Fiction | ‘Voice’ by Madhavi Johnson

It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in New York City. A young African American hostess prepared the audience gathered in the warmth of the Harlem Repertoire theatre for a ‘smooth and joyful voyage to unknown lands’ aboard Celebrity, the infamous slave ship, sailing out of the Ivory Coast. The hostess urged everyone to sit in an orderly fashion, ‘fasten their shackles,’ behave themselves and not sing, talk or play drums. A background display of murals and images of slaves shackled to the ship’s hold, transported passengers across choppy seas to distant, unknown lands. The accompanying vocals by the hostess and her companions; a mixture of folk, blues, soul, and jazz, set the mood for the journey.  

‘Coloured Museum’s’ opening show was totally sold out that night. This was the first time an off-Broadway show had engaged the spectators to this level of partnership during the performance. We were all high on adrenaline, having received a standing ovation from the audience.

I walked over to the green room afterwards, and stepped out of my hostess costume.

“You were great tonight Ruby. So confident, and poised,” Cyrus said to me. “Your skin is a heady mix of bronze and beige. It glows,” he continued as I started removing my makeup without saying anything. 

“Are you nervous?” He asked; I had expected him to read my tension. I would be meeting my birth father for the first time tonight. Of course I was nervous. 

In hindsight, I wondered if my pursuit of truth had been a mistake. Mum had told me I was adopted when I was young. I had tried to probe over the years, in sudden bursts of curiosity. Mum and dad did not have much to give me, and I can understand that. If I was in their place, I wouldn’t have offered much myself. I had set out wondering and being inquisitive about my birth when I turned eighteen. It took some effort, and I managed to locate one surviving parent in Belize City three years later. The woman who had given birth to me had died a few years after she had left me with a lady from Louisiana. 

“I should have let things be,” I turned to Cyrus.

“Don’t be silly. You will not regret one minute of this. I am sure you will look back and know you did the right thing.” Cyrus reassured. 

“Thanks, Cyrus. Will you walk with me to Calypso? I asked Mr. Satuye to meet me there.” I could not bring myself to refer to the visitor from Belize City as ‘father.’ 

Joanna and Manuel Jordan were the only parents I had known in my life. Joanna had arrived in Chicago from Poland with her parents and older sister when she was three. Manuel came to the US from Barbados with his aunt, as a teenager. Mum had defied her family to marry dad. Manuel’s request for Joanna’s hand had been soundly rejected by mum’s father, Lech Kowalski, the local butcher. They were glad he had not brought out his shotgun that night! 

To say things were dramatic, wouldn’t be an understatement. Mum smuggled her possessions, packed in two trunks, out of her house with the help of a friend and eloped with dad by stepping out of the bedroom window and sliding down knotted sheets.

I was two years old when dad brought me home and handed me to Joanna. He was posted in Belize with the narcotics unit of the United States Military, assigned to monitor the border with Guatemala for the trafficking of drugs and contraband. One Sunday morning, he walked into an orphanage in Belize City, run by a kind lady from Louisiana. He spotted me there, “with bright eyes and a ready smile,” he said. He spent the rest of the day playing with me, feeding me, putting me to sleep. The next day he filed the papers to formally adopt me. 

He took me to Chicago a few months later. My mum vied with my dad to shower me with love even after my two siblings arrived. 

Jazz music, cigarette smoke and a low buzz welcomed us as Cyrus and I walked into Calypso Bar and Grill. Tony and Ginny were on a jazz routine on stage with a new player on the saxophone. He wore a neat blue suit. His dark skin gleamed under the bright lights.

Cyrus hurried towards the bar to meet up with an old buddy. His presence and his high pitched laughter was comforting.

The trio finished jamming to a smattering of applause. 

“Thank you for this wonderful music. Once again, let us welcome our guest from Belize City, Mr. Joseph Satuye,” The DJ announced.

Mouth dry and hands clammy, I stood rooted to my spot. Mr. Satuye got off the stage and headed towards me.

“Whiskey on the rocks, please.”

He had a sing-song drawl, a mixture of accents from deep south and the Caribbean. 

“Don’t just stare at me,” he smiled. “Say something, and surely you will have a drink with me?”

I was startled by his directness. 

“Hello, Mr.Satuye…”

I held out my hand. He leaned forward instead, drew me close to him, and gave me a bear hug. It was confusing and reassuring.

“You look just like her. Like Camelia. The same liquid brown eyes, smooth skin, lovely hair. You are a replica of your mother.” He took a white handkerchief out of his coat pocket and dabbed his eyes. 

We sat in a corner table, deep in the shadows of Calypso with our drinks and his memories.

“I still remember the night I met Camelia. She came to the bar where I worked, in Belmopan, along with her friends. She was sparkling and full of life. I was an understudy to the saxophone player, and he was sick that day. I stepped in to take his place and stood in front of the audience, fearful, painfully shy. Until Camelia showed up. She sat right in front, close to the stage, and clapped for every single note I played. She got through my shyness. By the end of the week, we were seeing each other every evening. She told me, ‘Joseph, I love every single note and nuance of your music. I want to hear it all my life.'”

I nodded, taking a sip.

“We became inseparable. Spent time together, day and night for over four months. That’s when it got complicated. She vanished. Just like that.” Mr. Satuye’s voice sounded far away. “I was shattered. I heard about her from others. Someone saw her in a bar, drunk; she was at the church praying. I wanted her back in my life. I was not willing to give her up that easily.”

I could see the pain in his eyes. His love for that woman was surely undeniable. But I needed much more. 

“How could you not find her in a small place like Belmopan?” I asked. “Did you even bother to look far, and deep enough?” I sounded cruel. My way of protecting myself, I justified.

Mr. Satuye was patient. He continued.

“Camelia had moved to Belize City. I gave up my job at the bar and followed her over there. I just could not locate her. It was as if she had vanished into thin air. It was around then that I heard she had given birth.”

She rolled off his tongue as if she was there in the room listening to us. 

The music stopped. The bartenders and bouncers left. Calypso was closing for the night. Cyrus left with his buddy, his voice receding as he said goodbye to me. 

The bulb above us threw a circle of dull, violet light. 

“I got desperate. I knew this baby was mine. I was concerned. For her. For you.”

Listening to him drained me. I was tired and impatient, this was coming from someone who was still a stranger to me. I didn’t know what to believe. 

Mr. Satuye was in a trance.

“I was broke and exhausted. I decided to go back to my village in Dangriga to stay with my mother and my Nanna Marcela. I had to recover my health, my sanity.” 

“Let us catch up tomorrow. It is late. You must be tired.” I interrupted him.

“Sorry, Ruby. I hope I have not upset you,” he said.

“No, not at all, I will call you tomorrow.” I got up and hurried away from him, from the dim light, the lingering smoke and the story from the past. 

“How was it last night?” Joanna called early the next morning. I had spent a disturbed night, unsure about the man who called himself my father and the tale he had recounted.

“It is ok to feel this way, Ruby. After all, he is still a stranger to you. Give it time.” Joanna was her usual generous, comforting self. 

‘Why did I delve into the past if I am unable to accept it?” 

I did not expect an answer.

When I hung up, I noticed several messages from Mr. Satuye.

Sorry, I may have been too forthcoming last night.

Hope you will meet me again.

You are my one chance to somehow connect with Camelia.

Please, where shall we meet and when?

I got dressed, brewed coffee, and opened my computer. I wanted to find out where on earth Dangriga was.

Cyrus and I walked out of the theatre after the show that evening, high on the reception we had received from the audience. He persuaded me to contact Mr. Satuye again. I was fearful of my emotions and resisted the idea. We hugged, said goodbye, and I walked towards the subway station. 

Mr. Satuye stepped out of the shadows. I jumped. 

“I left a lot of messages for you.” His voice was gentle and persistent. 

“Mr. Satuye, I don’t really want to know about your past, or about the woman who you say was my mother. I am sorry I made you come over to New York needlessly. Now, if you do not mind, I have an appointment and I need to go.” I spoke rapidly. “I want to meet you again. I am here until the end of this week before I return to Belize City. Here is my card. I will be at Calypso every evening. Please…” He pleaded.

I grabbed the card from the man who called himself my father and walked into the subway station quickly, running away from him and my emotions. 

The lump in my throat remained for a few days. 

‘Coloured Museum’ continued its unbeaten run till the end of January. We were on Time Out’s list of New York’s top ten off-Broadway shows. When the season was over, we left on our separate ways. 

“Mr. Satuye mentioned a place called Dangriga. I think his grandmother and mother live there. They are singers.” I was back at home, relating my encounter to Joanna and Manuel.  

“We visited Dangriga when dad was posted in Belize,” Joanna paused. “It used to be called Stann Creek Town. Don’t you remember our visit there Manny?”

“I remember the sunsets there. The place itself was pretty basic. Lots of shacks, fresh fish, and… it was my first experience drinking bread wine.”

“What? How was that?” I was curious.

“I only remember the splitting headache he got after drinking that wine. Must have been the heat and the fermentation…” Joanna chuckled.

“The people in Dangriga.” Manuel was still on the topic. “They are descendants of slaves from Africa shipwrecked on those shores. And inter- mingling with the caribs.” He was taking a walk down memory lane.

“Come on let us chat over dinner. Don’t want it to get cold.” Joanna had cooked my favourite stewed beans and rice dish.

“Punta music… ah… now I remember. Garifuna music is feisty…” Manuel continued reminiscing over a glass of port once the table was cleared and we settled in the living room.

Joanna got up as if she just remembered something. She went into the study, rummaged, and brought a disk out, a CD of music by Garifuna women. 

“This is not like Punta. Maybe more layered, soulful,” Joanna handed the CD to me. I looked at the cover, a woman looking at the sunset by the tropics. The tape was quite a mix. Stories of hurricanes that swept away homes and livelihoods, the pain of childbirth, a son murdered in a remote village, and struggles of daily life. Personal narratives of mothers and daughters passed on through songs to future generations. The CD was titled ‘Umalali.’ The woman on the cover was Marcela, the name rang a bell.

Awake late into the night, I googled the word ‘Umalali,’ the Garifuna word for ‘voice.’ I scrolled through stories about the Garinagu and their journey to Dangriga. They inhabited the land, which is now St Vincent and Grenadines, before the British laid claim to the island in 1672. I read about their trials upon landing in Stann Creek, about Joseph Chatoyer, the Chief of the Garinagu, who fought bravely against the British and died defending his land, language and culture. 

‘Umalali’ the ‘voice’ of the Garifuna women. The music Joanna had played defined their identity, language and culture. I knew that I, too, could connect with it if only I let it enter my me, take over me. 

***

Stone Tree Recording Studio in Benque Viejo del Carmen in Belize buzzed with activity. Silvia and the other singers from the Garifuna Collective arrived from Dangriga. Everyone was waiting for the rehearsals to begin for a new CD of their latest music collection. Mama Marcela had not travelled with them this time. She was 92 now and had become frail since her last trip to the studio five years ago. 

Director Ian had spent time with them in their villages then, capturing their soulful voices. The women had then visited his studio to record ‘Umalali.’ He had blended the rich vocal textures of the women’s voices with echoes of rock, blues, funk, African, Latin, and Caribbean music.  ‘Umalali’ had made them famous beyond Belize and Central America. The women were far more confident and relaxed on this trip. After a month of rehearsals and recordings, the women began their return journey to Dangriga. Easter was around the corner, and busy days lay ahead of them as their bus took them towards their families, partners, parents, children. 

Silvia’s anxiety about Marcela increased the closer they got to Dangriga. She was feeble, with a sharp mind and a barbed tongue. Silvia wondered about Aunty Helen, who was kindly helping out with Marcela in her absence. She got off the bus in Dangriga and walked through the town, the orange hue of the spectacular sunset guiding her home. The front porch, framed with bright pink bougainvillea, looked warm and welcoming. Silvia clicked the gate open and entered the path towards the house, calling out to her mother and aunt in Garifuna, “Hello… buiti binafi.,” she said as she entered the doorway.

Marcela was sitting in her armchair, facing a young woman wearing a green and blue dress. The young woman stood up when she saw Silvia. 

“This is Ruby. From New York,” Aunty Helen introduced her to Silvia. 

***

Silvia looked at me searchingly. 

“Hello. I am Ruby. Sorry I came here without letting you know. I was visiting Belize City on holiday and thought I could come over to Dangriga. I have read a lot about this place – lovely beaches, punta music, great fried fish! I also heard Umalali, my mum has a CD, and wanted to come in person to tell you how much I admire your voices, your singing.” I blurted it all out in one breath.

“Camelia’s daughter?” Silvia asked, out of the blue.

I stood in the middle of their living room, flushed and embarrassed. 

“Ha, I can see the resemblance now.” Marcela peered at me. “You are an exact copy of your mother. The same eyes, the skin, the hair. Come close to me,” Marcela held out her hand. “Sit here.”

I felt weak-kneed as I sank to the floor near her. Just one month ago, I met a stranger in a bar in Manhattan. Now I was in someone’s living room in another country and could not even remember why I had decided to come there.

“I know of Camelia. But not much.” I sounded lame. 

“Thank you Aunty Helen for preparing dinner. I missed homemade beans and rice.” Silvia smiled and turned to me. “Camelia came here in search of Joseph when you had just turned one. She returned to Belize City the same day when she did not find him here, she wouldn’t even stay the night. Joseph had left for Chicago by then. We begged her and promised to take care of her and you. But she left. We never saw her again.”  

Marcela was making loud chomping noises and nodding her head. I remained silent and stared at the food in front of me. I was annoyed with myself for having been so naive to think I would get away with the excuse for my visit.

Morning dawned, and it brought some clarity. I would tell my hosts the real reason I was there, apologise and leave town soon after. 

“Your father was named after Joseph Chatoyer.” Marcella said as soon as I entered the living room. “Chatoyer was our big Chief who fought the British. Your father was the first boy born in the family after a long line of women. He is a seventh generation Chatoyer, the British version of our family name. Over time we took on the original family name Satuye.”

I forgot my apology and sat down at Marcela’s feet again. 

Marcela talked of the bravery of Joseph Chatoyer and his followers, the Carib wars against the British, the struggle of the Garinagu to keep their language and customs intact against colonial oppression and invasions by other tribes. She explained the origins of the Garifuna language, their story-telling prowess, their powerful voices, and their indomitable spirit. “Our Umalali, our voice, is special,” she declared. “You must learn our language. That’s the only way this culture will flow in your blood.”

Over a meal of fried beans and fish with rice, I tendered my apology for visiting them knowing who they were. They were confused. 

“You have every right to come here any time,” Silvia told me. “What is the problem? Stay tonight, and I will show you around Dangriga.”

“You must watch the sunset on the beach. They are spectacular,” Marcela insisted. 

Silvia and I walked through the town to the beach in the evening. I was introduced as Nibari to every person we met. I was Nibari, the grandchild Silvia had been waiting for, for a long while. 

I had heard the song Nibari on the CD that Joanna had played. 

We sat on the beach as the orange hued sun descended over the blue waters. This was my last night in Dangriga; I would be returning to Belize City tomorrow to catch the flight back home. I yearned to stay longer, to be near Nanna Silvia, to hear stories from Nanna Marcela.

“Stay as long as you want. This is your home. You belong here.” Silvia said as though she had read my mind. “We were not in touch all these years. We can still make up for all the lost time.”

“I have to be back in Manhattan. Rehearsals start in a few days.”

I lay back on the sand with the breeze blowing gently across my face. The two women had welcomed me with unquestioning warmth and generosity. I was one of them. I was the daughter of Camelia and Joseph, a Satuye. 

“Camelia was already deep into drugs when she came here. Her arms had syringe marks, she looked thin and sick.” Silvia was drawing fistfuls of sand as she looked into the horizon. “I refused to give her money but told her she could stay with us as long as she wanted.”

“Joseph was away. I did not tell him anything about her or you. I kept track of Camelia for a while until she disappeared. I had no idea what she had done with you.” Silvia’s said, her eyes moist. 

I listened to her quietly. I was still hesitant to voice my claim to a connection with her. But I slept better that night. 

We made our way to the bus station slowly with Marcela insisting on walking all the way, holding my hand. The two women stood at the bus shelter and watched me board the bus. Silvia had packed some food for me. As I waved goodbye to Nanna Silvia and Nanna Marcela, I wondered if they would tell my father about my visit to his home.

Cyrus beamed when I recounted my adventure in Dangriga.

“I told you, you had nothing to be afraid of. I hope you are planning to keep in touch with your Nannas and will return sometime?” 

I didn’t answer.

The second season of ‘Coloured Museum’ opened this time in a theatre close to Times Square. The show was expanded and more sets and actors were included. 

My voice carried loud and clear through the theatre as I sang Nibari, trying to recreate the soulful voice of Silvia. Yes, I had managed to convince the director to add a cameo on Garifuna people. Dad smiled through my performance, and Mum sat straight with an unwavering gaze on me.  

“Let us go to Calypso. It has been a long time,” Cyrus was full of energy after the show. A West African band from Mali was playing on stage as we entered. We settled down to a meal of fried beans and fish that brought back memories of Nanna Marcela and Nanna Silvia. 

“The gentleman over there sent this complimentary drink for you.” The barman placed a Margarita with lots of ice in front of me.

“A secret admirer?” Cyrus teased me.  I looked up. 

A man in a deep blue suit greeted me from the bar, “Buiti Binafi!”

I kicked the chair behind me as I rushed towards him. I wanted a proper hug from my father this time.

Glossary:

Garifuna, also known as Garinagu, are the descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St Vincent who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the eighteenth century and subsequently moved to Belize. Garifuna mainly live on the coast but are also very present in towns and villages.

Dangriga, formerly known as Stann Creek Town, is a town in southern Belize, located on the Caribbean coast at the mouth of the North Stann Creek River.
Punta is a Garifuna music and dance style performed at celebrations and festive occasions. Created by the Garifuna people of St. Vincent best known to derive from Honduras, Belice, Guatemala, and parts of Nicaragua, so Central America.

Garifuna words:
Umalali – Voice
Nibari – Grand child
Buiti Binafi – Hello (general greeting)

*

Madhavi Srinivasan Johnson was born in Chennai and spent her early career years working as a Copy Writer in an advertising agency in India. Her engagement in women’s issues and rights of girls led her into an interesting career in international development/humanitarian work with UNICEF in India, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Namibia and USA (New York). She now lives in Ballarat, in the Victoria Region of Australia, hosts a blog and mentors young men and women from developing countries on organizational skills and self-development.

Fiction | ‘The Train and the Tunnel’ by Dhananjay Singh

for Navneet Sethi

My father lowered his neck, dipped his shoulders, and emerged out of the tin door, a foot lower than his height of five feet two inches. A broad and muscular chest straightening itself on a sturdy waist stepped out to the parched yard.  

Sweat beads dribbled down my cleavage, making a half-circle around my navel, before slithering downwards, cooling my pubic place.

His fifty-year-old wheatish face was dry and stretched tightly between the temple and the jawbone. Years of bitterness had given the oblong face a rough surface. No warm emotion either for his wife, his daughter or his mother ever brightened it for the better. 

The brittle hot soil broke under his dusty feet. He bowed to the Seven Wise Men, who willfully took no notice of him and his bowing. The dust gatherers, the villagers, waited for the verdict anxiously. With their inconspicuous murmuring, the Seven Wise Men played on the impatient nerves of the crowd like a team of shamans. 

The matter was severe. Had they come to dispense their sense of justice for the regular, routine and often illogical issues, the situation would have been different, and loud. Thundering shots from the Wise Men’s mouths interspersed with bombastic farts released through the bulging asses would have withered down whatever strength was left in the half squatting, half-standing villagers. 

The Seven Wise Men sat in a semicircle under an old mango tree, having grown giant with time. Its sprawling branches sagged under the scalding sun as if to eavesdrop on these proceedings.  

***

Under the same Mango Tree, thirteen years ago. 

The Seven Wise Men summoned my mother. 

The scandal had been reported a week before. 

She was sleeping face-up. My father held a bulky pumpkin over her stomach. It dropped quietly, on her navel area. I squirmed in her womb.  

She flinched while coming out of the shack; but her right hand was a hand of conviction. It rose angrily against the sky, and at the same time, her left hand caressed her painful stomach.    

“The child isn’t his, so!”    

The Seven Wise Men were astounded.  

 Hands and legs tied, to be thrown into the river!

All rose abruptly drawing a cloud of dust under their hips.   

Though the verdict was as expected, my grandmother broke off from other women who were sitting inside their shanties, sad and helpless. She ran through the men like a thunderstorm tearing apart a gathering of gloomy clouds. Roaring like an old tigress, she ground her teeth in anger and leaped around in the yard. She waved sideways, left and right in the air, the sickle in her left hand like Imli, the tribal goddess of destruction, while repeatedly slapping her right palm on her raised right thigh as a mark of challenge to the men. 

The Seven Wise Men wisely settled for an alternative.  

Alright, if it’s a girl, she lives! 

