Nadia knows, when the mother leaves them, that they will die. They lurch from side to side, low on the ground, ears folded over into crinkled triangles. Claws soft, mouths brown with dirt, meowing in the damp soil of the flower bed.
“What should we do?” Karim asks.
“We can’t just leave them there,” says Nadia. “They’ll get onto the road. Or the billas will eat them.”
She was returning home from Gizri, planks of wood for a shelf she is designing piled in the back seat of her car, when she saw the kittens in the flower beds just outside their gate. Now she lifts each kitten into a cardboard box, feeling the struts of their ribs against her fingers, considering. Nadia and Karim live with his dadi, who has taken care of Karim since both his parents died in a plane crash, earning him the lifelong pity of all his relatives and the word bechara permanently affixed to his name. But even bechara Karim won’t be able to convince Dadi to let them keep a brood of five kittens in the house.
“Take them to the butcher’s shop by the bridge,” says Karim’s phuppo. Tahira Phuppo visits Dadi each morning before work to check up on her health. She is in and out in under ten minutes, impeccable and smooth, hostile to inconvenience. “There’s food, chichras. And maybe some other cat will find and mother them.”
The kittens’ eyes are shut, swollen mounds suggesting the dark liquid of iris and eyeball underneath. They jerk their heads blindly through the air, searching for the warmth of fur and teat.
“Decide based on what you can do,” Tahira Phuppo says, before getting into the driver’s seat of her car parked by the gate. “Wasim doesn’t have time to feed them.”
Wasim cooks for everyone in their house and often the houses of various aunts and cousins as well, in addition to managing all the tasks that keep their household running: making and freezing shami kababs, airing out mattresses and carpets, keeping up with Dadi’s pill regimen, taking her on her daily outing to the park with her walker.
Karim puts Nadia’s fears into words. “Should we just call the rescue people? Maybe they can put them to sleep.”
“We can try to feed them,” Nadia says.
A skinny brown cat slinks into the garden and Nadia nudges Karim. “Maybe that’s the mother,” she says. The cat doesn’t come near the kittens. Instead she goes around the corner of the house. Karim follows her and Nadia hangs back as the cat makes her way to the dim alley by the kitchen door where she usually receives scraps. The neighborhood cats eat everything that Wasim lobs at them—giblets, carrot peels, spoiled bread. In the gloom of the alley, Karim shines the flashlight from his cell phone at the cat and sees a melting pink wound underneath her tail.
“Maggots!” he tells Nadia as the cat, startled by his gasp, runs away.
The same thing happened to a kitten that Nadia and Karim had rescued from under the wheels of a rickshaw, just after they got married. Karim’s dadi is allergic, so the kitten stayed outside, half-feral but open to petting and stroking every now and then. Then she got pregnant and ran away. The next time Nadia saw her she had a wound the size and consistency of a raw chicken breast on her flank, pulsing pinkly. Nadia cajoled her into a picnic basket and took her to the vet. The vet dug out maggots with a curved silver pick. But within a week, the wound had blackened.
Nadia’s mother calls while the two of them are standing in the alley wondering what to do.
“I’m coming over,” she says on the phone, and then appears just a few minutes later in the back seat of a rental car. She’s in town from Lahore to visit Nadia but insisted on staying with a cousin.
“Driver ko water la dein, please,” she tells Wasim, who is settled into his tea break under the tree by the gate.
She eyes the outside of the house, its windows covered with curled, white-painted grilles, the flower bed with soft white motia and shining green hibiscus outside the front door. “You should have those grilles washed once a week,” she says.
“I’m knitting a blanket,” she tells Nadia, leading her by the elbow into the house and then to the drawing room. She pulls Nadia into her soft side so that both of them can pass through the doorway at the same time. Karim trails behind. Nadia turns around to look at him and he waves at her, a tiny wave close to his chest, and runs quietly up the stairs to their bedroom.
“Nice, Ammi. Who for?” says Nadia, turning back to her mother.
“For my grandson.”
