Poetry | ”Of Lipstick and Labels’ & 1 more poem by Anureet Watta | LGBTQ+ (Vol 1) – Issue 35

Of Lipstick and Labels

What they do not tell you,
when you finally kiss a girl is,
that it may not feel right the first time,
it may not feel right ever.
sometimes walking out of the closet
is like walking into a new one.
The labels you choose
after years of rummaging,
through leftovers
from past revolutions,
and all the sneers thrown at school,
the labels
might still not fit as perfectly,
as you thought they would,
but you’re allowed to get them wrong again
and again.
When this confusion becomes the most familiar part of my day,
I think
I’ve spent too long in the closet,
for all these ill-fitting sizes,
and too awkward shoulders,
by now,
I should’ve figured what to do with a black eye,
how to stitch torsos to fit like armour,
what do you mean all this lace and satin wasn’t meant for me?
When you kiss a girl,
you will still not know
what to do with your hands,
they’re too wobbly for this business,
the parts of her,
you thought you knew your way around
would still feel alien,
and unfamiliar,
like going back to where you once lived,
where everything is the same, but nothing really is;

but you’ve practised
for this unfamiliarity,
your hands on her stomach,
might make you hate yourself a little less,
for her soft belly, is just soft belly,
not disappointments measured out in tacos,
after all,
you might not crave the sharp edges,
you thought you always needed,
you wouldn’t have to fold yourself so small
to fit in little pockets of love
love is Marine Drive, huge, and salty,
but waiting,
and it doesn’t care what shape you are.

when you kiss a girl,
maybe all the flowers in all the poems will make sense,
maybe you’ll want to melt all the words,
that shuffle through your mind
as her face fits perfectly
between your chin and your shoulder
and melt them with the sweetest of lies,
and pour into the cracked edges of the world,
just so it heals.

what they do not tell you,
about kissing a girl is
even when you like it
is that your eyes will always stay open
on the lookout for fire,
but there might be lipstick
and hers might wear on yours
like a swatch
Make a colour you can’t name,
and when you get home
your mother might say
this shade
this shade makes you glow.


We Swallow the Sun to Keep from Stuttering

coming out

as a person, a gender, an orientation, a heartbeat,

was never a one-time thing,

but we keep longing for it to be,

maybe soon,

it will be our last time around.

You tell me,

what it’s like to dream,

a body for yourself,

heights and hair and hands and parts,

that match your heart,

you want to pick a name,

so much softer than all the things you’ve been through,

maybe one day,

these longings will just be the memoirs and reminder,

which come after new dawns.

You have never longed to be understood,

just acknowledged,

under kinder skies and with undoubtful eyes,

but until then,

I’m here,

and I’m not really a hug person,

but I think we can both use one,

it is hard to carry so much hurt,

in chests that have never quite felt like your own,

in hearts that have learnt to love,

in ways, they weren’t taught,

in hands that still have to prove

their actuality.

friend,

longings are soft,

but it’s the soft things that destroy us in the end,

that turn fights into revolutions,

it always hurts to become,

what you’ve intended to,

no one is looking,

blossoming is still blossoming;

we are, after all,

the truest reporters of ourselves,

no matter how many times we got it wrong before.

the moon does not have to ask,

before it changes,

the moon has never learnt to apologise,

when it shines greater than the sun.


Anureet Watta is a 19 year old poet from Delhi. She writes of queerness, girlhood and the overwhelming anguish of being alive. Performing across open mics in Delhi, she believes spoken word poetry is the perfect amalgamation of poetry and theatre.



Submissions open for

LGBTQ + Vol 2 (January, 2021)

Solicited entries paid.

The Bombay Review

Essay | ‘The Art of the Essayist’ by A.C. Benson | Classical Archives

According to Benson in ‘Art of the Essayist,’ the essay has been a comfortable mixture of the personal and the subjective, and in fact has been the most personal of all genres.

There is a pleasant story of an itinerant sign-painter who in going his rounds came to a village inn upon whose sign-board he had had his eye for some months and had watched with increasing hope and delight its rapid progress to blurred and faded dimness. To his horror he found a brand-new varnished sign. He surveyed it with disgust, and said to the inn-keeper, who stood nervously by hoping for a professional compliment, “This looks as if someone had been doing it himself.”

That sentence holds within it the key to the whole mystery of essay-writing. An essay is a thing which someone does himself; and the point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality. It must concern itself with something “jolly,” as the school-boy says, something smelt, heard, seen, perceived, invented, thought; but the essential thing is that the writer shall have formed his own impression, and that it shall have taken shape in his own mind; and the charm of the essay depends upon the charm of the mind that has conceived and recorded the impression. It will be seen, then, that the essay need not concern itself with anything definite; it need not have an intellectual or a philosophical or a religious or a humorous motif; but equally none of these subjects are ruled out. The only thing necessary is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto. It need conform to no particular rules. All literature answers to something in life, some habitual form of human expression. The stage imitates life, calling in the services of the eye and the ear; there is the narrative of the teller of tales or the minstrel; the song, the letter, the talk—all forms of human expression and communication have their antitypes in literature. The essay is the reverie, the frame of mind in which a man says, in the words of the old song, “Says I to myself, says I.”

It is generally supposed that Montaigne is the first writer who wrote what may technically be called essays. His pieces are partly autobiographical, partly speculative, and to a great extent ethical. But the roots of his writing lie far back in literary history. He owed a great part of his inspiration to Cicero, who treated of abstract topics in a conversational way with a romantic background; and this he owed to Plato, whose dialogues undoubtedly contain the germ of both the novel and the essay. Plato is in truth far more the forerunner of the novelist than of the philosopher. He made a background of life, he peopled his scenes with bright boys and amiable elders—oh that all scenes were so peopled!—and he discussed ethical and speculative problems of life and character with a vital rather than with a philosophical interest. Plato’s dialogues would be essays but for the fact that they have a dramatic colouring, while the essence of the essay is soliloquy. But in the writings of Cicero, such as the De Senectute, the dramatic interest is but slight, and the whole thing approaches far more nearly to the essay than to the novel. Probably Cicero supplied to his readers the function both of the essayist and the preacher, and fed the needs of so-called thoughtful readers by dallying, in a fashion which it is hardly unjust to call twaddling, with familiar ethical problems of conduct and character. The charm of Montaigne is the charm of personality—frankness, gusto, acute observation, lively acquaintance with men and manners. He is ashamed of recording nothing that interested him; and a certain discreet shamelessness must always be the characteristic of the essayist, for the essence of his art is to say what has pleased him without too prudently considering whether it is worthy of the attention of the well-informed mind.

I doubt if the English temperament is wholly favourable to the development of the essayist. In the first place, an Anglo-Saxon likes doing things better than thinking about them; and in his memories, he is apt to recall how a thing was done rather than why it was done. In the next place, we are naturally rather prudent and secretive; we say that a man must not wear his heart upon his sleeve, and that is just what the essayist must do. We have a horror of giving ourselves away, and we like to keep ourselves to ourselves. “The Englishman’s home is his castle,” says another proverb. But the essayist must not have a castle, or if he does, both the grounds and the living-rooms must be open to the inspection of the public.

Lord Brougham, who reveled in advertisement, used to allow his house to be seen by visitors, and the butler had orders that if a party of people came to see the house, Lord Brougham was to be informed of the fact. He used to hurry to the library and take up a book, in order that the tourists might nudge each other and say in whispers, “There is the Lord Chancellor.” That is the right frame of mind for the essayist. He may enjoy privacy, but he is no less delighted that people should see him enjoying it.

The essay has taken very various forms in England. Sir Thomas Browne, in such books as Religio Medici and Urn-Burial, wrote essays of an elaborate rhetorical style, the long fine sentences winding themselves out in delicate weft-like trails of smoke on a still air, hanging in translucent veils. Addison, in the Spectator, treated with delicate humour of life and its problems, and created what was practically a new form in the essay of emotional sentiment evoked by solemn scenes and fine associations. Charles Lamb treated romantically the homeliest stuff of life, and showed how the simplest and commonest experiences were rich in emotion and humour. The beauty and dignity of common life were his theme. De Quincey wrote what may be called impassioned autobiography, and brought to his task a magical control of long-drawn and musical cadences. And then we come to such a writer as Pater, who used the essay for the expression of exquisite artistic sensation. These are only a few instances of the way in which the essay has been used in English literature. But the essence is throughout the same; it is personal sensation, personal impression, evoked by something strange or beautiful or curious or interesting or amusing. It has thus a good deal in common with the art of the lyrical poet and the writer of sonnets, but it has all the freedom of prose, its more extended range, its use of less strictly poetical effects, such as humour in particular. Humour is alien to poetical effect, because poetry demands a certain sacredness and solemnity of mood. The poet is emotional in a reverential way; he is thrilled, he loves, he worships, he sorrows; but it is all essentially grave, because he wishes to recognize the sublime and up-lifted elements of life; he wishes to free himself from all discordant, absurd, fantastic, undignified contrasts, as he would extrude laughter and chatter and comfortable ease from some stately act of ceremonial worship. It is quite true that the essayist has a full right to such a mood if he chooses; and such essays as Pater’s are all conceived in a sort of rapture of holiness, in a region from which all that is common and homely is carefully fenced out. But the essayist may have a larger range, and the strength of a writer like Charles Lamb is that he condescends to use the very commonest materials, and transfigures the simplest experiences with a fairy-like delicacy and a romantic glow. A poet who has more in common with the range of the essayist Robert Browning, and there are many of his poems, though not perhaps his best, where his frank amassing of grotesque detail, his desire to include rather than exclude the homelier sorts of emotion, of robust and not very humorous humour, make him an impressionist rather than a lyrist. As literature develops, the distinction between poetry and prose will no doubt become harder to maintain. Coleridge said in a very fruitful maxim: “The opposite of poetry is not prose but science; the opposite of prose is not poetry but verse.” That is to say poetry has as its object the kindling of emotion and science is its opposite, because science is the dispassionate statement of fact; but prose can equally be used as a vehicle for the kindling of emotion, and therefore may be in its essence poetical: but when it is a technical description of a certain kind of structure its opposite is verse—that is to say, language arranged in metrical and rhythmical form. We shall probably come to think that the essayist is more of a poet than the writer of epics, and that the divisions of literature will tend to be on the one hand the art of clear and logical statement, and on the other the art of emotional and imaginative expression.

We must remember in all this that the nomenclature of literature, the attempt to classify the forms of literary expression, is a confusing and a bewildering thing unless it is used merely for convenience. It is the merest pedantry to say that literature must conform to established usages and types. The essence of it is that it is a large force flowing in any channel that it can, and the classification of art is a mere classification of channels. What lies behind all art is the principle of wonder and of arrested attention. It need not be only the sense of beauty; it may be the sense of fitness, of strangeness, of completeness, of effective effort. The amazement of the savage at the sight of a civilized town is not the sense of beauty, it is the sense of force, of mysterious resources, of incredible pro-ducts, of things unintelligibly and even magically made; and then too there is the instinct for perceiving all that is grotesque, absurd, amusing and jocose, which one sees exhibited in children at the sight of the parrot’s crafty and solemn eye and his exaggerated imitation of human speech, at the unusual dress and demeanour of the clown, at the grotesque simulation by the gnarled and contorted tree of something human or reptile. And then, too, there is the strange property in human beings which makes disaster amusing, if its effects are not prejudicial to oneself; that sense which makes the waiter on the pantomime stage, who falls headlong with a tray of crockery, an object to provoke the loudest and most spontaneous mirth of which the ordinary human being is capable. The moralist who would be sympathetically shocked at the rueful abrasions of the waiter, or mournful over the waste of human skill and endeavour involved in the breakage, would be felt by all human beings to have something priggish in his composition and to be too good, as they say, to live.

It is with these rudimentary and inexplicable emotions that the essayist may concern himself, even though the poet be forbidden to do so; and the appeal of the essayist to the world at large will depend upon the extent to which he experiences some common emotion, sees it in all its bearings, catches the salient features of the scene, and records it in vivid and impressive speech.

The essayist is therefore, to a certain extent, bound to be a spectator of life; he must be like the man in Browning’s fine poem “How it Strikes a Contemporary,” who walked about, took note of everything, looked at the new house building, poked his stick into the mortar.

He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch;
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall;
He took such cognizance of men and things!
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note,
Yet stared at nobody—they stared at him,
And found less to their pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know them, and expect as much.

That is the essayist’s material; he may choose the scene, he may select the sort of life he is interested in, whether it is the street or the countryside or the sea-beach or the picture-gallery; but once there, wherever he may be, he must devote himself to seeing and realizing and getting it all by heart. The writer must not be too much interested in the action and conduct of life. If he is a politician, or a soldier, or an emperor, or a plough-boy, or a thief, and is absorbed in what he is doing, with a vital anxiety to make profit or position or influence out of it; if he hates his opponents and rewards his friends; if he condemns, despises, disapproves, he at once forfeits sympathy and largeness of view. He must believe with all his might in the interest of what he enjoys, to the extent at all events of believing it worth recording and representing, but he must not believe too solemnly or urgently in the importance and necessity of any one sort of business or occupation. The eminent banker, the social reformer, the forensic pleader, the fanatic, the crank, the puritan—these are not the stuff out of which the essayist is made; he may have ethical preferences, but he must not indulge in moral indignation; he must be essentially tolerant, and he must discern quality rather than solidity. He must be concerned with the pageant of life, as it weaves itself with a moving tapestry of scenes and figures rather than with the aims and purposes of life. He must, in fact, be preoccupied with things as they appear, rather than with their significance or their ethical example.

I have little doubt in my own mind that the charm of the familiar essayist depends upon his power of giving the sense of a good-humoured, gracious and reasonable personality and establishing a sort of pleasant friendship with his reader. One does not go to an essayist with a desire for information, or with an expectation of finding a clear statement of a complicated subject; that is not the mood in which one takes up a volume of essays. What one rather expects to find is a companionable treatment of that vast mass of little problems and floating ideas which are aroused and evoked by our passage through the world, our daily employment, our leisure hours, our amusements and diversions, and above all by our relations with other people—all the unexpected, inconsistent, various simple stuff of life; the essayist ought to be able to impart a certain beauty and order into it, to delineate, let us say, the vague emotions aroused in solitude or in company by the sight of scenery, the aspect of towns, the impressions of art and books, the interplay of human qualities and characteristics, the half-formed hopes and desires and fears and joys that form so large a part of our daily thoughts. The essayist ought to be able to indicate a case or a problem that is apt to occur in ordinary life and suggest the theory of it, to guess what it is that makes our moods resolute or fitful, why we act consistently or inconsistently, what it is that repels or attracts us in our dealings with other people, what our private fancies are. The good essayist is the man who makes a reader say: “Well, I have often thought all those things, but I never discerned before any connection between them, nor got so far as to put them into words.” And thus the essayist must have a great and far-reaching curiosity; he must be interested rather than displeased by the differences of human beings and by their varied theories. He must recognize the fact that most people’s convictions are not the result of reason, but a mass of associations, traditions, things half-understood, phrases, examples, loyalties, whims. He must care more about the inconsistency of humanity than about its dignity; and he must study more what people actually do think about than what they ought to think about. He must not be ashamed of human weaknesses or shocked by them, and still less disgusted by them; but at the same time he must keep in mind the flashes of fine idealism, the passionate visions, the irresponsible humours, the salient peculiarities, that shoot like sunrays through the dull cloudiness of so many human minds, and make one realize that humanity is at once above itself and in itself, and that we are greater than we know; for the interest of the world to the ardent student of it is that we most of us seem to have got hold of something that is bigger than we quite know how to deal with; something remote and far off, which we have seen in a distant vision, which we cannot always remember or keep clear in our minds. The supreme fact of human nature is its duality, its tendency to pull different ways, the tug-of-war between Devil and Baker which lies inside our restless brains. And the confessed aim of the essayist is to make people interested in life and in themselves and in the part they can take in life; and he does that best if he convinces men and women that life is a fine sort of a game, in which they can take a hand; and that every existence, however confined or restricted, is full of outlets and pulsing channels, and that the interest and joy of it is not confined to the politician or the millionaire, but is pretty fairly distributed, so long as one has time to attend to it, and is not preoccupied in some concrete aim or vulgar ambition.

