Which Way Does the River Flow?

Mani Rao

Hilda is eighty. I am thirty. We are neighbors. We celebrate birthdays and we converse.

I: In Iceland they bury whales in the ground and wait for the meat to decay before eating it.

Hilda: The Chinese do the same with ham. It's good for the health.

I: I'm sure it is. But there must be more to it. Art, science, for connoisseurs of decay.

Hilda: Serve it all up, maggots and all, eating carcass and maggots eating each other, with respect!

I narrate what we said.

Hilda: When I am a ghost, I will know what you are up to and all your secrets will be out.

I: You'd be an old ghost. You'd be too tired.

Hilda: Ghosts drink at the fountain of youth and vitality.

I: I'd prefer it if you said spirit?

Hilda: Why? Shy?

I: Maybe because spirits go into bottles.

When I hosted a masquerade party on my 40th birthday, we were in the kitchen, smoking and talking, when she raised a hand to her face and took off her old-bat mask. I saw then that she was seventy.

From that day, I saw that for every year I put on, she took a year off.

When she was sixty-five, I was forty-five.

I gave her a goldfish tank.

Hilda: How long do they live?

I: If taken good care of, ten years, but they've been known to live twenty to thirty years.

Hilda: I will call the fish Tish.

I helped Hilda learn to look after Tish. Tish would cover the length of the tank in twenty laps to touch the slippery wall and swim back. When the tank was cleaned, Tish stopped swimming, knocked on the glass and got lip calluses. Back from the vet, Tish demonstrated reversing powers. Hilda put an empty milk bottle in the tank. Tish dove nose is and reversed tail out. Hilda hooked out the bottle, inserted a pea in it, put it back into the water and looked the other way. Tish went in and got the pea at once. Hilda began to replenish the pea several times a day and soon threw both Tish and the bottle out in the trash.

I was fifty, she was sixty.

I gave her a bouquet of red roses.

Some dates later I saw the stalks in the bin we shared. It crossed my mind that she had eaten the petals. As it was none of my business, I left her alone in my mind.


Hilda: I see Rumpelstilskin walk into town and let drop his starched overall.

I: I see the opposite.

Hilda moved out of the building.

I heard she left me for someone younger.

Mani Rao

India-born and Hong Kong resident Mani Rao is the author of six poetry collections, and her writing has been published in numerous journals. She is currently the 2006 Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa International Programs. Some of her favorite writers are Edmond Jabes, J.M. Coetzee, Fernando Pessoa, and Jorge Luis Borges. Mani's mother tongue is Telegu, the official language of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.