Brief from Oma

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Laura Story Johnson


Brief from Oma
Photo Credit: Laura Story Johnson

When their family finally got off Ellis Island, my great-great-grandfather purchased his five daughters and one son the biggest orange he had ever seen. He splurged to celebrate their feet touching New York City streets. My great-grandmother coughed and so they’d waited and waited in the warren of rooms, praying that the harbor breeze would clear her lungs, blow them forward: deliverance. “If she goes back, we will all go back,” my great-great-grandfather said. Back to Germany, back to starvation. It was November, 1923 and my great-grandmother was twelve years old. It took her a few days to recover from the two weeks on the ocean, but the officials eventually let them through. My great-great-grandfather cut the orange, split it between his thin and worn family. Hope tasted sour and they had to choke it down.

My great-grandmother would laugh when she told of the grapefruit they all confused with an orange. Her laugh rumbled in her lungs, triggered a cough that never really went away, just like her accent. In America she learned English and became a teacher. She taught her students to say Jamaica: “Yamyaca.” She fell in love and married a horseman, keeping her marriage a secret because teachers could not marry. Eventually she delivered the twins she’d hidden under her dress and learned to cook. At the restaurant she made meals for businessmen, city folk. At home on the farm she made tiny cookies with aniseed, hardtack I hated as a child and longed for as an adult.

After I graduated from college she continued to mail me boxes of the tiny cookies: “kleügens” she called them. My new boyfriend knew them as pfeffernüsse. We ate them together at our plastic kitchen table looking out the window across our Soviet apartment complex. We dipped them in warm water that tasted, faintly, of coffee. I fiddled with the emptied packets of “Coffee King: American Flavor” from the window shop under our stairs as I told him about my Oma. Her strength was the reason I’d moved, the foundation that made me brave enough to seek meaning in foreign places. She always told me to see the world. And there I sat, around the world from her, eating something she had cooked in her Iowa kitchen. I could see her hands: long fingers, knuckles large with arthritis and farming, working the dough into little balls. They were my hands. Or, my hands were hers. The weight of a family recipe that had traveled so far sank in my chest and I suddenly longed to be closer to her. I wanted to soak her up before an inevitable happening that I couldn’t say out loud would occur. Instead I choked down the lump in my throat and put the rest of the kleügens in our cupboard.

I wrote her letters from Mongolia and told her the things we were experiencing. She wrote me back, sometimes confusing German with English as her mind so filled with life let the bubbles of memory overflow. I visited her on a cold November day when I returned for a couple of weeks to the United States. My boyfriend’s job kept him in Mongolia while I left. She asked me about my students and told me about her time as a teacher, experiences not that far removed from the book I was reading to my third graders. I taught my students to say pioneer: “Laura.” It was my name. Or, my name was hers. Some of my students thought that I was Laura Ingalls Wilder and that the book told the story of my life in America. I would laugh when I told of their confusion.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a teacher too. Like my Oma, she was only a teenager when she first stood in front of a classroom. Like my Oma, she married a man who loved farming and horses. Like my Oma, the stories of her childhood seemed a world away and yet were mine. Everything had changed since she was a girl. In a lifetime the places she knew became unrecognizable. I realized that my students lived in a place where, seemingly, nothing had ever changed.

When a Mongolian colleague hosted us at her home, a ger on the steppe, I watched her third grade son gather dung for the fire. He was struggling in my class, grappling with the pronunciation of English words. He couldn’t understand our book, but maybe it wasn’t the words. What I understood seeing him leap onto a horse bareback was that for him that life, my Oma’s life, my life, were all the same. Time meant nothing; it was just foreign. When I was home, time meant everything. I held my Oma’s hand and we sat together on her couch, looking at the autumn leaves out the window and making plans for the summer when I would be back.

Like my Oma, I fell in love while I was a teacher. I decided to leave my job in Mongolia at the end of the school year to return home. My boyfriend decided to go with me. We knew we wanted to get married, but I needed him to meet my Oma, to be a part of my family before he joined my family. I mailed my Oma a picture of the two of us smiling and wearing red hats against the falling snow of Ulaanbaatar. I sent Russian fur hats home as gifts and sewed stockings out of silk from China. At Christmas we set the box of kleügens out in our living room and ate them with cocoa we made from grinding up chocolate bars into warmed milk. I wrote my great-grandmother a card and taught my boyfriend to say words in German. Letter: “brief.”

It was an unusually warm April day when my mother called. A postcard to my Oma, a picture of three little Mongolian boys holding lambs tucked in their del, sat on my desk. I’d typed it to make it easier for her to read, used a new ribbon in my ancient Olivetti. I wrote that I felt the energy of spring and told her we would be home in July; we’d already purchased our tickets. Then my mother’s broken voice said it out loud and hanging up the phone was an impossible happening. I let the foreign beeping of an ended phone call carry me with it, my hands, her hands, the phone’s cradle. Eventually I walked to my desk and clutched the postcard to my heart. I wept knowing that she would never receive it. Summer came early to Mongolia that year, but it was too late. I was too far away and couldn’t go back for the funeral.

A week after my mom’s phone call all of our snow had melted. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I hiked to the hills outside of Ulaanbaatar. There on a sunbaked ledge he built an ovoo, an offering of sticks sculpted into the celebration of a life, of all life. The ovoo pointed out across the valley toward the mountains we could see on the other side, shimmering in the distance. I faced west, home, and breathed in the warm blue sky. Then I sat on a rock and wrote my last letter to my Oma. I filled the page and strung a piece of string through it, tying it to the ovoo along with two blue prayer scarves. I held my boyfriend’s hand and said goodbye to her. She taught me to say goodbye: “Auf Wiedersehen.” It meant until we see each other again.

The following Tuesday morning there was an envelope waiting for me in my postal box. I couldn’t breathe when I saw the handwriting. Ten days after her death I got a letter from my Oma. She’d mailed it before she passed and suddenly there I sat in another world than her, holding something she had written. I clutched it to my heart before I could open it. When I finally did, I found another miracle. She wrote about the picture I sent her. The words were brief, but they were everything. She recognized the warmth I needed in his eyes and told me. She knew. From a picture, from a letter, they became family. I took the letter home to him and searched for the box of kleügens, tucked at the back of our cupboard. Somehow there were a few left and I ate them with the man I would marry. We didn’t dip them in anything. Kleügens soften with age.

In November she crossed an ocean. In November I crossed an ocean. In November my great-grandmother arrived in America. In November I held her hand. Beginnings. Endings. Hope. An unusually warm November day took my voice through an intense happening. I had to whisper to say her name out loud.

It was November, 2010 and my daughter was just a few minutes old. Lying with her at my breast, I stared into her black eyes, wondering at the journey, at her passage: deliverance. My husband cut an orange, split it between us. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. We named our beautiful miracle after my Oma.

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Laura Story Johnson is an attorney working in human rights research and advocacy. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived in New York City, bush Alaska, Mongolia, Boston, west of the Zambezi River in Zambia, and in Austria. Her work has appeared in the South Loop Review. She currently resides in Chicago with her husband and two young children. Email: lstory.johnson[at]gmail.com

Stepping into Summer

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Tony Press


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Photo Credit: Mike Linksvayer

It is colder than it looked from my living room. After three glorious days of sunshine, during which I had been pent up within walled structures, this is my morning to walk it off.

I wear my old hooded soccer sweatshirt, which for years has felt thick and warm, but today is thin and not so protective. The breeze whips off the ocean, pausing only to plant cold kisses on my face. I keep the hood on. Summer on the coast can be hot, can freeze your ass off. Yesterday we hit 85 degrees right here, and today the radio is talking about 90-plus degrees “all over” but they never mention our corner, unprotected from sudden fog—nature’s air conditioner—and crisp sea air. Yes, sometimes, we do get the heat, but we’ll see about today.

I walk up San Pedro, glancing toward Hill Street, toward 2008 grad Teresa, and her baby, whom I’ve never seen. I suspect Teresa is worried about my reaction, as I had long harped “no babies” to my classes, and especially to the trio of Teresa, Lety, and Fabiola—so strong, so intelligent, each of them. Fabiola, too, has a baby, and I did see Fabiola and her baby, by chance, a few weeks ago. It was a fun, quick conversation, and we promised to meet soon for a longer visit. We set one up, but she didn’t show. I need to contact Teresa and Fabiola. I need them to know I still love them.

Lety, as yet, has no babies, is thriving in community college, and will be accepted by the university. Whether she can afford to go is another story. Not a good one.

Brisk walking takes away the chill, and soon I am flirting with sweat.

Across from Holy Angels Church I watch streams of people entering from all directions. A blue car briefly double-parks to let out a woman with a walker. She is about my age. I used to be young. Soon she is off the street and inside for Sunday Mass. The car moves on.

Around the corner on Mission Street it is quiet again. Few cars and almost no pedestrians, but two men walk toward me before disappearing into a doorway. What could be open at 8 a.m. on a Sunday? I reach the door: Al-Anon. Good for them, and glad it wasn’t me.

I cross the street and continue north. Two more men, could be brothers to the first two. They enter Gino’s Club: “where friends meet,” a bar that may have survived both earthquakes of the last century. I check its hours: open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. Not good for them, glad it wasn’t me.

Climbing the gentle Mission grade, I turn right just before the War Memorial onto a small street I hadn’t noticed before. Just a block long, then it bends into an alley. I almost take a photo of an ancient, weather-beaten house. It could be a good photo, but what would I do with it? Last night I took a couple of photos of two mariachi musicians walking down Bartlett Street in the city, ready to make their rounds. The driveway next to the old house has a Harley and two yellow tow trucks. I don’t take the photo.

I angle up to the west on Brunswick. Approaching Chelsea Court I remember that a few students live there: Susie, the sweetheart who tried to kill herself a few months ago, and Jason, one of my biggest failures last year.

Susie and a friend unexpectedly turn the corner and walk in my direction. We smile, hug, say “good morning,” and separate. She’s doing well, has good support. I think she’ll make it.

A minute later, at 9:02 a.m., Jason and a woman appear. It may be his mother or aunt, I don’t know. She doesn’t see me, and crosses the street. Jason does, and stops. I say, “good morning.” He wears the black leather jacket he lives in, the Cincinnati Reds baseball cap he must sleep in, and the smirk that, too, is all-weather, all the time. He stares for a moment, no expression of surprise, though I’ve never been on this street, says nothing, and crosses the street to join the woman. They walk up the hill on the west sidewalk and I match them, but a little behind, on the east side. I decide I will go any direction Jason doesn’t, at the next intersection. They go left so I continue straight. I walk a couple of blocks, again impressed that Jason has maintained his silence for me, hasn’t spoken to me for four months. He has determination, no question about that, and I failed him in many ways, not simply on his report card.

I’m over the hill and out of the wind. Off with the sweatshirt, it really is going to be hot. Thank you, God, I need it.

Turn another random corner and find myself on Hanover Street. Jessica, one of my first absolute wondrous students, from ten years back, lives somewhere on this street, I learned last week, but I can’t think of the address. Is it 565? Don’t know. She had a baby less than two weeks ago, and her sister, another gem, gave me the address. I walk awhile, three or four blocks, secretly hoping I might see, or be seen by, Jessica or someone who knows me. Doesn’t happen.

I spot a park a block over, and turn that way. It must be, and is, Lincoln Park. Two men do tai chi, two others shoot hoops, and two women, perhaps spouses of the first men, circumambulate the park. This is a place students love, not just for the name. I’d forgotten how small it was.

The western sky is changing from grey to blue, with a few perfect clouds, and the temperature is definitely warmer.

I see Mission Street again and walk toward it. On Mission again I realize I was actually all the way inside San Francisco, the Daly City welcome sign maybe 100 yards to my left. I look toward San Francisco, still mulling the idea of finding breakfast, but see nothing, so I head back to Daly City.

Cross over and climb Bepler, thinking that Roberto and Maila live here somewhere. I don’t see brother or sister. I do walk to the top, giving me a good view in three directions. The southern sky has joined the west as a lighter and more appealing sight. The north is still grey but I’m not going that way.

After Bepler I wind my way down toward the BART station. In the parking lot I see perhaps twenty men, and a couple of women, all dressed in black with white shirts, a conclave of religious folks. A bit later I cross paths with a man clearly on his way to join them, and his hair makes me think they might be Hassidic Jews, but I don’t remember the others looking like that. There was lots of smiling and hugging within the group. Maybe they were waiting for a chartered bus; maybe they had just been delivered by one. Maybe they’re heading for a casino, who knows?

