A Night in a Wild Cherry Tree

Anne spent the night in the wild cherry tree. She decided as dusk was falling that the Cuthberts of Green Gables must have been delayed and believed firmly that they would arrive for her in time for breakfast the following morning. Hoisting the carpet bag—just so—over her head, she hooked the fragile handle over a broken branch, then clambered up among the ash-grey limbs of the tree.

It was like a cloud of snow, although decidedly more perfumed—she found herself sneezing once or twice as night fell. On one occasion, the sound startled a boy who had been walking under the tree, hurrying along his way home. The boy had stopped and turned with such alarm on his face that Anne had been forced to cover her mouth and stifle her laughter as he ran in fear from the spot, perhaps imagining some ghost or ghoul was watching him from the dark branches.

The carpet bag made a serviceable pillow, as she had discovered on the train, but situating herself comfortably in the sloping boughs of the cherry tree was another matter. She had just begun to fall asleep, despite the discomfort—it had, after all, been a very long day full of excitement and longing— when she lost her balance and spent a dizzying moment clutching a thin branch, looking out at the darkness below. Fear sank into her stomach in that moment as her imagination filled the void below with hungry things, just waiting for a little girl like herself to fall into their open jaws. Although she felt she must cry, she worried her tears might only attract the beasts in greater numbers. In that moment, Anne allowed a worry she had been suppressing since she had arrived to make its voice heard; what if the Cuthberts did not come for her at all?

But as she regained her balance and these thoughts began to overwhelm her, the clouds suddenly shifted and a shaft of moonlight fell through the dome of white petals. Her fears were dispelled and her bed was just as she had thought it would be; peaceful, radiant—like sleeping in a fairy’s palace. Anne closed her eyes, breathing in the honey-scented air of the cherry blossoms and bracing herself against the trunk to avoid another tumble, she fell asleep and dreamed of Green Gables.


lauren-harwyn-smallLauren Harwyn received her BA in creative writing with honors from Mills College, Oakland, California and attended Scottish Universities’ International Summer School for creative writing. She has been published by Dear Damsels, Witty Bitches and Northern Light and won Soliloquies Anthology’s flash fiction contest.  www.laurenharwyn.com

 

Gables

I didn’t know what a gable was.
It sounded like gargle, garble,
gallop, gargoyle. It sounded like fable,
gamble, able, staple. It sounded
like something naughty. It sounded
like my name. And the gables were green—
were they gills? Scales? Flowers?
Grapes? Some sort of hill
or marsh or tree? I didn’t know
what a gable was, but once
I opened the book, I didn’t care.


gayle-brandeis-smallGayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin.

Neeru’s New World

That afternoon, if Neeru had known how a few minutes can be enough time for life to exact its dues, she might have done things differently. She might have taken care to lock doors behind her. She might even have stayed put on that front porch swing, leaning back, feet skimming the tiled floor, to and fro, to and fro, as warm air blew from the ceiling fan.

When no one was around, this porch was her favorite part of the house as it allowed her to take in the always-blooming, always-colorful garden. These days, it was giving off a spicy clove fragrance from a profusion of small, white blossoms. At this hour, in the posh Prahlad Nagar neighborhood of Ahmedabad, menfolk were away at work and womenfolk were napping or watching TV in their air-conditioned bungalows. Cleaners and cooks, many from her home state of Rajasthan, had finished their work rounds. Live-in maids, like her, were also stealing a few winks. Even the birds seemed to have taken flight to some cooler place. The only sound Neeru heard was of fountain water spilling from a pot held on the head of a half-naked stone goddess, who flaunted her bold curves under a lemon tree in the far corner.

Neeru could sit here for hours and daydream about, oh, so many things her new world, which she had known for less than a month, had to offer. It made her old one seem as remote as a previous lifetime. Of late, her mind kept playing with a particular fantasy about being approached one day by a handsome businessman type. He would drive by her in his big car, roll down his window with just the touch of a button, and tell her how he had admired her from far for a long time. She would be shocked and a little scared, glancing around to see if anyone was watching. But he would be such a decent, polite type, making her melt like ghee, that she would glide into his car when he held a door open, with music playing softly just for her. This was about as far as she got—try as she might to imagine what could happen next.

Ba and Vini Bhabhi had gone to visit relatives for the day. The house was locked but they had given her a set of keys so she could, at the usual time, begin her late-afternoon chores. For now, she had another hour to let the early April sunshine filter through wide-canopied Gulmohar trees onto her bare feet and arms; to let the brilliant blue sky peek through leaves and light into her hope-filled soul.

The istriwaala had dropped off a bundle of neatly-pressed clothes. It sat beside her on the swing. Idly, humming under her breath, she undid the knotted cloth covering. Inside, a beautiful lehenga set and several men’s shirts lay crisply folded, smelling new. She fingered the gold resham embroidery and flashing mirrorwork on the lehenga, which was the color of old roses. It was the sort of thing her favorite Bollywood star, Kareena Kapoor, might wear, complete with matching lips and nails. The dancing, laughing image she had seen so many times—in stolen glimpses from the always-on TV as she went about her housework, in glossy pages of newspaper inserts and magazines she organized daily on tables around the house, and on large advertisement boards looming above every street corner nowadays—shimmered before her now. This lehenga was also probably worth more than a year of her pay.

The next thought made her go hot-cold all over. What if she were to try it on for just a couple of minutes? No one would ever know. She would have it back into the laundry bundle, as if untouched, well before the family came home.

She got up so quickly that a dizziness sent her almost falling. Grabbing the bundle, she unlocked the house with shaking hands. In the downstairs bathroom, in front of a full-length mirror, she undressed, dropping her cotton salwar-kameez to the floor. For a moment, she looked at her almost-naked, childlike body, with its barely-there breasts and sharply-jutting bones. The dullish nut-brown color of her skin was the stinging insult to the injury she felt whenever she observed herself like this. Then, as always, to make herself feel better, she unplaited her thick, black hair, shaking it out around herself like a shining veil. She had yet to meet another woman whose hair was as lush as hers.

Carefully, Neeru swished the silken clothes on. As they whispered against her skin thrillingly, her insides turned to balmy liquid. When she saw her fully-clothed reflection, she gasped. Undulating this way and that to make the flared bottom sway like a bell, she laughed at herself. The sleeveless top was rather large but there was a sheer white dupatta, which she wrapped around her shoulders. Slowly, she lifted the dupatta’s sequined edge around her head and bowed slightly. A moment later, she threw the dupatta into the air and stood under it with face upturned, letting it descend in cloudy folds. The softness of that touch on her skin was a blissful agony that made her press her lips together to stop from crying out.

Moving closer to the mirror, Neeru inspected her face critically. What if she… well, just a touch of that pink, glossy color upstairs would be perfect. Lifting the heavy skirt, she skipped up the stairs to the master bedroom and snatched Vini Bhabhi’s lipstick from the top of the dresser. Back downstairs, she applied it slowly and thickly, staying within the lip lines. Stepping back to see the effect, she opened her mouth wide in a big “O.” Deep joy gurgled up from inside her and escaped into the still air.

It was then, as she swayed sideways again, that Neeru caught an unexpected flicker in the mirror. Whipping around, she saw Lalji, the watchman, standing just inside the bathroom door and staring at her. His weathered-copper skin gleamed from the shadow of the doorway, and his uneven black mustache twitched at both ends. In the enclosed space, a pungent smell wafted towards her from the perpetual sweat patches on his beige uniform.

She wasn’t sure how long he had been there. A familiar millstone-like pressure pushed all the air out of her lungs. She had this sensation every time she walked past the main entrance gates, where he lounged on a large plastic chair beside his cabin, flourishing his wooden cane and tapping his feet to some movie song or other. As she would get nearer, he would go still, though his singing would get louder and lewder. As happened at those times, shame pricked her every pore and the heat rose in her face. But, this time, a rushing sound filled her ears and tears stood in her eyes.

Lalji began to clap, smiling widely, revealing gutka-stained teeth. “Arrey Wah! Very, very pretty. I saw the door open and came in to tell you to shut it. And, I was blessed with this beautiful vision.”

