Short Stories

Short works of fiction

The Instance of a Cigarette Falling

Episode One. A Prologue of Sorts.

The camera eye sees everything, and sees it calmly and objectively. It pans slowly around the room, beginning at the coffin and the cluster of black-clad mourners gazing down at the body then continuing clockwise catching two or three-person clusters scattered around the room. It sees the pale cream-colored walls and the scarlet carpet. It sees everything in the circle of its passing and calls attention to nothing but the whole, until it reaches me sitting on a loveseat to the left of the deep-red coffin, a girl about the same age as me to my left. It zooms in on my face as I sit there, all emotion drawn out and dried up ahead of time. Laurie squeezes my arm and lays her cheek on my shoulder. But the camera continues to zoom in on my gaze and cuts to the focus, my mother. It saw her earlier, but now it is beginning to make sense of the situation, catching the subtle details that tell the story. In silence the camera eye peers at her, zooming in inch by inch. Like everyone else, she is dressed in black, and like me she is emotionally exhausted. She tries to smile and be strong, but there is nothing behind her smile but weariness. In her face, everything is weary. And every few moments she presses a white handkerchief to her eyes to dry tears that aren’t even coming out any more. Next to her, with his arm around her slumped shoulders is a balding man with one chin too many and a blushed face and a smile that might be able to pass as greasy if it wasn’t so creepy and intrusive. He pulls her face to him and gives her a strong hug and tries to be there for her dry-eyed weeping. The camera cuts back to me and sees in my face a glimmer of emotion growing stronger momentarily: disgust.

He let go of Ma, and she stood up straight again. She hugged him one more time, briefly, and walked over to me. I quickly wiped the disgust from my face and tried to return the same weary smile she was giving me, but even in her worst moment, I couldn’t hope to compare.

I stood up. “Hello, Ma,” I said.

Laurie stood up with me, hugged me, and said, “I guess maybe I should go.”

“Nonsense,” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. “Are you feeling all right today, Ma?”

“I’m trying, hon,” she said. “But I don’t know. Ronald has been so nice to me the past few days, and that’s helped a lot.”

“Ronald? Is that who you were with?”

“Yes. You never met him. Ronald was an old friend of your father, and me.”

“Oh. Well. I guess that’s good, then, that he’s here.” But really I was hating him already. Three days, and he’s already moving in on my mother. What a douche. But I didn’t say that to Ma. Instead I pulled Laurie a little closer to me and asked, “Ma? Do you remember how we all used to watch movies together? Me, you, and Dad?”

She nodded. “That was nice.”

“I like remembering that,” I said. “Do you remember when we watched Citizen Kane?”

She thought for a moment. “No, I don’t, actually. When did we watch that?”

“I must have been 12 or so, I guess. It was a good movie. Really good. Even though I didn’t understand it then. But I remember watching it with you two. And I remember Dad saying how glad he was that he had someone he loved who loved him back so he’d never have to end up like Kane.”

“Oh, yes. I’d forgotten. But I remember him saying that now, hon. That was nice.”

“Yeah.” I looked down at my feet and ground out an imaginary cigarette that I wanted to smoke but couldn’t inside the funeral parlor. “I’m glad you remember that.”

But apparently she didn’t, because five months later Ronald moved in with her and ten months after that they got married.

*  *  *

Episode Two. The Inevitable Strength of Doubt.

The camera zooms in slowly on the red and green neon sign above the front door of one of those expensive Japanese restaurants. One of the places where they cook your food in front of you and the chefs do goofy tricks with the butter and toss the shrimp and knives around like it’s their job, because it is, and that’s what we’re paying to see: an authentic Japanese dining experience. But there’s no one coming or going, so it fades to four people at a table inside. And there’s me, my girlfriend Laurie, Mom, and this douche with a shiny head and puke-green suit named Ronnie.

Listen, Craig, he says as the camera zooms in on his sunburned face pulling back into a greasy-lipped smile, I want you to look after your mother.

I laugh—I ask him if that was a joke, right?

He makes his face all serious. I mean it, he tells me. Right. Sure. Like I can’t see all the nasty thoughts reflecting off of that gleaming bald spot as if his hair was the only thing that he had to hide the mirror into his mind. And the camera follows my gaze up from his eyes to his shining head.

I calmly excuse myself to get a cigarette outside and a bucket to vomit in.

Mom followed me outside; she poked her head out of the door just as I was taking my first drag and staining my jacket, shirt, and tie with the stink of tobacco. I heard the door click open but didn’t bother lifting my head; I just stood there with my eyes closed and exhaled a lungful of smoke out on my blue and red tie. I could still smell her perfume through the cigarette smoke—some twist of rose and vanilla, untainted by the nicotine and alcohol pouring from my breath.

“Craig. Sweetheart.”

I took another drag. How’s that for a reply.

“Craig. I think you should apologize to Ronald. Please?”

“Mom,” I said, reverting to the annoyed tone of a 17-year-old whose parents are forcing him to go to church long after they’ve stopped bothering with belief in anything like a god.

Her counter was to assume the tone of a mother addressing her cute 3-year-old. “Yes, Craig?” I couldn’t help but smile. Behind my eyelids I could picture her face assuming that silly precocious look you might expect a British princess to wear around to impress people. It was a kind of game we played to make each other talk, acting like some time in the past; she always won.

“Um. What is it, exactly, that I should be apologizing for?”

She stepped out and closed the door quietly behind her. “For your rude comment to Ronald.”


She punched me playfully in the arm. “Why not? I think you should, darling.”

“You think I should quit smoking, too. I haven’t done that yet, either.”

She was quiet for a moment. Then, “OK, I get it. You think Ronald’s a douche.”

I grinned and opened my eyes. “Naw, I wouldn’t say douche, ma. I’d call him a dildo.” I took a drag, “But good guess, Ma, nice try and all,” then exhaled. She laughed, and stared lovingly at her baby boy turned 24-year-old. And the way the light painted her face in neon blush, you would wonder how such a radiant woman could be the twice-widowed mother of a 24-year-old.

“Well, sweetheart, I guess I’m just going to have to brush-up on the differences between a douche and a dildo.”

“I say ‘dickass’ a lot, too.”

“And dickass, hon, haven’t you ever thought maybe you shouldn’t categorize people so much?”

It didn’t take much thought. “No,” I replied quickly. “I just call ’em as I see ’em.” I grinned sweetly at her but couldn’t sustain it very long. “And in there I see a dildo sitting at that table.”

The camera watches her face as I comment on her new husband, but she never changes from her same mild smile. The red light above blushes her and the white shining through the glass door behind her creates a halo around her, casting rays across the lens as the camera shifts position to catch us both in the shot, and there I am, sickly in the green light of the sign and half-shadowed. She tells me that she loves the man I happen to be calling a dildo.

What if you don’t, I ask her, brushing my hair back.

What if you don’t love Laurie, she replies.

The camera builds the silence with a medium-shot, she on the far left and I on the far right, holding my cigarette a few inches from my mouth. Maybe I don’t want to, I finally tell her. And she says she’d feel sorry for me in that case. She steps closer to me and wraps her arm around mine.

She tells me she still loves me and my father very much and I should never forget that. Then she tells me to come back inside and leaves, and the camera holds its gaze on the door until it hears the click when it closes.

I linger behind a moment. Do I believe that? How could what she said be true? Dad’s been dead a year and she’s remarried, and she’s forgotten. I drop the cigarette on the ground and stomp it into the ground with my foot, scattering the embers and watching as they fade and their heat dies.

*  *  *

Episode Three. The Third-Act Climax.

The camera sees the car dive around the corner, hears it squeal, and watches as it parks at the curb, the passenger-side front wheel bouncing up onto the curb. The camera hears the door open and pans over to see my feet step out onto the pavement.

I staggered out onto the sidewalk in front of Ma’s house. “Ma!” I yelled, “Let’s go! Happy birthday, Ma! It’s dinner time, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!“ I stood in the cold for another minute or two before she opened the door, kissed Ronnie goodbye, and came out to join me and kiss me hello.

“You’ve been drinking, sweetheart?” she asked.

“So maybe I pre-gamed a little. I just don’t like to see that guy when I’m completely sober.”

“Do you want me to drive? I think I should, hon.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Really. I really think I should drive.”