Now on Junipero Serra, walking in front of the Century Cinema. There are people going to the movies at what, ten in the morning? The marquee shows a 10 a.m. start for a handful of slasher flicks. Happy Sunday, everyone.

Walking through the Subway and Starbucks passage, I spot Alexis, who graduated four or five years ago, setting up in Subway. There are no customers, but it is open for breakfast. We catch up across the counter. A current student, Diana, has just started working here, and she told me that her manager was a former student of mine—“Allie or Alice.” I’ve never had an Alice. The next day, Diana reported the name as Alexis, and we figured it out.

Alexis said that after just one week Diana is an excellent worker: “She knows how to do everything already.”

I told her I wasn’t surprised, that “she’s nice, intelligent, and hard-working; what else could you want?”

“And I only speak English with her,” Alexis smiled, but she was serious.

Alexis is in only by chance this morning. Last night the guy who was supposed to open today got drunk and sick in Alexis’s car as she gave him a ride home. Another passenger was hit by some of it and no one was happy. Alexis told him to stay home, she’d do the shift, which means she’ll be here for him until 2 p.m., then go to her regular 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. over at the Geneva branch.

She likes this site better; she only takes the bus when she works at the other place, because of “all the car break-ins.” Different people over there, she says.

Alexis is coaching a soccer team: the High Tides, or something like that, and is loving it. She promises to come to campus to talk to my students in September.

Time to get going. I pass Duggan’s Mortuary and think of April. I always think of her when I am here. She died last year at twenty-four, after years of struggle with an inexplicable disease. She always wanted to be Juliet in freshman English. I remember at the viewing, just before people began to speak, a man in the second row pulled out a Chronicle and started to do the crossword. Made as much sense as anything else.

Passed where Jerry’s Café used to be, where we had a “Meet and Greet” when I was managing a friend’s school board campaign, and where I didn’t use the right name for the café in the publicity. Jerry was not happy.

Cross over, and on the curve above the freeway I realize how very close I am to home. Just a year ago—last July when I was so lazy, so heavy—I would have thought, “Oh, I still have so far to go,” even if I were just coming from BART. Now I’m Paul Bunyan striding across town, covering blocks in a single step.

And on toward Washington Street, and I pass beside Fabiola’s apartment building and remind myself again I need to see her, see the baby, send a gift. Despite the two hours-plus I’ve been walking, the 12,000 steps my invisible pedometer would clock, it feels small: this morning, these neighborhoods, those memories I carry. At my mailbox I pause, wipe my forehead with my sweatshirt, and remember that if we had this weather every day, I couldn’t afford to live here. And I know if the valley hits 100, we’ll be back in the fog, and the artichoke plant will be happy.

I’ll take what I can get.

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Tony Press lives near the Pacific. His fiction appears (or will soon) in JMWW, Rio Grande Review, SFWP Journal, Toasted Cheese, The Postcard Press, Blink-Ink, BorderSenses, Switchback, Ranfurly Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Boston Literary Magazine, Qarrtsiluni, Menda City Review, Foundling Review, Temenos, Thema, MacGuffin, Shine Journal, 5×5, Lichen, and two anthologies: Crab Lines Off The Pier and Tales from the Courtroom. His poetry appears in 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Inkwell, Spitball, Words-Myth, The Aurorean, Turning Wheel, and the anthology The Heart as Origami. Non-fiction appears soon in Quay. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com

Still Water

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Nancy Bouchard


Wading PEI National Park
Photo Credit: Bobcatnorth

My daughter wades in knee-deep ocean water, afraid of being eaten by a shark even though I’ve told her the water is too warm, too shallow, that I’ve been swimming in this water for over forty years and I’ve yet to see one. I tell her that sharks like warmer places to swim even though I don’t know where I got that fact from but it seems like it could be true. She rolls her eyes. She doesn’t believe me because she watches the National Geographic channel and sees people losing limbs. We’ve been here a week and she hasn’t made it in yet. She’s been doing the old lady splash, throwing water onto her arms, wiping her neck with her painted 14-year-old fingernails, never taking her eye off the horizon, seeing fins in the feathers of seagulls.

As we walk back towards the towels she tells me about a dream she had last night. A shark walked into her bedroom on human feet and sat at the bottom of her bed. She screamed for her oldest brother and he came in and put a towel over it, told her it was safe. She didn’t believe him.

“I’m canceling cable,” I tell her. “No more When Nature Attacks before we go on vacation.

“It was Shark Week not When Nature Attacks,” she says.

We sit until the sun squats low in the sky, dipping behind the big mansion squeezed between two small, weather-worn cottages. We enter week two of our vacation in a different space than when we got here. Settled into the ebb and flow of the tide and its pace, the stress of our everyday lives carried out to sea, we watch the sun go down.

The night before, at this exact moment, I was on a second date with a man named Ken even though I didn’t much care for him on the first date. Determined to change my strategy about my habit of trusting men that shouldn’t be trusted, I decided to look at things logically. If all of my instincts about the men I was drawn to up to this point had been so horribly wrong I figured I should go against instinct. I texted him that I was at the beach soul-searching and I was sorry I never called him back. He texted back, Can I pick you up, take you to dinner, walk the beach with you and maybe you can tell me what you’ve discovered in your soul. I texted back, Yes, to the beach, yes, to the walk, no to the soul.

I’m getting better. I’ve pulled back the curtain for men who have wanted to look inside, only to find out they were in search of a weakness, my Achilles’ heel.

Ken was polite, funny, smart, financially successful, well-traveled, had decent table manners, and when he spoke, the tense of his subjects matched his verbs. It’s the little things. He also had good shoulders, wide caps that sat atop some decent biceps. We ate clams and steak at a restaurant that overlooked the marsh.

We walked the beach after dinner and of course, the conversation turned to past relationships. Before I was married and divorced, the golden rule of dating was that you don’t talk about your ex-whatevers. Every man I’ve dated or been in a relationship with since my divorce has wanted to know what happened, what went wrong. Wanted to know how many men I’ve been in relationships with; in other words, how many men I have slept with. As if.

I mentioned that I was hurt badly in my last attempt at love and I am guarded, that my heart seems sometimes to be in transition. I told him that I’ve had tenants, but no owners. I told him that Jack, the last man to rent out space, had a secret he kept from me. I kept it simple but the little I said was too much.

“An affair?” he asked me.

“No, not an affair.”

“Prison record?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he said, “a disease, he put you at risk for something.” And I noticed those broad shoulders that I had a second before admired, pulled back a little, the corners of his mouth and bottom lip went a little tighter.

“No.”

“Okay, don’t tell me, I want to guess.”

“I’m not telling you anyway,” I said and I knew the rest of the night he was thinking about it, trying to imagine what it could be. He thought he would find out something about me if he could uncover the tragic flaw of the last man I loved. I didn’t tell him that it’s not that simple. I didn’t tell him that I’m not that girl anymore so even if he knew it doesn’t matter. I didn’t tell him because there’s a part of me that agrees with the assumption that I am the sum of the men I’ve loved. That the act of choosing them in fact reveals my own tragic character flaw. I said goodbye to Ken and realized there was a reason I never called him back. Progress.

My aunt visits the next day and brings cannoli, pistachio muffins, and her own heartache like an anchor. She, too, has swum in unsafe waters. She says it’s because we are both Cancers, actually born on the same day in July, thirteen years apart. She says it’s because we are moon children and ruled by the changing tide. We both agree, sitting there on the beach, that there is no hope. That we are fatally flawed when it comes to finding love and that now at forty-something and fifty-something, we are simply no longer willing to take the risk.

Emma has been hovering enough feet away that she can’t hear our conversation but walks over and rips off her cover-up. “I’m ready,” she says.

“Really?” I ask.

“Will you come in with me?”

“Let’s go,” I say.

We make our down to the water’s edge as the last bits of sun are visible on the horizon. And the three of us, three generations, stand where the tide meets the sand. Emma grabs ahold of my hand.

“I don’t want you to come in,” she says.

I nod, afraid to say anything that will change her mind.

“You watch for sharks, okay?” she says.

“I will,” I tell her. And I watch as she pushes back the tide. I watch as she dives into a wave, surfacing right after it breaks, turns back around and smiles. And together we feel the sun.

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Nancy lives with her three children and their arthritic rottweiler. They all swim in the chilly New England water and have yet to fall victim to a shark attack. In those other months of the year, Nancy teaches English to high school students, eats dark chocolate, drinks too much coffee, and makes up excuses to skip the gym. Email: peacelovingchic[at]gmail.com

The Land Between Two Rivers

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Bint Arab


Tigris
Photo Credit: Adam Henning

When Hulagu Khan, Genghis’s grandson, attacked the land between two rivers, he destroyed Baghdad. The Tigris turned black with ink from the books his Mongols took from the libraries and threw into the water. Hundreds of thousands of bodies filled the alleys and paved the roads: men and women, adults and children and babies—everyone. He had to move his camp upwind to avoid the stench of the corpses. Blood flowed so thick the fighters stood ankle-deep in it. The rivers were black, and the streets were red.

The year was 1258 CE. The rivers bore witness; follow the rivers and you follow the story.

Hulagu Bush, the son, will attack Baghdad in 2003 CE. It will mark the end of the siege. By then I will be exhausted from years of rationing cups of sugar, flour, and rice. Relief will bring me to tears, not once but twice.

My scalp will prickle whenever I think of the petrol tanks on the top floor of our house, but we will not be hit by missiles.

I will stop going to Monsoor Girls’ High School one year short of graduation because Mama will make me stay home with her. I won’t know how well my school survived the bombing and the looting. My cousin Fadia, my father’s sister’s daughter, will tell me that our school still stands, though the blue tile mosaic over the entrance has gone, crushed to powder. In a casual, throwaway tone, she will say that the fountain in the courtyard crumbled and stands empty, dry as the desert. I will tell her that her haircut is old-fashioned, jealous that she will graduate though I was always smarter than her. I will feel a little guilty at the sight of her flushed cheeks and will offer to cut her hair myself.

Mama’s hair will turn white in those first three days after the invasion. She will use henna to hide it.

Abu Taif’s bakery, the little stone building a five-minute walk from my old high school, will stay open on the day of the invasion, and he will make certain that everyone knows that he has to. He will be ordered: Bake or die. Father will buy Abu Taif’s loaves, but Mama will continue to buy bread from Umm Hussein because hers are so airy and full of holes on the inside. When I go with Mama to pick up the bread, Umm Hussein will say: Whatever God decides will come to pass. In exchange for a cup of our flour, Umm Hussein will bake bread for us and wish blessings upon us. Her diamond-shaped loaves of sammoon will always have the crisp, golden patches that I love. After the invasion, her family will stay in their home a few blocks east of us, though the Hanafis next door to them will warn the Shi’ites to leave for everyone’s sake. For the sake of peace and safety. For the love of God. Leave or we will all pay the price.

Two weeks after Umm Hussein’s family moves, the Hanafis’ generator will explode.

Neither rivers of ink nor rivers of blood will mark the American invasion. Hard drives will have replaced books, and besides, the rivers will be so low that no one will bother to throw anything in them. Father, son of Omar, will say that we don’t need water from the rivers. We come from desert people. I will know that he is lying: we came from book-reading, aqueduct-building people. People who had built the walls of Mustansiriyya College six-feet thick to keep the heat out. They couldn’t think when they were thirsty any more than I can.

Poets and scholars had made Baghdad, the land between two rivers. The land between wars. Between thirsts. When the rivers finally dry out completely, surely then Baghdad will turn to dust and blow away on the wind, and no one will be left to bear witness.

When the Americans come, stories will pool in alleys and doorways, stories about bread and petrol, cement and cables and fire. Two days before the invasion, six columns of smoke from defense trenches of oil set on fire will surround our neighborhood like the points of a star. The rivers won’t turn black, but the sky will. It will make me choke and gag.

Bridges built and re-built with each new war will be bombed again: al-Sarafiyyah. al-A’immah. al-Adhamiyyah. More than I can name. For six months, the best way to cross the river will be by boat. After the invasion, the fisherman Abu Laith will not be able to make a living from fishing so he will become a ferryman. Father will pay Abu Laith a quarter of a dinar whenever he needs to cross the Tigris in that motorboat-that-used-to-be-a-fishing-boat. Because the bridges will be impassable, our stories will back up and fill the streets, a scummy green lapping against the walls of people’s houses. Sometimes the stories will run into the sewers and drip into the rivers where the waters will record them.

