Twenty Pounds of Brown Sugar

I

When I was young, I desperately wanted red hair. Not highlights. Not kind of red. Fire engine red. Stop sign red. Anne of Green Gables red. I was already smart in a way that annoyed my classmates, living close to the maritime provinces with an elegant name that people constantly misspelled. My raven black tresses simply would not do. Two things kept me from asking my mom for a trip to the salon: the amount of chemicals she already applied to straighten out the kinks, and the fact that red wouldn’t really go with my chocolate complexion. I didn’t stop wanting Anne’s hair, though, even if I didn’t have a slate to smash over some boy’s head.

 

II

In my mid-twenties, I have somewhat adjusted to the shock of finding myself older than Anne. I watch Colleen Dewherst remind Megan Follows to keep her dress clear of the wheel as she leaves for the White Sands Hotel to give a recitation. I’m thinking ahead to The Highwayman and Josie Pye looking askance at Gilbert Blythe for giving Anne a standing ovation when I notice something that never really registered before. Anne announces, “I can’t go up on that stage, I can’t! They’ll be merciless if I fail!” and I am not surprised that I know exactly what Diana will say. What surprises me is how deeply I know the next phrase. “You have never failed at anything in your life, Anne Shirley,” sounds harmless enough, but I am both a perfectionist and someone who tends to take things literally. If Anne had never failed at anything, surely what Diana really meant was that Anne would never fail, that Anne was not allowed to fail. I had never known where my own fear of failure had come from but here it was, informed by a scene in one of my favorite movies. I rewind the tape so that the text of the script could fade in the background behind my own voice speaking the words I needed to hear: “I will love you whether you fail or not, Anne Shirley.”


tolonda-henderson-smallTolonda Henderson is a poet, a librarian, and a Harry Potter Scholar. Since 2011, she has been writing and performing from the perspective of a fat, queer, neurodivergent African-American woman. Her work has appeared in Freeze Ray Poetry, Yellow Chair Review, and Open Letters Monthly and her visit to Prince Edward Island in 2008 was a fulfillment of a childhood dream.

The New Girl

She crushed my heart.

It was pink, like the ones Ruby Gillis adored, the ones she requested from her many beaux. Once I counted myself among them.

But that had all been before I saw the new girl with red hair as glorious as carrots on a sunny afternoon.

I had been gone for about a year, taking care of Father’s cough in Alberta. The doctor said the mountain air would be good for him, so Mother packed up our trunks and covered the furniture with white linens and we headed west.

Before I left Avonlea I used to tease the girls and they had loved it. Loved me for it.

I had a special trick for each of them: pin Ruby’s long blond braid to the desk so she wouldn’t be able to move her head; call Diana Barry “crow” after her raven black hair; and wink at Josie Pye while she was advising Jane Andrews on how to properly wear a pinafore.

As a reward, each fell madly in love with me.

Ruby joined me at the Harvest Festival hayride; Diana made me cucumber sandwiches for a special Sunday School picnic; and Josie added me three times to her dance card at the Founder’s Day Dance.

My chums, Charlie Sloan, Fred Wright, and Moody Spurgeon McPherson, envied my talents with the women and tried to follow my example. Strangely, they didn’t have the same luck. When Charlie pulled on Ruby’s braid, she pushed him to the ground. When Moody “serenaded” Josie on his fiddle, she remarked that it reminded her of crows cawing. FredWright had slightly better luck when he complimented Diana on her raspberry cordial—she rewarded him with another glass. Encouraged, he asked for a third, which she gave to me instead because “I wasn’t so greedy.”

I must have whatever girls want. It is both a blessing and curse.

When I had left Avonlea Ruby wrote a letter sealed with her mother’s perfume, Diana baked my favorite, chocolate chip cookies, and Josie wept (when she thought no one was looking). They all said they would write and they all did, long letters about Avonlea, how school was not the same without me, how Charlie, Fred, and Moody couldn’t compare to me in looks or in intelligence, how they couldn’t wait for me to return.

Of course a fellow likes knowing he is admired. And it helped with the loneliness of being so far away. The mountain air was excellent for Father’s lungs and his health improved. He and I spent many afternoons discussing my plans for the future. Assisting mother made me wonder if I could be a good doctor and I confided to Father that I thought I might make a good one. Women liked my bedside manner after all. Father patted my arm and told me it was a worthy endeavor. However, he did advise that I would have to stop “dallying with the girls” if I was to succeed.

