André Gouyneau – Léon, the Tiger

Léon, the Tiger
by André Gouyneau
translated by Kathy Janes

Imagination will often carry us to worlds
that never were. But without it we go nowhere. — Carl Sagan

In the old theatre, the last people were taking their seats. The compère walked back and forth in front of the red stage curtain, incessantly repeating the words on the poster by the entrance.

An unforgettable first act. From the top of the theatre, Leon the Tiger will leap onto one or two members of the audience. There is no danger, once he has landed on you he will weigh less than a small cat, a soft toy… a feather. He will fall into your arms. Don’t be afraid, have faith.

They took their seats tentatively; should they be near the aisles to escape in an emergency, or should they be in the middle of the crowd. Which strategy should they adopt? All were sceptical, not believing that a large, wild beast could, in an instant, transform its considerable weight into that of a small cat. The children were impatient and scrambling over the knees of their parents. They wanted him on their laps so they could stroke him. Anxious mothers tried in vain to keep them safely sheltered in their arms.

The wait was never-ending. Then, quite suddenly, the lights went out, taking the audience by surprise. The hubbub became a sustained whispering tinged with anxiety. Just as in the circus, a loud drum roll erupted and Leon appeared in a pool of white light. He was magnificent. He walked about to the tune of the Pink Panther, swaying his hips and rolling his shoulders.
Next, roaring in a fearsome manner, he made some jumps on the spot, perfectly in time with the loud and rhythmic music. Then, at the speed of light, he scoured the theatre in all directions. This was a well-rehearsed number, a perfectly choreographed fusion of light, sound and theatrics. This freely roaming tiger turned the audience to jelly.

Leon knew just how to play on the nerves of his clients. He roared in the face of some, swinging blows in the air at them with his paws, giving them some broad winks. Then the artist became serious. He chose his partners for this evening with care. A fleshy old man gave way to a magnificent young woman, a tattooed guy to a cute, retired couple. By turns he was wily and affectionate or loud and aggressive. He froze for a few seconds to look just right on the big screen and to allow everyone to take excellent photos. He also managed to make his breath felt on a number of spectators. This was a fierce, frightening animal and also a big pussycat, who purred and fooled around.

Then Leon, the warm up act, gave way to Leon, the artist. He became serious. From way up high in his circle of light, he slowly crouched down, hidden from the view of most of the spectators. In one diagonal swoop, like a coloured arc, he took a leap of about twenty metres and landed on a dear, old couple, who remained impassive. On his back in their arms, he begged to be stroked under the chin, then gave them a big lick with his tongue. He moved away from them nonchalant and smiling. The crowd were on their feet applauding. He returned to the top of the theatre with his supremely supple gait.

The spotlight followed him for his second performance. On his back and with all his paws spread wide, he did a kind of loop-the-loop and glided for a fraction of a second before landing on the knees of three delighted young children. The audience were completely won over. He continued his tomfoolery and his showmanship during the ovations. Now the hero of the children, he was less and less frightening.

The third jump was incredible. Swirling in the air and roaring, he espied a woman clinging to a man in a yellow suit. The panic-stricken couple threw themselves to the ground in the aisle and Leon crashed down onto their seats. The stifled, muffled sound of a bass drum rang out. Everyone understood right away that Leon had fallen with his full weight because he was not ‘welcomed.’ The anger of the crowd spilled over and they booed the couple, who had to flee. Leon went out slowly, limping, leaning for support on the shoulders of two bruisers. Turning his head, he made little gestures with his paws, he smiled at his fans. The compère quickly got the crowd back under control and announced the main attraction. In the wings, Leon’s agent congratulated him.

“Well done! With the perfectly synchronised sound system, even I thought you weighed a ton.”

“Heaven forbid. Thank goodness, I am as light as a feather, otherwise how could I make such leaps.”

“It was good tonight, but we should vary the finale.”

“I could land on a rib of beef placed at the front of the stage,” said Léon.

“Or pretend to eat me,” joked his agent.

“Why not, it’s quite plausible. After all, I am somewhat feral.”

Nancy Ludmerer – Cara Cara

Cara Cara
by Nancy Ludmerer

In a Florida hospital, I peel navel oranges to mask the smell of death. I sing dad’s favourite: “Gonna sit right down and write myself a letter.” As a girl, I’d pictured him, young, besotted, writing endearments in florid penmanship, pretending his sweetheart (mom?) had written the sweet words.

Retired to Florida a decade ago, widowed, he’d send Cara Cara oranges every December to Boys Town, the Doe Fund, me — lonely souls back North.

Now I sit beside his lifeless form, white-sheeted. Neither of us has anywhere to go. I sort through his mail, which he’d asked me to bring that morning. Ralph’s Orange Groves has written: “Did you forget your orders this year, Morris?”

Should I tell them?

“It was time,” the doctor says, stopping by to express his regrets. But the doctor didn’t know him. None of them did: not the kindest nurses, the cheerful receptionist, the jaunty mortician wandering the halls saying, “Hopefully you’ll never need me, but just in case.” None had heard him sing.

None had tasted those oranges, skin burst, dripping with juice.

Except, of course, Ralph.

“Dear Ralph,” I begin.

Srinjay Chakravarti – Bitter Pill

Bitter Pill
by Srinjay Chakravarti

The late afternoon sun was deliciously warm and mellow, and Mrs Lahiri, sitting on the park bench on that cold December day, had almost dozed off. Her head was nodding and the cashmere sweater she was knitting lay on her lap, forgotten.

The sound of sudden raucous laughter, harsh and discordant, roused her from her incipient slumber. She blinked her eyes behind her pince-nez glasses and looked around. There was no one to be seen. She turned around and looked carefully again. She could hear voices from behind the screen of dense foliage. Someone was talking loudly.

She yawned and picked up her knitting again. Suddenly some of the words wafted to her ears and she sat up straight.

“That old fool of a woman, Mrs Chitra Lahiri,” came a deep male voice, “did you look at her face?! It was a picture!”

A young girl’s laughter tinkled in the air. “The idea of the soap lather coming out from my mouth—that was too brilliant. Just wicked! Where did you learn it?”

The young man laughed. “From a friend who was in the army. He had read about it in a book. It’s a trick some young men had used during a war to act out epileptic fits. That way they weren’t drafted into military service in their country.”

Mrs Lahiri was aghast. Not just the mention of her name, but that voice—particularly that young woman’s voice—seemed rather familiar.

She raised her heavy body with difficulty from the park bench—her knees were rather weak—and hobbled around the bushes to see who all were chatting there.

The young couple had come and had sat down behind her while she was feeling drowsy. They hadn’t noticed Mrs Lahiri, screened as she was by the bushes, creepers and a large peepal tree.

They looked up as Mrs Lahiri came into view and stared at her for an instant in horrified shock. They had been smoking, but dropped their half-burnt bidis on the grass and fled. Mrs Lahiri, too, was reeling with shock, now that her worst suspicions had been proved true. Wasn’t that her maid Sabita, who was supposed to be in hospital?

The realisation of what had happened suddenly hit her and she felt quite, quite sick. She felt giddy, her knees gave away, and she fell on the grass in a dead faint.

When she came to, someone was sprinkling water on her face. There was a hubbub of voices and several people had gathered around her. A few elderly gentlemen, who had been walking in the park, some children with their mothers and ayahs, and a few young idlers. These young men were much like the scoundrel she had just seen—thin, swarthy, with scruffy beards or stubble, clad in skin-tight jet black or shiny blue shirts and t-shirts and skinny “butter” denim jeans, in various shades of beige or muddy brown. She looked at them in trepidation, but they helped Mrs Lahiri to her feet kindly.

