Phoebe lay flat on her back with her feet pointing north. She’d always had a weird feeling about having her feet to the south, an irrational fear of sliding out of the window – which faced south – into the night. It hadn’t been easy to position their bed this way round. The headboard stuck out in front of the window half blocking the view. The plug for the bedside lamp was too far away. Still, lying here in the dark she did feel safer.

Instinctively, she folded her hands over her heart and let her elbows hang. Too much like a corpse. She rolled onto her right side so that her heart would be uppermost and not under pressure. Then she worried about the wrinkle on her cheek setting deeper and the pouch under her eye filling up. She’d just have to keep changing position all night; so long as her feet never spun round to the south and walked her out into the next life.

When things ‘go south’ she mused, they disappear, drop out of sight, go down or break down. Funny how we use idioms like that without really wondering why. She knew it was not a good thing to go too far in that direction. Which is why Patrick went alone, marching towards the lower end of the known world. He’d been laid like this when she saw him for the last time. He had died. Which way were his feet pointing then?

It was scientific that constant exposure of your brain to negative energy, if your head lay in the north, would eventually mess with your health. Patrick might have seemed quite well but she sensed something was up though she couldn’t prove it. He needed proof. It’s warmer and sunnier in the south he’d say, which would be good for your cold feet. To annoy her, he’d add that the people of the south are more sensuous, earthy.

Who’s to say that it was not the stress of lying all those years with their heads in the north that clouded his mind. Phoebe switched sides. Patrick always lay on the left of the bed, on his left side. Perhaps that’s what squashed his heart, turned him away from her. Native Americans believe that our souls journey south after death. He’d been beating his deer-skin drum, his heart drum, when he left her. It was a bright sunny day.

According to Hindu mythology, south is the direction of Lord Yama, the God of Death. If your feet face south when you sleep you are positively inviting him to take you. Phoebe turned onto her stomach, extended her arms and legs, and imagined herself floating high above the earth. Then she was spinning around her heart until all sense of direction was lost. No gravity, no polar opposites. Stillness came over her. She slept. Head to the south.

In her dreams, she was back on the steep hillside below Barloganj. On a death plinth tucked into the cliff side lay someone’s stilled body, wrapped carefully. Feet pointing south, their soul must surely have been singing with the dawn birds or exalting in some private freedom. Below, clasped between the Yamuna and Ganga rivers, was the fertile Doon valley. Would the body be cremated and scattered on those waters?

That day, Patrick had felt envious of the group of motorcyclists who’d reached a grassy knoll downhill from them and circled their bikes like stallions before settling in to rest a while. Another lone motorcyclist had parked his bike, laid out his mat and was practicing pranayama (yogic breathing). His metal walker lay nearby: later they’d seen the young biker training his legs, determined to be able to hike, like them, again.

She awoke in confusion, momentarily unsure if Patrick had died when his bike spun out of control on that lonely journey, or been injured. Yes, he had died. The last time they’d spoken, they argued about whether, as many believe, all rivers flow south, drawn towards the bottom of north-oriented maps. He’d told her quite firmly that rivers will flow downhill due to gravity, in every possible direction. Her grieving was like that.


Sara Firman

Sara Firman

Sara Firman was born in London but grew up mostly in Kenya, Fiji and Brazil. She studied botany and genetics at Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities before earning a living as a freelance editor. Her second career in body therapies has culminated in a passion for floating others into dream-like states in warm water. She nevertheless likes to immerse herself in wildly differing places, she has stopped for a while in Israel, South Africa, California, Missouri and most recently northern India.

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