At the Gates of the City
Published in Silence and the Word
The snow fell gently over the gravestones, piling thick and dense on tall crosses, rectangular stones, low Gothic iron fences. Anjali sat on one of the thicker stones, a heavy coat wrapped around her sturdy frame, her long hair loose and covered in snow. She could no longer read the inscriptions, not with the snow and the nighttime darkness. But she knew them by heart. Beneath her were Mark and Deborah Williams, united at last, a dove blessing their stone. Across the path were Matthew Olsen, beloved of God, and Elizabeth Olsen, faithful wife, married in 1831; both of them died in the 1880s. Two carved books on their stone — the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Next to Elizabeth was Jessica Olsen, also presumably a faithful wife, though her inscription was more discreet than that — only the marriage date of 1849 to tell you that she had been Matthew’s second wife. And a birth date of 1833, a death date of 1852. A fallen tree on the carved granite. That story told itself.
There weren’t as many like that as she had expected. The carefully maintained ground reached upwards through the Avenues, from 3rd Avenue to 9th, and then up even further. Anjali had walked all around it in her three years in Salt Lake, but she still wasn’t sure she had covered every inch. There was a small Jewish enclave, halfway up the hill, but most of the stones in the graveyard were clearly Christian, and even more clearly Mormon. But still, mostly monogamous marriages. She wondered if in the other cities of Utah, you would see more stories like poor Jessica’s.
"It wasn’t what you’re thinking, you know."
The voice startled her. Anjali had been coming to this cemetery at night for months now, walking, sitting, trying not to think; she had never seen another soul. Anjali twisted sharply around, to see a slender girl standing ankle-deep in the snow. She wore a thin blue skirt that reached to the ground, and a long-sleeved white blouse with a high buttoned collar and matching buttons at the sleeves. She was very pretty, with blonde hair piled high on her head and wide blue eyes. She looked like an angel, standing there in the gently falling snow.
"Wasn’t it?" Anjali asked softly, not wanting to question this moment, for fear that it would dissolve, disappear.
"You can’t possibly understand," the girl said, her voice throbbing with passion, with grief. Her eyes saw right through Anjali, fixed on Matthew’s stone, tall and impassive across the path.
Anjali laughed briefly. "You’re right. I don’t understand anything." And perhaps a hint of her own emotions colored that laugh, because the girl actually focused on her, those blue eyes narrowing.
"Where are you from? Not from here." That much was obvious.
"Sri Lanka." Clearly, that meant nothing to her. "It’s an island, near India."
"I’ve heard of India. My great-grandfather sailed there; he sent my grandmother this. That’s what my mother said." The girl’s hand went up to her throat, to touch a slender gold chain that circled it.
"It does look Indian." And it did, the gold heavier, darker than American gold, with a rich luster even in the moonlight that suddenly made Anjali ache for home, for the noise and heat of the Colombo markets, the auto-rickshaws screaming past, the bullock-drivers trundling their carts along, patient and slow. She still hadn’t written back to her mother. She didn’t know what to say. "I’m Anjali." She didn’t know what to say to this girl either, but at least it would be safe to talk to her.
"Jessica. You knew that, didn’t you?" Jessica stared, curious, at Anjali.
"Yes." She had known, despite her rational scientific training. There are more things on heaven and earth… She had always believed, always hoped that.
"And you aren’t scared?" Jessica took a step closer, and another, so that her skirt was almost brushing the hem of Anjali’s coat. Even in the cold graveyard, a chill emanated from the slender girl.
Anjali shrugged. "My grandmother talked to ghosts all the time. They don’t bother me." Though maybe it was thanks to Neil that she could stay so calm right now. She had been feeling numb for months.
"Good." Jessica smiled, and took a step back. "It’s been a long time since I had a girlfriend."
Anjali’s PDA beeped at her, warning her that it was time to go home, shower, get ready for class. It was still dark, but the sun would be rising soon over the mountains, and her students would be waiting.
"I have to go. Will I see you again? Do you have to stay in the cemetery, by your stone?" Anjali knew the usual rules for ghosts, but she wasn’t sure if any of them actually applied. Her grandmother had had a hundred rituals for dealing with them, ranging from leaving a dish of ghee outside the kitchen door to always putting a dash of homemade mustard on her wrists. She had never been able to explain why these things were important — and somehow, Anjali doubted that American ghosts followed the same rules.
