Fall 2023 Issue
By Stephen Schulz
The crows were restless that day. They exhibited a behavior known officially as “cacophonous aggregation,” usually occurring in the presence of a dead conspecific; when one or more crows do gather around a fallen comrade and skold (a guttural squawk repeated in short concessions). These calls differ contextually from a simple alarm call to signal danger—the phenomenon is truly a crow funeral (of sorts), though the exact function of the behavior, and whether or not crows actually possess a complex understanding of death, is unknown. (How appropriate that a “murder of crows” can also be a funeral).
The crows were restless that day. They skolded and they skolded. They had circled the house since dawn; an incredible fluttering of wings, a great black mass, a ravenous, murderous, funeral of crows. One of their species had been shot by a high-powered BB gun and lay dead on the cold lawn. The Butners kept their grass in immaculate condition—short, clean-cut, perfect. The Butner family was relatively new to the neighborhood, and consisted of Dan and Hannah Butner, and their three boys: Richie, Billy, and Timmy. Richie, the oldest, was the spitting image of his father—indeed, he spat frequently, which served to emphasize his incessant strutting. It was an exact imitation of Dan’s usual gait; a lifeless yet cocky swagger that exuded his calculated control over things. Often this sense of control was produced through simple acts of destruction, most typically directed towards something “wild.” These acts were usually unnecessary, but Dan could do them, so he did.
Dan had pruned back the lilacs that formed a natural fence with his neighbor; the flowers then became a shadow of their former glory, with sad sickly clumps appearing in dusty forgotten corners of the hedge. The resulting foliage was also nearly bare, forcing a view of Dan’s obnoxiously large suburban home, which loomed over the other houses with an aggressively competitive tone. A large old spruce tree, which stood in the back corner of his yard, would sing, year-round, with its countless starling tenants—a mad cacophony that was both pleasant and jarring, like musicians in an orchestra pit tuning and practicing during intermission. Dan knocked the tree down, and laid a gravel patch for parking off the ally. Dan had an untold number of vehicles, and frequently enlisted the labor of his sons to polish and vacuum them. The sounds of spring were soon replaced in the neighborhood by the constant drone of a vacuum. The sweet darkness of night, that one of his neighbors would often appreciate from his front porch (viewing the stars and moon) was replaced by several powerful strobe lights that wrapped around the entire Butner estate, shining effortlessly through the sparse branches of the lilacs. And Dan mowed the lawn, he mowed obsessively, as if fighting a tireless battle against the stubborn green tide of life. Sometimes, Dan’s mower would join in with the drone of the car-vacuum, needlessly idling engines, and the squeaks of waxing. Even the more calloused members of the neighborhood found the place stark and glaring. But Dan enjoyed that, he delighted in being disliked, as it gave him a feeling of power. His sons were learning to do this as well. Particularly Richie, who regarded this mode of being as one of life’s great pleasures. In addition, the power of asserting oneself in this manner was a bonding experience for Richie, whose only other avenue was watching inspirational financial gurus on T.V. with his dad—that and, of course, his many imitations, even attempting to grow a little beard like Dan’s.
Dan owned a big German shepherd. It was a good investment from a good breeder. It was an effective guard dog—big and potentially ferocious looking. It was also a very sensitive creature and barked nearly all-day, expressing a morose and nervous loneliness. The poor beast lived in a small doghouse, in a small fenced-off area, separated from the rest of the yard, quarantined from the perfect lawn. Timmy, the youngest, had what his parents described as a “complicated relationship” with the dog. He would put his face an inch from its muzzle, stretching his cheeks with his fingers, sticking out his tongue, bulging his eyes, and making an unintelligible, grinding “neh-neh-neh” utterance. When Timmy got in the mood, he’d perform this stunt seemingly without end, usually as the dog was pushed up against the exterior wall near the front door. Timmy said he thought the dog looked “silly” when he did that—it would push down its snout, turn its ears back, and furrow its brow as if it were being reprimanded. Sometimes, however, the dog was not able to stand the assault, and so he would nip the air next to Timmy’s head, letting out a pathetic yelp. Then Timmy would moan and cry performatively, seemingly without end, and call for his mom. He’d yell “bad dog! Baaad dooog!” and weakly push at the beast. The dog would then move a ways from Timmy, but the boy would follow and repeat. He’d do this a few times, crying all the while, until his mother would step onto the front porch. His mother, Hannah, was as non-descript as a fast-food menu, didn’t say much, and was never there. When she was at home, Timmy would engage in these desperate antics.
Billy could never screw his head on straight. It constantly titled like a neglected scoop of ice cream on a cone. Sometimes, his lower lip sagged and his jaw drooped, as if the ice cream was dripping onto an apathetic fist. This effect, with his lip and jaw, may have been caused by the lack of alignment, or because he enjoyed looking like that. Hannah did frequently attempt to screw his head on for him, but he wiggled so much that it would only worsen the placement of his cranium—he’d go the rest of the day looking straight up at the sky, or down at his right shoulder, or down at this shoes. Once, Hannah’s struggle to correct his noggin resulted in him facing directly backwards, yet sloped, so that he spent the whole day looking right at his ass.
Despite his head, the boy had tremendous aim—not so much with urination, and his parents forgave him the mess in consideration of his condition (although, it is possible that Billy liked peeing on the toilet rather than in). But with a BB gun, he was a real sharp-shooter. His favorite target was a bird, all birds, and he rarely missed. Any feathered creature found even remotely near the Butner’s fence was toast. Billy was of course responsible for the crow that had been shot, causing the skolding commotion from the neighborhood crows, broadcasting their mourning with a warning, far and wide. It was the first crow Billy had shot, and it complimented his vast collection. The corpses of birds hid in the nooks and crannies of the suburban property, kicked there nonchalantly by Billy’s family with subconscious efforts to place out of sight, out of mind. Billy never cared to move the dead birds, not even with his feet. And so, the Butner’s unwittingly kept an impressive graveyard—wrens, sparrows, finches, a downy woodpecker, turtle doves, countless starlings, two robins, and now this crow. The dead crow had not yet been shuffled to some shameless corner; it lay in the middle of the cold, sterile lawn, with early morning mist rising from the forgotten earth around it, like a weak, sad spirit.
Billy always awoke before the other Butners. It was a dark and furtive time for the boy—he’d usually sneak into the kitchen and drink out of the milk jug. He wasn’t supposed to do that, since it wasn’t sanitary. But he liked that aspect of it. He’d take big untidy swigs, letting a good portion of the milk that flowed into his mouth slop back out again. Much of this would trickle onto his chin, which he would lick and slurp with his abnormally large tongue. This action created a foam on his lips that would lather the rim of the jug once he took another drink. After getting his fill, he’d take out his BB gun and load it—now was the time of the dawn chorus.
The skolds drew Billy to the open window of the upstairs landing. Sensing his menacing presence, the crows at once broke out into alarm, and then frantically flew away. Billy was disappointed to lose this golden opportunity to bag several more crows. But then something even more fortuitous occurred: on the edge of the roof-gutter there was perched a magpie.
“—Billy! Trash! Now!” came the untimely voice of his father. It had been his turn to dump the garbage into the bins at the back, which he forgot to do the night before. With loud thumping feet, he ran downstairs, grabbed the two plastic bags in the kitchen (filled to the brim), and rushed to the alley way. But alas, the garbage truck had already come by. Billy noticed at once, however, that the crew had accidently (or thoughtlessly) put the next-door-neighbor’s recycle bin on the Butner’s side. Billy seized the chance: he threw their rubbish into the neighbor’s blue recycle bin—and it was a big bin, but these garbage bags were so swollen with the fermenting pride of the Butner’s refuse, that it nearly completely filled the thing. Billy then took care to tear at the side of the bags, making it difficult for the neighbor to remove the bags and so expose Billy’s deception to his parents. He was resourceful like that. Their used plastic gloves, dust masks, and tissues, slopped wantonly together with their copious food scraps: slimy heaps of rice, meatballs, noodles, corn chips, burger foils, candy bar wrappers, and so on. The frothy tumescent mixture steamed with the heat of decay and bubbled out of the tears Billy made, spilling forth into the neighbor’s recycle bin like a lanced boil. Billy liked seeing that—but he also liked shooting birds, and he remembered the magpie.
Billy sprinted up the stairs in record time and snatched up his BB gun. (He had left the gun on the landing, resting on the floor yet ready for action; careless to anyone who might trip and set it off). To his amazement, the bird was still perched in the same location. Billy could no longer resist, he took aim, and he shot… bullseye.
The magpie immediately dropped to the ground, stiff, redolent of a lifeless ornament that had just toppled over. Billy squeezed the barrel of his gun with sheer ecstasy. He clutched the piece close to his heart, basking in his sense of power and accomplishment, and then casually walked downstairs. Billy’s muscles were warm with smug delight, so his gait was light and fluffy, taking his time. He put the shoes on he had kicked off by the back door—one of the few rules of tidiness, such as throwing out the garbage, was removing your shoes. Billy rebelled by always flinging off his shoes, so that mud often splattered across the floor. His shoes were slip on rubber goloshes—he never learned to tie his shoes. But this was common to his day.
Billy checked for the bird corpse, but he could not find it. The magpie seemed to have fallen so directly downward that he was surprised. He searched for several minutes, becoming more and more aware that the day was upon him and that the other Butners would soon rise. Dismayed, he returned indoors, and flicked off his laceless shoes from a standing position of slouched dejection. But then something moved, just ever so—one of his flung shoes managed to travel all the way to the kitchen and roll into something that lay on the floor. Billy became nervous, which was not like him. His teeth chattered cartoonishly and his blood ran cold. He held tightly onto his gun, ready to bludgeon with it, and crept slowly toward the movement.
As soon as Billy came close enough to see what it was, the heater came on—a loud thundering vent that blasted hot air with roaring ferocity. The sudden noise startled Billy, it made his heart leap. And the warmth coming from the raging vent was so stifling that he could barely think; it seemed almost as though he had been stunned. A few days prior, Billy in science class had “learned” about some species of wasp that paralyze grasshoppers (so that they may lay eggs on the insect, which then hatch and feed on the living grasshopper; it has to be kept fresh for the little baby wasps). Billy had absorbed this information about the wasps in passing at school, on one of the few occasions he had happened to listen to his teacher’s lesson—in his day, listening was optional, and most kids brought devices to play with; it was called “divergent thinking.” Billy, for just a moment, felt the fear that maybe he had been stung by this wasp and he stood inert, unable to defend himself against the hungry little mouths of hundreds of larvae.
Billy used the gun to push the boot out of the way—it was a sudden, jerky maneuver. He jumped back, finally seeing what had been stirring: it was the magpie. The poor thing lay on its back and shifted between deathly stillness and undulating, almost unnatural, contortions. With its writhing came an oddly melodic, strangely sibilant, murmur. The vocalization sounded very much like it was trying to whisper something, but Billy could not make out what it was, if anything. Then Billy thought he heard it.
“Come here,” it seemed to say, with a clear yet scratchy voice. There was a brief pause, which allowed Billy enough time to convince himself that the magpie hadn’t actually said anything, it was his imagination forming words out of squawks and whistles. These were the sounds of it dying, Billy thought, and was comforted that he had the pleasure now of observing the bird’s suffering like this—usually they just dropped dead. But then it happened again. “Come here,” it said, loud and unmistakable this time. Billy dropped the gun, intending to run upstairs in a panic, but still he could not move.
The magpie let out a long and torturous hiss as it slowly kicked its feet. This movement was repeated for a moment until, suddenly, its feet seemed to just vanish, perhaps sucked into its belly. The bird groaned horribly and shook its head from side to side. It began to convulse violently, its body flopping like a fish out of water. Then it stopped abruptly and was frozen. Despite his fear, Billy leaned in for a closer look, since he simply could not believe his eyes: protruding out of the magpie’s breast there was a toe, a human toe, pale, with the nail (well-clipped), and some hair on the knuckle. Moreover, it looked as though it was a right hallux, or “big toe,” and that of an adult man. The thing wriggled, as if it were feeling a cool lawn beneath it on a hot summer’s day. The bird responded by quivering gently, and its eyes—that had so far been loosely present, though distant—rolled into the backs of their sockets and became vacant. Still quivering, as dying beasts have done by the hands of humans for untold eons, the magpie opened its beak as wide as it could. Wriggling out of the bird’s mouth came a right index finger, with a well-clipped nail (almost polished) and perfect skin.
Billy screamed. Other than the day he was born, he had never screamed before. And so, though it was not yet 6:00 AM, the whole house was roused with a fright. Billy’s scream magically freed him from his inertia and he scampered upstairs like a bat out of Hell. He crammed himself under his parents bedframe and moaned with fear. Hannah immediately fell to the floor and attempted to console him. Billy’s brothers stood in the doorway to their parents bedroom, looking confused. Dan also looked confused, then leaned over to look at Billy and Hannah. “What’s going on?” he said.
A mist rose up the stairs to the second floor, billowing out from the kitchen area. Hannah was the first notice—“Dan! There’s something here..”
Dan’s jaw dropped, almost as low as Billy’s jaw could droop. His eyes widened. He grabbed his glasses by the bedstand and looked again. “Dan! Do something!” said Hannah.
Dan did not exactly spring out of bed at this command. He moved at the same speed he always did; his slow and methodical swagger made him feel at ease—if you don’t react calmly you’ll lose control of the situation, is what he often told himself. Dan took his time putting on his slippers and wrapping his thick robe snug around himself—despite his machismo, he liked wearing lots of layers, even in warm weather. Hannah squirmed in agitation and murmured something more to him, but he didn’t listen.
Dan wandered down the misty stairs with the same purpose as he would to fetch the morning paper (though in his day there were no morning papers). He walked toward the kitchen, where the thickest mist seemed to be. There, on the floor, was a pathetic clump of feathers, framed by a bare spot in the mist. Then Dan heard the door open behind him. He turned to look, and he thought he just barely glimpsed a naked man hastily exiting the house. Dan walked to the door to see if what he saw was real, but outside there was no sign of anybody, not even a stray cat—just the mist then, he thought.
