Lit/South Awards 2022
Nonfiction Competition – First Place

Karen Salyer McElmurray

In Varanasi

O wind, rend open the heat

cut apart the heat

rend it to tatters.

– from “Heat,” by H.D.

In one photo you took, I was standing on the steep stone steps into a temple. Sun poured down the crown of my head, covered the bones showing through on my chest. We’d been in Varanasi for a week. Varanasi, city of Shiva, god of chaos and destruction, god wise enough to know he needed Pavarati’s, his consort’s, benevolence to recreate the worlds he destroyed. Mornings, we were listless as we walked through the marketplace, its pre-monsoon air thick with the scent of cayenne and curry. There, I touched the gold bindi on an elephant’s trunk, a garland of jasmine around its enormous head. Lord Ganesha, a woman with no teeth said, and I remembered that he was the god of scribes and writers. Later, in the guest house, the table where we ate was hot to the touch and afterwards we slept hours in the blazing heat of afternoon. The sound the legless man makes / pushing past on a tiny platform with wheels. The sound memory makes / vanishing inside a world made of fire. This, I told myself, would someday be a poem.

Nights, we wandered in streets crowded with everyone too restless to sleep in the heat, with music and the angry eyes of stray dogs. At the guest house we got up every few hours to stand under a shower’s warm water, slept naked as a fan dried us cool. Once I left you sleeping and went out onto a balcony as calls to prayer sounded in the distance, a longing I couldn’t name. By morning, our sheets were brown from the waters of the Ganges. There was no more desire by then.


My first memory of desire—a box fan blowing warm air across the living room. My mother on the couch, and my father in his chair, with me in the space between, learning to read the sadness of their faces. Later, their muffled voices from the other side of a wall. The hiss of arguing. Review of the day, that day, all days. A drawer sliding open. The rearrangement of bodies, give of mattress, in, out, in, out. I love you like no other woman, the voice said, and then there was silence.

Desire followed me. It traveled behind the Plymouth Duster that first boy drove, crept into the rolled-down windows as we parked in a thicket of trees beside Highway 60 going west. Desire was in that apartment in St. Louis with the boy who held a knife to my throat while he told me he wanted me. Other boys. Jim. Michael. Wayne. Steve. I can count those names, one and two and so on, until there were men. Donny. Tom. Otis. Slack-skinned men smelling of beer and roadsides and rooms filled with sunlight in the afternoon.

There was my body. There was that body. There was the distance between bodies, never breached.

There was the woman who wove shawls who said my aura was blue, and that I reminded her of the angel of death as she made love to me, my first orgasm. There was a woman with sad eyes in a country music bar. A man who cried when we both came as we lay in the heat of his apartment, the rim of the canyon outside piling up with snow. My body echoes with the memory of touch, the lack of touch, the so what. My body remembers wanting touch, touch, touch, even when I felt nothing at all, a nothing I told myself was better than empty.

My words remember a hot summer day. Wind blowing against a clapperless bell hanging from the eaves of the house I left, some lover watching out the window as I drove away.


The first poems I ever wrote were so sweet they made my teeth ache. I wrote them down in a locked diary my mother pried open to find out who that boy was I wanted more than her.

The poems after that raged. Awake for three days on speed, the poems flew by themselves. They were lost in the words on the backs of bathroom stall doors. They were parts of themselves on the backs of napkins, inside matchbooks. They were packed into bags that traveled to Arizona, to New Mexico. They grew and grew along highways, beside roads going back east. They took themselves seriously in classrooms at a big, fine school. They learned names for themselves. Ghazal. Pantoum. Cinquain. They blossomed into narratives. They reached inside hearts that would not open. They became whole stories. The woman alone in a diner. The woman beside the man on a bus. The poems were deserts and mountains and caves. They were fire and cooking pots and a man’s bare feet in the city of Varanasi. They were the voice of what could have been, burning up in the dark.


We got to Varanasi on a school bus, riding roof-top in the suffocating press of bodies and a heap of metal pipes. The bus careened down hills, took curves so fast I slid onto the girl lying sick beside a crate with chickens. The sun, yellow and mean, bore down as we rode through villages, all of us ducking under wires that sagged across the roads. Allah Akbar, someone called as I vomited from the edge of the bus into the white-hot day. God is great, they all sang and you sang out too as I looked at you, knowing that you did not necessarily believe in any god here or there or anywhere, but only in the day upon day that took us further into heat.

God was great, the young man we met up with in Varanasi said. You knew him from Virginia where you’d both been students, and now here he was in India, a scholar, a devotee of Lord Shiva, about whom neither of us knew much. He showed us a low bench in his room, a many-armed god draped with blossoms, and a mound of red powder. He knelt and touched his hands to the mound, then laid a finger, gently, against my forehead.