Often our stories will just turn yellow.

It will rain in the winter, then hail will fall, then it will rain again. And throughout the summer we will not have water.

Reeds and other wet things that grow along the riverbanks will die out. As a young man, my Uncle Tariq, Father’s oldest brother, went swimming in the Tigris one day, never to return alive. Weeds had grasped his legs and held him under long after my father, just a boy then, went home. There will be no weeds to rescue me. As an old man, Father’s eyes won’t tear up at the tale of his brother. We won’t have water to spare for that kind of thing. It will be enough that the river remembers.

The market near al-Adhamiyyah bridge that had been full of fat fish with bright red gills and clear eyes will become barren. Abu Laith’s stall will be empty. Father will say the fish are small and stinky and he won’t waste our money on them. Father will be old by then; he will have forgotten how smelly all fish were even before the Americans came. I won’t go with him to the market to judge for myself because there will be no point.

I will find light pink dust in my ears, in my hair, between my fingers. Father will think I’m too young to remember how it was, but he will be wrong. I am ancient like the rivers.

I was and always will be.

When the Americans come, the streets will stay dry. Blood won’t run here; it will burn and turn to ash before it hits the ground.

How could anyone bleed from a bullet wound if dust runs through their veins?

Faces will blacken, if you could even tell they had been faces. Hajji Majeed’s flesh will fuse with his steering wheel at the traffic circle by the fifteenth police station. They will say that he was kidnapped and forced to blow himself up or his family would be slaughtered.

The smell of burning plastic will join forces with the smell of burning garbage.

My cousin Zaid, my mother’s sister’s son, will be splattered against the wall of a bookstore on Mutanabbi Street. He will have written his name on a paper kept in his boot. His mother will wail but she won’t cry.

Our jasmine plant will stop flowering in June and dry up. Mama will not throw the woody stems out. She will say that she is waiting for the water to come back so she can revive the plant.

We will leave the faucets on so that when water trickles through, the bowls and buckets underneath will catch the drips. Whenever a drop rips itself from the kitchen spout, I will know from the deep ping that follows how full the jar beneath it is.

It will drip. Sometimes. Mostly it will just be quiet.

The house will be louder when my brother Haitham is home. He will grow four centimeters in one summer. He will tell me that his school is still there, just lacking books and windows. The plastic sheets they tape over the window frames will not keep the heat out. I will try to show Haitham some things from my old texts, but he won’t respect me like a real teacher; he will only be interested in the pictures. Even I will get bored with my old books. The green cloth cover will be faded and frayed, with grey cardboard bones showing from underneath the tears. The picture of him will still adorn the first page. One year after he is executed, I will have the courage to rip that page out and shred it.

Haitham will love the history stories Father tells. So will I, except for when Father says we come from desert people. Why won’t he remember?

Follow the rivers.

I will count the drips the way I counted spoons of tea or missile strikes near our house. I will count the neighbors who move away just as I counted the loaves of bread Umm Hussein baked for us or the empty flowerpots in our yard.

I will count the books on my shelf.

In March, the humidity will bully its way through our house and make my hair curl. I will wonder why the water is in the air instead of on the ground or in the pipes. I will not believe my Uncle Hazim, father of Zaid, when he says the river levels are low. I will not be able to imagine how the rivers could be short on water when the bridges have been repaired and our stories have sunk into the Tigris. I will remember how it rained the month before. I will think my uncle is lying.

In August, the bougainvillea will try to bloom its hell-inspired red flowers.

In December, I will beg Mama to let me go back to school. In February she will relent.

After they fix the al-A’immah bridge, the Shi’ites will use it one holy day to come to the shrine in al-Adhamiyyah. They will hear a rumor of a bomber come to kill them; they will panic and run. They will fall by the hundreds into the Tigris where many of them will drown. Haitham will see it all from the riverside. He will come home bright-eyed and talking too loud, full of stories about how he and his schoolmates had tried to help. His friend Salaam, son of I don’t know who, will be exhausted from swimming in the river to fish out survivors. Haitham and his gang will decide to become better swimmers just in case, but they will forget that resolve in a week.

There won’t be enough water in the river to make good their promise to themselves. The river will barely be full enough to hold the stories I whisper into the drain.

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Bint Arab is Iraqi American, born in Baghdad and raised in Brooklyn. Today she lives in Texas, where being a New Yorker makes her more of a stranger in a strange land than being Arab American ever could. Her stories have been published in Expanded Horizons, 50 to 1, Every Day Fiction, and Absent Willow Review. She administers the writers’ forums at Bibliophilia.

New Age Break-Up

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Marissa VanWingen


Caitlin BW
Photo Credit: Paul Li

We had a whirlwind relationship from the start. Everything happened so fast. We weren’t perfect; we didn’t have an ideal relationship. We were both young, but I thought we were going to grow up together. I never thought things would come crashing down. He promised me forever and I believed him.

We had only been dating six months when he proposed, and the fact that we were five hours apart made our time together even shorter. We had seen each other a total of four times, possibly adding up to a month’s time face-to-face. He told me time didn’t matter; when you know someone is the one, you just know. Everything about the night he proposed was like a fairy tale. I was the Princess and he was my Prince Charming. He came to rescue me and we were going to live happily ever after.

It was two a.m. and we had been driving all night from his parents’ house in Indiana. I was wearing a tattered pair of jeans and a sweater that I’d had on the past two days. He had me wait in the car a few minutes before he led me in the front door with my eyes tightly closed. When I opened them, there were candles lit all over the apartment. Right in front of me he spelled out “will you” with rose buds. He took my hand in his and said, “Marry me?”

His hands were shaking as I nodded lovingly. There were tears in my eyes. I never thought a day like this would ever come for me. When he put the ring on my finger I tried to catch a glimpse of it, but he wrapped me tightly in his arms. My ear was pressed against his chest and I could hear his heart racing.

“I want to take care of you for the rest of our lives. I knew the second we met that you were the one. All I want is you.”

There he was, my Knight in Shining Armor. Telling me everything was going to be okay and that my whole life would be different. He was there to whisk me away. After minutes of still not believing the situation, I took a second to look down at my hand. I couldn’t believe the ring. It was flawless. He knew exactly what I wanted. The diamond wasn’t too big, the cut was simple, and it was silver and small. It looked as though the ring was made for my hand only, and it was perfectly mine.

After that night, our life was nothing like a fairy tale. Our relationship had a lot of rocks in it, but I thought we could fix the things that were broken. I thought we were in it together, forever and always.

I would get mad that he didn’t call me, and he would get angry that I was so upset. Because we were in a long-distance relationship, I felt it was important to talk every night. I needed that emotional intimacy since I didn’t constantly have the physical contact. If I didn’t get to curl up with him every night, I needed to feel safe some other way. All I asked for was to hear him say he loved me every night before I went to bed.

We both knew that it was going to be hard from the start. Nothing other than storybooks makes marriage and spending the rest of your life with someone easy. Just because he was in the military didn’t mean he loved me any less. We believed we could make it all work: deployments and the constant unknown of where he might get moved to next. I knew there were thousands of possibilities and none of it was within my control. And even though I knew he could be shipped out in the morning, I always believed we had what it took. I thought I was everything he wanted. He would tell me how perfect I was in his eyes, how he loved everything about me and how he couldn’t see himself with anyone else.

I knew I’d have to give up a lot, but that was okay with me. I was willing to follow him all around the world, and be the military wife. My only stipulation was as long as he was in the military I didn’t want to get pregnant. I didn’t think it was fair to move around all the time with children. So as long as it was just the two of us, I was prepared to go wherever he did.

The five-hour barrier was hard on both of us, but I think it affected me the most. I would pick fights with him just to know that he still cared. All I really wanted was for him to tell me everything would be okay. I wanted to hear him say he loved me unconditionally and was never going to let me go. That no matter how bad things were, he was in it forever.

Like a real married couple, we fought a lot about money. He spent every dime that he made, and I’m extremely frugal. Some of the things he bought were extravagant gifts for me, but I was never able to appreciate them. I always thought about how much it cost and how that money should be going to something else, like a savings account. I would say things like “I can’t believe how much money you spent.” He couldn’t see that material things meant nothing to me, that I would much rather have just known he was there with me for the rest of our lives. Or that we had money to build our future lives together and some day, possibly a family. He was all about the right now while I was about tomorrow.

I imagined the idea of us living together, in our own castle. Everything would be perfect. We would both be working, and he would get marriage pay. Once we moved on base, we wouldn’t have to pay rent or very much in gas. I saw myself taking charge of the finances and giving him an allowance for food when he was at work. We wouldn’t have to worry anymore. He wouldn’t be able to spend outside our means. We wouldn’t have anything to fight about anymore. Everything would be kisses and hugs.

 

I work as a lifeguard on base. It isn’t the job I always dreamed about, but it makes enough money for now. Plus, the hours are flexible so I can be home whenever he is. And if he gets orders, it will be easy to just transfer my position from base to base. He doesn’t have to do shift work anymore. Instead of changing hours every month, he works 9–5 Monday through Friday, and always gets home on time. He never keeps me waiting long, and if it looks like it was going to be late, he calls and lets me know.

I get home and pick up the house a little, and throw a load of laundry in the machine. I put on my blue-and-white checkered apron. While the clothes are in the washer I start to make dinner for two. First I make a chocolate cake for dessert, because it needs time to bake. I make my own tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes and parsley. Then it’s time to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer.

Twenty minutes before he will walk through the door, I boil some water and put the spaghetti noodles in. I slice and butter the French bread, then season it just right.

The timer goes off, and the cake is perfectly done. I take it out and set it on the counter to cool.

After I put the pasta in the pot to boil, I unload the dryer and place the basket in our room, to be folded and put away after dinner.

With five minutes to go, I drain the pasta, but the bread under the broiler and set the table. Candles and wine. Not a moment later I hear a key in the lock.

“Honey, I’m home!” he says as he opens the door and places his keys in the basket.

“I’ve made dinner. Come, sit and let’s eat.” I pour a glass of wine for both of us. Kiss his cheek and sit opposite him at the table. We eat our dinner, have our dessert and then he does the dishes. After dinner we sit on the couch together holding hands. It is the definition of happily ever after. We are the perfect married couple, living in wedded bliss.

 

Instead, he had to be in control of everything. When he lost control of our relationship, he stopped trying. He looked me in the eyes and lied right to my face about a 600-dollar credit card bill. He hadn’t paid it like he promised. It took me well over a month to finally confront him about it. We were never the same after that.

I remember the day it all fell apart better than I remember his proposal. I was sitting with my knees up to my chin and my feet on my folded-up futon. My arms were wrapped around my legs. I was wearing pajama shorts and a tank top because my room was really warm.

Tears were falling from my eyes as I shook like a leaf. I hadn’t heard from him in almost a week. I didn’t know where he was or why he was ignoring me. He wanted to marry me and spend the rest of his life with me, but he didn’t want to talk to me?

My phone vibrated and I felt the futon move. I grabbed it and saw his name immediately in the text message inbox.

“I’m with my parents right now. I still love you but I don’t think I can do this anymore. I need some time to think. I’m sorry.”

Through my tears and shaking hands I replied immediately.

“What do you need to think about… us?”

After minutes of constantly picking up my phone and making sure it was still working, I got a reply.

A two-word reply. “Yeah us.”

That was it? I quickly wrote back. “Will you PLEASE just call me?”

Wait.

“NO! I’m with my parents. I’m still mad about some things so I will call in a few days.”

I was pissed off and angrily typed through the tears. “If this is going to end, I don’t want it to end in a text message, so please. Just call me.”

I didn’t really believe that this could be the end. Not now. I had already envisioned our perfect marriage. I had bought the perfect wedding dress. The invitations were made, the colors picked out. This was supposed to be my happily-ever-after. Didn’t he remember that?

We had been through too much to really call it quits now. I tried to end it before, but he promised he would change then. That he would fix the mistakes he made. Things were supposed to be different, be perfect. I waited for his response. I knew he was getting mad because he hated that I couldn’t let anything go. But feelings like that didn’t matter to me at that moment. I was trying to save my fairy tale. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It was never supposed to end.

