Category Archives: Fiction

The Auntie Effect

Siya had decided it was time to break the news to the aunties. They arrived every day promptly at 3pm, expecting her coffee and company. There was one in every size. Large, medium and small. The shortest aunt was the oldest, and the tallest aunt the youngest. Siya found this counter-intuitive. Technically they weren’t even her aunts. They were Minna’s. Minna who had recently up and packed her bags and moved to India to volunteer in a desert village where she didn’t speak the language, but was somehow helping women artisans adapt their product designs for a contemporary marketplace. 

Siya glanced over at the fridge where Minna’s latest postcard was displayed. A red quilt embroidered with intricate white snowflakes and studded with tiny silver mirrors. “We’re in Bloomingdale’s just in time for Christmas sales!” she’d scrawled on the back, “Can’t wait for you to meet the wonder women I work with. I don’t know when they sleep (or when their husband’s work). They are TOO sweet (and so is their chai). Come. SOOOOOON!”

Minna was like a heroine out a storybook. An orphan raised by a pack of aunts. A willful, quick-tongued child who’d grown into a spirited, bewitching young woman. The first time they’d met, Minna had pulled Siya’s braid. Hard. Siya’s eyes had filled with tears, but she did not cry out. Instead she bit her lip and looked at the ground. Minna dropped the braid and offered Siya a half eaten chocolate and her lifelong protection. For some reason they’d been inseparable ever since. Or had been until Minna left for India. Now it was just Siya and the aunts 

Minna had known how to handle them. Like a clever sheepdog she herded them away from treacherous subjects, (Marriage. Babies.) kept them busy in the green pastures of benign conversation. She knew how to get them arguing over the secret ingredient in their great-grandmother’s famed pumpkin curry, or recalling the day their school flooded and the teacher simply stood on his desk and continued class, or remembering the 104-year-old tailor in their village who could size a person perfectly with one glance, who declared measuring tapes, were for amateurs, and who exacted revenge on snide customers by stitching their blouses just a tad too tight. Not so tight that it warranted complaint, just tight enough for them to be in a perpetual state of vague discomfort. 

But Siya has no talent for shepherding, so now with Minna gone, the aunties are out of control. They’d broken out of the corral days ago and there was no turning them around. 

“Siya what do you think of this fellow? We think he’s perfect.” said Auntie #1 waving a photograph under Siya’s nose. The sixth photograph in the last week. Each one of a different fellow who was believed to be “perfect”. “Siya don’t you think Minna would make a wonderful mother?” said Auntie # 2, “She has so much extra energy, mothering would be perfect for her! See how well it suits you?” “Siya when you talk to Minna tell her it’s high time she gave a serious thought to her future,” said Auntie #3, “She can save the world after she’s settled down. First things first no?”

“It’s not that I don’t like being married to you,” Siya said to her husband as he dried the dinner dishes, “But somehow spending time with the aunties makes me feel like going off and doing something terribly scandalous.” “The Auntie Effect,” said her husband gravely, “I should ban them from the house.” “As if you ever would,” she scoffed, “You egg them on.” And he did. Terribly. He adored the aunties and the home cooked delicacies they brought with them. “It’s not fair,” she once told him, “The more you eat the more they love you. The rest of us with normal person appetites just can’t compete.” It was not uncommon for the aunties to come for tea and stay past dinner time. Siya would come back from putting the baby to bed and find one of the aunties hovering over the stove, another chopping onions like her life depended on it, and the third rummaging through the fridge looking for green chilis.They were far better acquainted with Siya’s kitchen than she was. Last week the three of them had rearranged all her shelves and drawers. Siya still wasn’t sure where the can opener was in this new configuration, or any of the dessert bowls. “Have you told them yet?” her husband asked as they were turning back the covers that night. “Tomorrow,” said Siya. “You said that yesterday,” her husband reminded her. “Don’t nag,” she responded, “I’ll tell them tomorrow.”

The next afternoon as soon as she opened the door she said, all in one breath, “I need to tell you something.” The aunties exchanged silent, worried glances, and proceeded to sit down on the living room sofa one next to the other in descending height order. An arrangement which temporarily distracted Siya from the news she was about to share and made her wish she could take a picture of them on her phone to send to Minna. 

“Are you getting divorced?” asked Auntie #3, her eyebrows knitted together in a fierce scowl. “No of course not Auntie!” said Siya, shocked and a little offended at the very idea. “Everybody seems to be getting divorced these days,” said Auntie #2. “Like it’s some kind of new fashion,” tacked on Auntie #3, who was fond of calling everything she didn’t like about modern society, “some kind of new fashion.”. “Minna isn’t coming home for Christmas” said Siya quietly. There was a brief silence in the room, interrupted only by the baby’s quiet babbles from the corner of the floor where she lay on her blanket happily unaware of the unwelcome news that had just been shared.

Then the aunties began speaking all at once, “Why not? What happened? Does she need money? Is she hurt? Is she in love? ? Is someone blackmailing her? Should we go bring her home? Should we call the police?” “She loves living in India,” said Siya with a little shrug and a smile, “She’s thinking of staying permanently.” “In the middle of the desert? Where there’s no airport? Or family? How could she possibly want that?” Again a chorus of confused questions rose in the air, “Doesn’t she miss us? Is she mad at us? What did we do?” “Nothing — you did nothing wrong, and everything right! She loves you so much and she misses you. She wants you to come visit her in the second week of January, on the day of the big festival.” Auntie #3 narrowed her eyes in suspicion, “Why didn’t she tell us all this herself? Is she hiding something? She knows we always can tell when she’s hiding something.” “She wasn’t sure how you’d take the news. She knows how attached you all are to her, she was just nervous about it that’s all,” said Siya in her best soothing voice, “You know how she hates making anyone feel bad.” “Then she should have just come home for Christmas like she’d planned,” grumbled Auntie #1, “None of us have been to India in over three decades, not since — “ She trailed into silence. Not since the day that Minna’s parents had been killed in an accident. The three aunts — her mother’s older sisters, had bought their plane tickets and boarded their flight that very night. And they’d never looked back at the lives they’d left behind. Minna suspected at least two of them had left husbands behind. A fact they all vigorously denied.  We were meant to be spinsters they said. We were meant to be together to take care of you.

