Categories
Stories

The Cockatoo

By Revathi Ganeshsundaram

A Cockatoo. Courtesy: Creative Commons

She moved softly towards the edge of the balcony and stood there for a moment looking at the well-kept garden below. She could see an old man sitting on a bench, leaning heavily on one armrest, and she smiled in aesthetic pleasure at the picturesque contrast his grey shirt and trousers made with the dark brown wood on which he was seated and the sea of bright green grass that surrounded him. A row of colourful parakeets dotted the back of the garden seat and its other armrest in an uncannily equidistant arrangement, thereby completing the scenic view.

Although the old man was facing away from her, she was struck by his drooping shoulders and the overall impression he gave, of flagging hope. What ailed him?

Was he a convalescing patient, or an anxious relative? Was it a sick spouse he was waiting on, or an injured grandchild?With a pang, she thought: Is it a birth that awaits him, or…?

So many questions!

She sighed, a little disappointed that she would not be here when the answers came, in their own sweet time.

Something large and white swooped down just then, and she saw that it was a cockatoo, eagerly pecking at something in the as-yet dewy lawn, and as she watched, she saw two more alight nearby. She vaguely remembered reading something mystical about these birds but could not recall exactly.  

Some distance away, a rather ugly turkey waddled onto the scene, and she could not stop herself from thinking that it somehow spoilt the pretty picture-postcard effect. She smiled then, a little guiltily. Who was she to judge?

Someone had left a wheelchair out here, which was rather strange, given that they always seemed short of wheelchairs when you asked for one. Although she no longer needed it, she felt an urge to go over and seat herself in the rather abandoned-looking contraption. That was when she realised that there was something wrong with one of its wheels. No wonder it was not in use right now!

But it was still most disorganised of housekeeping to have left it out on the balcony, she thought as she settled herself in it, anyway.

It was so calm and peaceful out here in the early morning and she was glad of the solitude. Before long, there would be bedlam in the ward, but for now, she was on her own.

So quiet, so strange. Nothing had prepared her for this – it was really, so very peaceful.

And yet, why did she have this unfulfilled feeling, this one unchecked item in her bucket list?

Could it be that she had wanted it too much? Perhaps, she had wished too hard.

What was it they said – Let it go, then it will come to you? Perhaps she had never really let go…

She sighed again. Nothing to complain about, after all. A good husband, although he had died many years back, may he rest in peace. Good sons, who were taking turns looking after her. Why, even now, one of them was sleeping soundly back in the room, exhausted no doubt, by the several night-time interruptions that he uncomplainingly stayed awake to attend.

Her eldest. Her heart went out to him. She wished she could tell him that she had not meant to be a bother, that she had not wanted to trouble any of them. But they had never really been good at expressing feelings to each other.

Well, things would be all right. Eventually.

She was aware of the stranger’s arrival on the balcony even before she saw him. She let him stand there for a moment and get his bearings before she turned to acknowledge his presence with a smile. He smiled back.

It felt as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

He leaned over the railings to look down into the garden and she too turned to look again at the bench below. The old man was now rising from his seat, using the armrest to propel himself into a standing position while resting his weight on a stick. She noticed that his walking aid had a clawed foot with four prongs. It was strange that she could count them from this distance, but she supposed it was one of the perks of her situation.

On the man’s stirring from his hitherto statue-like posture, the parakeets on the bench took flight and rose into the air as one, like a multicoloured festoon on an invisible string. How pretty!  

Her companion on the balcony had turned around now and with his back against the railings, was looking at her. She gazed back at him serenely and they smiled at each other once more. It seemed that no words were needed.

But it would still be nice to talk.

Almost as if he read her thoughts, he said, “It’s so peaceful, isn’t it?”

She nodded, raising her eyebrows in agreement.

“What a contrast…!” he continued, gesturing with a circular motion of his hand towards the inside of the building and indicating a lower floor. “I mean, down there…”

She understood.

“Heart attack?” she queried gently.

It might have seemed a terribly rude question to anyone listening, especially since they were her very first words to a total stranger – her sons would certainly be horrified if they knew – but she was over eighty and old age brought with it certain privileges that the young could never understand.

He did not seem to mind, anyway, as she had known he would not. He raised his fist in a thumbs-up gesture and smiled at her again. Such a sweet smile he had, too.

“And you?” he asked.

“Well, just old age – all sorts of little complications… That is how it starts, you know.”

He looked doubtfully at her. “You don’t look that old to me – I mean, really – I’m not just flattering you…”

It was interesting that he could blush, even now.

She laughed. “I’m eighty,” she said and at his look of surprise, went on with a smile, “I believe you – that you are not flattering me – people always said I was very well-preserved…!”

He snorted. “What an expression! Sounds as though they’re referring to a bottle of pickles!”

She laughed again and looked at him with interest. “You can’t be above sixty-five yourself…”

He cast a sidelong glance at her, looking both pleased and self-conscious as he replied, “I’m seventy-two.”

They smiled again. It was such a comfortable feeling, this camaraderie with a perfect stranger. And yet, it did not feel like he was a stranger at all.

“What kept you?” she asked. Another strange question it would seem, to any eavesdropper, but to him it made perfect sense.

“The doctor would not let me go,” he said. “A very conscientious young chap… It was awful to see the look on his face – I felt I had let him down…”

She nodded. It was ironic that one tended to feel sorry for the people who left, when it was those left behind who needed sympathy. Her thoughts went to her sons, and then she wondered about her companion.

“Who do you have here with you?” she asked, a little curiously.

He coughed in embarrassment. “Nobody, really. A neighbour brought me here, and I guess my friends will be in sooner or later…”

“I’m sorry.” She really was. She thought again of her two lovely sons and was grateful.

She looked away through the railings and was once more impressed by the scene before her: It was as if someone had daubed bright streaks of paint onto a green canvas – a few large and white, and several smaller ones of varied hues – only, none of those spots of colour were still; some of them took wing even as she watched.

She was aware all the while that he was glancing at her on and off, so she was not surprised when he asked again, “And you?”

There was the faintest trace of anxiety in his voice, and she thought she caught a flash of jealousy in his dark eyes before he looked quickly away.

“My elder son is here with me now. He’s the more responsible one though he hates to show his affection openly…” She smiled with a mixture of fondness and regret as she thought of their most recent disagreement. She had not wanted to be hospitalised, but then she became so sick that she no longer had any say in the matter.

Looking back now — all those arguments seemed such a waste of time. And life. Or perhaps both were the same.

She looked up to see him listening intently and went on, “The younger one is more talkative and has been keeping me amused during the day – he should be here too, shortly…”

She waited a moment to hear the unspoken question she knew he was bursting to ask, but he was silent. Taking pity on him, she decided to answer it for him, “My husband is no more. He died many years ago.”

“Oh – I am sorry…” he said in genuine contrition.

She spread her hands philosophically. “It is okay, it was a long while ago. And I suppose we were just two good people blundering along together…”

He looked sharply at her then and she went on, “Somehow, we didn’t really connect – otherwise, he would be with me now, don’t you think?”

He looked down at his feet, his hands on the railing behind him. “My wife and I divorced a good many years back…” He coughed again. “I never really wanted to try again after that.”

She nodded. “You were waiting, but nothing ever happened.”

He glanced up at her in surprise. “You understand?”

She smiled, then. “I waited all my life.”

Perhaps it was something in her voice, or maybe it was the way she tilted her head when she looked at him. Nevertheless, that was when the shock of realisation hit him. He kept staring at her speechlessly until she asked gently, “What kept you?”

This time her meaning was different, yet he understood her perfectly. He came forward eagerly then, and reaching down, took her hands in his.

“I don’t know, I’m not sure… Was it Fate?!”

Their eyes met fully for the first time. Such dark eyes, a lifetime of longing. And his smile – the sweetest thing she had ever seen.

Behind them, the ward was coming to life. She thought she could discern sounds of panic, some sort of a flurry.

“Shall we?” he asked, still holding her hands. She rose from the wheelchair, but then could not resist turning to look towards the rooms.

“Don’t,” he said, gently. “If you do, he will feel your pain and be haunted by it for the rest of his life.”

“How do you…?” she began, but he answered in anticipation, “My mother. I felt it for years afterwards…”

She wavered in indecision, saying wistfully, “If only they could know how peaceful it is, it would not hurt them so much…”

He nodded then, but said again, firmly, “He will be all right – they both will. You’ll see.”

Just a while back, she had been amused by his boyish jealousy. And now, he seemed so much wiser than she. Perhaps, age and time and space meant nothing hereafter?

A large white bird flew up and landed expertly on the balcony railing. As it gazed boldly at them, she suddenly remembered what she had read and felt a strange compulsion to reach out and touch it.

“Don’t! You could lose a finger…!” he cried out, and then they both laughed at the absurdity of it.

She reached out, and the cockatoo – that symbol of light, and change, and of the end of the tunnel – fluttered up and seemed to rest lightly for a moment on her outstretched arm. Then it took off, and as they watched, it flew upwards towards the trees and out of their sight.

“Shall we?” he asked again, and this time, she was sure. They smiled at each other, the sweetest smiles, and it was the most natural thing in the universe.

.

Revathi Ganeshsundaram finds the written word therapeutic and loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling in poetry. Her work has been published in Borderless Journal, Kitaab, Literary Yard, and Readomania

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Of Days and Seasons

 A parable by Louis Couperus (1863-1923), translated from Dutch by Chaitali Sengupta

The forest was somber, and the air dark; it was a long night without the solace of the stars, it seemed to sink into infinity, sink deep into all that was mortal in this world. It was at a time like this when the young boy woke.

He was a boy of some years, and he did not remember anymore, whether he was lost or abandoned in that forest, because he had slept for such a stretching length of time. Shuddering, his eyes large and full of fear, he looked around himself. But the way forward was lost behind him.

“Where am I,” the little boy thought, in that soul-shattering darkness. “And who am I and where am I to go…”

A vague remembrance stole upon him, a memory of shimmering light and warmth. Like a weeping, wafting out of the warm sun palace. But more than the weeping, he remembered nothing much. Now, fully awake, he became aware of being alone, abandoned, lost in a forest of horror.

The very thought made the little boy cry out in childish despair. The fear of beasts and that of robbers assailed him. Then, he saw a silvery twilight moving across towards him, in silence. Was it the wild man, he wondered? In his deep consciousness, the thought rose death-like. His little heart throbbed wildly in his throat and his small eyes bulged out in terror.

Soon, he realized the beaming twilight, that glided on his way, was not the wild man; it was a white woman.

The little boy, in the twinkling of an eye, thought he recognized her: a woman, very white, the kind of white woman he liked. With mingled fear and expectation, the little boy ran up to her.

“White lady!” he begged, folding his hands in a gesture of prayer that perhaps he had been taught in the sun palace, many, many years ago.

Tall and slender, the white woman’s veils were the whitest white, flashing against the gloomy, dark depths of the forest. She bent over the child, and her gaze caught him through her veils; her white hands were briefly extended, as if she wanted to see better; better, with her deep dark eyes, as deep as the black, shadowy forest.

“White lady!”, the child pleaded again.

“Who are you, my child?” asked the white woman. Her voice sounded primeval, thick and dark. “And where have you come from and where are you going?”

The small boy began to cry again; the woman’s voice frightened him, and he did not know who he was, where he had come from, or even where he was going…

“Come with me then”, said the white woman gravely, and she stretched out her hand to him. The little boy held out his hand to her too, and went beside her, with weeping eyes.