But I’d already gotten in the car and started it and was waiting for her to get in out of the rain. She did, and I told her to put her seatbelt on. She did, and I pulled out. The camera watches. The camera doesn’t say anything, though; it just watches the black VW Bug swerve down the road. It cuts to inside the car and watches me try to concentrate through the rain and the alcohol, then to my mother’s worried face and white knuckles gripping her seatbelt.

We didn’t talk much. I didn’t think there was much to talk about. There was “So, Ma, how’s your new husband? Is he as good as the last one? Or the one before Dad?” Or I could ask, “Hey, remember how nice things were when we were a family and you actually still loved my father?” Or I could just say, “Stop loving! Stop it! You’re supposed to love me, and Dad, and that’s it, forever and ever! And stop being such an angelic whore! And if you don’t I wouldn’t be too concerned if I never saw you again in my life, ’cause as it is I only see you like twice a year now, anyway!“ And I raged in my mind and closed my eyes, desperately trying to shut it out. But the camera sees what I don’t. And it pans from my violently closed eyes to the bend up ahead. And it watches my mother gasp and play with something on her seatbelt and frantically cry for me to watch out. And in her face it sees that she has been through this before about three years ago, except the last time it had been her husband, my father, in the driver’s seat and afterwards she’d survived but he hadn’t.

The camera watches the car speed toward it, then swerve off on some drunken tangent. It watches as the car nose-dives into a ditch on the side of the road where the road becomes a bend. It pans up from the battered hood to the rear wheel and watches as it spins. It fades to the inside and watches the passengers sitting motionless in their seats, my face buried in an airbag and my mother’s face twisted in some unconscious agony. It fades back to the rear wheel and watches as it slowly stops spinning while my mother’s battered insides bleed her to death, but it never does anything. It watches and watches and watches and watches, and, God, it never lifts a finger to help. It never calls an ambulance. It never rushes to get the passengers out of the car. All it does is sit there and watch. And the wheel stops spinning, and it fades out to black. The audience will cry here, not because they understand the pain, but because some inherent knowledge of the universe makes them wonder why angels deserve to die.

*  *  *

Episode Four. When Everything is Gone.

It’s night. The camera pans down from the stars to my dark little house. It zooms in on a black window and an invisible cross-fade takes it to my bed and Laurie beside me, asleep, half of our bodies hidden beneath a black and gray blanket. The camera follows my gaze to her face, blue-gray in the dark and sometimes it seems just as beautifully pale in the light like a beautifully shining translucence.

I reached over and brushed my hand over her short black hair. Her thin eyebrows tensed and she squeezed her lips together like she was about to cry but trying to fight it off. Poor baby. What sad dreams could she be having? I closed my own eyes and tried to imagine. Without the camera invading. And I thought maybe she was dreaming about if it was her own mother that had died; which struck me as a very selfish thing, because it wasn’t her mother who died. But maybe she was dreaming about my mother dying.

I leaned over and kissed her on the lips, and her dark eyes, brown almost to the point of being black, lazily, happily opened. She squinted at me and smiled into my lips, so I pulled back and pressed my forehead to hers instead.

“What?” she asked, on the brink of a yawn.

“You looked sad.”

“No, I’m not sad,” she said, folding her arms around my neck.

“Well, you looked it. While you were sleeping, I mean. What were you dreaming about?”

She grinned. “I was dreaming about you, of course!“

I rolled off of her and stared up at the ceiling. “Well, you looked awfully sad for a dream about me. Are you sad? About anything?”

“No, of course not, I’m very, very happy. I’m the happiest little girl in your house.”

“I’m not.”

“Of course, you’re not a little girl.” She was too drowsy to laugh at her own bad joke, just drone it out in that scratchy just-woke-up voice that is always so sweet on her grinning lips.

“I’m not happy, either.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“Doubt it.”

She had no response so we both just stared silently at the ceiling, feeling each other’s warmth beneath the blanket. But she was still awake a few minutes later when the thought hit me, so I said, “Laurie, I’m going to move to L.A. the day after the funeral and sell this house.”

“Oh! Exciting!“ she said, happily ignorant of what I was thinking. “Will you put me in your movies?”

“If you learn to act,” I told her blandly.

“Hmm. I guess not, then, huh? But I don’t want a leading part or anything, I just want to be an extra or something, just to be part of it all.” Then she rolls over and says she loves me, and the camera watches her drape the top half of her body over my own and kiss me on the cheek and say how excited she is. But where the camera couldn’t see I suddenly wondered how many times Ma had told that to my father. Now my father’s ashes were scattered somewhere in the Atlantic—drifting on a wave beside fishies and driftwood, or on a Florida beach holding a sandcastle together like when he’d hold Ma’s hand in his one hand and mine in the other to say grace at dinner, or being hidden from the moonlight beneath the awkward bodies of lovers struggling for each other and leaving their mark behind in the sand. And where was Ma while this was happening? Until two days ago, in bed with Ronald, telling that gleaming skull that she didn’t mind that the moonlight reflecting off of it at night kept her awake, and that, in fact, she loved it—I mean, him.

So before Laurie’s lips left my cheek all this had poured through my head and love suddenly seemed so untrustworthy and disgusting, and the camera sees me shrink away from her. And she shrinks back a little, surprised. It sees some intangible tension build suddenly between us and the inch of bed separating us becoming a mile.

I tell her I don’t want her to love me, and I don’t want to love her. Laurie, I say, I don’t want to love you, and I don’t want you to love me, either. And if you have a problem with this, I guess I’ll never see you again. And the mile becomes a universe. But the camera watches her strain and stretch her arms across that infinite distance. She kisses me on the lips and the cheek and forehead and keeps telling me that I know it’s not true. And she asks me to please, please, please say that I hadn’t meant it because I meant everything in the world to her and that’s what made her so happy. But my expression never changes, because I can’t believe that once I’m gone she won’t run off to find the first man that comes along after me. But the camera only sees me turn my back to her and close my eyes.

She gets out of bed and slowly gets dressed, then she leans over the bed and puts her hand on the stitched-up wound on my forehead from two nights before and my face grimaces against the pain, but my eyes stay closed. She walks away and I am suddenly lit up as she opens the door and the light from the hall floods in. And the camera stays motionless as she says she hopes I’ll call when I feel better and then slowly erases her silhouette with the closing door. In the darkness again, the camera watches me sit up in bed and there are tears on my cheeks. It fades out as they slide down.

*  *  *

Episode… who gives a fuck anymore.

The camera remains focused on me for a long time, studying my blank face as it listens to Reverend Sanders speaking in the background. It pans out from my face, which appears even paler than it normally does on film, and my hair, slicked back and nearly black from the wet sheen of hair gel. It shows me in my black suit, then others come into the shot, and Ronald is standing beside me, tears flowing steadily down his fat, childish face. And it continues to pan out as Sanders continues to babble, past the coffin being lowered, until it sees the hundred or more people all gathered around watching and crying and saying goodbye. And the deeper the coffin goes, the higher the camera’s position goes, up and up until it is directly above the coffin. It watches the first shovelful of dirt being dropped into the grave, then cuts back to my face as I close my eyes and my head drops, and it pans out as Ronald puts his hand firmly on my shoulder and squeezes.

I shake free. “Watch it,” I tell him.

He frowns at me, even though it seems as though he shouldn’t be able to frown any more than he had been. “I’m just trying to—”

“I don’t need you trying to do anything,” I whispered back sharply. “Maybe Ma fell for that Prince Valiant bullshit, but I’m not Ma, and I will not be falling for that.”

“Shh. This isn’t exactly the time.”

“I don’t give a fuck. You can go to hell, Ronnie, straight to hell and burn. Because maybe she loved you, God knows why, but I know—I know you didn’t love her. If you really loved her you would never have stolen her away from my father, so go to hell, because I know this, and I know you just wanted something beautiful for yourself and never cared for what she needed or who she loved before you. You just saw your opportunity and stepped right on in!“ My voice gets progressively louder and I suddenly shift back to a whisper when I realize how loud I’m being. “So go to hell, and leave here, and never talk to me again and never come to visit her grave.”

“Craig, that’s not the way it is.” His passivity in the face of my rage sickens me visibly and my sternness turns into a look of disgust.

