Cobblestones

May 28, 2012 at 8:38 am (Dani Clark, Short Story)

The cobblestones in Rome are a blue-black color. They have been polished smooth by rain, carts, feet, cars, and pollution. These squarish little blocks have time-carved curvy cracks between them, more like crevices since they are wider in some places than fingers. Where I come from the streets have yet to stand this test of time.

I can see myself two months past twenty, in that ancient layered city. My dark brown eyebrows are unkempt and my face is clear of blemish and worry. I am wearing a rayon a-line dress of red and blue flowers over a narrow waist and wide hips. Worn brown fisherman sandals adorn my long feet.

In the next frame I am cheerfully drunk and walking arm-in-arm with a new friend down a narrow street toward the nighttime bustle of the Campo dei Fiori. I look down and see that one of those cobblestone cracks offers me a little prize. My inebriated self delights: oooo a cigarette! I grab it and follow a trail of them to the pack itself, giggling and unabashed. My friends bend forward laughing at my scavenger-like tendencies.

I am free but I don’t understand that yet. I have no rent to pay, no husband to placate, no crying child to nurse, and no drunk father forcing my six year old self to praise his incomprehensible poems.

And so I smoke my first cigarette and seal a deal. Thank you foreign revelers with your Birkenstocks and beer. Thank you midnight Mediterranean sky. Thank you bronze effigy of poor incinerated Giordano Bruno. Thank you for bearing witness.  I am free.

Mirth ensues, more cheap wine imbibed, more cigarettes smoked. Somehow we make it back the refuge of our hotel, situated above a quiet alley.

Alone, I want to watch myself smoking. I hold the white stick between my two fingers and stare at this woman inhaling and exhaling in the mirror of a cramped bathroom. My throat burns and I am conscious of being utterly wasted. But I like her, that girl there. She is cool.

I stumble back to my room. The marble-like statues that flank the rounded stairway eye me with suspicion. The windows of my room are open, their white linen curtains swaying gently. Lovely how they have no window screens here in Italy, eh? Woozy, I look down. Those stones again. When were they laid, I wonder. The 1800s? The 1700s? Before?

Then with a giddy seriousness that only drunkenness can produce, I see them emerge from the hazy darkness.  Women of all ages dressed in the fashions of different eras: high waisted robes, white wigs, long aprons, gilded bustling skirts and corsets, even a girl with bobby socks and a pink clip holding back her side-parted hair. They stand there and look up at me. Silent but for their eyes. We know, they say, we were here too.

And then I watch their dresses sweep the stones.

– Dani Clark

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Reverence

July 17, 2011 at 6:09 am (Amitava Nag, Short Story)

Sita gets impatient. She has been waiting outside this temporary makeshift clinic for almost an hour now. There are almost ten girls like her there. She just leans her head back against the bamboo frame. The temperature suddenly got low since last Saturday. She remembers she was waiting for Ramu, her brother. Ramu works in the city mill. He was returning from work after almost three months. He brings in hope, and warm clothes.

 

-‘Sita Naskar. Who amongst you is Sita?’ shouts the matron when Sita awakes from her rumination.

 

-‘Lie down there, on that bed and lower your salwar. And the pants too’, the doctor is nonchalant.

Sita is shy. She has never bared her like this in front of a man. But only once.. she sighed.

 

-‘Fast, fast. We have to test the other girls also and then in the next village’ the matron is irritated. Understandably so, she will have to return home in the city by evening. Sita closes her eyes and lies down on the bed.

 

She can feel the filth, the dry passage of subconscious agony mixed in the stains of pubic blood. She is fifteen only. May be a month or two more. Ma used to tell her about city. The lights of the city. Ma loved red as a colour and Sita remembers how she was so confused and panicked at her first blood. Blood is always red she thought earlier. Last Saturday she felt blood is black too. Sticky and black. So much that it won’t go, it won’t leave its mark even after she washed repeatedly. She was hysteric. Ma is no more to comfort. There is no one else. Sita sometimes thinks, is this every woman’s fate, she is alone, her Ma is also alone – in the city. She never comes home. Sita knows why, she doesn’t question that anymore now.