“Don’t cry anymore,” said the white lady. “Hold my hand safely, let me lead you: do not be afraid. In this forest, there are no beasts or robbers.”

The child felt a gentle trust wash over him, especially now that the cold hands of the white lady were warmed by his own small, warm one, but he still stumbled very often, and his short legs grew tired soon.

“Then, let me carry you, my dear.” Saying so, she lifted the child to her breast and held him very lightly between her white veils: her footfalls were light, floating, like unheard-of steps. In her arms, the child fell asleep and dreamed of the sunshine and white women, and also of white children. She walked on.

 When he awoke, the child smiled and peered into the dark depths of her eyes.

“You are a good white lady, aren’t you?” asked the child, as confidence sparkled in him. He wrapped his little arms around her neck.

“Yes,” said the white woman. “I am a good white lady, my child.”

 “Are you not tired of carrying me, good white lady?”

“No, my child, I am not tired. I never rest, I always go.”

  “Always?”

 “Always.”

  “Through the whole forest?”

 “Through the whole forest. See, the morning breaks magnificently, through the branches, and the way ahead seems clearly visible.”  

 “Now I can walk again, white lady.”

The white lady put him down, carefully on his feet, and wrapped herself closer in her veils. The child walked on beside her, happy now that all the mystery of the night had been resolved in the smile of the morning.

“Oh!” cried the child; “See what a beautiful flower that is!”

“And there, what a beautiful butterfly!”

 “Oh!” said the child joyfully. “I would like to have them, the butterfly and the flower.”

 “I shall give you the butterfly and the flower,” said the white lady; “but then, you must also give me something in return.”

“And what can I give you, white lady?”

“In lieu of the butterfly and the flower, my child, you must give me this morning hour.”

 “Oh, beautiful is the flower, and beautiful is the butterfly: oh, white lady, I gladly give you this morning hour, in return!”

The white lady smiled. With a mysterious, dark look she looked at the child.

Then she caught the butterfly in her veil and bent over the precipice to pluck the blue flower. She offered both to the child, who rejoiced with happiness.

 “O white lady, O white lady,” the happy child spoke out in joy. “How happy I am with my flower and my butterfly!”

But in his joy, the boy squeezed the butterfly to death and the flower withered in his little hand. “Oh, but how soon, O white lady, is my flower wilted and my butterfly died!”

 “But dear child, butterflies do not live long, especially not in the hands of children, and flowers wither even faster. But if you give me this new day of spring, I will bring up thousands of butterflies and thousands of flowers, by magic, all along your path today.”

“A thousand of butterflies and flowers! Oh, white lady, for so many flowers and butterflies, I will gladly give you my day in spring.”

Now the glowing sun had completely burst forth, and the forest no longer wore a black garment; it sparkled with golden-green spring. And along the shining road, the child walked in springtime, and picked the blooming flowers and caught the colorful butterflies, for they bloomed and fluttered all along the road.

But by evening, the flowers had wilted, and all the butterflies were dead.

“Still, it was a lovely spring day,” said the cheerful child, now with sleepy eyes. Exhausted, he wrapped his arms around the white lady and slept on her heart, between her ephemeral white veils.

Night fell, the white lady walked on, and in the depths of her shadowy eyes, a peal of wistful laughter broke quietly. “But that glorious spring day is now mine!” murmured she, in a nameless, deep, dark voice.

The white lady took the little boy to the city, among other people and children. The child grew up there. He became big and strong among those he assumed were his parents, his brothers, and sisters, relatives, and friends.

Many seasons later, the white lady appeared to him again. The white lady of his yesteryears, the one whom he had forgotten completely. Now, her deep dark eyes frightened him, even though he was now a young man of eighteen.

“My son,” the white lady called him. “I have not forgotten you.”

“I was ungrateful, white lady,” confessed the young man. “You saved me, a lost and forsaken child, from the gloomy forest of night And, you gave me butterflies and flowers.”

“Yes, thousands of butterflies… in exchange for one spring day!”

“Yes… thousands… for one day in spring. You brought me to the city, and I found my parents.”

“And they fed you and cared for you until you became a man, my son, a young man of eighteen. But don’t you remember, the promise? What returns would you give me now?”

“Oh, yes, white lady, I remember very well. A spring day in exchange for the butterflies and flowers. I also remember the eighteen spring seasons of my life, which you demanded to bring me into the city where I could be with my parents, and they would raise me with my brothers and sisters, and with my relatives and friends.”

“If you still remember that promise, my son, the white lady is now content… And she’s happy. In exchange of just eighteen, withering spring seasons, you have received youth and a youthful time of pure happiness.”

“But now, white lady, my happiness is over, and I am bitter with grief,” cried the young man. “For I love a girl as beautiful and as soulful as no other girl in the world, and I should like to call her my wife. But alas! She does not love me. I have but little possessions and one among them is my anguish, that I cry out on my violin.”  

“My son, you know how much I love you. If you can give me, no more than twenty blooming summers of your life, I will gladly give you happiness, a consort, and money. Twenty blooming summers, in exchange for the bride, and the gold that will make you great among men. Do not lament in music anymore; music must fill the void and is more transient and rarer than what I’ve asked of you…. Your spring days and summer months…”

“But music has comforted me, white lady.”

“Yes, live happily then, my son,” said she. “Be happy with what I give you, with your bride and the money…”

“Oh, white lady, oh white lady, for so much I’d willingly give all my blooming summers to you!”

The white lady looked with deep dark eyes at the young man, and she did not come back in years.

The young man married the lady of his dreams, the one whom he desired much, and as the years slowly turned, he attained prestige, wealth and power, until the war erupted. Then, the country was in turmoil, and the smoke of crumbling, burning cities darkened the sky and the horizon.

The white woman appeared to her foster son for the third time. She looked terrible to him. Her face was lean and sunken, her arms bony and her outstretched hand, threatening.

“O white lady, O white lady,” exclaimed the man, full of passion. Worries had already wrinkled his face; pride was scorching his soul. “Years ago, you offered me happiness in exchange for twenty summers of my life. But I never found happiness… Like the flower and the butterfly, my love died and wilted, and my wealth never brought any joy. Now I only wish to be very powerful, for if I attain supremacy, that must surely bring happiness. I wish for a crown that would sit on my temple.”

“Foster son,” said the white lady, “my dear child, I never forgot you: if you will give me in exchange for the crown of this land, fifty purple autumn seasons of your life, I will cause a happy outcome in the war; it would make you the king of this land.”

The ambitious man hastily accepted the exchange, and a terrible battle raged for seven days. The battlefields were strewn with corpses: death seemed to reign supreme. The foster son of the white lady took a sword in his hand, fought fiercely in the front lines, and a mysterious power seemed to protect him and make him invincible in the heat of the war. He, at the head of the troops of the country, gained the victory, and they pressed the crown on his head.

He grew old under the weight of that crown, until war raged again, and rebellion broke out. Deserted by all his people, he fled the land half-naked, feeling miserable. He reached the same gloomy forest, collapsed there, where he had been once found as an abandoned boy by the white lady.

Old and dejected, he lay down in the twilight of the sinking evening, when she appeared before him, looking like a terror: gray hair fanned out around her face, which grinned like a skull; and now, she had hollow eyes.

“O white lady, O white lady,” cried the unhappy king.  “You thought to gift happiness to me with this crown. You turned the war in my favor, in exchange for fifty purple autumn seasons of my life. But this crown has only brought me trouble, nothing else. I’ve never known happiness, except perhaps for that very first day of spring, when you conjured up butterflies and flowers for me! And yet I considered you to be my life! Why have you been so cruel? O white woman, O white lady! Now that I lie here, feeling miserable, abandoned, I beg of you. You who are so powerful, please bring a glimpse of happiness and life, to my poor suffering subjects, to my children… in whichever form it may be, flower, butterfly, bride, gold, or crown…”

“O my son, O my son!” raved the white lady. “You’ve always been ungrateful.  You’ve cared neither for the flower, nor for the butterfly, nor bride or wealth, not even for the crown. But if you give me this last icy winter hour, well then, I’ll grant your children and your subjects life, and a glimpse of happiness.”

Helping him stand up, she led him on. Sobbing now, he entrusted his last winter hour to her. And she led him to a monument, whose bronze door she opened out for him.

“Get in there,” she said threateningly now. “So that I may receive everything: all the days of spring, summer and autumn, and also the last hour of winter: all that you have promised me, in exchange for my countless favors.”

The old king stumbled and staggered.

“But… but… this is a tomb!” he said, looking at the monument.

“This is a king’s tomb,” she corrected him. “Tomorrow your praise singers, O son, will engrave upon it, the words of glory, glorifying you for eternity. Get in there now, so that I may receive what you owe me.”

And she held open the bronze doors for him.

“Were you not my life then?” asked the King, on the threshold of the sepulcher. “Oh, tell me… Aren’t you, my life?

“No,” said the white lady gloomily.  “I was never your life. I am not Life. I am Death.”

And she pointed him to go inside.

He obeyed; slowly, she turned the bronze door, which creaked in heavy hinges.

“And my life?” asked the old king in a begging voice, anxious, as he peered through the still open crack of the slowly closing tomb door.

The white lady said more softly, “You’ll get your life, but only when you have paid me your debt of the days and the seasons…

Then she closed the door, for thousands of years.

Louis Couperus (1863-1923) is one of the foremost figures in Dutch literature. His oeuvre contains a wide variety of genres, including lyrics, poetry, short stories, fairy tales and historical novels. Over Lichtende Drempels (About luminous thresholds) is a collection of four fairy tales and an accompanying story by Couperus. Published in November 1902 by LJ Peat, in Amsterdam, “Of Days and Seasons” (Van dagen en seizoenen) is a parable from this collection.

Chaitali Sengupta is a writer, translator, a language teacher, and a volunteer journalist from the Netherlands. Her first prose-poem collection Cross-stitched Words was published in February, 2021. Her published works also include two translations “Quiet whispers of our heart” and “A thousand words of heart”.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Flash Fiction: Turret

By Niles M Reddick

When J.T. Morgan stood on the deck surrounding the circular turret room on top of the Jekyll club hotel to smoke a cigar as the sun rose, he didn’t notice the shrimp boat passing through the East River into Jekyll Sound before it worked the Atlantic coastline, and he didn’t see young Elliot Gould leaving the family cottage to pick Cherokee roses for his grandmother. What Morgan did see in his mind’s eye over and over was his daughter Julia on the ground below, blood flowing from her mouth onto the grass and her white summer dress stained.

Whether she jumped because of her father’s refusal to allow her to marry Elliot or whether she slipped on the iron railing was never known, but for Morgan and other parents they’d known who lost a child, it’s a blow like none other, and after construction of his own cottage was completed, he never stayed in the turret again. He’d told his wife Ann he awoke from a dream where he’d seen Julia looking down, tracing the shell wallpaper in the turret with her pointer finger, circling the turret, and disappearing through the door. Then, he’d seen her circling the Jekyll Club grounds and then out toward the dirt road that circled the island, repetitive circular movements like the design of a conch shell and the universe.

Morgan’s overwhelming pain led him to befriend the teen Elliot and even offer him a position in the banking industry, even though he knew the senior Gould wanted him to stick with the railroad industry. Morgan knew that industry would fade over time, that the Wrights were onto something with their attempted flights, and Morgan had opted to invest in technology rather than the railroad. Elliot politely declined but invited Morgan to accompany him on an island hunting trip the next morning where they’d check Elliot’s racoon traps near Driftwood Beach.