The Butner’s had a next-door-neighbor, a man, about Dan’s age, named Max. But Dan didn’t think Max was much of a man, and he’d take whatever opportunity he could to talk down to Max. This was usually in the fashion of speaking to him in a tone of suspicion or interrogation—Dan asked Max why he didn’t have Christmas lights, why he hadn’t seen his wife and kid for a while (Max was going through a divorce), what Max did for a living (and if there was any money in it), what his education background was (“do you have your PhD, or just your Master’s?”), and so on.
This neighbor, Max, was told by many that he needed to better himself. So his better self showed up one day, naked—he walked right in, put on Max’s finest clothes, and then kicked him out. Before Max was completely out the door, his better self spit out something and put it in Max’s hand: a round metal bead. Then he pushed Max down the front porch steps. Max didn’t put up much of a fight. He was tired. Besides, he needed to meet a friend for lunch, someone who was going to offer him the advice of bettering himself. But Max’s better self ran past him, having locked all the doors to the house, and hopped into the car.
“Natashia said she’d be there in ten minutes you idiot!” he said, and tore off.
Max was rarely truly late, but neither was he early. He stuck to the agreed time. However, in his day, people would frequently show up early, then send a brief message using their mobile phones saying that they were already there, usually with the simple text of “here.” If you did not appear within a few minutes, you were seen as late. Being on time, in this way, became being late. Max spent as little time as he could on his phone, so he was always “late.” His better self didn’t have this problem, and it was of course only a minor problem. But neither did his better self share the other problems, big or small.
Max guessed maybe he could try and learn from his better self, if he waited for him to return home and then begged to be let back inside. Max instead decided he’d stay with his problems a bit longer, since he didn’t have any energy left to beg, and it was possible that his better self would come back with his wife, Joyce, and their young daughter Deirdre. He loved Deirdre, but he’d have to live in the closet and wait for his chance to reintegrate, if he was lucky. And maybe his better self would never leave. Max would have to live off of food scraps and sleep on a pile of dirty laundry… He thought he should just go, but he didn’t know where to go.
Wild is the Wind
By Tim Donahue
When the wind started it was something to smile about, a reminder that the earth was moving as you were, forward with the march of time. For Tim and Olivia, this march had brought them fifty years down the line.
Fifty years brought Tim’s thirty to eighty, and Olivia’s twenty-three to seventy-three. They’d seen each other wrinkle, each respecting the other too much to say a word when they noticed a new line that time had cut into the other’s once-sculptured face. Fifty years, and they loved each other like siblings, like best friends, like parents, like lovers.
La Grand Mere, a French restaurant on the outskirts of the town. A new spot with five star Yelp reviews and a crème brûlée that one reviewer described as face melting deliciousness. Olivia, sleek like a whisp and smiling beneath the black bug-eyes of her sunglasses, stretched her face into a look of academic objectivity as she stepped into the French bistro. She’d never been one to mask an emotion, though Tim noticed a change in this particular moment. They sat down at their reserved table in fragile chairs that rattled beneath the rattling of the equally fragile single-paned window that stationed itself just above the third side of their table. It was as if the scenery were a guest, along for the ride and intruding in on what was supposed to be an intimate meal.
The wind kicked up and into a howl outside. A branch detached from a nearby tree and stuck itself against their window with a thud that sprang Olivia just a bit from her seat. She flinched, though it was only a moment before the wind shifted its swirling direction to carry the branch off and into the distance. Tim cleared his throat, though neither one talked as they opened and studied the menu they shared.
Tim ordered for the both of them in French, and their gaunt twenty-something waiter laughed to himself as he stood and awkwardly relayed the words he understood to his notepad. Olivia laughed at Tim when he left. “We’re a long way from Paris,” she said. “The decor’s got you all wrapped up in your suspension of disbelief.”
Tim grunted, and the two of them started in on their bread and butter, with vinegar and oil for dipping. “What do you say about escargot?” Tim dunked an end of his bread into the vinegar, the vinegar splashed up and streamed around the work-worn grooves of his fingers.
“Same thing I’ve said for fifty years.” Olivia shook her head. She used to scrunch her face at this question, she used to stick her tongue out of her lips, she used to twist her neck, but not anymore. Rocks poured like a gravel waterfall, knocked by the wind off a nearby roof and into the courtyard of their window’s gaze. Olivia flinched, though she turned her lips up into a smile when she settled. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“Don’t say that.” Tim went on dunking the bread and staining his hands black. The couple each stared at their respective plates, Olivia clinked her silverware as she adjusted it around her small l'aperitif setting. They ordered wine, an expensive Bordeaux that was ordered in English this time. It tasted of sugar but also of dirt, like sand and fruit and the soil it came from, it was dark red like brick and sedimentary along the bottom.
The wind howled in their direction now, it swirled in what looked like small cyclones that would lose strength before anyone could venture to call them a tornado. The howling sound beat against the couple’s single-paned window like a chant, screeching in short bursts before inhaling and banging again. Olivia looked to the window for a moment, but her eyes darted back to Tim before much concern could be let on.
They poured stronger than usual, a French pour as Tim would have called it if the wind hadn’t stolen the need for his jokes. The wind thumped, and with it went the usual filler of their banter. Tim smiled, and drank while Olivia drank. “This reminds me of those Washington years,” Tim said, staring at his wife through the wine sediment that was slow to drain back to the bottom of the cup after his pour.
“Is it the wrinkles?” Olivia asked, not smiling but enjoying the return of her husband’s voice as if it were some great relief. “Or is it the solitude, the lack of babies screaming in the background?”
“The wind’s got us covered on that account. We are old and becoming young again, there is a parallel to the way things were.” Tim sipped his wine and looked above Olivia for a moment. There was a photo of Picasso with Leopold Sedar Senghor and Josephine Baker in Paris, they laughed like something was genuinely funny and they tilted their heads up to the sun that was still present in the sky in those days. Picasso pointed towards the camera and it was as if he were chiding, prodding something or someone from the other end of the lens.
“It’s the American-ness of it all, the fakery in the imports, the fifties are alive in everything phony about this place. It’s every time we smile for a picture when we’re sad, it’s the minimalism, the derivative art, and the idea of liberty as something that can be true without sacrifice.” Tim ran a hand through the hair that remained, staring at Picasso all the time. “It makes me sick.”
Olivia waited for a moment. Sipping her wine, an innocent smile broke the uncommon seal that her lips had taken on this night. “You’re about as unoriginal as a soldiering romantic gets—you lay it all down for a country, the idea of a country that you lose in the process of your sacrifice. That’s pretty American, if you ask me.”
“Hemingway was a Spaniard in the war.” Tim said, using the deeper voice that he always did when invoking that name. He scanned the walls for pictures of the author, expecting revery where he found nothing of the expat of all expats in American literature.
“You’re not him,” Olivia smiled. Peering over the tint of her sunglasses, she peeled her lips in the way that shared her thoughts telepathically. “And that’s a good thing. Remember, that’s a good thing.” She nodded, and explicated every little thing that Tim had gleaned from her look.
A massive gust slammed against the window like a punch then. It beat against the center of the pane and warped the glass around the pressure of its force. Clouds rolled in a gray that was almost purple overhead. They moved fast and didn’t disperse until far into the distance, and even there the sky thickened as the atmosphere condensed and the air sagged down. Tim grabbed a piece of the baguette, tore it, and scooped the vinegar and oil by forming a ladle with the bread.
“It’s getting bad,” Olivia said, not smiling as she tilted the top of her head in Tim’s direction.
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true.” Her voice got stern then. She cocked her face and frowned in worry. Tim hung his head, and when he looked up, there was a quiver of hurt that hadn’t gleamed in his eye until then.
The second course came. Steak au poivre with red wine pan sauce and more bread. Always, more bread. Tim covered his eye with a press of his thumbs on either side of the bridge of his nose, he leaned back and tilted his head as if he were trying to stop the flow of a nosebleed. “What’s wrong?” Olivia asked, and Tim rocked back and forth, pinching the corner between his nose and his eyes, before responding.
“I’m staying.” Finally, he released himself. His hands unclenched from his face and immediately found the handles of his knife and fork. “You can go if you want to.” He sliced into his steak. The wind rapped the window open and shut, the breeze invaded through the cracks and slammed the door open and against the cabinets in the far corner of the restaurant. The wait staff didn’t flinch, they milled around the kitchen with hands clasped behind their backs and deep creases running like arrows in a trail between their eyebrows. They frowned, each one of them frowned, and they’d been silent ever since the wind started to howl.
The steak was fine and assisted their chewing with its own melting action. It tasted of every spice rubbed into it in equal measure, and every aspect tasted unflinchingly like the meat all the same. The wait staff wore lab coats with black gloves tucked into their white sleeves, they floated when they walked in a choreographed dance around each other and the nearly abandoned tables of the restaurant. The hustle, the precision, nothing suffered in the restaurant's emptiness outside of Tim and Olivia. They performed, they moved and it was almost like they’d continue their service, and dancing, in perpetuity. They were performing in a near empty room, for the walls and the chairs and the wind.
Tim chewed, and washed his food with the red wine that matched his meat’s flavoring. “I’ve stayed this long, haven’t I?” he said, and Olivia nodded while he took another sip from his glass. “I’m done running, this town’s watched while my hair’s gone gray. That’s some special kind of a bond, you know?” Olivia laughed. Freer, it seemed, than she was when she entered. “Someone—or some place—watches you age and it’s like they can blackmail you, no, I couldn’t leave if I wanted to.” He stared for a moment at the table between them, and the liquid that rippled with the beat of the wind in their glasses.
“A rolling stone gathers no moss,” Olivia cut in, smiling. “And yet here we are.” She raised her glass.
“Caught up in a wind storm and mossy as all hell.” Tim clinked his glass against Olivia’s and the two of them sipped as they stared each other in the eyes.
“I’ll stay too,” Olivia said, holding eye contact and only breaking to glance at the steak she cut. “I’ll stay as long as you want me to,” she smiled, and she glanced back up as the window shattered beside them.
Glass sprang from its frame in shards that shot with the will of the wind. Olivia screamed, though neither she nor Tim got up from their seats. A triangular shard dug its sharpest end into the back of Tim’s hand, and still he sat there spreading the sauce more equitably along the length of his steak. He winced, his hand shook, he bit his lip, and blood spread along the rippled boney surface of the back of his hand. He pulled the shard from his skin, and Olivia offered her napkin.
“Thank you,” Tim said, and he wrapped the cloth around his slice like a tourniquet.
“Fifty years,” Olivia said, she looked at Tim and the newly freed wind blew across the width of her face. One strand whipped at her eye, and she put her sunglasses back on. “It’s days like this I think ‘I wish there was a God.’”
There was a long pause that settled in on the table. Tim shifted his weight, trying and failing to see through the shield that protected Olivia’s eyes. She didn’t move. “Well, there won’t be too many of these days left.” He smiled in spite of himself and the frown that fell over the face of his wife. “There’s a silver lining there if you can find it.” He crossed his arms.
“That’s an awful thing to say.” Olivia looked down, gathering her fork and poking at the steak she’d hardly noticed. “They see this as a holiday. The holiday of all holidays, in a way.” She cut a corner of fat and held it up to a more even eye level.
“But they’re wrong,” Tim chewed. Somehow, it seemed, unaffected by the unnerving weather outside. He raised his eyebrows, and his teeth were dark with red tint when he opened his mouth. “Those that believe.”
Shattered glass crawled along the surface of the table between Tim and Olivia. It scratched at the wooden surface, dragging lightly as it lifted with the push of the wind. The door opened and closed in the corner, it kept unreal time like a metronome ticking back and forth between its two states of being. It never hung ajar.
Olivia looked at her steak. She twirled her fork and folded her lips in towards the back of her throat. “There’s something to be said for being wrong,” she said, and scraped the food back onto her plate. “Being wrong.”
“There is?” Tim twisted his face into folds. “Fifty years and you’ve never been wrong. I’m surprised to hear you’re familiar with such an ugly word.”
Tim laughed, Olivia laughed. “Things change at the end of times.” She pulled her glasses from her nose. Her eyes got wide, and she squeezed her mouth tight like an O. She laughed as if it was all a lie, she laughed as if time might go on.
Tim spoke, but just as he did the door blew in and exploded from its hinges. The metal shattered over the sound of his words. His lips moved, though the heavy wooden door collapsed onto the floor. Everything echoed with the sound of destruction, everything ached and Olivia’s ears rang with sounds that weren’t his. It was as if he was speaking while falling away.
“You really think they’re dancing in the streets right now?” Tim torqued his head, yelling over the wind and illustrating the fact that he was repeating himself with movement. He paused for a moment, then sighed when he shook his head. He side-eyed the door. “I don’t believe in their belief. Not like that, not on a day like this.”
“Wanna go out to Main Street so I can show you?” “That won’t do it,” Tim shook his head some more. “Their bodies could be dancing, but there’s something inside of them that’s just as scared as us.”
“Oh.” Olivia pulled her shoulders back towards her spine. Finally, she ate a piece of her steak. “I didn’t know you were scared.”
They served the crème brûlée. It was cold like a cloud crusted with hard desert earth. Everything was sweet, and Tim made sure that he held a bite in his mouth as he stared the trunk of an uprooted spruce tree in the eye. Horizontal, it approached like a spear or a large drill gaining speed as it approached what remained of La Grand Mere. He chewed, watching and waiting while Olivia reached forward. “Look at me!” she screamed, and she grabbed both of his hands.
The Devil on the Bus
By Bailey Day
He was a devil, all right. The creature in the back of the bus could not be described as anything else. His skin was a bulging, dark red, covering his entire face and bare arms. His tight, sleeveless shirt hardly held back his insane muscle; he had the body composition of a red Hulk. She also noted his hoofed feet, which were crossed along with his burly legs, and the talons that were his bulging fingers. His horrible horns scraped the ceiling of the bus, threatening to tear a hole through the fragile roof.
Ms. Merriweather blinked. For a moment, she wondered if she had stumbled onto the wrong bus. She peered at the jam-packed seats. She recognized most of the passengers. There was little Johnny with his mother, playing with a yoyo and positively annoying another youngster, Susie, in the seat in front of him. There was the young man Herbert, nose in a textbook he had surely forgotten to read in preparation for class. The Winston couple sat where they always did, third row from the back, her head on his shoulder, him pouting as he always did when the bus stopped to pick up more people.