"I’ll find you, anywhere in the city. This is my city, you know. I helped build it." Jessica smiled again, and with that smile she went from very pretty to just plain beautiful. There was a certain strained exhaustion on her nineteen-year-old face, but Anjali could understand why Matthew had wanted to marry this girl. At a nubile sixteen, she must have seemed like a spring morning, like water in the desert.
"I’d like to hear that story." Anjali stood, shaking her head to loosen the pile of accumulated snow on her long hair, stamping her feet to bring back the circulation. She had good boots on, but she had been sitting still for a long time. She turned downhill, and started walking towards home, leaving Jessica behind her, once again gazing at Matthew’s grave.
"What are you doing?" Jessica asked.
Anjali looked up from her pile of papers to see the girl sitting across from her in the cafe, hands neatly folded on the table. Jessica seemed to fit there, in her white blouse with the long sleeves, not so dissimilar from what the missionary girls wore in Temple Square, right outside the cafe window. In late February, the snow had melted from the streets, and they were enjoying an early burst of spring weather — coats discarded, the girls strolled in sober pairs, pretty and friendly, ready to tell a visitor more than he would want to know about the LDS church.
The temple itself rose high, beautifully white and gorgeously Gothic in its graceful steeples, a beauty marred only by the rather gaudy gold angel Moroni at the crown. Anjali had been enjoying the irony ever since she arrived in Salt Lake — that in this half-Mormon city, in this almost wholly Mormon state, a cafe selling caffeinated drinks sat overlooking Temple Square, the heart of their religion. When Neil had first moved to Salt Lake, and she had joined him, she’d been worried that she wouldn’t find cafes at all, that the Mormons wouldn’t allow them. But they were everywhere.
"It’s math, mostly." She had been working a lot this last year, doing some of the best work she’d ever done. Her advisors at the lab were pleased with her, but she couldn’t bring herself to actually care. It was just something to do, something to fill her mind and hands.
Jessica reached out and touched the papers, her hand tracing over Greek symbols, leaving no mark on the page. "I was never much good at math. Mostly I liked to sing."
Anjali could imagine this girl, standing in the tabernacle across the street, her head tilted back and her throat open, sending songs up to her God. "I can’t stay on key, but I like to sing too." It had been over a decade since she’d lived in Sri Lanka, but she could picture her mother and aunts, singing Tamil film songs as they left the movie theater, laughing.
"You just need people to sing with." Jessica spread her hands wide, gesturing to form a circle. "When you’re surrounded by your sister-wives and the spirit is moving through you all — you can’t help but sing."
"How many sister-wives did you have? There were only the two tombstones in the cemetery."
Jessica frowned a little, thinking. "There were only two of us, me and Elizabeth, that actually lived as wives to Matthew. But he was sealed to six women in all — Katharine and Sarah and Olga and Naomi." She grinned, looking no more than twelve for a mischievous instant. "No one liked Naomi; she was just plain mean. But we didn’t have to see her much."
"Where did they live, if not with Matthew?" Anjali had always assumed that the Mormon wives all lived with their husband; she had imagined it sometimes, a dozen women in one big house, cooking and cleaning and chattering away, raising a horde of children. She had thought they must have been mostly happy, while the man was away — but how did they manage when he came home?
"They lived with their first husbands. Well, Sarah’s husband died, but she didn’t want to move in with Matthew. She was a schoolteacher; she did all right living alone."
Anjali felt like she should be taking notes; if she were a sociologist, an ethnographer, she’d be in a fever of excitement at this chance to interview a primary source. But she felt a strangely proprietary emotion for Jessica. This was her ghost — she didn’t want to share her with anyone. There were plenty of journals and records from the early days of the Mormons, the Latter Day Saints — academia could get along just fine without knowing Jessica’s story. "So you didn’t have a first husband?"
"I didn’t need one. I had Matthew. He was my life." Jessica’s voice had been calm up until now, almost academic in tone. But with the mention of Matthew’s name, all the emotion and passion was back, trembling in her voice. "Are you married?"