***

Early in the morning, today                        

Mother pulled me up by my hair. I sat motionless in the bed with my legs stretched. A sunbeam slid through a chink in the roof, fell at the corner of my neck, and diagonally connected my left breast to my right toe. Under the red frock, tiny, blood dots appeared between my inner thighs. She saw them, paused briefly and went out hurriedly. I resumed breathing. 

I was a rabbit afraid to come out of my hole for the fear of being hunted down by the preying eyes.  

Grandmother was the strongest woman in the village, bigger than any man, bigger even than the village chief. Her breasts hung like two gourds on her broad tummy. She rushed in and coiled her arms around me. 

“You are going to be fine, my child!”

She kissed my cheeks. 

If that wasn’t enough, she pulled me closer to her fat and round body. Her face caressed mine. I felt as if her wrinkles were my own.    

She sang.  

Oh, rose-like lips 

Beware of the sting of your lover’s teeth.

She giggled. 

I thought of the carpenter’s son. That tall and dark boy, with whom I daydreamed about running away to a wonderland on a black horse along secret, cobblestoned streets, that began and ended in my heart. He lived only a few shanties away, but we rarely met openly. A year older than me, he had started talking like a worldly-wise man lately. We lived on the edge of the village. Our shanties were quite shabby, like most in the area, unlike the colorful brick houses in the central parts of the village. His sweet purple lips were of the real world though. He had kissed me eleven times since the night of the village fair a year before.

***

Under the Mango tree, now again.

A mango dropped. A thud on the dusty ground. Ripe yellow juice oozed out onto the dust like a breath.

The Seven Wise Men addressed my father, who stood obsequiously bent, while the audience squatted down under the tree in three arched rows.

“What a great prospect for a good-for-nothing man like you!” The leader of the Seven Wise Men, the chief said.  

“And he is an old bridegroom!”  

It was my uncle this time, who spoke patronizingly. However, he immediately conjured an indifferent, official frown on his face, one befitting that of a trusted assistant to the Seven Wise Men.  

An ‘unreal’ husband, who if he also happened to be old, paid twice the fixed rate for a virgin wife. 

The scalding rays of the sun dug mirages out of the dense crops across the railway line, seemingly cutting the panorama of maize fields into two halves. Mother put my bloodied frock that she had cut out of her old sari into an old, half-broken clay pot. 

She went down the grassy path that vanished into the pond beyond the mango tree, to offer the pot to water and earth gods. Its placid surface swayed in the breeze as the pot sank into the water. Its ripples were deep green from the reflection of the dense bamboo, with coconut and banana trees all around it.  

Grandmother emerged from the grove with a bucket of pond water mixed with coconut water and a sackful of cracked shells containing the fleshy white fruit inside them.  

“Here, drink some before I give you a sweet sacred shower of the coconut water. And then you can go and give the shells to your father. The shells keep the water pure, goes the old saying.”

Women from the shanties flocked at our home with more coconut, some honey and a lot of wheat flour as wedding gifts. They went around in the evening giving sweet balls at the door of each shanty, singing and seeking consent from the men. 

Grandmother was the lead singer. Mother matched her note upon note, with great precision. The other women sang as a chorus. They sang about my sharp nose, my dark eyes and my long flowing hair. My name in the song gave me goosebumps. It resonated from the hedges, the branches of the mango tree, and the grove that surrounded the pond. My blood, swimming in the pond, was rolling on the tongues of earth and water gods.         

Father’s sister, my aunt, who was now a ‘really’ married woman, arrived by a rickshaw. She scurried into the group, singing passionately, stretching out her dark neck like a nightingale.  

“Rein in your heart, till you get a ‘real’ husband,” said my aunt. 

 “You are too young now for that,” said my mother behind her. 

 “And when does one become a ‘really’ married girl?”

I was thinking of him, whose purple lips had made my heart dance rhythmically.

“When a man from the community marries you, for life!” My mother was sterner this time. My aunt winked at me. Mother was not letting her speak and Aunt was eager to give her piece of advice.

“And when rich men from the city or beyond the seas marry you for their fixed time, you are not ‘really’ married,” my aunt said smiling, and hugged me again.  

“Your aunt came through fifteen ‘unreal’ husbands, without the Seven Wise Men ever coming to us and knocking at our door!” said my mother, both to praise my aunt and give herself some credit as well. 

  My aunt nodded, proudly this time. She took my hand, and we strolled towards the pond.

“Not an ordinary man, this one. He owns three factories in the city.”

  “Why does the chief so welcome these husbands?” I asked out of curiosity. 

“Because he gets his cut. And this man? He is a celebrity in the village, because he has promised to take some of our boys to work in his factories in the city, where they eat all three times a day.”

“But listen here, child. Don’t you ever let a swollen belly come on you. That is the most disgraceful thing that can happen with an ‘unreal’ husband! Remember, how Reshma was thrown into the river, because she let her belly swell? How stupid of that poor girl!”

“Yes, I remember this as clear as day; her swollen body stuck in the bushes under the bridge. It was her mother who later pushed it away again.” I said, looking towards the Chief’s mansion beyond which the river curved away from the village. 

“How beautiful were those days! The three of us roamed on dusty roads, and climbed on mango trees until the day she became a woman and was married off to that rich man across the seas.” She remembered, and her eyes moistened. 

“She was sent back by an aeroplane six months before the contract period ended because she let herself become pregnant.”

“And then only after she arrived, did the Seven Wise Men convened to settle the matter,” I reported to her.

A voice whispered my name behind the banana grove, a sweet, almost musical tune kissed my inner ears and my heart started racing. 

My aunt understood, and retired to the shanty.   

“Run away with me!” His voice sounded hurried. It meant we had to decide either way, urgently. They called him the carpenter’s son, the powerful people. I never called him anything, but he meant the world to me.  

“You want to go away from the village, with me? Come to the city for an amazing life! Come to me, where I live a royal life in a rented tunnel?”

“In a tunnel? A rented tunnel!” I quipped, with half disbelief. 

“Yeah! A tunnel of freedom, in the outskirts of the city, out of use, discarded by the corporation, but I am sure the police would let us rent it, and we will have a beautiful, undisturbed good time together. Not one Wise Man to intrude into our lives. We would lie in the curves of our arms, look at the stars, and marvel at the brightly-lit tall buildings of the world kissing the Moon. We will kiss our lips without fear. Come with me?”  

We chirped inside a cozy nest of soft monosyllables. He kissed me. I kissed him. He was fast. I was slow. We parted with quiet cravings.  

The sun had dropped behind the chief’s mansion on the bank of the river. We were not supposed to be anywhere there, none of us, not even the older people, except during an ‘unreal’ wedding. 

Somewhere inside there was my first ‘unreal’ husband, an expensively dressed old man with a wrinkled face; his slack thighs wobbled, as his feet slowly moved towards me in my mind’s eye. I dropped on my cot like an electrocuted bird. He was on me; the cot screeching, he galloping like an old dingy horse.  

  Hordes of clouds constellated around the Moon. The trees around the pond resonated with the nocturnal sounds of frogs, grasshoppers and owls, and girly ghosts, whose bodies had floated round-bellied in the river with dead embryos inside their wombs.    

On the porch, father sat down on the earthen floor eating roti with boiled potato. A rusted lantern reluctantly glowed in front of him. The feeble flame sprouted red sparks in its dying moment for lack of oil, and dimly lit up the coarse features of his expressionless face. Mother sat beside him. The Moon had come to the foliage of the mango tree.  Father was chewing when I walked out. Naked.  

My mother produced the most horrendous whimper she could, suppressed within the walls of her mouth, afraid to wake the neighbors up. Grandmother and aunt came running inside.  

Father chewed another morsel, more slowly this time, like a calm buffalo disinterest, and having no concern. He worked his mouth on the roti without looking at us at all.   

They came after me quietly, through the maize crop that was dense across the railway line. The clouds had covered the Moon making it dark all around. I was lying sprawled full-length on the ground. They were panting near me, but I was as invisible as the Moon.  

  “Child, O child! Where are you? They will kill us! Please, let’s go home?” 

  She appeared to be a different grandmother, a terrified and miserable old woman, not the one I knew.

They searched for me. 

“What’s the matter? Are you okay?” Grandmother prodded my mother who slipped and was unable to get up. She then saw the spiky stubble that had gone deep into her left foot, and pulled it out.

I heard my mother’s controlled groans.

“Let’s go back. You are badly limping as well. And she may have crossed the river by now. The carpenter’s son may be behind all this,” said my aunt.

 My mother sobbed. Perhaps, my name choked her throat. I longed for her. If I hadn’t been born a girl, she would have been dead for thirteen years now. 

Grandmother cried too, softly. Mother and aunt placed their heads on her bosom. She spread her arms and hugged them. The three of them then, as she-wolves, let out a united wail looking at the dark sky. It was obvious, I had run away. 

I knew in the heart of my heart that my mother, and also my grandmother were half-pleased thinking I had escaped. 

They walked back wishing me good luck.    

The Moon moved across the clouds. I saw dust smeared on my breasts, hips, and thighs. The soft dewy grass fondled my hips. The breeze blew cool from the pond with shreds of heat from the shacks. The breeze brought the boy I loved, the carpenter’s son. 

   I had seen him grow up with me, but knew a different him on the night of the fair, when his purple lips caught my pink lips in a juicy knot. 

The breeze felt sweet. His tongue shook my breasts, his sweet breath puffed my hair, and his hands caressed my hips. His piercing eyes felt the warmth of my heart. I looked at his dark face.  He filled me with new love.  

Besides our unified breaths, only a nightingale cooed in the bamboo grove. But at that very moment, something happened. Leaves rustled behind us. He got up with a start, and sprinted, far from the fields. 

The Moon moved behind the clouds again.  

“Who is the one who did you?”  

“Are you not ashamed?” The most powerful of the Seven Wise Men, the Chief shouted at me. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but his hoarse voice was familiar. It was the same voice that had declared when I was in my mother’s womb, Alright if it’s a girl she lives!

“No Sir, we only kissed. He loves me,” I said with fear.

“No Sir, I am thirteen, and he is fourteen, but we only kiss. We are going to be married when we grow up,”  I said with more fear.

“Kissed! Without your parents’ permission and the Seven Wise Men’s approval? Shameless girl, do you become a woman for free, like this!”

I crouched. They shoved me further down; I turned my face to the soil. They struggled to grip my thighs. I convulsed like a sacrificial animal moments before being slit in the throat by the butcher’s axe. The bigger man bumped onto me, his hanging tummy smashing me into the earth. 

When the second man substituted for him, the Moon reappeared. My eyes expanded. I called, “What, you shameless brother of my mother!” The chief waited for him to finish. 

The breeze still blew. The maize leaves still fondled my navel. A tuft of grass still swayed between my thighs.  

   Dawn was spreading out on the horizon. I plunged into the pond, and swam to its deep end like a hungry fish. The pot, with my skirt in it, was half-deep into the mud; yellowish grasses all around it, like a foliage around a fruit. 

He was on the bank with a tattered sari. I wrapped it around from my chest to my knees. I didn’t look at him. My love for him had sunken like water in a deserted well. If he had not fled from the spot, we could have fought the Chief and my mother’s brother, and left for the city before anyone knew about it.  

I ambled along the fields aimlessly.  

A hand waved above the maize crops below the railway line. It was my mother. She was waving at me to come towards her. I ran towards her, with a limp. The pain in my thighs and hips shot up. I leapt up dreaming to drop in my mother’s arms and cry. 

A train screeched and stopped. They usually swept past. The whirr of the engine was invigorating the stillness of the dawn.  

With a start, I looked at the train, and forgot my mother completely. 

   I ran through the dense maize crops. When my desperate hands touched the train, I looked back. The fields were silent. 

A woman and a boy of my age on the first seat looked at my cleavage with conflicting ideas. I ignored them, walked up to the toilet, and sat on the floor beside the door.   

The train began moving. 

It was only later that I found out about the incident. A woman had thrown herself off in front of the running train and dropped dead into two uneven pieces. The passengers huddled to get a glimpse of her through the window grills, as the bogie slowly passed by her. In two parts, she rested quietly on a stone bed someone had assembled. The two pieces brought close. The last stream of blood was flowing from the rift. Her face was tranquil.

I looked at my mother’s lifeless pieces, shedding tears for fate, pain and gratitude. Years later I thought I must have hallucinated. Because, even with her body in two halves, I saw her eyes were closing and looking at me, eyes of a bleeding and drained mother who was now dead. Two lines of tears rolled down the corner of her eyes that had gone cold.  

The train gathered speed. In no time, it was running towards a different world, the city of my dreams, where I will find my own tunnel to live a free life in. 

Dhananjay Singh teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research and teaching are focused on aesthetics, philosophy of language, comparative literature, English poetry, and modern Irish literature. His columns have appeared in The Indian Express, The Times of India, and The Pioneer. His poems have been published in Muse India. He is currently working on his debut novel. 

Fiction | ‘Barna’ by Kanishq Banka

Like a despondent autumn leaf, Barna’s feet carried her forward. Her body moved, while her mind sank deeper into the puddle of anxiety. She clutched the small cloth purse with both her hands and paced along the sidelines of the deserted road. 

Her feet hit the curb, making her lose her footing and the slipper slid off her right foot. She wobbled and eventually hit the road.

The skin of her left elbow had crumpled into a wrinkly mass and hung like a saturated rain drop. Looking at the lump of her skin, she quickly gathered her saree, picked up her slipper and still clutching her purse tightly, walked off the road.

She didn’t look at her elbow but could feel the stinging sensation and the stickiness of the blood on her skin. After walking for half an hour, she vanished into the unending labyrinth of narrow paths; laden with sewage waste and the garbage of the overflowing bins and half-naked toddlers playing in the dirt while their mothers eyed them indifferently, before stopping in front a rusty-brown painted tin shed. 

Surrounded by empty drums and plastic canisters for storing water, was a narrow iron ladder with one side of the rails missing. She climbed up ten steep steps and pushed another tin sheet inwards, which was the door, hooked in with a couple of wires to her home. Her small square piece of a dwelling. 

She stepped inside and sat down; the room was too small for her to stand upright. On the wooden floor, over a thin plastic mat, slept her husband and her two-year-old daughter. She looked at them and closed her eyes, her head resting on the cool asbestos sheet which acted as the wall.

The coolness didn’t soothe her. She opened her eyes after some time and emptied her purse. Two crumpled notes of five hundred each looked back at her dolefully. She looked at her husband. He was still fast asleep, his snores light but audible. She picked up one of the notes and tucked it inside her blouse. She crawled to the corner opposite to the entrance of the room and moved the lid from over the saucepan. It still had a handful of cooked rice resting at its bottom. 

Barna turned back to find her daughter stirring. She was about to turn two but looked like a six-month-old. Too small, too fragile. Her whole body shook with each breath. Barna picked up a small mug, half-filled with water and splashed it on her face, took a deep breath and turned to shake her husband awake.

‘What happened?’ Her husband mumbled, covering his eyes with his hairy forearm. 

‘They didn’t give the full money.’ Barna picked up her daughter and put her in her lap.

‘What do you mean?’ Her husband opened his eyes and gave Barna a confused and irritated look. He then moved slowly and sat up, cross legged. She looked at his red eyes and smelled alcohol on his breath. 

‘Couple of them said I am not working at their house at the moment and since the lockdown could continue, they can’t pay the advance. At other places, I was not even allowed to enter the building.’ She rocked her daughter gently, hoping that she would continue to sleep. A sleeping child ate less.

‘How much did you get?’ He yawned, exposing his stained teeth. She stared at him. He was older than her; he didn’t know how old, but she remembered the time when she was married to him in their village. He had just got a job in the city and her mother was eager to get rid of her. He didn’t drink back then, but now in the city, he was someone else. 

She slowed her rocking as Tusu’s eyes closed, and showed him the purse with the folded five hundred rupee note.

‘Just this?’ He looked at her in anger. She kept quiet. He grumbled and stretched his hand towards the mug and drank the remaining water. Buttoning his shirt, he grabbed the five hundred rupee note from her bag and stepped down the ladder.

***

Barna sat at the last stair and waited for something to happen. An hour later she saw her husband hurrying towards her. To her surprise, he was not drunk.

‘Where were you the whole night?’ Barna spoke stiffly as little Tusu started crying in her arms.

‘Baru, I met my friends and sorted out everything. Listen…’ He looked around and saw two of their neighbours listening intently.

‘Did you spend all the money?’ She cut him short. 

‘Come up.’ He walked up the ladder to their room. She followed him after wiping the tears off her daughter’s cheeks.

‘I will get money. There is this job. They need drivers who can transport vegetables in the lockdown. I have to make six trips and then we can go back.’ He kept his arm on her shoulder and whispered.

‘Back? To Barhaniya? How? There are no trains.’ The thought of her village, her home, freed her from her worries for a moment. She remembered the moist morning air of the Subarnarekha river, after which she was named. She could smell the blooming of the sweet mahua flowers. 

‘The goods trains are running. I have found a way. We can get inside one of them in about a week. We will come back when everything is alright.’ He smiled.

‘What about the rent?’ Her mind started working again.

‘It is just a matter of ten days. We will find some way. Don’t worry.’ He moved towards the mat and lied down.

‘I need to buy food. Give me money.’ She placed their daughter next to him.

His fingers went inside the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a hundred rupee note.

‘What did you do with the rest?’ She asked him furiously.

‘I will get it back. Now go.’ He closed his eyes.

***

Barna spent the whole evening sitting as usual, at the foot of the ladder, waiting for her husband to come back. He returned at around midnight.

Sidho climbed the ladder and sat at the entrance of the room. He looked exhausted and pulled out a bidi and lit it with a match.

‘Bhau came. He has given us time till tomorrow for the rent. How much did you get today?’ She looked up.

‘One fifty. How much do we have to pay Bhau?’ He exhaled the smoke in the night sky. 

‘Eight hundred. And six hundred for this month. So around fourteen hundred.’ She felt despair clouding her up again.

‘How much have we saved?’ He threw the half-burnt bidi down on the street.

‘Two hundred.’ She felt her fingers inevitably touching her blouse and tracing the hidden currency note.

‘So, we give him two hundred and ask him for a few more days.’ He moved inside the room. 

Barna looked around. The heat was oppressing even at night. There was no breeze. The whole street was quiet, except for a dog, which kept whining and licking the wound on his back leg.

***

‘Two hundred?’ Bhau asked, chewing on his toothbrush, as the white foam of the paste hung around the corner of his dark lips. He was a stout man, with a shrill voice. 

‘Yes.’ Sidho nodded.

‘Show me.’ Sidho looked at Barna who handed him the money. 

‘You owe me another twelve hundred,’ He spat the foam out and tightened the towel around his waist, ‘By today evening, you will empty the kholi. If you don’t, my men will kick you out. I don’t trust you people. So don’t even think about hiding or running away to whatever forsaken adivaasi village you came from. I will find you. Once you have paid everything you can come back.’ He looked at his brush and shook it hard. 

‘Bhau, it is all locked down. Where will we go? We will pay you slowly. It is a difficult time for all of us.’ Barna pleaded.

‘That is not my concern. You should have told your man to not spend all the money on booze and women. Now get going.’ Bhau smirked at Sidho and left.

Barna turned towards Sidho.

‘If you had to chase women and drink all the time, why did you drag me here with you? Do you even think about Tusu? Have you seen her? She is so weak, she needs food. And we need this room. But you…you just…do whatever you want to do.’ She stomped up the ladder and shut the tin door behind her.

Sidho found the eyes of half a dozen neighbours on him. Judging him, mocking him, shaking their heads in disappointment. He searched his pockets and found a bidi. He took out the matchbox, but it was empty.

***

After a couple of hours Barna peeked outside and found that Sidho was gone and everyone else had vanished into their homes as well. She packed up their meagre belongings into a bundle, wrapped it around a sheet, tied Tusu on her back with a back wrap made of one of her two sarees and stepped down and walked away.

The midday sun was harsh, and the curfewed streets looked desolate. Shops were all closed and Barna felt as if the city was dead. She ensured that she kept away from police checkpoints, and took long detours, navigating her way through. Her elbow itched as the scratched skin started drying up.

She stopped in front of a house on the ground floor of the chawl and knocked. Binni opened the door after a minute .

‘I need your help.’ Barna looked at Binni with desperation.

Binni looked inside her house, stepped out and closed the door behind her quietly. ‘What is the matter?’

‘We have to vacate our room today. There is no money to pay the rent. I don’t know where to go, so I came to you.’ She dropped the bundle on the muddy floor, untied Tusu and sat next to Binni’s door, taking the support of the wall. Binni sat down next to her.

‘Where is Sidho?’ She took Tusu from Barna’s hands and held her, resting her face against her shoulder.

‘I don’t know. He said he found some work to drive a tempo. He will take at least ten days to get the money. He said we could go back to our village in a goods train or something. And I have barely enough food for Tusu.’ Barna’s eyes welled up.

‘There is an old municipality building in Bhavani Nagar. I think I might have something. You can come with me. I am sure you will find some work there. They are stingy people, but you can still make some money. Right now, everyone needs maids more than ever.’ Binni’s words felt soothing.

‘What about this lockdown? Can we go?’ Barna asked.