Yes, she knew every person who sat on this bus. She made it a point to know all the names of the people she saw most days, even if they couldn’t remember that she existed. But Ms. Merriweather didn’t know the devil in the back. All the way in the back, where the devil’s forked tail swished back and forth, carving small cuts into the upholstered cushions of the cheap seats.
“Ma’am,” the bus driver, Lenny, said. “You have to take your seat.”
Ms. Merriweather glanced around at all the other seats. Jenny from the high school had claimed her normal spot, her friends Lora and Sarah filling in the seats next to her. All of them were too busy giggling at something on Lora’s phone to notice Ms. Merriweather’s pure displeasure at having her seat ripped away from her. Occasionally she had to find another place to sit, and that was fine with her most days. But never was the bus so filled that she had to sit at the very back. And never had there been a devil to join her.
“Ma’am,” Lenny said, his voice growing curt.
Ms. Merriweather huffed. She pushed her thick glasses up her thin nose and fluffed her springy white hair. She had always been taught to look out for devils, and she usually saw several throughout the day. As the years rolled by, she saw more of them roaming her once quiet town.
She had grown up here in Crossworth. Her childhood days had been the purest she had ever experienced. Never were you threatened by the appearance of devils in those days. Sure, you learned about them, and you learned how to never become one yourself. They must not have been teaching the same lessons now-a-days to the youth, for a trip to the grocery store revealed devils to her. Black paint adorned their faces; sharp spikes stuck out of their exposed bellybuttons and tongues. They walked around in gangs, showing off their obscene tattoos as if they were signs of dominance over weak old ladies like herself. If they didn’t have red skin and forked tails then, it was only a matter of time. The more one partook in the deeds of the Devil, it was only a matter of time before they became one themselves.
Well, she had never been afraid of those hooligans, so why should she be afraid of their ruler in the back of the bus?
Ms. Merriweather clutched her carpet bag with the blue floral print that matched the dress she had draped on that morning. She placed her cane in front of her, hobbling down the narrow pathway to the back of the bus. A few of her neighbors shot her annoyed glances at her slow gait, which was why most people looked at her these days. The devil looked up, fiery eyes piercing her as she shuffled closer. Was it a threat? She couldn’t tell. But her knees were hurting from all the walking she had done in the market today, and the driver wouldn’t let her stand anyway.
Ms. Merriweather approached the devil. He sat stiff, brawny hands clasping his exposed thighs and leaving imprints that were an even darker red, almost to the point of letting blood. He was so large that he took up four of the five seats that lined the back of the bus. His tail flicked and flipped. A warning or a dare? She didn’t know enough about devils to tell.
“Ma’am!” Lenny shouted from the front of the bus.
The devil’s eyes flickered to the bus driver and back to her. A wide smile spread across his face, showing off a mouth full of teeth as sharp as a shark’s but as rotten as the compost in her backyard.
“I don’t bite,” the devil rumbled. His voice was as painful to hear as the sound of a small, innocent child scraping their knees across a gravel road.
A few snickers emanated from some dumb kids. Ms. Merriweather bristled, refusing to let a flush come over her cheeks as she faced away from the devil, instead focusing on the single vacant seat. Not much room was left next to the creature’s brutish figure, but there was enough for her to sit and be comfortable enough. She tried to ignore the forked tail as it carved hellish symbols into the upholstery behind her. She sat down, plopping her large bag at her feet, folding her arms in front of her and refusing to look at her riding companion.
Lenny, satisfied, started the bus again. The engine growled to life, puttering as he pulled away from the market bus stop and back onto the bare road. Ms. Merriweather tried to keep the devil out of her peripheral vision. She turned to the foggy window next to her, which coated her town in a milky white. They passed by the stop sign on 27th. They drove by the brick middle school, with the new neon-orange paint that made it look even worse than it had before. She peeked at a pack of middle school children directly outside. She didn’t get the best glance at them, but she wagered they were the Hunter twins and their group of friends, looking like little devils themselves, plotting something evil to do to their old school on a bright Saturday like this. Didn’t they know they could turn into devils themselves, like her riding companion, if they weren't careful?
“How are you today?”
Ms. Merriweather dared to turn around, the devil looming over her. His hideous, crackling smile was menacing. He kept his burly arms folded across his chest as he scrutinized her. She said nothing. She wasn’t even sure if she had heard the devil right, or at all.
The devil’s smile grew strained.
“How are you today?” he asked again.
She watched the devil’s tongue while he spoke. It was forked, much like the tip of his tail, and a large piercing was jammed into the center of it. The whitish-pink tongue looked swollen where that piercing was embedded, large veins of bloody red spreading across it. And worse, she saw a pentagram symbol traced onto the piercing’s golden topper.
Ms. Merriweather knew better than to talk to devils. But none had ever addressed her before, either. She gave the devil her fiercest glare.
“I was having a mighty fine day until you showed up.”
The devil’s smile didn’t leave. In fact, he seemed amused by her comment. He probably heard it often from sensible folk such as herself.
“You’re the one who showed up,” the devil said. “I was already sitting here when you arrived on the bus.”
“Where are you going? Off to terrorize some poor souls?”
“I’m going home.”
“This bus goes to Hell?”
“Close enough to it.”
Ms. Merriweather bristled.
“Don’t speak to me, fiend.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve never wanted to ask a devil some questions?”
“I wish to keep my soul.”
“It’s yours, lady.”
“I know you’ll try to swindle it away from me if we keep talking. It’s obvious just by looking at you.”
“You apparently don’t know what Matthew 7:1 says.”
Ms. Merriweather’s eyes widened.
“You know the Bible?”
“Of course I know the Bible. It’s in the job description. If you knew the Bible, you would know that even devils testified of Jesus.”
Ms. Merriweather gaped at the beast in front of her. The devil let out a mighty huff and receded from her side.
The bus chugged along. Ms. Merriweather could hear Jenny, Lora, and Sarah laugh louder than they should on a public bus. Mrs. Winston had started to doze against her husband, who continued to moodily look out the window. Susie cried out as Johnny aimed his yoyo too close. His mother finally pulled him back and reprimanded him.
The devil shuffled next to her. She couldn’t help but glance over, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible so the devil didn’t know she was inspecting him. He reached into his pocket, only having minor difficulty because of his over-sized hands. He pulled out his phone. A pit emerged in her stomach when she saw the case, which had horns sticking out of it like the horns he naturally wore. He pulled out two earbuds, placing them in his long, pointed ears that looked like gutted fish glued to the sides of his red head.
Ms. Merriweather couldn’t help but wonder what kind of music the devil listened to. Then again, she was sure she knew. Sometimes as she innocently walked through stores, picking out only the most wholesome goods, the devil’s music would play over the loudspeakers. It was loud and profane, causing an innocent soul like hers to tremble in terror. The town hooligans listened to it all the time. They laughed and danced to the explicit music, twisting their figures in ways that the human body was never intended to move. It was a testament to why most of the new generation were becoming devils every passing day.
The devil side-eyed her. She had shifted too much in his direction; he knew she was looking at him. She leaned back toward the window as quickly as her aging body would allow, feeling a blush creep to her cheeks. She didn’t know what the devil would do if he saw her studying him much longer. She couldn’t bear to invoke his wrath—she had already risked it somewhat by scolding him. She just had to survive this bus trip until it dragged her back to Thomas Street, back to her clean, peaceful, devil-free house.
The devil nudged her arm. She tried to ignore him, paying attention to the sparse number of people she saw walking down the street. He nudged her again, and she realized ignoring a devil may be just as bad as giving it attention.
With her heart pounding against her frail ribs, she turned back to see what the devil wanted. His gnarly fingers pinched one of his earbuds. His frown was flat, his fiery eyes slightly narrowed as he offered the earbud to her.
She gulped. She knew she shouldn’t. The dear Lord would be outraged if He found her partaking of one of the devil’s gifts. The music would be a shrieking, incoherent cacophony that would melt her as quickly as the Wicked Witch of the West. She couldn’t afford to have any kind of stain on her already fragile soul.
Then again, curiosity ate at her. She knew what the hooligans she saw at the market and in her neighborhood listened to, but not what the devil himself did for fun. She may never have a chance to hear it again. If she didn’t listen now, she may never know what to avoid in the future. And she knew her curiosity would always eat at her if she didn’t take the offered earbud.
Her hands trembled as she plucked the earbud from his grasp. She could already feel her soul weeping as if she committed the unpardonable sin. She slowly brought the small piece of plastic to her ear, bracing herself for the profanities that were sure to tantalize and gnaw away at her very foundation–
But all she heard was violins.
Her eyes widened behind her thick glasses, making her eyes appear much bigger than they actually were. The luscious strains of the piano joined, as did the melodious cello, the heart-warming bass. She listened intently. She knew this song. It was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. She had this on a record back at her place. She owned a different arrangement, played solely on the organ, but she liked all the other instruments joining in this baroque piece.
Toccata and Fugue blocked out the other noises of the bus. She could still see little Johnny crying as his mother massaged her temples. She saw Herbert drop his textbook and mumble an apology as he reached under his neighbor’s seat, but couldn’t hear his shrill, girl-like voice. She couldn’t even hear the rumble of the bus as it continued the long, arduous trek to her home.
The devil turned away from her, setting his elbow on the windowsill, cupping his red face in his large hand. His horns made an obnoxious squeal as they slid across the roof, breaking through the song that played in her ear. The bus’s protest ended as soon as the devil stopped moving, peering outside at who else he could likely terrorize once he got off the bus. Or maybe he really was just tired and looking forward to going home.
She shouldn’t become chummy with the devil. But she found herself saying, “You’ve got good taste in music, son.”
The devil glanced her way, eyes wide himself. He cracked a small smile.
Their small talk petered out. Ms. Merriweather fiddled with her hands. She was no longer curious about what was happening on the bus, or even what was happening outside on the street. She usually filled her days with keeping up on her neighbors, finding every little idiosyncrasy and drama to record in her journal so future generations would see the deterioration of Crossworth through her eyes. But today, she wasn’t interested. Her thoughts were in too much turmoil to worry about the conflicts between her neighbors.
Instead, she reached down for her carpet bag. She set the large item on her lap and snapped it open. She had gone to the market for one reason today; more yarn. She had run out of yarn yesterday, and she always had to have some on hand. Knitting was as integral to her day as was recording all the internal gossip she had formulated about her neighbors.
Ms. Merriweather usually didn’t knit on the bus, but she didn’t think the jerkiness of the ride would bother her much today. She grabbed her two knitting needles, stabbing a brand-new red ball of yarn, and setting it on her lap. She pulled some strands up, wrapping them around her sticks and carefully knit them together. It was a bit of a challenge compared to when she did it on her recliner at home, with the bus lurching right and left in unexpected ways, but she managed.
“Hey, are you knitting?”
Ms. Merriweather started, looking up at the devil again. The devil had turned away from the window, scorching eyes now intent upon the red ball, staring at it like her cat might.
Ms. Merriweather pushed her glasses back up her nose.
“I love knitting,” he said. He pointed to her bag. “Do you have another pair of needles in there? Can I join you?”
It just so happened that Ms. Merriweather did have another pair of knitting needles in her bag. She had a bad habit of buying stuff she did not need every time she was out and about. Someone visiting her home might assume she was a hoarder even though she did her best to keep her house neat and clean, despite her aching joints. Today, she had found a pink pair of needles that caught her fancy. She flushed, dug through her bag, and pulled out the needles. The devil chuckled at the sight of them but took the two pink sticks anyway.
“Thanks,” he thundered. “What are we making?”
“A scarf,” she replied. “Fall is coming, after all.”
“Scarf it is,” the devil said.
The devil inserted his needles into the red yarn with her. She pulled out a foundation chain, a single string they would use as their base. He started working his gnarly fingers with her pink needles, which tinkled together as they knotted the yarn.
“I don’t do it much anymore,” the devil admitted as he knit one strand of the yarn together. He was slow, but Ms. Merriweather couldn’t detect any glaring mistakes. “I guess a lot of people don’t think boys should knit, so I didn’t keep up with it as much as I should have.”
Their needles banged against each other. The devil pulled his needles back, laughing.
“Sorry, I’m rusty.”
The devil got quicker, the art of knitting apparently coming back to him. Pride bloomed on his red face.
“Still got it,” he chuckled.
The two of them worked on individual sides of the scarf, both close to the foundation chain. Their needles grew ever closer and closer together.
Ms. Merriweather wasn’t sure if she had ever knitted with anyone before. She always thought of it as a solitary activity, but she and the devil were working in perfect unison.
“Why does the devil know how to knit?” she couldn’t help but ask.
“My grandma taught me how,” the devil said. “It’s one of my fondest memories of her. She would teach me after Sunday School. It was the best. My parents weren’t much into church, but Granny thought it was important that my sisters and I went. So, she always gathered us into the car and drove us to church. Then afterwards, she would take us back to her place since Mom and Dad worked on Sundays.”
Ms. Merriweather started to see the small scarf come together. She was amazed with how fast the two of them were working.
“Every Sunday, she would teach us how to knit after church. My sisters never really got into it, but I loved it. They used to tease me that a boy liked knitting so much, but I didn’t care back then. Once my sisters got into high school, they stopped going to church, but I kept going just so I could knit with Granny afterwards. Guess I haven’t knitted since Granny died. Nor have I been to church.”
The devil gave a solemn laugh. He looked up from their project, staring her straight in the eyes.
“I guess that’s why I landed this job. I really am some sort of heathen, aren’t I?”
Ms. Merriweather stared back at the devil, right into his big, fiery eyes. Except, Ms. Merriweather didn’t see the fire burning in them anymore. The devil just looked sad. Ms. Merriweather wondered if this was how all the devils she ran into felt; at least a little sad that their skin was now red and their horns tall and their forked tails always swishing. Sad because of what they had lost. Sad because of what they were now. Sad because of all the stares and the judgments people threw at them every day for things they knew nothing about.
The bus jerked to a stop. The devil almost dropped her needles. He looked out the window.
“This is my stop,” he said.
He handed back her needles. She raised her hand to take them but hesitated. She looked up at the devil’s large face looking down at her in confusion. She removed his earbud and handed it back to him, not grabbing the needles he still held.
“Keep them, son,” she said.
