I have my own personal banshee. Most mornings, usually during my second bowl of cereal, she lets out a soul-melting wail to give me a heads-up on my impending death that day. I used to get worried, but it’s been going on awhile. And I’m still here [. . .]
For Martha Kaas, half the thrill of going bohemian was not letting her husband suspect that she had. She appeared to commute to work at seven every morning but drove the opposite direction from her former life as a middle school math teacher. She parked in a garage in the garment district and spent the day exploring her creative side from within a rented loft space she shared with three artists: Somi, who worked in plaster of Paris; Fango, who altered thrift store paintings by painting in pop-culture characters; and Asia, upstairs, who made the ceiling breathe whenever she brought in her cadre of dancers [. . .]
iPad’s camera adjusted so she was silhouetted, surrounding flat light showing only the outline of a form. Could have been savasana. A cloud moved, another Zoom self-adjustment, there was her face again. But it wasn’t early savasana. No one could go that long without blinking. I threw on a robe, turned my video on, and unmuted myself [. . .]
The low whistle of the northbound train broke a silence made of the shovel’s grating, of birdsong, of the rasp of Eva’s breath. Maud frowned at her daughter, then stepped again on the shoulder of the shovel, forcing the blade into the March soil. This plot of ground, heeled in against a patch of woods, had been worked for garden at one time. […]
Aunt Yangyang was always telling us not to let my mother watch those late-night specials on serial killers. We thought it was because she was worried my mother would get scared, but it was really because she was afraid my mother would get ideas.[…]
Abigail turned to Ben who was sitting on the opposite bed in their shared bedroom. His face was blotchy and red. His mouth was a crooked, downturned line. “Gone?” “He was abducted by aliens,” said Ben. “We’re never going to see him again.”[…]
The most common question I get is how I’m doing. Fine, I say, laughing the whiskey off my breath. They know I’m lying, but they act like I’m not, and that’s all I really want. […]
Lou didn’t need another coffee, but she needed to see her reflection again. The café’s insides were a meshwork of devil’s ivy and Matisse-inspired line drawings. Aesthetics at the end of the algorithm, her sister would call a place like this.[…]
Small circles of blood blossom. The water turns pink. With a quick breath she is all girl again, using her hands to feel the bottom of the tub. It is filled with shattered glass and her legs are bleeding. […]
Between the slurred lisp of her words, Daisy’s mother starts to whisper to her about dead girls. It starts off as a trickle of information, gossipy fascination over the feral, invited by a story on the news or something that her mother heard on the radio while driving […]
I had only seen them once. They’d probably escaped from a botanical garden or perhaps that tree had just been a stop on a journey circumnavigating countries, maybe even continents. […]
Jouma nodded calmly, then got to his feet, excused himself and left the tent, his sons and entourage following in his steps. Today was the wedding of one of his sons, and the festivities could be heard from afar.[…]
Jackie Miller danced around her kitchen when she learned she landed a temporary-to-permanent position at Finch Life & Casualty. It had been years since she held down a regular nine-to-five. Her duties entailed answering the ten-line phone system, greeting guests, and opening the mail […]
Those calls have been fewer and farther between these last few weeks. I suspect you’ve got to realize that, but if I’m honest, I’ve stopped wondering who it is you’re fighting during your backroom breaks at Best Buy instead of reapplying to your undergraduate program. […]
When I was in the fourth grade, I was certain the world would blow up in its entirety. The Soviets had nukes—we all knew that—and the prospect of it would send my ten-year-old mind into recurring panics. At night, when I was supposed to be sleeping while Mother and Father watched the television, I would lie awake and imagine a group of men in hats standing over a control panel ready to nuke us […]
Becca drops her announcement into the conversation casually. “So… I met someone and it’s looking pretty serious so far.”
She is sitting at a long table in the party room of the Hasidic shteeble near her childhood home, the small synagogue that her parents, creatures of habit that they are, still attend. Her father prays in the old shul three times a day but also likes to schmooze politics and business with the men; her mother attends services on Shabbos and holidays and finds some measure of peace murmuring psalms from her tattered Tehillim. Becca is surrounded by the smells of her youth: the tang of gefilte fish, the must of yellowing tomes and the mildew of unwashed woolen prayer shawls, and by family members and their various extensions: sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews. Her parents. They are gathered to celebrate the bris of Becca’s sister’s first grandson. (Becca still has difficulty wrapping her head around the fact that she is, at age thirty-two, attending the circumcision feast of her great-nephew!)
Becca believes she’d murmured her news privately to the sister sitting nearest her, and so is taken aback by the silence that greets her pronouncement. Becca’s father eyes her mistrustfully.
Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
During the course of the evening, Becca’s family learns her new boyfriend’s name (Paul); what he does for a living (attorney); that yes, he most certainly is Jewish even with a name like that (and the grandson of Auschwitz survivors—because that little nugget tends to seal in authenticity like nothing else); that they met on JDate, and yes, that means she dates online which means on a computer, yes exactly that kind of crazy meshugas; that he’d grown up strictly Orthodox frum and attended yeshiva just like Becca and now no longer considers himself observant.
Just like Becca.
The family is unprepared for this last revelation. It is one of those glaring truths of which everyone is acutely aware but works really hard to ignore.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca answers her youngest sister’s call apprehensively. The caller ID flashes “Sara Leah” but she knows her other three sisters are conferencing in. The group call begins as an intervention of sorts.
“Bec, we’re calling because we all agree” (something new there, Becca muses) “that you’re intent on making Mommy and Tatty ill.” (Nothing new there. Surprise, surprise.)
The sisters all begin to talk over one another. Becca, pacing in the galley kitchen of the apartment she shares with her new fiancé Paul and her two-nights-a-week-and-every-other-weekend son Ari, puts the call on speaker and lets Paul listen in. It’s easier than trying to find the words to explain her family’s dysfunction, the unclouded contempt that erupts from them when faced with the agnosticism of one of their own. Their voices are jumbled, and all four are shouting over one another in a loud bid to be heard first. Angry fragments filter through the speakerphone: “…frumkeit means nothing…” “…not observant, unbelievable…” “…what about Ari…” “…what kind of example for your son…” “…a shiksa now…” “…marrying a goy…” “…killing us slowly…” “…a shanda, shameful…” and so on.
The message becomes clear: Becca is self-centered and arrogant. Becca is difficult and ungrateful. Becca is a terrible daughter and an even worse mother who thinks of no one but herself. Becca must surely be on drugs because why else would she behave this way. Becca is responsible for their parents’ anxiety, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
“We thought you should know how we all feel. And just so this doesn’t come as a surprise, we thought it only right to tell you that Tatty called each of us separately and forbade us to come to your wedding.”
In a remote recess of Becca’s reeling brain she is able to think, Forbade you? Are you nine or are you all married women with husbands and kids and mortgages? Actually, scratch the mortgage part—all her sisters are still dependent on their father’s financial support because their husbands are “learning,” i.e., warming a bench in a yeshiva for young married men and not making a living, and their families are hard pressed to make ends meet on a teacher’s or secretary’s salary. So yes, it actually makes perfect sense to Becca that each sister has branded herself Tatty’s champion and waves his banner furiously before the charge.
And in a separate corner of her mind lurks her ultimate fear: Now that Paul’s seen my hideous skeletons, he’ll run for the hills.
Years of practice have made Becca adept at compartmentalizing her thoughts and keeping them hidden deep.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca is called in for a parent-teacher conference. It is an unusual time for a conference, given that her middle-school son is nearing the end of a remarkably productive school year, all things considered. This is a golden son, a hard-fought-and-lost son, a son who’d been unceremoniously dropped back into Becca’s life by his indifferent father who’d swiftly lost interest in the daily grind of parenting. A son who remains the epicenter of his mother’s existence. This is Ari, whose response to Becca’s cautious coming-out of the religion closet had been a flustered, “You mean like, you eat like, pork and stuff?” and “You mean, like you drive on Shabbos, like in a car? Things like that?” He’d briefly mulled over this new version of his mother before regaining his composure, then hugged her and said, “I’ve never seen you as happy as you are with Paul. So that’s the most important thing to me, Ma. That you’re happy.” This is Ari, whose teacher now wishes to speak most urgently with Becca.
Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do.
Rabbi Goldblatt is waiting for her in the yeshiva’s office, surrounded by black-hatted teenage boys all talking with their hands, all talking at once, ritual fringed tzitzis swaying from their belts. He shoos them out of the room and waves her into a chair opposite him.
“I hope you don’t mind the hasty nature of this meeting, Rebecca—may I call you Rebecca? …As I mentioned on the phone, there is no need to worry about Ari, he’s doing just fine. He’s not aware that I’ve called you in.” He hesitates.
Becca’s anxiety trickles down her back into the waistband of her skirt. She manages a cautious half smile. “Please. I’m listening.”
Rabbi Goldblatt seems a decent sort. This past year, all of their interactions on behalf of her boy had revealed a sympathetic person whose emotional intelligence, to Becca’s surprise and relief, consistently matched his scholarly aptitude. Today, however, the rabbi seems discomfited.
“Someone came to visit me recently. Um, this is awkward to say the least.” He clears his throat. “It was your father. Ari’s grandfather.” Becca feels her windpipe closing. Rabbi Goldblatt continues haltingly.
“He seemed to think it his urgent duty to warn me. To warn me that Ari’s continued exposure to you, his mother, would be catastrophic for the boy’s spiritual health.” He stops, catching Becca’s eye. She believes she sees compassion brimming in him.
“It was a highly unusual conversation. Quite difficult. But I imagine it’s far more difficult for you to hear this than it was for me. Shall I continue?”
Becca nods silently, adrift. She listens as if from a distance.
“Your father told me things I had no right to hear. Things about you. Things… I did not need to know. He felt he was safeguarding his grandchild by exposing you, or should I say branding you as an unfit mother. He…well, he believes you’re corrupting your son. He said your home is not kosher, and—actually he said quite vociferously that…that you blatantly desecrate—that you’re mechalel Shabbos…” Rabbi Goldblatt exhales quickly, clearly unsettled by his role in this particular play.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart.
“Listen, Rebecca. I know you as Ari’s mother. You’ve always shown yourself to be a mensch, a good person, a good mother…even so, it’s none of my business, you see? I’m not the judge of you.
Rabbi Goldblatt’s forehead is shiny with sweat, with the effort of playing referee in the midst of a melee. “Your father,” he resumes loudly, “is portraying his own daughter as a shiksa who doesn’t deserve to raise her own son! I’m sorry, but none of this is my business, first of all, and second of all,” the rabbi pauses, the energy gone from him. “I just—I just think you deserve to know what’s going on behind your back.”
Maybe his voice trails off or maybe Becca stops listening. Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do. Clouds of déjà vu settle in her memory. Her father, she is forced to admit, is indeed capable of such cruelty. Her father, her Tevye, who rails against the rebellion of a daughter. Her father, her not-Tevye, her father who is unable to eventually come around, like Tevye, to tolerate what he cannot control. In the name of God, religion, and faith, Becca’s father takes no prisoners.
* * *
Some years earlier.
Becca is not Becca yet. She is still Rivky, still a slender eight, still eleven and whip-smart, still a coltish fourteen, still fearful of her father, of rabbis, of Yom Kippur the awesome Day of Judgment, of enumerating all the myriad sins of the year that’s passed and klopping al chayt, beating her chest with a closed fist as she recites rivers of tears in shul, her youthful back bent to the sorrow and guilt of one much, much older and hardened to the world.
She is still Rivky, she is twenty-two, and she is leaving her young husband. She wants to explore the outside and change her name and wear blue jeans and fling the shaitel from her head and grow her own hair back and inhabit the world fully, and the only way to do this is through divorce. Rivky expects an angry husband, a husband who will marshal the resources of family and community to keep her home, keep her covered, keep her hidden, keep her obedient. But she is unprepared for the summons to her father’s office. She is unprepared to be peppered with questions, with accusations, from bearded big-bellied men sitting, watching, hovering from their seats in a semi-circle as Rivky, unprepared, stands before them, trembling and terrified and stripped naked in front of the questions, the questions, the insinuations of slut, the censure, the sins.
Rivky floats away from her body, her body that stands like a target. She watches herself from afar.
“Where did you go late at night last week? Who were you with?” Rivky worries a thread at her hem and sees her skirt unraveling, unraveling, until there is no more skirt…
“Do you go to the movies in secret? Do you check out filthy goyish books from the library?” Rivky breathes in the light as the sleeves of her jacket slip off her arms…
“Do you spoil your holy body with treif food from treif restaurants?” Rivky’s shaitel, made of someone else’s hair, slides back from her head, exposing the uneven shaved stubble on her scalp, and drops whispering to the floor…
“Do you corrupt your soul with indecent goyish music? Do you turn on the lights on Shabbos?” Rivky watches her blouse fall from her shoulders and gather in soft folds at her feet…
“Do you dip in the mikvah after you menstruate to be permitted to your husband? As the Torah commands?” Rivky’s opaque tights are suddenly sheer, showing her legs…
“Are you a lesbian? Are you an adulteress? Have you had forbidden relations outside of the sanctity of your marriage?” Rivky’s bra and panties are visible to all the men in the room. She is undressed, she is visible, to all the men in the room.
And so the bearded men, her father’s friends, her father sitting amongst them, decide that Rivky is unfit to mother her toddler son, because every month she insists on wearing tampons while going for her Shabbos walks which, her concerned husband worries, could be construed as carrying, which could be interpreted as violating the laws of the holy Sabbath. They consider her unfit because she was once seen stepping out of a McDonald’s (a McDonald’s!!!) with a cup of coffee, which could only mean she was blatantly flouting the laws of kashrus. They deem her unfit because she’d recently attended a nursery school orientation for her son, after which the menahel hastily phoned her father to say he was very sorry to do this to a man who is such a pillar of the community, BUT. Your daughter, the mother of the little boy Ari, does not belong in our school. The young woman is immodest, her wig is long. The young woman stands out, her skirts are modish. The young woman is noticeable, indecorous, visible.
The tribunal of bearded men is not yet done with Rivky. They decide as well that she must leave the community and that it is best for Rivky’s husband to raise the boy. Never mind that each of these men has a separate feud, over money or shul politics, with Rivky’s husband. Still. He is the one best suited, they believe, to raise Ari up as a respectable member of the Hasidic community. Much like themselves.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart. In this moment, listening to the panel of rabbis sitting in judgment of her, deciding her fate—in this moment, facing the loss of her child, her family, her friends, all of life as she knows it—only in this moment does Rivky understand “broken heart.” She pushes the shame and the rage and the humiliation down, down into a deep place where she will try to forget, and be forgiven.
It is decided. Rivky becomes outcast.
Rivky becomes Becca.
* * *
Becoming Becca means leave-taking, means reinventing, means self-immolating. Becca means to fight her way out of her rigid, glistening chrysalis. She digests the worm that is her self and from the soup she pulls her eyes, newly sighted, and wings, antennae. Becoming Becca means flying, means running, means rounding corner after cutting corner, means slamming. Slamming doors that shut fast on the past and open up to poetry and song. She wrenches words from somewhere deep. Words explode onto her page, words burst from her lips. Words buried in vaults, words hidden in hollows of shame, words that air the soil of secrets to the cleansing light of day. Words that reignite her mother’s distress, her father’s wrath, her sisters’ rage, disappointment and dishonor all around. Becca writes lyrics to rap songs, staccato punches that reverberate with anger, sorrow, truth. She writes poems of anguish and celebration. She slams in dark dodgy East Village basements. She writes torch songs that fuse the fiction of her imagination and the reality of her torn, almost beautiful life. She sings in Bowery lounges that stink of beer and the press of flesh. She sings, she tests her brand new wings. She writes. She writes like she’s running out of time, like she’s Alexander Hamilton reimagining her country from the ground zero up. Becca builds a world. She puts the pieces of the broken one back together. She is mother. She is partner. She is nightingale. She is red bird rising, leaving ashes at her feet.
* * *
Sometime here and now.
Becca knows enough about fetal ultrasounds to note the absence of a tiny heartbeat. She is almost seven weeks pregnant, or she was, until this morning’s bloody flush in the toilet. The doctor explains to Becca and Paul about gestational sacs and embryonic poles and fetal viability and then schedules a D&C. He leaves and softly closes the door to the examination room to give them space to begin the grieving process. It is three months before their wedding; it is Ari’s twelfth birthday; it is the day after Yom Kippur.
Becca thinks that the timing of her miscarriage, exactly a year before her son’s bar mitzvah and directly following the Day of Atonement, is significant. She is wracked with grief and guilt. She begins to venture down the rabbit hole. Maybe her family is right. Maybe she truly is unfit for motherhood. See, she cannot even sustain a viable pregnancy after leaving her roots behind. Maybe she is indeed uprooted, unmoored, a waif in the wind at the mercy of the elements, with no Torah, no tradition, to anchor her. Becca resolves to visit her father to make amends, but she is paralyzed by fear. She is in no shape to be in the same room as her father, let alone confront him. Paul steps up.
“Why don’t I meet with him? You know, man to man. I can make him see how special you are, I can convince him that he’s missing out on his own family.”
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch.
Becca starts to interrupt him—“He’ll eat you alive!” but Paul calms her.
“I don’t have a history with him like you do. He doesn’t affect me the same way. I’m sure he’ll come around to me.” Becca is comforted by this proposal. Paul is good in the living room, like Jerry Maguire; he has a gift for getting people to buy what he’s selling. She is heartened by the notion that Paul’s natural dignity, his reasonable lawyer’s mien, his cool head, will prevail.
