Remembering and Forgetting

By: Elizabeth Wayua Ndinda
English Instructor at Akilah Institute, Kigali Rwanda

For a long time, I could only think of what I had been told to think. And this is what I had been told: To remember my past as that is how I could know how to plan for my future. Growing up next to a dumpsite ensured that I had the sites putrid stench almost woven in to my DNA.

First there was the fetid smell of rotten banana peels; the ones that could break your kneecaps if you slipped. Then there was the rancid smell of rotten avocado which had been crushed my scavengers in this rainy season to ensure the perfect mix of green black and the brown of mud. Next there was the smell of decaying pads…which sometimes had big clots hidden within them, some thick yellow pus or even little feces. It appeared as if human being buried not only their wastes in the dump but also their souls.

There were also babies’ diapers. They came with all sorts of cargo. From liters of pungent Urine, to runny green diarrhea, to the firm yellowish type that you could easily confuse with pawpaw. Some rodents usually did…eating gleefully.

One day, a street child visited the landfill on a different mission, Instead of scavenging for food, he had a sack; ready to harvest. I remember wondering why the air stung my nostrils. My nose ached. Why could he not just put me down? Through a hole in the sack, I looked longingly back at my home, my filthy stinking comfortable home.

 

The neck gets sore from looking in one direction.

 

As the site of my home grew dim, I ached. From the shoving and pushing of everything the urchin had picked, I was almost squashed. The weight of the other stuff was almost overpowering. …I must have slept for a long time or lost consciousness because the next time I came to…there was an excruciating pain in my chest. This was completely alien to me. For a fleeting moment, I wondered why all those men of the cloth had lied to us about heaven, the afterlife, paradise. Did I really go to hell? Where was the fire? Could there be pain in heaven.

My eyes slowly gained focus on the familiar objects that had been uprooted from the garbage dump. Instead of enjoying the air, I ached for what I had always had. How I miss my stinking hole. Tears well in my eyes, nostalgia is almost killing me; then I remember:

 

The neck gets sore from looking in one direction.

 

My very existence depends on whether I remember or I forget. What should I do seeing that I do not even know how to choose?

A Bird in Hand

By: Emma O’Neill-Dietel
Smith College, Northampton MA, USA

I tugged at the braids coiled around the back of my head. They were thick and itchy and the bobby pins made my head ache. The church was sweltering hot and my black dress draped heavily across my knees. I had asked Maeve if I could wear shorts, and she said no, because it would be disrespectful. Maeve also braided my hair, since Mom was too busy getting ready. She was probably also too busy being sad, since it was her sister who died.

My aunt Eileen always wore her hair down. Maeve liked to braid it when she was my age, but Aunt Eileen always let me undo the braids when Maeve was finished. “Freedom!” she used to say when I finished. It made us both laugh. Aunt Eileen had long, smooth hair that was brown with little stripes of grey at the top. My own hair was frizzy and the color of the dirty linoleum tiles in my elementary school hallways.

Maeve saw me fidgeting with my hair and swatted my hand away. I glared at her. She took my hand in hers and squeezed, a little too hard to be friendly.

“Can I please undo it?” I whispered. Maeve pinched the skin on the back of my hand. I almost cried out, but I stopped myself just in time. Music swelled—well, it was too dreary to swell. It really just got louder and sadder, if that was possible. The men sitting in the row in front of me stood up and gathered around the casket. Maeve loosened her grip on my hand. I inched my other hand towards the back of my head as the men lifted the casket and began to carry it down the aisle. People around me shifted in their pews to watch them leave so I did too. I saw Uncle Frank, cousin Theo, and a few other men I only slightly recognized lifting on either side of the enormous wooden box. It didn’t really seem like Aunt Eileen was in there. If she was, she would pop out like a jack-in-the-box and make us all laugh at how dramatic we were being.

While Maeve’s head was turned towards the men, I used my hand that wasn’t pinned under hers to yank the bobby pins from my braid. They came out with little clumps of hair still attached. The men carrying the casket that was somehow holding Aunt Eileen reached the doors at the back of the church and my hair finally fell out of its coil. It was still braided, but I could almost feel the strands of hair unbraiding themselves. They were reaching out like plants growing towards light. I extracted my other hand from underneath Maeve’s and began to use both hands to unweave my hair. Maeve suddenly snapped back towards me.

“Fallon!” she hissed. I heard a soft thud as an attendant closed the doors behind the men and the casket. The pastor began speaking again but I couldn’t pay attention. Maeve was furiously pulling my hair back into place. I could feel the stare of a church lady behind me hot on my neck.

Maeve finished fixing my hair just as the pastor instructed us to make our way out to the cemetery behind the church. Maeve shoved one last pin into my hair where it jabbed at my scalp like a sharp-beaked bird. She grabbed my hand and I tried to wriggle away to no avail. I was much too old to hold someone’s hand, even if that someone was my sister and even though we were at a funeral where it seemed like everyone was holding hands and hugging. We filed out of the pews and joined our parents, who had been sitting in the front row. My mom was holding a tissue up to her eyes and my dad was holding her hand in both of his like a small and wounded bird. He was holding it tightly but in a way that meant she was protected, not captive. When he saw us he let go of her hand with one of his and put his arm around both of our shoulders.

“Come on, girls,” he said. “Let’s see Auntie Eileen off.” We walked outside in an awkward family clump, too close together to step normally. Maeve finally let go of my hand when we got to the hole for the casket. I saw her wind her fingers together and pick at her cuticles. If Mom had been watching she would have said something, but she was too busy staring blankly at the hole in the dirt.

“Remember when we used to play here?” I asked Maeve.

Maeve shushed me. “This is still a funeral, Fallon.”

“I know,” I said, “I’m not stupid. I’m just saying, remember how we used to play hide-and-seek behind the gravestones? That was really fun. Maybe someday kids will play around Aunt Eileen’s gravestone.”

“Don’t be morbid, Fallon,” said Maeve.

“What does ‘morbid’ mean?” I asked. My dad looked down at me as if he had just begun listening to our conversation.

“‘Morbid’ means something that is related to death,” he said. “What do you think is morbid, Maeve?”

“Fallon was saying that she hopes kids will play around Aunt Eileen’s grave someday.” Maeve looked at me and then back at my dad like I was a baby and she and my dad were both grown-ups.

“I think that’s a wonderful thing to hope, Fallon,” he said. “I think Aunt Eileen would like that very much.” My mom nodded, looking up from the hole in the dirt.

“Aunt Eileen and I played in this cemetery when we were your age,” she said.

“I didn’t know that,” I said. I tried to imagine my mom and Aunt Eileen when they were my age. They were only two years apart. From pictures I knew that my mom looked a lot like me and Aunt Eileen looked a lot like Maeve. If I concentrated really hard, I could pretend that I saw Aunt Eileen as a little girl poking her head over a gravestone and smiling at me. Her smile went up to her eyes the way that Maeve’s did when we were younger. The more I thought about it, the more the imaginary girl smiling at me looked like Maeve, not Aunt Eileen, and then when I looked at the casket my first thought was that Maeve was inside it. For the first time since Aunt Eileen had died, I started to cry.

My dad noticed and he knelt down and lifted me up into a hug. I wrapped my legs around his waist like I had when I was much smaller. My mom reached past me to hold Maeve’s hand. When I had finally stopped crying and my dad set me back on the ground, I saw Maeve squirming her fingers out of my mom’s grasp.

The Road

By: Emma O’Neill-Dietel

Smith College, MA, USA

I.

            The road was too wide. Natalie’s favorite Willie Nelson song was playing at top volume, yet Jessie could still hear Erin crunching on potato chips a few inches away from her ear.

            “You know the next exit, Jess?” Erin shouted through a mouthful of Frito Lays, her feet wedged against the glove compartment.

             Jessie nodded, feeling too sick to respond. She knew she should probably pull over and let Erin take the wheel, but despite her white knuckles and churning stomach, she preferred to be in charge.

            Natalie and Erin had nominated Jessie as the primary driver on the journey from Pittsburgh to the Grand Canyon, and she had been more than happy to oblige. It was her car after all, a brand-new green pickup truck that set her apart from all the other students at their college. She assured her friends that she genuinely loved driving. It was the open road she couldn’t stand.

           When people talk about the Great American West, they always dwell on the open road. People describe it as something grand and gorgeous and all-American. No one ever mentions that along the panhandle of Oklahoma, the plains of Texas, and the desert of New Mexico, there are stretches of road that seem as barren and foreign as the moon. These gaping spaces in the landscape made Jessie feel entirely alone, even with her two best friends in the car.

            Willie Nelson crooned on, lamenting about lost love, reminiscing about times gone by, and charting new adventures on—what else? —the open road.

             “On the road again, I just can’t wait to get on the road again,” Natalie sang along, trailing her hand out the window. The open road made Jessie want to close herself into a box and never leave.

              When she looked out at the expanse in front of her, she had a sensation she knew all too well. It was the same feeling she’d had when she visited the library as a little girl, and realized that she would never be able to read every book on its shelves because new books were constantly arriving. It was the same feeling she had when she thought about how many nameless bodies laid buried and forgotten in ancient graveyards, and how deeply unknowable they all were now. It was the same feeling she’d had when she imagined the beauty of every possible alternate universe in which she did anything other than follow her high school boyfriend to college.

            It was crushed diamonds slipping through her fingers. It was a world too big to hold, a sun too bright to see. She felt as if she needed to peel back her eyelids to take in everything that was in front of her. She needed to split open her body just to take up enough space to exist.

           She convulsed involuntarily. Her arms jerked the steering wheel to the side. Natalie and Erin screamed, but Jessie remained stony-faced.

           “What the hell?” shouted Erin. Her shoulder slammed into the window as the car veered to the side of the road and lurched to a halt.

           “Is everybody okay?” asked Erin as she took stock of the car. Her voice was far louder than it needed to be in the suddenly still car. It rang out desperately over the soft strumming of Willie Nelson that still fell through the speakers.

           “Fine,” said Natalie shakily.

           “Jessie?” asked Erin. Jessie slowly unlocked the driver’s side door, unhooked her seatbelt, and stumbled out of the car. As soon as she was free, she stomped on the ground, desperate to feel her feet make contact with something, anything. The ground was unyielding, and her feet left no mark, so she turned to the next largest thing she could find: her truck. She raised her foot and felt a solid crunch where her steel-toed boot met the driver’s side door. She yelped and fell back, clutching her foot.

           “Jessie!” Erin shouted. She scrambled to untangle herself from the seatbelt and pushed through the passenger side door. Natalie sat in the backseat, her chest heaving. When Erin joined Jessie outside, she found her retching on the side of the road, hobbling on her injured foot. Willie Nelson serenaded her through the open car door.

           “What the hell was that?” asked Erin. “Are you okay? You looked totally spooky right before you crashed us. Like you were about to pass out or something.”

“It’s just…” gasped Jessie, still bent over, “I couldn’t… I don’t know.” Erin put a hand on her back tentatively.

             “You’re alright, Jess. Nobody’s hurt. The car looks fine… except for that.” She eyed the dent that Jessie had made. “You could probably get that fixed, right? It’s all good. Why don’t you get in the back with Nat? I’ll drive.”

           “Okay,” breathed Jessie. She was surprised to hear her own voice fill the space around her like a shield. It was the only sound to be heard for miles. Sometime in the moments after they had run off the road, Natalie had turned off the Willie Nelson album.

II.

        The road is too wide. It stretches into infinity, wider and wider, going against everything I know about perception.

When my daughter was first born, she cried and cried when we drove. My mother had told me that the gentle motion of wheels against road would soothe her, but it was just the opposite. The first time I took her in the car, we were driving to my mother’s house down the highway that cut through the cornfields between our Pennsylvania towns. I looked into the backseat and saw my baby’s eyes fixed on the road in front of us. Her face trembled with a fear that I recognized immediately: fear of a dead end, fear of paralysis, fear of finite space. Her eyes were tracing the long, flat road and saw it shrink to extinction on the horizon. In her mind that dot was our destination, and we were destined to crash.

           But we didn’t crash, of course. Perception worked in our favor, and what once seemed thin as a thread opened wider as we reached it, wide enough to let even a dented, secondhand pickup truck pass through comfortably. My baby learned what all babies must learn: what looks like an end is only a continuation. A heart isn’t broken when it breaks. Her mother isn’t gone forever when she leaves the room.

           Now the road is too wide, and I’m heading towards its unending sprawl with no baby in the backseat and no heart left to break. I left her in her crib this morning. I tiptoed in to kiss her on the forehead and she shifted in her sleep. Had she woken and looked into my eyes she would have paralyzed me, trapped me there in her room, held me to the floor beside her crib, and I would never have gotten in this car or out on this road. But she stayed asleep, so I kissed her and slunk from the room.

           I should have done this before she could speak, before she could cry out “Mama,” before she had grown to think that I would always come back when she called. My own mother will be there by now, ready to pick my baby up to bring her to the nursery school where she works. She will let herself into the house expecting to see me sitting at the breakfast table with my baby dressed and eating beside me. Instead she will find my baby crying in her crib, still in her pajamas, alone and unfed. I focus on the road and try to let the picture in my mind fly out of the open passenger window.

           The road is so wide it eats up the periphery of my vision and consumes my mind as well. All I see is road.

           The road is my future, and it is swallowing me whole.

III.

           The road was too wide.

           “Are we there yet?” my brother Neil asked.

           “No.”

           I felt my breath being sucked out of my lungs, through the car window and into the abyss.

            “How about now?”

            “No.

            Neil stuck his hand out of the window and waved it, fanning the open air into the car.

           “Stop that,” I said. “The air conditioning is on.” I slammed hard on the button to roll up the window. It shuddered but remained open. It would be a miracle if our busted pickup, dubbed the Green Giant by Neil, made it to Colorado in one piece.

            “Mari, don’t bother him,” my mom said.

            “Yeah,” said Neil, “it’s for my closet-phobia.” My mom nodded.

             Ever since my seven-year-old brother had had a panic attack inside the elevator to my aunt’s apartment, he had been seeing a therapist for anxiety and “closet-phobia,” as he put it.