He came near and tilted her chin up with a finger. A callused thumb ran slowly across her smeared lips as he leered openly. She felt his unbearable breath on her like burning coals. As suddenly, he moved away.

“What would Bhai and Bhabhi think if they could see you now?” he chuckled as if sharing a private, good-natured joke with her. Then, he put the lipstick-covered thumb into his mouth and sucked wetly and noisily.

“Please don’t…” Her fear rose like a choking, drowning tidal wave.

“Arrey, no! No, no. Why should I tell anyone? This is our ‘pesial secret. You and me. Wah! Ekdum film heroine, you are.” The echo of his words swirled around her in the bathroom.

She had to cross her arms across her chest and grasp her neck with both hands to get the next few words out: “I need to change…”

“Haan, they will be here soon. No need to worry. I am your ‘pesial friend now. I will not tell them anything. But, you have to meet with me soon. Achha? We’ll get to know each other in a ‘pesial way. Promise?” His laugh was shaky and high-pitched, like that of a little girl.

Neeru’s stomach felt as if heated spears had run through it. She did not reply and lowered her head. Clumsily, she wiped the flowing tears so they would not stain Vini Bhabhi’s clothes.

“Achha, toh hum chalte hain….” He sang out a popular movie song refrain about leaving a beloved. Continuing with the melody, he added, “If you don’t forget, then I will,” winked, and walked out.

In his immediate wake, Neeru unfroze, ran to shut the door, and changed clothes quickly. The stillness of the house weighed on her as she put everything back where it belonged. She was long done with her chores when the car horn signaled that her employers were home.

* * *

Evening tea was a regular family ritual at the Shahs because it was the one time of day when all of them—the older Mr Shah, whom Neeru called Dada, and his wife, Ba; their son, Yogesh Bhai and his wife, Vini Bhabhi; and, sometimes, house guests or drop-in visitors—gathered on the front porch.

Ordinarily, as she brought out the tea and food trays, Neeru dawdled to enjoy the snippets of gossip or confidential chatter between them. With the day winding down, everyone would be in a lighter and more relaxed mood and Neeru liked that they trusted her enough to not stop talking in her presence. Today, however, she moved with a swift, silent efficiency so she could return to the kitchen without betraying the ball of fire that was eating up her insides.

Even when Yogesh Bhai teased her, as he enjoyed doing in company, saying, “I’m sure even Neeru does not think much of this latest Modi-Jaitley budget. Do you, Neeru?” she could not give him her ready, wide grin.

They were all laughing and talking so much that Vini Bhabhi, to be heard above the din, had to call out to Neeru twice to take away the empty cups and plates. Neeru sprinted from the kitchen and stopped short when she saw Lalji standing on the steps leading up to the porch. Standing by the doorway, she peered at her feet to hide how her mouth was distorted from fright. Even when she heard Lalji’s voice, slow and deferential, telling Yogesh Bhai about the courier package lying on the floor beside him, it did not settle her.

She felt Vini Bhabhi’s attention on her. “Take all this away, Neeru. See how the flies are already covering everything. What is wrong with you?”

Bhabhi was probably not much older than Neeru, but her status as the mistress of the house made the distance between them such that anything Bhabhi said to her sounded like an elder talking to a child or a dimwit. Though this was Neeru’s first house-job, she had understood, somehow, that Bhabhi did not do this to be hurtful. It came from having lived an entire life having other people working for your every comfort. At another time, Neeru might have shyly offered back, “Bhabhi, the flies want their tea too.”  Not now.

Lalji had stopped talking as soon as Vini Bhabhi had begun. Now, it seemed everyone was looking at Neeru. She could no longer tell whether the buzzing in her ears was the flies or her own brain. She came forward and gathered up the tea things. The door behind her had swung shut. Before she could decide how to manage, Lalji slid over to open it for her. He held the doorknob and waited for her to walk through. As she did so, he leaned close enough for her to be overwhelmed, again, by his ripe smell, and to hear him mumble “Tonight.”

* * *

Sonu Kaka, the cook, came at his usual time just as she had finished washing up. He was a compact man who always dressed in well-starched, colorful kurtas as if he was on his way to a dinner party rather than going from home to home cooking other people’s dinners. Ba had told Neeru he had been cooking for the Shahs since Yogesh Bhai had been a half-pant-wearing schoolboy. For a few years, while Yogesh Bhai was in college, Sonu Kaka had left to start his own catering business. It had not gone well because, as Ba often remarked, of his honesty—generously using the best ghee, oil, and spices, while his competitors used low-grade items and still charged much higher prices. Ba said the failure had turned his hair white overnight. So, though he was not that old, people had taken to calling him Kaka. Like many of the elders in Neeru’s village, Sonu Kaka was also a man of few words. Yet, watching how he held himself just that little bit taller when any of the Shahs addressed him, Neeru knew he took their casual familiarity as a sign of acceptance and appreciation.

In the short time she had got to know him, she had also grown accustomed to his sharp words and dour looks and decided there was no ill will behind them. On rare occasions, she countered with a jaunty sarcasm—like when she had said, “What, you think I have a hundred arms and legs like Durga Mata to dance around the kitchen and fix everything the minute you arrive?” When Sonu Kaka had tried to hide a smile, she had continued happily, “Arrey, Kakaji, it doesn’t cost money to laugh. Bas, you always look like you’ve swallowed a liter of castor oil.”

Today, when he began grumbling at her for not having chopped the vegetables or laid out the utensils he needed, she had no such response.

Dinner was, generally, a complicated affair with three to four separate meals: there would be a salt-free, fat-free meal for the weak-hearted Dada; a sugar-free dessert for the diabetic Ba; some Westernized options for Yogesh Bhai and Vini Bhabhi if they were eating in; and, if there were any house guest or visitors, there might be special requests for them too. This was why one of Neeru’s daily tasks was to help Sonu Kaka in the kitchen. “Otherwise,” Vini Bhabhi joked, “we won’t get to eat till midnight.”

Now, Neeru stood at the center island, facing the kitchen entrance, her back to Sonu Kaka. He leaned over the large cooking range, all its four burners going strong as he stirred, sautéd, poured, and flipped the various items on them. Every few minutes, if she hadn’t already placed what he needed within his reach, he barked out, just one or two words, what he wanted next.

The pressure cooker let off several shrill whistles. A heady aroma rose from the tempering of mustard, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, chillies, and ginger that Sonu Kaka poured carefully over a pan of translucent yellow daal. Smoke clouded the kitchen and she rushed to open the back door just as he instructed her to do so.

As she was clearing away the vegetable peels from the island, Sonu Kaka tossed her a couple of bunches of green methi. “For tomorrow.”

She placed the vegetable peels to the side and started separating the methi leaves and stalks, inhaling the bitter and oddly-soothing smell deeply. From the living room, several angry voices had begun speaking over each other, which told her the TV news debates had begun. Soon the Shah father and son would also be joining in with their sparring opinions.

As she picked away, Neeru’s mind drifted to how she could prevent her impending disaster. She wondered about going to Vini Bhabhi and confessing. As sure as she could tell night from day, she knew Bhabhi and Ba would, with no hesitation, kick her out of the house. And why shouldn’t they as she had betrayed their trust? A vision of herself pushed up against a broken window of the beat-up, crowded Ahmedabad-Rajasthan bus rose wavily before her watery eyes. Instead of earning enough money to bring her mother and sister over from the village, she would have to stand before them, poorer than when she had left. There would be many cruel rumors about her short city stint. Her mother always said that a girl without character may as well drown herself in a tiny lid of water because that was all she would need and deserve. This mother would not be able to find suitable husbands for her or her sister. This sister would have to be pulled out of school. They would all be thrown out of the only inheritance her father had left them: the only home they had ever known. All this ruination for a few minutes of wanting to look pretty for herself.

Neeru also considered going to Lalji and begging for his mercy. The image of him grinning with that red-stained mouth and grabbing her with sweaty hands sent waves of repulsion through her body, making her shake as if they were jolts of electricity. Her throat felt like large shards of ice were stuck in it and, unable to hold the pain in check, she let out a low whimper and a ragged sob.