‘Just wrap a cloth around your nose and mouth, and if someone asks anything, just say that you are going to get medicine for the little one. That is what I do. Time to use these babies.’ Binni smiled just as Binni’s son started crying inside. And soon enough, the voice of Binni’s husband came through, summoning her.

‘Can you do me one more favour? Just let me sleep here. I won’t ask for food or anything. If I make money I will also pay, but just let me sleep here. Or at least keep Tusu with you at night.’ Helplessness crawled back in Barna’s voice.

Binni patted Barna’s palms and placed Tusu back on her lap, ‘Have you eaten anything?’ Binni asked as she got up. 

Barna shook her head.

***

‘I have heard that they are running a train to send us home next week. From Bandra station. By that time, we will have the money to buy the tickets.’ Sidho spoke cautiously as Barna avoided looking at him. He had come knocking at Binni’s door late at night.

‘I am staying at Gajju’s house. Bhau won’t find me there. Just be patient for a week. I will sort everything out.’ He continued, even as Barna ignored him.

‘How is Tusu?’ He asked.

‘Sleeping.’ She replied curtly. He nodded and left.

***

Over the next four days, Barna felt a sensation close to hope, germinating inside her. Tusu, for a change, was getting two meals a day. Her husband came every night, sober, and handed her half the money he earned. She had managed to find work in the housing society where Binni took her and the savings were now adding up.

Late in the afternoon on the fifth day, Barna was washing the utensils in the house of an old couple and Binni was working on the fourth floor; when suddenly a lot of activity came about in the society. A police van and an ambulance entered the compound, blaring their respective sirens.

Barna looked out of the kitchen window, trying to make sense of all the chaos. She continued washing the dishes when there was an urgent knock on the door. Barna wiped her hands and opened it. There were two uniformed men, wearing masks and gloves and another man, dressed from head to toe in some kind of white overalls, holding a plastic stamp and a small box.

‘Mr. Naik?’ One of the police officers asked Barna, who signalled him to wait and hurried to the bedroom of the couple.

The old man emerged, slowly, coughing, holding his dear walking stick.

‘Sir, a courier delivery executive who had delivered a parcel to you three days ago has tested positive. As a precautionary measure, we are sealing the building and all the residents must stay under self-quarantine for two weeks. How many people are there in the house?’ The masked officer asked, moving a couple of steps back, as the man in the protective gear pulled the old man’s hand and stamped the back of his palm.

‘My wife and me.’ The old man looked shaken.

‘And her?’ The officer pointed towards Barna.

‘Oh, she is the maid.’ The old man turned back to see his wife, a short woman with extremely grey hair standing expressionless behind him. 

‘There is no reason to panic. The three of you need to be home quarantined for ten to fourteen days, just for safety. Everyone in the building is being tested. We will take your cheek swabs and get back with the results. There is nothing to worry about.’ The man in the gear moved towards Barna and stamped her hand, and then did the same to the old lady. He then opened the box and pulled out three cotton swab sticks and collected their samples. 

‘Please do not step out. And call the helpline numbers in case you feel sick, or if there is a health emergency of any kind.’ The other officer handed the old man a leaflet and the three of them left, closing the door behind them.

Barna looked at the old couple cluelessly. The couple stared at each other dazed. She waited for a few minutes before clearing her throat to remind them she was still there.

‘What does this mean?’ She pointed towards her stamped hand.

‘You can’t leave. None of us can. For fourteen days you will have to stay here.’ The old man collapsed on the sofa.

‘I can go to my…house.’ Barna couldn’t understand the implication of the stamp.

‘They won’t let you. There will be policemen outside the building.’ The old man said, breathing heavily.

Barna stood still, unable to make anything of all this when Tusu started crying. She went back inside the kitchen and sat down on the floor. She made Tusu lie down in her lap and started humming softly in Mundari, her native language.

‘Close your eyes little one, 

For the crows will come,

And peck at the whites of your eyes,

Thinking that they are steamed rice.

Close your eyes little one…’

Tusu sucked on her thumb and looked at her mother before her eyes closed.

***

Barna’s days became one in an unending loop. She would sleep in the old couple’s kitchen, use the common washroom on the ground floor meant for outsiders, clean the house all day, cook, eat, sleep and watch television with the couple. Tusu on her part was content at being regularly fed. Barna would meet Binni every morning when she went down to clean herself up. 

She spent hours at the kitchen window, thinking about her family, her village and to a much lesser extent about her husband. She remembered picking up the mahua flowers every morning with her mother and sister in the village. The burning red flowers of palash and the festivities of sarhul. She wanted to run away and see her village and breathe that free air one more time, away from this urban mess of constant struggle and fight for survival, where nothing was ever enough for anyone.

A week later, the test results came and none of them tested positive. That evening Binni knocked on the couple’s door and pulled Barna out.

‘We are leaving tonight.’ She whispered.

‘How? There are police outside.’ Barna suddenly felt that her current state of existence was the most peaceful one, ever since her marriage three years ago.

‘Yes, but at night there are only two of them and they sleep a lot. We can sneak out.’ Binni sounded excited.

‘What if they catch us?’ Barna wasn’t so sure about the plan.

‘Then they will send us back. But they won’t catch us. Trust me. And if they do, we can always give them a couple of hundred rupees and then they would let us go happily,’ Binni shrugged her shoulders, ‘Stay awake, I will knock once when it is time. You can tell your madam if you want to or not, it won’t matter. No one wants a servant around them all the time.’

A little after midnight, Binni knocked and the two of them walked towards the entrance with the kids. As Binni had said, the policemen were sleeping. The gates were chained. Binni handed Barna her child and squeezed out from the narrow gap. The chains clinked, but did not disturb the sleeping policemen. 

Barna passed the children one after another to Binni and then squeezed herself out. She was nervous and her bangles hit the gates. The glass shattered immediately and Barna froze for a second. Binni pulled her out and handed Tusu over before the two of them broke into a run.

Breathless, they reached Binni’s chawl. Sidho was sleeping outside her house. Binni knocked on her door. Her younger son opened it and upon seeing her mother after a week, clung to her. 

Barna looked at her husband. His face was swollen and there were several cuts across his lips. She woke him up.

‘Baru, you are back. Binni’s husband told me that you were locked down.’ He mumbled in half sleep.

‘What happened to you?’ Barna looked at him in concern.

‘Bhau’s men found me at Gajju’s house. I escaped somehow. They took everything I had saved while you were gone.’ Sidho’s eyes stayed closed.

‘You need someone to take care of the bruises. Is it too painful?’ Her fingers cautiously touched the bruised cheeks of her husband.

‘It is better. I have things to tell you.’ He opened his eyes slowly. His right eye was too swollen, and it hardly opened. 

‘The trains are starting to take us back. From day after. I found us a place near Bandra. It is not much, but we just need to spend a few nights there. I have to drive the van a couple of times more and the pay is good. I will be able to buy tickets for us after that.’ His words were slurred, coming out from his cracked and swollen lips. He took support of the wall and asked for Tusu. Barna gave him the child. 

‘She looks better.’ Sidho spoke softly.

‘Yes.’ Barna smiled weakly.

***

The sky was bluish black, when Sidho stopped under a bridge. Barna looked around, not sure what to expect. 

‘This is just for two or three nights.’ Sidho led her and Tusu under the bridge where there were a dozen auto-rickshaws parked and the rest of the place was occupied by a few other people, homeless surely, and dogs. 

 Sidho read the number plates of the autos and found the one he was looking for. 

‘This one belongs to the guy who got me the job. He said we can sleep in it. At night you two can sleep here and I can in the day. The station is five minutes from here. And for food I have a little money left, we can manage with that. Once I get paid, I will get the tickets and soon we will be on our way back. Safe.’ Sidho’s words had a forced layer of earnestness in them. 

Barna nodded quietly.

***

Sweating, Barna impatiently waited for Sidho to come back. He had said that the train would leave at two in the afternoon. Tusu was crying, and in just three days, she seemed to have shrivelled again. 

As the sun shone brighter and harsher, Barna got up with Tusu and walked towards the address Sidho had given her. It was of the man for whom he was driving the vans. There was no luggage anymore, everything was sold off.

Completely drenched in sweat, she reached the address after walking for fifteen minutes. 

‘I am Sidho’s wife.’ She told the tall man who opened the door.

‘I have no money to give you.’ He answered roughly.

‘I am not here for money. Where is he?’ She asked.

‘That bastard! Police caught him. He tried to sell my liquor on his own. He is in jail somewhere. I don’t know.’ He looked at her angrily as if it was all her fault.

‘Can you tell me the time?’ Her face stayed passive.

‘Huh…’ The man looked at her and then at his watch, ‘Eleven thirty.’

Barna turned back and started walking away. She took out the single crumpled and moist five hundred rupee note from inside her blouse and clutched it tightly. 

She was left with twenty rupees after buying the tickets, two bottles of water and three packets of glucose biscuits. She settled down at a window seat in a compartment which was overcrowded and stank of sweat and unwashed bodies all around her. It got noisier as the other travelers, mostly all migrants, kept filtering in, anxious and fearful about their fate. They fought over the limited seats and the ones who lost, ended up sitting on the floor of the train. 

After a delay of over two hours, the train finally moved. Barna took a deep breath and let the motion of the train lull her and Tusu to sleep.

The long journey seemed longer, with random halts and unexplained delays. By the second morning, a hushed murmur filled the compartment. Those who knew the route claimed that they were heading elsewhere. Barna heard them and looked outside. Bushes and trees and barren fields flew past her window. She closed her eyes and tried imagining her home. But no image formed behind the darkness of her eyelids. An apprehensive nervousness clouded her heart. The home she had been craving for suddenly disappeared from her consciousness, leaving behind a cold and foggy uncertainty.

In panic, she opened her eyes and looked at the people around her. Most were from her region. Many were from her community, not surprisingly. But she didn’t talk to anyone. She heard her language being spoken, but she felt a distance between herself and the others.

By the time the train finally stopped, it was almost noon and the passengers were shouting angrily. Instead of Tatanagar in Jharkhand, the train had reached Balasore in Orissa.

The passengers got off the train and rushed towards the railway office. A bunch of them headed towards the driver’s compartment. Everyone was shouting, everyone was confused.

Barna was the last one to get off the train. She looked at the board with the name of the station. The letters made no sense to her. Wherever she was, it was clear that it was not her home. She looked around and found three men arguing with a man wearing a black coat. She stepped closer towards them.

The man in the coat was a railway officer and through the angry abusive interjections he informed that Railway was trying to organise another train, though when would that happen was not certain.

She filled the empty water bottle from a tap and resting Tusu on her shoulder, sat down in a corner of the platform. Her eyes stayed on the train she had just disembarked from. Her mind wandered. From village to the city, to what end? For money, which had failed to buy her the feeling of being home?

‘Are you coming?’ Barna blinked and looked up on her right and found a bulky man staring at her and Tusu.

‘Where?’ Barna asked.

‘Some of the passengers are hiring a van. I am the driver. We are going to Mednipore, Bengal.’ The man looked around, searching for more potential passengers.

‘Barhaniya, near Ghatshila.’ Barna stared at the sweating man.

‘I can leave you near Dantan at most. You have money?’ The man was now rotating the key chain in his index finger as a family of four caught his attention.

‘How much?’ She asked, whispering, aware that her twenty rupees were hardly going to be hardly.

Mednipore, five hundred, till Dantan, you give two hundred.’ The driver had now turned towards the other family as they stepped outside the station.

‘I have twenty.’  She untied the knot at the loose end of her saree and pulled out the last twenty rupee note. The driver looked at her and the sleeping Tusu for a long moment, laughed, and rushed after the family.

The platform soon emptied. Most of the passengers had stepped out in search of some other means of transportation. A few groups stayed back, huddled together, hoping, and waiting for the next train.

Barna stayed seated, staring vacantly in the void when Tusu started crying. She tried feeding her daughter a biscuit, but the child vomited.  Barna washed Tusu’s mouth and headed to the station office.

‘Is there a doctor nearby?’ She asked the man behind the barred windows. Tusu kept groaning and crying.

Chandipur. Go straight. It is around ten kilometres from here.’ The officer looked at her briefly and got back to his papers.

She stepped outside the station, asked for directions, and started walking. Tusu’s cries started getting inaudible as their shadows elongated. By the time they reached the Chandipur, the sun had slipped below the horizon.

The small town was empty. Barna found an old man with three dogs sitting outside a small closed shop who told her that everyone had left as a storm was approaching. When she insisted, the man gave her the directions to the doctor’s house.

Holding Tusu close to herself, Barna hurried towards the address. All the houses were locked. She sat outside the locked house of the doctor for a while, singing softly to Tusu.

When the shadows merged in the darkness she got up. She was afraid to check the heartbeats of her silent daughter as she tied her gently on her back and started walking aimlessly. Soon, she heard the waves of the ocean.

Her mind was thoughtless, and her numb feet stopped feeling the pain. The straps of her worn out slippers gave away and she took them off and left them on the sand.  As the night grew darker, her feet became wet and stung with the salt of the rising sea. She walked away from the ocean and slept on the sand, holding Tusu close to her, who never moved.

She woke up the next morning by sunrise and resumed walking. The day was hotter than usual, and the winds were stronger. By nightfall, clouds had gathered. The waves in the ocean were angry. The almost full moon would appear momentarily before vanishing behind the dark clouds. Barna could hear the growling rumble of the thunder and the flashes of lightning deep in the belly of the clouds.

She stopped walking and sat down on the beach. The waves would race towards her and kiss her swollen and bloody feet, and then move back.  She finished the remaining biscuits and water and lied down on the beach with Tusu resting over her breasts, who felt lighter than a feather. She held her tight and close and looked at the sky above her. The wind started hurting her skin. The thunders were now longer and louder and closer.  

The rain on her face felt the same as it did when she lived in her village. She heard the bells tied to the cattle walking on the narrow mud paths along the fields. She felt the cool soothing water of the river. She smelled the fish curry her mother used to make. The steamed rice that always looked like the whites of the eye of a new-born baby. 

She closed her eyes as a strong wave completely drenched her.  The skies opened up and rain drops hit her skin with force.

Where was her home, she wondered. Was it her village or was it in the whites of the mahua flowers? Or was it just an imaginary place she believed in, where she could belong?

Sweet rain drops mixed with the salty ocean water entered her mouth and she closed her eyes.

Where was her home? 

She didn’t know.

Glossary:
1. Barhaniya: A small village near the river Subarnarekha, in the extreme south eastern part of the state of Jharkhand, near the border of the states of Orissa and West Bengal.
2. Subarnarekha: An Indian river, which flows through the Indian states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha. Traditionally, gold was mined near the origin of the river and thus, it got its name, which means streak of gold.
3. Mahua: A tropical Indian tree, known for its small, white, sweet smelling flowers which are edible and used to prepare local alcohol and for medicinal purposes. The flowers bloom in the months of March and April.
4. Bidi – Small hand-rolled cigarettes made of tobacco and wrapped in tendu or temburni leaves.
5. Kholi: A very small room, with hardly any facilities.
6. Adivaasi: It is the collective term often used to refer to the tribes and indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent. At times it is used as a derogatory slang, to refer to a person as backward, dull, and primitive
7. Chawl: Usually a large building divided into many separate tenements, offering cheap, basic accommodation to poor but gainfully employed labourers and migrant families. Common in the western part of India, especially in the city of Mumbai.
8. Mundari: It is a Munda language of the Austroasiatic language family spoken by the Munda people in eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, Odisha, and West Bengal.
9. Palash: A dry-season deciduous tree, with bright red flowers, blooming in the months of March and April. It is also the state flower of Jharkhand.
10. Sarhul: A colourful spring festival, which marks the beginning of Santhali new year.

Kanishq Banka, 30, is a Mumbai based writer and traveller. He has finished his double master’s degree in Sociology and Journalism & Mass Communications. He has published three novels (The Inferno-A Thought Fire, The Black Barrier and Let’s Get Married) and stories in The Bombay Review (Mahua) and in the two anthologies by Dastaan and White Falcon Publishing.(Lierati 2018 and 2019). He is also the co-writer of the story of the movie ‘Namdeo Bhau- In Search of Silence’, produced by Jugaad Motion pictures and directed by Daria Gai from Ukraine. He is presently working on a couple of scripts and on his next novel about a poet from Kashmir. 

Fiction | ‘The Bride’ by Payal Priya | CreativeWritingW-TBR

She looked into the mirror, there was sweat dripping down her forehead. The kumkum mixed with the sweat and ran down her temple, smudging her nose and face. She tied up her saree, thinking of home again, a room with a tin roof.

She saw Monu running behind their younger brother, Sonu, with a branch from the guava tree in his hand in the narrow street that was once her world. Sonu disappeared suddenly when he reached the end of the street, while Monu dropped the branch; then picked up a pebble and threw it towards him. Phulwa raised her hand in the air shouting, ‘Aae Monua rukk…’

The next second, Sonu, the brick, the narrow road and the blue hut with a room and a tin roof all disappeared together. Phulwa looked at her hand, still in the air. That was no longer her home.

She could see darkness being disturbed by the blue light that entered through the fissures on the tin door and the little window. The door took her back to the blue hut with no windows yet again. On the occasions when Sonu-Monu were away helping her father and Mangri went to the Bada Makaan for work, Phulwa would go to the kirana shop at the end of the street. This was the tip of her world that stretched across the narrow lane.

As a child she had gone there more frequently, the visits had become less frequent ever since she started bleeding. Visiting the kirana shop was almost like a ritual for her. She would go there, stop a little before the threshold (she was told they were not pure enough to enter these sacred places), call for the Bhandari and tell him what she wanted. The Bhandari then asked the boy (she had seen three of them by now and all of them were called Chotu) to pack the things in a plastic bag. The kirana shop was so much like the temple on the hill that Sonu had told her about, they were not allowed to enter it either, the calls to the Bhandari so much like the prayer to the goddess. There was a difference though, the goddess did not take money from them but neither did she answer their calls. She saw the other customers who visited while waiting.

A few boys who were around her age would come in groups for addabaazi after school. Phulwa would shift to the corner and try to shrink her presence, even her existence in an attempt to dissolve in the wind and disappear. She had been warned. They were not good guys but they had to be respected; to be respected but also to be feared, and never to be approached. She would watch silently as they were busy bantering. With cigarettes in their hands they would talk licentiously of Sushilla ma’am’s curvaceous body, of tightly holding some girl and feeling her breasts, of how they stooped in class, pretending to pick up a pencil they deliberately dropped and get a peek at her pink underwear. Phulwa would be embarrassed to hear them talk, but she could not help notice the heat that ran through her body and the eagerness with which she wanted to hear every word.

Have my cheeks turned pink as they show in films? What if these guys notice? Am I a bad girl? I better leave. Run!

But she never left. Even after she had picked up the things Chottu had left on the threshold, she would linger, pretending to see if he had missed anything. She knew well the inanity of this act, there were hardly more than two or three things she bought. She felt guilty that often in her dreams she would replace Sushila ma’am, and the girl with big pulpy breasts and pink underwear, spreading her legs wide apart, knowing the intent of the guy fidgeting by her foot for almost five minutes now, pretending to find a pencil.

Has the Dayen really taken my soul? Hey Devi Ma, protect me!

But what made the visit to the kirana dear to her were not these boys or their arousing sexual talks or those dreams. The Kirana shop was beautiful because of its windows; two of them, big with white glistening panes and brightly painted panel and sill. They were a part of Bhandari’s house which was attached to the kirana shop. The windows were always open, revealing the curtains, blue as the breeze and a room so brightly lit and iridescent as if it was  the halo of the goddess herself.

I wish someday, when I am married, I have a house with such lovely windows. I will always keep them open and let the breeze and the sunlight in. So beautiful!

Those windows were a portal to another world, and moving away from them always made her sad. Her house and the kirana shop were in the same lane, but were so different. Having lived her life in a dimly-lit hut, with no windows; the windows of Bhandari’s house gave her a glimpse into the world of hope and light, but it also reminded her of her gloomy existence.

At last, a house with a window .

It had been two weeks since her marriage.

“Remember that is your home now. It’s your duty now to keep everyone happy there. Your husband is your lord, never think of crossing him. If he gets angry, try to calm him, please him. The happiness of your grihasti depends on you.” These were the words of her mother. The wisdom passed down from one generation to another. Her great grandmother told this to her grandmother, her grandmother told it to her mother, and her mother, hugging her tightly, told it to her as she cried.

That was a kind of last conversation a mother has with her daughter. Once married, her daughter becomes a daughter-in-law, a wife, a sister-in-law, someday a mother too, but never would she be her daughter, Phulwa again. So, she held her as tight as she could and told her what she believed to be the most important lesson. A lesson to forget, to forget the blue hut, to forget Monu-Sonu, Mangi and Chottan, to forget the Bhandari’s house, to forget the conversations she had heard and the dreams she had dreamt.

A wise man remembers his roots but a wise woman forgets. She is like a fruit that is dropped from the trees and is blown miles away by the wind to decay in a distant land where its buried seed would give way to a new life.

Yes, I should forget, she thought.