I honestly wasn’t sure that would be a problem. After almost a year being away, it was clear that my skills with girls didn’t translate out west, as those girls I did meet thought I was too much of an Island boy to take seriously. It was letters from the Island girls that reminded me that there was something to come home to.

***

It was Josie who first informed me about the new girl. “The old Cuthbert siblings had adopted the queerest soul you ever saw,” she wrote. “Some sort of mix up at the orphanage. They had requested a boy and the got her instead…And what’s more she’s from away!”

The “from away” made me take notice. Not only because Josie had written it in italics, but also because it was so unusual to have a new girl in school, and to have her from away. Not of the Island. I had known Ruby, Charlie and the rest of my school chums all my life, and our families went back generations. According to Josie the girl had “no family, no people or history.” It was like she was dropped onto the Island from the heavens.

I couldn’t wait to meet her.

When I returned to the Avonlea on the second day of school, all of the girls gathered around me like I was Odysseus returning from a long journey. They chattered all once about the new girl and how she had come to church that past week with flowers on her head. I was happy to play the role. After a year of the quiet and solitude of the mountains, it was soothing to be the centre of their admiration.

But the new girl and Diana stood apart, engaged in their own conversation, a conversation most likely about me. I shifted my trousers and concentrated on something Ruby was saying about the Harvest Festival.

“That’s the new girl.” Charlie informed me as we walked by them. “She and Diana are inseparable.”

I had once heard Diana tell Jane that she thought me “aw’fully handsome.” It meant that the new girl would have a good opinion of me, making her part of my admirers would be simple.

So when our eyes met and I saw the flecks of green in her hazel eyes, I winked. Her cheeks went as red as her hair and she pulled Diana away.

Good. I had made an impression.

In class Mr. Philips assigned mathematics equations and then helped Prissy Andrews with hers. He was always paying very close to Prissy and her sums. I did my classic, “pin Ruby’s braid routine,” so when she tried to stand up, she swung her hands around like a mermaid trying to swim against the tide and cried out.

Annoyed, Mr. Philips marched over and gave me a warning. Ruby pretended to be cross and told me I was a “dreadful, dreadful boy!” But I knew she was only teasing and by the afternoon she would be sweet on me again.

But throughout the whole ordeal the new girl never even glanced my way. Not once! My trick didn’t bring her any kind of amusement; she didn’t laugh along with others. Nothing. And it wasn’t like she was sitting far away from me. She was just in front to my right, so close I could reach out and touch her carrot-red hair.

This wouldn’t do. I had a reputation among the fellows of being talented with the girls. If I couldn’t get the new girl to like me, what hope would there be for any of them? No, I had to get the new girl to notice me. And right away.

I found a scrap piece of notebook paper, crumpled it up and tossed it at her. It whizzed by her and hit Josie in the head. She stood up to shout, but when she saw it was me, she closed her mouth, straightened her pinafore, and sat back down. Charlie, Fred, and Moody slapped me on the back.

“I don’t know how you do it, Gil,” Charlie said. “When I did that last year, Josie threw the paper back and it hit me in the head.”

I shrugged noncommittedly, but was secretly pleased that my trick had garnered some success, because as the paper had passed, the new girl’s long red braid did a quick flip behind her shoulder and she flashed her hazel eyes. So, of course, I took the opportunity to wink in her direction. Again she blushed!

I was making excellent progress this afternoon.

But when I looked across the aisle again the new girl had her cheek against the palm of her hand gazing out the window, the sun glinted off her hair, reminding me of Mother’s carrot stew.

This called for dramatic action. I decided that by giving her a special nickname, like calling Diana “crow,” the new girl would see how…how special she was. I didn’t even have to think about it, I knew exactly what her special pet name would be.

“Carrots,” I whispered.

She turned around. Diana, too. Encouraged I did it again.

“Carrots!”

When the new girl stood up she gave me another opportunity to gaze into her hazel, green specked eyes, but instead of faerie dust, I saw a summer storm.

“A— ”

THWACK!

With a strength of a thousand suns, the new girl threw down her slate upon my head. The room spun, stars sprung and the everything slanted. A large bump was forming on the top of my head and broken black pieces surrounding me on the floor. I rubbed the back of my head, and shook it to stop the room from moving. Philips put his hand on the new girl’s shoulder and asked her what happened.

Diana held her friend’s hand and squeezed, but the new girl wouldn’t speak. I needed to defend her. It was the chivalrous thing to do.