“Are you all right?” one of them asked solicitously. They helped her to a park bench, where she sat down, fanning her face. Despite the cold, she was sweating.

“Where do you live?” asked a middle-aged man. She replied, “Quite close by. Left turn from this park, then right down Rhododendron Avenue.”

“What happened?”

Mrs Lahiri started to describe her encounter, but then thought better of it. “Oh, it’s nothing, just a spell of giddiness.”

“Shall we take you home?” asked a gangly youth, unctuously. She blinked up at him and was about to refuse, but then she nodded weakly. Two of the young men helped her across the street and took her home. They asked her, “Do you live here alone?”

“Yes, ever since my husband passed away.”

“Is there no one at all at home?” they asked.

“No, both my daughters live abroad, one in Canada, the other in Australia. I had a maid who lived with me all the time, but—” She was about to say Sabita had been hospitalised, but stopped just in time. She felt the tears sting her eyes.

She stopped for breath, then rubbed her eyes. “I’m so sorry, I can’t even offer you a glass of water now,” she said to the young men.

“No, no. It’s perfectly all right,” they replied. “Please take care of yourself,” they said courteously. “We’ll come back tomorrow and ask after you.”

First a dubiety, and then a kernel of suspicion, started to harden in her mind. Mrs Lahiri looked at the youths in trepidation. Now why were they so interested in her well-being? She wondered….

The old lady’s thoughts must have flitted over her face, for the youths looked embarrassed and left quietly soon after.

Mrs Lahiri plopped down on the sofa in her living room. Things were moving too fast for her. Yesterday’s events flashed like a 35mm reel of an old film through her sluggish mind—scratched, disjointed and discoloured.

Last afternoon, after they had had lunch, Sabita had complained of stomach pain, probably caused by indigestion. It was the maid’s wont to ask Mrs Lahiri for medicines for minor ailments. And the old lady often gave her tablets and capsules from her own stock, whenever she could.

This time, however, events had taken a dramatic turn. Mrs Lahiri had taken out an antacid from the medicine cabinet. A few minutes later, her maid’s fiancé—what was his name now? she had clean forgotten—had come running. He often came to visit Sabita.

“Sabita is very ill! She is foaming at the mouth…”

Mrs Lahiri had at once rushed to the kitchen to find Sabita lying on the floor, hands clutched to her abdomen, writhing in agony. Foam had indeed been coming out of her mouth.

The pimply young man had exclaimed, “What’s happened to her? She fell ill right after taking the tablet you gave her. It’s all your bloody fault! You’ve given her the wrong medicine.”

Mrs Lahiri had not known what to say. She had stuttered, “I mean… not I, it isn’t my fault…the medicine… I mean…”

Sabita’s fiancé had snarled, “Shut up! I’m going to take her to the hospital at once. Perhaps we’ll be able to save her!”

Saying that, he had taken Sabita away and put her on a rickshaw.

Mrs Lahiri had stayed back at home, her heart beating a drumbeat in fear and anxiety, waiting for news. After some time—for the life of her, she couldn’t remember his name—he had come back.

“I have admitted Sabita to Oriental Nursing Home.” It was a well-known, expensive nursing home nearby. “Her condition is critical. They have asked for a deposit of ten thousand rupees.”

Mrs Lahiri had stared at him, speechless.

“Where will I get so much money?” he had demanded. “It’s all your fault. You’ll have to pay the deposit.”

Mrs Lahiri had been shaking with fear by now, yet had protested feebly, “It’s not my fault, I never knew that—that—the medicine was wrong…”

The brash young fellow had said, “How dare you? If you don’t give the money for the hospital expenses, I’ll bring a thousand people from my bustee and burn down your house! You old witch—!”

Mrs Lahiri had been terrified. There was no one she could turn to right then. She lived in a secluded stretch of the upscale Rhododendron Avenue and most of the residents were elderly people like her. Next to her was a single-storey house that had been lying vacant for the past few months ever since the tenants had moved away. In the other house next to hers there lived an old couple and the gentleman was ailing. She had not liked to bother them. Opposite her house lived a middle-aged couple, both of whom were doctors, but they were both at hospital at that time of the day and their daughter was at school. Her only relative in the city was her nephew, who lived in another part of Calcutta, several kilometres away.

At that point of time she had been so frightened that she had not known what to do, she had not known whom to turn to. What if something happened to the girl? The very thought had filled Mrs Lahiri with dread.

As it was, she was not sure if she had given her maid the right medicine. She had thought it better not to argue with the young man and, with a trembling hand and tremulous eyes, had made out a bearer’s cheque for fifteen thousand—“to cover all hospital expenses and medicines,” as he had so rightly pointed out—on her savings bank account. Before he had left, the young man—what was his name now, she tried desperately to remember—had threatened her yet again: “If something happens to Sabita, I swear we’ll get even with you…”

There had been no news of Sabita, that day and the next day, too. Mrs Lahiri had feared the worst. Sabita’s fiancé had not come back at all.

The maid used to live with her. She had come to Mrs Lahiri’s home as an orphaned young girl from a remote village in Medinipur district. Sabita had been with her for some ten years now. Mrs Lahiri recalled how the malnourished Sabita had first come to her, frightened, innocent, and alarmingly thin, and under her ministrations, had blossomed into a dusky beauty, doe-eyed and lissom. Mrs Lahiri had done all she could have done for her, and not out of pity either…

Mrs Lahiri didn’t know much about the young man to whom Sabita had recently got engaged. He lived in a slum on the other side of the railway tracks nearby and did odd jobs for a living. But she didn’t have his address.

Mrs Lahiri went to the park only occasionally, but today she had gone out in the evening for some fresh air, having passed a sleepless night. When she saw Sabita and her fiancé, she realised how badly she had been duped. But was there much she could do about it? What information could she give the cops? She didn’t know their whereabouts or even the ruffian’s name.

A sudden thought struck her. She went to Sabita’s little room on top of the empty garage. She was thunderstruck, as they say. All her belongings were gone! Not even her comb or mirror was there, nor even a scrap of her clothing.

Mrs Lahiri came back to the living room on wobbly feet and collapsed into a divan. Her nephew Saikat came in just then.

“So it was all meticulously planned,” Saikat said heavily, after hearing her out. Saikat Bhaduri was her nephew, the only son of her late brother. She had called him up yesterday itself, but he had not been able to come over from Circus Avenue. He had promised to make it that evening, and there he was, as good as his word.

A thought struck him. He picked up the phone and called up Oriental Nursing Home. “Has any patient by the name of Sabita Mondol been admitted to your nursing home yesterday afternoon? Yes, could you please check? I’ll hold on.”

He listened, grim-faced, when the nurse on duty answered at last, then said, “Okay,” and hung up.

Mrs Lahiri knew the answer even before Saikat told her. As she sat on the sofa, talking to her nephew, she felt very weary indeed.

“It’s a pity you can’t recall that scoundrel’s name,” sighed Saikat. “That would’ve made the cops’ jobs a lot easier. Still, I’ll have a word with the officer-in-charge at the local police station. They might be able to trace Sabita somehow, though I fear it is too late—they must be miles away by now.”

Mrs Lahiri’s voice trembled. “And what would the police have done if they had managed to nab him?” she asked.