Within a few days, Paul meets with his future father-in-law in Becca’s childhood living room. They talk. (Or, as Paul recounts to Becca afterward, Tatty talks and Paul takes a beating.) To every one of Paul’s explanations of misunderstanding, to each of his protestations of innocence, to all of his avowals of Becca’s virtue, her gutzkeit, Becca’s father puts forth arguments of ancient Talmudic law, imagining justice being meted out as if they are living in the Second Temple era, as if Paul is actually a Gentile and not, in fact, a Jew born and bred.
“If we were living during the time of the Beis Hamikdosh, do you know Rivky would be sentenced to death by skilah! Yes, stoning—don’t look so shocked. Because she’s like the Gemara describes, a ben soyrer umoyreh, a rebellious child. Doesn’t heed her parents’ discipline. And because she’s mechalel Shabbes. And as her father, I would be responsible for being the first to push her off the cliff!”
“You know Paul, you seem like a nice person, but—maybe not such a good yid, you know… And for the life of me I can’t understand why you would want to marry Rivky—but in any event I’m not permitted to allow you sit at my Shabbes table, because then the wine would be considered yayin nesech, tainted, contaminated.”
Paul notices he is being lectured. He is highly educated in Talmudic law from his own yeshiva days and recognizes the fallacies inherent in the arguments so passionately put to him by Becca’s father. But this is beside the point.
Eventually the Holocaust makes an appearance and wraps up the session. “It’s not enough about our families—Rivky’s grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins… It’s not enough how we suffered at the hands of the Nazis? People died because they refused to give up Shabbes, my parents in the camps didn’t give themselves a heter, an exemption, to eat treif, they didn’t allow themselves to make excuses to eat non-kosher…and they had the biggest excuse of all! And my own daughter? Who I had such high hopes for? Mein eigene tochter, she turns her back. Such beeshes heaped on our heads… Such humiliation. Mommy and I can’t talk to our neighbors, we mamesh can’t even walk in the street…”
And practically in the same breath: “But I’m always ready to forgive her. I’m waiting for Rivky to come to her senses and leave all this foolishness—all these shtisim behind. Tell her I’m waiting for her to come back and be part of the mishpucha again. If she behaves the way she’s supposed to, the way she was taught. She knows—she was raised in my house! She knows exactly what needs to be done. The basics. Nu, genik shoyn mit di narishkeit. This madness has gone on long enough. Tell her I’m waiting.”
At this last, Paul silently thanks whatever angel of a filter he possesses for not allowing the news of Becca’s miscarriage (and of course, her illicit pre-marital pregnancy) to escape him today. But this is beside the point as well. The point is Becca and Paul now recognize they must sever ties with her delusional parent if they intend to fashion a healthy life for themselves and their future family.
* * *
Some weeks before Becca marries Paul.
Becca glances at the handwritten sign in Hebrew and Yiddish announcing this is a house of mourning. She gently eases open the door to the women’s entrance and steps inside. Her old friend Ruchi, now a prominent rabbi’s wife herself, sits in a low chair close to the ground, her head bound with a black satin tichel wrapped tightly, revealing the one-inch band of synthetic hair that is her shpitzel, her blouse torn at the neck to reveal a modest black shell. Ruchi is surrounded by her mother the rebbetzin and her sisters, all sitting in similar low chairs. All their blouses are torn. All their heads are bound. There is a steady murmur of women’s voices, women who are there to comfort the bereaved among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, as the traditional blessing says.
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch. Their favorite game was “What If,” a rich springboard for their delirious girlish fantasies and dreams. “What If” encompassed boys, periods, high school, goyim, parents, clothes, music, hair, and weddings and marriage (specifically, the cost-benefit ratio of the freedom of marriage to the requisite post-ceremony shearing of the kallah’s bridal hair). Many a moonlit night they passed in pursuit of these faraway notions. Ruchi remains one of the precious few who loves Rivky and Becca equally, as if they are same person. Ruchi loves Becca without looking over her shoulder to worry who’s watching them walk together down the street. Ruchi loves Becca regardless of her bare head, her exposed arms, the obvious immodesty of her wardrobe. Ruchi is able to love Becca even though their paths have diverged because Ruchi possesses an extraordinary and uncommon sense of self, a self that was forged together with Becca in the fires of adolescence and stoked into a pillar of strength by a father capable of loving her. Now, Becca returns to the friend she never lost, as radically different from each other as they appear, to console Ruchi as she sits shiva for her father.
While he was alive Ruchi’s father had been the rav of the little shul on the corner, the very shul where the family now sits shiva for their lost father, where the congregation mourns their lost leader. Every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rivky/Becca would feel transformed from her insides out, listening to the rav pour his soul into the davening, his prayers, she imagined vividly, rending the heavens, bypassing the angels, landing directly at Hashem’s throne. The rav was the only human being she’d ever known who could lift her neshama, her soul, out of its earthly confines and allow her spirit to soar. The High Holy Days in Ruchi’s father’s shteeble were, for Rivky back then, the height of religious ecstasy. There was no sin she could commit that would not be forgiven, no good will she could not achieve.
But that was then.
Now, Ruchi implores Becca with tears of love for her gone father, for her precious friend: “Becca. It’s time to make amends with your father. He won’t be around forever. Take a look around you—we are sitting shiva for a man we thought had so much more time. Time will cheat you, Becca. Forgive him.”
* * *
Ruchi’s words, their weight. Her pale tear-streaked skin and puffy pink eyes. Her sudden orphan status. All of it, swirling around in the vortex of Becca’s head. She begins to see her father, mortal and limited and not forever for this earth. She imagines him, still and silent and stone-cold, the lone inhabitant of a plain pine box. Her heart skips; she catches a breath. Becca forgets, briefly, his stance on the status of her sinner’s soul. She discounts, fleetingly, the cruelty of his discipline. She ignores, for the moment, his intractability. Becca scours the very depths of her conscience, her spirit, her perceptions of a daughter’s fidelity. After some emotional wrangling with Paul—who, after all, had been on the receiving end of a mere fraction of the whole, and admittedly tries his very best to appreciate the enormity of his fiancée’s misgivings, her ambiguity, her doubt—after arguing and shouting about pride and family and death and ego and being right and the thickness of blood, Becca ultimately secures Paul’s blessing and she finds herself, two weeks before their wedding day, at the entrance to the shteeble where her father prays. The men’s entrance. She swallows a steadying breath and pushes open the door to face a wall of white fringed talleisim, swaying and murmuring. Becca searches the front of the room and notices her father’s distinctive stoop, shrouded, swaying, his face obscured by the ceremonial silver atara wrapped across his forehead, the hum in the room and the rhythm of his swinging prayer shawl almost hypnotic in the stifling heat of the old beis medrash.
Becca gathers her courage. Her voice rings out: “Tatty!”
An abrupt hush. Dozens of tallis-draped men turn to stare in shock at the intrusion, at the woman in their sacrosanct midst. At the front of the room, directly facing the ark containing the holy Torah scrolls, a stooped figure swathed in a yellowing prayer shawl straightens perceptibly. Tatty tosses his tallis imperially over his shoulder and stands like a crowned king, the embroidered silver atara loosely framing the top of his head, the black box of his phylacteries strapped regally to his forehead, the second box of tefillin wrapped tightly around his left bicep, the straps digging deep into his left forearm, marking him indelibly as a man, an observant man, a man of God. Becca, habitually relegated to the world of women across the mechitzah, the opaque divider that separates the sexes, has rarely, if ever, witnessed the glory that is her father in prayer. She gasps at the sight of this king. All it takes is this moment and his silent scowl, and Becca’s resolute intentions threaten to fall away; she is in danger of shrinking back into the little girl she’d fitfully outgrown, the little girl at the mercy of a hostile world. She is in danger of becoming once again the wayward, dissolute, impossible daughter, the intrusion, the disturbance in her father’s carefully ordered, regulated kingdom.
He opens his mouth to rebuke her. He speaks, but the words that spill from him, white-tipped with rage, crash against the sheer rock face that is the backbone of his daughter. And Becca—Becca listens, she listens, finally she listens and she heeds, after years of being told, admonished, scolded to listen, listen to elders, listen to men, listen and obey, listen, follow, observe and heed heed heed the words thrown at her, finally Becca listens to her father and what she hears sounds like a eulogy for a girl named Rivky whose small corpse lies battered, dashed from the cliff.
Tatty speaks, but Becca looks past him, past his harsh words, past his glare, past the anger he spits in her direction. She looks past the crowd of gaping men swathed in traditional prayer shawls, past the men wrapped in the suffocation of ancient things, past the men murmuring their astonishment, their strangled displeasure, past the overheated, overwrought, smothering room lined with antique tomes and threadbare siddurim, worn prayer books that had seen their share of human misery… Becca looks further, ahead, past the motes of dust swimming in banners of sudden sunlight and sees the room renewed, rows of chairs now seated with elegant wedding guests, the fashionable women chattering, glittering, the tuxedoed men smiling, nodding, the dust motes sprouting colored wings like fluttering butterflies. She sees her mother, for years torn into atoms of anguish between her husband and child, their twinned tenaciousness. Becca sees her mother there in the new room, dressed in funereal black yes, her rheumy eyes rimmed with the ghosts of many tears, yes, all of that yes, but there, there leaning on her grandson Ari’s shoulder, waiting to embrace her daughter as Becca stands, beatific, with her new husband Paul under the chuppah, luminous in white beneath the marriage canopy. Becca looks past, and peers closely at her future. She believes she can see the faint flicker of flaming red wings shimmering at her back.
Deborah Kahan Kolb is the author of Escape of Light (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press) and Windows and a Looking Glass (Finishing Line Press, 2017), a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest. She is a recipient of the 2018 Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award, and her work has been selected as a finalist for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Deborah is the producer of the short poetry film Write Me. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM, Shirim, Poetica, Voices Israel, New Verse News, Literary Mama, 3Elements Review, Poets Reading the News, Paddock Review, Tuck, Rise Up Review, Writers Resist, Mom Egg Review, and Veils, Halos & Shackles, an international poetry anthology addressing the oppression and empowerment of women. You can find her at www.deborahkahankolb.com.
As you stare at the photo hanging above the fireplace, you are acutely aware of your wife in the other room, folding laundry. You wonder if she can sense this shift in your life, triggered by what just arrived for you in the mail. Though you’ve never seen her handwriting in English, as soon as you see the tiny block letters spell out your name in the English phonetic interpretation that you’ve adopted in your new country, you know. Yoona left her name off the envelope, but there is a return address. Sugar Land, Texas.
He’s got a government job, you imagine nuna telling Jihyun excitedly, as she often did when she ran into prospective suitors during your single days. As the only daughter, nuna made it somewhat of a mission to find a suitable mate for her siblings, an activity that you and your brothers regard as women’s work. You remember the day she urged you to accompany her to church.
You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.
“We never went to church back home. Why start now?”
“Don’t you know that’s where all the Korean girls are? Anyway, there’s this sweet girl I think will be good for you.”
Nuna gives you the rundown. Jihyun is twenty-two. Been in America for less than a year, by way of her older brother who owns a dry cleaning business in Chicago. The third daughter of a farming family from Nonsan City, 120 kilometers north of your hometown, where you left Yoona behind. You acquiesce. You know this is the way it works.
The last time you saw Yoona, you were sitting on the outdoor steps of the student dormitory at the private university in Gwangju, your hometown. You stare down at your lap as you tell her that hyeong, Older Brother, is able to bring you to America. “After everything,” she says, “you are just going to leave?” You think about the events of the past spring. Storming the city square, Yoona’s hand in yours, high on the sense of solidarity, the knowledge of doing something big, as you joined your fellow students and townsfolk, chanting, singing, Ari-Ari-Rang. Then the bullets. The screams. She must know that it is not safe to stay, that you cannot pass up the opportunity to start a life in America. You want to tell her that you will take her with you, that you will wait for her. Instead you reach for her palm, silently communicating that you had tried, that if the world wasn’t the way it was, you would be asking her to be your wife.
“I won’t allow it,” Ahbuhjee said when he learned of your plans to ask for Yoona’s hand. “A daughter of a divorcé is not suitable for our family.” You can’t imagine living a life separate from her while existing in the same space, knowing that even if you were to run to the opposite corner of the country, she would still be just a few hours drive away. And so you decide to leave. You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.
After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host.
Jihyun is a good wife. She excels at making your favorite food from back home. Every day when you come home from work the table is already set with a steaming bowl of sticky rice and soondubu or some other jjigae, the broth still bubbling in the claypot. Or, if the weather is nice enough to open the windows, samgyeopsal, thick, slick slices of pork belly, grilled right on the table and wrapped in romaine picked from the garden. Once a month, she takes a giant steel basin outside to make kimchi, squatting on the concrete patio in the backyard of your suburban home, kneading salt and gochujang into the cabbage leaves.
After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host. How was work? How was your day? The food is delicious. As soon as you finish your last bite, you stand up, go to the living room to watch the news as she clears the dishes, washes them by hand even though you have a working dishwasher.
The photo that hangs above the fireplace is a candid shot from your wedding day, the two of you facing each other against the blurred backdrop of the church’s altar. Neither of you are smiling, as if in deep reverence of the words of God being expressed through the pastor. But you know the real reason. For her, because the flowers are late, and for you, the overwhelming clamor of the mantra you’ve been reciting in your head since that day you first set eyes on the woman standing before you. She is not Yoona, but you can learn to love her.
You shove the letter into your briefcase, taking extra care to jumble the numbers on the combination lock. You plan to read it in your car tomorrow, in the safety of the parking lot of your office. You know Jihyun will not sense anything out of the ordinary, for perhaps the letter did not change anything at all. For you always knew what you would do if this day were to come, the day where one of you traversed an entire ocean to bridge the space that had been keeping you apart. You knew this before you hid the letter in the briefcase, before you slipped the ring on Jihyun’s finger, before you boarded the plane nine years ago onto the twelve-hour flight that would bring you to where you are now.
Dhaea Kang is a singer-songwriter and emerging fiction writer from Chicago, IL. She has been dealing with her seemingly endless songwriter’s block by channeling her energy into writing stories.
Mr. Edwards calls me out tonight. He found another first-calf heifer in distress. The third one in as many years, bleeding and panting, eyes rolled back to whites under his flashlight. I sit on the porch steps putting on my mudders, cursing my stubborn joints, already knowing the likely outcome. Even so, I don’t dally. I don’t even bother locking the place up. Ain’t no one coming all the way out here to do me harm. Especially when I keep the place lit up like I do. Folks have accused me of doing it on account of being an old lady living out here alone. But I’ve never been afraid of country living. Now my girl, she was always foolish afraid of the dark, so leaving these lights on is my way of showing her I’m still right here.
I haven’t been practicing in years, but Mr. Edwards don’t like to call the new vet if he can help it. The new vet lives closer to town and has a new wife, both obstacles to swiftness even in daylight. But at 2 a.m., when cold darkness turns seconds into eternities, that’s too long to wait when he can see the calf halfway born and my light is on anyhow.
On my way out to my truck, I can hear coyotes yip-howling. My girl used to feed them ever so often if my hand wasn’t around to stop her. I’d try to reason with her how feeding wild animals just gets them killed. Either they stop fearing people like they should, or they stop knowing how to take care of their own. No matter the way, it destines them for unnecessary suffering. She was gone not long after we had words about it last, so I can’t argue no more with her now. It’s been near eight months since the last time she took meat out to the tree line. By the sound of it, the pack has pups now.
I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
Inside my truck, it smells of stale cigarettes. I never smoked, but my girl liked to show me she could be different than I thought her. The metal ashtray is full of her butts, pink lipstick stained. Never could tell if she took it up on account of pressure from others, or to look harder than she was, but I was never fooled. Mothers never are; we know the nature of our children. I check to make sure I have my bag, though Mr. Edwards should be prepared. I tap the rifle mounted behind my head like I do every time I get behind the wheel. I turn the keys in the ignition. The engine grumbles at the late hour, but she runs.
* * *
At the farm, I can see the figure of Mr. Edwards hunched over in the distance. The muck sucks at my boots and I have to be deliberate to keep my balance. I don’t look around, but I can feel animal eyes follow my path. At my heels is a yellow barn cat. I click my tongue to draw it closer and offer a quick scratch. It considers me, but scatters away from my hand when I bend for it. Cats have some of the best instincts if you ask me. My girl never did care for cats after her own ate three of her kittens. I tried to warn her. She’d been inviting her friends after school to peek and poke at the litter. Momma cats will eat them babies before she’ll let nasty strangers get at ‘em. It’s their God-given instinct. But my girl never would listen to me, even when I was trying to keep her from hurt.
When I was young, I didn’t mind the night work. Now, trudging in the dark field, I wish these farmers would stop calling me, but I know they won’t. Not until they’re dead or moved out. After that, I’ll watch the farms get sold off to men with bank accounts big enough to parcel the land into tiny squares of empty promise and open floor plans. I’ll sit on my porch in a rocking chair with a rifle, and keep them at bay until I’m dead, too. Ain’t no one desecrating my property, uncovering things best left, not while I’m alive.
I see when I’m close enough, it isn’t Mr. Edwards but his girl Jamie, her hair tucked under a hat. She stands when I’m close enough, but this kind of call doesn’t demand neighborly handshakes or ask-abouts.
She says, “Hey, Ms. Meeks.” She makes room for me to kneel down and inspect the situation.