Holding myself steady, I stood up and said, “It was my fault, Mr. Philips. I-I was teasing her.”

Mr. Philips went into one of his rants about controlling one’s temper and made her stand in front of the blackboard where he wrote:

Ann Shirley has a very bad temper.

I wondered if Mr. Phillips had spelled her name wrong on purpose or if he didn’t remember that she had specifically told him during roll call that she spelled her name with an “e.” She was definitely an Anne with an “e.”

I watched her at the board and wondered if she would ever look at me again.

After school, Anne grabbed her books and Diana’s arm, and pushed past me to the main road. I ignored Josie and Ruby and ran after them, practically stumbling on a tree trunk in my haste to catch up.

“Gil, what are you doing?” Charlie called behind me. “She’s just a girl.”

I finally caught up to them, standing in front of Anne and Diana, who were holding hands, so they were forced to stop.

“Anne … I—I’m so sorry I made fun of your hair,” I said. “Honestly I am. Don’t be mad for keeps now.”

She refused to even acknowledge I had said anything.

 

Please look at me again I implored. If she could see how truly sorry I was, she would have to forgive me.

“Gilbert, she’s quite upset,” Diana said. “Maybe try again tomorrow?”

I stuck my hands in my pockets and mumbled something incomprehensible as I watched them walk down through the woods.

Anne didn’t even look back.

As the months went on, Anne acted as if I didn’t exist. None of the things that worked before brought me the same joy; not pinning Ruby’s braid or walking Josie home. As a show of loyalty to her bosom friend, Diana had even stopped speaking to me.

When I asked Anne during the school’s Halloween costume party if her short hair was her way of winning the costume contest, she clenched her fists and then told Diana she needed to get more punch. I didn’t even get a chance to tell Anne how I had admired the way it caressed the back of her neck.

When, during the Christmas Concert, Anne gave the most splendid recitation of “Lady of Shallot,” and I led the standing ovation, I overheard her tell Diana that my way of clapping was “undignified.” And, when we both got the highest grade in English, I stuck out my hand in a form of congratulations, and she pushed past me.

Anne shone. But not for me.

“Might as well face it, Gil,” Charlie said. “This is one girl who you can’t get. It will leave room for the rest of us.”

In early February, I overheard Ruby tell Josie that she couldn’t wait to see what the boys would be doing on Valentine’s Day to show their affection. In previous years she had excepted many handmade and store bought cards and candies from every boy in our class, including me.

Charlie informed me, “I plan to give every girl in class a Valentine because at least one will like me.”

For once I didn’t want all of the girls to like me, I just wanted one.

After school I hurried over to town before any of my school friends could discover where I went. This was something that needed to be done on my own. Besides my reputation was at risk.

In Mr. Andrews’ General Store, I found the nicest piece of candy, a pink heart with the words, “You are sweet.”

you-are-sweet

It was perfect. It was pink and girls love pink. It also had the perfect balance between sweetness and sincerity. It was also a pun and I suspected that being a wordsmith, Anne appreciated a good pun.

I wrapped the candy in a tissue and waited all morning for the perfect time to present my gift to my Valentine. Ruby was thrilled with the card Charlie bought for her and said he could take her to the Sunday School picnic the following weekend; Diana was amused by Fred’s attempt at a homemade Valentine’s card and said he could walk her home from school; Josie showed off the Valentine she received from a boyfriend in Charlottetown. I had to wonder who he was as we had never heard of him before.

But Anne…Anne was kind as she received Charlie’s card with grace, and was even nice to Moody, who fiddled her a tune he had “written just for her.” I couldn’t do it when others, like Josie, would see. I had a reputation to uphold after all.

I held my fragile heart in my sweaty palms, soaking the tissue paper it was wrapped in. I waited until Mr. Philips was busy helping Prissy with her mathematics and gingerly leaned over my desk so that I was inches away from Anne’s sleeve, but I couldn’t reach.

I casually stood and sauntered past her, slipping the heart under the curve of her arm, turned around and sat down back at my desk, pretending to be very interested in my sums.

Burying my head down under my hand, I glanced between the triangle in the crook of my arm and watched her rise and search around the room to solve the mystery of the sweet pink heart.

I gathered my nerve, raised my head and gave her what I knew was my most charming grin. And, for the briefest of moments, her hazel-green speckled eyes flickered on me. She would see me now.

Anne took the pink heart between her fingertips and dropped it, cracked it with the heel of her boot, grinding it into a fresh powder, crushing my heart.

