Blood and Champagne
By Anjana Basu
Two o'clock in the morning. Dawn is somewhere on the other side of tomorrow.
The miniskirts are swinging, the sequins catching the light, and Malini Ramani
has got the tallest pair of block heels this side of Suez. For a Thursday--no,
early Friday morning--this is a happening party. All the beautiful people of
Delhi have already been here and gone, but there are still Mercedes parked
outside, yes this is "the scene."
What a good idea to have a party where anyone can just walk in. Someone
just that right after the clock struck two. He walked in from the dark,
demanded a drink and when the pretty girl behind the bar refused, he shot her
in the head and then walked out again. Leaving the music to wind down, the
bearers to stare and Malini herself to go teetering over to cover the poor
thing's face. Poor Jessica, she died young but quick, let's hide the booze before
the police get here. And then it really was Friday morning, with nowhere to run
to and Jessica Lall, thirty-four, former model, had been shot in the head over a
drink by Manu Sharma, the politician's son.
The last time high society recorded a shooting like this was when Captain
Nanavati shot his wife's lover in cold blood. That was in Bombay in the '50s,
and it caused such a scandal that it made it into the pages of Salman Rushdie's
Midnight's Children. Of course, high society has had its corpses since then--a
prominent badminton player found mysteriously dead while his wife dallied with
a friend of the Gandhis; a politician's wife thrown to the crocodiles by the
man's mistress--but nothing so visible, and certainly nothing with
blood-in-the-champagne about it.
"Our children don't do this kind of thing in public," was what the mothers
sniffed. How could they? The children were brought up by relays of ayahs and
sent to the right schools. No one who went to the right school could possibly be
Even now, no one can quite figure out what combination of ingredients led
the disaster at the Tamarind Court, though ever since it was built the place has
been bad news. A bar-cum-restaurant on Heritage property? Unheard of! cried
the social activists. The place was built on land reclaimed for a song near the
fabled Qutb Minar historical monument. Malini Ramani and her mother Bina
were the prime movers of the project. News followed wherever the Ramani
women went. Bina Ramani had rehabilitated another piece of Heritage
property, the crumbling pleasure houses of the Mughul Emperors, turning the
ruins into a "village" where destitute women could stitch pieces of needlepoint
embroidery and run up expensive outfits for the jet set.
Hauz Khas Village, part Mughul ruin and part modern-Gothic, became a
complex of restaurants and boutiques that made Bina Ramani an
entrepreneurial byword throughout the nation. She planned to do the same for
the Tamarind Court property and too bad if it was Heritage land--no one
wanted it for all these years anyway. Qutb Colony, as it was called, danced
briefly through lines of newsprint, but no one could find a legal reason
convincing enough to keep the Ramanis from continuing their plans. And so it
was built--charming, chic and very expensive--and then run by Bina's daughter,
Malini. The restaurant soon made food-column news and so did the cluster of
shops round about that were fabled to be the most expensive of their kind in
the capital. It was the latest phenomenon--Hauz Khas Village and its
Indo-Saracenic chic were suddenly passé. The beautiful people were now all to
be found at Qutb Colony. They were there every night, including Thursdays
(the day is significant because on Thursdays liquor cannot be sold in public
bars and restaurants) when the Tamarind Court held an open party. Anyone
could walk in, buy coupons for food and drink and be part of the moveable
feast. "What a good idea!" chorused the butterflies, "It takes a Ramani to
think of something like this. You don't have to go to all the trouble of throwing
a party. You just hook on to Malini's." There was, of course, a cut-off time--the
bar was supposed to shut down at one a.m.--and what most people didn't know
was that the Tamarind Court didn't have a liquor licence. But why should they
Jessica was behind the bar--most of Malini's friends served behind the
some time or the other during the evening. It was the impromptu bartending
that gave the place its party feel. Sort of like a forfeit in a game: you played
and then did time out for playing. Whoever was tending looked after the guests
while every one else got down on the floor and shimmied. Jessica just
happened to be the one behind the bar at two in the morning on 6th May. "The
girl must have said something to him," Manu's friends insisted weeks after the
event. There was some banter about his having wanted "a sip of" Jessica
herself, perhaps he misunderstood. "He wasn't the sort to just kill someone."
Of course, they added, when he was drunk he was a lout.
And he was very drunk indeed when he staggered into the Tamarind Court
his two friends. People remember him reeling in, perhaps they heard the
altercation over the loud music. But they only really paid attention when he
whipped out a revolver and fired the first shot at the ceiling. The second went
through Jessica's head.
No one moved a muscle to stop him, they were too busy disbelieving what
happening--though Bina Ramani later claimed that she had confronted him.
The people outside were less drunk and more observant. They heard the shots.
The licence plate and the make of the car were recorded. Soon the cops were
all over the Tamarind Court, looking for someone to blame. It had to be
someone else's fault. The politician's son had fallen into bad company. Look at
all those shameless girls in mini skirts! The place had no licence, evidence had
been tampered with. The list went on and on.
Jessica Lall's sister was interviewed the following night on Star TV News.
was the Delhi chief of police, who announced grimly that his men were on the
job. Bina Ramani was arrested even before they arrested Manu Sharma who,
in officialese, was "absconding." The police had many reasons for arresting
her: the heritage property scam, unlicensed sale of alcohol, the fact that she
had a British passport. More noise was made in the press about the party than
was made about the fact that a politician's son had committed murder and fled
the state. Of course, Bina was out on bail five minutes later and began issuing
statements through her friends about her grief at Jessica's death.
Rumors about Bina Ramani began circulating all over again through the upper
echelons of Delhi society: She had arranged a marriage for the Hindi film star
Rekha that ended with the husband hanging himself after barely a year. She
had been friends with a Mafia don. She was divorced and was flaunting her
current marriage to a Canadian citizen, Georges Mailhot. She had given up her
Indian nationality but insisted that she had not. Basically, she was besharam,
The police shut the Tamarind Court and took away Bina's marriage licence.
They said this was so that she could not use the licence anywhere outside the
country. Manu Sharma gave himself up a week later, having realised that
there was nowhere to run, though he insisted confidently that he had done
nothing wrong. He and his friends are currently in custody. In the meantime,
the Delhi party scene has been slightly dampened. No one knows if some
drunk will walk in and pop open a skull instead of a bottle of champagne.
Someone in Lucknow did in fact shoot a shop attendant just a month later,
that was in a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlour. The killer was drunk, and the
attendant didn't have cassatta, the gunman's favourite flavour. So, possibly
under the influence of those Delhi headlines, the killer whipped out his gun and
shot the ice cream attendant through the head. Like the killer in the Tamarind
Court, he was recognised by other people present at the scene and, like the
first killer, he had the right connections--the son of a chief of police who had
committed suicide as a result, people said, of his son's vagaries. The national
press tossed it around in two columns but, possibly because there were no
sequins or other traces of glamour, quickly lost interest.
Jessica's murder still creeps back into print here and there. The gunman's
friend, Vikas Yadav, who accompanied him to the Tamarind Court is
complaining about having been tortured while in police custody. Meanwhile, no
one has quite decided what to do about the murderer himself. He did, after all,
give himself up and he is still the son of a Member of Parliament. And anyway,
those Ramanis are a shameless lot. But, given the brevity of people's
memories, it won't be long before the Armani suits are out again at midnight
and the corks popping once more in Qutb Colony.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she
English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The
Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been
featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also
been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue
Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)
Life and Death on Shiva's Beach
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Pulau Enu, Aru Islands, Indonesia
A newly-hatched green turtle wanders into my tent this evening, attracted perhaps by a lantern that he thought was the reflection of the moon on the sea.
A few hours later I wander the beach on the windward side of this small island, blown sand gritting my contact lenses, looking for the tractor-like tracks that indicate an adult meter-long turtle has visited the low dunes to lay her eggs.
It is a night with stars like I've rarely seen, and I half expect Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian naturalist-explorer-philosopher to appear out of the shadows, gaunt and curious and quietly eager to join me. I've been on his 150- year-old trail for some time now, and I feel his presence as I examine small piles of sand that mark where one of these green turtles has laid her eggs. But, perhaps in too much of a hurry, she has deposited the eggs below the high-water line, where they are certain to become water-logged and spoiled. I finally unearth her sixty fresh eggs, still slimy with turtle juices, and transplant them into another hole I dig a few meters beyond the reach of the high tide.
Yet, amidst this exuberance of life I smell death. I wander the beach and, like a dung beetle, am drawn to the rotting carcasses and bleached skulls of turtles which have been slit open by fishermen, after the 200 or so eggs in the reptile's egg cavity, fishermen either too impatient or too greedy to be satisfied with catching the 50-odd eggs as they plop out during the normal cycle. The tasty turtle flesh has been left uneaten to rot; the only part taken is the stomach, which makes a fine bait.
Earlier today the research group I was with chased reputedly vicious Indonesian fishermen away from Sulawesi, men who lay nets to capture green turtles in the waters of this unguarded nature reserve. From a distance of a hundred meters we saw that their boat was full of live turtles, perhaps a hundred of the animals, all destined for Bali. Another Western conservationist and myself urged the Indonesian captain to give chase. We made an attempt, but the captain's heart wasn't in it.
"Those men are armed and dangerous," said a frustrated Ating Sumantri, the person in charge of the Indonesian government's efforts to conserve sea turtles. "We don't have any soldiers, no weapons."
Just then, Fata, an Indonesian game warden, jumped overboard and swam ashore to rescue the turtles which had been abandoned on the island when the poachers first spotted our boat. He flipped over eight of the 100-kilogram animals and watched them escape into the sea before the three grounded poachers caught up with him. Fata himself had to hide in the woods until we could rescue him. What is a turtle worth? Worth getting stabbed for? Worth shooting someone for?
