Regarding the vulture (karkas) it says that even from his highest flight, he sees when flesh the size of a fist is on the ground, and the scent of musk is created under his wing so that if in devouring dead matter, the stench of the dead matter comes out from it, he puts his head back under the wing and is comfortable again.
—Bundahishn (Zoroastrian text)
DR. MACKLIN DOESN’T KNOW how to eat a mango.
“Like this,” I say. With a scalpel I cut a waffle pattern into the mango’s flesh and press to make bite-sized chunks protrude. Dr. Macklin says, “That’s easy.”
“Yes,” I say, but it takes practice to master. He’ll find that out.
Before we moved to Omaha from London, my incisors stuck out, and I nibbled on everything until running afoul of Grandmother’s betel, and everyone called me Rabbit. Father said I cowered as though I expected some horrible thing with claws to hit me from the Nebraska sky at any moment.
I was only shy on the prairie after London. We lived in an old quasi-mansion in Kountze Place, a neighborhood beautiful in old tintypes but now abandoned to screaming immigrants who knew nothing of Zoroastrianism. I wasn’t about to tell them, either—in London we’d gotten enough flak for being a Brahmin sort of Jew, and I knew what troubles the Jews had, even in the land of Warren Buffett. My mother sang to herself and said it was only a small adjustment. Grandmother asks for mangos at the grocery store every few days.
A decade later, the heartland of the Middle West finally started carrying fruit more exotic than Red Delicious apples. They didn’t call me Rabbit anymore. Grandmother is too sore-hipped to troll the store and now spends her Alzheimer’s-tainted time scanning the skies for Gyps vultures. She thinks she will die soon, and a true Zoroastrian cannot truly die unless there is a Gyps vulture to eat her. Yes, I mean literally, and a turkey vulture will not do, though that will not stop me from trying.
As a technician in training under Dr. Macklin, I see a lot of animals you wouldn’t expect in a veterinarian’s office. I’ve seen a badger; I’ve seen several coyote and once a pelican fallen into a cornfield from migratory exhaustion. I’ve learned, among other things, to administer vaccinations, to anesthetize (both for operations and for mercy killings), and to read slides smeared with fecal matter. I know how the clinic smells: Betadine and strong urine, Borax and vinegar and a slight tang of meat going bad. They call me Owl now because I’m trying to learn everything but haven’t mastered complete knowledge yet.
On the day Noruz came, the waiting room dogs yammered with a desperate edge. Something crouched in a cardboard box on one side of the room; the dogs milled together on the other side. I bumped the cardboard box and the woman standing nervously beside it to the head of the waiting line.
“What’ve we got here?” I asked the woman when I got her alone in a treatment room. She had that thin, dirty blonde-brown hair so common in the Midwest, and she held herself righteously in her button-down sweater and jeans.
She said, “I think it’s a vulture,” and seemed proud of herself. She had a right to be, if she’d gotten that thing in the box herself. I opened the flaps warily, ready for the explosion an angry bird makes when it tries to escape. But the vulture crouched pitifully, one wing hanging, only able to hiss.
“Poor baby,” the woman said. “Aw, poor baby. He was staggering all over the side of the road, and I just didn’t know what else to do.”
“What made you stop?” I asked. Most people wouldn’t have. Most people find vultures repulsive and good for nothing more than harassing cattle and scavenging road kill.
The woman shrugged. “I don’t like seeing things in pain. He’s not in much pain, is he?” Her eyes were very wide, very pale blue, and she wanted to get away.
“We’ll make sure he’s taken care of,” I said. Whether I meant we’d rehabilitate him or euthanize him, not even I could say. “I’ve seen lots of these,” I said. “Just a simple broken wing—no problem.” It could be a compound fracture, of course, but she didn’t need to know. “You can call to check on him anytime. We don’t charge for wildlife. Don’t tell anyone, but that’s how it is.”
She smiled a real smile. She’d wanted to feel good about her Samaritan self, and now she did.
I closed up the cardboard box and took it to a kennel. The vulture was going to be cold—that was one thing you had to worry about with birds, the chill they’d experience with shock—so I heated a saline pack and wrapped it for him. At first I had trouble getting him out of the box. I could hear his claws and feel his unstable weight, but even with the box tipped, he refused to emerge.