             Before Neil’s diagnosis, I had thought that things like claustrophobia and anxiety only happened to emo teenagers and aging psychotic poets. After he was diagnosed, I began to look for signs of mental illness in every person I knew:

              My eighth-grade teacher. My elderly neighbor. My older cousin.

              Myself.

              I was convinced that the very existence of anxiety was giving me anxiety. Neil, however, seemed less bothered by his anxiety than any anxious person had a right to be. In the seat next to me he sang a song he had made up after his first visit to a therapist. She had given him a worksheet to begin writing down the “tools” she gave him to deal with his anxiety.

              “Closet-phobia, closet-phobia, use your toolbox so you don’t explodia,” he chimed to himself.

               “Close the window or I’ll make you explodia,” I muttered.

               “Why do you care so much?” he whined.

               “It’s bothering me,” I said. “It’s not like driving in the city. Bugs could come flying in here.”

                “I like bugs,” said Neil. The car picked up speed to pass an enormous truck.

                “My papers could blow away in the wind!” I cried, clutching my sketchbook to my chest. “Everything could blow away.”

                 “Everything? Like what?” asked Neil. “How?”

                 “There’s too much space out there,” I said. It was true. Back home in New York City, cars moved slower than Neil could walk, and everything was held securely in place between the skyscrapers. The farther we drove away from New York and towards our new home in Colorado, the looser the world became. Cows roamed unfenced. Pages ripped themselves from my sketchbook. The road sprawled for what felt like years with nothing to tame it.

                  I could feel Neil watching me watch the scenery go by out the car window.

                  “I feel like you have the opposite of closet-phobia,” said Neil. “The Earth is too little for me but too big for you. Is that because you’re growing up?”

                  “That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “If I’m growing up, everything should seem littler. Like how you used to not be able to reach the sink in the bathroom, but now you can. You got bigger and the world got smaller.”

                  “No,” said Neil. “When you grow up you have to think about bigger things. Like taxes and the news.” I heard my mom chuckle from the front seat. “The world does get bigger,” Neil said. “Maybe you’re just not ready.”

                 “Then what does that make you?” I asked.

                 “I guess I’m just ready too early. I gotta wait for the world to get bigger before I grow more.”

                 “The world will be plenty bigger in Colorado,” my mom said from the front seat. “Plenty of space for both of you to be as big or as little as you want.”

                  Off in the distance I noticed the peaks of mountains that seemed to rise out of the ground like alien skyscrapers. Maybe the roads in Colorado would be held in after all; not quite as tightly as the skyscrapers would hold it, but just loose enough for Neil to feel comfortable, too.

In Season

By: Emma Sachs

Agnes Scott College, GA, USA

             It began, I think, with the fruit trees. The ones planted by my father, holes dug by hand, in a last attempt to woo my mother into marrying him. At least, that’s the way he always told the story. She had flirted the edges of his world for years. A flower child turned arborist, whose family came from the same Steel Belt that had treated my father so kindly, his money held no interest to her. But my father planted her a dowry that she could not refuse. It was grown just off the back of the house in long and tilting rows. At the front there are plum trees, five of them, the European kind that grow into dark, palm-sized ovals – puncture the skin with your thumb, though, and you’ll find the flesh is yellow and sweet, sticking to your lips like sap. Next to them, finishing the first row, are the July Peaches: two trees that still have a slight lean to them, bending away from each other. My mother called them the “bickering brothers” competing to see who could ripen first. On some especially competitive years, the July Peaches were really June peaches, weighing heavy branches with golden circles just as the cicadas began shedding their skins.

             The second row, my mother’s favorite, is entirely made up of figs. They are Brown Turkey Figs, the kind that give not one, but two crops a season. The trees produced so many of the dark, seeded, fruits we could not keep them all. After hauling several baskets to the local grocery eager to take her donations, my mother usually resorted to drying them. Filling the oven with trays of sliced figs, sprinkled with salt and basil. She dropped the shiny, hardened slivers into glass jars, lining the back wall of the pantry to be eaten all winter. Just as the fig trees were my mother’s favorite, I think she was their favorite as well.

            The year she left us, there were no figs. I still tended the trees, then, hoping that she would realize her mistake and be all the more grateful we had kept up her orchard upon returning. When the first and second fig harvest times past with not a single fruit,  I remember searching under the leaves and along the ground testing the temperature of the soil. As dramatic as it sounds, I believe they were mourning her departure. As if they knew the hands that pruned their branches belonged to someone else. As if, like me, they were just as angry she did not pull them up from the root to take with her.

              Behind the figs, my father had planted three pear trees, Sunrise Pears, the kind that bloom red along the bottom when ripe. My mother dubbed these her “blushing ladies,” saying they were flattered by the sun’s affection. They are the sweet kind, sweeter than the hard, woody pears you’ll find in a produce aisle. Perfect for jam, or compote, or to be eaten on the walk between the tree and the house leaving sticky fingerprints over the screen door.  Next to them were the persimmons. Wanting the thick, almost apricot-like flavor that my mother once mentioned, my father borrowed his brother’s truck and drove nine hours to Indiana to buy the two seedlings, just sprouting out of the plastic buckets. They grow taller than the pears now – though the fruits are small. The secret to persimmons that no one bothers to tell you is that you have to wait until they are overripe. So soft to the touch that your fingers bite easily into the orange flesh. That’s when they’re at their sweetest.

            Behind the third row stretching out one tree extra in each direction were the mulberry trees. Protector trees, they’re called. Not fit for eating, my mother told me, just good enough to keep the squirrels and birds satisfied: a peace offering. Although, I found the tart bite of a still green mulberry devilishly delicious. Especially as a child, it was almost like stealing, like taking something that belonged to the beasts and not to the house. A fruit that was not my mother’s. I would shake the low branches, dropping the berries down into my gathered shirt, keeping my pilfered harvest in a plastic tupperware box under the sink.

             There would be other plants later; like strawberries that grow beside the front porch, a bed of zinnias and dahlias and forget-me-nots along the driveway, a knot of blackberries out against the property line, wildflowers (dandelions and buttercups specifically), all across the front lawn that I never bother to weed. But at the beginning, it was just the trees. Back then they were wispy and leaning against the rake poles, tied together with shoelaces. It would be almost half a decade before the little limbs grew heavy with fruit, but it was enough for my mother. The promise of an orchard to tend and of life to grow at her fingertips. I don’t know if she even thought about whether or not she loved my father. I don’t know if she would have cared even if she did think of it. She loved the trees, the freedom from her family, the way the front hedges hid the white farmhouse (and all that grew behind it) from view. It was her own secret Eden – my father just came as part of the deal.

           I often think that she had me as a way of returning the favor of the trees, like payment, an evening of the scales. Or, on the days in which my anger (if you can really call it anger) is especially biting, I wonder if I was simply a way to entertain my father so she could live her life as separately as the four acres would allow.  My father wanted a family, and my mother wanted to be left alone. I was planted in winter, grown in the spring, at the same time as the rest of fruit, but pulled from my mother’s womb a whole week late, overripe, already having missed the last of the persimmon harvest. From the beginning, I interrupted her schedule. I’m not sure she ever forgave me for that.

           Her plan, if keeping my father occupied with an infant really had been her plan, worked better than expected. I was colicky and underweight and in need of constant attention. In those first months, my father rarely left the house. He rocked me so frequently that both his wrists swelled with carpal tunnel. He took a leave of absence from managing the finances of the mill,  disconnected the phone – back then it was as easy as pulling a wire from the wall–so that the ringing wouldn’t dare wake me. He locked us away in the top of the house, singing hymns and pacing through the halls all night so I would sleep, and slowly forgot about all that existed past our hedges. Some days, I am sure, he even forgot about my mother. You see, that’s the key to all of this. Even now, after all these years, I know that no party is blameless. But, it would be easier if I could pin it all on her. I could label her as flighty, as lacking maternal instinct, as possibly even sociopathic and be done with it all. I could pity my father and validate my anger, and get to work forgetting I ever had a mother. However, the strings of our lives are never so easily untangled. No, I see the fault knotted in all of us. In my mother’s inability to see beyond herself, in my father’s capacity to ignore everything that did not fit within his plan, and even my own unwavering need to be seen. We were all ruining each other, cutting off circulation. Can I truly blame her for leaving?

            Now, the memories of her are sporadic flashes. All washed in that bright color and fuzzy edge of childhood sight. The sharp ache of the sting from the bees that hung around the blossoms like waiting suitors, the knock of my father’s boots across the wooden floor, and the smell of my mother’s hands all earthy and wet with the slightest hint of sweet. The way my mother’s hands smelled is what I remember most. Some days, when the longing is heavy inside me, overripe and oozing, I will go to the garden store. They know me there and let me wander through the mulch and planting soil aisles. Some days I cry, but most days not.

             Still, I don’t know why it was the trees that got her, why she was so enwrapped by them. I have spent three decades trying to understand. She told me once that growing something made her feel a bit like God. There was a selfishness there, a desire to be the only one responsible for the production and upkeep of the trees. That should have been the first sign that my mother would eventually leave. The day she started feeling more like a gardener than a deity, she would have to move on. I just assumed that when she did, she would take us with her.

                It took my father too many years to realize my mother didn’t really want to be a mother. Her trees were children enough, requiring her watchful, present eye and ready hands. They were ministered and tended to while I was left to just be. Sometimes I wonder why she didn’t have another baby. A brother, perhaps, someone to occupy my time and my father’s time, pulling the eyes away from her once I was old enough to no longer be an ever present distraction. I think he would have liked to have a son, my father. Maybe it was the thought of being pulled away from the garden that stopped her, of having to hold another suckling infant to her breast as she walked the rows, tugging out dandelions with her spare hand. Maybe it was the those weeks and months when a mother was necessary, when my father’s well-meaning but often unknowing demeanor wouldn’t be enough for a little human new to this earth. Whatever the reason, it was just me. Sprawled on the entry hall floor coloring sheets of computer paper as my father smoked his pipe on the front steps, watching the mail truck drive slow past the house. Just me and him, walking carefully behind my mother as she dropped a worm infested plum or a dead branch into one of our waiting buckets. Clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth as if dissapointed by the tree’s inability to ward off all predators.

             During the summer months, the entire back half of the house was off limits, the kitchen overtaken by canning and drying, the dining room a holding place for the baskets of harvest yet to be sorted for quality, and the back porch home to all the different things she needed for pruning, and plucking, and weeding, and watering. Sometimes, when she started baking, the front room became off limits as well. The top of the piano covered in tin foil bread trays and pie tins, things we would never eat and, just as they began to go stale, would eventually be delivered to neighbors and churches. My father and I wandered the top floor of the house, unsure of where to settle. We both learned to exist in the spaces she didn’t take up, silent in our efforts to disrupt her as little as possible. Perhaps, even then, we knew that was the key to keeping her happy. On the days my mother would load up the back of the minivan with crates of whatever she deemed ready for the farmer’s market, my father would occasionally sneak out into the yard. I never followed him for his quiet determination was alarming. But I would watch, face pressed to dormer window in the upstairs bathroom. He would walk in and out between the trees, sometimes pausing to run his hand along the rough-edged bark. Back then I thought he was admiring them, getting a closer look at the jewels my mother so closely guarded. Now though, I see the bitterness, the way it was rotting him from the inside. He hated the trees, the things that had brought my mother to him in the first place. How terrible it must have been, to know the only thing tethering his wife to her family, her home were a few rows of fruit trees. And how frightening to love her still. Because love her he did, I am sure of that. Even though some days I cannot even bring myself to love her, my father was as faithful as a dog, desperate to be fed from the hand that hit him. Skin and bones, showing up at her feet every evening, even when he knew there were no scraps to be had. I think he always expected her to come around. That she would walk through the door, handprints of dirt along her linen pants, look up at him, and realize that after nearly twenty years she was in love with him. Up until the end, when his mind slipped in and out between that hazy place of understanding, he loved her. Once, when I stopped by the home to visit, he thought I was her. He began crying so hard, I had to call one of the nurses in. It wasn’t until I made it back to my car, my throat wrapped in some invisible vice, that I realized I was crying too. I don’t think from sadness, but from the sheer weight of his own desire, and the way the words he shouted stuck to my skin. You’re home. You came home. I knew you would.

             When she left, he broke wide. I saw the moment it happened, the way he fractured along all these fault lines.

              On the day she left, her car and all the clothes from the guest room she had overtaken were gone, everything else left exactly as it had looked that morning. Well, there was a note written on the back of a shopping list and tacked to the fridge with a “Great Job!” sticker. I imagine her searching through the kitchen drawers to find tape, in a hurry to leave before my father and I returned home. She didn’t even know we kept the tape in the hall closet, she had never needed it before. I don’t know what that note said, he never let me read it. I’ve looked for it a few times since then, but never found it, not even when I was boxing up his bedroom. But there was a note, and her house key on the hall table, and that was it. He pulled the note free, hard enough to rip the sticker, leaving the left and top points of the star still clinging to the fridge. I followed him as he walked towards the backdoor, looking for her through the trees. She was not in the orchard, a stack of the mesh bags she used for harvesting lay piled at the base of one of the pear trees, fruit still hanging from the branches, ready to be picked. He left me there, feet slapping quick through the yard around the the driveway as if she might pull back in, a paper bag of groceries tucked under one arm, smiling. I waited, halfway between the trees and my father, suspended. The back door hung ajar. There was a slight breeze, not enough to shut it, just enough to push it ever so slowly, squeaking on its hinges. It sounded almost as if it was crying.

               I turned ten in August, and the beehive had been knocked loose off the oak tree growing along the driveway in a particularly bad storm that ripped through the windgap our house was built in. With the hive destroyed, the bees swarmed. Covering an entire column of the back porch, the sound of them a constant low hum. They were there for three days, waiting, like me for my mother to return. But she did not, and on the fourth morning I woke to find them gone, all but one. The queen had gotten trapped in the kitchen window between the screen and the glass. I watched her struggle for a moment, the distant sound of my father’s footsteps hollow overhead, as she knocked herself again and again trying to escape. Eventually I opened the window, letting her out into the kitchen. She flew quick and anxious in a few circles around the room. “They’re gone”, I told her. She didn’t seem to understand. “They left you”, I repeated. Eventually she calmed, and I considered opening the backdoor to let her out. But the sound of the squeak would have brought my father downstairs. And I could barely stand to be around the new, half-empty version of him. The way his eyes were always searching, looking for clues she did not leave. So I let the bee stay, watching as she settled onto the white of the counter.