“How long she like this?”
“Found her this way half an hour ago, maybe a little more. Somehow got out of her birthing pen.”
The calf’s snout is beginning to poke through, but not enough, its eyes still in the black well of its mother’s body, pink nostrils pushing and sucking for air.
“I tried to clear the mucus, but we couldn’t get her head out no further without some help. Dad went to call you and then see about getting some better lights out here.”
“Look here,” I say, so that she points the flashlight in the direction I mean, “the forelegs are out, but they’re crossed. Means the shoulders are wedged in her pelvis.”
Contemplating the work and likely outcome makes me sigh.
I ask, “Has she been having regular straining still, or has she gave up?”
“She’s been trying real hard. Just no progress. She started resting more. That’s what worried Dad.”
It’s good the heifer is flat on her side. Standing means a heavy calf can rest too low. I stand and look for a sign that Mr. Edwards is coming with extra light, but the night is dark except for the halo beam of Jamie’s flashlight. I worry for a second that she’s not fit for being witness if the heifer or the calf die. Lord knows I haven’t the patience for her being sentimental. Unlike what I tried to do right with my girl, the Edwards ain’t never raised Jamie to appreciate the world’s natural balance. But I never took the Edwards for having the right instincts for doing what was necessary.
“Think we should try and get her up? Move her back to the barn?” Jamie asks.
“Don’t you think if she was able your dad woulda already done that?”
Jamie shines the light back in the mother’s eyes but turns it away quickly. Her own eyes look tearful, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. Mr. Edwards never did see her weakness, like to say instead she was a sensitive girl. He confessed they stopped keeping chickens years back because Jamie would cry for days any time a fox stole a meal. No way to prepare the girl for the real world, if you ask me.
I say to Jamie, “If she got herself out here then it was her intention. Things are set now. You clean her and get her ready?”
“Best we could. Dad had the kit you gave him last season with the sanitizer. He applied some of the lubricant, too.”
My girl never wanted to help me at the clinic or on my calls, though I didn’t give her any choice in the matter. That’s where I’m different from the Edwards. I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.
“You back home now with your folks?”
“Nah. Still got another year, this is only my spring break. I’d planned on going to Cancun like most girls my age, but…” She shrugged by way of explanation. When she speaks, she sounds like my girl used to when we talked, resentful but pleased with herself about it, too.
“Well, Mexico’s no place for a nice girl anyhow. Your kind tend to go missing down there.”
I say this knowing already she won’t listen to reason. It ain’t nothing but wasted breath on my part.
“I don’t know that Stone county is any better,” Jamie says, but then adds real quick, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
Jamie says this, but no more. Folks are good when it comes to not asking about my girl directly. I never reported her missing, but folks noticed her gone. I know people assumed she was old enough and ran off on her own and I see no need to correct them. My girl ain’t the first in these parts to disappear, for one reason or another. She won’t be the last. I tell folks, if they press, that she’s out west. That’s true enough.
People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
We both look toward her house, waiting.
Still no sign of Mr. Edwards. The heifer gives a long, low moan. I see Venus low in the sky. My skin prickles. There’s not much time left before it’s too late for the calf.
“You still studying to be a nurse, like you thought?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Thinking I might take a year for the Peace Corps before I figure it out.” Jamie shifts her weight, and the flashlight shines on the flaring nostrils of the calf before she switches it to her other hand. “My dad says the Peace Corps is for hippies and I’ll just go off and get malaria or, heaven forbid, AIDS!” She says the last word drawn out so I know she finds it ridiculous.
“He’s thinking of your future. Not many places around here see the Peace Corps as job training.”
“Who says I plan on staying around here?”
“You’d be best not to stray too far,” I say. “The world won’t show no concern for a girl like you.”
Jamie half laughs; I figure she thinks I’m too old to know the truth of things. I pretend to check the supplies Mr. Edwards has placed on the tarp near the heifer so I have a moment to swallow the rest of my opinions. I’m certain he’s left her unattended for too long, that she’s grown far too weak to survive the pain that is surely coming her way. Only one thing left I can do if I want to be of service. Sometimes it’s better to take a life when you know the kind of suffering that’s around the corner. Most people know this deep down, but that’s why they come to me. They just don’t have the stomach for it.
“You ever seen an animal die?” I ask Jamie.
“I think you’re forgetting I’m a farm girl,” Jamie says, only I know hearing about it at the dinner table from her dad is different than watching living eyes go empty.
Jamie shines the flashlight into the blinking black eyes of the heifer like she heard my thoughts but, even if she did, she don’t know my memories.
I ask her, “How about a person?”
I hear a tractor start up, its lights pointing west, then watch it turn slowly toward us. Jamie doesn’t answer my question.
“People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”
She stays quiet, both of us waiting for the tractor.
“Many times it’s an act of love,” I add.
Then she says, when Mr. Edwards is likely close enough to make out our shapes, “Do you ever get used to it? Putting animals down?”
“It don’t ever get easy, if that’s what you’re asking.” The tractor is nearing, but we’re standing just outside the reach of its light. That place at the edge where it always seems darkest.
“But I remind myself the hard thing can be the right thing. When you know you’re saving ‘em from a worse hurt.”
If she answers, I don’t hear it. It’s an old tractor and it’s loud. It drowns out our voices and the moaning of the heifer. It occurs to me it would drown out the sound of most anything, if need be.
I reach over and pull her away from the heifer, away further from the spotlight of the tractor lights, but only a step or two from where I imagine Mr. Edwards will need to turn the tractor to position it right.
“May I?” I ask and hold out my hand for the flashlight.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.”
She holds it out and I take it. I squat and use the light for a quick scan of the contents of my bag, even though I know what I brought. The tractor is nearly to us now. This might not be the reason Mr. Edwards called me out, but it might be a kind of calling just the same. I figure what needs to be done will be easier in the dark, so I switch off the flashlight.
The ground is uneven, and it can be easy to stumble. To accidentally fall. So, when I stand, I grab hold of Jamie. The tractor turns. It’s so close that the burning gasoline stings my eyes and they blur up. The pull of my weight on her arm catches her off guard. She begins to lose her balance. I need only a second more, another surprising shift of my weight. It was this way with my girl. Nature presenting an opportunity ripe for mercy. That’s what I’d be doing for the Edwards.
The lights of the tractor give a spotlight on the heifer. I’m drawn to her black bovine eyes. They are wild with panic. Her hooves kick in the air, useless to do anything but announce her fear. Her calf is trapped inside her body, dying, but she also sees the monstrous machine barreling toward them. I recognize that terror; all mothers do eventually. The world only grants us two choices.
But Jamie is stronger than I realize. And the heifer, in her flailing moment of fight, steals the extra second I needed. Jamie’s grip pulls me back. The tractor rumbles to a stop at our feet.
* * *
Working under the hot lights of the tractor, I push my gloved hand into the heifer. The calf is a tight fit. I’m surprised to find the shoulders aren’t stuck as I’d figured. It’s only that the heifer’s hymen is thick and resisting. The pain of the calf caught in the thickly woven tissue was so great that the heifer stopped pushing. Like she would rather kill her calf with her own body than feel the hurt of it ripping free of her.
“She don’t want to let it out,” I say to Mr. Edwards. “It’s too late.”
“No,” Jamie says. “We just need to pull.”
Mr. Edwards looks to me, “Do I need the chains?”
I can see he’s decided.
“Nah,” I say. “Chains won’t make a difference at this point. We’ll pull and let nature decide.”
Mr. Edwards crouches down on the tarp he’s laid for the delivery and hands me the lubricant. Jamie crowds in, bumping the bucket of hot soapy water her dad brought from the house.
“If you want in here, your hands better be clean,” I say to Jamie.
She looks me in the eye. “I washed ‘em before I came out. When Dad said he needed help.”
“You give ‘em another quick scrub in the bucket anyhow.”
The heifer grunts, her tongue foamy at the edges, her body hot to my touch. She ain’t fighting no more, but she ain’t gave up either.
“I just grab its legs?” Jamie asks. I can see sweat beads on her upper lip from the heat of the tractor lights.
I nod. Mr. Edwards doesn’t say a word. He stands up and moves back to make room for Jamie to position herself at my side.
I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.
“Now, on my word, you’ll pull one leg at a time, back and forth.”
I can feel Mr. Edwards hovering, likely calculating what hangs in the balance. I say to Jamie and to the heifer, “It’s gonna take all your strength. You best be ready.”
She nodded. Her eyes full of fight. “I’m ready.”
* * *
Back home, I park my truck in the same deep dirt ruts. Out west on my property, sitting silent in my distant dark yard, is a crumbling stacked stone well. For the first time in eight months, I can’t bear to look to it. I find Venus again. Years ago, someone on the television said that with the right telescope, the planet Venus would appear reddish brown. “Just like my hair,” my girl said to me. Proud the way children are over trivial connections. “I don’t care what the other girls say about my hair now.”
My truck door creaks in protest as I open it. It’s late, or very early, and there is no sound except the occasional trill of a tree frog. I walk toward my house, unable to blink away the memory of my girl’s eyes gone wild with panic, her useless kicking. That day we were pulling up buckets of water from the well. The garden near burned up from the sun. There was a man, she said. He said he loved her over the computer. She said she was leaving for California, no matter my say so. She said she already bought her bus ticket.
I had no choice.
Only, what about the heifer? Under those tractor lights, I witnessed how her instinct would have surely squeezed the life of her child if not for Jamie. I knew this truth the second that calf sprung free. I watched Jamie working her finger into the calf’s nostril, teasing a sneeze out of the calf to clear the mucus. Her pouring iodine and alcohol on the calf’s navel. Her sitting the calf up and counting its breaths. Walking back across the field with Jamie at my side, I felt turned about inside. I fumbled for Jamie’s hand again, hoping she could help me find my way back.
At home, walking across the yard to my door, the damp spring air chills me. I cup my hands over my mouth and blow warm breath into my fingers. I can still smell the blood on them. The screen door slaps behind me, but I make certain I hook it shut. I turn out the porch lights and I lock up the house door—both bolts.
Inside, the rooms are full of night, save the kitchen where a light’s glowing warm above the stove. I walk past it out of habit, only to turn back and switch it off. The Lord may have created the light, but sooner or later, we all face our own dark.
Heather Luby grew up in the Ozark Mountains, running barefoot and writing stories. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, JMWW, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Shotgun Honey, among others. In addition to being a writer, Heather is on the editorial board for the Midwest Review and teaching with the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also the former managing editor of The Citron Review. Heather holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt and Hochman Literary Agents.
Tala drinks her coffee in bed every day. She gives free rein to her thoughts, allowing a breathing space to think, to remember, to plan, or just to be.
Nadim looks in her direction. “You don’t need to come with me to the airport. It’s too early. I’ll take a taxi.”
“No,” she responds. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes.” She notices his frozen smile and hurries up. It was one of the earliest things she had noticed about him. That inauthentic smile that told her he did not approve.
She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be.
Tala doesn’t know why she is insisting on going with him. She hates airports. She sees them as worlds in suspended animation, places and times that are boring in their repetitiveness. She knows that the trips are important to publicize his book, but airports accentuate her feeling of being in a state of perpetual waiting.
She understands Eliot’s Prufrock so well: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons…”
“I’ll make some coffee. I just want to shake off this headache.”
“There’s no time for coffee, habibti. Hurry up.” She could see the smile forming. He had called her habibti, my loved one. Clearly he was upset.
The kitchen sink is filled with plates and glasses from last night. The kitchen will be clean in his absence. She will not cook. A salad and some cheese are enough for her. She does not like to waste time in the kitchen. She will do what she wants without worrying about being observed, judged, or expected to be a person he created in his image.
She wondered when she had bartered the transparency of her emotions in return for this sallow phase devoid of longing or anticipation. He had been the sanctuary to which she resorted to avoid the boredom of the mundane. She had discovered the aesthetics of the universe with him, so why did she hold him solely responsible for the chasm that now separates them? Did she not also step back for fear he would let her down when he saw her dependence on him?
* * *
In the garage, Nadim gets into the driver’s seat as he always does when he is with Tala. He does not like Tala driving when they are together. As they merge into the morning traffic, he says, “Just what I thought. Traffic is very slow at this time of day…”
She turns on the radio in the car before he has a chance to complete his sentence about wanting to leave the house early, and how she had delayed him.
She decides that silence between them is better. It hadn’t always been like this.
* * *
“To extrapolate from your analysis, Nadim, this existence of ours is absurd because it is based on binaries.”
“Well, think about it, Tala. Within us we hold both the thing and its opposite. Part of us is God-like, capable of creativity and love, and another part of us is a depth of darkness that results from the pain and frustration that we have buried inside us.”
“I know just what you mean! Reminds me of something I read once: A blind man does not know darkness because he has never seen light.”
“There you go: binaries.”
* * *
At the airport, she stands aside and watches him as he waits in the passenger check-in line. He does not look at her. It is as if he is already gone. She is distracted by the sight of all these people around her. She puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, glances at it, then tosses it into the recycling bin.
As he finishes checking-in, she sees him scanning the crowds looking for her. She waves to him, and he smiles, walking toward her.
But he is somewhere else, thinking about other things that have nothing to do with her.
“You do not need to wait any longer, Tala. I do not like farewells.”
She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be. She took pride in the clarity of her thoughts, and her ability to express them. She found now that she was less and less concerned about his likes and dislikes.
“I will not say goodbye, Nadim,” she says. Nadim comes up close to Tala and brushes away a lock of hair from her forehead. He starts to hum a verse from Abdel Wahab’s classic song which both of them loved, “Her eyes taught me how to love her, but love can kill.” Tala laughs. That song had once made her imagine she was dancing on the edge of a magic chord left in her heart by a rebellious god.
She feels nothing now. She returns his look with another, showing no joy, no grief.
Tala looks for something to say. She remembers how the words had flowed between them. She remembers their conversations, their words coming effortlessly, needing no clarification.
When did she forget how to speak to him?
He often provoked her with the subjects he chose. She would google the facts so she could find the fodder that would allow her to hold her own in their interminable discussions.
Her thoughts flashed back to one of their early conversations full of passion and absolutes.
“You’ve read Ezra Pound, of course.”
She did not reveal that she only knew the poet and critic by name.
“You must recall his famous letter to Harriet Monroe in 1915, in which he referred to his quest to make the arts an authentic guide that enlightened civilization. In his literary criticism, T.S. Eliot discussed the connections linking poetry, civilization, and society. He underscored the importance of being inspired by the past without being limited by it, and at the same time, to create worlds aligned with modernity…”
They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.
He continued to hold forth, and she kept silent, except for the occasional comment, for fear that he would ask her a question that would expose her ignorance. He seemed to intuit her discomfort and changed the subject.
“As for us, Tala, well just look at us, we copy and emulate at best, but where is our creativity? All we have is the silence of graves.”
“By us you mean we who live in the East?”
“How can it be otherwise in a society that persecutes thought and prostitutes the arts? The East is in a state of clinical death, my dear Tala. It reminds me of a poem by Khalil Hawi, ‘Lukewarm ashes here, hot ashes there … but ashes to ashes.’”
* * *
“Now how is that headache?” asked Nadim. “Ready for a strong cup of coffee?”
“At least I will make up for that coffee I deprived you of at home…”
Nadim takes Tala’s arm and leads her to the nearby café. Once there, he takes his hand away and puts it into his pocket.
They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.
She says silently, “I want to embrace you so that my body fits inside yours and we become inseparable.”
Instead she says, “Long journey. I hope you can sleep a little bit.”
“It’s hard to find any comfort in the seats. They are so narrow that I feel I have to compact myself.”
She remembers a conversation they once had.
“Think about it, Tala, music is the result of the silence between notes. In the same way, we have to learn how to listen to the silence between words. The hiatus creates words that have a hidden rhythm. It reflects the shadow of the truth or its absence.”
“How do we embrace this knowledge of pain with less sadness, Nadim?”
“We allow our hearts to be vulnerable. We feel the wound without fear of grief. It is fear and not sorrow that is the opposite of joy.
* * *
“The pressure in my head has eased. This coffee is magic.”
“You’re always tense, you just don’t know how to soften your reactions to things.”
“Is that how you see me now, Nadim? You used to say you loved my spontaneity, and my desire to find hidden truths.”
“And I still do. All I want to say is that you should try to give yourself a break.”
“Do you remember that line by Adonis? ‘There is no power on earth that can compel me to love what I do not care for, or to despise what I do not hate.’”
He looks at his wristwatch and says, “I better go. I also don’t want you to be late for work.”
“Oh, I have time, don’t worry. I’ll finish my coffee and then go.”
“Oh, sorry, Tala, I did not notice you hadn’t finished your coffee. Of course I’ll wait.”
“You do not have to, you’re right, it’s better to go to the gate early. The lines will be long.”
She rises so as not to leave him room for hesitation, and hastily embraces him. “Take care of yourself, Nadim. You’ll call me when you land, right?”
“Of course I will.”
He walks away. She watches him hand his passport and boarding pass to the security agent. She wills him to turn around. He does not.
She follows him with her eyes as he moves away, becomes smaller, disappears.
She orders another cup of coffee to take away, and moves to the glass façade that overlooks the tarmac. She watches the plane take off, and follows it until it disappears into space.
She does not understand the mysteries of how an airplane, carrying hundreds of passengers, is here one moment and gone the next. Had Nadim been here, she would have asked him.