“Do you think,” I say, with all the contempt I can muster, “that she would have come looking for you after Dad died? Hell no. You’re the one who came to comfort her. You stole her, she didn’t want to start loving someone else, but you came along and took advantage of her weakened state and made her love you and you made her forget about my father, like he never existed ever in the first place.”

“If you want to believe that, Craig, I can accept that. But maybe someday you can try to accept that maybe we did love each other. I know I loved her.”

“Fuck you,” I say, and I turn my back to him and the slowly-filling grave and walk away, shoving my hands down into my pocket to fumble for a cigarette.

But as I walk away, I realize that she didn’t love me any less or any more than Ronald, or Dad. She just loved everyone, and that’s how it went with her. Not addicted to men, just unable to separate one love from another, and Ronald had taken advantage of that. She was like Gandhi, or she was like Jesus. And, God, she never gave up on Jesus in all the years, and I am sure he never gave up on her. And I’m sure she’s right up there with him, talking about how much they love and how they love everything. But I can’t live the same way as her. I can’t do that. Someone will come along and take advantage of me, like Ronald, or leave me, like, well, me—I know this.

So I light another cigarette. The camera follows the scorching ember at the end of the cigarette as I smoke it, and the camera slows the moment as it falls to the ground when I’m done. And the camera fades out as the smoke rises and dissipates into nothing. And the credits of her life roll silently: and there’s my father, and me, and Ronald, and David, and her sister, and her friends, and the homeless man she gave ten dollars to once, and everyone else she’s ever met, and finally her, and then the credits fade and it’s over; the audience sighs collectively and leaves, cursing their sticky footsteps for breaking the sacred silence. And maybe this will be the last time it fades out. Maybe I won’t get on the plane to L.A. tomorrow. Maybe I’ll just stay in bed and call Laurie instead. But maybe maybe is impossible and I probably just need another cigarette.

Tears of Glass

With only a touch, the single ivory key filled the room with its clarity. It was a shame, I thought, how the people in this town had let it wear down like this. Years ago, this grand piano of Mama’s was the finest thing you could have ever hoped to see. It was an antique, brought over from France by her grandfather. Mama spoke fluent French, and even taught me a little.

Now its keys stretched out before me, yellowing and cracked. The black sharps and flats were chipped at the sides, and the open top was filmed in fifteen year’s worth of dust. I hated it. Mama’s pride and joy, the instrument that sang for us evenings with the sound of “Lavender Blue,” withering away in this big house where no one could see it. And I, too, had forgotten about it with time.

Feeling guilty, I sat back, not willing to touch another key. Sliding over a little, I studied the handmade cloth piano seat cover Mama had made, with its flowers and vines and birds. It was missing a few spots, and some thread was traveling off at the ends.

I amost smiled to see the patch of red in the corner. That was my fault. When I was eight, I had begged to help Mama stitch the pretty designs. She was reluctant, but at last gave in to my charms. Within minutes, I had pricked my finger, and a drop of blood stained our work. But Mama did not scold. She only laughed. She always laughed.

Once again, I tried. The music inside me was straining to come out. I lifted my hands to the position—raised them up and curved them slightly, as she taught me—and finally let the notes of Handel’s Suite from The Water Music pour free.

Now this, this was glorious, the kind of piece Mama was encored for. Not because of their unsettling difficulty, but because of the deep-felt emotion she communicated to the audience through them. I can still see her in the music house on opening night, sitting grandly there in a black dress, throwing her head back and playing.

In the silence, I can hear the water pouring from the skies, the water pouring from my eyes, and the water pouring from the antique that made such beautiful sounds. It echoed and crashed up the walls and into the dining room, where Mama entertained her guests. It flowed upstairs, where she sat rocking Rosamunde’s cradle with me, and to my room, where she put me to sleep with stories of dolls and fairies.

As the notes poured forth, it all came back in a flood.


La bonne nuit, ma fille. Good night.”

“Good night, Mama. Thank you for the story.”

Dormier bein. Sleep well.”

“Which shoe should I wear? The blue or the gray?”

“Umm… the blue, Mama. It matches your eyes.”

“And yours, my silly girl.”

“Piper, what’s wrong with Daddy? Why won’t he come out?”

“He’s sad about Mama, Lucy. Don’t bother him.”

“But I want to see him!”

“Hush, hush.”

“Daddy—I brought you flowers. From Mrs. Gilmore, across the street. She sends us her love… Daddy?”

“She always did like marigolds, now, didn’t she?”

“Yes, Daddy. She did.”


Lucy’s blue eyes, round and large as wet forget-me-nots, stared up at me. She was only six, and didn’t seem to understand what had happened to us. I smoothed back her hair and turned back to the pictures on the mantel.

I didn’t know what to do.

Mama was gone… just like that. Driving home in the rain, skidded, and hit another car on her way home. Maybe she was an angel now, watching me and Lucy holding close together, me trying to be brave for her. I wondered if she remembered the story she told me last night. We didn’t know it would be the very last one she ever told me.

I silently remembered it. It was about a silly doll that never paid attention to anybody or their troubles. She turned her back to every sorrow, refusing to see nothing but pretty, happy things. So a fairy came down to confront her, in clouds of great lightning and thunder. The doll begged for mercy, because fairies were very important and very powerful things.

“You,” she cried in a terrible voice, “You have a cold heart, a heart of stone. How dare you turn a blind eye to all your friend’s troubles?” As punishment, the fairy made the doll cry tears of glass. They hurt awfully, and sometimes didn’t even come out. But, Mama said, in the end the doll was happier, because she helped her friends, no matter how she had to hurt and cry for them.

It was a grand story. I tried to tell it to Lucy once, but I could never get it just right. It was like magic when Mama told it.

I wanted to see her, wipe the blood off her, kiss her. She wore her blue shoes today, I thought, wanting to sob. We played the shoe game before she left this morning. Mama would always come out each morning, wearing two different pairs of shoes. I would get to pick the best one for her to wear, but I would have to give a reason—it matched something or other.

Sometimes I said, “It matches your temper,” or, “It matches the big wart on your toe,” or crazy things like that. I did my best to surprise her, to make her laugh with my daily choice. But this morning, for some reason, I was serious. It matches the color of your eyes, I had told her. What if they didn’t bury Mama with those shoes on? Suppose they put different, ugly ones on her, ones that didn’t match? Would she be mad at me?

Lucy stirred beside me, whimpering something about Daddy. I hushed her helplessly, and tried to distract her with a picture of her and Mama, playing outside with umbrellas.

I couldn’t blame her; I missed Daddy too. He had been in his room all day long. He didn’t even come out for supper, so I made Lucy and me peanut butter sandwiches. It was scary. Once I crept up close to his room, trying to hear what he was doing. But I knew I dared not go inside.

Daddy had always been quiet and serious, but Mama brought out the silly side of him as easily as anything. His face was usually still, but his eyes gave him away, dancing when she was near.

At the hospital this afternoon, I noticed something unusual. His eyes were just as still and hard as the line of his jaw. It frightened me. As soon as we got home, he vanished, refusing to offer even little Lucy a hug.

Again, I, the big sister, didn’t know what to do. Daddy needed help, and we needed him, and most of all, Lucy needed me. That was the pressure. I had to be the grown-up, now, when I needed my parents the most of all.

There was a knocking at the door. I brushed Lucy’s clinging hands away, and went to open it.

It was Mrs. Gilmore, a lady we knew from church. She stood uneasily there in the doorway in a blue dress, her plump hands clutching a handful of marigolds. She patted my head, saying she was sorry and asking for my father.

I thought of him, holed up in his room, angry and refusing to talk to anybody or to even come out for dinner. No, he was in no business to see visitors, no matter how well-meaning.

Her round face beamed at me, assuring me that it was all right. She’d be glad if I just took the flowers in where they could brighten up the house a bit. She hoped it would help.

Marigolds were Mama’s favorite.

Somehow, I knew Daddy needed to see these. I thanked Mrs. Gilmore, said goodbye, and went back inside. Lucy’s eyes got big as I approached his room. I didn’t bother to knock. My heart pounded as I turned the brass knob.

He was sitting on the bed, staring at his wedding ring lying in his palm.

Squeak—my foot hit a floorboard. He jumped and turned quickly, glaring at me from under dark, stormy brows, as if daring me to come any closer.

