rebuked him. “At a place of such beauty, you tell this story?”
“I have to tell the story here,” he said. “Even here, Sikhs were massacred—innocents bled to death by this very river. Do you see these patches of marble, where the coloring is different from the others? The newer marble is used to cover up the bullet holes from the massacre, to create the illusion of peace. The same is true of Jallianwala Bagh. The ground where the massacre took place has been covered with iron, concrete, stone; now, it rests six feet under the earth tourists walk upon.”
Her father spoke like a guru. That was his way. Kat stepped gingerly upon the ground, as though the dead might pop up at any moment. “Did fish live in the pond when the Sikhs were killed here?” Kat asked.
“I’m sure some did,” her father said.
“Did they swim in the blood?”
“They probably stopped noticing it after a while. Fish experience reality very differently, Kat.”
“Poor fish,” she said.
“Not these fish,” her father said, with a slight smile.
“No. But their ancestors swam in blood. And that’s almost the same.”
She mouthed to the gaping orange fish: I’m sorry, Fish. It peered back at her.
When David finally left her—not for another woman but for the relief of solitude—she took Marilyn back to the bridge and watched her leap to her death.
Marilyn, trembling, surveyed the mossy banks below. Kat pulled Marilyn away only once when she darted forward, but she knew nothing would keep her girl from taking the leap.
This time, no mossy embankment broke Marilyn’s fall. The plunge was a straightforward crash from life to death, fifty feet from the bridge to the Overtoun Burn.
Her body dropped like a load. Flashes of Marilyn’s unearthly golden coat—what remained of it—punctuated the air. Seconds later Marilyn was ninety pounds of corpse blocking the current of the river. The current paused, then forged past the dead weight. The white star on Marilyn’s forehead glistened.
“It was one of the top ten moments of my life,” David once said, “taking you to meet Marilyn.” He’d surprised Kat by taking her to the shelter on an anniversary of her father’s death and hung back as she dropped to her knees to greet the first puppy that tottered toward her. Marilyn had the coloring of a chick—aside from the star.
“Why hello,” Kat said as Marilyn stumbled into her arms and rested her weepy black nose against Kat’s chest. “The world is brand-new to her, David,” Kat marveled. She kissed Marilyn’s snout. “She’s going to make the world new to us too,” Kat said, her eyes damp.
As Kat gazed down at her beloved Marilyn’s corpse, she recalled the last words she’d spoken to Marilyn: “You have a choice in the matter, girl. You can do it the way you want. The time is now.”
Kat tells Maya the story of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre eleven years later, soon after receiving her doctorate in history at Rice University in Houston, Texas and beginning a position as an adjunct professor at a nearby community college. After the divorce David, surprisingly, granted her sole custody of their daughter in exchange for a promise, in writing, that she would attend therapy sessions weekly for at least five years.
The legacy of dog killing has not followed her. Neither David nor Kat could bear to tell Maya the truth about Marilyn’s death. Sometimes Kat believes she has no legacy at all. Yet she has regained something of her spirit.
Maya is fifteen now, and Kat usually sees her only during meals, in the car, or in the pool outside their apartment in Montrose. Today Maya wears a red bikini by the pool. Setting her towel on a lawn chair, Maya curses the scorching pavement, shifting her weight from one bare foot to another as though playing hopscotch as she limps toward the water.
Once in the pool she sighs, delighting in its warmth. She floats on her back, and Kat marvels at the weightlessness of her daughter’s hair—brown with blonde streaks now. Maya’s cell phone, buried inside the towel tossed on the chair, rings incessantly—her boyfriend. Henry Howdy. Or Howdy Henry. Or maybe Kat has just invented the Howdy part; she is in Texas now, after all.
Kat drifts alongside her daughter on her back in the pool. She asks Maya if she ever heard the story of the Amritsar massacre. “Yup,” Maya says. “Gandhi. Seen it, done that. Is this really pool talk, Mom?”
“There’s a reason, my love, that certain stories are retold. With every new generation, the past grows more layered.”
Maya says nothing. Unlike Kat, who blocks her eyes from the sun, Maya exposes herself fully. How has a daughter of mine remained so buoyant, so light?
“I know the story needs to be told,” Maya says finally. “But I can’t find hope in it anywhere, when I think about the children drowning in the bottom of that well.”
Kat removes her hand from her eyes. She gazes directly into the sun’s center. Is it coincidental, she wonders, that dogs leap from the bridge in Scotland on those rare, unclouded days?
She imagines what Marilyn must have seen on the bed of moss during that first fall, soothed by the streaming of the water through the boulders. The mossy embankment, saturated with minks, then the grandiosity of the bridge looming above, brought to life by the ivy crawling upon it.
“We lose hope,” Kat says to Maya now, “when we peer into the darkness of that well. But imagine how beautiful the world might have looked to those who survived the fall when they looked up at the sky from the well before they drowned.”
“That’s pretend,” Maya says flatly.
“Everything is pretend.”
Jallianwala Bagh. 1919. Kat clutches the hand of a four-year-old Maya. Her daughter’s hair is clipped back with barrettes shaped like frogs. Kat hears gunshots rage around them; she sees an elderly man carrying his grandchild on his shoulders falls to his knees. Then he lies motionless in the grass from the bullet lodged in his back. His grandson waddles toward them, splattered in blood and wailing, before he too collapses. His death is mercifully swift.
Dozens flail in the well below. Kat stares into it, clutches Maya in her arms, and leaps. After the fall, Kat’s vision is clouded. Her back is broken. She reaches for Maya and nestles Maya’s back onto her stomach so her daughter can leave the world while resting in the soft familiarity of her mother’s embrace.
“Can you still see?” She whispers to Maya.
Maya nods. There is still now. Kat places her hands on either side of her daughter’s head to raise it above the water. Tomorrow the sky will be clouded with smoke, with the bodies of the dead, including Kat and Maya.
“There is still now,” Kat whispers and shuts her eyes to the world.
But Maya, still among the living, rests her arm on her mother’s still hand. She peers beyond the darkness of the well into the radiance of a sun that never falters, even as dusk approaches, in its determination to illuminate the beyond.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.