“The clamor of my feelings is compressed into a tattoo which is carved into my heart.” Tala heads for her car, fumbling blindly for the keys in her bag. Did the keys stay with him? If he has her keys, the spare set is in the apartment. She takes a deep breath and rummages once more in her bag. She finds the keys. She sighs with relief, delighting in the feel of the keys. The sense of touch is so often discounted.
Tala gets into the car. She settles behind the steering wheel, enjoys a quiet moment of freedom. Free from his presence, free from the weight of his absence.
تشرب تالة القهوة في الفراش، ككل صباح، فترة محايدة تتسلل فيها أفكارها دون تتابع، تتذكر، تخطط، أو مجرد أن تكون.
يلتفت نديم نحوها ويقول: “لا داعي أن تأتي معي الى المطار، ما زال الوقت باكرا.. سآخذ تاكسي.”
“لا، سأكون حاضرة خلال دقائق”. وتنهض بسرعة حين تراه يبتسم تلك الابتسامة المصطنعة التي لا تخفى عليها والتي توحي
لها بأنه غير راض. لا تعرف لماذا أصرت على الذهاب معه، فهي تكره المطارات، عوالم معلقة بين الأمكنة والأوقات، مملة
في تشابهها. تدرك أن سفره ضروري لترويج كتابه، ولكن المطارات تزيد من احساسها أنها دائما تنتظر، تعيش حياتها تنتظر..
تفهم جيدا ما رمى اليه تي اس اليوت في قصيدته “أغنية حب لألفرد برفروك” حين كتب: “ مضيت أقيس حياتي بملاعق
“سأعد ركوة قهوة طازجة، لعلها تخفف من هذا الصداع”.
“لا وقت للقهوة يا تالة، هيا يا حبيبتي أسرعي”. تلاحظ تلك الابتسامة الباهتة على شفتيه وقد دعاها بحبيبته، لا بد أنه في غاية
تنظر الى حوض المطبخ وقد امتلأ بالصحون والأقداح التي تجمعت منذ ليلة البارحة. سيبقى المطبخ نظيفا في غيابه، لن تطبخ
شيئا، السلطة وقطعة من الجبن تكفيها… كل هذا الوقت الذي يضيع بلا معنى.. ستفعل ما تريد دون أن تشعر أن هناك أحدا
يراقبها، يحاكم تصرفاتها، ويتوقع منها أن تكون انسانة صنعها هو، على صورته.
متى قايضت شفافية أحاسيسها بهذه المرحلة الشاحبة التي لا شوق فيها ولا لهفة، رغم أن نديم كان المعبد الذي لجأت اليه من
رتابة اليومي، وأنها، معه، اكتشفت جماليات الكون؟ ولماذا تحمله وحده مسؤولية هذه الهوة بينهما، ألم تبتعد هي أيضا خوفا من
أن يخذلها حين يرى مدى حاجتها اليه؟
يدخلان الكاراج، ويجلس نديم في مقعد السائق كما يفعل دائما حين يكون معها. تسترق النظر اليه لا تغفل عن وجوده وهو يقود
السيارة في زحمة السير.
يقول: “هذا ما خشيته.. حركة السير بطيئة في هذه الساعة.”
تدير راديو السيارة قبل أن يكمل كلامه ويلمح بأنه كان يود أن يغادر البيت باكرا ولكنها أخرته. الصمت بينهما أفضل. لم يكن
الأمر كذلك في السابق.
“بناء على تحليلك هذا الوجود عبثي لأنه قائم على الثنائيات.” ويقول: “نعم يا تالة، حتى نحن في داخلنا الشيء ونقيضه لأن
جزءا منا الهي قادر على الابداع والحب، بينما الجزء الآخر قابع في عتمة الداخل نتيجة للألم والاحباط الذي دفنناه في
“أفهم ما تقول، مما يذكرني بجملة قرأتها أن الاعمى لا يعرف الظلام لأنه لم ير النور.”
في المطار، تقف جانبا تنظر اليه وهو واقف في صف تسجيل وصول المسافرين، لا ينظر نحوها.. كأنه رحل فعلا.. تتلهى
بالتفرج على الناس .. تضع يدها في جيبها، تتلمس ورقة قديمة تسحبها، تقرأها، تتوجه نحو سلة المهملات، ترميها… تعود الى
ينتهي من اجراءات تسجيل الوصول وتراه يبحث عنها، تشير اليه فيبتسم ويتوجه نحوها، غائبا عنها، يفكر في أمور أخرى لا
علاقة لها بها.
“لا داعي لأن تنتظري أكثر، لا أحب الوداع”.
ترفع كتفيها نفيا وعنادا.. قال لها مرة أنه يحب عنادها وتشبثها برأيها. أفرحها ذلك الاطراء اذ أنها تفخر بوضوح أفكارها
وبقدرتها على التعبير عما يختلج في ذهنها. لكنها لم تعد تعبأ بما يحب أو يكره…
يقترب نديم منها ويرفع خصلة شعر انسدلت على جبينها.. يدندن لحنا لعبد الوهاب كانا يغنيانه معا: “جفنه، علم الغزل، ومن
الحب ما قتل.” تضحك. مقطع من أغنية كان يثير عوالم راقصة في مخيلتها وكأنها ترقص على حافة وتر سحري تركه اله
متمرد في قلبها، ولكنها لا تشعر بشيء الآن.. تبادل نظرته بأخرى لا فرح فيها ولا حزن…
تتذكر كم كان الكلام ينساب بينهما ولا ينتهي… متى نسيت كيف تحدثه؟
كان يفاجئها دائما بالمواضيع التي يختارها، يستفزها، فتهرع الى غوغل تفتش عن المعلومات حتى تجاريه في نقاشاته. تتذكر
حديثا جرى بينهما، واحدا من جملة أحاديث مفعمة بالأحاسيس والمطلقات.
“أنت طبعا قرأت شعر ازرا باوند”. لم تقل أنها تعرف الاسم، وتعرف أنه شاعر وناقد، وهذا مدى معرفتها به. “لا بد أنك
تذكرين رسالته الى هارييت مونرو عام 1915، والتي يشير فيها الى سعيه لجعل الفنون دليلا مسلما به ومصباحا للحضارة.
الأمر الذي تناوله تي اس اليوت في نقده الأدبي حيث يناقش هذا الترابط بين الشعر والحضارة والمجتمع، وأهمية أن يستقي
الشاعر من الماضي دون أن يقتصر عليه، وفي الوقت نفسه يخلق عوالم تتماشى مع حداثة الحاضر”.
ويسترسل في الحديث وتبقى صامتة الا من تعليق هامشي، خائفة أن يسألها سؤالا يفضح جهلها. ولعله حدس ذلك، فيغير
الموضوع حتى يتجنب احراجها.
“أما نحن، فأنظري الينا يا تالة، ننقل ونحاكي في أحسن الأحوال، ولكن أين الابداع الخلاق؟ لم يبق لنا غير صمت القبور.”
“تقصد نحن في الشرق؟ “
“وهل يكون غير ذلك في مجتمع يضطهد الفكر ويعهر الفنون؟ الشرق في موت سريري، مما يذكرني بمقطع شعر لخليل
“رماد فاتر هنا، رماد حار هناك… رماد برماد “.
“ كيف وجع رأسك يا تالة؟” ما رأيك بفنجان قهوة قوية؟”
ويضيف ضاحكا: “على الأقل أعوضك عن فنجان القهوة الذي حرمتك منه في البيت.”
تضمها ذراعه ويقودها الى أقرب مقهى . يرتشفان القهوة صامتين.
تتأمله وهو يدفع ثمن القهوة .. تحبه بالجينز .. يبدو أصغر سنا، كما عرفته منذ عشرين سنة..
تريد أن تقول: أود أن أعانقك، أن أدس جسدي داخل جسدك لا أنفصل عنك.
ولكنها تقول: “الرحلة طويلة، آمل أن تتمكن من النوم ولو قليلا”.
“من الصعب أن نجد أي راحة في هذه المقاعد التي ضاقت لدرجة يضطر المرء فيها أن يتكوم على نفسه”…
“ يجب أن نتقن الاصغاء الى الصمت بين الكلمات، كما الصمت بين الأنغام يصنع الموسيقى…لهذه المسافة بين الكلمات ايقاع
خفي يعكس ظلال الحقيقة أو غيابها “.
تتساءل: “وكيف نحتمل هذه المعرفة بحزن أقل”؟
“بأن تبقى قلوبنا طرية، ونبقى قابلين للجرح دون أن نخاف الحزن. فالخوف، لا الحزن، نقيض الفرح.”
“خف الضغط في رأسي… ان للقهوة مفعولا سحريا”.
“أنت متوترة دائما، لا تعرفين كيف تخففين من ردود فعلك على كل شيء.”
“أهكذا تراني يا نديم؟ كنت تقول أن أكثر ما تحبه عفويتي ورغبتي في ايجاد الحقيقة المغيبة.”
“لم أقصد ذلك.. كل ما أردت قوله أن تحاولي أن تريحي نفسك قليلا”.
“أتذكرين هذه الجملة لأدونيس: “ما من قوة في الأرض ترغمني على محبة ما لا أحب، أو كراهية ما لا أكره.”
ينظر الى ساعته، يقول: “لعله من الأفضل أن أذهب …لا أريدك أن تتأخري عن عملك”.
“أمامي متسع من الوقت لا تقلق. سأنهي فنجان القهوة ثم أذهب.”
“عفوا، لم ألحظ انك لم تشربي قهوتك بعد. طبعا سأبقى.”
“لا داعي، معك حق، الأفضل أن تتوجه الى قاعة المسافرين، فالصفوف لا بد طويلة.”
تنهض حتى لا تترك له مجالا للتردد، تعانقه بصورة تلقائية، تقول: “انتبه لنفسك، ستتصل بي حال وصولك، صح؟”
يمضي، تراقبه وهو يعطي جواز سفره وبطاقة صعود الطائرة لرجل الأمن، تأمل أن يلتفت وراءه ليراها.. لا يفعل.
تتابعه بنظراتها وهو يبتعد، يصير أصغر، يختفي…
تطلب فنجان قهوة آخر تحمله معها وتمشي الى آخر الفاصل الزجاجي المشرف على المدرج تنتظر اقلاع الطائرة، وتتابعها
بنظراتها حتى تتلاشى في الفضاء.. لا تفهم ألغاز الوجود الغامضة، كيف كان هنا، كيف لم يعد.. لو كان نديم هنا لسألته…
“ صخب مشاعري يخفت في ملف مضغوط وشما مدقوقا في قلبي”…
تتجه نحو سيارتها، تبحث عن المفاتيح في حقيبتها، هل بقيت معه؟ ماذا ستفعل في هذه الحالة والنسخة الثانية في مكان ما في
البيت… تسترد أنفاسها حين تتلمس يدها المفاتيح في قاع الحقيبة، تفرحها الاحاسيس التي تولدها حاسة اللمس التي تغفل عنها في
معظم الأحيان.. تفتح باب السيارة وتجلس وراء المقود، لحظة هادئة خالية من كل شيء… خالية من حضوره، خالية من وطأة
Mishka Mojabber Mourani was born in Egypt and has lived in Australia and Lebanon. She is a graduate of the American University of Beirut, where she also taught cultural studies and leadership courses. She speaks five languages. She is the author of a poetry collection, Lest We Forget: Lebanon 1975-1990. Her short story, “The Fragrant Garden,” appeared in Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women [Telegram], and Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes [Eland]. Dar An-Nahar published her Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir. She translates from French and Arabic, and she co-authored a bilingual poetry collection entitled Alone, Together [Kutub] with Aida Y. Haddad. Her piece “Once upon A War Night” was published in the Exquisite Corpse anthology by Medusa’s Press, “Fatma’s Fate” in The Studio Voice, “From its shore I saw Jerusalem” in Your Middle East, and “Stone Walls Do Not A Memory Make” in Rowayat. Her short story “Crossing the Green Line” appeared in Slag Glass City and “Aleri” In Sukoon Magazine. Her short story “Amira’s Mirror” was included in the 2018 anthology Arab Women Voice New Realities. Her writing deals with war, memory, identity, exile, and gender issues.
Aida Haddad was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived in Greece before moving to the US. She graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in Arabic literature. She taught Arabic as a native and foreign language. She has published her short stories and articles in various outlets, such as An-Nahar, Al-Hayat newspapers, Ghurba magazine, Cultural Studies Quarterly, Al-hakawati, Almukhtar, Mitra, World Bank blogs and others. She is the co-author of Albayati: Prometheus of Arabic Poetry. Together with Mishka Mojabber Mourani, she co- authored a book of poems, Alone Together, in both Arabic and English.
You dip the sugar-speckled Parle-G in your tea and take a bite of the mushy biscuit, savoring the milky memories, watching the rain peter out to a mizzle in the garden outside the verandah where you sit in your bamboo cane chair. After the incessant spells of kalbaishakhi showers, the earth smells of rain, as it does every April. You let your thoughts travel back to April seven monsoons ago, then the previous, and then the previous, your mind a train stopping at every rain-soaked station. Every monsoon, the gulmohars in your neighbor’s compound burst into wild flames, and the clustered modhumonjori—their vines draping the arch of the iron gate outside your yard like crimson shawls—unfurl, leaving a lingering fragrance, the rain washing the dust from their tremulous, heart-shaped leaves. The aroma of mustard and poppies wafts into your consciousness; every April, when rain would patter against your sleepy green-shuttered window, Piali would cook her signature preparation of steamed ilish, and every meal of fish and rice would lead to languorous afternoons spent listening to Salil-da on the cassette player.
You pour some tea into the gold-rimmed saucer and slurp, the taste of cardamom on your moustache. Some of the tea spills on the front page of The Statesman and puddles in a brown pool on the chief minister’s shirt. You re-read the headings—“Thirteen persons shot dead by police at Youth Congress rally,” “Mamata Banerjee assaulted,” “Vince Foster’s death linked to depression,” “Louis J. Freeh to succeed Sessions”—and you sigh at the unpredictability and tumult in the world. Your neighbor’s feral calico has been wandering your garden again, and she enters the verandah, rubs her flank against your thigh, and you offer her some of your biscuit which she refuses. You sip the last of your tea, soggy dregs of dissolved biscuit clumping at the base of the cup. Then you rise to your feet, your knees cracking, and make your way to the glass-fronted book-cabinet beside the mirror that is now speckled with age. You reach for the second shelf and extricate a grainy photograph from between the yellowed, bethumbed pages of an anthology of Jibanananda Das’ poems, which you stuff into the pocket of your kurta. It is a photograph of Piali as a young bride draped in a banarasi saree, a mukut crowing her head, her forehead patterned with kumkum and sandalwood paste. Memories lap at the shore of your mind’s eye, and as a wave of sudden grief builds and threatens to break, you tame your thoughts, forcing them to recede into the sea of placid sadness whence they have risen. Looking into the mirror, you fix your hair—whatever is left of it at least, the sparse silver streaks running thinly across your bald head. You adjust your horn-rimmed spectacles, pick up your walking stick from the alcove, unplug the pedestal fan, and hobble your way to the door.
You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral.
Outside, the sky is still slate grey, the massed clouds brooding, bloated with rain. Sparrows twitter and cheep on the guava tree that reaches up to your terrace. The money plants that Piali had grown ten summers ago now entwine the trunk and trellis the red-brick walls. After closing the latch of the rusty gate behind you, you walk outside and fill your lungs with the rain-laced air. Prasanna—the newspaper boy—greets you, and you say “hello.” Down the street, beside the bazaar where Piali would haggle over the prices of fresh vegetables every morning, you stop by the little tin-and-wood kiosk. The shopkeeper, sitting behind a row of grubby glass jars full of savories, smiles and hands you a box of Silk Cut without you having to ask, offering his daily tidbit of local news, as usual: “Didi has called for a rally here in Golpark.”
“Yes, I am aware,” you reply as you take out a cigarette, your hands quivering, purple veins prominent against your paper-thin skin. “This has become a weekly affair,” you add, lighting the cigarette with the burning end of a braided coir rope that hangs at the side of the paan-shop like a limp brown serpent. The shopkeeper hands you your change, but you refuse. “Buy some sweets for the kids,” you say, and continue down the footpath. Thunder mutters somewhere in the distance. The gullies and sewers around you are rivulets of turbid, swilling water. You stop by Bimal-da’s porch and peep in through the window of his blue bungalow, the slatted panes ajar. You see him on his rocking chair, slivers of mosambi-colored sunlight striating his white dhuti-kurta. He sits slumped, his eyes half-closed, the morning daily on his lap, his spitz asleep like a shaggy rug by his feet; the sight is a daily fixture, and stopping by his house a daily ritual; one you have performed religiously for the last forty of your seventy years, ever since Piali and you moved to South Calcutta from Shyambazar when Tirthankar was five and Shayak just born.
Bimal-da seems to be immersed in stupor, but when you rap on his window once, and then twice—his dog’s ear perking up at the sound, its limp tail twitching—Bimal-da rises as he always does when he sees you, his face brimming with happiness, and he comes to the window slowly, a twinkle in his eyes that are cloudy with cataract. “Hello, Arun-da. Good morning,” he greets in English. “Shubho Noboborsho!”
“Happy New Year to you too,” you reply, reciprocating the Pohela Boishakh greetings.
“How are the boys?” he inquires. “Are they visiting in the winter?”