A steel ladle clattered onto the granite counter and Sonu Kaka’s voice hissed grindingly in her ear, “What are you doing, girl? Are you crying? What will they think? That I did something to you. Stop this tamasha.”

She found she could not, and trying to draw deep breaths just made the crying noisier. Sonu Kaka pushed her towards the open pantry. As she stumbled in there and turned around, he placed a finger on his lips. Then, he took her spot at the center island, faced the kitchen entrance, and started picking the methi leaves.

“Did someone say or do something to you?” He whispered, not looking in her direction.

She nodded, wiping her face with a fraying edge of her dupatta.

“One of them?” He asked, glancing towards the living room.

She shook her head, then rested it against one of the pantry shelves.

“Driver? Gardener? Milkman? Watchman?” He fired these off in quick succession, stopping at the last when she moved her chin up and down instead.

“Lalji? What did he say? What did he do?”

“He… He… He… ” This was all she could get out between big sobs.

“Did you lead him on in any way? No, don’t tell me. You bold Rajasthani girls with all your nakhras and jhatkas.” Sonu Kaka’s jaw tightened in such a way as he spoke that Neeru felt a fresh onslaught of hot tears coursing down.

“That chutiya!” Sonu Kaka’s fist fell on the vegetable peels, sending some of them flying across the island. “Old enough to be your father!” He turned back to the cooking range and cracked his knuckles slowly as he continued: “I will deal with him. Enough crying — go make yourself theek-thaak. Mind you come back and finish up. I’m not going to do your work for you.”

Neeru ran out the pantry to get to her little room off the back porch. As she brushed past him, her dupatta, which she had untied earlier to wipe her face, fell to the floor. They both bent to pick it up, bumping heads. He straightened and stepped back rapidly, saying, “Mad girl.”

* * *

The morning hours, before Yogesh Bhai went to work, were the most rushed. During Neeru’s first week, Ba had shown her everything so that her only son’s routine would continue as it for the past several years, from before his marriage. Ba had explained to Neeru how hardworking, successful businessmen like Yogesh Bhai were particular, and how maintaining a certain standard of expectation was the only way to get ahead in this world. After that first week, Ba and Dada began meeting another couple for morning walks and steam saunas at the local gym club.

Try as she did, Neeru never managed to have everything running as smoothly as Ba. Throughout the morning, she would hear her name being called out by Yogesh Bhai from different parts of the house. She soon learned that the morning tea and paper were the most important. Missing their timing ruined Yogesh Bhai’s delicate digestion and put him in a mood, which rained like acid on everyone, beyond Neeru, in the vicinity: the gardener if he forgot or botched instructions regardless of Yogesh Bhai’s watchful supervision; the paper-boy if he threw the paper onto a still-wet lawn or into brambly bushes; the neighbor’s school-going children if they yelled too loud as they ran past, with backpacks heavier than themselves, to catch their bus; and, on the odd occasion, strangers who drove by too fast and too close to Yogesh Bhai’s parked car outside the main gates.

Yogesh Bhai also wanted his pressed clothes as soon as the istriwaala dropped them off so he could look through them as he checked his wardrobe for what to wear. Neeru could not tell why this was such a big decision as all his clothes looked almost identical. She watched curiously as Yogesh Bhai rubbed his thinning crown with one hand while the other ran through the similar-colored shirts and pants.

After his shower, the puja things had to be laid out properly in the little temple alcove: fresh flowers from the garden; ghee-dipped lamp wicks; incense sticks; vermilion and sandalwood paste. Once, Neeru had forgotten to put his floor-mat back in place after having washed it the day before. He had given her such a slicing look, his fair cheeks reddened from a shave and scrub, that she had tripped backwards onto a chair.

At least he sat fully-clothed for his prayers. Dada sat with a towel barely covering the rolls of his belly and his broad, pimpled back visible to anyone who came to the front door. The first time she had seen him chanting loudly like that, she had thought: do the Gods want to see all that so early in the morning?

By the time Vini Bhabhi came downstairs, Yogesh Bhai would be flicking through the TV news channels and checking his phone messages, with a few minutes to spare before breakfast was served and the driver was due. Neeru guessed Vini Bhabhi stayed out of the way in the mornings to allow Ba to keep running things. But, with Ba out, Vini Bhabhi did not take over the responsibility of Yogesh Bhai’s various morning needs. Some part of Neeru admired Vini Bhabhi for this, even as another part of her resented that everything had, therefore, fallen to her.

In addition to all this, she had her regular chores of washing up in the kitchen, prepping for Sonu Kaka, packing Yogesh Bhai’s tiffin, and so on. And, if Sonu Kaka ran late with Yogesh Bhai’s breakfast or the tiffin lunch, Neeru would, of course, not be spared the wrath of one or both men.

This morning, however, Sonu Kaka was quiet. Even when he had to restock the masala dabba himself from the pantry, he did not say anything to her. After clearing the breakfast things, when Neeru sat down on the kitchen floor to stretch her aching legs, he did not reprimand her.

Before he left the house, Sonu Kaka beckoned her to one corner of the kitchen, pulled out his phone, and showed her a photo. It was dark and fuzzy, but there was no mistaking the figure: Lalji crumpled to his knees, arms outstretched, palms locked together. When she looked up from the phone to Sonu Kaka, his eyes were hard like black marbles and he said, simply, “You let me know if he comes back to bother you.”

* * *

By evening, it was a certainty: Lalji had disappeared for good. Over tea, after making sure nothing of value was missing from the house, the family had a lively discussion about what might have happened. He had simply cleared out his cabin by the main gates and left without a word to anyone.

Dada was the most upset as he had hired Lalji on the recommendation of an old friend. “I’ll call Jitu and see if he knows anything. Was he unhappy? Sick? Why couldn’t he come and talk to me?” The injury to his pride came out in a childish whine.

Ba, sitting on the swing with her crochet work in her lap, looked over her bifocals at her husband. “Let me tell you, he was a shifty, no-good fellow. He never looked me in the eye when I talked to him. Thieves could have come dancing in blazing daylight and he would not have woken from his Kumbhakarana-sleep to even notice them. Why does Jitu Bhai send us such useless people?” Her pursed mouth kept muttering disapprovingly long after she returned to stabbing and hooking her crochet needle in her latest pattern.

Vini Bhabhi said, “Yogesh, I often saw him staring at the maids and cleaning women. You know, in THAT way. Today, he looks at them; tomorrow, who knows what he will do? Our reputation will be ruined, na? Good riddance, I say.” And she squeezed her shoulders up to her ears, scrunching her eyes and lips as if she had tasted something terrible.

At home, if Neeru caught people running someone down, she would snap in response, “And the way he sneezed was all wrong too. Bas?” In this new world, she minded not just her words, as her mother had advised her to, but also to whom she said them. And, despite having more cause than any of them, she did not care for how her employers were keenly inflicting wounds on the dead and gone, as she now thought of Lalji. A bitterness, like the methi she had picked the night before, began welling up somewhere inside. As she placed the tea things in the kitchen sink, she had to bite her tongue because the soundless, heaving laughter would not stop otherwise.

Late evening, after finishing in the kitchen, Sonu Kaka met with Yogesh Bhai in the dining room. Yogesh Bhai stood tall, stretching his arms up and around in a relaxed manner. Sonu Kaka spoke in such a low voice that Neeru could barely hear when she went in to set the table. She caught Yogesh Bhai thanking Sonu Kaka, saying, “Bring him in the morning. I’m sure, as you are recommending him, he will be reliable and honest. But, you know how much the job is worth for someone with limited experience. I will not pay as much as my father was giving Lalji.”

After Yogesh Bhai went back to the living room, Sonu Kaka turned to leave too. As he walked past Neeru, he ran a hand over the vinyl placemat she held. Rubbing his dusty fingers together, he frowned and tsk-tsked loudly. In her nervousness, she dropped the placemat, causing him to say, “Mad girl, ” again—this time, with one of his rare smiles.