As they stepped around the palmetto and sago palms and fanned the Spanish moss draping oaks from their faces, Elliot spotted his trap highlighted by the morning light.  “Look,” he whispered to Morgan. “I’ve got one.”

“Excellent, chap.”

“Stay back. I don’t want to ruin his pelt with a shot.”

Elliot crept forward, took the butt of his rifle and raised it high, and swiftly brought it down onto the head, killing the racoon instantly, but when he propped the butt of the gun on his boot to pull the dead racoon from the trap, the gun discharged right into his abdomen, and the young Elliot simply said, “Oh, no.”

Morgan left the gun and racoon and scooped Elliot and moved through the island brush as quickly as he could. He scraped his face, he sweated profusely, and his heart pounded and throbbed in his throat. He reached the Gould cottage and repeatedly kicked the door with his boot.

“Dear God,” Mrs. Gould shrieked from behind her servant when he opened the door. She called to her other servant, “Help me.” They placed young Elliot on the daybed in the drawing room, tried to stop the gushing blood, and tried to get a call out on the new phone line, but it didn’t work as well as it had when Bell had made the first transatlantic call from Jekyll. They sent for the mainland doctor. The servant stood by the grandfather clock’s pendulum in the foyer, ready to stop it the moment Elliot passed, but Elliot’s youth and stamina won. Morgan told the servant, “Get away from that clock. He’s not going anywhere.” 

“At least he’s still with us,” he whispered to himself on the way back to tell his wife about the events. Ann stood on the balcony of the turret wringing her hands after one of the Jekyll Club’s employees shared there had been a hunting accident. She couldn’t lose him, too, but she had no need for fear. She was reassured when Morgan was back, and they later heard the doctor had removed the bullet, sewed Elliot’s wound, and gave him medicine to help heal. That night, Morgan dreamed of Julia circling the turret, the club grounds, and the island until she circled up into the night sky toward a distant star.

Niles Reddick is the author of a novel, two collections, and a novella. His work has been featured in nineteen anthologies, across twenty-one countries, and in over four hundred publications including The Saturday Evening Post, PIFBlazeVoxNew Reader MagazineCitron Review, and The Boston Literary Magazine. Website: http://nilesreddick.com/

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Captain Andi is in love

By Dr. P Ravi Shankar

The bubbly lyrics of Bobby McFerrin’s song ‘Don’t worry be happy’ filled the room. Andi was awakened from his slumber and slowly opened his eyes. He glanced at the clock by the bedside. Five a.m. Still dark outside. He had a virtual clinical exam later that morning. Early to bed and early to rise in the good old armed forces tradition was always mentioned by his mentor. Though with the heavy course workload and multiple assignments on most days he did not hit the bed before 11 pm.

His artificial intelligence (AI) mentor carefully monitored his academic progress. He was a straight A student and had done very well through the duration of the course, which was partially done. He was doing an accelerated curriculum and was expected to graduate in about two years. After his morning ablutions, his home robot came with a steaming hot cup of coffee. Dark and strong just the way he liked it. The robot checked his physical parameters. There were several sensors implanted in his body monitoring in real-time his physical parameters. Everything seemed normal and there was no cause for alarm.

He was one of the twenty students who had joined the undergraduate medical program at the Armed Forces medical school a year ago. He was inducted at the rank of Captain. Now the army and other organisations did not require many doctors. AI systems did most of the work of diagnosing and treating patients. AI was ubiquitous and omnipresent. Systems drove trucks, public transportation, private transportation, flew planes, did all menial jobs, carried out all secretarial and clerical jobs and took care of and educated human children. He had a special interest in human history and recalled the history lessons he had taken at school. During the mid-twenty-first century AI began to dominate life and most humans had slowly but steadily lost their jobs. Some were able to retrain and readapt and started helping in building and educating AI systems. The wars and the heating of the planet had reduced the liveable land. Human population steadily decreased for the first time in several centuries.

Frequent pandemics had become a regular part of life. Or rather was it the same pandemic which never really went away? A certain degree of control and protection was afforded by vaccines, but the virus had become endemic. Humans were resilient and had adapted to the new normal. New strains were isolated regularly, and these required a new set of vaccines to be developed and another round of vaccination. Luckily vaccines were edible these days and incorporated in tasty fruits like bananas.

Maya was his classmate. A perky and slender dark-haired girl, she never failed to cheer him up. He would be meeting her in about an hour. He read through his notes and prepared for the day ahead. He had a special interest in cyborgs and in enhancement of human function. Medicine had developed so much since the Middle Ages. He would be having a class on the ethics of incorporating AI systems in medicine in the morning by Prof Kim. He enjoyed Prof Kim’s sessions. All sessions these days were virtual except the ones on clinical skills. Most patients interacted with their doctors virtually. The sensors implanted on each human meant changes could be identified early and diseases addressed at the incipient stage. He and his fellow students and the teacher interacted virtually using a mix of extended reality and holographic images. The world had shifted online.

The world was a huge web. The internet of things. Devices and persons communicated constantly. Life was good, was it not? Why did he get the creepy feeling that he was being monitored all the time? Was he ever really alone? His father had made a fortune building sea walls and protecting coastal cities from the rising seas. The sea level had risen by over two feet and sea walls were a necessity. The Dutch were the masters and had made a huge fortune keeping the world from drowning. Human germ cell DNA editing was routine — both to eliminate deadly genetic diseases and to enhance human capabilities.  

Nearly everyone had some sort of enhancements done to their body to improve their hearing, vision, physical endurance, and immunity among other things. Surviving in the hostile world without an enhanced immune system was impossible. Occasionally he got together physically with his batchmates in the informal learning spaces the college provided. They were an even split. Ten humans with enhancements and ten living AI machines. Life had taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of machine life.

Machine life had several advantages. They were stronger, had almost superhuman powers and were immune to the viruses and other microbes in the air. Occasionally some parts needed to be replaced or some enhancements carried out. They did not need to sleep, and neither were they ever bored and unfocused. In medicine the machines had anthropomorphic features. They looked like humans and from their external appearance only it had become difficult to know if someone was a machine or a human.

Humankind was pursuing immortality. Most lived nearly three hundred years. Rich individuals could download their memories into AI systems and become immortal. The memories could be slowly downloaded at intervals into a developing human and a person could live life both in the virtual and the real worlds. Dr Cerson was a famous surgeon of the twentieth century, and his memories were being slowly downloaded into Captain Andi. Cerson’s ‘soul’ had passed through several human bodies during the ensuing centuries learning and adapting to the brave new world in the process. Surgery today was fully robotic and used an army of micro and nano-bots to carry out the procedure precisely and with nearly no tissue damage.

Maya was a humanoid — machine life. He recalled the day she had told him about herself in the college cafeteria. She knew he was developing tender feelings for her. Machines were built to detect and respond to human emotions. Human-machine intimate relationships were not expressly forbidden but neither were they encouraged by the government. There were a host of problems though the machines were built to be empathetic and kind to humans. The machines did not require sleep, no babies resulted from the relationship and one of the partners was immortal. He had given a lot of thought to these issues but eventually decided to go ahead with his relationship with Maya. He would be moving into her house in a week so that they could sync forces and optimise performance. He started humming the opening lyrics of the classic love song sung by George Benson ‘Nothing’s gonna change my love for you’ as he got dressed for his trip to the college cafeteria and coffee with Maya.

.

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

The Road to Nowhere

Translated from Odiya by the author, Satya Misra

Like every city or village, every road too has a character of its own. The road which has spread out its clumsy, uncouth body here, aiming to touch some distant point in the south of town, has no character to speak of.  It is ugly and chaotic. It has let its coarse surface to be abused daily by scores of vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, rallies, wedding processions, hearses and more. Humans and their automobiles mingle with stray cattle and dogs in a sad spectacle of urban confusion. Pedestrians have surrendered their right of walking to assorted vendors whose unauthorised shops have blocked the footpath. Anybody bold enough to walk on the remaining part of road is under constant threat of being hit by vehicles zooming past in both directions.  

Our protagonist here is not the road but a person walking alone on the road. His name is Narottam Chowdhury. His destination and intent are both extremely unusual. Tragic and extreme too. He is on his way to commit suicide by jumping before a moving train. He is aware that the road on which he is walking doesn’t touch the train line, so he has planned to leave this road and enter into a narrow lane on the right side after about half a mile.  The lane ends at a shrubbery which has the look and feel of a small jungle. He will find his way through the bushes to the open expanse where he will find two silvery lines of steel on which the trains pass. He has no idea where these two parallel train lines originate and where they end. Narottam will throw himself in front of a passing train today, which he has planned meticulously. This is going to be his last walk on this road. This same road may be used to bring his mangled, lifeless body from the railway track, possibly in an ambulance, after an hour or two.

He has been contemplating suicide for a long time. Once he had accidentally blurted it out before a few friends, but couldn’t come up to the stage of actual implementation. Although almost five long years had lapsed since that date, he was still hanging on to his meaningless life shamelessly. But he was determined to accomplish the task today. His life was becoming unbearable with every passing day. He was not so immature as to die just to honour his word. He had to die because he was unable to live the life available to him.

He gently touched his chest while walking, but not to check his heartbeat, which is steady. He wanted to ensure that his cell phone was intact in his chest pocket. He was not in favour of carrying this device up to the point of death, but realised afterwards that it was an essential accessory for anyone dying outside home or hospital. A phone in the pocket of a fresh corpse would quicken the intimations to his kin. The body would get identified fast. He had also placed a neatly folded note in his pocket which contains just the basic information about himself, including relevant phone numbers. It would come in handy for the finders of his body. He wasn’t too sure if either the cell phone or the paper can be salvaged from the mangled corpse, but it would  always be  better to carry both in order to improve chances. He also carried some money in his pocket. His spectacles were in place on his nose. His old wrist watch stayed at its rightful place, his left wrist. These were the only earthly possessions he was carrying with him, apart from the modest clothes he was wearing. The noisy erratic traffic on the road did not bother him. He did not mind being hit today by a passing vehicle on the road, although he will be terribly disappointed if the accident left him maimed but not dead. It would be very difficult to plan a decent suicide again if he wer maimed.

Did he hear something? Some vague distant voice seemed to reach him in spite of the din and bustle of the busy road. He would have dismissed it as a disturbance in his own mind, but it actually sounded like some announcement through a microphone. Had he been caught? His secret exposed? A public announcement asking people to capture Narottam before he did something foolish? He chuckled at his own silly thought.

How could anyone even guess what he was up to? He had been extremely careful; knowing well that even the slightest slip from his side could abort the mission. True, he had once blurted it out before four friends; but that was five years ago.  He had let his intent slip in a moment of carelessness, purely by accident. He was neither hungry for sympathy nor did he want to deliver a shock. His announcement had not jolted anybody. Nor had anyone asked him to desist from such misadventure. They just asked him not to blabber like a mad man and veered away from the topic which, in their judgement, didn’t merit any further attention. Narottam wonders whether any of those friends still recalled his intent. Or perhaps, they were silently waiting to see whether Narottam really meant what he had said.  