"No." A single short word, forbidding. Unfortunately, the girl was too young to be tactful. Everyone in her department had been very good — when Neil had left Utah, and she hadn’t volunteered the story of why, they hadn’t asked. They had carefully talked to her about work instead. She hadn’t had to talk to anyone about him.
"But you’re old! Aren’t you?" Jessica peered at Anjali, as if she were having trouble deciphering her dark skin, her thick black hair. Anjali’s mother had always said that brown skin aged better than white did, that it didn’t show the lines as fast.
"I’m twenty-nine." A terribly old maid in Jessica’s mind, no doubt, and in Anjali’s mother’s mind too, for that matter. It was easier, living in modern America. Somewhat.
Jessica considered a moment, then nodded her head, decisively. "You’re pretty enough; you should get married. Isn’t there anyone?"
"There was." It was hard to say the words. She had successfully avoided talking about it, thinking about it, for so long. "It ended, almost a year ago."
"But you still love him." It wasn’t a question, so Anjali didn’t bother to answer. Those who were heart-whole didn’t spend their nights in frozen graveyards. Instead she picked up her pen again, straightened the pile of papers. This conversation had gone on long enough.
"I need to get back to work, Jessica."
The girl hesitated for a moment, as if she were about to say something else. But then she just nodded, and disappeared. One moment there, the next, gone. People could disappear so quickly.
She was walking in to campus the next time Jessica showed up, walking east along the Avenues, from 2nd and Q up through R, S, T, to U and University, then turning right, wending through a curvy mess of old streets, big houses that stood out from the city’s appallingly regular grid and the mass of neat little three-bedroom homes. This part of town reminded her of New England, where she had gone to college; it comforted her, a little. A strange, late snowfall the previous night had given way to bright sunshine, melting and refreezing, coating the trees in crystal, the grass in glittering light.
"I met Matthew in the springtime," Jessica said. She kept pace beside Anjali, her footsteps leaving no imprint in the pristine snow. Appropriate, Anjali couldn’t help thinking; her own footsteps broke a battered, muddy trail.
"My parents and I had just moved here; we were excited. Brother Brigham had such plans for the city — he even laid out the streets, wide enough for four oxen to walk abreast."
"They’re pretty wide." It did make for an attractive city, Anjali had to admit. Salt Lake was orderly, clean, well-laid-out. Lots of white buildings, no trash on the streets. Did the missionary boys walk the streets in the early morning, picking up the trash? And what did they do with the homeless here? Only in the heart of downtown did you ever see them at all. It was morbidly amusing, imagining dark scenarios where they were rounded up like cattle, exterminated to maintain the image of the clean city of God. A science fiction horror story. But undoubtedly they were only taken to shelters, forced to listen to a little preaching in exchange for a warm meal and a place to sleep. Not a bad deal.
Jessica smiled, her eyes sparkling. "I met Matthew at a church social; he couldn’t dance with me, of course, but he brought me punch, and we talked. I wanted to dance with him so badly that night…"
It made her chest ache, listening to the girl chatter. She didn’t want to remember how she met Neil, when she was still in college and he was in grad school. He was talking to her roommate, flirting with her, trying to make her laugh, and succeeding. Anjali had just listened to him, enjoying the sound of his voice, the hair falling across his face. She had wanted to reach up and brush it back, uncovering blue eyes. She took a deep breath, banishing the memory. "Neil doesn’t like to dance."
"Well, that doesn’t really matter, does it?" Jessica paused, eyes speculative on Anjali’s face. "As long as he likes dancing in bed…"
"Jessica!" Anjali was actually shocked — the girl looked so sweet, so innocent and virginal.
She laughed. "I was married, you know. For three years. I was going to have a baby…" Jessica’s voice trailed off, and then she was gone again, just disappeared, before Anjali could ask anything more.
She kept walking, one foot in front of another through the shining snow, trying not to remember what it had felt like, dancing in bed with Neil. After he left her, she had gone months without, lying alone in her bed with the small stuffed bear he’d given her. Sometimes she wore his old green flannel shirt, even in the sweltering summer heat, even though the scent of him had long since disappeared. She sweated in his shirt, tried not to think, and stared out her window at the mountains, waiting for the sunrise.