She was their golden child. A three-year-old spitfire when they first came into her life. She’d refused to love them for the first year they were with her, afraid that if she did they too might disappear on her one day. Then one day she’d crawled into Auntie #1’s lap and fallen asleep holding Auntie #2’s sleeve in one hand, and Auntie #3’s sleeve in the other. She never let a day go by without seeing all of them. Even in India she Skyped with them every day. 

Siya and her husband had been tasked with teaching the aunties how to Skype. That’s how the 3pm visits had originated. It was meant to be one tutorial on one afternoon. But the aunties had learned nothing that first day. Instead they’d fussed over the baby and folded all the laundry, and briskly hemmed the ends of the living room curtains (which Siya had meant to leave fashionably trailing). At the end of the first week they’d learned the basics of Skype, but they continued to show up at 3pm each afternoon with no indication of ever stopping.  And now Minna was calling them back to the country that was once but no longer their home. 

“You’ll have to come with us,” said Auntie #2 looking directly at Siya. “You and the baby. We can’t convince her on our own.” “Convince her of what?” “Of the utter foolishness of her plan.” Siya opened her mouth to say something and then stopped, the aunties were planning to make the trip. Minna had thought they would need a lot more persuading. But here they were negotiating the terms of travel. “I’ll come with you,” she said, surprising herself, and later that evening her husband, who had not seen this coming. “Why are you going with them again?” “Because I feel implicated,” she responded. “And the baby?” “She’ll help keep me sane while I’m away and in the midst of Minna and her family’s madness.” “Alright but don’t get it in your head to move there,” said her husband, “You have to come back and find our dessert bowls. Or I’ll be eating ice cream straight out of the carton the whole time you’re away.”


Thirteen

A child strong enough to be burdened with a peculiar name. Thirteen her parents called her. “That is not a name. That is a number,” offered a five-year old kindergarten peer (a boy with an unadulterated lack of imagination who would grow up stating the obvious and living it too). “It’s not a number. It’s an invitation,”  Thirteen said to him, because that is what she had been told by her mother. And it was only when she was sixteen that she thought to ask, “An invitation to what?” Her mother had stopped planting dandelion seeds in the backyard long enough to say, ” An invitation to flout common fears and defy ordinary expectations.”


Mingled Yarn

Story scraps from 2006

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn–the good and ill together. – William Shakespeare

She never thought of herself as the crocheting sort. In her mind it was something older ladies with withered pink cheeks, grandchildren and pies in the oven (just the pies, not the grandchildren) did, sitting by a crackling fire, or in sunny, mid-afternoon drawing-room circles, with fragrant, bottomless cups of gossip and tea. Crocheting, to her, was at once quaint, and foreign. Where she grew up, people didn’t crochet, for they had no use for the items that the act generally produces. You don’t need scarves, sweaters, socks, blankets or winter hats in the blazing year-round summer of southern India. But she didn’t live there any more. And when the wind snapped around her ankles, and nipped at the tips of her ears and nose she was grateful for woolen warmth. No. She had never thought of herself as the crocheting sort. But later on looking back she realized she ought to have seen it coming.

You see, the phrase ‘spinning a yarn’ wasn’t just pulled out of thin air. And there is a certain kindred-ness between the creative acts of looping wool and words along the slim needle’s narrative. And she had always loved stories. Picking them up like pebbles wherever she found them with caring, careful hands. They had a tendency to spill out of her pockets as she walked through the world.  When she first started crocheting she was startled to find that these stories found their way into the very fibre of the wool, until it was impossible to tell one sort of yarn from the other. She wasn’t sure what to make of this, and at first it frightened her a little. But in time she came to understand that even if she couldn’t always see it, there was an underlying design to the way these things worked.

Now, standing in front of the yarn rack she waited for one color to single her out. She had found that the quieter she was inside the more quickly and clearly she knew which skein was waiting for her. Today it took her a few moments to recognize that it was to be deep red. A red the exact shade of rubies and ripe pomegranate seeds.  A color that called to mind, blood, but not in a violent way. For there was something in the red yarn that carried an echo of those pulsing tunnels, those insistent threads that course beneath our skin, frequent visitors to the heart, whether or not we remember their laboring existence.

She reached out and picked up the soft coil, savoring its texture and gentle weight.

She never knew, when she started a new piece, who it was for. “Remember your audience” is something writers and filmmakers are often urged to do. But she was neither. And in any case, according to her, audiences were rather tiresome, they demanded entertainment—and then sometimes yawned, or worse still, fell asleep when it was provided. So she never “remembered her audience” when she started crocheting a new piece. Why try and “remember” someone when you may not have even met hem yet, and when people are always changing anyway, and when it is so much easier to meet everyone as if for the first time instead of stubbornly insisting on consistency.

She took the yarn up to the front counter to pay for it. The sales clerk was a young man with a purple airplane tattoo on his left forearm. He didn’t look like the kind of person who knew the first thing about yarn. He smiled when she placed the skein on the counter. “Great color,” he said, “ Rubies-and-ripe-pomegranate-seeds”…a sublime choice.” She looked at him a little more carefully then, “ Why the plane?” she asked, “ To remind me of the journey,” he said easily, “At some point we take off and at some point we land, and if you’re not the pilot you don’t really have complete control over your destination- but—” he paused for a moment, “But what,” she asked, “ But it’s up to each of us to decide what we want to do while we’re up there.”

