The Vigil by Dipika Guha


“The Vigil” by Dipika Guha



WOMAN: any age, true of spirit and heart, a warrior

AUTHOR’s note:

This play was inspired by Maxine Hong Kingston’s A Woman Warrior and Virginia Woolf’s




The picture is finished. 

The clouds came last. 

The sea came first. 

The horizon line was soothingly straight; just like the eye likes it. 

Then the islands. 

A little listless. 


Present from before they were ever seen. 

Or held in vision. 

Before they were a resting point for the eye; 

A harbor for thoughts and loss. 

Before they were placed in the picture. 

They were present. 

In the sea and water. 

In the gleam of a sunset 

In storm and drought. 

They were the anchor in a story 

Made of pebbles and dirt and earth. 

Before sight and speech. 

Enviably old. 


She was a hundred and one when she saw him. 

Coming out of the water. 

His shirt clinging to his chest 

Like Mr Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. 

She forgot for a moment 

Her advanced age. 

And supposed wisdom. 

As her tongue crept into crevices in her mouth

Where her teeth used to be 

She swallowed deeply as he waded towards the shore 

His long tousled hair streaked across his shirt 

A shipwrecked Mr Darcy 

She held him in her sight

Grasping the fleeting moment; him waist high in waves 

A soul without a past 

Or future 

The moment hung like a christmas ornament 

A bauble round and glistening 

She reached for it 


I am, he said, I am

And she stopped his mouth with her hand. 

We can, she said, talk once you have eaten 

Would you like an apple? 

But his brow furrowed as he kissed her hand 

He was wise enough to recognise a benefactor 

And frightened enough to do as he was asked 

He said nothing 

And the bauble lowered itself 

As the sun lay down and turned itself into the ocean. 


I am-he said, clearing his throat-I am 

She held her arm up again firmly

Palm flat in the air

A universal sign for “hell no”

Her other arm cradled a blanket 

And a pillow for his head 

Which she threw down and stormed out

As though she didn’t care 

Because vanity is undeterred by age 

And some small part of her 

Had watched television  

And remembered what it was to play hard to get.  


And so it began. 

First kiss at sunrise 

His hands strong against her fossil sides. 

Her body uplifted, her clothes undone 

He would pick her up in his arms 

And hold her as though she was an ornament 

A precious thing. 

Removing ‘I’ from his speech he learnt to refer to himself as ‘Himself’

Excising past and future tense from his speech,

They lived like this is the tremor of the present 


He built things (of course)

A canoe. 

A small cabin.

A roof. 

A deck. 


It was not that she didn’t worry. 

When she bent over the nets to pick up a quivering fish 

She would see her reflection and recoil.

Time had not stopped!

It would not stop! 

In moments of grief she would shriek at her reflection


Berating endlessness for the fact of its existence. 


Why, she thought, does one not become more beautiful with age? 

It was a cruelty that wisdom should be so unattractive

An evolutionary failure. 

Why, she thought, was all the gain of experience, all wisdom 

Rendered invisible by her white hair and toothlessness. 

But as she saw him casting nets out into the sea

And felt her own longing. 

She doubted her own wisdom.  


Unbeknownst to her, 

He would watch her sleep

Wipe her mouth 

And the stray tears that crept from her eyes at night

He would stay vigil over her body 

Honoring it in life like we only ever honor the dead 

He held fast to her.  

Like a rope hauling him to shore. 

He smoothed her hair.

Tended the night fire. 

Chased away foxes and shadows. 

In the day he would sleep.

And she wondered if he was sad. 

And worried that it was her company 

That was driving him to lie prostrate on the beach. 

Wrapped in a seaweed blanket? 

Will he remember me, she’d think 

When all of this has been wiped away? 

Will he remember me when I am gone 

And she would weep quietly 

And he would sleep 

And the day would burst into life 

And sink into somnolence 

As though they did not exist. 


He had not known a love as great as this. 

It broke his heart 

As it rebuilt it 

He held her hand patiently. 


He does not say she saved him 

But she knows 

She also knows there is something else 

Which they have not discussed 

The current that brought him there

Pulling him another way.  

The blue streaking across her heart 

Breaking it and mending it all at once

Tugs in all directions. 

Its permanence a strange and endless lie.  

What is the matter, she said, summoning cheer. 

Because that is the question that we ask 

When something is both different and sad 

Inside a loved one. 

Nothing-he said 

Except a kind of electric blue. 


So when he walked into her dorm room that day 

First day of college. 

Dragging a duffle bag full of books 

His hair falling over his eyes 

His smile crooked and worn 

And much too old for his twenty one years 

She felt a tug in her gut 

Like a knot was coming undone 

Hi, she said, tucking away a strand of hair 

I am-he said-and then he paused correcting himself.