* * *

At night, Neeru lay on her thin, reeking mattress as a pedestal fan whirred tiredly at her feet. Slapping a mosquito away, she inhaled deeply a few times. Though she was safe now, relief, like sleep, eluded her. Her body, not yet accustomed to long hours of physical work, hurt in several places, but her heart ached even more from the emotional tumult of the past two days.

Outside, on nearby streets, everything was still bright and loud—an endless assault of light and sound in an ancient city with a centuries-long tradition of being constantly torn down and rebuilt. A motorbike roared in angry, insistent fits, somehow reminding her of the masters of her new reality. One way or another, in ways she had not expected, these new men from her new life had claimed her surrender and compliance.

When she finally slept, she dreamed of empty, driverless cars going past so close, so quick that, each time, she barely managed to jump out of the way. With their windows rolled down, they filled the air with strange, throbbing music as they went by. And the half-naked, stony-curved, garden-fountain goddess laughed non-stop as golden lemons shook above her, molten silver flowed from her emerald Kareena Kapoor eyes, and her water-pot shattered at her feet into exactly one hundred pieces.


NBR10 BhattJenny Bhatt’s writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others, Femina India, Wallpaper, Storyacious, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, York Literary Review, The Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven Journal, and an anthology, Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com.

Alice Choked

on her “lucky” rabbit’s foot, landed six
feet under, in a hole nobody claims
to remember digging. She died
with her crinolines over her head and
a Cheshire grin on her face. What a scandal!
The picture made the front
page of The Mad Hatter Press. The world
could not get enough
of Miss Goody-Two-Shoes’ goodies,
on full display in grandma panties and striped
goth socks. What’s worse,
the children who were having
a tea party in the park found her. That image
of little blonde queen in dress-up robe and
crown, kneeling above the grave site is heart-
wrenching media fodder at its finest.
All the television stations clambered to pick
up the lead, and already there are rumors
circulating. Third-rate actresses vying
to portray her in a cracked-out sci-fi
billion-dollar bastardization of the book
that hasn’t been written yet, though her family
did issue a statement announcing
they had relinquished their rights for one
in exchange for an original song and two
golden geese (to be named later).
This news came as a shock
to no one.


NBR10HuffmansmallA.J. Huffman’s poetry, fiction, haiku, and photography have appeared in journals including Labletter, The James Dickey Review, and Offerta Speciale, in which her work appeared in both English and Italian translation. She is also the founding editor of Kind of a Hurricane Press. www.kindofahurricanepress.com

Panning Wizards and Wonderland (A Patchwork of Barrie, Carroll and Baum)

All children, except one, grow up. You will remember there was no road – not even a pathway. Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them.

The little girl gave a cry of amazement and looked about her, her eyes growing bigger and bigger at the wonderful sights she saw.

‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir. Because I’m not myself, you see.’

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness.

‘If you believe… Clap your hands.’

Of course it was only water, but it was out of a bottle and she always shook the bottle and counted the drops.

She stood upon her left foot and said, slowly, ‘Ep-pe, Pep-pe, Kak-ke!’ Next she stood upon her right foot and said, ‘Hil-lo, hol-lo, Hel-lo!’ After this she stood upon both feet and cried in a loud voice, ‘Zi-zy, Zu-zy, Zik!’

The queen shouted at the top of her voice, ‘Off with her head!’ Nobody moved.

Instantly she was whirling though the air, so swiftly that all she could see or feel was the wind whistling past her ears.

‘You’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.’

When he saw she was a grownup, he gnashed the little pearls at her.

So she sat on, with closed eyes and half believed herself in wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again and all would change to dull reality.

Do you think it was?

I can’t come,’ she said apologetically. ‘I have forgotten how to fly.’

 

(Lines from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)


Jennifer Grant is a recovering journalist. She spent 15 years as a stressed-out writer/editor of other people’s stories (from the Big Easy to the Florida Everglades) but now creates her own curiosities. Her prose poetry and flash fiction have appeared in publications such as Apollo’s Lyre, Bacopa Literary Review, Flashquake, Mixitini Matrix and will be included this fall in Negative Capability. She lives in Gainesville, FL.

Pinker’s Study

They shipped me back from Afghanistan a leg and a half short, and I ran with it, you might say. When the benefits stopped keeping up with the demands of my thirst and the mortgage payments, I stopped bothering with the benefits. The ladies outside Nordstrom’s have lower expectations of sobriety than the ones who give you temp jobs licking envelopes, and they don’t hassle you if you’re late for your shift holding down the sidewalk. I was working my program of getting past caring, and my tongue was healing very nicely, when I ran into Meaty.

We weren’t particularly friendly in the service, but occasionally it’s nice to see a familiar face that doesn’t get blown right off its skull when you dream at night. I can’t recall if Meaty was properly a Dmitry or Demetrious or what, but the army has an excellent record of lifting such presumptions off you. Hell, people called me John till the Army made a man of me and amputated that sissy appendage of a first name. I’ve been plain old Pinker ever since.

“You know, Pinker,” Meaty mused over a companionable cigarette, “I voted you and your unabridged vocabulary ‘most likely to swing a book deal out of this crap.’ What’s our token intellectual doing on the street?”

“Eh, you know, couldn’t sleep at home, so I let the bank keep it.”

“I hear that, man.” But Meaty had a pale and well-fed look that meant someone was keeping him that way. “Looking for a place?”

I shrugged. “I have my haunts, but if I stay too long they want my beer money or call the cops.”

He puffed and nodded like he understood. “I just ask because I read this ad this morning might interest you.”

“Oh, yeah? Spill. I’m game for interesting.”

“Someone put out an ad looking for an alcoholic roommate.” Meaty flushed that raw hamburger color that earned him the name and started looking at everything but the 40-ounce bottle tucked next to me in the chair. “Not that you’re an alcoholic, of course, but that’s what the ad said. And… how’d it go? Oh, yeah, ‘Preferably a man who’s come by his addiction honestly.’ Just like that. Got me thinking who earns their bad habits any better than them that’s seen what we seen.”

When “hangin with a bro”,  Meaty’s diction wavered between stale jive and some fresh Cockney variant of his own creation. I’d forgotten how much I’d hated that about him. And about how much I’d missed hating that about him. Guys thrown together with nothing good in common bond over what pisses them off—even about each other. We will defend to the death a brother’s right to life, liberty, and maddening quirks when it’s literally us against the world.

“I hear that.” I can actually see it when the limits of my sociability start closing in. The corners of my field of vision go dark. “This was in The Stranger or what?”

“No, the straight-up Times. I never read the classifieds, but the wife has been angling to upgrade her car, so maybe it’s a sign….” His face went from all I could see to real small and distant like I was looking at him through a telescope that decided to turn itself inside out. I could hear his voice, but no words.

“Yeah, interesting. I’m gonna run get a copy and read that for myself before they’re out. Real good to see you, Meaty.” I rolled off in whatever direction was away and kept going till all the faces were the right size again and comfortably anonymous. I’m a friendly guy, but my brain needs more personal space than the rest of me these days, and something in my head takes a step to the side sometimes when someone gets too close.

Not two minutes later, a guy offers me his coffee-stained copy of the Seattle Times. It’s folded open to the classifieds with one listing circled under ROOMMATES WANTED. I don’t believe in signs, but I don’t believe in ignoring them either.

*   *   *

I found the place fine, though the ad failed to mention the address or door code. What it said was “Apply in person, Ninth and Seneca, Unit 221. Exchange classic and modern to enter any time.” There was only one building on that corner big enough and residential enough to require a door code, and obviously it was a code. A puzzle for a code.

Unlike most everyone I see in an average day downtown, I’ve lived here all my life. All the phone numbers for downtown and the hospitals that surrounded this building used to start with 62. No idea what the exchange name that went with that number was. Sometimes I feel old enough I should remember that kind of thing, chatting up tourists from a chair, cussing the damp all winter, but telephone exchanges were way before my time. Why back in my day all the phone numbers around here started with 62… and we liked it that way. Now get off my sidewalk! Anyway, my first guess was wrong, because for the modern exchange half I tried 34 for First Hill. Not modern enough, I realized. 74 for Pill Hill? 6274 and I was in.