“Well, they’d have dumped him in the lockup and beaten him up black and blue, of course,” replied Saikat. “You would have got your money back, and both of them would have gone to jail.”

She shook her head, dispiritedly. “That’s no solution at all.”

“Then what to do?”

“I really don’t know… Ten years Sabita had spent in my home, I looked after her like my own daughter, and now this—this—betrayal…”

“I can’t bear the thought of her going to prison,” she went on, with a heavy sigh. “If they come to me and say sorry, and return my money, then I’ll certainly forgive them.”

“That seems hardly likely, does it? They have skedaddled—and I’m sure they won’t return to Calcutta, ever,” Saikat murmured.

Susan Lloy – Mademoiselle Energy

Mademoiselle Energy
by Susan Lloy

“Straightjacket. That’s what I’ll order if you keep this up and I’m sure you won’t like it much either.”

I was restless, it’s true. The halls were paced over and over, the nursing station at Emergency frequented time after time.

“How much longer? Can’t wait any more. I need medication. A pill. A shot. Anything! If you don’t give me something I’ll make a complaint. My psychiatrist is staff here and when he’s through with you – he’ll give you a kick up the ass like it’s the biggest dick you ever wished for.”

My words weren’t kind, but then again, I was under duress. Restrained. Ugh. However, I decided to heed his advice and silently trolled the corridor eyeballing patients. Calculating urgencies. My psyche was bruised from the overindulgence of mood enhancers and mild hallucinogens. Sleepless nights. I felt like Lady Macbeth and my brain bled tears as if they were raw exposed nerve endings. I held court with myself sustaining solitary conversations that ran day and night, blurring the boundaries of light and darkness. So goes the ritual of mood.

A young junkie rocked her arm, which was a deep red – almost purple – swollen like an active volcano waiting to erupt. An abscess. It was raised, perhaps four inches from her puncture site. It scared me, I could end up like her. My head rested between my knees and my palms at the base of my skull. Sound and light were the enemies now. Capsules and liquid meds the allies. Occasionally I lifted my head and confronted the nursing station with glaring pleads ‘When?’ On and off I heard muffled comments, Mademoiselle Energy, laughter and hushed words. Scrubs and white lab coats turned to me, distracted and for a minute their eyes met mine. Often moans and sighs, fast-moving stretchers and the clicks of heels on hard-polished floors assaulted my covered ears.

After several hours a young man approached me. An orderly with a wheelchair stopped and said, “Lets go.”

“I’m perfectly fine for walking.”

“Just get in please. It’s procedure.”

We travelled a corridor. Coloured directional signs were mounted on walls: Surgical, Medical, ICU, Psychiatry and so on. We waited for the elevator, heading to the psych ward, which was six floors up. My tour guide was rather emotionless and barely said a word. No doubt he needed a rest as well. He rang a bell, a nurse opened the door and he handed a chart to her.

“Hello Grace.”

“Hi.”

“Come this way.”

I got up from the wheelchair. The orderly had disappeared through the door already.

“You’ll be staying here.”

It was a small rectangular room with space for only a single bed. No furniture and empty walls. A porthole in the door replaced a window. I must have really pissed off that ER intake doctor, because he had slotted me for the violent section of the unit. It wasn’t long before the nurse approached with medication.

“Here, take these.”

I didn’t even ask what they were.

Whatever she handed sedated me enough for a few hours of slumber. The door to my room wasn’t secured and I could navigate between the sitting room, dining area and cigarette roost with ease. My own psychiatrist came soon after and questioned me in the private confines of my enclosure.

“You know, I feel that these compounds are very similar to vitamins and they’re helping my illness. Don’t you agree?”

“I’m not sure about that Grace, however, you’ll be transferred over to the other unit. You don’t belong here.”

Within an hour I was moved across the hall where I had a normal-sized room with a proper window and bureau for clothes that I didn’t have. There were a few patients in the sitting room and the television was annoyingly loud. I sat in a chair. It didn’t take long before another inmate approached me.

“You’re new.”

“Yeah. Via the lockdown.”

“Know it well. I’m Karl”

“Grace.”

“Don’t you find that television aggressive?”

I headed in the direction of the set and turned down the volume. The woman sitting opposite immediately put it back to where it had been. I lowered it once more. When she went for the third time I sternly stated, “Leave it alone. Or I’ll put your head through it!”

She mumbled inaudible words and slowly trudged along out the door to an unknown location.

“Consistent. That’s what she is. It’s always deafening. She doesn’t involve herself with any of us. I think the more thunderous – softer are the voices.”

“Poor thing.”

“Yes. There are many poor things here.”

“Why are you here? You seem absolutely normal to me.”

“I was digging up a tree in Westmount Park. They arrested me. So I ended up back here.”

“Oh. So you’re a regular then?”

“Pretty much.”

“And you? First time?”

“It is actually. I’ve had a few suicide attempts, but always with a noose. Never had the guts to kick the chair over. What if I fucked up and ended up with a broken neck? Why can’t things be simpler? For instance, if I had a driver’s license – I’d simply rent a car, go to a nice spot and gas myself. But it wasn’t suicide this time. I overdid it with drugs and endured weeks of insomnia. I just got so sick of myself. This never-ending restlessness.”

“There are easier ways.”

“How?”

He got up and rummaged through his pockets and handed over a few pods. These are pods from the Black Locust tree – Robinia pseudoacacia. There are also Honey Locust trees in the city. The Honey Locust is more beautiful.

“Look.”

Karl held bean-like pods. The backs were darker. The fronts were a shiny warm silver. Thin bands stretched horizontally on one side with raised seeds attached. They were intricate, as if woven embroidery on a period dress.

“They’re lovely. How’d you get them?”

“I’ve been here a few weeks now and have more privileges than you. I can go outside for cigarettes and air”.

“Why were you digging up a tree anyway?”

“He told me to do it.”

“Who?”

Karl tapped on the side of his head.

“He’d been at me for weeks. He said it was wrongly positioned. It required optimum light, cloud cover and asylum from the wind. The cool breath of the stars and the moon’s crafty grin. We enjoy nature’s riddles and truths. When I get out of here I’ll calibrate myself according to the number of seeds on each pod that are always random. For each day I’ve been in this hospital, I’ll subtract a week’s worth of medication. The Honey Locust seeds are edible, but not the Black Locust’s. They’re poisonous. Effortless.”

Six months later I was back for an intentional overdose. I hadn’t managed to locate the Black Locust trees that are scattered throughout the city, but funny enough, I had the same Emergency doctor.

“I think the last time I was here I was rather rude. Sorry.”

“Not a problem.”

He came to me with a long plastic tube. “Open…”

Dennis Sinar – The Doctor in Town

The Doctor in Town
by Dennis Sinar

Fate, the mother of us all, guided me here in 1957. I drove a dusty 1950 Powerglide Chevy into town looking for a job. Cars parked at angles studded the four blocks of Main Street and shoppers crowded both sides of the street. Eventually, I found a vacant two-story building at the north end of town, a block beyond the established stores. Negotiations were quick. The owner needed a tenant, and the combination first floor office and second floor apartment were suitable for a businessman tenant who didn’t mind being on the edge of town. Location was not a problem because I knew people would come. It took a day to find a sign maker and hang my shingle above the door. Carl Jordan, M.D. was open for business. I was the only doctor in this small town.