It doesn’t matter-

No one calls me by my real name anyway. 

You’ll soon make one up for me. 


And there it was. 

The time. 

The late afternoon. 

Him standing too long at her door. 

The sun streaking the floor 

And the grim plasterboard on the wall 

His cellphone rang 

A christmas tune. 

Even though it was early September 

Its tinny ring brought to mind a shiny bauble 

Hanging on the christmas tree at home

The only gold shimmer in a sea of red and blue ornaments 


I’d like, she said, –

But he had gone, wandering into the hallway 

That stretched evenly forwards and backwards 

The doorway, a hinge to the past and future. 


An email in 2001. 

She opened it without the ceremony or emotion of opening a letter 

Technology, she thought, had rendered letters soulless. 

It was told impersonally in the third person 

By someone hired to tell the story of love.  

They met, it reported cheerfully, when he was doing research. 

And she too, was doing research, and they found one another terribly interesting. 


It is finished, she thought and then looked out of the window 

Out into the horizon.  

Where the sea was having a party.  

She was not invited to. 

Holy hell, she thought. 

And then wondered about her choice of words. 

The current had pulled her to a different shore

Where language was bigger and more important than life.  

She made important decisions about semantics daily. 

As a Professor of Linguistics she specialised in the future tense in Slavic languages 

Her department had made her Chair.  

Right now she was immersed in Hungarian grammar 

Arguing the finer points of the origins of the future 

With her colleagues who all, like her 

Feared losing their jobs in a competitive market place 

You know what the economy is like…


So when he proposed on her forty third birthday. 

A colleague who she had come to know 

At christmas parties over the year.  

She knew it was not love.  

She was much younger than him.  

And did not enjoy Mahler or coffee or crosswords. 

And in her own way considered contemporary culture 

To be inauthentic and dead.

The classics were much more alive than the present. 

The epic stories, the Mahabharata, the Greeks, Odin 

The others, were much more interesting than her bland friends

Their dead eyes glazed against the storm of social media

And their cellphones.  

Terrorized by themselves her colleagues walked the halls zombie like 

Never pausing in any threshold. 

Never halting in between to find themselves. 

Classical problems seemed a great deal more urgent 

Than anything anyone living said or did. 

Yes, she said to him, looking at the doorway, 

And the waves receeded.  

The horizon sank. 

As though frightened by her.  


Love is everything, said someone at lunch.  

It is wonderful that you are, at long last embracing it, you know, your life. 

It’s not too late if you want to have children. 

Have you thought about IVF? Or a surrogate? Or adoption?

There are so many children who are orphans. 

Who have suffered through no fault of their own 

The scourge of war and Aids and human problems.

Why not give one or two a home?  


The crossword lay on the table marked up by crosses and hexes. 


The future tense, she had said famously, publicly, multiple times 

Was a semantic manufacturing.

Absent entirely in certain Indo European languages 

It was, she said, pushing her glasses up her nose  

A way to order endlessness.  

A gesture of control. 

She did not add it was therefore a farce 

She did not wish to participate in.  

That would have been too strong, too personal, too unacademic 

It would have painted her a prisoner marking the walls of her cage. 

Crossing the days off with hexes.  


Children do not exist, she thought. 

There are only women and the women before them and the moment where they fell in love or didn’t. 

There was only fate or choice if you had the luxury

or didn’t. 


And so when on her sabbatical in Budapest, she felt a kick in her stomach 

She paid no attention at first.  

Because she and her husband had been apart for many months  

Connecting only on Skype on weekends.  

But she felt the kick again and then the doctors hand firm on her belly.  

They told themselves it was the twenty four hour layover they had in Prague.  

When he had given her a gift. 

A box set of Mahler’s Symphonies 

To enjoy for many lifetimes. 

And they had chosen prosecco over more expensive champagne 

And had fallen asleep, almost certainly, without making love. 


So when her waters broke 

It provoked a serious inquiry in her mind 

(One that was to take up many years)

As to the possibility of intellectual or mental conception 

Rather than a physical one.

Because there had, you know, been no one else. 

And then he arrived wailing out of the ocean between her legs 

She felt a twinge of familiarity at his cry

And a tugging in her gut. 

Like a familiar current. 


Her husband was overjoyed. 

A son would be easier, he confided.  

Less fraught, 

He thought, looking at his shipwrecked wife, 

Grief will not settle in his bones 

In quite the same way it does with women.   


And when her son stood tall over her and held her hand as she picked up her Departmental Award (some kind of silver cheese platter) she looked down and saw her reflection in it and was disappointed to see strands of white hair escaping from behind her ears. 

But it’s shiny, he said. You like shiny things. 

I do, she said, I like shiny things. 

It reminds me of the ocean. 

