Sudden Death on Melrose Avenue
Born in South Africa, Alf Marks spent his early childhood in that country before moving with his parents to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where he grew up. After emigrating, he earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in Education in the USA. His journey subsequently took him to Australia where he has lived for many years.
He has worked as a reporter, a teacher, and an old wares and antiques dealer.
His African stories have been published in various magazines in Australia and South Africa. His Australian themed stories have been published in journals in Australia and the USA.
Love, look at the two of us
Strangers in many ways
“For All We Know”
Theme song from the movie
Lovers and Other Strangers
Retirees Louis and Leanne Lambert crossed the gaudy carpet at the golf club and headed for the bistro. They passed the bar and poker machines and settled at their favourite table beside the plate glass windows, overlooking a sweeping view of the back nine holes.
Louis and Leanne liked to go out on a Monday night for the steak specials.
They’d either walk the two blocks to the pub or drive a little further to the club. Both bistros offered a Monday night special. A deal that had started off at ten dollars a crack for a big steak, chips and salad; pepper, mushroom or ordinary gravy in a little plastic container included.
Louis and Leanne often bandied over which offered the better value; the pub or the club. Leanne preferred the pub because they served a porterhouse steak but Louis favoured the club, making noises about being a rump steak man. Over the ambience at these venues they reversed their positions.
Leanne preferred the club because the bistro area commanded that sweeping view over the back nine holes, which were especially green and pleasant in the long summer evenings. You could watch the golfers hitting up the hill towards the clubhouse and eventually landing a ball on the eighteenth green, then putting out and shaking hands at the conclusion of the round.
Louis preferred the pub. Its overgrown beer garden, where you could down a schooner and enjoy your dinner, was a bit more knockabout and just as good as the club in the warm, summer evenings. Besides, the joint had heaps of TV screens which allowed him sneaky glances at the Monday night football in winter. When he ran into a mate at the pub, he took care not to linger with him over the footy. With a hungry and impatient Leanne waiting, he’d concocted a standard get away line. “Excuse me, mate,” he would say, “but I’m off to murder a steak.”
Louis and Leanne peered out over their sweeping view of the back nine holes which looked especially green and pleasant in the last of the afternoon light. There were the ever present golfers traipsing the fairways. The emerald course meandered in a narrow valley, whose flanking sandstone cliffs would soon glow pink in the sunset. Louis and Leanne looked forward to the familiar sight. For the present a brassy late-afternoon sun fought the advance of evening.
Louis and Leanne enjoyed their ritual. The novelty, behind the thick windows, of seeing the ball silently struck from the last tee, then soundlessly falling, to bounce, slow, and nestle to the earth. They watched the golfers hitting up the hill towards the clubhouse and eventually landing a ball on the eighteenth green, then putting out and shaking hands at the conclusion of the round.
* * *
Louis went up to the bar. Old John the barman on seeing a regular calling out, “Semillon blanc and a Pale Ale.”
Waiting for his order, Louis glimpsed into the kitchen, with its flaring grill and its massive steaming pots; noisy, busy staff slamming utensils. Other staff were slinging orders onto a counter for the harried waitresses to fetch up and deliver to the diners. The hot steaks spattered and oozed, forming fatty pools on the plates. A pile of waxy chicken wings sweated in a bowl.
“Steak special as usual?” John asked, placing Louis’ drinks on the counter.
“Gone up,” Louis scoffed.
“What can you do?” John said opening his palms in apology.
Louis took up the drinks and made his way towards their table. Leanne would have ordered. A well done steak, no blood, mushroom gravy for him. A medium rare with ordinary gravy for herself.
Louis liked a beer with his meal or an occasional alcoholic cider. Leanne liked a glass of wine and sometimes ordered a second, which annoyed Louis.
“Why go out for a special then waste money on expensive drinks?” he would say.
“I go out to enjoy myself, Lew,” Leanne would retort. “If you have to scrimp, you might as well stay home. Being cheap just spoils the evening.”
Ferrying his drinks, Louis noted the patrons loudly jawing over their wine and gobbling their roast beef and lamb shanks and spare ribs; items most definitely not specials. This mob cries poor he thought, but no one is stinting. Well, if they’d earned the right to a slap-up feed that was entirely their business.
Louis laid down their drinks. Leanne lifted her glass and took a mouthful.
“Don’t drink it all at once,” Louis said.
Leanne’s head shot back.
“Don’t be a scrooge, Lew,” she answered. “What are you saving it for? So when we die our kids can buy a new car with our money?”
“Take your time for your own benefit,” Louis insisted.
“You say that every time.” Leanne countered. “You’re a stuck record. Take your time, for the benefit of your wallet.”
“I say it because you swig, you don’t sip,” said Louis.
“Perfectly true,” said Leanne. “I do swig a bit. And you’re terrified I’ll order another glass.” She took an exaggerated swig, smiled at him brightly with her vivid features, and broke into her infectious laugh.
Her cheekiness melted Louis.
“Did you tell them well done, no blood?” Louis questioned. “You know they think well done is rare.”
“Of course, Lew. I told them you like eating old boots.”
“And one day yours will moo and gallop off the plate.”
* * *
This morning in bed, sipping their tea and listening to the radio, Louis and Leanne had remarked on the news. Louis became impassioned over the rising cost of meat. He remembered when you never thought about the price and the butcher was likely to throw in an extra snag for nothing.
“It’s all this exporting of live animals to the Middle East,” he said.
Stirring the pot Leanne answered, “It’s all those animal rights activists.”
Animal rights supporters had filmed suffering Australian sheep and cattle aboard ship being exported to the Middle East. They’d previously shown disturbing footage of Australian shipped animals being slaughtered in a foreign country.
As a result the government had, for a time, shut down the live export industry.
“Knee jerk,” Louis had cried. “Knocks our farmers for a loop and threatens another country’s food security.
“But Lew, Leanne chimed in. “You, yourself said these countries don’t have state of the art abattoirs.”
“That they slaughter the poor beasts as best they can.”
“And they often operate according to their religion.”
“All true,” Louis said “but that’s not our fault or the fault of our farmers.”
“Well, I think it’s terrible those poor things crammed into ships like that,” Leanne said.
“So do I,” Louis answered. “But what can exporters do? Ship fewer beasts at a time. I’m for that. But would it help? Maybe put in air conditioning, and toilets? It’s a hell of a journey, regardless. It’s suffering from go to woe.”
“Why can’t they sell them packaged meat like New Zealand?” “Because they want the meat halal or kosher.”
“Well, why can’t we do that, asked Leanne? “It would add value.”
“Cost more,” said Louis. “You’re the businesswoman. You’d have to build new abattoirs or put in separate lines. You can’t mix our meat with theirs. They’d view that as contamination. You can’t just run a herd of pigs through after you’ve done the cattle. “Look,” he went on, “these people want to slaughter their way. A man wants to hoist a sheep on his shoulders and slay it in the village as a man should.
From his words Leanne gleaned a people who did not have a western mindset.
“Frozen chops in a cardboard box is hardly the same,” Louis went on. “This kosher and halal stuff, Lew. Is that you reading again?” Leanne asked. She liked Louis’ reading. He explained things to her. Of course, she was more practical. But it was nice that she could ask him things she didn’t know. “You see what poverty brings,” she said. “If they had abattoirs like us, they could also slaughter in a humane way.”
Louis lips twisted at the word humane. His smile stopped.
“That’s your activists talking Lee,” he said. And don’t get me wrong. “They are good, kind, brave people. But they’re emotional and soft thinking.”
When the live export scandal had hit, Louis had hoped that all those extra animals on the domestic market would lead to a fall in prices. But prices had remained steady. He’d wondered if the farmers with no choice had simply slaughtered their livestock and chucked them into some hole on their properties. What a criminal waste that.
Leanne usually went to the butcher’s alone. But Louis had surprised her by pushing into the shop first to check for a fall in prices. She’d watched the disappointment etched on his face as he’d mumbled to himself. “No such luck, Louis.” He’d looked so forlorn and endearing. She’d sparked some comment in the butcher’s when she’d reached up and kissed his unshaven cheek.
That was her Louis. He’d been more short than usual lately. He’d become awfully hit up when they’d raised the price of the specials.
“Exports boom and they neglect the home market,” he’d growled. Now I’m foking out an extra two bucks a special.
Yesterday, at the supermarket he’d been a bit of a trial.
“Christ, you can’t get any Australian tuna anymore,” he had suddenly burst out. Tuna, for God’s sake,” When Dean Lukin won the Olympic weightlifting, I was so proud because he was a tuna fisherman. Our man, our fish. I used to buy it even if it was a little more expensive, but it was ours. Now you can’t even find a sliver of it.”
He had picked up a can of tuna and thrown it into their trolley. Then he had snatched it out again and slammed it back on the shelf.
“Lew,” she had cried, “Behave yourself. Are you trying wreck the place?”
But he’d again gone off like a pork chop. “Look at the cherries, all sold to Hong Kong. When have you had decent, cheap cherries lately? They sell us slave labour berries grown in shit so we get hepatitis and die. And we ship them our best product, best practice, best standard, formula or whatever.”
“Lew,” she’d roused, “lower your voice.”
But he’d gone on spitting the dummy. “And they won’t buy their own product because it’s laced with bloody asbestos or something. But it’s alright to sell any unregulated stuff to us. And what about the gas? All sold overseas and then imported at twice the price to us. How stupid are we?”
“Pull your head in, Lew,” she had scolded and slapped his hands clamped on to their trolley “The whole supermarket can hear you.”
“Sorry love,” he’d answered glancing around and taking seconds on himself.
Out in the street, they’d had a laugh. Then, later, when he was calmer, “Fat chance, us beating global forces.”
* * *
Leanne didn’t mind that her Louis was a bit stingy and blunt. They’d run L and L’s Second Hand City together and sometimes in commerce you had to tell people the score. A business colleague of theirs had said he was cagier than a dingo and tighter than a fish’s arse, which had made her giggle.
Of course, he worried too much over money. Retirement did that to you. Like most self-funded retirees, they couldn’t live on the bank’s interest and were forced into a precarious ride on the back of a super fund. Their hard earned money turned over to strangers to gamble with on the stock market. Supposed experts playing Russian roulette with their life savings.
Beyond business he was a bit of a thinker, quietly musing on his opinions which he would present in his slow way. She enjoyed cutting through the pedestrian march of his logic with a simple question, confounding him.
And every few years he turned moody. Dark moods, unpredictable, erratic. Then he clammed up and went off his food. He’d mope about poking his fork around his plate and turning up his nose. At first she thought these bouts were a reaction to business pressures, then she entertained the silly idea that it was her cooking. But he reassured her it wasn’t and she believed him.
Nevertheless, she worried over what triggered these moods, what had set him off? There was no knowing. She wished she’d known his parents, who had passed away when he’d barely been in his twenties, before he’d moved to the big city. Through them she might have found some key to his behaviour. He’d always been sketchy about his country life. Clamming up, becoming country again. Something hardened in him, a little ball of resolve that you could never crack.
Once, she even suggested he seek professional help.
“What, go to a shrink?” he’d snorted. “Are you nuts?”
In later years, she saw the signs. He’d get all snarky like at the supermarket. His black dog coming.
The best way, she found was to keep things light; give him a serve for being a dill and snap him out of it. And it seemed to work because he soon bucked up and they went on with their lives. But at the time, it was a worry.
After one of his bouts, she’d never known whether to let things be or to obey her urge to shake it out of him.
She had another urge at the moment. Perhaps she had swigged her wine a little fast. It was a big glass. John the barman filled the glasses of his regulars above the tot mark.
“I have to go to the loo, Lew,” she said, the old joke of their marriage hardly registering.
* * *
Louis sipped his drink and shaded his eyes from the glare on the windows, the sun hovering on the cusp of afternoon and evening. The emerald fairways reminded him of the summer pastures about his home when he was young. All these years and he still was taken by the green of the coastal city. Even in winter it remained green, just a paler green than in the summer. So different from the dull, yellow fields he’d grown up with around his country town. Those blanched winter scenes, the inert grasses threshing about in a cutting wind, a world away from these rivers of grassy green outside the window.
The foursomes pulling their buggies crawled along the fairways. They meandered around, stopping to pause over their shots, like cattle dipping their heads to graze on the grass. Little leisurely groups of humans moving to the conclusion of their game. They reminded Louis of a broken up herd soon to return to the night shelters of their barns. They had time yet, these players, to finish their round, the sun’s movement slow, in that extended time when it seemed to be stuck in the sky.
Louis fancied the world as forever suspended, just as afternoon slid into twilight to make a liar of him. They had slipped into the “gloaming” as he’d heard the Scots express it.
The sun was no longer a stalled fireball. It cast its slanting rays over the buggies whose shadows fell on the men, to create the illusion of four legged creatures out there roaming the fairways. The golfers looked more cattle-like now than Louis had first imagined them.
Louis saw the cattle dotted about in the green and yellow fields of his youth. How many times had he walked, as a youngster, among the beasts in the pastures on his friends farms? He’d heard talk of the harsh realities of farm life from those friends. And he’d seen something of them. He’d always thought that growing up in a large country town had connected him to the realities of country life. That’s why he’d been so surprised at his reaction. In hindsight, perhaps he’d been more sheltered from these realities than he had realised.
More images of the grazing cattle began to haunt him. At a distance, heads bowed, standing still, not flicking their tails, thigh high in the grass, they simply resembled boulders in a field. And they had as much inkling of their fate as those boulders.
Louis recognised the symptoms, that internal sensation of flood waters rising up a dam wall. The old, queasy memory dredged up like mud in his stomach.
* * *
It had started, he supposed, when some seniors from his school had been selected by a local beef company to train in Scotland as meat inspectors. Returning home, these young men had taken up posts at the nearby abattoir. The school’s geography master, in his careers capacity, had set up these apprenticeships. In appreciation, the new young employees had invited the master and his classes to tour the meatworks; the teacher including the visit in his unit on the local economy. Louis’ class was one of the first to go.
The abattoir was located out in the country fields a few kilometres from the town’s outskirts and hidden from the main road by a small copse of dusty gums. The facility was at a distance, well set back in these yellow fields. Louis had passed the site, with its shabby cluster of brick and iron buildings, many times. He’d always been aware of a vague, unsettling activity in the cattle pens beyond the screening trees; a smudged, obscured view, reliant on his imagination to bring it to life.
However, arriving at the abattoir in the school bus, things looked very real to Louis. The bus bumped over the broken shoulders of the rough tarmac road, bounced into a gravel parking lot, and shuddered to a halt in a swirl of fine dirt. In his seat as the students were getting off, he was aware of a confused sight in the distance. Dust rose from a colourless paddock where cattle shapes seemed to be skittishly milling about. He could just about hear the mournful lowing of a beast, but dismissed an echo of desperation he may have heard in the sound.
He got off the bus and stood around with the rest of the class while the schoolmaster went into the main building to find one of the meat inspectors. There was a pale winter’s sky, a country sky behind the dun fields of waving grass, clear as only a country sky can be; a winter light, through which a cool breeze sifted. A breeze faintly laced with the odour of dried grasses and cattle dung, which was no novelty to Louis.
Not too many steps led the group to an empty cattle pen. It was connected by a narrow race to a second empty pen further on and then, by another race, to the far upper pen, where Louis had seen the confined cattle. Another race led from where they were standing over to a huge roller door and a loading dock at the side of the slaughter house.
The students glanced about apprehensively. Louis saw that the cattle had been released from the upper paddock and were streaming down the race and spilling into the second pen. They flowed down in a cloud of dust, their hooves drumming, their moans and bellows now unmistakeable. He could see their barrel-like sides slapping each other as they jostled for position in the line. They were driven on by shadowy men who had covertly straddled the fences through the haze. These spectres languidly goaded the beasts on with bored but effective thrusts of their prods. And now, as if on cue, the huge roller door, in the manner of a theatre curtain, groaning and clanking, began to rise. It revealed the small figures of the geography master and one of the meat inspectors, dressed in white coats and gumboots like characters in a play. Behind them stood the factory scenery of the meatworks and all its latent machinery.
The pair signalled the students up to the factory. They filed along beside the race that ramped up to the slaughter house. Louis imagined himself as one of the cattle being marched up that inland gangplank, the fatal rise. He imagined his teenage classmates, the boy behind, the girl in front of him, being hustled along its confining rails. He followed the students up a small flight of stairs to the loading dock and the factory floor. Looking back, he could see the cattle churning inside the second pen, the ghostly men on the fences lazily poking the animals.
Now the workers released some beasts down the race towards the near pen, where the students had been standing, leaving the rest of the herd pent up and roiling in the second paddock. Following in a line, perhaps liberated by a greater sense of space, these first beasts seemed to increase their speed. They passed straight through the near pen and headed toward the final race with its easy incline to the abattoir floor.
Louis saw the first of the herd, a greyish creature, and the following cattle with their stiff-legged walks and swaying bellies. More beasts poured out catching up to the ones in front and stopping behind them like cars coming into a traffic jam. The grey cow made the leader’s decision to broach the ramp and the others followed in ignorance
Now this first beast came strolling up the ramp with the air of heading its fellows on a cross country walk. Perhaps it saw freedom in the cavernous factory at the open end of the ramp. Perhaps it suddenly felt the pressure of those pushing from behind. But it forged forward and in doing this, disappeared into a type of hopper, which the meat inspector described as a slaughter form. A lifeless metal clang tolled in the hollow hopper as the creature went out of sight. Then its spotted head appeared through the form next to the abattoir worker holding his bolt gun. The worker placed the bolt gun on the crown of its head and the animal’s eyes, soothed by the touch, as a patted dog is, softened with pleasure. As it enjoyed the caress, the worker shot it through its skull with the double-syllable kapop of the bolt gun. The startled beast went stiff with shock, its eye knowing the death blow. Louis felt the impact of the bolt in the creature’s brain. Its panicked eye rolled slowly back in its socket and Louis saw it letting go of consciousness, the unravelling of life in its death fight. A moment more, it seemed to him, would be enough for the creature not to exist. But then, from an overhead rail, with a fiendish craftiness, a steel arm with a claw, fastened to one of the creature’s hind legs and jerked it into the air so suddenly that the surprised beast seemed to convulse, the flickering revival of a life sign hinting at Louis. There the being hung, upside down, in the humiliation of its last self. Its panic giving way to doomed horror, as its eye drifted towards a stony coldness. Louis wanted to project life back into this slain body. He couldn’t accept that the creature was dead. But there it was, bulky and drooping, hanging upside down, slaughtered. An involuntary sense of loss ran through Louis. He put out a hand to stop the hapless animal’s progress on the rail, as it was slowly conveyed to the next station on the production line.
The next worker, with a long, curved scimitar of a knife, slashed the creature’s throat with a human movement more deft than the mechanics of any clamp. The blood surged like a geyser from the animal’s throat and splashed into a shallow trough, tracing a pendulum pattern from the upended animal swaying in its clamp.
Again Louis thought he’d seen the horror in the creature’s eyes as it watched over the outpouring of its own life. But he knew this was a false impression. Surely the creature was already dead. But the impression remained with him, overriding the reality he could not accept.
The blood continued to flood from the beast’s slashed throat, a solid volume, like someone sloshing water from a bucket, then the rate slowed, a spray of red black liquid passing over the surface of the trough like a fleeting summer shower over a pond. At the bottom of the trough the liquid gurgled round a draining plug, and swirled through a grate.
“Drops into a stainless steel vat under the floor,” the meat inspector instructed.
Another upended animal was already swaying up on the production line, its new volume of blood mingling with the faltering sprinkle of the first animal. The meat inspector began his running commentary.
* * *
Leanne came out of the loo exchanging remarks with a tall, flamboyantly dressed woman, who had made herself even taller by wearing extremely high heels. Her gold skirt and top had the metallic lustre of a brand new car. Green highlights streaked her dark hair. Her smiling purple lips framed uneven teeth. Thick mascara plastered her lashes, blue eyeshadow powdered her lids. Huge, silent, silver bells drooped from her ear lobes. Louis wondered if she chimed in the wind. At least she didn’t have a bone in her nose. Diamond or rhinestone nuggets flashed on her fingers as the two women came toward Louis. He thought he was in for a tiresome introduction but this fabulous creature veered off before she reached his table, tottering along on those heels. Louis watched her preposterous progress. She looked to be in her late fifties or early sixties. What had possessed her to dress like that? Louis chuckled. Mutton dressed up as lamb. She settled down next to a man with a foaming moustache and, from her place several tables away, waved too eagerly at Louis and Leanne.
“You’ve been a while,” Louis said “I thought you’d slipped through the S-bend.”
“Not nowadays,” Leanne smiled smoothing down her hips and taking up her almost empty wine glass. “I’d get stuck. I ran into Irene. You remember, Irene, the lady from the hospital.”
“How could I forget?” Louis said remembering nothing, surprised he’d forgotten the odd woman. “Anyway when I run into a mate,” he added, “I greet and retreat. You know, “Excuse me mate, I could murder a steak.”
“Yeah, Yeah, Lew,” Leanne said. “You haven’t died from loneliness” But it was a bit of a coincidence, I just saw Irene at the hospital this afternoon.”
“Then what the hell did you find to talk about?” Louis asked. “You were in there long enough to cure chronic constipation.”
“No longer than you and your mates gawking at the footy.” Leanne fired back.
Louis noted some pale neon lights splutter to life in the club’s lounge section. The rectangular shapes of the windows formed the faintest pattern on the eighteenth green. He sipped his drink, still two thirds full while Leanne gulped the last of hers.
She started in on the life story of Irene, the lady from the hospital. Louis reflected that when it came to conversations Leanne was like a miner. Sometimes she worked a bad claim, found no ore, so had nothing to say. Other times she would strike pay dirt, a rich vein. Irene’s story was a rich vein. Marriages, children, separations, new partners, melded families, children’s marriages, casual acquaintances that she knew and he was supposed to remember. Sicknesses. He had as much grip of the cast of characters as a passing cloud. But he wasn’t unsympathetic. He sensed the battle of it all.
Leanne stopped in mid-sentence. “Louis,” she said, “you haven’t been listening.”
“I have. I asked about what’s-his-face. I just can’t remember everybody’s name,” he said, hanging himself.
“Exactly,” Leanne rasped, triumphant, “If you had been listening, you wouldn’t have asked the questions.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. I don’t know the people but I get the story. He sighed and took another sip of beer.
Bestowing her gorgeous smile over the room, Leanne passed on from Louis’ excuses. She exchanged another wave, too friendly for Louis, with the tall woman.
Louis drank in Leanne’s beautiful smile, the well-being of it. During his troublesome bouts, he took more comfort in her presence than usual. Her sharp blue eyes, her no nonsense attitude. While he sometimes had to endure the shadows of memory, she lived in the sunshine of being normal. She’d been a haven for him in business and now in retirement. She shone with enjoyment. She loved going out. She wore a long skirt and a colourful blouse to match the high colour of her features.