“I have more class than that. I would never end it in a text message. You should know me better than that.”

I sat and stared at his answer. I had no idea how to respond. “I can give you a few days, but know this. I’m not going to wait around for you forever.” I thought he would be happy that I was giving him time. That was out of character for me. I was already falling apart; I didn’t think I could hold it together for a few days.

“OMFG! All I’m asking for is a couple of goddamn days so I know if this is what I want for the rest of my fucking life ok?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I typed back with a fury. “DON’T YOU EVER TALK TO ME LIKE THAT! All I said is I won’t be waiting around for you forever and you respond that way? Take your couple of days. I guess this is good night. I love you.” I couldn’t control anything anymore. The tears fell without stopping; my body shook uncontrollably. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.

“I’m sorry. I love you too.”

I thought things were okay because he said he loved me too. Things couldn’t end if he loved me. That’s not how love works.

That’s not how love works in the movies. But in real life, it was the end.

I felt so alone, but there was nothing I could do. The empty apartment was getting to me. I couldn’t stand not being close to anyone who loved me. I wanted to go for a walk to clear my head, but I couldn’t stop shaking enough to put on my shoes. My tears made it impossible to see, so I just stayed where I was and cried.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. I cried every second until I had no tears left. When the tears ran out, I began to dry heave. My body still wouldn’t move and I couldn’t even speak. When I tried, no words would even come out because my throat was so dry. Every thought, every image, started the tears all over again.

I was strong and didn’t call him for a week, at which point I broke down. I knew he wasn’t going to answer, but I called anyway. I tried not to sound too defeated, too broken.

I pictured him sitting on the couch staring blankly at the TV. Nothing was on, but he didn’t want to get up and change the station. His phone was in his pocket and when he heard it go off he grabbed it immediately.

He saw the nickname he gave me come across the screen: “Incoming call: Peanut.” But he wasn’t man enough to answer. He knew once he heard my voice he would give in to my sobs. He let it go to voicemail.

“I was okay waiting for a couple of days while you figured stuff out, but it’s been a week. When I said I wasn’t going to wait around forever, this is what I meant. I’m leaving for New Orleans next Friday. If I don’t hear from you before I get on that plane, you’ll never hear my voice again. I’m done. I’ll send you the phone back when I get there, and that will be the end. I’m really hurt by all of this, but I still love you, and always will. Please just call me, and give me that much.”

After the icon popped up saying he had one new voicemail, he clicked to listen to it. Three words in he quickly hit delete. He couldn’t stand to hear my voice shaking because he knew that I was crying. He hated to see me cry.

He went to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels and drank it straight from the bottle the rest of the night. He only got up to smoke. On his way out the door he punched a giant hole in the wall. He knew he wasn’t Prince Charming. He knew there was no happily ever after. He also knew right then, that he made the biggest mistake of his life. He lost the best thing that would ever happen to him.

That message was the longest I had gone without crying in a week. I didn’t want him to hear the vulnerability in my voice and I tried to sound mad. I know I failed miserably and instead he could hear my heart breaking through the phone.

I never heard from him again. He never called a few days later. We didn’t have time to fix what was broken. He didn’t have more class than that. My picture-perfect marriage was nothing more than a dream inside my head. He didn’t come riding in to save me. Instead he left me with a shattered world and my heart in pieces. It wasn’t a happily ever after, The End.
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Marissa VanWingen is orignally from Michigan, but hasn’t lived there in over two years. She recently graduated from the University of Iowa with a major in Journalism and Mass Communications and a second concentration in English. She currently lives in New Orleans where she is working to start her real life. She is always reading and writing and is a football fanatic. Email: marissavanwingen[at]gmail.com

My Grandfather

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Esperanza Paz C. del Casal


Boys playing beneath the coconut tree
Photo Credit: Jeremy del Rosario

When a person dies, what is most remembered about him? The way he spoke? His peculiar little quirks? The manner of his death? My grandfather died in his home, attended by his daughter and the two in-house caretakers she hired. He died unable to walk, barely able to move, and his mind already halfway into the netherworld. I never personally saw him in this condition. My last memory of him is as a thin, small body in a coffin I would never have thought he could fit in. He looked peaceful, yes, but in life he was larger. He would never have fit in that coffin when he was alive.

In life he was loud, and when he really warmed up to a subject, his speech raced with his thoughts so that words would run together and sentences had no end. He loved to eat, and he loved to wander through his neighborhood on foot. He could be a disciplinarian when the need arose, but I remember him laughing easily, a witty comment ready on his lips.

These are the things that I can recall when I think of him. Of course, there are also things that I don’t know, things I could never comprehend about him and the life that he’d known. When I was a child I used to think that I knew him quite well. I knew that if he cooked at all he only ever cooked one thing, and it was one of his favorite things to eat. I knew that tennis was his favorite sport, and he would come home from playing on the courts and rub garlic on the strings of his racket. I knew that my grandmother had a sharp tongue, but his could be sharper. I knew that he found me funny and can remember saying things as a child that used to make him laugh, and the more serious I was about the things I said, the harder he laughed. I knew that my acting like a tomboy while still in diapers delighted him and that to him my chubbiness while in his and my grandmother’s care was a sign of his wealth.

I realize that most of these memories aren’t necessarily the same ones others have of him. We are, after all, viewed in different ways by different people, and after my parents, siblings, and I emigrated to the U.S. we only occasionally had contact with either of my grandparents. In other words, there is a gap in what I know about my grandfather, about who he really was as a person. So I listened hard while we were in the Philippines for his funeral to what my father had to say about my grandfather’s past.

He was born September 15, 1931, somewhere in the mountains of the island of Cebu in the Philippines. When he was about eleven, World War II was being waged by the Japanese right there in the neighborhoods where he played with his friends. I’ve wondered what that means exactly. What does it mean when war is being waged at your doorstep? From recent images of wars taking place around the world, I’ve realized two things that would most impact an eleven-year-old boy: lack of food and restricted movement. According to my father, whose sources remain unclear, the Japanese would raid towns and villages. They discovered when and where the weekly markets were held and disrupted them, sometimes in search of the Filipino guerrilla militia, sometimes to ensure that Filipinos didn’t congregate too often in large groups. Standard precautions undertaken by an efficient occupying force would ensure that the chances of a local rebellion were minimized. My grandfather ran around a few of these markets with his best friend with the type of freedom one can only associate with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

There was always a warning before the Japanese arrived, and I can see it almost as a game for my grandfather and his friend to sneak away just in the nick of time. Did they hear the screams as they ran through the coconut groves? Probably. Did they know what those screams signified? I can imagine them telling each other tales of people’s throats being slit, women being stabbed, babies being thrown in the air and skewered on bayonets. These are the atrocities my father described to me to illustrate my grandfather’s experience of war, recounted to him by other old men who saw it themselves.

As the months rolled by, the Japanese became more acclimated to the heat and the land, and one day they arrived at a market quite unexpectedly. I prefer to think of my grandfather yelling to his friend and immediately taking off for the trees, dodging the Japs that were suddenly everywhere and trusting that his friend was right behind him. I prefer to think that it was only when he acquired the relative safety of a grove that he realized that his friend wasn’t with him after all. I prefer this sequence of events than the alternative in which he sees with his own eyes his best friend’s stomach being ripped open with a bayonet.

I imagine him crouching among the vegetation, trembling at the screams, feeling like he should go back and yet almost faint with the thought that he should himself be killed. I see him waiting as long as he dared, glimpsing other people rushing away to safety. Someone must have seen him and urged him to go home.

“What are you still doing here?” a man would have said.

My grandfather would have recognized him as one of the locals vaguely associated with the Filipino militia. He would have stared at him blankly, not sure how to explain. My friend, he wanted to say, I don’t know what to do. He’s still over there. I don’t know where he is.

He was trembling. The urge to pee was overwhelming. Sweat was beading on his forehead, and his bare feet slid a little on his rubber flip-flops as he shifted nervously.

The man looked behind him. Vegetation was being roughly disturbed. “Run!” he whispered urgently to my grandfather.

My grandfather froze, his eyes widening.

The man grabbed his arm and shook him violently. “Run!” he whispered again. “To your grandmother’s house. Don’t go to your mother’s!” He shoved him hard.

My grandfather stumbled, but suddenly his legs remembered how to move. They were shaky at first, but momentum steadied them eventually.

As he bolted through the trees, adrenaline pumping through his veins, his mind cleared. Avoid the roads, he thought to himself. It was not unheard of for the Japs to delay the arrival of some of their troops, and sometimes they came by a different route. Avoid all roads. He was heading down towards the sea, towards the town where his grandmother lived. It would have taken him more than a day by foot if he followed the roads, but he kept himself among the trees and the shrubs. The terrain became harder to travel through, became more unfamiliar as the sun sunk lower and lower into the horizon. His limbs were shaking again, but now it was less from fear than from exhaustion. His stomach growled in protest, and his muscles ached as he climbed and slid down one difficult slope after another.

Only the unavoidable dimness of night convinced him to stop. He sat against a coconut tree, his mind running again but now more slowly. Various scenarios played out before his unseeing eyes regarding his friend’s demise, for in retrospect he was sure that they had both started running as soon as he yelled, and he had never before out-run him.

He started crying then, in the full, unhindered way that most children do. When he had no more tears to shed, he paid closer attention to his growling stomach. Ignoring his aching limbs, he got up and climbed the tree he had been leaning against. At the top, he shook the laden limb as hard as he could until some coconuts fell, and when he got back down on the ground he looked for a sharp rock to help peel away the thick green fibrous coating that protected the brittle brown shell. When he got to it, he cracked open the brown shell and hungrily drank the milk and juices. Next, he broke the shell into smaller pieces and ate the coconut meat by scraping it off with his teeth. He went through a second coconut before the need to sleep overtook him.

At dawn, the sound of roosters crowing roused him, and he wondered as he lay awake whether or not he should abandon the idea of going to his grandmother’s and instead go back to his mother. But perhaps that man he met yesterday was trying to tell him that his mother had herself gone to his grandmother’s. The guerrillas were probably staging something and had warned others to stay away.

My grandfather moved less hurriedly that second day. He heard the sounds of people in their everyday activities but avoided them except to borrow a heavy knife to cut down a bunch of bananas. The mangoes he plucked right out of the trees. By afternoon, he decided that he could probably cover more ground at night. The heat of day was tiring him, and all he wanted to do was find some shade and sleep. Besides, there was even less likelihood of encountering any Japs at night. He didn’t keep track of how long it took him to get to his grandmother’s town. When he reached its outskirts, he felt like he had traveled for ages, and suddenly he didn’t want to be among other people. He didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. Not yet anyway. So he holed up in the wilderness for a few more nights, unable to sleep, barely eating. What troubled him most was the sense of guilt that had evolved and grown within him in his solitude. What could I have done to save my best friend, he kept asking himself. The knowledge that he never went back for him gnawed at his guts, and yet he knew that to have done so would have meant sharing in his fate.

He grew tired of his own company eventually, grew tired of mulling over the same thoughts. His guilt dissolved inside and was no longer a heavy, alien lump which demanded all his energy to carry. It had become tiny little crystals that spread throughout his body and were absorbed in his blood. It was a part of him now. When he looked out at the world, he was looking at an image focused by the experience of losing a friend and not having done anything to stop it.

And what he noticed was that the world continued as before. Nothing had changed. His reticence then seemed absurd. Others could blame him if they wished, but there was nothing he could do about it now. Life continued.

He made his way down to his grandmother’s house and knocked at her door. Her face registered surprise; her hand automatically clutched at her heart. He had been missing for so long that they thought he had died. And yet, there he stood, thinner than when she last saw him, more haggard and silent.

She fed him, made up a bed for him, and glossed over his reluctance to speak by telling him the latest war news. As he slept, she sent word to his mother that he was alive but needed to rest. To that end, she let him sleep well past noon the next day. Food was on the ready for his consumption. And most of all, she asked him nothing. Not one question passed her lips, though she had to wonder where he had been all this time, what he saw, what he knew. He merely looked at her with his big, almond-shaped eyes. No smile in them now, no mischief. She recognized in them the same quietly observant blankness that he wore when he was a toddler learning about the world around him, and that convinced her that he needed to stay in the relative safety of her house rather than in the unpredictable battleground that the mountains were becoming.