 

The doctor stoops on her vagina with a pair of tongs and scissors. There are so many things on the tray. Sita gets afraid. She prefers to close her eyes.

 

– ‘Hmm. Do you feel pain?’ The doctor inserts something inside her and Sita instantly knows that she can’t bear it any more.

 

– ‘Leave me sir. I know what happened. I am telling’ Sita reasons.

 

– ‘No. The political cadres will do so. They will help you. But I have to prepare a detailed report. Okay?’ The doctor goes back at pricking Sita’s private parts.

 

The mornings are the best time for Sita. She gets up early and goes to the river bed. With Malati and Latika she collects snails and shells. Its fun. Also that is the time for their girly talks as well. Sita is worried that Madan is taking interest in Malati. Madan is a drunkard. Malati is too simple, Sita gets angry with her only. ‘See, that Madan is only after your body. He doesn’t love you, you know?’ Sita said. ‘How come you so sure? He has promised me a sari.’ Malati basks in glory. Latika is the news supplier for them since her father is close to the Panchayet leader’s driver.

 

The doctor finishes his part. The matron, as sombre as she can be, draws a piece of cotton and throws at Sita,

 

– ‘Clean yourself, for God’s sake’ she is impatient.

 

– ‘See, your case is confirmed. Multiple occurrences. This is my part, rest your political leaders in Panchayet will do. Don’t ask anything from me’ the doctor washes off the blood in his hands.

 

Malati gets in next and Sita decides to wait for her. This is the first time Latika is not with them. She is ‘saved’. Its such a strange feeling when you are not in the same group where you belonged. You are now part of this new group – of 10 teenage girls.

 

Latika told them that police and security forces will be coming to their village – ‘Baba is worried. He said, they will beat all of us and take away the land.’ Sita wasn’t convinced, ‘Don’t be afraid silly. Its not easy, you know. Our Panchayet is here. They will save us. Its our land, if we don’t give how can anyone take that?’

The next day they heard it in the market as well. No one knew what is going to happen, police is fine but what is security force? Whose security are they ensuring? Sita couldn’t sleep that night. She sent message to Ramu for coming home. Dada is the only one who loves her. She knows that. She also knew that she is afraid.

 

Malati is all tears. Sita also feels like crying but seeing Malati cry she decides to stay firm. She feels sorry for Malati. She is such a kid. They heard, Madan has gone missing since Saturday. Is she crying for her or for losing Madan? Sita is unsure.

 

– ‘Girls. Come here. These babus have come here to investigate. They will send reports and the Government will help all of us’, the political cadre tries to comfort.

 

– ‘Sir, both these girls were there that night. Sita, you tell how many persons were there?’

 

– ‘How did it start? Don’t hide. This is required for their report.’

 

– ‘They took you near the farmhouse of the Ghosals’. Right? What were you wearing?’

 

– ‘Did they take off all your clothes? Or did they tie your hands and mouth?’

 

– ‘How many persons? All at once or one by one?’

 

– ‘See, we need to ensure that such atrocities against women don’t occur again. So that you don’t have to face this again, or any other girl of the village.’

 

The questions start bombarding them as if they are peeled off each layer of vanity. The lips moistened, saliva moving all over the crooked faces. In broad daylight, without moving an inch, they raped Sita.

Sita knew this would happen. Every detail will be plundered like the last thread from her body. That night was only for an hour. This day is for hours, this month is for days, this year is for months – on and on and on, the chronicle of rape.

 

Sita has thought it many times afterwards. What is in it for which this has become such a big farce?  Latika told how her sister is raped every night by her brother-in-law. But is it that there is no pain in it? Can rape be classified – graceful rape or not? She laughs. She knows, Ma is raped every night. She knows Ma loved only one man. She knows a lot, which is Sita’s problem.