The devil stared at Ms. Merriweather. A smile spread across his face—not a menacing one, but one of the sincerest smiles Ms. Merriweather had ever seen on a human or devil.
“Gotta go,” the devil said as he stood. His horns scraped against the ceiling as he walked, but Ms. Merriweather no longer thought it sounded so horrible.
He shot her one last smile as he walked down the aisle. “Catch you later, miss.”
Jaime Tobin Takes the Ride of His life
By David Asia
What Could Possibly Go Wrong
Let me start by saying that you don’t hang out with a couple of parents for almost thirteen years and not learn a thing or two about adults. And even though my parents act more like kids than grown ups a lot of the time, I’ve figured out some things that you can pretty much take to the bank. I call them Jaime’s Rules, and here’s the king of them all, Jaime’s Rule Number One: don’t assume that adults are going to tell you everything you need to know. Most of the important stuff you’re going to have to find out on your own. And, if you’re like me, you’ll spend a bunch of time feeling pretty stupid.
Every year I’m exiled to a card table with Lucas, my brother. Lucas is five and still turns everything on his plate into a kind of lumpy muck, stuffing it, more like smearing it, into his mouth. Usually, some of it finds its way into his hair and up his nose. And I’m the one who usually gets to hose him off while mom and dad clear. For this I’m supposed to be thankful.
But this year, the card table was set for three.
“Mom, who’s sitting with Lucas and me?”
Still no answer.
“Lucas, who’s sitting with us at the kids’ table?”
“Wolfie,” he said, settling his large stuffed wolf into the third chair.
This year, our table was dressed in plastic turkeys. Last year, the plastic cloth featured some Chinese factory manager’s idea of what Indians and Pilgrims must have looked like. After everyone left, my dad, who is Indian, waved the cartoon images like a bullfighter in front of my mother, scolding her about being so casually racist, especially given her own people’s history, and proclaiming that this was why he could never invite his family over. My mother, always the bull, rose to the taunt and responded that he knew full well that the real reason they never came out was that he married a Jewish girl and chose to teach at some high fallootin’ university rather than the community college on the reservation. Just so you know, I don’t think my mom’s racist, but I do think she likes to get my dad riled up. Anyway, at our house, this was an argument streaming pretty much on demand. After a few minutes, I went to bed.
I knew that the Rothsteins were coming over. They came every year. But beyond the two of them and Wolfie, I didn’t give it much thought, which was why I was unprepared for what happened next.
What happened next was Gabriella. A beautiful, brown eighth grade girl, living with the Rothsteins, who had appeared in the Laurelhurst Middle School Commons one Monday morning in early October. At the time, the school could boast of only six kids with any color at all: me, three Asian kids, and The Black Twins, Nathan and Rachel Martin, both sixth graders. So everyone at Laurelhurst couldn’t help but notice Gabriella’s entrance. She brought news of another world.
And here she was at my door, wearing a rose turtleneck, blue jeans, Converse sneakers, turquoise fleece coat, and a necklace of turquoise and silver turtles curling around her neck. And she was looking at me. I started sweating immediately. These days, I sweat a lot.
We must have all stood there in the doorway for some time, with me trying not to look obvious about not looking at Gabriella, until Mr. Rothstein said, “Jaime, would you like to invite us in?”
I managed to blush and mumble something. Gabriella could speak in whole sentences.
“Jaime, I’m Gabriella. Pleased to meet you,” she said smiling as they all came through the door.
I might have smiled, or said hello, all that’s a blur, but what I for sure remember is how long it took for her to walk past, like here was me in this nightmare, and here she comes floating through, smiling, like she’s on some kind of Sunday space walk. I’m sure I looked like I felt– a pretty complete idiot.
Actually, I’d never been closer to Gabriella than four or five cafeteria tables, never close enough hear her voice. From that distance, I knew the smile she offered a friend, her laugh at some silliness from her peers, how she wrinkled her brow when she was reading at lunch, which she often did. There were even times, in the moments before the gaggle of girls congealed around her, when I caught her staring a little sadly, I thought, into the commons. Maybe she was homesick.
I don’t mean to sound creepy, but I watched her pretty close. She was just so exotic: the clothes she wore, her face, the color of her skin, the almost liquid way she moved her hands when she talked. I even had a name for some of her standards. I called them gabriellas. And there was one particular gabriella, with her hair, which was black and thick, but not heavy thick, more like it had been infused with an energy, animated, enabling it to kind of float behind her, finally settling lightly over her shoulders. She would reach her hands up on both sides, gather it, and coax it back into place, where it would remain, for a time. This was my all time favorite.
Tonight, in spite of the Rothsteins and the Lucas Food Circus, tonight, for me, quickly became about not looking at the smooth arc of her breasts, each with its nipple perched triumphantly like a raisin at its summit. With each gabriella at the card table, the fabric of her turtleneck clung to her, offering this soft, rose colored rise just long enough for it to whisper my name.
It was exhausting not to look, pretending, instead, to watch Lucas painting his face with potatoes and gravy, yet all the while straining to catch just the slightest glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. This was all that I dared, and still I was terrified at the thought that she or someone else would notice. No health class, nothing I had seen, read about, or even imagined, prepared me for something so perfect, so… inviting.
At the end of dessert, she said, “Lucas, you have something in your nose, something yellowish.”
Lucas went noodling.
“No, the other one.”
“Potato,” Lucas said. He reached across the table, balancing the oozing, yellowish lump on the tip of his finger. “Want it?” he asked, smiling.
She tossed her head to the side, unsettling the lay of her hair, and laughed at his joke.
One time, when Lucas and me were wrestling and I had him on his back, he looked up at me and said, “One of these days I’m going to kick your ass.”
Apparently, that day had arrived.
2. In The Shadow Of Crazy Horse
Lucas and I normally take the bus to school, but this Monday after the break my dad insisted on driving me, just me, to school on his way to the university. Lucas protested, but the promise of burgers for lunch pretty much shut him up.
No Happy Meal for me.
The nightmare playing itself out in my head, of course, was that Gabriella told the Rothsteins that I stared at her chest all night and that she couldn’t face seeing me again, so now I would be transported to a special school for children with breastophrenia – that’s when you hear breasts talking in your head. Pretty lame, I know, but it was the best I could come up with. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, if such a place actually existed, I’d probably already know most of the kids there.
“Jaime”, my dad said, noticing the panic stretched across my face, “you look like I’m taking you to the vet. Get in, for Pete’s sake.”
“Very funny. Look, did I do something wrong? Did somebody call you? Whatever this is, let’s get it over with.” I’m a firm believer in hitting catastrophe head on.
“Call me? Jamie, you hardly ever do anything wrong. But that’s not the point. Hang on.” He pulled over to the curb, put the pickup in park and killed the engine. Then he laid his arm along the back of the bench seat, resting his hand on my shoulder, looking directly at me. Not good.
“I couldn’t help but notice that you seemed a bit, well, fond of Gabriella. I mean, why not. She seems smart and kind, and she is pretty. So why not?”
Fond of Gabriella. The words, the three of them together, sounded like they should belong to somebody else. And it was already a confusing time. I had been feeling more and more like the me that is, no longer quite fit in the me that was. And now my dad comes up with this, about being fond of Gabriella. Could it be true? And what did that mean, exactly? It felt terrifying and wonderful at the same time.
“Help me out here, Jaime.”
“She’s okay, I guess, but she is an eighth grader.”
“And you’re a seventh grader. Okay. Good.”
“How can that be good? And why are we even talking about this?”
“Whoa, Jaime. We’re just father and son here, just a couple of guys talking. Take a breath.”
Which he did.
“Well, here’s the thing, Jaime. If you like a girl, you can’t just look at her boobs all the time.”
“Breasts. Mom says to call them breasts. And I wasn’t looking at her breasts because all night I was trying like crazy not to.” I felt the heat rise in my face, the sweat bead on my upper lip. Even my armpits started to tear up.
“Well, okay. That’s respectful, I guess. But still, if you like a girl, you can’t just spend all your time trying not to look at her boo – breasts.” He looked out the window for a minute. “Did you two talk at all?”
“She said she liked my family, liked Lucas – which kind of freaks me out. And he made her laugh with some gross booger joke. She said she liked mom’s fudge. I think I told her I liked her turtles.”
“Her necklace, dad, her necklace. Jeez…”
“Oh. Okay. Good.”
“You keep saying that: okay, good. How can any of this be okay or good? First, I freeze when I see her at the door. For all I remember, I may have peed my pants. Then I spend all night trying not to look at her. She probably thinks I’m immature or some kind of pervert.” I pressed my face into my hands. “Oh God. And now I have to see her at school. I don’t feel well. Maybe I should stay home.”
“Nice try, Jamie.” He paused, then said, “You don’t talk to her at school at all?”
“She’s hardly ever alone. She’s usually surrounded by a bunch of girls.”
“Remoras. They’re those smaller fish that attach themselves to a bigger fish. The remoras clean the big fish and the big fish protects the remoras. These girls sense that Gabriella is already swimming in the more dangerous waters that await them, and, to them, she looks to be doing it pretty smoothly. They believe that by touching her, being close to her, they can be more like her. You follow me?”
“Uncle Joe says we used to eat the hearts of brave animals we killed so we could be like them.”
“Well, maybe Uncle Joe did.” He scrunched his face and pulled at his ear, like he does when he’s thinking.
“She likes the fudge?”
“Yeah. And Lucas.”
“Well, you can’t give her Lucas. But there is more fudge.”
“Mom says that’s for Uncle Joe and Auntie Maria.”
“Your Uncle Joe spent the seventies on the Pine Ridge surviving on fry bread and Mountain Dew. He won’t miss a few pieces of fudge. Besides, it’s for a good cause.”
My dad’s older brother, Joe, was my favorite Indian, as my dad liked to say. He walked a little stooped over to the right, and had long, black braids streaked with gray nearly to his waist. The veins in his arms ran like cables, and his face was leathered and creased by time and a life outside. Those creases, he said, was where he carried the stories, and Uncle Joe was full of stories – Lakota stories about who we are, where we come from, why we’re here, stories about him and my dad growing up on horseback on the reservation. His stories sealed the edges of my life, and his was often the last voice in my head as I fell asleep at night.
One time, I asked my dad why he never talked about being Indian like Uncle Joe.
“Your Uncle Joe and I remember it differently,” was all he said.
Uncle Joe and Auntie Maria bred Appaloosa horses just outside of Oglala on the reservation, and he showed me pictures of this beautiful, leopard colt with a blanket of black spots spackling his back and sides and dribbling down his muzzle. He said they were keeping him just for me.
“When do I get to go visit Uncle Joe and Auntie?” I asked my dad after taking Uncle Joe to his plane.
“You will,” he said.
“Will you come with me?”
“We’ll see,” he said, straining to get us on to the interstate. “We’ll see.”
In the seventies, Uncle Joe joined the American Indian Movement, changing his name to Chankoowashtay, a Lakota name my dad said means something like Good Road. He put together a group of lawyers, Jewish lawyers he told my mom, to give free legal advice on the Pine Ridge Reservation. My auntie, Maria Yellowhorse, was a social worker in Rapid City. And they both knew Leonard Peltier.
Once, when Uncle Joe, my dad, and I stopped on a hike to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, dad and him started talking about this holy man who believed that Indians could dance the white man away. Uncle Joe got real quiet and I watched his jaw get tight, like he was watching something hard happen that dad and I couldn’t see. After awhile he said softly, “I should have been there, you know, at Wounded Knee, with Leonard.”
My dad would have none of it.
“Right, Joe,” he said. “How many brothers did you keep out of prison? Five? Ten? And instead of doing that, just think, you and Maria could have gone to live in the penitentiary too. There or to Leavenworth - with Leonard.”
One time, my dad told Lucas and me Uncle Joe was a hero.
As I got out at the school, I turned to him. “Why all the questions all of a sudden? Isn’t that mom’s job?”
“Your mom’s a wise woman, Jaime, but I’m not sure this is mom territory,” he said, motioning me back to the pick up. “Look, you’re a good guy, but you spend a lot of time in your head. Gabriella seems like a good person. She’s new in town, and I bet she spends a lot of time in her head, missing home and all. If you can get past the fact that she’s a bit ahead of you on the puberty curve, which I suspect you can, and if she can get past the fact that you’re a seventh grader, which, after she talks to you, I’ll wager she will, I think you two could be friends. And friends are good. Besides, like your uncle would say, today might be a good day to die or a good day to talk to a girl.”
He smiled, shoved his fist out the driver’s side window, shook it at the sky, hollering “Hoka hey, Jaime” at the gathering flock of middle schoolers, and drove off.
It got quiet, like before a storm. The skin on the back of my neck tingled as I felt the flock stop and turn, eyes and ears drilling down on me and the crazy man with his fist in the air.
3. It Comes Down To The Fudge
You never know what you’re going to find when you return to school after a three day weekend, what with cell phones connecting everybody like a string of Christmas lights. They all light one another up, all except me and Joey Foy, that is. Joey was one of the three Asian kids at the school. He and I were two of a shrinking group of kids without cell phones and we were both terrified and envious of the digital blows pummeling our peers throughout the day.
Joey, his mother, father, and grandmother all spoke Mandarin at home, so, while I leaned on him for math, he leaned on me a lot in Language Arts. We spent mornings before school in the commons checking homework or just talking about stuff.
“So what did you do for Thanksgiving?” asked Joey, looking at me.
“The usual,” I said, suddenly fascinated with the hinge on the cafeteria table. “A couple of my parents’ friends and Lucas. Pretty dull. You?”
“Okay,” he sighed. “Let’s try this again. Jaime, what did you do for Thanksgiving? Before you answer this time, remember where my mom works.”
Sometimes I’m amazed that someone so smart like me can be so stupid. Lydia Foy worked in the same medical records office with my mom. There was no telling how much Joey knew.
“All right. So she was there. No big deal. And no one else has to know, right? Joey?”
“Okay, okay. Who’m I gonna tell anyway? I bet you were pretty nervous, huh?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug. Then I saw his eyes get big. “But on'tday ooklay ownay. You’ve got incoming at your six.”
It was her.
“Can I join you?”
“Um, sure,” I sounded like a frog.
“You sure it’s okay?” she asked, probably thinking that I was a frog.