He was satisfied that during the half hour since he left home, not for a moment did he waver or vacillate in his resolve. Sometime back, he had stopped briefly at a stall selling hot snacks on the pavement. A sweaty man with a balding forehead was passing on hot samosas on round paper plates while collecting cash with remarkable speed and efficiency. Narottam stood and watched silently as balls of yellowish brown dough, with fillings of cooked potato, were moulded into tiny pyramids and dipped in a cauldron of boiling oil perched on a huge hissing stove. The samosas were allowed to sizzle and dance in oil a few minutes before a large slotted spoon would fish them out and heap in a basket, for onward transmission to the paper plates. The entire process, right from making of dough to eventual annihilation of the end products in hungry mouths, presided over by the balding man, was taking place in full public view.  Narottam saw life pulsating at every segment of this activity, but scampered away from the spot, afraid that such open display of life might weaken his resolve to die. He wouldn’t allow some silly distraction to interfere with his tryst with death.

Narottam could vaguely hear the public announcement which had become a bit louder by then. Slightly louder but still indistinct. He strained his ears but could not make out what it was about. He would have been happy to hear every news, gossip, message circulating in his world during his lifetime, but what was the point now? Even if the government was announcing a ban on use of this road for walking towards train tracks, it wouldn’t affect him. He would have gone before the dictum was enforced. 

An assessment of his age and health had convinced him that number of years he could reasonably expect to live was by no means small. He could not wait so long for a natural death with his unbearable life, with every passing day renewing a blow to his desire to live, which was already at its lowest point.  

He had even weighed all alternate modes of suicide to choose the method most suitable to his condition and temperament, with zero risk of failure. Swallowing some strong insecticide, or any other dependable poison, in solid or liquid form, would have been easier but with uncertain results. He had heard of people surviving such attempts with severely damaged organs. Jumping from the terrace of a high-rise had never appealed to him, for fear of hitting some innocent person or dog or car on the ground. He preferred his corpse to be delivered undamaged at his home; but he had to abandon that preference when his secret attempt to hang himself failed by a wide margin of error. That was almost a year back. He had rolled his wife’s sari into a coil, secured one end around stem of a ceiling fan just above the blades; but the art of making a proper knot eluded him. The sari was retrieved with a thick film of dust collected from the ceiling fan. Cleaning it secretly, folding neatly and placing it back in his wife’s wardrobe was no mean job.

Slicing a wrist to allow his blood to drain out was an option, but his research showed that the success rate was only about forty percent. Even swallowing handfuls of powerful sedatives, with its fifty one percent success rate, didn’t meet the rigorous, zero-error standards he had set before himself. Finally he was left with only the train line, widely followed and highly popular among the suicide aspirants. Easy availability of open train tracks in his town came as an additional incentive.

Not far from the rail lines stood the small temple of Shiva on right side of the road. Narottam suddenly decided to have a last glimpse of the deity. It was not a part of his plan, but why not? Like all Hindu temples, this too expected devotees to remove their footwear outside. But Narottam didn’t go in. Gaining an unhindered view of the deity from the road itself, he folded his hands, closed his eyes and muttered a brief prayer: “I haven’t come to seek anything, Oh God. I am leaving. This is our last meeting! Goodbye.” 

As he descended back to the road, he halted briefly, training his ears to listen to the announcement which was now audible clearly. A rickety van came slowly , with a large funnel shaped amplifier repeating one sentence ad nauseam : “Please be informed that electricity will be cut off tomorrow from seven o’ clock in the morning to five o’clock in the evening , on account of urgent maintenance  work.” 

How did that matter to a person who would not be around tomorrow?

But no, he made a quick reality check. What would happen if  the news didn’t reach his home that day? The next morning there would be no water in the overhead tank, no electricity for any work whatsoever, not even for charging a mobile phone – and all this while a mutilated body would be awaiting cremation, not to speak of the fast arriving crowd of friends and relatives.  This piece of news had reach his home immediately. His hand reached his pocket for the mobile phone, but he stopped again. Could he call at this point just to pass on this information? He would surely subject himself to the obvious question: why couldn’t he wait till he returned home. Could he say he had no plans to return home? He surmised that a public announcement as loud as this must have reached his home too. So his cell phone went back to the pocket.

In fact he didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving such a petty problem as a temporary power outage outside of his life span unresolved.  He had listed and attended to every single issue that a man of the world is expected to. All financial and legal issues relating to his home, money, mortgage, insurance etc. were taken care of. Keys, IDs, passwords, codes, ATM pins were all kept neatly and could be easily located. He had also kept an index of all documents clearly mentioning where they could be found. Content with the knowledge that his absence would not cause any material problem to his family, Narottam continued his death walk.

His preparation had been thorough even about action points during his final moments. His mind and body both were well prepared, strong and unwavering. He had planned out where exactly he would stand before his final leap. He had to hide behind the thick foliage nearby waiting for a train to arrive. The wait would not be long because this line, extremely busy in the evenings, had a train passing almost every five minutes.

Last week, he had seen three trains passing in about twenty minutes, two carrying passengers and the third one some cargo in containers. The second train was passing slowly; so he could see a bunch of giggling kids waving their hands through the open window, hollering something he could not hear. He had wanted to ask them why they were so happy while in a moving train.

Today it would not matter what or who were in the train. He would jump not more than five seconds before the train reached the spot, not allowing enough time for the driver to apply brakes. In those few precious moments,   his tormented soul would have been released to heaven. Or hell ; it did not really matter.     

It was entirely up to him on which of the passing trains he would bestow the honour of crushing him.  He might let the first train pass, perhaps the second one too; but not beyond the third, lest his resolve lose steam. His day without a tomorrow would be drawing to a close even as the townsfolks would be preparing for next day’s power outage. The announcement, still audible to him even from a distance, irritated him. He had two questions for the announcer in the van. Had it been announced distinctly near his home? Was the man sitting in the van using pre-recorded audio or parroting the sentence in real time?

Nearing his destination, he made a quick calculation in his mind and realised that in fifteen minutes he would be at point zero. Within an hour he would be dead and within the next one hour, his body would have been located, identified and taken to morgue.

He felt a vibration near his chest and stooped to locate its source. The cell phone. It released a gentle alert, shook a bit and fell silent. A message for sure. Should he read? Let the message also die unseen, unread. He hadn’t brought the offending device with him to receive messages today. He decided not to touch the mobile at all, but could not approve the propriety of dying before reading a message specifically meant for him. He would remain in dark about its content for ever, even though ‘for ever’ for him means just an hour. His curiosity overpowered him. He fished out the phone from his breast pocket and stared at the screen.

Gosh! This? Of all matters on heaven and earth?

It was a shame that such careless, offending words would claim his attention at a sensitive and delicate moment of his life. He would have thrown the cell phone and crushed it in sheer disgust, but he didn’t. It went back to his pocket. Cursing himself for having read the message, he decided to ignore the message and walk on towards his tryst.

But he could not. A sudden feeling of helplessness overpowered him. The moment he read the single sentence, he had understood that he had lost. He could not ignore it and proceed on his own. Not today.

He walked back and entered a market he had left behind. He took out his phone, read the message again and felt like kicking himself for his surrender. ‘Bring flour, sugar and some vegetables on your way back.’ Just ten words.

What does ‘on your way back’ mean? He had no plan to turn back today. Silly. Humiliating. But that was that. His zero-error plan, carefully chartered strategy lay assaulted and shattered by rude, untimely interruption of these shameless words.  

While trudging homeward on the same road, clutching a bag of grocery, Narottam resolved to wait and plan for another day. The setback was temporary, not strong enough to break him.

 A glance at his watch convinced him that nothing would be out of place. This was the normal time for his homeward trek every day. He would reach home at the usual time and nobody would be any wiser.

Satya Misra writes short stories in Odiya , a regional language of India. Some of his stories have been translated into other Indian languages. This was first published  in Odiya magazine, Katha, and subsequently included  in his collection, Miccha  Raastara Sata.

 

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

The Silver Lining

By Dipayan Chakrabarti                                   

1

As the eastern sky turned red, Ileana woke up early in her bedroom. She stood by the window, tall and still, gazing absently at the blurred distance. The rays of the morning sun caught the zigzagging wings of quails and pigeons which created patterns across the sky in Siliguri. After some time, her eyes fell on the shades of blossoming bougainvilleas at the still waters of the abandoned pool which had a rusty drift of different pollens on its surface. She noticed some blue birds — they were house martins– take flight towards the open sky. A warm spring breeze ruffled her black hair. Nature was exploding with new foliage, and colourful flowers which filled her with hope and expectations.

Ileana was startled by a booming voice as her father rushed through the door in his own inimitable way. “How’re the online classes going, dear?” asked her old man, chewing methodically on his pipestem.

“Fine dad,” Ileana replied with a little quaver.

“You seem very busy with your laptop!” he said, curling part of the upper lip upwards.

“The online classes are already in progress today, dad.”

Ileana’s father left the room giving an indifferent shrug while she kept gazing out of the window at the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Kanchenjunga and their lovely little garden.  She felt relieved when her father left the room. Ileana felt bogged down with online classes, exams, and pressure to perform, though her teachers had always addressed the critical concern with tips to maintain her emotional well-being during examinations.

2

Ileana was startled by a dull buzz on that afternoon. The phone rang continuously. She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear. She looked worried as her friend’s feeble voice wailed from the other end.  “I’m Covid-19 positive, Ileana. I’m down with a little fever, dry cough and tiredness.” 

“Don’t worry dear,” Ileana tried to lift her friend’s spirits. “Those are only mild symptoms and you would soon recover without hospitalisation.” 

“Thank you!” said Ileana’s friend.

“Remember that healthy mind is very important for a healthy life,” Ileana advised, taking off her glasses.

“I’m feeling insecure and alone, Ileana.”

“Stay connected to your loved ones by telephone,” Ileana advised.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” said Ileana’s friend.  

“Practice breathing exercises during home workouts,” Ileana counselled, looking at the rotating blades of the ceiling fan as the power returned after a prolonged breakdown.

“Thanks for being so kind, Ileana.”                                  

Later when the setting sun turned the western sky to an eerie orange, sunlight streamed in through the window blinds — dusty and mellow. Darkness descended. Ileana looked up, and then stared out of the room window, looking worried. She let the breeze cool her face. Streaks of lightning illuminated her. They rippled and danced. She gazed upwards till her neck ached.

 At nightfall, Ileana walked through the dark corridors in an off-shoulder blouse and took the elevator to the roof of the building. There were thick gathering clouds in the sky, but she took no note of them. She shivered in the gust of wind. Suddenly, freezing drops from the sky pierced her bare shoulders. They were hailstones. Ileana shut her eyes and walked against the downpour feeling the sting of the pouring hailstones on her face. She caught the tiny hailstones in her palm and shoved them into her mouth to crunch them between her molars. She went inside.

Ileana listened to the tuneful sonatas of Beethoven’s third symphony on her headphones. After some time, she lent an ear to the pitter-patter rhythm that dissolved her troubles into cascading cadences of music. The sky and the sonatas grew darker and darker.

  3

The rain fell gently on the roof of the apartment building. She heard the whistling wind fly over the stretched wire and buildings creating a droning hum. “This lockdown is threatening my physical well-being, my identity and also my self-esteem,” she whispered to herself. She kept gazing at the rainwater that had replaced the hailstones and was turning the ground slippery.  She felt everything was an aimless slog. She conjured up the faces of her loved ones though they had fallen severely short of her expectations.