“I know, I know. I know I’ll be dead by the time you decide to have kids. It’s so whenever he does come, he’ll know that he had a dead Nani who loved him.”
Ammi frets over the disorder of Nadia’s life, the fact that her shalwars and her kameezes never match exactly and are seldom ironed. She hangs over Abu’s shoulder during phone calls, shouting suggestions into the phone as he explains to Nadia how to ask clients for more money. But she is also fanatic about grandchildren. “I’ll take care of them,” she always says. “You just go ahead and have them.”
“You crazy!” Nadia laughs now. “You aren’t dying anytime soon. So stop being a drama.”
“But you know I don’t go for walking,” Ammi says. “I’m unhealthy, I don’t exercise. I’ll die before I’m sixty, probably.”
The drawing-room walls are encrusted with paintings made by Karim’s father before Karim was born: dark oils furred with dust, lopsided fruit, fat pigeons, improbably green English landscapes. Embroidered white doilies gleam on the side tables. Wasim is in the habit of turning down the lights to mask the damp spots on the walls. Ammi settles into a sofa to wait for Karim’s dadi, and pulls out her phone to show Nadia photos of realistic-looking baby dolls—screenshots from Amazon. She has WhatsApped all of them to Nadia’s sister Natasha in New Jersey, asking her to bring back the dolls on her next trip home. The only thing she bought when she went to America for Natasha’s wedding was an American Girl doll, for which she sews tiny booties and frocks out of cloth left over from her own shalwar kameez, which her tailor has been strictly instructed to return to her for this purpose. Nadia swipes through photos of plastic feet indented with dimples, of individually inserted eyebrow hairs, thinking about how to turn this into a joke to tell to Karim and her friends. “My ammi, she’s mad.” Hilarious.
Nadia does not remind her that when Ammi found out that she was pregnant for the third time, with Nadia, she cried. She wanted to get rid of the baby. Abu’s bosses had agreed to a transfer at last, and Ammi and Abu were moving back to Lahore after five years in sun-blasted towns in Sindh, Shikarpur, Sukkur, and Rohri, living in concrete government-built houses where the water poured gritty and warm out of the taps, and Ammi didn’t know anyone. Both of Nadia’s sisters wanted to be carried all the time, so Ammi did her chores with a child hanging off each hip like koalas on a eucalyptus tree. But they were finally old enough to be left at school, and Ammi had planned to learn how to drive. She wanted to visit her old haunts (the road by the canal that she used to walk as a child, the park by the white library, the small bookstore that carried Urdu translations of Austen and Dostoyevsky) in a car of her own, wearing large sunglasses and a white kurta, a chiffon dupatta slung around her neck.
Nadia does not bring this fantasy up even when Ammi, yet again, tells her just to have one baby and the rest will be easy. She does not ask why Ammi doesn’t do now what she planned to all those years ago instead of bugging Nadia for grandchildren. She knows that Ammi probably had not wanted to share that story with her at all—it had simply streamed out one day years ago when she was driving Nadia home from school, her face quiet for once, looking out on the traffic jam in front of her as though it were something precious that kept retreating from her.
The world retreats from Nadia too. And there is the feeling of a giant boulder that stays her brain and stops her mouth, that keeps her passive and unsprouted, that makes her feel as if nothing brilliant is possible for her. That life will continue as it is until she eventually turns into some version of her ammi and abu, paralyzed by Ammi’s helplessness in the face of housework and Abu’s inability to enjoy himself.
Once Dadi has joined Ammi in the drawing room, Nadia calls Karim back outside to help her figure out what to do; they look up “newborn kittens” online. The kittens have to be fed every two to three hours. They send Wasim to the dukaan for milk and he comes back with Lactogen and then finds them an old towel and an eyedropper.
The kittens jerk their soft bodies against Karim’s hands. Their brittle arms push away compulsively. The milk formula pools in the creases of their closed mouths. When a kitten opens its mouth to mew, Nadia pokes the plastic dropper in. Its whole body becomes slick with milk. On the other end, brown liquid bubbles out. Nadia and Karim know from the websites they’ve found that newborn kittens cannot adequately expel waste on their own: Someone has to help them, massaging their genitals after every meal to help them pee and poo. But they focus on simply feeding them for now, wordlessly deferring this problem for a later, unspecified time.