His mother sent word back not long after. She would insist on seeing him to gauge for herself how he was, so against his grandmother’s own judgment, she brought him back to his village shortly after his arrival at her doorstep. As his grandmother had predicted, his mother took one look at him and said firmly, “You’ll stay with your grandma.”

On the road back to the seaside town, a group of men overtook them. They were just returning from digging up the latest mass grave left by the Japanese after their market day visit.

“We finally got around to the one they left some days ago,” one of them related after exchanging greetings. “Can barely recognize any of the corpses now.”

My grandfather’s grandmother shifted uneasily and glanced at him.

“Hey, didn’t I see you at that market with your friend?” the same man said to my grandfather. “Your friend was killed, wasn’t he?”

At that, his grandmother sputtered in indignation. “You callous fool!” she cried. “He’s just a child!”

And so ensued a small commotion on the roadside as his mother tried to calm his grandmother, the accused man tried to justify himself, and the other men either supported the accused or tried to extricate their group completely.

“What about the other boy’s family?” the man finally asked. “Don’t they deserve some comfort?

His grandmother sputtered some more. What did her grandson have to do with the other boy’s death?

“He could help out, you know. You don’t have to shelter him; he already sees war every day.”

“You leave him be!” his grandmother said, her finger pointed threateningly at the man.

“All he has to do is identify the body.”

“Come, that’s enough,” the others interposed.

“Everyone’s doing their part. He has to do his. His friend’s family deserves this one act of kindness from him.”

“If they want their boy’s body, they can very well identify it themselves,” his grandmother snapped.

“It’ll be in even worse condition by the time we get them to the site,” he persisted.

“You shameful man,” his mother said in wonder. “Why are you trying so hard to expose my son to more violence? Can’t you just let it drop, and apologize to an old woman simply trying to protect a child?”

“He has to grow up some time. Just like the rest of us!” He grunted as his friends hauled him away.

My grandfather’s mother and grandmother hurried him along, but he couldn’t un-hear what had been said. The idea of duty kept whirling through his head, and before long he decided that he had to find his friend’s body. He had left him there; it was only right that he should be the one to bring him back to his family.

His mother and grandmother eventually capitulated to his wish, delivered as it was with the quiet stubbornness that they knew would spell outright defiance if they tried to forbid his going. When they got to the grave site, however, they realized that the horrid man they had encountered had either lied or was more ignorant of the situation than they thought, for there looking through the rows of bodies were the dead boy’s parents.

The two adults glanced at each other and sighed with relief. My grandfather didn’t need to be subjected to the gruesome sight ahead of them after all.

Without a word, he ran from them, and before they could grab him he was at the side of his best friend’s mother.

“That’s him,” she whispered to no one in particular, tears streaming down her gaunt face.

But it didn’t look like him at all. And the smell was horrendous. My grandfather covered his nose and mouth with his shirt and continued to stare down at the remains of what was clearly a boy with his abdominal cavity ripped open. What remained of his clothes did look familiar, but everything else was completely alien. My grandfather kept staring, searching for something recognizable in the decomposing pile of organic matter. Those who knew him and saw him that day would wonder that he didn’t cry at all.

He took that last image of his friend home with him, but he never could reconcile it with the memory he had of him as a living person. That corpse wasn’t his friend, he decided. His friend was gone. His spirit had moved on, and my grandfather knew that he would have to move on as well.

I could never, in my right mind, claim that my grandfather was the only person to have known tragedy during that war in that particular part of the world. What is of interest to me is that he evolved from the boy who experienced tragic loss and guilt to the man I remember—a man whose character never hinted at tragedy. He did not become a beggar or a thief. He didn’t sink into insanity. He wasn’t hardened by his past. He was fortunate.

None of my family got up to say anything at his funeral. I, for one, am not comfortable with speaking in public, but I do want to share his memory. And this is the only way I can comfortably do just that. My grandmother would cringe at this insistence on dwelling on one of the less cheerful aspects of his life (“We danced often” was the only thing she would say about her own experience of the war, insisting that she hardly ever left the cave where her family hid in the mountains). But dwelling on one of the most influential experiences of his life—despite how uncomfortably sad it makes me feel—is, I think, the best way to honor his memory because it illustrates more vividly than any eulogy just how resilient and pragmatic an individual he was.
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Esperanza is a paper-pusher by day, an avid novel reader by night, and a would-be writer when she can spare the time. Email: esper.del[at]gmail.com

Where She Fell

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Mary Wuerth


Doe and Fawn
Photo Credit: Robert Engberg

The shape is roughly like one of those pieces found in a challenging jigsaw puzzle. It has bits jutting out sharply, then turning abruptly back on themselves, and there are scooping curves around the perimeter, both convex and concave. There’s even a straight stretch that would be identified as part of the puzzle’s border, but this is not a puzzle piece. It’s the shape of the three-mile route I walk each day, and refer loosely and inaccurately to as The Loop.

I walk The Loop in all seasons and all weather with, it’s safe to say, as much constancy as the postman. Traversing a mostly rural area with houses dotted at irregular intervals and pastures that host horses, llamas, goats and sheep, the course is varied enough never to grow tedious. Its shape is defined by the hills it skirts, the valley it wends through, the housing development it avoids.

It’s a morning in mid June. The air has the feel of summertime, yet the summer solstice is a few days away. I’m striding out along Red Dike Road, which is the equivalent of the puzzle piece’s straight edge, on the initial leg of my journey. One of the first landmarks I pass is the gray clapboard house where Josephine has lived for the past 75 years. Her yard is filled with the rainbow hues of rhododendrons and azaleas; a yellow rambling rose arches over the front gate and nearly obscures a small plaque proclaiming this as “Rose Cottage.”The property is still tidy even though these days a lawn-care service tends to the yard. Sadly, there is no hint of the giant blue delphiniums that towered over the lawn back when Josephine was in her prime.

Down the road a ways, near the big willow, I greet my two special friends: “Hello, Mama. Hello, Tiny. How are my buddies doing today?”

They’re near their usual spot where the willow tree hugs the side of the roadbed. On one side of their lair the Scotch broom radiates with brilliant yellow blooms; on the other, blackberry brambles repel intruders. A robin stands on a fence post and throws his entire heart into his tuneless chittering. This is a safe place.

The vegetation is crushed where they’ve been sleeping. Mama is nibbling at the dewy grass and Tiny is butting his forehead at her flank, demanding his breakfast. She raises her rear leg delicately and steps over his head. He’s already had breakfast. Tiny stands knock-kneed and is left blinking in bafflement that his mama could be so cruel.

I’m walking The Loop on another day. Along the edge of the road the grasses are as high as my chest. They rustle and bow in the wind and stain my clothes with fine yellow pollen as I brush past. Where the grasses have been broken over a field mouse stands upright and nibbles furiously on a seed head that has come within easy reach. He stops chewing at my approach and is ready to bolt, but I cross nonchalantly to the opposite side and the mouse decides I’m no threat. Glancing back, I see that his urgent chewing has resumed.

Josephine comes stiffly, cautiously, down her front steps toward the mailbox with a letter in her hand. She’s wearing a white cardigan sweater and blue polyester slacks; her pink scalp peeps through the tight, white curls of a new perm. Josephine seems quite agitated, and on seeing me, flags her arm and asks breathlessly, “Is it true?”

“Good morning, Josephine. Is what true?”

“That they’re tearing down the old company store?”

I’m not quite sure what she means. Josephine is 100 years old, but her mind is usually as sharp as a tack. Seeing my vacant face, she continues tetchily, “That old white building by the curve. Right across from the Noah farm. It was the company store back in the days when Libby was a town.”

“Ohhhh,” I finally say as it dawns on me what she’s asking. “Yes, they’re tearing it down.”

I had heard the old coal mining town of Libby mentioned many times, but until this moment hadn’t known exactly where it was located. The workmen’s hammers echo from the surrounding hills. An entire exterior wall shudders to the ground and the huge timbers that formed the building’s skeleton are exposed. Hewn from local trees, they look as though they should have withstood the ages.

Although I hadn’t known that this particular stretch of road was the site of old Libby, I had been aware of something uncanny about the location. It was as though a faint image overlay the landscape. I don’t want to call it a mirage, but there was definitely a presence, perhaps an essence of a former time. The sensation was much the same as the one I would later have in using a magnifying glass to examine the photos of old Libby. The photos were grainy and poor, and my hand would move forward and back to calculate the exact distance for the magnifier to bring the tiny dots together to form an image. Sometimes a shape would into pop into view, then dissolve into cryptic blurriness.

Another day: “Hi Mama and Tiny. It’s gonna be a warm one,” I say, wiping the sweat from my forehead. The wild red roses at the side of the road are twining up into the trees. The bees create a steady hum and the song sparrows pierce my soul with their sweet melody.

They’re standing in the shade and I’ve interrupted Mama in the process of giving Tiny a bath. His legs are splayed as he accepts the ministrations of her rough tongue. She cleans his forehead and mashes his oversized ears in her enthusiasm. As she scrubs his throat, he closes his eyes and lifts his head like a cat receiving a chin scratch. When she works her way on down his slender neck, Tiny loses his balance and tumbles, legs in the air, onto his side. Quick as a wink, he’s back up and nuzzling for more attention. Impatiently, Mama strikes her hoof to the ground once and continues licking. Mama is the best mother deer in the world.

What good fortune. The “free” box at a garage sale yields a local history book, yellowed and brittle with age. It smells of damp, the creased paper cover looks as though it has been chewed by a dog, and in two places pages have been raggedly torn out. Among the intact pages I find photos of Libby and text describing the town as it was. I bring the book home, read it and re-read it, absorbing what information there is.

The town grew up around a mine opened in the 1850s and by the turn of the century, both the mine and the town had pretty much had their day. I learn that Red Dike Road was formerly the site of a narrow-gauge rail line that carried coal cars across the marsh to Coal Bank Slough where the coal was loaded on barges. From there the coal was transferred onto ships bound for San Francisco.

Best of all, the book contains six photos that pertain to Libby. One is of the old Indian woman Libby, after whom the town was named; two are of workers at the mine entrance; one is of the company store, not by the way, the building recently torn down; and two are of the town itself. These, the town photos, are the ones that interest me most.

I pore over them with the magnifying glass and the more I examine them, the more I discover. What had appeared to be a jagged picket fence sharpens into the image of a clothes line bearing white sheets, pillow cases, undershirts. In the photo where a locomotive pulls a string of coal cars through the village, the entire town has turned out to be in the picture. People line the tracks and stand on their front porches. Just before going out of focus again, the magnifying glass alters a black dot into a cat sitting on its haunches. What appears to be unruly vegetation in a side yard becomes a garden full of tall dahlias. Oddly, a well-dressed couple stands arm in arm in the garden, looking for all the world like the bride and groom atop a wedding cake. I try to imagine their lives.

The book accompanies me on the walk as I survey the surroundings to determine where the houses in the photos were located. I study the townsite from different angles and try to match up the photo terrain with the present-day terrain, but too many things have changed. It’s as though giant earth movers and graders have flattened and tamed the landscape beyond all recognition. Inevitably, I am stymied.

It’s midsummer now and the days have a dreamlike quality. The sky is as blue as the sea and I feel certain there can be no more beautiful place on the entire earth.

I visit them in the afternoon and can barely see Mama and Tiny under the canopy of the willow. My eyes adjust to the muted light and I make out Mama lying with her legs folded under. Tiny is sleeping by her side, his white spots creating the perfect camouflage in the willow’s dappled illumination. I notice the charming way a row of dots hugs either side of his slender backbone.

Josephine is drowsing in her recliner by the window overlooking the bird feeder, which today is surprisingly vacant. Usually it shows as much activity as a major airport, as purple finches and chickadees zoom in and out and queue up for a turn at the seeds. Reluctant to disturb her, I start to walk away, but Josephine stirs, lifts her head, and on the third try, hoists herself out of the chair. I’m hoping she can add a few pieces to the Libby puzzle. She welcomes me into the cool, dim interior of the house, and while sitting at her chrome and Formica kitchen table, tells me the little she knows.

It turns out I was mistaken; Josephine did not grow up in the mining town which had already lost most of its inhabitants even before she was born. Josephine’s father did work in the mine as a boy, but as a man raised cattle on a homestead a short distance away. She recalls that by about 1920, when she was ten or so, the mine had long been boarded up and she and other children sometimes played among the derelict houses. I show her the old photos and ask if she can tell me exactly where the houses stood. “No,” she says and shakes her head sadly before launching into a story about life on the cattle ranch.