“ And you want to sell yarn, is that it?” “ Is that what I’m doing right now?” “No,” she said slowly, “It’s not actually”. “Well there you have it, ” he stopped smiling then and broke into a broad grin, “You didn’t expect that did you?“ What is your name,” she asked, because suddenly, she really wanted to know what kind of nomenclature was attached to this young seller-of-yarn with the purple airplane tattoo that reminded him, and those who asked him about it, of the journey.

“Johnson,” he said, “But most people call me Jo.” “ Do you have any parting words of wisdom for me Jo?” she asked, as she paid for the wool and prepared to leave the little shop, “ The only completely consistent people, are the dead,” he said, “ Everything that surprises you is an affirmation of life.” “And that’s your message for me today?” “Mine and Aldous’s.” “As in Huxley?” “Yeah that’s right.” “Thank you,” she said, and gathering her purchase walked out the door towards a somewhat braver and somewhat newer world.

***

The art of crocheting doesn’t demand patience so much as it cultivates it. She had realized early on that it was impossible to hurry when one was crocheting. One might just as soon ask a turtle to sprint. There is something in the steady, yet skilled repetitiveness of the act that demands a degree of attention to the moment coupled with a disregard for the passage of time. She remembered in particular one morning the first week she’d started- she’d been sitting on a park bench frowning over the tangled mess of needle-and-wool in her hands, a deepening furrow of frustration between her brows because she hadn’t been able to get her fingers to fly as fast as she wanted them to, and she was beginning to feel impossibly clumsy and in adept at the whole thing. Out of nowhere a little white terrier had come scurrying up and jumped onto her lap, further tangling the wool in a few frantic moments of tail-wagging excitement. “ He seems to be having more fun with that than you are,” the voice was dry, and deep and not unkind. It belonged to a sharp-faced old woman who looked like she belonged on a broomstick with a black cat instead of a rambunctious little white dog. She raised one long, knobbly finger and for a moment it seemed as if she might be about to chant some sort of ancient spell that would cause time to flow backwards, automatically untangling the wool out of its present predicament and back into a neatly coiled bundle of unknotted potential. Instead she drew her finger across the furrowed forehead, smoothing out the little line that lay there. “ In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving,” she said suddenly, “ And see how the pattern improves.” “ Rumi?” she’d asked, and the little dog had looked over at her with a short, happy bark. “ Yes that’s his name, he chases his tail all day long, goes round and round quite exactly like a whirling dervish. And if you look carefully into his eyes you’ll see a poem there.” She tried to peer then into the laughing black depths of the puppy’s eyes but he had already jumped off her lap and was chasing his tail so fast that he was just a blurred circle of white. Ever since that brief encounter in the park she hadn’t had any trouble at all with tangled wool. And her fingers forgot their hesitation and found a rhythm she hadn’t known they knew.

***

She didn’t put much stock by her dreams— she didn’t have, nor had she ever had, one of those dream journals that some people keep by their pillows, that in the first groggy strains of consciousness they scribble in, one hand clutching a pen, the other clutching the colorful-but-fast-fading dream-scraps they’ve smuggled back with them into the waking world. She had once heard someone refer to dreams as “recycled impressions”, and she could see how that might be. She was not interested in recording recycled impressions. And that’s why it was strange that it should be a dream that had led her to decide to learn how to crochet in the first place. It was really Mark Twain’s fault. They had been eating lunch together (in her dream, of course) at a restaurant—a little Mediterranean café full of waiters with uniformly gleaming black hair and gleaming white smiles. Over a crisp bite of spanakopita he had looked her straight in the eye, from under those famously bristling, bushy white eyebrows, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover,” he said all this in a single breath and when he finished she had said, unaccountably, “I think I shall learn to crochet then.”

And that was how it had all started. Sometimes the hidden impulse of our lives is revealed to us in unexpected moments, and in those moments of revelation comes a deep sense of trust in the inexplicable.  When she woke from her dream it was with that sense of trust. She bought her first crochet needle and a skein of wool that same day.

***


A Woman Turns to God

Journal entry 2003? 2004?

B grew up Jewish and vegetarian in a cattle-ranching, German-Lutheran town somewhere in Texas, with a mother who ‘flip-flopped between belief and non-belief. So one year there’d be a God, the next year none.’ She remembers resenting this. I try and imagine what that experience must be like for a child. Now you see Her/Him/It. Now you don’t. Some people believe God created the world in seven days. But how many days I wonder, does it take for some people to ‘create’ God?

And B? Long story short: ‘Years later here I am and having grown up the way I did, I find myself searching for-’ she pauses, glows earnest and sheepish,–‘a place to be spiritual in.’

***

Writing Exercise 2008 modeled on Rick Moody’s Boys (employ a simple action, repetitively, and use it to convey much more than the action)

A Woman Turns to God (a fictional scrap on flip-flopping between belief and non belief)

A woman turns to God, a woman turns to God. A woman turns to the idea of God (powerful, shifting, periodically forgotten and recalled). A woman once a child, taught to place palm against palm shut her eyes bow her head, turns to God. World dips in and out of view, namaste a play on peek-a-boo, a woman turns and smiles: I see you. Tight black braids in ribbons, tongue-tied by visitors, prodded into prayer, a performance piece for parents and a pantheon (three hundred and thirty million gods to choose from) the loose end of a sari flutters as a woman turns to God. Memories of a girl’s long red skirt, border shot through in gold, wondering if temple idols in their splendid silks understand English, chants in an intricate language she does not know. Ancient words like polished marbles roll off the tongue, gleaming like doorknobs trailing like vines. She is the Magician’s Assistant muttering a mantra under her breath, capable of causing lightening to tear across a sunburned sky, turning tap water into holy milk, and a failing grade to a first.  What you don’t understand is what makes anything possible.