The kittens also smell: like shit and mildew, like the shop lined with chicken coops where Nadia used to go with Ammi to buy each month’s supply of meat. In the coops, the chickens climbed over each other, a mess of white down, leathery fuchsia legs and prickled pink skin where their feathers had been rubbed or torn off, compressed by wire into a giant rectangle. On Ammi’s indication, the butcher would reach into the cage, grab a chicken, pin its wings back, and dump the squawking bird into the steel bowl of the tarazoo to weigh it. Sometimes Ammi would send the chicken back if it was too bald or too listless or not large enough. Otherwise, the butcher would tie up its legs and chop off its head with a large square knife. He would pack the meat into little plastic baggies according to Ammi’s meal plans: drumsticks separately for broast, thighs and breasts for karahi, necks and wings for soup, beaks and feet to be given away.
The towel in the kittens’ box is already stained, and Nadia and Karim fold it over onto a clean side.
“Can we give them a bath?” Karim wonders.
“I don’t think so,” Nadia says. “They can’t control their body temperature, and if they get cold, they’ll die.” Nadia knows that Karim hates it when she acts the expert on things she doesn’t really know (“Since when are you a vet, Nadia?”), but today he lets it go.
Instead, he finds Dadi’s hot-water bottle and wraps it in the soft cloth bag that his wedding shoes came in. Nadia tucks it into one end of the box so the kittens can move away from it if they want. Eventually, Karim goes back into the house and Nadia stays to watch as the kittens blindly drag themselves to the warmth. The weakest one, black and white, sleeps with its forehead pressed against the water bottle, as if in supplication. Another, the one with orange spots, kneads the bottle as it sleeps. The third one mewls incessantly, its disproportionate head on a toothpick neck lifted toward the top of the box, the sunlight, Nadia. Her skin feels tight and stretched from the heat, and her hair dampens the back of her neck.
“That towel will have ants and stuff in it soon,” says Karim, coming back out to where she sits.
Nadia gets another towel from the cupboard in the bathroom. She folds it into eighths and layers the kittens in. Karim throws the old towel, smeared with blood, over the wall into the empty lot next door, where a collection of soiled nappies has been growing steadily over the last few months. The youngest bahu in the neighboring house has just had twins.
Each month Nadia is relieved by the thin, brick-colored smear in her underwear. She keeps a pack of pills in every purse and backpack, freed by how cheap they seem compared to her undergrad years in Chicago. She remembers one winter morning when she paid forty dollars for Plan B at RiteAid and tore into the box right outside the store, the automated doors confusedly jerking open and shut behind her. She downed the pill with orange juice and then, afraid that the pill may have washed back into the bottle, sat on the wet sidewalk and finished the juice as quickly as possible, hiccupping into her scarf all the way home.
Jania, her best friend, had cackled when Nadia exclaimed over the fact that the morning-after pill cost just a measly seventeen rupees in Karachi. “Obviously it’s cheap,” she’d said. “Everybody is desperate to keep Pakistanis from making more Pakistanis. But we’re also fucking dheet.”
Nadia and Karim go inside but they can still hear the kittens’ mewls over the slight hum of the AC, through the windows and heavy curtains that shut out the heat and noise from the road. According to the timer on Nadia’s cell phone, there are two hours left until their next feeding. Karim’s cell phone pings; Nadia’s ammi has sent him a photo of five small, white kurtas that she has had stitched by her tailor, each marginally larger than the last.
“What’s this, do you think?” he asks Nadia, and Nadia says that it’s her mum’s way of telling him that she’s fragile and probably about to die.
“Why don’t you bug Natasha and Mark?” Nadia texts Ammi. She can’t distract Ammi with her other sister, Mariam, because Mariam has run off to graduate school instead of getting married and is already under fire for it.
“You know why,” comes the reply at once. And then: “Kids won’t even know Urdu.”