You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral. Ever since Tirthankar and Julia had their second child, they’ve been busy raising the kids, only calling from Atlanta every other month to check in on your health. And Shayak? He is a senior partner at a consulting firm in New York and is focused on promoting strategy and growth in Asia-Pacific. Unlike Tirthankar, he’s never considered settling down and starting a family of his own; his job, his business travels, keep him preoccupied. You feel pride well up at the thought of the big man Shayak has become, and this pride momentarily overwhelms the other feelings tamped-down inside of you. You wonder what it’s like in that foreign continent they now call home; you’ve only ever seen fragments of it in postcards—the streets lined with gold and vermillion-red leaves in the fall; the steel and glass buildings towering into curlicued clouds; the park with the dancing musical fountain where Tirthankar had proposed to Julia; the Ferris wheel across from the park. You think of your grandchildren, of the grandchildren you’ve only ever seen in the photographs they occasionally send you; you picture their mops of cherubic golden locks… Their eyes cerulean like distant seas… They’ve got Tirthankar’s features, though… The dimpled chins… Piali’s chin…
“I am looking forward to seeing the boys,” Bimal-da continues, his spitz waking up from its nap and panting in the humid heat. He still calls your sons boys, even though they are grown men now. “And Tirthankar’s boys as well. They must visit Kolkata! This is their home, too.”
Your thoughts still and settle like sediment, come to rest on that word—home. You think of what home means, and what it means to leave a home to find another. You feel… No, you know somehow, that you will never see your boys again. For this home that was once theirs, is, to them, like an island shrinking, shrinking, as one leaves an island behind and drifts, unanchored, out into the open ocean; an island shrinking until it is a speck on the horizon behind, an island finally disappearing in the distance.
They always promise to visit. “Yes, Bimal-da; I believe they will be visiting in the winter,” you reply, smoke hanging in the air like the hope of your children’s return.
You spend an hour on Bimal-da’s porch, talking about his granddaughter’s wedding in Delhi.
“The wedding is in Saket,” Bimal-da informs. “They are jewelers from Lajpat Nagar. I am happy that Subarna is going into such a cultured family.”
You remember Subarna as a little girl, with her lispy voice and her cascading curls; you remember how Shayak and Subarna—who is six years younger than him—would go knocking on neighbors’ doors collecting chanda together during Durga Puja, would serve khichdi and chana dal to guests as bhog on ashtami, before dressing up and performing skits and songs during the evening festivities. You share Bimal-da’s joy at this new chapter in his granddaughter’s life, but at the same time, there is something that is eating away at your insides like a colony of white ants.
“I can now die in peace, Arun-da!” he says dramatically, to which you reply: “Why do you speak of dying, Bimal-da? You are a young man still!”
The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket.
He laughs and then insists: “Please try your best to make it to the wedding,” and you want to say that yes, you will, but you’d rather not commit to promises that you can’t keep. You leave, but you make sure to turn around and see him standing on the steps of his porch with his furry white dog, make sure to wave goodbye. You linger outside stores selling exquisite shawls and rainbows of stoles, glimpsing Piali in every window. You stop briefly outside a boutique selling handloom sarees in brightly-colored hues and you recall how her eyes had lit up like terracotta lamps when you had bought her the parakeet-green cotton saree for her sixtieth birthday. She always did love hand-spun cotton. A pack of pariah dogs wrangle and gambol down the street. A coconut vendor in a threadbare loincloth is pushing his rickety wooden cart, calling out “daab, daab.” You continue walking till you reach Southern Avenue and then stop at a shanty selling deep-fried fritters—eggplant, onions, chilies. A rotund woman sits on her haunches on a gamchha, coating the vegetables in gram flour with hardened hands. You ask for aloor chop, and she drops pieces of potatoes into a large cauldron, the oil crackling and spitting. Crows caw from atop the blue tarpaulin sheet covering the shanty; some peck at rubbish below that is heaped beside the gutter.
“I hope you are fine and taking care of yourself, Arun-da,” the woman inquires as she sprinkles black salt on the potato fritters and hands them to you in a newspaper-bag full of puffed rice. “I do not believe that, at this age, you have too many days ahead if you go on smoking like this.” She laughs as she says this, her teeth stained red with gutka. You nod in acknowledgement as you hand her some coins.
“Any day could be anyone’s last, Madhu,” you lament, and then, straightening your walking stick, continue on your way. You stop by Vivekananda Park, and spend the afternoon watching the local boys play football in their colorful nylon jerseys as the sun climbs lower in the sky. You watch them kick up dust, and memories of your own sons and their Sunday games now bloom like bougainvillea in the muted nebulous orange of the evening. Thunder rumbles again, and the rain that has been gathering at the hem of dusk now breaks forth, a few drops striking your skin—cool, calming. The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket. Does Tirthankar teach them cricket, just the way you used to teach Tirthankar how to field and wicket-keep on Saturday mornings after he would feed the rabbits at Safari Park? Or does he teach them that other game—and you grapple with your thoughts to remember the name of it—that looks like a variant of cricket, that they play in their country… Baseball, they call it? You wonder whether your grandsons play sport, or whether they prefer to stay indoors instead, watching television or playing board games or coloring with crayons. That’s all you can do, really—wonder. They must have grown up now; they are probably bigger than what you remember of them from the photographs Julia shared two years ago. You wonder whether they refer to Piali as dadi or thakuma, or as grandma. How often do they think of her? Do they think of her at all?
You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets.
The day is closing, and the muezzin’s call to prayer can be heard wafting across terraces and mingling with the sounds of cymbals and conch shells and aarti bells. Darkness descends over the city like a veil, and you decide that it is time to move on. The heady scent of milkwood-pine laces the air. A melancholy moon has risen in the east, as pale and porcelain as Piali. You finish the last piece of your aloor chop and pick up your walking stick but, instead of turning back to return home, you wait for the juddering yellow taxis and the wabbling blue buses, the cars and motorbikes blurred by the vaporous rain to halt at a signal, so you can cross the road toward Rabindra Sarobar. Horns blare and trams clatter and chime over the trill of birds that are preparing to roost for the night. You look up into the shadowy canopies, imagining the chittering fledglings who, very soon, will leave their nests, never to return. It begins to drizzle again, and you feel grief stir and rise in waves. It was there, down the road, right beside where the jhalmuri-seller now squats in the dirt that, on the evening of Pohela Boishakh seven Aprils ago, in the back of an ambulance, Piali’s heart had stopped. They could have saved her; you were only minutes away from AMRI Dhakuria—the hospital where they were rushing her. But there was a bottleneck in the traffic up ahead, caused by a procession that the CPI(M) had called for, truck-loads of party members hooting and chanting slogans and waving red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles while your wife clung to her life and then, when she couldn’t cling to it any longer, died in your arms. The rally made headlines the next day, but you were left alone in this world to mourn her memory. At least she had you in her twilight hours, in her twilight years. There are those that have no one.
You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets. You can no longer hear the city’s din, just the rain strafing the streets, clamoring against tarpaulin roofs, beating against the lake’s dark surface. The only other sound you hear is Piali’s voice calling to you from beyond the waters of time. You feel a drenching cold that seeps into your clothes, into your very skin, followed by a serene, immovable, half-submerged solitude; the waters murmur in soft whispers, a sighing and a swishing. Tomorrow, if they find your body, the news of your death will reach your sons and your grandsons who will never meet their grandparents but will know of them through stained, sepia-tinted photographs. Tomorrow, if they find your body, your death will join the other headlines on the front page; then again, maybe it won’t, and will only make a snippet in the corner of the third page, because today’s rally will take up most of the first.
Bhavika Sicka was born and raised in Calcutta, India. She holds a BA in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She is currently based in Norfolk, VA, where she is pursuing an MFA at Old Dominion University. She has been a finalist for The Times of India‘s Write India contest, and her work has appeared in Arkana, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, The Punch Magazine, and The Bangalore Review, among others.
We were the only Latinos on the wet side of town and the only power-washed house on the block. Ma reminded Pops to rent the machine every year. While Pops blasted strips of filth off our vinyl siding, Ma was inside spraying our dog with Febreze. She fixated on scorching everything clean. Ma was self-conscious around white women in department stores, generally avoided my school events. She’d send Pops, light-skinned and affable, in her place.
What I knew about our history, I’d learned while doing laundry. In Puerto Rico, Pops had been in and out of jail, on and off the streets. A charitable old man let Ma stay rent-free in an isolated shack near the Isabela coast until he could sell the property.
“That’s where I went into labor with Steven,” she’d said. Alone that night, Ma had to climb the narrow and unkempt path into town, that’s how she got the scars on her feet, her thin chanclas catching broken glass. All I could imagine were hungry predators, man and animal, watching my mother as she groped in blind search of safety. Ma’s only worry had been to keep Steven from being born on the ground and left there to be found screaming and covered in ants, as she had been.
Steven ended up with his own problems, but Ma and Pops were doing it right this time, with me. “God gave us a second chance,” she’d said.
They came to Newark, where I was born. Pops got clean and saved enough money to buy a narrow bungalow on the wet side, densely-populated and so named for its vulnerability to the Sandy Hook Bay.
When I got mad at Pops, she’d say, “You got it good, Miriam. Your father used to be a different man.” Meaning, things were not bad now, even with Steven dropping out of high school when I was eleven and disappearing for days, weeks at a time. That’s the way it was with Steven, in and out, occasional paranormal visits.
White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business.
When we were younger, he’d race me to wherever Ma was in the house. “Whoever gets to her first,” he’d say, “is loved the most.” We’d hold hands and go scouting the town’s debris for plastic soda bottles, the labels of which we’d pull off for reward points toward branded fanny-packs, boom-boxes, mountain bikes. We never won anything, but it felt productive to keep searching, imagining potential in our streets.
Just a few weeks back, I’d sat with him on the couch. “What are you watching?” I asked. He stared at the blank TV; an earlier storm had knocked out the cable. The screen reflected the sunlight behind us and cast our silhouettes like witnesses who didn’t want to be identified.
We sat close. I knew Steven heard me, but he didn’t reply, and the next day Steven was gone, along with our TV.
* * *
I’d been helping Ma with laundry and was about to toss a white tee in with my darks when she snatched the shirt out of my hands, nearly shrieking. “You don’t want Leann’s family thinking you’re like the white trash around here. All their whites looking dirty.”
White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business. I did not tell her Leann Pacholski’s white training bra was mop-water gray.
“Go ask your father what he wants for dinner,” Ma said. They weren’t speaking—they’d been fighting about kicking Steven out for good—but Ma’s work ethic endured and our meals were always prepared, resentment expressed with overcooked rice. The problem was, Pops wasn’t speaking to me either. I’d misplaced his favorite hairbrush, failed to put it back exactly as I found it, to the right of the kitchen sink.
I found him rooting through the backyard shed, a glossy new structure out of place in our cramped backyard. Pops wasn’t a man with hobbies—only emotions as forbidden to me as his personal belongings—but for a homeowner, the shed was a necessary upgrade.
“Ma wants to know what you want for dinner. I’m going to a barbecue at the Pacholskis today.”
“My friend, Leann. There’s gonna be a lot of people. Ma said I could go.”
Pops considered it without looking at me. Maybe Ma was wrong when she told me in secret that Pops’s love had conditions. Maybe his love was constant but withheld until we were good again.
“Tell Ma to take you,” he said. “And she can pick something up on the way back. I’m changing the locks today.” He’d never met the Pacholskis, didn’t even ask me for their number, but changing the locks had to do with Steven. I took advantage of that and ran back to Ma.
* * *
Leann also lived on the wet side, and we attended the same day camp for middle schoolers at a park down the road. I sat at the arts and crafts table most of the time, where I wouldn’t be expected to imitate everyone’s enthusiasm for life, disappoint myself and God when I couldn’t. An older boy once teased Leann for latch-hooking with me instead of playing kickball, and she shot back, “Why don’t you suck my dick?”
Leann’s father, Roy, was popular for his Hulk Hogan impressions—he tied back his thick blonde hair and had a stocky build. He was always first to pick his kid up from day camp. The crunching of the gravel as his faded blue sedan pulled in signaled to the rest of us that we’d finally be home again—our energy and optimism revived, fights were forgiven, amends made. Usually, Roy would grab a juice box or soda from the backseat and toss it through his window while Leann headed toward his car. She caught it each time with both hands, as casual as if she’d been tossed a beer from a cooler, this routine like a commercial for Hawaiian Punch.
At the barbecue, Leann and I role-played fantastic scenarios, taking turns as witches or maiden victims. I’d met Leann’s mother, Sheryl, first thing, an unexpectedly bubbly woman in tight acid-wash shorts. “We have soda, do you want one? Let me get you one,” she’d said to me, but then got distracted by arriving guests. Now she was on the patio, having a drink for every drink she served and raising the volume on Bon Jovi, yelling about being ready to party.
“Looks like you’re already partying,” Roy yelled over her.
Once Leann’s cousins came around, she and her younger sister, Kat, kicked up dust tearing off for other games. I walked the edges of their yard looking for bottles, mostly finding half-buried Newports.
In chase, Leann leapt over a muddy Barbie jeep like a track hurdle. Her foot, bare and suspended, reminded me of when Ma’s crashed through the stoop of my own dollhouse, a wooden toy Victorian I’d been painting on the sidewalk path leading to our front door. She’d been chasing Steven around the house and he’d come out the front door before her, tripping and smacking the ground before me. He looked at me, the first in a long time, an acknowledgement that felt like apology. Then he was off and down the street before I could tell him he was loved, which maybe would have made him stay.
Ma came after him and the stoop of my dollhouse shattered with a croak I heard over her yelling “Coño carajo!” and falling to her already scarred-feet. One of many times I sat in my closet, tight and dark as a womb, solace when our house sometimes offered none.
He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left.
There was one bottle. Lying face up and waiting in the sun. Without noticing it uncapped and a quarter full, I grabbed it, tore the label off, a rare 4-points, a clover. Only then did I feel the warm liquid seeping through my white Keds, a soda stain more unforgivable than grass or soil.
I’d never crossed a yard so expansive on the wet side—enough distance for an oak tree, a tire swing even. But the inside of the Palchoski house seemed unprepared for company; the floors were cloudy with grime. Upstairs, black mold lined their bathroom sink, where I’d taken off my shoe to run a low, cold stream over the toe. Something about their home, I thought, might lead to a deeper, inaccessible truth that would explain what made me so uncomfortable around my peers—that people could be this dirty and poor and still have more than we did.
A crash downstairs, Roy shouting: “Get the fuck up, Sheryl!”
Halfway down the kitchen stairs, I saw Sheryl on the kitchen floor next to an upturned folding table of snacks, laughing and sticking out her tongue to lick potato chips off her face with as much delight as a kid in snow.
“Nice, Sher. In front of the girls,” Roy said, softer, cleaning up around her. At the back door, Leann and Kat watched on with the spooked bewilderment of feral children.
People outside began to leave, and I followed the girls upstairs. In their room, Leann slumped on the edge of her bed. “Mom and Dad are gonna get a divorce.”
“No they aren’t,” Kat whined, kneeling down at a pile of dolls tangled up and maimed. She separated them until she came up with one that was whole.
“They told you that?” I asked.
“Yup,” Leann said. “They’re just waiting for us to graduate.”
Kat began to cry, wiping pale streaks through the dirt on her face. Leann looked out the window with a troubled squint, as if she’d seen everything.
I sat next to her, my chance to show I was a good friend. “Doesn’t that make you sad?”
“No,” she said. “They hate each other.”
Still, I couldn’t relate, though I’d only seen my parents kiss once, quickly. A cozy Friday night when I playfully asked if they loved each other and begged them to prove it.
Leann’s dad stood awkwardly at the door, portable phone in hand. “You wanna give your parents a call, Miriam?”
“Sure,” I said, taking the phone and dialing, but no one answered.
“No problem,” Roy said, nodding toward the girls. “We’ll take you home.”
* * *
Leann and I sat in the backseat of Roy’s car and Kat took the front. Kat kept crying and asking what happened. “Is Mommy okay?”
Roy ignored her as he grappled with his seatbelt, growing irritated.
“Are you guys gonna get a divorce?”
Roy stopped. “Who told you that?” he asked.
“Shut up, idiot,” Leann said, reaching up to pinch her sister, hard enough to make her squeal.
Roy twisted around as if going for a juice box. Instead, his hand clamped over Leann’s skinny upper thigh so tightly she buckled over, shrieking.
“What, you don’t like that?” Roy shouted. His fingertips and her skin went bloodless as he tightened his grip, emitting a low, satisfied growl. Leann lost her voice, all agony, but her mouth still hung open as a line of drool dipped down, touched his hairy knuckles.
Kat screamed at Roy to stop, batting his arm with the futility of a child’s fist until he finally released Leann and started his engine.
The ride back was silent. We kept our faces to the windows, all ashamed in our own ways.
Once I told my parents about the Pacholskis, they’d never let me back. In fact, I looked forward to the conversation, asking them innocent questions about what I’d seen, like when I asked about Steven, where he went, what he was doing. They were always quick to soothe, so I stopped wanting honest answers, only comfort, something Leann clearly didn’t have with a drunk mother, cruel father, divorce.
We reached my block and Roy stopped short. I was about to tell him I lived further when I saw the disturbance up ahead—two cop cars in front of my house, an officer trying to calm Ma, who was frantic, crying. Another talked to Pops, who stood calm and justified.
Steven was being pushed up against a car, hands behind his back, skinnier than I’d ever seen him. But he still looked like Pops, and Pops saw himself in Steven, too. He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left. Pops couldn’t see, as I saw now, that what was left was catastrophe in the past tense, wreckage that still needed cleaning.