And yet she remembered. She remembered the blue hut with no windows and was surprised that she longed to return to that dimly lit room where gloom lingered indefinitely. Suddenly, that one room was too big to contain just one image, and she could see flashes of each speck, each mark on the walls, expanding outwards to an eternity. She could see the markings on the wall that Sonu had drawn with a pencil he found when they went rag picking together. Drawing them, Sonu had dreamt of donning a uniform, and going to school holding a notebook in his hand someday.

She had dreamt of a house with a window standing outside the Kirana shop. Sonu could not go to school. She was in a room with a window, and though it was not as large and white or brightly painted but it was still a window. She should be happy. She should forget. But she was not a seed, after all, which the wind could just take away. She was a person, who had lived for 18 years in the blue hut, calling it home.

Her parents were elated when Raju’s mother come to ask for her hand. Their house had two rooms, much better than their one-room hut. Raju was the only son and lived with his mother after the death of his father in a manhole. For someone like Phulwa who had lived eighteen years of her life in a room with five other people, this was a dream. Phulwa remembered how happy she felt then.

She was cooking when her mother-in-law entered.

“Phulwa, from tomorrow I will make the sabji for breakfast.”

“Why Mai?” Phulwa was taken aback by her mother-in-law’s suggestion. “Let me do the household chores. You are old now, and yet you walk to the city every day to sweep the streets, that too in the scorching heat. Now you want to cook breakfast too. What will people say? They will say that I am a memsahib who makes her mother-in-law toil while all I do is sit and eat.”

Phulwa blurted out these words anxiously, trying to think r hard of what she had done to earn Mai’s disapproval.

“Was the sabji too spicy? Was the salt too much? Just tell me Mai.”

Rekha looked at her bahu and smiled.

“Phulwa, listen, I will no longer have to go to the city. They don’t need me anymore and said I am getting old and should take rest. Rest…really, or just die starving. Raju does not earn much and there is no way that I allow him to enter a manhole. What took away my husband, won’t take him. Not my son, not my son,” her voice trembled, she tried to stop her tears, wiping them away with the corner of her pallu.

“Mai,” Phulwa brought her mother-in-law a glass of water. “Mai, I will go and sweep instead of you.”

“That’s not possible. I asked the Contractor sahib. He has already hired some young girl.”

“Do not worry Mai. I will find work.”

“Phulwa I have found work for us.”

“That is great! What is it? Then why are you crying? We will work together.”

Rekha hugged Phulwa and she felt as if her mother was hugging her once again.

“Phulwa,” Rekha sighed. “I would have never told you to do this but you know how things are. Of the little that Raju earns, he spends half of it drinking. I have tried hard to keep you away from the dust, the mulch, the refuse that our life is. I apologise. The only work I could get for us is cleaning dry latrines here in the village.” She held Phulwa’s hand, “I promise I will find something else as soon as possible.”

Phulwa felt many things at once. She had many questions. Many memories from the dark, harrowing past haunted her all at once. But she put up a courageous front and said, “I will come with you Mai.”

That night she could not sleep. Raju lay drunk on the bed beside her. She opened the window of their room and looked outside. She stared at the lone incandescent bulb dangling on a wire and imagined it to be the moon. She felt like she was drowning in a pungent, and foul smell that would smother the life out of her. Nausea took over. She saw a pair of hands, with black sewage water dripping from them. She popped her head outside the window to take a breath but she puked instead. She puked just as Monua had puked the first time he went to work. He had puked not once or twice but four times that day.

Next day when she had made the rotis, Rekha called her outside. She handed her a piece of cloth to cover her head while she picked the faeces on her head. Phulwa’s heart was pounding, it seemed like her brain would burst from the immense pain she could feel, and then she could no longer act strong. She broke into tears. Rekha tried to console her but she was inconsolable.

Satya, who was passing through the house, heard her crying. He stopped and inquired, “Rekha Mai, why is she crying?”

Satya was not one of them and though he had lived with them in their colony, had had food with them, was trying to understand their way of life, he was still an outsider. A Master’s student in social work, he wanted to read these people as some project. He could pity them, could live with them, and perhaps try to live like them. But the truth was that he could never be one of them. He had never descended down a manhole to be smothered by its nauseating smell of faeces and sewage. Walking down the road he was not met with pitying eyes that reduced him to a puny, helpless nobody, and stripping him off of the last vestige of dignity that covered his now naked body. A sense of humiliation and shame would not grip him every time he left for work. Satya was an outsider. Some of these people loved him and saw hope in him. The others saw him with suspicion and detested his presence. But everyone knew that he was a stranger to their world.

“Why is she crying?” Satya repeated.

“Nothing, she is just afraid.”

“Afraid…”

“Arre, she has never cleaned up a dry latrine and is just nervous. Will get used to it. Do not worry. Just leave us please.”

“Then do not send her. You could find her some other job,” Satya said in a  tone.

Mai was seething with anger. She had tried hard to conceal the desperation and helplessness. “You think I did not try to find other work? I begged and begged them to allow me to sweep the street. Did they listen? No. I asked them to take my daughter-in-law in my place but the contractor wanted some young girl he knew. Use us when you want, throw us when you wish. Do you want to send my son to die in a manhole like his father? Find a job, uh? What job? Sell vegetables? Who will buy them? You? Or better, shall we cook for people? Our sight pollutes them . Why don’t we just die of hunger.”

 Mai paused, it wasn’t his fault of course. Satya didn’t mean anything by that, he was inquisitive.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Satya strained wordlessly; it was not his place to argue here. He wouldn’t understand. Head lowered, remembering how his grandmother made him drink cow’s urine when he went into the colony with impure people, he left them.

Phulwa stopped crying and wiped her tears. Dry heaving, she picked up her things and got ready for the day’s work.

My family shall survive. I shall survive.

Payal is from Ranchi, Jharkhand. She has completed her graduation and post-graduation in English Literature from St. Xavier, Ranchi. Currently, she is a research scholar at the Centre of English Studies at J.N.U. She is trained in Fine Arts and has been a part of several street plays and skits.

Writing Competitions and Awards for you (2020 – 2021)



The Bombay Review: We have multiple funded opportunities for writers of all genres. While we tend to support talent in our primary bases of South Asia and the East Coast of the United States, we are open to applications from around the world. The pandemic has been hard for everybody, and we are happy to provide you with financial support for writing projects as well, apart from mentorship, resources, a chance to be published and other opportunities.

Please check guidelines carefully, before applying. Our hiring process for full time jobs at The Bombay Review has slowed down currently – you can take a look at the jobs portal on the website for upcoming requirements. Freelance opportunities are available on assignment basis, but preference is given to applicants based out of Toronto, New York, New Delhi and Mumbai, since some of the work will require in-person attendance.

Details below. Next update with 18 more opportunities on November 15th.

Creative Writing Award – Fiction | New Dalit Writing Edition | LGBTQ+ Vol 2/3 | Grants for Literary Initiatives | Best of Student Writing Award

Details | Information | Apply


A LIST OF CREATIVE WRITING CONTESTS, AWARDS and COMPETITIONS

The Charles Causley International Poetry Competition 2020

Themes/Genres: Poetry
Prize:

  1. The 1st prize winner will receive £2,000 plus a one week writing residency at Cyprus Well, Charles Causley’s former home in Launceston.
  2. The 2nd prize winner will receive £250 and the third prize winner will receive £100.
  3. Five Highly Commended poets whose work shows particular promise will each receive £30.

Status: Open (as of Nov, 2020)


THE GREGORY O’DONOGHUE INTERNATIONAL POETRY COMPETITION

The competition is open to original, unpublished and unbroadcast poems in the English language of 40 lines or fewer. The poem can be on any subject, in any style, by a writer of any nationality, living anywhere in the world. Translated work is not in the scope of this competition. Once entered, no alterations can be made to the submission. Simultaneous submissions are accepted but please notify us immediately should your work be accepted elsewhere.

  1. 1st Prize — €2,000 —Featured reading at the Cork International Poetry Festival (March 2021) — Publication in Southword
  2. 2nd Prize — €500 — Publication in Southword
  3. 3rd Prize — €250 — Publication in Southword
  4. Ten runners-up — €50 — Publication in Southword

Deadline: 30th November, 2020 (midnight). Entries are accepted from 31st September.
Submission fees: €7 per poem or €30 for a batch of five. If you would like to submit more than five poems, please make more than one entry.


LitMag’s Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction

Submission Guidelines: Entries must be short stories between 500 and 1,500 words. Please use 12pt type, preferably Times New Roman, and submit your short story as either a Word doc or a PDF. Only previously unpublished short stories are eligible. Writers may submit multiple stories, each of which requires a separate submission. Submissions through Submittable only. Notification: The contest will be judged by the editors of the magazine. The winning short stories and finalists will be announced publicly on our Web site and social media as well as by email to all contestants in March of 2021

First Prize: $1,250 + publication in LitMag + agency review
Finalists: Three finalists will receive $100 each.
All finalists will be considered for possible agency review and publication.

Deadline: November 30, 2020.
Contest Fee: $16


THE MOTH POETRY PRIZE 2020

The Moth Poetry Prize is one of the biggest prizes in the world for a single unpublished poem. The prize is open to anyone, as long as the poem is previously unpublished, and each year it attracts thousands of entries from new and established poets from over 50 countries worldwide.

The entry fee is €15 per poem. You can enter online or send your poem(s) along with a cheque or postal order made payable to ‘The Moth Magazine Ltd.

Deadline: 31 DECEMBER 2020

The shortlist will be announced in March 2021 and the four shortlisted poems will appear in the spring 2021 issue of The Moth.


WOW – Women on Writing Contest – 2020 FLASH FICTION

WOW! hosts a (quarterly) writing contest every three months, and has done so since 2006. The mission of this contest is to inspire creativity, great writing, and provide well-rewarded recognition to contestants. The WOW Flash Fiction Contest has awarded over $80,000 in cash to writers since its inception. The contest is open globally; age is of no matter; and entries must be in English. 

Word Count: Maximum: 750, Minimum: 250
Deadline: November 30th 11:59 PM (Pacific Time)

  1. 1st Prize – $400.00 cash prize, $25 Amazon Gift Certificate, Entry published on WOW! Women On Writing
  2. 2nd Prize – $300.00 cash prize, $25 Amazon Gift Certificate, Entry published on WOW! Women On Writing
  3. 3rd Prize – $200.00 cash prize, $25 Amazon Gift Certificate, Entry published on WOW! Women On Writing
  4. 7 RUNNERS UP: $25 Amazon Gift Certificate, Entry published on WOW! Women On Writing

Write India Season 3: Short Story Contest by Times of India with ...Write India by Times of India
Hosted by Times of India, Write India is an annual writing competition in its third season. Prominent authors provide a writing prompt.
Themes/Genres: Short fiction. Specific writing prompts announced every month
Prize: Publication in the annual Write India anthology
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Commonwealth Short Story Prize
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize brings together writers from 10+ countries, including India. Translated entries are also eligible, as are stories written in the original Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Tamil and Turkish.
Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: £2,500 for the regional winner; £5,000 for the overall winner.
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Will open on September 1


The Indian Short Story Content on Juggernaut
A few years old, the publisher Juggernaut hosts regular writing contests on its website.
Themes/Genres: Multiple, check website
Prize: 10 entries get editorial feedback, 3 win an exclusive publishing contract with Juggernaut books.
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Story Mirror
Founded in 2015, StoryMirror is a tech start-up offering everyone a platform to launch themselves in the field of literature. They host regular contests in English and various Indian regional languages.
Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: Certificates and publication on the Story Mirror website.
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Dastaan Award
The Dastaan Award was set up by Ali Azfar Naqvi and Afia Aslam to support new writing. Writers from all over Asia are invited to submit their writing.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: PKR 50,000
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Check website (as of August, 2020)


Kitaab – The Best of South Asian Stories

Kitaab’s The Best of South Asian Stories series of anthologies aims to celebrate the Asian short story as a constantly evolving, innovative and vibrant mode of literary expression.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction with a focus on climate change and migration but other themes will be considered too.
Prize: Publication in The Best of South Asian Stories anthology
Submission Fees: $20 per submission
As of August 2020: Closed


The Wordweavers 2020 Contest
Wordweavers is an online magazine for short stories and poetry. They regularly host poetry and short fiction competitions.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction and poetry
Prize: Publication in the Anthology
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


An Asian Tapestry of Colours
This contest invites writers from the Asia Pacific region, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India to share stories specifically for readers between 13 to 17 years old.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: Publication and $50
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Closed (as of August, 2020)


Muse of the Month: Short Story Contest by Women’s Web
Women’s Web is dedicated to encouraging women to share their stories. Since 2014, they host a monthly short story contest.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction on the prompt “For a long time I was scared I’d find out I was like my mother.”
Prize: Publication in the annual anthology and INR 500
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Call for Entries: Architectural Poetry Competition Series, 2nd Cycle
Architectural Poetry Competition Series
This competition is hosted by the Architectural Journalism & Criticism Organization. It is in its second cycle.

Themes/Genres: Responsive poems: We respond to the world and weather. We respond to ourselves. We respond. We.
Prize: Publication on several web architectural portals and anthology.
Submission Fees: INR 500
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Sharpen the Saw: Summary Writing Contest
Pencil is a community-based app to discover stories; you can share your own and read others too. Their various contests help new writers gain traction.

Themes/Genres: Summary on a book of your choice
Prize: INR 10,000
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


The Asian Writer
Bookouture, in association with The Asian Writer and Dahlia Books, is inviting commercial fiction submissions from writers from BAME backgrounds.

Themes/Genres: Commercial fiction. First three chapters.
Prize: Editorial feedback
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


TOTO Funds the Arts
Toto Funds the Arts (TFA) invites applications from persons between the ages of 18 and 29 for the 2021 TOTO Awards for Creative Writing in English.

Themes/Genres: Short plays, stories and poetry
Prize: Editorial feedback
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Short Fiction | ‘Babylon Revisited’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald | Classical Archives

Much of ‘Babylon Revisited’ is said to have been based from Fitzgerald’s real life. Set in the Great Depression, it deals with the themes of time, dislocation, alienation, absurdity and guilt.

“And where’s Mr. Campbell?” Charlie asked.

“Gone to Switzerland. Mr. Campbell’s a pretty sick man, Mr. Wales.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. And George Hardt?” Charlie inquired.

“Back in America, gone to work.”

“And where is the Snow Bird?”

“He was in here last week. Anyway, his friend, Mr. Schaeffer, is in Paris.”

Two familiar names from the long list of a year and a half ago. Charlie scribbled an address in his notebook and tore out the page.

“If you see Mr. Schaeffer, give him this,” he said. “It’s my brother-in-law’s address. I haven’t settled on a hotel yet.”

He was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty. But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar any more–he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it. It had gone back into France. He felt the stillness from the moment he got out of the taxi and saw the doorman, usually in a frenzy of activity at this hour, gossiping with a chasseur by the servants’ entrance.

Passing through the corridor, he heard only a single, bored voice in the once-clamorous women’s room. When he turned into the bar he travelled the twenty feet of green carpet with his eyes fixed straight ahead by old habit; and then, with his foot firmly on the rail, he turned and surveyed the room, encountering only a single pair of eyes that fluttered up from a newspaper in the corner. Charlie asked for the head barman, Paul, who in the latter days of the bull market had come to work in his own custom-built car–disembarking, however, with due nicety at the nearest corner. But Paul was at his country house today and Alix giving him information.

“No, no more,” Charlie said, “I’m going slow these days.”

Alix congratulated him: “You were going pretty strong a couple of years ago.”

“I’ll stick to it all right,” Charlie assured him. “I’ve stuck to it for over a year and a half now.”

“How do you find conditions in America?”

“I haven’t been to America for months. I’m in business in Prague, representing a couple of concerns there. They don’t know about me down there.”

Alix smiled.

“Remember the night of George Hardt’s bachelor dinner here?” said Charlie. “By the way, what’s become of Claude Fessenden?”

Alix lowered his voice confidentially: “He’s in Paris, but he doesn’t come here any more. Paul doesn’t allow it. He ran up a bill of thirty thousand francs, charging all his drinks and his lunches, and usually his dinner, for more than a year. And when Paul finally told him he had to pay, he gave him a bad check.”

Alix shook his head sadly.

“I don’t understand it, such a dandy fellow. Now he’s all bloated up–” He made a plump apple of his hands.

Charlie watched a group of strident queens installing themselves in a corner.

“Nothing affects them,” he thought. “Stocks rise and fall, people loaf or work, but they go on forever.” The place oppressed him. He called for the dice and shook with Alix for the drink.

“Here for long, Mr. Wales?”

“I’m here for four or five days to see my little girl.”

“Oh-h! You have a little girl?”

Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain. It was late afternoon and the streets were in movement; the bistros gleamed. At the corner of the Boulevard des Capucines he took a taxi. The Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty; they crossed the logical Seine, and Charlie felt the sudden provincial quality of the Left Bank.

Charlie directed his taxi to the Avenue de l’Opera, which was out of his way. But he wanted to see the blue hour spread over the magnificent façade, and imagine that the cab horns, playing endlessly the first few bars of La Plus que Lent, were the trumpets of the Second Empire. They were closing the iron grill in front of Brentano’s Book-store, and people were already at dinner behind the trim little bourgeois hedge of Duval’s. He had never eaten at a really cheap restaurant in Paris. Five-course dinner, four francs fifty, eighteen cents, wine included. For some odd reason he wished that he had.

As they rolled on to the Left Bank and he felt its sudden provincialism, he thought, “I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone.”

He was thirty-five, and good to look at. The Irish mobility of his face was sobered by a deep wrinkle between his eyes. As he rang his brother-in-law’s bell in the Rue Palatine, the wrinkle deepened till it pulled down his brows; he felt a cramping sensation in his belly. From behind the maid who opened the door darted a lovely little girl of nine who shrieked “Daddy!” and flew up, struggling like a fish, into his arms. She pulled his head around by one ear and set her cheek against his.

“My old pie,” he said.

“Oh, daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, dads, dads, dads!”

She drew him into the salon, where the family waited, a boy and girl his daughter’s age, his sister-in-law and her husband. He greeted Marion with his voice pitched carefully to avoid either feigned enthusiasm or dislike, but her response was more frankly tepid, though she minimized her expression of unalterable distrust by directing her regard toward his child. The two men clasped hands in a friendly way and Lincoln Peters rested his for a moment on Charlie’s shoulder.

The room was warm and comfortably American. The three children moved intimately about, playing through the yellow oblongs that led to other rooms; the cheer of six o’clock spoke in the eager smacks of the fire and the sounds of French activity in the kitchen. But Charlie did not relax; his heart sat up rigidly in his body and he drew confidence from his daughter, who from time to time came close to him, holding in her arms the doll he had brought.

“Really extremely well,” he declared in answer to Lincoln’s question. “There’s a lot of business there that isn’t moving at all, but we’re doing even better than ever. In fact, damn well. I’m bringing my sister over from America next month to keep house for me. My income last year was bigger than it was when I had money. You see, the Czechs–“

His boasting was for a specific purpose; but after a moment, seeing a faint restiveness in Lincoln’s eye, he changed the subject:

“Those are fine children of yours, well brought up, good manners.”

“We think Honoria’s a great little girl too.”

Marion Peters came back from the kitchen. She was a tall woman with worried eyes, who had once possessed a fresh American loveliness. Charlie had never been sensitive to it and was always surprised when people spoke of how pretty she had been. From the first there had been an instinctive antipathy between them.

“Well, how do you find Honoria?” she asked.

“Wonderful. I was astonished how much she’s grown in ten months. All the children are looking well.”

“We haven’t had a doctor for a year. How do you like being back in Paris?”

“It seems very funny to see so few Americans around.”

“I’m delighted,” Marion said vehemently. “Now at least you can go into a store without their assuming you’re a millionaire. We’ve suffered like everybody, but on the whole it’s a good deal pleasanter.”

“But it was nice while it lasted,” Charlie said. “We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us. In the bar this afternoon”–he stumbled, seeing his mistake–“there wasn’t a man I knew.”

She looked at him keenly. “I should think you’d have had enough of bars.”

“I only stayed a minute. I take one drink every afternoon, and no more.”

“Don’t you want a cocktail before dinner?” Lincoln asked.

“I take only one drink every afternoon, and I’ve had that.”

“I hope you keep to it,” said Marion.

Her dislike was evident in the coldness with which she spoke, but Charlie only smiled; he had larger plans. Her very aggressiveness gave him an advantage, and he knew enough to wait. He wanted them to initiate the discussion of what they knew had brought him to Paris.

At dinner he couldn’t decide whether Honoria was most like him or her mother. Fortunate if she didn’t combine the traits of both that had brought them to disaster. A great wave of protectiveness went over him. He thought he knew what to do for her. He believed in character; he wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element. Everything wore out.

He left soon after dinner, but not to go home. He was curious to see Paris by night with clearer and more judicious eyes than those of other days. He bought a strapontin for the Casino and watched Josephine Baker go through her chocolate arabesques.