And your father’s ring clinking against his coffee cup. 


And her grandson was a runner. 

And her great grandson lay in his cot, cooing at the star shaped mobile 

There was a quiet hush in her soul. 

And in the quiet 

She lay there running her mind over the years, 

The past become a cushion. 

Sensitive to her touch, it yielded beautifully and lay itself bare like an oyster trembling in its shell. 


I am-she thought-I am 

And he was. 

And it is. 

And they are.  

And the islands lay listless.  

Pebbles in her eyes. 

The earth dark and certain. 


I am-he’d tried to say then-

At cross purposes. 

Unsure of what to do.

But I am at home with you here 

We belong to another time 

A time before this one 

Wiping her mouth-

Holding her body firmly against his 

I didn’t want to tell you then-he said

About the men I killed. 

About the slaughter that happened 

Under my watch. 

By my hand. 

I was wrecked in so many ways. 


Her cloudy eyes spoke.  


That is our world, you were a participant like we all are 


No, I was an instigator! 


A bystander 


A warlord! 


You were unhappy. 


I was. I was unhappy. 

I walked alone until I met you. 


You started throwing rocks into the sea.  


I was afraid that you would leave me. 


So when you got into the boat 

You did it in the afternoon 

Unleashed yourself into the ocean 

Like a leaf 


I expected we would meet again. 


And it’s easier to leave than be left. 




But now the future is finished. 

The picture’s complete.  

And we can begin again. 

It’s ours to claim. 


I no longer have my body. 

I have read all the stories

The ones from ancient times 

I did not want to wait

I did not want to turn into 

One of those women 

Under the weeping willows 


If you had waited we could have been happy. 


The future would not have ended the way it has. 


Life is long. 

Endlessness, a fact. 


Someone is here to see you. 


Oh, a visitor, that’s kind. 


The waters edge turns black.  

A young man with a tape recorder 

Here to ask some questions, 

I think, about your life. 


Tell him to read my books. 

There’s nothing to tell 

I wrote what I could write

I was primarily concerned with the future tense 

And its absence. 


But then this young man sat down. 

And he took my hand and said 

The story is not finished 

The waves have taken me out to sea many times, 

I thought but didn’t say.  

And its always thrown me back 

A different shape. 

I knew better than to swim upstream 

Which is what some fish do when they die. 

I find this whole conception thing super fascinating 

Conceiving in death is uber romantic-said the young man

His eyes shining

That’s because, I say to him, you’ll never have to carry a child yourself.

For me it wasn’t easy. 

I am

He said. 

And kissed my hand. 


Take me back to the islands. 

Where the picture was drawn.  

My feet are like hooves. 

My skin like leather. 

I’m wearing time these days on my feet 

Like women wear shoes. 


I didn’t get that-he said. Shit. Can we start over? 


And it does somehow.  

Time itself rolling around in the ocean

Like a baby elephant 


Can we begin again? 


Tell the story, he says. 

Tell it like it was never written 


It isn’t written


I didn’t hear that-can we start again? 

Why don’t you go back and say that again? 

I’m recording. 

It’s not finished 

It hasn’t begun 


Time is fraying at the edges 

Burning grief like sun burns fog 


Start over 

And again. 

The end is turning over 

The turn is ending 

And no one to tell you so. 

The current pulls me out 

In his presence 

This young man recording my words. 


I think of the horizon and I see you on the threshold 

The picture, I think, is finished. 

The clouds came last.   

The sea came first. 

The horizon line stretches soothingly.  

Then these islands. 

A little listless. 


Present from before they were ever seen. 

Or held in vision. 

Before they were a resting point for the eye; 

A harbor for thoughts and loss. 

Before they placed in the picture. 

They were present. 

In the sea and water. 

In the gleam of a sunset 

In storm and drought. 

They were the anchor in a story 

Made of pebbles and dirt and earth. 

Before sight and speech. 

Enviably old, I begin again 

I cross into the current 

I walk into the sea. 

I am-I say, I am-

Older than this 

This story 


I am-


End of Play


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Dipika Guha Artist Statement:

Dipika Guha writes plays that are funny, lyrical, and formally ambitious. Her plays include Yoga Play, The Art of Gaman, Mechanics of Love, I Enter the Valley, and Blown Youth. She is currently translating Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor for OSF’s Play On project and is writing plays for Manhattan Theatre Club/Sloan, Barrington Stage, McCarter Theatre Center’s Princeton and Slavery Project, Oregon Symphony, ACT & Z Space, and Playwrights Horizons Theatre School. She was the inaugural recipient of the Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship from the Lark, AROHO, and Hedgebrook and is a Hodder Fellow at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts for 2017-2018. Dipika received her MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama under Paula Vogel.



Author: A Room of Her Own

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