Louis marvelled at the amount of volunteer work she’d taken up and still found plenty time for himself, their married children and their grandchildren. She was cheerful and positive, her natural integrity an asset at the palliative care hospital. In Louis definition, she was a person drawn to help without fussing.
That was the under the surface Leanne. The surface one was twirling her empty wine glass. She was about to chip him for not getting her another drink, for not being aware of her needs. Now she waved the glass at Louis.
“You want another.”
“How perceptive you are. You should have got me another while I was away.”
“I was watching the golfers,” Louis said, “I didn’t know if you wanted another.”
“Well, guess what, Louis!”
Louis rose to get her another wine. It was no use arguing over these matters. Leanne always won in the end, anyway.
“I’ll watch the golfers for you,” she said as a parting shot and pointed to the golf course in the early twilight, the first glimmer of pink on the cliffs. “If someone gets a hole in one, I’ll text you.”
Louis went up to the bar. There was a long queue that snaked round the kitchen. John was the only barman.
Louis groaned. What was it with people nowadays? Living high on the hog. Moet and Chandon, Chateau de friggin Bordeaux from the sloping vineyard facing your dick, boutique beer. No one just asked for a schooner, anymore. And in a food line the three fat persons in front of you ordered enough for the Russian army. And the order was so complicated that the poor, slack-mouthed kid behind the counter wished she’d taken up nuclear physics.
“You’d think management would have enough nous to get someone else in there,” he said to the fellow in front of him.
“The bloke’s doing his best.” the man replied.
Louis looked out of the western windows and over the golf course. The sandstone cliffs wore a pink blush, the fairway valleys were touched with indigo.
The line lurched forward and stopped opposite the kitchen. The clashing of pots and pans went on. Staff dodged clouds of steam as they opened pot lids. To the swish of fat, tongues of flame flickered through the grill bars at the steaks. The sweltering plates of food, stewing in their own heat, waited to be carried to their destinations. Louis could not avoid the association. This was just the end line. The kitchen housed the smaller retail machines of industry, completing the work of the bigger wholesale machines at the abattoir. Human mouths and delicate portions, the end product of the slaughter system.
The steaks charred on, spitting out once living tissue and functioning plasma. The hydraulic systems of living things reduced to a viscus waste on the searing grill. Louis body seemed to absorb the heat. He began to sweat, a trickle of wet sullied his underarms, then that slight trembling of his frame. That sensation of mud dredged up in his stomach. That old feverish sense. A pall of ominous mist descended on him.
* * *
He was back at the killing place, a kid again, his body withdrawn against the showering spatters of blood from the cow’s slashed throat, a jumble of impressions firing through him. Back at the industrial lines, the shifting, confronting, implacable scenes
His attention had been riveted on the grey cow, the first on the rail; one being, now post panicking, post anything, but still hinting at a living body despite its swinging dead eye and the logic commanding him that it was now a carcass. Its speedy execution continued to make its death hard for him to accept. But he could not deny that something bulky and innate, which hung upside down, was being slowly conveyed along on the production line.
A slippage had taken place in him back then. As if he had gone out of consciousness but, of course, he hadn’t. He’d been aware of a second carcass sliding by him. But he’d been surprised to see a chain of beasts swinging into place behind the first two. A couple of cows may have been a tragedy but now he had to cope with a mass event. A half dozen prone creatures hung on the factory rail. Could there be any clearer picture of death? Yet he kept on asking himself whether the beasts were alive. He kept on searching that wall of suspended creatures for some movement, any sign of life. So quick was the passage between one state and another.
He still wanted to think of them as alive, despite them being draped on the rail like so many widgets. With their unique markings, blazes on their foreheads, stars and spots on their bellies, they clung stubbornly to their individual identities. Yet, there they were, hanging. Carcasses more stunned by the ruthless facts of death than he was.
He was amazed that animals this bulky, this strong, this healthy, could so easily cross the threshold. And mankind, he thought, was just as vulnerable.
He was aware of being huddled with a group of gaping students trying to make sense of the swaying slabs as they slipped along the production line. His mind was racing, still trying make sense of the events he’d only just witnessed, searching for accuracy, validity, order.
He was not sure whether that leading, unnerved, grey cow had uttered the first roar of outrage and fear. Had it moaned in alarm as the devilish clamp had hoisted it? Since that first, groaning lament there had been plenty of panicked bellows from the line facing slaughter.
There seemed to have been two simultaneous signals. One was the first bellow, the other the compressed air pop of the bolt gun. One ran through the factory like an electric shock, causing all its lines and lights to spring to life together. The other ran out through the cattle as they sensed the betrayal of their kind being twisted up onto the production line.
* * *
There was a vibration and then a corny tune at Louis’ hip. He reached for his mobile. The text from Leanne read: albatross, eagle, birdy, par, bogey, double bogey, triple bogey, emu, ostrich, pterodactyl--- what the hell is taking so long? Louis saw Leanne at their table. She pantomimed swigging from an invisible glass. Despite the distance, Louis could see the cheeky smile that always disarmed him. He turned away. The queue had moved a couple of places.
* * *
The fulsome, dangling bodies slid further along on the production stages. They were a chorus line of manufactured death, swaying in unison. Against his will, Louis made a pattern from the gaping holes in their throats, their upside down heads swinging oddly, yet in accord, on their half severed necks. Through the collective pattern he saw how quickly these beasts had become industrialised; turning to products even in his eyes.
The students were invited to continue their trudge on the trail of dismemberment. Not catching each other’s eyes, they obeyed.
They arrived at the skinning station. Here, the line workers in blood spattered overalls, gum boots and surgeons caps, sliced with practiced wrists at the hanging forms. Equipped with specialist knives, they worked with precision, the skilful crew continually lancing at the contact point between body and hide. The constant cuts caused the animal’s coat to peel away from its body, and fall by its own gathering weight like a dropped cape. The pelts sank gracefully to the floor, sliding easily over the beast’s faces.
More carcasses now than creatures, the swaying bulks encased in their body bags of fat, seemed to touch off an aura of silent moping. Without their hides, they were hideous in their similarity to real cows, their denuded forms stressing their bewilderment at the violence inflicted on them. Further away they simply looked like cow figures cast in outsized moulds. Close up the pink and purple byways of their existence hinted through transparent membranes. Louis was awed by the death factor in these bodies and the uncaring potency of the death method that had reduced them to this alien form; swinging there by their feet, the uniform tilting of their violated figures. The macabre dance. And once more this forced submission took him back to the living creatures, as if these cow shapes were again calling to be restored to life. He had the hopeless yearning to cover their bodies with their hides as you might cover a naked accident victim with a blanket. But here his resistance failed him. Without their skins, he could not imagine the creatures as whole again with their coloured patches or faint stars on their underbellies. There were too many similar hides to ever match them to their correct blank carcasses. And now the hides were being dragged off for processing. He’d conceded a battle win for the abattoir in his war against the inexorable process. Or perhaps this was a turning point for him. There was no redemption for these creatures
“The hides must be handled with speed and care,” the meat inspector announced, in a grave and formal tone. Louis wondered if Scotland, with its wet weather, had dampened the spark in this once spirited senior. In a few months, it had transformed this former larrikin into a very serious working person.
The class followed the forlorn path of the carcasses as they jerked and swung on their conveyor rail to the next station. Louis conceded that the abattoir was highly, in fact, ingeniously planned. Its processes followed an orderly logic. But what about the staff? They looked busy and eager, certain in their jobs, as if what they were doing had never been questioned. Well, he thought, if you worked here you either hadn’t asked yourself the question or you had settled it.
He followed on. The industrial process, the whirring of hydraulic equipment, the hissing of steam, the men wielding power tools, was a worrying activity all about him. The chaos of workers in overcoats, caps, and gumboots, moved in every direction as the secondary lines, whose patterns he could not follow, radiated out from the major stations.
Now they came to a station where the heads were lopped off with unusual round power saws that reminded Louis of cement cutters. The operators seemed to find these heavy, circular instruments hard to handle. But once the man got the tool pointed at the right level, it cut through the already half severed necks with a magic effect, the weighty skulls dropping to the floor with a thud.
* * *
Louis carefully placed Leanne’s second glass of Semillon on the table. Filled to the brim by John, a minute slop of the wine spilled over the rim of the wineglass. Leanne eyed the operation. Louis hoped she hadn’t seen the slightest of tremors in his hand
“You got a mate there, Lew,” she said. “Old John. Gives you value for money. He’s your kind of guy. He costs the house a tot a bottle.”
“And he brings people back because he’s a bit generous.”
“With his bosses’ money,” Leanne quipped.
Louis sipped his beer. Was the schooner half empty or half full?
“Have another, Lew,” Leanne taunted. “You’ve nursed that one to death.”
“I’m only half way through and I can’t be bothered to stand in line again,” Louis said.
“Talk to the moths in your wallet while you are waiting.”
She jumped to her feet.
“C’mon Lew, she said, “I’ll buy you another.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Louis. “You’ll be in that queue all night. The service in this joint is getting worse.”
Leanne displayed her guilty, school girl smile and pulled a twenty from her bag, Louis sighed. The pokies, of course.
“Just a little flutter Louis.”
“How can you stand those boring machines?”
“No more boring than your grumpy conversation. Geez, Lew, you’re a real gloomy guts tonight.”
“They’ll bring the steak. It’ll get cold. You’ll miss out.”
“But you would tell me if it arrives, my darling.”
“No, I won’t.”
Leanne picked up her glass, turned on her heals and, with a defiant swagger of her hips, sashayed towards the gambling room. Lew would tell her if the steak arrived. He’d never let something he’d paid for go to waste.
* * *
With Leanne’s departure, Louis’ recall of the skulls, inevitable as gravity, found him out again; that dropping to the concrete with a shudder which had gone up his legs. The sound clear despite the huff and puff of process in the background. He’d been drawn to the staring eyes in those dismembered skulls, the locked jaws and teeth, the lolling tongues. Years later, in a fish shop, he’d peered at the serried ranks of the catch laid out on ice, and the blank, fishy eyes had brought back the death stares of those bovine skulls bumping to the abattoir floor
That connection had been easy to trace. And tonight’s little bout of memory was obvious. This morning, arriving at dawn, as usual, his old mate, “the dream” had paid him a visit. Then he’d had that talk with Leanne over live shipments. Given those events, his memories had shown up this evening but why hadn’t they shown on his many other visits to the club? There were times when, for the life of him, he couldn’t find what thinking had brought him back to the abattoir door. He tried to be aware of the triggers, but, of course, there was no logic to it.
Louis handled the dream the same way he dealt with his memories when awake. Even when asleep, he was conscious of stepping aside, making himself a humble observer and letting the sequences in his mind play out. Not resisting was better than trying to block his recall or forcing himself to wake up. Yet he knew his strategy was dangerous to his mental health that he was playing with fire.
Yes, when “the dream” visited, even in his unconscious state of sleep, Louis knew enough to let it play out. It was no use trying to stuff his old mate back in his box. Both his dream mind, and his waking mind, sparked by unknown triggers, had minds of their own. Both picked their own sweet time to visit.
The dream had its variations but remained surprisingly the same. Sometimes his classmates were with him trapped in the fatal race, about to be slaughtered, the mad cattle pressing in on them. Sometimes his cornered parents were with him. Or a friend or some business colleague he’d been dealing with recently. There was always the march of the cattle to execution, his panic as they drove him along the race to the bolt gun. Surely the abattoir staff would see that he was a person. But, no, he was just another cow in their eyes. Always the stream of backed up cattle, the herd roiling in the dust. Beyond the paddocks the winter world of his country home hovering in a trance. The dun grass waving in the cold wind, the dusty gums huddled together, the sky fading to colourless infinity. Always the scene changed from order to chaos. The transformation sparked by the nearer animals in the race, catching the smell of death, the scent of kindred blood. That fatal smell, the fear passed from animal to animal, the blood of their companions, their blood touching off their panic. They knew they were being herded to spill their lives, their personal blood, to have their arteries and veins severed in spurts and gouts of blood, their organs scraped out, their brains and their hearts torn from them, and they were to be turned into carcasses. They smelt the blood of death and terror was in their bulging eyes.
And always as he drew near the hopper and saw the bolt gun, he vanished from the race and found himself watching the deathly parade from the abattoir floor, no longer a cow but human again, watching with the cold, objective eyes of a human. Watching the beasts thrown on the path to destruction with no capacity for reason to save themselves. And they bellowed and bucked and reared. In their panic they gored each other and dropped their shit and chopped it with their hooves and ground it to mush mixed with the piss that issued from their soon to be docked genitals
On the fences, the merciless abattoir workers, in their shabby red bandanas, listlessly prodded them on. He wanted to tell these men to throw away these red ribbons of shame, abandon their bravado and admit their sorrow. He wanted to say, he did not blame them, that their need for a job and the nature of it, would not allow them to see these beasts as living creatures. But for all his passionate pleas, he might as well have been talking to stones. He would sit with these men astride the fences and when he looked at them their sad, taciturn faces would dissolve and they would simply disappear. The ghosts of lost souls.
Then, with the crazy logic of dreams, he was back in the abattoir. The ominous, dormant factory waiting to spring to life as that first hoof struck the insidious hopper. The fatal step so unremarkably passed. The step he yearned to reverse. The clinical set of the place, the anticipation on the workers’ faces. Then the bolt gun. The sense of movement everywhere supporting patterns and purposes he could not discern. Yet he wanted to put his faith in the orderliness even the ordinariness of the process. Anything to mitigate the chaos of the scene.
One more quirky shift in this dream took place. And it involved the meat inspector. Unlike the schoolmaster, he never appeared in the race with Louis, who was about to be slaughtered. He never accompanied Louis on the paddock fences. An irresistible dream force condemned Louis to follow the man to each butchering station, the instructor’s once crisp white coat, encrusted with rancid layers of gore, the clip board under his arm stale with stains. At each station the inspector stopped to deliver his next lecture. Louis followed in dread waiting for the inevitable transformation--- the inspectors head displaced by a cow’s head, which loomed up close to Louis, its eye sockets slithering with bloody worms. Louis whole body would jolt as he opened his eyes on the fading image. Tropes of slain beasts would invade his wakened mind.
Outside it would be light. Way above him with the night curfew lifted, some jet plane would be coming in to land, its whining engines reversing.
* * *
Louis looked at and then through his own faint image in the plate glass window, which had grown slightly opaque in the advancing evening. Beyond his reflection, the eighteenth green still invited the golfers, the pink sunset glimmered more intensely on the darkening cliffs. In a trick of the light he could see some sort of hologram of himself projected on the eighteenth green directly below. He wondered about the creature down there. How it had played the hand that fate had dealt it.
He cast about for Leanne who hadn’t yet returned from the pokies. She’d probably blown her first ante and was off stoking the one arm bandits with a second twenty. Her absence sparked, in him, a sense of betrayal. He needed to talk to her. To be a buffer, despite his passive strategy, between himself and those memories. All this was so wearisome, it tired him out. The rerun in his brain started down its arbitrary path again.
That keen employee, the inspector, in his clean, white coat, scanning his clipboard in case he missed a detail, had launched into another lecture
The newer slaughter houses in Scotland were more delicate about dropping skulls. They had better more scientific machines, which, in one operation, easily separated the jaws, removed the tongues, (unharmed) lopped off the ears and extracted the teeth. The old method was to prise the jaws open in an action rather like removing a stubborn hub cap from a car wheel. The new machines executed quickly while the skulls were still fresh and pliable with heat, otherwise, if the jaws set cold, it was a devil of a job to open them. Cold jaws simply split, damaging the tongues and lost tongues meant loss of revenue. Once the tongue and brains were removed and the eyes plucked, Louis assumed that whatever wasn’t reserved for eating, was boiled down in those large vats. The rest of the skull may have been ground down for garden blood and bone. He wasn’t sure, other details may have escaped him, his concentration had begun to waver. He hadn’t resisted the information, he’d just been tired and defeated letting the words of that droning man wash over him.
That lecture had been a long time ago. Louis realized his memory of events had blurred and may have been influenced by his reading in later years. Because of this abattoir experience, he’d developed a sensitivity, which had led him to pick up on the subject of slaughter. He’d done some unusual reading for a businessman. Sometimes he wondered if his reading had coloured those youthful scenes. Considering his upheaval, had he properly remembered? But deep down, he trusted his memory.
* * *
On another memory Louis was clear. Time had not warped it. Reading had not blurred it.
Their little party of learners had moved on towards the next station, given over to eviscerating and trimming. “A double function station,” the meat inspector had proudly announced. Nearing this station, they found themselves in the way of workers carrying silvery innards in wheelbarrows that went wobbling past them. A groan of revulsion came from the group. They moved on, the workers with their barrows of offal baring down on them and skittering past. Then a tilting, unstable wheelbarrow almost careened into them and a trembling jelly of offal slithered off the barrow and slapped against Fiona Mayfield’s leg. The group flinched. A cry of horror and disgust went up, the barrow pusher flashing by towards his destination. A mortified Fiona Mayfield stood there cringing, her long limb pushed out in front of her as if she would disown it from her body. She made no attempt to wipe off the gelatinous mess clinging to her school skirt, wetting her socks and spattered over her school shoes. She was stuck in a frozen stance as if stung by some paralysing jelly fish, the sourest of wounded grimaces on her face. She was a tall girl who, at the best of times, wore a sour expression. And the incident seemed to grant her a god given chance to express all of her acid nature. The girls in the party, producing tissues and handkerchiefs, worked on the mesmerised Fiona Mayfield, who could only stand there immobilised, reviling her fate, the gooey substances plastered to her outstretched limb. Louis had turned away from the loathsome washing. Fiona Mayfield was led away to clean up in the company sick room. She did not re-join the group. A staff member had driven her home.
Louis learned in later life that Fiona Mayfield had become a respected abstract artist overseas. She had always been good at art but Louis wondered if perhaps her canvases were filled with the shapes of her schoolgirl trauma and therein lay their allure. He smiled to himself. He had never liked Fiona Mayfield. He’d asked her to the school dance and she had refused him.
* * *
Louis sensed a shadowy presence at his shoulder. That tall woman, Iris, no Irene, towered over him. Anyway, the constipation lady.
“Excuse me, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she said, her purple lips twisting in a bizarre smile.
Louis hid his scowl. Why did people say that, when they clearly were disturbing you. “You have,” he said spreading his arms and making a joke of it.
“I’m sorry,” she said cocking her head. Her metallic dress shimmered, her green highlights sparkled, but her tone was tentative “You’re Louis.” She said.
“Last time I looked.”
“I’m Irene. I work with Leanne at the hospital. She may have mentioned me.”
He was growing suspicious. Was this leading to an invitation to join their table? What had those women hatched in that toilet room? Leanne had set him up before or just brought it on by her friendliness. Mostly, he didn’t mind, but not tonight. Not the way he was feeling. He just couldn’t face it.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “You did look deep in thought.”
“I was thinking of Fiona Mayfield,” Louis said.
Irene again cocked her head, her green highlights sparkling above her puzzled face.
“I was at school with her,” he said.
“Aah, yes ---?”
“She wasn’t an old flame or anything. We never got on.”
“You ever heard of Fiona Mayfield?”
“Can’t say that I have,” said Irene.
“She’s a well-known artist in Europe.”
“Well, there you go. Does she do landscapes?”
“Abstracts,” Louis smiled, noting the woman’s cautious grin. Had he said enough to put her off an invitation?
“Well, we noticed Leanne trotted off to the pokies leaving you on your own. Come and join us if you care to. Leanne can come over when she’s done.”
“Kind of you,” Louis said. “She’ll have squandered our fortune on the one arm bandits by now. When she comes back broke, I’ll give her the message.”
“Good, we can have a little chat, and I’m sure Wally will be glad to meet you.”
Louis looked over at Irene’s table where the moustachioed bloke, third husband or something, gave him a small nod. Louis nodded back. There was no possible subject in the universe that he wished to discuss with the man.
“Great,” said Irene, we’ll see you in a short while. And cheer up, she might win the jackpot.”
She is the jackpot, Louis thought.
“Irene, a revolving tower, turned to go but stopped short. “I hope I haven’t been too forward,” she said. But I feel I know you a little from what Leanne has said.”
“I think I know you too,” said Louis, “just a tad.” He watched Irene teeter over to her table, her green streaks coruscating. She reminded Louis of a stepping water bird.
Louis hoped he hadn’t been too rude. It was self-indulgent playing games with the woman about Fiona Mayfield.
He saw how tense he was, his legs crossed tightly, his folded arms pushed on the table. His old symptom emerged, the image of floodwater rising up to a dam wall inside himself. His body the wall, braced against the water. The murky seepage sidled over the wall’s crest, a little stream slipping down its face. Then a fuller volume of disturbing memory began to spill over. Louis knew better than to hold this spillage back, these small streams of recall flowing to their place of rest. Let them leak away
* * *
On they went to the eviscerating and trimming station. The eviscerating consisted of cutting the hanging carcass belly-side, from stem to stern, with a power saw similar to a chain saw, then butterflying the beast open towards the spine as if it were on the hinges of a bi-fold door. The gap created allowed the intestines to simply subside from the stomach and the hip cavity and fall bubbling into a vat on the ground. Louis’ guts had pitched with the sliding organs.
While the flashing knives of the trimming went on, the meat inspector had examined a hollowed out carcass, applying the vigorous training of his apprenticeship in Scotland. His eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed, his nose wrinkled as he sampled the air. He stood close, close to the swinging carcass, touched with gloved hands a spot or two, explaining that he was looking for any discolouration. He was highly suspicious, very professional. At length he nodded his approval.
“You want to be here when we find a diseased one,” he announced, “especially if the animal has an abscess. The stench is terrible. The whole place just reeks.”
Louis wondered if he could have handled an abscess that even put the meat inspector off. He would have fled that hellish, carnal scene retching his guts out. Some of the group had nearly done that, had almost thrown up after foolishly poking their noses into simmering vats churning with soupy substances
Next came the cooling rooms, surprising in their aura of quiet detachment. Shut off from the frenetic slaughterhouse, the static carcasses hung in hushed rows, recognisable now as the sides of beef glimpsed in the backroom of any butcher’s shop. Perhaps the stillness of these carcasses compared to the frenzy of the production line, re awoke in Louis that unlikely sense of longing these bodies had brought to him at earlier stations. But this time his projection arrived with a strain of reproach. They seemed to be protesting their dismissive handling, while calling again for the individuals they had once been. Happy in their patchy hides, snaffling grass, chewing the cud, swishing their tails, lowing to their young in the sunshine. Their sly, little known, cattle curiosity. Now they hung in their static rows almost whispering their injury to each other. Was he fanciful enough to sense souls in this room? A sadness welled up in him, for the beasts and for man himself who must slay them.
The inspector droned on about how the cooling rooms didn’t merely chill the carcasses but functioned as a complete system of temperature control. Louis marvelled at the man’s detachment in the face of the almost chiding carcasses. Had his training taught him to see only commodities and block out all life?