When Nadia goes out again, the kittens’ musty smell rises out of the box and presses into her nose like heavy, damp cotton. She brushes a few fat brown ants away from the outside of the box and then decides to ignore her own warning about body temperature and cleans the kittens, dipping tissues into water and rubbing hard against the struggling bags of fur and skin. Their blind eyes wonder and they reach out with their paws.
This is just like their mother licking them, Nadia thinks, and then thinks of the mother lying with them after, a sack of living warmth. Tissue after tissue comes away browned. When the tissues start to come away yellow, Nadia stops. Then she rubs underneath the tail as the website had recommended, just to see, and pee springs out. She cleans and more springs forth, and more, dripping pungently yellow onto the floor between her feet.
The next day, Tahira Phuppo throws a dinner party at the house for Nadia’s mother. Thirteen or so women and Karim gather in the drawing room. Nadia feels damp and slippery with sweat. She has spent half an hour outside trying to feed the kittens. Each guest who came into the house exclaimed at her plastic gloves, the tiny milk dropper, the impossibly fragile kittens. Now she busies herself with moving forks and spoons around on the dining table, which Wasim has already set, keeping her distance from the aunties.
“Can you show me to the restroom, Nadia?” Jania asks, standing at the door of the drawing room. Her hair swings down over her shoulder, merging with her black lawn kameez. She has come over for moral support and brought some whiskey in her handbag.
Once Nadia comes out, Jania leads the way to the guest bathroom. She sits on the closed commode and pours whiskey into a glass of Coke.
“I wish they had more to care about than my kids,” Nadia says, leaning against the sink. The Coke is flat and warm, and the sweet drink makes her feel simultaneously buzzed and languid. “By the way, don’t leave your glass lying around.” Jania’s glass has considerably more whiskey in it than Nadia’s. “I’ll wash it before Wasim gets to it.”
“I wish my mum had more to care about than my husband,” says Jania.
Jania’s mother asks everybody she meets if they know of an eligible bachelor for her daughter, panicked that Jania has hit thirty-one without so much as a broken engagement. Jania, settled comfortably on the commode, chaukri style, says she wishes she could leave Pakistan to escape everyone who thinks that there is something wrong with her—a familiar theme.
“What do they think it is?” she continues. “A mutant growth somewhere? An extra leg that I hide under my shalwar?”
“Or that I’m actually a man.”
“Go!” Nadia tells her. “Leave! I’ll come with you too.”
Back inside the drawing room, Karim’s cousin Minahil comes up to Nadia, laughing. “Your mum is on a roll about those babies,” she says. Minahil is older, more accomplished than Nadia, makes complicated geometric jewelry for a small but loyal clientele, is training to be a yoga instructor, and is going through her second round of IVF.
“Just be firm,” she says. “You know your own timeline best.”
“We all did it,” Ammi interrupts, calling out from the head of the table. Everyone here is in collusion with her right now, except Karim, who is silent, and Jania, who is quietly getting drunk. “It isn’t that hard; you’ll manage. Tum bhi kar lo gi. And it’s a lot easier for you. You have so many more resources.”
When Nadia doesn’t reply, Ammi says, “Don’t be so selfish,” and everybody seems to agree that Nadia should think about others for once.
“Don’t worry, Auntie,” says Karim. “Everything happens in its time. Waqt hota hai sab cheezon ka.”
“If not now, then never. Yehi waqt hai, beta.”
“Never say never,” says Karim, trying to lighten the mood, and laughs.
Nadia goes to the kitchen to bring in the chikoo ice cream and gajar ka halwa. Dadi is proud of both of these desserts—one made by an old man on Tariq Road only she apparently knows about, the other by a friend who, Dadi tells everyone, folds half a kilo of khoya into the halwa and uses real silver virk on top. Leaning over the dining table to gather the dirty plates, Nadia hears an aunt tell another how she had to sit on an ice pack for three months after giving birth.
“I didn’t make a single sound the entire time,” the second aunt replies. “Eight hours!”