I cleared my throat. I could feel the sweat bubbling up on my lip.
“Sure, sorry, really. This is Joey.”
GabrielIa said hi and Joey grinned and waved.
I looked at her, taking in quickly those same silver turtles around her neck, and noticing, with huge relief that her shirt draped her loosely, mercifully revealing nothing: I could actually look at her without feeling like I was committing a crime. And, in some deep, automatic part of my brain, I knew that no one could ever look so beautiful in a dark green shirt.
She sat about eighteen inches from me. The smell of her shampoo or something made me dizzy for a few seconds. Four tables away sat the remoras, their lips moving.
“Jaime, I really liked meeting your family.”
“Even Lucas.” Then she got serious. “I really miss my family.”
Turns out her dad was a district attorney in San Diego working on a big human trafficking case involving Mexico, some Russians, the FBI, you name it. She said they even had cops protecting their house. Gabriella’s parents thought it would be best for her to be away while all of this was going on, and Mr. Rothstein and her father had known one another since law school, so here she was.
“But I’d just as soon people not know any of this, okay?” she added.
The first bell rang, triggering the touch and go of another school day. Cell phones chimed off, books slid off tables and into backpacks, trays slammed onto carts, and juice cartons thumped against the sides of trash cans.
“Bye,” we all said. She headed to Algebra, Joey and me to Social Studies.
The rest of the day was pretty quiet, except for Joey bugging me about the whole thing. But almost every moment in or out of class, or even listening to Joey, I was replaying me and Gabriella talking, seeing things I didn’t even know I’d noticed, like how white her teeth were, the light blue of her nail polish against the brown skin of her fingers, how her eyes got teary as she spoke about her family and friends in San Diego.
When I got home, mom was in the kitchen slicing carrots. She told me to look in the fridge. There was a little box with a blue bow.
“Fudge”, she said. “Your father called.”
“Mom, I’ll take the fudge but I refuse to take it like that. Way too overdressed. How about a small container in a brown paper bag.”
“You mean like cocaine?”
“Ha, ha. Very funny. And how much did you tell Mrs. Foy about me at Thanksgiving?”
“Everything,” she said, clasping her hands to her chest and batting these big, gooey eyes. “It really was very sweet, Jaime.”
I threw up my hands and turned to go. She went back to her carrots.
But I stopped at the door.
Timing. That’s something else to understand, especially with parents. Every family’s a little different, so it’s not a rule, exactly… More like an art.
“Mom? When do I get to go visit Uncle Joe and Auntie Maria?”
She kept cutting. “Maybe this summer. We’ll see.”
“Uncle Joe has a horse he’s keeping for me, he said, a colt, with these spots like a leopard all over. Mom, he was beautiful.”
“Will dad come?”
“Does dad know?”
She stopped cutting and gave me her ‘you hold it right there, mister’ look.
“You leave your father to me. And I said we’ll see. Don’t go getting all fired up yet. It’s only November.”
Fired up? Me? Between the colt and the fudge, I probably had smoke coming from my ears.
After his late class, my dad wandered into my room.
“Well?” he asked, “did you talk to her?”
Now’s the time for Jaime’s Rule Number Two: the length of a conversation with adults varies inversely with the amount of time you take to answer their questions. If you’re good at ‘the long pause’, they’ll usually move on. Usually.
Long pause. “Yeah.”
“And? How did it go?”
I sighed, rolled my eyes, opened my desk drawer searching for something. Longer pause.
“Okay, I guess.” I pretended to bear down on this idiot worksheet on the Age of Exploration.
“Jaime, after our little chat this morning, all my encouragement and coaching…”
“Dad, yelling a bunch of corny Indian words at your son’s middle school is not coaching. It’s child abuse. Besides, now is not the time. I have work to do.”
“Okayokay, jeeze,” he said. “Excuuuse me for taking an interest in my son’s happiness.”
And here’s Jaime’s Rule Number Three: if Jaime’s Rule Number Two fails you, come down hard, and, if you can, slap the old homework card down on the table.
4. Counting Your Chickens
The trick now was how to get her the fudge without letting anyone at the school know, except maybe Joey. Him I could trust.
There were two times when I’d actually seen her alone. One was in the morning in the commons, before the other busses arrived, and the other was at the beginning of second lunch. I would be finishing up at our lunch, which could put me there when she arrived, and she was an aide in the library in the period before, so that gave her about a four minute lead over the remoras. I didn’t much like the thought of the fudge cooking in my backpack for three and a half hours, so the morning seemed the best bet.
Joey would be my spotter. I stressed that he had to see her before she saw us: the element of surprise was everything, almost. I say almost, because there was also the very real possibility that I would slip in some sixth grader’s puddle of chocolate milk sending the bag of fudge hurtling towards Gabriella’s head while I cracked mine open on the corner of a table. She’d be permanently blind in one eye and I’d be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair.
But, if everything did go as planned, as soon as she came in, he would give me a sign and I would go over to her, bag in hand, and offer her the fudge. I’d look straight at her, strong like, and say something like, “I hear you like my mom’s fudge.” I’d smile, then turn and walk away, before anyone else was the wiser. And she would think, if not say out loud, something like, “That Jaime. What a guy…”
A brilliant plan! Except for one thing. She didn’t show. And Joey, having heard so much about the fudge and my reasons for not choosing lunch for the handoff, insisted that the only logical thing to do was for me and him to eat the fudge. Which we did.
The day wasn’t completely wasted, however. Two eighth grade girls were caught with marijuana in their lockers. A sixth grader, who did not have a cell phone, and was serving an after school detention in the office, told his eighth grade brother, who also did not have a cell phone, that he overheard the whole conference in the vice principal’s office. The brother then told Joey, who told me. How’s that for old school.
5. A Pretty Big Oedipus
Joey and I agreed that the morning fudge plan was still a good one. All I had to do was survive whatever was waiting for me at home. Thankfully, mom had taken Lucas to a friend’s house, but both she and dad were in the kitchen when I got there. This could go either way: let’s be respectful of our eldest child’s emotional vulnerability, or lets me and you have a little fun at the kid’s expense.
I put the paper bag and the empty container on the counter.
“What’s that?” mom said.
“She wasn’t at school.”
“It’s empty. What happened to the fudge?”
“Joey and I ate it. I want to try again tomorrow. Can I?”
“Okay. Your Uncle Joe…” My dad interrupted.
“Hang on, Sarah. How do we know that this whole thing ain’t some kind of fudge scam by him and that Joey character? What if Gabriella was there all along and these two fudge jockies here is just playin’ us fer suckers? Wait a minute,” he said, slapping his forehead, “what if the broad’s been in on it the whole time?”
“You gotta admit, Marcus, the kid’s got moxie,” my mom said.
So much for my emotional vulnerability…
I tried to get firm. “Mom, if you were able to find Lucas a friend, maybe you could find one for you know who here? That way it’d just be us adults.”
“Trying to get rid of the old man, huh? That’s a pretty big Oedipus, Tex,” and he winked at me. I had no idea what he was talking about and was sure as heck not about to give him the satisfaction of asking. Mom winked at me. Then mom and dad winked at one another, those big, clowny winks.
Clearly, we were done here.
6. My Dad’s Stupid Poem
Wednesday was Lucas’ sharing day, so he came down with a trash bag full of stuffed animals. Mom and him got it down to Wolfie along with Shade and Pimento, his two stuffed huskey pups. Dad offered to drive him.
“How about you, Tex? Want a ride?” He asked, giving me a hug.
“Just a ride? No whoops and hollers?”
“No whoops and hollers.”
Mom had refilled the container with five pieces of fudge and replaced the paper bag. I put it carefully into my backpack, hugged her goodbye, and headed out to the truck.
“You have that girl in by curfew, young man,” she shouted from the door, waving a wooden spoon at me. In my family, the fun never ends.
Once we dropped Lucas off and watched him drag Wolfie and the pups down the breezeway into the school, we had about a five minute drive to Laurelhurst. This was the red zone, the place where anything could happen. I almost brought up what mom said about summer, about him and me visiting Uncle Joe and Auntie Maria, about the leopard colt, but I decided to hold off. I knew enough about my dad to understand that this was not as simple for him as it was for mom and me.
The quiet held until we got to the four way stop.
“You know, Jaime, I have had a thought or two about your predicament.”
“Your predicament. Your situation.”
“Okay – no wait. Dad, before you speak, first ask yourself: WILL THIS BE HELPFUL?”
“Helpful? Jaime, I’m your father. Helpful is my sole purpose in life. Just listen:
A boy finally decided to budge
And give his girlfriend some fudge.
He felt pretty swift
When he gave her this gift,
But she just got pimples and pudge.”
I just kind of stared at him for a second. I swear he looked just like Lucas when he caught his first fish at the lake, like he’d landed a tuna or something.
“Good one, dad.”
“Break a leg, buddy,” he said pulling the stiff passenger door closed behind me.
I gave him a thumbs up and joined the river of kids heading upstream.
We had just reached the janitor’s closet when it hit me. I stopped, sending a ripple back through the whole stream of kids. I had to work my way across the current to the wall to give myself room to think. I shut my eyes, barely breathing, absolutely alone, and I watched all the pieces snap into place: everything I had been thinking and feeling since that agonizing Thanksgiving, since even before Thanksgiving, all that watching her, pretending not to watch her, all those gabriellas, then her hair, the turtles, the green shirt, the constant embarrassment, all that sweating, it all added up. All this time! And then my dad’s stupid poem!
The fudge! The implications were suddenly huge! This fudge was the door to a whole new - well, a whole new what? I didn’t know that yet, but I’d read enough about knights and fair damsels to know that a lot of those guys wound up dragon fodder way before winning their Gabriellas. But I’m not talking dragons here. I’m talking middle school. If a kid like me blows something like this? He’s road kill, and, in minutes, his whole, humiliating story gets posted to the Facebook page of every other kid at Laurelhurst and beyond. Trust me.
I took the deepest breath I’d ever taken in my life and plunged back into the stream.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Jaime, she’s an eighth grader, beautiful, incredibly popular, and you’re a nerdy seventh grader with maybe one friend. You’d better think this through. Not this time. Catastrophe head on, remember?
I had to get to the commons.
7. Things Get Worse And Then They Get Better
Joey was already in there, in his assigned position, facing the main door. I sat opposite him. Even with all the rehearsing in my mind and the dry run yesterday, I was still nervous and sweating.
“You got the fudge?” He motioned for me to wipe my upper lip. He was pretty excited.
“Got it.” I pulled the bag out of my pack and readied it on the table.
All of a sudden, a tray hit the floor on the far side of the room and a ruckus broke out. Joey was a rubbernecker. That’s what the traffic safety guy called it. It didn’t take much to distract him, and I swear he could turn his head like an owl. By the time he sat back down and faced the door, we had lost control.
I sprang up, wiped my lip on my sleeve, grabbed the bag, and turned to find her already standing at the table. Before I could say a word, she spoke.
“Hi Joey. Hi Jaime. I was wondering if the two of you would like to come over to my – to the Rothstein’s - Friday after school for some pizza and a movie.”
“Gabriella,” I said, kind of like an idiot. I think it was maybe the first time I said her name out loud. “Sure.”
Joey looked like he had just sat down on something unexpected. “Sure,” he blurted, then added a bit more quietly, “but I have to check with my mom.”
“Great,” she said, “maybe around four?”
“Gabriella, this is for you.” I offered the bag. “I think you said you li –“ but I didn’t get to finish. Mr. Skinner, the vice principal, drawing duty in the commons since yesterday’s marijuana bust, appeared out of nowhere.
He reached out his hand, and said coldly, “The bag, please.” Gabriella’s eyes started to well up with tears as she handed it over.
“That’s fudge from my mom,” I said, balling my fists, trying to contain the surge in both my rage and humiliation. I glanced at Joey. He looked like he’d just seen his grandma wheel her walker into the room.
“We’ll sort this out, but you both need to come with me.”
We followed him down the hall, through a gauntlet of stares and poor sucker smirks, through the main office and into his office. In the year and three months I had been in middle school, I had never been beyond the half gate leading from the attendance office to the offices of the principal and vice principal, but I’d seen a lot of unhappy kids through the glass. Usually, when I was checking in late or delivering a note from home, the secretaries were all smiles. This time, no one looked up, and, without even knowing what it was, I began to feel like I did something wrong.
Inside his office, we sat in the two wooden chairs facing his desk. Gabriella still had her backpack on, so she had to sit on the edge of her seat, while I had dragged mine the whole sorry mile. Even so, this didn’t feel like a place where a kid could sit back in his chair.
I watched him open the bag and remove the container. He snapped open the lid and raised it to his nose. My lip was quivering. I pointed a finger at his hand and said, “That’s hers. You have no right to take it.”
“You say it’s fudge your mom made?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes, sir,” I said.
“You brought it from home this morning?”
Another deep breath. “Yes, sir,” I said again, “as a gift for her.”
He turned towards Gabriella. “And you are?”
“Her name is Gabriella, and I just gave her the fudge. It’s my fudge. I brought it from home this morning.”
I didn’t know her last name.
“Salazar,” she said softly, averting her eyes.
“Gabriella Salazar,” I repeated, rising a bit out of my chair.
Mr. Skinner must have noticed, because he raised his palms towards me and said, “Okay, Jaime, calm down. You say your mom made this. I believe you, but I need to be sure. Let’s just give her a call, shall we?” he said, watching me, then turning to the roster on his computer.
“She’s at work. And you don’t believe me.” Gabriella was looking at me.
Jaime’s Rule Number Four: there is no proof that young people lie more than adults, but the chances that a kid in a tight spot who’s telling the truth will actually be believed pales in comparison.
“Mrs. Tobin, please. Mrs. Tobin, this is Paul Skinner, the vice principal at Laurelhurst Middle School. Hello. I’ve got Jaime here, with…”
“Gabriella,” I said.
“With Gabriella. No, everything’s fine. We just need to clear something up here, and I’m sure it’s nothing. He says you made some fudge and gave it to him to bring this morning, is that correct? Well, yes, it does look like fudge. No, ma’am, no, I’m not suggesting that. I’m sorry if that’s how it sounded. It’s just that we had an unfortunate incident here yesterday and I’m just trying to keep our students safe. I understand. I’m sure Jaime’s a great kid. Yes, of course. I’ll make it a point to get to know Gabriella better. Thank you, and I’m very sorry to bother you. Here he is.” He handed the phone across his desk.