There had been one man, six months after. She had met him at that same cafe overlooking the Temple — it seemed like a good place to meet men, since the Latter-Day Saints weren’t supposed to drink coffee. One of her classmates had started dating a Mormon guy, but it had brought her nothing but trouble; he wanted her to convert and didn’t believe in sex before marriage; it just about drove the poor girl crazy. Anjali didn’t want to deal with that — but she didn’t do much better. The cafe guy had eaten potato chips in her bed, had tried to talk her into leaving off the condom, and even after she’d gotten the condom on him, he hadn’t been any good. She could barely remember his name, and when she told Neil about it, on the phone, she couldn’t even manage to sound enthusiastic enough to try to make him jealous. It was just no good. Neil knew it had been nothing, worse than nothing, and he’d sounded impossibly sympathetic.
Maybe it would be easier if they stopped talking, as some of her friends had suggested, but neither of them seemed able to manage that.
After saying goodbye and hanging up the phone, she’d just climbed into the shower, turned the water on, scalding hot, and cried. It gave her less of a headache, when she cried in the shower. What had Jessica and her sister-wives done back then, before showers? Anjali would have to ask her, the next time she appeared.
She got e-mail from Ravi, a few days before spring break. He had frequent flyer miles, and a week off from teaching. He was feeling lonely, sad about a recent break-up. He wanted to see her. Did she want him to come out?
Anjali told him that she needed to think about it, but she’d let him know soon. She didn’t need to think about it at all; she wanted to see him. Anjali remembered what it felt like, the few times he’d touched her, so many years ago. She hadn’t loved him at all, but she had enjoyed him a great deal, and that was exactly what she wanted right now, to put emotion aside, to sink into her body and give it what it needed. At least that desire could be satisfied.
Neil wasn’t happy when she called and told him; he’d never liked Ravi. He had hurt other girls they knew and Neil didn’t trust him. The conversation that night was long, and filled with uncomfortable pauses. There were too many things they couldn’t say to each other. After he hung up, she curled her body around the dead phone, her eyes fixed outside the bedroom window, on still-snowy mountains, not seeing them. Anjali told herself that even though she didn’t want to upset him, Neil had no rights over her body. She needed to start moving on. She felt her skin contracting with desire, with the need to be touched, and held.
Anjali wrote back the next morning, telling Ravi to come. She felt a ghost of a breath as she typed in her lab, a shadow touch across her cheek, but when she spun on the stool, there was nothing and no one there. Perhaps the lab was too rational a place to accommodate a grieving ghost.
The best part was when Ravi tied her down. Wrists and ankles, done with scarves and a single old tie Neil left behind. He blindfolded her too, a makeshift blindfold of a T-shirt, tied behind her head, covering her eyes. Blinded, bound, Anjali could finally relax, could send her mind away and let her body move as it would, responding to strong hands, to fingers that were alternately gentle and cruel. When the pleasure wasn’t enough, when she begged for it, he gave her the pain she needed, the physical pain mixed with pleasure that could take her away, could obliterate every thought, every memory. She was nothing but an exhausted, sweaty body, responding to the rake of fingers across her thighs, the heavy hand slamming down against her ass.
When he finished, she asked him to do it again, and again, and again, until at last she could fall into a dreamless sleep.
They walked in the cemetery before he left. The last of the snow was melting, and flowers were coming up everywhere. Spring crocuses, a few early daffodils and irises. Anjali felt strangely at peace, there, among the Mormon patriarchs. Perhaps she should have feared their stern morality, but it seemed that the morality of 1800 was not the morality of today. Somehow she suspected Brigham Young would have understood, might have kept cords attached to his bedpost, and a horsewhip tucked under his bed. As she walked beside Ravi, listening to him talk about the woman he’d just lost, the woman he still loved, it pleased her to imagine the Elders of the church, dozing in their graves, dreaming of the girls they married and the ones they left behind.
Jessica paced them in the distance, under pine trees still dusted with snow, but she didn’t come near.