They arrived at the cutting and deboning station where the sufficiently chilled carcasses hung on offer. The cooler the meat the easier to handle, the blood having time to congeal, according to the inspector. It was difficult handling hot, unco-operative flesh with fresh, warm blood squirting from it. A notion had lodged in Louis’ head, although it took him to adulthood to express it. Even after death life needed time for subduing, time for its functions to cease, some quiet sanctuary to finally give way.
The carefully prepared sides awaited their manipulators; a knot of workers, armed with specialised knives, attacking the lifeless body, their expensive blades glinting. In their surgeon like uniforms they carved away with their quality tools: physicians presiding over an operation. Knives with moulded yellow and orange handles; razor sharp, the pride of German or Japanese engineering, were wielded with nonchalant confidence. The workers swarmed the drooping carcass setting to from all sides, plunging in these knives of all sizes, gauging with the short thick ones, carving with the thin delicate rapiers. The silver blades winked and danced, a bit of fat or sinew sometimes stuck to the honed steel, although it wasn’t supposed to. Sometimes a brown stain smeared a polished surface or a blood spot glowed brightly. Louis wondered if the proud toolmakers would have been a touch embarrassed by this slight failure. But the knives were easily wiped. They were mostly potent and worthy, cutting clean. They dug, they pried, they sliced. Familiar cuts of meat took shape from them.
And so it went. Louis remembered being saturated by the whole process. He’d had enough. He tried to block the meat inspector’s continued monologues, his droning on about grinding, curing, pickling, smoking, cooking, canning. All that palaver about “edible or inedible rendering,” “lard,” “edible tallow,” “edible offal,” throbbing in his head. And just when he thought it was all over, they went on to “manure traps,” “secondary treatment,” “final effluent.”
He allowed himself a smirk over these professional terms. “Manure traps” held no notion that the beasts had shit themselves in fear. And what was the “secondary treatment” for an eyeball gored by a horn? And was “final effluent” the moment they had pissed themselves to death?
The inspector waffling on station by station to the smell of those terrible vats boiling and simmering away. The diabolical liquids like lumpy gravy percolating inside them, where they had been brave or silly enough to stick their noses for a sniff.
And the smell, the smell, the all-pervading, acrid smell of the blood within the beef.
* * *
Making his way back to the bus Louis had taken a short cut down a narrow alley between buildings, while the rest of the class had kept to the road. He’d had a little trouble co-ordinating his walk. His legs had buckled imperceptibly. The film of slaughter images had flickered through his head. Then the first of his now familiar sweats, the churning of his stomach, the feverish distortion, the descending mist. He’d found himself reeling and stumbling but quickly straightened, redeemed that nobody had noticed.
He’d been relieved to see the familiar, pale sunshine and the powder blue sky beyond. The same sky he’d seen when he’d stepped off the bus. But the world as he knew it hadn’t quite welcomed him back. Something in the universe had shifted; he was in an altered place. For the present, he couldn’t think. He was numb.
* * *
Leanne came back from the poker machines. Her glass was empty and she’d blown her twenty. Her smile was as broad as ever, despite the loss. Louis knew enough not to harp on it.
“Steaks not come yet?” she asked. “They’re a bit slow tonight.”
“Gone back of beyond for them,” Louis said.
The gambling room was baron ground for Leanne to mine new conversations. So they talked over bibs and bobs, like old marrieds. Small comments thrown into the silences.
“A think of something to say talk,” as Louis labelled it. Were the new licensees of the bistro better or worse than the last lot? Weren’t the grand kiddies cheeky, though they loved them to bits. They made occasional comments on the golf shots. The evening was slowly closing down. The club lights burned brighter, the windows threw rectangular pools of light onto the eighteenth green and lit the bunkers with a faint, eerie glow. Pink flares marked the cliff line. They waited for their steaks.
Louis decided he’d better tell Leanne about this Irene woman’s invitation
“Your high heels lady wants us to join her table,” he said.
“Oh Irene,” Leanne said. “Yes, she teeters about a bit. All the girls at the hospital know it. She’s a showy dresser, but she’s very nice, even a bit shy. Anyway, what did you tell her?
“I said I’d talk to you, but I’m not going.”
“Ooh, C’mon Lew, why not ?”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“C’mon, Lew it will be fun.”
“No it won’t.”
“Because you’ll be yacking away and I’ll have to make small talk with that old walrus. Then we’ll have to shout each other drinks. And I’m just not up for it tonight.”
“You haven’t been up for it a while, Louis.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Meanwhile, we’ve been sitting here talking, how rude. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?
“Because I don’t want to go.”
“Look Lew, you’ll have to go. This is the height of bad manners.”
“Please Lee, I just don’t want to go. I just can’t handle “hail fellow, well met,” tonight.”
“What’s that supposed to mean. You’re damn reading again?”
“It’s Shakespeare. I learned it at school. I couldn’t help it even in a country town. Look, Lee, you go over if you want to.”
“And what am I going to say about you?”
“Oh, tell them I’m meeting a bloke about some money matters or something.”
“You’ll be sitting there in full sight.”
“So, I’m waiting for him.”
“And when no one, turns up?
“Then he hasn’t turned up, has he,” Louis said shrugging his shoulders. “They won’t fall for that. They’ll think you’re strange,” said Leanne.
“I am strange,” said Louis.
“They’ll think there’s something up with our marriage.”
“No more gaps than in any one else’s marriage,” Louis said.
“Well, I’m going over,” Leanne said getting up from her chair. “You do what you want.”
Louis watched her determined walk over to Irene’s table. It was a power play, of course, to make him follow. And he’d hated to see the trouble in her eye. But he couldn’t help it. He just couldn’t face idle chatter with strangers.
His murky memories began to flow over the spillway again. He had to let them roll on, be their pained observer. This was how he coped.
* * *
After the abattoir, he had come home, the blood smell following him about the empty house. Its lingering presence had penetrated into his mouth and throat, coating his taste buds. It had penetrated into every fibre of his clothes. He had sniffed his shirt sleeve and there it was, the sickening blood smell. He had tried not to breathe in too deeply, tried not to ingest the basic reek of the slaughterhouse. All that modern equipment and vaunted scientific method could not defeat that underlying smell.
He had filled a bucket with hot water and added detergent, carried the bucket to the bathroom and run a bath. Then he’d stripped off, thrown his clothes into the pail and taken to the tub, where he had scrubbed and scrubbed at the smell. He’d washed and rinsed his hair twice. Then scrubbed again till he could do no more. Sniffing himself yielded the soap’s scent and the signature of his own body, but beneath those surfaces, the nagging blood smell persisted.
He’d put on fresh clothes, brushed his teeth several times, gargled with salt water and cleaned his teeth again. Mixed with the salt and mint aftertaste, the blood taste still curdled in his mouth.
He’d put the bucket of clothes outside to soak in the fresh air, and come back inside. The electric saws squealed, ripping through bone. He saw the patter of blood sprinkling over the concrete trough; the cows moaned, the bulls bellowed.
To distract himself, he’d gone across the road to his friend, Mick. Fighting images of the slaughter house, he’d joked about Fiona Mayfield. He’d played the funny man. Oh, he’d entertained Mick, all the while seeing the bolt gun to the grey cow’s head, its soothed, gentle eyes. He’d blathered on, haunting images screening in his head: the hulking beasts hooked on the rail, the distressed animals, the indifferent humans. He had hidden his dismay, his sense of being captured in that charnel house for beasts. He had not told Mick he’d lifted a veil and peered into the face of man the demon. Boys were cruel but men were crueller in proportion.
Returning home he’d stepped into his front yard and, as if the devil himself was compounding his nightmare, he’d caught the blood smell in the steaks his mother was frying. He’d tried to suppress his revulsion. He went into the kitchen, trying to avoid looking at the fry pan, hoping that if he did look, the sight of the cooking steaks would seem normal. His mother was unaffected, just preparing an evening meal. He felt as if he’d stepped into another dimension and was looking in on her strange, accepted world, where there was nothing sinister about three frying pieces of meat. Despite his intention, he was drawn to the smouldering lumps, the browning, crackling flesh of the cooking process coming to him as unnatural and corrupted. It seemed purer to eat the flesh raw. He fought down another bout of nausea. He hadn’t mentioned the excursion to his mother and she hadn’t asked about it. She had evidently forgotten. He went into the lounge where his father was watching the evening news.
They were summoned to the table. His mother laid down the steaks with a small flourish. She beamed, pleased to be serving her family, proud of the bountiful meal, the rewards of family labour. They were providers and useful citizens. They made their way.
“There you go,” she cried, “lovely steak.” There was an approving glint in his father’s eye.
His parents had cut into the flesh of their meal and chewed with relish. No awareness, no guilt for them. He’d forced himself to look at the meat on his plate, the juices respiring from it, but the blood smell undid him. He bit down hard against his exploding stomach. “I can’t eat this,” he said and left the table.
It was months before he began to eat meat again and, when he had, it was with a sense of misgiving. Each forced mouthful seemed tainted.
* * *
Leanne came back from Irene’s table. She stood next to Louis, arms folded. “Louis, I want you to come and meet these people,” she demanded. “But my finance fellow hasn’t arrived yet,” Louis shrugged.
“Oh don’t go on with that crap,”
“Are you saying my mate, Jim’s financial advice is no good.”
“Louis, you’re being very silly.”
“You don’t think it’s a good excuse?”
“I don’t think it is any excuse.”
“Well, tell them, I’m waiting to arrange a lesson with my golf pro. He’s been delayed. That should do the trick.
“Louis, you’re being very immature. No one is buying this. It just looks rude or strange, and you’re embarrassing me.”
Louis turned to the window, grown more opaque in the last of the twilight. He could still see through to the golf course but the grimace on the face of his reflection had grown a little more defined.
He knew more flashbacks were to come and his best bet was to let them play out in the present. They were his pain and his relief. But he’d clamp down on himself for Leanne. Maybe talking to these folk would be a diversion, although he knew that the delay of fighting down these memories only made things worse. He turned to face Leanne and his reflection and the whole of the lighted interior of the golf club seemed to float out over the fairway and hover there. He shut down on his disorientation and a rising tide of sorrow within him.
“Alright, Lee,” he said, “alright, I’ll come over. Just give me a few seconds.” He sighed and sipped his ebbing beer. There was less than a quarter left.
“What’s up Lew,” Leanne now implored, her whole countenance shifting from anger to concern “Black dog, love.”
Louis pursed his lips hard. Stupid tears were welling up behind his eyeballs. He wouldn’t allow them. For an instant Leanne and he were a frozen tableau, the man slumped over his beer glass, the lady with her arms folded.
She’d seen something beyond a sigh and a sip. She’d been jollying him up all evening, She knew when to give up, when his blues got the better of him. When it got bad kicking his arse did not work.
“If you are feeling that bad, love, don’t worry,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Louis croaked.”
“It’s okay, Louis.”
“What are you going to tell them?”
“Your story, of course.”
“What have you said?”
“That you were waiting for someone. Nothing more, no fuss.”
“I’m sorry, Lee, I’ll be along in a minute.”
“Fine, Louis, she said her voice rising with frustration, “but I wish you’d tell me what’s behind these moods. Once and for all. It’s enough. Do you hear, enough?”
“There’s nothing behind them, Lee. I just get down.”
“Louis, can’t you see. If you could just say what it is? It would help you. Get it off your chest.”
“It’s nothing, Lee. I’ll bounce back.”
“Until next time.”
“I always come good. I’ll be over it in a minute.”
“You won’t be, Louis,’ she said.
She spun on her heals.
Louis watched her dogged walk back to Irene’s table. He hated to see Leanne troubled by his moods. They didn’t happen often but he hated the whole damn sham. Despite her questioning, he could never tell her about the abattoir. Hot shame suffused him. The experience had gone deep, overwhelmed his resistance and defeated him. He never understood how it had beaten him, those moments of despair. He was guilty of being weak. He would never be looked on as weak. Anyway, the whole thing had become part of his fabric, a gauze bandage that sucked up internal bleeding. It was too late to change things now.
He would never tell Leanne that months after the abattoir visit, his thoughts, seeded on that day, had become a weed in his brain. He’d seen the world as every creature eating the other. An horrific picture of existence. And he had asked what kind of dark God had set this scheme up for mankind and all of the earth’s creatures to follow.
Louis watched Leanne pull up a chair and make herself at home at Irene’s table, rabbiting on as easy as if she was having a good old chin wag with her mum. He admired her poise in the face of the embarrassment he was causing her. Walrus moustache, an abashed expression on his dial, sat silent listening to the ladies yak. Third husband or something. Louis trusted Leanne not to wave to him over to join them. She understood. He just wasn’t ready to play that game.
And he really didn’t understand how Leanne could be there chatting away. But there she was, going at it a hundred to the dozen. She’d just spent an age with the woman powdering noses. What on earth was there still to talk about?
He turned away to the window. There were the golfers enacting their silent rites on the fairways, a mist of purple dark slowly sliding into the valleys, the heads of the cliffs glowing red and violet. The last straggling foursomes were wending homeward. Soon it would be too dark to play.
In the fading light the players no longer resembled cattle. They were humans, alright. Predators at play.
An exhibition at the gallery in his little home town had sheeted home to him just how predatory humans were. That artful display had reversed the roles on humans to make its point. That strange, gruesome show. A second challenging experience for him as his mother had called it. Yes, sir, that exhibition had been the culprit. His little kicker. Fates bonus after the prize of the abattoir.
* * *
Some years after the abattoir, when he’d almost forgotten his aversion to meat, an exhibition came to Joe Bishop’s photo shop and gallery in his little country town. Louis would sometimes drop to Mr. Bishop’s for a roll of film or just to look at the seascapes and landscapes in the gallery section. The modern art on the walls drew puzzled looks from the townsfolk, although the men’s askance glances didn’t apply to the paintings of the unclad ladies. Louis had heard rumours of the racy photos sold in the back section of the shop known as the “garden of earthly delights.” The men made obscure references to the place and pretended the ladies of the town new nothing of it. Hell, Louis knew the game. He’d heard his mother and her cronies whispering. This loose material and the bold exhibitions Bishop sometimes “put on” in his gallery, caused concern in sections of the town. But he was a lively and likeable character who did good things for the community, even if he had refused to join Lions or Rotary. A bit of a bohemian who was tolerated well enough. Louis looked back on him as a free spirit.
* * *
The black, plate-glass window offered Louis’ his clear reflection. Darkness, descending from the cliffs, filled the steep valleys of the fairways. Louis stared into his drained beer glass, his throat dry. If the bar queue shortened, he’d might order another drink. What the hell. He deserved a second tonight.
So there it was. Louis thought of the matter of fate in anyone’s life, not the big issues but the small shadings that colour your journey. He permitted himself a grudging snicker. To this day the identity of the artist who’d created that awful show remained unknown. The man had gone to some lengths to hide it. But how the hell that travelling exhibition had landed in Louis unimportant little town with its art following of almost zero was no mystery. Bishop’s arty connections. To this day Louis wondered at the man’s motives. Did he promote that exhibition as a champion of the arts or just to shock the town? Or both.
He had walked into Bishop’s gallery to find it got up like a butcher’s shop. But instead of having animal carcasses and cuts of meat on display all the offerings were made up very cleverly to look human. There were human chops for sale, human spare ribs, human ground mince, all professionally displayed in the butcher’s counter, all properly priced in their trays with splashy signs. There was leg of human already garnished for delicious roasting, and spare ribs. Kidneys, livers and tongues were piled high on silver platters. Rump was cheap and on special. There was a mock freezer room lined with the sides of humans hanging on hooks.
However nothing had affected him more than a pile of hands tossed carelessly into a tray on the counter besides the butcher’s scales. These expressive hands seemed to be reaching for each other in poses of agony and despair. He wanted to restore them to their owners. Lives seemed to spring impossibly from the pile. The births, homes, studies, hobbies, businesses, holidays and funerals of these humans. Hands reaching for lives wastefully severed.
The protective web he’d spun around himself over time tore away. Those mournful cattle bodies hanging like clothes on a rack at some obscene dress shop; the longing that had emanated from those bulky carcasses. Back then he’d had the same stricken urge to restore them to their families. Bulls, cows, calves---husbands, wives, children. So what was the difference? Nothing as far as emotions were concerned. It was only our self-awareness, our intelligence that was different. So what gave us the right?
He had stared at the hands as if hypnotised. Heaped on each other, the beseeching array assaulted him. Topping the heap was an insulting sign impaling the flesh of the upmost palms, a sign meant for jocular reading: GOOD FOR SOUP. As if the lurid pile was no more than a bunch of pigs’ trotters or chickens’ feet. Next to the obscene pile, in a shallow tray of marinade, the wrinkled hands of old people were advertised as delicacies. TASTY APPETISERS. Louis realised that the artist had done his job. He’d entrapped his viewers. He’d fallen for the trap as if cast into a powerful spell. He’d known he’d have to break away. Yet he’d remained mesmerised in a hypnotic field, captured in his disgust for the appalling pile.
His resistance had swept through. He’d wrenched himself from the spell. What had he been doing? He’s been making up lives and people where no such beings existed. The hands were rubber, everything in the exhibition was artificial.
There was an awed silence in the gallery. The only sound he’d heard was the front doorbell tinkling as the patrons came in and out. He’d seen the stunned faces on the pavement.
Joe Bishop had been lambasted. The letters to the editor. The town had demanded that Bishop reveal the artist’s identity. They wanted revenge. Bishop had to use all his charm to keep the citizens at bay. Some claimed that he was the artist. But Bishop had refused to buckle, arguing that no artist would exhibit in his gallery again. Louis had read the paper and listened to the spitting harangues around town.
He had gone off meat again. His mother furious that her efforts to “normalise” his eating the first time, had been blown away in fifteen minutes. She’d written to the paper herself, demanding that Bishop and his “milksop” artist, be run out of town for corrupting sensitive young people.
The scandal had died down. Sometime later Louis read a review of the latest show at the gallery. The reporter had begun: “Since presenting the butcher shop exhibition, the tenor of Mr. Bishop’s staging’s have become somewhat less adventurous.”
* * *
Louis saw Leanne’s make her second firm walk back from that woman Irene’s table. If she looked sure footed and determined from behind, she looked even more so from the front. She was only sympathetic for a short while, then she rallied. Louis half rose from his chair. The jig was up. He’d have to go over to Irene’s table and make small talk. But at that moment the waitress arrived with the steaks.
“One steak medium rare, one well done,” she called out, cheerfully detached.
Louis was tickled. No qualms over what she ate. She was a healthy little carnivore.
“Yes, steak here,” Leanne replied.
“Where’d you go for them, back of Bourke?” Louis said.
“Sorry,” the girl said sheepishly, “we’ve been a bit busy tonight.”
“That’s alright, love,” Leanne chirped, “You’ve got us good and hungry.”
“Now whose is the medium rare and whose is the well done?” the girl asked.
“Guess,” said Leanne friskily, glad that the steaks had arrived.
The waitress laid down the plates, little flags on toothpicks skewered into the meat. A brown cow on the flag for well done, a pink cow for medium rare. Louis and Leanne swapped plates; the waitress had got it wrong.
“Funny,” she said as she turned to leave, “it’s usually the men who order the rare.”
Louis looked at his brown steak with its alternate bands of sealing. Leanne’s oozed blood-stained, ruddy secretions. Louis gave way to amusement when his hackles should have risen. Not only had this new management increased the price, but they had also reduced the size of the serving. There was no way the rump on his plate was a two hundred gram steak. It was one hundred and fifty at the most. But Louis was not in the mood for pettiness. What was the difference? He hardly fancied his meal, anyway. The whole evening at the golf club was a shot deal.
But not for Leanne. She was tucking in, relishing her meal, having a good time. “That was a good shot,” she suddenly exclaimed.
Louis peered into the dark. “They can’t see out there,” he said. He tipped his empty beer glass, sucking at the last dribble.
“Yes, they can,” Irene said playfully. “See the ball. Right there. Six inches from the hole.”
She put on her glittering smile. She was having a lend, keeping things cheerful.
“How’s your wine?” he asked just for something to say, appreciating her effort.
“No great shakes,” Leanne said. “By the way, they are charging two dollars extra for the gravy.”
Louis was incensed. Hiking the price of the steaks was bad enough but an extra two bucks for a lousy thimble of gravy. He would not be coming to the golf club for the steak special again. They had priced themselves out of the market. For a fortnight, anyway, because Leanne would insist on coming back after next week’s turn at the pub. Besides, he’d heard on the grapevine that the pub had also raised its prices. He’d lost his revolt before he’d mentioned it.
And he was annoyed with Leanne. She could have told him about the price hike straight off instead of rabbiting on about that Irene woman at the hospital. She always did this; talked of other things before she hit you with a whammy. Why did she do it? To see him steam so she could be the calming, one?
Louis lapsed into a browned-off silence.
Leanne looked up at him and cajoled, “Don’t worry Lew, it’s only a few dollars. It’s nothing in the scheme of things.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me in the first place?” Louis hissed.
“Well, I’m sure it’s not my fault, Louis. Don’t get mad at me.” Leanne retorted.
“Let it go Louis,” Leanne implored. “It’s only money.”
But the conversation had created a little rift and they fell silent.
Louis was aware of the dinner session in full swing, the lights in the golf club blazing. They burned out into the night, yet they lit nothing. Only the blackness answered blocking his sight and reflecting his distinct image in the maw of the window.
His mood darkened. As if he were a piece of meat, the indelible effect of the abattoir was stamped on him. It had altered patterns in his life, it had affected his cast of mind, it had influenced his reading. It had struck a sombre note in his life. Most of the time he was fine with it, lying there, dormant in him, like sludge in a reservoir. But every now and then, like tonight, it took its toll. Some invisible current stirred in his depths and the muddy waters silted up inside him.
His enforced interest had brought him to some intriguing reading. It had guided him to the Judas Steer who leads the other cattle to slaughter but is saved itself. The disdain heaped on the creature despite it being blameless. There were also Judas sheep and Judas goats. And, of course, lure ducks who led their own kind to their destruction. The innocent leading the innocent, manipulated by mankind. The trust put in mankind by creatures and the cunning of ingenious man in betraying that trust.
Louis recalled the articles he’d read about kosher and halal killings, Leanne’s surprise that he knew about them. The articles proposed, besides killing protocols, prayers and eating rules over slaughtering animals: for yourself and the animal. He liked the idea. You were bound together
The kosher laws implied that one shouldn’t be crass and greedy by eating milk and meat together. That you should not slaughter a beast and also take its milk. Even in death, don’t take all, they instructed. Don’t rob the creature of all dignity with your wantonness. Be bound by some pledges, some after-death promises. Even though you are slaughtering the animal, you are bound to it in a relationship: that was his understanding.
And what was this relationship between man and beast? Somehow a diabolical and holy one tied together, the dilemma of man.