In the late 1950s, a general practitioner was expected to be a caring, gentle, knowledgeable person who listened to his patients and most importantly, was willing to work hard. On the first day, people started coming with the usual illnesses, and in that first year, my practice grew steadily as I established trust. My patients were my neighbors and it was easy to remember all of their illnesses. I treated mostly common diseases in families and sat with other families for comfort when their people died.

My patients were black or white, rich or poor, ornery or not, and I made house calls. If a drunk wandered onto my porch on a Saturday night, he sat there until he was sober, then I saw him first when the office opened. My posted office hours were eight to five, five days a week, but that was only a guideline. If a sick patient knocked after hours, I yelled out the upstairs window for them to sit on the porch and I’d be down shortly.

I learned that the interview was the most important part of the encounter, a time to observe all the clues about what was troubling them. People needed to tell their story on their own terms and it was best to smile, nod, and listen as they talked. I remember a wife who was nervously waiting for my diagnosis of her husband’s illness. As she sat silently beside her husband, looking between us, rubbing her trembling index finger across the hair of her eyebrow and then repeating the motion on the other eyebrow. To hide his embarrassment, he looked straight ahead at the sunset print on the wall, studying the print and the color of the sunset. He was used to facing the setting sun in tobacco fields and his face was lined with crow’s feet. His right foot tapped, tapped on the floor to some rhythm in his head. The wife looked at her husband and then back to me, willing him to talk about his symptoms, to be truthful about his weight loss, lack of appetite, and the pains in his stomach. He was silent, not ready, so she told the story. I watched her hands and her eyes for clues as to what she needed. It was obvious that he had a cancer of some kind, likely terminal. He never looked at me. Before I said the words, she knew her suspicions were true, and her eyes asked what could be done. She wanted my guidance on the path from here to there, but he never stopped looking at the sunset print. Diagnosing cancer was terrible, but not difficult. Someone with a wasting disease, steady pain, or jaundice had the bad disease. Finding where the cancer was located was not important back then. People did not want to know the kind of cancer; they just accepted that it was cancer, an untreatable condition in their mind. Every day they stayed above ground was a blessing, a day to be used to work and provide for their family for as long as they were able.

In those early days, my hands were my greatest asset, warm, smooth, and neatly groomed. Someone told me that people didn’t trust a doctor with dirty hands and so I washed my hands after coming into the room so the patients knew they were clean. In the beginning, it was difficult for me to examine patients because I disliked physical contact, but when people complimented my gentle touch, I became more comfortable.

Examining a patient was like playing a fine instrument, my warm hands started well away from the tender area and slowly worked toward their particular area of discomfort. During the exam, I nodded often to encourage patients to add details to their story. If someone complained of pain in their chest, I’d gently palpate the back and front, feeling for tender spots. If I found tenderness, it was the end of my search and I knew what to do; if not, I’d listen with my scope and decide on something different. If their chest rattled, they went home with pills dispensed by the nurse from our back office supply; if their chest was quiet, they went home with the same pills, but a different colour. The results were the same—patients most often got better. Each of my capsules looked different, large, or medium sized and coloured blue, white, or bright yellow. It was easy to buy coloured double 0 wax capsules out of town and fill them with sugar. Placebo pills were common at the time, and as the nurse handed the patient their envelope of pills, she instructed them to swallow them whole, so they never tasted the sugar. I used simple medicines because they worked.

The mechanics of laboratory testing did not interest me; I was concerned only with the mystery and the manifestations of disease. My medical knowledge was refined by trial and error. On a back office shelf was my single reference, the Merck Manual. I consulted it with difficult cases and the pages became worn over the years. In most cases, the manual proved adequate. Most days I was able to puzzle out a patient’s problem using common sense. My treatments reinforced the placebo principle— examine carefully, treat with confidence, and expect a cure.

Surprisingly, their confidence in me was the most effective medicine – if a patient believed I knew how to treat their problem, their belief was enough; patients tried to get better because it was expected. When people heard my diagnosis, they nodded understanding, and symptoms that were unbearable before the visit, with my reassurance, became bearable. I had a nervous tic, rubbing my knuckles back and forth across my lips and teeth as I thought about a difficult case. The tic initially gave patients a start, but then eventually instilled confidence in my diagnostic skills. The tic helped solve a surprising number of vexing problems.

Vaccination of children was not widespread in the South. I learned that childhood diseases, whether in a rich child or a poor child, mostly improved in a day or two, and if the child did not improve, I sent them on to a specialist in the big city. In children, what looked like a cold might actually be a serious disease like polio or meningitis that could get much worse in more than a few days. Those were the times of the most severe cases of polio, widespread tuberculosis, and the worst of a handful of other severe childhood illnesses. Thankfully, those times have passed. When I sent the child to the city, the specialists appreciated the prompt referral and always let me know how things turned out.

Payment for my services was a challenge because few people had readily available cash. Most offered trades or asked for credit until their crops came in. I collected food, dressed farm animals, or canned preserves. Patients saved their best harvest for the doctor. If I took care of all three kids in a family for their colds, I might get a smoked ham; if a farmer’s wife had the vapours, the husband brought a few thick steaks. When I had enough food, I took handmade clothing.

In the practice of general medicine, people came during regular office hours with common ailments: colds, scrapes, arthritis, and fevers. Emergencies and house calls always came in the middle of the night for patients too sick to leave their bed. An emergency for a farmer had the same importance whether it was a cow in labor or his wife’s spells. Often I would see the wife and the cow on the same house call. In both cases, I prescribed the same pills, and more often than not, the wife and the cow got better. I saw joy, grief, and the loss of life, often in the same week.

Toward the end of a long day, I was exhausted and failed in my caring. The best I could do at those times was to follow the thread of their history, but no diagnosis came into my head. I saw the person in front of me as a skeleton stripped of skin or a blob of muscles that talked. When that happened, I asked them to come back in the morning for a fresh look. People saw my foibles and believed my words, either in the office, or when they saw me on the street and stopped to ask about some medical problem.

One morning, a car weaving down Main Street hit a man, and the patrons of the Starlight Grill had an excellent view of the accident. I was sitting at a table in the front window, looked out at the splattered man, and then resumed my breakfast, knowing the man was already dead and beyond my services. None of the patrons questioned my decision.

Through weeks, then years, I learned to appreciate the strength of the human body—the oldest to the youngest bodies—and how they adapted as they aged. It was common to see an old granny and then a newborn baby, one after the other in a morning, and the diversity of life amazed me.

There were many times when I went to a person’s home, often in the middle of the night. On one visit, the spouse opened the front door, nodded, and led me upstairs to their bedroom. It was a clean room, but infused with the smell of sickness. On the wall opposite the window, there was a huge poster bed with a white lace canopy. The patient, a man I had seen only rarely, was propped up in the bed, leaning against large feather pillows, his breathing so laboured that he could barely get more than a few words out without pausing. There was an odour of urine from the bed and damp washed sheets hung out the window to dry. By way of decoration in the room, hanging on a nail in the middle of the wall across from the bed was a crayon drawing of a man. Underneath the drawing in a child’s handwriting was: “To Dear Papa.” This man was Papa.

One hot summer afternoon, a woman sat in the office and told me about her husband: “That man is disturbed, sick you know. He’s never been all there, what with staring into space rather than looking me in the eye like a normal person, talking crazy sentences about the devil or someone following him or trying to poison him. He never tells normal things anymore, and people stay well away from him. I’ve never known for him to hurt anybody, but with crazy people, you never know when they’re just going to snap and go for your throat.” She went on in that vein for some time, and I found that letting her get it out was the best tonic, nodding, looking at her face, and listening with my hands crossed in my lap. Eventually, her tape ran out and she went back into herself. Our conversation continued, but she avoided my eyes and looked down at my hands, as if they would give the diagnosis and tell what she should do.