After an hour he left and strolled toward Montmartre, up the Rue Pigalle into the Place Blanche. The rain had stopped and there were a few people in evening clothes disembarking from taxis in front of cabarets, and cocottes prowling singly or in pairs, and many Negroes. He passed a lighted door from which issued music, and stopped with the sense of familiarity; it was Bricktop’s, where he had parted with so many hours and so much money. A few doors farther on he found another ancient rendezvous and incautiously put his head inside. Immediately an eager orchestra burst into sound, a pair of professional dancers leaped to their feet and a maître d’hôtel swooped toward him, crying, “Crowd just arriving, sir!” But he withdrew quickly.

“You have to be damn drunk,” he thought.

Zelli’s was closed, the bleak and sinister cheap hotels surrounding it were dark; up in the Rue Blanche there was more light and a local, colloquial French crowd. The Poet’s Cave had disappeared, but the two great mouths of the Café of Heaven and the Café of Hell still yawned–even devoured, as he watched, the meager contents of a tourist bus–a German, a Japanese, and an American couple who glanced at him with frightened eyes.

So much for the effort and ingenuity of Montmartre. All the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale, and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word “dissipate”–to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something. In the little hours of the night every move from place to place was an enormous human jump, an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion.

He remembered thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab.

But it hadn’t been given for nothing.

It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember–his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.

In the glare of a brasserie a woman spoke to him. He bought her some eggs and coffee, and then, eluding her encouraging stare, gave her a twenty-franc note and took a taxi to his hotel.

II

He woke upon a fine fall day–football weather. The depression of yesterday was gone and he liked the people on the streets. At noon he sat opposite Honoria at Le Grand Vatel, the only restaurant he could think of not reminiscent of champagne dinners and long luncheons that began at two and ended in a blurred and vague twilight.

“Now, how about vegetables? Oughtn’t you to have some vegetables?”

“Well, yes.”

“Here’s épinards and chou-fleur and carrots and haricots.”

“I’d like chou-fleur.”

“Wouldn’t you like to have two vegetables?”

“I usually only have one at lunch.”

The waiter was pretending to be inordinately fond of children. “Qu’elle est mignonne la petite? Elle parle exactement comme une Française.”

“How about dessert? Shall we wait and see?”

The waiter disappeared. Honoria looked at her father expectantly.

“What are we going to do?”

“First, we’re going to that toy store in the Rue Saint-Honoré and buy you anything you like. And then we’re going to the vaudeville at the Empire.”

She hesitated. “I like it about the vaudeville, but not the toy store.”

“Why not?”

“Well, you brought me this doll.” She had it with her. “And I’ve got lots of things. And we’re not rich any more, are we?”

“We never were. But today you are to have anything you want.”

“All right,” she agreed resignedly.

When there had been her mother and a French nurse he had been inclined to be strict; now he extended himself, reached out for a new tolerance; he must be both parents to her and not shut any of her out of communication.

“I want to get to know you,” he said gravely. “First let me introduce myself. My name is Charles J. Wales, of Prague.”

“Oh, daddy!” her voice cracked with laughter.

“And who are you, please?” he persisted, and she accepted a role immediately: “Honoria Wales, Rue Palatine, Paris.”

“Married or single?”

“No, not married. Single.”

He indicated the doll. “But I see you have a child, madame.”

Unwilling to disinherit it, she took it to her heart and thought quickly: “Yes, I’ve been married, but I’m not married now. My husband is dead.”

He went on quickly, “And the child’s name?”

“Simone. That’s after my best friend at school.”

“I’m very pleased that you’re doing so well at school.”

“I’m third this month,” she boasted. “Elsie”–that was her cousin–“is only about eighteenth, and Richard is about at the bottom.”

“You like Richard and Elsie, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes. I like Richard quite well and I like her all right.”

Cautiously and casually he asked: “And Aunt Marion and Uncle Lincoln–which do you like best?”

“Oh, Uncle Lincoln, I guess.”

He was increasingly aware of her presence. As they came in, a murmur of “. . . adorable” followed them, and now the people at the next table bent all their silences upon her, staring as if she were something no more conscious than a flower.

“Why don’t I live with you?” she asked suddenly. “Because mamma’s dead?”

“You must stay here and learn more French. It would have been hard for daddy to take care of you so well.”

“I don’t really need much taking care of any more. I do everything for myself.”

Going out of the restaurant, a man and a woman unexpectedly hailed him.

“Well, the old Wales!”

“Hello there, Lorraine. . . . Dunc.”

Sudden ghosts out of the past: Duncan Schaeffer, a friend from college. Lorraine Quarrles, a lovely, pale blonde of thirty; one of a crowd who had helped them make months into days in the lavish times of three years ago.

“My husband couldn’t come this year,” she said, in answer to his question. “We’re poor as hell. So he gave me two hundred a month and told me I could do my worst on that. . . . This your little girl?”

“What about coming back and sitting down?” Duncan asked.

“Can’t do it.” He was glad for an excuse. As always, he felt Lorraine’s passionate, provocative attraction, but his own rhythm was different now.

“Well, how about dinner?” she asked.

“I’m not free. Give me your address and let me call you.”

“Charlie, I believe you’re sober,” she said judicially. “I honestly believe he’s sober, Dunc. Pinch him and see if he’s sober.”

Charlie indicated Honoria with his head. They both laughed.

“What’s your address?” said Duncan sceptically.

He hesitated, unwilling to give the name of his hotel.

“I’m not settled yet. I’d better call you. We’re going to see the vaudeville at the Empire.”

“There! That’s what I want to do,” Lorraine said. “I want to see some clowns and acrobats and jugglers. That’s just what we’ll do, Dunc.”

“We’ve got to do an errand first,” said Charlie. “Perhaps we’ll see you there.”

“All right, you snob. . . . Good-by, beautiful little girl.”

“Good-by.”

Honoria bobbed politely.

Somehow, an unwelcome encounter. They liked him because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him, because he was stronger than they were now, because they wanted to draw a certain sustenance from his strength.

At the Empire, Honoria proudly refused to sit upon her father’s folded coat. She was already an individual with a code of her own, and Charlie was more and more absorbed by the desire of putting a little of himself into her before she crystallized utterly. It was hopeless to try to know her in so short a time.

Between the acts they came upon Duncan and Lorraine in the lobby where the band was playing.

“Have a drink?”

“All right, but not up at the bar. We’ll take a table.”

“The perfect father.”

Listening abstractedly to Lorraine, Charlie watched Honoria’s eyes leave their table, and he followed them wistfully about the room, wondering what they saw. He met her glance and she smiled.

“I liked that lemonade,” she said.

What had she said? What had he expected? Going home in a taxi afterward, he pulled her over until her head rested against his chest.

“Darling, do you ever think about your mother?”

“Yes, sometimes,” she answered vaguely.

“I don’t want you to forget her. Have you got a picture of her?”

“Yes, I think so. Anyhow, Aunt Marion has. Why don’t you want me to forget her?”

“She loved you very much.”

“I loved her too.”

They were silent for a moment.

“Daddy, I want to come and live with you,” she said suddenly.

His heart leaped; he had wanted it to come like this.

“Aren’t you perfectly happy?”

“Yes, but I love you better than anybody. And you love me better than anybody, don’t you, now that mummy’s dead?”

“Of course I do. But you won’t always like me best, honey. You’ll grow up and meet somebody your own age and go marry him and forget you ever had a daddy.”

“Yes, that’s true,” she agreed tranquilly.

He didn’t go in. He was coming back at nine o’clock and he wanted to keep himself fresh and new for the thing he must say then.

“When you’re safe inside, just show yourself in that window.”

“All right. Good-by, dads, dads, dads, dads.”

He waited in the dark street until she appeared, all warm and glowing, in the window above and kissed her fingers out into the night.

III

They were waiting. Marion sat behind the coffee service in a dignified black dinner dress that just faintly suggested mourning. Lincoln was walking up and down with the animation of one who had already been talking. They were as anxious as he was to get into the question. He opened it almost immediately:

“I suppose you know what I want to see you about–why I really came to Paris.”

Marion played with the black stars on her necklace and frowned.

“I’m awfully anxious to have a home,” he continued. “And I’m awfully anxious to have Honoria in it. I appreciate your taking in Honoria for her mother’s sake, but things have changed now”–he hesitated and then continued more forcibly–“changed radically with me, and I want to ask you to reconsider the matter. It would be silly for me to deny that about three years ago I was acting badly–“

Marion looked up at him with hard eyes.

“–but all that’s over. As I told you, I haven’t had more than a drink a day for over a year, and I take that drink deliberately, so that the idea of alcohol won’t get too big in my imagination. You see the idea?”

“No,” said Marion succinctly.

“It’s a sort of stunt I set myself. It keeps the matter in proportion.”

“I get you,” said Lincoln. “You don’t want to admit it’s got any attraction for you.”

“Something like that. Sometimes I forget and don’t take it. But I try to take it. Anyhow, I couldn’t afford to drink in my position. The people I represent are more than satisfied with what I’ve done, and I’m bringing my sister over from Burlington to keep house for me, and I want awfully to have Honoria too. You know that even when her mother and I weren’t getting along well we never let anything that happened touch Honoria. I know she’s fond of me and I know I’m able to take care of her and–well, there you are. How do you feel about it?”

He knew that now he would have to take a beating. It would last an hour or two hours, and it would be difficult, but if he modulated his inevitable resentment to the chastened attitude of the reformed sinner, he might win his point in the end.

Keep your temper, he told himself. You don’t want to be justified. You want Honoria.

Lincoln spoke first: “We’ve been talking it over ever since we got your letter last month. We’re happy to have Honoria here. She’s a dear little thing, and we’re glad to be able to help her, but of course that isn’t the question–“

Marion interrupted suddenly. “How long are you going to stay sober, Charlie?” she asked.

“Permanently, I hope.”

“How can anybody count on that?”

“You know I never did drink heavily until I gave up business and came over here with nothing to do. Then Helen and I began to run around with–“

“Please leave Helen out of it. I can’t bear to hear you talk about her like that.”

He stared at her grimly; he had never been certain how fond of each other the sisters were in life.

“My drinking only lasted about a year and a half–from the time we came over until I–collapsed.”

“It was time enough.”

“It was time enough,” he agreed.

“My duty is entirely to Helen,” she said. “I try to think what she would have wanted me to do. Frankly, from the night you did that terrible thing you haven’t really existed for me. I can’t help that. She was my sister.”

“Yes.”

“When she was dying she asked me to look out for Honoria. If you hadn’t been in a sanitarium then, it might have helped matters.”

He had no answer.

“I’ll never in my life be able to forget the morning when Helen knocked at my door, soaked to the skin and shivering, and said you’d locked her out.”

Charlie gripped the sides of the chair. This was more difficult than he expected; he wanted to launch out into a long expostulation and explanation, but he only said: “The night I locked her out–” and she interrupted, “I don’t feel up to going over that again.”

After a moment’s silence Lincoln said: “We’re getting off the subject. You want Marion to set aside her legal guardianship and give you Honoria. I think the main point for her is whether she has confidence in you or not.”

“I don’t blame Marion,” Charlie said slowly, “but I think she can have entire confidence in me. I had a good record up to three years ago. Of course, it’s within human possibilities I might go wrong any time. But if we wait much longer I’ll lose Honoria’s childhood and my chance for a home.” He shook his head, “I’ll simply lose her, don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see,” said Lincoln.

“Why didn’t you think of all this before?” Marion asked.

“I suppose I did, from time to time, but Helen and I were getting along badly. When I consented to the guardianship, I was flat on my back in a sanitarium and the market had cleaned me out. I knew I’d acted badly, and I thought if it would bring any peace to Helen, I’d agree to anything. But now it’s different. I’m functioning, I’m behaving damn well, so far as–“

“Please don’t swear at me,” Marion said.

He looked at her, startled. With each remark the force of her dislike became more and more apparent. She had built up all her fear of life into one wall and faced it toward him. This trivial reproof was possibly the result of some trouble with the cook several hours before. Charlie became increasingly alarmed at leaving Honoria in this atmosphere of hostility against himself; sooner or later it would come out, in a word here, a shake of the head there, and some of that distrust would be irrevocably implanted in Honoria. But he pulled his temper down out of his face and shut it up inside him; he had won a point, for Lincoln realized the absurdity of Marion’s remark and asked her lightly since when she had objected to the word “damn.”

“Another thing,” Charlie said: “I’m able to give her certain advantages now. I’m going to take a French governess to Prague with me. I’ve got a lease on a new apartment–“

He stopped, realizing that he was blundering. They couldn’t be expected to accept with equanimity the fact that his income was again twice as large as their own.

“I suppose you can give her more luxuries than we can,” said Marion. “When you were throwing away money we were living along watching every ten francs. . . . I suppose you’ll start doing it again.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve learned. I worked hard for ten years, you know–until I got lucky in the market, like so many people. Terribly lucky. It didn’t seem any use working any more, so I quit. It won’t happen again.”

There was a long silence. All of them felt their nerves straining, and for the first time in a year Charlie wanted a drink. He was sure now that Lincoln Peters wanted him to have his child.

Marion shuddered suddenly; part of her saw that Charlie’s feet were planted on the earth now, and her own maternal feeling recognized the naturalness of his desire; but she had lived for a long time with a prejudice–a prejudice founded on a curious disbelief in her sister’s happiness, and which, in the shock of one terrible night, had turned to hatred for him. It had all happened at a point in her life where the discouragement of ill health and adverse circumstances made it necessary for her to believe in tangible villainy and a tangible villain.

“I can’t help what I think!” she cried out suddenly. “How much you were responsible for Helen’s death, I don’t know. It’s something you’ll have to square with your own conscience.”

An electric current of agony surged through him; for a moment he was almost on his feet, an unuttered sound echoing in his throat. He hung on to himself for a moment, another moment.

“Hold on there,” said Lincoln uncomfortably. “I never thought you were responsible for that.”

“Helen died of heart trouble,” Charlie said dully.

“Yes, heart trouble.” Marion spoke as if the phrase had another meaning for her.

Then, in the flatness that followed her outburst, she saw him plainly and she knew he had somehow arrived at control over the situation. Glancing at her husband, she found no help from him, and as abruptly as if it were a matter of no importance, she threw up the sponge.

“Do what you like!” she cried, springing up from her chair. “She’s your child. I’m not the person to stand in your way. I think if it were my child I’d rather see her–” She managed to check herself. “You two decide it. I can’t stand this. I’m sick. I’m going to bed.”

She hurried from the room; after a moment Lincoln said:

“This has been a hard day for her. You know how strongly she feels–” His voice was almost apologetic: “When a woman gets an idea in her head.”

“Of course.”

“It’s going to be all right. I think she sees now that you–can provide for the child, and so we can’t very well stand in your way or Honoria’s way.”

“Thank you, Lincoln.”

“I’d better go along and see how she is.”

“I’m going.”

He was still trembling when he reached the street, but a walk down the Rue Bonaparte to the quais set him up, and as he crossed the Seine, fresh and new by the quai lamps, he felt exultant. But back in his room he couldn’t sleep. The image of Helen haunted him. Helen whom he had loved so until they had senselessly begun to abuse each other’s love, tear it into shreds. On that terrible February night that Marion remembered so vividly, a slow quarrel had gone on for hours. There was a scene at the Florida, and then he attempted to take her home, and then she kissed young Webb at a table; after that there was what she had hysterically said. When he arrived home alone he turned the key in the lock in wild anger. How could he know she would arrive an hour later alone, that there would be a snowstorm in which she wandered about in slippers, too confused to find a taxi? Then the aftermath, her escaping pneumonia by a miracle, and all the attendant horror. They were “reconciled,” but that was the beginning of the end, and Marion, who had seen with her own eyes and who imagined it to be one of many scenes from her sister’s martyrdom, never forgot.

Going over it again brought Helen nearer, and in the white, soft light that steals upon half sleep near morning he found himself talking to her again. She said that he was perfectly right about Honoria and that she wanted Honoria to be with him. She said she was glad he was being good and doing better. She said a lot of other things–very friendly things–but she was in a swing in a white dress, and swinging faster and faster all the time, so that at the end he could not hear clearly all that she said.

IV

He woke up feeling happy. The door of the world was open again. He made plans, vistas, futures for Honoria and himself, but suddenly he grew sad, remembering all the plans he and Helen had made. She had not planned to die. The present was the thing–work to do and someone to love. But not to love too much, for he knew the injury that a father can do to a daughter or a mother to a son by attaching them too closely: afterward, out in the world, the child would seek in the marriage partner the same blind tenderness and, failing probably to find it, turn against love and life.

It was another bright, crisp day. He called Lincoln Peters at the bank where he worked and asked if he could count on taking Honoria when he left for Prague. Lincoln agreed that there was no reason for delay. One thing–the legal guardianship. Marion wanted to retain that a while longer. She was upset by the whole matter, and it would oil things if she felt that the situation was still in her control for another year. Charlie agreed, wanting only the tangible, visible child.

Then the question of a governess. Charlie sat in a gloomy agency and talked to a cross Béarnaise and to a buxom Breton peasant, neither of whom he could have endured. There were others whom he would see tomorrow.

He lunched with Lincoln Peters at Griffons, trying to keep down his exultation.

“There’s nothing quite like your own child,” Lincoln said. “But you understand how Marion feels too.”

“She’s forgotten how hard I worked for seven years there,” Charlie said. “She just remembers one night.”

“There’s another thing.” Lincoln hesitated. “While you and Helen were tearing around Europe throwing money away, we were just getting along. I didn’t touch any of the prosperity because I never got ahead enough to carry anything but my insurance. I think Marion felt there was some kind of injustice in it–you not even working toward the end, and getting richer and richer.”

“It went just as quick as it came,” said Charlie.

“Yes, a lot of it stayed in the hands of chasseurs and saxophone players and maîtres d’hôtel–well, the big party’s over now. I just said that to explain Marion’s feeling about those crazy years. If you drop in about six o’clock tonight before Marion’s too tired, we’ll settle the details on the spot.”

Back at his hotel, Charlie found a pneumatique that had been redirected from the Ritz bar where Charlie had left his address for the purpose of finding a certain man.

DEAR CHARLIE: You were so strange when we saw you the other day that I wondered if I did something to offend you. If so, I’m not conscious of it. In fact, I have thought about you too much for the last year, and it’s always been in the back of my mind that I might see you if I came over here. We did have such good times that crazy spring, like the night you and I stole the butcher’s tricycle, and the time we tried to call on the president and you had the old derby rim and the wire cane. Everybody seems so old lately, but I don’t feel old a bit. Couldn’t we get together some time today for old time’s sake? I’ve got a vile hang-over for the moment, but will be feeling better this afternoon and will look for you about five in the sweat-shop at the Ritz.

Always devotedly,

LORRAINE.

His first feeling was one of awe that he had actually, in his mature years, stolen a tricycle and pedalled Lorraine all over the Étoile between the small hours and dawn. In retrospect it was a nightmare. Locking out Helen didn’t fit in with any other act of his life, but the tricycle incident did–it was one of many. How many weeks or months of dissipation to arrive at that condition of utter irresponsibility?

He tried to picture how Lorraine had appeared to him then–very attractive; Helen was unhappy about it, though she said nothing. Yesterday, in the restaurant, Lorraine had seemed trite, blurred, worn away. He emphatically did not want to see her, and he was glad Alix had not given away his hotel address. It was a relief to think, instead, of Honoria, to think of Sundays spent with her and of saying good morning to her and of knowing she was there in his house at night, drawing her breath in the darkness.

At five he took a taxi and bought presents for all the Peters–a piquant cloth doll, a box of Roman soldiers, flowers for Marion, big linen handkerchiefs for Lincoln.

He saw, when he arrived in the apartment, that Marion had accepted the inevitable. She greeted him now as though he were a recalcitrant member of the family, rather than a menacing outsider. Honoria had been told she was going; Charlie was glad to see that her tact made her conceal her excessive happiness. Only on his lap did she whisper her delight and the question “When?” before she slipped away with the other children.

He and Marion were alone for a minute in the room, and on an impulse he spoke out boldly:

“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material. I wish you and I could be on better terms.”

“Some things are hard to forget,” she answered. “It’s a question of confidence.” There was no answer to this and presently she asked, “When do you propose to take her?”

“As soon as I can get a governess. I hoped the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s impossible. I’ve got to get her things in shape. Not before Saturday.”

He yielded. Coming back into the room, Lincoln offered him a drink.

“I’ll take my daily whisky,” he said.

It was warm here, it was a home, people together by a fire. The children felt very safe and important; the mother and father were serious, watchful. They had things to do for the children more important than his visit here. A spoonful of medicine was, after all, more important than the strained relations between Marion and himself. They were not dull people, but they were very much in the grip of life and circumstances. He wondered if he couldn’t do something to get Lincoln out of his rut at the bank.

A long peal at the door-bell; the bonne à tout faire passed through and went down the corridor. The door opened upon another long ring, and then voices, and the three in the salon looked up expectantly; Lincoln moved to bring the corridor within his range of vision, and Marion rose. Then the maid came back along the corridor, closely followed by the voices, which developed under the light into Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles.