I've been thinking about many things on this trip. How is it, I asked the memory of Alfred Russel Wallace, that we humans will travel halfway around the world and suffer physical discomforts in order to study a beach where green turtles come ashore to lay their eggs? Why do we watch another creature's life cycle--laying and hatching--with such emotional intensity and intellectual curiosity? Why should it disturb us that others of our race--the Balinese in this case--enjoy eating this ancient reptile? Why do we have such protective attitudes toward another species?
Later, in Bali, I wanted to find out just how important turtle meat is to that island's Shivaistic Hindu culture. This was not merely a question of being environmentally/politically correct. It's also good conservation to understand what emotional and spiritual values lie behind what seems to outsiders to be senseless consumption--some 18,000 turtles a year, according to one estimate.
"Turtle meat adds something to our ceremonies," explained I.B. Pangdjaja, head of public relations at the Bali governor's office.
"But it's not essential to the religious ceremony?" I said.
"It's like you eating turkey at Thanksgiving. Except it makes us strong."
Odd, isn't it. Transported to Bali for barbecue, or worse, slit open for their eggs and then left to die on the beach. And then, against all odds, life goes on--more turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Because we happen to be present on Pulau Enu on this particular night, the bad guys stay away, and just maybe tonight's crop of eggs will hatch. I call this contradictory place Shiva's Beach. A beach of destruction and creation. Shiva dances on a beach of skulls. Ecstatic Life breathes below.
Alfred Russel Wallace travelled some 14,000 miles in the Malay Archipelago during the period from 1854 to 1862. Why did he put up with bedbugs and homesickness and upset stomachs and the risk of drowning and malaria? Why travel so far for that? I asked Peter Kedit, director of the Sarawak Museum which was created by Wallace as a favor for James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak, whether Alfred's odyssey was comparable to the Iban concept of berjalai, the rite of passage for young men which often ended with the taking of a human head. Kedit, an Iban, thought Wallace's ambition was more typically British: the Protestant work ethic, missionary zeal, socialistic tendencies.
I stood on a ridge near the border between Malaysian Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan in Borneo. I had been gone half the day and had not brought food; time to return, my inner-mother admonished. "What happens if I go down there instead?" I thought, heading towards a steep, trackless hill that my instincts told me would eventually connect up with a tributary of my campsite river.
I scampered, skidded and bounced down the side of the mountain, finally reaching a meter-wide stream and a series of small, ridiculously pristine waterfalls, which I slid down with otter-like joy. Chasing waterfalls. I was making no contribution to humanity, but I was fulfilling one of my basic needs--to get away from the crowd and spend time with myself.
Alfred Russel Wallace said that the reason he went to Asia was because of his "vocation" as a collector and naturalist. I suspect he was driven to leave England, first for the Amazon, then to Southeast Asia. He argued that he was in it for the money, but reading between the lines of a letter he wrote while in Indonesia to his friend George Silk back in England, I sense a passion:
"Besides these weighty reasons [for my staying in Southeast Asia] there are others quite as powerful -- pecuniary ones. I have not yet made enough to live upon, and I am likely to make it quicker here than I could in England. In England there is only one way in which I could live, by returning to my old profession of land-surveying. Now, though I always liked surveying, I like collecting better, and I could never now give my whole mind to any work apart from the study to which I have devoted my life. So far from being angry at being called an enthusiast (as you seem to suppose), it is my pride and glory to be worthy to be so called. Who ever did anything good or great who was not an enthusiast? The majority of mankind are enthusiasts only in one thing--in money-getting; and these call others enthusiasts as a term of reproach because they think there is something in the world better than money-getting. It strikes me that the power or capability of a man in getting rich is in inverse proportion to his reflective powers and in direct proportion to his impudence. It is perhaps good to be rich, but not to get rich, or to be always trying to get rich, and few men are less fitted to get rich, if they did try, than myself."
Alfred left something unsaid: By leaving home and going off to the distant corners of the world, he put down a marker. He announced to his friends and family that when he returned he would have been changed. It is his expression of a desire to move towards individualization. He left and did exciting things that his left-behind friends could only dream about; they stayed and worked in the post office. Think of Kipling: "All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world--those that stay at home and those that do not."
Alfred, you are driven. You are Odysseus and Rama, Don Quixote and Lancelot. You live and breathe adventure but, paradoxically, you equally long for stability and inner peace:
"As to health and life, what are they compared with peace and happiness?" you wrote, adding that happiness is best obtained by "work with a purpose..."
Anthropologist Robert Sapolsky discussed exile in the context of young male primates leaving the nest. "Another key to our success must have something to do with this voluntary transfer process" he wrote, "this primate legacy of getting an itch around adolescence. How did voluntary dispersal evolve? What is going on with that individual's genes, hormones, and neuro-transmitters to make it hit the road? We don't know, but we do know that following this urge is one of the most resonantly primate of acts. A young male baboon stands riveted at the river's edge; an adolescent female chimp cranes to catch a glimpse of the chimps from the next valley. New animals, a whole bunch of 'em! To hell with logic and sensible behavior, to hell with tradition and respecting your elders, to hell with this drab little town, and to hell with that knot of fear in your stomach. Curiosity, excitement, adventure--the hunger for novelty is something fundamentally daft, rash, and enriching that we share with our whole taxonomic order."
Here's a wild theory, based on no evidence whatsoever. Alfred, had you returned from the Amazon with your entire collection and notes intact instead of losing virtually all your new species, all your sketches, drawings, daily journal and three massive notebooks (and almost your life) when the ship burned at sea in 1852, you would never have gone to Southeast Asia. You wouldn't have needed to. By virtue of your Amazon collection you would have earned your stripes as a serious and effective researcher and, like Darwin, could have stayed in England for the rest of your life, writing books. You could have dined out on that single mission just as Darwin dined out on his travels aboard the Beagle. But the fact is you came home from the Amazon empty-handed, except for the few hundred specimens (400 butterflies, 450 beetles, 400 "others") you had previously sent to Samuel Stevens, your agent.
Amazingly, with few notes and with a niggling number of specimens, you still managed to write two books on your travels within ten months of your return. One volume, A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, gave you a foothold in the literary world, while the other, Palm Trees of the Amazon, helped establish you in the scientific community. You could have stopped there. But something inside you forced you to get back on the horse after you had been thrown. Only then could you return a hero. Your Amazon "failure" must have caused you great turmoil. Remember what Nietzsche said: "You must have a chaos inside you to give rise to a dancing star."
While you go out of your way sometimes to appear drearily practical, I know you were a dreamer. Only a dreamer would have written: "Strength grows in one who grasps the skirts of happy chance/And breaks the blows of circumstance/And grapples with his evil star." What is the dream that forces some people to travel hard? Bruce Chatwin found that "'Travel' is the same word as 'travail'--bodily or mental labour, toil, especially of a painful or oppressive nature, exertion, hardship, suffering, a journey."
Let's play with this a bit more. We travel to test ourselves, to cleanse, to rejuvenate. This could be termed 'catharsis', which is Greek for 'purging' or 'cleansing'. According to Chatwin, one controversial etymology of the word derives from the Greek katheiro, 'to rid the land of monsters'. We want to 'rid the land of monsters'? External and internal demons? Sounds to me like we're trying to relive the great epics.
We modern boys and girls lack rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies where we clearly shift from childhood to adulthood. Our life-passages are unclear. Girls in Western societies begin to menstruate many years before they are old enough to bear children in a socially-acceptable context. Boys might be old enough to drive but not to drink, old enough to kill/be killed in the army but not to vote, old enough to father children but not old enough to leave school of their own volition. Alfred, maybe your butterfly-chasing and my waterfall-schussing were aspects of our own rites of passage, rituals which we created ourselves because our society gave us few hints and forgot to stage a ceremony just for us. We were denied the vigil in the desert, where we were expected to kill a lion, fast for three weeks, have a vision, return to the village to get circumcised, become cleansed in a sweat lodge and be decorated with feathers and body paint and invited, finally, to eat with the grownups. The vision, for me, is the most important part of the rite of passage. The illumination of a higher purpose. The dream. Martin Luther King and all that. T.E. Lawrence wrote:
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. "
I awake before dawn the following morning and watch a bunch of just-hatched turtles, shorter than my thumb, scamper like reptilian puppies to the sea. After they all reach the sea safely I strip so I can wash off the sand and bathe in new-turtle water. Back at the nest site a straggler emerges from the quickly-heating sand half an hour behind his nest-mates. I follow his clumsy but determined flipper steps into the sea, and swim with him for maybe thirty meters. He paddles aggressively, sticking his little head out of the water every four seconds. The water is clear and warm, free of hungry fish or crabs, the sky blue and free of birds of prey. The little fellow swims towards a group of seven fishing boats. I tell him not to, but he doesn't listen. The sea is big, though, and perhaps he will pass his life free of hassle. Eventually I let him find his own course and he paddles out of sight. Just a boy. He isn't going to listen to me. He doesn't really know where he is going, but he knows he has a journey to make. I wish him well, as much for my sake as for his own.(Paul Spencer Sochaczewski lived in Indonesia for twelve years and writes regularly on nature conservation. The latest edition of his co-authored book, Soul of the Tiger: Searching for Nature's Answers in Southeast Asia, was published by University of Hawai'i Press. This essay is taken from a forthcoming book that traces the travels of Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian explorer, naturalist and philosopher.)