I took the elevator to the 2nd floor and knocked on 221.

“Ah, a local from Afghanistan!” A voice cried from close behind the closed door. “Perfect.”

“How did you…?”

The door yanked open on a tall white guy in a stained silk robe, though he looked to be fully dressed underneath, in a collared shirt and jeans. He might have been the man who gave me the paper, but then he might not have been.

“Come in, come in. Now, why say that twice? Wasted words. Who but our VA hospitals puts a man in a purring state-of-the-art chair and parks him indefinitely on the street? No, really, come in. Three times now. I hate to give the neighbors valid reasons to complain. You have the room if you want it, but I suppose it’s traditional to talk about such things for a certain period of time to establish a false sense of intimacy. I’m guessing three-and-a-half minutes. Four at most.” He pushed a button on his watch and looked at me expectantly.

There were wide paths between the stacks of books and papers, so I rolled in a few feet, but not quite enough to close the door. “Um. Well, I’m not sure why you’d want me. I can’t pay any real share of the rent.”

“Fine. So we’ve established your weaknesses as a roommate—none of them deal-breakers: no income; snorer; PTSD, but sirens don’t set you off. These units are already handicapped accessible. Finally the bar in the tub will have some function besides…”

“Wait. Who says I snore?”

“The bridge of your nose does. And a certain rasp to your voice confirms it, since you obviously don’t smoke. Moving on to my shortcomings: manic-depressive; OCD when it suits me; given to clutter though not a hoarder as I occasionally pitch everything I own. Apparently I tend to stare at people in a disagreeable way when I’m not thinking about them at all. When I can’t sleep I play music….”

“Jazz?”

“Electric violin. And I may spend weeks not sleeping, and days not speaking when I’m working on something.”

“Looking forward to it. And you don’t care I can’t pay any rent?”

“I don’t require a roommate for that reason.”

“So what do you want then, a pet project? Gonna set me back on the straight and narrow? Give me the leg up I’m missing?”

“Just the contrary. I want you to go on drinking to your heart’s content, in fact. I wholeheartedly condone your chosen response to your life experience. War is hell. Cliché or economy of language? I neither fault you nor judge you. I simply see mutual advantages to us living in close proximity. Now why do we always say close with proximity when it is both redundant and repetitive? Wasted words.” He produced a pen from a robe pocket and started scribbling on a paperback textbook that happened to be open on top of the nearest pile.

“So what do you want with a broke, broken drunk?”

“Thank you for bringing me back to the point. Another bad habit. It should be obvious that a profile such as mine is an addiction waiting to happen. I need something handy for reminding myself what a waste that would be, that there are other people in the world with more deserving problems than my own, and several related concepts. All without bothering to have to reason it out for myself again and again. A mnemonic device, as it were.”

“And that would be me.”

“Why not. Help me do what I do by doing what you do. No need to do it in the rain.”

I wheeled myself out. Holmes could find himself another cautionary tale. As much as I didn’t want someone trying to fix me, something about his expectation that I wouldn’t clean myself up chafed, too.

Three days later a Pineapple Express found me taking advantage of the door code to the lobby at Ninth and Seneca. Once I’d dried out a bit—inside and out—I figured what the hell; no need to do it in the rain and called the elevator. The key was in the door of unit 221. The keyring was a bottle opener engraved with the name Pinker.

I opened the door. All the books and papers were gone. The man’s tall frame was now draped sideways over an armchair. He wasn’t sleeping or reading or doing anything, but he didn’t look around when I came in. I wondered if it was too late. Maybe he’d spent the last three days laying there stoned.

After a while I felt I should say something. “I never told you my name.”

“It’s on your jacket. It’s faded, but it’s there. What do you think I am, psychic?”

I looked around a bit. The furniture was now visible and tended toward old-world comfortable. The word “damask” came to mind, but I couldn’t remember if that was a fabric or style or what. “What is it you do exactly? How do you make your money?”

“Through careful observation. And I’m quite good at it, if you haven’t noticed.”

Outside a siren wailed. “If you sleep so lightly and you could live anywhere, why live where there are sirens all the time? And how did you know they didn’t bother me?”

“You obviously knew the neighborhood. You must have known this corner is situated between the two busiest emergency rooms in the city. And I wanted easy access to a morgue.” He stretched. “Not that it signifies in my current study of economy of language and lack thereof.” He fumbled in the pocket of his robe – a different color today, but similarly stained. An evil chemical smell was emanating from the kitchen. “Although the dead are rather eloquent in that regard.” He pulled out a pen, nonplussed to find no paper near to hand, then started writing on the wall.

“And what do I call you?”

“Right. Niceties.” He finally sat up to shake my hand. “Stick to Holmes, if you’d like. I prefer having different names for different relationships. Another helpful mnemonic device. Are there any useless mnemonic devices?”

“Holmes?”

“You subvocalize. Most people do. You can have the second study at the end of the hall. It’s all cleared out.”

“Enough words,” Holmes declared, rising suddenly from his armchair. Several pounds of dislodged printed matter thumped and fluttered to the floor around him. It had been a matter of hours before the books and papers had begun to accrete around him once more, as if by magic or magnetic force. “Let’s go find some action.”

“Action,” of course, means different things to different people. For Holmes, apparently, “action” meant wandering down toward Union St. and catching the first bus that promised good people-watching. That day it happened to be an airport bus, but Holmes pulled the cord two stops prior.

“I know a good place where a mediocre cop goes when he’s had a bad day,” he explained. “Nobody has more fascinatingly bad days than a beat cop. Shall we go study some humanity?”

The patrons at the bar were the normal SeaTac mix of tourists wondering where the city was and middle-aged men taking their time over a solitary beer. One of them hailed Holmes, who ordered him another and a whisky chaser on his way over and set me up similarly with a draft beer and a shot.

Holmes introduced me to Officer Greg Redman, who called Holmes Jack, and I settled in with the microbrew. Budgetary concerns having skewed my choice of libations increasingly toward the functional, it was the first drink in a long while that I’d enjoyed as more than a means to an end.

“So, Redman,” he began, “Any progress on that hotel suicide from last month? Grace something?”

“The first name was as far as we got. The hotel staff had seen her before, but only one housekeeper would admit it. I’m afraid you were right about her being the kind of girl no one on this continent is looking for.”

“In Sudan, though…”

“So you say, but without any proof of murder or even trafficking, that’s the end of that story. But, I have another one for you.” He paused dramatically, tossed back the whisky and moved onto the fresh beer set before him. “I found my second dead body.”

“Huh.”

“In the same house where I found my first.”

Holmes brightened. “Oh, do tell.”

“To catch you up, Pinker, last winter a neighbor called in saying the porch light had been on for a week straight, the mailbox was full, and his dog had started whining when they passed by on their evening walks. Sure enough, little old Mrs. Nguyen had died in her bed. Thank God the furnace was out or it would have been a worse find. Course maybe she wouldn’t have died if the furnace was working, but we couldn’t demonstrate she’d ever contacted the owner about it, and the son we finally dug up as next of kin was as criminally negligent as the owner. Sometimes you just want to press charges against the whole human race.”

Holmes pulled off this whirly gesture that signaled both his impatience and another round.

“Anyway, it spooked me at first, seeing the garage door open. The basement flooded in the spring. The landlord hadn’t seen fit to do anything about it, and by the end of the summer I could smell the house rotting from the street as I cycled by on my rounds. I seriously doubted the owner had finally put in an appearance, but I figured I’d better toss out any squatters before the toxic mold got them.”

“And you found a man lying dead in the back of the open garage.” He held up a hand to stave off any questions. “If it had been another woman, you would have said a second dead woman. You were creeped out, so if the body hadn’t been in the garage, you probably wouldn’t have searched the rest of the house, but if he had been in the front of the garage, some other passerby would have found him. Corpses tend to adopt lying postures. CO poisoning?”