            She moved along the slick surface until stopping at a small spot of something yellow. A drop of whatever preserve my mother had been working on the morning she finally decided the trees were not enough for her, that her life of growing and tending had become tedious. I couldn’t tell what it was from the color, so I carefully reached out my pinkie and swept up half the drop, leaving the rest for the bee. Touching it to my tongue, I immediately recognized the bright tang, the sweet of persimmon mixed with the tiniest bit of peach, and a few sprigs of rosemary: my father’s favorite. I opened up the cabinet just over head and found four of them that were no longer warm to the touch. I pulled out one, feeling the beveled edge of the jar with my fingers as I turned it, watching the thick liquid glint in the sun, like precious topaz or amber. The bee rubbed a foot through the drop on the counter; it was the last ounce of my mother. I heard a slam from upstairs. I imagined my father, still calling my mother on repeat with no answer, throwing the phone, the cord pulling it back like a tether after it hit the wall. From where I stood I could hear the heavy breaths of a sob. That sound had become familiar, yet something about it was still terrifying.

              And in that moment, hearing the echoing sound of the grief that now sat in our house become a tangible fog that could be grasped and molded in my palm,  the preserves were no longer beautiful. Instead, they were sickening and reminded me of pus, a symptom of a festering wound. I slammed the glass down hard against the counter, the shattering sound startling me. I watched, though, mesmerized, as the sweet liquid dripped down onto the floor, pooling on the counter, glistening amongst the shards of broken jar. It took me nearly a full minute to see the body. I eventually did, spotting the unnatural twist of a tiny leg. The bee had been there still when I threw the jar, and she lay, crushed, under one of the largest pieces of glass. A tiny body,  the fuzz on her thorax slicked back with the preserve. Whenever I think about the bee – and she still creeps into my mind now – I am thankful that before my anger killed her, she got to taste the fruit.

Dollar Tree

By: Meh Sod Paw

Agnes Scott College, GA, USA

During my first summer in America at the age of 11, I was preoccupied. I spent my days trying to figure out ways to return to the friends whom I had left behind in a refugee camp in Thailand. I missed the summer fun of collecting any water we could find, splashing one another during the Water Festival holidays in my new home in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I sat around inside of the apartment, waiting for the monotonous summer days to pass as swiftly as possible. To avoid the emptiness in my life, I agreed to walk with my mother to Dollar Tree, a store that we had recently heard about. As we walked in the searing Georgia heat, she said, disappointed, “Yah-leh-ta-mu-ler-mu-mae-nya,” meaning that she preferred to “travel in front of the sun” to avoid the heat on her face. It bothered her that I woke up late that morning, that we were unable to beat the sunrise. I just hated the summer for arriving before I could make any new friends at school or in the neighborhood.

Walking on the road to Dollar Tree introduced us to the busy life of America. It involved so many cars. In the refugee camp, we had one small road of paved concrete. Cars did not arrive one after another. In the United States, neither my mother nor I knew how to cross the street. I saw the way that my mother navigated her life here. She ran at the traffic light intersection as soon as the walking signals came on, and all I could do was follow fanatically.

After crossing, we encountered our very first nail salon, which surprised my mother. She laughed looking at her hands–the cracks, wrinkles, and lines that mapped the contours of surviving a farmer’s life. From a young age, the life that she knew consisted of packing lunch and going to the rice farm before dawn. Nail enhancement was a weird, unnecessary concept. With those hands, she dragged me away from the wall of compelling advertisements that captivated my young eyes.

Our excursion in the heat made it feel good to walk into Dollar Tree’s two-door entrance and breathe its soothing, cool air. I liked how all of the items knew which section they belonged to. Everything had its own place. I stood in the aisle where the kitchen tools hung neatly in their own spots. Like them, I wanted to be found and placed where I would fit in.  Big bottles of soda on the shelf brought back many etched memories of the small shops in the refugee camp. Each shop in the camp had a cooler filled with ice cubes and cans of soda. I learned to never walk to the cooler, knowing that there were never enough coins in my hand. Once, my mother gave me a cup of soda after she bought a bottle to offer to an important guest. To show appreciation to the people whom we respected, we offered them something more costly, like soda. It was fun for my siblings and me to watch the bubbles rise to the top of the bottle when my mother opened it. I thought about how lucky the kids in the United States must be, since they could see and taste the fizz much more often than I could. Things that were highly priced in a refugee camp only cost a dollar at Dollar Tree.

The very next day, after the first trip to Dollar Tree, my mother asked me to go out again. This time, we invited families in the neighborhood who were also Karen, an ethnic group from Burma. There was the man whom I called Uncle (Pah Tee) and his children. They never refused to come along with us on the walk. Since we were among the earliest refugee newcomers in the area, we did not know anyone who had a car. None of us really understood the new roads and streets, but we enjoyed being able to walk miles without seeing restricted signs like the ones back in the camp. When we all gathered to plan our trip on the street, everyone wanted go to Dollar Tree. No debating was involved. It was the closest store to our neighborhood and cheap enough that everyone could afford something.

Making our way to Dollar Tree as a group served as a time of sharing between the young and old. Pah Tee would mention how much he loved chicken; he cooked it for three months straight when he first arrived in the United States. Now, chicken no longer tasted as good as before, since he had been standing and working long hours at the chicken factory. The elders showed us their painful nails, blue from competing with the machines at the chicken factory. All summer long, their stories kept me busy, so I started worrying less about how lonely I was. All of us were trying to push through the land of unfamiliarity. Despite our dimmest phase of life, we were still walking on the busy street, being overly cautious and running at the crossroads to make it to Dollar Tree. When we got inside, it was a time of satisfaction. Pah Tee admitted that “America was truly the land of plenty.” On every trip to Dollar Tree, I always made sure to get my favorite snack: spicy Cheetos. Eating them made me happy. The spicy taste was the first thing that I found in the U.S. that was not foreign to me.  

We visited Dollar Tree countless times that summer. After many trips, we noticed that the poster advertising flip flops had changed to one with falling snowflakes. By looking at the seasonal goods, we became aware of the special holidays that many Americans celebrated in the United States.

Without our realizing, years really had passed. We started going to stores that sold our cultural food and went to Dollar Tree less often. It became very easy to spot other Burmese on a street. Soon, our Karen neighbors could buy a car and move out of their apartments and into a house. We helped them carry their things out. Later came the day when my family also decided to move.

While my mom never entered the nail salon, Dollar Tree has become just another store. Walking on a street to Dollar Tree turned into staring at it through the window of my car. Each time I spot a Dollar Tree, my memories of navigating through the door of the unknown return. I feel a bit of heartache when I realize that happiness can only be found in Hot Cheetos once in a lifetime. I know now what I didn’t know then: that crossing traffic from the Dollar Tree to home was a one-way trip.

Waiting

By: Callie Swaim-Fox

Smith College, MA, USA

The place where I am living tries to tell the story of my life so far. It does not hold memories.

It does not yet hold memories.

 

But that is okay. I breathe that down and trust that the memories will come.

I do not feel God here. I do not yet feel God here. I trust that she will speak through this place. But, so far, she only speaks through home. What does that mean about God? What does that mean about home?

The story of my life told by this place that barely knows my name sounds like the girls laughing in the hall upstairs while I do homework. It is told through my daily naps and the photos on the wall that spell out “CLE.”

This place does not know me yet. Still, she will tell you that I was the first person to visit her archives this year. “That was all I needed to know,” she says with a smile.

This place has only held me for forty-three days, but she has heard all of my secrets through the window of a psychologist’s office on Main Street. This place tells the story of my brokenness, but she didn’t do any of the breaking.

She did not yet do any of the breaking.

This place does not wipe away my tears, but she does absorb them. She calls to a city far away and tells her to bring tissues. When this place where I am living tells my story, she holds out her hands to show you the tears as they pool in her palms, but Cleveland has already wiped them up.

This place tells you that I don’t sing much, but she is lying. She knows that she is lying because, although she cannot hear my voice, she can feel how much I miss it.

This place where I am living cannot tell my whole story.

This place where I am living cannot yet tell my whole story.

But she waits.

 

We are both waiting.

The Battle with My Other Self

By: Mashiat Hossain

Asian University for Women, Bangladesh

I am not sure whether I am recalling a dream or reality. I don’t know whether to use the past tense or present; I don’t even know whether she has left or still remains. I just remember that, when I first saw her, she reminded me of Greek statues– the ones that my father showed me in children’s encyclopedias. Yes, her skin tone made me feel like she was molded out of bronze. Even her hair had this bronzeish tint.

 

Maybe she was a classical Greek statue given life by Phanes.

 

Yes, it seemed reasonable back then. Why not? I used to fall asleep hearing about Pinocchio, who was made out of wood and could still walk and talk, so why not her? I don’t recall her name. I doubt anyone does. I will take the blame for that; I will take it all. The only thing that I remember is that, when she left, she took away all happiness. When she came back, she was not the same. She was invisible at times, but she was there. I can tell you she was, and she still is.

 

Now, she exists in a different way. She is in me. I don’t know how she got inside, but she is there. Usually, she prefers residing somewhere in the back of my head. No, don’t imagine something like Voldemort growing out of Professor Quirell’s head. It is nothing like that. Instead, it is like the residence of two souls in one body– a tired body, tired of the burden of carrying oxymoronic souls; tired to be the venue of the battle between two powerful entities that having juxtaposing ideas. I call them Yin and Yang. Those two never rest; neither do they give the luxury of rest to my body, engaging in their continuous fight for control over that territory. My body tries its best to support its authentic soul, Yang. It works hard and harder, even when it feels like each and every cell will fall apart from exhaustion and scatter on the ground. Yet, it cannot sleep; it cannot afford to sleep. If it dares to do so, Yin takes over through dreams.

 

All I remember from those dreams is that they depicted blood, a lot of blood. Those dreams were different. I would know when they started, and I would wake up– or, maybe not. The worst part was that I wouldn’t understand whether I was awake or asleep; whether I was in a dream or reality. Later, after what seems like decades, Yang wakes up. It doesn’t take control, no. It merely begins to exist again. My body starts feeling sheer pain, and evil pleasure graces my mind. Yang tries to radiate a bit of sympathy and instantly is mocked by Yin. Whipped by Yin’s cruelty and confined in a space no bigger than a full stop, it becomes hard for Yang to even breathe properly. Hopeless, Yang thinks of giving up. Yang begins removing all of those memories that were treasured and protected, that were all Yang ever had.

That bronze body, that bronzish hair, and all of those good things about her unfold.

A spark strikes Yang; she can’t let go of the memories, and neither can she let Yin corrupt them, for these are hers to treasure.

Yang murmurs, “If I die, who will remember you? ”

Yang holds on…

 

Annual

By: Marisca Pichette

Mount Holyoke College, MA, USA

And the last step was like a prologue, bringing you out of one experience and into a premature memory– still forming, and quite delicate– balanced on the edge of comprehension. You didn’t see it at first, and maybe that means it didn’t really exist, for what better quantifier do we have for the world than our own perception?

           You’re right. It was never there. Not before you came.

           You walked the border between field and forest, the world a confusion of rock and dry leaves. They crumbled to dust under your feet, releasing muscle memory into the air– necrotic tissue that was ordinary in life, beautiful in death, mundane in decomposition. There’s nothing special about this experience; hasn’t it all happened before? The world unfolds for you, and you nod your head; you’ve seen it all once, twice, a dozen times. You would call it home if you weren’t so naïve.

           It’s almost close enough to be familiar, far enough to register some kind of boundary, some kind of other place. Another world. Facets of imagination stir in it until you come and see for yourself that it’s nothing more than another mile of woods, another messy composition of nature. Whiffs of death stir around your feet.

           Today could just have easily collapsed in rain. But the sun shines softly, playfully, through the tender branches. Buds quiver on their tips, cautious in the spring air, wary and vulnerable as your next thought, giving gently to the breeze. That is your right half. Your left is leaking onto the field, over rubble stonewall fragments and goldenrod– those spindly grasses that you always called tumbleweeds even though Texas is thousands of miles away.

           Are tumbleweeds found in Texas? You never thought to ask or check. It’s one of those things that you just take for granted because to question would be like asking which tree dropped the leaf that you just crushed underfoot.

           Nothing unfolds before you. The path is as straight as the old wall, meandering on the boundary between uninhibited and inhibited light. Half of you is dappled, the other warmed by the sun and chilled by the breeze. You kick away the leaves and bring the experience to a close.

           At the end of the road, the wall ends. You start to climb. It was always a bit of a climb, so subtle that only your eardrums could tell, but now the ground slopes so sharply you brace yourself as if the world has suddenly turned against you. Dry rivers dance in mesmerising swordplay at every other step, parrying and feinting around your toes. You stare for a moment, and then you continue.

           There is hardly ever any time to watch.

           Experience slides away, more vulnerable to gravity than you. It collects at the bottom of the hill, and you rise above it, both breeze and sun picking up to joust around you as you reach the summit. And there it is.

           Rows of pink shoot away from you, shining with a brilliance that you remember but can never imagine. Branches scratch at the sky, and a trilling mixes with the atmosphere. It could be a bird, or an insect whose name you don’t know.

           The peaches have yet to come. They wait, buried somewhere in the depths of the flowers that you now pass between, dragging their soft fragrance into your lungs, the long grass sweeping the leaf dust from your feet. For a moment you are just another blot of colour, a smattering of strokes on the Impressionist’s canvas as you stroll, wondering how you could have ever forgotten the dimensions of this place.

           Once, you heard them call it Turtle Hill. You wonder who gave it the name. It could be a thousand years old.

           Peach blossoms rule over the hill, and below them a court of apple trees tends to their every need, brilliant white against the weak grass, still recovering from winter’s touch. Some are older than you. Many are just beginning, striking out against the air, dealing in possibility. You sink down onto the cold ground.

Dew seeps into your clothes.

           Maybe this is all there is. But we know that isn’t the case.

Maybe this is all there should be. Of course, no. But maybe.

           Maybe this is all you ever wanted to find.