Curses & Poetry
(From the Novel )
By Anjana Basu
My first memories were not of my father and mother but of my grandmother. "You were always an ungrateful girl," Ma told me. "Other children remember their parents. Not you. You and my mother were so close that I used to be jealous." Now I can't really remember what Granny had been was like. "My mother was like a wax doll," I once heard Ma telling Maitreyi, her own granddaughter. "That was considered very beautiful in those days." Granny was the daughter of a relatively poor village landlord and, because of her looks, married into a family of comparative power and status. Her veiled sepia photograph hung in its oval frame in a place of honour at the head of the stairs. "But she's your mother," I argued. "Why is her picture hanging in my father's house? Where is my father's picture?" "Your father loved her very much," was my mother's curt answer. "He wanted her picture hung there."
A legendary woman, my grandmother. She married at the age of eleven with more pomp and circumstance than anyone in her small village had ever seen, even though her father's small band of courtiers always predicted that she would marry well. "So fair, such large eyes, such smooth cheeks." She was as fair as an English wax doll and there actually was one of those rare commodities kept in a glass cabinet in the house, with the same rounded cheeks and endlessly patient eyes. Hansabati, they had named her, for the one white goose that paddled in continuous circles around the village pond. "You're as bad-tempered as that goose," they told her on the rare occasions when tears of rage welled up in those large black glass eyes. The goose was a double-edged comparison, both for its whiteness and for its temper. Actually, it wasn't a goose, it was what was called a rajhans. In English that made it something that was not quite a swan, so that she was not quite a Swan Princess, or so her tutor explained to her.
As far back as she cared to remember, she had had a tutor, to teach her English and fit her for her supposed high status in life. Because her father was a village landlord, her teacher was a round Babu with an accent not far removed from the Bengali he usually spoke. "A goose," he explained pompously," is a large bhariety of dock. G-O-O-ESH-E." Still, from him she learned to gabble English after a fashion. The rest of the time, whenever she managed to escape from her ayah, she climbed the palm trees with the gardener's sons, or chased the goats in the field. Every time she returned from these excursions, the women of the house would gather to wail over her and smother her with plant extracts and buttermilk to make sure that the sun had not tarnished her complexion.
Then, one morning her mother brandished a photograph of a solemn-eyed boy in front of her. A solemn-eyed boy with a wide, sensitive mouth. "Your husband to be. The son of the landlord of Polashi." No one asked her whether she liked the picture. The two maids fell into ecstasies in front of it exclaiming, "Ah ha, what eyes ! What a young prince!" while her mother listened to their fulsome compliments with a pleased smile. Granny was not asked to say either yes or no, instead she was informed that from now on she would have to start performing Shiv puja for her husband's well being as part of her daily duties and that her palm-scaling days were over. The Shiv puja she could possibly accept, but it was hard to watch the palm fronds bucking like horses in a cool south breeze, their green necks combing the pale blue sky, and not want to scale them. Since she was obedient by nature, she stood by the pond and looked longingly up at the trees, but disciplined herself merely to look. No one would ever say that she was disobedient, not even the tutor who compared her to a goose.
Her prospective father-in-law came to survey her and a bustle of maids fell around her and dressed her in her best marigold muslin. Her mother bustled in with the pearl-headed pins that were to secure the elaborate coils of her hair, and discovered the little girl to be standing unnaturally still under her ministrations. So unnaturally still that she seemed to have turned into the wax doll that she resembled. "Is the petticoat string cutting into you ?" Silence. "Is the blouse too tight ?" Still silence: the white face was tight and still. Moved by a sudden impulse, the mother pulled out one of the ornate hairpins and discovered it was tipped with blood: in securing it, she had driven the spike into her daughter's scalp. "My mother was never like you," Ma told me every morning as she wound her hair into the tightly-oiled plaits that I loathed with a passion. "Her mother drove that hairpin into her head and she never said a word." That one act of stoicism alone would have served to make Granny legendary to me. But Hansabati moved on from the hairpin ordeal to meet her father-in-law and speak to him in her curiously accented English in front of a whole room of encouraging women who hummed and sighed at her every word. What is your name? How old are you? Can you cook? She answered all the questions with precision and accuracy, looking at the red tips of her rouged toes as they peeked from under the gold border of her sari and occasionally at the curly tips of the leather slippers in front of her. They were very fine leather --much better than the ones her father wore. Her father-in-law had a big booming voice that seemed to echo under the rafters and cause the wounds in her scalp to start stinging afresh.
After a while the maid came, took her by the hand and led her out of the room. She was left stranded on a cool marble shelf in the antechamber and forbidden to move. "Good girl, sit here and I'll bring you some lemon water." She sat there swinging her legs and watching her red toes swish through her marigold skirts, wondering what was going to happen next. She sat there until the shadows slanted upwards and the light began to thicken. The marble shelf had a window to it and she could see the deserted courtyard where a fat grey pigeon ran bowing and bubbling after his sleek pink-footed wives. The pigeon suddenly started and rose into the air in a clap of wings, followed belatedly by the rest. She saw one of her father's subjects run across the courtyard. Then there was silence again and the pigeons returned. The marble under her began to feel uncomfortable. She shifted uneasily and thought of pulling out the hairpins and letting her plaits snake down. She even had one hand up to pull out a pin, when the maid came back full of her own self-importance back again. "What on earth are you doing? Come, they're calling you."
She was lifted down from the shelf like a doll and led back into her father's meeting room. There she was placed in front of the same gold-embroidered slippers she had talked to all morning. The booming voice boomed again. After she had adjusted to the echo, she realized that it was welcoming her to his home as his new daughter-in-law. Almost simultaneously, she could hear the conch shells, as booming as the voice, being blown from the puja room. Dutifully, because she knew it was expected of her, she bent down and touched those curly leather-tipped slippers. Then the maid propelled her towards her mother and father, and she touched their feet too. When Hansabati glanced up, she saw her mother had tears in her eyes and she wanted to hug her, but all those days of training held her in check. "Go to the prayer room, " her mother bade her, " and touch the god's feet. Then go to your room."
The pandit was standing unctuously by the Krishna image, clutching the small silver pot of holy water. He sprinkled her with it after she rose from the floor, and as the cool drops touched her cheeks, she realized how thirsty she was. Gathering up her skirts, she sprinted out of the room on her maid's wail of dismay, scattering the hated pearl hairpins behind her and ran to the water pot in the kitchen. The water splashed over her marigold and gold finery, tangling it with her legs, and she deliberately tipped the pot over even more to feel the coolness. The maids had to strip the wet sari off her and hang it out to dry immediately, worrying whether the brocade would tarnish, but whether it did or not was not passed down to Hansabati's descendants. For them she remained a model of stoicism, the legendary example of grace under pressure.
Very gradually, the course of her days changed so that she had little time to watch the goose paddling around the pond. Her days began with prayers for the length of her future husband's life, progressed to the designing of alpana patterns with coloured rice powder, moved to the niceties of cooking and ended with the interminable afternoon English lesson. Every afternoon, as the light thickened in the windows, her tutor's snores grated on her ears while she patiently scrawled compositions on The Cow or The Cat. And at sunset, the maids came to comb out her hair on the breezy terrace while her mother instructed her on the different types of hairstyles appropriate for young brides and showed her the various kinds of hair ornaments. "You will be going to a more sophisticated family, so you should be aware of these things."
"Do they have a big house?"
"Yes, a very big house."
"Do they have horses like we do? And a phaeton?"
"More. They have motor cars!" The maids gasped and clutched at each other in awe whenever they such things. "Think what a lucky girl you are, to have been chosen out of so many!"
Once she asked, her young voice as clear as the ring of bell metalware over the babble of adult conversation, "Why did they choose me?" and set the maids gabbling and bubbling like a flock of upset pigeons. "What a question! When she's so fair, so white!" "Who can boast a complexion like that, even in Calcutta?"
"It's a great honour to us," said her mother severely," that you have been chosen. You should accept that fact and not ask unnecessary questions." Vanity was not part of Hansabati's nature--the fact that she had a skin as white as the goose's feathers did not seem to her to be such a great advantage. "There must have been other girls, " she protested, "girls from Calcutta. Why me?" "Are you unhappy because you've been chosen?" "Not unhappy exactly..." The trouble was, she didn't know what to answer. The idea of marriage to the boy in the picture still seemed a remote possibility indeed: even the ceremony in front of the curly-toed shoes had passed like a dream. Living anywhere else except in this rambling shabby house was beyond her imagination because the farthest boundaries of her life were the sal trees on the edge of her father's land that marked the beginning of the forest. Beyond those trees, she had been told, ran a railroad track where the fearsome iron railgharry belched smoke and rattled and chugged to Calcutta. On days when the wind was in the right direction she had even heard the iron monster scream. But she had never been able to persuade their grandly named coachman to drive her in that direction to show her this wonder. In the ten years of her life she had been nowhere and seen nothing. She tried to explain some of this to her mother, but her mother failed to understand. "Where would you possibly go?" she asked. "Where does a correctly bred girl go? I have never been anywhere except my father's house and here. And, oh yes, your father took me once to Calcutta. But that was all."
Perhaps her mother had once been her age and also wondered where she was being sent to, but from the immaculate red-and-white bordered look of her, that seemed difficult to imagine. And her mother had never been the sort of child who rode the flying palm fronds when the wind was blowing hot and strong from the south. That was something Hansabati had apparently inherited from her father. Between herself and her mother was a gap as wide as the one between the house and the faraway sal trees. Oh, they coexisted in harmony as the house and the trees did, with fair weather days and days when no one could tell which way the wind blew but, for all that, the gap was there. It was because of the gap that her mother had driven the hairpins into her head, meaning well all the while. It was because of the gap that she found the alpana patterns so hard to bear, the monotonous meticulous curves of the green mango, the sinuous shape of Lakshmi's feet. There was duty between herself and her mother, but no love at all. Her mother had raised her for ten years in the hope that she would be a credit to the family and find herself a niche in a good man's house. Questions of distance and time and space were ones her mother was not equipped to answer, and she reacted to them with impatience. "Don't fret," Hansabati's maid told her, as she fanned her in the silence of her room at night. "Nothing but good will come of this. It is a girl's duty to get married."