These ideas had filtered through to him over the years. They had brought him some comfort although they weren’t a mantra. He wasn’t going to let on to Leanne, suddenly demanding they say grace before meals. Besides, the matter was as much between yourself and the animal as between yourself and God. At his first Catholic burial, he’d seen all that burning of incense and scattering of waters. Yet that smoke and mirror carry on somehow seemed to work. It eased the pain.
His thoughts skipped to the ancient Bushmen of Southern Africa. When he shot an animal for food, the hunter carried out a personal conversation over the dead creature apologising for killing it. The hunter explained he could do nothing about his hunger and asked the slain beast to understand that he had a wife and children to sustain, but was, nevertheless, sorry for what he had to do.
The old debate raged on in Louis. These animal lovers who cried foul when a beast was slaughtered overseas in a manner not up to their standards. Well, he partly agreed. He didn’t like the creature’s brains bashed out with a sledgehammer either. But did the bolt gun bring instant death? There was no way of knowing unless you were the creature. And even if it did, it didn’t solve the problem of having to kill the animal. Everyone should visit a slaughterhouse; there was no humane way to slaughter a beast. No making that creature unbound to you. You lived with this state God had thrust on you as best you could. If you were lucky, you could be comforted by prayer. If you were lucky you might ascend to a higher understanding of this act of slaughter beyond initial kindness. Louis had reached for it and reached for it but had never found a clear way through. Otherwise there seemed no humane way. It was only humane in that humans did their best. We were all bound by this act of man, defining our essence. Or was this reasoning just pretence? Perhaps in the future we might find a better way and not eat meat. But dammit for these conditions, for our condition, there was no way out of the pain of the living, for either you or the creature, no humane way to slaughter a beast. That was what he had come up with. That was the best he could do. That was his crutch for now, that was what he would have to survive with. Mr. Louis Lambert.
* * *
“Louis, eat your steak? You’ve been poking about that plate for the last half hour.” Leanne said.
“That’s an exaggeration,” Louis answered.
Leanne was well into her meal. Nothing to comment over that. She was a fast eater.
“Well, whatever. You’ve been off with your black dog,” she said, her agitation turning to concern. “Are you Okay, Louis?” she whispered leaning in over the table. She knew the signs.
“Couldn’t be better,” Louis said.
“Are you sure, Louis?” Leanne continued through a drawn smile.
“I’m about to embark on my epicurean journey, to partake in an elegance of sufficiency,” Louis chaffed.
“Meanwhile eat your steak, you’ve whinged enough about its cost.”
“My dear, my dear, all is fine. The world is as it ought to be.”
“Then go for it, Louis. Eat your steak, pig out.”
Louis raised his steak knife but it remained poised in the air. The muddy, sickly waters of his those old memories, took hold of him again, the burden of them over the years. His body, his will was the dam wall that held them back. This time he feared the wall really would burst. The pressure to articulate those memories pumped up from his legs, rose through his torso and reached for his tongue. It filled his mouth, his confession ready to surge out and spill all over their evening.
He should have told Leanne years ago. Bloody well fessed up. She would have understood. Had he caused her a damn sight more worry by not telling her? He would tell her. He felt sure if he talked to just her and no one else, it would be a great relief. He would get it off his chest at last. He would even go to a shrink.
“Lee,” he said, “I have something to tell you.”
“Eat up Louis, your steak will be ice cold.” She prised out her reply, not wanting to appear too keen to listen, not wanting to disturb the turmoil in him, the delicate balance that could shoot him off on some erratic path. They’d travelled this road before. But perhaps this time.
“It’s about my black dog.”
She knew. He’d been building to this for days. “Talk, Louis, talk,” she blurted out. “Get this poison out of your system once and for all.” And immediately she regretted it. She should have played it casual. No, casual or raving, she couldn’t pick how he would react.
She watched his jaws clamp, his lips seal, his tortured eyes fight down whatever it was in there trying to escape. He wrestled with himself for moments turned to eons. The trouble in him shrank to a small spot in his pupils. His expression grew clear, almost serene. She recognised her deadly accurate disappointment. They’d reached this fateful impasse before. Stood on the brink, on the dam wall, as he was inclined to put it, “letting the spilled water slosh over our ankles.” They held each other’s gaze understanding perfectly and utterly baffled.
Louis bowed his head and shook it.
“Aah, Louis, will I ever get it out of you?” she said.
“One day. I’ll send you a text.”
Leanne, occupied herself with her food, mechanically placing one forkful after another into her mouth without pause. Bent over her plate, she ignored Louis. But he knew there’d be no tears, no recriminations. Perhaps a little sniping. She was granting them room for recovery, a little healing space before they again shared their cross. Letting the flood waters subside, as he thought of it.
No, there would be no shrinks. No bleating to the world. No reforms, no sudden surprises for family and friends to laugh at behind his back. How about that Louis. All those years we’ve known him and he turns out to be this vegan kook. How hard would that have been on Leanne?
No, he’d made his stand. Others had faced far worse in their lives than seeing a few cows killed. They’d faced wars and tragedies and made it through. They limped along like he sometimes did. So what. He’d beaten these moods before and would again. Why fess up at this late stage? There was no point?
There was no point, either, in ordering another drink. He knew he’d wind up shouting that old walrus one. That’s what got him. He always landed up spending more than he had planned. But that was the gaff. Management’s strategy exactly. To lure in customers on slow nights and get them drinking and playing the pokies. The whole idea was to take advantage of the specials and not drink; to leave that to the mugs.
But he’d shout the old bastard for Leanne. Even if it meant him shouting two extra drinks. Forget the one he wouldn’t have now; there’d be one for him and one for the walrus. Then there’d be worse to come. Leanne would probably insist on him shouting the whole bloody table. Little miss generous.
He’d do it for her all the same, his Leanne. She’d put up a lot from him with his attacks. And if these turns became more frequent, he would tell her. He promised himself that he would tell her. “Lee, I have something to tell you,” he imagined himself saying. Lee, I have something to tell you. The refrain of their married lives.
In the meanwhile, after their meal, to please her they’d go over to that woman Irene’s table and make small talk with her and the third husband or something. It was the responsible thing to do. It was the way to distract himself, to keep things normal. It was a way of winning and not giving in to the black dog; the mauling he periodically took from it. Instead of wallowing in defeat, in negativity, it was his way of biting back.
Yes, they’d go over and talk to exotic beanpole, Irene, and her walrus mate. From what Leanne had told him, the woman had weathered some tough times. Well, he had some sympathy even if Leanne didn’t believe him.
“Lee,” he said. “When we’ve finished our steaks, we’ll, go over to your friend Irene for a natter.”
“That might be a bit late, Louis. They’ll most likely have finished their meal and left. Besides,” she said, opening her arms to show her plate, “I’m just about finished and you haven’t started.
“It’s not too late,” Louis insisted.
“Okay, Louis,” Leanne replied. “Catch up then for goodness sake. Go ahead, pig out, murder your steak.”
Louis bit into his steak. A spurt of tender meat and delicious juices laid claim to his palate. What could be better so long as he could suppress the blood smell in the beef.
Harrison Kim lives and writes out of Victoria, Canada. He's on a five year writing plan, after retiring after twenty nine years as the teacher at the British Columbia Forensic Psychiatric Hospital. This is the first year of the plan. He's been published at "Bewildering Stories" "Fiction on the Web" "Literally Stories" "The Writers' Magazine" and other online and print magazines in the last year. He's upcoming in several more. This particular story is based on several different anecdotal tales people told him, and on his own mysterious experiences in the wilderness.
In The Momich Lands
I am irritable moody on this trip so far, angry when it’s quiet, and calm when it’s noisy. The bear pisses me off. It’s trying to steal our almost gone supplies. I tell Karen of my urge to grab the axe and confront the beast.
“You must respect the bear,” she says, in a quavering voice. “Keep the energy peaceful.”
She’s a wiry, arty, pagan elf girl. I’m a skinny, fragile bossy boy. We’re both 19. In this place, far from civilized noise, a spirit’s been rising in silence between us. It started even before we launched the canoe into Adams Lake one week ago. That crashing bear awakened me from sleep, but she already heard it coming. She’s always listening for the future. When I opened my eyes, I could sense those huge brown owl-like orbs behind that night face hollow darkness, staring at me. She knows more than she is telling.
The bear thumps some more, then it’s quiet again, so I unzip the tent, clamber out cursing. I stoke the campfire higher, and sing in a loud voice. Karen remains inside with her sleeping bag up over her head. I hear her praying to the bear god. She believes in all the hoodoo stuff.
The beast does not return. I watch the light rise above the trees, walk around singing lalalalala til the sun rays up over the lake..
We’re right by high water roaring Momich River, where it hurtles into Adams Lake. It’s early May 1974. No cel phones, no texting. No life jackets. Way before they logged the area, it’s all old growth up here. We’re canoeing Adams Lake after a college year. I’ve been calm so long because my world’s been busy and noisy. But now, with Karen, just the two of us padding up the lake for a week, I’m as pissed off as a wet bobcat. It should be a coming together for us, in the wild places of moose and wolf. But it’s a fading away. We’re talking less and less. I’m communicating mostly by noises.
Karen’s hardly eating, though we have little food anyway. She’s a spoon thin dark-haired hatchet cheeked girl at the front of the canoe most days. I steer in the back, giving orders on which side she should paddle. Now at Momich River it’s a three day camp to explore up into the Hum A Milt wilderness.
We met four months ago, in college, bonding on a belief in ghosts and spirits. Karen thought there were ethereal forms embedded and shimmering through the visible world. “These dark shadows influence and control us.” she said. I found this idea inventive and thought provoking. I liked her white teeth and intense dark eyebrows. We talked for hours about the secrets vibrating inside the real. We walked home every afternoon together, along the rushing traffic main street. I felt good possessed by vehicle noise, as we shared with each other our ghostly theories. We mixed nature and romance, burning off energy hiking for hours, often past midnight up the hills round Kelowna. Other people passed through our lives, friends, family, strangers. But with each other, I know we felt a mystic bond. On this trip, just us. I figured we’d be quiet and meditative and adventurous. But she’s been quiet and glum this whole voyage, and I’ve been loud and irritable and pissed off at everything.
Romance is within the curve of any relationship, bringing it to a full circle. Over the time we’ve known each other we’ve touched a few times. She seemed like a sister, or maybe even a brother. It was that kind of love. We’ve gone straight, not sure where it’s leading. Maybe I’m going one way on the line, she’s going another. On this trip, we sleep on opposite sides of the tent.
Now, we’re portaging the canoe up a very old, grass covered logging trail, destination Momich Lake. Karen read the map and said we should turn off a side trail, the lake was in that direction. I overruled. “You’re reading the map wrong.”
A half hour later, we’re with the canoe way up the mountain and the logging trail ends. I put the back end of the boat down, Karen lowers her part.
There’s no sound. Karen stands with fingers together, in a Buddha pose. She stares off into the distance.
I step back from the canoe, start screaming and yelling. It’s my own fault. Should’ve listened to Karen. But I’m mad at her too, because of the frustration, and the quiet around us. All the hidden wildness comes out in the silent forest. Not even a slight breeze. Sweat drops tumble down my back and I reach round to wipe them, still yelling. “Damn, screw it all, I blew it again!”
Karen lowers her arms, shakes her head. “I never thought you were like this.”
Neither did I.
She walks over to the shadow of the big cedar at the end of the road, her back to me.
My yelling reminds me of the roaring Momich River below us. No calm until the lake. And I reach the point where there’s no more voice. I sit down on the canoe with my head in my hands.
My true self is leaking out, I put my hands over my head and mumble “Sorry. I thought that I’d protect you up here, but I took us up the wrong trail.”
Karen shakes her head. She squats, sits cross legged on the ground. She pulls out her tattered notebook and begins to write. With that head shake, I believe that she will never see me in the same way again.
I look up. The colours of the forest don’t seem right. They seemed brighter only a few seconds ago. Throughout this trip, stories disappearing, changes of perception with every paddle stroke up the lake. The sky a sidewalk grey now. Karen looks like an outline bordered by dull green. The firs and pines are tinged with a blackness, like there’s a mold on their needle edges. It’s quiet again, after my yelling, and there’s a dark towering cedar where the road ends. The noise fade has increased my awareness. I perceive the silence, which now is not really silence. I can hear a twig twitching in the branch above me.
I feel something watching. A sense of green eyes. Something that heard my eruption of fury, and became aware. Like it was moving in a different direction, then turned.
“Do you feel something?” I ask Karen.
She shakes her head. “I just feel tired,” she says. “And kinda scared.”
She put out a lot of energy carrying that canoe. It’s heavy fibreglass. Her purple kerchief and a big red plaid jacket make her look bigger than she really is. She has the thinness and bony back of a boy. At night, we lie in separate sleeping bags. I hold back each evening, in silence.
“I think there’s some presence here,” I say. “Observing. And we’re on its territory.”
“There is a spirit of the forest,” Karen starts picking up the canoe paddles. She looks at me. “I feel comforted by it. Sure you’re ok?”
“I think I need more protein,” I tell her. “I might be hallucinating.”
“Maybe you should try to get some sleep,” she says. “I always see you awake at night.”
We don’t talk any more. We pick up the canoe and hike down the steep logging road with the long red boat over our shoulders. The side of the canoe bumps my collarbone. I feel eyes watching us all the way back to the camp site.
The camp’s an ideal one right by the lip of the river mouth, looking out on the vast long mountain lake with sweeps of tree tops down the hills to the water, the nearest cabin a day’s paddle, on the other side. Maybe no one living there this time of year, it’s a summer place.
If there’s something out there, perhaps fire will keep it back. I take the swede saw into the bush behind the tent and start cutting up dead branches.
Karen brings in a load of wood, I watch her. How small and fragile she looks. She’s always so calm. Perhaps she’s more at home here than me. She goes and sits on the river bank, meditating out at the view. She pulls out her notepad and pen, and starts writing again.
“There could be a lot of strange things up here,” I talk from behind her.
“Don’t cut anyone with that saw.” Karen says, without turning around. “You’re being kind of forceful with it.”
I bang the blade side against a tree .
“I can hold the saw however I want,” I say. I shake the blade in the air. “I’m not aggressive. How can you say that?”
Then I feel the eyes again. How far back behind me are they? I stare into the bush, the thick trees, living and dead, randomly appearing further and further back, the new spring green rising from the undergrowth. The farther back I look, the darker it becomes, even though the sun’s come out from the clouds, in the late afternoon. I can turn around and view the wide flat lake, and Karen’s back. The wind has come up and white caps roll towards us all across the bay. It’s like they’re pushing me towards the bush.
I notice Karen’s lifted herself up, she’s standing on the riverbank, contemplating the whitecaps as well.
“What are you doing?” I yell. “We need more wood or else that bear’s going to come back!”
Something behind the forest seems to be making me act this way. The thought of those eyes, boring into my back. Karen puts her hands over her ears. She walks down a path to the river’s edge. She can’t hear me down there with the water roaring.
That night, we eat another can of beans, split equally. Karen eats a lot more than usual. Before, she’d take just a little, then offer me the rest. Now, she consumes her share, though she eats slowly, allowing time to chew and swallow. I watch her pony tail bob from beneath her white kerchief, like a hanging rope on a scalped head.
How much do I really know her? She’s been so quiet and hard to reach, and it’s my fault.
If we could make love, forge a new start in sex, but she says this would ruin our friendship. On this trip especially, she’s hunkered down, and I’ve had to walk off into the trees when I think of curvy river girls. Karen spends more and more time meditating, and writing in her notebook.
As the sun goes down, I build a big fire with a large stump on top to keep burning all night.
Karen stays outside. “It seems like some kind of a cat,” I tell her as we watch the fire just before bed.
“I think it’s comforting to be watched,” she says. “Maybe it’s a good spirit, to make sure we don’t go off track.”
“Do you feel it?” I say, jumping up.
“I think the woods are alive,” she says. “There’s all sorts of spirits in the trees and the rocks.”
“No, no!” I say. “I meant the big cat eyes. Like something between a cat and a human.” I grab my axe. “It doesn’t like us here. We’re on its territory.”
I place mothballs all round the campsite, they’re great bear repellents. Karen doesn’t like the smell, she coughs, but I don’t care. She stands up, steps in to the bush and from the growing darkness announces in a clear voice f “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” She walks stil further in and says “I’m standing in deep shadow and all I feel is peace.”
I dive into the tent and burrow deep in my sleeping bag. Maybe I can escape from those green eyes here.
In the night, the bear comes again. Or maybe it’s a different bear, or something else. This time, it snuffles and pokes around by the food cache. It seems to poke, then stop, then poke again. It’s almost like a human being, how it’s investigating.
Karen breathes in and out across from me. “Just let it be,” she says. “Sometimes it’s best to let the beasts alone.”
“I wish they’d make more noise,” I say. “So I can figure out what they’re doing.”
“You’re the one disturbing them,” she says. “This is their territory, we need to respect that.”
After a few minutes, I stealthily rise from my blankets. The green eyes are on my back, and I want them off. I start singing. I take the axe.
I come out to the smouldering fire and the rich scent of slow burning pine stump. I sing loudly. “La la la la la la.” There’s a shadow behind the fire. A few sparks fly up, and a twirling of blue smoke.
I rush forward yelling, “get the hell out of my space!” and I see a tunnel mouth open where the shadow begins. “Yes,” I think, “The door to the real world, at last.”
I’ve been expecting this for days. Some kind of change. I felt it within myself, with my irritability and temper and bossiness rising from the quiet of the lake, and our paddles swinging up and back, up and back. I felt it from the green eyes appearing after the canoe portage, and the shake of Karen’s head.
I stare at the hole, hypnotized for a moment. At the last minute, I bring myself to yell again. “You can’t hurt me, you bitch!”
I dodge and whirl around the opening. I’m on an edge, looking in. It smells like pine pitch and wood smoke. A shimmering tunnel about three feet in diameter spirals away from the opening, and through the forest. I hear a thundering from within the hole, and fall back to the fire. I see a tiny green eyed thing leaping out, over the flames. It’s a form without shape, and the eyes bend and disappear as It lands on my shoulders and I fall, fighting.
I’m on my back lying on the ground by the blackened fire, smoke still rising from white ash.
It’s light, the sun’s just up and the rays reach my feet. I feel down the front of my bare chest, it’s slimy and I pull my fingers back and there’s red. I gaze down and see two long scratch marks from my throat to my belly button, not deep but stinging now and open with blood seeping through. I turn my head, see the flat lake and out in the distance a moving dot. Looks like someone paddling down the narrows. I watch, then raise up on my elbows. The canoe’s not there.
I rise dizzily to my feet, shout “Karen!” and stagger to the tent, it’s open, my own sleeping bag heaped inside.
I run down to the beach. I know it’s her now, she’s paddling away from me.
“Karen! Karen” I scream. “I didn’t mean it!” I stand and wave my arms. “Karen! I need you!”
Now I feel the eyes again, and they’re coming from inside me this time. I know that running will not help now, or singing, or the axe, if these things would ever help.
Help. I hope that’s what Karen’s canoeing towards. I can’t blame her for leaving. I’ve been very irritable. She’ll bring someone back to pick me up. I know she will. Or else I'll walk out. Yes, I think I can walk out. These are old logging trails, but they must lead somewhere. There’s a map in my pack. But it’s too quiet. I need to hear a chain saw. Even an airplane. Or a chipmunk. Anything to distract, to keep me out of myself. I feel those green eyes now, on either side of my chest, staring out. I’d start singing, but there’s no one to hear.
I turn back to the tent, then pass it and begin moving up the logging road, as a great silence enfolds me.
Ben Pyle is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership. Ben’s prose short stories have appeared in Literary Yard and Ariel Chart. His prose short story, “School Spirits” will appear as the featured story in the October 25, 2019 edition of Page & Spine. Ben’s webcomic with artist Marc Rene, Project: Auroral reached Top 20 in Stan Lee's POW Entertainment 2016 Line Webtoon contest, and he has three comic book short stories for publication in 2019 with artist Renan Balmonte: "Lavinia" will appear in My Kingdom for a Panel by Arledge Comics, "Echoes" will appear in Elsewhere by Unlikely Heroes Studios, and “Blood Borders” will appear in Monster Mashup by Grit City Comics. Ben also provides reviews and editorial duties for the comic book and pop culture review website Sirens of Sequentials
Only the headband remains. And the tailband.
Hours spent threading and gluing static activated pulp. Ink-stained fingers securing its cover.
Still too hot for a jacket.
"You sure you're alright?" Sonja asks.
Years walking this planet, yearning for escape. Within arms-reach.
"I didn't intend to word it that way. I'll take it down," I say into the headphones.
"Listen, whatever you need. I'm always here," she offers before I hang up.
I was supposed to remain broken. Brittle.
Wheeling away from my workbench, the elevator we'd installed for Father awaits.
The metal gateway parts on the first floor. I awkwardly shove the back door open while my suit sits securely in my lap. The wooden ramp zigzags toward the fenced-in lawn.
No one to eye me. Or my work.
I crack the suit's spine. Wind whips its sheets.
Words envelop me.
Bones reform. Ribs. Pelvis.
Stretching into the distance, an ancient kingdom. Or is it futuristic?
I fly upward, realigning worlds at my whim. Stars form at my fingertips. Colors spill from my feet as I tear through reality.
My sister calls for the fifth time today.
"Why'd you hang up on me?" Sonja scolds.
"Was done speaking. Had other things to work on," I say.
She means well. Everyone does. Healing takes time. The perpetrators have been brought to justice. I'll land back on my feet.
People care for as long as I post on social media. Following the incident, few friends texted, dropped by, called. Everyone busy with their own battles, crises, self-promotion, adulation, morality-posturing.
To strangers, I'm supposed to remain the victim.
To rally behind. Represent those silenced by the system, by death. My every word society's sword.
"What more would you like me to say?" I ask.
Sonja says, "No one demands you to say or do anything, but when you post videos like that people are going to worry. And then I hear about how the police were tweeted to check in on you."
"No — it's — I'm not scolding you."
"I'll do better. Love you."
"Wait — "
I place the phone on vibrate and toss it onto the porch.
My suit awaits.
Leap forward. Fall into its folds.
A tale sewed as escape vessel and armor. Another person's skin. An impossible world. My own life unrecognizable in its creation.
The fiction suit insulates me, allows me air with which to refill my damaged lungs. No fear of collapse.
My phone dances along the porch railing.
I retreat further into fantasy. Wrapped in romanticism. Roaming among remains of old gods, righting wrongs in impossible realms.
Untethered from the suit's otherworldly oxygen, I briefly breach the surface to glimpse my private messages.
A young girl seeks advice. Saw my video last night. Suffered similar circumstance. Two subsequent failed attempts. Hospitalized regularly.
The suit's escape hatch lies open.
Rolling back down the ramp, I scoop up the suit. Clutched to my breast, its binding absorbs the quakes threatening to reopen ribs.
I learned of fiction suits through my favorite author. A practitioner of chaos magick, told true tales of utilizing sigils to rewrite reality. How belief breeds results.
