“The Neighbors” is the story of two women figuring out the nature of a desire they don’t have words for, inventing a world between them before bringing it down. Told in the spare language of a fairy tale, set a little outside of time, it is, sentence by sentence, a stark evocation of the game they make between them, the stakes of which are their entire lives. Reading it, I experienced the thrill that is finding yourself in the presence of an important new talent.

—Alexander Chee

It was bad luck for widows to go near new brides, so I watched Mim from my balcony. She went to the roof in the morning and folded dry clothes with slow fingers. At night she lit a kerosene lamp and waited for her husband. His name was Himel. He was a student of the law. He wore white suits and carried a brown briefcase. From time to time, when Mim forgot to draw the curtains, I saw him undress her.

“Such a fortunate girl,” said the other women I lived with. “But he could have found someone better.”

“Such a fortunate girl,” said the other women I lived with. “But he could have found someone better.”

They discussed how she had no parents and couldn’t read or write. Some of them said she was a witch, that she had gotten Himel to marry her by performing black magic. I thought of his dark hands on her fair skin and sat down to pray.

• • •

One afternoon I saw her at the water pump. She stood there staring at it, as if she had never seen one before.

“You have to use your arms and shoulders,” I said. I pushed the lever and filled my kolshi. Then I filled hers.

She thanked me. “Back home we get water from the river.”

Her voice was soft. Her hair was braided. She had a face shaped like a betel leaf. Up close, she was not as beautiful as everyone said. She looked about fifteen or sixteen, a few years younger than me.

We walked back together. She kept quiet and went into her house, but the next day she waited at the gate. When I set off toward the pump, she followed.

• • •

Mim was shy at first, but soon she stopped hiding her face with the aanchol of her sari. She shook the jujube tree and ate the fruit that fell at our feet. She chased pigeons and hummed folk songs and put leaves in my hair.

“You’re lucky it’s so short,” she said. “Djinns only possess girls with long hair.”

“What if you’re a djinn?” I asked. She reached for her kolshi and poured water over me and laughed.

We went home and I sat on the steps in my wet clothes. When Himel returned from his studies, he hesitated in front of his door. He watched me.

• • •

I asked Mim about her husband. I wanted to know what he liked to eat and whether he took milk in his cha. Did he snore? Did he bring her sweets? What kind of things did he do to her in the dark?

Chi,” said Mim, and covered her face with henna-laced hands. Then she pulled down her blouse and showed me where he had kissed her too hard. That night I tossed and turned and ignored the ache between my legs.

• • •

“Oh,” she said, and placed a hand on my breast. “How beautifully you’re formed.”

I offered to help her with housework. I dusted the furniture and alphabetized the books on the shelves, polished Himel’s shoes and fixed the buttons on his shirts. Mim helped but quickly grew bored.

“Aren’t you tired of wearing white all the time?” she asked. She pulled me to her almirah and unraveled the cloth around my waist. It fell to the floor and I stood naked before her.

“Oh,” she said, and placed a hand on my breast. “How beautifully you’re formed.”

Her thumb grazed my nipple. Her breath fell on my neck. She wrapped me with a red sari and put rings in my ears. I remembered the silver anklets my husband had given me for our wedding. Keep them on, he would say each night. I like the sounds they make.

When he died, his mother had untied them from my feet. She cut my hair to my chin and sold my harmonium. Then she took me across the river to a house that was built for girls like me. It had bare walls and no music and smelled of incense. She left me there.

• • •

It became apparent that Mim had not been taught any wifely duties. She let the filth accumulate in the kitchen and overcooked the rice. Whenever I tried to demonstrate the proper way to peel a jackfruit, she went to her room and pulled out a Ludo board. She played for hours, rolling the dice again and again.

“This game is childish,” I said, but she didn’t stop until she heard Himel’s footsteps. I hid the board behind the curtains when she rushed out to meet him. The next day I showed her how to embroider a handkerchief.

“Where did you learn to do all this?” she asked.