The oval daguerreotype of the wide-mouthed boy stood next to her bed, and she found herself staring at it often. Did he have a pet goose in Calcutta? Did he climb trees or tear his clothes or play cricket? Was that wide mouth capable of laughter? Beyond the fact that he was the Rai Bahadur's son, no one seemed to have anything to say about him. Her mother's maids stitched yards and yards of cloth into kurtas for him or little bags for her to carry her betel nut box in. The flashing needles dug patterns of green parrots out of the off-white silk. "Country patterns, " said her mother, "simple ones, since we cannot pretend to their sophistication. However, the craftsmanship will show through." Her mother had chosen the maids carefully for their skill at needlework and their ability to tie hair or devise original garlands out of available flowers. She was busily choosing one to send to Calcutta with Hansabati.
The Ray Bahadur sent his pandit to confer with Hansabati's father's pandit and, between the two of them, a suitable date and time was found for the wedding. Hansabati only discovered that the date had been set because she patiently and charmingly wheedled it out of the maids. The house and the village grew even busier. Boxes and boxes of things came in and out of the courtyard. The village jeweller set up permanent shop on the terrace with his little low table, red tablecloth and skeins of silk. Pearls were marshalled deftly onto his needle and strung in moonlit rows: pearls for necklaces, chokers, bracelets and bangles. There were so many of them that it was a wonder the pigeons did not mistake them for a new kind of seed and swallow them by accident--she was terrified that would actually happen and destroy all the poor jeweller's work. All her mother's chains and chokers acquired new elaborate brocade tassels that prickled at the nape of her neck whenever she tried them on. Her father never had time to smile at her--he was busy organizing the selling of crops, the collection of rents, all to raise money for the dowry that had been asked of him.
"Was it a very big dowry?" she asked her maid, shyly.
"No, not very big, but quite big. It's a honour child, a great honour. They could have asked for five times as much." Even if they hadn't, the amount seemed to have upset everyone in the house because day and night they talked money and possessions and nothing else. A great hall was built in one of the fields to house extra members of the groom's party. The cook summoned his brothers and cousins from their villages so they could support him in producing the wedding feast.
And then everyone turned round and began to concentrate even more fiercely on Hansabati. Her skin was rubbed with flour and buttermilk and steeped in pomegranate juice until it was even more waxen than before. The tailor arrived with new bodices and blouses with elbow-length sleeves and lace ruffles. She had new petticoats, new hair ribbons, new gloves--so many new things that she was afraid to look into the mirror in case she found a new person there confronting her. Don't walk, don't sit, don't move, from all around came a flurry of contradictory instructions. Her mother and the maids seemed to be suffering from perennially lost tempers, her English lessons had been stopped and the Brahmin governess expected her to memorise a new recipe every day before she did anything else.
When the wedding day finally arrived, the groom party was late and Hansabati's father was surrounded by a host of murmuring guests who were ready to offer their condolences and point out that such an ambitious marriage was bound to end in downfall: after all, how could a humble village landlord hope to compete with a Rai Bahadur? One or two were already busily pushing their own sons forward when the conch shells blew.
In the dream of confusion that was the wedding, she remembered the sharp, sudden malice of those faces, the way they fell when the conch shells blew, the glitter of eyes resenting her father's good fortune. "No matter what you do, " she said later in life, "you'll never be able to please everybody. And there'll always be people who will be glad to see you fail." She taught that to her elder daughter, who learnt the lesson better than the younger one. Despite the knife- edged envy in those faces, she was carried by her uncles seven times around the fire, with the end of her gorgeous red and gold sari attached to the robe of someone who was probably not much taller than herself. Her groom's face was so covered in tassels that all she could recognize of it was the wide mouth, and that mouth did not smile even once.
The wedding night, draped in a mass of tuberoses, was filled with an assortment of in-laws. Hansabati slept on the bed with her mother and mother-in-law while the groom shared a mattress on the floor with the two fathers. By then she had seen her husband's face, caught a fleeting glimpse of it when she exchanged garlands with him, uncertain of her balance on the small square of wood beneath her. Then her uncles had mercifully put her down and the maids had led away, teasing her about what was to come.
Her new in laws snored, she noted, as she lay wakeful far into the night, watching the moon rise and spill its light over the edge of the bed. And then she was aware of a quiet furtive rustle on the floor, and the moonlight spilled into a pair of wide eyes peering anxiously over the side of the bed.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)
Ball of Fire
By Razi Abedi
Under the lamp post
I saw my shadow wriggling between my
It's not only darkness that terrifies man
Even under the strong light
If you stay still
Your head will remain imprisoned
Between the bars of our legs
I moved a step
My head got free of the feet
And with each step that I took
My stature grew.
(Razi Abedi is Pakistan's foremost literary figure. He was chairman of the Punjab University in Lahore and has published extensively on the literatures of both East and West. His particular interest is the study of Urdu literature in the context of third-world literature and the literature now being produced in the West.)The Burden of Grace
By Vasilis Afxentiou
Alicia Novapovic, neophyte stuffer of fish, one-time assistant to her marine-taxidermist father in a coastal city of Yugoslavia that in better days enjoyed a booming trade with the entire globe, lowered her thoroughly blue eyes and tossed her worldly possessions onboard the skiff. When Alexi Novapovic was killed--a stray bullet tinkling through the iced window pane one flurrying March morning--and left her with nothing more than the proprietorship of a well-kept shop that was doing no business at all in that war-ravaged country, Alicia was forced to take her courage into her own thirteen-year-old hands and forge it into her destiny.
A zephyr tousled her solemn young thoughts and tufted straw hair as she lifted the oars into their tholes.
Swallows once flew here instead of incendiary shells. Back then her father and she turned dead, empty-eyed fish into handsome, lifelike trophies for customers to hang on their walls for friends to admire, and eventually ignore. She had mulled over the many other things grown-ups neglected, failed to learn from the dull stares of their angled prizes, and refused to entrust her young life into their wardship.
She gave a hefty shove to the deserted wooden quay and rowed till she was well offshore. Then she turned and looked back, savouring the crisp outstretched splendour surrounding her aunt's slumped and patched red roof. She would never see that house again--just like the mother who vanished one day on her way to her teaching job at the municipal orphans' school. The pristine break of day was balmy and bright and promised a good voyage, so she put everything else behind her. She undid the gaskets and unfurled the mainsail, drew it up the wooden mast, pulled the halyard taut and lashed it to a cleat.
"Now, the proof of the pudding," she said. She took a hefty whiff of iodine, her boyish bust bulging.
The canvas fluttered a bit and she pushed the tiller out to trim it. The bag swelled in the salty breeze. The skiff leaped forward, hissing as it skimmed the gentle brew like a gull's wing through the air. She secured the tiller, walked the starboard side to the foredeck and rigged the jib. The boat cleaved the sleek bay in two, tacking into the draft. Bit by bit the cove receded and melded into the checkerboard of golden-brown fields in the distance. The prospect ahead spanned forty kilometers of sparkling Adriatic, its conclusion lapping the sandy shores of northern Greece.
The small boat pranced onward, banging on the ripening crests, lifting the coruscating spray into dozens of little morning rainbows.
But Alicia's lack of maritime seasoning soon began to tell. One minute she was lowering the sail--the next beating the waves.
She craned her neck and blinked the streamers off her eyes, only to catch glimpses of her boat floating away, one sail ballooned out with the force of the gale behind it. She drew her lanky legs in, hoping to escape a subterfuge of currents below. She pivoted to face north, away from the lash of the wind. Before her churned sky and sea, fusing into a cobalt unity. "What happened to--?"
Then the world flashed and crackled just a few meters away.
In due time she understood that she was underwater, tumbling, her mouth full of brine, unable to tell which way was up. She flayed, semaphoring haphazardly. Squeeze your nose, Alicia, and blow... Her father had been so vexed with himself that day for not having told her sooner.
Ears popped and orientation returned. The depths receded and a turbulent, platinum twilight took their place. Surfacing, she retched and drew in oxygen through clenched, smarting jaws. She wanted to cry, but the tall battering waves would not allow her the luxury. She needed her father to counsel her, her mother to impart her woman's strength...and her life to live, seize it and shake it and tap it dry.
Raindrops fell. Just a few fat ripe ones at first. Then torrents. She lapped the rain from her lips and nose, slurping it down.
Around her fish, countless, surfaced to drink from the shower, brushing and tickling the soles of her feet.
I must get away, she thought as something like a giant cake of soap bumped against her. Behind her, splattering fins moiled and lathered the waters. "It takes several minutes to die, and it is a lingering death," her father once told her. "A manifold of deaths, being eaten alive." Better a quick bullet, amply more merciful.
She released the air from her lungs and allowed herself to sink. God, please, the next breath...let it be the last.
But then her understudy broke the surface with her and began to mimic her silly paddling. Two jasper eyes studied her own as she scanned the sea around her.
"No sharks!" Not with him--her--around. For the mammary glands quavered in full bloom.
"Yes, I love you too."
It sniffed and nibbled her, fascinated by the soaked strands of her hair.
"Lost my permanent."
She timidly scratched the velvety epidermis behind its nape around the breathing orifice. Her companion cuddled closer.
"Just like Alicia, the back always itches."
It watched her, intently listening to the sounds she made. But only mournful calls emerged when it tried to imitate her. She laid her lightning-singed cheek against its smooth flank and listened to its heartbeat. But when she dipped her head into the cool water, it raised a blustery protest.
"Aren't we the den mother! Do you know that you're a cetacean?" She needed to talk, and the dolphin was keen on listening. "You are intelligent and kind..."