I held out the flowers like a peace offering, and hurried to explain before he could say anything. My words kept getting all shaky and tangled up, tripping over each other. He sat staring at the broken stems in my hand for a while, the tension in the room getting to thin ice, threatening to collapse. I prayed he wouldn’t yell. Lucy might hear, and then what would I do? Daddy, please.

Slowly the anger slipped out of his face, replaced by a wistful look. His eyes were far away. Maybe he’d even forgotten I was there. He took the handful of bright orange and yellow flowers, musing softly, “She always did like marigolds, now, didn’t she?”

Hot tears stung my eyes. He saw, pulling me close.

Lucy hurried in on her short legs and climbed up on the bed with us. All three of us cried there, but I felt strong with their arms around me.

A Bible verse came to mind, one that Mama had insisted I learn. Now I knew why. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Ours would now. I was sure of it.

Water flowed down the bed…

…and downstairs, mixing with the notes I played fifteen years later.

The song came to an end, and so did the memory. I returned to the present, now a college-age girl, just a guest in her old home.

Closing my eyes, I could stil hear the last ghostly echoes of the water music, floating and bouncing against the walls upstairs, the walls that held all my memories.

Je vous aime, Mama. I love you. And I cried tears of glass.

The Undreaming

She measures distances with her eyes and stands right at the centre of the room so that the fleas won’t get to her. The room is dank and the window with the crooked frame does not let in the mountains outside, white and blue. Light leaks in like puss.

She has heard tales about this room, heard about the voice in the night, the footsteps that loosen clumps of dirt off the cow dung mud walls with their weight, how the building shook more than any of the others during the earthquake, as if there were someone heaving against it from behind, heaving against it and lifting it up and slamming it back down, shaking its foundation with the strength of a giant. She has also heard about the fleas that appeared one night and covered the walls, floor, ceiling black like burnt sugar spread in layers and she can feel them now, moving under the cow dung that the maids washed over all the walls. Movement catches her eye; she turns, it vanishes, catches her from the other corner and vanishes again and she feels the floor shiver and the ceiling vibrate and cow dung mud move in ripples over the walls, rippling over the bodies of fleas like black sugar, trapped under shit.

Her Gods had never told her things would come to this. Trapped between the orange liquid, the pictures of Ram, Shiva, Kali on all four walls, the incense that smoked a grey cloud too fat to push out the door, she had never thought things would come to this. The rice tasted of her orange liquid. It traveled through her body and came out in her eyes in lightning bolts of red. Storms grew around her ires. She was drunk on her dinner. She had not known.

She used to walk through the gardens then, conscious of her slender waist, with her oiled hair spilling down her back, her maid one step behind her.

“Kali, keep some rose water by the bed tonight. He is coming… again.”

And she blushed at the thought of her husband by her side and blushed even more as she passed the statues of European women standing fat, white, naked around the frog-shaped pond.

He used to bring her perfumes from Europe in dozens of boxes and the jewels flooded in in caskets—rubies, diamonds, pearls—and the saris came in every shade of color and she would wrap her naked self with them and throw them around the room and watch them settle to the ground, lengths of cloth curving and rippling in multicoloured designs. He brought her Tibetan mastiffs that seemed to bark from their balls and Pekinese that yapped like the maids in the kitchens and turtles and white rabbits and a peacock that fanned its tail to every dawn. He even brought her a leopard once, a kitten with teeth like razors and she used to spend whole days playing with it till one day it grew up and started snarling behind its cage, and when it ripped the thumb off the servant feeding it, she wept as he ordered it to be sent to the zoo. And he used to come to her almost every night and she could smell him before he came and hear the jingles of his military uniform and the heavy clicks of his boots of power.

But that did not last very long. She looked out her window one evening when she heard the clicks of the boots of his power on stone, and he was there with the Maharani, walking under the blue red sky of dusk and swallows flitted around their heads in the gardens, and the Maharani giggled like a little girl even though she was nearing forty. And it was still the Maharani who he took with him to his parties and it was she whom he presented to the world as his wife and it was she who bore him his only son, the inheritor of the big white house like a slice of moon fallen clear off the sky and the statues of white women and the gardens of white jasmine. It was she he turned to when he needed consolation or hope or home.

She was his fourth wife and she had no title. She was no Maharani, she was not even Rani. She was his concubine and he had married her in a temple with a lone priest chanting the prayers; he had married her in a hurry and as soon as the chanting stopped, he snapped his fingers and the priest ran out of the temple tripping over his priest’s dress cloth on the monsoon-wet stairs, and she could still see the white shadow of the half-naked priest running with the fear of God through the dark rain while he pulled her to the ground.

“Kali, tell me, what is the news of the other houses?”

She was tired. Her eyes were swollen and there were cooling leaves around them. He had not come to her in five nights.

Kali’s face brightened. She liked conversation that had to do with other people’s lives and she had a lot to say on the subject.

She let out her high cackle like a flock of ducks lifting to the ceiling and the Ranisab felt disorientated, the sound resounding in her head. She had caught Kali today playing with her saris. Kali was stripped naked down to her petticoat—who does she think she is—and she was fashioning herself in front of the mirror, cradling her pin-sized breasts with the Ranisab’s multi-coloured cloths, first this way and then that. The Ranisab did not want a confrontation, so she exaggerated her footsteps and stomped her way towards the door. Kali heard, panicked, flew across the room dragging lengths of color behind her, and met the Ranisab at the door with her cholo worn inside-out. The Ranisab wanted to slap her then.

“Well, they say the Maharani is expecting again. Rita told me she has been having morning sickness, puking like a dog. At forty! What shame, how strong she must be down there. Tsk tsk, after eight pregnancies and three miscarriages, one would think she has had enough. And her two daughters married already and her son nearing twenty! What shame, what will people think?”

“She can do whatever she wants, Kali. Look at who her father is. No one can touch her, not even him.” She looked out the window at the hills growing in the horizon.

“What about the other two?”

“Rani Sita is still breastfeeding. One would think a woman of her stature would let the nurse do the nursing, but no, Sita Rani needs to have it her own way. What a wild thing, I must say. I heard she is going for the tiger hunt as soon as the child is weaned. Oh… but you must hear the juiciest piece of news… one of the cooks told me that there is something going on between the Rani and the cow boy. Mmhmm… he seems to be going to the house more often than to the cow sheds. I wonder who exactly it is that he is milking?”

“Tsk, Kali, your mind is even darker than your name.”

“Oh yes, but it is the truth I speak, Ranisab, and what innocence can I have when there is corruption all around me?”

“You are only 13. You are not supposed to know such things.”

“Women of my age are mothers in my village, Ranisab. I am not a girl anymore.”

“But make sure you control your tongue when other people are around. I don’t want you to spoil my reputation.”

“No Ranisab, of course, I am master of my tongue. Do you want to hear of Min Rani?”

“What can possibly be new with her?”

“She is going on pilgrimage.”

“What, again?”

“Mmhmm. To ManaKamana.”

“Poor woman.”

“For the seventh time, for the same thing. I don’t think she will ever conceive. She is not fertile. But if you ask me, I don’t think she is even given the chance. The cook tells me he has not gone to her for over two years now!”

“Poor woman.”

“But lucky you. If she was also in on his time, you would be sitting here weeping your eyes out for longer stretches of time.”

“That’s enough, Kali. Leave.”

“Yes, Ranisab.”

The Ranisab was angry at the truth. She was angry at the daring of the puny servant girl who was nothing but ribs and elbows and large white teeth, white like the rest of her. She wondered who would name such a fair girl Kali, black.

She knew she was losing. There was a brief stretch of time when she was the only one he came to, and she thought that would last. She wondered what went wrong. She started rubbing aloe into the roots of her hair. She began oiling her skin brown under the shine of the sun. She made Kali bring fresh milk to her every morning, so that she could wash her face in the whiteness. The Ranisab was born dark, and she tried to scrub the pigment away from her face, scrub it, peal it, wash it away. Maybe he left because she became too dark for him in the midst all the white glory of his power.

Many years after the event, she let her color in through the back door and kept it as a showpiece at the very front of her pride. He used to be hers, once; he used to be hers.

I was never white. There was no fair in me, no slice of moon or tail of star. I was the dark one, the keeper of the darkest night. And so he came to me when there was no moon and the house lost its shine and dew was thick like syrup over black grass. He came to me, and he was mine, he was mine till dawn showed my color and his larger other-life.