Spent weeks designing my hypersigil in the aftermath. During my hospitalization.
Crafting not only the extended persona for my primary self but also its binding. Its physical form. Rewriting myself better within its fabric.
Paging through the suit, I read of a woman unscathed by the world. Knife-proof skin. Unbreakable bones. Impossible to cage.
Incapable of feeling.
A lifeline lays limp on the porch. The preserver cold in my hands.
Unleashing the hypersigil required I paint a clear line to who I wish to become from who I currently am. Hating the victim, honoring the hero.
Only now, I no longer recognize myself in these pages. Others. Thousands cry to be heard.
To be safe.
Saltwater raindrops spot the suit's pulp.
I came forward as everyone advised. Provided names. Retold the story in exacting detail for the university.
To combat the narrative of my promiscuity. My willingness. My eagerness. My abuse of substances. My history of mental illness. My education. My smile. My dress. My hair. My makeup. My words.
To reclaim my story.
I shared every ounce of myself online. Strangers privy to my life, claiming rights to my experiences. Rushing to my defense. Bashing me for not appropriately valuing their consideration.
The girl's plea remains unanswered.
I realize the hypersigil is no longer my own. It's yours. It's hers.
Finding a blank verso of my fiction suit, I scrawl, "________, thank you for sharing your story. The pain you paint touched me deeply. I promise to hold your story dear and to never betray your trust. In return, I would like to share a part of myself with you. If you'll have it.
"Attempting to cling to some aspect of who I once dreamt of becoming, I created something. A living suit powered by narrative. A tale in which the main character is powerful, capable of rescuing herself/himself/themselves without need of sacrificing their own happiness. Without need of explanation of themselves to others.
"I want you to have this book. For as long as necessary. Return it whenever. Or pass it on to someone else in need of its magick.
"I pray this totem of our tribe will help you resist the urge to shut yourself off from others. That you will resist others' demands on your story.
Opening the girl's messages, I type, "Please, send me your home address. I have something to mail you."
Once the girl responds, I will delete my social media accounts. Call my sister. Ask if she'll come over for dinner.
But for now, I will sit in the shadow of my maple trees. Feel the wind in my hair. The breath in my lungs.
A smile on my face.
Secure in my skin.
Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is a fiction writer from Pakistan, currently living in Saudi Arabia where he is lecturer in English at Taif University. His short stories have appeared in a number of publications, online and off. He is a contributor to Evergreen Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Newtopia Magazine, Gowanus Books, Offcourse literary Journal, The Raven Chronicles, and many others. His debut story collection, can be found here:
The Woman Who Had Many Names
On my way home from school, I heard them chortling. Men spoke at the public places, and women addressed passersby from the doorways.
“Have you seen her? I hear she’s beautiful,” one woman clucked, holding a child in her arms.
“I saw her. She is a desirable beauty,” added another.
“You two harp on about her beauty, but what has it gotten her?" a third woman knotted her wrinkled hands and said, "Her looks have made her nothing but a slave. Bangladesh defamed Pakistan, and now this Bengali girl will malign our village. May Allah save us.” She drew a prayer symbol.
“Speak low. The Khans’ boy is coming,” one cautioned and nodded her head at me. A sly smile crawled across her face as I approached.
I listened intently but pretended indifference. They lowered their voices. I was twelve but my parents didn’t like my interest in the adult world. I guess the woman also doubted my innocence. Deleir was my uncle, so I was curious to know. I looked back after passing them, and they had resumed their animation.
Outside the mosque, at the center of the village, a group of graybeards sat under the wide- spread branches of a banyan tree. Heavy smoke plumes drifted from their hookahs, spiraling in the air. I heard much of what they said. Talk of Deleir Khan's libido filled through the smoke-laden air, as loud in my ears as their smoke was heavy in my nose. Had I been further away, I would've bet the banyan tree was on fire. To avoid them, I took a different route. I saw Bhola, the madman, sitting with his back to the mosque pillar. He raised his hand to stop me. I shuddered at seeing his jagged black fingernails, as the flies swarmed him like rotting fruit.
“What is that?” He pointed to the inscription on a wall.
“Allah’s the greatest.” I stammered.
“Yes, but beware of His men.” He put his hand down, allowing me to go. I picked up my pace until I reached the old brick street.
On the main street, I saw Ruboo riding the bullock cart. Old Man Ruboo, always gloomy and grumpy, was the most vocal of all. He stopped his cart at the front of a shop and climbed down, shouting, “Deleir Khan needs to set a standard instead of fucking around with a Bengali woman.” His controlled face of ugly disapproval would've frightened a wild pig.
Nasty jokes assaulted me as I hurried home. I passed two giggling girls who taunted me, “Hey, Mahi, congratulations on your new aunt--a Bengali aunt!”
Pushing through the front door of my home, I saw my mother sweeping.
I blurted, “Mother, is it true? Has uncle bought a Bengali woman?” I looked down at my feet, unable to meet her eyes.
“What?” Regaining her composure, she returned to sweeping. “Yes, your uncle has brought another wife home, that’s all,” she muttered and turned her face away, still blushing red.
So it was true, I had a new aunt! The thought of a Bengali aunt fascinated me. Determined to sneak a glance, I dashed toward the yard wall where a window provided a view of Uncle Deleir's house. Mother blocked my way. “Go to your room and do your homework,” mother shouted.
I trailed off to the house and waited for father to return home.
The night grew colder, and I sat near the fireplace and gazed at the burning coals until late, watching the flames lick the brickwork. When father arrived, he sat quietly in his favorite chair. Perhaps he saw my hand tremble on the arm of the chair with my gaze fixed on the fireplace.
I gathered my courage to break the silence. “Baba, are wives for sale like animals?”
“Who told you that?” His voice felt sharper than any blade.
“Everyone in the village says Uncle Deleir has purchased a Bengali wife.”
“Well, your uncle may need a woman to take care of his new mare. You know, animals bond with some people and can’t live without them. I think this might be the case with your uncle’s new horse.” I wondered whether father was not ready to accept her as his sister-in-law.
He rose slowly, placed his hands on his hips and twisted side to side, and I heard his spine crunch like the pleasure of tired hands cracking knuckles. He walked to his bedroom, leaving me by the fireplace. I went to bed as well, but thoughts rushed through my head, driving sleep away. Uncle’s dog barked at midnight. Either the mare or the woman had upset the dog.
In the morning, I lingered over my breakfast, and loitered in the doorway, trying to postpone my departure for school. Stories of my uncle would have spread like horses fleeing fire, and I dreaded confronting my schoolmates.
At school, boys approached with a lot of lewd teasing. I avoided them, but during lunch break that proved impossible. I stared at the ground as I ate, hoping they would go away.
“Mahi, your uncle is a womanizer, never happy with one woman,” Lal, a senior student, said as he nudged me.
“Now, he’s brought a Bengali woman, for a new taste, fresh from the city,” Bakshu, Lal’s friend, added.
“I guess it runs in your blood, boy. You look like a Bengali-woman type of guy yourself. Grow up fast. We want to hear your stories, too.” Lal laughed and strutted away with his gang. His laughter rang in my ears as he left.
The rest of the day was no better; I longed to go home. My heart pounded from shame. Uncle’s new wife was the talk of the school, from the classes to the washrooms.
Days passed, and still I hadn't met my new aunt. Life in the village fell back into its usual rhythm; the topic grew stale. My uncle soon moved her to a hut near the animal farm. A large Bokul tree shaded her hut which, with the arrival of spring, turned lush with tiny red fruit. The tree was home to a group of monkeys. She worked alone all day. No one referred to her by name. She was “The Bengali Woman.” She piqued my curiosity, but no one introduced us.
* * *
One sweltering summer morning, I saw my Bengali aunt leading uncle's mare, sheep, and goats out of his compound. Her black hair shone in the sun and waved in the slight breeze. Her dark clothes swathed like rags around bird-thin limbs. She was barefoot as she led the mare by the reins, yet she walked with grace.
Sheep were easy to lead. I knew them to be the most docile of creatures. But goats were another story. They reminded me of Old Man Ruboo, though not as ugly. The goats compliantly followed her. They trotted behind like faithful hounds instead of acting like the stubborn third cousins of mules.
There must be something special about this woman for her to have such an effect on the animals. I hurried to catch up.
When I got close, she looked down at me and asked, “Who are you?” Her gentle smile and musical voice made my heart beat faster. I had never seen such a woman in the village. Her dark eyes were radiant pools. I wanted to hug and welcome her, but formality forbade it.
“I'm Mahi, Deleir Khan's nephew."
“So, my nephew, too.” She smiled as she walked away.
* * *
The school year ended, and summer vacation begun. Early one morning, I saw my new aunt leading the sheep to pasture. I noticed the dog that barked so furiously the first night now followed in obedience.
“Can I come with you, aunty?”
“Please do. I would welcome your company.” Her black eyes radiated warmth.
We strode from the village, towards the pastures. When we arrived, she opened her hand-woven mat and placed it under an old thick gum tree. The meadow extended up to the hills. The leaves sang melodies. She held out her hand and said, “Come and sit in the shade. Are you interested in horses?”
“A little. Do you know much about them?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I have a gift for getting along with most animals.”
Over the next hour, she taught me more about horses than I thought anyone could. I found myself smiling and nodding. The timbre of her voice made everything interesting. I began to understand the secret of her success with animals. Even I would be helpless but to obey that musical voice.
“Aunt, what’s your name?”
“Oh, I have a cousin named Laila! I didn't know it was popular among Bengalis, too!”
“That's not my birth name,” the aunt laughed, “your uncle gave it to me when he brought me here.”
Confused, I scrunched my brow. “What was it before my uncle named you?”
She paused, staring at my uncle’s mongrel. Her eyes glistened. "I've had many names. I don't think you'd understand even if I tell you."
“I will. I’m no longer a child. I’m twelve years old.”
She looked at me with a bleak face. “I’ve had more than twelve names.”
She got up to help the dog deal with a stubborn goat. I'd heard uncle grumble about what he called ‘That worthless mongrel. Don't know why I even feed him.’ Yet now, after a few weeks with Aunt Laila, the worthless mongrel seemed to be a good sheepdog. The antics of the dog and goat made her laugh.
She returned with a beautiful mushroom in her hand. “You know it grows in wild soil. I’m like a mushroom.” Her voice was a whisper, her gaze soft and neutral. “It has no roots, no one owns it, and anyone can easily pick it. "
She gave me the wild mushroom. “If you put it on the fire for a minute, it’ll be ready for you.” Her gentle smile encompassed her eyes.
From that day forward, I never missed an opportunity to spend time with Aunt Laila. I was getting older, so I could make my own decisions, and my parents were busy tending our crops.
Aunt Laila and I became good friends. We spent many hours sitting in the shade, watching the sheep and talking. I felt a comfort in her presence I'd never felt before. Her poise and serenity formed an aura about her that drew the animals and me as well.
“Why did you make them your friends?” I asked, pointing at the livestock.
“Because they aren't cruel. No hatred, no politics, no war and they don’t enslave their kin. Look at the dog, how he wags his old tail. Give him love, and in return, he’ll lick your feet.”
"But some dogs still bite, “I said rubbing the old wound of a dog bite on my foot.
She smiled. "I wish all humans were more like dogs. They are simpler."
“What about other animals?”
“All animals are better than humans. The more time you spend with them, the stronger the bond you form. Humans hate each other; they can’t live together for a long time.”
She called a young sheep over to us and stroked her wool.
“Soft, isn’t it?” said Aunt. “And what will we do with her? We will eat her to repay her for the love she has shown.”
The dog barked.
“A signal to go home,” Aunt sighed.
The dog led the flock homeward. We followed.
“Another day has gone.” Aunt looked toward the sun flickering like a dying candle.
* * *
One day, as we sat with the flock, I remembered everything she had told me on previous days.
"Auntie, please tell me more about your life. Why have you had so many names?”
She gazed toward a small solitary white cloud floating in the vast blue sky. Tears brimmed her eyes. She dabbed her face on a shirt corner and glanced away. “I'm sorry,” she said.
“You don't need to be sorry. I made you cry.”
The tears continued, but she smiled and reached for my hands. She began her story in her quiet, musical voice.
“I’m a daughter of poverty. My memories are also poor, ones I don't want to keep, but they won't leave. I was born in a small Bangladesh village near Dhaka, then a part of Pakistan. My father often spoke of Karachi, a city far away, but full of opportunities. He worked for a man who grew jute while mother worked hard, too. Almost every day, we walked with her to the river where she’d wash our clothes by pounding them on rocks. Meanwhile, I watched over Mousa, my younger brother, to make sure he didn't go into the deep water. Sometimes, the jute would not grow because the rains had failed. Then, father would have no work, and my family would go hungry.”
“What happened next, Auntie?”
Regaining her composure, she wiped her eyes and resumed. “The summer I turned nine no rain fell, and father couldn’t find work for months. We had bread now and then, and once a week, he’d somehow procure beans. But it was never enough.
“Then, Mousa became ill. Mother tried her best to feed and comfort him. I tried to make him laugh and made funny faces. He could barely keep his eyes open. I’m not even sure he could see me.”
She paused again to wipe once more at her cheeks.
“One morning, he couldn’t breathe. I put my hand to his cheek. His skin was cold. It chilled me more than the early morning river. I screamed. My parents came running and tried to bring him back to life, but…” Her face twisted in agony.
“We had no money for a funeral. Father buried Mousa in the dry, rocky ground. Mother 'held me so tight. I was afraid of losing her. They each said a few words about how he would now be at peace in heaven. Our wails were enough to make the gods cry.”
Aunt Laila paused, as if continuing was too painful. But then she squeezed my shoulder and got up. She called out to the sheep, and we walked back to the village.
Neither of us broke the silence until we arrived. “If you wish, I’ll tell you the rest of my story tomorrow.”
“I would be glad to hear it.”
I went to bed eager for the morning.
At dawn, I awakened to sheep bleating. Fearing that Aunt Laila had left me behind, I dashed out the door. I met her by the hill that formed a natural boundary between the pastures and the village.
“Your uncle told me that your parents object to you coming to the pasture with me. Perhaps they worry our friendship is becoming too close.”
“I’m able to choose my own friends. Besides, you are family. What could be wrong?”
She mussed my hair and spread her mat under the towering gum tree where we usually sat.
“Aunt Laila, will you continue your story, please?
She nodded. “Of course, just for you.” Aunt Laila closed her eyes and breathed deep. “Father had no work. One night, I heard him tell mother we would all die if we didn’t get out of that place. He told us about Karachi, a beautiful port city with lots of work. His cousin lived there who could find a job for Father. We started our journey from Dhaka to Karachi.”
She paused to collect herself, then continued. “We traveled on a cargo ship. It looked so small on the vast sea. We ate uncooked fish. Inside, the worst part was not the lifeless bodies rotting in the dark, or the buckets of urine stinging our eyes but the not knowing what waited for us at Karachi.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. She didn't speak for a few minutes. She smoothed her skirt and began again in a clear voice. “We took almost a month to reach Karachi. Father found a job at an old house near the port. Food was plentiful, but we never forgot the ocean.
“Our newfound life didn't last. The movement to separate Bangladesh from Pakistan had spread hatred against Bengalis, and father lost his job. Hunger returned along with the spread of terror. Men murdered my father, mother, and cousin. But they spared me.”
“Oh, how terrible! How did you survive?” I asked.
My aunt closed her eyes and titled her head. "By satisfying their lust." Her eyes opened again and drank in the blue sky as if trying to find her God.
“Since then, nothing's changed. The first man soon sold me, and I’ve been purchased many times. Every buyer gave me a new name, to make me seem unsullied, I guess. Now I’m a wife to your uncle, and I may be the wife of another before long.”
There was much I did not understand about the intricacies of adult relationships. But I knew that my beautiful Aunt Laila had been hungry and hurt.
A song of a cuckoo at some distance brought me back. A faint glimmer of light flickered on the horizon, consumed by the approaching darkness within two heartbeats. That was the time for the wolves to gather amidst the shrubs and make their collective howl. We walked back to the village.
* * *
A week later, I went to Uncle Deleir’s home for buttermilk. When I reached the front door, I heard voices coming from my uncle’s room. It sounded like my uncle was negotiating.
“Ten thousand rupees is my last offer. I bought her for fifteen thousand,” Uncle’s tone was firm.
“No, that is too much. She is no longer young,” the stranger replied.
I went to Aunt Laila's hut, but she wasn’t there. I searched everywhere. I returned to my Uncle’s room and peeped into a crack to see inside. I saw her squatted in the corner.
The man took money out of his pocket, wrapped in a piece of cloth and gave it to uncle, who counted each note.
Uncle rose from his chair, grabbed Aunt Laila by the arm, and shoved her toward the man. Her head was down and her hands were clasped as if in prayer. She said nothing. She simply kept her head bowed, inhaling deeply. When the business was finished, they walked out, with Aunt Laila trailing behind the stranger.
“Aunt Laila, are you leaving?” My tongue felt heavy in my mouth. I reached out and held her hands.
“I’m no longer Laila.”
The dog licked her feet, and she reached down to pet him. The stranger ordered the woman, now nameless again, to follow. She trailed behind him.
“Aunt Laila, please don’t go. You are Laila. You are Laila to me.” I sobbed.
Startled, she ran back to me, bowed to me, and spoke through tear, “I wish you a lifetime of wisdom and love.” Her lips pressed together as if it would hurt to smile. But she managed a smile for me, though her eyes spoke of sorrow yet to come. “Mahi, remember me,” she said. “I was your friend.”
“Hey bitch, come back,” the stranger shouted with a look of disgust.
She kissed my head and hurried back to him, then turned and waved again. Her hand hung like a dove suspended motionless on a frail tree. Her eyes hooded with fear and sorrow.
The villagers came out to watch Laila leave. She left without looking back. I watched her disappearing. Lost. Alone. Abandoned. No human tried to rescue her. Only the dog chased the stranger. He barked viciously as if to stir the people’s conscience.
The mare neighed. Her sound was different. It shrilled like a scream, but it was not enough to put the humans around me to shame. My heart yelled.
“She will die soon because now she’s the possession of a cruel man.” Ruboo, the old man, spoke.
"Die? When was she alive?" Bhola, the madman, cackled.
The Crippled Prince
The sky was a creamy blue, without a single cloud to shield them from the sun or from the almighty Succor who lived there in eternity. It was the type of day that Edric’s father would declare auspicious, a day when they were closest to their God. Edric was not hopeful. He would never dare say it to his father’s face (he was not so foolish as to voice his doubts to the High Prophet), but he had found his luck seemed to fluctuate quite regardless of how bright the sun was shining.
They were circling around the center of the training yard, Edric carefully matching his steps with Gareth’s so that they were always a full diameter apart. Their father and mother, along with a few assorted wards and servants, were watching from under the roofed perimeter of the courtyard, their faces grey and grim in the shade.
Gareth was smiling, occasionally twirling his own wooden sword in his wrist with a well-practiced flair. He wore a full set of steel armor, the edges glinting in the sunlight. Edric wore a studded leather jerkin, accompanied by a chainmail skirt. This was by Edric’s own choice. His one advantage over his brother was that he was faster, and without armor to slow him down, he could often manage to dance around Gareth and give him a few hard whacks before the elder boy struck a blow that sent him into the dirt. The bruises were far worse than they might have been, but this at least allowed Edric to put up some resemblance of a fight, which his pride demanded he do.
“You ready, little brother?” Gareth asked with a playful smile.
Edric nodded, afraid that if he spoke the words would come out in a high-pitched squeal. Gareth swung first, not very fast or very hard, and Edric blocked easily. Edric slid his blade down, quickly and forcefully, angling it so that it smacked into Gareth’s forearm with a dull ring. Gareth grunted, unfazed, and then moved his sword up in up in a circle with both hands, twisting Edric’s wrist and forcing the sword from his hand.
All this happened in a matter of seconds and Edric imagined that it ended with him looking rather pitiful. That made him angry, and before Gareth could move to put his sword at his throat, he raised his right foot and kicked him squarely in the belly, sending them both onto their backs.
Edric scrambled wildly, using his stump to help him to his feet while his hand snatched up his sword. Gareth’s armor had made him slow to get to his feet, and when Edric looked up he was only on his knees. Edric felt a flash of hope and rushed at his chance.
By the time he got close, it was too late to stop. Gareth raised his blade, holding it steady with both hands, and Edric ran into it, the point right at his belly.
The next thing Edric knew, he was on the ground. The blade hadn’t broken the skin— it was wood after all, and dull wood at that— but it felt as if it had. He was coughing and he felt a sharp pain deep inside his stomach, which began to turn into nausea and an unnatural and sickening urge to move his bowels. His eyes watered, but he would let them do nothing more. He knew his father was watching, and the crippled prince had more than enough pity already.
He pushed himself up with his left hand, his stump hanging helplessly at his side. The coughing slowly subsided. When he was standing, his hand moved to gently hold his belly.
Gareth was looking at him with concern. He started to say something, but Edric answered before he could.
“I’m fine. Leave it alone.”
Gareth nodded. He knew better than anyone how much Edric hated condescension— particularly pity— and made an honest effort to avoid it. For that Edric was more grateful than he could ever say.
The spectators were clapping politely. Their mother was looking at Edric, her lips pressed together anxiously.
Edric refused to meet her eyes as he limped his way out of the courtyard, wanting to be out of sight when the vomit erupted. He’d had enough embarrassment for one day.
When Gareth found him it was late afternoon, and he was in the library. His stomach ached still, though not so severely as long as he kept his movements to a minimum. He had started out reading, but his mind churned about like wisps of smoke, and mostly drifted around in tendrils of thoughts which dispersed or dissolved into nonsense soon after they began to form. Mostly, he just sat staring at the stump of his right forearm, running his fingers over the nubs which had, at a time long before he could remember, extended up into fingers.
Edric did not notice his brother until Gareth spoke. “Hey.”
Edric looked up. Gareth’s dark hair was matted to his face with sweat. He had spent the rest of his day in the courtyard continuing to train after Edric had left.
“Did you find yourself a worthy opponent?” Edric asked.
Gareth hesitated, unsure how to answer. Eventually he decided to ignore the question.
“You’re getting better. I would have found you sooner but—”
“But you figured I’d be in a foul mood after being jabbed with a wooden stake?”
Gareth hesitated again, before eventually nodding.
Edric smiled weakly. He was feeling better and did not blame Gareth for what had happened. “That was probably wise.”
The friendly gesture convinced Gareth to come closer.
“You know not everyone needs to be a great warrior.”
“Yes,” Edric replied with a mocking tone of practicality, “If some people didn’t die easily, wars would drag on for a terribly long time.”
Edric looked back at his book, not reading, but waiting to see if Gareth had anything more to say. He wanted him to say more but in his current mood was adamant to not let him know.
“Look… you probably know this, but I’ve never said it and... you’re cleverer than I am. You’re probably cleverer than anyone I’ve ever met, except maybe Father. When I’m High Prophet, the country will need your guidance as much as mine. Maybe more.”
