by Elizabeth Paul


The detergent is called BARF. No kidding. The wide, shallow bucket is called a tazik. Fill the tazik halfway with clothes, then pour steaming water from the kettle over them. Run a little cold water over that and shake some BARF on top. Now swirl it all around with your fingers—watch how they turn pink in the prickly-hot water. Grab a fold of cloth in each hand and rub them against each other. Notice how your mirroring fists look like the halves of a geode. Imagine the darker or lighter hands of other women, in other times and places, firm and graceful in the able, practiced gestures of caring for things. Wash, rinse, and wring. Notice how handling something once is not enough. Repetition is the substance of care. 


Step onto the balcony and startle at the slight scrim between in and out. Cast the bed sheet over the clothesline like an enormous prayer flag, flapping out a blessing over your tumbledown neighborhood. Take the familiar fabrics in your hands and feel the fitness of their threads’ close fastness. Reckon the points on each garment from which the whole can hang. Clip them up and down the lines, calling out your colors like you are courting the sun. Make the motley shapes of yourself an offering to the wind. 


Walk to the store and lug five-liter jugs of water home or take a bucket to the river and haul it, sloshing, up four flights of stairs. You don’t want to, but you must. Even then you will let things pile up in the kitchen sink, not to mention the toilet. And you will go days without washing. When this Central Asian city turns the water off, you will do things you don’t want to do, and that doesn’t happen often. Sure, you drag yourself out of bed some mornings. You force yourself to work. But that’s bland human coaxing, not nature’s coercion. When the city turns the water off, it gives you back your need, strips away the pretense of stress, and shows how the demands you feel—the goals and the deadlines—are in your head or on a list, not of the earth or the life you came with. When the city turns the water off, you shrink back down to size. Like Alice, you find entrance to a different world. Biology is a bossy friend, but you might enjoy her Wonderland.  


Just stuff the laces into your shoes and forget a jacket—the latrine is not far away. The voices in the house fade as you step along the trail. Hear your footfalls in the night. Find your way by familiarity. Feel the earth’s contours under your feet, the margins’ tall grass skimming your shins. Taste the wild wind and smell the water-green scent of dark summer. It is all so trivial and all so dear under a black universe sky, star-rich and inconceivable. 


Be glad for an excuse to go outside; it is the best way to wake up. The air breathes the sleep out of you, and the stretching trees and coursing clouds say you’ve woken to a whole world, not just another day—some cramped fraction of time. The feeling of space opens your face and enlivens your limbs, and you are a creature on the earth tracing a path with your own footprints—signs of your belonging. 


Walk to the bus stop, past the patient pensioner selling sunflower seeds in newspaper cones. She sits against a tree on a sheet, in the shade where sparrows forage behind kiosks on Isanova Street. Smell the ancient masculine scent of burning garbage as you wait on the dusty roadside. Watch the tan-armed woman in a blue smock sweep the street with a broom of elder branches. Notice the bare toes and creased heels of men in rubber sandals unloading rounds of bread from the trunk of a car. 


When the minivan pulls over, duck your head as you step up into the back—four rows of seats divided by an aisle down the middle. Bright pink and yellow blossoms swirl on snug plush seat covers, custom made, maybe by the driver’s wife. Feel the velvet flowered fabric under your fingers as the van sways into traffic and you steady yourself. Pass a white-haired man in shirt sleeves and skullcap, a woman with blue eyeshadow cradling a blue plastic bag. Make your way to the back and claim the corner seat.  


All the windows are open. Thin cotton curtains blush and billow in the breeze like the swaying dance of ocean plants. Relax and feel the sun on your face. Let the driver carry you on. Yield to the ride, tilt with the torque, and watch the city out your window. Smoke streams from street-side grills. Women in long dresses stroll sidewalks arm in arm—the gold-threaded sparkle of their head scarves sings to you, yet sang here without you all those years you lived on the other side of the earth. 


So this is power, this darkness that turns all the humans in all the apartments inside out. It seems the light isn’t inevitable. It turns out you’ve been summoning it each night. But you don’t remember that—your hand on a switch. With the light comes a forgetfulness because it turns out this darkness has been here all along. You’ve just ignored it, closing your curtains and playing house in the comfortable bright spaces of a private life. And there are people too—all around. You’ve all capsized and come together in this sudden blackout, walls dissolved and space seamless. Yet you sink into the relief of being unseen like an animal slips into its burrow. You’ve escaped the panopticon and moored at this table of candle-lit conversation and card games. Someone plays a Joker, and you wonder if everything is as arbitrary as the light at night; you wonder what you should be doing while you’re here.   

Headshot of Elizabeth Paul.

Elizabeth Paul’s work has appeared in Cold Mountain Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Briar Cliff Review, CutBank Online, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Reading Girl, is a collection of ekphrastic prose poems based on paintings by Henri Matisse. Liz served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan and currently teaches composition at George Mason University. Her website is 

SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · April 2022

Header image by celichowster.