He was still in the box when Dr. Macklin found time to check him out. Macklin liked the wildlife cases, which probably gave a gloss of meaning to the teacup poodles and Pekingese whose owners, afflicted with Munchausen by proxy, were desperately seeking something to break up their own lonely days.
“What’ve we got?” he said as he peered into the box.
An hour later we’d splinted the thing with a wooden ruler from the hardware store and stabilized it with spongy, bright purple athletic wraps. The bird barely protested.
“So it’s touch and go now,” Dr. Macklin said, and I reheated the saline pack and tucked Noruz away. His spicy, slightly rotting smell of musk had gotten all through the kennel area. I thought I could still smell it on myself that night at home, while I helped my mother stir turmeric and cumin into the sauce pots she kept slowly roiling.
My mother had worked hard to master a vegan version of Midwestern cooking—we ate heartier than any of my friends: fried tofu, potato salad, barbecued vegetables—but beneath this American barrage Grandmother’s memory was slowly skidding away from us, as though she’d lost it on one of our farm roads or misplaced it in a hog waste lagoon. She was starting to show a level of anger and bitterness I thought people only felt as teenagers. As a remedy we’d decided to cook traditional food, as if meals were hooks in her gut, anchoring her to us through her stomach’s recollections.
Sometimes it even seemed to work, but at other times she raved; she accused my mother of cheating on my father, running about, and she told me she’d seen me talking to a boy, wearing a too-short skirt. (She had. But I said “What? When was that, Grandma?” and winked sadly at my parents.)
Nothing could please her that evening, from the way I helped her sit down to the way my mother had cut the beans. To break our sullen silence, I asked, “Guess what came in today?”
“Tell me, Amariji.”
“A vulture,” I said. “A real, live vulture. Beak and claws and everything.” I noticed my father watching me closely out of the corner of his eye, his keeping-an-eye-on-Rabbit look, as he calls it.
“Someday a vulture will eat me,” Grandmother announced, her voice as bright as she could make it. This was a difficult moment for the rest of us. We felt her mind swaying on its pivot, either about to quietly come to rest or lead her onward to talk of India, her India sounding like the heaven we didn’t really believe in.
I told my parents, “It was really only a turkey vulture. With the red head, you know.”
“The kind that eats rabbits,” my father said.
“Someday a vulture will eat me,” Grandmother repeated, and what she said was true, or would have been, had she been allowed to live in her old world, but here the refrain had become our family’s torch song, the tired Saraswati Devi ghazal we all danced to, worn to the bone and worried. Father finished scraping a few crumbs from his mustache with his tongue, an action he hid behind his hand, which fooled no one.
“Manners, please,” my mother said, and I said, “Yes, Mother,” even though she hadn’t been speaking to me, and even though, when we were this quiet, we could hear her own chewing, loud and emphatic as a horse’s. We were all thinking about the same thing: the Tower of Silence near Grandmother’s Mumbai bungalow on Malabar Hill, where she’d been rich among her friends and had attended the funerals of eight of them. She mentioned the ceremonies often, confusing the details but emphatic about the central fact: the body wrapped in white and taken to the tower, where it would not corrupt the sacred elements of fire or of earth, and would instead be picked clean by flocks of holy Gyps vultures.
I know that seems a bit repulsive, or at least strange. Whenever girls visited me, I tried to keep them away from Grandmother and her funeral talk. She spoke as though she could actually see the vultures at work, but of course she’d never seen that. No one had, except for the priests who lived in the tower and were, though highly respected, considered somewhat impure. The vultures look almost noble in their sober gray plumage, but the effect is ruined by how clearly you can see their skulls under their skins.
Father cleared his throat in the particular way that meant he wanted me to play chess with him after dinner. I was annoyed, because my father would prolong the game so he could ask me more questions. He could beat me blindfolded if he wanted to; when he acted as though I presented a challenge, I felt patronized.
“So,” he said after his standard knight opening, “that profile is longer, neh?” I was supposed to be crafting a finely worded, lyrical, and possibly truthful description of myself for a Parsi dating site, where everyone seventeen or older, my mother claimed, was already actively hunting their as-long-as-we-both-shall-live partner. I had no interest in the thing and had always insisted that the site’s smug, earnest men would never tempt me. They were only curious to see what children a good Parsi wife could bear them. They only wanted to see our fragile Parsi line continued. We Parsi Zoroastrians were special, yes, but why we couldn’t we let anyone convert, like any sensible religion? Why did our people have to be born directly into the faith?