I smiled. At least I had gotten her to look at me again. It was a start.


melanie-fishbane-small

Melanie J. Fishbane’s YA novel Maud: A Novel Based on the Teen Life of L. M. Montgomery will be released in May 2017. Her essay “My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt” is included in L. M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942.

 

The Ants

I’d never had any aunties so when Mum told me we had three aunties hiding out in Canada I felt like I’d just won the Avery scholarship. After I gave three cheers, I asked, “How come ya never told us we had three aunties on the other side of the world?”

“I didn’t know myself,” said Mum. “Gramps lost track of his sisters after the war.”

“Do they live on Prince Edward Island? Do ya reckon they know Anne Shirley?”

As usual Mum pretended not to hear my questions. She put her head down and concentrated on stirring the brown goo in the saucepan (smelt like turnips—yuck).

“How can ya lose three sisters?” asked my sister Josie.

Mum heard that question. She tapped the spoon on the side of the saucepan then laid it down on the bench. “You girls’ve had it so easy. You wouldn’t understand. During the war everything was turned upside down. Families were split up—everyone just went wherever they could survive. Gramps came here and his three sisters ended up in Canada … they’ve only just tracked him down after all these years.”

“I wish Gramps’d gone to Canada too,” I said. “Then I could’ve grown up on Prince Edward Island and been bosom friends with Anne of Green Gables.”

Mum laughed. “Then I would’ve grown up in Canada and Dad would’ve been here and you two wouldn’t exist.” She picked up the spoon and turned back to the stove.

“In your case that wouldn’t be a loss,” Josie said in a voice soft enough that Mum couldn’t hear. I stuck out my tongue, wishing I could lose my sister. Maybe I should ask Gramps for some tips.

*   *   *

Gramps hadn’t seen his sisters in over forty years—longer than Mum and Dad had been alive—but when those three sisters hopped out of the taxi and launched themselves at him, Gramps looked about as happy to see them as I’d be if I ran into Josie after forty minutes. He stood on the front lawn, arms glued to his sides like a soldier, as one by one the sisters wrestled him into a hug.

“So good to see yer after all this time!”

“Me long lost brother!”

“Even handsomer than I remember.”

Gramps didn’t say anything, just stood pulsing his hands into his thighs, his face glowing like he was sunburnt.

I’d never met anyone from Canada before and I’d assumed my aunts would look like the picture on the cover of Anne of Green Gables, but rather than long red braids, their hair was grey and cut short just like Gran’s. Not having red hair meant they were able to wear pink, the most bewitching colour in the world. All three of them wore pink t-shirts emblazoned with a silver love heart.

Gran, Mum, Dad, Josie and I stood in a row waiting our turn as the sisters exclaimed over Gramps. After forever my new aunts released Gramps and began kissing and exclaiming their way down the line of my family. They got to me last.

“Oh, Sarah, ain’t yer a sweetie!” My Aunt Mary (or “Ant Mary” as she called herself) pinched my cheek then threw her arms around me. While Gran and Gramps always smelt of Palmolive soap, Ant Mary smelt like apples. I took a big breath, sucking in her sweetness. “How old are yer now, sweetie? What grade are yer in at school? What classes do yer like?” Ant Mary fired questions at me, leaving no room for answers.

When Ant Mary finally let me go, the second ant, Ant Flo, grabbed me right away, nearly knocking Anne of Green Gables out from under my arm. “Y’are such a doll!” For some reason she was crying, plump tears cascading down her cheeks. “I’m so happy to meet yer at last,” she sobbed. She held me so tight she squeezed out all my breath and when she let me go I was panting like when I surfaced after swimming underwater for the whole length of the pool. I didn’t even have a chance to recover before the third ant, Ant Dodo, snatched me up in her arms. Ant Dodo was the youngest sister so, like me, she always got left to last. “Oh, me littlest grandniece. What a cutie!” Ant Dodo had a mountain of a nose like Gramps and it jabbed into my cheek as she clasped me.

After the ants had finished hugging us all ten times each, we went inside for a cup of tea. Gran put out a plate of homemade fruitcake, even though I’d told her that our Canadian guests would be expecting cherry pie. Still, fruitcake was better than going hungry, so I reached out to grab a piece but Mum slapped my hand away. “You know you’re not allowed to eat that. You’re fat enough as it is.”

Ant Dodo chuckled then picked up the plate and held it out to me. “Here yer go, sweetie. Don’t listen to yer Mom, y’are real beautiful just the way y’are.”