And a woman waking to the shrill cry of the bell on the milkman’s bicycle turns to God. A woman haggling over the price of bottle gourd and papaya with a street vendor on her doorstep turns to God. A woman carrying gratitude like a clumsy bundle of firewood (blessings are bought this way) turns to God, offers thanks for whitewashed home, gentle husband, healthy children, college degree, gold bangles and red banana tree. Lamp-lit stories at grandmother’s knee of a divine monkey who mistook the sun for a ripe mango tries to rip it from the sky, an exiled prince in hermit’s bark , a roguish cowherd who plays the flute, lifts a mountain to shield a village from the driving rain, dances on the hood of a serpent, smiles at death. The pixie dust of myth and legend settles as a woman turns to God preoccupied with more domestic stories absent-minded devotion a daily custom with long-term benefits (like brushing your teeth).

But on a waiting-for-the-monsoon Wednesday in October, a woman grates fresh ginger into her tea, turns to God, with quiet recklessness questions for the first time what good this mode of interaction does either of them. For almost a week a woman dizzy with daring, elated and curious, does not turn to God. A woman smiles at her husband rendered freshly boyish by the barber and does not turn to God. Loses her silver toe-ring, finds a trickle of ants in the sugar jar, gossips over the garden wall with her neighbor, a woman hums an old film song, spends a few foolish moments in front of a mirror, listens for three whistles of the rice cooker, loudly scolds the sheepish, slightly deaf hung-over (again) dhobi not once, not once ever turning to God. Until on the sixtieth night watching her youngest child asleep, a woman fills predictably with fierce tenderness and unaccountable fear of a nameless future, turns to God.

A woman newly fragile turns to God, rising with mild repentance and an updated agenda, makes an offering of coconut (to be cracked on the stone slab of a shrine by a priest), a garland of jasmine and soft pink country roses (to be draped around the shoulders of a dark-skinned deity), three tablets of camphor (that will flame in the smoky chamber after she is gone). A woman turns to God wonders briefly why the insides of churches are so still and quiet and the insides of temples are not. A woman turning leans unwittingly into the old paradox of peace within circumstances of barefoot, vermilion-smeared, incense-scented, brass-bell-ringing chaos. Deep in the belly of a temple a woman turns, knows in her bones to prepare for push-comes-to-shove reverence as pilgrims press forward to snatch a glimpse of God. Thin priest inches through with his flaming plate as a woman on tiptoe turns to God. Cupped palms drop softly clinking coins, stretch towards the light, press transferred warmth and comfort to closed eyes. Feels the envelope of an invisible presence, the stirrings of an old familiar knowing that thought cannot reach, reason cannot unseat. Warm air thickens with mingled motivations, ordinary mortal yearning and the riddled timeless burning of one woman’s baffled turning, yet once more, to God.


Out of Character

Elaborate. If he had been asked to describe Chandralekha in one word that’s the one he would have picked. It did not strike him that she might be offended by his choice. He was not an elaborate man. Everything he uttered originated off the top of his head. Some found this an endearing, even relaxing quality. Others had stopped speaking to him years ago.

Everything Chandralekha uttered, on the other hand, welled up with scarlet urgency from subcutaneous layers of her being, like blood to the surface of a wound. She was a woman given to curlicues. Living in loops and swirls that would have dizzied anyone but a dervish. When she signed her name, the C distended like a sail in high winds, the stalk of the d blew backwards, the foot of the l dipped below the plane of the other letters like a toe in a tidal pool. Not to be left behind the k kicked up its heels like a Russian dancer and the tail of the final a defied gravity springing into the air and rainbowing over the completed name in an extravagant arch that ended in a complex series of pen-tip pirouettes. A miniature performance unto itself, and one not easily forged.

Of the two he was the more ethical, and she the more kind-hearted. He never broke a traffic rule or fell behind on his bills and he donated an exact percentage of his income to charity every year, never a penny more or less. She treated stop signs as suggestions, borrowed copious amounts of money, books, clothes and jewelry from friends and returned them haphazardly and not always to the person they came from. But there wasn’t a single thing she owned that she would not give away if she came across someone she thought could use it more than she. None of her umbrellas had ever lasted longer than the first rainy day after purchase.

When he asked her to marry him they were at a stoplight walking home with a group of friends after dinner at a local diner. A block earlier Chandralekha had bought an impulsive armful of sunflowers from a flower stand, “because there are just too many people in this city walking around with mournful faces when they have no business to.” Then she’d proceeded in her usual modus operandi (reckless abandon), to give all the sunflowers away, delighting some strangers and alarming others. It occurred to him then, standing at the red stoplight, that in a million years it would never occur to him to do what she had just done, or anything in the same or even neighboring zipcode of what she had just done. Unless they were married. In which case given enough time, her verve, passion and spontaneity might possibly rub off on him. And even if it didn’t, it would still be accessible. Like a window that he could look out on the world through, and lean his forehead against when the view grew too puzzling.

“Will you marry me Chandralekha?” he asked with unusual feeling, and she opened her mouth to say laughingly, “When cows do cartwheels!” So she was as surprised as any of the others when as the Walk sign flashed on, she said instead simply: “Yes.” And taking his arm crossed to the other side with no further elaboration.


Green Sombreros

From 2003 in response to a request to write a true-ish story featuring green sombreros and elephants .

 Rabble-worn gravel path gradually traveled/A rebel unraveling stumbled and babbled…

You must leave here at once said the wind. Jump out of your window and into my arms and I will carry you far away from this danger and foolishness.

Will you really? she asked.

You have my word whistled the wind- Come on- it’ll be a Vacation.

A vacation from what?

Sense and Supposed-to-Bees.

I am not a huge fan of Sense and Supposed-to-bees.

So you’re waiting for what exactly?

She jumped and was caught in a cool rush. Arms so strong and safe that she laughed out loud for the first time in the longest time and the moon came out from behind a cloud to see what it was that merited such mirth.

Where are you taking me? she asked.