"You should talk to him," Jessica said. They were up in the mountains; Anjali had driven up to Big Cottonwood Creek that morning, feeling a need to be among trees and silence. But her ghost had come with her, and wouldn’t leave her alone. Jessica had been saying the same things for hours as the sun slid lower in the sky and the air began to chill. "You haven’t talked to him in weeks."
Anjali didn’t look at her — she kept her eyes fixed on the trail ahead, her feet steadily moving up the dirt path, a hand occasionally reaching out to brush aside an errant twig, festooned with bright red berries. "He hasn’t called me. He doesn’t want to talk to me." Anjali had come up here because she wanted to get away from the city, from people — but this was part of the city, too, these mountains.
Her students were always skipping classes to come up here, to hike in the autumn and spring, to ski in the winter. This city wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the valley it sat in, sheltered by the Wasatch Mountains, bordered by the Great Salt Lake. Sometimes when she had stayed up all night, unable to sleep, Anjali would sit on her bed with her arms wrapped around her knees and watch the sun rise over the high mountains, impossibly beautiful, spreading gold light across the bright blue sky. For a few minutes then, she could believe in God.
The pioneers coming across the desert had thought they’d found the promised land — most had stopped here, gladly, and only a few had continued on to California. What if they had all continued, found the gentle coast and thrived there? Would California be Mormon country now? Or would that prime coastal property have attracted enough people that the poor Mormons would have been wiped out? Maybe it was only their choice to build a city in the desert that had let them survive at all.
Jessica sighed in visible exasperation. "Men don’t know what they really want. You have to tell them."
It was just like having an irritating little sister who wouldn’t leave you in peace. All Anjali wanted was to be left alone to find her own damnation. Was that too much to ask? She turned to Jessica and said sharply, "If you know so much, why are you here?" It was the forbidden question, the one her grandmother would never have asked a ghost. Some great grief or anger, that was what bound them to the earth. It was dangerous to probe into that; an angry ghost could kill you. Anjali asked anyway. "Why aren’t you with Matthew? Don’t Mormons get to go to heaven?"
Jessica stopped still in the middle of the trail, her cheerful expression wiped away, her face blank and stricken. "Good Mormons do." Late afternoon sun shafted through the trees, sliding right through her. She looked utterly insubstantial.
"And you weren’t good?" Anjali knew the answer — she was only twisting the knife. Though she was also curious; what had this innocent young girl done that could be so bad as to bar her from her heaven? Had jealousy risen up in her, sending her to attack one of her sister-wives? Jessica might even have killed one; there were many graves in that graveyard.
"I was wicked." Jessica’s voice was quiet now, matter-of-fact.
"What did you do?" Anjali pushed at it, like pushing at a sore tooth, halfway hoping that it would simply fall out and stop hurting. All she wanted was for it to stop hurting.
"I killed my baby — and I killed myself." Jessica’s hands moved to cradle her stomach, protectively.
Anjali was startled; she’d assumed, from the dates, that she knew what had likely happened. It could have been illness, of course, or an accident, but so many young brides had died in exactly the same way… "You didn’t die in childbirth?"
"I didn’t want to be a mother — I wasn’t ready." Jessica’s voice grew louder, more distraught. "I loved him so much, and I couldn’t believe he loved me back. He made the sun rise for me." She was trembling now, her blue skirt shaking as if in a strong breeze. "I was never so happy as I was after I met him; I didn’t know it was possible to be so happy. And then there was the baby, who would want me to be its mother, to take care of it and pay attention to it and turn into someone else. I’d seen what happened, with my sister-wives. They forgot all about their husbands; all they cared about were the babies. I didn’t want that, don’t you understand? I just wanted to be with Matthew!" Jessica shouted the last words, but she wasn’t substantial enough for shouting — her words thinned, dissipated into the air.
Anjali sat down heavily on a fallen log, her mind resolutely on the scratchiness of the bark, the small white flowers bursting up from the ground. She didn’t know why she had pushed the girl — didn’t even want to know all these details. Didn’t want to imagine Jessica at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. Head over heels in love with her man, still little more than a child herself and terrified of having a child. The poor, stupid kid.
Jessica’s voice went quiet then, once again matter-of-fact. "I mixed together everything we had in the kitchen, and I drank it all down, but it didn’t make me sick enough. So when we went to Brother Brigham’s house for dinner a few nights later, I threw myself down the stairs, from the fairy window he built for the children, all the way down."