Little Raindrop

By: Alice Mawi

Agnes Scott College, GA, USA

“Pang…Pang…Pang…”

The sound of raindrops banging on my metal roof startles me. It seems like they are trying to get inside of my house for shelter like someone looking for a safe place to hide from a mad dog. I simply ignore them, and soon the pitter-patter sounds fade from my consciousness. The rainy season in Myanmar has always been like this. Some kids may sing, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…,” but I sing, “Rain, rain, come! As long as you don’t get inside my house…”

When it rains, I like to press my face against the cold window and look at the pond behind my house. The raindrops that fall into the pond look joyous, unlike the angry raindrops on my roof. From the frame of my window, I can see those playful little raindrops descending from a vast sky, mirthfully playing a ‘run and catch’ game with the lotus leaves.

In the pond, there is a particular leaf with a heart shape that is trying to catch those raindrops. It has a soft curve resembling a motherly smile. As each raindrop lands on its surface, it bounces back off, and the lotus leaf patiently bends her stem while touching the ripples as if giving a friendly kiss. The leaf rises. Those mischievous raindrops could not have imagined what a happy day it was for the lotus leaf.

“Drummmm…DUMM!!!”

The loud thunder shatters my serene moment.

I bend my head towards the sound, but the only thing I see is the white light tearing the sky apart with sudden speed. Are thunder and the lighting bullying the raindrops that tried to get inside my house? Poor raindrops!

***

In the evening, the rain starts drizzling, now sounding like, “plop, plop, plop…,” as it falls into the pond. “Croak…Croak…Croak…” I hear a frog adding to the chaos.

When the rain comes to a stop, I go over to the pond. There is a crystal rain drop lying on a leaf, cozy like a baby held by its mother’s hands. The weight of the raindrop makes the fragile lotus leaf bend; she is trying her best to protect the raindrop from falling into the pond. The raindrop does not know how much trouble it has given her. The leaf never voices a single word. Rather, she watches over the raindrop with her caring smile. The raindrop has no worries. It trusts this place on which it landed, even though the leaf’s edge marks uncertainty.

When the breeze flicks the leaf, the raindrop starts wobbling. The leaf jiggles to keep the raindrop from falling, gently dancing like a mother does when singing a crying baby to sleep.

Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!

        As the leaf offers protection to the raindrop, my roof and windows protect me. From the rain, thunder, lightning, and cold, I am safe. I turn and look around my house, relieved to see that there are no punctured holes in my roof or windows. I turn my body back to the raindrop, saying, “What a lucky raindrop you are to fall onto this lotus leaf.” If the raindrop had fallen onto different leaves, or on the soil, it would have dissolved into them and become invisible. Unlike the soil and leaves, which absorb water, the lotus leaf resists water and allows the raindrop to hold its original shape: a mother’s blind love for her child’s imperfections.

Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!

“Why did you drop from the sky, and gently lay yourself on the leaf? You sleep like you will be here forever.”

But, it doesn’t know. In a few seconds, the raindrop will have to be separated from the lotus leaf, like a mother has to leave her child one day. It is time for the little raindrop to experience how life can bring terrible things. I bend down and put my face to it, taking one last look before I tap the lotus leaf with my forefinger.

Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!

As the little raindrop rolls off the palm of the leaf, I expect it to fall into the water immediately. Instead, the raindrop holds onto the edge– tenderly, as if begging the leaf not to let go. The lotus leaf holds on too. But what can they do? The force of life is stronger than their bond.

The leaf is a bit shaky from the weight of the hanging raindrop, like a sobbing mom cupping her face with both of her hands. Looking at them, I feel that holding onto each other is like walking on a slippery road, while letting go is like sliding on a slippery road. The lotus leaf tilts its stem towards the water and drops the raindrop into the pond with a ‘plop.’ A mother closing her eyes to let her teardrops roll away. The raindrop becomes a ripple. The raindrop is on its own, now.

The raindrop must flow with the current, become a lake, become a river, become an ocean, and go back to the sky.

Oh Raindrop… Oh Raindrop…

I miss my mom’s palms stroking my hair.    

Of the E’s in Life

By: Nanjiba Zahin

Asian University for Women, Bangladesh

Within a world of your own making, you cannot stop growing. It should be unthinkable to be negligent towards any Experience and any Emotions that you go through, for all of them make you who you really are and will help you in the path of discovering yourself. Downplaying your emotions and experiences cannot lead to an understanding of self or, beyond that, an understanding of life. Owning them, instead, translates into a kind of proprietorship and can define how much you know yourself, as well as how you want the world to view you. These emotions that you have, and every memory you created of, from, and for them, tell your story– which you author. So own them. They are you. They speak of you as you speak of them.

Every wracking cry, with the loss of someone from life and earth, accompanied by grief and pain and clouds of sadness is you.

Your earthy smile, with pressed lips or not, the styling of which is yours only, is you.

Your raw laughter, loud and weird, oozing happiness and moments of joy, is you.

Your blazing anger when it doesn’t feel right, when you witness a wrong-doing, when you cannot fathom how something like that could possibly happen– that feeling of heat and anger is you.

And feelings of simple nothingness, when, simply put, you feel emotionless and numb– you feel nothing… that is also you.

The hundreds of other feelings that you encounter are valid in their own way. They are results of our experiences and our ways of life. How you ensure your emotional wellbeing and approach what you want to express depends solely on your interpretations of what life has to offer you. Connecting yourself to the warmth, tenderness, energy, and vibe of each emotion can make you realize what you are, who you are, and how you are you. Stop and consider that. It’s a cycle, really; your experiences turn to emotions, and your emotions turn to experiences. That’s natural, but it requires work to feel as though these emotions and experiences are yours.

So, as you make memories because of and for your emotions, jump into your experiences. Fully realizing the depth and length of your experience is hard work, but it can also be extremely easy. It takes inquisitiveness and interest; approachability; courage. It takes the feeling of being a free soul with an open mind, ready to learn and grow through experience.

 

Embrace your mind and memories; embellish your soul, and see how it all fits.

 

You and I? We define our lives and the experiences and emotions that come out of it.

Spirare

By: Tatiana de Villeneuve

Smith College, MA, USA

When things are illuminated, life is beautiful. Luminosity is, indeed, a wonderful thing. You are anchored in your body, and that body is easy to please. You only have to honor the integrity of your senses. The bad smells bad, and the good is to be luxuriated in. You feel your senses acutely and realize that you were blessed with them because they make you into a deep participant in life. Others have their senses, too, and you share yours with them. Social intercourse is your way into earthly heaven. This is a difficult endeavor for some, and it makes peace of mind seem far from your grasp. So here’s to still fighting for that light. Some harder than others, it’s all part of what makes us different.

I often wonder if other people sit around thinking about what other people do. I often do. That sentence is as complicated as the thought process itself. I wonder if other people feel inexplicably distanced from everyone else, or even from themselves. It’s weird to think that you are a stranger to yourself, and yet that describes me. My feelings are mostly “fake news,” as Anna Akana has said on Youtube. It makes me unsure of what instinct to trust. Furthermore every human interaction is mediated by what the “norm” is and let’s be honest, most of us don’t fit the norm. So how do we know when we have actually connected, reached in and messed up someone else’s insides? Some philosopher, that I can’t remember the name of, said that the scariest discovery one makes is the discovery of the other, another just as complicated and capable. It is the most humbling discovery and yet it’s scary as shit. Basically… hell is other people.

So let’s get poetic for a minute, shall we?

Let me spew some feels…

Another breath taken is another chapter written in your book. You’ve been slapped in the face by rejection; tickled by success; whirled through the washing machine by indecision.

You have taken leaps of faith, only to fall a tad bit short and plummet into the soft, waiting darkness. People tell you: “You’re one year closer to your happy ending, buddy!”

Look around. Let all the destruction, all the grief, the sheer hopelessness in the world shatter your heart into a million crimson shards. Let that little beggar girl on the street make you want to crawl into bed and never go out again. You sit there with a cigarette in hand, trying to smoke this pain out. You look deep into her eyes, wondering how different they are from yours.

Let your tears soak your soul until you’re nothing but a tangled mess of nerves and veins and trembling sobs. Somehow sorrow and despair is so inviting; let sadness pull you into its warm, welcoming embrace and whisper sweet nothings in your ear.

Then glance up, and look at the sky. Instead of giving up on this dreadful race, the sun struggles to break through the horizon every damn day, just so we don’t cease to exist. That little beggar girl has a smile even more radiant than the sun. Feel the faint stirrings of hope yet?

Right about this time, pick up your phone and give happiness a quick missed call. Go hug anyone who makes you want to keep breathing. Drink a glass of reasonably strong alcohol, and try to taste the weightlessness. Feel it trickling through your throat and sprinkling your insides with life. Smile so hard that your lips go numb. Kiss another so much that you become one.

Just get off your bed and breathe in your beautifully flawed existence. If it’s a new day, you might as well make it happy.

 At the end of the day, we are all just clumps of flesh filled with an endless pit of complicated feelings.  I’m learning to not keep it all bottled up and just speak my damn mind. Experience all the bad and the good there is to feel. Never be afraid of being vulnerable.

Peaches & Mangoes

By: Dorrit Corwin

Marlborough School, CA, USA

 

Where Charlie Stevens came from, it was always fall or summer. In autumn, he would rake leaves from the rigid Southern roots of the oak out front. In summer, he would watch them wallow in heavy wind until dusk swept them out of sight. Sometimes he’d walk the dog or ride his bike into town, the music of foreign places and better times filling a void they entered the small holes in the sides of his ovular skull and replaced the church bells that he could never hear.

He never quite belonged there, but it never occurred to him to leave. He’d marry a Southern Belle who might be his high school sweetheart or Homecoming Queen— some bullshit of the sort that was written on cheap picture frames and scrawled across Hallmark cards. They’d have three children, though he didn’t like to plan— two boys, who would learn chivalry and sports from Charlie, and one girl, who would learn cooking and courtship from Cassie. They’d all be named with matching initials so the monogrammed bath towels could never be out of place (like he always was), and they’d walk to the same bus stop that Charlie walked to with his same vacant stare and his same piercing blue eyes that told you there was much more to his story than he wanted to share.

        This wasn’t what he wanted, but it would have to do. His paintbrush was his ammunition to shoot his canvas full of fluid. They’d vacation by the seaside that would portray the same palette as his paint, and his Eckelburg irises of aquamarine would get swept up in sea glass and leave with the riptide. His mundane Daisy, eyes green with envy, would crave his papers of the same stain. He’d take his dad’s old job accounting, and his watercolor passion would fade out of sight like the waning summer sun.

        One day he met a stranger unfamiliar with the smoothly paved roads that always looked and smelled of tangerines. Her comfort food was sushi. Instead of Dalmatians, she praised donkeys. She wore everything on her sleeve and had never dressed in Sunday best, never driven through fields of green where state lines bled into places where the people didn’t know who they were any more than he or she did.

        He wasn’t quite sure who he was, though he did put on a compelling show of who he was not. He was blind to his imperfections, and when his classmates asked what was in his ears, he’d say a podcast from his pastor about painting pillars, burning bridges, and coloring inside of the lines.

        He never cared for the pillars of his house. They were too white, too rigid, too expected, and not reliable enough to support the weight of the sorrows contained inside of their brick walls. Cobblestones were far too bumpy for his troubled, broken soul, so he’d take the rural path to school before anyone woke. He’d sit down by the banks of the swampy river thinking about that strange girl he met one day at the corner store.  

        She wasn’t quiet and was hardly polite, unlike his other suitors. When he eyed her by the produce, she was picking up peaches by the dozen and clutching Bertha Mason’s twisted fate to her mountainous chest. She was much more like Jane in terms of intuition and beliefs, but certainly not as plain or proper. Charlie stared as though she was an alien, his jaw agape. She wasn’t beautiful— or at least not according to the standards etched into his frontal lobe. Her eyes looked like the smell of the paved roads that led to nowhere, except that her tangerines were speckled with tints of brown and green. She brushed his cheek gingerly to close his mouth in fear that flies would swarm inside and infest his already rotting heart.

        He never saw her again. But that didn’t stop him from pondering alternate realities in which he cooked her dinner and she held doors open for the children whom he never wanted. They would share politically charged badinage over dinner and wine, and never agree but never hold grudges. He would get the hell out of the maze of flags, where stars formed crosses instead of spangled rectangles, and go to Paris or Los Angeles or even Zanzibar. There would be nothing he wouldn’t do for a girl he’d never met, and he’d wander all over as long as no one knew his name.

        None of it made sense, but not much did those days— like the saying “respect your elders.” His dad was gone with a flask in a flash of lightning when he was five and figuring out how to grow up. His mom’s new companion brought home big bucks but kept Charlie up at night with his mother’s whimpers shed the coming dawn into his morning cup of tea. And his mother just stood there, not saying a word because, where he came from, tongues stayed tied; it was “better that way.”

        Conflict is to be avoided. No boy is to be raised without a father. Always hold the door. Always wear a collar. Etcetera, exhaustion, exhaling deeply, Charlie had broken each and every promise, and each and every rule–or so he thought. It was all his fault, he thought. He’d never be satisfactory to anyone broken enough to heal his open wounds, like the girl from the corner store.

        He knew exactly where it rested and began tightening his tie, and as its chilled and wicked barrel breathed softly down his neck, he began thinking of other barrels. Of peaches and mangoes and leaves caked in dust, tangerine highways and roads radiating rust. So he picked up his paintbrush and reached for the green like the oak in summertime where the blue jays found light. Green fields, once indigo, turned congested and alive into a cityscape skyline peppered with posters of eyes.  

The Words of the Waves

By: Elizabeth Muller

Miss Porter’s School, CT, USA

I

The first time I saw the ocean, I was very little. For the first few weeks after I was born, my mother brought me to the beach to sway me to sleep. I immediately dozed off listening to the words of the waves and the whispers of the wind. My mother always told me salt water heals all wounds, even happy ones. Whether I just got up from being pushed to the dirt, or I was so happy that my heart opened, the ocean was always there to wrap me in sandy hugs and salty kisses.