In the middle of long chilly nights Sita wondered the definition of dignified woman. Ramu was upset and wanted to take her with him. But Sita knows that dada lives with friends in a mess, he cannot take her there. He will have to rent a new place and that will be too costly. ‘Can’t we girls take our own decision ever? Why should we always depend on men?’ Sita asked Ramu. Ramu doesn’t have answers to any philosophical questions ever, he knows he has to earn a lot for himself, to marry off her sister.

 

In the midst of the market Sita felt lost. She has come alone from her village. There is only one bus from there in the morning. Latika has pleaded not to leave, ‘What will you do there Sita? And what you mean by reverence?‘ Sita also doesn’t know what she means, she spent the whole night thinking of it and she took this decision. Spending more time with Latika means Sita will lose her stance. Latika has an infectious nature. She may force Sita to change her decision. But now that she is already in the city, she feels a little insecure. She has that doctor’s name and address, she also took direction of his chamber. But now as she stands near the chamber she feels nervous. Is the decision good? Or may be leading Malati’s life was better. Even Ma’s. Ma atleast has Sita. What will Sita have?

 

– ‘Hmm. So why did you come here? I cannot give any false reports now. If you wished I would have saved you from this dis-honour, then. Poor girl.’, the doctor’s eyes lit up as if he found his prey in his den

 

– ‘No Sir. I have not come for that’ Sita clears her throat, ‘I have come for a little bit of reverence, for me. I will pay you all the charges and your fees. But you have to operate. You have to remove my ovaries. I don’t need them. And no one else also should need them.’

 

The sun is at its furthest. The occasional mild wind makes the pleasant weather waver a little, reminds everyone of the merciless nights. Sita wraps the shawl tightly. She has won the first battle, and she knows that this time she is right.

 

– Amitava Nag

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Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

September 3, 2008 at 8:13 pm (Mary McQueary, Short Story)

 

He sat staring blankly at the wall, the bulging manila envelope lying in his lap unopened. Seeming on their own accord his fingers suddenly began to move back and forth over the handwriting on the envelope’s front. He looked like a psychic blind man trying to divine from the stain of ink.

 
His gaze dropped to the words. How beautiful her handwriting was he thought. She had perfected Zaner-Bloser cursive writing by the end of 2nd grade. She had been proud of the achievement.

 

The words were written in black gel, she had favored those pens due to their smooth flow, the ink responding like a well-trained puppy, never puddling when startled or pressed, not scratching when asked to jot a quick thought.

 
He looked down at the writing, reading again for the hundredth time the words, his mind still unable to understand the full import of what they meant. “Open Only In The Case of My Death”. The sigh that escaped from his mouth was one of disbelief tainted with curiosity.

 

In one fell swoop he ripped open the envelope across its right edge, his grasp letting go of the fragment as he quickly caught the contents within. When his brain registered what he was looking at he began to sob uncontrollably.

 

Before him lay a cluster of envelopes. He picked up one at a time. Each envelope was addressed “To My Friend” followed underneath by a person’s name. He leafed through the names, looking for his own. A panic rose in his throat, wasn’t there one here with his name on it? He was almost through the entire pile before he found his name lovingly written under the “To My Friend” preface.

 
He shoved the other envelopes off of the table violently then gently laid his envelope on the table and sat and stared at it as if it was a bomb that needed defusing and careful thought needed to be taken before disarming. At the beginning of the word “Friend” the ink spread, as if she had hesitated leaving the pen touching the paper for a thought as to what to write. What other label would she have given him other than Friend? Lover? Husband? 

 

Sweat began to bead on his brow. He began to open the letter but sobs once again tore out of his throat and he clenched tight the envelope, tears spilling down like heavy rain of tropical summers, landing on the ink blurring his name when he tried to brush it off with his thumb. His vision blurred and his stomach in knots, he ripped the end of the envelope and shook out the paper inside. His heart raced as he unfolded the beautiful piece of stationary and searched for the top left corner, for the first word, eager to hear what she had to say.