I show her the photo of the men at the mine entrance. Among them is a barefoot boy. “Could this have been your father?” I ask.

Bending close to the book, she peers myopically and shrugs her shoulders. Next I show her the photo that the book identifies as the company store and explain that this, not the recently torn-down building, was the real company store. She shrugs again and I feel as though I am subjecting her to an inquisition. For half an hour I listen to her chat about the only kind of history she’s interested in, the happy days when her children were young, then bid her farewell. No new pieces have been added to the puzzle.

It’s late summer now. The apples are ripening fast and I hear them fall during the night as I lie awake thinking of things lost. In the morning I tread the dewy grass barefoot and pull out the bottom of my T-shirt to form an apron for gathering the apples.

Knowing deer like apples, I have washed and sliced one as an offering for Mama. She is alert at my approach. “Hello, Sweets,” I say. “Come get your apple.” She blends in with the summer-dry grass and stands a few paces from Tiny, whose attention is focused on a grasshopper. Ever the vigilant mother, she moves to position herself between me and her precious offspring.

Seeing the piece of apple held between my fingertips, Mama approaches, sniffs briefly, then takes the apple with a surprisingly unladylike grabbing motion. She chews delicately, her nose wriggling, then goes nearly cross-eyed with pleasure. Tiny moves in to investigate. He sniffs too, but clearly can’t see what all the fuss is about. Mama again alters her position between me and him, this time in a manner that says, “Look youngster, these apples are mine.”

Then comes a day in early September, our most pleasant time of year on the Oregon coast. The summer winds are gone, the day dawns sweet and pure. Clusters of plump blackberries hang heavily and seem to beg to be tumbled into pie shells. Mother Nature has produced the best she has to give.

I’m putting on my shoes in preparation for another turn around The Loop when the phone rings. It’s Josephine’s daughter. Her voice is solemn as she tells me that her mother has passed away.

“It was yesterday afternoon,” she says. “I had dropped by to bring her supper. She looked like she was just sleeping in her chair. You know, the one by the window where she could see the birds. Her heart must have just given out.”

A recollection of Josephine’s hundredth birthday party last April comes to mind. Flowers overflowed the baskets that were hung all along her porch, and balloons were gaily tethered around the yard. Josephine, as regal as a queen, sat in a rocker greeting all the well-wishers who had come to pay tribute. The cries of children at play were as sharp as birdcall. Along the road cars were parked helter-skelter for half a mile.

My mood is pensive enough to forego the walk for once, but I’m not immune to the day’s allure. I also have a powerful desire to see Tiny and Mama. They’re out in the field and I arrive in time to watch a small drama unfold. Tiny has gone exploring and at a shallow spot has crossed a drainage ditch that bisects the field. He has followed the ditch to a point where it’s much deeper and now wants to cross again, but can’t. He trots worriedly back and forth and lets out a small bleat that instantly brings Mama’s head erect. Her ears turn like radar antennae and with the agility of an athlete she’s across the ditch in a flash. She nudges Tiny’s behind with her muzzle, then trots ahead to show him the way. Once back across, Mama, correctly thinking I have apples for her again, lopes toward the willow where I stand. A chastened Tiny scrambles behind.

“Good morning, Mama and Tiny,” I trill. “Isn’t this the loveliest day ever? It’s enough to make us glad to be alive.”

Alive?

A vacuum whistles inside my head; the ground tips treacherously. Mama and Tiny are not alive. They’re no more alive than Josephine. No more alive than the former inhabitants of Libby.

I am struck at last by the folly of my fantasy.

*

It was a day in very early June and I was walking. There were enough clouds gathering to have made me consider carrying the umbrella, but it had been banished to the back of the closet. As I strolled, the wind shifted slightly, the clouds miraculously stalled, then began chugging back south, the way they had come. They were replaced by blue, blue sky and a few benign wisps of white.

In the marshy area by the slough a red-winged black bird, perched on one of last year’s cattails, was repeating kokely-wee-oo. With each vibrant exclamation I felt as though a ticklish spot inside my chest was being probed. The bird’s breast shone like black satin and the red band on his wing was the color of fresh blood. Overhead the swallows made their fearless swoops and dives.

Approaching the curve near the big willow, I noticed a buff-colored mound off to the side of the road. Drawing closer, the shape revealed itself to be a doe that had been fatally struck by a vehicle during the night. I had seen many victims of road kill over the years: birds, raccoons, cats, rats, muskrats, possums—lots of possums. They all saddened me, yet none had affected me in the same way as the creature who lay at my feet. Even in death she was exquisite.

But for the slender thread of blood at her mouth, she might have been asleep. Ludicrously, her forelegs were crossed daintily at the ankle. Her eye, the perfect liquid brown orb that faced upward, was like a jewel set in the tan velvet contours of her face and in it I saw the sky. While she was alive she would never have granted me the liberty that I took. I stroked her jaw line and ran my hand down her graceful neck. Following the path of my hand, I noticed the thickening of her middle, back near the hips. She’d been ready to deliver a fawn.

The next day I could not bear the thought of walking by the doe again and took a detour. The image of her perfect eye haunted me. Yet the day after, with my thoughts elsewhere and my feet on automatic pilot, I found myself back at the place where she fell.

I was horrified to see four turkey vultures tearing at her and a fifth glowering from the same fence post where the robin so often chittered. I ran at the filthy birds flapping my arms and screaming for them to get away. They lifted off heavily. Masters of high-altitude gliding, they had the agility of overfed swine on the ground. The vultures didn’t go far, just further down the fence row, where they regarded me sullenly.

The birds had destroyed the eye, the beautiful eye in which I had seen the sky reflected. They had savaged the doe’s belly, and there, where her middle thickened, the unborn fawn was exposed. Before hurrying on, I caught a glimpse of its big ears and the tiny white spots on its flanks.

After that, I walked by every day. What more was there to fear? I had already seen the worst. The vultures finished in just a few days; their work complete, the insects moved in. It was remarkable how fast nature reclaimed her.

An image of the doe as she must have been when alive came into my mind and I became obsessed with the idea of giving her back what she had been deprived of. I pieced together an entire life for her and her tiny baby. They would live in their lair under the willow, be forever free from pain and tragedy, and never grow older. Mama would always remain the winsome young doe; Tiny, forever a week-old fawn with spots on his russet flanks and an endearing row of white daubs on either side of his sweet backbone. He would never grow into a noble buck brought down by the hunter’s gun.

*

While watering the back-porch geraniums I duck to avoid a web; the autumn spiders are back and their colorfully patterned abdomens will grow larger in direct proportion to the shorter duration of the days. Guided by spider logic, they inevitably construct their webs in the most bothersome locations, but that’s stated from the human perspective. I’ve grown more tolerant these days and strive to coexist with them.

Today I walk down the road with a paper bag under my arm. It’s late September and I have been pondering whether the action I am about to take is an impropriety. The rains are returning and the blackberry brambles are sending out runners that are beginning to creep over Mama and Tiny’s remains. One side of me says to leave them in the exact spot where Mama fell; the other says to bring them home. The truth is I cannot allow the greedy tendrils to claim them. It is time for them to be moved.

There is something nearly reverent about the act of picking up each vertebra, rib, femur and miscellaneous nut and bolt that made up their skeletons. The pieces are as white and smooth as stones found on the beach. One by one they go into the bag. The jaw falls from Mama’s fragile skull. It goes into the bag along with all the other bits. There is even a tiny leg bone I am sure belonged to Tiny.

They are buried under the apple tree next to Willie, a feline friend for more than 18 years. There was no need to invent a make-believe life for Willie; he had a good life, a long one. In cat years he’d probably have been nearly as old as Josephine.

Josephine. Her house sits vacant, and it’s impossible for me to imagine it belonging to anyone else, but I know it eventually will. Time moves on. The Libby puzzle remains just that, a puzzle.

As the soil is tamped down over the grave, the rain softly begins, and I think to myself, let the melancholy days of winter come. My mind generates a silent prayer: Please keep from harm all the tiny fawns that grow inside their mothers’ bellies.

From the house I look out toward the apple tree. There stands Mama with Tiny at her side, shaking the raindrops from his ears.
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In 2007 Mary Wuerth had the good fortune to win second place in the Midsummer Tale Contest. Email: geraniumgirl[at]aol.com

Always Date an Honest Drug Dealer

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Amy Rideg


My landlord planted corn last summer where he had previously envisioned putting a hot tub. He mused that he had planted the seeds too closely together but thought they would grow just the same. Before this, the most he ever tended the yard was to give it a mow when the weeds got waist high in areas visible to the neighbors. That yields some pretty hearty weeds considering he stands at about six-foot-three. I figured if he grew corn the way he grew weeds, we would have a fine harvest.

Yuki1 was his garden inspiration. He said she could plant what she wanted in his yard if he would be able to eat some of what she reaped. I wondered how the deal worked as I watched him tending to the patch of ground he had hoed, where he had planted corn seeds too closely together, and that she had only visited a handful of times. I figured it didn’t matter as long as the weeds were being whacked at more regular intervals.

My landlord is proof that Santa Barbara’s dating scene is great for people looking for a good time but not for those seeking a serious relationship. He is in his early forties and has yet to find The One. As my landlord resolved to grow corn and win Yuki, I also resolved to find love. I had been looking before, but I approached the search with fervor as I neared the big three-O. I pushed myself to be the socialite I never dreamed of becoming. I attended classes at the city college, went to sing karaoke downtown, frequented the fundraising nights at the art museum, and started dancing salsa. The year started off with some sparks, but by summertime things were sizzling.

I met Poetry Guy in poetry class at the city college. We went out for drinks and ended up watching a movie at his house after he promised it would be G-rated—his behavior, not the movie. He told me on our second date, a walk on the beach, that he had a habit of disappearing for weeks at a time, hindering his ability to have a real relationship. This was after he had disappeared for a week after our first date. Our next date was The Cure concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, where we had front row seats and could see Robert Smith’s blood-red lipstick and mascara up close. Poetry Guy danced like he was trapped in a box and only mildly trying to escape, even after a couple glasses of wine. After the concert we drank more wine under his poetry-inspiring cyprus tree and listened to the waves crash against the cliffs. There was almost no moon that night and so we held onto each other, tripping our way back to his place. Inside, we watched his favorite documentary on birds and kissed while I fended off any further advances. The next day he came over to my house to watch a movie. I thought maybe he had broken his habit, but after that night I didn’t hear from him for several months.

Lesson #1: If he tells you he can’t have a real relationship, listen. And if he dances like your father and has a favorite bird documentary, run for the hills.

I met The Bartender while going to karaoke. I was swept away by his charm, the kind all bartenders possess to get good tips. My friends consistently told me that I could do better. We went to dinner at a newly-opened tapas bar, and I have learned to articulate “tapas” very carefully, since every coworker I told thought he had taken me to amateur night at the local gentleman’s club. I assured them no shirts came off that night. We savored the variety of tapas he ordered for us, then he burped and blew it from his lips like he was exhaling the smoke from a cigarette. Perhaps that should have tipped me off. When I failed to see him at the karaoke bar two consecutive weekends, I texted him and over lunch he told me he had been fired because one of his customers came to buy from him at the bar. Weed is a side business of his. How very considerate of him to tell me he’s a drug dealer before our meal began. Once he did, I felt at ease. Probably because I knew it would be the last time we would ever intentionally see each other.

Lesson #2: Always date an honest drug dealer. It saves you a lot of time.

Next came The Bartender’s friend, The Farmer. Perhaps I was foolish to date friends within the same time frame, but after I met The Farmer and exchanged numbers with him, it took him a whole month to get in touch with me since pistachio farms two hours outside of Santa Barbara proper get horrible cell phone reception. He told me he almost hadn’t contacted me because it had been so long, but his friend, The Bartender, told him he should. Our first date was sushi and Chardonnay, followed by a walk along the beach and a stop for ice cream. He then showed me his parents’ house and introduced me to his entire family. A few weeks after that, and after the end of The Bartender, he picked me up and drove me high up into the mountains overlooking Santa Barbara. He bought us sandwiches for the drive, which took a little over an hour. We hiked and then found a campsite where he prepared dinner. After devouring freshly-grilled salmon, garlic mashed potatoes, a garden salad with homemade dressing, and a glass of merlot, we changed into our bathing suits to sit in the natural hot springs among the rocks on the side of the mountain. It was romantic paradise. I never heard from him after that date, but did see him downtown months later with another date on his arm. No worries. I had a date on my arm too.