After the party, Nadia stacks the kittens one on top of the other in the box, a minuscule pile, and puts the box on a ledge underneath the drawing-room window for the night. Their sparse fur stands up straight and somewhat clean. Their heads loll off their necks.
Karim watches Nadia feed them, pointing out their personalities to her.
“This one is good at lapping up the milk if he can get it in his mouth,” he says. “Look at him go! And that one’s crazy! He wiggles too much to drink.”
Then, watching the orange kitten smash its mouth into the plastic dropper, its whiskers dripping with milk that it can’t seem to swallow, Karim grows quiet. He says, “I think they’re going to die.”
On her way back inside the house, Nadia sees ants all over the courtyard, tiny brown specks moving in and out of the flowerpots. They move up and down in fractured lines on the trunks of the trees and into cracks in the wall. She busies herself with her phone, posting on Facebook to ask if anyone has a mother cat that’s nursing.
That night, Karim and Nadia move slowly over each other in bed, hushing one another. Karim’s dadi has stopped taking her sleeping pills because they interfere with the ones for her blood pressure and render the ones for her indigestion ineffective. Nadia feels like she is floating, expansive. The embroidered quilt on their bed is rough against her skin, but tonight, even though she notices this, it does not distract her. Eyes half-closed, mind hazy, her concentration narrows to a point in the quietness.
Her phone alarm rings into this careful balance. “Ah, fuck,” says Karim. The alarm is insistent. It’s feeding time for the kittens, three hours exactly since the last meal. Nadia has been keeping to the feeding schedule they found on the internet even though the kittens aren’t really drinking the recommended two and a half milliliters per meal.
“We should go feed them,” says Karim, his bristled head heavy between her jaw and shoulder. Nadia reaches out and turns off the alarm, then wraps her arms more firmly around his ribs. She closes her eyes tighter against the kittens’ mewling, which floats to her on the draft coming in through the open window.
The next morning, Nadia wakes up sick. Fever, nausea. Karim thinks it has something to do with the kittens but Nadia knows that she is not allergic. When Nadia is unwell, she nurtures herself diligently, a remnant of her abu’s careful brand of child-rearing, each of his daughters overdosed with vitamins, overdressed against the cold, yelled at if they fell and skinned their knees and didn’t tell Ammi in time for a tetanus shot. Sucking on a quarter piece of lemon to ward off nausea, she prepares tea.
“Any good news?” Karim’s dadi asks, at the sight of the lemon.
Nadia shakes her head and works unhurriedly, heating up water in the electric kettle, dipping the Lipton, adding honey, lemon, and thin slices of ginger that leave their juice on her fingers.
When she goes to feed the kittens, they curl away from the ginger smell. Nadia grasps their small heads, feeling the bones, and tries to get them to drink. Their tummies are round, and surely it has been a week since they were out in the world. Time for them to open their eyes, become self-sufficient.
“We might be out of the woods,” Nadia tells Karim, turning the black-and-white kitten around in her palm to show him how big its stomach has become.
He gently presses against the distended tummy. “You think so?” he asks. “You think they’re putting on weight?”
“Definitely.” Nadia eases the plastic dropper past the kitten’s teeth, knowing the milk will all dribble out again.
By evening, just the nausea is left. Nadia stands at the kitchen window, stirring kala namak into a glass of cold Sprite, sending Jania sketches of the new chairs she wants to build, aslant and inhospitable, barely gesturing at the need to sit. The windowsill is crammed with money plants in old jam jars and she moves a few of them aside so that she can see the cardboard box in the driveway. It is tucked against a large gamla with an aloe-vera plant in it. Withered petals of fuchsia bougainvillea swirl nearby in the dusty wind. All the potted plants outside, edged with dry yellow crinkles, move in the breeze. Even the heavy starfish arms of the aloe vera nod over the box. Only the box is still.
Nadia watches through the grimy jaali as Karim walks into the square of the driveway framed by the window. He is carrying a bottle of milk and, through the loops and twists of the jaali, he looks unfamiliar, a stranger. The shadow under the box deepens and begins to move, dark dots that meld and separate, meld and separate.