And here she cackled toothlessly and toothlessly bore her triumph while the bun on her head loosened itself and her hair spilled like milk unto the ground.

Kali Ranisab has been taking nighttime walks around the garden, flapping her arms, cracking bones and knuckles by her side like an aged bird. She has begun chanting prayers to all four directions during sunset, joining palms to pink skies of the North, then West, then South, then East. Some nights, when the moon comes out full-faced behind clouds, she wraps her white widow’s sari about her naked body and walks into the night with lamps balanced on her open outstretched palms. She takes a step at a time, walking deeper into the garden, deeper, till the smell of jasmine grows so strong it wraps like a shawl. She takes one step at a time, lamps firing on open palms, till she reaches the pipal tree at the centre of the garden. And then she circles the tree, whispering her prayers to the night, whispering her prayers to the soft breeze combing though the leaves, to the clouds silently sliding over the white faced moon.

The Ranisab has forgotten what exactly happened, the chronology of the whole thing, the way it was supposed to have happened. But the orange liquid plays with time in her head, and she no longer knows what came first, or what second, but there were two events, so interlinked, so coincidental, it could have been one event. She cannot remember.

All she remembers is waking up one morning with her guts wrenching themselves out her mouth and she ran to her night pot and thought she was puking out her life and the cooling leaves fell from her forehead and covered her eyes and momentarily she thought she was going blind, she was dying from the pain in her heart and the pain in her belly. And she threw up the next morning and the next and then she noticed her missed bleeding—Kali, what is happening to me?

And Kali had her thirteen-year-old lips pressed in a thin straight line.

“You are pregnant, Ranisab, and I think it must be a boy.”

“But how can it be… I cannot imagine… could I really?”

“Yes, you are expecting, Ranisab.”

“Why do you say it will be a boy?”

“Because you puke like a sick dog and soon enough, somebody is going to start kicking you hard from the inside. Only boys are strong enough for such things. It starts from the seed. You are going to have a son. Should I get you water?”

“No, wait. Wait,” and the Ranisab clasped the servant girl with a puke-stained hand, “Wait, you must not tell anybody of this, not yet, you understand me? Not yet.&rdquot; And there was wild fear in her eyes and her lips were trembling.

“Yes, Ranisab.”

“Keep that mouth of yours shut for a while.”

“Yes hajur.”

And though she muffled the sounds of her pregnancy, though she awoke an hour earlier in the mornings and disappeared into the gardens, retching in privacy among the jasmine, somehow somebody found out. They came to her one night, held her by her long hair on the darkest of nights and someone broke the covers away from her clenched fists, someone pulled her pillow over her face, someone beat her in the belly again and again till she bled black blood onto the pillow covering her face and dropped a piece of life from her body. They knew it was a question of inheritance and property and power. They knew she was going to have a son. The only other son.

Long after the event, she still spent eternity drenched in her own seeping blood on the bed and the smell of nighttime jasmine came through the open windows. Night turned to day, and other smells came into the air. Day moved to night and the jasmine came back through the window.

Kali came every dawn and wept by her bed. She soaked cloths with cool water and washed her and controlled the blood and told her things would be ok. She brought her fruit and milk and rice pudding and then she leveled her voice down to a slight whisper and half covered her mouth with her hand.

“The cook says it was the Maharani, she had her suspicions, you know, you were his favorite for a long time. Even the walls have ears here, someone must have heard because I did not tell a soul. Not a soul. But things will repay themselves, just wait and see, that is the way of the world, that is God’s way. He will bring you justice. But you should not think about this subject anymore. And it should never be mentioned. The Maharani knows too much about politics. She is too smart, that woman.”

And in her delirium, the Ranisab equated God with Him, and she kept moaning that he would never come. He would never come.

The Ranisab’s body repaired itself after a couple of weeks. She started walking without bleeding, eating without throwing up, breathing without hurting. She started sitting by her window for long stretches of time, looking at hills grow in the horizon.

And it was at the window, at a time when all the other maids and manservants were at their meals, the smell of rice coming and filling the room, that she heard a muffled cackle rise from the gardens. The Ranisab cocked her head, thought a thought, bent over the window and looked down at the paths laid in stone meandering through jasmine and rose and peach tree. And there, half hidden behind shrubs and trees, she saw the white arms of Rita, supple in their youth, and the general was unwinding the sari from her flat-chested body, turning her round and round like a top while the bright cloth curled in a ripple at their feet. Rita was laughing, letting the ducks of her glee lift off wildly into the afternoon, and the tears came down the Ranisab’s face till they choked her like a mouth full of feathers.

Something fell from her soul and the Ranisab went to find it. She went to her Gods, Kali, Shiva, Ram, portraits hanging large as life from her walls. They stared back at her. She went to the priests who talked of God as Love. She went to the old nurses, who talked of the universe in seven layers, and, “There is a place of fire four layers below this earth, and sometimes, during earthquakes, the earth belches out fire and fish,” one old hag told her. The other one turned to her friend with a frown deepening her wrinkles, “Are you sure it is fire? I heard that during the Big earthquake, boiled water frothed from the earth like it was a kettle and then there were fish.” So the Ranisab went to find her own God.

She found her God in the room of an old nursemaid who had wrinkled up and dried like black raisin, and the Ranisab found comfort in her dark skin.

“Sometimes,” the old woman said, lifting her eyes slowly up to the Ranisab’s face, and the Ranisab realized with a shock that the old woman’s eyes were light blue and milk white, “you need to search on the other side. Sometimes you need outside help. Sometimes you need to interrupt fate.”

And her blue milk eyes seemed to spear their transparency into the Ranisab’s body. She felt like someone was stealing her soul.

“Come, I will show you something,” and the old woman hobbled, her bones cracking and breaking, to an old wooden shelf with knife scars and from inside its darkness she pulled a round black stone that seemed to be a part of the shelf itself. It stood in sharp contrast to her white widow’s sari.

“You see this? This holds the power, Ranisab. It is the only thing stable and life revolves round it. It fell from the sky one night, broke through the window in the storm and landed right here on my lap. It was meant to be. So I did not fight it. I used it instead.”

“What is it?” the Ranisab asked, gently cradling the small roundness in the palm of her hand. She was surprised at its heaviness.

“It is a vessel, hajur. You need to take care of it like you would a temple. You need to offer it fruit and blood. You need to feed it sacrifice to keep it happy. And then only will it let you use it.”

The Ranisab felt weak and she looked up at the old woman for comprehension.

“It is the home of the spirit, hajur. It is the home of him. And he is very powerful. Make him happy, and he will do you favors. Special favors. He will make things right. It is called tantric magic, hajur, and through him, through this stone, you will have tantric powers. Use it well.”

The Ranisab had heard of this before, and like a child who has touched something hot, she withdrew her hands in a hurry, dropping the stone, letting it roll on the floor, her eyes wide and frightened. The old woman bent down and picked it up almost immediately, impossibly fast for her stooped back and her bones cracking, crumbling.

“Never misuse it, hajur. Never make it angry. Never.”

And the blue whiteness of the woman’s eyes were angry at the Ranisab. They took time to soften, and after a lengthened silence, after the Ranisab swallowed and swallowed and did not know which way to look, the woman turned and looked tired.

“You must make out of life what you can, hajur. Or else there is no life. Do not let other people smother you while you sleep. You must wake up, hajur. Especially after what happened to you, especially you.”

The Ranisab fell for the power of the stone. She fell into its binds and felt revived, felt the flow of strength through her veins, felt the foolishness and brash confidence of youth and power. The general returned to her room, and suddenly he became a child to her. He became her puppet. She kept the stone in a safe place, and prayed to it everyday, and offered it milk and fruits and blood of goat, and it answered her wishes. The spirit inside made the general fall in love with her, fall in love like he had never done so before, fall so that he showed up late for his only son’s wedding, fell off his horse, forgot his meals.

But Kali resisted. She clung to what had been hers for a few minutes in the garden, naked in the garden smelling of love and jasmine and power. She came to the Ranisab grinding her jaws and pinched her accidentally while massaging her legs. She accidentally let the cat rip one of the Ranisab’s favorite saris. She constantly dreamt of accidentally killing the Ranisab in her sleep. Kali never guessed and was surprised how things had not gone her way. She felt weak.