As she prattled she drew her hand over the powerful back and grasped the dorsal fin. "When you were born all the adults helped to lift you upward to the surface to whiff your first scent of life. It was gracious of you to do the same for me. Thank you...Grace."
She was grateful for the day's end. The sun's glare and the hours of being dragged through the sea were killing. Her parched throat was almost closed. And water was everywhere.
She dipped her tongue into the stream and swallowed. Then she managed to pull herself to a half-prone straddle of the mammal. To her wonderment, the dolphin shimmied and flexed its muscles to distribute the weight evenly. Alicia nestled closer to its warm body, her exposed backside still taking the brunt of the frosty waves.
Hours passed like winters. Grace jolted her to wakefulness several times to keep her from sliding off. The stars were all out now, the North Star flickering high ahead. Alicia blinked back at it, fighting drowsiness.
"You're travelling into the current, heading for--"
She swallowed with difficulty.
"Why aren't you minding your young ones?" she tried to say, but it came out like a neigh. "You left them behind, chased away those sharks, to save--who? A runaway."
She felt a great bitterness but also a greater love than her years should have allowed.
"Why, Sea Mother, why?"
Then something familiar came suddenly back to her.
"Mother's not running away! She's hiding the orphans, and no one must know. To protect them from the land sharks." Her light-headedness bubbled up into a croaking titter. "And fish now will feast themselves on Alicia?"
"Dear heart, I can't make it. Too weak...dehydrated. I'm dead weight, Grace. I can't see for thirst, I can't hold on without--"
She let go her grip. As she slipped off, the dolphin came to a dead stop. This time it did not protest but remained solemnly still.
And drank. Sank and drank. The dolphin rolled over. they broke the surface together, and now Alicia could drink and breathe as well and even make out a spray of twinkling lights, and bobbing close by the half-draped skiff she thought she'd never see again. Her nose and eyes ran together, but the dolphin remained serenely supine as she hauled her charge hungrily to the other tit.
Alicia suckled, sobbed, suckled and cried some more. And to her amazement, the sounds she made sounded exactly like the dolphin's own.
(Vasilis Afxentiou has worked as an engineer, technical specifications writer and, for the past fourteen years, English as a Second Language teacher. His writing has appeared in Greek Accent, National Herald (Proini), CrossCurrents, 30-Days, Key Travel News, Greece's Weekly, Athena Magazine, and online in The Domain, Ibn Quirtaiba, Cosmic Visions, Aphelion, Dark Planet, Basket Case BORNmagazine, Aspiring Writer, ThinkB, Appalachians, Newwords, and Zine in Time. He has also written a weekend travel column for The Athens Star.)
A Feast of Crows
By KC Chase
Ander eyed the silver-slick Identacard as it danced across the seller's lean fingers. His gaze roamed greedily across the twining salamander coils of the double-helix that flowed across the card's pristine surface. Quite of it's own volition, his tongue slid delicately to the cusp of his lips and peeped out, pink and wet as a boiled sweet.
"Do ya or don't ya?" the seller's voice, harsh and crumbly, jattered through the dank air. "Ya know the penalty, risky-risky."
Bright black eyes flashing in the gloom of the storeroom, the seller tipped his sharp chin at Ander with a crocodile's canny smile. "It's late for second thoughts. Credit or geddit." One brown thumb jerked in the direction of the door to illustrate.
Ander shook his head violently. "No, I want it. I know the penalties for... I want it...please."
Shrugging indifferently at Ander's sudden passion, the seller's hand produced a bancskan, magician's fingers nimbly thumbing the matte black module to life.
"Ya know the price..."
Trembling, Ander fumbled his own bancskan from his pocket and grasped its butt in his sweaty palm until he was able to force his hand to stillness and allow the two tiny displays to come into contact. A bare whisper of sound issued from the devices, a soft green glow flashing as the credit transfer was approved, draining the lion's share of his life savings into the seller's account.
Back in the fresh air, Ander caught a whiff of enviro-scent peaches and thought it the most wonderfully inviting aroma he had ever smelled. His expression of dazed wonder melted years off his appearance. In the 20th century he would have passed for twenty-four years old. In the shimmering glass-front window of a Health Shake shoppe his reflection gazed wetly back. Typically handsome, of average height and weight, he was a standard prototype variant. Darkly tousled hair and moderately athletic build, his parents had chosen well. His shade-3 ice-blue eyes glittered with sudden moisture. "Long-Timer again...." he told the wind, and laughed.
A small group of business people, splendid in their colorful plumage, crushed past him on the sidewalk, forcing him to step out of the way. Their bright-eyed gaiety and obvious health for once didn't sting him. He was one of them now. A card-carrying member of society once again.
Not a Short-Timer. Not a liability.
He had time to spare...and time again...or so it would seem to anyone viewing his Identacard. His birthday, his 438th, had been wiped from the system by the ratty little life-dealer.
During the thousand years before Ander's birth, the genetic slipstream had been forever altered. Biochemists had tapped the wellspring of continuing youth in the form of a single chromosome that could be artificially replaced and replaced again, lasting each human a span of close to five hundred years, each year enjoyed in perfect health. A single critical fragment of genetic code could be duped by the constant infusion of a nutritional supplement--duped into preserving the human algorithm in the blush of youth. It wasn't "forever," but it was Time.
But now, while Ander might actually only have a maximum of sixty years of youthful perfection remaining before complete cellular breakdown, his Identacard boasted that he had only just passed his second century.
No longer an outcast.
It wasn't the law that prevented an aging Ander from the full benefits of citizenship. The law didn't go to any lengths to protect or prosecute Short-Timers; it simply looked the other way. But who would want to enter contract-love or marriage with someone who might only have a few decades left? Why would a company invest in a short-time employee, wasting valuable time training someone on his way out the door? And what could be more embarrassing than to have a Short-Timer shuffle off the mortal coil in a flurry of convulsions during a board meeting or merger deal. The final breakdown wasn't pretty.
The Civil Rights Act of 2690 provided that Short-Timers could not be passed over for hire or promotion or dismissed without cause, but in the last three weeks before his "planned retirement" (planned by who? Ander had thought bitterly on more than one occasion), he had often felt the fearful glances of his co-workers, as if he had caught something that might be contagious. After 157 years of service, he was neatly and quietly pushed out of his job. Better for everyone this way. More efficient. Disposable humans. Best if used before 400 years.
They had met two weeks earlier at a small cafe overlooking a nature-node park. A dazzling sunny day with enviro-scented air ripe with the tang of new-mown grass. The scent lent a charming nostalgia to the day. The previous day's enviro-scent was pineapple, and Ander had spent the entire day with a crushing headache from its cloying sweetness. Buoyed by the sunshine and the scent of grass, he had stopped at the cafe for a Health Shake, taking a seat on the breezy deck overlooking the precisely manicured grounds. The measured spaces between the trees were filled with prototype variants of all sizes, shapes and colors, both male and female, the only commonality being their ages, concealed on carefully-tucked-away Identacards as they moved between the trees, sporting their activist signs and chanting slogans in unison: a sanctioned Short-Timer rights rally. He had considered attending, a kernel of fear and hope lodged in his belly like a granite pellet. Just a quick stop to get a Health Shake and he would join the other Short-Timers, make a difference. The cafe's deck was crowded. The rally was a spectacle for these people, like a car wreck, you couldn't help but look.
Not us. Certainly not us.
Twenty minutes into the sludgy sweetness of the Health Shake, his body trapped by the plastic contours of the deck chair, he heard a voice nearby. "Look at them all... So many... Did you know there were so many?"
Ander turned and smiled and was rewarded with a matching expression, perfectly shaped pearls. Not a standard prototype. Something more exotic hinting at family money or political connections. Burgundy hair, soft river of wine in a casual twist laid across slim olive-tanned shoulders. Wide dark eyes with thick-fringe lashes streaked with gold. "Nova. Nova 4591 Dresden." She extended a delicate hand. Ander set down his Health Shake and brushed the cool beads of condensation onto his napkin before accepting it in his own. "Ander 4508 McCaffe." He glanced around the crowded deck, then indicated the empty chair at his table "Sit down?"
She smiled, sinking a dimple deep into the flawless skin of her cheek. "Love to. Zero-eight? I know that one... Isn't that Scotland?" Her Health Shake nestled next to his on the table. Ander's noted her own flavor choice: Rose Synergy. He wondered if his Spice Stamina seemed posturing. "Scotland, that's right. I don't know 91."
"No one does. New Vargo. Just recolonized."
She stuck out her tongue, and they both laughed together. Recolonization--another way to make a chunk of a resource-poor country look new again. Burn out some old colonists, new flag, new government, new re-tax programs and tougher requirements for residence and birth permits.
A comfortable silence fell between them as they watched the rally. "So many..." she said again, softly.
They had known each other scarcely five minutes, but in a few moments she would ask. She would produce her own Identacard and smile sweetly, ask him for another meeting, something with food or entertainment involved where she, as asker, would pay...assuming his Identacard met with her approval. Blood types would be compared, IQs exchanged. Assuming he wasn't defective or a Short-Timer, things could move forward. One of her lovely hands slipped into her purse, her expression confident. But her expression abruptly changed as a thin wail spiked above the lunch-time conversation, shredding the pre-recorded bird song.
A tall prototype variant, blond-green, stood at the railing, pointing across the nature-node to a frenetic cluster of Short-Timers. Many of the other lunchtime patrons rose from their seats to gawk. Ander's jaw tightened as his eyes located the cause of the disturbance. A short figure surrounded by other Short-Timers had come to his or her end. Tough to judge the sex from this distance. Light-skinned, dressed in a snowy-white jumper, the figure was having some kind of convulsion, writhing on the pristine turf of the nature-node. Limbs flailed as the body sunfished and shook, its cellular construction breaking down at the most basic levels. The other Short-Timers watched in silent sympathy. Nothing to do, nothing could be done. There was nothing now but the cleanup. Faux bird calls once more claimed the air.