II

I returned to the beach every summer with my family. We spent time on the shore, went to camp, and enjoyed each other’s company. Early in the morning, my mother would wake me up so we could bike to the beach. Around 5:00AM, she would sit me in the seat behind her and bike. We would arrive 30 minutes before sunrise. She always told me to listen to the waves while it was still dark outside. She reminded me that, sometimes, even though we can’t see each other, we must trust that the other is still there. Although I couldn’t see the ocean, I learned to trust that it was still there. We then waited for the sun to rise in order to assure ourselves that, no, the ocean had not run away from us. It was our little promise.

III

When I turned 9, my grandfather passed away. I never quite understood the concept, I just knew that it was weird being at the beach club and eating lunch without him at our table. When my parents cried, I always reminded them, “You can’t see him, but he is still there.” Though it was a nice phrase, I still didn’t fully understand the idea of it. I was never taught the meaning of death. I didn’t understand why I no longer got calls from my grandfather about what food he got from the store, or the latest golf tournament that he won. I worried and wondered why he never showed up at my dance recitals. But I was satisfied knowing that, although I couldn’t see him, he was somehow still there.

IV

When I was 11, I returned to the ocean. Things were a bit different. Each night, when I asked my mother to take me to the beach before sunrise, she would tell me that I could do it on my own. That was the summer when I learned how to bike by myself and climb the roof of the beach club to listen to the ocean waves in silence, trusting that it hadn’t run away after the sun had set. Every day when I returned from the beach, my mother asked me how it was since she was sad that she had missed it. When I got into deep descriptions of my day, she laughed. Though I didn’t know she was there, she had been sitting right on the top deck in a chair, watching over the waves and secretly watching over me.


V

I was 12 years old during the summer when I learned how to surf. I remember my mother giving me my first surfboard. She had grown up in California and knew a thing or two about catching a wave. One morning, I woke up to a huge foam board standing upright in my bedroom with a letter on it. It read, “Just go with the flow.” I quickly slipped on my bikini and wetsuit and drove to the beach. I spent days and days trying to catch the perfect wave, but every time I stood up, I fell right over. Finally, I gave up. The thought of going with the flow seemed nearly impossible, and I decided it was time to move on.


VI

On the first day of August, I was laying on the beach watching my friends catch waves. After some time, I decided it was time to pull my board out once more. I ran to my locker, slipped on my wetsuit, picked up my surfboard, and headed back for the beach. There was something different about it this time. With the letter from my mother that stated, “Just go with the flow” still at the back of my mind, I headed for the water with a positive outlook. After just a couple of tries, I was able to get up and ride the wave. It was amazing. Something about it got me thinking. I thought about being far out in the ocean and trying to catch a wave. How, after every wave I caught, I was always taken back to land. I thought of my mother: how, every time I felt lost and alone, she was always there to bring me home. No matter how far out I was, I was always able to catch a wave that brought me home.


VII

When I was 13, I saw the ocean once more. It was my thirteenth summer returning, yet somehow each time felt different. This was the year that I lost my best friend. This was the year when I began to hate the phrase, “Just ‘cause you can’t see her doesn’t mean she isn’t there.” I knew she wasn’t there. Each morning, my mother would check on me. Every now and then, she would wake me up and insist that I bike to the beach with her before sunrise to listen to the waves. After a couple mornings of stubbornly pulling my covers over my head, I finally gave in. At this point, I understood the science around the idea that the ocean can’t actually run away after sunset, so I listened for other messages.

 

VIII

The next summer led up to my new beginning. After a full year of trying so hard to get along with the students around me, I decided that enough was enough and applied to Miss Porter’s School. Going into the summer, I was a bit nervous. I had never gone to an entirely new school with people from, not only across the country, but around the world. When I was accepted to Porter’s, my mother told me one thing: “Widen your horizons.” Each evening, we stayed at the beach until sunset. With the sun setting partly along the ocean, but also across the houses of the neighboring town, my mother would remind me of this quote. I often spent all day staring at the ocean right in front of me, but I never took the time to understand the things around it. I never took much time looking far down the shore to my right or left, or even look at the number of houses lining the dunes. With every sunset came another reminder to widen my horizons and appreciate what I have around me.

 

IX

In my 16th summer, I realized that there wasn’t much of a way to make sense of it all. Each year led up to a new little phrase that I ended up living by. This was the summer when I began to sleep in and get to the beach around midday. This was also the summer when I learned how to catch about every wave. I no longer reminded myself to “go with the flow” when I couldn’t catch one. I no longer had to assure myself with the little phrases that I carried through my everyday during previous summers. When I woke up, I woke up. When I surfed, I surfed. On the days when I remembered the phrases that my mother and I shared, I was lucky enough to look up to the top deck of the beach club and see my mother sitting right there with her glass of iced tea looking out at the ocean, though I knew–now–that she was secretly watching over me.

The Chaibandi

By: Harika Bommana

Hollins University, Virginia USA

The sun projects its powerful rays; the proud God can never conceal his strength. Drops of sweat flow down the necks of brown men, hitting the ignoble road made for loathing, taunting the struggle and hardship of their small but honorable Dukhan.

The aroma of potato and onion-stuffed irani samosas fills the air, sizzling its way from a rusty old pan of boiling oil. When the samosas reach a golden brown, the men crunch into their skins, satisfying their taste buds as they mourn to the richness of a cheap taste that echoes their desi souls.

Piquant spices and herbs fill the air like a mystical spell, enhancing the dancing cinnamon, dominating black leaves in a mud pot like the dramatic shows once performed for ancient rulers. The old chaiwala showcases one of his many talents by pouring the masala tea from one glass to another as he sings ‘chai’ like the karnatic raghas.

The rusty metal box, clinging to every century-old wire within, plays romantic Hindi songs as giggling girls play and sing along in their school dresses, hair neatly combed and oiled, tied in two braids with red ribbons. The chaiwala’s wrinkled wife feels nostalgic as she watches them through her wooden window, smiling and humming to herself as she chops vegetables in a steel plate.

At this moment–this very moment–my heart is overwhelmed with pride. Looking at the sky and everything around me, my foot lands on this sacred ground, and I have never felt richer.

I am home.

Katabasis

By: Emily Powers Ender

Smith College, Massachusetts, USA (alum)

Imagine that you are driving down a road in rural Tennessee. The baby sleeps feverishly in the back seat, but that’s no matter – you’ll be home before she wakes. You wind down the mountain and emerge in farm country, the slim fingers of the Cumberlands hedged around you. You know that you must have passed into northern Alabama at some point, but no sign welcomed you; this winding country road did not merit the effort. The late-afternoon September sun peeks through heavy trees, and the ever-present mountains follow alongside you at a distance.

You’d think that it would be beautiful, but it isn’t. It’s just road. Mile after mile with nowhere to turn around, no driveway, no intersection, just road. And it goes on. From nowhere to nowhere, with nothing in between. The dust clings to the windshield, and through it you notice that the fields look tired—beaten down, perhaps, by the heat. The mountains rise like pimples out of the earth. You cross the bridge over a small river named after some venomous snake. It smells. You pick up a railroad track running parallel to the highway and believe that you would give your eye teeth for a gravel driveway to turn around in.

You find the town that you were hoping for – a settlement large enough to have merited a place on the signpost thirty miles back in Tennessee. Or so you thought. It consists of one main street and no lights; its only noticeable intersection is at the railroad, where cars are lined up four deep; the train has caught up to you. Where did those cars come from, and where might they be going? Not here. The obligatory “antique” (that is, junk) shop and beauty salon are closed for the day. Only the bar is open, Confederate battle flags adorning its windows, its walls weathered in a way that resembles, you imagine, the faces of its clientele.

Can this be America?

Can this be the same country that is home to one of the world’s largest cities, where, in any given neighborhood, you might hear two dozen languages spoken—including the native tongue of your grandfather, whose immigrant parents knew no English but saw that their son went to law school? Where a beneficent deity presides over a sprawling metropolis and begs to be sent your poor, your tired, your huddled masses?

Would she welcome the poor and tired masses who dwell in defiant ruin here? This place could not be farther from that other, with its immigrant dreams, its museums and theaters, its reams of educated people. Even the harshest realities seem worlds apart from where you sit. In your progressive little soul (bless your heart), you will believe that you have died and gone to Hell.

Your heart sinks as you realize that neither Google nor Siri can quickly recognize where you are, but can you blame them? You scarcely know yourself. At last, your iPhone informs you that the quickest way home is back the way you came, back across the stagnant river, back past the tired farms and pustule-shaped hills, over the endless road.

The only way out is back.

What America did you have, Walt Whitman? There is no resolution to the cognitive dissonance; this place cannot be the same country that you know. You never left your car; crossed one small, stinking river by way of a natural landmark; met no one; traversed no border that you could perceive, yet you entered a foreign land. You are now a stranger in hostile territory, which is still, somehow, your native country.

Your palms sweat as you grip the wheel and realize that your head has hurt for the entirety of this drive; the baby stirs, fusses, goes back to sleep. You cross over the Tennessee border – Tennessee is more generous with its signage – and at the quarry are met with a confusion of white dust and shifting mounds, rusty elevators and railroad tracks. From this side, you can see how the road continues back up into the mountains. From the other side, coming at it level and amid the farms, you had slammed on your brakes in a panic, believing that you had reached the end of the road.

Time did not change the land in your absence. You’d thought that it would be beautiful, but it isn’t. Your sojourn into the wilderness has left you puzzled and drained – drained like this land, with its tired fields and blemishes for hills, its huddled masses who want nothing to do with you or that other America.

Yet you can’t quite bring yourself to see the strangers who inhabit this place as beasts of a breed far different from your own; you have nothing in common—you scarcely speak the same language, and it seems that there is more that divides than unites you—but the divorce is not yet final and there is peace in the thought. Your heart and vehicle begin to ascend; you have reached the mountain road shaded by a wealth of trees blocking out everything around you but the rising pavement—the beautiful, winding road that leads to civilization, to home, to somewhere.

Then it comes to you. The source of the peace. Perhaps it was the bend in the road but, in any case, you know now how the contradiction is to be resolved. You smile at its simplicity, its sheer impossibility. The baby stirs, opening her wide, refreshed eyes to meet yours in the rear-view mirror. All shall be well:

You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.

Far Away Summer

By: Zoe Howard

Agnes Scott College, Georgia USA

When we were growing up, we dug and filled a pond in the woods behind our house. In the summertime, after lunch on those hot Southern days, we pulled on our bathing suits and ran barefoot through clumps of poison ivy, moss, ferns, touch-me-nots, before throwing ourselves from the dry bank into the brown water. If we were quiet and still, we could watch shiny black water beetles scuttling across the water, stitching it together with their bodies. We moved again, splashing water up towards the sky to see how its droplets snatched fragments of afternoon sunlight. When our fingers and toes were soft, pruney from hours of play, we climbed out of the water and up to the house, letting the breeze dry our wet bodies. Changing out of our bathing suits and into our play clothes, we leapt off the back porch into a cargo net that our grandparents suspended between the house and two trees. We pretended that we were jumping out of airplanes until it got dark outside—when the lightning bugs came out, and the frogs started to hum, and Mama gave us glass jars so we could catch lightning bugs until our sweaty palms smelled sweet like their secretion. Then we went inside to eat dinner, and after that we sat on the back porch rocking back and forth in our chairs with a lamp shining from a nearby table. It was there that we breathed in the sweet scent of pine trees and flowers and grass, all mixed up with the smell of a crisp Appalachian chill. Mama and Daddy played bluegrass and folk songs on their guitar and mandolin, and we sang songs about Darcy Farrow, and picking apples, and coats of many colors. I miss those days. I miss the pond and the house and the music. Sometimes I forget that I’m grown up, that the pond dried up years ago, that my family sold the house. I think that I can go back there, to those long summer days when we were growing up. But then I remember. I have nothing but memories to take me home.

Silence is Beautiful

By: Neha Gauchan

Asian University for Women, Bangladesh

 

I quest for a known face amidst all of the unknown stares and looks. My eyes search through the crowd expecting you to see me, but for you I was only a sheet of paper that you randomly flipped over. We have pinned our memories into these chapters, moving from a beautiful rainbow to shades of grey. Black and white as our days are, I seek refuge in your heart.

You move me gently without saying a word. We stare at each other and do not talk. Words don’t come easily. Silence cuts the only string that once connected our hearts. In that silence, I feel your presence and understand how beautiful you are– and were– to me.

Your face, which was once so close, is now a distant object. An object at which I can only look and admire. You came like a spark and destroyed my universe.

I struggle to speak in the way that I struggle to write this piece of writing– trying out words that fit with my emotions, trying hard not to let this miracle disappear. I agree that, most of the time, these feelings are all or nothing. At times, I feel everything. I understand that the emotional attachment that was once so profound was with you. Other times, I feel nothing. Feeling “nothing” is so different. No bubbling of happiness, anger, hatred, or anxiousness. Nothing at all.

The little curve that I try to bring upon my face is fake, I say. Maybe one day I will realize that you were never meant for me. Maybe this day is too near, or too far. For now I am just happy with the absence of words

 

which always gives me company,

 

forever beautiful.

Silently Selected or Endings

By: Marisca Pichette

Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts USA

 

I.

           I walked through shadow after shadow, counting the trees by the neat lines that they dropped in my path: alternating beams of grey and gold, steadily lengthening as the sun plunged low into their ranks. There was hardly any sound that evening, save for my own breathing and the tireless murmur of the waves. I found myself alone on a cool beach, walking on ocean-worn stones spotted with ageing salt and kelp. In turns they appeared like shining jewels or dull rocks, depending on whether the sun or tree-shadow caught them first.

It was a beautiful night, after a successful day. But I wasn’t happy. Looking out along the beach, catching the slight movement of other people meandering in the distance, I felt only tired. I’d been congratulated by a hundred voices, caroused with a dozen friends, consumed a few too many beers…  I’d done everything I’d planned to do, but I was not happy.

The morning came, and the moon hid his face in the pale clouds. Undressing in the crisp morning air, I played scenes from the future through my mind, imagining a day to remember.  In my mind, I told a joke and imagined his response.

I wrote all day, pouring out the thoughts that huddled in the corners of my distracted mind. I could not stop as he drew near; I could not focus on anything else. Closeted in my small beach house with only a bedroom and kitchen, I waited for time to take the hours away.