They were gay, they were hilarious, they were roaring with laughter. For a moment Charlie was astounded; unable to understand how they ferreted out the Peters’ address.

“Ah-h-h!” Duncan wagged his finger roguishly at Charlie. “Ah-h-h!”

They both slid down another cascade of laughter. Anxious and at a loss, Charlie shook hands with them quickly and presented them to Lincoln and Marion. Marion nodded, scarcely speaking. She had drawn back a step toward the fire; her little girl stood beside her, and Marion put an arm about her shoulder.

With growing annoyance at the intrusion, Charlie waited for them to explain themselves. After some concentration Duncan said:

“We came to invite you out to dinner. Lorraine and I insist that all this shishi, cagy business ’bout your address got to stop.”

Charlie came closer to them, as if to force them backward down the corridor.

“Sorry, but I can’t. Tell me where you’ll be and I’ll phone you in half an hour.”

This made no impression. Lorraine sat down suddenly on the side of a chair, and focussing her eyes on Richard, cried, “Oh, what a nice little boy! Come here, little boy.” Richard glanced at his mother, but did not move. With a perceptible shrug of her shoulders, Lorraine turned back to Charlie:

“Come and dine. Sure your cousins won’ mine. See you so sel’om. Or solemn.”

“I can’t,” said Charlie sharply. “You two have dinner and I’ll phone you.”

Her voice became suddenly unpleasant. “All right, we’ll go. But I remember once when you hammered on my door at four A.M. I was enough of a good sport to give you a drink. Come on, Dunc.”

Still in slow motion, with blurred, angry faces, with uncertain feet, they retired along the corridor.

“Good night,” Charlie said.

“Good night!” responded Lorraine emphatically.

When he went back into the salon Marion had not moved, only now her son was standing in the circle of her other arm. Lincoln was still swinging Honoria back and forth like a pendulum from side to side.

“What an outrage!” Charlie broke out. “What an absolute outrage!” Neither of them answered. Charlie dropped into an armchair, picked up his drink, set it down again and said:

“People I haven’t seen for two years having the colossal nerve–“

He broke off. Marion had made the sound “Oh!” in one swift, furious breath, turned her body from him with a jerk and left the room.

Lincoln set down Honoria carefully.

“You children go in and start your soup,” he said, and when they obeyed, he said to Charlie:

“Marion’s not well and she can’t stand shocks. That kind of people make her really physically sick.”

“I didn’t tell them to come here. They wormed your name out of somebody. They deliberately–“

“Well, it’s too bad. It doesn’t help matters. Excuse me a minute.”

Left alone, Charlie sat tense in his chair. In the next room he could hear the children eating, talking in monosyllables, already oblivious to the scene between their elders. He heard a murmur of conversation from a farther room and then the ticking bell of a telephone receiver picked up, and in a panic he moved to the other side of the room and out of earshot.

In a minute Lincoln came back. “Look here, Charlie. I think we’d better call off dinner for tonight. Marion’s in bad shape.”

“Is she angry with me?”

“Sort of,” he said, almost roughly. “She’s not strong and–“

“You mean she’s changed her mind about Honoria?”

“She’s pretty bitter right now. I don’t know. You phone me at the bank tomorrow.”

“I wish you’d explain to her I never dreamed these people would come here. I’m just as sore as you are.”

“I couldn’t explain anything to her now.”

Charlie got up. He took his coat and hat and started down the corridor. Then he opened the door of the dining room and said in a strange voice, “Good night, children.”

Honoria rose and ran around the table to hug him.

“Good night, sweetheart,” he said vaguely, and then trying to make his voice more tender, trying to conciliate something, “Good night, dear children.”

V

Charlie went directly to the Ritz bar with the furious idea of finding Lorraine and Duncan, but they were not there, and he realized that in any case there was nothing he could do. He had not touched his drink at the Peters’, and now he ordered a whisky-and-soda. Paul came over to say hello.

“It’s a great change,” he said sadly. “We do about half the business we did. So many fellows I hear about back in the States lost everything, maybe not in the first crash, but then in the second. Your friend George Hardt lost every cent, I hear. Are you back in the States?”

“No, I’m in business in Prague.”

“I heard that you lost a lot in the crash.”

“I did,” and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”

“Selling short.”

“Something like that.”

Again the memory of those days swept over him like a nightmare–the people they had met travelling; then people who couldn’t add a row of figures or speak a coherent sentence. The little man Helen had consented to dance with at the ship’s party, who had insulted her ten feet from the table; the women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places–

–The men who locked their wives out in the snow, because the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.

He went to the phone and called the Peters’ apartment; Lincoln answered.

“I called up because this thing is on my mind. Has Marion said anything definite?”

“Marion’s sick,” Lincoln answered shortly. “I know this thing isn’t altogether your fault, but I can’t have her go to pieces about it. I’m afraid we’ll have to let it slide for six months; I can’t take the chance of working her up to this state again.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry, Charlie.”

He went back to his table. His whisky glass was empty, but he shook his head when Alix looked at it questioningly. There wasn’t much he could do now except send Honoria some things; he would send her a lot of things tomorrow. He thought rather angrily that this was just money–he had given so many people money. . . .

“No, no more,” he said to another waiter. “What do I owe you?”

He would come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever. But he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact. He wasn’t young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone.

Short Fiction | ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce | Classical Archives

‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ is set during the American Civil War. The short story suggests that there is no romance or glory in war and presents the theme of “dying with dignity”.

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.

Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground—a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators—a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgement as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by— it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience and—he knew not why—apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”

As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.

II

Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.

“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”

“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.

“About thirty miles.”

“Is there no force on this side of the creek?”

“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”

“Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”

The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

III

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, it seemed to him—by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness—of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!—the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface—knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought, “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”

He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!—what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. “Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.

Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly—with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men—with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words:

“Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!”

Farquhar dived—dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream—nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.

The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning:

“The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”

An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, DIMINUENDO, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.

“They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me—the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round—spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color—that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream—the southern bank—and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of AEolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape—he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.

By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue—he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

Fiction | ‘Thought It Would Be Charley’ by B. A. Varghese

I didn’t know if I was ready for it. It was all new to me. Or maybe it was too much all at once. I tried to understand what my wife was going through, like every married man on earth going through this, but I couldn’t of course. She was the one who was carrying the baby. I could only be a part of her world from the outside. Then in the middle of it, came this storm, uninvited. I had hoped it wouldn’t come here, but isn’t it always like that? We wish a thing like this wouldn’t occur, but it does, to somebody. Wednesday was quiet and at the end of the day at work, I found myself thinking about the weekend already. I stared at the screen in front of me with an unfocused gaze until I heard the ding of a newly arrived email. It informed all employees that Tropical Storm Charley turned into Hurricane Charley and was near the Caribbean Sea, southwest of Jamaica. I clicked over to my calendar and noted all the scheduled items starting under the eleventh of August, before my eyes glanced over the next few days as well. There were too many things on my calendar; important things. But while reading the rest of the email, my thoughts drifted onto my wife and our baby and our house. I couldn’t escape the encroaching dread of the hurricane’s inevitability. 

When I arrived home that day, the TV was turned on and tuned to the local news channel, where a weatherman talked about how he could track Charley better than any other station. He showed real-time satellite images of Charley, which was still out at sea, closing in on Jamaica. Charley looked like mounds of puffy marshmallows swirling round and round in blue hot chocolate, melting with each turn of an invisible spoon. It didn’t seem so bad.

I glanced into the kitchen, and there she was, my wife. She was thirty-seven weeks pregnant, and our baby was due on August 31st. I watched her move around the kitchen while she prepared dinner. The swaying of her hips, the movement of her shapely legs, and the slight bounce of her breasts became hypnotic as if they all moved in unison to some rhythmic beat coming from deep inside her body. And then there was her belly. Growing up, I liked thin girls, and when I first met my wife, she was slim. But now I grew strangely attracted to something that I’d never been drawn to before. Her belly bulged out from under her breasts, and I became aroused by this protrusion. There was a magnetic pull to her new strangeness, a new mountain of territory.

“What are you staring at?” she asked.

“Nothing, sweets. Nothing.” I smiled.

“Work was tough today,” I heard her say. “My belly felt sore the whole day and I really didn’t get a long enough break and this baby’s pushing on my bladder and I was constantly going to the bathroom and I don’t know how long I can keep working like this and can you believe this baby keeps squirming around and what is he playing like soccer in there? Oh, I can feel it. The baby is doing it now. Do you want to feel it?” The effort made her slightly breathless.

I just smiled at her.

“Hello? Do you want to feel the baby?” 

I hurried over to her, and she lifted her shirt and exposed her hard round belly. I placed both of my hands on her and felt her warmth, her energy flowing into my hands, up my arms, and all over my body. I had seen her belly so many times, but I was still amazed by how warm it felt. Inside, there was life. She was the source. When my hands were on her, I felt connected to both of them. I moved my hands lower on her belly. Then I felt a movement under her skin, like bones and flesh in a machine-like motion. Startled, I moved my hands off.

“Did you feel that one?” she asked.

“I can’t imagine what it feels like on the inside.” 

We both laughed.

I moved my hands toward her again, but she lowered her shirt. She wanted to finish making dinner, and I was back to being the outsider again. I nodded and sat down to read the paper. There were some ads for flashlights, batteries, lanterns, and generators. I assumed we had batteries and flashlights, but what about a generator? Don’t all Floridians own a generator? If the storm knocked out the power, a generator would be handy. I looked at the picture of the generator which slowly became fuzzy. But how do you even set one up? 

I held the page closer to my face, but I wasn’t reading. I stared into the page until all the words and pictures blurred, and all I could see was her belly. I saw the child pushing against her stomach leaving an imprint of a hand or a foot. I reached out, but I didn’t feel the warmth or the joy. My wife’s belly disappeared into swirling white storm clouds. Batteries and flashlights pulled in by the strong wind, darkened the clouds with each rotation. A generator hummed and hovered in the center like a ship floating in space. My thoughts fell on the scene from the movie Alien where Sigourney Weaver’s shipmate carried an alien life within his body, and during his meal, probably dinner, the baby alien decided to rip and tear out of his abdomen, and all I thought about were those teeth.

 ***

Because of Wednesday night’s state of emergency declaration by Governor Jeb Bush, I made preparations the next day at work for the coming storm. I had been working in the Information Technology field for a while now, most of those years back in New York, and this was the first time I was dealing with hurricane-related matters. The University of South Florida had policies in place for contingencies such as these, so I was instructed to follow specific guidelines in protecting desktop computers. I became inundated with work, and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. It was a good distraction.

When I got home after work, the TV was left on again. I watched the same weatherman talk, as he motioned his hands over his background screen. Charley was upgraded to Category 2 and had moved closer to Cuba. This time they showed real-time images with different colors that represented the amount and size of the rain falling. The brighter the color, the more the rainfall. Charley looked large, and mostly green, with strips of yellow and a nasty red center. The weatherman stood in front of the images and explained each detail while motioning with his hands the projection of the hurricane’s path. Charley was poised to hit us tomorrow. It was going to hit Tampa and hit hard. I thought about my wife and the baby. What would happen? My heart felt caught in the cold wind and mist of an approaching tsunami, unable to act or even know what to do. The weatherman commented that the whole city might be flooded. He went back and forth, giddy with excitement. I imagined him like a preacher dancing in a cheap suit and stomping his feet around a stage, while a tower of water rose behind him. I heard him shout, “Yes, Charley,” and “Oh, Chaaarrrllleeeey.” He was sweating, smiling, telling us about the good news to come. “In the name of Charley, you will be destroyed.”

Later that evening, my wife told me that someone at her workplace said the weirdest thing.

“You’re going to have the baby this weekend,” my wife said.

“What?” I said.

“That’s what she said. She came over to me and whispered, you’re going to have the baby this weekend. Can you believe that?” We sat in the living room with the lights dimmed, but her face lit up with surprise, and a hint of incredulity.

“Was that it? What did she mean by that?” I asked.

“I have no clue,” she said.

And I had even less of a clue.

***

On Friday, the thirteenth, I woke up early in the morning and looked out the window. It was bright outside, and the trees stood motionless against the white sky. No wind blew. We were still in bed and happy that we had the day off from work. We imagined ourselves cuddling up and riding out the storm. Eventually, we got up and had breakfast in the kitchen, but noticed that our pantry was a bit empty. We decided that it would be wise to quickly go to Walmart for some last minute food items before the storm hit. 

“I know we have batteries,” I yelled from the bedroom. “But we should probably buy some extra ones if they have them. Did you hear me? Batteries!”

My wife didn’t answer. 

“Is everything okay?” I said, walking out of the bedroom. I looked at her, and she stared at me with a surprised face as if the storm just formed and rained in our living room.

“I think my water broke,” she said. 

I simply stared at my wife.

“My water broke.” 

I continued staring. I couldn’t move. I just stood there. 

“I guess you can’t come to the store with me then,” I said and walked out of the kitchen, out of the front door, out into the driveway. I grabbed the keys in my pocket and held it toward my pick-up truck. Outside the sky was calm and serene. There were no dark clouds; only a faint drizzle fell from the sky. After staring at my pick-up truck for a few minutes, I walked back into the house.

“I can’t go to the store. Your water broke. I can’t believe the baby wants to come out now. We should get to the hospital, right?”

My wife, as usual, remained very calm when she talked to me. Unlike in movies from Hollywood, the breaking of water can be just a trickle of amniotic fluid. And afterward, it could take an hour or more before contractions begin. This was the case for my wife. There was no running around screaming. No rushing back and forth mindlessly, as if your brain processed information in a glacial pace when compared to the electrified speed of your racing body. No grabbing whatever clothes and frantically shoving them into a suitcase. She was calm. She called the doctor. She called her mom. She painted her nails. She slowly packed her bag for the hospital stay. 

For me, my anxiety and worry started the minute my wife said the words, “I’m pregnant.”

My wife told me the doctor instructed that it was okay for us to casually make our way to the hospital as long as there were no heavy or frequent contractions. By the time we got ourselves into the car, the storm had started to twist trees and dump thick sheets of rain everywhere. Would we make it? Brandon Regional Hospital was only eight minutes away, so I drove carefully through the streets, avoiding fallen branches. There were no other cars on the street. During all this time, my wife kept track of her contractions. The week prior, we had gone to childbirth classes together where we learned what to expect with the pregnancy. In the rage of the storm, I couldn’t remember most of what I had learned from the classes. I did remember that I was supposed to help her with her rhythmic breathing during labor. It helped to cope with the pain. I did remember that I was to be encouraging and emotionally supportive.

I did remember the delicious snacks they gave out.

I did remember that one video. 

The one where this rather large woman was having a natural childbirth at home with the assistance of a midwife. No doctors. No drugs. No clothes. The husband wanted to be actively involved with his wife’s labor, so he was there coaching, rubbing, massaging, and encouraging her, wearing only his underwear. With every contraction, she screamed louder and louder, and her face became like that of a purple gargoyle. The midwife yelled in her face over and over again. Push. Push. Push. Finally, with an intense look of fury and with ear piercing screeches, she squeezed her child out into the midwife’s hand. The husband jumped up and down like a mad man yelling at the top of his lungs. And all I could say to myself was poor kid.

We got to the hospital before the storm became fierce. The room in the maternity ward was well lit, and the walls were white which added to the brightness. The floor, probably mopped recently, filled the air with the smell of pine; the universal scent of cleanliness. It seemed friendly and inviting, yet I could never get used to hospitals. Everything about it reminded me of sickness and of death. The smell of Pine-Sol only masking the acrid odors, the constant beeps, clicks, and coughs, the feeling of people abandoned by loved ones; around every corner were all constant reminders that this might be the last time.

My wife changed into a white gown with a small light-blue floral pattern. She then sat in bed and started breathing the way the instructor from the classes had taught her, every breath bracing for each contraction. When we had walked down the hall earlier, we had both noticed that there were a lot of expectant mothers ready to give birth.

“During a tropical storm or hurricane,” one nurse had said, “there is a huge drop in the barometric pressure which causes your water to break. That’s why this place is jam-packed today. Don’t worry. It’s very common.”

I guess that explained it.

After an hour of sitting in the room with my wife, I got bored and turned on the small TV fastened to the corner of two walls. Despite the poor reception, I learned that Charley was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane. It hit Fort Myers with a wind speed of 150 mph. Charley was heading north. I looked at my wife, hoping that she wouldn’t be too worried, but she paid no attention to the TV. On my wife’s stomach was a small device that had wires running out into a large machine that sat on a table. The large machine monitored the baby’s heartbeat. I turned my attention to the screen, and the small blue dot raced across from left to right with a large peak in the middle. I was mesmerized by its fluidity.

Later when my wife’s contractions got heavier, the anesthesiologist arrived and prepared to give the epidural. I thought the epidural was administered through a small syringe injected somewhere near the womb. The actual size of the syringe was close to that of a turkey baster, and the site for the epidural to be injected was near her lower back.

Into the spinal cord.

I cringed and looked away when it was being done. I couldn’t watch. My wife was strong. With her retaining water and carrying extra weight in her belly and the child pushing against almost all the organs in her body and the rollercoaster of hormone levels and the sleepless nights and the painful swelling of her breast and the constant running to the bathroom and the headaches and the backaches and the aches everywhere else, my wife still pushed forward ready for any syringe, any pain, any procedure, anything so that her child would be in her arms. 

I was in awe.

Hours went by, and I spent most of the time just sitting near my wife and looking out the window.

“It looks really bad out there,” she said.

I got up and walked toward the window to get a closer look outside. The sky was dark, and the winds made the trees bend unnaturally. The rain poured down into the streets, and I noticed that there were people still out there. I couldn’t tell if they were making their way from the hospital parking garage, or if they were just fearless and fighting the storm. Some people get a surge of adrenaline rush during times like these.

“It’s fine,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

I turned towards her bed and noticed that the baby’s heart monitor wasn’t moving up and down; a straight line with no peaks. I went ahead and readjusted it on her stomach, but still, there was no movement.

Then in an instant, a sharp crackling alarm went off, and I saw a flood of nurses and doctors rush into the room. The air felt heavy, and the downpour of movement around me jerked between motionlessness and blinding speed as if I was watching them through a thick cloud of flickering lights. One doctor checked her vitals. The nurses checked all the machines and touched all around my wife’s belly. Another doctor shouted for her to be moved and prepped for surgery. 

The baby’s heart flatlined. No pulse.

They disconnected her from her IVs and pushed her bed through the doors. Everyone rushed out of the room, and my whole world went with them.

A nurse appeared in front of me and pushed both her hands on my chest. I felt the coldness in her hands flowing into my chest, down my arms, and all over my body. She told me to stay in the room.

“What?” I said.

“Sir, you need to stay here,” she said. “We have a critical situation, and our first concern is the baby and the mother. We will come and get you when we have things under control.”

“No, I need to help—” I said.

“Sir,” she shouted. “There are guidelines and protocols that we must adhere to in situations like this. You must stay here. I promise to come and get you.”

The nurse took her hands off my chest, but the coldness was still there. I wasn’t going to get in the way. I wanted to be there. But I was the outsider and I had no clue what to do. The coldness surrounded me, and I felt being caught immobile in the wind and mist of an immense impending destruction again.

I looked out the window. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. This storm that was building up for days, of which I was unprepared for, now crashed hard. There was nothing I could do for my wife or my child. Through the window, there was a dark haze all around as if the heavy black clouds reached up and shrouded the entire sun. The wind whipped debris up, down, and into every direction before smashing it against something solid, like a car or a building. The rain felt heavy and came down like streaks of raging waterfalls against the windows. The trees convulsed, whipping back and forth, bending beyond their limits. 

But it was silent.

I was inside. 

The room blazed bright, and I was surrounded by whiteness. There was no sound of cracking branches. No sound of wind pressing against the building. No sound of the rain smashing against the windows. I felt alone.

This must be what sorrow was.

Engulfed in light, I could not pull my eyes from the darkness. In it, I saw the nurse coming back to the room. She paused at a distance in front of me. Her eyes gave it away. She said, very quietly, that my baby and my wife didn’t make it. She was sorry.

She disappeared, and I waited in the room alone. Then I appeared in the morgue. I saw their bodies. They were cold and lifeless. I signed papers in an office. I stepped outside the hospital, and I saw death all around. The hurricane destroyed it all. I went home. There was no home. Only debris. I kneeled down and my legs crumbled beneath me. I was lost in pain. I prayed. Oh God, I know you’re not like this. They are my world. Maybe I deserve this, but please let me be a dad again. I closed my eyes and pulled them from the darkness.

“Sir.”

I was jolted out of my thoughts by the nurse’s voice. She placed her hand behind my back to lead me to another room.

“What’s wrong?”

“Let’s go, sir,” she said. “Get these coveralls on quickly, and I’ll take you to surgery.”

I quickly put on a white gown, placed a mask over my mouth, and the nurse led me to another room. I saw my wife on the operating table with a curtain over her lower half. Two doctors moved in and out of the curtain. There were four or five other people there helping and monitoring my wife’s condition. I peeked over the curtain and saw the doctors working on her lower half, her body cut and flesh pulled open. Blood was everywhere. I felt an incredible fear rising, but when I looked over the other side of the curtain at my wife, she smiled and waved. 