Then, one week, my routine changed. Odd feelings stirred in me, and I felt something alive moving deep inside my abdomen, tightening and squeezing, not yet pain but becoming pain. The feeling became worse and changed to pain in another week. I had examined enough patients to know the diagnosis, but not how long the disease would take. I knew there was no treatment, even in the big city. My nurse and I decided to close the office gradually over the next two months.

At home, I turned to thoughts of God and an afterlife. I became philosophical about the extremes of life, knowing that the boundary between life and death could be measured like the narrow path of a tornado, and like the tornado, my disease was unstoppable. My ego hoped that perhaps medicine might hold back that boundary, and that my will alone could determine the path enough for the storm to miss me. With each day as the pain increased, the division between life and death became more narrow, making me wonder about the next adventure. A week after the office closed, I sat in the sun on the front porch and looked at my hands. I was surprised at how bony they had become, how the flesh had stripped away. The knuckles were prominent, and the skin was stretched tight around every joint, yet my grip was still strong and my gentle touch was the same touch that so many patients recalled.

I had seen life end in suddenness, a merciful transition between living and then not, and I had seen the opposite—a slow, painful process of ending that fostered replaying, regret, and only a few pleasant memories. Which path would I prefer if it were in my power? My preference didn’t matter because the choice was made for me.

Perhaps my legacy will live on, but I doubt it. After I’ve gone, people will forget the good and only remember the bad in their dealings with me. My greatest secret would go with me into the grave. On my scout drive into town in 1957, I was looking for easy money, but instead found my destiny on a path that was irreversible. In the end, if people thought I was a doctor and helped them, then I was their doctor.

Srinjay Chakravarti – Messengers to the Goddess

Messengers to the Goddess
by Srinjay Chakravarti
 
It was a bright clear day in autumn and wisps of white fluffy clouds floated in a transparently blue sky, white like the kash flowers in the fields. It was the season of Durga Puja, the autumn festival of the Mother Goddess.

Mr Pal was painting a pair of model clay birds with blue paint. They were brilliantly plumaged, and beautiful works of art. Adrija came into his studio.

“Grandpa, what are you doing today?” The little girl loved to watch her grandfather work on his clay, terracotta and marble sculptures. He was an artist and his studio was right next to his house.

Adrija was seven years old and lived in New York with her parents. She had come to Kolkata for the Durga Puja festivities.

“These are clay models of Neelkantha birds. The organisers of our local Puja have requested me to make these birds and so I am making these models.”

“What are Neelkanthas?”

“They are a kind of beautiful blue birds called rollers. They are found in India’s forests and jungles—or, rather, I should say that they used to be found there.”

Adrija thought this over for a while. “Why are you making clay models of the birds?”

“Neelkanthas are used in the worship of the Mother Goddess. There are very few of them left in the wild now, which is why we have to use replicas made from the mud on the banks of rivers. Brahmin priests drop these clay models into rivers and lakes during the Pujas.”

“Why are there very few left in the wild, Grandpa?”

Mr Pal sighed. “They have been hunted through the centuries by kings and princes, and now they are almost extinct. The birds were snared and kept in cages by hunters. Now even fledglings can hardly be found. When taken from their nests, the chicks die very soon, and grown-up rollers have all but vanished from the hills and forests. It is forbidden by law to capture or sell rollers—if anyone catches these birds now, he will go to jail.”

He paused, then went on. “Earlier, just before the Durga Puja festival was about to end, priests used to release two of the Neelkantha birds into the freedom of the sky, within hours of each other. The first would carry the message on its wings to Lord Shiva that His consort had just left Her pandals and temples. The other was freed when the idols of Ma Parvati were immersed in rivers, ponds or lakes—to tell Lord Shiva to prepare for Her return to Mount Kailash. The Divine Mother of the Universe is returning from the plains of Bengal to the frozen mountain peaks of the Himalayas in Tibet.”

He picked up one of the lovely clay birds. “Now we have to make do with these models, and we drop these from boats in the water. And the Neelkanthas take their messages all the way to Lord Neelkantha Himself!”

“What does that mean? Who is Lord Neelkantha?”

“Neelkantha is another name for Lord Shiva, the immortal god whose throat turned blue after he drank a terrible poison to save the world.”

“Why did he drink poison?” Adrija was astounded. “And he didn’t die even after drinking it?”

Her grandfather smiled, stroking his white beard. “It’s a rather long story, a very old legend. Once all the gods and demons were churning the ocean to get the nectar which gives immortality. But first this poison, named kalkut, came out of the waters. No one could bear its heat! Only Lord Shiva could drink it all up, and even He passed out. His throat turned a deep shade of blue from the poison—that is why the name Neelkantha, which means He-with-the-Blue-Throat. These birds, too, have blue throats; that is why the rollers are called Neelkanthas as well.”

Adrija was listening wide-eyed to all this. She digested what her grandfather had said, then blurted out, “When the birds used to be released into the sky, did they fly all the way to the Himalayas?”

“That I don’t know!” Grandpa shook his head, smiling. “But nowadays, since there are very few blue rollers left, we have to immerse the clay models in water to tell Lord Shiva that Ma Uma is returning to Him. And that is why I’m painting these birds.”

“But these are not real birds. They are only make-believe!” exclaimed Adrija.

“No, it is not exactly like that. When your father is not at home, when he goes out on tours, you look at his photograph, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do that.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Because—because—I like doing it! It reminds me of him…”

“That is why we make clay models of Mother Durga and paint them and decorate them so beautifully. The images remind us of the real Goddess.” He went on, “In just the same way, the clay replicas represent the real birds!”

“But wouldn’t it be better to use actual birds, real living birds, instead of these blue models?” Adrija asked.

“Yes, of course,” her grandfather nodded. “But, as I said, the rate at which the forests are disappearing is alarming, and blue rollers can hardly be found any more. The survival of countless other birds and animals is also very much threatened.”

“What will happen if forests disappear altogether?” she asked, her eyes wide.

“Our very lives will be in danger. The whole planet will be at great risk.”

“When we can’t see Ma Durga, we make clay idols and worship them. When we can’t find live birds, we make clay models and use them,” she said, more to herself. “But—” she turned to her grandfather— “can we make models of forests and jungles? Would that be the same thing?”

“No, of course not. If trees are cut down they can’t be replaced at once, and it takes a long time for new trees to grow.”

“We grown-ups have been destroying the world around us, the forests, mountains, rivers and lakes—cutting down trees, polluting waters, dumping garbage all around. We have been taking away sand and stones from hills and river beds for building houses and factories. We are destroying the environment, damaging the planet’s ecology—”

“What is ecology?” asked Adrija.

Her grandfather paused for a moment. “It is—it is—the nature we have all around us. Trees, forests, jungles, birds and animals, mountains and rivers, fields and ponds. It is the environment we live in, our very world. And it is slowly being destroyed.”

“Can’t we do anything about it?’ Adrija asked, her voice tremulous. Then she asked, “Can’t I do something to help?”