He came to me from the West like the rising moon overcomes the sun. I saw him walking up the beach, carrying the old suitcase that he always held onto, no matter how many times I told him to trash it. I met him outside of my little two-room house, and he smiled. His teeth were pale in the light of the rising dusk.

Down to the gentle waves he washed me. I remember rolling up the cuffs of our jeans and wading in the chilly water. We were both covered in goosebumps that night; I felt them on his forearms when we touched.

As the tide seeped out, we found a wide, flat rock and lay down on it. He told me about the moon. It was a waxing gibbous, gently rising over our heads, pale face showing in the settling night. I remember the way his voice mixed with the whispers of the water, ebbing and flowing with the waves. I closed my eyes and listened as hard as I could, imagining this moment lasting forever.

“Are you happy?” he asked.

I looked up at the moon’s shy face, lightly veiled by a wisp of cloud. His arm lay across my chest, his hand over my heart. He always loved to feel the beating of my heart. He said that it made him feel safe.

The clouds were gone from the moon when I finally thought to respond, but it was too late. His face was slack and peaceful, his breathing as measured as the waves. Gently, I stroked his cheek.

“Yes,” I said to the silent air. “I’m happy.”

II.

        “What are you looking at?” I asked him in the morning.

He stared out across the cold waves, stubble blurring the cut of his jaw. Grey eyes reflected the hazy light; his sandy hair was damp from the fog. He didn’t spare me a glance when he replied, voice low and measured like the waves.

“The world.”

I laughed. “The world?”

He didn’t smile back like I thought he would. Instead he just looked at me with those stormy eyes.

“It’s out there, Walt. It’s not here.” He turned back to face the waves, eyes narrowing. I heard the bitterness in his voice, usually so soft. “Nothing’s here.”

Taken aback, I swallowed, working through my confusion. I saw the precipice ahead, yawning wide with possibility.

“You want to go?” Those were the hardest words to say.

Somehow sensing my fear, he blinked, truly looking at me for the first time. “Go? Well, I mean—yeah. But not without you. I want you to come with me.”

My heart quickened. The air was suddenly filled with a subtle electric charge, seeping out of the morning fog. “Where?”

He reached out and took my hand; his palm was rough and calloused, while mine was soft and smooth. We were like the rocky beach and the soft waves, meeting along the surf, blending together before parting.

I should have known then that the tide would recede.

When I searched for his gaze, it was turned back out to sea, grey eyes reflecting the shrouded sunlight. “Europe,” he murmured.

He spoke as if he could see the continent already, just standing there on that rocky beach, watching the sun rise over the waves. And when I looked into his eyes, I believed it was true. I saw Europe too. I saw the times that we would have. I saw us together, and I smiled.

“Sing me something,” he said abruptly, not turning his gaze from the horizon.

Obediently, I took up my guitar from the salt-stained Adirondack chair by the front door. He sat down on the ground, eyes narrowed against the sun’s ever-brightening light.

“One of the originals,” he said.

I sat down beside him and began to play. When I sang, he hummed along in a deep baritone. That day we watched the sun rise over the Atlantic for the last time.

III.

        Last, I put on my socks. Closing the suitcase, locking the door, I said goodbye to that little beach house. I handed the deed to a friend of mine. In two years, that house—and all of the trees around it—would be bulldozed to make way for multimillion-dollar vacation homes.

I never went back to that beach.

We decided to go by plane. I had some savings, and he had a plan. We met at the airport just as the sun was setting; our flight was a late one. Sitting together outside of a Dunkin Donuts, sipping blueberry coffee, I started to wonder if this was the right thing to do. I looked at him. We’d only been together for three months.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked impulsively, setting down my cup.

He was watching the people walking past with a lively, anticipatory expression on his face. At my question, he frowned and turned to me, the excitement fading.

“Sure about what?”

“Going away. Just dropping everything.”

Casually, he checked his watch. “Walt, our plane’s in twenty minutes. It’s a little late to be second-guessing.”

“I know—it’s just…” I trailed off, staring at him. He raised his eyebrows, and I couldn’t help but smile.

“So?” he asked, lips quirked into a lopsided grin. “Where do you want to go first?”

“First?” I shook my head. “You’re insane.”

He turned back to watch the people passing by, the stupid grin subdued into a smile. “I know I am. I want to see Amsterdam, or Berlin.”

“Our flight is to Heathrow.”

He bobbed his head distractedly. “Yeah. That’s just a place to start. Then we can go to Paris and Milan. Beijing. Don’t you want to see Dubai? Oh, and we’re definitely going to Moscow later in the season.”

“Season?” I blurted. “Whoa, there. I don’t have that much saved. How long were you planning this vacation to last?”

“Vacation?” He blinked, turning back to look at me. “This isn’t a vacation, Walt. This is living.”

We saw London first. Straight off of the plane into the driving rain, we called a cab that took us into the city. I remember a wild weekend of pubs, walking, taking pictures, eating chips out of newspaper and getting lost on the way back each night. Then we drove into the country. We collected fossils at Lyme Regis, took the Oldenburg to Lundy. Hiking across the island in a single day, I gathered bones and feathers, and played my guitar at the tavern that night. Then it was back to Bridport, and up to Scotland.

It was hard to keep up at times. He moved with single-minded vigour, sweeping into an area, seeing all there was to see, then leaving before we’d had time to fully adjust to our surroundings. I had hardly registered that we were in the UK before we were flying to Paris, and suddenly everything was in French. I played guitar on the bank of the Seine, and he took pictures. His camera captured more than my eyes could take in, at the speed we were moving. Always, he was taking pictures. A few times I asked stranger to take one of the both of us, but he was never satisfied with the result. He wanted the sights—only the sights—while I longed for the memories. In this way, we sped through France.

Spain came next—nights full of wine and sweat and stars. Though we didn’t stay long, I saw many couples like us. He wanted to keep going, so we found ourselves in Germany. We walked the streets filled with pensive men, pensive writers, pensive onlookers. Their thoughtfulness rubbed off on me, and I carried it to Moscow, and Beijing, and Shanghai. We never went to Dubai, but instead to Chennai, Mumbai, and Singapore.

I ceased to watch the sights. Instead, I beheld my friend. I watched him smile at the sky; I watched him laugh at the clouds; I watched him talk about the hills. I watched him watch other men, other places, other sights. I watched him look at everything—everything but me.

It began to dawn on me that I was not travelling with a man who loved me as I loved him. The reality was so cold, so pure and clear— it was like a measured incision. I watched the cut be made, and I felt the pain, but then the anaesthetic took effect, and I was numb. I still saw the blood spreading from the wound, but my brain replaced real pain with a phantom. I knew that I still loved him just as much as when we’d begun. I couldn’t stop loving him just because I saw the truth.

My savings ran out in Mumbai, and I barely followed him to Singapore. The night we arrived in our hotel room, eating greasy takeout out of Styrofoam, I told him I couldn’t go on. In eight weeks we’d visited eight countries. I had no money left.

“Let’s go home,” I pleaded.

He stared out the window. It was dark, and the only view we had was an alley. I realized then that he never looked at me when there was somewhere else to imagine, somewhere else to be.

“I can’t. I can’t stop, Walt. You know that.”

It was the answer I’d expected, but I couldn’t take it, even then. Even after everything. I forced myself to confront the blood, and bear the incision he’d made.

“I love you,” I said, though it came out in a mumble. I didn’t have the energy to add volume or power to my words. “But this is too fast. I can’t live like you do. I need to go back.”

He nodded, still looking out the window, at the shadowy form of a concrete wall.

“Okay.”

In the morning, I called a cab. I left my guitar in the hotel room.

IV.

        At the airport, I watched people passing. I sat for hours, my muscles aching, my head aching, my heart aching. Night came, and they made me leave. I barely caught a cab; when I got in, I didn’t know where to go, or what to tell the driver. When she asked for the third time, I gave her my friend’s address. She grunted and took me there.

I climbed the steps to the apartment with heavy feet, wondering what I was doing here. He was in Singapore—or, in all likelihood, on to a new place, taking pictures of lands that would never feel his presence, never remember him like I did. When I reached his door I sat down against it, burying my head in my hands. I stayed there for the rest of the night.

In the morning I left, and just walked. I didn’t know where to go, but I stopped at a gas station and picked up travel brochures. The Rockies, Niagara Falls, Lake Huron—I sat with them at a bus stop and thought of travelling. When the bus came, the brochures stayed on the bench.

I was done travelling.

The weeks and months began to slip away, and summer was ending. One night, I slept in an old tobacco barn. I fancied I heard the ocean. That night there was no moon.

V.

        My life was on hiatus. I remember that it began again sometime in late September, in Louisiana. I was sitting outside of a dingy crab shack, watching people as they walked past me along the pier. A scene caught my eye:

It was like an Elizabethan dumb show or a health insurance commercial, depending on your life view. A pristine white sail dominated the background, fully illuminated in the southern sun—but that was not what struck me. Two young men stood facing one another. Friends, or more, I couldn’t tell. They were bidding each other goodbye.

The scene was not large, and it hardly attracted the attention of those who passed, but to me it was everything. They hugged, and the nature of their relationship unfolded before me with their delicate kiss. I thought it a bold thing, out in the open in this southern state. Those men didn’t care. They embraced, and I looked away rather than watch them depart.

Staring at my can of Corona, I wondered how many partings were happening like this one, all across the country, the world. I pictured San Francisco– men in bars, on the streets, holding hands and talking. Sharing. Loving each other. Not one of them was alone.

I hadn’t written a word since going to Europe. That night, I picked up my pen.

I wrote about endings.

VI.

        On my last day in Louisiana, I walked along a suburban street, meditating in the sweltering heat, relaxing my body and mind. I found some shade under a large, sprawling oak tree covered in moss. It reminded me of those trees in New England that no longer exist—a relic of the life that I’d left behind.

Casting my gaze up through the branches, I counted the spaces between light and shadow, between sun and shade. I remembered.

It might have been a hope for the future—for another friend, another companion like the one that I had lost. Or unlike, perhaps. I had dealt enough with wild spirits, with athletes. Maybe what I needed was a scholar like myself, an academic.

Or maybe it was a thought of that past, of those times walking the cold beach in early spring, pale moon overhead and the gentle murmur of the Atlantic in my ears, which always let me know my bearings.

Whatever it was, I knew that I couldn’t leave the tree without taking something along with me. I reached to the lowest branch and snapped off a twig, bending it idly between my fingers. Almost satisfied, I made to go—but then my eyes returned to the truncated branch, and I saw shreds of pale moss hanging, neglected and unsupported by their absent perch. They hardly moved in the sluggish, humid air.

I made up my mind that day. Gently, I peeled the moss away as well, wrapping it carefully around my twig, so they might not be parted again.

This small token came with me to San Francisco, joining me in a new life. A new city, full of men like me.

 

I left the oak alone, as I could never be.

He Watches Over Me

By: Faizah Aziz Aditya

Asian University for Women, Bangladesh

 

The Dampara highway was abuzz at peak hour with vehicles of all shapes and sizes. A cacophony of shrill horns began at 8 pm. With office-goers returning home, trucks leaving the city after a day of carrying and selling raw materials, and long route buses coming and leaving, everyone was rushing towards their destinations.

Amongst this chaos of life, no cars pausing for even a millisecond, let alone making way for pedestrians to cross, three friends were stuck. After a nice evening out, these friends found themselves on one side of this highway, but needing to cross to the other.

After fifteen minutes of futile attempts to bravely put one step forth, these friends decided to approach the traffic police, their last hope; otherwise, they would have to stand there and wait until peak hour was over, an hour and a half away.

The traffic policeman seemed dejected– tired from the heat, the dust in the air, and the constant discord unique to unrhythmic shrieks of honking from an assortment of vehicles on a Bangladeshi road – rickshaws, CNGs, taxis, cars, vans, minibuses, tempos, buses, trucks.

The traffic policeman looked incredulous as the three friends asked him for what seemed impossible – to cross the damn road. Nevertheless, he nodded bleakly, out of responsibility as a uniformed officer if nothing else. His attempts were halfhearted, though, and who could really blame him? The ferocity and velocity with which each vehicle passed was beyond the hands of a mere traffic officer to stop.

Another ten minutes trickled by painfully, frustratingly, and it was still impossible to cross. Prottasha, the protagonist of this short story, stomped her feet in irritation and then paused, closed her eyes, took a deep breath to calm her nerves, looked at the other two sharply and said, “Follow me!”

She grabbed the hand of one of her friends, who in turn grabbed the other’s; she looked right before confidently striding across the road, her free hand authoritatively held out at the oncoming vehicles. With her palm and fingers outstretched, she walked forth, an image of Prophet Moses crossing the Red Sea, seeming a miracle-worker to her friends as vehicles stopped short of hitting them as they crossed.

What went through Prottasha’s mind at that exact moment, nobody can tell, but her friends surely had gone into shock. They walked quietly behind her, their eyes wide with terror and disbelief, their mouths a little parted, words failing them as Prottasha guided them to the other side with the same confident long strides.  Her friends’ feet shuffled and marched behind her of their own volition.

As soon as they reached the other side and the whirl of movements resumed on the highway, as if someone had hit the pause button and now hit play again, the two friends finally snapped out of their trance of terror and stared at Prottasha for a whole minute before throwing a jumble of questions, accusations, and comments her way:

“Are you crazy?!”

“Why did you do that? What if we had gotten hit?!”

“Oh god, my heart is still hammering in my chest!”

“My whole body is trembling.”

“You are crazy!”

“It was sheer luck we made it through!”

“Who even taught you to cross the road like that?!”

It was that last question which produced a reaction from Prottasha, who so far had been silently looking at her friends and letting them rant. She said, indignantly and boldly, “My dad.”

The response immediately brought a cold chill and silence to the group, as the two friends looked ashamed and apologetic. They could only muster a soft, surprised “oh!” and a mumbled whisper of “I’m sorry” in answer.

“I’m sorry for making you cross the road like that. I understand it seemed completely reckless, but how long were we going to just stand there and wait? Someone had to take action; even the traffic police didn’t help!”

One of the friends answered meekly, “I’m sorry for the tone I used earlier, I did not mean any disrespect to your father, but you do realize that was no way of trying to solve the problem– it was very risky!” her voice getting stronger near the end.