Do you think the wind knows where it’s going?

She smiled into the darkness.

Does it matter? he asked.

Not so much.

Good said the wind. That means we’ll get there.

Below them a smorgasbord world, set like a table for the feast of a king. Such muchness she thought. Her heart filling and spilling dizzy with delight as the wind dipped and spun a boyish ballet below the stars.

Alice down the Rabbit Hole he said. Wonderland is Everywhere.

Why have I never been here before?

Because you were too scared of falling.

He that is down need fear no fall…

No Fear No Fun said the wind and spun her upside down.

When she finally caught her breath she started to laugh and when she finally stopped laughing she said honestly I should go home now.

Why?

I have my reasons.

Reasons-raisins said the wind. You’re not that important.

I’m not?

No.

She smiled.

I am tired so tired. I have sleep to do and work to dream that’s it isn’t it?

Something like.

You don’t really want to go home do you?

She smiled.

Jump said the wind suddenly and it was a command.

What?

Jump.

She looked down. There was a longish ways to look.

Go on. Dive deep.

For what?

For pearls maybe. Maybe for fun.

For fun pearls?

That too.

When you’re diving it helps to believe there’s water under you, no?

That’s one theory.

Right she said.

And jumped headfirst into the jasmine-scented night.

***

The gecko looked at her critically. May I ask a silly question?

She nodded yes sticking flat to the wall and thinking life would be a whole lot easier if she could see it in the singular. Talking geckos were an entirely new phenomenon to her and she wanted to pay attention to the experience, something not so easily done when you are seeing things in triplicate.

If wishes were horses what would horses be?

If wishes were horses…she trailed off there trying to think.

You don’t know do you? Three accusing pairs of gecko eyes glared at her with unconcealed contempt.

Does it matter?

Do you?

Yes!

Well then.

This wasn’t going well for her.

She shook her head trying to clear it.

Now there was just one gecko but one with three voices.

She’s not very bright is she?

Maybe she fell on her head when she was a baby.

That’s one theory.

Did not!

And she was about to follow that with something suitably cutting, but the wind came by and shushed her with a cool finger laid against her lips.

Make-believe he whispered.

What?

When you don’t know- the answer is Make Believe.

Go on. Make-them-Believe.

But-

Sometimes said the wind, the Truth is a matter-of-fiction…

And then it was just the glaring gecko and the girl again

Flamingos she said loudly.

Flamingos!

Three voices in almost-unison. The gecko looked beamish.

If wishes were horses, horses would be-

Flamingos.

Absurd.

Excellent!

Why thank you.

Why thank me? Instantaneous indignation in a green gecko glare.

Oh help.

Off the Wall! thundered three voices

She shrugged and smiled.

I’m done with you she said.

And fell off the wall.

***

She fell for a long while and didn’t notice the flamingo flapping amiably alongside her until he cleared his throat with significant politeness.

A Flamingo she said blankly because she felt rather called upon to say something and nothing else seemed appropriate to the occasion.

No ma’am, a horse said the pink bird smugly and a poet at that.

To prove his point he then proceeded to declaim the following

Roses are red violets are blue.

I think it’s funny that last should be true.

…Well what do you think?

It’s very- succinct, she said.

Succinct said the horse-who-was-a-flamingo and profound yes?

That also.

You’re not a poet too are you?

No no.

That’s all right. Somebody has to be ordinary so it may as well be you.

She wasn’t sure she liked that take on things, but the horse-who-was-a-flamingo continued with a knowing sidelong glance-

You didn’t intend to turn out ordinary did you? No matter. Accidents happen.

I am not an Accident she said hotly.

And just then hit the surface of the cold water with a loud splash.

***

Can we talk about something else please? I’m off cigarettes, alcohol and dreams.

She looked up at the man across the table from her, he was blowing bubbles out of a purple pipe and sipping something frothy from an orange and green coffee mug that said “World’s Greatest Sister” across it in sky blue lettering.

What were we talking about?

Doesn’t matter said the man let’s talk about something else.

Why are you off Dreams?

Why aren’t you?

Oh but I am.

Why?

I used to think if I sat around dreaming out of windows and over the moon then sure as death and taxes Someday My Prince Would Come etc.

Mass-marketed Disney Dreams- When You Wish Upon A Star etc.

What?

Pay no attention to me. You were saying?

That dreams mean nothing unless you wake up. That Wishing Upon Stars is all very well but then you have to get up and do something. That you can’t sit around waiting for things to happen to you. You have to Go Out and Happen to Things.

You make that up yourself?

Actually, I saw this poster once.

Ah.

Anyway, I’m no longer the casement window sort.

And what sort are you pray?

A different kind of stereotype: The Hungry-for-the-Big-Bad-World sort.

By that sin fell the angels.

Yes but I’ve always thought Lucifer would have been an interesting conversationalist. Are you laughing at me?

Yes.

You think I speak in jest?

Jest is a good word.

It is.

Do you remember me?

Should I?

Try.

So she wrinkled her brow and blew softly over the fingers of one palm- then – yes she said her eyes bright and indecipherable. I remember. We met in a dream on Wednesday night at that corner street restaurant. You were sitting at the table across from mine wearing an orange tie with purple flowers and singing the national anthem backwards, yes?

No he said kindly.

It was a nice thought though.

It was. And there’s another one coming up right behind you.

She turned and her arm brushed against the orange and green mug that said “World’s Greatest Sister” in sky blue lettering, and as it fell of the table in slow motion the room began to spin like a top on the asphalt and she wondered what next.

***

Am I in your way? said the great blue elephant sadly.

Not particularly she said.

Well that’s neither here nor there.

Well neither am I.

Yes but you’re in my way.

You might’ve just said so you know.

I was being polite said the great blue elephant with haughty gloom

I was not to the ill-manner born. And where I come from rights-of-passage are respected.

Rights-of-passage?