Lesson #3: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But while it lasts, enjoy getting pampered.

For her birthday, I bought my friend Daniela a VIP pass to Santa Barbara Museum Nights, an event a coworker had called a meat market. The same meat that frequented local bars was just dressed up in fancier clothes. Daniela donned a navy-blue tube dress while I wore an emerald-green halter dress. At the swanky cocktail party, Daniela exchanged compliments with a curly-haired fellow. He told her he liked her glasses and she said she liked his eyebrows. She went home with Eyebrow Guy while I hung out with a guy who volunteered at the museum event. I was much too sober for the drunken kisses he planted on me. And when I drove him home, he insisted that I pull over so he could throw some chairs situated on the side of the street. It was two nights before the Santa Barbara Solstice Parade, and locals had diligently placed their chairs along the street to save a spot to watch the parade. Diligence is ludicrous to a drunk, so the chairs landed haphazardly in someone’s lawn. When we got to his house, I went inside to use the restroom and was tackled on the bed. I excused myself. My distinct memories of that night were two black bananas sitting in a hanging wire basket in the kitchen and him running after me to make up for his behavior.

Lesson #4: Never enter a man’s house who has thrown furniture in your presence. Not even to use the bathroom.

The following week, Daniela asked me to go to Vegas. We left six hours behind schedule, stopping on our way out of town so she could give Eyebrow Guy a kiss goodbye. I had seen Rotten Bananas at Trader Joe’s when we went to get road trip goodies and Daniela made me text him afterwards, saying he deserved a second chance. We planned to watch the Euro 2008 soccer final the Sunday morning after Daniela and I returned from Vegas. Friday night Daniela and I went dancing at Pure, the nightclub in Caesar’s Palace, and met a group of guys who were Vegas regulars. We left the club in time for them to buy us a sunrise breakfast. Vegas #1 asked me to marry him as we passed by the hotel chapel, saying that our kids would be hot. After a nap, Daniela and I went to the pool where our Vegas #1s had said they would meet us. Instead, the #1s didn’t show up and we met round #2. It was my Vegas #2’s birthday, so we joined them in their room to celebrate with champagne. We saw the #1s in the lobby before getting dinner with the #2s. They told us they were turned away at the exclusive pool party and asked us to join them for dinner. I reluctantly said goodbye to my #1 since we had promised to dine with the #2s. After a late dinner with the #2s, Daniela was gambling and I wanted to take a nap before driving home, so I went with Vegas #2 back to his room. He immediately started tugging at my clothes and putting his unwelcome hands all over me. I escaped and called Vegas #1 for comfort. He asked me to come to the club where he was dancing, but Daniela and I were done with Vegas. A week later I left Vegas #1 a voicemail, thinking we’d had a connection. He never called me back.

Lesson #5: Guys you meet in Vegas are not interested in relationships, so don’t attempt to contact them after crossing the Nevada state line. Even if they have proposed marriage and mentioned your future children.

I was running on almost no sleep when I met Rotten Bananas to watch the soccer game. He bought me lunch afterwards and we talked more with the friends who joined us than with each other. We never went out again but wave when we see each other at museum events.

Lesson #6: If there’s no chemistry without alcohol, say goodbye. But free steak bites at a local pub almost make up for Rotten Bananas.

The Friend was a guy who I’d known casually for years. He’d had a crush on me in the past and I always wondered if a relationship were possible with him. He was passionate about the Pittsburgh Steelers, still lived among beer cans and empty pizza boxes, and was about twice my size. Nonetheless, I thought I’d take a chance. After we hung out multiple times among friends after years of minimal contact, we finally went to lunch, sans friends, at a popular place by the beach. We had good conversation and he picked up the tab. On the ride home, the date took a wrong turn. When I said my landlord cooked sometimes, he proceeded to say he couldn’t believe that my landlord let me out of the kitchen. I told him he was losing points and I suppose he figured he had lost them all because we never went out again.

Lesson #7: If you haven’t been out with him after you’ve known him several years, there’s probably a subconscious reason. And if he thinks you belong in the kitchen, he wants a maid not a girlfriend.

I went with my friend Marcela to the monthly event at the art museum. She mingled solo for a bit and brought back a guy who had been flirting with her. Since she has a boyfriend, she thought she would help me out. Immediately I pegged him as an Asian Lover. He was a ghostly-white guy flirting with my Filipina friend, his last girlfriend was Japanese, and when I told him I was half Japanese, his eyebrows raised and he squared his body towards me. I had been targeted. Our date was at a Vietnamese restaurant and the Asian Lover seemed just as drunk in the middle of the work day as the night I had met him. He droned on about how he owned a house and had a great job and then split the less-than-twenty-dollar tab down to the fact that he had an iced tea and I only consumed water. I didn’t respond to his text inviting me out again.

Lesson #8: It doesn’t matter if he has a house and a cushy job if he’s not courteous enough to pick up a small-change tab on a first date. Who knows, maybe he didn’t want to pay for the non-Asian half of me.

One of my landlord’s coworkers had been dumped earlier that year, so when he started contacting me on Facebook, I took it as more than just friendly interest. The Coworker asked me to go out for dinner to enjoy some Italian food and beer. The conversation never halted, mainly due to the fact that he filled every empty moment with stories or casual comments. We walked around downtown since Old Spanish Days, better known to locals as Fiesta, was in full swing and people were out listening to the live music, throwing confetti-filled eggs at each other, and making their way into crowded bars. I was neither excited nor upset as the date ended. Our next date was over a gelato and he kept the words flowing while I watched his gelato melt. After that, I let our Facebook communication fizzle.

Lesson #9: If the first date leaves you ambivalent, give it a second chance. Checking your watch every five minutes is not considered ambivalence.

I never considered the Skinny Dude in a Hat who frequented karaoke until he told me he’d quit smoking and drinking. I didn’t know if it was for good, but it was enough to get me to go to dinner with him one night before singing. He was a writer too and we exchanged stories we’d written. He made me laugh all through dinner and I thought his tireless wit might help me overlook the balding head under the well-worn hat. We ran into The Farmer and his date on our way into the karaoke bar and I was grateful to match him date for date. After we got inside, the ex-girlfriend of Skinny Dude in a Hat appeared. He split his time between us, which led me to believe that maybe we weren’t really on a date but that I was just his jealousy generator. I sang a duet with my friend, Mr. Wannabe American Idol, and during the instrumental, he asked me to go to coffee. I accepted. Skinny Dude in a Hat seemed surprised that I didn’t follow up on our literature swapping.

Lesson #10: If his ex just so happens to be on your date with you, you are probably a pawn in the “I want you back” game. Bald heads can be overlooked, but jealous little exes cannot.

Mr. Wannabe American Idol had offered to buy me a drink many times. I turned him down because I’m not a big drinker and also because I was only interested in him as a friend. Our coffee date turned into a gelato date since I don’t drink coffee. He impressed me by showing up half an hour late and not calling to inform me of his tardiness until I was about to leave. Besides his late entrance, I was still put off by his unusual speech patterns and perpetual smile, both of which seemed false and theatrical, much like his singing. Something about gelato makes me want to check the time, and I couldn’t wait to leave that date to go to my salsa class.

Lesson #11: Your first impression is usually right; people seldom get better with time. Especially if it’s the clock ticking as you wait for them to show up.

My salsa class turned out to be a date in disguise. A sexy, Latin Dance Machine had asked me to check out another salsa class. He was already there and told me we should go walk around since they were reviewing the basics. He asked if I wanted to go for coffee and I smiled at how I was considering drinking coffee with him when I bluntly refused to drink it with Mr. Wannabe American Idol. We ended up sitting on a bench, talking and then returning to the dance class. Our first real date was another night of dancing. He was waiting outside of the establishment and paid for both of us. We danced for hours and he bought us water during breaks. As the night waned, he asked for a ride home. He held my hand as we walked to my car and opened the car door for me. We sat and listened to music, singing to one another in Spanish and English. The Latin Dance Machine danced through my brain non-stop. My sister and my mom hadn’t met him but they were wary since he was younger than me, was not as gainfully employed, and also because he reminded them of a past relationship of mine that had ended badly. I decided to give him a fair try and he still opens my car door for me almost a year later.

Lesson #12: Listen to what your own heart and mind are telling you. Your family can only see the surface.

My landlord didn’t impress Yuki with his corn-growing skills. He harvested it too late and only had one ear that was entirely edible. The rest had black rot and worms. He had to chop off the tops of those ears to salvage the good parts.

Final Lesson: Planting seeds too close together can yield a large harvest, though only one might survive. You just have to chop the heads off the rest.

Names have been changed for the privacy of individuals mentioned.

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Amy Rideg is a software engineer in Santa Barbara. She completed a minor in English at California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo. Besides writing, she enjoys dancing, singing, and learning foreign languages. E-mail: Amy.Rideg[at]gmail.com

Gym Bag Steak

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Timothy L. Marsh


When I knew Conrad he was a sick old man who drank too much and couldn’t walk anymore. He watched cooking shows and World War II documentaries and occasionally listened to Johnny Cash records. He lived with one of his daughters in a house he’d built with his own two hands in 1957 when whiskey cost a dollar and Newfoundlanders still did things like build their own houses.

The house was going to hell because Conrad couldn’t walk anymore and none of his four sons wanted to get their hands dirty. His sons were all some kind of businessman. They wouldn’t come over to fix leaks or tighten doorknobs. They didn’t want to deal with it. Conrad sat by while his daughter relied on professionals who overcharged for repairs and didn’t show up on time or do the job correctly. Conrad would watch grimly from his chair while the repairmen performed their services and when they left he would gripe and point out everything they’d done wrong but of course his daughter never listened. He was old and couldn’t walk and didn’t know what was what anymore.

“It’s goddamn awful getting old,” Conrad would complain, “and even worse getting old around your children.”

Conrad was dying of a dozen conditions of which uselessness was the most malignant. He drank fat glasses of Johnnie Walker and had his own easy chair in the front room that nobody else ever sat in because it was always as if he was sitting there anyway. Once he’d been a great craftsman and had built houses for every member of his family, even the ones he didn’t like. Then his knees gave up the ghost and his hands rusted shut with arthritis. Out of ten once nimble and efficient fingers only two had any functionability, a thumb and one finger which could still be peeled open with the aid of his daughter and used to feebly grip his whiskies.

He didn’t go outside anymore, but sometimes he would turn the dusty venetians and gaze out the window past the front yard where Infancy had wandered into Boyhood, Boyhood into Youth, Youth into sober and heedful Manhood, and Manhood into Age, the snowy ice-summit, where he perched trembling and malfunctioned, trying to make out all the countries and climates his life had crossed.

Conrad had many stories but there was one story he always told. Whenever I came over he would track this story down and proudly spread it out before me like the trophy hide of a rare animal that didn’t exist in the United States or even in Newfoundland anymore.

It was a story from his youth.

He was a young man, not yet out of his twenties. It was a brisk summer eve and all the boys were over for a cookout. He had just gotten married and built their first home. His wife was pregnant with their first son. The future was a honeyed fragrance.

There was an old man carrying a gym bag and hanging around the neighborhood that day. Nobody had ever seen him before. The old man wandered around the property as though he was lost and then he came over to Conrad’s fence and stared at the cookout. He was crippled on one side of his body. The right side of his face dipped below the left like a partly fallen banner. Maybe he’d had a stroke.

It was a little uncomfortable. Everybody at the cookout was very young and fresh and the old man was very old and life-walloped. They didn’t have much in common with him.

The old man didn’t say anything for a long time and then all at once he called for the cookout’s attention. “Boys,” he almost groaned. His voice sounded like rheumatism.

Everybody ignored him. They didn’t know the old man and figured he was there to beg for food or money.

“Boys,” he called again, louder this time, and this time Conrad went over.

The old man didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t say anything. He set the gym bag on the ground. Then he dropped slowly to a knee and unzipped the bag and presented a dozen fresh wet steaks sealed in plastic just like the grocery store.

That was because they had come from the grocery store.