"Exactly," the tall variant said, strutting back to his chair. "And they want more rights? They want better jobs when that is what is going to happen and who knows when?" A few patrons nodded agreement. A woman's cultivated voice carried above the whisper of conversations. "So unsightly. It's not as if there aren't facilities. They have places to go. Running about in the streets, going out like animals in gutters. Dreadful."
Ander worked at unclenching his fists beneath the table, rubbing them against the soft fabric of his pants until they were only hands again. Across the table Nova's dark eyes filled with a kind of sadness that hurt his head to look at. He should say something. He should say the right thing. "It's...a fact of life."
"Doesn't make it any easier to watch. Have you...?" she faltered, her gaze fixed on the sunset of her Health Shake.
"No, never anyone close to me."
She shook her head. "Can you imagine...?"
He felt bitterness swelling in his mouth, thick and chalky. Charming, her ersatz sympathy. She had plenty of time left herself.
"What's the point?" She rose to her feet and fumbled with the strap of her purse. "I'm late."
His mouth became fluid again. "Wait. I'm sorry. It's a terrible thing to have happen at a first meeting. Will you see me again?"
She hesitated. Protocol had not been followed. Without the exchange of Identacards, she would be taking a risk. "Yes. All right." Her eyes were bright with pleasure as she scribbled some numbers for him and then left the cafe. *
After two weeks, Nova was still unable to broach the subject of Identacards. They had followed all the other requisite rituals. She had treated him to holo shows piped into her luxurious loft straight from Broadway theaters and had ordered unpronounceable delicacies for them to eat. For his part, he had procured lab-grown trinkets and genetically altered hot-house blooms to match her hair and complexion, insuring that each item was delivered at her workplace or when she was among her friends or family. The mating dance was, by all accounts, going well but for a growing seed of discomfort between them whenever Time was mentioned.
The Broadway holo was a romance, two lovers thwarted only by the selfish desires of the ingenue's Short-Time mother. The mother's death scene was played to grisly perfection. From across the vast desert of the designer sofa he felt Nova stiffen as the actress twitched in her final throes. Nova slipped her hand into his. He could feel her eyes on him in the semidarkness of the flickering holo scene. And he could feel the questions.
Tell me. Show me. Reassure me. His jaw tightened.
In the ebony-tile landscape of his bathroom he confronted his reflection, his even white teeth and taut skin. His shade-3 ice-blue eyes were clear and bright. The reflection offered him a glossy magazine smile. He returned it. Things were better now that he was no longer a Short-Timer. He could go to Nova free of fear. Let her ask. Let her ask aloud for the card, and he would show it. He could also work again, and at the top of his field. He would buy a better, more expensive loft and order dinners and holos, and soon he would execute contract-love with Nova. Twenty years, sixty years, plenty of Time.
The mood fountain's misty violet light painted Nova's heart-shaped face with celestial colors. They exchanged Identacards to the fountain's liquid, gurgling accompaniment. Ander watched her fingers slide across the surface of his card, almost caress it, until the moment dragged on so long that he wanted to ask for it back.
Then she flung her arms around him, firm and warm. Her breath whispered against his neck. He could feel the bubbling of joyous laughter inside her chest. It was she who had orchestrated their first meeting and therefore it was her choice whether to initiate a request for contract love. She would do so. He was sure of it. He put the card carefully back into his wallet. Her silken, olive hands laced through his. "I can have the paperwork ready by this afternoon."
"I have a business meeting."
"Another?" she pouted.
"We'll celebrate afterward. For both occasions. I'll make the arrangements. Transmit your guest list?"
"Tomorrow," he promised.
Contract love brought with it permits for more spacious living arrangements. Ander purchased a comfortable flat in a prestigious area just across from the metro. The whiz of transport tubes was all but inaudible through their walls, and from their windows they could look across a large nature-node preserve complete with holo wildlife and artificial bird song.
After work they curled up on the sofa, Nova's back socketed gently against his chest, arms twined and fingers laced. The catchy music and flashing logos of the evening news flowed through the flat. A standard prototype, only her stiff-styled lemon locks to distinguish her from other protos, ran cheerfully through the evening's fare: an illegal-birth ring, a recolonization in the Alaskan territories, the standard run of congressional sex scandals, all issued without distinction from the pretty newscaster's perfect mouth as Ander's thoughts wandered to the next day's work.
His attention returned only when he felt Nova's delicate shiver, her flesh tingling against the skin of his arms. The newscaster's expression altered effortlessly from muted shock to unspoken disapproval as the visual cut away to live vid of a man in a dark suit surrounded by an entourage of EnForce officers. As the man was marched up the wide stairway at Central Justice by his blank-faced escort, the voice-over reported, "Horror and shock are the reactions of employers, family and contract spouse as Dylin 4123 Barrett is brought to justice. A Short-Timer of 461 documented years, 4123 Barrett purchased a forged Indentacard on the black market which reduced his indicated his age to 200 years." During the anchor's calculated pause, Ander heard Nova suck her breath in distress. Meanwhile, the vid followed Barrett's progress into the Justice Chamber.
"His true age concealed, 4123 Barrett willfully sought employment, defrauding the Taslon Corporation of thousands of credits of training and wages. Displaying no regard for his fellow citizens or any sense of human decency, 4123 Barrett contracted love with a woman of only 186 years, forcing himself into her life and the lives of her family members. 4123 Barrett, found guilty of one count of Felony Identa-Forgery and six counts of Malicious Fraud, has reaped a nightmare of pain and suffering for those around him."
They watched in silence as the vid displayed a woman in Center grays administering the sentence to Barrett as he lay helpless in full restraints. The injection took only seconds. Barrett's face, a bleach-white smear on the vid, became instantly flushed crimson as convulsions shook his body. His eyes bulged from their sockets, his mouth gaping open in a silent scream. His fingers scrabbling vainly at the smooth arm rests, he let out a final ragged hiss and died.
Ander punched the off button before the anchor could launch into her wrap-up. It was Nova who broke the silence. "Horrible. Just horrible."
He did not trust himself to speak. His mouth was dry, the tart flavor of fear on his tongue. He felt what she felt. They were one now, caught in a nightmare together.
She faced him with wide doe-black eyes, a hectic color in her cheeks. "What he did to her, his contract spouse. How could someone betray another person like that?"
"Her?" he heard himself say, his voice hard and accusatory. "What about him? He still had Life, and the Justice Center took it. There was still Time left for him."
The space between them suddenly yawned like a chasm. He hated her, hated her for the Time she had left.
"But he took what wasn't his. He was a Short-Timer. He should have..."
"...should have just checked into a Retirement Facility and died quietly? He had forty years left. Forty! So much Time."
But she didn't seem to hear. "What will she do," she said, twisting her hands around each other. "My god, what will she do?"
He got up, walked over to the window and pressed his forehead against the cool surface. His shade-3 ice-blue eyes did not see the holos of flamebirds dancing in the nature-node across the street.
He was at his job when they came for him. An EnForce officer in immaculate dress uniform accompanied by a woman in anonymous Center grays. He saw them through the transparent office walls. Neat, economical people striding down the hallway, brusquely waving away his secretary, they rode the floor-trac to his office door. His body pulsed with the desperate instinct for fight or flight. Instead, he sat quietly waiting for his judgment. His Time had run out. Fifty years, was all he could think. I could have had fifty more years.
The EnForce officer's finely chiseled features bespoke privilege and good family connections. His tailored genes were expressed in rich mahogany skin tones and startling silver-white eyes.
"Ander 4508 McCaffe?"
He croaked an affirmative. Why aren't there more of them? An army of EnForce to take me down like a rabid criminal. Where are the newscams, he wondered, his eyes drawn to the shiny sidearm at the EnForce officer's hip. The Center woman made a clucking sound and stepped forward. Crouched down in his chair, the desk his last line of defense, he waited for her to put the restraints on him. Her cool fingers stroked his shirt sleeve as his hands lay open and helpless on his lap. They simply would not turn into fists. His body would not obey his command to grab a chair and smash it against them. He sat imprisoned in his flesh, waiting like a condemned animal. The EnForce officer's full lips parted, his pale eyes betraying nothing. "If you will please come with us. I'm afraid there has been an accident."
The funeral procession wound slowly through the nature-node. Mourners moved ceremoniously through the trees, their footsteps swiftly erased as the fat blades of simugrass sprung back to attention. The gleaming container that held Nova's ashes stood on a dais in the center of the small park as the mourners arranged themselves beneath a dark pavilion. Ander had stopped trying to put names to faces.
His tone ringing with pious feeling, the minister began the eulogy. His voice trembled with emotion as he described Nova's unkind fate.
Ander was sitting in the front row with no one to give him comfort, his grief represented only by the presence of his co-workers. Avoiding the phalanx of Nova's friends, relatives and colleagues, he kept his focus on the dais.
The minister extolled Nova's exemplary work ethic and the importance of ComTrend's work in metro business. Then his voice rose in a slow-rising anger that became contagious throughout the assembly as he began to speak about Nova's co-worker, Reynold 4452 Fairweather. A Short-Timer in the process of his planned retirement, Reynold had come to work that day with a briefcase packed with two shiny full-auto handguns and seven boxes of ammunition. He started his fateful day's work by walking through the building blowing neat holes in his co-workers. He killed or wounded everyone in his path on his way to his supervisor's corner office. Undaunted by Nova's presence there, he shot her twice in the chest before pumping twelve rounds into the supervisor. Then he reloaded and fired several shots at the computer terminal before turning the gun on himself.