Because the great secret which the true essayist whispers in our ears is that the worth of experience is not measured by what is called success, but rather resides in a fullness of life: that success tends rather to obscure and to diminish experience, and that we may miss the point of life by being too important, and that the end of it all is the degree in which we give rather than receive.

The poet perhaps is the man who sees the greatness of life best, because he lives most in its beauty and fineness. But my point is that the essayist is really a lesser kind of poet, working in simpler and humbler materials, more in the glow of life perhaps than in the glory of it, and not finding anything common or unclean.

The essayist is the opposite of the romancer, because his one and continuous aim is to keep the homely materials in view; to face actual conditions, not to fly from them. We think meanly of life if we believe that it has no sublime moments; but we think sentimentally of it if we believe that it has nothing but sublime moments. The essayist wants to hold the balance; and if he is apt to neglect the sublimities of life, it is because he is apt to think that they can take care of themselves; and that if there is the joy of adventure, the thrill of the start in the fresh air of the morning, the rapture of ardent companionship, the gladness of the arrival, yet there must be long spaces in between, when the pilgrim jogs steadily along, and seems to come no nearer to the spire on the horizon or to the shining embanked cloudland of the West. He has nothing then but his own thoughts to help him, unless he is alert to see what is happening in hedgerow and copse, and the work of the essayist is to make some-thing rich and strange of those seemingly monotonous spaces, those lengths of level road.

Is, then, the Essay in literature a thing which simply stands outside classification, like Argon among the elements, of which the only thing which can be predicated is that it is there? Or like Justice in Plato’s Republic, a thing which the talkers set out to define, and which ends by being the one thing left in a state when the definable qualities are taken away? No, it is not that. It is rather like what is called an organ prelude, a little piece with a theme, not very strict perhaps in form, but which can be fancifully treated, modulated from, and coloured at will. It is a little criticism of life at some one point clearly enough defined.

We may follow any mood, we may look at life in fifty different ways—the only thing we must not do is to despise or deride, out of ignorance or prejudice, the influences which affect others; because the essence of all experience is that we should perceive something which we do not begin by knowing, and learn that life has a fullness and a richness in all sorts of diverse ways which we do not at first even dream of suspecting.

The essayist, then, is in his particular fashion an interpreter of life, a critic of life. He does not see life as the historian, or as the philosopher, or as the poet, or as the novelist, and yet he has a touch of all these. He is not concerned with discovering a theory of it all, or fitting the various parts of it into each other. He works rather on what is called the analytic method, observing, recording, interpreting, just as things strike him, and letting his fancy play over their beauty and significance; the end of it all being this: that he is deeply concerned with the charm and quality of things, and desires to put it all in the clearest and gentlest light, so that at least he may make others love life a little better, and prepare them for its infinite variety and alike for its joyful and mournful surprises.

Poetry | By Tom Paine | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

Strawberry Moon

Sitting on the shore at dusk on a stranger’s dock,
the skies and trees fiercer in reflection than above,
I was remembering how one winter day my friend’s
crumpled pants lay broken as a violin on the floor,
and how I felt those pants might just stroll away.
Their owner made me jealous in have living pants.
I knew their owner carried sun in his pocket, and I,
at best then, some moon? I say this with a smile.
The clothes in my closet are hanging less dead today.
A god on a Greek cliff once said there is no death.
You will awaken scared and angry in your own flesh,
and know you have been scared and angry all along.
The best thing is to scream. It is like water on a fire.
It is weird to write about those pants, but the world
is probably wrong at how sure it is about everything,
and to me, there was something about those pants.
I have come a long way since those pants on the floor.
I can tell you this: respect all the strange signposts.
Signposts are way more important than the road.
There was an orchid in bloom leaning over the river;
no one planted it there and I had no role to play.
I ate a wild strawberry I had found in a field earlier,
twirling it first it in my fingers like an orbiting moon.


The Anthology of Poetry

My feet crunched in a threat of dark frozen trees.
Was it winter roses? I was reading “The Last Duchess”.
The Duke killed her as she liked whate’er she looked on,
as tonight I suddenly liked breathing in winter.
She liked looking; I liked breathing. Dukes kill
those who they discover like to breathe and look.
I was brand new tonight to this breath pleasure.
I was alone save the bus driver. The anthology
of poetry lay in my lap and I saw the angry Duke.
He has his dagger at my throat. It was a big night:
I looked down again at she liked whate’er she looked on,
and a curtain was pulled aside, and I saw salmon
fluttering over white eggs in the sand, tasting water.


Tom Paine’s poetry is upcoming or published in more than seventy international journals, including: The Nation, The Moth (Ireland), The Rialto (UK), New Contrast (South Africa), Poetry Salzburg (Austria), Bangalore Review (India), Volt, Vallum (Canada), Paris Lit Up (France), Glasgow Review of Books (Scotland), Blackbox Manifold (Cambridge), Fence, The Common, Epiphany, Green Mountain Review, Galway Review (Ireland), Forklift, Tinderbox, Hunger Mountain, Hotel Amerika, Hobart, Tampa Review and elsewhere.

Stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Zoetrope, Boston Review, The New England Review, The O. Henry Awards and twice in the Pushcart Prize. His first collection, Scar Vegas (Harcourt), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Pen/Hemingway finalist. A graduate of Princeton and the Columbia MFA program, he is a professor in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.

20 + 1 Canadian Literary Magazines to submit your Creative Writing to.

20 Canadian Literary Magazines
Poetry, fiction, essays, creative non fiction, reviews, interviews, art and more.
 

 

Arc Poetry Magazine

Year established: 2004
Published from: Ottawa, Ontario
Genres: Poetry, Essays, Interviews
Submission period: April 1 to July 31; September 1 to December 31
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per page


Augur Magazine

Year established: 2017
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Poetry, Short fiction
Submission period: Currently September 1–30; Opens periodically each season
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $60.00 CAD per poem; $0.11 cents CAD per word for short fiction


Existere

Year established: 1978
Published from: York University, Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Poetry, Short plays, Short fiction, Critical essays, Interviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per accepted submission (maximum $250)


Screenshot 2020-08-11 at 10.08.11 PMMontréal Writes

Year established: 2018
Published from: Montréal, Québec
Genres: Short fiction (fiction and non-fiction), poetry
Submission period: July 27 – August 16 for the August Issue, August 27 – September 16 for the September Issue, and so on
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil


Room MagazineRoom 43.3 Neurodivergence

Year established: 2002
Published from: Vancouver, British Columbia
Genres: Fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 CAD for one page


cover for #85subTerrain Magazine

Year established: 2006
Published from: Vancouver, British Columbia
Genres: Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essays, commentary
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per poem; $0.10 per word for prose


The Antigonish ReviewIssue # 190

Year established: 2001
Published from: Antigonish, Nova Scotia
Genres:  Poetry, fiction, essays, articles, book reviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $5 per page of poetry; $50 per prose 


National Literary Magazine on Waterloo Campus |The New Quarterly

Year established: 1981
Published from: Waterloo, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $275 for prose; $50 per poem


The Temz Review

Year established: 2017
Published from: Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, reviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $20


Vallum

Year established: 2000
Published from: Montréal, Québec
Genres: Poetry, essays, reviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil


Taddle CreekTaddle Creek No. 44 (Winter, 2019–2020)

Year established: 1997
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per page


Understory Magazine

Year established: 2013
Published from: Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $30-$60 honorarium


Untethered Magazineuntethered 5.1 (front cover)

Year established: 2014
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Websiste | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $10 honorarium


Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 2.54.35 PMThe Puritan

Year established: 2007
Published from: Ottawa, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, essays
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $100


Into the Void

Year established: 2012
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $10 per poem, $20 per prose


filling Station Issue 74 - RitualFilling Station

Year established: 1993
Published from: Calgary, Alberta
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $25 honorarium


Hamilton Review of Books

Year established: 2016
Published from: Hamilton, Ontario
Genres: Reviews, essays, interviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per review, $75 per essay or interview


PictureThe Mackinac

Year established: 2013
Published from: Canada
Genres: Poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil


Carousel

Year established: 1983
Published from: Canada
Genres: Fiction, poetry
Submission period: January and September (see dates)
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $55 for 1–4 pages


Image moduleDreamers Creative Writing

Year established: 2018
Published from: Hepworth, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book reviews
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $20 honorarium


Hello! We have another curated a list of our favorite literary magazines, this time of Canadian origin, publishing steadily for a couple of years. What about us, The Bombay Review? Well, New York is a couple of thousand miles away from Toronto, so Canada is as much a neighbor to us as Pakistan is. We have conducted literary events in many cities in Canada, and also have a special themed issue coming up in early 2021. To that end, we are always open to reading your work, publishing your work, and engaging with you. Details below.

By Team TBR

The Bombay Review
Year established: 2014
Published from: New York City & Mumbai
Genres: Fiction, Poetry, Essays, Art, Reviews, Interviews, Culture pieces
Submission period: All year
Type: Online + Print
Website | Instagram | Facebook
Submission fee: None
Payment: Ranges from Nil to $50

Fiction | ‘Turquoise Secret’ by Salil Chaturvedi

Indrani is surprised that her breasts are still alert to the possibility of love, even now, when her love is permanently gone.

She stands in the centre of the room, clutching the laundry tight against her chest, feeling the hardening of her nipples against the cotton blouse while her eyes scan the skies beyond the French windows for the turquoise flash.

A pigeon with bright red eyes and a white spot at the base of its beak flies past the balcony, startling her. Almost immediately after, a cream coloured butterfly bobs past the lime tree. Just one more second to be sure, Indrani tells herself…one last second…okay, one final last second…one last ultimate second…

Has it, after all, just been a trick of light? The time is right, though. Winter is on its way out, giving way to the early buds of spring. Her husband’s words float up from somewhere deep inside her: ‘With so many species you can be sure, Indu, that an orgasm is happening on this planet at all times. Just imagine, millions of years of uninterrupted orgasm. I think the Universe might itself be one big orgasm. I mean, what else could a big bang be?’

There!

The turquoise butterfly appears over the ledge of the balcony and dips below, as if inviting Indrani for a game of hide-and-seek. Indrani rushes through the French windows into the balcony and watches the butterfly bounce up to the taller branches of a guava tree. She tracks the butterfly as it hops from one flower to another, going back to a flower it has already visited, feeling it all over, poking it softly with its proboscis.

‘Look at it, just look at it,’ Indrani whispers her husband’s favourite phrase as she traces the flight of the butterfly. The butterfly has ridden the powerful easterly wind, arriving at its destination, it seems to Indrani, almost by accident. She knows, thanks to her husband that it is a Common Banded Peacock.

How do you do it, blue one? How do you, with your paper-thin wings, take on such a mighty wind? How do you reach exactly where you want to? Or do you just pretend that that is where you’ve always wanted to go? Is that your secret? What do I do with my secret? Who do I share it with?

The butterfly floats upwards towards the Neem tree near the wall of the housing society. A flock of ten (could even be twenty) dragonflies dart around the tips of a branch. Indrani wonders what attracts them to it. Two bumblebees circle each other noisily near the hollyhocks. A smile forms at the corner of her lips. Then her expression changes and she says aloud to them, knowing that they’ll understand, ‘I’ve lost my bumblebee,’ and collapses on the balcony floor, her head resting against the sun-warmed railing.

***

It didn’t make any sense. No, it didn’t it didn’t make any…of all things, a sailboat? She had never been, nor had ever wanted to be on a sailboat. They were miles out in the sea on a dinghy with a sail. Blue dinghy, white sail. Then the dolphins had appeared, smooth, wet and purple, mystifying the waters. He must have wheezed. Or he might have tried to reach out for her in his sleep while she dreamt the crazy dream. It still bothers her. What was she doing on a sailboat? Did the dolphins mean something? It didn’t make any sense. You aren’t allowed to die in your sleep, suddenly, without warning, while your partner is dreaming of a sailboat beside you. How could he be so selfish? How could he slip away so peacefully, leaving her so unprepared? He could have at least given her some advance notice.

***

His absence is like the round muddy stain on the floor of the balcony where a flowerpot used to be. Everyone can see the outline of the missing flowerpot, but only she sees the flower that grew in it. Only she remembers the shape of the petals, the texture of the leaves, the curve of the stamens. Only she remembers the fragrance of the flower. That’s what she misses the most. The smell of his sweat in the lonely hours of the night.

***

‘But, it’s all out of focus!’ her daughter protests.

‘What is this focus-shocus? I don’t care about focus. I don’t need any focus. He’s got a nice smile in it and that’s all I care about. You take your focus and live your life with it,’ Indrani shoots back.

‘You’re not the only one who’s lost someone special,’ her daughter says under her breath.

What do you know? You’ll be going back to your man tonight, Indrani thinks, but she can’t bring herself to say it.

Mother and daughter sit looking at the photograph. It’s a special photograph, taken the day she was sworn to secrecy, but Indrani can’t tell her daughter that. In the photograph, her husband has the trademark sandal-paste tilak on his forehead and a cup of coffee in his hand. The steam from the cup curls upwards, giving his face a slightly ghostly appearance. Still, his mischievous smile sparkles through like a diamond. Over the photograph it says in capital letters: ‘C. RAGHAVIAN CHAUDHARY’, and below it, in bold type: ‘Date of Expiry – 12 October 2019.’

‘You don’t have to visit me everyday,’ Indrani breaks the silence, trying to keep it casual. ‘I’ll be re-joining office tomorrow.’

Her daughter picks up her bag and walks out of the room. ‘I will come whenever I want to, hear me?’ she shouts from the door of the flat. ‘And how many times do I have to tell you, don’t put cardamom in my tea, it tastes like payasam! If you have to put something, put ginger…I like ginger in my tea, or is that too much to remember?’ and bangs the door shut.