“Did you have any better ideas? We couldn’t just wait an hour or two in the middle of nowhere, we were getting late!” Prottasha snapped back before taking a deep breath and sighing.

Her voice steadier now, she looked back at the whirlwind of life rushing past them at breakneck speed and said, “Dad taught me how to cross the road when I was really young. I don’t remember much about him anymore, just snippets– a dialogue here, a black and white picture there, buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind– I doubt how authentic they really are…” Distant longing tinged her voice as she looked back at her friends.

“But this one,” she continued, “I remember vividly! I was seven years old. There was a narrow street in front of our house where cars would come and go infrequently, and I would always be so scared of crossing it on my way to school. Usually, mom or dad would hold my hand and help me cross, but one day dad said he would teach me how to cross so that it wouldn’t be such a Herculean task for me anymore.”

“So he took my hand, and I remember him saying, ‘you first look right, and then left, and then right again, and slowly but confidently and steadily cross the road.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Also, remember that the cars in the roads of Bangladesh never stop for anyone, so if you keep waiting, you will never be able to cross.’ He held out his hand towards the traffic, looked at me and said, ‘just hold out your hand confidently like this and cross, the cars will see your hand and understand you want to cross and will stop!’ ‘And remember,’ he added, ‘never run. You run, and you will get run over for certain. Always walk with long strides, and you’ll see you have crossed the road in no time!’ And then he made me cross the road on our way back to make sure I had practiced my lesson.”

Prottasha paused for a moment, a soft smile playing on her lips now, and said, “After his death that year, I don’t remember ever being scared to cross the road again. I have crossed the road all by myself ever since, as mom got busy working to support our family, and there was no one to hold my hand anyway.”

As she started walking again towards home, indicating for them to follow, she said, “It sounds ironic, but every time I cross the road now, I feel like he is watching over me. It is only amidst this whirl and cacophony of rushing vehicles and shrill honks that I vividly remember him and the way he used to securely hold my hand and smile at me as we crossed the road together. It is only amidst this chaos that his words give me protection and his memory gives me peace.”

 

I Am Losing Everything

By: Sofia Kwon

Kent Place School, New Jersey, USA

I am losing everything, and I don’t know why, and it seems like I’m the only one who notices. I walk around, limbless and lifeless, and my mother says, “Good morning,” and pours me cereal. The breakfast table moans under the weight of my white bowl, and the chair creaks in sympathy, but these sounds are interrupted by a dissonant birdsong. I hear the bird shrilling away, boastful and arrogant, and I want to go outside and snap its neck until I know every little bone has broken. Either it dies or it loses its voice, and I don’t care which as long as I never have to hear it again.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was little, I used to love birds. In fact, I used to love all animals. I watched rabbits on green, sloping hills of grass and weeds and flowers. I watched mice nibble cheese and squirrels scale a mountain of bark. I watched the neighbors’ domestic cats cross the street, bored and yawning lazily, but I loved birds most of all. I used binoculars to spot them perched on branches, hiding in the green, sleeping in a nest or moving their wings frantically to keep afloat. I devoured book after book about them. When I turned eight years old, I was given an encyclopedia about birds, and I turned page after page to see an owl with unblinking, yellow eyes surrounded by the cold and the white, or an ostrich, a clumsy majesty running in orange dust.

Now I am done with birds and animals and silly little things. I am standing in tight shorts and an oversized T-shirt that soaks up underarm sweat like a sponge in a bath. My legs are exposed, which means everybody knows that I haven’t shaved in a week. There is hair all over me in a tangled jungle.

“You’re a young adult now,” my mother told me when I turned thirteen. “It is time to be done with childish games.” She began teaching me how to play the piano, how to study, how to cook noodles. Yet she never prepared me for this: standing in a musty old gym in ratty sneakers surrounded by a bunch of bored, hormonal kids slouched against the wall, waiting to see me run against another girl—a girl more graceful than I. Chelsea is soft yet sharp, full of angles and curves. I am smudged, undefined, too hard for my own liking. She is blonde and tall and athletic, rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed. She puts her thick hair into a ponytail and smiles at her friends.

“It smells awful in here,” someone says.

I sigh. I wish Coach Bell would just blow the whistle already so I could get this over with. The more I stand here, the more I feel like I’m naked. I just want to run and then sit down and forget it all ever happened. And yet I don’t want to run ever, and I hope his whistle suddenly breaks. I hope that the whistle’s sound is replaced by a larger, more ringing noise—the sound of the bell signaling the end of class.

But the bell doesn’t ring and the whistle doesn’t break. Coach Bell blows it hard and suddenly I am pumping my legs as hard as I can and yet it isn’t enough. I feel like I haven’t moved. Meanwhile, Chelsea is far ahead of me. She touches a point on the gym floor to show that she’s done with her first lap. By the time Chelsea runs back to the start, I’ve barely touched that same point. I wish I could stop and take a breath. My lungs feel like they’re on fire. Suddenly my legs feel like they’re made of bricks, not bones. My breath comes out in shallow gasps. I feel the heat of everyone’s stares on me and there are tears in my eyes. I beg myself not to cry as I run back to the starting point, but the tears are blurring my vision and I’ve realized that my shoe is untied, but it’s too late because I am falling, I am falling, I am losing everything, I am falling—

BAM. I hit the floor.

Chelsea watches from the bench, where she has sat for a comfortable minute. I am on the floor. My face stings from the impact. I hear someone snigger, “Are you okay?”

Coach Bell blows his whistle again. It feels is if time was severely altered. I can only move sluggishly. Everything seems like it’s in slow motion. I cough and jog back to the starting point, and it seems like an eternity before I’m there. I tell myself, “Only ten more seconds ’til you’re there. Nine, eight, seven, and then you’re there. Six, five, four, three, two…”

I don’t realize the tears streaming down my cheeks until I’m back at the bench. People stare at me but say nothing; they just look away. One boy rolls his eyes.

Later, after the run, I will crawl into the corner of a bathroom stall and sit and wait for a while. I will wait until there are no more people in the locker room, until I hear no more laughter or chatter, until I’m alone and watched by no one. And then I will sit and think about how my mother told me that I have to grow up. I will wonder what she would tell me to do right now. And then I will stop thinking about my mother, and I will stop thinking about how I am losing everything, and instead I will think about birds. I will think about how they sing. I will wonder if they are at peace. I will wonder if they are happy.

Why Do We Need Women’s Empowerment? A Personal Manifesto

By: Farida Naz

Asian University for Women, Chittagong, Bangladesh

Many people believe that women’s empowerment is a fancy term for feminism. Regardless of the good that feminist movements have achieved, many people don’t want to identify as feminists because of negative connotations associated with the word. Some people argue that there is nothing left for women’s empowerment because women already have equal rights in society. Yes, women do have more social, political, and economic rights than ever before. However, on a global level, women are still suffering from gender inequality and struggling with basic human rights like honor killings; child marriages; female genital mutilation; street harassment; rape; pay inequality; educational inequity, and more. In the modern world, women also have to deal with body-shaming, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming on a daily basis. Those who claim that women have equal rights fail to recognize this troubling global picture; they ignore the inequalities that accompany assigned gender roles and limit the abilities of both men and women.

We need women’s empowerment because the honor killing epidemic needs to be addressed. According to survey data, around 2,000 women in India and Pakistan are killed by family members every year in an effort to “restore the family’s honor.” This crisis violates the right to life and is motivated by cultural norms. In both countries, the actual rates of honor killings are much higher than the survey reports; most of the time, family members commit the killings, thus there is no one to report the case on behalf of the victim. In Pakistan, in July 2016, the social media star Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother in the supposed name of family honor. Her brother’s explanation for the murder was that “girls are born to stay home.” In a press conference, he announced: “I am proud of what I did… I drugged her first, and then I killed her. She was bringing dishonor to our family.” Police investigations later revealed that her brother was a drug addict with a history of theft. He is now a murderer. This is the situation in male-dominant societies like Pakistan; if a male is a thief, drug addict, and even a murderer, that doesn’t bring shame to the family. On the other hand, if a female becomes famous because of her hard-work and talent, that brings shame to the family because “girls are born to stay home.”

We need women’s empowerment because, daily, nearly 40,000 girls are wed before 18. In 36% of cases, the girls are younger than fifteen. Child marriages take away the childhoods of little girls and push them into the responsibilities of married life. These young brides cannot continue their education, they cannot enjoy their childhood, and they have more health complications and high maternal mortality during childbirth. According to a report by the organization “Because I am a Girl,” a girl under the age of eighteen is wed every two seconds. If this issue is not addressed, more than one hundred and forty million girls will become child brides by the year 2020. Early marriages are forced marriages. Most common in South Asia and Africa, they are often motivated by the perceived obedience of younger wives. In patriarchal societies, men still want to dominate their partners. They don’t want a significant half; rather, they want a submissive sex slave and a servant to meet their needs. Parents wed their daughters early to protect girls from sexual violence. However, ironically, child marriages hold a larger risk of sexual abuse and domestic violence than adult marriages.

We need women’s empowerment because Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, is happening in twenty-nine countries and is practiced on girls as young as five months old. FGM prevents girls from having pleasurable sex and is viewed as protection against promiscuity. More than two-hundred-million girls and women alive today have been cut in thirty countries between Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. FGM has many short and long term health effects; the procedure may cause excessive bleeding, problems with urination, vaginal infection, sexual difficulty, and a high risk of mortality during childbirth. FGM, a very brutal act, is done to girls only because they are female. We need women’s empowerment to educate others about such deadly societal norms, to safeguard human rights, because FGM is not a “women’s problem,” it is the violation of human rights.

We need women’s empowerment because girls have fewer opportunities to receive an education in developing countries due to limited resources and gender parity. Providing education to girls will help to end vicious cycles of poverty. Education is a fundamental human right, but, sadly, women comprise two thirds of all the illiterate adults worldwide, as well as 60 percent of the world’s poorest people. Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, was shot to death because she stood up for girls’ education. In conservative societies, we need more people like Malala. We need more empowered women who can stand up for our rights.

We need women’s empowerment because women experience terror when walking alone under the moon and, in some places, even under the sun. Street harassment is a major problem faced by women, including myself, on daily basis. The Stop Street Harassment study, “Statistics– The Prevalence of Street Harassment,” reveals other staggering data. Public violence and street harassment are serious problems for:

79% of women living in the cities of India

86%  in Thailand

89% in Brazil

75% in London

These high rates of street harassment prove that women are treated as inferior. Women face serious insults in the streets every day. In addition to street harassment, sexual harassment is a grave problem.

The worst kind of street harassment is rape. Sadly, we are living in societies where rape is a common problem. Women are the major victims. The United States, the “superpower” of the world, holds the first position in rape cases. We are living in a rape culture where women are blamed for having been raped. Women are “slut-shamed” for provoking ever-innocent men. Instead of asking men to stop dehumanizing others, to stop snatching their rights, women are asked to wear proper clothes, to behave properly in order to avoid rape.

We need women’s empowerment because women are still defined by their looks. Women are pressured by media and the beauty industry to have skinny bodies and flawless faces. The beauty standards of mass media are one of the main reasons behind the bullying of young girls in high schools. Such harassments have devastating effects: depression, low self-esteem, anti-social behavior, seclusion, and even suicide. If women are obese, they may face problems in their marriage and personal life. Studies even show that obese women tend to make lower wages than other women. Due to such pressures from society, some women have potentially fatal surgeries if they can afford them, while others face social stigmatization and “fat-shaming.” Today, women across the globe are struggling with severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, among others. According to one study, every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. Women form the majority of people who suffer from eating disorders, and a major reason for such disorders is the standard of beauty given to us by the media. Healthy women are rarely happy with their bodies due to thin models whose beauty is manipulated in TV ads. Dark-skinned women are subjected to the pressure to look paler and pale-skinned women are lying under the sun for hours to get tan, no matter that overexposure to ultraviolet rays is known to cause skin cancer. The media is successful in making us all uncomfortable with our skin and our body types.  Competitions such as Miss Universe, Miss World, and other beauty contests make women self-conscious about their looks; beauty contests say that they judge participants on the basis of “knowledge, sensitivity, social commitment and intelligence,”  but I wonder: what does physicality have to do with intelligence and knowledge? If competitions seek to test social commitment, then why are the participants almost nude on the stage and catwalk? If these are the standards for testing intelligence, then why aren’t men asked to do ramp walks in underwear to demonstrate their knowledge? We need empowered women to stop the beauty propaganda on TV advertisements, to make people comfortable with their bodies, to stop judging people on the basis of their looks.

Women’s empowerment is a belief that women should be treated the same as men, not because women are better than men, but because women are also human beings and they have the same human rights as men in any society, in any time period. Men don’t have joyful lives in many societies due to gender parity. We need empowered women to ensure equal rights for all and for equal division of labor in society. Men are often considered money makers and providers for the family. Even if the women in a family have equal or more income than the men, men are still expected to bring more money to the family and to take care of family’s financial needs. One common expectation of men is that they be physically powerful: big, strong, muscular, and not vulnerable to any challenge. Men are expected to not express their emotions publicly. A common phrase in our society is “Men don’t cry.” Gender roles are holding society back. According to a study published on the Change Our World website, boys, due to gender parity, are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with a learning disorder. Thirty percent of boys are more likely than girls to drop out of school, they report. Tragically, they grow up into men who are also more likely to binge drink and around four times more likely than females to commit suicide. Gender roles limit the abilities of individuals and reinforce stereotypes about gender in society. It is time to appreciate the abilities of individuals for what they are regardless of their gender and sex.

I want to be an empowered woman because I don’t believe in a narrow definition of masculinity or femininity. I agree with British actress and activist Emma Watson who said, “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive, both men and women should feel free to be strong.”