“Mom?” I closed my eyes. “I’m okay. She’s here, she’s okay. No, I can stay.” I looked at Gabriella. She nodded. “No, she wants to stay. Mom, we’re fine. See you at home. Love you too.”
Mr. Skinner returned the phone to its base and looked down at his hands folded on the desk. He took a weary breath and stayed quiet, like he was measuring something in his head. Sometimes adults can look a lot older than usual, and, for a second, you maybe forget yourself and maybe try to feel what it must be like to be them. But a second can pass pretty fast.
“Well, sorry for all of this, Jaime, Gabriella. Here’s your fudge.” He gave it to me, and rose to get the door.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at him or say thank you. I just got up, turned to Gabriella, and handed her the bag. “I think you said that you liked my mom’s fudge.” I smiled, she looked up at me with her brown eyes wide and wet. Then she laughed, wiping them with the palm of her hand.
We got our passes back to class, and went into the empty hall. After the office door closed, we stood in a quiet rare for a school day, trying, I think, to understand everything that had just happened. A little time went by and she came close to me, put her hand on my arm, and said, “I think I like your mom better than her fudge.” Then she leaned in and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “Thank you, Jaime. See you tomorrow maybe,” she said. “Definitely Friday, right?”
“Definitely,” I said, and as she turned and walked away, I watched her hair float mischievously over her shoulders, watched as her hands came up to set it right. Seeing it from behind, while standing in the lingering scent of her shampoo, set my heart thumping against the wall of my chest.
“Hoka hey,” I said aloud.
To the bloodless air
Of a middle school hallway,
Transformed into a field of lavender
As she passed.
To the regiment of sad, shuttered lockers
To attention as she walked by,
To the dull buzz of the fluorescents,
Rising like a chorus of light
To illuminate her way.
She turned the corner and was gone,
Of smell and sound and light
Except for where she lived in my head
And in the tips of my fingers
As they touched her kiss,
Still resting like a feather on my cheek.
The leopard colt nickered and pawed the ground beneath me. I tapped his flanks with my heels, feeling his muscles tighten against my thighs, and together we flew through the high deserts of the Dakotas towards the last fifteen minutes of Social Studies.
The Long Shadow*
By Sarita Dasgupta
*Part of an anthology by the author, and sequel to last quarter's publication of The Seeds of Fate
“Old sins cast long shadows.” (Proverb)
JULIE - 2016
Julie entered her mother’s bedroom and sat on the window seat opposite the bed. She looked around the familiar room and then stared out of the window at the distant pine-covered hills. How her mother had loved the smell of the pine needles! Julie had so many memories of walks in the pine woods with her mother over the years. They would walk in companionable silence, stopping to collect dry pine needles, twigs, and pine cones for the fire place. Tears welled in her eyes but she quickly dabbed at them with her handkerchief when she heard her husband calling out to her.
“Coming!” she called, and taking another look around the room, walked out.
They had returned from the cemetery a couple of hours ago, after burying Julie’s mother. Norah Lyngdoh had been a nurse for most of her life and was universally loved in her neighbourhood. Kong Norah, as she had been respectfully called by everyone who knew her, had always been ready to help people in any way she could. As Julie shook hands and accepted the condolences of her mother’s friends and neighbours, she was overwhelmed by the number of people who had turned up to pay their last respects to her mother. She knew some of them but many were strangers.
When the last visitor had left, Julie sat wearily down on the sofa and put her aching feet on the footstool. Looking at her mother’s photograph on the piano, she sighed while
tears filled her eyes. Her husband, Arup, sat beside her and put his arm around her shoulders in silent sympathy. She leaned her head on his shoulder gratefully and closed her eyes. Arup looked at her tenderly and even after thirty years of marriage, his breath caught in his throat at the sheer loveliness of her. They stayed that way till Julie’s uncle, Peter, placed his hand gently on Arup’s shoulder and handed him a letter. Arup glanced at the letter addressed to Julie in Norah’s handwriting, and raised his eyebrows in query.
Peter shrugged and said quietly, “My sister asked me to give this letter to Julie after her death. That’s all I know.”
Arup thanked him and placed the letter on the centre table. He looked at the photograph of his late mother-in-law and remembered her affection and kindness towards him. It had not mattered to her that he was not from the same community or religion. She was happy that he respected theirs and even went to church with her and Julie on Sundays when they were staying with her.
He thought of the impromptu ‘sing-songs’ (as Norah liked to call them) around the piano. She played beautifully, and Julie had a true voice. Peter played the guitar and he, his wife Dora, and Arup himself were all good singers.
“We didn’t do too badly, really,” he thought fondly, smiling at the memories, specially of Christmas, which had always been a special occasion.
But much as he had respected and loved his mother-in-law, he always felt that she kept a little of herself away even from Julie. He looked at the letter on the table and wondered what it said.
Julie stirred and woke up. She looked up at Arup and smiled lovingly. He smiled back and tightened his arm around her shoulders. Then he picked up the letter and handed it to her.
“What’s this?” she asked and then recognized her mother’s handwriting. Her hand trembled as she gazed at the envelope. “Where did this come from?” she asked.
“Uncle Peter gave it to me when he saw that you were sleeping. Mei asked him to give it to you after...” said Arup, unable to pronounce the rest of the words. “Would you like to read it now?”
“Yes… no… I don’t know,” replied Julie.
“Should I unseal the envelope for you?” asked Arup.
“Yes please,” whispered Julie.
For some reason, she was reluctant to read the letter. She watched as Arup unsealed the flap and taking out the folded letter, handed it to her. She took it slowly and unfolded it. Arup watched as she read the letter once, and then again, her hand shaking. She handed it to him wordlessly, her face pale and shocked. Arup read the letter quickly and looked at her. They stared at each other in stupefication.
“Did you ever guess any of this?” Arup asked when he had recovered somewhat.
“No, never!” said Julie. “I know I have brown hair and hazel eyes, but Mei herself had dark brown hair and light eyes, so I never thought about it twice! She told me my father, Harish Das, had died before I was born, and unfortunately, there were no photographs of him. She had met and married him when she was studying Nursing in Guwahati, and he had died soon after they were married and she was expecting me. His parents had disapproved of their marriage and disowned him so we had no connection with them. I didn’t think twice about my using her surname because that’s what is commonly done in our matriarchal society, as you know. Now, I find I’m illegitimate and my father was a British tea planter in Assam! She knew his name and that his family had a farm in England, but nothing else. Ralph Smith! There must be thousands of Ralph Smiths in England! And, obviously, Harish Das never existed!”
Arup looked at her sympathetically and took her hand in his. “Don’t think badly of her, darling. Those times were different. Knowing Mei, she must have loved him deeply and been very hurt when they parted. It must have been pretty difficult for her but your grandparents were supportive. A good thing about your matriarchal society is that people didn’t judge unmarried mothers harshly, nor babies born out of wedlock, even in your mother’s time. Your grandparents loved you very much too.”
“Yes, they did,” agreed Julie fondly. “Do you think this Ralph… my father… this man… left Mei because she came from a different class?”
Arup shrugged, saying, “I don’t know, love. Maybe. It mattered in those days. If British planters married local women, their social standing and careers were affected. Perhaps his family would have disowned him too. He was young, and perhaps he didn’t have the courage to go against society, the company or his family.”
Julie looked down at the letter and said softly, “Poor Mei.”
“Yes,” said Arup softly. Then he lifted her chin gently, looked into her eyes and asked, “This illegitimacy thing doesn’t bother you, does it? It shouldn’t. It’s of no importance whatsoever. No one else needs know about it anyway.”
“What about Robin and Maya?” asked Julie.
Arup said thoughtfully, “Well, it does affect them, so they’ll have to know. But there’s no hurry. I’m sure you need time to take it all in. Tell them when you’re ready.”
Julie squeezed his hand gratefully and said, “What would I do without you?”
Arup kissed her hand and said, “Come on, let’s have some dinner and go to sleep, love. It’s been an emotional day for you.” He helped her up and they left the room together.
After locking up her mother’s cottage (Julie couldn’t get used to its now being hers) Julie and Arup drove back to the tea estate.
Sitting in her favourite armchair by the bedroom fireplace, she read the letter for the umpteenth time. How could her mother have kept this secret from her for all these years? Had she thought that Julie would judge her or mind that she was illegitimate?
“Oh Mei, why did you carry this burden alone for so long?” she asked silently.
She wondered what her father had been like. Was he alive or dead? If he was alive, did she want to meet him? Her heart thudded at the thought. “He must have married and had children. I wonder if he had loved Mei or just been lonely. Or was he a cad? Do I even want to find out?” Her mind was in a whirl.
She thought of her son, Robin, who worked for Microsoft in Seattle, and her daughter, Maya, studying Economics at the London School of Economics. How would they feel when they came to know that their mother was illegitimate?
“Probably just take it in their stride, knowing those two,” thought Julie. “Their generation is so much more non-judgmental of things like this. What will probably intrigue them more is the fact that their grandfather was English.”
She suddenly wondered if Maya, being in England, could look for him. Then she shied away from the thought. Why go looking for someone who had left without a word of explanation, never got in touch in all these years, and obviously wouldn’t want to be found, especially by a daughter he didn’t know existed?
DEREK – 2016
Derek parked the car in the visitors’ parking lot, locked it, and walked up the stairs to his parents’ condo. His mother opened the door as soon as he rang the bell, and gave him a tight hug.
He kissed her, saying, “You’re looking as lovely as ever, Mom.” It was true. She had always had this aura of calmness and serenity which added to her natural beauty. She was the most peaceful person he knew. She smiled at the compliment and led him out to the balcony which overlooked the woods beyond which flowed the Sammamish river. His father sat there, holding a pair of binoculars to his eyes, watching the birds and hares sunning themselves on the patch of grass bordering the woods. When he heard the screen door open, he turned and smiled at Derek.
“Hello, dear boy,” he said, shaking hands. Derek smiled fondly and put his arms around his father. Even after half a century in the USA, his father was still very British. He sat down and asked, “So, what did you want to tell me, Dad?”
Ralph hesitated, and looked at his wife for help. Hallie nodded encouragingly, and said, “I’ll leave you boys to talk while I finish cooking lunch.”
Derek waited patiently for his father to speak. Being a psychiatrist had its advantages, thought Derek. You had to have patience and good listening skills.
“Good thing I inherited these traits from Mom,” thought Derek.
Ralph cleared his throat a couple of times, then said quietly, “A few days ago, I had this memory of a girl I knew back in India. Before the attack.”
Derek sat up straight, exclaiming, “Dad! You’re getting your memories of that lost time back!”
Ralph nodded, saying, “Yes, it looks like I am. You know I lost my memory after the attack on the tea estate. I couldn’t remember anything that had happened for a period before I got hit on the head so brutally. Thankfully, it wasn’t worse. The doctors in Calcutta, and later, in London, worked wonders. My brain healed and I didn’t have trouble remembering things that happened after that. I had joined the tea company straight after school, so after returning to England, once I knew I couldn’t go back to India, I went to college. After graduating from college, I met your mother while we were both holidaying in Italy, as you know. Then I followed her to Seattle, got a job here, married her, and the rest, as they say, is History.”
Derek smiled and nodded, then asked curiously, “So, who was this girl in India?”
Ralph stared unseeingly at the woods and said, “She was a student nurse at the hospital I was admitted into when I had a very bad bout of malaria. This was just before the attack. Her name was Norah. I…I fell in love with her. I was twenty-two. She was probably a year younger. I wanted our relationship to develop though she was convinced it wouldn’t work, because of class barriers. Those were societal concerns back then, but I had every intention of pursuing the relationship. Then the attack happened, and before I knew it, I was sent back to England for good. And, of course, I had no memory of her. Till now.” He turned to look at Derek with tears in his eyes. “God knows what she thought of me. You see, the last time we met, I…we made love. Which was a very big deal back then. Then to not hear from me at all…she must have thought I was a cad of the worst kind. It distresses me to think of what she must have gone through. She was a good person, and she trusted me. I just want to apologize and explain, and know that she’s all right. But I have no idea how to get in touch with her now. Where do I even start?”
“Does Mom know all this?” asked Derek.
“Of course!” replied Ralph. “She understands how bad I feel about just leaving the poor girl without a word of explanation.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Dad,” said Derek consolingly.
“I know,” said Ralph, “But that doesn’t make me feel any better. I just keep thinking of the poor girl wondering why I hadn’t returned as promised, nor sent her word of any kind. If only I had told Timothy, my friend and colleague at the estate, about her, he may have thought of telling her what had happened to me. They were both from Shillong, so he may have known her. In fact, they shared the same surname, so he may have even been related to her!”
He covered his eyes with hands and said in a voice choked with emotion, “I can’t bear to think of the hurt and distress she must have felt.”
NORAH – 1959
Norah looked at the unconscious man on the bed. He had been brought in four days ago with very high fever and convulsions.
“Malaria,” Dr Jones had pronounced and given directions for his treatment.
“Poor boy, he looks so young and helpless,” one of the nurses had murmured. According to his records, his name was Ralph Smith and he was twenty-two years old.
“A tea planter from an estate near Silchar,” said Sister Randall.
Norah picked up his wrist to feel his pulse. His fever had come down and he seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Suddenly he opened his eyes and looked at her.
She smiled reassuringly but he looked around the unfamiliar room and tried to sit up, asking “Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?” Before she could reply, he looked at her uniform and said, “You’re a nurse so this is a hospital. Why am I here? Do you speak English?”
“Yes, I speak English,” replied Norah, who had been taught by Irish nuns at a convent school in Shillong, the capital town of the state of Assam.
“This is the Satribari Christian Hospital in Gauhati. You were brought here four days ago unconscious, with very high fever. You had malaria. Dr Jones treated you and now you are better.”
“Oh,” said the young man thoughtfully.
“I’ll just tell Sister that you are conscious. She can answer any other questions you may have,” she said and turned to leave.
“Wait, why can’t you answer my questions?” he asked.
“I’m a student nurse,” replied Norah. “I just check the patient’s temperature and pulse.”