“Are you okay? Does it hurt?” I asked.

“I don’t feel a thing,” she said.

“Okay,” shouted one doctor. “Get ready dad, here he comes!” 

My son emerged out from behind the curtain crying, kicking, shivering. My heart soared. I looked over at my wife. Tears ran down her cheeks. She had done it. The doctor placed him on a long tray, to be scrubbed and cleaned by the nurses. I could tell he hated it. Then they wrapped him in a colorful swaddle cloth and placed a tiny wool hat on his head. He stopped crying. He looked so little laying there. His eyes opened, and he looked around.

He looked straight at me—his dad. 

One of the doctors walked over to me and told me that they had performed an emergency C-section on my wife. Once she was open, they found out that my son held onto his own umbilical cord and stopped the flow to his body much like how the flow of water stopped after one crimped a hose. I looked at him while he lay quietly in the small bassinet and shook my head. Crazy kid.

***

The next day, the three of us were still at the hospital’s maternity ward. I went home to shower up before another night’s stay. On the way home, I saw Charley’s aftermath. One or two broken telephone lines blocked a street. A tree branch crashed through someone’s front window. Some flooding made it hard for cars to pass through. One tree toppled over with the roots sticking out into the air. Minor stuff for our area. Not what I had expected.

When I got home, I saw that my neighborhood had received little damage, and I went inside my house relieved. I jumped into the shower and let the warm water rush through my hair and over my body. Staring past the tiles in front of me, my thoughts fell on my son and his tiny hands and feet. I thought about his strong grip on my index finger. I thought about his brown eyes looking straight at me. I covered my eyes with my hand and wept. How can you fall in love so fast with someone who just didn’t exist the day before?

On Monday, it was nice to be home again after a long stay at the hospital. I watched the local news station, and all they talked about was Charley. It was the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since Andrew back in 1992. I turned to watch my wife sing lullabies and rock our little boy to sleep. We were lucky. Charley had quickly upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane before it hit Fort Myers and Punta Gorda. My wife stroked his hairless scalp lightly and rubbed his forehead. Tampa was predicted to be hit by Charley, but the hurricane went north and then swerved eastward, passing the city. My wife looked at me, and I saw the joy in her smile. It still didn’t feel real. Charley hit parts of Lakeland, then Orlando, and exited the state near Daytona Beach. I felt as if it happened in some other world. Or maybe even in a dream. I felt an unusual guilt for being glad. I wasn’t ready for any of this, but I realized that no one could be completely prepared. It all seemed too much to bear, but I would do it again. I was the outsider no longer and was able to be part of their world, part of what tethered them together. I touched my boy’s little head, and the warmth stayed with me. I loved the name we gave him and whispered it again and again even though others thought it would be Charley.

B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) with a degree in Electrical Engineering and is currently working in the Information Technology field. Inspired to explore his literary side, he has earned a B.A. in English from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Apalachee Review, FRIGG, and other literary journals.

Fiction | ‘Kiran’s Village’ by Aparna Ram

The light from the tube flickered a harsh green, giving Kiran a headache; and the silhouettes she saw in the queue outside the drug store, a dramatic resolve. People united by the needs of their physical bodies had become a single, hypnotic organism that was losing a head, adding a tail, swaying patiently on its many feet unmindful of the cold – December, or the time – nearly ten at night. Kiran had already counted three fidgety middle-aged women, one barefooted teen, and some well built men in colorful vests. The latter had jumped off the back of a truck to add themselves in the chain. She spared a glance at her fingers, white with their grip over the wheel of her battered Hyundai. She saw that the drug store was making a few people very happy – those black plastic bags they came out carrying did not seem to contain just medicine. Too nervous to step out and too wound up to sit still, Kiran had already attempted to dial Abhay five times since the evening. But she didn’t go through. She had waited for three hours, willing his dog – and the boys who had gone in search of it – to emerge from one of the alleys of the ‘village’-  a cluster of homes, really, that belonged to one of Mumbai’s oldest communities. Kiran picked up the phone to call Abhay again, but dialled Fiza instead.

“Hey! How’s Sri Lanka! Did you bite off your mum-in-law’s head yet?” she sang into the phone.

“Hey! What’s with the false liveliness!? Didn’t we speak after I landed,” the old faithful zinged back. Fiza – of their precarious, hopeful days of new jobs; navigating Mumbai’s local trains, counting planes overhead, bitchy scrolling through of other people’s lives, making ‘get rich and getaway’ plans. 

“I lost the ugly dog.”

“Roxy? Abhay’s dog? Kiran!”

“Yeah. During the walk this evening. She slipped off her leash.”

“How do you know she’s completely lost?” 

“Perhaps not. The kids said they saw a fat dog somewhere here. I’ve sent them to take a look.”

“What kids?”

“Kids from the village.”

“And where are you?”

“In my car just where…you know…all the dirty lanes start.” 

“What’s the dog worth?” 

“Fizu, it would be worth many puppies to a breeder. I need to find her. Abhay loves her to death.” 

“You don’t even like the dog,” she said, and paused. “File a police complaint Kiran, and get out of there. Go home.”

“I can’t leave without the dog. You know how Abhay is such a poor, little rich boy, he can’t handle…”

“- and the one you love and are engaged to.” Fiza, always good with priorities.

“Yes.”

“What do you see outside your window?”

“Um, what? I don’t particularly know. This whole city looks like one big public toilet if you ask me.”

“Do you have someone with you?”

 “Like whom? You were my one and only.” 

“Why don’t you call someone at work maybe?”

“No one talks to anyone… Everyone’s worried their smelly corner of the toilet will be usurped. I don’t know.”

“If you think a breeder might have stolen it, you have to go to the police. You will need help. And then go home. Mumbai is not safe. I’m happy I got out.” Kiran heard Fiza bite her tongue soon as she said this.

“Thank God I have Abhay.” Kiran said, her voice quite small.

“Do you?”

“Yes! I love him, I need him. He loves me. The math is quite simple.”

“Does Abhay know of the layoffs in your company?”

“I don’t want to narrate my morbid stories to him.”

“Well if he’s marrying into morbidity he should know.” She took a sharp breath, “Do you need some money, Kiran?”

“That’s not why I called, Fiza! I’ll call you later.”

Kiran cast about for some food. Something oily and unhealthy would feel so good right about now. Abhay’s flat was close by, she could raid his fridge. She abandoned the idea as swiftly as it came to her. She felt too guilty about Roxy. Perhaps she could order on an app? Would they deliver to a lonely person in a lonely car parked in the middle of a street? She sighed. She called the watchman of Abhay’s building to check if Roxy had returned. No luck.  

Kiran started when she heard tapping sounds. The boys were back. They were peering into her car, their faces pressed against the window. She rolled down the glass. They had found nothing. They had spread out into teli galli, shiv galli and even pererawadi, which was apparently forbidden to them. They had called out ‘Rosie, rosie’ but no dog barked in response. Hadn’t they said someone had seen the dog wander into the village? Could the dog have wandered into the water of the creek? No, didi the boatmen would have noticed. Was there someone in the village who had a lot of dogs? The boys shrugged. They weren’t used to knowing anything for sure. Her eyes fell on a paper cone that one of the kids was carrying – she spied some peanuts in it. What wouldn’t she give for some salted, mud-roasted peanuts that carried just a whiff of the sea! Abhay preferred the nut butter available at the organic store, which was fine of course, except that it was so dense she could feel her throat close up. The boy noticed her look achingly at the cone and passed it to her. While she took her time munching through each peanut, the boys set about making a tiny bonfire, a sigree, in front of the drugstore. She watched them coax a robust flame out of it. Its warmth was too inviting to say no to. She pulled a jacket around herself, stepped out of the car and bent ever so lightly over the fire. As she took in the warmth, she sent a silent message to the dog to find her. 

When Kiran and Abhay met through friends a year ago, she had found eighteen-month old Roxy adorable, if maladjusted. Mumbai, humid and crowded, did not have the same access to wide roads or open parks that Delhi did, and nowhere was it more evident than in the dog’s panic-pooping and incessant whining. Just about anything made it jump. Its large frame and frail heart began to irritate Kiran soon enough and the dog had sensed this. It did not help that she felt the animal was vulgarly huge, which it was – with a face resembling rotting lettuce. The nights she stayed over at Abhay’s were spent negotiating leg space with the dog. A year of this had somehow not tired her out, among other things, and what’s more – Abhay had given her a ring as an invitation to have his dog walk all over her for its life. She had accepted. Abhay was a good man – he knew the right way of the world, the right way to do things, the safe way to live.

The boys were having fun, passing around peanuts and whatnots. The average age of the gang must have been  about twelve. Kiran felt guilty for engaging them for over three hours. They wore modest clothes and had on sensible shoes. She needed to act like Abhay would in such situations; and pulled her wallet out. She  handed each of them a hundred rupee note. They tried to laugh away her generosity but she waved the notes insistently by their faces. She felt good when they finally accepted the money. They counted the money and a minute later, started making plans for ways to spend it. A smile spread across her face and she leant back on the bonnet of her car. The cool night air and the bonfire was bringing some cheer back to her. A few minutes passed. Her reverie was broken when a voice screeched suddenly, tearing through the silence. Kiran stood up straight and looked towards the village. Soon, a woman, kind of burly, appeared. 

The streetlamp under which the woman stood made her features sharp and gave all the jewellery she wore around her neck and arms an otherworldly glint. 

“My son does not need your money! Get away from him.” The woman was pointing her index finger at Kiran. 

“No, no, aunty, I was just thanking him,” Kiran managed. 

“Thank him when he’s dead of alcohol poisoning. Who do you think you people are? My son does not need your help.” The woman started thrashing her son, till he handed the currency note back to Kiran. The other kids scurried away. Kiran was mortified. A crowd gathered – a mix of villagers and bored renter-types. The woman kept up with the screaming – this woman was out to corrupt and hurt their children. 

Kiran got into the car, as a few men banged their palms against her windscreen and her doors. ‘Why did you give them money?’ Someone offered, ‘kidnapper’. She started to tremble, her fingers fidgeting to find the keys. Two men tried to pacify the crowd but they seemed adamant, for entertainment, or for worse. Her breath became shorter, and she broke out in a cold sweat. The banging was getting louder in her head. The space around seemed to close in and claw at her throat. She felt a blackness growing, her mouth going dry, her pulse slowing. 

Just then, a voice rang out, “atiye sab”. It carried authority and a hint of threat. The people in front of her windscreen started to clear out. The crowd dispersed, and only the man remained. He made gestures at her to leave. Kiran tried to get her bearings. She found her keys, the keys found the ignition and her hand found the gear stick. As soon as he heard her clutch grate nervously against the gear plate, he turned to go back into the drugstore. But in about ten seconds, he popped back out. He hadn’t heard her car fall into reverse gear. In fact he didn’t hear the engine at all and walked towards her, he seemed about twenty seven years old. 

He mouthed in English, “Need help?” 

She rolled her window down and stared blankly at him for a whole minute. He said, “Ma’am?” a couple of times. 

What she thought to be her voice, that rose in her throat was now something that had to fight its way out of the tight knot in her stomach, climb resolutely up her windpipe – causing it to burn up – and come out through her throat. She heard it tell him that she could not leave. She absolutely needed to find Roxy. She stressed that it belonged to her fiancé. He shrugged it all away and said, Come back in the morning.” 

He was firm that now she had attracted the attention of nervous renters and daily wagers, she could not stay much longer. Helplessness swamped Kiran. So this is how it would all end. Abhay would hate himself for finally deciding to trust her with his precious things, especially his Roxy, he would not get over losing her, they would grow distant, she would have to leave Mumbai, her parents would make her forsake reason and sanity, her independence would be taken away and with it her life force. 

Twelve years in Mumbai brought to a definite end by an ugly, ill-behaved dog. Kiran covered her face, as tears rolled down. The young man looked at her pitifully for a minute and then left. 

Kiran must have sat there for thirty minutes more, maybe an hour. She saw the man shutter down the drugstore before appearing by her window. 

“Do you want some water?” He asked. He had brought a bottle with him. She accepted it gratefully, but couldn’t help check its seal. 

“Please don’t worry, I have not spiked this bottle.” 

Kiran was embarrassed and said, “Why do you people assume the worst of us? That we want to ruin a child, that we think you have spiked our drink?” 

“Us? You people? What is you people?” He asked. 

She shrugged, spread her palms outward, indicating where they were, she in her car, huddled over her wheel and him standing wide-chested, looking down at her. 

“What else do we people do to you people?” 

“Steal dogs.”

“Sorry?” 

“My fiancé’s dog ran into these alleys and it hasn’t been seen since then.”

“And where is your fiancé?”

“He’s out of town.”

“Wait till tomorrow. It will come back.”

“How can you be sure? I need to find it today.”

“I see. Yes, it is possibly here somewhere.”

“Will you help me find it?”

“No, no, Ma’am.”

She got out of her car and leant on the side of the driver’s door, her arms folded across her body adamantly. She noticed the man’s eyes travelled to the scrapes of peeled paint across the driver’s door of the car; and she moved her body involuntarily in a bid to cover it  but gave up immediately.

Tonight should have been different. She should have been in her apartment, vegetating on the sofa, allowing some soothing TV show about arrogant lawyers or naughty doctors to wash over her as she sipped on some red – the almost perfect single life while it lasted. But here she was, alone, desperate and guilty, a few streets away from her fiancé’s apartment, having probably lost his dearly beloved Labrador Roxy for good. 

Kiran picked up a torchlight from inside her glove compartment and made to walk into one of the smaller alleys.

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“You didn’t lose your dog.”

“Dogs are not like humans, Ma’am. They are very intelligent animals.”

She shot him a look. “Why are you still here?”

“For you. In case you create any more nuisance I will need to cart you out of here.” 

She stopped for a moment, and returned to the car. She took something else out of the glove box and put that inside her shirt, making sure the waistband of her trousers secured it. She looked to see if the man was looking but his face was turned away. The shape of a screw driver was visible where her jacket did not cover her white T-shirt.

The alley was about two-shoulders wide. Isolated tungsten bulbs glowed in the winter darkness; illuminating a multi-coloured veranda here, an advertisement for ‘home-cooked fish meals’ there. The air was heavy with the smell of sea and drying fish. Several houses were 3-storeyed – all looked like heavily made up clowns in a circus to her – intended to be warm, but very grotesque. 

“So what do you do?” she asked him. 

“You saw me. Ajinkya drug store. That’s me.” He said, before continuing, “And you? Is being adamant and childish your day job?” He walked ahead of her without giving her a chance to shoot a repartee at him. He was muscular, had strong arms and a supple gait. He looked over his shoulder at her now and then. It was almost one in the morning now. His phone had rung twice and he had declined the calls both times. 

“Do you live here?” she ventured, testing. 

“Yes, all my life.” 

“You haven’t travelled outside of here?” 

“What for?”

“You know, for work.” 

“You mean, to find money? The sea gives my family plenty. You have travelled. I can see that you are not from here. What have you gained?” 

“A job. A man who is the love of my life.”

“An outsider, whose only protection is the money you make – which can be taken away at any instant. Are your connections here as permanent as the sea? Or as the land that gives abundantly if you tend to it long enough?” He paused to look at her.

She went blank, and didn’t respond. She had not eaten, and the sugary tea they had shared some time ago was giving her a head rush. A chuckle escaped her. He looked at her quizzically. “I think I am going to be very hungry.” He gave her a look of absolute derision. 

“It’s alright, I can find my own food.” 

“Really, could you? Without nearly getting yourself mobbed?” Ajinkya was not the villager of her presumptions. 

When she had first landed in Mumbai as an enthusiastic twenty-something ready to mine the capitalist system for its storied riches, Kiran had found this village on the map of every heritage walk tour, celebrated for its warm hospitality and fabled food. Twelve years since, on days that she took her morning walks with Abhay, she pointed to him the evidence of what, according to her, old-fashioned living had done to the community – carrom games and drinking that had gone on all night in the lane outside St Jude’s church, daily wagers, low-rent job seekers and general layabouts who had been taken in as boarders, raucous festivals where alcohol flowed free in the open, children who led unstructured lives. Patrolling cops and area residents like Abhay, whose sea-facing flats were just a few metres away from the village were glad to turn a blind eye to this – the community was after all the keeper of a historical land that had the best view of the sea and the mangroves. In Mumbai terms, this was real estate gold. If not for the them, greedy land sharks might have long-descended here to provoke violence and clear out space for grotesque buildings. So what if they took in a few boarders. 

She felt jealousy. She did not belong to her hometown like he did to his land. She had found it small, lesser – she had left it. Kiran had represented the new order, that that dealt with the idea of money and happiness being available for the taking, elsewhere. Happiness was to be found by constantly looking outside for it. And here he was, walking like the king of the alleys, almost as if she should be honoured to being shown the sights by him. 

She whispered ‘Roxy, Roxy’ as loudly as the sleepy neighbourhood would allow. A few who were sitting on their porches did not bother looking at them. 

He stopped outside a home and said, “You will get food here.” They waited quietly by its steps. 

“What is this place? Is it a dhaba?” She asked.

“It is an all night place to eat; open to everyone,” he could hear footsteps approaching the door. “You wouldn’t know if you are not from around.”
The door opened and an old lady appeared. They spoke for a minute before she invited them in. As soon as she entered the house, she panicked, like in anticipation of untold dangers. She said she wouldn’t go in and walked back to the little iron gate. Ajinkya looked at her disbelievingly. A mat and some food was brought out. They ate sitting under the street light, unpretentious local fare of rice bhakri, and fish coated with a fiery masala. His hand touched hers as they split some rice among them. But she didn’t see any reaction on his face. 

When what looked like prawn crispies were brought out, she had to say no. It looked too potent for her. The old woman’s face fell; she had clearly gone out of her way to fry them up. He took the plate from the lady and proceeded to bite into the dish. Kiran stood up to look for her phone. As she bent to search for it on the mat, the screwdriver fell out of her shirt. He looked at it bemusedly. She felt embarrassed. He helped himself to a few more crispies and asked with his mouth full, “How did you make it in Mumbai if you are such a scared person?” 

She felt indignant. “I am out tonight, am I not?” 

“Yeah, that you might be, but what about this dog running away is scaring you so much?” She should have followed Abhay’s instructions and walked Roxy the first thing in the morning. She should have walked her every single day for the past four days that Abhay had been away for. And when she did finally walk Roxy today, she should have allowed her to stay out for an hour at least – she had attempted to impatiently cut their walk short at ten minutes and an unhappy, angry Roxy had given one massive tug to the leash and dashed into the darkness. 

She had been the over-eager one pushing Abhay to give his domestic help a few days off. She should never have taken on something she couldn’t see through. So many should haves now taunted her for not having listened to their said-so’s. An inner voice had nagged Kiran on all the mornings that she had thought of a grumpy, 40 kilo-heavy Roxy going insane without her daily walks inside the 3-bedroom apartment, but Kiran had been so happy to get a break from Abhay’s life that she had paid little heed.

“You seem so sure the dog is safe.” 

“Well, not every person who loses their dog is so scared to go home and sit by themselves that they rather spend it alone, out on the streets with a stranger.” That stung. “What happens if you don’t find the dog tonight, but tomorrow or in a week?” 

“Well, by then the dog would not be the only thing I’d have lost.” They returned their plates and glasses. She had only a ‘thanks’ to offer the lady, which surprisingly, seemed more than enough. 

Kiran felt comfortable enough to ask the lady if she could use a restroom. She was shown a cubicle not inside, but behind the main building – a closet-sized room probably reserved for servants, with a gunny bag for a door. The commode was just a hole in the ground. She couldn’t do it. She came out to see Ajinkya laughing. 

“You knew this would be too much for me, didn’t you?” He smiled like he was extremely satisfied. 

“I can’t hold it in for too much longer.” 

“Why is it my problem to find you a toilet.” 

“Well, you were the one who made it your problem.” They walked a small distance, he showed her a public restroom. It smelt rank, putrid, foul. It stank to the heavens and back. He shrugged when she looked at him pleadingly. She entered, she had no idea what she was stepping on. She held her breath and did her business. As she washed her hand at the tap inside the restroom, careful to let only her fingertips touch the metal, her glasses fell into the basin, drowning completely in the clogged, filthy water. 

This night did not seem likely to end anytime soon. She rolled up her sleeves, shut her eyes, held her breath and plunged her hand elbow-length into the basin. She felt about for her glasses, not helped in the least by the water’s murky consistency. She swilled the repulsive fluid with her bare hand till she found her glasses and pulled her hand out. A deep hollow formed in her chest and the walls spun. She heaved, hurling out her stomach’s scant contents. She tried to wash her arm, her mouth, the glasses as assiduously as she could – the mossy metallic tap didn’t seem so bothersome in comparison now. She was getting ready to step out of the toilet when she heard a small, unmistakable bark. She knew this bark. She rushed out, hands dripping wet. He had the same question on his face. They went around the smelly building. Roxy’s laboured, whiny, unmistakable bark was growing louder. I hope she’s safe, I hope she’s safe, Kiran repeated.