“Well, you are too young right now. But I’m sure that when you grow up, you and your friends will certainly make our world a better place for us to live in—not just for human beings, but for trees and animals and birds as well. We can all make a difference, there are many things we can do to make Mother Earth happy. In the meantime, we can only pray to Ma Durga that our forests and rivers and mountains are not destroyed, that these don’t turn into deserts.”

Adrija looked downcast. Suddenly her face lit up. “I know what to do! When I pray during the Puja this time, I shall send a message to Ma Durga!”

“What message will you send Her, Adrija?”

“I will pray to Her so that once again forests can grow on earth and that more birds and animals live in the forests. Then there will be more Neelkantha birds and we will be able to send real blue rollers to Lord Shiva and Ma Durga with our prayers and messages, not these make-believe ones!”

Susan Lloy – Vita

Vita
by Susan Lloy

They say when you’re going to die your life flashes before you, yet this isn’t quite so. It’s rather like a film, reedited from scraps on the floor and put back together with the plot and characters all mixed up in one last fusion. At least, that’s what it’s been like for me and even though we’re all taking some train to personalized destinations, now that I’ve nearly reached my own stop, I kind of wish I was still a few stations back.

I’ve managed to remain at home with a nurse checking in on me twice a day and I feel lucky for this. She’ll be here soon and I’m waiting for my big hit of pain medication. My tumor has spread like a burst star and now I wait to die; my neurons still transmit, but more like anarchists or an ambushed Morse code whose sender is tapping some unknown beat that only he can dance to.

 
I look around the space and it’s filled with photographs, mostly my own, yet blended with other admired works of my contemporaries, which hang on the walls and grace the sideboards. I had been a photojournalist, documenting the social imprint of each generation, whether it was political or cultural. That is, until I got sick. In recent years I had cut back the travel and worked on a collection for a book and a documentary. They both got quite a bit of attention with a good payout and this is how I’m able to remain here with additional homecare.

I hear the key in the door and I know it’s Hazel. Hazel is young and hot and has an old-fashioned name for a fresh face and a mod flair. She’s good at this sort of thing and isn’t uneasy. She doesn’t show up in a uniform. She appears in casual, non-provocative clothing. But, sometimes I get a glimpse. A peek at her arm through her sleeveless shirt and what lies beyond; a firm breast, the hardness of the clavicle, the long ballerina neck.

“Hi, hi Arthur.”

“Hi, Hazel.”

She bursts into my living room with a bouquet of just picked flowers and tells me about her night out. Some guy had pursued her at a bar, not taking no for an answer and she ended up getting the bouncer to pitch him out. He had waited for her in his car when she spilt a couple of hours later. Fortunately, she hadn’t been alone and her male companion gave the guy a stern talking to, but now she is fearful of her favourite watering hole and is leery of going back.

 
I like these little stories and listen intently while she prepares my hit. Her hair is tied back and she rubs my vein, her lovely green eyes taking in all of me as the needle finds its trail. I feel the heat and then see the classic tunnel. It’s dark and there’s warm light at the far end. I want to enter and I guess this is it for me, but when I reach it I hear hard music and see punks drenched in colour dancing in some hip club that perhaps I had once frequented in New York or Berlin. It has the sense of the familiar, something I innately know. The energy is frenzied and I feel at home, cozy, as if this is my heaven. Or is it hell? I always imagined hell would be some cool scene like this, with the doorman picking out the hipsters from the sidewalk creating a fine collection of skin and sweat. I hear the old songs of my youth and they make me feel bulletproof. Pumped.

 
An edgy girl comes to me and whispers in my ear. I feel her warm breath and the cold of her nose chain against my face. The music makes her words unrecognizable and she takes my arm, leading me to an outside corridor. It has long glass walls on each side with installations of living, exotic animals. In a blue hued room off to the side there is a wall with two sharks. I feel sorry for them as they bang into the side of the huge tank, their sonar corrupted by percussion and screaming guitars. She indicates that she wants me to follow her, and I do, although I don’t know why. She shows me a prehistoric bird pecking at the glass. Its huge tongue licks the barrier. I turn to her, but she’s gone and I hear the glass shatter into a thousand fragments.

I awake and the vase of flowers has fallen from the coffee table. Daisies and brown-eyed Susan’s are scattered on the floor. I’m not immobile yet and slowly rise from my hospital bed, as I don’t want to leave this mess for Hazel. She’s left me some soup in a thermos and I drink it wishing I were back in my dream or flashback, which is becoming harder to differentiate.

 
My dreams are laced with memories, and often I can’t tell what is real or not. The disease has ambushed my brain and now things are scrambled like a great break on a pool table with all the balls diverged to the four corners of the earth. I can still do a few things; but mostly I lie here, dreaming and watching television.

Hazel gets me all the movies and series that I like and currently I’m on a run of Berlin Alexanderplatz. It’s the Berlin I once knew, the many times I visited, weaved within that particular slice of time shadowed by the Wall. Driving in a fat, square Mercedes down wide boulevards, drinking and sniffing the evenings away in alternative cafes, engaging with the cool nocturnal creatures that roamed the Berlin nights. Following this dark tale I plan to watch I, Claudius and all the Cassavetes’ films, with sagas of murder, poison and treachery; and to remember New York when it was down and dirty. When garbage drifted throughout the streets like urban angles and when one didn’t get ticketed for drinking a beer on a stoop. I guess by now you realize that I’m no spring chicken, just a guy who lived amongst the wild ones when disorder prevailed. I miss those days.

Rita, my housekeeper, comes three times a week to freshen up and prepare meals, mostly soups and light dishes. She’s a good cook and isn’t offended when often they’re left untouched. This concoction is a mix of varied greens, garlic and minced chicken. It’s good and I sip it slowly watching the white linen curtains sway in the afternoon breeze. I see the hollyhocks swaying in the garden.

It’s summer and the weather remains warm. As I close my eyes I’m startled by a loud bang from a backfiring truck. Afghanistan. I’m here because there’s been a kill, the accidental bombing of a small village. Silhouetted against a mountain and feet set firmly on the ground, my shutter snaps at the speed of light. A woman and four children lay severed in multiple directions. The husband is too shocked to cry, but cannot take his eyes away from his family who just minutes ago took their steps and breaths along with him. I record the misery and carnage. I feel like a voyeur, still someone has to do it. Black helicopters approach off the horizon. A small doll smiles at me from the rubble. A dog cries in the distance.

 
I’ve always been a bachelor; never creating enough time to stay in one place and put my feet up or gather a partner. There were a few serious loves in my life, though for one reason or another, none sustained and time has made them fussy in my mind like a long, dead someone. I bought this house not so long ago as a sort of beacon, somewhere to hang my lens in this tireless world. I ended back to where I started from, in a little town on the wild Atlantic coast where I summer vacationed as a small boy.

I feel a shiver run my spine and I see myself jumping the broken ice on the shoreline, step-stoning to reach the solid mass. I miss my mark and my foot gets wet, but there’s an extra woolen sock in my skate. I’m free and travel with my shadow on the cold crystal. The sun sparkling off my blade.

“Arthur…hi Arthur. You look peaceful seems like a crime to wake you.”
Hazel lets herself in and tidies up the area around my bed. I used to sleep upstairs under the peaked ceiling and miss the pounding of the rain on the roof, the wind banging on the window, the coziness of the enclosed space. It reminds me of a tent, which was often my home on assignment. Down here I feel vulnerable. Exposed.

 
I’m not afraid to die and now that I can’t do much except lie here and attempt to hold on to a slice of reality between injections, I’m sort of looking forward to it. I imagine it to be a deep sleep without interruptions or dreams.