“Ain’t she just,” agreed Ant Mary and Ant Flo, their heads going up and down in unison.

I took two pieces of cake, one in each hand, and grinned over at Mum, but she was studying the carpet.

“Do ya live on Prince Edward Island?” I asked.

The three ants looked at each other and started giggling. “No, sweetie,” said Ant Mary. “We live in Toronto. That’s a big city, just like Melbourne.”

I reached for another piece of cake. “Have ya ever been to Prince Edward Island?”

“That’s enough of your silly questions, Sarah,” said Dad. Then he turned to the ants and asked them what they got to eat on the plane and whether they’d been able to sleep and what time it was now back in Toronto.

After we’d finished afternoon tea, the ants rummaged around in their ginormous suitcases and pulled out presents for all of us, even though it wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday. Ant Mary handed me a box wrapped in gold paper with a silver bow on top. I’d never received anything so beautiful. I held the present in my hands, just gazing at it, not wanting to spoil the gift by unwrapping it.

“It’s ace!” I said. “Thanks heaps.”

“Go ahead, sweetie,” laughed Ant Mary. “Open it up.”

I turned the box over and slid my finger along the seam, trying to prise off the sticky tape without damaging the gold paper—it’d come in handy for my art project. Beneath the beautiful wrapping paper was a beautiful box and inside the beautiful box was a beautiful necklace in the shape of a beautiful butterfly. The beautiful necklace had a beautiful shiny stone in one corner and a beautiful letter “S” engraved right in the middle.

“S for Sarah,” said Ant Mary.

“S for sweetie,” said Ant Dodo.

“S for special,” said Ant Flo.

“S for stupid,” muttered Josie. I jabbed my elbow into her ribs. Why couldn’t I have a nice sister? It wasn’t fair—Gramps had three. Maybe if I’d grown up in Canada I’d be surrounded by kindred spirits and bosom friends.

Dad snatched the box out of my hands, holding it up to the light and squinting. “Is that a real diamond?” He traced a finger over my butterfly. Ant Mary nodded.

“There was no need,” said Dad. “You shouldn’t spoil them.”

“But I’m meeting me grandnieces for the first time. I want ‘em to know how much I love ‘em.” She smiled at Mum—two rows of straight white teeth. “Y’are lucky to have such beautiful daughters. Yer must be so proud.”

“Of course.” Mum’s teeth were gritted behind her grin. She glanced over at me, her smile drooping. “Don’t be rude, Sarah. Thank your Aunty Mary for the generous present.”

“Thanks so much!” I hooked the butterfly around my neck. “It’s ace! It’s unreal! It’s the most beautiful present I’ve ever gotten … much nicer than the diary Gran gave me last Christmas that had every Friday and Saturday missing … and the jumper Mum got me at the op shop for my birthday and …”

The ants looked at each other and burst into laughter so loud the whole room seemed to shake. “Grandkids are a gift from God, ain’t they,” Ant Flo said to Gran, “Yer grandkids are so special. Yer must be proud.”

Gran was examining the same bit of carpet that had captivated Mum a few moments earlier. I leaned over to have a real good squiz, but I couldn’t see anything wrong with the carpet. It was standing perfectly upright, still holding the shadow of Gran’s hoover.

Usually when we visited Gran and Gramps, we all sat around drinking tea and listening to the clock on the mantelpiece going tick tock, tick tock for about an hour until at last Mum said it was time to go home, but the ants didn’t seem interested in listening to the clock and the clock’s tick tocking was drowned out by their chatter and laughter. They spoke in exclamation marks with their hands dancing in front of them. And usually they all spoke at the same time.

At one point I looked over and saw Gramps covering his ears with his hands. A little later I noticed him pull himself out of his chair and sidle towards the door. Then, in a rare gap between an exclamation and a giggle, I heard the faint sound of his piano out in the garage.

The ants were busy telling a story about this “sweet, lovely, fabulous” guy they’d met on the plane. “He was coming to Ors—tralia to buy a dog …” said Ant Mary.

“A dog to work on his farm,” said Ant Dodo. “Apparently there’s this special type of dog in Ors—tralia …”

“He showed us photos,” said Ant Flo. “That dog sure was a cutie …”

“Gorgeous!”

“Real beautiful!”

All of a sudden, Ant Mary looked around. “Where’s Matthew?”

“He’s playin’ piano out the back,” I said.

“Oh?” The three ants fell silent and we could hear the distant tones of the Moonlight Sonata.