Edric didn’t say anything. The words had filled him with a giddy pride, but he did his best to hide it.
Gareth continued. “I was born to sit on the High Prophet’s Chair. I was born to sit and look strong.”
He paused for a moment.
“You’re less kind than I am too. I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. You’re more honest and less kind. Like a ruler needs to be. I’ve actually been thinking about it. Maybe the Succor… maybe with your hand— maybe that’s why. Maybe he didn’t give you a hand, so that you’d have more room for your head.”
Edric thought about this for a moment. The giddiness was gone; the mention of his hand soured his mood once again. He responded with sarcasm that lacked humor.
“Someone should probably tell the Succor that hands and heads are in different parts of the body. For future reference.”
Gareth looked around nervously, as if some omniscient being was about to jump out from behind the stacks of books. “You shouldn’t say that.”
Edric rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes. Don’t worry, I would say this morning absolved me of my sins in advance.”
He picked up his book and began to get up to leave. His conscience made him stop at the doorway. He did not hate Gareth. None of this was his fault, least of all his hand.
“Sorry. I am not angry at you. I am just in a foul mood, as I said.”
Gareth nodded, giving a half smile in understanding.
Edric spent most of that night staring up into the ceiling above his bed, the gears in his head grinding together. He did not remember when he fell asleep, but he knew he had done so with a smile spread across his lips. His emotions had finally given way to more rational thoughts, and he had decided Gareth was right. A clever mind was nothing to spit at, and if his plan worked as well as he hoped, it would prove more valuable than a legion of fingers.
The next morning the sky was a grey expanse, and the entire courtyard was bathed in a dim, pale light. The High Prophet was looking up into the clouds, and Edric did not have to guess how he felt about the weather.
Gareth was already wearing his armor. His eyes would not meet Edric’s, and his face was pale, glistening with fresh sweat. It had not occurred to Edric until then that yesterday’s beating might have been an even more traumatic experience for his brother than it had been for him. The knowledge gave him a twinge of guilt. It also made him angry.
A page attempted to hand Edric his sword. “Not a sword. Not today.”
“With all due respect, my lord, axes and spears are better for those…um… in possession of, um, two...uh...” the page trailed off, suddenly fascinated by his boots. Edric knew what he meant, and in fact agreed with him.
“Get me a shield.”
“But, my lord—”
Edric met the page’s eyes, unflinching. The page scurried off and then returned. Edric walked into the courtyard.
He was not used to the shield's weight, having never used one before. Gareth gave him a sad look, which turned quizzical when he looked Edric in the eyes.
They began circling each other, just as they had the morning before. Gareth held his sword steady in the palm of his hand, his mouth pressed together tightly.
Edric charged at Gareth with a shout, raising the shield over his left shoulder as if preparing to strike. As he expected, Gareth raised his sword to block the blow.
At the last moment, Edric dropped his shoulder and ducked so his shoulders were level with Gareth’s knees, pulling his shield close to cover his head and chest like barricade.
After they collided, Gareth’s armor did the rest. He clattered to the ground onto his back with a groan, steel clattering against the stone. His sword flew out of his hand, little more than an arm’s length away.
Edric stood up, dazed, his limbs still trembling from the impact. He let the shield fall from his forearm, stumbled, and bent to pick up the sword. Rasping breaths wheezed from between his teeth, which he bared in a wide grin.
Gareth had begun to move as if to get up. Edric put his boot on his chest, pushing him back down. Then he raised the wooden blade to his brother’s throat.
They remained like that for a moment, the younger brother over the older. Then Edric stepped back and offered his hand to help Gareth to his feet. As he did their eyes met once more, and for perhaps the first time in their lives, each understood the other perfectly.
On the River in The Sun
Pulled from sleep, Charlie stretched and kicked the covers aside. He’d been in the middle of a dream. He’d been digging through the ice cream chest at the corner store up the road from his grandpa’s cottage, trying to decide between a Klondike or a Snickers bar. ‘Take ‘em both if you’d like. A little ice cream on a hot day never killed anyone,’ his grandfather had chuckled. ‘You’re gonna need some fuel to catch those trout’. Charlie was still smiling when he opened his eyes and looked up.
“Did you hear me?” his father asked, switching on the light. He was wearing his suit and tie.
“I heard,” Charlie answered back. He sat up and yawned. Fully roused, the events of the day before came rushing back. It made his chest feel heavy, as if someone was squeezing it. His grandfather wasn’t at the cottage. He was laying as still as a sunning turtle in a wood box under the ground.
“I have to go into the office,” his father said. “Your mother’s getting your breakfast ready. She’s going to drop you off at school and then go and sit with your Aunt June.”
Charlie flopped back down, grabbed the covers, and pulled them up over his head. “You said you had the whole day off ‘cause of what happened,” he whined. “You said I didn’t have to go to school.”
“I know and I’m sorry. Things didn’t work out like I planned. Besides, I think it’s best if everyone just gets back to normal. There’s no sense in sitting around moping. You’ll feel better once you see your friends. You’ll see,” he said before breezing out.
Charlie threw the covers back off. “Dad,” he called.
“Yeah?” his father answered.
“How long is Grandpa planning on being dead for?”
Charlie’s father sighed. He came back into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “I thought we talked about this. You’re eight now. You’re old enough to understand about death.”
Charlie understood about death. He didn’t know why he’d asked such a dumb question. He figured it was because he wanted his father to say something; something that would make everything alright.
“Dead is forever,” his father said. He brushed the hair out of Charlie’s eyes. “Remember when Copper died? Do you remember what we told you?”
“Well, it’s the same thing with grandpa. He’s in a better place now.”
“With Copper?” Charlie asked.
“Maybe,” his father shrugged.
Charlie pulled the blanket back up over his head. It wasn’t possible there was a place better for his grandpa than the cottage. There might be somewhere better for a dog, but people were different.
“Listen, I have to get going,” his father said, getting up. “If you have any more questions, I’m sure your mom can help you out. I’m late.”
“But what if Grandpa gets to that place, wherever it is, and doesn’t like it?”
“He can’t come back, Charlie,” his father said, his voice firm. “It’s not possible. I know it’s hard, but that’s just the way it is.”
“But summer’s starting in a couple of weeks. Who’s going to watch me? Who’s going to take me to the cottage?”
“Let’s not worry about that right now. We’ll figure something out. Now hurry up, okay? Your mom’s waiting.”
Charlie got up and plodded towards the bathroom. His parents were talking down in the kitchen.
“I can’t believe you’re going in to work so soon after your father’s funeral,” Charlie’s mother said. “I know you two didn’t see eye to eye, but it just doesn’t seem right. I mean, what about Charlie? Your father may have been a thorn in your side, but Charlie loved him very much. He needs you right now.”
“Shhh,” his father said. “He’ll hear you.”
Charlie crept over to the top of the stairs to listen, even though he wasn’t supposed to eavesdrop.
“Well, I just can’t believe it,” his mother said, lowering her voice.
“Why?” his father asked. “He would have done the same thing. The man didn’t take a day off from work in forty years.”
“But it’s your father,” she said. “And now I’m the one who has to go and comfort your sister all day.”
“Then don’t go! I don’t know why she’s so bent out of shape anyway. He treated her the same way he treated me. He was barely even around when we were growing up and when he was, he ignored us. The only thing that man ever cared about was work.”
“That’s not true,” Charlie’s mother said. “He cared about Charlie.”
“Well it was true for me!” Charlie’s father boomed, then lowered his voice again. “I’m glad he cared about Charlie. I’m glad he took an interest. I just wish…,” he started, but didn’t finish.
“Wish what?” his mother prodded.
“I just wish he’d shown me the same affection when I was Charlie’s age.”
“I wish he had too, Ben, for your sake, but don’t you think he made up for it a little with Charlie? He did us a pretty big favor by watching him, so we didn’t have to pay for a sitter. Charlie learned a lot from him. Don’t you think we owe him a little something for that at least?”
“I don’t owe him anything.”
There was a long silence before his mother spoke again.
“Well, I still think you should be the one to go to your sister’s,” she said. “You two need to discuss what’s going to happen to his estate.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. Everything will be sold, and the proceeds will be split in half.”
“What about the cottage?” she asked.
Charlie stopped breathing. His heart thudded inside of his chest as he waited to hear his father’s answer.
“Well?” his mother asked again.
“I guess it will be sold.”
“No!” Charlie cried.
“Charlie?” his mom called. “Is that you?”
Charlie dashed into the bathroom. Hot tears stung his eyes. His father couldn’t sell the cottage! He just couldn’t!
“Your breakfast is getting cold,” she said.
Charlie didn’t care about stupid breakfast. “I’m not hungry,” he answered grumpily.
“Your mother cooked you a nice breakfast, so you get down here. Now!” his father said.
Charlie pouted. He blew his nose and went down to the kitchen, where he sat with a slump at the table.
“Morning, sweetheart,” his mother said brightly. She smiled, kissed him on the cheek, and set a plate of pancakes in front of him.
“I’ve got to go,” Charlie’s father said, checking his watch. “Try to have a good day.” He reached down to ruffle Charlie’s hair, but Charlie pulled away. His father frowned. “Maybe we can throw the ball around when I get home. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Charlie didn’t answer. He wasn’t talking to his father.
“Well, see you later, Champ,” his father said. “I’ll try to come home early,” he added before rushing out. Charlie scowled. His father wouldn’t come home early. He never did.
Charlie waited for his father’s car to pull out of the driveway before asking, “Why didn’t Daddy like Grandpa?”
Charlie’s mother stopped washing dishes. “Oh honey, he loved your grandpa. What would make you ask such a thing?” she asked. She wiped her hands on a dish towel and went over to sit with him.
“I don’t know,” Charlie answered, pushing the food around on his plate. “It’s just that he never came up to the cottage. All the time we were up there, he never came. Not for fishing, not for a barbecue, not for anything.”
“Your dad’s a busy man, Charlie,” she said, coming to his defense. “He has an important job.”
“But Grandpa told me that Daddy had a lot of fun at the cottage when he was little. He said he never wanted to leave. If he loved the cottage so much, then he must have stayed away because of Grandpa,” Charlie surmised. “Or maybe he didn’t come because he didn’t want to spend time with me,” he added, though it pained him.
“That’s just not true!” his mother cried. “Daddy loves you very much. He just has a lot of responsibilities. I’m sure he would have gone if he’d found the time.”
“Well, I’m never going to be too busy to go the cottage,” Charlie said, fixing his jaw.
“Charlie…” his mother started softly, reaching for his hand.
Charlie snatched it away. “Well, I won’t! And I’m not going to change either! I’ll always want to go. And if you let Daddy sell it, I’m never speaking to you guys again! You just wait and see if it’s true!” he said. He jumped up and ran to his room.
Charlie’s parents didn’t talk about selling the cottage again for a while. He hoped it meant that his father had changed his mind, but when school let out, instead of spending the first week of summer vacation swimming and fishing at the cottage, Charlie went to his Aunt June’s. The city was hot in the summertime, and her backyard was an oven in the afternoon heat. She didn’t like to go to the town pool, or to the park, or much of anything that had to do with the outside.
Charlie kept thinking about Grandpa and the cottage. He worried about the fish and the chipmunks. He and his grandpa always brought food to feed the creatures. What would happen when there was no one there to feed them? Would they starve?
Charlie’s Aunt June drove him home on Friday afternoon. When they got to the house, Charlie’s father was hooking a trailer to their van and his mother was loading suitcases into the back seat. Charlie hopped out of the car. “Are we going somewhere?” he asked.
“Yes,” his mother answered. “We’re going up to the cottage this weekend.”
“Yippee!” Charlie screeched, leaping into the air.
“Don’t get too excited,” his father cautioned. “We’re only going to gather some of your grandpa’s personal things and to clean the place up a bit so we can list it with a realtor.”
Charlie’s heart sank. His father had made his decision. The cottage would be sold. Soon, it would be gone forever, just like his grandpa.
“If you’d rather stay here, with Aunt June,” Charlie’s father offered, “no one will blame you. There’s a lot of work to do up there. I won’t have much time to spend with you.”
“I think he should go. It might be good for him,” his mother said, cutting in. “He has a lot of memories there. He might want to see it one last time.”
“I suppose,” his father shrugged.
“What do you think, Sweetheart?” his mother asked him.
“I want to go,” Charlie decided. It would be hard when it was time to say goodbye, but at least he’d have one last weekend of fun.
Charlie’s father smiled. “I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “In time, you’ll understand why we couldn’t keep it,” he added, but Charlie knew he wouldn’t understand if he lived to be a million years old.
Charlie went into the house to gather some things for the trip. He stopped by the kitchen to fill his pockets with peanuts and crackers. He hoped it was enough to satisfy the fish and chipmunks for a long time.
Outside, Charlie’s father honked the horn. “Come on you guys! Time’s wasting. We’ve got to get going if we’re going to beat traffic,” he hollered.
Charlie ran out and got into the back seat of the van. His stomach flipped and flopped. He felt all churned up inside, like his happy and sad parts were fighting with each other.
Charlie’s mother came out last, juggling a pile of boxes. “Thanks for the help,” she muttered. She tossed them into the trailer and got in next to Charlie’s father. “Do you think we’ll need more?” she asked, but he didn’t hear her. He was talking on his phone about work stuff.
“What did you say, Beth?” Charlie’s father asked finally, after he’d hung up.
“I asked if you think we’ll need more boxes.”
“If we do, I’m sure there will be places to get some. I don’t know what’s around. I haven’t been up there in years, but there’s bound to be a shopping plaza or something.”
Charlie turned his attention out the window as they started along. He liked to watch the city get smaller and smaller until it turned into forest. His grandpa used to tell him that there was an invisible fence to keep the city from spilling over and messing up the woods. Green hills lay before them. The car climbed, winding its way up the highway. Charlie watched for the familiar lakes and streams before they disappeared on the descent.
“This scenery is gorgeous,” Charlie’s mother remarked. “Isn’t it gorgeous? Just look at those valleys!”
“The glaciers left those holes when the ice melted away,” Charlie said.
“Well, isn’t that something,” Charlie’s mother said. “I bet your grandpa told you that. He was a very smart man.”
Charlie was about to say that he was; that he was the smartest man he knew, but his father’s phone rang. “Quiet! I need to take this,” he said. He answered and talked on and on about more work things that Charlie didn’t pay attention to.
When they reached their exit, Charlie’s father got off the phone. He turned off the main highway and onto the long, country road that ran through the town near the cottage. Charlie spotted the store that he and his grandpa used to go to. He wanted to ask his father to stop in for ice cream, but decided against it.
Finally, they came to the fire road that went down to the lake. Pine branches scraped against the side of their van, screeching and scratching as they went along the narrow dirt road. “Well, the road’s still the same,” Charlie’s father grumbled. “You’d think after all this time, they’d have widened it a little.”
“Oh, that’s all we need are more scratches on this car!” Charlie’s mother tsked.
“I’m not sure if I remember which driveway is ours,” Charlie’s father said, slowing. “There’s a lot more cottages than there used to be.”
“I know which one it is,” Charlie said with confidence. “It’s the next one, right up there.”
Charlie’s father turned into the driveway and stopped. Charlie threw the door open and jumped out. He bolted down to the pond, grabbed a handful of pebbles, and threw them into the water. Sunfish darted out from underneath the lily pads and pecked at them, thinking it food. “The fish are still here!” he laughed.
“You be careful, Charlie!” his mother warned, as she got out of the car.
Charlie’s father got out too, and stretched. “Smell that air!” he said, taking in a deep breath. “I’d forgotten how clean it smells up here. It’s like we’re a million miles from the city and it’s really not that far away.”
“It’s pretty,” Charlie’s mother said. “And so quiet. I can see why Charlie’s so fond of it.”
Charlie’s father joined him at the edge of the pond. Startled by the sudden movement, the sunfish scattered, but it wasn’t long before they made their way back. “Boy oh boy, are those fish still hanging around?” he chuckled. “They were here when I was kid. I used to feed them bread crusts.”
“I know. Grandpa told me,” Charlie said. “He said you used to stand in the water and let them bite your toes.”
“That’s right! I did. I’d forgotten all about that,” he said, then grew quiet as he gazed out over the water. His smile faded. “I used to spend a lot of time down here, Charlie. A lot of time,” he said finally.
“We could go fishing, if you want,” Charlie offered after a while.
His father shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts. “I wish I could, but I have too many things to do,” he said.
Charlie stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry.
“I warned you it wouldn’t be much fun,” his father said and took his phone out of his pocket.
Charlie sighed and kicked at the sand. “Can we go later?”
“Shush. Not now, Charlie,” his father said, putting the phone to his ear. After a moment, he lowered it again and inspected the screen. “I don’t seem to have any service out here. Honey? Is your phone working?”
“Lord, I don’t know!” she huffed, spitting bangs out of her face as she carried an arm load of boxes. “I’m a little busy at the moment.”
“Hmmm…” Charlie’s father frowned. He zig-zagged around the yard, holding the phone over his head as he searched for a signal. Unable to find a connection, he scowled and shoved the phone back into his pocket. “What were you saying, Charlie?”
“I asked if we could go later?”
“Like I told you before, we came to get things in order, not to play. Besides, I don’t even have a fishing pole.”
“Yes, you do,” Charlie said. “It’s right inside. It’s the one you had when you were little.”
“What?” his father croaked in surprise. “That old thing is still here?”
“Uh huh. Grandpa said he was saving it for when you came back. He saved your tackle box too.”
“Well how about that,” Charlie’s father said.
“So, can we go?”
His father cleared his throat. “You go on ahead,” he said. “Maybe I’ll come down in a little while.”
“But there’s only junk fish out here,” Charlie persisted, motioning towards the lake. “Just a lot of suckers and yellow perch. We need to go down to the river if we want to catch any good ones.”
“Grandpa took you to the river?”
Charlie nodded. “All the time.”
“Well I’ll be,” his father uttered with a snort. “I used to beg and beg him to take me, but he was usually too busy.” Just then, his phone began to ring. He snatched it out of his pocket and answered. “Hello? Oh, hey Tom,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I’ve been trying to call you. The service here is terrible.”
Charlie sighed and wandered back down to the lake. He hopped up onto the wharf, took his shoes off, and stuck his feet into the cold water, just like he and his grandpa used to do. He shivered, though the sun beat down hot on his back. He felt a pang thinking about how cold and dark it was where his grandpa’s body rested. He peered up at the sky and wondered about the place up there, where his grandpa’s spirit was supposed to be. Did it have a lake or a sun? Did it have ice cream or peanuts? He wanted to ask his father more about it, but he would be mad if Charlie interrupted him.
A fish swam up and pecked at Charlie’s toe. He dug a cracker out of his pocket, which by then was more crumbs than cracker, and threw the pieces in. He watched as the fish fought over the food. “You guys are going to have to find something else to eat now,” Charlie told them sadly.
“Charlie? Ben?” Charlie’s mother called, sticking her head out the screened door. “I made you guys some sandwiches. Are you hungry?”
“I guess,” Charlie said. He got up and scanned the yard for his father, but he was still on the phone. He picked up his shoes and went inside without him.
The cottage still smelled like his grandpa. Charlie’s chest felt heavy again as he glanced around. The newspaper his grandpa had been reading the last time they’d come was still laying in the seat of his recliner. His flannel shirt hung over the back. The puzzle they had been working on was half-finished on the coffee table. Charlie’s eyes filled with tears. It hurt down deep inside. He wished like anything that his grandpa would pop out and tell him he was only kidding about being dead.
Charlie’s mom came up behind him and laid a hand on his head. “I’m so sorry, sweetie pie. You must be missing him awful bad,” she lamented, leaning down to plant a kiss on his nose.
Charlie made a face, wiped the kiss off, and ducked out of reach. He didn’t want her to see him cry. “Dad said he might take me fishing later,” he said, changing the subject.
“That’s great! I guess you better go on and eat then,” she said.
Charlie had his sandwich alone at the table, while his mother poked around in the cupboards. He’d just finished eating when his father came in.
“It’s so nice up here,” Charlie’s mother remarked with a smile. “You never told me how lovely it was. And so peaceful. You know, this is the closest we’ve come to a vacation in years?”
“It is nice,” Charlie’s father agreed as he gazed out the window. “I’d forgotten how nice,” he added quietly.
Charlie’s mother yawned. “Well, I’m going to sit and rest for a while,” she decided. “I’m done in. I think I’ll start that book I brought to read. Why don’t you two go off and do something.” she suggested, giving Charlie’s father a wink.
“I don’t know,” he said, surveying the clutter in the kitchen. “I should start going through some of this stuff.”
Charlie’s mother shot him a look. It was the look she gave when she didn’t want to argue but had something to say.
“Well,” he relented. “Charlie did mention that he wanted to go fishing.”
Charlie jumped out of his chair so fast, it nearly toppled over.
“Just for a little while, though,” his father said. “What do you say, champ? Want to show me where that old pole of mine is?”
Charlie ran into the living room and pulled his father’s fishing pole out of the corner. “Here it is. See? Right where you left it,” he said, thrusting it towards his father. “And your tackle box is over by the door.”
Charlies father took the pole and checked it over. “Man, oh man. I haven’t seen this pole in years. It still looks the same! I hope it works as good as it used to.”
Charlie snatched his own pole and followed his father toward the door. He hopped around impatiently while his father inspected the contents of his tackle box.
“Some if this stuff is probably antique, by now,” his father teased as he sorted through the lures.
“Everything’s still good,” Charlie assured him. “Can we go now?”
“Well, these hooks will probably disintegrate as soon as I cast them into the water,” his father said with a frown, “but I guess they’ll have to do.”
Charlie followed his father outside and together they walked down the trail to the river. Charlie took a few of the nuts out of his pocket and dropped them on the ground for the chipmunks.
“You know, when I was your age, I caught the biggest fish of my life down at the river,” Charlie’s father said.
“I know,” Charlie said. “Grandpa told me. He even showed me a picture. He said it was one of the best days he ever had.”
Charlie’s father stopped walking and looked at him “He really said that?”
“Huh,” Charlie’s father said. “I’m surprised he even remembered that day.”
“Grandpa remembered lots of stories from when you were little. And you know what? Every time he told me one it kind of felt like you were here.”
Charlie’s father fixed his jaw. “I’m surprised grandpa had so many stories to tell,” he said, bitterly. “I know he was great with you, but it wasn’t like that for me.”
Charlie found a loose stone on the trail and kicked it.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie’s father said. “I know you loved him very much. It wasn’t right of me to say that.”
“It’s okay,” Charlie said, even though it wasn’t. He didn’t like knowing that his grandpa made his father feel as sad as Charlie did sometimes. “I loved grandpa, but I love you too. I’m glad we’re going fishing.”
Charlie’s father smiled. “I’m glad, too.”
The thundering of the river began to sound through the trees. They were close. Charlie ran ahead. He had a surprise for his father.
“Wait up, Charlie!” his father said, running after him. “That water is dangerous,” he cautioned.