Neighbors formed clusters on the broken sidewalks, eager to know more. My vision blurred as I realized I didn’t want to leave their car, that I was scared.
“Someone’s getting arrested!” Kat said, leaning over the dashboard.
“What’s going on?” Leann asked, straining to look. A bruise was already forming on her thigh, but it could have been from any childish accident.
Roy put the car in park and twisted around again with an opportunity to be gentle, concerned.
“I’d better let you out here, hon,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you and Leann to see each other again.”
Jerilynn Aquino received her MFA from Temple University, where she was fiction editor for TINGE Magazine. She now works with Philadelphia Futures to provide low-income teens with resources for college success.
Photo Credit: Michael DeLeon
The house sat alone in a patch of swamp in a world her husband called Louisiana. When her son finally came to her there it wasn’t as she had expected. On the screened porch that looked out over the water, frogs called like poorly suited sirens under the midnight moon, and she crouched beside the camp bed like something hunted. A profound loosening, and the baby slid into her waiting hands. She leaned against the bed and clutched him to her, lay him, wet and wriggling, across her swollen middle. She watched, mesmerized, as he dragged himself toward her breasts like a fish out of water. She gathered him up and brought him to rest on her shoulder.
I know just how you feel, she told him.
Her husband clamped and cut the cord, snatched the baby up and held him high, whooping and hollering like he did when she led him to a spot of ocean where the shrimp exploded from the sea beds like confetti. The baby’s legs kicked, one two, they curled like parentheses. He swallowed a lungful of air like it was the most natural thing in the world.
A new pain ripped through her body and something else slid from her while her husband paraded the baby—squalling now, and red—around the empty house. This was her husband’s concession, to let her labor at home. No hospitals, no certificates—on this she’d been firm.
For you, he said smiling, and handed her the baby to nurse.
It had been eighteen months since her husband caught her in his net. She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins. Her legs revealed themselves, came unstuck from one another with a sick squelching sound and a smell like fresh-killed fish.
Shock, her husband told her later. Shock was what got you, and it was me that saved you; brought you straight home and warmed you up.
The next thing she remembered after being hauled from the sea was this house on the swamp, a slender band on her newly un-webbed finger. Her gill slits closed up, just faint pink scars beneath ropes of hair. Her mind and mouth crammed full of words.
Even before her belly swelled, her husband took her out on the water only when he needed to: at times when he had taken the boat out and dropped his test trawl in ten, twenty, thirty spots only to find nowhere worth unfurling his nets. Shrimping was bad, he told her, and getting worse; she saw guilt in his eyes when he said this, oceans of it. Still, at those times he decided it was necessary, he slathered her with sunscreen, sat her in the bow, and followed her directions.
Again and again, she led him straight to a patch of water where his test trawl came up overflowing; he came to trust her, even as she led him deeper and deeper out, even as she struggled to trust herself. Perched at the fore of his rusted boat, she imagined wrestling him over the edge, holding him as his body shuddered and stilled. She tasted salt and her mouth wetted. The longer they were out there—waves smacking the boat, ropes groaning, their own shallow breath whistling through their chests—the more her husband tensed, watched her from the corners of his eyes. She gazed loosely at the horizon and pretended not to see. Always, he filled a couple bags at the place she led him to, then marked the spot on a map and ferried her home. He took his crew back out to finish the job. This was a waste of fuel, but he didn’t like her out on the water, he didn’t like it at all.
She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins.
In that way, she lived with the man who called himself her husband. When he left on his boat for days or weeks at a time, she walked the mile each day to the public library. She sat in a cool dim room before one of the computers. The glow of the screen like underwater. Her varied names spelled out before her: Atargatis, Thetis, Sirena, Thessalonike, Merrow, Selkie, Rusalka, Ariel, Undine. Each got it wrong but the wrongness failed to matter; each tugged a bit of her to the surface and toward the sea. She read the stories, and before came to her in a flush of blue and fractal light. It came to her in an undifferentiated swell that broke across her skin in goosebumps and hummed deep in her chest, something those stories and their thin words couldn’t touch, but in their proximity, wakened. By the time she reached the driveway to her husband’s house, the feeling faded. She turned, invariably, and went inside, nameless, powerless against the tides that moved her.
When she learned that she carried an infant in her new and awkward body, she ate hamburgers and milkshakes and swelled to a shape that she had to remind herself was acceptable—there was no need to be streamlined here; there was nowhere she was trying to go. She felt the child flip and flutter and paddle around in her belly, and she ate while her husband worried over money, over the state of the shrimp. He was too scared to take her on the water with him, scared for the baby. He admitted to her, his face twisted with guilt and regret, that he thought it was nearly over for them, his whole family’s livelihood for generations: Would there be anything left for their boy? He looked her in the eye as though she could absolve him. He told her the truth for once: He’d poisoned the water and stripped it bare.
* * *
The night their child was born she swaddled him and placed him in a basket beside the marriage bed. She had fed and settled him and cleaned herself up, had drifted almost to sleep, exhausted, when her husband whispered, his breath hot on her neck:
Tell me about before.
Her eyes snapped open.
She reached behind her and picked up her husband’s hand to buy time, rubbing her thumb across his palm in a way she knew soothed him. What could she afford to give him? She’d lost so much in the first invasion, the onslaught of language that came to her whole cloth, chafing her memory.
Since then, she’d only lost more.
She could never afford to give him, for instance, the seam in the water where it’s weight overcame you, the depth at which you begin to fall rather than float and, in so doing, take flight. She would never give him the midnight zone, where she used to spend days at a time, drifting, listening, holding out her tongue to catch whatever floated past, unseen. The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved. Even diluted by naming, these things were among the most precious.
She had been quiet for too long but lay there still, frozen.
I heard stories about you, he said, breathing heavily now. When I was a boy. I heard stories I figured weren’t half true, but then—
The baby squawked and quieted, and they both flinched at the sound.
She took a deep breath and began to speak. She painted a picture of grottos, colonies of merpeople, chaste interludes with fisherman lost at sea, bits of the stories she’d read and now braided into a rope for her husband to follow, sated, into sleep.
She waited a long while, then nudged him gently to quiet his snoring. He grunted and rolled away from her. She gnawed her fingernails and spit them on the floor beside the bed.
In the days after his birth, she checked the baby, with neither forethought or expectation, for signs of gill slits in his neck. She turned his face on his weak and spindly neck this way and that. She cradled him in the crook of her arm so that with her free hand she could stroke the smooth skin below his seashell ears: had ridges or rifts emerged there? But there was no sign, nothing except the webbing between the big toe and its neighbor on his left foot. Inconclusive at best. And here again was the unexpected, because her love for him was untouched by his deficit; it blossomed in her chest like a wound; it grew.
Weeks passed. She tried once to go back to the library, but the baby cried; he wouldn’t settle. She sensed he didn’t like the cold and sterile air, acclimated as he was to their swamp. People looked coldly at her until she took him outside.
On the long walk home the baby grew hot and red and squalled like an abandoned bird. With all the strength he had, he produced a sound at once meager and overwhelming. She walked faster, breasts and eyes leaking. The skin on his soft skull burned to a livid red and in the days that followed, it blistered.
So she spent her days in the house, sandwiched between a wooded yard and a swamp that spread to the horizon, teasing her. The swamp was briny, and alligators basked with their eyes and pebbly skin showing above the surface. Herons stood on stalk legs or took off, lumbering over the cypress trees and out of sight. Tadpoles swarmed the shallows, and none of it moved her.
She slept when the baby slept, curled at her breast; together they dreamed of the sea. She dreamed the two of them alone, the baby contracting his body, propelling himself through the water, clutching handfuls of her hair, clasping himself to her to nurse then flitting away again. In the dream, she broke the surface of the water. The baby in the waves beside her, and when she looked around there was nothing else in sight: no land, no boats, no men.
On those past occasions that her husband took her out on the water, he blindfolded her for the drive to the docks. When he seated her at the bow of the fishing boat, he tied her to the railing, ever so loosely, ever so gently, with soft strips of cotton he tore from old towels. He was afraid she’d drown, he told her. So overcome was she by the sight of the ocean, she might dive back in and forget her new body: she’d take a deep breath and never emerge. She knew better. She knew that was not the shape of his fear.
Sometimes when the water was low and the salinity high in the swamp behind their home, she’d wade in up to her knees and feel the pull of the tide. The baby clasped tight to her chest, his heart fluttering against her own. She’d stay until the sun sank down and the moon shone overhead like a wishing coin. In its trick light she saw the shine of scales at her ankles, where the bones protruded and the skin stretched tight. She’d step out of the water slowly, walking backwards with high steps like the marsh birds. But invariably the scales fell and stayed behind, glinting in the moonlight as they sank to the muddy bottom, vanishing, maybe never there at all.
When the baby was a month old her husband left for what would be a three-week trip. He kissed her on the mouth—My undine, he murmured—and kissed the baby on the crown of its head—My boy. He climbed into his truck and disappeared around a bend in the long dirt drive.
The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved.
Of course, she said to herself for comfort, she could find the marina if she truly tried. She could smell the sea from here, pungent as camellia blooming in their yard. Sometimes she wandered down the driveway beyond the bend; she stood at the side of the road and stared in the direction where she sensed the marina. But always she turned back to the house, herded by an unnamed force.
With the baby in her arms, she stood in the yard until she could no longer hear the rumble of the truck in the distance. Back inside, she lay the baby on a blanket on the wood floor. There was no library for her anymore, no cool click of plastic under her nails, the eerie glow of the screen and the letters arranging themselves into story after story with versions of herself at their core.
It had rained for a week straight and the water outside their back door was weak as winter twilight, practically potable. The baby kicked its legs and made a mewling sound, searching her out with its voice. She went to him and lay down, curled around him on the blanket and watched his hands clench and unclench reflexively. His eyes were still muddy and half-blind, rarely open. When he fussed she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled him to her breast and they fell asleep like that.
One morning as she poured a bowl of cornflakes a bolt went through her heart: It jolted her to the floor where she shook in a rictus of electric pain: She made noises she couldn’t control and drooled over the front her shirt. When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.
She pulled herself to her feet and breathed deeply, filling her lungs to ease the ache in her chest. The sea was three miles south and she could get there easily on foot; she knew this now, knew exactly where it was and how to make the journey. It was as though an invisible net had vanished from around her, and she moved quickly in terror of its reappearance. She lifted the baby from the playpen and lay him, still sleeping, over her shoulder.
Outside it was sticky and hot, and the bugs cried like they did all day. She ran down the steps off the screened porch to where the water mixed itself with marsh grass and mud. Here was a pool of sorts in the shallows, smaller than a bathtub and about as deep, filled with cool clean water from the recent rain.
She peeled the clothes off the baby and he opened his eyes to watch. His breath hitched in his chest like it sometimes did on either side of sleep. She whispered to him, begging, and cradled his head, rubbed her thumb over the smooth skin of his neck. She lay him in the shallow water and held him there, felt his small body float, his gaze almost meeting hers but sliding off and away, diffusing like a puff, a cloud.
When she let go, crossed her arms across her chest, held her breath, the water covered him, shimmering. A bird called in the distance and another answered and together they took flight. Ripples broke the surface, a stream of bubbles.
Her pulse throbbed in her temples and the heat pressed her feet into the mud. She scooped him up. Flipped him onto his belly and thudded him between the shoulder blades with the heel of her palm. A long moment passed, stretched itself thin as fishline—snapped when his cry came, red and angry. She held him like that, letting the water drain from him, patting his back while he wailed in protest.
Inside the house she swabbed him clean, fed and dressed and comforted him. She put on shoes and shouldered a bag of his belongings and made her way to the county road. For the first time, she turned left, toward the water. Their nearest neighbor was a half hour walk, and when she reached the mailbox she turned down the drive. She ignored the pain in her joints and her chest. She breathed heavily: from the heat, and from the slight weight of her child, and the weight of all the things she knew he’d need. On her shoulder, he slackened into sleep. She imagined him growing, unfolding in a proliferation of cells that shaped themselves into a man, a man on a boat, a man with muscle that roped his arms and clenched his fingers around a net. A groan caught in her chest.
There was a car in the neighbor’s driveway, and when she reached the front stoop she heard noises from inside the house. She spread a blanket on the concrete slab and lay the baby on it. It was shaded and cooler here. She stroked the fuzz on the baby’s head, fingered the webbed skin between his toes and he flinched; his face screwed up and he smacked his lips before sinking back into still sleep.
She rang the doorbell and left him, hurrying back up the drive. She broke into a jog, sweat coursing down her back.
She ran all the way to the marina, down the stairs to the pier; she sprinted to the end and leapt, swan dived into the oily water and swam with all her strength into the deeps.
When the water grew cold and the flavor of engine oil faded, she allowed herself to slow, drifting on the waves and staring warily back toward the marina. There were boats coming in and out of the docks, and though the closest to her now was at least a hundred feet off, it was likely she had been seen. She undressed, fumbling with buttons and wet jeans.
She went under and relished the saltwater filling her eyes; she stared at her blurred limbs, at her long legs scissoring under the water, painted with light, her pointed toes, her delicate fingers. Then, an exquisite pain clenched her middle, and she curled around it. She felt her face stretch into a terrible grin; had she been able, she’d have drawn a lungful of seawater, but the pain sucked the air from her lungs along with the will to replace it.
When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.
The worst of it passed, leaving a fresh throbbing in her body. She took off through the water, propelling herself with her newly fused legs, a tail again, a lobed fin that sped her toward the open ocean, away from the marina and the sounds of engines that assaulted her. She breathed deep and true. The world beneath the waves was crisp and clear in her new eyes, and nearly empty, nearly all open space.
Soon she had arrived. She was some miles out. Her husband’s fishing boat, some small distance off, muscled through the waves and back toward the marina with all the haste its engine could manage. She saw the men on the deck, her husband’s crew; they scanned the horizon for help that was already too late.
She dove beneath the waves and swam alongside the vessel, listening to the conversations that reached her through the metal hull of the boat. Her husband’s heart had stopped over an hour ago. His body grew chill and grey. And what had that been? the men wondered. When the pain first struck and he struggled to draw breath, what was the bucket he hauled from below deck, full of dull scales, flakes of something dead that he dumped into the sea before collapsing, closing his eyes, his face twisted against the end?
They spoke of these events over and over, repeating them like a spell against the passing of time, the steady death of cells, and as they spoke, she trembled, with rage, with unexpected grief.
How many stories had she read, and never discovered this most important bit of lore? The bucket of her scales, returned to the water, that was all it took to gain her freedom. How many times had she contemplated leading him to dangerous waters, sending him to fish where she smelled a storm on the brink? How many times had she found herself unable? In the end it was this: a simple accident of the body, an inadequate twist and flicker of guilt. She stroked the side of the boat with her webbed hand and then she swam away.
In all the old stories, mermaids are horrible people to have as family. Their only loyalty is to themselves, their whims, the sea; their loyalty is to no body. They kill the men who yearn for them, bring storms upon their villages; they tangle unwary swimmers in their hair and drag them to the depths; they bring destruction; they are destroyed; they bring empty promises hidden in their bodies like half-formed pearls; they bring nothing at all. The myths were wrong and they weren’t; they weren’t to do with her anymore anyway and they were all she had left. They weighed her down from the inside, those alloys of knowing.
Days passed, then months. The pain in her body never lessened or left; she was poorly outfitted in her new skin, and her misery formed verses in her mind that played on a loop. She checked her torso for evidence of the sucking wound she felt there. She swam slow circles just above the ocean floor, around the vent that was her favorite space, the water here a kind of dark that carried weight, syrupy and cloying. The water so hot it soothed the pain in her joints and her core; so hot it would scald her son’s sweet skin off in an instant. She thought of him as he would be now, of the hair that might have grown and the sunlight that might play through it, of a new brightness behind the eyes, shining through the accordion folds of his iris. She swam slow circles around the vent and wondered who held him at night, what they whispered in his seashell ears; she swam and waited for his coming.
Devan Collins Del Conte is a queer femme writer living in Memphis, Tennessee. She received her MFA from University of Memphis and now works for a food justice non-profit and as a nanny. Devan’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart Online, Jellyfish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. Find her at devandelconte.com
In the tiny pop-up trailer we have two toaster ovens, a roaster full of meat, and a cooler with the rest of the sandwich fixings. It’s just enough to keep up with the line of customers. Mama has been wanting to make Reubens for the rodeo and powwow for three years, offering something different than the usual Indian tacos, so I said I’d come up from Omaha for the weekend to help assemble sandwiches with sauerkraut and Russian dressing.
“Two more,” Mama calls, then coughs into her elbow. Her asthma and allergies have been acting up worse than usual; then she had chest pains and was diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus. She won’t tell me about medical bills. I’ve avoided poking through the piles of papers stacked around the kitchen and living room in her trailer.
Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.
Mama moved to the reservation when I started university, after years of summer trips to visit an old college friend who lived here. Mama was in love with the space, the wide hills, and over ten years found a job and a husband who was more committed than my dad. She and Papa have been married for fourteen years, and I’ve visited often enough to make their trailer home-ish. Papa took me as a daughter minus a formal adoption. He’s eleven years older than Mama and can be persnickety, but they joke together at breakfast and worry over each other’s health. Papa calls me with her new lists of medications, asking if I can look up the side effects on the Internet.
“I don’t do computers,” he reminds me.
Mama starts another coughing fit, which makes my chest hurt.