The old man had stolen or bulk-bought the steaks and was following the scent of summer barbeques to every house, selling them. Conrad was incredulous. “Are you serious?” he laughed. “Gym bag steaks?”

The old man just knelt there. There was nothing on his face but all the years that added up to ending his life selling meat from a bag.

Conrad looked back at the boys. He was a moral young man who believed that God kept a gracious finger on every life and two fingers on the lives of the charitable.

He took out his wallet and bought a gym bag steak for seventy-five cents. The old man took the money without thanks. He dropped the coins into the bag and then zipped the bag up and faded with the dusk-light into the breezy summer eve.

Everybody said it was disgusting and probably dangerous. They told Conrad there was plenty of food from people he knew to fill him up. His wife threatened to leave him if he died of food poisoning. But Conrad wasn’t about to waste his money. He put that steak on the grill and cooked it medium-rare and when he took his first bite his senses rejoiced in the surprising and savory warm succulence, and he literally gasped. He cut the steak into pieces and served everyone a bite and they all agreed it was a remarkable cut. The perfect steak for his life.

For the rest of that summer Conrad kept an eye out for that old man. Every time he had a barbeque he’d start the grill early and let the aroma of meat and charcoal carry with the wind, casting a line for the old man and his bag of delicious protein. The old man never came around again. Maybe it was a one-time only offer. Maybe the old man moved on to other barbeques in other towns. There was plenty of speculation.

Conrad always told that story but I couldn’t say whether or not he liked to tell it. In whichever case, he always made sure to mention that it was the best steak he ever ate. Whenever he talked about his life you could see that steak in his eyes, warm in the mouth, perfectly cut, fresh and full of juice.
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“Currently I am on a folklore fellowship at Memorial University, Newfoundland. In the last year my work has appeared or been accepted in several literary magazines, including The Crab Orchard Review, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, The Newfoundland Quarterly, Green Hills Literary Lantern and The Oregon Literary Review, among others.” E-mail: timlmar[at]hotmail.com

After Seven Long Years

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sheela Jaywant


It must have been around three in the afternoon, because my son had already had his lunch and had sat down to do his homework. His school-timings were from seven in the morning till one, and by the time he took the rickshaw home, it was 1:30. My dog and I, we usually waited for him outside the compound. It was maybe 49 degrees Celsius, probably even higher in the direct sun that day, for I distinctly remember we stayed in the shade of the khejdi tree that stood sentinel at the gate. I observed the sunflowers, drooping, yet facing stoically upwards: the stalks were nearly seven feet high and the blooms six inches across.

My maid, who watered the garden, had commented but a few weeks ago, “Madam, we haven’t had such lovely flowers for nearly seven years now.”

“Touch wood,” I reacted.

“This year, the crop is good, too,” she went on. “Jowari, bajri, ragi, the rural crops are ready for harvest. The water-levels in the wells and baodis have been better. They say the near the canals, the kinoo trees have borne fruit—not since little Sita was born have we seen such greenery.” And Sita, her daughter, was now seven years old.

In Jodhpur, at the edge of the Thar, in India’s Rajasthan, greenery is a rare luxury. It’s a semi-arid zone bordering a cruel, lifeless desert. The neem is the one tree that isn’t stark and thorny. The rest of the flora comprises tall shrubs that stray wandering camels munch upon. To have a garden like mine, a small patch, really, was the height of luxury. Precious water couldn’t be ‘wasted’ so we’d recycle and channel our kitchen overflow onto it. If you looked closely, the water looked ‘dirty,’ but it nourished the seeds, and the plants gave us great pleasure.

This was a good year, we’d guessed, and they should last through the winter, from September till February. (Most years, we got the municipal water supply for about half-an-hour every day, and we had to fill up drums and buckets and make do with whatever we could fill. We couldn’t afford to buy water from the private tankers.) Even the reptiles in our compound, the monitor lizards, and the owls sensed the goodness around them. Flocks of mynas and babblers chirped from dawn to dusk, feasting on seeds and nectar. The bunches of papayas were ripening from yellow to saffron, the ‘drum-stick’ trees were full of lacy, white inflorescences. Squirrels kept scurrying to and from the branches. We had to tie the pregnant bitter-gourd and pumpkin creepers that climbed our wire fencing to keep them from trailing on the ground. This was going to be a season of plenty.

“Ma,” Saurabh told me, “I think there’s going to be a dust-storm.”

Normally, I’d get irritated with any distraction, knowing well how he loved to wriggle out of doing math or Sanskrit. Besides, the season for dust-storms was over; it was the end of August. But, one could never take a chance. A glance outside the grilled windows seemed to confirm what he was saying. The sky was getting hazy; if we weren’t quick enough, the fine dust would creep in through every tiny crack and crevice, hang around the rooms, making us gasp uncomfortably, before it settled on the furniture. It’d take us days to brush and sweep it off.

“Hurry,” I barked, as I scurried from one window to another of that huge colonial bungalow, locking each pane tightly, drawing the curtains, sealing the gaps with wet balls or twisted ‘ropes’ of crumpled newspaper.

Then, “Lock that stupid animal up,” I said, annoyed at Lopsang, our energetic Labrador, who believed we were doing all this to entertain him; he was eagerly dragging and chewing our careful stuffing to shreds.

“Come, Loppy, come,” Saurabh patiently coaxed and tricked him into a bedroom, shut the door, and as we later discovered, ‘forgot’ to latch it tightly.

The sky seemed to be getting overcast, for the blinding sunlight was appearing less white; maybe it wasn’t a dust-storm after all. I thought, “It’s going to drizzle. Much needed, this rain. For years, there hasn’t been any. This year, already we’ve had a couple of strong pre-monsoon showers and that’s how the fields are green.”

The soil in Jodhpur is clayey: even a couple of inches of precious rain gets soaked up, the baodis and lakes fill up with water and weather stays moist and humid for many days. The soil is nutritious, and baby shoots really, well, shoot up from the ground, a pleasure to behold. No wonder the farmers heartily celebrate such years, such weather, when the Gods are exceptionally kind. Why, this year the spinach, radish, brinjals and okhras were so fresh, so tasty, so aplenty we actually avoided eating sprouted pulses, our staple through the lean months.

The phone rang. I presumed it was my husband, wanting to inform me that he’d be late yet again.

The urgency in his “hullow” made my heart lurch for a fraction of a second. Bad news? We lived in an Air Force world, and fatal accidents were part of the risky profession of fighter flying.

“Ya??” I said, bracing myself for whatever he’d say next.

Unexpectedly, he urged, “Hurry and lock all the doors and windows, there are insects raining from the sky.”

“What? I don’t understand.” He wasn’t one to play practical jokes. Had I heard wrong? “What?” I asked him again.

He repeated, slowly and clearly this time: “Yes, in-sects. Locust-clouds are over us. Locusts. Hurry up and do as you’re told.”

Our house was sealed already, for we’d anticipated dust. Saurabh and I stood at the window, watching the greyness get darker, like it was going to pour. Just then, one of his friends came by on a cycle and stopped at our gate. We saw him get off, put it on the stand, then stretch a hand out and look at the sky. We saw a look of great surprise and fright come over his face. His eyes widened, he flailed his hands about as if fighting off some invisible attacker, slapping the air, and raced towards our house. As we opened the door, he shouted, “Saurabh, get a stick, something’s falling from the sky and it’s alive.”

Moments later, we were all out, Lopsang included (it never did take him long to discover some way, violent mostly, to escape from any room), surrounded by confusion. I instinctively shut the door behind me. The dog was yelping, pawing and attacking these strange creatures that fell so hard and fast, snapping at them, shaking his head vigorously. The boys were armed with badminton racquets and brooms, thwacking ‘the enemy’ with all their might, running helter-skelter, helpless against the sheer numbers. The servant and her children were wailing like it was doomsday. The insects that fell on the cement drive made light metallic sounds: ‘tuk-tuk, tuk, tuk.’ I was hypnotized: it was raining locusts. This was unbelievable. The shiny black thingies were flying in all directions, finger-long, slender, hard, thudding onto the roof, tapping menacingly at the glass panes. The enormous, grey, monstrous cloud was really a swarm. It loomed dangerously in the now invisible sky, frightening us, not too high above us. This was the look of Death, coming in from the West, as if directly from the sun, now on its downward journey for the day. Many locusts settled upon the plants, the hedge, the trees.

“Woh, oh-oh,” yelled the boys excitedly, “Look-at-that-look-there-look-here-look-look-look.”

The pretty yellow flowers, the green leaves… were gone. In seconds, these creatures had chewed them to nothingness. Other than the stalks, the bare branches, we could see nothing. The weeds, the grass, the trees, all stripped bare, all gone.

The cries of the servants were getting comprehensible: what I was witnessing was a tiny episode in a Silent Calamity. The larger destruction was happening miles away; farmers must be in despair, I thought. Their precious crop, the harvest, the result of so many months, nay, years of slogging, was being reduced to nothing at all by these migrants from Hell. Famine, drought weren’t newspaper headlines here. They were realities that drew visitors to the crematorium.

On the road, the scooterists halted their vehicles and ran inside the closest houses or shops for shelter. Unlike in the rains, there was no way they could stand ‘neath trees or awnings. Cows, goats, cats, fled where they could. We stopped our battle. We gave up. There was a sudden drop in energy levels and we watched, helpless, frail, afraid of the might of the locusts. Millions of them. Those that reached the ground seemed to disappear below the surface. They sat on their tails menacingly, then rotated and screwed their way downwards.

Dreadful, fascinating moments, those, frozen forever in our minds. The ‘attack’ lasted for less than two hours. We saw the ‘cloud’ buzz away to some other hapless destination.

Later, there was gossip that they were driven here by jealous enemies. There were rumours that wicked people had cast the Evil Eye over this kingdom (democracy or not, the locals still ‘belong’ to the Maharaja by some complicated social custom). Someone said the swarm traveled from Africa across the sea and from here it’d go towards parts of China. Politicians had a field day offering packets of relief, making full use of this unexpected opportunity. The ruling government had to declare it an emergency. A pest-control company hired helicopters to spray hundreds of hectares with toxic chemicals to kill the beasts. One of our neighbours, a scientist, told us, “The female lays her eggs about six inches down in the soil. The larvae bore their way out to whatever remains above and eat it all up as they grow into nasty adulthood.” Whatever was left to eat.

To kill them, the soil itself has to be ‘treated’. This poisoned soil won’t support any crop for a couple of years, he said. I was in tears. I have seen streams of sweat pouring down the foreheads and backs of the simple rural folk here as they tilled their meager land. Their ambitions are simple: grow food, store it, eat it until the next good-rain year. They’ve shared their spare bounty with us. A bunch of thin green pods, a sprig of mint from their backyards. Some chillies, some garlic. Anything edible is valuable here.

When the weather-gods let them down, the locals flock to the towns in search of back-breaking labour: breaking stones or ferrying sand manually in metal vessels perched on their heads. That’s the only way they can stave off starvation. Life is hard, but there’s money, there’s food. When there’s no rain, there’s drought, when there’s a good crop, these locusts pay a visit. Yet, they don’t give up the toil. Ploughing, sowing, growing, cutting, threshing, sorting, storing… routine perfected over generations, not to be given up by bad naseeb.

Mercifully, even this year, a part of the crop had been harvested and stored in tin-sheet barns, safe from obvious harm. It was treated, guarded against rodents, fungus, mould. It wasn’t going to be enough to last the district for even a year, but something was better than nothing. Many of the grafted plants, some of the ber trees, weren’t affected.

 

I once asked a neighbour whom I met again long years after we’d left Jodhpur, what she remembered most about the place.

“The palaces?”

“Oh yes.”

“The exotic, coloured costumes, the royalty, the old-world charm?”

“Oh yes.”

“The rich musical heritage, the rugged terrain, the starlit skies?”

“Oh yes.”

Then she turned and looked me in the eyes. “Do you remember that afternoon when… you know, the planet seemed to turn against us, when we saw what Death looked like?”

It was my turn to answer: “Oh yes.”

That was one summer afternoon in the midst of a harvest season I wasn’t likely to ever forget.

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Sheela Jaywant is a Mumbai based author of six books, which include: Quilted (stories of middle class India); Melting Moments (anthology of essays); The Liftman and Other Stories. She’s written a play, and is a columnist. She earns a living working in the administration of a hospital. E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]yahoo.co.in