The mound of red powder seemed to glow in the fierce sun shining through sheets strung across the windows of the small room. You accepted a small bag of tobacco and rolled a perfect cigarette against the flat surface of your leg. I watched the two of you, you with your lean, golden arms, your friend with his knowledge of gods on notecards strewn across the floor. We sat on the floor, our legs crossed, sipping pinkish, sweet tea as he told us about his studies. He was devoted, he said, to uncovering new truths about Goswami Tulsidas, the great Hindi poet. Devoted. That word hung in the air inside the sweet cigarette smoke.

I was devoted to nothing much. The clapboard churches of my childhood and their praise-the-Lord preachers that had left me empty. Fear the Lord, they’d said, and so I had believed in gods and fear, in thunder and awe. The fear they meant was the sin of human touch, the wages of desire. I’d followed the trail of the faithless as far from home as I could get until I landed in Virginia with the poems I called my religion. What devotion did I feel as the press of voices rose outside in the hot streets of Varanasi? I remember studying the planes of your sunburned cheeks, the flat tips of the fingers that had been inside my body but now seldom touched me. I touched my empty belly and repeated that word. Devoted. Devoted.


Two years before India, I met you at the foot of a giant volcano in central Virginia. The volcano was the main attraction at Green Gardens, a greenhouse next to Highway 29 North. I was a student, studying poetry in a Master of Fine Arts program. I needed work, and so I was hired to help haul and dig and plant. The volcano was forty feet high, a dormant mound of dirt and rocks wrapped with plastic tubing that was supposed to release water to simulate lava. On the muggy August day we met, you were kneeling at its base, planting irises.

When I remember that moment, I want there to be a pan shot of the greenhouse, the busy highway with all the cars going south. Music as lush as what grows in summer. Instead I stood there and waited as you interrupted the rhythm of spade and soil. I don’t remember you asking my name, or looking at me directly. You were working here, you said, until you were ready to head east, and I asked where. The Far East, you said. Already I wanted the volcano to spew cool water and for us to stand in its shower, dissolving the day’s heat. Instead I remember the dry feel of the dirt as I reached my hands in, picked up the first cluster of irises.


I wrote poems and folded them into origami. You clipped vines precisely at the signature leaves. I filled up notebooks with phrases I’d overheard and with drawings of hands. You potted plants and set them out in row after row, inside greenhouses smelling like chemicals that could burn the skin. I held my hands out to the sky waiting for words to fill them up. You watered each hanging pot to the count of ten. I wanted you to say you loved me. You sat eating sharp cheese sandwiches for lunch week after week after week and would not meet my eyes. I gave you a book about memory and inscribed it with these words: The worlds of poetry and perennials can meet. I wrote papers about Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Ramsay, who dies very suddenly in the night. About D.H. Lawrence and the ancient gods of Mexico. I wrote poems I wanted more than you and sometimes you read them. You planted gardens that were gold and blue and brilliant red. You came to me in the night and I came to you in the night and the rooms we found were empty.


After days in Varanasi, we had not yet sat beside the holy river and we were always thirsty. Around our waists were packs with hidden rupees folded small and bottles of warm water we purified with iodine. In the streets we passed straw huts with cut-out windows where hands urged us to take the risk, drink, drink, fifty paise for a metal cup that could pour water, cool and impure, into our open hands. Varanasi was full of longing like that. A day trip to a holy site. Chilled bottles of Limca cola vendors pressed against our arms as we waited for the bus in the hot sun, the only shadows from the packed lines of people, people. Palms patting chapatti thin beside small fires and large, gray pigs rooting in the trash in a lot where the bus stopped. Curries that churned in our guts as we licked our fingers clean. We stared into the eyes of sadhus as they held their hands out, begging for rupees, their wild eyes blessed with infinity. In an alleyway, a temple with an open doorway and dancers with shorn heads. A priestess chanting. Om Namah Shivaya. Our days were orange, brown, red, blue, an impasse of color, no color a clue to what this city was, what it meant. At the end of each day, we walked back to another stifling room and I lay awake beside you, looking for the one word for the desire I wanted but no longer felt.


In Virginia, you lived with friends in a building called the Altamont. Our footsteps echoed inside the apartment, the living room empty except for a dining table and an enormous blow-up of Godzilla. You were here just for a little while, you said. Until you had the money. We sipped wine turned sour from a bottle left on the table and petted a cat named Velcro. In your room, I eyed the piles of socks and pants and shirts, the open drawers of a chest. When you were in college, you said, someone broke into the house where you were living with some friends. No one could tell what had been taken from your room because of the disarray. I wondered if I should laugh.