 

– Mary McQueary

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A Day to Forget, Remembered

August 18, 2008 at 2:11 am (Dominic Alapat, Short Story)

  

For Noel, that long ago April day was one of those days he never wanted to remember. This far away and when he thought he felt relaxed after a nice, short little break from work. Yet, for Noel, the thought lingered till he was able to see the old house he lived in as a child. The two-storied, lime-washed building with common verandahs.

 

Noel’s father Joseph was a heavy drinker who often got drunk on holidays, turned bitter and angry, beat his mother and created a scene. Suddenly this unhappy April day came to his mind. It came in flash. A flash of light, which when settled, revealed a garden during sunset. A woman and two children are sitting on a bench. All around them people walk, some exercise on the parallel bars nearby. For Noel, who is one of the children, the other his older sister, something is sinking inside him this evening. He breathes in the fresh smell of the grass. He feels the change from the claustrophobic green walls of his house to this freshness and light around. Yet, he feels as though a huge part of himself is not there. In his mind, he can barely see his sister. His mother, who sits between them, is silent, sad and not talking. She is shaken. Noel watches her sad, pale face, the nerves around her neck. He and his sister too are not talking.

 

Then what sinks inside he realizes this far away are the scenes that took place that day in his home. He would have been sitting on the blue sofa in the drawing room, the other blue one his sister’s, they had decided among themselves. And he sees his father, drunken, lunging at his mother, swaying on his feet and shouting. His mother weeping, pale, on the verge of collapse. The scene had gone on for hours, the shouting, the tears, the trembling. He and his sister were barely able to study that day, at least Noel knew he wasn’t. Book in hand, he had watched the screaming unfold, until his father had got drowsy and had fallen asleep.

 

Noel was ashamed of his parents. Of his father’s huge paunch, his mother’s aged face. The pain went coursing in his mind, the same scene played again and again.

He remembered how his father had woken up and had probably started to drink again and shout. His mother kneeling before the picture of Christ or maybe made to kneel. Weeping, praying. How she gathered Noel and his sister and fled to the garden. Noel felt pain. He felt it then and saw how it had a way of being with you, how it could rear its head again in a flash. How they were playing out in his mind while he was sitting in the garden. Why the people there strolling about, exercising, did not give him the joy he usually felt. How he saw his father over and over again. The scenes and the sinking. The nauseous smell of alcohol from his father’s mouth. The scenes played over and over in his mind. His father’s lungi coming off and how he quickly tried to tie it back. His face bloated, his eyes and mind senseless.

 

The scenes played then in the garden as it played now. He wondered what it meant. He knew there was something missing, something gone. What has drowned in me, Noel thought, as he lit a cigarette and waited for an answer.

 

– Dominic Alapat.   

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Entrapment

May 3, 2008 at 4:22 pm (Shiladitya Sarkar, Short Story)

Algae grow over the carved path that leads to her house. At night, away from her, Aniket waters the plants in a small roof-top garden. Each time he passes a row, he concentrates, careful not to water more than necessary. But sometimes he forgets. The spray can, held at a slant, keeps dripping. At such times, with the water trailing near his feet, the sides of his kurta wet, the green of the leaves dark under the muted terrace bulb, he is overcome with guilt remembering his small room. The room where paper-flowers flutter whenever the south wind blows in. Each flower dangles on a dry stem once the fan is turned on. 

 

Evening. On the pavements in the city’s busiest crossing, young lads sell jasmines. His girlfriend buys some, smells them while walking. He keeps himself on the side of the traffic, careful that she doesn’t trip or hit a lamppost. To ease her, he talks of many things, often about the flowers he grows in his rooftop garden: golden marigolds, karabi, water lilies…

 

“Must be a gardener,” she tells her friends.

 

“Bring some flowers for me,” a friend requests. “My vase is empty,” a cousin pleads. “Roses would look lovely by my harmonium,” a neighbour wishes.