Charlie got to the river first and stood in front of the bench his grandfather had placed on the bank. When his father rounded the corner, out of breath, Charlie jumped aside. “Tada!”
“What’s this?” his father asked.
“It’s a bench. Grandpa built it for us. It’s for sitting in the sun while we fish. Look at what he wrote,” he said, pointing to the carving along the back.
“‘For Benjamin,’” Charlie’s father began. “’For all the times I wish we’d come but didn’t. For all the….’” His voice cracked. His face crumpled. He turned away from Charlie, his shoulders shaking as he wept.
Charlie didn’t know what to do. He’d never seen his father cry before. He went to him and wrapped his arms around his waist. “I thought the bench would make you happy.”
“It does,” his father said, wiping at his tears. “I’m not crying because of that. I’m crying because I have been a fool. I’m so sorry I never came up here with you and grandpa. At first, it was because I was stubborn, then I just got so busy with work, I forgot how much I was missing out on. I bet you’ve been missing me, just like I missed him all those years and I’m sorry for that, too. Can you ever forgive me?”
Charlie hugged his father tighter. “I have been missing you,” he said. “But I’m happy you’re here now. Do you want me to read the bench?” he asked.
Charlie’s father nodded.
“For Benjamin,” Charlie began, proudly. “For all the times I wish we’d come but didn’t. For all the times you can make up for it with Charlie.”
Charlie’s father scooped him up and gave him a kiss. “I guess I’ve made some mistakes.”
“Grandpa told me that he made some too, but that it’s never too late to fix a mistake, until it is.”
“Your Grandpa was a very smart man,” Charlie’s father said, smiling through his tears. Just then, his phone began to ring. He took it out of his pocket. Charlie thought he’d answer it, but instead, he shut it off, and put in back into his pocket.
“Almost as smart as you,” Charlie said.
Charlie’s father laughed. “Well, let’s hook us some fish and then we’ll go back and tell your mother that we’ve decided to keep the cottage. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Hi, my name is Abby Park! I am thirteen years old, and I go to Kraemer Middle School. I am new to the writing scene, but my favorite genre is short story! I also love to experiment with my writing. I am often inspired by my older sister, Tobi, and my younger brother, Luke, both of which are writers. I was also an avid dancer for 8 years, and love the digital and visual arts, and coding. I think what makes my writing special is how important I think characters are. I really focus on their backstory, and on capturing their feelings and relationships with other characters. I hope by doing this, people who read my writing can see a piece of themselves in my work.
How to love your job
You have a degree in computer science, but decided to pursue business because of the security of the finances. And everyone knows that you either hit computer science out of the ballpark, or it just sits there and oxidizes. Although you have a comfortable life, you hate your job. Even becoming an Apple consultant would have a better fit rather than riding a flying a pile of metal every 2 weeks. You are disgusted by the name “business class” and always request a transfer to economy, as you never fit in. But now, you are in the future. Everything is technology, which is the most ideal situation for you. This plane took you to the future.
You walk through the airport seeing the white capsules where people sit in, computers that fold up into squares-small enough to fit in your pocket, and holograms, except they weren’t just blue and white. You soon reach the exit sign, where you are met with a sweep of fresh air. There are self-driving cars that lay on the tile streets, with signs telling the destination or person they were picking up. One car said in bold black letters: Computer Science Job Interview @ 149 Povcke Drive.
Now, if you hate your job, get on a plane, and just see what future awaits.
Julien Berman is a tenth grade student at Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. In 2019, he won the Jaclyn Potter Prize for student poetry presented by The Word Works, a DC-based poetry organization. In 2018, his story “A Partition Parable” won a gold prize in the Scholastic Arts & Writing National Competition.
On an Airplane
When my foot mulches down and I pass into the over-airconditioned cabin, clutching my boarding pass with surprising tenacity, I feel victorious—similar to the overwhelming sensation of accomplishment brought about by taking down an empire or “shooting the moon” in Hearts—but more humbled; instead of screaming me, me, me, my brain screams us, us, us. Thank God there’s no going back now, just on and on and on only knowing that the “on” will be better than the “was.” My mind is rambling; I’m overwhelmed. The flight attendants stare at me with their plastered treacly smiles that don’t reach the eyes and silently herd me farther into the plane.
An aircraft is what one makes of it. The cramped blue seats are thrones for me and others from my village (though who else of my brethren can afford it I cannot imagine). We enter the new world pampered and sated with gourmet airplane meal and drink, carried on the backs of our entourage as we dig deep for our dignity that we are destined to develop in this new world far from home. Old father figures will soon be replaced by new friends, my desultory and run-down shack in the outback replaced by an equally run-down apartment in a concrete forest. Migration notwithstanding, new hardship will force my life to boil down to one goal: the on and on and on. No matter the time or place, when my mind is dark my body moves through the cosmos.
Probably, if I had lately left a good home, this would have been the hour in which I should have most keenly regretted my departure; in which the wind blowing through the airport would sadden my heart; in which this obscure chaos would leave me in peace. Instead, I derived from the separation both a strange excitement and, reckless and feverish, wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen, and the confusion of the boarding process to rise to a clamor. Walking down the aisle without knocking anyone is a challenge, though not as much as stuffing my overly large knapsack underneath the seat in front of me.
The drive to Sydney airport had been a long one. I had insisted that I could take the train on my own, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it: we would go by road, and both of us were going, or no-one was leaving the outback at all. She’d packed me into the truck, she’d slumped down into her torn leather driver’s seat, assumed the slightly hunchbacked position so characteristic of our village, and taken the wheel for the first leg of the journey. Meaning to take over soon, I promised mother that she could get some rest for the remainder of the night while I drove. But after I lay down in the back, I dozed off, overslept and awoke only as we wove through the outskirts of Sydney, a full 7 hours after we left our rubble that we call home. I turned my head to look at mother. Observing her eyes red and swollen and lips moving in a wordless rhythm, I could tell that a combination of sleep deprivation and tears had rendered her soundless.
We both knew the truth. The journey to America was long and expensive, and mother was not young anymore. Plus, we both knew that she would never leave the town where she grew up, even if it barely looked like a town anymore. She would take me down the main dirt path and say, “This, all this, used to be great. You hear me? That used to be the town hall, and that was my favorite veg market...” But to me, as she pointed to each pile of rubble and trash I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a true city, looking up at the stars (on the billboards – models and actors) and squirming my way through traffic caked in an ever-undulating layer of grime and sweat. Not the greatest aspiration I know now, but back then it seemed so tangible, so real, that I could only accept it as my destiny. My education wasn’t great, but it was enough to give me a chance to find a respectable job in America. My mother only had the money because of compensation for the accident, and even still, it was only enough for three years in Uni.
It was a gradual shift. Each day was slightly worse – imperceptibly so. I was the first person to notice the change. The kid I was babysitting was careening around the shack like a rabid comet; in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have given him the rest of my fizzy Cola. So he was particularly rambunctious that day, and I figured the only way I could fend off the kicking and screaming ball of madness was to take him to the top of the local radio tower. It was his favorite thing for some reason. Climbing up and down soothed him. But when we reached the top and could feel the hum of machinery breathing down our necks, I noticed something odd. In one direction, we could see the landscape beyond Pillaga, our village, for miles. But in the other, a grayish haze wafted to the west noticeably obscuring the view. This morning’s visibility was low, a couple of hundred meters. When we returned to the village that evening, we were surprised that the fog hadn’t lifted. Pillaga means “swamp oaks” in the aboriginal language of the region, but tonight the tops of those oak trees were barely visible. Through the eerie filtered light, figures emerged from and disappeared into the gloom, going about their end-of-day activities. Over the coming days the fog stayed, and some of us began to get curious. A few children started complaining that their noses would bleed constantly. My mother’s hair started shedding and littered the floor of our house. None of us knew what to make of it; when you live in a quiet village hours outside of Sydney you aren’t used to anything except pristine skies and spectacular sunsets. Some remained unconcerned. They wore masks or handkerchiefs, and blithely dismissed the apocalyptic atmosphere, shrugging it off as "just fog." But there was no doubt when the village well started coughing up oil.
We knew that the fracking would come sometime—we had all heard about it—but we didn’t grasp the consequences that it would have on our lives. For a few months our town limped along. But by the end of the year, some people were packing up and moving west, and the rest began to work for the energy company. Only my Grandmother rejected both options, refusing to leave the house she had lived in all her life, and my mother, ever the loyal daughter, determined to stay by her side, husband in tow.
My initial adrenaline-fueled frantic fervor to catch, board, and observe the plane now reduced to merely a trickle of anxiety, my mind moves towards thoughts of airplanes in general. While I of course maintain my excitement to leave my pile of rubble, I cannot help but notice that an airplane is the epitome of colonization and progress. Enabling one to easily traverse the globe, we use this vessel to access previously untraveled areas of nature, and we treat the earth as a harvesting ground where large corporations and government contractors seemingly materialize out of the clouds and wreak their havoc of economic progress and uproot communities.
So I sit quietly and stare out the window as Australia floats from view. The man sitting next to me is large, and his body language seems to suggest that both armrests are his and will remain his throughout the flight. With nothing else to do but stare at the seemingly frozen ocean, I shuffle my shoulders towards the plexiglass and attempt to tune out the hum of the engines. Unfortunately, although I have a nice window seat, it’s right over the wing, so it’s hard to see any blue. That’s unimportant though; we’re rising above the clouds anyway. The sky is beginning to change. The sun casts its dying rays down upon the billowing, smoky clouds, turning them bright red; red fire. It is no match for the sunsets in Australia. Or maybe it is, only my separation is tainting my memory.
We always gathered in the evening. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The lukewarm air enveloped us, and we played till our bodies glowed and sweated and ached. Our shouts echoed in the silent street: a dirt path used for the mailman, the only person who regularly left the village. The career of our play brought us through the bright muddy grass behind the neighbors’ houses, where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the ranches, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ashpits, to the dark stables where the ranch-hand smoothed and combed the horse and shook mucus from the buckled harness. We’d purchase lollies from the woman who ran the all-purpose store around the corner; she always gave us a discount because we were regular customers. But of course everyone was a regular customer because it was the only market in the village. We’d also explore the scrub, sometimes bushwhacking for miles. It’s maybe what saved us from the disaster. We were coming home from playing way out in the bush when my friends and I saw the fracking rig detonate in the distance, sending a cloud of black cockatoos skyward. The explosion was a random coughing ball of chaos on the skyline. Out on the rolling hills, about three miles away, a lance-like ray of blue-white light shot up into the gathering dusk and blended into the distance. I could barely hear the screams from the village. An instant later, there was a tremor in the earth, and a huge ball of varicolored fire belched upward, leaving a series of smoke-rings to float more slowly after it. That fireball flattened, then engorged the smoke-rings as it rose, twisting, writhing, changing shape, turning from fire to smoke, turning beauty to death, turning home to an unknown landscape. I remember the aftermath just as clearly. My mother rushing from flattened house to flattened house helping struggling survivors and clearing out the more unfortunate dead. I could see the tears spilling down her face and mixing with the oil puddles on the ground. She brought me over and hugged me, and she whispered to me that my father was gone. There was obviously no life for me there anymore, but endings never happen suddenly; we continue in a liminal state. That was me. That is me. I knew I had to escape, but it was another ten years until the settlement money and an education finally provided the ticket out.
My blue and silver harness is too tight – but the flight attendants are coming around regularly and checking so often that I have no opportunity to release the cheap leather. Eventually I can get up and stretch my legs. I gently nudge the husky man sitting next to me. I wedge myself out in that awkward way one must, and I take a walk and notice the immaculate symmetry of the plane, 3 people to one side, 4 in the middle, 3 on the other side, all with their laptops out and earbuds in, or earbuds in and tv screens on. I walk back and forth for a while, not sure if the people whose arms I graze even notice my presence. Eventually I return to my seat. 12 hours to go.
In Pillaga we would always make things symmetrical. I don’t think it was intentional; it just happened. Every time the carpenter evaluated the blueprints of a house, he would tweak the design so that it matched on either side. Even the lots were symmetrical. The two houses on either side of the street faced each other as if the middle of the road were a mirror. Our lifestyles were symmetrical too. We would get up, brush our teeth with (usually) un-poisoned water, dawdle off to our respective jobs like clockwork. Always greeting the same people at the same time with the same greeting every day. It was like living in a fairy tale. I guess I’ll be keeping some of my past with me each time I notice symmetry.
The thing about symmetry, though, is that it is up to the interpretation of the beholder. Every time I’d lie in the hammock and pick up a book, I would see myself reflected in the characters. Every time I stood under the gum tree I’d imagine it were me and I were it. I would stand there as time passed and sway with the whims of nature, bloom and fall, grow and weather, nest life within me, and eventually die as the Chinese come and chop me down to make way for their drilling rigs. I guess I am like a tree – uprooted; my blossoms are dead here.
But with the oscillations of the plane wings I can feel myself grabbing for a new identity in America. Away from my friends and family, I will plow forth and develop myself wherever I land. I will colonize my new identity; I’ll rip it from its “made in America” packaging and let it wash over me like a stiff breeze. The smog from my Australian village will never tarnish the perfection of America. I’m already feeling the grayness of the desolate plains fade away into the frosty seas, and the seas fading into the mountainous Sierra Nevada’s. That’s all I can think about as I doze off for the 5th time. The man next to me is now wide awake and typing furiously on his laptop.
A few hours later and I’ve given up sleeping. Any respite I’ve had from the world has been at most twenty minutes long. So I just sit there in silence. The gentle hum of the cabin ensnares me with its monotone whisper. The periodic beeps are therapeutic and calm my uneasiness. My mind wanders. This sort of half-calm half-restless state is similar to, if not identical with, the sort of calm you sometimes get when going fishing, a passion that I’ve never truly enjoyed, but which I’ve heard accounts for much of the popularity of the sport. Just to sit with the line in the water, not moving, mind wandering, not really thinking about anything, and yet always thinking about the fish seems to reveal more of yourself than anything. I guess that’s where I am now – attempting to find myself. Where do I belong? Australia? America? On this airplane? Somewhere else entirely?
My mother always told me that the world is what I’d make of it. Well, so far all I’ve seen is destruction of my hometown and abandonment of my soul. All I’ve felt is the gnawing sensation of knowing that I’ve lost my home and my parents because the world wanted to move forward – if you could even call fracking progress. The only thing grounding me is the beast of the air, the Dreamliner that ships me across the world. I pinch myself to make sure it’s not a dream. My trust in progress is gone. My village is gone. There is no more home. But I still have this plane, a creature that I cannot help but admire for its intrinsic beauty. I can’t help but long to explore the tiny nooks and crannies of our world, between those valleys we view from the sky, where people and things escape from our eyes, little ecosystems where one can hide. This vehicle shades us in cool clouds as we wind our own paths from within our own little microcosm of potentiality.
I suppose that’s why I was clutching so frantically onto my boarding pass earlier. In hindsight, I hadn’t truly abandoned all hope for the world the way I made out earlier. We all need something to center ourselves, and for me, it wasn’t my home in Australia, or my mother, or America, but rather it was the airplane – the boarding pass that truly gave me purpose. The airplane was a vehicle for my fluid freedom to morph into itself. I am a creature of the earth, not of Australia or America, but of everything in between – each leaf falling, each blossom weathering, each keystroke on my laptop, each particle of smog flowing into the atmosphere. I am myself in each frozen slice of time, and what the world around me does is irrelevant. For progress is not true material gain. No. As we touch down on the tarmac in Los Angeles, I realize that progress is all around us. We are progress, and progress is inescapable.
I bid goodbye to the treacly flight attendants and as my foot crunches down on the carpeted terminal floor, I search for the baggage claim. I can’t help but notice that the man who was sitting next to me is nowhere to be seen. Funny, he was standing right there just a moment ago.
A Partition Parable
Delivery painful as always. Yet more pain to come…
Dr Gundar’s Hospital is running on a skeleton staff, up on the second story. Below, peasants and commoners dance nigh on midnight, to celebrate the harvest; they pray to Ganesh…
Twenty minutes pass, with aaahs from Alia Gunadevi.
“She’s beautiful! Alia, you should be proud.” But new birth brings mixed feelings. And memories of what never to remember…
Much later. Almost partition time. On a September day in 1945, Chandri, daughter of Alia and Malik Gunadevi, decided to age. Her girlish shy nature disappeared and revealed her inner character. Tying her hair back into a bun, she curled her upper lip and charged into town…
“Malik, have you seen Chandri?”
“No; pray to God this isn’t the end of the beginning.”
“Pray to god she isn’t another Hikma,” replied Alia.
Meanwhile, Chandri careened into town amidst all the old men at the paan shop and trash can junkies not knowing what she was looking for… the old men at the paan shop nudge each other as she walks by, murmuring some ancient and inaudible sequence of syllables.
Of course, I don’t really know this part, for it was far from me, but I can imagine. Do you need my genealogy? Yes, Alia was my mother too and Malik my father…
Chandri finding a store selling war memorial cards. Gift cards. Chandri seeing the women fighting for their country, Bletchley Park for one. Albeit in America and Britain. But why should India be different? Of course, her family would say Pakistan, not India. For Pakistan it would become, and unfortunately Chandri was on the wrong side of Kashmir. Not the family, just Chandri…her newly awakened curiosity, her determination to work for something larger, her yearning to see the world. Yet, every time she acts, every time, her mother says, “Allah forbids it.”
But let me take a step back…
This Gunadevi family lives in Kashmir, the right side, except for Chandri. Now, my dear reader, you have to understand the culture of some traditional Muslim households. As Chandri grows up, she watches her younger brother Ahmed, the favorite, gorge himself on pure candy. He gets to walk the streets with his head held high, as if laughing at Chandri’s mandatory Burka and Hijab. Already at 15 Chandri’s parents are going to marry her off to that betel juice spitting swine of a man, Mufasa. Her most important role is to bring in the bride piece. And Alia constantly primps Chandri to be ready for her “display.” Her marriage occupies all of Malik’s thoughts even as Ahmed is allowed free reign. These women do not marry for love. Her mother was the same as her.
… And Chandri, she really grew up. She frequently tied her hair back.
Chandri approaches her parents every day with questions about the world, every day refused. But every day she hopes for some inkling of information.
Two years later. Partition time. Chandri, seventeen now, asks her mother one of these daily questions.
“Allah help me Chandri. You’re too inquisitive. Can’t you just accept your place in the world and live with it? I did. You can’t be another Hikma, Allah help me, Allah help me. Assalam alaykum Chandri. Assalam alaykum.”
And that was the inkling of information that she needed.
The next day Alia didn’t even say Sat Sri Akal when she saw her in the morning. In doing so, treating Chandri no better than a dog.
The day after, Chandri went to her father, still smoldering from the sting of the day before.
“Father, I need some advice. Who is Hikma?”
Unexpectedly, he rears back from his papers (that are more important to him than the welfare of his daughter) and slaps her on the face. She says nothing, used to the beating the way I was used to war…
“Never say that name in front of my face. YOU HEAR ME!” Malik pauses, sits back down, “He was a traitor. You hear me, a traitor!”
Unknowingly, that visit to Malik tipped Alia off, for Alia has been hiding her distaste for Malik for years. The catch is, Alia wants to love Malik, but she just can’t do so. And when Malik strikes Chandri, something snaps inside of Alia. Though she hates the way her daughter acts, Chandri still is her daughter, her offspring. When Malik slaps Chandri, he also slaps Alia. Alia loves Chandri though she doesn’t want to admit it. So Alia decides to help…
A few days pass, and Chandri forgets about Hikma; he just becomes another secret that her parents keep from her.
On her daily prowl around the house, thirsty for information, Chandri wanders into her mother’s study and notices the corner of a letter…
See, Alia wasn’t educated, but she wasn’t stupid either. She just put on an innocent girlish look for the sake of pleasing Malik. She left that letter for Chandri to find, and made sure that the necessary clues were noticeable. She knew that Chandri would find it, and she knew that Chandri would not be dissuaded or separated from the pull of India, and she knew Hikma was her only hope. She knew a lot of things…
You ask when I get to the first mention of me? Well…
So Chandri sees the letter. And she sees it as the treasure trove of information she needs to escape the traditions that are suffocating her. Her eyes skim over the contents multiple times. But she stops on the last word: Hikma.
And she closes her eyes and takes a breath when she realizes who Hikma is and what he’s done.
Silently smirking, she steals out of the room, muttering the contents of the letter to herself, all the while loving the rhythm of the sounds “Hikma, the Sikh.”
I know that you really don’t care about my welfare. You probably notice the return address and immediately burn this letter or shred it. But even still, I want you to know that I still think of you. I hope you have had another child or two. To make up for the disgrace that I am now. You want to know where I am? Yes. I thought you would. The truth is, I am not that far from you. Still in Kashmir. The right side for me. I hope that India stays whole. Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs have been living together in harmony for hundreds of years, why should that change now? Anyway, I know you disagree with me. Did you know that I converted from Islam? I’m sorry mother, I’m sorry father, but I am now a Sikh. And Lambardar of my village. Your son has found success and peace. I’m sorry it had to be away from you.
Hopefully the love is mutual,
That’s the necessary information.
Chandri rushes to the window and presses her face to the glass. She hears scuffling on the window panes, and the shouts that seem to be coming from the street, banging and rustling. “It’s a servant,” she mutters to herself, “What’s the urgency?”
If only she knew…
But alas she takes no notice of it and instead turns her focus to the train pulling into the station. She has always been fascinated with the science of the train. How the axles move forward and the chimney produces that awful gray smoke. She has only seen motion pictures of people riding in trains. “My dream,” she breathes, and the glass in front of her fogs up. It’s not the train that entrances her, but what the train symbolizes. Freedom. But Chandri’s eyes. Liquid and doey, she slowly blinks her eyelids shut and opens her mouth wide, drinking the coldness of the glass contrasted with the warmth and beauty of the train station.
She pushes her lean body away from the window and charges upstairs to begin her letter.
I am Chandri. That is all there is to say. My parents didn’t want me to know about you, but I managed to uncover one of your old letters. They didn’t burn them. I hope you live at the same address, because otherwise my endeavor would be over. See, I want to come to your village. I would love some advice from you…
Your loving sister,
She licks the bitter flap shut, and she smiles when she writes the address, a piece of information that she figured out.
And now she goes back to the window to gaze longingly at the train, which is now boarding. “All I want is to ride. Maybe I will, maybe I will.”
Several days later, the news finally reaches Chandri, of course the last one in the gossip circle. Even the servants know before she does. And she only finds out by listening acutely to distant shouts of “The viceroy was stupid. How can an educated man be so smart but so stupid?” and “This split--it is necessary, but I don’t want smelly Muslim refugees crowding my front porch.”
Every day Chandri wakes up early and runs to the mailman before her parents arise. She checks for any mail from Hikma. One day she is successful…
Ik Onkar blesses me. I would love to have some contact with my family, but someone who doesn't look at me for who I was or who Muslims think I am, but who I want to be. I will help you with your endeavor Choti. Can I call you Choti? I think I will. But the partition has made the journey all the harder. As you know, I am in India and you are in Pakistan.