You lit a candle as you sat beside me on the floor. The undressing was a script—you unbutton my pants, I unbutton yours. I’d followed the script a hundred times over the years, the reaching across space to someone I hardly knew—the wet mouths, the smooth faces. What I did know: your silence, your self-containment as you worked the nine-hour greenhouse days. The no-small-talk way of you. I’d studied the tall reach of you in the sun as you bent, shoveled, bent. In your eyes, a hint of all the countries I’d never seen, the oceans, the faraway lures. We lay back on the foam pad on the floor and I breathed the scent of work clothes—musk and sweat. Little beads of sweat had dried in the hairs under your arms. I could feel them against my face.

I don’t remember all of that journey across one another’s bodies, neither your hands on me, nor my hands on you. I remember the curtainless window and the dull shine of streetlight. The scratch of a cat’s claws at the door. I remembered all the men before: their bodies like houses I would enter, making sure I was a good guest, that I proffered just the right gifts of hands and mouth. You lay on your side and I faced you, waiting beside this chasm, this first foray of body into body. I remember the chiaroscuro of my own arms and legs, a woman posing on the awkward verge of opening herself. How you looked down at your own self, your curved penis reaching up and waiting. What will you do about this, you asked? I lay still, imagining myself shutting the open drawers, folding the stray socks, touching you precisely here, then there.


Months before Varanasi, months before I met you at the foot of an artificial volcano, months before I traveled to Virginia, years before I was a child, before I was in the womb, eons before there was a world at all, there was poetry. Or so I told myself as the days in Varanasi became a week, two. I lit incense at the temples of gods whose names I didn’t know. We sipped hot tea to make our bodies sweat, to cool ourselves in the midday heat. We talked about who we were, what we wanted. Or I talked. Poetry, I said, was essence. Essence of what, you asked? You, I knew, were proud of not having read a book in four years. Your essence was here, now. It was what came next, and what came after that. I fumbled for the words I wanted. Heart. Space. Spirit. Form. Beauty. Is poetry always beautiful, you asked? In Varanasi we stood looking at a man sitting in a wide lot filled with dirt and rocks, an umbrella over his head as he broke stones into gravel in the heat.


The first summer with you passed into winter and the greenhouse filled with brilliant red poinsettias. You said you were just as happy if no one knew we were more than friends. You were clear that spring was a time on the clock, tick, tick, and that you were leaving by then. Bali. Thailand. India. I followed you on maps, dreaming. I trailed after you to parties where your friends shared stories of travels of their own. Your friend Wendy had lived in the city of Calcutta, where she strung beads to make bracelets to sell, sold this, sold herself to buy heroin for the man she called her black angel. Marijo and Kevin traveled to Vietnam to find work in the refugee camps, and Evie lived in a cave in Greece, on Santorini. And me, they asked as an Elvis Costello song climbed out of the boom box and set them all dancing. Me, I said. I try to write poems. I write poems on good days. That word, poems, melted in the steamy heat by the radiator, where you danced with Wendy, your hands on your hips, your eyes shining with the stories you drank in like they were rich, red wine.


I imagine the great saint and poet Goswami Tulsidas waking before sunrise to sit on a balcony overlooking the Ganges. He peels back the spiky skins of rambutans, eats their fleshy white fruit, sips his sweet tea. This Tulsidas does not know he will be a famous poet, nor that he will compose epics delivered directly into the hands of the gods. He does not yet know that he will swim along the banks of the river in search of Ratnavali, his wife, who has left him, not because he is too much a poet, but because he is not poet enough. He has not, she says, filled himself up yet with the heat of language. Look, Ratnavali tells him, and she sweeps her arms across the expanse of the river, gestures toward the roofs and cooking pot, the temples and alleyways and streets, the marketplaces and the stalls. You want to write? she says. Write this.


You pour water from a pitcher, washing your face and arms, an ephemeral moment of cool that vanishes too soon. Our Varanasi room is cheap and good, a stifling box. A low bed sits on blocks, the walls smoky and streaked. I imagine a body, an arm, a spurt from the tip of a needle. Heroin. Change money. Passport. Voices sell everything, all day long, and already there are scores of voices as the street wakes up. A family sleeping on cots in the street begins to wake up. A girl takes up an enormous bundle of laundry and carries it on top of her head. A woman kneels, blowing fire alive under a burner to make morning tea. There are coughs, shouts, echoes of prayer from the ghats down by the Ganges. That is where we will go this day to watch the waters move by in this holy city of cities. I no longer know what that word means. Holy. I haven’t written a poem in months, and I hold my hand out palm up, over the street, waiting.


Come late spring in Virginia, you didn’t leave for Asia, and this cost us both, the waiting, waiting. I sat beside you in your 1963 Plymouth Valiant. The windows were rolled down against the heat, and the day was humid and still. I saw myself looking at your blond hair, wanting to run my fingers through it, but I didn’t. I leaned against the open window, studied you from that distance—your ruddy complexion, your one longer tooth, the fine hairs on your arms. The argument we were having circled and dove in the air, a living thing, a bat, a blackbird, a prehistoric creature with claws. The argument dove into my chest, then into yours. It tore at us. You insisted. I insisted. We were both wounded.