Yes. Gullible Girl before Great Blue Elephant, Great Blue Elephant before Godforsaken Treetoad, Godforsaken Treetoad before-

I think I understand.

You think you’re rather clever don’t you?

I didn’t say that!

Ah- but you thought it.

How do you know I’m gullible?

Well you’re here aren’t you.

I – I don’t know.

So you see- you’re not so clever after all.

You’re very unhappy.

Yes said the great blue elephant and burst into copious tears.

And what’s worse is you’re bored.

Unbridled Boredom said the great blue elephant passionately, is my middle name.

Not very catchy.

No. Frankly I’d prefer Hortensio.

Nice.

Isn’t it though?

You need to be meaningfully engaged.

To who tell? I asked the Love of my Life and she said Come back Tuesday.

When you’re not meaningfully engaged you start to spend vast quantities of time and thought on stuff that doesn’t matter or shouldn’t- and eventually you end up believing that you’re Unhappy.

Is that True?

I would never lie to you.

I need to be meaningfully engaged.

What’s stopping you?

Well- he stopped there sheepishly (and for a great blue elephant no small feat that.)

Oh- I see- I’m in your way.

The great blue elephant shot her a grateful look as she stepped aside. Bless you he said in Tamil tapping her head lightly with his long trunk and as he did so the ground gave way beneath her and she found herself falling.

Here we go again she said.

***

The girl in the mirror looked decidedly- cross.

What ever took you so long?

I didn’t know you were waiting.

That’s what they all say. Don’t you want to get to know yourself?

Yes.

Well then?

My mother told me never to talk to strangers.

How has that worked out for you?

More or less.

More. Or. Less?

Less.

Figures you know. If you don’t go within you go without.

So I’m too late?

As it happens you’re just in time. Come on In.

She took a step forward, tripped and fell through the silvery surface.

Well that’s one way of doing it said the girl in the mirror.

Quiet down you she said.

***

Are you looking for Jeffrey? said a creature looking most suspiciously like a Godforsaken Treetoad.

No.

I don’t think that’s true.

And who are you?

I’m Jeffrey.

I don’t think that’s true.

No it’s not said the creature and fell on his knees I’m just a Godforsaken Treetoad.

You ought to abandon your pretenses you know.

And would you take care of them if I did ?

Not so much.

Well then.

You can get up now.

Aren’t you going to knight me first?

I think no.

What good are you he said rising sulkily.

There’s nothing wrong with being a Treetoad.

Go away.

Treetoads are Real.

And that’s a good thing?

Yes.

Are Moose Real?

Yes.

What about Jeffrey?

Who’s Jeffrey?

I am said the oddly shaped piece of furniture in the corner, raising its head. And she realized then that it wasn’t an oddly shaped piece of furniture at all. It was a Moose.

You’re Jeffrey?

I could be.

What does that mean?

What do You mean?

I- I’m not sure yet.

Everyone said the Moose must mean something. To someone.

That’s what makes you Real.

You are very Real she said quietly.

And very Ugly said the Moose and he twinkled at her.

I think you’re Uncommonly Attractive said the Treetoad with schoolboy earnestness.

Let that be a lesson said the Moose.

To who? She asked

Whom corrected the Moose and abruptly disappeared taking the Treetoad with him.

She stood there for awhile. Mulling. And as she mulled the room turned into a giant chute and she was sliding down it faster than she could think down to the very Bottom of What Exactly she Did Not Know.

***

The back of the bus was rather bumpy, her head unexpectedly encountered the ceiling several times in the space of the first five minutes and as she rubbed its top rather ruefully the girl with the billion-bitty-braids said without looking at her, I hope you don’t mind I’ve taken the aisle.

Not at all she said.

I have to be able to see where we’re going or I feel sick she explained opening a Protein bar and proffering the part sticking over the top of the package.

Thanks she said taking a small bite wondering the while why she had never found it necessary to see where she was going when she was going anywhere and wondering if that was at all sane.

You know I was supposed to be visiting the Taj today said a voice somewhat pointedly from the other side of the girl with the billion-bitty-braids.

I thought this was your Day of Silence said the girl in the aisle seat her head still unturned.

No that was Thursday said the voice cheerfully.

It is Thursday.

That’s a bald-faced lie.

She leaned forward to see where emanated this voice from and thus encountered the rugged features of a young person wearing a shirt of sheer lavender and a faded blue lungi patterned with sarcastic looking elephants.

Are you very upset about the Taj? she inquired solicitously.

Devastated he said comfortably, dried cherries anyone? And he passed around a small bag of the jeweled fruit.

Where are you supposed to be? asked the girl with the billion-bitty-braids.

She summoned the word Home to her lips from where it was buried deep down inside her, but The Floating Islands got there first so when she opened her mouth that’s what fell out.

Over-rated said he who was supposed to be visiting the Taj.

So are Supposed-to-Bees said the girl in the aisle turning for a brief second to smile before her gaze whipped back to where they were all going. All that really matters is what IS.

Have to say I’m with her on that one he said.

And what Is- I mean are – you going to do now?

I’m going to get married.

How do you feel about that?

It’s Interesting.

Who’s the girl?

Manjula Subramaniaswamy. She’s from a village near a city called Madurai you probably haven’t heard of it.

Oh I’ve heard of it she said crushing a soursweet cherry between finger and thumb before streaking a vertical line of vermilion across his brow: Wish You a Happy Married Life.

Thank You Ma’am.

A friendly silence ensued. She chewed the red fruit thoughtfully and began to feel maybe there was some method to this madness after all.

I think now you should tell me a story, said the young person wearing the shirt of sheer lavender, fiancé of Manjula Subramaniaswamy from a small village near Madurai, and I think it should have feature: green sombreros and elephants.

She frowned trying to understand why this story sounded so strangely familiar to her. Just when she thought she might have it, the bus hit an exceptionally obnoxious speed breaker and she felt herself sailing out of her seat and right out the window.