Redman didn’t protest. “I don’t see the tox reports, but it had to be. His face was so red and it smelled like gas, but of course it’s a garage. And I know the utilities were canceled because I did it myself. Busted furnace in an empty house, didn’t want an undetected gas leak. But, yeah. It was just like he gassed himself in the car in the garage except there was no car and the door was open. So someone else had to have been there and opened the garage door and got out. Maybe it was supposed to be a double suicide or just someplace warm and private to toke up and the driver came to in time to get out. Or maybe somebody opened the door, stole the car, and left him.”

“Who was he?” Obviously both men had forgotten I was there.

“Charles H. Masterson of Tacoma, Washington, owned a club near here, went home at 2:25 AM, but never got that far. His ID was in his wallet full of cash and cards, and the cutest little bag of coke you ever seen. At first I was thinking murder by suicide, but who goes to that kind of trouble, killing a guy slow in a house that smells to high heaven, doesn’t take his things, and leaves the door open so you’ll find him first thing in the morning?”

“Very astute and aptly put, Sergeant Redman. Anything else unusual about the body or the scene?”

“Nice-enough looking guy, nice-enough looking clothes. No signs of violence whatsoever. No fresh oil stains, dirt, transfer, anything that I could see.”

“Anything else of interest happen last night?”

“Oh, yeah. See this is the story I figured I would tell you next time I saw you. Got a call out to Seahurst Park because someone found teeth on the beach.”

“Teeth?” I found myself fumbling the shot-glass of whiskey.

“Like molars, but odd somehow. Probably not even human. But I collected them and here’s the weird bit. They smelled… minty. Like they’d just been brushed.”

“Smelled?” I get it upon reflection, how body parts in the sand would mess with my mental state, but it always catches me by surprise. I mean, I’d just listened to a guy describe two whole dead bodies and nothing, right? It’s a form of shock, I suppose. I pass an eternity that lasts all of a minute in which the only reason I don’t faint or throw up is that my body can’t decide which to do first and it’s physically impossible to do both. The only thing keeping me upright was the darkness crushing in equally from all sides.

Redman was showing Holmes pictures on his phone.

“Look, Pinker, letters scratched in the sand using a small metallic container approximately 1-inch deep with a rounded edge. With the teeth in a little pile at the end like a period.”

Holmes caught sight of my face and retracted the phone, but didn’t miss a beat. “The letters ADL… which could mean any number of things. It refers to several computing languages of insufficient complexity to drive most to murder; a number of relatively insignificant energy companies on various international stock exchanges; a few medical conditions—most of which are lethal enough without outside interference. It is, perhaps, most recognizable as the airport code for Adelaide….”

“Justice….” I was barely conscious. It just came out.

“What’s that, Pinker?”

“It means ‘justice’ in Arabic.”

He seemed to shrink a few inches. “Oh, but let’s hope that it doesn’t.”

“Pretty sure it does. Two hundred hours of Middle Eastern Theatre language training doesn’t get you real far on the ground, but I know my way around a flashcard.”

“Then it’s just a meaningless attempt to shift suspicion to a whole pre-vilified demographic.”

“A poor attempt. Wouldn’t an actual Arab write it in Arabic?”

Redman piped up. “What do the teeth have to do with Masterson’s death? He wasn’t missing any teeth.”

“Excellent point, Redman. I failed to account for the inability of the local police to make such elementary connections. So perhaps the killer left this message for purposes other than attracting national attention or deflecting guilt. Perhaps justice has been done… or witnessed….”

Holmes put a twenty on the bar and walked toward the door. I turned to Redman to make apologies for his abrupt departure, but he waved them off.

“No worries, Pinker. That’s how all our conversations end. You’d better hurry if you’re going to catch up with him. No telling where he’s off to now.”

It turns out it was just home for the evening, but by taxi this time. And he was gone all the next day and night.

*   *   *

The following morning Holmes was at the stove, turning a single egg in a pot of boiling water with a fork. “Once again, Pinker, police ineptitude saves the day.”

“Once again, Holmes, I have no idea what we’re even talking about.” He spared one hand and no attention to gesture to the Washington Post and ultra-local south county rag on the table. He had some elaborate subscription scheme that allowed him to receive two different newspapers each day of the week, all under the name of Martha Hudson.

The Washington Post article was on page eight. Not bad for news of the weird from the other side of the country. “Wisdom teeth?”

“Surgically extracted. Like molars, but odd, just as Redman said.”

I noted that Masterson’s two paragraphs of fame hadn’t made the front page either, because the local elementary school would be closing for a year for repairs. “Two papers. Two stories. Meaning the police didn’t buy or didn’t noise around any connection. And you’re not personally responsible for any hate crimes. Today, at least.” He stirred on and I read on. “So Masterson ran one of those sleazy strip clubs by the airport.”

“Euphemistically speaking.”

“No doubt, but then you always talk like you know exactly what happened.”

“Of course I do, I’m just not sure yet who exactly it happened to. But no need to rush these things.” He fished the egg out of the water and balanced it on the fork to air-dry.

“Seems like it happened to Charles H. Masterson.”

“Yes and no.”

“Either way, wouldn’t actually telling someone what happened maybe keep it from happening to someone else?”

“No, we needn’t worry about the killer striking again. For one thing, he is not really a killer. For another, he has no more extraneous teeth to spare for crime scenes.”

*   *   *

I came out of the bathroom in my briefs the next night to find Holmes outside the door, holding up my clothes from the day. “Sorry,” I stammered, a little worse for wear, and trying to make sense of him being there. “Did I leave those in the hallway or…?”

“It doesn’t matter where you left them. It matters that you put them back on again immediately. The cab is waiting to take us to Masterson’s club where I’ve ordered us a cab.”

I was pretty sure I’d heard that wrong, but since the best reason to drink is that it helps one keep it simple and roll with it, I did just that. I took the cheapo portable chair he’d procured that folds down to fit in a standard-sized trunk.

We didn’t go inside the club, just waited under the pink and red flashing neon sizzling in the rain.

The second cab pulled up. Holmes helped me into the back seat, folded and stowed my chair next to me, and stuck his head in the passenger-side front door. “All right if I ride up here?”

The African driver had a broad, easy smile. “Sure thing,” he answered, shifting a few things from the seat into the glove box. “Where to?”

“Not far,” Holmes responded. “We just bought the first house sold in that new housing complex on the far side of the airport. Do you know it?”

“Sure thing,” the young man repeated and pulled out.

“Ajak Deng,” Holmes read aloud. “Is that a Dinka name?”

“It is in my case, sir.” Holmes didn’t just make conversation so I took another look at the driver. He wasn’t really so young, maybe even my age, but with the over-tall leanness that makes some men look like perpetual adolescents.

My synapses were firing, but too numb to confirm if any contact was made. “I went to school with a kid named Ajak, but he was Sudanese.”

“Yes, sir. As am I. A common name.”

“Just turn up there after the light.”

“Yes, sir. Which house number?”

“Just park in the cul-de-sac, please. Perfect. And hand me the keys and don’t run.” I’d been watching the driver and now Holmes had the keys in one hand and what I was sure was my service pistol in the other.

“Grace was Dinka, too, wasn’t she?”

Ajak Deng didn’t look anywhere near as terrified as I felt. “We met in the camp. In Kukuma.”

“You’re a lost boy!” Sometimes my half-leg gets it in its head it can push me to standing, but of course I only managed to knock my head on the roof. “The teeth! Ajak wanted his front teeth pulled out, but no dentist here would do it! No, wait…” Deng had his front teeth. And the teeth on the beach were wisdom teeth.

“Yes, we boys were lost until we came here, but so were the girls. We were found, and they were abandoned. Fostered out to guardians just waiting to sell them off to rich husbands. Or worse.”

“Worse, in Grace’s case,” Holmes added.

He nodded. “I settled here, finished high school, started working, used the community college computers. I joined every group, every forum. So little information. No official records. Those girls are so lost no one will ever find them.”

“But you found Grace,” Holmes prompted.

“I saw her.” Deng looked away. “It was not her I was looking for. I was looking for my cousin. Grace just appeared. I got a call for a strip club off highway 99. A little fancy-dressed white man put her in my cab and told me which hotel to take her to, and I did.”

“Masterson,” Holmes mouthed over his shoulder for my benefit.