“Arthur. Let’s transfer you to the chair so that I can change your sheets. The change in position will be good for you.”
Hazel assists me, adjusting my legs to the side of the bed and pivots me to the chair, fluffing the pillow behind my back. She examines my skin for breakdown and so far it’s holding out.

“You know, Arthur, that guy that was stalking me at the bar showed up again. I went right up to him and told him to stay out of my face. He said he thought I was someone he knew. Not sure if I believe him, nevertheless I feel relieved.”

“That’s good, Hazel. I’m sure it was just an honest misunderstanding.”
Hazel runs around like someone on the clock and I guess she is, as she has other patients to visit on her rounds. She heats up some soup and pours it in a thermos along with a few fresh-baked tea biscuits that Rita made. She sets it on the bedside table.

Sometimes Hazel discusses her other patients. She delivers little jokes and anecdotes and I’m sure her reasoning is to let me know that I’m not alone with my condition. She tells me about a young mother, an older woman and a fisherman who’s on his last catch. She puts the tourniquet on my arm and my vein swells. I’m back in bed now and my thoughts melt into each other.

 
It’s Daleighla. She’s in a field dotted with red poppies. I loved her in my youth. I think I still do… She’s running and I want to catch her. She calls my name, “Arthur, come!” I try, but I can’t catch up and she dissolves into the forest up ahead. I fall into the long grass the colour of wheat and close my eyes, feeling every little piece of me make a break to parts unknown.

Susan Lloy – Oh…

Oh …
by Susan Lloy

Oh … the word falls from her lips as her reflection stares back. It’s as if she’s encountering herself for the very first time instead of after forty-two years of presentation. She’s invested in her trade with nips here and injections there; what little body fat she once had has been harvested and replanted in problematic areas. Thighs and abdomen sculpted. Breasts enhanced and resurrected to salute the heavens. Though today, as she inspects herself, she suddenly realizes that it’s all over.

She started as a ripe teen working as a stripper. Earning extra cash while studying anthropology at university. Gradually she thought; ‘What’s the use of a degree like this’? finding it more lucrative to strut her young bones and make a pile of money. The money was good, so good that she transitioned from stripper to escort. And although she had generous clients throughout her career, even one or two who promised to take her away from this, she likes her work and holds no wish to be dependent upon a man. There’s no denying that she’s kept her looks with the aid of costly expenditures, but if someone’s paying for sex; let’s face it, they want the fresh ones.

She’s never been good at planning and doesn’t have bundles tucked away, yet she owns a cottage in the hipster part of town with a lovely garden overflowing with crimson roses and hollyhocks. There’s enough money to last six months without worry supplemented by the odd Tom, Dick or Harry, but she can’t count on ‘johns’ anymore and must devise a plan. She’s disciplined when it comes to maintenance. For the most part she eats raw, with the exception of grilled fish or chicken for the necessary protein. She does hot yoga three times a week, swims every day and never ate gluten, even before it became fashionable. It is a boring regime, though necessary to keep her lean body, the currency of this firm.

She looks around her space and picks up her agenda. It’s without a single entry for the weeks stretching ahead. She isn’t skilled at anything other than great sexual performances. A few years back, a friend was at a crossroads and progressed from sexual contortionist to a writer of erotic literature and screenplays. This friend has done well for herself and so she picks up the phone and gives her a call.

“Hello, Vivian here.”

“Vivian, it’s Annie.”

“Oh, hi! Haven’t heard from you in some time.”

“Yeah, you know how it is. Something always comes up.”

“Speaking of up, how goes business?”

“Well, it’s practically nonexistent, which is why I’m calling. I need to pick your ear.”

“Pick away.”

“How easy, or should I say how difficult, was it for you to obtain the success of erotic bard?”

“It took some time, however, I have friends in the business and so I had an in so to speak. Why? Thinking of trying yourself?”

“I am actually.”

“Well, I can give you some contacts. Have you ever done any film porn?”

“No.”

“Listen, Thursday afternoon I’m sitting in on a closed set. Actually, it’s a script that I’ve written. Do you feel like observing?”

“That would be great!”

“OK, then. I’ll pick you up at eleven.”

When Vivian arrived she was considerably heavier than Annie recalled. It had been nearly one year since they had seen each other, as two passing ladies of the night at an expensive downtown restaurant. They had been there with their respective gentleman callers who didn’t behave like gentlemen. Annie and Vivian had caught up in the ladies room where they had both complained about their clients who drank too much, talked too loudly and ogled every woman who walked. Both made passes at the waitress who tolerated it all with the hope of good tip. Then and there they had mutually agreed, “We gotta get out of this business.”

Vivian had done some hard porn in her youth; a rising starlet in the adult film industry, but due to a car accident had to quit the camera, because the scar on her torso which was too difficult to camouflage. She had acquired a substantial fan following in her short career and some of her devotees enjoyed caressing this imperfection within the confines of her atmospheric boudoir when she flipped to private escort.

They arrived at the set where everyone made Annie feel welcome and Vivian introduced her to the director, actors and camera crew. Following the shoot, the crew and cast headed for lunch. Vivian and Annie were guided by two young Romeos, who flirted, stroked their arms, all the while discussing various parts of the script. They were led to a banquet table that was bursting with everything one could dream of tasting. Corks popped and bubbly poured as if it was the premier instead of an afternoon wrap.

As it turned out this was a celebration for two of the main characters, for this was to be their twenty-fifth production together, titled Swallow Me; about a guy who picks up a girl at a wine tasting soirée. Vivian mentioned it didn’t have much of a plot, however featured a lot of steamy love scenes, which were precisely what the viewers expect.

Vivian made a lunge towards the table and quickly piled her plate with delights. Followed by chowing down on a French Horn pastry, which oozed with cream and possessed a rather phallic semblance itself.

“What the hell,” announced Vivian. “I’m sick of starving myself for my figure.”

Annie remained controlled and sparingly arranged the raw vegetables around a piece of grilled sole, solemnly chewing on a carrot. She had to admit control, although a life choice, is often monotonous.

Following the shoot Vivian dropped off Annie and provided some contacts: names of a few directors and editors. She stressed, “Don’t think too much about it, just let your previous experiences run out, you’ll see.” Annie sat in the salon and put her feet up, which were swollen from her six-inch heels. Her reflections turned to Vivian and her newfound freedom she envied. Vivian too had once governed her body like a fierce dictator, though now her rule seemed to have exiled to parts unknown.

Overcome with an overwhelming urge for forbidden delicacies Annie surrendered to her whims ordering several take-outs: Pad Thai, deep fried chicken with gravy and fries. Banana cream pie. Abandoning the regiment she has so long adhered to.

The breeze from the open doors nudged the linen curtains and the hollyhocks danced beyond, permitting the scent of rose to circle the room. She picked up a pen jotting down working titles such as, Oversize Me, Mister Big and Dude, Don’t Stop, allowing her thoughts to perform like well-seasoned lovers and words to dominate the page.

Ariel Beller – The Other Side

The Other Side
by Ariel Beller

So you want a report from the other side and I’m saying I’ll give you one. I mean no one else knows about this. And I’m going to tell you because I am here and you are there.