This kind of question made me a ridiculous daughter, and I knew my parents feared the heretical likelihood I’d wind up dating an ignorant Nebraska boy with nothing but Husker games on his mind. Chess was my father’s protest against Monsanto corn, the stolid Midwestern entertainments, the constant chatter about weather and sports, the flat expanses of land that seemed as empty as its settlers’ minds.
“We’re not going to force you to marry,” he said. “And of course nothing will happen until after college”—veterinary studies, I was tentatively planning, though I knew Father was hoping I’d go for medicine, or perhaps law, though he would have accepted political science if I’d wanted to work for Zoroastrian causes—“but there’s no harm in looking,” my father finished saying.
Grandmother, sitting close enough to me to stroke my elbow, said she was looking forward to my beautiful Parsi babies. Then she said to my father, “Knight a4,” as though he might have overlooked the move I’d long seen coming but couldn’t seem to block.
“Not yet!” I squalled. Father was going to have me pinned in four moves. I gave in ungraciously and went to bed. “A vulture, hmm?” my mother asked as she said goodnights. “It must be a sight.” I only nodded, not wanting to tell her Noruz was only a starving thing, patchy and broken-winged and probably about to die. My mother took my veterinary ambitions seriously. She was proud of my healing heart, she said. My heart had nothing to do with it, only my head and my determination. You can decide to love a vocation. You can love it completely. Or at least I thought so.
In the morning Noruz proved stubbornly alive, and just as stubbornly intent on refusing the saline solution I tried to pump down his throat. He spent the rest of the week recuperating in his chrome cell, sullenly picking at his plastered wing.
“Shh, shh,” I crooned to him. “Don’t worry.” I’d done enough research to know Noruz was craving fresh meat. Fresh, but not too fresh.
We kept a freezer in the back where we stored the pets who had died or been euthanized. For the sake of decorum and hygiene we wrapped each carcass in white plastic before settling it among the freezer’s ice-crystal drifts. I knew exactly what I wanted out of that wheezing old Frigidaire. A few days before, I’d assisted as Dr. Macklin sliced into a tabby’s belly. I’d pre-opped her myself, and I’d felt the doughy wads of kitten in her gut. Dr. Macklin—David, I let myself say sometimes in my head, David—had sliced until the cut needed clamps to hold the tissues open and the fat spilled slowly out. He’d strung out the awkward pink Y of the queen’s uterus, each kitten a bud as big as a young girl’s fist. It took only a few moments to sever the uterus and suture the tabby back up, and then the organ lay raw and meaty in its autoclaved pan until I had bundled the kittens into their plastic shrouds and gave them their Frigidaire interment.
Frozen, the kittens felt like rocks. They needed four minutes in the microwave before they were lukewarm again, releasing a thin yellow-pink fluid. Noruz took the first one delicately from my fingers, and the second one fiercely. I let him have a third before stashing the rest in the refrigerator behind all the vaccines.
“Sleep well,” I wished Noruz, and I wished the same for myself, even though I knew Grandmother would keep me awake with her mumblings. From across the hall I could hear her, dreaming that she was serving chai to her friends in her old garden, or yelling at her old housemaids, or maybe just protesting the rottenness of life.
In another week Noruz had polished off the kittens and a few other unwanted bits and pieces. He would probably never fly again, but he might manage. His nails scraped against the linoleum as he hopped after me when I let him out to exercise. He’d put on a lot of weight, enough to make him feel cocky and mischievous, so that if I didn’t watch out while scanning a slide for ear mites, I might feel a sudden, fierce pinch on my Achilles tendon.
“I’m not dead yet!” I’d yell at him. Click, click, click, he’d run away to skulk behind the surgery cart. Then, click, click, click, his nails and bright eyes again, back for more mischief. It’d be time to let him go soon. I tried to avoid appearing disconsolate at home, but if my parents noticed, they chalked it up to the stresses of caring for Grandmother.
One of those evenings I came home to find them in the living room, a fire snapping even though it was July. Grandmother complained she was cold and missed the smell of wood burning, even though Nebraska wood never had the same oakiness as London’s, nor the cow-pat tang of India. Only the scent of hard hickory and ash. Grandmother and Father were playing chess, though really Father was playing against himself. He moved her pieces while she recited sequences from famous chess games. Sometimes she was still impressive, but my parents were too busy talking to notice.