She felt that the situation was so bad that nothing she could do would change it. “I cannot endure this any longer. I want to escape from this living hell,” she whispered into the night air blowing in through her window. Only a draft of wind gushed through her curly hair.  Everything appeared dark and there were no redeeming features that could give her hope. Death seemed preferable to her in comparison to the imagined future which seemed like a living hell.

It was nearing dawn. Ileana was back to the rooftop. She slipped and fell when she tried to walk on the wet surface slippery with rainwater from the night. She got up slowly and walked to the farthest end of the roof. When she reached the end, she peered down. Her face suddenly softened and tears filled her eyes.

Ileana gaped blankly as the sun crept over the lofty buildings into the horizon. The first light of dawn touched everything with ripples of gold. It was another beautiful morning. Everything looked cheerful.

.

Dipayn Chakrabarti (Jalpaiguri, India) is a novel and short story writer. His works have received numerous awards and have been published in several literary journals. 

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Rituals in the Garden

Flash Fiction from Argentina by Marcelo Medone

Every morning, when the first rays of the sun appear, Martha opens her eyes, takes a deep breath and smiles, grateful to be alive one more day.

She listens to her heartbeat for a full three minutes, leaps up and lands on the small Persian rug next to her bed. There, she flexes and extends her worn joints and stretches and massages her lean muscles.

Then she sits in front of the large mirror on the dresser desk and gently combs her long grey hair, contemplating her image and updating her wrinkle count. It is not because they bother her, on the contrary, she knows that each new wrinkle of expression indicates that her face remains vital. Her only regret is the increasing amount of brittle hair that gets caught in the old mother-of-pearl brush.

Then she goes into the kitchen and she prepares a breakfast of jasmine tea with almond milk, whole wheat toast with blueberry jam, papaya slices and a mango juice. She takes some minutes to enjoy these delicacies, without rush.

Only afterwards, she goes out into the garden, ready to soak her parched skin in the early dew. As the sun begins to cast shadows on all the shapes, she stands next to the scarlet rosebush that never stops blooming, a wide beam spreading over her face. She then gazes at the birds and insects that have risen earlier than her.

Soon she dwells on what treasures and that most visit her: her memories. Memories of when the world was young because she was young, life was carefree and love was everlasting. Memories of her mother combing her long blonde hair as she continues to do so, of her father presiding over the prayers at the table with a firm, baritone voice, of her husband Melvin holding her tenderly and of her son William saying goodbye over and over again.

Many years ago, she forgave Melvin and his absence no longer moves her. In fact, she doesn’t even know if he’s still alive on this planet that’s overcrowded with both good and bad people. Martha decided that her ex-husband belongs to another universe and even to another spiritual plane totally divorced from hers. She has only one or two pleasant memories of him left, embedded in her memory like tombstones.

The memory of her son is what hurts her the most, with a pain that has grown with her during all those years, not comparable to any other. A son hurts his mother when he grows up and makes her uncomfortable inside the pregnant womb, when he is born at childbirth, when he gets ill or undergoes some threat and when he leaves her side. Being a mother implies suffering eternally, in a way that cannot be renounced and cannot be delegated.

Martha knows what pain is first-hand. Nobody has to explain it to her.

Finding strength within herself, Martha chants an ancient mantra that is an epiphany of life and a litany for those who are gone. Her vocal cords vibrate with a magnificent, heavenly coloratura, rising in the breeze that sways the leaves of the poplars and maples that line the garden.

Martha has been at peace for a long time, in communion with nature and with life and death, which for her are only two sides of the same coin. She knows she will soon be transitioning from front to back, from the visible side of experience to the totally unknown.

All this is whispered to her through impertinent moans by her old bones and is confirmed by the latest report from the haematologist oncologist who has been treating her for a year for her leukaemia.

Then, she goes to her meditation corner in the garden, next to a pond lined with rounded white stones, where the water lilies grow under the watchful eye of a Buddha sitting in the posture of meditation with his eyes closed, who invites her to do her asanas and mudras. In those moments, Martha really senses she connects with herself and with the Universe.

The rest of the day finds Martha dedicating herself to small tasks at home, keeping her little world in order, engaging in nostalgia for the past and acceptance of the present.

When the sun starts to go down and the shadows grow long again, Martha returns to the garden with her weary stride and her eternal smile, goes to the evergreen willow tree and places a scarlet rose petal on the memorial of her son William who never returned from the war and still says goodbye to her every afternoon.

In her own way, Martha is happy.

.

Marcelo Medone (Buenos Aires, Argentina) is a fiction writer, poet and screenwriter. His works have received numerous awards and have been published in multiple languages in more than 30 countries.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Do Not Go!

By Moazzam Sheikh

Pleased, beaming, yum yumming, she finished cooking pasta sauce the way he liked ‒ a bit more garlic and a dash of chilli powder ‒ and turned down the flame real low, the sauce simmering indolently. She was about to reach for a packet of flat spinach noodle to add to the boiling water when she fully realized that he wasn’t home yet. Mid-November and already dark beyond the windows, he could catch a cold, a flu, perhaps pneumonia. Touch wood, she whispered. One could trip, break wrist, hip, summoning visits to the hospital, restricted movement, crutches. A train of thought too frightening, she shook her head and cleared her throat. She set down the pasta on the countertop, unopened, reading the label mindlessly.

He went for his walk in the daylight though sometimes he did step out in the late afternoon. However, as far as she could remember he always returned before sundown. His routine she could depend on for the last two years. He must have misjudged, she shuddered, suddenly feeling hot in the kitchen. Although she breathed deep to calm her nerves, she couldn’t concentrate. The moment she tossed noodles into the water followed by a pinch of salt and half a spoon of olive oil, she regretted it. Pasta didn’t like to be left in water half-cooked. Agitation nudging her fear, she felt she’d have to turn off the stove and go out looking for him if he didn’t return in the next five minutes.

Five minutes passed and she frittered away a few more, paralyzed by indecision, when she cocked her ear to the noise of feet shuffling out in the corridor, nearing the apartment door. It turned out to be a sound conjured by hope. She snapped out, turned off the stove, and grabbing her keys and a light sweater, which Ronny had bought for her on her birthday, exited the building. Encountering the actual darkness which the onset of winter had ushered, despite the street pole lights, her heart sank further.

He could be anywhere, she inferred, and not knowing where that anywhere was, she could be walking in the opposite direction, away from him, lengthening his torment. She took a deep breath, again, and walked to the corner where her avenue intersected the busy street. From there she tried to scan the foot traffic in four directions. Her eyes traveling as deep as a block and beyond, and despite the thinness of the crowd due to the nippy winter air, she failed to spot a lost figure resembling him. She walked eastward unaware of the silent prayers her subconscious mind had been offering with little regard for her resolve throughout her adult life to not rely, as she put it many times, on the crutches of religion. She recognised it and let the prayers continue consoling her heart recalling the distinction she sometimes made between religion and spirituality. The fact that she also didn’t consider herself very spiritual, though nothing wrong with being one, amounted to very little right now. She was most concerned, at the moment, with his safety; her personal problems could wait.

A big sigh of relief! She spotted him outside Fresh Donuts, looking lost as she called out to him from across the street.

“I don’t know what happened. I just couldn’t figure out which way to go,” he explained, embarrassed.

She’d too felt like that many times, she came this close to voicing her thought, mesmerized by the doldrums, juggling personal life, work, moral obligations. As they walked home, she holding him by the arm lest he trip, he said he knew she’d be worried. The more he worried the more he lost his sense of reference. When he thought of asking a stranger for help, he shied away because he couldn’t remember the address or the cross street. He had enough sense to accept that he stood lost on Clement Street. That didn’t help much though, he laughed. She told him she was grateful and impressed he didn’t panic. Help would’ve come sooner or later. Nervous giggles escaped from their mouths as they neared the apartment. A combination of relief and premonition. At home, he went straight to the bathroom to relieve himself and heard her say that the pasta was going to be a little below his standard, not what counts for normal, a little soggy, fluffy perhaps, but the yummy sauce, she promised, would make up for it. She didn’t have to tell him about the tiny bit of rum she’d added to the sauce.

“Don’t worry, honey. Your father is hungry and will eat anything.”

She wanted to say thank god, you’re an easy eater. Not like Ammi, but she bit her tongue. When they sat down to eat, she hesitated but eventually wondered aloud if he remembered her phone number, which to her relief he rattled off without a hitch. Ah, the memory had returned. He said he’d eventually stop a passerby. She felt relieved and the food began to amble down to her stomach with more ease. The sips from her beer soothed her throat. She wished he’d share her beer, relax his strict adherence to the doctor’s advice. Perhaps another time. That night when she went to bed, her mind drifted to her brother struggling to survive in New York, in and out of rehab several times for the last couple of years. He’d already done his bit, taking care of their parents till mother died, mercifully quickly, without a whisper in her sleep. A silent heart attack, they said. Soon after her brother’s life unraveled. He couldn’t take care of father, who then faced a choice of moving back to Lahore or San Francisco.

She avoided sharing with Ronny the episode of father getting lost, but when she saw him a few days later she realized he had the right to know what’s been on her mind. Despite all the good qualities Ronny possessed as a human being, and lover, there was a cold side to him. A person is like a coin, Ronny relished using that metaphor, with two sides, at least. Where she saw his insensitivity, or impatience, towards certain things, he saw drawn boundaries, standing up for what was right, his rights, personal values, spaces, desires, likes and dislikes, cultural or personal baggage and so on. After having dated for more than a year, they were going through the process of exploring the possibility of getting hitched to each other. They both agreed they wouldn’t mind having a child or two. Her eggs were drying up. With a sense of urgency, one day Ronny did ask if she’d consider marrying him first in order to get pregnant. Though he was far from being Mr. Perfect, she’d already weighed the pros and cons of living with her boyfriend Ronald Ngyuen. Their plans got disrupted when Mr. Bhutta — that’s how Ronny preferred to address her father instead of by first name ‒ was brought by her to live in San Francisco. Despite old age, her father would’ve liked to live near his son. Even if that meant moving into a facility for elderly living. He also suggested moving back to Lahore. Neither choice was practical when emotional and economic reasons were taken into consideration.

Kausar initially cheered up to the idea of having father around. His liberal, open-minded side had pleasantly surprised her when he indicated that he considered his children adult now and the fact that they weren’t living in Pakistan anymore, his son and daughter had all the right to lead their lives without any pressure from the parents. Her mother turned out to be a bit more conservative than the children had realised, but she too sided with her husband’s wisdom. The couple tried their best to warm up to whoever their children were dating in college, and when a new partner showed up, they accepted him or her. There was a brief period, before the mother passed away, when the parents wondered if the mess their son had found himself in was, in fact, something do with their hands-off attitude once he went to college. But in their defense, they argued, Why, then, had Kausar turned out fine?

He went missing again. That time she couldn’t find him anywhere in the neighborhood. Blocking off a deep sense of foreboding, she called Ronny, busy assisting with the mounting of his photographs for an exhibition.

“I’d call police,” he suggested coldly. “They’ll spot him soon wandering around, lost.”

“I wondered if you were on your way, we could drive around in your car and look for him,” she said calmly, stifling her panic.