And the Ranisab saw and felt glee but pretended not to notice.

But then the Ranisab would wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, screaming, feeling a tear grow in her belly, and she would hear voices in her dreams, voices of babies calling to her, Mother Mother Where Are You Mother? And she would remember the piece of flesh that was her own that was a part of her that was a part of life that she lost. And there would grow anger in her belly, anger filling up the hole, anger so strong it made her forget to breathe till she turned blue.

Even the walls have ears, but you told.

The Ranisab scarified a black chicken to the stone. She did it by herself. She let the blood shoot out and sprayed the room with the redness. Then she took out the strand of hair, the piece of cloth, the broken piece of bangle that all belonged to Kali, that she had collected over weeks of purpose. She did her dark magic. Kali fell into the fever that night. She never woke the next morning.

A month passed. Mother Mother Where Are You Mother, the dreams came back. They entered through the unconscious back door of the Ranisab’s mind and lingered there. Then they moved. They came to her when she was awake, and she would drop things in the middle of the day, screaming, crying. They got longer, fleshed out, took color.

Mother Mother Where Are You Mother, but this time it was not the piece of flesh lost from her body that was calling to her. This time it was Kali, thirteen-year-old Kali with her flat chest and white elbows, a girl with dirt under her nails, ducks in her throat and dreams in her eyes.

The Ranisab ran up to her room, threw open the door, dug the stone out. “Why?!” she screamed, “Why,” and she threw the stone at the window, sent it crashing through the glass into the jasmine climbing thick and white up the side of the building. She looked up at the skies and called out. She called out to the dead nursemaid. She called out to know what to do.

Things started to go wrong. She could feel his presence in the room, feel the power move from room to room in the house, searching for blood. People started to get sick: the maids, the servants, the children, the dogs. The general lost weight and stopped coming. He locked himself for two weeks in his room after his favorite horse died standing up in the stables. The Ranisab wept hard, wept the nights away, wept because she could not find the stone. She came out of the jasmine creepers with scratches along her arms and there were thick strands of her hair stuck to leaves and cut-off branches. She had the look of a mad dog. She had the plant uprooted. She could not redirect fate. She was to blame, and she feared, feared like she had never done so before.

It was when the presence started to take on the shape of a thin black shadow that the Ranisab picked up her bottle of orange liquid and fell into a drunken stupor for three days, three nights. The shadow passed around her, moving along the walls, and the Ranisab no longer knew if it was real. She could feel the orange liquid in her mind and thought she was drowning. She was being sucked away, down, breaking through layers of dirt, past layers of snakes and earthworms and beetles, down into the other layers of the universe. One night she woke up yelling because she had felt fire and knew she had been pulled all the way into the fourth layer, from where fire burst forth and boiling water and fish with small heavy black stones for eyes. And she could see the thin white face of Kali crying, Mother Mother What Have You Done Mother. My Mother. And the Ranisab drank more to wash away the dreams.

I must make him leave. I brought him here, and I will take him out. I will stop the hurting. I will fix fate.

The Ranisab trips over her own feet. The orange liquid makes her feel like she is moving through water. Her movements come in slow motion. Her hair has lost all color, has become white like milk. Her face has grown darker, crumpled up like a black raisin. She does not care. All she remembers is he came to her in the darkest of nights and she was his. She wears a white widow’s sari. The general died seven days ago.

She stands at the centre of the room so that the flees won’t get to her. She has heard stories about this room, and the stories have come to her, swimming in her mind swimming in liquid orange. She knows of the flees that came one night, and she sees them, moving under the cow dung mud. She feels an itching at her scalp.

She looks around the room. The black shelf with knife scars is still standing there, as it had all those years ago. She remembers the blue milk eyes of the dead nursemaid.

This is the womb from where the black stone was taken. This is where his power lies.

And she stands there at its center, the orange liquid playing in her mind making the floor walls ceiling move. She stands there with a black chicken in her hand, the bird screeching, clawing, thrashing.

I will undo what I did before.

The Ranisab sways. The crooked window does not let in the mountains outside, white and blue. There are tears choking her like a mouthful of feathers.

The Weight of a Stone

My grandmother died while squatting over a toilet hole dug in the vegetable garden behind our house. People say she deserved it. They say the way of her death shows what a sinful life she lead. God punished her and killed her amidst her own wastes. When they took her body out and wrapped it in a yellow sheet, I did not cry. They laid her in the courtyard out front and her white hair spilled like milk onto the red mud. They say she was very light, wrapped in that yellow sheet. Her soul had left her body and taken all her sinful heaviness away. I could see hints of her withered naked body under that sheet. She was washed clean by her own death, and like a piece of paper that is wetted and left out to dry, I thought she would soon crumble. I did not cry when I looked at the blue hollowness underneath her eyes, or the red puffiness of her cheeks when the rest of her body was a leathery yellow. I did not cry as I circled her body twice in respect. They carried her away on green bamboo sticks that sagged under her light weight. Nothing in her life has ever been stable.

Maybe that’s why I did not cry. I wanted to be the one thing she could count upon as stable. I wanted her withered body under that sheet to know that I was her one success. I wanted to thank her and say yes, yes grandmother, yes; I am strong enough and I will survive.

There was a girl who used to wake up before dawn, and after starting the kitchen fire, she would run to her favorite hilltop and flap her arms like a crazed bird at the rising sun. She always wanted to fly. She would scream and flap arms and send low clouds skittering around her brown ankles like snakes slipping on wet mud. Her silhouette is pinned before a rising golden orb forever. She screams and flaps her arms into eternity.

They say her father favored her since she was the youngest. She was allowed to fly kites with the little village boys. She fought them over defeated kites that floated by from a neighboring kite flight. She climbed trees in her short skirt and bared her bottom to boys who had just discovered fantasizing. Then she picked the ripest fruits—either guavas or oranges or mangoes—and threw them at those boys who were too numbed by their dreams to dodge fast enough. They all punched her arm like they would any other boy, but each one was convinced she was his princess.

She fell in love before she learned how to keep her skirt down. But nobody noticed. They started talking much later—after her mother had given her her first full-sleeved choli and long wraparound dhoti. You could no longer see the clumsy clouds slipping about her bare ankles. They, along with her bare bottom, were hidden from the world. She couldn’t flap her arms as effectively in her stiff choli either. Anyone looking up at her black silhouette against yellow would have blinked once and thought he was seeing a bandaged bird. A bird bound by the cloth of fate. A bird which could never fly. All those who saw her would then click their thick tongues and say, “Poor thing—beechara.” Then they would forget all about her and she would be left flapping for a million other suns.

They married her immediately after she learned that flapping her arms in a stiff cotton choli is never effective. Her father cried as he carried his youngest daughter on his back in the traditional farewell. “Even if she was the fattest thing in the world, her weight could never break my back,” he wept, “but the lightness of her absence will kill me.” He died two days later from a broken back after he fell off a tree while chopping branches for firewood.

She was married into a wealthy house—it had two fields—near the capital, Kathmandu. Her father had made sure that his daughter would never have to climb trees to collect fuel for her next meal.

Her husband, at seventeen, was five years older than she and was growing a beard. Her mother-in-law, who had just touched thirty, looked twenty years older and had a voice like a butcher’s knife. She cut flesh left and right and kept her son under her protective wing. But even she was challenged when her young daughter-in-law refused to sleep with her son. The young thing would flap her stiff arms and scream whenever her goateed husband entered her room. Every night would be a relay of yells with a young fledgling flapping her wings and a horrified mother-in-law chopping feathers with her sharp words. The neighbors complained, family shame started to rattle its old bones, and the mother-in-law said that the worst thing a girl can do is to dirty the honor of her father. My grandmother conceived that night with tears choking her like a mouthful of feathers.

Two days after her son was born, her husband died in his sleep with no apparent cause. His mother decided to blame her daughter-in-law for the misfortune. She banged her head against the wall until it bled, and when her daughter-in-law came to hold her away, she attacked her. She slapped my grandmother on and on while the baby cried in its wicker basket.

Everyone was convinced that my grandmother was a witch. “She hated him, so she killed him,” they said. And anyway, in order to enter the rights of witchcraft, a woman has to sacrifice either her newborn or her husband. She chose the flesh that did not belong to her. Nobody tried to take the other piece of flesh away from her. The baby’s grandmother knew that someone would have to breastfeed the boy, and then someone would have to care for him when she—his grandmother—was gone. Besides, it is always too dangerous to play around with a witch.