“You need to sit down,” I say. I feel like I’m always reminding her to take care of herself. She tries to shake her head and say she’ll be fine, but starts another coughing fit.
Papa has been sitting outside on his lawn chair and chatting with friends, but he pokes his head in the door. “Everything okay in here, Daughter?” His brown eyes hold the same concern as mine. I say Mama needs to take a break, eat a Reuben.
Mama says, “Well, maybe a half.”
I say Papa can handle the money for a bit.
Mama converted to vegetarianism when she was in her mid-twenties, so she raised me on a meatless diet. After moving to the reservation and moving in with Papa, she started eating steak.
“I could only stomach so many salads and baked potatoes,” she says, but Papa likes macaroni with cheese melted on top and the eggplant parmesan that Mama makes. Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.
I make a half Reuben for Mama, then Papa takes over her post at the cash box. Mama slumps on a red camp chair in the corner. Papa and I exchange a glance. Mama has been working as a secretary in the humanities department at the tribal college for ten years, but Papa says that a couple weeks ago her boss called him to say she’s forgetting things—to send e-mails and letters and make copies.
“She said maybe your mama should make a doctor’s appointment,” Papa told me on the phone. “She was nice about it, but she sounded worried. She doesn’t want to let your mama go.”
I understand that could happen. I haven’t told Mama about my own dilemmas at the grocery store where I manage the front end, how I’ll have to give Nikki her walking papers for tardiness next week. I know her story—she has two kids and a second job and not the most reliable sitter, but I’ve made all the excuses I can to my boss, who is sympathetic but has corporate over her head. Corporate doesn’t have to give Nikki the news on Monday, kindly allowing me to fire a sweet and agreeable if harried person, but I went up for the promotion to front end manager last year and knew I’d have to hire people and train them and let some go when they ran out of chances. Mama would have never taken a job like that, or she’d quit in protest, but she’s good at sacrificing herself.
When I was twelve and we were walking downtown, we saw this black-and-white beagle mix run out into the middle of the street. Mama didn’t hesitate to sprint after it because a car was coming. She left me screeching at her from the sidewalk, afraid of being orphaned. The car stopped and a guy cussed at her and drove on. Mama picked up the dog and we took it to the shelter and Mama told them to call her if they couldn’t find the owner, but they did two days later.
On the drive home Mama realized I was being quiet and apologized, saying she really hadn’t seen the car since she was so focused on the dog. I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked. But as I slather Russian dressing on another slice of bread, I worry what will happen if the asthma gets worse, if the arthritis gets worse, if she could go on disability or if it would be better to have Mama and Papa move closer to me, though neither of them would want to leave here, but what if something happens and she winds up in the hospital—
I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked.
Still, I need to get to the dentist because I know I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep, and I should get to the OB/GYN for my yearly checkup, and monitor my blood pressure on those machines at the pharmacy, and figure out why I have the three-day migraine every month, but I think that’s job stress.
“Good sandwich,” Mama says. “I’m going to use the port-a-potties.”
I nod and watch her ease down the steps, but then she walks more quickly and trips a little but doesn’t fall, and I think Mama, why do you have to move so fast? I turn back to the toaster oven to make sure the bread doesn’t burn, then I hear a woman scream outside and run to the door and see Mama and another lady on the ground and oh God, she fainted, but no, she’s leaning over the woman, rolling her to her back, and I wonder if it’s heat stroke or diabetic shock and if I have hard candy in my purse, which I grab from under the camp chair along with a bottle of water.
By the time I get there, Mama has the lady sitting up, blinking, breathing. She coughs to one side. I hand her the bottled water, and Mama asks if she’s hurting, if she feels dizzy, if she might need insulin. The lady says she hasn’t been drinking enough, it was a dizzy spell, give her a moment. She sips the water and in a second they’re talking about the fair and parade and I remember the bread and go back to the trailer to find it on the cusp of burning, but I pop the lever up in time.
When the sandwiches are finished, I return to Mama outside who lets me offer a hand to help her and the lady off the ground.
“Oh-ho-ho, my knees,” Mama says, smiling to let me know that sometimes she can admit her own frailties. I yell to Papa we are going to the restroom together.
“Don’t you ladies fall in,” he calls as Mama and I walk with my arm around her shoulders.
“She needed to hydrate, I think that was it,” Mama says as we wait outside the big blue boxes. She rubs one hand over the other to soothe her arthritis. “You make a good Reuben.”
“We’ll have to do this again next year,” I say, wanting to think about that more than I want to think about tomorrow, projecting us surely forward in time when there will be more scorching summer days in that tiny trailer making sandwiches, aware that we’re standing on the cusp of fates, but knowing the secret is not to look down.
Teresa Milbrodt received her MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University. She is the author of two short story collections, Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), and Work Opportunities: Stories (Portage Press), a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Booth Books). Her stories, essays, and poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. Read more of her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/
Photo Credit: Jeff Wasserboer
A beautiful man with a rich beard and a nose sharp enough to slice a tomato stood ahead of Viju at the Falafel cart. He looked a lot like the man he’d seen Gita with at the cinema house last week, his Gita, at least she used to be. Viju grunted before he could catch himself. The man turned but looked away, scrunching his nose as if he were near a heap of garbage.
Viju knew everyone was looking at him now: the hurrying locals, the dawdling tourists, taxi drivers, haggard-faced passengers in the bus nearby, everyone. It seemed to him as though they were pointing at the rust-red lumps on his face and laughing at the way they covered half of his left eye, most of his mouth. Such that when he spoke, he had to speak slowly to make himself clear, especially to the customers at the shop where he ran the photocopiers.
He shrank further into his t-shirt and left the queue. He started for home, choosing not to take the bus. He didn’t want to give people another opportunity to stare. He was used to it though, from when he was ten, the kids in his lane wouldn’t play with him, instead they teased him, called him names.
He was twenty-six now and the teasing hadn’t stopped. They chased him, called him bandar, because of the redness of his face: “Aiee, bandar, here’s a rupee, dance for us;” “Want a banana?” They laughed, aping the walk, the mannerisms of a monkey. When it bothered him too much he raised a hand and lunged at them as if to slap them. They scattered away, giggling.
He crossed the road, into the barking traffic boiling with the heat of those heading home to fuck, to die, to sleep, to lick, to live, the thick of their wrists shoving the horn. The pedestrians snaked on the pavement, stepping around vendors and beggars. But when they saw Viju approaching, they leapt out of the way willing to give their lives to a passing lorry or a car than grazing against him, not wanting any part of his on them. Even the raggedy girl begging for bread, for a rupee, didn’t look at him, digging her back into the electric pole on the side of the pavement. But the second his shadow hissed past her, she started again, Sir-sir, Madam-madam, one rupee pliss. Gita leaving him was no surprise, he always knew she was going to.
When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.
He walked on the edges of the road where the street-light wouldn’t fall directly on him, driving his chin deep into his chest, a headless man. He walked past the railway tracks, the tiny paan stalls, grocery store, the cemetery until he got to Wadi, the slums, alleys after alleys of small, identical tin shacks on either side, so close to each other no one had any secrets: Baloo’s daughter had run away with the sweeper; Bimala died in her sleep; Amir the truck driver had AIDS.
One of those homes was Viju’s. The door was open—it always was—and just as he entered, bottom-exposed children chased a shrivelled chicken into the street across the alley. The kerosene lamp in the corner licked long black lines into the wall and shed wavy shadows. Coughing on the cot was his father, his body half raised. He rushed to comfort him, patting gently on his back, but the dry, wheezing cough persisted. Some nights it was so intense he spat blood. Viju gave him some cough syrup and when the coughing subsided, he turned the radio on to listen to old Hindi songs. His father’s yellow lifeless eyes were on him, awake yet lost.
He leaned against the wall waiting for his mother to return from the market and make dinner. She came back with two plastic bags of vegetables, a weary smile and held the door frame to catch a breath. They are used to seeing me like this. Viju wondered if he went away for a long-long time and returned one day, will his parents shriek in horror or embrace him; will they ask him where he had been, if he had had something to eat?
The adjoining room where he slept doubled up as the kitchen—a kerosene stove, a small wooden cabinet with a handful of vessels was next to his head. The holes in the corroded metal sheet ceiling threw sharp lines of moonlight on him. Lying on the thin straw mat, he could hear his parents snore in the next room. He traced his face with his fingers counting the number of ridges and Gita’s beautiful face appeared before him, like it had every night for the past year.
* * *
When he turned twenty-five, life had almost been kind to him. A customer at the shop said he knew of this miracle baba near his village who could definitely treat him. Up until then no doctor, no priest or swami had been able to help with his condition. The customer said baba had divine powers to bring the dead back to life, cure cancer. In his presence the blind saw and the lame walked.
Thrilled and full of hope Viju made all the arrangements, booked his train tickets, borrowed money from neighbours for the treatment. But days before he was to leave, his father fell from the sixth floor at the construction site he was working in and broke most of the bones in his body. Viju cancelled his trip to take care of him. To him it was a sign: nothing good will ever happen to him.
It was during that time that Gita, a nurse at the local government hospital, started coming to their locality once every week. She had long, black hair and smelled always of coconut oil.
There were rumours that she’d been fired from the hospital a month ago as a patient had died under her care. But she continued to wear her nurse’s outfit: her cap, apron, the dress tight at the chest, going from home to home asking if anyone was sick in their family. And since she didn’t charge, no one thought too much of it.
Viju liked it when she came, the gentle way in which she spoke to his father. When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.
Up until then he’d only been in love with cinema actresses: Katrina, Deepika, enjoying the goings-on in his pants each time their songs came on the colour TV at the shop, when they moved seductively in the rain or a strong breeze exposed their low blouses. But he fell in love with Gita immediately, imagining dancing with her like those heroes, holding her close, his lips grazing her smooth neck, her face, his fingers passing through her long, soft hair.
Friday evenings when she visited, Viju returned early from work, showered, lathered himself with talcum powder and put on a clean shirt and trousers. And when Gita looked at him or asked him a question, those brief moments he even thought himself as attractive. He’d stand close to her, bring her things she asked for: cotton balls, dettol, bandages, medicines, thermometer. He’d listen to her instructions, nod along: “You will have to change the dosage of this medicine; you should often ask your father what he wants, check if he’s thirsty or hungry, or needs to go to the bathroom. O.K.?”
He noticed also the way his mother was around her—shoulders curved, always smiling, always agreeing—poor woman wanting for her son a bride; she wanted to see him married, have a family. And to have such an educated woman as her daughter-in-law would make her so happy. His mother’s desire, too, made him look at Gita differently.
There was really no need for her to visit. His mother took his father to the government hospital for check-ups, pushing him in the wheelchair Viju had managed to buy from a thrift store. But because Gita continued to, Viju started to believe that she liked him too. The way she smiled at him, or when their fingers touched when he brought her a glass of water or handed her his father’s medical reports. He even started believing that his father’s accident was a blessing; that if his father hadn’t fallen, Viju would’ve left to see the village baba and not met Gita.
“Take care.” She’d smile before leaving, her smile, he thought, was a secret shared just between the two of them.
One day she came home in a yellow salwar kameez and looked so different it took a moment for Viju to realise it was Gita. He felt that maybe she’d dressed this way to do away with the formality a nurse’s uniform created between them. Maybe this was her way of saying, Let’s be more.
“Ma has gone for the Vat Poornima puja,” Viju said when she asked about his mother.
A stream of women in red saris and glass bangles walked past their door carrying fruits, coloured threads, brass pots with water, pieces of red cloth and clay idols. A current of joy passed though his body as he thought that after becoming his wife, Gita too would observe fasts and pray for his well being like other married women. But in the very next moment, he felt a wave of grief knowing that this was just a hollow dream, that if she learned what was on his mind she’d hit his face.
“How’s uncle?” she asked.
“He sleeps through the night now. His pain has gone down.”
He made her his special tea with crushed ginger and cardamom. When she took the tumbler from him, their fingers touched as usual. He stood in the semi-dark room, watching her quietly have her tea.
That night he pictured Gita naked.
* * *
In the morning, a customer with a chin carved out of butter: big, shiny, ample stared at him as Viju repeated his order: three copies, front and back?
“Yes-yes,” he said, trying not to gape.
“Page won’t photocopy well because it is worn. The copy will be darker, O.K.?”
The fat man had a French beard, a toilet-brush sticking out of soft dough.
“Dark page is alright?” Viju asked again.
The page was illegible, but the man only blinked twice and left with the blackened sheets of paper.
“Chutiya. The idiot didn’t even ask for his change.” The owner laughed and scratched the webbing between his toes.
Viju noticed the owner’s daughter; she was parking her two-wheeler. The afternoon light illuminated the bleached blond hair along the edges of her jaw. Every Monday, after her computer classes, she came to the shop to collect her pocket money. Five hundred rupees for the week. Viju’s blood turned black just watching the owner hand her the money and the girl taking it mechanically, as if she deserved it, when Viju had to work the entire month for much less.
“Be right back,” he said, wishing to be away.
“Again? Didn’t you just go to shake your dick minutes ago?”
“Before I went to get your gutkha, now I want to go to the toilet.”
“Acha. Bring two more packets on your way back.”
He went to the washroom on the lower level of the two-story building, ahead of the row of shops: mobile repair, compute spare parts, ATMs, stationery. The weak tube-light hummed a few seconds before flashing to life. He used the commode and washed his hands at the basin. He looked in the mirror with dark spots around its edges. What’s the point? But still he splashed cold water on his face and dabbed gently with his handkerchief. And hoped like he always did to have a regular face when he looked in the mirror again.
He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided.
“Hi, handsome,” he said aloud and laughed bitterly. He thought of Gita and how he must appear to her. Surely she saw something in him he couldn’t. How much he had enjoyed her touch, and soon had a bulge in his pants again. He imagined caressing her and was about to pull his pants down but there was an urgent knock on the door. Quickly fastening his buckle, he opened the latch and pushed the door open. The man waiting outside, desperate for a piss, jumped back as though afraid. Viju could tell he was reconsidering using the toilet now knowing Viju had been in there. The man decided against it and walked away.
* * *
Week after week, Viju waited desperately for Gita, wishing secretly, guiltily, for his father to remain sick. Each time his mother reported back wearily what the absent-minded doctor at the hospital told her—bones are still weak, not healing fast enough, maybe six more months—Viju tried to mirror her emotions. But when the temperatures peaked in the summer and his father grunted in pain or in frustration from the incessant itching on his toes or calves, places he couldn’t reach because of his casts, Viju’s selfishness pricked him.
The next time Gita came, she left her sandals with their silver straps in the corner and walked to his father’s cot by the only window in the house.
“Eat chicken soup to strengthen your bones, Uncle,” she said and his father nodded with half-closed eyes. Viju sat on his haunches beside them, and wondered where the money for the chicken soup would come from. He watched Gita take his father’s pulse. His mother was in the kitchen cooking and from inside asked how her day had been. Gita said, “Busy as usual, Aunty,” and smiled. The sight of her white, uniformed teeth titillated Viju.
She rested her hand on the railing of the cot, a dainty golden-dial watch on her wrist. It took all of Viju’s self-control to not grab her hand and rub it all over his face, kissing it till her palms turned red.
“Viju, do you want to learn how to take his pulse? Here, let me show you,” she said, taking his quivering hand in hers. “You place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery — I mean on the thumb side of your wrist. When you feel the pulse, count the number of beats in fifteen seconds. Then multiply this number by four to calculate the beats a minute. Got it?”
* * *
Viju tossed in bed, staring at the rays of silvery light streaming in through the ceiling, wishing for the week to pass quickly so that he could see her again. This was all new, these feelings he was experiencing, his dreams wet and sticky, a swelling desire to dip his tongue into the taste of tomorrow.
The week after, Gita came home on a Wednesday, just after Viju’s mother had left with his father for his check-up. As if she knew. This was the first time they had been alone and a fear gripped him; what will people say? Will they wonder what an eligible woman was doing with a man like him when there was no one else at home? Will they complain to his mother? But Gita entered without care, asked him how his father was. He offered to make her chai, she accepted. After finishing her drink, she reached out and touched his face. Viju took a sharp intake of air, which made her giggle. His mind went blank, the pulsating beat of his heart knocking behind his eyes. She blew gently and a rush of her cold, sweet-smelling breath brushed his lips, his cheeks.
This went on for days. She’d come home when his parents left and stayed till just before they returned. He’d weave his fingers through hers and relish the wetness in his pants, the world forgotten; for once someone just for himself; the weight and heat of another body pressed against his. He latched on to her like a child to its favourite blanket, cautious, worried someone was after it.
She allowed him only to play with her fingers; he sucked on them, kissing them one by one. If he tried to do anything else, like touching other parts of her body, she’d leave. He was afraid if he said something, if he protested, she’d put an end to it. Why was she like this with him? He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided. A bone, a soggy biscuit, he’ll take it.
* * *
At work, finding him unusually talkative, the owner snickered. “Wah-wah today your voice is coming loud and clear. What’s the matter? Someone blow you?”
Viju whistled as he photocopied an entire grade 12th physics book for a student. Two girls who passed by eyed him. He smiled then waved at them. He held his head high and proud, feeling O.K. with the way he looked, even a little love for himself, returning in his mind again and again to his encounter with Gita.