She knew he couldn’t come just like that. His suggestion made sense. Yet her fingers froze recalling the incident, was it somewhere in New Jersey? A cop seriously injured an elderly Indian man on a neighborhood stroll. He’d been visiting his son to help babysit his year-old grandson. A woman called the police about a suspicious looking man wandering around her neighborhood. The man from India, short and effeminate looking, in his mid-fifties, wearing glasses with thick lenses, did not speak English, only Hindi and Gujrati, was admiring neat looking cookie cutter suburban houses, their large fronts, mowed lawns, trimmed hedges. The already irritated cop lost his patience and slammed the visitor to the floor, paralyzing him forever. The jury, comprising of majority of white men, acquitted the cop because the man who’d come to help his son and daughter-in-law had ‒ the defense attorney pointed out ‒ committed a misdemeanor by leaving the house without identification papers. It made sense to people defending the cop. Don’t frustrate a cop; it doesn’t matter whether you pose a threat or not. The burden of failure to communicate is on you. She shook her head. She only hoped the San Francisco cops had more humanity and better training. Tonight!

In the end she dialed 911. Yes, an older man matching his name and description had been reported lost and an ambulance had taken him to General Hospital. Ronny had to stop everything and drive her to the hospital’s emergency ward. Thank god, he’s okay. He smiled sheepishly, his guilty smile although it wasn’t his fault. The old man had blanked out and made the mistake of approaching a passerby, who, unable to help and make father remember Kausar’s address, or phone number, had taken upon himself to call the ambulance. As per their procedure, by law, they had to run all kinds of tests now, check his vitals, to make sure he was fit to leave. It’s going to take a couple of hours. A senior nurse told her she’d have to be patient. Ronny had to return to help with the exhibition but would come back soon to take them home.

“What happened, Abba?” she asked, patting his hand, consoling a worried, defeated father.

She dreaded the moment she would have to contemplate the possibility of dementia snatching him from her. The fact that he actually stood right below her flat but couldn’t recognise it left Kauser stunned. What is he going to forget next? she wondered. As melancholy crept in, she tried to fight it off with positive thoughts. She was going to do everything in her power to make sure he didn’t succumb to the cruel malady without a fight. She admitted she could never have imagined it’d come knocking on her door so soon. She made up her mind to read up on the latest research, borrow or buy books on physical and mental exercises, and foods that help keep memory strong. She wouldn’t let him forget his wife and children’s names.

He didn’t forget their names or the names of his friends, past neighbors, even colleagues. As days went by, she felt relieved seeing him settle down a bit while accepting that he couldn’t venture out alone anymore. He’d never been the stubborn type. He could be feisty but not of late. She relied on Ron and one of her neighbors Doug to give company to her father when she had to go out. Thankfully, she could do most of her work from home. Both Ron and Doug enjoyed conversations with him on topics of mutual interest, especially foreign policy and history. Father’s humility impressed Doug, who besides having a crush on Kauser which he’d hinted at a few times, studied History with a minor in International Relations at Kent, Ohio State. On and off, he’d been reshaping the old man’s worldview crystalized by what he called Eurocentric education, although her father considered himself a political person, having taken part in ending General Ayub’s reign. Even when Bhutto was hanged, he openly criticized the military takeover under General Zia, right around when she left Pakistan. It’s a miracle that he didn’t lose his job at the Mayo Hospital.

“It’s the rigor, intensive studying at medical schools which kill critical analysis among most doctors. It decimates nuanced thinking. Otherwise, they’re very intelligent people,” Doug once said to her after he’d finished a long conversation with father on the topic of African countries and their independence from European powers. Ron and Doug, on the other hand, tolerated each other courteously. Doug saw Ron as a typical Vietnamese American unable to criticize America openly lest someone accused him of ungratefulness. Or worst still, telling him to go back to Vietnam! He found Ron’s critique of modern society, by which Ron meant modern western society, inadequate through his photography. Ron was content with what he’d been doing for the last several years, visiting Vietnamese seniors all over the country, photographing them in black and white, their faces, creased and ageless, eyes nostalgic and confused, capturing the front of their homes and apartments, the interior where east and west adjusted around each other. True, he avoided asking overt political questions, he still considered his work political. Kauser agreed with both.

Without appearing to be overt, Kauser played mind games with Father to see if he forgot important names. She asked him about their childhood, his childhood, when he first saw Ammi-jan, whether he remembered his grandparents, his neighborhood in Ludhiana before Partition. To her surprise his memory was crystal clear. She began to breathe a sigh of relief. What a scare he gave her! She’d hate to part with him, send him to a nursing home or back to live with one of her cousins. Better to be at the mercy of your own children, she insisted, however spoiled they might be, than the nurses or distant relatives.

“But what about your life, Kay?” asked Ronnie rhetorically one afternoon as they sat at a sidewalk table of a bar for happy hours near her apartment. She had set Mr. Bhutta up with munchies and a clean print of a classic of early Hindi cinema which she’d found on Youtube. One certain way to tie him down for two hours, she smiled sadly.

“What about it?” she asked, puzzled.

“I thought we were supposed to try living together . . .”

She picked up where he trailed off, “Get married,” she paused, sighed, “and make a go at having a child.”

Was she smirking or smiling? She couldn’t tell because her face had quickly reverted to appearing placid. Then as she took a sip of her drink, her forehead furrowed a bit.

“Kay, I know you have a lot on your mind and it’s affecting your work,” he waited for her to interrupt him, but she just looked away, far to the end of the block milling with neighbors out shopping. “But I am not sure what your plan is.”

“Plans about what, babe?” she asked without irritation.

“Oh, forget it!” he said, pretending to relax. “This is not the time.”

She fixed him with a stare. He dared her. Her face softened, a crease appearing around the side of her mouth. A beautiful woman, he thought. Still, he didn’t smile back.

“Are you quitting on me, sweetie?”

“No!” he replied. “I’m afraid I might lose you.”

She was tempted to ask how? Instead, she opted for silence. She knew the answer. Both Ronny and she had small apartments, and with rents the way they were, they couldn’t afford to quit their rent-control apartments and risk eviction. She hated to see her father as a burden or a barrier to her happiness. When he looked at her again, she nodded gently, conveying that she understood his apprehension. She placed her hand on his, then squeezed it.

“Me too. We have to trust,” she said.

As they walked back to Kausar’s apartment, they held each other close, her head nudging into his chest despite they almost tripped a few times when their legs bumped into each other. Yet they persisted, mimicking an image from a movie most likely, ignoring the awkwardness his short height had produced, bravely laughing it off. They kissed, outside the building, under the faint glow of streetlights, her ajar eyes catching an anti-Trump sign in a neighboring window.

“I’ll come over soon as he falls asleep,” she said. 

She heard him puttering around in the kitchen when she entered. Had the movie ended? She called out, asking if he needed help with something, as she took off her shoes. He emerged, smiling nervously, like a child caught rummaging through kitchen closets looking for cookies and candies.

“How was the film?” she asked.

“I’d seen it before but had forgotten it. One of Dilip’s best I think,” he said. “His acting so subtle, so controlled.”

“So you enjoyed it. That’s good.”

The screen had been turned off. The plates were still there which she collected now. Only when she went to the kitchen did she notice one of his shirts slung across his shoulders. Was he thinking of changing into a clean shirt? A dress shirt? She observed him quietly. He stood in the living room for a long moment, then turned to the wall and took a step. She couldn’t see him, so she left the kitchen and hid herself from him, beside the door. He was looking at the calendar. She’d forgotten to change the month. Did he know it was the wrong month?

“Why do you have that shirt on your shoulder?” she asked casually.

He noticed the shirt, surprised, held it, examined it, still puzzled, then looked at Kauser for an answer, smiling vulnerably. “Did you put it here?”

“Me? Abba, why would I? You must have done it.”

“Why would I do it? You’re crazy,” he mocked her and put the shirt down on a chair.

She called Ronny a little later and made up an excuse about feeling a little ill. Could be a cold, no, not a flu, she hoped, but rest was probably the best option. He said, okay, he too was feeling tired and ready to hit the sack.

A few days later when she returned from Ronny’s place a little after one in the morning, he was gently snoring away. Relieved, she decided to take a quick shower. His snores had stopped. She changed into her pajamas and crawled under her duvet covers. She’d hoped to fall asleep right away, after a nice time with Ronny, but found herself tossing and turning, questioning if it was the absence of his snores that disquieted her. She zoned out briefly before becoming fully awake. She got out and tiptoed to his room only to be shocked to notice the blanket pushed aside. Not in bed. When did he get up? Is he in the kitchen or living room? Both rooms were unlit, though her eyes by now had adjusted to the dark.

“Abba?” but no response came.

Did he collapse? She rushed through the apartment switching on the lights. He was nowhere. And then she noted the unlocked front door. She almost fainted. It was ten after three in the morning. Oh god! she cried. She chided herself instantly as she recognized her first impulse was to call Ronny.

Standing at the corner, she looked as far as her eyes could see, north, south, east, west, deserted streets with shuttered down shops, a sprinkle of cars parked on either side of the streets. She felt paralyzed. Too scared to cover the neighborhood territory on her own at this time of night. An uncanny fear, a sense of embarrassment, made her resist calling police. What if they arrest her for elderly negligence! What could she have done to stop him from sneaking out like this? Tears began to roll out of her eyes. Who could she wake for help? She dialed her brother’s number with unsteady fingers. It rang and rang with no possibility of leaving a message. Unawares, she shouted into the phone, “Come on, for god’s sake, pick up the phone! Abba’s missing! Again!” She cursed a few times before hanging up.

Taking a deep breath, she dialed 911. A professional, sympathetic voice came on. She was about to offer Father’s description after a standard drill of questions when she heard the front door in her building’s portico opening. She was startled to see Doug and her voice faltered.

“Kay, your father is with me,” he said.

“What? . . . Wait. Officer, I think my neighbor has found him . . . Thank you,” and as she hung up, she asked Doug, “How the hell did he . . .” and she burst out crying.

Doug walked up and held her, escorting her back into the building.

“I’m so afraid of him getting hurt,” she explained through sobs.

“He’s back at your place,” he said. “Lights were on in every room, and I knew you’d gone looking for him. You can always wake me up.”

She thanked him before finding her own balance with her feet searching for the stairs. He followed her down the corridor.

She stopped. “What did he say?”

“I heard the knock. Honestly, I was worried,” he giggled. “I opened the door and there he was, standing, looking confused. He almost didn’t recognise me when I said, ‘What’s wrong Anjum?’ Instead, he said he was hungry.”

“Just three doors down he lost his bearing?” she marveled aloud.

She knew from his expression that the fear in her eyes was clearly discernible. She tried to soften the tension on her face. They now stood outside her apartment, momentarily, lost for words.

“You should get some sleep, Doug,” she said.

“I won’t be able to. I’ll be up if you need me,” he replied before turning.

“I won’t be either,” she paused. “You’re welcome to come in if you like.”

“You sure?”

She nodded before pushing the door. She could hear his snores. Instead of calming her down, the sound made her furious.

Kauser didn’t bring up her father’s encroaching dementia, only found it ironic, when Ronny began talking about his exhibition of photographs of the Vietnamese American diaspora. He found the population of elders divided into half and half, those who had somehow managed to live with or nearby their children and those who either lived alone or in nursing homes.

“I plan on visiting Vietnam after the reception. You wanna come with me?”

Insensitive! was her first reaction, but she rebuked herself for focusing on the negative.

“Is it to see your father?” she asked. “I hope he’s not ill.”

“No, he’s very fit. I just want to visit, not particularly him, but he’ll be there of course. I want to surprise him.”

“You know I can’t. I have to sort out . . .”  she said.