***

The wind caught her easily, You’re a long ways from home young lady he said feigning sternness.

Where is your home? she asked feeling suddenly very sleepy.

Nowhere. Where’s yours.

Everywhere she said her eyes drifting shut.

Same Difference said the Wind softly without stopping.

***

We think you should wear this said the two salespersons in perfect unison pointing to a very minute overtly outlandish outfit hanging on the clothes rack in front of her.

What’s wrong with my sari? she said and then saw that it was coming all undone.

This will be more Comfortable, they continued still in chorus, and infinitely more Entertaining.

She surveyed the suggested costume skeptically.

Do you have that in red? she asked finally.

The salespersons smiled over her head at each other. One of them led her to a stool and said Forget the dress and sit down.

The other brought over a glass of cold milk and a plateful of cookies.

She gathered up as much of her trailing sari as she could and tucked it in at the waist belligerently. I detect a distinct air of condescension here she said. And I dislike it intensely.

There There chimed the salespersons soothingly. Don’t let us upset you child.

I am older than both of you she said stormily, and Three times as scandalous.

Scandalous? they fought a hard, desperate and losing battle against the kind and disbelieving laughter in their eyes.

So there was nothing left for her to do but stand up on the stool with the air of The Boy who Stood on the Burning Deck and flash forth the following in full voice:

When it feels like sin

Is extra thin

And you can through it see

It isn’t called a nightdress then-

It’s called a Negli-gee.

And then she looked around triumphantly challenging any living soul to stand up and declare she was anything less than outrageous, outlandish outfit or none. No one spoke, thus vindicated she moved to get off the stool her foot caught on her sari, the stool tipped and the room tilted dangerously.

***

Stop said a voice sternly. It was a girl dressed all in white save for a bright red patch sewed onto one pant leg munching popcorn out of a plastic bag.

So she stopped.

You need to quit running away said the girl authoritatively. This behavior is thoroughly unacceptable.

Running away from what?

From what you need.

I want. I don’t need.

More than anything else-

It’s a question of Greed.

Cute. But True? Not so much said the girl impassively and then impulsively- I’m like that too.

Like what?

An Escapegoat.

An Escapegoat?

That’s one word for it. Yes. Running bleating and frantic and foolish from-

From what?

Fate.

Fate?

That’s one word for it. Yes. So why do you cut and run?

When the heart of me to butter turns the tongue of me to stutter then the butterflies inside of me do flutter soft but rampantly they mutter most incessantly oh what an utter fool is she and I can only splutter not deny.

Poetry to postpone Pleasure?

Or put off Pain.

And how does that work for you?

Not so much. Can I ask a silly question?

Shoot.

What is happiness to you?

Laundry said the girl firmly Laundry, soap-scented, sun-faded, serenely flapping in a slight breeze on an old clothesline in someone’s backyard or sweetly waving like so many young lovers over paint-peeling balconies on a narrow sidestreet somewhere in Italy

Or like prayer flags on snow-tipped mountains where the air is diamond sharp and incense-sweet somewhere in southern Tibet?

Exactly.

I don’t want to run away from something like that.

Then don’t.

Remember: In every passing moment lies the chance to Turn it All Around.

That’s very wise. Did you make it up?

Actually I saw this movie once.

I need to start watching the right movies.

You need to start Turning it All Around said the girl with the red patch sewed onto one leg of her pants and even as she spoke the world started up into a slow whirl up and down and around and up and down and around and up and down and…like an irresistible carousel revolving to a faerytune on the misty fairground of a future that seemed at once impossibly near and impossibly far away.

***

I’m tired, said the Boy-Who-Didn’t-Particularly-Want-To-Ever-Grow-Up, sitting on green grass skipping small stones over the glass surface of a borderless bluegray sea.

Tired of what? she asked

Options. Too much. Too many. They give me headaches.

She thought about that for a long while.

Would you care to originate a sentiment? enquired the Boy somewhat dryly after what he deemed to be an inordinate interval of inconclusive silence.

Blow Wind Sun Shine Water Run Climb Vine Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Knowing Who and What You Are Knowing What You Have to Do Choiceless Lucky Ducks are you.

There you are he said The Freedom of the Fateless vs the Prison of Plural Possibility.

Boy?

Yesmm.

Choices concern and control mere Circumstances. Decisions don’t determine your Destiny.

And what does?

You do.

It’s the same deal.

Not Really. I once ate an entire bowl of Fortune Cookies.

Why?

Trying to find a Fate I liked.

And-?

All I got out of that was The Mother of All Stomachaches and a Realization.

That?

That it’s not so much about which cookie do I eat and how’s it going to crumble. It’s about okay so this is what’s on my platter irrespective of who dished it out and now I’m going to deal. And you can toy with it indefinitely, you can slip it to the dog when no one’s looking, you can maybe start a foodfight- or you can eat it with gratitude and find a way to grow through it with grace and humility and without harm maybe even helping a few people along the way and living to make a small difference somewhere. Sometime. Which could be Now, Tomorrow and All the days after.

All that just involves more decisions.

But you see the difference.

Almost.

Almost what?

Almost I thought you were going somewhere with the Fortune Cookie story, and he smiled engagingly and with the air of one who means no harm and much leg-pulling.

So she splashed a handful of the sea in his face.

Grow up he said laughing.

You first and she flipped some more saltwater in his general direction.

You and I she heard a voice say then, are going to rumble.

And it was just about here that she found herself being lifted up and bodily thrown into the briny bluegray of a borderless sea.

***

The man behind the counter looked up as she walked in. Don’t tell me he said, You need a sombrero.

I do?

Everyone does.

Where I come from she said, it is customary for one’s parents to pick out for one at the appropriate time an appropriate sombrero.

Inconceivable said the man behind the counter what a curious custom.