“I play piano too,” I said. “I had an exam and I got …”

Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t boast, Sarah.”

“Oh sweetie, that’s fabulous,” said Ant Dodo. “I bet yer Dad’s real proud of yer.” She clasped her hands in front of her chest and tilted towards me.

“I can recite poetry too.” I sprang to my feet. “I know ever so many pieces of poetry off by heart. Would ya like to hear The Lady of Shallot or Bingen of the Rhine?”

“The Lady of Shallot,” said Ant Mary.

“Bingen of the Rhine,” said Ant Dodo.

“Neither,” said Dad, Mum and Josie all at the same time.

Ant Mary and Ant Dodo looked at each other with smiles as big as Prince Edward Island across their faces. “Why don’t we hear both.”

Dad, Mum and Josie gathered up all the plates and headed into the kitchen to do the washing up.

*   *   *

I’d always dreamed of having an aunty and suddenly I had three. All three of them were kindred spirits, but my favourite was Dodo. She noticed the book I carried around with me and said, “I read that book too when I was a little girl. Which bit are yer up to?”

“I’ve already read it four times,” I said. “I borrowed it again so I could learn all about Canada, ready for ya visit. I’ve gotta take it back to the library by Friday or I’ll get a fine and Mum’ll kill me.”

Ant Dodo’s laughter was like wind passing through poplars. “I’m sure she wouldn’t do that.” Clearly she didn’t know my mum very well yet. She tapped her finger on the book’s cover. “What’s yer favourite bit?”

“The part where Anne walks along the ridgepole.” I stuck out my arms and took a few careful toe to heel tightrope steps to demonstrate. “I tried to walk along our ridgepole but Dad grabbed me before I got halfway up the ladder … Walloped me with his belt.”

Ant Dodo laughed again. “I’m sure yer Dad wouldn’t do that.”

Obviously everyone in Canada was much nicer than they were in Australia because my Dad would most certainly do that and I had the welts on my backside to prove it. I was just about to pull down my pants to show her when Dad poked his head around the door. “Get a move on, Sarah, we’re goin’ home.” He glanced at the book which Ant Dodo now had open in her hands. “Don’t forget ya book. Mum’ll kill ya if ya get another library fine.”

The reason we had to go home so early—before I even had the chance to find out about Ant Dodo’s favourite bit of Anne of Green Gables—was because Dad’s team were playing and he wanted to watch the game. Dad loved football and if he ever missed a game he’d be grumpy for about a week afterwards. Dad had wanted sons rather than daughters so he had someone to kick a footy with, which was why he was so disappointed that Josie and I had both turned out to be girls.

Yes, I was an unwanted girl, just like Anne Shirley. Dad said that when I was born he was so sure I was going to be a boy, they didn’t have a girl’s name picked out. They only had a boy’s name and it wasn’t a nice, romantic name like Gilbert. No, they were going to call me Paul. Paul! Then I arrived and Mum decided to call me Sarah, on the spot, without even thinking about it. Like Anne, I kept having to remind everyone to stick the last letter on my name, otherwise they’d call me Sara which was nowhere near as distinguished as Sarah.

I often reminded Dad that girls could play football too, but he always said don’t be ridiculous and if I wanted to do sport I could enroll in ballet. I reckon if I had’ve come from an orphanage rather than out of Mum’s tummy, Dad would’ve sent me back for sure and got the boy he wanted.

Josie’s favourite ant was Ant Mary. Before she retired Ant Mary was a hairdresser, so Josie sat on the floor between Mary’s knees and Mary whipped her hair into fancy styles, braids and buns and French rolls. Josie liked Ant Mary so much that she even started talking like her, dragging all her words out to twice as long as they should be and flicking her tongue up behind her front teeth so her Rs rolled on forever. She started calling me Sarah sweetie, just like the ants did, even though I knew Josie thought I was about as sweet as Vegemite.

*   *   *

The ants only stayed a week—they all said they’d love to stay longer, but they had their own families back in Canada and they needed to get home. On their last day they took Josie and me shopping for farewell gifts.

When we got to the shopping centre, which the ants and Josie in her new accent called the mall, Ant Flo threw her arms open wide. “Yer can buy anythin’ yer like, sweeties.”

“We want to leave yer a real special gift so yer don’t go forgettin’ us,” said Ant Dodo.

“I’ll never forget ya!” I sniffled into the sleeve of my jumper. Gramps might have forgotten about his sisters for forty years but, even though I’d only known them for a week, they were in my heart forever, right next to Anne of Green Gables.