Indrani sits holding the picture of her husband.  She thinks of the time before the secret had entered her life. Their life. She is standing in the driveway, next to the tulsi shrub, drying her hair with sharp strokes of the towel when the movement catches her eye. She had initially thought that it was a tiny seed rolling with the breeze, but the thing had moved in a straight line at a regular pace. She had sat down to take a closer look but even while sitting down she couldn’t make out any body parts. She had bent closer to the ground, her nose directly above the insect, and followed its journey. Soon, she had lost all sensation of herself: of her eyes, of her nose, of her wet hair sticking to her waist and of her knees that shuffled on the driveway above the insect. When the insect burrowed under a guava leaf in its path, she, too, engrossed and inseparable with the tiny life, ducked her head. As the insect emerged from the other side of the leaf, Indrani had reached for it gingerly. ‘Don’t,’ her husband had called out from behind her, but it was too late. The moment her finger touched the insect, it burst with a tiny pop. All that remained was half-a-drop of something that looked like dew.

‘Tch, you’ve ended a long story,’ her husband had said.

‘What story?’

‘A story that stretches to the beginning of time! That little thing was part of a long, unbroken narrative. Its parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents to the power of ten, had successfully added a paragraph with each generation, and now you’ve ended the story.’

‘What about our story?’ Indrani asks the photograph in her hands. ‘Why must I bear the secret alone now? Couldn’t you have just listened?’

***

‘It’s easy, Indu. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Trust me, we’ll be like bumblebees,’ he had said, sipping the coffee.

‘No, I won’t agree to this. What’s wrong with you?’ she protested.

‘But, no one will ever know. It’ll be our secret, I promise.’

‘You don’t know how the world works. Word spreads. I’m not agreeing to this. It’s a small place, people will get to know. Are you unhappy about something?’

‘Come on, Indu, I wish you gave it some serious thought. It’s a purer way of living…imagine being a bumblebee,’ he insisted.

‘No! We’ve been married only four months. Are you unhappy with something? Is there something that I do not do which you’d like me to?’

‘Why should I be unhappy?

‘Then why do we have to do this?’

‘Because…’ he said holding her hand.

‘No don’t! I forbid you to bring it up again. What wild thoughts, and we’ve been married only four months! If you love me, you won’t bring it up again. Do you understand?’

***

He had had his way. On the way back from the Registrar’s office, immediately after they had got the divorce, he had pointed out a group of turquoise butterflies in the small park outside the office complex.

‘Look, look, look at them, Indu, just look at them! Common Banded Peacocks!’

They had stood and watched.

‘Can you see how they’re mud-puddling? Look! You’ll see them releasing jets of water from their behinds. They’re actually gathering nutrition from the mud. The males will pass on the nutrients – sodium and amino acids – to the females for healthy children. Now we are free like these butterflies.’

‘Are we like butterflies or bumblebees? Make up your mind.’

‘Like both, actually, but if you like these butterflies better, we’re like them!’

‘God help us… I hope we don’t land up in the mud,’ she said walking ahead.

‘Don’t worry, He will help us, but we’ll keep it a secret from Him, too!’ he had said with that sparkle in his eyes that she misses so much.

Sitting in the sun-soaked balcony, she clearly remembers that afternoon so many years ago. The sun had emerged after a week of constant rain. The light was pouring into a tree, lighting it up from the inside like a lantern. It was quiet and they had sat on a bench in the park and she had felt, and it was the only time in her life that she’d had that feeling, that quiet, light and soft feeling that everything always was everything else and was always so and was forever and always absolutely right.

***

Indrani reaches for the balcony railing and pulls herself up. She searches the Neem tree but can’t spot the butterfly anywhere. She leans her torso over the black metal railing, enjoying its warmth on her stomach. She closes her eyes and spreads her arms. Her saree’s pallu catches in the breeze and floats up towards the flat on the third floor. She feels the tug of the pallu, which has ballooned out in the breeze like a sail. Oh, okay, she thinks as she leans far out over the balcony, eyes closed and smiling, so that’s what the white sail was for.

Glossary:
Payasam
: a type of pudding made by boiling milk and sugar with rice, and flaoured with cardamom.

Salil Chaturvedi writes short fiction and poetry. He lives on the island of Chorao in Goa. He is the author of In The Sanctuary of a Poem, and Ya Ra La Va Sha Sa Ha, an award-winning Hindi poetry collection.

Fiction | ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ by Kruti Brahmbhatt

‘Where is the purifier?’ asked the assistant commissioner.

‘The purifier?’ the junior officer responded.

‘Yes, what else?’

‘Oh, the air purifier…’

‘I told you, a week ago.’

‘Yes, sir. I didn’t forget. By tomorrow–?’

‘No, not tomorrow. By evening, in the conference room.’

‘I thought he wasn’t serious,’ said the junior officer, returning to his desk.

‘Air purifier?’ the typist responded.

‘Yes.’

‘Is there such a thing?’

‘Yes, a purifier, an air purifier, and there exists such a thing.’

Glancing towards the main door, the junior officer spotted the peon sweeping the floor as if he was aiming a fast paced ball with his broom. ‘Kanu, come with me.’ Halfway down the stairs, the assistant stopped by the office of the scientist who was calculating some numbers on a brand new computer, almost the size of a window. He tapped the scientists’ shoulder.

‘Emergency.’

‘Where to find that air purifier?’

‘You told me only last week. I thought we had some time.’

‘No, no. Need to get it by this eve-’

‘The scientist is in Chandigarh.’

‘So we go there, check the instrument and get the damn thing by evening. Okay?’

‘But I need to come up with some figures. For the meeting tomorrow.’

‘Do it in the evening. Without that purifier, both of us won’t be here tomorrow. Still on probation, remember.’

The scientist joined reluctantly but didn’t seem to care about this unplanned trip to Chandigarh. He continued to scribble something, some numbers, in his diary even when they were in an auto rickshaw going through a bumpy road. Kanu sat with the driver in the front, two of them on separate ends in the back seat.

‘Sir, why are we going to Chandigarh?’

‘To get the air purifier, Kanu.’

‘Sir, is it so big that all three of us need to go?

‘Any problem? Do you have to present a budget in the parliament?’

‘No, no, sir. I was just asking, sir.’

‘Let’s look for the Delhi-Chandigarh bus at the station.’

The station was a mile away.

‘I have to derive numbers by tonight. Mr. Aurangabadkar need them for tomorrow,’ said the scientist, scribbling something in his diary.

‘This air purifier is also for Mr. Aurangabadkar and it’s also for tomorrow,’ said the junior officer.

‘Yes, yes. I know.’

They continued their journey, the assistant looking at the giant buses, one of them read Delhi-Chandigarh. They got out of the auto rickshaw and hopped on the bus, paid for their tickets and sat in the first row. The scientist occupied the window seat. He periodically stared outside at the gray sky and as and when a giant bus passed by their bus, covered his nose with a muffler. Twice, when the junior officer had looked his way, not for any reason other than to understand the reason behind the scientist’s heightened sensitivity for pollution.

Almost an hour later, despite witnessing its many manifestations – air pollution by trucks and buses, agriculture activities and mining activities, huge factories and little chulhas – the junior assistant remained unperturbed. They saw a group of farmers gathered on their farm to sprinkle pesticides – again air pollution. The scientist pointed his finger in that direction but didn’t waste words.

‘We work in the environment department but don’t be so sensitive,’ said the junior officer. ‘At least this pollution will kill people years later. If they don’t earn with whatever means available, they’ll die now. A dog’s death, you see. I am with Mr. Aurangabadkar on this.’

‘My cousin died of cancer five years ago and he was only forty-eight and when we asked the cause, the doctor said that constant exposure to pollution was possibly the culprit. And this is only going to get worse in Delhi.’

‘Which year was this?’

‘Almost five years ago, in 1985.’

‘I’d still say,’ said the junior officer who had taken upon himself the duty of justifying development at the expense of pollution, ‘It’s lesser of the evil.’

‘What?’

‘It’s all about the short run, my brother. In the long run, we are going to be dead anyway. Then, why worry? Think about now. This worked out for the west. Hopefully, it would for us too.’

‘But this is not a sustainable model. And, why do we need to imitate?’

‘No, we don’t. But, this is how the world works. This is how the business lobby thinks. And this is how the politicians think. And this is how Mr. Aurangabadkar thinks.’

At that moment the bus stopped for a break. All three, went outside to relieve themselves.

‘Now, don’t tell me we can’t piss next to the tree. That must also add to some kind of pollution, right?’

‘No, it’s actually good for the soil, for the tree. Kanu, don’t you people use urine in the biogas plant in your village?”

‘Yes, sir. They add cow dung, and urine and all kinds of things.’

At that moment the bus conductor called everyone. All three, stepped up and sat on their respective places one by one.

‘There, I see that fellow in green sweater, still drinking tea,’ the conductor shouted, pointing to an obese man drinking tea and chatting away with the tea-stall owner. He finally heard the conductor, paid money to the tea-stall guy and almost ran to catch the moving bus.

In exactly, four hours and thirty minutes, they reached Chandigarh. The greenery in the city pleased their senses. The junior officer ordered both of them to walk faster to the manufacturer’s shop.

‘Are you sure it was in sector 25?’

‘Yes. Two-minute walk from here.’

‘We have to be back to Delhi by evening.’

‘Shouldn’t be a problem, a bus is at two another one at three.’

‘Let’s aim for the first one. Leaves us an hour to close the deal.’

‘No more than thousand rupees.’

The shop owner cum scientist was cleaning some machine parts. When he saw the buyers, he left the instruments on the table and came up to the front desk to welcome them.

‘So where is the purifier?’ said the scientist.

‘Sir, here it is. The only piece I have,’ responded the shop owner. ‘It’s a futuristic invention, sir.’

‘What’s the price?’ said the scientist.

‘Only twenty five hundred rupees, sir,’ said the scientist, his back supported by the thick cushion on his chair. Everybody knew that these shops quoted double the price to begin with. But this was more than double.

‘Please quote the final price. At this price, no one will buy,’ said the junior officer.

‘Two thousand rupees for you, sir.’

‘We have no budget to go beyond nine hundred rupees.’

‘I can’t afford to sell at that price, sir. No, no. Not possible.’

‘Look, nobody knows about this damn thing. It will only rot in your shop.  It’s too early to be commercialised. You understand, right? We might be able to find ways to sell it in the future and at that time you will have an edge over others. First mover’s advantage, you know.’

‘Nine hundred and fifty, the final price.’

‘Okay, let’s see the instrument.’

‘Sir, you switch it on and it purifies the air in the room. Nothing else to do. Leave it on like you leave a cooler on in the summers.’

‘Here, take nine hundred and fifty rupees.’

The junior assistant and the scientist helped Kanu to carry the box with a shining blue ribbon around it. Kanu kept the box next to his seat in the bus. When they were getting off to Adhchini, a little girl came close to the scientist and asked if it contained a present for someone. The scientist smiled and shook his head before waving the girl goodbye.

It was close to seven in the evening. They rushed back to the office. The assistant commissioner’s office was quiet. The peons outside were moving chairs and tables to the conference room.

*

 The assistant commissioner was drawing some figures on the black board.

‘Sir, we’ve got the air purifier. It’s in the conference room.’

‘What’s the price? One thousand rupees?’ He turned around.

‘Yes, sir, one thousand rupees. We negotiated hard but it’s a rare machine so we had to pay what we had to pay.’

‘Don’t worry. Will get it reimbursed.’

‘Yes, sir. This thing will be useful to convince the NGO people. They can be stubborn.’

‘Never quite liked them. Bullshit arguments. Bring CNG, save environment, disrupt the economy. Stupid they are. You understand, stupid people.’

‘You are absolutely right, sir.’

‘Even if the boss tries to pass this bill, will he get the funding from businesses in the next election? Will he get votes from people who’d bear the inconvenience initially? People are interested to solve a problem only when it comes to their own backyard.’

‘Yes, sir, right sir.’

‘If they don’t want to pay the price, why should we?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Show that thing and finish the demo quickly.’

‘Yes, sir. I have it set up in the conference room.’ The junior assistant leads the assistant commissioner to the conference room on the top floor.

‘Sir, I will start the machine and talk about how it purifies polluted air. We can say if the situation deteriorate in the future, say in two decades from now, we can even subsidise the air purifiers for the poor.’

‘And-’

‘And that intervention will be better than disrupting the system now.’

‘What intervention and all, huh?’

‘Sir-’

‘Don’t use jargons and all.’

‘Sir, I thought it would impress the audience.’

‘Most ministers present tomorrow aren’t even matric pass, you understand.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Think of your audience first.’

‘Right, sir.’

‘You can’t hit six on every ball, you see?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But, don’t worry about the presentation. Let Ashok handle everything. You keep your focus on the air purifier. It should work. That’s all.’

‘Sure sir. I have understood it properly.’

 ‘Good. Good. Now send that Ashok in my cabin.’

‘Sir, he had also come with me. He might still be working on the numbers as he was on the way.’

‘He could have prepared the whole thing before a day, at least. Send him right away.’

*

‘Ha ha, so Ashok you went to Chandigarh as well?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Where are the numbers?’

‘Sir, I am done calculating most figures. Pollution deaths per year, cost of implementing CNG, benefits of using the diesel vehicles–everything is ready.’

‘Do what you have to do. Get me numbers that can convince people. In fact, put up only those numbers which can help us maintain the status quo.’

‘Yes, sir. But I have a small objection.’

‘What?’

‘Sir, if we put up all the numbers. The decision is likely to be in favour of the CNG buses. We will save lives. We will save the environment. And, in the long run, everybody will be better off.’

‘Yes, we will save the environment. Sure. We will also save lives. But what about those lives which will be affected by this decision now?’

‘Sir, I know. CNG, unlike diesel, cannot be adulterated, cannot be siphoned off, and there is no money in its spot purchases.’

‘That’s why I got you on this job, Ashok. You are sharp. Sharp is what you are. Good. Very good. But what’s the point in backing the option which won’t get implemented?’

‘Sir, Environment Protection Act passed two years back. And it empowers the government of India to take all measures necessary for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment.’

‘Ha ha, you’ve become a textbook parrot. Academic knowledge is good but doesn’t work in the real world.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar walked upto the blackboard, scribbled something. ‘Now, read this out loud.’

‘Laws are symbols of intention and not of action,’ Ashok read without a pause.

‘See health, disease, and polluted air are not part of the public discourse right now. Convenience of commuters and transporters matter. The poor will suffer, but they’ll also have cheaper option to commute.’

‘Sir, unfortunately they are the ones who’d most adversely be affected in the long run.’

‘See, it’s not going to be that bad. The positives and the negatives cancel each other out.’

‘Sir, but what about their well-being?’

‘Look, you want your job, don’t you? Let this be somebody else’s problem twenty years from now,’ said Mr. Aurangabadkar, taking his seat. ‘It’s a shame, I have to explain this to you at this level. It’s not the world of Gandhi and Vivekananda we live in. A big animal eats the smaller one, it’s a law of the jungle. Period. Do you get it?’

‘Sir, I am only suggesting that we could get all the data to the decision makers. That way at least we will have shouldered our moral responsibility.’

‘You are single, right?’

‘What, sir, yes, sir.’

‘That’s why so much idealism.’

‘Sir, I do have a family of six to support.’