Later, my grandmother would throw away the fruits her son gave her for Mother’s Day, with a disgusted expression on her face. “But they are so nice and fresh, look,” I would point with my pudgy finger, and she would say, “I know, but that’s the only way to keep him coming back. You have to be very demanding.” And my father kept on coming, because he believed he was not worthy of his mother’s love.

She showed me a stone, once. It was small and black and extremely heavy. “It fell out of the sky,” she said, “I was sitting on the very top of my favorite hill at home. It was so beautiful from up there. All you could see was blue sky stretching ahead and greenery below. Only eagles soar at that height, and when you are up there, you feel like a bird. The sky was blue, but there was lightning. I knew a storm was coming, but I did not care. I did not care because that was my last day on my hill. So I was just sitting there with folded legs, when suddenly this stone fell out of the sky and onto my lap. Just like that.”

She placed the stone in the center of my palm and I shivered. “That stone holds all my troubles,” she said. “It’s a little packet that represents my life. God tells me that I can hold it in my palm. I tell you that you can, too. Just hold it in your palm, and then you can look at it from a bird’s-eye view—just like an eagle. It is the only way to survive. Look at how small it is, so irrelevant. But feel how heavy it is. It can weigh you down. Amazing, isn’t it?” She kept that stone because her only purpose was I, and my only purpose is the stone of life.

Just before my grandmother died, she had taken to walking out into the fields at night with withered arms flapping and cracking at her sides. No one came to her funeral. They were scared by her lightness. But she was always light, I tell them; all her heaviness is in the stone. They just wrinkled their noses at me and said that I had gotten too much under her influence. Only my father cried like a baby at her funeral. She has made him weak with her fear of losing him.

My grandmother died five years ago, and tomorrow I am getting married to the man I love. I am walking up a steep hill and there are silver hints of lightning where the hilltop breaks into the sky. I know this is the greatest purpose of my life.

I hurl a small black stone into blueness. There is lightness in my open palm. I open my arms up to my shoulders and feel the wind, hot with sparks of lightning, sweep up my face. I wonder what happened to my grandmother’s one true love. Where is he? Although there is a strong temptation, I resist flapping my arms. Let all the people looking up at my silhouette mistake me for a soaring eagle, soaring above a million more storms to come. The ghost of a flightless bird takes the first drop of rain into her mouth and soars. Soars; just like that.

Glass Bead Realizations

She went to the land of Bollywood with a glass bead wedding necklace hanging loosely from her neck like a noose before it gives its snapping goodbye. She went to the land of dreams with pride coloring her shadow; a haughty swing of her thick plait; and why not? Her name was Sapana—she was named after a dream.

Why not? I thought, though I cried the night before because she got the chance bestowed to her curvy hips, her white Colgate smile, her Lackmed eyes. And what about me? What about me. I have never had the smartness of a woman.

I envied her from the day I realized that looking pretty was more important than being rough. I had always been good in games, in fighting, in being, well… rough. When we were much younger, I used to bully her so badly that she never joined any of our games. She became a weak ghost, a girl who was just that… a girl. No more. Well I… well; I was more of a boy, a fighter, someone who laughed when the mother advised the daughter to wash her hair in red mud to make it shiny and black as coal. I ran after kites and learned that slamming the flat of your hand into someone’s face is much more effective than curling that same hand into a fist. I learned that one should never box someone with the thumb hidden inside the white-knuckled clench of a fist. I learned that if someone digs at your eyes with two fingers, you could just bring your flattened hand vertically up at your nose, and whoever’s fingers however long, would never reach your eyes. I learned that being flat was more beneficial than being round.

The day I discovered that I was turning round, that my legs could not carry me fast enough, that the boys I used to beat up now towered over me; anger glinted inside like a raised knife waiting to fall. From then on, I stopped fighting with boys and started fighting with girls instead. I could have died for my gang—a group of seven girls who knew that their only honor was their strength.

One day my friend was walking down the road after a harvest party with a cup of alcohol made out of rice gurgling in her stomach. She bumped into an older woman with a baby clinging onto her hip; and the woman turned around and told her to watch where she was going, if she wanted so much to bump into somebody, why not pick on a boy and not a woman with child. My friend lunged for the woman, who managed to push her baby just in time into the arms of a stunned passer-by. With sour rice spinning in her head, she grabbed the first thing she could lay her hands on—the hanging glass bead wedding necklace of the older woman. My friend would have choked the woman if the latter had not bitten her hand so hard that it bled. When she came crying to us, shamed, with a bleeding hand, we promised to revenge her.

A gang of young girls met a gang of married women on an open field. They swore at each other across the field, draining their vocabulary of all possible provocative words. Then they ran at each other. One group slammed faces with the flat of trained hands. The other tried to box with clenched fists, thumbs hidden in… at least that was what we expected. But no, both groups used the flat of their hands, both groups were equally trained, both groups were down on the ground before a batch of nearby factory workers separated bodies that grabbed for each other like angry magnets. That was the day I realized that those married women had been like us once upon a time. It was only the glass bead necklace that made all the difference. From that day, I promised never to enter a fight again unless I wanted to make a total fool of myself.

We were playing a game of volleyball in our village school. A group of soldiers were staring at us from the barracks adjacent to our school. I felt anger at the leering stares; while I pulled my shorts a little lower down my hips so that they touched the top of my knees. Then I rounded in my shoulders so that they hid the roundness of my chest. Just as I realized that though flatness was more advantageous, roundness would be with me my whole life; I saw Sapana at the edge of the field, leaning over the fence to receive a red rose from the best looking of all the soldiers. She was smiling, saying something while flicking her black hair away from her face with a flat hand. I realized that there were many ways to win, many ways to use a flat hand.

I did not see the compact white roundness of the volleyball come flying towards me. By the time the other girls screamed words of warning, I had turned my face away from the fence just in time to receive the full force of the ball smack in the middle of my forehead. Roundness introduced herself to me the way I had always wanted—with a punch. They say I blacked out after that. The only thing I remember is waking up seeing nothing but the white sun and thinking nothing but that Sapana had listened to her mother and washed her hair with red mud, making in shiny and black as coal.

Somewhere between feeling the volleyball slap my forehead and waking up thinking that Sapana had washed her hair with red mud, I realized that I had missed something in life; that something had zoomed past me with the speed of a taxi, and I was left behind choking on the hot fumes.

Sapana came to school every day on the arms of a boy, the same one, a different one; I could not catch up on the latest news of her life. She gained popularity so fast; my previous gang friends joined her company. They started looking at boys themselves. They began smiling, talking, giggling, slapping back loose strands of hair with the flat of hands. They started washing their hair with red mud.

A week ago Sapana took off with one of her boy friends. “Eloped”—the news came in the form of hot speedy gossip. Everyone else’s question was “which one?” My question was “how?” Some said it was the one who dropped her to school on his brand new motorbike once. Others said it was the one who bought her a new sari. No one said how.

Two days later, another piece of gossip fired through our tiny village—Sapana has been sold, it screamed in bold letters, she has been sold to a whorehouse in Bombay. The boy only pretended to fall in love with her. He asked her to marry him. He said he would take her to his rich house in India. She flicked back her shiny and coal black hair and thought she would finally be out of here. She would finally show all these people who she really was. She would no longer be bossed around. She would finally be somebody. Her shadow colored with pride.

At first I cried because I had not learned how to become a woman. Then I cried because Sapana had not learned how to become the right type of woman.

I cried for her as I fought. I cried for her future as I broke my promise to myself. I cried for the man who sold her as I broke jaws with the flat of my hand.

I have earned a black belt in karate. I have fought with men. I have won national tournaments. I have fallen in love. In a month’s time I am going to start hanging a glass bead wedding necklace about my neck. What I will do with that necklace—that will be the hardest fight of all.