“But I knew her, and she knew me. I told her I would help, do anything, but she thought it unthinkable. I drove around the block an extra time, wanting her to let me take her somewhere else, she insisted her situation was hopeless. Finally I left her crying in front of the hotel.

“A Kosovar friend from community college cleans at that hotel. I pick her up and take her home mornings after our shifts if I can. She told me they found a skinny African girl in the bathtub that morning.”

“Now when I go to the airport I drive around here instead of taking another fare into town. I lose money, but I want to be in the neighborhood when dispatch gets another call for that club. Maybe some other girl I could help.”

“Finally someone flagged you down outside Masterson’s club.”

“Yes, but there was no girl, just the fancy man. I could not believe it. I had not planned for this. I had no plan. He arranged a “delivery” on his phone in the back seat of my cab. I failed to notice a stoplight turn green. He hit my headrest and I hit him and turned back to the wheel and drove. I don’t even remember how I hit him or where.

“In the temple with the heel of your hand, most likely,” Holmes provided.

Deng tilted his head side to side. “If you say so. He never made another sound. This seemed a good thing, but I had no plan.”

“Then you drove by the house,” Holmes prompted.

“The stinky house. You can smell this house from the street, so I knew it was empty, and I needed to think. But I didn’t think enough. I closed the garage door behind me so no one would see, and turned up the heat because I was shaking from cold, anger, fear, I don’t know what. Within minutes I found my thoughts wandering, my eyes closing, and I realized what I had done. I ran coughing to the sidewalk and left the door open, but when my head and the air had cleared enough for me to go back in, Fancy Man wasn’t breathing any more. I pulled him out of the cab and drove to the beach.

“Where you left the teeth you kept in that mints tin in the glovebox.”

Deng stared, then broke into a wide, incredulous grin. He leaned toward Holmes, heedless of the gun. “You have a very fine mind, I think.”

Holmes re-pocketed the gun. “And you a very good heart, I think.”

Deng’s bright smile disappeared. “I am a bad man among others now.”

“But you know you are a man. That’s why you didn’t need the teeth anymore.”

“It was a child’s way of feeling a man. In my village they pull our teeth when we are eight or nine, but I had to leave my village before that age. Having a dentist surgically remove wisdom teeth under anesthetic was hardly proof of manhood, but it was the closest I had. Killing did not make me a man, but it means I have put childish things behind me.

“I didn’t know Grace well, but she could have been my cousin. She could have been my sister. She could have been anyone’s cousin or sister. I started to write my cousin Adut’s name in the sand, but I couldn’t finish. All their names are written in sand. I could never write all the names. When the sun came up and I saw what I had written, I decided to leave it at that, to call it justice, and I added my childhood illusions of manhood as a full-stop. I can believe this when I drive through the night, but in the light of day, when I try to sleep….”

Holmes placed the keys and another twenty on the seat. Deng didn’t move as he opened the door to get out. The sky had just began to lighten in the direction of sunrise. “We’ll find our own way home from here, Mr. Deng, just as you will have to do. Thanks for the ride.”


 

Jenn Cavanaugh’s poems and stories have appeared in America, Parabola, and Mars Hill Review. She currently lives in Paris.

In the Centre of the Black

 

NBR9PapenfusCentreweb

He knew that I was here.
Concerned no one but myself,
the intensity of the feeling,

deep in some dark plot against me.
It was not against you.
The world was made for his pleasure.

I could not tell you,
a candle to the window,
nothing—nothing at all.

It was not my secret,
if there was a plot,
and the lighter expanse.

 

Source: Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Unabridged ed. 1959. London: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, 1968. 100-101. Print.


 

NBR9PapenfussmallAmanda Papenfus has poetry forthcoming in Whirlwind and has appeared in The Montreal Review and other publications. Fiction has appeared in Two Thirds North, The First Line, and elsewhere.

Moriarty’s Music Hall Memories

Editor’s Note: The Strand Magazine is proud to present its faithful readers with this exclusive excerpt from My Life of Good Intentions, the autobiography of James Edward Moriarty, forthcoming from Sherringford & Sons Publishers Ltd. We hope you are entertained with the following reminisces of one of England’s greatest impresarios.

It was Holmes who started calling me “The Professor”. Having an alter ego is not unusual in the world of theatre. It’s almost part and parcel of the business, really, ie: theatre folk and their stage names. Holmes hung “The Professor” on me not long after I took him and his partner on as clients.

Now, to this day, I still have no clear idea why he started calling me “The Professor,” though maybe it was his idea of a joke. For such an intelligent sort, he did have a curious fondness for puns and spoonerisms and all that type of low humour. “The Professor” might have been his idea of a clever play-on-words with “impresario,” I suppose. But I do know for a fact during all of our encounters over the years that there was always a trace of a smirk when he addressed me as “Professor” and sometimes I was almost sure that I detected a hint of a sneer, not that I ever said aught.

Still and all, I had no regrets about adding the two of them to my clients list. I have always maintained, and will do so with my very last breath if needs be, that Holmes & Watson were and are the greatest comic duo to ever grace the English stage.

I recall my initial impression of them as being two sides of the same coin. You had Holmes, tall and slim, almost rail-thin really, with that high intellectual forehead towering over those piercing eyes and that hawklike nose. Then there was Watson, almost the human epitome of the British bulldog, who even seemed to emphasize his subservient stature on-stage with his drab choice of dress for his short and stocky frame and his dour way of speaking.

True, given their modest music hall origin, it would have been quite difficult for most people to have predicted their rapid rise to prominence. Myself, I attribute it all to a hitherto-unrealized public appreciation for their unique melding of the academic and the absurd which became characteristic of their on-stage routine, and even of their off-stage antics over the years.

I would call your attention to “I Spy Miss Scarlet in the Study” as a classic example of what became their stock-in-trademark sketch comedy style mixed with true drama. Holmes, of course, was cast as the clever comedic lead opposite of Watson in the role of the stodgy and surprised straight man.

We all know the story. Holmes and Watson portrayed two amateur investigators helping, and also hindering, the police with a mysterious case of murder. There are the usual assortment of real clues and red herrings, a beautiful girl caught up in tragic circumstances, a vile and vicious villain, and a blundering and buffoonish representative of the official constabulary. What raised Miss Scarlet in the Study above the usual run-of-the-mill sort of farce was the introduction of a true anti-hero type in the person of Jefferson Hope, portrayed as the stereotype of the frontier American, yet who proved to have great audience appeal and encouraged actual empathy for his character in spite of his final revelation as the murderer pretending to be an ordinary London cabman.

I do not think I am giving away anything for the reader, or even spoiling the future enjoyment of others who might some day see a re-enactment of Scarlet in the Study, if I cite the following selection from the dénouement in support of my prior assertions regarding the comedic character of a Holmes & Watson offering. This particular scene display the satirical mixture of fine art and farce, along with an excellent example of Holmes’ own genius at elevating cheap humour almost to the level of true wit.

WATSON: Egad, Holmes! You’ve done it again!
HOLMES: Tut tut, my dear Watson. It was, after all, only an elementary problem in philosophy.
WATSON: Philosophy, Holmes? How the devil do you reason that?
HOLMES: Watson, you’ve seen my methods and you know my background. Nothing to do with the workings of the mind, especially the criminal mind, escapes my notice. There is much use to be found in the ponderings of philosophers as applied to the art of ratiocination, you see.
WATSON: No, I’m afraid I don’t see. How in the world, Holmes, did you deduce that Jefferson Hope was the culprit?
HOLMES: Why, my dear Watson, it was just a simple matter of viewing the matter like the perpetrator himself. In philosophical terms, cogito ergo sum. In the end, old fellow, I merely placed Descartes before the horse.

And there you have Holmes & Watson in the proverbial nutshell. Really, other than having to endure his snide manner in addressing me as “The Professor”, the only actual problem in dealing with Mr. Sherlock Holmes was his ego. Watson was more than willing to “exit stage left” as it were at the end of a routine. The real challenge was to get Holmes to make his last bow really His Last Bow before it became necessary to use the hook.

Indeed, in the end, where Holmes was concerned, that was always The Final Problem.