‘In that case, Mr. Bhatnagar, it’s sorted. We have only one responsibility. To save our damn jobs. Do you get it? I don’t have any more time for this.’

‘Sir, I was only suggesting.’

‘Good. That’s good. Discussion is always good. But now focus on the data to present tomorrow. These NGO people should be on board. Do you get it?’ the assistant commissioner tapped his fingers on the table.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘If you can’t explain, what do you do?’ Mr. Aurangabadkar takes off his glasses and rubs them with a white handkerchief. ‘Tell me, what would you do?’

‘I will try to simplify things, sir.’

‘No, no. Wrong answer. If you can’t explain, what you do is you confuse people. Throw more confusing options. So the indecision remains. Status quo remains. Anyway, what’s your argument?’

‘Sir, we must carry on with the diesel buses. If the air quality deteriorates in a couple of decades, we can fix the problem through masks, air purifiers and even oxygen bars. That’s going to be cheaper than disrupting the transport business at this stage. Also, will highlight the difficulties in implementation.

‘But what’s the slogan? What will you put in the posters?’

Garibi hatao, desh bachao.

‘Excellent.’ The assistant commissioner stood on his place and began packing his bag. ‘I see you are a bright young man. You have a very promising future. Keep it up.’

‘Thank you, sir. Whatever I have learnt, I have learnt only from you.’

*

When the assistant commissioner reached home that evening and stood at his door he saw two giant boxes by the shoe rack.

‘Any idea when did these arrive?’ he asked his wife when she opened the door.

‘No. Nobody rang the bell. Who sent them?’

‘Long story.’

‘Let’s take them inside first.’

‘Tell me, is it a surprise gift for me?’

‘No.’

‘You are always busy on the phone, be aware of these things.  Such huge boxes they are. They were lying outside god knows for how long.’

‘But who sent them?’

‘They must be from Mr. Agarwal or Mr. Rana or maybe the Patel brothers.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I know. Must be for tomorrow.’

Both of them uncovered the gift boxes and found a TV set and a music system. Mr. Aurangabadkar saw a card inside and it was from Mr. Agarwal and it said the gift was for their wedding anniversary next week.

‘How do they know these things?’

‘They know. They always do.’

‘What do they want from you?’

‘I know what they want.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar busied himself in setting up the music system in the drawing room. ‘I know very well what they want. Good, I like smart people.’

‘They were the ones who sent twenty boxes of Soan Papdi on Diwali last year. Didn’t they?’

‘Yes. Prepare an envelope with your calendar tomorrow. Those handmade ones made by the orphans in your organization. It would look good. Will give it when I see him tomorrow.’

Before Mr. Aurangabadkar could open the box of TV fully, their daughter scuttled down the stairs. The blue ribbons, extricated stapled pins and thermacol pieces scattered in the entire drawing room. When his daughter came running towards him, she got hurt by the stapled pins on the way. Mr. Aurangabadkar immediately got the first aid kit and put a Dettol on her toe. Before she let out a cry, he showed her the new TV set and the music system. The child forgot about the wound and began experimenting with the remote control buttons.

*

The scientist, was looking out of the window and saw a ragpicker collecting plastic bags, plastic bottles and other junk on the road side. He walked at a leisurely pace with his oversized jute bag, picking things on the way. After a few minutes, two beggar kids appeared out of nowhere and asked him for something. Before asking them to wait under a banyan tree, he placed his bag by their side and kept walking in an opposite direction, towards a shop. He came out with a packet of Parle G biscuits and distributed between them. The scientist kept staring the ragpicker until he disappeared with his jute bag. Somebody knocked at the time.

The peon asked if posters were ready to be put up. The scientists said that they’d be ready early morning tomorrow. He picked up posters, began filling them up with data and charts, compelling pictures and quotes.

‘Ashok sir, do you need tea before I leave?’ asked a peon.

‘No, you go.’

‘Sir, I have closed all doors. The watchman will close the building after you leave.’

The peon was certain that the scientist would not complain to the assistant director if he left the office before he did. He could not imagine leaving the premise when the assistant commissioner sat in the office working till late sometimes.

 ‘Ashok sir.’

‘Huh…What is it?’

‘Nothing…Sir, is it a very important meeting tomorrow?

‘Who said?’

‘I was just asking. I saw other peons running around with tables and chairs so I thought–’

‘Some people are coming, yes.’

‘I have been asked to serve fresh orange juice tomorrow along with tea, coffee and biscuits. That’s why I wondered if–.’

‘You’ll know tomorrow, if that’s the case,’ Ashok continued writing on the poster with a marker.

*

The junior officer was at the office early morning. The scientist came upto him and made a request to help him putting up the posters on the conference walls which he did, but his focus was on rehearsing dialogues he’d exchange with the assistant commissioner in the evening while talking about his permanent employment.

When the peon saw the pot-bellied man coming out of a white ambassador, he did not even wait for him to climb all the stairs. He alerted the scientist and the junior officer first and then went straight to the office kitchen to bring refreshments.

‘Mr. Aurangabadkar is not in,’ the scientist said, though he had entered the building and he could be seen heading towards the fourth floor. The junior officer and the scientist sat with the minister in the guest room. First came water, then tea, followed by crème rolls and wafer biscuits. The peon had standing instructions. More ministers, NGO heads and transport business tycoons joined in, and at last when the media representatives joined in, Mr. Aurangabadkar requested everybody to shift to the conference room.

The agriculture minister walked at a slower pace, left hand on his round belly, chewing tobacco on the way. Dressed in white kurta and pyjama, his gold rings shone in the sun light. The transport minister, dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers, caught up with him.

‘What is happening in this country? It’s unimaginable.’

‘Sad, truly sad.’

‘These foreigners have no respect for our values. And we are talking about liberalization, privatization, globalization. Don’t know how far it can help.’

‘We need policies that can help our farmers. Look at the number of farmers’ suicides?’

‘But the economy. You see the economy. It’s in distress.’

‘What were we doing till now? Sleeping, snoring away?’

‘Ha ha, I hope you are not referring to my nap during the parliament session. Are you?’

‘No, no, what are you saying?’

 ‘These media people are after me. You see, I had a high fever, was on medication that day. So-’

‘No, no. I was saying in general.’

‘But you can’t also ignore the deplorable state of our foreign reserves.’

‘Yes, yes. That’s also an important issue.’

Mr. Aurangabadkar requested the group of ministers to sit in the middle of the conference room, the NGO people on the left side, businessmen on the right side, the media officials all the way in the back.

After wasting few minutes on the introduction of guests and their achievements, Mr. Aurangabadkar said that his team had worked day and night to bring the most pertinent data for them. He carried on with his rehearsed speech until he was reading out facts and points from the posters. His tone changed when he read out points he hadn’t approved.

Mr. Aurangabadkar looked in Ashok’s direction, he wore a mischievous half smile. There were no words exchanged the whole day between the two men. That day Mr. Aurangabadkar tried to turn around the situation and played a card of being an unbiased presenter who genuinely thought status quo was the best possible option.

At the end of the meeting, neither did he acknowledge the scientist’s contribution, nor presence. He shook hands with the entire team, including the peons and watchmen on special duty but not with the scientist.

By the evening, when the scientists had packed his bag, he had also stuffed his parents’ photo stuck on his desk, the Bhagawad Gita and a box of pencils he had brought on the first day of the job. A day later, when a newspaper headline read, ‘Whose interest CNG is stepping on?’ the scientist chuckled sitting in a reclining chair at home, at that moment he knew that in the tussle between the positives and the negatives, at least now they won’t cancel each other out.


Kruti Brahmbhatt is educated in the U.S. and India and currently lives in Ahmedabad. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Forge Literary Magazine, the Stockholm Review of Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Canyon Voices, the Pangolin Review and others. She has also received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She is a 2014 Young India Fellow.

Fiction | ‘The Faber House’ by Peter Alterman

Allison stared at the screen of her cell phone, black letters on gray background. Buddy Faber dead? But she’d seen him only a few months ago. A reading from the new novel, Tock, at the Barnes & Noble in Holyoke. Then dinner along with the Chair of the English Department, her dissertation director and women from the bookstore. After that, just the two of them back to his hotel for a nightcap, sex and catching up.

He’d looked and sounded the same. Slight, sixty-ish, Southern. Still pounding back the Irish pretty good. And the sex was pretty good, too, a pleasant surprise after all the whiskey he’d put away. He’d said to her after their second time, stroking her inner thigh: “You know, when I was an undergraduate, gentlemen of a certain age weren’t allowed to entertain young women in their hotel rooms.” Not that she was, technically, a young woman any more. Not at 32.

Despite his hand’s promise she knew he was only a two shot man. So she slid his hand up to the warm place where she wanted it, guiding his fingers where she wanted them to go, do what she wanted them to do. “Then I’d say this is a real improvement,” she’d said.

Remembered: face flushed, pulse pounded.

In the morning he was up early packing, limo coming to drive him to Logan for an early flight to Atlanta. The next stop on his book tour. Still, he’d taken the time to make them both coffee from the in-suite machine. They’d sat on the edge of the bed together. “Come back to Richmond, stay with me this summer,” he’d said.

“Maybe I will,” she’d said.

And now this. Allison re-read the email from Buddy’s lawyer. He’d left her his house. The one on Strawberry Street next to the flower shop and across the street from Joe and Savannah’s bar. The lawyers could mail her the papers or meet with her after the funeral. Which was Tuesday. Of course she had to attend.

Why would he do that? What the hell did she need with his house?

It was almost summer and now she was going back to Richmond. But not to stay with Buddy. To bury him. It was cloudy and cold. The last of the dogwood blossoms blew in the air like reluctant snow. Allison looked at the mug in her hand and remembered the bitter K-pod coffee he’d made for her.

Buddy was gone. A spasm of grief filled her chest and overflowed in her eyes.

Her cell buzzed in her hand and she almost dropped it. It was her dissertation director. She answered.

“Allison, did you hear? Bud Faber—“

“Yes, I heard. It’s on—.”

“All the morning news shows,” he said. “Terrible. Only 63. He was just here flogging his latest. Got to read it. Soon as I finish the semester.”

The novel he was struggling to finish while they were together, summer before last. She said, “Listen. I’m going down to Richmond for his funeral now. I’ll be gone for a few days.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Not a problem. I know you two were, ah, friends. One of the TAs can cover your class if you need.”

“Thanks.” She tapped him off. His hesitations said it all. She could be flattered by his interest in her but she knew better. Her ex had been like that in the beginning.

Allison turned her attention to the practicalities. She called Savannah.

“Oh, it’s terrible, honey, it truly is.” Savannah sniffed.

“How did he die?” Allison said. “Where?”

“A cerebral aneurism. In the middle of giving a talk. In front of a roomful of people. Oh, awful. Just awful.” Savannah was crying.

“Oh. Oh, no,” Allison said. Savannah was right. Awful.

Savannah said, “I’m so glad you’re coming down. You’ll stay with us, of course.”

As always, her first impulse was wariness. Joe and Savannah had been like family to Buddy and she didn’t feel like part of that family. And yet, there was the house.

Savannah said, “Oh please, Ali. Stay with us. It’d be a comfort to me.”

Whether she thought of herself as part of Buddy’s family or not, Joe and Savannah and Buddy thought otherwise. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll be there before midnight.”

Within an hour she was packed, out of her condo and on her way south to Richmond. By the time her red Miata hit I-91 in Northampton she was already cruising at 90. About the time she picked up the Connecticut Turnpike the useless tears were dribbling out of her eyes again and snot leaking onto her upper lip.

Approaching Port Chester she thought about the weekend in New York she’d spent with him when he was there to give a talk at the 92nd Street Y. About Obituaries and Other Lies? What she remembered was the omakase at the sushi bar, just the two of them sitting hip to hip. Breakfast in bed at the Carlyle reading the Sunday New York Times, him the Opinion section, her the Arts. Only the sound of broadsheets rustling as they turned pages disturbed the quiet of their room.

She stopped for gas at the Walt Whitman service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. It reminded her of the panel at MLA where the professor from Tulane insisted on comparing Buddy unfavorably to Walker Percy. As a writer and as a Southerner. She’d held her temper in check during the session but afterwards she practically screamed her anger to Buddy in the speakers’ room.
He talked her down, hands on her shoulders, eye to eye. “His kind don’t bother me,” he’d said. “Us Virginians ain’t Southern enough for some. And we Episcopalians ain’t haunted enough, either.” She thought that was pretty funny.

On I-95 below the Washington Beltway, she remembered the last thing he’d ever said to her, trailing the words over his shoulder as he walked out of the hotel room in Holyoke: “In a way, Tock turned out to be a love song to you, Allison.”

The book’s dedication was to her: “For Auburn hair everywhere, with love.” Damn. Her eyes were wet again. What did she owe him for that? The speedo of her Miata read 95.“Fuuuucccckkk!” she screamed into the windshield.

Should she have stayed with him instead of coming back to Amherst? And what if she had stayed? What would she have done? Settle into a domestic routine, learn to knit and cook, subscribe to Southern Living? Join him at Joe and Savannah’s place across the street for morning whiskey and eggs, go to the farmers’ markets with his sisters, maybe even bear a brace of little Fabers?

She’d liked Buddy. Really liked him. Admired and respected him. Maybe loved him. But making a home for a man wasn’t what she’d planned for her life. That’s what it always came down to for a woman, wasn’t it? Mother taught her that. And yet, without being aware it was happening, Buddy had burrowed a place into her heart though she wasn’t aware of missing him between their occasional get-togethers.

More than anything she didn’t want to feel torn between resentment and sadness. But she was.
Allison cruised into the Fan District in darkness and parked her car under the familiar maple trees in front of Buddy’s white colonial. The windows were dark. No porch light glowed. It looked frozen in anticipation. Like a dog waiting at the door for its dead master.

She shook her head. Merely a symptom of low blood sugar. A house is a house, empty or full. The rest is just chemistry.

Joe and Savannah’s place across the street was closed on account of Buddy’s death. She called to say she was out front and was instructed to come around the side. Allison pulled her rollaway out of the Miata’s tiny trunk, dragged it across the street and down the narrow walkway on the side of the bar.
Savannah was waiting for her with the old wooden screen door open. They hugged for a long minute, both of then sniffing back tears. “C’mon in honey,” Savannah said. The door banged shut behind them and they climbed the stairs.

Joe and Savannah owned the building that housed their tavern on Strawberry Street and lived upstairs. “Buddy bought the building with proceeds from ICUCMe,” Joe told her two summers ago, “And gave it to us outright. Gave it to Savannah, really, when he saw how we were together.”

She surrendered herself to their hospitality. A vat of Joe’s chili simmered on the range. A cooler under the table was filled with bottles of local lager. Savannah filled their bowls. Joe popped the caps off bottles and passed them out. They sat around the Formica kitchen table long into the night reciting well-worn Buddy stories. That’s what Allison called them, Buddy stories, many new to her. It was the best kind of wake. The wake he deserved.

Savannah put her feet up on Joe’s thigh and wiggled her toes. “Did he ever tell you about the time Aunt Elizabeth kidnapped him from his crib and had him baptized in the creek before his mother could rescue him?”