Two weeks passed without an incident, except that once or twice he mixed up Kauser with his wife and his sister. It could be dementia, or it could be just old age. She, too, once called Ronny by her ex’s name John, the bread maker, always called him Johnny, never John.

Ronny flew to Vietnam for a month but left the idea of extending his stay open. Kauser understood now more than ever. He’d mentioned it before, though always wavering, afraid of encountering a father who, after defecting to the North, had abandoned him and his mother, who had no choice but to rely, as she put it, on the help provided by her brother employed by the Americans.

When Ronny, a year old, got sick, and was taken to the hospital, his mother and Ronny were eventually taken care of by an American soldier, a nurse until the Fall of Saigon. Thereafter, they continued with the American. The two younger sisters born in Cotati, California, lived together as a family. That was why it was always difficult to watch Vietnam War movies which portrayed all South Vietnamese women as whores for the pleasure of American soldiers, Ronny had explained it to Kauser and others. Dylan, Ronny’s stepdad died young from heart trouble, overweight, diabetes, and failed kidneys. It was more from grief that his mother, Ronny alleged, cursed Dylan for things which didn’t make sense to him or his sisters, having moved away to different colleges. One of the sisters, the elder, said that Dylan’s death was caused by his memories of American War in Vietnam. Kauser had met the mother and sisters several times and liked them very much, enjoyed getting together with them in Cotati, despite her dislike for similar places, over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Dylan was more a Buddhist, than Presbytarian,” intoned Ronny’s mother.

The sisters grew up more or less atheists, even before they moved to Cal, two years apart.

Kauser’s brother had promised to visit soon, said he’d been going clean and things were starting to work out on his end. There was something about the whole conversation which failed to convince her of a probable happy ending. After speaking with him she’d weep a bit. What is he thinking? she wondered. Is he going to take father off her hands? Abba was also becoming less and less conversant, even forgetting the fact that he’d just been fed, getting annoyed or angry that Kauser was depriving him of food.

“That’s elder abuse, Kauser!” he admonished her weakly.

She couldn’t stop laughing and hugged him tight, fearing she was losing her grip on him. She saw him one mid-morning sitting by the window, staring at the foot traffic, and heard a voice in her head whisper, “He’s gone!” She couldn’t help but shout, “Don’t leave me, father!”

He turned and, as if feeling caught, defended himself, “I am not going anywhere. What made you think so?” he pleaded rather than demanded.

Then she heard her own voice in the realm of silence, “No, you are. Abba, you’re already gone,” walking away.

Suddenly, her friend Miriam was back from traveling and offered to help out with being around her father when Kauser needed to step out for work. Doug was there too. Thanks to her supervisor, she could accomplish most of her work from home. Her brother had to postpone his visit for personal reasons, as he said with an added stress, not because of medical reasons.

“I understand. But I need you to sort this out before something happens,” she told him over the phone and regretted it.

In reply, she heard a sigh. She knew once off the phone, he’d weep too. Perhaps she could think about moving there, but the rent situation was untenable.

“I can’t find him, Kay,” he laughed a sarcastic laugh. “They say he just disappeared one day about six months ago.” She was speaking to Ronnie.

She failed to detect any pain in his voice.

“Oh my god!” she cried sympathetically. “What are you going to do? How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know. I have looked around at all the possible suspect places. I can’t do much.”

“Are you taking care of yourself?”

“Yes, I am. How about you?”
 “I’m okay. Are you coming back then?” she asked.

There was a silence that seemed to linger a tad too long.

“Hello?”

“I’m still here,” he paused again. “I think I’m going to stick around a little longer.”

“I see.”

“There’s this guy, a very good photographer; he wants to do a joint project. About the war,” he explained.

She felt terrible, deflated after hanging up. It turned out to be a wise decision to go out on a stroll with her father. They grabbed fresh spring rolls and sesame balls and ate them in the park watching kids run around the play structure, kicking sand, shrieking, tripping, crying.

“You were like him,” he pointed to a little boy who seemed to burst with energy. “Maqsood was the opposite.”

“You mean Qasim!” she corrected him.

“Yes, Qasim,” he seemed startled. “Who’s Maqsood?” he added before he broke down, weeping.

She didn’t comfort him, simply watched him; just let him be, she reasoned. Perhaps that’s all that was needed to cure his dementia! He stopped soon, raised his head ‒ a complete absence of tears. As if he forgot he’d just wept a minute ago. The food preoccupied him now. She struck up light conversation now and then, but she really wasn’t in the mood. Her thoughts wandered. She needed to be in control of her thoughts or else she wouldn’t survive. The way things were, she told herself, she wouldn’t. She saw herself succumbing to mild depression. Or it is anxiety? she asked. She must preoccupy herself with chores to stop bleak thoughts from entering her head. She saw herself walking out of the park to 19th Avenue which turns into a freeway to Golden Gate Bridge, her thumb sticking up offering herself to be hitchhiked to never come back. His, “Look at that brat,” chuckling, brought her back from her reverie.

Next time they spoke she couldn’t share Ronny’s excitement over his trips into the countryside collecting material for his project.

“There are so many stories here to be told,” he said excitedly.

He went on and on. A method of deflection.

“I am reaching a breaking point,” she said.

“Babe, tell Qasim to come and help out,” Ronny advised.

“He’s coming,” she lied. “I’m just tired.”

The real reason Ronny went to Vietnam was to distance himself from her personal problem, she was convinced. Her father’s health had started to affect her work now, not to mention her personal life. Abba’s doctor had brought up the subject of looking into the possibility of admitting him to a senior facility such as Laguna Honda. It sent shivers down her spine. There would be no way to know if the staff abused him. She imagined forgetting to visit, spacing out, forgetting him. Or worst, he not recognising her. Although she let it sink in, those hard choices had to be made, she wished she could just take him to Pakistan, where relatives and neighbours still stepped in. There was no one she could now rely on, she mourned. Abba had not stayed in touch with anyone because he got tired of helping out for his children worked in the US. He also encouraged the children to not stay in touch with their cousins. And now she was on her own. Just last week she overslept and missed an important meeting. Last night, she had to decline an invitation to Sheila’s baby shower, and she already knew, unless she could get Doug or Miriam to be with Abba, she wouldn’t be able to go to Ajit’s party. An old news item resurfaced in her mind, about a middle-aged Indian immigrant in Foster City hitting his eighty-year-old, wheel-chaired father on the head with a hammer, not with the intension of killing him but so, he mistakenly believed, he could be admitted to a nursing home; he couldn’t look after the old man alone. Sick! She shook off the thought. How people could stoop so low in difficult circumstances, she cried silently.

Qasim was back in rehab. His estranged wife, Laurie, called to tell Kauser that she and her kids have washed their hands off. Narcissism, she said, was at the root of all his problems and now no one could help him, let alone expecting help from him. When Laurie enquired about Anjum, Kauser told her how he’d tried to sneak out again. “Thank god, he couldn’t unlatch the door from inside, and the noise alerted me. I can’t even go to the bathroom!” Kauser pretended to laugh. Laurie understood as only another woman could, relating to her own situation while taking care of two very demanding children without her husband. Laurie said she wished she lived nearby. That sentiment touched Kauser deeply. She didn’t want to worry her sister-in-law too much by telling her that his appetite had also dipped. Should she end father’s misery by suffocating him with a pillow? She thought of shocking Laurie but ended up feeling awful.

That night Kauser snapped at her father for the first time in her recent memory when he began about his father serving in the Indian British army on the African front. She told him curtly to stop beating the dead horse. He was taken aback and gave her a look of deep hurt. She felt remorse but allowed that feeling to be overtaken by a surging wave of melancholy. It also didn’t help that Doug and Miriam had hit it off while having dinner at Kauser’s apartment with Miriam going gaga over a dish brought by Doug. Doug knew Ronny wasn’t coming back anytime soon, then, why, Kauser wondered, hadn’t he made a move? She believed she’d given enough hints. Unconsciously, she blamed her father for this snub. Doug, too, had quietly moved on.

She opened a bottle of wine, thinking, bizarrely, of previous lovers and sat down by the window after tuning the radio to a jazz station. A trumpet seemed to be searching, frantically, for the bluest note possible. But only succeeding in finding a red, blazing hot one. She was on her second glass. The music changed. Then on her third glass, she contemplated the sun lowering itself behind trees and rooftops and actually dropping dead, unleashing a snowstorm. She felt an obscure rage darting in and out of her body.

She wondered, worried, though absent-mindedly, if she was on her fifth or sixth glass when she saw the world around her beginning to spin. She knew better not to get up. Just sit there and follow the movements of the shadows she could vaguely discern, pale ghosts tiptoeing across the hardwood floor of the rooms, faces contorted while smiling and angry making a go at grabbing her attention to say something frivolous or important, cackling and some shouting, a few mocking her, one even sticking its tongue out at her. Sitting at the bottom of a sea of stupor a shadow emerged from one room and dissolved beyond the door frame. A click of the doorknob eventually beyond the water ripples pricked up her ears, only mildly, but her body sank back into the chair of its own volition, drained of the will to assert itself. She thought she heard, as she took another sip, her own voice utter the words Do not go . . . into the night! But the memory of her own sound dissolved slowly.

.

Moazzam Sheikh is the author of The Idol Lover and Other Stories and Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He has translated across Urdu, Punjabi and English, notably the fiction of Naiyer Masud, Intizar Husain, Ikramullah and Nadir Ali. He is also noted for being the editor of A Letter From India: Contemporary Pakistani Short Stories (Penguin, India) and Chicago Quarterly Review’s special number on South Asian American Issue (2017). He is a librarian in San Francisco and lives with his wife and two sons.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Slices from Life Stories

The Coupon

By Niles Reddick

Kroger opened at 7:00 a.m., and normally if I got there when they opened, I got the fresher produce, baked goods, and meats. Of course, I had to walk carefully through the parking lot to avoid slipping on the snow and ice. I had to put my mask on and remember to put my reading glasses on when I was checking the expiration date on the packages before the readers fogged. I learned the trick about checking the packages in the back or on the bottom as their expiration dates tended to be a few days into the future.

I gathered up the spinach, carrots, avocados, apples, and blueberries and headed to the meat area. The area looked dark, there was nothing in the glass case, and nothing I wanted in the display case. They had plenty of pork, but I tried to avoid that because of gout. I did see one of the butchers and asked him if he had any ground sirloin.

“Truck hasn’t come in yet.”

“You have any in the back?”

“No. We don’t open until 10:00 a.m.”

“10:00 a.m.? Why aren’t you open if the store opens at 7:00 a.m.?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why wouldn’t the truck deliver before the store opens?”

“I guess because of the snow.”

I laughed a little because I made it in the snow and didn’t even have a truck. I pushed my cart on to the dairy aisle, where I picked up the butter, cheese, and milk for our teenager. When I got to the bakery and deli, I found some blueberry muffins that were on the bottom that had a whole week before they expired unlike the one on top which expired the next day, so I got the fresher pack and pushed my cart to the deli counter. A lady was putting out fried chicken, and it smelled good, but it was too early for fried chicken, and I was interested in thinly sliced turkey for sandwiches. When she finally saw me, she said, “Hon, we don’t open until 9:00 a.m.”

“Why? The store’s open.”