 

NBR7ChamberlainsmallGregg Chamberlain has had work in Daily Science Fiction, and NonBinary Review, anthologies like 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories and the Alternative Hilarities series from Strange Musings Press, and magazines like Apex and Weirdbook.

In which Lucy, dying from a broken heart, explains why she didn’t leave behind her shadow near the boulder

botn-2016-1There are many omens of death in this town.

  1. A fancy circle which distances you inside the same spot and you don’t hear the nest of streams slip inside your pocket.
  2. A boy who blows too hard into a letter in order to master its small landscape.
  3. A small dimpled fist in an aquarium that folds a promise whenever it is hauled by a knife.

I took the toy coffin out when I realized you created me. Before I began to consider the damp blue veins you patted on my arms and body. Father, father, you scattered me on your fifty-two cards, taught me to settle blood bright on the shape of another finger. Remember when I sat down to braid the desert sand and you told me that I must always understand this kind of softness. How the men drowned the ceiling with their cigars. How you slipped arguments inside your pocket while my skin ended abruptly under their gaze. Know that the night remembers us only through the voice of crickets and a promise to wake up. When I will lie down, I will not hunt the ground that remembered your footsteps. How righteous it must be to burn the tongue to tell a story. I mean that there is nothing more obvious than a body returned to its original darkness. Be calm: even the leaves forget the names of the seasons. God knows you’ve disappeared me with much less.


SherlockShinjini Bhattacharjee’s work has been published in Cimarron Review, DecomP, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Red Paint Hills Poetry and elsewhere. Her chapbook There is No Way to Alter the Gravity for a Doll is forthcoming from dancing girl press. She is also the founding editor of Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Press

69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.” – Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

1. Scarlet: ORIGIN Middle English (originally denoting any brightly colored cloth)

2. When I was 15 I bought a bright red dress to wear to my friend’s confirmation.

3. At the party he had the DJ play “Lady in Red” and asked me to dance.

4. Everyone looked at us, me hot with power but otherwise cool.

5. About the same age I started reading the Sherlock Holmes novels.

6. Scarlet: from late Latin sigillatus ‘decorated with small images’

7. I had a notebook then, what I might call a commonplace book now, where I wrote song lyrics I liked, and poems, and glued in black-and-white photographs, and drew vines and stars and spirals in the margins.

8. One of the poems I would recite again and again to myself over the years, when the shine left a romance was Mary Caroline Davies’ “Rust”:

9. Iron, left in the rain
And fog and dew,
With rust is covered.— Pain
Rusts into beauty too.

I know full well that this is so:
I had a heartbreak long ago.

10. Davies was born in the 1890’s, one hundred years before I found her poem, but just a few years before Arthur Conan Doyle set Sherlock Holmes loose in the world.

11. When we first encounter Holmes – “meet” feels like too friendly a verb – he is trying to devise a test for human hemoglobin, the iron-containing protein within red blood cells.

12. With this knowledge Holmes can analyze bloodstains at the scene of a crime.

13. Scarlet: … from sigillum ‘small image’

14. Despite my success with the red dress, I did not court attention.

15. I wanted to be the observer, not the observed.

16. I liked to keep secrets. Your picture, cut from the church directory, in a locket. Your photograph, stolen from the school darkroom, in my favorite paperback. Some small part of you hidden in some small part of me until I could make it real.

17. When I was half again as young I read Harriet the Spy and filled my own composition notebooks with observations about my family, my friends, neighbors and strangers.

18. I thought I would be a spy.

19. Instead I became an essayist.

20. Thread: ORIGIN Old English thrǣd (noun), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch draad and German Draht, also to the verb throw.

21. Sherlock Holmes was only undone once, and by a woman.

22. I have undone several boys and several men, thrown them over – never casually, but with the same relentless trajectory.  And several have thrown me.

23. But if you’re not going to tie your knot to another, what else is to be done?

24. Besides, a metaphorical broken heart rarely kills.

25. Alternate definitions of “murder” range from …

26. … a very difficult or unpleasant task or experience (when no would not be taken as an answer)

27. … to punish severely or be very angry with (when you said, “People who love each other don’t treat each other that way”)

28. … to conclusively defeat (when Irene Adler – “the woman” – escapes from Sherlock Holmes and disappears)

29. … to spoil by lack of skill or knowledge (when I didn’t know how to eat a tamale and made to bite the husk, when I gouged the brie instead of taking the rind, when I spit the scotch back into the glass, when my salary wasn’t enough, when my not-caring about these things was too much)

30. And the shame of it – the hot blush of ignorance and innocence, especially when provoked by desire.

31. What can be told from the stain of blood across the cheek?

32. And how much should be told?

33. Must every inch be unraveled and exposed?

34. Unravel: ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense ‘entangle, confuse’): probably from Dutch ravelen ‘fray out, tangle.’

35. A relationship can unravel, a lie, a pose, a mask, a front.

36. Unraveling causes confusion, but confusion can also cause unraveling.

37. “There are two kinds of women: those who knit and those who unravel … Once I see the loose thread, I am undone. It’s over before I have even asked myself the question: Do I actually want to destroy this?”– from the essay “The Unravelers” by Stephanie Danier

38. I have unraveled relationships, lies, poses, masks, fronts.

39. I have unraveled medieval texts and Renaissance plays, 19th century novels and 21st century essays.

40. I have knit myself to unravelers and been unraveled myself.

41. I have been an unraveler of knitters.

42. Does unraveling always destroy?

43. Can magic survive scrutiny?

44. Or is there always a trick, a mirror, a misdirection to be exposed?

45. Skein: a length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted.

46. Skein: a tangled or complicated arrangement, state, or situation.

47. Skein: a flock of wild geese or swans in flight, typically in a V-shaped formation.

48. Astonishment: The sound of wild geese flying over me, in my kayak in the middle of the lake, the way they broke the stillness with their loud and throbbing wing beats, the way the sound itself seemed to propel them through the air, the way the dip of my paddle into the water after they left felt so weak and feeble as I returned to shore, returned to you, thinking only of when I, too, would fly away.

49. But don’t forget: Pain rusts into beauty too.

50. I am 69 inches long if I’m lying on a bed, across the back seat of a 1980 Buick Century station wagon, on a library floor, on a stack of patio cushions, in a loft, in a church basement, on the roof of a beach house, on a press box.

51. I am the same 69 inches if I’m telling the truth.

52. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies …” – Emily Dickinson

53. Emily Dickinson died the same year Sherlock Holmes began.

54. Holmes might have used circuitous means to get at the truth but the truth he sought was straight.

55. The evidence told the story.

56. The evidence didn’t lie.

57. Scarlet thread embroidered an A, stitched together a dress, sewed together shoes, fixed the seams of a tent, secured the lines of a flag.

58. The stitches in my face after you crashed the motorcycle as well as my hopes for us were blue. But it was a red thread of desire that had me on the back of that bike, holding onto your waist as you couldn’t hold the curve, as the barbed wire fence opened its own red threads across my cheek, stole my blush, marked me for life.

59. Isolate: ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from French isolé, from Italian isolato, from late Latin insulatus ‘made into an island,’ from Latin insula ‘island.’

60. Sometimes it is easier to see something in isolation, when there is nothing near to compete or compare.

61. A magnifying glass can work to bring one small thing, one small place, into looming focus while everything around it blurs into oblivion.

62. A Study in Scarlet was the first detective novel to feature a magnifying glass as a means of investigation.

63. In the Magnificat, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God.”

64. A piece of glass, a joyous soul, a lover’s gaze, a writer’s mind.

65. Expose: ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French exposer … influenced by Latin expositus ‘put or set out’ and Old French poser ‘to place.’

66. When a crime is exposed it is set out for all to see, often again the criminal’s desire.

67. But when a writer is exposed through his own writing, he is putting stories, ideas, settings, and feelings into place. Knitting them together. The scarlet thread runs through and the skein becomes brighter for it.

68. It is intentional. Calculated. Almost Holmesian.

69. Most of the time.


 

NBR9NoblesmallRandon Billings Noble is an essayist whose work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Brevity, Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a reviewer for The A.V. Club.