“No!” Allison said. “Really?”

Joe laughed, massaging Savannah’s feet. “Yup. His Aunt Elizabeth was dunking him in the water like a donut in coffee. He came down with pneumonia and almost died.”

Laughing, Allison said, “If it were my kid I’d’ve killed the woman.”

“Buddy’s Ma did throw her out of the house,” Savannah said. “And to this day Aunt Elizabeth lives in the same shack by the river at the edge of the family estate. An eyesore the Country Club next door hates.”

“’Cause of the outdoor privies,” Joe said. Savannah laughed.

“No!” Allison said.

“Course not. It’s just a ramshackle cottage,” Joe said. “You know why the U awarded him an honorary doctorate but refused to grant him his bachelor’s degree, don’t you?”

“No. I’ve seen the fancy proclamation in his office,” Allison said. “How could he not graduate?”

“Failed to complete a no-credit phys ed requirement,” Joe said. “Tennis, wasn’t it?” he asked Savannah. She nodded.

“Why didn’t he finish?”

Joe said, “Because he had to go to Vanderbilt to accept a short story award. Five hundred bucks. The coach was a douche and wouldn’t excuse him or let him make up the classes. So he said fuck it and went anyway.”

Allison raised her bottle. “That was Buddy,” she said. They clinked bottles and emptied them.

Savannah put her feet on the floor. Joe collected empties and dropped them in a paper sack beside his chair. He said, “Honey, grab the bottle of Irish.” When they all had full shot glasses they raised them. Joe said, “Here’s to Buddy.”

Allison and Savannah echoed him. “Here’s to Buddy.”

Allison downed the whiskey, hardly tasting it. Her throat clamped shut and her face turned red. She coughed and gasped. They waited patiently for her to catch her breath, then Joe handed out refills of beer and whiskey.

“He told you why he never cooked at home, didn’t he?” Savannah said.

Allison nodded her head, “Oh, yes. He was kind of, I don’t know, proud of it.” Though she knew that they knew the story better than she did, it was her turn to tell a Buddy story so she continued, “He said he was frying bacon in a skillet for breakfast and stepped away, got distracted by something. Next thing he knew flames were erupting from the skillet. So he grabbed it and threw it in the sink and turned on the water. Exactly the wrong thing to do, because greasy black smoke filled the whole apartment. Turned the walls black and gray. Billowed out the open windows. The fire department came. He had to pay ServiceMaster to clean it all up, then the landlord kicked him out.”

“Supposed to use a dry chemical extinguisher on grease fires, not water,” Joe said.

Savannah said, “You’re a cook. You know that. Bet he didn’t even have a fire extinguisher in the apartment.” After a heartbeat she said, “’Course he didn’t. How would he know? His mama didn’t cook.”

“Mine didn’t, either,” Allison said. “So I never learned.”

“Really? You don’t cook? Some of my best memories are being in a warm kitchen with my mama,” Savannah said.

Allison looked down. “I don’t have any best memories of my mother. She left when I was eight.” Savannah reached out and touched Allison’s shoulder. Allison smiled at her. “But we did make tea in the mornings, Buddy and me. Then he’d come over to your place. He insisted on eating whatever you made.”

“And you’d wander over eventually to drag him back to work,” Savannah said.

“Men expect that of us, don’t they?” Allison said. They laughed. It was a joke. But it wasn’t, really. Not to her.

There were more stories. Buddy’s life was a collection of stories. But then, everyone’s life was a collection of stories. This was one of her good ones, now.

In the morning Allison woke on the living room sofa with a crushing headache and a case of corpse mouth. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror with sunlight glinting off her auburn hair she said, “What do I need his house for?” She didn’t have an answer.

She dressed and went downstairs to the bar for coffee. Joe and Savannah opened every morning at six for the breakfast trade. When he was in town Buddy was almost always their only early morning customer and of course that was reason enough to open. After 10 things got busy with kids from VCU and locals on morning beer break.

Allison stopped in the open doorway. From behind her, perfect golden-yellow morning light flowed in, adding an oiled glow to every color, mahogany paneling, oak floor, shiny brass fittings, gleaming glassware, maroon booths. She was transported back to the summer she’d lived with Buddy.

His absence was an empty hole in the room. Behind the bar, Joe looked up. Their eyes met. He gestured to a stool in front of him and turned to pour a mug of coffee for her. He took down a bottle of Jameson’s and poured a generous shot into the coffee.

“In honor of Buddy,” he said. Buddy had started every day with Irish in his coffee.

“Of course.” Despite her hangover she smiled and drank.

Savannah came out around the end of the bar carrying two plates of toast and eggs in her hands and a copy of the morning’s Times-Dispatch stuck tucked beneath one armpit. When she saw Allison she said to Joe, “I’ll make you a plate in a bit.” He nodded. The women sat at the bar shoulder to shoulder and ate.

“You had no idea he was giving you his house?” Savannah said.

Allison shook her head. “It was only really that one summer. That and a few weekends here and there.”

“That’s all it takes sometimes,” Savannah said.

Savannah and Joe she could see. But her and Buddy? “God damn,” she said. And then, “God damn! What did he have to go and do that for? Did he expect me to drop my whole life and come down here to live and take care of his house for him? What the fuck?”

She pushed herself away from the bar and stormed out. Morning sun was heating up the cracked asphalt on Strawberry Street. Allison stood on the sidewalk just beyond the doorway and looked at Buddy’s house. “God damn,” she whispered. Tears filled her eyes. Something had been there. With him. With Buddy.

Savannah came up and put her arm around Allison’s shoulders. “Sucks he’s gone,” she said.
Allison leaned her head against Savannah’s. “I don’t know what to do.” They stood that way for a few moments.

“Want to go over and check it out?” Savannah said. “I got a key.”

Of course they had a key. She sniffed and wiped her wet cheeks with her palms. “Sure, why not.”

The air in the house was still, dust motes floating weightless in thick shafts of sunlight. The faintest hint of mildew rising from the basement, mixing with disinfectant from the powder room. Piles of books and papers covering every horizontal surface in the dining room and the parlor, even on chairs and sofa cushions. Bookcases on either side of the picture window were crammed with books and papers. His National Book Award lay on its side, abandoned atop one of the bookcases.

The silence pressed against Allison’s eardrums, a physical discomfort. She was listening for Buddy: his tread on the floor upstairs, the creak of the old wooden chair in his front bedroom office.

They walked through the house room by room. Evidence of Buddy’s unexpected death was everywhere, from the half-finished Times-Dispatch crossword puzzle on the kitchen counter to the towel on the floor in his bathroom to the unmade bed that Allison knew so well. And that Savannah knew well, too, before Joe. That made Allison smile. Ah, Buddy.

The doorbell chimed. Allison hurried down the stairs and opened the door. An old woman stood there ramrod straight, rail-thin, bony shouldered and white-haired, with a sharp nose and prominent cheekbones under reddened skin. She wore a shapeless ankle-length brown cotton dress that hung like a sack on her. Her eye sockets were deep and dark. Her lips were thin and cracked. There was something of Buddy in her face.

“Come in, Aunt Elizabeth,” Allison said, standing back. Savannah watched from the bottom of the stairs.

Aunt Elizabeth shook her head. She handed a set of keys to Allison. Through tightened lips she said, “It’s your house now.” Then she turned and walked away, stiff little bird steps, dress barely shifting.

“Whoa, she’s not happy with you,” Savannah said.

“I didn’t ask him for this goddamn house.”

“If I was you, I’d change the locks.”

Allison shook her head. “Nah. She’s a Christian woman. She wouldn’t break a commandment if her life depended on it.”

Buddy’s funeral was scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday. Joe and Savannah closed the bar and walked with Allison to St. Paul’s Church in the center of town. The street in front of it was crowded with all kinds of people, Allison recognized a coming-together of Buddy’s disparate families, the blood relatives, the literati, the press, the locals who knew him, the neighbors who lived around him, the friends he made family. Reporters crowded the concrete steps of the church trolling for celebrities both artistic and political, making it difficult for them to pass inside. Joe pushed his way through the mob, Savannah and Allison trailing in his wake. The vestibule was even more crowded.

Feeling awkward about Buddy’s bequest, Allison hoped to avoid his family altogether. But there they were, a receiving line, standing in front of the bronze double doors that opened to the sanctuary. There was no avoiding them. She walked the line, shaking hands and murmuring condolences: Buddy’s sisters Fern and Lily, who smelled a little of bourbon; Fern’s husband Mike and their two sons.

Allison smiled, seeing Aunt Elizabeth looking uncomfortable inside an Episcopal church with polished oak pews and plush red cushions, a massive pipe organ and gorgeous stained glass windows that spewed bright colors across the room. A church that could easily be mistaken for Catholic but for the absence of Jesus tortured and dying on the cross. Aunt Elizabeth offered a limp hand. Allison took it cautiously.

Once inside they settled themselves in a pew near the back. Hands waved to each other across the sanctuary. Many locals were there. Allison recognized two women wearing black whose flower shop was next door to Buddy’s house. She overheard a woman in the pew behind them whispering to her neighbor the details of Buddy’s death. Hearing it this time she could see it as if she’d been there, see Buddy standing at the podium talking, see the instant of surprise in his eyes, seeing him crumple, dead before his body hit the floor. The image drew a rush of grief that rose from her chest up her throat and splashed into her face. Tears traced lines down her cheeks.

She remembered the last words she’d said to him: “Maybe I will.” How cold that sounded. Allison sniffed and wiped her face with a handkerchief. She could be so unthinking.

The urn with Buddy’s ashes stood on a white and gold granite pedestal in front of the first row. So much gold: on the urn enclosing Buddy’s ashes; adorning the priest’s robes; the altar railing; the twin candlesticks that were lit during the service. Which was long. And hot. They stood. They sat. They sang together. They chanted responsively. Many around her lined up in the aisles waiting to take communion.

After the offering of the Host came the eulogy. The priest went on about Buddy’s contributions to American literature, his love of family and Virginia. No word about his drinking, a family trait, or his women—Allison and Savannah among them. The Mayor spoke of Buddy’s contribution to Richmond’s storied history. The President of the University thanked Buddy for the gift of his letters and the stipend he donated to fund a fellowship in his name.

Though Allison knew what to expect, she was still depressed by it all. It was so not-Buddy. But the funeral was for Fern and Lily and Aunt Elizabeth. For his readers and admirers and friends. For the reporters outside on the steps of the church. For his future biographers.

When the service was over they joined the line of people shuffling out. As they were about to exit the sanctuary there was a tap on Allison’s shoulder. It was Fern, standing behind her.

“Ms. Stone,” Fern said.

She felt Joe moved closer to her for protection. Allison smiled him away. “Mrs. Marshall?”

“Yes.” Fern smiled. “Do you have a few minutes to spare for us now? The family would like to discuss the estate.”

Savannah said, “We’ve already heard from the family, Mrs. Marshall.”

Fern sighed. “I’m sorry about Aunt Eliza. But please, over here. Just a few minutes of your time.”

Family business. Allison had put family business behind her years ago. But these people had just lost their brother. She should take time for them. “Of course.”

“We’ll wait for you right here,” Joe said. Savannah nodded agreement. They slid into the rear pew and sat, watching.

At the front of the sanctuary the priest shook hands with the family. Then he put a hand on the urn holding Buddy’s ashes, his priestly farewell. He turned and left through a side door. Fern led Allison to the family. Aunt Elizabeth and the boys stood apart. Handshakes again with Lily and Mike.

“It’s nice to meet you properly,” Lily said.

“You meant a lot to Bud,” Fern said. “He told us.”

A moment too slow Allison said, “He meant a lot to me, too.”

“He mentioned he’d seen you recently,” Lily said. “A few months ago?”

Allison nodded. “March. In Amherst. It was good to see him again. I had no idea.”

Lily said, “None of us did.” She shook her head. “Our big brother. Only 63. Would have been 64 next month.”

“Never even made it to Medicare, not that he needed government money,” Mike said. The women looked at him.

Lily turned to Allison. “So. We don’t want to keep you.”

“Yes,” Fern said. “We know Bud left you his house. The lawyers have been in touch. And, well, we’re sorry about the other day with Aunt Eliza.”

Fern said. “You see, before he’d changed his will in your favor he’d promised the house to Aunt Eliza.” Aunt Elizabeth glared at Allison from ten feet away.

“Oh. I see,” Allison said.

“Not a problem,” Lily said. “After all, it was Bud’s home and he had every right to do with it what he wanted.”

“But we’d like to know—,” Mike said.

Lily silenced him with a slash of her hand. “We were wondering if you’ve thought about what you want to do with it.”

“Do you plan on living in the house? Moving here?” Fern said.

Allison shook her head. How could she know? “I only just found out about the house,” she said, “and it’s come as a shock. So. I’m not sure. Maybe after? I don’t know.”

Mike spoke up again. “Bud left his literary stuff to the University library.”

Fern said, “Yes, there is that. All his papers, documents, awards, all that.”

Suppressing an impulse to resist, Allison instead said, “Of course. And heirlooms, too, they should go to the family.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Lily said. “We should agree on a time for us to go through the house with you.”

“So you don’t think we’re stealing anything,” Mike said.

“Mike,” Lily said sharply.

“I just mean–”

“Mike. Please.”

He frowned.

Misunderstood again. Allison imagined being married to a Faber woman could be difficult. Was she like them? A difficult woman? Was that why Buddy had loved her? Brandon-the-ex had said as much about her. But Brandon was an asshole.

Lily said, “How long will you be staying? When would be convenient for us to come over?”

She’d been hoping to return home after the funeral but the business with the house complicated things. She could set up her laptop in the kitchen and get work done. She had a bunch of essays to read.

“Well, I’ve got—okay, how about tomorrow morning at 9?”

Fern said, “That would suit me just fine.”

Lily nodded. “Thank you so much, Ms. Stone.”

“Allison.”

“Allison. Thank you.”

“And you,” Allison said. “My condolences.”

“Thank you.”

Another round of hand shaking, this time with the sisters only, and Allison escaped to Savannah and Joe waiting for her at the back of the church. They put their heads together.

“Well?” said Savannah.

“Could have gone worse,” Allison said. “Turns out Buddy promised the house to Aunt Elizabeth before he changed his will.”

Savannah giggled. “That explains it.”

Outside on the top step of the church they paused to look around. It was summer-warm and Virginia-humid in the heart of Richmond. The reporters were gone. The last of the funeral attendees were crossing the street to the Capitol’s park. Unheeding traffic crawled past.

Allison took a deep breath, blew it out, and said, “I need a drink.”

Joe said, “Amen, sister.”

Next morning at nine sharp Allison unlocked the front door of the house. She went through it, upstairs and down, opening shades and windows to let in morning light and morning air, then started water for tea.

She made a mental note to buy a Nespresso machine for the kitchen. Maybe replace the pine cabinets with cherry, put in a granite countertop, stainless steel refrigerator and oven. Allison stopped her racing thoughts. What was she thinking? There was a knock on the front door. She’d have to put in a video doorbell, one with Internet connectivity. Allison shook her head, frustrated with herself.