“My mother,” I said. I told her how Ma had spent hours correcting my stitches when I was a child. She had listened to me read or sing and interrupted each time she was displeased with my voice. Once, after I burned the eggplant curry, she hit my palm with a bamboo stick until I cried. She said I would thank her later, when I grew up and pleased my husband with my skills.

“My ma didn’t know who my baba was,” said Mim. “She left me at the orphanage.”

She stabbed the needle in and out and pricked her finger. I took it in my mouth. Her eyes closed and her lips parted. Then I released her. We went back to our work and said nothing.

• • •

Mim became ill in the spring. She complained of headaches and coughed into her pillow. I went to see her twice a day, but the other girls said it was inauspicious.

“People are talking,” they said. “If her health worsens, you will be blamed.”

I limited my visits to the evening. I rubbed sesame oil on her temples and fed her warm milk with honey. When I prepared to leave, she reached out and took my hand.

“Stay,” she said, her chest rising and falling. “Sing to me.”

• • •

When she closed her eyes, I covered her with a blanket. I left her room and waited for Himel. I took his briefcase at the door and returned his leather sandals to the rack. Then I set the dining table and sat next to him while he ate. I made cha and brought it to his study. He said he was looking for a book and I fetched it for him.

“You could help me with my essay,” he said.

“I could.” I perched on his desk and read over his notes. When my aanchol slipped to reveal my blouse, I didn’t move to fix it. I felt his hand wrap around my ankle. His fingers stroked my heel. I thought of Mim, asleep on the other side of the wall, but I did not stop him.

• • •

It took Mim a few weeks to recover. Himel refused to eat her food. He said she put too much salt in the daal and not enough sugar in the rice pudding. He told her to learn how to fold his clothes properly. When he couldn’t find his textbook, he yelled at her.

“I put it back on the shelf,” I heard her say. “I thought you didn’t need it anymore.”

“What do you know about my needs?” he asked. “You’re illiterate.”

• • •

He said that he had heard her talk to herself for hours, that she often spoke of djinns. “She is not right in the head,” he said.

Late at night, he came to see me. He said we would not have to meet in secret for long.

“What about Mim?” I asked, but he said not to worry. He picked up a jujube from the foot of the tree and held it to my lips. I bit into the sweet flesh and remembered the taste of her blood.

• • •

Himel told the court that Mim had abnormal tendencies. He said that he had heard her talk to herself for hours, that she often spoke of djinns.

“She is not right in the head,” he said.

The judge sent a doctor to inspect Mim. I watched from the balcony as he knocked on her door.

• • •

I avoided the water pump and didn’t go out. The other widows said I seemed unwell. They fed me rose milk and did my chores. The more they prayed, the worse I felt. I locked myself in my quarters and spoke to no one.

Mim came to see me. She knocked and knocked until I let her in. There were tangles in her hair and hollows under her eyes. She sat on my bed and wept. She said her husband hated her, that bad dreams plagued her, that she was alone in her big house and had no one to talk to.

“Am I a bad wife?” she asked. “A bad friend? Why won’t you look at me?”

She buried her face in my shoulder. I kissed her head. When she looked up, I kissed her lips. Her fingers shook as she unclasped the hooks on my blouse. Her mouth was warm and wet between my breasts. I pushed her back against my pillows and spread her.

When I woke up she was still asleep, hands curled into fists. I went to wash her from my skin. By the time I returned she was gone.

• • •

The other girls asked what Mim had been doing in my room. I showed them the marks she had left on my body and told them she had attacked me, that she had touched me the way a man would touch a woman.

“I was so frightened,” I said, and wept.

Himel told the court that he could not continue living with such an unstable girl. The judge signed the papers and said there was a place that dealt with that kind of illness.

They held Mim at the local jail, cut off her hair and dressed her in white. Then they took her away.

• • •

I moved across the street with my belongings. During the day I cooked and cleaned and read and sang, but at night I could not sleep. I lay in bed and counted the hairs that clung to her comb.