Another Person

I watched him walk by the shore, the sea whipping around his tanned legs. He looked desolate, caught up in the moment. I watched silently from the balcony as the guy I had grown to know and love… no, he was no more. The boy was still there, but his soul had gone. He was no longer the guy I had fallen in love with. I watched as he tossed a stone in the sea and stared as it bounced. As I stood a few feet above him, I felt guilty. Guilty that I had let him become like this, guilty I had just let him slip away. I wanted to believe he deserved it, I really did. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t face another day standing by and watching him mope around as if he had nothing better to do. Because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t bring myself even to speak to him. As he turned slowly, our eyes met, locked in a solid gaze we had come to recognize. Only this was different. His eyes didn’t bear the love they used to—only loneliness, and emptiness. Not a tremor of joy…

As I walked further up the beach, I threw a rock into the sea, not even the waves lapping at my feet soothing my temper. All I could think about was how she could do this to me. We were doing just fine, until we hit that rough patch. And all because I’d started on the basketball team. Just because I wanted to live my own life meant to her that we should throw away everything we ever worked for. Everything that meant the world to me. Then when I turned, I saw her. She was staring down at me, and I then realized that we now had nothing in common. We’d changed. She was not the girl I had fallen in love with. I read the look on her face to be sympathetic, as she had every right to be. Because she ruined it for us, and pinned all the blame on the victim. But as we stood there, gazing at each other as if frozen in place, there was something missing in the way she looked at me. There was not a tremor of guilt or shame. Not a tremor.

Down the Stairs

I run down the stairs to avoid the laughing clump behind me.

Why do groups of people have their voices all mesh together? It’s annoying. I can hear him, though, and her too.

I run down the stairs, down into a corner on the lowest level. I hope they stop on the second floor. The steps go… and go… and go… no. They’re coming down.

I look to the left, to the right, nervously, a mouse knowing that there’s a cat coming but unable to do anything. I think I can even feel my nose twitching.

And there are their feet. Like a movie, really, the camera pans upward: the feet, the knees, hips, stomach, breasts (it stops here for a second—if I’m going to be in an uncomfortable situation, I may as well have a little fun), up to the shoulders, neck, head. The laughing smile.

And the audio comes in suddenly, the conglomerate of adolescent voices forming one all-powerful. The popular crowd is a single being with semi-liberated appendages.

A mouse, did I say I was? Yes. A mouse, cowering against the wall. A mouse, deep in thought, paralyzed by headlights that have suddenly sprung from her eyes. Cats’ eyes are reflective, right? Sorta like headlights.

My eyes are black. Technically and metaphorically, it’s because they don’t reflect any light. It’s because it absorbs everything and gives nothing back.

Anyway, my eyes are black, not as catchy, but I’m a large mouse, so I’m noticed. A six-foot mouse cowering in a corner from the popular entity. Well, from a lot more than that, but it’s complicated.

“What are you doing?” he asks, smiling, laughing at the image of a large mouse with long curly hair.

I don’t answer.

“What are you doing?” Repeated. The smile is beginning to fade.

“Are you OK?” It’s gone.

And they begin to walk toward me. The cat, unbeknownst to itself, is upon me.

“What’s wrong?” It’s on me, as I slip my back down the wall and huddle myself into a crying ball.

The being and its conglomerate of voices start up again. What’s wrong, can we do anything, what happened, should I call a teacher: the cat’s claws rip me to shreds.

There’s nothing more boring to a cat than a mouse it can’t eat or play with, however, and since I don’t answer, it soon gets bored. It leaves. I am forgotten, forgotten fairly easily for most of the appendages. She remembers, maybe, but she’s not really an appendage. She’s everywhere. She’s a shiny black: absorbs everything, but reflects some. That’s the only difference between me and her, even if it is a small one that causes such a huge gap in our existences.

The mouse limps off.

The Most Glorious Dream

I picture myself center stage in the most enormous and fantastically beautiful theater in the world. Its walls and ceilings are covered in impeccable Victorian paintings of angels in the sky. A single ray of light shines down upon my face, shining through the still, silent darkness, and all attention is on me and me alone. The theater is a packed house; however, my audience is not that of human beings, but rather the angels from the paintings on the walls come alive, sitting intently in the rows of plush seats. Their warmth encompasses my body, and I know at that moment that it is time to begin.

I open my mouth. From deep inside my soul a melody flows out of my chest, off of my tongue, and finally caresses my lips with the sweetest touch, and my song fills the air with a boldness like that of the glory of the angels. The sound of my song is that of unfathomable wonder, a voice as sweet and smooth as the face of a child. I sing and sing and sing my heart out, and I wonder and wonder and wonder in awe of the sound that is coming from my mouth and my throat and my soul, and I sing with more power than I have ever felt before. It takes over my entire body and the adrenaline surges like I never imagined it could surge. My whole world is aglow.

For those precious moments, everything is right, and then I am alone. The angels have disappeared, yet the stage is still mine, and suddenly, from out of nowhere, a piano begins to play. I can’t see it, but I can feel it in every cell of my body, and my voice again takes charge and rushes out to court the empty notes of the piano. The two become one, and never before have the theater’s walls heard such awesome music. In this enormous theater, I am alone, but I have never felt so fulfilled in my life. I look out to the very last row of empty seats, but there appears a man. A moment of shock and fear is quickly overridden by a quieting peacefulness. The piano stops playing, leaving my voice the only noise in the arena.

The melody I sing slows down to a soft and calm ballad that I sing wholeheartedly for the man, all the while with a locked gaze into the man’s eyes. His eyes are a mirror. They show me myself. They show me my beauty—my beauty on the inside that I never allow myself to see. He shows me who I am meant to be. The ballad ends. There is silence, but a continuous locking of eyes. They are the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen—more beautiful than in my dreams. The silence continues, and my feeling of peace continues, until finally I say, “Yes, I understand.”

In an instance He is gone. I take one last minute to breathe in the emptiness of the stage and to imprint the experience in my mind where it will stay forever like a fountain from which I will draw happiness. Then I pull myself back into reality. I walk off of the stage, down the steps, through the empty audience, and out the back door of the theater which has changed my life. I walk outside into the new world that has been created for me.

Young Man Ponders

A young man ponders a reflection of imperfections. Suddenly enlightened, he appears to himself as extraordinary, not dampered by the burden of imperfections. He proclaims the freedom of not being perfect. A revelation that reveals that the machine known as man and the rat race known as society is encumbered upon by imperfections. They rule all.

Modern Astronomy

“I’m always especially tired after twelve hours of consciousness,” Ryan stated, “but today was different.”

“How’s that?” Ted asked.

“I actually had an idea for a poem. Actually I probably would’ve written it as a short story, but I didn’t end up writing it because I thought it probably would’ve been a stupid story”

Ted, surprised, replied, “Ryan, weren’t you just complaining the other day that your ‘well of inspiration had become a thimble of mediocrity’? Just tell me what your little poem was about, and I’ll let you know what I think about it. You oughtn’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Well, you won’t be impressed, and it would’ve been a short story, not a poem.”

“Get on with it, man!”

Ryan cleared his throat and collected his thoughts so he could clearly explain, “The story goes like this: There’s this astrologer… or astronomer, some guy who studies space; well, this guy is looking through his telescope one day and he sees a planet, or star, or something of that sort that’s so far away and blurry he can’t be sure what it is. What he can see of it, though, he finds to be the most beautiful object in space he’s ever seen. He knows maybe this is all in his head, you know, like he subconsciously knows that he’s overdoing it because one day the observatory he was working for upgraded to a more powerful telescope, but he never zoomed in on that beautiful body even though he could. He didn’t want to find out that the thing that inspired him and occupied his creative mind was just another ball of gas or chunk of rock.

“That’s basically it, except I would’ve written it with more detail and with a dramatic feel. I can see it on your face that you weren’t impressed. I told you you wouldn’t be impressed.”

“Well, first thing is your story wasn’t stupid. Seriously,” Ted said in an almost patronizing voice.

“Enough of that. What was it, do you think?”

“Honestly, it’s just starting to bother me that your story was just another of your typical whining-romantic themes. Its obvious that the star represents that Girl. I’m just trying to say that these types of stories, in excess of course, tend to warp your mind from a sensitively sentimental one into a morbidly depressed one.”

“How do you mean?”

“You still like Her, and you never stopped liking Her. It frustrates me to see you doing this to yourself. That wounded heart is self-inflicted.”

“I don’t like Her! You’re being very rude.”

“I thought you’d want me to be honest.”

“You’ve just got to feel like you’ve got everyone figured out, don’t you?”