“Oh,” he said again. “But you’ll come back, won’t you?”
“I have to check on the other patients, but I can come back once I’m done,” she replied and smiled in what she hoped was a motherly manner. She could feel his anxious eyes on her as she walked to the door.
When Norah returned as promised some time later, he was sleeping again. She checked that there was enough water in his jug and gently smoothed the bedsheet covering him. He opened his eyes and smiled at her. Even in his weakened state, the smile was radiant. Norah blinked and tried to still her suddenly racing heart.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” replied Norah.
“So, you kept your promise and came back,” he said.
“Yes,” she replied simply.
“My name’s Ralph,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Norah,” she replied.
“It’s nice to meet you, Norah, although I would’ve wished for better circumstances. It’s very awkward lying on this bed and looking up at you.”
Was he flirting with her? Norah felt flustered and looked around nervously in case Sister was somewhere around.
“I had better go now. My duty is over and I have to do my homework,” she said.
“Homework?” he asked.
“Yes. I told you I was a student nurse. This is a teaching hospital. I’m in my final year and my exams are in a month’s time.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot. When will you be back on duty?” he asked.
“Tomorrow morning, at 6 o’clock. After that I have my classes.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” he said, with another radiant smile.
“Good night,” she mumbled and beat a hasty retreat.
She saw him every morning. He tried to hold her back, talking about his life on the tea estate, and his home on a farm back in England, but she was scared that Sister would find her in his room and get very angry. So, she took his temperature and checked his pulse, duly noted them down and left to check on the next patient. But she always returned to his room to say ‘goodbye’ before going to class. He was like a magnet and she had to fight herself to not linger in his room.
“What is wrong with me?” she asked herself. “He’s an Englishman. An executive in a tea company. He’s from a different social class altogether. We can’t even be friends let alone anything else. Once he leaves, I’ll never see him again. He doesn’t feel anything for me. He’s just bored and lonely.” Her eyes filled with tears of hopelessness.
It was his last day. As soon as she entered his room, he took her into his arms.
“Norah, Norah, I’m going to miss you. When will we meet again? Will you write to me?”
She stayed still in his arms and replied, “No. This will have to be goodbye, Ralph.”
“Why?” he cried, pulling away to look at her.
“Because we might as well be from different planets,” she replied sadly.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You are an executive in a tea company. Your family owns a farm. I’m a nurse, or at least will be one soon. My parents are humble people. My father is a carpenter and my mother works as a children’s nanny.”
“So what? They are respectable people and you are in a respectable profession.”
“So, what do you want Ralph? Do you want to be friends? Is that it? Just friends?”
“I… don’t know, Norah. All I know is that I don’t want to leave you.”
Norah looked at him sadly. “I have to go now, Ralph, so I’ll say goodbye. God bless you.”
She held out her hand. He took it in his and said, “I’m staying at a guest house tonight and leaving early tomorrow morning for Sichar. Will you come and have dinner with me, please? At least we can meet one last time and say a proper goodbye.”
Norah hesitated, but the thought of spending some time with him away from the hospital was too tempting.
“Please, Norah. At least we can spend some time together properly instead of your looking over your shoulder all the time and running away at the first hint of a footstep!”
Later, she thought she should have known what would happen. The evening was charged with emotion, and being alone together was too heady a freedom for them both. Before she knew what was happening, they were on the bed with their clothes off. She had never imagined that she could feel so much love for a person. She gave of herself generously, as did he. Inexperienced they both might have been, but they came together as if they were made for each other. At the last minute, Ralph quickly rolled away, mumbling, “I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
He looked at her to see if she understood. She nodded shyly. He held her tenderly, kissing her hair and face over and over again. She kissed him back with all her heart. She stole glances at his body and thought that she had never seen anything more beautiful. When he smiled teasingly and asked, “Do you like what you see?” She nodded and told him what she was thinking. He exclaimed in a moved tone, “Sweetheart, it’s you who are beautiful. So beautiful!”
The next day, Ralph went back to the estate, promising to return a fortnight later, but that was the last she had seen of him. When she found she was pregnant, she asked to see the patients’ register for Ralph’s address, or at least the name of his estate. After a great deal of hesitation, she wrote to him telling him of her pregnancy. He never replied. She didn’t even know if he had received her letter, the postal service being what it was in those days, especially in remote areas such as the tea estate at which he was posted.
Fortunately, her final examinations were over, and she could go home to Shillong. Although her heart quailed at the thought of telling her parents about her pregnancy, she longed for the comfort of their presence and of being back home.
To her great relief, her parents took the news quite calmly, and were very supportive. “We know our daughter, my dear,” said her mother. “You must love the man very much.”
Norah nodded miserably, and told them all that had transpired. She said, “I was the one who didn’t think we had a future together, but he did. I know he was sincere. I just don’t understand what happened to make him change his mind.”
Her father, a devout man, said, “Let us not judge him, my dear, until we know the circumstances.”
Her mother nodded, saying, “We don’t know why he didn’t come back to see you, or reply to your letter, or even if he got the letter. Let’s wait and see if he gets in touch. He can get your address from the hospital.”
Norah’s parents loved Julie from the moment she was born, and looked after her happily when Norah started working at a local hospital. Norah’s mother had retired, and her father had two other carpenters working under him, so he had some free time, although he still obliged his old customers with carpentry work that they didn’t want to entrust to anyone else.
Over the years, although Ralph’s memory and the pain of loss slowly faded, Norah didn’t meet anyone else she wanted to marry. She was content with her work at the hospital, and with her life at home with her parents and Julie. Her experience with Ralph did not make her bitter. Instead, it made her kinder, and more empathetic and compassionate.
When Julie asked about her father, Norah told her that he had died soon after Julie was born. Since his parents had disapproved of their marriage, she didn’t have any communication with them. Norah thought vaguely that perhaps one day, when the time was right, she would tell Julie the truth, but the years passed, and somehow, the right moment never presented itself.
RALPH – 1959
Ralph bumped his way back to his estate on the badly maintained roads full of potholes. Timothy, his colleague who was driving, turned and grinned at him every time Ralph almost flew off his seat. “Hey, slow down, Tim!” he shouted. “I’ve lost so much weight that even gravity can’t hold me down on my seat!”
Timothy grinned, saying, “Now that you mention it Ralph, you do look like a scarecrow!”
“Thanks a lot, Timothy!” said Ralph dryly.
“Actually, you look quite good for someone who’s just recovered from malaria. You also look remarkably happy. Did you take a fancy to one of the nurses?” asked Timothy slyly.
Ralph stole a quick glance at Timothy, and drawled, “Oh yeah, sure. With Sister, the Dragon Lady, breathing down their necks, they have all the time in the world to fraternize with patients!”
Timothy grinned appreciatively, but turned serious and said, “We should get back to the garden before sunset. There have been a series of robberies in our neighbouring estates. A gang of men armed with knives have entered bungalows, overpowered the chowkidar and robbed the residents. Luckily, no one has been injured, or worse, so far. But we’re all taking precautions. Every bungalow has two chowkidars at night now.”
“That’s alarming news. What are the police doing?” asked Ralph. “Do they have any information about the gang?”
“They’re gathering information, but have asked us to take our own precautions till they nab the gang,” replied Timothy.
It was two nights later that the gang of thieves entered Ralph’s bungalow and overpowered one chowkidar. The other had enough time to run out and bang on the gong before he too was overpowered. The gang would have probably run off before the workers responded to the gong, which signalled distress, had Ralph not unthinkingly reacted and come out of his room. Shouting, he charged at them, and one of the gang picked up a brass fire iron and hit him hard on the head. As Ralph fell unconscious, the gang made their escape just as the first workers appeared in response to the gong.
The estate’s doctor said gravely that Ralph had to be airlifted to Gauhati airport and taken straight to Calcutta for treatment. An army helicopter took him to Gauhati airport, from where he was flown to Calcutta, and straight to a well-known hospital for treatment. A blood clot had formed in his brain, so a hole had to drilled in his skull to drain out the blood and release the pressure on his brain. Once he was stable, he was flown to London at the company’s expense, and treated at a hospital which specialized in brain injuries. His mother stayed at her sister’s flat in London and spent most of her time in the hospital with Ralph. His worried father tried to come over the weekends but had too much work at the farm, all of which he couldn’t leave to Ralph’s older brother, Graham, so he contented himself with daily bulletins on Ralph’s progress. Once Ralph was pronounced fit enough to travel, he and his mother took the train back to the farm up in Surrey.
There was no question of Ralph’s going back to India, so he helped on the farm while he decided what to do with his life. Although he was fully recovered, he had no memories of the period immediately before and after the attack. This bothered him but the doctor said it was better not to force the issue.
“Perhaps it’s better to forget the traumatic event anyway, eh?” the doctor said. But Ralph had the feeling that he had forgotten something important. He wondered if he would ever get those memories back. The doctor hadn’t been able to reassure him.
“The brain is such a delicate and unpredictable organ. Just be happy you’ve recovered fully, my boy. Losing a few memories is nothing compared to what else you could have lost. Believe me, it could’ve been so much worse.”
Ralph knew the doctor was right. He got such a terrible headache when he tried to remember, that he let it go, though he couldn’t get over the feeling that there was something important he should remember.
DEREK – 2016
As Derek drove back to his clinic in Bellevue from his parents’ place in Kenmore, he mulled over what his father had told him. He understood how troubled Ralph was about having let Norah down, however unintentionally. He wanted to help but had no idea where to start. Unfortunately, his father couldn’t remember the name of the hospital in Gauhati where he had been admitted. After he had returned to England, he hadn’t kept in touch with Timothy or any of his other friends in India. Derek understood how difficult communications between people in different countries must have been in the 1960s. Airmail letters took ages to reach their destination. “Thank goodness we have mobile phones and email now,” he thought.
When he got home that evening, his wife, Susan, kissed him, and with her arms around his neck, asked, “So, what was the urgent issue your Dad wanted to discuss with you?” He kissed the top of her head and led her to the sofa. Sitting with his arm around her shoulders, he told her how Ralph had suddenly got back his lost memories, and about his short-lived love affair with Norah.
“He feels so guilty about the way he left her without a word of explanation, although it wasn’t his fault. I hate to see him so distressed, Sue. I wish I could help him.”
Susan squeezed his hand sympathetically, but sat lost in thought for a while. Then she suddenly exclaimed, “I know why the name Shillong seems familiar!”
When Derek looked at her enquiringly, Susan continued, “Do you remember my telling you about the boy from India who’s on my team? Robin Baruah? Whose father is a tea planter from Assam? I was excited because of the coincidence. You know, since your Dad was also a tea planter in Assam for a few years.”
Derek nodded, saying, “Yes, I remember you mentioning his name and the fact that his father is a tea planter in Assam.”
Susan teased, saying, “Ah, so you do listen to me, Doctor. Sometimes I wonder if you tune out when I talk to you. Although I wouldn’t blame you if you did, after spending hours listening to other people’s problems.”
Derek squeezed her shoulders hard and said, “Take that back! You know I always listen to you. In fact, I’m putty in your hands!” Then he asked seriously, “But what’s the connection between this guy and Shillong?”
“Well, he went to school in Shillong. I remember the name from his resume because I found it so similar to ‘shilling’. You know, your Dad would tell us how something cost this many shillings and that many pence when he was a child in England.”
Derek nodded. Then he said, “I wonder if he knows Norah, or knows someone who knows her. I know it’s a long shot, but coincidences do happen, and he’s the only connection we have to Norah’s hometown. Will you ask him, please? Her name is Norah Lyngdoh.”
He spelt the name out for her, so that Susan could note it down on her phone.
The next day, Derek got a message from Susan asking him what time he would be home that evening. When he replied that he would be back by 6 PM, she mentioned that she would be bringing someone home for him to meet. Derek immediately knew it was Robin.
“He must know Norah, or of her,” he thought, and felt a frisson of excitement. He somehow got through the day and the ten-minute drive back home suddenly seemed neverending!
As Derek entered the living room from the garage, the young man sitting in one of the armchairs stood up respectfully and said “Good evening, Sir.”
Derek returned his greeting and Susan introduced them saying, “Derek, this is my colleague Robin Baruah. Robin, my husband, Derek.”
The men shook hands, and Derek said, “Please, do sit down.”
Robin thanked him and sat in the armchair while Derek sat on the sofa next to Susan. Derek looked from Susan to Robin, and asked, “I don’t mean to be abrupt, but I’m guessing you have something to tell me about Norah Lyngdoh. Do you know her?”
Robin said softly, “She was my grandmother.”
Derek was staggered. He looked at Robin and said faintly, “I certainly hadn’t expected that!”
Susan squeezed his hand gently and said, “Robin lived with his grandmother while he was at school. He was very close to her. Unfortunately, she died a few months ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Derek sincerely.
Robin thanked him with a quiet dignity and said, “She was a wonderful person. I thought the world of her. She was kind and compassionate. That’s why she was such a great nurse.”
Derek and Susan nodded in understanding. “I’m guessing she was your mother’s mother,” said Derek.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Robin. “My mother, Julie, is her only child.”
Derek stared at Robin, thinking there was an elusive familiarity in the boy’s features that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He asked, “What about your grandfather? Your mother’s father?”
Robin looked at Susan.
“Please tell Derek what you told me about your grandfather, Robin,” she said encouragingly. “Believe me, it’s important.”
Derek shot Susan a glance, and Robin looked a bit puzzled, but cleared his throat and said, “We got to know this only after Granny died, when her brother Peter gave Mum a letter Granny had written to her. She had always told Mum that her father had died before she was born. She didn’t have any photographs of him, and wasn’t in contact with his family because they had refused to acknowledge her. Mum believed her and stopped asking questions. But in that letter, Granny wrote that Mum’s father was a British tea planter called Ralph Smith. They had been in love but he never came back to meet her as he’d promised, nor acknowledged her letter saying she was pregnant.”
He looked from Derek to Susan uncertainly and said, “I’m not sure why Susan wanted me to tell you this, Sir. I mean, I know you wanted to contact Granny for some reason, but I don’t see how all this could be relevant to you.”
Derek felt the small hairs at the back of his neck rise. Whatever he had expected, it wasn’t this! Yes, he believed in coincidences, but a coincidence of this magnitude! This revelation was absolutely staggering! When he saw two pairs of eyes rivetted on him, he realized he hadn’t said a word.