Ander sat quietly, his eyes fixed on the dais as the mourners rose and began to cluster around the food tables under the pavilion, picking at the buffet like a flock of dark-feathered birds over carrion. He remained motionless as a stone amidst the munching and guzzling, the youthful bodies moving in ever-shifting, sinuous groups, exchanging pleasantries and knowing glances. They either imagined him deaf or so completely in shock that he could not hear them.
"What will he do now?"
"What can he do?"
"Such a nice man. How could this happen to him?"
The enviro-scent of lavender mixed with the smells of the different kinds of food turned his stomach, hemming him in from every direction. It was too much to bear. He would climb up on his chair, startle the complacency from their faces and send them winging across the nature-node in panic. His cries would echo throughout the city. He would not wait meekly for his turn to be cut from the herd. He would not accept his fate complacent and accepting. But as tears coursed down his cheeks, they seemed to seal his lips shut with their salt, and he merely sat silently rebuking his beloved...for running out of Time.
(Made in Japan and born in California, KC Chase spent several years in the military before finally coming to the realization that it's difficult to write in a foxhole. Between writing and assorted eclectic pursuits, KC rarely finds time to eat or sleep but spares enough energy to shout at traffic lights and chase cars.)
LETTER FROM CARACAS
By Anthony Milne
The Biggest Sport of All
Why, I asked during my recent trip to Caracas, is Venezuela not a football-playing country in the league of its talented, football-crazy neighbours Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil?
First, I was told, there is the North American influence that came with the arrival of the big oil companies. The most popular sport in Caracas and many other Venezuelan cities is baseball. Venezuelans are as baseball-crazy as, oddly enough, the Cubans. There are highly-talented Venezuelans making big money in the North American leagues. But, while the popularity of baseball leaves Venezuela without football teams to match those of other South American countries, national pride dictates that they continue to play and to lose against the powerhouse South American football teams rather than join Concacaf, the league where the weaker teams play. Western and eastern Venezuela--Maracaibo and Cuman-- are the regions where football is most popular, its influence creeping across the border from Colombia on the one side, and from Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean on the other. Basketball is also gaining in popularity, with boys playing in the streets and local teams engaging in organized competition, while the corridas (bullfights) are less well-attended, though still popular outside Caracas.
But the really big game in Caracas and the rest of Venezuela is politics. The campaign to elect President Hugo Rafael Chavez Fracas's National Constituent Assembly is under way in the Congress, on television, in the banner-strung streets and in street-corner meetings where candidates with megaphones occasionally give way to four-piece string bands and couples dancing a sedate Venezuelan castillon or jorop.
The campaign and election are being supervised by the National Electoral Council and is scheduled to take place on Sunday, July 25th--coincidentally the last official day of this year's pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, the Apostle James, in northwestern Spain. Santiago was patron of the war to free Spain from Muslim rule.
The role of the Constituent Assembly will be to write a new constitution for Venezuela, with likely revised roles and powers for the president, congress, courts and local governments. Approval of the new constitution will be followed by a presidential and congressional election.
Chavez became President of Venezuela, at the helm of a coalition called Polo Patritico (Patriotic Assembly), last December, replacing Rafael Caldera. His platform was radical- nationalist and anti-corruption, the latter aimed at Venezuela's rich elite. He promised to reform Venezuela's political system to make it more democratic.
Chavez is a hero to most of Venezuela's 23 million citizens, a large portion of whom live in poverty. He has even encouraged the poor to move onto unoccupied land. In 1992, when still a paratrooper in the Venezuelan army, Chavez attempted a coup against President Carlos Andres Perez and was subsequently jailed for his attempt. He was pardoned two years later, at the same time charges of corruption were brought against Perez. Chavez's radical vision feeds on widespread anger with public institutions and the widely held opinion that traditional political parties are profiting from the massive oil wealth while the living standards of the majority decline.
Inflation is rampant. The bolivar, which four or five years ago was exchanged at 40 to the US dollar, now hovers around 600 to the dollar, and continues to decline. All this in a country the size of Britain and France combined which is one of the world's largest oil producers. Venezuela also produces steel, has hydroelectric power and a vast potential for agriculture and tourism.
A swarthy mestizo, Chavez, is a man of frenetic energy and relentless will, moving quickly to put into effect his vision of a new Venezuela. His enemies, who represent a position that might loosely be described as the Polo Democratico (Democratic Assembly), say Chavez is simply managing his way to dictatorship, a continuation of the coup that failed in 1992. At the same time they maintain, incongruously, that he talks a lot but does nothing.
The one thing Chavez actually seems to be is doing is inspiring the people, giving them confidence in themselves, which in turn should result in more democratic institutions and the self-assurance necessary for economic development and privatisation on a vast scale. Occasionally he drops a hint that he shares the vision and energy of national hero Simon Bolivar, as his blonde wife Marisabel smiles approvingly beside him.
Some political observers feel Chavez has indeed begun to turn things around. Caracas's modern shops and malls, highrises and highways show no sign of economic distress, except for rising prices. But clinging to the hillsides around the city are poor barrios constructed of small brick and concrete houses--no doubt where Caracas's thousands of pavement vendors go each night after they have put away their goods.
Back to Betania
I had just missed a bus called "San Onofre" departing the terminus at Nuevo Circulo in Caracas for Betania, a farm sixty kilometres from Caracas near San Casimiro in the state of Miranda. There is a famous shrine there to Jesus's mother, called the Virgin of Betania, where there is said to have been apparitions and miracles.
Just the previous day I had discovered San Onofre, Venezuelan saint and Penitente del Desierto (Penitent of the Desert), and his shrine in the church of San Francisco in Caracas. I thought it would be a good omen to travel to Betania in a bus named after San Onofre himself.
Venezuela is more than ninety percent Catholic, and religious devotion enters almost every sphere of life. (The clock in a church tower near where I stayed chimes the Ave Maria every night at ten). Two important religious anniversaries are being celebrated in Venezuela this year: the quincentenary of the start of evangelisation, marked by an issue of stamps; and the centenary of the country's dedication to the Holy Sacrament.
The country's bishops, led by Caracas's Archbishop Monsignor Ignacio Antonio Velasco, have issued cautions about what may or may not be going on at the shrine in Betania. But the thousands of devout Venezuelans and their brethren in Trinidad who regularly organise group visits to the shrine are not deterred. One old Spanish Jesuit I met dismissed the whole thing as an engao (hoax) and expressed concern for the sanity of the woman, Sra Mara Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini, to whom the Virgin appeared five times between 1976 and 1984.
Meanwhile, the Bishop of Los Teques declared officially in November, 1987 that the site at Betania could be officially considered sacred and an appropriate place for pilgrimages and prayer. To assist such pilgrims, the Tourism Corporation of Miranda has issued colourful, well-designed pamphlets, with the route from Caracas to Betania clearly indicated and information about the apparitions amply detailed.
Some think of the events in Betania as a positive manifestation of the reconciliation being urged upon the Venezuelan people to reform the oil-rich but economically beleagured country. I haven't heard anything about the president actually calling upon the Virgin by name, but "reconciliation and reconstruction" feature high in his political vocabulary.
I paid 1,000 bolivares, about eleven Trinidadian dollars, and boarded the big bus behind San Onofre, as vendors appeared at the windows hawking their wares. Then we were off, whizzing along through the traffic on one of the big autopistas leading out of Caracas, leaving behind the financial towers, squares, monuments and small concrete houses clinging to the suburban hillsides.
I saw green countryside as the bus climbed out of the big valley in which Caracas is situated--grassland and forests, some of the trees unfamilar--the ubiquitous boit canot, for instance. Occasionally I saw houses tucked away in the hillside alongside small farms, and a new low-cost housing project that seemed to be set down in the middle of nowhere. The air became noticeably cooler (Caracas is usually between 25- and 30-degrees centigrade) as the broad and impeccably surfaced two-lane road climbed higher, and I had to unblock my ears.
After about an hour and a half we reached Betania, the inevitable vendors waiting to greet us at the roadside. We climbed out of the bus and followed the other pilgrims down off the road and across a footbridge over a stream. There were plenty of people about, but the place was not bursting at the seams as I feared it might be. This was a Sunday, the next day being Venezuela's National Day, July 5th.
Mass was in progress. A sturdy wooden-roof church held up by white Roman pillars and open on two sides, was filled with worshippers. The yard was covered with mall stones. The shrine itself was located beside the church, fenced off by a barrier covered with flowers, bracelets, a naval-order medal and ribbon and signs giving thanks for answered prayers.
Nearby, a long line had formed to get to a series of taps in the hillside which provided sacred water. I lined up behind people washing their heads and hands and filling bottles. I washed my own face and hands and wet my hair to cast out the unclean spirit, then dipped into the water the tiny vest of an infant who was ill back in Trinidad.
I collected some small stones and a plant for my own purposes, joined in the mass for a while, then examined the booth selling religious items. Finally, I stood in the sun a few yards from the church and read from a Spanish New Testament (just in case) San Marco, ch. 9, v. 14-29, about El Nino Epilptico (the epileptic boy), for the sake of the child back in Trinidad as well as for myself.
St Mark's gospel relates the story of a child possessed by a powerful espritu mudo e inmundo (mute and unclean) which the boy's father asked Jesus to throw out, if he could.
?Mas Jesus le dijo: Que 'si puedes'? Todo es posible al que cree. (But Jesus said to him: What do you mean by 'if you can'? Everything is possible to a man who trusts). Al punto, el padre del nio a gritos deca: Creo; socorre a mi fe, aunque sea poco. (At once the father of the boy shouted out: I believe; help my lack of trust). And Jesus cast out the spirit from the possessed boy who, foaming at the mouth, fell to the ground as if dead for a moment.