Anjali had been to the Beehive House, had taken the tour and stood at the fairy window, looking down into the front hall. She’d admired the extensive collection of books, so impressive for a pioneer household, and had enjoyed the beautiful French furniture, the elegant grand piano. She’d listened as the missionary woman had shown them Brigham Young’s bedroom, and his wife’s, and his children’s — never mentioning the other wives and children who had lived in the Lion House next door. Anjali had felt superior, listening to the whitewashed history, felt pleased that she knew the real story. But that wasn’t the real story — this was. The real story, the crazy things people did for love.
The girl was crying now, translucent ghost tears. "I was just trying to lose the baby; other women did it! But I did something wrong, and I broke my own neck. Everyone said it was a tragic accident, such a shame, to have such a terrible thing happen to a young, pregnant, godly wife."
Anjali felt a stirring of anger, an emotion she hadn’t felt since the day Neil left her, saying only that it wasn’t working, that he needed to be alone, to have space. She’d been furious for a little while, but the emotion had dissolved into grief, and then numbness. The anger was back now, warming her chest, clenching her hands into fists. How many years had this poor girl been walking in this cemetery, these mountains, the sanctimonious city, suffering for a single mistake? "For that, your God would condemn you to be a ghost forever?" Could people really love a god that cruel?
Jessica shook her head, wrapping her arms tightly around her body. "No — no, you don’t understand. I could leave here anytime; I could be resurrected, and my spirit united with my body. You mustn’t blame God for my sin." She was earnest, pleading. After all these years, she maintained her faith.
"So why don’t you go?" Anjali felt bewildered. If you were married in the Mormon church, you were supposed to be married forever. Why hadn’t Jessica flown to rejoin her beloved husband?
Jessica hesitated a long moment, her eyes wide and haunted. Then she said, quickly and quietly — "I did such a terrible thing. What if he doesn’t love me anymore?" And she’d gone again, dissolved, leaving emptiness behind her, and a faint chill.
Anjali wondered if she’d ever see her ghost again.
When she came home, the phone was ringing. She let it ring, and ring, until finally it stopped. Anjali made herself some dinner, chicken curry over rice, and forced herself to eat it. She’d always loved food, but ever since the breakup, it had tasted like dust to her. She drank a big glass of water, put the leftovers away, washed the dishes. And then, when there was nothing else to do, she picked up the phone, called voicemail, listened to the message. Maybe all her recent contact with a ghost had given her some ESP — although he hadn’t called for weeks, she knew who it had to be, and knew what he would say.
Neil wanted to see her. He thought he might have made a big mistake.
No, really? Anjali could almost laugh, listening to that message.
She listened to the message over and over, just pressing the number one on the phone, not letting it get to the end. She knew that if she stopped listening, she’d have to decide what to do next. But there was only so long you could hold a phone to your ear before your hand started to go numb, especially if you were gripping it too tightly. Anjali deleted the message and hung up — then picked the phone up again and called him.
She didn’t know what she was going to say until Neil answered, but as soon as she heard his voice, she knew. Maybe she always had, and was just waiting for him to figure it out. It didn’t seem to matter that he’d hurt her, that it had taken him a year to figure out what he wanted. It didn’t matter that her friends would think she was nuts, and his probably would too — it didn’t even matter that Neil was still scared, and unsure, just like she was. They had no guarantees; there weren’t any. Jessica was nineteen, too young to know that it didn’t matter if you were scared. You just tried, and kept trying, even when anyone with any sense would have given up and walked away.
Anjali told him to come, to take the next flight in. She’d be waiting upstairs, and he should just let himself in.
Anjali never did see Jessica again. Sometimes she and Neil would take walks in the cemetery, in the evening, and she’d look, under the pines — but there was nothing. Maybe Jessica just didn’t want to talk to her, but Anjali hoped that there was another explanation. That once the girl had said the words out loud, had said what she was so afraid of, that she might have found the courage to face her fears, to go on and find out what awaited. To find the man who made the sun rise in her sky, and learn if he still loved her.
Even after all those years, that would be worth waiting for.