She shrugged her shoulders.  I thought about how I’d broken up with Wal-Mart the month before because when COVID struck, they changed their hours to 7:00 a.m. Before that, they’d been open twenty-four hours, seven days a week. I hadn’t paid much attention to the time, walked inside, got a cart, wiped it down with their alcohol wipes, and headed toward the cosmetics/ drugs/ personal hygiene section when an employee blocked my cart. “We ain’t open yet,” she snapped.

I didn’t correct her grammar. She was way bigger than me and I didn’t feel like she’d understand the lesson. “The door was open, the sign said the store was open twenty-four hours, and I walked past at least five employees who didn’t say a word.”

“Well, the store ain’t open yet. They never changed the sign.”

“What time is it?”

“Five ‘til seven.”

“So, would you like for me to walk across the store, go back outside for five minutes?”

“Well, you can stay, but you can’t check out until after 7:00 a.m.”

“I won’t,” I said. I stayed and shopped, but I decided that it wasn’t worth what little I saved to go there, and when I finished checking out, I told the lady at the door that I was breaking up with Wal-Mart.

“Okay,” she had said. I don’t even know if she heard me, was listening, or cared.

When I went to check out, there were no cashiers. There was one older man at the self-checkouts. 

“I have too much to go through self-check,” I said. “Where is a cashier?”

“They don’t get here until 8:00 a.m.,” he said.  “You’ll have to use one of these.”

First, I needed my glasses to read the screen, so I pulled the mask down below the bridge of my nose, so they didn’t fog, and prayed COVID was elsewhere. Then, I scanned the items and bagged them, but when I turned the bag holder to get to the next set of bags, the machine scolded me: “Make sure to scan your items and place them in the bag.”

When all four bags were full, I cleared space in the cart and put those bags in the cart, his tired eyes checking every move I made as if I were a common thief. The automated voice from the machine repeated: “Make sure to place the items in the bag. Make sure to place the items in the bag. Make sure to place the items in the bag. Press if you need assistance.”

“Can you please turn this annoying machine off before I knock the hell out of it?”

“I’m sorry. The manager has to do that and she’s on a smoke break.”

I’d seen this “manager” before. It gave new meaning to the expression “Good help is hard to find.”

I tried to block out the voice, found what looked like a cut in one of the Gala apples and handed it to him and said, “I don’t want that one. Someone’s cut it. Might be poisoned.” He set it aside, and I knew once I was out the door, he’d put it back in the bin and someone would purchase it, or he might add it to the ones they have prebagged so customers can’t check them.

I paid with my debit card, pushed the cart out the door, and realised I would need to go slow on the snow and ice, but I had no idea how difficult it was to push a cart through ice and snow. Plus, I had to walk past the empty handicapped spaces and the new and empty pick-up spaces before I got to my car halfway across the parking lot. I had noticed some of the other stores, banks, and even restaurants had cleared parking lots with snow plow equipment, but Kroger hadn’t. It bothered me they didn’t care much for the safety of their customers to do more. I wondered if anyone else noticed.

Later that afternoon after my nap, I wrote an email to their customer service and got an automated response.  The next week, I got a form letter with a $25.00 discount coupon off my next week’s shopping if I spent over $200. We’d never spent over $200, and I’ll bet they knew that, too. If they keep raising prices to pad corporate salaries and taking advantage of the little people, even collecting donations for charities from customers and getting a tax a break for those donations, I’m going to have to break up with them, too. I’ll jump on the bandwagon, “go local”, and plant a garden, just like my grandparents did before capitalism spread like a cancer and made everyone dependent. In the meantime, I plotted how I might use the $25.00 discount and keep my tab less than a dollar over two hundred. I also figured I could tell my neighborhood association, my Sunday School class, and everyone at work how they could get a $25.00 discount, too.

.

Niles Reddick is the author of a novel, two collections, and a novella. His work has been featured in nineteen anthologies, across twenty-one countries, and in over four hundred publications including The Saturday Evening Post, PIFBlazeVoxNew Reader MagazineCitron Review, and The Boston Literary Magazine. Website: http://nilesreddick.com/

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Froth

A short story by Dev Kumari Thapa, translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal

Dev Kumari Thapa (1928-2011). Photo provided by Mahesh Paudyal

What a hen-pecked man! Not even aware of his wife wrapping him around her little finger, though he was a college teacher.

Mother was commenting with someone in the kitchen. Shyam thought, the gossip was about himself. Before that day too, his mother had counseled him many a time. Rupa cared for no one. She was beautiful and well-educated, having brought up in an atmosphere of freedom. Whenever Shyam remembered Rupa, he could not help a smile. It’s true that he had loved and married Rupa, in spite of knowing everything about her. On her part too, she loved and chose him from among numerous other youths and married him with her own will. Her character too was blotless; only that, she was quite liberal in her thoughts. It would have been better, if Rupa restrained herself in a little more. She was not just a woman now; she also was a daughter-in-law. But then, how much should anyone counsel her! She could not change her ways or did not even want to change them. In that case, what could Shyam do? Leave Shyam alone; every man in his position would be helpless.

Even the French warrior, Napoleon Bonaparte, who dreamt of conquering the whole world, could not keep his consort Josephine under control. Why so? Because, like Shyam, he also loved his wife very much. She was four years older to him, and a widow of a soldier in his own army. She was a spendthrift. Expenses for her clothes and cosmetics had rendered Napoleon’s coffers empty. When he was busy in the battlefield, she indulged herself in the lap of luxury. But then, Napoleon always gave in to her, and fulfilled each of her demands. He died alone at St. Helena, far away. Before breathing his last, he took the names of his motherland and his beloved Josephine. Some women are born merely to amuse their men.

Shyam smiled again, as if he was remembering a thrilling experience. His mother entered his room carrying a cup of tea for him. Beset by ill-feelings, Shyam could not raise his hood and talk with his mother. Instead, he kept himself busy flipping through the pages of a newspaper that lay nearby. Raising the issue of Rupa once again, Mother had said, “Good that you have got a wife, my child. But then, if your old mother has to do all the chores, what use is her presence here?”

He said nothing. Taking a deep sigh, his mother walked out of the room.

When it was fairly dark in the evening, Rupa entered the house. Seeing Shyam look dejected, she said with a smile, “Hello Professor!”

He giggled, but said with a grim face, “Why had you been so late?”

Rupa said lightly, “Am I your student that I have to give clarification?”

He shouted, “It’s not about clarification. I want to see that people do not critique you. That’s all.”

Rupa said in her natural tone, “Why should anyone critique me? I have not guilty of anything wrong. I cannot chang my inborn nature, no matter how much I want. Nor can you force me to change, Mister Professor! What are good and bad characters, after all? They are effects of the hormones one has. The pituitary gland in my head is more active; I am therefore more nimble, active and shrewd than others. Kamala nextdoor has less amount of thyroid, so she looks dull and people call her a good woman. That’s all you ought to understand.”

Rupa’s words made Shyam laugh. He was also rendered speechless. A lecturer by profession, he was a man of grave nature, a visionary, a lonely son of his mother. He loved his mother very much. He loved Rupa equally deeply. How wonderful it would be, if he could work a balance between the two people he loved! He could neither counsel Rupa, nor could Rupa appease her mother-in-law.

Shyam was spending his days amidst such dilemma, when his aunt — his father’s sister — and her young daughter, Shyama, paid them a visit. His aunt had come to town from the village to arrange for her daughter’s college education here. Shyam’s mother was meeting her after a long gap, and their meeting made both of them very happy. His mother requested her sister-in-law to stay with them at least for a month before returning to her home in the village. She advised her to admit daughter Shyama to her son’s college. Accordingly, Shyam got her admitted to his own college, and this made the mother’s quite contented.

After having lived with them for a month, the aunt returned to her home. Shyama started living under her aunt’s care, and studying.

Shyama from a wealthy and cultured background was of a serious nature and had a sharp mind. In no time, she had become everyone’s favourite at the college. Shyam was extremely delighted to see her progress. The brother and sister went to college together and returned home together.

With such a turn of events, the suffocating atmosphere at Shyam’s home improved to some extent, and there was some light now. Shyam’s mother started loving Shyama like her own daughter. Shyama also started helping her in household chores. Shayma established a friendly relationship with sister-in-law Rupa.

One day, Rupa asked Shyama to accompany her to the cinema. With all modesty, Shyama pleaded that she could only go after her examinations were over. Rupa went alone. By then, Shyama had come to know that her aunt had to do most chores in her own family, but she kept quiet, thinking it unwise to make a comment on someone else’s family.

After a short conversation with his aunt, Shyama went to her study. She could not focus for long; so, she went to the kitchen and started making tea. She gave a cup to her aunt, poured two for herself and for Shyam. She walked into Shyam’s room with the tea. Shyam was delighted on seeing her, and in a jocular way, said, “So you happen to be the cook of this family, isn’t it?”

With a smile, Shyama said, “Does it make one a cook if one does her own housework?”

Shyam said in a fond voice, “Sister, how happy mother is ever since you arrived here? I could not serve her as a son must. You serve her on both of our behalves. I congratulate you, and you have all my blessings.”

Shyama said, “Brother, you have me a place in your family. Else, I would be languishing in a hostel. You have also helped me with my lessons. I am obliged to you and can never pay for your favour. It’s my privilege to get this opportunity to serve you both.”

This way, brother and sister conversed for a long time. Shyam forgot the lack of a sister in his life.

Rupa returned home from the movies. Seeing Shyama inside her room, she said, “Shyama, the movie was wonderful. You didn’t agree to go with me.” Expressing his support for Shyama, Shyam said, “Can a student afford to go to the movies?”

Rupa didn’t like Shyam’s intervention. She gave a strange look and rushed out of the room. After Shyama was gone, Rupa returned and said to Shyam in a voice of dissent, “Two of you are together, both at the college and at home. I can see closeness growing between teacher and student.”

Shyam said in a light-hearted manner, “Are you jealous?”

Rupa said, “Go. Take the girl and leave her at a hostel.”

Shyam was astounded, seeing such a narrow outlook surface in Rupa. Counseling her, he said, “Pooh, what a mean thing you said! I thought you were educated and liberal.”

In the meantime, Mother came to ask Shyam to join dinner. The issue was dismissed.

That night, Shyam was restless for a long time. He could not manage even a nap. It occurred to him that Rupa, whom he considered an educated and magnanimous person, could also be envious. She had overlooked that jealousy was making her mean. Fie! Her thoughts were as mean as the froth on the surface of the sea. Where was the depth expected of an educated heart like hers? Shyama? Sister Shyama was a goddess born and brought up with ideals.

That night, he could not sleep.

After a few days, Rupa gave Shyam a new bit of information. She was pregnant. The news made Shyam extremely happy. Taking her into his arms, he said, “Congratulations! I think our baby will now make your pituitary gland smaller. Won’t it?”

Rupa blushed with embarrassment. Shyam was deeply moved by her newfound shyness — a novelty from Rupa.

.

Dev Kumari Thapa (1928-2011) is a story writer. She wrote stories both for adults and children. Though she was born and educated in Darjeeling, India, she later moved to Nepal and settled in Biratnagar. A nurse by training, she wrote form her schooldays. Her published story collections are Ekadashi, Jhajhalko, Seto Biralo, Tapari,  Bhok Tripti,  Pralaya-Pratiksha and Dev Kumari Thapaka Pratinidhi Katha. She also wrote some biographies and essays.

Mahesh Paudyal is a lecturer of English at the Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University. He is also a poet, fiction writer, translator and critic. He has the permission from the family to translate this story.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.