It was the estate lawyer. “Thanks so much for coming,” Allison said.

“After you explained what was happening this morning I felt it was necessary to supervise,” the lawyer said. “I also let the University know. They’ll probably show up, too.”

“Good. Thanks.” The kettle whistled from the kitchen. She led the lawyer into the kitchen. There was a knock at the back door. The Faber women.

“Come in, come in,” Allison said, unlocking the back door and standing back to let them in.

Fern, Lily and Aunt Elizabeth entered carrying canvas bags and cardboard boxes. Shifting them around, Fern and Lily shook hands, murmured morning pleasantries. Aunt Elizabeth sidled in and avoided looking at Allison. “See you got the lawyer here,” she said.

Allison ignored her and poured boiling water into two mugs. She dropped two tea bags into the mugs and gave one to the lawyer. Taking family heirlooms was fine, but she wasn’t going to let anyone claim the living room sofa was a family heirloom. Not that she wanted it, exactly.

When the university librarians showed up the lawyer went off with them. They sorted papers into careful piles, boxing them in labeled plastic bins, toting them out to a van waiting in the alley behind the house. The family gathered ceramic tchotchkes, photos in silver frames, paintings and prints off the walls. All day long people tromped through the house, their shoes clomping overhead and under foot, people shuffling in and out of rooms, climbing and descending stairs, doors banging as people went out carrying boxes and bags of Buddy’s things.

Allison sat at the kitchen table with her laptop open, unable to concentrate. Her hands rested unmoving on the pine tabletop. Seeing Buddy’s things carried away disturbed her but she couldn’t quite understand why. After all, she didn’t need what they were taking and God knew Buddy was beyond caring. But it was disquieting.

Around seven silence descended as everyone left. Allison went around the house closing windows and locking up. In every room there was evidence of pillage. The shelves in Buddy’s office were bereft of papers. His laptop was gone. His awards and trophies were gone. In his bedroom the walls were empty. The dresser top was bare. Even the open tube of toothpaste was gone from the bathroom sink: Aunt Elizabeth making a statement. Downstairs the parlor walls were empty. The papers that had been everywhere were gone. It was as if Buddy had been vacuumed out of his house, leaving merely a—house.

Trying to be considerate she’d offered the family Buddy’s things, not realizing the effect it would have on her. She wandered back to the kitchen and sat at the table in the chair where she’d spent many mornings drinking tea with him. Reading the paper with him. He’d do the crossword. She’d eat her yogurt and granola. And as he’d leave for Joe and Savannah’s he’d kiss the part on the top of her head.

Finally, in the emptiness he’d left she saw what she’d overlooked. An easy man to live with who asked nothing more of her than to be who she was. Men like that were myths, her mother had said, like unicorns. Only he had been real. A man who’d asked nothing of her, until he did, at the end.

Too late. Ah. What good was the house to her if Buddy wasn’t there? Maybe she’d just sell it. Take the money. Add it to the piles in her bank accounts.

There was a knock at the back door and Savannah came in. “Are you okay?”

Allison’s eyes were red and wet but she said, “Yes, of course. They took almost everything that was Buddy. Like a plague of locusts. So Biblical.” She sniffed. “God, I’m beginning to talk like Aunt Elizabeth.”

Savannah put a hand on Allison’s arm. She said, “With or without his stuff in it, this house will always be The Faber House.”

Allison laughed. “Sounds like a B&B”

Savannah said, “Hey! My mama runs a B&B in Charleston.”

Of course.

Of course.

Forget selling it. She said, “So how about turning this one into a B&B?”

“A great idea! And I’d love to,” Savannah said. “I worked in them growing up.” Her voice drooped. “We can’t afford it. We barely break even on the bar and that’s with owning the building.”

But Allison wasn’t going to overlook this opportunity as she’d overlooked Buddy. “I own the place free and clear,” she said, “And there’s something like ten thousand a year for maintenance and taxes. So what if I took out a mortgage and paid you and Joe to turn it into a B&B and run it? We can be partners. Fifty-fifty. I put in the money, you put in the labor.”

“If you’re serious,” Savannah said, “I’ll do it. We’ll do it.” She hugged Allison. “But I gotta talk to Joe.”

If Savannah wanted it, Joe would want it. They were that kind of couple. In the morning she’d call the lawyers. Family business.

Peter Alterman is a member of The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD) and has published science fiction literary fiction, popular fiction and literary criticism. Recent fiction publications include “They’re Playing Our Song” and “Perfect Time for Morning Coffee” in Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine #12, Spring/Summer 2020

Fiction | ‘Shabaahat’ by Sobia Abdin

Maryam

A dry loo blew over Maryam’s desolate courtyard, plucking a handful of pink bougainvillea hanging lazily over the wall of the verandah. She heard the soft clink of the bangles she had left out to dry, but the loo vanished as quickly as it had come, and for several moments, the buzzing of her grandmother’s table fan was the only sound that accompanied the hotness of the May afternoon. Maryam went back to her book, the English one. The words on the page were painstakingly difficult to read, but she tried hard to mouth them correctly. Hopes of a future when she could breezily read English, were not rare in her heart, and she was comfortably lost when her thoughts were interrupted again.

‘Mehr? Mehr?’

Maryam turned to face a man, probably in his late forties, with a yellow leather bag in his hand.

‘It’s me Mamu,’ she clarified.

‘Wallah! Sometimes it is almost impossible to tell you two apart.’

Her Mamu seated himself down on the chatai in front of her, crossing his legs with a moan, the first sign of his ageing, Maryam felt. On most days, one would believe him when he said he was thirty-five, as he often did. There was hardly any grey in his hair, and he wore crisp, straight pants with ironed yellowed white shirts. He looked like the gentleman he was, at least he was closest to one Maryam had ever known.

‘Ahh! Reading English again?’

Maryam nodded.

‘At this speed, you will surpass me I swear to God! Ask me what news I have?’ He did not wait for an answer, and continued. ‘Shabana’s older daughter is engaged. About time if you ask me. The girl has been sitting at home for three years… and doing what tell me?’

‘Aye, doing the work of men, as women in this house are doing.’

Her grandmother’s voice was muffled by the paan in her mouth, and Maryam wondered if she would risk ruining its flavour for another one of her soliloquies. The paan must have been exceptionally sweet, for she turned in her charpoy to face her table fan and went back to sleep. Maryam looked at her Uncle to see if he had a reaction, but from his expression, she gathered him to be disdainful, or maybe, indifferent. He sat there for what seemed like a long time, possibly searching for an excuse to leave, as Maryam thought, with the little self-esteem he had intact. When he finally left, the excuse was only slightly convincing, but Maryam had always known that her Uncle was not as intelligent as he wanted everyone to believe. Her mother often told her that he had been smarter, though never as smart as her, but time and poverty had done their work. She turned back to her book as another dry loo took over the verandah, rocking another bunch of pink bougainvillea to death.

***

Evening settled lazily in her small town. There were occasions when Maryam wondered if time even bothered to pass by them, or it did simply because it was made to by God. She woke up from her slumber, her head heavy with the reading and the heat. Folding the chatai, she went outside to her grandmother, who was sitting on a corner of the takht.

‘Where is Mamu?’ Maryam asked as she filled a lota from a bucket, cupping her hands under its snout and sprinkling the water it gathered all over the verandah.

‘Aye, why don’t you stop worrying about your precious Mamu? He is not made of glass, is he?’

‘I will when you stop with your hourly taunts. It gets too much sometimes, Nani.’

‘Aye, what else can I do? I will be dead before he listens. Who has ever listened to their old mothers… sons be damned… my feet can almost touch my grave now… soon…’ 

‘O-B-S-E-S-S-I-O-N…’ Maryam mouthed. That’s what her grandmother felt for death. Maryam had adopted this technique a while ago; learning difficult English words through the things she saw and heard around her, and since then, she had been able to memorise even extremely hard words with ease. She sprinkled the last drops of water across the verandah, filled the lota again, and climbed the stairs to her Uncle’s room.

‘Aye, that old man cannot even do a chidkao now… how difficult is throwing water on the floor… sons be damned one day I will be dead…’

The climb to her Uncle’s room was hardly a climb, a couple of steps haphazardly carved into the stone. The room itself was a work of haste and cheap labour, built up by gluing bricks together along the edge of the roof. If she searched for it, Maryam could still see the demarcation where the terrace boundary had been stretched to raise a wall. She had spent many fond days in the room as a child, when her Mumani lived there as a new bride, and even when she had left the house as a new bride. She remembered her red heels and red purse that she played with. Those were the only things she was left with, after her Mamu sold every piece of gold and silver from her trousseau to buy books. Maryam still remembered the clink of those heels and the flash of that purse, as her Mumani threw slurs at Mamu, and stormed out of the house, never to be seen again.

‘Oh Maryam, what would I do without you? It is so hot, a chidkao is necessary it seems. Do you know the science behind this routine?’

Maryam knew he wouldn’t wait for an answer.

‘I will tell you. It’s evaporation. The water absorbs the heat of the ground and evaporates, cooling the cemented floor. Much like the perspiration of our bodies. You have studied this in school?’

Maryam nodded.

‘I will see if I can give you a book on this. Must be on one of the taaqs. Hahaha, what a use of taaq! We used to light oil lamps in them when I was your age, but who uses lamps these days.’ He said.

Maryam knew he would fall quiet now, as he always did after talking about his youth. Her mother said that it must remind him of his glory days, when he was the most intelligent man in all of town, if you did not count the women. Now he was just any man, even worse, he was a man living on a woman’s, his sister’s, money. She felt sorry for him at times, but her grandmother always told her she shouldn’t.

Maryam glanced over the wall to see if her mother had come back from work. It was almost time, and she always wanted to see Maryam first when she entered the house. Maryam placed the lota on top of the cement water tank and leaned over the terrace boundary, painted blue for some reason. Her Uncle’s room was plastered in naked cement and the rest of the house—the room downstairs, the kitchen, and the latrine—was simply brick and mortar. Her mother had promised she would get their room, shared by all the women, plastered this year, but Maryam doubted if she would be able to save the money. Looking back at that moment now, she would realise that God had answered her question then; a muezzin broke into the azaan and a pair of black eyes greeted Maryam from the door downstairs.

***

The moon rose in all its glory by the time the family settled for dinner. It was a humble spread for the intricately embroidered dastarkhan on which it had been laid out—sabzi, chapatis, and curry with hardly any chunks of meat. Mehr was humming a tune under her breath as she served her daughter a piece of meat, the biggest in the pot, and spread ghee on her chapatis.

‘If only you would tell me the hiding place of that ghee bhinno… these old bones need some care too,’ Mehr only smiled at her brother’s jest, but knew her mother would be prepared with a reply. After all these years, the exchanges had become synonymous with dinner time. By now, she had lost count of the number of times she had made her mother promise to stop with the casual nitpicking and insults, of the countless explanations she had presented to save her brother, urging her mother that it was after all, not his fault.

‘Aye, so do bones that grind all day at the office and school, and I see only two people here who do that… no, no just sabzi and adhi roti for me… what does this old body need food for… rotting in the grave? Bas, bas…’ 

Mehr

The family ate quietly after that, except for Mehr’s interrogation of Maryam’s day at school, to which her brother added uninvited snippets here and there. She had grown to love him somehow over the years, as the resentment in her gave way to pity and acceptance. On many nights, as they all sat down for dinner, her thoughts would travel to their dinner time as children, when their father was alive and their mother’s taunts were reserved for her. Then, she would eat ghee-less, dry chapatis as the one she was eating now, with the smallest piece of meat, while everything of worth went over to her brother. Sometimes she wondered if her mother’s sneers, now for her brother, were a way of apologising, or if the apology was heartfelt. But she never bothered asking her. That is what peace does to you, it enters quietly from the backdoor and leaves no room for complaints. And if anything, Mehr knew that she was at last, peaceful.

The electricity went out as usual after dinner, and the women of the house sat outside on the takht in the verandah, hoping for a breeze that wouldn’t come. Mehr and Maryam took turns with the pankha, a device of intricate craftsmanship. In the early days after her divorce, any object that was once in the set of her wedding belongings, would bring back memories of her marriage. A marriage, if one could call it that. For Mehr, it had been nights and days, one after the other. Nights of alcohol reeked beatings and rape, and days of cleaning the previous night’s mess.

It had been a long time now, since the day she picked up her newborn daughter as her husband slept reeking of liquor and piss, stole money from his wallet, took a rickshaw to the railway station and got on a train to Firozabad. It wasn’t a calm sail. 

As she directed the pankha towards her mother, she remembered the protest that had ensued at home that day. She and her father had called her husband almost intuitively, within minutes. Mehr had gone into the kitchen, clambering, and tied the bottle of rat poison lying below behind the gas cylinder, to her dupatta. Her eyes blazed when she threatened to gulp it down her throat, and her daughter’s. She would do that before she ever set foot in that man’s house again.

Her husband came with a tin box filled with some of her things, drunk out of his senses. He stood outside the house, while she stood inside, with her baby in one arm and the bottle of rat poison in another, its mouth inches away from her daughter’s lips. 

He only said one word, thrice, ‘talaaq, talaaq, talaaq’ and left.

That night still flashed in her nightmares, what mother would have come so close to killing her daughter. She did not know what it had been—bottled frustration, a moment of weakness, or madness, but she knew she would never be able to do it now, not in a million years, not until she was alive. 

Maryam was sitting in front of her and smiled warmly, almost as if she was aware of everything that was going on inside her mother’s mind. Maryam leaned in to place her head on Mehr’s lap, holding on to her pale dupatta. Mehr caressed her daughter’s hair for a long time, as the moon shifted its place in the sky, humming the lullaby that she had sung to her as a child.

‘She looks so much like you.’ 

Her mother’s words made Mehr smile again, as she looked down upon her daughter’s face, peaceful in sleep. She had heard this all the time over the years, and as Maryam grew older, even she could see the uncanny resemblance, the shabbahat that people often talked about. She was Mehr, the moon, and Maryam was her aks, a reflection of her light, they say. As they had said for her as a girl, Mehr, the moon, the light of the bangle town. Mehr, with the grace, the softness, and the beauty of her namesake. 

But Mehr was sure she had lost the beauty somewhere. In all these years, of escaping violence to fall into poverty, of days spent collecting, saving, and calculating every paisa, of lonely nights without a man’s warm arms around her; somewhere she had lost her beauty. But where would she go,  who could she talk to. She had vowed never to say a word, when her father had died leaving behind a divorced daughter and a son too proud to work for sheeshgars, and her mother had asked her how she would bring up a child without a husband. 

“Ek gareeb zindagi ek zaleel zindagi se behtar hai,” she answered. A life of destitution is better than a life of humiliation.

Never had the question arisen again, and never had anyone asked Mehr how she felt. She would tell them though, if they ever asked, that she had been right.

She shielded her daughter’s eyes from the dim light of the verandah bulb and said, “Isse mera aks hi mile naseeb nahi,” I wish she has only my face, not my fate.