First we went to the bookshop so I could buy my very own copy of Anne of Green Gables. (I didn’t tell Ant Dodo that I’d returned the book to the library two days late and still had the indent of Mum’s wooden spoon on my bum.)

“Yer can get somethin’ else as well, sweetie,” said Ant Dodo. “What about this?” She held up a box which had all six Anne books in it.

I threw my arms around her. “You’re the sweetest, kindest, loveliest ants in all the world.”

Next it was Josie’s turn. She dragged us to the jewelry store where she tried on four pairs of earrings and because she couldn’t decide which she liked best (“They’re all so cool!”) Ant Mary bought her all four pairs. Ant Dodo came over to the corner where I was squatting, reading one my new books. “Yer sure we can’t buy yer somethin’ else, sweetie?”

“No thanks.” I stuck my nose back in my book. “Just red hair like Anne of Green Gables.”

Ant Dodo cackled like a chook. “Oh sweetie, y’are such a card!”

Josie was leaning on the counter watching Ant Mary counting out fifty dollar notes. She snuck a glance back at me and stuck up her middle finger, her lips silently moving in the all-too-familiar shape of the word “Stupid”. Then she turned and grinned up at Ant Mary. “Can we go to Sportsgirl now? It’s so neato.”

“Of course, sweetie.”

In Sportsgirl I sat cross-legged under a rack of t-shirts reading while Josie tried on practically everything in the whole store. After about two hours, Josie swept back the t-shirts hanging above me and kicked me in the shin. “What d’ya think?” She was wearing a red skirt so short I could see the tartan of her undies and the top she had on was only half a top, sitting an inch above her bellybutton. She turned a circle in front of me. “Cool, hey Sarah sweetie.”

“Mum and Dad’ll kill ya if ya leave the house wearin’ that.”

Ant Flo came over, her shoes going clip clop on the tiles. “Don’t yer look like an angel! Let’s buy it!” She smiled down at me. “Yer sure yer don’t want anythin’ else, sweetie?”

“Do ya reckon they have anything with puffed sleeves?” I asked. Josie rolled her eyes.

Ant Flo went over and spoke to the sales assistant. I couldn’t hear what she said, but the sale assistant’s voice was so loud I think everyone in the whole shop could hear. “Puffed sleeves? Na, you’d be lucky to get anything with sleeves at this season. What about a boob tube?”

When we got back to Gran’s, Dad took one look at Josie and shouted, “What the hell are ya wearin’?” His eyebrows arched to fill the bald spot at the top of his forehead.

“Don’t she look fabulous,” said Ant Mary.

“Just like a model,” said Ant Dodo.

“Yer must be so proud of her,” said Ant Flo.

Josie smirked and did a lap of the lounge room, her bum wiggling side to side. Dad tucked the newspaper under his arm and disappeared outside.

After tea, we all stood in the driveway waiting for the taxi that would take the ants to the airport. The ants, Josie and me were all in tears. Gran, Mum and Dad stood off to the side with their arms folded over their chests and Gramps stood even further away, over by the roses, looking at his toes.

Ant Mary flung one arm around me and one arm around Josie. “Oh sweeties, we’re going to miss yer so much.”

“Can’t we come with yer,” pleaded Josie.

Ant Mary shook her head, laughter tumbling out with her tears. “Oh sweetie, I wish yer could. But yer can come visit.”

“Yeah, come visit,” said Ant Flo.

Ant Dodo combed her fingers through my hair. “I’ll take yer to Prince Edward Island. I’ve heard it’s the prettiest place in the world.” I buried my face in her skirt, wondering how much a ticket to Canada cost. If I managed to stay out of mischief and did the dishes and made my bed every day, I got two dollars a week pocket money. Maybe I could save up.

The taxi pulled into the driveway and Dad loaded the ant’s suitcases into the boot while the ants began another round of teary hugging. One last hug then they all piled into the backseat, rolling down the windows and reaching out to clasp our hands, Josie on one side, me on the other.

“Bye sweeties … We’ll miss y’all so much … We love yer, sweeties.”

I ran alongside the taxi, clinging to Ant Dodo’s hand, but the car sped up and I lost my grip and my ants disappeared over the hill.

“What a relief.” Dad stamped his foot down right in the middle of a line of ants scurrying along the footpath. Then he glared over at Josie who had her hands over her face, boo-hooing. “Get inside and get some clothes on.”

“I’ll wear what I want!” Josie pulled her hands away from her face and jerked a finger up at Dad.