The big bus on which I returned to Caracas--air-conditioned, with plush seats and red curtains to cover the windows--was a far cry from the one I had ridden to Betania. The driver wore a white long-sleeved shirt and had knotted his black tie carefully. He meticulously sorted videos to play on the bus's closed-circuit television and just as carefully selected some music cassettes. Nothing religious, mainly salsa.
His associate, who was responsible for handling money, wore jeans and a T-shirt and spent the entire journey sitting on the gearbox, chatting up a pretty girl in the front seat.
A few miles from Betania the bus stopped to pick up two paesinos with buckets of juice which they ladled into cups to sell to passengers. Fifteen minutes later the bus stopped to let them off, and a financial transaction took place between them and the driver's business associate.
The fat woman sitting next to me pretended she didn't have the fare--apparently a private joke between herself and the business associate. I showed her the roll of notes I kept in my shirt pocket (pickpockets always go for the side and rear pants pockets) and told her the money was from the collection taken up at the mass at Betania. Her fat shook with laughter. I laughed too and then nodded knowingly at other jokes she offered without having a clue to what she was saying.
The bus let us off at the Circo Nuevo bus terminus. I decided to walk the few blocks to my hotel, not really knowing how to get there. Suddenly I came across a white rambling one-storey house with the typical Spanish inner courtyards, built more than 200 years ago by Simon Bolivar's father, Pedro de Ponte Andrade Jaspe y Montenegro. Bolivar, El Libertador, a national hero of heroes, all but a saint in Venezuela, was born in this house 1783.
Next to Bolivar's father's house is the Simon Bolivar Museum, where the guard asked me to tuck my shirt in my pants, presumably out of respect for the Liberator. Half a block on was the grand Plaza Simon Bolivar, in the centre a huge statue of Bolivar on a rearing horse. I knew where I was now and soon found the Residencia San Francisco, next door to the church of the same name in El Silencio, near the Congress.
(Anthony Milne <email@example.com was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)
Confessions of a Sentimentalist
By Edward L. Wier
The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.
- Blaise Pascal
As creatures of category we are always trying to dissect and organize the world around us in hopes of gaining some new understanding, especially through scientific observation. Logic is bent on lording it over emotion. Intellect seems all-powerful, sentiment weak and vulnerable. Our entire planet seems to be basking in the glory of its overwhelming knowledge. We have catalogued every plant and creature. We have numbered every star. We have mapped the universe and named everything, down to the smallest sub-atomic particle. We have audited the cosmos.
Recently we turned our analytical skills to our own inner space. But the mind itself does not appear to be surrendering so easily to its own self-analysis. Despite all our progress in science, technology, medicine and psychology, we still, as evidenced by our erratic and unpredictable behavior, remain a mystery to ourselves, disobedient to the voice of resolve and logic. Objectivity in the area of the human soul, so valued by our increasingly intelligent society as the hand-maid of truth, is proving illusive. It seems, despite what the behaviorists claim, that we cannot simply lift the lid of the human spirit, tighten a few bolts, turn a few screws by therapy or behavior modification, and repair our perceived malfunctions. We are not computers, no matter how timely that model may seem. In our unexplainable humanity we possess a volatile, non-measurable essence which does not have much regard for consistency, science, or resolve.
This is no new idea. As early as the first century the apostle Paul revealed his bewilderment with his own human nature when he wrote, "For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish." He was a mystery to himself. He was inconsistent. He behaved irrationally. He was feeling when he should have been thinking.
Or consider Lord Byron when he said, "Admire, exult, despise, laugh, weep--for here there is such matter for all feelings:- Man! Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and a tear."
Or Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation: "Man is physically as well as metaphysically a thing of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors, and a misfit from the start."
These, along with many other quotes by students of the human soul, all suggest an inherent inconsistency. Are we now trying to eradicate in the name of knowledge and truth the very qualities which make us who we are? Are we not by our very essence walking contradictions?
The modern trend is to believe that life is made up of choices. Exercising our "choice muscle" is mandatory. The strong-minded inherit the earth. The new, improved men and women of the choice age are able to cast all feeling aside and persist in whatever course of action they have set their minds on. Their wills ripple with cerebral cartilage.
A friend recently sent me what he considered an inspirational e-mail about a man who woke up every morning and said to himself: "I have two choices today. I can be in a good mood or a bad mood. I choose a good mood." The e-mail went on to describe how this man faced every crisis in his life as a matter of choice and then chose the positive alternative. But something about him disturbed me deeply (or did I merely "choose" to be disturbed deeply?). I realized that I would be very nervous around such a person. Who, after all, is the ultimate judge of whether his choices are the right ones? We all want to rise above our circumstances, but when did optimism, qua optimism, become such a sacred cow? The author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes today would be diagnosed as a manic depressive.
But perhaps I'm not just not thinking rationally. Perhaps I'm just a hopeless, terminal sentimentalist, a charge to which I readily plead guilty. I seem to operate according to a different chemistry from my clear-thinking neighbors. I like to watch old movies, listen to music, talk about the good old days, read poetry, imagine an afterlife, and pine away for a lost love.
All my life I've thought there must be something wrong because I have never, under any circumstances, been able to change how I feel by changing how I think. It simply does not work for me. Logic just does not hold any sway. Webster defines sentiment as: "an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling rather than reason or thought." In other words, my thoughts, attitudes and judgments are the result of my feelings and not the other way around. If you make me feel bad, I then find a reason for not liking you. And so, I suspect that those who suffer traumatic pain because of some personal loss, and then later claim that they have overcome their feelings by altering their thinking, have simply healed from within. Catch them when the wound is still fresh and watch them wince when you apply the silly salt of logic. But the notion of time being the best restorative is a prescription unfit for our impatient modern world.
We are more than will and intellect. We cannot simply make a conscious decision to feel good when we do not. We care when we shouldn't. We write useless poetry and compose useless music. We do stupid things like loan money without interest. We feel for other people when it does us no demonstrable good. We are as impractical as life itself.
Who knows a tree better? One who can tell you all the botanical facts about it or one who feels a profound sense of respect and admiration for its beauty? Who knows a symphony better? A musicologist aware of every formal development and modulation, or a naive listener who shivers with delight at the soaring strings and rumbling timpani? Who knows us better? Our doctor or our mother?
Let's face it, despite our evolutionary ascent we do not experience most of the world around us through reason, even though we certainly do not suffer from a lack of information. There remains much about our world and our lives which is beyond our ken, much less our control.
Perhaps, instead of trying to become self-determining twenty- first-century homo sapiens, we should try to rediscover what it means to be human--an inseparable mixture of good and bad, logic and passion, resolve and frustration. You can dress up monkeys and train them to operate a cash register, but they are still happier up in trees. And total, rational autonomy is for extra-terrestrials.
I feel, therefore I am.
(Ed Wier <Musing1@aol.com> makes his base in Atlanta as a musician, teacher and freelance writer. He has written music for national television specials and film. His articles and poetry have appeared in The Formalist, The Oval, Orbis, SPSM&H, Whiskey Island, 360 Degrees, The Lyric, Troubadour, The Ledge, The Door, Windhover, Acoustic Musician and Guitar Review, and his fiction in Sideshow 1997, Fine Print, The Bitter Oleander, and Reader's Break, among others.)
By Roohi ChoudhryShe inhales their deep scent, tingling and fresh: benevolent oranges gleaming in unabashed splendour, piled haphazardly upon their throne. The strands of the crude basket weave in and out of a multitude of summery colours, bearing its load with a loud dignity. A solitary ray of winter sun yawns into the room, the razor-sharp gleam slicing the table into sandwich halves. Some of the oranges have been baptized by this warmth, their furrowed surfaces aglow with delight. They seem to turn their fat bellies toward it, lapping it up almost audibly. She too feels overwhelmed, by her quickening pulse, by some enigmatic emotion surging through her; warm through her chest, chilling her feet, throbbing behind her eyes, gathering into a bubble in her throat. She struggles to name the feeling, to understand and subdue it, but she cannot: she is numbed by its ferocity.
She follows the errant ray to its source somewhere beyond the cold security of the iron trellis-door bars, above the washing line and high wall behind it. Somewhere above it all is a vast, blinding brilliance. When she strains her eyes long enough, she finds it to be of the palest, most crystalline blue adorned with gold-lined clouds. Even when she turns away, the image is imprinted upon her vision for the longest time, stamped negative-like on everything she looks at. But this too is marred by the iron bars, wrenching her back into the kitchen.
Other images flood her mind: discreetly edging her watch up her arm and under her sleeve, slinging her handbag over her head so that it stretches securely across her torso, nervously checking all the car-door locks each time a traffic signal shows red.... She chides herself, tries to ban these thoughts from her consciousness, but she cannot keep them from shadowing everything she does and slithering darkly into the deepest workings of her mind.
She refocuses her attention onto the tranquility before her, but finds the ray gone. The space beyond the wall is as dazzling as ever, but the rebellious gleam seems to have been retracted. There is just enough light to see by, to work and write in, but none left over for the oranges or her idle joy. She supposes, though, that this is not important. What is relevant is that there is enough light in which to do relevant things. And it's not as if we need even that, she thinks: Our minds have contrived lights, lamps, candles for us--quite enough for our survival in the impending darkness.
Then, why, she wonders, is her earlier elation replaced by such emptiness? Why do her fingertips long for the warmth of that weak sunshine? Why, as she shivers in the gathering twilight, are the floor tiles so cold? These, and too many other things, she struggles to understand through the long South African nights.
(Roohi Choudhry has lived in southern Africa most of her life, different countries at different times. At the moment she is headed for the US for postgraduate studies. "Ball of Fire" is her first published work.)
* All GOWANUS works are Copyright © by their respective authors. Issues may not be archived on any machine and may not be used for any commercial purpose without written consent of the publisher. (c) Copyright 1999, GOWANUS