Of course, now Chandri completes the connection between the shouts that she heard, and the letter. Already she makes a face as she thinks about the chaos of a partition. By the sound of it, Viceroy Mountbatten didn’t make matters easier either.
So I want you to take the next train to Chittisinghpura. I will be waiting. But before you leave, I want you to take notice of your surroundings. That is one thing that I miss. Chances are, you may never return. Look out Choti, isn’t it beautiful? The monsoons are late this year but no matter. All the more wished for. People pray for this. Then, the excitement dies down, and towns flood. There is chaos near the river. And dead bodies float down to the ocean as people pretend not to notice.
Please notice Choti. Notice, but accept it. This is what partition brings. You can’t do anything.
For the third time in her life, Chandri smiles.
And again she looks out on the countryside as she rushes to her throne at the window. There she stays put, watching and waiting, watching and waiting. Entranced by the magic of the train smoke and the multitude of people coming from India.
Hikma’s words remain in her mind. Is it a monsoon? The people flood out of the train like water flooding out of a river. They devour all in their divergent paths; destroying homes and woods and destroying themselves in the process.
And now my part of the story.
Hikma, the village Lambardar of the village Chittisinghpura. Hikma wields power like he was born to, albeit wielded by a small village man in a small village. He leads his fellow Sikhs in prayer every night. And keeps control of the village…
Welcome to Chittisinghpura, a quaint little farming village at the border of the newly formed Kashmir.
Chittisinghpura is a tiny place. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of the Lambardar Hikma. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. The three brick buildings enclose a triangular common with a large banyan tree in the middle. The rest of the village is a cluster of flat-roofed mud huts and low-walled courtyards, which front on narrow lanes that radiate from the center... There are only about seventy families in Chittisinghpura, and Niman Rajul, the village moneylender, is the only Hindu. All the other families are Sikhs or Muslims, about equal in number.
Hikma rules without an iron fist, more like a soft hand. He often combats the local magistrate, who is more strict in his judgments and less willing to see both sides or seek compromise. Hikma knows both sides. It is in his blood.
And these days, they live in a bubble, surrounded by mobs of Muslims who hate Sikhs and mobs of Sikhs who hate Muslims. But in the village they had always lived together peacefully. Villagers were in the dark about happenings of larger scope than the village outskirts, gaining much of their information through rumor and word of mouth.
A problem though. The sign at the train station has always said welcome in three languages.
Sat Sri Akal
I will get back to the sign later, for the sign is my idol. What I as a leader worship.
On this particular morning, the monsoons arrive. Everyone swarms out to my gathering in the pouring rain. Amidst whoops and hollers, my people roll about on muddy soil. They untether the pigs and horses and, as if sensing the joy, these animals roll around in the mud as well.
But with the rain comes the flood.
Lambardar Hikma gets up early the next morning, happy with his village, his large role in a small place. He again walks into the downpour.
He wants to see the true extent that the river flooded, but when he gets there he immediately turns around and weeps. For the river is not flooded with water. It is flooded with dead men. Hundreds and hundreds. They just keep coming. Sadly he shares the news with the entire village…
They are aghast. “And they were all Sikhs!” someone cries. Yes, I say, I could tell by their long hair, turbans, and beards.
A collective snarl escapes the group.
“Let's kill them all!” shouts are heard.
And then the magistrate proposes a plan that tears my heart…
“We need to fight back. I bet that this village upstream is already completely abandoned, as the cheerful townsfolk deserted it, dead on the river. These Muslim swine need to be punished for killing our brothers! I propose that we derail the next train from Pakistan, and we return the favor.”
Perhaps I do not respond quickly enough. Perhaps there’s nothing I could have said. A hushed whisper spreads through the crowd as lightning spreads through the clouds during a monsoon.
Now a few murmured agreements and nods.
As we walk the banks of the railroad ditch, the sign next to the station creaks. Where white paint once graced dark background in precise letters, now gray paint smears not so dark background with squiggly letters…
And all of a sudden a plan is in place. The Magistrate assigned the parts to play to kill these people from Pakistan. But as he tried to protest, all the Lambardar Hikma could think of is his sister coming over on the next train…
Chandri packs her bags the night the monsoons start. She will sneak out in the morning…
Hikma looks straight at the sign. He could have sworn that there were three greetings. But now the Sikh rebels have changed the world... The three greetings disappear and are replaced with one prominent one; Sat Sri Akal. Only Sikhs are welcome, else we shall purge your people coming across the border on the train…
Hikma tries to appease the groups but they have their mind set. Brandishing their guns, they take up a maniacal cheer meant to embody the ruthless killing of Muslims. But in reality, they have destroyed themselves. Destroyed their identity because they can’t stop themselves from killing. They have now become the “Muslim swine” they hate so much.
… Chandri walks into the station at dawn, now thoroughly soaked, but she doesn’t care. Because she finally gets to board a train. Train Station clunks and screeches, the frozen engine kicks into motion, pushing the sleek, modern train down the beaten, old track and into the black. Even after the train has left, the sound of the pulsing locomotives pound through the night, until the deep booms of its powerful thrusts quiet down to gentle beats in the heart of the night. Mist swirls gently across the now empty track, covering all in a wispy blanket. The track is now hidden beneath a mysterious layer, like a deep secret or a myth…
They get into position three hours before the train is about to arrive. Hikma turns back towards the village and sees that incandescent god, the sikh guru, looming ominously over the village Chittisinghpura. He stands up one last time to convince his townsfolk to halt the plan.
He speaks, but no one pays attention any more. Notice, but accept it. This is what partition brings. You can’t do anything. Yes, he couldn’t do anything.
And the villagers bask in the sound of the locomotive approaching the station. He sees the trip wire glistening in the sun of the three-hour-old day. And he sees Chandri’s face of wonder right before the train hits the wire and careens off the track.
I, Hikma, the village Lambardar, turn and run towards the train, stretching an elongated hand towards the tipping train. Hand closes, air parts, and the hand comes up empty, paired with a silent scream escaping parted lips. And the train tumbles to a halt on its side.
And I am left to tell my sister’s story as it happened, or as I imagine it. This is history.
The guard had fallen asleep for the night, and all that was left were the dusty brown lazy ropes hanging from the gold bars, which were lying tilted next to the barren oak wood floor encasing the gallery that the guard always neglected. Frankly he neglected the whole endeavor, for he didn’t want to be a guard at all but rather a cook, and the dim hot airless room with no light or customers or aroma, inflamed him to the point of exhaustion, and he lay such on this musky floor, rarely trod upon, save for the occasional intrepid tourist ready for any adventure, maybe even seeking one, who is willing to be shut up in an old gallery solely to stare, alone, at fifty paintings of faceless reality that are staring back.
And then the night was over, the guard’s shift was over, and he stared at the faceless Magritte’s, them staring back, and he was cold, even though the floor was now laced with yellow slashes full of dust mites filled with flecks of the dead old dried paint swept from the art. The wind entered from the carelessly opened door that the guard had not left open the night before; no wonder he was cold. When the hot dry mist floated through the open door the guard woke and fluttered his hand towards the open door as if to stop its light and breeze as someone might do with an alarm clock by their bedside table when they sleep and wake up different.
Different, for now the coldness has migrated from the guard to the paintings, and the paintings were even more agitated, but could do nothing, while the guard could go to his cooking class where he would conjure aromas in stark contrast to those of the museum. Later, there would be just a morning lattice painted on the outer wall by the savage summer sun, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the smell of coarse bold strokes performed 89 years ago by a captive Belgian man subject to bizarre flights of fancy blending horror peril love in one adjustment, and this adjustment would be torched by loneliness when the guard leaves.
But it was still early now. The guard had yet in his pocket the note which he had received by the hand of the immigrant cook just before noon the other day, asking him to return for the exam -- the attractively old fashioned, stiffly formal request that was actually a summons, out of another world almost -- an archaic piece of notepaper illustrating the queer commanding presence that this cook had over his psyche, a quality that only seemed to be present in foreigners. The guard, when receiving the note, decided after a few moments of deliberation that he felt unwell and therefore had a fever, though now he felt the utmost calm even as his arm twitched in the cold latticed air like a man who had been peacefully ill in bed and had recovered to move with a sort of diffident and tentative amazement in a world that he had believed himself on the point of surrendering. The twitch was succeeded by a jolt as the mist touched him, followed by a gasp and a grumble, and the guard, now fully awake, stared at the cracked door and accidently at the faceless Magritte, “The Lovers,” two figures eternally staring back through the sort of nonexistent wonder that only a couple whose faces are masked by these frustrating sheets can produce, and, as a consequence of his fevered epiphany, saw this couple for one moment not as a painting, but as an art form, and although he would rather blindly, hazily ascend to the higher art of “chef” and still had no appreciation for the pigment and resin surrounding him, he could in that moment comprehend the lure of art as a means to evoke emotions hidden inside any, even the most foolhardy traveler.
An acceptance was all that the couple needed, and unknowingly the guard in that moment had paid homage to Magritte, not to the person but to the art, he stopped and watched it, the art not being conquered, destroyed, so much as retreating, for its purpose was served now, as all art must convince all people of everything. Even when the guard left, the painting never backed down from the reality; it glided its subjects across the darkened floor, and the barrier of fabric formerly preventing the intimate embrace between the two lovers and transforming an act of passion into one of isolation and frustration now vanished, and the world, either prepared or not, was for the first time graced with the severity of Magritte’s faces, cold and horrid, yet fixed in a perpetual smile of ragged flesh and half-finished nonsense, as if Magritte initially tossed the sheet on in order to conceal the true menace from the rest of the world, there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers such as these know because it makes them both -- if only the guard knew.
And for the brief span of a day, the painting could experience true realism in the world of fakes and insignificance, and even though the lattice moved from one end of the wall to the other, the painting still stayed, uncomfortable from the cold, then heat, then cold again, while finally it was put to sleep again by the bloody rust night sun, covering the gallery in a drunken stupor, and only the guard, elated from the success of his exam, was able to evade the force of the painted reality that Magritte had conjured. But as soon as the sun blood rust covered guard intrepidly set foot into the so often abandoned gallery, the Magritte rested, and Magritte rested; the sheets materialized to throw the vicious faces of these two lover-enemies back into obscurity.
GROWN UP THINGS
I am sitting at the kitchen table thinking I have never hated anything as much as algebra. As if I’m ever going to use it beyond junior high school. It’s tempting to fill in the mimeographed worksheet with random numbers so I have something to turn in on Monday.
From the open kitchen window I hear the neighborhood boys laughing and shouting at each other, racing their bikes down the narrow side street. I’m so jealous. My parents have rules: homework as soon as I get home from school, dinner promptly at five-thirty, help with the dishes, take a bath, and if I’m lucky, an hour of television before lights out. And it’s usually what my parents want to watch.
My mother is at the stove, stirring a pot of chicken stew with a long wooden spoon, her head tilted to the cadence of the street noise. “Don’t those youngsters have homework, Frieda?”
It’s time to change the subject before she asks about my homework. “I’m hungry. Can we eat before Papa gets home?”
My mother checks her wristwatch and sighs. My father is never this late. She slivers a wedge of red onion on the chopping block; purple crescents tumble into green leaf lettuce in a glass bowl, followed by tomato and cucumber slices, a handful of olives. She looks at me and says, “We wait ten more minutes and then we start without him.”
Just when I thought I was off the hook, my mother says, “Now put away the algebra you haven’t finished and set the table. Papa will help you with the problems later.”
“Maybe he stopped at the store,” I say, my hands full of placemats and silverware.
“For what, Frieda?”
“I don’t know, but Brenda’s father stops for cigarettes and candy all the time.”
My mother smirks and rolls her eyes in my direction. “What would Papa need cigarettes for when he doesn’t smoke?”
“But that’s not true,” I say, placing a loaf of sliced rye bread on the table. “There’s an old picture in the photo album with German words on it, and Papa was wearing a uniform. He was leaning against a big tank with a cigarette in his hand.”
“Remember when I explained that Papa was a soldier?”
“Sometimes soldiers smoked during the war because it was all they had, Frieda, a small pleasure.” She checks her watch again before sliding her hands into her apron pockets. “It helped them cope, but that was a long time ago, and Papa doesn’t smoke now.”
It occurs to me that I’ve never heard my parents speak in depth about the war. I’d almost forgotten my father had been a German soldier, like some vague fact I’d once read in the encyclopedia at school. Now I remember the tattered black and white photo of him, deep shadows framing his eyes as he squinted into the distance. On the reverse, in my mother’s neat lettering, “leaving Berlin in forty-two.” He’d been nineteen years old.
My mother has a far-away look on her face. I don’t understand. When I speak, my voice is a whisper. “What sorts of things did the soldiers have to cope with?”
Slipping into a chair, a soft look in her blue eyes, my mother says, “With grown up things, Frieda.” She places her hand over mine, her fingers warm and gentle. “But the war is in the past; we don’t talk about it now, and never in front of Papa. Verstehen?”
I nod my head, not really understanding at all.
“Good,” my mother says, “now hand me your bowl.”
As I taste the first spoonful of stew, gravel crunches under tires. The familiar sound of jazz music declares that Papa is home even as I jump up to look out the window.
Papa never comes home late from work, not like my friend Brenda’s father. My mother says it’s shameful, the way Bud Baxter bellies up to the bar at the corner pub while his family eats cheap TV dinners, all they can afford, on tray tables in front of Walter Cronkite each evening.
Papa and Mr. Baxter work together as carpenters. Mr. Baxter used to ask Papa to stop for a beer after work, even though Papa always declined the offer. Papa says drinking beer with coworkers is a bad idea, but Bud never gets the hint. One day he’d almost given in to Bud. The heat had felt like a blast furnace, and the thought of an ice-cold beer in a dark tavern was tempting. Papa laughed so hard, telling my mother how he’d told Bud that Mama served dinner at five-thirty sharp, and he was too smart to be late for her good cooking, afraid he would come home to a little aluminum tray of mystery meat warmed in the oven, and if it was all the same to Bud, he would drink his beer at home. After that day, Mr. Baxter never asked Papa to join him again, and Papa was always home for dinner, like clockwork.
I hear Papa taking off his work boots in the foyer off the kitchen. He smiles when he enters the kitchen, his face suntanned from outdoor work, but his eyes, crinkling under light brows slanting to his temples, are missing their usual spark of enthusiasm.
“Frau,” he says, patting my mother’s shoulder as he peeks under the lid of the stew pot.
“Hans,” she says, her tone measured, “why are you late? It’s Friday. Did you get laid off?”
“Nein.” Papa says, emptying his pockets into a small bowl: keys, loose coins, a cough drop, a thin leather wallet. Sawdust sprinkles trail him across the kitchen floor.
Mama frowns at her clean kitchen floor. “What then?”
Papa lays his hand on top of my head, smoothing my long hair. “Schatz,” he says, kissing me on my forehead. He smells like wood shavings and spearmint gum. At the sink, he rolls up his sleeves, lathers a Lava bar up to his elbows, scrubbing his fingernails with a small brush like a doctor prepping for surgery.
“Hans?” My mother is nothing if not persistent. “What trouble?”
Papa dries his arms with a blue towel, dropping his head back as if something interesting was happening on the ceiling. “The usual,” he whispers, closing his eyes. He slides his clean hands down his face, across his bristled jaw. When he opens his eyes, he looks at my mother for a long time.
In that simple moment of silent communication, I realize my mother knows why Papa is late. She told me once that married people have silent conversations, that one day I would understand.
But I need to know, now. “What’s going on?”
“Frieda, sit down and eat, before it gets cold,” my mother says. She ladles stew into a bowl for Papa. “Pass the bread and butter.”
“I wish someone would tell me what’s going on,” I say, watching the steam twist and turn above my bowl. “I’m not a little child.”
Papa sits back in his chair, places his bread on the wide rim of his bowl. His mouth is as straight as a pencil, his serious look. His wide shoulders block the orange and pink tipped clouds beyond the window. “Frieda,” he says, his thickly accented voice gentle and calm, “it’s not for you to think about, or to worry about. Sometimes your Papa’s mouth works faster than his Kopf,” he says, tapping the side of his head with his index finger. He points at my bowl. “Now eat. Mama worked hard. Ja?”
After dinner I help my mother with the dishes, wiping the table and tidying the kitchen. Papa helps me understand my algebra assignment and watches patiently as I correct mistakes.
The evening news carries the usual footage on the war in Vietnam: soldiers with ammunition belts strapped across their chests loading body bags into helicopters; protestors marching in front of the White House; college students burning the American flag. Papa makes a sound deep in his throat, gets up and changes the channel to a nature program about wolves.
Mama told me once the reason she married Papa was because he liked books as much as she did, that he was quiet around other people, but when they were alone, he told funny stories that made her laugh. They left their homeland to come to America because Papa always said that America was the greatest country on earth. But he always missed home; he missed Berlin. I wondered what it would be like to leave all that was familiar and move to a new country.
Brenda and I walk to school under an overcast sky on Monday morning. Her white knee socks slip down around her ankles, and she stops often to pull them up. Brenda’s mother lets her wear strawberry lip gloss to school since eighth grade is practically high school. Brenda stops in the middle of the sidewalk and pulls out the sparkly pink tube. She holds it under my nose. “Smell this,” she commands. “Doesn’t it smell cool?”
“You’re going to make us late,” I say, as Brenda glides the tube across her lips until they shimmer like pink icing against her pale skin. “Mama packed an extra slice of apple kuchen in my lunch box for you.” I wonder how it will taste mixed with strawberry lip gloss.
“No thanks,” Brenda says, stopping to examine her reflection in a store window. “I’m on a diet.”
“That’s stupid, Brenda. You’re not even fat.”
“Shows what you know,” Brenda says, flipping her dark hair over her shoulder.
The first warning bell sounds as we reach the grounds of Sacred Heart Academy. I run up the stairs to the double glass doors and hold open the door for Brenda, who saunters in like we’re way too early instead of late.
“I heard your dad got in trouble on Friday,” Brenda says, reaching for her socks.
The second warning bell peals. Fellow latecomers slip past us and run down the hall to homeroom. My heart beats a staccato rhythm that feels strange. I don’t want a night of detention for being late, but I slow my pace and stare at Brenda.
“What are you talking about?”
We reach Brenda’s homeroom first. “My dad said your father was shooting off his mouth at work.”
I shake my head. “I don’t think so, Brenda.”
Brenda takes a step toward her homeroom door. “My dad said your father was a Nazi, and all the men at work think he still loves Hitler.”
Suddenly the halls have gone quiet and the only sound I hear is my heart pulsing in my ears. “What do you mean?”
Brenda laughs; it sounds like a bark. “Are you serious? You don’t know what a Nazi is?”
I shake my head, hating the mean look in Brenda’s eyes. She’s supposed to be my best friend.
“Duh, Frieda. World War two. Ring any bells?”
I can’t stop staring at Brenda’s glistening lips, her secretive smirk. “Papa was a soldier in the war.”
“So was my dad, but he wasn’t a Nazi.” Brenda flicks her hair again and I feel the urge to hack it all off with a pair of Mama’s sewing scissors. “Only the Germans were Nazis, Frieda.”
My mouth has gone dry and I hurry to the water fountain across the hall.
“You’ll find out, next year in Social Studies,” Brenda says. “We had to watch old black and white films. There were mountains of dead people in concentration camps.” Brenda pauses, tilts her head as if she were looking at a museum exhibit. “They were all the people killed by the Nazis. They looked like skeletons. They gassed them and buried them in mass graves, you know.”
I swallow the shout forming in my throat and whisper, “My father didn’t kill anyone, Brenda.”
The third and final warning bell is a shrill alarm. We both startle and turn toward our homerooms, Brenda murmuring, “I’m sure your father killed lots of them. He has a temper.”
By lunch time I feel sick to my stomach. Sister Margaret, the school nurse, sticks a thermometer under my tongue, makes me lie down on a cot with sheets that smell of bleach while she calls my mother. At home I crawl into bed with my old stuffed rabbit that’s missing one eye and its fluffy cottontail. Sleep pulls me under, but Brenda’s words are stamped on the back of my eyelids. I dream of Papa, a cigarette hanging from his mouth while he shoots skeletons.
My room is filled with shadows when I wake. My pillowcase is damp. I hear my parents talking in German in the kitchen. They only speak German when they don’t want me to know what they’re talking about.
My mother makes potato pancakes with homemade apple sauce for supper, my favorite, but I can’t eat a bite; my appetite doesn’t exist. Papa comes in to see me, a tender look on his face. He pulls a chair next to my bed and puts his warm palm on my forehead. I try not to cry, but tears escape and slide down my face like rain.
Papa whispers, “Schatz, what is it?”
Mama enters my bedroom with a cool glass of water. “Drink some water, Frieda.” I do as I’m told, wiping my tear stained cheeks. “Does your stomach hurt?”
I shake my head. “Not anymore.”
“She doesn’t have a fever,” Papa says, holding my hand.
I look at his crinkly blue eyes and his five o’clock shadow, his faded flannel shirt. It’s hard to get my mouth to form the terrible words. “Did you kill people in the war?”
Papa looks at Mama for a long time. Another silent conversation.
Mama sits on the side of my bed and takes my other hand. “Frieda, war is violent.” She smooths my hair. “Bad things happen. Many people don’t survive.”
I look at Papa again, holding his gaze. “But is it true, Papa? Did you kill people?”
“Frieda,” Mama says, “soldiers don’t have a choice. They must follow orders.” Deep lines form above her eyebrows. “Close your eyes. Think of good things.”
When I was little we had a sweet terrier mix that followed Papa everywhere and made him smile. Her rough coat was white and gray, and Papa said she was his little shadow. One morning when Papa was mowing the grass, his shadow slipped her leash to chase a squirrel and wandered into the street. Papa noticed too late. He shouted her name, running toward the traffic, waving his arms, but he couldn’t save her from a speeding car. Papa carried that dead dog from the street, shouting words that Mama didn’t want me to hear. She covered my ears with her hands, tears streaming down both our faces. He wrapped the dog in an old wool blanket, dug a deep hole under a maple tree, and shoveled the rich brown earth over her until he was satisfied that nothing could dig her up. When he was finished, he threw down his shovel and sat on the grass for a long time, his face buried in his hands. It was the first time I’d ever seen Papa cry. He disappeared into the garage for the rest of the day. When Mama sent me to call him in for supper, I found him fast asleep in a sagging lawn chair. Next to his feet, a dozen empty beer bottles stood like sentinels on the cold concrete.
Now Papa stares out the window, silent as stone. His eyes are moist. He sighs, and it sounds like a breath he’s been holding in for years. A single tear rolls down his cheek.
LOIS GREENE STONE
LORD MCCONNEHEAD III
MUHAMMAD NASRULLAH KHAN
RUTH Z. DEMING