“How dare you!” Dad’s face was beetroot. “Just you wait, young lady …” But Josie didn’t wait, she’d already vanished into the house, slamming the front door behind her.

I sat hunched on the front lawn sobbing into my knees. “What are you bawling about?” Mum jabbed me with her shoe. “All that spoiling’s made you soft.”

“I’m not soft,” I blubbered. “I’m sad. What if Gramps loses his sisters again and I never get to see them …” I wiped my nose along my forearm, leaving a glistening trail of sadness. “I wanna go to Canada, where everyone’s sweet as Anne of Green Gables.”


louise-hopewell-smallLouise Hopewell is an Australian writer and public policy researcher. Back in Melbourne, Louise has led community laughter groups in raucous merriment for over five years. Louise has published poetry, as well as short fiction, and regularly performs her original songs. Her work has been published in Seizure, EastLit, FH: A journal of English senryu and Chamber poets anthology: Shots from the chamber

Anne / Ann

When you call Anne Ann, her other self comes rushing back.

Ann, who remembers every loneliness, every cruelty, unvarnished. Ann, who cannot get a funny ache in her heart when she sees the Lake of Shining Waters.

Ann is even thinner than Anne. Anne hates her own thinness only because it reminds her of Ann in her yellowish gray wincey from the orphan asylum.

Ann has only one thing Anne envies—cascades of lush black hair.

When you renounce the sorrow you renounce the beauty.

Anne does not have sorrows, only tragical romances, endured in diaphanous white gowns of the imagination by someone named Cordelia.

Ann has sorrows, and they have destroyed her scope for imagination. Ann is stuck in reality, which is an orphan asylum with no trees. Being unwanted is a pain in her stomach, sour milk and hard bread.

Anne has a kind heart, so she carries Ann with her. Anne shows Ann the Lake of Shining Waters, shelters her under the White Way of Delight. Ann remains numb. Anne is patient. She will carry Ann curled inside her.

Anne is the moon, full and luminous. Ann is the night sky, absent of mother’s milk. Ann is quartz that is sharp and cold and clear.

The quartz pricks at Anne’s consciousness. It hurts her and, in pain, she feels.

Anne has no skin. Blood eye heart pressed against the world.

The Lake of Shining Waters purifies her. The White Way of Delight protects her.


samantha-stiers-smallSamantha Stiers has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, and many other magazines. She is the recipient of the Frances Locke Memorial Poetry Prize. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she is a student and enjoys the visual expressive arts, including painting, needle-felting, and dollmaking. 

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.

At a Waffle House, Alice Simply Wanted Grits

in a bowl—hot! Dogs hissed
outside; cats barked about
who had prayed everything upside down
to become normal again.
Outside-cats barked about
like drunken cows
to become normal.Again
it rained milk
like drunken cows—
now inflated red & white balloons.
It rained;milk
drenched the queen of hearts,
now inflated red & white. Balloons
burst like rain clouds—
drenched the queen of hearts
with relish (smothered her). Also she
burst.Like rain clouds
in a bowl, hotdogs hissed
with relish—smothered her also,she
who had prayed everything upside down.


NBR10 Mannone headshotJohn C. Mannone, three-time Pushcart nominee, has work in Inscape Literary Journal, Artemis, Town Creek Poetry and others. He has two literary collections, including Disabled Monsters (The Linnet’s Wings Press, December 2015). He edits poetry for Silver Blade and Abyss & Apex and teaches college physics in Tennessee. Visit http://jcmannone.wordpress.com

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.

Inverted

Inside the rabbit hole, among the clotted
soil, the shivering roots, an earthworm’s holy
paradise, the moon burns black, and not
a soul eats corn. It’s perfectly natural
that not just mother bears will eat their young,
and mitochondria flee their cells. Lowly
mice are king. The minutes highlight gradual
lengthening days, and love’s bite is not this pain.
Our skin is no barrier, eyes wide, arms flung.
When a girl, not looking, finds soft love
in a girl’s raw heart, so it goes with the grain.
Limbs notched in their lavender haze, no thistle
to mar their daffodil limbs, hassle
their undomesticated love. Kissed full.


NBR10HumphreyssmallBethanie Humphreys is a writer, editor, mixed media visual artist, and curator for the Sacramento Poetry Center Art Gallery. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in several literary magazines and her artwork has been in several juried and group shows. She was Editor in Chief of the American River Review, and is on the staff of the Tule Review

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