Then it was July, the greenhouses were sweltering, and the long plastic tunnels fecund. The starts of the fall mums were wilting in their pots and you needed, you said, to tend to them, to water. Watering, you always said, should be the count of ten, one and two and so on, pot by pot by pot in the hot, moist air. You are needed the most then, in the summer’s greenhouse heat, you say as you drop me off early at the door of the clinic where I’ve scheduled the procedure before noon.

I’d held the pregnancy in my belly for eleven weeks, a secret only you and I knew. I held the secret in the curve of my belly, and you held it in the way your arm draped over my shoulders like it didn’t know where to rest. For ten weeks we sat in your car, sat in diners, sat in your cluttered room and fought about ways to bring the secret to light, ways to let the secret go. Pregnancy was a termination, of your travel plans east, my plans for all the poems. Abortion was a termination, a quick scrape to the womb, the pamphlets said. Ten weeks. Eleven weeks. Most people, the intake person at the clinic said on the phone, want to take care of these things as quickly as possible. Eleven weeks and four days, and I harbored the secret in the deep fecund red inside myself.

Twelve weeks and I donned the paper gown, lay down on a table, propped my legs up in the stirrups, looked at the doctor’s face, a million miles away. Could we wait? I asked. Just one minute longer? Then his hands were inside me, inserting a tube that sucked the thing out. The thing, the secret, the accident, the wish. Abortion, the definition reads. To bring to premature end because of a problem or fault. I’d imagined it for twelve weeks, the rush of the secret out of my womb. It would be, I told myself, like warm water from between my legs. It would be moistness from an underground cavern, a hidden chamber, a refuge. It would come out of me and I would capture it later like a poem. It would be easy. It would be quick. It would be over, over. It was a secret released into the air, but I breathed it back in and I couldn’t let go of it after, as hard as I tried.


In Varanasi, poetry was a small child in an alleyway, all her fingers missing, her hands held out. Rupee. Rupee. And you, striding ahead, hoarding coins for all our miles ahead. That moment became the start of a poem . In Varanasi a girl / begs in an alleyway, hungry for coins / while the woman follows the man / who does not know how to translate the word for need. Need huddles in her belly / an absence she births / instead of a child. Poems are an approximation of pain, of love, an unkind braille we read in the dark. Words settle into lines, lines weave themselves into poems. Poems conjure times, places. They conjure ghosts and devastation. They conjure the memory of heat.


Years and years later, I still feel the mud between my toes as I wade into the Ganges. You are behind me, on the steps of the ghats with your camera, photographing the shikaras and the women beside me in their saris, waist deep, bathing in the tepid waters. What might or might not have been. Ibis winging up toward a sun that blinds me through my spread fingers. Old man in the bow of a shikara, hookah and fragrant smoke. The plump body of a man floating past, his face down into the holy waters. The river, I have read, is called Sindhu. Vitasta. Bhagiratahi. It descended from a glacier, fills vast tributaries, has the names of kings and conquerors. Words for the river still travel up from my chest. Ganga. Mother of forgiveness.

In time I will summon words to describe those Varanasi days—alleyways, stalls, frangipani blossoms at the altars of the dead.
I will write poems and stories. I will open the box of photographs and the memory of heat will rise against my face. Some nights I will dream of maps and a tangle of roads, buses and the faces of strangers. In one dream, you will meet me on a dead-end street at night, where we speak to one another again after many years of silence. In another dream, you show me a garden so beautiful it makes me weep. In time I will hold the words I least understand in my mouth until I taste them. Ganges, Holy River. After so many years, if I summon enough words can I make a poem about forgetting?

I wade further into the sacred river, its stagnant waters covering my thighs. I take a handful of dust from my pocket—dust gathered from the ghat where you are standing. Handfuls of dust that I scatter over the waters like they are the remains of the dead.

Nonfiction judge Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes: This is an essay about love, about loss, about the redemption of each. It’s an essay about how to find solace in a place—in this case, Varanasi, which is the holiest city in India, and one of the holiest cities in the world, where many come to die and have their ashes spread into the Ganges. And, this is metaphorically where she’s coming to burn this old aspect of herself, burn the ashes of a love affair. And the quest in this essay is how to make sense of life through poetry, and it is achieved. Every line of this essay is indeed a poem, every segment is a poem, every line is absolute poetry. The lyricism of this essay is just off the charts. At one moment, the essayist has a meditation of heart, space, spirit, form, beauty, and all of those entities are exceptionally captured in this piece.