Factory Traditions

By: Daania Tahir

Laurel School, Ohio, USA

 

My name is Gem

I am 11 years old

I have no family

I was born to work

These are the thoughts that I wake up to, that pound in my head like a marching rhythm as I make my rounds at the mill, the weight of each barrel threatening to collapse my body at any minute. It took some time for me to be able to strip myself down to these four sentences, but it wasn’t long ’til I realized that they’re all I am anymore. The bags under my eyes are embedded in my skin, are just another feature of my face that reminds me of my duties. The sunken cheekbones, hunched spine, splintered hands— all just symptoms of a factory worker, of a sickness that plagues us all day and night, a sickness that can’t be cured. My mother passed away a year ago, so I was shipped off to the factory to spend the rest of my days making a meager amount of money that’s of no use when you live in an alleyway. A few pennies doesn’t do much when you fall asleep next to rubbish and wake up to rodents scurrying past and envy their energy. The walk is far too long— three or four miles off— but I learned to stop my fussing long ago. Complaining lost its zeal. We work bare, no trousers or shoes, vulnerable to the bone and susceptible to salacious stares from the men. I’ve learned to avert my eyes and ignore their lewd smirks, but I still quiver. Newcomers often wail, their agony echoing for days until it fades away and joins the rest of our beaten souls. The strenuous labor takes a toll on our fragile bodies, but we are compelled to work no matter the loss of our youth. If we do not, we are whipped; slashed until our skin is numb; shaken and scourged until we are slapped back into the fine, working machines we are supposed to be. We are not allowed to break. My mother told me that she named me Gem because I was one. “Bright and intuitive,” she’d say, “clever and gifted, flames and embers roaring inside.”  She said my spirit was too radiant for the insipid factory to dampen it.

But it was enough. The harrowing labor silenced my roaring flames to a dull ache. The screams of anguish painted over my vibrant spirit to match the grey monotone of the factory. My heart was scratched and shredded until all that was left were a few tattered remains:

My name is Gem

I am 11 years old

I have no family

I am born to work

A Good Man and The Gorge

By: Lauren Calderella

Simmons College, Massachusetts, USA

 

By my third holiday with Jane’s family, Oregon wasn’t verdant anymore, but it was green. I remember how it felt to see Oregon for the first time. I went out to visit my aunt in Northeast Portland and watched the sun set over the ocean rather than rise, stood under evergreens that towered over me like giants from a storybook. When we hiked through Multnomah, I took a drink from a spring that trickled down the mountain. Later, driving along the gorge to her home, I sat in the backseat and stared at the green mountains reaching into the sky, sweeping down to the edge of the Columbia River.  I determined, in that moment,  that this land was the most beautiful I had ever seen, and I took pictures with my digital camera because I thought I’d never see it again. When I returned to the East Coast, I saw the world as a verdant place, full of growth and meaning.

I was twenty when I met Jane. She said that she was from Oregon, and I told her that I’d been there two or three times to visit family, so we had something in common right away. We were soon going together, and I was spending part of the holidays with her family each winter. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I became a part of something larger than anything I had known before.

I never thought that I’d lose the image of Oregon as a flourishing, prosperous place. I didn’t account for the possibility that my perception of the Pacific Northwest would continue to change in drastic ways, shifting each time I flew out for the holidays, or for the reality that Jane’s father, Richard, would soon lose his battle with esophageal cancer. When Richard was first diagnosed, the doctors didn’t give him a number, but they soon gave him a mere six months and, during the final winter, seven days.

Jane and I were visiting for the holidays. Like every other winter, we fell into a routine. In the mornings, or by noon at the latest, we got into the car. Sometimes we knew where we were going, other times we didn’t, but we drove all the same because we had to. If we stayed home, we would spend the day wishing that there was something we could do to stop Richard’s decline. There wasn’t anything to do except drive, so we backed out of the driveway each day, and that’s when Jane would start smoking, and I would start drinking, and we’d go along like that, in between and underneath the trees tall and dark. Jane would then remind me that her town is in a valley, that the mountains were all around us.

“It doesn’t feel like a valley,” I’d say. And she’d reply, “That’s because we’re in it.”

“Elizabeth, honey, you just make yourself at home,” Irene said one afternoon during my stay.

“Thank you.”

“This is your home too, you know.”

“Thank you,” I said, grinning this time because I hadn’t the first.

We were seated on the couch. Jane lifted her hand and set it on my thigh, her eyes still on the TV screen. Richard was asleep on a bed in the living room. His hospice nurses had set up the space a week before. Every so often, when Irene said something loudly, he would startle a little and scan the room weakly before drifting off. His hands, gaunt and blackened, were limp at his sides. The blotches of discoloration that covered his body looked like bruises, blood blisters, or something that I’d never seen before. His jeans hung loosely on his legs, their waistline crunched together like an accordion with an old belt that someone had stabbed extra holes into.

“Well, I’ll let you girls be,” Irene said.

She turned and started out of the room, then stopped in the doorway to face us again.

“Are you girls comfortable here? Has the bed been alright?”

“It’s great,” I said. Irene bent over and poked her head out toward us.

“Are you sure?” Her southern voice elongated her final word.

“Yes,” I said.

She looked at us narrowly for a moment, then straightened up and said, “Well, alright, you just let me know.”

Jane and I smiled. I looked at Richard on the other side of the room.

“Hey, how about some chicken for dinner?” Irene said. “Elizabeth, I got the best recipe. Richard used to love it.”

“We’re going to make something later,” Jane said.

“Alright, well just let me know if you change your mind.” Irene walked over to Richard’s bedside and positioned herself in the line of our vision.

“You need anything, Papa?”

Richard groaned faintly.

“The nurse said we can do another dose of morphine at five. Just a little while longer.” She looked down at Richard, who was quiet, “It’s almost four now.”

Jane peered around her mother like a child. My heart quickened, stomach tightened, and the room grew hot. After a few minutes at his side, Irene left and let Richard rest.

I put my hand on Jane’s, which was still resting on my thigh, and she turned her gaze towards mine. She wasn’t looking at me, though— her eyes were merely open. Tracing the shape of her hand to hold her attention, I sent a message to Jane with my eyes. It went unreceived. Jane looked through me, through the wall behind me, and into the other side of reality. Her mouth and eyes were open and unmoving. Tears fell slowly over the edges of her eyelids, but her face remained frozen. I shook her arm gently, and she blinked for the first time in minutes, then nestled her head into my arm.

Trudi, Jane’s sister, walked out of her room and into the kitchen. She looked at Jane as she passed. For a moment, I thought that she was going to speak, but she instead continued on, her presence undetected by Jane and altogether unbeknownst to Richard who was asleep across the room.

It was good to be alone with Jane, but the silence that ensued when everyone retired made it hard for us to run from reality. Nights were still and dark, lacking the noises of day that helped to keep the truth concealed. We held each other and spoke very little.

Later that night, Jane and I still seated on the couch, I gestured toward the door with my eyebrows raised. Jane nodded. Closing the door gently behind us, we carried our things outside and got into Jane’s car, though it was hidden underneath a thick layer of snow. As the engine started, music resumed playing— a half-finished song on an old CD that we only listened to while in Oregon. Jane leaned back in the driver’s seat and shut her eyes. A blanket of snow blocked the glow of streetlights and kept her car perfectly dark. We sat there with the music playing, unable to see through the windows or into anything else.

“I feel like we’re in a submarine,” I said. Jane smiled, her eyes still closed, then sat up and looked at me.

“I like it,” she said.

I finished swallowing, then handed her the bottle. I watched Jane as the music played. “Sweet little baby in a world full of pain. I’d like to be proud, but somehow, I’m ashamed.”

The orange flicker of a lighter illuminated Jane’s face for a couple of seconds. She looked vibrant and beautiful, but then it went dark. In our submarine, Jane handed me a blunt. It sizzled as it pulled, and when I handed it back to Jane, I found her staring out the window at our wall of snow.

“I just remembered,” she said. “We still have that champagne leftover from New Year’s.” She reached into the backseat and moved things around, revealing an open bottle of rosé Mumm Napa.

“It’s so cold,” she said between sips.

My world was spinning. I listened to the sound of the champagne splashing back to the bottom of its bottle as Jane set it down. We switched back and forth as the song sang “Mama, there is only so much I can do. Tough for you to witness, but it was for me too.”

“I can’t remember which way the car is facing.”

“Me neither,” she said, handing me the champagne.

“What are we celebrating?”

“Life,” she said. She was holding in smoke, and her voice sounded funny. As she exhaled, she looked directly at me with bloodshot eyes. Minutes went by. She continued to stare at me through the darkness of the car, and I watched as her eyes glazed over.

“Jane,” I whispered. She was looking straight through me. “Jane,” I said.

 

* * *

 

Jane’s face glowed green as we laid on the air mattress in the middle of her room, shelves of servers and routers and monitors blinking around us.

“What did he do with all of this stuff?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “When I was in high school, I always saw him playing with his computers and gadgets, but I never knew what he was doing.”

We looked up at the machines.

“A lot of these are just spare parts from Intel,” she said. “My mom will probably donate them.”

“You should save them,” I said.

“And do what?”

“I don’t know,” I said after a moment. Jane laughed, and then I laughed too. She rolled over and rested her head against my chest. We closed our eyes and listened to the hum of the machines as they worked relentlessly into the night. Defeated, we fell into a heavy sleep.

In the morning, I asked Jane to take me to the gorge.

“Make sure they’re not calling for fog,” she said.

“It won’t be foggy.”

“Can you just check?” Jane said.

They were calling for some fog—an unsurprising prediction given that clear days are few and far between in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’ll be clear,” I called from the other room as I got my things together. I hoped that once we got to Vista Place we would see far down the river to the jutting cliffs. Most of all, I hoped that the height would allow things to seem better than they did on the ground.

The car was quiet as we drove along the highway. It was daytime, but we spoke very little. Jane and I passed a blunt back and forth, and I tried to think of something to say that would make things better, but instead I said nothing. Jane took a pull from the blunt as she looked ahead at the road, and the burning end glowed. Along the highway, the evergreens wept under heavy, wet snow. The wind whooshed past the body of the car and made its way through the cracks of the doors. As Jane accelerated, the wind grew louder, concealing the fact that neither of us had said a word in over an hour. We were heading so fast down the edge of the water that it felt as if we were in a speedboat ripping through waves, going straight out to sea.

From Vista Place, we watched the waves in the gorge crash violently. Amid the choppy water, the whitecaps were still visible, and as I looked down at them from the top of the mountain, it felt like I was in the middle of the river, struggling to keep from going under.

“That’s Washington,” Jane said.

“Right there?”

“Yes.”

“It’s like the inlet,” I said. She laughed.

“I guess that’s what they ought to call it.”

“I just mean it’s like the inlet in Point,” I said. “Point’s on one side and Squan is on the other.”

Jane looked out over the gorge.

“It’s like a big inlet,” I said after a moment, and she agreed.

We sat in the car, which shook powerfully from the wind, looking ahead to the split in the earth that separated one state from another. The winding turquoise water shimmered brilliantly with the image of the afternoon sky, and we could see cliffs jutting out into the river for miles. The sun shone brightly, and the undulating earth made me feel small.

Jane and I watched as a man walked forcefully against the wind and up to the ledge that overlooked the water. The wind swept his cap right off his head and into the gorge.

“It’s a long way down,” I said.

 

* * *

 

Later, on Jane’s couch, it felt as if we hadn’t gone up to Vista Place at all. From behind us, her mother walked out.

“What did you girls do today?”

“We went to the gorge,” Jane said.

“Oh, Jane,” Irene said. “Did you take her to see the waterfalls?”

“No.”

“You didn’t take her to the waterfalls?” she asked.

“No. I forgot. We’d already gone up to the mountain anyway.”

“Oh Jane, it had to have been just a little bit further.”

Jane said nothing.

“We went to Vista Place,” I said. “It was beautiful.”

Her mother turned around and started back into the kitchen.

“What’d you have to go and do that for?”

“What?” Jane said.

“Forget it. But you couldn’t have taken me?”

“I didn’t know you’d want to go,” she said.

“I didn’t know they existed until a second ago.”

Jane looked out at me quietly. As I studied the sloping shape of her eyes, I knew that the gorge hadn’t changed anything and that the waterfalls wouldn’t either. But maybe they would, I thought.

“Have you seen the waterfalls before?”

“Yes,” she said.

“What were they like?”

“Like Wahkeena and Latourell and all the other ones I’ve taken you to.”

I looked off to the side, blinking rapidly, thinking back to all of the beauty Jane and I had experienced together over time, in the Pacific Northwest, but in other places too.

“Next time,” Jane said. “I promise.”

“I don’t care if we go anymore.”

“My mom will be mad if we don’t,” she said after a moment, and we both laughed.

 

That night, I came out to find Jane in the living room kneeling at Richard’s side, her hand across his stomach and her head on his chest, saying something softly which I could not hear. I stood there for a moment, then backed out of the room and sat down on Jane’s bed, my feet on the ground, my head heavy in my palms.

“Let’s get a drink somewhere,” Jane said in the doorway. I agreed, and she began to collect her things.

“He’s a good man, Jane. But he’s suffering so much,” I said.

Jane looked up as she slid her arm into her coat and looked carefully at me before speaking.

“I know,” she said.

On the outskirts of Portland, we approached a stone building with a sign outside that read “Joe’s Cellar” in block, capital letters, and I asked Jane to pull in.

“Let me take you somewhere nicer,” she said.

“This looks nice enough.”

Inside, after we’d settled at the bar, a man asked what we would like.

“Two Glenlivets,” I said.

“We’re out of Glenlivet right now.”

“Glenfiddich?”

“That we do have.”

The man turned to the counter behind him, looking up at the high shelves.

“We have twelve and eighteen,” he said.

“Twelve, please.”

“Ice okay?”

I nodded. Jane looked around the bar at the photographs hanging on the walls. The man set two glasses down in front of us, filled them halfway with ice using a small, silver shovel, and poured Glenfiddich, not Glenlivet, into each one.

“Is there anywhere else you’d like to go tonight?”

“No,” she said, swinging her legs back around. “I don’t think so.”

Jane and I sat in silence with our arms on the counter, looking ahead. The scotch was both warm and very cold.

“We’re going to spread his ashes over the gorge,” Jane said without turning to face me.

“Why the gorge?”
“I don’t know. Is there a reason to anything anymore?” She took a long sip from her glass, and I looked down at mine, a shimmery mirage of melting ice forming swirls in the scotch. I shook my head, which hung heavily over my glass, and I shook it still, having not replied, as Jane swallowed the last of her scotch and looked ahead with her eyes merely open.