 

Aniket’s room is near the staircase landing. On his way up or down, he meets many people. They greet him, say a hello; they ask for his flowers too, those that he grows in his garden. He tells them his stock won’t make stunning ikebana. He has no elegant bonsai to offer.  Maybe, some marigolds or a dahlia.

 

She visits him, often in the afternoon.

 

“Let’s sit outside,” he tells her. She hesitates, her face marked with a frown, as if surprised listening to the flutter of coloured plastic sheets inside the room. He switches off the fan. He wipes off the glue stains on the floor. He insists they sit by the terrace door. But she wants him in his room, by the window. She moves around the space slowly, careful not to miss a step. He grows afraid. What if she finds the touch alien … what if the glue smells give away his deceit? He then talks of many unconnected things: how a snail is different from a shark, a pebble from flowing lava.

 

“Do rolling stones ever gather any moss?” she asks abruptly. He laughs, thinking how the simple word ‘pebble’ has taken her mind towards a proverb. A week before, on a Sunday, she asked if he knew of any landscape artist. He mentioned a few names which sounded strange to her. “Artists,” he said, “wonderful painters.”

 

 

“No … not them. An office colleague will be moving to a new apartment building next August. He wants a landscape designer to do up the complex.”

 

Alone at night, watering the flowerpots on the rooftop, Aniket wonders what it takes to be these unique gardeners, folks who doll up concrete spaces with a green lie.

 

He wonders, notepad in hand, how tiring it would be to tame and trim the nature.

 

 

An old lady, his neighbour, whispers, “What is her name, the one who visits you?” Eyes glistening, the old lady adds, “Isn’t she lovely?”

 

 

“A nice girl,” he replies. “Loves flowers, most.”

 

 

 Shiladitya Sarkar

 

 

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Metaphor

May 2, 2008 at 8:52 am (Shiladitya Sarkar, Short Story)

 

It was a cold evening, and the city lights were all blurry in the mist. My mother dressed me well, with pullovers and mufflers. She said we were going to a strange place and I was to keep silent, not to trouble her. We boarded a blue bus with curtains on the windows. The bus sped through a meandering track, flanked by sugarcanes and grape farms. A song was playing on the audio system. A young girl, her hair tied with a ribbon, was taping the backrest of the seat in front of Ma’s. I wanted to pull at her plait … stick a chewing gum on her dress. I wanted to tickle her. I pictured her getting mad at me. Then I fell asleep.

 

When I followed Ma down the steps of the bus, I couldn’t make out where we were. It was tar dark. She lit her torch, moving the torchlight, here, there everywhere, as if frightened. A night bird kept calling out in a scratchy voice. I grew afraid in Ma’s presence as the torchlight kept illuminating the objects round us for split seconds: a tall tree, unnamed in my consciousness, a church spire, a lean path bordered with small plants. A squat building seemed to run in a continuous line till the horizon. The light caught its roof in patches, which was tiled. The light also hit the sides of a broken truck at the far end of the building, its wheels flattened to the ground. The broken handle of a tubewell sparkled as the light brushed over it. A wind picked up from no where. The leaves rustled. An insect buzzed past the shaft of light.

 

Ma elbowed me. I followed her along the thin concrete strip. I wished I had my toy gun. Its rattling sounds would have driven the fears away now crouching around me. Somewhere in the distance, I saw lights behind a window with frosted glass. I heard voices, faint and disturbing. The concrete track gave away to soggy mud. In the torchlight I saw iron grills ahead of us, beyond which ran a hallway.

 

“Don’t tell anyone what we intend to do this winter. Don’t tell anyone why we have come or where we will go. Now keep walking, or else, you won’t get anymore toys.”

 

She tripped against a raised plinth. She lost the grip on the torch and it fell with a thud. The light formed a yellow pool around a marble slab imprinted with a name and two dates, hyphenated.

 

“Where are we? I asked.

 

Ma’s fingers, cold and  firm, led me away. 

 

– Shiladitya Sarkar.

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