“I can’t, Arshabh,” my mother was saying. “I can’t watch this anymore, and I can’t let her go. It’s not right either way.”
“She’d be happiest in a real home,” my father said, though my mother was slowly shaking her head. “Palak. It’s natural. It’s going to be all right.”
“It might happen to us someday,” she said. “It makes me feel so selfish.”
“In this country it’s a respectful thing to do. Let me ring up a few places.”
“It’s not right. Try Meadow Manor.” That was the most expensive nursing home, I knew, and it hurt me to see the tears in my mother’s eyes and to know that some of those tears sprang from hope.
“She’s going to hate us.”
“She’s not going to remember us,” Father said. I knew he felt like he had to be sterner, because Grandmother was his mother.
“Who?” Grandmother asked. “Who are you talking about?”
“You would never do that to me, eh?” Father asked when he spotted me in the doorway. I wanted to take him lightly, but under his smile there were only his bullish teeth and no joke at all. And the bags under my mother’s eyes—very small and delicate bags, mind you, almost a distinction instead of a flaw—had turned from their usual dusty gold-gray to a deeper and uglier purple.
“Palak,” my father said. He took her hand and stroked it. “Palak. Good thoughts, Palak. Good thinking.” I think he would have said, “I love you,” but we were watching, so he led her slowly toward their bedroom instead. Beyond the doorway, through their parchment screen, I saw my mother bending slowly to blow out each of the four candles she kept burning as tiny echoes of the great flame in the Fire Temple. Even from where Grandmother and I sat, the room felt that much darker, and we had nothing left to do but walk to our own bedrooms.
“Good night,” Grandmother said. Something in her hips made a dull grinding noise and then stilled as her shuffling got fully underway.
I heard the same noise from deep inside her when I helped her into the car the next day. I’d lured her from home by telling her I’d take her to the farmer’s market, where she could spend a dumbfounded hour poking strange American vegetables and discussing hand-harvested spices before telling me her heels hurt too much on the American cobblestones.
She turned me into a nervous driver. With her—warm, big-bodied, and feeble-minded beside me—I became far too aware of the road’s more lethal possibilities, and I was relieved to slide into my usual parking spot behind the clinic.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Just at work. I need to pick some things up.”
She didn’t want to leave the car until I took her by the arm and walked beside her, up all five steps, through the entry door, the office door, and the kennel ward door. Her arm on mine was lighter and drier even than Noruz’s broken wing, and I could hear her every breath.
“A visitor,” I told Noruz. “A very special visitor.” Grandmother was breathing so quickly and lightly she was almost panting.
“Look,” I told her. “A real vulture!” I didn’t tell her Noruz was only a turkey vulture, unclean, or that the Gyps vultures in India had nearly died out during the last ten years, mostly because of chemicals in inoculations the veterinarians gave the cattle, which the vultures ingested after the cattle died. It was like I was fooling Grandmother, using her own disease to take advantage of her, but it was like I was keeping something sacred for her, too.
I let Noruz out and hoped he wouldn’t nip her. She let out a small squeal and lifted one foot, suddenly delicate.
“Will he eat me?” she asked, and I said he wouldn’t, not now. Grandmother followed the vulture everywhere with her eyes.
“What’s his name?”
“Ah, new hope,” she said. “Not bad.” She said she needed to sit down, and before I could get her a stool—dangerous, because of its rolling castors—she sat on the operating table. The table had been lowered all the way, so I could better clean it, and my Grandmother seemed beautifully stern as she sat in the unkindness of the florescent lighting. Then she lay down. I thought the metal must be so cold all the way down her back.
“I’m going to be a veterinarian, Grandmother. I think I really am.”
We could hear Noruz. He stood beneath the table; he looked up at the edge of my Grandmother’s sari; he pulled on it, but she didn’t seem to feel it, and I shooed him away. I wanted him back in his cage then, but he wanted to roam the clinic, and he was so healthy now it was hard for me to catch him, and the whole time Grandmother kept saying, “Shhh, shhh.”
I didn’t want to defend my naked idea: that Grandmother could take something, even something intangible and fragile, from seeing this messed-up American vulture, and that she might remember it. Might be able to talk about more than just vultures someday eating her. Or might even come back to her better self and stop us from dumping her in a nursing home. It wasn’t like I wanted her to renounce her beliefs. It wasn’t that at all. I just wanted to give her something no one else could. And Noruz, despite the bald redness of his head and the beady opportunism in his eyes, was a thing of mischievous beauty. I was going to miss him when he recovered and we had to release him.