It’s true she said.

Tell me though, given a choice wouldn’t you much rather pick out a sombrero for yourself?

And just how would one set about doing that?

Well it’s a fairly straightforward procedure said the man behind the counter First you look around some and then you pick out the one that catches your eye. The one that speaks to you somehow.

A speaking sombrero?

Hypothetically speaking- yes.

Please continue.

So let’s say it’s a green sombrero-

With a good heart?

A green sombrero with a good heart. Is that important?

It’s important.

Well then- yes.

Please continue.

So you try it on and-

I like it. I keep it. And live Happily Ever After. I see how it works.

Not quite.

Not quite?

No. Because you haven’t yet seen the Red Sombrero or met the Blue one not to mention-

What’s wrong with the Green Sombrero?

Nothing but-

So why look at the Red or the Blue?

Because they might fit better.

And they might not.

True but-

So I might as well stick with the Green.

If you like but-

But what?

Then you’d never Really know.

How does one ever Really know?

There was a short silence.

I suppose one doesn’t ever Really said the man behind the counter slowly.

I don’t think that’s true.

How can you be so sure of things you know nothing about?

Because if some things aren’t True than nothing is.

A brief pause and then:

May I show you our selection of green sombreros Ma’am?

I don’t want a green sombrero.

No? the man behind the counter was beginning to sound a trifle confused.

I want a sombrero the color of night in the darkest hour before dawn, a sombrero star-spangled cloud-swathed and set with the crescent moon, a sombrero as constant and ever-changing as the summer sky. A sombrero that knows how to speak in silence, how to laugh and have a good time. A sombrero with a sense for the sublime- one that knows its own mind and can carpe the diem like none other.

Is that all?

Except for the bit about the good heart.

Because that’s important.

Right.

Yeah, we’re out of those smiled the man behind the counter, Sorry.

Doesn’t matter she said easily, I’d just as soon wait for one to fall on my head from heaven anyway.

Do you know you are full of the strangest ideas?

Yes. And do you know your left pupil is substantially larger than your right ?

Said Frederic and I quote Je le sais. Even as he spoke the dark center of the man behind the counter’s left eye began to spin very suddenly through the space between them and she realized suddenly and with a start that it was in truth a Frisbee and one that was moving very fast towards her indeed so she picked up her legs and jumped high to catch it which to her boundless astonishment she did only for some reason she couldn’t then come down but felt herself being lifted like Superman- Up Up and Away.

***

You again said a voice. And it was the Wind.

I think I’m falling she said.

Wouldn’t put it past you.

Either that or I’m flying.

I see how one might confuse the two and by the way right there that was sarcasm.

You know what my problem is?

They’ve found a name for it?

You can’t keep me Up. Or Down.

Is that a bad thing?

I don’t know. It’s interesting though.

That’s one word for it.

Vacations are Good things.

Have to say I’m with her on this one.

Any advice?

Don’t know that I have any worth giving.

I’m asking.

I won’t like any advice I have to give.

Ditch it then.

Done.

She was almost Home. And the Night was thick with all that had passed since she had jumped from her window what seemed like long ages ago.

What’s that you’re holding.

A Frisbee she started to say and then realized it wasn’t. Not anymore.

She opened her fingers and found a fistful of luminous pebbles irregular in shape and size. And in their depths shone strange and familiar images. A girl with a billion-bitty-braids and a bag of popcorn, a gecko’s green glare, lines of fresh laundry dappled in the sun of late afternoon, the trailing end of a sari, the very Real faces of the Moose who could be Jeffrey and the Godforsaken Treetoad who thought him Uncommonly Attractive…she tore her eyes away from the shifting silhouettes.

Fun Pearls she said softly, gratefully, just as they reached her window.

You’ve been an awesome support.

Was just standing around anyways- figured someone might as well lean on me said the Wind shrugging in his usual way. So when’s the next Vacation?

I don’t know. But I think next time I may want to go Ice-skating.

Ice-skating?

Yes. Because it’s the thing to do here you know, and I am told it requires a fine sense of balance, great agility, flawless co-ordination and natural grace talents I happen to possess in abundance and by the way right there- that was sarcasm.

Ice-skating it is then.

And all this is a lesson for you.

How is this a lesson for me?

It just is.

All right then he said, Platonic hi-five?

Platonic hi-five.

And as she put a hand up against the palm of the wind the sudden scent of jasmine wafted across the world.

***

Epilogue

All alone in the still silence of that night, leaning over the window sill and into the darkness, she gathered all her strength into one arm and unfurled her clenched fist like a flag in the moonlight flinging the soft white pearls far and wide across a vastness of sky where they stuck hard and fast- and where they remain to this day–to witness if I lie.

 

 

 

 

 


Redeeming Qualities

Fiction scraps

M is always making disparaging remarks about her husband in front of dinner guests. But she has never once complained about being the sole caretaker or her invalid, and live-in mother-in-law, whose three daughters, though well-settled and in the same town, have never offered to have their mother stay with them. Not even for a weekend. R is is an incurable snoop who turns eavesdropping into a high art. She reads other people’s emails when they are away from their desks, and asks prying questions of private people with all the delicacy of a chainsaw. But she never passes a homeless person on the street without stopping to give them something to eat. C has an explosive temper and a dagger sharp tongue. He regularly reduces the people in his life to tears. Even telemarketers. But he would lay his life down for his dog who is old and very sick. Sometimes the dog falls asleep with his head on C’s feet, while C is reading in his easy chair. On those nights C sleeps sitting up because he doesn’t want to disturb the dog. T is incredibly pompous and overbearing. He is always interrupting people and never bothers to learn anyone’s name. He hasn’t had a real conversation since the turn of the century when his company went public. But he is single-handedly, and anonymously funding the education of all the little girls in the village he grew up in. Because his mother, who died when he was young, always told him how much she regretted not being able to read and write.