It was Roxy alright. She ran into Kiran’s arms like they were really good friends. Kiran felt relief flood over her when she saw that Roxy didn’t seem attacked or bitten. Roxy, dirty, weak and scared, had been hiding behind some shrubs. She couldn’t seem to get enough of Kiran. 

Ajinkya took them to a tap near a tea shop where Roxy and Kiran could clean themselves. Relieved, with time to spare, the three of them tottered off to the beach to catch some morning waves. The village was waking up, sounds and smells came to her from all sides. 

He took them to his corner. A perch on the fishermen’s part of the beach that was bordered by boats and nets. They sat down on a green patch where someone was growing marigold. Roxy nuzzled the both of them as she excitedly ate the fresh bun they bought her. He pointed out the different distances into the waters where various fish might be found – fast-selling, commercialised fish like black pomfret, catfish, prawns, ghol, lobster were caught by mechanised trawlers while anchovies, stingray and squid were caught through specific, ancient fishing methods. The waters were separated on the basis of the kind of fish to be caught. 

Was he in the business too? His father had ended up losing a lot of money a particular year, so he had had to open something on the side. But he was saving up to go back into the sea with him. They sat silently for a long time. Kiran was grateful for the ginger tea a boy brought them. Roxy had put her head on Kiran’s lap and gone to sleep. This was the calmest she had felt in a long time. She showed Ajinkya a photo of Abhay, Roxy and her together, pictures of them in Abhay’s flat celebrating, Roxy being an absolute goof. He showed her pictures of his parents, his sister, his friends – “how do you like the ‘you people?’” he teased her. Kiran lay down on the sand, coddled by the sweet winter air. She dozed off. When she woke up, Roxy was splashing about in the water with a few young boys. She turned to see Ajinkya watching her face. She smiled at him, asked if he’d be fine to watch Roxy for some time. She felt like having a jog on the beach. He said yes, and ran off to join the frolickers in the water. She dusted herself off, gathered her things and started at jogging speed. She made her way through the cold, nippy air, staying close to the waterline. The salty air stung her face. She took a sharp left turn, ran into the main alleys of the village, passed her car which he had parked under the drug store’s awning, passed Abhay’s building, passed her own and kept running. Tears ran down her face. She said sorry to Abhay in her heart. She would stop when she had found a village of her own, this was not it.

Aparna Ram is an engineer-turned-media executive from Mumbai, whose day job is to make fiction shows for the audience that lives on the internet. She is the daughter of a coffee-plantation expert and a banker from Coimbatore. Gardening, sacred geometry, human consciousness research, cultural anthropology – especially Tamil history from before the deluge are her enduring loves. Her short stories and poems are forthcoming in various publications.

Fiction | ‘Drawing the Line’ by Sandeep Satishchandra

Tara there, Tara here.

I’m kneeling with the balls of my heels propped up against my butt, on the cold stone floor in a corner of the Paro Dzong. It is separated from the main complex by a narrow corridor and an intricate spiral stairway. Laid out in a neat little tapestry before me is a Thangka painting of Red Tara: the seventeenth of the twenty-one avatars expounded by the famous Atisha tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. In her right hand is a red vase, the same shade as her skin, camouflaged, whereas, her left hand is extended in a Surya Ravi Mudra– the ring finger and the thumb joined, symbolising holy communion of fire and earth. She is  holding onto the slim stem of an utpala flower, blossoming out of her left ear. 

A monk walks past my huddle, carrying some incense sticks in his hand. He kneels before the Buddha statue, lights the sticks, and places them in a holder that is shaped like one of those thuribles used by the Catholic Padres when I was studying at the Convent back in Bombay. On his way out, he looks at me, consults the Thangka, and nods, approving my current meditation. 

The legends of Tara’s origins are murky at best. One among them provides details of how she was birthed from the tears of Avalokiteshvara, while another one speaks of how she had been a Buddha in her past life, who had had made an oath to come back as a female Bodhisattva after rebirth to rid the land of snows of all suffering, and deliver its people from the hells of the living. 

Either way, poor Tara, the embodiment of the female deity in Vajrayana Buddhism is still believed to owe her genealogy to a man. Just like her mortal namesake, and my former lover, who in a fit of literary zeal, had embarked on an ambitious novel to denounce Borgesian Magic Realism and its subsets as being primarily patriarchal pursuits.

Tara and I met at a literary support group called the Band of Storytellers. I’ll never forget my first impressions when I laid my eyes on her in the room. It’s an eidetic hallucination- her pixie-hair cut; her sharp roman nose; her mellifluous voice that serenaded in lilts like a cuckoo bird, mimicking a sinusoidal frequency; tattoos all over her dark, bronzed skin- skin so dark and honeyed that her palms were white in contrast; her summery dress teased me in the draught of a pedestal fan, betraying in alternate billows luscious thighs pockmarked delicately with cellulite like weathered bubble wrap. Desire gripped me when she mentioned Jorge Luis Borges even if it was a tirade against his work with a gendered, feminist argument. 

How relevant is the question of gender and feminism when discussing Borges? – I argued back; I mean, as a writer he was as asexual as they come. Sexuality and Gender can be mutually exclusive, she retorted, and it can be argued that many of his writings spawned Magic Realism as a genre that is incompatible with women; in fact, it alienates every non-masculine gender. Every member of the group squirmed in their seat when I laughed back. What do you know, how will you understand? – She cried, her eyes ablaze- you are a man; how will you ever be able to appreciate what it feels like to be tied down to this mortal world with your body?

In spite of our contradictory stances on the matter, there had been an intense sexual vibe between us that I’m sure everyone else in the room had picked up on as well. I thanked my stars just then for having joined the Band of Storytellers. It had happened on an unremarkably dull night, out of curiosity and desperation, when I hadn’t received a single response for over a year- positive or negative- to the submission of my stillborn novel- Saffron and the Babalu. Undeterred, and on a steady diet of motivational porn on YouTube, I carried on with a loose sequel- Saffron and the Dark Maiden- about my literary alter-ego and a mysterious, dark-complexioned woman he meets at a literary support group. 

This ‘coincidence’ ignited within me an ineffable complex; of being in a strange multi-dimensional labyrinth where all that is written is bound to come true. The very evening Tara and I laid eyes on each other, I wondered, that a corollary of the complex would be to know reality is bound by whatever it is that is written. Not surprisingly, these thoughts wafted in when Tara and I were lost in the throes of coital passion.

Borges was obsessed with the shaping of a collective unconscious of all the denizens of a real planet over time; Tara and I discussed later in bed, our limbs intertwined like an occult maze, steam emanating from our bodies. The denizens in the universe of Borges’ seminal short story- Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius- had ended up believing a fictional treatise blessed with the imprimatur of antiquity as having been true all along

A fictitious history gains prominence in spite of its mythical origins, Tara said. 

Myth and truth are quite interchangeable, I concluded. 

Write it, and it will become.

Our chorus preceded a celebration of orgasms after the grand revelation – just as I had written it would in Saffron and the Dark Maiden.

The labyrinth I was exploring back then with my ‘reality experiment’ was in some strange analogy, similar to that of a Mandala I sit with every day in this Dzong. I struggle to locate meaning in these twisted Mandalas. In many ways, they are representative of our realities. The efforts required in the meditation of their truths revolve around counter-intuitive reconciliations. 

Take for instance the current one I’m consulting; I have been obsessed with it for the past two weeks. It is quite unlike some of the other Mandalic Thangkas I have seen over the years. There is no evidence of any traditional way of demarcating the boundaries between chaos and order. Where there should have been a uniform circle, marking the secondary boundary along with a tangent square marking the primary one, there is nothing but a light red halo around the central figure of a serene, red Tara. The chaos of fire seems to co-exist effortlessly with the order of sky. The lack of a boundary only makes the task of reconciliation and eventual syncretisation of frictional elements that much harder. 

Try as I might, I struggle with the question- how do I draw the line?      

But that hadn’t been the primary concern for me during the initial hey days of my coupling with Tara. Her lust was too divine at the time; her innocence too pristine for me to bother with the ethical ramifications of my metaphysical blurring of lines between literary coincidences and real-life accidents. 

Over the course of our relationship, Tare told me about her long history with depression and schizophrenia for which she consulted some reputed psychiatrists in Bangalore. During our walks together, I could hear the tinkle of a tin can from inside her clutch, containing raspberry flavoured throat lozenges, Risperidone for madness and Saridon for the migraines. 

As a creature of abuse, her body was littered with scars accumulated over the course of a traumatic relationship with a neurotic political activist named Sunny who couldn’t get himself off without inflicting pain and violence. But Tara hadn’t left him for the longest time, believing herself to be madly in love with the man. Their love story finally ended when he tried ripping her stomach with a blunt kathi knife in a fit to eviscerate their foetus borne not more than three weeks before. When she was admitted into the emergency ward at a nearby hospital, it was found swimming in a pool of embryonic fluid within her underpants, soaking up the fabric like the yoke from a broken egg in a cotton grocery bag. 

Isn’t it pretty? – She asked me one day, running her hands all over her abdomen, all over the orogenic ridges of the mummified wound, high on her prescription medication and Pinotage wine with the extra bite of red plums. 

In Saffron and the Dark Maiden, I had written about how the Dark Maiden tattooed over every scar on her body with symbols that defied the mark of violence each of them bore; the one on her stomach had barbed wire traced across the abdomen; semicolon inscriptions across her wrists; an F Clef under her left breast with the top staff line hiding the scar left behind from the kitchen knife that Sunny had used as a threat when he wanted to cut off her breasts. 

Over the following months of our courtship and fucking, Tara read the entire manuscript of Saffron and the Babalu. She was the one, privileged enough to read it, barring a hundred literary agents and small press publishers who had had a taste of just the first three chapters and a complete synopsis before sending in their rejections. And over the course of her reading it, I wrote about her reading it in Saffron and the Dark Maiden. I confided in Tara, coming clean with how the events detailed out in Saffron and the Babalu were true for most part- the novel’s allegorical treatment full of metaphors to conceal the truth, was a by-product of my artistic conceit. I was also careful to predict her being moved by how my literary alter ego in Saffron and the Babalu turned his life around by writing about how his own literary alter ego in the novel wrote a redemptive meta-tale, involving a bloke named Saffron resuscitated from the altars of death by a daemon named Babalu. The isomorphic significance of the turnaround of my life coinciding with that of my literary alter-ego’s literary alter-ego disconcerted her. 

In Saffron and the Dark Maiden, this anxiety drove her insane to the brink of catatonia, questioning everything and inquiring into the truthful nature of everything. That was when I did the unthinkable just for the Evulz- I had her read the entire novel. And then I christened her as the Dark Maiden in an intimate moment with our bodies locked in missionary- just like my literary alter-ego had done in the novel. Her eyes stayed widened until her descension was complete after I came flush in her. 

From then on, every time Tara made love to me; woman on top, she would ask me, locking her glazed eyes full of life with my empty ones- did we write the novel or did the novel write us? 

Through the course of time, through the course of our tragic relationship, and through the course of each chapter she pored over in Saffron and the Dark Maiden, I tried to alleviate Tara’s spiralling free-fall into the infinite depths of a psychosomatic breakdown. I even implored her to seek remedial expertise, and finally, at my wit’s end, I read Borges’ Partial Magic in the Quixote to her after a feral session of what can only be called copulation under the influence of butter infused with cannabinoids. 

In it, I explained, Borges explores a similar anxiety invoked when confronted with ‘strange ambiguities’ set in motion in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, involving serial subversions of reality. During the initial parts of the novel, its protagonists review Cervantes’ own Galatea- a literary predecessor to his Don Quixote.

Tara had been standing in front of the mirror, listening the whole time. As she tripped balls with stars and spangles sparking from her eyes, she ran her fingers over delicate sweat globules on the scar under her left breast. I know that you are talking about the Barber and the Priest in Don Quixote, she slurred- they speak of how the author ‘is more versed in misfortunes than literary verses.’ She then turned slowly toward me, picking up the copy of Saffron and the Babalu she had printed out at a Xerox shop nearby. Is this your Galatea? – She asked, thrusting the manuscript in my face.

And in a final culmination of madness, I continued deliberately, locking my eyes with her vacant ones, they happen to become the readers of Don Quixote while continuing to fulfil their roles as its primary characters…

Tara straddled me in the tantric sex position- the goat and the tree. She flicked a thin razor through her fingers and rested it where my carotid pulsed. I could smell her breath laced with gin, raspberry essence and smoke. Are we in your Don Quixote then? – She hissed, jabbing the razor deeper into my skin, is that what Saffron and the Dark Maiden is all about?

You know, I said, there occurs a scene in the Hamlet, wherein the characters of the Hamlet witness a tragedy analogous to the Hamlet on stage.

So what?

Lord Rama’s sons learn about the Ramayana from Valmiki, being his pupils, and sing its praises at a feast hosted by the King Rama himself. Lord Rama hears his own epic, recognises his sons, and rewards Valmiki who happens to be the principal author of the live epic. A similar interpolation takes place in the One Thousand and One Nights in which the dreaded King hears his own story from Scheherazade on the six hundred and second night.

And here you are, I revealed finally to the Dark Maiden, suckling her tits, sweat and all, whilst still under her. For some reason, I likened our coupling to a cherub fornicating with the primordial Madonna; it turned me on even more. 

How do I draw the line? Tara asked instead. She never blinked.

For the sake of instigating conflict in my literary game, I had to have Tara succumb to the infinite, self-referential loop I had pushed her toward, resulting in me leaving her and ending our relationship. 

It’s been a romantic infraction, I told Tara before I ran away to Bhutan to begin my purge for purity. She had been dressed in white against her dark, melting before me in our tender embrace; I had no choice but to leave her behind, relegated to a sterile ward at the far corner of NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) during her last stand at the brink of insanity. 

But she didn’t leave it at that, choosing instead to write me long literary emails in the hope of catalysing in her life the very turnaround orchestrated by my literary alter-ego’s literary alter-ego- all sharing a common namesake- in Saffron and the Babalu. 

She signed off in every email with an ‘Always your Dark Maiden.’ 

As the mails piled up in my inbox, I was overcome with a peculiar curiosity about how each of her successive mails was beginning to read exactly like I would have written them. 

There was something similar which struck me when I read two short stories by Borges- Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and The Death Compass after having read- coincidentally- Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I realised that I had unearthed a literary connection between the two authors with Foucault’s Pendulum being a blown out version of Borges’ Tlon and The Death Compass; their common elements of blending together fiction and reality within the Kabbalistic frame-work of the world were stark. Borges has inadvertently created a literary degree of separation in Eco and maybe countless others.

In one of her emails, Tara professed that the world is a construct of nothing but symbols that can be assembled and reassembled indefinitely to script our own reality. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from that philosophy, Tara finally concluded in her mail, and be the mistresses of our own Cosmogonies. We are the scripters of our world, our reality after all. 

Write it, and it will become.   

I will do just that, Tara’s last words to me before I left, I will script my redemption so don’t try and stop me. Who am I to come in your way? – I had shot back then; after all, my literary alter-ego had kept his word in Saffron and the Dark Maiden. 

By the time I had gotten around to the rest of her emails many days later, I was stunned to see that Tara had somehow come to embody a literary voice very similar in tone and style to the one I had had employed in Saffron and the Babalu. She may have been a student of literature. She may have studied all the works of Shakespeare and Tolstoy- even Borges. But she had studied them as a reader. She studied my first stillborn novel as a writer. 

I was now certain of having created another literary degree of separation. She had been the sole reader of my novel in its entirety. With each successive email, I was alarmed by this mutative birthing of one author by another. Voices duplicated and reduplicated infinitely. But once I started unearthing literary degrees of separation between authors separated by temporal fault lines and interstellar heart lines, I realised that the nature of true authorship is a myth. All we have is a unique voice, and even that can be plagiarised through countless obsessions; Tara had shown me that. 

Her final email paralysed my resolve and precipitated in me abandoning my writing altogether-

Dear Saffron:

I woke up this morning with my feet sticking out of the mattress, paralysed in the cold draught. Still recovering from my nightmare I couldn’t curl my toes frigid from the terrors left behind in its wake. For a good minute or so I couldn’t recollect where I was.

I yearned to feel you next to me. Your body heat was always calming. I miss that feeling. Without you around anymore, I feel like I am losing a vital grip on reality. 

The pills don’t seem to help as much. I don’t know how many days it’s been since I last held you in this room. Passages of time seem to constrict with confined spaces. I just woke up from a nap, and am writing to you about my dream before I forget what I mean-

I am thrown into a dark cellar with cold stones for flooring. There is an invisible corridor, which leads me to a door that opens to a glorious library. There are glass panes on the ceiling, which doubles up as a roof. There are blue skies and white clouds during the day, while celestial Mandakini shines through at night. There is always some light at any given time. So much so that even in my dream-state, I dread ever revisiting the dark corridor I have stumbled through. The first thing I do after the first night spent there is to permanently board the door behind me. Over the next couple of days, I realise that the library is infinite. Every book ever written (not just published) is present on its elven shelves. I intuit literary degrees of separation one day when I read a book on how the philosophy of parenting a child is at odds with Plato’s parable of the cave. I find two other books with analogous situations. Out of a fit of inspiration, I proceed to re-order the infinite library into sequential catalogues. As the days go by I realise the problem with such categorisation. I am faced with two methods with which to proceed. The first is temporal; I am to arrange the books in terms of simple chronology. The assumption here is that chronology would take care of the phenomenon of authorial birthing. But this method does not account for the content of each book. I realise that ideas and themes presented in these books are ultimately not bound by temporality. Universal themes are relevant throughout timelines. Also the infinite nature of this task of assigning to the books an order by way of chronology belied the logic of having a beginning or an end. So I leave it unattended. The second method is that of Cause and Effect; I am to read each and every book on the shelves, and arrange them on the basis of birthing of ideas. This eliminates the problem of chronology as a starting point; it is only a base filter now after the clustering of books on the basis of their ideas and themes. Ideas proliferate from ideas; their themes replicate themselves with each succession. This seems to work better because a book’s identity is the content it bears. However a new challenge appears in that it is not possible to ascertain, beyond a point, which book birthed the primordial idea, the archetype. But it is a spatial concern; logic demanded a solution. Years go by, but not without discovery. I come across the script of the movie Inception, auctioned in an immemorial time for an obscene amount. As I read the original draft, I realise handwritten notes referring to the Borgesian literary device of interpolation within interpolation to be the inspiration behind the idea of having dreams within dreams in the movie. I also realise that every tragic love story is a plebeian variation of the tales of Heloise and Abelard, Romeo and Juliet and even Rama and Sita. I discover that it was actually Gaiman who might have birthed Rowling. The catalogues mount with time but the daunting nature of the task does not deter me. I relish the pleasure in enhancing the library’s bibliography. The end is nowhere in sight but it does not matter because my sense of purpose is inviolate. Some more years pass, and I come across Plato’s autobiography only to realise that his literary voice is nothing like that showcased in his Dialogues; it reveals that Socrates abhorred the written word. There is another tome found in the farther corners of the library, detailing out the chronological amendments made to the Mahabharatha with credits to each successive author. For instance, there is an obscure addendum to the Vana Parva section of the epic by a Vaishravaneya from the third century B.C., describing the battle between Arjuna and Lord Shiva in the guise of a Kirata; I discover that this mysterious poet’s  obsession with Sanskrit verses using nothing more than a handful of consonants was ultimately expunged from the original narrative with time, but his rhythmic style was later immortalised by the eleventh century A.D. poet- Bharavi- who composed his Kiratarjuniya, comprising special verses, employing the use of just one consonant or ones that were two dimensional palindromes with the verses remaining unchanged when read horizontally or vertically. The lack of anxiety with creative originality in ancient Indian literature is thus a myth. Some more years roll by, and now I am an old man, and something worse- an inveterate librarian. One day, I come across an odd looking book, handwritten; it bears the name- Saffron and the Dark Maiden. I open it to read references to another book called Saffron and the Babalu, which I find stowed away among the ones that are yet to be assigned their literary godmothers. In Saffron and the Dark Maiden, I read about how the author talks about the dream his literary alter ego has, in which he stumbles into an infinite library through an invisible corridor in the dark, haunted by the nature of literary degrees of separation… 

I wake up.

A dark-complexioned woman dressed in blue nurse attire looks on at my existential caving-in with a look of serenity. Her smile mirrors that of the Red Tara in the Thangka painting hanging on the white wall just behind her.

Hi Saffron, how are we doing today? – She asks, still smiling. Her name-tag reads:

Tara Subramanium, Trainee Nurse, NIMHANS Unit VI- Adult Psychiatry.

I don’t know how to draw the line.   

Sandeep Satishchandra works as a Marketing Professional, moonlighting as Co-founder and Head Writer at Culture Minus Sanskar– an online Media Collective, specializing in Video Essays, Podcasts and Literature on InstagramYouTubeHubHopperMedium and other online platforms. If he is not reading or writing, being the eternal hobbyist that he is, Sandeep dabbles in pursuits like Running, Capoeira, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and all things Epicurean.