He roused himself and asked Susan, “So, you didn’t tell him about Dad?”
Susan shook her head, saying, “No, I thought you should tell him.”
Derek took a deep breath and said, “Well Robin, my father is an Englishman called Ralph Smith. He was a tea planter in Assam for a few years in the late 1950s.”
Robin’s eyes widened as he took that in. He stammered as he said, “But…but I thought your surname was Mallory!”
Susan said, “That’s my maiden name. I’ve kept that for professional purposes because it’s on all my certificates. Derek’s surname is Smith.”
Robin looked just as poleaxed as Derek felt. They stared at each other in silence.
Then Robin flushed and stammered out, “I’d…I’d like to know why your father treated my grandmother so badly, Sir. She didn’t deserve to be treated like that.”
Derek said, “Please, call me Derek.” Then he told Robin what had happened to Ralph and why he hadn’t been able to get in touch with Norah all these years.
“He only very recently remembered her, and is feeling so wretched about how he must have hurt her.”
Robin mulled the information over, and said slowly, “It wasn’t his fault.” Then he added, “I’m glad he recovered from that awful attack.”
They looked at each other in silence again until Derek said, “You do realize he’s your grandfather and I’m your uncle.” Robin swallowed and nodded. “No wonder you looked familiar! There is a certain likeness to Dad. You don’t look like him but there’s just something…And I have a half-sister called Julie. An elder half-sister! Feels strange, but exciting!” Derek stood up and said, “Come here, nephew.”
Robin rose and walked the short distance towards Derek hesitantly, only to be enveloped in a bear hug. Both men had tears in their eyes as they parted. Derek turned to Susan and said, “Bring out the champagne, darling. It’s not every day that one gains a nephew!”
They marvelled at what a small world it was, and how life was full of coincidences.
Robin said, “I’ll tell my father tomorrow. Then he can tell Mum. I wonder how she’ll take it. She just got to know her father was someone called Ralph Smith. Now she’ll know he’s alive and living in the same area as me! But I guess she’ll be relieved to know that he didn’t leave Granny in the lurch intentionally.”
Derek nodded, saying, “I’ll go across and see Dad tomorrow. Break it to him gently that Norah has passed on, but he has a daughter. And a grandson right here in Seattle. Once he gets over the shock, I’m sure he’ll want to meet you. Are you okay with that?”
Robin nodded and said, “Yes. I’d like to meet him. What about your mother, though? How will she take it?”
Derek said, “No doubt she’ll be astonished, but she’s essentially a very calm person. And it all happened before Dad and she met. I’m sure she’d like to meet you too.”
“Let’s see how Mum takes the news. Perhaps we can do a video call with her once she’s ready,” said Robin.
“One step at a time, Robin,” said Derek, patting his nephew’s shoulder. “So, do I have any other nephews or nieces?”
Robin replied, “Yes, my younger sister Maya. Would you like to see photographs of her and Mum?”
Derek said eagerly, “Sure. Of your dad too. And your grandmother. I’ll show you pictures of your grandfather. Oh, and your cousin, Colin. Our son. He’s in college, down in California.”
Susan joined them as they took out their phones and showed each other photographs. She looked at them both and thought of the proverb, “Old sins cast long shadows.” Well her father-in-law’s ‘sin’, however unintentional, had cast a very long shadow – all the way from India to England, and then to the USA. But she was sure that the shadow would lift now, just as it had lifted from his mind, to let joy into his life.
RALPH & JULIE – 2017
Julie held Ralph’s arm as they walked up the slight incline towards Norah’s grave. As they reached it, she felt Ralph’s arm tremble slightly and his step faltered. She squeezed his arm and smiled at him encouragingly.
Julie placed the bouquet of flowers on her mother’s grave, then bowed her head and said silently, “Mei, please forgive my father and help him find peace. He was the victim of circumstances, as I’m sure you know now.”
She gave Ralph another encouraging smile and stepped back to give him some privacy. She inhaled the pine-scented air and thought of all that had happened since Robin had met Derek, and then Ralph, a year ago. Now, here her father was, at her mother’s grave, making his peace.
Back at the cottage, Hallie and Arup were waiting for them. She marvelled at how similar those two were – both so calm, sensible and utterly reliable. “How lucky Ralph is to have Hallie, and how lucky I am to have Arup!” she thought humbly. “They both love deeply and give unstintingly of themselves to those they love.” She looked at her father standing with his head bowed. After a while, he turned and walked towards her. Their eyes met and there was no need for words. They linked arms and walked in companionable silence back the way they had come.
The Ground Opened When I Was 11
Visions of hell in the carpet
I asked if they see it too
The laborers walking bare
Amidst the inferno
Etched and beckoning
Flickering with pained faces
As we danced around the family room
'You all must be seeing this'
I asked and asked again
And they all said 'no'
And I wondered if I was high
Or creating a division between realities
To escape whatever memory
I was experiencing
Visions of hell in the carpet
And the carpet was tore up to
Be replaced with plastic wood
Above a concrete casket
Remnants of a feeble heart
Cast into a motion picture
For the eyes that wander lostly
This carpet rides all the way
All the way to fried paradise
Hold on, young one
Close your eyes and it unravels
By J. Finnick Johnson
you asked my mom out
and she said yes?
That was the beginning
of our relationship too
you would take the three-year-old
out for treats?
Ice cream, sodas, silken tofu in sweet syrup
-Taho- my favorite
I spilled milk, water, everything?
The Coke on your lap?
Pants sticking to your thighs as we walked home.
For an hour in the corner I stood
knees shaking, determined, holding
a glass full of water.
I never spilled after that.
you took the five-year-old
to the movies?
My first big screen experience!
The first of many firsts.
you asked my mom for her hand
because she was air
because she was water
because she fed your soul
without her you would die?
you told your parents your intentions?
Commitment, adoption, moving us to the US
Remember their hate-
each a quick stab to my heart
bastard, dark skin, “do they even speak English?”
you defied them?
Took those words
and made them eat them?
because we were air
because we were water
because we fed your soul
without us you would die
you showed them they were wrong?
You showed them you are a good man
seeing only humans and
a child who needed a father
Remember when you
made them see
you are air
you are water
you feed our souls
without you we would die
You fought for what you believed in and
now you’re celebrating 35 years of happiness
living the “American Dream”
a beautiful wife, three kids grown
a well-paying job, a two-story home
when I tell you that I’m trans
that you taught me to fight for what I believe in
to face adversity head on
and to be a good man
I am having this surgery
because I need air
because I need water
because I need to free my soul
without it, I will die
By Rob Schnelle
Returning at the tidal neap, a pensive breath speaks of expiration dates. Fading fast, it makes the time it takes her breasts to bud, their little cods to bloat like loaves swollen with yeast. But time sends the gust to capsize refugees, fell the false monuments, tell a saw blade’s bite that gravity razes Douglas firs in upright reverie.
Stone and trees ask, “What about the marble Bernini carved, with Daphne foiling her rapist in leafy laurel branches?” That same episode’s grace note sustained in woods past July confides a peewee’s powder-dry complaint, propels the Times Square ball-drop at its point of release and a party game’s collapse in half-hearted strip-tease.
The christening of a dialect on manuscript vellum and the centuries of lies inside denial’s cage have scuffed an attic staircase revolving like some treadmill, dialed into manic phase. A man’s gaze hangs from rafters.
One state supplants the last. A turn of beveled lenses gives the nudge to fractal forms that pattern every turbulence, as though the hours of rattling would bring another shore in sight pre-measured for the Bardo, where voices cry, “More light!”
-An autobiography of scars
By Jampa Dorje
Jampa’s earliest scar, a spiral. He is seven, and he lives on Arlington Avenue in Kensington. He is riding a racing scooter, a Flexi-flyer, down a hill, and he catches his right ring finger in the brake mechanism. Peels back a nasty flap of skin in the soft pad of flesh above the first knuckle. The searing pain of torn and bruised flesh, the shock of seeing his blood gushing from an open wound—so odd we are full of liquids. Screaming up the street, he stops for a minute and sticks the bloody mess in a puddle of water on the pavement to be sure the end of his finger is still there. Reassured it is, he dashes home, and his mom wraps his hand in a towel and takes him to the hospital. His first stitches. Six of them. He is an initiate now.
A rock gouges the palm of Jampa’s hand. He is riding his first horse, Patches, a Paint, long in the tooth. They are late getting home and pushing it. Coming up Robinson Drive in the Oakland hills at a full gallop, Patches hit a patch of gravel. All four legs go out from under him, which catapults Jampa into a ditch and on top of a pile of lathe and innumerable small nails that pierce him all over. His left hand hits the pavement, and sharp gravel punctures his palm Jampa’s wind is knocked out, and he lays there, while Patches clambers to his feet and begins to chew on some grass. His dog, Spot, licks his face which gives him encouragement, as he crawls on his hands and knees. When the world quits spinning, he pulls himself loose from the sticks that are attached to his clothes. He opens his pocketknife and digs the pebble out of his flesh. His shirt is torn, and there are scratches and tiny, bloody wounds, but nothing seems broken, so he gathers up the reins and hobbles home, leading his horse. Outside of a nasty gouge in his palm, the rest of his wounds are superficial and clean up with dabs of peroxide. The hole in his hand is not bad enough for stitches, or at least he did not go to have it stitched, and it heals up to form a heart-shaped scar.
When Jampa is nine, he gets over a hundred stitches after nearly cutting his thumb off. He was living on his cousin's farm in Iowa for the summer, and he was having a great time milking cows, driving a tractor, and riding in the bin of the combine. He is a greenhorn, but he does have chores. Late afternoon. The men have been cutting hay and are putting it up loose in the loft of a barn. A hot day. Jampa’s job is to stand at the back of the barn and relay a signal to the tractor driver to let him know when he should back up or come forward. He is wearing bib overalls and an engineer's cap that is a couple of sizes too big for him. The cap has a safety pin in the back, but it is still loose, and it falls off, and when he bends over to pick it up, he puts his hand on the rope to steady himself, and his thumb goes into the pulley. He pulled his hand out of there fast, but the pulley pinched off the flesh to the bone. Now, this is pain. This is crippling. After this, nothing ever hurts again. Eventually, the thumb heals, and the nail becomes a claw with which Jampa can open cans and dig through brick walls. The nerves are only partly restored, so he has to check for damage whenever he hits his thumb with a hammer.
A three-inch scar on the inside of his right ankle and a four-inch scar on the outside of the ankle where he had pins and plates installed on his fibula and tibia. It all happened fast. One minute he was nailing a tarp to the ridge line of a roof in the rain in his rain gear, and the next minute he was airborne, after sailing down a water slide he had created—the Wrong Brothers. Landed flat-footed on the concrete. Did he think he could tuck and roll like they teach in parachute school? No such luck, the concrete was unforgiving. He heard the leg pop. He looked at the right leg and knew it was broken—those Cubistic angles, something drawn by Picasso—thought, “Shit, oh dear, I need help.” Yelled a few times from the mud puddle he was lying in, and the lady of the house came to the door. Told her he needed an ambulance. She called, and it came, but he could see it moving around the various lanes on the property trying to find the right address. He sent the lady's son to point them in the right direction. The ambulance took him to a small, local hospital, and he had luck getting the good orthopedic surgeon on call, Dr. Campbell, who put the pins and plate in his right leg. Left heel fracture, nothing to do there but let it knit together.
No casts. An ankle support on the right leg and an Ace bandage on the left. Three days in hospital and then home, crawling to the toilet. Painful, but soon he could stand and take small steps with his right foot, which helped him get in and out of my wheel chair. Crutches in the second week, after he had begun to use the right leg with the pins and plates to carry his weight. The heel fracture prohibited him from standing long on it. Takes a while for a fractured heel to heal. No fancy dancing, but he knew he would tangle again, if not tango. The doctor said he would be fine with ‘pin and plate fixation' and recommended early movement. He asked for a set of X-rays, so he would not be stopped at security points in the airport.
Jampa has a scar on the right side of his lower abdomen after a hernia operation. The hernia appeared after a poetry reading where he displayed his collection of chapbooks. He refused help lifting the trunk that contained his books, and he carried it to his car. The bulge from his intestine appeared, and he had it diagnosed, but before he could have an operation, he attended a retreat at Tara Mandala. Some of the Yeshe Lama practices are very physical, and when he returned to his doctor, the bulge had grown, but the operation was successful. Again, his ninety-year-old mother set the dayroom up with a hospital bed and cared for him, while he recouped.
It is said you cannot complete the full transference of the body into light—the Rainbow Body—if you have tattoos or scars, so Jampa’s carcass will remain earthbound for this incarnation.
Scars can be tender, itchy and displeasing. Scars can be beautiful and intriguing. A scar can be a map, a mark of bravery or a sign of stupidity, a reminder of how precious life is and how cruel. A scar can be an ornament or a form of disfigurement. Some scars show, and some scars are deep in the psyche. Jampa says, “I look at my scars, astonished that I miraculously heal. The wounds vanish, and pale marks in the meat are all that remain.”
*A quick look at her latest additions to an ongoing exploration in Judenstil sculpture; a project more than one year in the making, first exhibited at the Clymer Museum of Art
Burning Down the Bauhaus
By Renee Adams*
Renee Adams uses her mixed media sculpture to investigate the complex relationships humans have cultivated with the natural world. Her most recent body of work deviates from the delicate sculptural renderings of real and imagined plants that Adams is known for.
These new works represent pared down and stylized versions of flowers, vines and leaves based loosely on Jugendstil (“young style”), a German art movement that was a spin-off of the larger Art Nouveau movement in Britain at the turn of the century.
This primarily decorative arts movement is characterized by the combination of floral decorations, sinuous double curves, and geometric lines. It was a direct reaction against historicism and neo-classicism being taught academically at the time.
Her interest in Art Nouveau traces back to her teen years, stemming from her German heritage, a love of plant forms, and her newfound interest in blacksmithing, a historic craft that lends itself well to linear design, paired with hand-built porcelain.
Cities in the dust
Bizarre love triangle
Join in the chant
You can do magic
Heart of glass
-with love, the Gekker team, autumn 2023