Grandmother stayed quiet for a long time, and I stayed quiet as well. The animals around us settled into their kennels, giving up their hopeful complaints.
“I’m not going back to Bombay, am I?” Grandmother asked. I didn’t say anything. “Or London?”
“Well,” she said, “you can take me home then.”
Things worsened. Grandmother sat in her room all day. I visited her a few times to give her a hug, and each time she took my arms stiffly and turned her cheek, and she called me her sister’s name.
“Why’d you run around with that Bhagrab boy?” she asked me with the clench of her hand fast on my upper arm. “Kookemai, you crazy girl, I kept your peace and see where it’s gotten you now. You’ll never really have him, but you’ll have me as long as you live.” Grandmother spat in my face. Thick family sputum down the side of my nose. “And don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about.” I think the name she called me was a bad one. I made the water from the bathroom tap hotter than it needed to be when I washed off the spit.
At night Mother asked me to check on Grandmother, and it was as though we held each other’s pleading stares for a long moment before I opened the door to Grandmother’s room. She had a bright room: red cloth draping the walls as though she were a bride, a few Bollywood posters that made her seem sixteen, her own set of four sacred candles, which of course she was not allowed to burn, a sheaf of postcards tucked in odd places, her bottles of lotion gone crusted and stale, her still-strong perfume, her favorite rug. She lay on the bed with her back to the door; she was wearing her regular silk nightgown, and I tried to turn my eyes from where it had rucked up on her thighs.
She had balled up handfuls of the Evening Standard, which we got custom delivered in weekly shipments, and the crumpled paper lay about the room like strange eggs she’d laid. When I looked closer after taking a deep breath, I could tell she’d crumpled it after using it as toilet paper. Thick scum and streaks on her legs.
If I’d let myself think about it, I might have thought it terrible. As it was, I knew I’d see it again, it or something like it. While I cleaned up I hummed every Indian song I knew, and I knew six. I filled three plastic garbage bags. I felt like shit.
Father was waiting silently beside the big green garbage bin outside. I thought he was stealing a secret smoke, or was about to make a joke, “Isn’t this romantic?”—the stars spilled out above us—but he only lifted the garbage-can lid for me. We listened to the last of the garbage bags rustle, and then the crickets, and then he pulled me to him in a big hug. He did, after all, smell like cigarettes, and I was grateful. I could say the smoke was tingling in my eyes, that’s why I was crying.
“I didn’t work on that profile any more,” I said to his chest.
He said “Shhh, Rabbit.”
“Do you think I can be a veterinarian?”
A day later I turned down Dr. Macklin’s invitation to free Noruz with him, because I needed to sit at home with the chess board, the softly boiling pots, the home smells and my tense parents and in the middle of it all my Grandmother with her memories wearing too thin to keep her warm. And also because I was afraid of what I might do in that moment after Noruz left our sight and David and I were alone together in the wide Nebraskan fields.
We all knew Grandmother would be gone in another month or so, certainly before the Pateti celebration, when the house would fill with friends and more distant family members, and Mother would be afraid someone would mention Grandmother, and would be afraid she would cry, and I would only stand beside Father and feel what I imagined was his shame.
The nursing home wouldn’t smell. Wouldn’t be in bad taste, wouldn’t leave its residents in shabby corners, wouldn’t mistreat them in any way. Wouldn’t keep any kind of vultures. Would keep the humming eight-foot bulk of a Frigidaire in the back. Would exact a slow, painless death of starched sheets and pureed American vegetables. Would allow a space for proper forgetfulness to run its debilitating course.
I hadn’t taken Grandmother straight home after we went to see Noruz. We stopped at the farmers’ market, where I bought the mesh bag of mangos I later gave David, and I taught him how to eat them while I imagined the solid weight of his head resting on top of mine.
I’m nineteen, and I’m standing in an animal clinic, and I’m thinking about the disappointments each of us is going to give the other. I’m thinking about disappointments as gifts, as protests, as consolations, and I’m thinking about how we keep trying to bear them, and we try to keep loving past practicality, even as we feel life circling above us, large and rank and grand, and we wait for it gradually to settle down upon us.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.