Should we stick to the facts? The undeniable realities? We could start there I suppose. But to be honest the undeniable realities seem pretty goddamn basic to me. So I won’t go into them. I won’t tell you about people or places. I’m not going to bore you with a bunch of shit I already know. What a lot of people won’t tell you is, they are just a little man or a little woman sitting alone in a room. Maybe it is winter. Maybe they have their socks draped over the heater and a tiny radio going on the freezing windowsill. The radio plays the music of a dead Russian composer. Etc.

But don’t go thinking there’s a person here. I am just a bunch of words. I have a mother but she’s not a person either. She’s 5,000 miles away and that makes her just an image, a sound. I have a friend named M – who lives in Oregon. Every now and then he sends me a bunch of words telling me about his life, as if he were a person. But M – is just an image, a sound. I have another friend named G – and she has a baby inside her. The baby is an image. The baby is almost a feeling. For G – it’s inevitable. The baby will come out and try to be a person but it will fail. Just like the rest of us.

To be honest there isn’t too much going on over here, on the other side. There are a lot of things I could do if I wanted. I could re-arrange my books. I could relieve myself in the sink which is where I usually go because the bathroom is so cold and I’m always up so late and I don’t want to wake my neighbours with so many trips to the bathroom. I’m drinking beer, you see. That’s one thing that’s going on. I’m also stopping every now and then to roll a cigarette. Stravinsky. Something in B-flat. That’s what the radio is about to play. That’s another thing that’s going on. It’s not really a cause and effect sort of thing, if you believe in that. It’s more just a thing that’s happening right now, something that’s being played out, and I can’t really think of any consequence in that.

Whenever I relieve myself at the sink I let the cold water run, to wash it down, and I look at myself in the mirror. I can tell you right now I don’t like what I see. It’s always a pale face with imploring eyes. A face that has forgotten what it wanted to say. And I never shake it right so there’s a drip down the legs and I feel slightly ashamed about letting that happen. Maybe I was in a hurry. I’m trying to tell you about my impotence, my incapability, and the impossibility really, of me ever being a real person.

~

I could introduce you to the Pinocchio salesman.
You might say, ‘Who the fuck is the Pinocchio salesman?’
You might use that kind of language.
I might say, ‘He’s this Italian guy down the street who sells Pinocchio dolls.’

But I will know and you will know that the Pinocchio salesman is not a real person either so, why should I bother? In fact he’s not Italian at all but Russian. I went down there the other day and there were no dolls. Only electronics like stereos and cassette tapes and VCR’s. There was an old soiled pink bunny. And some slippers. I had no need of these things.

~

There was a time I suppose when I was crazy. There was a time. But now I’m just like you. A bunch of words trying to be a person. I don’t think it’s fair really, how we ended up. I’m being a little nostalgic. I just can’t see another way of doing things. I might have a disease. I might be dead in three weeks. You just can’t know. It’s the most important things you just can’t know about. That’s why there are no people left. There are certain and numerous appearances that seem like people. But you never really know. No one really talks to each other. There’s just a bunch of words and images and sounds and sometimes when you’re alone, a rumour. On rare occasions a taste in the mouth. Fear tastes like alkaline, like putting your tongue to a 9-volt battery. I know because I was once hit by a car and attacked by a dog. Not at the same time. They were years apart.

Sometimes you can feel great about things. You can feel great about the person you think you are. You can get off on this, if you want. Most of us do. But it’s a reflex, just so you know. You can hit your knee if you want to. Beautiful feeling. Watch your leg lurch in response. That’s cause and effect I suppose. But that’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is what happens when we say nothing. Because people who think they’re people, they expect certain responses. And what happens when they don’t receive, oh that’s the funniest shit in the world. To set a person who thinks they’re a person, to set them completely off balance well, it happens every day. People who think they are people are very predictable. They’re like advertisements for their personality. Listen to them speak. You’ll know what I mean. Don’t let them see chaos unless upsetting people is what you really like to do.

I’m afraid I like upsetting people. Perverse enjoyment yes. Deliberate yes. The only thing that bugs me is it’s far too easy. That seems to be the problem with people. As if I fucking mattered. Me. Just a person who thinks he’s a person, with warm socks and a radio. You’d think anyone who expends so much effort forging such a precious identity would have a bit more self-respect. This alone is to me the finest example of how hollow you are. Even non-people can be sincere. If they really want to. If that’s what they feel like doing. Though it often turns out funny. Like a person you thought you loved. For some reason. But it turned out different. More like confusion. You get on with it. You accept it, eventually. Or you don’t. Self-hatred is fine too. Just a bi-product of being a person. Even though you can’t. A cello can’t be a person. But it tries. There is hatred in the cello. Sublime hatred maybe. But hatred all the same. Hatred is nothing but a sound and sometimes a pit between the lungs. A wooden vibration. Nothing more. Nothing to worry about. Just a certain tickling sound. Off-key. Picture everyone you know. Non-people reverberate. They have a certain sound. An undying sound. You cannot drown it out.

Waking up is different here. You don’t rub your head in the morning. You just lie there, thinking what to do. You don’t think what could be worse than now. In the morning, everything is the same. The world is a face is a blanket is a person. Sometimes you get lucky. Brush your teeth. Hum the star spangled banner. Drown out the person you were yesterday. Say yes to vague questions. Take the knives they hand you and go to work. Like a real person. Capable. Full of action. No one knows you. You are, after all, a nothing with a face. A frozen picture of yourself. Happy. Misunderstood. Grateful. Belligerent. Wise. Idiotic. Precious and full of fear. It’s a brand new sun shiny day. And you are alive.
              Don’t forget to breathe.

Janelle Ward – First Meeting

First meeting
by Janelle Ward

First meeting. 9.08 A.M. Just outside of Schiphol station. Two in a sea of sweaty commuters, fighting for a seat. Hardly the place for the gods of lust to rendezvous.

I enter the carriage without looking around. My eyes are on my regular seat. If my seat is occupied I will not enjoy my time here. I must sit in that particular seat to allow the unexpected to happen. I sit. The world aligns.

That’s when I first see you. You are looking back at me. I give you a half smile and hear the music begin to play. Yes, the music can play before my first sip of coffee. For me, the music can always play. Usually it is silent, but the promise of melodious anticipation is always just one stranger away. The music has a steady beat. Tick tick tick tick. Think Angel by Massive Attack. Think anything by Massive Attack.

Blood flow intensifies. I may or may not be blushing. I may or may not feel light headed. I remove my laptop from its snug carrier and fire it up. You are staring at your coffee. You are wearing shiny black shoes. Dark washed jeans. A crisp blazer. Glasses, dark hair. A shitty mobile phone you keep fiddling with. I can forgive bad taste in technology, at least for now. For my purposes it won’t matter.

We smile again. I am convinced you are a foreigner. You have that cautious way about you. Neither of us fit in. I wonder if you’re going on a job interview with your briefcase perched next to you like an unfamiliar accessory. You might be an academic, with those dark washed jeans and that crappy phone. Academics rarely try pulling off a suit. You look about my age. It’s always interesting to observe someone who has made it to the mid thirties and still wears dark washed jeans to a job interview. You’re probably an academic. That means you enjoy deep contemplative thinking. I haven’t fucked enough academics to know whether you also enjoy contemplating the desires of the flesh.

We’re almost to Amsterdam. I won’t ask, because I’m not ready to be that guilty. But if you came over right now and propositioned me I would say yes. I would simply gather my things and follow you off the train. Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you. There you are smiling again, and getting up, and digging awkwardly in your briefcase, and extracting your OV Chipkaart from your pocket. There you are smiling again as you gather your things and exit the carriage.

The music is still playing.