Glossary:
1. Mat
2. The practice of washing the outdoors with water intended to cool down a place
3. An element of hyperlocal architecture, a taaq is an arched shelf that was previously used to light earthen lamps
4.
Urdu for table mat
5.
Endearment for sister
6.
A hand fan
7.
Glass workers or makers; while the term is occupational, it is often used to indicate Muslims belonging to a lower caste

Sobia Abdin identifies as a Muslim woman. This identity has been defined by her experiences of growing up in a patriarchal and Islamophobic society. While together her identity and experiences often find a voice in her writing, she also consciously makes an effort to ensure that her stories are informed by a universal feeling of humanness. Her writings, which include poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, have appeared in The Lookout Journal, Literary Yard, Hans India, Indian Cultural Forum, Muse India, Woman’s Era, and in an anthology published by Impish Lass Publishing House.  

Fiction | ‘The Feather’ by Pallavi Ghosh | CreativeWritingW-TBR

Pritha had never seen a feather as beautiful as the one in her hand. It was light, delicate and white. Ten-year-old Pritha had seen many feathers in her life. Her best friend, Mukul, had shown her one of his most valuable possessions – a peacock feather. 

It was more vibrant and way bigger than the white feather in Pritha’s hand right now but she loved the way it danced with the wind.  Its tip was pointed; Pritha fancied that one day when her feather’s body would get stiff and it won’t dance anymore, she would use it as a pen-like she had seen in some of the movies about writers.

Pritha hurried to tell Mukul all about this white feather that she had discovered. She wanted him to see its beautiful dance. She ran to his house and rapped the door like a mad man. Her incessant knocks woke everybody in the house. It was the weekend afternoon, after all. Everyone in their house took a good nap after lunch but not today. 

Pritha’s knocks and her loud calls of “Mukul! Mukul! Open the door, Mukul!” even had Zoozoo, the house dog who spent almost all his afternoons in deep sleep, wide-eyed.

The door opened and a visibly frustrated Mukul looked at Pritha. “Are you mad? Maa and baba are angry. Why are you shouting at the top of your voice? They were sleeping! What’s got into your head?” He thundered in a single breath.

Pritha pulled him outside and said, “I know. I know. But I have something to show you and I could not wait.”

Mukul threw a glance at her and saw that Pritha was hiding something behind her back. “What is it?” he asked.

Pritha slowly moved her left arm and revealed, “It’s a feather. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She said with what, Mukul thought, was the biggest smile she was capable of. 

“Woah! That’s great! Now both of us have feathers. This is good news, Pritha!” said Mukul and the two of them jumped with glee.

“Wait! Let me show you something,” said Pritha and then threw her beautiful feather up in the air.

“What are you doing?” said Mukul looking up.

“Just shut up and watch,” said Pritha.

The feather went up in the air and then began descending slowly. It quivered, once to the left, and then to the right. Left and right, left and right, it went until it settled on the ground with the softest landing possible.

“Did you see? Did you see?” said Pritha, catching hold of Mukul and shaking him.

“What! What did I see?” said Mukul rather afraid.

“The dance of the feather, stupid! What else?”

“Oh, yes! It was beautiful! It’s your feather after all.        

***

Sometimes, things and people lose their space as easily and abruptly as they earned it in the first place. The reasons are as chequered as those that had drawn us towards them. But nothing happens in one day. When Mukul fell out of love with his peacock feather later, it was because he came to know how the majestic creatures, whose feathers are a regular product in the market – a cheap and easy gift item for everybody, are tortured and how his feather could be a by-product of this big and bad illegal trade that happens pretty regularly in the country almost matter-of-factly.           

“What can be done? Nobody can catch the big fish,” Mukul’s father said when he shared his worries about this big, bad world. As easily as he had fallen in love with the feather, Mukul had also fallen out of it, but he continued to love the bird, of course.     

Yes, he had shared all of this with his best friend as well and Pritha said, “To get and lose is all in the nature of things…”

She loved the feather alright, but the truth was, sometimes she didn’t as well. Like all things in the world, the feather was unpredictable. It was both sturdy and fragile! Sturdy because God knows what conditions it had survived — rain, storms, heat, humans too. Fragile because one snap, or one twist, and it would stop dancing.

Five years passed and lately, the feather was not dancing. It had also started losing its hair. One after the other, its strand would go bone dry and fall off. The leaner it became the less it could dance but Pritha still loved it enough. Enough to know that the feather had earned its way to her heart. And all she knew was that she needed to take good care of it so that they stayed together, however long that was. She did not know everything in the beginning but she got better with each day. First, she wrapped the feather in a cellophane sheet, then placed it between two paper sheets. 

This was kept inside the pages of a Famous Five book, which she carried to school every day. Pritha guarded the feather like a hawk. There were unavoidable circumstances though. A visit to the staffroom was rare but inevitable in the long run. Every two weeks, a new class monitor would be selected. Mostly, it meant catching hold of a different student to carry copies back and forth. The monitor’s face remained hidden behind a pile of some 40 notebooks while he walked behind a teacher. Staffroom visits came along with it. When Pritha took the role of the class monitor, she asked Mukul to keep a close eye on the book. 

Sometimes, during the lunch break, she took it out. A simple glance at it was enough to conjure the ghosts of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Quills in hand, they would hold the promise of lucid writing. “Will I ever be a writer?” she wondered.

She took it to her uncle’s house, which was just two blocks away from theirs. Uncle John, which was not his actual name but just what the children in the colony called him, said that the feather may have ticks. She would have to get rid of them if she wanted to preserve the feather. Pritha looked worried but uncle John placed his hand on her shoulders and said, “Don’t you worry, my child. I will take care of it.”

Uncle John went inside and came back with a zipped plastic pouch in one hand and a closed fist. He opened the fist in front of Pritha to reveal some kind of powder. Next, he asked Pritha to hand him the feather which she did rather reluctantly. “Come on, now. Put the feather in the pouch,” he said. 

Once Pritha had placed the feather in the pouch, uncle John emptied the powder inside it.

“What are you doing, uncle John? What if the feather gets destroyed?” she asked anxiously.

“Just wait, Putu Pritha. Have faith in me. Don’t you want the feather to be free of ticks?” he said. Pritha calmed down, still unsure. Uncle John shook the pouch. After a couple of shakes, he gave it back to Pritha and said, “Now, take this home and keep it someplace where no one will touch it for three full days. Keep it in your study table, in your room. And do not open or touch it for three days, okay?”

Pritha nodded.

“After three days, you come back to me and I will tell you what to do next. Okay?” He smiled at her with a raised brow.     

Pritha nodded again and went back to her home.

***

Soon enough, Pritha was back at uncle John’s, three days had passed.     

He opened the door and beamed.

“I see you remembered what I said to you. Can I also believe that you did not touch or open it in between?” he inquired. 

“Yes, uncle John. I did not open or touch it as you said,” she replied.

“Okay, then. Come on inside and we can take care of the remaining things,” he said. He took the pouch and sat down at the dining table. Taking the feather out, he flicked it lightly. Placing his left hand at the bottom of the feather, he used his right hand to stroke it between his index finger and thumb. He started from the bottom and moved upwards, doing this 6-7 times. And? The feather changed! It looked beautiful again. White, light and sporting a slight curve.

“See, doesn’t this look better?” said Uncle John.

“Yes!” said Pritha with a big smile pasted on her face.

“But there is one last thing we need to do,” he said. He went inside and this time he came back with a cellophane sheet and two sheets of paper. He wrapped the feather in the cellophane sheet first and then placed it between two sheets, just like Pritha had brought it to him.

“Now, this will last. You can keep this in an airtight jar to make it last longer but eventually, it will wear out. And if you intend to use it like you want to as famous writers of the past did, it will wear out faster,” he said while patting Pritha’s head.

“If it will wear out eventually, was all this for nothing?” said Pritha.

“Now, we did extend the time you get to spend with your feather, didn’t we? So, not for nothing but one day, my dear, it will. To get and lose is all in the nature of things…” said uncle John and Pritha nodded.

The feather did disintegrate with time and Pritha lost her feather, despite doing everything she could to preserve it. She did not even use it for writing. Not even once! She just couldn’t. It was too precious. There was the added issue of a fifteen-year-old writing with a feather, but Pritha didn’t delve too deep into that.        

***

This feather, her encounter with it that morning years ago, became something substantial in her life. Years later, when others asked why she loved the feather, she said many things. Sometimes it was the colour; white, sometimes it was the dance, which was a major pull. But deep in her heart, she knew that even if it did not dance, she would have still loved it. The feather and her feelings about it are a relic of the past today, but they had a transformative power over her back in the day. The feelings had become something else. They had acquired delicate power and become something larger than life. 

It amazed Pritha, in her twenties now, how the memory of a love, long lost, had endured the onslaught of time. She could still feel its warmth like the blood running in her veins. “Just get another one,” her friends would say.  

And it was difficult to explain something that hadn’t stabilized yet, it was growing with her every day. She tried explaining to people but most of the time, it was next to impossible. It was never about the characteristics or the body value, she said to them. She could easily get another feather–as white and as groovy as hers. There was something else to it, a pull — a strange pull towards an object she had genuinely considered to be beautiful, felt it to its bones and lived its beauty. It was unbelievable for most, intense and fantastical for others. 

Her love for the feather wasn’t one that might be considered otherworldly, it was just like any other love, for say, cars, jets, lovers or gods.

The idea of the feather brought peace to her, in an otherwise chaotic life. And to think,  she had lost the feather a long time ago! The fondness, the everyday leap of faith inspired by the one feather was to put it simply because she loved it the way it was. 

Aware of its flaws, subtle in its being, and bound by time; Pritha, loved her white feather. 

Pallavi was born in Siliguri, West Bengal and spent 10 years in Gangtok, Sikkim. Currently, she is based in New Delhi. A journalist for nearly 5 years now, writing for her is a reflective process. It’s a place where thoughts are churned and perspectives are born. More importantly, a writer must write – be it news articles, short stories or poetry.

Fiction | ‘Dump City’ by Ron Dowell

Juan Carlos Martinez sits high atop a newly bulldozed trash mountain, in Dump City Guatemala, shading his eyes from the muggy stench of summer. He hates work and will tell Mamá and Araceli once he descends. Until then, he uses a rusty screwdriver, pops the lid from the shoe glue tin, puts his hand in a plastic bag as if it is a glove, pours rubbery snot-colored content onto his hand, and turns the bag inside out. Damn bags. He must always find one without holes, unlike when he wants discretion and huffs paint thinner, for which toilet paper or any rag will do. One hand squeezes the bag tight against his lip rash with the thumb and the forefinger, back bent somewhat, blowing like a balloon until it’s as big as his seventeen-year-old head. His left-hand squeezes the bag toward his face, lungs expanding to their satisfied fullest, alucinógeno fumes going straight to his brain. He holds in the vapor until his eyes want to pop. With the screwdriver handle, he hammers the can shut, keeping the glue from spoiling. For a time, he feels no heat, no discomfort, and hardly notices when clouds of smoke from underground fires leave the air heavy. Thousands of guajiro, trash pickers, move like ghosts in el basurero, the dump; some jump on arriving dump trucks in search of food. Like Juan Carlos, many were born in el basurero.

Mamá had reminded him at sunrise, as her copper brown face showed fatigue wrinkles, exasperation in her Spanish-speaking voice, “You’re not making the weight, Juan Carlos. The cemetery people will dig up Papa and throw his bones in the basurero. We must pay twenty-five Quetzals every month to keep him. You know this.”

Juan Carlos sucks from the bag again.

Nag, nag, nag. That’s all she does, and Juan Carlos has grown weary and doesn’t want to collect plastic, metal, and old magazines from mounds of trash selling the booty to recyclers based on weight. They buzz around in their trucks like parasitic wasps outside steel gates of the city dump; they wait for loot from guajiro like Juan Carlos and his family.

Far below him; Araceli, his sickly thirteen-year-old sister whose skin fits tight against her sucked-in face, tugs at an American Flyer wagon loaded with a full five-gallon water bottle she’s filled from a fire hydrant. One wooden wheel is more significant than the others and causes the cart to squeak and lean. Pussyfoot is all she’s able to do these days; they have no vehicle and a doctor with medicines she needs, lives in lowlands on the other side of the volcano.

She leaves the Flyer in direct sunlight at their lean-to door just outside the basurero gates, even though he’s asked her time and again to park in the shade. The water sits halfway to boil there until Juan moves the heavy bottle indoors. They have no running water, and the container will last them several days before repeat after cooling. He feels a growing pressure to scavenge the dump for her as well as for his Mamá and himself.

Juan twists his neck, spying Papa’s gravesite in the cemetery perched above the dump. He draws from the bag again, helping kill his appetite for food, which, to him, is his sacrifice for Papa’s grave, and, coupled with provisions found in the dump, offsets meal expenses. However, his sacrifice isn’t enough, according to Mamá, and she has summoned Castaneda, the spiritual guide to silence the volcano, and help Juan make some money, or at least, find direction.

Juan Carlos uses his lips and tongue, suctioning more glue vapor. A kettle of vultures tears at a dead rat halfway down the dump mound where he sits. The rat reassembles, grows as big as a mangy basurero dog, and plunges its teeth into a vulture’s neck. His companions fly toward the graveyard above Juan’s perch. He strains his neck, following them to where Papa stands on his headstone, shouting something towards him. Juan cups his ears to hear his Papa’s voice once again. You can do better, my son. Go into real estate.

Juan inhales deeply from fume remnants; sweat soaks his grimy-white Carlos Ruiz soccer jersey. Juan Carlos stands and holds the inflated bag in a fist above his head. He defies the squalid basurero, which multiplies the misery of guajiro below. Guajiro Juan’s in no hurry to join. He feels the corners of his lips turn up. “Ola Papa—— yes, we can.”

***

That evening Juan Carlos, Mamá, and Araceli hole up inside their unusually cold shack of corrugated metal and old tarpaulins within a warren of garbage choked alleyways. Casteneda’s dressed in his evening clothes, an ordinary white shirt with brilliantly colored Pantalones and a chaqueta.  The last time Juan saw him, Mamá invited Casteneda to say a few words to aid Papa’s canoe journey to the Underworld. Juan Carlos has bandaged his hand covering a fake injury sustained in the basurero on which he’s sprinkled low odor paint thinner. From the grimy gauze and his jersey collar, he’ll sniff as needed.

Casteneda sits on an inverted bucket, a long machete in hand, and mumbles gibberish Juan Carlos can’t quite make out. Alberobello? Maybe it’s Maya Ki’che’ language. 

“Not enough to live the day,” Mamá says as she sweeps around the wood crate placed in the middle of their one-room shanty, her bare feet crusted charcoal black. “I received Papa’s eviction notice from the cemetery.” Her huipil, with colorful cross-stripping and angular designs woven into the cloth and heavily soiled, a brocaded wraparound corte reaches her dirt-caked ankles. “If I pay the cemetery bill, we can’t afford tortillas—what say you, Juan Carlos?”

“Um, uh—uh,” is his best explanation.

“It concerns me your eyes always look bloodshot, son. You look more and more like Resistoleros—sniffers. Have you no hope?”

“Nag Mamá——that’s all you do.”

“Qué” Are you sassing me, Juan Carlos?” Posture stiff, broom in hand, she steps toward him. “I birthed you in el basurero, and I’ll take you out here also.”