He wanted to be with Gita, like the couples he’d seen outside his shop sharing golgappas out of the same leaf bowl, laughing, looking with love at each other, sharing a joke; or like the ones he’d seen kissing in parks behind thick bushes, the girl’s dupatta over both their heads, a delicious intimacy between them. He wanted to tell Gita how he felt about her, but each time he said aloud things he planned on telling her, his throat closed and he found it hard to breathe. What if she slapped me? What if she told everyone what I said to her and they all mocked me? What a chutiya, they will say.
That night in bed, he recalled the goose pimples on her smooth skin, her scent. But that feeling didn’t last long as unease wrung his innards; made him sit up and wonder what she was doing with someone like him? This was just a phase, this affection was temporary. Any day now she was going to realise how hideous he was and tell him, “Stop touching me, bandar.” Once when he asked her if she wanted to go to the park with him, she said, “What’s wrong with spending time here?”
* * *
These days it surprised him, the insistent, pressing urge to masturbate—there was no other way of satisfying this creature—that came upon him often and at the most unlikeliest of times: on the bus to work, or while the photocopy machine whirred under his hands; when eating dinner—one flash of Gita and blood thrummed in his groin.
These impulses soon started interfering with his life, his work. Unable to focus, he was frequently messing up the instructions customers gave him, half-listening, worried his erection was showing. He’d make too many copies or forget to start the photocopier. Once the owner’s daughter caught him rubbing himself against the machine, and the owner who would’ve usually laughed off something like this, fired Viju.
* * *
Back in his lane, children trailed him, snickering: Bandar, oi bandar, where’s your bandariya today?” He kept walking, not engaging them. His mother met him at the door.
“Everyone knows,” she said and gave him a surprised laugh.
“Why are you yelling?” Viju said. “Go inside.”
“So it’s true? You and Gita….”
“Yes.” Although it seemed like a lie to him; what were they, Gita and him?
“She likes you?” she stared at him. “She’ll marry you?” but immediately she lowered her eyes as though ashamed by her question. He could sense her relief but also her scepticism that a woman was interested in him. She cupped his face between her hands.
“I already have bangles and earrings for my bahu,” she said proudly.
Now he just had to find another job, as a man about to get married rightfully should.
* * *
On the bus, going from shops to offices, looking for work, any kind of work, his lower abdomen purred. If he ignored it, it will go away, not bother him, not today, not now, but when had it ever listened to him?
He found an empty seat at the back and because it was crowded, he had to be discreet, quick. He slowly slid his hand inside his pants, keeping one leg over the other and spread his handkerchief over his lap. He was nearly done, eyes closed in concentration when a woman shouted. “See-see what he’s doing? Stop him, stop him,” she yelled and Viju realized his kerchief was on the floor. The passengers and the conductor got hold of him, dragged him out of the bus and kicked and punched him till he blacked out. When he woke up he was in jail.
The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape.
He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but he saw his mother kneeling at the inspector’s feet, begging him to release Viju, her face weak and crumbling. Finally, after calling Viju and his mother names and laying a fresh, loud slap on his cheek, the inspector let him go. She was silent on the way, her hands fists.
Viju and his mother got out of the rickshaw. The sky was bruise-purple. As soon as they entered the alley they heard stray dogs howling. He smelled it even before he heard the neighbourhood women wailing at the mouth of the lane, pallus drawn over their faces, beating their chests. They were standing outside Amir’s house. Viju saw the truck driver’s ammi by the doorstep, her expression frozen, hair frazzled, sari falling off her chest exposing sagging breasts. Viju’s mother pulled him roughly by his sleeve, demanding he come home with her.
“Please, son, please,” Amir’s mother cried suddenly on seeing Viju, collapsing at his feet. “Please take him to the graveyard, no one else will. They refuse to touch him.”
Viju’s heart thumped. The neighbourhood men stood at a distance and their women, the edge of their saris between their teeth, stood next to them.
The old woman was caressing Viju’s face, taking his hands and pressing them into her bosom. He looked at Amir, most of him eaten away by the disease, pale, a white ghost.
Viju went home with his mother, ate the food she served. But he couldn’t sleep, not because Gita kept him awake, it was the sight of Amir, his neglected body, the old woman’s tears.
He walked back to Amir’s house, the woman was still at the doorstep.
Viju bent, picked up the corpse and followed the curved narrow street. The woman didn’t follow him, just kissed her son’s toes and wept. A few dogs walked after him, some growling, some curious. The air was muggy with the smell of sewage, the lane lightless and quiet.
He remembered how once when he was young, he was playing on the road when a scooter had knocked him down. Bleeding from his head, he laid there alone and hurt. The kids playing with him had run away. People stood and stared, or walked away. It was a long time before someone finally took him to the hospital.
The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape. The man in his undershirt stepped back and put a hand on Viju’s shoulder. The skin on his face was dark and dirty, alcohol on his breath. He spoke slowly in a gravelly voice, “I have buried hundreds here but I don’t have anyone to lower me into the ground.” The man was crying slowly, lost in sadness.
Viju made up his mind; he wanted to be happy, why shouldn’t he be? He deserved it and would fight for it if he had to. The sun was starting to light the sky; he knew what he had to do. He was going to ask Gita to marry him. He’d joke that his mother already loved her bahu more than her own son. He was thrilled by these thoughts.
He enquired of shop owners, people in her neighbourhood walking down the street with their families; rickshaw drivers. “Know where Nurse Gita lives? Do you? Do you? Do you?” After hours of seeking, a man finally pointed him toward her building.
Gita wasn’t home. But he was happy to be there, to walk the same floor her feet too had touched. In the dank, cold corridor, sitting by her door, he could almost taste her: coconut oil and rose-scented perfume. Someone had spilled milk in a corner and a swarm of red ants were gathered around it, drinking with their small mouths.
He imagined her house, what it may look like from the inside: neat, clean, nothing out of place; white walls, small colour TV, white curtains with red flowers on them. She’d call him into her bedroom and pull her kameez over her head, remove her pyjamas, take off her bra and underwear. She’d lie down on the bed and beckon him. He felt excited by the thought of being naked with her, she opening her legs at his touch.
He heard footsteps and before he could react or duck, a heavy wooden staff whacked him on the side of his thigh. His flesh stung, burned. He cried with pain. It was the watchman.
“For one second I leave and scum like you get in. Get out before I break your head,” he said. “Go, go,” the guard shoved him, digging the stick deep into Viju’s back. “Bloody cattle-class.”
As Viju limped out, stroking his femur, he saw a woman in yellow salwar kameez, the fabric shimmering, her backside swaying left-right-left-right. It was Gita he was certain. He started following her, yelling her name, waving, jumping. “It’s me, it’s me, I love you,” he shouted. But she didn’t turn. He followed her until he lost her in the crowd.
Kailash Srinivasan was born and raised in India. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and currently resides in Vancouver, BC. His writing has appeared in a number of journals including OxMag, Santa Ana River Review, Going Down Swinging, Regime, Tincture, Bluslate, and Them Pretentious Basterds. He is currently working on his first novel.
Dolores stood beside Ruth in the two-car garage, their polarized trifocals not yet adjusted to the darkness. Dolores wore a sun visor from the 2010 New Mexico Bowl game where the Lobos had lost miserably. Ruth had on her fishing hat with numerous fishing flies dangling from it. She was so tall and skinny she looked like a floor lamp. Above the buzz of the flickering fluorescent shop light that hung from the ceiling there was another buzzing sound.
“What’s that smell?” Dolores said, crinkling her nose, but she already had a feeling she knew. Ruth had caught something.
Ruth pointed to the Hefty trash bag lying on the concrete floor. A few large horseflies were buzzing around it and the smell of wet mud, algae, and a wound that needed a dressing change rose from the green bag.
“Is this why you called me?” Dolores asked. She made the common Navajo “tsk” between tongue and teeth and shook her head. “I knew you were up to something,” she added in their native tongue.
She said this because normally Ruth didn’t call for Dolores to come over to her house. Usually they went somewhere together, basketball games, the casino. Once in a while Ruth, who had retired several years earlier, would meet Dolores for lunch at the university hospital cafeteria. She was fond of the liver smothered in greasy onions and the peach cobbler.
Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.
So, when Ruth had called her around lunchtime that day and asked her to stop by, even though Dolores lived nowhere near Ruth, she knew something was up. When she arrived, Ruth was standing in the doorway to her large ranch style house. She waved her long thin arm above her head and left the door open for Dolores to enter. The teakettle whistled and steam filled the yellow sponge-painted kitchen. Ruth had already placed two coffee cups on the orange Formica countertop.
Ruth smiled at her friend and said, “How are you?”
“Fine,” Dolores said, as she placed a Safeway shopping bag on the counter and pulled out Little Debbie sweet rolls. Ruth got out two plates and Dolores cut them each a generous portion.
“How was your trip to Bloomfield?”
Dolores’s granddaughter played in a summer softball league. Her team had made it once again to the state tournament played near her granddaughter’s home in the Four Corners, near Shiprock. Ruth poured water into each cup and held up a box of Christmas Spice tea, even though it was August, and a red container of Folgers instant coffee. Dolores pointed with her lips towards the coffee and Ruth set it down on the counter beside two spoons.
“We came in second.”
Dolores’s grandkids always came in second. Second in the girl’s 2-AA District basketball tournament, second in the elementary school spelling bee, second in the fancy dance contest, even Dolores had come in second in the quilt show at the county fair. “We got beat by the Bloomfield Sunflowers,” a team of freckled faced farm girls whose team was sponsored by The Future Farmers of America. The Shiprock Screaming Eagles were sponsored by Mo’s Transmission Shop and the Chat n’ Chew.
Dolores picked up a spoon and a plate with a frosted sweet roll and followed Ruth to the kitchen table. The sun streamed in the window that faced south and their trifocals became lightly polarized. The window, wide and low, looked out across what used to be a back lawn, a dirt alley that used to be an irrigation ditch, into Sophie Martinez’s yard, and quite nearly into her house. But they could stare into Sophie’s house all they wanted, because she was blind. She’d been going blind when Ruth and her family moved into their newly constructed home nearly forty years ago. Now it was Ruth who was going blind. She had been told a couple months ago she had the beginnings of glaucoma. She was keeping it a secret from everyone including her nosy daughter.
“Is that Junior?” Dolores said, then took a big bite of sweet roll as she looked out the window at a thin man hoeing two rows of corn. Bent over, his shoulder blades seemed to be pointing at them from across the barbed wire fence.
Ruth didn’t even look up from her cup where she was bobbing her teabag. The doctor had told her to stop eating so much chocolate and drinking so much coffee due to her ulcer. “That’s Junior.”
“He’s getting too skinny,” Dolores said and looked over her glasses at Ruth, meaning she, Ruth, was getting too skinny, too. “Here eat one of these.” She pushed a plate towards her friend and continued to stare at Junior. “He’s no future farmer,” she said and took another bite as he continued to hoe and Ruth continued to bob.
Ruth pointed to a centerpiece display on her cluttered kitchen table. It was colored Indian corn, four pieces tied together with a string so that if she wanted, she could hang it on her front door. “He made me that.”
Dolores held it up. Each cob was hardly larger than the size of the corn in Chinese food. She said something in Navajo about him not planting the seeds deep enough and then put it back on the table amidst newspaper clippings, crossword puzzles, a horoscope book, a doll’s dress Ruth had begun mending two years ago, and a racing form.
Ruth opened a pack of Sweet and Low, stirred it into her tea, and said something that wasn’t discernible above the rattle of the swamp cooler.
Dolores began to mix some instant coffee. “What?”
Ruth slid a newspaper toward Dolores and pointed at the headline with one long brown arthritic finger. She then held her hands tightly together in front of her as if she were a child saying a desperate prayer. Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.
Dolores picked up the paper that was dated several weeks past and read, “Prosthetic Leg Found in Corrales Ditch.” This was not news to Dolores. Ruth had come by her house early last week. In fact, she had driven all the way into town just to tell her about the leg that had been found in the ditch near her home. But, more importantly to tell her that she thought she knew who it belonged to.
“Who?” Dolores had asked.
“You know. He was in the hospital. The one that was in the rodeo.”
Dolores closed her eyes and saw him, a good-looking, tall, young man who rode bulls. He’d been thrown, not from his bull, but from the back of a Ford pick-up truck. The x-ray of his femur looked like bone that had been broken into new galaxies. He had cried like a child when they dressed his wound following the amputation. “I can’t ride bulls anymore,” he’d told the two nurses that saw their sons, both born and unborn, in him. “I can’t dance.”
Dolores looked up from the paper and back out at Junior. He was working on the next row. She briefly wondered if Ruth had forgotten that she already had shown her this, but she knew better as Ruth’s fingers began to tap the table, the vein on the back of her hand moving side to side like a snake. She took another bite of sweet roll, chewed slowly, sipped loudly, and trying to sound uninterested said, “Did they find the rest of him?”
Ruth slid another paper towards Dolores and tapped a column on the left-hand side of Page B-6 next to an advertisement for Discount Tire. The prosthetic leg had indeed been identified and indeed did belong to a Navajo male who lived in the Albuquerque area. However, local law officials were unable to locate the owner.
That’s when Ruth had stood and without asking Dolores followed her through the laundry room with the sweet smell of dryer sheets and Tide to the garage, and there they stood now, looking at the Hefty trash bag. “It’s his other leg.”
“How did it get in here?”
“I caught it in the ditch last night—with a Zwiggler.”
The Zwiggler was a fishing fly named for a friend Ruth had met at the casino, Alfred Zwiggler. After losing most of their money, she and Alfred would sit in the coffee shop at the casino and talk about fishing. He showed her how to make a lure that could catch anything. It had the iridescent colors of a fly’s eyes, aqua blues and greens. “Nothing can resist it,” he’d told her as he held it up in the light of the coffee shop at two o’clock in the morning.
“When did you catch it?”
“Last night,” Ruth said. She’d made the fly with feathers and copper wire. And even though she’d heard coyotes barking on the mesa, she went out into the cool summer night with her dog and cat following behind her.
“Where did you catch it?”
“You know the place.” Where the ditch gurgles around that slight bend. Where the brown water feeds the roots of the oldest cottonwood tree. “It gave quite a fight.” It had nearly dragged her and her dog, who held to the back of her pants, into the ditch.
“Does it have a shoe on?”
“A boot. A Tony Lama. Size 13.
Dolores saw the young man the day he was leaving the hospital. He had lost weight and his once tight Wrangler’s were baggy. He pulled on one cowboy boot. It was still dusty from being a rodeo star and a projectile. The other boot was in the corner holding up his prosthetic leg.
“What about the rest of him?” Even though neither one of them said anything more, they both knew that Ruth had barely been able to retrieve his leg from this world that wanted to devour everything. “What are you planning on doing with it? Are you expecting some type of reward?”
A smile briefly crossed Ruth’s face, then disappeared like a hawk diving behind that same cottonwood tree where she’d caught the leg. “I’m taking it to the family. If this was your son, wouldn’t you want his leg?”
“You know where they live?”
Ruth took a piece of paper out of the front pocket of her loose jeans and handed it to Dolores.
It was in an older neighborhood in Albuquerque. Houses constructed of cinderblock in the 1960’s, near where Ruth and her family had lived before they had moved next to the blind Martinez’s. The place she had wanted to leave to try and keep them safe from this sort of thing.
“Will you just leave it? What if a dog carries it off?”
“I’ve already called them. They’re expecting us.”
“Us?” Dolores said, along with something else in Navajo followed by a headshake and a “tsk.”
Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.
Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.
The house was on a street named after the home of another lost son and one of Ruth and Dolores’s favorite recording artists, Graceland. They pulled up and both got out. The mother and father must have heard the car doors slam, because as Ruth and Dolores approached the house, they could see a big bear of a man standing behind the thin screen door. He towered over the two older women dressed identically in navy blue windbreakers with the IHS/PHS logo, elastic waist jeans, and New Balance athletic shoes. Without speaking the two women led him to the car and what was left of his son.
His son who had taken first place in every roping competition he’d been in since the age of seven and had been the champion bull rider for four years straight at the Navajo Nation Fair. He’d worn a huge belt buckle stating he was a champ over his thin hips and was about to start a career in the PBR rodeo circuit.
Ruth pushed the button of the trunk as the mother still behind the veil of the screen door began to wail like only a mother who has lost a child can. The leg, that was triple bagged, still had the odor of a wound. Ruth took the Zwiggler lure off her fishing cap and placed it on the bag. The Zwiggler she’d made from the feathered earrings her daughter had left behind when she moved out, earrings made of peacock feathers, which are supposed to be good luck.
The man picked up the trash bag as if he were lifting a newborn out of a crib. He carried the leg like that same delicate newborn toward the cinderblock house painted the color of sand in the wash in Canyon de Chelly. The mother opened the door and let her husband and what was left of her beautiful son into the house.
Dolores and Ruth returned to the Ford Taurus, closing the heavy doors. Ruth sat behind the big steering wheel and Dolores held to the door handle as they both looked towards the mesa where the volcanoes called The Seven Sleeping Sisters laid under a darkening sky.
The Sleeping Sisters who that night dreamed of a boy who became a man, a bull rider and a fancy dancer, who won all the powwows and the heart of a woman who became his wife. Together they had a hundred children, formed a dancing troupe, and traveled the country, the world, the universe, dancing and laughing and dancing and laughing.
Cynthia Sylvester is a native of Albuquerque, NM. In her work she explores the visible and invisible lines and borders between “worlds.” She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and currently a student in The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She was the recipient of the Native Writer Award at the 2012 Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. Her fiction and flash fiction has been published in As Us Journal, bosque—the magazine, and The Best of Dimestories.
Photo Credit: Annabella Johnson
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