Juan Carlos raises his bandaged hand to his collar, bends his head slightly, sniffs, and glances over to Araceli curled into a ball and wasting away on a mat. She drags up her head and gazes at Juan Carlos. “I’m hungry, brother. I need medicine, but you bring snotty glue.” She slumps back onto the floor mat, raising a dust cloud. “You insult me, dear brother.”

Her words penetrate his fog partly, “Don’t worry, Araceli, everything will work out.”

Sloe-eyed, she drools onto the floor. Her lips fall in and out of synch with the sound of her words. “Help me, Juan Carlos.”

Slowly, he processes Araceli’s words. He throws a sideways glance at Mamá, sniffs at his collar and bandaged hand, which helps his body lessen the pain from family problems, and basurero nails, splinters, and other sharps which pierce. He didn’t want to think or feel anymore anyway.

“To help us, you must leave us, Juan Carlos. Casteneda will ask our Lord Maximom to help you,” Mamá says. “He’ll chant and pray to silence the volcanoes for your journey.”

Juan Carlos makes odd noises in his throat. “No. I don’t want to leave.” He swipes the bandage under his nose, chest tightens. “I’ll change Mamá—I will.”

“Upon your return, you will have answers, my boy. Things will get better. Maximom will guide your moccasins,” she says. “Our survival depends on you. Have courage.” She turns to Casteneda.

Casteneda rises on cue from the bucket on which he quietly sits. His quickness surprises Juan Carlos. Machete in hand, he scuffs to a corner shrine that’s half surrounded by sandstone pebbles and waves the sharp blade furiously above his head. He chants to invoke the spirit of the Maya God Santiago Atitlan Maximom.

“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.”

“Oh, Great Grandfather Maximon, we ask you to protect Juan Carlos from witches and evil beings, guide him to work—for money.” Casteneda points the machete at Juan Carlos, stabs the dirt, and prostrates himself before the deity, which wears a sand-colored cowboy hat. He crawls close to its carved ebony wooded face, removes the sacred Cuban cigar from its wooden lips, and places his right ear against them. He closes his eyes and nods his head as if receiving instruction from Maximom. “Gracias, gracias, Oh Mighty One.”

Jesus! Juan Carlos wants to run out into the night. Instead, he raises his collar and sniffs fading thinner. The ceremony is way too complicated.

After several minutes with his ear pressed to the deity’s wooden lips, Casteneda pinches up his face, then smoothes out the many colorful scarves placed around Maximom’s wooden neck. He sits and slides on his butt back and away. He faces Juan Carlos, who shivers in the cold. Three candles on the wooden crate illuminate the space next to a windup clock—the stink from rotting things ever-present. 

“He says you must seek Him yourself to receive guidance that will clear you, find work for gravesite payment, medicine for Araceli, and protect and bring you back safely.”

Juan Carlos stutters, “B…B…But where will I go?” So far, he was quivering in the evening’s cold, but the direction of Casteneda’s conversation heats him. “Maybe I’ll leave next week?”

Casteneda raises his eyebrows and glances at the candles, and then the clock. “Maximom says you must leave now — head west around the volcano toward the city.” Casteneda winks at Mamá, who manages a sly grin. The scent of melting wax is stable. “Your answers will come to you once you find HIM.” Casteneda points to the door flap.

“Prisa Juan Carlos,” says Araceli.

Juan Carlos’s empty stomach feels rock hard, water forms behind his eyelids. He’d only imagined what dangers could exist beyond the boundary of Dump City even though dead bodies turn up in the basurero quite frequently, and drug gangs provide the only rule of law within its gates. He seldom leaves Dump City; garbage truck drivers and recyclers being his primary contact with the outside world. On rare occasions, a trucker rolls down his tinted window and glares at Juan Carlos. Less often, one will toss him a Quetzal or two as payment for sweeping out his dumpster. And now he’s getting kicked out into that world of complexity and madness.

Casteneda resumes his chant.

“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.”

“But what meaning have your words, Casteneda?” Juan Carlos asks.

“Oh—those. Possible vacation spots I saw in National Geographic. I might visit—buy a parcel or two.”

“You don’t say?” In Juan Carlos’ mind, the spiritual guide business must be good.

“Hold him safe, Mighty Grandfather,” Casteneda says and places his hand on Juan’s shoulder. He lobs Juan Carlos an unopened can of sardines. No doubt scavenged from the dump. He raises his tone to a level which startles Juan Carlos. “Now, GO!——FIND HIM. Know that Maximom has the power to shape change.”

Juan rolls his eyes up to the rusty tin ceiling.

Mamá, who has been a silent witness, suddenly breaks and sobs, and Araceli follows. Araceli forces herself to her feet, huddles together with Mamá and Juan Carlos, and the three of them weep, “boooo hooooo.” Casteneda drops to his knees, exhausted.

“GO!” Casteneda says again, even more firmly.

“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.”

Juan Carlos breathes faster, and there’s a pain in the back of his throat. He doesn’t want to leave but leave he must. He’ll seek the fate Maximom holds for him and his family.

He pockets a new glue tube and wears a red bandana exiting the hut into the dark alley. He’ll follow the trail around the volcano.

***

The night’s incredibly dull and much blacker than he had experienced before, even when he scavenged without moonlight. Juan’s stomach growls to remind him of how he hasn’t eaten in some time. He walks for a few hours until he reaches narrow, dimly lit streets, a place with buildings, big ones like he’d heard recyclers describe. No one was out at night, but he heard voices from inside buildings made of bricks, like bricks discarded in the basurero. A rat scurries by, dogs tethered to stakes growl and bark at him. He keys back the lid and drinks the juice before scarfing down four of the ten sardines. He inverts the glue tube cap and pierces the foil membrane. His heart pounds faster when he unties and lays his head bandana on the cobblestone walkway. He squeezes the tube and, while spreading the glue into semicircles, massages the cloth, holds it before his mouth with a closed fist, and sucks.

At daybreak, Juan Carlos happens upon a woman in a corte intricately woven with birds, clouds, and sun designs. Her huipil has bright yellow and blue horizontal and vertical stripes. She balances a basket of avocados on her head, but several falls and Juan Carlos kicks them away. 

Juan Carlos tells her about Dump City, his Papa’s grave, Araceli’s sickness, everything. “Can you tell me where to find Maximom, Donã?”

“Maximom may be closer than you think. But no, my job is to procure avocados for my family, not to help lost boys find God.”

Juan Carlos scrunches up his face and curses the woman, “bitch.”

Juan then tramps through the small village into the rainforest, his clothes soaked from the heat and humidity, and his mouth grows dry. He wrestles through dense sun-blocking vegetation, and he jumps when monkeys whoop and roar in the trees.

He sees an older man in a small clearing struggling to pick berries from bushes and off the ground. Juan squashes them with his soles.

“Where can I find Mamimom sénior?” Again Juan Carlos explains his dilemma, how he hates scavenging in the basurero, how he’s always hungry, how his Mamá kicked him out. He sniffs the rag, but the fumes are faint, hardly enough to get a fly high. He’s almost out of glue—his hand trembles.

“I do not discuss religion with lost boys. Besides, my job is to pick berries falling from the bush, take them home so I might eat later, and no, not to help young boys find God.” The monkey howls grow louder, and Juan’s head begins to hurt. Turkeys cloaked in iridescent bronze-green feathers scamper in the brush. He offers the man sardines as a bribe, but the older man waves him off. 

Juan Carlos curses, “old bastard.”

Parrots feathered in brilliant blue and yellow group noisily high in the trees. He is deep into the rainforest. Vapors are gone, his glue tube empty.  

He eats half the remaining sardines leaving him with three. His sweating becomes excessive even for the humid rainforest, muscles cramping, he flashes back to Mamá, and Castenada is sending him away, which causes him to grind his teeth. He fantasizes about Araceli dying on the floor mat, and he has difficulty seeing what’s real before him when he comes upon a young woman about his age.

She appears to crack open nuts with rocks under a sign which she stops and points to. “Chukox Aq’oom is my village. I, Izabella.” She returns to work, and her two long black braids bounce with each blow to the nuts, her corte clings to her lithe body soaked with sweat. Her name means pledged to God, and with new knowledge, Juan Carlos believes he’s in the right place.

He explains his quest to which the girl instantly replies, “Yes, yes, I know where you can find Maximom.”

This brightens Juan, and he offers Izabella the last of his sardines. They sit on the ground, knees touching. “Eat.” She shares some nuts which, at first glance, look like macadamia but upon closer inspection remind him of coffee beans. “Drink.” He shows his palms and shrugs. “It is atol, a corn drink with secret ingredients, Juan Carlos.” She smiles, and so does he.

They talked for a long time; him about life in Dump City, about the thousands and thousands of people living off the basurero, about how they compete with buzzards for food, about glue to help curb his appetite. After all, that’s all he knows. She, about life in the rainforest, howler monkeys, jaguars, and leaf-cutter ants. She knows a lot. She touches his leg, and Juan Carlos believes the girl is in love with him. His stomach flutters, he’s hard.

He ducks away from a large butterfly with bright blue wings edged in black, shadows loom in the overgrowth. Another monkey howls, Juan’s body shakes, and his heart beats faster. His mind sees Araceli curled up on the floor mat, remembers why he’s in the forest, and clears his throat. “Dearest Izabella, tell me the location of Maximom.”

Izabella goes silent for a long time. Has she been putting him on? Maybe she’s a witch, a shapeshifter like Castaneda had warned. 

Nauseous, Juan Carlos stands, bends over, and grabs his stomach. He retches as if half his gut is ready to take leave of his body. Up come nuts floating in gray bile.

Izabella gives a quick shoulder shrug. “Your glue habit caused your body imbalance.”

“What’s the shit you gave me, witch? I’m dying!” Juan Carlos retches again but only emits a greenish puss. He falls writhing in the dirt, the pain sharp like tiny knives.

“No, Juan Carlos. Your glue is the poison—herbs and seed will help your body equalize itself. Devil mushroom prepares your mind for your journey home. It’s what I do. I’m the curandera, the Person of Wisdom for my people.”

His body purges stored glue to rebalance itself. He sits up and presses his palms into his eye sockets before he stands in his moccasins.

Izabella shapeshifts into Castenada.“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta,” she says in her female voice. She seems to float from the ground into a standing position in front of him. “Make-believe Juan Carlos, my hand is a mirror.”

In her palm, he sees a familiar reflection he’s seen in broken mirror shards his mother and sister collected in the dump, his shoulder-length hair greased back with pomade he’d found. His wispy mustache, medium brown pitted skin, dark, sullen eyes, mouth rash, blistered lips, and off-white teeth.

His reflection in the girl’s dirty hand is Maximom. The avocados woman was right. Maximom was all along closer to him than he’d thought. His mood boosts, and his thoughts turn to a new situation, considering how he can best move forward. Juan Carlo’s world now extends beyond the limits of Dump City. Inside, his body feels lighter, his mind somewhat brighter. He’s seen the face of Maximom, his own.

The image of Castaneda changes back to Izabella. “To help yourself and your family, it is up to you to create the opportunity to do so.”

“But how? What should I do for money? Sell drugs in the basurero?”

Izabella touches her slender fingers to his forehead, flattens her lips before the corners turn up, “Have you thought about real estate?”

Juan opens his mouth, but nothing comes out at first. “Are you sure?”

“Psyche!” Izabella whoops loudly. “First, get a truck, Juan Carlos.” She gives him plantains and a bag of cornmeal for his journey. “I’ll pray for you.”

Juan Carlos Martinez will try to get back home.

***

Juan Carlos is nearly out of the rainforest when he happens upon the berry picker. The older man struggles with several full bags of berries and winces when he sees Juan Carlos.

“I found God, sénor.”

“Humph,” the old man sputters. Sweat rains off his face .

“Let me help your load.” Juan Carlos throws bags over his shoulder and hoists one atop his head.

“God is great. I thank her every day for blessings, for sending me help like you, Juan Carlos.”

They reach the older man’s home, a shack with palm leaved walls and a thatch roof. The old man is so grateful that he gives Juan Carlos a large bag of berries. “For your family,” he says. 

Juan Carlos travels onward, losing track of how often the morning star rises; he hardly notices the heat, the weight from plantains, cornmeal, and berries. 

He happens across the avocado woman again, laboring with a basket on her head and the four bags she drags behind her. She sees him coming and turns away from him, but he catches up.

“I found God, Donã.”

“Psshh,” the woman sucks her teeth, her huipil drenched with sweat.

“You were right, Donã. Maximom was close to me. Let me help you with your load.”

Juan Carlos balances two avocado bags on top of the berries and plantains and drags the other two with his cornmeal to the woman’s tiny home.

 “Thank you, my son. I’ll pray for your safe journey home.” She hands Juan Carlos two bags of avocados. “For your family,” she says.

 Juan Carlos walks all night, and at daybreak, he’s in the small city with narrow streets, dim lamps, and brick buildings. He trades some avocados and berries for medicine, granulated antibiotics to mix with herbs, which Araceli will need.

By twilight, Juan Carlos is on the trail leading around the volcano to his village. He feels more energetic, better than he has in some time. He can’t recall a time he’d felt better. Halfway around, the volcano spews dark gray clouds of smoke high into the air; the earth rumbles below him but does not erupt. Juan Carlos answers Castaneda’s prayers when he reaches their corrugated metal and old tarpaulins shack sitting across the street from the basurero. He drops his booty of plantains, berries, avocados, cornmeal, and antibiotics inside the door flap. 

Mamá sweeps around the wood crate placed in the middle of their hut. Castaneda prostrates himself in front of the deity. Candles flicker on the floor mat, where he left Araceli. His eyes meet Mamá’s.

“Dead.” She drops her broom, stares at empty hands, and walks toward Juan Carlos. “Waiting for three months was too long for her, Juan Carlos. Araceli’s death meant less for food and more to pay for Papa’s coffin. I buried them together, and the cost does not change.”

Arceli can’t be dead, oh, fuck. Juan Carlos bites his lip and recalls the wooden wheel wagon, Araceli’s out of sync words, her telling him to hurry. He cups his mouth. Castaneda places a hand on his shoulder, but Juan Carlos’ jerks it away. Please, God.

Several days later, Juan Carlos sweats atop a newly formed basurero trash mountain, shades his eyes, and tries to focus on Papa and Araceli’s gravesite in the cemetery above him. He sold avocados, berries, antibiotics, and plantains for a small truck parked at the base of his trash mound. He’ll recycle, cut out the middleman. Below him, thousands of guajiro mill about dancing in ghostly repetition.

Real estate?

He sucks a deep fume-filled breath from snot-colored glue at the bottom of a plastic bag.

Ron L. Dowell holds two Master’s degrees from California State University Long Beach. In June 2017, he received the UCLA Certificate in Fiction Writing. His short stories or poems have appeared in Oyster Rivers Pages, Rain on Rooftops Review, Writers Resist, Stories Through The Ages Baby Boomers Plus 2018, and in The Poeming Pidgeon. He is a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. Ron resides in Los Angeles California, USA, and is African (American).